Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Valencian Short Break for Calandra Holidays

24th - 28th April 2009

Report by Julian Sykes

Friday 24th April :- This is the third year running Richard & Jane Palmer (Calandra Holidays) have brought a group to Spain for the Valencia Short Break. This time I was having Michael & Wendy Ball, Aileen Bishop, John Tookey & John Thorogood. There flight arrived slightly early and we had loaded the minibus and leaving the airport just 15 minutes after there arrival time. We had decided to make a visit to the Clot de Galvany before heading north to Oliva so we drove the short distance to Gran Alicant and entered the reserve. The local government has been making improvements to this area and there is a lovely walk through various habitats. As we got out of the van a couple of Common Swifts flew over along with Barn Swallows and an odd House Martin. Then just as we started along the path our first passage migrants appeared with 2 Common Whitethroats – things bode well. We continued on finding Sardinian Warblers, Serins (everywhere), Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Blackbird and a Southern Grey Shrike. Then Richard & I heard a distinctive call – Bee-eaters, and there they were heading towards us. We watched as 2 birds flew around above us for a minute or so before heading off out of sight. This was then quickly followed by several Pallid Swifts and a pair of Red rumped Swallows. We carried on walking in the warm sunshine finding similar things before a Spotted Flycatcher flew up from a nearby Carob tree. This was excellent as they tend to be one of the later migrants to arrive, and this was then quickly followed by an interesting brownish-looking male Pied Flycatcher, which was probably fledged last year. At the Charco de Contacto we looked over this small lagoon from the viewing area and found Little Grebes, Mallard, Common Pochard, a female White headed Duck, Black winged Stilts, Wood Sandpiper and a Willow Warbler flitted around the bushes. We continued round to the small hide and en-route Wendy found a Little Owl in an old Carob tree and an Iberian Green Woodpecker flew towards a group of Palm trees. At the hide we settled down and watched as Black winged Stilts fed in the water just a few metres from where we sat. Also here we got better views of White headed Ducks including several males, plus a couple of Purple Gallinules, Common Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plovers and more Common Pochard. It was now time to return to the minibus as we needed to be back in Oliva so we could freshen up before going for the evening meal. The walk was interrupted for several things including better views of Iberian Green Woodpecker sat on top of a tree, a Hoopoe and Wendy saw a Red legged Partridge. It had been a very good start to the break. The journey back to Oliva went quietly apart from a Kestrel seen by Richard from the bus and at Oliva Rama Pension, Jill took over and got everyone organised with their rooms. That night I had booked to go to a 'curry night' at one of the local restaurants, so a pre-meal drink outside on the paseo was followed by a very enjoyable first evening, even if it wasn't particularly 'Spanish'.

Saturday 25th April :- Richard and his groups have been coming on these short breaks now for a couple of years, so we decided to change things a little. However I owed John Thorogood a Moustached Warbler since we failed to see one on his last visit so a pre-breakfast visit to Pego Marsh was the order of the day. A little bleary-eyed from the previous evening we convened around 07:30 at the minibus and off to the marsh we went. I had been successful on several occasions this year and at one specific area, so we rolled up to the boardwalk to the viewing platform full of expectation. Initial sightings included the usual Zitting Cisticola, Hoopoe, Marsh Harrier and Little Ringed Plover, but once set up at the platform we quickly added Purple & Grey Herons, Eurasian Reed & Great Reed Warblers. We could hear the distinctive pee, pee, peeee from the song of Moustached Warbler (the rest just sounds like a fast Reed Warbler!) but could locate one, then through the reeds a Moustached Warbler sat singing. I was struggling to focus the telescope on the bird but eventually managed and John et al got some fantastic views of this rare acrocephalus warbler. In fact it moved out into the open and allowed everyone to get their scopes on it and grill it's main i.d. features. We stayed there a little while longer adding 2 fly-by adult Night Herons, a few Yellow Wagtails and a 'heard only' Savi's Warbler. Very satisfied we returned to the guesthouse where Jill had prepared a veritable feast for breakfast, which was very much appreciated by the now hungry group. After everyone had finished and made themselves ready we again headed out towards Valencia, trying out a new itinerary day, I had discussed with Richard. So at Cullera I exited the motorway continued north and at Romani headed west towards the coast and the Albufera d'Valencia. We entered the vast network of rice fields most of which were unfortunately dry but a group of gulls and some terns brought us to a halt. Here we found a nice flock of Gull billed & Whiskered Terns collecting insects and amphibians from the newly-turned soil, along with lots of Black headed & Yellow legged Gulls. A Squacco Heron flew out of dyke, which was then quickly followed by at least two more, lots of Cattle Egrets and a mixed flock of Goldfinch and Serin feeding on the flowers at the side of the road. We carried on through the paddyfields to El Saler, a delightful village on the edge of the Albufera lake and reputedly the home of paella. Just outside El Saler we saw a Purple Gallinule at the edge of one of the canals before reaching a small council-run nature reserve - Raco d'Olla. We walked through the pine woodland and added Turtle Dove and Sardinian Warblers, then around the lagoons there was a Cetti's Warbler, 2 Avocets and Common Terns flew around calling. However it was from the hide that we enjoyed incredible views of a couple of islands stacked with gulls & terns. The gulls were mainly Black headed Gulls, but there were also two groups of 'pink' Slender billed Gulls, all displaying to each other by lifting and shaking their heads at one another. Summer plumage Mediterranean Gulls postured amongst the Black-heads showing just how different these birds are to their chocolate-headed cousins. It was a magnificent sight and definitely one of the highlights of the trip for everyone. A Marbled Duck flew around but unfortunately landed out of sight as did a Kingfisher two or three times, which was a little frustrating. It was now nearing lunchtime so we made our way back to the picnic tables at the entrance and enjoyed a fine spread, while sat in the warm sunshine. After lunch we headed off once more towards Valencia and made our way through the city to the northern extremity and the coastal wetland of Moro Marsh. This for it's size and position (sandwiched between Valencia & Sagunto) must be one of the best wetlands along the Spanish Mediterranean coastline. Our first stop was at a small pool near the entrance and although it was generally quiet produced brilliant views of an adult male Little Bittern, with the few Black winged Stilts, Coot and Moorhen. Audouin's Gulls were passing north constantly on their way to the Ebro Delta to breed and at the first viewing platform we saw Little & Great Crested Grebes, Cormorant, Purple & Grey Herons, single Greater Flamingo, Mallard, Red Crested & Common Pochards with Eurasian Reed & Great Reed Warblers singing constantly, Common Swifts, House Martins and Swallows hawking insects. Along the beach we flushed a couple of Turtle Doves and saw our first Northern Wheatear of the trip before arriving at the 'pratincole lagoon'. A high bank now surrounds this shallow lagoon with islands to stop over-disturbance but the wardens have built a make-shift hide from which to view it. As usual it did not disappoint as we got tremendous views of breeding Collared Pratincoles, Common & Little Terns just in front of where we stood. We stayed for quite some time watching the birds come and go, as well as a few Common Redshank, Wood & Common Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, Great Reed Warblers, Yellow Wagtail, another Northern Wheatear, a pair of Stonechats and Crested Larks. Once satisfied we left here and retraced our steps back along the coast adding a Sandwich Tern that was also heading north and a 'Pujol playa' we left the bus and walked into the other half of the reserve. This is a fairly long walk following a drainage channel with a few large lagoons to check on the way, with Red knobbed Coot being the prize along here. The initial walk was quiet with just a few Zitting Cisticolas, Stonechats and White Wagtails but the viewing platform produced a few Gadwall, Purple Gallinules and several Sand Martins amongst the other hirundines. Onward we walked right down to the bottom corner, which traditionally has been very good and this was no exception as pretty much the first bird we found was a Red knobbed Coot, quickly followed by a second. A group of 31 Glossy Ibis flew up with several landing not far from where we were standing enabling our 'paparazzi' to take full advantage of them. A Great White Egret strode through the shallow water dwarfing the few Little Egrets dotted around, a couple of Bee-eaters flew over calling and an Osprey headed over the reserve. However the 'icing on the cake' was yet to come as we wandered back to the bus, we first found a Woodchat Shrike sat on a power-line but this was soon over-shadowed by a Nightingale. We heard one singing and just assumed we wouldn't be able to locate it and we couldn't believe our luck when it flew from cover and sat on a pylon in full view for several minutes singing it's heart out. The photographers amongst the party must have got some incredible shots of this normally shy species. It was now time to leave and back at the van, just before we left Richard added one more new (and very good) species - an Oystercatcher sat on the rocks in the bay. We returned to Oliva again in good time to get ready for our night out at one of the local restaurants, although we decided on an early night as the next day was going to be a long affair. Everyone agreed it had been a very good substitute to the normal 'short break' day spent on the Plains of Albacete.

Sunday 26th April :- This was our day in the south of the region so after another full breakfast we set off towards Alicante, heading into the hills as we reached the city. Monnegre is a unique area of red sandstone barrancos, with sparta grass holding the terrain together, old almond and olive groves, consequently it contains some very special species particularly Trumpeter Finch. So we arrived at a the barranco and made our way to where we could look over some of this specialist area, which has proved successful in the past. Rock Sparrows made their 'screaming' calls from the crevices of the sheer walls, a pair of Black Wheatears flew around our position and a male Blue Rock Thrush sang from across the valley. A Short toed Eagle drifted over looking for snakes & lizards, with Red rumped & Barn Swallows catching insects in the morning heat. A female Common Redstart was a nice find by John Thorogood and an Iberian Green Woodpecker called in the distance making for a wonderful scene against this incredible landscape. Unfortunately though no 'trumpeters', I knew it was a poor year for them but had hoped we could find one or two in this area to take the pressure off. It wasn't to be but we checked a couple more places before leaving which produced a couple of Mistle Thrushes, Sardinian Warblers, Serins, Woodchat Shrike and Spotless Starlings. Back down around civilisation we stopped off at the Clot de Galvany to have our picnic lunch but it was quite busy with weekend visitors so we didn't stay long in the now very warm sunshine. After lunch we drove the short distance to the Santa Pola Salinas where a couple of stops produced the usual huge flock of Greater Flamingoes, Great Crested Grebes, Grey & Purple Herons, Shelduck, Common Pochard, Moorhen, Coot, Black winged Stilts, Avocets, Little Stints, Dunlin, an Audouin's Gull flew through, Little, Whiskered & (a distant) Black Tern, Spanish Yellow Wagtails, Great Reed Warbler and Zitting Cisticolas. Pushed for time a little we rather quickly moved on to the excellent salinas of El Pinet and the sight of 100+ Curlew Sandpipers in all states of breeding plumage was a special sight. Several other waders fed in the shallow lagoons including Black winged Stilts, Avocets, Little Stints, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Sanderling and Kentish Plovers. More Slender billed Gulls picked insects off the surface of the water, with Common & Little Terns nesting on the purpose built islands. Aileen saw a Jay in the dwarf pines and a Southern Grey Shrike sat on one of the overhead power lines, like it nearly always does. It was now very warm and humid (especially for the time of year) so it was difficult to keep the enthusiasm but we pressed on to the border of El Hondo hoping we could pick up one or two of the specialist breeders in the area. An initial stop for Roller proved fruitless and they possibly might not have yet returned to breed in the vast Date Palm plantations in the Elche area. However we did have great success with our other target - Montagu's Harrier, as we found a pair of birds hunting over the reeds together. It is wonderful to watch this most elegant of raptors as floats on buoyant wing beats, making flying look so effortless. This area also produced a few Collared Pratincoles flying around with the 1000's of Common Swifts and hirundines hawking insects over this massive wetland. Due to the muggy condition the clouds had started to roll in from the hills but we carried on to the El Hondo visitor centre with the intention of walking around their newly constructed pathway, something Richard had never previously done. This was quickly abandoned as it soon came apparent the mosquitoes were out in force and looking for blood (particularly ours!), so sensibly we retreated back to the minibus and as we left it started to rain (how lucky is that?). Our evening meal was being taken at Finca Bonelli's Eagle and although we were a little early it gave us a chance to do some pre-meal birding, plus the journey up there produced a few Little Owls sat on overhead wires. At the finca we were greeted by Richard's brother Malcolm (who lives in Alicante) and his wife Juani, and they informed us the eagles had been around but had left a little earlier, but there were 2 young in the nest. So telescopes were set up and trained on the nest, and sure enough there was the head of one of the Bonelli's Eaglets, so we waited for the adults to return. There was plenty to occupy us during this time as several pairs of Alpine Swifts nest in this canyon as do Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrush, Thekla Lark and Black Wheatear, all of which gave themselves up to us during our stay. It wasn't long before I saw one of the adult Bonelli's Eagles fly over the ridge and continue to fly around giving superb views above our heads before alighting on one of the many ledges near to the nest. Not too much longer after this the other adult (male?) Bonelli's Eagle flew in with food, which he then passed on to the (presumed) female, which took into the eyrie. This then sparked the 2 young birds to life who then climbed to the edge of the nest and continued to feed on the new carcass, it was such a brilliant experience to witness this interaction between these rare European raptors. Jane had prepared a wonderful meal for all ten of us but unfortunately because of the time we had to leave almost immediately after we had finished. We said our "goodbyes" to Malcolm, Juani, Colin & Jane, then headed off for our penultimate site in the hills above Elche. We wound our way up through the hills to arrive as dusk was starting fall, already seeing a couple of Little Owls on the journey from Elche. The anticipation was high amongst the group as the last visit had been thwarted by the onset of rain at the eleventh hour. The last vestiges of bird call was hanging and the gloom was darkening when I said "I've got one" as there sat an Eagle Owl in full view, luckily against a pale backdrop. Then another appeared as everyone was getting on to the first bird - brilliant, then a Scop's Owl sang from just behind us and a couple of whistles later it flew right above our heads and into a nearby tree. This was incredibly our third owl species in just 30 minutes, something I had never done previously anywhere in Spain.Soon after it got full dark and time to leave but even the prospect of a long drive north back to Oliva didn't dampen our spirits after what we had just witnessed. An hour later we were again exiting the motorway with one last place to visit after I got everyone's agreement since there was a good chance we might not see anything. A little later I was driving around the dirt tracks with initial attempts proving fruitless and it was when I was heading out that I saw the tell-tale eye-lights in the distance. Bingo! - a Red necked Nightjar was sat in the headlights for everyone to get a good view of before it disappeared into the night. We got back to the guesthouse at 11pm after being out for 14 hours but everyone agreed it had been well worth the effort.

Monday 27th April :- After the mammoth stint the previous day we decided to have an easier time visiting some of the local sites to Oliva. So after breakfast we set off for Denia but not before I had been informed John & John had seen a Turtle Dove from their roof terrace - a good record. We drove towards Denia stopping at La Marina to look at the breeding colony of Monk Parakeets, their raucous calls giving them away almost immediately we got out of the minibus. We continued through Denia to the headland of Cabo de San Antoni, an impressive sea-cliff that sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea. There is a large Pallid Swift colony here and we spent time watching these aerial masters come and go a high speed. This colony overlooks the sea and a trawler passed by with a huge number of Yellow legged & Audouin's Gulls in it's wake, but there were also shearwaters. The languid flight of a couple of Cory's Shearwaters was picked out ahead of the boat but we saw 30+ Balearic Shearwaters following, along with a few Gannets and a 'Mediterranean' Shag. We walked along the road to the lighthouse seeing a Peregrine Falcon, Raven, Sardinian Warblers and a Blue Rock Thrush. Generally it was quiet with a couple more Blue Rock Thrushes, Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Linnets so we made our way back to the minibus. At the car park we heard a 'sylvia' warbler singing from a nearby bush and a little patience rewarded us with very good views of a male Sub-alpine Warbler. We then headed for the nearby Sierra de Montgo, but stopped near a small pine woodland as I heard a Firecrest calling near the road, and soon enough we again got super views of this little gem. At Montgo we walked though the pine wood finding a couple more Firecrests, Serins, Wren and Great Tits. Out on the sierra we found several Sardinian Warblers, but we were frustrated with the Dartford Warblers around as they would only show briefly, yet their calls were clearly heard. We walked out to the foot of this impressive mountain seeing a couple of Stonechats and a Kestrel, interestingly 4 Yellow Wagtails flew through, which were obviously newly arrived migrants. It was a lovely warm day and we were glad of the walk through this lovely area but it was quiet bird-wise so we decided to leave and return to the guesthouse for our lunch. Jill had produced yet another fine spread and once completed we set off for the incredibly scenic Val de Gallinera. As a change we drove all the way through to the 'barranco de encantada' and stood on the bridge looking for Golden Orioles but without any luck. However during the next hour we got 'scoped' views of a Wryneck singing from a bare tree, a couple of Crag Martins flew over, around the river we saw a Grey Wagtail, Nightingale, Moorhen and heard a Cetti's Warbler. The area surrounding the river held a few Rock Sparrows, Cirl Bunting, Sardinian Warblers, Long tailed Tits, Stonechat and a Hoopoe proving how bird-rich this area is. Sadly we left the barranco and made our way back down the Vall de Gallinera and just outside Alpatro we saw our first adult Golden Eagle and it was carrying a dead animal. So we tried to follow the eagle as it flew down the valley and got lucky as the (presumed) female Golden Eagle came along and took the food from the first eagle giving us a chance to watch this great interaction. The female then headed a little further down the valley and into it's eyrie on the steep side of the valley. I knew where the nest was as it had been there 3 years previously and in full view from the road, so we continued down the valley and parked to get a look at the eyrie. Telescopes were set up and there in this deep indent in the sheer rock face partially obscured by a small bush was a well grown young Golden Eagle - fantastic. While we were there we also got good views of several Red billed Chough flying around the cliff top, a group of 20+ Bee-eaters hawked insects from some nearby trees plus a Woodchat Shrike, Hoopoe and a Cirl Bunting (seen by Wendy). We had a big night planned at the local 'tapas' bar so it was agreed we would make our way back to Oliva and have some time to relax and freshen up before going out for our final evening meal.

Tuesday 28th April :- This was our last morning and with a few hours to spare before we had to be at Alicante Airport we made one final attempt for Trumpeter Finch. Richard's brother Malcolm had heard of a pair being seen in the hills near to Jijona at La Plata. To say this is place is off the beaten track would be a slight understatement!. Anyway we got there and walked into this amazing 'barranco' and almost immediately we heard and briefly saw a pair of Trumpeter Finches, but the group demanded more and better views (just kidding). So we started along one track through the steep sided valley initially finding Sub-alpine, Sardinian & Dartford Warblers, with a few Rock Sparrows thrown in for good measure. A little further I was ahead of the group and found a stonking male Black eared Wheatear (apparently Aileen had seen it earlier but wasn't sure of it's i.d.), and this was then followed by the female. We eventually got tremendous views of both birds and John Tookey saw an Iberian Green Woodpecker just before it disappeared. A Black Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush appeared on the top of the sheer sandstone valley wall, and the return produced a couple of Bee-eaters flying over, 2 Willow Warblers and a few Linnets. We then decided to try another barranco, which ran parallel to the first and I decided to go ahead of the group as time was moving on. A Rock Bunting made me stop and set up the telescope but then a familiar call got the heart racing - Trumpeter Finch. There it was a cracking male sat halfway up the rock face in full view and I had the scope on it. I gestured to the others to come through, which they did and all managing to get a view of this very rare European breeding species. Soon enough though it was joined by three others and they all flew up and out of sight, a brilliant way to end this short break, particularly for Richard who (after several visits) had never seen one in the Alicante Region before. Back at the minibus we made our way back along the dirt track to the main road seeing a couple of Woodchat Shrikes where we left and thanked Malcolm for providing this excellent site. The journey to the airport produced a Turtle Dove, and we got back to the airport in very good time for their flight and sadly said our "goodbyes" yet again. Working with Richard & Jane is one of the highlights of the year - long may it continue.



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