Feel free to post questions or comments on this new blog about Birding in and around Barcelona and Catalonia, Spain. Although currently still in progress, I have uploaded Trip Reports up until November 2010... with videos and month-by-month 'quick look' summaries still to come. Stephen Christopher

Saturday, 14 January 2012

How to find Dupont's Lark, Bustards and Sandgrouse in the Spanish Steppes

Dupont's Lark taken by David Linstead at 11.15 a.m. on 28th February 2011 after almost giving up in strong winds


Without doubt the Steppes is always the first location any birder excitedly pencils in when planning a birding holiday to Spain.

With the vast majority of their respective European populations concentrated in Spain, Great Bustard, Little Bustard, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and of course Dupont’s Lark would be on any bird watcher’s list.

But if you think scanning for a bendy beak at daybreak, staking out a watering hole and then checking the fields for those big bustards is all there is to birding in the Steppes, think again.  It will provide you with one of the most challenging experiences of your birding life.  But, of course, all the more thrilling for it.

So for all those considering a trip to Spain over the coming year, here is a complete guide to finding, watching and photographing Steppe birds, a thorough expos̩ of their environs and behaviour that contains about 100 pieces of directly relevant information, 20 instructive photos and more than a few field craft trade secrets Рincluding dispelling one or two myths!

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are much more flighty when mixed with Black-bellied (right), SC May 2011

1.  Songs, calls and other noises…

In my experience as a bird guide, the vast majority of Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are first encountered through sound, which is then used to track an airborne flock en route to a favourite field, discover a hidden feeding group bubbling out contact calls on the ground or pick-out an individual’s skylark-high courtship flight.

The classic fart-raspberry ‘song’ of a breeding male Little Bustard, which delivers its palabras de amor with a characteristic head toss, is very well known but be aware that it’s quite ventriloquial and can be further away, or in a different direction, than at first appears.  I thought the first one I ever heard was a grasshopper at my feet!

Displaying male Little Bustards occupy territories from mid-March, SC April 2007
It may help to know that they perform on up to five ‘stages’ within their territory, often hidden but usually including the highest point such as a slightly raised mound of earth but, if you do hear one, persevere rather than be tempted to head off in search of another as most show themselves eventually.

Pairing with females occurs some weeks later, Derek Charles June 2007
A relatively little known Little Bustard noise however is the ‘wing-whistle’ of flying males.  A strange high-pitched sibilance is created as they flap, possibly evolving to help keep flocks together in flight, and can easily be lost in a symphony of lark songs.

It’s invaluable however, along with the calls of sandgrouse, for making you immediately aware of birds passing overhead that you might otherwise miss.  In this way we often pick-up sightings of Little Bustard and both sandgrouse whilst we’re busy scanning for them on the ground!

The song of the Dupont’s Lark, once heard, is never forgotten, even if it’s on a CD.  I’m not particularly one for using a recorded lure, preferring traditional field craft instead, but in any case, although it may perhaps induce one to sing sooner than a little patience would, this won’t help you to see it.

What is useful however is the knowledge that they will sing from the ground as they walk (so keep scanning gaps in the vegetation), that they will make free use of rocks, walls and high ground to perch on (although interestingly never vegetation in my experience) and that the song travels – so the culprit is invariably further away than you think!

Sometimes, of course, the sound will be coming from the air; extremely handy for first locating a bird before trying for a better view once it has landed.  If you don’t manage to hone in whilst it’s still singing, then note that the song flight, and often even normal flight, ends in a sudden vertical plummet to the ground, interrupted by a brief ‘brakes on’ flutter a couple of metres above the settle point.

2.  Habitat…

Surprisingly the heat can be an advantage in getting good views of birds, Zac Hinchcliffe August 2009
It’s true that much of Spain is relatively dry but there’s more water available to birds than you might think and waiting by a watering hole for sandgrouse to show for a ritual drink, unlike in Africa, will have limited success.

So, where exactly do you start looking?  Even if you’ve singled out a well-known and reliable location on the Internet, upon first arrival you’ll still be filled with doubt.

True steppe, defined as ‘a treeless plain, often semi-arid and grass-covered’, no longer exists in much of Spain or Europe, not in any real sense anyway, it having been greedily swallowed up by generations of irrigation, intensive farming and over-grazing.

From 120 pairs of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse in 1989, a 2002 census showed a 50% decline in Catalonia, SC July 2006
So ‘non-irrigated cereal cultivation’ often replaces ‘grass-covered’ and ‘interspersed scrub and almond trees’ may have to be substituted for ‘treeless’.  In other words, abandoned farmland and even active areas of crop fields, as long as they’re not irrigated, will also hold bustards and sandgrouse during both the breeding and wintering seasons.  Study the photos in this blog which have been deliberately selected to show a range of habitat types.

The Birds of the Western Palearctic, among others, has Dupont’s Lark habitat down as open flat areas, or slopes not exceeding 25% gradient, with ground cover of about 30% made up of vegetation not more than 30 – 50 cm tall.  Well.  Just in case that means absolutely nothing at all, as with me when I started looking for Dupont’s Lark, here’s a photo of my patch to at least give you an idea.

A great location for day time singing Dupont's Lark, SC April 2009

3.  Time of year and its effect on birds’ behaviour…

However, after breeding, the Dupont’s Lark abandons this habitat, or so we’re told, to mix it up with flocks of Skylark and Calandra Lark in cereal fields, especially of barley or oats.

If I tell you that I have only once discovered a Dupont’s Lark amidst such flocks, it may give you an idea of the scale of the task in Winter but don’t despair as it’s not by any means uncommon to hear and see birds singing in their territories from November, although February is more usual, and in some high-density populations, like those at Belchite, almost throughout the year.

There are actually four Pin-tailed Sandgrouse in this picture, Jean-Michel Paulus April 2009
Although they will feed, roost and nest in cereal fields, both bustards and sandgrouse prefer the more natural areas that are left fallow.  They form nomadic feeding flocks and, importantly, favour particular fields at particular points in the seasonal cycle of fallow to plough to crop to stubble and back again.  Easy if you know where those fields are but easy to miss if you don’t.

Furthermore they utilise these feeding sites until the food resource runs out or a farmer’s plough turns the seed too deep into the ground to reach.  Hence both bustards and sandgrouse are rarely seen on recently ploughed fields.

Little Bustard hide and moult after breeding, Stewart Abbott August 2008
It’s surprising how little vegetation Steppe birds need in which to hide, particularly out of breeding colours.  Even the 50cm high Little Bustard scrapes out a hollow and beds down (and the incubating female even pulls vegetation over her back!) and so, unless you are party to a bit of local knowledge, it’s often a matter of picking a field and patiently scanning.  If the rock moves, ‘scope it!

Great Bustard are twice as tall of course and, although they too have their moments, can usually be picked out without difficulty even at distance, especially when in post-breeding flocks.

Post-breeding Great Bustard flocks occupy my patch from September to March, SC Dec 2009
In winter the lack of vegetation can help, although sandgrouse too can merge into a bare rocky background to startling effect...

With caution Pin-tailed Sandgrouse can be viewed car side, especially if they have young, SC July 2006
...but it’s less tiring on the eyes in fields where shoots of winter wheat provide a contrast and flocks can be spotted, standing out easily against the uniform green.  Once the crop has grown though you may as well focus your attention elsewhere.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse sometimes bubble contact calls to each other whilst feeding on the ground, SC Nov 2006
During the post-breeding moult Little Bustards will stay hidden in scrub, grass, clover, rape or cereal stubble, even amongst old sweet corn stems for instance.

This Little Bustard stood up next to the car and just walked and settled a few metres away, SC September 2010
A good place to scan for them though is close to field-boundaries, from where they seldom stray until their feathers, numbers and confidence have grown and they can then be seen strutting about out in the open in larger and larger flocks.

Sometimes Little Bustard only become visible if they move, Paul Turkentine November 2009
On the whole, as with sandgrouse, the numbers within bustard flocks build through the Autumn to a Winter peak.

In my patch, winter Little Bustard flocks rarely peak at 100 birds, SC November 2006
Not all Little Bustards join in though, with individuals and pairs sometimes revealing their alternative tactic to flocking when accidentally flushed in the peak of winter.  At this time, it’s not even unusual for them to expose themselves apparently unprovoked but they don’t usually fly, or walk, beyond scope distance and will return to their roost spot after reassuring themselves that you’re no longer a threat.

4.  The time of day and its effect on birds’ behaviour…

Sandgrouse, famous for carrying water back to their nestlings soaked in their breast feathers [more details], like bustards, are more active before the heat of the afternoon sun forces them to take it easy and so, although by no means essential, it’s better to get on site early.

Annual sunrise and sunset times across Spain can be found here.

In my patch, winter mixed sandgrouse flocks peak at 200 birds, George Bond Nov 2009
There is certainly more flight activity at this time (and during the latter part of the day) so lookout for overhead flocks.  You may hear them first if you’re close enough but don’t ignore anything flying in the distance as Pin-tailed Sandgrouse can be reminiscent of Golden Plover, or even disregarded as pigeons by the unwary, and I have witnessed Little Bustard dismissed as ‘some kind of duck’ on more than one occasion.

Little Bustard usually fly with their wings below the horizontal, Martin Cracknell March 2009
The heat, even in Summer, can have its advantages though.  It’s not as if the birds vanish from existence and I’ve had some of my very best views of Black-bellied Sandgrouse during the highest afternoon temperatures when small groups, unwilling to give up the sanctity of the cooler ground and take to the skies, have been approached with caution and brought car-side.

Dupont’s Lark, contrary to popular assertions, do in fact sing habitually during the day and, although much less frequently, even in winter.  I originally discovered the regular site I take my clients to by hearing two birds singing at three in the afternoon and, at this same site, we have happily watched a rock-perched bird singing after ten in the morning in November.  I never understand the obsession with getting on site to hunt them during darkness, and there really is no need, unless you’re happy to tick silhouettes.

5.  General behavioural and field craft tips…

Although usually quiet, grounded Pin-tailed Sandgrouse do sometimes chatter, Mark Hiley November 2008
Once you see a distant flock of bustards or sandgrouse on the ground, take what you can while you can and get them in the telescope.  It’s essential to remind oneself that they are happy where they are, especially if they’re feeding, so take your time and let them get used to you before patiently edging nearer step by step for a better view.

As you get closer, stay in the car if you can and use your scope from the window but if you do need to get out do it very, very slowly.  And watch your noise levels too – a car door closing sounds just like a gunshot to a bird.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are not particularly flighty (Black-bellied Sandgrouse require much more caution, and will take Pin-tailed with them if it’s a mixed flock) and as you approach you will notice that, like many steppe birds including Little Bustard and Dupont’s Lark, they will begin to walk away first, as an energy-saving and habitat-specific strategy against predators, before electing to fly.  If you see this stop all movement and wait until they settle, even before lifting your binoculars slowly to your eyes.

If care is taken in this way – and it’s not as easy as it sounds – it is not uncommon to be able to view them along side the car.  Note that, if you want photos, it is advisable to have your camera sticking out of the window from the off rather than poking it out when you get close and risk flushing them.

Zac Hinchcliffe reached over my lap to snap this below my car window (Aug 2009)
If you do accidentally startle and flush a flock of sandgrouse there are two things to remember.

Firstly, normally they don’t ALL fly up and so, especially if it’s a handful taking off, check the ground from where they flew as there are usually others ‘freezing’ (another anti-predator strategy).

Secondly, remember that they do have favourite fields so don’t move on too soon as they have a habit of flying in a large radius before returning to roughly the same spot.  Back off a little, wait and, if they don’t return, check back some time later.  If they do fly off, persevere with your binoculars until you see where they land in case you can track them.

Little Bustard, if they see you, are initially quite flighty but often they won’t go very far, especially in the breeding season, either landing out of sight just over a nearby rise or settling nicely for a mid-distant ‘scope.

In my patch, winter Great Bustard flocks peak at 50 birds, John Fox Nov 2010
Great Bustards (there are none in Catalonia, I visit nearby Los Monegros to see them) are less flighty than their smaller cousins and can usually be seen on the ground without too much hassle as long as you don’t surprise them.  Note though that they usually require about l km clear visibility on three sides so again some patience will be needed.

About half the world's Dupont's Larks are found in Spain, David Linstead Feb 2011
It’s surprisingly common to see (and hear of) fleeting glimpses of Dupont’s Lark running across or along the tracks as one first arrives on site, when a flash of white tail sides or even a glance at a pale crown stripe may be all you get to attempt to confirm the sighting.  With a little more forethought and caution as you approach therefore one can turn these uncertain encounters into something a little more substantial.

Have a great trip then and good luck but, even should you have the worst misfortune in the world, please don’t be tempted to stray from clearly marked footpaths or deliberately flush grounded birds for a flight view, especially in breeding season.

A higher number of bird species of conservation concern are found on open land than in any other habitat and there are many red-listed or endangered species in the steppes that are on the threshold of local extinction.  They have enough problems with the threat of continued agricultural change without a pair of size eleven boots stomping all over them (that’s size 45 for the Europeans amongst us).  In any case, watch out as the Agents Rurals, or Countryside Police, are quite vigilant.

If you have a mind to, you can check out the birdwatchers’ code here.

Stephen Christopher

P.S.  Here’s one final tip… Hire a guide!

This is a quite typical view of Red-necked Nightjar from May to August, SC August 2007

Guided Birding Holidays, Short Breaks and Day Tours.

A guided trip to the Steppes of Lleida (and optional nearby Los Monegros) is available as a day tour, or as part of a short birding break or full week’s bird watching holiday.

To check the availability of places on shared tours, post your own request for sharers, or inquire about dates for an exclusive birding trip, visit Catalan Bird Tours’ website or e-mail Stephen Christopher.


Resident: White Stork, Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle, Red Kite, Black-shouldered Kite*, Stone-curlew, Eagle Owl, Hoopoe, ‘Iberian’ Green Woodpecker, Thekla Lark, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Calandra Lark, Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Penduline Tit, Iberian Grey Shrike, Red-billed Chough, Rock Sparrow

Passage only: Osprey, Honey-buzzard, Red-footed Falcon, Dotterel

Migrant breeders:  Common Quail, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Hobby, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Red-necked Nightjar, Bee-eater, Roller, Wryneck, Greater Short-toed Lark, Red-rumped Swallow, Tawny Pipit, Spectacled Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, Golden Oriole

Winter Migrants: Hen Harrier, Merlin, Common Crane


"That morning on the Steppes was one of the best birding sessions we've ever had and will stay in our memories for a long time. So many excellent birds in such a short space of time was exhilarating.  We really enjoyed your excellent company and hospitality and picnic lunches will never be the same again.

We would thoroughly recommend your holidays to anyone. It was great to be able to enjoy birds rather than be rushed on before we were ready. The ID tips you gave us were really useful."

David and Chris Evans spent a week in May birding in Catalonia.

“Without your guidance I would have probably only found fifty percent of what was there, I certainly would not have got within 3 yards of a Red-necked Nightjar.  Every time I enquired about a bird it turned up almost immediately; I began to suspect you had an assistant beating them out at prearranged signals.  I would recommend your birding tours without reservation."

Andy Strouthous spent a week in August birding in Catalonia.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Client Trip Report: Winter Break, November 2010

27 - 29 November 2010: Trip and Photo Report by John Fox (Birdwatch Ireland)

"Thanks very much for such a splendid three days birding.  We saw almost all the target species, also a few excellent unexpected ones.  It's difficult to imagine a guide being so keen, hard-working and efficient, and such good company."
Chris Evans, Birdwatch Ireland

Eight members of the Tolka Branch of Birdwatch Ireland travelled with Ryanair from Dublin to Barcelona on 26th November 2010 and a ninth member joined us the next day from Brussels.

At Barcelona airport, while we collected a people-carrier at a cost of €260 for 5 days, the group had Monk Parakeet, White Wagtail, Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Magpie and Wood Pigeon.

We made our way to a villa in Olivella (€995 for 5 days), about 15 minutes from Sitges, but stopped before reaching it at a small wooded area where we had views of Crested Tit, a lifer for many of us.  We also had good views of Firecrest, Robin, Dunnock, Coal Tit, Goldcrest, Chaffinch, Long-tailed Tit and a pair of Common Crossbill flew over, calling as they went.

We travelled into Sitges for dinner that evening and a couple of Tawny Owl were calling on our return.

27th November - The Garraf Natural Park

Our guide Stephen Christopher of Catalan Bird Tours [click for Winter itineraries and birding tours available - SC] had been contacted a few months earlier and engaged for three full days for nine people.

We arrived in the Garraf Natural Park, located on the Mediterranean coast between Barcelona and Sitges, and positioned ourselves quietly at the foot of a cliff to await the arrival of our first target bird.  Stephen was quite confident that our bird would show up and about five minutes later, as predicted, he spotted our quarry, a stunning Wallcreeper (below).

The bird, which was a lifer for everyone, moved about the rock face for 30 minutes as the sun rose and flooded the cliff with light and eventually slipped out of sight as it moved south.

Crag Martin glided above the cliff as Black Redstarts foraged on the rock below, a Blue Rock Thrush perched at the top while a pair of Peregrine headed out to see.  Great Cormorant, Northern Gannet, Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls were seen over the sea while Serin and Rock Dove were also present in the area.

Finally we had lovely views of a single Audouin's Gull (below) at a local marina.

From there we headed up into the park, a beautiful area of mountainous heath.  We spent a few hours walking, as much of it is restricted to vehicles, and had good views of Red-legged Partidge, Thekla Lark, Spotless Starling, Southern Grey Shrike with Dartford Warbler popping in and out of view regularly.  Other new birds seen were Stonechat, Blackcap, Greenfinch and Linnet.

Later in the day [after locating the Wallcreeper a second time for the late arrival in the group - SC] we drove further into the Parc Natural de Garraf where we saw Rock Sparrow, Woodlark, Rock Bunting and a Sparrowhawk.  As the light began to fade our eagle-eyed guide Stephen spotted a pair of flying Bonelli's Eagle, one of which perched within scope range.  We studied the majestic eagle for a while as Stephen explained some of the bird's key identification features to those of us for whom the bird was unfamiliar.

We returned to the villa happy that we'd had a great first day with many new ticks under our belts.

28th November - Los Monegros and The Steppes of Lleida

We arrived just after dawn to a precise location selected by Stephen.  A hard frost still clung to the vegetation as we scoured the area for sandgrouse.  As we searched we had views of flying Red-billed Chough, Hen Harrier, Carrion Crow, Jackdaw, Marsh Harrier and a Merlin, while in the scrub Corn Bunting, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Thekla Lark (above) foraged.

Scanning the middle distance eventually revealed the elusive Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.  A small flock made up of both species was on the highest ground, presumably taking advantage of the earliest rays of sunshine to warm themselves after the cold night.  Its was great to see both species side by side enabling good comparisons to be made.

As the day warmed more species became active such as Dartford Warbler, Stock Dove, Red Kite, Hoopoe and small flocks of Calandra Lark rose in the sky revealing their diagnostic dark under wings (see photo below).

Elsewhere in Los Monegros, it was not long before we had distant views of a small flock of Great Bustard, some sheltering behind bushes to keep out of the icy wind.  We drove around and eventually were rewarded with closer views of three more (pictured below).  We hoped to connect with Little Bustard too but unfortunately that species eluded us.  We did however find another flock of Black-bellied Sandgrouse out in the open.

En route to The Steppes of Lleida we had lovely views of three Griffon Vultures that glided effortlessly across the road.  On arrival, Stephen guided us to a landfill site where, feeding on the contents of the dump, we had superb and most spectacular views of hundreds of White Stork, Cattle Egrets and Black-headed Gulls together with 20 Red Kite, several Grey Heron, Northern Lapwing and a thousand European Starling.  A Common Buzzard was also perched in the area.

Via a flock of 70 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (photo above), which were quite approachable due to the absence of the more skittish Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and several Green Woodpceker seen in a small orchard, Stephen took us to another of his well-researched locations, this time for Black Wheatear (photo below with Calandra Lark).  And we were not disappointed.  We connected quickly with a family party and good views were had by all of both male and female.

Also in the area, after a short walk from the car, we had wonderful views of a flock of 50 Stone-curlew (below) resting in a ploughed field.  A few flew up as we tried to approach unseen but they quickly settled back into the flock. I had seen Stone-curlew before but never so well or in such numbers.

It was an unexpected treat and a lovely finish to our second guided day.

29th November - The Catalan Pyrenees (and The Llobregat Delta)

We drove to the Parc Natural Cadi-Moixero where, at an altitude of 2000m with a little snow on the ground, we began our trek up the mountain road hoping the sun would break through.  Jay, Mistle Thrush, Goldfinch and Ring Ouzel were seen before we had our first views of Alpine Chough, with flocks of thirty or more seen wheeling over the cliffs above, their yellow bills clearly visible.

Several Chamois stared down at us from the mountain side and, rounding a corner which overlooked a small stream, one of our party spotted a (White-throated) Dipper working its way upstream.

This was quickly followed by great views of five Alpine Accentor (below), another of our target birds which delighted everyone and once more confirmed our guide's knowledge of the area.  We had found the birds within a few metres of where Stephen suggested a sighting was possible.

With the sun failing to break through we started back towards the cars to warm up and were treated to close views of two Griffon Vulture that soared out over the cliffs above.  They were followed almost immediately by another bird, one that we all had at the top of our list - Lammegergeier (top photos).

The views we had of this wonderful vulture was superb, let down only by the dull grey sky. We watched it for a minute or so as it passed directly overhead before it silently glided down the valley and out of sight.

With snow starting to fall we happily got into the cars and headed down the mountain.  As we descended we had a brief view of another Wallcreeper that flew out from a cliff face over the cars. We stopped for a few minutes in a village some way down where we had another Dipper, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit and Crested Tit together with a Firecrest.

Returning to Barcelona, we entered the Llobregat wetland reserve, a managed area with many hides and a good range of species.  Water birds seen included Northern Shovelor, Common Teal, Great Crested Grebe, Common Kingfisher, Pheasant, Moorhen, Gadwall, Eurasian Coot, Dunlin, Green Sandpiper and Sandwich Tern.

A brief Moustached Warbler was followed by Golden Plover, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti's Warbler and Water Pipit and gulls present were Black-headed, Yellow-legged and two Mediterranean Gull.

The best bird for me from this area was Purple Swamphen (above) and we had great views of two from one of the hides.  We had hoped for Penduline Tit but dipped on that species.

As the light was fading, we said goodbye to Stephen our superb guide for three days.

He had been everything we had hoped for and more.  He knew the birds we were after and out in the time to locate them prior to our arrival. He found most of them for us in the short time we were there.  He was happy to answer all our questions, no matter how obvious or obtuse, with a breadth of knowledge that only comes with years of experience and time in the field.

I would have no hesitation in recommending him to others interested in birding the area, a view which I believe would be endorsed by all of our group.

We returned to our villa that evening very satisfied with our trip and the birds we had seen.
Our group included the following members of the Tolka Branch of Birdwatch Ireland: Dermot McCabe, Lorraine Benson, Heather Quinn, Bill Quinn (additional photos), Gerald Franck, Philip Clancy, Chris Evans, Darragh Hogg and myself John Fox.

"It was a great trip.  Stephen was so efficient at getting the list out as well as getting us such a terrific array of birds.  Well done to Dermot in arranging to have such a good bird guide and for organising such an exciting trip so well."
Billy Quinn, Birdwatch Ireland

"Thank you for all your wonderful guiding and your expertise.  You really made the trip fantastic for me and I think for everyone else too.  A big thank you to all involved in our fantastic trip to Catalunya, particularly Stephen our brilliant guide who got us all the birds that I hoped to see together with many more that were unexpected and a great bonus."
John Fox, Birdwatc Ireland
"This was an excellent trip!"
Lorraine Benson, Birdwatch Ireland

  [Southern 'Iberian' Grey Shrike]

Sunday, 13 November 2011

November Wallcreeper, Bustards and Lammergeier

13th November 2007 – Garraf and Llobregat

It's strange 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.

In 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 berries.

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.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Client Trip Report: Autumn Break, October 2010

11th - 17th October 2010: Autumn in Catalonia - a Trip Report by Frank Mawby

Aside from three quick for-the-record mentions for my first ever Long-billed Dowitcher in some ricefields near Lleida on the 21st, a wintering Purple Heron in the same place on 28th and this winter's first Great Bittern on the Ebro Delta on 27th, I'll just say a very big thank you to Frank for the trip report below (and to John Dingemans for additional photos from his trip from 25th-28th) and let him get on with it...


Our trip to the Rutland Bird Fair this year resulted in a late decision to take a birding holiday in Spain - to be specific, to Catalonia, the region around Barcelona.  I scanned the internet for birding guides and quickly hit on the Catalan Bird Tours website of Stephen Christopher.  Contact was quickly established, the price was right and included 7 days birding, self-catering accommodation and splendid picnic lunches.

The only other cost was for evening meals and flights.  Monarch Airlines fly to Barcelona from Manchester and were the cheapest. Stephen collected and dropped us off at the airport and took us to the supermarket to obtain food. We provided him with our species wish list.

Catalonia has a diversity of landscapes.  Estuaries, cliffs, rocky shores and beaches make up a short coastline.  Inland are the high mountains of the Pyrenees down to the vast agricultural plains around Lleida with a whole range of landforms in between. Such a diversity of habitats inevitably mean there is a wide diversity of bird life.  Our target species included the Lammergeier and Griffon vultures, the Great and Little Bustards, Eagles and other raptors.

[A wintering Black-necked Grebe on the Llobregat Delta, taken on 25th.]


Barcelona Airport is built on the estuarine marshes of the Llobregat River and birding commenced within an hour of getting off the plane. Entering the Llobregat Reserve, Stephen soon lived up to his website reputation spotting a Little Bittern landing a short distance away in the reeds and quickly finding it.  We had excellent views of our first lifer for the trip.

Green Woodpecker, Black Redstart, Sardinian Warbler and Common Waxbills were seen as we strolled along the paths lined with reeds over 4 m tall. Stephen heard a Penduline Tit but it only gave a brief glimpse as it flew away and was to elude us for a good view until the final afternoon.

We visited hides overlooking large lagoons holding many ducks and waders, including Shoveler, Common Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, Redshank, Snipe, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank and Spoonbill.  A Marsh Harrier circled in the distance and horses were grazing the marsh with attendant Little Egret and Cattle Egret but the star bird was a Booted Eagle.

After lunch we drove down the coast, south of Sitges, where a Blue Rock Thrush came to inspect us and the local Black Wheatear appeared.  A lone Audouin's Gull circled the nearby harbour.  Our drive to Stephen’s place was through the Garraf Natural Park, a hilly region of maritime scrub where he hoped to find some of the specialities like Dartford Warbler and Bonelli’s Eagle on a later visit.

12th October 2010

Tuesday’s weather forecast for the whole region was not good, so our destination was not decided until we met Stephen at 0600 hrs.  It was raining and it continued to rain as we drove west towards Aragon.  He had found a possible hole in the weather and the target species was Great Bustard.

Sure enough it brightened up as we drove into a vast agricultural plain, a mix of tilled land and stubble with a number of uncultivated weedy fields. We started well with a lone Stone Curlew but the Bustards were not to be seen. The weedy stubbles were more promising and gave us a nice variety of larks including Thekla Lark [photo below], some very late Short-toed Lark and, from one field, well over 500 Calandra Larks with their distinctive calls.

A real surprise was locating a group of 17 Dotterel. The scattered stone barns almost all had a Little Owl perched on the roof and a flock of Jackdaw also included Red- billed Chough.

Stephen eventually spotted something large and brown and we were soon looking at a flock of 14 Great Bustards [top photo] at a distance of less than 100 m.  Nearby, we disturbed another four.  What a remarkable sight to see such a large bird flying so gracefully with the broad white wing bars flashing.  Target species ticked, what next?

A short drive to a new location and we were soon looking at over 50 Stone Curlew and caught a glimpse of the elusive Black-bellied Sandgrouse.  Eventually Stephen pinned them down and we got excellent views as we took lunch.  Two large flocks of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew over and to our delight three Hobbies suddenly appeared close-by and then a perched Golden Eagle gave good views [Photo below].

On the way back we were attracted to a large gathering of Marsh Harrier and Common Buzzard and this area also gave Spotless Starling, Southern Grey Shrike, Tree Sparrows and Corn Bunting.  At our final stop, another part of the vast agricultural steppe area, Merlin, more Stone Curlew, Yellow Wagtails and lots of Red-legged Partridge were seen but we failed to find Little Bustard; quite a day with at least 6 new lifers. There were some good butterflies too including Swallowtail and Clouded Yellow.

13th October 2010 - THE EBRO DELTA

Wednesday, out at 6.00 a.m. again and heading south to the Ebro Delta, a vast area of mainly rice paddy fields teeming with birds. From a viewing platform over-looking a large lagoon we watched Osprey, innumerable Marsh Harriers, and thousands of duck whilst Reed and Cetti's Warbler were just below us.

Another platform gave us many Red-crested Pochards and a solitary Night Heron amongst several Great Cormorants. A small flight of Spoonbill and then Glossy Ibis passed overhead and another Osprey gave an excellent show followed by a Caspian Tern. We toured around the flooded fields and amongst the many waders and gulls were Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gull, Black Tern and Whiskered Tern, lots of herons, Greater Flamingo, Glossy Ibis, Pied Avocets, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint; but a special wader for us was a Wood Sandpiper [Photo below].

Fan-tailed Warbler (Zitting Cisticola)
, Whinchat and Stonechat were common and a single Spotted Flycatcher was a nice surprise. There were several Robins, a bird that Stephen said was just coming in for the winter.

Lunch was taken in a hide with Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff passing through and a few yards below us a Reed Warbler quickly followed by a Savi’s Warbler gave us a nice comparison of these similar species.

As we prepared to leave, the star bird of the day was spotted and even Stephen could not contain his excitement on seeing a (rare vagrant) Yellow-browed Warbler.

14th October 2010 - THE PYRENEES

Thursday saw us heading north for the Pyrenees. On arrival, there was low cloud as we started to drive uphill but we passed through it into bright sunshine and looking over a wonderful cloudscape.

Small flocks of birds were feeding through the trees including Crested Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit and Great Tit - I did not realise that species like this were found at this altitude.  Stephen picked up the call of a Short-toed Treecreeper, a call too high pitched for my deteriorating hearing, and it gave but a fleeting glimpse. Bullfinch was also seen up here.

High overhead we observed large numbers of House Martin and a regular passage of thrushes – the silhouettes and flight pattern suggested some were Mistle Thrush and others Ring Ouzel. A Black Woodpecker called in the distance, a Peregrine briefly showed and small flocks of the yellow-billed Alpine Chough and Red-billed Chough gave a good display at one point.

Late morning and it was time to scan the highest tops and sure enough Stephen soon had Griffon Vultures for us, at least a dozen at one point. We moved around the mountain finding Citril Finch and Rock Bunting on the way to the lunch spot where we settled down.

Sure enough, as Stephen predicted, the first Lammergeier appeared cruising along the mountainside.  Then another was located much closer this time, a dark immature bird, and as we watched, it dropped something then descended to the ground and began to eat. It was joined by an adult and the two were up and down a number of times. In the air they were harried by Ravens and Griffon Vultures.

We left them and began the long descent, picking up Dunnock, Long-tailed Tit and later (White-throated) Dipper.

15th October 2010 - THE LLEIDA STEPPES

Stephen expressed his concern that recent changes in E.C. agricultural policies that have ended set-aside could see large areas of marginal land put back into production.  He pointed out several areas that had been ploughed recently and which he had never seen cultivated over the years he has been birding there. The only nature reserve in this vast agricultural area was a tiny area of rough grassland.

The plan, as last time, was to work the fields area by area. Shelagh spotted our main target species, the Little Bustard - five of them feeding in a rough strip of ground. Eventually we moved on and the track went close enough to move them and a flock of Stone Curlew.  The systematic searching then gave us Rock Sparrows [photo below] with lots of Corn Bunting.

As we drove towards a small pool a superb male
Hen Harrier dropped in to give a brilliant show at less than 50 metres, bathing, flying out, shaking himself then returning to bathe again before flying off to dry [Photo-collage above].

As the search continued, a large flock of Red-billed Chough were found feeding and then took to the air with a brilliant display.  Stephen then spotted a distant speck and hurried towards it.  Stopping the car, we watched a Black-shouldered Kite hunting for several minutes.

We then saw Red Kite for which the main attraction was a refuse tip where I was amazed to see not only lots of Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls but hundreds of White Storks, Cattle Egret, and European and Spotless Starling.  A Blue Rock Thrush was on a nearby cliff and the area also held Skylark, Thekla Lark, Meadow Pipit, Common Redstart, Merlin, Buzzard and much more - a truly rich area for birds.  Driving through an area of scrub another Black-shouldered Kite [Photo below] posed for us on a power line pole and shortly after a Southern Grey Shrike.

By late afternoon we were back close to Stephen’s home in the Garraf where he took us into a shrubby, wooded gorge teeming with birds including many Black Redstarts, Sardinian Warblers, a Cirl Bunting and a Sparrowhawk.


Saturday, our penultimate day, and we headed northwards along the coast towards the French border.

The view from the first hide over a large reed-fringed lagoon was teeming with duck and waders, including Shoveler, Geenshank, Spotted Redshank, Dunlin and Snipe - a great sight with Fallow Deer grazing amongst the birds and a nice White Stork colony.

The drive out to the Cap de Creus was spectacular, made more so by the narrow roads and steep drop offs.  It was very windy and few birds were braving the elements, least of all the Levantine Shearwaters [seen by SC only]. Well worth the drive for the scenery but unproductive bird wise other than a Peregrine, Yellow-legged Gulls, Northern Gannet and Eurasian Shag.

Back to Aiguamolls and here we picked up Water Pipit before the first star bird of the day when not one but five Honey-buzzards passed overhead with many Pallid Swifts. One Honey-buzzard came low and gave a clear outline and good views of its main features. Leaving the area along country lanes we had a splendid view of a Goshawk, the best I have ever had of this species.


Another reason for choosing the Monarch flight was the 2000 hrs departure to give us a whole day birding on Sunday. The plan was to do Stephen’s home area of the Garraf Natural Park; a hilly landscape of low Mediterranean maritime scrub and pine, which is steadily invading.

The area was regularly fired in the past slowing the pine and maintaining the valuable scrub habitat. However, fires are a hazard to human settlements, to such an extent that even managed burns are avoided. Nor is there interest in grazing the area so succession to pine woodland seems inevitable with consequential changes to the flora and fauna.

At our first stop, a small settlement by a stream, our first Firecrest soon presented itself for close observation. A mixed flock of tits and other species passed through and we had a good view of a Cirl Bunting. Many Serins were seen but this is a common bird of the area. As we drove through the park Dartford Warbler gave good views.

Sunday lunch was a leisurely affair in Sitges where we treated Stephen to a well-earned break.  After lunch, driving along the coast road, we stopped for views of Crag Martin before arriving at the northern area of the Llobregat Reserve.

On the river we saw several Mediterranean Gulls and we had good views of Penduline Tit. As we came out of the last hide our attention was drawn to the sky where several Alpine Swifts were passing over.

It was time to leave and the Bluethroat had eluded us but a Monk Parakeet flew by as we left for the nearby airport.

Our list for the week, including birds only heard, was 181 species, although truly we could only claim 178 of them due to failing eyesight and hearing which became painfully obvious at times compared to our guide, whose great knowledge of the area and its birds combined with his keen eyesight and hearing had given us an exceptional week of birding in mid-October.

There are so many birds in Catalonia that make it a great region to visit at any time of the year. Stephen is an excellent birding guide and very popular.  He books up quickly at peak times.  His tours range from a day up to a week, his self-catering accommodation is very comfortable and sleeps up to four people in two double bedrooms and he will pick up from other accommodation, including Barcelona.


The full Autumn birding itineraries can be seen here.

[dark-phase Booted Eagle, Ebro Delta, 27th]


“Our time in Barcelona was limited so we required someone with excellent local knowledge - this Stephen has in bucketfuls. We began birding within minutes of leaving the city and he took us to areas we would not have found on our own.  We concluded a great day out with seven lifers and also saw our first Swallowtail butterfly - a great bonus.
We enjoyed our day so much and were so impressed by Stephen’s knowledge and amiability that we are going back for four days in May 2011.

Neil and Joan Foster, U.K.

“Fantastic.  All the different habitats, different birds, brilliant. Thank you very much for all your hard work and enthusiasm which made it a very successful and enjoyable break.  We both enjoyed it very much.”

“Thank you for the list of birds seen.  Also for the knowledge passed on. My four days was thoroughly enjoyed."

John Dingemans and Alan Beale, U.K.