Spring Birding in Spain Apr 29—May 15, 2011

Posted by Brian Gibbons

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Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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Spain did not disappoint. Birds, wine, amazing scenery in the mountains and plains, and delicious cuisine satisfied every sense. Each of these aspects was brought to the forefront at some point during the tour, particularly the alpine scenery, which was unforgettable. The rugged peaks dominating the skylines of the Picos de Europa and the Pyrenees were sublime. We saw flamingos, spoonbills, storks, bustards, eagle-owl, eagles, hawks, falcons, harriers, sandgrouse, pratincoles, eight species of larks, Firecrest, Bluethroat, Snowfinch, bee-eaters, Lammergeier, Wallcreeper, and Golden-Orioles. Our remarkable raptor list topped 23 species including Booted, Spanish Imperial, Bonelli's, Short-toed, and Golden eagles. Other fauna were spotted too: ocellated lizard, Spanish ibex, chamois, roe and red deer, and a foraging European.

Booted Eagle

Booted Eagle— Photo: Brian Gibbons

The Stone Curlew (Eurasian Thick-knee) dozing in the olive grove was our first quality bird of the tour. Tom spotted it in the rain while we were waiting for the Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin to show up. It took a couple more days before we would cross paths with the scrub-robin, but we did. We had three days to explore the woodlands and marshes of the famous Doñana National Park. Along the Atlantic coast marshes of Odiel, near Huelva, we found a great variety of shorebirds and waders. A cooperative Red-crested Coot was one of our first finds in the morning. The low-tide mudflats made for great foraging for the shorebirds. We found Bar-tailed Godwit, Snowy Plover, Red Knot, Common Ringed Plover, Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Curlew Sandpiper, Collared Pratincole, and Audouin's Gull among others. Perhaps most spectacular were the flocks of Greater Flamingos that coursed past several times. The freshwater marshes of Doñana National Park hosted hordes of birds too. Nowhere was this more evident than the heronry at the Jose Antonio Valverde Visitors Center. Great Reed-Warblers rattled off their discordant notes as hundreds of herons, egrets, and ibis carried on about their nesting chores. Many birds were carrying sticks and reeds for nest construction; others sat placidly incubating. Purple and Squacco herons, Little and Cattle egrets, Glossy Ibis, and Black-crowned Night-Herons were the main constituents. The Marbled Teal pair, resting on a log, were the stars of the visitor center. In the marsh itself we enjoyed Northern Lapwings, Eurasian Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, Red-crested Pochards, and other ducks.

Leaving the wetlands behind, we moved into the region of Extremadura. Monfragüe National Park would be surrounding us for the next couple of days. The rough outcroppings were perfect nesting areas for Eurasian Griffons, and we saw hundreds. The Spanish Imperial Eagle also made its presence known. Salto del Gitano provided us with our only Black Wheatear, and the superb view from Castillo del Monfragüe allowed us to find our only White-rumped Swift. Bee-eaters were abundant in the open country, and we found our only Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in a cork woodland.

After thoroughly exploring the hills and woodlands, we were off early one morning for the plains of Caceres. In these llanos we found Pin-tailed and Black-bellied sandgrouse, Little and Great bustards, many larks, rollers, and Montagu's Harriers. The highlight was provided by the displaying Great Bustards. With tails flipped forward, heads pulled back, and wings inside out, it was hard to tell which part of the bird you were looking at. The blithe females were responsible for this ridiculous behavior. Displaying males, appearing mostly fluffy-white like giant cottonballs, were easy to spot on the plains. After this show we found ourselves in the beautiful town square of Trujillo for lunch, with Lesser Kestrels and swifts zipping past. As with most buildings, there were the usual stately storks nesting around the square. Later in the day we watched a couple of huge eagle-owl nestlings as their parents stayed hidden nearby. The rock outcrops were great for nesting raptors, but they also hosted some of the little guys like Rock Bunting, Cirl Bunting, Black Redstart, and tits.

Traveling to the Gredos Mountains took us through the Jerte Valley, the cherry capital of Spain. Here we had a great lunch and found our first Gray Wagtails. Our arrival into the mountains was greeted with cold, gray skies. The next morning was no different. Our hunt for the Bluethroat would be a wet one. We hiked up an old Roman road for a couple of kilometers toward the Bluethroats' preferred habitat; unfortunately, we couldn't see the shrubby mountainside, as it was cloaked in fog. We occupied ourselves with the occasional Red-billed Choughs and Dunnocks that revealed themselves nearby. Finally the mist stopped and the clouds lifted, exposing a small group of Spanish ibex grazing placidly nearby. The Bluethroats started to sing and we had some good looks before the clouds descended upon us and it started raining. Victorious, we beat a hasty retreat for some hot coffee and lunch. The afternoon was similar—the weather variably chasing us into the vans and tempting us out again with the changing sky. Pied Flycatcher, Firecrest, Eurasian Nuthatch, and Crested Tit allowed us to see them. A White-throated Dipper popped up in a boulder-strewn stream. Hostal Almanzor and Alfonso kept us warm and well-fed. The next morning was cruelly beautiful. The Gredos Mountains with remaining snow patches were tempting us into their heights, but we had to move on to the Picos de Europa.

A single night at the Parador Cervera de Pisuerga teased us with its spectacular views in every direction, great food, the best wine of the tour, and the most amazing breakfast buffet I have seen. The Bullfinches on the lawn were a bonus. This would be the gateway to the Picos. The pass at Piedras Luengas provided us with our first look at the spectacular soaring heights of the Picos de Europa. After lunch in Potes we found the loudest place under construction in a small village; this was the preferred habitat of the Middle Spotted Woodpecker. A pair attending a nest right next to a construction zone seemed content with their early spring mistake.

Another clear and windless day was at hand for the cable car ride to the top of the mountains. After some mild trepidation we climbed aboard the gondola and shot uphill 2,000 feet in just five minutes. In this nearly barren alpine land of rocks, snowfields, and a few sprigs of vegetation, we found ten species of birds in five hours of birding. Water Pipit, Northern Wheatear, and Alpine Accentor were easy. The White-winged Snowfinch flew past a few times, showing us its striking wing pattern, but not giving good looks.

By lunch time we hadn't heard a Yellow-billed Chough, so we sat down at La Vueltona to listen for Wallcreeper and feed ourselves. Hardly had our packs been cast to the ground before a group of three Yellow-billed Choughs descended. Landing ten feet away from us, they knew what we were having for lunch before we did. Their numbers swelled to more than ten for a while. They dispersed when our dining was done and we started hunting Wallcreeper more seriously.

Yellow-billed Chough

Yellow-billed Chough— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Spreading out along the exposed rock, we all scanned and listened for the Wallcreeper. Finally, a pair flew in and a couple of folks saw them before they made a long flight across a huge valley. We were able to view the birds from a distance with the scopes that Santi had run down to retrieve. The birds disappeared into caves and crevices, all the while flicking their crimson wings.

After a successful trip into the mountains, we needed to make our way back to the cable car landing. We had good looks at lounging chamois, cooling off in the snow banks. Just before the landing we happened upon a group of Snowfinches feeding downhill. Two males would occasionally fly up in display and glide down on their largely white wings, singing all the while. Amazingly, when they landed they would cover up the white and fade into the rocky landscape.

Our last destination was Hecho Valley, in the Pyrenees. Unloading our bags was all we had to do to find our first Lammergeier from the Hotel Uson parking lot. A quick afternoon trip to the Boca del Infierno was just a sampling of the wonderful scenery of the Pyrenees. Soaring peaks, snowfields, and scree slopes made for beautiful vistas over the rushing streams, forests, and grassy valleys. We had just scoped the rare Citral Finch before the clouds closed in on us one last time. Our efforts to see a Ring Ouzel well were foiled by the mist and fog.

In the pine forest, a Black Woodpecker looked around while everyone enjoyed scope views. We made a morning visit to San Juan de la Peña Monastery, dating from the 11th century. An afternoon sighting of Lammergeier satisfied everybody as it glided around allowing good looks before drifting off. Wallcreeper was another target in the Gabardito Refuge, and most that made the effort of the hike were rewarded with additional views of this fantastic bird.

Our final morning found us again in open country, this time the Belchite Steppes area. Along the highway we got great looks at a young Golden Eagle, sitting stately on a bluff. Our main quarry was Dupont’s Lark, which we found singing shortly after we arrived. Better views of sandgrouse were also on order. While we found them flying around once again, they kept their distance.

A total of 211 species in two weeks of birding through a spectacular, scenic country with wonderful food and wine made for a great trip.