Birds on the Spanish steppes

April is here, almost, and bird tours and their guides are already roaming the countryside here in northeast Spain.

I’m going to be busy this month, but as a dutiful blogger I will have to keep up a minimum input before my silent viewers give up on me and turn elsewhere. So a quick note of the last few days out birding with a couple of English birders (father and son in fact).

The chosen accommodation was La Garbinada rural hotel (see the drylands of Lleida itinerary recommended accommodation on the website). It’s a real rural retreat, so don’t go looking for pubs or discos here: nightlife is strictly for the owls! (and perhaps nightjars around May). Good food, nice hotel and access to the drylands to the south of Lleida, some interesting inland water bodies and about 50 minutes from the eastern Monegros.

On the first day we did a quick tour of the Alfés drylands, chalking up the following sightings:

3+ Red-rumped Swallows

2 Black Wheatears

2 Black-eared Wheatears

6 Great Spotted Cuckoos

2 Dotterel

2 Golden Eagles

1 Hen Harrier

Stone Curlew, Calandra Lark, Short-toed Lark, Egyptian Vulture, Red Kite, Thekla Lark, Woodlark, Blue Rock Thrush, etc.

On the afternoon of the first day and the morning of the second we visited two different water bodies near Lleida:

Purple Gallinule

6 Bluethroats

1 Moustached Warbler

1 Savi’s Warbler

Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Stilt, Wood Sandpiper, Garganey, Little Ringed Plover, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Cattle Egret, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Penduline Tit and a looong etcetera.

Day 2 was spent mostly visiting the Congost de Mont-rebei (see the Montsec itineraries) where the main targets were Wallcreeper and Lammergeier. End result: Wallcreeper 1, Lammergeier 0, which we were perfectly happy with. Apart from the splendid walk, great weather and scenery we also managed to see Rock Bunting, Cirl Bunting, Dipper, Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle, lots of Black Redstarts and co.

On the way back Lesser Kestrels, 7 Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Stone Curlews and a single Golden Plover.

Day 3 was spent in Aragón (Alcolea and Candasnos itinerary). The obligatory wetland stop produced Garganey, excellent views of about 10 Marsh Harriers, 6+ Black-necked Grebes, c.30 Red-crested Pochards and more Stone Curlews.

Spectacled Warbler, Yellow Wagtail and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (my bird of the day), Great Spotted Cuckoos, a juvenile Bonelli’s Eagle and another Golden Eagle and two more Stone Curlews before lunch.

Then Lesser Short-toed larks, another Great Spotted Cuckoo or two and back to Lleida in time to catch the train. Not before finishing off with close up views of 11 Little Bustards. And another Stone Curlew or two!

Spanish bird silhouettes

Just a bit of fun. Can you identify these three bird silhouettes, all Spanish birds?

Level: easy – moderate (if you think otherwise tell me so and I’ll adjust the difficulty)

Bird number 1:

Bird silhouette 1

Bird silhouette 2

Above: Bird silhouette number 2. Below: bird silhouette number 3.

Bird silhouette 3

Look out for more coco-busters coming soon!

Spring-loaded cars

Maintaining a blog requires constancy and vanity: I’m obviously lacking in one of those, but I’m not sure which.

Ideas for the environment, and hence for birds. This month’s apparently “whacko” suggestion is spring-loaded cars.

Imagine it: go to a “petrol” station which has no petrol but rather exercise bikes of similar. There you can pedal for as long as you like on a static bike which in fact is winding up a very strong, resistant spring-loaded mechanism housed inside a rechangeable tube. You pay nothing for the exercise, and in fact get a credit for replacing your spent “tube” or cannister for a recharged one, depending on the amount of exercise you have done, or how much you want to pay.

I’m no engineer, so I expect such a system would have to be used in combination with petrol or similar, as a spring-petrol hybrid.

Want more? Got more?

Spring bird migration well under way in northeast Spain

Just a quick note of the “first” arrivals that I have had the fortune to encounter over the last week or so:

3 Short-toed Eagles (together, and screaming like gulls, weird)

Several Garganey, both male and female

Willow Warbler singing

A horde of Swallows and Sand Martins

Little Ringed Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit and Black-winged Stilt as the wader representation

2 Egyptian Vultures and a few Black Kites in the Pre-Pyrenees

Tree Pipits calling, small parties of Yellow Wagtails

What I haven’t seen, despite looking:

Spectacled Warbler, Montagu’s Harrier (or even a flukey Pallid Harrier), House Martin

All the more reason to get out and about!

Bonelli’s Eagle: Top 50 birds of Birding in Spain

Bonelli’s Eagle   Hieraaetus fasciatus

The Bonelli’s Eagle is a resident species with juvenile dispersal to non-breeding areas with abundant prey items. The Bonelli’s Eagle is undergoing a serious decline throughout its range, which in Spain is mostly due to electrocution, illegal shooting and habitat fragmentation. Nevertheless, Spain holds around 70% of the European population of this marvellous species of bird. The healthiest populations of Bonelli’s Eagle in northeast Spain are found in the sierras of Tarragona in Catalonia.

Bonelli’s Eagle distribution map in northeast Spain

Some birding itineraries in northeast Spain where the Bonelli’s Eagle can be seen: Els Ports, Cardó massif, Prades and Montsant ranges, Garraf, Montgrí massif, Cap de Creus, Montsec range.

Ring Ouzel migrating through Spain

Out with my friend Manel birding on the drylands of Bellmunt, Lleida. A quick visit on the way home from Mont-roig (I know! I was there last week too, but it’s such a great place for birding!), mainly to see if any Little Bustards were marking territories. Nope, none.

But there we stood, listening to the melodic song (ehem!) of the Southern Grey Shrike, while watching a good number and variety of raptors sailing on the morning’s thermals: a handful of Griffon Vultures, a Golden Eagle, 2 Red Kites, a Hen Harrier and a Marsh Harrier too.

We drove on a little and then Manel stopped. I’d signalled for him to do so because I had seen a black bird in a short grassy field (barley actually but being young and green it looked like grass) but I couldn’t tell what it was.

“A starling” said Manel. I was looking at an angle through the windscreen, and you know how that distorts, but starling didn’t seem right.

“A blackbird?” I suggested. “Or perhaps a Ring Ouzel?” even more tentatively.

“A Ring Ouzel?” repeated Manel, with an inquisitorial tone, which made me sincerely hope that the bird was not in fact a starling after all. The bird then hopped, flew a little closer to us, and helpfully turned towards us, showing a gleaming white half-moon.

“Oh! It is a Ring Ouzel!” exclaimed Manel, “Isn’t that strange!”

Well, strange no, because birds have wings and they use them to migrate. Furthermore early March is the peak season for Ring Ouzel migration in this part of Spain. Nevertheless, it was only the second Ring Ouzel I had seen near Lleida in the 20 years that I have lived here. So “strange” maybe not, but stimulating certainly.

The Ring Ouzel that breeds in the Spanish Pyrenees is of the race alpestris, while the Bellmunt bird was obviously a male of the nominate race torquatus. So if any of you more northern European residents happen to see a Ring Ouzel in your garden in the next week or so think that there’s just a tiny possibility that Manel and I had been watching that same creature on the drylands of Bellmunt, northeast Spain.

Birding in Ordesa National Park

Ordesa National Park was the first national Park in Spain and one of the first in Europe. It’s an area of exceptional natural beauty in the Pyrenees of Aragón and borders with France.

It is home to the most emblematic mountain birds that can be seen in the region, such as Wallcreeper, Lammergeier, Black Woodpecker, Snowfinch, Citril Finch and Alpine Accentor. But it’s not a place for car-bound birders! Get out and walk through Beech forests, Scots and Corsican Pine, fir, alpine meadows with pristine streams and rivers, scree slopes, and enjoy the exercise, the scents, the breeze, the scenery. And of course the birds.

A word of warning though: Ordesa gets very busy at the peak tourist periods (summer and easter week), so either plan your visit to avoid these times, or get up early before the crowds. Unless you like being one of the crowd!

Birding in Ordesa National Park

Birding in Ordesa National Park was my very first experience of birding in Spain. I came in April with the University Bird Club and we spent a whole day bathed in beautiful spring sunshine, soaking up the natural ambience of this wonderful area. We also managed to see Black Woodpecker, Alpine Accentor, Lammergeier and Wallcreeper. I don’t think I will ever forget that Wallcreeper. My first, and hopefully not my last.

The official presentation of “Wings over Montsec”

This morning at Sant Llorenç de Montgai near Balaguer the “Wings over Montsec” project was officially presented to an interested public of some 40 people. Those present included politicians, mayors from the villages of Montsec, hoteliers, tourism technicians and of course, After all, it was our work being put on show!

Wings over montsec leaflet 1

The leaflet provides detailed information on two major birding routes in the Montsec area: the Eagle Route and the Lammergeier Route. The Eagle Route was designed to correspond to the general area where it is possible to see Bonelli’s Eagles, while the Lammergeier Route in the north traces a path that follows the trail of the Montsec Lammergeiers.

Wings over montsec leaflet 2

Each of these two major routes is divided into 7 birding itineraries named after some of the most emblematic or charismatic of the birds it is possible to see, for example Bonelli’s Eagle, Wallcreeper, Penduline Tit, Rock Thrush, etc. Accompanying each itinerary there is a map and an explanation of the itinerary and the birds that can be seen along the way.

We sincerely hope that this information will prove practical and useful and will attract a few more foreign birders to this overlooked area. We also hope that it will serve to make local people and politicians aware of the importance of protecting these special local birds and their habitats.

We know you’re in there Moustached Warbler!

Will that Moustached Warbler which was singing just a moment ago please come out from the base of the reeds and show itself to us? My companion Jim has come all the way from Japan to watch birds and a reasonable glimpse of a Moustached Warbler would round off the morning nicely.

That’s one of the things about birding, above all about bird guiding. Sometimes the birds you have been checking on all week seem to get cold feet just at the time when it counts the most: when you’ve told your companion that this is a really good place for Bonelli’s Eagle, or that Wallcreepers turn up on this particular rock face with great regularity in the winter months. Then when you’re standing there waiting, waiting…

Then there are the moments when you detect a bird you didn’t expect.. Like a Moustached Warbler singing in a narrow line of reeds in the Llobregat Delta. You stop, listen and wait, knowing that the bird is there. But does it show? No, not today!

But I’m not complaining, not really. After all in just two hours in the Llobregat delta we saw a lot of key birds, like Audouin’s Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Glossy Ibis, Greater Flamingo, Penduline Tit, Velvet Scoter and even a couple of Balearic Shearwaters at close range.

So no complaining. That’s birding!

Birding from the Pyrenees to the plains

That’s not exactly true, because Jim (a fellow birder from Japan) and I didn’t make it into the Pyrenees, we only got as far as Montsec.

However, by following the Montroig itinerary as shown on the Birding In Spain website we actually got the Pyrenees to come to the plains. How? Well, that’s a metaphor of course, but when you see about 10 Alpine Accentors a few minutes after seeing a few Black Wheatears the birder in you asks, where am I? In the Pyrenees? On the plains?

The morning’s birding had been great on the plains around Alfés, with 4 Great Spotted Cuckoos, about 30 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, 18 Little Bustard, Calandra Larks asong, a Golden Eagle, a Hen Harrier, 2 Merlins and, with no disrespect intended for those not mentioned, etc.

And not to forget 2 Red-rumped Swallows (early or what?), an out-of-range Bullfinch and an obliging pair of Black Wheatears (on the plains).

The afternoon made us work harder but Penduline Tit, Rock Bunting and Stone Curlew provided those little heart palpitations that birders seem to crave so much.

We’re off to the Llobregat delta tomorrow. It’s a bit harder for the Pyrenees to follow us there, unless the Walcreeper’s still on those cliffs at Garraf!