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

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Come what May in the Aiguamolls and Cap de Creus

May 2009 - The Aiguamolls de L'Emporda and The Cap de Creus

“Many thanks once again for a fantastic holiday.”

Liz and Mike Bunting, UK (23 May - 3 June 2009)

A day for firsts.  The first of the month marked the first pleasure-only, leisure-only, responsibility-free, non-working birding day for more than a little while.  Even a friend, who I'd arranged to meet for a lazy day chasing come-what-may in The Aiguamolls de L'Emporda and The Cap de Creus, had been given strict instructions not to ask for any targets.  'O.K.,' he'd e-mailed back totally empathising with my outlook on the day, 'but it would be nice to see Orphean Warbler, Ortolan Bunting, Red-throated Pipit, Wryneck and Marsh Sandpiper.'  'And I wouldn't mind Roller or Red-rumped Swallow.'

In truth, I too was out to get my self a few year-firsts, some of those aforementioned included, but as I sat in the thankfully-lonely hide at Vilaut at 0720, I had already achieved my main objective for the day.  This 'close', Catalan for a pasture surrounded by trees, that floods naturally in perfect time to attract passing waders, terns and others, is my favourite place in the world to be alone.  I poured my self a coffee, opened up a packet of 'Chips Ahoy' cookies and settled down to begin the scan - if I was working, it would have been the other way around.

I'd already walked under a flock of bubbling European Bee-eater, made eye-to-eye contact with a Nightingale and received a warm welcome from a Reed Warbler posted at the hide door before a flock of paddling White Stork, three Greenshank and smatterings of Mallard made up the precursory glance as I perched my self in excited expectation ready to pan from right to left.  I didn't care what I saw, I told my self, but this was the place of many lifers over the ten years I've been coming, not least of which was a small flock of never-to-be-forgotten Red-throated Pipit busying themselves beneath the lip of the hide window, so I'm not sure I was entirely convincing, or convinced.

The silhouette of a Wood Sandpiper stepped first into the water and then into the light, a male Garganey shared some synchronised up-ending with a pair of moulting Common Teal and a Common Cuckoo was, peacefully, the only soundtrack.  At least until my phone bipped with a text that read, 'I'll be there in ten minutes.'  The white hook on the neck of a Northern Pintail caught my eye as it preened in the shallows and a single apparently cold Collared Pratincole just sat there, even when the sun glowed across the water to bathe it in orange and even when I left, nearly two hours later, in the company of said friend.

Although famed for the unexpected and unpredictable, Vilaut is a reliable site for the (this year, very) late-arriving Roller and as we neared the track's end, the familiar rowing action flapped across our bows and landed in a conveniently leafless tree.  A furtive Garden Warbler was betrayed by a mischievous relative, as a singing Sardinian Warbler first attracted our attention to it, and provided a second year-first in as many minutes.

Little more than ten minutes later and we exited the car on the edge of the Cap de Creus National Park and a little under ten paces later were marvelling at a stationary Western Orphean Warbler singing loudly from the underhang branches of an adjacent cork oak.  Reliable site this.  Usually for Wryneck too, and two more Orphean Warblers later, we heard one kreeching, kestrel-like and made our way over carefully to track it.  No luck.  It didn't call again and our chance had fled.

Stopping along the way, we picked off Pied Flycatcher, Cirl Bunting and almost unprecedented numbers of Greenfinch, seemingly craving our attention as much as the warmth as they perched in the shafts of sunlight piercing the shady canopy of the surrounding pines. 

Upon reaching another favourite spot, I was momentarily surprised to see space where usually there was scrub, or maquis.  However, my joy, at witnessing the apparent start of an active clearance programme to combat the dominance of the maquis and its encroachment into the open spaces many birds depend upon, disappeared as sure as the birds themselves as I noticed the rows and rows of recently planted sapling trees.  Man has become so good at preventing the regeneration caused by natural fires that, just as in the Garraf where such burn back hasn't happened for nearly thirty years!, many species such as Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Tawny Pipit and Spectacled Warbler are struggling to keep a foothold.

As if to emphasise the value of re-creating these open spaces, however unintentional in this case, the enchanting and enigmatic short-song of an Ortolan Bunting was quickly tracked to reveal two stunning males frolicking amongst the torn up roots and newly-exposed dirt and, when one flew to the dead branch of an old tree to sing again, its yellow throat lit up in the sunshine and swelled as if it was going to burst.  For some reason, the optimism flooded back.

This was my fourth year-first of the day so far, the late-season arrival of three of them inspiring this trip in the first place.  Targets five and six, however, were passage visitors only and both were reaching the end of their respective windows of opportunity.

So imagine my excitement when, almost written-off, not one but two wonderfully sleak, needle-billed Marsh Sandpiper were the first birds I was drawn to amongst the train-station-like throngs criss-crossing over the shallows of El Mata back in the Aiguamolls.  Dwarfed by the Common Redshank, Ruff and Black-winged Stilt, it was a breathe-in-and-savour-it thrill to see their black-spotted plumage so close and watch them slalem their way gracefully between the legs and bodies of their taller rivals.

I was hooked for the next sometime-and-more - truly one of my all-time favourite birds - and confess to paying scant attention to the Red Knot, Spotted Redshank, Grey Plover and the rest, until the tick-tock of time, a.k.a. birding friend, tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Don't forget you promised me a Red-throated Pipit.'

For year-first number six and a full set for the day, we strolled over to and along the edges of the adjacent field to scour the patch and each blade of grass where Red-throated Pipit are seen each and every year.  Indeed a flock of twenty-one and many more sightings had been reported recently so our expectations of getting the sometimes-binoculars-down views of arms-reach birds began to rise... and then fall.  All twenty-one and their mates were obviously in hiding.  And after a few minutes, where became apparrent as a single dark-throated bird rose vertically up from the mass of impenetrable carpet of grass, drawing-out a diagnostic call of mischief, before teasing a iberiae Yellow Wagtail off a bordering fence-post and settling down back into obscurity.

Very unsatisfactory.  But after the leisurely day-off of relaxing, responsibility-free birding I'd had, I wasn't complaining.  Not one bit.  Roll on the rest of May and roll on the getting back to work.

Finally, as the Roller showed up again to see us off back at our respective cars near Vilaut, we also got the Red-rumped Swallow skimming the crop-tops in an adjacent field.

24th May, 2009

My optimism regarding the Ortolan Bunting proved founded as the two males were still singing in exactly the same place on my only other trip to the region this month.  Lots of Red-rumped Swallow too, well spread across the Cap de Creus National Park and very encouraging as this species is still rather localised in Catalonia.

Western Orphean Warbler continued to show well, particularly a marvellous pair singing and playing right by the car as we drank coffee, and its cousin, the Melodious Warbler, seemed to post singing sentinels everywhere we went.  Wryneck at last improved on its rather poor showing so far this year with two heard calling and one seen well close to a good spot for Dartford Warbler.

Over a dozen immature Shag and a spectacular pair of Honey-buzzard over the car proved to be the only additions over the trip from the first of the month but the mean time, whilst not quite drying up the water in El Mata in the Aiguamolls, certainly saw a reduction in wetland species overall, signalling the beginning of the end of the migration season and the start of getting down to breeding business.  A pair of Mute Swan chasing a Eurasian Spoonbill out of their patch of water confirmed the process was well under way.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

A Birding Holiday in Catalonia, Spain (May 2010)

Plus a few extra May days...

A hefty total of 217 species recorded in 24 birding days this month, including 21 raptors, 23 wading birds, 13 gulls and terns, and 18 warblers - so I'll wrap this attempted summary conveniently around Vicky and James King's birding break, and the amazing photos James took between 11th - 17th May 2010.  Many more of his photos, uncropped and much better quality, can be seen here: James King Gallery


Let's kick off with my own personal favourite that dropped in after some night-rain on the morning of 11th May.

The photo above is clearly a Western Yellow Wagtail but, even on first sighting I was captivated by the dark olive-green head that stood out in the low morning sunlight as it worked its way bobbing between the blades of grass outside the hide on The Llobregat Delta.  A black-headed, or feldegg sub-species, one would suppose - but their heads are usually, er, black.

For comparison, see this classic example of a Black-headed Wagtail (Motacilla flava feldegg) from our trip to The Pyrenees on 14th...

... and, quite remarkably, we had a second green-headed version by the car in The Aiguamolls de L'Emporda on 15th May and, again, it was so unusual that it took a long, long time before we could draw ourselves away from it.  Well, if anyone has any ideas... feel free to post a remark or send me an email.

Back in the real world at Llobregat, this Eurasian Coot scrap was a thriller, going on for more than some minutes with this assassin's repeated attempts to drown a presumed rival and it eventually involving four birds.

Two very late Garganey was an encouraging sign, even if they were both males, and indeed news later in the year confirmed Catalonia's first breeding pair for some time, although this was at Vilaut, Aiguamolls.

Little Bittern, Squacco Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Great Crested Grebe, Purple Swamphen, Collared Pratincole, Eurasian Oystercatcher (first time breeding!), Pied Avocet, Audouin's Gull, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole and this Great Reed Warbler, above, made up the regulars on Barcelona's Llobregat Delta, whilst the day's migrants included European Roller, Garden Warbler and Pied Flycatcher.

Other May Llobregat Birds: Northern Gannet, Temminck's Stint, Eurasian Nightjar, Caspian Tern, Red-rumped Swallow, Wood Warbler and Common Waxbill.

12th May 2010 - EBRO DELTA

Many of the same species as above, of course, including this Purple Heron below, can be seen on the Ebro Delta, where the Kings and I headed on the 12th, but it's not every time that you get to witness one in an almighty struggle with a highly resistant Ladder Snake (I think).  A full photo-series on James' link above.

A total of 8 species of heron can be seen easily at this time of year on the Ebro Delta, Europe's third most important wetland, including Little Bittern and this Squacco Heron, showing a blue-ish bill in breeding plumage ...

... with other high-priority target species being Caspian Tern, Greater Flamingo, Glossy Ibis, Purple Swamphen...

... Gull-billed Tern, Slender-billed Gull and this Audouin's Gull...

... not to forget land birds, including the very localised Savi's Warbler, and the rather enigmatic and somewhat unique Collared Pratincole (below), which for some reason didn't seem to have a good year on the Ebro Delta this year (but excelled at Delta de Llobregat) ...

Other May Ebro Delta Birds: similar to Llobregat Delta above.

13th May 2010 - STEPPES OF LLEIDA (Catalonia) and LOS MONEGROS (Aragon)

May is a good time for the speciality target species such as Little Bustard, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Stone-curlew, unfortunately good photos of them were not forthcoming today.

However, I did manage this Red-necked Nightjar taken in a regular spot a few days earlier [and now forms the back drop to this blog].

Males often have several day time roost spots, occupied when the female is sitting, so they can be hard to pick up.  But actually, its mate is sat close-by, just out of frame.

James' picture of this stubborn car-side adult Great Spotted Cuckoo that just wouldn't budge demonstrates quite typical behaviour for this species, which lays its eggs in Magpie nests, and photos like this are not too difficult to come by.

The same cannot be said for European Roller however with birds usually taking flight just before the camera shutter clicks.  To make up for it though, they are sometimes seen in pairs carrying out their 'rolling' display.

Another easy one, European Bee-eater.  Very common and often returns to the same perch.

This Iberian (or Southern) Grey Shrike, Lanius meridionalis, below, can be told from its European (Great Grey) counterpart with relative ease by the pink flush to the lower parts and a white eye-stripe that crosses and meets over the bill.

One of my all-time favourites turned out to be a May regular.  The ghostly Black-Shouldered Kite (still nesting!) flies like an owl and hovers like a kestrel.

Others worth a mention are:

Egyptian Vulture, Golden Eagle, Booted Eagle, Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Spectacled Warbler, Common Quail, Black Wheatear, Black-eared Wheatear and nest-building Penduline Tit.

Bonelli's Eagle
, European Honey-buzzard and Dupont's Lark only occasionally made the list, although the latter of course is to be expected without specialised early-morning trips, but Thekla Lark, Calandra Lark (below)...

Lesser Short-toed Lark and Short-toed Lark (below) were amongst those making sure the family were well-represented.

14th May 2010 - PYRENEES

Almost standard stock in May for the Catalan Pyrenees, in the province of Barcelona, include the almost mythical Lammergeier, as well as other raptors, and the much-asked-for flocks of Citril Finch, the somewhat contradictory (Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush (they really don't seem to like the weather at altitude) and the hugely impressive Black Woodpecker.

But, although by nature there are less species in mountain woodlands, some, such as Firecrest, Crested Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper, Red Crossbill, Western Bonelli's Warbler (above) and Bullfinch (below), present enough challenges to easily fill in the day and so it proved on the 14th.

Typically, the charming Alpine Chough (poorly photographed by me below), are often to be found noisily mixing with their Red-billed Chough cousins, when you should listen out for the most un-corvid-like sound you're ever likely to hear. 

Along with Red-backed Shrike, (White-throated) Dipper, Rock Bunting and Nuthatch, they rarely disappoint but sightings of Wryneck, Ring Ouzel and Egyptian Vulture are less predictable.

Grey Partridge is quite rare for Catalunya and a small family group seen on the 24th proved to be the only May sighting.


The Kings decided not make the full Cap de Creus trip, all the way to the Cap itself, but on the 15th we did manage an early morning jaunt through some song-filled woodland within the park, picking up lots of passerines but especially targeting the noisy and characterful Western Orphean Warbler.

A steady stream of European Honey-buzzard passed overhead and, despite the usual confusion between it and the Common Buzzard, I defy anyone to have doubts over this classic example above.

A little higher up we added Pallid Swift and our next target, Ortolan Bunting, didn't prove too difficult either, with a belligerent singing male ignoring the wind with more success than we did.

Back at the Aiguamolls reserve in the lowlands, where many species are obviously similar to the other wetlands we'd already visited, we satisfied ourselves with better views and better photographs of some, such as these Eurasian Spoonbill above.

From other May trips to these north-eastern locations in the Emporda, Balearic Shearwater, Garganey and Northern Lapwing are all worth a mention.


The Kings spent the 16th and the morning of the 17th exploring deeper into the Garraf Hills where we enjoyed tracking down Bonelli's Eagle, Hobby, Dartford Warbler and Red-necked Nightjar, compared Pallid, Alpine and Common Swifts and watched a male Peregrine Falcon suddenly rise from his ocean-side perch, drop like a stone and, in a flash, grab a Crag Martin no more than one metre from the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.  His larger mate sauntered over momentarily but, unimpressed by the size of the catch, she returning condescendingly to her own perch.

A final quick-stop back at Llobregat, where we began the trip, proved to tie things up nicely with a little deja-vue - Western Yellow Wagtails, this time iberiae sub-species, drawing the attention again, and fighting in almost the same spot as the coots!

Other May GARRAF birds:

Temminck's Stint and Balearic Shearwater on and from Vilanova beach respectively.  My first Garraf Common Quail.  And evening trips to see displaying and singing Red-necked Nightjar and European Nightjar.

And finally, on 28th, a very rare vagrant to Catalonia, and not too far from the house - a Rook!

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

"Thanks for all you did in making the trip a happy and memorable one - not only did you show us a lot of birds but it also gave us some background for the rest of our trip."

Vicky and James King, USA