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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Spain

2015 Tour Narrative

This tour can really only be summarized adequately by working up the varied list of highlights that the trip participants themselves selected and those will be scattered in the accounting below. The route of this tour, of course, is designed to visit as many different types of terrain and habitats as possible which permits a fine introduction to Spain, with its associated majestic and greatly varied scenery from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Picos de Europa. From landscapes to historic buildings the magnificent scenery was also highlighted, including seeing a 1st century Roman Aqueduct. The roadside banks filled were with beautiful flowers and were enjoyed almost throughout. A minor change in itinerary this year also worked well, resulting in an extraordinary final list of species recorded on the tour: 232 seen by at least one participant and just another 3 species heard-only! As one member of the group noted, they say 140 life birds! While it’s impossible to see everything on a tour of this duration, the inclusion of two new areas really enhanced the experience on all fronts.

Indeed, the delightful Sierra de Gredos gave us the opportunity to see mountain gems such as Bluethroat, Rock Thrush, a remarkably tame Ortolan Bunting, flighty Citril Finches, lovely Red Squirrels and endemic Spanish Ibex. Here we also experienced one of the best rural hotels we know of in Spain (along with its delicious food). Indeed, our stay here was at one of the trip favorites; the three hotels being the one on the Atlantic coast, the “hotel with blinds”, and our base in the Picos. The stunning Picos de Europa mountains also gave us one of our most memorable days, where in sublime weather in spectacular scenery we rode the Fuente Dé cable car ride into the alpine. We were able to catch up with the difficult Wallcreeper and acrobatic Alpine Choughs here. Other highlights included the remarkable walk into a true mountain hamlet, where were we accompanied by a Wild Boar piglet and friendly fuzzy dog (which according to an elderly local resident had become “good friends”). We also saw a fine male Common Redstart here.

The Strait of Gibraltar is justifiably renowned as a bottleneck site for migrating birds in the spring, both for those moving back north into Western Europe, as well as those moving east into, or west out of, the Mediterranean. The close proximity to Africa means a couple of very localized birds breed only here. We waited on Common Bulbul in the rain and were rewarded when like clockwork, as soon as rain ceased a pair popped out, sat on an antenna and then were gone. The nearby colonizing Little Swifts reinforced this feeling, along with the astonishing roadside colony of reintroduced Northern Bald Ibis. Many other birds and locations were enjoyed where the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean and two continents coincide, with the African coastline visible to the south most of the time. Our first migrants were noted in park, including smartly plumaged male Pied Flycatchers, while a high and notable raptor migration was ongoing including flocks of Black Kites and our first European Honey-buzzards.

The seawatch from the Atlantic viewpoint early one morning was rewarding. There were 7 different skuas (including Great Skua), and a few people saw a single distant Scopoli’s and two passing Balearic Shearwaters. Later, after the midday rain, we saw Bulbul, Pratincoles, Northern Wheatears, Stone Curlew and a Calandra Lark (larking high in a fixed position of 10+ minutes). We also had excellent views of Audouin’s Gulls, Kentish Plovers, Greater Short-toed Larks and fabulous hawking European Bee-eaters. Despite wind and heavy drizzle, the Cork Oak forest yielded Iberian Chiffchaff, Firecrest, migrant Garden Warbler and female Pied Flycatcher, We rounded that day off with lunch in a very traditional bar including delicious paella, which naturally set a high standard to follow!

The bird-rich area surrounding Doñana is always filled with exciting birds, from Rufous-tailed Bush-robin, Western Olivaceous and Cetti’s Warblers in the scrub, to shy Marbled and dapper White-headed Ducks. Other highlights incliuded Slender-billed Gulls in the salinas, 100s of elegant Pied Avocets and Black-winged Stilts, colorful superb close male Iberian Wagtails, flocks of gently honking Greater Flamingos, and the garrulous comings and goings from a huge mixed Glossy Ibis - heronry. Not to mention ALL the raptors, which are so prevalent throughout Spain.

Our hotel in Doñana is right on the doorstep of some very productive habitats, and was the perfect setting for a gentle introduction to some of the classic birds of the area, including a flock of Whiskered Terns, while the drive through the maze of farming roads that criss-cross the marshes and hinterland produced a wealth of new sightings. Highlights included Spanish Sparrows, exotic Black-headed Weavers, rare Red-knobbed Coots, Black-necked & Great Crested Grebes, Spotted Redshank, Purple and Squacco Herons, Great Reed Warblers and even a mid-afternoon Lesser Short-toed Lark singing from a low bush for all to enjoy! Another early morning was rewarded with Red Fox and Wild Boar adding to a fine variety of birds including Woodlark, Thekla Lark, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (first for this tour), Spotted Flycatcher and Cirl Bunting, while a coastal estuary produced a stunning summer-plumaged Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as a late Ruff, a pair of Montagu’s Harrier, Osprey (yes, a very notable bird here!), two fishing Caspian Terns, a dapper summer-plumaged Black Tern, numerous Little Terns, plus a few Ruddy Turnstones in bright breeding dress.

There were other choice moments, including the [Iberian] Lynx walk in Doñana, where we followed the Lynx family footprints for a few hundred metres until they were erased by the first passing car. We also enjoyed the evening Red-necked Nightjar / owl excursion where we started with two fine Iberian Hares, saw and heard the nightjar, also heard a Eurasian Eagle-owl and flushed a Long-eared Owl from a post as we left! Seeing a family of baby Eagle-owls later on was the icing on the cake in a difficult year for locating the species. A mixed-morph pair of Tawny Owls in broad daylight was a rare treat, with one a stunning grey and the other a lovely warm brown.

Extremadura is widely regarded in birdwatching circles as one of THE places to visit in Europe, and we naturally enjoyed many memorable moments here, even if we did need two early mornings to see all the steppe species. Highlights included Great & Little Bustards, Pin-tailed & Black-bellied Sandgrouse, European Roller and Montagu’s Harrier. Even what is apparently ‘mundane’ there when seen through new eyes is refreshing, and with a plethora of special birds in the region it was fascinating to see how the White Storks on their nests, Red-legged Partridges and lovely Egyptian Vultures figured so highly. A crag + reservoir combo en route acted as the perfect lunch stop and enabled us to enjoy the unlikely mixture of Alpine Swift, Gull-billed Tern, Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush, Eurasian Crag Martins and an adult Bonelli’s Eagle! A hot afternoon stop at another reservoir produced a wealth of sightings including a male Tufted Duck, single pairs of Eurasian Teal and Common Shelduck, our first Great Egret and a truly huge female Peregrine. The subsequent drive across breezy flower-filled pseudo-steppe was a truly memorable end to a rich day with a calling Little Bustard, a couple of gorgeous European Rollers and a small group of magnificent Great Bustards. A still-overcast start one day meant it was ideal for a reservoir, though a few Mistle Thrushes stopped us en route and Rock Sparrow, Eurasian Nuthatch and various other dehesa species added to the variety. The reservoir was relatively quiet, but a late Sedge Warbler, numerous Little Bitterns in flight, plenty of Western Purple Swamphens and calling Water Rail, plus elusive Savi’s but better Cetti’s Warblers were terrific.

There were many other birds of course, including colorful Common Kingfisher, a wonderfully showy singing Dupont’s Lark, a White-throated Dipper collecting nesting material, a tricky Spectacled Warbler, Bee-eaters everywhere, and a pair of calling Wryneck. One comment from a participant perhaps stands out: “Favorite birds? All of them! Life for me is more about the outdoor experiences than a singular object.”

The whole tour could still have been difficult if the group hadn’t gotten along well, but a fantastic rapport quickly struck up among all and made it even better. A holiday should be just that; tremendous fun with people you like! I wasn’t going to mention John and Michael’s Indian comedy routine, but it highlights the quality of the participants who so freely shared their experiences and knowledge. Thank you all for making this such a special and enjoyable tour! 

-          John Muddeman

Updated: September 2015