Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Pyrenees & N/E Spain

26th May - 3rd June 2006

Report by Julian Sykes

26th May :- I collected the four friends (Jan Beever, Elspeth Chaplin, Harry & Val Cooper) from their accommodation in the south of the region around lunchtime and headed back north. As we approached Elche a chance comment prompted a quick diversion to the coast at Santa Pola for one of it's rare breeders Rufous Bushchat. Our luck was in as I got out of the car at least 2 birds could be heard singing amongst the pines and we began a search of the area, however we were quickly distracted. I noticed a falcon flying over and looking at it through the binoculars noticed how very long-winged it was, a cracking pale phase Eleonora's Falcon and drew everyone's attention to it. We all saw well as it effortlessly flew back and forth over the trees before before heading off out of sight. Again our attention was back on the Bushchats and very soon after we were watching a fine male hopping around on the ground, flicking it's gorgeous rufous tail, what a start. On the journey north we saw a Red rumped & Barn Swallows, Turtle & Collared Doves, Eurasian Kestrel, Jackdaws, Common Swifts & Wood Pigeons. In the evening we had a short trip out to Pego Marsh where we found Moustached, Savi's, Great Reed & Eurasian Reed Warblers, Zitting Cisticolas, Grey, Purple & Squacco Herons, Little & Cattle Egrets, 4 Little Bitterns, Mallard, Red Crested Pochards, Black winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers, Audouin's & Western Yellow legged Gulls, Whiskered Terns, Hoopoes, Yellow & White Wagtails, Crested Larks, Stonechat, Woodchat Shrike, Nightingale and Goldfinches.

27th May :- Before breakfast a look amongst the orange trees produced the usual Sardinian Warbler, Spotless starlings, Serins and Blackbird, then after breakfast we loaded up the minibus and eventually set off north. Our first stop was at a small reserve near Pújol called Marjel de Moro (Moro Marsh) where we spent a couple of hours walking  along the beach. The main target was Red knobbed Coot and we were lucky enough to find four birds, (two having neck bands from the re-introduction scheme) amongst their commoner cousins on the first reedy pool we arrived at. We spent a long time discussing their identification differences as well as enjoying the male Little Bittern sat high up in the reeds nearby. During the rest of the walk we saw several Little Grebes, 10+ Little Bitterns, Grey & Purple Herons, Cattle & Little Egrets, 53 Greater Flamingos, Shelduck, 2 Shoveler, Sparrowhawk, 50+ Collared Pratincoles, Kentish Plovers, Audouin's & Black headed Gulls, Common, Little & Whiskered Terns, Turtle Doves, Bee-eaters, Hoopoe, Great Reed Warblers, Zitting Cisticolas and Jackdaws. Our picnic lunch was taken over looking the sea before we embarked on our second leg inland towards Teruel and beyond to Monreal where we were going to spend our first night. Again en-route we added a few birds as the landscape changed with Griffon Vultures, Booted Eagle, Crested Larks, Northern & Black eared Wheatears being seen. After checking in to the hotel we had enough time to do a quick circuit of the area around Blancas where we found Little Owl, Calandra, Short toed, Thekla & Skylarks, Southern Grey Shrike, Red legged Partridge, more Black eared & Northern Wheatears, Magpies, 10+ Red billed Chough, Carrion Crows, Raven, House, Tree and Rock Sparrows.

28th May :- A pre-breakfast trip to the plains sadly produced a 'heard-only' Dupont's Lark, 2 Stone Curlews, 2 Tawny Pipits as well as tall of the other species seen the previous evening. After breakfast we drove slowly around towards Gallacanta Lake in the hope of finding the small population of Great Bustards, enroute seeing a few Bee-eaters, Woodchat Shrikes and Corn Buntings. Unfortunately we failed to locate the bustards but we did find a Griffon Vultures, Booted Eagle, 4 Marsh & 3 Montagu's Harriers, Hobby, a Lesser & Eurasian Kestrels, Lapwings, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Quail, Yellow Wagtails, Eurasian Reed Warblers, Zitting Cisticolas and Tree Sparrows. Now it was time to head north for the Pyrenees, but a stop by the river at Darocha produced an adult Egyptian Vulture, Blackcap, Cetti's Warbler, Crag Martin and Greenfinches. The journey to Riglos yielded a White Stork on a nest, Black & Red Kites, and lots of Griffon Vultures, and just outside Riglos we found more Griffon & Egyptian Vultures, Nightingales, Melodious Warblers, Cirl Buntings, Great & Blue Tits, Wren, and Chaffinches during a roadside walk. A walk into the village for an ice-cream was pleasant in the afternoon sun whilst watching the climbers risk life and limb scaling the impressive 'Mallos de Riglos' plus we added a lovely male Black Redstart. Eventually we left and headed straight for our accommodation, high up in the Hecho Valley arriving late afternoon a well-earned beer in the garden produced a calling Crested Tit, Chaffinches and a Fox. The next four nights will be spent in this wonderful setting, in fantastic accommodation.

29th May :- A short walk before breakfast introduced us to a few local species around the hotel including a pair of Firecrests, Crested, Great & Blue Tits, Robin, Garden Warbler and Blackcap. After breakfast we made the short journey to the 'Refugio de Gabardito' seeing a male Red backed Shrike en-route and at the parking area Jan almost immediately found 2 Citril Finches on the road. We thoroughly enjoyed these birds as they were new for most of the group before heading off through the woodland towards the 'Wallcreeper Crags'. The long steady walk produced more Great, Blue & Crested Tits, Song & Mistle Thrush, Blackcap and Garden Warblers, with Griffon Vultures and Red billed Choughs over the far mountain. As we left the woodland a Black Woodpecker called in the distance and a quick scan produced nothing so we continued. It called again this time closer and Elspeth said "I'm sure that dark shape wasn't there the last time I looked!" and sure enough there was a fabulous male Black Woodpecker. We watched it through the telescope drumming away on the dead trunk in the not-too-far distance for several minutes before it flew off into the valley below. We had luckily been given precise directions from where to see the Wallcreepers and we soon positioned ourselves and scanned the rocks above our heads. Soon a brief movement across the gap looked interesting and then a gorgeous male Wallcreeper flew back into view and showed for a couple of minutes before disappearing. Then it returned and gave even better extended views (some in the telescope) as it moved and shuffled around the rocks making it's delicate call occasionally. It again disappeared and we waited for a good while for it's return but unfortunately not, however I found our first adult Lammergeier, which sadly disappeared before everyone could see it, plus a Sparrowhawk, Crag Martins, Black Redstart and Coal Tit. As we were about to leave 2 more Lammergeiers (young birds) drifted right over our heads and away to join the Griffon & Egyptian Vultures on the opposite crags. The walk back in the late morning sunshine was fantastic finding several butterfly and plant species as well as seeing (& hearing) Eurasian & Short toed Treecreepers, and other woodland species. Back at the parking area we enjoyed our picnic lunch, which also produced 3 more Citril Finches around the refugio, a close adult Lammergeier, and our first Short toed Eagle. It had been a fantastic morning's birdwatching. On the journey down the mountain we flushed a Green Woodpecker from the side of the road, which looked nothing like the grey tones of the Iberian 'Sharpei' sub-species seen the previous day. We then slowly climbed up into the Hecho Valley stopping to check the river, seeing a couple of Grey Wagtails, before reaching the high area. Just before the car park we found a pair of Red backed Shrikes and several Yellowhammers at the side of the metalled road. The wind had now increased and was causing a bit of a problem but we did find a lone Chamois and 3 Marmots amongst the rocks as well as Alpine & Red billed Chough, Dipper, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, more Black Redstarts, Red backed Shrikes and Yellowhammers. The two major highlights involved a pair of adult Lammergeiers that Harry had found on the far hillside sat feeding off bone marrow, and a Short toed Eagle that slowly drifted up the valley occasionally hanging in the air searching for prey, with every feather detail being seen as it passed by at eye-level. We returned to the hotel stopping again along the river and this time successfully finding a Dipper very close to where we were parked, which we watched for several minutes as searched for food under the clear waters. It had been a long and successful day with the obligatory bottle of beer or glass of wine back at the hotel, very welcome to all.

30th May :- Another (optional) pre-breakfast jaunt to the nearby Boca del Infierno was marred by the high winds but a pair of Bullfinches feeding on the roadside was some recompense. Today we were going over the tops into France to look for the locally scarce White backed Woodpecker in the Foret d'Isseaux but the forecast was poor. Unfortunately the connecting road from Hecho to Anso was closed so we drove along the quicker roads to the Roncal Valley, seeing Red backed Shrikes, Black & Red Kites, Common Buzzard, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, Grey Heron, Grey wagtail, and Corn Buntings along the way. Our first stop was high up above Belagua where a big flock of both Alpine & Red billed Chough fed in the roadside fields, but we also found a freshly dead horse that was surrounded by 30+ Griffon Vultures making for a fascinating spectacle, and as we drove higher we found our first Water Pipits, along with Linnets, Chaffinches and Black Redstarts. Just over the border we stopped off at San Martin and whilst parked Val found a male Rock Thrush making work of a lizard (Pyrenean Rock Lizard?), which we enjoyed watching for a long time. This car park proved fruitful since we also found a pair of Ring Ouzels (Alpestris race) with the male singing from the top of a pine, Dunnock, Serins, Linnets and more Alpine Choughs. We continued down the hill and a pair of birds feeding along the roadside turned out to be Citril Finches, an unexpected surprise. In the forest we first stopped for lunch where I had seen White backed Woodpecker the previous year but without success but during the stay we did hear Nuthatches and a Western Bonelli's Warbler, plus Firecrest, Short toed Treecreepers, Green Woodpecker, Great, Blue & Long tailed Tits, Blackcaps & Garden Warbler. The next stop was a little further on and as we got out the vehicle a White backed Woodpecker was drumming but unfortunately could not be found. It soon stopped and we decided to wait and while we were there Val found a (dark phase) Honey Buzzard flying over, and Jan found our first Marsh Tits, plus many of the species seen previously in the forest. After about 45 minutes the woodpecker called and it was very close to where we were, but just at that moment two motorcyclists turn up, stop and leave their engines running whilst talking to each other. After a couple of minutes they ride off and unsurprisingly the woodpecker had also left our luck was certainly out with this species. Time had ran so we slowly made our way back into Spain and to the hotel stopping on several occasions to thoroughly enjoy the magnificent scenery of the Roncal & Anso Valleys, plus we did find a few more Ring Ouzels, Water Pipits, Dunnocks, and a Red Squirrel.

31st May :- Our last full day in the Pyrenees and the continued cold high winds prevented an early morning walk so after breakfast we drove down the valley to the area around Berdun, again seeing Common Buzzard, Red backed Shrikes, Turtle Doves, kites and vultures en-route. Our first stop was over-looking a local piggery where offal is sometimes left out and birds of prey come to feed, and very soon we were having fantastic views of Booted Eagles, a Short toed Eagle, Raven, Black & Red Kites, Griffon & Egyptian Vultures and a Red rumped Swallow. At the bridge we found the nesting Rock Sparrows and a short walk along the river produced a Common Sandpiper, Grey Heron, Kestrel, Grey & White Wagtails, Melodious & Cetti's Warblers, Song Thrush, Nightingale, and heard only Golden Oriole, Cuckoo and Quail. Back at the bridge we searched the area finding Melodious & Garden Warblers, Blackcaps, Long tailed & Great Tits, Jay, and a nice find was a Hobby mobbing a Booted Eagle. Next we drove the short distance to the colloquially named 'Badlands' but this open area was being affected by the high winds, however we did manage to see a Dartford Warbler, Tawny Pipit, Crested Larks, Stonechats, Corn Buntings, and Woodchat Shrike, with 4 Honey Buzzards and a Lammergeier being the biggest surprise. Our next stop was a short distance back up a valley for a picnic stop at the side of the road, with it's breeding Cirl & Corn Buntings, Cetti's, Sub-alpine & Melodious Warblers, plus the lovely Southern White Admiral Butterfly. After lunch we moved a short distance along the road and as we got out of the minibus I found a male Rock Thrush singing from the top of a telegraph pole. We explored this area hoping to find an Ortolan Bunting but unfortunately not, however we did see Red backed & Woodchat Shrikes, Short toed Eagle, Linnets, Rock Sparrows, and Elspeth found another Lammergeier. Our final destination of the afternoon was the monastery at San Juan de la Peña with it's excellent mixed woodland high up in the mountains. At the car park we first stopped for a coffee finding Jay, Great, Blue & Coal Tits and Blackcaps, then stroll along the road through the woods added Firecrests, Black Redstart, Wrens, Robin and the memory of an adult Short toed Treecreeper feeding it's 4 young as they huddled together on the trunk of a tree. We heard an Iberian Chiffchaff, Nuthatch, and a brief Scop's Owl but unfortunately we were unable to find any of these species but a Great Spotted Woodpecker sat in a tree back at the van was a welcome addition. We returned to the hotel earlier than usual as we were going back out after the evening meal in hope of seeing an Eagle Owl at a known stake-out. We drove down to Asaguay before nightfall and joined other visiting parties in fact three identical minibuses in a row looked quite bizarre and created some confusion. We waited at the site and one tour leader said "I've got it, flying across the hillside and, damn it, out of sight", and that was that. To our knowledge no-one else saw it at all amongst the gathered throng, which caused some amusement but we did see a couple of European Nightjars and a Mallard, plus looking at Jupiter was a bonus. We decided to return before all the others and watching Val trying to pack her seat into the minibus belonging to the Danes added to the hilarity of the evening. The journey back up the Hecho Valley was boosted by another European Nightjar showing well in the headlights of the van for all to see.

1st June :- This morning we were leaving the Hotel Uson and heading south to the plains of Belchite so after breakfast we packed up the minibus and got on our way. We made very good progress and within two hours we had reached our destination finding a Purple & Grey Heron, White Storks, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, Booted Eagle, Common Buzzard, Black & Red Kites, Red backed & Woodchat Shrikes, Common Raven, Dunnock, and Corn Buntings en-route. Once on to the excellent El Planeron reserve we slowly made our way along the main track seeing Calandra, Crested, Greater & Lesser Short toed Larks, Northern Wheatears, and a Little Owl. A short walk produced a lot of the same species plus a close pair of Stone Curlews, and the shallow waters of the reservoir held Black winged Stilts and a Hoopoe. It was now starting to get hot we continued in the air-conditioned van, then from the road Jan says she's seen a funny lark so I pull off along the track. I drop most of the group off then Val & I go to turn the vehicle round, and as so often happens I find a Dupont's Lark just off the track in full view. I ensure Val has a good view, pin-point the spot then return for the others who can't believe what has just happened so we make our way back to where the lark was. To everyone's relief it is still there and very visible and over the next 20 minutes everyone gets fabulous views of this enigmatic bird, described by Elspeth as a miniature Roadrunner. Unfortunately we now have to leave and make the journey to the Alfás Aerodrome near Lleida on a high with our good fortune, which produced a good flock of 40+ White Storks, male Montagu's Harrier and a Southern Grey Shrike. At Alfás a stop along the track we find Black Kites, Tawny Pipit, and Greater Short toed Larks, then at the aerodrome we embark on walk along the river looking for a rare Spanish breeder Lesser Grey Shrike. This was excellent as we found a Great Spotted Cuckoo, Penduline Tits, Melodious & Sardinian Warblers, Nightingales, Jackdaws, Cattle Egrets, Bee-eaters, Stonechats and a comfort stop for the ladies rewarded them with a pair of Western Orphean Warblers. As we were leaving I spied a grey shrike on the skyline, was it a lesser?, we got back to the van and drove out to where it had been seen but our hopes were dashed when it turned out to be another Southern Grey Shrike. We left the area with Val finding a Red legged Partridge and drove the short journey to our hotel in Gandesa and a very good evening meal.

2nd June :- This was our last full day and after breakfast we drove the relatively short journey to Spain's second largest wetland, the Ebro Delta, where we were going to spend the whole day. We started in the south and passing through the extensive rice fields we saw our first Mallards, Black winged Stilts, Audouin's, Yellow legged, & Black headed Gulls, Grey, Purple & Squacco Herons, Little & Cattle Egrets. At L'Encanyissada Lagoon where we found Great Crested Grebes, a Great Cormorant, Great White Egret, Little Bitterns, Red Crested Pochards, Coot, Whiskered & Little Terns, Zitting Cisticolas, and Eurasian Reed Warblers. After a look around the visitor centre we continued towards Tancada and on the way we found 2 adult Night Herons and and adult Mediterranean Gull sat with a group of Black heads. At Tancada we quickly added 2 Slender billed Gulls, Greater Flamingos, Redshanks, Kentish Plovers, Avocets with young, Common Terns, Lesser Short toed Larks, Yellow Wagtails and Gadwalls on the main lagoon. It was now nearing lunchtime so we headed for St Jaume and as we passed Riet Vell a paddy field with lots of Whiskered Terns also held a couple of Black Terns. After lunch we took the ferry to the north and drove out towards Ruimar resort for a walk around El Garxal and the beach beyond, en-route we saw 2 Glossy Ibis in the flooded fields. At El Garxal we walked around the lagoon checking the lagoon from the viewing platforms and hide seeing more Greater Flamingos, Great White Egrets, 3 Purple Gallinules, several Black tailed Godwits, Redshanks and a Greenshank, Whiskered, Little & Common Terns and on the beach a party of 5 Sandwich Terns flew along the coastline. We returned towards Deltebre having a drive around the rice fields finding a lot more herons & egrets, Glossy Ibis and our first of several Gull billed Terns. Finally we returned to the south side and then on to the viewing platform overlooking L'Alfacada, Illa de Buda, and the Mediterranean. It was now quite windy so viewing was difficult but we managed to find our first Sand Martins and young Gannets moved north out to sea. Other species here included a Collared Pratincole, Purple Gallinules, Shelducks, Little Bitterns, and Glossy Ibis, eventually we headed back to our fine hotel in San Carles de Ràpita for a beer and an excellent evening meal.

3rd June :-  After a discussion the previous evening we had opted to head south for Alicante immediately stopping off at Finca Bonelli's Eagle in hope of finding their specialities. The long drive was interrupted by a quick visit to our guesthouse for some light refreshments before heading into the hills above Crevillente where we were greeted by Colin & Jane. While we were waiting for our lunch we scanned the crags and soon found the juvenile Bonelli's Eagle sat in full view, then the 2 adult Bonelli's Eagle flew in, deposited some prey with the young bird and then perched in their favourite places. We were elated to get such fantastic views and with the addition of a Black Wheatear, a pair of Blue Rock Thrushes, Woodchat Shrike, and several Thekla Larks it finished the holiday in style. I left Jan, Elspeth, Harry & Val at Jan's villa late afternoon completing another excellent all-inclusive in many varied habitats, thank you to them for making it such a success.



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