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

Thursday, 31 March 2011

March on Barcelona! City of Crakes & other migrants

March 2010 - Early Spring Migrants in Catalonia, Spain

Of course, the Spring had already started back in mid-February with the arrival of Great Spotted Cuckoo, Black-winged Stilts (see below) - incidentally both my earliest ever sightings - and Little Ringed Plover, along with the first wave of hirundines such as House Martin, Sand Martin and Barn Swallow.

But it still didn't feel like summer was on its way though until March strode into Catalonia, flanked on either side by warmer temperatures and a little-boy excitement at the impending invasion.

The Llobregat Delta

Common Chiffchaff were singing everywhere.  A stunning male Common Redstart flicked in front of me as I arrived breathless on 2nd March, giving me another 'earliest record' but, more importantly, reuniting me with a childhood friend once again.

Yet another earliest record, this Yellow Wagtail almost did likewise but for the fact that I grew up in the UK, where my youth was spent with it's yellow-headed cousin, flavissima.  Above is a male iberiae subspecies of course and was one of four, discovered skipping in front of me with glee along with two females and a male cinereocapilla, which looks similar but lacks the eye-stripe (photo below taken on 29th).

I skipped off with equal amounts of glee, but with added anticipation, and came across six Black-winged Stilt, the first for the reserve, if not for me, this season.

The lagoons were carpeted with migrants, either waiting to head off - like Common Snipe, a half-dozen remnant Lapwing, Common Teal, five Northern Pintail, a lone Tufted Duck and a good handful of Eurasian Wigeon - or getting their bearings from a recently-completed journey from Africa.

Criss-crossing across the shallows were waders such as Black-tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank and this Wood Sandpiper above, which counted as the first migrant as the birds I'd seen in The Ebro Delta earlier in the year were from a small wintering population.  But I must have been the only person in Catalonia not to have seen a Garganey yet.

Still, after listening to and watching Moustached Warbler, Penduline Tit and Short-toed Treecreeper, I was absolutely thrilled to jam the breaks on barely two minutes after leaving the reserve and hold my excited binoculars up to my eyes to welcome back the sight of a particular circling raptor - the whole area's first Spring 2010 record for Short-toed Eagle and, again, the earliest sighting of my ten-years-plus in Catalonia.

The Garraf Massis

Back in my garden, the Siskin (above) numbers went up to ten birds, low for the year, to remind me that winter wasn't quite over and a Common Minah (below) flew across my bonnet, en route back to Llobregat (where else would you want to be at this time of year?) on the 5th, to remind me that some things never seem to change.  Every time I think that this small family near my house has succumbed they contrive to show up again to prove me wrong.

This photo above was taken in February but sometimes months go by before I see them.

I finally caught up with Garganey (above) on The Llobregat on the 5th, with five males and a couple of females there by the 8th March.

But a morning spent beforehand brought up two Slender-billed Gull, with the needle-bills of one adult and a first winter mixed in with a haystack of Yellow-legged, Black-headed, Audouin's and summer-headed Mediterrranean Gulls and were only needled out with patience - or was it merely that we hadn't finished the chocolate-chip cookies yet?

In any case, we were fortunate as a wonderful winter-plumaged Little Gull suddenly bounced and dipped in front of the hide and encouraged us to stay even longer, during which time we also picked out two Black-necked Grebe diving together and enjoyed being swarmed by an invading flock of hirundines and Alpine Swift (below).

Although this was my first sighting of the year, word had already got out about the incredible and increasing numbers of hundreds of early birds that had been around Barcelona for a few days.  What was going on down there in Africa?

Red-rumped Swallow
(above, with Barn Swallows, and below), was the last of the hirundines to be recorded for 2010 but, yet again, I got my earliest record on the 5th.  One of my top two sights of the Spring is watching all five European hirundines simultaneously filling the skies and my wishes were granted on 8th and 10th too.

Willow Warbler was the next year-tick but what a day the 8th was...  After being warned of the presence of a male Little Crake (top photo by Ferran Lopez-sanz), I waited in the rain - in the mean time entertained by Moustached Warbler, Grey Wagtail, of course Red-rumped Swallows and this Cetti's Warbler behind me -

- to get quite stunning views of the male at less than two metres.  And then after a slight lull, it suddenly ran from a dense patch of reeds chasing a female (below), who skulked away but was eventually relocated...

And I'd been impressed with my close-on views of Water Rail when I'd first arrived!

Strangely, my records show that this annual passage visitor had been first reported on The Llobregat Delta on more or less the same date for the past three years.

By the 10th March, after a freakish day of snow!, only the female was to be seen it seemed but again she ignored my feet and went about her business.

The 10th was probably going to be my last trip of the month, given that I was to be away for the last two weeks, and so I just sat in the hides all morning and watched March march by...

where there was always something different to keep me company.  Alpine Swifts (above), hirundines and even Monk Parakeets filled the skies...

the usual suspects such as these Northern Shoveler above and Northern Pintail below joined hundreds of other ducks, gulls and waders on the water...

occasionally heading for the skies as a Marsh Harrier or Peregrine swooped through.  And occasionally too, being joined by some special guests, like these Greater Flamingo, passing by...

I finally caught up with Night Heron today and, with a nice-surprise of a 2nd winter Common Gull on Vilanova beach whilst taking my son for a walk, currently stand on 192 species for 2010.  What a country this is!

Thankfully, with a little birding in the UK and a trip to Andujar in southern Spain to keep me excited in the mean time, I'll be back soon.

UPDATE: 31 March 2010

The highlights of two quick irresistible birding forays on 29th and 31st March after I got back from Andujar and the UK, included year-first Western Bonelli's Warbler in The Garraf en route to Purple Heron, Temminck's Stint, Marsh Sandpiper and Common Whitethroat on The Llobregat Delta, where Little Gull, Ruff, Whiskered Tern, Common Swift and a thunbergi Yellow Wagtail were also present and remnant Wigeon, Northern Pintail and a couple of Lapwing still remained.

However, the main attraction on both days was yet another crake, this time a long-staying Spotted Crake which spent much of its time, despite the impression given by my rubbish photos, out in the open...

Friday, 25 March 2011

Spring in the Steppes - a day tour in March

25th March 2008 - The Steppes of Lleida

A guided day tour to The Steppes in early Spring with Sam and Jamie Durrant, who kindly supplied his photos, on their quest for Great Spotted Cuckoos.

Due to a deliberately late start, traffic problems and wind building through out the day, we had to work hard for our birds today but these two Little Bustards, one of the first to pair up and set up a territory, would have made it worthwhile on their own.

Flocks of up to one hundred Calandra Larks and a couple of dozen Lesser Short-toed Larks sent up a welcoming chorus as I wound down the car window (o.k. with a button) upon our arrival in the Steppes.  Unfortunately, about the same number of dust grains blasted onto my eye balls and I wound it up again, deciding I'd appreciate their song another time.

We moved on quickly to try and capitalise on what little of the morning was left and were entertained by car side Hoopoe, several Stone-curlew and a stunning Black-eared Wheatear before a Black Kite did us a favour and flushed a small flock of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, which complained noisily as they headed off over the horizon.

A thorough scan of the surrounding fields failed to find any more but it did refill my eyes with dust thankfully just after locating four Dotterel that had been historically over-wintering in the area since December.  As usual during this time they had been politely posing for photos, a habit that seemed to be catching on as a Thekla Lark followed suit a few minutes later.

A diversion to nearby Aspa provided a welcome break from the wind and dust and an even more welcome opportunity for Jamie to pick up a lifer.  A short hunt ended with both male and female Black Wheatears showing well to complete the set for Spain (several migrating Northern Wheatear had already been ticked).

Blue Rock Thrush, Southern Grey Shrike, Corn Bunting, Red-billed Chough and Short-toed Eagle all delayed our arrival at a small almond orchard bordered by the all important pine trees that serve up the normally distateful caterpillars that our main target bird loves to gobble up.  We spent the next twenty minutes or more, accompanied by flocks of Linnets, head-shaving Alpine Swift and yet more Stone-curlew, stalking ever-better views of around seven or eight noisy and very flighty Great Spotted Cuckoos.

Once one settled in the fork of a nearby almond and sat there for a long-awaited study, Jamie did his customary 'lifer dance' (whilst I was looking the other way) and we were happy.

Time then for a quick stop at the dump to watch the hundreds of White Storks, Black-headed Gulls, Black Kites and Cattle Egrets (about a hundred of which rose up to float along side the car as we drove through) to fight it out over luncheon scraps.  A lone Red Kite made a last gasp attempt to get the 'raptor of the day' award as it descended over the car but an amazing assault of a Merlin on a passing Barn Swallow, failing in four attempts to tuck in to a late lunch, had already won that hands down.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

March Birding Break, Catalonia, Spain

March 17th - 23rd 2008 - Full Week Tour

"Thank you for a wonderful week. Great birds, great lunches and a beautiful area.  We liked staying in one place and not having to pack up every night."

Younga Hennesey, Edwin Mayer, USA

17th March 2008 - The Llobregat Delta

A couple of hours at The Llobregat Delta after the hotel pick-up saw the now usual Black-winged Stilts, Garganey, Greater Flamingoes and a host of waders on the thankfully exposed muddy borders to the reserve's lagoons.  A close flock of about 40 Balearic Shearwaters and a floating Audouin's Gull from Cal Frances beach were quite superb but a single brand-new, brightly coloured male Common Redstart near the entrance barrier took some beating.

18th March 2008 - The Ebro Delta

From an early welcome by a male Peregrine as we made our way to L'Encanyissada, on The Ebro Delta, a flood of tireless Sand Martins and Barn Swallows provided a backdrop throughout the day.   Other spring arrivals included Garganey, Purple Heron, Willow Warbler and a handful of Spanish iberiae Yellow Wagtail with one particularly yellow individual really standing out against a bank of dark sticky mud.

Thankfully there was enough of this stuff about to attract 16 species of waders, all in good numbers, with even a single pink Water Pipit stepping between the toes of a small gathering of Little Ringed Pover and Green and Common Sandpipers.

The light phase Booted Eagle that stayed over winter made a few appearances during the day including hovering over Riet Vell where, for the day's highlight, two ABSOLUTELY SUPERB Little Crakes tip-toed lightly over floating vegetation for repeated viewings and photo calls.

A small flock of Lesser Short-toed Larks, the resident and presumed Western Reef Heron x Little Egret and a solitary Red-breasted Merganser all provided a little excitement around La Tancada.

At Les Olles, about 40 Whiskered Tern, all in winter plumage, hawked over the lagoon with a soon-to-depart still-bluey Bluethroat making us work for a decent view in the reeds there and a singing Moustached Warbler eventually doing likewise.  The nearby Golero hosted Glossy Ibis, both Slender-billed and Audouin's Gulls and a small group of very showy Caspian Tern finally settled down for a snooze.

19th March 2008 - The Pyrenees (plus Garraf)

In The Pyrenees, relentless rainfall and heavy snow scuppered our chances of bagging a few Pyrenean species to add to our growing list but we did use the occasional breaks to watch the bird life around a tributary of the river Llobregat.  Rock Bunting, Blackcap, Wren, Grey and White Wagtail and Willow Warbler all did their best to cheer us up but we were more than happy watching the comings and goings of no less than three (White-throated) Dippers apparently nest-building under the eaves of a bridge.

A Red Kite sailed over the car en route home to The Garraf where we enjoyed the local Red-legged Partridges and watched the Siskin and Crested Tits on the garden feeders.

20th March 2008 - Garraf Massif, Llobregat Delta

The morning couldn't have started better with the year's first gleaming black-throated form of the Black-eared Wheatear perched on top of a pruned grape vine.  Nearby Cirl Bunting, Spotless Starling, Rock Sparrow and a host of finches, wagtails and other passerines kept us busy until we headed off to the newest addition to the chain of birding spots in the Llobregat Delta.

After being welcomed by a streaky Squacco Heron - Ed's bird of the week - we discovered that the long-staying White-fronted Goose was staying a little longer, along with two male Wigeon.  A pinkish Water Pipit joined a small school of waders (Ringed Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt and a gloriously close Black-tailed Godwit) picking morsels from the water's edge.

In the centre of the lagoon both Common and Red-crested Pochard dived for dinner whilst a Kingfisher did likewise from a overhanging reed on the border.  A stunning golden-lined Purple Heron then landed right in front of us - with a wriggling terrapin in its bill!

At another nearby spot a blood-red crab similarly fell victim to a Glossy Ibis which proceded to peel off its legs before gulping the rest down in one go!  Meanwhile, another first for the year apparently struggled on to find a snake or two as a Short-toed Eagle hovered over almost every section of the reserve.

21st March 2008 - The Steppes of Lleida

Where to start?  From the moment we arrived in The Steppes and stopped next to a Calandra lark, perched singing a few feet away, we never stopped.  A few worried moments ensued after discovering the three key steppe species were not in 'their usual places' but a handful of Stone-curlew, a few small flocks of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and a gathering of 14 Little Bustard all thrilled - at very close range - after a little improvisation.

In the meantime we added a good number of cackling Great Spotted Cuckoo, a couple of Southern Grey Shrike, an Alpine Swift and re-located three of the wintering Dotterel in the area.  A Little Owl watched on as a flock of Jackdaws saw off a Common Buzzard and nearby both forms of Black-eared Wheatear mixed it with many of their Northern Wheatear cousins.  After a brief chase, we even added a pair of Black Wheatear to complete the set.  All the larks including Thekla and Lesser Short-toed Larks were plentiful for comparisons and, yet again, the local dump provided a theatrical display, with one Red Kite in particular refusing to give up its lunch despite the dive-bombing attentions of two of the dozens and dozens of Black Kites dispersed across the waste site.

My moment of the day though was driving through several hundred Cattle Egret that rose up simultaneously to float along side the car before a handful of Lesser Kestrels were finally found towards Los Monegros.

22nd March 2008 - The Aiguamolls de L'Emporda

I have often called The Aiguamolls de L'Emporda a mini-Catalunya all in itself and so it proved, with almost all habitats represented.  Two steppe-land Stone-curlew stared at us from a fallow field as we arrived and, at the end of the day, a quite superb Great Spotted Cuckoo sat out in an open leafless tree. 

Many species we'd seen at the other wetland sites were of course here too but one particular rice-field in the heart of the Cortalet resort allowed us views of many wader species close enough to do without binoculars.  A Red Knot trying to hide its relative bulk amongst a flock of twenty Dunlin that swooped in late in the day was the highlight.  With such a good week behind us, it proved to be one of only four new species for the day, the others being Tufted Duck, Mute Swan and Cetti's Warbler (which we had only heard).  Although we did find two marvellous cinerocapilla Yellow Wagtails among the parties of the local iberiae race.

Seeing everything again gave my American clients the chance for plenty of ID practice of course but even better was watching the birds do new things.  A crab-eating Yellow-legged Gull hoarding its prize, nest-building White Storks, tap-dancing Little Ringed Plover and two immature Great Cormorants playing tug-of-war with a stick were amongst those that entertained us until the threat of rain eventually sent us packing just in time to avoid the deluge.

23rd March 2008 - The Garraf

So few species were left on my clients' wish list after a great week that they decided to take the afternoon off but we began the morning looking for one that had avoided us, the Dartford Warbler.  We were rewarded almost immediately with sunlit choristers on the bankside of the Puig d'Aliga on the edge of the Foix park.

After adding Sparrowhawk to the weeks' list, we stumbled upon a stunning male Sub-alpine Warbler  making no attempt to hide amongst the brambles outside a local farm house.  Nearby a usual stop produced a reliable but, on this occasion, distant Bonelli's Eagle soaring through the white clouds above the Garraf's peaks.  It was close enough at least to see that it was an adult though.

Three Hoopoe, a flock of Alpine Swift and a steady flow of tits, finches and thrushes kept the morning rolling until a pair of Long-tailed Tit earned the weeks' trip a final total of 158 species, a very pleasing reward for a birding holiday in early Spring.