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A Report from

Extremadura and Northwestern Spain, 12th to 23rd-April 2006,


There aren't only birds in Spain, there are Wolves, too!!!

Lutz Lücker - Geneva

Great-spotted Cuckoo

First nights camping rough , then Hotel Rosales in Malpartida de Plasencia and Motorway Motel El Cruce, 10 kms north of Trujillo between la Aldea and Torrecillas. Had not booked anything in advance, so it was very difficult to find something else. Paid 70 euros for 2 nights (with simple dinner but exquisite wine) in Malpartida. El Cruce: 25 euros per night, noisy (24h service…), food quite expensive for what it was. But room, bathroom and bed ok, better than sleeping in a car on a rainy night.

Guia Campsa 2000 (1: 300.000) has turned out to be the best. 22 euros for the whole of Spain is a good investment. Alas, the old 200.000 Firestone maps are out of print! But beware! There are (even yellow, numbered) roads on those maps that do either NOT exist, or else are only usable for jeeps, or which are private, fenced country tracks! Anyway, ALL species can be seen from asphalted roads; no need to trespass ! In some steppe areas (La Serena) many tracks that used to be motorable are in a rotten state, quite a few famous signs mentioned in old birders' guides (La Calderuela, La Encinilla…) have disappeared. But the Monfrague park road has just been entirely re-tarmaced. I do not like the layout of the Campsa 2006 edition but there are new roads in it and some corrections have been made.

Introductory remarks (same as in my reports on 2001/03):
Having nothing special to “tick” off (except for Wolves…), my main aim was to get GOOD views of certain raptors and steppe birds. As 90% of the Estremadura is fenced in (NEVER cross a fence with cattle behind; bulls and sheepdogs can be VERY uncooperative!), many birds have a very short flight distance. Some Great bustards (Otis tarda) may be only 200 m from the road, whereas in Hungary, they will fly off when they spot an unknown car 500 m away. Sitting unobtrusively in the county for hours is often more rewarding than zigzagging around for a new tick. (I DID see the eye colour of a Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus caeruleus) and a Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti) !)
I will not disclose precise locations when there is an accessible nest of an endangered species. One example: one day, there were some British birders picnicking beside their car in the Monroy area, virtually under a Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus caeruleus)'s nest, the exact location of which had been unwisely published on the internet and a British guide book. Unfortunately, the bird had the bad idea to build its nest in the only unfenced area of the whole district, not far from an unsurfaced but driveable country road. SUCH SENSITIVE INFORMATION SHOULD BE WITHHELD ! There are plenty of other (fenced) places where one can see these birds ! Obviously, the birders had chased the Kite away at did not see it! Serves them right!

During this week, sunrise was at 7.55 – 7.40 h, sunset 20.35 – 21.05 h, so “noon” at about 14.25 h summer time. Few raptors fly before 10 a.m.

Weather and season:
Good weather on 12th until noon 15th. During the next days, the weather was a bit cool, with frequent showers, windy, then becoming much warmer on 17th afternoon, dry, warm and less windy. Rain on the night of 20th/21st, then showers and windy until evening of 21st. Much better on 22nd.

Highlights of the trip

Wed 12th:
Spent night at the Estany de Europa in the Aiguamolls reserve near Castello de Ampurdan east of Figueras. Scops owls calling in the trees, Night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus), Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) calling, the first Swifts (Apus apus) and Great Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus).

Thur 13th:
First Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus) near Gelsa (between Lerida and Zaragoza). Arrived at 1.30 pm in the El Planeron steppe reserve between Codo and Quinto/Belchite (E of Zaragoza, about 1 mile after the FIRST “El Planeron” sign after Quinto, and sure enough, when I stopped the engine, a Dupont's Lark (Chersophilus duponti) was already singing about 80 yards away with a second bird answering! As the roads were all dry, I explored the whole of the reserve until the valley between the table mountains in the north by the quarry. 60+ Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus), feeding on a carcass by a derelict farm, 2 Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus), Black-eared wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica), Black-Bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) (heard twice + 4 in flight), and once the calls of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. 3 pairs of Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) by the hills + the quarry. 2 Short-toed Eagles (Circaetus gallicus), 6-8 Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa), Spotless Starlings (Sturnus unicolor), 1 Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus), and, surprise, a pair of Spectacled warbles in the shrubs of the foothills. The Dupont's larks (Chersophilus duponti) started singing again at 7.30 pm, this bird and a Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) kept me awake some time.

Fri 14th:
Sublime spring morning with Dupont's lark (Chersophilus duponti) showing at 8h10. Off we go towards Madrid. Heavy Easter traffic on the bypass with a traffic jam at the Puerto de Guadarrama tunnel, so I leave the motorway and take the mountain pass. Not a great deal and traffic was quite slow in the village on the other side but it was less bad than before. The weather is turning grey, cool and windy. Back on the motorway…which was nearly empty! 4 Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus) along the road near Medina del Campo. I leave the motorway in Villalpando, and a few miles further, there they are, dozens of Great Bustards (Otis tarda) with 3 Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax), Quail (Coturnix coturnix), 2 Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus), 10 Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) flying after the ploughman, 5 Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster), breeding avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) on one of the lakes near Villafafila, more Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus), and many ducks. One Rock sparrow (Petronia petronia) at the Otero de Sariego pigeon houses.
As the weather is getting worse, I decide to spend the night under the roof of a dry hay barn in the fields….

Sat 15th:
Rain all night, and my dry barn has become a prison because there are 70 yards of sheer mud that separate my car from the road. I am ready to sit it out, but when it starts raining again, I try the impossible and only just manage to make it to the gravel road, skidding and zigzagging through deep mud and wet grass. A close shave it was! Be warned! This area is famous for its sticky clay that will adhere to your wheels like glue. Even the farmers don't venture out in their tractors for fear of ruining their own country roads.
Then the sun comes out again and I have a real stroke of luck. Not far from the only motorable gravel lane there are 300+ Great Bustard (Otis tarda), some of which are displaying in the morning light. There are huge groups of middle-aged males that run after each other, fighting and pecking. Unbelievable!
Some Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) fly by. I manage to get some good pictures (from inside the car) and then, after a stopover at the Villafafila lagoons (Gull billed Tern, Redshank (Tringa totanus), Greenshank (Tringa nebularia), 4 winter-plumaged Grey Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), Lesser Kestrels (Falco naumanni) on a pigeon house near La Tabla), head west towards the Sierra de la Culebra near the Portuguese border in order to look for….wolves!
I admit that it may seem somewhat conceited, even foolish, to come along from Switzerland, only knowing the name of a village miles from nowhere and then spend hours sitting somewhere in the woods, waiting for a wolf to come out and show. That is at least what I was told by a Spaniard I met up in the mountains after he had understood what I was doing with a telescope in such a godforsaken place. I only knew that it might be worthwhile to explore a certain forest road…, which turned out to be 5 miles long and went over a mountain pass. I had no idea where exactly, on which side of the mountain and at which altitude, to look for these shy animals. So I had to do the usual thing: put myself into a wolf's shoes, if I may say so. Just say "If I were a wolf, I would….", and follow your wolfish instincts! Well, I spent my first evening looking a some Red and Roe deer, a surprising Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus) (at 3000 ft altitude), a Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus), a Bee-eater (Merops apiaster), and listening to Woodlarks (Lullula arborea), Cirl Buntings (Emberiza cirlus) and Rock Buntings (Emberiza cia). But no wolf came out of the woods. So I tried tape-recording at nightfall because wolf howls are said to be contagious, but to no avail. The only sheltered place to sleep in the car was a dense pine monoculture with no birds at all. Don't try the few hotels during the Easter week, they are all fully booked!

Sun 16th:
A few sunny spells after cool showers during the night. I wait for the wolves in the same place until 10 a.m., then go down into the valley to find Bonelli's Warbler (Phylloscopus bonelli), Dartford warbler (Sylvia undata) in the Maquis, and some Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos). Back to "my" spot in late afternoon. Now there is a pair of Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus) hunting over the Maquis, a Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) is soaring over the village in the distance and a stupid immat. Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus) misses a very much surprised (sitting) Rock Dove (Columba livia) by at least 2 feet. At nightfall, a Scop's Owl starts calling at 3300+ ft. despite the cold atlantic winds! A few Red and Roe deer, the usual. Wolves? None! Only some telescope wearing motorists about half a mile from my place. So if there are OTHER people here, obviously following the same purpose, my choice may not have been altogether wrong…!

Mon 17th:
I wake up at night, having heard some doglike noise, no howling, rather some sort of yapping call. I may have been dreaming but I feel a presence in this ugly synthetic piece of pine woodland. I switch on the tape recorder, no reaction….The rain starts again, back to sleep!
Up at 7.15h (luckily, the sun goes up VERY late in these latitudes…), breakfast beside the car on the forest road. And half an hour after sunrise, while I am munching away at some soft old Swiss sweetbread, I see something move at the edge of that very pine wood I had been sleeping in. And there they are: one very big Alpha male Wolf with a much slenderer specimen, idly trotting along a large vegetation-free anti-fire breach in the forest! A beautiful sight in the pale morning light. They come closer and closer until I can make out the yellowish colour of their irises. After 5 (or 10 ?...frankly, I have no idea) minutes, they suddenly dart at full speed through the Maquis, jumping high up to see their prey (which I can't see…). After 200 yds. chase, the male stops whereas the female (?) continues. A few seconds later, they have disappeared in the high vegetation, never to come out again. All I can hear is the alarm calls of a (very) frightened Roe Deer. Some stags (a young 12-point male still wearing his antlers,) cross the Maquis, visibly nervous, but the wolves have gone. I wait for another hour and then decide to leave the area, having only 4 days left for this paradise on Earth called Estremadura. But I've made it, I've seen "my" wolves without being guided by locals, just following a hunch and my empathetic feeling. What I am going to see during the rest of my journey will just be considered as a bonus.
More Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) near Ferreras de Abajo, heavy traffic in Zamora, more jams and rain in Salamanca, lots of lorries with crazy drivers on the road to Caceres but sunny, warm weather on the southern side of the Sierra de Gredos as I arrive at good old Hotel Los Rosales in Malpartida.
As it is still early, I decide to go as far as the Portilla de Tiétar at the northern limit of the Monfrague Park. In or near the Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) Colony there is still a nest of both Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti), Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo), Black Stork (Ciconia nigra) with Black Vultures (Aegypius monachus) and Short-toed Eagles (Circaetus gallicus) that must breed not far away. Lots of small birds in the area: Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster), Bonelli's Warbler (Phylloscopus bonelli), Swift (Apus apus), Hoopoe (Upupa epops), Thekla Lark (Galerida theklae), Woodlark (Lullula arborea), Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris), Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius), Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti), Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata), Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans), Red-Backed Shrike (Lanius collurio), Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor meridionalis), Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyana), Spotless Starling (Sturnus unicolor), Rock Sparrow (Petronia petronia),…. I also see many Rock Doves (Columba livia), a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and a Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus). In the evening, two Scops Owls (Otus scops) call in the park opposite the hotel.

Tue 18th:
Early morning start. I try my luck at two Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus) sites near Malpartida, but they are both deserted. Quail (Coturnix coturnix) in the fields, first Golden Orioles (Oriolus oriolus) singing. A lone Black Stork (Ciconia nigra) on the road to Jaraiz, 3 more at the Tietar site. With 3 chicks in the nest! Having driven 2000 miles in a week, I spend the whole day looking at the pair of Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti) that still breed opposite the car park like last year. More short-toed eagles (Circaetus gallicus), Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus), a Bonelli's Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus), two Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus), Black Vultures (Aegypius monachus), Red-rumped

Swallows (Hirundo daurica) and a splendid display flight of Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans).
Meet my friends Martine and Michel from Switzerland as well as Merilyn and Colin from Northumberland who tell me to look for Otters by the lake near Almaraz nuclear power station (on the Saucedilla road). I find some Otter scat full of Crayfish bits but no otters. But it is a great birding place. I see several Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio), Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), four times male and female Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus), Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus), Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica), Great spotted Cuckoo (Clamator glandarius), Spanish Sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis) that nest in a White Stork (Ciconia ciconia)'s nest on a pylon, purple Heron (Ardea purpurea), Great white Egret (Egretta alba), Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus), Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti) and hear Savi's warbler (Locustella luscinioides) in the reeds.

Wed 19th:
Back to Almaraz, much the same birds as yesterday but no Otters. But there must have been one in the reeds because a dozen Magpies (Pica pica) were constantly harassing an invisible animal in the high vegetation. It might have been a fox but that place was a bit too wet for foxes…!
Drove through Monfrague park, stopped south of the Castillo. Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus), Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus) in the air, Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius) on top, Orphean Warbler (Sylvia hortensis) singing in the Cork Oaks.
I leave my luggage at El Cruce Motel and explore the road between Monroy and La Aldea. Very high grass nearly everywhere but I manage to find a flock of 32 Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) near km 16. Meet Colin&Merilyn (small world!) and we count about 10 Montagu's Harriers (Circus pygargus) near the Sta.Marta/Monroy T-junction. 2 immature Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) fly by, an imm. Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti) is tearing something apart on a lone tree, 3 surprising Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) feed in a field with Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), Little Bustards (Tetrax tetrax) and Quail (Coturnix coturnix) calling nearby. And a Little Owl (Athene noctua) is sitting by the road in broad daylight.

Thur 20th:
Back to the Monroy road. Between kms 13 and 21 I count 100+ Cattle Heron, 20 Black-Bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis), 4+8 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (Pterocles alchata) (very scarce this year!), 1 Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), 3 Stone curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), several Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax), 1 Hobby (Falco subbuteo), 2 Hoopoes (Upupa epops), 3 Great Spotted-Cuckoos, and 4 Tawny Pipits (Anthus campestris).
Go to the Belen steppes east of Trujillo at lunchtime. Not a very good moment: only 3 Great Bustard (Otis tarda), no Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus), but 80+ Griffon and Black Vultures (Aegypius monachus), about 140 Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) with 10 Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) in the tree colony as well as the usual Lesser Kestrels (Falco naumanni) on the old farmhouse nearby.
Back to the Monroy road where some obliging German Birders show me a new nest of Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus), less than 300 yds. from the road. Great sights (mating and hunting scenes)! I spend several hours there, looking at the birds, listening to Bach, a Thekla Lark (Galerida theklae) and a Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti), with more Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus) and Short-toed Eagles (Circaetus gallicus) in the air. If I don't get more exercise, I'll end up being a Fat Birder, too!

Fri 21st:
Well, my holiday is up, I have to go! Stopover at Almaraz but nothing new except for a Kingsfisher. I'll have to come back to see the Otters!
On my way home I see 2 Rock Sparrows (Petronia petronia) at the new Madrid-Mostoles toll station. (On a Friday afternoon, one should always take the toll motorways around Madrid to avoid the traffic jams!) I leave the motorway between Lodares, Jubera, Somaen and Arcos (SW of Calatayud) to see if there are any Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) or Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax). There aren't but I see Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus), Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus), Crag Martins (Ptyonoprogne rupestris), Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia), Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) and Rock Doves (Columba livia).
As it is very windy around Belchite, I decide to go the whole hog until the Aiguamolls reserve on the Catalan coast. I arrive shortly after sunset and see several Purple heron (Ardea purpurea), 2 Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio), 10 Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybridus), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), lots of Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus), a colony of 100+ Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) by the river of San Pere Pescador, and a stupid Fallow Deer at less than 20 yds.!
With more Scops Owls (Otus scops) and Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) calling in the trees I spend my last night in Spain on the car par of the Visitors' centre. Hope to be back next year!

PS: A few photos on my website
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