Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Pyrenees & N/E Spain

7th - 14th October 2006

Report by Julian Sykes

7th October :- We all met for the first time at Valencia Airport where Chris Byrne, Malcolm Palmer and myself joined Malcolm's brother Richard and his wife Jane. Our first stop was at a small reserve just north of Valencia called Marjel de Moro (Moro Marsh) where we spent a couple of hours getting acquainted with one another and finding some very good birds. The highlight was a pair of Red knobbed Coots, (new for Chris) which showed very well along side their commoner cousins and also included Little Grebes, Cattle Egrets, 7 Greater Flamingos, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal, Shovelers, a single Red Crested & Common Pochards, Marsh Harriers, Kestrel, Hobby, Water Rail (heard), Purple Gallinules, Black winged Stilt, Avocets, Ringed Plover, Common Snipe, 4 Spotted & Common Redshanks, 4 Little Stints, $ Dunlin, Black headed Gulls, Kingfishers, Hoopoes, Crested Larks, Sand & House Martins, Swallows, White Wagtail, Zitting Cisticolas, Cetti's, Eurasian Reed Warblers, Chiffchaff, Bluethroat, Stonechats, Southern Grey Shrike, Spotless Starlings and Goldfinches. We had our picnic on the seafront whilst watching close 4 Gannets, Sandwich Terns, Yellow legged & Audouin's Gulls pass by, a very pleasant start. Next we made our way north west towards Teruel making a brief stop at Rio Moro de Rubielas where missed our target but did see our first Griffon Vultures and a Sparrowhawk. We continued on to Monreal and our overnight accommodation seeing a few Common Buzzards and Carrion Crows en-route. After checking in we gathered for a final drive out to the steppe area around Blancas with enough time to do a circuit on to the high plateau. Here we added a Tawny Pipit, Calandra, Thekla & Skylarks, a Rock Sparrow, Corn Bunting, Little Owl, Thekla & Skylarks, Magpies, Red billed Chough, Northern Wheatears, and Black Redstarts. However the raptor list was boosted with a female Hen Harrier, male Marsh Harrier, another Sparrowhawk, and Chris found a cracking adult Golden Eagle sat right out in the open. Very satisfied we returned to our hotel to enjoy a fine evening meal and a good night's sleep.

8th October :- An early breakfast before packing the vehicles with Richard & Jane reported seeing a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a couple of Tree Sparrows from their room window. We had decided to follow the same route as the previous evening since it looked potentially very good, and on our first stop we found a Red Kite, good numbers of Calandra Larks with a several Skylarks migrating overhead. On the outskirts of Blancas we found the small colony of Rock Sparrows, with Thekla Larks and Black Redstarts. Out on the plains we stopped and I found 2 Stone Curlews well camoflaged amongst the thyme shrubs, with another Little Owl, Linnets, Corn Buntings and Red billed Choughs. We continued and whilst driving a flock of 24 Little Bustards flew up from next to the road and gave excellent views as they made several passes, this then caused a large flock of 50+ Golden Plover to alight and fly off in the other direction. Next we made our way to Gallacanta Lake in the hope of seeing a few over-wintering Common Cranes but unfortunately we were a little early and none yet arrived from their northern breeding grounds. However we did find the resident flock of 23 Great Bustards, a few of which flew across the road looking magnificent in flight. The next half hour was spent watching and photographing these great birds and also seeing 3 Hobby's, 3 Hen Harriers, a Marsh Harrier, Kestrel, Southern Grey Shrike, Tawny Pipit, Goldfinches, and Tree Sparrows. It was now time to strike north for the pre-Pyrenees with Red Kite, Common Buzzard and lots of Griffon Vultures all seen en-route. Our next site was at Vadiello where we saw an adult Golden Eagle amongst the many Griffons, 2 Peregrines, Crag & House Martins, an Alpine Swift, Rock Doves and 2 Ravens. We left and as there was still time for one more stop we went to very scenic Castillo de Loarre were a walk round the woods and castle grounds produced 2 more Golden Eagles, 2 Firecrests, Song Thrush, Sardinian Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Black Redstarts, Stonechat, Coal & Crested Tits, 2 Short toed Treecreepers, Chaffinches, a single Cirl & 2 Rock Buntings. After a coffee and ice cream we finally headed straight for our accommodation in the Hecho Valley, and upon arrival I found our first adult Lammergeier, which was soon joined by a second both showing well above the high crags. A fantastic end to another superb day's birdwatching finished off with the usual excellent meal and glass of wine at the Hotel Uson, thanks to Imanol & Lucia.

9th October :- A pre-breakfast stroll with Chris was a fairly quiet affair seeing just a Robin, Wren and Cirl Buntings, but a Red Squirrel near the hotel was a nice addition. After breakfast we drove the short journey to the Refugio de Gabardito and in the car park I found our first target species, Citril Finch, with one giving fantastic views feeding on thistle heads. Other birds found in this area included Chaffinches, Black Redstarts, Robin, Chiffchaffs, 2 Marsh, Crested, Coal, Great & Blue Tits. We walked through the forest finding Jays, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Long tailed Tits, Blackbirds, and a Wren before reaching the rock face and when we arrived Chris and I heard a Black Woodpecker so we waited for Malcolm, Richard & Jane. Once we were together we stopped at a good location overlooking the forest in hope of seeing the woodpecker but as sometimes happens while birding a male Wallcreeper gave it's plaintive call right above our heads, we could not believe our luck. Over the next half hour it gave us problems with just brief flight views but still calling incessantly, before I made a speculative sweep with my telescope in the general area. Amazingly I found it sat in a crevice were it stayed for a few minutes allowing everyone to get 'scoped' views of this special bird. Here we also saw a Lammergeyer, Rock Doves, Black Redstart and Red billed Choughs before walking back to the car. Lunch was taken back down in the Hecho Valley next to the river were we sat in the sunshine watching a Grey Wagtail and some late butterflies and dragonflies (thanks Chris for the book).  After lunch we drove to the top of the valley seeing Meadow Pipits, Yellowhammers, Cirl & Rock Buntings then continued on foot to somewhere near the French border. During the stroll up the track we saw Grey & White wagtails, Black Redstarts, Meadow Pipits, Common Buzzard, Red Kites, a sub-adult Golden Eagle, 30+ Yellow billed & Red billed Chough, as well as a couple of Alpine Marmots. However this walk produced what was potentially the highlight of the trip for some of the group, watching 2 adult Lammergeiers nest building just across the valley. It was fantastic to watch these magnificent vultures at such close quarters as they collected small branches from the ground and took them to their ledge. At this point we decided to split up with Richard, Jane and myself continuing up the valley, with Malcolm & Chris returning to the vehicle. An hour later we also returned to the car having found just 2 Chamois, but some stunning scenery. Chris & Malcolm had done better having had an adult Bonelli's Eagle over, 3 Golden Eagles, 2 Lammergeiers and a Goshawk, so we decided to wait and see what else appeared adding another Golden Eagle, 3 Hen Harriers, a Sparrowhawk and Kestrel, raptor watching at it's best.

10th October :- Another early morning walk produced a female Brambling amongst the Chaffinch flock and a good number of Griffons heading to a kill just down the valley. Today we were going over the tops into France to look for the locally scarce White backed Woodpecker in the wonderful Foret d'Isseaux. We made our way through the Uson to the Roncal valley where we stopped off in the village to check the river and found our target a Black bellied Dipper. The drive to the border produced very close Yellow billed & Red billed Chough and a walk at the top we found 2 Citril Finches, a Dunnock, Water & Meadow Pipits, a pair of close Golden Eagles, female Hen Harrier, Northern Wheatear, Linnets, Black Redstarts, Goldfinches and Raven. In France we stopped at St Martin for a coffee before driving down to the extensive Beech forest of Isseaux. Our first stop was a bitter sweet affair when almost immediately after getting out of the car we heard a White backed Woodpecker calling, and quite close. However extensive search of the trees produced no sign and the next time it called it was further away. We stayed here for a while longer adding Nuthatch, Jay and Chiffchaffs, and a little further down the road we saw Blackcap, Marsh, Coal, Great & Blue Tits and Common Buzzard. It was a lovely situation and we enjoyed our picnic lunch while sat in the warm mountain sunshine. After lunch we returned to the first site and searched the area finding a mixed flock of Firecrests, Goldcrests, Nuthatches, Eurasian Treecreepers, Crested, Marsh & Coal Tits, a great spectacle as they moved through the trees incessantly calling. Eventually we gave up our quest for this elusive woodpecker and returned to Spain making several stops on our way to the 'Rincon de Belagua'. Another forest walk here produced much the same species so we continued to a known area from previous trips, and here we found our target species, a male Black Woodpecker, which we saw a couple of times flying over the pine forest. The journey back to the Hotel Uson was puntuated with a couple of stops around Zuriza but only managed to see similar species plus Woodpigeons, Crag Martins, Magpies and Cirl Buntings however the scenery alone was worth the journey back, surely some of the best in Spain

 11th October :- Our last full day in the Pyrenees and unfortunately the forecast was poor but luckily we avoided any rain and in fact got some sunshine. The usual pre-breakfast stroll produced the usual suspects and a little later we were heading for Lumbiere with the journey producing our first Cormorant of the trip. We started at the 'Foz de Lumbiere' a steep sided canyon that used to hold an old railway line that ran along side the river. At the car park we immediately found a few Cirl Buntings, Crested Larks, Meadow Pipit, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Kestrel and a Southern Grey Shrike. The walk was gentle finding Griffon Vulture, Crag Martins, Rock Doves, &  single Blue Rock Thrush on the canyon walls, with Long tailed Tits, Sardinian & Cetti's Warblers, Mallard and a Dipper along the river. A flock of Cormorants flew over as did a female Marsh Harrier then at the far end of the gorge we stopped and watched a shallow pool in the now warm sunshine finding a Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail plus plenty of Red Kites and 2 Ravens over the distant pines. We returned to the vehicle seeing much the same species as before, and made the short journey to the hide overlooking the vulture feeding area. We arrived at the feeding station to find a few carcasses were nicely decomposing and being attended too by a few Griffon Vultures, several Red Kites and Common Buzzard patrolled the area but it was generally quiet. In the ploughed fields below the hide was a Spotted Flycatcher and several Tree Sparrows plus Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Robins, Black Redstarts, and Corn Buntings. We decided to take the scenic route back to the hotel stopping off at the incredibly dramatic 'Foz de Ayubarle' were we found several House Martins amongst the Crag Martins and a pair of Peregrine Falcons around the sheer cliff faces. The drive back was slow  on the mountain roads but we still managed to return in good time for another walk locally around the Hotel Uson. Again woodland species dominated with Crested, Coal, Great, & Blue Tits, Jay, Short toed Treecreeper, Robin, Cirl & Rock Buntings being found in or near the extensive pine woodland.

12th October :- After breakfast we packed up the vehicles and said our goodbyes to Lucia & Imanol for what was yet again a fantastic stay at a wonderful hotel. We were heading for the Belchite Plains and we stopped for a coffee near the 'Mallos de Riglos' to give everyone a chance to photograph these impressive rocks. Instead of heading straight for the plains we drove around the 'Embalse de Sotonera' looking for Common Crane, unfortunately this wasn't to be but we did find Great Crested Grebes, Mallards, Western Yellow legged & Black headed Gulls. We continued through the Monegros Steppes finding big numbers of Calandra Lark (1000+) and one stop for our picnic lunch provided fantastic views of a Golden Eagle low overhead, incredibly this was our 12th Goldie of the trip. Also around here Richard found a few Dartford Warblers as well as seeing Red legged Partridges, Crested Larks, Corn Buntings and a Little Owl. After lunch we drove through to the 'old town' of Belchite seeing on the way a Peregrine Falcon, lots of Red Kites and Common Buzzards. This deserted shrine to the Spanish Civil War should be visited by all travellers to this region being a poignant reminder of what happened during this bloody conflict. Luckily careful restoration is taking place to what will eventually make some kind of open-air museum. Not only does this site have massive historical significance the birds are pretty special too with a resident pair of Black Wheatears, plus Black Redstarts, a Cetti's Warbler and White Wagtails. As the mid afternoon heat diminished we made our way to the final site of the day, the excellent El Planeron reserve where we found 100+ Pin tailed Sandgrouse, 7 Black bellied Sandgrouse, a female Hen Harrier & 3 Marsh Harriers, female Merlin, Calandra, Lesser Short toed, & Thekla Larks, Skylarks, 2 Whinchats, Northern Wheatears, Linnets, Southern Grey Shrike and 50+ Red billed Chough looking quite out of place on the flat dry steppes. Unfortunately we did not find our main prize the very elusive Dupont's Lark, hopefully tomorrow morning would be better, we left and made our way to our hostel in Quinto for our penultimate night.

13th October :- We left the hostal to find Richard had been out a while and found quite a few White Storks flying over near the edge of town, which was a very good start to the day. However this was short-lived as we discovered a flat tyre so while the others had their breakfast Malcolm & I changed it, and after our quick breakfast we headed out to the Belchite Plains. This was last chance saloon for maintaining my 100% success for finding this very rare and elusive lark in the Belchite area, a bird all the party had missed on previous occasions. We drove onto El Planeron reserve and the conditions were perfect with light winds and blue skies, larks called everywhere with the main species being Calandra & Lesser Short toed Larks with smaller numbers of Crested Lark and the odd Thekla Lark. We also found Red Kites, Griffon Vultures, Northern Wheatears, Stonechats, and a late Swallow flew through. As we neared the main Dupont's breeding area I heard it's plaintive call and pulled in, then Richard said "'Ive got it" and sure enough there was a Dupont's Lark in full view sat singing from the top of some low vegetation. We exited the car quickly and set up the scopes and got fabulous views of this special bird, and while we were there we heard another two birds singing from other areas. It was now time to leave and as we headed out we saw a group of 6 Black bellied Sandgrouse flying over the reserve and a few Lesser Black backed Gulls on the reservoir. The journey east to the Ebro Delta was fairly uneventful with a few Common Buzzards, Griffon Vultures and Kestrels along the way. After lunch we made our on to the delta and headed out to Bassa del Garxal, here the water levels were quite high but we did manage to find our first Great White Egrets, plus a Booted Eagle, Marsh Harriers, 2 Bluethroats, Purple Gallinule, Coot, Mallard, Little Grebes and Reed Buntings. Next we drove around the paddy fields near the Bassa del Canal Vell, which held innumerable Little & Cattle Egrets, a Spoonbill, 200+ Glossy Ibis and lots more Great White Egrets. We stopped at one flooded field where we found a large group of waders and we logged a Temminck's Stint, Black tailed Godwits, Common, Green, & Wood Sandpipers, Spotted & Common Redshank, Greenshank, Ruff, Grey & Ringed Plovers Northern Lapwing, Grey lag Geese, Black headed & Yellow legged Gulls, Yellow Wagtails and Tree Sparrows. At the tower look-out we saw Whiskered & Sandwich Terns, and a large flock of duck, which included Mallard, Coot, Red Crested & Common Pochard, Shoveler, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal, and Wigeon. We then decided to cross the river Ebro on the mini car transporters and headed for the beach near Riet Vell where we found a few Mediterranean Gulls and Kentish Plovers. Our last stop was at Tancada where we found more o the same ducks & waders plus Greater Flamingos, Avocets, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti's Warbler and a Eurasian Reed Warbler. We then made our way to San Carlos de la Rapita for our final night's stay.

14th October :-  After breakfast we first went to the beach at San Carlos where we found several Audouin's Gulls, Sandwich Terns, European Starlings and a few Barn Swallows. Then we returned to the delta starting at the new Riet Vell reserve seeing Little & Black necked Grebes, Purple Gallinule, Water Rail (heard), Grey Heron, Little Egrets, a couple of Marsh Harriers, Eurasian Reed & Cetti's Warblers. Back at Tancada we found our main target a Caspian Tern along with Slender billed & Black headed Gulls, Greater Flamingos, Gadwall, Shovelers, Red Crested Pochards, a Common Buzzard, Spotted & Common Redshank, Greenshanks, Little Stints, Dunlin, Ruff, Avocets, Grey & Kentish Plovers. Before leaving we stopped at the visitor centre at L'Encanyissada and from the observation tower we added a Common Snipe, plus Great White Egrets, Glossy Ibis and many more ducks. We made our way south into Valencia where I dropped Richard & Jane at the airport, Chris, Malcolm and I carried on to Oliva and completed another fantastic week in north east Spain.



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