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Steppes of Lleida (Lerida) – Catalonia, Spain
With the light already fading and arriving at an uncertain location given to me by an even more uncertain local, on my first visit to the Lleida Steppes, I didn't really know what to expect.
But two and a half hours later I tore myself away from the pitch black having seen seven species I'd never seen before, including Bonelli's Eagle and Little Bustard, and had the best birding experience of my life. This is easy I thought!
As soon as I arrived my attention had been grabbed by a racket coming from a nearby copse. I recognised the distress calls of the local magpies but soon also counted thirty-two Great Spotted Cuckoo amongst them.
Then, after watching a male Marsh Harrier skimming for supper and revelling in the chinkling of dozens of Calandra Lark, I finally spotted two Stone-Curlew in the field right next to me.
My worries that the local shepherd, who was approaching with his flock, would scare them away disappeared when I saw about fifty Spanish Yellow Wagtail skipping in and out of their footsteps. Closer examination revealed races from Britain, central Europe, and an extremely rare and beautiful black-headed form from Russia, superciliaris.
As I was leaving a female Montagu's Harrier, immediately joined by a hauntingly grey male, decided to float around my head for a while. I was hypnotised.
The problem is, as anyone who's ever visited the huge area around Lleida knows, that it’s rarely this easy, with frustratingly small populations of birds like Lesser Kestrel, Lesser Grey Shrike, Dupont's Lark and Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. So, if you want to track down migrating Dotterel, tick off the complete list of Larks, or work your way through Golden Oriole, Southern Grey Shrike, Penduline Tit and Red-billed Chough, there's no option but to get to know how the birds move and live on a transient land that, over the course of many seasons, changes from fallow to plough to crop to stubble and back again.