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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Return leg - Plains of La Serena, Monfrague, Villafafila. Imperial Eagle mobbing Great Bustards, Montagues Harrier & Sandgrouse.

17th - 21st March La Serena, Monfrague & Villafafila

On the return journey back up through Western Spain now and have to say at the outset that it's good to have a travelling companion in the shape of Mark along for the last few legs. Maybe something else to point out at the outset is that the moment we headed into inland Spain the weather and the light deteriorated vastly! I've done my best with the pics without taking away the true nature of the conditions (its very obviously still winter in the middle of Spain!)

Our first destination, the plains of  La Serena is a huge area of largely untouched 'steppe' land and with a total area of 1025 sq miles it is the largest piece of uncultivated land in Western Europe.

The Plains of La Serena
The Plains of La Serena
 A wild and awe inspiring place but I suspect in the middle of Summer it'll be unbearably hot and this river, one of the main water sources in the area will almost certainly run dry.
Rio Guadalefra, La Serena

Quite rocky in parts too with some strange looking lichen covered outcrops

....there's that same grey sky again and that same strange bloke in my van!

Great Bustards, La Serena, 17/03/15

Yep, a big place and some equally big birds. This is one of the best places in Spain for seeing Great and Little Bustards and we got an eyeful of both.
Shame the light was so dismal for the Great Bustards because they'd all just about got into breeding plumage - check out the 'tash on the prancing one!

This Little Bustard was one of 2 males that were flying around together and calling ...chasing each other maybe? We concluded that it must have been some kind of territorial spat. The only pics I've ever managed of flying Bustards anyway!

Little Bustard, La Serena, 18/03/15
 .... easier to photograph on the ground but even though these nicely posed males look distinctive it wasn't until we stopped the car and scanned the terrain that we saw them plus 30 or so of the much drabber females.
Little Bustards, La Serena, 17/03/15

This is a rubbish pic of a flock of 20 or so Great Bustards taking off. They were obviously agitated and it takes a lot to bother these giant 'turkey sized' birds but worried they were and with good reason.....

flushed Great Bustards

Juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle, La Serena, 18/03/15

In the distance we saw the culprit - juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle lording it over the plains and looking very menacing! It's a a way off in this pic but you can clearly see it looking down on those Turkeys! Like Golden Eagles, Imperial Eagles will take young goats so a Great Bustard .. why not?

We watched in awe as this monster cruised above both us and the Bustards. With a global population of circa 350 breeding pairs  this is one of the world's rarest eagles - more info here, and although I'd spotted one of the breeding individuals at Donana (easy enough as they have scopes trained on the nearest ones), to stumble across one in a more wild environment was just awesome. This young bird came a bit closer and afforded some great views and half decent pics ...

Juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle, La Serena, 18/03/15

Juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle, La Serena, 18/03/15

Juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle, La Serena, 18/03/15
Male Montague's Harrier, La Serena, 17/03/15
That was definitely the stand out moment of the trip to La Serena. You don't see Imperial Eagles or Great Bustards every day but to see some dangerous interaction between the 2 was truly memorable but that wasn't all that this remarkable place had to offer. The day before, we had our first good views of Montagues Harriers, a female and 2 males and one of them put on a very good hunting show...

Male Montague's Harrier, La Serena, 17/03/15

Male Montague's Harrier, La Serena, 17/03/15

Male Montague's Harrier, La Serena, 17/03/15

Male Montague's Harrier, La Serena, 17/03/15

Male Montague's Harrier, La Serena, 17/03/15


Black Bellied Sandgrouse, La Serena, 18/03/15

Nearby nr the small town of Campanario, we had both Black Bellied and Pin Tailed Sandgrouse flying over at regular intervals ...

Unfamiliar to most casual birdwatchers, Sandgrouse, as the name suggests are creatures of dry and dusty plains, deserts and other arid / semi arid parts of the world. Strong and fast fliers, as they have to be in order to seek out watering holes which can be many miles away from their nests, adult birds have the unique ability to store water in their belly feathers which they then use to 'drip feed' young chicks.

Pin Tailed Sandgrouse, La Serena, 18/03/15

Other good birds here included a pair of Bonellis Eagle, Black Stork, Lesser Kestrel, Pallid Swift, 2 Egyptian Vultures and lots of Calandra Larks 

Calandra Lark, La Serena, 17/03/15


A faulty memory card did for all my bird pics from Monfrague but if I can get it fixed the 8 or so Black Vultures we saw here should be worth the effort. In truth I'm not a huge fan (too many tourists) and I did a piece on the place last time I was here

Villafafila, 21/03/15

With more bad weather forecasted (including heavy snow) it was time to start putting in some miles if we were to get anything at all out of the Pyrenees, but not before a return trip to Villafafila, a series of lagoons set in steppe land nr Zamora (Castilla y Leon).

Dense freezing fog did for any meaningful exploring last time around and the elements weren't much better this time ... grey skies and a howling North-easterly wind. It certainly wasn't sunny Spain!
Villafafila, 21/03/15
Finding shelter, hats & gloves and hot tea was the order of the day for what turned out to be the last major birding site before we crossed back into France. Man it was cold! Got some good birds here though including 27 Great Bustards (distant), 2 Merlin, 4 Hen Harriers, c400 Avocet, c40 Ruff, c250 Black T Godwits, 2 Golden Plover, 1 Northern Wheatear, 6 Spanish Sparrows and plenty of ducks including 12 Wigeon and a curious looking female Tufted Duck that was ringed on its bill as well as its leg ...not a Ring Necked Duck because it has a tuft but maybe some kind of hybrid that's been marked out? It was the only decent bird pic I took such were the conditions!

Tufted / Ring Necked hybrid, Villafafila, 21/03/15


Tufted / Ring Necked hybrid, Villafafila, 21/03/15

A curious place with much dilapidation. Villafafila itself was pure 'shanty town' and there was a whole deserted village nr the reserve as well as several of the multi storey mud and straw pigeon coops that the area is renowned for.
Multi storey pigeon coop, Villafafila


Villafafila through a bird hide!

Sadly, poor weather and worse forecast cut short our stay on the border so we 'snuck' across the Pyrenees in a hasty fashion. In the snow nr the ski resort of Formigal, both of us bothered by the glare from the white stuff and slightly anxious about the state of the road, we had a solitary Alpine Swift, House Martins and a flock of Goldfinch around the ski lifts and added a couple of new species for the trip - 40 or so Alpine Choughs and 5 Snow Bunting - all from the van which we were both reluctant to stop and try for pics!

Back into France and the weather was little better and I shan't be posting anything from the few sites we visited but Mark had a lifer in the shape of Black Woodpecker and some probable Ortolan Buntings and yet another species for the trip - a small flock of Bramblings at Le Foret de Gretigne.

So the trip ended with a flurry of new birds and more than a flurry of snow! 210 bird species in total which I'll list in my next post along with some pics that I couldn't fit into previous posts.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Into Portugal, Tavira and back into Spain for the 'Bonanza' experience... displaying Booted Eagles, Spoonbills and Kites plus new migrants

My last 2 or 3 weeks here and the journey back north through Spain starts with a journey into Portugal to pick up my buddy Mark from Faro airport. Slightly dodgy start with a police fine of 30 euros for parking where I shouldn't have at the airport but great to catch up and have some company and banter along the way.

Tavira and Castro Marim being the obvious destinations before heading back into Spain and the salt pans of Sanlucar de Barremeda & Bonanza.

Spotted Redshank, Tavira (12th March 2015)
Tavira is part and parcel Algarve, part tourist, part good estuarine birding, always a good spot for waders with  Redshank, Whimbrel, Curlew, Dunlin, Sanderling, Little Stint, Ringed & Little Ringed Plovers  all in good numbers plus a good Spotted Redshank and another first for the trip ..  those legendary travellers - Bar Tailed Godwits.

Bar Tailed Godwits, Tavira

Whimbrel, Tavira (12th March 2015)
Sandwich Tern, Tavira
We searched in vain for a different tern species and did get a few Caspian Terns but in the main it was Sandwich Terns that were passing.

Further east towards the Spanish border a failed attempt to access the Castro Marim parc natural because of roadworks and diversions, took us instead to the fishing village of Villareal de Santa Antonio where we saw 100s of passing Gannets, some of them no doubt bound for UK breeding grounds, a few Great Skuas and some Pallid Swifts in off the sea.

Of human interest here were the activities of the many local shellfishers ... stretching as far as the eye could sea across the shallow estuary. One of the few times my 400m lens has come out for a landscape pic!

Shellfishers of Villareal de Santa Antonio
Nice place for a boat too .....

Villareal de San Antonio

The saltpans of Sanlucar/ Bonanza and the adjacent forests of parcel pine (or algeida) are old and favourite haunts of mine and Mark's. They make up the part of the mighty Donana reserve on the other side of the Guadalquiver river and although only a relatively short distance along the coast from where we were in Portugal, to get there involves a drive all the way to Sevilla and then down the other side of the river - 3 hrs!
On yer bike Mark! Bonanza

Worth it though. The weather was hot, the birds plentiful and Mark discovered he quite liked riding around on my bike!
So much to see here as always .... skies full of displaying Booted Eagles, Storks and migrant Black Kites, nesting Grey Herons and Spoonbills, flocks of Night Herons and to cap it all off 3 new migrants - Subalpine Warbler,a single Willow Warbler amongst the many wintering Chiffchaffs and 1 singing Nightingale.

Nesting Spoonbills, Bonanza, 16/03/15

White Storks nest building, Bonanza, 16/03/15

Black Kite overhead, Bonanza, 16/03/15

Black Kite, Bonanza, 16/03/15

Black Stork, Bonanza, 16/03/15

Willow Warbler, Bonanza, 16/03/15
Tricky to convey the majesty of displaying Booted Eagles in a hot blue sky but here's a pair circling together - a dark phase female and a light phase male.

Booted Eagle display flight

.... and the same male performing, soaring up, curling himself into a ball and then diving down in an almost vertical stoop before repeating in a series of looping soars and dives. Pretty awesome to see, the first time I've managed to photograph the event and these pics don't do the show any justice at all!

Booted Eagle display flight

Narcissus (wild daffodil), Bonanza, 16/03/15
Spring flowers like these Narcissus or wild Daffodil look as if they've been out for a week or so, in fact some seem to have 'gone over'

The other flower is Halimium, a kind of rock rose and a flowering shrub that dominates and covers the scrubland in places with gorgeous yellow blooms.

Halimium, Bonanza, 16/03/15

We searched in vain, as we always do, for a Western 'British' type Yellow Wagtail on passage but all seen, and there were a lot, were all of the Blue headed race. Jolly nice to see flitting about everywhere though!

Yellow Wagtail (Iberian / Blue headed), Bonanza, 16/03/15

Night Herons, Bonanza, 16/03/15 ... not the best of pics but never seen a flock this big!
Other good birds seen here but not photographed included Long Eared and Tawny Owl, Purple Swamphen, Osprey, 20 or so Marsh Harriers, Ruff, Tree & Spanish Sparrows and Calandra Larks.
Onto Extramudra next and our first point of call will be the plains of Serena, the biggest area of uncultivated land in Western Europe!