Flying over the Pyrenees trivia

Flying over the Pyrenees Trivia

Flying over the Pyrenees, standing on the plains - front cover Flying over the Pyrenees standing on the plains - back

Facts and things taken from “Flying over the Pyrenees, standing on the plains”. Do you know the answers?

Chapter 1 – the Wallcreeper

Drawing of Wallcreeper in flight

1. The world distribution of the Wallcreeper stretches from:

i) The Pyrenees in the West to the Himalayas in the east
ii) The Pyrenees in the west to Georgia in the east
iii) The Cantabrian mountains in the west to the Himalayas in the east
iv) The Alps in the west to the Balkans in the east

2. If you were to drive from Roses on the northeast coast of Catalonia to the Barranco del Infierno to look for a Wallcreeper, how long would the drive take you approximately?

3. The translation of a Chinese name for the Wallcreeper would be:

i) Rock scratcher
ii) Rock flower
iii) Rock climber
iv) Rock butterfly

4, In which European country did the Wallcreeper first appear on a stamp?

i) Romania
ii) Switzerland
iii) Austria
iv) Andorra

5. Where was the third record of Wallcreeper in Britain?

i) Cheshire Gorge
ii) St.Catherine’s Point, Isle of Wight
iii) Portland Bill
iv) Winchelsea

6. What happened to the Wallcreeper recorded at Winchelsea in 1886?

i) It was observed flying away to the west
ii) It collided with the lighthouse and died
iii) It was shot
iv) It is not known

Thekla vs Crested Larks in Spain

Both Thekla Lark and Crested Lark occur over much of the warmer parts of Spain, and frequently both species can be found in close company of each other. Surprisingly, relatively little has been said about the separation of this difficult species pair; in fact the possibility of misidentification of one species for the other has frequently been played down, simplified or largely ignored. Many birders who come to Spain question me about field separation of Crested and Thekla Larks – so much so that this is probably the single most often discussed identification point. 

 Thekla Lark, I presume.

Thekla Lark. Photo by Jan-Michael Breider. 

There was a thread recently on Bird Forum dealing with this question:

and the subject came up with clients on my last trip in mid-February.

So here I am attempting to summarise what can be said about the field identification of these two species in Spain. Or rather to express my own opinion about the criteria that are most valid for separating Crested and Thekla Lark in the field, at least in northeast Spain.

Morphologically speaking the features usually mentioned are: bill, crest length and shape, plumage coloration and streaking, face pattern, underwing colour and colour of the outer tail feathers.

In my opinion bill shape and length is probably the single most useful (although not infallible) feature. Comparatively speaking, Thekla Larks have shorter, stubbier, more triangular bills while Crested Larks have longer, more tapering bills with a straighter, or even concave lower mandible.

Face pattern: Thekla Larks usually have a more contrasting face pattern, with “spectacles” and a more “open” expression.

General plumage coloration: if you see a very grey-looking bird then it is almost certainly a Thekla Lark. The problem is that not all Thekla Larks are greyish, as this is a feature that largely depends on wear and local variation.

Outer tail feathers: apparently the Thekla Lark has more rufous and more contrasting outer rectrices – something I’ll have to check for in the field.

Underwing: Thekla Larks have greyer underwing coverts than Crested Larks, but just how often do you think you will be able to check that out in the field?

Crest: a rather useless criterion in my own humble opinion. It depends too much on wind, attitude, moult, individual variation and observer bias.

Voice: difficult to tell apart, even with certain experience. Both songs are similar, although Thekla Lark’s is more melodious, less imposing and lower pitched, with less tendency to imitation than Crested Lark.

Distribution: there are large tracts of land where only one species (usually Crested Lark) occurs, which is a good initial indicator if you are familiar with the species’ local distribution.

Habitat: this is a good indicator, although beware of “microhabitats”. Thekla Larks usually prefer less “agricultural” landscapes, and more often observed in broken, stony terrain with scattered bushes.

Last, but not least: is the bird perched on a bush or a pile of rocks, or is it a ground hugger? In the former case there is a very good chance that it will be a Thekla Lark

Crested Lark vs Thekla Lark: “a veritable minefield of confusion!” as was concluded on the bird forum thread.

Lammergeierfest in northeast Spain

Franck Renard and Gerd Herren returned to Belgium last week closely guarding memory cards and tapes with the precious images of Lammergeiers, Griffon Vultures, Black Vultures and more that they had collected after three days in our Lammergeier hides.

Thankfully they both got home safe and sound and were very satisfied indeed with their results. Franck forwarded a small selection of his photos and has generously agreed to allow me to show them to the readers of the blog.

So here they are. Many thanks Franck!

Lammergeier attack in northeast Spain

Photo by Franck Renard

Immature Lammergeiers often emit noisy whines in the presence of adult Lammergeiers and harass and chase after them. Such aerial encounters are not uncommon.

Adult Lammergeier in flight

Photo by Franck Renard

Adult Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture. Some say that the word “Lammergeier” is inappropriate – they may be right, but is Bearded Vulture more so? Looking at the bird here doesn’t that thing dangling from its bill look much more like a “moustache” than a beard?

Lammergeier in snowstorm.

Photo by Franck Renard

Franck and Gerd were really enjoying the photographic opportunity provided by the snowstorm. I was mainly worried about getting them back to civilization before being snowed in!

Juvenile Lammergeier in the Pyrenees of Catalonia, Spain.

Photo by Franck Renard

We also had some hail too. The Lammergeiers took it all in their stride.

Raptor Silhouettes II solutions

Now I know there’s someone out there! I have received several requests for the solutions of the Raptor Silhouettes II poster. Should I provide them, or encourage readers to work them out themselves?


I’m thinking about it.


Ideally someone would have had a go and I could have corrected the answers, student-teacher style. It would have been more of a participative process.

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll provide some of the answers.

1. Egyptian Vulture

2. Honey Buzzard

6. Marsh Harrier

9. Black-winged Kite

13. Lesser Kestrel

14. Goshawk

15. Osprey

16. Black Kite

17. Peregrine

19. Griffon Vulture

20. Bonelli’s Eagle

21. Merlin

Pine Bunting – a first for the drylands of Lleida

I mentioned the Pine Bunting on an earlier thread but didn’t have the all-important image to go with it. Well, here it is, thanks to my friend from Barcelona, one of Catalonia’s most incorrigible twitchers, Rafa Armada. By the way, Rafa has now seen three Pine Buntings in Spain!

Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalus

Male Pine Bunting observed near Lleida, northeast Spain. Photo by Rafa Armada.  

Rafa spent his time on this bird, and he was probably the last birder to see it, on the 21st January.

Who knows where it is now?

Any predictions for the next rarity that will turn up near Lleida?

It’s hoots! for the Great Grey Owl have completed the Spanish translation of Peter Cairns Great Grey Owl assignment. Spanish-speakers can read about it here. Hispanohablantes pueden leerla aquí.

Great Grey Owl

Great Grey Owl. Photo by Peter Cairns, one of the founders of the Wild Wonders of Europe project.

Pete Cairns

Peter Cairns himself.

The Great Grey Owl – what a magnificent bird! A bird that has set down its own laws of gravity.

I wonder if Peter was taken to the same nest site as we were, somewhere around midnight, back in the summer of 2006.

First northeast Spain Hotspot Report

Purple Gallinule

Purple Swamp-hens. Photo by Jan-Michael Breider.

This is the first of what will hopefully be a monthly event throughout 2009. The Birding Hotspot Monthly Report. The first month, as expected, was January.

Below is the link to download the Pdf with the full list of species seen or heard (yes, I count both – if it was heard it was there wasn’t it?) in the hotspot centred around Balaguer. See the earlier entry if you don’t know where that is.

I’m really struggling not to make this a listing exercise. For example when I heard that we had an influx of storm-driven Kittiwakes my first thought was “Wouldn’t that be a bonus for the hotspot list!” These things have their dangers. Today I heard about a couple of Jack snipes just up the road and it was only an unscheduled phone call that prevented me from jumping into the car and off we go. Maybe I’ll check them out next week.

But no that is not the hotspot spirit. One is supposed to go about one’s normal birding activities and record the species encountered.

Back to the list: of the 113 species recorded gulls feature highly, with no less than 6 species, and not a crab or a breakwater in sight! Little Gull, Kittiwake and Common Gull were all nice surprises to add to the more regular Yellow-legged, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Ducks also paddled into the picture, as they should do at the height of winter. A Ferruginous Duck was seen in the company of Common Pochards and a Pochard x Fudgy Duck hybrid, on the same lake as 7 Greylag Geese and a Black-necked Grebe. There are still some to get though: Shelduck, Red-crested Pochard and Tufted Duck spring to mind.

Little Bustard 

Little Bustard. Photo by Jan-Michael Breider. 

The drylands are all but hibernating for the winter. Even so, Little Bustards, Calandra Larks, Hen Harriers and Little Owls do their best to brighten them up.

A couple of morning visits to Montsec ensured winter specials like Wallcreeper and Alpine Accentor, as well as the resident Bonelli’s Eagles. Winter passerines seemed to be in good supply too, with Bramblings, Redwings, Yellowhammers and good numbers of Hawfinches.

My prediction for February is little change. Perhaps a passing Crane flock or early Black Stork, a flock of Fieldfares in a fruit orchard, a couple of Black-bellied Sandgrouse on the drylands and Bullfinches near Sant Llorenç de Montgai. February is also the month when Great Spotted Cuckoos often make an appearance, so we’ll see. Ah! The joys of birding!   

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo. Photo by Jan-Michael Breider.

As mentioned above, here is the Pdf with the January hotspot list.

Northeast Spain Hotspot list January 2009

Kittiwake wreck in wake of storm

Exceptional gale force winds buffeted northern Spain on the 24th and 25th January, causing an unprecedented influx of Kittiwakes to inland Catalonia. In most countries that I know inland Kittiwakes are a rare event (persoanlly I’ve only seen them inland once before in Kent, England, in the late 1980s).

Well, in the last week more than 300 Kittiwakes have been observed on the rivers, lakes and reservoirs of inland Catalonia. Many of these birds are fatigued and end up dying. Some of them have been picked up by concerned people and taken to local wildlife recovery centres.

Sant Llorenç de montgai

Sant Llorenç de Montgai – not well known for its Kittiwake population

One local birder reported an interesting event concerning one of those wind-driven Kittiwakes: one of a flock totalling 28 was caught and eaten by a Golden Eagle (one of the few Golden Eagles in Spain with a taste for seafood it seems).

British birders visiting Catalonia drylands

Are you sure it was a Kittiwake you saw sitting with the sandgrouse?