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 BirdingInSpain.com 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 BirdingInSpain.com 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 BirdingInSpain.com 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?”

Bustling British Birdwatching Fair

This year’s Bird Fair at Rutland Water seems to be set to break the previous records of attendance and funds raised for conservation. BirdingInSpain.com were there for the whole 3 days, invited to give a talk about the birding opportunities in the province of Lleida and occasionally helping out at the stand of the Catalonia Tourist Board.

BBF at Rutland Water 2008

Everything there is extremely well organised, and just as well. Friday morning saw a constant flood of public pouring through the entrance gates and swamping stands and events. Luckily the rain held off, the weather was warm and pleasant, as even for the birdfair organisation two floods would have been too much to cope with at the same time!

The Birdfair proved to be yet another great occasion for meeting public and bird traders alike, and even rubbing shoulders with the odd celebrity or two (won’t say who just yet). One warning though – get the wallet ready, as it is always so difficult to resist making a purchase or two!

New digiscoping book by Spanish authors

Recently a brand new digiscoping book fell into my hands courtesy of Xavier Esteller of Swarovski Optik in Barcelona. It was written by various Spanish authors, all experts in this particular field of bird photography.

Digiscoping: una mirada de cerca

Its 216 pages are crammed with photos of birds, digiscoping instruments, techniques and computer screen images to take the reader through the whole process of digiscoping birds and other wildlife, through choosing the most suitable equipment, field technique, etc. to retouching and image optimization on the computer.

The English version was recently translated by John Muddeman, with my own humble contribution of two chapters also in there somehwere. Its hardback, glossy, in full colour and complete. An ideal buy for anyone embarked on the long and wondrous voyage of bird photography, and especially for those with an interest in digiscoping.

Counting down before the Bird Fair

Friday the 15th August is the starting date for this year’s British Bird Fair at Rutland Water. An event which every birder should attend at least once. I’ll be there again this year, representing BirdingInSpain.com on the Catalan Tourist Board stand. Take a look, not least of all to take part in the brain-teasing raptor silhouette challenge.

Preparations for such a world-shaking event must be made, but nevertheless, life goes on. Which meant that on Monday and Tuesday I was out in the field, guiding an American couple, firstly around Lleida and then down at the Ebro Delta. Not the best time of the year for a short birding trip, you may say. Indeed not. With daytime temperatures above 35ºC and the absence or scarcity of some earlier migrants, August is not the time of year that most birders choose for their visit to Spain.

However, Elliot Tramer and his patient companion, Chris, are an agreeable couple, and Elliot has a mission: to see 1,000 bird species in the space of a year. To keep in line with that target Elliot decided that he had to visit a European country, and that Spain was probably his best bet.

And how did he get on? Well, after a week in the Gredos mountains he came to me with 100 new species already on his year list. In the two days we were together I believe he added another 53.

I know that Elliot satisfied his numerical aims, although I don’t know if there was any birding moment that was a particular highlight for him. For me it was satisfaction enough that we were actually seeing the species that I knew should be there, in spite of the burden placed upon us by the “August factor”.  Personally, though, I was particularly pleased about the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and the Red-necked Nightjar!

And to use his own words “Seeing a Red-necked Nightjar like that means that we end with a bang and not a fizzle”. Well spoken, Elliot, bon voyage and good luck in your bird quest!