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A Report from

Spanish Pyrenees 19th June – 23rd June 2009,

Tony Moverley & Tony Benton

Friday 19th June

We flew with BA from London City Airport to Barcelona for a 5 day, 4 night visit to the Spanish Pyrenees, staying at the Boletas Birdwatching Centre in the small village of Loporzano, on the edge of the Sierra de Guara (pre-Pyrenees) and just a few kilometres NE of Huesca.

We left El Prat airport at about 2pm and to break up the long 4/5 hour drive ahead of us, planned to visit a Lesser Kestrel colony c.8km west of Fraga (SW of Lleida) on the N11. After about 2 hours drive and with the car thermometer registering well in excess of 30 degrees, we found the substantial stone barn / house about 300m beyond the petrol station on the north side of the road together with upwards of 10 Lesser Kestrels wheeling around. Onto the next stop where we pulled in off the road for good views of three Golden Eagles soaring over the plains, together with some Griffon Vultures. We noted a Calandra Lark and our first positive ID of a Crested Lark before we headed off once again, picking up a male Montagu’s Harrier on the way.

We finally arrived at the Boletas at about 7pm and were welcomed by our hosts Josele Saiz and Esther Diago. After supper, Josele kindly gave us advice on how we might spend the next few days as productively as possible, given the rather late stage of the season.

Saturday 20th June

5am - dawn and the excited chattering of the Barn Swallows nesting in the courtyard, augmented by significant numbers of chirping House Sparrows, gave a good enough reason to get up for a pre-breakfast walk. Turning right out of the front door, we headed down the track to the nearby fields where Corn Buntings were numerous. Looking back to the village, the church tower provided quite a spectacle where the nesting pair of White Storks together with their 3 chicks appeared oblivious to the many Common Swifts which swarmed around. Back to the guesthouse for an 8am breakfast and we were away for our first day’s birding just after 9am.

Following the map kindly provided by Josele, we headed off through the village, across the main road and up the track which leads to the cemetery. Butterflies were everywhere and we soon got to grips with some of the commoner birds in the area; Spotless Starling, Bee-eater, Woodchat Shrike, Rock Sparrow, Greenfinch, Crested Lark, Linnet and Great-spotted Woodpecker. A confiding Tawny Pipit feeding a recently fledged bird contrasted with the fleeting glimpses we had of two Black Wheatears on the cemetery walls. Retracing our steps, we headed north a few hundred metres before turning left (west) down a footpath to a completely different habitat of rocky outcrops and scattered scrub. Several Blue Rock Thrush were seen and we thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of two male Golden Orioles mobbing a Black Kite; then the main prize – a male Rock Thrush revealed its presence higher up the slope with its song. The books claim Rock Thrush to be a shy bird and we can now concur. We climbed up the hillside a little way, hoping that the bird would return but the midday sun was now taking its toll and, after half an hour or so of waiting and hoping, we decided to return to the Boletas to eat our packed lunch in the somewhat cooler shade of the courtyard.

Josele reminded us of Black and Northern Wheatear on the rocky slopes below the nearby Castillo de Montearagon. Sure enough, as we pulled off the road just before it starts to climb up to the castle, we saw a Black Wheatear amongst the nearby boulders. We took our time viewing the bird from the roadside but decided not to venture onto the open slopes.

The prospect, however slim, of a Bonelli’s Eagle took us to a site about 8km north of Loporzano. While some visitors view the site from nearby Salto de Roldan (Roldan’s Leap) reached through the village of Sabayes, we were advised to set up watch close to San Julian de Banzo. We arrived to find several raptors including Griffons and Black Kites, clearly attracted to something edible close by. The view of the spectacular crags (which looked very much like a mini ‘Riglos’) was however distant and hazy but we waited patiently in the mid afternoon sun as temperatures reached the high 30s. After an hour or so, we decided enough was enough and finished off the day at the Vadiello dam. Having driven as far as we could, we parked and walked through the tunnel to the top of the dam wall for fine views over the crystal clear water and the towering crags. Josele had told us that a pair of Lammergeiers had recently lost their chick at a nest up one of the canyons feeding into the reservoir. We ambled over the wall and up the track a little way, craning our necks to admire many Griffon and two Egyptian Vultures, but Lammergeier eluded us. At 7pm, a shower and cold beer beckoned us away to end an excellent first day.

Sunday 21st June

Our day in the high Pyrenees - After a pre-breakfast walk up to the cemetery where we added a calling Quail to the list, we set off in good time and high spirits for the upper reaches of the Hecho valley, stopping briefly in the delightful village of Hecho to stretch our legs. A Black Redstart was spotted flitting around the rooftops as 2 Red Kites soared overhead. We drove further up the valley, straight to the famous Gabardito refuge site in hope of Wallcreeper in full knowledge that a pair had a nest there so hopes were high as we pulled into in the big car park just above the refuge. We took the track to the right of the refuge and climbed up through woodland, mindful not to be distracted by the numerous ‘crest’ and tit calls around us. A Crested Tit made a brief appearance and a Short-toed Eagle flew past us close to the path. Crossbill, Citril Finch and Black Woodpecker were all possible but we pressed on to the main event and the crag appeared on our right after about 20 minutes. It was by now about 1pm and Josele had told us to go a few yards beyond the normal viewing area to gain a better view of the inside of the obvious chimney. Another birdwatcher was already in place, had seen nothing and was cheered by our optimism and knowledge of where best to look. After an hour or so of watching Crag Martins reeling around the crag, one of us decided to follow-up the news from a passer-by that a ‘red and blue bird with a white spot on its back’ was showing well further up the track. After a 5 minutes walk, the path forked and the right hand track was chosen. After another 15 to 20 minutes of fairly steep climbing, the path flattened out above the tree line into undulating alpine meadow punctuated with rocky outcrops. No sooner had a seat been taken and the scope erected, a male Rock Thrush appeared a few yards below and was joined briefly by a female. A Rock Bunting sang on a nearby rock and a Northern Wheatear, Black-eared Wheatear (white form) and Cirl Bunting were also seen. After 30 minutes, I retraced my steps with high hopes that my friend had finally got his views of Wallcreeper; sadly this was not to be and after his fruitless four hour vigil, we made our way back to the car. Unfortunately, we had no time to scan the open area next to the refuge for Citril Finch and Crossbill if we were to make it back to the Boletas in time for a our 8:30pm meal. Later that evening, Josele opined that the lack of Wallcreeper activity was most likely a result of the female sitting tight on a nest with the male away on long sorties.

Monday 22nd June

Today, the pre-breakfast walk around the cemetery area started at 6am and it was surprisingly cool before the sun rose above the distant hills. Two Egyptian Vultures drifted over and a Goshawk powered through a distant orchard while a Woodlark performed a song flight and a possible Orphean Warbler sang briefly from a nearby bush.
With the prospect of seeing Rock Thrush for a third consecutive day, we decided to walk Josele’s local patch again but this time concentrating on warblers and with the aim of reaching the river Flumen where we could stroll through yet another type of habitat.

There was no doubt that the warblers were being more vocal than our first visit. We finally nailed an Orphean Warbler which sang well in deep cover and then was seen briefly. Further on down the track, two recently fledged Woodchat Shrikes provoked three Dartford and two Sardinian Warblers to break cover and mob the two young birds. As we descended into the rocky area, we picked up a distant male Rock Thrush on a bush on the skyline but as before, it disappeared quickly from view. Down at the river, we added Cirl Bunting, Stonechat and a Spotted Flycatcher and as we returned a Melodious Warbler flitted around the path giving fine views.

We decided to have another crack at seeing Bonelli’s Eagle again but by the time we arrived at about 2pm, it was very hot with little shade or bird activity. So we decided to cut our losses there and then and moved onto to the vulture feeding station at Santa Cilia, more in hope than expectation. A Turtle Dove flew up from the road as we entered the village. We were treated to the spectacle of upwards of 30 Griffon Vultures at close quarters, attracted by two more nimble Egyptian Vultures which seemed to find some left-overs from a previous feed. However, we did not succeed at seeing Lammergeier, With just a couple of hours of the day left, we decide to have a last look at the Vadiello dam. This time, we walked further along the track (with the possibility of hearing Black Woodpecker from the forest) and after about 1km from the dam wall, found a Two-tailed Pasha floating from tree to tree; a truly magnificent butterfly and a ‘lifer’ for both of us.

Much later that evening as we sat on the rooftop area in the Boletas’ courtyard, a Scops Owl called loudly from the pine tree barely 15 feet away from us. Josele came out with a spotlight but we could not find it. After we returned to the rooftop, a ‘branch’ we had earlier dismissed suddenly moved and we realised that we had missed an opportunity of seeing this incredibly elusive but noisy bird. As we congratulated ourselves on a fine trip, we were treated to a brief view as the bird flew away.

Tuesday 23rd June

Our pre-breakfast walk up to the cemetery was enjoyable but uneventful and we were packed and away by just after 9am for the long drive back to Barcelona airport. Josele had told us of a site to see Short-toed and Calandra Lark and another that would possibly yield Rollers. The latter was too big a prize to squander through lack of time so we decide to head straight there. We were not disappointed. We turned off the road and had travelled barely 100 metres before we spotted our first Roller flying low and quickly out of view. A few yards further on and a small pond on the right hand side of the track gave us Little Egret and Purple Heron with a Tree Sparrow on the nearby wires. Marsh Harriers and Common Kestrels sparred with each other over the tractors mowing the wide expanse of lush green grass. After about 1km, we took the right hand fork and drove slowly along as several Rollers alighted on the wires and fed young in the boxes which adorned the telegraph poles - a truly superb spectacle. After about 2km from the road, we arrived at a large open area of water. Here were Greylag Geese, Great-crested and Little Grebe and a very vocal Cetti’s Warbler and Nightingale.

With the Roller mission accomplished, we continued to drive along the tracks in hope of emerging somewhere we would recognise, and, by some shallow pools near one of the numerous pig farms which seem to litter the Spanish countryside, picked up a Black-headed Gull, several Black-winged Stilts, a Green Sandpiper and a Hobby. The track finally became metalled and we soon found ourselves back on the map. We decided we had enough time for a quick re-visit to the Lesser Kestrel colony west of Fraga before the 2 hour drive back to Barcelona for our evening BA flight home to London Gatwick.

A great trip and many thanks to Josele for his invaluable advice and information.


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