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A Report from

Egrets…we’ve had a few, Central and Southern Spain 2nd May to 10th May 2005,


Lee Nixon, Gavin Armitt, Dave Owens


Sunshine, paella and birds, birds, birds. What more could you ask? Well, wine that didn’t taste like vinegar, I guess, and hoteliers who were a little less like Juan Cleese. Overall though, in spite of some initial reservations, this trip got a big thumbs up from us all.

Travel and Accommodation

We flew from Manchester into Madrid (via Frankfurt!), picked up a rental car and worked our way down to Donana, via Monfrague and various other sites. We then headed across to Tarefa, before returning to Madrid, once more via Monfrague. A Spanish friend had rung ahead and booked some accommodation for us, but for some of the nights we just took a chance that we would find somewhere.

We flew with Lufthansa, who were offering the cheapest flights when we booked and rented from Europcar who have an office in Madrid Airport – though not an especially well organised one!


Where to Watch Birds in North and Eastern Spain - Helm
Where to Watch Birds in Southern Spain - Helm
Where to Watch Birds in Europe and Russia - Princeton


We had a number of target species, including Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black-shouldered Kite, Black Wheatear, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Great Bustard and hoped to connect with a dozen or so other species that would be new to at least one of us.

In retrospect, we probably expected more people to speak English than actually did. None of us had more than two or three words of Spanish and, because we thought of this as something of a one-off trip, we didn’t bother putting in too much effort. Thus, communication was largely based on guesswork and sign language. Sometimes this was fun (when it wasn’t important). Other times it was frustrating (when important things like beer and food were at stake).

None of us knew what to expect in terms of the landscape, as we hadn’t visited this region of Spain before. We knew there were some mountains and some plains, but really the only thing we were “sure” about was that the Cote Donana, being a famous wetland area, would look something like the Carmargue…


2nd May

The three of us arranged to meet at Manchester Airport at midmorning, which already presented me with difficulties as I discovered the night before that it is impossible to get a taxi in Winsford before 7am. This meant I couldn’t catch the train I wanted to catch and ended up lugging all my gear half a mile to a bus stop, then taking a sequence of buses, trains and, eventually a taxi to get me there. Oh, and it was throwing it down with rain. Spain was beginning to look better and better, albeit not much closer.

And it was still no closer when we arrived in Frankfurt. In fact, by my calculation, we were further away. And it seemed it would remain that way when the Lufthansa desk informed us there was a problem with our “e-tickets”.

However, after much un-Germanic inefficiency, things were sorted out and we made our connecting flight, arriving in Madrid around 7pm local time.

We picked up the car after a lengthy wait made more bearable by a number of entertaining rows between customers and Europcar and customers and customers. I nearly joined in when I inadvertently jumped the queue!

Anyway, after a moment of panic when I realised just how different a left hand drive car is, we were away. We followed the directions given to us by one of the friendlier Europcar staff and headed out of Madrid and along the E90 towards Oropesa.

We had no accommodation booked for the first night and decided we would rough it in the car, but we did need to eat so we pulled into a roadside services. After a struggle with the translation of the menu, we ordered, well…something… and waited for it to be delivered. In the meantime, a waitress picked up our phrase book and happened to look at the section on how to complain in a Spanish restaurant. This caused much hilarity among the staff as they read out some of the things that visitors were advised to say!

Shortly after, we found out what we had ordered. Bacon and peas seems and odd combination to me, but hey, when in Rome…

We drove on until we found a reasonably quiet spot on the CM5150, north of Oropesa, and cracked open a couple of beers before leaning back and enjoying the night sky to the accompanying chorus of marsh frogs. The first thing I noticed was how low the Pole Star was (this was the furthest south I had ever been). Then, while looking for new southerly constellations, we started spotting meteors – dozens of them – quite spectacular.

3rd May

In the early hours, Dave and I got out of the car. Neither of us could sleep. The noise from inside the car confirmed that Gavin could. Tired though we were, we couldn’t help being impressed with the glorious clarity of the Milky Way that ran almost overhead and stretched from horizon to horizon. A Tawny Owl called. Gavin snored. We waited for it to get light.

When it did, we found we had parked opposite a small pond that accounted for the frog chorus. In short order, we bagged Stone Curlew, White Stork, Night Heron, Corn Bunting, Black Kite, Cuckoo, Woodlark, Common Buzzard and Crested Lark and heard Quail calling in the fairly vegetation-free field next to the road. In spite of our efforts to flush the latter, we never even had a glimpse.

We headed north towards the Sol and, in a few miles, in the vicinity of a few buildings and trees, we got Azure-winged Magpie (which would prove pretty common from this point on) and good views of Red-rumped Swallows, as well as Nightingale, Golden Oriole and Spotted Fly.

Further still to the north, in the vicinity of a bridge over a river, we saw Hoopoe, Bee-eaters, Southern Grey Shrike, Booted Eagle, Sardinian Warbler, Turtle Dove, Cetti’s Warbler, Spotless Starling, Iberian Yellow Wagtail and Subalpine Warbler.

North to the 501 and west for a few miles, then we turned south again – this time on the CM5102. Near this turning we got Great Spotted Cuckoo – a lifer for me. A bit further on, we parked near an ornate gate on the left of the road and walked up the short track opposite that led to a farm and which delivered great views of Calandra Lark and Thekla Lark, mixed with Cresteds, which allowed good comparison of song and plumage.

Further south, we added Short-toed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Lesser Kestrel, Long-tailed tit and Fan-tailed Warbler.

We drove to Placencia and booked into an hotel before heading up the 630 and crossing the Sierra de Candelari on terrifyingly narrow mountain roads. At the summit of the pass, we got Rock Bunting, Ortolan Bunting, Griffon Vulture, Black Kite, Lesser Kestrel and Rock Thrush – and I was able to change my underpants before continuing down the other side of the pass and joining the 110 which led back to Placencia.

The last tick for the day - and a lifer for me - was Pallid Swift over the town.

The hotel was not great. The food was mediocre and the wine was like vinegar, but we slept well, having consumed copious amounts of cheap Brandy made, I think, by Ronseal. I say this because it does exactly what it says on a tin of Nitromorse.

4th May

In the morning, we stopped by the river in the middle of Placencia and got great views of Golden Oriole and Lesser Kestrels, the latter flying around the old building that dominates the town. There were White Storks everywhere, along with Pallid Swifts, 2 Alpine Swifts, Black Kites, 2 Griffons and a singing male Serin.

We headed south on the EX208 – a good road, which produced Short-toed Treecreeper, Spanish Sparrow, Woodchat Shrike, Crested Lark, Black Kite, Woodlark, Cuckoo and Hoopoe. Further on, at the entrance to Monfrague National Park, we got Blue Rock Thrush, Melodious Warbler, Black Stork, Griffons, Egyptian Vulture, Red-rumped Swallows, Subalpine Warbler and a marvellous Spanish Imperial Eagle, which flew in and sat in a tree on the top of the ridge. This was a cracking area.

However, we had to move on. At the visitor centre at Villareal de San Carlos, we had a coffee and partook of the pleasures of an old-fashioned euro-loo. No wonder they all seem to have such firm thighs.

We retraced our steps for a kilometre or so, north of the visitor centre, to where a good quality road strikes eastwards, passing through some good upland meadow and giving good views of the crags on the southern shore of the reservoir, before dropping down to and crossing a causeway and winding up on the other side.

As the road levels out, it passes a small white building. Now, if a building can be described according to its popular function, rather than what it is intended or equipped for, then this building is a toilet. We were certainly not the first to treat it as such.

We bagged a Short-toed Eagle on top of a pylon and moved on, ignorant at this point of the fact that this building is in sight of a Spanish Imperial Eagle nest!

Eventually, the road descends once more and runs along the right bank of the Tietar Reservior. A check of the crags on the opposite shore produced nesting Black Stork. Before long, the road draws level with a large crag on the opposite shore. This is the Mirador Pontilla del Tietar (there is a sign and marked viewpoint).

Here we had Black Vulture, nesting Griffons and Egyption Vulture (in a cave), Lesser Kestrel, Short-toed Eagle and Bonnelli’s Eagle, which landed on the crag! It is apparently a regular visitor in the afternoon at this site. We were also put onto an Eagle Owl chick, which I don’t think we would ever have found on our own.

We had more Black Stork (up to 10), Nightingale, Cetti’s, Subalpine Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush and Red-rumped Swallows, before we retraced our steps to and past the visitor centre at Villareal, to the Castillo de Monfrague, which affords fantastic views over the surrounding country. We drove as far as we could up a reasonable track and walked the rest of the way up to the viewpoint.

We got great views of Griffon, Egyption and Black Vultures, Black Kites, Booted Eagle, Lesser Kestrels, Alpine Swift and Crag Martin, as often as not viewing them from above! We also got superb views of a Blue Rock Thrush, at just the right distance and angle to the sun to see how thoroughly it deserves its name.

Remarkably, Gavin managed to spot Black Wheatears on the opposite crag, at a distance of more than half a mile. At first glance, they could have been more Blue Rock Thrush, but as they took to the air in display flight, their white rear-ends showed clearly. Not the best way to see a lifer – but better than nothing!

Eventually, we dragged ourselves away and, after looking at sunbathing Crag Martins on a low roof at the side of the path, we were off, heading along the EX390 towards Monroy. En-route we got Hoopoe, Azure-winged Magpie, Short-toed Eagle and Black Kite.

Shortly before the turning for Monroy itself, the road crosses a barely noticeable ridge, topped by large Stone Pines full of White Stork nests. We parked and walked down the track that runs north from the pines and before long got our first sighting of Black-shouldered Kite – a marvellous bird! We were treated to great views as a pair hovered and hawked around a probable nest site.

From the same track, we saw Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Hoopoe and more Azure-winged Magpies and I managed to photograph mating Great Spotted Cuckoos!

We took the EX630 towards Caceras and picked up Montagu’s Harrier, Red Kite, Cattle Egrets, Roller and Hoopoe. We arrived in Zafra and booked into our accommodation for the night.

5th May

The day dawned cool and cloudy, but we wasted no time heading out of Zafra on the EX101 to the southwest. A few brief stops on this road produced Hoopoe, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Crested Lark, Sardinian Warbler, Red-backed Shrike, Serin and Spotless Starling.

Turning left onto the EX202 towards Fuente de Cantos, we added Short-toed Lark, Calandra Lark, Montagu’s Harrier, Black Kite and possible distant Goshawk.

We continued northeast on the EX202 to Bienvenida, where we attempted to take a track westwards. Finding it was rather a problem and I’m fairly convinced the one we eventually got onto wasn’t even marked on the map (which is saying something in a part of the world where slug-trails have road numbers and are marked on the map like motorways).

Still, it was our first experience of covering distance on dirt roads and it would stand us in good stead. The track passed through some cultivated olive groves before breaking into more open plain. In spite of the fact that it was now raining heavily, we showed willing and stopped to scan the surrounding skyline. Dave said, “Guess what I’ve found boys.” Three Great Bustards – all males! Granted they didn’t do much, the lazy Bustards. In fact I don’t think they moved at all, but they were still impressive. As if that wasn’t enough, we found a Little Bustard from the same spot.

Further along the track, we picked up a female Montagu’s Harrier, Short-toed Lark, Fan-tailed Warbler and, as the track began its return to civilisation, a Little Owl sitting by a messy tip and a Hoopoe on a post next to the road.

Then we said goodbye to the hills and Plains and headed south. After the vast mileage of our previous trip to the Arctic, it was a delight to be able to meander half the length of the country without any particular hurry. By late afternoon, we had arrived in Donana and, more particularly in the cowboy town of El Rocio.

Much has been written about this place and none of it prepared me for our arrival. I can safely say it is the strangest place I have ever visited (and I’ve been to the Three Tuns in Hay-on-Wye). Sand dune streets, Spaghetti Western architecture, horse drawn carts – everything you could wish for in a surreal dream.

We drove carefully around the dunes for some time before we found Hotel Christina, which was to be our home for the next three nights. I don’t know whether to recommend the Christina or not. The rooms were cheap and comfortable, the food was cheap and not too bad and the internal architecture, which conspires to be external architecture at the same time, is almost inspired – once you get past the dowdy restaurant and kitchen. But in spite of these positives, I have to say I’ve had a warmer welcome from a cloud of midges.

The hotelier is consistently brusque. He even demonstrated childlike pettiness. Yes – he is a character and no mistake. Actually, we warmed to him over time, charmed by the way he sat outside his hotel trying new mobile phone ring tones, and his hotel is wonderfully situated, scant metres away from the lake and wetland for which El Rocio is noted.

Moments after a swift beer, supped while watching a Booted Eagle over the town, we were set up on a platform overlooking the lake. In a few more moments, we notched more Booted Eagles, dozens of Whiskered Terns, Black Kite, Red-crested Pochard, Avocet, Black-winged Stilts, Curlew Sandpiper, Collared Pratincole, White Stork, Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Spoonbill, Flamingo, amongst a supporting cast. Not bad, this place. Very weird, but not bad at all.

We headed towards the coast, stopped off at Acebuche (which we decided to pronounce Ace Bush), where we got loads of Azure-winged Magpies, Golden Oriole, Booted Eagle, Woodchat Shrike and possible Spectacled Warbler.

We were rather surprised by the lack of water. Remember, we thought it would be like the Carmargue, but pools were few and far between. Rather, Stone Pine and sandy tracks were the order of the day. Once we got over our surprise we were fine, but I am embarrassed to say our initial reaction to the area in general was one of disappointment! We were wrong and we are very, very sorry for the injustice.

We continued on to the coast, hoping for a beach and a seawatch and proceeded to waste the best part of a lifetime ensnared by a one-way system that consistently denied access to the sea. When we did eventually gain limited access, there was nothing to see except Yellow-legged Gulls.

We headed back north and this time stopped at La Rocina on the outskirts of El Rocio. This is a pleasant enough reserve, although not crawling with birds. By the way, the main reserve is just inside the entrance. Only a fool would continue along the road for miles and miles only to find themselves at the palace. But it is kinda pretty.

Anyway, back in the reserve, we got good views of Savi’s Warbler and four Purple Gallinule – a lifer for all of us. Ah bliss! Little did we realise that these ungainly brats are pests of plague proportions. Like a monstrous inbred, dressed in a purple velvet suit and a comic relief nose and crashing around the undergrowth like an avian cave troll, this surely is a bird that should be locked in the attic and never mentioned in polite conversation.

We also got Great Reed Warbler and more Azure-winged Magpies before returning to the delights of the Christina, where we ate and sat outside long into the night, drinking beer and watching lizards.

Our host was chilled enough to point out the Pest Control van parked outside. When we asked if it was there for the lizards, he got quite indignant, making it quite clear, through expansive sign language that the problem was mice (or rats) – not lizards.

When I nipped through the restaurant to fetch something from our room, I was disconcerted to see a man in a facemask spraying an unknown substance into the many nooks and crannies of the kitchen. Either he was incidentally spraying insect pests, or we had misread Basil Fawlty’s sign language and the problem was really fist-sized cockroaches.

It may have been this that caused us to make alternative dinner plans for the following night. My Spanish was not up to a conversation along the lines of “Waiter, what is this rat doing in my paella?” “I don’t know sir. It supposed to be in your main course,” etc.

6th May

When it eventually got light (and it seemed to take a long time – maybe it’s the mismatch between longitude and time zone, or maybe it’s because it was so cloudy), we did a quick watch at the lake, getting much the same as the day before, but adding Green Sandpiper and Little Stint.

We then set out for Del Rey and the northern marshes. Most guides recommend heading north from El Rocio (signposted Villamanrique), then take the first turn east. However, we took the next turning where, according to an English photographer we met, we would find Black-eared Wheatear.

Sure enough, shortly after leaving the main road, we turned left down a minor track by some greenhouses and bagged a lovely black-throated male. Returning to the main track, we continued eastwards and quickly bagged a pale-throated individual along with Little Ringed Plover and Yellow Wagtail.

Further east and the track crosses a river. Here we got Cetti’s and Great Reed Warblers, Spanish Sparrow and Woodchat Shrike.

By now we had decided to continue along this track and come into Villamanrique from the north and our decision was rewarded by sightings of Melodious Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Golden Oriole, more Azure-winged Magpies and countless Bee-eaters.

Eventually, we arrived in Villamanrique and linked up with the directions in our guidebook and in a leaflet handed out to help people find their way. A leaflet may be available which does help you find your way, but it is not this leaflet.

Don’t get me wrong; the birding was fantastic along the many, many miles of track. We got Lesser Short-toed Lark, Short-toed Lark, Rock Sparrow, Pallid Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, Fan-tailed Warbler, Bee-eaters, Cattle Egret, Great White Egret, Purple Heron, Purple Swamp Hen, Black-winged Stilt, Black Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Black Tern, and Whiskered Tern.

And imagine for a moment that you are stood on an embankment in the autumn with 50 swifts zooming around you. Then replace the swifts with Collared Pratincoles!

Yes, this is a road and a half. But to mention only the birding is to tell only half the story. It would be neglectful not to mention the road itself. It is, in fact, not a road and a half. It is, in fact, not half a road.

Whoever had put the leaflet together was clearly having a laugh. Okay, so it is easier to pick out Lesser Short-toed Larks when you are only going at an average 5 miles an hour, but trying to cover tens of miles at this speed is a nightmare.

The nice lady at Europcar would have been crying in her café con leche if she could have seen us. The road looked like the aftermath of land mine clearances. It looked like the moon. In fact the moon would have been better. At least the reduced gravity would have lessened the severity of the drops into its craters.

Miles and miles. Hours and hours. We were even following signs for the visitor centre. How sadistic. It took nearly four hours to cover around twenty miles. When we arrived, I continued to swing from side to side, even though I had got out of the car.

Then…THEN…to hear two English birders say, “You came which way? We just followed a straight, good quality track that came out just up the road from here. No problem really.” I have a sneaking suspicion that the Spanish economy relies mainly on car repairs. In fact, I thought the logo on that leaflet looked suspiciously like Kwik-fit’s.

Now it says something if, after such an ordeal, I can actually say it was worth it. The Del Rey reserve had the densest population of birds of anywhere we visited. They were coming and going all the time. Here was our little bit of the Carmargue.

There were Night Heron, Glossy Ibis, Little Bittern, Purple Heron, Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Red-crested Pochard, Greater Flamingo, Purple Swamphen, Marsh Harrier, Great Reed Warblers, White Stork, Avocet, Black and Whiskered Tern, distant Griffon Vulture and there were Marbled Teal, but we missed them.

When we eventually tired of the spectacle, we set off back along the PROPER ROUTE. That is, we turned right out of the car park, not left. A few kilometres down the road, we came to a lake and, after a bit of a search, managed to pick a Crested Coot from amongst the dozens of Common Coots. There were also a couple of Slender-billed Gulls there.

Further on and the track rose to an embankment of sorts, on top of which was another track heading north-south (the straight, good quality track our friends had used). The junction overlooked a flooded area which was crawling with waders – Green Sandpiper, Little Stint, Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Spotted Redshank, Grey Plover, Dunlin all resting on the mud with a Gull-billed Tern.

We struck north towards Villamanrique and, although the track was covered in stones and chunks of mud, it was relatively easy going. Thankfully. On a brief stop, we got two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flying over.

The going got easier and in no time at all, we were back on good old tarmac and the road to Villamanrique. So why did we turn off it I ask? Well, it looked like a good road heading west – the direction we wanted – that’s why.

Needless to say, within a mile or so, the promising highway fizzled out at the entrance to a ploughed field. An unnecessary diversion, but one which gained us thirty Bee-eaters sunning themselves on the road and dozens of Azure-winged Magpies flying into the darkening wood to the south of the track.

Back to the tarmac with a commitment not to stray. We would wait until we saw a sign for El Rocio. We would turn at that sign. We would spend another half hour dodging foot-deep potholes and raised chunks of tarmac (yes, it was still predominantly tarmac). We would then emerge onto the proper road to El Rocio.

By the time I had the first beer of the evening in my hand, I was barely awake.

But beer is a wonderful thing and I was soon revived. We had decided to sample the posh restaurant across the dunes, 100m from the Christina. It was relatively expensive and not that brilliant, so we were particularly narked when Basil Fawlty at the Christina decided to take umbrage at our decision to eat elsewhere and refused to serve us beer on our return, even though the bar was clearly still open.

Dave retired and Gavin and I went in search of beer. Now, Spain is famous for coming alive at about 9.00 and staying that way until the early hours. It was about 10.30 and there were children singing and dancing in circles in the street, in the half-light, in a disturbingly Wicker Man sort of way. But of an open bar there was no sign.

Never mind! We were about to be cheered up by the ebullience and charm of a group of German birders. They were stood watching the back of the church where, they said, a Barn Owl was regularly seen. With expansive gestures and boundless enthusiasm, they told us of their earlier sighting of Red-necked Nightjar in La Rocina. When I say sighting, I mean “hearing”, because they hadn’t seen it.

Actually, when I say ebullient, charming, expansive and enthusiastic, I really mean “reticent”, “miserable”, “stiff”, and “totally bored” respectively. Sorry guys, but you really need to lighten up and start enjoying your birding, rather than acting like you’ve got one leg of your Slik stuck somewhere unpleasant. I would find it unpleasant anyway.

Well, we made a mental note of the Red-necked Nightjar story and bade our Teutonic friends goodnight, parting with warm hugs and hearty handshakes.

7th May

Next day dawned cool, but brighter and we went once more to the lake and got the usual suspects plus Avocet and Collared Pratincole, before setting off for the coast.

At Mazagon off the 494, we got several Audouin’s Gulls on the beach along with Little Tern, Sandwich Tern and Sanderling and a Sardinian Warbler in the nearby scrub.

We then continued to Lagunas de Palos y las Madras. Access is not all it might be to these lakes and pools, but we got several Purple Heron, Little Bittern, Great Reed Warbler, Pallid Swift and, of course, the ubiquitous Purple Swamp fiend.

We got another two Little Bittern on a lake near an industrial estate, east of Huelva (can’t put a name to it I’m afraid, but it wasn’t a pleasant place, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much), then continued around Huelva and onto its immense causeway which is like a huge Spurn. There was no sign of the Buff-breasted Sandpiper that had been there the day before, but we did get great views of a Caspian Tern, a total of 18 waders, along with our first definite Common Kestrel of the trip.

West of Huelva at Laguna El Portilla, we got our first (and only) White-headed and Ferruginous Duck with Little Bittern, Black Tern, Red-crested Pochard and loads of huge terrapins.

By now the weather had warmed up and we were soon on the move again – heading back towards Donana.

Having learned nothing from the previous day, we struck north off the 494 along a decent track leading into the western fringes of the National Park. From here, we took tracks that led roughly east, without really knowing whether they would let us pass through to El Rocio.

A promising track took us 5 miles in the desired direction, during which we got 5 Black-eared Wheatear, 3 Hoopoes, great view of Golden Oriole, several Woodchat Shrike, hundreds of Bee-eaters, Spotted Flycatcher and Short-toed Eagle. The road then ended in a pond. I’m sure Spanish road-builders set off in random directions, laying tarmac or compacting sand as they go, stopping whenever they meet an obstacle and going back and trying a different direction. Much as the drivers do that use their roads.

We backtracked and eventually got to El Rocio via Almonte, which had not been our plan.

I began to wonder if Spanish Airline Pilots ever had the same problem with runways. I could just imagine getting your jet to 400mph, then finding that the tarmac turned abruptly into a sheet of water or a volcanic crater.

We passed straight through El Rocio, with only a brief stop at Acebuche to attempt to photograph Azure-winged Magpie. Either they are able to dodge out of shot during the 1/500th second displacement of the camera’s mirror, or they are some kind of avian variation on the vampire and simply don’t show up on film.

But we saw plenty – and Hoopoe and Oriole and Booted Eagle – before we returned to El Rocio and once more graced the Christina Restaurant with our presence. We ate quite early, because we wanted to follow in the footsteps of our German friends and bag ourselves a Red-necked Nightjar.

It was still light when we parked up at Rocina. Dave and I were concerned about leaving the car inside the gates when the signs said it closed at 8pm (it was already past that, but you never know). Gavin didn’t care and we marched off into the gathering dusk.

Before long, we heard the rumble of a vehicle and could see lights on the road behind us. Not wishing to get thrown out by a warden and fail where the Germans had succeeded, we decided to hide. Which is pretty ridiculous, considering we had a combined age of around 120. Here we were, acting like kids in danger of being caught scrumping. Ridiculous…but fun.

And yet, as time wore on and it got darker, Dave and I grew more concerned that a) we were going to get into trouble with an armed Spanish warden and b) that the car would be locked in. Thus we began to dawdle in a sort of uncommitted way. Gavin didn’t care and off he strode.

When we saw the lights of another vehicle, Dave and I hid again and considered the possibility that Gavin was in handcuffs in the back of the car as it sped past. With silent agreement, we began walking back towards the car, stopping occasionally to listen for nightjars or wardens.

I heard something I didn’t recognise going Thwocker-Thwocker-Thwocker, but it was way off and the light was almost gone now. As we neared the car, we were distracted by another sound, very like a steam train and, hence, according to the book, very like a Red-necked Nightjar. With mounting excitement we surrounded the source, which turned out to be a lawn sprinkler.

It seems we had been defeated by our spineless obsession with obeying rules (it comes from being Civil Servants I suppose). Then Gavin loomed up out of the darkness and said, “Want to see a Red-necked Nightjar?” We hesitated at the thought of walking back into the now very dark and no doubt very closed park, but desperation for a tick overcame our nerves enough to say yes.

 “Let’s get the car then” said Gavin, who is not a Civil Servant, “It’s not far”.

It seemed quite far as I demonstrated remarkable bravery by driving with headlights on where, moments before, I had been hiding in the scrub. But it wasn’t too far in truth. We stopped and got out next to the tree in which Gavin had seen the bird. Nothing stirred. Dave and I began to make noises about going now.

“Listen”, said Gavin, exasperated, “I didn’t hide when he drove past last time. He must have seen me and he didn’t give a toss! Just give it a minute!” But it didn’t take that long. Almost as he finished speaking, the most mechanical, yet unearthly sound began to emanate from the tree. “Thocker-Thwocker-Thwocker-Thw…”

Gavin had been looking through his binoculars, so had seen the bird fly in, so he told us where to look and walked forward to flush the bird – and there it was! A big, beautiful Red-necked Nightjar swooping off into the night. Great! Superb! Brilliant! BUT CAN WE GO NOW?

With no more ado, we drove back to the entrance, found it open of course (next day Gavin would point out to us the way the vegetation had clearly been twining itself around the open gate for years) and within minutes we were back at the Christina enjoying a celebratory beer. And so pleased was Basil that we had eaten in that night that he even brought more beer out to us! All’s well that end’s well. But Dave and I really should lighten up and begin enjoying our birding more…now where’s that tripod leg gone?

8th May

This was to be our last morning at El Rocio. After much debate, we had agreed to head east and south to Tarefa. Before we did though, we gave the El Rocio lake a last going over.

I decided to do a proper count this morning and the tally was quite impressive and probably represents only half of what was actually there:

Grey Heron                       55+
Spoonbill                          51+
Greater Flamingo               272+
Red-crested Pochard          5
Ringed Plover                    28+
Black-winged Stilt              84+
Curlew Sandpiper               300+
Whiskered Tern                 109+

Then we were off, across to Seville, then south. It was amazing that every roadside pond, or even puddle, seemed to support a population of Black-winged Stilts!

At Los Palacios y Villafranca, we left the main road and headed for Brazo Del Este, a convenient and very impressive area of marsh. As usual, we found it impossible to stick to the directions in “Where to watch…” but it is easy enough to find your own way around the place.

It is a large area; don’t think you have seen it all when the first bit of marsh runs out. It’s fragmented and productive areas can be found in many places between the southern edge and the factory several kilometres to the north.

The place is crawling with Purple Swamphen and we got good numbers of Little Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Curlew Sandpiper and Great Reed Warbler.  We got eight Marbled Teal, 4 Gull-billed Tern, Night Herons, several groups of between 10 and 50 Collared Pratincole and great views of a hoopoe on a post – along with a supporting cast of commoner species.

Our circular tour brought us back to the town and we rejoined the main road and headed south once more.

When we got to the outskirts of Tarefa, we booked into the superb Hostal El Levante – 3 sharing for 42 Euros and the standard was excellent. We got Short-toed Eagle, Montague’s Harrier, Spotless Starling and Calandra Lark from the terrace outside our apartment!

We headed for the nearby beach and there was Africa! I was surprised how mountainous it was and how close it appeared as a result. We got Yellow-legged Gull and Sanderling on the beach before we moved on to Tarefa itself and on into the hills on the east side of town. Stopping among the wind turbines above the Medina Café, we got a few Honey Buzzards, Sardinian Warbler, Stonechat, Nightingale and linnet.

Raptor movement was not all it might be, so we headed back down to Tarefa beach and got a number of Corey’s Shearwaters, 2 skua sp, Kentish Plover and Sanderling.

We finished up in El Levante’s restaurant and enjoyed a decent supper and the first pints of beer we had seen all trip. Dave and I topped it off with more cheap Brandy and the world dissolved into a pleasant soft-focus.

I mused on the importance of a Spanish phrasebook if you don’t speak the language. Hardly anyone speaks English in the rural parts and unfortunately I was frequently undone by a combination of a lack of preparation and a tendency to speak French as a knee-jerk reaction when taken by surprise.

Thus, I would march up to a counter as the last memories of what I had just read in the phrasebook faded from my grasp, point at what I wanted, hold up three fingers and say, “Sil vous plait”.

But the hotelier at El Levante had it right. In broken English he said, “You know cerveza and habitacion. It is suficiente.”

“Oui,” I said.

9th May

Next day, we started on the beach again and got more Corey’s and Balearic Shearwaters, Little Terns and thousands of migrating Swifts, including occasional Pallids.

A few more Corey’s from Tarefa harbour, then it was up to La Medina again. Raptor migration was a little better, with 43+ Honey Buzzards, 16 Black Kites, 2 Sparrowhawks, 1 Kestrel, a few Griffon Vultures (likely to be resident), Booted Eagle and Short-toed Eagle – all in about 2 hours.

We chased up and down the coast, trying to pick up the best line, but the birds seemed to be coming through on a broad front, with little to focus them, so the turbine forest seemed as good a place as any and was where we spent most of the time.

But enough was enough; we had a long drive north ahead of us and we wanted to stop at Bolonia where, we had been told, White-rumped Swifts were already in.

Sure enough, where the public road out of Bolonia up to the crags becomes a military road, we found a pair of the beauties – possibly different from the ones that had been reported to us, as they had been seen near the military mast – a good way off.

This was a good area that also produced Pallid Swift, Black-eared Wheatear, Spotted Fly, Woodchat Shrike, Griffon Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Red-rumped Swallow. The latter was no surprise given that White-rumped Swifts nest in old Red-rumped’s nests (which is to say the old nests of Red-rumped Swallows, not nests of old Red-rumped…). We also got Blue Rock Thrush, Lesser Kestrel and Sardinian Warbler.

A very long drive later and we were on the look out for habitacion. We wanted to get back to Torrejon on the outskirts of Monfrague but, when we were within 20 miles, a road closure diverted us about 40 miles out of the way. We flirted with the idea of staying in Jaraicejo – on arrival we saw 50 Little Egrets flying nearby – but the place was just too damn weird. The conversation with the hostelry barmaid went like this:

Dave: “Is the hostal open?”

Barmaid: “Will you be eating?”

Dave: “Perhaps.”

Barmaid: “Come back here at 9 o’clock.”

It sounded like either Dave, or the barmaid, was trying to make contact with a fellow spy. I have suspected Dave for some time and the barmaid seemed the more bemused of the two. If it was the barmaid though, I imagined her turning to her colleague as we walked out, saying “Tell M the meeting is set for 9 o’clock.” Imagine M’s disappointment when we didn’t show.

Instead, we persisted in trying to reach Torrejon. We eventually regained the road we had previously been diverted off. As we bumped and clattered our way along the remaining 17km into Torrejon, I wondered why a section of the road had been closed. It couldn’t really be worse than the stretch they had left open.

Anyway, we got there in the end and pretty quickly got booked into two fairly decently appointed rooms. It was the first time we’d had two rooms on the trip and I quickly bagged the single. No snoring for a change. At least until I fell asleep...

10th May

Our last day. We had positioned ourselves in Monfrague to make it easy to get to Madrid in time for an early morning flight. With only a shortish journey left, we could relax and reacquaint ourselves with this magic place.

The night before, an English birder (who had flown over for the weekend!) told us of a reliable site for Spanish Imperial Eagle – back up the boneshaker of a road we had come in on. We had yet to see a full male, so decided to give it a shot first thing.

Roughly 6km south of Torrejon, the road rises to a shallow ridge, where it passes a farm with a large pool next to it.

We set up scopes and scanned the wooded ridge to the west – over the farm. Within minutes, a full adult SIE flew in and perched in a tree. We had watched it for a while, distracted momentarily by two Golden Orioles flying along the ridge, when a second Eagle flew in. The white on the wings stood out beautifully in the sunlight. We took a few pictures before both birds took to the air and disappeared over the ridge.

5km west of Torrejon, we came across a SIE nest in a pylon. There were two adults in the vicinity and 1 chick on the nest. Also around were Red Kite, Black Kite, Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Common Buzzard, Honey Buzzard, Great Grey Shrike, Bee-eaters and Cirl Bunting. Not a bad spot, really.

Back at the Castella in Monfrague, we bagged two Bonelli’s Eagles, 2 Egyptian Vultures, loads of Griffons, Black Kite, Blue Rock Thrush, Black-eared Wheatear and Alpine Swift, then headed once more to the Mirador Portilla.

Here, we got 2 more Bonelli’s, Short-toed Eagle, Griffons, Egyptian Vulture and two Eagle Owl chicks – amazingly well camouflaged – Blue Rock Thrush, Cetti’s Warbler, Subalpine Warbler, Red-rumped Swallows, Crag Martins and Nightingale.

This place was, for me, the most phenomenal part of the trip – great birds, all close at hand, and wonderful scenery. But now we had to say goodbye and head back to Madrid. Just time to stop at one more place – a reservoir SW of Talavera. We were tired now and almost “birded out”, but we still managed to concentrate enough to bag Bittern, Penduline Tit, Tree Sparrow, Cetti’s and Savi’s Warbler, Golden Oriole, Bee-eater, Common Sand and Marsh Harrier.

Not a bad way to round off a fantastic trip. Better than, say, sleeping in the airport, which is actually how we rounded off the trip, but we were so exhausted it hardly mattered.

I’ll not bore you with a full systematic list, but here is a list of the quality birds


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