Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Thursday, 28 April 2016

28th April

The patch. I'd say I'd forgotten about that, but I hadn't. My time in Spain came at a time when spring migration was in full flow. No doubt I missed some interesting stuff, and it's taken a while to get back into full stride, but I have been able to go out and get numerous year ticks, things that no doubt turned up a while ago.

Bluebells in Great Brook today
On the Sunday before I left Matt Phelps had a Cuckoo singing near Slade's Farm, on the exact same day the first was was singing last year. I had no joy, though I bagged an early Garden Warbler, my last year tick before I left. I made a couple of quick trips in the days I was back, but the 25th was my first full session (over a fortnight!) and I was welcomed back by a long overdue Wheatear (A female on Allden's Hill, where I haven't had one before), a/the singing Cuckoo and a couple of male Whitethroats. Lovely stuff, 3 years ticks, and I was getting worried about Wheatear, a bird I'd had 5 of by the 16th of last April.

The next day the Cuckoo was at it again, along with a Garden Warbler and a few Whitethroats and Blackcaps. The highlight, however, was a distant Grey Partridge in Thorncombe Park (seen from the Ridge). These birds have baffled me since I saw them for the first time in March, as they have seemingly stuck around, and neither gamekeeper admits releasing them. They are very elusive, and when I've stumbled across them they fly to cover quickly. It would be one hell of a surprise, and a fine record, if they stay and breed.

Yesterday was quiet, but I planned to spend a few hours looking for stuff in the afternoon today, after a trip to Selsey Bill for a seawatch. Last week looked like it was thrilling down there, a few Pomarine Skuas flying close in along with lots of other movement, including my bogey bird, Balearic Shearwater. I knew the weather wasn't ideal today but still went for it, and a quiet watch was tempered by glorious sun, 23 close in Little Terns and a single Great Skua.

Back in Surrey, and on the patch, I reverted from type and decided to concentrate my efforts around Scotsland Farm/Great Brook, and walk to Bonhurst via Wintershall. It proved a good decision. A Blackcap and a Garden Warbler were singing opposite Scotsland, and the Bluebells in Great Brook looked wonderful. Between here and Bonhurst I noted 2 singing Firecrests, though they didn't show themselves. As I was walking past the cottages in the Wintershall estate I stopped to watch some House Sparrows, when I noticed a bird out of the corner of my eye.
Red-legged Partridges are doing very well this year

I looked up, and was amazed to see 2 Terns, 2 Common Terns! The lead bird called as they flew directly west, though at no great height, presumably having either been fishing at the Wintsershall and Graffham ponds, or dropping down to inspect them. What a record, my first Common Terns here, and only the second known site record. Interestingly, Robin Stride had 2 at Willinghurst fishery, just 4.5 miles to the east, 2 days ago, and I reckon these were the same birds. Where they have come from, or where they're nesting, is another question, but birds breed at Stoke Lake in Guildford and Marsh Farm in Milford.

This was enough to make my day, a bird I always hoped to get, maybe over Mill Pond or Bramley Park Lake, but not one I expected here. And how weird that a day watching 3 species of Terns on the sea would lead to 2 over the patch. Elsewhere I found more Whitethroats and Blackcaps, and was pleased to note nesting Linnets and Buzzards. Red-legged Partridge numbers continue to be high - no less than 11 today. Swift, Spotted Flycatcher and Hobby offer the last 'expected' birds, really, though Lesser Whitethroat is one I surely must get, and remarkably it remains off my Thorncombe Street list.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Monday 18th - Sierra de Andujar, Cordoba, Laguna del Rincon and Rio Guadalhorce

White-headed Duck at Rio Guadalhorce
It was the final day, and with all the targets in the bag we decided to look for Lynx in the morning, before slowly making our way to our overnight destination of Malaga, stopping at a couple of sites en-route. We chose the viewpoint we’d spent great time at yesterday, and the morning sounds of Golden Orioles, Azure-winged Magpies, Crested Tits, Hoopoes and Bee-eaters had to, sadly, be left behind at around 10:30. Andujar is fantastic – I aim to be back one day, in order to give dedicated time to trying to see the Iberian Lynx.

We chose to stop at the historic city of Cordoba on the way down. A large heronry is described as being here, in between two bridges that run over the Rio Guadalquivir in the middle of the city, but there was little to be found. I’m not sure if the dry winter had moved stuff about, but only 1 Night Heron and a handful of Cattle and Little Egrets were seen. A Whiskered Tern was a surprise. Having explored the stunning mosque, we fed up on tapas and got back in the car, continuing our journey south.
Another drake White-headed Duck

Laguna del Rincón was the next destination. It’s a small lagoon, seemingly miles from anywhere, and we opted to visit here over the more renowned Laguna de Zóñar. Having driven down a bumpy track we found ourselves in a smart car park, with a visitor centre adjacent to it. Eerily though, there was literally nobody around. Indeed, in the hour or so we were there we saw not one human, but we did see plenty of birds. A Marsh Harrier flew low overhead as Great Reed, Reed, Cetti’s and Melodious Warblers sang from the reedy fringes. A singing Western Olivaceous Warbler was a nice surprise, typically doing so from a tamarisk on the north side, and after we eventually found an opening it was clear plenty was on the water.

A warning sign on the beach...
5 White-headed Ducks were the stand out birds, with 4 males showing well in between dives. 2 summer-plumage Black-necked Grebes and a pair of Red-crested Pochards were also present, along with at least 1 Crested Coot. However, these birds were introduced here, and so not of wild origin. The heat was searing, and we got back in the car for our final leg towards Malaga, where the last birding of the trip would take place at the Rio Guadalhorce reserve, an estuarine wetland just 10 minutes from the airport.

As we crossed the bridge into the reserve a Gull-billed Tern flew down the river mouth, and once on the paths it was clear Zitting Cisticolas would be a constant presence. We walked to the first hide, and I glanced out, to my surprise, to no less than 9 White-headed Ducks. Not only were there so many, but they were very close in, and I was able to get some respectable images. The birds, of which 7 were males, were a joy to watch, with the Red-crested Pochards and Black-winged Stilts a mere sideshow. Having got my fill, we headed to the beach, where I was delighted to get some decent views of breeding Kentish Plovers. A Melodious Warbler in scrub was the last bird at this site, and we headed to our hotel very content with the days birding.
...and that's why. Breeding Kentish Plovers

It’s little surprise southern Spain is, arguably, the most popular birding destination in Europe. The variety of species, often good weather and myriad of habitats, explored and not, allows for all sorts of birding, from fulfilling self-finding to specific directions to targets. I will be back, and give this trip a 9/10. It loses 1 mark for not being longer.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Sunday 17th - Sierra de Andujar

Azure-winged Magpie
Sunday was the big day in Andujar. There were 2 main targets today, Black Vulture and Spanish Imperial Eagle, as well as secondary hoped for birds in Great Spotted Cuckoo and Eagle Owl. I also wished to tie up Rock Bunting, which I’d surprisingly missed the day before. The Eagle was perhaps the most mystical pre-trip, but the rain that greeted us last night persisted at dawn, with a heavy fog making me feel very unsure about seeing any birds of prey. The plan was to walk the Encinarejo trail along the river Andujar, which was touted as very good for both the main targets, as well as Iberian Lynx, which we would spend any spare time we had in the day looking for.

Despite the poor weather Hoopoes and Cuckoos were singing in our cabin grounds. We drove to the start of the trail and plenty of Azure-winged Magpies were around, with the dawn chorus simply phenomenal. Huge numbers of Hoopoes (20+), Nightingales (10+), Corn Buntings (15+), Cetti’s Warblers (10+) joined the smaller numbers of Serins, Golden Orioles, and Sardinian, Subalpine and Garden Warblers in near constant song from the lush hedgerows and trees that flanked the river.
The view over the dehesa
We were only about 10 minutes into the walk when the raucous call of a Great Spotted Cuckoo caught my attention, as one flashed past. Further up, a Turtle Dove purred and flew on, repeating this almost the entire stretch of the river. The density of birds was fantastic, but the weather was still not looking good for raptors as we climbed a bank to a renowned vantage point over the dehesa. As lucky as it was, the sun decided to beam out, and the fog cleared by 09:45.

Sat on the bank for only a few minutes, I was amazed to see a colossal Black Vulture flying fairly low over the orchard behind me. I managed some photos, but was still shocked as to why it was so close to the ground. However, it soon became apparent that about 12 Vultures were feeding on something over the brow of the hill, as several Griffons and a couple more Blacks appeared. I got back to scanning from the view, and a surprise tick was bagged in the shape of a recently split, yaffling Iberian Green Woodpecker.

A Black Vulture
At around 10:00 I spotted my first eagle, very high and distant, and after a minute or so another appeared. The birds were so far away, and even with the scope on them it was difficult to decipher any salient features, leaving me unable to ID either as Golden or Spanish Imperial. One bird seemed to have a slightly longer tail than the other, and was seemingly a fraction larger. It was also missing a primary. I concentrated my efforts on this individual, and after a long wait managed to get a decent view of it bank, revealing pale patches running across the centre of the upper wing and a largely white tail, confirming it as a young Golden Eagle. I was slightly leaning towards this before, but was happy to be sure, and the bird then dropped at speed into the valley.

A sub-adult Golden Eagle
The 2 eagles were riding the same thermal, so I presumed it was a pair, and as the second bird got smaller and smaller we decided to continue our walk. A pair of Black-winged Stilts on the river was a surprise, and we eventually reached the end of the trail at the Encinarejo dam. A couple of pairs of Rock Sparrows were nesting here, and we watched them taking food back and forth as we ate our lunch. Refuelled, we retraced our steps, but after only 5 minutes, at roughly 13:25, my attention was brought to the Golden Eagle with the missing primary, which was back in the sky.

It was cruising slowly south, and as I looked up a couple more raptors the other side of me, to the west, caught my eye. I spun round to see a distant Black Kite and Short-toed Eagle drifting north at a similar pace, but almost directly above my head was the second (presumed Golden) eagle from the viewpoint. This time the light was perfect, and it was a hell of a lot closer, and I was quickly able to note a black trailing band to the tail, and a very pale head. Fumbling quickly through Collins it became apparent that this was quite possible the big guy! We set up the scope in record time, and once I peered through the lens I was onto cracking views of the bird, circling slowly above us.
The view from the Mirador del Embalse del Jandula
And then, finally, it banked in the perfect light, and I saw those shimmering white shoulders! Spanish Imperial Eagle! Unbelievable, and what sensational views, which allowed me to nail the lack of white on the upper-wing and the short tail. We both enjoyed wonderful scope views before the bird gained height, travelling back east and above the dehesa we spent so long viewing. This glorious beast then proceeded to display, stooping sharply, 4 or 5 times before dropping into the valley and out of view at 13:45.

Completely made up (this was the bird of the trip, edging ahead of Crested Coot based on sheer raptor factor), we headed back to the car and decided to check out the Mirador del Embalse del Jándula/La Lancha for some Lynx/Owl/Bunting searching. The track down to the viewpoint (Mirador) was horribly rocky, but we got nice views of a sub-adult Golden Eagle (probably second or third year). From the view we tried in vain for nesting Black Storks, instead getting another Short-toed Eagle, a couple more Black Vultures and a Thekla Lark.

A showy Hoopoe
We continued down to the Embalse de Jándula, where numerous Crag Martins quickly became apparent. Thanks to Sam Jones, I had pretty good gen for an Eagle Owl nest but, despite much searching/comparing his photos to what I was looking at, we just couldn’t find it or, at least, any movement. However, this was made up for by finally finding Rock Bunting, with a singing individual requiring much neck ache in order to view it high up on the cliff. We drove back up, past an increased number of Lynx hopefuls, and the last bird we saw was a Hoopoe outside our cabin. What a day. All the main targets had been seen, and we could have a much more relaxing, final, day, tomorrow.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Saturday 16th - Sierra de Grazalema and Osuna farmlands

A poor photo of a singing Black Wheatear. Delightful birds
The dawn view from Ronda is quite spectacular. A sheer cliff face offers views out over the mountains, and as the sun was rising Blue Rock Thrushes, Lesser Kestrels and Choughs got about their morning business. There was no time to hang around though. Today was my only day in the Sierra de Grazalema, meaning if I didn’t see Bonelli’s Eagle or Black Wheatear, I wouldn’t again on this trip, and they were the only 2 birds on my main target list that I could only realistically bag at just one site.

The weather started poor, and it was on and off all day, with wet showers and fog turning to occasionally sunny spells. As we drove upwards, on serpentine roads that weaved between cloud-shrouded peaks, Griffon Vultures, Ravens and Blue Rock Thrushes were the commonest birds. The first destination was the village of Montejaque, where the plan was to take a track out to the west where, with luck, I’d be able to see Bonelli’s Eagle, Black Wheatear and Rock Sparrow.

A view over Ebalse de Zahara, in Sierra de Grazalema
Poor would be a generous word to describe the track, but the slow drive suited my constant peering out the window. It wasn’t long before I picked up a dark bird perching in a rocky sheep field and, low and behold, I had my first Black Wheatear singing away. A brilliant start. We’d overshot the suggested Bonelli’s Eagle lookout point, so turned around and headed back to the spot, where we pulled over, got the scope together and began a waiting game at 09:15.

The aforementioned fog and rain wasn’t promising, and bar a handful of Griffons, there were no raptors up as we gazed over the north side cliffs. Sardinian Warblers and Serins kept us entertained, but we were thinking of completing the track with a view to come back here for lunch as the weather seemed to not be playing ball. However, at around 09:55, a group of 25 or so Griffon Vultures rose from seemingly nowhere on a thermal, and almost immediately after I’d counted them my attention was drawn to 2 birds to my left.

An Iberian Grey Shrike on wires in the Osuna farmlands
1 was a Lesser Kestrel, but the other was an eagle, and as soon as I got my binoculars on it I was pretty sure. I swiveled the scope and, bingo! A Bonelli’s Eagle soared magnificently over the cliff top, the black carpals, dark underwings and pale wings showing well. We stayed on the beast for about 3 minutes before it disappeared north, not to be seen again. I was over the moon – aside from not being confident at getting lucky with this species in my limited time here, I was able to get great views (allowing easy ID) and it only took 45 minutes!

We continued up the track and another lifer, Rock Sparrow, quickly became apparent as I clocked the calls from the car. We got out, and found a few nesting in some cliffs, with the adults flying down to an adjacent field where they fed. In the bushes and scrub further up a few warblers were present, with Subalpine, Melodious and a single Western Bonelli’s all noted, along with a few Cirl Buntings and a pair of Thekla Larks.

The expansive and open Osuna farmlands
At the end of the lengthy track we turned around, but fortune rained on us again as we noted 2 Black-eared Wheatears in the furthest field up, another lifer! Having got good views of all the targets in a far shorter time than expected, we decided to head to the picturesque village of Grazalema for coffee and lunch. We could now change our plans, and decided to ambitiously try for White-rumped Swift at Zahara, before stopping off at the Osuna farmlands (always in the plan but we now had much more time here) on our way to Andujar, where we were staying for the next 2 nights.

Before I continue, I must thank John Cantelo for his Birding Cadiz notes. They are simply wonderful, extremely detailed, and it’s no exaggeration to say his work got me Bonelli’s Eagle. Great work! We left Grazalema (Where some sort of triathlon was taking place), passing a Black Wheatear and circling Short-toed and Booted Eagles, as we wound down to the huge reservoir at Zahara. Unsurprisingly, given the time of year, there were no Swifts here, just a few Swallows, and 2 each of Common Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover on the tiny patch of mud.

Two Rollers in bad light
More than happy with our work here, we decided to head in the direction of Andujar. Osuna is literally on the way so, as we were ahead of schedule, we could allow a couple of hours checking out the vast, steppe farmland that is mentioned as a hard but possible site for Little Bustard, and a long shot for Great Bustard and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. With these species around in much greater density elsewhere in Spain, and indeed the continent, I had none of them down as targets, with Osuna more a convenient stop off in the middle of a 2 ½ hour drive.

It was an eerie place. The flat land stretches for miles, and we saw 1 vehicle (a tractor) on the huge road the whole time we were there. An uncompleted motorway runs through the area, adding to the almost post-apocalyptic feel. It was also windy, very windy, and despite some early Gull-billed Terns and an Iberian Grey Shrike, our first stop and scan produced zilch. We moved on and stopped at a bridge, which John’s notes suggested were a good place to scan for Bustards. Again, we had nothing, but we wanted to explore this weird landscape so continued over the bridge and along a dirt track to the north.

Territorial Great Bustards - what a find!
Short-toed Larks were singing here, and my first Alpine Swifts of the trip flew overhead with Commons. I was scanning hard, to no avail, until, to my astonishment, I picked out 2 massive Great Bustards far away to the north. Unbelievable! I had absolutely not expected to see these, and we edged closer, desperate to get better views without disturbing them. As we got nearer it became apparent it was 2 territorial males, not a pair, and we snuck up behind a farm building, before careering into a ditch where I was able to get respectable (for me) shots of these simply magnificent birds.

What they were doing was odd – it was like 2 boxers at a weigh-in, as they stared each other out. 1 flew off, but landed not far away, and the other soon followed. We left them be. This was undoubtedly the surprise bird of the trip, and as we headed back to the car the sound of Stone Curlews on the nest was explained by the presence of 2 Ravens. This habitat, and the surprise find, had us captivated, so we chose to drive and explore, with ruins of some sort taking our fancy, and I wasn’t surprised to see a colony of about 30 Lesser Kestrels in it.

A non-typical Great Bustard view
We headed past the ruins and through an olive grove, opening out into another series of vast fields, these ones holding 7 Calandra Larks and a Montagu’s Harrier. We took in the view (whilst looking for Bustards), and after a while decided to head off, and get to our accommodation early. The Osuna farmlands had a couple more treats for us though as we exited – a pair of roadside Rollers (my only ones of the trip), a displaying pair of Montagu’s Harriers and a big flock of Spanish Sparrows. Wonderful. Not hugely bigged up in books or reports, I thoroughly recommend this area if you’re nearby. The heavens truly opened as we followed signs for Cordoba, and by the time we pulled up at our lodge in the hills of Sierra de Andujar it was pouring down with rain.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Friday 15th - Seville to La Linea and Gibraltar

2 ringed Bald Ibis on their cliff-face nests
Having reached Seville the night before it was another bus journey, this time back to Gibraltar where I was to spend the afternoon, as I was meeting my friend at the airport later in the evening. I left the Pallid Swifts, Monk and Rose-ringed Parakeets behind in what’s a truly beautiful city, as I began what I anticipated would be a fairly uneventful ride. About half-way into the journey, at La Barca de Veyer, the bus driver announced he’d be getting off for a 15 minute break, and as I gazed out the window, to my amazement I saw a Bald Ibis flying at eye level!

I jumped off the bus and soon saw another flying low, seemingly having taken off from a fairly low point further up the road. I crossed, and walked up, and was shocked to see about 8 Bald Ibis sitting on nests in a cliff-face colony! I took some quick pictures as a few birds flew in and out, but without wanting to risk being left here I headed back to the bus after a few minutes. I later learnt that these extremely endangered birds were introduced to nearby Zahara 12 years ago, and have successfully bred and thus branched out, bringing me a very unexpected tick.
The view over Europa Point to Morocco

I arrived at Gibraltar at 13:30 and grabbed a taxi to the Upper Rock, where I was planning to look for Barbary Partridge and do some sky-watching. I failed on the former, but did spectacularly on the latter. Gibraltar is famous for its raptor migration as birds cross the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco (which you can see from the Upper Rock), arriving at the British colony just feet above the water, before hopping on the thermals and rising up and away. I set up camp on and old fort in scorching heat at 15:00, and in the next hour recorded a remarkable 11 raptor species, the tally being:

Griffon Vulture - 1
Egyptian Vulture – 1
Booted Eagle – 4 (2 pale-phase)
Black Kite - 43
A Black Kite, 1 of 43, comes in off the sea
Marsh Harrier – 3 (1 male)
Montagu’s Harrier – 3 (2 males)
Honey Buzzard - 1
Sparrowhawk - 4
Kestrel – 2 around
Lesser Kestrel - 1
Peregrine Falcon – 1 around

The Egyptian Vulture was a huge bonus, having only seen 1 before in the Pyrenees a decade ago, and the Honey Buzzard was unexpectedly early. The figures may not be spectacular, but for the sheer thrill of migration in action, added to some crippling views of species either very rare or non-existent in the UK, I would highly recommend a getting a load of this spectacle at some point. Interestingly, many birders suggested Tarifa, slightly further west and projecting a little more into the Mediterranean, as a better place.

Yellow-legged Gulls were exceptionally numerous in Gibraltar
Whilst sitting in the heat I managed a couple of sea birds I wasn’t thinking I’d get on the trip list, with 2 of Gibraltar’s tiny resident Shag population noted on the rocks near Europa Point, and a distant Cory’s Shearwater gliding east. I also managed a lifer, in the shape of a few Blue Rock Thrushes, delightful songsters that I’d get plenty more of in the days ahead. 

After a tiring walk along the Mediterranean Steps revealed many Yellow-legged Gulls (and the obligatory 'Apes'), but no Barbary Partridges, I decided to grab some food in the busy Gibraltarian centre, before watching some of a domestic football game at the Victoria Stadium. My friend was arriving and we had a car to collect, before ascending into the mountains to catch sleep before a day of searching for 4 species, 2 of which I had to get there and then if I was to connect with them on this trip.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Thursday 14th - El Rocio and La Rocina (Doñana)

A pale-phase Booted Eagle of Madre de las Marismas
After the intense and non-stop birding of the day before, I decided on a later start on the Thursday. Given that I only had 2 targets (none of them major), and a thick fog obscured visibility for the first few hours of daylight, I began a relaxed scan of Madre de las Marismas around 09:30. The first bird of the day was a Sedge Warbler, singing from reeds next to the hotel, and hundreds of Hirundines were overhead. The usual fare was present in big numbers as I made my way down the west side, with Black-winged Stilts, Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, Cattle Egrets and Glossy Ibis joined by a singular Common Sandpiper and Squacco Heron.

A showy Purple Heron at La Rocina
The destination was La Rocina reserve, less than a mile from El Rocio, and by the time I arrived the sun was burning off the fog, allowing me to take in the plentiful Azure-winged, Serins, Tree Sparrows and Short-toed Treecreepers near the visitor centre. The restricted visibility was not a problem here, though, as a wondrous cacophony of birds relented from seemingly every bush and tree in the reserve. At least 15 Nightingales and 20 Cetti’s Warblers belted out their songs, with smaller numbers of Reed, Great Reed and Sedge Warblers in the wetter areas. 

My best effort, out of about 200, of a Purple Swaphen
It was here I got my first lifer, a long overdue Savi’s Warbler one of 2 noted throughout the day. A similar sounding Grasshopper Warbler was nearby, and another lifer, an Iberian Chiffchaff, was picked up in the more lush vegetation, along with Melodious Warblers Willow Warblers, Blackcaps, Spotted Flycatchers and Garden Warblers. A calling Lesser Spotted Woodpecker came as a surprise.

Another showy bird, this time a Woodchat Shrike at La Rocina
The hides overlooked lagoons which held similar birds to Madre de las Marismas, bar a few more Purple Herons, Night Herons, Purple Swamphens and Red-crested Pochard, and Marsh Harriers and Booted Eagles joined the numerous Black Kites in the sky. The trail opened out into a heathy area akin to Thursley, and here at least 15 Woodchat Shrikes were going about their business, with Dartford and Sardinian Warblers, Bee-eaters, Hoopoes and an Iberian Grey Shrike also around. La Rocina was lovely, but I decided my best option for more interesting birds would be back to Madre de las Marismas, so I headed back.

A Greater Flamingo on Madre de las Marismas
I chose to scan from the west side, and immediately found several Yellow Wagtails and a couple of Wood Sandpipers feeding among the regular assortment. A flock of about 60 Collared Pratincoles were also around, nosily making their presence known, some resting on the scrape. After a lunch in La Choza looking over the marshes I decided to check out the observatory in the north-east co
rner, where I got nice views of a pale-phase Booted Eagle.

I then decided to spend the last couple of hours in this magical place trying (unsuccessfully) to take some decent pictures of the Purple Swamphens that were seemingly resident in the reedbed right next to my hotel. Certainly not the rarest species I saw here, Purple Swamphens were quite possibly the most enigmatic.

I got pretty much all of my Donana targets in my time here, with only Marbled Duck and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse not seen. The tour was truly memorable, and the hours I spent at Madre de las Marismas equally fantastic. However, without doubt, I must come back to this birding heaven with a car one day, and explore further more.

The video shows Madre de las Marismas in a nutshell, as Flamingoes, Glossy Ibis, Collared Pratincoles and Wood Sandpipers share the same frame.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Wednesday 13th - the Doñana tour

Black-winged Stilts were common, including nesting birds
As I was spending less than 48 hours in El Rocio, and this time exploring Donana, I decided to book a tour on my one full day there. Having scoured the web for the most recommended companies, I decided on Discovering Donana, and Jose’s knowledge, service and friendliness proved exceptional from email communication beforehand, through to the day of the trip. I'd given him a lengthy list of targets, with some higher priority, and he targeted them all, missing just a couple of the very hard species.

He collected me on a fairly foggy morning from my hotel at about 07:45 (a dawn scan of a low visibility Madre de las Marismas added Purple Heron and 2 Great White Egrets to the trip list), and we set off north-east, into Coto del Rey forests. Birdsong was everywhere, with numerous Nightingales, Cetti’s and Sardinian Warblers and Corn Buntings adding to the smaller numbers of Short-toed Treecreepers, Hoopoes and Azure-winged Magpies. In the more open areas Woodchat Shrikes were very common, and 2 Subalpine Warblers soon provided me with my first lifer of the day.

A distant shot of one of the Short-toed Eagles
The next came not long after, but wasn’t one I was expecting to get in Donana. I’d spent a good amount of time familiarising myself with the songs and calls of birds before I headed out, so was quick to call Western Bonelli’s Warbler when I heard one singing in a tree. We soon saw it, as it fly-caught from its oak station, en route to breeding grounds at higher altitude inland. Bee-eaters, Woodlarks and a couple of Crested Tits were seen as we moved away from the forest to the beginning of the marshes, and an Iberian Grey Shrike showing well on wires was tick number 3 of the day.

Southern Spain had experienced a very dry winter, and as a result Donana held exceptionally limited water. This turned what were normally marshes into vast plains, but the bird life was still very much abundant. Plenty of Zitting Cisticola, Crested Lark and Quail song filled the air as we drove down the Vetazorrera/Inojos track, with numerous Black Kites, White Storks and Griffon Vultures overhead. This track was Lark country, with no less than 5 species (4 of them lifers) holding territory on either side of this particular track.

A singing Thekla Lark
The first was a Thekla Lark, quietly singing from low vegetation, and further on Jose showed me a nest, barely a few centimetres into the earth, containing 4 chicks. 2 parents were close by, beaks stuffed with food. Next up was a pair of Short-toed Larks, their pale underparts distinctive, before 2 hefty Calandra Larks took to the air nearby. The main one I was after was Lesser Short-toed Lark, and Jose told me I’d know when I had one because the underparts would be so different to Greater Short-toed. Indeed, a few hundred metres further up, one stood next to the track, seemingly ignorant of our presence, and I was able to soak in wonderful views.

We searched without luck for Pin-tailed Sandgrouse here, but the presence of a big flock of Whimbrel, and also Little Ringed Plover, indicated water nearby, and it wasn’t long before we pulled into the José Antonio Valverde visitor centre for a coffee stop. Remarkably, another Western Bonelli’s Warbler was here, singing in the car park, but my attention was drawn to the hub of bird activity happening on the marshes beyond the centre.

Bathing Spanish Sparrows
A cafeteria offered views over the main water, and further over was a large marshy scrape, and there were 100’s of birds everywhere. Loads of Cattle Egrets and Glossy Ibis were breeding, with Night Herons and my first Squacco Heron also around. There was a good mix of duck species, notably 20+ Red-crested Pochards and a showy pair of Garganey, and waders were represented by loads of Black-winged Stilts, 20 Ruff, 50+ Redshanks, c.20 Spotted Redshanks and a single Wood Sandpiper. Good views of a singing Great Reed Warbler were obtained, and a huge number of Purple Swamphens were feeding in the open – at least 12.

Moving on, via Puente Dos (which brought 2 Short-toed Eagles, another Lesser Short-toed Lark and a similar collection of waders, with a few Greenshank present for good measure), we stopped at some dry rice fields as our attention was drawn to a huge flock of waders. 2 Gull-billed Terns flew overhead a group of about 150 Ringed Plovers, 100 Dunlin, 50 Little Stints, 70 Curlew Sandpipers, a few Kentish Plovers and a sole Temminck’s Stint. It was an incredible spectacle, furthered by a Black Kite swooping down and taking a Plover, and a flock of Collared Pratincoles noisily over.
A Spanish Sparrow photobombs a Bee-eater!

We then entered drier habitat, with some arable farmland, and a pair of Montagu’s Harriers, singing Quail, Yellow Wagtails and lots of Larks were seen. The next destination was Dehesa de Pilas, where a huge colony of Spanish Sparrows were knocking around. These gregarious birds were another life, and while here we were treated to superb close views of a flock of Bee-eaters, a male Whinchat and a Cuckoo.

It was a whirlwind of birds, either new of hardly seen by me before, and we were about to ambitiously try for Western Olivaceous Warbler. This species normally arrives closer to May, but Jose knew a site with plenty of tamarisks, which they love, and remarkable within a few second of pulling up we heard one singing, a subtle, shorter version of a Reed Warbler song. It soon became apparent that another was singing nearby, and after obtaining brief views we praised our luck and drove onto Dehesa de Abajo, stopping to watch an Osprey perched in a ploughed field.

The picturesque Dehesa de Abajo
Dehesa de Abajo holds an unusual tree-nesting colony of White Storks, as well as some stunning scenery, and we soon noted an Iberian Grey Shrike near the centre. Booted Eagles and Black Kites were everywhere as we walked to the big lake, Cañada de Rianzuela, which held Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits, Flamingoes, Spoonbills and a sole Whiskered Tern. We were here for White-headed Duck, one of my most desired target birds, but had no joy (we did have a collared Crested Coot), so decided to head back and try from the road.

Here it was more sheltered, and the vegetation was clearly attractive to more secretive species like Purple Herons, a Squacco Heron and some Purple Swamphens. Funnily enough, another Western Olivaceous Warbler was singing here, but after about 45 minutes we had no White-headed Duck. We decided to climb over the dam, and it paid off when, not long after, we found a drake on his own showing well. With White-headed Duck in the bag it was off to try for the last target, Black-shouldered Kite, near the Corredor Verde (which had Purple Herons, 2 Common Waxbills and 12 Purple Swamphens).
A Black Kite at Dehesa de Abajo

A scan over some suitable habitat produced a single bird, hovering briefly before making its way across us. A Melodious Warbler sang from an exposed perch nearby, and it concluded a whirlwind day, which had everything from great company and stunning scenery to remarkable birds and habitat. Despite this long post, there are plenty of moments I have left out, from this day which was akin to a real-life scan through the exotic bids you’ve always stopped to look at in Collins.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Tuesday 12th - Seville and El Rocio (Doñana)

Monk Parakeets were plentiful in Seville
Having arrived at Gibraltar the evening before, I got a very early bus to Seville, where I was to spend a few hours before another bus took me to El Rocio, the renowned town on the edge of the Doñana national park. The journey took me along the south coast, stopping at famous birding sites such as Tarifa, before heading north through the Bahia de Cadiz to Seville. The abundance in birds was clear as I gazed constantly out the windows and I was able to add two lifers, Crested Lark and Greater Flamingo, to the numerous Spotless Starling and Pallid Swift I'd seen the evening before.

There were plenty of White Storks, Glossy Ibis and Cattle Egrets throughout the journey, and I saw a large roadside colony of the latter species when the bus stopped briefly in La Barca de Veyer - this place would add a surprise bird on the journey back. A few Red-rumped Swallows and Black Kites were seen in the more open areas towards Seville, and when I arrived I headed for the cathedral in the city centre, with the first attempt for one of my main targets.

A Lesser Kestrel above my head as I ate lunch
It wouldn't take long to find it, but before I could look another lifer nosily made its presence clear - Monk Parakeets, and plenty of them.  These South America natives are rapidly increasing in a number of urban areas of Spain, including Barcelona and Malaga, and I saw well over 20 in my time in Seville, many nesting in the various palm trees dotted around. 

Shortly after, I had my first glimpse of a Lesser Kestrel, as one rose above the beautiful cathedral. More and more would appear from the rooftop colony, including some nice views as the birds came to and from their nests - somewhat unusual seeing large numbers of falcons together. It's safe to say I've had worse lunches than eating tapas next to the cathedral as the Kestrels flew overhead. It was then on to El Rocio, another lifer obtained via the bus, several Azure-winged Magpies near Almonte.

Flamingos & Black-winged Stilts on Madre de las Marismas
It's hard to describe arriving at a place like El Rocio (more specifically the Madre de las Marismas, the huge lagoon that skims the south of the town). With heavy bags on my back, and a hotel to check in to, I simply had to stop and get the binoculars out to take in the sheer number of birds. Greater Flamingos (150+), Black-winged Stilts (60+), Glossy Ibis (50+) and Spoonbills (30+) littered the shimmering waters, and I wasted no time in dropping my stuff off and getting back out there.

I walked the promenade along the north of the lagoon and down the west side, towards Puente Canaliega in the south-west corner. Waders were very much in evidence - Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, Snipe and a Common Sandpiper noted, with my first four Collared Pratincoles flying over. Nightingales, Cetti's Warblers and Serins sang from almost every bush, and in the skies above the numerous Black Kites were joined by another lifer, Booted Eagle, of which 2 were around.

Awful shot, I know (phone held to scope lens!), but of a
memory I'll long cherish - Crested Coot at El Rocio
Captivated by the sheer number of birds, I made my way back as the sun dropped. I was well aware that Crested (Red-knobbed) Coot could be the hardest bird of the trip, and with this in mind, and a couple of huge rafts of Eurasian Coots fairly close to the east shore, I made the effort to scan through them all, though I found nothing of note on the walk down. In some vegetated shallow water in front of La Choza restaurant I decided to re-inspect a group of about 20 Coots feeding. One of the birds nearest to the shore struck me - a blueish tone to the bill was clear, and the frontal plate was small. The red knobs weren't immediately apparent, though, but to my amazement, as the bird turned in the evening light, I clearly made out 2 very small red patches at the top of the plate through my scope. 

I was stunned - this species is notoriously hard to find and see, often individuals among big and distant Coot flocks, but here was a Crested Coot at very close range. Several more sights of the red knobs lead me to draw others attention to it, including a very surprised French couple, who quickly got it in their telescope, and were very grateful - they'd spent 5 days without seeing one. I then informed a Polish couple who were adamant it wasn't, for some time, and were about to leave before the gentleman analysed the pictures he'd taken and whooped in delight! I later learnt that the smaller knobs indicated a first-year male bird.

Madre de las Marismas in the late evening
Buzzing, I headed back along the promenade, full of anticipation for what else I'd see in this area. The magic didn't end with the Coot though - a singing Great Reed Warbler and 2 showy Purple Swamphens (another of my main targets), in reeds right next to my hotel, rounded off a simply wonderful afternoon. Surely things couldn't get better?

Friday, 8 April 2016

8th April

In the 9 days since my last post visits to the patch have been plentiful, and I've managed to add 3 year ticks to my list, bringing me up to 92. Migrant movement is still yet to get into top gear, but things are clearly arriving earlier than 2015, and I remain hopeful of finding a Wheatear-esque addition to the year list before heading off to Spain on Monday.

At this time of year I wasn't really expecting a duck to be a tick, but on the 31st a pair of Gadwall were present on Mill Pond for just a couple of hours in the afternoon, not roosting. The following day 4 Teal were a surprise April bird - numbers ever so low throughout March. Clearly ducks had been on the move locally during these days - Wigeon and Pintail had been seen at the Wey water meadows between Shalford and Burpham. On the 4th there were 3 Gadwall on Mill Pond early in the morning, 2 drakes and a female, and I can't quite work out why I had no winter records given the number I had in 2015. I got some woeful pictures - don't even worth putting on here!

That morning of the 4th was supposed a pre-work summer migrant hunt, but there was more of a wintry tone to the cast of birds, the Gadwalls supported by a female Peregrine perched on a horse jump at Slade's Farm (4th year record) and a Brambling still on the Ridge. What will surely be the last Redwings of this winter were seen the day before, but by early evening on the 4th, with the sun out, Warblers were singing what seemed like everywhere, at least 15 Chiffchaffs and couples each of Blackcaps and Willow Warblers around.

Greylag Geese on the Ridge
On the 5th I bagged my first House Martins of the year, with individuals N over the Ridge at 18:00 and NNE over Junction Field at 18:20 respectively, but the 7th was quieter in terms of movement. A single Meadow Pipit, 4 Brambling, a rather high count of 11 Red-legged Partridges, the first Mallard ducklings of the year and the finding of a Little Owl nest were the highlights. I also had the unusual sight of a pair of Greylag Geese feeding on the Ridge, now trimmed and ready to be ploughed.

Today was only a flying visit, but the weather managed to help me with another year tick. A quick trip up the Ridge found 2 Brambling, a male and female still hanging around, but nothing else. Then, a light shower began, and a few minutes later the sound of a Sand Martin came from above my head. The bird was moving north, and shortly after I heard a couple of House Martins calling in the clouds, though I couldn't see them. Sand Martins aren't easy here - only 4 records in 2015. With 9 days in Spain coming up it'd be nice to get a couple more year ticks before I go. But, I'll be honest, the idea of chasing after Spanish Imperial Eagles, Marbled Ducks, Black Vultures and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse is a little more exciting.