Saturday, January 24, 2015

Negociating the fog and the wind, Swallows in the freezing cold, Marsh Harriers by the dozen then Griffons in the sunny high tops

Marsh Harrier in the fog, Valverd
One of the problems with travelling in Spain in the Winter months, as I found to my cost during my last visit in Nov/ Dec 2013, is FOG! Usually of the freezing variety it hangs around in great swathes and typically affects the interior plains and what remain of the steppes. My destination after the Pyrenees was to the south of Lleida and one of the last remaining areas of steppe land in Catalyuna that hasn't been given over to intensive farming. Looking forward to photographing some Sandgrouse I was, or maybe catching a glimpse of some Great Bustards. I got neither because of FOG! Went to all the right places and sure I could have stayed longer but after 4 days of hanging about I gave up and drove South and out of it!
Male Merlin, Utxesa

During a brief respite from the stuff whilst I was at Utxesa I got my first Merlin of the trip...distant shot but good enough to tell it was a male.


..and lots more White Storks, apparently a whole bunch of them winter around a big rubbish tip on the outskirts of Lleida city.

 ... and at Valverd my first Purple Swamphens of the trip. I have a soft spot for these comical giants of the reedbeds and these were the first of many over the coming days as I headed ever closer to the Ebro Delta.

Squabbling Purple Swamphens, Valverd

Seen many more Lapwings this time around, with many flocks of 200 plus roaming about the fields. This smallish flock crossing the reclaimed lake at Valverd made a pleasing sight as I sat in the sun and chomped away at a chorizo & cheese sandwich!


Earlier in the day, in the freezing fog and whilst my hands could barely operate the camera I took a chance on photographing some Crag Martins over the lake that didn't look quite right. They turned out to be a couple of Swallows! Rubbish pics but good enough for me to tell these are the most northerly wintering Swallows I've ever seen … lord knows how they were existing or what they were feeding on in such harsh conditions but this was major surprise bird species in this part of Spain.

Bearded Tit (male), Utxesa

....moments later I got another unexpected bird to add to the list...  a pair of Bearded Tits fraternising with 20 or so Chiff Chaffs on the margins of the lake …

At this point grabbing the camera was like holding a block of ice and my fingers were none too happy about being removed from my gloves, so these are a few degrees from decent shots! Another first for Spain for me though.

Bearded Tit (female), Utxesa
You can't beat driving South and as I expected, in just 50 kilometres and through a couple of mountain ranges, I was into bright sunshine and spirit uplifted I pulled the van over at the first most likely spot for a stroll. I was immediately into a secluded valley full of singing Song Thrushes, Chaffinches and close on 50 Blackcaps darting in amongst the mixed olive and almond groves.

Time to stop for the night and I stumbled upon a nature reserve nr the town of Flix, on the banks of the mighty Ebro and a place where much toxic shit waste was uncovered in 2005. Its been cleaned up and the work continues … I witnessed it going on as I biked back down the track from the reserve into town and across the river. Never has biking been such fun!!

The reserve itself – Sebes d'Ebro, was certainly worth a stop over, not least because I met and befriended one of the reserve guardians - a guy called Mathew from Huddersfield, UK no less!

Got some half decent Marsh Harrier and Kingfisher shots here but the light was less than perfect so theses are a tad grainy....

Male Marsh Harrier, Sebes


Male Marsh Harrier, Sebes

Kingfisher, Sebes

Alfara de Carles

Huge winds crossing the mountains around Tortosa caused a stop over there and they were no less fierce the next morning as I attempted some kind of mountain terrain experience around Alfara de Carles

Got my first Griffon Vultures up there plus a very distant Bonellis Eagle and a Citril Finch plus lots of Blackcaps in just about the only place I could find out of the wind. I know it looks idyllic and yes the sun was shining but man I could hardly stand upright up there!
Just about the only place out of the wind at Alfara!

Griffon Vulture, Alfara
So those last shots in the mountains were on the 17th Jan and since then I've been on the Ebro Delta. Internet access has been tricky, otherwise I'd have posted more frequently, no camp sites are open either so its just been me and the van and some very inventive use of wet wipes!!

Next up will be highlights from the Ebro and whilst the experience was spoilt somewhat by the excessive amount of shooting that takes place over here, there's plenty of goodies to stay tuned for!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Lazy days in San Pere Pescadore, Kingfishers, Shearwaters then a 3 point turn enforces the help of Catalan mechanics

I've moved on of course and now around the plains of Lleida. Its been decidedly foggy for the past 4 days so pics have been thin on the ground but I've had my moments and will include in the next post.

So here's the second part of my days around Emporda and beyond....

Kinda felt I'd outstayed my welcome in the car park at El Cortalets so moved a few kilometres south to a beach side spot for campervans at San Pere Pescadore.

Mouth of the Rio Fluvia

How wonderful it is to have a bike on board! During my 3 days at the beach me and the bike went all over the place – into town for provisions, the odd bar visit and all around the various tracks along the coast there.
This is the mouth of the Rio Fluvia, the southernmost of the 2 rivers that empty into the Med in this area..10 mins on the bike!

Englishman abroad aboard a bike!
10 minutes later I was enjoying prolonged views of a Kingfisher and probably my best ever photo shots as this one fished from a wall alongside the river mouth.
Kingfisher, Rio Fluvia
Back at the ranch and with the Med like an absolute millpond in almost zero wind, I enjoyed several long lazy sit downs on the beach gazing out to sea!

During the entire time I was there, there was a flock of appx 160 Balearic Shearwaters in the bay and though mostly distant they occasionally came close enough to photograph. You can see the odd gull in amongst and I know friends and colleagues who'd be wanting to id them but all I was seeing were Black Headed & Yellow Legged Herring Gull

Balearic Shearwaters, San Pere Pescadore

Balearic Shearwaters, San Pere Pescadore

Balearic Shearwaters, San Pere Pescadore
Pretty amazing to get half decent pics of any Shearwaters, such are their ocean going tendencies and these are certainly my best to date of any Shearwater species.

Black Throated Diver on the Med at San Pere Pescadore

Along with the Shearwaters there were also a couple of Black Throated Divers, bit distant but showing reasonably well and enough of a pic of the bill to distinguish from Red Throated.

I heard that at about the same time there were gale force winds and snow blizzards in the UK, well I've got freezing fog now so what comes around goes around and sorry to sound so smug...  but these were some of the balmiest January days I can ever remember!

Starlings across the Pyrenees

Always warmer on the coast of course and you can clearly see on these pics of Starlings coming into roost in the reeds of Emporda and across a backdrop of a section of the Pyrenees... that it ain't that warm inland and higher up!

... but at sea level things carry on and even the commonest birds provide me with all the entertainment I need to make a bike ride worthwhile....

Cormorants fishing in formation on the Rio Fluvia

Black Headed Gulls getting feisty! Pre breeding territorial behaviour?

Gaffer tape don't hide it all!

Argh...maybe I should have stayed put because I had my first mishap of the trip the day I left the balmy Med coast. En route for Lleida and some Steppe habitat I spotted a lovely spot from the van and thought it was worth a stop off. Ended up going down a track I thought might deteriorate so I looked for a likely turn-around spot and failed to look hard enough ... the result, an all too familiar 'crunch' of bumper hitting hard material... Ah and it was all going so well!

The place in question was about here nr the town of Artes

...and what I was seeing was this sort of thing and was actually where the Rierra Garressa, a tributary of El Lobregat that in turn empties into the Med through Barcelona, happened to pass close to the C25 motorway I was happily progressing along! Big note to self - the bike is for exploring and van doesn't do tracks!

So that was me for the day. Ironically, if I'd carried on just a little further I would have found the perfect reversing spot but it was found too late, it was a Sunday and nothing to be done except explore till the morning. With no working offside indicator, effectively I couldn't turn left safely... and that's tricky on any continent.  Best call the RAC!

Wandering around I was semi consoled by the fact that I'd been seduced and then snaffled by a beautiful vista that many of my kind would have fallen for, I was semi justified but still felt like an idiot abroad, even the hills seemed to be talking to me!

#SiSi  is of course part of something far more important than me straying onto the wrong side of the tracks ... Independence for Catalyuna!  I'd vote for it if I were from around here ... proud people, good people.

 ... if you saw this from the motorway wouldn't you want to stop? 

Rierra Garessa nr Artes
Stop I had to do and this was a good thought gathering spot....

thinking spot, nr Artes

Black Redstart, Artes

Tramping around with the noise of the motorway ever present and mulling over my options I did see a few things ... 5 new species of birds for the trip in fact - Dunnock, Great Spotted Woodpecker (amazingly), Crested Tit, Treecreeper and Firecrest. Got pics of none of em and you wouldn't thank me for drab Dunnock would you?

 A nicely posed Black Redstart, of which there are many in almost every kind of habitat, and a cheeky Robin of which there are even more, did get my focus though.

Robin, nr Artes

The van was sorted reasonably quickly the next day -  took me 2 hrs to find the Fiat garage RAC pointed me to in Manresa, 1 hr to explain that I didn't want the bumper repaired.. just the indicator, 1 hr for them to suggest a Spanish lighting panel ... 2 hrs to fit. Hey look they were friendly, helpful, I was hopeless with my Spanish, the job got done, I'm road worthy again and not likely to get stopped by el policia (that would never do) .... and I had the chance to chance to hang around downtown Manresa  ..  as Catalan as you get, in fact the flags and banners on these pics are replicated in just about every town and village in Catalyuna ... they want independence and I'm with 'em, I've had nothing but smiles from these proud Catalans and I love their spirit. find out if they deserve it more than Scotand by clicking here



Catalan flags everywhere

Got some new walking boots here though whilst I was walking around Manresa and waiting for those Catalan mechanics to do their stuff....some original Spanish Paredes for a good price. Slight oversight with the boots I bought in the UK ... too f****** small! - should have tried em on first I suppose!

Already had my first Spanish adventure then .... really must take care of this van now it's patched up, New bumper will cost me £200 from Swift when I get back but hey ho -  I live andI learn, I'm very alive and hell yeah clocked up 118 bird species to date!! I push on through the fog!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Regreso a España... Emporda and its many marvels ..Bluethroat, Penduline Tits and the biggest bird hide ever!

First post from my second road trip to Spain, and about time ... been giving it the big easy since leaving my sisters house in Montmorillon, France and 4 days of merriment and music making over New Year. Before crossing over into Spain I spent a few days around the wetland areas around Narbonne and filled my boots with some nice Flamingoes
Greater Flamingoes, St Pierre, nr Narbonne
Plenty of birds about and some great weather once I cleared a belt of mist and rain across central France, lovely light and a chance for some landscape pics nr port Leucate
Port Leucate, with the Pyrenees in the background

Dartford Warbler, early morning shot.

My best effort yet of a Dartford Warbler and some nice flying Great White Egrets were useful sign off pics from my last good outing in the south of France, but I could sense Spain beckoning, and I crossed the Pyrenees on the 5th Jan. Didn't stop ... it was dark and just too cold and bitter this time of year, be better on the way back!

Great White Egret

...and so to my first landing spot in Spain - Aiguamolls D'Emporda.

Been here 5 days now (so it must be good!)... just exploring this rich and varied coastal area in Catalunya. There's a major 'parc naturel' at 'El Cortalet' but the whole area between the 2 rivers Muga and Fluvia is impressive, well managed and in this part of Spain second only to the Ebro Delta in terms of wildlife importance.

Marsh Harrier, El Cortalet
El Cortalet is a wetland area to rival the best ... all the usual suspects I guess but I never tire of watching Marsh Harriers do their stuff...

Marsh Harrier, El Cortalet
....Water Rails all over the place but as ever - the devils own business to photograph! Of half a dozen seen and more than treble that heard, these were my best efforts -

Water Rail, El Cortalet

Water Rail, El Cortalet

The White Storks here are just about to start breeding and making a right racket with all that bill rattling! There was a big nest just above my van in the car park at the reserve but right across the patch they weren't exactly difficult to photograph!

Like I say, tis the breeding season here for storks ... think she's giving the nudge to a slow starter?!

Penduline Tit, El Cortalet
Last time I was in Spain (Nov/Dec 2013) I was totally thrilled to get my first ever Penduline Tit in the Brazo del Este. It was a good view, but fleeting and no chance to get the camera out. Double, nay treble my thrills, add ecstasy and a bar of Cadbury's Whisper Gold for good measure and what you get is not one but a flock of said Tits... and I got to take pictures!

Penduline Tit2, El Cortalet

Penduline Tit3, El Cortalet

Penduline Tit4, El Cortalet

 I was totally captivated by these fantastic wee birds, counted 8 in total, feeding on mast heads and actually stripping some kind of goodness out of the reed stalks (pic3). At the risk of sounding like David Attenborough, as I watched them flit from reed to reed, I was struck by how totally adapted they are to this environment.. swaying and sinking down on mast heads (like a pendulum doh!) and the way their feet fit the exact diameter of a reed stem... awesome!

Bluethroat, El Cortalet

First day in Spain was already beyond expectations and it kept going.... fancy a bit of Bluethroat?

Bluethroat2, El Cortalet

Bluethroat3, El Cortalet

Amazingly, my dear mother had given me a framed picture of a pretty bird she stumbled across in an antique store ... turned out to be a limited edition print of a Bluethroat! She wasn't to know but I love these cunning little birds ...aren't mums brilliant!

Chiff Chaff, El Cortalet
Sticking with wee birds and as with the last time I was in Spain, the wintering numbers of Chiff Chaffs here is as staggering as ever, along with Starlings, Stonechats and Reed Buntings they are the most populous bird out here.

A few more Willow Warblers than last time too but not got a decent pic yet!

Every remaining fruit bearing bush and tree has some kind of bird in it and if its not a Blackbird its a Blackcap ... here's a female devouring a fruit I should be familiar with. Blueberry?

Female Blackcap, El Cortalet

The terrain is dominated by salt loving shrubs and plants, with lots of saltmarsh rocket, sea bindweed and tree-wise the short and stubby Salt Cedar trees.

Great for Meadow Pipits, Linnets, Goldfinch, Wood & Crested Larks

Although there's an abundance of wet fields I've not had huge numbers of wading birds .. a few Spotted Redshank, Green & Common Sandpiper, Curlew and Lapwing

Lapwing, El Cortalet
and from the highest and most impressive bird hide I've ever clambered into, and I was breathless when I got to the top of this one ...
Mega bird hide at El Cortalet!

.....some cracking views of the reserve
El Cortalets from the tower hide

Not the prettiest, but of all the bird hides on all the reserves I've ever visited, this is certainly the tallest .. and with the Pyrenees behind mighty impressive!

Common Snipe flock, El Cortalets
.... and from the top of that very hide, a passing Marsh Harrier put up a ton of Common Snipe ... not the sharpest of pics by any means but as a spectacle I enjoyed every frame ... when was the last time you saw a flock of 200+ Snipe!

Common Snipe flock, El Cortalets
Wow, nearing the end of my first week in Spain and I haven't hardly moved from Emporda, believe me I could have doubled the number of pics in this post with worthwhile shots but not bad for a start and already topped 100 bird species.

Hoopoe, San Pere Pescadore