Thursday 15th November 2018
SPANISH PYRENEES IN WINTER
Thursday 15th - Sunday 18th November 2018
The group met late morning at London Stansted Airport for our flight down to Zaragoza in northern Spain. The flight was around 25 minutes late taking off but just around two hours later, we landed in Zaragoza to find mild but cloudy conditions.
Baggage came promptly and after loading up our smart new minibus, we drove north to our base in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. The light was fading rapidly on our dive but we saw several GREY HERON, a GREAT EGRET plus SPOTLESS and COMMON STARLINGS as well as the usual EURASIAN MAGPIES and FERAL PIGEONS.
We arrived in the village of Loporzano, our base for the next three nights and were met by our hosts Josele and Esther and shown to our rooms, where we had time to unpack before meeting for a cold beer and to discuss our plans for the following days.
Our evening meal was a delight with Cream of Leek Soup to start followed by Roast Chicken and Bacon with potato and mixed salad and baked Apple with vanilla cream for desert. This was all washed down with a local red wine that really hit the spot after a day of travelling!
Friday 16th November 2018
We met for breakfast at 0715hrs and then loaded up the van to make our way westwards towards Pamplona. Several WHITE STORKS were seen in flight and on roadside pylons, plus good numbers of COMMON BUZZARDS. As we made our way further along the road, we picked out a few RED KITES and a NORTHERN RAVEN before we arrived in the village of Riglos.
We parked and wandered up through the village until we reached the impressive cliffs of Los Mallos de Riglos. These conglomerate rock formations rose up to 1000 feet up in front of us and here we saw our first EURASIAN GRIFFON VULTURES of the tour, along with a brief view of PEREGRINE FALCON and two RED-BILLED CHOUGH. A short while later David picked out a small bird on the cliffs and lo and behold, it was a WALLCREEPER! Unfortunately in a bid to relocate this bird, we changed position slightly to find that it had vanished from view, how frustrating!
Over the next hour or so, we could hear a WALLCREEPER calling from the cliffs in front of us but just couldn’t pin it down. Other distractions included EURASIAN CRAG MARTIN, SARDINIAN WARBLER and a smart male BLUE ROCK THRUSH which perched up in the warm morning sun.
Thankfully Steve eventually located the WALLCREEPER and we had good scope views as it flicked its crimson wings, constantly feeding amongst cracks and hollows on the cliff face.
After around ten minutes of prolonged views, it flew round the edge of the rocks, disappearing from view. We were delighted to catch up with our main target for the tour which was a new bird for many of the group.
We then headed down for a celebratory coffee in a nearby bar before heading back towards Huesca. We then travelled eastwards towards the foothills of the mountains, for a visit to the Sierra y Cañones de Guara Natural Park although a quick stop was made when an adult GOLDEN EAGLE drifted along a ridge and we watched this male bird displaying overhead before it drifted off to the west.
Eventually we reached our lunch stop which overlooked an area of limestone rock formations and it was peaceful and warm in the afternoon sunshine. It wasn’t long before a BEARDED VULTURE (LAMMERGEIER) was picked out by Steve as it circled on a thermal alongside EURASIAN GRIFFON VULTURES where its distinctive shape and size could be picked out.
Once lunch was over we walked up through the village noting lots of BLACK REDSTARTS along the way. A male CIRL BUNTING was seen briefly before zipping off and a smart EGYPTIAN GRASSHOPPER gave close views as it sat on a metal gate.
Over the next hour we were treated to good views of at least two more different LAMMERGEIERS including two birds that came down to pick up bone put out for them by a local conservation charity. The rich orange colour of the birds plumage was stunning in the afternoon light and once again, it was another major target bird seen which delighted everyone.
Over 300 RED-BILLED CHOUGH flew over in several small flocks as they headed back to roost on the rocky escarpments. With some daylight remaining, we headed towards base with a detour to a ruined castle where we located our first BLACK WHEATEAR of the tour as it flitted around the rocks in front of us. Other goodies here included a pair of DARTFORD WARBLERS, EUROPEAN STONECHAT, THEKLA’S LARK, BLUE ROCK THRUSH, EURASIAN CRAG MARTINS and several CORN BUNTINGS.
As light fell, so did the temperature so we headed back to base for a hot shower before meeting for a pre-dinner drink and to complete the bird list.
Our evening meal was Vegetable Risotto, followed by Baked Salt Cod topped with garlic mayonnaise on a tomato sauce, with roast peppers and mixed salad and for dessert, ice cream and chocolate. Afterwards we spent time in the lounge before retiring for the night, after what had been a superb day in the field!
Saturday 17th November 2018
Breakfast was at the usual time and we were on the road a little earlier as we needed to drive south towards the area known as Los Monegros. A few RED KITES and COMMON BUZZARDS were noted along with our first WESTERN MARSH HARRIERS, which were quartering the vast agricultural areas around Sarinena.
Since our last visit to this area, the landscape has changed tremendously with irrigation systems in fields which were once excellent habitat for species such as Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Despite the changes and with perseverance, we found good numbers of CALANDRA LARKS plus EURASIAN SKYLARK, MEADOW PIPITS and brief views of a male SARDINIAN WARBLER in roadside scrub. Visibility was rather poor with misty conditions prevailing, so we tried our luck elsewhere and came across a female MERLIN perched in a field. A first-winter EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK flew past her and she flew up and attempted mobbing the intruder until it was out of sight.
CORN BUNTINGS were numerous as were EURASIAN CHAFFINCHES, LINNETS, EUROPEAN GOLDFINCHES and a surprisingly large number of WHITE WAGTAILS.
With the area rather quiet, we drove further west to a place which holds a small number of wintering Great Bustards and it didn’t take too long to locate four GREAT BUSTARDS in a scrubby field and we had good scope views as they stood there majestically. A cracking male HEN HARRIER drifted through and on the opposite side of the road were another eight GREAT BUSTARDS!
Two male HEN HARRIERS flew north displacing a massive flock of CALANDRA LARKS from the surrounding stubble fields, we then realised that our stomachs were rumbling and it must be lunchtime.
Carrying on south, we visited a large salt lake where water conditions were good and although distant, we found around 100 KENTISH PLOVERS, 60+ DUNLIN, two LITTLE STINT, eleven COMMON GREENSHANK, six BLACK-HEADED GULLS and a single adult MEDITERRANEAN GULL.
A COMMON CRANE flew over us and a little later, a small flock flew low over, calling as they drifted westwards. Around the ruined buildings we had good views of several CRESTED LARKS as we tucked into our packed lunches.
We had given the area a good go and were thinking about leaving when we spotted two BLACK-BELLIED SANDGROUSE flying over a nearby ridge and these were soon joined by another group of around 35 birds. Although distant with binoculars, in the scope we could pick out their black bellies quite easily.
With time getting on we drove back northeast and stopped at a small lake where up to fifteen WESTERN MARSH HARRIERS hunted the reed-beds. Other species of note included COMMON REED BUNTINGS, EURASIAN HOOPOE, EURASIAN TREE SPARROWS, CETTI’S WARBLERS, calling WATER RAIL and in the distance, David S did well to pick out a circling raptor which turned out to be a pale-phase BOOTED EAGLE, a bird that should have been much further south in Spain!
In a last attempt to visit the open plains, we headed northwards and came across a large flock of RED-BILLED CHOUGH beside the road. Unfortunately there was a car close behind so we couldn’t stop and by the time we had turned round they had flown off up the hillside.
The last highlight of the day was a pair of IBERIAN GREY SHRIKE, hunting from the top of sprinkler systems and could be seen dropping down onto prey in the surrounding scrubby areas.
It was then a long drive back to base, during which we saw a good number of WHITE STORKS roosting on roadside pylons and a brief view of a female HEN HARRIER that drifted over the road.
Back at base it was good to have a refreshing hot shower before meeting for a pre-dinner drink and completing the bird list. Esther once again did us proud with a lovely hot soup of Chickpeas and Pasta followed by Pork with tarragon and Creme Caramel for dessert.
Sunday 18th November 2018
The weather forecast wasn’t too special for the day and there was some pretty heavy rain in the night, but luckily by the time we had finished breakfast it had stopped and it wasn’t too bad.
We made a quick visit to the local cemetery area which was rather quiet bird-wise except for a PEREGRINE FALCON that flew past, so we opted to head up to nearby Vadiello which provided us with magnificent scenery along the way. An ALPINE ACCENTOR flicked up from the road as we traversed the narrow lanes around the edges of the mountains and a ROCK SPARROW was seen on roadside wires, but dropped down before we could all have good views.
Once at the dam we spent time exploring the area, noting large numbers of EURASIAN GRIFFON VULTURES on the wing despite gloomy conditions. A few BLACK REDSTARTS flitted around the cliffs and the group all enjoyed taking photos of the scenery before rain started to fall. Luckily it wasn’t too heavy but we headed back down to the dam where we met a Spanish family who had a young son with a camera and lens almost as big as himself!
Thanks to them, we had great views of a WALLCREEPER flitting about the cliffs, where it would often get hassled by a male BLACK REDSTART. This bird was closer than our previous sighting and an absolute joy to see!
Eventually the bird disappeared from view so we carried on birding slowly along the road where a EURASIAN BLACKCAP was seen by Jenny and we had good sightings of lots of PYRENEAN MOUNTAIN GOATS. EURASIAN CRAG MARTIN, HUMMINGBIRD HAWKMOTH and a couple of EURASIAN BLUE TITS were noted before we began to get rather wet.
The weather looked a lot brighter lower down the gorge so we started our journey down the road and stopped when a pair of ROCK BUNTINGS flew up the slope, but unfortunately we couldn’t stop so we parked down the road in a safe place and walked back up.
The sheltered areas held up to four COMMON FIRECREST plus EURASIAN BLACKCAP, but despite hearing the ROCK BUNTING calling, we failed to relocate it.
We then headed to the cemetery but apart from a small flock of RED-LEGGED PARTRIDGE, EURASIAN CRAG MARTINS, two EUROPEAN SERINS, NORTHERN RAVEN and a RED KITE, it was unusually quiet and with time knocking on, we headed back to base where we packed up our bags and loaded the van after saying our goodbyes.
The journey down to Zaragoza produced our first LITTLE EGRET, WESTERN CATTLE EGRET and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS of the tour and after dropping off the van, we relaxed in the terminal building until our flight was ready to board.
We took off a few minutes behind schedule but landed in a cold but dry Stansted Airport ten minutes early and were soon through passport control despite long queues.
Our baggage arrived promptly and we said goodbye after a fantastic tour, with plenty of bird highlights plus good food and wine, great accommodation and a superb group of customers to share it with, which made it a pleasure to lead!