Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Valencian Short Break Plus

1st - 7th April 2009

Report by Julian Sykes

Wednesday 1st :- I met my guests Andy Bates & Dave Stanbridge at Alicante Airport mid afternoon and with a couple of hours to spare we headed for the Clot de Galvany. Andy & Dave have been to Spain several times but still required a number of breeding species, it was my job to try and find them. At the Clot we walked out to the reserve with lots of Pallid Swifts, Swallows and House Martins hawking insects, plus lots of very smart Serins singing from the trees. A Southern Grey Shrike called from a dead Olive Tree and we saw Sardinian Warblers, Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers. At the Charco de Contacto we watched from the viewpoint finding Little Egret, 2 White headed Ducks, Common Pochard, Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Purple Gallinule and Black winged Stilts but no Marbled Duck our main target. We walked round to the hide and found more White headed Ducks, Shovelers and Common Pochards, plus Moorhen, Coot, Green Sandpiper and a Water Rail flew across the pond. We then made our way to the main pond seeing Linnets, Goldfinches, Greenfinches and a Hoopoe, but it was quite a the pool. However Dave saw their first Spanish tick with a Stone Curlew flying over the phragmites and landing amongst the glasswort beyond. It was now time to leave so we retraced our steps back to the vehicle with stops en-route for a handsome male Sub-alpine Warbler and a couple of Red rumped Swallows. The journey to Oliva provided a few Jackdaws, Woodpigeon and Yellow legged Gulls, then at the guesthouse while chatting on the roof terrace we found another Sub-alpine Warbler in the orange groves below. A pretty good start to their holiday.

Thursday 2nd :- An early start at Pego Marsh in near perfect still conditions saw us watching one of our first main targets - Moustached Warbler, a life tick (LT) for Dave. We stood there overlooking the reeds for quite some time seeing and listening to Savi's, Great Reed, Eurasian Reed, Cetti's Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Zitting Cisticolas, Marsh Harriers, Purple & Grey Herons, Little Egrets, Great Cormorant, Black winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers, Iberian Yellow Wagtails, Barn Swallows and House Martins. Without much time before we needed to return to the guesthouse for breakfast we spent a little time looking round the paddy fields and allotments. We found lots of Audouin's & Yellow legged Gulls, Mallards, a Sparrowhawk flew over migrating north, as did a Common Buzzard and several Marsh Harriers. We saw a Kingfisher, Common Snipe, more Purple Herons, Sub alpine & Willow Warblers and a cracking male Whinchat. After a good breakfast we set off north to the rice fields south of Valencia but like Pego Marsh most were drained awaiting to be seeded. However we did find one area with some water and it contained 20+ Gull billed Terns, Black headed & Audouin's Gulls plus Andy found a Great White Egret, which was excellent as they are still quite a scarce bird here. We continued north eventually reaching the Albufera d' Valencia where we stopped at the side of the lake and searched through the large flock of wildfowl on offer. Quickly we saw Mallards, Shovelers, Red Crested & Common Pochards, with small numbers of Garganey, Wigeon and Gadwall. A flock of Black headed Gulls loafing on the water also contained 6 Slender billed Gulls and a few Mediterranean Gulls, plus lots of Common Terns flew back and forth overhead. At the Raco d'Olla we walked through the reserve to the hide overlooking a couple of sizable pools, where an initial search produced Mallards, Eurasian Teal, Red Crested Pochard and Gadwall. Then Dave asked "what's this" so I took a look and there was a Marbled Duck (LT) stood on the island, one of their main targets, this was then followed by two more. This was a bonus as I had not expected to find them here but much further south around Alicante on a later day. Extremely pleased we walked back through the reserve and a raptor appeared over the pines, which was a cracking (pale phase) Booted Eagle. In the visitor centre we went up to the viewing tower and looked out over the Albufera where we found more wildfowl including a few Shelduck plus 6 Marsh Harriers migrating north. On the scrape there were 6 Greenshanks, a few Black winged Stilts and several Greater Flamingos in the distance, then as we were about to leave we saw another pair of Marbled Ducks displaying to each other. It was now nearing lunchtime so we headed off again to the north side of Valencia and the excellent coastal reserve of Moro Marsh. We had our picnic on one of the viewing platforms overlooking a large reed fringed lagoon, which held a Black necked Greebe, Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebes, Grey Herons, 2 White headed Ducks, Coot, Shovelers, Gadwall, Teal, Red Crested & Common Pochards. Black headed, Audouin's & Yellow legged Gulls flew back and forth then a couple of Collared Pratincoles flew over showing fantastically well. Our next stop was the shallow lagoon where we found 10+ Collared Pratincoles sitting on one of the small islands and we watched as several more of these enigmatic waders hawked insects over the water. The newly constructed scrape wall held a few Iberian & Blue headed Wagtails, Hoopoe, Stonechat and Crested Larks fed amongst the coastal vegetation and a Gannet flew north. As we were watching 20+ Whiskered Terns flew in and landed with the pratincoles making for a great scene. It was now time for a concerted effort for our target species - Red knobbed Coot (LT), so we walked down the northern edge of the reserve to another excellent lagoon. On the way we found a Black Redstart, Sub-alpine, Willow & Reed Warblers, Zitting Cisticolas, Hoopoe, Cattle Egrets and a Purple Heron. At the observation tower we found lots more wildfowl along with lots of Common Coot, then the prize a pair of Red knobbed Coots (red knobs and all!). Andy and Dave were elated having such a good start to their holiday. We stayed on the tower for a while finding a few Purple Gallinules, Andy saw a Spoonbill, whichwas followed by a second and Dave discovered our first Sand Martins amongst the masses of hirundines over the lake. In the distance I saw a flock of Glossy Ibis so we walked to the last lake where we found another pair of Red knobbed Coots plus 40+ Glossy Ibis, Great White Egret and Purple Heron. This was our final site as it was now late afternoon so we walked back to the vehicle and returned to Oliva after a great day.

Friday 3rd :- Today Andy, Dave and myself were being joined by my good friends (from Scotland) Mike & Noreen Stabler for a day on the Plains of Albacete. It was a cloudy start to the day with some thick fog as we headed inland, however by the time we had reached Bonete (after a welcome coffee break) the sun was trying to burst through the mist, making excellent conditions. As we headed for Corral Rubio we made a couple of initial stops - one at a rainwater pool with Avocet, Black winged Stilts, Green Sandpiper, Mallard and a Sparrowhawk flashed through. The next stop produced Red legged Partridges, Woodpigeons, Crested Larks, Spotless Starlings, Carrion Crows and Magpies. It was however the third stop that was one of the highlights of the day, during the next 30 minutes we saw 17 Great Bustards, 3 Little Bustards, Stone Curlew, 2 Great Spotted Cuckoos, a single Black bellied Sandgrouse flew overhead, 2 Black eared Wheatears, male Common Redstart, lots of Calandra Larks, 2 Southern Grey Shrikes, Common Buzzard and Kestrel. Simply incredible. We continued and our next stop produced a few more Great Bustards plus a few Rock Sparrows (showing extremely well), Meadow Pipit, 2 more Stone Curlew, Hoopoe and Crested Larks. A little further I stopped at another wet area, which I had visited before and again had some success with close views of 21 Great Bustards and 8 Black bellied Sandgrouse, with Corn Buntings and more Calandra Larks. At Corral Rubio we chaecked a winter pool which was fairly quiet but we did find at least 3 Water Pipits with a few Meadow Pipits, Little Ringed Plovers, Lapwing, Avocets, Black winged Stilts and Green Sandpipers. It was now close to lunchtime and I wanted to go to Higuela Lagoon for our picnic but en-route we were way-laid by a couple of Black Kites, Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Southern Grey Shrike and lots of Red legged Partridges. Once there the others checked the waders and wildfowl on the lagoon whilst I laid out the picnic, which made Noreen comment "I didn't know birdwatchers actually used tables!". It was a great lunch in the sun with lots of Red Crested & Common Pochard, Teal, Shoveler, Mallard and Coot to see plus a few Little & Black necked Grebes, 6 Kentish Plovers, 20+ Redshank, singles of Greenshank, Ruff and Common Snipe (well found Dave), Lapwings, Black winged Stilts, and a couple more Marsh Harriers. Noreen went to use the 'al fresco' services and caused a Little Owl to show itself on a nearby disused barn again found by Dave. After lunch we drove the back to Corral Rubio finding a few more Rock Sparrows before heading out on to the tracks between there and Petrola. The agricultural fields were generally quiet but we did manage to see a couple of Northern Wheatears, Greater Short toed Larks in with the flocks of Calandra & Crested Larks, plus an Iberian Hare but not much else. At Petrola we headed for the brackish lagoon and 'struck gold' (especially for Andy) with a winter plumage Grey Phalarope (LT), spinning in the water picking insects off the surface - a wonderful find on this inland water. Also here we also found a Whiskered Tern, male Garganey, Black necked Grebe, 50+ Great Flamingos, Shelduck, Gadwall, Shoveler, Teal, Red Crested Pochard, Mallard and a few 'Blue headed' Wagtails. After here we tried another seasonal lagoon near to Petrola but didn't add much in the way of waterbirds, however we did manage to get good views of a pair of Lesser Kestrels and a Great Spotted Cuckoo, followed by an immature Golden Eagle, which drifted over. It was now time to return back to Oliva so we slowly made our way back to Bonete seeing more Great Bustards on the way and making the days count of these magnificent birds of 46. We all agreed it had been a fantastic day.

Saturday 4th :- Today we were travelling south with two specific species in mind that Andy & Dave had wanted to see but unfortunately it wasn't to be. At San Vicente we met my good friend Malcolm Palmer and took the back roads to the mountains above Alicante. Here we were looking for Trumpeter Finch and at Monnegre we searched the area butg had to satisfy ourselves with a 1st winter Golden Eagle, Kestrel, Thekla Larks, Crag Martins, Red rumped Swallows, Blue Rock Thrushes, Dartford & Sardinian Warblers, 4 Black eared Wheatears, Woodchat Shrikes, 20+ Rock Sparrows, Serins and a male Rock Bunting. Having spent a couple of hours there we decided to leave and hope that the raptors would be soaring around El Hondo as our other target was the over-wintering Great Spotted Eagle, which had been seen recently. It was hot and around El Hondo a few mosquitoes were trying there best to get through our defenses, and with yours truly coming off second best. It wouldn't have been too bad but on the Vista Bella Road it was quiet with just a Common Buzzard and a few Marsh Harriers hunting over the reeds along with Cattle Egrets, 10+ Whiskered Terns and a distant Little Owl. A quick walk through the reeds produced Eurasian Reed & Great Reed Warblers, Zitting Cisticola and several Collared Pratincoles hawking insects. What was impressive was the 1000's of Common Swifts that must have recently arrived and were creating clouds of birds above our heads (hopefully feeding on the mozzies). Finally we decided to try the new walk created from the visitor centre but the long walk was not easy in the mid-afternoon heat. Although it did produce a few interesting species with a hybrid Western Reef Heron x Little Egret, a species under much scrutiny here in Spain by the national authorities. I found a few Grey headed Wagtails amongst their Spainsh cousins and also we saw Little & Black necked Grebes, Cormorant, Grey Heron, Little Egrets, Greater Flamingos, Shelduck, Red Crested & Common Pochards, Moorhen, Green & Common Sandpipers, Yellow legged & Lesser Black backed Gulls, and a Water Pipit. So we returned to Oliva very satisfied with our day despite missing our two target species.

Sunday 5th :- Andy and Dave's shopping list of target birds involved a couple of species unlikely to found in Valencia at this time of year. So I had organised two nights just outside Madrid to try and find them. After breakfast we set off inland but not before an early session on the roof terrace of my guesthouse where my guests saw a Hobby, a few Common Swifts and a Blue Rock Thrush - a nice start to the day. We headed into the heart of Castilla La Mancha and our first stop was at Manvajacas del Campo a wonderful inland body of water. I had stopped here with one specific purpose to try and find the Lesser Flamingo, which had been frequenting this area for some time with their larger cousins the Greater Flamingos. As we headed into the site we found Lesser Kestrels, Marsh & Montagu's Harriers, Meadow Pipit, Corn Buntings, Linnets and lots of Gull billed Terns. On the lake we saw plenty of wildfowl including Shelduck, 3 Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, 2 Pintail, Shoveler and Common Pochard plus Black winged Stilts, Avocets, Lapwings, Kentish Plover, Lesser Black backed & Black headed Gulls. It was a hot day even in early April and there was a certain amount of heat haze but we scanned the large flamingo flock and I saw one with good credentials. It was quite a way off but it was short legged, smaller and very pink, unfortunately it was asleep so couldn't clinch it with the all-black bill colour. We needed to get closer so we drove around the lake and as we got in position a light aircraft flew over disturbing them all to flight - our heart's sank. However they setled down again back were we had been so we returned to our original position and scanned the tight-knit flock. I found the adult Lesser Flamingo but it wasn't easy and again it was asleep, but there was no question, Andy & Dave were elated. They wanted better views and got them fairly soon afterwards as it shuffled around into the open showing all it's salient features, Andy even managed a photograph. It was now time to move on so we drove the short distance to Pedro Munoz where we sat overlooking the reed-fringed lagoon and ate our picnic lunch. This smaller lagoon was stacked with wildfowl, which included many of the same species seen at Manvajacas but also 40+ White headed Duck, 20 + Gadwall, lots of Red Crested Pochard and 2 Garganey plus 60+ Black necked Grebes, Cattle Egrets, Marsh Harriers, Common Coot, Common & Green Sandpipers, a Sand Martin was found amongst the throng of Swallows and House Martins, also from the reeds we could hear both Savi's Warbler and Penduline Tit. Next on the agenda was yet another wetland area this time at Miguel Estaban, en-route we saw a couple of Black Kites moving north. This area has good areas of tamarisk that can hold migrants and even in the heat of the day we found Chiffchaff, Blackcap and a nice male Common Redstart. Apart from the usual wetland species we saw some more waders including Little Ringed Plover, Common Redshank, Little Stint and a flock of 30+ Ruff along with several Iberian Yellow Wagtails on the water edge. It was time now to head for Madrid but first I wanted to have a quick drive round some agricultural steppe areas I knew, which paid dividends as we saw 4 Pin tailed Sandgrouse, Stone Curlew, Red legged Partridge, Southern Grey Shrike, Hoopoe, Crested Larks, Little Owl and a Great Spotted Cuckoo. So we headed north to Spain's capital seeing a Quail fly across the road in front of us, along with Common Buzzards, Booted Eagles and Common Kestrels. We were spending our final two nights 40Km north west of the city in the lovely tourist town of Manzanares del Real, giving us good access to the mountains the following day. We checked into our hotel which overlooked the local reservoir of Embalse de Sanillana and hill beyond so we positioned ourselves on the room balcony and scanned the skies. This last hour was very productive with the local nesting White Storks feeding their young and fly-overs of 10+ Griffon Vultures, and a couple of Ravens. Having stayed here previously I knew of a Scop's Owl in the local park so after the evening meal we returned to our respective balconies and eventually got brilliant views of a male Scop's Owl sat in a tree about 30m from where we were sitting, A brilliant end to an excellent day even with the travelling.

Monday 6th :- We had a big day planned and after breakfast we headed into the mountains of the Guardarrama, particularly the ski resorts of Puerto de Navacerrada & Valdesqui. As we traversed up the winding roads we didn't see much in the way of bird life in the extensive pine forests. Near to Cotos we stopped at a lay-by and took a walk along the edge of the quiet mountain road. Common Crossbills were everywhere and showing incredibly well at eye level and also on the ground, there were also lots of Siskins, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Greenfinches. A very bright Great Spotted Woodpecker alighted on a nearby dead tree, all round were Nuthatches, Great, Blue, Coal & Crested Tits. I then heard a familiar call as a small bright finch flew past ad landed on a patch of snow just along the road, I got my binoculars in it and there was a stunning male Citril Finch (our main target). I got Andy and Dave on to the bird and we enjoyed a couple of minutes as it picked it's way around the leaf litter. This was a great start so we continued to the resort of Cotos where we took a short walk up the mountain to the view point, which showed the main peaks of this impressive mountain range. Here we found our first Wren of the day as well as a few Black Redstarts, although a Black Vulture was a good find by Dave. So we then headed towards the other resort of Valdesqui stopping enroute again for more of the same species but a Brambling amongst the numerous other finches was a slight surprise. At Valdesqui we were above the tree line so the species had a different feel with lots of Rock Buntings, Linnets, Northern Wheatear, Grey Wagtail, 2 Water Pipits but only two fly-by Citril Finches, which was a slight disappointment. We decided to move on and drop back down to the mountain and head for a new area I had wanted to investigate - El Escorial. The journey was punctuated with stops for Griffon Vultures, Common Buzzard, Black & Red Kites, and eventually we turned into the car park of the Spanish Oak woodland of Las Herrerias. It is a fabulous place and consequently quite popular with visitors on cycle and foot. We settled in for our picnic at one of the many tables seeing Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Short toed Treecreeper, Crested, Great & Blue Tits. While I was packing away the lunch I heard a fairly familiar call and went to investigate, and soon enough I was watching a pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers chasing each other. I returned for the others and eventually we all got fabulous views of these tiny picas, not an easy bird to see in Spain. We decided to have a short walk through the woodland, which started very well with 2 Short toed Eagles sailing around above our heads. A Common Cuckoo sang from the trees but we couldn't locate it, but Andy said "Redwing?", where?, and then it appeared in a tree near to where we were standing. This is amazing as it's possible the latest record of this species in the Madrid Province. It was a lovely walk through the oaks with wood anemones carpetting the floor and the occasional Speckled Wood and Clouded Yellow butterflies. We return to the vehicle and head for our next destination, which I had been advised about with a potential for another of Andy & Dave's major targets. They had seen (at distant) Spanish Imperial Eagle before but not well and wanted a chance of seeing another, so we made our way to the Sierra de Malagon. an area not dis-similar to the Yorkshire Moors. Initial stops produced a couple of Lesser Kestrels, Common Buzzards and lots of Red Kites plus a Grey Heron, Skylarks, Stonechats, Carrion Crows and a couple of Ravens. Then just beyond the embalsé we stopped for a group of Griffon & Black Vultures that were circling overhead and like so many times previous I found an 'aquila' eagle amongst the pack. It was a sub-adult Golden Eagle still showing the tell-tale signs of a white band at the base of the tail, and we some excellent views through the telescope before if drifted off. We wanted more and got just that at our final stop on this wild moorland area, again we were checking the array of vultures, kites and buzzards over this low hill, when I picked up another bird coming in. It was definitely an eagle but which one, unfortunately it was a long way off so we jumped back into the vehicle and drove along the road to try and get a better view. Initially I couldn't find anything different apart from a dark phase Booted Eagle, but I was sure that wasn't the same bird, then there it was flying in again from the left. I shouted "Spanish Imperial Eagle" as this 1st calendar year bird circled round over the hill we were facing. Over the next half hour we watched it through our telescopes picking out all the salient points and just enjoying this fabulous predator. It was a fantastic experience with Andy & Dave absolutely delighted with what they had seen and experienced. It was now time to leave and return to Manzanares as I wanted to spend some time exploring the Holm Oak and Juniper hillside next the reservoir. We got back in good time to have a walk along the edge of the lake on which we found several Great Crested Grebes, 2 Gadwall, Mallards and lots of Lesser Black backed Gulls, a group of 4 Spoonbills flew through the valley but were stopped due to the inclement weather moving in from the west. There were plenty of migrant passerines around with Whitethroats, Sardinian & Willow Warblers, Common Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Black Redstart, Long tailed Tits, Spotless Starlings, Chaffinches and Serins but a party of 10+ Azure winged Magpies was a nice surprise. The rain started so we returned to the hotel for a well earned drink followed by another very good evening meal. We completed our day the same way as the last by listening to our resident Scop's Owl.

Tuesday 7th :- This was our final morning and due to the afternoon flight we had time to re-visit the Embalse de Sanillana and see if the overnight rains had brought any more birds to the trees and bushes around the reservoir. It was a lovely warm and sunny morning so we started with a walk up the hill where we saw several Woodlarks, 2 Rock Buntings, Mistle Thrush, Dartford Warbler and a heard only Iberian Green Woodpecker. It was the repeat of the previous afternoon's walk which produced the best results as there seemed to birds everywhere and singing in the morning sun. Over the next couple of hours we managed to see Great Cormorant, Grey Herons, Mallards, Black Kites, Black & Griffon Vultures, Common Buzzard, a Common Sandpiper, Lesser Black backed Gulls, White Wagtails, Blackbirds, Willow Warblers, Common Chiffchaff, a single Iberian Chiffchaff, 3 Western Bonelli's Warblers, Blackcaps,Sub-alpine & Sardinian Warblers. A brilliant way for Andy & Dave to complete their holiday.




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