Nikon relinquishes first place

It’s happened.

After more than 25 years I’ve relegated my faithful Nikon Fieldscope EDII from first scope to supporting scope role. It feels a little bit like infidelity on my part, as I became fond of saying that the scope would retire when I did, and yet I just went out a bought a new Swarovski.

Nikon fieldscope ED

                          My Nikon fieldscope EDII, battered but alive

My Nikon slipped into and out of the backpack with ease, and could almost be carried in deep pockets. That’s a valuable quality when travelling by plane or train, or in a vehicle which is not one’s own. I have the 20-45x zoom lens, but soon neglected it in favour of the 30x wide-angle lens, which is perfectly adequate, and as a stand-alone no one who is reasonably objective has ever criticised it. Of course, when someone sets up a new Swarovski, or Zeiss or similar alongside it then my somewhat battered Nikon doesn’t shine its brightest when compared directly.

Nikon fieldscope ED

My Nikon fieldscope EDII, battered but alive

On my very first day as the leader of my very first bird tour my almost new Nikon flew out of its case that was strapped over my shoulder as I turned swiftly and it landed with a heavy clunk on the asphalt of the fishing port of Sant Carles de la Ràpita. It wasn’t supposed to be able to do that, and I felt indignant. Then, when I looked down the barrel through the far end of the scope and I saw the prism inside was cracked my heart really sank. I was convinced that my telescope was no more. However, when I set it up on the tripod and took a deep breath before looking down the objective and turning the focusing ring … the image I saw was surprisingly clear. Hurriedly, I focused on an Audouin’s Gull, and what I saw gave me hope for the future…

… Now the future is the present, a quarter of a century later. The Nikon fieldscope EDII has served me well, and it’s job isn’t over yet. I hope.

 

Any day with two Wallcreepers can’t be a bad day, can it?

Any day with two Wallcreepers can’t be a bad day, can it?

Monday 7th March – For our first day of birding it was off to the drylands of Monegros on a wild grouse chase. Well, no, we weren’t chasing, just driving, stopping, scanning and searching. But no grouse. Blame agricultural transformation or something closely related – it used to be a piece of cake finding sandgrouse in this area, both species.

Anyway, the day was a good one, so mustn’t grouse too much. It started off at some sandstone cliffs, surprising, unlikely. Lesser Kestrels had made it back after their winter sojourn somewhere south, with the early first two pairs kacking and making short surries from the ledges. Choughs, jackdaws and then a glimpse of what must have been a Wallcreeper before it flew behind a rocky bend, there must be a technical term for such things. Yes, obviously it was a Wallcreeper, as here it comes back into view being chased by another! Both jewels remain in the binocular view together for a few seconds before parting in different directions, leaving us with the difficult choice of deciding on which one to follow.

No Blue Rock Thrush or Black Wheatear as expected, the cold overcast weather seemed to be a good enough reason for that. We transferred to the plateau and started our quest for the sandgrouse. It was quiet, and drizzling, but that passed soon enough. Flocks of Linnets and Goldfinches, with some Serins thrown in. An Iberian Grey Shrike perched atop, Calandra Larks toying with song. Our first Black Kite of the year in among the steady flow of Red Kites and a Little Owl perched on a farm building, unperturbed by the cold weather, or hopeful for a ray of sun? Something large and white caught my eye as it landed in between some small trees. Couldn’t have been a White Stork, I really believed, and adolescent sheep don’t fly. So what was it? A change of angle revealed the answer: an adult Egyptian Vulture being pestered by a noisy crow, calling out for assistance in its unsolicited mission of badgering any large raptor which was big enough to want to ignore it.

There were the due signs of admiration from us both and then we moved on. I heard a single Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, but just one, and who knows where it was or where it was going. Not me. We came out to the road and was that a Golden Eagle soaring up there above the Red Kites? Indeed it was, a subadult with discreet patches of white and a swollen crop – one fewer baby rabbit; never mind, there were plenty more where that one came from. Well, there goes another, in the clutches of a Buzzard.

Raptor hour was in full swing now, as several Griffon Vultures sailed high with Red and Black Kites, Marsh Harriers, Buzzards and the memory of the Eagle. We filled our own crops standing by the car with Calandra, Lesser Short-toed and Thekla Larks for company, watched a flock of sheep, and then decided that there was more to the rest of the day than criss-crossing the countryside and hoping for a sandgrouse or two.

And there was. At least 3 more Golden Eagles. But not just any old Golden Eagles. She was standing provocatively on that lonely rocky outcrop so what was he expected to do but fly out from the heights of the sierra, and go and do his willing duty? Mating, in other words. It was over in a moment, and then he flew back. I guess it was an itch that just had to be scratched.

Meanwhile, a juvenile Golden Eagle vied for our attention using rare proximity as its lure. On raised wings and even more raised tips it sailed along the line of the sierra, tilting one way, tilting the other, this is what binoculars were made for.

A visit to the polluted lake – industrial farming again – where once Black-necked Grebes bred and kept the wetlands nearer Lleida supplied with regular sightings of non-breeding birds. Alas, memories, mine and not everyone else’s, so sad, melancholy and politically correct anger, if such a thing exists. Still, Red Crested Pochards, Teal and the ubiquitous Mallard, made for the modern day it seems.

A fifth Golden Eagle on the drive back east, which may be a personal record for a single day. A quick detour to ward off the spectre of a last minute grouse – but those things are less important than they used to be. My fortune wasn’t riding on it, fortunately.

A final stop en-route and our first Hoopoe of the year, crest raised, singing, feeding, doing all the right things. Then to a brackish lagoon and a wader appetizer: Ruff, Golden Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Green Sandpiper. Some ducks. Home.

Any day with two Wallcreepers can’t be a bad day, can it?

Another winter waterbird count

Winter waterbirds

This has been going on for more than 20 years now…

Another winter waterbird count organized by the Agenda 21 team of the Lleida City Council. Guide: yours truly. Weather: cold! We started at around -5ºC, so it kind of felt like winter, and it was good to know that I still have all my cold weather gear under control: gloves with finger flaps, woolly hat and neck gaiter, thick socks…

counting winter waterbirds

Steve and Esther: Yeah, same as last year…

Well armed there were 10 of us who braved the cold. First stop was the little Teal haven at La Mitjana, where it seems that every winter more and more Eurasian Teal (in double figures) rub shoulders with floating plastic and reeds, together with Mallard and the odd Moorhen and Grey Wagtail.
From there we hastened to the pier by the River Segre, which is usually the tour de force of la Mitjana. This time though only a couple of Little Grebes, a few Moorhens, and 70 or so Mallards, all distant and through the telescope misting over rapidly in the combination of masks and cold air.

As we strolled through what Esther claims is the largest gallery woodland site in Catalonia it was good to hear the three local woodpeckers making themselves noted: the Iberian Green, the Great Spotted, and the now regular but still uncommon Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Winter waterbird count Lleida

Esther wins the prize for dynamic posing

The Bassa Gran was as empty as predicted, and we hastened the round past a couple of Great White Herons to reach the other wetland site, the Rufea wetlands, in good time. It was a relaxed stroll, with around 30 Grey Herons already staking out their nesting sites among the reedbed, a small number of Cormorants in the trees, 3 Marsh Harriers patrolling, Little Grebe, Coot, Moorhen, Mallard, a couple of sleepy Shoveler and 4 even sleepier (not sure they weren’t frozen!) unidentified ducks. We watched them for 15 minutes but not even a flicker from them. Shoveler! Gadwall? Teal, even? No, just couldn’t tell.

Enjoying the new observation tower at Rufea. At this stage maybe more chatting than observing. 

Then a little adventure crossing the new floating walkway, slightly frozen over. Up to the top of the new observation tower, and a good place to recap before finalizing the count with a Kingfisher calling somewhere out of view.

Places left on our summer 2022 Iceland Tour

Summer Iceland Tour

Birds. Waterfalls. Volcanoes. Seals. Whales. Landscapes. Lava. Nice people. Good company.

Humpback Whale

June 2022. A superb 9-day tour of the best of summer Iceland – thriving seabird colonies, long days, striking landscapes, seals and whales and maybe an Arctic Fox or two. Iceland is a welcoming country, and this tour is ideal for couples, as even the non-birding companion will be moved by the waterfalls, cliffs, glaciers, lakes, volcanoes and lava fields that make Iceland a very special destination.

Harlequin Ducks – Iceland, of course

Let’s be honest – the potential bird list is a limited one. However, Iceland is the only place in Europe where the birder can see both Harlequin Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye, and must be the easiest place to see the Gyrfalcon too. Then there’s White-tailed Eagle, roadside Ptarmigans, Snow Buntings, agressive Arctic Terns, breeding Pink-footed Goose, Brunnich’s Guillemot, summer-plumaged Golden Plovers, Red-necked Phalaropes, Grey Phalaropes, Atlantic Puffins, Slavonian Grebes, divers and more Eiders than you can ever hope to count or to make into eiderdowns (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

So, summer birding in Iceland? Absolutely! For a relaxed, well-paced and very enjoyable tour. In good company. Ask us for more information by sending an e-mail.

UEA Lammergeier tour 1984

UEA Lammergeier Tour 1984

UEA Lammergeier tour 1984

UEA Lammergeier tour t-shirt 1984

It was early April 1984. We drove through France and as we approached the south it was just a little bit like travelling in time. In Britain it was still cold and grey, but in France we saw pink blossoming trees, we heard Chiffchaffs and then screeched to a roadside halt and, paying little heed to the angry shouts of French motorists, we watched a flock of migrating Black Kites heading north.

We reached the Spanish border in the Pyrenees and once past the intimidating border control guards we had a whole new playground full of wonders to explore. John spotted the first Egyptian Vulture from the van, virtually quoting the text from his new Lars Johnson identification guide to convince us that that indeed was what he had seen.

There are blank pages my memory has jumped, but I do remember that we saw a Lammergeier at Riglos, and also at San Juan de la Peña, and that my impression was that we had most of the vast and stunning countryside to ourselves. Why can’t I remember where the first Lammergeier was? Never mind… I have other things to consider, like, what did the Lammergeier mean to me then, and what does it mean now?

For one thing, nowadays I no longer see nor expect to see Lammergeier at Riglos nor, sadly, do I at San Juan de la Peña. That’s a shame, because Riglos and San Juan de la Peña are the most marvellous backdrops to a marvellous bird. It’s a powerful combination. It’s an explosive cocktail, shaken or stirred. Birders have the ability to make a place “theirs” through the memories of the birds they have seen there at some time in their own past. The bird and the place, or the combination of the two, become uniquely personalised. “This is where I saw my first Lammergeier, on a sunny morning in early spring, when the snow still capped the mountains on the horizon”; or “this is where I was a 20 year old on his first ever foreign birding trip – there were so many marvellous things to see and to share with my travel mates, who were just as impressionable as I was”.

I have to say that I remember San Juan de la Peña more for the Short-toed Eagles than the Lammergeier. As we watched them grappling talons and plummeting head over heels towards the valley floor way below it was the feeling of spring; the fresh sap rising through our veins, warming our extremities to our finger tips and stimulating parts of us we didn’t know could be stimulated until that moment (eh, think clean!).

I can be saddened by the loss of that youth if I let it happen; melancholy lingers in the trail of the Lammergeiers where I first saw them almost 40 years ago; there are too many thoughts and impulses which can blemish my memory of those moments. But change is inevitable. Accept that, and also accept that you have an ambitious vision, and very limited means. Don’t be disappointed by that; that’s a fact of life. Instead take heart that you still have something to live for, because living means struggling for something better, always something better. For you, for the birds, for anyone who cares.

Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus

Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus. Photo by Chris Schenk

Thankfully, the Lammergeier still thrives in these mountains, in other places maybe, but the bird which lives and flourishes in silence is still here. And now, thanks to the years that have passed, I know where to find another Lammergeier or two when I really need to.

UEA Lammergeier tour 1984

UEA Lammergeier tour t-shirt 1984

Wallcreeper wanderings

So, you want to see a Wallcreeper, eh?

The pressure is on again: will we see the Wallcreeper at the first attempt, at the first location? If not, how much time should we allocate to searching for it at the first site? Can we get there before the rock climbers take over? Then, when we decide to search another area, how long will it take to get there? What if that fails too? Can we get a third site in on the same day?
As a bird guide the pressure is always on before you see the bird that people really want to see. And the bird that people most often want to see is the Wallcreeper. Apart from that, there’s another affliction that’s endemic to looking for this bird: Wallcreeper neck. If you want to know how that feels trying standing at the base of a vertical cliff and stare upwards, to about 50 metres directly overhead for as long as you can. Then try some more, because you haven’t spotted the bird yet. Tried it? Now you know what Wallcreeper neck is!

Wallcreeper photography

Two fresh candidates for Wallcreeper neck

Over the past two decades I’ve spent many a day exposing myself to the hazards of searching for Wallcreepers which, in addition to the above include keeping one eye out for falling rocks, puffing and scrambling up steep slopes and gazing forlornly at miles and miles of limestone crags stretching across the horizon and wondering how many Wallcreepers there must have been picking their way across them in the time that I have been staring at one single rock face vainly hoping for a flash of those beautiful wings.

Looking for Wallcreepers

That’s a lot of rock!

Some will say that that’s the beauty of birding. You just never know what the birds are going to do, what exactly you’re going to see (or not). Yeah, OK, but for me just being there is like planting the seed which in itself is not deeply satisfying. When the bird suddenly appears though, your flowers have bloomed, and that is the true beauty of birding. You and the Wallcreeper are both there at the same time and the same place because you made a conscious decision to try and get another glimpse of the bird in its world, and the Wallcreeper decided to play along. Magic!

Another Wallcreeper Autumn

Wallcreeper magic

The magic of the Wallcreeper needs little introduction to most European birders. The Wallcreeper clings and flits about vertical walls and rock faces, probing its long downcurved bill into nooks and crannies to fish out insects, arachnids and other small invertebrates that form its diet. The Wallcreeper is a very active little bird, that tumbles and climbs, edges along, flits this way and that, and then with for no apparent reason departs with a fluttery, butterfly flight that takes it around the corner and out of your view. Follow it if you can – you can’t.

Wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria

Wallcreeper on rocks

The Wallcreeper inspires awe and admiration in part because of where it is and what it does to be there, but even so the Wallcreeper wouldn’t be quite the prize that it is without its striking wing markings – those carmine panels and clean white wing spots on a nitid black background – and also, in the relative effort that it takes for the average birder to see one. Wallcreepers don’t grow on trees, and not even on rocks!

In northeast Spain Wallcreepers breed only in the Pyrenees and at altitudes which deter all but the most determined – and fit – to find them. Hence, it is our immense good luck that come the autumn Wallcreepers all but abandon their high mountain haunts and start frequenting places the average birder isn’t so challenged to get to. We have an opportunity to see one, now let’s not waste it!

November is the month I feel most confident about when an eager client approaches me with the request to see a Wallcreeper. Followed by February and March. Why? By November virtually all the Wallcreepers have left their high mountains and descended to rock faces at lower altitudes. To places in the Pre-Pyrenees of Lleida, Huesca and Zaragoza, where they might decide to stay until the food runs out in the depths of winter and it’s time to move on. Then, move on to where? Further south, to another range? Or just around another part of the rock face, somewhere away from prying birders? Either way, the following deep winter period of late December and January corresponds to a time when I find it difficult to predict how reliable the usual wintering sites will be at giving our hungry eyes a feast of the Wallcreeper.

Wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria

wallcreeper on rocks

But November? November has been generous with its Wallcreepers over the years. And this year has been no exception. With Adam and Daniela we saw no fewer than 5 Wallcreepers in two days, with a maximum of four at one site. Then, in mid-December (I know, but I had my doubts) Eirik and I hit the Wallcreeper jackpot again, this time with 3 Wallcreepers at the same site as the November 4.

What’s more, Adam, Daniela and Eirik were all bird photographers, and it’s my personal belief that bird photographers are never happy with what they have got. “Oh, yes, but the light,” “the background could be better”, “too much contrast,” “not close enough,” “too far away” “I was hoping for an adult bird”… and a long etcetera. So if they all went away happy with their Wallcreeper shots we all must have done something right!

WHere the birds are in northeast Spain

Where the birds are in northeast Spain

Check out the itineraries on the Birding In Spain website to see some of the places where you can find the dazzling Wallcreeper. Or go one step further and buy the book “Where the birds are in northeast Spain“. Or go for the ultimate time saver: ask us to lead you to a Wallcreeper or two in person. Fortunately the Wallcreeper still frequents most of the sites described therein. Then stay here for more to follow on this marvellous bird …

Welcome back to Birding In Spain

In mid-March 2020 we said goodbye to Vreni and her husband after birding together from Lleida for four days. Two days later all of Spain was under strict lockdown. Vreni was our last client for a period that extended to over a year and a half. Then, this October, we started guiding again, and who was our first guest? Yes, Vreni!

She was here for just two days this time, but it was so good to re-establish contact with our visitors and to be able to share time with them in the field. It was the most satisfying birding we’d done in a long time … at least in the last 18 months.

And the birds? Well, there’s usually a surprise or two… This time it came in the form of a Black Stork among a group of White Storks along the River Segre near Lleida, and an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle on the drylands of Alfés. 

Black Stork with some White friends
Vreni and Steve

Wader Conservation World Watch – Participate!

This weekend, the 6th and 7th November, get out with your bins and a scope if you have one and watch some waders! Wherever you are. It’s as simple as that. Then report your findings and help Wader Quest help waders. See the information below. 

Download the information pack for full details or go to their website. Oh, and don’t forget to report your findings, however abundant or sparse they may be. Good luck!

Iceland Gallery 2

Iceland Galleries 2

More photos from Iceland

A chance to fish while whale watching

My first ever catch – it was rapidly dispatched into cod fillets; shame we couldn’t cook it ourselves. 

Red-necked Phalarope – photo by Colin Bradshaw

Watch these cute birds spin and spain where you can almost touch them. 

Summer-plumaged Slavonian Grebe – photo by Colin Bradshaw

Horned Grebe; beautiful plumage!

Great Northern Diver, Iceland. Photo by Colin Bradshaw

Common Loon. Intricate plumage in the silence of the fjords. 

Eurasian Golden Plover – Iceland. Photo by Colin Bradshaw

Golden, golden. 

White-tailed Eagle, Iceland.

When size makes up for dull plumage. 

Harlequin Duck, Iceland. They are so cute!

 

Birding in Iceland with Birding In Spain.

This kind of group makes travelling so much worth the while! 

 

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