Sunday, 25 July 2010

Day 8 – Friday 4th June – Alcalá de los Gazules – Seville

Up early to tidy up the house before driving up to Seville airport – as there was no time for birding stops en route little was seen and no new birds were added to the list.

Although the final total - 151 species – was well below JC’s best ever total at this season (170 in 2008), in terms of quality birds the trip came up to or exceeded expectations. The only ‘miss’ was Spanish Imperial Eagle which can be tricky at the best of times. Little Bustard (finally!) was added to JC’s local list whilst and finding an Eagle Owl at the edge of the village very satisfying indeed. Our views of both White-rumped and Little Swift were also very good. Although not ‘tickable’, it was also pleasing to see a Reef Heron X Little Egret (another overdue sighting). Rufous Bush Chat was as elusive as ever, so it was good to get them at an unfamiliar site (which also had good numbers of Tawny Pipit which can be elusive). The comparatively low total was caused partly by the poor showing of wetland birds (ten fewer waders and 3 fewer gulls/terns than in 2008) and a failure to connect with a handful of woodland/scrub loving birds (Crested Tit, Subalpine & Dartford Warblers & Cirl Bunting) perhaps due to the excessive heat (up to 38C). Perhaps too, being here five days later in the year made a difference. On the plus side it was good to see so many lagunas that had been near enough bone dry now full to overflowing and the reservoirs similarly well stocked with water.

Thanks are due to the three Kent birders who joined me on this trip for their excellent company –Terry Laws, Martin Warburton and Geoff Burton.

Day 7 – Thursday 3rdJune – Playa de los Lances – Barbate saltpans – Trafalgar – Los Navarros-Cantarranas Area - Embalse de Barbate

With JC promising to behave, we decided on another trip to Playa de los Lances partly in hope of a Audouin’s Gull and partly in hope of a rare tern. Fortunately, being there earlier in the day and on a weekday too meant there was minimal disturbance. As hoped, three Audouin’s Gull were quickly spotted amongst the 30+ Sandwich Tern, but the only other tern species present were a couple of Common Tern. However, we did add a new species to the list – a rather dark Lesser Black-backed Gull (although a ‘probable’ Great Black-backed Gull was also seen it was decided not to add it to the official tally). Having seen, very distantly, a flock of dark birds (possibly ibis) over the Sierra Retin on Sunday, we decided to search the coast road south of Barbate for Bald Ibis. Unfortunately, none were present (nor were they on the nearby golf course when we checked it). With the water quite high, Barbate marsh proved another disappointment although excellent views were had of a group of three Spoonbill and a couple of Little Ringed Plovers.

With only a single poorly seen Cory’s Shearwater on our list, our next objective was to obtain better views of this handsome seabird. Accordingly, we headed further along the coast to Cabo de Trafalgar. Here a seawatch was pleasingly productive - 68 Cory’s Shearwater, 11 Balearic Shearwaters and 160+ Gannet. Unfortunately, only JC got on to a whale whose huge tail briefly showed above the waves before plunging vertically downwards – research suggests that it was probably a Sperm Whale!

The drive across country to the farmlands near Cantarranas (via the Conil-Los Naveros track) proved fairly uneventful – although a couple Magpies caused unwarranted excitement! Corvids aside, we also had a few Calandra Lark, a Short-toed Eagle, Montagu’s and Marsh Harriers. It was then time to try a further visit to the back of the Embalse de Barbate in the faint hope of picking up the last of the main target birds – Spanish Imperial Eagle (not to mention Cormorant which TL had missed earlier). However, raptors were again few in number so we had to be content with a fine Woodchat Shrike and a Tawny Pipit.

Day 6 – Wednesday 2nd June – Chipiona – Algaida – Laguna de Tarelo – Mesa de Asta Marsh – Valdeinfierno

With views of Little Swift on Sunday having been poor (or for some non-existent) our next target was to look for the species at Chipiona beach which, according to the ‘Rare Birds in Spain’ webpage, is a regular site. After a 90 minute drive, we arrived at Chipiona in good time and were quickly rewarded with at least four Little Swift – all showing spectacularly well. To find White-rumped Swift on the 30th had been good, but these paddle-winged, stub-tailed acrobats really are something special. Not only are they a distinctive shape, but, unlike their trickier cousins, you can actually see their white ‘rumps’ from below! We even had time to enjoy a eye poppingly strong cup of coffee at a fisherman’s venta as we watched the birds! This was birding in style as befits the gentleman birder. Before moving on we had a short sea-watch from the lighthouse netting a few Gannets and a single, distant Cory’s Shearwater.

From Chipiona it was a short drive back to Algaida where we had some ‘unfinished business’, but, unfortunately, unfinished it remained as Azure-winged Magpies remained as elusive as ever. (JC has now visited this area several dozen times and been rewarded with a good view of this elusive bird but twice!) However, we were able to check out some sites not visited earlier in the week. Our first stop, ‘Miguel Martin’ pools (embanked pools on the Algaida road) afforded us incomparable views of 100+ Collared Pratincole. Always elegant in flight, at closer range they proved to be stridently raucous too! At Laguna Tarelo we had good views of the heronry which had breeding Spoonbill, Little & Cattle Egrets, Squacco and Night Heron. The woods themselves had plenty of elusive Tree Sparrowsthree Hoopoe, a few Spotted Flycatchers and many ‘yodelling’ Black Kite (the call being oddly reminiscent of a somewhat demented Curlew!). Reptilians also featured with many Spiny-footed Lizards and a single very large Montpellier Snake in the woods plus a second slimmer unidentified snake by Laguna Tarelo.

With our meagre total of waders still a matter of concern, we next explored the back roads (the unimaginatively named ‘Calle L’ & ‘Calle H’) of Algaida village to obtain alternative views of the Bonanza saltpans. This proved that you could indeed get a different angle on the saltpans from these roads, but we didn’t manage to add significantly to our haul of waders. However, an Osprey was a useful addition to our growing bird of prey list. Following the disappointment of finding no more waders, we next had a quick look at the ‘inner’ Trrbujena Marshes, but with the wetter areas all dried out we quickly quitted the place for Mesa de Asta marsh. Although having fewer than usual Gull-billed Tern (40 instead of 200-300), this superb little marsh still had a healthy amount of water and hence the birds to match. Avocet, Lapwing, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt and, at last, a ‘new’ wader, Black-tailed Godwit were all present. (If access could be improved this would doubtless be one of the best sites in the area, but even so with only distant views to be had it remains a must-visit site).

In the hope of boosting the tally of woodland/scrub species we then tried our luck at Valdeinfierno again. Here we had Great-spotted Woodpecker, Bonelli’s Warbler, Iberian Chiffchaff and Sparrowhawk, but none of our targets. We closed the day with an evening meal on the terrace.

Day 5 – Tuesday 1st June – Alcalá de los Gazules – Benalup Bridge – La Janda – Embalse de Barbate – Los Naveros-Cantarranas Area

With an evening trip out for nightjars on the agenda, we opted for a light day today starting with a ‘proper’ breakfast on the terrace in addition the usual quick coffee and toast first thing. Hence the morning’s count of 9 Lesser Kestrel above the house was the highest of the trip (although substantially down on previous years). After such a leisurely start it wasn’t surprising that we only got out birding around 10:00 AM, but it was good for ‘Los Jublilados’ to have one relaxed morning!

Once out, we decided to have a look at the main part of La Janda, but first, with Spanish Sparrow still not ‘in the bag’, stopped at Benalup bridge for this scarce and sometimes elusive species. The bridge is a regular spot for Spanish Sparrow, but finding them amongst the thriving colony of House Sparrow can be a trial. With female type sparrows showing provocatively well but the males being rather more retiring, it proved a somewhat frustrating search. Fortunately, with perseverance, we all got good views of some striking male Spanish Sparrows (interestingly some House Sparrows showed signs of mixed genes). Also present here were Reed, Melodious and Cetti’s Warblers.

La Janda, despite being a very well known and highly rated site, is often surprisingly birdless if the conditions aren’t right. So it proved today with the well flooded rice paddies holding little more than Black-winged Stilts and Yellow-legged Gulls.

With the afternoon pressing on, time was now judged right for another ‘assault’ on the Cantarranas area. So we returned to the area we’d looked at on Saturday, but with the intention this time of staying until dark. Careful searching soon turned up an immaculate male Little Bustard and, after we’d shifted to maximise the light conditions, we obtained good views of this attractive species. Although the bird wasn’t doing his “leaping-in-the-air-as-I-blow-raspberries” routine, he was calling and his white chevron’d black chest was clearly bursting with pride at his smart appearance. He clearly felt good about himself and it wasn’t a sentiment we had any inclination to puncture – having espied this beauty, we felt much the same ourselves! It was then time to move onto higher ground again to search for Black-shouldered Kite - a regular crepuscular addition to the birding scene here. No sooner had we parked up, than one of these magical little birds put in an appearance precisely on schedule and exactly where expected. Despite being more distant than usual it was very rewarding to get a prediction so precisely correct! It was now time to drive downhill for a km or so and enter the old olive groves where Red-necked Nightjar provide the entertainment. Exactly on time, the birds revved up and let forth with their strange mechanical song. After a short hiatus, one of these ghostly birds drifted over the trees and did a circuit round us. We might have come to see them, but it always feels likes it’s the nightjars that are checking us out. More views followed of this enigmatic bird. Rarely have the jigsaw pieces fallen so neatly into place – it was arguably the best hour’s birding we’d had thus far. GB, whom we’d kept on tenterhooks for this lifer, was particularly well pleased!

Day 4 – Monday 31st May – El Picacho picnic site – GR7 - Grazalema – Llanos de Libar – Venta de la Fuente Track

With a longish drive over to Grazalema in prospect, we made an early get away from Alcalá. A couple of brief stops (El Picacho & GR7) en route added Mistle Thrush, Woodlark, Spotted Flycatcher, Firecrest and Bonelli’s Warbler to the list.

We reached the fabulous Llanos de Libar in good time and, despite misgivings, the track proved not to be too badly damaged by the heavy winter rains. Raptors, however, were surprisingly low key for this site and we struggled to get decent views of the target species. At the narrow limestone ‘saddle’ a few km into the valley, Rock Sparrows were typically vocal yet hard to see whilst Rock Bunting, Black Redstart, Black and Black-eared Wheatear were all atypically distant and/or elusive (and we missed Dartford Warbler entirely). However, Orphean Warbler were out in force and singing strongly as were Bonelli’s & Melodious Warbler. Alpine Swift too were around in good numbers and so we had the satisfaction of logging the 5th species of swift on the trip. Disappointingly, at the far end of the valley (in the woodlands & scrub around the Refugio) neither Cirl Bunting nor Subalpine Warbler could be found although we did have a single Redstart and a Southern Grey Shrike. The latter was a good find as they can be quite scarce in this area and not always easy to locate so late in the season. A pair of loudly ‘twanging’ Red-billed Chough were another welcome addition to the list as we drove back down valley to look once more for raptors. A single fly-over Bonelli’s Eagle at the far end of the valley had hardly given a satisfactory view, but, after a longer than usual wait, a more co-operative bird was seen at the mouth of the valley (by the white pump house). Here too we at last found an obliging Rock Bunting).

Having driven over the tortuous mountain roads to get to Grazalema, we opted for a longer, but simpler return journey via the coast. This also gave us a chance to look for Rufous Bush Chat in the Jimena area (unfortunately this was something of a long shot as JC had omitted to bring directions to a couple of sites in the area with him). Notwithstanding the lack of precise directions, we explored minor roads south-east of San Pablo de Buceite hoping to find a likely looking area. Hence we took a speculative punt at a small track running along a scrubby valley opposite the Venta de la Fuente (a little over 6km SW of San Pablo). After 0.6 km this track became impassable to all but a 4x4, but the presence of four or more Tawny Pipit encouraged us to explore further on foot (this despite the excessive heat – Seville recorded temperatures of 38C today). After an hour or more all seemed lost when a Rufous Bush Chat suddenly appeared on the wires and proceeded to sing – unfortunately the party member who found it was too hot and tired for it to register immediately and by the time the penny had dropped it had gone. (OK it was me! I was hot & knackered and Mr Brain was having a nap! - JC). Fortunately, after constant searching for an hour or so MW found second bird in a ditch several hundred metres down the slope. After another extended wait this bird finally obliged us with excellent views – persistence pays. When back in the UK I checked with Jon Turner (who’d told me about the site) and discovered that I had miraculously stumbled on the right site albeit by an entirely different route!

Day 3 – Sunday 30thMay – Alcalá de los Gazules – Atlanterra-Bolonia – Playa de los Lances – Ojen Valley – Valdeinfierno

Our target today was White-rumped Swift so we rose earlier than usual and drove directly to Atlanterra (Zahara de los Atunes). Spretty much as soon as we arrived swifts appeared amongst which White-rumped Swift were quickly detected. The birds were found amongst a mixed flock of Pallid & Common Swift, Crag & House Martins and Red-rumped Swallows. From below, with comparative sizes hard to judge and the upperparts not being visible, the White-rumps were none too obvious. However, once we got our ‘eye in’ their more attenuated rear end (and, when fanned, more deeply forked tail), more obvious white chin and marginally thinner wing shape allowed them to be picked out relatively easily. Climbing uphill to a better vantage point, we then enjoyed superb views of six individuals from above allowing careful observation of the species’ narrow white rump. (This was JC’s fourth or fifth visit to this precise location at about the same date and time of day – yet previously the birds had shown but once and then briefly!). This urban area also had our first Blue Rock Thrush.

With three of the group dropped off near Punta Camarinal to check the lighthouse area and walk up to the Bolonia road, JC made the 45 minute trip round the area by car. Little was seen on the walk up from the lighthouse, but the Sierra de la Plata came up trumps with Peregrine, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, more Blue Rock Thrush and more swifts including, albeit briefly, a distant and elusive Little Swift.

After a brief and fruitless look for Rufuous Bush Chat at a site on the Sierra de Higuerra, we drive a few miles further south to look at Playa de los Lances. In so doing we ignored an earlier resolution not to visit Playa de los Lances at the weekend or other than first thing in the morning – JC’s misgivings proved correct since a couple of kite surfers had established themselves in the middle of the reserve despite the numerous signs banning this activity. (Much to the amusement of the rest of the party, and nearby sunbathers, and despite his near total lack of Spanish JC charged out and ‘had a go’ at the kite surfers. They did move off, but had returned by the time we got back to the car. With the restrictive signs routinely ignored by dog walkers, horse riders, kite surfers, etc. it’s hard to see why anyone bothered to make it a reserve). Despite this, we did pick up Sanderling and 15 Sandwich Tern here plus, as we left, a small ‘kettle’ of 7 stunning Honey Buzzards (the only ones of the trip).

The return across the Ojen Valley was much more pleasurable. En route we found our first convincing Thekla Lark before pausing at the rustic venta – a remote bar with a beaten earth floor and an open hearth for cooking (sadly there was nothing to eat at this hour). An investigation of the woodland here produced familiar UK species such as Great-spotted Woodpecker, Wren, Robin, Blackcap, Blue & Great Tits plus more exotic fare in the form of Short-toed Treecreeper and Iberian Chiffchaff. In the skies above the raptors continued this theme of the prosaic and exotic with a Sparrowhawk, a couple of Short-toed Eagle, eight or more Booted Eagle and a few Griffon Vulture. (Note - the track across the Ojen valley was in surprisingly good condition, but on the Los Barrios end of the route a small bridge has been partly washed away leaving only a single, and somewhat narrow and perilous, lane behind – not for the faint hearted!)

After one short stop en route (at Valdeinfierno) we retired to the La Palmosa service station for our evening meal. Afterwards, with the light rapidly fading, we made a speculative stop to listen for Red-necked Nightjar before driving up to the village itself. This was done more on a whim than with any realistic expectation of avoiding a specific evening jaunt later in the week for this species (lifer for GB). As expected we failed to find nightjars, but the bizarre antics of a small falcon attracted out attention to a nearby pylon. Then the penny dropped – it was mobbing a silhouetted Eagle Owl perched on one of the struts! Hardly the best view of this iconic species, but at least it was one we’d found it ourselves rather than at some hackneyed ‘stake-out’.

Day 2 – Saturday 29th May – Alcalá de los Gazules – Laguna de Medina - Cantarranas Area – La Janda – Embalse de Barbate – Molinos Valley – Lomo del J

The drive up to Laguna de Medina was uneventful with relatively few birds in evidence. As expected the water level at the laguna was very high and, with no muddy margins, waders were again absent. Walking along the track we quickly saw Little Bittern, Purple Heron, White-headed Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Shoveler, Gadwall, Great Reed and Melodious Warblers. From the hide we had more ducks grebes and herons plus our only Penduline Tit of the trip. After some searching TL found two Crested Coot here amongst the hordes of Common Coot. Contrary to expectation, these birds were well out on the lake. Although fairly distant we had prolonged views of these two birds during which their various ID features could be assessed: the shape of the head, frontal shield and body, the thinner neck, bluish cast of the bill and the red-knobs (these being much less well marked on one bird).

From Laguna de Medina we went down to the Cantarranas area (via the Medina Sidonia-Vejer road). Not surprisingly, as we were searching at a less than optimal time of the day, none of the three target species (Black-shouldered Kite, Little Bustard and Stone-curlew) were seen. However, we did have more Lesser Kestrels, Booted Eagles, Hoopoe and Calandra Lark.

Cutting over to the Benalup road, we then explored the eastern edge of La Janda picking up Griffon Vulture and more of the raptors noted earlier. A slow drive round towards Embalse de Barbate proved something of a disappointment for this excellent area although we did see our only Cormorant of the trip on the embalse. As elsewhere it was striking just how wet it is this year with areas usually used as pasture, were well within the reservoir.

Back tracking past the village, we drove up the Molinos valley and walked the sendero into the hills where we had Iberian Chiffchaff, Sparrowhawk, Woodchat Shrike, Serin and the usual drifting Griffons (c50). After an evening snack at the service station we detoured on our way back to the house to have a quick look at the nearby Lomo de Judio – mainly to have a look at the exposed stonework of a Roman road here. Not wishing to upstaged by mere masonry, however ancient, a group of Bee-eaters put on a fine display here.