Sunday, 7 June 2009

Cadiz Province - May 2009

Birding Cadiz Province - May 2009

Day 1 – Friday 22nd May
Alcala – Cantarannas/Los Naverros – Montenmedio Golf – Bolonia – Playa de los Lances.
Having arrived in Seville at dusk and only collecting the car once it was dark, we managed only swift sp., Tawny and Little Owl on the 21st. So we were keen to get up early (6:00 AM) and out today. The day’s tally started soon after first light with Pallid and Common Swift, Lesser Kestrel, Cattle and Little Egret added from the terrace. The absence of Olivaceous Warbler at last year’s site near the village was disappointing, but a couple of Melodious and Cetti’s Warblers plus Red-rumped Swallow were noted here.
On our jaunt around the Cantarranas/Los Naveros area, we found Kestrel, Buzzard, Black Kite, 5 Montagu’s Harrier (all but one adult males), a Marsh Harrier and a Short-toed Eagle all of which quickly bumped up the raptor list. Other notable birds included Calandra Lark and Bee-eater. Little Bustard, my target species in this area continues to elude me, but I think that having explored the area more thoroughly, I now have a much better idea where to look!
Puerto de Bolonia/Sierra de la Plata was our next main destination, but en route we diverted to Montenmedio Golf Club. Here we found 15 Bald Ibis which, almost suicidally, favoured feeding on the club’s driving range surrounded by bright yellow golf balls! At Bolonia we had Crag Martin, our first Blue Rock Thrush, Black-eared Wheatear and Woodchat Shrike.
Playa de los Lances was very disappointing. A meagre total of five Kentish Plover, a single Redshank, 10 Sandwich Tern and a handful of Yellow-legged Gull was, in large part, due to the apparent inability of kite-surfers to read the many notices banning them from the reserve. Four or five were brazenly using the shallow lagoon right in front of the birdwatching hide! Needless to say such arrogant disregard of the notices and the needs of wildlife (and birders) made me furious. I only wish my Spanish was up to explaining myself. Apparently the local authorities regularly turn a 'blind eye' to such behaviour since Kite surfing is 'big business' in the area.
With a couple of Booted Eagles over the terrace on our return we ended the day with a modest 61 species. None the less it was a good day since I finally caught up with the Bald Ibis which however, dubious as ticks, were good to see.

Day 2 – Saturday 23rd May
Sanlucar area – Bonanza - Algaida pinewoods – Laguna de Tarelo - Algaida-Trebujena Marshes – Laguna de Medina – Pes de Embalse de Barbate
Another early start meant we got to the mouth of the Guadalquivir in good time to see three Little Swift. Cutting back towards Algaida, via the ‘back way’, a stop at the “settling pools” was rewarded with c500 Collared Pratincole – many at very close range. Amongst the pratincoles was our first Short-toed Lark and the reedy ditch here produced a Little Bittern and the surrounding fields two more (male) Montagu’s Harrier. Bonanza ‘pools’ produced the expected obliging White-headed Ducks (5 of them) and Night Heron. Bonanza saltpans were, as in April, disappointing with very few waders and this was compounded by access now being more restricted. (The track along the fence up to the small white building – often one of the best areas – is now closed off. Apparently to stop ‘drinking parties of local youths using the area). Slender-billed Gulls, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Ringed and Kentish Plover plus an assortment of BoPs were seen, but little else. Later, by nipping round behind Lagua de Tarelo, we added Dunlin (50+), Curlew Sandpiper, c50 Whiskered Terns and more Slender-billed Gulls. Laguna de Tarelo itself held Spoonbill and Squacco Heron. To my surprise, seconds after admitting that I’d rarely seen Azure-winged Magpie here and never from the car, one suddenly appeared bouncing along from tree to tree! A drive along the Guadalquivir added 4 Marbled Duck, Lesser Short-toed Lark (plus many more ‘greater’), Spectacled Warblers, 3 Purple Heron and still more Montagu’s Harrier (4 males). En route southwards we had c150 Gull-billed Tern, another (male) Montagu’s Harrier and 6+ Red-rumped Swallow at Mesas de Asta marsh. A stop at Laguna de Medina failed to produced the hoped for Crested Coot, but did have a single White-headed Duck, 50+ Black-necked Grebe, another Little Bittern and a very close Mongoose. A final stop at the Presa de Embalse de Barbate added more Booted and Short-toed Eagles plus our first good views of Bee-eaters.

Day 3 – Sunday 24th May
Trafalgar – Atlanterra – La Janda – Embalse de Barbate – Molinos Valley – Cantarranas

At Trafalgar there were c20 Cory’s and 4 Balearic Shearwaters, but the tidal pool here was dry hence no Audouin’s Gull at this usually reliable spot. A brief seawatch at Punta Camarinal (Bolonia) added a further 20 Cory’s Shearwater and there were a few Booted & Short-toed Eagle in the same area. Although the rice fields on La Janda are being re-flooded now, this site only added Little Ringed Plover to the list, but the fields towards Benalup had a minimum of 500 Black Kite, 50+ Griffon Vultures, 6 Booted and 4 Short-toed Eagles. Another attempt to catch up at Spanish Imperial Eagle or Black-winged Kite at the Embalse de Barbate proved unsuccessful, but resulted in a handful more Booted and Short-toed Eagles plus a handsome Black-eared Wheatear. Our final stop before our evening meal was a local one; the Molinos valley. More eagles again (but not the hoped for Bonelli’s Eagle) plus our only Egyptian Vulture of the trip plus a couple of Cirl Buntings.
After a quick meal, we nipped out to the Cantarranas area where we had seven Hoopoes, a Black-winged Kite (eventually) and at least 6 Red-necked Nightjar. Finally we had a Natterjack Toad crossing the track.

Day 4 – Monday 25th May
Laguna de Fuente de Piedra – La Lantejuela – Rio Carbones – Laguna de Zaracutin
The day started well with a Bonelli’s Warbler singing below the house. We had an early start, but little birding, other than ‘en route’, was done until we reached Fuente de Piedra. The lake margin had receded a good deal since mid April and, as a consequence, the main ‘pack’ of Flamingos was very distant. After over an hour of steady searching, a Lesser Flamingo (one of two) suddenly appeared from behind a low island. Its brighter ‘day-glow’ pink plumage and scarlet back plumes made it stick out like a sore thumb. Closer investigation also showed a black face. A White-headed Duck was a surprise, but a single Black Tern (amongst 300+ Gull-billed) was more expected.
Inevitably, we had to explore the La Lantjuela area for bustards and equally inevitably we saw none. However, at the bridge over the Rio Corbones (near Marchena) we found two Rollers, a minimum of 4 Spanish Sparrow (and probably many times that number) and two Olivaceous Warblers; the latter species typically inhabiting riverine tamarisk scrub.
Thanks to a close study of GoogleEarth, we reached Laguna de Mejorada via good back roads without driving through heavily congested Los Placios Y Villafranca (as most trip reports suggest). Here we had a minimum of 7 Olivaceous Warblers and two Rufous Bush Chats. The Olivaceous (again in tamarisks) were with both Melodious and Reed Warblers; a useful comparison both visually and audibly. Searching the run down allotments, Robin found the Rufous Bush Chat 40 metres further along the old concrete aqueduct on an old track beyond some iron gates. We exited to the nearby N IV and headed towards El Palma de Troya. Here we briefly explored Laguna de Zarracatin; c330 Flamingo, Whiskered Tern, Avocet and Black-winged Stilt. Back home in Alcala we had 19 Lesser Kestrels over the terrace (our largest total of the trip).

Day 5 – Tuesday 26th May
Grazalema – Llanos de Libar – Jimena – Castillo de Castellar
Another longish haul over to Grazalema picking up Nuthatch, Thekla Lark, Woodlark, Iberian Chiffchaff and Southern Grey Shrike (at my usual site south of Grazalema village) en route. Despite the confusing mêlée of thousands of Swift over Grazalema village, Robin managed to pick up a single White-rumped Swift; naturally it was just about the only bird of the trip I missed! Exploration of the Llanos de Libar (still not accessible via the Benaoján road) started well with two Bonelli’s Eagle sitting on crags guarding the entrance, but the ‘regulars’ here proved much harder than in April. Goodish views of Black Wheatear, fair ones of Rock Bunting, poor ones of Rock Sparrow, scarcely a view at all of singing Orphean Warbler and no view at all of calling Choughs. At the far end of the valley Subalpine Warbler showed well as did a superb male Black Redstart (surprisingly the only one of the trip), but much less expected was a male Common Redstart. Nearby at Cueva del Gato at least a dozen Alpine Swift milled around the gaping entrance to the massive cave.
At “Castillar bridge” (near the venta on the way up to the old village) we had a single Monarch butterfly showed well but a high flying Two-tailed Pasha was less obliging. The village itself gave us very close views of Blue Rock Thrush and fine views across the countryside, but little else.

Day 6 – Wednesday 27th May
Trebujena - Algaida pinewoods – Laguna Tarelo - Bonanza – Lagunas de Espera & Lebrija –Cantarranas
Another search of the Trebujena area. An exploration of the rough tracks to the north of the Sanlucar-Trebujena road produced the hoped for Stone Curlew, a couple more Montagu’s Harriers, a Red Kite, many more Black Kites, a Short-toed Eagle, at least two Lesser Short-toed, 100+ Short-toed and 30 Calandra Larks. A visit to Pinar de Algaida, Laguna de Tarelo and then Bonanza added only a couple of Curlew to the list. However, Little Tern and Slender-billed Gull showed extremely well.
Our next destination was the Espera area. However, our chosen route took us close to Lagunas de Galiana and Cigarrera which are just over the border in Seville province. The first was reed choked and held little, but the second will surely repay closer attention; 2 Black-necked Grebe, a Purple Gallinule, 4 Red-crested Pochards, 2 White-headed Ducks, 2+ Olivaceous Warblers and a small flock of Spanish Sparrows plus numerous Coot. This mix of species, is so similar to nearby Espera, that it must suggest that Crested Coot is a real possibility here. The Lagunas de Espera held a similar range of species, but Laguna Dulce de Zorrilla came up trumps with two Crested Coot. We returned back to Alcalá via Cantarranas area, but our hopes for Little Bustard were dashed by the strengthening wind.

Day 7 – Thursday 28th May
Cantarranas – Atlanterra – Puerto de Bolonia – Playa de los lances – Valdeinfierno – El Palancar – La Teja
Birding today was seriously compromised by gale force winds which, at times, made it hard to stand upright. Accordingly the birding was very difficult with birds, small and large, keeping well down. There were more swifts at Zahara/Atlanterra than I’ve ever seen there previously, but they were whipping by so fast it was hard to get a decent look; Pallid, Common and Alpine were all seen, but not the hoped for White-rumped. The good news at Playa de los Lances was that it was too windy for kite surfers, but the bad news was that it was also too windy for birds! However, Sanderling were added to the list here. With it too windy for much else we headed for the woods off the A381 in the hope that some of the narrow valleys might provide shelter. This they did to some degree and we found good numbers of Iberian Chiffchaffs and Bonelli’s Warblers, but none of the woodland species we were still missing.

Day 8 – Friday 29th May
Alcalá de los Gazules – Gibraltar
Up early for our last day and the morning flight from Gibraltar. Lesser Kestrels, naturally saw us off from the village and, aside from a few other species (it was till very windy), that was the end of our birding jaunt.

With 151 we had some twenty fewer species than my trip in 2008 although we got most of key species –Marbled Duck, Crested Coot, both ‘white-rumped’ swifts, Roller, Rufous Bush Chat, Olivaceous Warblers, Azure-winged Magpie, etc. The difference is largely explained by the relative dearth of waders & gulls (not helped by the closure of a key track at Bonanza) and woodland species (no woodpeckers, no Crested or Long-tailed Tit for example). On the positive side I was able to explore a couple of new sites, the best being Lagunas de Cigarrera.

Thanks to Robin M for his good company on this trip,


Sunday, 19 April 2009

April Bird Trip - Day 10 - 11th April

Day 10 – Saturday 11th April: Robin’s Last Day
- My final day - and still there were birds to see. Only a single Short-toed Eagle was on view from the Tarifa raptor migration centre, but behind the beach at Playa de los Lances (the other end from where we were on Tuesday), where people were everywhere, even flying kites on the reserve itself - we found a couple of Tawny Pipits walking and chasing on the sandy grassland, and there was also briefly a pair of Kentish Plovers. This was a very fitting end to an amazing week in which I saw no fewer than 43 new birds out of a total of 166 and 5 new butterflies out of a total of 19 - thanks to John's knowledge, skill, driving ability and good cooking!

JC - I’m sure that all of my Kent birding friends would heartily contest every one of Robin’s final points! It was certainly a great trip. Not only did Robin and I see some good birds and rather fewer butterflies, we even managed to slot in a little tourism with visits to Arcos, Baelo Claudia and the obligatory sherry & tapas in Jerez. Robin missed one final, if somewhat dubious tick, a trio of Monk Parakeets that barrelled ove La Linea shortly after dropping him at Gibraltar airport.

Although Liz and I stayed on until the 17th, poor weather and the need to be a tolerably attentive husband meant that few further birds were added to the list. However, this did give me the chance to try to bump up the terrace list which I managed to do when a immature Golden Eagle came over; my 18th BoP from the terrace and a rather unexpected one as they breed no nearer than Grazalema. Despite the weather I did manage to add a few more birds to the trip tally - Great-spotted Woodpecker, Black Redstart and, serenading us just before we left the house, a magnificent male Golden Oriole making the grand total of 171 species for the trip.

April Bird Trip - Day 9 - 10th April

Day 9 – Friday 10th April: A Rose by any other name!
- En route to the Guadalquivir again we saw a Stone Curlew in flight. The usual astonishing variety of birds was seen at the Trebujena marshes - 2 Night Herons, c12 Greater Flamingoes, c12 Collared Pratincoles, 4 Kentish Plovers, 2+ Curlew Sandpipers, a Slender-billed Gull, 1 Short-toed and c4 lovely Calandra Larks. Raptors included Short-toed Eagle and a male and a female Montagu's Harrier. There were a lot of Booted Eagles doing a lot of noisy displaying. A Quail was heard but, as usual, invisible, and we also saw our first Turtle Doves for the week.

A bird perched on a wire above the track turned out to be a Rose-coloured Starling. Unusually, John was more excited about it than me- not just another exciting Spanish bird, but a Spanish rarity! Another group of birders turned up, Spanish as it happened, but they were relative beginners and didn't realise the significance of the sighting any more than I did. John, however, was anxious to share this bird with local birders so waved down another passing car containing a Spanish birder. This turned out to be Javier Hildalgo, one of the directors of the SEO (the Spanish RSPB) - no less – and a prominent member of the local “sherry-aristocracy”; naturally he spoke perfect English! Although initially sceptical, soon saw the bird himself! It was a first summer bird still with some juvenile brown feathers. Senor Hidalgo then told us about some Marbled Teal he had seen nearby - we found them lurking in clumps of rushes at the edge of a large lagoon, two neat little biscuit-coloured ducks. In an elated - not to say triumphant - mood we had a look in the Algaida pinewoods. Here a Hoopoe was "singing" and there were several Short-toed Treecreepers. The whole area rang with the calls of Booted Eagles and we realised that one pair were apparently prospecting a nest in a pine right by the track where many people were going to be walking and picnicking (Spaniards seem to love picnics even more than the British) over the holiday weekend. Perhaps Booteds are at a very high population at present - we counted about 10 birds in the area.

Later, visiting the beautiful garden of the 11th Century Moorish Alcala at Jerez de la Frontera, we saw a large and elegant Scarce Swallowtail, the most spectacular butterfly of the week in a fantastic setting - together with a more mundane Wall Brown. En route to meet Liz Cantelo at Gibraltar we stopped off at Las Palmones - here there were just 6 Avocets and a few Sandwich Terns.

JC - Robin’s first comment on seeing the Rose-coloured Starling was something along the lines of ‘Number 41” and it was only my excited babble that made him realise that this species is not usual hereabouts. Although Senor Hildalgo thought that it was the first for the Coto, it seems to have been the second record – not bad all the same! Notice again the leisurely style of the trip; Robin not only got to see a genuine medieaval mosque in Jerez castle - remember we met studying History at university - but also enjoyed a well earnt glass of sherry & tapas at the iconic Gallo Azul bar in the centre of town!

April Birding Trip - Day 8 - 9th April

Day 8 – Thursday 9th April: R & R
- A sea watch at Punta Secreta produced a couple of Great Skuas but little else, so we returned to Los Alcornocales for the rest of the day. At Embalse de Celerin there were six Little Ringed Plovers and a Common Sandpiper. A walk in the beautifully wooded Val de Infierno - which reminded us both of Welsh oakwoods - resulted in hearing and seeing some 10 Iberian Chiffchaffs, an exquisite Firecrest, Willow Warbler and 2 Cirl Buntings. There were lots of the nominate form of the Speckled Wood, another Spanish Festoon and 3 Green Hairstreaks.

Moving on to our main site for the day, a return visit to Los Molinos, we did much better, with both raptors and butterflies aplenty. The former included two more Bonelli's Eagles, the only ones for Los Alcornocales this week, unfortunately rather distant views, and another Egyptian Vulture. There was obviously a bit of a raptor passage with 5 Booted Eagles and 2 Short-toed Eagles accompanying some 40 Griffons. Other birds included no less than 5 exquisite Black-eared Wheatears, 4 more Iberian Chiffchaffs, 2 Cirl Buntings, a Bonelli's Warbler and the usual Serins. It was the best day for butterfly variety, with 11 species including c8 Spanish Festoons, a Moroccan Orange tip, 2 Cleopatras - my first for the week, they resemble Brimstone, but with an orange flush on the forewing - 2 Provencal Hairstreaks, 4 or so more Green Hairstreaks, a "helice" Clouded Yellow, 2 "cramera" Brown Argus, 3 Common Blues and a Small Copper. John also identified Loose-flowered and Tongue Orchids.
By stark contrast to the idyllic - and fragrant - Molinos valley, in the evening we visited Los Barrios rubbish tip for a possible Eagle Owl - all we saw was a Griffon, c40 White Storks and the amazing sight of c500 Black Kites!

JC - After the excessive amount of driving the previous day we both needed a quieter day – it’s just a pity that Cory’s Shearwater picked this week to be elusive! It was the first spring trip I’ve had out to Spain where I’ve not seen them. A shame too, that my hunch that the rubbish tip might hold Eagle Owl proved unfounded! It was incredibly smelly, but at least the sunset was terrific!

April Birding Trip - Day 7 - 8th April

Day 7 – Wednesday 8th April: A Lesser twitch
RG - Back to the Guadalquivir - this time at Brazo d'Este where we found a Savi's Warbler singing from the top of a reed - noticeably darker brown than Reed Warbler. Also a single Squacco Heron flushed from the reeds then landed in the open giving excellent views - but the only one of the week. Other birds here included c150 Collared Pratincoles and c30 Whiskered Terns, both species feeding over the open lagoons, a Gull-billed Tern, c8 Purple Herons and c4 Night Herons, a Spoonbill, c5 Purple Gallinules, 3 Glossy Ibises, 4 Marsh Harriers, 2 superb as always male Montagu's Harriers, 6 Kentish Plovers and more Bee-eaters, and our only flock of Spanish Sparrows seen in the week - about 30 dustbathing.

From here we drove the hundred kilometres or so to Laguna Fuente de Piedra which is an unmissable place - a huge, but shallow, lake covered with about 8,000 Flamingos! Six of them were Lesser Flamingos, rare vagrants from Africa, with all-pink plumage and black bills, and only about three-quarters the size of the Greater Flamingo. They were John's sole tick of the week, and he picked them out almost immediately, despite the fact that the mainly British birders present had not made the attempt. The number of waders was staggering - of course many Black-winged Stilts and Avocets, but also c70 Little Stints, and we noticed Kentish Plovers, summer-plumaged Curlew Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank and a Ruff, and doubtless many more if we had had time to look! There was also a flock of about 150 Gull-billed Terns sat on a gravel spit, and a distant calling Hoopoe. I saw more Lesser Emperors here.

We ended the day searching for bustards and sandgrouse in the Marchena / La Lantaguera area - to no effect - apart, that is, from seeing 3 more male Montagu's Harriers, c300 Collared Pratincoles, about 3 Calandra Larks and, inevitably, more Bee-eaters.

JC - Fortunately, when Robin opened the map to navigate from Brazo de Este to the Lantejuela area (where we planned to look for bustards), I realised that it was only another 100km (on a fast motorway) to Fuente de Piedra. I’d been there once before – staying nearby in Campillos expressly to see this site – only to find it bone dry and birdless. This time it was a stunning oasis of bird activity – a really superb area even without Lesser Flamingos! Although the Lessers were initially very distant, I was surprised how easy it was to pick them out; not only were they distinctly smaller (and shorter) but also they sported really bright red plumage. At closer range the black bills and faces, pierced by a gleaming reddish eye, gave them a slightly sinister air. Robin, determined to locate them for himself, spent 20 minutes searching before anyone realised that his view was onscured by a tamarisk! Unfortunately this detour meant we gave the bustards less time than we'd hoped - next time perhaps. The only downside of this great day was the discovery, once back home, that a Wilson's Phalarope (which a Spanish birder we'd met told us about) was relocated, having gone 'missing for several days, at Brazo de Este after we'd left. Pity, but cutting our visit to the area short did ensure good views of the Lesser Flamingos!

April Birding trip - Day 5 & 6 - 6th & 7th April

Day 5 - Monday 6th April: A day in Grazalema
RG - A day in the mountains of the spectacular Sierra Grazelema. The first stop at Villa Lengua Rosario near Ubrique, beneath high cliffs, produced two Blue Rock Thrushes and my first Black Wheatears, one of which was seen quite near. A distant Egyptian Vulture was with some soaring Griffons. Moving on towards Grazelema we stopped at a place where John had seen Southern Grey Shrike in February- and within very few minutes one was seen on wires. It soon vanished then reappeared a bit later on the other side of the road showing well. Underparts much pinker than the pure white of the Great Grey, and white supercilia met above the bill. It was also being watched by some friendly but not very experienced French birders - one of them seemed to think the Shrike was a Blackcap! The real mountains were next reached, the magnificent Llanos de Libar above Montejaque. Here we stopped in a dramatic valley and immediately had stunning close-up views of a Rock Bunting, and less close ones of a flock of Rock Sparrows - there must have been about 25 of them all told. A bit higher up an Orphean Warbler was singing a beautiful mellifluous song. A walk in a high level meadow for butterflies only produced a "helice" Clouded Yellow, but here we had our only Subalpine Warblers of the week, the attractive male giving very good views, while a Firecrest also appeared briefly. A Short-toed Treecreeper called from a stunted pine. Other birds up in this tremendous valley were c5 Bonelli's Warblers, c30 Alpine Swifts flying very high, a Black-eared Wheatear, about 4 Black Wheatears and a singing Cirl Bunting, as well as another close but brief view of the attractive Rock Bunting. Of the raptors we had 2 Short-toed Eagles and a Booted Eagle, and, at a place John had seen it before, a superb Bonelli's Eagle. It was first seen perched high on top of a crag, not far from a similarly perched Short-toed, then it flew much closer to us - a really charismatic bird. It soared up into the sunshine, another bird joining it before both flew off. The bird of a splendid day.

Returning home we stopped first at Bornos Reservoir where there were a Purple Heron and 2 Spoonbills before pushing on to the Lagunas de Espera. At Espera lagoons (which reminded me of the Cotswold Water Park) there was an "observatorio blanco" which was really cool to sit in, but from which no birds could actually be seen. (I didn’t realise that the Cotswold Water Park had so many exotic species in addition to Red-crested Pochard! - JC) On the last pool we found a couple of Crested Coots, a declining species locally, together with a male White-headed Duck, 6 Black-necked Grebes, a Marsh Harrier and a Purple Gallinule. Also here was a Mongoose, running across the road in front of us as we approached the reserve. Insects included a Spanish Festoon, another "helice" Clouded Yellow, and a surprising number of dragonflies - Lesser Emperors, considerably smaller than Emperors, and Scarlet Dragonflies (both rarities in Britain.)

Finally, at Arcos de la Frontera, there were more Pallid Swifts than we had seen so far, about 100 or so, together with c30 Lesser Kestrels, and, on the way home, another Booted Eagle.

JC - I thought the inner tourist in Robin would enjoy this spectacular town – personally I enjoyed the superb croissants we bought here even more.

Day 6 - Tuesday 7th April: A Bridge too far
En route to Cape Trafalgar a Barn Owl flew over. At the cape sea-watching was not productive, the only birds of real interest being two Slender-billed Gulls, the rest were fairly normal "British" species. Broomrapes were everywhere in the dunes. Large display boards described the battle fought here two hundred years ago. The estuary at Barbate was also a disappointment, but in the woods here, planted to stabilise the largest dune in Europe, we had intimate views of a Short-toed Treecreeper, and there were some interesting orchids - Sombre Bee Orchid and Mirror Orchid. At the observatory at Playa de las Lances things began to look up on the birding front - a fairly distant Audouin's Gull was put up by some walkers before we could get a good view, but then, within a few minutes, first a group of Kentish Plovers appeared on grass behind the hide, then we saw a Collared Pratincole with them, a brilliant close view of it on the ground, then when it flew off calling, another Audouin's Gull flew right over the hide, near enough for me to see its blood-red "lipstick" bill. A distant Black-winged Stilt and about 70 Sanderlings in front of the hide completed the list.
At the second visit to La Janda ( a different area of this vast drained marshland) our luck was still in. We had intimate views of Bee-eaters ( the first actually seen perched, despite the fact we had seen migrants virtually everywhere we went), and there were 3+ Spoonbills, c4 Black-winged Stilts, c7 Purple Gallinules and a Gull-billed Tern. Raptors were the main interest - a female Hen Harrier, 3 Marsh Harriers, 2 Short-toed and a Booted Eagle and a magnificent juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle, distant but distinctive, the largest eagle of the week! More raptors were seen near Embalse de Barbate - a Booted and c4 Short-toed Eagles, with about 10 Bee-eaters.

JC - In the absence of the restraining hand of my “other half” I’d decided to attempt the perilous Benalup-Fascinas track in the hope, a vain one as it turned out, of getting Little Bustard. In parts it was certainly more trough than track and required very careful driving. Unfortunately after 9-10 km of corrugated motoring, we came to a concrete bridge the other side of which was a small 3-D display evidently commemorating trench warfare; I decided that, having got SIE ‘in the bag’ to go no further!

April Birding Trip - Day 4 - 5th April

Day 4 - Sunday 5th April: Birds are not the only tick …
Robin, to my pretended disgust, had this strange notion that some flying things that were not birds could be ticked. Apparently, these are called b-u-t-t-e-r-f-l-i-e-s. So today was mainly dedicated to pottering around locally for these wee beasties. It probably cost us a few good birds, but I think Robin needed the rest from all that hectic real ticking!

RG - On the way to the Los Molinos valley, a short distance from Alcala, we saw a gathering of up to 30 or more Griffon Vultures. They seemed to be interested in a spot at the edge of a field, though there appeared to be no carcase there, it seemed more like a meeting of some sort was going on! A trek up the Los Molinos valley produced a mass of colourful flowers and my first Iberian Chiffchaff singing, the song began like a Chiffchaff and ended like a Pied Flycatcher. To my eyes it looked more like Willow than Chiff, with more of a neck, and apparently yellower underparts, particularly undertail coverts, than on adult Chiffchaff. Also Firecrest, Bonelli's Warbler and Woodlark were singing, and we saw a Short-toed Eagle and plenty of vultures including an Egyptian. On the way back from Molinos there was a pair of Black-eared Wheatears, and, over Alcala, a Booted Eagle. Butterflies were the best so far - ten species of which three were new to me - 3 or 4 Spanish Festoons (seen properly and even photographed), 3 Moroccan Orange Tips (including a female, which looks similar to male Orange Tip), Provencal Hairstreak (looking like a cross between Small Copper and Green Hairstreak) and, though not a new species, the "helice" form of the Clouded Yellow. There was also the bright "cramera" race of Brown Argus, Common Blue, Wall, and lots of the very different nominate race of the Speckled Wood, looking very like Wall.
At Embalse de Barbate a Black Stork flew over the hills and away over the reservoir. Also here were Short-toed Eagles, Booted Eagles and Griffon Vultures, and the Wood Sandpiper was seen again. There was also a Melodious Warbler here, the only one of the week. Later at the spectacular peak of El Picacho an Egyptian Vulture was with Griffons at the summit, and another Booted Eagle flew over.

Actually, it was very good to have an 'easy day' without too much hectic driving and the Molinos valley is a perfect place to 'unwind' with superb views, good birds (it has a large vulture roost) and all this just 5 minutes drive from Alcala. We later discovered an additional bonus - the shop at the camp ground sold bread and other supplies when everywhere else was firmly shut!

April Birding Trip - Day 3 - 4th April

Day 3 - Saturday 4th April: A Kite and Bull Story!

RG - The wonderful quality continued when, in thick morning mist, we stopped at a bridge near Benalup a few miles from Alcala, and I saw my first male Spanish Sparrow - quite a stunner for a sparrow. (Despite stopping here specifically for this species – which seems to like eucalyptus groves hereabouts - I again missed them at this site. It was only after searching for several more minutes and seeing only House Sparrow that Robin realised how lucky he’d been! - JC).

Driving along a minor road/track at Cantaranas/ Las Naveros we had three more Red-rumped Swallows, but initially we didn't find anything new, apart from hearing a Hoopoe. (You weren’t complaining at the time Robin! – JC). However, once we got out of the car and explored a side track we saw a distant silhouetted raptor perched on a fence post which John identified as a Black-shouldered Kite. We walked down a track to get nearer, but the bird seemed to have dropped out of sight. Perhaps it was disturbed by another hunting male Montagu's Harrier. (The sight of some distant cattle persuaded me, if not Robin, that it was time to beat a retreat – a decision amply vindicated given what soon unfolded! Being used to Wiltshire’s finest Aberdeen Angus, Robin was keen to proceed further down this track, but I insisted that we turn back. Robin clearly thought I was a bit of a wimp, but those distant bulls had a somewhat sinister bulk and mien. Shortly afterwards a horseman passed by, but failed to notice us. Then a clanking of bells announced the arrival of several cows and a second horseman carrying a long pole. He spoke to me in clipped and urgent Spanish amongst which, thankfully, I managed to pick out the words "toros bravos" - fighting bulls! Obviously they'd brough the 'ladies' along to tempt the bulls in the right direction - unfortunately this was in our direction! It was pretty clear he wanted us out of the way and fast! We walked back to the car, but paused to get a drink from the boot at which point the second horseman reappeared urgentlt gesticulating & shouting at us to get in the car - my Spanish appears to improve in such circumstances! This we did and shortly thereafter a posse of large and irritable looking fighting bulls thundered along the track we’d just vacated! A close call! Thank goodness that a certain habitue of Grove Ferry wasn't there - these weren't dairy cows, 007, but real Spanish fighting bulls! - JC)

Later, nearly at the end of the Cantaranas road, John found another Black-shouldered Kite perched on a wire. (Actually, I saw it fly up to the wire, but didn’t let on what it was at first since I knew Robin much preferred to ID birds himself rather than be told. He was very impressed that I’d identified this distant dot until I admitted I’d seen it fly in! – JC). Soon it flew up and started hunting, hovering, then gliding with wings held in a V more pronounced than any harrier, then off over the hill: a truly stunning bird. A stop on the Conil road was notable in that it produced my first new butterflies - there hadn't been many up to now apart from a few Large Whites, and abundant Painted Ladies and Clouded Yellows everywhere - these were 3 Green-striped Whites, like Bath Whites on the upperwing but with a green-striped underwing. Here there was also a pair of Stone Curlews.

The Roman ruins at Baelo Claudia near Bolonia were an unforgettable experience, the Temple, the Theatre, the dramatic seaside setting with the largest moving sand dune in Spain - and the birds! Three stunning Black-eared Wheatears included a very tame pair - the female was gathering nesting material around the theatre - and there were two Thekla Larks which we examined closely - identification from Crested was clinched by the convex, rather than straight, lower mandible. (Both species seem to be present here – although previously I’ve only seen Crested at this site – JC) Next, driving up to the spectacular Sierra de la Plata, we stopped at a beetling crag where appropriately we had Crag Martins, a superb singing Blue Rock Thrush and two splendid Egyptian Vultures. The thrush was perched heroically right at the top of the cliff, and the vultures perched briefly then flapped away, their black and white plumage more stunningly immaculate than I expected. A bit further on - actually near the top of the hill, John found my first, much hoped for, Spanish Festoon butterfly, but I didn't get much of a view, just good enough to identify it. Also here was an Iberian Green Woodpecker.
What a host! Not content with showing Robin the birdlife of the area I also knew that, as a fellow History graduate, he’d enjoy some decent classical ruins – it’s purely fortuitous that they’re in a good birding location! Not only that but, even though my pretense of knowing nothing about butterflies isn't too far from the truth, I also managed to find Robin a butterfly tick too - JC

At the La Janda marshes raptors were back in view with a superb Short-toed Eagle, a female Montagu's Harrier and another Marsh Harrier. On the marshy ditch there were about 5 Purple Gallinules. On the way back to Alcala a small pond near Embalse de Barbate produced a Wood Sandpiper, and another Iberian Green Woodpecker flew in front of the car. All was by no means over for the day however - near the embalse (reservoir) there was another superb hunting Black-shouldered Kite, the first John had seen here, and the third for the day!

Since colonising Cadiz province in the mid/late 1990s (surprisingly late given the proximity of Africa), Black-shouldered Kite has rapidly become relatively common in the area. I see them on pretty much every visit these days - even when I'm not looking seriously and almost every time I see them at another 'new' site. With up to 40 birds wintering on La Janda, Cadiz province is now probably the best place to see the species in Europe; in my experience it's much easier here than the much touted Extremadura! In fact I've now seen them in about a dozen different places in the area, but, annoyingly, not yet from our terrace (although I have seen them just outside the village).

April Birding Trip - Day 2 - 3rd April

Day 2 - Friday 3rd April: The Tickfest Begins!
RG - A totally mind-blowing day for me producing the amazing total of seventeen new birds! First to the mouth of the River Guadalquivir where we found a really obliging couple of Little Swifts, flying over the beach and repeatedly just above our heads! With paddle-shaped wings, square tails, fluttering flight and Wilson's Petrel-like white rumps, they were absolutely distinctive. Next to Bonanza beside the Guadalquivir where John knew of little ponds (these are what I call ‘Bonanza Pools’ – JC)
set among market gardens. These held White-headed Ducks, an ear-shattering singing Great Reed Warbler right by the road and two Purple Gallinules. The latter are extraordinary creatures with huge pink bills and legs and the habit of erupting out of the reeds only to drop down again very soon. Also here was a female Little Bittern - the only one of the week - and the sound (but not sight) of the first migrating Bee-eaters.

At the nearby salt-pans the sheer quantity and quality of the water birds was staggering to someone not used to birding abroad - lots of Greater Flamingos (I had to pinch myself to realise that they were wild) and equally lots of Black-winged Stilts on unbelievably long legs plus about a hundred immaculate Slender-billed Gulls (they really should be called “long-billed”), c25 Glossy Ibises, Spoonbill, Avocets, c20 Kentish Plovers, c10 Gull-billed Terns, a Little Tern, 3 Little Stints, c5 Curlew Sandpipers, Greenshank, and the first sight of migrating Bee-eaters - the first of many. The best bird of all was probably a very confiding Short-toed Eagle perched on a pylon, which flew ahead of us and gave some stunning close-up views, a terrific bird. (This species proved to have the knack of appearing at very close range only when my camera card was full or the camera itself wasn’t to hand! - JC)

Also here were Sardinian and Fan-tailed Warblers ("zitting cisticolas"), probably South Spain's commonest warblers - the former seems to be everywhere. At the salt marshes of La Portugueses we were treated to no fewer than four species of Lark - the common one being Crested, accompanied by, in descending order of frequency, Short-toed Larks beside the tracks, wonderful Calandra Larks, large larks with long wings, black below like Green Sandpipers', singing beautifully over the salt marshes, and a few grey, rather sparrow-like Lesser Short-toed Larks, which we didn't hear singing. (Thekla Lark is supposed to be present in the area, but I’ve never personally had them here – JC). When we visited the Trebujena marshes the Short-toed Larks became much commoner, flying around in flocks in front of the car. The raptors included 3 Marsh Harriers, both species of Kite, and Booted Eagles, the pale phase birds stunning with black and white wings, the dark phase more difficult to identify, sometimes slightly resembling the common Black Kites. At the Trebujena Marshes there were also 3 Great White Egrets, a male Hen Harrier and Stone Curlews.
At the Laguna Tarelo heronry on the edge of Algaida Pine Woods there were c15 Night Herons, a wonderful pair of Spoonbills, White-headed Duck and Purple Gallinule among the many Cattle and Little Egrets, but no sign of Squacco Heron. Serin were singing among the pines. (The White-headed Ducks were missing here a week later when I tried to show them to a Belgian birder – which suggests that ‘Bonanza Pools’ are important site – and apparently an unprotected one – for this species – JC)

Algaida pinewoods we did not find Azure-winged Magpie, but I had my first Griffon Vultures, superb great birds soaring over the trees, also more Booted Eagles and a Swallowtail butterfly - the only one of the week. (Azure –winged Magpies now seem very hard to find hear with most visitors failing to find them – in many visits over the last few years I’ve only seen them twice! JC)
At another of John's sites is a small marsh near Mesas de Asta which is set among rolling farmland. Here there was a wonderful male Montagu's Harrier was floating nearby - just fantastic. A Whiskered Tern appeared for a brief while over the lake, which had plentiful stilts and Avocets, also a flock of Ruffs and Black-tailed Godwits. (Later in the spring there are numerous Gull-billed Terns here – a somewhat incongruous sight hawking over the surrounding wheat fields! - JC).
The final venue of a mega-day's birding was Laguna de Medina, where John decided it was time I had another tick, so on cue he found a distant Collared Pratincole (which I didn't see), but soon thereafter found three more flying over the path. As we walked back to the car we found about 500 more (!), hawking for insects over the lake in the failing light: they resemble marsh terns but with a hint of plover about them too. Also here I heard, but didn't see, my first Savi's Warbler, and there were more stilts. New for the day were two or three Black-necked Grebes, Nightingales seemed to sing from every bush, and a couple of Great Reed Warblers "crunched" away from the crunched" away from the reeds around the lake. What a day!

It was a great day, made all the better for Robin's company. I should add that whilst Robin may have a 'Ford Model T' life list (i.e. well below 300 in the UK), he's actually more of a Ford Mustang birder. His recall of bird songs and calls is superb and far better than mine. He also insisted that, whilst I was 'allowed' to alert him if I found something good, he'd much prefer to do the actual identification for himself. This did cause me a few anxious moments, but was a terrific way for Robin to learn the birds. He always got the ID right, even on relatively poor views, usually hesitantly commenting something like "It looks like a ******!" and my usual reply "There's a reason for that ..." quickly became the catch phrase of the week!

April Birding Trip - Day 1 - 2nd April

Although Robin Griffiths and I had been good friends at University and had always kept in contact, we hadn’t actually seen one another for the best part of 25 years. Over a year ago I’d invited him out to Spain and this April he came. Being a resident, non-twitching patch worker in that ornithological desert otherwise known as ‘Wiltshire’, I knew Robin would have a good time. Even more so since this was his first trip abroad for over 30 years, his first ever ‘full-on’ birding trip to the continent and his first ever trip to Spain. I knew that the lifers would come thick and fast; to find out how thick and fast, read on!

Headings, odd clarifications, amendments and comments aside, this account (in italics) is essentially Robin’s, but I’ve also added some additional, initialled, bracketted and/or un-italicised comments to enlarge upon Robin’s comments.

Day 1 - Thursday 2nd April: Arrival
RG - John and I met at Gatwick and flew to Gibraltar, arriving at 6 PM, where, while we organised a hire car, we noticed the odd swift, and I saw my first lifer - Pallid Swift. En route to John's house at Alcala de Los Gazules we saw three more new birds for me - Spotless Starlings on wires beside the road (very glossy "Brylcreem" starlings), 2 or 3 superb Red rumped Swallows flying around a bridge "with long tails stuck on behind", and, at Alcala itself, Lesser Kestrels hawking for insects at dusk with the epicentre of their activity being - John's house! They were superb, like daintier, more brightly coloured Kestrels, and flew around allowing point-blank views. Other birds noted on route were Cattle Egrets, a Woodchat Shrike and a few White Storks. A Nightingale could be heard singing from John's terrace (actually his flat roof.) All of these birds would be recorded often throughout the week, in some cases many times a day.

This proved to be a gentle start to a first rate week of good quailty birding. Unfortunately, with no 'staff photographer' along, the only photos are my mediocre efforts!
- JC

Day 8 - Back to UK

DAY 8 - Thursday 19th February
Naturally the local Lesser Kestrels serenaded our departure from the village this morning. Since we had get to Gibraltar before 10:00 for our flight we had little time for birding today. A quick investigation of the Valdeinfierno produced Raven, but little else.

Although it was sunny and often pleasantly warm during the day, it was distinctly chilly at night. Despite being pretty much as far south as you can get in Europe, a thick jumper is a must at this time of the year. This sunny weather was fortunate as rain had been forecast before we went and even our day in Grazalema was dry. It was a great trip bettering the total attained in February 2007 by 22 species (135 vs 157 - although we did have two more whole days birding this year). Yet we still managed to miss ten species seen on the earlier trip - some of which we saw several times in 2007 (e.g. Squacco Heron, Peregrine, Long-tailed Tit & Cirl Bunting). This higher figure is also partly due to the better weather, improved local knowledge and the heavy rain earlier in the winter rainfall which provided plenty of good habitats. The latter meant that, for the first time in years, Espera was in excellent condition and not virtually dry so after many attempts I finally got to see a ‘real’ Crested Coot there. It also accounted for the large number of shallow “lagoons” on Trebujena Marshes which made them so good for Glossy Ibis and such like. However, this welcome wetness probably undermined our hopes of seeing any sandgrouse at this site. Had we opted for a earlier start each morning, then a target of c170 would have been quite feasible.

Birding highlights included a superb male white-spotted Bluethroat on Trebujena Marshes, an obliging Alpine Accentor at Llanos de Libar, finally nailing two un-neck collared Crested Coot at Espera and, above all, some superb views of Little Swift at Chipiona (at last!). Also very pleasing was the sense that I’m finally getting to know some of the sites. Finding both an additional route into and around the Trebujena marshes and the ‘settling pans’ near Sanlucar was also a big plus. It was also evident that Great White Egret has increased markedly in recent years (although the extensive flooding may have brought more birds out into the open). Glossy Ibis also seem to be doing very well. On the downside I was surprised to see no Black-shouldered Kite on La Janda although, having seen them elsewhere, we didn’t look very hard.

John Cantelo - February 2009

For photos of the trip see :-

Monday, 30 March 2009

Day 7 - 18th Feb - A Little Swift Adventure!

DAY 7 - Wednesday 18th February
As usual the Lesser Kestrels (15+) above the village provided the first excitement of the day.
Chipiona We arrived a little later, at 10:10 or so, than intended, but within minutes we found Little Swift - first one, then another and another until we had eleven birds weaving around above us. Yet within ten minutes all vanished with extraordinary speed; moral get here as early as possible! In the bright sunlight the birds showed extremely well; dark plumage, ‘wrap round’ white rump, prominent white chin, narrow white forehead and distinctive wingshape. Checking the small harbour for any odd gulls we had a dozen Kittiwake, but none of the white-winged gulls we’d hoped for (there having been an unprecedented invasion of these birds in Spain this winter).

Algaida Pine Woods Hoping to pick up some more species (notably a certain elusive magpie!) we headed straight back to the Algaida area. Pausing en route by the road near Bonanza, we had 4 (or more) Booted Eagles and c50 Slender-billed Gulls. On Laguna de Tarelo we had both pochards, more White-headed Ducks, Night Herons and, above the marshes beyond the lagoon, 3 Little Gull and 500+ Black-tailed Godwit.
Salinas de Monte Algaida Turning back towards the river we explored the ‘back’ of Bonanza where we had 4 Common Cranes, c100 Lesser Short-toed Larks, a handful of Calandra Larks, 5 Spanish ‘Yellow’ Wagtails, a Great White Egret, a fly-over flock of 150+ Red-crested Pochards and the inevitable noisy gaggles of Flamingos.

Trebujena Marshes Instead of heading back along the river we opted for exploring the track running south to the east of Algaida. Above the woodlands we had a Short-toed Eagle, 10+ Booted Eagles, 3 Red Kites and c20 Lesser Kestrels. The eagle was an obliging bird, but the initial rear-on view as it perched on a small pylon made ID less than obvious – until the bird’s extraordinarily large, broad head was noted. Also present on the flooded ‘polders’ were c20 Glossy Ibis and another Great White Egret. Closer to Sanlucar the rough track gave way to a new metalled road (and evidence of future building developments). Here a couple of ‘settling pans’ provided excellent feeding for a flock of Little Gulls and Kittiwakes. A speculative stop here revealed that there were c100 of the former and c10 of the latter, but I was surprised to find a winter plumaged Whiskered Tern lurking amongst them. (In fact, on checking references back in the UK it transpired that Whiskered Tern winters in small numbers on the Coto). Also present on these pools were c10 Black-necked Grebe and many Pochards and Coots. The flooded field adjacent to the ‘settling pans’ provided a productive feeding ground for c100 Glossy Ibis, c50 Black-winged Stilt and a lone Greenshank. This looked a superb habitat to explore later in the year (esp. for pratincoles).

Presa de Embalse de Barbate Foregoing a second visit to Laguna de Medina, we headed for the dam at Embalse de Barbate in the hope of a Spanish Imperial Eagle. Although this hope proved false, we did find the flock of Common Cranes (34) we’d seen on the 14th, a distant Bonelli’s Eagle and c30 Griffon Vultures. Amongst the latter was an individual that, although it was a typical Griffon on plumage grounds, consistently soared with drooping wings; an instructive lesson either in the variability of birds’ habits or the fact that they don’t read the same field guides!

La Janda Before dusk fell we made a quick dash to La Janda - here we had a Hen Harrier, numerous Golden Plovers and Lapwings, 43 Purple Gallinules and, as dusk finally fell, 111 Black Kite slipping into roost!

Day 5 - 17th Feb - In Search of Spanish Sparrows

DAY 6 - Tuesday 17th February
Naturally our day started with Lesser Kestrels around the village, but this time a small mishap (OK, I admit it, I backed into a parked car!) meant Tony had time to get some great flight shots of the species. After opting out of looking at Trafalgar at the weekend we decided to head over there today for a quick seawatch.

Trafalgar The shallow tidal pool here had its usual small flock of Audouin’s Gull (39) plus four Mediterranean Gulls, a small group of Sandwich Terns, Sanderling (c30) and a few Kentish Plover. Seawatching here was a novel experience since amongst the expected passing seabirds (2 Great Skuas, 10+ Cory’s Shearwaters, good numbers of both Sandwich Terns and Gannets) was the odd raptor (Marsh Harrier and Lesser Kestrels) and a single Black Stork! A careful scan of the rocks here turned up three Turnstone. Two Hoopoes were flushed from the dunes here.

Los Naveros Since it was not far off the route to the next site, we decided to detour to the Los Naveros area again to search for bustards and Stone Curlews. Happily, after a brief search we found three Stone Curlew which, whilst not the hoped for bustards, were an excellent addition to the list. Another Hoopoe here allowed the others to catch up on a species they’d missed earlier that day. Instead of returning the way we’d come, we pushed on along the track which, it transpired, came out on the new main road near Conil de la Frontera passing some more excellent habitat en route.

Laguna de Taraje (Lagunas de Puerto Real) Having seen them here last February, I was hopeful about seeing Spanish Sparrow along the rough track to the laguna. Although the first sighting of a dust bathing bird didn’t entirely convince everyone when we drove up to the farm beyond the laguna, we had excellent views of winter plumaged Spanish Sparrows (c20). On our return along the track we had more birds at the first location. Although not as well marked as they are in mid-summer due to the dull sandy fringing to the black feathers, there were still some well marked birds here; a rich chestnut crown, white cheeks and narrow eyebrow, a large ‘bib’ (albeit obscured by that pale fringing) and obvious flank streaks. Doubtless there were also some Spanish Sparrows amongst female birds, and indeed some looked larger billed, but we were so occupied in trying to decide whether all the males were ‘pure bred’ that we didn’t really look too hard! On the laguna itself there were 140+ Red-crested Pochard and 18 Shoveler. Also seen here were 2 Ospreys, 2 Little Ringed Plover, c80 Golden Plover and single Stone Curlew (for which this is an excellent site). Driving back to the main road a very obliging Hoopoe fed besides the track.

Sancti Petri Despite my personal distaste for the urban sprawl that surrounds Cadiz Bay, I was out voted so our next stop was Sancti Petri. The road into the old village is flanked by muddy lagoons and ends in a narrow spit overlooking the marshes. This rich habitat held numerous Kentish Plovers, Knots, Grey Plovers, 30+ Bar-tailed Godwits, 10+ Whimbrel and two each of Curlew and Oystercatcher. The lagoons beside the road held 400+ Dunlins, 50+ Little Stints and 30+ Redshanks. Returning towards the motorway we passed more interesting habitats where we had a Great White Heron feeding in somewhat atypical habitat - a flooded pine woodland.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Day 4 - 16th Feb - Grazalema Bound

Grazalema - Monday 16th February

Our target today was an exploration of the Grazalema area. Although the nearby Alcornocales Natural Park has both good birds and attractive scenery, for several key species – Black Wheatear and, in winter, Alpine Accentor, a visit to Grazalema is de rigueur. En route we had an Ibex and a Gennet – the former very much alive, but the latter unfortunately a long dead and very squashed! Also en route and at a regular site – at the venta above Ubrique – we found our first Thekla Lark. Interestingly, each of us focussed on a different feature of this species to clinch the identification; I went for bill shape, Tony zeroed in on the birds ‘spiky’ crest and Jack noted the more crisply marked chest pattern. We all got the ID right, but took different routes to get there!

Unfortunately, we found that the road was closed just short of Montejaque – our destination - which meant an unexpected 45 minute detour via Ronda; in hindsight it would have been better to come via Ubrique. Happily, once we got there, the Llanos de Libar came up to expectations. Even though I’ve now been there a good few times, it still seems improbable that we have to access this fantastic area by turning back into the village’s labyrinthine streets and follow a remarkably unpromising concrete road before lurching sharp right to get onto the route through the valley. Although we paused below the first huge cliff face by the white water tank for a while we saw no sign of the usual Bonelli’s Eagle here nor, less surprisingly, the Wallcreeper that has wintered in the valley. Blue Rock Thrushes soon showed themselves as we pushed up towards the low rocky ‘saddle’ that is always a productive spot to search. No sooner had we arrived than we found Black Wheatears (6+) and Rock Buntings (15+) amongst the rocks besides the road. As Tony and jack admired the wheatears and buntings, I climbed a little higher up the slope where I quickly found two Alpine Accentors. One showed so well and so closely that it was clear that it realised that I’d left my camera in the car! Unfortunately it flew before Tony could get close enough for a photo. Although much less trumpeted than the Puerto Palomas site above Grazalema this is a more reliable (and arguably more convenient) site for the species in winter. It was disappointing, though, that neither Rock Sparrow nor Cirl Bunting were present here; the first is a notoriously elusive species for which this site is usually a ‘banker’ whilst, unaccountably we never saw the latter on the trip at all! A careful scan back down valley quickly produced a soaring Bonelli’s Eagle so we returned to the water tank for a closer view. Shortly afterwards, we picked up the Bonelli’s at much closer range. This was largely thanks to Peter Jones (a local birder who originally put me onto this valley) whose tip - to look for a fast moving shadow against the rocks - when looking for this species certainly paid off in this case.

Driving back via Grazalema proved to be a good move since just outside the village on the Ubrique road, we had two Southern Grey Shrike. In fact, no sooner had I said we ought to look out for the species here than Jack spotted one on a telegraph wire! This was a species that Tony, our team photographer, particularly wanted to see and so it was very pleasing to obtain such good views and note the diagnostic features; a narrow white supercilium running across the forehead, restricted white wing flash and dull greyish-pink underparts contrasting with white cheeks. As a bonus, when we rolled to a stop to look at the shrike, an Iberian Green Woodpecker landed on the telegraph pole next to the car! In the event we heard several more and saw at least two birds. The best view was obtained of a greyish faced black moustachioed female. Further along at the hairpin bend just before Benaocaz we had two more Black Wheatears and another Bonelli’s Eagle.

ALL photos © Tony Morris
Note that all of the original photos can be seen (in better quality) at :-
Many thanks to Tony, not only for his company, but also for permission to use his photos.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Day 3 - 15th Feb - Crested Coots at Espera - at last!

Our plan for today was to drive up into the Alcornocales and head on over towards Grazalema. However, we quickly discovered that, although the wind was fairly modest in the village, 10 km into the mountains it was a howling gale! Time for a re-think!

Fortunately we were able to regroup and head off towards the Lagunas de Espera. It’s not an ideal route, but by cutting across country via Algar and Arcos, we reached the lagunas without wasting too much time. En route Tony got a wonderful shot of a Corn Bunting; a very scarce bird in the UK, but in Spain they’re very abundant birds. Unlike my last few visits, all three lagoons all held plenty of water. The first laguna (Laguna de Hondilla) remains disgracefully under managed and willow scrub looks set to choke the place unless checked. An early Sedge Warbler was singing in the scrub, but a Fan-lipped Orchid by the main track was more obliging! The main lake (Laguna de Zorilla) held more birds including White-headed Duck, Gadwall, R-c Pochard, Pochard, Shoveler & Teal. Potentially this is an excellent laguna for birds, but the lack of un-obscured viewpoints remains irritating! Even the ‘official’ viewpoint is now extensively blocked by trees. The final laguna (Laguna Dulce de Zorilla), though, came up trumps with two Crested (or Red-knobbed) Coots – the first I’d seen on this particular lagoon and only the second I’d seen on Espera lagoons. (As these were two necked collared birds on Laguna de Hondilla, I’ve never really counted them). The first bird, skilfully spotted by Jack, atypically paddled around well out of the usual reed-bound comfort zone of the species; naturally, it was at the far side of the lake! The nearer bird, of course, played to form and hugged the reeds. None-the-less all essential ID features could be noted with care; two prominent “strawberries” above a narrow slightly Y-shaped frontal shield, a more ‘gentle’ face, a bluish bill, scrawny neck and a rear ended hump! It's somewhere in the attached photo, honest!

Exiting from Espera lagoons by the “back way” I found, for the first time in my experience, that the Laguna de Pilon next to the road here actually contained water! In truth it only held a few Coots and Black-winged Stilts, but some of the other small lakes in the area clearly need investigation this year after the winter’s rains. After a pleasant coffee break at a nearby venta watching a suicidal jay-walking Crested Lark. From this angle the crest looks a bit spiky and it's hard to judge the exact nature of the the chest streakings, but the diagnostically longish bill with a well curved "droop snoot" upper mandible and a relatively straight lower mandible is an ID clincher!

We then cut across towards Lebrija and on towards Trebujena Marshes. We turned off northwards off A471 on a dirt track next to a small fenced off enclosure (c4 km west of the turning for Trebujena). Almost immediately we came across, rather surprisingly, a flock of 21 Kittiwakes; an unusual habitat for this handsome little gull and explained by the ‘wreck’ of this species in the area last month. Exploring the track as it headed north-westwards, we came across a superb wetland area that had 4 Wood and 15+ Green Sandpipers, a Spotted Redshank, 3 (or more) Ruff and a handful of Greenshank. Also in this area were two handsome Spanish ‘Yellow’ Wagtails – another early migrant. With one northward bound summer visitor ‘in-the-bag’, it was good to see a half-a-dozen or more wintering Hen Harriers (including a superb adult male) and a single Merlin. Other raptors included numerous Marsh Harriers, a couple of Buzzards and 4 Red Kites. A couple of kilometres further along the track a stately Black Stork was quietly feeding.

After running parallel to the main road (which lay hidden behind the distant low hills) the track swung back towards the A471 (and linking to the route described in Chiclana & Garzon). Here a large, very wet (paddy?) field harboured more Greenshank, a couple of Dunlin, 120+ Kentish Plover, c50 Little Stint, c600 Golden Plover, c220 Glossy Ibis , numerous Cattle Egrets , fewer Little Egrets, a single Great White Egret and hundreds of White Wagtails. The shallow pool was dotted with thousands of tiny white flowers, hundreds or sparklingly white egrets and Glossy Ibis. As the light angle changed the ibis went from dull black to amazing reddish birds with stunning iridescent bronzy-green wings! A fantastic sight!

ALL photos © Tony Morris
For more of Tony’s photos see :-

Day 2 - 14th Feb 2009

Saturday 14th February
As usual Lesser Kestrels were in evidence first thing - awake and chattering as we woke up. Given that they nip off hunting much later than we got out birding, I’m not quite sure why they fly round so early – sometimes when it’s still dark. Either way they do make a brilliant alarm clock! Since we left early every morning and returned after dusk, we didn’t spend enough time watching these fabulous little falcons which can be very obliging here. In fact, so obliging that in 2007 a group Spaniards from Madrid turned up outside the house one spring specifically to see them. They told me it was the “best place in Spain” to see them ….. until they were invited onto the terrace to watch from there!

It’s only a short detour on the way to La Janda to take the by-way past the presa (dam) for the Embalse de Barbate. It’s often a good spot to see Spanish Imperial Eagles and although the purists might complain that most birds here come from a re-introduction scheme, they still look damn (im-PRESA-ive?) handsome. Pity they didn’t show! We did, though, have an Osprey – probably a wild bird although this species has also been re-introduced here. Less expected was a flock of 28 Common Cranes were found feeding in nearby fields.

So it was on to La Janda. Since the track was expensively repaired in spring 2008, this is no longer the bumpy, suspension threatening drive it once was, but it was shocking to see how quickly the heavy winter rains had already degraded parts of the track. Naturally nobody has considered doing the minimal repairs that would keep the surface intact.

As we drove in towards La Janda from Benalup, we had some distant Purple Gallinules and Tony did brilliantly to get some record shots. Unfortunately, most of the wetter fields here were well out of sight of the main track so relatively few waders (particularly the smaller ones) were seen; many Lapwings, 200+ Golden Plovers, 2 Green Sandpipers and 2 Snipe. However, larger “wading” birds – egrets (including another Great White Egret), both Black and White Stork, Common Cranes (150+) and Spoonbills (50+) - were less elusive. Raptors seen included Griffon Vulture (7), Black Kite (c10), Hen Harriers (c20) and numerous Marsh Harriers. Black Kites were clearly just starting to arrive so were only present in relatively small numbers; in the autumn I've had 2,000+ kites here. Disappointingly, there were no Black-shouldered Kites which I saw in good numbers in February last year – was it too wet? Larks here included a party of five Woodlarks, numerous Crested Larks (of course!) and a few Calandra Larks. No matter how often I come here in winter it's still something of a surprise to see Cranes - a bird I associate with Scandinavia. Yet until the early 1960s this species bred here:sadly La Janda was finally drained before the conservation movement in Spain came of age. There are usually lots of White Stork here and Tony's portrait of the species is top notch; luckily it wasn't one of the dirtier birds whose grotty plumage reflects the time this handsome species spends on local rubbish tips. It may be global warming, but I suspect the increasing numbers of storks that winter have more to do with the large rubbish dumps in the area!

A drive along the beach road near Barbate failed to produce the hoped for the introduced population of Bald Ibis (again!) and none of us fancied a drive round the local golf courses (evidently a favoured retreat). However, the woods along the coastal road north of the town had a fine display of Sawfly Orchids (and a fly-over Crossbill). In February these woods are carpeted with these gorgeous orchids. The regular spacing of the trees give away the fact that Barbate Pine forest is not natural. I'm told the trees were planted both to stabilise the dunes and to provide work for the unemployed during a bygone financial slump; perhaps they'll be planting more soon!

Our planned visit to Trafalgar was aborted as it was packed with wind surfers – we’d forgotten it was Saturday! From Vejer we drove along the Medina Sidonia road turning off left towards Los Naveros and then, after several kilometres, left along a well marked track. Here we found at least 2 Black-shouldered Kites, 20 Buzzards and 2 Short-toed Eagles. Our only Barn Owl of the trip was fortuitously flushed from its roost by Jack and soon thereafter Tony found a calling Quail. Here too was our first Hoopoe and only Common Starlings of the trip (but we didn’t look too hard!). In retrospect, it would have been quicker to get here via the new coastal motorway, but at the time we didn’t realise that this great track links up with the motorway near Conil.

Since the Molinos valley is right next to the village this seemed to be a good place to close the day – the expected Blue Rock Thrush finally appeared as did a meagre number of Griffons (c20). A big bonus here came in the form of five Egyptian Vultures drifting high over the Griffon roost.

Another good day with the twin highlights of the superb display of Sawfly Orchids and an obliging Black-shouldered Kite. Incidentally, if you’re reading this in anticipation of a trip out to Cadiz then contact me for my detailed birding notes for the area,


ALL photos © Tony Morris
For more of Tony’s excellent photos see :-

Day 1 - Birding Trip Feb '09 - Friday 13th

Well, after a long absence I decided that my recent trip out to Spain really needed to be written up here - in a slightly more irreverant style than elsewhere. My intentions were further boosted by the suggestion that this blog appear on a GoogleMaps Bird Blogger map - thanks to 'Pop' for setting it up. There's another seven days of this drivel to come .... assuming I can keep up the enthusiasm! Then there's a couple of birding trips planned for April & May!

We arrived on 12th Feb at dusk and thus too late to do any birding - although my pleas to visit Los Barrios rubish tip, admittedly the smelliest place in the known universe, to look for Eagle Owl were vetoed in favour of getting something to eat. However, as you're about to discover, despite starting birding on Friday 13th this was a great birding trip.

In February 2007 a trio of us enjoyed a pleasant week birding in Cadiz province. Our little group were described by a friend, somewhat harshly I thought, as ‘Victor Meldrew’ meets ‘Last of the Summer Wine.’ With other two unavailable this February, I went out with two retired reprobates;Tony Morris (our team photographer) and Jack Chantler. Despite the rest of the team’s obsession with something called ‘cricket’, a great time was had by all!
With Tony wanting to get shots of White-headed Duck, we opted to take a look at a site I variously call Algaida or Bonanza Pools. Previous guests to Chez Cantelo had reported finding some good pools near Algaida by which, mistakenly, I had assumed meant the backside (!) of Laguna de Tarelo. However, a quick search on GoogleEarth turned up a couple of small pools just off the Algaida road which I subsequently investigated and found to be far better than elsewhere for getting good views of this rare duck. Fortunately, for my reputation as the ‘local’ guide, the White-headed Ducks performed brilliantly. Despite a typical photographer’s complaint that the light was “wrong”, our team photographer got some excellent shots of the species. Also present was a a Purple Gallinule and the first of many Chiffchaffs. Chiffchaffs were abundant in all good habitats throughout the trip – few were in song and those that were trotted out the familiar little ditty so presumably most, if not all, were Common rather than Iberian Chiffchaff (although this species does start to arrive in February).
Returning to the main Bonanza – Algaida road we quickly encountered a group of 30+ Slender-billed Gulls on the saltpans beside the road. Most were adults although not all were sporting the blackish bill of high summer nor the full blush of pink that they later attain.

As they are just up the road the next logical step was a stop at Bonanza Saltpans. However, it quickly became apparent that the pans were exceptionally wet with relatively little exposed mud – which doubtless accounts for the poor numbers of waders here; c150 Black-winged Stilts, 3 Snipe, 1 Little Stint, 3 Sanderlings, 2 Dunlins, 1 Greenshank, 1 Wood Sandpiper, 6 Common Sandpipers & a Curlew. This was by far my lowest total at Bonanza, but at least we saw the site’s No1 speciality – Shelduck! Also of note were a couple of Caspian Terns, two each of Common Buzzard, Red Kite and Short-toed Eagle plus a single Booted Eagle. Most unexpected, and seemingly entirely out-of-place, were 3 Kittiwakes – Mediterranean salt pans hardly being typical habitat for this largely marine gull (but see anon!) We also had our first Great White Egret here – this species turned out to have spread somewhat since earlier visits and we kept bumping into them when in suitable habitat.

It may be a pretty hackneyed route, but from Bonanza we went on to Laguna de Tarelo & Pinar de Algaida. The laguna produced a further 49 White-headed Ducks, a Purple Gallinule, Red-crested Pochards, Common Pochards, Gadwalls, 6 Black-necked Grebes, 48 Night Herons (but not Squaccos which are often present even in February). The hide here – which was pretty tatty – has now been removed which I suspect may account for the greater distance of the ducks & herons. We did get two species I hadn’t seen here before - a Penduline Tit and 4 Common Waxbills. Despite extensive searching the pines successfully concealed Azure-winged Magpie although not Serins, Crested Tits and Short-toed Treecreepers.

Heading out towards the Guadalquivir, we turned south along the river towards the Salinas de Monte Algaida (i.e. the‘back’ of Bonanza saltpans). As expected we quickly picked up several Lesser Short-toed Larks here plus another Booted Eagle and an Osprey. Heading back north towards Trebujena at the flooded salt pans about a kilometre beyond the sluice we found a large flock of waterbirds which included 250+ Pochards, c30 Red-crested Pochards and at least 10 Marbled Ducks. Although this was the site where I first saw Marbled Duck in August 2006, this species can be very elusive so it was excellent to catch up with them in winter. More raptors followed with two Booted Eagles, a single Griffon Vulture, a fine adult male Hen Harrier and a good number of Marsh Harriers. Amongst the Flamingos here one caught our attention as it was both distinctly smaller and a brighter orange-red. However, when it uncurled its neck the head and bill were typical of the common European version! With relatively high waters waders remained scarce with only Greenshanks and Black-winged Stilts being noted. As usual, despite careful scanning and this being a ‘known’ site’, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse remained elusive to the point of invisibility here. However, one stop proved very worthwhile as a couple of Bluethroats – one a fine white-spotted adult male – showed very well in a drainage ditch. (The reed fringes at both Algaida Pools & Laguna de Tarelo certainly hold this species, but you probably have a better chance of seeing them along drainage ditches on the marshes).

At the end of the day we called in at Laguna de Medina which harboured c50 White-headed Ducks plus 10+ Black-necked Grebes plus all the usual waterfowl. However, numbers of Coots were well down on last autumn (and no Crested Coot were seen in their favoured spot) which may reflect the very high water level here. A Sedge Warbler was singing in the reeds and, as usual, the scrub held many small passerines – predominantly Blackcaps. We never did allow enough time to walk down to the WWH (the World’s Worst Hide) here which was probably no great loss, but the failure to investigate the new boardwalk at the far end of the reserve was a disappointment.

A good day without too much talk from the other two about this mysterious thing called C-R-I-C-K-E-T which seems to have some totemic relevance for the other two poor old fellows!

ALL photos © Tony Morris
To see more of Tony's excellent photos see :-