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. 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 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!

The afternoon after the day after

It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon and the car’s thermometer marked a more-than-warm 33ºC. What the heck was I doing out on the drylands of Lleida at this time of day? Magpies perched motionless and gasping under fig leaves, there were no bird calls or birdsong to guide me to my next subject, and I was out birding! Was that really a wise move?

Two days earlier I had been out and about in my plucky red Suzuki, guiding three birders from Scotland around the different drylands of Lleida and searching for their key species. By the time we reached the Alfés drylands we had already bagged a good number of the most important birds: a small flock of Little Bustards (often difficult to locate after the end of the breeding season), Rollers in double figures, Lesser Kestrels, a few Montagu’s Harriers, a Lesser Grey Shrike, 4 Black Wheatears, a couple of Black-eared Wheatears, and even 2 Black-bellied Sandgrouse (a species which I had put down as “possible, but unlikely”).

But the afternoon lull was having its effect and, despite my local knowledge and efforts, we had not set eyes on either the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse or the Red-necked Nightjar. To my great surprise we had only just managed to find a single flock of Calandra Larks, uncommittingly accompanied by three Short-toed Larks.

It had been different then. I was working, the morning cloud cover had kept us cool until well after midday, and I hadn’t just had a tiff with the wife.

So in comparison to the charged atmosphere at home the prospect of a little hot birding was almost inviting. I told myself I would also have the chance to look for the Red-necked Nightjar and the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse in the places where they should have been two days before, when it really counted. Although the clients who had already missed the birds would not thank me for e-mailing them “You know we dipped on Red-necked Nightjar and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse at Alfés? Well, this afternoon I went back and…..”, I would at least be able to satisfy my own curiosity, and also have some indication of whether or not it was worth coming back with the next birding folk.

I was about to give up on the nightjar when a movement caught my eye and I managed to focus on the bird gliding silently at grass height before landing beside some brushwood. Although I mentally marked the spot where it landed, I had no-one to show it to, so I returned to the car with mixed feelings. “Found it!”, yes, but also “Where were you two days ago?”.

I spent the next couple of hours making short surries from the air-conditioned car, and seeing nothing but the odd Thekla Lark or inactive Roller. Was this really the best way of spending the afternoon? Wouldn’t it have been better to kiss and make up? Sod it! It wasn’t me who was at fault!

The car had picked up a familiar coating of dust and mud by the time I finally found the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. A single bird stretching its neck and peering at me from above a small field of brittle dry weeds.

Mission accomplished. Well, sort of. Now I had a ten-minute drive back home. Maybe just enough time to plan how best to say I was sorry to my dear wife.

Little Bustard and Lammergeier photography in Catalonia

Jan-Michael Breider, from Sweden, was one of the first bird photographers to come on our photographic trip, especially organized for photographing displaying Little Bustard and Lammergeier.

He has kindly informed me that some of the results can be seen among his galleries at the following link:

Jan-Michael Breider’s photo gallery of his spring trip to Catalonia

I’m sure most of you would agree that he didn’t do badly at all! Enjoy!

Anyone interested in this and other bird photography trips in Catalonia should get in touch with

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse: Top 50 birds of Spain

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse Pterocles alchata

Photo of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

Photo courtesy of Dr. Chris Gibbins

The Pin-tailed Sandgrouse is present all year round in steppe country in the Ebro valley, often forming large flocks in the winter months. Sadly though, it is declining in the region in both range and abundance, due mostly to habitat loss to intensive, irrigated farming. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse inhabit a single site in Catalunya, but are more widespread in Aragón.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse map
Birding itineraries where the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse can be found: Drylands of Lleida, Monegros: Alcolea and Candasnos, Monegros: Bujaraloz, Belchite steppes.

Sly Birding with the Wife and Kids

Let’s face up to the facts: birders are mostly male. And most males grow up, many of them get married and form a family. At that stage they have to make a difficult decision: either give up birding or find a way of combining it with parental duties.

I consider the former option too drastic for general contemplation, so let’s look at how the latter can be achieved.

In between birding trips to exotic locations with the mates and bird clubs the birding father should assist in the programming of at least one family holiday where birds are not, apparently, the primary focus. In such cases it is better for the birding father to take an active part at the planning stage, rather than grumpily washing his hands of the whole thing and just going along with the plans the wife makes. Why? Well because then the birding father can actually have some say in the holiday destination.

If the wife is set on a classic beach holiday on the Costa del Sol but the father birder would much rather go to the Pyrenees then he has to offer something more than the possibility of seeing Lammergeier, Black Woodpecker and Citril Finch in order to tip the balance.

Rafting with Yeti Emotions

If the children are fun-loving and hyperactive, like most kids are, try tempting them with some of the activities that Yeti Emotions offer: rafting, hydrospeed, canoeing, ravine descent, mountain biking, horse-riding, archery, orienteering, even a trip in a hot air balloon.

Look at the full details on the Yeti emotions website

Or click on the link on the Aiguestortes East itinerary on the website.

It just so happens that the village of Llavorsí, where Yeti Emotions have their home base, is a short drive from the mountain village of Espot, the natural gateway to the eastern side of the Aigüestortes National Park. Here I can give you a very valuable tip: stay at the Roca Blanca Hotel.

I’ve stayed in this wonderful, tastefully furnished and very friendly hotel 3 times now. Twice with Naturetrek groups and once with the family. Josep and Anna are the proprietors and the managers of Roca Blanca and form an important part of the conspiracy that aims to make your stay an unforgettable one. Then there’s the fresh local produce offered for breakfast, with delicious croissants, yoghourts, cold meats and more; the mountain scenery, the peace and quiet, the spacious, delightful rooms and the local Scop’s Owls and Dippers too. Do not accept imations – there aren’t any.

From Espot do a spot of gentle trekking. There are too many options to mention, but one of my family favourites is to follow the path that goes from the car park at the Park’s entrance, follows a boardwalk through the forest, along the river, past meadows, a hermitage, and up to the lake of Sant Maurici. Recently we did this itinerary ourselves, and between competitions at finding the best formed pine cone, pine cone throwing contests, tree-girdling, orientation exercises, cooling off by the river, drinking from the spring and even a short introduction to bird song, we were at the lake before we realised. Excellent! And at the lake everyone had the chance of trying out their photographic abilities.

Family Birding in the Pyrenees

And the birds that we couldn’t help noticing? Citril Finch, Crossbill, Crested Tit, Black Woodpecker (calling). Well, not bad for a gentle introduction.

The next day, after an interesting and informative visit to the National Park visitor centre in Espot, follow the Son and Jou itinerary . For the first stop take a relaxed stroll around the tiny village of Estaís, admiring its narrow streets, stone houses and picturesque pocket-sized graveyard; and the surrounding fields, full of flowers and insect life. Try and get the family to help you spot the scarce and marvellous Apollo Butterfly and explain what the local Red-backed Shrikes do with grasshoppers when they’re not hungry.

Then continue on past Jou, and a little bit of adventure as you follow the track which winds its way up for more than 7 kilometres towards the forest refuge of Pla de la Font. Here father birder is in his element: take a walk through the black pine forest, gently imposing respectful silence on the family members, and if someone locates the scarce and shy Capercaillie, or the elusive Black Woodpecker, give them their just reward.

The grassy slope around the refuge is ideal for a picnic in the shade of a gnarled black pine, followed by a nice cup of tea or other refreshments in the forest refuge (if it’s open!). Take a sneaky look at the Ring Ouzel while eating your sandwich, and if you snooze a little try to keep one eye open for one of the Lammergeiers that often patrol this area. If so inclined, and able, climb and swing from a tree with the kids, and before heading back to the vehicle take in the breathtaking views from the nearby pass.

Lastly, put paid to the general idea that birders are insensitive to cultural heritage, monuments, or anything unrelated to birding, by stopping off at the village of Son to take in the wonderfully restored Romanic Church, and perhaps a party of Griffon Vultures sunning themselves on the rocks. Or a hovering Short-toed Eagle.

Remember the formula: Happy Children + Happy Wife = Happy Family Birding!

Try the Bird Photo Quiz

Country: Switzerland. A fellow bird guide and friend, Beat Rüegger, has been gathering thousands of bird and plant photographs over the years to make a fantastic identification quiz, which goes by the name of Biofotoquiz. He’s the bird specialist while his wife, Florence, is the plant expert.

Together they have assembled an enormous amount of photographic information to make a web page by which it is possible to train yourself in bird (or plant) identification, choosing between the different levels (Beginner, Advanced or Expert), different systematic groups, or different habitats.

And then you can test yourself to see if you really do know what you think you do about bird and plant identification. Try the quiz at your level (or what you think is your level!) and see where you come on the ranking list.

Here’s what the authors say:

Biofotoquiz offers the opportunity to train your skill to identify plant and animal species. It includes

* a learn mode with three levels
* four quiz modes with ranking lists
* series of images for printing

At the moment there are training units with plants and birds with 7169 photos of 966 species in 99 series available.

Have fun!

Nappies and Lesser Grey Shrikes

Dear Steve

Lesser Grey Shrike photo

Photo by Eva Solanes

I have just finished reading your book (Flying over the Pyrenees
Standing on the Plains
) and must let you know how much I enjoyed it. I
found it to be informative, interesting and very amusing in parts. I
must say I can empathize with you about the nappy incident as I had a
similar experience whilst on holiday on the beach in Puerto Pollensa
when our daughter got a touch (well a lot really) of Franco’s
revenge and I had to bury the remains of her clothing on the beach, we
have never been back there and I have always felt hugely embarrassed and
ashamed as I know the Med is not tidal like the North Sea!

You have found yourself a really lovely part of the world to migrate to,
my husband and I enjoyed our day out with you immensely on our last visit to Spain and wish you every success with your book and look forward to reading the next one.



What nappy incident is Kathleen refering to? And how can nappies be related to Lesser Grey Shrikes? The answers are in “Flying over the Pyrenees, standing on the plains” .