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SECRET SPAIN - BIRDING IN EXTREMADURA -
Friday 14th - Monday 17th March 2014

Friday 14th March
We drove through thick fog to get to Stansted Airport, but amazingly the skies were clear when we arrived. The newly opened security area was a great improvement and after some breakfast our flight took off just a few minutes behind schedule and we soon touched down in brilliant sunshine at Madrid Airport.

After getting our bags and sorting out the vehicle we were on our way south-westwards noting several RED KITE and COMMON BUZZARD on the outskirts of Madrid, as well as WOODPIGEON, MAGPIE and a few STARLINGS that were likely to be COMMON.

Once on the main route down to Extremadura we began picking out a few GRIFFON VULTURES and WHITE STORKS. We took a break for lunch at a service station and were greeted by the sight of a pair of SWALLOWS nesting under the roof of the building.

It was exciting overhead with raptors that included BLACK VULTURE, BLACK KITE and RED KITE. Several SERINS sang from the scrub and a fine GREAT SPOTTED CUCKOO gave a flyby as it was pursued by a MAGPIE.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at a large reservoir and as we drove along the road leading to the area it produced a WOODCHAT SHRIKE perched in a bush but unfortunately we couldn't stop. We drove along a track and before we had even got out we were treated to great views of a PURPLE SWAMPHEN as it clambered over the reeds.

Once out of the van there were birds all around us and at times, it was a job to know where to look! A KINGFISHER zoomed past down a reedy channel, perching briefly before disappearing and the nearby scrub held a small flock of SPANISH SPARROWS. In the surrounding fields were CRESTED LARK, FAN-TAILED WARBLER, CORN BUNTING, STONECHAT and on a nearby building we had views of a BLACK REDSTART.

Up to five PURPLE SWAMPHENS frequented the reeds and at last two black fluffy chicks could be seen alongside them. COMMON CHIFFCHAFF were incredibly numerous in the reeds as they took the opportunity to feed on the many insects present. At least two PURPLE HERONS frequented the reed-bed and GREY HERONS were seen in flight.

We took a walk to a different area and this yielded dividends, with Emma spotting a female LITTLE BITTERN in flight which promptly disappeared in the reeds. Luckily, Lawrence found a male LITTLE BITTERN in the reeds but nobody could get onto it! Liz then located the bird in the scope and we all enjoyed excellent views as it sat enjoying the afternoon sunshine.

Small numbers of SAWFLY ORCHID were seen in the grass and a few photographs were taken of this delightful flower. Whilst watching the LITTLE BITTERN, Annette found a few BEARDED TITS in the reeds and then Steve found two male PENDULINE TITS feeding on reedmace.

Judy pointed out a group of raptors overhead which turned out to be RED KITE, BLACK VULTURE, GRIFFON VULTURE and a SHORT-TOED EAGLE. We decided to move on to another area when Geoff shouted out BLACK-WINGED KITE! This very much sought after bird was seen flying purposefully over to an area of agricultural fields, where Andrew managed to give us a running commentary of its position. We all managed good scope views as it hovered, before it flew back over the village and away to the west.

The track was blocked so we opted to visit the nearby village where we had stunning views of LESSER KESTRELS flying above our heads as well as JACKDAWS, FERAL PIGEONS and plenty of SPOTLESS STARLINGS.

With some time remaining, a visit was made to another part of the reservoir where we found LITTLE GREBE on a small pool before moving on to see a pair of BLACK-WINGED STILTS on a small island whilst on the other side of the road, Liz found a MARSH HARRIER. Scanning of the pools produced two GREEN and one COMMON SANDPIPER as well as LITTLE RINGED PLOVER. A LITTLE EGRET flew in and started feeding in the shallows before flying off.

It was then time to drive the 45 minute journey to our accommodation. The drive produced good numbers of WHITE STORK and CATTLE EGRET. We arrived spot on time and were greeted by our hosts Juan Pedro and his wife Belen and their children Marina and Alejandro.

We were given a guided tour of the hotel and then shown to our rooms, to freshen up, ready to meet a while later. The family had invited us to have a welcome drink along with some local food specialities.

Dinner was superb with Chickpeas and Pistou to start, followed by Chicken cooked with
Figs from the garden and then Apple Tart and Quince for dessert. This was all washed down with a fine Rioja wine and rounded off with an Acorn Liqueur.

We headed off to bed after what had been a long but superb day with us very much looking forward to the following day.

Saturday 15th March
Some of the group met for an early morning stroll around our accommodation which gave us the chance to see species that included SERIN, SONG THRUSH and BLACK REDSTART amongst others. A small number of CHAMPAGNE ORCHIDS were found growing on the edge of the track and SAGE-LEAVED CISTUS was in flower.

We then enjoyed a welcome breakfast before loading up the van with our gear and heading off for the day. As we got in the van, a HAWFINCH was seen perched in a tree in the garden which got us off to a good start. Driving through the town of Trujillo produced good numbers of HOUSE MARTIN hawking insects in the early morning sun and just outside of the town, a fine IBERIAN GREY SHRIKE perched on overhead wires.

The drive northwards took us through typical Extremaduran dehesa, which was home to small numbers of AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE, HOOPOE, BLACK KITE, GREAT SPOTTED CUCKOO and small parties of WOODPIGEON. We made our first stop and as we got out of the van were treated to excellent views of CRAG MARTINS zooming overhead. Some time was spent here and we noted WHITE WAGTAIL, CORN BUNTING, SARDINIAN WARBLER, ROBIN, STONECHAT, RED-RUMPED SWALLOW and a brief sighting of a YELLOW WAGTAIL. The warm sunshine encouraged the first of the days GRIFFON VULTURES into the air so it was good timing to carry on our journey into the Monfrague National Park.

Several HOOPOE and HAWFINCH flitted across the road in front of the van before we arrived at a viewpoint where large numbers of GRIFFON VULTURE could be seen both sitting on the cliffs and on the ground which were a delight to see. The birding here was amazing with fantastic birds on view all the time including a magnificent pair of BLACK STORKS at a potential nest site. The light on these birds picked out their metallic sheen and their red bills and legs glowed in the morning sun.

Several BLUE ROCK THRUSH were seen on the cliffs above us and below the watch-point we watched SARDINIAN WARBLER, SERIN and more RED-RUMPED SWALLOW. Two SPANISH birders put us onto a perched male PEREGRINE that eventually gave good views as it flew in front of the cliff face. SHORT-TOED EAGLE, BLACK and RED KITE, SPARROWHAWK and BLACK VULTURE were also noted.

With the day warming up nicely, we drove through the park stopping for facilities before arriving at a very busy watch-point and after finding a spot to park we wandered down the road to be treated to a magnificent adult SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE circling just above us. This incredibly rare bird put on a fantastic show for several minutes before drifting off.

We took our lunch to a watch-point where we set up camp and with warm sunshine and a little breeze, it was just perfect! GRIFFON VULTURES constantly flew overhead and some pairs were seen feeding chicks. Behind us were a pair of nesting RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS and both BLUE ROCK THRUSH and RED-RUMPED SWALLOW were seen in good numbers.

We spent a couple of hours here with something always on view including BLACK STORKS, SHORT-TOED EAGLES, EGYPTIAN VULTURES, BLACK VULTURES and BLACK KITES. A pair of ROCK BUNTINGS foraged on the hillside behind us and gave reasonable views as they fed on the ground.

Conditions were also ideal for a range of Butterflies including a stunning SPANISH FESTOON, SPECKLED WOOD, HOLLY BLUE, WALL BROWN and NETTLE-TREE BUTTERFLY.

With things quietening down, we wandered back to the van and along the way found PETTICOAT-HOOP and ANGEL'S TEAR NARCISSI growing along the verge. Close to the van, Emma spotted a SHORT-TOED TREECREEPER which gave good views as it climbed several trees, whilst overhead we watched a singing male FIRECREST and two LONG-TAILED TITS of the Iberian race irbii.

After another convenience stop we parked up at a suitable spot overlooking the ridges. Hundreds of HOUSE MARTIN were seen feeding high and the usual raptors were in attendance. Eventually Steve located a pair of BONELLI'S EAGLE soaring up from the ridge and although distant, they showed well through the scopes. Several CLEOPATRA butterflies were also seen.

With it being quite warm, we drove westwards to an area of rolling hills and open fields where we sought some shade. WHITE STORKS gave fantastic views in their nesting trees and in a nearby pond were both IBERIAN FROG and MARSH FROG.

After coffee and cake, we took a gentle stroll down the lane noting SPANISH SPARROWS, the ever present CORN BUNTINGS, two IBERIAN GREY SHRIKES, HOOPOE, RAVEN, COMMON BUZZARD and a HEN HARRIER.

The wildflowers were amazing and it was a shame to turn round and head back. Near the van, a WOODLARK perched on wires before flying down to a bush where it started singing some sub-song.

Our return journey took us through some cracking habitat and from the vehicle we noted AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE, WOODCHAT SHRIKE, HEN HARRIER and a couple of CALANDRA LARK. Arriving back slightly later than planned, we had time for a shower before meeting for dinner which consisted of Vegetables cooked in smoked Paprika, followed by Migas, a local dish consisting of fried breadcrumbs, Chorizo, Lardons, Green Pepper and fried Egg, served with Tomato and Onion Salad, all of which you mix together. Dessert was Rice Milk with Strawberries, followed by the obligatory Acorn Liqueur.

Sunday 16th March
Some of the group again met for a pre-breakfast walk down the lane and were treated to good views of a male SARDINIAN WARBLER and AZURE-WINGED MAGPIES as they fed under Fig Trees.

After a hearty breakfast we drove northwards, stopping at Trujillo Bullring where up to 15 LESSER KESTRELS put on a fantastic display. SPOTLESS STARLINGS occupied the rooftops and over the main part of the town were two PALLID SWIFTS.

Carrying on our journey, we arrived at an area of Steppe which was alive with the songs of larks. Another group of birders from the UK were already making their way up the track so we waited a while before heading off. Whilst waiting, Liz spotted a flock of LITTLE BUSTARD flying over but their attempts at landing were thwarted by a person in a field tending horses.

They eventually landed some way away and could be seen in the scopes. Nearby, good numbers of CALANDRA LARK could be seen in their 'bat-like' display flight and THEKLA LARKS sang from fence posts and rocks. An IBERIAN GREY SHRIKE perched atop of a bush and hundreds of SPANISH SPARROWS frequented the trees.

We eventually walked slowly along the track noting a BLACK STORK flying northwards and a few raptors taking advantage of the warmth, with four RED KITE and a SHORT-TOED EAGLE. As we got a little further we could hear the calls of sandgrouse and eventually a small flock of PIN-TAILED SANDGROUSE were seen in flight over the ridge. SMALL COPPER and SMALL HEATH BUTTERFLIES were seen but the butterfly highlight was a superb GREEN-STRIPED WHITE resting on a small flower.

Getting to the top of the ridge enabled us to get a good vista and with a lot of scanning, we picked out a party of PIN-TAILED SANDGROUSE on the deck, along with four GOLDEN PLOVER. Unfortunately due to grazing by cattle in the fields, the expected Great Bustards were not there.

By now it was pretty hot so we retraced our steps noting good numbers of SPANISH PSAMMADROMUS along the way as well as many small caterpillars. After a drink back at the van, we drove south and had lunch in the shade at Vina las Torres which was a delight. A smart NETTLE-TREE BUTTERFLY was seen perched on the track and the garden produced SPECKLED WOOD and a VIOLET CARPENTER BEE. Just before we left, Steve took some of the group down the lane to photograph CHAMPAGNE ORCHIDS before we headed off southwards.

On arrival at a large reservoir, we drove along the service road and Andy spotted some GREAT BUSTARDS on a nearby hill. Although distant, you could see their large size. On the reservoir, the calm waters held several thousand SHOVELER as well as MALLARD, GADWALL, PINTAIL, WIGEON and some smart RED-CRESTED POCHARD. Gulls included LESSER BLACK-BACKED, YELLOW-LEGGED and BLACK HEADED GULLS and other notable species were GREAT CRESTED GREBE and COOT!

A EUROPEAN SWALLOWTAIL was seen nectaring on flowers and small numbers of BARBARY-NUT IRIS were growing on the bank. We left the reservoir and drove along the top road where Andy struck gold once again with a fine male BLACK-EARED WHEATEAR. HOOPOES put on a good show with up to four birds flying around.

It was then down to an area of rice-fields noting flocks of CATTLE EGRET along the way. Driving along a track, we saw plenty of STONECHAT and flocks of SPARROWS and then we caught glimpses of our main target, RED AVADAVAT. These tiny birds were very elusive in the reeds but we all managed to get on them. All were in their drab plumage, except for one stunning raspberry red male!

Some of the rice-fields held waders including GREEN SANDPIPER, REDSHANK and SNIPE and a moulting WATER PIPIT was seen briefly. By now it was scorching, so some shade was in order so we headed to an old railway station for a well-deserved cuppa and cake.

Once refreshed, we visited another area of steppe, where after a few minutes a flock of 11 GREAT BUSTARDS were seen including some impressive males. After getting used to our presence, they fed and moved slowly up the hill. A drive further along the road produced another small flock but this time we were looking into the sun.

Heading back the other way, we had the sun on our backs and this made viewing much more bearable. The original flock of GREAT BUSTARDS showed much better and Andy then found a couple of flying sandgrouse that turned out to be BLACK-BELLIED SANDGROUSE! Annette counted 16 of these fine birds on the ridge but the real highlight here were several magnificent male GREAT BUSTARDS that were strutting their stuff on the ridge and then performing their snowball courtship display.

A MERLIN was seen distantly as it zoomed along the fence-line and CALANDRA LARK were very much in evidence. We headed back to our base after what had been a cracking day!

After a cool shower, we met to complete the bird list before enjoying our evening meal which was a Tomato, Bread and Potato Soup to start, followed by Iberian Pork served with Prunes and mashed Potato and then Marina played Happy Birthday and she and Alejandro brought out dessert with a candle and a gift, as it was Steve’s birthday! The dessert was Chocolate Cake served with a Chocolate Sauce that was pretty scrummy.

Afterward Marina and Alejandro on the piano and clarinet respectively played a beautiful piece of music especially for Steve for his birthday and we retired to bed after a very good evening and looking forward to the next day.

Monday 17th March
We didn't have a pre-breakfast walk but instead met for breakfast at the usual time. Geoff joined us and said that during the night he had heard both SCOP'S and LITTLE OWLS calling from behind the hotel. After breakfast, we loaded up the van and said our goodbyes to Juan Pedro, Belen, Marina and Alejandro before heading back northwards to Madrid.

We broke the journey at the reservoir that we visited on Friday and drove to a different part where we immediately saw three GREAT SPOTTED CUCKOOS flying over us. The lake was pretty quiet except for a pair of nesting MARSH HARRIER and some BLACK VULTURES.

A drive back along the road found us two WATER PIPITS in summer plumage as well as COMMON and GREEN SANDPIPERS, SNIPE, BLACK-WINGED STILTS and MARSH HARRIERS. We returned to the site on the reservoir which we had visited on Friday and once again it was alive with birds.

PURPLE SWAMPHENS showed really well in the reeds and up to four BEARDED TITS along with SPANISH SPARROWS stripped the heads of reedmace. As we stood overlooking the reservoir, two SAVI'S WARBLERS started reeling and eventually Steve managed to get one in the scope briefly. A little while later, Liz relocated it and it sat up much higher giving reasonable views. PURPLE HERONS were seen in the reed-bed with at least two pairs noted. Andy disturbed a LITTLE BITTERN from the reedy edge and it flew a short distance before disappearing from sight.

Liz found our first and only TREE SPARROW of the tour, that was perched on a nearby fence and then Emma found a BLACK-WINGED KITE circling over our heads giving lovely views against the blue sky. Several of the group took a stroll to the visitor centre and whilst they were gone, another LITTLE BITTERN flew right past!

The warm temperatures encouraged the raptors up and overhead we had really good views of RED KITE, BLACK KITE, GRIFFON and BLACK VULTURES. Just as time was running out, Geoff spotted a pale phase BOOTED EAGLE over us which was fantastic! We drove to the visitor centre to repack our bags ready for the airport and here Geoff found three SPOONBILLS flying over.

We then had a two hour drive back to Madrid and although we had to get fuel twice, which included a diversion, we arrived back to the airport on time and said goodbye to Judy who was spending a few extra days in Spain.

We boarded the flight on time, only to find that there was too much hand luggage and it had to be moved to the hold by one person, creating a delay of 45 minutes. We did however make up time and landed just 15 minutes behind schedule.

Once we retrieved our luggage, we said our goodbyes after what had been a fabulous tour with so many good birds not to mention good food, laughs and company.