TRIP REPORT: SPAIN – 2006 June – Pyrenees
PRIVATE TOUR OPTION
This tour is available as a private trip for any size group. The tour cost will vary with the number of people and any custom requests.
Trip report by Adrian Binns
Day 1 / June 11 – Henares; transfer to Hecho Valley
A short distance outside Madrid lies the Herares River with wheat fields that run up to its banks. Having picked everyone up at the airport it was not long before we were out of the vehicle looking at Wood Pigeons, Crested Larks, Barn Swallows and listening to Stock Doves, Cuckoos, Cetti’s Warblers and Nightingales sing, and in a short time we located the later on the lower open branches of a poplar tree along the river. We had come to this spot to look for Eagle Owls and in no time at all located a youngster in a small cave, followed by a fully fledged juvenile on a ledge and a short distance away an adult. Three owls was a great start and this was followed by a Peregrine on a favorite roost, as evident by the enormous amount of white wash. An adult and two juvenile Penduline Tits kept us enthralled as we watched them flit about the cattail seedheads and views of a Golden Oriole in the scope were exquisite. Reed Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Blackcap and Wren all were heard while stunning Bee-eaters flew along the edge of the fields with Sand Martin and Common Swifts overhead. A little further up the river we stopped for our picnic lunch in a shaded spot. A couple of Eurasian Tree Sparrows proved slightly elusive while a small family group of Blue Tits moved along the tree-line and a Serin was taking a bath in a puddle that was a favorite spot for Long-tailed Blues, Dark-green Fritillary, Marbled Whites and Red Admirals. A noisy Great Reed Warbler, along with a couple of Moorhens and a Eurasian Coot could be heard amongst the rivers reeds while three Mallards were seen on the water.
After lunch we made a brief ‘pit’ stop before beginning the long journey northwards to the Pyrenees, which would take us about 5 hours. However it was punctuated with a couple of petrol, coffee and ice cream stops, which enabled some of us to catch up on the latest French Open tennis final score. In between we got our first looks at Black Kites and Griffon Vultures as we gently climbed out of a landscape dominated by red soils and rocky outcroppings with farmland and scattered vegetation and into hilly green soils with evergreen plantations and in some locations groves of almonds. Spanish Broom with its bright yellow flowers became more evident along the roadside verges and the landscape reminded us of a combination of the United States desert southwest and some parts of California.
At Zaragoza we picked up our first Common Kestrel along with several Eurasian Collared Doves at our petrol stop. After passing through Huesca we picked up a couple of Red-rumped Swallows, which turned out to be our only ones of the trip, and Red Kites became more numerous especially around villages outnumbering Blacks. We now began to climb into the Pyrenees where we would come across a mix of Mediterranean and Atlantic vegetation along with some interesting rock formations. The occasional Common Raven could be seen as were Carrion Crows, and along one stretch of telegraph poles we had 4 Common Buzzards. 2 birds perched on a wire turned out to be a pair of beautiful Red-backed Shrikes, the first of a number we would see in the valley. You know the place you’re going to stay at is going to be good when one pulls up and the sign for the hotel has a Wallcreeper and Lammergeier on it! Our hotel was set amongst some Scotch Pines and overlooking the beautiful Hecho Valley with Chaffinches, Blackbirds and Yellowhammers singing away.
After settling into our quaint rooms we came down for dinner which comprised of a large fresh salad, fresh bread and red wine followed by an interesting combo of pork slices and chips and a choice for desert comprising of cheese and quince or sheep’s milk. I opted for the later, which was excellent especially with a touch of honey and cinnamon added to it. Following dinner we did our checklist on the porch while having coffee.
Day 2 / June 12 – Hecho Valley / ‘Hell’s Mouth’; Refugio de Gabadilo; Selva de Oza; Guarrinza
At first light, around 5:30am, we were serenaded by a dawn chorus consisting of Chaffinch, Blackbird, Firecrest, Blackcap, Robin and Song Thrush. A pre breakfast walk yielded a mad tractor driver, who obviously got out on the wrong side of the bed, screaming at us to move out of his way. I’m not sure why, when he had all the room in the world to pass us, and pass us with ease he did – maybe we misinterpreted his sign language and body gestures, but hey it is pretty universal. Anyway it did not stop us from seeing Blackbirds galore, Serin and Red-backed Shrike along with some early rising Lammergeier’s and Griffon’s. Breakfast consisted of an assortment of cold cereals and packaged biscuits/toast, and for Phil and Leslie porridge, since they bought their own bag!
We spent the whole day in the Huecho Valley and what a gorgeous one it was with clear blue skies, a slight breeze and temperatures rising into the low eighties. Just up the road we first stopped at Hell’s Mouth, where the road narrowed to a tunnel and the slides of the mountains almost came together to form a small gorge with a skinny fast moving stream 30 meters below us. Our target was the Wallcreeper, but we failed to locate one here, having to settle for such beauties at Gray Wagtail, White-throated Dipper and several Firecrests at close range showing off their colored crowns. A lone Eurasian Crag Martin flew laps along the cliff face and a single Alpine Swift, the largest of the swifts made a brief appearance.
From the gorge we backtracked a short distance and turned up the road to the Refuge pausing for better views of Griffins and the first of what would be many Egyptian Vultures seen during the day as well as Robin and Jay. We also picked up Pearly Heath, Wall Brown and Black-veined White on what would be an extraordinary butterfly day. Once we reached the refuge at 1400 metres, which is a small base camp for those hiking the mountains, we circled the grassy area getting to see Linnets, Serin, many Crested Tits, 4 fly over Citril Finches along with Small Tortoiseshells and Piedmont Ringlets, two beautiful butterfly species, before taking the main track to the Salto de la Vieja. This is the tall cliff wall about a mile in, where Wallcreepers nest. The walk was through mixed woods and open areas which exposed the outstanding scenery consisting of green and grey treeless tops to the mountains and dense wooded valleys. It was very pleasant as we wound our way up and down over the mixed terrain. A pair of Short-toed Treecreepers were busy bringing food to a narrow crevice at the very base of an enormous Scotch Pine, while we came across the occasional Coal and Great Tit and every so often we would hear an elusive Cuckoo calling. Butterflies were very evident with several fritillaries seen on the wing including Knapweeds, Pearl-bordered and the large Cardinal; Orange Tips; Comma and Camberwell Beauty. Once we reached “the spot”, Griffins and Egyptian Vultures were very common, flying on occasion close by at eye level or even below us, while Red-billed Choughs joined them from time to time along with a Raven and Common Kestrel. But, for the Wallcreeper it was going to require one of those monumental neck-craning efforts which rewarded us with a distant Black Redstart and eventually several looks at the “our” bird, as it worked its way along the upper quarter of the cliff. Even though it was a long way away, the views of it in flight with its rounded wings, white wing spots and burgundy coloration against its grey body plumage was stunning. On the return journey we came across a Viviparous Lizard sunning itself on a small boulder along the edge of the path. Following a wonderful two and half hour hike we took advantage of the picnic tables by the refuge center and tucked into our sandwiches, crisps, melon and “American cookies” as the package said, aka chocolate chip cookies, made in Germany!
By mid afternoon we had passed though Hell’s Mouth and were heading north up the Hecho Valley along the Selva de Oza forest, which failed to yield a Black Woodpecker, but did have a handful of fisherman along the crystal clear boulder strewn river that we followed for several miles. Once through the forest the valley really opened up with scattered vegetation consisting mainly of roses bushes dotting very green pastures. We stopped for various aged Egyptian Vultures, Black Redstart and a very short tailed Red Fox which ran across the road with a small rodent in its mouth. Three Black-tipped Skimmers were flying about a very narrow shallow stripe of water besides the road, while the best sighting may have been the singing male Yellowhammer on a large boulder on the down slope. A Stonechat was spotted on a rose bush at the bottom of the valley where a Common Quail was heard calling from, while Black Redstart and Red-backed Shrikes could been seen on the up slope. We also came across our first Northern Wheatear before reaching the barrier just before the stream crossing at Guarrinza.
At the parking area a small group of butterflies including Small Tortoiseshells, Mazarine Blue and Brown Argus were puddling beside the stream where a Common Frog obliged for photographs. From here we made the steady uphill walk along the wide dirt road, whose vehicular use was limited to the local farmers (some of whom seem to be having problems with their vehicles), coming across several small parties of walkers. Yellow Poppies, Foxgloves and numerous roses dotted the landscape. Black Redstarts became more common, and we caught sight of another Yellowhammer. Ortolan’s Bunting was heard but never showed itself. Along a large rock outcropping with a steep sided cliff face a pair of Eurasian Kestrels had a nest and in a Beech tree besides the road we eventually got to see a very vocal Garden Warbler. Raptors were very evident with a pair of Golden Eagles on the ridge along with many Griffon’s and a Lammergeier but the best species was probably the Short-toed Eagle that perched first on the outcropping and then in a tree for all to see the long legs, thick neck and block head. After negotiating the heard of cattle that were using the layby area as a resting spot we heard and saw 4 or 5 Marmots, no doubt raising their alarm calls because of the eagles, and Phil spotted 4 elegant Chamois on the ridge. About a mile up the road we searched diligently for a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush and came up trumps when Santi picked one out on a boulder against the skyline.
Dinner was an excellent green bean and rice starter followed by “breakfast” – 2 eggs, ham and chips – much to Steve’s delight, though Margie skipped the eggs, and topped off with copious amounts of red wine. Desert was an excellent yogurt with apple and chocolate sauce.
Day 3 / June 13 – ‘Hell’s Mouth’; Valle de Hecho; Valle de Roncal; Rincon de Belagua Natural Forest; old Ski Resort of Pierre St Martin; Anso Valley; Zuriza; Gamueta
Cuckoo and Serin joined the dawn chorus this morning. Phil and Steve opted for a morning walk picking up Red Fox, Red-backed Shrike, Cirl Bunting and Song Thrush while a male Red Crossbill was seen for several minutes in the garden pines. Once again we tried ‘Hells’ Mouth’ for wallcreeper before breakfast, and again we returned with the same result. 2 Golden Eagles and Great Spotted Woodpecker did fly over head though and we got to see a beautifully patterned young Garden Snake that unfortunately had just been run over.
After breakfast he headed down the Hecho Valley, as road works prohibited us from taking the short cut across to the Roncal valley. Nightingales could be heard singing and a couple of Linnets and Red-backed Shrikes were spotted as we drove the scenic countryside road. House Martins, Common Swifts and Swallows were very numerous around the towns of Siresa and Hecho where we stopped to buy water and bananas. Towards the bottom of the valley wheat fields became more numerous, one in particular was covered with poppies, and we came across the first of many Common Buzzards, Griffon’s, Black Kites and stopped for a pale morph Booted Eagle which put on a wonderful show circling above us. Once on the main road heading toward Pamplona a group of raptors caught our attention, amongst them were 2 Honey Buzzards, but they kept climbing higher and higher. In the road side verge grasses we had Meadow Brown and a Clouded Apollo, while a little further along Raven and a Stonechat while Phil caught sight of a Lesser Black-backed Gull, no doubt an inhabitant of the nearby reservoir.
We turned north into the very picturesque Roncal Valley where a stunning singing Cirl Bunting caught our attention. We turned the van around and could not locate him, so we got out and eventually saw him cross the road and land on the telegraph wire – what a stunning bird. A Grey Heron flew overhead while a Garden Warbler flitted about the shrub row. Meadow Fritillary and Small Skipper were also added. On another stop, we saw Lammergeier near the road which gave us our best views to date, along with numerous butterflies in the grasses and wildflowers including Pearly Heath, Marbled White, Small Tortoiseshell, Queen of Spain Fritillary and High Brown Fritillary. As we worked our way northwards and up in elevation we entered mixed oak and Scotch Pine forests before we came across the Black Pines that dominate the Belagua National Reserve at the very top of the Pyrenees near the French border. Large groups of Alpine Choughs were a common sight with a few Red-bills amongst them. At this elevation Water Pipits and Northern Wheatears became more common and Linnets could be seen in small groups. Near the top we stopped for what looked like Citril Finch, but after working our way through Serins; watching a Dunnock feed its young; have a Coal Tit enter its nest hole and Black Redstarts pop up on the pine trees, a Citril Finch did land 30 meters from us to collect grit.
We had our picnic lunch at the border between the two countries, which was your basic parking area with no checkpoint or major announcement that one was welcome into either country. A pair of brightly colored Goldfinch fed on thistle flower heads in front of us while Chaffinches called continuously from across the road and the occasional Citril Finch would fly over. An Egyptian Vulture made two passes during the time we were there as well. We took a walk to the scree slope coming across Queen of Spain Fritillary, Common Wall Lizard, Hummingbird Hawk Moth on the way and Northern Wheatears and Linnets on the slope, but no accentor. We then proceeded to drop a little ways into France stopping for good views of a Water Pipit on a sign post and then checking out the area around the old ski lift. This was most productive with more wheatears, flyby Citril Finches and Alpine Chough, and our two target birds, Alpine Accentor and Ring Ouzel were seen very well putting on a great show on the telegraph pole and grassy slope respectively.
Returning back into Spain we cut across to the Anso Valley. Tree Pipit, Buzzard. Carrion Crow and Red-backed Shrike were seen on the way with many Firecrests and a Marsh Tit heard but it was the looks of the Jay that posed nicely close to the road that was the highlight along this stretch of yet another scenic drive. Near the Zuriza campsite we took a lovely walk along a wide path through the beech and fir forest for a couple of hours where we heard Black Woodpecker calling and drumming as well as the rare White-backed Woodpecker drumming, and had as good a looks as one could have of both species flying overhead. Steve saw a Nuthatch and on a strip of wildflowers along the path where the sun shone through the beech, Brimstones, Orange Tips, de Prunner’s Ringlets and a Peacock added a great deal of color and activity to the afternoon walk.
In spite of barriers across the road and a couple of road closed signs we decided to risk it and drive down the road, figuring all workers had gone home by now, especially as we found half of them in a campsite bar! The first section was fine but coming across a second section, a distance of 9 km, was a bit of a shock. In spite of the barrier that crossed the road but left just enough room for a vehicle to squeeze by on the soft shoulder, we decided to go for it as it would cut out an extra hours worth of driving. Half way along, a construction stop light was a surprise, but after finding it was for real we waiting for it to turn green, which it did in a surprisingly short time, and proceeded through the first of several work areas to find that our narrow winding road was being widened considerably making it an obscene highway for what surely was a lightly traveled road through this forested valley. Anyway we got back at 7:30pm and sat down for dinner 45 minutes later. It was another tasty starter, this time Artichoke and rice followed by my favorite dish pisto con bacalao which was cod and mixed vegetables in a tomato sauce. Ice cream with hot chocolate sauce, topped with a wafer made for a perfect completion to a wonderful meal.
Day 4 / June 14 – Rio Aragon Subordan; Jaca; Candanchu Ski Resort; Fordaleza de Jaca; Owling
Our pre breakfast jaunt took us down the valley to the bridge over Rio Aragon Subordan. For three quarters of an hour we wandered about getting great looks at White-throated Dipper on the river; early rising Red Kites and Egyptian Vulture in the air; Cirl Buntings with nesting materials in the shrubs; Chaffinches, Serin, Spotless Starlings, Goldfinches and Black Redstarts, with Golden Oriole, Wren, Hoopoe, Nightingale and Cuckoo all heard. Our first Spotted Flycatcher was also seen by a few in the group.
Following breakfast we made our way to the Aragon Valley, the next valley to our east, stopping in the town of Jaca for the bank, a few groceries and the post office. As we climbed towards the French border the scenery once again was superb. Our destination was the Candanchu Ski Resort from which we would make the accent to the top of the ski lift by foot to look for White-winged Snow Finch. Though slightly breezy, the weather was very warm topping out in the mid 90’s at the base and only about 10 degrees cooler at the top! At 11:15, once we had all gathered our packed lunches and necessary clothing, just in case the weather turned on us, we began our hike along the wide dirt and rumble road built for a 4 wheel drive vehicle.
Margie opted to stay behind and mind the vehicle! Rock Thrush, Raven, Alpine Chough, Linnet and Black Redstart all bid us good luck as we began what would be a an hour and three quarter accent along about 4 kilometers of switchbacks that took us to about 1800 meters. There was only really one tough incline of about two hundred meters while the rest of the walk was just a steady climb with Water Pipits continuously calling at regular intervals and Northern Wheatears being a bit more numerous the further up we went. We paused often
for water and ‘spanish’ trail mix – nuts and an assortment of spicy bits (whatever they are); Citril Finches; a Golden Eagle being chased by a two Ravens; a few butterflies including a Clouded Apollo, Swallowtail and Mountain Dappled Whites along with a pair of Short-toed Eagles flying away from us. Once we reached the top, sandwiches consisting of tuna and ham and tomato and bananas were well received. Our target the Snow Finch proved to be elusive on this day. Maybe it was the balmy weather that had pushed them further up the mountain? Or did they go down the hill? However we got to see a few Water Pipits and Rock Thrushes very well; both choughs; Griffons and two adult and two kid Chamois a lot closer than our previous sighting of them, which was very nice, and the view from the top of the valleys below and distant mountain tops on this gorgeous day was simple stupendous. 5 hours later we were back at the van, worn out and very delighted with the walk. And what had Margie seen? Could the two finch-like birds feeding together (that reminded her of Snow Buntings) which she saw while utilizing the outdoor facilities actually have been our much sought after birds? Quite possibly!
A brief stop for much needed bathrooms and coffee in a bar was a welcome repose. Coal Tit and dipper were seen by some of us across the road while the others were inside. The final stop of the afternoon was at the Fordaleza de Jaca, where the moat area held a dozen Red Deer including three fawns and on the walls several pairs of Rock Sparrows which where using the gaps between the large rocks as nesting sites. A Eurasian Tree Sparrow was also seen here and as one can imagine Common Swifts were numerous at this time of day as they flew close to their nest sites on the fortress walls.
It was another wonderful meal with asparagus served in an excellent olive and garlic sauce followed by a delicious lasagna that really was more like a mousaka and a mousse filled pastry topped with chocolate and mango sauce for desert.
After dinner we headed down the Hecho Valley to the main road and by 9:40 were positioned between two wooded slopes waiting for Eurasian Nightjars to call. On this beautiful evening that was beginning to get a little cloud covered, we heard one low hoot from an Eagle Owl and shortly thereafter a nightjar churring. By 10pm Iberian Pond Frogs were also calling and were followed by a Midwife Toad, whose single note call sounds eerily like a Scops Owl’s call. The nightjar then appeared on the ridge where its silhouette was very obvious and an Eagle Owl came over the ridge looking down at us it flew directly over us – amazing! As it got darker a nightjar came down towards the road and in the spotlight we could pick it out in flight and by its orange eye-shine as it flew amongst the pines. After seeing two birds very well it was back up the valley, with the only other sighting of the evening being a young Red Fox near the hotel grounds, before making it to bed by 11:30pm. 20 minutes later Santi and I heard a Tawny Owl calling up the slope from the hotel grounds. We’ll have to try for that one tomorrow!
Day 5 / June 15 – San Juan de la Pena; Monastry; Mallos de Riglos
The pre breakfast crowd, aka the boys, went their separate ways along the road, with Steve seeing Wren and Dipper and Phil picking up Rock Bunting. The morning was different from all our previous ones, being that it was overcast and considerably cooler. We did pick up a few brief light rain showers around mid day but by mid afternoon it was back into the sun and searing heat, reaching the mid 90’s once again. One can’t complain it could be much worse.
It was back down the valley once more and into the San Juan de la Pena forest this morning. Nuthatches were there to greet us upon our arrival as was a Jay, several Short-toed Treecreepers and a Firecrest. We came to the Scotch Pine forest with its thick undergrowth of English Holly, to look for Black Woodpecker. Failing around the car park we ventured down the path to the overlook where we had a tremendous view northwards into the Pyrenees, even though there was low cloud cover prohibiting maximum visibility. A Cuckoo was calling but never showed; a Jay was seen well perched just below us and after a while we got to see a male Black Woodpecker fly across the valley and land in a dead tree, where it drummed a few times and showed itself briefly before circling around us. Wren and Robin were also seen here. We dropped back down the road to the impressive 11th century Monastery built into the rock face for a quick look before heading south towards Hueca, to Mallos de Riglos.
The drive was through agricultural fields of wheat interspersed with fallow ones. A couple of Crested Larks could be seen along farm tracks and we caught sight of a female Marsh Harrier. By 1pm we had reached Mallos de Riglos and its very grand red stone cliff faces that rise from the small village. We had lunch in the car park while checking out the Griffons flying overhead and Great banded Grayling and Spanish Gatekeepers around the van, before setting off through the quaint village streets. Butterflies were everywhere and we came across many new ones including Cleopatra’s, Small Copper, Provencal Fritillary, Southern Marbled Skipper, Blue-spot Hairstreak and Sloe Hairstreak along with Swallowtails and Dark-green Fritillary. The wind picked up considerably as we got to the best birding spot on the back side of one of the cliffs, but never the less we did manage to see Greenfinch, Wren, Crag Martins, Great Tit, Blue Rock Thrush and Sardinian Warbler and hear Rock Sparrows.
The highlight of the drive back to the hotel was a close encounter with a Lammergeier that was followed by two distant ones; Red-backed Shrike and yet another new butterfly, a Provence Orange Tip.
Day 6 / June 16 – Hecho Valley; Berbun; Tostos Reservoir; Ebro Steppes
We caught up with the Rock Bunting on our early morning walk along with an assortment of the usual locals namely Great Tit, Red-backed Shrike and Blackcap. After breakfast, packing up and saying our goodbyes, we left our lovely hotel and headed down the valley one last time. We made one stop for 2 gulls sitting on top of a pylon, and after much debate we agreed that they were Yellow-legged Gulls.
Only a short distance from the main road we turned off into the agricultural fields near Berbun for a whole new set of species. Corn Bunting and Woodchat Shrikes greeted us, followed by a small group of Melodious Warblers feeding on rose hips; Sardinian and Subalpine Warblers; Quails calling; Tawny Pipit and of all things a juvenile Black Stork well north of its range that Steve spotted. Well done that man. Amongst the butterflies a few of the usual suspects and the birds – Nightingales, Crested Larks, Spotless Starlings, Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Cirl Buntings rounded out a very pleasant mornings walk.
From here we headed back through Jaca and south passed Zaragoza towards the Ebro River steppes. Lunch was taken at a petrol station where we watched Santi wash the van – the windows that is. Along the way we saw a pair of White Storks on a nest, the first ones since the first day. By mid afternoon the skies began to turn dark grey and we could see a storm approaching. The road leading towards Tostos was dominated by vineyards, this being the area from which the Uson was getting its excellent red wine, and we came across Linnets, Woodchat Shrikes, Calandra and Crested Larks, Northern and Black-eared Wheatears. Near the church along the escarpment we saw Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Sparrow with food in its mouth, a couple of Rock Buntings, and Bee-eaters along with good views of a Short-toed Eagle and an assortment of common species such as Crag Martin, Barn Swallow, House Martin, Common Swift, Serin and the two vultures. It was interesting to see that the police that happened to pass us by while we were birding the reservoir dam did not have a care in the world about us, whereas it would have been a very different situation back in the states. We spent 40 odd minutes here watching the hill, gorge and cliff faces for eagles, in particular looking for Bonelli’s. While the storm rumbled to our west, the lightening show was quite spectacular as we scoped Booted and Short-toed and had our closest and best looks at a circling Golden Eagle above the valley as we left.
By 6pm we had reached the Belchite Steppes where we were treated to an extraordinary number of larks including Crested, Thekla, Calandra, Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed. Sandgrouse were first seen on the ground with 3 Pin-tailed’s showing very well followed by the larger Black-bellied. An area of marsh with a small water pool held two pairs of Black-winged Stilts, a Green Sandpiper and a Yellow Wagtail. Add in the Mallard that was flying about and the Stone Curlew that flew into the area and this was a very productive section. A Hoopoe with food in its mouth made its way from the marsh to the old stone barn where it had a nest and a Red-legged Partridge was seen on the crest of a ridge as were rabbits and Iberian Hare. Leaving the steppes we made a couple of impromptu stops when we spotted a Short-toed Eagle perched close to the road and a Black-eared Wheatear fly in front of the van. The wheatear kept moving about but eventually showed well perched on a dead shrub.
Our hotel was in the village of Fuendetodos, where the renowned Spanish painter Francisco de Goya was born some 18 kms from Belchite. For a change of pace at dinner we were served a rabbit stew to begin with, with a choice of cod or pork for the main meal and a rather lovely custard for desert especially with cinnamon added to it. Getting ready to turn in for the night following a conversation with my roommate, the bed decided that it could not take the weight, and I fell through the bed when slats broke!
Day 7 / Friday June 17 – Belchite Steppes; Quer Plains
It was coffee at 5 and on the steppes by 5:45 on this very overcast morning though at one stage we did see the moon. Temperatures hovered in the low to mid 60’s and it was actually very pleasant with the exception of the mosquito’s. As Margie would say in summing it up, “I got up early to give blood”. We were here to look for Spain’s most elusive specie the Dupont’s Lark amongst short sage brush mixed in with grasses. Within 5 minutes of our arrival we heard it call twice but after that utter silence and in spite of 3 hours of intensive searching we could not locate one. Other larks in particular Short-toed as well as a few Lesser Short-toed and Crested were very vocal and could be located running about the sage, but more often seen in flight or displaying. The sandgrouse were just as vocal with Pin-tailed more commonly seen in small groups of 2- 5 while Black-bellied were more often heard. 3 Southern Grey Shrikes were new for the trip and we enjoyed a small group of Bee-eaters, Little Owl, Stone Curlews and a Tawny Pipit feeding one of its young. We also got our first look at a Montagu’s Harrier as a male quartered the landscape.
On the way back we stopped in Belchite, a town built besides the remains of the old town – the only visual reminder in the country of the destruction that Franco’s Nationalists perpetrated during the Spanish Civil War. We searched the ruins for what would prove to be another elusive species, the Black Wheatear, but at least we had some excellent looks at Hoopoes, Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Greenfinch and many Eurasian Collared Doves.
After our late breakfast we packed and headed south for the 3 hours drive towards Madrid through rolling open rural landscape rarely encountering a village or town, so spacious and open this country is outside of the cities.
The Quer plain, a vast expanse of rolling wheat fields, is Santi’s ‘local patch’. Here we spent a few hours looking for bustards, and after picking the finest spot for lunch at one of the highest points, we found the van was to the liking of several hundred small flies that took over the inside. While distancing ourselves from the vehicle to have lunch Steve spotted a Montagu’s Harrier harassing a large object about a kilometer away that flashed white. Through the scope we were able to clearly see that it was a Great Bustard. With the height of the fields taller than a Little Bustard it made looking for this species particularly tough especially as there were no short grass fields, only wheat and recent ploughed ones. A Red-legged partridge and her brood of seven chicks could be seen walking the edge of the fields as could the occasional Rock Sparrow, while two Booted Eagles made appearances, one in a dog fight with a harrier. Our final bird was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow on a wire!
After dropping Steve then Phil and Lesley at the airport we settled into our hotel 30 minutes later and rested a while before going out for a most enjoyable meal where the host spoke no English and we spoke no Spanish. As I envisaged exchanges that rivaled those that Manuel in Fawlty Towers often encountered, we were pleasantly surprised to see that after he realized that we were having a problem with the menu, he reached behind the beer cooler and produced 3 English menus – to our relief. While two of us decided to go with what we thought he was telling us was highly recommended, the Hake (which turned out to be fish and chips), it turned out that the Cod in tomato was really the prime choice.