Saturday, 15 January 2011
A January Quest for 100 Species in a Day
15th January 2008 - Garraf Massis and Llobregat Delta, Barcelona
I don’t know why but today I tried something I’d never attempted before: to deliberately seek out 100 species in a single day. I was inspired by the season – winter in the Garraf Massis is a great time for mixed flocks of birds that can be elusive at other times – but to ensure I didn’t get caught up in numbers I decided upon a strategy of no counting and, as I write, I still don’t know if I succeeded. I think its close.
Already half-an-hour late leaving, it seemed my chances were already blown when my wife informed me I was taking her to Barcelona first - and then plugged in her hairdryer! Undaunted, and knowing the ‘five minutes’ she said it would take her meant twenty, I stuck my head out of the window.
The sound of two marbles tack-tacking together alerted my attentions to the silhouette of a Blackcap in the garden fence. A Crested Tit replied with a soft rattle from the clothesline but, perhaps distracted by the Starling flying overhead, a Blue Tit beat it to the peanut holder. Sardinian Warbler and Great Tit barged their way into the growing symphony and by the time the lights were fully up the orchestra was completed by a chinkling tree-top Serin, an invasion of unappreciative House Sparrows and a Magpie laughing on from the neighbour’s aerial. The role of conductor was shared perhaps between the baton-like tail flickings of a White Wagtail and my very own wintering Black Redstart. My wife was still drying her hair.
Just as well as there was still one potentially difficult species missing. Up to forty-four had been frequenting the garden since the turn of the year but I needed just one of them. A male Chaffinch joined a Collared Dove underneath the feeders and, not before time, twenty-three Siskin came in to rapturous applause. Well, I cheered anyway.
Thanks to a near-empty petrol tank and a tractor driver who was obviously worried about arriving somewhere early, it was already ten-thirty by the time I arrived at my re-scheduled first destination. I’d picked up Kestrel, Woodpigeon, Grey Heron and Cormorant en route and added Monk Parakeet and Yellow-legged Gull in Barcelona itself but I could already feel time slipping away.
Still The Llobregat Delta, a wetland bird reserve close to the airport, promised much and, after a fallow field near the entrance yielded Pheasant, Snipe, Goldfinch, Meadow Pipit, Skylark and Crested Lark, I entered the gates breathless and eager.
However, for the next minutes I went no further than the Kingfisher perched in a spot of sunlight on a small bridge and even had time, entertained meanwhile by noisy Cetti’s and Fan-tailed Warblers, to mark the red base to its female bill.
I always make my way to the shores of Ca L’arana with urgent expectation regardless of today’s quest and so make no excuses for skipping past Little Grebe, Little Egret, Coot, Moorhen, Chiffchaff and Blackbird. But a flock of Crag Martin scything through the mist of tiny insects just above the reeds did delay me and I wavered for some time over a pair of Sandwich Tern over the river, laughing mockingly at the attempts of the Black-headed Gulls to show off.
Once at the beach I scanned it with anticipation picking out Mediterranean Gull and Shelduck but only a single Kentish Plover and a Dunlin represented the waders. I was disappointed but it proved short-lived as a series of careful scans through the rise and fall of the water at the mouth of the river revealed a solitary Eider Duck, the same one I believe that we found on a trip in November and a great tick for the region.
But the best was yet to come. On the way back, past the somewhat odd sight of a Buzzard perched next to a Stonechat, I was suddenly smothered in shadow and looked up to confront the possibility of a Great Bittern landing on my head. The colour of this bird, with a yellow-green hue not at all appreciated from books, is so unique that the only reason you don’t shout Bittern! the very moment you see it is that you somehow need that moment to let your luck sink in. Beautiful.
Unphased by our close-encounter, it flew up and off, paddling over the tree-tops of la pineda towards the shore. By the time I’d climbed the tower to track it, it had disappeared and I was left with the Wren that had been calling since I arrived at the spot.
Then I noticed that it was calling AT something. And then I noticed that that something was a Moustached Warbler. With a partner! Now, I really didn’t care how many birds I saw, there was no way I was moving from here first and, like a game of ‘stare challenge’, I fixed my gaze onto them lest I should lose them for a second. I love this bird and I watched them systematically sift their way through a thin line of reeds along a ditch towards me, picking off morsels from each and every stem like dust-obsessed librarians. Taking turns to overtake each other, they also hopped past a Robin and a half-dozen Reed Buntings before flicking off into cover.
Astonishingly, the very next bird I saw upon entering the hide, bar a Marsh Harrier teasing an unknown something the other side of it, was another Moustached Warbler, scaling and leaping across the cut reed bases just below the lip of the window.
The lake itself was awash with Mallard, Gadwall, Shovelor and a single Tufted Duck with Teal and a handful of Purple Swamphen making use of the boundaries. The long-staying White-fronted Goose made a lazy appearance, waddling out of some long grass for a sip and a snooze.
The outward-bound walk donated nothing new save a bunch of twurping Greenfinch, a Cattle Egret and another Great Bittern flying lazily over head. I said the plumage was unique but of course there is one other thing that matches its colour exactly – the seasonal spectrum of shades and shade found in a reed bed itself.
Thinking I’d had my lot for this site, I was driving the long way out ‘just in case’ when another stunning heron almost flew in to me, or the car. And this time I did shout. ‘£@k m€ a Little Bittern!’ This was truly outstanding. As a rule they don’t over winter, of course, but following the trend of many of its cousins across Europe it shouldn’t really be a surprise. It settled and stilled itself on the opposite side of a channel and this time, eventually, I was the first to move.
I’d had a fantastic time already and so decided on a short stop off for lunch at the reserve at the other side of the airport before heading off for a change of scenery back in THE GARRAF.
So I ate my way through additional Night Heron, about thirty of them, four Spoonbill, Greylag Goose, Wigeon, Lapwing, Feral Pigeon, Coal Tit, Tree Sparrow and, again only a lone wader, a Spotted Redhank. An irresistible quick stop-off at the beach though was worthwhile with a few distant Gannet taking the plunge and a small group of Balaeric Shearwater landing not far from the shore.
Still undecided about which route to take as I approached the roundabout my hands did the thinking and yanked me right, sending me inland and leaving the coast for later. As I reached the summit of the steep road taking me into The Garraf, having seen Blue Rock Thrush but failed to find Alpine Accentor along the way, a ringtail Hen Harrier became the third bird of the day to nearly hit me. Thankfully it braked before I did, fully exposed me its under parts and fled.
A good omen I thought but more than half an hour later, speeding away from the Carxol Valley without the expected Bonelli’s Eagle or Thekla Lark, I had ‘only’ Song Thrush, Southern Grey Shrike and two coveys of Red-legged Partridge to show for my trouble. A Dartford Warbler tail-bounced over my bonnet to complete the full set of winter warblers.
The light threatening to fade, and reminding my self that this was not Llobregat and that birds had to be worked for, I re-planned and re-routed to an old masia in a lush estate that always held a few passerines and was immediately rewarded with a Jay and a fleeing, screaming Green Woodpecker. And then suddenly, in yet another of those ‘made my day’ moments, I came across a female Brambling – my first for Spain! – in the midst of all the other finches and tits. Unfortunately, it didn’t hang around for long so I took its cue, leaving a sulky Dunnock and a Short-toed Treecreeper to whisper about me as I got back in the car.
Now I had to make some decisions and, as I definitely wanted to check out the coastal cliffs for one particular prize, I had to abandon a couple of sites and drive straight there – in the full knowledge of course that driving straight there would be impossible.
And so it proved, with roadside stops absolutely unavoidable due to a flock of Rock Bunting flushed to nearby bushes from a tiny field of vines (also Mistle Thrush), a Sparrowhawk emerging from another dispersing flock of passerines before landing nearby and, finally, my Bonelli’s Eagle!
When I saw a speck round a mid-distant hill I jammed the brakes on (action that is essential with specks if you’re not to lose them in the fineries of the Highway Code). Job done, I simply had to track it, a stunning adult bird, as it flew in a direct line across the fields in front of me and flapped on towards the coast.
I always note the time when I see a raptor and, at 16.18, I knew I had barely an hour of proper daylight left – but I still had to go through the farmland and vineyards. There was no other course of action available to me as I scrapped my intention to walk it and naughtily drove down the farmer’s tractor track. Well, he wouldn’t mind.
As I exited, escorted from in front by an extremely slow tractor, I had the strangest feeling I’d seen the driver somewhere before. A pair of Raven sky-strolled overhead, honk-honking their disapproval. But, in the meantime, I had witnessed a wonderful view of a field full of White Wagtail and Woodlarks at eye level (as the track dropped below the boundary wall), as well as ticking off Rock Sparrow, Linnet, a couple of Corn Bunting, a few Spotless Starling and a dozen Cirl Bunting in one bush!
With the sun setting bright and blocking my view along the line of cliffs toward the south-west, I finally arrived at my target destination a little disappointed that the mornings events had robbed me of the time to give the place justice. But never let it be said that the impossible isn’t possible or that wives shouldn’t be given a beautiful big beautiful kiss for needing to blow-set every hair in place.
As I raised my binoculars in a laughable attempt to find my resident Wallcreeper, it flew straight across my field of view, landed on a small peak posturing and I spent the next fifteen to twenty minutes having some of the most peaceful views of this species I’d ever had. To the soundtrack of twilight Blue Rock Thrush and the breaking waves I watched its grey, white, red and black butterfly from rock to crack to peak and back again in an attempt to reap the day’s final reward.
As regards to mine, I’m tempted even now not to count. But I’m going to. 95. Although I mustn’t forget to add that Peregrine Falcon patrolling the cliff tops of Falconera. 96.