Birding In Spain’s Advent Calendar – Starting on December 1st 2023

Cold December is upon us. We want to help warm it up a bit for our subscribers, with our nature advent calendar.

Every day until Christmas Day (25th December) we will publish an image, mostly birds, but not always, which we hope you will enjoy seeing, along with a motivational phrase in case you are feeling the winter blues.

Birding In Spain’s Advent Calendar – a different image to warm those cold days of December

This is a unique feature only available to our subscribers, as each day’s image is password protected. If you are a subscriber the password was sent to you in our last mailing – all you have to do is type it into the space provided and then enjoy. If you are not a subscriber you either miss out or subscribe now – there are no catches!

By the way – if you like any of the images we will send you a full resolution one which you can print out and frame if you like – just send us an email.

One per person only, though, unless you have been on a guided tour with us in the last three years, in which case you are entitled to THREE!

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 …

Heatherlea Tour Report: Catalonia birds and butterflies

Heatherlea Tour Report Catalonia Birds and Butterflies

Mid-May saw myself and fellow tour guide John Muddemann leading a tour for the Scottish company Heatherlea. Spain for birds and butterflies was fully booked with 12 participants, all eager to get to grips with some of the birdlife and Lepidopterae of the Catalan countryside

Here is not the place to forward too many details of how the tour went, as you can read it here HEATHERLEA TRIP REPORT – Spain, Birds & Butterflies May 2023 (2).

Catalonia birds and butterflies tour group

Catalonia birds and butterflies tour group

Suffice to say, we saw a lot of interesting birds at what is probably the best time of year for seeing the maximum variety of birds that Catalonia can offer. Icterine Warbler, Red-footed Falcon, Black Vulture, Bonelli’s Eagle, Lammergeier, Citril Finch, Little Bustard, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Eagle Owl .. and the list goes on. What’s more, we visited wetlands, drylands, high mountains in the Pyrenees, mid-mountain Mediterranean ranges and what we could find in-between! 

Butterflies were scarce, firstly because of the cold weather we experienced in the Pyrenees, but mainly because of the ongoing drought that Catalonia, as most of Spain, has been going through for the last two years. Nevertheless, we had a good couple of mornings when the sun shone and the wind fell, which you can see reflected in the report. We all enjoyed the experience and the company, and for me it was a pleasure to work with such a knowledgeable co-leader as John. 

Next year we will be leading another tour for Heatherlea – Spain in early Spring – plugging into our in-depth knowledge of northeastern Spain, seeking out Wallcreepers, Lammergeiers and a whole lot of birds that can be seen in March. Click on the link below to check it out. 

Wallcreeper in flight

Wallcreeper in flight

Trip report Extremadura – Gredos April 2023

Kath and Mick Claydon’s Trip Report Extremadura – Gredos April 2023

Trip Report Extremadura-Gredos 23

Walking with the lavender
Walking with the lavender, Extremadura

In the link above you can click on the trip report, written entirely by Kath Claydon, of her and husband Mick’s private tour with Birding In Spain in April of this year.

This was our third birding tour together, after our initial one in Cantabria and Asturias in 2017, followed by Navarra and Aragón in 2022.

Now, almost five months after their tour, what do I recall most vivdly? Well, I guess it must be the early mornings: on the plains of Cáceres watching Great and Little Bustards, and excitedly scanning the skies to try and locate the Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse we could hear in flight; the morning in the Sierra de Gredos watching the comings and goings of a pair of White-throated Dippers under an old stone bridge; getting glimpses of tail-cocked Bluethroats who were giving us a run for our money; watching the Otter swimming up to the tail of the Alcollarín reservoir, and just a little later spotting an immaculate Pied Flycatcher in the trees that provided shade for our picnic.

Our lovely secluded hotel in the Sierra de Gredos
Our lovely secluded birding hotel in the Sierra de Gredos

In truth there are too many things to remember them vividly, especially if you’re a bird guide like myself who is in his third decade of leading bird tours around Spain. I do remember the satisfaction of happy travellers though, their good, easy company, much telling of tales, and a few laughs around a drink or two.

Anyway, I digress. Just click on the link to the report above and enjoy the read!

Some payback from playback?

So what’s the situation with playback to attract birds in Spain?

Using playback with bird calls – yes? No? How?

Recently we received a respectful enquiry into the use of playback to attract birds to the observer in Spain. This is the answer we gave (with some light editing for public viewing):

I’m not sure if anything specific has been legislated about playback that doesn’t pertain to the category of “disturbance of protected species” and “protected areas”. Basically if a countryside warden or police officer can consider that you are bothering or causing disturbance to a protected species then you could be in trouble.

Mind you, I’ve had a couple of run-ins with over-zealous countryside wardens who were attempting to vilify me on completely nonsensical grounds – like just for being there with optics, and nothing at all to do with playback – and their stance went a little wobbly-kneed when they received my spirited reply founded mostly on common sense.

You would probably not be in a position to do the same, so I would err on the side of caution: do not use playback for rare or known protected species (I would never use it for Eagle Owl, Dupont’s Lark, for example and very rarely for any other nocturnal species, if at all these days). Common warblers such as Sardinian or Western Bonelli’s would probably be OK in my opinion, Firecrest (they respond so well!), Treecreepers, but then my opinion is not the law, and has less weight than that of an agitated countryside warden.

Another important point: I would not use playback for any bird that I think any other birder will do or would have done the same to. So if you’re chasing someone else’s bird – a specific bird that may have been targeted before you – don’t use playback.

Attracting birds with bird call apps

Attracting birds with bird call apps

There are recommendations that can be found about how to use playback “within reason”, which generally reflect on the observer’s experience, knowledge and respect for the bird.

For example:

  • Don’t use “ghetto-blasters” on playback loop
  • Don’t use playback loop at any volume – use selected sections of the song or call only
  • Position yourself strategically and use a “bird-like” volume
  • If it doesn’t work after a brief period of trying move on, and let the bird have its life back

If you would like to read more about the use of birdcall playback apps and the like in the field this article at Audubon, adapted from the original by David Allan Sibley is worth reading.

How’s the Lammergeier doing in the Pyrenees?

Recent trends of the Lammergeier – Bearded Vulture – population in Catalonia, Spain

The Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, Gypaetus barbatus, is one of Europe’s most endangered bird species. At the beginning of the 20th Century in Catalonia (northeast Spain) the Lammergeier was present in the Pyrenees and the Ports of Tortosa, in the south. Due mostly to direct persecution it soon disappeared from the Ports and, at the same time, there was a serious decline in the population of the Pyrenees, regressing from east to west. At the beginning of the 1980s there were only five or six pairs remaining in the western “comarques” of Catalonia.

Lammergeier in flight

Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, in flight over the Pyrenees

Then the Lammergeier started a slow recovery. In 2013 42 Lammergeier territories were identified with 84 adults across the Pyrenees of Catalonia and into the Pre-Pyrenees. Currently there are 48 Lammergeier territories in the Pyrenees of Catalonia, which represents 33% of the total for the whole of the Pyrenees (Spain, France and Andorra).

The main factors in the Lammergeier’s decline were poisoning, hunting, electrocution and egg-stealing. On the other side of the coin, the Lammergeier’s recent cautious recovery can at least in part be attributed to increased legal protection and to the contribution of supplementary feeding stations which have appeared in the last two decades in the Pyrenees and Pre-Pyrenees.

Nevertheless, there is still cause for concern from mortality factors such as poisoning, collision with electric cables, and lead poisoning deriving from the bullets used in hunting.

There is an ongoing Lammergeier captive breeding scheme, which has led to a number of birds being released in Andalusia, the Maestrazgo (both regions of Spain), and in the Grands Causses in France.

The Lammergeier is included in Annexe 1 of the Community Directive 79/409/EEC on birds.

Lammergeier in flight

Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, in flight over the Pyrenees

Click the following link for a visual summary of the Lammergeier’s status in Catalonia:

Why it shouldn’t happen to a guide…

Once upon a time there was a birder who…

Birding in a group

Birding in a group with a guide


Now, I’ll try to be nice about this all. After all, the vast majority of clients and visitors are a pleasure to be with and to guide, and those very few who break the protocol are not likely to pay much attention to my postulations. Nevertheless. 

There are certain things which are better not to do when out in the field as part of a group with a guide.

1. Walk in front of the guide continuously when looking for birds. You may well have good eyesight and hearing and be capable of identifying the birds and pointing them out to other people. That’s something the guide does, it’s his or her professional occupation. Taking the reins in this way without a nod from the guide is like a student standing up in front of the class and saying “Hey, I know this lesson”, walking to the front, and commandeering the blackboard from the teacher.

The guide, however, usually knows more than that: he* will have a good idea if a certain bird seen flying away is worth pointing out (some people might not be fast enough to get on to it; the bird may be about to disappear in two seconds, there may be better chances with better views later on, etc); he may be planning to draw the group’s attention to something more interesting; your approach may scare some of the birds the group was hoping to encounter.

2. Slam the doors when exiting the vehicle. If the guide has had the skill and fortune to stop the vehicle at a distance from an interesting bird and considers that the best option for the group is to get out for everyone to get good views please don’t slam the doors! Bim! Bam! And the bird has flown.

3. Spend forever fiddling with your stuff every time the group exits the vehicle. The group can only move as fast as its slowest member. Not only that, the group is temporarily guideless while he is waiting for you to get your stuff together so he can lock the vehicle and turn his attention to helping everyone see the bird. If a quick exit may be called for and your stuff is in the backpack – take it out beforehand or just grab the backpack.

4. Ignore the guide’s indications when he’s pointing out a bird that you can’t see. A bird in a bush can be still or moving, but is usually pretty small. As a guide I’ve had some people who will strain their eyes trying to spot the bird in a well-indicated bush, wobbling their heads like a Burrowing Owl, without raising their binoculars, despite urging them to do so. So, please, when the guide says “raise your binoculars” understand that he’s giving you good advice, and do so.

Guide and birder

Look! Over there! the guide indicates, and the birder looks.

5. On a more humorous note, “12 o’clock” is the view in front of the van, and not in front of you when you are looking out the side window!

6. If the guide is looking, pointing or giving verbal indications then make the effort to listen and to look in the same direction as he is pointing (you’d be surprised!).

7. If there’s a queue behind you for a look at the bird in the guide’s scope please give some kind of indication if you can’t actually see the bird. People peering down the scope for a minute or more, and saying nothing because they see nothing can be quite frustrating! If you inform the guide that you cannot see the bird then he will be in a position to do something about it.

8. Put your eye to the scope, not your hand! You can’t see anything through the scope with your hand, and you may jog it out of place.

9. Make sure that you drink enough water. In Spain the most common field ailments suffered by visitors tend to derive from dehydration.

10. Please keep rustling of cagoules and the like to a minimum! This is especially important when the guide is trying to locate a bird through listening for its call or song.

11. While you’re free to dress as you like in the field, and nobody expects you to wear full camouflage gear on a normal birding tour, do you really need to wear a dazzling white shirt or blouse every day?

12. When at close range to a bird it is best to avoid rapid movements (ie raise your binoculars slowly) and, in particular, marked pointing. A bird can tell when it’s the centre of attention, and it usually won’t like it.

13. If your guide tells you that it’s perfectly safe to drink the tap water, and if you normally drink the tap water back home in Oregon or Hampshire or wherever you live, then believe him.

14. Do let it be known to the guide if you are in dire need of a convenience stop. In Spain a toilet break is often synonymous with a coffee break, so he won’t mind!

15. My own particular sin: I have been known to “shush” people when I hear or see something exciting, sometimes without the proper decorum. Please overlook this, don’t get offended, as it’s the bird that comes first on such occasions!

16. I once asked the only lady in a group of 4 clients if she could run back to the vehicle and grab the scope while I kept eyes on a bird we were all interested in seeing. It probably occurred to her to think “why me?”, and let me tell you this: she was the youngest and the fittest of the group, that’s why. There is no room on our tours for racial or sexual discrimination of any kind, and thankfully it is something I have rarely encountered on a bird tour.

Summer birding

Birding in a group with a guide in the summer

* Can I just use “he” to make things simpler, on the understanding that there are both male and female guides, please?

That all being said, the vast majority of you have got things pretty much under control. Well done, and thanks!

BREAKING NEWS! Superb Iceland Tour for June 2024

Iceland Tour June 2024

Gullfoss waterfall, Iceland
Gullfoss waterfall, Iceland

We love Iceland! A midsummer birding tour to Iceland is about some special birds, but so much more…

Iceland is unforgettable scenery, relaxed people, humpback whales, arctic foxes, seals, good hotels, good food, easygoing, and of course, birds.

Gyrfalcon is one of the special birds we hope to see in Iceland

We’ve already booked or planned some of the best hotels and experiences that such a tour can offer. Whale-watching, the ferry to pretty Flatey Island, the domestic flight from Akureyri to Reykjavik to save a tiresome return journey …

And the hotels. Our personal favourite is Fransiskus, in what is known as the prettiest town in Iceland, Stykkisholmur.

We’ll be holding an online meeting to explain more about this tour, with greetings from some of the hotel propriety, the crew of the Hauganes Whale-watching experience, and more.

Come join us, without compromise, to see and hear a bit more about this tour that you and your partner really shouldn’t miss.

Somewhere in Iceland

Online meeting date to be announced soon!

The Lesser Grey Shrike – “technically extinct” in Spain

Extinction is not a nice thing

2023: The Lesser Grey Shrike is technically extinct in Lleida, Catalonia, and therefore in all of Spain.

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike – image taken from the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Catalonia 1999-2002

This year no adult bird returned to the hitherto last remaining breeding site in Spain – on the edge of the city of Lleida in Catalonia – from its lengthy northward migration from its wintering quarters in the Kalahari.

Nevertheless, numerous captive bred birds were still released as juveniles, as part of the ongoing captive breeding scheme which has been taking place here since 2007.

However, with nothing other than instinct to lead them on their migrations; with no adult birds to follow, emulate or to compete with; and with modern-day factors giving rise to declines in both breeding areas and wintering sites, what chance do the newly-released juveniles have of re-establishing a sustainable breeding population?

Maybe the time has come to throw in the towel. What do you think?

Here’s a brief reverse chronology of the Lesser Grey Shrike’s decline in Spain in the last couple of decades.

2023: No returning adult, captive-bred juveniles released

2022: A single adult returned

2020: A total of 13 birds returned to the site near Lleida. 15 free-flying chicks hatched in Lleida from 4 breeding pairs. 10 of these fledged successfully.  74 chicks were bred in captivity.

2019: A total of 5 birds returned. A single breeding pair fledged 3 young.

2018: 0 -1 breeding pairs detected.

2015: 7 birds returned, 4 of these were captive-bred birds released the previous year. No free-flying chicks fledged. A record 102 captive-bred birds were released. Geolocators were attached to 34 birds.

2010: The species becomes extinct in the neighbouring province of Huesca.

2009: Captive-bred birds are released for the first time.

2007: The captive breeding programme was initiated.

2002: The breeding population of Empordà in the province of Girona becomes extinct.

1999: A previously-undiscovered population of breeding birds is discovered in the course of the fieldwork for the Catalan Breeding Bird Atlas 1999-2002. This site, on the outskirts of Lleida city, will become the last remaining site for the species in the whole of Spain in little more than a decade.

1980’s: Approximately 40 breeding pairs present in northeast Spain

Distribution of Lesser Grey Shrike in Catalonia in 1999-2002

Lesser Grey Shrike, Catalonia, 1999-2002

The reasons for this decline are attributed to climate change affecting rainfall patterns in the species’ wintering area; agricultural intensification and loss of habitat in its breeding quarters; insecticides; trapping in mistnets along its migration route; and heavy egg and chick predation by the Magpie.

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