Having been on a couple of trips with Lee Evans before, Lee had sent had sent an E-mail to some of us that he knew, that might be interested in joining him on a Grand Tour of Iberia in late May. This was to be a trip encompassing many of Spain and Portugals special birds as well as a few introduced species and a couple of twitchable Category C birds to add to our Western Palearctic Lists. Lee had extensive information on sites from other British and Spanish birders and Paul had agreed to navigate on our 4,500 km journey. Our journey began at Madrid and we travelled from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean and back via Portugal.
25th MayLuton Madrid Extremadura
26th MayExtremadura and MonfragueNational Park
27th MayTrujillo Coto Donana
28th MayCoto Donana Chipiona
29th MaySouthern Portugal Oeirs- O Grove, Spain
30th MayO Grove Cantabrian Mountains Pyrenees
31st MayPyrenees Belchite Madrid- Luton
Lee arranged the flight and car hire. Cost of the flight, and share of the car hire and petrol came to £468. We flew with a budget airline www.easyjet.com from Luton to Madrid from where we hired the car.
We had 4 nights in hotels en-route which we did not pre-book. We haggled on price and also had 2 nights sleeping in the car. Food was mainly snacks bought from petrol stations or shops but we also frequented cafes where available. I spent around £200 in total on food and accommodation for the weeks tour.
I used Euros throughout.
We expected much better weather than we had. Spain had had almost continual rain showers for the previous nine weeks and we made it ten. We abandoned our first attempt in the Pyrenees due to the constant rain. We had slightly better weather in Extremadura and the Mediterranean with some sun, but showers were never far away.
The Pyrenees is a mountainous region between France and Spain. Besides twisting roads which took an age to travel along, we took a cable-car ride to the top of the mountain at Potes to look for Snow Finch where we followed a rough track. The Cantabrian Mountains in the north of Spain are also high where we experienced some poor weather.
Extremadura is an unspoilt region of lush forests, majestic mountains and vast agricultural plains peppered with towns and hamlets seemingly frozen in time. It has a wealth of World Heritage sites and protected nature reserves teeming with wildlife,
MonfragueNational Park is one of the important raptor reserves in Europe and is the best place in Spain to go for a glimpse of Black Vultures and the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle. The park has been declared a protected zone by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) because of its rare flora and fauna, including the endangered Iberian lynx.
Much of mainland Spain and Portugal is covered with agricultural crops as well as orchards.
Paul and I left home in Norfolk at for our journey to Luton where we met up with Lee and Mike. In pouring rain we flew on an Easyjet flight to Madrid. After hiring a car we headed for the Pyrenees in rain, cold and mist. Spotless Starlings and White Storks soon let us know that we were out of Britain even if the weather didnt.
White Storks nesting Spotless Starling
In the Sierra de Guarderama at Alto del Navacedarra we soon added one of my wanted birds of Citril Finch.
Several birds were watched as we wandered around in the rain amongst the trees in the ski resort. A stunning Iberian Pied Flycatcher gave a good performance. A Black Restart flicked around as we located a Crested Tit and Short-toed Tree-creeper. We listened to Firecrests and Goldcrests calling from the trees above us as a White Wagtail ran around the road. A Rock Bunting perched on a tree before we drove a few miles to locate several Western Bonellis Warblers singing in roadside trees. Continuing rain added to a stream where we watched a Grey Wagtail catching insects in the ever increasing torrent of water.
In the inclement weather, a decision was made to abandon the journey to the rest of the Pyrenees and we headed south-west to Extremadura. Once here the weather brightened just a little and although we were still dodging showers we managed to watch birds out of the car during sunny spells.
At Segovia we started to encounter the first of the many Corn Buntings that we were to see. They were abundant on fences surrounding vast agricultural areas that was reminiscent of how Britain used to be in my childhood. It was a delight to see them singing as we added Woodchat Shrikes and Azure-winged Magpies to our lists. Golden Orioles sang from rambling hedgelines as Hoopoes and Woodlarks flew around.
A Red Kite soared overhead as we made our way to Avila. Here a Short-toed Eagle and Booted Eagle put in an appearance as Griffon Vultures and Black Kites made birding a delight.
Azure-winged MagpieRed Kite
Along one of the farm tracks we stopped to watch a Southern Grey Shrike impale a Corn Bunting on a barbed-wire fence and gorge itself on it. It made for gory watching.
Southern Grey Shrike devouring a Corn Bunting
Although fascinating we were having difficulty on knowing where to look as Bee-eaters and Rollers were perching on fences all around us near Arenas. We could hear Nightingales and Serins singing from the other side of the track as we made our way along watching Crested Larks.
A pair of Rollers European Bee-eater
We motored on to Calera y Chozas where we pulled up a farm track where Lee could hear a Little Bustard calling. We soon located a Stone Curlew and then saw a Little Bustard in a near field, After a short while I spotted a large lump on a hillside, where upon stopping and raising binoculars to our eyes we established 2 Great Bustards roaming around. A Montagus Harrier flew through our vision as well as a Little Egret. Birds were everywhere, as Hobbies and Calandra Larks were wonderful to see. We discussed the diversity of the area and how farming could be like this in Britain to benefit not only people but wildlife too. We saw several Little Owls, but they were too skittish to allow close approach to allow us to photograph them.
We spent several hours revelling in the sheer delight of birding and enjoying the many Great Bustards that Lee eventually found. Fan-tailed Warblers (Zitting Cisticola) zitted away in the fields as we drove to Embalse de Azutan. Here we saw our first Purple Gallinules and Purple Herons. A Night Heron flew as a Great Reed Warbler played hide and seek with us as he sang to attract a mate. Back on the motorway we found a hotel where we spent the night after an interesting meal without any vegetables or salad that I would not recommend.
At Embalse de Arracampo at Almaraz Lagoons we eventually had good views of a Savis Warbler reeling away. Cettis and Reed Warblers were singing as a Little Bittern gave a surprise flight out of the reeds.
Continuing our journey we entered MonfragueNational Park. Here we were in true wilderness where the birds were abundant. Rock Sparrows were seen on exposed rocks as Thekla Larks appeared in vegetated areas. We stopped at many points to admire Crag Martins, Spanish Sparrows and Sardinian Warblers.
Views of Pena Falcon in MonfragueNational Park
We made our way to Pena falcon in MonfragueNational Park and climbed to the top of a nearby view point. Here we were at eye level to the many Griffon Vultures that were swirling around us. It was aweinspiring as they eyed-balled us as they found the thermals. Luckily for us the weather had improved and we had some sun in which to enjoy our birding.
The specialised habitat here brought specialised birds as Alpine Swifts and Blue Rock Thrushes were added to our sightings. Paul walked out to a precipice and shouted to us as an Egyptian Vulture circled below him. Lee spotted a Hawfinch in a bush clinging to the rock-face as a Wren hopped beneath it. We enjoyed the sun and made our way down the many steps where we enjoyed the spot. It had given us excellent birding as well as some opportunity for photography and to take in the delights of the surrounding scenery in the sun.
Egyptian Vulture Griffon Vulture
We made our way down to Portilla del Tietar where a Bonellis Eagle appeared in flight. Soon we were watching a pair of Spanish Imperial Eagles riding up in the thermal as they took off from behind the huge rock face that we were searching for Eagle Owls on. I was delighted as this was a bird that I had failed to see on several Spanish trips before. After arranging some accommodation in Trujillo, Mike put in a long vigil with his scope on a crack back at Pena Falcon on the opposite rock-face where Black Storks were nesting, for White-rumped Swifts. I had seen one fly out earlier but it was a brief view. Mike alerted us to another sighting and we eventually had some decent views albeit quick views of White-rumped Swifts flying to and from their nest site.
Rock Buntings, Blue Rock Thrushes, Crag Martins and Serins all added to our delight as we enjoyed the sun. Back at Portilla del Tietar other birders had their scopes on an Eagle Owl. We enjoyed good views of them before trying a nearby spot for Red-necked Nightjar. Unfortunately we could not find any and returned to our accommodation in Trujillo for the night.
We birded all around the Trujillo area where we added common birds to our list. I was keen to see Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Lee did his best and drove around track ways that he had seen them before. After several hours a small group of them flew from our left and we all had good views of them. A Quail also flew from long grass. At Campo Lugar we made our way around lagoons where Gull-billed Terns were flying around. Collared Pratincoles were sat in roadside fields. We added Red Avadavat and a Melodious Warbler to our lists before driving around a series of lagoons that waders were frequenting. Some common waders were accompanied by Black and Whiskered Terns. After leaving the lagoons we spotted some Pin-tailed Sandgrouse in flight as well as a Great Spotted Cuckoo perched on a fence.
Great Spotted Cuckoo
Short-toed Larks were displaying in the fields as we made our way to El Acebron where Lee had a site for Red-necked Nightjar. We were a little unsure if we had the correct track way but with a perseverance we had a couple of views of a Red-necked Nightjar sat on the track. Unfortunately Mike missed the sightings. We found accommodation at El Rocco in the Coto Donana and Paul and I went for an interesting meal in a local restaurant where we watched a Barn Owl flying in the dark.
Rising early we watched common ducks amongst the Greater Flamingos in the Coto Donana. We travelled on to fields of vines where Rufous-tailed Scrub-robins sat on top of the vines singing.
At Los Palacios y Villafranca a Western Olivaceous Warbler put in an appearance as we located a colony of Common Waxbills. Near Pinzon at Brazo del Este we had fun and games with more Category C birds as Black-headed Weavers gave us all identification problems as none of us had an African field guide with us. We had lots of weavers in view as well as many young birds. Driving around the various pools we had good views of Spanish Wagtails and we added Glossy Ibis and Avocet to our lists.
Our next target was Red-knobbed Coot near Zorilla at Espera Lagoons. On the walk down we flushed another Red-necked Nightjar. We failed to see any Red-knobbed Coots amongst the hundreds of Common Coots but added Black-necked Grebe and Red-crested Pochard to our lists. We had another view of Red-necked Nightjar on our return walk back up the track, much to the delight of Mike and I.
Back in the car once again Lee drove us to Chipiona. After a few text messages to a helpful Spanish birder we made our way to the fish factory and located several Little Swifts before driving into Portugal and spending the night in the car.
After some sleep we awoke to find a huge lorry had parked up at the side of us in the lay-by. Not one of us had heard it arrive, so we concluded that we must all have had some sleep even though a Nightingale had sung us to sleep in the bushes at the side of the car. At Barroca DAlva we added another Category C bird to our Western Palearctic list as a Yellow-crowned Bishop bird sat atop a Papyrus reed. More Common Waxbills were seen as Cettis Warblers and Squacco Herons flew around.
Paul navigated Lee to Oeirs where the sun appeared as we added another Category C bird in the shape of Crested Myna. Here we enjoyed a few minutes rest at a beach-front restaurant in the sun as we ate a meal. Continuing to O-Grove back in Spain the rain clouds were gathering at the end of the day. Once again we had good information from our Spanish birder and we located a Pied Crow that was almost certainly ship assisted to its location in Spain. We checked in to a hotel in the street we were in and negotiated a bed for the night and an evening meal before the rain set in once again.
Leaving before breakfast Lee drove to Rio Caldo lagoons where a Pied-billed Grebe had taken up residence. Iberian Chiffchaffs were singing from the trackside bushes. However the grebe was very shy and we spent several hours trying to find it. For once the sun was shining and we all enjoyed some peaceful birding watching several pairs of Great-crested Grebes enjoying courtship routines. As we were having difficulty locating the Pied-billed Grebe we all split up to search for it. Eventually after watching a few ducklings, one caught my eye that made me look again. There was the Pied-billed Grebe surfacing from by the reeds. I was stood right by the car. All our wanderings had proved unnecessary.
Motoring on to the Cantabrian Mountains we saw a few Red-backed Shrikes sitting on wires near Cremenes. Eventually we made it to Fuente De in the EuropaNational Park. Lee pulled up in the car park whilst the rest of us investigated the cost and timings of the cable-car ride to the top of the mountain. Mike, Paul and I decided to take the cable-car and enjoyed the scenery to the top. We watched Egyptian Vultures flying below us and as we arrived at the top another birder delighted us with the news that he had just been watching Snow Finches. Sure enough we soon heard them in the spot he had told us. All of a sudden we were watching them. I was really pleased as this was one of my wanted birds. We heard and saw a Rock Thrush singing from a rock below us as Alpine Choughs wheeled around our heads. The three of us really enjoyed our time at the top of the mountain in the sun and cursed the fact that the cable car was shutting its operation for the day so soon. We spent an hour delighting in the magnificent scenery and enjoyed our birds in the sun. We descended back down in the cable car and re-joined Lee in the car park where we soon added Bullfinch and Yellowhammer to our lists.
After a lot of driving up mountainous roads and a night in the car, we awoke in the Hecho Gorge in the Pyrenees and watched a Dipper on one of the mountain streams. At Astun we wrapped up warmly against the ever present rain showers and cold and watched Water and Tree Pipits. We were surrounded by mountains as we watched a pair of Lammergeiers flying down one of the valleys. We tried one of Lees regular spots for Wallcreeper without success but the rain beat us. However Lee had another spot to try and after a cup of tea in a local café to warm up, Lee and Mike set off. Paul and I followed but I was ill-shod and slipped down the muddy path. The rain was making the going very unpleasant and I stupidly decided to return to the car to catch up on my notes and hope the rain would relent to give me an opportunity to take some photos of some Citril Finches that I had spotted near the car. Later I was to curse, as the others returned with the news that they had seen a Wallcreeper. I was cross with myself and only had myself to blame for not continuing down the muddy track. Leaving in heavy rain we said goodbye to the wet Pyrenees and travelled back towards Madrid through many orchards.
At Belchite we started our search for Duponts Lark in the scrub. We could hear one singing and watched one singing on a distant bush. We made our way over and located a second bird. Lesser Short-toed larks were also singing as we watched Calandra, Thekla and Crested Larks in the scrub. Rain set in once again and we set off for the airport for our journey home.
Thanks must go to Lee for all his driving, organisation, birding skills and company as well as Paul for his navigation and to Mike for keeping us all sane!
Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollisTrujillo27/05/2008