Tag Archives: Spain

From dawn til dusk: in Spain

This Sunday I spent all day birding. From dawn until dusk. In Spain.

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Juvenile Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

The architect of this short and intense day of birding was my patch colleague, Jonathan, who has written up a great trip report on our day (and night) out. So, I don’t wish to duplicate what already exists on t’internet, nor can I duplicate the quality of his photos.

So, instead, I will do what I do best on this blog: ramble on a bit about my experiences in the wild: or rather, the impressions the wild leave on me and pepper these thoughts with lists and poor photos of the birds I see. Sounds gripping, huh?!

Spain is an important country for me. I spent a formative early-adult year of my life there and fell in love with the country, the culture, the people, the food, and even the language. I know some people think Italian is the most beautiful language in the world, or French, but nothing beats Spanish for me.

¡Ay sol! ¡Ay luna, luna!
Un minuto después.
Sesenta flores grises
enredaban sus pies. – 
Federico Garcia Lorca

The day began in the hills near Alicante. Just up from a rural town called Xixona.

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As we drove along a narrow lane, Rock Sparrow flocks bounced through the olive trees in front of us with Serin, and Goldfinch in accompaniment.

Bushes clicked at us with Sardinian Warbler whilst Cirl Bunting threw their colourful heads back and sang to us in the bright light of a November morning.

But it was further down the hillsides where we found the first of our avian targets. Down in the rougher, drier land in the shadow of industrial factories and warehouses.

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Abandoned building near Xixona

Way above us there were dots circling the peaks slowly like flies drunk on fermented fruit. Flys with bald heads and close-to three metre wingspans that is.

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Four, possibly five, Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus). No, really!

I could zoom in more, crop, and present a more feasible record shot in all its pixelated glory, but the picture above captures the moment better for me.

We stood on one side of a small gorge and looked across to the other. Below us a small farmstead house (finca) obscured unidentifiable, parachuting larks (Thekla Lark or Crested Lark we wondered?). The finca’s inhabitant, an elderly Spanish farmer came up to see what two men with telescopes and cameras were doing above his land. But there was no hostility. He walked up the steep slopes, stood behind us for a while and must have wondered what kind of strangeness had been visited on him as we took turns to peer through a scope and celebrate distant views of Black Wheatear. The old farmer wished us a good journey as we left him alone on the rocks.

The gorge was surveyed by a Blue Rock Thrush and a small dole of Rock Dove nestled in holes in the vertical slice of sedimentary rock; geological time made physical.

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Rock Dove (Columba livia)

Jono and I swapped dust and sand for water and reed at the famous wetland site of El Hondo:

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El Hondo

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It was from here that Jono found a Bluethroat on the shore

We were lucky enough to watch a single Marbled Duck, a life first for both of us, paddle silently amongst the Pochard, Mallard, Coot, and Shoveler.

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Marbled Duck (Marmaronetta angustirostris)

Outside of the threatened marshes of southern Iran and Iraq, these are very scarcely and patchily found ducks. Whilst that was Jono’s only life tick of the day, I had three other lifers including a monster. Not a monster find or tick, just a monster…

There was an amusing moment as we first approached a pool when I smiled into my binoculars and told Jono I’d just seen a life tick. “What? A Moorhen?” came the reply. But eventually the giant came into view for Mr L as well; a bird superficially similar to Coot, but twice the size and stunningly coloured, looking like it had just swallowed three Moorhen whole.

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Western (formerly ‘Purple’) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)

The artist formerly known as Purple Swamphen strutted about the reserve with its bright red, raspberry beret (sorry! I couldn’t resist that). Its relative size emphasised when a flock of ibis collected around it. We saw many more that day of both Swamphen and Glossy Ibis.

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Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

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We were also treated to brief appearances from Bluethroat and the onomatopoeic Zitting Cisticola. This was all whilst eagles crossed over our heads repeatedly. I had really hoped to see Bonelli’s Eagle, and perhaps the level of hope almost allowed myself to ‘string’ some of the early views of Booted Eagle into my intended quarry. Whilst not a lifer, the pale morph of these diminutive eagles showed well and we saw several throughout the day.

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Booted Eagle (Aquila pennatus)

The vast El Hondo reserve was great but still largely remains a mystery to us both as its largest lake was hidden behind a biblically large wall of reeds that would have taken hours (almost literally) for us to walk around and peer behind its curtain. Time was against us and so we moved on to an even larger wetland system of salines called Santa Pola.

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Torre en Santa Pola

We watched a number of waders ranging in size from Dunlin, Sanderling, and Kentish Plover, through Turnstone, RedshankGreenshank, Avocet, and Black-winged Stilt up to Greater Flamingo.

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Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

We stopped at several sites around the salt ponds and I saw another lifer; a large flock or two of Slender-billed Gull dotted with Black-headed Gull and a Mediterranean Gull.

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Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei) and Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

We stayed until the sun, which had blazed through clear blue all day, eventually bathed us in soft and cool golden light.

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The chevrons point towards Mr L and the sun

It was close to dusk when I ticked off my fourth lifer of the day: a pair of Whiskered Tern that circled and skimmed a small roadside pool.

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Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)

Finally it would feel rude of me not to mention one more bird. Throughout the day, the species that seemed to keep us company the most – irrespective of habitat, was Black Redstart.

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Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Jonathan travels a lot. I mean A LOT. He signs off his excellent trip reports with a photo of a stuffed panther called Snuffy. So I decided to do something in the spirit of an Attenborough documentary style ‘diary’ (US readers won’t know what this means as I believe the ten minute short ‘making-of’ films at the end of wildlife documentaries don’t make it across the pond as they are the result of packaged-up ad break times).

Here is a secret peak* into the making of the famous ‘Snuffy shots’:

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Jono and Snuffy with the end result courtesy of Wanstead Birder

*At a couple of points, passing cars would sound their horns at us. I wondered why, but then I was taking a photo of a man taking a photo of a stuffed panther. Nothing to see here! Move along now people!

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Ibiza: Island of clubbing, hippies, beaches and… birds?

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I knew Ibiza would be pretty, but I didn’t realise how dramatically beautiful it could be. While not exactly a known birding destination, I found the avifauna fascinating – as much for what was missing as for what was present (more on that later).

I was there for five days – along for the ride, so to speak – with my wife who was performing to packed theatres in a play she had written [in the same way that I excel at geekery, my wife excels at creativity]:

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Left to right: Robyn (as Iras), Lily (my wife as Charmian) and the Composer/Pianist, Omar in ‘Cleopatra’s Key’

While she rehearsed and prepared during the daytime, I set out to tour as much of the island as I could in a few days. The island feels quite big, but everywhere is pretty much reachable in under an hour and I circumnavigated (what is the terrestrial version of this word?) the entire coastline and much of the interior.

Birding summary
I went in hope of finding two species of bird in particular: Audouin’s Gull (see immediately below) and Balearic Warbler (which I shall discuss more later).

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Audouin’s Gull (Larus audouinii or Ichthyaetus audouinii)

About fifty years ago, Audouin’s was one of the rarest gulls in the world with only around 1000 breeding pairs found in just a handful of coastal colonies in the Mediterranean and Africa. Now there are ten times that number – that is still relatively low of course – with the Balearics being one of the best places to see them in Europe. The gull above was on the beach just a few minutes walk away from some of the biggest nightclubs in Europe in San Antoni(o).

In total, I ticked off four ‘lifers’ with the wonderfully named Zitting Cisticola (photo below) and (finally catching up with) Stone Curlew adding to the two mentioned above. I also made a further six world year ticks set out below with a single ‘*’ in the full trip list in order of appearance.

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Ibiza 2015 trip list


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Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis)

For more (sometimes prose-heavy) descriptions of some highlights, read on…

Salt pans
Right next to the airport are the ‘Ses Salines’ or salt flats.

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The highlight for most people here is inevitably the resident flamingo colony. Whilst I was not well covered optically to watch the distant water-life, I still took a record shot of the pink wonders:

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Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

This is my second European sighting of these birds after last year at the Camergue in southern France.

Quite large numbers of egret (possibly more than one species) flew in and out in the distance, occasionally being sent up into the air as the dark shape of a Marsh Harrier patrolled low over the wetland. Shelduck and Mallard were present, but fewer species of waterfowl than I had hoped for. Apart from the egret and flamingos, waders were few and far between. I spotted Greenshank and Common Sandpiper treading and bobbing through the fringe areas.

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Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

November is obviously not the ideal time for warblers in Europe, but a few residents could be found amid the marshy and scrubby vegetation surrounding the wetland:

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Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala)


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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)


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Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis)

Salt extraction is big business there, and has been for hundreds of years, although others seem to live even more rustically…

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Where have the crows gone?
Some birds in Ibiza are the typical and familiar European flavours.

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Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)


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House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

While other birds we might expect were absent. I only saw one Great Tit, for example, and no Blue Tit. Greenfinch and Goldfinch were nearly everywhere, but I only saw a single Chaffinch. This contrast was most noticeable with the corvid family. There are no crows, magpies, jackdaws or rooks on the island at all. The only resident corvid appears to be the raven – I watched a pair fly over ‘cronking’ away one day.

It is a similar case with the Larids. It is obviously too far south for Herring Gull, but there were also no Black-headed, Great or Lesser Black-backs, and nor are there any Common Gull. There are, however, a few Audouin’s Gull (as above) and a lot of Yellow-legged Gull. Everywhere:

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Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)


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1st Winter Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

I didn’t see any Cormorants, but there were a lot of Shag (sometimes swimming at speed in the extreme shallows right up to shore on beaches snapping at the sand eels or whatever collect there – behaviour I have never seen before).

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European Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis)

The bushes in the scrubland would often scream with seemingly hundreds of Serin sounding like a thousand glass bottles being industrially crushed, Meadow Pipits seemed to be hiding in almost every patch of grass. And if they weren’t, then Linnet, House or Rock Sparrows would be.

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Rock Sparrow (Petronia petronia)

But the stand-out birds for me, the birds that characterised much of the trip, aside from the Sardinian Warblers clicking in every other bush, are Black Redstarts. They are almost literally everywhere.

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Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Changing seasons
Much of the un-utilised land is scrub with some (probably planted) wooded areas higher up the hills. I would sometimes leave the car and wander in these areas in the hope of seeing a Balearic Warbler. It was sometimes unseasonably sweltering – we had days when it was around 24 degrees in the shade (in late November I remind you). One such day, by the side of an almost deserted road, the scorched earth I walked on looked how I imagine the Australian bush to be.

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I trod carefully through the patches of grass and plants when a small flock of large-ish birds took off about 20 metres in front of me. Then, after the initial blur of feathers, they flew low and out of sight. They seemed the wrong shape for partridges , but I could not work out what they were instead – I had watched Red-legged Partridge do something similar the day before. I walked carefully towards where I believed they might have landed and scanned with my binoculars. There, camouflaged and as still as a rock, was a bird watching me with a very large eye. Although it was my first encounter with this bird, I knew it immediately; my first Stone Curlew. It disappeared before I could get my camera out along with four or five others.

The Southern part of the island has some lovely coves and beaches and generally seems ‘softer’ than the North.

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Sometimes I would walk by the sea before dawn or after dusk and the water would barely ripple. My luck with the sun changed a bit towards the end of my short trip. The wind picked up. In fact it picked up a lot. This coincided with my fullest exploration of the North West coast. The most dramatic weather waited for the most dramatic scenery.

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There were times when I could barely stand as the wind coming off the sea blew so hard. How different it had been just a couple of days before, when a tiny gust of wind would actually warm you rather than chill you.

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Searching for a special Sylvia
As mentioned above (well done if you have got this far), my Ibiza ambition was to tick off Audouin’s Gull and Balearic Warbler. The latter proved harder than the former.

Next to an exclusive resort on the North East coast, some huge cliffs tower above the turquoise waters. The stunning area has the unfortunate name of ‘bay of pigs’ (or cove of pigs, but the similarity to the infamous cuban location was too good to miss).

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I left my car far below and walked slowly up the hillside. I was literally the only person on the peninsula. It was wonderful.

Sardinian Warbler were – of course –  common. Blue Rock Thrush flew between seemingly designated points – like a magnetised bearing on a rigged pin-ball machine – perhaps marking out its territory, or watching me from a wary distance. Unfortunately, I never got close enough to get a photograph. Well, not really anyway… The attempt below reminds me of the photos of Big-Foot/Yeti that used to be so popular in the 1970s and 1980s – it is at full zoom and any further cropping of the sub-image would have been uselessly pixelated.

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Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius)

As I climbed further, a bird flew up and perched in the distance. It looked good for my quarry. Good that is until I raised my binoculars and saw the amount of velvety red that was on its breast. Not the Balearic Marmora’s Warbler, but its close relation…

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Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata)

Several other birds perched on high twigs on the low bushes – all the original trees that would have been here are long, long gone – including Stonechat:

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Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus)

As you can see from the hideously bad quality photos in this series, even perching birds were wary here. Maybe humans really are as rare there as it seemed to me on that out-of-season day – I didn’t see another human being for at least two or three hours and well after I had got back in my car.

Some shapes whipped over my head and I just managed to snap the blurred image of a Crag Martin:

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Eurasian Crag Martin (Ptyonopogne rupestris)

When at the top, I gingerly peered over the top of the cliffs looking down the dizzying metres to the richest of blues below. Perhaps I was lucky, or perhaps I disturbed it, but as I looked down a Peregrine took off from a ledge below me, swooping down a great distance and then gliding still high above the sea below it:

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Peregrine Falcon (Falco perigrinus)

As I completed my walk I turned south to begin the hour-long walk back to the car. My walk went something like this:

Sardinian Warbler
Stonechat
Dartford Warbler
Meadow Pipit
Stonechat
Stonechat
Sardinian Warbler
Dartfor… *wait a minute!*

The Dartford Warbler in the distance was different, it had a pale throat and its breast was like a duller version of its blue-grey back as opposed to being the deep red of a dartford. As the puzzle pieces of identification came together and I smiled with recognition and gratitude – probably muttering something silly like “Hello Gorgeous!” along the way, the bird disappeared down into a bush. One more fleeting glance five minutes later and that was it. But I had seen a Balearic (Marmora’s) Warbler (Sylvia [sarda] balearica) – a species or sub-species (depending on whose authority you follow) that is endemic to this small group of islands. Endemism is always the jewel of travel birding – a bird you can see ‘there’ and only ‘there’.

As I can’t share a photo of the bird, here instead is a description in my Collins Bird guide of its favoured habitat and a silly selfie of me standing near where I saw it:

Breeds on hillsides in low maquis and garrigue and in rocky coastal scrub – Lars Sevensson

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Me standing in the hilly maquis and garrigue in the rocky coastal scrub

If you have made it this far through this rather epic blog post, I would remind you of the connection Ibiza has with the epic and the legendary. The amazing island of rock that seems to burst so high out of the sea off the West coast, Es Vedra – an important breeding site for Eleonora’s Falcon – was said to be where sirens and sea nymphs attempted to lure Odysseus from his ship:

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Es Vedra

White Stork nest in Castilla y León

White Stork

The habit of the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) to nest on buildings (when they can’t find enough trees around of the right type) began in the Middle Ages and is likely to be the reason behind the legend that they would bring babies in blankets. In this photo, the only baby visible is a young stork poking its head above the top of the nest.