Hotspot 2020 diaries: Not a good day for eagles

Here we go again…

This is getting repetitive: Florinda and I woke up early to go out birding in the Hotspot, this time to the north of Lleida, pulled up the blinds and… fog. Again, here we go again. However, I was determined to give it a go, as the increased elevation at the rocky hills we were heading to could well play in our favour, and take us out of these damn groundclouds.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to drive too far before we emerged into the sunshine, getting a glimpse of how other people must live. Our destination was a reservoir set into craggy scenery, and at the northern extremes of the Hotspot. It was cold, below zero, so we wrapped up in our “Iceland” gear, and walked down to the crystalline stretch of river. In less than a couple of minutes we were enjoying marvellous views of a White-throated Dipper, Cinclus cinclus, probably of the cinclus race. We watched at our leisure as the Dipper perched, swam, walked under water and flew, enjoying every moment.

Florinda enjoying a Dipper

I shouldn’t forget to mention that before reaching this point I had already spotted a couple of Rock Buntings, another Hotspot “target” species I was anticipating having to search high and low for, so the overall satisfaction was enormous.

Then there was also Crag Martins, Rock Sparrows, a Hawfinch, before we followed the upper road to overlook the reservoir. Things were calm, except… well, I’ll talk about that in another post. For now let’s stick to the birds.

Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes. Photo by Franck Renard.

Several Griffon Vultures sat hunched up on the rocks, and didn’t look like they were going to go anywhere fast. Even those in the shade couldn’t be bothered to move to a sunnier perch. I scanned, high and low, not really daring to hope for a Wallcreeper, but the thought was certainly in the back of my mind. I went one way and Florinda another, and I had just spotted a Peregrine Falcon perched on a rock and was scoping it when I heard Florinda calling my name. What, did she have the eagle (Bonelli’s Eagle) I thought, as I whipped up my scope and ran back to where she was?

“Where were you? I’ve been calling!”

“I couldn’t go any faster!”, I replied, panting lightly. “What is it? The eagle?”

“Wallcreeper!” she answered.

But by the time I had understood and followed her directions there was no sign of the Wallcreeper. Take it with philosophy, Steve, I thought.

“Want to see the Peregrine?” I asked, after some more fruitless scanning.

So we went to see the perched Peregrine Falcon, which by that time had also decided to go somewhere else. Result: no Peregrine for Florinda, no Wallcreeper for Steve.

“Oh well, I’ll buy you a coffee and a croissant, how about that?

She accepted my offer and we walked back to the car. The car – no birder who has not seen a key bird he/she’s been looking for can’t get back into the car without having “one last look”, right? Well, I had that one last look, and open-mouthed found myself watching a Wallcreeper flying across my binocular vision and disappearing around a crag, its wing tips flashing white in the sun.

Then we descended into the fog once more, and I had already forgotten my promise to buy Florinda a coffee and a croissant.

Postcards from Marvellous May

Marvellous May Tour

For a change we invite you to just sit back and enjoy the pictures…

Ebro delta sunrise, el Fangar

We stay at the bird-rich Ebro Delta for 2 nights…

Hosteria de Guara, in the Sierra de Guara

… and then, alas, only one night at the lovely Hosteria de Guara in the Sierra de Guara…

Marvellous May: fields full of poppies

… but we make up for it, by staying in the Roncal Valley for 3 nights …

An old bridge in the Roncal Valley, Navarra

Follow the green Roncal Valley into the Pyrenees

… and we finish in style in southern Navarra, with steppes, wetlands and forests.

The Bárdenas Reales, Navarra

Another paradise lost

Things aren’t what they used to be…

Utxesa reservoir aquatic census 17th January 1998:
34 Coot
13 Great Crested Grebe
11 Teal
37 Mallard
11 Grey Heron
264 Great Cormorant
68 Shoveler
76 Common Pochard
1,800 Black-heded Gull
1 Ferruginous Duck

Another foggy day at Utxesa

A visit to Utxesa this January 10th 2020 (22 years later)
3 Moorhen
1 Black-headed Gull
11 Mallard
2 Grey Heron
5 Mute Swan

And no, it wasn’t because of the fog!

Hotspot 2020: the first week

Fog.

Here in Catalonia Lleida is well known for its fog. And deservedly so. This week the sun came out for about half an hour, setting off memes and whatsapp funnies about the inhabitants of Lleida seeing the sun again after weeks of fog.

Understandably, birding in such conditions is a challenge, not just for the eyes, but also for the observer’s enthusiasm. Nevertheless, in a period with little work I’ve been able to get out and about on a few occasions, boosting the Hotspot list to 95 species.

The Black Stork at the Lleida city dump gave me a run for my money, and I was close to despair when at first a second visit to search for this bird drew a blank. There were hundreds of White Storks, but no Black Stork – that is until a car speeding around inside the dump put up a lot of the birds there, one of which was the Black Stork. The bird flew into the most conspicuous spot possible, making one think that “How could you possibly miss it?”.

White Storks and Black Stork at the local dump

Combining this with a quick visit to the Alfés plains and Aspa revealed Hawfinch and a good number of Redwings, two of the winter species I was keen on seeing.

The next sortie was to the western fringe of the Hotspot, with the hope of a Ferruginous Duck on a reservoir where it has been frequently recorded. A male Tufted Duck took its place, which tempered the mild disappointment of not finding any Ferruginous Ducks. Of note were 35 Shelducks, a juvenile Goshawk and about 15 Ruffs (no, they weren’t Golden Plovers) in an alfalfa field – in January!

Then the last visit was to Utxesa. I planned an early visit but when before dawn I pulled up the blinds to look outside the fog was dense, and I had to wonder if it was worth the effort. I soldiered on though, not one to appreciate the virtues of getting up early if it wasn’t for birding.

Birding in the fog

The fog did not lift. Walking under the pine trees at Utxesa was like walking around in the cloud forest, with the trees dripping rain drops. I could see virtually nothing, but by call picked up Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper. The birding highlight of the morning was a group of about 15 Siskins, which allowed me to approach within 10 metres. Something to enjoy before beating a retreat and planning the next excursion.

2020 Hotspot and some reflections

After the first two mornings of birding with my 2020 Hotspot in mind, I’ve already mulled over some thoughts and insights it has provided me with, essentially because of the birds I have seen. On the two days birding I have seen 71 species, nothing remarkable, and no rarities or birds to bowl one over.

Lleida city dump


Lesser spotted woodpecker habitat near Lleida

However, the two morning birding list reveals some highlights and, with them, some insights. For example, Black Kite, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Bluethroat and Purple Swamphen.

  • The Black Kite is interesting because up until about 10 years ago there were no wintering records of this species near Lleida. My first knowledge of this happening was when a photographer client of ours visited the site in January on his own and later told me he had photographed a Black Kite, showing me the photo to prove it. Since then the records have increased, and this year I believe one observer has reported 6 Black Kites at the city dump last December.
  • Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – I spent many years looking for and hoping this species would turn up near my home, and now that it has it seems to be taking the area by storm. I’ve heard it at 5 sites near Lleida in the last year, and at one other in the Sierra de Guara, and at Flix, and there must be more. The first records of this species in the area came to me personally about 12 years ago.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers, Dendrocopos minor

  • Bluethroat and Purple Swamphen. I’ve put these two together because of the place where they are usually seen these days, at the Estany (lake) d’Ivars, to the east of Lleida. The Estany was drained in the 1950s but then recreated around the year 2005. Before then you would have been very lucky to see a Bluethroat (a few records in marshy habitats, river edges, ricefields) maybe once or twice a year, and a Purple Swamphen once a lifetime. Now you go to the Estany in the winter and expect to see them.

Bluethroat, Luscinia svecica


Purple or Western Swamphen, Porphyrio porphyrio

Changes. If you stay around for long enough and keep watching, you’ll see a lot of them.

Photo credits: –

(i) Lesser Spotted Woodpecker photo adapted from the Crossley ID guide Britain and Ireland, (ii) Purple Swamphen photo by Geoff Sharp, (iii) Bluethroat by Tom

Before then you would have been very lucky to see a Bluethroat, maybe once or twice a year, …

Lammergeier Wanderings

Thoughts about the Lammergeier…

Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus

  • The Lammergeier is essentially a bone-eating bird and not, as the originally German name suggests, a devourer of innocent lambs.
  • The Lammergeier is shy around other vultures, and prefers to stay on the edges of chaotic gatherings of Griffon Vultures around a carcass. Then it will gradually try to edge its way in, hopefully not bothering anyone…

Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus

  • Lammergeiers never wander far from the mountains if they can help it. That’s why they need so much assistance in recolonizing the mountain ranges where they have disappeared from.
  • Lammergeiers are to mountains, like cheese is to wine.

Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus

Ordesa National Park in the Pyrenees is beautiful, but its beauty is sublime when you watch an adult Lammergeier glide effortlessly over the edge of a stunning gorge.

Ordesa National Park, in the Pyrenees

“How do you tell Lammergeiers apart from Griffon Vultures?” people ask me. Sometimes I explain …
… And sometimes I just grin and say “Don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see it”.

Note: Subscribers to our newsletter will be receiving a free chapter about this marvellous bird, and a detailed chart to determine the ages of Lammergeiers. 

Flying over the Pyrenees

Photo credits: Thanks to Franck Renard and Jan Pedersen for their Lammergeier photos.

Lammergeiers are to mountains like cheese is to wine

Marvellous May: A visitor’s tale

Marvellous May in northeast Spain

My husband and I took the plunge and booked a Marvellous May Tour with Birding In Spain. We were a little apprehensive … (read on)

…because we were joining a larger group from the UK who already knew each other, and we didn’t know just how birdy everything would be. Steve was leading the way in the minibus, and we followed behind with Florinda at the wheel of a comfortable car. Well, we liked that arrangement because it was clear from the start that Florinda was such a nice lady to be with!

The birding started at the Ebro Delta, which was full of birds: Flamingoes, all kinds of herons and gulls, Little Bitterns and the rest. By late afternoon I was ready to go back to the hotel, but the rest of the group didn’t show any signs of wanting to retire, so I stuck it out.

Birding and photography in the Ebro Delta

Alquézar, Sierra de Guara

Good meals, good company

Our next hotel was delightful, but I confessed to Florinda that I was feeling tired and not used to being out for so many hours. No problem, she said. So, the next day Florinda, hubby and I had a relaxed morning, enjoying a later breakfast, a stroll around the little village, poppy fields and almond groves, and then in the afternoon we visited the superb Medieval walled town called Alquézar. It was just what we needed to recharge our batteries! Meanwhile, “the lads” had been gallivanting around the plains all day looking for sandgrouse and larks. They came back happy, but we were just so glad that had been able to do our own thing for the day.

A drama of Puffins on Handa Island

A drama of Puffins on Handa Island

You have to be hard-hearted to resist the pull of Puffins. Not to be moved by their friendly, almost comic demeanour and their endearing lack of grace on land and even in the air, as their little wings flutter, feet extend and they make a belly-landing on a grassy slope, their colourful, oversized bills clutching onto a row of tiny fish.

Atlantic Puffins, Fratercula arctica

Over the years we’ve visited seabird colonies on the islands of Skomer, off the west coast of Wales, and Handa off the west coast of Scotland. And every time, in among the inevitable photos – you get so close to these confiding birds – people can’t help identifying with the plight of these resilient little seafarers. 

Atlantic Puffins, Fratercula arctica. Photo by Eva Solanes

On one memorable occasion, when the island warden had given us a few insights into the comings and goings of the different birds on the island, and how they interacted, we took a relaxed walk of several hours, enjoying the good weather and the continuous contact with bird life all around us. I was temporarily distracted watching the Common Guillemots “facing the wall” on a guano-covered cliff face when several shrill, human cries caught my attention. Three of the ladies in the group had been watching the Puffins coming in from the sea, landing in front of them with bills full of fish, and then waddling to their burrows nearby. To do that though, each time they had to run the gauntlet and get past the line of marauding gulls waiting for their return. The Herring and Lesser Black Backed Gulls would chase the Puffins to make them drop the fish they were carrying – they were the pirates of the island airspace. The Great Black Backed Gulls, however, were the killers: they wouldn’t stop at a few little fish, they wanted to swallow the whole Puffin

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctica. Photo by Howard Kearley

The ladies had been told about this particular relationship, and had been watching with delight and some concern, as the Puffins came flying in. Suddenly, an aerial pursuit between gull and Puffin unfolded before their worried eyes and, inevitably, they sided with the underdog, the poor Puffin. The Puffin did its best to weave one way, and bank suddenly at the last moment to avoid the gull’s attack, and it was when it seemed that the Puffin had lost the struggle and may even be eaten, that they could bear it no longer, and let out a collective scream of anguish and accusation. 

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctica

“What’s up?” I called out, as I hastened to the scene. By  then I had an idea of what it was about … Had it been a Herring Gull or a Great Black Backed Gull? To them, that was academic, the Puffin had managed to escape to the safety of its burrow, still clutching its hard-won meal. 

Suddenly, an aerial pursuit between gull and Puffin unfolded before their worried eyes and, inevitably, they sided with the underdog, the poor Puffin.

A Salty Kiss

Male and female Harlequin Ducks paddled frantically among the breaking waves like little steamer clockwork ducks, and were completely enthralling. The group sheltered from the wind as best they could from behind the van, and from there they watched the ducks’ antics. They were in no rush to move on.

Harlequin Duck, Histrionicus histrionicus

Two days later I was standing on one side of the fishing boat, cleaning my camera lens while most of the passengers were on the other side, watching out for the Humpback Whales which had just dived below the surface of the choppy waters.

Whalewatching in Iceland

Humpback Whales in Iceland

Suddenly, a Humpback whale broke the surface with a loud, unannounced spout of sea spray, and this was carried on the wind and spattered over my lens, my protective clothing and, more significantly, up my nostrils. A salty kiss, from a Humpback Whale – this was Iceland.

Suddenly, a Humpback Whale broke the surface with a loud, unannounced spout of sea spray

Handa and seabirds on the chugga-chugga

Handa Island Ferry, Scotland

When I first went to the island of Handa on the northwest coast of Scotland we chugged across the narrow straits on a little, narrow boat. But there was no worry – the straits were calm and sheltered. On landing the young warden introduced us to the Island reserve and told us about its wildlife, also pointing out that in the centuries past the local people used to row out here to bury their dead. That was to prevent hungry wolves from digging up their loved ones and devouring their bodies when food was scarce in the harsh winter.
These days we don’t row across the straits, we chug; and it’s keen, lively people that make the crossing, not corpses; nevertheless, the island is still a haven – for thousands of Puffins, Guillmeots, Razorbills, and Skuas all call this home.

And still not a wolf in sight.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula artica

Centuries past the local people used to row out here to bury their dead.

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