Friday, 27 March 2015

Day 1 - Targets found

The trip started in the early hours of Tuesday morning as we left South Wales around 01:30. A Barn Owl drifting over the M4 was a  nice bonus for those that saw it (and for a change, Mr Bell was one of those who saw it!). After most of the team safely negotiated the cleaners bollard at the service station - worringly it was our driver that never saw it! we made Heathrow with time to spare. The flight was on time and uneventful and the approach into Barcelona airport produced the usual first doggy claims - Rob set the ball rolling with a claim of a Purple Sandpiper on the harbour breakwater, followed by a slightly more believable claim of Coots from Mr Bevan (who else).

It was then pick up the hire car and hit the road to Loporzano. Whilst a few species were picked up whilst traveling, a coffee stop just outside Llieda allowed the first proper birding of the trip, with Tree Sparrow being the highlight.

We arrived at Botetas Birdwatching Centre early afternoon and quickly made our introductions to Ester and dumped our luggage before heading the short distance up the road to Valdiello Dam. Spectacular scenery greeted us as we parked up and walked up the road to the dam. Dozens of Griffon Vultures circled above, joined by a couple of Egyptian Vultures. Proper wild type looking Rock Doves flew round. Suddenly, there above us was an adult Lammergeier, and we all got great, if somewhat brief views of this magnificent vulture.Within minutes the second key target species was located low down on the dam face - a Wallcreeper. We then spent 40+ minutes just watching this most sought after species getting scope filling views as it flicked it way over the dam wall.

With the two main target species in the bag within the first hour of proper birding, the pressure was off, and we enjoyed the other avian delights including Crag Martins, Crested Tits and Short-toed Eagles.

Day 2 - the high Pyreneese

A pre-breakfast walk produced numerous Corn Buntings, a Firecrest and our first Sardinian Warbler.

With a decent forecast, we decided to head up to the Ski resort at Astun to look for the high alpine species. On arriving there was clearly plenty of snow still on the lower slopes, but more worryingly the car park was virtually snow free, and patches of bare scree and rocks could be seen above the resort. Alpine Chough were quickly located, but a thorough search of the car park and hotel complex failed to uncover any Apline Accentors. A pair of Dipper were, however, found on the small exposed stream area beneath the Ski station. 3 small birds were noted flying off from some scree quite high up and at least one showed, or at least appeared to show, extensive white wing panels as they flew off. A search with the scope only uncovered a few Chaffinch.

Dropping down to Villanua quarry failed to uncover any Wallcreepers or Accentors, but at least 3 Golden Eagles and 3+ Lammergeiers, along with our first Rock Buntings of the trip were seen. Crossing the road for a picnic lunch overviewing the river produced at least 6 Black Redstarts, and 3 Dippers.

We then decided to try the Gabardito area in the Hecho valley. Although we located the turn off on the "main" road to the refuge we managed to miss a later turning and ended up back at Hecho. We did, however, pick up several Yellowhamer and a Iberian Green Woodpecker (Bevan only). A second try found us connect with the correct road and this was the most birdy area visited so far.  A flock of finches on the way up included at least 12 Hawfinches. Around the refuge meadow a large flock of Chaffinch fed. Other birds included Great, Coal, Crested and a pair of Marsh Tits as well as a pair of Common Crossbill.

Mammal interest was a brief view of a Red Fox whilst the presence of numerous bunches of Mistletoe in the conifers was noteworthy as we only find it in deciduous species back home.

Another 2 Lammergeier and Golden Eagles added to the impressive day total for these species, whilst a migrating male Hen Harrier provided added interest. 

Day 3 - a big rock

Day three started with a pre-breakfast stroll round the village of Loporenzo. A Black Kite low over our heads ensured we all added it to the trip list. A distant falcon that proved to be a Merlin and our first Blue Rock Thrush were further additions to the trip list.

After breakfast it was over to Riglos to try to find the missing Alpine Accentor before heading up to San Juan de la Pena. Parking up at Riglos we were soon making our way round to the right of the impressive cliff face. A female Western Subalpine Warbler was quickly located followed by our second male Blue Rock Thrush. The path became heavily overgrown and virtually impassable so we returned back to the church and headed off to the left. No Wallcreeper, and no Alpine Accentor. After the relatively poor day yesterday, our confidence was rapidly ebbing and this mornings ongoing dip was not helping.

We decided to cut our losses and head over to San Juan de la Pena. As impressive as the "new" and "old" monastries are, birding was hard work. A showy ground feeding Crested Tit gave great views. Several Firecrests were found, often given great views. Our only Treecreeper was found by Rob but with no call, we were left to assume it was Short-toed rather than Eurasian. A calling Tawny Owl was a bit of a surprise, but there was no sight or sound of any Black Woodpecker.

Heading back from SJP we called into the Eagle Owl site on the Alastuey road (Gosney guide site 1, pg 18), but drew a blank on the Owl, though a Clouded Yellow butterfly was located that looks good for a Berger's Clouded Yellow. Debate, however, surrounded the identity of several amphibians found resting on the bottom of the stream - Frogs or Toads?

It was back to Riglos for the final hour/attempt for the Alpine Accentor, again without any joy. The despondancy so bad that Bell decided he was going to twitch climbers!

Day 4 - into the plains

This mornings pre breakfast walk produced a number of new species for the trip. Rather than turning right as we had done the two previous mornings, we headed left then followed a wide cut "cycle path" off to our right. New species for the trip included Zitting Cisticola (well new for most) Meadow pipit, Wood Lark, and Cetti's Warbler. Cirl Bunting was also new for our walks in the Loporzano area. A fly over from 5 Cranes were a final avian farewell to this area.

After breakfast and our farewell to out fabulous host, Ester, we made the long journey down to the plains north of Belchite. Our first stop was to try to locate the "steppe" lake reported by Gosney (site 3 pg 30). A couple of false starts, did see our first Rabbits, Red-legged Partridges and Hoope of the trip before we found the correct trail and pulled in alongside the ruined building over looking the partially filled depression. Sandgrouse and Larks were our targets here. Larks certainly featured well with 100's of Calandra Lark with smaller numbers of the smaller Short-toed species -However we couldn't get decent views of these so the remain un id'ed to species level. A couple of Souther Grey Shrikes gave good views, but the Sandgrouse, and Stone Curlew, just would not co-operate.

We then headed over to the El Planeron reserve to try our luck with the Dupont's Lark. Given our recent lack of form since day 1, hopes were low, if not well and truly buried! but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Not long after pulling onto the Eastern most trail we had Black-bellied Sandgrouse fly up from the roadside. Was our luck beginning to change?

We pulled over into the parking area just down the slope from the junction with the cross road and piled out. Calandra and Lesser Short-toed larks were singing everywere. Spreading out we search and listened out for any sign of a Dupont's. Bevan, heard one, but it could not be located, even though it sounded close to where we stood. What we needed was a lunch brake, so Bell, Phil and Rob returned to the car and started lunch. mr Bell had just started his chicken sandwich when he noticed a bird on the skyline, a quick look through thebin's and it looked like a lark. Quickly swinging his scope round he relocated the bird, it decided to turn it head to show a lovely longish curved bill - Dupont's Lark sitting out as clear as day. All got to see the bird before it launched itself into a towering song flight and a steep decent that looked for al intents and purposes as it was was about to land on Mr Bell's head before veering of slightly landing near by and running off between the tussocks. Wow. One of the harder species to get and it was in the bag at 13:20 ish -none of this turn up before daylight even thinks about getting out of bed, hoping to hear and even catch a glimpse in the pre dawn light.

Not long after a second was found, also atop a tussock, this showing on and off for 20  minutes or so whilst at least two others sand near by.

Bouyed by our return to form, we headed off, quickly picking up both Sandgrouse species along the access road, Pin-tailed being a lifer for all of us. On then to Sastago, where Black Wheatear, Dartford Warbler and Kingfisher were added to the trip list.

The final birding stop of the day was to bird the tracks leading to Salina del Camaron (site 1 pg 30) looking for Bustards. Stopping and scanning produced great views of 3 Red Foxes, but no Bustards. Just as we approached the Salina, two Golden Eagles were picked up flying quite low and engaging in some talon grapplings. One of the birds was a juvenile (2cy?) bird whilst the other looked to be an adult. Suddenly Phil picks up a large bird flying almost directly towards us, with large white patches visable on the upper wing. Great Bustard. it drops behind some ruined buildings so we make out way down, hoping its landed with others already there. No such luck. there was however, great views of a male Great Bustard strutting across the field.

Heading back to the main road, a male Hen Harrier was spotted and whilst following that a male Little Bustard was picked up by Rob and Mike. Although a bit more distant than the Great it gave good scope views. Despite a good search no other Bustards could be located.

Job done, it was down to our new accommodation in Lecera, some 12 km south of Belchite, the Hotel Rincon del Cierzo. Look for the petrol stations as you drive into town, its also the reception for Hotel!. By this time the rain had started so we quickly checked in and made our way to the bar to celebrate our days successes.

Day 5 - the return journey

We awoke to the sound of heavy rain. A look outside was enough to show that it had rained heavily all night - just as well we enjoyed a successful day yesterday. With no pre-breakfast stroll, we should have been early for breakfast and quickly on the road back to Barcelona. No, Mr Hogan found time to dawdle through his morning abolutions which resulted in us hitting the road not long before 9am, after a hearty breakfast.

By the time we reached the coast the rain had stopped, so we pulled into the Llobregat Delta reserve, just south of the airport. The main entrance to the reserve was shut so we had to park in a pull in opposite the airport taxi station and walk down to the main parking area.

The walk down produced our first Coots of the trip (not withstanding a stringy call from Mr Bevan from the landing aircraft on day 1!), Little Grebes and the first sighting of Long-tailed Tits (Mr Bell having only heard the species previously). A walk down to the beach produced the hoped for Audouin's Gull, plus singles of Kentish Plover, Oystercatcher and Great Crested Grebe. Two male Common Redstarts were a nice change from the daily deluge of Black Red's.

Mike and Rob decoded to head back up to the car whilst the two Martins and Phil decided to check out the main part of the reserve. Mike and Rob scored with a flyover Little Bittern, but it was the flying threesome that scored more highly with a gaggle of wildfowl and waders, inc 3 male Garganey, a stonking male Iberean Yellow Wagtail, Ruff, and a brief view of a Purple Swamphen (Phil only). However it was Mammals that took the highlight with 3-4 Wild Boar found feeding at the edge of one of the Lagoons - a tick for all three.

The walk back to the car saw our first swifts Alpine and Common joining the wheeling masses of hirundines, before we made our way back to the airport, cheered by the Wales result over Italy, only for hopes to be dashed by the later results filtering through when we arrived back in the UK.