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A Report from

The Pyrenees & N.E. Spain, 15/10/05 - 22/10/05,

J. Sykes & M. Palmer of Oliva Rama Tours

With D. Branagh, C. Byrne, J. Cramer, K. & V. Hudson, D. Lamb, J. Moon,  R. Swaine, B. Vickers

Great Bustard
Griffon Vulture
Wall Creeper

15th October :- We all met for the first time at the services just north of Oliva with five people in one vehicle and seven in the other, the sun was shining but the forecast looked ominous. Our first stop was at a small reserve just north of Valencia called Marjel de Moro (Moro Marsh) where we spent a couple of hours quickly adding species to the trip list. The highlights included Black necked Grebes, Shovelers, 2 Booted Eagles, Marsh Harriers, Purple Gallinules, Sand Martin, Kingfisher, Eurasian Reed Warbler, and Southern Grey Shrike. We had our picnic on the seafront whilst watching close Sandwich Terns, Cormorants, Yellow legged & Black headed Gulls pass by, a very pleasant start. Next we made our way north west towards Teruel and beyond to Monreal where we were going to spend our first night. This area of high plateau is very underwatched but contains a healthy population of Dupont's Lark and other steppe species. We had enough time to do a quick circuit of the area around Blancas but things seemed a little quiet with the pick of the birds being Common Buzzards, Little Owl, Thekla & Skylarks, Northern Wheatears, and Linnets. We returned to our hotel to enjoy a fine evening meal although it did reach farcical proportions when two different menus were brought out, making for a good ice-breaker.

16th October :- An early(ish) breakfast saw us packing the vehicles ready for the second part of our journey and as we were doing so a Red Kite flew by and a male Black Redstart showed across the road (an encouraging start). Malcolm & I had decided to follow the same route as the previous evening since it looked potentially very good, and as we left Blancas we found a small colony of Rock Sparrows, followed by our first Ravens of the trip. Out on the plains we stopped and walked out amongst the steppe seeing the all previous evening's species, but also flushing 7 Stone Curlews, with several Calandra Larks and a gorgeous Red Kite passed that above our heads about 20m up giving tremendous views. We continued and whilst driving managed to flush 2 Black bellied Sandgrouse from the edge of the track for all to see. Next we made our way to Gallacanta Lake in the hope of seeing a few over-wintering Common Cranes and as I approached I saw 5 of the elegant birds flying across the road. I stopped immediately and called to vehicle behind so we all got out and watch them pitch into a field containing another 600+. It was an amazing sight to watch them and one I won't quickly forget. Then Val asks "what's these here" so I go and look, only to greeted with 13 Great Bustards, these then flew (like WW2 bombers) across the road to join another party making 45 in total. The next hour was amazing watching these two sets of birds and in addition have a Hobby, Sparrowhawk, and Iberian Green Woodpecker fly through, plus a small party of Tree Sparrows to add to the list. Now it was time to strike north for Zaragoza and then the Pyrenees. Newly constructed roads around Zaragoza caused me to take a wrong fork (but not Malcolm) so by mobile we agreed I would pick up lunch and catch them up later. However to everyone's amusement we managed to skirt Zaragoza and ended up ahead of our compatriots, and having to wait for them around Huesca. The journey yielded our first Golden Eagle just north of Zaragoza as well as Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Common Buzzard and lots of Griffon Vultures. Our next site was the dam wall at Vadiello reputedly a Winter site for Wallcreeper but no joy, in fact apart from more Griffons, Rock Doves & Coal Tit, there wasn't much else to see. So we left and headed straight for our accommodation for the next four nights high up in the Hecho Valley. We arrived late afternoon still with some light left so we unpacked and convened in the garden hoping for something special before nightfall. We found Blackcap, Firecrest, Mistle Thrush, Crested Tit and Wren, then I saw a large shape appear over the ridge and called our first adult Lammergeyer, which was later joined by a second both showing very well with one sat on a high crag. This was setting the tone for the next three days.

Thekla Lark
Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

17th October :- Our first full day in the High Pyrenees saw us start at the Refugio de Gabardito a short journey up further up into the mountains where Wallcreeper breed. On the way up we saw a few Red Deer and in the car park we added a flock of 30+ Fieldfares, 20+ Siskin, Chaffinches, Black Redstarts and our first 2 Marsh Tits. We walked through the forest seeing Eurasian Treecreepers, Goldcrest, Jay, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Crested, Great, Coal & Blue Tits, Blackbirds, and a flock of Crossbills sat in the pines. We reached the rock face and waited for a while only seeing distant Griffon Vulture, Carrion Crow, Raven and Red-billed Chough. i then picked up our first (of at least 10) Lammergeyers of the day, which in turn brought from Chris "Is this a Golden Eagle?", which of course it was (a 1st year), and gave tremendous views. While watching this a couple of us then saw a large accipter, which was a Goshawk but unfortunately disappeared before everyone could get on to it. Unfortunately there was no sign of our quarry so we left not before adding Blue Rock Thrush and a Sparrowhawk. We returned to the car park and then found a female Brambling amongst the Chaffinches, Northern Wheatear, 2 more Lammergeyers, Iberian Green Woodpecker, another 100+ Crossbills flying over and our first Hawfinch. Also of interest was our only view of Chamois that were climbing around a far-off rock face. The next stop was the visually stunning Boca del Infierno another good site for Wallcreeper and this time we were in luck. This gorgeous enigmatic bird was found by Jim and Keith on the opposite rock face and most saw it before flitting off around the corner, so we waited and about 30 minutes later it appeared again only to fly off again before a couple of the party could get a decent view. We waited again but unfortunately it didn't return so we left and drove further up the Hecho Valley for lunch, where Dena found a Dipper in the stream both Long tailed Tits and a Nuthatch performed wonderfully in a tree near the picnic site. After lunch we drove to the top of the valley then continued on foot but the weather was starting to deteriorate slightly so we didn't go far. However we did find our first large flock of Alpine Choughs (100+) with a few Red billed for comparison on wing shape etc. other species here included Yellowhammer, Meadow Pipit, Serin and Dunnock. Back at the vehicles the rain had started in earnest so we made our way back down the valley stopping again at the river to find the same and another Dipper that everyone enjoyed. A quick stop at the 'Boca' was fruitless since the it was raining hard and the light was failing so we returned to the hotel for a well earned drink.

18th October :- The forecast was rain all day so the initial spirits were slightly low but a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the hotel garden was a nice start. Malcolm and I had a discussion on where to go and agreed Lumbiere would the best bet as it was lower down and there was a hide at the 'Vulture Feeding Station' and the 'Foz de Lumbiere' was a nice walk whatever the weather. We arrived at the feeding station and positioned ourselves in the hide and scanned the immediate area. A line of Griffon Vultures stood like sentries on the far hillside, and 2 Red Kites were found in the trees beyond, but it was in the ploughed fields below the hide where the attention was focused. all over the fields there were lots of Song Thrush, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Robins, Black Redstarts, and Corn Buntings. However on closer inspection we found a Rock Bunting, 4 Hawfinches, a male Brambling, Dunnocks, Northern Wheatear and Tree Sparrows mostly giving good scoped views. While we were watching the rain stopped and the vultures started to take off and fly around right in front of us as did a Common Buzzard. several Red Kites, Raven and 2 Sparrowhawks. Grudgingly we left and went on the short journey to the 'Foz de Lumbiere' a steep sided canyon that used to hold an old railway line that ran along side the river. At the car park we immediately found a few Cirl Buntings, Chiffchaff, Blackcap and a Southern Grey Shrike. The walk was gentle finding Griffon Vulture, Rock Dove, Red billed Chough & Raven on the canyon walls, and with Long tailed Tits, Sardinian Warbler, Grey Wagtail, Mallard and a Dipper along the river. A flock of Cormorants went over followed soon after by 100+ Common Cranes looking majestic in their formation. A Goshawk was found by Dave and briefly by several of the party with a Peregrine and a Marsh Harrier also seen disappearing out of sight over the crag. We returned to the vehicles as the rain had begun again seeing another Great Spotted Woodpecker, and picnic lunch was taken huddled under a hut's veranda. Bizarrely while we were eating Chris spied a chat on a nearby fence that turned out to be our only Common Redstart of the trip. Finally we made our way back to the 'Boca del Infierno' where we hoped to get another look at the Wallcreeper, when we arrived the rain had stopped again and we soon saw 2 Lammergeyers overhead as well as several Jays and Crag Martins. Then the Wallcreeper came into view and over the next 30 minutes showed fantastically well down to 10m below us allowing for some photography even in the dull light. Who would have believed we could have had such a good day with the predicted weather!.

19th October :- This was our last full day in the Pyrenees and thankfully the weather was a lot better than the day before, in fact by mid morning we were basking in warm sunshine. Today we were going over the tops into France to look for the locally scarce White backed Woodpecker in the wonderful Foret d'Isseaux. We made our way through the Uson and Roncal valleys being amazed by the fantastic scenery until we reached the 'Rincon de Bellagua' where we stopped to stretch our legs. The hillside held the ever-present Griffon Vultures and Red Kites, with 2 Hawfinches around the car park, a Black Woodpecker called briefly but didn't show, so we continued on our way. As we drove up the mountain it was obvious there had been an influx of Black Redstarts since nearly every boulder held one of these lovely little birds, and a stop near the summit also produced very good views of Alpine Chough and a Pyrenean Rock Lizard. At the top we stopped to look for Citril Finch but to no avail but there was a steady passage of birds going over the mountain. Small flocks of Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch & Meadow Pipits made their way south, and a short walk produced 3 Dunnocks, several Mistle Thrushes and a Grey Partridge. We continued on our way to the forest where Malcolm showed us where the elusive woodpecker had bred in previous years, so decided to have lunch and wait. Over the next 3 hours we heard and saw a White backed Woodpecker as did it's feeding circuit, with on 3 or 4 of us getting anything like a decent view, which was slightly disappointing. However we did also manage to add 6 Bullfinch to the trip list as well as a Eurasian Treecreeper, several Nuthatches, Crested Tits, Jay and Sparrowhawk. We left and returned to Spain stopping above the 'Rincon de Bellagua' in the hope of a Black Woodpecker but unfortunately not, Ray did however manage to find our only Water Pipit of the tour amongst the Meadow Pipits and 2 Marsh Tits. We continued on and took the road to Uson stopping in another likely area, and this time we were rewarded. Firstly we had good views of an adult Lammergeyer and then Brian found 2 gorgeous male Ring Ouzels amongst the other thrushes, then we heard a familiar call. Next Dave and I saw a Black Woodpecker flying across the clearing, and another call made me spin round to see a second bird bounding towards us. I shouted and everyone got fantastic views of Europe's largest woodpecker as it passed by us showing it's all black plumage with vivid crimson crown, certainly one of the highlight's of the trip. Elated we moved on making a final stop along the Rio Vercal to watch more Lammergeyers we could now identify them without binoculars, as well as a Dipper in the stream.

20th October :- An early walk produced a male Bullfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Goldcrests, Crested & Coal Tits, then after breakfast we packed up the vehicles and said our good byes to the owners of this fine hotel, an establishment I will certainly be using on future trips. Today we were heading for the Belchite Plains and hopefully a whole new set of specialist species, but on the way south we managed to stop off at the 'Mallos de Riglos' to give everyone a chance to photograph these impressive rocks. In stead of heading straight for Belchite I thought we might try the area around 'Embalse de Sotonera' which reputedly holds Common Crane in Winter as well as other steppe species. Unfortunately this wasn't to be as the reservoir was very low and a couple of speculative stops only produced Rock Sparrows, Common Buzzard, Eurasian Kestrel, Red legged Partridge, Little Owl, Crested & Calandra Larks. Whilst skirting Zaragoza Chris saw 2 White Storks from the van, which sadly only 1 or 2 others managed to see, and a small party of Common Cranes were also seen flying over. We pressed on to Belchite and as we approached El Planeron Reserve we saw a female Hen Harrier flying at the side of the road, we continued, arriving at the view point in time to unpack our picnic lunch. This area was pretty quiet apart from a currently unidentified sub-adult 'aquila' eagle, which caused much debate and controversy throughout the group, notes and sketches were taken and hopefully a correct identification will be found. We continued towards the reserve entrance stopping at the roadside to scan the fields and as we were about to move on Val said "what's this bird with the pretty back?". I quickly got on to it and the bird turned it's head to reveal the diagnostic down-curved bill of a Dupont's Lark not 10m away. Unfortunately the bird only stayed for a few seconds before flying off across the field and only allowing the people in my vehicle a chance of seeing it well. We relayed our find to the group in the other mini-bus much to their disappointment as they had been in the very same spot moments earlier. We then entered El Planeron reserve finding good flocks of Lesser Short toed & Calandra Larks as well as Northern Wheatears, Black Redstarts and Stonechats, with an unseasonal Black Kite, and a male Merlin adding to our growing raptor list. We decided to walk some of the tracks and in doing so we flushed 2 more Dupont's Larks, one of which was seen twice as it only flew a short distance but finding them on the ground proved fruitless as they performed miraculous disappearing acts from ten sets of eyes. Time was moving on and we had to console ourselves with the flight views of this enigmatic lark. As we left I stopped to give my passengers a good look at a Lesser Short toed Lark and in doing so John said "I've got some sandgrouse", which turned out to be a flock of 30+ Pin tailed Sandgrouse feeding on a ridge about 80m away. Unfortunately Malcolm had gone on in the other vehicle but a quick mobile phone conversation brought them back up the track, eventually giving everyone a good view. While we were there, as is often the case a Peregrine was found mobbing a Common Buzzard, and then a handsome male Hen Harrier drifted by looking fantastic in the evening sunlight. We left the Belchite area and headed east towards Gandesa where we were going to spend our penultimate night at the Hotel Pique.

21st October :- This was our last full day and after breakfast we drove the relatively short journey to Spain's second largest wetland, the Ebro Delta, where we checked in to the excellent Delta Hotel. We dropped our bags off and got back into the vehicles heading out to Bassa del Garxal, here the water levels were quite high but we did manage to find our first (of many) Great White Egret, as well as Booted Eagle, Marsh Harrier, 2 Bluethroats, Purple Gallinule, Coot, Mallard, Little Grebes and Reed Buntings. Next we drove around the paddy fields near the Bassa del Canal Vell, which held innumerable Little & Cattle Egrets, as well as plenty of Great White Egrets. We stopped at one flooded field where we saw our first waders, over the next hour we logged Common, Green, and Wood Sandpipers, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Northern Lapwing, Osprey, adult Black Tern, Audouin's, Black headed & Yellow legged Gulls and Tree Sparrows. Grudgingly we left to get some lunch deciding our next stop would be across the river starting at Bassa de la Tancada. From the watchpoint at Tancada we added several species with Great Crested Grebes, Wigeon, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal, Shoveler, & Red Crested Pochard all in good numbers. We then walked across the salt marsh to the beach seeing 6 Lesser Short toed Larks, Meadow Pipits, Grey Plover, 3 Little Stints, Dunlin and Sandwich Terns. A little further along we stopped at the southern end of Tancada where Malcolm found our target species Caspian Tern, and we got great views of 5 individuals stood on a sandy spit with Sandwich Terns. Also here was our only Slender billed Gull, 20+ Flamingos, another Osprey, Common & Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, and Wood Sandpipers. Our next stop at Bassa de l'Encanyissada was for Red knobbed Coot but unfortunately none were to be found skulking in the reeds, but we did manage to see Common Pochards, Kingfisher, Purple Gallinule, amongst the hordes of Common Coot and other wildfowl. We moved on, now going north to the tower watchpoint at Illa de Buda where we found our first 2 Squacco Herons, single Spoonbill, 30+ Black tailed Godwits, Common Snipe, Green Sandpipers, Cetti's Warbler and even more Purple Gallinules and Great White Egrets. With dusk we headed back to the ferry port and as we drove on to the boat a Night Heron was found sitting in a nearby dead tree, again ending a very good day.

22nd October :-  With the species list at 153 we hoped we might add a couple more in the last few hours of searching and we agreed that we should return the flooded field with the waders in. On arrival it was covered in dark birds, which turned out to be 180+ Glossy Ibis, with the quick addition of a Yellow Wagtail, and Lesser Black backed Gulls things were looking good, and a scan of the fields produced our first Ruff and 10+ Curlews of the trip. Again we spent an hour enjoying the spectacle of lots of waders, gulls, and wildfowl gathered together. Our next stop was at the coast where we found 5 Sanderling running along the beach and as we drove away Ray called to stop having found a juvenile Purple Heron partially hidden in the rice field, with a second shortly after. Just before it was time to head back south we had a stroll along side a reed bed and although we heard Penduline Tit we never managed to see one, and will have to wait until next time. We arrived back in Oliva by mid afternoon without any hold-ups or incidents, saying our final good byes to Malcolm's crew as they were continuing south to Alicante.

Full Trip list (pdf)

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