Tag Archives: Thekla Lark

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.

 

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.

July 2017 – Midsummer Majorca

No a tour but a family holiday. A ‘busman’s holiday’, because there are always opportunities to go looking for birds and other wildlife, even in the Mediterranean in midsummer! We had been to Majorca just a couple of years ago, but it is still a great place to revisit. This gave us an opportunity to visit a few different sites and try to get better photographs of some species.

Balearic Warbler is one of the key species to see on any visit to Majorca, as they are endemic to the Balearic Islands. They are most easily seen in early spring, when the males are singing, and at other times they can be very skulking. They live in the low scrub, garrigue, often close to the sea, and feed very low down or on the ground in the dense thorny bushes, generally below knee height.

We saw several Balearic Warblers on our last visit but, being July then too, they were very hard to photograph. This visit, it looked like it would be the same story until we stumbled across a male collecting food along a path through the coastal scrub one morning. We followed it as it flew across and disappeared into a clump of bushes, before flying out with a faecal sac – they were clearly nesting there. Quietly standing a short distance away from the bushes, concealed behind a large rock, we were treated to fantastic views of the two adults as they came in and out with food.

Balearic Warbler male 1Balearic Warbler – the male, crown feathers raised

Balearic Warbler male 2Balearic Warbler – the male again, with bright red eye ring

Balearic Warbler female 1Balearic Warbler – the female, with orange eye ring & paler on forehead / lores

Moustached Warbler breeds very locally around the Mediterranean and this is a great place to catch up with them. This was another species we wanted to get better photographs of, although they seemed to be harder to find at s’Albufera in 2017. There was a lot less vegetation in the main channel this year, where they had been very obvious on our last visit, collecting food.

Fortunately, we found a couple of families feeding young along a reedy channel further into the reserve. They were mostly very low down in the reeds, but we did get some nice views of them in the end.

Moustached WarblerMoustached Warbler – feeding along a reedy channel

Another species we wanted to spend some time photographing on this visit was Eleonora’s Falcon. This species breeds on islands in the Mediterranean, with a delayed breeding season to coincide with the southbound autumn migration of small birds which it catches to feed to its young. They can be found in several places around Majorca, but we spent a couple of very pleasant afternoons watching them zooming around the rocky cliffs on the Formentor peninsula. Fantastic birds!

Eleonora's Falcon 1

Eleonora's Falcon 2

Eleonora's Falcon 3Eleonora’s Falcon – a pale morph adult

Eleonora's Falcon 4Eleonora’s Falcon – a dark morph adult, with sooty underparts

A trip up into the Tramuntana Mountains on one morning produced a nice selection of other raptors. This is a good place to see both Black Vulture and Griffon Vulture and we saw several of both, rather distant initially but then better views overhead as we stopped at Mortitx on our way back down.

Black VultureBlack Vulture – with distinctive pale feet

Griffon VultureGriffon Vulture – with paler underwing coverts compared to Black Vulture

Mortitx is the release site for the project to reintroduce Bonelli’s Eagle to Majorca and we managed to see a distant immature bird here. It is a long walk down into the valley to the best area for them and it was the middle of the day when we stopped there – too hot to walk all the way in!

Moltoni’s Warbler was the other target species for us in the mountains. We had seen several on our last visit, but they proved much more difficult this time. We did see a couple of them, but we were perhaps a week late this year, as we had managed to catch them feeding recently fledged young last time.

Moltoni's WarblerMoltoni’s Warbler – a dull female, lacking the male’s pink underparts

Since our last visit, the Spotted Flycatchers breeding on the Balearic Islands, Corsica and Sardinia have been split out as a separate species by the IOU, with the English name of Mediterranean Flycatcher. So, well worth looking at again. They are very similar but rather paler and more sparsely streaked below than our Spotted Flycatchers. Fortunately they are very common – and very charismatic birds to watch too.

Mediterranean Flycatcher 2

Mediterranean Flycatcher 1Mediterranean Flycatchers – recently split from Spotted Flycatcher by IOU

Balearic Woodchat Shrike is still just a race of the more widespread Woodchat Shrike, subspecies badius. It is rather locally distributed on Majorca, although we saw several at Son Real one afternoon, which appears to be a good site for this subspecies. The light was not great for photography, so here is a good reason to go back to Majorca, to get better images of these birds.

Balearic Woodchat ShrikeBalearic Woodchat Shrike – lacking the white patch at the base of the primaries

One of the other highlights of our visits to Majorca has been watching the herons and egrets at s’Albufera. There is a large mixed breeding colony in the trees by the main channel here and the stone bridge provides a great vantage point to watch them at close quarters, flying in and out of the colony. Great for photography!

Glossy Ibis was a real feature amongst the herons this year. We didn’t see any on our visit in 2015, but there were several around the colony and apparently they have bred here this year.

Glossy IbisGlossy Ibis – apparently bred at s’Albufera this year

In with the constant stream of Cattle and Little Egrets, this is a great place to see Squacco Herons and Night Herons too.

Squacco Heron 1

Squacco Heron 2Squacco Heron – flying back to the breeding colony

Night HeronNight Heron – over the stone bridge in the morning

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – the commonest species flying in and out of the colony

There are also smaller numbers of Purple Herons and the odd Grey Heron here too, but they don’t tend to fly along the channel. However, we were lucky to have a Purple Heron fly right over us as we explored along one of the paths beside the channel. We also saw a couple of Little Bitterns at s’Albufera, but they were not as obliging as on our last visit – a male which flew in and landed on the edge of a reedy ditch very close to us, but partly obscured by reeds, and a more distant female along the main channel.

Purple HeronPurple Heron – circled over us by the main channel one morning

The reserve here is a great place to get close to several other Mediterranean wetland species. Red-knobbed Coot, Purple Swamphen and Red-crested Pochard were all reintroduced here in the 1990s after having died out in previous years. The first two species in particular can be seen fairly easily here these days. As well as plenty of these, we also saw Red-crested Pochard and a pair of Marbled Duck too at s’Albufera,

Red-knobbed CootRed-knobbed Coot – reintroduced to Majorca

Purple SwamphenPurple Swamphen – also reintroduced to Majorca, common now in s’Albufera

S’Albufera is also good for waders. It is a great place to watch Kentish Plovers and Little Ringed Plovers in front of the hides. A couple of the pairs of Kentish Plover had very recently hatched young – little more than a ball of fluff on ungainly long legs!

Kentish PloverKentish Plover – a male, in front of one of the hides

Kentish Plover juvKentish Plover – a very small, recently hatched juvenile

We saw various other species of waders both here and at Salobrar de Campos, the saltpans in the south of the island. The first few migrants were coming through – the highlights being a single Spotted Redshank and a single Curlew Sandpiper, along with more Green and Wood Sandpipers, plus Curlew and Greenshank.

Black-winged Stilts are found on all the wetlands. Salobrar de Campos is a great place to photograph them, as they fly overhead noisily protesting at your presence!

Black-winged Stilt 1

Black-winged Stilt 2

Black-winged Stilt 3Black-winged Stilts – a common breeding bird on the wetlands in Majorca

We saw several Audouin’s Gulls bathing in the main channel by the path out to s’Albufera in the afternoons, but the best place to get close to them was on the beach at Port de Pollenca in the evenings among the empty sun loungers! The gulls come down to look for scraps after the crowds have thinned out and can be very obliging here.

Audouin's Gull 1

Audouin's Gull 2Audouin’s Gull – close views on the beach in the early evening

Aside from all the speciality species and wetland birds, there are also many other regular Mediterranean species to be seen here. Thekla Larks on the Spanish mainland can be hard to separate from the confusingly similar Crested Lark, but on Majorca there are none of the latter making the identification much more straightforward!

Thekla LarkThekla Lark – not common but encountered fairly regularly

It is always a pleasure to watch Bee-eaters and there were plenty around s’Albufera and the neighbouring areas.

Bee-eaterBee-eater – always great birds to watch

That is just a small selection of the birds which we managed to see in a week on Mallorca. The final list for the holiday tallied up to 98 species (plus a White-cheeked Pintail – presumably recently escaped from somewhere!). That is a very respectable total for midsummer – and we even managed to find plenty of time for relaxing by the pool in the heat of the day! It is a great place to visit and we will be back…

July 2015 – Birding Mallorca

I have not been to Mallorca for almost 35 years so this year seemed like an appropriate time for a return visit. The Balearic Islands have a number of birds for which they are well known and a lot more is known about the taxonomy of the forms in the region now. Some birds which breed there have been elevated to full species in the intervening period, whereas others remain interesting subspecies – for now at least. Either way, there were quite a number of birds I was very keen to catch up with again.

Mallorca is also a great place to see a variety of the more regular southern European birds. While July is not the ideal time for a visit, as it can get very hot during the day, we still had a very successful trip. We saw just under 100 species in total during the week we were there, and all the main ones we had wanted to see. The photos below show a few of the highlights – I can thoroughly recommend a birding trip to the island.

P1050024P1040238Balearic Warbler – a recent split from Marmora’s Warbler, this species is one of the main targets, normally to be found skulking in coastal garrigue

P1050327P1050314Moltoni’s Warbler – another very recent split (from Subalpine Warbler), found on mountain hillsides, the distinctive Wren-like call gives it away – this female (above) was feeding a couple of juveniles (below)

P1040999P1040805Moustached Warbler – found sparsely but widely around the Mediterranean and S Europe, s’Albufera on Mallorca is one of the best places to see this secretive reedbed-dwelling species

P1040768P1040765Eleonora’s Falcon – found on rocky islands and coastal cliffs around the Mediterranean, Mallorca is a great place to watch this species in action

P1040580P1040658Balearic Woodchat Shrike – currently still treated as a subspecies (badius) this form lacks the white primary patch of the other Woodchat Shrikes

P1040698Spotted Flycatcher – the local race, balearica, is noticeably paler and less streaked than the ones we see in UK

P1040710P1040727Crossbill – likewise, the local balearica race of Crossbill has noticeably different calls to the ones we see here

P1040530P1040584Red-knobbed Coot – also known as Crested Coot, this species was extinct on Mallorca but has been reintroduced and now appears to be doing well – it is easy to see around the reserve at s’Albufera

P1040577Purple Swamphen – also reintroduced to s’Albufera and also seemingly now doing very well

P1040472P1040499Little Bittern – s’Albufera reserve provides fantastic opportunities to observe this typically secretive species, the female (immediately above) was watched for hours feeding quietly along a reed-fringed ditch

P1040600Little Bittern – this female clamboured up into the top of a large clump of reeds and perched, neck outstretched, for a couple of minutes while we stood and admired it

As well as the Little Bitterns, s’Albufera reserve has a wide variety of other egrets and herons, which can all be watched at close quarters, particularly flying in and out of the nesting colonies.

P1040974Squacco Heron

P1040587Night Heron

P1040960Cattle Egret

P1050005Purple Heron

P1040440Great White Egret – a more recent arrival, a couple were seen feeding around the scrapes

P1050201Greater Flamingo – mostly a winter visitor, a few seem to remain for the summer around the saltpans in the south

P1040880P1050182Black-winged Stilt – easy to see at all the main wetlands, and always a pleasure

P1040451Kentish Plover – also a common bird at the main wetland sites, but particularly accommodating at s’Albufera, a great place to study the species up close

P1040183Stone Curlew – still a fairly common bird of farmland on the island, more often heard in the evening than seen during the day

P1050115Audouin’s Gull – previously rather difficult to see here, this bird is now common and often to be found scavenging around beaches in the late afternoon when the crowds have gone

P1050344Black (Cinereous) Vulture – not hard to find in the Tramuntana Mountains in the north of the island, though Griffon Vultures have colonised in recent years and are now also to be found in many of the same places

P1050057Booted Eagle – not as common as in S Spain, for example, but still can be seen regularly in the mountains, this one a pale adult

P1050253Thekla Lark – the only Galerida lark on the island, hence avoiding the risk of confusion with the very similar Crested Lark of the mainland, the birds here have a straighter lower mandible than those elsewhere

P1050328Tawny Pipit – not uncommon in the right habitat, but not a particularly easy bird to find, this one a juvenile

P1040876Sardinian Warbler – one of the commonest birds on the island, but often skulking in the undergrowth, this female fed out in the open on the ground wrestling with a large winged insect

P1040194Bee-eater – found widely across southern Europe but always a delight to see, we watched this pair visiting their nest burrow in a sandy cliff face