As I write, on 23rd February 2010, this generous, welcoming birding country in North-east Spain has already presented me with 175 species for the year so far. Here's a few highlights - including the two Lammergeier below - and thanks to Tommy Maul and 16-year-old Blair Morrison for some of the best photos...
After spending an itchy New Year's Day in Barcelona feeling like I was betraying my true 'birding' mistress, I spread my self about a bit on 2nd January, with a surprising Squacco Heron en route to The Garraf coast the first of a string of encounters which also included about twenty Balearic Shearwaters, several 'splash down' Northern Gannet, Audouin's Gull, a handful of Mediterranean Shag and a wonderfully exciting but distant Great Skua teasing me with a promise to come ever-closer.
On land and inland, Hoopoe, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush and both Cirl Bunting and Rock Bunting ensured all my guilt had disappeared and my sense of faithfulness had returned before the day ended with a poof - of pigeon feathers as a Peregrine found itself a meal and reminded me to attend to my own cravings of a different kind.
By the way this Peregrine, caught in The Steppes in February, is munching away on a Cattle Egret!
A pair of displaying Bonelli's Eagle, seen frolicking on the 8th January when dropping my son off at school, were the only other year tick The Garraf Massif could provide before my first real venture in to The Llobregat Delta on 12th January.
On this day a flock of about 40 Common Waxbill (above) settled in the thorny brambles beside me and continued the love-theme in the gentlest of ways. Other notable additions were Greater Flamingo, Penduline Tit, Moustached Warbler and impressive views of Razorbill and Common Scoter, although nothing like the views afforded when I eventually caught up with this individual in The Aiguamolls de L'Emporda on 2nd February.
But neither it, nor the handful of magnificent Stone-curlew eye-ing me out from within the cryptic background of a ploughed field, could match the hour and more I spent in the company of this Black-shouldered Kite (relocated on 19th February).
I was surprised that it - also known as a Black-winged Kite of course - spent almost all of this time preening, only breaking off to repeatedly shake off this pesky Magpie, which seemed to take exception to sharing every and any bare perching twig around.
Four or five individuals have been reported across Catalunya this winter and indeed I had caught up with another bird in The Steppes of Lleida back in December.
On 7th January, still in The Aiguamolls, I managed to squeeze in a very profitable morning before torrential rain hit, collecting a host of waders as well as Black-necked Grebe, a Water Rail at my feet, Mute Swan and Tufted Duck (both uncommon here) and a beautiful pair of Black-throated Diver - which grew to four by the 2nd February - in Roses Bay.
A lone Red-throated Diver, diving in and out of the surf on an unsettled sea at The Llobregat Delta, was the only new species for the year on 15th January but that just topped a remarkable list of wintering and resident wetland species, many of which have been mentioned above.
On the 11th January however I had added a whole bundle of eagerly-awaited year-firsts on my first year visit to The Pyrenees.
Siskin (which remarkably didn't arrive in my garden until the 12th, three months later than they normally do!), Dipper, Griffon Vulture, Crossbill and the small flock of Redwing that we'd first spotted in December, all helped to warm us up on a bright and sunny but cold day.
Alpine Chough (two photos above) did show well - and call! - as they reliably do but on 22nd January a photo-count resulted in a total of no less than 300 birds!!
This day was notable too for White-winged Snowfinch, although only a handful before the snow really fell and the show really started, on 1st and 5th February, with flocks in excess of 170 birds nervously shifting from place to place - although thankfully that place sometimes put them almost at our feet!
And Alpine Accentor were equally as accommodating...
...and the supporting cast, yet more year-ticks, included Golden Eagle, Red-billed Chough, Citril Finch, Ring Ouzel and of course, putting on some enthralling displays of their own, Lammergeier.
Wallcreeper can be seen in the Pyrenees, even at this time of year despite popular opinion, but of course most do make their way down to lower altitudes for a warmer winter and this was one of two birds seeking shelter in The Garraf Massis...
Amazingly, 30th January was my first sighting of 2010, but this was more due to an incidental lack of priority by my clients rather than my self. Still, it was certainly worth the wait and in the mean time, The Garraf also threw up other year firsts of fifty-plus Rock Sparrow (24th January), Hawfinch (13th February) and, quite remarkably, an Iberian Chiffchaff!? on 31st January keeping loose company with a couple of Common Chiffchaff, a very common wintering visitor to the region.
A quite ridiculous claim of course but, after being drawn to it by its white underparts and contrasting and distinctly greenish (rather than brownish) upper parts as it was preening on a twig, it was observed at close-enough quarters and for easily long enough to note its yellow-flushed flanks and front part of the supercilium, its apparently paler lower mandible and, of course, its obvious pink-brown-orange legs. Many individuals are difficult to identify in the field without calls or song but this, thankfully, seemed like a text book example.
It's difficult to be 100% certain of course but the only remaining doubts are created by the time of year, when apparently it should be in Africa, but the truth is that relatively little is known about this relatively 'new' species and, even if a wintering bird is unlikely, you have to remember that Spring is early in this part of the world and many other migrants began to arrive in the days that followed.
On 17th January, a family celebration in Lleida provided an exciting less-than-twenty-minute sneakaway to The Steppes, where I clocked off 80 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (below) in their usual spot, hundreds of very noisy Calandra Lark and a few roaming Red Kite.
More raptors were chalked up on my first trip proper, on 23rd January, with stunning encounters with Hen Harrier, lark-chasing Merlin and even a nervy Goshawk accidentally flushed from an early morning rest.
This Goshawk above was actually taken in The Garraf on 3rd February.
But back in The Steppes, Great Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse (both just outside Catalonia of course), Little Owl (above), Southern (or now Iberian) Grey Shrike (below), Stock Dove and Thekla Lark all played along too but we had to wait until 31st January for Little Bustard (in flight, four photos up).
A 1st-summer Great Spotted Cuckoo (below), complete with black head rather than grey, on 18th February was a real treat and subsequently proved to be my earliest sighting ever. I wonder if these young birds tend to arrive earlier than adults, perhaps to moult before the battle for a mate begins... note to check notes.
My one and only trip to The Ebro Delta in January, on 21st, didn't disappoint, with expected highlights of Glossy Ibis, Slender-billed Gull, Caspian Tern, a fistful of wintering Whiskered Tern, lots of Bluethroat and a sleepy flock of 30 Eurasian Spoonbill.
A couple of Wood Sandpiper completed an extensive list of 22 waders for the year so far and, after a dozen or so Bar-tailed Godwit on 7th February, left space (of the season's usual shorebirds) only for ticks against Ruff and Temminck's Stint.
The 7th February also brought the year's first Booted Eagle, Red-breasted Merganser and this vagrant female Goldeneye (above, but thankfully actually seen much closer than the photo).
This came just a day after another stroke of luck on The Llobregat Delta pushed this also rare Crested Coot, aka Red-knobbed Coot, our way (on 6th February). With the code UTUT on its collar, it appears to be a single remnant of a reintroduction programme initiated less than a decade ago - and the same bird that seems to divide its time between here and the Ebro Delta.
Back on The Ebro Delta on 16th February, our fortune continued, aided by some hard work and relentless scanning, when the outline of a Great Bittern (above) was picked out amongst the reeds and we watched it preening for more than twenty minutes. And if that wasn't great enough, we jammed on the breaks and dived out of the car to be ignored by a laid-back Great Northern Diver (below) just metres from the bay road in Ampolla.
And finally, on 17th February back yet again on The Llobregat Delta, three Fieldfare gorged themselves on juicy red berries as I smiled inanely at them, having just waited patiently and successfully for a reported male Ferruginous Duck (below) that turned up in the exact same narrow water-channel as the Crested Coot.
That's 78 species mentioned, leaving almost a hundred uncredited and going to show just how many common species there are out there in Winter!
On 26th February I added my first Sand Martin on The Ebro Delta, with Barn Swallow and House Martin not far behind on the 28th in The Aiguamolls de L'Emporda. The same day saw me catch up with wintering Northern Pintail at last but three Black-winged Stilt still managed to steal the show. Spring's coming!
"I highly recommend Stephen's bird tours - fine accommodation and full days of birding. Stephen is a very qualified bird guide who knows where to find the birds. He shows the needed patience in a strong and dedicated effort to find your target birds... wonderful sights of Wallcreeper and Lammergeier to mention just two. Beside that, Stephen is reliable and very pleasant company."
31st January - 1st February, Tommy Maul, DENMARK.
"I heartily thank you for the long list of birds we have seen. Now I can remember each day and enjoy the birds! Many thanks for your excellent guiding."
21st - 24th January, Manfred Hoffmann, GERMANY
"Thank you for an amazing two day birding holiday. I have never known anyone with such ability to find birds. You certainly spotted everything that was out there and we got some great photos."
16th, 18th February, Alister Lynn, Blair Morrison, SCOTLAND