España: A Birding Extravaganza

On the 1st of April I stepped onto an Easy Jet flight which would take me away from the cold, wet climate of the UK and down to the hot, arid climate of Spain were I’d be spending a week in the blazing Mediterranean sun. I’m fortunate enough to have family living in Spain and when I do my monthly visits I usually do family activities such as Scuba diving, Swimming, Hiking, Kayaking and Go Karting. But being me I always find the time to fit in a spot of birding amongst the madness of family time. On my visits from last year I had a good list going with Hoopoe, Booted Eagle, Spanish Sparrow, Sardinian Warbler, Iberian Chiffchaff, Crag Martin, Serin, Audouin’s Gull, Spotless Starling, Balearic Shearwater, Slender-billed Gull, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear and Black Redstart. In winter Black Redstart outnumbers House Sparrow! All of the birds above where birds which I simply picked up whilst strolling around the small fishing town of Javea in the SE of Spain which is where my family apartment is which has a balcony that overlooks is beautiful Mediterranean sea.

me dad.jpg
It was great to see my old man again

When I arrived at Alicante airport at 11:30pm it was clear straight away that this trip was going to be good ‘in, as when I was getting my bags out from the overhead compartment above Ruairí (brother who was with me), who had the luxury of having the window seat said to me, “Look brother, look at that birdy there”, with it being pitch black apart from the lights of a passing plane lighting up a small section of tarmac I saw this bird and I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was a Stone Curlew!!! (Lifer) Now that’s urban birding!

Days 1 & 2: On the first full day in Spain a made paid visit my brilliant Spanish patch Cabo De San Antonio (the local lighthouse which you can see Ibiza from) which I love just as much as my UK one. On my previous visits I’d had Balearic Shearwater, Audouin’s Gull, Golden Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Crested Lark, Sandwich Tern, Gannet, Peregrine, Chiffchaff, Serin, Sardinian Warbler, Stonechat, Short-toed Treecreeper and Black Redstart. But todays visit was slightly different as there wasn’t just new birds about but I also observed some new avian be favour.

The Sunlight View_edited-1
The view from half way up to Cabo De San Antonio

After the two hour hike up to the top of Cabo De San Antonio I had already gotten myself a lifer in the form of a pair of Red-Rumped Swallows which made a flyby over me whilst I was attempting to photograph a flock of “Spanish” Goldfinch’s. These marvellous little finch’s first caught my attention when the pair flew over which perched in a tree a couple of meters ahead, what drew my attention to the pair at first was very distinctive call which slightly more high pitch and delicate compared to their UK counterpart. Compared to my winter visits there was a lot less about this time round, an example was that only had a single Black Redstart on my hike up compared to the usual counts I get which are usually 50+.

YLG Fly Over_edited-1
Yellow-legged Gull flying over

When I reached the top of Cabo De San Antonio there was no sign of any of the birds which I usually see when I’m up there looking out over the Med: Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart, Balearic Shearwater or Crested Larked. Even migrants were rather low in numbers with less than 20 Swallows. It was when I was observing a flock of 6 Swallow when I saw some behaviour which I’d never seen or heard of before, Peregrine hunting Swallow. For about half an hour I watched a lone Peregrine making repeated stoops at hawking flock of Swallows catching at least one of the birds. Nature never ceases to amaze me. That was it really for the day, was rather let down by the lack of numbers and diversity.

The Road to Denyia_edited-1
Rather like this landscape showing the road heading to neighbouring town of Denia with Mongo to the left

 

island
The view is so good from the lighthouse that you can even see Ibiza!

On the following day after spending the morning doing some activities that we went off to a restaurant to get a Sunday roast which over looked a disused field. It was in this field whilst tucking into dinner where got my 2nd lifer of the trip with a bird what good friend Joel Tragen never shuts up about, Woodchat Shrike, his favourite bird. With only my 300mm on hand I managed to get a couple of distant record shots of what I’ll admit is an absolutely gorgeous bird, but as it was a distant bird I wasn’t to get close up to it and really analyse it.

My first Woodchat Shrike_edited-1
My first Woodchat Shrike

Day 3: Spent the day revising and doing some more family activities which was rounded off with dinner at a brilliant bar down the road from the apartment where I had rather nice lemon and garlic grilled cuttlefish.

photo (2)
Not everyone’s cup of tea but I love sea food!!!

Day 4 (Finally a full days birding!): The plan of action for today was to head down south to visit some marsh’s which I’d been trying to get down to for some time now, but due to the simply horrific weather conditions continuing on from yesterday that was simply out of the question. Instead of being trapped inside all day with the company of my family and 3 dogs I had to drastically rethink my plans ASAP, this took longer than I’d expected but eventually I thought of somewhere where I could explore, the farmland on the outskirts of Javea which I hadn’t thought of visiting on my previous visits as they’ve all been in winter or early spring when there’s nothing passing through, but as migration was in full swing the farmland seemed like a good call.

Within the first 10mins of scanning the first farmers field I came across I was left with I huge smile on my face with the sheer quantity of birdlife there was waiting to be discovered: 20+ Fan-tailed Warbler, 2 Tawny Pipit, 20+ Collard Dove, 15c Spotless Starling, 2 Tree Pipit, 1 Woodchat Shrike and 3 Sardinian Warbler were just some of birds I found in a single field! If were to go farmland birding back in good old blighty then I’d just be getting garden birds such Dunnocks, Woodpigeons, Long-tailed Tits and Blackbirds etc.

Fan-tailed Warbler in Jeava_edited-1
Yet another lifer for me, Fan-tailed Warbler
Rural Woodchat Shrike_edited-1
Woodchat Shrike aka the Butcher Bird

After patrolling several more fields I heard the unmistakable sound of thunder and when I looked to the west what do I see? A mammoth black rain cloud heading in my direction, so what do I do, peg it straight back to the apartment or stay out and brave the weather hoping it’ll bring a fall of migrants and hopefully I’ll stand a chance of catching a glimpse of a bird which was my number one target species for this trip Streptopelia turtur, Turtle Dove.

Tripit
Terrible record shot 2 Tree Pipit

Ever since I started in the first field I was looking for anything which looked dovish and scanned every Collard Dove flock praying for at least one Turtle Dove, but there were none to be found. Could the level of slaughter that the Turtle Dove faces in Malta reached a level that despite being in prime Turtle Dove habitat and during peak migration time that you couldn’t find a Turtle Dove? This thought deeply saddened me to the point that I gave up after about 3hrs of searching and decided to make my back to the apartment in the middle of a deluge.

Fan-tailed Warbler_edited-1
Fan-tailed Warbler in full song

Whilst I was walking back I took what I thought was a short cut through an orchid which were I flushed my first ever Rufous Bush Chat! Finding this fella along with a couple of White Wagtails along a dry river bed did brighten my mood as a lifer and one of your favourite would to anyone. My mood then got even brighter when after coming out of my short cut I made my way back to apartment via the footpath adjacent to the river Riu Xaló-Gorgos were out of no were a Green Sandpiper shot past me and landed amongst some vegetation! I was very surprised to find Green Sandpiper in Javea as there was no marshy areas and even the river its self was only partially came above the ground. This was something which despite the current deluge happening around me I was going to photograph this bird no matter what as I had no idea how rare it was to the province. Thankfully one of the many Feral Cats in Javea came to my assistance as it flushed the Sandpiper with photographable view and by the cats reaction I think it was even more surprised than me!

Green Sandpiper in Javea_edited-1
Green Sandpiper

Day 5: Today was my last chance to get some birding done in Spain as I’d be jetting back to the UK in the early hours of tomorrow morning; everything was on the cards today. The forecast didn’t look the greatest as it would be alternating from showers to sunshine about every hour or so, thankfully it wasn’t enough to prevent my trip to the “marshes”. This was going to be the most memorable visit I’d had to Spain yet as even on the way down there were signs that today was going to be special with Hoopoe and a stunning male Montagu’s Harrier being just some of fabulous birds I saw whilst heading down.

The Pink Panther
It was amazing to be so close to a such a goliath and graceful wader
The old and young_edited-1
Greater Flamingos showing a clear difference in aging due to the intensity of their pink plumage

 

As I started get closer and closer the “marshes” I’d been informed about and was so excited about visiting it dawned on me that I was going to any marshes at all, as by the time I’d arrived at the destination I was in the centre on a town were all I could was hotel after hotel after hotel and the pavement either side of the main I was on at the time was filled to the brink with screaming kids, tourists, dogs and commuters. After being left confused for a sometime I then looked over my left shoulder and I couldn’t believe what I seeing, in the middle of town were man dominated there was an oasis in an concreate jungle were there was a home for nature in the form of a salt Lake coated in a mix of Greater Flamingo (70c) and Black-winged Stilts (50c). I was simply blown away not just by the fact that there was a salt lake in the middle of a town but by the fact of how close the birds were showing, none of the birds had a fear of man. There was one Black-winged Stilt in particular which caught my interested as it wasn’t put off feeding a meter away from a public footpath a group of your typical British stag do pasted by, reminded of my first twitch 3 years for a Snow Bunting at New Brighton which was as local birders called it “stupidly tame”.

photo (1)
The Calpe Salt Lake
Pink Herons at Calpe_edited-1
Some of the 70c Greater Flamingos on the Lake with some Grey Herons in the background

I spent roughly an hour just sitting on a bench overlooking the lake watching the behaviour of the Black-winged Stilts which when setting my eyes upon withdrew a tear from me, as this wasn’t just a bird which I hadn’t see for 10 years, but this was the bird which 10 years ago in the summer of 2006 at WWT Martin Mere got me into birding and made me who I am today.

The bird which gave life_edited-1
What a beauty, Black-winged Stilt
The Boys are back!_edited-1
A pair of Black-winged Stilts making a flyby

After somehow managing to pull myself away from the Stilts I started to make my trek round the lake which was when I noticed that skies above were alive life with Hirundinidae: Common Swifts, House Martins, Sand Martins and Barn Swallows were all in immense flocks hawking over the lake with a lone Kestrel making many attempts to catch at least one birds from the swirling mass but failed. It wasn’t just the skies which were alive, the vegetation surrounding the lake were given their own voices with the assistance of Cetti’s Warblers, Serin’s, Sardinian Warbler, Spanish Yellow Wagtail, Song Thrush’s, Blackbirds and Spotless Starling. It was truly amazing to see how much birdlife there could be in centre of a town buzzing with human activity.

serin
Just one of the many Serin’s round the Lake

After walking half way round the Lake I came to a spot which over looked a small bay which was when I noticed that someone had built what appeared to be a small photography hide. As there was no one to be seen and there was a pair of Black-winged Stilt approaching the hide I thought why not? I made my to the hide set myself up and waited…waited… waited and waited  in the hide slowly being roasted until I could see the Stilts approaching within photographic view of hide. The characteristic yapping calls of the Stilts hadn’t just caught my attention, but also attracted the attention of a local Moorhen which made short work of the pair pursuing them to the other side of the lake. With no other birds coming close to the hide anytime soon I decided to make my move and explore more of this enraptured lake.

The Calpe Salt Lake Photography Hide_edited-1.jpg
World’s shabbiest hide ?

As I continued my walk round the lakeside exploring many of the small paths cutting through the scrubland on the north eastern side of I lake I eventually found myself at a raised platform which was when everything on the lake just shot up out of the water and started flying around in a mad panic. What could have done that? The bird question which was responsible for this disruption was in fact an absolutely stonking female Marsh Harrier which flew in fresh off the Meditterian Sea and straight over the town of Calpe before heading off into hills of the east. This bird in this kind environment was something very special indeed! So that was now Marsh and Montagu’s Harrier in just one day! Reminds me of being back at RSPB Blacktoft Sands.

Calpe Marsh Harrier
An unforgettable encounter
Black-winged Stilt in flight_edited-1
One of the many Black-winged Stilts that were put up by the Harrier

After seeing what is my al time favourite Harrier, I then thought I’d go off and do some exploring of the scrubland round the eastern side of the lake to search for some Sylvia warblers: Sardinian, Dartford, Cetti’s, Spectacled and Subalpine Warblers are all examples with my primary target being Subalpine. A bird which I’ve been trying to nail down ever since I first started making annual visits to Spain. I’d spent a good few hours scanning very bit scrub I could find and I’d made the effort of learning the call to increases my chances, but at the end of it all I didn’t even have a single one.

But what I did have to reward my effort which I’ve got to say I was happier with was plenty of Sardinian, Cetti’s Warblers & Serins, another lifer for the trip being Spectacled Warbler along with a very showy female Woodchat Shrike, which again wasn’t shy at all and was perfectly happy with my presence as I watched it from its perch catching many prey items which it made short work of. Having such close views of this beautiful bird made realise why good friend Joel Tragen has such a deep love for it, this individual was certainly one of my highlights of the trip.

woody
What a stunning bird – Woodchat Shrike

Heading back round to where I first started my exuberant walk I checked my watch to see how much time I had left before be on my back Java, as it happened I still had plenty of time to left to bird. A quick scan of the lake relieved that there was another pair of Black-winged Stilts making their way to the hide; one hour left, walking through the blazing Spanish sun without a hat, chance of seeing some new birds and a high possibility of getting a stunning shot of a childhood hero, why not?

Whilst racing round to the hide I made a couple of brief stops off as I was exploring yet more of tracks heading off into the scrubland and some reed beds, which I was eventually rewarded with some cracking views of a beautiful female Spanish Yellow Wagtail which I felt privileged to have such clear views. There was a stunning male nearby in some vegetation but was playing hard to get so no pics.

Spanish Yellow Wagtail
The Black-winged Stilt may be the most exquisite bird of the Lake but this Spanish Yellow Wagtail was certainly the most beautiful
Ringed Greater Flamingo_edited-1
Found this ringed Greater Flamingo which I’m currently awaiting on details

When I arrived at the hide I sat down, got in position and waited. I could hear the yapping calls of the Stilts fast approaching the hide from the rear but then out of no were a flock of 3 Greater Flamingo just strolled past the hide and displaced the Stilt. My disappointment was then turned into sheer joy when another pair of Stilts flew over and landed just a few meters in front of me, this was my chance and boy did I take it! For 5 minutes I had my finger held firm on the shutter just kept firing away before another pair of Black-winged Stilts came over to have their share of the action, I was having the time of my life. After taking well over 100 images of the birds I placed the camera down and just sat there watching one of the world’s most exquisite wading birds in the soothing Mediterranean sun which was beating down on the hide, nothing could beat tranquillity. Well perhaps if I wasn’t getting eaten alive by the surrounding bug life.

Where it all began 12 years ago
The shot which I was happy to leave with
Mr Darcy_edited-1
A wired but beautiful bird

It was then time to go and what a trip today had been: my first Black-winged Stilt for 10 years, 3 lifers (Spectacled Warbler, Greater Flamingo & Spanish Yellow Wagtail), unreal views of the world’s most exquisite wader, an unforgettable encounter with an urban Marsh Harrier. I’m safely saying this was my trip ever to Spain and by a country mile the best day’s birding I’ve ever had.The Spanish Urban Misconception_edited-1

 #SavingTheMersey

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4 thoughts on “España: A Birding Extravaganza

  1. merlin says:

    Great blog Elliot some great birds in a fantastic country
    I have just got back from a trip to Extremadura again (sixth visit) if you ever get the chance to get there don’t think twice you will love the area
    Hope to see you at Hen HARRIER DAY in August
    Keep enjoying the Natural World

    Like

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