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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Southern Andalucia in the autumn - (A Duck, two Swifts and a Baby),
Faced with a straight choice between Scilly or Europe in mid October, I weighed up the chances of a Western Palearctic lifer and my bank balance. With hindsight the Cream-coloured Couser would have been a welcome British tick, but with my wallet £150+ to the good and a new WP species, Southern Spain was the correct choice. I would again be with my friend and guide Stephen Daly, whose wife was in the advanced stages of pregnancy, but wasn't due till the 28th.
After my successful trip to Andalucia in April where my WP list went through the 600 barrier, I had missed one important target bird - White-rumped Swift. Travelling down to the Straits of Gibraltar on the 19th, I took a cheap flight from Stanstead to Jerez where I was met by Stephen. It was a fresh autumn morning, perhaps akin to an early September afternoon in the UK. Our first port of call was coffee at a nearby supermarket, where we also tucked into a cheese and Chorizo panini, giving us an excellent boost and necessary energy stores for an afternoon's birding around the southern end of the Cote Donana and the freshwater lakes and beaches of the Barbate - Jerez area. A quick stop at a beach at produced Ringed and Grey Plovers as well as Redshank, Dunlin and Black-headed Gull. Moving on to an area of fresh water and Umbrella Pine, a few migrant Chiffchaff and a Spotted Flycatcher were noted near the hide. On the pool were two Black-necked Grebe still in summer-plumage as well as one Little Grebe. At least six White-headed Duck were on show seemingly oblivious to the terrible threat they faced from their American cousins. Clear skies meant raptors must be taken into account and excellent views of several Booted Eagles of both morphs and one Bonelli's Eagle were welcome opening species for the raptor list.
Hitting the road, or at least the track again we drove past several horse drawn vehicles carrying lots of young men and women some bedecked with flowers and singing songs. Stephen said being a Saturday everyone was heading for the forest for barbecues, sangria and a all round good time. After negotiating these revellers' vehicles we met the track that led to the main pools. Waders and other water birds were dotted throughout the area including Redshank, Greenshank and a mobile flock of Avocets. Black Kites were quartering the open areas and one bird was perched on a small dead tree on a certain causeway between two pans. Stephen, scoping the bird suggested it might be a Red Kite and sure enough the bird took flight showing the more deeply forked tail and sharply contrasting 'continental quilt' underwing. The bird went on to give what must be the best views I have ever had of the species. It soared and flapped above our heads in perfect light down to what seemed like a few feet. In the scope it was breathtaking.
Moving on around the many pools we stopped at one tank and counted 26 Black-necked Grebes - a personal record. Scanning further I casually remarked that a Shelduck was sat on the edge of a pool. Stephen appeared excited - 'where, where', he exclaimed. I got him on the bird and he proceeded to explain that this was a Spanish tick, despite having lived in Andalucia for six years. Well, at least it gave us an excuse to crack open some bottles of lager that evening. Before setting off for Barbate I spotted an Osprey perched on some old iron work before it took flight lethargically so very like a juvenile Great Black-backed Gull.
An excellent meal of shrimps and rice followed by ice cream washed down with the local beer was an excellent way to round off my first day. Stephen's two year old daughter was now picking up increasing amounts of German from her mother; English from her father and Spanish from the nursery. Being tri-lingual and living in the fertile, bird-filled outskirts of Barbate is surely the ideal start in life, where there are no traffic jams and the nearest thing to crime is the rustling of the odd chicken.
The next day we had an early start at the village of Bolonia where the Crag Martins were just emerging from their roost and Spotless Starlings assembled on the village television aerials. Ascending the hills above the town a distant Blue Rock Thrush was scoped on the sharp rocks. As the sun gained height Griffon Vultures, which were congregating on the ledges began to take to the air dwarfing the few Lesser Kestrels that were also looking for their first meal of the day.
Looking for any small bird with a white rump, two House martins caused a brief scare, but minutes later I picked up two swift species in the scope. The birds were similar in shape to Common Swift but with a distinct white rump and crucially - a pointed tail. White-rumped Swift was on the list. I watched the birds for perhaps half a minute before they flew out of sight, and these were perhaps at the very tail end of their stay north of the Mediterranean.
Moving higher still we reached a wooded plateau overlooking the marshes to the north From here Meadow Pipits could be heard making their familiar pheet call and I was at once transported back to Nottingham and my obsession with visible migration. Among the other 'common' species Robins were numerous in the bushes and scrub, these birds I figured being the race, which breeds in the UK
After a coffee break (for coffee read coffee and lemon cheesecake), we headed for Tarifa, where windsurfers and the keener bathers were soaking up the last of summer sun. Crossing the bay by the causeway that links to rocky promontories we descended to the beach, where a posse of Western Yellow-legged Gulls were loafing in a puddle and Sanderling were playing chicken with the tide. Setting up our scopes we were soon watching Gannets of various ages moving off shore. Of more interest were Cory's Shearwaters also moving past, although today were no Meds or Yelkouans. A few late Sandwich Terns were squeaking on the other side of the bay, but it was a generally uneventful seawatch, lacking the excitement of the north Atlantic.
After lunch we headed north to the open fields where we saw a late Crane in the spring. Today, there was Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel and Sparrowhawk. The latter had a healthy choice of passerines including Calandra and Crested Larks and a flock of three hundred House Sparrows! Such numbers we can only dream of in this country and this part of Spain at least, with it's varied agriculture and vast undisturbed areas is akin perhaps to mediaeval Britain. There was also increased migration today with Whinchat and the odd Northern Wheatear gracing the multitude of fence posts, while the ubiquitous Zitting Cisticola seemed to be bouncing out of every bush.
A fine evening meal of fresh salmon and pasta was eagerly scoffed but not before I had logged five different Grey Wagtails in a vis mig over Stephen's garden. 'A bad case of birding', was how I was described by Stephen, who correctly noted that I eat, sleep and breath birds.
The following morning began well, with clearly more migrants, including lots of Meadow Pipits, a species, which on close scrutiny is remarkably variable, going from greyish brown through olive to some quite bright Tree Pippity ones. Excellent close views of a Tawny Pipit were had just next to the car. Tawny Pipit, is surely the species for which Topography charts were designed with all the feather tracts on show and any number of face markings including that diagnostic loral spot. Three Great White Egrets were watched in a muddy creek in the company of a Grey Heron, the size and structure making an interesting comparison.
We were in the boundaries of an old town dump, which was now a militarised zone for which Stephen had special permission to enter. It had become an excellent area for birding and more action was had with Peregrine, Merlin and Hen Harrier taking the raptor list to 15 for the trip. Just as we were doing so well, Stephen received a phonecall from Patricia. She had gone into labour 10 days early. From that point I was effectively on my own. Stephen rushed me back to the house with keys to the property; the remains of the previous night's meal and a map of the surrounding area.
After putting the finishing touches to my Fantasy Birding League, I stepped out in to the wild blue yonder, suddenly looking at Spain in a different, refreshingly wild way. I crossed the road and headed through a shambling, scruffy village, which was not so much a one horse town as a no horse town. I soon left the litter behind as the path ascended slightly through some scrub and then in to farmland with hedgerows and many little spinneys. Crested Lark darted around in small flocks, while the hedgerows were crawling with Robins and the resident Sardinian Warbler.
Suddenly my attention was attracted by a flash of rufous and I was over joyed to see a male Rock Thrush on the ground below an umbrella Pine. It was a cracking bird in summer plumage and shared its tree with a male Common Redstart. I watched both birds for a while until I could feel my stomach asking for lunch. The next couple of miles were relatively uneventful, apart from negotiating a large herd of cows, which were stubbornly blocking the path in that way that only cows seem to do. I followed the path in to a steep sided damp valley before climbing again where someone had built a hotel literally in the middle of nowhere. Recently painted walls, and newly pointed arches made way to a beautiful Moorish style interior where carefully placed frescos and little agricultural vignettes graced the bar and restaurant. Being a good friend of Stephen the French proprietor gave me a Tuna and pasta lunch, Amstel beer and liqueur all the on the house. This was El Palomar de la Brena. Palomar being the Spanish for Dovecote, this being the largest such structure on Earth with some 7,700 pigeon holes and producing a total of 15,000 tons of poo a year. The biproduct of the inhabitants is now a commercial fertiliser but once formed one of the ingredients of gunpowder, being indispensable during the civil war.
After lunch I retraced my steps, as the clouds were closing in, but there were now even more Robins and to my delight a male Black Redstart perched on top of a pile of steaming cow dung and hay. A late Common Swift passed over head and more Meadow Pipits were moving through. I got back just before the heavens opened and produced one hell of a downpour.
I relaxed with a beer and had my tea. Stephen eventually returned sometime in the early hours with news of a bouncing 4kg baby girl.
It had been a great trip and one I will remember fondly for its visible migration, superb local specialities but mainly for a duck, two swifts and a baby.
For enquiries about a spiffing holiday in Andalucia email Stephen@andaluciangides.com