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S Spain in spring: Strait of Gibraltar, Doñana & Extremadura

John Muddeman
18/04/2009 18:48:45

Details from the first half of this Travelling Naturalist tour

Posted in: Flora, Butterflies and Moths, Dragonflies and Damselflies, Birds | Andalusia, Extremadura | Southern Spain, Western Spain

Saturday 18th April

We all met at the departure gate in Madrid airport, and despite a slightly delayed departure were in Jerez de la Frontera by 1:30 p.m. Indeed, most of us noted the Collared Pratincoles which rose up from the grassy areas adjacent to the runway as we taxied to a halt. What a bird to start! A few also noticed Cattle Egrets and even a single male Montagu's Harrier over an adjacent field.
After negotiating the outskirts of the sherry capital of the world, we headed N and past Trebujena for a very late snack lunch near the Guadalquivir River. The birds were terrific, with Lesser and Eurasian Kestrels and a brief Red-legged Partridge en route, plus superb adult Squacco Heron in a roadside ditch with flying and perched Collared Pratincoles opposite, plus resting Whiskered and Little Terns, Common Ringed Plovers, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Little Egrets and Grey Herons in some pools ahead. Squacco Heron  - Ardeola ralloides © John MuddemanSquacco Heron Ardeola ralloides© John Muddeman
A slow pot-holed drive eventually lead to a stop on tarmac for lunch, but a host of birds were the recompense: Common and Red-crested Pochards, Black-winged Stilts, Pied Avocet, numerous Curlew Sandpipers and Dunlins, Common Redshanks and more Common Greenshanks and a single Little Stint. A Eurasian Curlew had flown down-river as we'd approached, and 6 or 7 Eurasian Whimbrel were spooked from some salt marsh when we stopped for one of many fine male iberiae Yellow Wagtails. Various Little, a couple of Whiskered and two superb Gull-billed Terns passed over as we stood and watched. Crested, and numerous Calandra Larks were singing over the salt marsh, but it was perhaps the raptors which were most notable, with two Booted and a single Short-toed Eagle, single Red and several Black Kites, half a dozen Griffon Vultures and single female Montagu's plus a pair of Marsh Harriers.
We finally headed S, noting plenty of White Storks and one or two other new species as we made quickly for the hotel, but the areas of some fields smothered in sheets of Purple Viper's-bugloss, yellow crucifers, red French Honeysuckle, or off-white Crown Daisies were a truly lovely sight to see.

Sunday 19th

Not normally being an early riser (Oops!) I realised that our 7 a.m. start required a longer drive to give the sun time to come up! So we headed for Cape Trafalgar instead of another more local site, and after the 'wake-up' walk out to the point, including Crested Larks and brief Sanderling, we quickly reached a quite sheltered viewpoint near the lighthouse. With a stiff north-westerly blowing, this was a good move, despite it being relatively mild.
From the start until we finished, around 9 a.m., a constant passage of all plumages and ages of Northern Gannets was the main feature, with hundreds in total. Many of these were just offshore too, giving great views, with several of many passing Great Skuas also relatively close. No shearwaters were present AGAIN (as 2 weeks ago!), but a few Sandwich and two distant Black Terns, plus 6 Whimbrels and four Common Scoter were also on passage moving N.
Short-toed Eagle  - Circaetus gallicus © John MuddemanShort-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus© John Muddeman After a relaxed breakfast we headed S again, this time with a freshening NW wind and thick cloud and localised rain... But fortunately this soon turned to clearing skies and broken cloud, and the further S we went the more sheltered it was from the northern edge in the wind.
One short stop produced our first dapper male Woodchat Shrike, a pair of European Stonechats and the first of many passing Pallid Swifts. We soon continued round the Strait, including our first views of Gibraltar, to the Punta del Carnero. With dense cloud over the N Moroccan coast, this didn't seem too promising, but several groups of Black Kites, 3 Eurasian Sparrowhawks, a male and two female Montagu's Harriers, a male Marsh Harrier and a flock of 37 Griffon Vultures all crossed as we scoured the skies to the sounds of singing Common Nightingales and scolding Sardinian Warblers. A picnic lunch in the increasing warmth and sun was happily taken from our raised viewpoint!
We finished off with a coffee break and walk around the Huerta Grande estate. Despite it being mid-afternoon, there was plenty of sound and movement, and there had clearly been a significant fall of passerines, with several Pied Flycatchers and Western Bonelli's Warblers as well as European Robins, a singing Iberian Chiffchaff, a few Firecrests and Blackcaps and an all-too-brief Garden Warbler. A brief Short-toed Treecreeper was tantalising, though a calling Great Spotted Woodpecker failed to materialise. Single (very worn) Monarch and (Southern) Speckled Wood butterflies rounded off the walk nicely.

Monday 20th April

After a leisurely breakfast we headed right round the Strait to near Gibraltar. Despite being a less than perfect site, an urban park area here is a magnet to passing passerines, and despite increasing disturbance as the morning wears on, holds birds for several hours.
The taller weedy areas with low trees were the best, and after good looks at a lemoney-yellow Melodious Warbler, we were soon looking at two superb male Subalpine Warblers with their white ‘moustaches’ feeding in mallows, plus several rather flighty Common Whitethroats. A couple of Common Nightingales flushed a couple of times before we finally saw one well, this dropping repeatedly to feed on the grass under a tamarisk. And right above it, two Western Bonelli's Warblers and a stunning male Western Orphean Warbler worked the foliage for insects!
Another area, where automatic watering kept it lusher, held a Bolonia Bay © John MuddemanBolonia Bay© John Muddemanhigh density of birds and at times it was difficult to know where to look! A couple of Subalpine, 5 or more Western Orphean, 6 or more Melodious and two Garden Warblers, plus at least three male and a female Common Redstart were all seen well, one of the Orpheans coming down to feed on the ground just feet away at one point. A flighty Willow Warbler was also new but eluded the group.
After a celebratory coffee we headed back for lunch at Punta del Carnero. A Western Three-toed Skink and a large Viperine Snake crossed the road as we approached. Raptor passage was better than the day before, given a light NW wind and fairly clear conditions over Morocco, despite plenty of haze. Small numbers of Black Kites, Eurasian Sparrowhawks and Booted Eagles arrived fairly regularly, with slightly larger numbers of Short-toed Eagles also crossing, despite seemingly being in trouble at times. Three single Griffon Vultures also passed without trouble as did a typically speedy female Montagu's Harrier. A female Marsh Harrier was a little more laborious in its crossing though.
A group of high-flying European Bee-eaters sped past, with another group seen from the vehicle as we headed E towards Bolonia. The ruins were closed, since it was Monday, though after a comfort stop and time to watch a few birds, including or first good Corn Bunting and European Stonechat, we headed up into the hills.
A Griffon brooded a chick on a cliff ledge, while two Crag Martins sped back and forth across the crag and a fine Blue Rock Thrush sang its heart out from the rock tops. Another male thrush flew in behind, counter-singing, and landed in a tree! A male Eurasian Kestrel flew around clutching a lizard in its talons. A wait in the quite chilly breeze revealed almost nothing new, despite all-too-brief Common Linnet and an even briefer feeding Hummingbird Hawk-moth, though a quick look at some noisy Iberian Water Frogs in a pool was in interesting diversion.
A couple of Montagu's Harriers off to one side were good to see en route back, though the swathes of flowers now covering large areas after the recent rains, including along many roadsides, were a joy to see.

Tuesday 21st April

Bee Ophrys  - Ophrys apifera © John MuddemanBee Ophrys Ophrys apifera© John MuddemanA pre-breakfast drive and walk in Atlanterra. It was lovely in dead still and mild conditions. In the relative darkness it was at first difficult to see any birds, but singing Common Nightingales, European Stonechats, Eurasian Greenfinches, Winter Wren and calling Sardinian Warblers were all noted. But not a single true seabird passed offshore apart from numerous Yellow-legged and a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Lovely flowers were lining the banks though, including a few Bee Ophrys orchids.
Soon after our departure from Zahara we hit coastal fog, but this didn’t stop us from stopping to enjoy a roadside Cattle Egret colony. A few Lesser Kestrels and Montagu’s Harriers were also noted en route, but we were principally aiming for a spot near the Guadalquivir river mouth to look for a recent colonist in Spain. After a couple of very brief sightings, we then had a small series of excellent views of a few Little Swifts in and around a small colony, despite the large number of House Martins around making it tricky at times!
A reviving coffee and we were off through the often disorienting maze of Sanlúcar de Barrameda’s streets, eventually finding a couple of fine small pools, where half a dozen stunning male White-headed Ducks held court at point blank range (plus an all-too-brief and shy female), plus a pair and two other Little Bitterns as well as several Little Grebes. A ‘grunching’ Great Reed Warbler remained unseen, while a Red Admiral and a male Red-veined Darter were nice to see. male White-headed Duck  - Oxyura leucocephala © John Muddemanmale White-headed Duck
Oxyura leucocephala
© John Muddeman

A late lunch was taken in the Salinas de Bonanza while watching a variety of waders, including plenty of Curlew Sandpipers, plus several Kentish Plovers, while tiny Little Terns came to feed just beside us on a shoal of small fish trapped in a closed section of canal. Passing Grey Plover were in varying plumage, but a large flock of Greater Flamingos and small numbers of elegant and dapper Slender-billed Gulls were also a treat.
We finally left after discovering that part of the route has now been blocked off, but that also meant that we reached El Rocío in good time, and after a quick view over the area from the rooftop, walked up the side of the marsh to view towards the W end. With the afternoon sun almost behind us, the lighting on the large flock of Black-tailed Godwit and much smaller group of Ruff, some males of which sported summer plumage, was a treat. Female Subalpine Warbler, male Common Whitethroat and European Goldfinches in the edge, plus numerous Black-winged Stilts, a Eurasian Spoonbill, a few pairs of Northern Shoveler and a couple of superb Whiskered Terns out in the marsh rounded off a fine supporting cast!

Wednesday 22nd April

After our 8 a.m. breakfast we met for 15 minutes to look over the marsh, where two Great Reed Warblers counter sang from bulrush tops down to almost point blank range. The light was superb on the massed godwits, and also allowed distant views of Gadwall, Common and Red-crested Pochard and Whiskered Terns amongst others.
We headed west and past Huelva to the Marismas del Odiel Natural Park. Timing the trip to coincide with low tide meant lots of mud was still present along the rivers, so we made a provisionally quick stop at a couple of pools first. After looking at Black-winged Stilts, a Common Sandpiper, Common Coots and a Common Moorhen plus chicks, our attention quickly turned to a superb Red-knobbed Coot at exceedingly close range, which with slow movements and low voices we approached extremely well. The Black-headed Gulls at the back of the pool were almost our first too, and provided extra interest when Santi of another group noted there was an adult Little Gull amongst them. A close Purple Heron in flight behind us was terrific too.
A comfort stop at the interpretation centre also lead to us watching Whimbrel, Curlew Sandpipers and our first Bar-tailed Godwit in an adjacent creek, though we were soon heading S again along the long single road. A small car park was fringed by numerous spikes of the striking yellow-flowered Cistanche phelypaea, a parasitic plant restricted to S Iberia, though we found it difficult to walk over the short board walk to watch waders on the mudflats, since there were also plenty close to the vehicle! Many were in more striking summer plumage, including Dunlin, Sanderling, Grey Plover, Eurasian Curlew and Common Ringed Plovers, with more of the same, plus Common Greenshank and two circling Slender-billed Gulls at the end of the board walk.
Many more, much closer birds took us back to the road, and some colourful Ruddy Turnstones and a large group of Red Knot, some reddening already, plus a couple of colourful fly-by Bar-tailed Godwit amongst other dowdier individuals were lovely to see. The river opposite was peppered with a large flock of first-winter Mediterranean Gulls, with numerous noisy Little Terns on and over a sandbank below. A flighty Willow Warbler eluded us. Again...
Red-knobbed Coot  - Fulica cristata © John MuddemanRed-knobbed Coot Fulica cristata© John Muddeman The tide was now rushing in fast, covering both the mud and the immense numbers of West African Fiddler Crabs present all over it, so we moved towards some fenced wader and seabird breeding areas, further along. A couple of Northern Wheatears were our first, as was a Stone-curlew, while the stars here were a large colony of stunning Collared Pratincoles, several sitting around just yards from the fence and giving simply wonderful views. Another fenced area contained dredging settlings, but was a haven for roosting gulls and terns, with lots of Mediterranean, plenty of Audouin’s, a few Lesser Black-backed, a couple of Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls, plus plenty of Sandwich and Little Terns. A few small waders were also present for variety! This was superb, though we probably stayed slightly longer than expected since I was intent on reading as many of the Mediterranean Gull colour rings as possible!
Our return was rapid, stopping for lunch at a lovely shaded picnic site –complete with dapper male White Wagtail and singing Cetti’s Warbler! – and nearby bar for coffee.
The Laguna del Portil to the west was relatively quiet, despite our first, albeit long-distance, Wood Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plovers, and the first proper Common Buzzard for the group (!). The sun and breeze had now hit, so most snoozed in the minibus as we took the long coastal road back.
But it was far from over, and a reviving session, albeit until quite late, in the El Acebuche centre was fun. Plenty of Iberian [Azure-winged] Magpies were in the pines or washing in the lake and a couple of Eurasian Tree Sparrows finally gave good views. A dark morph Booted Eagle cruised low over, while the couple of pairs of Red-rumped Swallows were evident both in flight and for their remarkable nests which we viewed at close range. The highlight was perhaps on the way out, when one of a pair of European Bee-eaters flew up from the road and perched in a small pine, and in which was a pair of Ortolan Buntings which it had just disturbed, part of a small migrant flock of five, which played hide and seek amongst the low bushes until finally disappearing into the pine forest!

Thursday 23rd April

This could almost have been a day in Extremadura if it weren’t for a few of the best birds! Reaching the edge of the flat floodplain, we were soon looking out over a beautiful flower-filled pasture, European Roller  - Coracias garrulus © John MuddemanEuropean Roller
Coracias garrulus
© John Muddeman
with flighty Common Linnets, European Greenfinches, European Serins, a quartering immature male Hen Harrier, the first of innumerable Corn Buntings and also plenty of gorgeous European Bee-eaters. However, we soon had to tumble out of the bus at high speed given a fly-past male Great Bustard! A nearby copse held a White Stork colony, with attendant House, Spanish and hybrid House X Spanish sparrows!
Driving S along a good section of road we pulled off to search a small wet corner near a stream. And our quarry, a rather flighty and elusive Western Olivaceous Warbler was already on territory (as were several others heard in nearby tamarisks), and finally showed itself to all, while the wait also produced a fly-by Common Kingfisher and a Cetti’s Warbler which after shouting a few times dashed across the track before diving into deep cover.
Further driving revealed the first of various Woodchat Shrikes and plenty of Pied Flycatchers in the scrub, plus a superb Black-shouldered Kite, which after lifting off its perch, gave a superb hovering and flying display. A couple of adult Black-crowned Night Herons in a tree were also good, even if eclipsed in quantity later! A brief Purple Swamphen was seen by only a few, but two Great Egrets by all as they lifted off.
The raised track also produced a couple of Sand Martins, and out in the middle somewhere (!), a nice range of larks as we stood on the trackside and savoured not being bumped along for a few minutes! A Calandra landed on a small bush and showed off, while first Greater, and then finally Lesser Short-toed Larks also showed very well, with numerous Crested Larks for good measure. A couple of Short-toed Eagles added variety to the raptors –which with an immature male Montagu’s Harriers was getting rather good– and a Red Fox looked calmly out from its sheltered lair on the edge of a water channel. A male Spectacled Warbler flew past, but was only noted by one or two before it dropped into scrub never to be seen again.
Noting various small passerines in the scrub, an odd-looking lump in one tamarisk caused me to stop quite sharply, only to find we were just yards away from a simply stunning European Roller on a fence post on the opposite side! This was clearly a tired migrant, the bird ruffling its feathers and even ‘yawning’ twice, and sat tight until we were about to leave when it flew up onto a tall pylon to get a better view of its surroundings.
More stops revealed a few more birds, especially when we reached the Caño del Guadiamar channel, including two very flighty male Whinchats, passing Glossy Ibis and Purple Herons, and a very close Squacco Heron. Further migrants in the scrub included a female Common Redstart.
A longer stop near the interpretation centre revealed a nice selection of water birds, including our first Black-necked Grebes, but it was being literally pounded by almost deafening Great Reed Warbler song here which was perhaps the most impressive feature!
Glossy Ibis  - Plegadis falcinellus © John MuddemanGlossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus© John Muddeman Inside the centre building was thankfully cooler, and the huge windows gave great views over the large pool and its immense mixed Glossy Ibis, Cattle and Little Egret and Purple, Squacco and Black-crowned Night Heron colony. After a long lunch break and watching the colony (plus another Purple Swamphen) and also the scrub for small migrants, including Sedge, Eurasian Reed, Melodious and Willow Warblers and more Pied Flycatchers (the latter a real feature for the day), we took a short diversion to the Lucio del Lobo. An ‘at the limits’ pair of Garganey were a good find, but sadly out of range for most of the group to appreciate the male’s plumage.
A fine Red Kite and a small colony of Lesser Kestrels as we left made it three harriers, three kites and both kestrels for the day. A fine tally! The return was uneventful, while over dinner later, a snipe eluded the group again as it towered up past the restaurant window!

Friday 24th April

A pre-breakfast trip to the Palacio del Acebrón was ostensibly to look for lots of small birds. The walk through the mixed pine, cork oak and willow forest was highly successful, giving sightings of several Iberian Chiffchaffs, Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Hoopoe, Long-tailed Tits, Short-toed Treecreepers, two fly-over male Eurasian Golden Orioles, plus a calling Wryneck which frustratingly refused to show.
A short break was then made in El Rocío for an hour or so, before starting our transfer N. However, we didn’t get too far before turning off into an area of mixed olive and fruit orchards and vineyards. While this may not seem a productive place, small colonies of Lesser Kestrels and Montagu’s Harriers were present, a tired migrant Northern Wheatear rested in an orchard, and our main goal, a superb singing Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin sang from an orange tree before dropping onto the ground and later returning to its tree to give us superb views. Spring flowers © John MuddemanSpring flowers© John Muddeman
We then started the long transfer in earnest, passing via the edge of Seville and turning N up the new A-66, stopping to refuel and then picnic beside the castle in a town, where a few birds included Common Swifts, Short-toed Eagles and male Blue Rock Thrush.
We then continued on to near Alange, where from the dam and adjacent car park, we enjoyed views of numerous (extremely close) Alpine Swifts and Western Jackdaws, plus Blue Rock Thrushes, Eurasian Crag and Common House Martins, Barn and Red-rumped Swallows, and very brief male Black Wheatear.
We finally tore ourselves away and continued N again, and after a brief stops for a superb White Stork colony and then a comfort break, finally reached FSM just after 7 p.m. A few birds for seen by most even here from the car park and after a great introduction from the manager Joao, dinner was rounded off by a great show of bird pictures by local resident Steve Fletcher (for those who could keep their eyes open, that is!).

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