Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

The Pyrenees & N/E Spain

21st - 28th March 2008

Report by Julian Sykes

21st March :- I collected Nigel and his good friends from Valencia Airport then made our way back to Oliva, after sorting out the rooms followed by light refreshments and a freshen up, we were ready for some birdwatching. It started immediately outside the guesthouse with Nigel & I finding 10+ Alpine Swifts flying over the guesthouse with Barn Swallows and House Martins. We spent the rest of the afternoon at Pego Marsh although the high winds were making things difficult for trying to find some reedbed species but we did see Grey & Purple Herons, Little & Cattle Egrets, Mallard, Osprey, Marsh Harriers, Kestrel, Moorhen, Coot, Black winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers, Common Black winged Stilts, Wood Sandpipers, Yellow legged Gulls, Hoopoes, Sand Martins, Swallows, White & Yellow Wagtails, 4 Water & Meadow Pipits, Blackbird, Zitting Cisticola, Chiffchaff, Sardinian Warbler, Stonechat, Spotless Starling, Goldfinches and Reed Buntings. The evening meal was taken in one the local restaurants enjoying some tapas and discussing the forth-coming week and how the weather might be a factor in what our chances were of seeing certain target species - time would tell.

22nd March :- The evening before we had decided to return to Pego Marsh before our breakfast as Nigel had a specific target - Moustached Warbler and almost immediately he found one singing in the reeds. Once everyone had got good views of this locally scarce bird we continued working the tracks finding many of the species seen the previous evening and adding Kingfisher, Audouin’s Gull and Serin. After we had ploughed our way through one of Jill's extensive breakfasts we loaded the minibus and headed north towards Monreal del Campo seeing our first Griffon Vultures during the coffee stop just south of Teruel. The weather was getting worse with now persistant showers but it didn't stop us adding Booted Eagle, Black & Red Kites, Common Buzzard, Raven, Carrion Crows and Magpies from the roadside before reaching Gallocanta Lake. At Bello we had our lunch and then drove around the perimeter of this large inland lake seeing, Grey Heron, Shelduck, 2 Wigeon, Mallards, female Hen Harrier, Marsh Harriers, Kestrel. Merlin, 100+ Common Cranes, Lapwings, Curlew, Black headed Gulls, Woodpigeon, Hoopoe, Calandra & Crested Larks, Black Redstarts, Stonechats, Rock & House Sparrows, Greenfinches, Linnets, Chaffinches & Corn Buntings. The weather continued to deteriorate as we climbed over to the Steppes of Blancas and we ended up in a full-blown snow storm much to everyone's amusement although in reality it was a little concerning as what would it be doing in the High Pyrenees!!!. Even in these difficult conditions we still managed to find a few birds with sightings of Red legged Partridges, Little Owl, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Skylarks, Thekla Larks, a male Northern Wheatear, Southern grey Shrike, Red billed Choughs, Tree Sparrows and Corn Buntings. We returned to the hostel for a warm shower and another fine evening meal, all of us hoping for better weather the next day.

23rd March :- We made an early start from Monreal and drove out to the Belchite Plains, the weather had improved slightly however the high winds were still making things difficult especially in this very open terrain. On our way to El Planeron we only saw a few Griffon Vultures and Crested Larks but when we reached the reserve things really started to appear, as a slow drive along the tracks soon produced Lesser Short toed & Thekla Larks, Red legged Partridge and Linnets, then Paul found a gorgeous male Black eared Wheatear next to the mini-bus and managed to get some reasonable photographs of it. The wind was very frustrating as it made listening for calls very difficult but eventually we clearly heard a Dupont’s Lark from deep in the mesquite, sadly we were unable to locate it and had to resign ourselves to it being listed as ‘heard only’ much to Nigel's disappointment. Would this be the first time I had failed to see this elusive bird on all my visits here?. We decided to leave and on doing so we added Southern Grey Shrikes, Hoopoe, Spotless Starling and Corn Bunting. Back on the main road we started out for Quinto ready for a welcome breakfast but then I spied some familiar shapes in a field, which made me stop; 12 Black bellied Sandgrouse in full view, which was then followed by a ‘fly by’ Short toed Eagle - brilliant. After breakfast we set continued north to Huesca seeing 2 White Storks en-route and soon reaching our first stop – Vadiello Dam. This box canyon is extremely good for raptors and again it did not disappoint as we logged our first adult Lammergeier, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, a pair of Peregrines, another Short toed Eagle and Kestrel, plus several Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstarts, Blackcap, Long tailed & Great Tits, Chaffinches and (genuine) Rock Doves. Everyone was now in good spirits as the sun was shining and the wind had died down a little so we could enjoy the beautiful scenery of the pre-Pyrenees in comfort. Next stop was the very popular Riglos a haven for rock climbers who want to scale the sheer faces of the red sandstone towers of the Mallos de Riglos. We walked up through the village to the base of the cliffs and incredibly I immediately found a Wallcreeper, (a regular Winter visitor to this site). To everyone’s delight, we watched this beautiful bird of grey & crimson working it’s way along the ledges and into the crevices feeding for quite some time, then no sooner had we gathered breath, an Alpine Accentor flew up and started feeding on the rocks just in front of us. This is an amazing place for birds, late afternoon as the skies can be filled with huge flocks of Red billed Chough that are joined by Griffon & Egyptian Vultures, Crag Martins zip in and out of their roosting ledges as do a few Rock Doves making for a fantastic spectacle. We eventually forced ourselves to leave and our final drive to the accommodation was punctuated with views of Red & Black Kites, Common Buzzard, Raven, Cormorants and Grey Herons. We arrived at the Hotel Santa Cruz (where we would be staying for the next four nights) we found our rooms before enjoying a celebratory beer after such a fantastic day. While we ate our evening meal the snow began to fall.!!!!!!!!!!!!

24th March :- This morning I sprang out of bed in typical Pyrenean anticipation, opened the shutters to the room and my jaw dropped - I was faced with a blanket of white, it must have snowed all night and it covered everything. After a discussion at breakfast we decided to keep to the original agenda and a little later we gathered at the mini-bus were we found 3 Bullfinches and a Great Spotted Woodpecker making for a nice start to the day. Once on the cleared roads we were heading for the French border crossing of Somport and as we climbed out of Jaca it began to snow again so a hasty retreat was decided upon especially as the police were advising it. We returned to the Santa Cruz area and spent some more time birdwatching here, finding an Osprey, Red & Black Kites, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Crested Larks, White Wagtails, Wren, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Chiffchaff, Robins, Black Redstart, Stonechat, Long tailed Tits, Great & Blue Tits, Carrion Crows, Ravens, Chaffinches, 10 Siskins, Cirl Buntings and a pair of gorgeous Rock Buntings very close to the road. We had our lunch at the hotel and after another discussion we decided to return to Riglos hopefully away from the snow. A quick stop at the Punta de la Riena produced a singing Short toed Treecreeper, Grey Heron, Crag Martin and Barn Swallow. Back at Riglos things were quieter than the previous day but we quickly found Griffon & Egyptian Vultures, Black Redstarts, Serins and Goldfinches. Then as we walked around the towering rock formations we stopped to watch a couple of climbers ascending the sheer face of the Mallos, Anna noticed 3 birds just in front of us, which were Alpine Accentors. Extended views of these scarce birds were obtained as they moved through the undergrowth, at one point I think the nearby rock-climber could have stepped on them if he hadn't been careful, why is never the case when you have a camera in your hand?. We started to make our way back towards Riglos village and Peter saw a movement on the rock above us - an adult Wallcreeper, which then flew a short distance being briefly joined by a second adult Wallcreeper. This was awesome as the original bird continued to give exceptional views as it fed low down on the rock face allowing Paul to get some very acceptable record shots of this rare montane species. While we were there I also found a male Blue Rock Thrush, plus there were lots of Red billed Chough flying in from the surrounding fields, but it was now time to leave and as we walked off the hill we got superb views of a pair of Sardinian Warblers the first of the holiday. The return to Santa Cruz produced 2 Great Crested Grebes and several Cormorants at the ‘embalse’ then as we got to the hotel a pair a Grey Wagtails were in the car park. Not a bad day despite the conditions.

25th March :- Thankfully the weather was slightly better today and a telephone conversation with the Jaca Tourist Office meant the road to Somport was this time open, and after yet another excellent breakfast we met outside the hostel where we found Jay, Wren, Great & Blue Tits. The snow had completely melted in the valley but beyond Jaca we climbed up towards the French border and as we neared the ski resort of Candanchu the light rain turned to snow but fortunately it wasn’t covering the roads. At the resort we found lots of Alpine Chough sat on the buildings and around the car parks along with a migrating male Marsh Harrier, plenty of Chaffinches but sadly none of the rare Snowfinches, which sometimes frequent these villages in Winter. It was very cold so we enjoyed watching the numerous skiers doing their thing whilst having a welcome coffee in the warmth of one of the resort's cafés. Next we drove the short distance to another skiers village Astun, but it was even quieter for birds here so it wasn’t long before we left and set off back down the mountains to our accommodation in Santa Cruz de la Seros. After an early lunch we wound our way up through the pine forest to the mountain top Monastries of San Juan de la Peña but once more the high winds made woodland birdwatching difficult. We did however, manage to see some new birds, including Mistle Thrush, Coal, Great & Blue Tits, Nuthatches, Short toed Treecreepers, although the highlight today was watching Anna feed an incredibly trusting Crested Tit bits of cake from her picnic lunch. After a good walk round we drove back down the mountain stopping to admire the stunning views and close flying Griffon Vultures, Raven and Red Kites. Back at Santa Cruz a final walk around the area produced a Dipper for Peter plus a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Long tailed Tits, Grey Wagtails and Song Thrush. Just as we were getting ready to go inside I saw an adult Lammergeier patrolling the hillside right above the hotel, a very good bird for this area and a great end to fairly quiet day.

26th March :- This morning we enjoyed a pre-breakfast visit to San Juan de la Peña in the hope of finding some more woodland species particularly a very scarce breeding species - Black Woodpecker. Although one seriously loud Great Spot drum got us thinking for a minute we didn't find or hear anything from Europe's largest woodpecker, however during the visit we saw several Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Crested, Coal, Great & Blue Tits, Short toed Treecreeper and Woodpigeons. Back down the mountain at the hostel I once again found an adult Lammergeier drifting over the high ridges and whilst watching this a stunning Firecrest appeared and showed extremely well for a few minutes very close to the car park. After breakfast we set off again for the High Pyrenees looking for Snowfinches, this time we tried the the Roncal Valley to Belagua and the journey  produced the usual Red & Black Kites, Griffon Vultures and Common Buzzard plus a couple of Sparrowhawks and Egyptian Vultures, Booted Eagle, a mixed flock of Song & Mistle Thrush, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and a Dipper along the river for Nigel. As we climbed towards the French border the snow either side of the road became worse, and more snow began to fall so after a brief discussion the decision was made to go on. After an interesting journey of following snow ploughs to the border we could go no further, which left us with no chance of reaching the ski resort of San Martin and finding a Snowfinch. We turned around and headed back, despite this we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience of driving through such extreme conditions as well as appreciating what a harsh environment the Pyrenees can be even in late March. Back down the mountain we stopped for lunch at the picnic tables on the edge of the Belagua Forest and here we enjoyed great views of a few woodland birds including Firecrest, Coal, Great & Blue Tits, Blackbirds and 2 Grey Wagtails. Slowly we made our way back down the Roncal Valley with one roadside stop producing another Lammergeier amongst a large group of Griffon Vultures. A little further on near the main road to Pamplona, Peter found yet another adult Lammergeier very close to the road and consequently got some fabulous views and photographs for Peter along with 2 Egyptian Vultures, Sparrowhawk, 2 Kestrels, 2 Red Kites, Common Buzzard and 2 Ravens. Next we drove to the Martes road bridge on the edge of the Burdun badlands and spent a while walking along the minor road over the river where we found Crag, House & Sand Martins, Swallows, Water Pipits, Cirl Buntings, Corn Buntings, Chaffinches and Serins. Finally we returned to the main road and 'eagle-eyed Mike' asked me to turn round as he had very briefly seen a large dark bird standing in a field, which he thought was a Black Stork. Naturally I did exactly what I was told and when we got back to the Lucerne field we found not only a Black Stork, but also a Common Crane standing with the Grey Herons, a really good find for this area. We got back to the hotel very satisfied with our days birdwatching despite again the disruptions with the rotten weather.

27th March :- Today was the travelling day as we were leaving the High Pyrenees (in the snow) for the warm sunshine of the Mediterranean coast and normally this day would not be quite so long but Nigel, Mike, Anna & Peter wanted another crack at the Dupont’s Lark. An early start was required and two hours later saw us again at the El Planeron Reserve on the Belchite Plains, this time in near perfect conditions. We made our way to the area of densest population finding Calandra & Lesser Short toed Larks along the track to this point, and I parked the mini-bus, I got out and saw a Dupont’s Lark right in front of me not 10m away. I hastily signalled to the others but as they climbed out of the van it ran off into deep vegetation (in true Dupont's style) with only Peter getting a brief glimpse of it's back. However we persevered and over the next hour and a half we saw at least another 3 Dupont's Larks with Peter even getting a couple of records shots of this very secretive bird, Mike, Anna & I were treated to one bird song-flighting right over our heads, something I had never seen before. During this time we also found an immature Golden Eagle hunting over the area and disturbing a few Black bellied Sandgrouse, which flew around making their distinctive bubbling call. Having been very successful we eventually left for Belchite and a very welcome coffee break followed by a sombre visit to the ruined ‘Old Town’, now a National Monument to the savagery of the Civil War and always worth a visit. It is also very good for one particular bird and as we wandered around we found a pair of Black Wheatears along with Black Redstarts, Black Kites, Griffon & Egyptian Vultures - strangely appropriate species. Soon we left and headed out over the steppes managing to find a few Lesser Kestrels, Red billed Chough, Calandra & Crested Larks, then near Bujaraloz I saw a large eagle circling over the road so I pulled over. We got out to watch this dark aquila-type eagle, due to it being in moult with a heavily abraided tail it wasn’t obviously a Golden Eagle, but after reviewing images taken by Peter we eventually came to that decision; a very interesting bird, later it was joined by a Short toed Eagle and Black Kite. It was now lunchtime so we stopped for arguably the best bocadillos in this area of Spain before continuing on to Lleida and the excellent Alfas drylands. This was to be our final site of the day and for some the best, so much so we were here far longer than I had planned since we found 24 Little Bustards, 2 Stone Curlews, 10 Pin tailed Sandgrouse, 6 Great Spotted Cuckoos, 2 Mistle Thrush, 2 Marsh Harriers, Kestrels, Meadow Pipits, Red legged Partridges, Calandra & Lesser Short toed Larks. It was simply brilliant in the evening sunshine!. We eventually arrived into San Carles de le Rapita in the dark but the extra effort had been well worth it.

28th March :- The started well not with just some good calm weather but also with Nigel finding 3 Black necked Grebes, Great Crested Grebes, Sandwich Terns, Audouin’s & Yellow legged Gulls in the bay and a male Sub-alpine Warbler in the hotel gardens – all before breakfast. Once everyone had got good views of the warbler we drove out to the Southern half of the Ebro Delta, where we spent most of the day. To try and describe what we did and what we saw in any kind of order would be very difficult and time consuming such are the bird-rich areas of these extensive wetlands and rice fields. We did have a fantastic day visiting all the special sites including Riet Vell where we found a cracking male Little Crake, a few Glossy Ibis, Purple Heron and lots of Purple Gallinules. Peter was in heaven with the photographic opportunities. We visited Tancada with it's large numbers of Greater Flamingos, wildfowl, waders, gulls & terns including several Caspian Terns. The tower hide at Alfacada was a great success with a Spoonbill, good numbers of Glossy Ibis, Great White Egrets and Purple Gallinules and out to sea we found several Balearic Shearwaters and an Arctic Skua. The final session was spent at the watch points of L’Encanyssida where we saw lots of Marsh Harriers coming into roost along with a very showy Water Rail and Purple Heron. Although these were just a few of the highlights of the day we also managed to see Little Grebes, Gannets, single Night & Grey Herons, Little & Cattle Egrets, Shelduck, Gadwall, Teal, a male Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Red Crested Pochard, Marsh Harriers, a Merlin, Black winged Stilts, Avocets, Whimbrel, Grey, Ringed, Little Ringed & Kentish Plovers, Common Snipe, Black tailed Godwits, Spotted & Common Redshanks, Greenshanks, Green, Wood & Common Sandpipers, Turnstones, Little Stints, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpipers, Ruff, 2 Slender billed Gulls, Sandwich Terns, Kingfishers, Hoopoe, Sand & House Martins, White & Yellow Wagtails, Water Pipit, Zitting Cisticolas, Cetti's Warbler, Penduline Tits and a Woodchat Shrike. What a place.

29th March :- Due to Nigel and his friends not leaving until Sunday we had an extra day in this wonderful area, and we spent the morning on the north side of the river. It was another bright and sunny day and there had obviously been an influx of migrants into the delta as we were now finding a few Willow Warblers, Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher. The two sites we visited in the north were Canal Vell, which produced fantastic views of a Spotted Crake, plus lots of wildfowl including Wigeon, Common Pochard, a few Glossy Ibis and Greater Flamingos. Then we drove to the excellent El Garxal lagoon with the shallow waters producing many wader species seen the day before plus Bar tailed Godwits, Sanderling and an Oystercatcher (well found by Mike) also Whiskered Terns and Grey Lag Geese. The afternoon was spent revisiting a few of the sites on the south side including Riet Vell where we got again some fantastic views of the male Little Crake and Peter saw a Great Bittern fly into the reeds but it unfortunately disappeared (will I ever see this species in Spain?). One highlight of the day was watching my friends (& local birdguides) Christian Marcet & Iben Sorensen conducting a ringing session for any visitors and thanks to them for what was a very instructive hour. Although many of the species we repeated from the previous day we did manage to add a few new species, although one disappointment to the day was not finding one of Nigel’s bogey birds - Savi’s Warbler, despite being able to hear one or two from deep within the reeds it never showed itself.

30th March :- After breakfast we loaded up the minibus for the final time and made one last trip to the delta in hope of finding Nigel a Savi’s Warbler. It was not to be despite again hearing one briefly however we did manage to find our first Squacco Heron of the trip plus Grey & Purple Herons, Great White Egrets, Greater Flamingos, Common & Red Crested Pochards, Shovelers, a Peregrine Falcon created havoc as it sped over the lagoons, Water Rail, Purple Gallinules, lots of Common Snipe and more good views of Kingfishers. Mid-morning we set off south and a couple of hours later we were at Moro Marsh for our last couple of hours birdwatching and it was a great finish as we managed to add one more species to the week's list with a few Collared Pratincoles taking our combined final total to 178 species. We sadly had to leave and drive the short distance to the airport where I said my “goodbyes” to Nigel, Peter, Mike & Anna and thanked them for making it such a wonderful week under what at times were very difficult weather conditions.



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