Birding & photo trips - Madrid & Extremadura
Despite bad weather on the first, persistence paid off with good views of Spanish Imperial Eagles, three vultures, three kites, both bustards, Red Deer, a Wild Cat and four species of Narcissus! Spanish Imperial Eagles and Citril Finches gave great views on the second!
Posted in: Flora, Birds, Mammals | Extremadura, Madrid | Mainland Spain
Griffon Vultures taking flight
Gyps fulvus© John MuddemanThe ‘bad’ weather continues, with lots of cloud and, particularly since January, plentiful rain. Indeed, January was overall the third wettest in Spain since records began, but given considerable variation in the rainfall pattern the centre of the country in particular remained drier than usual. This has now changed however, with February the wettest overall in 30 years and heavy rain has finally got the small rivulets and streams flowing again well for the first time in almost two years! This has made it tricky to get into the field though…
Eric & Lorna were on a long weekend trip from the USA, so despite the very poor forecast, we still went out for the 2½ days they were available. Leaving central Madrid early Thursday afternoon we started off in the rain towards Toledo. The rain intensified and at one point was torrential, making driving very tricky! However, we finally reached the city and after a bit of backtracking after finding one road was closed due to a rockfall, reached the parador. A drinks break was the order of the day after running inside through the downpour, but as we sat and talked, the old part of Toledo gradually emerged from the murk, and finally we had good views of this beautiful and historic city. Amazingly though, as were toying up whether to go into the city or not, the mobile rang and news of clear skies approaching Madrid from the NW rapidly had us back on the road again!
Spanish Imperial Eagle
Aquila adalberti© John Muddeman
Though windy and cool, the outskirts of Madrid looked promising and indeed, flight after flight of soggy vultures were on the wing using the wind and broken sun to get dry before dark. Indeed, some 50+ Griffons and at least 6 Black Vultures were an excellent total, and gave some good opportunities to practice flight shots. Almost nothing else was visible though, despite the first Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls heading to a local reservoir to roost, but pure chance saw us looking down a steep bank when two walkers flushed a hunting young Wild Cat, which then ran at full pelt across below us before vanishing almost immediately. The whole event was over in just seconds, but was very rewarding! It had undoubtedly been out hunting in broad daylight after almost 24 hours of rain.
Leaving Madrid at 7 a.m. sharp to beat the rush hour the following morning, we succeeded and headed quickly off SW. The forecast was again bad, but the cloud was actually high and quite thin, and it fortunately stayed this way, and dry, throughout the day. Birds were again noticeable by their absence along much of the route, but after turning off into an area of agricultural steppe we soon found Red-legged Partridges, Northern Lapwings, Corn Buntings, Common Stonechats and Meadow Pipits, plus single hunting male Western Marsh and Hen Harriers. Our main quarry still eluded us, despite turning off and driving some tracks, though a passing Black-shouldered Kite was good. We returned along some more rather quiet roads, despite a couple of roadside Southern Grey Shrikes on wires, then took another road, this time through undulating dehesa, where as Common Jonquil
Narcissus jonquilla© John Muddemanhoped, a fine group of Common Cranes fed. Stopping and parking were almost impossible though, and when finally out of the car, the birds unfortunately soon flushed, only giving good flight views. Their trumpeting calls in the cool still air were marvellous though!
After a short comfort stop, we were off again, soon heading into Monfragüe National Park. A few stops en route, including looking at the ancient Cork Oaks - their toes in standing water after the rain- also produced a superb adult Egyptian vulture on the ground close to a dead cow, though it refused to sit for photos so we continued on to the Portilla del Tiétar, one of the best viewpoints in the park. Not to be disappointed, plenty of Griffon and a lone Black Vulture were present, plus more calling Red-legged Partridges, several noisy Blue Rock Thrushes, passing Great Cormorants and a few fleeting small birds in the bushes, including Long-tailed Tits and a Firecrest. The stars though were a pair of Spanish Imperial Eagles, at one point in noisy display, and which reappeared after having disappearing for half an hour or so. Patches of pale yellow amongst the E-facing rocks were large clumps of delicate Narcissus triandrus pallidulus, but reamarkably, none were seen anywhere else in the aprk, despite them being abundant some years. A pair of Black Storks on a nest a little downriver looked superb in the bright light, too, while two male Great Cormorant
Phalacrocorax carbo orientalis© John MuddemanLesser Kestrels migrating along the river valley were a good find!
An excellent quick lunch was taken in the main bar, despite the crowds attending the International Ornithological Fair, and after noting another distant Spanish Imperial plus a possible (early) Booted Eagle, we headed straight to Peñafalcón. Despite lots of Griffons and a few Black Storks, this was otherwise rather quiet and we soon retraced our tracks – despite pausing first for shots of a hind Red Deer and to once again see a flock of Iberian Magpies disappear off at high speed! – and then headed to the Arrocampo reservoir for variety. Some tracks nearby produced a superb pair of Black-shouldered Kites, two Hoopoes and a flying Great Spotted Cuckoo, while lots of fragrant Common Jonquil Narcissi were a delight amongst the sheets of Wild Radish flowers. The reservoir itself was very quiet though, despite a few distant Purple Swamphens perched up, a flighty Penduline Tit gave us the run-around and a few buzzing Sand Martins were my first for the year. A few Hoop-petticoat Narcissi were also superb. A male Western Marsh Harrier also flushed a distant Eurasian Curlew from some flooded fields, and this reinforces the feeling that there have been far more of these waders than normal in the region since around the turn of the year.
Things took a marked turn for the worse when we woke up to driving rain however! Being Saturday though, travelling in and out of Madrid capital is easier, and our 8 a.m. start paid off since we left in slightly improving conditions. Indeed, by the time we reached the agricultural area, it showed signs of stopping. A male Hen Harrier cruised past, but the fields were otherwise largely empty (despite my first Calandra Lark for some time). The rain had made the majority of the tracks impassible, but one short access track turned up trumps. A couple of huge male Great Bustards stood out with their tails up, with a small group off to one side behind a few scattered Black-bellied Sandgrouse shuffling across the stony fields. Indeed, the bustards allowed a relatively close approach on foot and Eric was more than satisfied! A small flock of Little Bustards in flight en route was a good find too.
Drying Griffon Vultures
Gyps fulvus© John MuddemanA small gorge area and restored mountain village was an excellent site for a short stroll, and though the Blue Rock Thrushes refused to sit still to be photographed and the Iberian Magpies once again kept their distance, the water rushing down the little stream was a treat and a few singing Cirl Buntings and fly-by Rock Sparrows and Hawfinches good to see.
It was still quite early though, and given the still and heavily overcast conditions with little bird movement, we decided to try an alternative approach. En route to a large tip we stopped for some superb roadside White Storks in a tree-nesting colony, but the tip area was superb. 20-30 Red and one Black Kite graced the skies and perched in the large leafless poplar trees, and thousands of Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls thronged the skies when not down fighting with the White Storks over a few scraps among the distant rubbish. Two male Woodlarks flew noisily around over our heads in a territorial dispute and a few Grey Herons passed too. Intermittent rain finally beat us though, and we went for a fine seafood lunch (except for Lorna’s enormous steak, that is!) in a local restaurant.
The weather was generally good over lunch, but started raining as we came out, Río Manzanares valley© John Muddeman but persistence once again prevailed and after taking a long track to a viewpoint which, when it wasn’t raining, gave us fine views down to N Madrid, when blue skies appeared to the W, we headed to a small river valley for a comfortable walk high along one flank. The rock colours were at their best, the lichens and mosses adding variety, as did one small inaccessible clump of Narcissus rupicola high in a crag. The walk was superb in the warm sun, with the river rushing through below us (helping to clean the riverbed after a couple of years of scrub invasion), and a few (mainly small) birds, active on the slopes, and coincidentally a large hatch of ants underway. A group of 7 Griffon Vultures, sunning themselves with wings outstretched gave excellent views, but until a breeze sprang up on our return, virtually nothing else moved. A Common Buzzard however then circled over, a Eurasian Kestrel flew past, but then, over c. 15 minutes, a small movement of Black Kites took place, with 2 singles followed by a group of seven, and then two more, all passing rapidly NE and being pushed hard by the strong SW winds at height. The cloud came in again and we returned to Madrid at the end of another successful day. With heavy driving rain in fierce winds that evening, we were fortunate in having made such good use of the days, thanks to Eric and Lorna’s persistence!
Lophophanes cristatus© John MuddemanMarch 8th: the mixed weather continues, and after more rain adn even some snow, it dawned largely sunny and clear, though freezing cold with a stiff N wind.
Picking up Quentin from Chamartin Station we left easily after the rush hour and made out way to the sunny outskirts of Madrid. Seeing and chatting to three informed and interested Spaniards who came past while we were out watching with the scope shows just how rapidly things are changing (for the better) here, though the couple who came to look for Spanish Imperial Eagles Aquila adalberti sadly left about 10 minutes too early to see the appearance of a pair of adults which came out to then display intermittently for the next 20 minutes or more against both blackish cloud and also blue sky - the best combination possible! Passing local Griffon Gyps fulvus and Black Vultures Aegypius monachus, and Stock Doves Columba oenas plus several Barn Swallows and House Martins (working hard to find food in the cold N wind), singing Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti were all noted as we waited too.
The trip up to the mountains was looking difficult, with a thick veil of white cloud capping the Sierra de Guadarrama, complete with falling snow. The road was fortunately clear to the top though, despite a sometimes strong and very cold N wind (in sub-zero temperatures), Snow-bound Scot's Pine forest
in the Sierra de Guadarrama© John Muddeman and with thick snow on the ground and the trees coated white, it was no surprise that only the hardiest resident species showed. Watching Crested Lophophanes cristatus and Coal Tits Periparus ater and Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea make use of the rubbish bins illustrates how adaptable they can be, while a few passing Common Ravens Corvus corax completed the round-up. Nearby Great Tits Parus major showed how resilient they are too, but no other species were seen. Indeed, it was only after a couple of false starts and short walks further down that we finally reached an area with snow-free ground. And as hoped, more birds were immediately visible, including plenty of Common Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs and once in a small pine plantation, some soft calls alerted us to a fine flock of 12-15 Citril Finches Carduelis citrinella present. A pair perched up long enough to give fine scope views before they all moved off up-slope and away into the forest, leaving us with the satisfaction of good views of 2 out of 2 for the 5-hour trip. An hour later we were back in Madrid leaving Quentin plenty of time to get ready for his train departure to Algeciras (and ultimately Morocco!).
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