Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Aragon - Plains & Pyrenees

7th - 15th May 2008

Report by Julian Sykes

7th May :- Already in the Alicante Region it was now time to pick up John, Paul & Ian from the airport and once loaded up we went straight to Finca Bonelli’s Eagle for our lunch. Almost immediately we found an adult Bonelli’s Eagle flying around the crags, along with Alpine Swift, Crag & House Martin, Black Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush. Later we found another adult and a newly fledged juvenile Bonelli’s Eagle sitting in a crevice out of the direct sun, which was getting quite hot. After lunch and very satisfied with our views of the eagles we all left, saying our goodbyes to Colin and Jane and driving the short distance to El Hondo. We made our way slowly around the perimeter road managing to get very good views of 3 Montagu’s Harriers, Roller, 2 distant Glossy Ibis, Zitting Cisticola and an Iberian Green Woodpecker. Before heading back to Oliva we visited Santa Pola Salinas and as usual it produced many good birds including Great Crested Grebes, Little Egret, Greater Flamingo’s, Common Shelduck, 6 Marbled Ducks, Coots, Avocets, Collared Pratincoles, Ringed & Kentish Plovers, Redshank, Greenshank, Little Stint, 30+ Curlew Sandpipers, Slender billed & Lesser Black backed Gulls, Common, Little, Whiskered & 2 Black Terns. We arrived at the guesthouse very satisfied with our day so far and looking forward to the night-time excursion for my local nightjars. After a very enjoyable evening meal at the local Spanish restaurant we headed off into the night and at the site we found the first of several Red necked Nightjars and the added bonus of a European Nightjar, capping off a very good day and night.

8th May :- How could we better the previous day?. The night before we had decided on a pre-breakfast visit to Pego Marsh looking for reedbed species, the weather wasn't brilliant with threatening skies and moderate easterlies - good weather for finding rarities!!!. Initially we visited the north end and things were quiet with only Great Reed Warblers cranking out their raucous song while showing well at the top of the reeds, along with Grey & Purple Heron, Little Egret, Black winged Stilt and a Marsh Harrier. However we stayed there finding an Osprey on it's usual pylon, a Little Bittern flew over the reeds along with a Marbled Duck, Red Crested Pochard, Mallard and incredibly a Great White Egret. Then a song alerted us to our main target and before long we were thankfully watching a Moustached Warbler also singing from the top of the reeds. Eventually we left and drove to the paddy fields seeing Little Ringed Plovers, Cattle Egrets, Zitting Cisticola and Yellow Wagtails on the way. As we passed one of the flooded fields there was an interesting dark bird so we turned round and there was a Mediterranean Shag, my first ever for this site. Around this area we also found 2 Glossy Ibis, 3 Common Pochard, Squacco Herons, Audouins, Yellow legged & Lesser Black backed Gulls and as the weather was starting to deteriorate a little but our next species brightened the day considerably. As we travelled slowly along the edge of the allotments, a falcon sitting on a post made me stop suddenly, and there was a gorgeous male Red footed Falcon and on the next post was a female - incredible. This got even better as we found another two females sat on posts in the same field, this is still a scarce bird in Spain and to find four together is superb. It turns out it was part of a massive influx of these exquisite falcons to the Balearics and Mainland Spain involving well over one hundred individuals. We spent some time taking photographs and we also enjoyed 3 Greater Flamingos fly over our heads and onto the paddy fields in the distance. It was now nearly time for breakfast so we drove around one more set of paddy fields finding more Squacco & Purple Herons, Redshank, Greenshank, Common & Wood Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plovers, Whiskered Terns, Kingfisher, Common Cuckoo, Hoopoe, Sand Martins and Eurasian Reed Warbler. We returned to the guesthouse late but Jill had anticipated this and only then put out her usual ample spread of food and drink for breakfast. It was now time to leave and after the usual set of goodbyes we headed north to Valencia but the rain had now started in earnest and unfortunately looked set for the day. Once at Moro Marsh we did most of our birdwatching from the mini-bus managing to find 50+ Collared Pratincoles, Common & Little Terns, Common Redshank and Kentish Plovers on the north scrape. A group of terns off-shore were interesting as we got good views of 4 summer plumage Black Terns amongst the other commoner species and we also a Gannet fishing further out. The weather was starting to get worse so soon we left and headed inland and after a brief coffee stop, which produced good views of a Crested Tit we reached our hotel at Monreal del Campo. Although the weather was still a problem we ventured out for a last session to the Plains of Blancas, producing many of the expected species such as Kestrel, Red legged Partridge, Little Owl, Hoopoe, Calandra, Short toed, Thekla & Crested Larks, Tawny Pipits, 30+ Northern Wheatears, Red billed Chough, House, Tree & Rock Sparrows, Goldfinch, Linnet and Corn Buntings. We had one last surprise as John found 21 summer plumage Dotterel on the high ground, they were simply gorgeous and a very unexpected addition to the trip (no joke intended) list. This rounded off another extraordinary day in these two very underwatched regions of Spain

9th May :- We woke to a better morning despite the weather and soon we were returning to the Steppes of Blancas. Initial stops produced much the same species as the day before but in better numbers. Several Quail were heard but not located and a pair of Stone Curlews showed well from the road. On the high tops we had a short walk amongst the beautifully fragrant herbs of Thyme & Rosemary, we found our first Black eared Wheatear followed by a small party of Black bellied Sandgrouse flying across our path. The morning was by now glorious and Paul spotted a falcon which turned out to be a Hobby as it flashed past the mini-bus. A short journey along one of the interior tracks of this special area produced one of our major highlights – Duponts Lark. This is the first time I have found this rare and elusive bird in the area. We managed to get good scoped views as it sang from a small rock for a few minutes. Things were starting to appear in the late morning sun with Griffon Vultures taking to the air followed by a small group of 6 Honey Buzzards moving north. We slowly made our way back to the main track and then continued over to Bello for lunch. Unfortunately, the sky had darkened and it started to rain quite hard as we dropped down towards Gallocanta Lake. A brief stop at a pool near Bello did produce a couple of Marsh Harriers, Great Crested Grebe, Common Sandpipers and a few Yellow Wagtails. After lunch the weather remained inclement and soon we were heading back towards Blancas but by a different route. This area is more vegetated and consequently produces different species and we managed to add Whitethroats, Sub-alpine Warbler, Cirl Bunting, Cuckoo, Nightingale, to the days list, with a couple of short roadside walks between showers. It was now time to drive north towards Belchite where we were spending the night. An en-route stop at the Rio Martin Bridge paid dividends with more new species including good views of a pair of Golden Orioles, Melodious Warblers, Cetti’s Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Booted & Short-toed Eagles, Bee-eaters, Great & Blue Tits. Once at Belchite we checked into our accommodation and immediately made our way out towards the excellent El Planeron Reserve. On the way we stopped at an olive grove where we found a couple of Woodlarks, Golden Oriole, Rock Sparrow and Turtle Dove. At El Planeron we soon connected with some good birds and very soon found our 8th species of lark for the day with Lesser short-toed Lark. Two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse at the side of the track were quickly followed by a Duponts Lark, again, not 10 metres from the mini-bus. We all got fantastic views as it trotted off into the undergrowth in true Dupont’s Lark style. We returned to the guesthouse where I left John, Paul and Ian to their meal while I went to Zaragoza Airport. I picked up Mark and Nigel on time and quickly made our way back to Belchite but unfortunately by then the weather had changed for the worse.

10th May :- A pre-breakfast visit with Paul, Mark & Nigel was basically a waste of time due to the weather (high winds and rain) although unbelievably, we still heard a Dupont’s Lark. We returned to the guesthouse and met up with John and Ian to decide on our next strategy. As the weather was so foul we decided to try and drive out of it by heading for the Pyrenees. This proved successful because as we headed north the rain began to ease and at a couple of stops en-route we saw a few White Storks, Great Crested Grebes, Grey Heron, an Egyptian Vulture, Common Buzzards, Red legged Partridge, Wood Pigeon, Collared & Turtle Doves, a few Bee-eaters, Hoopoe, Mistle Thrush, 2 Golden Orioles chasing each other along the Monegros Canal, Rock Sparrow and 2 Cirl Buntings. As the rain had now stopped completely we called in at Riglos to marvel at the impressive sandstone formations of the Mallos de Riglos. A welcome walk through the lovely village to the foot of these rocks produced a few birds including Red Kite, Griffon Vulture, Marsh Harrier, Nigel found a Hobby, Rock Doves, Bee-eaters, Crag Martins, a Yellow Wagtail, Willow Warbler, Nightingale, Black Redstart, Woodchat Shrike, Red billed Chough, Greenfinches, Linnets and a (heard only) Wryneck. We lunched in this wonderfully scenic area before making our final drive to the accommodation in the heart of the Hecho Valley. The Hotel Uson is unsurpassed as a place to stay in the Pyrenees being run by a lovely couple who provide a quality service. We checked in for the next four nights and gathered for a walk along the road from the hotel. This produced some more new species including Booted Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, 10+ Firecrests, Dunnock, Blackcap, Robin, Nuthatch, Crested, Great & Blue Tits, Short toed Treecreeper, Jay, Common Raven, Chaffinches but the highlight of the evening was finding our first Lammergeier patrolling the crags above the hotel with both Griffon & Egyptian Vultures. A fantastic end to what turned out to be a very good day despite the weather.

11th May :- The day looked as though it could have been a wash-out but in the end we had some pretty decent weather. A morning walk by some of the group produced the usual Firecrests, Crested Tits, Robin, Dunnock, Cirl & Rock Buntings. After breakfast we ventured higher to the Refugio de Gabardito all the time moving in and out of low cloud and mist. At the car park it was clear and very soon we found our first Citril Finches feeding on the thistle heads. Although a very good bird, we were wanting better so we quickly set off through the woods to the now well known rock face. The journey through the forest produced some species including a Eurasian Treecreeper, Crested & Coal Tits, Mistle Thrushes and Jays. At the end of the forest, Paul saw a migrating Montagu’s Harrier flying up the valley and Nigel found an Iberian Green Woodpecker. I had gone on ahead and a familiar call alerted me to our quarry and soon found 2 Wallcreepers feeding amongst the crevices and ledges of this sheer crag. I called to the others and very soon we were all enjoying views of these beautiful crimson and grey mountain dwellers. John certainly had the best idea as he lay on his back and watched them for long periods chasing each other before they disappeared out of sight. Wallcreeper (as usual) was the main target for the entire group and naturally they were thrilled with this excellent view. We stayed in the area for a while longer watching the large mixed flock of Red billed & Alpine Choughs, Griffon Vultures, Red Kite and Raven. Eventually we returned to the car park stopping on the way for flowers such as Spring Gentian, Early Purple & Elder flowered Orchids now in full bloom. At the mini-bus we got better views of the Citril Finches and also saw 3 Honey Buzzards fly over. We left Garbadito and dropped back down to the Hecho Valley to an area not far from the Siresa Village. A walk alongside the meadows and surrounding wooded hillsides produced the usual mix of great raptors including a pair of adult Golden Eagles, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, 14 Honey Buzzards, Red Kites and Peregrine Falcon plus a male Bullfinch, Long tailed & Blue Tit and Crag Martins. The drive back to the Uson Hotel produced a lovely Lady Orchid along with Orange Tip and Brimstone Butterflies. After a quick comfort stop, we continued up to Selva de Oza at the head of Hecho Valley. The winding road along the river produced Grey Wagtails and a Lammergeier en-route. As we moved above the tree line the terrain became more open with carpets of Early Purple & Elder Flowered Orchids and Spring Gentians. Yellowhammers flew from the bushes and Paul did very well finding a Dipper in the valley bottom. At the ford we parked and continued to walk towards France finding Common Buzzards, Linnets, Black Redstarts, Blackcap, Alpine & Red billed Choughs but the highlight was watching a pair of Lammergeiers moving up and down the valley giving superb views. We could hear the high pitched calls of Marmots and after careful searching we found a couple amongst the rocks below, then as we were about to leave we found a Chamois hiding amongst the crags on the opposite hillside. It had been another brilliant day in this scenic and tranquil land.

12th May :- A pre-breakfast walk for Nigel and Paul produced a Rock Bunting near the hotel. Once we were ready we drove down the valley and on to the mountain enclave of San Juan de la Pera. This is the site of two Monastries, one old and built into the mountainside and the other recently completed, right on top. Half way up we stopped at the viewpoint for photographs of the spectacular panoramic views plus a very close Honey Buzzard, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures. At the top we parked and went for a walk around the area. This produced a good mix of woodland species such as Pied Flycatcher, Firecrests, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaff, Mistle Thrushes, 3 Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a (heard only) Black Woodpecker, Blackcaps, Robin, Black Redstart, John saw a Marsh Tit with Crested, Coal, Great & Blue Tits, Nuthatches, Short toed Treecreeper, Jays and Bullfinches. The highlight of the morning though was sitting in the sun watching raptors flying over which included 2 Lammergeiers and several Honey Buzzards. After our picnic we visited the agricultural areas of Villarreal and a fantastic walk in the sunshine produced a Short toed Eagle, 15 Bee-eaters, 2 Tawny Pipits, Melodious, Sardinian & Sub-alpine Warbler (found by Paul), Whitethroat, Whinchat, Stonechats, Cirl & Corn Buntings. For John though, the ‘magic moment’ of the week was watching a Golden Eagle catch a snake and take it to a nearby tree to eat. Another short walk over the ‘Badlands of Berdun’ produced another Tawny Pipit, Woodchat Shrikes, a calling Quail, Common Ravens, Melodious Warblers, Crested Larks, Black & Red Kites. Then at the Martes Bridge we found a couple of Rock Sparrows, Grey Heron, Yellow legged Gull, Grey Wagtail, Serins, Goldfinches and Nightingale. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse and started to shower so we made our way back to the Hotel Uson. Before we got there though, the sun came back out and we found many roadside ‘birds of prey’ including Red & Black Kites, Common Buzzards, 2 Booted Eagles, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, Marsh Harrier & Kestrels. Back at the accommodation we were sitting having a beer outside when we found another migrating Honey Buzzard, Short toed Eagle, Crested Tit and Cirl Bunting.

13th May :- The morning walk produced the usual Rock Bunting, Firecrest, Crested, Coal & Great Tits, Chaffinch, Robin, Wren and Blackbird. Today was going to be a good day, don't ask me how I knew, I just knew. We left the Hotel Uson and drove towards Hecho Village and a shape in a roadside hedge made me stop. I reversed up and there, now on a wire was an adult male Red backed Shrike. They are simply gorgeous and everyone loved watching and photographing this special bird. We soon left and took the mountain road over to the Roncal Valley seeing Sparrowhawk, Short toed Eagle, Black & Red Kites, Griffon Vultures, an Iberian Green Woodpecker flew up from the side of the road and lot's of Crag Martins in the gorges. As we climbed towards the French border we left the tree-line making our way up through alpine meadows, John found our first Water Pipit and we watched as it sang from the top of a pine and performed its’ impressive song flight. Northern Wheatears, Linnets and Mistle Thrushes were seen as we climbed to the border. At the top we checked the area for Alpine Accentors but without success. This is still a very good area with lots of Alpine Chough calling manically, plus Dunnock, Black Redstarts, a few Citril Finch and a cracking male Ring Ouzel. We watched this awesome montane thrush as it sat in a dead tree and sang its’ heart out. While we were watching, Ian found a male Common Crossbill and John saw a couple of Goldcrests. One good find was a Pyrenean Rock Lizard, a scarce reptile endemic to this area. It was the accentors we wanted however, so we started to search different areas but again without any sign. We decided to leave and drove the short distance to the Ski resort of San Martin but things were quiet here also so we returned to the border. We again searched the area going a little further from the road and whilst I was sitting watching a Marmot a bird flew past me and out of sight. I tracked this bird and found an Alpine Accentor feeding in the short grass – brilliant. Not wanting to flush it I moved away and signalled the others and it was a few tense minutes before everyone got great views of the bird. It had been a very good morning and the journey back down the mountain produced a Raven, more Water Pipits and Northern Wheatears. The drive down through the lovely Roncal Valley was slow as we enjoyed the atmosphere of the scenery. Rufous tailed Rock Thrush was now the main target and I knew of an area near the village of Arres where they bred. This is an excellent low-lying valley and the drive to the village produced Dartford & Sardinian Warblers, a Great Reed Warbler sang from the sparse reeds, Stonechats, Cirl & Corn Buntings. There were lots of raptors on the ridge with Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, 3 Short toed Eagles, Common Buzzard, Red & Black Kites. At the site I left everyone to enjoy a Sub-alpine Warbler while I tried to find a Common Cuckoo which was calling nearby. I then heard a familiar song and eventually found this lovely blue and orange Rock Thrush sitting on a bush singing away. I signalled to the others, set the telescope up and soon we were all getting good views of the bird. As we returned to the mini-bus a Tawny Pipit showed itself close to the track and a Booted Eagle flew up over the hillside. It was now time to return to the hotel and en-route Paul found another Red-backed Shrike close to the road. Tonight we were having an early evening meal to give us a chance of visiting Alastuey for dusk. This is a site for Eagle Owl but despite having been there several times I have yet to see one. However, it is also good for European Nightjar and although we heard them only Mark saw one briefly in the fading light. We also heard the ‘peep’ of what I thought was a Scop’s Owl but when several started calling we came to the conclusion they were in fact Midwife Toads. This was the first time I had heard them and they are uncannily similar to Europe’s smallest owl. So completed what had been a brilliant day and tomorrow we were leaving the Pyrenees once more for the Steppes.

14th May :- We had decided on another try for Mark & Nigel to see Dupont's Lark as the weather looked to have improved and the forecast on the plains were good. So after breakfast we set off, after saying our fond farewells to Imanol & Lucia for being again such good hostes. The journey took the usual two hours and by mid morning we were back at the El Planeron reserve with light winds but unfortunately intermittant showers. However plenty of Dupont's Larks were singing but they were staying frustratingly hidden until I found one at the edge of the field but we only got brief views before it dropped back onto the ground. We stayed there recording a male Pied Flycatcher, Marsh Harrier, Black bellied Sandgrouse, Stone Curlews, Calandra, Lesser Short toed & Thekla Larks, Little Owl, Black eared Wheatears and Corn Buntings. We then decided to try another good area and incredibly I found a singing Dupont's Lark sat on a tussock, which I got in the telescope but neither Mark or Nigel could focus on it until the last minute when again it dropped on to the ground. All very frustrating but that's what makes birdwatching interesting. The rain started to fall more steadily so we decided to leave and go for lunch on the edge of Belchite followed by a visit to the decimated Old Town of Belchite - a stark reminder to the ravages of the Spanish Civil War. A slow walk around the ruins produced Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, Black Kites, Crag Martins, a male Blue Rock Thrush, Northern Wheatears, Black Redstarts, and Song Thrush. Next we visited an area of steppe close to the town where we found a couple of Lesser Kestrels nesting in an old barn plus a Short toed Eagle, Red billed Chough, Calandra, Greater Short toed & Crested Larks, Red legged Partridges and a few Bee-eaters. Mark & Nigel were leaving from Zaragoza that evening so with just a couple of hours left before their flight we finished off the day with a visit to an olive grove I knew from previous visits. This paid off as we found 20+ Western Orphean Warblers giving excellent views as they moved around, also we saw a several Golden Orioles, Common Cuckoo, Woodchat Shrikes, Hoopoes, Turtle Doves, White Wagtail, Spotted Flycatcher, Rock Sparrow, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and a 'heard only' Wryneck. We got to the airport in plenty of time and said "goodbye" to our Lancastrian friends before heading south back to Monreal del Campo and the last night of the holiday.

15th May :- Today was going to be a fairly relaxed affair as we had all day before their flights left from Alicante Airport so we first returned to Moro Marsh in the hope of finding the elusive Red knobbed Coots. We concentrated on the southern edge seeing Night & Purple Herons, Little Egrets, Red Crested Pochards, Shoveler, Purple Gallinules, 2 Black Terns, Whiskered Terns, Black winged Stilts, Turtle Doves, Kingfisher, Zitting Cisticolas, Great Reed & Cetti's Warblers from the observation tower. Here we met with one of the volunteer wardens and he informed us of the possibility of seeing Crested Coots on another lagoon, which was very kind of him. So we walked around the reserve and eventually found the lagoon, which held several summer plumaged Black & Whiskered Terns giving magnificent views. However we only had to wait a short while before 2 Red knobbed Coots swam out from the reeds and showed very well near their commoner cousins, much to Paul's delight. Objective achieved we walked slowly back to the mini-bus, had our lunch and headed across to Alicante on the inland road. It was a hot afternoon so we visited the Santa Pola Salinas and El Pinet finding the usual Great Crested Grebes, Greater Flamingos, Slender billed Gulls, Little & Common Terns, Avocets, Black winged Stilts, Kentish Plovers, Redshanks and Greenshank. Finally we made our way to the Santa Pola playa and a last-ditch effort to find a Rufous Bushchat for John & Ian, they had missed them at the beginning of the week and it was a 'lifer', unlike Paul who had seen them on a previous visit. At the pine wood we searched in vain but there wasn't a sight or sound of these lovely birds, which are just holding on in the Alicante Region but we did see Spotted Flycatchers, Long tailed Tits and Serins. It was time to go and just as we were packing the scopes away I heard it's distinctive song - we had one last chance?. We followed the song and there he was in all his glory sat on the bottom branches of a pine tree singing away for several minutes allowing us to get fantastic scoped views as he pumped his large white & black tipped rufous tail. Simply fabulous. It was the last species to be added to the week's list and a very special one too.


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