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SOUTHERN SPAIN AND MOROCCO - MARSH OWLS & MIGRATION - Thursday 12th - Tuesday 17th September 2013

Thursday 12th September
We met at a cool and damp Gatwick North Terminal for our flight down to Malaga which took off late, but with favourable tailwinds we arrived spot on time to warm and sunny conditions. After picking up our luggage, we met up with Jane who had travelled from California to join us and also Josele Saiz, our local guide for the tour.

Steve and Josele left the group to sort out the vehicles, whilst the rest of the group unpacked scopes and binoculars. A single PALLID SWIFT was noted from the airport grounds before the minibuses arrived.

We were soon on our way along the motorway towards Cadiz, noting COMMON BUZZARD and a few SPOTLESS STARLINGS flying overhead. After an hour or so we stopped at a motorway service station, where we were able to get a welcome drink to have with our lunch, which we enjoyed in the sunshine. Cicada's buzzed on the hillsides and COMMON WHITETHROAT fed in the top of a tree. A small party of RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS flitted around on the opposite side of the road before drifting off.

Carrying on our journey westwards, we started to see a few pale morph BOOTED EAGLE as well as some SHORT-TOED EAGLE soaring over the road and then the familiar shape of the rock of Gibraltar came into view. As we entered Algeciras, large numbers of birds were seen as we pulled off onto a track to get better views.

What a fantastic sight greeted us as we climbed out of the vans, with hundreds of both BOOTED and SHORT-TOED EAGLES wheeling around in both light and dark morphs and the well-marked plumage of SHORT-TOED EAGLES were a delight to see. Other species included SPARROWHAWK, COMMON KESTREL, BLACK KITE and EGYPTIAN VULTURE.

Carrying on westwards, a large dark vulture was seen on the right hand side of the road which was identified as a RUPPELL'S VULTURE but we couldn't stop anywhere! A short while later, we stopped at a raptor watchpoint close to Tarifa and once again we saw a great many birds! Up to 30 EGYPTIAN VULTURES drifted along the ridgeline and it was good to note a huge variation in plumages from full adults to juvenile birds. SHORT-TOED and BOOTED EAGLES also came through as did a flock of around 70 BLACK KITES and a few SPARROWHAWK.

With time getting on, a stop was made to enjoy some delicious ripe Melon which was thirst quenching and also gave us the chance to see over 70 BEE-EATERS as they wheeled around high above us. We then headed for the hotel, checked in and had a break for 30 minutes before heading out again. Several of the group wandered around the grounds noting CATTLE EGRET, GRIFFON VULTURE and best of all, three MONTAGU'S HARRIERS which had drifted out over the sea before coming back inland.

Our day was rounded off at a nearby lighthouse, where small numbers of YELLOW-LEGGED and LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL drifted past at eye level, but the stars of the show were several adult AUDOUIN'S GULLS that either sat on the rocks or drifted past. Flocks of SWALLOWS motored south with some SAND MARTIN amongst them and a scan out to sea produced a single CORY'S SHEARWATER and a few GANNETS.

With the wind quite strong and most of the group feeling a little tired, we wandered back down to the vehicles, where we had brief views of a couple of SARDINIAN WARBLERS as well as STONECHAT and BLACKBIRD.

On the journey back to the hotel, we watched a juvenile MARSH HARRIER hunting across grassy fields which were also frequented by small numbers of CATTLE EGRETS. STONECHATS were also seen perched along the fenceline. Once back at the hotel, we all enjoyed a cool shower, whilst one hardy member of the group went for a swim in the pool!

We met adjacent to the pool for a cool drink before completing the bird list and then enjoying a lovely evening meal of Gazpacho soup followed by Swordfish steaks and ice cream to finish.

Everyone went off to bed very happy with our first birding day and very much looked forward to the next.

Friday 13th September
Most of the group met just before sunrise for a walk along the beach which started with a mixed group of YELLOW-LEGGED and AUDOUIN'S GULLS and a couple of juvenile CRESTED LARKS feeding around the sun beds. SPOTLESS STARLINGS chattered from rooftops and as the sun rose, our first raptors in the form of two MONTAGU'S HARRIERS flew south.

Small numbers of SANDERLING and a single KENTISH PLOVER frequented the beautiful sandy beach but our watching of these was interrupted by the shout of ‘Swift’. Raising our bins, this bird had a neat square white rump and short tail, making it a LITTLE SWIFT, a good bird for southern Spain!

We then headed back for a hearty breakfast, which was rather good and would set us up for the day. Meeting at the vehicles, a couple of PALLID SWIFT flew over and then our attention was drawn higher to a large feeding group of ALPINE SWIFT which numbered around 70-100 individuals. Once our gear was on board, we began by journeying south, with a visit to the raptor watch-point in the hills above Tarifa.

As soon as we parked, large numbers of EGYPTIAN VULTURES drifted along the ridgeline, giving perfect views in the morning light. Our first HONEY BUZZARD of the tour motored through the valley, as did a few BLACK KITES and SHORT-TOED EAGLES. A superb flock off BLACK STORKS came in from the north and soared around, giving fantastic views, but with the wind still a brisk easterly, they failed to make the crossing and headed back northwards.

The sun soon made temperatures rise and this encouraged more raptors to move, including SPARROWHAWK and BOOTED EAGLES of pale, intermediate and dark morph plumages which was good to see. A HONEY BUZZARD perched on a bush allowing scope views and above it on the ridgeline sat a cracking SHORT-TOED EAGLE. Eventually the HONEY BUZZARD took off and flew towards us giving an even closer view, before flying south towards the Strait of Gibraltar.

With migration quietening, we changed location to a coastal site to the west of Algeciras, which was a good move as the air was literally full of BOOTED EAGLES. Some came in low over us as they attempted to migrate, but all turned round as the winds were still not favourable. The gardens produced GREENFINCH, SERIN and we heard both CETTI'S and SARDINIAN WARBLERS from the dense scrub.

With our stomachs gently rumbling, we headed off for lunch, which consisted of tuna, cheese and egg salad with side portions of chips, which thoroughly pleased a certain individual! Even from the restaurant, we could see BOOTED EAGLES drifting over. After lunch, a walk was made along the local river, which produced PIED FLYCATCHER flitting amongst the trees, as well as a juvenile KINGFISHER, perching on overhanging vegetation of the river bank and giving good scope views.

Crossing the river, we didn't get far when a MELODIOUS WARBLER was spotted high in the trees. This was only seen by a few, but we heard at least two MELODIOUS WARBLERS singing in nearby bushes, although these remained frustratingly elusive and didn't show. Several butterflies were seen, including SOUTHERN SPECKLED WOOD and TWO-TAILED PASHA which flitted over the treetops like a bird! Taking a different path in the opposite direction produced very little, the highlight being a superb specimen of CRIMSON SPECKLED moth.

In mid-afternoon we headed off to some coastal habitat, which although incredibly windy did enable us to see some waders, gulls and terns. The first bird we laid eyes on was a juvenile GREATER FLAMINGO that wandered around forlornly with a couple of BLACK-HEADED GULLS. The coastal inlet in front of us produced SANDWICH TERNS, SANDERLING, KENTISH and RINGED PLOVERS, DUNLIN, GREENSHANK, KNOT and a single BAR-TAILED GODWIT, whilst good numbers of AUDOUIN'S GULLS roosted. A few YELLOW WAGTAILS flew past, the wind kept them very low and hidden from view, an OSPREY sitting on a fence was much more ‘showy’ but every time he took off, he was blown back by the wind!

Our last site of the day was at the marshes around Barbate and these almost immediately produced an adult and juvenile CASPIAN TERN. These gave good scope views as they roosted with both YELLOW-LEGGED and LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLS. Good numbers of waders fed on the open mud and new birds included CORMORANT, GREY PLOVER, BLACK-WINGED STILT, WHIMBREL, CURLEW and COMMON SANDPIPER. Several OSPREYS frequented the site and one gave particularly good views as it carried a fish overhead. At least three MONTAGU'S HARRIERS hunted fields at the back of the marshes and were occasionally joined by a MARSH HARRIER.

With some time remaining, we drove along the bumpy track on the south side of the marshes and this gave us more GREATER FLAMINGO'S, along with two SPOONBILLS and on the fence-line and scrub we found two juvenile WOODCHAT SHRIKES, CORN BUNTING, CRESTED LARKS and a single TURTLE DOVE.

Returning to the hotel in good time, it was once again great to have a cool shower and relax before meeting by the pool to complete the bird list. Our evening meal was very good, with seafood cocktail to start, then for mains, lightly fried white fish with herby potatoes, followed by fruit for dessert.

During the night there were several heavy showers, but by morning these had largely passed.

Saturday 14th September
Today we were leaving Spain and heading to Morocco for a couple of nights. We had breakfast a little earlier and after loading up the vans, we stopped just outside town to check out the rocky crags. FAN-TAILED WARBLERS flitted amongst the vegetation and good numbers of STONECHAT were noted. A LITTLE OWL was seen perched on a distant rock and joined briefly by a lone TURTLE DOVE. Perseverance paid off when a male BLUE ROCK THRUSH appeared on the hillside and gave reasonable scope views as he sat on several prominent rocks. We then visited the rice fields and open fields of La Janda, which immediately produced FAN-TAILED WARBLERS, CORN BUNTINGS, STONECHAT and a WHITETHROAT in the scrub. A GREEN SANDPIPER frequented the drainage ditch and as we drove onto a raised embankment, the fields were full of around 100 WHITE STORKS which, when they took off made a magnificent sight.

As we drove back along the track, a BANDED GROUNDLING Dragonfly was seen perched, before being hit by a passing car, but hopefully it got away okay. A HOOPOE was spotted as it fed on a track in a weedy field. We then dropped in at the raptor watch-point and although it produced around 20 BEE-EATERS, 80 EGYPTIAN VULTURES as well as a single BLACK STORK, BOOTED EAGLE, GRIFFON VULTURE and HONEY BUZZARD there was much less movement of birds. Then we headed down towards Tarifa, where we made a brief supermarket stop before arriving at the ferry terminal in the harbour.

Once tickets and passport control were negotiated, we set off on our crossing through the Straits of Gibraltar. YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS followed us out of the harbour and once into more open waters, we spotted BALEARIC and CORY'S SHEARWATERS, as well as COMMON DOLPHIN and some amazing FLYING FISH! We soon arrived in the busy port of Tangier and met up with our driver Mohammed, who had driven us in Morocco in 2011.

As we headed out of the city, a kettle of around 100 HONEY BUZZARDS were seen over the high buildings before drifting southwards. The journey produced CATTLE EGRETS and as we stopped at traffic lights, a SOUTHERN SWALLOWTAIL was spotted feeding on flowers on the central reservation. JACKDAWS were numerous and a couple of LONG-LEGGED BUZZARDS perched on roadside vegetation.

We eventually reached our first stop, the amazing Lukos River and marsh. This wetland was alive with birds and we soon found good numbers of GLOSSY IBIS, BLACK-WINGED STILTS and LITTLE EGRETS on the first pools. Moving on to the next marsh, we spotted small numbers of COOT and amongst them was our prize of several RED-KNOBBED COOT! Waders found conditions ideal with GREEN, WOOD and CURLEW SANDPIPERS, RUFF, SNIPE, DUNLIN, BLACK-TAILED GODWITS and both RINGED and LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS. The marsh edges attracted GREAT WHITE EGRET and 5 SQUACCO HERONS.

The last marsh we checked out was even better with a large flock of feeding SPOONBILL in the shallows, as well as GREATER FLAMINGO, GLOSSY IBIS and LITTLE EGRETS, but the real highlight there was the discovery of around 23 MARBLED TEAL roosting at the back of a reed-fringed pool. Although not too close, you could see all the salient features of this scarce duck, with a female RED-CRESTED POCHARD close by for comparison. Good numbers of BLACK-WINGED STILT, RUFF and YELLOW WAGTAILS of several races were there also, including the nominate race FLAVA and both SPANISH and ASHY-HEADED. OSPREY and MARSH HARRIER were the most common raptor, whilst at least five LITTLE TERNS fished the shallows. Before getting into the van, we enjoyed another slice of ripe Melon which was very refreshing and juicy.

It was then time to head south to our hotel overlooking the coastal lagoon of Merja Zerga and after checking in, we spent a few minutes checking out the area and seeing GREAT CRESTED GREBE and up to 6 CASPIAN TERNS fishing in the low tide creeks. We reconvened for a walk down to the marsh as the light fell and after a stop at a cafe for Mint Tea we set up scopes over the marsh. At least 1000 CATTLE EGRETS flew over to roost in the Stone Pines bordering the lagoon and a LITTLE OWL was spotted close by. Despite scanning, we didn't see MARSH OWL or the breeding site, but it was an outside chance as they had bred here some time ago.

We enjoyed a good meal of Vegetable soup and salad to start followed by Lamb Tagine and then Melon and Grapes for dessert before completing the bird list after a great day of birding!

Sunday 15th September
We had a more relaxed morning with breakfast at 8am, although some of the group were out and about earlier than this and had found a few COMMON BULBULS in the hotel grounds.

After a good breakfast we were taken down to the harbour, where we met our boatmen for a trip on the Merja Zerga wetlands. A superb male MOROCCAN WHITE WAGTAIL perched on a boat showing his distinctive head pattern. This may be a potential full species in the future.

Setting off down the river we had excellent views of YELLOW-LEGGED and LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLS and the more open water held both BLACK-HEADED and good numbers of SLENDER-BILLED GULLS. Up to 6 CASPIAN TERNS roosted on the islands as we motored past and other terns included WHISKERED, BLACK, COMMON and SANDWICH, giving us a chance to compare the ID features of these similar species.

We stopped and disembarked on a small shingle island and from here we saw hordes of birds, including SPOONBILL, GREATER FLAMINGO, COOT, BLACK-TAILED GODWITS, GREENSHANK, 2 SPOTTED REDSHANK, TURNSTONE and at least five OSPREYS, including one that was attempting to catch its breakfast in front of us.

Our return journey produced brilliant views of the same selection of birds, as we birders are normally used to seeing terns and waders at some distance. Another stop gave us the chance to see a roosting flock of WHIMBREL and on the calm waters we found an adult MEDITERRANEAN GULL. As the tide rose, we headed to the mouth of the river and this produced a pair of KINGFISHERS flying and landing along the shoreline, beautiful in the sunlight.

We disembarked the boats and headed back up to the hotel for a lunch of Herring salad, chicken and chips which went down very well indeed! Whilst enjoying lunch, we saw PLAIN TIGER BUTTERFLY and a juvenile WOODCHAT SHRIKE nearby. Due to the heat of midday, we had a siesta until 3pm and then went out looking for migrants in the local area. As we started our walk, a juvenile SUBALPINE WARBLER flitted in a bush and though difficult to see at times it showed well on occasions. Up to 6 WHINCHAT perched on the fence-line and were seen with NORTHERN WHEATEAR and STONECHAT.

The hot weather encouraged insects out and about and these included SCARLET DARTER and RED-VEINED DARTER, while butterflies included GERANIUM BRONZE and HOLLY and LONG-TAILED BLUE. Continuing onwards, we found SPANISH YELLOW WAGTAILS, a SPANISH TERRAPIN and an adult female WOODCHAT SHRIKE perched on a distant bush.

Bird of the afternoon had to go to the adult BLACK-WINGED KITE that flew past us and could be seen hovering over the sedges bordering the salt marsh. Our walk took us through a Eucalyptus Forest which was pretty much devoid of life, except for a GREAT TIT and AFRICAN BLUE TIT which showed briefly in the trees above us.

It was then back to the hotel for a quick stop before picking up our guide Hassan and driving the slow road round the opposite side of the lake, hopefully for an appointment with some Marsh Owls. We drove past vast agricultural areas where the locals were growing Peanuts, Avocado, Strawberries, Green Beans and many more crops.

Taking a rough track off the main road, we parked up and walked in two groups along a track. A juvenile PEREGRINE flew through and was seen hunting over the marsh. We arrived at our destination and both Josele and Hassan said that there were very few trees left where the owls roost during four months of the year and things were not looking too good.

We persevered down a track where mosquitos were slightly annoying, but this didn't deter or worry us, because two MARSH OWLS suddenly came out of tamarisks and flew towards us! We had amazing views as they landed in bushes and one sat up quite well and looked at us. We managed to get our scopes on it and we could see its huge eyes and facial features which were very distinctive. All of a sudden, a BLACK-WINGED KITE came in and started mobbing the Marsh Owls and this also gave outstanding views.

Delighted by this, we were about to leave when a shout of amazement went up. We turned and were stunned to see 6 more MARSH OWLS flying, making a total of 8 in the air altogether, an absolutely magical experience. Marsh Owl is not an easy bird to see and to see eight was simply fantastic!

As we neared the van, two juvenile MONTAGU'S HARRIERS hunted the marsh before we got on board and drove slowly back to the hotel. Dinner was once again great with the usual soup and salad to start followed by Hake, Plaice, Calamari and chips and then Vanilla Yoghurt for pudding. After completing the bird list, we all agreed that it had been a cracking day with the owls being the icing on the cake!

Monday 16th September
We ate breakfast at 8am and once the van was loaded with our luggage, we drove to an area of Cork Oak woodland, where we located reasonable numbers of AFRICAN BLUE TIT, as well as two HOOPOE and a MOORISH TORTOISE that was crossing the path. A short time later we checked out a sandy area adjacent to the Lukos Marshes, where WHINCHAT, FAN-TAILED WARBLER, PIED FLYCATCHER and NIGHTINGALE were seen.

A walk along the edge of the marshes produced lots of GLOSSY IBIS, SPOONBILL, LITTLE EGRET and GREATER FLAMINGO as well as the more common waders such as RUFF, BLACK-WINGED STILT, GREENSHANK and RINGED PLOVER and a single SPOTTED REDSHANK. RED-KNOBBED COOTS frequented the shallows and a few PURPLE SWAMPHENS were seen along the reed edge. A scan through the Ibis yielded several colour-ringed birds that were either from Coto Donana or Ebro Delta. Amongst the roosting gulls, we watched the giant CASPIAN TERN alongside the diminutive LITTLE TERN and it was superb to see the size difference.

We left the area and headed northwards to Tangier, where we stopped for lunch before arriving at the ferry terminal with 30 minutes to spare before our crossing. There was a slight delay in loading the ferry but we were soon off, noting a small party of GANNET and SANDWICH TERN and MEDITTERANEAN GULL before reaching more open water.

Several COMMON DOLPHINS were seen and also the pattern of a whales tail on the water that may have been LONG-FINNED PILOT WHALE. Up to 6 CORY’S SHEARWATERS were seen including three together on the water that gave good views, despite the ferry moving rather fast. It wasn't long before we docked at Tarifa and were soon on our way towards a mirador overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar.

After a cold drink, we drove ten minutes or so to our new accommodation set in coastal woodland. Once all the rooms were sorted, we had a short break before meeting for a walk around the grounds. A PRAYING MANTIS was seen when it appeared on the shoulder of one of the group and although it was quite windy, we did manage to see several BLACKCAP and WILLOW WARBLER as well as BLUE TIT and CHAFFINCH.

After a shower, we met for a beer and completed the checklist before enjoying an evening meal of Mango Salad to start followed by Hake and vegetables and Water Melon to finish. We were about to leave when Pete spotted a nightjar on the road and on closer inspection, it was a superb RED-NECKED NIGHTJAR! Unfortunately, one of the hotel staff went too close to it and it flew off but it returned several times and we had the most amazing views and photos, a brilliant end to the day!

Tuesday 17th September
We met at 8am for a pre-breakfast walk around the accommodation, which although windy did produce fleeting glimpses of several SHORT-TOED TREECREEPER and a GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER with much better views of FIRECREST and a pair of CRESTED TITS, as they flitted amongst the scrub. Overhead, the early morning sun had encouraged a small number of GRIFFON VULTURES and scanning through them we could also see around 70 BLACK KITES, a single BLACK STORK, LONG-LEGGED BUZZARD and a small party of BEE-EATERS.

It was then back for breakfast before heading off to La Janda. The rice fields held good numbers of GLOSSY IBIS, WHITE STORKS and FAN-TAILED WARBLERS as well as the usual STONECHATS and CORN BUNTINGS on the fence-lines.

After a slow drive we stopped at a junction, where around 100 GLOSSY IBIS showed well in the shallows and then we had a lovely surprise when a juvenile COLLARED PRATINCOLE was spotted nearby! We were enjoying excellent views of this camouflaged wader as it stood on a nearby bank when an adult was also seen and then another juvenile flew in! We lapped up views of these great birds before being interrupted by a distant SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE which was circling high in the sky before drifting off.

We continued onwards reaching a high area overlooking the fields and from here we had good views of the juvenile SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE as it was mobbed by a COMMON BUZZARD and then both PHEASANT and RED-LEGGED PARTRIDGE were seen. Several more raptors were along the ridgeline and on driving closer, we could see they were juvenile BONELLI’S EAGLES. The views of these scarce raptors were outstanding and then the original two BONELLI’S EAGLES were joined by another two juvenile BONELLI’S EAGLES and all four started mobbing the juvenile SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE and then came the barking call of an adult SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE which came swooping in, sending the BONELLI’S off in different directions!

With time getting on, we drove to Algeciras where we stopped for a great three course meal of traditional Spanish dishes before Steve and Josele drove to the accommodation to pick up our bags. Nearby, a huge forest fire raged and helicopters and planes were seen dropping water on the flames, a sad sight indeed. We then headed off towards Malaga, where the temperature peaked at 36 degrees.

We said our goodbyes to Josele and to Jane, who was catching a flight from Madrid to Los Angeles the following day. After checking in our bags, we spent some free time in the airport before our flight back to the UK which landed on time, but as they couldn't find any steps to fit against the plane we had a slight delay! When the doors opened we were glad, but we were faced with rain and a temperature of 12 degrees, a difference of 24 degrees!

It was a fantastic tour with just so many highlights, good birds with spectacular scenery, good food and a really fun group!