Spain: Birds & Wine
Aug 28 – Sept 10, 2018
Itinerary at a glance:
Days 1-4: Extremadura
Days 5-8: Doñana area
Days 9-14: Strait of Gibraltar
Days 1-4, Extremadura Leg:
After arriving on different flights from the US, many of the group opted for several days of rest prior to the start of the tour. Our maiden ‘Spain: Birds & Wine’ tour officially began with the group being picked up from their respective hotels in Madrid on the morning of Aug 28. With everyone present and accounted for, we made our way out of the capital and towards Extremadura, a region known for its remoteness, low population density, and spectacular birdlife. To break up the drive we stopped by Arrocampo for the trip’s first birding. Though ours was an afternoon visit, we found it quite productive with many of the species typical of wetlands being present – Great Cormorant, Western Swamphen, Water Rail, Eurasian Coot, Cetti’s Warbler, Eurasian Reed Warbler and others. Several Purple Herons gave us quick flyby looks before a far more obliging juvenile landed in a close tree, allowing for prolonged scope views. The raptor selection was also quite good here with Eurasian Griffon, Cinereous & Egyptian Vultures, Red Kite, and Common Buzzard all being spotted. Given the time of year and day, the heat forced us back to our air-conditioned vehicle sooner rather than later, and we continued on to Viña las Torres, our quiet, rural Extremadura accommodation.
After checking in, our group was free to spend the afternoon however they wished – exploring the grounds, taking a siesta, having a dip in the pool, or all of these things! Many of us did meet back up for a little evening birding as well to find quite a few firsts for the trip right in the garden, including soaring Booted Eagles, Eurasian Hoopoe, Iberian Chiffchaff, plus Great, Eurasian Blue, and Long-tailed Tits. Certainly a highlight was sighting our first European Bee-eaters, first soaring and chirping overhead, then perched on a wire in full sun – truly spectacular! Dinner (and each successive meal here) was absolutely fantastic, consisting of homegrown & local ingredients compiled by Belen, our wonderful host, and a wide variety of delicious wine (especially the night of our formal wine tasting). After each dinner we were treated to a musical performance by Belen’s children, Marina and Alejandro, as a piano and clarinet duet – a perfect way to end each night!
Over the next few days we explored a variety of hotspots throughout Extremadura, searching primarily for plains specialties. We found nearly all of them in the plains of Santa Marta de Magasca on just our 2nd day. An early morning visit did the trick, allowing us to get in and out before it got too hot. Our first stop turned up a multitude of Iberian Magpies (previously known as Azure-winged Magpie), Corn Buntings, and the beautiful Spanish Sparrow, as well as a nice variety of larks (Calandra, Crested, and Thekla’s). After a little searching, we managed to find both Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse as well, with several small flocks flying right over our heads in great morning light. The bustards proved even trickier to find, but we finally found a couple Great Bustards and single Little Bustard, which turned out to be the only one of the trip. By lunchtime we had added Montagu’s Harrier, several Lesser Kestrels, and 4 majestic Spanish Eagles to the day’s haul.
The picnic lunches, which we were treated to on most days, were amazing, with the usual spread consisting of: fresh-baked breads, salad with a drizzling of organic olive oil (from the can with the Little Owl on it!), famous jamon Iberico (Iberian Ham), a variety of some of the most delicious cheese we had ever tasted (including melt-in-your-mouth blue cheese, plus a funky, world cup winning cheese that left our taste buds buzzing), Spanish omelette (also known as Spanish tortilla), and last but not least, alioli, a garlic mayo spread which could safely be applied to anything. With various chocolates for dessert, and a nice selection of red & white wines, lunch was without a doubt one of the highlights of our trip.
Next up was a full day spent in the excellent Monfragüe National Park, an area characterized by a long, mountainous ridge bisected east-west by the river Tagus. The cliffs here harbor good numbers of Eurasian Griffons, and we saw many both perched and soaring. Other raptors abounded here as well, giving us a good primer for what awaited us down in the Straits, with Cinereous & Egyptian Vultures, Short-toed, Booted, and Spanish Eagles, and the Mediterranean race of Peregrine Falcon being spotted. Eurasian Crag-Martins were numerous and the wonderful songs of Eurasian Wrens bounced off the rocks and cliffs, making them hard to locate. Several Blue Rock Thrushes and Black Redstarts perched conspicuously on the tops of rocks, while a smart Subalpine Warbler sang from a shrub and obliged us with fantastic looks.
It was back to the plains the following day, this time to Campo Lugar. In addition to obtaining more excellent views of both Sandgrouse and Great Bustards, we found our first Northern Wheatears of the trip, plus White Wagtail, Whinchat, and both Iberian Gray and Woodchat Shrikes. A surprise was a small group of Lesser Short-toed Larks, a rarity at this location and time of year. A small pond turned up a nice selection of shorebirds including Common & Green Sandpipers, and Little Ringed Plovers, as well as a Common Kingfisher, a tiny, brilliant blue dart of a bird - quite different than our Belted Kingfisher back in the States.
After bidding farewell to Belen and her family at Viña las Torres, it was time to head south to Andalucía and Doñana National Park. We made our final stop in Extremadura at the Roman bridge in Merida with the hope of finding Eurasian Penduline-Tit. Though our search was unsuccessful, we added loads of new ‘trip birds’ to our list including Alpine Swift, Black-headed Gull, Little Bittern, Willow Warbler, and Common Waxbill.
Days 5-8, Doñana Leg:
We arrived to the unique village of El Rocío in the afternoon, allowing plenty of time for everyone to have a siesta at our wonderful hotel, Palacio Doñana. A few of us opted to explore the sandy streets, which to this day are still lined with hitching posts, and take in the scenery. From the hotel, it was only a short walk to the picturesque El Rocío marsh and adjoining boardwalk. Conditions are generally quite dry this time of year, but the marsh can still productive. While much of the water had indeed receded to a few distant pools and puddles, a wide area of flats was exposed. Here we found hundreds of Red & Fallow Deer grazing through the dry marsh, and concentrated around the shrunken pools were flocks of shorebirds. Though distant, our group had scope views of Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Northern Lapwing, Kentish Plover, Common & Little Ringed Plovers, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, Common & Green Sandpipers, Sanderling, Dunlin, Little Stint, and Collared Pratincoles – all on our short walk to dinner!
Dinners for the next 3 nights were at Toruño, and were unsurprisingly delicious. Each night we dined outside in close proximity to a thousand-year-old olive tree, tasting a good variety of traditional Andalucían dishes and local sherry. While every meal was worthy of mentioning in vivid detail, it was perhaps a single dessert that stood out the most. Made in the likeness of a flamingo, its base was cognac-soaked cake, under layers of ice cream, sliced strawberries, a dousing of whip cream, and a heavy drizzling of strawberry glaze. Judging by the rate at which our group devoured it, one might think we had altogether skipped dinner!
Over the next few days we explored the many habitats that Doñana has to offer, from the marshes and heath to the stone pine woodlands. A morning drive through the heath turned up a perched Black Kite, several Hoopoes and Bee-eaters, and a few quick, in-flight glimpses of Dartford Warblers as they dived from grass clump to grass clump. Much of the remaining part of the morning was spent on the woodland trails, and we found several different mixed flocks of good diversity. Spotted Flycatchers were all over, as were Short-toed Treecreepers. For warblers we had Western Bonelli’s, Garden, Sardinian, Greater Whitethroat, and of course Iberian Chiffchaff and Cetti’s. Most notable was an encounter with a Wryneck, an odd and cryptic old World member of the woodpecker family. Getting good looks at Eurasian Golden Oriole, Cirl Bunting, and Black-eared Wheatear were also quite memorable.
A late morning check of the opposite side of the El Rocío marsh produced a nice selection, including our first ducks of the trip - the expected Mallard plus Common & Red-crested Pochards. Here we also had great looks at several Squacco Herons (which the group redubbed as ‘Butterscotch Heron’) and Black-crowned Night-Herons. An Egyptian Mongoose stole the show however, wandering out from its hiding place and tentatively through the water toward the ducks. It did not however stay out in the open for long, and soon fled back to cover.
Thankfully, our good luck with seeing mammals in Doñana would continue. The following day we boarded our 4WD bus that would take us through the national park’s best areas to search for the endangered Iberian Lynx. This is one of the rarest cats in the world with only about 300 individuals still living in Andalucía. We found plenty of Red-legged Partridge as well as European Hares, the primary food sources for the lynx. We had searched all morning and were just about to call it quits when our driver spotted a snoozing male under a tree. Eventually we all got pretty good looks as the lynx woke, groomed himself a bit, and then ambled off to denser cover. This being one of our main targets for the trip, we were thrilled to have had this encounter and to have observed one for so long. Some visiting groups never get to see one!
On our final afternoon, we stopped at the Jose Antonio Valverde Visitor Center, finding hundreds of Glossy Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbills, and Little Egrets. A small group of Whiskered Terns flew low over a pool stuffed with Great Crested Grebes, Eurasian Green-winged Teal and Eurasian Coots, and we had our first Zitting Cistolas of the trip as well.
Days 9-14, Straits Leg:
The following morning we bade El Rocío farewell and began the final stage of our trip, heading south to the Strait of Gibraltar. On the way, we made a couple of stops in the Bonanza area, on the southernmost edge of Doñana. A collection of several small lagoons held gobs of the stunning White-headed Duck & Marbled Teal, plus 1 each of Northern Shoveler and Garganey. After a bit of scanning, we eventually found a single Red-knobbed Coot, another primary target, and got good scope views of the red knobs on top of the shield. Over at the salt pans we added Slender-billed Gulls, Lesser Black-backed & Yellow-legged Gulls, and an Osprey. Lunch was a special treat today - a wonderful spread at a small-scale salt farm in the Bay of Cadiz. There was course after course of shrimp fritters, sliced tomato, chorizo stew, and oysters, and we all probably ate way too much. After lunch, we were given a tour of the pans. Here the salt is harvested via low impact methods, thus maintaining prime habitat for shrimp and other invertebrates which provide important food sources for birds & other wildlife. Though it was the middle of the afternoon and getting hot, we still managed to find birds, including a few Little Terns diving for shrimp in the canals.
Our visit to the Strait was timed for peak raptor migration, and the goal was to experience it to the fullest. Our base at Huerta Grande perfectly positioned us to do just that, and over the course of our stay we moved between designated watch points as weather and wind conditions necessitated in order to witness the spectacular movements of hundreds to thousands of raptors. The Straits provide an ideal crossing point for migrating raptors traversing the Mediterranean every spring and fall, and thanks to the knowledge of our local guides, we were nearly always in the right place at the right time to view southbound birds. Each day saw us treated to squadrons of European Honey-Buzzards, easily the most numerous raptor of our trip with daily counts regularly exceeding several hundred, and droves of Black Kites also were going through. Huge kettles of these 2 species would be interspersed with smaller numbers of Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Egyptian Vulture, Montagu’s and Eurasian Marsh-Harriers, and Peregrine Falcon. Aside from seeing the sheer number of raptors moving through, there were a few moments at the raptor watch points that stood above the rest – observing a Bonelli’s Eagle swoop on a Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, ripping out several of its secondaries; and having the rare Ruppell’s Vulture soar low over our heads at Cazalla.
Though our focus was certainly on raptors down in the Straits, there was plenty else to do, and not every moment of our day was spent scanning the skies. We spent the better part of a day exploring La Janda, a large wetland turned farmland on the outskirts of Vejer de la Frontera. Though a mere shadow of its former self, the area still represents an important stop over area for birds crossing the Mediterranean with its collection of pastures, rice paddies, marshy canals, and olive groves. It’s an excellent place for raptors, egrets, ibis, sparrows and other birds of the open country and marshland. We found all these and more, encountering another Iberian specialty and one of our main targets, the Black-winged Kite. An afternoon over at the ecologically rich salt pans at Barbate turned up several new birds, including Eurasian Thick-knee, Eurasian Curlew, Greater Short-toed Lark, and both Mediterranean and Audouin’s Gulls.
Our boat trip in the Straits was certainly a highlight and was saved for the calmest of days. Indeed, conditions were near-perfect and the water was beautiful and placid. Soon after leaving the port and entering the Strait, flying fish began leaping alongside the boat and gliding over the surface. A few Cory’s Shearwaters allowed for some closer views, but many remained distant. Several pods of Bottlenose Dolphin came in close and swam in the boat’s wake, often surfacing right alongside, giving us wonderful views. To top it all off, a few Long-finned Pilot-Whales approached as well, gently broaching the surface with their short snouts and swept back dorsal fins.
The final 2 days were fairly relaxed and spent mopping up, looking for things we had so far missed while also giving folks a chance to explore on their own. The grounds of Huerta Grande turned out to be quite productive and we had great looks at Crested Tit and Common Chaffinch coming in to the feeders. European Robins were common and we found several Firecrests around as well. A vocal Tawny Owl was heard by nearly everyone for several consecutive nights and an afternoon walk around the property produced quite a few Eurasian Blackcaps, Sardinian Warbler, and European Serin. On the last full day, part of our group explored the castle in Tarifa while the rest of us spent the morning at the intertidal habitat at Los Lances. Shorebirds were plentiful and while many of them had already been seen by the group, it was a pleasure to see so many. We did add a single Bar-tailed Godwit foraging in the marsh and several distant Balearic Shearwaters flying offshore. Wrapping up the day, a special vegetarian dinner at a secluded, organic farm on the coast was both memorable and delicious, providing insight into how changing one’s diet and supporting sustainable land management & farming practices can have a positive impact on birds and wildlife. As if we weren’t satisfied enough, an added after dinner treat was watching a Little Owl dining on grasshopper in the middle of the road while driving out.
Of course, any birding visit to the Strait of Gibraltar must include an attempt to see the once critically-endangered Northern Bald Ibis. These strange looking and aptly-named birds were once widespread across the Middle East, Northern Africa, and southern and central Europe, but completely disappeared from Europe over 300 years ago. Today, a large proportion of the total remaining population is in Morocco (~500 birds), and reintroduction programs in Spain & Turkey have been successful enough to recently downgrade the conservation status from ‘critically-endangered’ to ‘endangered.’ After a previously unsuccessful attempt, we finally found 14 of them grazing on the lawn of a golf course with 50+ Eurasian Jackdaws. Their odd appearance was the object of much discussion in our group (are they ugly or are they beautiful?) and we spent quite a while watching them before heading back to Huerta Grande for the evening.
Alas – before we knew it, our 2 week trip had come to an end! An early departure from Huerta Grande on our final morning had us on the road to Malaga before sunrise. We had time for one last birding stop, and without getting out of the van we managed a few quick glimpses of flyby Monk Parakeets at a Malaga golf course before heading to the airport for our flights back to Madrid.
Needless to say – our maiden Venture to Spain was a great success! We finished with 175 species, a respectable tally considering the laid-back nature of the trip. Many thanks must go out to Simon & Niki of Inglorious Bustards, our fantastic local guides, and also to our group of clients, whose collective sense of humor contributed much laughter to what was a truly wonderful and memorable trip.
Species Encountered on our Spain: Birds & Wine Tour
Aug 28 – Sept 10, 2018
Green-winged (Eurasian) Teal
Great Crested Grebe
Northern Bald Ibis
Common Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Iberian Gray Shrike
Eurasian Golden Oriole
Greater Short-toed Lark
Lesser Short-toed Lark
Eurasian Blue Tit
Western Bonelli’s Warbler
Eurasian Reed Warbler
Western Yellow Wagtail
Long-finned Pilot Whale
Mediterranean Flying Fish
Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
Reptiles and Amphibians:
Iberian Pond Tortoise
Iberian Wall Lizard
Butterflies & Moths