Please browse ‘archives’ under the ‘links’ heading in the right hand column for date-ordered trip reports and monthly summaries.
It’s not often that clients’ promises to write up a report actually materialise so – aside from three quick for-the-record mentions for my first ever Long-billed Dowitcher in some ricefields near Lleida on the 21st, a wintering Purple Heron in the same place on 28th and this winter’s first Great Bittern on the Ebro Delta on 27th – I’ll just say a very big thank you to Frank Mawby for the trip report below (and to John Dingemans for additional photos from his trip from 25th-28th) and let him get on with it…
BIRDING IN CATALONIA by Frank Mawby
Our trip to the Rutland Bird Fair this year resulted in a late decision to take a birding holiday in Spain – to be specific, to Catalonia, the region around Barcelona. I scanned the Internet for birding guides and quickly hit on the Catalan Bird Tours website (see ‘Links’ in the right column) of Stephen Christopher. Contact was quickly established, the price was right and included 7 days birding, self-catering accommodation and splendid picnic lunches.
The only other cost was for evening meals and flights. Monarch Airlines fly to Barcelona from Manchester and were the cheapest. Stephen collected and dropped us off at the airport and took us to the supermarket to obtain food. We provided him with our species wish list.
Catalonia has a diversity of landscapes. Estuaries, cliffs, rocky shores and beaches make up a short coastline. Inland are the high mountains of the Pyrenees down to the vast agricultural plains around Lleida with a whole range of landforms in between. Such a diversity of habitats inevitably mean there is a wide diversity of bird life. Our target species included the Lammergeier and Griffon vultures, the Great and Little Bustards, Eagles and other raptors.
[A wintering Black-necked Grebe on the Llobregat Delta, taken on 25th.]
LLOBREGAT DELTA and GARRAF MASSIF, 11th October 2010
Barcelona Airport is built on the estuarine marshes of the Llobregat River and birding commenced within an hour of getting off the plane. Entering the Llobregat Reserve, Stephen soon lived up to his website reputation spotting a Little Bittern landing a short distance away in the reeds and quickly finding it. We had excellent views of our first lifer for the trip.
Green Woodpecker, Black Redstart, Sardinian Warbler and Common Waxbills were seen as we strolled along the paths lined with reeds over 4 m tall. Stephen heard a Penduline Tit but it only gave a brief glimpse as it flew away and was to elude us for a good view until the final afternoon.
We visited hides overlooking large lagoons holding many ducks and waders, including Shoveler, Common Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, Redshank, Snipe, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank and Spoonbill. A Marsh Harrier circled in the distance and horses were grazing the marsh with attendant Little Egret and Cattle Egret but the star bird was a Booted Eagle.
After lunch we drove down the coast, south of Sitges, where a Blue Rock Thrush came to inspect us and the local Black Wheatear appeared. A lone Audouin’s Gull circled the nearby harbour. Our drive to Stephen’s place was through the Garraf Natural Park, a hilly region of maritime scrub where he hoped to find some of the specialities like Dartford Warbler and Bonelli’s Eagle on a later visit.
LOS MONEGROS and THE STEPPES OF LLEIDA, 12th October 2010
Tuesday’s weather forecast for the whole region was not good, so our destination was not decided until we met Stephen at 0600 hrs. It was raining and it continued to rain as we drove west towards Aragon. He had found a possible hole in the weather and the target species was Great Bustard.
Sure enough it brightened up as we drove into a vast agricultural plain, a mix of tilled land and stubble with a number of uncultivated weedy fields. We started well with a lone Stone Curlew but the Bustards were not to be seen. The weedy stubbles were more promising and gave us a nice variety of larks including Thekla Lark [photo below], some very late Short-toed and, from one field, well over 500 Calandra Larks with their distinctive calls.
A real surprise was locating a group of 17 Dotterel. The scattered stone barns almost all had a Little Owl perched on the roof and a flock of Jackdaw also included Red- billed Chough.
Stephen eventually spotted something large and brown and we were soon looking at a flock of 14 Great Bustards [top photo] at a distance of less than 100 m. Nearby, we disturbed another four. What a remarkable sight to see such a large bird flying so gracefully with the broad white wing bars flashing. Target species ticked, what next?
A short drive to a new location and we were soon looking at over 50 Stone Curlew and caught a glimpse of the elusive Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Eventually Stephen pinned them down and we got excellent views as we took lunch. Two large flocks of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew over and to our delight three Hobbies suddenly appeared close-by and then a Golden Eagle gave good views [Photo below].
On the way back we were attracted to a large gathering of Marsh Harriers and Buzzards and this area also gave Spotless Starling, Southern Grey Shrike, Tree Sparrows and Corn Bunting. At our final stop, another part of the vast agricultural steppe area, Merlin, more Stone Curlew, Yellow Wagtails and lots of Red-legged Partridge were seen but we failed to find Little Bustard; quite a day with at least 6 new lifers. There were some good butterflies too including Swallowtail and Clouded Yellow.
THE EBRO DELTA, 13th October 2010
Wednesday, out at 6.00 a.m. again and heading south to the Ebro Delta, a vast area of mainly rice paddy fields teeming with birds. From a viewing platform over-looking a large lagoon we watched Osprey, innumerable Marsh Harriers, and thousands of duck whilst Reed and Cetti’s Warbler were just below us.
Another platform gave us many Red-crested Pochards and a solitary Night Heron amongst several Great Cormorants. A small flight of Spoonbill and then Glossy Ibis passed overhead and another Osprey gave an excellent show followed by a Caspian Tern. We toured around the flooded fields and amongst the many waders and gulls were Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gull, Black and Whiskered Tern, lots of herons, Greater Flamingo, Glossy Ibis, Pied Avocets, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint; but a special wader for us was a Wood Sandpiper [Photo below].
Fan-tailed Warbler (Zitting Cisticola), Whinchat and Stonechat were common and a single Spotted Flycatcher was a nice surprise. There were several Robins, a bird that Stephen said was just coming in for the winter.
Lunch was taken in a hide with Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff passing through and a few yards below us a Reed Warbler quickly followed by a Savi’s Warbler gave us a nice comparison of these similar species.
As we prepared to leave, the star bird of the day was spotted and even Stephen could not contain his excitement on seeing a (rare vagrant) Yellow-browed Warbler.
THE PYRENEES, 14th October 2010
Thursday saw us heading north for the Pyrenees. On arrival, there was low cloud as we started to drive uphill but we passed through it into bright sunshine and looking over a wonderful cloudscape.
Small flocks of birds were feeding through the trees including Crested, Coal, Blue and Great Tit – I did not realise that species like this were found at this altitude. Stephen picked up the call of a Short-toed Treecreeper, a call too high pitched for my deteriorating hearing, and it gave but a fleeting glimpse. Bullfinch was also seen up here.
High overhead we observed large numbers of House Martins and a regular passage of thrushes – the silhouettes and flight pattern suggested some were Mistle Thrush and others Ring Ouzel. A Black Woodpecker called in the distance, a Peregrine briefly showed and small flocks of the yellow-billed Alpine Chough and Red-billed Chough gave a good display at one point.
Late morning and it was time to scan the highest tops and sure enough Stephen soon had Griffon Vultures for us, at least a dozen at one point. We moved around the mountain finding Citril Finch and Rock Bunting on the way to the lunch spot where we settled down.
Sure enough, as Stephen predicted, the first Lammergeier appeared cruising along the mountainside. Then another was located much closer this time, a dark immature bird, and as we watched, it dropped something then descended to the ground and began to eat. It was joined by a male and the two were up and down a number of times. In the air they were harried by Ravens and Griffon Vultures.
We left them and began the long descent, picking up Dunnock, Long-tailed Tit and later (White-throated) Dipper.
THE LLEIDA STEPPES, 15th October 2010
Stephen expressed his concern that recent changes in E.C. agricultural policies that have ended set-aside could see large areas of marginal land put back into production. He pointed out several areas that had been ploughed recently and which he had never seen cultivated over the years he has been birding there. The only nature reserve in this vast agricultural area was a tiny area of rough grassland.
The plan, as last time, was to work the fields area by area. Shelagh spotted our main target species, the Little Bustard – five of them feeding in a rough strip of ground. Eventually we moved on and the track went close enough to move them and a flock of Stone Curlew. The systematic searching then gave us Rock Sparrows [photo below] with lots of Corn Bunting.
As we drove towards a small pool a superb male Hen Harrier dropped in to give a brilliant show at less than 50 metres, bathing, flying out, shaking himself then returning to bathe again before flying off to dry [Photo-collage above].
As the search continued, a large flock of Red-billed Chough were found feeding and then took to the air with a brilliant display. Stephen then spotted a distant speck and hurried towards it. Stopping the car we watched a Black-shouldered Kite hunting for several minutes.
We then saw Red Kite for which the main attraction was a refuse tip where I was amazed to see not only lots of Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls but hundreds of White Storks, Cattle Egret, and European and Spotless Starling. A Blue Rock Thrush was on a nearby cliff and the area also held Skylark, Thekla Lark, Meadow Pipit, Common Redstart, Merlin, Buzzard and much more – a truly rich area for birds. Driving through an area of scrub another Black-shouldered Kite [Photo below] posed for us on a power line pole and shortly after a Southern Grey Shrike.
By late afternoon we were back close to Stephen’s home where he took us into a shrubby, wooded gorge teeming with birds including many Black Redstarts, Sardinian Warblers, a Cirl Bunting and a Sparrowhawk.
CAP DE CREUS and AIGUAMOLLS DE L’EMPORDA, 16th October 2010
Saturday, our penultimate day, and we headed northwards along the coast towards the French border.
The view from the first hide over a large reed-fringed lagoon was teeming with duck and waders, including Shoveler, Geenshank, Spotted Redshank, Dunlin and Snipe – a great sight with Fallow Deer grazing amongst the birds and a nice White Stork colony.
The drive out to the Cap de Creus was spectacular, made more so by the narrow roads and steep drop offs. It was very windy and few birds were braving the elements, least of all the Levantine Shearwaters [seen by SC only]. Well worth the drive for the scenery but unproductive bird wise other than a Peregrine, Yellow-legged Gulls, Northern Gannet and Eurasian Shag.
Back to Aiguamolls and here we picked up Water Pipit before the first star bird of the day when not one but five Honey-buzzards passed overhead with many Pallid Swifts. One Honey-buzzard came low and gave a clear outline and good views of its main features. Leaving the area along country lanes we had a splendid view of a Goshawk, the best I have ever had of this species.
GARRAF MASSIF and LLOBREGAT DELTA, 17th October 2010
Another reason for choosing the Monarch flight was the 2000 hrs departure to give us a whole day birding on Sunday. The plan was to do Stephen’s home area of the Garraf Natural Park; a hilly landscape of low Mediterranean maritime scrub and pine, which is steadily invading.
The area was regularly fired in the past slowing the pine and maintaining the valuable scrub habitat. However, fires are a hazard to human settlements, to such an extent that even managed burns are avoided. Nor is there interest in grazing the area so succession to pine woodland seems inevitable with consequential changes to the flora and fauna.
At our first stop, a small settlement by a stream, our first Firecrest soon presented itself for close observation. A mixed flock of tits and other species passed through and we had a good view of a Cirl Bunting. Many Serins were seen but this is a common bird of the area. As we drove through the park Dartford Warbler gave good views.
Sunday lunch was a leisurely affair in Sitges where we treated Stephen to a well-earned break. After lunch, driving along the coast road, we stopped for views of Crag Martin before arriving at the northern area of the Llobregat Reserve.
On the river we saw several Mediterranean Gulls and we had good views of Penduline Tit. As we came out of the last hide our attention was drawn to the sky where several Alpine Swifts were passing over.
It was time to leave and the Bluethroat had eluded us but a Monk Parakeet flew by as we left for the nearby airport.
Our list for the week including birds only heard was 181 species, although truly we could only claim 178 of them due to failing eyesight and hearing which became painfully obvious at times compared to our guide, whose great knowledge of the area and its birds combined with his keen eyesight and hearing had given us an exceptional week of birding in mid-October.
There are so many birds in Catalonia that make it a great region to visit at any time of the year. Stephen is an excellent birding guide and very popular. He books up quickly at peak times. His tours range from a day up to a week, his self-catering accommodation is very comfortable and sleeps up to four people in two double bedrooms and he will pick up from other accommodation, including Barcelona.
FRANK AND SHELAGH MAWBY, U.K.
[dark-phase Booted Eagle, Ebro Delta, 27th]
“Our time in Barcelona was limited so we required someone with excellent local knowledge – this Stephen has in bucketfuls. We began birding within minutes of leaving the city and he took us to areas we would not have found on our own. We concluded a great day out with seven lifers and also saw our first Swallowtail butterfly – a great bonus.
We enjoyed our day so much and were so impressed by Stephen’s knowledge and amiability that we are going back for four days in May 2011."
Neil and Joan Foster, U.K.
“Fantastic. All the different habitats, different birds, brilliant. Thank you very much for all your hard work and enthusiasm which made it a very successful and enjoyable break. We both enjoyed it very much.”
“Thank you for the list of birds seen. Also for the knowledge passed on. My four days was thoroughly enjoyed."
John Dingemans and Alan Beale, U.K.