TRIP REPORT: SPAIN – 2016 May-June – Donna, Extremadura & 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 Debbie Beer and Adrian Binns
Day 1/ Tuesday May 24 – arrive Sevilla
Dinner on a warm breezy night on an outdoor patio is a wonderful way to begin a tour of Spain! Our group gathered to share cold drinks, delicious dinner, and lively conversation at “La Malteria” restaurant, just a block from our hotel. Since everyone had arrived early for pre-tour explorations, there were already plenty of stories about winding streets of Seville, awe-inspiring cathedrals, Flamenco dancers, avid soccer fans, and the #27 public bus!
Day 2 / Wednesday May 25 – Bollullos; Donana National Park – El Rocio; La Rocina
Bright-eyed and rested, we were eager to begin exploring Donana National Park, along Spain’s southern coast. First, we stopped at Bollullos, a vineyard and agricultural area on the outskirts of town. Expansive fields dotted with scrub and trees hosted more than two dozen bird species, including our target Rufous Bush-Robin. The more we looked, the more we saw…Sardinian Warbler, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, half a dozen Iberian Magpies, a European Hoopoe flying with food, Woodchat Shrike teed up nicely in the scope with an Iberian Shrike further away on wires. Common and Pallid Swifts were both present, enabling us to compare these similar-looking species. The raptor show was impressive, with Common Buzzard, Short-toed Eagles, Lesser Kestrel, Black Kite, Booted Eagle and Montagu’s Harriers, while butterfly enthusiasts found Clouded Sulphur, Meadow Brown and Lulworth Skipper.
We continued down the main highway, then turned onto a wide sand road leading through the center of El Rocio, the gateway to Donana National Park. Though the streets are not paved in this small town, the buildings gleam sparkling white, and houses are well-kept with wide porches, neat landscaping, and tastefully designed business signs. Most homes are owned by wealthy spaniards who respect the town’s long cowboy history with active horse hitches and water barrels. Several riders hitched their mounts at the local restaurant while taking a meal. The town is built around Madre de Las Marismas, “Mother of the Marshes” within Donana National Park, and attracts a great variety of birds as well as tourists to enjoy the lush landscape.
Fortunately, recent rains filled the marsh with great numbers and variety of waders, waterfowl, raptors, and more, providing us with ample entertainment as we stood on the viewing deck and happily sorted through species. The most obvious being Greater Flamingos and Eurasian Spoonbill. Without much trouble scoping around soon located Greylag Goose, Red-crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Northern Shovelor, Gadwall, Eurasian Coot, Moorhen, Black-winged Stilts, Little Egret and Squacco Heron. In the reed beds the loud and continuous calls of Great Reed Warbler rang out. Overhead Sand Martins (Bank Swallows) zip by as well as Glossy Ibis and Black-crowned Night-Heron, but for us the highlight is a couple of Collared Pratincole. Booted Eagle and Eurasian Griffon Vulture lazily drift by.
After several hours ogling the rich array of marshbirds, we enjoyed lunch at a long table setup outside under a wild olive tree. Goldfinches chirped in the tree as we sampled delicious local dishes.
After lunch and a brief break, we drove a short distance to La Rocina, an area of the park featuring an Umbrella or Stone Pine forest adjacent to the creek that feeds the marshes. Walking from the carpark to the entrance, we stopped to admire a Melodious Warbler in full view, singing merrily from his pine perch. Walking along a winding boardwalk through the trees, we heard a Short-toed Tree Creeper, but only got a glimpse as it skipped to another tree. Serins and Goldfinches chattered in nearby trees as we continued exploring. When the boardwalk crossed an open marsh area between two forest patches, we stopped to watch a pair of European Bee-eaters perched on a snag. They were displaced by a Black Kite that landed on the prime perch with a meal in its talons. We couldn’t identify its mangled prey (perhaps an old carcass?), but enjoyed scoping the raptor and discussing the color of its “pale” eyes. A Eurasian Reed Warbler was seen flitting in a nearby shrub, while a Cetti’s Warbler and at least two Nightingales sang all around us. A distant Common Cuckoo was heard. A Least Grebe dove in circles. Continuing through pine trees we saw several lively Great Tits, and heard the burbly song of a Eurasian Wren. We were delighted to find a Nightingale perched nearby for all to see it in the scope! We retraced our steps and took another fork of the boardwalk that led to a sturdy blind overlooking La Rocina River and adjacent marsh. Eurasian Spoonbills preened on the river banks near a stately Gray Heron. A Purple Heron flew in, showing off bright yellow legs.
After a quick stop at the Visitor Center for restrooms and maps, we carefully crossed the main road to explore the Madre de la Marismas from the other side. The late afternoon light with blue skies and white fluffy clouds provided a stunning backdrop for numerous soaring Black Kites, Booted Eagles and White Storks. Greater Flamingos were clustered around the marsh, dotted with Eurasian Spoonbills, Black-winged Stilts, Glossy Ibis, and Eurasian Coots. Squacco Herons moved along the marsh edges, and a pair of Whiskered Terns flew low overhead, showing black bellies and gray wings. A Zitting Cisticola captured our attention for a while, as it zitted non-stop in flight, circling and hovering around its territory. It landed only briefly for quick looks, than zoomed back in the air for more singing; the bird was expending a lot of energy to find a mate! Barn and Red-rumped Swallows crossed ceaselessly over the marsh hawking insects. One of each perched on a wire for good comparison looks.
Day 3 / Thursday May 26 – Donana National Park, Western section
Santi and Adrian led a short pre-breakfast walk alongside the marsh to enjoy the morning perspective of flamingos, herons, coots, and several Great Reed Warblers singing full throttle. After breakfast, we headed out for a long day’s exploration of the western section of Donana National Park. Local speed bumps along the Villamanrique road slowed us down sufficiently to allow for several road-side sightings of Corn Bunting, European Bee-eater, and a group of Common Ravens. We pulled over to admire a White Stork colony numbering at least 20 pairs. Most had built their nests atop old palm tree trunks, and were busy raising a chick or two. Pairs would greet each other on the nest with bill clacking.
A dirt side road hosted an exciting assortment of singing passerines, occupying us for a while. An Isabelline Warbler flitted coyly through dense shrubs, finally pausing long enough for everyone to get good looks. A Cetti’s Warbler was less cooperative, providing fleeting glimpses as it moved through scrub and trees. Nightingale sang loudly near the stream, while Zitting Cisticola called in flight.
The pavement changed to hard-packed dirt as we headed towards the Jose Antonia Valverde Visitors Center. We slowed to scan low-scrub fields, water channels and expansive shallow marsh. Numerous Black Kites circled overhead, while Gray Heron, Cattle and Little Egrets, Eurasian Spoonbill, and many pairs of Purple Herons foraged. We found our first Great Egrets of the trip, and were delighted to see the long stunning breeding plumes of Squacco Herons as they hunted on water edges. Crested Larks sang from the fields, and many perched up for good looks.
We pulled over next to an abandoned brick building that looked like the perfect place for a Barn Owl. Sure enough, one was roosting in a dark corner! Common and Lesser Kestrels also flew around the area, and we spent time studying their subtle differences. We picked out a pair of Common Kestrels by their face markings and call. At least 6 Lesser Kestrels flew around the same ledge, drawing our attention to a set of hack boxes put out for these communal nesters.
One corner, flanked by water channel, marsh, and a field full of wildflowers, held our interest for a long time with calling Little Grebes, displaying Zitting Cisticola, singing Lesser Short-toed Larks, two fly-by Yellow-legged Gulls, and more! A little farther down the road we watched many raptors circling high against the blue sky. Eurasian Griffon Vultures were most numerous, but the kettle also included White Storks, Common Buzzard, and Booted Eagle.
A young Short-toed Snake-eagle rose into view as we approached the Jose Antonia Valverde Visitors Center, named for a famous Spanish ornithologist. The center was a welcome sight, as our bladders were full, and our bellies empty after a long morning birding! We ate our picnic lunch in close view of Greater Flamingos, Eurasian Spoonbills, four Pied Avocets, and a bustling rookery of Glossy Ibis, Black-crowned Night-herons, Cattle and Little Egrets. A Northern Shoveler was spotted sleeping with one eye open amidst coots, moorhens, Purple Swamphens, Common Pochards, and Mallards. Two Whiskered Terns hunted back and forth across the pond. Butterflies along the way included Swallowtail, Bath White and Small Copper along with a Broad Scarlet dragonfly.
We finally left the visitors center and continued our drive through the park. Along the road to Escupedera we glimpsed two Wild Boars moving through the marsh, and heard many Great Reed Warblers calling boisterously all around us. We stopped to scope a large pond where many pairs of Great Crested Grebes swam and displayed. Gull-billed Terns winged across the water in search of fish.
Farther along we found a good deal of avian activity along both sides of the road. Northern Lapwings and Collared Pratincoles took turns taking off from the ground and circling the area. A Common Ringed Plover was spotted near several Common Redshanks. A pair of Red-crested Pochards preened atop a patch of dirt, ignoring nearby Common Pochards, Gadwall, and Mallards.
Making our way out of the park, we stopped to watch Calandra Larks displaying wonderfully close. Common Quail called in the distance, and a few Corn Buntings perched on stalks. An elegant Black-winged Kite took flight from his pole perch and winged up and down the adjacent channel, eventually landing back on the same pole top. Near the last turns, we saw a Common Stonechat balancing on a small stalk, and an immature Short-toed Eagle – perhaps the same individual seen earlier near the Visitors Center.
At our final stop of the day, Dehasa de Arajo, we enjoyed close looks of Red-knobbed Coot. The bird sported a neck band as part of a reintroduction program for this rare, endangered species. Several Black-necked Grebes paddled with Great Crested Grebes, including one with two chicks in tow – one on its back, one in the water! About two-dozen Whiskered Terns and Black-headed Gulls lazed on a distant dock, occasionally taking off to circle and hunt.
We returned to our picturesque Hotel Turuno where we enjoyed another delicious dinner overlooking the expansive Madre de Marismas at sunset. It was a fine day with 84 bird species, 2 mammals, and multiple butterflies.
Day 4 / Friday May 27 – Donana National Park, Eastern section
Today we explored the eastern section of Donana National Park, the south side of Rio Guadalquivir. After a quick early-morning coffee and cake, we embarked on the 2-hour drive. About halfway there, we stopped alongside the highway to watch two dozen Collared Pratincoles hawking insects over a fresh-plowed farm field. Several Barn Swallows and a Red-rumped Swallow joined the feast. A male Montagu’s Harrier soared along the hedgerow, and Crested Larks sang and jumped in the grasses.
A little before 11 am we arrived at our first destination of the day, the Ponds of Camino Colorado in Sanlucar de Barrameda. This is one of the most reliable places to see rare White-headed Ducks, Marbled Teal, and Little Bitterns, and we scored all three within a few minutes! We spent an hour watching male White-headed Ducks display for uninterested females, while Eurasian Coots and Moorhens fed newly-hatched offspring along the reedy edges. We counted 4 separate Little Bitterns jumping sporadically from reed patch to reed patch, some crossing the road to the opposite pond. You had to look quickly or you’d miss them! Black-crowned Night-heron, Purple Swamphen, and Cattle Egrets were observed well, but we couldn’t see the Eurasian Reed Warbler calling constantly from nearby shrubs. Some of the group saw two Common Waxbill, an introduced species.
We moved on to explore the salt pans of Donana National Park, a unique landscape featuring square basins filled with shallow water and divided by dirt roadways and low dikes. Thousands of Greater Flamingos congregated in numerous large flocks. Pied Avocets and Black-winged Stilts stalked the basins or rested atop the dirt dikes. Shorebirds foraged along muddy edges at close range, providing great looks of Kentish Plover, Sanderling, Common Ringed Plover, Dunlin, and a few Ruddy Turnstones. A Black-tailed Godwit and Common Redshank were seen on a distant shoreline, hazy in heat waves. Little Terns hunted for tiny fish, and multiple Slender-billed Gulls winged over the waters. We scoped dozens of Yellow-legged Gulls on a dike, and picked out a pair of Audouin’s Gulls among them.
After a delicious lunch and ice cream in town at “Pablo Tapas,” we drove to a special beach spot to see nesting Little Swifts, Common and Pallid Swifts, Barn Swallows and Common House-Martins. Amid dozens of Yellow-legged Gulls resting on a jetty, Lesser Black-backed and Audouin’s Gulls were identified. A few Sandwich Terns flew over the waves, ending our lovely afternoon seaside visit!
We enjoyed another delicious dinner overlooking the now-familiar marsh. In between bites we watched night-herons leaving their daytime roosts, and a half-dozen Red Deer munching knee-deep in marsh grasses.
As dusk began to fade, we piled into the van for a 5-minute drive to a nearby field-wood. We exited quietly and immediately heard the distinctive call of Red-necked Nightjar. Swatting mosquitos at every step, we walked down the sand track until we were sure the birds were close. Flashlights on, and one flew right over our heads, followed by a second! We tracked them back to our starting point, and saw one briefly alight on the road. The pair flew overhead several times, providing great looks in flight and in silhouette against the field. Finally the nightjars stopped calling, and we heard only mosquitos buzzing, horses snorting, and Iberian Pond Frogs croaking loudly. A spectacular way to end a great day in southern Spain!
Day 5 / Saturday May 28 – Donana NP, El Rocina; Extremadura, La Presa de Alange
Before embarking on the long transfer to Extremadura, we spent an hour and a half birding at La Rocina, a short distance from our hotel. We drove slowly to the Palacio del Acebron, scanning for birds in the picturesque scrub-forest landscape around us. A pair of European Bee-eaters flashed beautiful bronze, turquoise and yellow colors. Corn Buntings perched atop tamarisk shrubs, switching places with a singing Thekla Lark. A Dartford Warbler was seen hopping through shrubs.
We parked at the palace lot and scanned snags for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We were soon rewarded with great looks of one flying from tree to tree around us. We followed a boardwalk trail into the woods and soon heard the distinctive song of an Iberian Chiffchaff. The bird flew confidingly close, pausing for long moments in close pines. It was a birdy spot, as other birds joined the chiffchaff – Great and Blue Tits, Chaffinch, Spotted Flycatcher, and a Short-toed Treecreeper. We walked the dirt track to get a look at the palace-cum-park Visitors Center, and were surprised to see a Cetti’s Warbler walking the dirt road ahead of us!
Returning to the hotel, we circled a roundabout several times to photograph a Little Ringed Plover standing in the gravel. Our timing was perfect, as it began raining just as we got back to the hotel to grab our luggage and begin the long journey north. If it had to rain, at least it wasn’t on birding time!
It rained sporadically for the next few hours driving north to Extremadura. We stopped for lunch at Santa Olalla del Cala, where we enjoyed delicious lamb chops, asparagus with egg, and scalloped potatoes. Skies were blue and roads dry when we left the restaurant, making the next leg of our journey quite pleasant. Reaching the southern edge of Extremadura, we stopped at La Presa de Alange to look for several specialties. Eurasian Crag Martins swooped around rocky cliffs towering beside us, and Alpine Swifts darted around the dam holding the vast sparkling-green Alange reservoir hundreds of feet below us. Common Swifts, Eurasian House Martins, Barn and Red-rumped Swallows mixed in, providing good comparisons between all the swift flyers.
At the edge of the parking lot on a small maintenance structure perched a Blue Rock Thrush, posing for long looks. We walked a few yards down a dirt road and found a pair of Black Wheatears jumping from boulder to boulder at the water’s edge. A number of Great Cormorants stood on the distant shoreline, and a few Gull-billed Terns winged over the water. We looked up often, watching raptors approach and soar past the craggy peaks. White Stork and Black Kite shared the sky with Booted Eagle and Eurasian Griffons. A lone Egyptian Vulture soared through the kettle, and a Short-toed Snake-Eagle was picked out in the distance.
We drove a few kilometers and parked in a gas station to scan the skies from a different vantage. The raptors seemed to have moved on, but we enjoyed seeing an Iberian Magpie, Iberian Shrike, and a Zitting Cisticola singing on territory.
The next hour and a half passed quickly, as we drove towards the Hospederia hotel, in Parque de Monfrague. We enjoyed an excellent meal while Santi kept track of the ‘football’ game between Atletico and Real Madrid – two Madrid teams playing each other in the final for the European Cup Championship!
Day 6 / Sunday May 29 – Extremadura, Caceres-Tujillo Plains
Today we were on the road at first light – 6:30 am – aiming to catch early morning activity on the Tujillo plains of Extremadura. We started in the eastern section of Tujillo, amidst open rolling terrain with tall grasses and scrub vegetation along fence lines. Calandra Larks showed extremely well, singing and dancing all around us. Crested Larks and Corn Buntings sat on posts, singing loudly. Zitting Cisticolas zitted on territory, and Iberian Magpies zipped into shrubs. Iberian Shrike and Woodchat Shrike posed atop prominent perches. Eurasian Hoopoe and Common Quail were heard calling in the distance.
We looked for bustards peering out of tall grasses, and were soon delighted to find a Great Bustard and a Little Bustard within two glass-views of each other. We were awed to watch them in full display, strutting for attention. The Great Bustard’s “whiskers” stood straight out from his head in an upward angle. He appeared to turn his wings inside-out while puffing them up to look big, white, and fluffy. His tail stood so straight it nearly touched his neck! The Little Bustard puffed out his black and white neck ruff, tossed his head back and called, then jumped and flapped his white wings to attract a female. We could hardly take our eyes off the impressive bustards, but turned to see several pairs of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse fly over the fields. Black-bellied Sandgrouse was also heard.
We found a Spanish Imperial Eagle perched majestically on a distant Eucalyptus tree. While watching it turn its head, we realized it was sitting on the edge of its mostly-hidden nest, and that there were two small chicks bobbing their heads! It was a real treat to see this rare raptor and discover a previously-unknown nest site.
Along one of the dirt tracks, several tiny Iberian Midwife Toads hopped across our paths. The sky darkened with gray clouds and a chilly wind picked up, so we ate our picnic breakfast inside the vehicles.
After such a successful morning, we took a quick coffee break than drove to the western section of Tujillo Plains, on the road to Santa Marta. Gray clouds had vanished and skies were blue as we scanned nest boxes affixed to every pole along the road. They were installed for Lesser Kestrels, but largely used by Eurasian Rollers and Spotless Starlings. We were delighted to find a Little Owl had claimed one, and was sitting on top, surveying its territory. Eurasian Rollers shined turquoise blue while flying from wires to boulders. Amid a herd of cattle in the field, several Great Bustards clustered together, and a few more flew low over a ridge. We estimated nearly a dozen bustards were in the field.
From our roadside vantage of wide-open skies, we observed many soaring raptors, including Short-toed Snake-Eagle, Booted Eagle, and Montagu’s Harriers. Cinerous (Black) Vultures circled overhead with Eurasian Griffons, providing good comparison between the two vulture species.
We drove through a small village and stopped briefly to see Spanish Sparrows mixed with House Sparrows. A number of Eurasian Goldfinches flitted about, and a White Wagtail alighted on a tile roof giving good looks.
We made our way to the town of Tujillo, where we lunched at an outdoor table in the main square, Plaza Mayor. As usual, the dishes were local, varied, and delicious. We burned a few calories walking up to the 9th century castle overlooking the town and surrounding plains. The sweeping landscape spread out below us, and we picked out the roads we had birded that morning. From our castle vantage, we observed White Storks nesting at eye level, on nearby steeple ledges. Noisy Jackdaws flew in and out of holes in the stone walls, and Serins trilled in trees along the winding cobblestone road.
Our final stop of the day was birding along the road to Monroy, surrounded by waving grasses, colorful wildflowers, and boulders of various sizes pushing out of the earth. The peace and beauty was enhanced by flitting European Bee-eaters, Woodchat Shrike, Hoopoe, and several Eurasian Magpies. We didn’t find any Great Spotted Cuckoos, but all enjoyed seeing a salamander-sized Pygmy Newt at the bottom of the crystal-clear stream running through the area.
We returned to the hotel about an hour before previous days, and relaxed a bit before meeting for checklist and dinner.
Day 7 / Monday May 30 – Extremadura, Monfrague National Park
We awoke to a wonderfully bright morning, with blue skies and barely a wisp of cloud in the sky. In a few minutes birding around the hospederia we heard Hoopoe and Common Cuckoo calling in the distance. With keen anticipation we headed out to spend a full day exploring Monfrague National Park, a biosphere reserve and one of Europe’s most important and acclaimed areas for birding and wildlife. The park encompasses nearly 19,000 hectares of oak and scrub habitat surrounding the confluence of Tajo and Tietar rivers.
We followed a winding road through picturesque landscape with the wide Tietar River sparkling below. Our first of many stops was at ‘Salto del Gitano’ named for the tale of a gypsy who jumped into the river to escape police. Perhaps that’s the reason so many Eurasion Griffons nest on the rocky cliff sides that rise from the river. The morning light illuminated dozens of vulture nests with large chicks, and many more perched on ledges. Cinereous Vultures mixed with the griffons circling close overhead, still fairly low in the cool morning air. At the water’s edge, just a few feet above the water line, a few Black Stork chicks rested in their nests with adults nearby. Last month’s rains raised the water levels, but the nests remained dry enough for successful nesting. Our elevated vantage point provided great opportunity to scan densely vegetated slopes and rocky outcroppings, where we found Rock Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush, and Black Redstart. A family of Wrens hopped around together, and a Eurasian Nuthatch worked its way up the twisted trunk of a half-dead shrub in the boulders.
We could ogle raptors overhead for hours, but we finally moved a little ways down the road to Fuentes del Frances, the site of stream-fed fountains carved into the rocky mountainside. We heard a Robin singing in nearby shrubs, and saw Chaffinch and Blackcap bathing in a puddle. We tracked a Hawfinch to find it drinking at the fountain. From the base of the bridge, we watched 3 Alpine Swifts circling around with numerous Common House Martins that were nesting underneath.
Driving along park roads we spotted Thekla Lark, and Dartford Warbler. Griffon vultures soared constantly overhead, joined by Black Kites, a few Egyptian Vultures, Short-toed Snake-Eagle and Booted Eagle. We spent ample time at Mirador de la Portilla looking out for Spanish Imperial Eagle, which we saw several times. Shrubs below us hosted a variety of avian activity, including Subalpine Warbler, singing Serins, Blue Tit, Common Nightingale, and European Goldfinches. We heard Eurasian Turtle Doves and Common Cuckoo calling clearly from across the river. Attention was diverted by scolding Nightingales and Eurasian Jays, which several in the group tried to find in the scrub. Suddenly Bob shouted “Genet!” and everyone immediately crowded around him to see it. The cat was visible for only a moment before slinking back into the underbrush. Only Bob and Alice were lucky enough to experience that secretive animal, a sight they’ll never forget!
At the eastern edge of Monfrague park, we parked near the Rural Hotel to bird golden fields dotted with Holm Oak trees. Spanish Sparrows chattered close to the road, and a Eurasian Nuthatch brought food to its cavity nest and took out a fecal sac. Several Mistle Thrushes flew between trees, and a few people saw Wood Larks. Woodchat Shrike and Iberian Magpies were seen well, but singing Western Orphean Warbler and Golden Oriole would not show themselves. A Short-toed Snake-Eagle soared fairly low for good looks.
With bellies growling, we headed to lunch in the small hamlet, but stopped on the way to watch a Black-eared Wheatear perched on a hillside. At the local restaurant we devoured an excellent midday meal of wild boar, venison, sausages, pork, scrambled eggs and mushroom, and cold salad.
After lunch we went on a watch for Bonelli’s Eagle at Puente del Cardenal. We moved little in an hour and a half, feeling sluggish with the heat and full stomachs. We kept eyes to the skies watching ubiquitous Griffon vultures soaring over the reservoir, joined by four Black Storks and low-flying Black Kites. We tracked a distant Bonelli’s Eagle until it disappeared in the clouds. With the sun out on a warm afternoon we did very well on butterflies with Lang’s Short-tailed Blue, Long-tailed Blue, Holly Blue, Cleopatra, Southern Gatekeeper, False Ilex Hairstreak, Nettle-tree Butterfly, Spanish Marbled White, Large Tortoiseshell and the stunning Two-tailed Pasha.
We ended our day at the top of Castillo de Monfrague, reached after ascending a windy road and walking up 150 steps hewn out of rock. We enjoyed spectacular sweeping views of the park and nearby villages, and noticed a Red Deer under a tree amidst the next hillside over from us. It was lovely to look down on raptors soaring below us, including Eurasian Griffons, Egyptian Vultures, Black Kites, and a dark morph Booted Eagle. Numerous Crag Martins, House Martins and Red-rumped Swallows hawked insects above, below, and all around us. We studied every swift, and were thrilled to find two White-rumped Swifts among a handful of Common Swifts. They seemed to loop around us every 10-15 minutes, providing several chances to see them.
We returned to our last dinner at the Hospederia, and toasted much red wine after such a fine day in the field!
Day 8 / Tuesday May 31 – Extremadura; Guadarrama Mountains
After breakfast with oven-hot chocolate croissants, a daily favorite, we checked out of the Hospederia and began our journey eastward towards Madrid. We travelled most of the day, enjoying several birding stops along the way. At Jaraicejo Plateau, aka “Sylvia’s corner,” our targets were Spectacled and Dartford Warblers, species of genus sylvia. It took some time, but we eventually got great looks of both displaying in and around scrub vegetation. Walking along the dirt road, we also saw another sylvia, Sardinian Warbler, along with Common Linnet, Iberian and Eurasian Magpies, and a lively party of about 25 Long-tailed Tits zipping low over the road. A Common Cuckoo called repeatedly in the distance, while we studied field marks of close Thekla Larks. Two Short-toed Snake-Eagles soared high overhead with a Black Stork.
We moved on to explore Las Orquideas de “El Sierro” at the edge of Almaraz, famed for the large number of orchids. Orchids are not out this time of year, but the quarry and surrounding shrubs and trees hosted several species, including Blue Rock-Thrush, Sardinian Warbler, ubiquitous Chaffinches. In the shadow of a rock crevice, Adrian discovered two juvenile Eurasian Eagle-Owls half-sleeping in their cave. They were extremely well camouflaged, and nearly invisible amidst the expanse of boulders. Our vantage point was limited, as the birds could only be seen from one narrow spot along the fence line around the high rim of the quarry. Fortunately, the birds occasionally turned their heads and blinked in our direction, proving they were indeed owls, and not mottled rocks!
The sun shined hotly on the quarry, and roadside flowers buzzed with bees and butterflies including Small Copper, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Blue-spot Hairstreak, and oft-seen Meadow Browns. Several people saw a Ladder Snake slither quickly across the path and into grasses.
Following lunch in the nearby town, we motored along the main highway east towards Madrid. Northwest of the city, the Guadarrama Mountains attract hikers, cyclists, seasonal skiers, and birders like us. We arrived at Cogorros section of Navacerrada Mountain Pass a little before 5pm, and were immediately greeted by a friendly horse! She came right into the group and nuzzled each of us for handouts. She lost our attention when a Coal Tit flitted into view, followed by Goldcrest, Firecrest, and Crested Tit moving around the grove of tall Scotch Pines. Short-toed Treecreepers and Eurasian Nuthatch were found, and several Wood Larks posed for photos. A pair of Iberian Pied Flycatchers provided great looks, pausing for long moments on pine branches. We got fleeting looks of two Citril Finches that crossed the field and parking area several times at high speed.
Several Iberian Wall Lizards sunned themselves on small boulders at the edge of the parking area.
Our final destination was Hotel Luces del Poniente in Cercedilla, an attractive town tucked into the Guadarrama Mountains. We enjoyed an excellent dinner with a variety of shared first-course dishes, and delicious mains, too. Though our bellies were groaning we managed to finish desserts before 10:30pm!
Day 9 / Wednesday June 1 – Guadarrama Mountains to the Pyrenees
Today we covered more than 500km driving from Cercedilla to Hotel Unson in the Pyrenees mountains. Stops were few but meaningful. Huesca was a pivotal town, as our lunch location, and a marked change in scenery as steep, snow-capped mountains came into view shortly after we got back on the road. Winding through the Valle de Hecho, we enjoyed gorgeous vistas at every turn. Bonelli’s Eagle and Marsh Harrier were spotted while driving. Fortunately there was a conveniently-located side road just after Santi spotted a Lammergeier, enabling him to pull over quickly for the group to scramble out. The bird soared directly towards us, low and steady, giving incredible looks to this rare high-mountain raptor! A Red Kite followed soon after, flashing distinctive white wing patches and deeply-forked tail.
Beyond a small town, we pulled onto a country round and stopped to bird the Alastuey Ravine. Avian activity was fairly quiet at 4:30 pm, but we found several lively Long-tailed Tits moving through conifers, and a family of European Stonechats zipping amongst shrubs. Eurasian Blackbirds and a Wren sang around us, and we glimpsed secretive Subalpine Warblers. Numerous butterflies flitted in the sunshine, including Spanish Fritillary, Grizzled Skipper, Red Underwing Skipper, Chalk Hill Blue, and Common Blue. We got quick looks of a Large Psammodromus Lizard before it slithered under a ledge. A Common Buzzard flushed up out of a small wetlands area as we drove out.
Our Hotel Unson in the Hecho Valley is surrounded by tall conifers and crushing views of the Pyrenees mountain range. While unloading luggage and sorting rooms, we watched a Short-toed Treecreeper fly to its nest under the hotel eaves, and feed their begging offspring. A wonderful welcome for eager birders!
Tonight’s dinner was delicious, with home-brewed beer, and much learned about Spanish-style turkey chops – yummy!
Day 10 / Thursday June 2 – Pyrenees – Hecho Valley, Garbardito refuge, Guarrinza
We started our day birding for a few minutes in the grounds around Hotel Unson. The backyard gardens hosted a nice variety of species, including Eurasian Jay, Crested Tit, Song Thrush, and Great Spotted Woodpecker. The Short-toed Treecreepers remained busy feeding their young in the eaves of the building.
Amid gorgeous sunshine, blue skies, and temperatures above 50-degrees F, we drove the short distance to the Gabardito refuge. Eurasian Blackbirds were numerous along the road through the woods. We spotted a Roe Deer in the trees, and stopped to watch a Red Squirrel scamper across the road and into a pine tree. At the parking area, a herd of about two dozen pack horses grazed an open meadow with foals following along. Their neckbells clinked constantly, making it difficult to hear birds. We packed water bottles, tightened boot laces, and embarked on our walk to the wallcreeper wall. The trail ascended steadily through alpine forest of conifer and beech trees. We enjoyed spectacular views of the surrounding valley and Pyrenees mountain peaks, snow-covered in spots. Firecrest, Wren, Robin, Blackcap, Coal Tits, Common Chiffchaff, Mistle Thrush, Rock Bunting, and Western Bonelli’s Warbler sang around us.
As we approached the steep cliffs where Wallcreepers are known to nest, we encountered Red-billed Choughs, Eurasian Crag Martins, Alpine Swifts, Carrion Crow, many Griffon Vultures, and a Golden Eagle soaring overhead. A few in the group saw a Lammergeier. The last 300 meters of the trail were steep and rocky, curving around the base of the ‘Salto de la Vieja’ cliff. We settled ourselves in a shady stretch of the trail to scan the looming gray rock towering above our heads. For more than an hour we watched dozens of martins and a few Alpine Swifts dart around the cliff ledges. Suddenly Santi yelled, “Wallcreeper!” and all eyes followed his directions to see a bird land high on a ledge. It’s round wings and long curved bill were distinctive, even at the great height above. The Wallcreeper flew several times, flashing red patterned wings in flight. We realized there were two birds, just as they vanished around the corner.
The walk back to the car was quick and high-spirited, after the wonderful Wallcreeper experience. We paused a few times to photograph Small Tortoiseshell and Orange Tip butterflies, and watch a family of Coal Tits feeding their young. In the meadow next to our cars, the horses were gone, and we were able to hear and find a pair of confiding Citril Finches perched in a tree.
We ate lunch nearby in Hecho, at Bar Subordan, where we enjoyed one of the best meals of the trip. Fried asparagus tips was followed by crisp fresh salad with goat cheese and walnuts. We thought the mouth-watering mushroom crepes were the main course, but more dishes followed until our bellies were about to burst! Cafe con leche perked us up for afternoon birding.
We drove up the Hecho Valley and stopped at Boca de la Infierno to watch raging rapids of the Rio Aragon-Subordan crash through boulders and careen down the narrow rocky ravine. Several Gray Wagtails showed no fear of the rushing water, bobbing along boulders looking for insects. We followed the narrow road north, hugging river, and saw a number of White-throated Dippers zipping up stream.
We entered Los Valles Occidentales park at Selva de Oza forest, and heard a Bullfinch singing. We all got out to get great looks of a stunning male. Great Spotted Woodpecker showed briefly, and a pair of Citril Finches foraged along the roadside for close views. The pavement turned to gravel, as we drove deeper into Guarrinza park. Pyrenees mountains rose up from green meadows dotted with boulders, shrubs and trees. The river flowed briskly through the valley, fed by numerous streams cascading down the mountains with countless waterfalls. The afternoon light and scenery was spectacular, and we greatly enjoyed the drive at elevation 1500 meters. We spotted Linnet and several close Yellowhammers. The road ended at Mallo Blanco, where we parked and proceeded on foot. We crossed a fast-running stream fjord by a foot bridge, and were surprised to find an Asp Viper curled up in a crevice at the end of the bridge! Dennis spotted it as Alice was about to step on it! We moved around it carefully, while snapping copious photos.
Our eyes rarely strayed from the stunning mountain scenery where we found two Alpine Marmots sitting on boulders, and five different Pyrenean Chamois goats moving along rocky slopes. With some effort we located a Garden Warbler flitting through shrubs near the road, and another pair of Citril Finches. Finally we headed back to the hotel, stopping for a Red-backed Shrike posing atop a small tree, and a Red Fox loping across a distant meadow.
Day 11 / Friday June 3 – Pyrenees
It was another beautiful mostly sunny day as temperatures rose from a refreshing 50 to a pleasant 70 degrees. A singing Dunnock showed briefly in the garden for those that showed up early to our van.
Today we were pleased with the opportunity to cross into the French side of the Pyrenees and bird two different countries in the same day! On our way through the Hecho Valley we saw Common Buzzard, Red Kite, Egyptian and Griffon Vulture, Short-toed Snake-Eagle, and Red-backed Shrike. We drove winding roads through the Roncal Valley, with stunning scenery of steep rocky mountains and green vegetated valley. Several herds of cattle, horses and donkeys grazed freely in the meadows, crossing steep slopes on switchback trails. Amid sunny blue skies we snapped many photos of the incredible landscape.
We stopped at a mountain pass pullover, elevation 1825 meters, and realized we had crossed the border into France. No international checkpoint, just a change in signage from basque to french language! We added a layer of clothing and walked around the wind-swept hills of French Pyrenees. Alpine Choughs swooped and called around us. Northern Wheatears and Black Redstarts bobbed around rocky boulders. Numerous Citril Finches flew by, and Water Pipits sang from grassy expanses. An Alpine Accentor called then flew towards us, finally sitting for a long time on a nearby boulder for excellent views.
We drove a little deeper into France, dropping down to Plateau Pescamou to look for the elusive White-winged Snowfinch at an empty ski resort. We walked slowly up bare ski trails, beneath silent lifts, pacing ourselves with the elevation and loose gravel surface. We had no luck on snowfinches, but enjoyed excellent views of several Ring Ouzels perched on Black Pine trees. Black Redstart and Citril Finches were common, and we heard Goldcrest. Water Pipits displayed in lark-like fluttering flight, calling pip-pip-pip-pip. Several families of Alpine Marmots darted into their burrows upon seeing us, then emerged to eye us curiously. At comfortable distance, they scampered around the hillsides. A pair of Chamois moved across a distant ridge. A few Common Wall Lizards sunned themselves on boulders.
We returned back into Spain, and ate lunch at the park restaurant that caters to campers, hikers, and visitors. Afterwards, we went to look for White-backed and Black Woodpecker at nearby Gamueta forest. It was a lovely walk through beech and black pine woods, though a bit quiet in the late afternoon sunshine. We found a Marsh Tit with food in its bill, along with Long-tailed and Coal Tits. Eurasian Jay called loudly, and a Black Woodpecker was heard drumming and calling, but did not come into view.
After dinner we drove down to Siresa and walked around the hamlet listening for European Scops Owl. We didn’t get the owl, but it was interesting to walk along the quiet cobblestone streets in darkness, and stand a few feet from crumbling monastery ruins dating from 9th-12th century.
Day 12 / Saturday June 4 – Pyrenees; Belchite Plains
This morning we said adios to Lucia and Imolan, our lovely hosts of the Uson Hotel, and prepared to head south for the next leg of our trip. We lingered a few minutes at the hotel garden with a pair of Blackcaps and Bullfinch, along with the family of Short-toed Treecreepers under the eaves.
The highlight of the morning were the fields of Arres, featuring a mix of low scrub, grasses, and trees gaining height up the slope. The field was alive with birds singing and zipping through shrubs. We were delighted to find all of our target species fairly quickly, with excellent views enjoyed by all. One Tawny Pipit shared a perch with a family of European Stonechats for long moments, giving great looks to all. Ciril Buntings were heard then seen atop a pine tree. As we admired the Ciril’s field marks through the scope, an Ortolan’s Bunting flew in to the same spot, displacing the Ciril, and taking his turn to pose for us! A few minutes later, a Western Orphean Warbler flew into a leafy tree and worked its way to outer branches for all to see. It was wonderful to find these species one-two-three-four, and observe them so well!
Subalpine Warblers flitted around shrubs, showing gray head, rosy-colored chest, and red eye; one was close enough to see its thin white line angled off the corner of its bill! Several Linnets crossed the field, and a Dunnock was spotted briefly. Common Cuckoo and Quail called distinctively during our entire time in the field.
We moved to a spot about 800 meters down the road to enjoy great views of a Bonelli’s Warbler singing in trees around us. Several people glimpsed a Greater Spotted Woodpecker and heard Iberian Green Woodpecker.
We left the fields and continued on to the San Juan de la Pena monastery. The site hosts a number of birds, along with hundreds of visitors interested in the history, architecture, and culture of this religious icon. Ascending the narrow, winding drive, we enjoyed stunning vistas of the valley and snow-capped Pyrenees mountains. Peter opted to tour the old monastery built into cliffside caves, while the rest of us continued to the summit to walk the grounds and woodland trails. From an inspiring viewpoint we scanned the valley to look for woodpeckers – both Black and Iberian Green Woodpeckers were heard calling and drumming, but neither flew across the space for us to see. A kettle of about 25 Eurasian Griffon circled through blue skies overhead. On the trails we saw our second Bonelli’s Warbler of the day, and tracked down a singing Common Chiffchaff. Black Redstart, Long-tailed and Marsh Tits, Gray and White Wagtails and Red Crossbill were also seen.
We enjoyed lunch at a local restaurant in the hamlet of Santa Cruz de la Seros, at the base of the monastery mountain. The meal was delicious, albeit noisy, as some of the busloads of monastery visitors decided to dine at the same time as our group.
Bellies full and content, we continued our journey south, driving several hours until we reached the Belchite Plains area southeast of Zaragoza. The skies darkened with thick clouds, but rain held off while we birded the tall grasses of La Lomaza Reserve. Larks were singing, flying, and displaying all around us, including Lesser Short-toed and Greater Short-toed Larks, Calandra Lark, and Crested Lark. Dupont’s Lark was heard, and a few saw a Spectacled Warbler in low scrub. A Marsh Harrier soared low over distant fields just as we walked back to the vehicles. Within a few minutes the rain caught up to us, and we checked into our hotel as quickly as possible.
We ate dinner, with a tasty lentil soup and choice of lamb or rabbit, at the hotel restaurant and retired for an early start tomorrow morning.
Day 13 / Sunday June 5 – Belchite Steppes
We arrive at El Planeron Ornithological Reserve, an area of rolling fields of golden wheat interspersed with barren agricultural plots and a mix of low shrubs and grasses, just after sunrise. We are greeted by a pair of Red-legged Partridge and Eurasian Thick-knees along with the common larks that make up this mosaic of steppe – Calandra, Lesser Short-toed, Greater Short-toed and Crested. This whole area is on of critical importance for steppe species and though the number of pairs is not that great this is the best place in Spain for Dupont’s Lark. The best we did this morning was hear a few sporadic notes of this most elusive lark.
Other specialities of the steppes are Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse which were seen in flight with a few of the latter scoped in a bare ploughed field. Marsh and Montagu’s Harrier quartered the various favored plots with the Marsh Harrier being successful in catching something! European Bee-eaters with their distinctive flight and call put on a show, and we got a good look at a Black-eared Wheatear. Both Iberian Hare and Rabbit
were seen with a family of the latter taking over an old stone farm building! There were a few fresh Spanish Marbled Whites flitting about the roadside verges. We all got out of the vehicles when a Ladder Snake was spotted on the side of the road. It then proceeded to work its way across the dirt road and slither between Debbie’s feet!
We returned mid-morning to the hotel for a late breakfast before getting a chance to enjoy and photograph some of the common garden birds, Eurasian Collared Dove, Serin, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Linnet.
At mid day we drove the short distance to the old town of Belchite stopping along the way for a Golden Eagle slowly gliding overhead. The ruins of Belchite, with the San Martin de Tours church and clock tower as its focal point, is a ghostly reminder of the devastation of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. As we walked around the perimeter we got good views of Rock Sparrow, Black Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Northern Wheatear and Hoopoe. A Moorish Gecko was also amongst the rubble.
For the remainder of the afternoon we visited the Las Tocas Reservoir where we had crippling views of a Bonelli’s Eagle circling above a gorge. As we ate a late picnic lunch we enjoyed a few butterflies, Provencal Fritillary, Spanish Gatekeeper, Spanish Chalk-hill Blue and Scare Swallowtail as well as an Iberian Rock Lizard.
On the dam we watched an Egyptian Vulture on its nest, with one adult bringing in food to the cave to feed the well grown chick, before switching places with its mate. Griffon Vultures were ubiquitous and an immature Golden Eagle showed well. Hirundines were plentiful with Alpine and Common Swifts, House and Crag Martins. We could hear Cirl Bunting and had good looks at a Rock Bunting.
As we exited Las Torcas and drove into the village of Tosos the habitat looked good for a couple of desired species, Wryneck and Golden Oriole. We would not be disappointed with a very cooperative Wryneck posing and singing on several open branches, and the orioles flying between small stands of trees. Booted and Short-toed Eagle soaring overhead added to our tally of raptors and ended a wonderful day!
Day 14 / Monday June 6 – Belchite Steppes, El Planeron; Rio Heranes
We returned to El Planeron at sunrise to once again try Dupont’s Lark. It is a little late in the season for them, so anything at this time of year would really be a bonus. We did hear a few and had one skylarking above the wheat before it just dropped down like rock and vanished into the field. In the area we had a look at a Little Owl; two Red Foxes one of which had a Eurasian Thick-knee staring at it; a Western Marsh Harrier with prey likely a furry rodent, and two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flying over.
After a hearty breakfast we checked out of our hotel and began the journey back to Madrid. A stop at the late 18th-early 19th century romantic painter, Francisco de Goya’s birthplace, a humble stone farmhouse in the sleepy village of Fuendetodos was a delight. Unfortunately the museum next door was closed.
There would be one last stop on the outskirts of Madrid along the Rio Heranes. As we wound our way through the tree-lined cereal fields we came across Great Spotted Woodpecker, Iberian Green Woodpecker and many Wood Pigeons. Looking across the river a Black Wheatear perched on a cave ledge alerted us to a juvenile Eurasian Eagle Owl in one of the small caves on the gorge face. There would also be a Stock Dove.
Nightingale, Cetti’s Warbler, Long-tailed Tits and Golden Oriole were all heard as we hoped for a better view of a Penduline Tit, that just zipped by. Butterflies included Western Dappled White and Green-veined White, while one of the few dragonflies we saw on the trip, a Keeled Skimmer, showed well.
In Madrid we said goodbye to Peter and Bob who were headed to new sections of the country, and to Santi for for a thoroughly enjoyable trip that exceeded everyones expectations. The rest us checked into out hotel and had a wonderful farewell dinner.