13th November 2007 – Garraf and Llobregat
how so many great birding moments can be traced back to an event at the
beginning of the day, without which the hands of time and fortune would
have written a different story. If Andris and Inita’s train hadn’t
arrived ten minutes late, later we may have spent a few minutes watching
a birdless cliff-face in The Garraf Massis instead of the spectacle of their first ever Wallcreeper.
We were greeted by a Sandwich Tern dipping and diving in the bay and the song and sight of three or four Blue Rock Thrush spaced along the cliff-face bordering it. A few Crag Martin flapped their way across the jagged edges of the rocks whilst the ground was shared out amongst Meadow Pipit, Robin, Black Redstart, White Wagtail, finches and both Cirl and Rock Bunting.
As I scanned the ocean and rocks beyond the footpath and crashing waves, I was given the briefest of views of a wave-skimming Eurasian Shag
(Mediterranean sub-species, desmarestii) before Andris interrupted with a cry of
‘Wallcreeper!’ just in time for us all to see it descend through the ‘V’
of the cliff’s peaks and flap red-and-black, ‘like a butterfly’ as he
described it, out into the open. In fact, it circled and flapped out and
back to the same spot twice like a flycatcher – rather tempting fate
given the presence of resident Peregrine Falcon – before
returning to the safety of the rocks just behind a bush. It had actually
seemed to be hawking for food mid-air, perhaps even chasing an
individual insect, something that I hadn't witnessed before.
the wait for its return, during which time we were happy like children,
excitedly stating the obvious such as ‘you could see the red clearly!’
and ‘it was like a little Hoopoe’, a pair of Black Wheatear
joined us, the female along the rocky beach and the male just beside
us. Once we had calmed down though, we thanked fortune for the view we
had had and moved on to The Llobregat Delta.
We headed for a group of around twenty Night Herons
we could see roosting out in the open by the first hide and they proved
to be easily close enough for Andris to take photos. The sight of a
small party of Eurasian Spoonbill scything through the waters of the other lagoon lured us on to the second hide though, where blankets of Lapwing and ducks, including Shelduck, Wigeon and Gadwall, impressed greatly and we wiled away our time picking out Common Snipe, Golden Plover, Reed Bunting, up to three Common Buzzard and a Sparrowhawk flap-flap-gliding overhead.
We made the short trip over to the other Llobregat reserve after lunch where Black-necked Grebe, Mediterranean Gull, Greylag Goose, Pied Avocet, Purple Swamphen and countless Common Waxbill provided the backdrop for the highlights of a sub-adult male Marsh Harrier skirting the reed-tops, a handful of Firecrest, two Hoopoe in a tizzy and a Kingfisher that landed on the lip of the hide window!
14th November 2007 – Steppes of Lleida and Los Monegros
During the journey to The Steppes of Lleida I recounted that, according to an overnight conversation with Ricard Gutierrez (Rare Birds in Spain), Wallcreeper
hadn’t been seen in the Garraf since possibly 1984 and we were both
excited at the prospect of it over-wintering again after such a gap. I
also ominously declared, under pressure I might add, that Great Bustard was
probably the most likely of the four ‘biggies’ today. In turn, Andris
and Inita, lecturers from Latvia here researching bird tourism, filled
me in on their projects.
As usual, within five minutes of our arrival we were staring at a small group of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse
crouched down in a nearby field. Later we were to come across an even
closer group right next to the car but for now we marvelled at their
plumage detail, as if painted by Chinese artists, before they stood up
wary and we took our cue to move on.
Of course Little Bustard was the other main target bird here and we went in search amusing ourselves with large flocks of Jackdaw, three coveys of waddling Red-legged Partridge and the startlingly red cap of a Green Woodpecker, sub-species sharpei.
Two Hen Harrier dog-fighting over a small orchard diverted our attention whilst many Corn Bunting and a full set of larks (although surprisingly few Calandra Larks) kept us honed on any small movement until, just as we were admiring the pink flush of a Southern Grey Shrike, the white flash of a Little Bustard rose up in front of us and wing-whistled its way over a couple of fields to land dead centre of the telescope.
A quick stop off at the municipal dump to spy on the numerous Cattle Egret and (less now) White Stork provided a welcome bonus of a remarkably colourful Red Kite quartering its lunchtime options.
En route to Los Monegros, a site just outside Catalonia but worth the trip for the (almost certain!) wintering Great Bustard lining the roads, we picked up a Great White Egret and another, this time mature, male Marsh Harrier.
But! Sandstorms the like I have never seen before and quirky enough to
make the evening news, all but ruined our chances here although they
didn’t build up quite strong enough before we had chance to add a pair
of Red-billed Chough and a couple of fleeing Black-bellied Sandgrouse from the area around a ruined farmhouse.
A quick questionnaire to my guests then inspired a ‘re-route for a
lifer’ and a while later we were enjoying a flock of over fifty Rock Sparrows, not to mention a host of other passerines, in the farmland of the Garraf.
15th November – The Pyrenees
The wind in The Pyrenees today threatened to push many passerines down to root level
and out of sight but not before we gratefully foot-followed and
photographed a flock of around twenty Alpine Accentor,
being prised away from the detail of their beautifully under-stated
plumage only after some work with a metaphorical chisel. What a great
bird. And so confiding.
We did miss out on a few passerines, namely and unusually Citril Finch, and Common Crossbill were similarly out of character in their near-absence but a steady flow of Griffon Vultures at least kept our hopes up for the desired bird of the day.
The meantime was spent in the company of a lone Sparrowhawk and a lone Great-spotted Woodpecker chipping away at us until we finally spotted its hiding place on the blindside of a pine tree. A lone Red-billed Chough was especially odd given that they usually far outnumber their yellow-billed cousins at this time of year. We had already spotted two pairs of Alpine Chough
but one of the moments of the day was the swirling descent of a flock
of forty, chirping like happy passerines, as they fell onto the juniper bushes
growing on the bank alongside the road and feasted noisily on their
This experience though, it has to be said and however
privileged one felt to be there, was beaten into second place by the
simply awesome weight of a Lammergeier, caught with
seeping expectation after a whole morning’s hunt, gliding directly over
our heads at the height of a double-decker bus (or two). It was a
young-ish bird, still pale overall but showing signs of accumulating the
orange glow so typical of adult birds.
The journey back was
spent in reflection - and may be a little tiredness after walking
through mountain meadows. In three days we had seen Lammergeier, Wallcreeper, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Little Bustard and only missed out on Great Bustard
through a stroke of freakish bad luck. And Winter wasn't supposed to be a
good time. ‘But that’s birding’, said Andris rather philosophically.