Saturday, 26 March 2016

Spain Birding Report 2015

Spain Birding Report
Ken Cross

I had heard from many that the place to go birding in Europe was Spain. There were many bird species, a great range of habitats, surprising scenery, good food and, compared with UK to the north at least, a warm climate. Armed with this information [and content that I had seen a few European birds already in the UK] I organised a birding tour to Spain May 2015, to enjoy their Spring season and birds. I’m happy to say that Spain as a destination for birders was everything folks had claimed it to be and, if anything, it surpassed my expectations.
strange people....

Our trip took us from the streets of their capital Madrid west to the plains of Spain, north to high mountains – the Picos de Europa and the Pyrenees , south again to the Steppes [literally the steps to the mountains] and then east to the Ebros Delta before finishing in the charming city of Barcelona.  Now before I go any further let me state the obvious; a trip does like this does not happen without insider knowledge. That knowledge and expertise was supplied by Steve West, a British born birder and now proud Catalan man, who runs a company – Birding in Spain.

Ben Kingsley 
After a long email correspondence I met Steve in Madrid. He arrived in a van with a Chaffinch stuck in the grill of his rented van; what a good sign! This was a man who took seriously his pledge to bring the birds to us. Jokes aside, Steve turned out to be an excellent guide, even if he did look a little like Ben Kingsley in the bird-watching-related film, “A Birder’s Guide to Everything”.

The real Steve West
We arrived a few days in Madrid before the arrival of Steve such that we could enjoy a city tour of Madrid and also to ‘get our eye in’ on urban birds in several of the city’s parks. Needless to say we enjoyed Common Swifts, House Martins, Barn Swallows, both House and Tree Sparrows and tits – Great, Blue, Coal and Long-tailed. Eurasian Magpies and the large Wood Pigeons were common and we saw our first endemic – Spotless Starling.

Not long after arriving one of our party noticed a van speeding past with the words, ‘Bimbo’ on it. Amused at the prospect of a van full of Bimbos he asked Steve for the real explanation. Turned out that Bimbo was a brand of bread, however, Steve added, Bimbo also meant something for Spanish birders; Bimbo meant lifer. Here was a Spanish word other than cervesa that we could use. For the following two weeks a day would not pass without the excited cry of ‘Bimbo!’
Bimbo - Spanish endemic - Spotless Starling
Stock Dove
Olivaceous Warbler

So after a few lovely Bimbos [Serin and Short-toed Treecreeper] in Madrid and some great views of tits we left the fair city for the plains in Spain.

 Our first birding stop was a nearby wetland that had our first Swamphen, Coot, Gadwall, Little Bittern, Grey and Purple Herons on or near the water while Barn and Red-rumped Swallows plus a flotilla of Sand Martins sped around. Raptors were everywhere; Eurasian Griffon Vultures, Marsh and Montague’s Harriers, Black and Red Kites, Booted Eagle plus four Lesser Kestrels flew over us. White Storks were conspicuous while, closer to the ground Crested Lark and Zitting Cisticolas gave us something to look at while Cetti’s Warbler and various Reed Warblers sang invisibly.

Driving and raptors continued; Black Vulture, Short-toed Eagle and, when we stopped, Bonelli’s Eagle. This stop yielded Nightingales, Nightingales and more Nightingales plus warblers; Melodious, Sardinian but we missed an Orphean that had been singing also. Before calling it a day we had one last stop for Thekla Lark, Corn Bunting and yet another warbler, Dartford Warbler. I had missed Dartford Warbler in the UK, over twenty years previously, and was delighted to get good views of this bird among this Spanish vegetation, rich as it was with beautiful wild Lavender.

The following day we had great views of some classic birds of the Plains; Montagu’s Harrier, Calandra Larks, Little Owl, the amazing Hoopoe, European Roller [many taking advantage of the huge numbers of nest boxes that adorned many, many power poles that crossed the grasslands] and two bustards – one little the other great!
The Corn Bunting
Little Bustard

Montague's Harrier

White Storks
Great Bustards
After lunch as per the itinerary we visited the ‘picturesque Trujillo with its large breeding colony of Lesser Kestrels and perhaps a Pallid Swift or two.’ Trujillo is best described by stealing a chunk of text from Wikipedia; 'The old town contains many medieval and renaissance buildings. Many of these were built or enriched by the conquistadors born in the city. These include, the conquerors of Peru, Francisco Pizarro and his brothers, Francisco de Orellana and Hernando de Alarcón. Pizarro's equestrian statue stands in the main square, the Plaza Mayor. The most important monuments are the castle (old Arab fortress), the church of Santa María (thirteenth century), and the church of San Francisco'.

Beautiful White Cranes were nesting on many of the taller buildings and both Common and Pallid Swifts streaked around the square. Lesser Kestrels, too, were floating over the centre of town although we saw them better when we visited the Trujillo Bull fighting Ring where they were nesting.
Lesser Kestrels

Monfrague National Park, our next main site, is an area of dramatic scenery, and is regarded by raptor watchers as one of the most outstanding sites to see birds of prey in Europe.  It is also an excellent place to see not only raptor watchers but birders generally. Nowhere that I have travelled to in the world has had such a high concentration of birders. At our hotel there were several groups and everywhere we stopped in the park there were birders and their accompaniments; binoculars, scopes, huge lenses and the occasional spouse. There were birders from Spain, yes, but there many from England, Holland, USA, and judging from the sandals and socks, other European nations.
Alpine Acciter

Snow Finch

Steve West of the Mountains
Monfrague National Park is justly famous for its vultures. Huge Eurasian Griffon Vultures in huge numbers  circle each rock pinnacle and nest within the folded and faulted rocks. Rock Buntings and Blue Rock Thrushes were other specials here. I should mention other raptors. Perhaps obviously the bird that many were here to see was a breeding Spanish endemic, The Spanish Imperial Eagle. We saw the birds flying, quite distant but close enough to see their diagnostic features. We also found their nest and a moving pale blob within that was their chick. Booted Eagle, Black Kites, Black Vultures, Common Buzzard plus Falcons, Peregrine and Common Kestrel were seen soaring also.
And then on to the next destination the Picos de Europa. These European Peaks were so named because from the perspective of the earliest sailors returning from the new world these peaks, emerging over a watery horizon, were the first sign of their European home. A cable car ride to the snow line allowed us to enjoy Red-billed and Alpine Choughs, Snow Finch, Alpine Accentor and Lammergeier!
Blue Rock Thrush

Griffon Vulture

Mountains followed Mountains and we travelled next to the Pyrenees. Here we learned that whoever said that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain was, pretty much, a bloody liar because here the heavens opened up! The weather allowed a little birding however we lost opportunities for a few sought after species, for example, Black Woodpecker. We did see Red-backed Shrike, Citril and Dipper! After dipping on dippers earlier it was a great Bimbo to get.

The last major area visited was the Spanish Steppes. This location was like being on multiple spaghetti western sets. Here were larks, sandgrouse, wheatears and others. It was great fun playing spot the lark, as they sang high in the sky, rising invisibly against the blue.
Pin tailed Sandgrouse

Common or Eurasian Kingfisher

Finally we went to the coast – the Ebros Delta for a fix of waterbirds, sea gulls and waders. It, too, was an excellent birding location. We even allowed time for a circa 100km excursion to the north where we went for a little pelagic trip for a few shearwaters, gulls and even a Storm-petrel! Out two week [or so] tour ended in Barcelona. We allowed ourselves another half day tour which included the [seriously must visit]  Basillica de la Sagrada Familia.
Great Flamingoes at the Ebros Delta

Red footed Falcon
Zitting Cisticola
If you would like to be informed about my occasional birding adventures or to join one please contact me on for more details.

Ken Cross

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