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A Birdwatching Guide to Extremadura 2nd Edition - December fieldwork

John Muddeman
23/01/2013 11:15:03

In order to provide some more up to date info as I go along, this is the first of a series of abbreviated trip reports covering most of the sites checked for possible inclusion in the final version of the guide. I sincerely hope it's of interest!

Posted in: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Birds, Endangered Wildlife and Habitats | Extremadura | Mainland Spain, Western Spain, Central Spain

My first serious bash at covering sites became available at short Bonelli's-Eagle © John MuddemanAdult Bonelli's Eagle Aquila fasciata© John Muddeman notice, so with three and a half days possible from 7th December, I headed about as far S as I could, though admittedly in stages! First stop was at the Embalse de Valdecañas, a huge reservoir on the S side of the A5 motorway in NE Extremadura. Part of the NE corner is accessible from El Gordo village, though due to muddy tracks, and the large numbers of wildfowl present, I kept my distance and only approached slowly on foot over the adjacent pseudosteppe. Without sufficient time to look for the Red-knobbed Coot which had been present, and with most of the geese way out in the middle, the Pink-footed Goose only remained a hope, but highlights among the 47 species seen in 2 hours included an adult female Peregrine, small groups of Common Cranes, a Stone-curlew, a Kentish Plover (discovered in 2010, this site is now the principal site for the species and also Common Shelduck in the region), Hoopoe, Iberian Grey Shrike and Water Pipit. Looks from the road to the controversial Isla de Valdecañas Golf Club and resort allowed better views of the geese present there, but nothing new.

I finished the day at the Embalse de Arrocampo. Included in the 1st edition as the Emb. de Arroyocampo (sic), this has since been developed into a ‘Birdwatching Park’, including the installation of a series of wooden hides and establishment of a couple of routes. With little time before dusk, apart from a Black-winged Kite, Iberian Grey Shrike and a small flock of Iberian Magpies along the access road, I headed to Hide 2, where Great Bittern has been seen most recently in recent winters (and it now breeds at the reservoir). This was to no avail, but a fine heron and egret roost formed in front including an astonishing minimum of 49 Great Egrets (also now breeding at the site)! To think it was a rarity 15 years ago! In the 90 minutes I was present, among the 50 bird species recorded, highlights included 4 Spoonbills, at least 3 calling Little Bitterns, another Black-winged Kite, Water Rail and Purple Swamphen heard, 2 Kingfishers, Hoopoe, Iberian Grey Shrike, Bearded Reedling (Arrocampo is THE site for this species in EX), Cetti’s Warbler, Zitting Cisticola and numerous Reed Buntings going to roost. Probably the best though, in line with other observers’ recent sightings, were superb views of a big dog Otter which crashed out of the reedmace onto the path right in front, before loping off down the access track before disappearing into some rushes.

My sincere thanks to Henri Elink and Laura of the Rural Guesthouse Finca Santa Marta, where I spent the first night. Having spent several months of my life lodged here at this wonderful location while guiding groups to the region in spring and autumn of the last 10 years or so, it often feels a bit like home from home!

Laguna-Torremejías © John MuddemanOne of the Lagunas de Torremejía + White Storks© John Muddeman8th December – with low cloud clinging to the hills around, I mistakenly thought it was foggy and got out later than I should. Part of a complex of wetland sites along the Guadiana River near Mérida is the Charca de Esparragalejo, which has hosted some excellent birds in the past including Pectoral Sandpiper. Major roadworks on the town’s access road mean it’s still not possible to give straightforward directions to the site, which is a little up and behind the town, but it was extremely quiet when I visited, anyway (despite the ‘usual suspects’ such as Iberian Grey Shrike, Iberian Magpie & Crested Lark!). With the dam on the River Guadiana having been opened, it was astonishing to see a largely empty ‘river’ up as far as Mérida and the reedmace beds (which hold resident Purple Swamphen & Little Bittern, plus wintering Bluethroat) were largely high and dry, so I didn’t stop.

Shortly to the S via the impressive A66 motorway, I turned off to the Lagunas de Torremejía, which lie just to the east of the town of the same name, almost en route to Alange. These are effectively just a few pools in depressions in open fields, but can be magnets for birds. Having visited on the off-chance two springs back, while coming up on a trip from Doñana, and when we saw a remarkable array of waders and other birds of note, including Temminck’s Stint, Collared Pratincole and Little Tern, I wanted to check what they house in winter. Large numbers of White Storks were present, as was a Yellow-legged Gull amongst the Lesser Black-backeds, but the ‘star’ amongst the 130 Greylag Geese, was a vagrant Canada Goose… Enough said, but my thanks to Eva Arian for precise info just before coming! A fine number of steppic birds were also present, including Golden Plover and Calandra Lark, and a couple of drifting Red Kites kept many small birds on the move.

Having never had particularly good luck in locating Río-Viar-Montemolín © John MuddemanThe lovely Río Viar near Montemolín© John Muddeman consistently good areas for steppic birds in S Badajoz province, I decided to try my fortunes along the Camino Galaperal near Fuente de Cantos, thanks to one of the three site guides covering Badajoz. A slight break in the dull and chilly conditions saw a sudden movement of vultures, with abundant Griffon and a number of Black (Cinereous) Vultures circling over the rolling hills to look for food. The first of several Black-bellied Sandgrouse were heard, and then seen in flight, while a ‘real’ Red-legged Partridge and a couple of calling Little Owls, as well as flocks of Calandra Larks, an Iberian Grey Shrike and a marauding Raven confirmed this was a good area.

The Castillo de Montemolín stands out beautifully from the surrounding hills and simply invites a quick look. Not high enough to attract wintering Alpine Accentors, it regularly holds Blue Rock Thrush and Black Redstarts and Thekla Larks were also particularly obvious, along with passing Red Kites, a flighty Rock Sparrow and Iberian Grey Shrike on the slopes and Iberian Magpies on some orchards below. The quite long Ruta Puente de la Gallicanta, leading off through fields, low hills and pseudosteppe, over and beyond the lovely Viar River, was almost impassable in my car, but while stopping to drain one particularly deep section of water from the track, a deep red darter dragonfly whizzed past in the sun; some Common Darters can apparently make it right through the winter here (A Sánchez, GOCE). Seemingly quiet, the final tally of 41 species including Griffon and Black Vultures, Peregrine, Little Owl, Hoopoe, Iberian Grey Shrike, Raven, Calandra, Crested and Thekla Larks, Black Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, Spanish and Rock Sparrows, Grey Wagtail and Serin shows how productive it can be, as it crosses several different habitat types. The wider track out included a shallow ford and plentiful tiny streams, but was just OK…

Sierra-Tentudía © John MuddemanEvening light in the Sierra de Tentudía© John MuddemanSadly too late to do it justice, I finished with as quick a drive as possible around the hills around the Monasterio de Tentudía. The Tentudía reservoir was surrounded by fishermen, so on reaching Calera de León I turned up along the narrow winding mountain road towards the monastery. Lots of small birds including an unusual mixed flock of Cirl Buntings, Serins, Chaffinches and Meadow Pipits graced the dehesa here, and at a small pass, with fine views, a Hawfinch flew over and plenty of Red Kites could be seen wheeling around way below as they head to a large, but somewhat itinerant roost in the area. A track on the S side, below the monastery, leads to some tourist cabins and passes steep gullies rich in vegetation where Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, wintering Bullfinch and Siskin and, in summer, breeding Firecrest and Iberian Chiffchaff can be found. Being near dusk I barely stopped, but another track leading off through ancient Cork Oak dehesa (with its breeding Black Storks) and into Andalucía makes it a superb area.
Night was spent in the lovely old centre of Llerena.

9th December - Sunday in Spain means a late breakfast, but once out I headed straight towards the nearby Embalse de Arroyoconejo, and though very quiet for birds closer to the town (probably due to intense hunting activity), once again it came up trumps with Great & Little Bustards Spanish-Imperial-Eagle-imma © John MuddemanSub-adult Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila adalberti© John Muddeman and Black-bellied Sandgrouse in the fields near the dam. A long track running to the tail of the reservoir was quieter than hoped, but once past it and en route to Ahillones, the hunting actually rewarded me in the form of a flock of 119 Great Bustards which came over the olive groves and landed in bare fields nearby.

A Dragonflies + Birds + Butterflies Tour I’m running in June aims to visit the area, and partly in preparation for this, I then took the long drive down to the Sotillo river. This was simply gorgeous in the near calm, warm and sunny conditions, and despite being ‘out on a limb’ and well off the beaten track, is a superb site. It was also a far cry from the roasting 42°C I experienced here last July! Calling Spanish Imperial Eagles were the first sound I heard, with an adult pair circling around overhead, and an immature female also passed in the mere hour I was there. A double take on one eagle revealed it was a young Golden Eagle, which soared and soared before eventually disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. Dartford & Sardinian Warblers and ‘peeping’ wintering Dunnocks scolded from the low scrub and an Iberian Green Woodpecker ‘laughed’ from the trees. Lots of tracks suggested Wild Boar come down to drink where Otters play, and it was a pity not to have the latter in the water, which was crystal clear down to a metre or more!

Egyptian-Mongoose-backlit © John MuddemanA backlit Egyptian Mongoose Herpestes ichneumon© John MuddemanAnother long drive to start my return went through the Granja de Torrehermosa, and up to Campillo de Llerena. The near-absence of Common Cranes was very noticeable this year, and very few steppic birds were recorded either, though a female and three well-grown Egyptian Mongoose were a great roadside sight at one point!

I rounded off with a look at the area from Campillo to Hornachos, which reputedly has one of the highest densities of Spanish Imperial and Golden Eagles in Badajoz at least, and thanks to these being in inaccessible hunting estates, are safe from disturbance. One distant pair was scant reward (though one brief passing visit, I could hardly expect more!), but the possibility is certainly there. Approaching Hornachos though, a detour to a likely-looking spot produced a stunning pair of adult Bonelli’s Eagles in flight, and I’ve also been told it’s a great spot for Golden Eagle too (S Fletcher, pers. com.), plus a small group of wintering Crag Martins. With just enough time for a walk into the Sierra Grande de Hornachos, a male Black Wheatear, several Blue Rock Thrushes, Rock Bunting and Little Owl were well-earned rewards!

I spent the night in the remarkably cheap and near spotless Hotel Trajano.

10th December – For my sins, I hadn’t View-S-from-Benquerencia © John MuddemanView S from Benquerencia de la Serena© John Muddeman walked through Benquerencia de la Serena and up to the castle for about 10 years… Despite the track having been greatly ‘improved’, and the site being far more accessible (and disturbed) than before, it’s still good. A single Alpine Accentor, a male Black Wheatear and a male Blue Rock Thrush were good sightings, while my first House Martins of the year were mixed in among a small Crag Martin flock.

Extraordinary views to the N from here cover virtually the whole of the vast La Serena pseudosteppes area. A couple of routes in La Serena as I headed north produced good numbers of Golden Plover, Calandra Larks, calling Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a small group of Little Bustard and a couple of small groups of Great Bustards. After dry winters the area simply fails to attract many of these steppic birds as breeders in spring, as in 2012, but with the abundant rains since last autumn, the area should be excellent for them again in 2013.

While not personally liking the huge, long, poorly accessible and often steeply-sided reservoirs present in C and W Extremadura, despite the large numbers of waterbirds which locally concentrate on them at times, the Presa del Zújar rarely fails to stop me! A movement in the water below the dam revealed yet another large Otter, which fished successfully until I left!

Embalse-del-Cubilar © John MuddemanEmbalse del Cubilar + Sierra de Guadalupe behind© John MuddemanI didn’t delay too long though, since after having spent so long in winter in Extremadura (i.e. 3 days!), almost without seeing Common Cranes, I wanted to really see and hear some, and in quantity! The Moheda Alta ‘Periurban Park’ lay sufficiently close en route to warrant a visit and after a sneaky check of the small reservoir there (to avoid disturbing wildfowl on it or cranes nearby) the first of a few thousand cranes started appearing. A Black-winged Kite, a Rock Bunting and 56 Common Pochard on the reservoir weren’t bad either!

I also wanted to end at what I consider to be one of THE best birding sites in Extremadura, so I took a short-cut along the Canal de las Dehesas… A rather bizarre situation exists in Extremadura regarding access onto canal roads which are maintained by the water authority. Any roads of this sort, covering hundreds or even possibly thousands of km in length, are signposted as no entry for unauthorised vehicles. And yet, they are the only means of accessing many areas, including such sites attracting visitors, such as the Embalse de los Canchales near Mérida, amongst others, and the signs are there so that in the case of accident, the authority cannot be held liable.

Spanish-Sparrows © John MuddemanPart of a huge flock of Spanish Sparrows
Passer hispaniolensis
© John Muddeman
The route took me first to the attractive Embalse del Cubilar, where moderate numbers of a range of duck species were present, though nothing special was noting on this occasion, then past the much larger and completely empty Embalse de Ruecas, then along another good stretch of the Canal de las Dehesas (complete with various groups of cranes, Iberian Magpies and Grey Shrikes, etc.), almost to my goal, the Embalse de Sierra Brava. First publicly discovered as a remarkable wintering site for dabbling duck in January 2002, when by chance I chose it when participating in the winter wildfowl census, it has held up to a staggering 120 thousand wintering wildfowl at times and set in extensive pseudosteppe is naturally very attractive to a much wider range of species. That first visit netted me 5 or 6 different geese species in one go, including a vagrant Red-breasted…

Before reaching it though, an area of rice fields off to one side was literally alive with birds. A huge flock of Spanish Sparrows was almost constantly and noisily on the move just in front, and down below them hundreds of Common Cranes and Greylag Geese were feeding in the stubble of the rice paddies. With dusk approaching it was a treat to just stand and watch the comings and goings of a tremendous Casas-de-Hito © John MuddemanGreylag Geese and Common Cranes feed in the rice
fields N of the Casas de Hito thermo-solar plant
© John Muddeman
number of birds, yet remarkably, despite at least 1500 Greylags being present, not a single other goose species could be found. While all other geese species are very scarce at best, the presence in Extremadura around this time of a small group of Greater White-fronted, plus single Canada, Barnacle, Bean and Pink-footed Geese, meant I went through them a couple of times. But the stubble was high and made seeing many, which were scattered and even sleeping, almost impossible. A Spoonbill which pitched in to feed was also good. The bizarre background formed by a 400ha thermo-solar energy plant, located on what was the second-largest roost of Common Cranes in Western Europe until a year or so ago, was a shock for me to see for the first time.

I finally left via the dam road, taking a quick look out over the reservoir, where thousands of distant ducks were present (largely Northern Shoveler, as always) and headed home.

Winter in Extremadura is remarkable bird-wise, yet bizarrely remains largely off the radar for visiting birdwatchers suffering the vagaries of poor weather in N Europe. In just 3 ½ days, despite far more time spent driving than wanted, I recorded 118 species, including 14 species of raptor (including Black-winged Kite, Cinereous & Griffon Vultures, Spanish Imperial and Bonelli's Eagles), Little Bittern, Purple Swamphen, large numbers of Common Cranes, Great & Little Bustards, Black-bellied & Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Iberian Magpie, Hornachos © John MuddemanPart of the bird-rich Sierra Grande de Hornachos
with the town below and castle above
© John Muddeman
Iberian Grey Shrike, Spotless Starling, Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Spanish and Rock Sparrows, Common Waxbill, Red Avadavat, Alpine Accentor and Rock Bunting as probably the most characteristic for the region. Add to this two different Otter sightings and the mother and three young Egyptian Mongoose, and it's clear that this really is a very special area.

So why not come and join me there, either on a Tailor-made Trip, or on one of my regular tours, either in March to combine Coto Doñana with Extremadura, just Extremadura in April, or Extremadura plus the Gredos mountains? I am also preparing options for winter tours to Extremadura in late autumn and winter, so if you are interested, please drop me line via the link on my personal page, and I'll happily keep you informed of developments.

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