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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Spain

2017 Tour Narrative

Once again, a transatlantic group came over to enjoy the delights of the Spanish spring. After meeting the night before (most of us having flown in from Madrid that afternoon/evening) to have drinks and dinner and even a bit of a leg-stretch, it was something of a luxury to already be familiar with the group and not start too early on the first full day, especially given the poor wet weather with a brisk easterly wind.

This weather was also true down by the Strait of Gibraltar (despite a forecast for it to be better), but as a result, plenty of small migrants were present. So, after parking adjacent to a seemingly unlikely looking site and taking a welcome drink, we braved the conditions and hit the jackpot! We were soon off on a steep learning curve to distinguish Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Common Whitethroat and Western Orphean Warblers, Common Stonechat, Common Whinchat, Common Redstart and, best of all, several roosting Red-necked from a single perched European Nightjar! Gibraltar and the rest of the mountains in the Strait were shrouded in thick cloud, but the weather started to improve and immediately after our first lunch in a local tavern we walked out to find heavy passage of European Honey Buzzards going over. So, we stopped nearby to watch, seeing many more as we travelled on.

Finally driving west into clearer conditions, we enjoyed views of Djebel Mousa in northern Morocco, and the Atlantic coast as we dropped towards the southernmost town in Europe, Tarifa. Another quick stop produced a gorgeous Little Owl perched out in the open, ignoring us completely and a few European Turtle Doves on fields round the corner! A beautiful sunset was enjoyed by all from the dining room with the sun sinking into the ocean just offset from the Cape Trafalgar lighthouse. What a great start!

A leisurely 08.00 breakfast (to help those adjusting the body clock) was followed by exit an hour later, for an exploration of the Strait. Moving via a few sites to tie-in with the likely migration, we enjoyed a fine range of birds, including a surprise group of Slender-billed Gulls alongside more expected Audouin’s; a fine variety of shorebirds including Red Knot, Grey, Ringed and Kentish Plovers in breeding plumage, with the latter shepherding their delightful chicks. Whimbrels of the Eurasian form with white back stripes, a lone Eurasian Oystercatcher and a single Ruddy Turnstone also in full breeding dress added further colour. No less than eight adult European Shags were good, as was a fine late passage of raptors, including Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Western Marsh Harriers and numerous Black Kites, plus single flocks of Black Storks and European Bee-eaters, and abundant Common and Pallid Swifts. Our return was punctuated by a stop for wonderful views over virtually the whole strait in the still clearing conditions, and our final prize in the form of a calling Common Bulbul. One of the only pair known to breed in Europe.

An early start the following day for seabirds was thwarted by a lack of wind and then a light and increasing easterly blowing them offshore, but a single Great Skua and a few Northern Gannets were some recompense. The lovely flowers and abundant birdsong as we walked out to a little lighthouse were worth getting up for in themselves.

Saying goodbye to the Strait we commenced a long transfer, with stops at two coastal estuaries and salinas, plus near the lower Guadalquivir, including a few small freshwater lakes. Stone-curlews, noisy Collared Pratincoles in a colony, our first Great Egrets and Eurasian Spoonbills, displaying Crested and Calandra Larks, a few more Audouin’s Gulls, a fine male Spectacled Warbler on a fence, a few Tawny Pipits, and Corn Buntings galore started us off busily. A stop for breeding Northern Bald Ibis at an unusual site showed how numbers continue to increase of this endangered reintroduced species (though since we visited the majority of the colony has been taken by a nocturnal predator!), giving us superb close-range views, plus numerous adjacent Eurasian Jackdaws. A coastal spot produced numerous sightings of dapper Little Swifts dashing overhead at their largest European colony, plus a nearby beach full of shorebirds and plenty of terns, enjoyed over another tasty picnic lunch. Lots of pink Greater Flamingos brightened up some salinas alongside smart Pied Avocets and bandy-legged Black-Winged Stilts, plus more noisy Little Terns, numerous Dunlin, Sanderling and Curlew Sandpipers still changing into breeding plumage, and a superb group of close Slender-billed Gulls feeding beside the vehicle. But, the lakes were probably the greatest attraction, with a few White-headed Ducks on two of them the main prize, our second fly-over Golden Oriole and plentiful Common Pochards plus Red-Crested Pochards adding variety, and even a superb Mediterranean Chamaeleon adding a real touch of class! We arrived late to Doñana, but still in time to enjoy our first outside dinner given the warmth.

The water levels of Doñana are better this year than last, with simply thousands of Greater Flamingos, Eurasian Spoonbills and Black-winged Stilts present, plus a few more specialities such as Black-necked in addition to Little and Great Crested Grebes, a couple more White-headed and five lovely Marbled Ducks, Whiskered and Black Terns and our first Squacco and Purple Herons, amongst others. Productive drives were made for singing Lesser Short-toed Lark and on our return, a superb roosting Barn Owl in a trackside bush, and a calling male Spanish Sparrow under White Stork nests, while the cacophony of sound from a dense group of singing Great Reed Warblers had to be heard to be believed, while the very elusive nature of Western Olivaceous Warblers, despite locally being at high density meant it was two attempts before we finally saw one well!

An early morning walk in woodland was a treat for the dawn chorus, including numerous Nightingales, Chaffinch, Great Tit and Hoopoe plus our first European Rabbit for the tour! Pallid Swifts in one coastal town brightened up our standard morning coffee stop, with another day at an estuary and salinas rewarding with several Western Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, a fine variety of shorebirds including our first Eurasian Curlews, Caspian, Sandwich, Common, Little and Black Terns, plus a host of small migrants, including a female Ortolan Bunting, a small fall of Northern Wheatears and a Whinchat of most note. Several Hoopoes and a superb male Penduline Tit en route between a couple of sites made a great stop too! Dinner outside again was greatly enjoyed too.

A slightly earlier start on our last morning here meant we could take a drive nearby in cooler conditions, though some thick haze meant it was significantly cooler than normal anyway. Bee-eaters adorned the stone pines and fences, a few Woodchat Shrikes too, while two singing Dartford Warblers and a couple of confiding Thekla Larks, including a strongly patterned juvenile, were quick additions to our list. A male Common Cuckoo sang from the forest nearby, along with an Iberian Chiffchaff, while the song of Nightingales, Chaffinches, Short-toed Tree Creepers and others abounded.

Moving north and towards Extremadura, a couple of stops were made en route for some choice birds. The first saw us wandering between traditional vineyards and olive orchards, where a few Rufous Bush Robins put on a show and, to our delight, a couple of Black-shouldered Kites spiralled up. The second, where we also took our, by now ‘obligatory’, picnic lunch (despite the inquisitive ants!) produced a series of good species, starting with Black Wheatear and Alpine Swift, and continuing with Crag Martin and Blue Rock Thrush.

A couple of Short-toed Snake Eagles passed over, one of which then hovered for us, rounded this off nicely. It was a hot afternoon, but we decided to make use of it to the full, so after another welcome break for fruit juices all round, we headed off to a nearby reservoir.  A pair of Eurasian Wigeon was the only new bird species, but a superb Iberian Hare was also much enjoyed, as were Great Egrets, Great Crested Grebes, Spanish Sparrows, and even Hoopoe song. This was actually to kill time to let the sun drop a little, and it worked a treat! Working our way out along a road through the agristeppe habitats so famous in the region, we quickly found a large male Great Bustard. Then four more nearby! And while looking to relocate one of them, a calling male Little Bustard was found, head and neck above of the grass. Special nest-boxes were also highly attractive to European Rollers, with no less than 11 visible along just one stretch of pylons! With nine male and two female Great Bustards in the last field as we departed we rounded off in really fine style, especially as one male was displaying vigorously, giving remarkable views. We arrived for a late dinner, but naturally no-one minded given the day’s events!

The next day dawned fine, but quickly deteriorated. Indeed, the 11ºC and rain outside was a far cry from the 30ºC we just pipped the afternoon before! This is good for steppe habitats though, literally driving some birds out of the longer wet grass, and despite the distant views on the ground of separate flocks of four Black-bellied and later four Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, on both occasions, and by sheer chance, these both took off and flew much closer! Having helped some nearby British observers to see these, their payback was an equally fine male Spanish Imperial Eagle, which after flying low across, finally pitched into the top of a tree to give extended views. A couple of Southern Grey Shrikes continued to keep things ticking along. It was still only 12ºC though, so we headed for our usual morning coffee, though this time also allowed a short break to take in the delights of the ancient city centre of Trujillo.

Monfragüe is an obligatory visit to just about every birdwatcher in the region and with the sun breaking out, the abundant Griffon Vultures went literally berserk, flying around in droves, often extremely close in the stiff breeze, and delighting us with their aerial antics. With a pair of Peregrines, three Black Storks on nests, a couple of Rock Buntings, our first Blue Tits, more Blue Rock Thrushes, plus Red-rumped Swallows and Crag Martins galore, it was a treat to just stand and watch. When more rain threatened, we moved on, this time finding a circling and then hovering adult Bonelli’s Eagle, which gave fine long views. Most of the subsequent rainstorm was spent enjoying another drink break before we returned for more Griffon action, finally returning, much earlier than usual, to the hotel to relax, as the rain fell again.

A lovely clear day followed. The air temperature never rose above 20ºC but in the sun it was lovely and warm at times, despite increasing cloud in the afternoon. Our first stop was for a Common Kingfisher fishing successfully on a small pool, while another was for a look at a cliff face, where three fabulous Eagle Owl youngsters peered back at us, their orange eyes open just enough to show that they knew perfectly well that we were there! Moving on some way we made a bee-line for a reservoir, where the extensive reedmace beds are home to a wide variety of wetland birds, including our first Sand Martins and, after some waiting, singing Savi’s (and not savage!) Warbler. We also enjoyed good numbers of other characteristic birds of the area, including Purple and Grey Herons, Great, Little and Cattle Egrets, several Little Bitterns, Western Swamp-hens, Gull-billed Terns, a male and two juvenile Black-shouldered Kites, several Southern Grey Shrikes, including a family party, numerous passing Black and Griffon vultures, a fine Red Kite alongside a dowdy Black, and passing Lesser Kestrels.

We finally left and headed for a sit-down lunch, taken outside a rural hotel in cork oak forest. A Booted Eagle hunted in front almost continuously while a singing Western Orphean Warbler was good to hear. Nearby, the first of a series of stops produced a fine female Spanish Imperial Eagle circling up and distant common linnets. The next was for some more Linnets, including a gorgeous pink-chested male beside the road. The next had us walking up and down until a colourful male Subalpine Warbler was spotted trying to impress a nearby female feeding in the gum cistus bushes by singing out in the open for a while.

And while a female Black-eared Wheatear shot across the road as we continued, further stops to look for one failed though we enjoyed more Subalpine and Dartford Warblers, singing Thekla Larks, plus a small family party of Long-tailed Tits. Our final stop was to take a walk up to a small hilltop ‘castle’ (really a fortified watchtower), which gave us magnificent 360º views out over the extensive Holm Oak dehesa plus parts of the Tagus river valley.

Two thirds of the way through the tour was to experience quite a transition day, as we left behind the southern lowlands and started to visit the inland and more northern mountains and plains. This also meant leaving nearly all the grebes, ducks, geese, coots, waders and shorebirds firmly behind us, and starting to look for a new range of more forest and montane breeding species. After a leisurely morning we headed smartly up over an increasingly steep mountain pass, marvelling at a couple of castles and particularly the ancient Roman road beside us near the higher sections as we went. After checking-in to our characterful hotel we went out for a picnic lunch in the forest and spent the rest of the afternoon searching the grazing meadows and pine forests of the nearby area, plus a short watch over the hotel’s bird feeders from their observatory. Spanish Yellow Wagtails, Northern Wheatears, our first Carrion Crows and even a couple of Rock Sparrows were quickly found nearby in the meadows, while near the picnic spot, a juvenile White-throated Dipper was seen by some, and the first of a few Grey Wagtails as we searched again for it, along with our first Coal Tits, by all. A bit of coaxing was needed to see both point-blank Goldcrest and a couple of very flighty Firecrests, while a few Iberian Green Woodpeckers were all very flighty. A singing Woodlark was only heard, though a bit more variety was added in the form of a fine Ocellated Lizard on a wall and a lovely dark Eurasian Red Squirrel ‘hiding’ in full view in a flowering willow! The day rounded off with calling Eurasian Nightjar and two calling Eurasian Scops Owls, though everyone was too tired to hear the U sound and search for them at night as they beeped from the trees just outside in the middle of the night!

The Gredos mountains are famous for their suite of subalpine breeding species and we went up in lovely conditions for a superb morning’s birdwatching, and indeed the start of a rich day’s suite of observations. Numerous Common Whitethroats and Ortolan Buntings sang from the scrubby areas, a Wryneck was a bonus, while higher still, White-throated Dippers and Grey Wagtails in the streams were at the foot of cliffs where rock buntings, Blue and Common Rock Thrushes held territory and Water Pipits and Spanish Yellow Wagtails held territories in the grassier patches. Walking up, more Ortolan and Rock Buntings, Northern Wheatears, Dunnocks and a couple of Skylarks sang, while after a good wait, a stunning male Bluethroat flew past at close range in song flight, giving a wonderful display. Even the wait was greatly enlivened by the discovery of a huge male Spanish Ibex resting on one of the slopes next to a few small females, with a few more scattered higher up near some late snow patches. Not that it was cold by any means, with several superb Schreiber’s Green and Iberian Rock Lizards out as we descended and a fine selection of raptors drifting over too, including Black Vulture and Short-toed Eagle. As we descended again, we finally bumped into a few Mistle Thrushes, which can of course be seen just about everywhere.

After a light hotel lunch we started our next transfer, taking in brief stops to marvel at the remarkable cities of Ávila and Segovia, with the massive city walls impressing at the former and main monuments, including that 1st century Roman aqueduct, being the highlights of the latter. In addition to its enviable variety of wildlife in the European context, its historical legacy is enormous too, and can’t be ignored by visitors, even on birdwatching trips! We finished up, quite late, on a patch of open páramo habitat, where despite the heat at first, a terrific variety of species was present, including el diablo. This was apparently a local name given to a rarely seen bird, or more likely, a nickname given to it by earlier birdwatchers trying to see it well! Indeed, no sooner had we stopped, than the peculiar haunting call of a Dupont’s Lark rang out over the rocky terrain, leaving us simply to try and find it. Local knowledge is the key and after some intense scanning, we finally found it, sat up in full view, albeit a little distantly, on a piece of dry stone wall!

With Black-eared Wheatears, passing Red-billed Chough, Crested, Thekla, Short-toed and Skylarks all present and singing too, it was a treat to be out, especially when a passing melanistic Montagu’s Harrier caused the bird to jump down and disappear for some time.

A short early morning walk on the outskirts of the ancient stone-built town set up the day beautifully, especially given a long drive ahead of us, with terrific views of the town enjoyed just after departing, including a Eurasian Hobby dashing past! Our long drive north was broken twice. Firstly, at some nearby woodland where a tip-off suggested we might see one bird, whereas we ‘only’ bumped into another gem instead, in the form of a young Long-eared Owl being hassled by the local passerines. The second was to take lunch at a historic town with an important Romanesque church, this also lying on the Camino de Santiago pilgrim’s route to add another cultural site to the itinerary in passing. With good numbers of raptors such a feature of Spain, it was no great surprise that we clocked up a good selection during the day too, including small numbers of Griffon, Black and Egyptian Vultures, Black Kite, Montagu’s and Marsh Harriers, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel and Booted Eagle.

A couple of short stops were also made once we’d reached our destination in the beautiful Picos de Europa. Despite much cooler temperatures and a very much more retarded spring here, a few interesting butterflies were on the wing, while the suite of common birds had also changed quite markedly. Black and Common Redstarts, Blue and Great Tits, Serins, Blackcaps and Song Thrushes were the more obvious birds by the hotel, even if mostly only heard!

With two full days in the area to enable us to be flexible for our higher mountain trip, the forecast was not great for either, but you take your chances when you can, and we headed straight up towards the cable car on the first. Indeed, it was good enough, so we decided to go up, and even while standing in the surprisingly long queue started off well with a new bird for this tour, a family of Eurasian Treecreepers in the pines beside us! The weather was not great at the top, with a stiff wind blowing up over the cliff edge beside the cable car station, though it was far less just behind, and the group missed a Snowfinch flashing past. But the omens were good, and we persisted, deciding to make the long, though relatively flat walk towards one of the best spots in the area for high altitude species. Alpine Accentors were calling noisily all around in the nearly still conditions, but proved very tricky to spot, while passing Alpine Choughs were also, unusually, keeping their distance. Two more Snowfinches flashed past, but disappeared under the towering cliffs, again before being seen by the group… So, we continued to our final spot and waited. Finally, the weather eased slightly and began to look more promising, even if our main target was missing, though suddenly a shout went up, and there, behind us, a pair of White-winged Snowfinches were found taking food to a nesting hole in the cliff base. A great find and giving great views in the scope! A few Alpine Choughs also decided to come and investigate if we had food, landing within a few feet and amusing us with their antics.

An English couple we’d met earlier and who had started to return, given the uncertain conditions, had also decided to double-back in the improving weather and decided to try their luck too. Indeed, just as they arrived their faces fell when we informed them that we’d drawn a blank, an unusual call rang out from some cliffs, and two male Wallcreepers, sparring in display flight, where quickly spotted wheeling around over the limestone crags! Despite them going into hiding for quite long periods, we watched them well before finally deciding to return, this time getting good views of a couple of Alpine Accentors as we went and then, incredibly, another Wallcreeper feeding leisurely in the boulders just yards from the track! With a couple of Southern Chamois also spotted scattered cross the boulder fields, including a couple of playful youngsters gambling across a snow patch, it had been a superb excursion!

A terrific lunch was taken at a local bar as we descended the valley, with a final trip down into a local gorge rewarding given a couple more White-fronted Dippers, single Egyptian Vulture and Peregrine, plus a group of wheeling Alpine Swifts amongst Griffon Vultures, as well as another stop by a 10th century chapel.

After a pre-breakfast walk where we saw almost all the local small birds, we headed off into deteriorating weather, with plenty of rain midday and in the afternoon, to search the oak, beech and pine forests plus hay meadows in the valleys and lower slopes in our search for new species. With just over 40 species it was relatively quiet day, but included treats such as Short-toed Snake Eagle, Wryneck, singing Iberiae Pied Flycatcher (now treated by some authorities as a separate species), our first Spotted Flycatchers since the Strait, Cirl bunting, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Common and Black Redstarts, Grey Wagtail, Crag Martin and Alpine Swift. We also dropped into Potes for a quick visit to this lovely town.

The final day saw us on a pre-breakfast drive into the local forests, where a lucky few saw a pair of flighty Eurasian Bullfinches as the last new bird for the tour just before we had to return for breakfast. The long drive back to Madrid was again enlivened by a few raptors, White Storks and other species in passing, and we arrived comfortably early afternoon. - John Muddeman.

Updated: June 2017