<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Avian Adventures Tour reports
Costa Rica
The Gambia

Spanish tour
Extremadura and Doñana National Park, 17th to 25th April, 2004

Day 1: Saturday, 17th April 2004

Transfer from Madrid to Torrejón el Rubio via Jaraicejo.  Late afternoon visit to Peñafalcón in the Parque Natural de Monfragüe

Weather:  Overcast and cool in Madrid.  Some sunny intervals in Parque Natural de Monfragüe.

Although British Airways flight BA456 from London Gatwick touched down in Madrid at its scheduled time of 11h20 it was not until 12h50 that we were driving out of the airport car park.  BA had lost a suitcase and promised it would be delivered to our hotel in Torrejón el Rubio, although probably not until tomorrow.

After navigating the Madrid ring road, where Spotless Starlings open the lifer account for some, the next 220km of the journey was on the fast Autovia de Extremadura that strikes south-west to the border with Portugal.  It can often produce some interesting birds but today was exceptional.  White Storks were only to be expected, as too were some raptors, but the frequency with which we came upon the latter made a real impression.  Black Kites and Common Buzzards, along with Common Kestrels, accounted for almost all of the birds of prey, although a female-type Western Marsh Harrier, close to the road, made a welcome addition.  It was not only large soaring birds that emphasised the richness of the avifauna.  Brief views they may have been, but there was no doubting the identity of the flocks of Cattle Egrets accompanying the occasional herd of grazing animals, nor the pair of Eurasian Golden Orioles that aborted an attempt to cross the motorway directly in front of our vehicle.  A pair of European Bee-eaters offered a tantalising view and a Eurasian Hoopoe was admired as it, too, flew alongside the minibus.

Close to the near-unpronounceable village of Jaraicejo, we left the motorway and stopped at a pond on the outskirts to stretch our legs and enjoy whatever we could see.  A White Wagtail was an early find and the flock of swifts that appeared briefly overhead comprised both Common and Pallid.  Suddenly there were raptors.  A Black Kite circled so close that it was tempting to speculate who was watching who the more intently.  A slim Red Kite followed at more of a distance but its rakish outline was strikingly different.  Even farther away were our first Eurasian Griffon Vultures – eight or so huge birds floating in the sky without a hint of wing-action among them.  A Booted Eagle joined them and, as we watched, it closed its wings and plummeted 70m in a breathtaking, high-speed power-dive that left us groping for superlatives.  Sadly the end result of the dive occurred out of our sight but the bird soon reappeared in the air and was clearly seen to be clutching some small prey item in its talons.

Checking into our hotel at Torrejón el Rubio was accomplished in Spanish time, which still left us an hour and a half to enjoy the spectacle of Peñafalcón.  When we arrived, there were a dozen or so European Griffon Vultures circling lazily above the ridge.  Almost imperceptibly more appeared, then more and more until perhaps as many as 80 were in view.  Twice a Eurasian Black Vulture drifted by and from time to time a pair of Egyptian Vultures displayed their unique outline. 

Photo: Egyptian Vulture - Ray Tipper

Egyptian Vulture

Very much higher, a pair of Short-toed Eagles soared majestically.  A pair of Black Storks showed all was well at a traditional nest site, while smaller birds, though no less interesting, included a lovely Blue Rock Thrush, a pair of Rock Buntings, enviably aerial Eurasian Crag Martins and a singing male Black Redstart.  The drive back to the hotel was punctuated with Woodchat Shrikes and Azure-winged Magpies.

We had enjoyed a rather special day and could only hope that the scene was set for the coming week.  

Day 2: Sunday, 18th April 2004

The whole day was spent exploring the Parque Natural de Monfragüe.

Weather:  Sunny Spain had forsaken its image.  A heavy, grey sky yielded the lightest of drizzle for much of the morning and a blustery wind numbed the fingers.  Only in the late afternoon did an even stronger wind blow away some of the cloud to reveal patches of blue sky, some belated sunshine and the hint of finer weather tomorrow.

In such unfavourable weather conditions we achieved unlikely success.  The Castillo de Monfragüe was hardly worth the climb, although a pair of Eurasian Nuthatches on the approach road raised the expectancy level, an emotion which, in due course, proved to be well founded.  At Peñafalcón yet another Blue Rock Thrush was not quite what it was so easily assumed to be.  A glance revealed the grey-blue head and reddish breast of a male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, an unexpected find perhaps nearing the completion of a long migration to the nearby Sierra de Gredos where the species breeds.  Late in the morning a fine Short-toed Eagle was immediately followed by a splendid adult Bonelli’s Eagle, the latter giving excellent flight views over the course of several minutes, a singing Wood Lark and a male Cirl Bunting.

After lunch, in the hamlet of Villareal de San Carlos, a pair of Black-eared Wheatears kick-started an afternoon which culminated in the arrival of a sub-adult Spanish Imperial Eagle that settled three times on a ridge-top rock and was watched at leisure.  No fewer than eleven species of raptors had been recorded on a day when the weather might well have caused the postponement of a birdwatching trip had one not been on tour.

Day 3: Monday, 19th April 2004

The morning was taken up scouring the plains beyond the village of Belén and then visiting the river (a tributary of the Río Almonte) beyond Retamosa.  A brief visit to the plaza at Trujillo followed lunch and ‘the Monroy circuit’ brought us back to Torrejón el Rubio.

Weather:  Somewhat better weather although still mainly cloudy in the morning and decidedly cool.  Sunny intervals in the afternoon.

Our first stop to scan the plains beyond the village of Belén was an undoubted success.  A fine male Great Bustard and a pair of Stone-curlews were located virtually simultaneously and soon another Great Bustard appeared.  Once the first Calandra Lark was seen, many more soon followed.  A good deal more scanning was required but then there was a puff-necked male Little Bustard displaying in the distance – four steppe species without moving a tripod!  More bustards of both species were found at each of several further stops down the road before attention turned to the parties of Lesser Kestrels hunting over the fields and Montagu’s Harriers that included at least two different stunning males.  Perched on a stone close to the road, a Great Spotted Cuckoo made a splendid site before we set off for Retamosa to tick the Black Wheatears that had been seen there two days earlier.  Today they failed to appear, nor were they at the one-time traditional site near Monroy where news had it they had been observed earlier in the year.

After lunch a short stop to savour the plaza at Trujillo provided an opportunity to enjoy Lesser Kestrels at close quarters and to compare Common and Pallid Swifts.

The road to Monroy provided Spanish Sparrows and a first Yellow Wagtail, of the race iberiae, but will certainly be remembered most for the gorgeous Black-shouldered Kite that sailed and hovered close to the minivan for possibly a full two minutes.  

Photo: Black-shouldered Kite - Peter Dedicoat

Day 4: Tuesday, 20th April 2004

Black-shouldered Kite

The morning was devoted to the plains around Santa Marta de Magasca and the afternoon was spent in the Parque Natural de Monfragüe.

Weather:  Heavy grey cloud throughout the morning, breaking up somewhat in the late afternoon with some sunshine between massive cumulus clouds.  Much warmer from mid-afternoon.

Sandgrouse were the day’s principal target, which was missed by some distance.  On some days they appear on cue – this was not one of them.  If there can be consolation in such circumstances, it was that other dejected groups driving the tracks also failed to find them.  There were compensations, of course.  Three Great Spotted Cuckoos, two of them chasing one another and calling loudly, provided a memorable moment and the concentration of Montagu’s Harriers in the area, with so many highly visible males, is very special indeed.  Both Great and Little Bustards showed well and included a flock of eleven of the former in strong, but effortless, flight.  ‘Admin.’ interrupted the day to the extent that we needed to return to the hotel at lunchtime to check that the long-awaited suitcase lost by British Airways on Saturday had been delivered today.  It hadn’t.  Beforehand, however, there had still been time to watch a Tawny Pipit, find a European Roller so bright that even the dull weather could not subdue its splendour and meet a magnificent adult Spanish Imperial Eagle perched on a roadside pylon.

News of Rock Sparrows attempting to breed in the cave below the Castillo de Monfragüe lured us there in the afternoon.  We saw nothing, nor could we locate Eagle Owls at Portilla del Tietar, but we did watch two sub-adult Spanish Imperial Eagles there, one perched for half an hour or more.  Back at the hotel, there was much relief at the arrival, at long last, of the missing luggage.  

Day 5: Wednesday, 21st April 2004

A return to the Santa Marta de Magasca Plains before driving on to the little town of Montánchez.  The afternoon was spent driving back to Torrejón el Rubio via the reservoir at Talaván with frequent stops to bird in between.

Weather:  Marginally better weather with some periods of sunshine, although still mainly cloudy.

Yesterday’s failure to record sandgrouse inevitably resulted in us being back on the plains around Santa Marta de Magasca as our first site of the day.  An hour or more of scanning the ploughed fields and the horizon proved fruitless, but as we were moving position in the minivan suddenly two Black-bellied Sandgrouse dashed across the skyline, dipped and were lost.  Almost immediately, a farmer, working a field with a tractor and hoe, put them up again and they were seen briefly by everyone as they disappeared out of view.  Hardly the most memorable of showings but a sighting nevertheless in a year when it seems sandgrouse have proved difficult to find in the area.  More searching failed to relocate these or any other sandgrouse but we did turn up a distant Black-shouldered Kite.  Eventually, we set off for Montánchez in search of another elusive species – Black Wheatear.  Montánchez is a quaint township with extremely narrow roads perched atop a hill and overlooked by a significant castle.  The view from the castle of the surrounding plains is, in itself, worthy of the visit.  Add to it, pairs of Black Wheatear, Black Redstart and Blue Rock Thrush and there is a recipe for a highly satisfying morning.

In the afternoon, our first stop, where we walked beside the Río Almonte, produced another pair of Black Wheatears (not previously known to emulate London buses) and splendid views of Alpine Swifts, often speeding past at eye-level.  The temptation to try one more time for Eagle Owl in the Parque Natural de Monfragüe was resisted in favour a stroll through farmland.  A Great Spotted Cuckoo laughed loudly at the Common Magpie chasing it away and gave us one more reason to contemplate a successful few days in picturesque Extremadura.    

Day 6: Thursday, 22nd April 2004

Transfer from Torrejón el Rubio to El Rocío, breaking for a picnic lunch at Aquafria.  Walked the trails at La Rocina in the Parque Nacional de Doñana from mid-afternoon.

Weather:  A mixture of cloud and sun (even morning mist) for much of the journey, but warm, bright sunshine at El Rocío.

The lengthy journey into Andalucía had hardly begun (we were still on the Torrejón el Rubio – Trujillo road) when the minivan had to be brought to an abrupt halt for a Black-shouldered Kite perched on top of a tree only some 30m from the road.  Two and a half hours later, a stop to stretch the legs at the picturesque bridge over the Rio Ardila turned up several wonderfully bright cock Spanish Sparrows and, for once, it was possible to study a female – finely, but clearly streaked on the breast and a suggestion of pale braces on the mantle.  Two European Rollers were more of a surprise but the habitat looked good for what may have been a breeding pair.  Half an hour later we pulled off the road to listen and were rewarded with a Short-toed Treecreeper.  The picnic stop close to Aquafria was amazingly successful with Crested Tit, Iberian Chiffchaff and most excitingly, for some, a very bright Firecrest all following in quick succession.

Just after 14h30 we pulled up in front of our hotel at El Rocío.  A twenty-minute wait while our rooms were prepared was no hardship as we strolled the 50m to the edge of the Marisma del Rocío and gazed out upon Eurasian Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, Red-crested Pochard and a host of Whiskered Terns.  One Collared Pratincole, flying purposefully over the marisma, led us to a flock of at least 30 circling high in the distance. 

Photo: Red-crested Pochard - Peter Dedicoat

Red-crested Pochard

Once we had checked in, we quickly made off for La Rocina in the Parque Nacional de Doñana.  Eurasian Tree Sparrow arrived on cue at a nest-box but generally birds were rather thinly spread.  Two Squacco Herons in breeding plumage were a delight and a group of Black-crowned Night Herons maintained our interest.  At the farthest hide we, at last, found two Purple Swamp-hens, one with a chick probably no more than two or three days old.  Common Nightingales and Cetti’s Warblers seemed to sing from every other bush and with so many about it was no surprise that good views were obtained of both these elusive species. 

Day 7: Friday, 23rd April 2004

The whole day was spent in the Parque Nacional de Doñana.  Before breakfast on the banks of the Arroyo de la Cañada, then for the rest of the morning and until mid-afternoon touring the north-east area of the reserve including the José Antonio Valverde centre and thereafter walking around the trails by the headquarters at El Acebuche.

Weather:  Bright, sunny and warm, tempered by a chilling wind for much of the day.

Before breakfast a brief search for waders on the Arroyo de la Cañada was more notable for the discovery of two Melodious Warblers watched for several minutes at close quarters.  Later in the remote north-east sector of the park we were soon seeing plenty of birds.  Almost the first was arguably the most exciting – a dark morph Montagu’s Harrier, its strikingly different appearance, perhaps, making it that much more appealing.  Larks were high on the day’s agenda.  Greater Short-toed Lark was soon secured and, thereafter, every lark seemed to be another GS-t.  Persistence prevailed, however, and eventually the first of many Lesser Short-toed Larks was found.  In the hugely impressive egretry beside the José Antonio Valverde centre, a breeding (presumably with a Little Egret although its partner was never seen) Western Reef Heron was quickly located.  Once in a while the bird stood up on the side of its nest but mostly it was settled down incubating its eggs.

The egretry was a seething mass of activity.  Cattle Egrets were by far the most numerous species, although Little Egrets, Purple Herons and Glossy Ibis were all well represented.  Black-crowned Night Herons, too, were present, but appreciably less conspicuous.  From time to time a Little Bittern dashed over the reed-tops and then one appeared at the edge of a dried section of reeds where it lingered for some time and exhibited just how well its plumage pattern and colour merge with the habitat.  We tarried at the centre in the vain hope that a Marbled Duck might swim into view until, eventually, we could wait no longer.  Much more success was achieved with Red-knobbed Coot, however, with one being found almost as soon as we left the centre.  Importantly, it was close to the track and stayed in view until we drove away.  Farther on we came across a small party of Ruff, the males looking dapper in their breeding plumage finery.  In the same pool there were also several Temminck’s Stints.

We hurried back to El Rocío and continued beyond to the reserve headquarters at El Acebuche where, among the pines, two snatches of song came from a Willow Warbler.  In attempting to see it, a largish, distinctly grey-toned warbler was flushed.  It proved difficult to see well but its head shape and large bill distinguished it as a Hippolais warbler and gradually we were able to piece enough together to identify it as a Western Olivaceous Warbler.

In the evening, a two-hour excursion along the coastal road to the west of Matalascañas for a long time seemed to be a pointless exercise.  Then, suddenly, as darkness descended, a Red-necked Nightjar showed briefly above the tree line.  Two further glimpses were obtained and then, as we were about to leave, the distinctive ‘took-took’ call of another was heard several times in the distance.                     

Day 8: Saturday, 24th April 2004

Before breakfast the Marisma del Rocío received our attention and then we set off on a long drive skirting Sevilla to reach the east bank of the Rio Guadalquivir and concentrated our watching on the wetlands of Brazo del Este, Laguna de Tarelo and the Bonanza Salinas.

Weather:  Bright, sunny and hot. 

A pre-breakfast scan of the Marisma del Rocío produced two new species for the trip – a forlorn Greylag Goose and several Pied Avocets.  As the sun rose, lighting up the watery scene, busy Whiskered Terns and a sizeable flock of Collared Pratincoles swirling in the sky wove a memorable tapestry.

The long drive to Brazo del Este confirmed that a passage of Temminck’s Stints was occurring on a broad front.  At least three were found today to add to yesterday’s unusually high number.  We hurried on to Bonanza close to the mouth of the Rio Guadalquivir and consumed our sandwiches while enjoying some 20 White-headed Ducks, all but three of which were drakes.  Two Pied Flycatchers, and two ‘phylloscs’, probably Willow Warblers, provided evidence that the spring passage of passerines was not yet over.  The saltpans at Bonanza presented us with out first real wader feast.  A heat haze limited viewing distance but there were so many feeding flocks that it was still possible to watch and enjoy closer, sharply focused birds.  Chestnut-bellied Curlew Sandpipers, black-tummied Dunlins, rusty-toned Sanderlings and silver and black Grey Plovers all vied for attention.  A flock of 80 Black Terns materialised from nowhere, flying steadfastly north and disappearing quickly.  They were followed by several other groups of three to ten.  For the Little Terns, migration was over.  They were now engaged in frantic display flights and, in the strong sunlight, showed startlingly white against a brilliant blue sky.  Shimmering on a distance bund, two Caspian Terns dominated their metre of mud.  Deftly picking at the surface of the water, 20 or more Slender-billed Gulls could be studied and compared with the half-dozen Black-headed Gulls among them.  Two or three Slender-bills showed subtly rosy underparts.  Much of the day had to be spent in the minivan, but in between the long drives the birds were more than worthy of the effort.

Bird list for the trip.

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