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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
The Magnificent Marshside Seven do Espana,
Highlights of a magnificent trip to a wonderful country with amazing birds, stunning scenery and excellent companionship. Featuring the shoot-out at Sepulveda with "Dupont's Diablo Bird"
John Bannon (El drivero mucho rapido y bossio)
John Dempsey (El bricko, el journalistica cynicala)
Neil Hunt (El sensibilo y muchos sympatetica )
Simon Jackson (El sharpeyei quien amore los parakeeticos )
Barry McCarthy (El padrone quien snoro e farto magnifico)
Colin Richardson (El donde esta colina arabica?)
Paul Thomason (El belchio quien spotico il pacquero diablo)
Thursday April 11
Collected at respective abodes by taxi and deposited at Liverpool John Lennon International three hours before our EasyJet midday flight to Madrid Barajas, where we arrived spot on time, at 4pm. Hired brand new ( not for long ) seven-seater Renault Espace, and set off for Laguna de Miguel Esteban about 100k south of Madrid, in La Mancha province of Don Quixote and windmills fame.
Our first excitement was the sight of five superb male Montagu's Harriers quartering roadside cereal fields on our way south. We were temporarily dismayed, when in pouring rain we found the road to the laguna was officially closed. Undaunted, we dodged steamrollers and bulldozers and duly had superb views of displaying White-headed Ducks and Black-necked Grebes, whilst El Bricko had our first Roller of the trip.
The rain became heavier and we all grew several inches as the soles of our boots became magnets for the glutinous red clay thereabouts. As we reached the van,El Bricko picked up a flight of fourteen Pin-tailed Sandgrouse in the distance, and other excellent sightings included flocks of Iberian Yellow Wagtails, Red-Crested Pochard, Stone Curlews, Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns, displaying Lapwings and several wader species, including Kentish and RingedPlovers. The only downside was the pathetic sight of a starving abandoned bitch and her two pups cowering in a hide.
As the light was fading rapidly, we set off westwards
towards our overnight stop at the*** Hotel Perales in
Friday April 12
The Embalse soon offered up its gifts of the desired Purple Swamphens and Purple Herons, and as we watched a male Penduline Tit attending his wonderfully constructed nest not three metres away, we began to realise that the mother goddess of fortune had chosen our particular odyssey on which to shower her favours.
We retraced our steps towards the other steppes in the Calera y Chozas area and were guided towards Great and displaying Little Bustards aplenty, topped off with three Black-winged Kites, three Great Spotted Cuckoos, Lesser Kestrels, Montagu's Harriers, Hen Harriers and Black-eared Wheatear.
With the notable exception of a Shoveler, that was not on the predicted farm pool, the prophesies given in the great chronicle of Muddeman were coming true, and as the weather cleared we stopped at some excellent dehesa just north of Orepesa immediately coming upon our first Bee-eaters, Hobby and Short-toed Eagle.
Continuing on to Almaraz, we followed the beautiful valley into the hills, seeing the first of many Azure-winged Magpies and followed the road to the dam on the Rio Tajo at Valdecanos, for a most productive hour's birding.After some searching we found the elusive Black Wheatear and we all had superb views of several Rock Buntings.
El Belchio inquired as to whether anyone had seen his binoculars and a rapid reversal to the dam did not find them on the wall as anticipated. All was well however, as they were soon discovered nestling into the much appreciated roof-rack.
Returning through Almaraz we headed northwards, crossing an excellent wetland area of the Embalse Arracampo Almaraz, where some of us a had good views of a flushed Little Bittern and we all saw a very close migrant Osprey, being seen off by a local Black Kite.
We pulled in for a well-earned late breakfast of toasted cheese and ham bocadillo to reflect upon our good fortune so far and to re-gird our respective loins. We had not yet reached Extremadura proper, but had already scored well, perhaps too well, surely lady luck would desert us at the most critical moment.
Most of us had had several lifers already, and we had not really expected to clean up on almost all the hard to find specialities of the Spanish plains in just 24 hours. This good fortune enabled us to adapt our route later to include more species of the high sierras.
By late afternoon we were approaching the world famous Parque Natural de Monfrague and we were all extremely excited by the possibilities. As we crossed the park boundary at Portilla del Tietar, the first Black Storks of the tripplus Black, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, were seen to be nesting on the cliffs opposite, and always to be appreciated Red- rumped Swallows were much in evidence over the river.
We pulled in by a small viewing area, where a very friendly French couple had already set up their scope on the riverine cliffs opposite. We stupidly assumed from their RSPBish demeanour, that they were probably watching big obvious stuff like Storks and Vultures. but as our amazing luck would have it, we engaged them in social discourse anyway.
Imagine then our total amazement, shock and eventual euphoria, when the best French lady in the universe asked me " voulez-vous voirez le bubo bubo in mon telescopier ?"
Seconds later, as the translation sank in, we were all
fighting like enraged baboons to look through her 'scope at a gynormous mega-stonkin
Eurasian Eagle Owl, as it sat in its daytime roost in full view,
not 200 metres away. Would you fancy being a bird or a small mammal exposed
to the baleful glare of those all-seeing orange eyes, prior to having your life's
breath squeezed out of you by its huge talons of
Several of us had to be brought around by a liberal application of smelling salts, but barely had we recovered when overhead flew a putative 'aguila imperial iberica' with overall very dark undersides and a long unspread tail. The one that got away, but maybe not.. the way the force was looking after us, the devil bird itself was now a possibility.
We decided to find suitable lodgings for the night, and suitably sated and elated, we wended our happy way through the stunning scenery of Monfrague, stopping at Penafalcon to admire huge numbers of mostly Griffon but also Black and Eygptian Vultures,Red and Black Kites, Booted Eagles and yet more Black Storks.
On the road out of Monfrague we stopped at the Arroya de la Vidi to look for Orphean Warbler, when we were hailed by In Focus Bernie from Martin Mere. He was staying in Torrejon, but also with the travelling puppeteers of the "little green theatre," aka a Bedford bus, which resided in the car-park below the Santuario y Castillo de Monfrague.
We reflected on what fun times the performers must have, manipulating their 'joints' and 'hand-puppets' by means of complicated, but ultimately satisfying wrist movements.
Arriving at Torejon El Rubio, we settled in for the night at the 'Alojamientos' Junto al Parque Natural de Monfrague, complete with yet more beer and 'pollo muchos frigido'. Bernie crossed the bridge to join us from his lodgings on the south bank.
Saturday April 13
Up and out very early on a brilliantly fine Iberian dawn, for yet more equally fine birding. Our first stop was alongside some excellent dehesa on the road westwards towards Monroy, where we had definitive views of singing Thekla Larks plus Woodlarks, Cirl Buntings, calling Cuckoo and surprisingly a pair of Kingfishers.
After some 20 k we turned off left towards
El Sensibilo magnificently picked up on the calls of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and soon we were all watching a pair on the ground and later in flight.This superb area also gave us calling and seen Great Spotted Cuckoo and Black-eared Wheatear.
We happily meandered down to the historic town of
The Tourist Office was quite rightly plundered for posters,
maps and brochures. Revenge we decided, for the plundering of
Later that day, we would discuss in considerable but alcohol affected detail, quite how to scale the towering 100 foot statue of said proud Senor Pizarro, sat upon his donkey.
Suitably refreshed, we decided to have a go for Spanish Imperial Eagle in the beautiful valley of the Rio Almonte, as recommended to us by a German tour leader, but no luck. Our best chance was probably at the well-known Mirador de la Bascula nest site in Monfrague, so once more we headed for Torrejon el Rubio. Noticing a sign for aquila imperial iberica, we pulled in at the entrance.no eagles but great views of our first Rock Sparrow.
Passing a Spanish birder with a Zeiss scope at the roadside, suggested that here was a man who might know something. He didn't, but just after we pulled in at the mirador, so did he. Within a few minutes he had us all focused on a solitary tree on a distant ridge, just as a Spanish Imperial Eagle landed upon it..brilliant tick but crap views. It started to rain even heavier, so we gave him a pack of peach-flavoured 'Smints' as his reward and beat a hasty retreat to Torrejon.
We again turned west on to the CC-912 in torrential
rain; our eventual destination was to be just south of
At another mirador we pulled over to scan the valley and hillsides, and as the weather cleared, we picked up our first magnificent Alpine Swifts, whilst our resident plant and reptile experts went off 'rooting about' as they called it. Before long various geckos and two smooth snakes had been unearthed, although I'm still not sure if holding up one of the snakes by the tail was such a good idea. A Roman coin dug up at this site, was later revealed to be an un-elaborate hoax.
The CC-912 is a very fast road, with very little opportunity to stop, so as soon as we reached 167 kms per hr, several electric-blue Rollers on roadside power lines, we were fortunate to come upon a convenient track to pull into. Luck was with us once more, as several singing sylvia warblers turned out to be our first, brilliant male Spectacled Warblers.
By now it was late afternoon and as we drove south to
Although we didn't find any Waxbills at the bridge, we
did witness the Guardia Civil blocking the road, so we headed south on the N-630
to take a minor road across to
The magnificent towering statue of Pizarro,the hammer of the Incas, was once again assessed for scaleability, but wisely we decided to forgo the attempt on this particular occasion and retired to our beds.except for the usual suspects, who sought out more beer.
In 1531, Pizarro, his two brothers, 180 extremenos and 37 horses, crossed the Andes and absolutely battered the Inca emperor Atahualpa and his army of 30,000 girl's blouses, obviously armed with nothing more than balsa-wood swords and blunt turnips.
Other local hard cases, from Caceres, Trujillo and Merida, and including Cortes, Orellano and De Soto boldly went where no conquistador had gone before and discovered not only the Amazon, but also the Pacific Ocean, Florida and the Mississippi, bringing back thousands of tons of gold, diamonds, emeralds and hundreds of slaves in the process.
Many conquistadors, including Pizarro, took local women as concubines and wives, so many of the inhabitants of the sleepy peaceful Trujillo we see today, are living genetic proof of their dramatic South American adventures, and the subsequent slaughter and eventual destruction of both the Inca and Aztec nations.
Sunday April 14th
The weather had cleared overnight and we were up and packing the van at 6.30 am. I must have been suffering from blindness, as I left two fingers of my right hand in the huge and heavy rear door and slammed it shut. Thanks to the weird and wonderful French design of the Renault Espace, it took us four hours to work out how to switch on the radio for example, my fingers were not amputated just badly bruised...allah akhbar !!!
For the first time, another driver, El Colina Arabica
was in charge, as we drove for the last time, through the
We drove through the cherry orchards of the beautiful
As the trees thinned out higher up the valley I was lucky enough to get onto a calling a Green Woodpecker of the distinctive Iberian race sharpei and we all witnessed a pair of Booted Eagles displaying and calling noisily. Above the tree-line, Dartford Warblers and Woodlarks were everywhere, bur the hoped for Bluethroats and Ortolans had not yet arrived.
However, yapping garrulous family parties of homo sapiens ibericus and their assorted dogs, had managed to find the car-park at the Puerto de Honduras summit, and there was even a very convenient and very loud bell for them to ring, which of course is exactly what they did.continuously.
We beat a hasty retreat back down the road to the Jerte valley, stopping off for another excellent coffee and ice-cream as the sun was now 'cracking the flags'. The road climbed to the pass at Puerto de Tornevacos, which at 1275m is where Extremadura province becomes the high plateau of Castilla y Leon. Tornevacos means literally 'the point where the cattle turn back' and on these exposed windswept moorlands, with very little grazing you can see why that should be so.
Once more a calling Green Woodpecker led us on a merry dance, but we did have singing Skylarks anddecentviews of Subalpine and Dartford Warblers. It soon became obvious that, apart from odd Swallows, there was very little migrant activity, so we travelled on towards El Barco, where we turned south again to re-cross the Sierra de Gredos and the chance of other high alpine species.
The narrow twisting road brought us to the swish **** Parador Nacional de Gredos, just beyond Navarredonda, a reliable site the Muddeman 'bible' states for Citril Finch " at the left hand side of the car-park, next to the kid's playground." We followed the great man's words to the letter and perhaps should not have been too surprised to pull up alongside three superb Citril Finches, feeding on the edge of the car-park, not six feet away.
We were astounded, as this was one of our key target birds and a lifer for most of us, found with ridiculous ease. Thanks to El Colina Arabico, who alerted us all to them before they were flushed by yet more noisy locals.
Scouring the Scots pine woodlands below the parador for further views only turned up mixed flocks of our first Coal Tits, Goldcrests and Crested Tits. A yaffling' Green Woodpecker exposed our continuing inability to see our colourfully noisy, yet apparently invisible tormentor.
Regaining the N-502 from Talevera de la Reina to Avila, we pressed on to join the Autopista del Noroeste at Villagastin and headed southeast towards Madrid.We left the motorway at an extremely confusing junction at Collado-Villalba, somehow finding the road to Pedriza de Manzanares and our overnight stop at the * Hostal El Tranco, forever known as Bernard's, due to the owner's more than passing resemblance to everyone's favourite fascist/racist, belly-up 'funnyman' from the scums of Manchester.
Bernard, aka Manolo, his wife and his very scary dad with the Darth Vader voicebox, looked after us very well. A table was reserved for us right in front of the telly as many cervecas were imbibed and splendid food was consumed. Unfortunately, Bernard's team Real Madrid were thrashed 3-1 live on the telly, by those Galician 'bastarderos' from Osasuna.. . or at least I think that's what Daddarth said.
Previously, despite being severely birded out, several of us found Dippers, of the nominate form "cinclus, on the raging torrents of the Rio Manzanares, which was just across the road from our hostal. My apologies to El Bricko, who quite rightly insisted they were Black-bellied Dippers and confirmed in BWP as " occurs widely in the Sierra de Guadarrama." Which is exactly where we were.
Monday April 15
Not being able to sleep I walked into Manzanares at
As we packed up to leave a superb female Firecrest appeared outside of our bedroom window, exactly as it had done the previous year for el hombres, Belchio, Padrone and Sharpeyei, the original pathfinders for this year's expedition.
We reached the Navecerrada pass to find deep snow and freezing temperatures, but intrepid as ever we carried on to the winter ski-resort of Valcotos. Citril Finches were everywhere and a stunning 'citron' male sang from telegraph wires, just before I was about to squeeze him into a gin and tonic. A singing Hedge Accentor in a nearby pine, was the cause of the now infamous ' that's not an Alpine'cum damaged Nikon scope/ unprovoked personal assault incident', but the less said about that, the better.
We theorised that any real Alpine Accentor worth its salt, would be around the as yet undiscovered ski-lift, which the map showed was slightly higher up into the snow at Valdesqui, where we arrived a few minutes later. The huge car park had Northern Wheatears, Dunnocks, Black Redstarts, a fabulous summer-plumaged Water Pipit and hordes of 20-something female skiers.but no other objects of desire.
No doubt, hundreds of them were feeding on scraps from the tables of the mid-piste restaurant, which was unfortunately inaccessible to us as 'peatones'. The 'ski-lift ticket booth supervisor from hell' told us that it was 'non posible' without skis, ski-boards, etc., and he did not take seriously our suggestion of tea-trays, as a viable alternative.
Suitably rejected we made our way from Rascafria, over the Puerto de la Morcuera, still hoping for AAs, but instead we were treated to excellent views of Crested Tits and El Belchio's secret supply ot Tartan shortbread biscuits, which were used as unsuccessful bait. However,we were indeed 'fortunate' to witness the annual "Fiera de Snowplowio y Carretera Grindio Competitio," which as we had come to expect, was very noisily taking place near the summit car-park, as we listened for the low plaintive calls of an AA.
Tasty omelette bocadillos were consumed in Guadalix, before heading down to the very low Embalse de El-Vellon, where our only Spoonbill of the trip was seen. Scorching north along the NI, the Autovia del Norte, soon brought us to the turn-off on the C-112 to Villaseca and our 'high-noon' date with destiny and the dreaded "paquero diablo"
By mid afternoon we were bumping along the sandy track from Villaseca to the 'Ermita de San Frutos', our stomachs churning, not because of the road surface but in dreaded anticipation of what was to come. The previous year, three of our magnificent seven had been well and truly destroyed in a duel with the 'diablo', which had cruelly tormented them for ten hours, until one by one their minds,bodies and spirits had been broken. Only one had managed a brief glimpse, which only made the other tortured souls even more dispirited.
We decide on a more pragmatic approach to the problem and spent the first 40 minutes overlooking the tremendous grand canyon of the Duraton gorge spread out before us. Parties of Choughs, displaying Peregrines and vultures galore, helped to calm our nerves as we prepared for the showdown in the bad-lands that awaited us.
We trudged off towards our potential nemesis, after all Dupont's Lark was the main reason for the trip in the first place. Supplications were offered to any god that might be listening and I seriously considered the ritual sacrifice of my troublesome telescope, in return for decent views of the devil bird, by offering to hurl it over the precipice into the river many miles below us........... but the omens looked very bad.
Not only were we not seeing the bird, but we weren't hearing it either. On the previous trip our compadres had heard Dupont's constantly in the area we were scanning. El Drivero y El Belchio decided to walk ahead for about 250 metres and after some initial hesitancy had a Diablo singing quite close to the road. We signalled to our other crew members and within five minutes we were all listening intently to his haunting "weeee.weeeio" song. Actually seeing 'el diablo' was another matter of course, but by standing on a roadside rock, El Belchio managed to surprise him out in the open.
To the eternal thanks of his friends for life, we all had repeated good views of the apparently well behaved and obviously much maligned Dupont's Lark. What was allthe fuss about? But disaster, our leader El Padrone, couldn't see what we all enthusing about.
In a final cruel twist of fate, El Diablo had somehow blinded him; had made his hands shake uncontrollably; had chilled him to the bone..surely this wasn't happening. We rallied round, found him gloves, targeted El Diablo, reminded him it wasn't a bird at all, but a rat-like creature that scurried from bush to bush, and sure enough, after what seemed like an eternity, he sighed with enormous relief...he was actually watching El Diablo.
After the intensity of that afternoon, everything else was an anticlimax. Tawny Pipit was added to the list, even though it was disguised as a Yellow Pipit, and we made our way to the Hostal Sepulveda. Many cervecas was consumed at Fat Bob's, aka Antolin Poza Garcia and his El Senorio restaurant. A local peasant head-butted the floor, a waitress dressed like a man chased away the town dog, a motorcyclist asked for cigarillos, El Bricko found yet another late bar in another dimension...but did we care, did we bollocks.
Tuesday April 16
Our last day started late at
Cuckoo and Scop's Owl had been calling at dawn from the river valley below as we packed up our gear for the last time and set off for the Yellow Pipit site, where Lesser Short Toed Larks had been seen the previous year.We had good views of at least four different Spectacled Warblers, but no larks apart from Skylark and Crested.
We headed southbound towards
As we still had three hours before check-in at Madrid Barajas, we made yet another fortuitous decision to scour the Jarama valley for migrants in the warm sunshine. A line of mature trees and bushes lining a small stream looked quite promising, and almost immediately birds began to appear everywhere.
Bonelli's, Sedge, Willow and Melodious Warblers, Blackcaps and Tree Pipits were grilled, whilst Bee-eaters "kruipped' overhead and lazy-winged Montagu's Harriers quartered the nearby fields.
We all had good views of Green Woodpecker sharpei at last, as a very vocal pair were nesting in birches across the field, and our good fortune continued as we discovered a series of gravel workings and freshwater pools further down the sandy track. Splitting up to work the area more thoroughly,produced a superb male Redstart, Bluethroat, Red-throated Pipit and Rock Thrush, with more striking Penduline Tits giving their Reed Bunting-like calls from the reeds.
A hugely noisy tractor was our cue to reluctantly climb aboard the van for the last time and set off for the airport. We debated the merits of cleaning our home for the last 5 days, but decided not to, as it would cost at least 6 Euros, and no doubt Hertz would do it anyway.
A fitting end to five action-packed memorable birding days, in which we recorded 175 species, experienced the real Spain beyond the Duero, endured freezing temperatures, torrential rain and scorcio, but enjoyed every single minute of it..Pyrenees please next year ?
BIRDS OF THE TRIP.... AS DECIDED BY A FREE AND DEMOCRATIC VOTE
El Drivero Calandra
El Bricko Black-bellied Sandgrouse
El Sensibilo Eurasian Eagle Owl
El Sharpeyei Penduline Tit
El Padrone Eurasian Eagle Owl
El Colina Arabica Black Stork
El Belchio Little Bustard
Thus Eurasian Eagle Owl wins with two votes, with everything else in joint second place.
It will be noted, that nobody voted for the Devil Bird.
Heartfelt thanks to the superbly accurate "Chronicles of Muddeman," aka
" A Birdwatching Guide to Extremadura" by John Muddeman, Arlequin Press,( £ 9.95 ) without which we would not have seen as much as we did.
John Bannon ( El Drivero ) 1st day of May 2002