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Day trips in Madrid - winter 2011

John Muddeman
19/12/2011 13:14:46

Observations from a couple of tailor-made day trips to Madrid in December 2011, including Spanish Imperial Eagle, 10 other raptor species, Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Iberian Grey Shrike, Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpie, Roe Deer and plenty more!

Posted in: Birds, Mammals, Endangered Wildlife and Habitats | Madrid | Mainland Spain, Central Spain


A couple of day trips in mid December fortunately coincided with the generally good weather, despite it naturally being chilly at this time of the year in C Spain! It is often forgotten that while the weather clamps down in C & N Europe, millions of songbirds and large numbers of other notable winter visitors such as Red Kites and Common Cranes move down to the generally milder conditions in the Iberian Peninsula. And even in the true centre, which experiences more of a drier continental climate than the coasts, some 10x10km squares regularly support over 100 different species in mid-winter.

Day trips out on 13th and 18th December took in a series of habitats ranging from agricultural fields to low rugged mountains and a river valley in the extensive dehesa or agricultural wood-pasture whcih stills exists in Madrid.

Linda and Sarah from the US came out in colder and windier weather on the first trip, since from midday it coincided with a depression coming in. Since their European birdwatching had been very limited to date, we naturally spent as much time with the commoner birds as with the rarer specialities. Indeed, our very first stop close to the outskirts of the city yielded Blue, Coal and Crested Tits, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch and Firecrest of most note, though given the early hour (spent here in order to successfully avoid the Madrid rush-hour traffic!), the local Spanish Imperial Eagles refused to appear.

Moving towards the mountains we took in the surroundings of a rubbish dump (!), where large numbers of White Stork, Red Kite and Common Raven delighted, and a mixed group of Eurasian and Spotless Starlings in a field -along with Corn Buntings, European Serins, European Goldfinch, a couple of brief Rock Sparrows and some Eurasian Linnets-, provided a superb opportunity to compare the two in non-breeding plumage. Several huge Cinereous Vultures also put in a show, but we had no time or chance to get to grips with the vast numbers of gulls present, despite seeing the two common species here, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed.

Our next stop, after stopping en route to watch large numbers of passing Griffon Vultures, was for lunch after a short walk around a superb little mountain village, as much to warm up as see birds! But in the sunnier side afterwards we were particularly delighted by a flock of passing Red-billed Choughs, which also gave a passing male Eurasian Sparrowhawk a hard time!

We finished off in an agricultural area, where despite a cold breeze, a passing Merlin was noted and no less than 51 Great Bustards graced the fields in front. A fine flock of a dozen Black-bellied Sandgrouse took off at our approach, but were excellently seen from the car as they returned to land, and formed a fitting end to the day as we headed back via the traffic into Madrid.

The second day was with Dawn and John from the UK, who also didn't have any particular target species, although raptors and other representative local species were wanted in preference.

Being a Sunday we left Madrid without traffic trouble and headed out to an agricultural area for sun-up. Despite a forecast of sunny conditions combined with temperatures around freezing and a moderate breeze, it was thankfully dead still when we stepped out!

Open fields near small housing estates might seem like a bad idea, but when 5 Western Marsh Harriers, three Hen Harriers (including two adult males) and a few Red kites went past in 15 minutes, plus a group of Great Bustards stood quietly off to one side in a field, we knew it would be good!

A short drive took us to a stubble field where a fine mixed flock of passerines were feeding and resting on adjacent fences and small trees, and included House, Spanish, Eurasian Tree and Rock Sparrows, Spotless Starlings, European Greenfinch, Eurasian Linnet and Common Chaffinches. More Great Bustards off to one side with perched Eurasian Kestrel and Hen Harrier showed it would be a bit of a 'bustard day'!

In fact, the total Great Bustard count was >180 including one group (of three groups present!) of at least 88 at our next site, while a distant group of 5 Little Bustards, very scarce here in winter, flew round just long anough for us to see them before they dropped over a ridge! Two Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, which seem to be increasing fast in this part of Madrid, were feeding in the edge of a winter wheat field, and seemingly completely unperturbed by the sounds of gunshots from the local hunters nearby. A freezing wind suddenly picked up here, and so we covered more tracks in the car, though only noted an Iberian Grey Shrike as it took off and hid behind some taller grass.

This cold wind continued as we headed a little towards the mountains, though a low E-W orientated ridge allowed us to be out for several minutes in the sun, and so quite warm. Our first adult male Black Redstart for the day, was a striking black bird with a huge solid white wing patch, and very striking, since the majority until now this autumn in the region have been much duller female / first-winter birds, and these adult males are moving in now with the first truly cold weather this winter. A Thekla Lark called and flew up onto a bush top, giving scope views, but not so a 'buzzing' Dartford Warbler.

A good walk around a beautiful small mountain village (so also keeping us warm!) was accompanied by views of several gorgeous Iberian Magpies and a confiding female Cirl Bunting, while our return in the car was along another low ridge on the mountain 'ramp' N of Madrid. With improving weather the breeze shifted to the S more, and large numbers of White Storks and Griffon Vultures, abundant Red Kites and a a few Cinereous Vultures -including two very black young birds we stopped for en route- were noted, plus a few Common Ravens.

But time was moving on, so we finished off in dehesa on the edge of Madrid, after another drinks' stop a local bar where we also ordered filled rolls to eat outside. A flock of Monk Parakeets went over, and amle Northern Goshawk, then as we settled down to lunch, our second adult Black Redstart male for the day appeared, this one also with a solid large white wing patch, but was otherwise basically grey, the 'paradoxus' form. We ate our lunches at a picnic table in the sun, watching for passing raptors, and after 10 minutes or so noticed a couple of low-flying birds, doing the typical 'stalling' display of buzzards and eagles. A fine adult Spanish Imperial Eagle was consequently watched well in the scope, though another was also close to it appearing intermittently. But then soared up and moved across into better light, giving great views, while a third was seen very distantly off to the east.

A walk along the river here rounded off the trip, including a few more Iberian Magpies, a couple of fly-catching Common Chiffchaffs, Common Moorhens, the local grey-backed irbii race of Long-tailed Tit and a passing flock of Stock Doves. With the sun dipping and temperature dropping, we headed back to the hotel after an excellent day out.

The combined total for the 2 days was a very respectable 82 bird species, with around 65 recorded each day, despite the relatively wintery conditions.


Species lists

Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
White Stork Ciconia ciconia
Western Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Red Kite Milvus milvus
Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus
Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus
Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo
Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila adalberti
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Merlin Falco columbarius
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
Great Bustard Otis tarda
Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Black-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles orientalis
Common Pigeon Columba livia
Stock Dove Columba oenas
Common Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus
Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Monk Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major
European Green Woodpecker Picus viridis
Iberian Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis
Iberian Magpie Cyanopica cooki
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
Western Jackdaw Coloeus monedula
Northern Raven Corvus corax
Coal Tit Periparus ater
European Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus
Great Tit Parus major
Eurasian Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus
Crested Lark Galerida cristata
Thekla Lark Galerida theklae
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
Eurasian Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala
Common Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla
Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor
Common Blackbird Turdus merula
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
European Robin Erithacus rubecula
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
European Stonechat Saxicola rubicola
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
European Serin Serinus serinus
European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Common Linnet Carduelis cannabina
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra
Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus

Heard only:
European Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria
Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti
Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata
Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Dunnock Prunella modularis



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