“Many thanks once again for a fantastic holiday.”
Liz and Mike Bunting, UK (23 May - 3 June 2009)
A day for firsts. The first of the month marked the first pleasure-only, leisure-only, responsibility-free, non-working birding day for more than a little while. Even a friend, who I'd arranged to meet for a lazy day chasing come-what-may in The Aiguamolls de L'Emporda and The Cap de Creus, had been given strict instructions not to ask for any targets. 'O.K.,' he'd e-mailed back totally empathising with my outlook on the day, 'but it would be nice to see Orphean Warbler, Ortolan Bunting, Red-throated Pipit, Wryneck and Marsh Sandpiper.' 'And I wouldn't mind Roller or Red-rumped Swallow.'
In truth, I too was out to get my self a few year-firsts, some of those aforementioned included, but as I sat in the thankfully-lonely hide at Vilaut at 0720, I had already achieved my main objective for the day. This 'close', Catalan for a pasture surrounded by trees, that floods naturally in perfect time to attract passing waders, terns and others, is my favourite place in the world to be alone. I poured my self a coffee, opened up a packet of 'Chips Ahoy' cookies and settled down to begin the scan - if I was working, it would have been the other way around.
I'd already walked under a flock of bubbling European Bee-eater, made eye-to-eye contact with a Nightingale and received a warm welcome from a Reed Warbler posted at the hide door before a flock of paddling White Stork, three Greenshank and smatterings of Mallard made up the precursory glance as I perched my self in excited expectation ready to pan from right to left. I didn't care what I saw, I told my self, but this was the place of many lifers over the ten years I've been coming, not least of which was a small flock of never-to-be-forgotten Red-throated Pipit busying themselves beneath the lip of the hide window, so I'm not sure I was entirely convincing, or convinced.
The silhouette of a Wood Sandpiper stepped first into the water and then into the light, a male Garganey shared some synchronised up-ending with a pair of moulting Common Teal and a Common Cuckoo was, peacefully, the only soundtrack. At least until my phone bipped with a text that read, 'I'll be there in ten minutes.' The white hook on the neck of a Northern Pintail caught my eye as it preened in the shallows and a single apparently cold Collared Pratincole just sat there, even when the sun glowed across the water to bathe it in orange and even when I left, nearly two hours later, in the company of said friend.
Although famed for the unexpected and unpredictable, Vilaut is a reliable site for the (this year, very) late-arriving Roller and as we neared the track's end, the familiar rowing action flapped across our bows and landed in a conveniently leafless tree. A furtive Garden Warbler was betrayed by a mischievous relative, as a singing Sardinian Warbler first attracted our attention to it, and provided a second year-first in as many minutes.
Little more than ten minutes later and we exited the car on the edge of the Cap de Creus National Park and a little under ten paces later were marvelling at a stationary Western Orphean Warbler singing loudly from the underhang branches of an adjacent cork oak. Reliable site this. Usually for Wryneck too, and two more Orphean Warblers later, we heard one kreeching, kestrel-like and made our way over carefully to track it. No luck. It didn't call again and our chance had fled.
Stopping along the way, we picked off Pied Flycatcher, Cirl Bunting and almost unprecedented numbers of Greenfinch, seemingly craving our attention as much as the warmth as they perched in the shafts of sunlight piercing the shady canopy of the surrounding pines.
Upon reaching another favourite spot, I was momentarily surprised to see space where usually there was scrub, or maquis. However, my joy, at witnessing the apparent start of an active clearance programme to combat the dominance of the maquis and its encroachment into the open spaces many birds depend upon, disappeared as sure as the birds themselves as I noticed the rows and rows of recently planted sapling trees. Man has become so good at preventing the regeneration caused by natural fires that, just as in the Garraf where such burn back hasn't happened for nearly thirty years!, many species such as Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Tawny Pipit and Spectacled Warbler are struggling to keep a foothold.
As if to emphasise the value of re-creating these open spaces, however unintentional in this case, the enchanting and enigmatic short-song of an Ortolan Bunting was quickly tracked to reveal two stunning males frolicking amongst the torn up roots and newly-exposed dirt and, when one flew to the dead branch of an old tree to sing again, its yellow throat lit up in the sunshine and swelled as if it was going to burst. For some reason, the optimism flooded back.
This was my fourth year-first of the day so far, the late-season arrival of three of them inspiring this trip in the first place. Targets five and six, however, were passage visitors only and both were reaching the end of their respective windows of opportunity.
So imagine my excitement when, almost written-off, not one but two wonderfully sleak, needle-billed Marsh Sandpiper were the first birds I was drawn to amongst the train-station-like throngs criss-crossing over the shallows of El Mata back in the Aiguamolls. Dwarfed by the Common Redshank, Ruff and Black-winged Stilt, it was a breathe-in-and-savour-it thrill to see their black-spotted plumage so close and watch them slalem their way gracefully between the legs and bodies of their taller rivals.
I was hooked for the next sometime-and-more - truly one of my all-time favourite birds - and confess to paying scant attention to the Red Knot, Spotted Redshank, Grey Plover and the rest, until the tick-tock of time, a.k.a. birding friend, tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Don't forget you promised me a Red-throated Pipit.'
For year-first number six and a full set for the day, we strolled over to and along the edges of the adjacent field to scour the patch and each blade of grass where Red-throated Pipit are seen each and every year. Indeed a flock of twenty-one and many more sightings had been reported recently so our expectations of getting the sometimes-binoculars-down views of arms-reach birds began to rise... and then fall. All twenty-one and their mates were obviously in hiding. And after a few minutes, where became apparrent as a single dark-throated bird rose vertically up from the mass of impenetrable carpet of grass, drawing-out a diagnostic call of mischief, before teasing a iberiae Yellow Wagtail off a bordering fence-post and settling down back into obscurity.
Very unsatisfactory. But after the leisurely day-off of relaxing, responsibility-free birding I'd had, I wasn't complaining. Not one bit. Roll on the rest of May and roll on the getting back to work.
Finally, as the Roller showed up again to see us off back at our respective cars near Vilaut, we also got the Red-rumped Swallow skimming the crop-tops in an adjacent field.
24th May, 2009
My optimism regarding the Ortolan Bunting proved founded as the two males were still singing in exactly the same place on my only other trip to the region this month. Lots of Red-rumped Swallow too, well spread across the Cap de Creus National Park and very encouraging as this species is still rather localised in Catalonia.
Western Orphean Warbler continued to show well, particularly a marvellous pair singing and playing right by the car as we drank coffee, and its cousin, the Melodious Warbler, seemed to post singing sentinels everywhere we went. Wryneck at last improved on its rather poor showing so far this year with two heard calling and one seen well close to a good spot for Dartford Warbler.
Over a dozen immature Shag and a spectacular pair of Honey-buzzard over the car proved to be the only additions over the trip from the first of the month but the mean time, whilst not quite drying up the water in El Mata in the Aiguamolls, certainly saw a reduction in wetland species overall, signalling the beginning of the end of the migration season and the start of getting down to breeding business. A pair of Mute Swan chasing a Eurasian Spoonbill out of their patch of water confirmed the process was well under way.