Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Here we go....occasional birding in Spain

Yes, I know it's not a Blue Chaffinch but an Azure-winged magpie, but until I get a decent picture of the fabled Fringilla of the Fortunate Isles it'll have to do....

As I am currently the only person on the planet who knows of this blog's existence I am in effect talking to myself. Oh well. I intend to update this blog as and when I can be arsed, which is likely to be once every week or less, or more likely whenever I've got something exciting to share which will be even less frequently.

Anyway, hopefully it will blossom into the no1 birdy blog thing on the interweb and as long as it's more interesting than that cider-eating worzel from Somerset's one I'll be happy! Sorry Joe, it's just cos I'm jealous.

OK...latest news..a week long trip to the birding Mecca of Extremadura, Spain. Being an occasional birder and travelling naturalist I managed a total of 8 new birds in amongst some archaeology, jamon serrano, vino tinto y cerveza.

Having been to most provinces of Spain at one time or another, Extremadura was the one place I'd been wanting to get to for many years...so finally took the opportunity and took kit bag and tent over for a week. The plan was to mooch about visiting a few sites and hopefully catch up with a number of species that had so far eluded me on previous wanderings. In the end, I did manage to see most of the desired bunch, but the buzz of seeing some really unusual bird assemblages was what made the biggest impression. So much space!

Here's a few nice pics from among the many hundreds that I took...

Black, white and red all-over

White storks in abundance..crazy birds and rather grotty looking. Plenty of chicks too, this one appears to need some more frogs or small birds.

Their bill clapping, especially around towns such as Toledo and Trujillo, really is a very cool sound..beats bloody pigeons or Herring gulls any day.

Whilst in Caceres, found an SEO exhibition about bird conservation and got the chance to climb to the top of a 14th C tower to look down on approx 20 nests, with Lesser kestrels wheeling overhead.

A bit more impressive however were the Black storks seen on the nest at the famous Parque Nacional de Monfrague...perhaps the ultimate raptor site in Europe?

This pair were observed from the viewing platform opposite Penfalcon, and share their craggy abode with dozens of breeding Griffon vultures, a pair of Peregrines, Blue rock thrushes, Crag martins and Rock buntings. Flyby species also included Cattle egret, Black vulture, Egyptian vulture (seemed to be the star of the show for the Spanish birders), Common and Alpine swift, House martin, Barn and Red-rumped swallow.

The sight of a huge circling mass of vultures, storks and hirundines is something else....


What an awesome National Park... a proper Park with absolutely zero public access over most of the area, unlike our supposed NP's in the UK (tea and scones anybody?). The undisturbed habitat pays off in the form of the largest concentrations of raptors in Europe, plus some stunning examples of maquis / matorral and dehesa habitat, full of the most amazing wildflowers (May/June seems to be the time of Composites, with each road verge and meadow a sea of every conceivable shade of yellow, punctuated by purple Echiums). Add to this a near complete guild of mammals, including pardel lynx, and an abundance of invertebrates, herps and fishes..and you have a truly breathtaking wildlife experience.

Don't go on Sundays...

I should've learnt by now. Sundays and Spaniards means party time and lots of noise (can they ever talk quietly?!) Thinking that an a.m. walk up to the Castillo de Monfrague would present a peaceful way to spend our first day in the Park, the wife and I bimbled up from Fuente de Frances to the Castillo...only to find the top thronging with folk and a fiesta in full swing. To the sound of religious chanting and kids screaming we headed straight down the perilous steps, passing the brass band on their way up (sax, trumpet, trombone and drum), and took a look at the prehistoric cave paintings in the small cave nearby. Very impressive, with red ochre animals, humans and abstracts ranging from the palaeolithic to the just-pre-Roman...some of the figures seemed to have several penises.

Salto de Tietar

With the wife getting twitchy about the many groups of weird birdy-types that seemed to be popping up everywhere (can spot those Brits a mile off!), we headed a few K's up the Tietar valley to the famous Salto de Tietar viewing platform. From here you can get unrivalled views of Griffons on the nest, plus Black storks with young, and we had a magnificently low-flying Black vulture ( I swear it was looking right at me).
A very small and very Iberian bod from Salamanca proved to be a real asset (and a bloody nice bloke) in spotting the real highlight..."Buho real!" he said. After a couple of seconds I realised he was of course looking at an Eagle owl! Superb bird, even better as it has a mature chick just below it! Could've been in Yorkshire! No, hang on, cos Eagle owls can't possibly be a proper British bird can they? I mean it's not like they regularly fly over the Alps or anything, so how could they possibly cross the North sea? Silly me. Spot the owl....

A view looking back towards Salto de Gitano, showing the amazing flora comprised mainly of various Composites, with Adenocarpus scrub and Quercus suber woodland. With sound, we would be able to hear the brass band going for it and the mad git screaming through the loud speaker from the Castillo.

Below, some kind of broomrape Orobanche growing in the cork oak scrub below the Castillo...not sure which species as yet.

Western clubtail Gomphus pulchellus

The woodland and scrub surrounding the Castillo held innumerable insects, far too many to identify well (beyond my expertise anyway), including blues, fritillaries, Two-tailed pasha (a stunning butterfly) and Western clubtail. Didn't even begin on the grasshoppers and crickets!

Great quaking grass Briza maxima


It's not every day you get to spend time in one of the great cultural landscapes of Europe (besides the New Forest) and the vast expanses of wood-pasture covering most of Extremadura are certainly worth seeing. The drive from our campsite to Monfrague took us through some prime dehesa habitat and particularly in that amber evening light they looked stunning. The images below really do not do it justice...

The Joy of Camping...

It's fair to say I wasn't that enamoured with the idea of spending a week on the sun-baked pseudo-steppes of Iberia waking up with a puffy face under a rain of condensation, or getting cornered by a spider. Maybe some lovely rural casa forestal I thought, with a cheery Spanish host who brews his own and has bustards in his garden. No. The wife suggested camping. Meaning we had to take our 4 man tent and all the associated bits on the plane, including her very dodgy-looking super-duper high pressure stove that runs on anything remotely flammable (presumably post-beer wee?).

As it turns out, the missus is a genius. It's not that I'm averse to camping per se, just that I'd waited a long time for this trip and wanted not to have to worry about scrimping it as usual. Anyway, the campsite near Monfrague was a bonus find. Hardly anyone else there, besides motorhome-driving Dutch bods, and excellent facilities.

Taming the beast...

Perhaps the most alluring thing about this campsite is the wealth of wildlife, especially the mobs of Azure-winged magpies. Initially I got rather carried away with taking photos, but by the end of the week we had them eating bread off my feet! One morning I came back from my ablutions to find that one of the devils had tried to eat the wife whist I was away.

After an epic struggle, I managed to defeat the Monster Magpie of Monfrague. Is that slight emargination on P4?

Needless to say I wasn't having it and managed to throw a sheet over the dangerous beast and then grab it in that semi-mystical 'Ringer's Grip', last seen being used by Giant Haystacks on World of Sport in 1981. Where's a C ring when you need it?

The magpies became a regular feature of our mornings and evenings, eating anything we threw at them including bread, sausage, stew and cherries.

The chainlink fence is not exactly the most photogenic perch on which to frame this superb species, but that's where they were.

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