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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Spain

2018 Narrative

The group assembled at Malaga airport and, after chance to get to know each other over a bocadillo de jamón, we headed west towards our first stop near Gibraltar. As would prove to be the case throughout the trip, we had to work to find any trans-Saharan migrants, but we eventually found two Western Bonelli’s Warblers and a Willow Warbler along with a host of common southern European species – such as Woodchat Shrike, Spotless Starling, Yellow-legged Gull, Common Swift, Crested Lark, Common Blackbird, and European Goldfinch – that would become staple “background fare” for the duration of our 11-day tour. Moving on, we made further stops in the farmland area near our hotel where we enjoyed stunning close views of a selection of farmland species, including Corn Bunting, Linnet, and several large charms of Goldfinches.

Day two started with views of Morocco from the panoramic window in our hotel dining room. It was clear, with such a relatively short stretch of water separating Spain and Morocco at this point, why the Strait of Gibraltar is such a draw to migrant birds moving north – and that was to be our target for the day, catching up with the raptors and storks that were crossing the Strait on their way north; but not before a stop at a coastal lagoon on our way back east towards Tarifa. Dodging showers, we took our time working our way through the shorebirds on display: Grey (Black-bellied) Plovers, Ringed Plovers, Kentish Plover, Sanderling. And, bathing with the Yellow-legged Gulls, a Spanish speciality: three Audouin’s Gulls. Continuing west, our arrival at the Strait watchpoint coincided with the arrival of a group of migrant Black Kites, many passing by at eye-level as they flapped their way in from Africa. Not far behind them, Griffon Vultures, their 8-foot wingspans casting shadows over us as they skimmed over our heads. Small-bird migration was evident, too, with European Bee-eaters, European Turtle Doves, and hundreds of swifts (Common, Pallid and Alpine) streaming overhead, and Melodious Warblers and Blackcaps in the coastal bushes, while other raptor species seen included Booted Eagle, Marsh Harrier and Common Kestrel. The afternoon was spent exploring a series of rice-fields where we added more species to our shorebird list: Black-winged Stilt, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Redshank, and Common Greenshank, as well as great views of Glossy Ibis, our first Greater Flamingos of the trip, and close views of perched European Bee-eaters.

We started day three with a trip for the recently established Northern Bald Ibis colony. They may be of captive origin but, being one of the world’s rarest birds, they’re still a very special species to see, especially watching a returning parent bird feed its wild-born chicks – bald, wrinkly, and with an oversized bill, there really are faces only their mother could love! Travelling north, we made several stops at estuaries and salt pans en route. We were treated to close and prolonged views of a stunning Red-legged Partridge singing from a tree (no, not a pear tree sadly). Eurasian Whimbrel, Little Tern, Little Stint and Pied Avocet were added to the tour list and our counts of Greater Flamingo and Dunlin rose to the hundreds. Little Swift is widespread south of the Mediterranean but is restricted to a handful of breeding sites in Europe. We timed our lunch stop to coincide with arrival at one of these sites and were able to sit eating our picnic while we watched several of them wheeling above our heads and visiting nests in a nearby building.  Onwards, we arrived in the famous Doñana National Park in time for some pre-dinner birding. Our hotel grounds providing an ideal birding base and we soon spotted Melodious Warbler, Garden Warbler, Hoopoe, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Serin, and Iberian Azure-winged Magpie. Back in the dining room for dinner, we paused briefly between the main course and dessert for a trip outside. A short walk down the hotel entrance track and there is was, our target bird: Red-necked Nightjar. We could hear a singing male but it took a short wait until he eventually flew up, glided back around, and sat back down for some more out-of-view singing. Then, back inside for dessert!

Day four was spent exploring Doñana, first with some roadside birding – where we caught up with Common Cuckoo, Common Buzzard, and Red-rumped Swallow – and then at a large puddle just outside of the town! In this unremarkable-looking location we added Little Ringed Plover, Whiskered Tern and Squacco Heron to our tally. Moving on, we spent a short while looking for woodland birds: Golden Oriole was typically elusive, as were the multiple Common Nightingales and Cetti’s Warbler, but we soon struck gold – or should that be black, white and red? – with a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming on a bare trunk just above our heads. The afternoon was spent around the famous marsh areas, with exciting birds arriving thick and fast. Marbled Duck, Red-crested Pochard, thousands of egrets and Glossy Ibis, Purple Swamphen, Purple Heron, and ‘Iberian’ Yellow Wagtail. A little further on we found dozens of Black-necked (Eared) Grebes and, in the distance, tens of Collared Pratincoles. Looking more like swallows than shorebirds as they hawk for insects, these birds gave frustratingly brief and distant views; until, that is, we found two right next to the roadside where we were able to enjoy great views of their short legs, forked tail, stubby bills, and delicate black-lined ‘bib’. A thunderstorm sent us heading back to the hotel, but not before we’d added Great Reed Warbler, Spanish Sparrow and Lesser Kestrel to the day’s haul.

Day five started at Doñana’s impressive White Stork colony. First, we checked the lake: much of the same as yesterday, although a Slender-billed Gull was a pleasant surprise amongst the commoner Black-headed Gulls, and several Greylag Geese and a male Northern Shoveler were seen. Lunch was spent under the storks’ nests, quite literally – the picnic area is surrounded by active nests, the stork’s bill clattering a constant background sound! Back at the lake, another scan revealed a coot… a Red-knobbed Coot. This species, once on the brink of extinction in Europe, has been saved thanks to conservation work that’s largely centred on work done in the Doñana National Park. We finished our day with some more woodland species: this time, Short-toed Treecreeper, our first Chaffinches of the tour, singing Iberian Chiffchaff, and great views of Common Nightingale.

Another day ‘on the road’, we left Doñana to head to another of Spain’s famous National Parks: Monfragüe. Arriving mid-afternoon, we dropped our bags at the hotel where we found ourselves face-to-face with Crag Martins, which nested around the hotel, as well as eye-level views of Red-rumped Swallows from the hotel terrace and the amusing sight of Spanish Sparrows bringing back nesting material 10-times their own body length. Next we headed to the river bridge where we enjoyed more great views of swallows and martins, as well as our first Long-tailed Tits of the tour; then we made our way to the magnificent Griffon Vulture colony – birds nest a matter of metres from the viewpoint, giving not only great views but also the chance to hear the dinosaur-like calls of this species! Griffon Vultures aren’t the only raptors here, with several Black Vultures seen overhead, an Egyptian Vulture, Booted Eagle, Common Kestrels, a Peregrine Falcon, and two Short-toed Eagles. As if that wasn’t sufficient to justify Monfragüe’s title of European raptor capital, a short way further along the road we made an unscheduled stop as an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle passed overhead in the company of two Black Vultures. Several Black Storks were also noted, as was a handsome male Blue Rock Thrush.

One week into the tour, Steppeland species are in steep decline across much of Europe and were proving hard to catch up with this year, so we were pleased to find four Little Bustards, one of which crossed the track just in front of our vehicle. Great Bustard proved harder to pin down with flight views of one bird as it flew away from us over the brow of a hill: on the list, but hardly satisfactory. Flocks of Lesser Kestrels, dozens of Calandra Larks, a Montagu’s Harrier and several electric-blue European Rollers eased the frustration. We finished the day at a wetland area where a Little Bittern showed itself to just one lucky member of the group. An hour of standing around later, we called it a day and headed back to the hotel where we whiled away the remainder of the day watching Crag Martins, Red-rumped Swallows and Spanish Sparrows from the terrace while we sipped on a tinto de verano.

Day eight started with great views of two Bonelli’s Eagles circling over our heads, followed by a look at some of the more ‘central European’ woodland species that had become more common since moving further north: European Wren, European Robin, and Blackcap. Next up was a trip to the Monfragüe Fort. Taking the bus up and wandering back down again was perfect for seeing everything with minimum legwork! A Western Orphean Warbler was singing but not seen somewhere on the slopes below the fort, while several Blue Rock Thrushes showed off with display flights around the castle walls. Two jet-black male Black Redstarts gave great views, as did a Horseshoe Whip Snake that was basking by the steps down from the fort. From the fort, we headed back to the steps. Only one Little Bustard around today but, just as we were heading back sure that we had failed to secure good views of Great Bustard – one appeared in the centre of a large field. Scopes were duly set up and views enjoyed by all. We watched as the bird slipped away again into the long grass, showing just how easy it is for this turkey-sized bird to go undetected despite its size. The icing on the cake was a magnificent Spanish Imperial Eagle that flew lower overhead before circling in the sun, giving the group perfect views from every angle. There followed a unanimous vote to return to the hotel repeat yesterday’s tinto de verano on the terrace in celebration of another great day!

If day eight had been all about getting better views of Great Bustard, day nine was the day for catching up with Little Bittern. No sooner had we arrived, a male Little Bittern gave prolonged views as it flew from one end of the reedbed to the other. Perfect! The pressure was off now, and we were able to start our journey north earlier than scheduled. Not without a stop first to pick up Spectacled Warbler: great views of a singing male. The habitat soon began to change as we climbed into the Sierra del Gredos. Climbing higher, a roadside stop gave us superb close views of Firecrest and Coal Tit. Higher still, we connected with our first Dunnocks of the tour as well as excellent views of Rock Bunting. Descending on the other side of the Sierra mountain range, we stopped briefly in an area of woodland where we caught up with our first Eurasian Nuthatches of the tour as well as two stunning male Iberian Pied Flycatchers. In the river valleys we tried our luck for White-breasted Dipper: a nest was located but no birds were visiting. However, the immediate area did hold a family group of Common (Red) Crossbill, a Grey Wagtail, several Short-toed Treecreepers, and a migrant Western Orphean Warbler. The final treat of the day was at our hotel, where mirrored glass and a feeder/drinking pool gave us point-blank views of a variety of common birds.

We left the hotel early on day ten to head to the high peaks of the Sierra del Gredos. Several stops en route saw us adding sought-after birds such as Ortolan Bunting, Red-backed Shrike, and Common (Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush to our ever-growing tour list. At the summit, Eurasian Skylark, Northern Wheatear, Dunnocks and Black Redstart were common; but the real jewels of the area were the Bluethroats, the pure-blue throats of these Iberian azuricollis-race birds shining like sapphires. Another try for dipper was again fruitless but this time we struck gold in the form of a small party of Citril Finches. The group enjoyed close-range scope views as these normally shy and elusive birds fed in the pine trees. Heading from the mountains to the plains, via a magnificent paella lunch, we spent the afternoon searching for Dupont’s Larks. Perhaps one of Europe’s hardest birds to catch up with, it wasn’t surprising that we finished the day Dupont’s-less; but we did in the process find Rock Sparrows, Thekla’s Larks, several Lesser Short-toed Larks, our first Red-billed Chough of the tour, and a pair of Egyptian Vultures.

Day 11 started where day ten had ended. This time, though, we struck it lucky with four Dupont’s Larks heard singing. Then, amazingly, one of them gave good-if-brief views as it indulged in a short song flight. Two Western Black-eared Wheatears, a pair of Western Orphean Warblers, several Woodchat Shrikes and half-a-dozen species of lark were a fitting supporting cast. Moving north, the landscape started to change again as we reached the dramatic peaks of the Picos de Europa. Half-a-dozen Mistle Thrushes were seen along the roadside, and several Iberian Chiffchaff were heard singing. We spent the afternoon exploring the picturesque farmland around one of the area’s traditional Alpine villages, giving way to a herd of cows on their way down the road from their daytime pastures. A pair of Red-backed Shrikes was a pleasant surprise, though equally attractive were the more-expected Common Redstarts and Cirl Buntings.

For our twelfth day of the tour, we joined a local guide with a 4x4 and headed up – up 2,000 m to well above the treeline. The commonest breeding species up here was Water Pipit, followed by Northern Wheatear and Black Redstart. Parties of Red-billed Chough were circling overhead, soon joined by groups of Alpine (Yellow-billed) Chough, a handful of which came down to feed on picnic scraps left by hikers. Star species though went to six small birds that were shuffling around in the valley below us – White-winged Snowfinches, high-altitude specialists. The highlights weren’t over yet though: as we descended in the 4x4, we spotted a pristine male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush on a boulder by the side of the road. Back in woodland habitat, we played hide-and-seek with a Middle Spotted Woodpecker and enjoyed good views of Great Spotted Woodpecker. A Eurasian Hobby sped through and several Red Kites were seen but the best raptor was yet to come; as clouds closed in around the high peaks, a Lammergeier soared down the valley.

Our final full day in Spain was spent catching up with a couple of stubborn species that we’d failed to get good views of so far. First up, Iberian Green Woodpecker. We were soon enjoying crippling views of a bird sitting on the side of a wooden telegraph pole. Next up, Eurasian Jay. Like London buses, having failed to see any all week we had notched up seven by the end of the day including several flying over the road in front of us. It would have been a great shame to have travelled so far from the southern Mediterranean coast of Spain and to not see the northern Atlantic coast, so we headed north for our final afternoon through the narrow gorges that lead out of the Picos de Europa to the Cantabrian coast. We finished the day with “a quick look for a Wryneck”; and, there one was, a Wryneck feeding amongst the grass of an orchard – a fitting way to end a magnificent coast-to-coast grand tour of Spain.

-        Stephen Menzie

Created: 12 June 2018