Birding in Catalonia and Aragón


It’s moonscape scenery – as dry and arid as one can imagine with stunted bare branched shrubs hugging the ground either side of the dust track road.    There’s a flicker of movement and a triumphant, muted call from Steve who’s pointing vigorously.   We’ve found the Spectacled Warbler, although it’s determined not to make too easy viewing.

We are in the driest part of Spain, north of Candasnos and we’ve gone into western Aragon, (Eagle Owl territory according to Steve) but the real surprise lies only a short distance away.  Suddenly we drive into an irrigated field on the edge of the plateau, and the colour tableau changes from grey and brown to lush green and colours of spring flowers;  on either side of the road a flock of Yellow Wagtails flicked their tails and showed off their brilliant colour, between 20 & 30 of them. What a contrast!

Earlier in the day in the drylands, we’d spent minutes watching both Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse after disturbing a young Bonelli’s Eagle from the ground.

If your birding is a part of  exploring varied scenery (& therefore habitats), then NE Catalunya with its plains, drylands, & the lower ranges of the Pyrenees is a place to visit.    The contrast is complete with a half day spent in the Montrebei Gorge which is a well trodden pass through the Montsec mountain range – fast running river, steep wooded cliffs with flowers, butterflies and our objective, the Wallcreeper.   En route we encounter Cirl Buntings, Rock Buntings and numerous Black Redstarts on their migration. Exactly on cue and deep in the gorge, a Wallcreeper displays for us on rocks opposite a convenient bench while we enjoy our sandwiches.
There’s a Wallcreeper in the gorge
Three days of great birding guided by Steve achieving over one hundred species, that was real holiday.  (It did start to rain just as we arrived back at Lleida railway station to catch the Ave back to Barcelona – good timing!). I must mention the Great Spotted Cuckoos if only because the guru taught us that they parasitize on Magpies – what a useful bird – and the flock of Little Bustards who clearly quite enjoy posing for Steve’s clients.  I suspect that some of the quieter winter period may have been devoted to a little training!

Go to northern Catalunya in the spring migration season;  if you don’t know the region already you’ll get some surprises.   Thanks Steve.

Rupert Ormerod

Roller in Spain needs home

Because of rising house prices in Spain, exacerbated by last year’s mortgage crisis and the slump in the construction trade decent affordable accommodation is getting hard to find. That’s especially so in the countryside and for new arrivals attempting to make themselves a home where they can raise a family. By means of illustration take a look at this notice found hanging on an almond tree in the drylands of Bellmunt:

“Fertile adult female Roller seeking dazzling adult male Roller. Must be home owner, preferably of sizeable hole in old tree, although new nest box also accepted. Ability to catch large insects and lizards and to carry out aerial displays will also be valued, although home ownership is a pre-requisite for breeding consent. Non-territorial male Rollers, and all female Rollers, please abstain.”

Luckily Rollers can still be seen in the drylands of Bellmunt, as well as in other dryland areas around Lleida, although decent nest sites are obviously scarce. Apart from the extent of suitable habitat, this is probably the single most important factor limiting the size of the Roller populations in northeast Spain.

Birders who have visited Extremadura are probably familiar with the nest boxes located on telegraph poles by the side of the road in certain areas. These nest boxes are largely aimed at Rollers and have been very successful. Isn’t it time to follow their example and put up some nest boxes for the Rollers reaching northeast Spain every spring?

This year’s breeding season is well under way, but it’s never too late to plan ahead and prepare to set up some Roller nest boxes before the drylands get plastered with signs like the one above.

The Lammergeier centre of Europe

This year Mayday meant a 4-day bank holiday and so a family excursion to the Pyrenees of Aragón was hastily arranged.

Fortunately we were blessed with beautiful sunny weather for the two days of our trip. The old quarter of Aínsa was the designated drinks stop. Now Aínsa is a historical-artistic monument, which was sure to please the wife, but the main reason for stopping here was to show my family the marvellous Eco-museum that I had discovered a couple of years before.

The Ecomuseum in Aínsa was set up and is run by the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (FCQ) (Lammergeier Conservation Foundation), whose main objective is to promote the conservation of the Lammergeier in the Spanish Pyrenees and beyond.

The building itself is built into the wall of the wonderfully restored old quarters of Aínsa and has a ground level annexe used as a raptor refuge (for injured birds and environmental education). But it is the museum itself, and the extremely well thought out and crafted exhibits, displays and models that impress the most.

We all really loved the mountain bioclimatic strata display (that’s not the official name!) whereby each floor represents the ecosystems of the Pyrenees at different altitudes: the ground floor is the forest floor with Capercaillie, Black Woodpecker, Tengmalm’s Owl and more; the first floor reflects life near the treeline and rock faces – stars here are Wallcreeper, Eagle Owl, Golden Eagle ……; and the upper floor represents the Alpine environment of high peaks with Snow Finch, Alpine Chough, Alpine Accentor, Ptarmigan, etc.

The models were specially commissioned, bird song sounds out as you look, and the experience should not be missed.

My eldest son was so enthused that he got me to buy him a pack of raptor identification cards which he put to very good use over the subsequent days. That in itself made the visit worthwhile.

Bird photography: a homage to an Italian master

Birders taking a glance at the website will see a good number of photos, including scenery (mostly Steve West’s), plants, insects and, of course, birds. Notably, none of the bird photos were taken by the author of the website. Why not? Well, the most concise explanation would be that there is so much to see when birding in Spain that I just cannot arm myself with the buckets of patience that are needed to take good bird photos.

Here I’m not talking about snapshots, but rather the very accomplished bird photography of  my neighbour Joan Manel Puig, and in particular (and in my opinion) the unrivalled camera work of the Italian master Daniele Occhiato.  Here we have two dedicated bird photographers, experts in their field, with all the  equipment, imagination and necessary knowhow to get the very best out of their art.

The results should speak for themselves, but if there is too much noise for them to be heard then listen to me and take a look at some of Daniele Occhiato’s bird photos by clicking on this link.

Keep it coming Daniele!

Collared Pratincole in Spain: top 50 birds

Collared Pratincole Glareola pratincola

collared pratincole
The Collared Pratincole is a summer visitor to northeast Spain, normally present from April to September. Small numbers appear irregularly on spring passage at non-breeding sites. There is only one regular breeding site for Collared Pratincoles in the region.

Collared pratincole distribution
Birding itineraries in northeast Spain where you can see the Collared Pratincole: Ebro delta south and north

Lammergeier in Spain: top 50 birds

Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus

Lammergeier in Spain: top 50 birds

In Spain the Lammergeier is currently restricted to the Pyrenees and pre-Pyrenees, where it is present all year round. Double-figure gatherings may occur at certain vulture restaurants.

distribution map of lammergeier in Spain
Birding itineraries in northeast Spain where you can observe the Lammergeier: Gistaín to Aínsa, Ordesa National Park, Hecho and Ansó valleys, Benasque, Rincón de Belagua, Selva de Iratí and Ori, Serra del Cadí, Aigüestortes west and east, Montsec range, Sierra de Guara west and east.

Spring Red-footed Falcon fall

There’s been quite an unprecedented fall of Red-footed Falcons in the drylands of Lleida over the last week or so. Reports of these little charmers in groups of from 3 to a dozen birds have come in from the drylands of Balaguer, Bellmunt and Alguaire-Almenar, and if nothing has been said about the drylands of Alfés it’s probably because the local birders are too busy counting them at other sites!

I was leading the Naturetrek Catalonia tour in the area when we unwittingly but gratefully bumped into our first Red-footed Falcon on Monday 12th May. One of the 13 participants pointed out the bird in question, “What’s that bird in the tree over there, Steve?”.

I confess that I didn’t get round to answering him (in the mode of humouring him, thinking to myself “I’d better look at his bird and tell him it’s a Kestrel before he gets narked with me”) for at least 10 minutes. Well, in my defence, it wasn’t easy coping with the barrage of birds that we encountered that morning: a dozen or so male Little Bustards calling, flying and chasing each other, a pair of Hobbys practising their aerobatic skills on a wandering Swallow, countless Calandra Larks trilling and jingling, a sentinel Southern Grey Shrike, even a couple of flyover Black-winged Stilts!

What a surprise I got when I eventually did focus his “kestrel” in my scope! “Crikey! A Red-footed Falcon! Wait a minute! Two in the same tree!”

We went on to see 6 Red-footed Falcons that morning (plus Kestrel, Lesser Kestrel and Hobby) and no fewer than 9 the following day in the drylands of Bellmunt. Adult and subadult males and females, enjoyed by all.

Such encounters are great when you’re out birding, and for me they’re even better when  you’re leading a tour and everyone gets to share in the experience.

Another good thing has also happened this week: it’s rained!

Birding in Spain: where East meets West

Some appreciative words from Jim Mori, an American birder living in Japan:

On March 1, 2008, I had a great day in the drylands of Lleida with the pleasant company of Steve West. He is very adept in finding the birds and most species are easy to see in the open terrain of the region. The early morning was slightly overcast but pleasant, and the many flowering almond trees provided a fragrant and colorful backdrop. Among the various birds, we had good scope views of larks to sort out the Crested and Thekla Larks. Later, the Calandra Larks were much easier. There were also Red-legged Partridge, Bullfinch, Spotless Starling, Red-rumped Swallow, Chough, Southern Grey Shrike, and a flock of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.

We returned to the atmospheric La Garbinada hotel for a full breakfast,
which included a glass of the local wine. Feeling pretty mellow for the
rest of the morning, I was not greatly disappointed in missing the Little
Owl we were looking for. There were many birds for the rest of morning,
including good views of Great Spotted Cuckoo, Red Kite, and a flock of
Little Bustards. We saw numerous raptors with Buzzards, Merlin, Marsh
Harrier, Hen Harrier, and a Golden Eagle.

In the afternoon we headed for the Montsec area. Along the cliffs there
were Rock Bunting, Alpine Accentors, Black Wheatear, and a pair of
Peregrines. Close by along the Noguera River there was a beautiful
Penduline Tit in bright plumage.

As the light was fading, I was impressed that Steve could find a Stone
while driving and scanning the fields. The bird is not so easy to
see even when you know where it is. It was especially gratifying to end the
trip with this bird since we had been searching for it all day.

With recent splits and lumps it is sometimes hard to figure out what is a
seperate species. Using various field guides and webpages, I decided the
Red-rumped Swallow was not a new species for me, since we have the same
bird in Japan. However, the Buzzard turned out to be a new bird since it is
split from the similar Eastern Buzzard in Japan. Overall, the exciting day
had over 50 species with 21 new ones for me.

Jim Mori

100 nights for birding in Montsec

From the end of February to mid-May BirdingInSpain will have been directly responsible for filling at least 100 hotel bed nights in the Montsec area. That might not sound like much, but it is 100 more than nothing, which is approximately what there would have been without our interest in promoting birding in the area.

100 is the figure that we can count, because we have had direct dealings with it. Then there are the “unseen ones”, birders or their families who have used the information on itineraries and places to stay on the website and have gone ahead and put together their own holiday. Hopefully their number will grow in coming years.

For such birders, and other users of the website, we have a simple request: when you book your accommodation following the “looking for the best accommodation?” links it will really do birding and conservation a great service if you let the proprietors know why you are coming (birding) and how you found them (through the BIS website) . If local people, establishments and tourism entities see that people are coming to birdwatch it will give a great boost to conservation efforts: birds can bring money to the local economy and so they and their habitats should be protected and respected.

Unlike other local birding “enterprises”, has not received a cent of public funding. So every birder that comes to Montsec through us is a net contributor to the local economy.

An eye for eagles?

It was a hot afternoon and two bird photographers and I were sitting at a terrace bar, enjoying a cool beer.

A woman in her fifties sitting alone at the next table looked at us and said, “Anglais?”

“Sorry?” I asked.

“Oh you are English! I’m glad – I’m not very good at speaking Spanish.”

Anglais? Spanish? I thought, but magnanimously let it pass.

“Are you birdwatchers?”, she inquired.

I suspect it was the Swarovski and Leica binoculars and the Canon digital cameras with huge 500mm lenses that led her to assume we were birders.

“Yes. And bird photographers,” I answered.

“Then perhaps you can tell me what kind of eagle is it that my husband and I regularly see flying over our house?”

“Eagles? Hmm, well, the most common species around is the Short-toed Eagle. White on the undersides.”

“Oh no, these are quite dark looking. But we see them regularly you see, sometimes fifty or more together.”

“Fifty? Then they must be vultures,” I explained.

“Oh no, the end of their wings are upturned, so they aren’t vultures.”

Judging from the vigour of her reply that wasn’t a comma, but rather a full-stop. Still, I couldn’t envisage incorporating her criterion for eagle identification “upturned wings= eagle” into my raptor identification classes.

JM, one of my companions, stepped in “Eagles are solitary birds, you rarely see more than 2 or 3 eagles together. They must be vultures.”

The lady pursed her lips, and shook her head, “No, no, not vultures.”

I shrugged, “If she wants them to be eagles, let them be eagles” I said to JM in a whisper.

But JM’s Swedish soul was stirred. Reason had to prevail, “Madam, this morning we have seen 7 species of raptor, and only one of them was an eagle.”

“Oh no, we know the vultures. These were eagles,” she sentenced, shaking her head.

We looked at each other and the only way forward seemed to be to let matters lie. She had obviously decided that our judgement was not to be trusted. Was it my accent?

We bade her farewell as she got on her bicycle to cycle back home down the road towards Balaguer. Just as a dozen vultures were soaring on a thermal over a nearby hilltop. Sorry, not vultures, eagles …they had upturned wing tips.