Monday 23rd November
We awoke on the first morning of our tour with a comfortable air temperature of 18 degrees, the wind had dropped markedly from yesterday, producing good flying conditions for our soon to arrive guests. We (Tracy and I), picked up two of our guests, Jeff and Kay Hazell, at Alicante airport around 11am. Our third guest is a Costa Blanca resident and would be joining us tomorrow for the duration of the trip. We made our way back towards our hotel, stopping at Santa Pola Salinas and El Pinet en-route. A couple of hours had soon passed with Jeff and Kay getting their first taste of Costa Blanca birding with Aquila. Hunger got the better of us so we headed to the hotel to drop off the bags and enjoy a light lunch - Spanish style. Our hotel choice for this trip was the Hotel Mediterraneo situated in the small town of Guardamar. http://www.hotelmediterraneo.es
Both Jeff and Kay are experienced and well-travelled birders with impressive UK and World lists. Jeff, a birder for over 60 years, joined us this week in the hope of completing his European Raptor list. He only needed Greater Spotted Eagle to accomplish this - no pressure there then!
After lunch, our afternoon was spent visiting El Hondo Natural Parc visitor centre. The main part of the reserve is currently only allowing public access on Saturday mornings for a few hours. Usually it is open on Wednesday mornings as well, which is when we had planned to take Jeff and Kay, to give them an increased chance of seeing Greater Spotted Eagles. Within the Parc boundary, an elevated observation platform serves to provide views of a tree line where the Eagles perch regularly. There have been confirmed sightings of three individual birds, with possibly as many as four birds. Unfortunately, we were out of luck this time; although numerous Marsh Harrier and at least 12 Booted Eagle were a welcome substitute for our main quarry species. We had seen the GSE from this venue a couple of days before Jeff and Kay arrived, and so were not overly concerned at their lack of presence.
We spent our first evening getting to know one another over a large single malt and a few past birding tales. Deciding to tailor our itinerary to reflect Jeffs’ desire to see the Greater Spotted Eagle(s) a couple of hours would be spent the following morning at El Hondo before moving on to spend the rest of the day at some of the local wetlands.
Tuesday 24th November
The first full day of the trip afforded us a bright clear sky just perfect for finding our target bird. Before breakfast, I headed over to Gran Alacant to pick up Bryan Thomas, a good friend of ours, who for many years served excellent food at his restaurant, the Pilots Gig on the Isles of Scilly. Brian retired to Spain earlier this year and has now made his mark in the local Costa Blanca Bird Club. www.costablancabirdclub.com
Brian too is a very experienced birder and an excellent photographer, providing the photographs for the Isles of Scilly annual Bird Report and the Costa Blanca Bird Club websites
As Brian does not drive, he joined our group on a day basis to explore the birding a little further afield than his local patch. The car was full with a combined total of over 150 years birding experience between us as we set off to make Jeff a “happy birder”. How could we fail? Well, easily if the birds should decide not to play! Despite hours of craning our necks skywards and identifying no end of Booted Eagles (both pale and dark phase), Buzzards and Harriers, no Greater Spots put in an appearance. Disappointed that they had not shown again, but not despondent, we left El Hondo and moved on to spend the rest of the day at a Wetland area a short drive away.
San Pedro Del Pinatar
This area is a working saltpan, just across the border in the Region de Murcia. The site gives birders good opportunities to photograph waders. We have never been disappointed at this site as the sheer number of waders always ensures we see something of interest. In total, 16 different wader species were recorded during the two hours or so we spent there including Ruff, Sanderling, Dunlin and Black-winged Stilt. Other species observed here were Black-necked Grebe (23), Greater Flamingo (adult and Immature), Slender-billed Gull (30+), Bluethroat, Crag Martin, Southern Grey Shrike, Fantail Warbler and Water Pipit.
An Impromptu stop on the way back to the Hotel gave us the chance to see Iberian Green Woodpecker rounding the day off nicely. Back at the hotel, we had enough time to freshen up before settling down to our evening meal. All followed by the usual daily round up of sightings and general “birdy” talk as we outlined plans for the following day.
Wednesday 27th November
We woke this morning to face the aftermath of the torrential downpour that started around 9pm last night and did not let up all through the night. The roads are flooded and everywhere was wet. The forecast had given it to dry up so we hoped that by the time we got around to Eagle hunting this afternoon the air would be warmer and the Eagles would be soaring! A quick rescheduling meeting had been held over breakfast and we decided to abandon the set itinerary and head to Clot de Galvaney for the morning instead. This is Bryans’ local patch as he lives nearby and as we travelled to the site, he filled us in on the work and improvements that had been conducted over the last few months. Access has been made a lot easier and the water levels have been managed making it a much easier site to bird than it had been last Spring.
Clot de Galvaney
Plenty of birds were on offer from the hides including Teal, Snipe, Sardinian Warbler and Common Sandpiper. The walk between the hides provided views of several large finch flocks, containing Linnet, Serin, Goldfinch and Greenfinch. Other birds seen were Black Redstart, Hoopoe, Southern Grey Shrike, Chiffchaff, Fantail Warbler and Bluethroat.
We left Clot de Galvaney and headed towards El Hondo. The talk in the car led me to mention that I knew of a place approximately 1/2km away, where in previous years, I had recorded Black Wheatear. Jeff asked me to take him there and within minutes of our arrival two birds were showing well, adding another species to our ever-growing trip list.
El Hondo Natural Parc
Determined to help Jeff reach his goal of seeing every European raptor, we headed out to Hondo after our visit to Clot de Galvaney. We birded the Vistabella Road and it’s many caminos including the area around the south gate without any luck, but we still had one vantage point left to try. Much to our delight and Jeffs' absolute euphoria, there perched in one of the eucalyptus trees sat one of the Adult Greater Spotted Eagles we had been searching for! Due to the difficult viewing conditions Bryan, Jeff and I were all able to see the bird, but unfortunately, the wet slippery ground made it impossible for Kay to access the viewing point. The previous nights’ rain had left the area very muddy and difficult to access. Kay has recently had a hip replacement and so with her safety in mind she stayed near the car. Viewing over, we headed towards the visitors centre for lunch, the remainder of the afternoon we birded around the natural parc where we recorded the following birds of note: Common Crane (22), Glossy Ibis, Bluethroat, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Crag Martin and Penduline Tit (5).
Although pleased that we had seen the Greater Spotted Eagle I wanted Kay to see them as well and as the day was nearing its end I decided to try an area that I had seen the Eagles from in previous years in the hope of getting Kay a view. No one else got out of the car at first, but after a short time scoping the area I located a second bird (a sub-adult bird this time). Through the scope, I was able to show Kay her quarry as it flapped its wings, clearly showing the spotted markings that give this bird its name. Job done - three happy guests and a very muddy guide!
What a day, probably the most satisfying day as a guide I have had. Tired, wet, cold but happy, we boarded our vehicle and headed back to the hotel for a shower and a glass of something to celebrate a superb days birding and a superb achievement for Jeff.
Thursday 28th November Guadalentin River Valley
The weather this morning was dry and warm, perfect for the leisurely hours’ drive to the Guadalentin Valley. First stop and Jeff had two surprises, firstly saluting the Magpies (which he did not expect to see on this trip) and secondly a flock of 87 Stone Curlew, which was a fantastic sight. As we birded the area we recorded Hen Harrier, Black Redstart, Tree Sparrow, Cattle Egret, Corn Bunting, Hoopoe, Southern Grey Shrike and even more Stone Curlew. The time we took out for our picnic lunch was cut short by the noisey interruption of two male Spectacled Warbler which Bryan and Jeff were both able to photograph. During the rest of the afternoon we enjoyed views of Golden Eagle, a single Hen Harrier (Ring-tailed), a Short-toed Eagle, 4 Black-bellied Sandgrouse, 30 Calandra Lark a Kestrel and 2 further Marsh Harrier.
Jeff was keen to photograph an Audouin’s Gull so I decided to move on to Calblanque, a 30 minute drive back towards Guadarmar. Our detour to the El Raso Salinas rewarded us with some excellent photographs of the Gulls. Other birds of note were Crested and Thekla Lark, Crag Martin, Greater Flamingo, Kentish Plover, Avocett, Yellow-legged and Slender-billed Gulls, Black-necked Grebe, Little Grebe and Dartford Warbler.
Friday 29th November
This morning we head out to Petrola. It is the last full day of this trip and my personal favourite on this itinerary. Not because it is my last day guiding, it’s because the diversity of the landscape and the species here never ceases to amaze me. For those that are unfamiliar with the area these are the Plains where the rain falls mainly in Spain. The rainfall forms huge flooded areas of farmland and you never know what species you will see here, this year we recorded a Richards Pipit, a first for me at this site. The Great Bustards are a must see bird on this trip and this year, as usual, they were present in good numbers. 91 Great Bustards were recorded in total, 8 separate sightings of different groups, made this total, the largest flock being made up of 31 birds.
Other sightings were 400+ Rock Sparrow, 1200+ Calandra Lark in one flock, 2 Red Kite, 3 Hoopoe, Peregrine, Merlin, 3 Little Owl, Corn Bunting in good numbers and 3 Southern Grey Shrike. The shallow lakes and pools on the surrounding farmland afforded us good views of Greater Flamingo, Red-crested Pochard, Black-necked Grebe, White-headed Duck and various common waders and ducks. Bryan and Jeff spent some time photographing most of the species and you can see some of their work within this report and/or within Jeff’s personal trip report at - www.freewebs.com/levels-birder/costablanca.htm
Saturday 30th November
A morning flight back to the UK for Jeff and Kay left no real time for birding this morning. After breakfast we loaded the car and headed out towards Alicante airport via the salt pans to give our quests a last look at the area before they departed. The conversation in the car revolved around our Spring Tour itinerary and the migrating species we regularly see here on the Costa Blanca. What will 2014 bring!?!?