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 :-