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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2022 Narrative

1st May – Málaga

We all met successfully at the hotel at the prearranged time and after a quick-ish intro and an excellent dinner in a local restaurant.

2nd May – Málaga, eastern Strait of Gibraltar area

We rose to a lively sunrise and after quickly loading up the minibus, were away in good time despite a detour to the airport and the hire car office since a warning message had come up on the nearly new vehicle! It was solved, since almost everyone was off on holiday, by buying the appropriate liquid on route after restarting, meaning minimal time was lost. We headed down the coast towards the impressive rock of Gibraltar, the rock really being a limestone ridge jutting up to form the E flank of the Algeciras Bay, being particularly impressive from just below as we took a closer look! An urban park may not seem like the best place to bird during a public holiday but given the strong W winds and murky conditions over the Strait, and despite significant gusts of wind moving the leaves on the trees much of the time, it paid off. OK, so it was much harder work than normal to pick out the small migrants feeding in the smaller deciduous trees, but with persistence, we had great views of Spotted and Pied Flycatchers, plus Garden, Western Bonelli’s and Willow warblers, plus a few dapper Woodchat Shrikes and, for a lucky few, a fly-over European Turtle Dove (or two) and even a fly-over Common Cuckoo! We had actually started our stroll by looking at side-by-side Common and Pallid Swifts hawking and circling in the lee of some tall buildings, as well as watching a few Pallids come in to their nests in the dense mats of dead palm fronds cloaking the upper trunks of many of the palm trees! We rounded off with a ’stake-out’ for a family of stunning Tawny Owls, with a beautiful rufous morph adult sitting out our disturbance as we watched and photographed it, while a greyer juvenile was clearly miffed by the proceedings and headed into denser cover after a while, after flying to one tree and then back again! With all our luggage still in the car, it was time to head to the hotel and, as luck would have it, the rooms had just finished being prepared and we were quickly able to walk in and drop things off, before readjourning outside to see what birds, if any, were crossing in the strong winds. It was surprisingly quiet, despite a few Scopoli’s and Balearic Shearwaters heading west into the powerful wind, and above them flying almost sideways in order to use the lift of the head-on winds available, a few raptors were noted. OK, so the first group was a flock of 21 Black Kites, but in ones and twos, other birds were noted too, including a total of five Western Marsh and two female Montagu’s Harriers, and a small group of 3 Black Storks battling (albeit well!), to make landfall. We eventually just ran this watch into a delicious outside lunch, with another single Black Stork and a superb single European Honey Buzzard, which after rapidly disappearing ‘under’ the cliff in front, then suddenly shot up and almost directly over us on the wind currents rising up the small cliffs!

With such strong winds, instead of heading west into the Strait and into the teeth of the weather, we tried a walk through some meadows and towards forest on the E side. However, being a public holiday meant it was busy and noisy, and despite being warmer, was still quite windy! However, again we persisted, and a few mobile European Goldfinch, a couple of fine singing male European Serins, singing Common Nightingales and Blackcaps, a calling Great Tit and, of most note, a singing Western Orphean warbler -also seen in flight by most of the group-, were good starter birds. A high-flying pale morph Booted Eagle and even higher passing Eurasian Griffon Vultures were both added, but we soon decided to move on to a small nearby estuary to add more variety still. With the tide rising, this was not very successful, but a fine Common Greenshank rose up calling and passed overhead on its way to a roost somewhere quieter and a few lovely male Spanish race Yellow Wagtails brightened up the saltmarsh. The Grey Herons and a Little Egret heading to a roost upriver where just too far to be readily observed in the heat haze! We returned to the hotel for a relatively early checklist call-over, not without another quick look out after arrival. Most of the birds moving were again way out, including a surprise dark morph Eleonora’s Falcon which also headed into the Algeciras Bay, but two European Honey Buzzards quite low overhead gave lovely views as they passed.

3rd May – W side of the Strait, from Tarifa to Vejer de la Frontera and La Janda

A pre-breakfast watch from the hotel for a few of the group produced a Whimbrel in addition to a few Ruddy Turnstones and Common Ringed plovers on the rocks, plus a couple of quite distant Northern Gannets winging their way out through the Strait to the Atlantic. The pair of adult Audouin’s Gulls also continued on the rocks below and a Little Egret fed in the pools, though a quite heavy rain shower stopped play for a short while. An adult European Shag flying past during breakfast was a good addition for a couple of us quick enough to get to the window with binoculars! One or two European Honey Buzzards were clearly on the move very early, but an impromptu roadside stop as we headed out for our day’s birding was required as a flock suddenly appeared low overhead. Indeed, at least 150 Honey Buzzards and a few Black Kites in a few distinct groups came past over about just 20 minutes, some wonderfully low overhead, giving great views!

With the wind having dropped dramatically and swinging to the N, while it was still cool on the W coast, the conditions were great for checking a huge beach early on, and while we struggled a bit to get close views of the birds, we did approach many better later, seeing a fine selection of species. Shorebirds were in relative abundance, including numerous Sanderling and Common Ringed Plover, with much smaller numbers of Dunlin, Kentish Plover and Grey Plover, two single Eurasian Oystercatchers, two Common Greenshanks, a couple of flighty Common Redshanks and single Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot and Common Sandpiper. Three large resting terns were two Sandwich and a single superb Gull-billed, the latter of which rose up and flew towards and then past us, giving fine views. A small flock of six European turtle doves cruised N over the dunes, while crested and Short-toed Larks sang in the fields and Common Stonechats graced the fences. Other passing birds included numerous Pallid and Common Swifts and even four Glossy ibis heading south, looking a bit out of place! A quick trip to Tarifa produced a calling Common Bulbul, possibly the only one of its species in Europe and so vying as the continent’s rarest bird (!), but it was only seen as a silhouette before quickly dropping away into thick trees and going silent. We decided to move on and I bought a large picnic lunch on the edge of town in passing. Indeed, time was marching on too, so after diverting down to the coast, where a surprisingly chilly breeze was blowing through a beach ‘chiringuito’ for a quick drink before heading up into a low sierra which afforded lovely views back S towards Tarifa and across to Morocco. This was a great spot for a lunch, with calling and displaying Booted Eagles, Griffon Vultures tending chicks on nests on a near vertical rock pinnacle, and brief visits by a singing male Blue Rock Thrush and a less tuneful, but still welcome, Common Raven!

Some salinas up the coast were difficult with the strong sun combined with chilly onshore breeze producing a strong heat haze, but a large colony of Collared Pratincoles was enjoyed at short range, plentiful noisy little terns were also present, and shallower pools and their edges held a few more Kentish Plovers as well as a single Little Stint. Scanning the local fences turned up Corn Buntings, a Woodchat Shrike and a Tawny Pipit, with several impressive Calandra Larks using the updraft to hover over the flower-filled pastures as they poured out their song. A short drive took us on to a surprising site, where an active and healthy colony of Northern Bald Ibis were breeding on roadside cliffs, much to the group’s surprise, affording us wonderful views, including the exit and entry of a few adults, which were surprisingly agile on the wing. We tried again in Tarifa for the bulbul and this time, after a short but patient wait, found it again in exactly the same spot as in the morning, clearly on its favourite calling (or is it singing?!) perch.

A truly wonderful evening meal rounded off a very rewarding day, even with a few more passing Northern Gannets for those who’d not seen them earlier, and presumably the same adult European Shag perched on some distant rocks, though it refused to stay long enough for me to get in the scope, despite having rushed upstairs for it!

4th May – from The Strait of Gibraltar to E side of Guadalquivir, then via Seville airport to El Roció

A rather slow start at c. 0845h, given a slight delay leaving airport trying to phone hire car office. Then another two slightly bizarre delays when the Civil Guard were checking vehicles at two points on the motorway, though rain interceded at our planned stop as well, so no birding was made here as hoped for. We finally made it to some salinas close to the Guadalquivir in much better weather, after a reviving drink, with thin cloud and relatively cool, very still conditions. A sprinkling of breeding plumaged Dunlin, Sanderling and especially Curlew Sandpipers giving great views, with almost countless Pied Avocets and Greater Flamingos, numerous Common Shelduck and a host of other birds, including plentiful mobile, noisy Little Terns, a Western Osprey, Black and very distant Red Kite, colourful Iberian Yellow Wagtails, and several very dapper Slender-billed gulls.

A lake and another area of adjacent salinas gave us a whole suite of new species, including Common and Red-crested Pochards, White-headed ducks, breeding plumaged Little Great Crested and Black-necked grebes, and a busy heronry including numerous Little Egrets gurgling in rather amusing fashion. A single Greylag Goose was only part of a rapidly growing feral Spanish breeding population, but a diminutive Temminck’s Stint was a treat, as was a male Little Bittern which was first watched creeping through the reeds, and then later taking a short flight before diving into the vegetation. A small flock of typically nervous Common Waxbills at least gave brief views, but a couple of distant flying Caspian Terns and mobile flocks of Black-tailed Godwit and Grey Plovers, some of the latter in stunning summer plumage, were more characteristic of the region!

Lunch was already late, but before buying a few more pits for the picnic, we stopped at two roadside pools for a couple more species. A fine Western Purple Swamphen was perhaps the best but watching the courting White-headed Ducks at close enough range to clearly hear their variety of strange buzzing and shrill squeaking calls, was a delight! Lunch was taken at a site where up to a dozen gorgeous Little Swifts were buzzing continuously around one of their still very few European colonies right in front, plus a few smart breeding plumaged Black Terns fishing a little offshore.

We started the drive towards Doñana, turning off and then down towards the Guadalquivir at one point, taking us past a series of open water pools with islands and even boxes for breeding birds, noting an excellent selection of species in the process. Outstanding amongst there were close Greater Flamingos, Eurasian Spoonbills, Pied Avocets, Collared Pratincoles, Little and Gull-billed Terns, with more as we continued on, including an impressive flock of Grey Plover on one flooded ‘field’ and innumerable Greater Flamingos. The vast tracts of saltmarsh on the opposite side housed important numbers of Crested, Calandra and especially Mediterranean (=lesser) Short-toed Larks, with one of the latter feeding on the road as we returned giving great views from the vehicle.

Time had really run away from us, so despite a couple of quick stops for photo opportunities of Greater Flamingos and Pied Avocets, we started the journey towards Doñana, reaching the unique ‘wild west’ town of El Roció , with its sand streets, with half an hour before dinner to get settled in. Dinner was taken in the restaurant across a wide plaza containing several very impressive ancient wild olive trees and call-over under a tiled wall depicting a perfect ‘pajarera’ (bird nesting tree) characteristic of the centre of the Doñana National Park.

5th May – El Rocío + nearby national park, Huelva area, El Rocío area towards dusk and after dark

A ‘quick look’ out over the marsh from beside the hotel was excellent! A good group of Greater Flamingos had come in overnight, quite simply making the view over the lake much more interesting! A pair of Great Reed Warblers crashed around in the vegetation, with the male ‘grunching and grinding’ away from time to time, with two Eurasian Reed Warblers a little later nearly look tiny in comparison. A Common Snipe flying past and then rediscovered as it fed deep under some tamarisks was quite a late bird, but we contented ourselves with a male Northern Shoveler, distant Whiskered Terns hawking over one corner. Barn Swallows and Sand Martins on the reedmace, a few Common Sandpipers and a small flock of high-flying Black-tailed Godwit! A walk towards a nearby palace was thwarted by two groups of school students undertaking a presentation along the entire circular route. So, while we could hear plenty of birds in the surroundings, they were generally keeping high and out of sight. Having turned around quickly to leave, we stopped again in a scrubby area on the way, and though a Dartford Warbler refused to show well, a male Golden Oriole clung to the side of the trunk of a vertical pine before eventually flying off low and almost in the saltmarsh habitat. Another stop was called for when a close Iberian Chiffchaff was heard singing beside the road, but despite getting out asap, it had moved on and despite hearing it more distantly later, on a couple of occasions, it was frustrating not to see it. In the end we simply cut our losses here and headed off to a large estuary system close to Huelva. Most of the saltpans adjacent to the road were totally dry and devoid of birds, but the tide was also fully out, meaning most shorebirds were out on the extensive and inaccessible mudflats too. An Osprey, a species reintroduced to the Iberian Peninsula here at this site sat on the edge of its nest perched on a platform, while on the wooden structure under another, a huge female Peregrine Falcon sat in the shade.

A short walk across a dune system was a colourful event, with abundant pink and yellow flowers in bloom, including a few spikes of the peculiar waxy yellow parasitic Cistanche phelypaea. Innumerable Maghreb fiddler crabs covered the mud flats, the bigger males occasionally waving their larger claws in the air to warn rival males nearby of their size. This certainly makes them quite visible though, as the wintering and passage Whimbrels know all too well, with several successful ‘stalk, wait and stab’ events seen! Snatches of rich bubbling song led us to finding a couple of Eurasian Curlews, even though Grey Plover, Common Redshank, Dunlin and Common Ringed Plover were much more abundant, and a few Bar-tailed Godwit and Ruddy Turnstone added to the variety.

With a warm breeze blowing, it seemed fitting to take our picnic out at the furthest point we could reach, allowing us to look over the main river channel and adjacent dunes at the same time. Two Northern Wheatears on the nearby fences increased to four by the time we left, indicating that a few migrants were still moving through, with a Woodchat Shrike and a couple of Crested Larks also of note. A couple of Sandwich Terns noted following the ocean shoreline had disappeared by the time the group had walked out across the boardwalk, but it gave me time to set up the picnic in the back of the minibus and bide out a little time to let the tide start rising. At least 7 Black Terns flew upriver as the tide started bearing back in. The return was punctuated by a few stops, especially to look at the numerous Little Terns on one sandbank and almost opposite, a fine group of Red Knot in a muddy estuarine channel. Another Eurasian Curlew again showed well, though we soon left the mud areas behind and headed back towards the main road in very hazy conditions. A short drive took us to another wetland area, this time a coastal lagoon, where adult Greater Flamingos were once again very prevalent, but a pair of smart Common Shelduck and a few other birds kept us busy. A short walk in nearby forested dunes revealed little except for a fine pair of Crested Tits at close range, so after a restorative coffee break, we returned to El Rocío. The angle of the sun was great for shots of the town across the water, plus a few interesting birds were present, such as a male Ruff and, very surprisingly, a summer plumaged Bar-tailed Godwit!

An after-dinner excursion in the vehicle was called for given the excellent weather conditions and turned out to be a great move. A few Red-necked Nightjars were calling from pines close to our vehicle, with one in a large pine right beside us calling away until wing-clapping its way out and gliding past the group, standing out against the remaining light! We also tried unsuccessfully on another track, but came up blank, confirming how lucky we’d been.

6th May – Doñana N.P. pre-breakfast, Doñana northern marshes, return via Aznalcázar; evening excursion to near Aznalcázar.

Following the disturbance at the site, we returned for a pre-breakfast visit to the woodland of the day before. This was now a totally different affair, with large numbers of birds calling and singing in the woodland, even if they made us work to see some of them! We stopped first on hearing a nearby singing Iberian Chiffchaff, but even though this moved away quite quickly, we waited it out, adding our first Common Chaffinches of the tour, plus a fine drumming and calling Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Sometimes hard to see, it was quite mobile, but gave us all good views in the end. Numerous European Serins and Nightingales serenaded from the scrub, while during a short walk just afterwards, the first of several Short-toed Treecreepers appeared, then just as we were debating if to continue, a Eurasian Wryneck started calling! It remained unseen, as did two others afterwards, but as the Iberian Chiffchaff came out and starting singing, finally in a visible location, we went for it and succeeded in seeing it before it flitted off, not to return!

More chaffinches and a nightingale fed on a broad open track, allowing good views, but with flight-only views of Thekla’s Larks on the way out and an Iberian Grey Shrike distantly on a power cable, there was plenty more to observe. A very late breakfast was finally enjoyed and after grabbing a few more sundries for the picnic, we headed off in to the Doñana northern ‘marshes’ to see what we could find. A patch of mature Eucalyptus held a fine mixed colony of White Storks, Grey Herons and Eurasian Spoonbills, plus numerous dapper Spanish Sparrows. A male Pied Flycatcher off to one side was a rather uncommon migrant just here.

It was already quite late and warm, but we stopped beside a large reservoir, which was simply teeming with duck and coots! Indeed, amongst the more abundant Common Coots, two Red-knobbed were a great find, one repeatedly entering into fights with the adjacent Commons and giving quite a performance! Isabelline Warblers were singing from just about every other bush around us, though only showed ever so briefly when flying across! A calling female Black-headed Weaver in the channel adjacent to us perched briefly on a giant reed stem before flitting off and into cover. The open water was simply teeming with birds, including abundant Red-crested and Common Pochards, Little, Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, Pied Avocets on the edges and a few marbled ducks, while our fourth, and this time close Ferruginous Duck was a great finale.

After lunch in the shade taking drinks at a rural bar, we headed back for a couple of hours break, then most of the group readjourned to go back out to near Aznalcázar. This was for a quiet watch over an area where Iberian Lynx sometimes come and hunt. OK, so it was not to be, but as we stood in the near silence of a beautiful warm evening, with up to four Common Cuckoos feeding on caterpillars out in front, our first Whinchat in the scrub, and European rabbits playing in ever-increasing numbers as the light began to fall, it was a lovely experience.

The return, mostly in the dark, was also surprisingly rewarding, with a Long-eared Owl flying off as we passed and then, after passing a flighty Tawny Owl, which had leapt off a fence, we pulled up in enough time for another to watch a different superb adult perched on the fence, then also how it dropped to the road surface in front before finally deciding that we were not as innocuous as first seemed and flapped silently off. Magic! Being Friday night meant it was no problem to return for dinner at 10:30 p.m., so we enjoyed a great meal!

7th May – El Rocío, Almonte-Bollullos road, Alange, Mérida, Guadiana rice fields, Campo Lugar Road and Hospedería ed Monfragüe.

There was nothing new at El Rocío, despite a fine selection of birds, including Black-tailed Godwit and a fly-by mixed group of Dunlins and Curlew Sandpipers. A passing male Western Marsh Harrier was remarkably our first for the Doñana area, but symptomatic of the drought prevailing over most of the park and surrounding area! We started the drive with a diversion into the extensive tracts of vineyards and olive orchards so characteristic of the Seville area, only had to take a relatively short walk before the sweet warbling phrases of a singing Rufous Scrub-Robin reached our ears. Indeed, it was flycatching repeatedly from a mesh fence, occasionally cocking its tail up over its back in characteristic fashion, giving good views in the scope and despite some rather harsh light. A singing Zitting Cisticola, bouncing along in display flight, avoided being seen by most of the group and set off something of a persistent trend in the species! 

Passing Seville itself, we continued north onto the Ruta de la Plata, an ancient trade route running through W Spain, and just after spotting a pair of Black Storks in flight over the dehesa of the Sierra Morena mountains, took a drinks break where I restocked the picnic lunch goods while the group watched a group of Eurasian Griffon Vultures and a lone Black Vulture circling over. Now deep in the heart of S Extremadura, characterised by low mountains rising from the agricultural plain, we headed to a car park sandwiched between a significant rock outcrop and a large reservoir. Despite the very warm conditions, we started with a short walk to look for one of its most characteristic birds, Black Wheatear, which was found, thankfully, quite quickly, perched high on a crag! Several Blue Rock Thrushes gave excellent views as they flew around in song flights, including a pair which headed repeatedly towards their nest, their beaks full of food. A couple of Thekla’s Larks also gave good views on the scrubby slopes, even if a Zitting Cisticola didn’t, while out on the reservoir, a Little Tern was being outnumbered by the Gull-billed Terns present, and a smart male Red-crested Pochard swam across the otherwise almost birdless water.

A tasty picnic lunch was taken with a Rock Bunting singing above us and Crag Martins wheeling overhead, while we walked to look over from the dam afterwards, to great result! Not only were lots of impressively large Alpine Swifts zooming around above, in front and below us, but down on a water channel below, a few interesting birds ‘hid in plain view’. A couple of Purple Herons, a Little Egret and a couple of Common Moorhens were the most obvious, but a rather scruffy-looking, albeit breeding-plumaged, Squacco Heron was a great bird to find, and indeed turned out to be the only one of the tour! Two male and a female Western Marsh Harrier wheeled around at one point, with one male coordinating an aerial food pass with the female.

With Mérida quite close and on the route, we headed in towards the old Roman bridge, and took a walk across it, almost to the city centre end, and despite the heat! A couple of Eurasian Golden Orioles, a brief Common Kingfisher, lots of Western Purple Swamphens -including chicks-, and a loudly singing, but unseen Zitting Cisticola, as well as passing Little and Cattle Egrets and a few Glossy Ibis, were all enjoyed in addition to the ambience of the location.

With time still just on our side, we headed off the motorway and toured off along good roads and then into the heart of the rice fields characteristic of the ‘vegas’ of the river Guadiana. However, the heat of the last few days had completely dried up any surface water of the very last wet rice fields (which given the near drought conditions might not be cultivated this year) and apart from a couple of very flighty Common Waxbills, the only bird of note was a superb Short-toed Snake-Eagle which circled low over us as we hooped out of the bus to enjoy it and take pictures as well!

Our last birding location was along a rather rough road running across the agristeppe characterising the plains in the province of Cáceres, with a couple of pools turning up a surprise Common Greenshank as well as an equally surprising number of male Mallards concentrated on just one pool. Despite the heat and breezy conditions, we were also able to enjoy a couple of gorgeous European Rollers on roadside fences and gates, even if they weren’t great posers for the cameras! We arrived just in time for dinner, after the last stretch up through many miles of western holm oak dehesa, after a very rewarding day.

8th May – Monfragüe and nearby pools and reservoirs

It started fresher than expected with a moderate N breeze, making it very pleasant to climb to a ridgetop castle and scan over the vast swathes of western holm oak dehesa to the S, where our hotel lay, and towards the fine Gredos mountains rearing up to the N, with a little snow still on the highest peaks and in the most sheltered gullies. The rock outcrops and dense woodland rich in wild olive trees housed a fine suite of species, with Eurasian Griffon Vultures ‘moping’ on the rocks, singing Blue Rock Thrush and Black Redstarts, the first of several Rock Buntings for the morning, a couple of colourful singing male Western Subalpine Warblers, plenty of commoner local species such as European Serins, Common Chaffinches and Great Tits, while a calling Hawfinch kept out of sight, even though Barb saw one flash across and deep into a tree. A few Long-tailed Tits, including dusky-headed juveniles, livened up the trees as we ascended, with a constant movement of Eurasian Griffon and a few Black (=Cinereous) Vultures at considerably greater range. Not a lot was showing at the little fortress at the top, despite the magnificent views, so after a good wait, scrutinising just about every Common House Martin that flew past -and there were plenty- we decided to head down. Of course, this was the moment, with group split into two, that a swift was noted disappearing behind the ‘castle’… But we quickly regathered, climbed up another small tower and started to scan further along the ridge, eventually finding a distant White-rumped Swift and, with even more patience, we finally all saw it well and almost directly overhead.

Our next stop was a carpark where, despite the number of other visitors on a fine Sunday morning, we were able to park and enjoy views across the river Tagus to a towering rock pinnacle opposite, the home of dozens of vultures and other rock-dwelling species. In addition to the constant movement of Griffons, a few Black and a single Egyptian Vulture were also enjoyed, along with a female Black Stork tending three tiny recently hatched chicks on the nest, plus a male from another nest bringing in fresh nesting material to its mate, which was still incubating. We walked along for closer views, also enjoying several superb male Blue Rock Thrushes singing from the rock outcrops below, where a few Black Redstarts, including one handsome male, also sang, while there was a constant movement almost all around of Crag Martins, Serins, Goldfinches and Rock Buntings. We eventually pulled ourselves way, noting how the breeze was dropping and the heat rising, and headed round for a comfort stop in the only village in the park, watching the antics of the local breeding barn swallows as we sat outside enjoying our drinks.

The first of two little detours on our route produced a bonus in the form of a superb male Western Black-eared Wheatear close by on a fence and a few Thekla’s Larks also nearby feeding on the ground. The next revealed another rather distant Black-eared Wheatear and a lovely pair of Short-toed Snake-Eagles which came up over a nearby ridge calling, before circling round and then drifting back off again, coinciding with a very high passing European Honey Buzzard. The next stop was a bit sad, seeing how desperately low the water levels are in the rivers this year, following basically 18 months of drought, but a calling Little Ringed Plover in the river below was another bonus and addition to the trip checklist, having been surprisingly absent until now.

We made one more ‘brief’ stop before heading to our lunch venue, ostensibly for a search of a couple of Eagle Owl chicks apparently present on a huge outcrop of rocks, but the patient wait and search again paid off when a fine adult Spanish Imperial Eagle came into view, drifted across the river and then turned sharply across the rock face before gliding in to land on a slanting rock, jutting out of the valley side. Much to our surprise and delight, it then rapidly proceeded to tear feathers from something it had pinned to the ground, this turning out to be a grey pigeon of some sort, before finally finishing the preliminary plucking, when it lifted off, pitched briefly into the shade under a large oak, but then took off again and cruised gently round the back of the nearest crag, to disappear for good.

A tapas style lunch in the shade outside was greatly appreciated by all, given the now dead still and hot conditions, while sitting in the air-conditioned minibus afterwards for a bit of a drive to a small lake buried deep in the Monfragüe Biosphere Reserve was a welcome break from the sun too, even if we ‘only’ managed to see a few Great White and Little Egrets, Great Crested Grebe and a dapper male Northern Shoveler on the water!

Onwards we went again, with flighty European Bee-eaters on a trackside fence only posing briefly, but a couple of Iberian Grey Shrikes were finally well seen and enjoyed by all as well. Two more stops, this time at another large reservoir were interesting under the intense sun, with a significant flock of noisy Gull-billed Terns giving a fine display, a huge pylon out in the reservoir supporting an incredible colony of breeding Great Cormorants (where none bred even only just 3 years ago) and Cattle, Little and Great White egrets and a few Grey and Purple Herons kept us busy watching as a Zitting Cisticola ‘zitted’ almost overhead almost the entire time! 

An ice cream break we took next was highly appreciated, and again we avoided much of the heat by taking the drive back into Monfragüe and not stopping, in the absence of much activity, until a particular small viewpoint I’d passed earlier in the day. Here a fine orangey-yellow headed Egyptian Vulture sat incubating on her nest, almost at eye level, albeit across a quite wide expanse of water and we picked out a high passing Red Kite, the first decent view of the species we’d had on the trip. The next stop was in a wooded area, not only with some shade, but also picnic tables for afternoon ‘tea’ (OK, so fresh fruit, almond biscuits, dried figs and fresh blueberries replaced any cakes!), with a calling Eurasian Nuthatch seen in flight a by a few of the group and the seemingly innumerable Black Kites and Griffon Vultures making it hard to find anything else (!).

We finished with another, still hot, stop near a big bridge, complete with wild-type Rock Doves, high-flying Alpine Swifts and swarms of House Martins, but a large Eurasian otter hugging the shoreline right under me managed to swim round and past the group without anyone getting anything other than a few ripples on the water’s surface! We returned with 45 minutes before entering the dining room, enabling us to get a cooling shower and also see that the washing we’d handed in in the morning was already done and returned. Great!

9th May – Trujillo ‘steppes’, Madroñera area, Zorita area, Cáceres – Monroy plains, Sotillo pools

We took a packed breakfast with us, leaving at 0715h almost exactly at sunrise. The crystal-clear skies meant it was going to be another hot day, and so it was, with very warm conditions even from mid-morning. This window between dawn and mid-morning is all that we needed though, and today the plans worked out as well as could possibly be hoped for. We stopped first at the start of a dusty track across the now grassy pseudo-steppe, since a calling male Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew round in a circle twice in front before dropping just down over the horizon. It was a great start, though we hadn’t got out of the vehicle, but bettered of course when after calling repeatedly again, if flew up again a couple of times, and while not coming very close, gave great views in the low light as it sped across in front. We then used the scopes to look at very distant individual male Little and Great bustards also present, ‘just in case’ they disappeared, before trying to move on again. Of course, a few more Pin-tailed Sandgrouse appeared no sooner had we got back into the bus, with some 15 in total in small groups or pairs passing almost overhead heading off to an inaccessible are a for daytime feeding site, but still giving good views. Excellent!

We headed on towards our next main viewpoint, where I let out a groan seeing two other vans parked there! However, I shouldn’t have worried, since a friend guiding another group quickly pointed us in the different directions necessary to a Eurasian Stone-Curlew, male Little Bustard, male Great Bustard on a ridgetop and even a fine adult Spanish Imperial Eagle perched in the crown of a huge tree! What a choice and as they quickly decided to move on, we were left to savour these birds in relative peace. Scanning through the habitat, I soon came across a small group of sandgrouse working their way up a vehicle track through some grass, while in the scope we could clearly see the larger size of one or two of these, preening near the top of a ridge and despite being against the light, I could make out the orange cheek patch of a male Black-bellied Sandgrouse! Calling the other group back, several minutes of indecision set in once they arrived, since due to the increasing sun against us they couldn’t see any distinctive features, but this was fortunately readily resolved when I picked up three more Black-bellied Sandgrouse coming in almost directly towards us from behind, the sunlight showing their jet-black bellies off to perfection as they banked a bit to pass at a little more distance!

The male Great Bustard was then discovered in the back of the same huge field, parading across with head back and tail cocked as two females strode serenely across the flower-studded pasture above him! A couple of elegant Montagu’s Harriers quartered the same pasture, while a Western Marsh Harrier got in on the act at one point too, though quite honestly it was hard to know where to look! We sort of rounded-off with the whole body of a lovely Little Owl adorning a small building, since it had come from behind the tiles and showed us more than just the top of its head which had been visible earlier, plus contemplating the impressive Calandra Larks singing all around us, creating a wonderful atmosphere!

A coffee stop was taken in Trujillo to celebrate seeing this fine suite of very specialist species, though a good search for an owl in a nearby park immediately drew a blank, as it did again in another park in a nearby village. Not deterred however, we tried for another ‘stake-out’ and this time hit gold in the form of two still quite fluffy, but rapidly feathering-up Eagle Owl chicks on a small ledge! They were clearly very aware of our presence and keeping dead still to try and avoid detection, so as soon as we could, we moved on again, leaving them in peace. And finally, a Zitting Cisticola singing from the top of a tree was seen by a few of the group, though was once again, the first of many heard singing during the day, yet continued to be a standing joke that they were never properly visible perched low down!

It was still only late morning, so lunch was a little way off and so we took a slightly winding route to look at a couple of small wetlands, in case there was anything different. A couple of Zitting Cisticolas at the first avoided being seen, though a Common Waxbill stayed long enough a quick view. Another Zitting Cisticola at the second promptly dived out of sight, but 8 Eurasian Spoonbills and a Great White Egret were good to see.

It was now hot though, so time outside was getting harder to justify! So, we drive almost right down to the edge of one reservoir, where the narrow sandy beach gently sloping out is often attractive to shorebirds. And so it was, with an excellent selection including breeding plumaged Little Stint, Dunlin, Sanderling, Common Ringed Plover, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank and Common Sandpipers, the latter in abundance, all on show, even if the sun finally drove us back into the van for shelter!

A tasty picnic lunch was taken in the shade of some fine western holm oaks at a wooden picnic table, with a backdrop of Great Reed Warbler song pounding away! Cries of “schlangenadler” from a couple nearby saw us look up to see a Short-toed Snake-Eagle cruise quickly low over the treetops overhead. Nice! A Zitting Cisticola down towards long grass below us zitted away almost the whole time too…

We started the long and somewhat roundabout route back at almost 30ºC in the shade, but after finally getting shots of perched EuropeanBbee-eaters, took a refreshing drink at a bar and after scoping the Lesser Kestrels at nestboxes on a nearby building, continued on. More nestboxes, this time by the dozens on a line of roadside power poles were for European Rollers, and despite the terrific heat we stopped on the road as we went, finally taking pictures of a few, plus a bonus little owl which was occupying one!

The last long final leg was broken quite late on for yet another reservoir, but this one was almost perfect, which virtually no fringing vegetation and gently receding water levels. Two Egyptian Vultures on the bank had clearly come down to bathe and/or drink, as had and subsequently did, some of the ten or more Black Kites behind us. A superb breeding-plumage Common Greenshank, a couple of Common Redshanks, several Common Sandpipers and a couple of Little Ringed Plovers and Black-winged Stilts were good reward, but none more so than a superb breeding-plumaged Northern Lapwing in perfect light! An Egyptian Goose was new for some of the party and two more spoonbills graced the water, with a Short-toed Snake-Eagle passing over as well to complete the scene! We returned with a little more time to relax than previous days, especially as we needed to pack as we were on the move again the following morning.

10th May – Monfragüe National Park, Arrocampo Reservoir and area, transfer to the Gredos mountains

Another cloudless start to the day, with an already warm light wind early on. After a complete normal breakfast at 8 a.m., we were away an hour later. We headed through Monfragüe again, enjoying the scenery as before, making a series of stops to try and see Bonelli’s Eagles on the wing. With three pairs visible from the park’s roads, there were good chances and worth the time. Alpine Swifts and abundant Common House Martins were the most notable birds at the first stop, but a wider range of birds were seen at the second, including a couple of very brief Hawfinches, flighty Western Subalpine and Sardinian Warblers, a lovely adult Egyptian Vulture circling overhead among Griffons and Black Vultures. The third was a more protracted affair, being the most likely site, and while the vast majority of the birds seen were passing House Martins and Barn Swallows, (mostly distant) Griffons and Black Vultures, plus several close Black Kites were also enjoyed, with single Booted and Short-toed Snake-Eagles and even two fly-by Hawfinches to keep us busy. Our first Great Spotted Woodpecker for the group flew past, but it was just when we were about to leave that I finally found a pair of smart adult Bonelli’s Eagles circling up in the distance, and with patience, views in the scope even revealed the white back patch so characteristic of the species here as they finally came a little closer.

From here we headed back to the Arrocampo Reservoir to search for a couple of birds, with no less than 4 Little Bitterns watched in flight and a Savi’s Warbler heard buzzing from the bulrush beds in addition to a wide range of species, especially herons and egrets, Gull-billed Tern and Red-rumped Swallow of most note. The now hot and breezy conditions were difficult though. A short stop on the roadside on the way had been required to contemplate a fine adult Black-winged Kite perched on an electricity pole off to one side, a terrific bonus enabling us to avoid returning to search the area in the vehicle later! Lunch was taken not far away at a service station, with the air conditioning indoors much appreciated and the food surprisingly good. After a range of typical ‘tapas and drinks to round off, we started the drive up and round to our new hotel in the Gredos mountains. After the scenic climb up to the Puerto del Pico pass, complete with its remaining Roman road which we contemplated with a quick stop at the top, in addition to a small group of sunbathing Spanish ibex (!), we continued round to a roadside spot in the pine forest to see what birds were around.

Our main target, Citril Finch, a species rather scarcer than expected here given the habitat, can be very tricky, after just a few minutes, hearing Coal Tits virtually around and seeing a fine ocellated lizard sunbathing on a wall, a calling male Citril Finch flew past in front and then landing in full view on a bare pine branch, allowing extended views as it sang vigorously! It flew off as I went for a scope, but then reappeared shortly afterwards, and closer, and made short flights a couple of times more, given us good views of this small and sometimes tricky species!

We reached our hotel shortly afterwards, and given the interesting selection of birds present, after settling into our rooms, simply took a quick look in the bird hide built into the back of it, complete with water and natural-looking feeders in front, though a group of Spanish photographers were hogging the view. So, we mostly concentrated on the garden instead! With a male Pied Flycatcher, a couple of European Robins, a singing Western Bonelli’s Warbler, plentiful Common Crossbills, Short-toed Treecreeper, circling Black and Red Kites, Carrion Crows, Common Ravens, a Eurasian Jay and even a pair of Eurasian Hoopoes feeding chicks at a nest, it was rich pickings and very well worth it! A quite remarkable and elaborate dinner was taken in the huge dining room early, giving us plenty of time to do the checklist for the day and then readjourn outside to see if any owls or nightjars were present. A chill breeze was blowing, which certainly didn’t help, but the local Eurasian Scops Owls were also only calling from much further away than normal, though we did hear them clearly after a walk a few hundred metres down the road. We pitched in early, ready to go for our first mountain walk the following day.

11th May – Gredos mountains, Gredos hotel, Ávila, Segovia, Sepúlveda area

The day again dawned clear and bright and warm. Surprisingly warm, so after an 8 a.m. breakfast we were off an hour later, heading straight for our destination. Of course, we were delayed on the way by a couple of excellent sightings, with a male European Honey Buzzard very low overhead being attacked by a couple of Carrion Crows, then numerous Common Whitethroats and a few flighty Ortolan Buntings causing me to slow down, with a stop necessary for a pristine male Red-backed Shrike on a roadside bush. The latter didn’t stay for pictures, but gave great views, being a real treat as it was almost certainly just back from winter in Africa. A couple of Spanish ibex off to one side in a meadow were good to see, especially as we only saw a few more at the end of the morning on our return, but we started with a few birds in the car parking area itself, including wheeling Crag Martins, shrilly calling Iberian Yellow Wagtails and even another elusive Eurasian Wren!

The steady climb up a rock track parallel to a small rushing mountain stream quickly started to reveal more birds, including a highly attractive and sought-after Common Rock Thrush, plus the first of innumerable (Iberian) Dunnocks -a potential split of a cryptic species in the near future-, plentiful gorgeous Northern Wheatears of the libanotica race and smartly-patterned Rock Buntings. A fine Water Pipit and Grey Wagtail moved up from the stream as we passed, allowing us to scope them on the rocks above. Some special Iberian endemics were present in the form of rock narcissus, anomalous buttercup and several Schreiber’s green lizards, adding to the mountain ambiance.

We finally made it up to a rather flatter, less rocky and grassy area with abundant broom scrub and settled down to watch and listen. Dunnocks galore sped back and forth, a couple of Northern Wheatears displayed from rocks and a few Eurasian Skylarks rose from the grass or even scrub up in towering display flights lasting for tens of minutes… Finally, a sweeter warbling phrase was heard leading us to spot a superb male Bluethroat (complete with solid blue throat typical of the endemic Iberian azuricollis race) in display flight over the scrub, before it parachuted down onto the top of some dead twigs, allowing us our first scope views. A short while afterwards it then flew past, coming down on an equally distant twig on our other side, but again allowing good views, especially when we moved some way towards it, but then suddenly raced close past and dived don into the vegetation, not to be seen again! Splitting into two groups in the hopes of seeing it again, some of us were fortunate enough to see a least weasel carrying a small baby in its mouth flash across a small gap, then return and then finally race across a path, but all so quick we could barely see it! The Bluethroat failed to reappear, but having had good views, we started the walk down, stopping regularly for our first proper Ortolan Buntings, more Dunnocks, Rock Buntings and Northern Wheatears, with a Short-toed Snake-Eagle, Black Kite and Booted Eagle in addition to a few Griffon Vultures indicating how the thermals and breeze were developing. A few Common Whitethroats were finally seen well as we descended in the vehicle, plus a few fine Common Linnets and two fine male Spanish ibex, even though the shrike gave us the slip!

An hour was enjoyed back at the hotel before a very relaxing lunch there, and we only finally got away at 1530h! Despite a 2 ½ hour drive ahead, we broke this twice with sightseeing stops! First, the fine walled city of Ávila lay smack on our path and required a quick photographic session. Second, Segovia also lay just off our route and was too good to be ignored, so I made a little detour and we approached from the NW along an old road, with the impressive Alcázar suddenly appearing as if by magic, then the cathedral too, both visible from beside an ancient chapel. Another must of course, was a stop beside the 1st century roman aqueduct, to simply marvel at the engineering and its continued structural integrity! Naturally, we got to our afternoon’s birding destination a bit later than expected, BUT, given how warm it had been, the moderate cloud cover was really helping keep the temperature down, and with no wind, the birds were very vocally active. Indeed, at least two Dupont’s Larks were singing from this peculiar, dry paramo habitat. They were out of sight over a ridge however, though one bird came up in display flight three times, before plummeting back down to earth, albeit at distance. With numerous Short-toed, Thekla’s, Crested and Eurasian Skylarks also all present, it was busy, also including a fine male Western Black-eared Wheatear and a brief Tawny Pipit. The mixed flock of Eurasian Jackdaws and Red-billed Choughs we’d seen on the way in were leaving as we finally left, with a pair of Red-legged Partridge flying-up from the track a bonus. We settled into our very comfortable hotel for the night, and after a rather simpler, but still very tasty dinner, ran though the checklist and got a good night’s sleep. 

12th May – hotel area pre-breakfast, Sepúlveda area, cross-country N to Picos.

It was a seemingly slow start during a walk outside the hotel, but finally a fly-by Western Orphean Warbler, a pair of Rock Sparrows, two singing Eurasian Wrynecks and a singing male Cirl Bunting were all enjoyed, in addition to two different species of Ophrys orchids! The paramo nearby was already very warm and breezy and rather quiet, despite numerous larks, three male Blue Rock Thrushes, a few Western Black-eared Wheatears and a superb Tawny Pipit and we finally moved on, Dupont’s remaining unseen. Other who had been since dawn had also drawn a blank, despite hearing one bird singing, so our pre-breakfast alternative had been a good one. We tried another paramo area for possible Dupont’s, and though there was no sign, a pair of Red-legged Partridge and another Tawny Pipit gave great views, as did two female Montagu’s Harriers quartering over a crop field. Time was running away, but after one unsuccessful stop along a small road, a sweeter-sounding song caught my ear and we stopped again. OK, so the first bird was a Dartford Warbler singing from a hidden perch just below us, while another was rather more mobile and gave scope views. A male Spectacled Warbler also sat atop a small bush above us, staying long enough to give scope views, and despite becoming mobile afterwards, we moved on very happy with these two species which had been so elusive until now! A drink was taken at a lovely riverside stop, with the local Cetti’s Warblers and a few other birds seen by one or two while we had a brinks and comfort stop, then we moved on in earnest, albeit rather later than usual. Indeed, lunch was taken at a motorway service station, rather than in a town still around an hour away as I had planned, but the sight of a large raptor being mobbed by a Common Buzzard almost overhead was rather providential, the larger bird being a fine juvenile Golden Eagle, which circled a little before turning towards us and almost passing overhead as it headed N! Lunch was quite good too!!

The increasing cloud as we continued N was accompanied by stiller conditions, and even some rain, but after sheltering a little under an overhanging roof in order to watch a lovely White-breasted Dipper on a river, the briefly heavy rain simply eased and then stopped, leaving us with excellent light for the dipper, plus a Grey and numerous White Wagtails feeding in the rapids in front. We back-tracked slightly, climbing up through wonderful old oak woodland, still with the leaf buds just bursting. Blackcaps, European Robins and singing Eurasian Wrens were the most obvious birds, and then… Bingo! A gorgeous Middle Spotted Woodpecker fed on lichen-covered branches, moving a couple of trees at a time, but giving lovely views as it fed. Another stop, this time at a viewpoint, produced a quite confiding Song Thrush feeding on the grass, while a couple of pinkish-back Long-tailed Tits, here in the northern third of Spain belonging to a more northern race gave views in a treetop across the road. The conditions were just too good to ignore, and with rain apparently falling ahead over the Picos themselves, we cruised towards our final destination, windows down in order to hear what was around. A singing Tree Pipit required a stop, though despite a short walk up a track into the woodland to see it, it remained out of sight for most of the group. A calling Wryneck just across the road was another great bird to hear!

Back by the vehicles, we turned to look out over a series of grassy fields with scattered scrub, rather wishfully imagining a passing wolf or bear, but to my delight, a superb European wild cat was walking across the meadow below us! Though tricky to see at times as it slipped between and behind the bushes, it gave excellent views, the rather squat face, dark dorsal stripe and thick banded tail being very distinctive. More common was a red fox hunting at the bottom of the field, which we enjoyed once the cat had moved off and before the fox realised that we were there, though bizarrely, the ‘white rock’ in the middle of the sloping grassy field was actually noted by someone later as having been a Common Shelduck! Really fired up by this, we kept searching as we went, though it really couldn’t have been more surprising than when another wild cat was spotted, this time well above us on another scrubby pasture, giving us telescope views until cloud rolled in and obscured it for good when we made our last stop! WOW! The final run down to the hotel was naturally in high spirits, and the rain even held off as we walked out bags down to the last hotel of the tour. With a simpler dinner menu than at some other hotels we’d been to, the desserts at this one were certainly outstanding, and it was difficult to know if the homemade cheese flan, cheesecake or rice pudding was the best!

Friday 13th May – Fuente Dé, lunch in Espinama, Pendes

The Picos de Europa is a truly magnificent mountain range, with towering limestone rock outcrops and cliffs and an excellent associated flora and fauna. It also enables relatively easy access up into Alpine habitats for a suite of very special birds. But making sure you visit when the weather is good is crucial. A quick chat with the hotel owner the night before had suggested that today, Friday 13th would be the best day, but that predicting the weather here is tricky… Of course, this being Spain, it’s Tuesday 13th that might be considered unlucky, and so I had booked tickets for the first cable car up in the morning… We woke to quite thick and seemingly ‘set’ cloud, which didn’t change at all by the time we left at 9 a.m. Had we got it wrong? Our hotel is set quite a way down in a valley affected by the cold Cantabrian Sea breezes blowing up from the coast, so it was fantastic to see that as we headed up towards the cable car station, so the cloud dissipated, and we were left with a beautiful blue sky and still conditions! The same couple we’d seen birding near Sepúlveda were here too, waiting for the cable car, and came over to inform us that one of the griffons circling high over was actually a Lammergeier! Indeed, it was a young and dark Lammergeier, looking surprisingly like a griffon a long range. Retrieving the e-tickets from my phone turned out to be more troublesome than I had hoped, but we finally all boarded the cabin, the doors closed and we were soon off up Europe’s longest single cable chairlift. Rising 753m in 1.4 km across the middle of an impressive cirque, it gives simply stunning views during the short ride. We stepped out to cooler, but still delicious conditions at the top, with a calling Alpine Accentor flying off as we arrived a good sign! A male Common Rock Thrush then graced the cliff edge for a minute or two before dropping out of sight, being a normally had-to-get species here. Indeed, round the back of the buildings, a female sat on a rock for us to admire while another male graced the slopes and crags behind it. A few Red-billed and plenty of Alpine Choughs drifted over and past, though better views were to come. The first southern chamois peered down at us from on high, though we saw half a dozen or so more during the rest of the walk, all of these lying on the still numerous snow patches on the plateau. A couple more Alpine Accentors were heard, but not seen, though a couple of singing Water Pipits and a pair of smart Northern Wheatears graced the rock-strewn slopes.

We walked on, for quite a while at one point with absolutely no birds even calling, but then suddenly, a few calls alerted my attention, and we watched as a pair of dazzling White-winged Snowfinches sped past below us over the rocky pastures, until finally being lost against the snow patches, rocks and pastures. These then suddenly reappeared a few minutes later and this time we lost them against the immense towering cliffs above us once they’d flown into the shade. Very pleased with these sightings, we were walking on towards out final destination when a strange and unfamiliar song started behind us. We turned, and despite walking back a little to try and locate the source, just couldn’t find it until a stunning male snowfinch rose up from the track just a short distance ahead, only to drop onto a perch a little above us and continue to sing at length! This was exquisite! Sometimes tricky to see well, the species had performed perfectly! We continued on as far as we could, pausing to watch the Lammergeier which had returned, this come being very much closer and to the point where we could read the coloured wing tags of this bird from the reintroduction scheme. Though deep snow still covered part of the main area where our final main target, Wallcreeper, normally occurs, so we sat down and waited. Several Alpine Accentors were loving these conditions though, one or two coming almost within arm’s reach it seemed, with lots of breeding activity in the form of singing and calling going on continuously. A Wallcreeper appeared to call from behind us at one point, but didn’t repeat, so we concentrated on watching the main cliff area, even though nothing moved.

The ‘Lammergeier couple’ had stopped several hundred metres behind us and were patiently watching something, so I walked back, only to discover that they’d seen two Wallcreepers fly around, and both were down ‘hiding’ in the rocks! We quickly walked back and then after a seemingly endless wait, one finally reappeared. And what a bird! A huge black throat patch and enormous crimson patches in the wings could be seen as it persistently showed off on the limestone rubble beneath the cliffs, but neither did it fly, nor did it move around anything like a ’normal’ wallcreeper behaves despite jumping from rock to rock and sometimes disappearing down out of sight! It was only after watching it for a while, seeing how it appeared to be flustered, occasionally posturing strongly by lifting its gorgeous wings to show off its colours, then when the second bird, another black-throated individual, came out, I realised that these were almost undoubtedly two males, with the first wanting to oust the second from its territory! They finally flew out and around in a loop, coming down again into the scree, but while the first male moved around rather more, appearing having lost sight of the second under the stones, it refused to come much closer and with time running on, we started our return, after giving our thanks to the other observers, again! A few more snowfinches appeared as we walked back, rounding off a literally unbeatable morning! After a drink in the café, we boarded the cable car and headed down to very much warmer conditions lower down, though didn’t even descend all of the ramp to the car park before being distracted by a furtive Firecrest, while in the pine behind the minibus a lovely Goldcrest was picking its way between the pine needles and hanging branches. Lunch was taken at a bar in the middle of a tiny village, where, as is so typical here, a Common Redstart sang as we ate and the cloud, thankfully, increased a little.

We returned to the hotel, where despite a strong wind blowing up the gorge below us, we headed up into the nearby hills along small back roads, stopping a couple of times where we were more sheltered, finding more of the common local woodland birds, including a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers clearly feeding chicks at a nest and ended when I came to a dead-end on a very small road running through a hamlet. Well, running through it according to the SATNAV! Backing out, we parked and scanned form here, with another gorgeous Common Redstart the pick of the birds, but with a calling Wryneck heard and a fine male Cirl Bunting giving good views too. A tight kettle of vultures overhead contained a super juvenile Black Vulture, a still very scarce, but slowly increasing, bird here in the Picos. We returned for another beer, dinner and checklist, with just one day left of the tour to enjoy.

Saturday 14th May – Puerto de San Glorio, Tudes, Brez, Espinama

The day dawned still and seemingly broody! After a good walk around for about an hour before breakfast, finally seeing an Iberian Green Woodpecker and with everyone also getting to grips with at least one of the two Eurasian jays that came past, apart from perched Short-toed Snake-Eagle and Common Sandpiper and a couple of a pairs of Cirl Buntings, in addition to the common redstarts, we took a slightly later breakfast and headed out in the continuing very still conditions. We still hadn’t seen a couple of the local specialities, so despite one short stop in a patch of very quiet woodland, where it was surprisingly warm thanks to a temperature inversion in the valley, carried on up to a rather exposed mountain pass. Here it was still dead still and slightly overcast, so perfect! A short walk again produced a series of great sightings, including a stunning male Yellowhammer in full and extended view at close range and a song-flighting Tree Pipit allowing great scopes views. With a singing Garden Warbler, a couple of visible singing Common Whitethroats, three Common Crossbills in flight, hordes of (Iberian) Dunnocks and, to top it off, a passing Short-toed Snake-Eagle and a superb male Red-backed Shrike, it was excellent birding! The mammals weren’t bad either with a herd of at least 14 southern chamois near the tops! We headed down via a flower stop, where a sheet of stunning wild daffodils nodded serenely over a pasture, tried unsuccessfully again at the woodland stop, but then moved on down for a drink at a small village bar. Once again, Spotted Flycatcher and Common Redstart were present, showing their close link to these small villages.

At another slightly larger mountain village we stopped for longer, walking up a slope to look at a tree with multiple woodpecker holes, where Middle Spotted woodpeckers had been seen active around a week earlier. Indeed, the hole supposedly being excavated looked old, but another low down very fresh. Not a bird was seen though, so after about half an hour we assumed that it was unused and set up a tasty picnic instead! With ever muggier conditions and dense black cloud and some rain visible in the distance over the peaks, it was clear that our time was limited, but we enjoyed a great lunch before the wind started picking up, signalling the arrival of rain, and we left as the rain started. It accompanied us almost the whole way down, though the impressive lightning over the mountains was far more imposing, even though it was heavy enough as we arrived to take cover before jogging back into our rooms! The storm was actually quite short-lived though, so despite having suggested we met again at 6 p.m., most of us decided to go out earlier and try one last time for a few of the smaller upland woodland birds. It was not to be, despite a couple of short walks in lovely habitat and even though a couple of us managed to see a very distant Peregrine beside some peaks as a bonus, but it was a lovely way to end to the visit to this beautiful mountain area and we even added a new amphibian to the list in the form of around a dozen fire salamander efts (=larvae) in a small runnel of water. The final checklist was taken before dinner with a beer or two between us, before enjoying another lovely dinner before pitching-in for a good night’s sleep. 

15th May – Picos to Madrid airport

Following a 7:30 a.m. breakfast we were off shortly after 8:30, and returned up the long pass we’d taken to get there a few days earlier. A few commoner birds were about, but half an hour hadn’t passed when a mammal lolloping across the road in the forest was a pine marten! WOW! Only seen by a couple of us of course, as it was so quick, it was still a treat! Coming down from the pass held another surprise too, not in the form of another wild cat, as I’d hoped, but actually young stoat, complete with long and mostly black tail, which also crossed the road and was also seen by a few in the vehicle! Despite rapidly returning to the realms of Common Magpies, White Storks and a few other birds, we tried not to pay too much attention to not have to stop (!), and made good time to the airport where we bade our farewells as the tour concluded.

Created: 08 November 2022