Dotterel on the drylands of Catalonia

This is a typical autumn scene from the drylands of Lleida:

Dotterel in northeast Spain

No, not partridges or larks, they are Dotterel Charadrius morinellus.

This year the lucky participants on the famtrip organized by the Catalan Tourist Board were treated to the sight of a flock of 18 Dotterels on the drylands of Alfés, Lleida, Spain. We were watching Thekla Larks when the Dotterel literally flew over our heads and landed in the field in front of us. I had already told the famtrip participants that we were in a good area for migrating Dotterel, but also that due to the nature and brevity of our visit we were not going to look for them.

So it was very nice of the Dotterel to come looking for us!

The Alfés Dotterels already featured in my first book. Part of the text in “Where the birds are in northeast Spain” concerning the Dotterel reads as follows: “flocks that vary in size, but rarely in excess of 50 birds seek out and congregate in ploughed or stubble dryland cereal fields, alternating with smaller patches of fallow land.”

Their presence in the drylands around Lleida is common knowledge now, but not so back in September 1994.  Then I almost fell off my motorbike when they crossed the track in front of me on the edge of the thymefields of Alfés.

In the following years I compiled a modest list of personal observations of Dotterels at Alfés:

17 birds on 07/09/94

13 birds on 09/09/95

11 birds on 05/09/96

9 birds on 10/09/97

6 birds on 01/09/99

2 birds on 09/10/99

20 birds on 29/08/00

4 birds on 30/08/01

There’s more, but really all that you need to know to see Dotterels in northeast Spain can be read in “Where the birds are in Northeast Spain”. Detailed information about birding the drylands of Alfés can be found in the drylands of Lleida itinerary on the website.

Where to stay to be close to the Dotterels, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Black Wheatears, etc. of Alfés? La Garbinada.

Little Bustard in northeast Spain

Little Bustard   Tetrax tetrax
Little Bustard in northeast SpainThe Little Bustard is a localised resident bird in northeast Spain, breeding mostly in the Ebro valley drylands in Catalonia and Aragón. After breeding the Little Bustard gradually deserts dryland areas and disperses around the surrounding areas, with major concentrations preferring alfalfa fields. Large winter flocks sometimes in excess of 1,000 birds have been found in some years, particularly in the area between Balaguer and Tàrrega.
Birding in Spain: Little birding itineraries where Little Bustards can be found in the breeding season: Drylands of Lleida, Monegros Alcolea and Candasnos, Monegros Bujaraloz.

Atlantic convergence:birders from America unite!

Montsonís is a tiny village in Montsec, Lleida, Spain, painstakingly and tastefully rebuilt from the depopulated ruins that existed no less than 30 years ago. Ramon and Carme, the directors of are the driving force that literally raised this village from its ruins.

Two birders from Washington state were booked in with me at Montsonís for a day’s guided birding around Montsec, but some confusion reigned momentarily, as no fewer than 6 birders, all from the USA, presented themselves at the same time! As it turned out the extra 4 were from the eastern seaboard, and had arrived at Montsonís by following my recommendations in “Where the birds are in northeast Spain”.

I turned up at 8 in the morning as the “Easterners” were tucking into a hearty breakfast. They briefly informed me that they had already been to Belchite and seen the Dupont’s Lark, and that their objective of the day was Little Bustard, before reaching the high Pyrenees that same evening.

My two “Westerners” on the other hand were taking things more slowly, and were keen to walk and bird in the general area. In the usual manner of this birding business we “missed” some possible bird species while being surprised by a number of unexpected observations.

In the first category our initial walk failed to reveal Bonelli’s Eagle (they’ve been playing hide and seek with me throughout the course of this year, “now you see me, now you don’t”). The surprises went a long way to make up for the misses though: a melanistic Montagu’s Harrier (the last of the year) out on the plains, along with a solitary Little Bustard which in theory should have been elsewhere. 4 Honey Buzzards circling over Mont-roig and then surely the same 4 over the plains a little later. Bee-eaters and an old male Marsh Harrier on migration through the high passes. A large flock of Rock Sparrows in the fields and none in their usual breeding haunts.

And Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers (try to imagine your first visit to North America and how you would feel about seeing a Flicker or two).

We had great weather and a couple of fine walks. It would be nice to know what our “Easterners” managed to find that day.

Gallocanta lagoon: good winter birding

Located on a continental plateau at an altitude of around 1,000m Gallocanta lagoon is deservedly well-known for its role as a stopover and wintering site for thousands of Common Cranes Grus grus. The spectacle offered by these birds as they gather to roost on and around the lagoon, especially in February and March, is one that any visiting birder worth his binoculars could hardly fail to appreciate.

Common Cranes winter and migrate through Gallocanta

The first-time visitor should know a few things about this site when planning a winter visit. Firstly, it can get very cold here in the winter, so make sure you bring your woollies! Secondly, the level of water in the lagoon depends entirely on rainfall, and that has been scarce or intermittent in recent years, so don’t be surprised if the water in the “lagoon” is only a at a fraction of its capacity.

However, only the fickle and faint should be put off by the above. Apart from the Cranes and other waterbirds there may be on the lagoon itself, there are a lot of interesting birds that can be found on Gallocanta’s shores and in the surrounding area. These include a small but regular wintering population of Great Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Calandra Lark, Thekla Lark, Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Red Kite, Griffon Vulture…there are even small numbers of Dupont’s Lark if you care to try and find them.

For more information see the Gallocanta itinerary in the sites and itineraries section of the website.

Oh yes! And don’t miss Eloïsa Matheu’s wonderfully atmospheric recording on the same page.

More raptor silhouettes from Spain

In response to the growing demand for the answers to the first raptor silhouettes poster there is now a new special feature in the free downloads section of the website. More raptor silhouettes! Are you up to the challenge? Try your hand, but don’t expect any clues or answers just yet.

Birding tales from Spain: the Sabine’s Gull

Something for readers of Spanish:

Agosto. Tiempo de las vacaciones y la dispersión ciudadana. 5 compañeros, todos aficionados alocados a la observación de las aves, decidimos por una aventura marina, alquilamos un barco con capitán incluido y nos lanzamos mar adentro desde el puerto de Gijón, rumbo al norte.

Era un día soleado, con poca brisa y un mar muy calmado, como lo había visto muy pocas veces antes nuestro experimentado capitán, Miguel. Ahí fuera esperaban un mar de satisfacciones: paíños europeos, alcatraces atlánticos, pardelas cenicientas, pichonetas, sombrías y mediterráneas, los págalos grande y pomarino, incluso dos jóvenes charranes rosados.

A las 25 millas de la costa girábamos para el cabo de Peñas y justo en aquel momento, a los límites de nuestra incursión en el golfo de Vizcaya, 3 figuras, 3 fascinantes fantasmas, aparecieron de la nada y siguieron acercándose silenciosamente a nuestra barca. Momentos…y entonces un grito de emoción llenó el aire y nos devolvió la respiración “¡Sabini! ¡Son Sabini!”. Era cierto.  3 inmaculados gaviotas de Sabine, todos adultos, acababan de sobrevolar nuestras afortunadas cabezas antes de desdibujarse en el azul de mar y cielo. Ellas inmutas, sin prisas con todo el océano por delante y por detrás; nosotros llenos del momento, regalados con un recuerdo indeleble.

Creo que siempre recordaré el 18 de agosto de 1997, el día en el cual observamos estas 3 figuras, la vanguardia de una migración que toma lugar año tras año lejos del ruido mundano, allá entre los páramos silenciosos del océano.

Croatia is not Spain

A couple of Short-toed Eagles, 2 Pallid Swifts, lots of Alpine Swifts, a Golden Oriole, several Bee-eaters and lots of Hooded Crows is about the balance of 10 days casual birding while on a family holiday on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, from Dubrovnik up to Paklenica National Park.

Fair’s fair – I wasn’t on a birding trip, and probably spent more time in the sea looking down on fish than in the countryside looking for birds. But compared to the birds I could have seen in northeast Spain, even casually, it seems a pretty poor tally. Maybe that goes to show that you have to go away to really appreciate what you have at home.

That seems to be particularly true about birds of prey. In Spain it’s relatively easy to see 10 or more raptor species in a single day. In the part of Croatia that we visited raptors were very thin on the ground. Likewise, last year I was birding in Morocco and the most common flying objects were not birds of prey but rather black plastic bags.

From now on then I’m going to try not to take raptors for granted – not even Griffon Vultures!

Raptor Silhouettes: the solutions

I’ve recently detected a growing unease among some birding factions on the Internet. Some have written to forums pleading for help, while others have gone straight to the point and have e-mailed me asking for the solution to the raptor silhouette competion available on this page at the main site.

I’m about to reveal the answers.

So if you want to have a go yourself without cheating follow the link and read no further…

If, however, you are stumped, and there’s no harm in admitting it because it was a difficult test and as far as I recall no-one has got 20 out of the 22, read on…

1. Honey Buzzard

2. Black-winged Kite

3. Red Kite

4. Osprey

5. Short-toed Eagle

6. Goshawk

7. Booted Eagle

8. Eleonora’s Falcon

9. Common Buzzard

10. Peregrine

11. Black Kite

12. Hen Harrier

13. Bonelli’s Eagle

14. Montagu’s Harrier

15. Golden Eagle

16. Egyptian Vulture

17. Marsh Harrier

18. Hobby

19. Sparrowhawk

20. Common Kestrel

21. Griffon Vulture

22. Lammergeier

Most difficulties were caused by numbers 2, 7, 8 and 12. Of course, true to the BirdingInSpain theme they are all raptors that can be seen in northeast Spain.

Did you enjoy it? Was it worth my time? Would someone like another more difficult/easier one?

I await your comments.

Autumn’s ripples

A Whitethroat in an almond tree, a Willow Warbler calling from deep in the thicket, a Booted Eagle spiralling over the town of Balaguer. In the last few days the signs have been there for those who can read them: these migratory birds are flying south because they can feel the ripples of autumn, and the sight of them in my part of southern Europe conveys the message to me and people like myself.

I have been hearing Bee-eaters calls from my flat since early July, but now their calls seem irregular and impatient. Last evening a party of 12 Honey Buzzards flew low over our terrace with their characteristic, almost laboured, flapping flight. My wife and I interrupted our game of ping pong to watch them pass.

Dotterel have appeared on their passage through the drylands of Lleida. I’m sure they do so every year, although some years no local birder gets out and looks for them.

I’m now approaching my 20th autumn in this Mediterranean land. Time enough for me to have studied the local bird migration and to know what to expect. I could say the same about the spring migration. I tell myself that these birds will return next spring, although the uncertainties of our world make me hope more than expect.

Rutland Water memoirs

Just a shortie with a couple of images which are probably of no interest to anyone at all. I won’t give up trying though!

Birding In Spain at the British Birdwatching Fair

Firstly, one of the Catalonia Tourism stand in marquee 4. I got the general feeling that there was a fair bit of interest in the region, especially among visitors who knew where Barcelona was. Mind you I had to point out that neither Murcia nor Tarifa were on the map!

And now for the photo that you never knew existed! Me signing a copy of my book for David Attenborough? No, actually it’s the other way round. I did, however, present him with a copy of “Flying over the Pyrenees, standing on the plains”, which hopefully his personal secretary will enjoy.

David Attenborough at the Bird Fair

“Is that the last one?”