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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Spanish Pyrenees to Ebro Delta,
We began amid the stunning landscape of the Spanish Pyrenees, where sheer rock faces tower from wooded slopes to summits in the clouds, still bearing a winter coat of snow. In the Valle de Pineta, a Dipper 'fishes' the white water, swollen by the spring thaw. Upstream, a Garden Warbler sings from an open perch, showing off its soft plumage in the scope. A chirpy Crested Tit dashes by and a superb little Firecrest shows all its lovely fine details as it attempts to mob a Red-backed Shrike sitting unperturbed right beside the trail. Above the tree line, a secret hanging valley of alpine meadows produces more breathtaking scenery with nice views of birds to match including Green Woodpecker, Crag Martin, Black Redstart, Red-billed and Alpine Choughs, Raven, Rock Bunting and Water Pipit in prime breeding plumage, with grey head, bold white supercilium and breast flushed with a delicate salmon pink. Suddenly the unmistakable outline of a Lammergeier glides, as if in slow motion, along the higher slopes, before landing on a crag at the head of the valley. Pinpointed in the scope, this magnificent and rare raptor looks down with a sinister glare of its orange eyes with black eye patches and black beard hanging from a long hooked beak. At such close range, the sheer size of its rich ochre head and body with baggy 'trousers' is simply awesome. The bird even rock hops with outstretched wings to emphasise its power. This is a spectacular sighting and a tough act to follow on our first day in the field, but a nearby perched Griffon Vulture makes a plucky side show.
Our second day in these fabulous mountains produces more good views of the usual 'suspects' including two soaring Lammergeiers, Chamois and cuddly Alpine Marmots, which seem to be everywhere, allowing excellent views at close range. Other significant sightings are Kestrel, Red Kite, Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Linnet, Citril Finch and a posing Short-toed Eagle, with bulbous head and starring yellow eyes.
The temperature climbs as we descend from the mountains along the course of the Rio Cinca, where a brief stop by the river at Ainsa adds Egyptian Vulture, Common Sandpiper, Grey Wagtail and beautifully glossy Spotless Starlings to our list. We even have a Nightingale singing right on the edge of town!
Down on the wide open steppes of Los Monegros, we stop by a grain silo supporting a colony of at least 11 White Stork's nests with over 20 of these large birds in residence. Aroundabouts there seem to be birds in every direction. The air is full of Swifts and Swallows, Marsh Harriers are out on patrol and a Black Kite floats by, while Bee-eaters are making aerial sorties from a nearby tree, Crested Larks are scurrying around the dry sandy ground and Corn Buntings are jangling from small bushes. Further south, another stop, this time in olive groves, is very productive. First of all, an incredible Great Spotted Cuckoo perches barely 25 yards away, and sits motionless as if hypnotised by our presence. This is a real star find. The size of a Magpie, which it often parasitises, it has an exotic combination of crest and long tail, yellowish throat and grey upperparts spotted white. As the bird continues to pose we eventually have to move on in search of other treasures. In no time at all we find a handsome male Black-eared Wheatear and Woodchat Shrike and notice a Hobby perching in a tree, whereupon a flash of cobalt and ultramarine blues alerts us to the presence of a Roller. Not bad for a short stroll. Nearby we spot a Little Owl perched on the wall of an old barn ruin and over a picnic lunch of bocadillos and vino tinto find a pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a second Great Spotted Cuckoo! Another short stop produces nice views of Stone Curlew, as expected for such dry terrain, but also elegant Black-winged Stilts with young, on a small wet patch. Further exploration yields our first of several Hoopoes and a brief encounter with a female Little Bustard, while chunky Calandra Larks with their diagnostic dark underwings are everywhere, singing Skylark style.
An unusually strong cool wind is not helpful to our search for the notoriously difficult Dupont's Lark. It sings like a pub sign swinging in the wind, frustratingly close by, but declining to show itself, even in such short vegetation. Meanwhile we have no problem with the dozens of singing Lesser Short-toed Larks, on top of Theklas and more Calandras. Spectacled Warblers pop up occasionally and a trio of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse make a brief fly past. After lunch in the local bar, a further search for Little Bustard is rewarded with fantastic low level views of a Golden Eagle slowly floating by on long fingered wings. Later that afternoon a slimline Montagu's Harrier demonstates its aerial skills at even closer range than the eagle, and a Short-toed Lark perches obligingly next to Lesser Short-toed for an ideal comparison of their differences. We finish the day with Orphean Warbler and Turtle Dove amongst the olive branches.
Leaving our hotel in the centre of the little old town of Alcaņiz, masses of House Martins and Swifts twitter and scream around the ornately decorated church facade and tower, while Spotless Starlings whistle loud and clear from the terracotta pan tiled rooves. We are now heading down to the Ebro delta. En route the rocky hillsides add more mediterranean flavour to our growing list with Sardinian Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear and Serin, while the powerful rich songs of Nightingales bellow from the orange orchards.
The delta is the source for a stream of new ticks, where the lagoons are splashed with the pink of graceful Greater Flamingoes and the white of mainly Little Egrets but also the odd Great White. The multitude of herons includes Grey, Purple, Squacco and Black-crowned Night Herons, with Cattle Egret on drier areas and secretive Little Bittern in the reeds, which we eventually get perfectly framed in the scope, for a marvellous view with its buff and black wings and bright orange dagger-like bill. Ducks are easy here with a few Gadwall, plenty of Mallard and even more Red-crested Pochard, with a very smart coiffed orange head and coral red beak. There are also plenty of waders, particularly Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Glossy Ibis and Kentish Plover plus a few Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit. Beside Coot and Moorhen, the Purple Gallinule is a giant, which stalks the shallows with long red toes and matching red bill and head plate. The speciality gulls are Yellow-legged, Slender-billed and Audouin's, which is globally rare but plentiful here. Ironically Mediterranean Gull is a local rarity and so not on our list. The fishing party also includes plenty of Common, Sandwich, Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns, with Little Tern fishing at La Tancada alongside the mighty Caspian, the largest in our region, with a substantial red bill. In a nearby patch of rough pasture we spot the blue-headed race of Yellow Wagtail and a trio of Cuckoos, perching on wires, calling and chasing each other with large juicy caterpillars. Tiny Fan-tailed Warblers are frantically performing circular undulating song flights with a repetitive "zip zip" note, and one kindly perches barely 10 yards in front of us for a grandstand view. Meanwhile, the croaking song of Great Reed Warbler, a king size version of our own Reed Warbler, but with a frog in its throat, resonates from the reedbeds, but does not come out to play till our final day. What a view. Our last day also produces cracking views of one of the stars of the trip, when we find a small colony of Collared Pratincoles. With long brown wings, a forked tail and agile flight for catching insects, they resemble a cross between a Swallow and an Arctic Skua. As we marvel at their graceful aerobatics and fine detail in the scope, we debate their merit for bird of the trip with worthy rivals like those beautiful Bee-eaters, the exotic Great Spotted Cuckoo and of course that unforgettable view of the simply magnificent Lammergeier.