Spring Birding in Spain Apr 24—May 11, 2014

Posted by Brian Gibbons

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Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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Our explorations of the Iberian Peninsula began in the southwest part of Spain at Doñana National Park. Here the marshes, ponds, and fields teemed with waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders. The wide-open spaces of the Caceres Plains of Extremadura gave us bustards, sandgrouse, and larks. The mountains of Gredos, Picos de Europa, and the Pyrenees yielded amazing vistas and birds of the alpine and forest zones. We ate and drank our way across Spain in style, covering more than 3,000 kilometers, a few coffee breaks, and who knows how many calories. We also touched on a thousand years of Spanish history, visiting villages, churches, and monasteries that have stood for centuries, and we even traipsed across a Roman road.

Greater Flamingos

Greater Flamingos— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Traveling from Sevilla to Doñana National Park we observed our first Mediterranean landscapes, sandy red hills with lines of ancient olive groves and vineyards stretching to the horizon. Whitewashed villages and livestock dotted the countryside. The charming El Rocio, with its sandy streets and horse carriages, harkens a different era. The town is bordered by Madre de las Marismas, a lagoon that was covered with birds: Whiskered Terns, Eurasian Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, pochards of two kinds, stilts, avocets, and shorebirds. This was our first proper birding during our two-week traverse of this amazing country. Over the next couple of days we saw Red-knobbed Coots, Marbled Teal, displaying White-headed Ducks, Flamingos, Slender-billed and Audouin’s gulls, Little and Whiskered terns, Squacco and Purple  herons, Little Bittern, and a Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin, a decidedly Mediterranean passerine. We also noted a variety of raptors: Booted and Short-toed eagles, Black Kites, Eurasian and Lesser kestrels, and Common Buzzard. The Acebron Palace added a number of woodland birds with Hawfinch, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Wryneck, and European Bee-eaters.

White-headed Duck

White-headed Duck— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Leaving this bird-rich country behind was tough, but new birds awaited in Extremadura. On the wide-open grazing and farming lands of the Caceres Plains we saw Eurasian Thick-knees, Great and Little bustards displaying, Calandra Larks skylarking, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and our first Red-legged Partridges. In Trujillo we wandered the streets where Pizarro was born and explored the cobblestone alleys up to the castillo. In Manfrague National Park raptors were our major target. At the large nesting cliffs in the park we tallied Eurasian Griffon, Cinereous Vulture, Peregrine Falcon, exceptional views of Spanish Eagle, Black Kite, Booted Eagle, Eurasian Eagle-Owl with a chick, and even a few Black Storks mixed in. Some of us got to witness raw nature. We first noticed a large Free-tailed Bat flying around the rocks midmorning; when it slithered into the rocks to roost, a Short-tailed Weasel was hot on its tail and soon enough emerged with the deceased bat in its mouth, then disappeared to feast. In the cork oak dehesa we found several new birds: Mistle Thrush, Iberian Magpie, Rock Sparrow, Short-toed Treecreeper, Eurasian Nuthatch, Common Cuckoo, and a very skittish Western Orphean Warbler.

Our first mountains were the Gredos; accordingly, we loaded up on new birds. Red Crossbills, Coal and Crested tits, European Pied Flycatcher, Goldcrest, Firecrest, Ortolan Bunting, European Robin (a charmer in the garden), and Black Redstart all put in appearances. Hiking up the old Roman road early one morning yielded many new alpine birds like Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, Northern Wheatear, Skylark, White-throated Dipper, Rock Bunting, and Dunnock. The star of the show on this glorious morning was the Bluethroat, which sang and kept popping up on broom closer and closer to us until Santi and I were grinning from ear to ear, sharing our photos! We also saw the Spanish Ibex for which the Gredos are famous. No trip to the Gredos is complete until you’ve enjoyed a few meals from Alfonso at Hostal Almanzor; the pastry appetizer with roasted veggies and cheese was a hit.

Bluethroat

Bluethroat— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Next up was the spectacular range of the Picos de Europa, but first we had a night of luxury at the Parador Cervera de Pisuerga. The gardens often host a few Eurasian Bullfinches; this year was no exception, as a pair was building a nest in a tree on the front lawn. On the way to the Picos we stopped and visited a Romanesque church from the twelfth century, San Salvador de Cantamuda, where a Black Redstart sang from the vein on top of the bell tower. Piedrasluengas Pass gave us our first proper view of the ragged snow-capped peaks of the Picos de Europa. From Fuente De we took the cable car up to 1,800 meters where a seemingly barren alpine landscape awaited us. While we saw just 14 species of birds, we added some fantastic quality to our list. Alpine Accentor, Yellow-billed Chough, White-winged Snowfinch, Water Pipit, and the incomparable Wallcreeper all put in appearances for us. Also lounging around the snow fields at the top were Chamois, trying to stay cool. Near Potes we finally caught up with the Middle Spotted Woodpecker and a bonus Green Woodpecker with scope views of both, as well as an unexpected Tawny Owl peering at us from the tangles of a gnarly oak.We took the northward exit out of the Picos via the spectacular La Hermida Gorge. Once we got down to sea level we birded the marshes around Santoña. Here we added several nice shorebirds and waterbirds—Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit, Temminck’s Stint, Ruff, and Common Loon refreshed our memories of some of the birds we had seen already near Doñana. We still had a long haul to the Pyrenees so we were off again.

We arrived at the Hotel Uson in the evening, just in time to enjoy the spectacular light on the soaring Pyrenees that now surrounded us. We also delighted in the beers from Emanol’s microbrewery out back; the new stout was my favorite. In the morning we headed out to the Gabardito Refugio to search for Citril Finch before hitting the trail into the fresh green beech forest. We were delayed by five distant Lammergeier sightings before we tried to walk away, and then a pair of Citril Finches appeared and we got some decent views before they vanished. Finally, into the woods, where we got good looks at Eurasian Treecreeper and other forest birds before trying for better looks at Wallcreeper at Salto de la Vieja, where we were largely stymied. The Red-billed Choughs, Eurasian Crag-Martins, and Alpine Swifts kept us entertained while we waited. The next morning we took in a large dose of Pyrenean scenery before we went for a little hike in the Gamueta Forest, while the Black Woodpecker didn’t show, we again drank in the beech forest green that surrounded us. Down at the Linza Refugia we got our final tit, a Marsh, after a coffee break. After a fine lunch we decided to make a run to the top of the mountain at the Belagua Nature Reserve for Ring Ouzel. We had nice scope views of a male Ring Ouzel before the omnipresent fog obliterated our view. On the way up, we all got great views of a pair of Citril Finches getting grit from the mortar of a bridge. That night we headed to the little village of Siresa with its ancient monestary looming over the middle of town in the dark. We chased a black cat around the cobblestone alleyways until we could tell where the sound was coming from. Finally we found the source: a European Scops-Owl was tooting away from a large ash tree. And it continued tooting, conversing with Santi, for a half-hour until we spotted the little fella and got scope views.

Picos de Europa

Picos de Europa— Photo: Brian Gibbons

San Juan de la Peña, a tenth century monastery, and its surrounding forest were our last chance at the spectacular Black Woodpecker. We heard it call, we heard it drum, and we glimpsed it as it flew across the road. We would have to satisfy ourselves with this. We had one last birding stop on the tour, the Belchite Steppes of the Ebro Valley. This dry grassland is the haunt of seven species of larks including “El Diablo,” the Dupont’s Lark, so named for its temperamental nature of occasionally not singing, even in the early morning. On our first evening a few individuals were singing, and we finally found some skylarking individuals and got some decent flight views. We returned the following morning to get better looks; El Diablo had other plans, and a few snippets of song were all we got. We did have some nice fly-bys of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Eurasian Thick-knee, and we had a nice look at a Little Owl that was
hunting around a ruined barn. Also coming and going from the barn was a nesting Eurasian Hoopoe. After our morning birding we toured the Belchite ruins, left from the devastation of the Spanish Civil War as a reminder. We got a bonus bird in the ruins—scope views of a Black Wheatear.

Spectacular scenery, great food and wine, 3,000 plus kilometers, 216 species, and a few cultural sites all lended themselves to a wonderful birding tour of Spain. Thanks to Santi for being our incomparable host, and thank you all for traveling with VENT.