Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Castilla La Mancha & Extremadura

4th - 12th May 2007

Report by Richard Piner

4th May :- The holiday got off to just the right start with my plane arriving on time at Alicante airport and Jules waiting with the car. After dropping my gear off at the guest house at Oliva we went straight off to Denia to pick up the hire car for the week. Before heading back we made a short detour to look for the Monk Parakeets that have taken up residence in the area. We finally found one sitting looking rather sorry for itself on a branch. It looked so miserable that I suggested to Jules that it might be nailed to its perch and was maybe actually a Norwegian Blue, but no, this was the real thing, my first, but hopefully not most memorable, tick of the week. It wasn’t dark yet so we called in at Jules’ local patch, Pego Marsh, where we were treated to some evening song from a Savi’s Warbler as well as seeing several waders including Wood Sandpiper, Snipe, Greenshank and Kentish Plover. Unfortunately I failed to see the Kingfisher that flew right in front of us – but there was a whole week ahead to see another one. As it was now nearly dark, we adjourned to an excellent local Spanish restaurant for dinner and a glass or two of wine before getting a good night’s sleep.

5th May :- As was to be the case for the whole week, the day was warm and sunny as we set off inland for La Mancha and the steppe area around Petrola. Once off the main road we were into scenery that was completely new to me - fields of wind-blown wheat looking like a great green rolling sea, huge expanses of reddish brown where the fields were ploughed, bright reds and yellows where masses of spring flowers such as poppies and daisies were growing. Jules obviously knew his way around and we were soon driving up and down farm tracks in the Higuerula area in search of the local species. There were plenty of birds to see, the first of many raptors for the week, a Black Kite, and then, in quick succession, two flying Little Bustards and a Stone Curlew. I was particularly keen to improve my lark recognition during the week and was able to make an early start as there were plenty of Calandra Larks to be seen clearly showing a black underwing whilst performing their song flight. Moving on to the Corral Rubio area Jules spotted a group of 10 Great Bustards together and we got really good views of them through our scopes pompously strutting about. Other highlights of the morning included hearing Quail calling and seeing a flock of Black-bellied Sandgrouse in flight - we also managed to get a look at them on the ground, and I also had my next piece of lark recognition practice with Greater Short-toed Lark. Our lunch stop was at a café in Petrola, a very welcome iced lemonade (it was pretty hot now) and a huge baguette while Jules chatted to locals there. After lunch we had a first look at water at Petrola lagoon nearby. There were a few birds here, Greater Flamingos, Shelduck etc. but nothing too exciting. It was a different matter though when we got to the extensive wetland site of Manvajacas. Due to recent unseasonal rainfall, this was a very wet wetland! My main memory is of driving round the perimeter of the site with standing water on both sides of the track and lots of tiny Common Sandpipers flying up in front of us. It was here that we saw the first Lesser Kestrels of the week and there were other raptors around including a female Montagu’s Harrier and several Marsh Harriers. On or over the water were a variety of waders notably Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruff, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, 3 Spoonbills, Gull-Billed, Black & Whiskered Terns. This being La Mancha and Don Quixote country, we came across groups of little white windmills sitting on top of hills every so often, quite different from any I’d seen before at home. We didn’t see the Don or anyone else attacking them on horseback although one or two did look a little the worse for wear. There was one more stop for the day, the Pedro Munoz wetland, an inland stronghold of the White-headed Duck and we saw several there before heading for our first overnight stop, the Hotel El Torreon at Miguel Esteban and a well earned drink and something to eat.

6th May :- We were up early and over to the nearby Miguel Esteban wetland for a pre-breakfast look. A single Turnstone flew up and away as we arrived and I saw my first White Stork on its nest, destined to be a common sight from now on. Summer migrants seen included Willow Warbler and Pied Flycatcher with Shoveler, Shelduck and White-Headed Duck on the water. Breakfast was now being served so we headed back and after checking out continued west, where just outside a nearby village we got excellent views of a group of 30+ Pin-tailed Sandgrouse very close to the road. The picture in my field guide certainly didn’t do them justice!. A couple more stops, a brush with a Ferrari car rally at San Juan de Alcatraz and then continued west for lunch at another excellent bar-café , Las Brujas (The Witches) full of animated Spaniards discussing everything other than birds no doubt. After lunch we drove to a nearby large wetland reserve called Tablas de Diamiel. The car park was packed when we arrived there, as a charity walk to raise money was just finishing but when we got onto the reserve it was quiet, apart from the singing of several types of warbler, the loudest by a long way being Great Reed Warbler, but also European Reed, Cetti’s, Moustached & Savi’s Warblers showed very well. This was a lovely location with meadows of wild flowers surrounding the wetland, and an open area of mud by a small river gave me some more good wader identification practice with Spotted & Common Redshank, Ringed Plover, Greenshank, Little Stint and Ruff. Then it was goodbye to wetlands for a while and further west with a change of scenery to dehesa, characterised by grassland and Holm Oaks. An Egyptian Vulture overhead, was the first sign of a whole new set of species to be seen and we didn’t have to wait long to see more. We were now close to the Los Cabañeros reserve, the location of tomorrow’s 4 x 4 safari but today we stopped at a hide on the edge of the reserve. Right in front of us was one of the many White Stork nests in the area, with Spanish Sparrows sharing the nest, just like in the picture in my field guide! For the next few minutes different birds appeared as if by magic. Black Kites and Black Vultures flew overhead, a loud calling Great Spotted Cuckoo landed in a tree in front of the hide affording excellent views, Jules spotted a distant Black Stork in a ditch, and I also saw my first Azure Winged Magpies. All the time we were sitting in the hide, a pair of Barn Swallows kept flying back and forth in front of us, as it turned out, keen for us to get out so they could get to their nest which was inside the hide! So we left them in peace and headed off to Alcoba and our accommodation for the night. As we were there in good time we went for a local walk before dinner. We saw more Azure-Winged Magpies and heard lots of singing Nightingales but only got a fleeting glimpse of one flying. The little hotel provided an excellent dinner including a bottle of red wine which tasted more like sherry to me, and as we were being picked up at seven the next morning we got to bed reasonably early for a good night’s sleep.

7th May :- We were picked up by our guide right on time and we were soon on our way to Los Cabañeros for our safari – something I’d been really looking forward to. We weren’t disappointed. Almost immediately on entering the reserve there was a Little Bustard on the road in front of us. Then we came across a large herd of Red Deer, which our guide enjoyed racing after causing a mini-stampede. Next we saw a large boar, and I certainly wouldn’t like to bump into one on foot, quickly followed by a whole family of about fifteen running along in a line. I was told that the area had been largely unchanged for almost 9000 years and I really wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen a stone-age man standing there poised ready to throw his spear at us. The next piece of excitement was seeing dozens of Black & Griffon Vultures converging on what presumably, was something good to eat and they looked quite sinister as they glided in. We made our first stop, and after a brief scan of the hillside, Jules picked out an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle sat in a tree and got great scoped views of it. Our guide then started a conversation with a nearby Golden Oriole perfectly mimicking its song! It eventually flew out of a tree giving us an excellent view of its impressive yellow and black plumage. We then travelled through some very wet (unseasonal rain again) terrain crossing what looked like flowing rivers in the tailor-made 4X4 vehicle. The Spanish guide was really enjoying himself throwing the vehicle all over the place. As for me sitting in the back, the combination of this, the half bottle of sherry I’d consumed the night before, meant there might be a different sort of throwing going on. However I survived and was soon looking at Short toed & Booted Eagles that our guide and Jules had located at our next hillside stop. We then dropped down into some woodland for more beautiful surroundings including wild Peonies. Other highlights before finishing our tour of the reserve included a family of three Short toed Eagles flying over us, Peregrine Falcon, Greater Short-toed & Calandra Larks, Blue Rock Thrush, Southern Grey Shrike, Dartford Warbler and Northern Wheatears. The whole morning was a wonderful experience, not least because we seemed to have the whole reserve to ourselves, the timeless quality of it giving the impression that we were really looking at a Spain of thousands of years ago. On the road again and back to the twenty-first century - well nearly - our next stop was for a coffee in a bar with boar tusks on the walls. It was getting very hot but not too hot to stop for a better look at a circling raptor which turned out to be a young Golden Eagle. Bee-eaters perched on wires and flying overhead added to the scene. So now it was goodbye to La Mancha and on to Extremadura arriving at an embalse with a huge rock just across the water with lots of Griffon Vultures nesting on it or generally flying around looking mean. Small flocks of Cattle Egrets flew solemnly back and forth, wing beats in perfect time. We saw three Black Storks and then our fifth eagle species of the day, a fantastic pair of Bonelli’s Eagles plus a Honey Buzzard. Quite an exceptional spot. Somewhere in all this we fitted in an egg sandwich at a transport café before heading to the village of Vegas Altas to locate those well known native Spanish species Red Avadavat and Common Waxbill – or rather those well known introduced cage-birds. To cut a long story short, we did find them but Jules had to drive up and down a lot of farm tracks before a mixed flock of about 100 birds kindly landed on some fencing about five metres from the car. However on our travels we did see Collared Pratincole, an impressive group of 8 Great Bustards plus Hobby, Cetti’s Warbler, European Reed Warbler, Red-Rumped Swallow and several Lesser Kestrels. I also misidentified a Corn bunting as a Lesser Kestrel at one point, or was it the other way round?, a simple case of bird overload I think. Corn Buntings were everywhere in La Mancha. Even after hearing hundreds of them singing from a variety of song posts I still can’t say I’ve heard one that sounds like a bunch of jangling keys. We checked out one more area - Madrigelego, possibly good for Black-Shouldered Kite but couldn't locate one, however we did see about a dozen Rollers, Common Buzzard and several Turtle Doves. Our stop for the next three nights, situated just south of Trujillo, was El Recuedo in San Clemente run by Martin & Claudia Kelsey with their six year old son - Patrick and Moro the dog. Martin knew everything about the birds of the area, Claudia produced fantastic meals, Patrick spent a lot of time making mud pies, practising martial arts with Jules (is there no end to this man’s talents?) and Moro chased anything that moved. Also, most of the guests were British, a novelty after the exclusively Spanishness of Castilla La Mancha. They also all seemed to either know Jules or know someone he knew.

8th May :- Our first full day in Extremadura started with a visit to Jaraicejo, a heathland area good for warblers. Although an early search for Western Orphean Warbler proved fruitless I had the opportunity to learn some more lark identification with Thekla Lark and Wood Larks showing well. We were soon looking at our other target species for the area - Spectacled Warbler, flying to and from its nest. A stroll across the heath and through a wooded area produced several more species including Stonechat, Whinchat, Redstart, Roller, Mistle Thrush and Golden Oriole. On the way back to the car we met Martin with a couple from the guesthouse. They had seen Western Orphean Warbler nearby and thanks to Jules’ usual skill at finding what he was looking for, so did we. We now headed for the extensive Parque Natural de Monfrague. Our first stop was Porta Del Tietar where we would be able to look across an area of water to a cliff face that should contain the nest of an Eagle Owl. Sure enough the nest was there with one young Eagle Owl just visible but much more visible was an adult Eagle Owl sitting on a branch in broad daylight and Jules enjoyed several minutes photographing it. At the same spot we saw a flying Black Stork, and a number of other raptors including another Spanish Imperial Eagle flying and many Griffon & Black Vultures. Next stop was a lay-by where I scattered some cake on a picnic table and we sat and waited, soon several Azure winged Magpies plucked up the courage to land on the table and were tucking into the cake and just about to be photographed when another vehicle pulled into the lay-by and they left. Other stops inside the 'Parque Natural' during the day produced Raven and Black Redstart before we drove to our final site of the day Castilla de Monfraguet. The castle was high up with fantastic views across miles of tree-covered landscape, and was a very good spot for close views of Griffon & Egyptian Vultures. Also, as we stood at the top, hirundines including Red-Rumped Swallows zoomed past us. Walking in the woods below there were also Long-Tailed Tit and Subalpine Warbler. Back at El Recuedo we sat outside and as it got dark we were entertained by the sounds of Long eared & Scops Owls hooting and beeping plus the distant calling of Red-Necked Nightjar.

9th May :- The second full day in Extremadura started off with a drive into nearby Trujillo. We sat in the town square while I tried to pick out the Pallid Swifts from the their commoner cousins. There were also lots of White Stork nests on the buildings plus a few Lesser Kestrels flying around, not a bad spot to sit and have a cup of coffee!. We paid a quick visit to the steppe area of Santa Marta where there were good views of 4 Little Bustards. Then on to Monroy and a lay-by with an area of water holding Little & Great Crested Grebe, Gadwall but much more interestingly on the other side of the road, in a clump of trees, an eyrie complete with a young Golden Eagle. We spent some time watching the adult female Golden Eagle uncharacteristically hopping around on the ground before perching majestically on a rock, and then flying off to meet its mate. The two of them did a nice piece of aerial display for us, gradually disappearing into the distance. We stopped for lunch by another area of water, Arroyo de la Via which had Subalpine Warblers, Sardinian Warblers, Common Sandpiper and an absolute deluge of Common Cuckoos. We’d been hearing them all week but until now they had refused to show themselves. I think we saw four in the space of about an hour and then that was it. The final destination for the day was the area of Cabanyas de Castilla. We stopped on the way at a bridge over a river where we saw Black Wheatears, Black Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush and I failed to see a Hawfinch. We also stopped in the woods just below the village for Nuthatch, Short-Toed Treecreeper before Jules drove up into the village and we made a short walk finding a Melodious Warbler singing from the top of a tree and above we spotted a couple of Short-Toed Eagles. Then it was time to get back to El Recuedo for our third and last night, third with our last excellent meal and bottle of wine.

10th May :- We sadly said goodbye and set off towards the Gredos mountains where we would spend our last two nights but first to an area of lakes and reedbed - Arrocampo. Parking by the roadside we could immediately hear and then see Savi’s, Cetti’s & Great Reed Warblers, in the distance Night Herons could also be seen flying back and forth above the reeds. Walking round the site we came across another party of birders, led by someone Jules knew and they had already seen a Great White Egret in the area and with a bit of searching we also found it along with Purple Gallinule, Little Bittern and several Purple & Grey Herons. We also added a Great Spotted Cuckoo, Gull-billed Tern, Cormorant and a Kingfisher (making up for the one I missed on the first night) before leaving the wetlands behind and getting up to the Gredos mountains. On the way we would pass through the areas of Chovas and Oropesa with a chance to find Black-Shouldered Kite and from the car I spotted a pale coloured bird on a pylon. Yes, it was a Black-Shouldered Kite and for once I’d spotted something first! We saw one more before leaving the area and saying goodbye to Extremadura as we passed into Castilla-y-Leon. We climbed up into the foothills of the Gredos, the road winding up through tree filled valleys and we made one or two stops seeing a Honey Buzzard, Hobby, Grey Wagtail, Blue Rock Thrush and Crested Tit. Reaching our hotel for the night in Arenas de San Pedro, we checked in and then headed straight off in search of some more montane species. First stop was at Puerto del Pico where it was very windy making it difficult and noticeably cooler than it had been that week, then further on to a Parador where we looked for and found one of our target species Citril Finch: two adults and three juveniles behind the hotel. In the same area we also saw Short toed & Booted Eagles, Sparrowhawk and a Red Squirrel. Then it was back to our hotel for a stroll around before dinner followed by a bit of bull-fighting on TV in the hotel bar.

11th May :- Getting up and out into the mountains again soon woke us up and thankfully the weather was still clear and sunny as it had been for the whole week but a little cooler. At the Plataforma high up in the mountains and before we’d left the car park we saw Wren and Dunnock, and when I had to run back to the vehicle to collect something I’d forgotten I got an excellent close-up view of a pair of Ortolan Buntings. Before long we’d seen Iberian Ibex and had impressive views of Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush displaying. Further on up we were lucky enough to find a single Bluethroat, its throat looking just the colour it should but with no white spot. Other species to be seen included Rock Bunting, Raven, Kestrel and the last lark species for the week, the one that was most familiar to me, Skylark. On the way back down Jules yet again met a couple of people he knew, if it’s like this half way up a mountain it must be hell for him trying to get round Carrefour on a Saturday morning. Down towards the car park area again we saw a Water Pipit, its pale pink colouring showing well, and this was also one of several places we saw Yellow Wagtail in the area. We made several stops throughout the rest for the day as we worked our way down. The first was a wooded area by a bridge over water, Puerte del Duque, finding Dipper as well as several woodland species including a stunning male Pied Flycatcher, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Goldcrest, Crested & Coal Tit. Further down from a layby we saw a variety of warblers - Bonelli’s, Melodious and Common Whitethroat, and finally we stopped again at Puerto del Pico to photograph some orchids and also saw another Pied Flycatcher. Back in Arenas de San Pedro I managed to do a bit of souvenir shopping before our final drink and meal out in the town.

12th May :- Despite a very early start most of the day was still taken up with the long drive back to Alicante for me to get my flight home. We saw the odd bird en route such as Stone Curlew but having made good time there was an opportunity to check out a couple of coastal sites. We stopped at the new nature reserve at El Pinet on the edge of the Santa Pola salt pans and saw terns – Little & Sandwich, Audouin’s & Slender-billed Gulls. Finally a quick stop for a look at Clot de Galvany reserve where we saw Squacco Heron, Marbled Duck and last of all a Greenfinch to get me prepared for the sort of birds I’d be seeing again when I got home! There was now only time to say goodbye and thank-you to Jules before checking in and the flight back. It had been a great week; I’d seen just about all the species I’d been hoping to and a few more plus hopefully improved my bird recognition at the same time, particularly raptors, larks and warblers. But there was more to the week than ticking off birds (although for the record we saw or heard 190+species!). For example, the scenery was fantastic. Not having strayed far from the coastal strip before I hadn’t realised quite how beautiful a country Spain is and how unspoilt much of it is too. There was always something to be looking out for even if the bird on the wire was often a Corn Bunting or the bird flying up from the roadside frequently a Crested Lark. A back-drop of Nightingale song or Bee-eaters flying and calling overhead became almost commonplace and all added up to a magical experience. The one thing I’m certain of is that I’ll be visiting La Mancha and Extremadura again.

 

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