Wednesday 21st March 2018
The group met at Stansted Airport for a 0445 hrs check in and once through security had time for a spot of breakfast before boarding the plane which took off on time.
With a good tailwind we touched down in a sunny but rather chilly Madrid fifteen minutes early and were soon on our way after picking up the minibus.
Once off the main ring road, we picked up our first CINEREOUS VULTURE of the tour, quickly followed by several more, a good start to the tour. The weather had begun to warm up nicely which encouraged the raptors to be more active and COMMON BUZZARD and RED and BLACK KITES were seen in good numbers as we joined the motorway leading down to Portugal.
WHITE STORKS, WESTERN MARSH HARRIERS, COMMON KESTREL and EURASIAN GRIFFON VULTURES were all added to our lists as we made good time on the main road.
After a while we stopped at our favourite coffee shop where we had coffee and our lunch in the warm sun. More CINEREOUS VULTURES were noted plus a fine pale phase BOOTED EAGLE that circled overhead.
Whilst tucking into lunch, we talked about plans for the following days and with poor weather forecast for Friday, decided to try for sandgrouse and bustards whilst the conditions were good.
The afternoon was spent exploring an area which has always been productive in the past and we hoped it would deliver the goods today!
As soon as we were out of the van, a few THEKLA’S LARK were seen plus several SOUTHERN GREY SHRIKE. The air was filled with the jingling keys song of CORN BUNTINGS and it didn’t take long before they became background birds.
A few SPANISH SPARROWS flitted around the scrubby bushes and several NORTHERN RAVEN flew over calling. Our first spot was rather quiet so we tried another area which was so good that we had to eventually drag ourselves away.
CALANDRA LARKS were incredibly numerous and we marvelled at their butterfly display flight at close range. A couple of EURASIAN SKYLARKS were heard and once again, the song of CORN BUNTING was a constant reminder of how common they are in Spain.
Finding an open vista worked wonders as we located a good flock of 24 GREAT BUSTARDS, including several males indulging in the full ‘foam bath’ display which delighted the group.
A scan to the south yielded a small party of BLACK-BELLIED SANDGROUSE feeding in a rocky field, which showed well in the afternoon sunshine, before more flew in a few minutes later and fed on the short turf.
The temperature was a pleasant 14 degrees which encouraged a few insects, including a beautiful male CLEOPATRA BUTTERFLY plus SMALL COPPER and thousand of caterpillars of the WINTER WEBWORM MOTH.
With time getting on we retraced our steps, but didn’t get far and quickly got out of the van as a flock of PIN-TAILED SANDGROUSE flew past giving good flight views before dropping down over a ridge.
Moving the van to higher ground enabled us to pick out several birds feeding and as we left, up to five were feeding alongside the GREAT BUSTARD flock.
We then headed straight to our accommodation and were shown to our rooms by hosts Juan Pedro and his wife Belen, before reconvening for a welcome drink and nibbles before our evening meal.
The food went down very well after a long day. We began with a Pumpkin and Pear soup and a hint of Lavender and whilst waiting for our main course we enjoyed several appetisers. Then Belen served Chicken cooked in wine with rice and figs from the garden.
The meal concluded with a Lemon Mousse and for some, a glass of Acorn liqueur whilst Juan Pedro & Belen’s son Alejandro played the clarinet for us.
We then completed the bird list in front of the roaring open fire, before heading off to our rooms for a well deserved rest after a long day.
Thursday 22nd March 2018
Some of the group met at 0715 hrs for a pre-breakfast walk, just as it was getting light and it was pretty productive with a few winter species still around including SONG THRUSH. IBERIAN MAGPIES were very numerous as they flew from tree to tree. WOODLARKS displayed and CORN BUNTINGS rattled whilst a singing CIRL BUNTING remained unseen.
A few CHAMPAGNE ORCHIDS were found growing nearby and on our return four HAWFINCHES perched in a small tree before they vanished without a trace. EUROPEAN SERINS, SPOTLESS STARLINGS and HOUSE SPARROWS were incredibly common around the hotel as we headed in for breakfast.
After a hearty breakfast we loaded up the van and drove northwards to Trujillo noting several SOUTHERN GREY SHRIKES on the way, plus a pair of BLACK-WINGED STILTS on a roadside pool.
Once in Trujillo we made our way to the famous bullring which was built in mid-19th century and we were soon watching several superb male LESSER KESTRELS as they flew around before visiting their nest sites under the roof tiles.
Other species here included EUROPEAN HOOPOE and many SPOTLESS STARLINGS and HOUSE SPARROWS. With an excellent forecast for the day, we motored north through the vast dehesa, making a stop at the Rio Almonte bridge where superb views of EURASIAN CRAG MARTINS and RED-RUMPED and BARN SWALLOWS were had.
ZITTING CISTICOLA’S called from the scrub and both WHITE and GREY WAGTAILS were noted, along with EUROPEAN STONECHATS, CORN BUNTINGS and EUROPEAN GOLDFINCHES.
With the weather starting to warm up nicely, we made our way into the famous Monfragüe National Park with a couple of impromptu stops. First for an EGYPTIAN MONGOOSE that was by the roadside briefly and then for a flock of around 250 HOUSE MARTINS with a few ALPINE SWIFTS thrown in for good measure. A quick break was made in the village of Villareal de San Carlos before we continued our journey to the northeastern part of the park, where we spent the next couple of hours basking in the warm sunshine!
A pair of ROCK BUNTINGS flitted along the road giving good views and on the rocky slopes, the flora included PETTICOAT-HOOP & ANGEL’S TEAR NARCISSI plus IBERIAN MILK-VETCH, SPANISH HEATH and SPANISH BLUEBELL.
The rocky cliffs of Portilla del Tietar held large numbers of EURASIAN GRIFFON VULTURES with the occasional CINEREOUS VULTURE drifting over. We located several roosting EGYPTIAN VULTURES on the cliffs and they would take flight and join their much larger cousins on the thermals.
BLACK KITES, SHORT-TOED SNAKE EAGLES and RED KITES flew north over the ridge and a small group of around 15 COMMON CRANES headed slowly northwards. The scrub held SARDINIAN and a couple of male SUBALPINE WARBLERS, plus LONG-TAILED TITS of the iberian race irbii whilst the rocky crags held singing BLACK REDSTARTS and BLUE ROCK THRUSHES.
The warm sunshine brought out lots of butterflies with HOLLY BLUE, SMALL COPPER and NETTLE-TREE, LARGE TORTOISESHELL and CHAPMAN’S GREEN HAIRSTREAK.
Despite giving it a really good shot, we couldn’t locate Spanish Imperial Eagle at this normally excellent site, but speaking to a couple of other birders apparently the nest site had moved to a distant ridge so they are harder to find as in previous years.
We stopped off for lunch at a picnic area which went down very well before heading to a favoured site nearby. After a short while Lesley struck gold by spotting a superb adult BONELLI’S EAGLE, seen at eye level over the hillside. Luckily we managed to get good views of all the distinguishing features of this now very scarce raptor before it drifted off.
Time was slipping away as usual and we popped in to Salto del Gitano where GRIFFON VULTURES were seen and eventually a couple of adult BLACK STORKS flew over as they circled on a thermal.
It was then time for a change of scenery with a visit to a site that Steve had first visited 30 years ago. It had traditionally been a Black-winged Kite nest site, but despite a good search we could not find any. There was some compensation though with an adult GOLDEN EAGLE plus lots of nesting WHITE STORKS close to the road.
On our way back to base, we quickly popped in to a small lake in Trujillo which held a few EURASIAN COOTS plus MALLARDS, BLACK-WINGED STILT and LITTLE GREBES.
Arriving back spot on 1900 hrs we had time for a hot shower before meeting for our evening meal, which began with Vegetables fried with smoked paprika and Serrano ham. Then we enjoyed appetisers and then the main course being the Extremaduran speciality, Migas Extremenas (Shepherds breadcrumbs). Rice pudding with lemon jam followed, all washed down with a superb rose wine from Navarra.
The bird-list was completed by the fire before we returned to our rooms for a good night’s sleep!
Friday 23rd March 2018
We had a slightly earlier breakfast today as the weather was due to change and headed straight down to an area of steppe where our first birds were two GREAT BUSTARDS and close by two EURASIAN STONE-CURLEW were found and showed rather well in the morning sun.
Further along the road we located another flock of 22 GREAT BUSTARDS and in a nearby field a small flock of around 28 LITTLE BUSTARDS. This species has declined in Spain by 76% since 1998 so we were very pleased to find a decent number of birds!
CALANDRA LARKS were incredibly numerous on the open steppe and a few raptors included a superb CINEREOUS VULTURE sat on the ground along with two BLACK KITES which it dwarfed.
With one of our main targets off the list we retraced our steps and had great views of a EURASIAN HOOPOE perched on fence-posts and then a cracking male SPECTACLED WARBLER on fences and scrub adjacent to the road.
We then headed to a nearby site where a small colony of LESSER KESTRELS were seen and we found some fine specimens of SAWFLY ORCHID and BARBARY NUT growing on the limestone geology.
It was then off to a nearby reservoir where there were thousands of hirundines feeding over the water including COMMON HOUSE MARTINS, BARN SWALLOWS, RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS, EURASIAN CRAG MARTINS and PALLID and ALPINE SWIFTS.
A lovely pale-phase BOOTED EAGLE dropped in close to us whilst BLACK KITES, COMMON BUZZARDS and COMMON KESTRELS were noted. A scan of the open water yielded around 30 BLACK-NECKED GREBES and on the muddy margins we found both GREEN and COMMON SANDPIPERS.
We changed position to another part of the reservoir which was much more productive with EURASIAN SPOONBILL, GREAT EGRET, LITTLE EGRET, NORTHERN PINTAIL, EURASIAN WIGEON, GADWALL, COMMON POCHARD, TUFTED DUCKS, EGYPTIAN GOOSE and BLACK-WINGED STILT.
Unfortunately a light drizzle had started to fall so we drove on and watched several RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS whilst they sheltered from the rain on a fence.
Lunch was tucked into inside the van out of the rain and once suitably full we headed off, but didn’t get far when a female WOODCHAT SHRIKE was spotted perched close to the road. It gave good views as it searched for food, before a heavier rain shower sent it deep into a tree for cover.
With the weather not looking too promising, we drove to another area and on the way found a pair of LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS close to the road on a small damp area and there was another GREAT EGRET flying distantly over riverside trees.
A short while later we dropped down to rice fields and took a slow drive around a few perimeter roads. We came across a small number of COMMON WAXBILLS which were extremely difficult to see in dense reeds.
A COMMON SNIPE flew from a wet field and a couple of GREEN SANDPIPERS were flushed by the vehicle as we drove past.
Lots of COMMON CHIFFCHAFFS flitted in the sheltered ditches along with small numbers of MEADOW PIPITS, EUROPEAN STONECHATS and SPANISH SPARROWS.
We turned around to try another spot when Rob did very well to find a spanking male BLUETHROAT flitting in a ditch, but its appearance coincided with a particularly heavy downpour and we couldn’t find the bird again.
The rice fields of Vegas Altas were our next port of call but the weather was pretty grotty, so we headed back to another spot where a couple of COMMON WAXBILLS flitted along an aqueduct and we found two more BLUETHROATS in the damp ditches.
It was then back to our base for a warm bath or shower and we met before dinner to complete the bird-list before tucking into one of Belen’s wonderful home-cooked dinners.
Starter was a gorgeous Mushroom and Walnut Risotto whilst main course was Meat Loaf served with Celeriac purée and salad and the dessert, Chocolate Cake and Chocolate Custard all washed down with a tasty Rioja.
Saturday 24th March 2018
Breakfast was at 0745 hrs and afterwards, we said our goodbyes to Juan Pedro and Belen who had looked after us superbly with excellent hospitality, food and company.
The rain had cleared overnight and the day was dry and bright with a strong westerly wind as we loaded up the van with our luggage.
As we drove down the lane we saw EURASIAN HOOPOE, IBERIAN MAGPIE and a single SOUTHERN GREY SHRIKE.
We headed off northwards towards Madrid and after a stop for fuel, drove around 40 minutes to the Embalse de Arrocampo, a large reservoir whose waters cool the nuclear power station at Almaraz.
Getting out of the van, it was pretty breezy to say the least as the wind whipped across the reservoir. We could hear WESTERN SWAMPHENS calling from the reed-bed but they remained unseen from the dense cover. A real surprise were four FERRUGINOUS DUCKS that flew up from the reeds and made several flybys before coming back into sheltered cover.
With patience, we managed to locate a couple of WESTERN SWAMPHENS on the edge of the reeds before they walked into dense cover. We drove around to another viewpoint and in a flooded field close to the road were two moulting WATER PIPITS, alongside several MEADOW PIPITS for good comparison.
A couple of ZITTING CISTICOLA kept low in sedges and CETTI’S WARBLERS sang from brambles but seeing them was another matter in the strong wind!
Moving round to another part of the reservoir in the hope of some shelter didn’t quite pay off but we had some close views of WESTERN CATTLE EGRETS amongst a herd of cows.
On a small pool we located a pair of BLACK-WINGED STILTS which were facing into the wind and five NORTHERN SHOVELER flew over.
As time was getting on, we headed off to get a coffee and to pack our optics away before making our way north to Madrid.
The traffic heading south was busy as people left Madrid for the start of the Easter holidays as we made good time reaching the ring road. A pair of MONK PARAKEETS flew across the road as we joined the M-40 and a short while later we reached the airport where we dropped off the van and checked in for our flight.
Unfortunately our flight was delayed but when we did get away we made up a lot of time, arriving at Stansted just twenty minutes later than planned.
Passport control was a breeze and our luggage came through promptly which was good. We said our goodbyes after a great tour with superb food, accommodation, birds and a lovely group of people!