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

Monday, 31 January 2011

Winter Wallcreeper, Snowfinch and Lammergeier

January 2009 - The Pyrenees, Catalonia, Spain
"Thank you so much for showing us so much.  So many birds.  Great memories of the Snowfinch (our favourite), bluethroat, hoopoe, etc. etc. etc. etc.

How wonderfully relaxed it all was - not having to think about where we were going and just being able to enjoy the scenery and look for the birds was about perfect and then lunch was served. Thanks again."

Dilys and Eric Powell, U.K. (after a full week's winter birding)

On 11th January, in The Pyrenees, we were staring up towards the rock face in front of us, binoculars gripped at at-the-ready-chin-height and waiting for the next white flashes to explode into the clarity of the blue-blue sky before arching and falling back down into the obscurity of white-on-white – Snowfinch on snow.

At officially up to 3cm longer than a Chaffinch, there’s no deception of how big these long- and white-winged relatives seem when you see them set against the azure sky, even at this distance, and it all just adds to the thrill.  We ‘ooo-ed’ and ‘argh-ed’ like children around a bonfire, calling ‘there!’ and ‘this side!’ as each small flock threw itself up and dropped back down.  Occasionally, again just like fireworks, we lucked upon one or two on the ground and gleefully gathered our telescopes around to watch them feeding.

The post-breeding movements of (White-winged) Snowfinches, which can start as early as late July, is always unpredictable, depending upon the weather as it does, but this has been a good year.  Out of the total of 613 birds rung in the Collada de Toses between 2005 and 2009, 328 have been rung this winter, with none in the two years previously [Although we've had them every year since, Stephen, 2011].

‘Wait a minute,’ I mumbled as I was scanning the rock face, and headed for my telescope to confirm an overactive imagination.  But, ‘Wallcreeper!’ Max shouted and sure enough, the apparent peering head, that I may have dismissed as fantasy without a back-up pair of eyes, turned out to be a crazy lone pela-roques, in Catalan, eeking out a lunatic living on the freezing cold, snow-covered cliffs of the magical, magical Pyrenees.

In turns, it was seen fluttering out way over our heads to disappear into thin air, avoiding the high-mag gaze of our scopes with some sleight-of-wing, and dropping like a Peregrine the whole height of the cliff only to be sucked onto it’s sheer surface just metres from certain death as if it was suddenly magnetised.  Wallcreeper are supposed to descend to lower altitudes in weather like this and, although it breeds at up to 3000m above sea level, I would hardly call the snow-covered 2000m at which we were now perched a descent!

Unlike (White-winged) Snowfinch, which rarely drop below 1500m, Wallcreeper are regularly found wintering even at sea level (see The Garraf) so it was really the former that inspired the trips up from Barcelona and, a few days before, on the 6th, we’d been lucky enough to watch more than one-hundred work their way down this same hill, rolling over each other back over front (like a slinky if you remember the seventies!), over our heads and settle along the edges of the melting snowline a few metres below us.  With us too engrossed and the flock restless, we didn’t think of photos but when we drove right into a small group a couple of hours later, we jammed on the brakes and clicked away as about a dozen skipped their way onto a roadside bank and grazed fearlessly at window-level as we followed on in first gear.  Worth the trip alone.

With a distinct feeling of dejà vu, and six kilometres, twenty-minutes and a three hundred metre drop in altitude later, we were doing exactly the same thing with a half-dozen disinterested Alpine Accentor.  What a plumage.  What a place. 

Alpine Accentor had been observed on the 11th too, sneaking between the feet of the Snowfinch, but a little too far to truly appreciate.  No matter, Alpine Accentor, again unlike Snowfinch, also make winter trips to low-level mountains ranges and can be found quite easily in the same spot in the Garraf, for instance, along with Wallcreeper.

And anyway, another better surprise was yet to come. 

Having been sent packing by a swarm of woollen hats and skis, we found ourselves car-tracking the white wings and tail edges of what we thought was a lone Snowfinch dipping and diving over the contours and corners of the winding road cutting it’s way through the deep snow of the Moixero Natural Park.  When it finally stopped, we did likewise, this time even managing a photograph – of a Snow Bunting!  The average for Catalonia is less than one per year so we were lucky we found a whole one.

In all the excitement it might have been easy to forget another rather startling moment of discovery.  Whilst enjoying the cliff-side matinee described earlier we were treated to a honking Raven flying low overhead.  Only to fill in time, or perhaps out of habit, we all raised our binoculars to the remarkable – and for me never-seen-before – sight of the underside of a Raven lit in a bounced snow light that revealed more shades and tones of brown than I’d ever seen.  I swear I could see every feather and will never think of a Raven as a black bird again.

Now fast forward to the 17th and we’re back again…déjà vu…as, standing in almost exactly the same spot, the same reflected snow light paints every contour of the underside of a truly majestic (there is no other word for this bird) low-flying, adult Lammergeier.  Orange.  Beard.  The lot.  For a fleeting moment I contemplated the fifteen metres between my self and the camera (in the boot of the car of course) but in the end thought, ‘sod it’ and just enjoyed it.  Wow.  It actually hung around for an hour or so, at one point deigning to land - but immediately taking off in the moments that it saw me glance towards my camera bag.

The snow remained but this encouraged the skiers as well as the Snowfinch, now estimated at around sixty birds, to hang around so the former made the job of tracking the latter much harder and unusually it took us until the afternoon.  In the meantime, the usual Peregrine, Griffon Vulture, Crossbill, Firecrest, Dipper and array of tits kept us entertained, we successfully out-waited the Alpine Accentors at their regular spot and a lovely flock of eighty chirping Alpine Chough floated around us and landed noisily on the road ahead.

It was clear that many birds, Wallcreeper included, found it hard to tear themselves away even in times of harsh and ruthless weather and on each and every visit, as we left the slope of the village main street and upped the gears onto the road back to Barcelona, I had no difficulty understanding why.

Photos by Dilys Powell, Max Andrews, Darren Shirley and Stephen Christopher.

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.

Monday, 10 January 2011

January in the Ebro Delta, Catalonia, Spain

Ebro Delta, 10th January 2008

I’d waited patiently for the Three Kings to deliver their gifts, worked out how the hell the tree went back into its box and now I was drooling as, allowed out for the first time, I crossed the bridge over the river and finally set tyre in The Ebro Delta.  I’m not one for counting particularly but less than twenty on my year list was painful.  A sympathetic Hoopoe rowed over the bonnet.  Thanks mate.

As I drove into the rice fields out of St. Jaume, a ring of mist masked the horizon in all directions, creating a comforting circle into which no-one else seemed to venture.  Common Buzzards marshalled the perimeter, posted in each leafless tree, motionless and morose like leftover Christmas tree decorations.  The sparklingly clean black and grey under-wings of a male Marsh Harrier spirited into view flying along side the driver’s window, tilting left and right to show off its glorious roast-chestnut chest and, rather topically if a little late, guided me like the star of Bethlehem to my first stop of the day.

I’d never stopped here before but I was immediately presented with two dark shapes in the middle of a reed-edged field and, for twenty minutes, a pair of Water Rails strutted and pecked their way ever-closer.  A flock of Reed Buntings gleaning the horsetails and a rather unusual foraging partnership between a Moorhen and a Blackbird only proved minor distractions until I was able to put my binoculars down and marvel at the absolute marvellousness of both the rails by the car door.

They were sent scurrying by an unknown force and I moved on - only to stop a few metres along the road to marvel some more; this time at a light-phase Booted Eagle perched in one of its favourite spots.

Still early when I reached the beach, only a solitary Kentish Plover quick-stepped its way over the dewy sand.  The sea was calm but empty.  Groups of Purple Swamphen began tempting themselves out of the reed beds with nervous contact calls and another unknown threat put up a huge gathering of ducks on a distant lagoon.  It may as well have been wielding a knife as the massive blanket of wings was ripped into species portions of, amongst others, Wigeon, Gadwall and Pintail before circling and returning to knit themselves back together on the water’s surface.

Via Greylag Geese, Glossy Ibis and Common Kingfishers on every post, I made my way back and searched the strangely wriggling surface of a paddy field around a masia on the Illa de Riu.  The responsibility was mostly down to several hundred Little Stint and numerous Ringed Plover but, forewarned by the word on the cyber street, I managed to pick out the lone Pectoral Sandpiper.

Several more Hoopoe, a curious Dartford Warbler and a rather bolshy Bluethroat, skipping from bush to bush as I passed, were picks of the bunches of passerines smothering every reed and cabbage plant and the rafts of Golden Plover and Lapwing to be found in the delta’s fields was a spectacle hard to beat.

But beaten it was.  A Great Bittern at Riet Vell; Richard’s Pipit, Southern Grey Shrike and a Peregrine locking claws with a Marsh Harrier on my way from Eucaliptus to La Tancada; a flock of about twenty Lesser Short-toed Larks when I got there that were close enough to touch until my mobile rang!  Take your pick.

My own choice would be the sight of Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser and Black-necked Grebe diving in the same binocular field of view but I also basked in the sheer numbers of Greenshank, Grey Plover, Dunlin and, in particular, Sanderling and Little Stint sifting through the pools of La Tancada.   A little sifting myself pulled out morsels of Turnstone, Common and Spotted Redshank and both Common and Green Sandpiper.

By now the sun had gone almost full circle and the light promised little more than an hour before bedtime but even so a quick dash through the stretch to L’Encanyissada produced the resident (and presumed) hybrid Little Egret x Western Reef Heron opposite the watchtower at l’Embut, masses of Common and Red-crested Pochard on El Clot and, for the second visit running, a Red-nobbed (Crested) Coot at Pont de Traves.

Finally, in the small pond next to the Casa de Fusta as I was leaving, yet another Water Rail, feeding out in the open and confident enough to resist fleeing despite me jamming on the breaks!

As I said, I don’t count.  (!).  But I was gifted well over 80 species in a short mid-winter day and I missed a few too.  It amazed me how the pressure of finding food in the colder months makes birds occupy every single niche possible, from the expanse of lagoons and reed beds harbouring Greater Flamingos and Chiffchaffs respectively to a few teasels on the edge of a rice field fleetingly playing host to a party of Goldfinch.

Other species seen: 

Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Great Cormorant, Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Great Egret, Grey Heron, Shelduck, Mallard, Shovelor, Kestrel, Coot, Common Snipe, Mediterranean Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Audouin’s Gull, Black-headed Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Sandwich Tern, Feral Pigeon, Collared Dove, Crested lark, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Water Pipit, Grey Wagtail, White Wagtail, Robin, Black Redstart, Stonechat, Cettis Warbler, Fan-tailed Warbler, Blackcap, Sardinian Warbler, Magpie, Starling, Spotless Starling, House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Linnet.