Sunday, 13 May 2018

Road trip to Spain March / April 2018 pt2

Having got all the way down to Andalusia in the hope of better weather 'down south' we were rather miffed to get caught up in what is still a rare event in Spain - a 'named' storm. I think it was 'George' and by 'eck it was dismal! Cold and windy more than stormy but it put a right dampener on a planned revisit to some of our old haunts from back in the day when as young men we would pack our bags full of camping gear, hop on a flight to Malaga and spend a week or so away from the stress of work and 'domestic humdrum' and go birdwatching in foreign climes! So Montejaque, Ronda and Cortez de la Frontera (all within the Sierra de Grazelema) was all a bit of a damp squib until a break in the weather produced a bit of welcome raptor passage.

Here's the main sites visited from Andalusia, back up through Extramadura and then up to Bilbao and the ferry back. (red numbers)
  1. Sierra de Grazelema / Ronda
  2. Tarifa
  3. Bonanza
  4. El Rocio/ Donana
  5. La Serena
  6. La Nava
  7. Santona Bay

Bonneli's Eagle nesting site, nr Ronda
 A well known (to us anyway) Bonelli's Eagle nesting site nr Ronda was sadly lacking any sign of activity but a nice roadside Firecrest, another flock of Hawfinches and a namesake Bonelli's Warbler all good records.

Firecrest, nr Ronda, 23/03/18
At a gloomy Montejaque there were the usual Griffon Vultures, Red Billed Choughs and Black Wheater plus a Common Cuckoo but poor light prevented anything other than landscape pics.
Montejaque, 23/03/18
Jimenez de la Frontera, 24/03/18
Well known camping spots from yesteryear around Grazelema and Cortes de la Frontera were investigated and there were birds about but all skulking from the wind and the rain showers. A great looking male Crossbill at the top of a tree was a missed photo op (one of those typical occassions when not having the camera to hand often brings a good bird!) and a brave passage Common Swift flying north over Ubrique in the rain were stand out moments, and then, shortly after passing through Jimenez de Frontera (what a place to dream about settling down in one day!), a welcome break in the weather brought us some long awaited raptor passage ...
Migrating Booted Eagle, Jimenez de la Frontera, 24/03/18

Mainly Booted Eagles, around 50+ , similar numbers of Black Kites plus a few Short Toed Eagles and Griffons. Not much stops these big birds when they want to migrate and we were ideally placed on top of a ridge to catch some great views of these big birds winging it over from Africa.

Migrating Black Kite, Jimenez de la Frontera, 24/03/18
Always good to be on top of things when eagles are soaring past...
Migrating Booted Eagle, Jimenez de la Frontera, 24/03/18

Migrating Booted Eagle, Jimenez de la Frontera, 24/03/18

Migrating Short Toed Eagle, Jimenez de la Frontera, 24/03/18

Migrating Booted Eagle, Jimenez de la Frontera, 24/03/18
After a day and a half of really wet and unseasonably cold weather, when hats and gloves were called upon rather than sunglassses and sun cream, I think we needed this brief but impressive bit of raptor passage to remind ourselves that we were more or less 'on track'. Late march onhe southern tip of Spain usually equals 'big style' bird migration!

'Tis but a short hop from Jimenez de la Frontera down to Tarifa / Gibralter and in the valleys and fields along the way we saw more Black Kites and a loose group of 20+ Kestrels hunting together which we tried to turn into 'Lessers' but were in fact Common Kestrels (I didn't know this but after a bit of research many spanish Common Kestrels do in fact spend the winter in north Africa so these were possibly migrants too).

Collared Pratincole, El Fondo, 17/03/17

Rocking up at the usual campsite at Tarifa we got immediately lucky with a Collared Pratincole (albeit through the front windscreen) ... half tern, half wader, they're curious birds and with a gale force wind behind it this one was gone well before I could get the camera out so here's one I got last year on the Costa Brava in less stormy weather.

No stranger to high winds, Tarifa is a magnet for surfers from all over Europe. Not for me these days but very happy to add these colourful sails to a few seascapes of the coastline with the mountains of Morocco in the background.
Tarifa, wind surfers & North Africa in the background, 24/03/18

Tarifa lighthouse, wind surfers & North Africa in the background, 24/03/18

Next day, still at Tarifa and still those strong WNW winds persisted making birdwatching difficult but it didn't stop a dozen or so Short Toed Eagles braving the Straits along with a similar number of Griffon Vultures and another Osprey.

Short Toed Eagle, Tarifa, 25/03/18
Not the best of pics but this Short Toed Eagle was hunting as it drifted over and then went into a stoop over local fields. Hoping it might emerge with a snake (their usual choice of prey) I kept on it but no joy on this ocassion.

Looks so very 'un eagle like' doesn't it? - with those huge wings tucked right back as it plummeted to the ground, intent on something for sure but he came up empty handed!

Short Toed Eagle, Tarifa, 25/03/18

Short Toed Eagle, Tarifa, 25/03/18

Serin, Tarfifa, 25/03/18

From mighty eagles to diminuative finches. Serins are ever so common in most of Spain but such a pretty finch, especially when they're in full breeding plumage. This one was singing too in the shelter of the massive forested sand dunes.

Migrating White Storks, Ojen Valley, 26/03/18
 Next morning and into the nearby Ojen Valley we were frustrated by restricted access to the best parts but still managed a handful of good passage birds including our first (and as it turned out our last) Nightingale, Common Cuckoo, Black Eared Wheatear, more Short Toed & Booted Eagles, another Golden Eagle and this soaring group of 100+ White Storks.

Ojen Valley, 26/03/18

Time to move on, no time to hang around like lazy cows, tempting as it is now the sun is throwing off some heat at last!

Time to begin the return leg back up through Spain, head up the southwest coast to the mouth of the Rio Guadalquiver and the biggest and best nature reserve in Spain - Donana

The salt pans, marismas and pine forest near San Lucar de Barremeda on the southern edge of Donana and generally known as Bonanza, has for ever been as essential destination for us two Yorkshire birders,  I'm happy to say that its as good now in 2018 as it was the first time we visited in the late 1980s (ouch 😬!).

Van pic, Bonanza, 26/03/18
Arriving late in the day, a sunny day, it was the best of light to capture quite the essence of what we came to Spain for with plenty of good birds and nice vistas across this marshy wonderland.

Avocets, Bonanza, 26/03/18
To me, 'birds in flight' photographs are the ultimate challenge  - so many of mine get the cull early doors but in light like this I get lucky more often than not and its when my lightweight 'set up' really comes into its own.

This passing flock of Avocets coming into roost and a close encounter with a colour ringed Spoonbill I was particularly pleased with.

Spoonbill (with colour ring), Bonanza, 26/03/18

Clandra Lark, Bonanza, 26/03/18
Getting good pics of smaller birds in flight is right bloody challenge but at least it helps when they hover! Very average pic of  one of 30+ Calandra Larks singing away but always pleasing to get even a record shot of these big 'flapping' larks that sadly seem to be declining here pretty much the same way as our Skylarks are in the UK.

Black Kites and Flamingoes flying around all the time in the most golden of golden hours, you can hardly fail ...

Yellow Wagtails always seem to tantalize me with striking poses just beyond the reach of my lens  so I was well chuffed with this one that obviously hadn't read the script!
Spanish Yellow Wagtail, Bonanza, 26/03/18
Amigo en bicicleta, Bonanza, 26/03/18
Not quite flying but making a reasonable effort of looking energetic, senor Mark ..... 'its not a race mate!'

Rio Guadalquiver at Bonanza, 26/03/18

Black Kite, Bonanza, 27/03/18
2nd day at Bonanza brought a couple of frustrating 'probables' in the shape of Orphean Warbler and Lesser Kestrel plus Common Waxbill (always a good tick!), 2 female Bullfinches (unusual this far south) and great views of all the usual suspects ...

Black Kite with nesting material, Bonanza, 27/03/18
White Stork, Bonanza, 27/03/18

Corn Bunting, Bonanza, 27/03/18
Parcel Pines, Bonanza, 27/03/18
Wandering around the magnificent Parcel Pine forest (quite noisy as this is where all the Booted Eagles, Black Kites & assorted heron species nest!) ...welcome shade, eyes cast down for a change and an opportunity to catch up with a few of the wild flowers here ...

Dwarf Iris, Bonanza, 27/03/18

Vipers Bugloss, Bonanza, 27/03/18

Honeywort, Bonanza, 27/03/18

...and a very poor pic of a very beautiful butterfly that proliferates around here at this time of year
Spanish Festoon, Bonanza, 27/03/18

 Same place, I managed to sneak up on a group of Flamingoes that were feeding in an adjacent flooded field...bit of a leg and beak show but I liked the result.
Greater Flamingoes, Bonanza, 27/03/18
Greater Flamingoes coming into roost, Bonanza, 27/03/18

Much later in the day and after at least one snooze under one of those pine trees and its late evening all of a sudden. I've no idea how many Flamingoes, Glossy Ibis, Little & Cattle Egret reside within the Donana national park but lets just say they're plentiful and we witnessed a fair chunk of them streaming over at sunset here at Bonanza. The mossies were out in force too but, we had cream for that, and for an hour or so, as the sun dipped over the mighty Guadalquiver, it was just magical ....

Gloosy Ibis & Cattle Egret coming into roost, Bonanza, 27/03/18

Gloosy Ibis coming into roost, Bonanza, 27/03/18

Cattle Egret coming into roost, Bonanza, 27/03/18

Gloosy Ibis coming into roost, Bonanza, 27/03/18
They just kept on coming and coming, I lost count after circa 3,000 Glossy Ibis and they were still coming over when we shut the door to keep the mossies out and uncorked the wine!
Sunset over the Rio Guadalquiver, Bonanza, 27/03/18
Cattle Egret, El Rocio, 28/03/18
Across that river, where the sun is setting, lies the main chunk of Donana, but to get there you have to drive all the way up to Sevilla and then back down the other side (half a day's drive!) .. always been the same but quirky, timeless and more or less Donana central El Rocio always awaits. All the abundant wetland species here and the less abundant like Marbled Duck  - always a good one to get!
Spoonbill, El Rocio, 28/03/18

Marbled Duck, El Rocio, 28/03/18

Grasshopper sp, El Rocio, 28/03/18


Next and only full day chilling around the reserves at El Rocio brought a handful of good birds, nothing new or exotic - Alpine & Pallid Swifts over, Azure Winged Magpie (of course!), 4 Woodchat Shrikes, 3 Common Cuckoos, Dartford Warbler and Crested Tit.

Dartford Warbler, Acebuche, 29/03/18

Woodchat Shrike(female), Acebuche, 29/03/18

Great Bustard, La Serena, 30/03/18
Only 3 days now before we needed to be back up to Bilbao on the north coast, so some big distances to cover between then and now. A single Black Shouldered Kite over orange groves just north of Seville was a good new bird and a few more hours of northward driving later we rolled into the vast plains of La Serena, a top site in the Extramadura region and much less visited than the motre well known Monfrague. The skies were leaden and the wind blowing again but we were straight into good birds with Great Bustard, Pin Tailed Sandgrouse, and distant Black Vultures. Most noticeable though were the sizeable and roving flocks of larks, pipits and sparrows - 120+ Rock Sparrows, 100+ Spanish Sparrows, 60+ Calandra Larks all very conservative estimates!

Rubish pic out of the van but these are nearly all Spanish Sparrows
What a great Hoopoe! Surprisingly confiding, thank god, it was a roadside special .. involving one of several slow and silent manoeuvres out of the van door and poking the lense between bonnet and windscreen! Turned out to be one of my best pics of this 'flittiest' of birds.
Hoopoe, La Serena, 30/03/18

Montagues Harrier, la Serena, 31/03/18
Next day, still grey, and not the best of light to photograph one of 5 Montagues Harriers we managed to dig out in the area. Photography aside, this male gave us some great views as it floated around just a few yards from the van across the stoney outcrops and rough meadows in this most wonderful of landscapes.

Plains of La Serena, 30/03/18

Montagues Harrier, la Serena, 31/03/18
Laguna de Nava, Palencia (pic credit - creative commons, Montgomery)
Egyptian Vulture, Short Toed Lark, 2 passage Marsh Harriers and Stone Curlew were other notables at La Serena. A single ringtail Hen Harrier was a sight for sore eyes near Miajadas and more Black Vultures as we zipped through Monfrague ...and then a really long drive up through central Spain through the Sierra de Gredos mountains, past Salamanca and Vallalodid to the Laguna de Nava an important wetland and steppe area nr Palencia.

Chiffchaff, La Nava, 01/04/18
Pitch black when we parked the van in the car park and spent most of the next day wandering about this gem of a place. Has to be said it wasn't as bird rich as on previous years and I was unlucky with pics - a Ringed tailed Hen Harrier first thing was probably the stand out bird along with several Bluethroats, 50+ Water Pipits, 40+ Chiffchaff, Great Reed Warbler (new species), 15+ Marsh Harriers and 2 Great Bustards. Very few waders - a few Ruff, Black Winged Stilts and 4 Avocets, whilst the presence of Wigeon, Eurasian Skylarks and Robins all reminders of being 'up north'

Stonechat, La Nava, 01/04/18

Marsh Harrier, La Nava, 01/04/18
Ebro Gorges, 01/04/18
En route up to the north coast we made a detour into the gorges of the upper Ebro, lots of dams and some spectacular scenery, a worthy explore some for sure but apart from a few singing Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and a scary looking passage Black Kite in the late evening sun , nothing to keep us.

Black Kite, Ebro Gorges, 01/04/18

Santona Bay, 16/05/16
April 2nd, our last day's birding in Spain and back up on the northern coastline between Santander and Bilbao. Several good sites to explore along this stretch of coast but sometimes its best to stick to what you know and Santona Bay is a place familiar to us both.

A couple of really decent new birds for the trip in the shape of Black Necked Grebe (kind of expected) and Great Northern Diver (totally unexpected!)

Here's the Grebe, coming nicely into its magnificent breeding plumage and one of half a dozen or so that were knocking about  ...
Black Necked Grebe, Santona Bay, 02/04/18

.. and a couple of shots of the GN Diver, very much in winter plumage still.
Great Northern Diver, Santona Bay, 02/04/18

Great Northern Diver, Santona Bay, 02/04/18

There were a surprising number of Firecrests in the surrounding bushes and especially around the monastery but try as I might 'nil point' on the getting any sort of decent pic and of the Peregrine Falcons that were nesting in an old quarry here a couple of years ago there was no sign, shame.

A few passage Whimbrel in amongst more numerous Curlew were more obliging however and here's one of 8 that were probing about on the mudflats along with Redshank, Greenshank and Little Ringed Plover.

Whimbrel, Santona Bay, 02/04/18
Whimbrel, Santona Bay, 02/04/18
 And that was that, next call Bilbao for the ferry back home to blighty. The weather could certainly have been better and passage birds more plentiful (WNW winds nearlt every day!). Mark could have done without some Spanish oik in a pick up truck ploughing into the side of his van and I could have done without nearly getting arrested for trespassing by gun toting guardia civil, but we survived and we amassed 200+ bird species ... not a bad haul for 23 days.