Peregrine Bird Tours
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Peregrine Bird Tours

Spain Tour Report 2-23 May 2009

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Following a long and exhausting flight from Australia we were met at Barcelona airport by Betsy and Kenton, two of the tour participants, from the U.S.A. and by Audrey our bilingual, local guide. As we walked to the hire car bay, we saw our first bird of the tour, the Common Swift; large numbers were wheeling around the airport building. Once we had settled in to our accommodation in Barcelona, we had lunch and then we spent the afternoon at the nearby Llobregat Delta Nature Reserve. On the open water we saw Little and Great Crested Grebes, Common Shelduck, Gadwall, Mallard, Common Pochard, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot and best of all, a few pairs of very beautiful Red-crested Pochards. Flying over the water were a few Sand Martins and large numbers of Barn Swallows In the shallow margins of the lagoons there were several Grey Herons, an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron, a couple of Little Egrets, a Great Egret, a solitary Purple Swamphen, lots of Black-winged Stilts, a few Little Ringed Plovers, a solitary Common Ringed Plover, a couple of Little Stints, several Curlew Sandpipers, a couple of Ruffs, a few Common Redshanks, a couple of Common Greenshanks, a couple of Wood Sandpipers, a splendid Spotted Redshank in almost full breeding plumage, a solitary Common Sandpiper, a few Black-headed Gulls, several Yellow-legged Gulls, a few Caspian Terns and a good number of Whiskered Terns, a few Yellow and White Wagtails and a displaying Zitting Cisticola. The most exciting find, was several attractive Audouin's Gulls, they were even mating on a small island and it appeared that they were going to breed in the reserve, which they had never done before. In the extensive reedbeds we glimpsed the skulking Chetti's Warbler but best of all we enjoyed great looks at an adult male Little Bittern which flew right past us.

In wooded areas we found Common Woodpigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, European Bee-eater, a Willow Warbler, a pair of Pied Flycatchers, Eurasian Magpie, Common Starling, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, European Goldfinch and European Serin. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped to use an automatic teller machine and while doing so, we enjoyed good looks at a pair of Common Blackbirds.

The following day was a travel day as we drove from Barcelona to Loarre. However, we had time to stop and look for birds on the way. Driving out of Barcelona we had a couple of Eurasian Jays fly across the road ahead of us. During a brief stop to use the amenities, we enjoyed good scope views of a rather fine Mistle Thrush. Continuing our journey, we saw a couple of Common Kestrels along the roadside, as well as Western Jackdaw and Carrion Crow. At one time we came to a screeching halt and admired a pair of Crested Larks. A quick stop along the Rio Segre, produced a pair of Mute Swans, at the extreme southern edge of their range. A bridge over the river had dozens of Common House Martin nests and the birds were busily flying to and fro.

A detour along a road winding through farmland produced a flurry of new birds, which included Black Kite, Red-legged Partridge, Feral Pigeon, Alpine Swift, Eurasian Hoopoe, Calandra Lark, Black-eared Wheatear and lots of highly localised Spotless Starlings. However, the real prizes here, were a small flock of endangered Lesser Kestrels and a pair of stunning European Rollers. As we continued our drive we found good numbers of White Storks, feeding in the fields and nesting on churches, various other tall buildings and electricity pylons. We broke the long drive, with an afternoon birding stop at the Sarinena Lagoon. It proved to be a very good area for raptors and we enjoyed good long looks at many Eurasian Griffon Vultures, a couple of Egyptian Vultures, several Western Marsh- Harriers, a splendid Short-toed Eagle, hovering against the wind and a flying Peregrine Falcon. The lagoon itself held several Purple Herons and a solitary Black Tern, which was in full breeding plumage. The large expanse of reedbeds interspersed with tamerisks produced a fairly obliging Common Nightingale, several European and Great Reed-Warblers and I even saw a Bearded Reedling. Just outside Loarre, we added a superb Red Kite, a pair of Common Linnets and an obliging Corn Bunting.

We spent the morning birding Los Mallos de Riglos; part of the Sierra de Santo Domingo, where towering perpendicular cliffs dominate the village of Riglos. It is a very popular area with rock climbers; indeed, up to half a dozen teams, were patiently making their way up the steep cliff face. Shortly after leaving Loarre, we found a pair of Northern Wheatears along the roadside. On the towering cliffs we found Common Buzzard and Booted Eagle, many Eurasian Crag Martins were nesting in the rock crevices and small flocks of Red-billed Choughs flew around the tops of the rocky crags. Amongst the scree at the base of the cliffs, we found Black Redstart, Common Stonechat, Blue Rock-Thrush, Sardinian Warbler, Coal Tit, the very beautiful Woodchat Shrike and a superb male Cirl Bunting. In the afternoon we visited the spectacular Castle of Loarre, built in the 11th Century, by King Sancho III, who built the castle to defend his kingdom from the threat of invading Muslim armies, who were encroaching from the south. On the walls of the castle we found a couple of immature Rock Sparrows and in the surrounding pine plantations, we found Western Bonelli's Warbler, the diminutive Firecrest, Great Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch and the attractive Rock Bunting.

The following day we drove from Loarre to Jaca, at the base of the beautiful Pyrenees Mountains. We broke the long drive with a birding stop at San Juan de La Pena, where we birded in the pine woodlands around the New Monastery and drove past the older, Royal Monastery; which is built into the side of a rock overhand, giving it a spectacular appearance. New birds for us included Grey Wagtail, European Robin, Blackcap, Blue Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Common Treecreeper and best of all a small flock of Common Crossbills, which included both adult males and females and many immatures, with their heavily streaked breasts.

We spent the next three days birding the picturesque alpine valleys of the high Pyrenees. In the mixed woodland of the lower slopes we enjoyed watching a dark morph European Honey Buzzard soaring overhead, a pair of Common Cuckoos chasing one another, a huge Black Woodpecker flying across the valley, a Winter Wren came out of hiding long enough for us to enjoy scope views of it, we found a Woodlark sitting in the middle of a track, we watched a super adult male Subalpine Warbler, as it flitted from bush to bush, sometimes climbing to the top of one of the bushes, allowing us to see it well and we enjoyed watching a small flock of four Citril Finches feeding on the ground in a small orchard. However, it was the spectacular ravines and deep gorges of the alpine areas of the Pyrenees that held the most interest for us and we were very well rewarded here for our efforts. Amongst the hordes of Eurasian Griffon Vultures, we managed to pick out a splendid Lammergeier and a Golden Eagle. Along a fast flowing mountain river, full of melt water from the snowfields higher upstream, we found a beautiful White-throated Dipper. But the great highlight here was a superb pair of Wallcreepers foraging on the steep cliffs of a rocky gorge. Other birds of particular interest included Water Pipit, Dunnock, Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, Common Chiffchaff, Crested Tit, Alpine Chough, Yellowhammer and Common Raven. We also saw a few interesting species of mammals here; these included Europe's larges species of deer, the Red Deer, a solitary Roe Deer, several Red Squirrels, some were red in colour, while others were almost black. We very much enjoyed watching a few Alpine Marmots, at the Astun Ski Resort and we were very pleased to find a small herd of Chamois grazing on the higher slopes of the mountains. One other feature of this area was the large numbers of pilgrims who were making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia.

Descending from the beautiful Pyrenees Mountains we drove southwards onto the rolling steppe, to Fuendetodos, the birth place of Goya, for a three nights stay. We broke the long drive with a birding stop in the morning and one in the afternoon. The morning birding took place at Embalse de Sotonera, a very large reservoir. Although we saw nothing new at the reservoir itself, in the general area we did add European Turtle-Dove, the stunning Great Spotted Cuckoo and Skylark. We also found a Red Fox, which was standing on top of a stack of hay! A Brown Hare also popped up in this area. Our afternoon birding stop was at the Los Galachos Del Ebro, a nature reserve consisting of a series of oxbow lakes, in the meandering Ebro River. It was quite a birdy place and new birds here included Stock Dove, Melodious Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher and the very beautiful Eurasian Golden Oriole. Best of all however, was a very uncommon European Penduline Tit.

The next two days were spent birding in the steppe country around Belchite. One of the features of this area was the splendid array of wild flowers growing along the roadside. We spent the first morning birding in the El Planeron Reserve, where our main target species was the elusive and endangered Dupont's Lark. Here we saw a beautiful male Montagu's Harrier and good numbers of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, but only in flight. Both Greater and Lesser Short-toed Larks proved to be plentiful and we scoped a solitary Southern Grey Shrike. However, try as we may we failed to find any sign of Dupont's Lark. In the afternoon we visited the La Lomanza Reserve, which has been created to help preserve the Dupont's Lark. Still no luck, not even, a calling bird. So we then decided to pull out all the stops. The following morning we were back at La Lomanza Reserve; but this time we were in position at dawn, the only time of day that the Dupont's Lark performs its ariel display flight. Right on queue, at dawn, several Dupont's Larks began to sing their distinctive song. A bird then rose in the air in song flight, clearly silhouetted, with the planets of Mars and Venus in the background. We saw a second bird performing its display flight and as the sun rose, a third bird was observed by some members of the group, in good light. We spent the rest of the day birding in three different rocky canyons, where we were hopeful of finding the uncommon and very beautiful Black Wheatear. At the first canyon, not far from Fuendetodos, we enjoyed watching a fairly obliging Western Orphean Warbler. The second canyon, a little to the north of Belchite produced a very co-operative Tawny Pipit and finally, the third canyon, above Mediana, produced three splendid Black Wheatears. We saw one new mammal today, the European Rabbit.

The following day was very much a travel day, as we drove from Fuendetodos to the Sierra de Gredos, on the northwestern edge of Extremadura. The only new bird for the day was a striking pair of Red-rumped Swallows, which we admired along the roadside. We spent the next three nights, at a splendid hotel, which had once been the hunting lodge of the King of Spain!

Two full days birding in the magnificent Sierra de Gredos, was a real treat. On its broom-covered lower slopes we enjoyed flight views of both Northern Goshawk and Eurasian Sparrowhawk and a few Common Whitethroats sat up and sang for us. A walk amongst the more open, higher slopes, which were still partially covered in snow, produced great looks at both male and female Ortolan Buntings, several displaying, male Bluethroats performing their spectacular ariel song flights and best of all, a very close pair of Alpine Accentors. We were very pleased to find large numbers of Spanish Ibex on the highest tops of the mountains here. They were obviously used to seeing large numbers of people and many were grazing right next to the walking trail. If the adult males thought you had got to close to them, they would snort at you, which certainly got your attention! After dark, we found small numbers of Savi's Pipistrelles, a high altitude diminutive species of bat, flying around the eaves of our hotel.

The following day we drove into the heart of Extremadura, where we were based at a very old and traditional rural estate. New birds during the drive included small flocks of Cattle Egrets and numerous Azure-winged Magpies. We broke the long drive with a birding stop at the Embalse de Arrocampo; a large wetland area fed by the waters disgorged from a nearby nuclear power plant. The birding was very good here and birds new for the tour included Great Cormorant, Gull-billed and Little Terns, Common Kingfisher, Thekla Lark and Spanish Sparrow. We also had a couple of Common Voles run across the road, in front of our vehicle.

Extremadura is an unspoilt region of Spain where centuries-old traditional land usage and varied landscapes combine together to produce a diversity of habitats that is ideally suited to a good number of globally threatened species of birds. While birding in the dry rolling steppe, we found several Eurasian Black Vultures sitting in the farmland, several flocks of a dozen or so Great Bustards and a splendid pair of Little Bustards. The male was strutting around on slightly raised ground, with his neck stretching into the air, highlighting the black and white pattern on his neck. The more somberly coloured female, was having none of it, and to all intents and purposes, remained aloof, having nothing to do with him. Although we were a hundred or so metres away from them, we could clearly here the males double raspberry display call! We enjoyed watching a few cryptically camouflaged Eurasian Stone-Curlews and following a great deal of searching we were very pleased to have four Pin-tailed Sandgrouse fly close by. Old disused farm buildings held diurnal Little Owls and one evening we caught a glimpse of a Red-necked Nightjar fly up from the middle of the highway and a pre-breakfast stroll through a very old olive grove produced a family party of Long-tailed Tits.

A visit to the Plaza Major in the medieval town of Trujillo, found us admiring flocks of Lesser Kestrels and a few Pallid Swifts.

We spent a very productive day in the beautiful Monfrague National Park, where the river Tajo and its tributary the Tietar, have cut deep and very steep gorges through the hillsides; providing perfect nesting sites for dozens of Eurasian Griffon Vultures. We also found much smaller numbers of nesting Black Storks and an adult Eurasian Eagle-Owl at its daytime roost site. We were also delighted to watch an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle clash talons with a Eurasian Black Vulture in mid-air. An adult Bonelli's Eagle flying directly overhead was an added bonus. While birding in the scrub-covered hills we found a pair of uncharacteristically obliging Dartford Warblers and a couple of Hawfinches flew overhead. While having dinner Betsy and Kenton enjoyed watching a House Mouse scurrying around in the dinning room and a little late night spotlighting where we heard four species of owls, but saw none of them, did however produce a quick sighting of a Western Hedgehog.

Sadly, the tour had come to an end, all that remained was to drive back to Madrid Airport. We arranged an early breakfast, so that we could search for the rarely observed Savi's Warbler, at Embalse de Arrocampo, on our way to the airport. As we were scanning a large expanse of reedbed, Audrey's years of birding in Spain came to the fore, as she heard a Savi's Warbler giving its telltale reeling call. Now we new that there was one calling deep inside the reedbed, all we had to do was stand and wait and pray that it came to the top of the reeds to sing! And that is exactly what the bird did, allowing us perfect looks at this inveterate skulker of the reedbeds. It was a fitting climax to a very enjoyable tour. Sadly, we bid farewell to Spain and Audrey having shared three weeks of very exciting birding together, on a very enjoyable and memorable tour.

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