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

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Client Trip Report: Winter Break, November 2010

27 - 29 November 2010: Trip and Photo Report by John Fox (Birdwatch Ireland)

"Thanks very much for such a splendid three days birding.  We saw almost all the target species, also a few excellent unexpected ones.  It's difficult to imagine a guide being so keen, hard-working and efficient, and such good company."
Chris Evans, Birdwatch Ireland

Eight members of the Tolka Branch of Birdwatch Ireland travelled with Ryanair from Dublin to Barcelona on 26th November 2010 and a ninth member joined us the next day from Brussels.

At Barcelona airport, while we collected a people-carrier at a cost of €260 for 5 days, the group had Monk Parakeet, White Wagtail, Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Magpie and Wood Pigeon.

We made our way to a villa in Olivella (€995 for 5 days), about 15 minutes from Sitges, but stopped before reaching it at a small wooded area where we had views of Crested Tit, a lifer for many of us.  We also had good views of Firecrest, Robin, Dunnock, Coal Tit, Goldcrest, Chaffinch, Long-tailed Tit and a pair of Common Crossbill flew over, calling as they went.

We travelled into Sitges for dinner that evening and a couple of Tawny Owl were calling on our return.

27th November - The Garraf Natural Park

Our guide Stephen Christopher of Catalan Bird Tours [click for Winter itineraries and birding tours available - SC] had been contacted a few months earlier and engaged for three full days for nine people.

We arrived in the Garraf Natural Park, located on the Mediterranean coast between Barcelona and Sitges, and positioned ourselves quietly at the foot of a cliff to await the arrival of our first target bird.  Stephen was quite confident that our bird would show up and about five minutes later, as predicted, he spotted our quarry, a stunning Wallcreeper (below).

The bird, which was a lifer for everyone, moved about the rock face for 30 minutes as the sun rose and flooded the cliff with light and eventually slipped out of sight as it moved south.

Crag Martin glided above the cliff as Black Redstarts foraged on the rock below, a Blue Rock Thrush perched at the top while a pair of Peregrine headed out to see.  Great Cormorant, Northern Gannet, Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls were seen over the sea while Serin and Rock Dove were also present in the area.

Finally we had lovely views of a single Audouin's Gull (below) at a local marina.

From there we headed up into the park, a beautiful area of mountainous heath.  We spent a few hours walking, as much of it is restricted to vehicles, and had good views of Red-legged Partidge, Thekla Lark, Spotless Starling, Southern Grey Shrike with Dartford Warbler popping in and out of view regularly.  Other new birds seen were Stonechat, Blackcap, Greenfinch and Linnet.

Later in the day [after locating the Wallcreeper a second time for the late arrival in the group - SC] we drove further into the Parc Natural de Garraf where we saw Rock Sparrow, Woodlark, Rock Bunting and a Sparrowhawk.  As the light began to fade our eagle-eyed guide Stephen spotted a pair of flying Bonelli's Eagle, one of which perched within scope range.  We studied the majestic eagle for a while as Stephen explained some of the bird's key identification features to those of us for whom the bird was unfamiliar.

We returned to the villa happy that we'd had a great first day with many new ticks under our belts.

28th November - Los Monegros and The Steppes of Lleida

We arrived just after dawn to a precise location selected by Stephen.  A hard frost still clung to the vegetation as we scoured the area for sandgrouse.  As we searched we had views of flying Red-billed Chough, Hen Harrier, Carrion Crow, Jackdaw, Marsh Harrier and a Merlin, while in the scrub Corn Bunting, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Thekla Lark (above) foraged.

Scanning the middle distance eventually revealed the elusive Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.  A small flock made up of both species was on the highest ground, presumably taking advantage of the earliest rays of sunshine to warm themselves after the cold night.  Its was great to see both species side by side enabling good comparisons to be made.

As the day warmed more species became active such as Dartford Warbler, Stock Dove, Red Kite, Hoopoe and small flocks of Calandra Lark rose in the sky revealing their diagnostic dark under wings (see photo below).

Elsewhere in Los Monegros, it was not long before we had distant views of a small flock of Great Bustard, some sheltering behind bushes to keep out of the icy wind.  We drove around and eventually were rewarded with closer views of three more (pictured below).  We hoped to connect with Little Bustard too but unfortunately that species eluded us.  We did however find another flock of Black-bellied Sandgrouse out in the open.

En route to The Steppes of Lleida we had lovely views of three Griffon Vultures that glided effortlessly across the road.  On arrival, Stephen guided us to a landfill site where, feeding on the contents of the dump, we had superb and most spectacular views of hundreds of White Stork, Cattle Egrets and Black-headed Gulls together with 20 Red Kite, several Grey Heron, Northern Lapwing and a thousand European Starling.  A Common Buzzard was also perched in the area.

Via a flock of 70 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (photo above), which were quite approachable due to the absence of the more skittish Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and several Green Woodpceker seen in a small orchard, Stephen took us to another of his well-researched locations, this time for Black Wheatear (photo below with Calandra Lark).  And we were not disappointed.  We connected quickly with a family party and good views were had by all of both male and female.

Also in the area, after a short walk from the car, we had wonderful views of a flock of 50 Stone-curlew (below) resting in a ploughed field.  A few flew up as we tried to approach unseen but they quickly settled back into the flock. I had seen Stone-curlew before but never so well or in such numbers.

It was an unexpected treat and a lovely finish to our second guided day.

29th November - The Catalan Pyrenees (and The Llobregat Delta)

We drove to the Parc Natural Cadi-Moixero where, at an altitude of 2000m with a little snow on the ground, we began our trek up the mountain road hoping the sun would break through.  Jay, Mistle Thrush, Goldfinch and Ring Ouzel were seen before we had our first views of Alpine Chough, with flocks of thirty or more seen wheeling over the cliffs above, their yellow bills clearly visible.

Several Chamois stared down at us from the mountain side and, rounding a corner which overlooked a small stream, one of our party spotted a (White-throated) Dipper working its way upstream.

This was quickly followed by great views of five Alpine Accentor (below), another of our target birds which delighted everyone and once more confirmed our guide's knowledge of the area.  We had found the birds within a few metres of where Stephen suggested a sighting was possible.

With the sun failing to break through we started back towards the cars to warm up and were treated to close views of two Griffon Vulture that soared out over the cliffs above.  They were followed almost immediately by another bird, one that we all had at the top of our list - Lammegergeier (top photos).

The views we had of this wonderful vulture was superb, let down only by the dull grey sky. We watched it for a minute or so as it passed directly overhead before it silently glided down the valley and out of sight.

With snow starting to fall we happily got into the cars and headed down the mountain.  As we descended we had a brief view of another Wallcreeper that flew out from a cliff face over the cars. We stopped for a few minutes in a village some way down where we had another Dipper, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit and Crested Tit together with a Firecrest.

Returning to Barcelona, we entered the Llobregat wetland reserve, a managed area with many hides and a good range of species.  Water birds seen included Northern Shovelor, Common Teal, Great Crested Grebe, Common Kingfisher, Pheasant, Moorhen, Gadwall, Eurasian Coot, Dunlin, Green Sandpiper and Sandwich Tern.

A brief Moustached Warbler was followed by Golden Plover, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti's Warbler and Water Pipit and gulls present were Black-headed, Yellow-legged and two Mediterranean Gull.

The best bird for me from this area was Purple Swamphen (above) and we had great views of two from one of the hides.  We had hoped for Penduline Tit but dipped on that species.

As the light was fading, we said goodbye to Stephen our superb guide for three days.

He had been everything we had hoped for and more.  He knew the birds we were after and out in the time to locate them prior to our arrival. He found most of them for us in the short time we were there.  He was happy to answer all our questions, no matter how obvious or obtuse, with a breadth of knowledge that only comes with years of experience and time in the field.

I would have no hesitation in recommending him to others interested in birding the area, a view which I believe would be endorsed by all of our group.

We returned to our villa that evening very satisfied with our trip and the birds we had seen.
Our group included the following members of the Tolka Branch of Birdwatch Ireland: Dermot McCabe, Lorraine Benson, Heather Quinn, Bill Quinn (additional photos), Gerald Franck, Philip Clancy, Chris Evans, Darragh Hogg and myself John Fox.

"It was a great trip.  Stephen was so efficient at getting the list out as well as getting us such a terrific array of birds.  Well done to Dermot in arranging to have such a good bird guide and for organising such an exciting trip so well."
Billy Quinn, Birdwatch Ireland

"Thank you for all your wonderful guiding and your expertise.  You really made the trip fantastic for me and I think for everyone else too.  A big thank you to all involved in our fantastic trip to Catalunya, particularly Stephen our brilliant guide who got us all the birds that I hoped to see together with many more that were unexpected and a great bonus."
John Fox, Birdwatc Ireland
"This was an excellent trip!"
Lorraine Benson, Birdwatch Ireland

  [Southern 'Iberian' Grey Shrike]

Sunday, 13 November 2011

November Wallcreeper, Bustards and Lammergeier

13th November 2007 – Garraf and Llobregat

It's strange how so many great birding moments can be traced back to an event at the beginning of the day, without which the hands of time and fortune would have written a different story. If Andris and Inita’s train hadn’t arrived ten minutes late, later we may have spent a few minutes watching a birdless cliff-face in The Garraf Massis instead of the spectacle of their first ever Wallcreeper.

We were greeted by a Sandwich Tern dipping and diving in the bay and the song and sight of three or four Blue Rock Thrush spaced along the cliff-face bordering it. A few Crag Martin flapped their way across the jagged edges of the rocks whilst the ground was shared out amongst Meadow Pipit, Robin, Black Redstart, White Wagtail, finches and both Cirl and Rock Bunting.

As I scanned the ocean and rocks beyond the footpath and crashing waves, I was given the briefest of views of a wave-skimming Eurasian Shag (Mediterranean sub-species, desmarestii) before Andris interrupted with a cry of ‘Wallcreeper!’ just in time for us all to see it descend through the ‘V’ of the cliff’s peaks and flap red-and-black, ‘like a butterfly’ as he described it, out into the open. In fact, it circled and flapped out and back to the same spot twice like a flycatcher – rather tempting fate given the presence of resident Peregrine Falcon – before returning to the safety of the rocks just behind a bush. It had actually seemed to be hawking for food mid-air, perhaps even chasing an individual insect, something that I hadn't witnessed before.

In the wait for its return, during which time we were happy like children, excitedly stating the obvious such as ‘you could see the red clearly!’ and ‘it was like a little Hoopoe’, a pair of Black Wheatear joined us, the female along the rocky beach and the male just beside us. Once we had calmed down though, we thanked fortune for the view we had had and moved on to The Llobregat Delta.

We headed for a group of around twenty Night Herons we could see roosting out in the open by the first hide and they proved to be easily close enough for Andris to take photos. The sight of a small party of Eurasian Spoonbill scything through the waters of the other lagoon lured us on to the second hide though, where blankets of Lapwing and ducks, including Shelduck, Wigeon and Gadwall, impressed greatly and we wiled away our time picking out Common Snipe, Golden Plover, Reed Bunting, up to three Common Buzzard and a Sparrowhawk flap-flap-gliding overhead.

We made the short trip over to the other Llobregat reserve after lunch where Black-necked Grebe, Mediterranean Gull, Greylag Goose, Pied Avocet, Purple Swamphen and countless Common Waxbill provided the backdrop for the highlights of a sub-adult male Marsh Harrier skirting the reed-tops, a handful of Firecrest, two Hoopoe in a tizzy and a Kingfisher that landed on the lip of the hide window!

14th November 2007 – Steppes of Lleida and Los Monegros

During the journey to The Steppes of Lleida I recounted that, according to an overnight conversation with Ricard Gutierrez (Rare Birds in Spain), Wallcreeper hadn’t been seen in the Garraf since possibly 1984 and we were both excited at the prospect of it over-wintering again after such a gap. I also ominously declared, under pressure I might add, that Great Bustard was probably the most likely of the four ‘biggies’ today. In turn, Andris and Inita, lecturers from Latvia here researching bird tourism, filled me in on their projects.

As usual, within five minutes of our arrival we were staring at a small group of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse crouched down in a nearby field. Later we were to come across an even closer group right next to the car but for now we marvelled at their plumage detail, as if painted by Chinese artists, before they stood up wary and we took our cue to move on.

Of course Little Bustard was the other main target bird here and we went in search amusing ourselves with large flocks of Jackdaw, three coveys of waddling Red-legged Partridge and the startlingly red cap of a Green Woodpecker, sub-species sharpei.

Two Hen Harrier dog-fighting over a small orchard diverted our attention whilst many Corn Bunting and a full set of larks (although surprisingly few Calandra Larks) kept us honed on any small movement until, just as we were admiring the pink flush of a Southern Grey Shrike, the white flash of a Little Bustard rose up in front of us and wing-whistled its way over a couple of fields to land dead centre of the telescope.

A quick stop off at the municipal dump to spy on the numerous Cattle Egret and (less now) White Stork provided a welcome bonus of a remarkably colourful Red Kite quartering its lunchtime options.

En route to Los Monegros, a site just outside Catalonia but worth the trip for the (almost certain!) wintering Great Bustard lining the roads, we picked up a Great White Egret and another, this time mature, male Marsh Harrier.

But! Sandstorms the like I have never seen before and quirky enough to make the evening news, all but ruined our chances here although they didn’t build up quite strong enough before we had chance to add a pair of Red-billed Chough and a couple of fleeing Black-bellied Sandgrouse from the area around a ruined farmhouse.

A quick questionnaire to my guests then inspired a ‘re-route for a lifer’ and a while later we were enjoying a flock of over fifty Rock Sparrows, not to mention a host of other passerines, in the farmland of the Garraf.

15th November – The Pyrenees

The wind in The Pyrenees today threatened to push many passerines down to root level and out of sight but not before we gratefully foot-followed and photographed a flock of around twenty Alpine Accentor, being prised away from the detail of their beautifully under-stated plumage only after some work with a metaphorical chisel. What a great bird. And so confiding.

We did miss out on a few passerines, namely and unusually Citril Finch, and Common Crossbill were similarly out of character in their near-absence but a steady flow of Griffon Vultures at least kept our hopes up for the desired bird of the day.

The meantime was spent in the company of a lone Sparrowhawk and a lone Great-spotted Woodpecker chipping away at us until we finally spotted its hiding place on the blindside of a pine tree. A lone Red-billed Chough was especially odd given that they usually far outnumber their yellow-billed cousins at this time of year. We had already spotted two pairs of Alpine Chough but one of the moments of the day was the swirling descent of a flock of forty, chirping like happy passerines, as they fell onto the juniper bushes growing on the bank alongside the road and feasted noisily on their berries.

This experience though, it has to be said and however privileged one felt to be there, was beaten into second place by the simply awesome weight of a Lammergeier, caught with seeping expectation after a whole morning’s hunt, gliding directly over our heads at the height of a double-decker bus (or two). It was a young-ish bird, still pale overall but showing signs of accumulating the orange glow so typical of adult birds.

The journey back was spent in reflection - and may be a little tiredness after walking through mountain meadows. In three days we had seen Lammergeier, Wallcreeper, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Little Bustard and only missed out on Great Bustard through a stroke of freakish bad luck. And Winter wasn't supposed to be a good time. ‘But that’s birding’, said Andris rather philosophically.