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, 30 April 2011

April in Catalonia: The migrants just keep coming!

April 2010 - Catalonia, Spain

"It was well worth putting up with the nausea on the ferry to get the fantastic week's birding that you organised!!"  Sandra Davies, UK

April began where March left off with this Spotted Crake and at least one Little Crake still present on The Llobregat Delta as I write on the 13th.  And I also had three Little Crakes (one male) in The Aiguamolls de L'Emporda on the 12th.

I had my first local Common Cuckoo in The Garraf Massis on the 1st and, from that moment, the chain of first arrivals around Barcelona has brought Pied Flycatcher and Little Bittern (3rd), Collared Pratincole (6th, photo below), Great Reed Warbler and Wood Warbler (9th), and Bee-eater, Nightingale and an (unremarkable) Siberian Chiffchaff, sub-species tristis, singing on the 10th.  This photo was taken by Ferran Lopez Sanz, who discovered it the day before.

Garganey, Common Redstart, Northern Wheatear, various heads of Yellow Wagtail and thousands of waders including Temminck's Stint and Marsh Sandpiper, have continued to hang around and pass through, with a high count of 600 Little Gull off the coast of Barcelona throughout the second week of April especially worth a mention.  As is the presumably last Gannet diving off the Garraf coast on the 3rd.

The 17th proved to be the day of the year I always look forward to, when two year-first Ortolan Bunting fed a few metres away as I nibbled on a sandwich in the Garraf Hills.  And two days later, on the 19th, a late Chaffinch, a couple of Bonelli's Eagles and finally, after searching the whole 10,000 km2 of the Natural Park, this lone Turtle Dove was found sat in a tree by my house!


This very approachable Great Spotted Cuckoo captured on the Llobregat on 9th, joins a host of species such as Purple Heron, Red-rumped Swallow, Bonelli's Warbler, Woodchat Shrike and Whiskered Tern that have all settled themselves in by now.  Squacco Heron, Black-eared Wheatear and Sub-alpine Warbler, which always sets the blood racing, are still trickling into the region.

And a thrilling day on the 22nd, when I had to enlist the help of the local warden to fast-jeep me across the Ca L'Arana beach to a viewing tower where I watched in awe as more than 150 Yelkouan Shearwater were circling and feeding in two loose groups low over the Mediterranean.  They were joined on the fringes by a handful of Common Scoter and, amongst the throngs, a half-dozen Northern Gannets and a pirating Arctic Skua!  And all that just after a passing male Ferruginous Duck had been picked out through a gap in the reeds.  One of the best hours of the year so far!

Nest-building Penduline Tit, more Bonelli's Eagle (including an immature), frisky Black Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush competing for rock space and singing Moustached Warbler all fight not to be upstaged by the new arrivals whilst some, like the summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe below, merely change their outfit to attract attention.  A terrible photo but what a bird this is.

This Lesser Kestrel above, along with Black Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Black-eared Wheatear and Spectacled Warbler, had all established themselves by the time I made my first Spring visit to The Steppes on the 8th April, with a pair of the latter even nest-building.

But the highlight today was the real reason for my visit and a day-time singing (as they usually do at this site) Dupont's Lark, walking along the path in front of me, would have kept me smiling for the rest of the day even if I hadn't also had the usual Little Bustard, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Black-belied Sandgrouse, all in the same field at one point, along with Stone-curlew and year-first Short-toed Lark and Whinchat.

However, a return trip on 15th April, besides a pair of year-first passing Tree Pipit, witnessed the remarkable scene of a pair of displaying Black-shouldered Kite with the birds even disappearing into a nearby likely-looking tree.  Subsequent events were to reveal possibly three breeding pairs for the region and a very promising outlook for the future.


A trip to the Aiguamolls, on the 12th, saw six Collared Pratincole and three Egyptian Geese sitting out the rain on El Mata, where I also found 12 Whimbrel, a pair of Little Crake and, overhead, a constant string of hundreds and hundreds of Common Swifts heading north.  Along the edges, apparently uninterested in my soaking appearance standing before them, Sedge Warbler (below), Moustached Warbler, Sub-alpine Warbler and a solitary Linnet all sang their hearts out oblivious.

Two Nightingale were singing, or practicing at least, in other parts of the reserve, one at Cortalet, with a nearby year-first Melodious Warbler doing likewise and a Wryneck joined in briefly.  On the water, a pair of Northern Lapwing and a few Eurasian Wigeon put in a reminder for winter but a lone rare Ferruginous Duck stole the show.

Finally, a quick stop off at the Estany Europa produced yet another Little Crake and a single Marsh Sandpiper and a Rose-ringed Parakeet cawing.

But I wasn't able to return for the regular passage of Red-throated Pipit (below) in the north of Catalunya until the 20th, when at least six birds were present, with the show continuing at least until the 26th.

The other main year-first target for the 20th was the Western Orphean Warbler, which was easily located on every trip through the summer in The Cap de Creus from this day forth.  Today, I was saved a bit of leg work with two competing birds singing close to the car.  And another highlight for the day was around 100 Balearic Shearwater active around the Cap itself.

Two end-of-the-month trips to The Pyrenees, on the 28th and 30th, produced not only the usual bag of Lammergeier, Citril Finch, Alpine Chough, Black Woodpecker, Honey-buzzard, etc. but good numbers of year-first (Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush.

And sandwiched between them, on the 29th in The Ebro Delta, quite remarkably my only White-winged Tern of the year!!  What's going on?

"Thanks for a great day's birding, especially the two Bonelli's species.  We'll be in touch again."

Derek Gifford and Janet Hale, UK

"Got home on Saturday and am now reading through my Spanish bird lists with a big grin on my face.
A big thank you again for the best introduction to European birding - I'm hooked now!  Simply cannot decide on the best day of the week; every trip offered something unique."

Sandra Davies, UK (April and May)

"What more could I add to what Sandra wrote!  My feelings were very similar.  If I had to pick two destinations it would be the Pyrenees and the Steppes, however the birding on the coast and elsewhere was brilliant!  So no favourite then."
John Maddock, UK (April and May)

April in The Steppes, Catalonia, Spain

April 2009 - The Steppes of Lleida and Los Monegros

"You gave us lots of options, answered emails promptly and put yourself out for us.
On the day we were thrilled to see so many new birds in such a short space of time, without causing them any significant disturbance. You clearly knew the area very well and took us to the best places. It was fascinating to not just tick off the 'lifers' but to learn about the birds and understand them. The star bird was the Black Wheatear, but the Great Spotted Cuckoo was special and the eagle above the petrol station was a wonderful end to a memorable day."

David and Carol Bradley, UK, Guided Birding Day Tour

Drizzzzzle all the way along the AP2 en route to THE STEPPES OF LLEIDA on the first day of the month had the unavoidable effect of lowering our expectations but Catalonia thankfully has a knack for ignoring such negativity, even in the amounts given off by three cynical Brits, and we were immediately rewarded upon our arrival with several quite lovely flocks of white Cattle Egret against the dark grey sky, welcoming us and tempting us to follow.

Follow we would, but later.  They were on their way to the municipal dump for breakfast and, as usual, I had to earn mine by first finding at least one of the area's three key steppe species to watch while I ate.  As it turned out we got two for the price of one as a pair of Stone-curlew flushed up to land in a nearby field and spooked a single male Little Bustard, who settled in cover but no more than a skip and a jump from it's point of take-off.

If they do this, rather than flying away, it usually means a territory has already been established so I knew it wasn't going anywhere and we pointed the scope at the two nervous Eurasian Thick-knees, as the world has rather annoyingly started to call Burhinus oedicnemus, and David and Carol excitedly gulped down their first ever sighting, big yellow eyes and all.  I gulped down my coffee and cookies and kept my big brown eyes on where the Little Bustard landed.

Before long the wailing of the Stone-curlew was joined by the quick ventriloqual fart-raspberry of the Little Bustard and we were able to pick him out and watch on like voyeurs, a sight that was thankfully to be repeated throughout the month with up to six territorial males in this fragment of pseudo-steppe.   After pecking off seeds from the neck-high weeds, he began to swell up his throat and throw back his head, letting out his peculiar flatulent nuptial noise in his attempt to lure a female, but during the time we were there he had no obvious success.  No, it doesn't work with me either.

Not wanting to risk too much disturbance at this time of year, we left him with his disappointment and headed off, accompanied by the sight and soundtrack of chinkling Calandra Lark, to one of this season's 'likely' fields for the last of the magic three.  Magic indeed, as the first stop and the first scan revealed no less then four pairs of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse grouped together and motionless twenty metres from the car, invisible to the naked eye but glorious in their colourful camouflage once three sets of binoculars were pointed in their direction.

It only took a couple of minutes for them to habitualise to us and proceed to walk the short steps their specially-adapted short legs would allow, picking off seeds from weeds just as the Little Bustard had.  They froze momentarily as a ring-tail Hen Harrier flapped and zig-zagged its way over and again we managed to leave them without flushing, an important consideration given their precarious breeding status in the area.  For the record, a maximum of twenty-six Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, mostly in pairs or evenly sexed flocks, were counted during April 2009.

By the 16th, this flushed Montagu's Harrier, looking back at the photographer, had not only replaced the wintering Hen Harrier but had also been seen on every visit, sometimes in the apparent company of a female.  After last year's almost total absence in this patch I'm hopeful that they will stick around to repeat the success of 2007.

Back on the 1st, the Hen Harrier seemed to track us through the day giving us many thrilling encounters but a miserable Common Buzzard perched in a tree-top bode warning of a poor-weather day, short on raptors.  However, like the harriers, not all birds of prey are built for gliding and soaring and a spectacular Osprey passed over head to our delight, especially as we'd already added Red-billed Chough, Red-legged Partridge and, moments before, three Western Bonelli's Warbler.

Almost to the day the year before, we'd had an Osprey at nearby Utxesa lake and so a visit here was planned for the day anyway but a second was too much to ask for and we had to 'settle' for Alpine Swift, Southern Grey Shrike and four Red-rumped Swallow sharing the restricted airspace above the reeds with their numerous Barn Swallow and House Martin cousins.

This feeding frenzy reminded us of lunch and we tucked in and reflected on the mornings highlights, which included White Stork, Red Kite and Black Kite at the dump, a truly beautiful male Marsh Harrier and a passage Blue-headed, flava, Yellow Wagtail whilst making comparisons between the local Crested Lark and Thekla Lark.

But the moment of the morning for me had been all three of us tracking the curious cackling erupting from some pines in the Alfes timoneda.  We lost count as perhaps more than six Great Spotted Cuckoo repeatedly broke cover and, always in pairs, sprinted low over the grassy field between the tree cover on opposite boundaries.  With a little patience and some manouvering we feasted on fantastic telescope views of three particularly helpful birds, one of which possessed a black rather than the grey head of the adult.  Unlikely to be a juvenile so early anyway but a little more patience confirmed a lack of burned orange in the wing indicating it was a first summer individual.

And all this whilst four Hoopoe chased each other around seemingly unable to decide who was with whom for the summer.

As we reached Cogul, after seeing yet more Little Owl sunning themselves on the way, the skies had begun to clear, increasing our hopes of seeing the local breeding Short-toed Eagle.  Mean time a short walk into the sunshine brought out lots of Linnet, a pair of Blue Rock Thrush and the day's second Black-eared Wheatear, again the white-throated form.  A stunning pair of resident Black Wheatear also obliged and completed the set as passage Northern Wheatear had already been recorded earlier in the day.

And finally we were indeed gifted great views of a Short-toed Eagle - but not until we were halfway home and an awesome individual sailed right over the car as I was filling up with petrol!

The local bird, however, proved more helpful on all five of my other April visits, on 5th, 11th, when the picture below was taken, 16th, 20th and 21st.

These visits also included the nearby LOS MONEGROS, targetted for Black-bellied Sandgrouse and, continuing the positive theme, were seen in numbers (max. 40), active and frolicking on all but one (brief) search.  The weather during the month was pretty awful to say the least, not necessarily putting off the birds, as the soaking wet Pin-tailed Sandgrouse below will testify, but making birding slightly less enjoyable, and harder work, than usual.

But in the end, after the apparent shock-wave of last year's agricultural upheaval (following the termination of subsidies for ecologically vital set-aside land), it was a month full of hope, as things seemed to have settled back into the struggle of normalcy, with numbers of displaying Little Bustard up on the previous year, sandgrouse just about holding their own and both Montagu's Harrier and Common Quail (finally seen after countless invisible tempters on 16th, and again on 21st) returning to at least give it a go.  Plenty of Red-rumped Swallow too, even away from their known and localised breeding spots. 

But in a rather magical moment whilst watching a first-winter Golden Eagle being mobbed by two Raven I shushed my two clients and allowed my apparent imagination to materialise into not one but two singing Dupont's Lark, no further than ten metres from the car, in a location I'd never heard them before and at 11.30 in the morning [and this site has since proved very reliable - Stephen, 2011].

Other notables included returning Penduline Tit and Golden Oriole on the 16th, several singing Spectacled Warblers around Los Monegros throughout the month and a sun-soaked break in the rain on the 11th that provided the year firsts of Bee-eater (top photo), Tawny Pipit and singing NightingaleHobby, however, was rather oddly not seen until two birds on 21st.

Thanks to Michael Cox for supplying photos from his trip on the 11th.  More - and better quality if wet! - photos, together with his full account of his three-day birding trip, can be seen on Michael's Blog.  And, if you're interested, the Spring Itineraries can be viewed here.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Client Trip Report: April Day Tour (Barcelona)

3rd April 2010: The Llobregat Delta and Garraf Massis by Derek Gifford & Janet Hale (UK)

This was a guided day's birding with Stephen Christopher who runs Catalan Bird Tours. We began the day at The Llobregat Delta which is a well-organised and designated wetland nature reserve.

Many of 'our' common UK species were present of course which aren't mentioned here because I wanted to concentrate on some of the speciality birds and our first annual sightings of a number of migrants.

One of the first birds heard was Cetti's Warbler but here, instead of the usual 'heard only' status we had good sightings of a number of individuals. Serin were also much in evidence and seen and heard throughout the reserve.

The first migrant we recorded was a fine male Common Redstart followed by a number of Barn Swallow and Common Swift. Other Redstarts were seen later. Sardinian Warbler were also noted although not in large numbers.

The first of the rarer species seen was a Little Crake which constituted an addition to my European list. Although a little elusive at first it eventually showed very well. More numerous were the Zitting Cisticola (I still think that the old name of Fan-tailed Warbler is better!), which were singing and displaying giving excellent views.  Purple Swamphen were also much in evidence making a nice addition to the more common rails etc. that were present.

The next migrants to be noted were House Martin and White Wagtail followed by overflying Yellow Wagtail. We were able to study a variety of sub-species of the latter from one of the hides. These included the nominate Blue-headed flava race from central Europe, flavissima race for the UK and the iberiae for Spain. One of the Italian race cinereocapilla was also present although I wasn't sure that I could identify it as well as Stephen did!

Black-winged Stilt were good to see here, as were a number of Garganey with them. The latter were much more obliging than the ones we see in Britain as they came out into the open water to feed and I was able to take a few 'long shots' of them with the camera. Other common duck species were noted as well as 2 Little Ringed Plover and 2 Green Sandpiper both of which were year ticks for me, all viewed from the extensive hide.

Migrant warblers noted included a 'heard only' Reed Warbler as well as other common ones. On leaving the second hide Stephen heard and spotted a Western Bonelli's Warbler which gave very good views of its very pale underside and a snatch of song reminiscent of the opening notes of wood warbler. Definite ID and a lifer for me!

The next lifer was found along the river estuary where a roost of Audouin's Gull was seen. These handsome gulls were a delight to see as the species was one of my 'must see' larus species. They didn't disappoint.

On the long walk round to bring us back to the reserve reception area we had a brief view of a Little Bittern which was another addition to my European list. A couple of Spotless Starling just outside the reserve were the last highlighted species seen. This is a superb reserve and we saw only a half of it!

We then drove to The Garraf Massis to look for Black Wheatear and it wasn't long before we found both a male and female on the rocky cliffs. Also here were a pair of Blue Rock Thrush making it two lifers in a matter of minutes. The male treated us to a quick sing too. More year ticks were obtained when we saw brief views of Northern Wheatear and Black Redstart. Another Sardinian Warbler and a Peregrine Falcon completed the list on this brief visit.

We finished off the day with a couple of short walks in the high sierras of the Garraf Natural Park looking for eagles and wheatears. On the way we noted Stonechat (another year tick!), Woodchat Shrike (we'd already seen one of these in Barcelona earlier), swallows including a Red-rumped Swallow and a Short-toed Treecreeper, the call of which I heard for the first time - very loud and very different from 'our' treecreeper. A female Pied Flycatcher was also noted during the drive up to the high tops.

It was the second of the walks that produced at least one of the target species in the form of Bonelli's Eagle with a pair flying close enough to 'scope. This meant that I'd seen both species named after the Italian ornithologist Bonelli on the same day!

Just to add to the list, while waiting for the eagles, we found a Thekla Lark which gave good views. The eagles were the most difficult of the species to find for the day and we weren't able to find the hoped for black-eared wheatears but a Dartford Warbler gave me another year tick on the way back from the walk.

We recorded over 80 species in the day which, considering we visited only three habitats and were too early in the year (by a few days only) for a number of other interesting migrant species, was an excellent total which included 5 lifers and a few European ticks for me.

A red letter day's birding. Thanks Stephen!