Hoopoes in the Lleida Steppes: Video

The next bird video in the 10 second bird video series is one of Hoopoes in the spring in the Lleida steppes, Catalonia, Spain.

Hoopoe on branch

             Hoopoe on branch in the Lleida steppes

You can see Hoopoes landing on a forked-branch perch when entering or leaving their nest nearby.

Listen out very carefully for the following birds: Corn Bunting, Hoopoe, Thekla Lark and Mistle Thrush. You may have to turn up the volume!

Dirk from the Netherlands was one of the photographers to use our photography hide for Hoopoes in the Lleida steppes with very good results. Although he wasn’t too happy that I had forgotten to bring a chair that day!

10 second bird videos: Lammergeiers in flight

Once we manage to overcome a technical detail or two relating to optimizing the quality of the videos we can post Birding In Spain would like to offer a new series of home-made videos showing some of the birds of Spain and their habitats.

They are not BBC documentaries, but rather short 10 second looks at some of the bird delights this region has to offer. Some videos will be aesthetically pleasing, others that too but also educational, others entertaining, or posing a small challenge to the viewer.

We hope you like them, and welcome any feedback, questions, etc.

The first one is Lammergeiers in flight. All the clips of the Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) incorporated here were taken in the Pyrenees of Lleida, Catalonia.



Lammergeierin flight

  Lammergeier in flight. Photo by Chris Schenk.

Lammergeiers in flight Facebook video

Here is the “Lammergeiers in flight” video card.

  1. What will you see? Several Lammergeiers of different ages in flight over the mountainside.
  2. Wait til the end? It’s only 10 seconds long, and the closest bird is in the last frames.
  3. What can you hear? Nothing, except the presentation Bee-eater, which has nothing to do with the action. In subsequent videos there will be birdsong and natural in situ sounds.
  4. Can I learn more about the Lammergeier? Yes, more Lammergeier videos will be coming, so that you can learn or practice identification of the species through its silhouette and flight action, and also see how plumage varies with age.
  5. And more? There’s a chapter dedicated to the Lammergeier in “Flying over the Pyrenees, standing on the plains” and it just so happens that it can be downloaded free of charge from the Birding In Spain website at this link:

Icemen and Lammergeiers chapter from “Flying over the Pyrenees, standing on the plains”

If you want to photograph Lammergeiers from one of our hides or see them flying over their mountain haunts on a guided birding tour just send us an e-mail. You can also work things out for yourself by using “Where the birds are in northeast Spain” and the free birding itineraries on the Birding In Spain website.

Happy Birding!

3 calling birds: The Cetti’s Warbler Confrontation

3 calling birds: Cetti’s Warblers in a bush

In the course of an average week-long birding tour around many parts of Spain it is quite usual to come across a number of Cetti’s Warblers, usually more than one at a time. However, even if encountered on every day of the trip we are rarely regaled with the possibility to observe the Cetti’s Warbler for more than a second or two. It’s a skulking bird which sings loudly and explosively from the depths of the thicket or undergrowth. One particular morning springs to my mind when we must have heard close to 50 different birds, without spotting even one of them.

So imagine my surprise and appreciation when I came across no fewer than 3 Cetti’s Warblers together out in the open while I was on a gentle walk at our local municipal park. I stopped in my tracks to watch these 3 birds, which were more engaged with each other than concerned by my proximity. All 3 were calling, cocking their tails, strutting on branches at a couple of metres from the ground and flicking or quivering their wings.

This was obviously a bid for local power, a territorial dispute, the importance of which was perhaps paramount to these birds at this particular moment in their lives. For some brief moments I was the spectator of a natural avian drama, and standing still I was anticipating watching the development and outcome of this show-down.

Cetti's Warblers

Cetti’s Warblers: By Richard Crossley (The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland)

Unfortunately, the bird I shall unimaginatively call Cetti’s 1, the one nearest to me, flew off into cover just the other side of the canal to where I was standing. I had the distinct feeling that his departure was premature, and provoked, almost certainly by my presence.

Unperturbed, Cetti’s 2, the bird in the middle, called loudly again and received no answer from Cetti’s 1 (departed), and a muted response from Cetti’s 3, now further away and no longer quivering his wings. Cetti’s 2 had prevailed, and as such sang out his victory call louder than ever, with no competitor prepared to answer him back.

To me it was clear that I had witnessed Cetti’s 2 victory and that that patch of vegetation next to the path would be his for the time being, perhaps for the whole of the breeding season.

It also appeared to me that my presence there, if you like as a birder, although I wasn’t “out birding”, may have had a direct influence on the outcome of their confrontation. Whether or not Cetti’s 2 would have won without my passing we have no real way of knowing, but just for the sake of it let’s indulge in some speculation and see what conclusions (admittedly tentative) we can draw.

Cetti's Warbler

Cetti’s Warbler Cettia cetti

Theory 1: Cett’s 1 or Cetti’s 3 would have won the dispute had I not come along.

Therefore 1 or 3 would have established this area as part of their territory. However, if they are so easily spooked by passing humans then their foraging and subsequently breeding success is likely to be negatively affected by this factor, seeing that this is a frequently used path by many park-goers, joggers, cyclists, dog walkers, passers-by, etc. So if 1 or 3 were so susceptible to human disturbance it’s unlikely they would have ever been successful there anyway, and it would have been better for Cetti’s 2 (less easily spooked) to have stayed.

Theory 2: Cetti’s 2 would have won anyway, so my presence had no real effect on the bird’s selection and control of territory and its potential breeding success.

That’s fine, as long as you only correlate breeding success to disturbance and susceptibility to disturbance. But that’s obviously not the case. Supposing, for example, that Cetti’s 2 was the least effective forager of the 3 birds, or the least attractive mate, and only won because I disturbed the others. Cetti’s 2 would then attempt to breed in this patch of territory, and may even fail, its resistance to disturbance being no advantage to it when compared to the “other” skills, traits and fitness shown by birds in territories without disturbance. Perhaps 1 or 3 would have been more successful, able to find more food, make better use of the territory, attract a healthier female, and with subsequent overall positive breeding success.

Then a bolder, less skulking, bird may be easier prey to a Sparrowhawk; or is it a safer territory, due to the presence of passing humans, and which is therefore largely avoided by such predators?

What about “displaced” individuals 1 and 3? Couldn’t they then go on to dispute with their respective neighbours? And with very unpredictable results? For example, one or more of their neighbours then rebounding to dispute 2’s territory.

I’m still trying to get my head around all of this. Does anyone want to add any more possibilities or insights?

The idea is to allow just a small insight into the complexity of environmental science and ecology, and how we humans are influencing just about everything, no matter how respectful we try to be.

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”.