Quick report on 4-day private tour in Catalonia and Aragon

A private autumn tour for Elissa

Elissa, husband Bill, their Godson Tim and his wife Imelda came to us for a short autumn birding break. We designed a tailor-made 4-day birding tour for them to fit into their holiday plans which included a stay in Catalonia, where they would visit Girona, the Costa Brava and Barcelona.

Autumn tour group in front of hotel in Sierra de Guara

We started at a Barcelona airport hotel, and in just over an hour we were birding to the east of Lleida. First off was a Stone-curlew flock of over 100 birds, near a busy roundabout, and then a small flock of Little Bustards, an Iberian Grey Shrike, Eurasian Hoopoe, Wryneck, Whinchat, Common Redstart, and a single Golden Plover.

A brief visit to the Estany d’Ivars allowed us to catch up with a number of ducks, grebes and other wetland birds before we finished the day’s birding with a high note at the border with Aragón: 2 Bonelli’s Eagles in flight with a Golden Eagle and a number of Griffon Vultures – the first of many.

We spent the second day exploring the tranquil Sierra de Guara. In addition to the magnificent scenery there were some great looks at stunning birds such as the Lammergeier. We also clocked up a couple of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, numerous Red Kites, a Golden Eagle, a Firecrest and the surpise of the day – a Wallcreeper!

For our third day we headed to the Pyrenees and actually set a foot in France. There wasn’t much there in the way of birds though, although we discerned both Alpine and Red-billed Choughs through the scope, more Lammergeiers, a single Honey Buzzard on migration and a pair of Golden Eagles, among others.

For our last day we headed back to Lleida for them to catch the fast train to Girona, to continue with their visit, although without the focus on birds. Just enough time to find a Black Wheatear, Alpine Swifts, Thekla’s Larks, Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Sparrow near the plains and then a surprise sighting of 2 Black Storks in a large migratory flock of White Storks. Then, at Lleida it was time to say our farewells.

Elissa later informed me that they had tried Ratafia on my recommendation while in Girona and were very happy that they did!

Ratafia – an excellent Catalan liqueur based on green walnuts

First Piping Plover for Europe?

At the break of dawn on 8th October Mary, Clive and I went to the Rio Salado in Conil de la Frontera for a spot of pre-breakfast birding. That way we’d make room for the hearty breakfast they served at our hotel, and we’d make the most of the best time of the day.

It was not quite light enough to bird well with the naked eye when we got there, although things were clearer through our binoculars. There were Sanderlings and Common Ringed Plovers, mostly on the far bank, and a single Greenshank and Black-winged Stilt. A black cat made a bird move, and we saw that it was a Stone Curlew. Now, with Stone Curlews at this time of the year, once you manage to focus on one it’s worth checking around for some more, which is what I did. Sure enough, there were more in a dry paddock beyond, and in all we counted over 60 Stone-curlews before moving on by foot towards the bridge that spanned the “river” (really not much of a river, all told).

Clive is a retired engineer, and not a birder, so he was quite pleased to give the footbridge a good going over while Mary and I continued looking at the waders. The next moment I was very glad that I was not alone, because I may eventually have convinced myself that I had dreamt it all up.

“Hey Mary! Have a look at this really pale Ringed Plover with really reddish legs!” I said. She immediately joined me and honed in on the bird which was only about 20 metres away and, now with the sun on our backs , we had no difficulty in seeing and comparing to the several Ringed Plovers around it.

The bird in question was, of course, the Piping Plover of the title, although at the time I had no idea of what it could be, only that it wasn’t anything I’d seen before. Could a leucistic Ringed Plover be discarded? That was the only possibility that I held onto briefly, in order not to get overexcited about a bird which just had to be a rarity. But what? Semipalmated Plovers look very similar to Common Ringed Plovers; Kentish Plovers have dark legs and what’s more, I was very familiar with all three “ringed” plover species of Europe.

Piping Plover, non-breeding. Not the specific bird we saw, but it was very similar!

I was thinking that it must be a bird from across the Atlantic, but even by going through the Collins bird guide in my head there was nothing that I could come up with.

Mary and I watched the bird in excellent light and down to about 15 metres for some 15 minutes before it occurred to me to try and get a photo. As I started trying to hold my phone to my scope’s lens the bird flew off upriver, and landed opposite where we had parked. We were now looking into the sun at a distant bird, and I still didn’t know what it was. So, the solution? Let’s go birding and get it on the way back.

“On the way back”. How many times have I said that in my professional career and what is the sorry – very sorry – success rate of such a ploy? Just doesn’t seem to work, not for me anyway.

The half hour birding was pretty good: Northern Wheatears, 2 Tawny Pipits, Yellow Wagtails all on migration, Audouin’s Gull, Red-legged Partridge, Hoopoe and a few other bits and pieces.

When we got back to the bridge the scene was very different from how we had left it. There were four men clad from head to toe in white PPE and green wellingtons, doing their best to remove all the dead fish they could find from the river on both banks. Of course there were almost no waders to be seen, let alone our mystery bird.

I kept my calm as best I could and delayed the internet search for our bird until I had a spare moment after breakfast. It didn’t take me long: I quickly found a photograph of a non-breeding Piping Plover with the reddish legs, pale sandy plumage, stubby black bill and large eye that we had both commented on while we still had the bird in front of us. When I showed the image to Mary she had no doubts either.

Piping Plover? Good grief! Surely that’s a first for Spain? If not for Europe …