Thursday, 20 September 2012

Southern Spain Part 1 - Coto Doñana with Limosa Holidays

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are always a delight to find

Day 1. Wednesday 12th September 2012
The flight from Heathrow was ahead of time and Stephen met the group at the new terminal building at Gibraltar airport. After walking across the border into Spain we loaded the minibus and headed overland through Jerez to Bonanza and the Algaida on the Guadalquivir River to have lunch then a spot of birding.
Quite a few raptors had been seen fleetingly from the vehicle en route as were some passerines and hirundines. Blue skies and bright sunshine was something that most of the group were hoping for, after the dreadful summer weather in the UK.
We took the motorway across to the Guadalquivir, skirted the pine Forest at Algaida and met Antonio the owner at Venta el Raspa for lunch. After a good meal we had a look around the salt pans quickly finding many birds. Greater Flamingoes were seen in large numbers and most of the salt pans away from the activity of trucks around the salt  'harvesting' area, contained many different types of waders which included Dunlin, Little Stint, Black-tailed Godwit, Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank, Common Redshank, Green and Common Sandpiper, Grey, Greater, Little and Kentish Plovers, Curlew Sandpiper and Sanderling. 
On some agricultural land we saw a flock of about 20 migrating juvenile Ruddy Turnstones and on one of the freshwater ponds some Common Snipe were seen.
We travelled around the area looking for Slender-billed Gulls and found some after passing two Red Kites that sat on an electric pylon. Sardinian Warblers flitted through the salt scrub, Crested Larks rose off the dusty paths and a young Woodchat Shrike sat on a fence.
At another salt pan we watched a huge flock of over 150 Pied Avocets take to the air. Here we also saw a single Knot, some Little Terns, Black-headed Gulls and a Whimbrel. A few Marsh Harriers were seen some distance off, with heads down, quartering the mud banks. Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were on the shore near Bonanza's harbour wall.
We had a fairly long drive up river, of course taking the faster motorway route but still managing to see Short-toed Eagles, Griffon Vultures and plenty of White Storks. A lovely male Peregrine Falcon was also spotted on a post and as we got close to El Rocio, a flock of about 20 Azure-winged Magpies flew across the road to welcome us.
Sitting outside taking dinner in El Rocio's square is quite an unique experience to take in all the special sights and sounds of this 'wild west' town as riders stopped to take a beer or sherry at the specially constructed high bar where they could rest their glasses and chat. Moorish Geckos hunted insects attracted by the hotel lights and tiny Pipistrelle and the larger Daubenton's Bats flew overhead. 
After a long days travel for all of us, we settled into our hotel for a good night's sleep.

Well camouflaged and tricky to spot on open ground

Booted Eagle, an intermediate form

Lesser Emperor Dragonfly


Day 2. Thursday 13th September 
The sun is late rising in September in southern Spain and it's not until eight in the morning that first light sweeps across the landscape.
After a good breakfast we scanned with our telescopes across the dry lagoon in front of the hotel and quickly picked up a distant adult Spanish Imperial Eagle sitting high in a bare Eucalyptus tree. The rising sun showed the golden crown and white epaulets. Although some way off, it was good to see this star attraction bird of the Coto Donana Natonal Park on our very first morning.

Another cloudless sky with very light winds set the theme as we headed off in the mini-bus to the other side of Villamanrique de La Condessa and along the flat expanse of the rice fields surrounding Isla Mayor which is the largest rice producing area in Europe. At this time of the year the ground is extremely dry and resident and migrating birds find food all through this artificially wet agricultural area with the flooded paddy fields providing food for many different types of birds.The nearby Guadalquivir River provides an enormous amount of fresh water that covers the landscape. En route a few Spotted Flycatchers and some Woodchat Shrikes were seen perched on the roadside fences. Ravens sat or were seen in flight and Azure-winged Magpies were present in good numbers with their cousins the Common Magpie.

Montagu's Harrier was the first migrating raptor we caught up with at close range and this particular juvenile was hunting along the fringes of the rice field close to the road. Black-winged Kite was next to be found with another juvenile hovering on some tamarisk and scrub.
There were plenty of Little Egret, Grey Heron, Cattle Egret and Black-crowned Night Heron to be seen as we approached the fairly dried out lagoon at Dehesa de Abajo. Here, thousands of White Stork, Grey Heron, Greater Flamingo, various duck species and many different waders fed or rested. Red-crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Northern Shoveller and Mallard were present with Pied Avocet, Ruff, as well as Wood , Common and Green Sandpipers. Masses of Glossy Ibis trailed long lines in the bright blue September sky as Great Egrets flew around the area. Common Coot and Moorhens fed along the muddy edges as several Willow Warbler and a single Cett'is Warbler were seen in the scrubby edges. Jackdaws sat around in the distant trees and a few Black Kites rose on the thermals above the lagoon.

Along the vegetation and in the rice-fields we saw lots of newly emerged and some adult Scarlet and Common Darters as well as some of the stunning Lesser Emperor Dragonflies. Black Percher was another dragonfly that was seen and photographed by some.

Driving through Isla Mayor we explored a tree line on the edge of a canal and found a large roost of Squacco and Night Herons. Red Signal Crayfish, an introduced species are trapped by the locals and we saw one trap full of them submerged in the corner of the rice field's freshwater.
Yellow Crowned Bishop was an introduced bird on the southern side of the Iberian peninsula and we watched a displaying male flying around like a huge bumblebee! We were to see many more later in the day.

Taking the local 'menu del dia' we had a break from the already very hot sun. Later we continued along the dusty tracks finding many perched raptors that included Short-toed Eagles, Common Buzzards, Common Kestrels and an Osprey. More than a dozen Black Storks flew off from the ditches with lots of Great white, Cattle and Little Egrets. White Storks were everywhere and in the distance we saw a huge flock of over 150 Eurasian Spoonbills wheeling in the sky moving from one feeding place to another. Later we found a group of them standing on the side of the track and when they took off you could see that most were juvenile birds, showing black wing tips. 
More Bishops and some Common Waxbills were seen as were Zitting Cisticolas another Cetti's and Woodchat Shrike as well as some Sedge and Willow Warbler. In the distance clouds of Glossy Ibis rose and we passed a second Black winged Kite hunting across the landscape.

To end the day we came across five juvenile Pin-tailed Sandgrouse sitting motionless in a bare ploughed field very close to the road. As the birds edged slowly off we had great views of this late and quite rare breeding bird that is a tricky one to spot at this time of the year.

Sitting in the corner of El Rocío's sandy square taking dinner outside, we mulled over our day and everyone seemed quite content with all the sightings and volumes of different species seen during the day. On our way back to our rooms we saw a Stripeless Tree Frog on a wall and the usual Moorish and Turkish Geckos scuttled in search of moths around the lights.

Black Percher

Valuable water for migrating birds in September

Parque Natural of the Dehesa de Abajo

White Storks, Greater Flamingoes, Herons and waders galore

Alpine Swift

A young ( Iberian) Azure-winged Magpie looks over its shoulder

Day 3. Friday 14th September

After breakfast we set off south then east to the estuary and tidal marches of the Odiel. A world heritage site on the edge of Huelva city some distancewest of the Coto Donaña.
En route we stopped off at the Acebuche Centre to take an early morning walk through the pine woods and picnic area where there are always a good population of Azure-winged Magpies. We saw lots of them at very close range and managed to see our first Pied Flycatchers as well as a Wryneck.
We drove along the coast road to Huelva and across the bridge into the Odiel Marshes, stopping off at the visitors centre there to pick up a few more species for our list. 
Some Sandwich Terns and a few Audouin's Gulls were seen close to the salt works and on the remaining freshwater that was left at the centre we saw Teal, Garganey, Gadwall as well as Mallards. Red crested Pochards flew overhead and as we continued into the marshes we stopped to watch an exhausted looking Honey Buzzard on a post. A short time later a single Osprey came past. On the tidal mud flats we watched many Whimbrel, Grey Plover, Oystercatcher, Little Stint, Dunlin, Sanderling, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Kentish and Ringed Plovers, Common Redshank, Greenshank and Black-winged Stilt. Passing Common Swifts and more Red-rumped Swallows flew past and a few Marsh Harriers hunted over the marshes. A Great Cormorant was also seen flying overhead.
Scarlet Darters were around and we watched some passing Lesser Emperor dragonflies. There was little passerine movement with Willow Warblers putting on a great display on a fence but not much else.
We took lunch at a local Village and sheltered in the heat of another scorching day. After our meal we looked in vain for the local Dartford Warblers but happily finding migrant Common Redstart, Bonelli's Warbler to add to the species list.
At the woodland walk around the Palacio de Acbron we found Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers, albeit fleeting views. Lots more Pied and Spotted Flycatchers were in the woodland as a Booted Eagle took off and flew out of the woods and a lone Hobby came over the canopy. More Bonelli's Warblers, a few Garden Warblers and a Wren flew past as we walked slowly on the boardwalks and pathways. Chaffinch, Great Tit, Sardinian Warbler and Spectacled Warbler were also watched  and a few butterflies were seen that included Wall Brown, Lang's short-tailed Blue and Small White.
We came back to the hotel around 6pm after watching Southern Grey (Iberian) Shrike on some roadside wires. We showered and relaxed a bit before going over the bird list and new additions for the day. Dinner was again taken outside on the square.

Griffon Vulture


Day 4. Saturday 15th September 

After breakfast we said our farewells to El Rocio and started our journey south to The Strait of Gibraltar. The sun was shining and it was going to be another fine day. We decided to have one last look for Marbled Teal and White-headed Duck even although the water levels were so low. 

At Trebujena, favourite spot on the Guadalquivir River's marshes and small tidal lagoons we found very little activity other than large numbers of White Storks, Grey Herons and egrets. Lots of Black-winged Stilts and one new bird, a Greylag Goose were seen but alas the Bajo Guadalquivir reserve was completely dried out although the river itself was still at normal levels.

Red Kite and a few Marsh Harriers with some Montagu's Harriers were seen en route over more rice fields as were Greenfinches.

En route we stopped at Benalup and took lunch. We then drove through the north-western side of La Janda and found Whinchat, Reed Warbler, a lovely female Hen Harrier, flying close to a Montagu's Harrier which gave us a good comparison of both species. 

Some Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges were seen and Striped-necked Terrapins were watched on the main collector canal. There were lots of Marsh Harriers and Monty's around as well as hundreds of White Storks in the air on thermals and on the ground feeding or sitting preening in long lines along the earth dykes.

Once settled into our hotel near Tarifa, dinner was taken on the restaurant terrace and afterwards we retired to our bungalows after a satisfying meal.

Part 2  - Down on The Strait of Gibraltar to follow.... 

One of hundreds of Marsh Harriers


Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

Breeding time for these male Yellow-crowned Bishops

The males were displaying as these escapees are winter breeding birds here

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Migration: Honey Buzzards, Harriers and Skimmers

I have never come across an Eagle Owl actively moving with other raptors during migration right on the edge of The Strait of Gibraltar. These huge normally nocturnal and secretive birds obviously do move or disperse but not much is known about where they travel to. One day someone will fit satellite transmitters to them and we can get more information about their movements.

Talking about Satellite transmitters can anyone tell where this adult Egyptian Vulture could be from. There is obviously someone watching its progress south but after looking at various projects I can't find any up to date information of birds passing through The Strait. I took this photo on the 5th of September and the bird would have been held up due to the strong levante winds which tailed off on Saturday the 8th.

It's not been such a good year for dragonflies here in SW Spain but we did come across one that's fascinating. The 'chrome-plated' Long Skimmer (Orthetrum trinacria)

Long Skimmer (Orthetrum trinacria)

Long Skimmer (Orthetrum trinacria)

Montagu's Harriers like this fresh juvenile continue to delight tour participants as we watch them along large private areas of La Janda. Monty's love dragonflies like the skimmer above and can snatch perched or flying insects with such speed and agility, then landing along the pathways and tracks to eat them.

The melanistic form seen here is a much sought after bird for many. Their dark feathers against the bright light and strong haze of the dried out landscape of Andalucía gives them an almost ghostly appearance

A Young Monty's Hunting in a Storm

Another juvenile Monty's, concentrating, hunting and pulling in its wings to get control and stability during a period of strong winds across La Janda.

I thought I'd show an open landscape shot of an adult male Montagu's Harrier nicely contrasted against the bright green of the open rice fields last week. This verdant scene is already changing as the rice ripens and turns golden yellow just like other cereal crops.

I took some shots at the end of another day out with some birding clients of what I assumed to be another brightly ochre coloured juvenile Montagu's Harrier. A closer look at the photos (I've compared the birds top side and underside) shows that you can see the different ages in the flight feathers, particularly on the right wing with the striking darker bars. The older, outer primaries are more worn than the inners and are not so dark. The curious yellow iris colour would normally suggest male but older females go from amber to yellow the older they get. Diet plays a part in the depth of colour as well and there has been research studies done on this. Thanks goes to Javi Elorriaga for help in explaining and expanding this particular sighting.

A young male Marsh Harrier hunts along side the Monty's and roosts with them as well on the open ground.

Honey Buzzards have come through in the last few weeks in their thousands. Have a look at the statistics for the beginning of September here from Fundacion Migres
Quite often you may find individual birds resting or feeding on the ground like this one.

Honey Buzzard - a fascinating raptor

Honey Buzzard takes off

Honey Buzzard passes low overhead

Honey Buzzard - Good view of the upperside wing and tail patterns

More news to come from The Strait and Coto Doñana as I head off this morning to collect another group for an eight day tour here in SW Spain.