Saturday 22 August 2009

Costa Brava (+ Llieda Steppes and Los Monegros) Catalunya, Aragon Spain - 10th-22nd August 2009

For the fourth year in a row, I spent my family summer holiday in the Costa Brava of Catalunya. I must stress the term 'family holiday'. I have to fit my birding in around the family activities so luckily I am blessed with an area that is simply incredible for birds with 2 national parks with a huge variety of habitats and therefore a variety of species.

10th August
We flew in the afternoon from Liverpool John Lennon with Ryan Air to Barcelona (Gerona) and picked up a Ford Focus estate from the airport and headed off to Pau, near Roses. Obviously this meant we arrived mid-late afternoon so there was little possibilty of birdwatching so I had to make do with birding from the balcony. I ended the day on 26 for the trip, with Raven, Pallid Swift, Black Redstart and Woodchat Shrike being the most interesting birds.

11th August
Waking up at 7, I headed up the hill behind the house towards Mas Ventos (a small picknick site at the top of a large hill near to San Pere de Rodes - see August 2008 report). On the journey I added Red Backed Shrike, Dartford Warbler and Hoopoe. At Mas Ventos itself, it wasn't as exciting as last year but I did note Pied Flycatcher and Crested Tit
Pau Village

Woodchat Shrike
Male Red Veined Darter

At the Top of the hill, I noted what appeared to be a flood in the valley between Roses and Empuriabrava so, in the Afternoon, I went to look for it with my dad with little success so, we decided to give up and head to Mas Mata on the Aigiamolls reserve, but here there was almost no water which was a little dissapointing, with only a few waders and a couple of passerines recorded. Of other interest there were hundreds of Red Veined Darter and c5 Lesser Emperor Dragonfly which were two species that caused excitment at my local patch of Brockholes Quarry. about 45 minutes before the sunset, heading back from a game of Mini golf in Empuriabrava, I noted 4 Audouin's Gull flying out towards the coast over the south of Roses.
12th August
A Family Trip to l'Escala and the Roman/Greek ruins at St. Marti allowed an addition to my spain list of Long Tailed Tit. A very hot day prevented any proper birdwatching

13th August
Today saw my first trip to Estany de Europa, which is a set of pools and reed beds next to a sewage plant, so the rich smell of vegatable soup was ever present and remained in your nose for a day or two... this trip was at dusk and allowed us to see the Night Herons waking up with an estimated 25-30 individuals, probably quite a lot more with several birds calling from far around. Most of the birds were immature birds with only 4 birds identified as adults. With about 10 minutes before we left, a male Little Bittern flew up out of the reeds and was seen for only 3 seconds or so but seeing as this was only my second little bittern and my first male, it was a superb bird to see and one of the highlights of the trip! In the Car Park before we left, I observed at least 4 Bedstraw Hawkmoths flying around the rather bright street lamps.
immature Night Heron
Rio Muga running into the Med

14th August
A Family Trip to Barcelona saw lots of sightseeing and few birds, however we visited the Barcelona Zoo(Parc de la Ciutadella) and could hardly think without the sound of Monk Parakeet, Ring Necked Parakeet and another Species which I havn't had a positive ID of yet, but a name is all that is required as I had good views of several occasions of the species. One very interesting thing was a Crested Tit that was bathing in the same pool that a Cheetah was drinking from! In the evening I was dropped off near to Sitges, to the south of Barcelona, at Stephen Christophers house, as I was to spend Saturday around the Lleida Steppes with Catalan Bird Tours. After I arrived we quickly headed off to a local site that Stephen knew for Red Necked Nightjar. With it being late in the season, he was unsure whether they would still be displaying or even here, but c10 minutes after sun set, a pigeon sized bird flew gracefully above us with Stephen announcing that this was the bird in question. The view was only brief but certainly left an impression and a hunger to see more. shortly followed by this was a clapping noice and I saw the bird in the distance displaying! It didn't show after this but I was pleased with what I experienced and I am sure I briefly heard 'Si-Boc si-boc si-boc' of the RNN. At the same site, the churring of European Nightjar could be heard but sadly, this species was never located by site.

15th August
An early start on Saturday morning allowed us to get to our first site, Alfes (Where the birds are in northeast Spain, sitemap 11). Here we were searching for Pin tailed Sandgrouse and Little Bustard. Before long, we were seeing species that made the late summer evident and the winter soon to be present with large flocks of Red Billed Chough (seeing a flock of chough on arable land to a British Birder is a very strange experience).
Red Billed Chough

Stephens experience of the area soon stood out and spotted 2 sandgrouse in a seemingly empty field of chopped Wheat(?). There were infact 4 Pin Tailed Sandgrouse present (male, female and 2 chicks) and showed at a very pleasing distance but were difficult to photograph with such cryptic colours. Progression around the large site I spotted my first European Southern Grey Shrike, and 5 Stone Curlew in a field.
Pin Tailed Sandgrouse
Stone Curlew

We Spent a long time at the site, but no bustards were evident so we decided in the ever increasing heat to move to our second site with 1 of the 3 main targets ticked. This site was Los Monegros, in Aragon meaning we would pass into 'real' Spain. Driving along the various farm tracks, Stephen announced 'Little Bustards!' as several flashes of white were picked out behind some rather dry trees. 11 Little Bustards were in a fabulous flock and landed only 100 meters or so away from where the car flushed them. We parked in some shade and got out slowly to the sound of some very angry Hobby! 3 birds were in the air calling frantically meaning we were obviously near to their nest. I spotted several heads moving about in the long grass ahead so we moved closer to try and catch the bird in the open. After a short while, they took flight. A useful tip that Stephen taught me for Steppe Birds was to count them each time they take flight incase some stay on the ground. This time, it proved to be reliable as only 9 took flight, leaving two on the ground. Again we advanced and 1 more took flight whistling. This was the male as they have an elongated wing feather that creates a whistling note in flight, which is thought to keep a flock together. Soon followed by the female who was silent in flight.
Los Monegros
8 of 11 Little Bustard

After the Bustards we moved through the area into more suitable Black Bellied Sandgrouse habitat and picked up several Ringtailed Montagu's Harrier soaring unusually high for a harrier, but soon we spotted some small larks in a field, which turned out to be Short Toed Larks, and a Male Montagu's Harrier floated by looking incredible! The Larks were a nice addition to my spanish list.
Yellow Wing Tagged Male Montagu's Harrier
Field of Short Toed Larks

We Arrived at one of very few pools of water in the seemingly empty land and in it held thousands of Ruddy Darter, Red Veined Darter, Keeled Skimmer and 2 Emperor Dragonfly. Next to the pool was a derelict 'shack' which I think had been overtaken by some Hoopoe! There were at least 6 in there. Also there were at least 1 Spectacled Warbler in the scrub. Watering Hole
I'll give it to you Stephen, You did take me to some simply incredible scenery!
juv Woodchat Shrike

It was getting hotter and hotter and at one point over lunch reaching 39oC! It was becoming a little frustrating that we just couldnt find any Black Bellied Sandgrouse, but we stopped on a track because Stephen said it looked good for sandgrouse. He scanned in the field for a while (I was pre-occupied with 5 Griffon Vultures moving overhead) and then announced that he had two sandgrouse flying! I quickly got onto the birds in flight noted very few features to seperate them from Pin Tailed except their call, a very warm bubbling. Moving on again we passed an olive grove and flushed at least 8 Stone Curlew, probably a lot more, and then a little further on I spotted two Black Bellied Sandgrouse that took off from the ground and landed only 100 meters away. There was a lot of heat haze but scope views were excellent showing off their black belly and the wonderful olive green back of the male. Incredibly I was watching the female and then she sat down and disappeared completely from view!
Field with male a female Black Bellied Sandgrouse

With 3/3 targets successfully found and most features noted we headed back towards Llieda stopping off for some Raptors on the way with Booted Eagle, Short Toed Eagle, Black Kite, Marsh Harrier, Griffon Vulture, Common Buzzard, Lesser Kestrel, Common Kestrel and Montagu's Harrier all being seen well. The Marsh Harrier was a very very dark juv looking almost velvet intexture similar to the melanistic/dark morph Monty's.
pale phase Booted Eagle
Back at Alfes we headed to the Dump to see if we could see the Egyptian Vulture that occasionally hunts in the area. Sadly this species didnt get on my list but a couple of pale morph juv Bonelli's Eagle gave some excitement. The great thing about the dump is the huge number of birds with almost 200 Black Kites present and several hundred white stork.
just of few of c200 Black Kite
a small percentage of White Stork at the dump

After a short time at the dump we headed back into the steppes at Alfés and pretty swiftly we spotted the 4 sandgrouse that we saw at the start of the day on the middle of the track. I was told that this species (unlike Black Bellied) is very approachable in the car...I was not mistaken and with the photo's below, you can see what I mean! FANTASTIC
family party of Pin Tailed Sandgrouse (2 juv)
male Pin Tailed Sandgrouse
closer still
even closer and a true privelage to be in such close contact with such a beautiful species.

We Headed after the 4 birds retreated, further into the site to look for Calandra lark and a roosting Red Necked Nightjar that Stephen knows is regularly there in the summer. Before long we arrived and got out of the car to look in the sites that he knew, but no sign. a little further from the car and a bird took flight, it was a nightjar showing the characteristic white patches in the wing and low flight but at the same time, rufous feathering on the back clinched Red Necked - A Bonus that I wasn't expecting after the night before's bird. We then stalked the bird as we saw where it had landed and I tried to get a record shot...You can see in the photo below that I was excited with the shake...sorry about that, the light was very poor under a tree so the shutter was slow.
Red Necked Nightjar
Western Bonelli's Warbler

At the same site we saw Western Bonelli's Warbler which I wasn't expecting but no Calandra Lark!
After this we headed back towards Sitges stopping off to try some species I needed on my spain list but in the 4.00pm heat very few birds were evident.
I ended the tour with 59 species which I was pleased with as late summer in such an arid landscape would turn up over 50 species. At the end of the trip, I was dropped off at Sitges station and I got the train to Gracia and changed to get to Figueres...thats the short story, the long story has a whole load of muck ups at Gracia station causing me to be lost in Barcelona for several hours and only just catching the last train of the day, but on a lighter note, these expeciences will help me grow haha
Thank you Stephen for an excellent I will remember for a long time

16th August

After the memorable and very tiring day, Sunday was quite a lazy day but I managed to get a trip to a local reservoir to the villa in Pau where many thousand Yellow Legged Gulls bathe. Also present were c50 black headed gull, a single Med gull, little grebe, great crested grebe aswell as some lovely dragonfly (Violet Dropwing for example) and some damselfly, which I think are Common Blue, but could be mistaken. Before I left, a Red Kite flew over, a nice addition.
Me and my Dad did mange to get out and found the flood that I searched for a few days prior. This was a great site with Purple Gallinule, Yellow Wagtail(female and juvs so race was difficult), Sand Martin and most of the wetland bird that would be expected - White Stork, Gulls etc. After a short while, I got the pulse racing with another lifer in the scope - an eclipse drake Ruddy Shelduck across the flood, sadly too far for a record shot. I emailed Ricard Gutiérrez (head of the spanish rare bird commitee, 'Well, those birds are from unknown origin, but they might be well wild birds either coming from E Europe or (perhaps) introduced 'C' category elsewhere. They are not local (Spanish) escapes. I'd count them.
Thanks for the observation. They are no longer rarities in Spain (hence they do not appear in but the record is interesting for local news network and birds in spain blog. All the best.'
17th August - was my Brothers Birding today!

18th August
Little Birding was done, but on the way home from Roses, I got a Lifer at the bottom of my estate with Tawny Pipit feeding in a field!

19th August
The 19th saw me and my dad touring the Costa Brava heading south to a town called Verges. This was to look for Eleonora's Falcon which are suppost to hunt along the river in the summer. Just before entering the town, I saw a bird of prey soaring over a woodland so we made a detour down a track to see what it was - HONEY BUZZARD! There were 3 juveniles and a Common Buzzard soaring over a set of poplar woodlands. I have been trying to see one of these sinse I started listing in 2005.

We had no luck at Verges for the falcon so we decided that our best bet would be to head to the coast towards l'Estartit. We arrived overlooking Medes Island with lots of Pallid Swift and Alpine Swift overhead. After about 30 minutes I suddenly spotted a falcon in the swifts, It was certainly an unusual shape, then a second, then a third, then a fourth. A family party of Eleonora's Falcon which eventually flew across to the island. The views were pretty brief really when they were not flying away but from what I could make out, they were pale morph male, female and 2 juv. This is another species I have always wanted to see, excellent.
Medes Island, l'Estartit
Alpine Swift

After I was happy that they weren't going to come back, we headed off to the Cap de Creus. Heading 'the back way' past San Pere de Rodes, due to my knowledge that I knew Red Rumped Swallow bred at the monestary. Before too long, I heard one and ended up seeing at least 5.

We Headed off to the Lighthouse at the Cap I did a spot of seawatching and soon picked out Cory's Shearwater in an rather empty sea. I would estimate in 30 mins of sea watching, I saw 40 Cory's Shearwater which was very pleasing.

20th August - Family activities...

21st August
Waking up early, me and my dad went to Aiguamolls de l'Emporda for the first time in the holiday. I spotted two Stone Curlew in a ploughed field which showed off their camouflage very well. Unfortunatly, at the Aiguamolls themselves, there was almost no water so I didnt see anything that was anything other than an addition to the trip list e.g. curlew sandpiper. A male Iberiae Yellow Wagtail was a colourful addition to a very poor morning.
Stone Curlew

We headed to Estany de Europa and looked at the sewage pool. A scan produced two excellent species - Squacco Heron, a species that, again, I have always wanted to see, and 4 Ruddy Shelduck. At the other hides I noted Yellow Crowned Bishop (for the second year running), juv Night Heron, Great Reed Warbler.
Squacco Heron
4 Ruddy Shelduck (there are 4 there if you look!)

1000's of Mullet in the Rio Muga.
22nd August
On our final morning, we were having to leave for the airport at 7.45 so all that could be done was sit on the balcony and try to catch any final species. the best that I could come up with was a 'fire crackling' Male Black Redstart that gave a song that I have never yet heard in Britain...Fantastic!

I ended the trip with 139 species which I was very pleased as considering that On a full Birdwatching holiday in April 2008, I got 143 species.

Collins Field Guide taxonomy
Great Crested Grebe
Little Grebe
Cory's Shearwater
Little Bittern
Night Heron
Cattle Egret
Little Egret
Grey Heron
Purple Heron
White Stork
Mute Swan
Ruddy Shelduck
Black Kite
Red Kite
Short-Toed Eagle
Griffon Vulture
Marsh Harrier
Montagu's Harrier
Honey Buzzard
Common Buzzard
Booted eagle
Bonelli's Eagle
Common Kestrel
Lesser Kestrel
Red legged Partridge
Little Bustard
Water Rail
Purple Gallinule
Common Coot
Stone Curlew
Black Winged Stilt
Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Grey Plover
Curlew Sandpiper
Little Stint
Black Tailed Godwit
Wood Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Black Headed Gull
Mediterranean Gull
Audouin's Gull
Yellow Legged Gull
Sandwich Tern
Pin Tailed Sandgrouse
Black Bellied Sandgrouse
Feral Pigeon
Collared Dove
Turtle Dove
Monk Parakeet
Ring Necked Parakeet
Parakeet Sp
Little Owl
Red Necked Nightjar
Alpine Swift
Pallid Swift
Crested Lark
Thekla Lark
Sand Martin
House Martin
Red Rumped Swallow
Tawny Pipit
White Wagtail
Black Redstart
Black Eared Wheatear
Blue Rock Thrush
Sede Warbler
Reed Warbler
Great Reed Warbler
Cetti's Warbler
Fan Tailed Warbler
Melodious Warbler
Sardinian Warbler
Dartford Warbler
Spectacled Warbler
Western Bonelli's Warbler
Willow Warbler
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Crested Tit
Long Tailed Tit
Coal Tit
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Southern Grey Shrike
Red Backed Shrike
Woodchat Shrike
Red Billed Chough
Golden Oriole
Spotless Starling
Rock Sparrow
House Sparrow
Tree Sparrow
Yellow Crowned Bishop
Corn Bunting
Cirl Bunting
Rock Bunting

'Where the birds are in northeast Spain' Steve West
Catalan Bird Tours - the tour company Stephen Christopher runs.
Fylde Bird Club - southern France and northern Spain 1st-10th August 2006 Trip Report
’Finding Birds in North Spain’ by Dave Gosney


Mike Watson said...

Pin-tailed is one of the harder sandgrouse to find these days, nice one! Interesting point re the use of 'phase' vs 'morph'. 'Phase' is a temporary plumage (eg a fulvesecens phase immature Greater Spotted Eagle, will eventually attain normal adult plumage) whereas 'morph' is permanent state (eg pale morph Booted Eagle). Sounds like a great holiday! Keep up the good work. BR Mike

David said...

Costa Brava is a beautiful place with beautiful beaches and night pubs.We can plan for 10 days and enjoy a lot.