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 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.

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