Tag Archives: Penduline Tit

26th Feb-2nd Mar 2020 – NE Spain, Pyrenees & Steppe

A six day International Tour to NE Spain, up into the Pyrenees and out onto the Steppe, organised together our friends from Oriole Birding. This is a new destination for us, and we plan to run the tour again at the same time next year, so if you like what you see, you would be welcome to join us for our next visit, in 2021!

WEDNESDAY 26TH FEBRUARY

A long day awaited us today as we had a 5am meet in Gatwick Airport for the early flight to Barcelona, which arrived ahead of schedule around 0945 local time. We enjoyed an incredibly swift transit of the airport (Brexit? What Brexit!) and we soon united with our minibus for the week and onto the motorway network.

Our first planned stop was actually only five minutes away, in an area of cultivation and scattered poplars at the edge of the city. Here we had a good reliable spot for Iberian Green Woodpecker, a species which has been propelled up people’s wants list by its full specific status. It was quite windy at the location, but we were soon enjoying our first sightings of Black Redstart, Serin, Ring-necked Parakeet (which are breeding all around the city), Cattle Egret, and other common birds. Soon an Iberian Green Woodpecker flew across, and perched beautifully in the open for us – the first of 5-6 views of 3 different birds we enjoyed here. We had some superb scope views, and got to hear them calling too.

Iberian Green Woodpecker

Iberian Grey Woodpecker – one of three different birds to start the trip

Other birds in the trees and scrub included an obliging Short-toed Treecreeper, male Sardinian Warbler and a surprise Zitting Cisticola which we flushed up from the vegetation as we walked along. Overhead, a lovely mixed flock of Crag Martins with a few House Martins thrown in, migrated north over us. The light was excellent and we could easily see the white windows in the Crag Martin tail feathers. A Little Owl also obliged here, flying up and perching angrily in a dead Poplar tree and glaring back at us over its shoulder. We had made a good start, but now it was time to crack on – to the mountains!

We had a drive north of around two hours to reach the high Pyrenees, and this was punctuated by a break for coffee and lunch near Berga. Pressing on, we began to wind our way towards Coll de Pal where we would be trying for Snowfinch in particular, a notoriously difficult species at this time of year when the snow is receding. Before we left the treeline, a large raptor circled into view ahead of us – it was a stunning adult Lammergeier! Thankfully the road was quiet and we could easily stop, and thankfully the bird did us a favour and circled back right over us.

Lammergeier

Lammergeier – circled over the road on our way up

While watching the Lammergeier, we heard the ‘toy trumpet’ toot of a Citril Finch – wow! We didn’t see the bird, however, and suspect it was flying off when we heard it. There was one more call from it among the pines, where it was clearly associating with a roving flock of Chaffinch, but we werenit lucky with a sighting. A Crested Tit showed really well though, and was a nice addition. In the meantime, the Lammergeier had reappeared and actually landed on the hillside where we could see it mantling something on the ground – great views of this iconic Pyrenean speciality so early in the trip!

Reaching the high ground, the view was stunning – wall to wall blue sky and sunshine, though with a cold wind. Sadly though, this coupled with the general lack of snow this year meant that the chances of Snowfinch were slim. They would be up in the highest peaks already, especially on such a nice day. We explored the area as best we could, but noted only Mistle Thrush and Griffon Vulture for our troubles – it was a beautiful place though! We did do marginally better on mammals too, with a Fox hunting way up on the hillside, and fantastic views of several close groups of Chamois.

Chamois

Chamois – we had great views of several large groups

We wound our way back down to Baga, and then continued north up the main road to our overnight stop in the village of Olopte. Farran our host met us and showed us to our rooms, and we had a swift turnaround before heading back out. A Tengmalm’s Owl was holding territory about 20 minutes drive away, and we knew it had been heard on two of the previous three evenings. We simply had to give it a go, even though we knew the chance was small. The wind dropped and under a starlit sky we listened at several spots along the road but only heard a distant Tawny Owl. So it was back to the restaurant for a pleasant dinner, and then to bed – it had been a long one!

THURSDAY 27TH FEBRUARY

An early morning bonus for two of the group today was a Beech Marten on the feeding table in the semi-darkness – a speciality of the hotel but we had failed to see it last night under the floodlights. Our day kicked off proper after breakfast as we packed up and left Olopte under blue skies and the temperature gauge flashing 0C on the van.

We wound our way back up into the hillside where we had searched last night for the Tengmalm’s, but this morning we had a different target here – Citril Finch. This species is notoriously difficult at this time of year, as it is in transition between wintering and breeding locations and so highly mobile and weather dependent in their habits. Add to that their elusive nature and we knew we would have a task on our hands to get everyone a view of one! Nevertheless it was a stunning morning, and as we parked by a clearing just below a small ski station it was clear that there were lots of small birds out and about in the sunshine.

Chaffinches were moving through the pines in large numbers, and a few Greenfinch and Goldfinch were with them. Crested Tits were calling all around and showed really well, and Common Crossbills were also very numerous and perching up beautifully in the treetops for us. We remarked at how different their calls sounded to our own race, being higher pitched and less ‘chippy’! A real bonus here were a couple of Rock Buntings – we had a fine male perched up in a dead tree and a couple more calling around the clearing. Their high-pitched contact note is very hard to pinpoint, always seeming closer than it is in reality. There were no Citril Finches here though, so we decided to try a bit higher up.

Common Crossbill

Common Crossbill – numerous in the pines around the ski station

The ski stations were busy and there was lots of traffic about, but we managed to find a quiet corner of the next car park area, overlooking an open snowy area flanked by pines. A surprise here was an unfamiliar wheezy call overhead which turned out to be a Rock Sparrow, and we were fortunate that it pitched down and landed in a pine for scope views.

There were lots more finches moving in the trees here, and we remained on high alert for our main quarry. Sure enough, the distinctive ‘toot-toot’ flight call was heard and a Citril Finch flew in low from behind us. Luckily, it landed in the top of a conifer really close to us and gave two or three of the group a good view before it flew again and disappeared over the treetops – a typical view! We persevered, and saw another 2-3 birds flying distantly with the Chaffinches but couldn’t pin them down. We drove back down a little, enjoying more close perched views of Crossbills, Crested Tits and a lovely Short-toed Treecreeper.

Short-toed Treecreeper

Short-toed Treecreeper – a very showy bird in one of the car parks

Our final stop here was again higher up the hillside at another large clearing, and here we finally nailed our main target properly. Citril Finch was calling frequently and we had several frustratingly brief glimpses and flight views. We had almost given up as time was running out, when one began singing in the trees just by our parking spot – it flew into view and perched in the open in a dead tree, giving everyone the scope view they were after. Brilliant!

Citril Finch

Citril Finch – finally we managed to get better views of one perched in a tree

We now had a long drive of around two hours, to descend back down to Manresa and then along the main road towards Lleida. We paused for lunch and coffee at the same spot as yesterday, breaking up the journey to our first afternoon birding spot at Estany D’Ivars. This reed-fringed lagoon added a number of new species to our list, as large numbers of gulls were loafing, and wildfowl on the lake included small numbers of Teal, Shoveler and Red Crested Pochard.

Chiffchaffs were flitting among the reeds and our main target here was easy to find – a lovely pair of Penduline Tits feeding close to the track. Common Snipe, Little and Great Crested Grebe and Grey Heron were seen, while several Crag Martins hawking over the far side of the pool harboured Swallow and House Martin too. Other species we saw nearby included many White Storks, a brace of Hoopoe and a couple of small flocks of Common Cranes.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – nice views of a pair in the reeds by the lake

Ten minutes up the road, we wanted to check a spot where there is regularly a wintering flock of Little Bustards. We checked the alfalfa fields carefully, noting a small flock of Golden Plovers but no sign of our quarry. We made a u-turn and just as we were making our way back along the road, a party of birds exploded from cover and flew high up over the highway – a dozen Little Bustards!

They flew around for a couple of minutes, before dropping in another roadside field where we could see a row of alert heads and necks poking out of a cereal crop! We parked up and put a scope on them, before they flew again. This time though, they decided to come our way, landing in the bare field right next to our parking spot. Amazingly though, they blended straight in and disappeared despite the field not appearing to have anywhere much for them to hide! We did manage some decent scope views though, and we had been very lucky indeed to connect with them.

Little Bustards 1

Little Bustards – flew in and landed in the field next to us

Our final stop of the day was a small gorge and dam at the head of a reservoir, on our route west towards our base for the night near Huesca. We hoped to see Bonelli’s Eagle here, but we didn’t have too much time to look. It was a lovely spot, and quite sheltered too from the strengthening winds. A Griffon Vulture was perched on a prospective nesting ledge, and Crag Martins were wheeling around calling. Near the dam, we looked up to see a large raptor gliding over – an adult Bonelli’s Eagle! A fairly brief view, but a good one and again a bit fortunate given our fairly whistle-stop visit.

We were about to get even luckier though, as a flicking motion on the rock face across the river heralded the presence of one of our main trip targets – the much sought-after Wallcreeper! It was a superb spot by Reg, to pick it out with bins so far away, and we were all able to enjoy it through the scopes for several minutes as it flitted around in the open.

Wallcreeper

Wallcreeper – we watched it for several minutes feeding in the open on a rock face

We even squeezed in a Dipper and Common Sandpiper on the river – a superb afternoon! Now we had a final one hour drive west to our accommodation in the village of Arbanies, nestled beneath the foothills of the Sierra de Guarra.

FRIDAY 28TH FEBRUARY

Another beautiful fine day awaited us as we had a more relaxed time after two long days, and explored the key areas fairly close to our base. Vadiello would be our first stop, and the plan here was to try and get some better views of Wallcreeper. This did not materialise, and for the first time ever we drew a blank for the species here.

We spent a couple of hours checking the quarries, tunnels, cliff faces and dam itself, to no avail. Of course, we saw a number of other nice birds in the process though, particularly Griffon Vultures which were abundant, and giving some excellent views throughout the morning. We had point blank views of a singing Firecrest, brief views of a couple of Rock Sparrows, several Black Redstarts, two more Rock Buntings, Peregrine and large numbers of Crag Martins too.

Late morning we headed back towards the main road and after stops for fuel and coffee, and adding our first migrating flock of Black Kites, we headed for Castillo de Montearagon just north-east of Huesca. This location is a great place to see Black Wheatear, and was our main reason for visiting. Griffon Vultures were again pouring overhead, probably on migration, and a scattering of Black Kites were with them. Best of all though was a fantastic migration of Common Cranes, and we saw several large flocks totalling up to one thousand birds – it was a really brilliant sight and sound and a highlight of the day.

Up at the castle, we then located a nice male Black Wheatear and had some lovely prolonged scope views of it sallying around on the ledges below us. A male Blue Rock Thrush was also present, and several Black Redstarts were around too. We decided this was a very pleasant spot to sit and have lunch, in the company of several singing Thekla Larks – all in all, not a bad morning.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – showed very well while we were eating our lunch

For the afternoon, we headed to a new site for us, about forty minutes to the east. The medieval town of Alquezar is a stunning place, with immaculate cobbled streets and an impressive Castillo, overlooking a rocky gorge and with spectacular views back to the south. We had been told of wintering Alpine Accentors here, though unfortunately we couldn’t find any today – most likely they had already left for the high tops given the incredibly mild weather.

It was really birdy around the village though, and in particular the ivy-clad rocks around the Castillo were absolutely thronged with Song Thrushes and Blackcaps. The latter were all sub-singing creating a constant backdrop of sound – there must have been hundreds of them around the village as a whole. Blue Rock Thrush was also easily seen, and Griffon Vultures were just spectacular – the eye level views of them passing by were quite something.

Griffon Vulture

Griffon Vulture – eye level views around the castillo

Two Lammergeiers were seen, including an adult low overhead, and a male Hawfinch was hopping around in the open below the viewpoint. We also saw a Wallcreeper here – initially in flight coming across the gorge, we then had several glimpses of it through the scope over the next hour or so, but it kept disappearing frustratingly into a cleft which we couldn’t see into. Nevertheless, everyone saw it quite well despite the distance, and it was good to see another one! That rounded off our day, as we aimed to get back to the accommodation a bit earlier after the exertions of the last two days.

SATURDAY 29TH FEBRUARY

A challenging day today as a combination of dreary weather and some challenging birds meant we were not in for an easy ride! We journeyed north towards the High Pyrenees above Jaca, but first we turned south from the town towards the mountain of Oroel, and wound our way uphill towards the turning up to the parador. A short roadside stop produced good views of our first Cirl Buntings of the trip, keeping company with a single Rock Bunting.

Continuing up higher, we reached the forest on the northern slopes of Oroel where we hoped to find Black Woodpecker among the pines. It was quite busy here with walkers, with it being a Saturday, and also completely snow-free. We wandered through the pines to the east of the parking area, and were soon hearing Crested Tit, Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper among the trees.

Our tactic was to walk quietly along and listen for the calls of Black Woodpecker, and we didn’t have to wait too long before we heard a fairly distant flight call of one further down the track ahead. We headed there and listened for more calls, hearing the full call then from a bit further up the slope. This game of cat and mouse continued for a while, until we gave up and started heading back towards the parking area.

However, we were stopped in our tracks by another Black Woodpecker calling really close to the path, and the bird then flew out and low over the treetops below us giving a really nice view. We then listened to the bird drumming and calling from an area of dense trees up a gulley, and managed a few more glimpses of it in flight.

With this target in the bag, we descended again to Jaca, and then took the road north to the ski stations on the French border at Astun and Candanchu. The snow levels were incredibly low, the least amount we have ever seen here, but because the upper slopes were open for skiing, the area was extremely busy. It was also now raining – not a great combination! We sheltered in the car for lunch and then as the rain eased, we had a wander round.

About eleven Alpine Choughs were seen in total, including some close views of a pair perched on a low roof. Wanting to escape the crowds, we jumped back in the van and drove down to Candanchu, which was much quieter. There were around 50 Alpine Choughs here too, so we were very happy with the views we had of this species. Unfortunately though, the lack of snow and mild weather meant there were no Alpine Accentors to be found at either site today.

Alpine Chough

Alpine Chough – good views around the ski station at Candanchu

From here we had another ninety minute drive, south to Los Mallos de Riglos to end the afternoon. Here we walked up through the narrow streets to scan the impressive sandstone cliffs and check the slopes below for another slim chance of Accentors. We didn’t find any, and had to make do with a fine male Blue Rock Thrush, male Sardinian Warbler and a flock of 35 Red-billed Choughs.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – this male showed well at Los Mallos de Riglos

There were lots of Griffon Vultures, a few Black Kites and a small flight of Cranes in the distance too. Not a total failure, and despite the drizzle, another really nice location to visit. From here we had about fifty minutes drive back to base, which was mainly through now fairly heavy rain.

SUNDAY 1ST MARCH

A superb days birding today as we left Casa Oliban and made the ninety minute drive south via Zaragoza to the SEO reserve at El Planeron. The weather is key to success here with the ‘ghost bird’ for which the site is famous, and we were really lucky with light winds at the start of the day and plenty of sunshine meaning the air was bursting with lark song as we arrived in the steppes.

Calandra and Lesser Short-toed Larks would be everywhere for the rest of the morning, and we had superb views of both species. But it was Dupont’s Lark that we were really after here, and we didn’t have to wait long before we heard our first one signing – such a wonderful, musical tune but ventriloquial and often delivered from the ground, in cover and seldom in the open.

Our first vigil was tense and despite hearing at least three different birds in one area, we hadn’t managed a sighting. Soon though, we picked up a Dupont’s Lark scurrying furtively among the low shrubs, and then it ran across the track in front of us. We noticed that it seemed to be carrying food, and we soon worked out what was going on – the bird had a nest nearby. We stood quietly and waited, and it repeated the same route two or three times more, and we were all able to get some superb scope views as it stopped frequently to grub around in the base of the small bushes.

Dupont's Lark 1

Dupont’s Lark – great views, collecting food at El Planeron

We also had another bird in full song flight high above the steppe, before plummeting down vertically back into cover. We had done really well! El Planeron is not just about Dupont’s though, it is also an excellent birding site in general – we saw Iberian Grey Shrikes, a gorgeous adult male Hen Harrier, a Golden Eagle adult right overhead and a couple of passage Cranes. Not a bad morning!

After a coffee stop in Quinto, we continued on into Los Monegros steppes to have a search for the Great Bustard flock that is in the area. Lunch was at Laguna la Playa, a big salt lagoon, where we added seventeen Little Stints, five Dunlin and eight Kentish Plovers. Forty Shelduck were also present here and we noted a sprinkling of Red-billed Choughs in the steppe around.

Back onto the bustard trail after lunch and we were really, really lucky today – a flock of ten Great Bustards found us as they flew in and landed in the field alongside our van! Finding a good spot a few hundred metres back, we parked and carefully got out to scope them – brilliant views of this batchelor group of young males.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – great views of a bachelor group at Los Monegros

Exploring a little further along some farm tracks, we also found a few Black-bellied Sandgrouse, though they were all extremely nervous and flighty and our best views were from inside the vehicle. Another Hen Harrier, a ringtail this time, was quartering low over the steppe and the whole area was full of larks of various species.

With the bustards in the bag, we decided to head back towards our accommodation and check the steppe near Belchite on the way to see if we could find more sandgrouse. En route, we had simply fabulous views of a young Golden Eagle, hunting some low hills right beside the road.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle – hunting the low hills beside the road

Onto the agricultural steppe, and despite the strengthening winds, we first found some more flighty Black-bellied Sandgrouse and then an obliging pair of Stone Curlews crouching at a field edge. Our day was rounded off spectacularly though by at least sixty Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, which were more settled and allowed us to enjoy both scope views from afar, and some lovely close views from the van. It was wonderful to watch them wheeling around like bejewled Golden Plovers, and to hear their fantastic calls. It was the perfect end to a really productive day.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – great views of a flock of around 60 to finish the day

MONDAY 2ND MARCH

It was a very stormy night in Lecera as gale force winds and heavy rain swept through in the early hours, meaning it was very grim when we met up at 0730 for breakfast. By the time we were ready to load up and head off though, it had cleared quite a bit and despite the continuing strong winds and showers, it had brightened up.

We made the ninety minute drive east to Candasnos, and then on towards Fraga, where we made a stop for coffee and toilets and to check a spot where Lesser Kestrels breed and could already be arriving. We didn’t see any, but instead we were treated to fantastic views of 7 Egyptian Vultures grounded by the weather and sitting in a field right beside the track. Careful positioning of the van meant we could all get some great views and photos of these newly arrived migrants.

Egyptian Vultures

Egyptian Vulture – great views of several grounded migrants this morning

Kicking on east, our next stop was in Lleida steppes at a site for Eagle Owl. The wind was absolutely howling but we managed to find a little shelter and soon we were scoping an adult Eagle Owl roosting inside a bush up on the cliffs opposite. At first we could only see the birds streaked chest, but by taking a track a bit closer, we were eventually able to see its ear tufts and deep orange eyes as it squinted down at us from its lofty hiding place. A bonus was also seen in the form of a young Goshawk, which flew over us mobbed by a Raven.

Eagle Owl

Eagle Owl – staring at us from its hiding place

For lunch, we continued on into an area of agricultural steppe dotted with peach and olive groves and checked some fields there for another wintering flock of Little Bustards. 110 birds had been seen in recent days, but initially we couldn’t see any at all as we sheltered in van for lunch.

A quick check a bit further down the track though and all of a sudden a row of 70 heads popped up in a thickly vegetated field – Little Bustards! We managed to negotiate another track and get fairly close to them by using the van as a mobile hide. Nice to see a larger flock and get slightly closer views than previously.

Little Bustards 2

Little Bustards – some of a flock of 70+ hiding from the wind in the fields

From here we had a further eighty minutes to run through to Barcelona, where after a quick stop to top up the fuel, we had about fifteen minutes left to check the beach near Llobregat. Due to the strong winds, the beach was deserted – this certainly did us a big favour as immediately on arrival we saw three gorgeous Audouin’s Gulls which flew in over us and landed on the shore. Several Mediterranean Gulls were also seen and our last trip bird was a Gannet battling through the waves into the strong winds.

Audouin's Gull

Audouin’s Gull – three flew in and landed on the beach

We arrived at the airport around 4pm, only to discover our flight back to London was almost three hours delayed. Not the end to the trip we wanted, as many of us had to arrange an extra night in London due to the late arrival. Still, it had been a successful trip and despite the weather on our last day, we had managed to finish off with some really good sightings.

31st Jan-4th Feb 2020 – Extremadura in Winter

A five day International Tour to Extremadura, organised together our friends from Oriole Birding. An annual destination for us, this year we did the winter version of the tour again. If you like what you see, you are welcome to join us for our next visit, in Spring 2021!

FRIDAY 31ST JANUARY

Our 06.45 flight from London Stansted arrived into Madrid a few minutes early, and with typical Spanish efficiency, our bags were there waiting for us when we cleared passport control. It didn’t take too long before we picked up our rental minibus and got underway, on the long drive down to Extremadura.

The sun was out now in the capital and as we made our way out through the suburbs a small kettle of White Storks was circling over the motorway, possibly early migrants on their way north. We also encountered several groups of Common Magpies, up to ten at a time, flying over. A common bird here, but there were so many we wondered whether they might be on their way somewhere rather than just local birds. Out into the countryside, and we started to see numerous Red Kites and more White Storks, with several on their untidy nests on buildings and pylons by the road, as well as our first Iberian Grey Shrikes on the wires.

We could see the edge of the cloud ahead of us and we didn’t get far into our journey before we drove into it. From then on, it was rather grey, misty, with patches of drizzle. When we stopped for lunch at the services beyond Talavera, it had stopped raining and the weather looked to be brightening up a bit. A Crested Lark was running around on the tarmac in the car park and a Common Buzzard perched on a nearby pylon.

After lunch, we drove back into the cloud and rain for a while, but then as it started to clear again we spotted our first Common Cranes. A couple of the group saw three one side of the road first, in the open dehesa woodland, and then we drove past a larger flock of about twenty or so on the other side, in between the trees, which everyone was able to get onto.

We turned off the motorway to Saucedilla and parked by the Visitor Centre for the Embalse de Almaraz-Arrocampo nature reserve, which was closed. Three Barn Swallows flew over – we would see a lot this trip, with birds seeming returning early in numbers this year, this far south. A White Wagtail was walking round on the short grass.

As we walked down to the first hide, a large mixed flock of finches flew up from the rough ground. There were well over 100 birds, including a good number of Linnets but up to half were European Serins. We got some in the scope, feeding on the ground, then flying up onto the fence and perching in the trees over by the Visitor Centre, the males with their bright yellow breasts. A couple of Western Marsh Harriers came up, patrolling over the reeds, and beyond we spotted a smaller raptor hovering in the distance. It was a Black-winged Kite, so we got it in the scope for a closer look. The weather seemed to warm up a little, and three Griffon Vultures circled up and drifted over.

From down by Hide 1, we could hear Penduline Tits calling and looked across to see a pair perched in the tops and picking at the seedheads of the bulrushes. We got them in the scope, but unfortunately they dropped down again before everyone could see them. A couple of Kingfishers were calling, and zipping back and forth low over the water, but wouldn’t perch out in the open. A lone Glossy Ibis flew up from the back of the sedge beds and dropped down to the fields beyond, out of view. A flock of Cattle Egrets flew across further back, off around the other side of the reserve.

White Stork

White Stork – a pair on their untidy nest platform

As we walked on down the track beyond the hide, we could see several pairs of White Storks on nests, one of which was quite close. The birds flew off as we walked past, dropping down to the fields nearby, but a little later, the pair flew back in behind us, and we could hear their bill clapping display as they greeted each other.

There were several Chiffchaffs in the sedges, flitting around flycatching, and a couple of Sardinian Warblers which were typically more skulking. A Hoopoe landed briefly in a tree, before flying off over the fields, and a Starling perched in the brambles nearby was of the common, spotted variety which occurs here in winter. A Green Sandpiper flew overhead calling. We heard the grating calls of one or two Western Purple Swamphens, and a couple of times one flew up out of the reeds, but quickly dropped back down again. There was no further sign of the Penduline Tits, unfortunately. Walking back round past Hide 1, we checked out the sedges in front of the hide again. A smart male Spanish Sparrow was perched in the brambles in a group of females, so we had a look at it in the scope.

Driving through the village, two Spotless Starlings were on the wires, our first confirmed ones of the trip. We made our way round to the hides on the other side of the reservoir, and stopped by Hide 5. There was not much on the pool here today, just a few Mallard. Several more Barn Swallows were hawking for insects low over the water. A Common Sandpiper came up from the smaller pool on the other side of the road, and landed on the muddy edge at the back where it fed along the shore with a Grey Wagtail. A Black-winged Kite flew out of the trees and away over the road, but a little later, one of the group spotted the same or another Black-winged Kite perched in the trees at the back beyond the water. Another Hoopoe flew over our heads and several White Wagtails and a small flock of Skylarks was feeding out in the grassy field.

Carrying on down the road, we couldn’t find the flock of Cattle Egrets we had seen earlier from round on this side now. We still had a bit of travelling to get to the hotel, so we decided it was time to be heading back. Before we got back to the village, we stopped to scan another large area of sedges and noticed yet another Black-winged Kite hovering over the fields beyond. It landed on a tree down along a side track, so we set off after it, but we got distracted on the way by an Iberian Grey Shrike on the fence alongside us. We stopped to watch it, dropping down to the ground and back up to another fence post further along each time.

Black-winged Kite

Black-winged Kite – one of several we saw at Saucedilla

The Black-winged Kite was now off again, and we drove down to where it was hovering, but it flew off over the fields when we pulled up. We had a quick look at the southern arm of the reservoir on our way back to the motorway. There were lots of Cormorants out on the concrete wall in the middle of the water, but not much else.

All things considered, we had been very lucky with the weather – we quickly drove into patches of misty low cloud and drizzle again on the journey south on the motorway. Three more Common Cranes flew over the road ahead of us, heading off to roost. We got to our hotel and checked in. Then after a short break to get settled in, we enjoyed a welcome drink with a selection of local cheeses, salami and chorizo, followed by a delicious traditional meal.

SATURDAY 1ST FEBRUARY

It looked foggy and damp outside when we met for breakfast, but the fog had lifted by the time we met at the minibus and although it was still very cloudy the light was beginning to improve as the sun started to come up. One or two Corn Buntings were singing as we set off and a Hoopoe perched on the wires by the access road. We drove through Trujillo and out along the Santa Marta road. Parking by a small reservoir, as we got out of the minibus, an Iberian Grey Shrike was perched on the bushes in front of us. We were surrounded with bird song – larks and Corn Buntings. A pair of Thekla Larks was feeding around the rocks down in the grass below us.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – one of a pair first thing this morning

Huge flocks of Spanish Sparrows, several hundred strong kept flying round and landing in the trees on the slope behind us. A Rock Sparrow landed briefly on the fence in front of us but flew off before everyone could get onto it. A large group of Iberian Magpies came out of the trees on the other side of the road, and landed down on the short grass where we could get a look at them through the scope.

Spanish Sparrows

Spanish Sparrows – we found some huge flocks out on the plains

Moving on a little further along the road, we drove down a drovers track which heads out across the plains. When we stopped again and got out, Calandra Larks were singing all around us and we could see their black underwings with broad white trailing edges as they flew round past us. Several Golden Plover were feeding out on the short grass, with the numerous Lapwings. Two pairs of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew up separately, crossing the track further up, but both landed out of view behind a ridge.

A small group of Great Bustards flying across in the distance only broke the skyline briefly and disappeared behind a ridge too before anyone could get onto them. We drove a bit further up the track to see if we could find where they might have landed, but there was no further sign. We did find a Merlin perched very distantly on a rock across the plains. And as we turned to come back and stopped again, we found a pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse on the ground up on a ridge which this time lingered so we could get them in the scope.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Black-bellied Sandgrouse – we had a good look at a pair, up on the ridge

We hoped the bustards might have gone over the hill to where we had stopped earlier, so we drove back round there for our morning coffee stop. There was no sign of them here either, but there were several Rock Sparrows now, feeding with the Spanish Sparrows down in the grass. A Black Redstart perched on the fence.

After coffee, we drove on through Santa Marta and stopped just beyond the bridge over the Rio Magasca. Several Crag Martins were flying round over the hillside and we managed to see a Woodlark which was singing over the trees on the ridge, before it dropped down out of view. One or two Serins were singing too. Walking down across the bridge, a Black Redstart flicked up on the rocks the other side. Several Long-tailed Tits were calling in the trees and a couple flew across right past us, very dusky birds of the distinctive local race irbii.

We followed the path down to the river, where loads of Chiffchaffs were flitting around, flycatching in the bushes along the bank, along with a single Blackcap. A Kingfisher called as it flew off up the river and a Grey Wagtail was feeding on the rocks out in the middle, where a Spanish Terrapin was resting too before it dropped into the water. A Small Heath which flew up from the grass was our first butterfly of the trip.

Back to the minibus, we drove on to the junction with the Monroy road and stopped again to scan the plains. It was starting to warm up now and lots of white butterflies were fluttering round the grass but wouldn’t land. A large kettle of vultures was circling up away to the west and out across the plains, a single Black Vulture was out on the ground in the distance, stretching its wings.

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – flew up singing as it warmed up

Further along, we stopped again. The Calandra Larks were out in force now and singing all around us, with two males chasing each other round overhead. Scanning the fields the other side, we found a small group of six Pin-tailed Sandgrouse down in the short grass, then as we looked further across we saw loads more. In the end we counted at least sixty! We walked over to the other side of the road for a closer look through the scope.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – part of a flock of 60 we found in a field

Walking back to where we had parked the minibus, we had to pick our way round all the caterpillars in webs in the grass. One of the group had gone ahead, and shouted as he got to the bus. Four Great Bustards flew across out over the fields beyond and landed on the short grass. We had a good view of them in the scope – great for everyone finally to catch up with some bustards, iconic birds of the Extremaduran plains.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – three of the four we found at our lunch stop

After lunch, we carried on further down the road, and stopped for a quick look at a Little Owl on a wall out in the middle of a field. Another two Little Owls were on the top of a ruined barn in the distance the other side.

There had been a Sociable Lapwing not far away seen several times in recent weeks, but we were not sure whether it had been seen in the last week. We had managed to get hold of the co-ordinates for where it had been seen, so we drove over to see if we could find it. As we drove down a rather rough track, it suddenly seemed to get very busy (rush hour on the plains!). We were overtaken twice, and when we stopped at the right spot several more trucks came bouncing past. All the regular Northern Lapwings which had been out on the grass near to the track flushed and several groups flew off, although we couldn’t see the Sociable Lapwing with them.

Some fodder had been spread across the grass, and a few Corn Buntings and two Rock Sparrows were feeding in the straw. Some of the Lapwings started to drop back in and scanning carefully across the grass further back, we found the Sociable Lapwing, smaller and browner than the regular Lapwings and with a striking pale supercilium. Sociable Lapwings breed across the Central Asian steppes and winter mainly in East Africa, the Middle East and into Pakistan and NW India. It is principally a rare vagrant to Western Europe but one or two appear most winters in Iberia and it is thought that this may be a regular wintering location for very limited numbers. The species is listed as Critically Endangered as its population has undergone a very rapid decline in recent years, so it is a great bird to be able to see.

Sociable Lapwing

Sociable Lapwing – we managed to catch up with this wintering bird

Making our way back west, towards Monroy we stopped abruptly as a raptor drifted high over the road, a Spanish Imperial Eagle. We all piled out and got it in the scope as it circled up, eventually drifted away to south. A welcome bonus, as this is not a site where we often see them. Further on, three Griffon Vultures were loafing on the pylons by the road, so we stopped again for a closer look.

Spanish Imperial Eagle 1

Spanish Imperial Eagle – circled over the road this afternoon

Beyond Monroy, there were lots of Common Cranes in the dehesa by the road. We got out very carefully and had a good look at a large group before something eventually spooked them. Several hundred took off from where we couldn’t see them and landed further back out of view in the trees, and more were still bugling further on. We stopped again a couple of hundred metres down the road, were two very obliging Cranes were standing in a field of yellow flowers.

Crane 1

Common Crane – we found hundreds in the dehesa this afternoon

Driving down towards Caceres, we were taken aback at the enormous scale of the new solar farms being built out in the middle of the countryside. What will the ecological impact of all this construction be?

Dropping down towards the Rio Almonte, we stopped just beyond the bridge. Lots of Crag Martins and House Martins were circling overhead and flying down to prospect their nest sites under the bridge. As we walked down the track towards the river, a female Blue Rock Thrush was on the rocks below us, but flew low across the water and disappeared on the bank the other side. We were just scanning to see if we could find it again, when one of the group found a Black Wheatear along the far bank, low down on the rocks. We had a good view of it in the scope, jet black with a striking white base to the tail. A second Black Wheatear on the near bank, further up, was a sooty brown female. A smart male Black Redstart appeared briefly on the rocks closer to the road bridge.

Time was getting on now, and we still wanted to make one last stop. As we drove out along the minor road onto the plains, there were lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the fields. A small pool beside the road held a surprising selection of ducks – two Shoveler and six Gadwall, along with several expected Mallards. A Raven was perched on the top of a pylon and as we stopped and got out, we realised there were Red Kites everywhere, flying round, and perched on pylons and fence posts all around us.

A Great Bustard came up from the crop field, away on one side of the road, quickly followed by two more. They flew across the road and dropped down onto the plain in the distance. More and more followed, in ones and twos, until we eventually counted 24 Great Bustards which all flew across the road. We drove further up to see if we could see where they had landed, flushing loads of Corn Buntings and Meadow Pipits from the fences as we passed. We could see two Great Bustards distantly out on the grass, but the light was fading fast now. Another delicious dinner awaited us back at the hotel.

SUNDAY 2ND FEBRUARY

The regular flock of Iberian Magpies was by the parking area first thing, as we packed up the minibus, before flying down to the paddocks across the road. A Blackcap was in the bushes nearby. As we drove down to the main road, an Iberian Grey Shrike was on the top of a telegraph post and a Hoopoe flew in and landed on the wires next to it.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a post by the road

Hoopoe

Hoopoe – flew in and landed on the wires by the shrike

Again, there were quite a few Barn Swallows on our drive south, on wires in the villages and flying round. A pair of House Martins were already prospecting nests in Zorita village. A little further on, we pulled up alongside a pool by the road, where a Great White Egret was fishing. Two Black-winged Stilts were on the far edge of the water too.

Our first destination for the day was the reservoir at Alcollarin, and we pulled up by the dam to scan from here first. There was huge numbers of  ducks out on the water, the thousands of Northern Shoveler being particularly impressive, along with hundreds of Wigeon and Teal. Looking more closely through the vast throngs, we found a few Gadwall, a couple of pairs of Pintail and a single lone Tufted Duck too. Two pairs of Egyptian Geese were on the far shore.

There were lots of grebes as well, particularly Great Crested Grebes and Little Grebes, but also quite a few Black-necked Grebes out in the middle. Mostly the latter were in black and white winter plumage, but a couple were already coming into breeding dress, with black necks and golden ear-tufts. A very distant Spoonbill and Black Stork could be made out at the far end, and the size difference between a Great White Egret and a Little Egret could be appreciated even at that distance. A Kingfisher landed on a dead stump on the water’s edge at the back, where it shone in the morning sunshine. A Sardinian Warbler flew across into the olive trees by the parking area. When a large group of noisy cyclists came over the dam towards us, we decided to move on.

As we drove down the track on the hillside east side of the reservoir, we stopped again to scan. We could see there were more Spoonbills than we had been able to make out earlier, at least five together now, busy sifting in the shallow water. Lots of White Storks were standing out on the short grass and the Black Stork was nearby, to compare. A Woodlark was singing over the hillside behind. As the mob of cyclists came down the track, everything took off and flew back towards the main reservoir out of view.

The first Red Kite of the day circled up over the hills beyond, and we looked over to see two Ravens mobbing a pale raptor on a rock, just as it dropped off and disappeared behind, out of view. Our first impression was Booted Eagle, but they are mainly summer visitors here. We continued on to the picnic area by the smaller pool further down and walked out onto the platform by the small dam. Scanning the hillside, it wasn’t too long before the pale adult Booted Eagle reappeared, a very scarce bird here in the winter. It circled up with the Red Kite, which was bigger than it in size – Booted is a rather small eagle.

A small group of Common Pochard were swimming around at the back of the pool. Several White Storks were on nest platforms in the trees, and when one flew in, we could hear the pair bill clapping. A Kingfisher perched up in the reeds by the channel downstream of the dam, then came and landed much closer, where we could finally get a good view of it in the scope, a Zitting Cisticola was flitting around down in the rushes and a Crested Lark was singing from a small rock nearby. Two Common Waxbills flew in and landed briefly in the reeds close to where we were standing and a Great White Egret flew up and landed on the dam.

As we walked further up the track, up the valley beyond the picnic area, we found a couple of Dunnocks in the trees, plus a Robin, a few tits and several Chaffinches singing. With the air starting to warm in the sunshine, more raptors were starting to circle up. Three Marsh Harriers appeared over the pool and a young male started displaying, twisting and swooping like a roller coaster. The female lower down didn’t seem particularly impressed. Two very distant Black Vultures were over the higher hills beyond.

Then two Bonelli’s Eagles circled up over the trees beyond the pool. One of the Marsh Harriers circled up with them, and started to mob them, swooping down at them from above – we could see how much smaller it was than the eagles. As the Bonelli’s Eagles circled, we could see the white patch on their backs. Eventually they gained height and drifted back over the hillside. We headed back to the minibus for coffee.

Bonelli's Eagles

Bonelli’s Eagles – these two were mobbed by a Marsh Harrier

After coffee, we decided to move on. As we drove down the minor road towards Campo Lugar, we ran into a traffic jam – a flock of sheep being herded along the road towards us! We had to wait while they were chivvied all round and past us.

Traffic jam

Traffic Jam – Extremaduran style!

The other side of village, seven Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over as we turned onto the road over the plain. A Hoopoe flew along ahead of us, and kept landing on the wall by the road. We stopped at the top of the hill to scan the plains. There were lots of larks, Meadow Pipits and Corn Buntings all around us, but no sign of any bustards.

Our next stop was at the Sierra Brava reservoir. Lots of fishermen were stationed around the shore, despite the ‘no fishing’ signs. There were quite a few ducks way out in the middle – more Shoveler, Wigeon, a pair of Pintail – but less here than at Alcollarin. There were lots of Great Crested Grebes too. We could hear Common Cranes bugling and could see dozens out in the rice fields in the distance below. There were more standing on the grassy hillside beyond the reservoir, with occasional pairs of small groups of birds commuting from one to the other.

It was a beautiful warm day now, with clear air and a great view, so we decided to stop here for lunch. A pair of Sardinian Warblers was flitting around in the bushes below the dam. Several more white butterflies were more obliging here – a couple landed long enough to identify them, Western Dappled Whites.

Sardinian Warbler

Sardinian Warbler – a pair were in the bushes below the dam

After lunch, we carried on towards the rice fields. As we drove through a rocky area, we flushed a Marsh Harrier from the ditch beside the road, presumably off a kill. Six Ravens were waiting patiently nearby for any leftovers. There were lots of Cranes on the grassy hillside next to the road here, so we stopped and got out carefully. They were remarkably obliging, and posed nicely for photographs. Then when we got down into the rice fields, there were hundreds and hundreds of more Cranes all around us, feeding in the wet paddies, with some even more accommodating.

Crane 3

Common Cranes – there were hundreds out in the ricefields

Crane 2

Common Crane – stunning views today

As we stopped and got out, a few small groups of wild Greylag Geese flew up out of the fields. A flock of small finches flew past, disappearing round behind a bank where they appeared to land. We walked down the road and looked back to see them bathing in the reeds on the edge of one of the paddies, a group of Red Avadavats. Originally from India, there is now a well-established feral population in Spain. A single Green Sandpiper was feeding further along the edge, in the water amongst the clods of earth.

We were just getting back into the minibus when a ringtail Hen Harrier appeared. Everyone got out again remarkably quickly (and without anyone getting trampled in the rush!) and we watched it working its way low over the weedy banks around the edge of the fields.

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier – hunting the margins of the ricefields

At our second attempt, we drove on, stopping again briefly as a Cattle Egret flew past and landed down in the wet paddy close by.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – the first of many in the rice fields

A few hundred metres further we had another unscheduled stop as one of the group spotted something large and brown move in the tall dead cut rice right next to the road. We couldn’t see it and it was obviously hiding in the vegetation, so we started to get out and that was enough to put it up. A Great Bittern! It flew up and crashed down again a few metres further back, back down into the dead rice stems. After a minute or so, a bill appeared, pointing upwards and through the scope we could see its head and eye, presumably watching us. It turned, and we could see the black stripes down the front of its neck.

Bittern

Bittern – hiding in the dead cut rice

While we were watching the Bittern, we heard a churring call behind us, from the weeds along the ditch by the road. As we walked down the road towards it, a Dartford Warbler flicked out. We have seen them here before in the winter, presumably coming down out of the hills at this time of year. What a great place to stop!

Further along, we parked again by a track between the rice fields. As we got out, we caught a flash of a red tail as a bird flew from the muddy field margin into the inner edge of the roadside ditch further down, a Bluethroat. We got it in the scope briefly as it came out onto the edge again, a male with a flash of blue, but it immediately disappeared back into the ditch. Despite scanning for a couple of minutes, it didn’t appear again so we tried walking down beside the ditch, but drew a blank.

We thought we would try from the road side,  but as we walked round we flushed another Bluethroat from the ditch on the other side of the road, this time a female. Again, it was elusive, and we followed it down along the bank between two fields and eventually got it in the scope briefly, when it flew across to the far edge. But again, it dropped down into the cut rice before everyone could get a look. Several Common Snipe flew up out of the wet field.

Back at the minibus, what looked like the original Bluethroat was back out on the muddy edge, but when we got it in the scope, it was a female there now. It kept flitting back into the ditch vegetation, but with a bit of patience, everyone eventually got a look as came out onto the open grassy mud. We had already seen several Bluethroats, which was our main target here, but we had a quick walk down the track now anyway. Two more Bluethroats flicked along the ditch ahead of us, along with lots of Chiffchaffs, a couple of Zitting Cisticolas, a Cetti’s Warbler, and another little group of Red Avadavats. Another very productive spot!

With all the diversions, we stayed here later than planned. We wouldn’t have much time there, but we decided to have a quick run round to the south end of the Sierra de Villuercas. On the way, another Black Stork flew across the road and we passed a small group of Red Deer out on an area of open grass between the trees. It was a beautiful view from the pass at the top, but the light had gone from the trees the other side, and all was quiet here.

As we drove back down a bit, several Crag Martins were hawking over the hillside and an Iberian Green Woodpecker dropped down over the road ahead of us and disappeared into the trees on the other side. Previously considered a race of Green Woodpecker, this is now considered to be a full species in its own right. We parked in a small lay-by in the trees, where a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly was fluttering around the information board. A flock of Long-tailed Tits flew over the road. We heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker call in the trees, but it wouldn’t show itself, then we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker a little further along, and could still hear it tapping on a tree somewhere but hidden from view. A Nuthatch was more obliging, perched in the top of a tree. Unfortunately we ran out of time here, and had to head back now to be in time for dinner.

MONDAY 3RD FEBRUARY

It was a lovely bright start up in the foothills, but we could see mist lingering in the valleys in the distance this morning. We still had not managed to catch up with Little Bustard so we headed over to Santa Marta again, thinking we would be high enough there to be out of the mist. Just as we got out of the trees onto the edge of plains, we drove into thick fog. We waited a few minutes, but it was obviously not going to clear any time soon, so we decided to try something else and when we got over to Belen, the plains were surprisingly clear, with beautiful blue sky and sunshine!

We stopped at the start of the plains to scan, with a couple of Crested Larks, one Thekla Lark and four Woodlarks all visible from our viewpoint. Scanning across we first found a very distant Merlin on a low rock and then a drove of eleven Great Bustards some way off feeding in amongst the cows. As we set off again, we spotted the bustards flying, across the road, before they disappeared away behind us.

As we drove across the plains, we kept stopping and scanning. There was not much of note at first, but when we came over a crest we noticed several vultures out in a field so we stopped for a closer look. As we got out of the minibus, we realised there were three Great Bustards out on the plain the other side. We watched them for a while, as they walked along feeding, before they disappeared over the ridge beyond.

Great Bustard

Great Bustard – we had great views of three out on the plains

Turning our attention back to the vultures, we could see three Black Vultures in with about ten Griffons, waiting to warm up before taking to the air, spreading their wings. Scanning back over the other side, we then found a single adult Egyptian Vulture distantly on the grass to complete the set. Being largely white, it stood out in the morning sun, and we could see its bare yellow face in the scope. There were Calandra Larks and Corn Buntings singing all around too.

From the far end of the plains, we drove across to the Torrejon road. On the way, we passed a couple of Great White Egrets on the small pools. Stopping at one pond, the bank at the back was covered in Spanish Terrapins and a Green Sandpiper was on another pool the other side. We were heading for the national park at Monfrague, but we could see cloud hugging the ridge as we drove up past Torrejon. It didn’t look promising and when we got to the turn for the Castillo, we couldn’t even see the castle itself up on the ridge. We decided to go on to the viewpoint at Salto del Gitano for coffee.

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture – showed very well low down at Salto del Gitano

There were several Crag Martins swooping round the rocks as we got out. Loads of Griffon Vultures were circling up over the rock face opposite, up into the clouds. Lots were standing on the rocks too, with several hunkered down on nests already, which we got in the scope. Some were flying round much lower, and one or two came past at eye level or below, giving us a great view. One landed on the rocks just below us, coming in to collect nest material from the bushes. We watched it breaking off branches before launching itself off again with a bill filled with vegetation.

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vulture – several were on the rocks

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture – some were collecting nest material

When we could take our attention off the great show from the vultures, we noticed a smart male Black Redstart feeding below the trees just below the viewpoint boardwalk.

Black Redstart

Black Redstart – a smart male just below the viewpoint

A little further along, another male Black Redstart was singing from the top of a large rocky outcrop, and then a Blue Rock Thrush appeared nearby. A smart blue male, we had a great view in the scope.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – showed very well on the top of a rocky crag

There were several Blackcaps, Song Thrushes and tits in the trees and we could hear Hawfinches calling here too. They were very hard to see at first, feeding on the wild olives, but eventually they became a little more obliging – a female perched up for ages in the top of a tree close to us, and then we watched two males and another female feeding lower down.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch – we had great views of several in the olive trees

The weather looked rather ominously grey the other side of the pass, very different from the sunshine to the south, but we decided to drive on through the national park to the far end. It was actually not too bad, and although it was cloudy and a bit misty, the visibility at ground level was OK. We parked in the lay-by at Portilla del Tietar and took our packed lunches down to the viewpoint.

At first it was rather quiet here. There were a few Long-tailed Tits calling in the trees as we walked down, and we could hear more birds in the trees further along from the viewpoint, including a Short-toed Treecreeper singing but we couldn’t see it. There were lots more Griffon Vultures circling here, up into the cloud, along with two or three Black Vultures, possibly trying unsuccessfully to find thermals. Occasionally a vulture would pass in front of the rocks lower down, and we had a better view of one Black Vulture as it did so.

With all the cloud, we thought we might struggle to see the Spanish Imperial Eagles here today, but we didn’t have to wait too long before one came in high over the rock face. It started to circle with a large group of Griffon Vultures which were gathered slightly further downstream, and we managed to get it in the scope, as it slowly drifted further away with them. It was better than nothing given the weather.

Then someone spotted an Otter in the water below the hide, so everyone gathered to watch that. It would dive for long periods but kept resurfacing, when the ripples gave away its new location.

Otter

Otter – in the river at Portilla del Tietar

We were still distracted when we heard an eagle calling over the hillside behind us. We couldn’t see it through the trees as it came in fast, but as it dropped over the water towards the rock face we could see it was a Spanish Imperial Eagle again. It folded its wings back and swooped down, skimming low over the top of the rocks opposite, before swooping up sharply, calling, a great view. It looked almost like it might land, but then a second eagle appeared over the trees beyond, and the two of them circled up together for several minutes, before first one then the other flew off over the hillside.

Spanish Imperial Eagle 2

Spanish Imperial Eagle – the pair put on a great display

We had one last look at the Otter, then had to tear ourselves away. The weather finally looked to be brightening up, and we were starting to see the tops of the ridges back into the park. A Hummingbird Hawkmoth was feeding round the flowers back by the lay-by. As we drove back through the park, we had a quick stop to look at a Red Deer feeding on the short grass by the road.

When we got back to the village, now bathed in sunshine, we had a quick stop to use facilities. We could see the Castillo now, up on the ridge, so we drove up the road and parked at the top. There were one or two Hawfinches calling in the trees and as we walked slowly up the path, a pair of Short-toed Treecreepers appeared in the trees.

Up at the Castillo, there was a fantastic view now that the cloud had cleared. A couple of large kettles of vultures were circling to the north of the ridge, mostly Griffons but with a small number of Black Vultures mixed in with them. Occasionally a Griffon Vulture would come along the ridge, straight past us, at eye level, just overhead, or even below us. Great views.

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – more great views up at the Castillo, when the sun came out

One of the group up in the top of the tower spotted a group of Cranes coming in, thirteen of them, and we watched as they circled up south of the ridge, calling. A Peregrine appeared in with the vultures over the pass, then folded its wings and swept down behind the rocks. Again, we had to tear ourselves away. It was great that the weather had cleared so we could make it up here, as it would have been a terrible shame to miss out on the experience.

As we still hadn’t seen a Little Bustard, we decided to make our way back and have one last go. As we drove out across the plains, we kept stopping and scanning. We found a small group of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse feeding out on the grass, but no sign of any bustards at first.

Then as we came over a rise, a large flock of Spotless Starlings came up from the short grass by the road ahead of us. Something white took off too – a Little Bustard! We watched from the minibus as it flew across the road and out over the grass the other side, eventually landing on a ridge in the distance. Typically, having not seen another vehicle for ages, a truck came along at that very moment, and we had to pull off the narrow road. By the time we had got out and managed to get the Little Bustard in the scope it was disappearing over the ridge. We walked back up the road, to the top of the rise, but couldn’t see it again.

Fortunately, as we turned to walk back to the bus a flock of thirty Little Bustards flew up and circled round out over the grass, flashing their white wings. They dropped down again, out of view, but from further on along the road, we could see them. We got them in the scope, feeding busily in the grass.

Little Bustards

Little Bustards – part of a flock of thirty we found this afternoon

Once we had enjoyed the Little Bustards, we could take in the beauty of our surroundings. It was bright out on the plains in the late afternoon sun. In the clear air, we could see all the way to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We were surrounded by birdsong, Calandra Larks overhead, and Corn Buntings on the wires. A huge flock of Spotless Starlings was feeding in the grass, constantly whirling up, chattering. Lots of Lapwings were scattered over the fields, and a couple of flocks of Golden Plover were flying round further back. We reflected on how this is what the farmed countryside should be like, full of life. It was a great way to end our last full day.

TUESDAY 4TH FEBRUARY

After our last breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, said our goodbyes and loaded up the minibus. A Hoopoe was in a tree at the back of the paddock opposite, and we got it in the scope. A couple of Serins were chasing each other round through the trees. We hadn’t had a real chance to look round here in daylight hours before, so we had a short walk down the access road before we left.

There were Blackcaps, Chaffinches, and a Robin or two in trees. There were Sardinian Warblers calling in the bushes, and one flew across the road ahead of us. Several Spotless Starlings and House Sparrows were on the roofs of the houses. A flock of Iberian Magpies was feeding down on the short grass a couple of fields over, so we got those in the scope too. Then when they flew up and over the road past us, we decided to walk back. We could hear Hawfinches calling from the trees.

Iberian Magpie

Iberian Magpie – a flock flew past us as we walked down the road

We could see mist again in the lower lying areas from where we were and as we made our way up the motorway, we went in and out of the fog, which was rather thick at times. We turned off and took the old road up over the hills at Casas de Miravete. We stopped at the top of the pass, above the clouds, where the sun was out. A Woodlark was singing overhead and we stopped to listen to its mournful song.

As we walked up the track on the sunny side of the ridge, a pair of Cirl Buntings flew up and landed on the fence ahead of us. There were quite a few Serins here too and we watched a male song flighting over the path, with fast fluttering wingbeats. A lot of the trees have been cleared up here and the peace was now shattered with the song of chainsaws up in the hillside. We figured we wouldn’t see anything else up here (or be able to hear it!) so we walked back down.

Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting – we found a pair at the top of Casas de Miravete

The track on the other side looked quieter, so we decided to try our luck down there. This used to be a good place for Crested Tits, but most of the pines have been taken out (although ironically the non-native eucalyptus the other side of the track have been left in place!). A Black Redstart was flicking around at the start of the track and a Jay called and disappeared off ahead of us through the remaining trees. A couple of Mistle Thrushes flew off up the slope to the rocks above. We thought we heard a snatch of Crested Tit, but when we stopped to listen, we couldn’t hear anything.

We reached a patch which had been completely clear-felled and decided to turn back. This time we definitely heard a Crested Tit call and got a couple of glimpses of it in the pines, along with a pair of Long-tailed Tits. We followed them and eventually the Crested Tit flew up and landed in the top of a pine tree. We could hear a second one calling further back. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming too, higher up.

Back in the minibus, we came out under the cloud on the other side of the ridge. It was rather grey and misty now, as we made our way up to Saucedilla. As we parked at the Visitor Centre again, a couple of Swallows were on the wires above us. As we walked up the track, two Kingfishers chased down over the channel and away through the trees. Two Little Grebes were in the water on the corner. We could hear Western Purple Swamphen calling, but it was hidden deep in the sedge bed. We scanned the channel in front of Hide 1, but couldn’t see anything along the edges of the vegetation either side, and then as we walked back the Purple Swamphen was now standing in the top of a sedge clump. Unfortunately it saw us coming and started to walk back into cover, but we still had a better look at it before it disappeared in completely.

Continuing down along the track, we stopped again to scan the tops of the bulrushes. A bird was perched in some dead branches which protruded from the reeds – a Wryneck. It was presumably trying to avoid the damp vegetation below, as it stayed where it was for several minutes while we had a good look at it in the scope. A nice bonus as they are not common here in winter!

Wryneck

Wryneck – perched up in the dry

A Water Rail called from deep in the vegetation and we could hear the pair of White Storks bill clapping again, on their nest platform behind us. A Green Sandpiper flew round calling and we stopped to look at an Iberian Grey Shrike perched on some wires. Continuing on past Hide 2, there were several Chiffchaffs flycatching in the bushes and a Zitting Cisticola feeding around the base of the low vegetation beside the path, again presumably trying to avoid the thicker, wetter stuff. A small flock of Common Waxbills shot past calling. First a Little Egret and then a Great White Egret appeared up briefly beyond the reeds.

Zitting Cisticola

Zitting Cisticola – showed well, feeding in the vegetation by the path

We didn’t have time to go much further, so we turned back. A flock of Spanish Sparrows flew in and landed on a fence by the path. Then a Water Pipit flew up calling from an area of damp grass, circled overhead, and then dropped down towards the fields. When we got back to the channel behind the visitor centre, we looked over to the sedges at the back and could see a Purple Swamphen standing on the water’s edge, out in full view now. It stayed there for several minutes, allowing us all to get a good look at its bright purple plumage, huge red bill and outsize pink feet. Then it walked back into the vegetation. It was a smart bird to end the trip with, and we walked back to the Visitor Centre and ate our packed lunches on the picnic tables.

Western Purple Swamphen

Western Purple Swamphen – finally showed well as we walked back

The journey back to Madrid was uneventful, although we did see a couple of pairs of Cranes in the dehesa on the way. Our flight back to London Stansted was on time and, even better, our bags were already waiting for us on the carousel when we got through passport control (perhaps they had been taking lessons from the Spanish!), before we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

 

28th Apr-4th May 2019 – Northern Greece & Lake Kerkini

A week-long International Tour to Northern Greece and Lake Kerkini, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. It is a great destination for eastern migrants and south-eastern Mediterranean specialities. We had generally good weather with temperatures of 20-25C, nice birding conditions.

SUNDAY 28TH APRIL

Our plane departed on time and it was a smooth journey from Gatwick to Thessaloniki. Our first birds in Greece were the Jackdaws and House Sparrows around the airport terminal building, with several Tree Sparrows by the car hire office while we waited to do the paperwork for the minibus. It was just over an hour’s drive north to Lake Kerkini, but once we got out of the city we started to see a few more birds, with hirundines including our first Red-rumped Swallows, and raptors including Common Buzzard and Kestrel. The villages closer to the lake produced White Storks, with some on nests atop the telegraph posts.

When we got to the lake, we stopped on the southern embankment by the dam. Several Common Nightingales were singing in the bushes nearby, which was to be a constant soundtrack to the next few days, a Golden Oriole was fluting nearby and a Common Cuckoo was calling. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was chattering too, sounding a little like a Reed Warbler, and we eventually got a view of it skulking in the bushes.

There were several Grey Herons around the shore, and our first Squacco Heron of the trip flew in and landed by the rocks. A Great Cormorant was stretching its wings on a post and a Dalmatian Pelican flew in high over the dam. There were lots of gulls around the lake, mainly Yellow-legged Gulls of various ages, but we also found a single 2cy Caspian Gull out on the water, its distinctive snouty look, with a long, thin parallel-sided bill, giving its identity away. A group of Common Terns was gathered on the line of fishing net posts just offshore.

Scanning the surrounding hills, we picked up four birds circling high over the fields on the far side of the lake, Collared Pratincoles hawking for insects. They were distant at first but then turned and headed our way, flying high overhead and off to the south. Then our host, Stelios, turned up with our picnic lunch.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – four flew over the dam while we had lunch

After lunch, we drove slowly up the western shore of the lake. Common Nightingales were singing everywhere in the scrub, and out into the more open cultivated areas, they were replaced by Corn Buntings. We stopped at Korifoudi, where a Crested Lark was feeding on a dusty track. A large flock of Western Yellow Wagtails was feeding around the feet of a herd of buffalo out on the short grass. They were mostly Black-headed Wagtails, we could hear their distinctive raspy calls, plus several Blue-headed Wagtails. As the buffalo came up to the road, the wagtails defected to a herd of cattle further back on the lake shore.

Two Woodchat Shrikes were perched out on the scattered bushes in the meadows and another two appeared by the road. We watched them chasing each other round in the bush, stopping to bob their heads in display. There were lots of Little Egrets along the lake shore and distantly out on the water beyond, we could see a huge feeding frenzy of cormorants and pelicans.

Scanning the surrounding hills, we picked up first a Booted Eagle circling high, and then a Black Stork drifting along the ridge. We heard Bee-eaters calling high overhead. There were several butterflies here too, including lots of Painted Ladys, several Clouded Yellows, and a smart Scarce Swallowtail feeding on some thistles by the road.

Scarce Swallowtail

Scarce Swallowtail – feeding on thistles by the road

We tried to drive on, but there were lots of distractions – first we heard a Great Reed Warbler singing in a small clump of reeds, but it was keeping well down. Then a little further on, we spotted two Lesser Spotted Eagles down in the meadow next to the road, which flew up into the trees as we approached. We stopped to get them in the scopes. Another Great Reed Warbler was singing in some reeds nearby, but flew out as we walked over and headed over to another clump further back. Three Whinchats were out in the grass too.

We only managed to go another short distance before we stopped again to look at our first Pygmy Cormorant perched on a dead branch in the edge of the lake. A Wood Sandpiper was feeding in the shallows here, just below the road.

Pygmy Cormorant 1

Pygmy Cormorant – our first of the trip, on the west shore of the lake

Eventually, we made it up to the hotel to check in. After a short break to settle in, we met again in the parking area where a Common Nightingale was singing (we would hear it here every day, usually in the same tree). There were also several Tree Sparrows here, and a Lesser Whitethroat rattling in a nearby garden which flew up into the top of a tree. A pair of Red-rumped Swallows and a pair of Pallid Swifts circled round overhead with the other hirundines.

We drove down to the harbour at Mandraki. The water here is quite shallow, particularly this year with the lake level lower than normal, and there were so many birds we didn’t know where to look first. There were herons everywhere, lots of Grey Herons and a huge number of Great White Egrets. A Purple Heron was tucked down in the grass on the edge of the lake, then six circled up together. A big group of Glossy Ibis was feeding actively further back in the shallow water, and when they flew up and came in past us we counted at least sixty. Squacco Herons were liberally scattered all around and six Black Storks circled up from the edge of the flooded forest

There were amazing numbers of Great Crested Grebes out on the water, with most paired up, and several pairs displaying. In amongst the weedy vegetation in the water, we found several Garganey and a single drake Ferruginous Duck: we could see its distinctive white iris. A few Greylag Geese required a closer look here, pink-billed birds of the eastern race rubirostris.

We could see lots of pelicans out on the nesting islands and around the edge of the lake further back. Beyond them, there was a good number of Greater Flamingoes. The flooded forest was chock full of cormorants, great and small (Pygmy!). Some small groups of pelicans were fishing closer to us, and we could see a few White Pelicans in with the Dalmatians. We finished watching some nice close Dalmatian Pelicans swimming just off the jetty in lovely evening light. Then we had to tear ourselves away to get back for dinner.

Dalmatian Pelican 1

Dalmatian Pelican – in the evening light, off the harbour

On the drive back, a Hoopoe was wrestling with a large worm by the road. Back at the hotel, the resident Scops Owl was singing briefly. It went quiet when we tried to look for it, but started up again later, once it got dark. It had been a great first day, but we were tired after an early start this morning, so after a delicious dinner, we turned in.

MONDAY 29TH APRIL

A quick early walk at dawn confirmed that a male Semi-collared Flycatcher was back on territory close to where we saw one last year, so after breakfast we all went up to see it. It was very active, flitting between the plane trees, singing all the time. It seemed to be prospecting nest holes in a couple of trees – we saw it go into one and it seemed to be returning to that branch repeatedly.

Semi-collared Flycatcher

Semi-collared Flycatcher – holding territory in the trees

It was a young male with a rather restricted half collar and small double white patch over the bill, but with a large white patch at the base of the primaries and some barely visible white spots on the median coverts. It was good to see that at least one is back here again. Blackbird and Robin were also additions to the list there.

Afterwards, we headed out to one of our favourite spots, a bushy area by an overflowing water trough. It is a good area to see migrants when they are coming through but the bushes were quite quiet this morning. Perhaps birds were moving straight through and not stopping in the clear sunny weather, and some of the local breeding birds were clearly not arrived yet too. A pair of Golden Orioles perched briefly in the top of a distant dead tree and two Turtle Doves landed on the wires. A Woodchat Shrike and a Common Whitethroat were singing in the bushes and a Black Kite drifted over.

We continued on round to an area of woodland along the River Strimon floodplain. As we walked down the track, we were serenaded by Common Nightingales and lots of Marsh Frogs calling from the pools. It was starting to warm up quickly now and a Levant Sparrowhawk circled up, its rather pointed wings showing distinct blackish tips underneath, and a Lesser Spotted Eagle drifted over just above as we were watching it.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – showing its pointed wings with blackish tips

The woodpeckers were rather quiet today, probably a combination of the heat of the day and the time of year. We did find a black-and-white woodpecker skulking in the bottom of a thick tree close to what appeared to be a fresh hole, but when it eventually showed itself it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Then a little further on, we flushed a Green Woodpecker from the bushes by the track. Two Hoopoes were calling and kept flying off ahead of us. Several Spotted Flycatchers were flitting about in the trees and having heard it calling, a grey male Cuckoo flew across over the open fields followed by a rusty-coloured ‘hepatic’ female, the first of several we would see today.

There were lots of butterflies out in the sunshine along the track or out in the grass. A rather tatty looking Southern Festoon was the highlight, but we also found a couple of Grizzled Skippers, plenty of Queen of Spain Fritillaries and Clouded Yellows, and a few Common Blues. There were dragonflies here too – lots of Scarce Chasers and one or two Hairy Dragonflies down by the water. A Grass Snake curled up on the edge of the path quickly slithered in to the undergrowth as we approached.

Dalmatian Pelican 2

Dalmatian Pelicans – circling up as it warmed up

Small groups of pelicans starting to circle up over towards the lake, looking for thermals to give them lift, and four Dalmatian Pelicans drifted right overhead. Then a much bigger group of White Pelicans appeared further over, towards the river, with three Dalmatians in with them, allowing us to see their very different wing patterns. A few White Storks circled up too, and a Black Stork flew across just over the tops of the trees. A Long-legged Buzzard appeared briefly over the base of the hills to the north.

Our coffee stop this morning was taken by the River Strimon. A small group of Bee-eaters was perched on the wires and bushes beside the track opposite. Two Little Ringed Plovers and a Common Sandpiper were feeding on a sandy island in the middle of the river, along with a White Wagtail. Lots of House Martins were looking to nest under the bridge and several Sand Martins were coming and going from a sandy bank in the island the other side of the bridge. After coffee, we had a quick drive a short distance up the track opposite to try to photograph the Bee-eaters.

Bee-eater 1

Bee-eater – down by the river while we stopped for morning coffee

The rest of the day would be spent on the embankment which surrounds the eastern shore of the lake. There were lots of Moorhens on the first pool, along with several European Pond Terrapins and a Purple Heron walking along the opposite bank. There are several small clumps of reeds here and we stopped to scan them, almost immediately finding a female Little Bittern on the edge of one. As we scanned further across a female Little Crake was creeping in and out of the reeds nearby. The more we looked, the more we found – in the end, we counted at least six Little Crakes, five brown females and one slaty blue-grey male, and three female Little Bitterns.

A Dice Snake was curled up just in the reeds, a Coypu was half submerged in the water, and a pair of Little Grebes was busy diving. We could hear Penduline Tits calling from the willows and bushes on the other side of the bank, and we managed a brief view of a pair in the trees, chased off by a second male.

We were rather distracted by all the activity here and eventually retreated back to the nearby picnic area for a late lunch in the shade. There were Bee-eaters everywhere, calling all around us. After lunch, we continued on slowly down the embankment. On the next few pools, we found more Purple Herons and our first Spoonbill, plus a few Pygmy Cormorants. Several Turtle Doves were flying around between the bushes out on the grass beyond.

We stopped overlooking the northern edge of the lake. There were lots of Wood Sandpipers around the margins of the grassy islands, migrants stopping off on their way north, and a single Ruff was in with them. Several Black-winged Stilts were further back. A few Common Terns and three or four darker-bellied Whiskered Terns were hawking distantly over the water. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls loafing around the water’s edge, and a single Gull-billed Tern was in with them, preening. Through the scopes, we could see its distinctive short, thick black bill.

There are not so many ducks here in the spring, but as well as a smattering of Mallards, we did find three Common Pochard on the lake. A lone Ruddy Shelduck was over on the grass in front of the flooded forest, with three Greylag Geese nearby.  What initially appeared to be a Black-headed Wagtail was feeding on the short grass just below the bank. On closer inspection, we could see it had a small trace of a white supercilium behind the eye, so it was actually a hybrid form of Yellow Wagtail, ‘superciliaris’.

Black-headed Wagtail superciliaris

Yellow Wagtail – a hybrid ‘superciliaris’ Black-headed Wagtail

Continuing on, Penduline Tits were calling all the way down the embankment but were mostly hidden in the vegetation. We pulled up at one likely looking area, where some poplar trees were overhanging a small area of reeds, and spotted a nest hanging down in amongst the leaves, suspended on one of the lower branches. Then a Penduline Tit appeared out of the reeds with a bill full of cobwebs and poplar seed, and flew up to the nest. We got out and through the scopes, we could see that the nest was an amazing structure, and quite well-built already. We watched the Penduline Tit weaving the gathered material into the structure, before it flew off back along the line of the ditch.

While we waited for it to return, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew past and dropped down into the  bushes below the bank where we could hear it calling. Eventually it flew back in and landed in a bush close to where we were standing, where we got a great look at it, a male with a bright red crown.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – a male, in the trees by the lake

There were lots more Cuckoos along here and another hepatic phase female flew in and landed in the poplars above the Penduline Tit nest, where we could get a great view of it in the scope. A Kingfisher appeared down on the edge of the ditch too. Eventually the pair of Penduline Tits returned, and we watched them gathering material down in the reeds again, before flying up to add it to the nest.

On along the bank, there were several Golden Orioles fluting in the trees but they were difficult to see with all the leaves. Out in the middle of the lake, we could see a feeding frenzy of cormorants and pelicans. There were lots of Squacco Herons down on the rocky shore below the bank as we drove past and scanning the water’s edge we found a Spur-winged Lapwing too. We stopped to look at it, but it walked on behind some bushes, so we drove on a few yards and waited at the next gap in the vegetation. After a minute or two, it duly walked back into view. They are not so common here at the lake – we normally see them down on the coast – so this was a real bonus today.

Spur-winged Lapwing

Spur-winged Lapwing – a nice surprise, down on the shore of the lake

There were one or two Eastern Olivaceous Warblers singing in the bushes beside the bank as we passed, but not as many as we might normally expect to hear. They were obviously still arriving back for the breeding season. There were several Great Reed Warblers singing too – and we eventually got a better look at one perched up in the reeds. Then a Wildcat ran along the track on the bank ahead of us, before disappearing back into the vegetation.

The embankment was closed south of Limnochori, but we were planning to come off here anyway. It was time to be heading back. We had a quick stop in the village to admire a huge White Stork nest, and timed it perfectly as the adults changed over nest duties. One flew in and the other got up and flew off, landing on a nearby telegraph post which happened to be right above us. It stood there staring down. There were lots of sparrows going in and out of the base of the stork’s nest, mostly Spanish Sparrows, with one or two House and Tree Sparrows too. A pair of Red-rumped Swallows was flying in under the eaves of a nearby house.

White Stork

White Stork – landed on a telegraph post right above us

It had been another great day, but it was time to head back to the hotel for dinner. While we were still waiting for pudding, we heard a Scops Owl singing right outside. We went out, and realised we could actually hear two. One was in a tree above the road right in front of the hotel, so we tried to see if we could find it with a torch. It was too high up and there were too many leaves on the tree now, but we eventually saw it as it flew out.

TUESDAY 30TH APRIL

With a prompt getaway after breakfast, we headed up to the village of Promachonas in the hills on the Bulgarian border. We were looking for woodpeckers, and as soon as we walked in to the wood, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew over the track and landed in the trees next to us . We could see its red crown and pale red undertail. As we continued deeper into the wood – two more Middle Spotted Woodpeckers appeared in the top of a tree over the path, with one singing.

We stopped when we couldn’t go any further in. We could hear a Grey-headed Woodpecker, further off, over the other side of the river, but frustratingly it kept its distance. A Semi-collared Flycatcher was singing, and we found it flitting around in a tree a little further on down the path. There were also several Blackcaps singing in the trees, and a Nuthatch appeared to be feeding young, coming in repeatedly with food. A Red Squirrel scuttled up a trunk and a Kingfisher shot past through the trees.

As we walked back, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew in over the path calling. It landed in a tree and chased off a Starling which seemed to be prospecting a hole. We tried another path through the wood, closer to the road, where a Golden Oriole was fluting. It was a bit more open here and there were several butterflies in the dappled shade, including a Southern Festoon and a couple of Dingy Skippers. Lots of Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies were down by the river.

Southern Festoon

Southern Festoon – in the dapped shade on the edge of the wood

We had a very brief look for Masked Shrike in the quarry across the road, but there was no sign of any – perhaps they were late coming back this year? But we had run out of time, and had to get back down to the lake. Our boat trip had been organised for the afternoon, but with the forecast suggesting the wind might pick up it had been brought forward to 11am. We arrived back at the lake just in time.

As we motored out across the lake, there were lots of Great Crested Grebes on the water, and then out in the middle we found several much smaller Black-necked Grebes too. Close up, we could see their black necks and golden yellow face tufts. A flock of around twenty Collared Pratincoles flew over high.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – in full breeding plumage out on the lake

More birds were gathered around the mouth of the Strimon river, where it flows into the lake. A large flock of Greater Flamingoes put their heads up and started calling as we passed. We got some much better views of both Dalmatian and White Pelicans, with several of the latter still really pink (rather than white!).

White Pelican

White Pelican – still looking rather more pink than white!

There was a nice selection of lingering winter wildfowl out here, with a few Wigeon, Gadwall and Shoveler all additions to the trip list. A tight flock of about 20 Garganey flew round and four Ferruginous Ducks were swimming in the vegetation with a few Common Pochard. Several Common Shelduck were in amongst the legs of the Flamingoes, and the Ruddy Shelduck was out here too today.

Round at the flooded forest, the low water level this year was very noticeable, with lots of the trees on dry land. Thankfully we could still get through the edge of it in the boat and it was an amazing experience! The sight, the sound and the smell. Every tree was packed full of Great Cormorants on their nests, many with well grown young.

Cormorant

Cormorant – amazing intricate plumage detail up close

In amongst them were lots of herons. We had great close up views of Black-crowned Night Herons and Squacco Herons. A few Spoonbills were on their nests close to where we were, some with young already, and we could see many more further back in the trees or flying round overhead. There were just a few Pygmy Cormorants on the outer edge of the colony.

Nigth Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – we saw several in the trees

Spoonbill

Eurasian Spoonbill – on the nest

Pygmy Cormorant 2

Pygmy Cormorant – one of the few we got close to from the boat

We went over to look at the pelican nesting islands. The older wooden platforms were packed with Dalmatian Pelicans, including several well-grown juveniles. The stone islands were more sparsely populated, with a mixture of Dalmatian and White Pelicans on the tops.

Dalmatian Pelicans

Dalmatian Pelicans – on the old nesting platform

As we turned to head back, a lone Tufted Duck came up from the water. We hadn’t seen any marsh terns yet today, but as we motored back across the lake, we picked up a flock of around 20 way off in the distance. We headed over and could see them more clearly, before they helpfully came round for a really close pass, a mixture of 11 stunning breeding adult White-winged Black Terns and a smaller number of darker Black Terns, about 8. A great way to finish off the boat trip, which is always one of the highlights of any visit to Kerkini.

White-winged Black Tern 1

White-winged Black Terns – we came across a mixed flock on our way back

Back at the shore, it was time for lunch. We stopped just off the bank by a small poplar wood, where Golden Oriole and Green Woodpecker were calling in the trees. Several Spotted Flycatchers were flitting around in the bushes by the road and we could hear another Penduline Tit in the willows further back.

After lunch, we drove over to try the marshes by the River Strimon. A Little Ringed Plover flew up from the edge of the track as we passed and a Common Sandpiper was feeding down along the river shore. There were loads of Yellow-legged Gulls loafing on the gravel islands in the middle of the river, with one or two Caspian Gulls in with them. But as we got out to look at our first tortoise, a Spur-thighed Tortoise grazing on the grassy bank by the track, all the gulls flew up and whirled round. We had planned to walk out to marshes, but had a feeling they might be dry this year given the water levels. We met another group leaving who said they were indeed dry, so we decided to try something else instead.

Spur-thighed Tortoise

Spur-thighed Tortoise – our first tortoise of the trip

We would normally visit Vironia Quarry in the morning, before the boat trip, so we were not sure whether there would be much activity this afternoon, in the heat of the day. We walked down the hill to look at the scrub around the water troughs first, where it was pretty quiet apart from all the Nightingales and Peacocks calling at a nearby farmhouse. A Cirl Bunting was singing in the distance.

Thankfully, the quarry was more productive. As walked through the scrub up towards it, a male Cirl Bunting was feeding in the short grass beside the path. Coming out into the open, several Red-rumped Swallows and a pair of Crag Martins were hawking around the cliff face. We could hear Blue Rock Thrush singing, and found a male and female up on the rocks. When the male flew down into the top of a bush on one side, we noticed a small bird nearby – an Ortolan Bunting. We managed a good look at it through the scope before it flew out of view. Another pair of Cirl Buntings were up here too.

A Subalpine Warbler (of one of the eastern races, albistrata) started singing in the bushes behind us, so we followed it a short way as it moved back along the path. We could see it flitting around in the vegetation but it was keeping well hidden, before it flew across the path and disappeared deeper in. A big family party of Long-tailed Tits made their way through the bushes too.

Back in the quarry, a male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was displaying up on the rock face, flying round and round in small circles, flashing it wings and white tail. It landed on a bush and we could see it was the black-eared form, with a white throat and black bandit masks. Then it flew back across the face to the other side and we could see why it was busy displaying – a female was in the bushes here too.

A Levant Sparrowhawk flashed in across the rock face, sending all the hirundines up and the causing the other birds to all start alarm calling. It disappeared into the bushes up on the rocks, before emerging again a few seconds later, flying up and over the top of the quarry. We walked on to the far side where another Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was singing, this time a black-throated male. Another pair of Cirl Buntings was feeding quietly on the edge.

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – flashed across the face of the quarry

Then it was time to go back to the hotel. We had arranged an early dinner tonight, and afterwards we headed out again. The Scops Owls were already singing intermittently by the car park but shut up before we could pin down where they were roosting. The rain clouds had been gathering over the hills and it started to spit with rain here, but thankfully it looked to still be clear down by the lake, so we headed straight over there.

We drove through a couple of villages on the way, scanning the roofs as we passed, and eventually found our first target – a Little Owl perched on the corner of low building. We stopped to watch it staring down into the grass below, occasionally looking at us with its piercing yellow eyes.

Little Owl

Little Owl – perched on a roof in one of the village

The sun was just setting, so we continued on round the lake shore. A couple of Great Reed Warblers were singing in the reeds but keeping well down again today, as loads of Spanish Sparrows flew in, presumably to roost. A Common Buzzard landed down on the shore, the other side of the road. With the clouds hanging over the hills, it seemed to be getting dark quickly tonight, so we drove back to an old quarry.

We were just in time – we hadn’t been out of the minibus for more than a minute or two when the Eagle Owl flew up from its roost site and landed on the base of a tree up on the cliff. It was still good enough light, so we could get fantastic views of it through the scopes.

Eagle Owl

Eagle Owl – came out early tonight, before it got too dark

We stayed and watched the Eagle Owl until the light faded. It was a fantastic way to end another action-packed day.

WEDNESDAY 1ST MAY

It was a noticeably cooler start to the morning and with the change in the weather last night, we thought there might be migrants in. We decided to have a look at the water trough first and spotted a male Red-backed Shrike in the bushes before we got out of the minibus. Setting up the scopes and scanning round, we found two others nearby, presumably all freshly arrived. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing, which was not here a couple of days ago. A Whinchat was out in the field beyond.

Two male Black-headed Buntings were chasing each other round and round through the bushes, presumably trying to decide who was getting the territory. They eventually settled in a bush next to the road, so we could get a good look at them – smart birds, canary yellow underneath, with a black head.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – fresh in this morning

An Eastern Orphean Warbler started singing behind us, and flew over in to the same bush. We had a good view of it perched with one of the male Black-headed Buntings. One of the Red-backed Shrikes flew in too, and started flying down to catch insects on the road, and another Eastern Olivaceous Warbler started up, all in the same bush. There were obviously lots of birds freshly arrived here.

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Eastern Orphean Warbler – singing in the bushes this morning

We were heading up to the hills today, so we drove over to Sidirokastro and made our way up to the byzantine castle ruins first. As we stopped to admire the view over town and the lake in the distance beyond, a male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was songflighting in front of us. Two Cirl Buntings flew past calling. We walked round to the other side and started scanning the crags. A pair of Blue Rock Thrush appeared distantly, and we counted at least four more Eastern Black-eared Wheatears within a few metres of each other.

Western Rock Nuthatch was our main target here and we were in luck, as one then appeared on a rock face further back. Unfortunately it flew up before we could all get onto it and disappeared. We walked over to the top of the crag opposite but there was no further sign of it. Two Linnets were flitting around on the top and a Cirl Bunting landed in the bushes right in front of us briefly. We could see yet more Blue Rock Thrushes and wheatears from here too.

As we started to walk back along the side of the castle, we scanned behind us over to where the nuthatch had been, and suddenly one appeared on some low rocks in between the crags. We got the scopes on it and realised there was a second Western Rock Nuthatch with it. We could see they were collecting something, and then they flew up into rocks out of view. One dropped down onto a branch jutting out of the crag, where it remained perched for some time, so we could get a good view in the scopes. Then one flew over and started feeding on the cliff just below the castle, where we watched it going into the cracks in the rock. It seemed to collect some food and then flew back across, made its way up the rock face and then disappeared into the same crag.

Western Rock Nuthatch

Western Rock Nuthatch – we watched them collecting food on the crags

From back at the minibus, we could see more distantly where they were going in. Over coffee, we watched the small dead branch they were using as a perch, which held alternately Western Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear! A Serin flew in calling and landed briefly nearby, but flew straight out again. Four Ravens flew over calling.

After coffee, we drove up the valley beyond the village to an old quarry. Several Red-rumped Swallows and a pair of Crag Martins were hawking round the rocks. A Subalpine Warbler started singing in the top of a tree in the valley below us.

Red-rumped Swallow 2

Red-rumped Swallow – hawking around the quarry

A Cirl Bunting was singing high on the edge of the quarry and while we were watching it, we noticed an Ortolan Bunting also singing from the top of a rock, much higher up still. Making our way into the quarry, we found more Blue Rock Thrushes and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears.

One of group noticed some movement in the rocks at the base of the rock face, and a bird flew up and landed on a rock. It was a male Rock Thrush (Common or Rufous-tailed, not Blue!). A nice surprise here, as they are normally found much higher up in the mountains. We had a good view of it through the scopes – blue above, orange below, with a white back. When it eventually flew up the quarry face towards the top, a female Rock Thrush appeared too. They perched briefly before disappeared over the top.

Rock Thrush

Rock Thrush – we found a pair in the quarry

Next, we drove over to Serres and, after negotiating our way through town, up onto Mount Vrontou. A couple of Woodlarks were perched on the rocks by the road as we made our way up, along with a Black Redstart. A pair of Mistle Thrushes perched on some wires and Chiffchaffs were singing in the trees. We headed straight up to the ski centre at the top for lunch.

There was still some snow on the ground by the road and the beech trees were still not in leaf, everything seemed to be a little behind this year. Several Coal Tits were singing in pines, a Tree Pipit was singing from the trees beside the ski slope and a smart male Black Redstart was dropping down to feed on the short grass from the ski lift cables. It was slightly surprising to hear Cuckoos all the way up here – a male calling and a female bubbling.

After lunch, we had a quick walk round the road at the top, but there was a distinct chill in the air and the bare beech trees were rather quiet. We decided to drop down to the ski hotel a bit lower down in the pines. It is closed for the season now, but we found lots of Common Crossbills in the pines around the car park and had good views of several feeding on cones through the scopes.

Crossbill

Common Crossbill – feeding in the pines by the ski hotel

Down a bit lower, we stopped again and had a short walk along a path through the trees. We heard more Coal Tits singing, a Chiffchaff flew across the path and a Goldcrest singing in the pines slowly made its way out and showed itself briefly before disappearing back into the trees. Otherwise, it was rather quiet here, being rather cool with a fresh breeze blowing up the hillside. There was a great view of the mountain slopes from the end of the path and we found a Short-toed Eagle and a Raven over the crags.

We made our way back down the mountain and headed over to Paleokastro, stopping by another disused quarry. We were hoping to find a Roller here but there was no sign – possibly they were not back yet. A couple more Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing – there were definitely more in today – and a female Red-backed Shrike perched in the top of a small bush across the field. Looking further down the track, a tree on the verge had eight Black-headed Buntings in it! We walked along the track for a closer look, and the buntings dropped down into a neighbouring fallow field covered in sparse grass and wild flowers.

We climbed up onto verge and scanned the surrounding countryside. Four Turtle Doves flew past, and a couple of Common Buzzards circled up. A small party of Bee-eaters flew over calling. Then a Tawny Pipit flew up out of the grass and dropped down into the edge of the bare field next door, out of view. We walked down through the grass, and more Tawny Pipits flew up – a group of eleven, followed by another four, and there was still at least one in the grass. More migrants on their way through.

Tawny Pipit

Tawny Pipit – one of at least 16 in the grassy field

Three Black-headed Wagtails were feeding on the edge of a rough ploughed field the other side, then they flew in too and disappeared into the grass. As we walked back up to the track, we found the Black-headed Buntings again, all males, presumably just arrived and feeding up.

Then we had to leave. It had been a long day and we still had quite a way to go to get back to the hotel in time for dinner.

THURSDAY 2ND MAY

Today we were heading down to the coast for the day. On the drive there, we saw lots of Corn Buntings singing from the wires all the way down, but just one Black-headed Bunting. Perhaps they were still to move onto their territories, but the gusty breeze this morning didn’t help. A female Montagu’s Harrier drifted across the road in front of the minibus and across a field full of poppies.

As we left Kalahori village, we stopped to scan the saltmarsh. There were lots of Shelduck and our first Oystercatchers here, and it didn’t take too long to find a pair of Stone Curlews. We had a good view of them through the scopes.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – we found a pair out on the saltmarsh

On the corner of the first lagoon, beside the track, we had a taste of what was to come. A small group of Ruff were feeding in the shallows and a flock of smaller waders flew in to join them, five Dunlin and several Curlew Sandpipers resplendent to various extents in rusty summer plumage. On the other side of the track, out on the edge of the bay, a couple of Little Terns were hovering out over the sea and a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull was picking around on the shore with a single Black-headed Gull and one Yellow-legged Gull.

As we parked by the causeway and got out of the minibus, it was rather windy. Undaunted, we set out along the path between the lagoons. There were more Little Terns on a small island, and another Curlew Sandpiper. A little further on, we spotted our first Little Stint, along with several of both Kentish Plovers and Ringed Plovers.

Kentish Plover

Kentish Plover – on the shore of the lagoon

We could see lots of waders right over along the far edge of the lagoons on both side, so we made our way over. There were some impressive numbers of birds here, with over 1,000 Curlew Sandpipers and at least 200 Little Stints, in a variety of plumages but with some very smart rusty ones of both species. A smaller number of Dunlin were mixed in with them. There were lots of Ruff over in the corner, two Black-tailed Godwits out in the middle and a flock of Spotted Redshanks further round in the distance on the edge of the reeds. Just two Greater Flamingoes, a young male and a young female, were out in the deeper water in the middle of the lagoon.

Curlew Sandpiper

Curlew Sandpipers – there were over 1,000 on the lagoons today

There were lots of birds hawking out over the water in the wind. We counted eighteen smart adult White-winged Black Terns and a single Black Tern with them. The first two Slender-billed Gulls flew in and landed briefly before flying off again, but more arrived steadily until there were eighteen swimming out on the water. There were loads of hirundines too and at one point, a tight flock of around 200 Sand Martins flew past.

White-winged Black Tern 2

White-winged Black Tern – 1 of 18 hawking over the lagoon

Several Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air over the reeds at the back. Scanning out over the saltmarsh, we spotted two Ospreys hunting way off in the distance. It was hard to make out any detail, although their flight action was distinctive enough, but thankfully one then came in closer so we could all see what it was. As we turned to walk back, a Peregrine then flew in from the sea and circled over the lagoon. Two Gull-billed Terns flew over calling.

We drove further on down the track and stopped for coffee. From here, we had a much better view of the Spotted Redshanks, mostly in black breeding plumage. There were about thirty roosting in one flock and more feeding along the edge of the reeds. Two Greenshanks were with them.

After coffee, we made our way down along the track which skirts the edge of the Axios delta. A couple of Common Redshank on the saltmarsh on the edge of the bay were an addition to the wader list. As we passed, we scanned the pools below the track on the landward side. A large flock of Greater Flamingoes took off from one pool as we drove up, disturbed by a plane circling just beyond, and we were treated to an amazing flash of pink wings as they flew past us. They circled round over the bay, and half of them came back in and landed again back on the pool. A few Pygmy Cormorants were perched on the fishing net poles out in the bay as we passed and several Common Terns were plunge diving along the edge of the sea.

Greater Flamingoes 2

Greater Flamingoes – flashing bright pink as they flew

The pools held a variety of waders – nesting Avocets and Black-winged Stilts, occasional little groups of Wood Sandpipers and Ruff, a few Curlew Sandpipers and a couple of Little Stints. Collared Pratincoles were hawking either side of the track in the wind all the way down, and we finally got one on the ground in the scopes, standing on the mud by one of the pools. Four more Gull-billed Terns were loafing on another. Reed Warblers were singing from ditches, and lots of Black-headed Wagtails and Crested Larks flushed from the edge of the track as we passed.

There were several Common Sandpipers along the edge of the bay as we made our way along. One of the group spotted two larger, paler waders roosting out on the edge of the saltmarsh – Marsh Sandpipers. We had a look at them from the minibus, but unfortunately they took off as we tried to get out. We could see them flying round like small Greenshanks before they dropped down again further back, out of view.

We stopped for lunch a little further on. The sandbars which often hold roosting birds were mostly under water but there were still a few waders here, several Grey Plovers and a couple of Eurasian Curlews. There were more waders scattered round the edge of the saltmarsh, including one very smart Grey Plover in breeding plumage. Lots of Eastern Bath White butterflies were fluttering around the flowers in the lee of the bank.

When we got to the mouth of the Axios river we had a quick stop at the viewing tower before turning inland. Two Spur-winged Lapwings were on one of the pools below the track, so we stopped to watch them, smart birds. A little further on, another two were out on the saltmarsh the other side. There were several Pygmy Cormorants loafing around the edges of the pools, which finally allowed us a closer look at this often very flighty species, and two Spoonbills were feeding in the shallow water, sweeping their bills from side to side. Several Marsh Harriers hunted over the reeds. We stopped to look at a little group of Turtle Doves feeding out on the saltmarsh and a pair of Hoopoes flew off as we drove on.

Pygmy Cormorant 3

Pygmy Cormorant – on the pools by the track through the Axios Delta

Back on the main road, we drove up to Polykastro. Two Red-footed Falcons swooped in over the field, but no one got onto them as we passed and there was nowhere to pull in. We stopped at a nearby reservoir. Another Turtle Dove was on a mound in the edge of the field as we drove in and four Whinchats were perched in the vegetation alongside the track.

The wind had dropped now, and we got out for a walk, up onto the bank. As we got over the top and looked out across the reservoir, we could see over 100 terns hawking out over the water. There were lots of Common Terns, mixed in with a smaller number of White-winged Black Terns and Black Terns dip feeding. More surprising, there were several Little Terns with them, despite it being long way inland. We could see both Little and Great Crested Grebes on the water, and several Ferruginous Ducks scattered along far shore. A single Common Pochard and a pair of Gadwall were swimming by the island in the middle.

A hepatic female Cuckoo flew past, and a grey male perched up singing in a nearby tree. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing in the bushes just below the bank.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – singing in the bushes below the bank

Then as we scanned over the fields, we got distracted by some raptors. First we found a Long-legged Buzzard hovering, but it dropped down behind some trees. We could see some kestrels hovering in the distance, and when we looked more closely we realised there were at least ten of them in a big group, Lesser Kestrels. They were rather pale below when they banked and one male showed the distinctive grey panel between its dark primaries and rusty wing coverts. There were also a few Red-footed Falcons with them. We got on a couple of females first, grey above and rusty below. Then we found a smart male, dark slate grey with silvery primaries, and we could just see its red trousers as it turned.

We picked up the Long-legged Buzzard again, perched in a tree, and when it finally took off and flew round, we got a better look at its paler head and dark belly, and its pale rusty tail with a white base. It was mobbed at one point by a Common Buzzard, giving us a good side by side comparison, the Long-legged Buzzard being noticeably bigger and rustier.

It was already getting late, and we still had a long drive back, so we had to tear ourselves away. There was still one surprise on the way. As we were driving along, one of the group noticed a woodpecker on some wires. After a quick turn round, the Syrian Woodpecker flew to a telegraph post, and we had a nice view of it as it perched out in the open. Then it flew to a garden behind, and we realised there were two, chasing each other round through the trees.

Syrian Woodpecker

Syrian Woodpecker – flew from the wires to a telegraph post

We finally got back to hotel just in time for a quick drink before another delicious dinner – very welcome after a long but very rewarding day.

FRIDAY 3RD MAY

Sombre Tit was one species which had eluded us so far – they are not very vocal at this time of year – so we headed out for an early walk before breakfast to look for one we knew was not far away. As we parked and walked up the track, it was still rather cool and the sun was still not on the hillside. It was worth the early start just for the great view of the lake from here though. A Cirl Bunting flew up from the verge and we could hear one or two Subalpine Warblers singing. Further up, we had a nice view of a male Subalpine Warbler feeding in the bushes by the track. A smart male Red-backed Shrike perched in the top of a tree.

As the sun finally came onto the hillside, we walked slowly back down and could hear a Sombre Tit calling in the bushes. We followed the sound and could see it working its way up through the undergrowth towards the track. It perched up in full view for a second but we were looking into the light and not everyone could get onto it. We got ourselves positioned to see it come out again and just at that moment a small 4×4 came up the track – we hadn’t seen any other vehicle here, and it was the worst possible moment. We had to stand to one side and after it had passed, the Sombre Tit had disappeared, presumably flushed back down the hillside by the vehicle. We stopped and listened but couldn’t hear it now. Unfortunately we were out of time too, and had to get back to the hotel for breakfast.

After breakfast, we drove down to the water trough again. Two male Black-headed Buntings were singing from the bushes and there were several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers in now. Two male and a female Red-backed Shrike were scattered around, and a male Woodchat Shrike was singing from the tops of the trees. A Montagu’s Harrier flew in over the fields, a female, and disappeared up towards the hills, presumably a migrant on its way north. A Levant Sparrowhawk circled up distantly over the hillside.

As we drove on, we could see lots of birds in a small orchard by the road which just been mown. Three male Black-headed Buntings and four Crested Larks were feeding on the cut grass between the trees and a small group of Black-headed Wagtails were perched on the fence at the back.

Cutting across towards the western shore of the lake, a tractor was mowing the verge, followed by a White Stork which almost wouldn’t get out of the road as we passed, giving us point blank views from the minibus. Small groups of pelicans were flying round, starting to look for the first thermals of the morning. Along the edge of the lake, we could see the usual selection of Little Egrets, herons and a few Dalmatian Pelicans. We stopped briefly at Korifoudi. The Great Reed Warblers were still singing from the reeds, but this time perching up nicely in lighter winds. A Woodchat Shrike was still in its usual bush and a Roe Deer buck ran across the fields at the back.

Continuing on down to Himarros, we drove in along the dusty track. A pair of Turtle Doves in the bushes flew off as we pulled up and several Little Egrets were standing around the pools. A Spur-thighed Tortoise was slowly crossing the track in front of us, so we stopped to look at it. Continuing on to the old quarry, there were Bee-eaters flying round calling as we got out of the minibus. Three Woodchat Shrikes perched on the fence – nice to see, but not the one we really wanted here. A pair of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears was also on the fence, the male a rather dark black-throated individual. Another male wheatear was perched in the trees just across the track, this one a rather pale black-eared form, demonstrating just how very variable they can be.

It was warming up now, and raptors were starting to spiral up over the hills beyond. First a Lesser Spotted Eagle circled over, followed by a Short-toed Eagle and several Common Buzzards. A Black Stork drifted high along the ridge and a few Dalmatian Pelicans flew over us too.

We had a good look around the quarry area and finally the Masked Shrikes showed themselves. There were two males, and at first we watched them chasing each other through the trees. One male kept coming back to top of the same tree to sing, where we had some lovely views of it perched up in the sunshine. At one point it dropped down into the river beyond to drink and bathe.

Masked Shrike

Masked Shrike – kept returning to the top of the same tree to sing

It was time for a celebratory coffee. Afterwards, we went back for more views of the Masked Shrikes. A Golden Oriole was singing in the trees across the river but typically kept itself well hidden. We were just packing up as two Woodlarks flew in, and started feeding in the short grass in the clearing.

We drove back north from here, to the edge of the Mavrovouni Hills, with a quick stop en route to admire a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in the bushes by the road. Parking at the bottom of a rough track, we walked up hillside. There were lots of butterflies on the wing here – including Scarce Swallowtails, Knapweed and Queen of Spain Fritillaries, and Mallow Skipper. Two Hermann’s Tortoises were on the verges and several Egyptian Grasshoppers flew up ahead of us. We stopped to watch some dung beetles rolling up balls of dung and trying to push and pull them in pairs across the track.

Dung Beetles

Dung beetles – pushing balls of dung across the track

There were a few raptors up now. A Levant Sparrowhawk flew out of the trees ahead of us, with a flash of its blue-grey upperparts and black wing tips, then gave us a nice view as it circled out over the valley. A Lesser Spotted Eagle came low over the ridge beside us, before circling up and displaying. A Black Kite drifted high over the hills.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Lesser Spotted Eagle – came low over the ridge beside us

A Woodchat Shrike was down on the brambles in the bottom of the valley and a Subalpine Warbler and several Nightingales were singing in the bushes, but there were few other passerines active in the midday heat. We walked back down to the minibus, and drove round to one of the lakeside shelters for lunch in the shade.

After lunch, we drive round to the eastern shore and back up onto the embankment. As we made our way north, we stopped again where we had seen the Penduline Tits on Monday. They had made quite a bit of progress on the nest and it was almost finished, with the entrance tunnel now built. We watched the pair coming and going, putting the finishing touches to it, and the male perched at the entrance calling, as if to seek approval that the work was done.

Carrying on along the bank, there were loads of Wood Sandpipers and Squacco Herons down along the shore of the lake on one side. On the other side, many more Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing now in the bushes, having arrived in the last few days, since we were last here. There were several Red-backed Shrikes along here too now. We had great views of Bee-eaters, perched on branches below us along the bank, and finally got better views of Golden Orioles in the poplar trees.

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike – back in good numbers on our last day

We stopped at the northern edge of the water. The lake was filling up steadily now with meltwater from the mountains beyond. The Ruddy Shelduck was still here, with 35 Greylag Geese. A huge number of Spoonbills were busy feeding in the shallows – we counted at least 80. A Cattle Egret appeared briefly with the herd of buffaloes. But the highlight was watching a huge raft of several hundred White Pelicans feeding, swimming and repeatedly plunging their heads underwater, occasionally gathering in tighter groups, or flying to catch up with each other. A small group of about ten Dalmatian Pelicans were feeding nearby, but not joining in with the melee.

A little further on along the bank, we spotted a female Northern Wheatear on the rocks on the edge of the lake, a migrant on its way north and a welcome late addition to the list. We stopped again at the pool at the north end of the embankment, where several Little Bitterns were lurking on the edge of the reeds, including a couple of smart males today too. There were one or two Little Crakes still, and the Coypu.

As we drove past Megalochori, a Little Owl was perched on the churchyard wall. Crossing over the Strimon river, we stopped and walked down one of the tracks into the trees. There was no sign of any woodpeckers on the first one we tried, but crossing over to the other side, we didn’t have to go far before a Grey-headed Woodpecker flew in. It landed in a tree above the path, great to finally see one having just heard them earlier in the week. A couple of Golden Orioles flew out of the trees too.

We had just enough time for a quick stop at Mandraki at the end of the day. The water was much higher here now, and there were fewer birds compared to earlier in the week. Four Glossy Ibis flew over but landed out of view behind the reeds. There were still lots of herons and Pygmy Cormorants around in the trees, and it was nice to have one last look at the lake. Then it was back to the hotel for a shower, drinks and dinner, another delicious salad followed by Turkish meatballs.

SATURDAY 4TH MAY

After our last breakfast, once again a great spread of Greek pastries, yoghurt with honey, boiled eggs and fresh bread, we set off back to the airport. The drive down was fairly uneventful, with lots of Corn Buntings on the wires by the road and a single Red-backed Shrike. The Jackdaws around the terminal building which had welcome us were there to bid us farewell. The flight got away on time and we arrived back to a cloudy and cool Gatwick Airport.

It had been another great week – with lots of good birds, fantastic food and great scenery. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Northern Greece and Lake Kerkini in 2020, please get in touch.

 

29th Apr-5th May 2018 – Northern Greece: Lake Kerkini in Spring

A 7 day International Tour together with our friends from Oriole Birding, we headed off to Northern Greece to visit Lake Kerkini and explore the surrounding area. It was lovely sunny weather, blue skies and light winds, although starting to get a little hot in the middle of the day towards the end of our visit.

SUNDAY 29TH APRIL

It was a very early start at London Gatwick this morning, for the 0555 departure to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece. After a slightly delayed start due to the airline boarding some people onto the plane who were meant to be going to Corfu [!] we eventually set off and enjoyed a swift three hour run down, landing only about fifteen minutes behind schedule. The transit through the airport was typically painless, given its small size, and soon we had collected our hire vans and were making our way north towards the south end of Kerkini Lake where we would meet Stergios our hotel proprietor for an al fresco picnic lunch.

While we ate our way through the spread, we were able to scope our first Dalmatian Pelicans, and watch Common Terns, a flock of Mediterranean Gulls and a flyby Night Heron. A second calendar year Caspian Gull was also noted, a nice ‘snouty’ white-headed example, and we could hear our first Golden Orioles and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers signing thereabouts.

From here, we made our way slowly up the western shore of the lake to Korofoudi, and made our first proper birding spot on the flat coastal plain where normally there is a fair bit of exposed mud on the shallow shelving shoreline. However, the heavy late winter snow had clearly now made its way down from the Belles Mountains, and the water levels were actually very high. Nevertheless, a flock of 26 Wood Sandpipers came up from the shore as we parked, and proceeded to pick their way through the flooded grass at the lake edge – fantastic!

Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper – one of at least 26 by the lake this afternoon

A tiny patch of reeds held no less than three Great Reed Warblers, croaking away from the very tops of the reed heads in full view. We also enjoyed the many Spanish Sparrows here, with the dapper males collecting the heads of the phragmites and carrying them to a nearby White Stork nest. The storks themselves were down in the roadside meadow foraging, and here we also found a fine male Red-backed Shrike, Corn Bunting and two flyby European Bee-eaters.

Great Reed Warbler

Great Reed Warbler – one of three singing in a tiny patch of reeds

This whole area was just hooching with great birds and it was difficult to know where to look first! Our first Pygmy Cormorant of the trip showed really well, and a cracking adult Eurasian Spoonbill flew in and began feeding right next to the road in a small pool.

Perhaps the best birds seen in this area though, despite them being rather distant, were a pair of Levant Sparrowhawks displaying above the wooded ridge behind us. The incredible mechanical, super-slow wingbeats of the male were quite unlike any other accipiter display, even if the more familiar switch-back routine followed it. We could just about make out the dark wingtips too, but the distinctive shape with a narrow, pointed ‘hand’ were clear to see. Heading north, we had a few more good roadside birds, in particular our first Black-headed Bunting of the trip perched on some roadside wires, but also Woodchat Shrike, Red-rumped Swallow and Black Kite, before reaching our hotel in the foothills just north of the lake.

After a quick check in, we were keen to head straight back into the field to make the most of the fantastic light and warm evening temperatures, and so we made straight for the small harbour at Mandraki. This site really comes into its own late in the day, and we enjoyed another veritable feast of wetland birds here. Squacco Herons stood among the lily pads, part of a list of seven heron species that included many Great White Egrets, single Cattle Egret, a few Night Herons and three smart Purple Herons. The light was so great, and the birds were mainly fairly close – the Squacco Herons especially looked stunning as they flew past us, perfectly reflected in the still water.

We could see the artificial pelican nesting islands in the distance and as well as the many Dalmatian Pelicans, we could easily pick out the salmon pink White Pelicans too! Over the water, among the many Common Terns, two Whiskered Terns were dip feeding and we were greeted with the quite remarkable sight of at least two hundred Great Crested Grebes nesting colonially in the shallows to the west of the harbour – unreal!

Other species noted here included a scoped Common Cuckoo, two Red-rumped Swallows, and a young Goshawk which drifted through mobbed by Hooded Crows. Two drake Garganey and a Black-winged Stilt were also seen distantly out towards the drowned forest, an area we would explore more thoroughly in the coming days from a specially arranged boat trip. Only day one, and already we were getting the feel for why Kerkini is such an awesome birding destination.

MONDAY 30TH APRIL

Our first full day was spent largely around the north-east side of the lake, birding around Vironia and Megalachori and enjoying the feast of waterbirds on offer. But before breakfast, we took a short drive up the hill behind the village to check out a Semi-collared Flycatcher which had been found by Paul and the previous group out here last week.

The bird was still singing in exactly the same spot, and presumably this was in fact a potential breeding location, as the mature plane trees along a stream looked ideal habitat for sure. We soon found the Semi-collared Flycatcher, a fine male [though perhaps a first summer due to its slightly brown flight feathers and restricted white in primary bases], and over the next half hour we played cat and mouse with it in the canopy above. The bird was singing and calling virtually non-stop, but was very mobile and didn’t remain on the same perch for long. Eventually though, everyone had a great view through the scope. Just as we were about to head back for breakfast, we realised there were in fact two males present! A great result and perhaps one for future trips too.

Semi-collared Flycatcher 1

Semi-collared Flycatcher – one of two males we saw here this morning

After breakfast, we set off down the hill towards the main road, stopping at one of our favourite spots for migrants by a water trough just outside the village. This proved to be a brilliant area this morning, with a great variety of migrants and summer breeders noted. Golden Orioles were calling from the Plane trees all around, and eventually we had great scope views of a male. There were Corn Buntings jangling, Turtle Doves purring, and Red-rumped Swallows perched on the wires above.

In the meadows around the drinking trough we found Woodchat Shrike, Common Nightingale, Common Whitethroat and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler [seen well!] and overhead we had a fairly distant Goshawk being seen off by a Hooded Crow. Our second Black-headed Bunting of the trip, another singing male, was perched up on a roadside bush and a couple of European Bee-eaters flew north – we had seen a flock of twenty or so going high north towards the mountains earlier on. Perhaps the best bird here was a cracking Eastern Orphean Warbler which was singing quietly and seemed to be nest building in the bushes in the meadow – it never quite sat fully out in the open, but we managed to piece together some decent views of it.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – perched up on a roadside bush

Just as we were about to get back into the vehicles, a Tree Pipit dropped in and began walking around in a muddy puddle next to the trough, and a male Cirl Bunting popped up in a roadside bush – just brilliant. As we drove away, a stunning male Red-backed Shrike landed on the fence by the side of the vehicles with a large beetle, so close we could almost reach out and touch it. We hadn’t even got to our first proper birding spot for the morning yet!

Red-backed Shrike 1

Red-backed Shrike – just finishing off its beetle

Vironia tracks was next on the agenda, and we enjoyed walking slowly along beneath the cool shade of the trees. There were lots of insects on the wing, and we had great views of Green-eyed Hawker and Scarce Chaser dragonflies, and as things warmed up a little more, we had a great selection of butterflies including Eastern Festoon, Green Hairstreak and Grizzled Skipper.

Eastern Festoon

Eastern Festoon – one of many butterflies at Vironia

Not to be outdone, the birds performed too, with particularly excellent views of Levant Sparrowhawks, which seemed to be setting up territory close by. After several close but obscured glimpses of them among the trees, we had the male perched in the open feeding on prey, and later had him flying above the fields – very distinctive looking birds.

Other notable sightings here included Syrian Woodpecker, and a fleeting Grey-headed Woodpecker which refused to perch for us. More obliging was a fine Lesser Spotted Eagle sitting on a dead tree, and our first Black Stork drifting in low over the bushes. Common Nightingales were belting out their song all along this stretch, and we even saw one or two of them! Back at the vehicles, Common Cuckoo and Red-backed Shrike were seen – not a bad morning so far.

Coffee and lunch became combined into one stop today, at the gazebo by the River Strimon bridge. This was an excellent location for getting views of the many European Bee-eaters present, with the birds landing on the ground all around us, and sitting on the trees and wires. A Hoopoe tried its best to out-do them, calling in beautiful light from an exposed perch. Sand Martins were also buzzing all around us, and we had some nice fly-bys from Dalmatian Pelican and Pygmy Cormorant.

The afternoon would be spent winding our way slowly along the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini, birding as we went, and so we started at the pool just beyond Megalachori where we soon found our first Little Bitterns of the trip – a male and female skulking deep in the edge of the reeds. We scanned hard for crakes, but found two families of Coypu instead! As the day began to really warm up, so the raptor activity increased as well – at least three Lesser Spotted Eagles displaying above the mountain ridge, and a group of three Levant Sparrowhawks migrating high and distant.

Back down at ground level, an absolutely superb male Golden Oriole perched in the open for us, signing from the open canopy of a poplar, before chasing the female off down the wooded gulley next to the embankment. We went on to get several more views of them during the afternoon, and of course we could hear them [and the Nightingales!] as an almost constant soundtrack.

Golden Oriole

Golden Oriole – this superb male perched up nicely in the poplars

Moving further south along the bank, we had perhaps our best birding of the day looking out across the north-east corner of the lake – the light was superb, the weather beautiful and the place was stuffed with great birds! We passed a flock of Spoonbills busy feeding in a shallow pool, accompanied by several Little Egrets which lurked around the edge of the group, presumably watching for any escaping prey.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – a feeding flock accompanied by several Little Egrets

Dalmatian Pelicans were resting on the small exposed islands, where groups of Ruff, Wood Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt and Little Stints were feeding. We found a lovely pair of Gull-billed Terns, a party of Glossy Ibis, and the shallow water was littered with herons, grebes and cormorants. On one exposed patch of flotsam, were two Night Herons, a Squacco Heron and Purple Heron together! In fact there were scores of Squacco Herons here, and everytime we scanned across the marsh we would pick out something else of interest.

Shoveler, Gadwall, Wigeon, a flock of thirty Whiskered Terns, a feeding frenzy of White Pelicans and two perched adult White-tailed Eagles! The very interesting eastern race of Greylag Goose [rubirostris] was not championed by everyone, however!

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – we had stunning views along the eastern embankment

Tearing ourselves away from this amazing spot, we drove very slowly south along the bank birding as we went. The views of Bee-eaters along here were just amazing, and some of the group saw a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Spotted Flycatcher briefly. More obliging, and a perfect way to end the day, was a nest building pair of Penduline Tits which entertained us for quite some time. We had heard dozens of them during the day, but they had all remained frustratingly elusive until now – fantastic views of the pair hard at work!

From here we wound our way back through the villages off the east embankment, picking up lovely roadside views of Black-headed Wagtail, and a White Storks nest busting with three species of sparrow. It was amazing how quickly the day had passed – time certainly flies when you’re having fun!

TUESDAY 1ST MAY

It was certainly a lot warmer out today, with the hazy cloud from previous days burning away to reveal clear blue skies and subsequent rising temperatures. We started our day again at our adopted local patch, by the water trough at the edge of Ano Poroia village. We were greeted again by Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes, though there had been an obvious increase in the latter species overnight with at least four present. Golden Orioles could be heard calling around and we saw a stunning male flying around a couple of times, while we also had more views of Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Cirl Bunting.

While watching one of the shrikes, a bulky bird popped up next to it in the same bush – a spring plumaged Barred Warbler! This was a new plumage for many of the group, and an exciting sighting for the leaders too! We could see its orange eye, as it began singing right out in the open next to the male Red-backed Shrike – stunning! Despite seeing many juveniles in autumn back in the UK, we never get to see them in this plumage in spring so this was a real treat.

Just when we though we had experienced the highlight of the morning, a pair of Levant Sparrowhawks flew low along the road and right past us, before both began to circle above the road. The male started to display literally over our heads, encouraging a second male to fly in and tussle with him! The two males chased each other into the trees, calling as they went, leaving the female circling above.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – displaying right over our heads

This cycle was repeated several times, and in the crisp morning light the cameras among the group were rattling away as the birds passed only a few metres above us at times. It was even possible to see the diagnostic dark gular stripe on the throat! One of the males retired victorious to the nearby plane trees, where we were able to watch it perched in the open through the scopes. What a fantastic experience!

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – then perched in the trees, preening

Next we headed for Sidirokastro, to the east of Lake Kerkini, to try for one or two specialities of rocky hillside habitats. It was already very hot here, and many butterflies were on the wing – Scarce Swallowtail, Small Blue and many fritillaries. Bird wise it was a little quiet, though we noted our first Short-toed Eagle soaring, and there were some lovely Eastern Black-eared Wheatears flitting around the Byzantine castle ruins. Our quest for Western Rock Nuthatch sadly proved fruitless, and we had to make do with a Blue Rock Thrush instead. Coffee and cake in the shade of the pines by the parking area, was most welcome afterwards.

Having failed with the nuthatch here, we opted to try another site just a couple of miles away – a large quarry set up in the hillside north of Sidirokastro. This proved to be an outstanding site. First up was a Long-legged Buzzard over the parking spot, and despite being rather against the light the bird could be identified by its long wings, plain underwing coverts with contrasting black carpal patches, uniform underparts and very pale head.

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard – circling high over the hills near Sidirokastro

The buzzard gained height, and soon we could see why – a large, all dark eagle was drifting low straight towards us! The bird passed directly over our heads, and we thought it was probably a Golden Eagle at first. We had niggling doubts though, mainly due to its fairly short tailed silhouette, and broad hand. We thought we could see a pale window in the primaries, too. The views themselves were inconclusive, but the photos were very instructive and also showed a pale cream shawl to the nape isolating a dark eye, broad based wings due to long secondaries, paler tail base and long sixth primary – it was an Eastern Imperial Eagle!! This was quite a discovery, being the first ever record of the species on our tours here.

Eastern Imperial Eagle

Eastern Imperial Eagle – a real bonus, a hard bird to see in Greece now

The quarry itself was equally brilliant – a Western Rock Nuthatch was singing, its loud call resonating around the quarry. We also found its mud nest being constructed in a crevice in the rock face, and so we had some superb prolonged views. Also in the quarry were two singing Ortolan Buntings, a pair of Black Redstarts, Blue Rock Thrush and both male and female Eastern Black-eared Wheatears. Absolutely fantastic birding!

Next we had a long drive down to Serres, and after negotiating our way through the town, we took the winding mountain road up to Vrontou and the Laillas ski centre. Our lunch stop was about 4 miles before the summit, in beautiful open hillside with scattered juniper and rocky scree. We didn’t see too many birds here, though some of the group noted a Woodlark and two more Short-toed Eagles were seen.

Reaching the ski centre, we explored the beautiful beech woodland near the summit, adding Mistle Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Coal Tit and Marsh Tit. We couldn’t find any Black Woodpeckers today though, despite a good search.

Time was ticking away from us, so we headed a short way back down the mountain and tried another track through mature pines to a viewpoint. Two Tree Pipits flushed from the path into the trees, and we had Common Ravens displaying overhead. Crested Tit showed particularly well, even allowing everyone a view in the scope, while a Rock Bunting was more furtive and made us work hard to even get half the group a view. An Eastern Subalpine Warbler singing from the pines was our first of the trip, and another new sylvia was seen in the form of a pair of Lesser Whitethroats.

Back at the vans we had a coffee, to perk us up for the final push of the day! This would be a short stop on the way back to base, to check a site for European Roller. Thankfully the birds had read the script – at least one of them had anyway – and we enjoyed lovely views of a single bird perched on wires above the track in the evening light. It flew down to the field edge a couple of times, flashing its brilliant blue and purple wings and tail as it looped back up to its perch. A perfect way to end a long but rewarding day.

Roller

Roller – perched up on the wires on our way back

WEDNESDAY 2ND MAY

The warmest day of the tour so far saw us head up to the Bulgarian border this morning at Promachonas. On the way, we picked up another European Roller perched on roadside wires, looking dazzling in the morning light as it flew down to the ground. Once at the so called ‘woodpecker wood’ we made our way down to the river and slowly along listening for any calls or activity of woodpeckers generally. This was met with mixed success – we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling as soon as we arrived, but otherwise the only activity noted was from Great-spotted Woodpeckers which were pretty common.

Feeling a little frustrated and being nibbled by mosquitoes, we headed back and tried going east along the trail a little bit. Here in a small clearing, a black and white woodpecker flew low past us and perched on the side of a big poplar trunk – it was a Middle Spotted Woodpecker. This was our main target species here, and we managed to get about half the group a scope view before it quickly made off into the trees.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – perched briefly in the trees

We tried walking along the road a bit to relocate it, but without any joy. We did see a Green Woodpecker though, and then two shrikes flew over calling showing lot of white in the wings. One perched in the canopy above us briefly – a female Masked Shrike. The male seemed to fly across the road to a small quarry, so we wandered in for a look. Sure enough we found the male Masked Shrike, and had some decent perched views though he was rather skittish.

As we walked back down to the vans, two large raptors circled into view above the Bulgarian border – two European Honey Buzzards, one dark phase and one very pale bird. It was great to see their distinctive flat-winged silhouette and see them lazily flexing the hand of the wing as they circled around a few times before continuing their migration northwards. It had been a productive stop, even if the woodpecker activity had been a bit less than hoped for. After coffee and homemade pizza in the sunshine, it was time to return to the lake area.

Vironia Quarry would be our next stop, a really nice area of streamside plane trees and open scrubby hillside with lovely views south over the lake. It was really hot here, and we failed in our attempt to find any Sombre Tits. We did, however, get fantastic views of a singing Eastern Orphean Warbler, several Eastern Black-eared Wheatears and Crag Martins nesting in the quarry.

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Eastern Orphean Warbler – singing in the bushes in the quarry

An old Rock Nuthatch nest seemed to have been taken over by sparrows, and there was no sign of the nuthatch, so it was a good job we had secured good views yesterday. Also around the quarry, a male Eastern Subalpine Warbler showed well, and as we began to make our way back out, a Golden Eagle appeared above the ridge and circled round a few times before disappearing over the top. A great comparison with yesterdays Eastern Imperial! Lunch was had in the shade of the trees by the chapel, and in the company of a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers – a very pleasant morning indeed.

The afternoon would be taken up by our boat trip onto Lake Kerkini, always one of the tour highlights. We met Nikos, our ‘captain’, at Kerkini harbour, and set off towards the northern shore of the lake where the best of the action would be. As we approached the mouth of the Strimon, two stunning adult White-winged Black Terns were seen perched quite close to the boat, before they took flight over the mirror flat water in which they were perfectly reflected.

Several Black-necked Grebes dotted the water in full breeding plumage, and now we began to approach the river mouth, we could see a LOT of pelicans ahead! The numbers of White Pelicans were most impressive, and my goodness what plumage they were in! To be so close to such large numbers of these spectacular birds was quite something.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – large flocks were loafing around the lake

White Pelican

White Pelican – good flight views too!

We saw plenty of Dalmatian Pelicans too of course, though they loom somewhat less striking now their breeding season is reaching its finale. Other birds noted here included Eurasian Spoonbills, Black-winged Stilts and a first-summer Caspian Gull.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw lots of these too

Nikos then took us through the shallow water towards the drowned forest, and here we caught up with the White-winged Black Terns again, but now there were four or five of them, mixed with a party of Black Terns. Nikos cut the engine and we floated among them, as they danced over the water incredibly close. One of the White-winged Black Terns actually swooped in and grabbed a morsel from the water surface, right beside the boat – amazing! As the flock became more distant, we noticed that they had now been joined by three Collared Pratincoles, as the whole group moved out towards the main body of the lake. A first-summer Little Gull also passed by at close range – we did not know where to look next!

White-winged Black Tern

White-winged Black Tern – dip feeding right by our boat!

As we entered the drowned forest, so the sound and smell of breeding cormorants and herons became ever more apparent. What unfolded was quite a spectacle, as we floated among the thousands of nesting pairs of Great Cormorant. There were a few pairs of Pygmy Cormorant too, although they seemed to be a lot more wary of the boat.

Cormorant

Great Cormorant – one of thousands of nests in the drowned forest

Pygmy Cormorant

Pygmy Cormorant – seem to be a little more wary

Little Egrets, Night Herons, Squacco Herons and Spoonbills were all nesting too and seen at point blank range. The views of these birds really were very special indeed.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – perched up in the drowned forest

Every now and then we would drift right underneath a stonking pair of Spoonbills, or see a Squacco Heron with bright blue bill base and red legs, standing motionless at touching distance.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – with bright blue bill base

The Night Herons were a favourite though, especially when we got to see their crown feathers raised into a crest and their long white nape plumes erect – totally stunning birds.

Night Heron

Night Heron – stunning close views from the boat

More pelicans next as we glided across to the artificial nesting islands occupied by both species. The White Pelicans are now nesting in good numbers, having colonised in 2016, and the Dalmatian Pelicans [nesting earlier and having large chicks now] were sticking to their favoured wooden platforms. After enjoying these birds close up, we motored back across the lake to Kerkini harbour. A thunderstorm was just breaking over the hills west of the village as we arrived back, and we drove back to the hotel in the rain – we had been very lucky.

Dalmatian Pelicans

Dalmatian Pelicans – on one of the nesting platforms

After an early dinner, we returned to an area near Kerkini village to try for Eagle Owl, a species always high on everyone’s wants lists. We had plenty of time on the way for a bit of birding, and after a rooftop Little Owl the next highlight was a party of European Bee-eaters, perched on roadside wires in beautiful soft evening light. We pulled up alongside them, and then noticed that several were dropping onto the road in front of us. They were picking delicately at the surface of the tarmac, and we couldn’t quite work out what they were doing – perhaps feeding on ants or other small insects? None of us had seen this behaviour before. Meanwhile up on the wires, there were now a dozen or more Bee-eaters gathered and we could hear them calling and see them displaying with fanned tails quivering and wings arched upwards. Just stunning birds!

With another ten minutes to spare before we needed to start looking for the owls, we decided to stop briefly at Korofoudi marshes. A Black Stork was feeding with a Spoonbill by the roadside, and flew to the edge of the lake, and there were some Dalmatian Pelicans fishing close inshore. One of the Great Reed Warblers was in the small reedbed again, and a superb male Golden Oriole flew down and landed in the roadside bushes where it eventually dropped down out of view.

Back at the owl spot, we had Common Nightingale, Woodchat Shrike, Cirl Bunting and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler before dusk fell, and two or three hoots from the Eagle Owl up on the cliff. We saw it in flight briefly, but unfortunately most people weren’t able to get onto it. Brief glimpses of European Nightjar and Tawny Owl on the way back, and a Eurasian Scop’s Owl calling, were the last action of a long day.

THURSDAY 3RD MAY

What. A. Day! Our trip down to the Axios Delta area west of Thessaloniki is always something of a trip highlight, offering saline lagoons and coastal marshes and of course, lots of migrant wading birds, gulls and terns. We opted to start at the Kalachori lagoon end, which was about one hour twenty minutes drive south from our base, and we arrived at our first stop at the edge of the saltmarsh, to be greeted by three Stone Curlews standing sentinel among the samphire. In the same area, looking east towards the main lagoon, we found our first Lesser Grey Shrike of the trip in the coastal tamarisks, a bird we were beginning to wonder whether or not we would see on the trip at all.

Moving around onto the coastal track, we reached the main lagoon complete with its flock of two hundred or so Greater Flamingoes, still lingering into the breeding season. Despite being mainly young birds, there were still a few gorgeous adults present too, normally having left for the Mediterranean breeding colonies by now.

Also on these pools were a great deal of small waders, and in the excellent morning light we enjoyed some superb and educational views of flocks of gorgeous Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints and a few Dunlin, Ruff and Turnstone admixed. There were Common and Wood Sandpipers too, and several Little Terns resting on the islands close to the cycle path which bisects the two main pools.

We were able to get really close to the waders here, and this enabled us to pick out two Temminck’s Stints, feeding furtively at the edge in typical fashion. One was a striking rusty toned individual, but both showed the typical yellow legs and randomly dark centred scapular feathers on the back. We were close enough to hear their delicate trilling call too, and see the wholly white outer tail in flight.

Further down, we could see a very impressive flock of about two hundred Spotted Redshanks, with a few Common Greenshanks mixed in, and we found both Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers on the open sandy areas. Once again a highlight, a group of seven stunning White-winged Black Terns were hawking over the water right alongside the path – it was very hard not to be totally distracted by these dazzling birds, but there were a lot of small waders to look through!

After a coffee break, we continued to the far end of the main lagoon, as we had been able to pick out a couple of very distant Marsh Sandpipers and wanted to get some better views if possible. We found a spot where the birds were a bit closer, and we also had them feeding alongside Common Greenshank for comparison. Six birds at least altogether, but perhaps not as stunning as the huge flock of Spotted Redshanks which we could now see at much closer range.

A first-summer Little Gull was floating on the water just below us, and we also saw some nice Black-winged Stilts, Avocets and a couple of drake Garganey from this vantage point before it was time to move on. Taking the track west, we crossed the causeway and over the sluice, heading south and following the coast towards the fishing huts. A Northern Wheatear was feeding on a sandy area next to the track, a late migrant on its way north.

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – a late migrant on the coast

We paused by a small area of enclosed saline pools at the edge of the bay, to look at some close Pygmy Cormorants and our first Common Redshanks of the trip, when we noticed a medium sized plover feeding on the mud close by. First impressions were of perhaps a Grey Plover, but this was quickly dismissed by the birds small size and lightweight bill, and the presence of some yellow in the scapulars and tertials.

It was clearly a Golden Plover of some sort, but right away the alarm bells were ringing as this did not look like a European! Its grey appearance was of course the first anomalous feature, but it showed a small head, very long legs but a short primary projection. Its head pattern was also interesting, as it showed a fairly distinct supercilium, pale spot on the ear coverts and dark cap – though these features were not as contrasting as one would expect on an American. The penny was dropping, this looked every inch like a Pacific Golden Plover in first summer plumage!

Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover – a great find, possibly only the 7th record for Greece

Having chatted though the ID, we knew that a flash of the underwing would confirm our suspicions, and with that the bird flew a short way with a group of Turnstones – now we had something to compare it directly to, we could see how small it was! But not only that, the underwing coverts were ash grey! At this point we opted to disembark and go for scope views, which we enjoyed for the next half hour or so. We saw it again in flight too, noting the projection of the toes beyond the tail tip and those underwings! It was a subtle and beautiful wader, and at the time of writing we think only the 7th record of Pacific Golden Plover for Greece.

It took a further twenty minutes to reach our lunch spot, overlook a series of islands occupied by a thriving colony of Mediterranean Gulls. The sound was quite impressive, with a hundred or more birds ‘kyowing!’ throughout our stop here – in fact it was hard to hear anything else! We manged to pull out a Red-throated Pipit going over though, and a singing Calandra Lark which posed distantly on the ground too.

Our main target bird here was Slender-billed Gull, and we had to accept fairly distant but acceptable views of two adults on the water. A Caspian Tern was a nice surprise though, flying past before joining a second bird and dropping into another group of Mediterranean Gulls and Sandwich Terns on one of the distant islets.

The remainder of the track from here to the Axios river was quiet, though we saw Hoopoe, Red-backed Shrike, Little Owl and a dombrowskii Yellow Wagtail. The next leg of the track north up the Axios embankment was the most heavily pot-holed of the lot, so progress was slow. This gave us plenty of time to spot more birds though! Many Wood Sandpipers, lovely close Spoonbills, a Purple Heron, rufous phase female Cuckoo and Garganey were all overshadowed by three stunning Spur-winged Plovers in perfect light just west of the bank. This was our main target for this area, and we found them in literally the last bit of suitable habitat along this stretch – very fortunate! Bumping our way out eventually to the main road, we then had about forty-five minutes driving north to our final site of the day.

Spur-winged Plover

Spur-winged Plover – kept us waiting until the last stretch

Its always nice to visit a new site on the tours, and our colleague Paul Roberts had recommended a small reservoir to us for the way back, near Polykastro. A singing Black-headed Bunting and male Red-backed Shrike as we approached the site were a good omen, and we loved the lush green habitat all around the reservoir which looked like a veritable haven to migrants.

It was a lovely temperature now, and the evening light was superb, and soon we were watching Collared Pratincoles hawking over the fields, and Great Reed Warblers croaking from the top of the reeds. In the distance, we could see a flock of about seven Lesser Kestrels hunting, and as we walked up the bank a flock of Whiskered Terns flew by.

Peering over carefully onto the water, the first bird that greeted us was a drake Ferruginous Duck! There were a dozen or more others on the reservoir, along with Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Little and Black-necked Grebes and Garganey. Over the water were Common, Little, Black and White-winged Black Terns, and a Long-legged Buzzard flew by in the distance mobbed by a Hooded Crow. Another Lesser Grey Shrike was signing from the wires alongside the reservoir embankment here too.

It certainly was a delightful spot, and we ended the day scoping up to twenty five Collared Pratincoles, first on the ground and then sweeping back and forth over the cornfields. A breathless day with so many highlights, and the trip list now approaching 180 species!

FRIDAY 4TH MAY

Our quietest day of the trip so far, mainly due to the heat, but it is all relative – we still saw an awful lot of very good birds! We knew it was going to be a warm one, so opted for an early pre-breakfast excursion at 0630 up the hillside behind the village. After negotiating the network of very narrow streets, we found our way out to the eastern edge of the village where we parked up and set off on foot up the mountain track.

Winding our way up round the first couple of bends, the air was full of the song of Common Nightingale, Cirl Bunting and Woodchat Shrike – the latter being particularly common in this scrubby hillside habitat. Eastern Subalpine Warbler was also easy to see here, and we had some really great scope views of singing males – though we had still not seen a female on the trip!

Our main target bird for this site was Sombre Tit, one which is very easy to miss particularly at this time of year. We had some pretty decent views of a single bird, being pretty furtive and never perching in the open for long. In the end we were pretty satisfied with what we had seen, knowing this was likely our only chance on the trip to connect. Hoopoe, Levant Sparrowhawk and a superb female Eastern Orphean Warbler were also noted, the latter alarm calling to a Woodchat and grubbing around in the shrubs by the side of the track.

After breakfast, we called in briefly at the water trough, though things were definitely quieter here than in recent days – the local Red-backed Shrikes, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and singing Black-headed Bunting supplemented by another good view of the male Levant Sparrowhawk, and a migrant Spotted Flycatcher.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – seen or heard singing daily

Our plan for the rest of the morning was to travel down the western shore of the lake to Lithotopos, and on to Himarros where a track winds along the stream and up into the low forested hills. We saw two spectacular feeding frenzies on the lake as we drove along, of Dalmatian Pelicans and cormorants, but with a mission in mind we resisted the temptation to stop.

Reaching Himarros, a young Goshawk flew low over the track mobbed by Hooded Crows as we drove down, and we could also see two Short-toed Eagles and a Lesser Spotted Eagle soaring above the surrounding hillsides. It was already really hot here, and we knew we were going to struggle a bit – we certainly didn’t hear our main hoped for target, which was Olive Tree Warbler. It was right on the cusp for them arriving, and unfortunately we drew a blank on this occasion.

Red-backed Shrike 2

Red-backed Shrike – singing & carrying nest material

Eastern Subalpine Warbler and Red-backed Shrike were really common in the scrub here, the latter seen nest building and the males singing and calling all around. We glimpsed a Masked Shrike too, but the bird was really furtive and keeping to the deep shade inside thickets of bushes, and not wanting to come out.

Black Stork

Black Stork – circled over our heads at Himarros

Overhead we did really well, with a Black Stork and another Goshawk seen circling above, later joined by two Lesser Spotted Eagles and a cracking Honey Buzzard which appeared low above us. Back in the shade of the riverside trees, we saw two Spotted Flycatchers, and then plenty of Bee-eaters as we made our way back out of the valley. A kettle of pelicans in a thermal above the valley contained both White and Dalmatian Pelicans, making for a nice comparison.

Pelicans

White & Dalmatian Pelicans – circling together on a thermal

There were lots of other things to look at here – not just birds. We had good views of both Hermann’s and Spur-thighed Tortoise. A Stripe-necked Terrapin was crossing the track as we drove in and a Common Green Lizard was very obliging on the path. There were tons of butterflies too, including a good variety of fritillaries and lots of Little Tiger Blues. A Spoonwing (or Thread-winged Antlion) which flew across the path was particularly impressive.

Hermann's Tortoise

Hermann’s Tortoise – one of the two species we saw around Lake Kerkini

Deciding how to manage the hot part of the day was a tricky one, but we opted to head for higher ground in the hope of a cool breeze, and so decided to wind our way up the track above Neo Petritsi village to the Bulgarian border. About 7km up, we stopped for lunch looking back over the forest – a Short-toed Eagle was hanging on the wind above us and gave superb views, while we also had more opportunities to study Honey Buzzard with one circling up right in front of us. As it folded its wings and made a stoop, we realised there was an interloper in its territory – a moulting female Goshawk which circled round once before dropping out of view.

Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle – hung in the air above us at lunchtime

As we climbed higher, a further 6km to the border post, the road passed through delightful beech woodland resounding to the songs of Blackcap and Robin! What we were not expecting though, was a Wildcat running up the road in front of us. The animal dived off into the undergrowth down a steep bank, and by quickly bailing out of the van we saw it again running off through the undergrowth, but that was it – a sighting based purely on chance.

Nearing the border, we parked and took a walk along the ridge for about 1km, passing through more nice forest of the way – we kept an ear open for White-backed Woodpecker, but no such luck! There were very few birds around at this elevation, but two Short-toed Eagles showed really well, and a pair of Hawfinch flew low over calling.

Back down at ground level, and we popped into the Strimon marshes for a quick look. The pools were holding a fair bit of water, and we found several Wood Sandpipers, Black-headed Wagtail, Little Ringed Plover and two Temminck’s Stints here. More impressive though, was a feeding frenzy of over thirty Grey Herons, 26 Spoonbills and 9 Black Storks, catching small fish in the dwindling puddles. Red-backed Shrike and Black-headed Bunting were also around – every stop seemed capable of producing a haul of decent birds!

Our last hour or so of the day would be spent on the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini, and despite the tricky light at this time of day we saw a load of birds. Bee-eaters and Hoopoe were looking stunning on the east side of the bank, illuminated by the evening light, and we had a lovely Lesser Grey Shrike perched up too. The water level had risen considerably since our first visit here, and many of the same species were present – Spoonbills, Glossy Ibises, Great White and Cattle Egrets, flocks of Wood Sandpipers and distant Whiskered Terns. Temminck’s Stint, six Curlew Sandpipers and a fine Marsh Sandpiper were new in though, replacing the scores of Squacco Herons present previously which were now conspicuous by their absence.

Heading back towards Megalachori, a stunning adult Purple Heron was fishing in the open, with a second bird among the reeds where we searched in vain for Little Bittern and Little Crake, without success. Unbelievably, it was now almost 7pm – we had to tear ourselves away! As had been typical for the trip as a whole, there was time for one more good bird – a gorgeous female Red-footed Falcon circling over the road by the drinking trough on the way back to base. After initially only being seen drifting away, the bird thankfully turned and circled right back over us, putting the tin lid on our last day in the field.

Red-footed Falcon

Red-footed Falcon – turned and circled back over us

SATURDAY 5TH MAY

A seamless transition was enjoyed back to Thessaloniki this morning, with a few birds seen from the motorway en route such as Roller, Masked Shrike, a couple of Black-headed Buntings and two Ring-necked Parakeets! We dropped the vans off at the hire car depot at 0930 as planned, and despite leaving a little late from Thessaloniki, were back in London pretty much on schedule at 1330.

It had been a great seven days in Greece – the weather was warm and sunny, there were lots of fantastic birds and a great selection of other wildlife too. We didn’t want to leave! The good news is that we will be going back again in 2019 – provisionally on 28th April to 4th May. If you like the sound of this year’s trip and might be tempted to join us, please let us know…

29th Jan-2nd Feb 2018 – Extremadura: Winter in the Spanish Steppes

A 5 day International Tour together with our friends from Oriole Birding, with great birds and fantastic scenery. We were very lucky with the weather – lots of blue sky and sunshine, though it was cold in the early mornings with a frost on the ground or when the wind picked up on one of the days.

Monday 29th January

Our group met up this morning early doors at London Gatwick airport for our 0725 flight down to Madrid, which departed roughly on time. The run down over the Pyrenees was spectacular in the clear skies, and we touched down in the Spanish capital a little ahead of schedule, enjoying a super quick transit through the airport.

Even as we sorted out the hire van, we could enjoy White Storks migrating overhead and these were the first of several large flocks seen as we drove south. After negotiating our way around the outskirts of the city, we picked up the E90 motorway and headed on down towards Extremadura.

This first part of the drive was frequently punctuated by roadside Red Kites and Common Buzzards, one or two Iberian Grey Shrikes [not seen by everyone from the fast moving vehicle!] and two superb Black Vultures. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant just beyond Talavera, noting our first Crested Larks in the car park, and then pushed on a further 30 minutes to our first proper birding stop at Saucedilla.

Just after we left the motorway, we encountered a raptor hovering by the roadside – it was a Black-winged Kite! Pulling up alongside the bird, we had the most amazing close up views of it from our vehicle. The bird was clearly very intent on watching its prey in the grass among some scattered tamarisks, and seemed totally unperturbed by us.

Black-winged Kite 1

Black-winged Kite 2

Black-winged Kite 3

Black-winged Kite – hunting by the roadside

We decided to disembark, knowing it would drift away a little but that we would be able to enjoy some scope views. In fact the bird soon returned, and we watched it on and off for half an hour, often passing quite close to us. Soon it was joined by a second bird, and after an aerial tussle, one of the pair landed on a wooden telegraph pole a short distance away and proceeded to give us remarkable scope views.

Black-winged Kite 5

Black-winged Kite – great views, perched on a telegraph post

We were very pleased to have enjoyed such a great performance from one of Extremadura’s most iconic birds at our very first stop! A really nice surprise here was a wintering Wryneck, which we flushed up from the roadside ditch as we got out of the van. It showed briefly in the depths of a tamarisk, before perching in the open on the fence and then retiring to the depths of a pine tree. We saw it twice more in flight, but never really out in the open – a scarce wintering bird here. Other species noted at this impromptu stop were Black Redstart, Corn Bunting and our first Common Chiffchaffs.

Just a couple of kilometres along the road we reached the ornithological centre at Saucedilla. This small wetland area is a great place to kick start the trip with many of the fairly common local birds, and we duly enjoyed flocks of Spanish Sparrows, Zitting Cisticola, Crested Larks, Black Redstart and a few common wetland birds here such as Gadwall and Common Snipe.

Another Black-winged Kite was also seen, hunting over the open fields to the north-west, and the small reedbed and surrounding trees were literally jumping with wintering Common Chiffchaffs. Almost every movement we saw was another of these spritely phylloscs flycatching in the warm afternoon sunshine. A young Western Purple Swamphen was observed among the dense reeds, and then its parent appeared, climbing up to the top of the vegetation and looking absolutely stunning in the perfect light conditions.

Purple Swamphen

Western Purple Swamphen – perched up nicely for us in the reeds

In the distance, we saw two more Black Vultures soaring low over the dehesa on flat wings, and in the reeds we heard both Penduline Tit and Cetti’s Warbler, though both remained hidden from view. A Bluethroat flicked across briefly, but despite our best efforts we were unable to relocate it – one for another day!

It was now gone 1700, and we needed to be mindful that we still had around a forty minute journey to reach the accommodation. Our walk back along the track though was punctuated by a high pitched squeaking call. Another Wryneck perhaps? We peered into the small clump of trees where the sound was coming from, and found a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker!

The bird was busy excavating for food low down on one of the trunks, and obliged with excellent scope views for several minutes before moving off through the bushes. A Spotless Starling was signing close by, imitating the calls of several other species in typical fashion!

The final part of the journey added our first Griffon Vultures, and a couple of fly-by Hoopoes before we reached our delightful accommodation. The sun was just beginning to dip down over the skyline and the temperature was really dropping as Song Thrushes were piling overhead going to their roost nearby. We were certainly all ready for a beer and a truly excellent meal of local dishes served by our welcoming hosts – we couldn’t wait for our first full day tomorrow!

Tuesday 30th January

We headed out at first light this morning, which being one hour ahead of GMT meant leaving the hotel after breakfast at around 0815. We made straight for the productive area of steppe between Trujillo and Caceres, on the well known Santa Marta road, which has now been resurfaced into a veritable motorway compared to its former self! It was magical driving out onto the plains as the sun rose, and from our first stop we found ourselves immersed in many of the great birds typical of the dehesa fringe and steppe.

Santa Marta steppes

Santa Marta steppes – looking toward the Sierra de Gredos

Huge flocks of Spanish Sparrows were congregating in the fields alongside squabbling Iberian Magpies [formerly Azure-winged], and careful scanning through the fields picked out the odd Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Mistle Thrush among them, plus a lovely Hoopoe perched on the bottom of a fence.

Iberian Grey Shrike was common here, and we enjoyed views of two or three different birds including a singing male, ringing out his peculiar almost electronic three note ditty from the tops of the surrounding bushes. We were able to well compare the darker upperparts, vinous tinged underparts and neat, distinct white supercilium with the Great Grey Shrikes we were used to seeing back home.

Also around this first stop were several singing Thekla Larks, a tricky species which can look extremely similar to Crested but with careful study of the plumage, bill structure and taking into account the habitat, can be reliably separated.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark – we had a good opportunity to study several up close this morning

Moving on from this vantage point, we drove slowly up the road, getting more superb views of the Iberian Magpies, before discovering a flock of 23 Little Bustards by the roadside at the top of the hill. The light was on our side, and we opted to stay in the vehicle as we felt they might flush if we tried to disembark. The views were really nice anyway, and we were really pleased to connect with a flock of this declining species so soon in the trip.

Little Bustards

Little Bustards – part of a flock of 23 on the steppe by the road

Next we took an old drovers track out across the open steppe. The views across this vast landscape were simply superb and there were both Thekla and now Calandra Larks criss crossing in front of us as we went. The Calandra Larks really stole the show here, with their trilling calls, elaborate songs and fantastic close range squabbling fly pasts. The species is an excellent mimic, and those birds in full song above the steppe could be heard doing some great impersonations of a variety of species, from Kestrel to Green Sandpiper!

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – singing over the steppe

We then spotted a small group of Great Bustards on the ridge in the distance, so decided to drive further on in order to find a vantage point that might afford us closer views. We thought we had lost them behind a ridge, but thankfully relocated the five birds and enjoyed our first views of this magnificent bird through the scopes.

In the crisp, clear morning air, the calls of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse began to ring out but boy were they high up in the sky! We located seven, way up high above our heads, and watched a pair indulging in an impressive synchronised flying display flight. Several of their passes were a bit closer in beautiful light, showing their gleaming white bellies and bright chestnut breast band on the males.

Two Black-bellied Sandgrouse were also seen, crouched unobtrusively behind a group of cattle. Once the beasts moved out of the view, the sandgrouse showed nicely – a much stockier bird than the Pin-tailed, the male showing a greyer neck and brighter orange head patch than the drabber female.

A small flock of Skylarks and a couple of Golden Plover were in the same field, and several Red Kites were beginning to appear over the ridge as the temperature slowly increased. In order to try and find some more sandgrouse on the ground, we opted to take a walk along one of the side tracks. A couple of Black Redstarts and some superb views of Calandra Larks were had here, but we couldn’t find the sandgrouse which again appeared to have landed just out of view behind the ridge.

We began walking back, when a loud chatter could be heard and a long-tailed bird appeared, flying straight towards us – it was a Great Spotted Cuckoo! The bird duly landed obligingly on a sunny rock, where it sat calling for a few minutes and allowed everyone a good view the scope. These very early migrants are known to begin their return passage in January, but this was the first time we had ever seen one here at this time of year. We went on to have several more excellent views of it, as it first flew past us and then began moving along the fenceline ahead of us before eventually heading out into the fields.

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo – an early returning bird

Returning to the vehicle, we began to make our way back out towards the road, stopping though to check the last big stony field for more sandgrouse views. The two Black-bellied Sandgrouse from earlier had returned, and two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew in and gave some acceptable but distant views along the to of the ridge. A further eight Black-bellied flew in too, but as soon as they landed among the stones in the field, they completely disappeared! Such well camouflaged birds and very hard to spot when they are not moving!

The raptors were really starting to thermal up in numbers now, and we began to see numerous Griffon and Black Vultures joining the many Red Kites above the ridge looking north towards Santa Marta de Magasca. A distant large raptor joined them, showing flat wings but a longer tail. It banked in the sun to reveal pale tawny upperwing coverts, white tipped greater covert bar and a white horseshoe on the uppertail coverts – it was an immature Spanish Imperial Eagle. Everyone managed to scope the bird, though it was a long way off – perhaps we would get some better views later on!

Behind us, 13 Little Bustards were seen flying away from us distantly, and we saw them drop into a field about a mile back along the track. We really fancied seeing another flock on the deck, and so retreated back along the track to see if we could find them – we managed some nice scope views, albeit somewhat against the light, and had a cracking male Hen Harrier thrown in for good measure! A distant Merlin, and some more useful comparative views of Griffon and Black Vultures rounded off a very productive session here, before it was finally time to move on to another spot for lunch.

Winding our way through to the village of Santa Marta, we took the minor road west down across the river and up onto the cultivated steppe heading out towards Caceres. Two Griffon Vultures gave stunning views right beside the road, and we found a flock of 34 Great Bustards parading along the skyline and were able to pull up alongside the birds and enjoy some stunning views with the light behind us. We saw these birds again from our chosen vantage point for lunch, and added a further five birds further over in the distance.

Great Bustards

Great Bustards – part of a drove of 34 birds at our lunch stop

Lunch, however, was dominated by raptors! As we pulled up, we spotted two immature Spanish Imperial Eagles soaring around together above the track. In the still air, we could hear them calling to each other and the birds were in view for around half an hour solid, even coming down and perching on the adjacent pylons, and in the top of a big eucalyptus tree. We could see the nest hidden among the branches of the tree, and these were clearly last years offspring from the territory. There was no sign of mum and dad though, and instead the presumed siblings carried on displaying above the road!

Right over our heads, two Black Vultures appeared and we could see them looking down at us as they passed over! These were then joined by a Griffon Vulture for direct comparison, and then the two adult Spanish Imperial Eagles did loom into view and we were able to scope them soaring round together complete with white upperwing flashes. A male Hen Harrier then came into view, flying up the roadside verge towards us before spotting our group and veering off across the fields. What an incredible lunch stop!

Black Vulture

Black Vulture – two came right over our heads at our lunch stop!

The remainder of our day would involve something a bit different, as we made the one hour drive roughly south to the small town of Montanchez, with its Castillo sat high on the hilltop. After winding our way through the narrow streets to the top, we could drink in the quite spectacular views right back across the plains to the north, with the snow-capped Gredos looming large in the background.

Our quarry here was Alpine Accentor, an altitudinal migrant which often appears on the rocky slopes below the castle here in winter, having fled its icy home in the high tops to the north. From the viewpoint by the parking area, we enjoyed great views of two Hoopoes, and watched a Short-toed Treecreeper climbing around uncharacteristically on the mossy boulders below. A Crag Martin also wheeled into view, before we climbed up the road to the far side of the castle to start exploring the sunny slopes there.

Two Blue Rock Thrushes were seen, perching on the chimney pots of the houses below us, and a pair of Rock Buntings were also seen distantly through the scope, feeding way down in one of the small fields behind the village – fortunately the good light meant we could see quite a long way today!

Alpine Accentor

Alpine Accentor – up on the castle at Montanchez

Initially, despite careful searching, there was no sign of any accentors other than a pair of Dunnocks! We stuck to the task though, and eventually two of the group found a single Alpine Accentor on the shady side of the castle and we were all able to catch up with it and enjoy some excellent views through the scope. It had been an extremely successful day, connecting with all our target birds in amazing scenery and beautiful weather – Spain at its very best!

Wednesday 31st January

Another beautiful sunny day in Extremadura saw us head south beyond Zorita towards Sierra Brava reservoir. The sun was rising as we reached the dam, and we could hear Common Cranes bugling in the distance as we got out of the van. Away down below us on some stubble fields bordering the dehesa, we could see large flocks of Cranes feeding, with small parties flying across the skyline in the distance. A really evocative sight and sound!

Behind us, on the reservoir itself, were great rafts of dabbling ducks. Predominantly Mallard, there were also at least 150 Pintails, a few Common Teal, Shoveler and Gadwall, scores of Great Crested Grebes and the odd Eurasian Wigeon. We also saw a couple of Egyptian Geese, Lesser Black-backed Gull, a Grey Wagtail and enjoyed excellent views of three Thekla Larks foraging on the stony shore below us. These were classic individuals, with short deep based bills, short crest, grey washed mantle and contrasting blackish streaked breasts – a really nice opportunity to study them in detail.

Driving on, we followed the service road for a couple of miles, noting several Iberian Grey Shrikes along the way, until we dropped down into the network of ricefields in the direction of the new solar plant.

Spanish Sparrows

Spanish Sparrows – we saw some vast flocks, with a few Tree Sparrows in with them

Stopping overlooking an area of wet paddies, we had a fabulous session where at times we didn’t know where to look. The harvested rice stubble in the foreground was full of vast flocks of Spanish Sparrows numbering many hundreds – there were a few Tree Sparrows among them, hordes of Corn Buntings, and a few other finches thrown in for good measure.

High pitched thin calls alerted us to the presence of a flock of Red Avadavats, an introduced species thriving here in these wetland habitats. Normally they are quite skittish and difficult to view, but we had excellent views of flocks of them here today! Among them were also one or two Common Waxbills, another alien species with a naturalised population here.

Less exotic but just as exciting, we had cracking views of a Dartford Warbler which showed on and off the whole time we were here, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, a family group of four Common Cranes drifted in and landed right in front of us. The light was excellent, and the views simply superb.

Common Cranes 1

Common Cranes 2

Common Cranes 3

Common Cranes – this family of four flew in and landed in front of us

Further back in the distance, a flock of Cattle Egrets were following a tractor working in the field, and a single Great White Egret was also with them. A small party of Greylag Geese in the stubble beyond were interesting, since these birds are part of a small wintering population of Scandinavian birds, not the feral types we are used to seeing back home. We remarked at how dark headed they were, and how deep orange the bills appeared to be, but we never really saw them close up.

A real surprise on the open water at the back was a group of seven Wood Sandpipers – a species which does winter in Spain in small numbers in the right habitat, but which where nonetheless extremely nice to connect with.  Slightly more fortuitous was the scope view we had of a male Bluethroat which happened to pop up in the reeds while scanning for waders – amazingly everyone got a decent view of it despite the distance!

After a break for coffee and snacks, we opted to walk one of the reedy ditches at the edge of the rice paddies, to look specifically for Bluethroat. There were several Sardinian Warblers, a Blackcap, Cetti’s Warbler, more groups of Red Avadavat and Common Waxbills along the channel, but no sign of any luscinia.

Just as we were about to give up and move on, a female Bluethroat flushed from the edge of the adjacent rice paddy and flew along a narrow channel. The bird popped up twice more onto the top of the rice stubble, allowing everyone to connect with it, before disappearing for good into the middle of the field.

It was now noon, and time to move on to a different area. We retraced our route back out to the Sierra Brava dam, enjoying some more excellent close up views of Common Cranes along the way, before returning to the main road and heading off through the steppe towards Campo Lugar. This high road passes through open cultivated land and stony steppe, and can sometimes be a good place to find bustards and sandgrouse.

Little Owl

Little Owl – trying to hide from us between two rocks

We didn’t find either today, but instead found a nice vantage point to stop for lunch, enjoying excellent views of three different Little Owls. One of them, seen from the vehicle, had slid down to hide in a crack in the rocks on which it had been perched. It looked for all the world as if it was being squashed between the two slabs of rocks, and that its bulging yellow eyes were about to pop out of its head! Two Black Vultures, several Crested and Calandra Larks and a Hoopoe were also seen during a very tranquil lunch break.

The relatively new reservoir at Alcollarin was our next stop, and this excellent birding location certainly did not disappoint us today. Finding a good vantage point along the track for viewing the eastern arm of the reservoir, we could see a good selection of common wildfowl species, such as Wigeon, Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Pochard, flocks of Lapwings and great rafts of Common Coots.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Iberian Grey Shrike – perched on a bush right beside us

On the slopes just below, a nice flock of Serins were seen really well – the first ones we had managed a proper look at, rather than just birds bouncing by calling. A cracking Iberian Grey Shrike was on top of a bush right beside us and noisy groups of Iberian Magpies were moving through the bushes on the hillside.

Azure-winged Magpies

Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies – a typically noisy, squabbling group

One of the days highlights came from the blue sky above though, as a large raptor drifted into view over the trees. Head on, it sported flat and rather paddle shaped wings, but its silhouette certainly did not fit with the main ‘flat-winged’ options of Red Kite or Spanish Imperial Eagle. Soon it banked, revealing a gleaming white body and black underwing covert bar – it was an adult Bonelli’s Eagle!

The bird gave stunning views, circling up behind us, before it was joined by a second adult bird which appeared to be the female. High in the distance, a second calendar year bird appeared and drifted right across, and this provoked a reaction from the female which battled to gain height quickly in order to get above the young interloper and escort it off the premises. This whole episode gave us a great opportunity to study the flight silhouette and jizz of this scarce raptor, the most desirable and difficult to find of the five species of eagle recorded in Extremadura. A real treat indeed!

Down at the second dam, we added Common and Green Sandpipers, a Swallow, Black-winged Stilt and some nice views of Common Snipe, Hoopoe and hordes of White Wagtails. Over the distant hillside, an adult Golden Eagle appeared twice above the ridge, but was rather brief and always distant.

We had decided to end the day by driving just under an hour to the north-east, into the Sierra las Villuercas, where a spectacular viewpoint offered a vista across the surrounding mountains to the north and open plains to the south. It was initially very quiet at the top here, and in fact you could hear a pin drop as there was no wind despite the high elevation. We did see lots of Griffon Vultures soaring over their breeding cliffs in the distance, and two Black Vultures which circled in to join them.

On the small bird front though, there was nothing moving so we decided to drive back down the hill a bit into the oak forest below. Here we had a mad five minutes, picking up the local race of Long-tailed Tit, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreeper and a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly!

The best though was a superb view of a foraging female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which we watched for several minutes including a couple of bouts of drumming from the top of a dead branch – if only they were so easy to see back home! The 45 minute drive back to base gave us an hour of downtime before our evening wine tasting session, followed by another superb meal.

Thursday 1st February

Today was our coldest day of the trip, with fresh winds throughout the day and a cloudy start making things feel decidedly nippy! We left as usual just as dawn was breaking and made the short journey onto the nearby Belen plain, a large area of agricultural steppe north-east of Trujillo.

It was actually pretty quiet out here – we found flocks of Calandra Larks, a few Red Kites and Common Buzzards, Iberian Grey Shrike, Hoopoe and the usual droves of Spanish Sparrow and Corn Bunting. Our tactic was to drive slowly along, stopping when necessary to scan for bustards, but we could not find any despite searching a large area.

The highlight was provided by several Griffon Vultures – first a small group on the ground in a field next to the road, and secondly three sitting on an electricity pylon! We had some superb views of them, and were able to compare the different plumages of adult and first-year individuals.

Returning to Belen, we made our way back through Trujillo making a quick stop for toilets and fuel. Before heading north of the town and picking up the road towards Torrejon. Branching west towards Monroy, we stopped at a convenient vantage point where we found a Little Owl, and our presence encouraged about 500 of the local sheep herd to come noisily across the plain towards us, thinking they were going to be fed! This was our queue to exit, and we continued a short way along the road to another vantage point, where we would stop for coffee.

The views across the plains in all directions were superb, and we had some good birds too – a small group of Rock Sparrows were feeding along the edge of an adjacent field with some Corn Buntings. This species is very easy to miss at this time of the year, leaving its breeding sites in the hills and joining mixed flocks of buntings and sparrows in farmland areas. We had excellent views of their super-stripy head pattern, before they disappeared over a ridge. Behind us, a ringtail Hen Harrier was quartering the fields favoured by Montagu’s Harriers in spring and summer.

The Rio Almonte crossing, just before the village of Monroy, would be our final stop of the morning. Crag Martins were wheeling round above us as we arrived here and out of the wind in this sheltered valley, we felt the warmest temperatures of the day. White and Grey Wagtails were along the river, and the surrounding bushes on the rocky slopes held many Song Thrush and Blackcap among other common birds.

Careful scrutiny of movement among the bushes also revealed a couple of Hawfinches, though they never showed well and always preferred to remain hidden. A pair of Cirl Buntings were also found on the walk back, with the male singing briefly before both flew off upstream. A lovely spot, and all the time with Griffon Vultures passing overhead.

Heading up through Monroy, we stopped at a favourite spot north of the village on the road to Torrejon el Rubio. By a stand of Stone Pines, we had our lunch looking north across the dehesa towards Monfrague – but it was very cold and windy here! Nevertheless a Woodlark was up singing, and overhead among the steady stream of Griffon Vultures, three superb Black Vultures soared by.

This whole area was full of Song Thrushes and Blackcaps too – we wondered how far some of these migrants may have travelled to spend the winter here in Spain. Continuing on through Torrejon, we then headed up into Monfrague National Park and in particular to the Castillo on the top of the low mountain ridge which forms the spine of the area.

On the southern side of the ridge, it was beautifully sheltered and warm and we found a small number of Hawfinches feeding by the steps on the way up to the Castillo. They were coming to drink up by the picnic area, and we enjoyed excellent scope views of a male and female together for comparison. There were several Black Redstarts around, and Crag Martins buzzing overhead, as we made our way up the steep steps to the viewpoint.

Griffon Vulture 1

Griffon Vulture 2

Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vultures – amazing views at the Castillo in Monfrague

Here we filled our boots with the Griffon Vultures – such amazing views today, with the strong breeze encouraging large numbers onto the wing, gliding past us at eye level. The resident population of these birds were now well into their breeding cycle, and we watched them collecting sticks and grasses from a small derelict garden just below the viewpoint before carrying them across to the breeding ledges on the Pena Falcon cliff.

Griffon Vulture 4

Griffon Vulture 5

Griffon Vultures – collecting nest material

Presumably these early nesters get to choose the best ledges, and gain a head start on the migrant population which will ne arriving from Africa to bolster the numbers in a few weeks time. High overhead we also saw Peregrine and a couple of Black Vultures, plus of course the spectacular views back south across the sweeping dehesa towards Trujillo.

Descending back down to the road, we called next at the Pena Falcon crag below where we had more fantastic views of the vultures, whooshing past so close that we could hear the rush of air through their wings! A young male Blue Rock Thrush also gave some nice views, and a Golden Eagle was displaying high above in the clouds.

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – nice views of this male at the Pena Falcon viewpoint

It was now after 4pm, and we still wanted to squeeze in a visit to the Portillar del Tietar on the other side of the park. This excellent location of course came with more Griffon Vultures!

Griffon Vulture 6

Griffon Vulture – many were on the nest already

In addition, Little and Great White Egrets were seen along the river, and a House Martin whizzed through overhead. Eurasian Jay, Iberian Magpies, another Blue Rock Thrush and an unseen Common Kingfisher were also noted, though the absolute highlight here was an unseasonal Black Stork which drifted in and landed low down on the crag. The beautiful glossy green sheen to its plumage and bright red bare parts were quite stunning in the evening light – a real bonus to pick one of these up to end the day!

Black Stork

Black Stork – an unexpected bonus at Portilla del Tietar

Our journey back took just over an hour, making use of the new motorway to Navalmoral, and then down to Trujillo.

Friday 2nd February

Today we would return to Madrid, with a little birding en route as we did not have to reach the airport until about 1430.

Trujillo

Trujillo – looking towards the town at dawn as we were leaving

Having done so well with the main target birds, particularly in the steppe, we opted to stick fairly close to the E90 motorway route on our way north, stopping first at 700m elevation at the Casas de Miravete. From this escarpment, the views down across Arrocampo-Almaraz were quite spectacular, the Gredos Mountains showing fresh snow fall in the background.

A Woodlark flew over calling as we disembarked the vehicle, but other wise it was rather quiet here. We noted Sardinian Warbler, and heard a Rock Bunting a couple of times though we only saw it in flight. Our main target, Crested Tit, did not materialise at all, though a Dartford Warbler called from the low scrub and whizzed across the track. We felt our remaining time would be better spent a little further on at the wetlands around Saucedilla, where we had started our trip on day one.

At the causeway, a Glossy Ibis flew over and dropped out of sight behind the reeds. We could hear several Western Purple Swamp-hens calling from dense cover, and of course the usual barrage of Corn Buntings and Spanish Sparrows to which we had now come accustomed, were in the surrounding tamarisk scrub.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis – flew in over the reeds

Moving along the the small reserve centre, we retraced our route from the first day. Getting excellent views of an adult Western Purple Swamp-hen, and picking up the Glossy Ibis again as it flew in from the causeway and circled us before dropping back into the reeds.

The bird we really wanted to see to finish the trip in style was Penduline Tit, since we had missed out on seeing one at the first attempt. Frustratingly we could hear one calling, but despite scanning the reedmace carefully we could not locate the bird. A Common Kingfisher popped into view as we searched, and a Water Rail squealed unseen from the reeds, but the tit would not co-operate.

Eventually, we heard it call again, and this time it sounded much closer to the path! Sure enough, a male Penduline Tit flew up from the trackside bushes and landed in full view in a big willow at the edge of the reedbed – scope views for everyone! The bird then flew down into some low reedmace closer to us and began feeding, and we finally had the really good views we were after.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – finally showed well for us, a great bird to end the trip

But now it was time to make the two hour run up to Madrid, the two Black-winged Kites being seen in exactly the same location as they had been on Monday as we drove past! What a great way to end the trip! One or two Black Vultures, and several groups of Common Cranes, bid us farewell as we motored up the E90, arriving at the airport bang on schedule for our flight back to London.

It had been a wonderful five days – great birds, great food, great scenery and great company. We didn’t want to leave! The only thing to do is to plan a return trip next year. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Extremadura in 2019, please get in touch.

21st March 2016 -Broads Bound

A Private Tour today in the Norfolk Broads. Although many of the wintering birds have now departed, and the summer breeders have yet to arrive, there are still plenty of things to see on a day out in the Broads, and some fantastic scenery to enjoy.

P1190024Peacock – greeting your arrival at NWT Hickling Broad

Our first stop of the day was the NWT reserve at Hickling Broad, once we had negotiated our way past the Peacock on the entrance track.! We met in the car park and set off down the track behind the visitor centre. There were a few geese on the grazing meadows, Greylags and Canada Geese, with a pair of Tufted Duck on the water and a lone female Pochard standing on the bank nearby. We were just scanning the reedbed when we heard a Common Crane call and turned round to see two flying towards us from the direction of the Broad.

P1190028Common Crane – two flew overhead this morning

It was as if they felt the need to announce their imminent arrival to us, as they did not call again once we had seen them. The two Cranes flew slowly past, head and legs outstretched fore and aft, and disappeared off towards Stubb Mill. It was a great way to start the day.

As we approached Bittern Hide we could hear Marsh Harriers calling. We had already seen several on the way there, and we sat in the hide and watched more of them flying back and forth over the reeds. A pair at the back engaged in a short bout of talon-grappling. There didn’t seem to be much else in front of the hide at first, but when a Common Snipe dropped into the cut reeds along the side, a closer look revealed a Water Pipit creeping back into the vegetation.

At first, we could just make it out through the scope. It was preening and it had its back to us. But then the Water Pipit walked back to the water’s edge and came out into full view. At this point we could see that it was moulting into summer plumage, mostly now lacking streaking on its underparts and with a delicate pink flush across its breast instead. It picked around on the little patches of exposed mud for a couple of minutes before something spooked it. As it flew off calling, a second Water Pipit came up from the cut reeds to follow it.

IMG_0594Water Pipit – moulting into summer plumage

IMG_0551Water Pipit – its breast now mostly unstreaked and washed with pink

We took our leave and continued on, round towards the edge of the Broad. A male Marsh Harrier was calling high overhead and we watched it start to display, tumbling and swooping, gradually losing height until it dropped down into the reeds. A second Marsh Harrier, a young male, started to display nearby and the next thing we knew three were circling up together calling. The sun had just broken through the clouds and there as a bit of warmth in the air, just enough to get them all going.

Hickling Broad itself appeared fairly quiet at first, but we stopped at the screen for a closer look. A small group of Common Pochard were preening along the edge of the reeds, including three smart drakes. Further out, a Great Crested Grebe was swimming in amongst a small group of Coot. We were just looking at the Grebe when we spotted a different duck further back still and through the scope we could see it was a Common Scoter. More normally found out on the sea, this was a bit of a surprise out here but they do occasionally wander inland.

We made our way back round to the car park and drove on. Just out of the village, we heard Redwings call as they flew out of the hedge beside the road. A little further on, we could see into the field beyond and the short-cropped grass eaten down by the sheep was covered in Redwings and Fieldfares. There have been good numbers of Fieldfares particularly around here all winter, but our winter thrushes are now getting ready to fly back to the continent and feeding up near the coast.

The drive around the coast road south from Sea Palling was rather quiet today. Gone are most of the winter geese, though we did manage to find a couple of Pink-footed Geese still. One of them looked to be injured, with a drooping wing, which might explain why it was still here. There was still some standing water in the fields the other side and a little flock of Dunlin was flying round between the patches of exposed mud. The Golden Plover further over were hunkered down and looked to all intents and purposes like clods of earth themselves. We meandered our way round, with no sign of more Cranes in any of the fields where we have seen regularly them over the winter.

Our next destination was Filby Broad. We had just walked across the road to start scanning the open water when we noticed a large bird fly up across the road ahead of us. This was then followed by a second and then a third. They were White Storks and normally the sight of three White Storks circling up into the sky would be a source of much excitement. However, these are free flying birds from a local wildfowl collection which are often seen around the area here.

P1190060White Stork – a free flying bird from the local wildfowl collection

We turned our attention back to the Broad and started to scan the water from the boardwalk. There were quite a few Tufted Duck and a handful of Goldeneye out on the water, as well as lots of gulls and Coots. Working our way through them all methodically, we managed to find the Red-necked Grebe which has been here now for some time. It was a long way over, but through the scope we could see that it was starting to come into summer plumage, looking very bright now with white cheeks and a rusty red foreneck and breast.

IMG_0618Red-necked Grebe – looking smart in summer plumage, though rather distant

The Great Crested Grebes were much more obliging. There were several pairs out on the Broad and one swam right past in front of us. They too are looking stunning in their summer plumage now. A Kingfisher kept zooming back and forth from one edge of the Broad to the other, flashing electric blue as it went.

IMG_0637Great Crested Grebe – there are always lots on the Broads

With our key target here achieved, we made our way on to Strumpshaw Fen next. There are not so many ducks on the pool in front of Reception Hide now, although still a nice selection of Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and Shoveler.

P1190070Shoveler – a nice selection of ducks was visible from Reception Hide

By this stage of the day, the cloud had thickened again and it was rather cool and grey. As a consequence, the walk out to Fen Hide was rather quiet. We did hear a Water Rail squeal from the reeds and several Cetti’s Warblers shouting at each other. There has been a Jack Snipe seen from the hide on and off in recent weeks and we had hoped we might be able to find it today. It was not to be and all we could locate here were two Common Snipe instead.

IMG_0647Common Snipe – two were hiding in the reeds in front of Fen Hide

There are so many places for Snipe of any variety to hide here, and even the two which were initially in view eventually flew off and dropped back into the reeds out of sight. Two Coot decided to have a fight out on the water, leaning back and flapping their feet at each other, with two others in close attendance. A Chinese Water Deer was picking quietly around at the edge of the reeds.

We decided to carry on down to the river bank and make our way along to Tower Hide. There has been a Penduline Tit around the reserve for almost a month now, but it seems to have been seen or even just heard on only 3-4 occasions in all that time. It had been reported again early this morning, but had apparently flown over the river at that point. We scanned the heads of reedmace around the edges of the reedbed as we walked along, but we didn’t hold out much hope of coming across it given the history of its appearances.

We were almost at Tower Hide and had pretty much given up when we heard the Penduline Tit call twice, a rather thin, drawn out ‘tseeeu’. Unfortunately we were in just the spot where the trees are thickest between the path and the reeds and we simply couldn’t see through to where the call was coming from. It seemed to have stopped calling now, but we made our way the short distance further to Tower Hide and from the end window there we could look back across the reeds the other side of the trees. There was lots of reedmace down there, but no sign of the Penduline Tit. We waited a while to see if it might reappear, entertained by the local Marsh Harriers displaying over the reeds, but there was no further sight or sound of it.

As we walked back along the river bank, a Treecreeper flew past us and started working its way up the trunk of a nearby tree. There had been a few Chiffchaffs singing this morning apparently, although they had gone quiet now, but we found one feeding in the top of a willow. As we made our way back along Sandy Wall, a Marsh Tit was singing on the edge of the wood and we saw it flitting around in an oak.

We still had one more place we wanted to visit. There has been a Rough-legged Buzzard around Haddiscoe Island over the winter and it had been reported again in the last couple of days. We drove round to one of the places from which it is possible to look over the site and we were just getting into position when we spotted a bird flying away from us, low over the grass, flashing a white tail – the Rough-legged Buzzard. It perched briefly on a gatepost, before flying off even further and disappearing out of view.

IMG_0650Rough-legged Buzzard – perched briefly on a gatepost

We walked round to where we could get a different angle across the grazing marshes. There were several Common Buzzards of various shades in view, on gateposts or standing around on the ground. One in particular was strikingly white underneath. Everywhere we looked there were also Chinese Water Deer out on the grass.

We had hoped we might get another look at the Rough-legged Buzzard, but just when we least expected it it flew back in across the grass in front of us, landing briefly on another post behind the reeds. When it took off again, it started to hover, flashing its mostly white tail with a couple of black bands towards the tip. It hung there in the air for ages, allowing us to get a great look at it, before it turned and flew back out to the gatepost it had been on earlier.

P1190140Rough-legged Buzzard – hovered close by, flashing its mostly white tail

There several enormous flocks of Starlings out in the grass – we could see them occasionally fly up and move across. At one point a male Marsh Harrier had a go at them, dipping down into the group and scattering them, before flying off. The Starlings all immediately resumed what they had been doing. Then suddenly they all took to the air and the flock started to make amazing shifting shapes as they twisted and turned. A few seconds later and we could see why as a Peregrine stooped down through the murmuration, splitting it instantaneously into two.

The Peregrine turned and climbed through the flock before stooping again. This time a single Starling stupidly split off and started flying towards us. The Peregrine set off after it and was immediately joined by a Marsh Harrier, the two of them taking turns to have a go at the poor Starling. It looked like it was certainly a goner until it dropped sharply into a small patch of reeds. The Peregrine immediately lost interest, but the Marsh Harrier tried a couple of times to continue the chase, dropping down as if it was going to land into the reeds.

P1190090Starlings – pursued by Peregrine (at bottom of flock here)

The flocks of Starlings had now disappeared and the Peregrine landed on a gatepost out in the grass where it perched looking round for several minutes. Then it took off and flew away from us, climbing high up, over towards Breydon Water. It had gone some way before we could see why, as the Starling murmuration appeared again from behind a bank, way off in the distance. The Peregrine began a shallow dive, powering down hard, towards the Starlings again, scything through the flock once more.

We watched the Peregrine for a while, attacking first one flock. Then, when it had scattered, flying up high and back across to find another group to stoop at. It was great stuff, all action, even if the Peregrine did look as if it wasn’t going to get any supper. Eventually we lost sight of it and a look at the time confirmed we would have to call it a day. Still it was a great way to end.