Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Pyrenees & N/E Spain

22nd - 29th September 2008

Report by Julian Sykes

Monday 22nd :- The holiday began well with the Calandra Holidays group arriving into Valencia Airport on time with everyone in good spirits. The weather however looked decidedly dodgy but the decision was made to drive to the nearby local reserve of Moro Marsh and kick-start our trip list with some wetland species. A look out over the Mediterranean Sea produced Sandwich Terns, Yellow legged & Black headed Gulls, but a close adult Audouin’s Gull sat on a nearby rock was very welcome. Two Common Sandpipers flew over the water with their distinctive flight action and at the first pool we enjoyed magnificent views of a Water Rail, Little Egrets, Kingfisher and Richard found a lovely juvenile Ruff. We walked slowly along the beach finding a migrant Northern Wheatear battling against the strong winds. Eventually we reached the viewing platform and the lagoon was full of birds including Little Grebes, Greater Flamingos, Grey Herons, Shoveler, Common Pochard, Common Teal, Marsh Harrier, Kestrel, 16 Avocets, Black winged Stilts, 2 Wood Sandpipers, another very showy Water Rail, Purple Gallinules and 9 Spoonbills again skilfully found by Richard. All this was accompanied by a constant stream of Swallows and Sand Martins moving ahead of the inclement weather we were due to encounter. Soon enough we were heading north along the coastal highway to the famous Ebro Delta and our wonderful accommodation in its heart at Deltebre. We arrived as dusk was falling and hunting around the hotel car park we found our first mammal – a Common Pipestrelle Bat.

Tuesday 23rd :- The day dawned fairly wet and miserable with heavy rain but by the time we had finished breakfast and got out to the mini-bus it had all but stopped, and luckily for us this is how it stopped for most of the day. We eventually found a working river ferry and crossed the mighty Rio Ebro to the south side. We negotiated San Jaume and out through the rice fields towards our first site at Riet Vell, however one good flooded field made me stop prematurely. Initially we found several Little Egrets, Whiskered Terns, Black headed & Western Yellow legged Gulls, but closer scrutiny revealed quite a few Curlew & Green Sandpipers, Little Stints, Dunlin and a couple of Lapwings. A good start so we continued on our way passing paddy fields all the way with hunting Marsh Harriers, Kestrels, Grey Herons, Little & Cattle Egrets. At Riet Vell we soon found a few Avocets, Black winged Stilts, Greenshank, Common & Green Sandpipers, Audouin’s Gull, Tree & House Sparrows, Chiffchaff, Zitting Cisticolas and Common Starlings. Around the hide we had a cracking male Common Redstart, Reed & Cetti’s Warblers, from the hide we added a Black necked Grebe with Great Crested & Little Grebes, Mallard, and Shoveler. The walk back to the vehicle was notable for our first Northern Wheatears, Willow Warbler and a Common Whitethroat. We next drove around to the lagoons and salt marsh of Tancada where from the hide we saw hundreds of Mallard with plenty of Gadwall, Common Coot, Cormorants, and our first Great White Egrets. The salt marsh held several more Northern Wheatears plus Michael found a gorgeous Whinchat and Crested Lark. A little further round we stopped to look at a few close Little Stints and our only Common Redshank, but checking the area we found a major target with 6 Caspian Terns sat with a couple of Slender billed Gulls and Sandwich Terns. Unfortunately the water levels were high and not very good for waders but we did see a Spotted Redshank, Pintail, 2 Shelduck and Greater Flamingos. At this point we decided to back track and visit the complex of Eucalyptus for an early lunch and a warm drink. Here our strategy for the rest of the day was discussed and after the break we headed back towards San Jaume stopping at the paddy field en-route. We again found the Curlew Sandpipers et al plus a Yellow Wagtail in the roadside field however it was a short walk to a another which had just been plough paid real dividends. Here we found a host of waders, which included a Temminck’s Stint, lots of Little Stints, Wood, Curlew, Green & Common Sandpipers, Spotted Redshanks, Greenshanks, Ruff, Common Snipe, Ringed Plovers and Lapwings - brilliant. Also in this area we found more Whinchats, Yellow Wagtails and a single Grey Wagtail, plus John & I were lucky enough to see a Hobby dash through. We continued our journey around this superb area and headed out to the tower hide at Alfacada but en-route John T. & I saw an Alpine Swift from the bus and Michael did very well finding a Booted Eagle sat in a tree. At the hide we had a fantastic view of the surrounding marshland and coastal strip seeing thousands of ducks. We spent a lot of time here seeing another Caspian Tern, a Squacco Heron found by Wendy, 2 Purple Herons found by John, Grey Lag Goose found by Sue, 100+ Glossy Ibis, 3 Spoonbills, Purple Gallinules, Great White Egrets, 2 Ospreys, Marsh Harriers, Red Crested Pochard, Common Teal, Shovelers, Kingfishers, Common Snipe, Black winged Stilts, Avocets, a single Black tailed Godwit flew over, Cetti’s & Willow Warblers. We then had a short walk to the beach getting even better views of Purple Heron, but also close looks at Sanderlings, Kentish Plover, Mediterranean & Slender billed Gulls. We finally returned to San Jaume and while waiting for the river ferry we found another Common Whitethroat and Willow Warblers flitting round a stubble field. After refreshments at the hotel in Deltebre we headed out again in worsening conditions as the rain began to fall quite steadily. We decided to visit the mirador of Canal Vell and as I got out of the bus I found a Pied Flycatcher in the tall trees. Although the spectacle of the day went to seeing over a thousand Greater Flamingos on the lagoon right in front of us. The mirador also provided us with views of 2 juvenile Night Herons, Pintail, Gadwall, Red Crested & Common Pochard, Shoveler, Common Snipe, Tree Sparrows and loads of Swallows and Sand Martins. Due to the weather we decided to return to the hotel, enjoying that night yet another fantastic meal.

Wednesday 24th :- Today was travelling from the coast to the High Pyrenees and as usual it produced a few surprises. We left Deltebre and worked our way through the rice fields to the motorway seeing Marsh Harriers, Little & Cattle Egrets. We quickly made our way towards Lleida stopping for a coffee before we got to the city. After the break we spent a few minutes looking around the area seeing a Song Thrush, Magpies and House Sparrows. Then Sue found a raptor flying in our direction and the initial identification of Honey Buzzard were very much confirmed as it flew right above our heads. We continued our journey getting g to the Alfes Drylands on the southern edge of Lleida soon after. Here we began to drive the tracks initially finding lots of Kestrels, Northern Wheatears, Red legged Partridge and 2 Southern Grey Shrikes. Wendy spied a small raptor on the ground, which turned out to be our first of 3 Hobbys frequenting the area. As it began to warm up raptors started to move through, with an enviable list of (1st CY) Bonelli’s Eagle, Booted Eagle, Honey & Common Buzzards, Marsh Harriers and Griffon Vulture, plus good numbers of White Storks.  It was now lunchtime so we left the area and headed west were at Candasnos we found a local bar, which provided some superb bocadillos. Although incredibly as we got out of the van at least 4 Alpine Swifts flew over with a large group of Swallows and a couple of House Martins. After lunch we headed through Monegros towards Huesca finding more Marsh Harriers, Red legged Partridges and Northern Wheatears. Although these were very much over-shadowed by 17 Pin tailed Sandgrouse, which flew around the mini-van. The journey continued beyond Huesca to the Hecho Valley seeing lots of Griffon Vultures, Red Kites and Common Buzzards en-route. Eventually we reached the magnificent Hotel Uson and was greeted by our fabulous hosts Lucia & Imanol. We got our rooms and quickly convened for a very welcome beer in the conservatory, however John & I went outside to see what was around. This produced one of the highlights of the week as 2 adult Golden Eagles soared overhead being pursued by a pair of Peregrine Falcons. This was magnificent and one moment in my binoculars I had a Golden Eagle, 2 Peregrine Falcons and 2 Griffon Vultures!!!. We then went inside to inform the others of this event and while I was there I found 2 Lammergeiers over a distant ridge, which really was the icing on the cake. During the day we had managed to find 12 species of raptor, when we had been primarily travelling and had limited time for actual birdwatching – this is Spain at its very best.

Thursday 25th :- A short pre-breakfast walk with Michael and John (later joined by Wendy & Sue) was fairly quiet although a female Bullfinch was a nice find. We did also get views of 20+ Griffon Vultures leaving their roosts, a Peregrine amongst the vultures, Crested Tit, Firecrest and Chaffinches. After breakfast we left the hotel and made the short journey to the Refugio de Gabardito seeing a Roe Deer as we negotiated the pot holes in the road. As we got out of the vehicle it was evident birds were enjoying the morning sunshine as we very quickly found 10+ Citril Finches feeding on the Thistle heads, several Marsh Tits, Chiffchaffs and Chaffinches, Wendy found a Eurasian Treecreeper, followed by Sue finding 3 Common Crossbills. A mixed flock of small birds moved through, which included Crested, Long tailed, Coal, Great & Blue Tits, Firecrests and more Chiffchaffs we didn't know where to look next!. Eventually we gathered our breath got our gear and set off along the track to the rock face. The route provided more birds with woodland additions like Nuthatch, Robin, Wren and Jay. An Iberian Green Woodpecker called nearby and Richard picked out our first Lammergeier of the day, which landed and allowed for scoped views. At the rock face we waited patiently watching the patrolling vultures and choughs but alas the ‘hoped for’ Wallcreeper didn’t materialize. So we decided to head back to the refuge en-route Jane did very well finding a handsome male Black Redstart. Back at the mini-bus it was nearly lunchtime so we drove back down the mountain and continued up the Hecho Valley to an excellent picnic site next to the river. The lunch was excellent in the afternoon sunshine with several butterfly species being seen including Clouded & Pale Clouded Yellows, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Wall Brown and Speckled Wood. We only got a brief view of a Dipper but a gorgeous male Grey Wagtail fed on insects close to where we sat. A Short toed Eagle drifted over, being mobbed by a few Crag Martins, plus a cheeky Jay stole the show as it grabbed food from the table we were using for the picnic. Again we had to drag ourselves away from the amazing back-drop of the High Pyrenees and continued towards France along the wonderful Hecho Valley. As we neared the parking area I stopped quickly for a couple of raptors I had seen up ahead, which turned out to be adult & immature Golden Eagles being mobbed by Red billed Choughs. We all alighted from the bus quickly and got excellent views of the ‘aquila’ eagles, which were then joined by a second adult. During this time Alpine Marmots had been calling so a quick scan revealed at least four of these cute rodents sat amongst the scree and we managed to watch them through the telescope. Once we were ready I parked the van and we collected our gear for another gentle walk surrounded by yet more magnificent panoramic scenery. The stroll was excellent providing more good views of 3 Lammergeiers plus a Red Kite, 4 Sparrowhawks, Peregrine Falcon and Kestrel. John found a 1st winter Pied Flycatcher looking right out of place and there were brief views of Grey Wagtail, Goldfinch and Serin. It was now late afternoon so we walked back the way we started returning to the vehicle as the cold wind was starting to whistle through the valley. The returned journey was fairly uneventful apart from seeing 2 Yellowhammers at the side of the track. Back at the Uson we did our own thing for a couple of hours before the meal with Richard finding a Dipper in the river nearby.

Friday 26th :- After breakfast we set off towards the ‘Val de Roncal’ through the very scenic route of the Hecho and Anso Valleys. At the village of Roncal we stopped for a coffee and to look at the river, which runs through it. It was fairly quiet but a Kingfisher was a good find as was Common Buzzard, Grey & White Wagtails. During this time I had briefly visited the Navarra Wildlife Interpretation Centre where I got the bad news that the mountain road through Belagua to San Martin in France was closed for roadworks. We needed an alternative and the receptionist in the Interpretation Centre made a very good one. So we set off again through some stunning forested countryside over into France at the Puerto de Larrau. Just over the border we stopped at the side of the road as it looked a potentially good place for seeing some birds. Initially we found Griffon Vultures, Common Buzzard, Black Redstarts, Linnets and Meadow Pipits but I then heard a Black Woodpecker in the woods below where we were standing. I quickly scanned the area and amazingly found it clung to the trunk of a Beech Tree. Unfortunately it flew but this enabled everyone to see Europe’s largest ‘pecker’ bounding over the ridge. We remained there and shortly after another called from a similar place and there it was at the top of a dead tree, this time we all got fantastic scoped views of this male Black Woodpecker. We had been very lucky so we decided to stay there checking out a paddock with a water tough on the edge of the forest. This turned out to be a haven for birds as we found Water Pipits, Yellowhammer, Whinchats, Stonechats, Dunnocks, more Linnets and Black Redstarts. A couple of Red Kites drifted over showing beautifully against the now blue skies, with Swallows starting to move through in big numbers. We decided to make our way back to the top of the pass but the wind was incredibly strong here however in another short stop we found a Short toed Eagle, Red Kites and a couple more Water Pipits. We now dropped back into Spain looking for a suitable picnic stop, which we eventually did out of the wind and in the warm sunshine. This was a great place for butterflies with Comma, Speckled Wood, Common Blue, Red Admiral, Clouded Yellow and Small White. After lunch we returned to the Roncal Valley and journeyed all the way down to the bottom to the ‘Badlands of Villarreal’. Here it was very hot so had an easy stroll along the road checking the hedges and ploughed fields for migrants. We had a really good time finding Dartford & Sardinian Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Common & Black Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers, Whinchats, Stonechats, Northern Wheatear and Corn Buntings. In the distance I spied a Lammergeier, which came closer and closer being joined by a Short toed Eagle and a Peregrine Falcon. It was now late afternoon so we left the site and drove back through the agricultural lands of Berdun, then up the Hecho Valley to the Hotel Uson, seeing lots of Common Buzzards, Red Kites and a Sparrowhawk en-route.

Saturday 27th :- We left the Hotel Uson and drove the short journey to the Boca del Infierno getting good views of Firecrest and Chiffchaff on the short walk. We spent at least half an hour at the site looking for our target without success so we left and made the long journey to Formigal seeing Crag Martins, Magpies and Common Buzzards en-route. We stopped for a coffee at Formigal and saw lots of Griffon Vultures plus lots of migrating hirundines, which were mainly Swallows with just a few House Martins. We then drove the short journey to the Puerto de Portalet and a long walk was superb for some of the area’s most stunning scenery plus 3 Lammergeiers flying near to where we were, Black Redstarts, Water Pipits, Red billed Choughs, Kestrels, Common Buzzards and Griffon Vultures. We looked at the few pools in this area and with Richard’s expertise we identified Palmate Newts, Common Frog and Mid-wife Toad plus Common Diving Beetles and an interesting crustaceany freshwater crab-type thing?. We then returned to the mini-bus and collected our lunch with Richard talking his finest French to the local, which sounded to me something like “Wassocks-noir” that was meant to mean ‘black coloured birds or Choughs!!!. We lunched on a lovely grassy knoll were we found a few Alpine Choughs on the nearby rock-face, along with Water Pipits, Linnets, Black Redstarts and Ravens. Although it was the raptors which stole the show with lots of Common Buzzards, Red Kites, Griffon Vultures and Kestrels, plus 2 (1st winter) Golden Eagles, Booted Eagle and a very pale Honey Buzzard. Late afternoon we left and drove back to Hecho Village where most of the group had a wander around taking photographs. John & I decided to go to the river and en-route we found 2 Common Redstarts, Pied Flycatcher, Blackcaps, Goldfinches, Long tailed, Great & Blue Tits. At the bridge we scanned and soon found 4 ‘Black bellied’ Dippers, which showed fantastically well and while John was photographing them a Sparrowhawk zipped through. Reluctantly John & I returned to the mini-bus where the rest had now gathered and although it was late I wanted to try one last time for the Wallcreeper at the Boca del Infierno. We left Jane & Sue at the hotel and drove the short journey to this famous landmark, where we searched the rock faces. It was getting to ‘quitting time’ when all of a sudden a female Wallcreeper appeared below where we were standing. Over the next five minutes we got some fabulous views as it searched for insects in the nooks and crannies before it flew out of view, it was now time to leave and we did in very high spirits. Our final evening meal at the Hotel Uson was a little sad as we knew we had to leave this superb location the following morning going back south to the ‘Steppes of Belchite’.

Sunday 28th :- We enjoyed our final breakfast at the Hotel Uson and said our fond “farewells” to our excellent hosts – Imanol & Lucia. While we were packing the mini-bus I heard a Cirl Bunting singing so we tried to find it, unfortunately we failed to find this bird but we did see a male Rock Bunting, Robins, Chiffchaffs, Dunnocks, Firecrest, Crested, Great and Blue Tits. We set off and a suggestion by Michael saw us stopping at the bridge in Hecho Village where we got fabulous views of 5 Black bellied Dippers (doing some formation flying), plus a Kingfisher, Grey & White Wagtails. Eventually we left and headed down the road being slowed considerably by 100’s of sheep being shepherded to a new location for a little while, and then on to the famous red sandstone cliffs of the ‘Mallos de Riglos’ were we stopped for a coffee and a photo opportunity. As usual there were plenty of Griffon Vultures and Crag Martins around the towering formations and in the local agricultural fields we found Common Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Goldfinches, Chaffinches and Serins, with a few Woodlarks singing in the distance. The journey was excellent and a new road through to Belchite meant an even quicker route, so we stopped for lunch at Las Lomazas steppe reserve. It was quite due to the heat but we did see a few Thekla Larks, Linnets, 2 Raven and Griffon Vultures. Although Richard fared much better than any of us as he went off to pay the call of nature he stumbled across a Dupont’s Lark on the track getting point-blank views. He called to the rest of us but as is always the case ‘El Diablo’ raced into the undergrowth not to be seen again. Soon after we made the final short journey to our accommodation in Lecera and after a quick check-in we headed back out to see the ‘Old Town of Belchite’. This forgotten place was ravaged by Franco’s army during the Civil War and the ruined remains are still there to consider. We spent quite a while wandering through its dilapidated streets thinking about the horrors the inhabitants must have endured, plus seeing Spotless Starlings, Serins, and Black Redstarts. A Sparrowhawk flew over being pursued by a lovely male Lesser Kestrel, which hung around giving very good views as it caught insects on the wing.  Michael found a 1st winter Golden Eagle as it drifted over, John found a Moorish Gecko and Richard found our only Mallow Skipper of the trip closely followed by a Pied Flycatcher near the mini-bus. We then returned to the hostel for a break and to get ready for the evening when we were going out to the area’s premier reserve ‘El Planeron’.  The late afternoon sun illuminated this wonderful landscape with a fantastic mixture of red, orange, gold and purple, but it was fairly quite bird-wise. However John did very well finding a migrating Black Kite ( making our 16th raptor species of the week), and there were also a small numbers of Lesser Short toed Larks, Crested Larks, Linnets and 2 Southern Grey Shrikes. As dusk fell so the eerie calls of the Dupont’s Larks could be heard but alas this evening we failed to find one hopefully tomorrow morning we will have better luck?.

Monday 29th :- We met just after dawn and the conditions were perfect so for the second time we drove out to the fantastic El Planeron nature reserve. As we crossed the reserve a Hobby flashed through and Lesser Short toed Larks flew up from the road sides. We stopped in the same place as the evening before I opened the window and listened carefully. There it was the haunting song of a Dupont’s Lark and almost immediately I found it sat in amongst the mesquit grass. We all got on to it and carefully got out of the mini-bus, Michael set up his scope behind the van and one by one we got a good view of this very rare and elusive European bird. What a perfect start to our final day of the holiday. We waited a while longer seeing more Lesser Short toed Larks and hearing more Dupont’s Larks but not much else. It was time to leave and get packed to leave for the airport after having our breakfast. The journey south east was easy passing through some wonderful Spanish countryside before stopping for refreshments just beyond Teruel. We sat outside in the sunshine watching a few Griffon Vultures pass over but my favourite was finding a Large Red Underwing Moth on the side of the building. We got to Valencia with enough time to re-visit Moro Marsh for a while where Richard found our final new species of the trip with a Bar tailed Godwit on the beach. Other birds here included Wood Sandpiper, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Moorhen, Yellow Wagtail, Reed & Cetti’s Warblers, Stonechat, Black headed & Audouin’s Gulls. Unfortunately it was time to go to Valencia Airport for the flight, which thankfully went without hitch and said our “goodbyes” after a fabulous week.


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