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A Report from

Birding in Catalonia,

Frank Mawby

Our trip to the Bird Fair this year resulted in a late decision to take a birding holiday in Spain to be specific to Catalonia the region around Barcelona. I scanned the Internet for birding guides and quickly hit on the website of Stephen Christopher. Contact was quickly and easily established and rates agreed with Stephen. The price was right and included 7 days birding, self catering accommodation and picnic lunches. The only other cost was food for main meals and flights. Monarch Airlines fly to Barcelona from Manchester and were the cheapest I found. Stephen collected and dropped us off at the Airport and took us to the local supermarket to obtain food. We provided him with our species wish list.

Catalonia is to Spain what Wales and Scotland are to Great Britain, having its own Catalonian language and culture. The region also matches Wales and Scotland for diversity of landscapes. Estuaries, cliffs, rocky shores and beaches make up a short coastline. Inland are the high mountains of the Pyrenees down to vast agricultural plains around Lleida with a whole range of land forms in between. Such a diversity of landscapes, landforms and habitats inevitably mean there is a wide diversity of bird life. Our target species included the Lammergeier and Griffon vultures, the great and little Bustards, Eagles and other raptors.

Barcelona Airport is built on the estuarine marshes of the Llobregat River and birding commenced within an hour of getting off the plane; I thought this area looked interesting as we came into land. Entering the Llobregat Reserve over a bridge crossing a reed lined channel Stephen soon lived up to his web site reputation spotting a Little Bittern landing a short distance away in the reeds and quickly finding it through the gaps in the screen. We both had excellent views of our first lifer for the trip before it flew over us to a new position. A Green Woodpecker, Black Redstart, Sardinian Warbler and later Waxbills were seen as we strolled along the paths lined with reed over 4 m tall. He heard Penduline Tit but it only gave a brief glimpse as it flew away. This species was to elude us for a good view until the final afternoon on the north side of the Reserve. We visited two hides overlooking large lagoons holding many duck and waders, including Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon, Redshank, Snipe Greenshank, Spotted Redshank and Spoonbill. A Marsh Harrier circled in the distance against the backdrop on a large parked aeroplane but the star bird was a Booted Eagle. Horses were grazing the marsh with attendant Little Egret and Cattle Egret. The backdrop to the whole scene was a continual stream of landing aircraft. We went onto alert for a significant predator when everything went up but it was a false alarm because the disturbance was caused by park staff spraying for mosquitoes.

After a splendid picnic lunch we drove down the coast to a rock face just south of Sitges.  After a short wait the Blue Rock Thrush to come to inspect us and soon after the very local Black Wheatear appeared. A lone Audouin's Gull circled the nearby harbour. Our drive to Stephens place was through the Garraf National Park, a hilly region of maritime scrub where he hoped to find some of the specialities like Dartford Warbler and Bonelli’s Eagle on a later visit. Entering the Park through the coastal road underpass Stephen pointed out the elaborate nest of a Red-rumped Swallow; typically a hirundine mud nest but with an entrance corridor.

Tuesday’s weather forecast was not good with a lot of rain for the whole region. Our destination was not decided until we met Stephen at 0600 hrs. It was raining and it continued to rain as we drove west in the dark through Lleida, towards Aragon. He had found a possible hole in the weather and the target species was Great Bustard. It was still rather damp when we arrived an hour or so later so a coffee break in a cafe at Bujaraloz ensued to give the weather a chance. Sure enough it eased and brightened up as we drove into a vast agricultural plain, a considerable mix of tilled land and stubble with a number of uncultivated weedy fields. We started well with a lone Stone Curlew but the Bustards were not to be seen. The plan now was to follow the grid of tracks scouring every vast field acre by acre. The bare cultivated plough offered little but the weedy stubbles were more promising and gave us a nice variety of Larks including Calandra, Short Toed and, from one field, well over 500 Thekla Larks with their distinctive calls. A real surprise was locating a group of 17 Dotterel. The scattered stone barns almost all had a Little Owl perched on the roof and a flock of Jackdaw also include Red Billed Chough. After over an hour driving and scanning Stephen eventually spotted something large and brown and we were soon looking at a flock of 14 Great Bustards at a distance of less than 100 m, what a sight and well worth the drive, nearby we disturbed another four; what a remarkable sight to see such a large bird flying so gracefully with the broad white wing bars flashing, target species ticked what next. A short drive to a new location and we were soon looking at over 50 Stone Curlew and caught a glimpse of the elusive Black Bellied Sand Grouse, Larks were abundant and several passerines. Eventually Stephen pinned down the Sand Grouse and we got excellent views as we took lunch, two large flocks of Pin-tailed Sand Grouse flew over and to our delight three Hobbies suddenly appeared close by and then a Golden Eagle gave good views. On the way back we were attracted by a large gathering of Marsh Harriers and Buzzards and this area also gave Spotless Starling a Southern Grey Shrike, Tree Sparrows and Corn Bunting. At our final stop, another part of the vast agricultural steppe area,  Merlin, more Stone Curlew, Yellow Wagtails and lots of Red Legged Partridge were seen but we failed to find Pin-tailed Sand Grouse and Little Bustard; quite a day with at least 6 new lifers. There were some good butterflies too including Swallowtail and Clouded Yellow.

Wednesday, out at 6.00 am again and heading south to the Ebro Delta, a vast area of former wetland now mainly rice paddy fields but nevertheless teeming with birds. The area was exceptionally flooded from recent rains. From a viewing platform over looking a large lagoon we watched Osprey, innumerable Marsh Harriers, and thousands of duck whilst Reed and Cetti's warbler were just below us. Another viewing platform gave us many Red Crested Pochards and a solitary Night Heron amongst several Cormorants’. The reeds and scrub lining the road were full of Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff but a more brightly coloured warbler of that ilk eluded us. Water Rails called but would not show. A small flight of Spoonbill and then Glossy Ibis passed overhead and another Osprey gave an excellent show followed by a Caspian Tern. We toured round the flooded fields and amongst the many waders and gulls were Audouin’s and Slender Billed Gull, Black and Whiskered Tern, lots of Herons including Night Heron, Flamingo, Glossy Ibis, Avocets, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint; but a  special wader for us was a Wood Sandpiper. Amongst the reeds we often heard Cetti’s and Fan-tailed Warbler (Zitting Cistcola). Whinchat and Stonechat were common; a single Spotted Flycatcher was a nice surprise. There were several Robins; a bird which Stephen said was just coming in. Lunch was taken in a hide with Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff passing through and a few yards below us a Reed Warbler quickly followed by a Savi’s Warbler gave us a nice comparison of these similar species. As we prepared to leave the star bird of the day was spotted and even Stephen could not contain his excitement on seeing a Yellow Browed Warbler.

Flooded roads prevented access to some areas and along one road we had to get out of the car to move crayfish out of the way.

Thursday and another six am start saw us heading north for the Pyrenees. On arrival there was low cloud over us as we started to drive up the hill but we passed through it into bright sunshine and looking over a wonderful cloudscape.  The morning was quite slow as we scanned rock faces for Wallcreeper but it never showed. Small flocks of birds were feeding through the trees including Crested, Coal, Blue and Great Tit. I did not realise the species like this were found at this altitude. Stephen then picked up the call a Short-toed Treecreeper, a call too high pitched for my deteriorating hearing. It gave but a fleeting glimpse. Bullfinch was also seen up here. High overhead we observed a regular passage of thrushes but at an altitude difficult to confirm their identity and soon after large numbers of House Martins. The silhouettes and flight pattern suggested some were Mistle Thrush and others were Ring Ouzel. A Black Woodpecker called in the distance, a Peregrine briefly showed and small flocks of the yellow billed Alpine Chough and Red Billed Chough gave a good display at one point. Late morning and it was time to scan the highest tops and sure enough Stephen soon had Griffon Vultures for us, at least a dozen at one point. We moved round the mountain finding Citril Finch and Rock Bunting on the way to the lunch spot where we settled down. Sure enough as Stephen predicted the first Lammergeier appeared cruising along the mountainside.  Then another was located much closer this time a dark immature bird and as we watched it dropped something then descended to the ground and began to eat. It was joined by a male and the two were up and down a number of times presumably having found food. At times in the air they were harried by Ravens and Griffon Vultures. I wondered why the area was so well grazed and was soon provided the answer when a shepherd passed by with his large flock, the bells round their necks ringing with a dull dong. In the distance we could see the night-fold where several Chaffinch and Black Redstart were present. A Ring Ouzel called but we could not locate it.  We left the Lammergeiers and Griffons and began the long descent picking up Dunnock, Long tailed Tit and later Dipper.

Friday and it was another day out to the LLeida Steppes near Alfes. Stephen expressed his concern that recent changes in the EC agricultural policies that have ended set aside could see large areas of marginal land put back into production. He pointed out several areas that had been ploughed recently and which he had never seen cultivated over the years he has been birding there. The only Nature Reserve in this vast agricultural area was a tiny area of rough grassland around a flying club building and landing strip. The area was threatened recently when the flying club wanted to expand the airstrip but this was fended off. The plan as last time was to work the fields area by area.  From the nature reserve we drove alongside the motorway and Shelagh spotted our main target species the Little Bustard. There were five of them feeding in a rough strip of ground about 150 metres away. Eventually we moved on and the track went close enough to move them and a flock of Stone Curlew. Passing some rough shrubby ground several Corn Buntings gave excellent views. The systematic searching then gave us Rock Sparrow with lots more Corn Bunting. Further on as we drove towards a small pool a superb male Hen Harrier dropped in to give a brilliant show at less than 50 metres, bathing, flying out, shaking himself then returning to bathe again before flying off to dry. As the search continued a large flock of Chough were found feeding and then took to the air with a brilliant display. Stephen then spotted a distance speck and hurried towards it. Stopping the car he soon picked up a Black Shouldered Kite, which we watched hunting for several minutes. We then saw 4 Red Kite for which the main attraction was a refuse tip where I was amazed to see not only lots of Yellow Legged and Black-headed Gulls but hundreds of White Storks, Little Egret, Starling and Spotless Starling. A Blue Rock Thrush was on a nearby cliff and the area also held Skylark, Theckla Lark, Meadow Pipit, Redstart, Merlin, Buzzard and much more, a truly rich area for birds. Driving through an area of scrub another Black Shouldered Kite posed for us on a power line pole and shortly after a Southern Grey Shrike. By late afternoon we were back close to Stephen’s home where he took us into a shrubby, wooded gorge teeming with birds including many Redstarts, Sardinian Warblers a Cirl Bunting and a Sparrow Hawk.

Saturday, our penultimate day, and another early start northwards along the coast towards the French border to visit the Cap de Creus, Spain’s most easterly point and the nature reserve Parc Naturel Dels Aiguamolls (literally translates as reedbeds). The view from the first hide over a large reed fringed lagoon was teeming with duck and waders, including Shoveler, Geenshank, Spotted Redshank, Dunlin and Snipe. Not many new birds but nevertheless a great sight with Fallow Deer grazing amongst the birds and a nice Stork colony. The drive out to the Cap de Creus was spectacular made more so by the narrow roads and steep drop offs. It was very windy on the Cap and few birds were braving the elements least of all the Levantine Shearwaters. Well worth the drive for the scenery but unproductive bird wise other than a Peregrine, Yellow Legged Gulls, Gannet and Shag. Back to Aiguamolls and here we picked up Water Pipit before the first star bird of the day when not one but five Honey Buzzards passed overhead with many Pallid Swifts. One Honey Buzzard came low and gave a clear outline and good views of its main features. Leaving the area along country lanes we had a splendid view of a Goshawk, the best I have ever had of this species.

Before preparing dinner on Friday and Saturday evening we took advantage of the last of the evening light to look around Stephen’s home area of Mediterranean scrub and pine woodland. Here he has an excellent list of species including Crested Tit and Firecrest. But we saw none of these although Blackcaps, Robins and a Willow Warbler were seen and fresh diggings indicated the presence of Wild Boar.

Another reason for choosing the Monarch flight was the 2000 hours departure to give us a whole day birding on Sunday. The plan was to do Stephen’s home area of the Garraf National Park; a hilly landscape of low Mediterranean maritime scrub and pine, which is steadily invading. The area was regularly fired in the past slowing the pine and maintaining the valuable scrub habitat. However, fires are now a real hazard to human settlements and cause great concern, to such an extent that even managed burns are avoided at all costs. Nor is there little interest in grazing the area so succession to pine woodland seems inevitable with consequential changes to the flora and fauna. There were a few settlements in the Park with small Olive groves and vineyards.

The area is used by hunters and being Sunday quite a few were out as were a number of cyclists, walkers were however quite scarce. At our first stop, a small settlement by a stream, our first bird a Firecrest soon presented itself for close observation. A mixed flock of Tits and other species passed through and we had a good view of a Cirl Bunting. Many Serins were seen but this is a common bird of the area. As we drove through the park Sardinian and Dartford Warbler gave good views. Sunday lunch was a leisurely affair in Sitges where we treated Stephen to a well earned break.

After lunch a moment of culture was a brief look at a Gaudi Church. Driving along the coast road we stopped for views of Crag Martin before arriving at the northern area of the Llobregat Reserve. On the river we saw several Mediterranean Gulls and shortly after we had good views of Penduline Tit. As we came out of the last hide our attention was drawn to the sky where several Alpine Swifts were passing over. It was time to leave and the Blue Throat had eluded us but a Monk Parakeet flew by as we left the Reserve for the nearby Airport.

Our list for the week including birds only heard was 181 species although truly we could only claim 178 of them due either to failing eyesight and hearing which became painfully obvious at times compared to our guide whose great knowledge of the area and its birds combined with his keen eyesight and hearing had given us an exceptional week of birding in mid-October. There are so many birds in Catalonia that make it a great region to visit at any time of the year. Stephen is an excellent birding guide and very poplar. He books up quickly at peak times. His tours range from a day up to a week and for species special to the area. His self catering accommodation is very comfortable and sleeps up to four people in two double bedrooms or he will pick up from other accommodation including Barcelona. He has also offered a 5% discount to Cumbria Bird Club members who book from my recommendation.

Frank Mawby


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