Spring Birding in Spain Apr 23—May 10, 2015

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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Soaring peaks, plains that stretch to the horizon, productive marshes, and more than 220 species of birds made for a wonderful trip across Spain. We drank, dined, and birded the Iberian Peninsula for sixteen exciting days. Flamingoes, sandgrouse, five eagles among twenty species of raptors, storks, spoonbills, Bluethroat, eagle-owl, gulls, Wallcreeper, Ring Ouzel, and some beautiful finches were all tallied during our tour of the delightful countryside in Spain.

White-headed Duck

White-headed Duck— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

After gathering in Sevilla we quickly headed to the famous marshes of Doñana National Park. While we listened to a nightingale sing, we spotted our first White-headed Ducks. Lingering over the ducks, a Little Bittern flew over our heads and melted into the cattails. Down the road we found several Marbled Ducks; Bart’s persistence with the scope helped us out here. Since this was our first day the new birds were coming fast, with flamingoes and spoonbills catching our attention as we cruised the marshes. In the salt flats we had excellent looks at Slender-billed Gull and scope views of Auduoin’s Gulls, two of the most-sought birds of Doñana along with the ducks. Over the next couple of days we saw everything we could hope for in the coastal and fresh marshes of southwest Spain. The herons and egrets were in high breeding dress; even the Cattle Egrets looked nice, but the Purple and Squacco herons got more scope time. Those that were not too exhausted by our non-stop birding of the previous days ventured out for the Red-necked Nightjar. Another windy evening made it hard to hear, and I was reaching for the van door handle when Santi heard one. Soon we were rewarded with several quick fly-bys in the spotlight right overhead. Too soon our time in El Rocio was up, and the horse buggies and marshes were in the rearview mirror. Along the way, in a roadside vineyard, we found a singing Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin, but were quickly distracted by the raucous calls of three Great Spotted Cuckoos in the olive grove nearby.

European Bee-eaters

European Bee-eaters— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

Near Trujillo, birthplace of conquistador Pizarro, we found the Caceres Plains full of new birds with Great and Little bustards displaying, Red-legged Partridge, Stone Curlew, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Red Kite, and Montagu’s Harrier. Monfragüe National Park housed Eurasian Griffons nesting by the hundreds and many other excellent raptors. Our best looks at Spanish Eagles, which were tending a nestling, were here. Black Storks, also nesting, still had a trio of eggs to incubate. Bonelli’s Eagles put in an appearance near Puente del Cardenal, soaring overhead before disappearing into the blue. Near the displaying Great Bustards was a pair of Stone Curlews lurking near rocks before retiring for the morning. A trio of Eurasian Eagle-Owl chicks stared at us with somnolent eyes, their watchful parents unseen in the crags nearby. Also in the Caceres Plains were nesting European Rollers, which are quick to take up in the nest boxes along power lines. The woodlands and shrublands of Monfragüe hosted some great Sylvia warblers, among them Sardinian, Dartford, Subalpine, and a prized Spectacled. The Gredos Mountains beckoned and we were off again.

The Pyrenees

The Pyrenees— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

Navarredondos de Gredos gave us access to the broom habitat that is favored by the Bluethroat, which we saw skylarking and singing along a cobbled Roman road. As we hiked to the Bluethroat area, we found or first Ortolon Buntings, White-throated Dipper, Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, Dunnock, Skylark, Water Pipit, and Rock Buntings. Prancing in the rocks above the Roman road were the Spanish Ibex, including an impressive male surveying his domain from a distant ridge. In the forested valleys below we found both Goldcrest and Firecrest; Coal, Crested, and Great tits; European Pied Flycatcher; and a fly-by Green Woodpecker. The delight of dining in Alphonso’s restaurant for two evenings was surely one of the culinary highlights of a trip that was full of these pleasures. We also had our first tantalizing views of Citril Finches that just wouldn’t settle down for us.

Next for us was a night of decadence at the Parador Cervera de Pisuerga; excellent wine accompanied a delicious dinner followed by a relaxing night in a capacious room. The wind howled that night, and I was unsure, as we met under scudding clouds, if we would be able to find the Eurasian Bullfinches that usually haunt the grounds. We found a cooperative Western Bonelli’s Warbler first, but few other birds were presenting themselves in the wind. Finally we glimpsed a pair of bullfinches, but they escaped into the woods without giving us satisfactory views. Finally, right in front of us, a pair materialized and we had excellent looks. Later Jim and Lang, sipping coffee from the warmth of the restaurant, confided they had seen one too, on the porch! A few Chaffinches and a warbling Song Thrush that remained unseen were all we could dig out that morning, so we started our move to the Picos de Europa in the wind. We stopped to take in the beautiful Romanesque church San Salvador de Cantamuda from the twelfth century.

DuPont's Lark, singing

DuPont’s Lark, singing— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

A windswept Piedrasluengas Pass gave us our first look at the cloud-abbreviated Picos de Europa, but we could see plenty of spectacular vistas and snow at the higher elevations. The beech forest just below the pass was ready for winter, still bare. As we descended, the buds broke and leaves emerged by the time we were at the bottom of the valley. The pastures in this valley, filled with charming pastoral villages, were flowered meadows. Over the next couple of days we birded around villages and meadows and added several new species. A calling Tawny Owl in the afternoon tempted us into the woods, but we couldn’t find the oak tree where it roosted. The Middle Spotted Woodpecker was the best bird in one village, but the Green Woodpeckers were a close second. Common Redstarts singing from the rooftops entertained us before we found the woodpeckers. One morning we drove up to the alpine habitat; while we did net both chough species, it was a soggy walk in the wind-driven rain. Even the Chamois seemed to dislike the rain. We warmed up with coffees and an excellent lunch in Espinama. The village of Brez was a backdrop for an excellent sighting of male buntings; we had Cirl and Rock. Leaving the Picos de Europa through the exciting La Hermida Gorge is always an adventure—winding canyon road, imposing rocks overhanging and invading the highway at times, and all while cruising past the rushing river that hosts White-throated Dippers.

Santoña marshes broke up the long drive to the Pyrenees; while the marshes were fairly quiet, we did get looks at a foursome of Black-tailed Godwits and a Eurasian Curlew. After the long transit of Northern Spain we arrived at the Hotel Uson in the Hecho Valley of the Pyrenees. Late for dinner, we didn’t have time to scan the sky for Lammergeier, which often cruise the soaring jagged cliffs just a mile from the hotel. The next morning we cruised into a little meadow called Gabardito where several pairs of Citril Finches made their discovery exceptionally easy; one female was even gathering nesting material. From this meadow we made our hike up to Salto de la Vieja, home of the Wallcreepers. Shortly after we arrived, we saw and heard a pair of Wallcreepers moving around the cliff face, and some folks even got scope views! On our way down we had our first sightings of Lammergeiers, which rule the upper elevations of the Pyrenees. Some folks also had three Golden Eagles during their search for the Lammergeier. Down in the village of Hecho we had an amazing lunch. Bar Subordan started us with a prawn ravioli, grilled asparagus, delightful chipirones, and the coup de grace, a mushroom crepe with cream sauce. I even had a second for desert and a real desert of chocolate mousse—truly an excellent dining experience. That afternoon we waddled up the Hecho Valley and found some beautiful male Yellowhammers in the shrubs of this stunning valley. Overhead, Bea spotted a pair of Lammergeiers in a talon tussle while the Chamois grazed the verdant valley unconcerned. Some diligent seekers finally spotted the Alpine Marmot among the Chamois. We even made a little side-trip into France from the Roncal Valley where the skies were clear for a change. We had a blistering south wind that kept the fog away, but made Ring Ouzel spotting difficult; eventually we had nice views a few different times. As we went downhill into France, the wind abated and we tracked down a confiding Ring Ouzel. Next to it were some Citril Finches, and then a pair of Alpine Accentors flew overhead. One dropped in to have a look and get onto our checklist.

Belchite ruins of the Spanish Civil War

Belchite ruins of the Spanish Civil War— Photo: Brian Gibbons

 

Departing the Pyrenees we stopped in to admire the eleventh century monastery at San Juan de la Peña neatly tucked into a rock overhang for the last 1,000 years. While we were in awe of this structure, the Black Woodpecker called a few times, and we caught sight of it a couple of times as it crossed the road. On our way to Belchite Steppes we stopped and got great looks at a Eurasian Wryneck, and just up the road we finally saw a Subalpine Warbler well. A few hours later we arrived in the evening as the day’s heat abated and the larks of El Planeron started singing and skylarking. Eight species of larks call El Planeron home including “El Diablo,” the DuPont’s Lark, which is notoriously hard to see. Our first pass through yielded nothing, but when we returned at least three DuPont’s were skylarking overhead, difficult to spot in the blue sky.

Finally most folks got bins on “El Diablo.” But we were in for a show; eventually they dropped out of the sky, and multiple times we had perched scope views of a singing male! The next morning we returned to the wide open spaces near Belchite to hunt Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, our final target. Finally, after some distant fly-bys and scope views, we had good scope views as the heat haze took over the plains. Next we stopped at the ruins of Belchite, destroyed during the Spanish Civil War in an effort to break the will of the people.

In Madrid we enjoyed our last Finos, beers, and wines together after an amazingly successful trip across Spain. I hope to see you all somewhere in the world on another birding adventure soon.

Photo gallery can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10207015467968940.1073741873.1346971205&type=1&l=e0cfbe2247