|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 exposé 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 – including 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.
|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.
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.
OTHER SELECTED SPECIES:
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.