Birding In Spain gets Cross with Aussie birders

From Australia to Spain, and beyond

Featuring the Ken Cross Back to Europe Trip Log

This May past Ken Cross came from the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia, and brought his merry crew of Australian birders and companions with him to enjoy a superb classic spring birding tour of Spain.

After many months of e-mails and planning Ken and Steve finally met up in Madrid in mid-May, and from here was launched our tour of the best of Spain and its birds. Over the next 12 we toured and birded Extremadura, the Picos de Europa, the Pyrenees, the Ebro Valley plains and the Ebro Delta, finishing the tour in Barcelona. We also managed to organize a pelagic cruise one morning to look for shearwaters and petrels…How did we get on? 

You can read all about it here at Ken’s blog:

The first challenge that faced us was to work out a packing scheme; however if there’s one thing we have come to excel in in the birding circuit it’s just that. As we think the photo shows:

 Packing the bird tour van

A few days later another challenge arose: how to beat the hotel views, food and service that we had in the Picos de Europa. I don’t think we beat it in the subseqüent hotels, but we came reasonably close.

One of the best birding hotels in Spain

 One of the best birding hotels in Spain

2 amazing and stimulating views from our hotel in the Picos de Europa

Our impressions were that Ken (Mr Cross) and his crew (Russ, Maria, Vince, Steve, Jan, Karen, Norm, June, Ray) had a good time all round, but in particular they really loved the mountains, and this is judging from the battery of “oohs” and “aahs” delivered by all when the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains came into view.

The final tour tally was 213 species of birds, with of course some very interesting and unusual sightings, and with fun and Aussie humour all the way.

Dupont’s Lark and Lammergeier were chosen as the group’s bird of the tour. Although we should remain impartial with questions of taste we are very glad that the Corn Bunting did not enter the competition!

The big surprise to me was that when I arrived home from a later trip I found 2 field guides to Australia waiting for me: one for the mammals, and another for the birds. A big thank you to our Aussie friends for that, and for their great company!

Now though I have to start saving up to go to Australia.

 Australian flag

First International Meeting on Raptor Conservation, Photography and Responsible Tourism

At Montsonís

International meeting on Raptor Conservation at Montsonís

The First International Meeting on Raptor Conservation, Photography and Responsible Tourism was held at Montsonís, Catalonia, between the 16th and 19th March 2015. For a first of its kind it was undoubtedly a resounding success.

First International Meeting on Raptor Conservation, Photography and Responsible Tourism

The meeting itself was held at Montsonís castle and reception area on Thursday 19th March, and featured talks by photography and nature tourism wizard Staffan Widstrand from Sweden, Norwegian photographer and nature entrepreneur Espen Lie Dahl, and two Catalan raptor researchers, Joan Real from the University of Barcelona and Àngel Bonada of the Lammergeier Research and Study Group.

Among the rapt audience were representatives from the Generalitat de Catalunya, Diputació de Lleida, local mayors, barons of L’Albi, members of La Sabina, the organizers, and others. The baron and baroness very kindly contributed to the act by allowing it to take place in their home, the castle of Montsonís.

During the two days leading up to the meeting, special guests made good use of different raptor photography hides. The invitees included bird and wildlife tour operators from the UK, the editor of the digital magazine Wild Planet Photo Magazine, a photo tour operator from Slovenia, and the sales representative from a major camera and optics retailer in the UK. In the course of their visits they enjoyed encounters with birds such as Goshawk, Lammergeier, Bonelli’s Eagle, Wallcreeper, Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Red Kite, Black Kite, White Stork and more.

La Sabina’s reason for organizing the meeting was to promote good practices in development and promotion of nature tourism products, especially raptor photography, as well as to involve the local community and administrations by demonstrating the benefits of this kind of tourism for the environment and the local economy.

First International Meeting on Raptor Conservation, Photography and Responsible Tourism

According to speaker Staffan Widstrand the number of people enjoying nature tourism in the USA is greater than the sum of sports fishermen and hunters, and nature-oriented tourism is growing rapidly in other countries too.

Sunday birding? Give it a rest!

 Sunday birding? Give it a rest!

Sunday birding? Give it a rest!

February ends and with it the Spanish hunting season is finally over. Now, once again, I should be able to approach a bird-rich lake to the north of Lleida and watch its birds without them flying into each other in a panic to get as far from me as possible. This panic effect is really dramatic in early October at the beginning of the hunting season: one day the Coots are almost eating from your hands and the next they’re cowering behind a reed 2 lakes away from you.

So, it’s a sunny weekend in March, the hunting is over, let the fun begin.

Fun, indeed!

I pulled up beside the lake and stayed in the car, to give the birds a chance to assess the situation as a relatively low risk one. Sure enough, a male Merlin which took off on my arrival returned almost to the same spot before ten minutes had passed. Then the cyclists arrived: just a middle-aged couple, well kitted out of course with all the skin-clasping gear, matching helmets and goggles. They were out for a ride, and rode past me, stopping by the lakeside to take a photo or two. Click, click! Post on Facebook, and off we go again. About 5 minutes later they were on the other side of the lake at the viewing area, inadvertently scaring off the birds they had previously scared to that side. Then to my annoyance they took to circumscribing the lake along non-existing paths.

I moved on to the viewing area myself. Within minutes a family arrived in a car, 3 children and 2 adults jumped out and merrily made a bee-line straight for the most secluded part of the lakeshore. Just as a flock of 120 Common Cranes were coming in to land. I left quickly so as not to hear my own grumbling.

Back on the other side I paused on my way out to gaze at the cranes from inside the car, and within a minute another car passed me, made directly for the cranes, which flew up, and then it just as quickly turned and left the scene. I decided it was time to do the same, but in the other direction. Sunday should be a day of rest.

The wonderful Wallcreeper

Birding in Spain: the Wallcreeper

It’s December. Imagine you’re walking along the base of a steep rock face somewhere in the Pre-Pyrenees. You detect a movement and look up. There’s a bird, and it’s close enough for you to see its long, slender down-curved bill and its slate-grey and black plumage. A moment later the bird flutters, and on its open, butterfly-like wings you see a dazzling flash of deep crimson.

Wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria.

Wallcreeper photo by Cezary Pióro 

Rejoice! You are now among the lucky few that have set eyes on one of nature’s jewels: the Wallcreeper. An amazing bird that is at home clinging to vertical rock faces in order to probe into nooks and crannies and pry out spiders and insects with that slender bill. Little wonder then that when foreign birders visit this country this is usually the bird they most want to see, or that even the pragmatic Chinese have baptised it with the graceful name of “rock flower”.

In the breeding season the Wallcreeper inhabits sheer cliff faces in the Pyrenees at altitudes of between 2,000 and 3,000m. That means that between May and September the Wallcreeper is rarely an easy bird to see – first of all one has to reach its secluded, mountain haunts and then one has to strain the neck muscles, and often the patience too, in order to spot it among towering mountains of naked rock. That’s one reason why winter is not all bad: by then Wallcreepers have left their high mountains to occupy more accessible terrain in the pre-Pyrenees, Montsant, el Ports…even cliffs by the sea at Cap de Creus.

One day last winter I made a personal pilgrimage to the sunny rock faces of Montsec and I received my reward. I took home the Wallcreeper’s colours and a little of its wing-flashing warmth, clutching onto the vision as I descended once more into the blanket of fog enshrouding Lleida and the surrounding plains. And I hadn’t even strained my neck muscles.

Happy Wallcreeper watchers in Spain

Happy Wallcreeper watchers

There’s more about the Wallcreeper and many more birds in Flying over the Pyrenees, standing on the plains” 

Flying over the Pyrenees, standing on the plains

Northeast Spain bird trip report by Mikko

Northeast Spain Trip Report

Mikko Pyhälä from Finland has kindly agreed to share this trip report with Birding In Spain blog readers. Mikko came to us for a couple of day’s birding in May, and we had a very enjoyable time together.

Birding with Birding In Spain trip report May 2014

There were many highlights according to his report, but I suppose that what I will remember for the longest was the immature Golden Eagle near the roadside at Candasnos and how, inexplicably, the bird did not fly away when we approached.

That’s Mikko in the photo below, taking photos of the poppies on the drylands. Good birding and happy clients, what a magic formula. Thanks Mikko!

Mikko in a field of poppies. Birding in Spain is fun.

Summer backyard birding


Domestic birding.

Birding by the river

With the long, hot summer days and not a great deal of paid work on the near horizon a spot of evening birding has become something like an essential boredom survival technique. So round about 6pm, when the sun’s rays don’t bite into the flesh, I hop into the red Suzuki and drive to a birding spot as near as possible to Lleida.

The Red Suzuki

The trusty Red Suzuki 

A few days ago I followed the river Segre’s course out of town, and watched a couple of very young Penduline Tits, all gape and contact calls, in some bulrushes opposite the sewage treatment plant. When mother flew over the river – maybe the grass was greener on the other side – her bewildered-looking offspring were hot on her heels, despite the obvious exertion required from such a small, virtually tailless and clueless young bird.

By that time joggers and cyclists were about in some number, so waders such as Green Sandpipers and Little Ringed Plovers were only at ease in the widest parts of the river with little stone or mud islands.

I eventually parked and took a walk around the Basses de Rufea, a few smallish tree- and reed-fringed ponds, and one of those places you felt could always deliver a surprise or two. I particularly have my sights set on the Tamarisk scrub flanking the eastern side of the pools, there’s just got to be a rare passerine turning up there sooner or later, as long as its watched. This I left to last.

A vaguely familiar bird call came from the small poplar plantation as I passed. I had to think about it for a moment or two before I placed the clear and repeated “kek-kek” as a juvenile Golden Oriole, a call which I hear much less than the familiar onomatopoeic “o-ri-ol” or the squealing “cat call”. I stood for a minute or two, lazily scanning the canopy in a vague hope of seeing the calling bird, which never happened. Oh well, que será será.

Some small details had changed since my last visit: where the old hide had been burnt down there was now a more sensible wooden screen with viewing slits at different heights. The emergent vegetation had emerged so much though that there was little of the open water to be seen, and fewer birds, ie none. It’s never an easy job trying to “manage” nature. A new path led me around the edge of this pond for the first time, and I found myself cutting across an unmarked trail to get to another viewing point, again with a new wooden screen.

Perhaps the greatest claim to fame of Rufea is what one can see from this spot: a large, disperse and often lively colony of herons and egrets dotted all over the trees growing on islands or right at the water’s edge. Abundant Cattle Egrets, numerous Little Egrets (although I had to look closer and more carefully than normal to separate these two species because of the large number of darker-billed and dark-legged juvenile Cattle Egrets), and several Night Herons, mostly juveniles, in view. A few Grey Herons here and there, all but one standing by the reeds and studying their reflections in the water. A single Squacco Heron flew over my head from behind me and landed out of view. Not too many years ago that would have raised eyebrows and the pulses of any Segrià county listers that there may have been. Lastly was another rare gem, although not seen, but unmistakably identified by its muffled barking call, a Little Bittern.

It was quite fun to see half a dozen Cattle Egrets riding sheepback among a tightly-packed flock of maybe two hundred sheep. Some rain fell from heavy clouds, and I picked out a large poplar for shelter. Its thick, slightly hollowed trunk lay at the ideal slant and even had a kink just above head height. I was quite looking forward to putting it to the rain test, but the rain stopped all too soon. I’ll have to remember that tree and go back and test it under better conditions.

Nightingale, Luscinia megarhynchos

Nightingale. Didn’t see one. 

And that was it really. I skirted around the Tamarisk bushes, getting bitten by a few insects, thinking that the dark clouds and the breeze wouldn’t give me the right combination to find my sought after rarity, and so it was. The only other birds I encountered were a couple of Reed Warblers and a scolding Cetti’s Warbler. And you ask: Was that because there were no unusual birds there at the time, or because you didn’t make any effort to find them?

That is something we’ll never know.

Extreme weather events II

Extreme weather II

April 2013 ended with 6 consecutive days of rain, at times very heavy, at what was the height of our plains in spring photography season. This was very annoying to some of our guest photographers, having to face up to the challenge of getting photos of plains birds from our hides without getting soaked or coated in mud. Sometimes the challenge was just getting to the hides!

Little Owl, Athene noctua, on the plains of Lleida, Catalonia

Little Owls had to make do with what they could find

This was irksome, but worst still for us was the bird side of things: Small colonies of Bee-eaters were excavating nests one day and just “gone” the next, perhaps to reappear when the rain stopped, or perhaps not; Little Owls and Lesser Kestrels seemed to be relying on millipedes to tide them through hard times in the complete absence of grasshoppers; male Little Bustards occasionally threw their heads back in a half-hearted display but downright refused to do anything that could be construed as a “jump”.

Male Little Bustard, Tetrax Tetrax, on the plains of Lleida, Catalonia.

Little Bustards were not convinced about the advantages of jumping. Photo by Jordi Bas.

Then came the summer, and things returned to normal, or a close resemblance of it. Rollers started inspecting the nestboxes we had put up for them; Hobbies were using regular perches in the vicinity of their nest; and one day I located a Green Woodpecker’s nest with several tiny chicks in the hollow trunk of an old almond tree.

Roller, Coracius garrulus, on the plains of Lleida, Catalonia.

Rollers were ousted from nestboxes by the violent storms. Photo by Jordi Bas.

In June a hailstorm hit the plains area. Only 3 villages were mentioned in the local news, but those 3 places mark the area of the drylands where these birds were nesting. That week I went back to the Green Woodpecker’s nest and checked: there’d be no chicks raised from that particular brood, as the nest was flooded. Maybe the adults could try again, but what about Little Bustards and Montagu’s Harriers nesting unprotected in the open fields? How would they have fared?

Hobby, Falco subbuteo, on the plains of Lleida, Catalonia.

One of the nesting Hobbies was killed by the hail.

But worst was yet to come. About two weeks later another hailstorm hit almost exactly the same area. And this time round it was really virulent. The day after scenario couldn’t be more disheartening: one of the nesting Hobby pair was lying dead at the foot of the nesting tree; the lid of one of the Roller nestboxes had been blown off and the contents completely cleaned out; Montagu’s Harriers were nowhere to be seen.

Green Woodpecker, Picus viridis, at the pool hide, Montsonís, Lleida.

A Green Woodpecker’s nest was “flooded out”. Photo by Wim de Groot.

Somebody should be quoted here. Perhaps Mark Twain  “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get”, or perhaps Frank Lane “If you want to see the sunshine, you have to weather the storm”.


Golly Gosh!

 Birding with Steve

Currently we are suffering another heatwave here in Spain, with today’s temperatures reaching 41ºC around Lleida and in other parts of the Ebro Valley. Most sane people spend their time indoors, not coming out until the evening, when things cool down enough to walk around the neighbourhood and maybe enjoy a meal or a drink on a terrace somewhere. Others take refuge by the pool, or the beachside.

However, some of us have that obsession called birding. And when some of us go abroad we want to see some new birds, whether the month be a Saharan August or an Antarctic January. This month we’ve already had 5 visitors from northern Europe looking to get a bit of birding in during their summer hols in Spain. The idea is admirable, but how do you cope with hairdryer heat that races up into the 30’s before you have time to digest the first excting sightings of the day? And how do you expect to handle the afternoon haze, heat and drowsiness that you know is in store? Here’s some advice that we think is sound. Well, sound enough for anyone who is inclined to go out looking for birds in Spain during a heatwave!

Make sure you have plenty of cool water with you. A couple of litres per person is not excessive. So that means a single big bottle per person or lots of those piddly little bottles that seem so convenient to pop into your backpack, but which are little more than tongue-wetters. Dehydration is a serious issue, and one that many northern Europeans take too lightly.

How to keep the water cool, and for free? Well, not for free, if you want to know you’ll have to send us an e-mail to ask for our secret. We will tell you that it really works a treat.

Suncream, of course. A couple of times a day.

Plan your route. Are you looking for altitude birds? A difference in altitude of 1,000 metres can mean a gasp-saving difference of 10ºC. That’s a “tolerable” 30ºC compared to an opressive 40ºC. So if you can get up high plan to be there around the hottest part of your birding day.

Get up early and be on-site for just after dawn. That’s when it’s coolest, and best for you and for the birds. Eat breakfast late, standing up or before you leave home.

Plan for a late lunch, and not a picnic lunch! Rather go to a nice cool air-conditioned bar, sit and relax and enjoy your food and drink in the knowledge that you have already done all or most of your day’s birding. Most bars and cafés will serve you sandwiches and snacks throughout the day, so there’s no sense in stopping birding at noon to have lunch when you can still bird comfortably until around 2 pm. Birding at 4pm is only for those who know or can do no better.

If your program will allow it take a siesta between 4pm and 7 pm, and then explore the possibility of a spot of late evening birding as the temperature starts to drop.

Park your vehicle in the shade whenever possible. Open the windows before getting back in, drive with them open and the air-conditioning on for a while before closing them and letting the air-conditioning take control. What – you haven’t got air-conditioning?! Then see the advice on the use of horse and carts.

 Black-bellied Sandgrouse seen when birding in Spain

Black-bellied Sandgrouse can cope with a heatwave, but can you?

Review: Catalan Winter Bird Atlas


we were asked to review the superb Catalan Winter Bird Atlas for the journal Ibis. Here is the review as it appears in the latest number of the “International Journal of Avian Science” Ibis (2012), 154, 414-434.

Ibis, the International Journal of Avian Science

HERRANDO, S., BROTONS, L., ESTRADA, J., GUALLAR, S. & ANTON, M. (eds) Atles dels Ocells de Catalunya a l’Hivern 2006–2009 – Catalan Winter Bird Atlas 2006–2009. 649 pages, numerous colour maps, photographs, graphs, other illustrations (in colour and black and white), tabulated data in 3 appendices. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions in association with Institut Catala` d’Ornitologia, 2011. Website:

A first generation bird atlas: 1984 saw the publication of the first bird atlas for Catalonia, edited entirely in Catalan and titled Atles dels Ocells Nidificants de Catalunya i Andorra (reviewed in Ibis 128: 151–152). It used 10-km square grid maps to show the presence of breeding birds, with different-sized dots representing definite, probable or possible breeding.

The second generation: after many years of work in both field and office, the Catalan Breeding Bird Atlas 1999–2002 was published in 2004, 20 years after the first one. Its pages reflected the work of no fewer than 516 people, both volunteers and professionals, and represented a great evolutionary step in the organization of Catalan field ornithology. It was rightly acclaimed as a landmark publication for Catalan ornithology and was described by reviewer Paul Donald (in Ibis 147: 617– 618) as one of his ‘top ten’ bird atlases.

And now a third generation bird atlas? That’s what some are saying about the Catalan Winter Bird Atlas 2006–2009, including EBCC chairman R. P. B. Foppen in his Foreword, adding that it ‘creates a new standard in the world of bird atlases’. By building on the experiences of the 1999–2002 Atlas, which in turn set horizons far beyond the scope of the first – collating abundant data from diverse sources, and then applying an exhaustive, state-of-the-art analysis to produce detailed distribution maps showing relative abundance or probability of occurrence using density contour maps as the graphic base – the Catalan Ornithological Institute has been able to progress even further and, what’s more, the relatively short gap between publication of the breeding and wintering atlases adds substantially to the scientific and documentary value of both.

 Catalan Winter Bird Atlas

Surely one of the first thoughts that would strike anyone considering compiling a winter bird atlas is that it is no easy undertaking: harsh weather, often limited access to mountainous regions, the difficulty of representing changing distributions of bird species between and within winter periods, motivating and coordinating skilled field workers and volunteers, etc. That the Catalan Ornithological Institute has been able to do just that and more, with the participation of 885 people, the incorporation of diverse and sometimes dispersed data from atlas fieldwork, long-term monitoring schemes such as the Common Bird Census (SOCC), various ringing schemes, ornithological yearbooks, hunting statistics, waterbird censuses and so on, must be taken as some measure of the region’s keen ornithological aspirations.

Of the 318 bird species detected in the study period, 206 wintered regularly. By incorporating a wealth of maps, graphs, facts and figures, the book clearly illustrates the importance of the Mediterranean basin as one of the main wintering areas for many of the birds that breed in central and northern Europe. Its accurate, fine-grained distribution maps are viewer-friendly and easy to interpret. Plentiful graphs showing population trends, altitudinal and habitat preferences adorn the species accounts. For some species of an irruptive nature such as Goldcrest Regulus regulus, Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes or Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella, there are even additional abundance maps comparing different years within the period. An attempt has also been made to ascertain the origin of some birds detected in the winter by using ringing recoveries wherever available.

English summaries in the species accounts are carefully drafted to ensure that the essential information on population estimates, distribution and temporal trends is included. In fact, this abridgement is virtually the only concession to layout and design in what is an essentially bilingual publication.

The atlas of winter birds boasts skillful bird illustrations of all the main species in winter habitats and plumages, an extensive section on habitats with photographs and full descriptions of each, and introductory sections on winter weather, the methodology of data gathering and analysis, as well as additional species accounts for exotic or introduced species, and condensed versions for regular and irregular very rare species.

Catalan Winter Bird Atlas page layout and illustrations

This is a robust book, both in appearance and content, and in my opinion to place this alongside its breeding birds equivalent as one of the top 10 bird atlases would be too conservative an appraisal. More than just another bright feather in the cap of the Catalan Ornithological Institute, it is a monument to Catalan ornithology and citizen science, and is capable of standing up to any challenge put to bird atlases around the world up until the present day. Any organization contemplating the elaboration of its own country’s or region’s bird atlas should regard it as an essential early reference. Beyond that, it is a delight to possess in itself, but not a book to be lent to one’s friends without first demanding a receipt.

ª 2012 The Authors

Ibis ª 2012 British Ornithologists’ Union

Watching Migrants Leaving Spain

Tarifa, September 2011

From the 4th to 10th September I was leading the Ornitholidays tour “Tarifa at Leisure” . That meant staying in just one hotel, the lovely Palomar de la Breña, for the whole week and making sorties to watch the migrants crossing the straits and to look for other local avian goodies.In some 5 sessions of raptor watching we spotted Rüppell’s Vulture (1 juvenile, with a possible second that had to remain just “possible”), 2 Goshawks, 1 Bonelli’s Eagle, dozens of Egyptian Vultures and Griffon Vultures, More than 20 Black Storks, dozens of Short-toed Eagles, more than 200 Booted Eagles, hundreds of Honey Buzzards, a dozen Montagu’s Harriers, Sparrowhawks, Lesser Kestrels and flocks of hirundines and Bee-eaters.

Juvenile Rüppell’s Vulture, Gyps ruppellii

A Western Olivaceous Warbler, 3 Black-winged Kites, almost 20 Collared Pratincoles, Iberian Chiffchaff, White-headed Ducks and a Monarch Butterfly were some of the other highlights of an interesting week spent at the other end of this country called Spain.

Watching raptor migration at Tarifa

It wasn’t always easy to keep our eyes on the raptors….