Tuesday 4 June 2019

Birding Ronda

Ronda (6th-9th May 2019)

Our last port of call was Ronda. This is another place we had visited before but it is beautiful so worth another visit.
The plan was simple. I'd bird around the gorge before breakfast then for the rest of the day we go for a drive.
The first morning I was out  just after dawn and down to the bridge. The swifts weren't showing and the footpath around the Parador was locked so I wandered south of the bridge intending to go to the Mirador Puente Neuvo de Ronda which sits some 100 feet or so below the bridge. This is the best place for viewing/photographing the early morning swifts because you are often level with the birds. It wasn't to be however because they are reconstructing the path/steps down to the mirador and the way down was barricaded. This was a real disappointment.
I went back up to the bridge and saw the swifts were now beginning to get up but still no sign of any alpines. The footpath around the Parador was now open (opens at 8.00am) I took up position on the corner and watched.
At 8.15 I spotted the alpines, way off west of the bridge and really low - about 40 of them wheeling around together. Over the next 20 minutes they increased in altitude and every now and then surged into the gorge - level with the mirador grhhhh. Their altitude slowly increased until they were level or slightly above where I was standing and one or two came in really close. I took a lot of shots but one particular fly-by was so much closer and the pictures so much better that the rest have been confined to the bin.

Then they were gone. Not one to be seen - they had only been on view for 15 minutes or so.
The next morning was sunny but colder and whilst the alpines did show they were a long way off and disappeared quickly. The last morning was dull and overcast and I didn't see them at all.

Also that first morning I saw a few choughs but they didn't seem to be landing on the bridge the way they did during our previous visit but blue rock thrush, rock sparrow, serin, crag martin, and common swift were seen regularly.
With the absence of the alpines on the other mornings I spent my time concentrating on the east side of the bridge (the sunny side early morning) and managed a few record shots of some of the above species:

A wander through the rose garden that clings to the side of the gorge one afternoon did provide decent images of rock thrush and I even saw a spotted flycatcher but was too slow with the camera.

I did have one very unusual sighting from the bridge whilst I was watching rock sparrows visiting their nest. It was a reed warbler (well I can't think what else it would be). I saw it in the same place on 2 mornings; in a fig tree that was growing out the side of the gorge approx 280 feet above the river and not a reed in sight. If I've mis-identified this can you let me know.

We didn't see many raptors from the town though a booted eagle flew past very close whilst we were lazing around the swimming pool on our last afternoon but I saw it too late and only managed 2 shots before it had disappeared.

Our trips out were to Gratzalema and Zahara. Gratz had griffon vultures residing on the rock face beside the free car park (near the swimming pool) but when they flew past they too close to get the whole bird in shot. The other problem is you are shooting into the sun. From the same vantage point chough could be seen and a melodious warbler was just about in camera range.

Zahara de la Sierra also had a decent number of Griffons and several booted eagles that seemed to be patrolling the lake. The sparrows in the town centre are very tame!

And that's it.
Overall I came back disappointed but writing these reports I think I did ok. This was a family holiday after all and a lot of time was spent sight seeing or just watching the world go by.
So lots of reasons to go back again, especially to Extramadure.

Friday 24 May 2019

Birdwatching El Rocio and Donana (2nd-6th May)

After Trujillo we travelled south, past Seville and onto El Rocio.
We'd had a day visit to El Rocio several years ago but the festival was in full swing and the place was heaving. This time I made sure we missed the festival and we had a 4 nights stay to enjoy the place.
I had planned 3 outings during our stay; a morning visit to the local nature reserves at La Rocina (almost walking distance from the town) and El Acebuche, a drive out to the Jose Antonio Valverde Centre in the middle of the marsh and a trip to Huelva to visit the museum to Christopher Columbus (Muelle de las Carabellas).  Pre-breakfast was spent birding around El Rocio and in general late afternoon was spent around the visitor center watching the heronry.

Our first full day we went to the local reserves to minimise driving after the drive down the previous day.The reserves offer pleasant walks through the largely stone pine forests but as far as bird photography was concerned visiting the hides was a waste of time as they are sited 50+ yards from the water.
During our wanders we did get distant views of hoopoe, somewhat closer views of melodious warbler (one at each reserve) and watched a short-toed tree creeper. There were plenty of serin, goldfinch, chaffinch and blackbird but the serin as normal stayed out of view or very distant. We had a look around the Palacio del Acebron at La Rocina which shows the way people lived in the area in years gone by (well the wealthy ones!)

The highlight of the day was at El Acebuche where we sat and watched the azure-winged magpie coming to apples in the picnic area (Thanks to Wanstead Birder for this tip). We had a return visit after our trip to Huelva. The light was a lot less harsh on this visit and we used the only bait we had available - peanuts. The magpies loved them. I'm sure chopped peanuts would be better than apples because the magpies would have stand around picking up morsels of food rather then fill their beaks with great wads of apple.

Our second outing was to the JAV centre. This is quite a long drive via Villamanrique but on the way we stopped at a place where we'd been shown bee-eaters on our previous visit (we'd been staying at Hinojos). There were loads of bee-eaters. It was "just" a matter of driving up and down the road trying to get close to them perched on the fence - which was not the most photogenic setting. Get out of the car and they disappeared.
Along this road we also had Sardinian warbler in a bush right next to the car and a pair of red-rumped swallows were very cooperative - both in a bush and on the ground.

We then continued to the JAV Centre. Our previous route said "private road" but the centre was signposted. Unfortunately this alternative road was full of deep potholes and the journey (still  20km) took an absolute age. In fact on several occasions I thought about of cutting our losses and turning back.
During this torture we did find a flock of spoonbills with a couple of black storks and got decent views of a short toes eagle perched on an electricity pylon.

Eventually we reached the centre but it was a huge disappointment. The trees/bushes nearest the centre were devoid of life and the few herons we saw we in some distant trees ~ 150 yards away. The pools beside the centre only contained coots. There were a few flamingos and a lot of stilts on a pool near the east end of the centre but that bit is a museum/display area and has no windows/viewing area. We had a coffee and departed very disappointed.
Our disappointment was not finished however as we drove to a road  (that also said "private") that was alongside the main reed bed and where previously we had been able to get close to squacco and night heron. They have now installed a wire mesh fence alongside the road so that photography was near impossible. That was it. We gave up and took the "private" road back. The only bird we stopped for was the local variety of yellow wagtail.

Thankfully the "private" road was completely pot hole free and we got home in a fraction of the time it took to get there.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in El Rocio watching the world go by with a beer in the hand.

I've saved discussing birding in El Rocio itself till the end because this was a very pleasant surprise. The first 2 mornings I spent generally wandering around and I'd seen a decent list of birds - flamingo, cattle and little egret, grey, night and squacco heron, glossy ibis, reed and great reed warbler, black winged stilt plus booted eagle, black winged kite, bee-eater and hoopoe - but photo-opportunities had been limited.

Booted Eagle showing the "Landing Lights"

Booted eagle

Cattle Egret

However at the end of my second pre-breakfast session a little bittern flew up from the town reedbed; this was a most unexpected find. The last 2 mornings were spent watching the reedbed in the hope of more and better views

The "Prom"

El Rocio looks south over the marsh with a promenade (the only paved part of the town) running alongside a reed bed that is up to 50 yards deep. There is an open area of water half way along that comes close in to the prom so I waited there and watched. If you stand around and wait it was amazing just how many night  and squacco herons hide in the reed bed and fly out over the hour or two after dawn to the roost. I also had 2 spoonbills fishing really close. The glossy ibis are constantly  flying past and dropping into the reed beds and purple swamp hens can be seen (obscured by reeds) at close distance.

Night Heron

Glossy Ibis

Best of all however are the little bitterns. I think there must have been 3 or 4 pairs resident so I had half a dozen sightings each session. Most of the time they appear without warning out from the reeds and fly low 20-30 yards and drop back into the reeds so getting a shot is a challenge and being early morning didn't help as the light was poor (most of the time).

Little Bittern

On one occasion one landed in the reeds about 20 yards away and I got a shot or two off before it climbed down the reeds and out of sight and on another occasion I saw one (through the reeds) climbing up the reeds before taking off.

I just wish I'd found out about the little bitterns on day 1.

Friday 17 May 2019

Trujillo Birdwatching

Our first port of call in Spain was Trujillo, a 3 hr drive from Seville.
On arrival the first thing we did was wander down to the town square to find it covered in Marques - a very disappointing sight. Still we settled down to the first of many beers/wines in that square and watched the world go by and the birds fly overhead. House martin, swallow, swift were to be expected but a family of crag martins had obviously nested nearby and were back and forth alongside the buildings all day every day often landing on the rain gutter supports. Overhead the storks came back and forth and every now and then a few lesser kestrels circled or black kite flew past.

Crag Martin

Around 5 pm I took a walk down to the bull ring to look for the lesser kestrels (as I did every afternoon though nearer 6pm on the other visits). The kestrels were there but only sporadically. I'm pretty sure there were young in the nest holes so the birds circled a few time as they came in and were off  as soon as they had deposited their catch. Overall my success with the camera was pretty poor. I took a lot of (record) shots but in reality most of the time the birds were too distant and image quality was a bit of a disappointment.

The next morning I had a drive down to the bull ring before breakfast (it didn't get light till after 7.30) but the light was all wrong for the kestrels so I drove west to a park with a small lake. On the shore were several little ringed plovers, a common sandpiper and 4 black winged stilts. Serins were numerous in the trees though totally invisible.

After breakfast we went on the first of our birding drives - something my wife really looks forward to...…….not.
The route (assembled from various on-line trip reports) took us along the N521 where we found the first booted eagle of the trip, then a quick dive south along the CC57.2 towards La Cumbra. This provided woodchat shrike and bee-eater - birds we saw quite frequently but other than on this occasion they were always off before we could get close enough for a picture.

Booted eagle

Woodchat Shrike


It was then back up the CC 57.2 onto the CC 57.1 towards Santa Marta stopping at several places to scan for bustards (no luck though the grass was pretty long). Corn buntings were everywhere and frankly got to be a pain in the proverbial and crested larks were also very common.

Along a track off this road we did encounter a pair of whinchats and several Calandra larks and on a repeat visit on the last morning I bagged a shot of a juvenile Calandra at close quarters.

Calandra Lark
Juvenile Calandra

We then drove north from Santa Marta, crossed the Rio Magasca then along the CC 129 back to Trujillo. The only other notable find along this leg of the trip was a huge flock of Spanish Sparrows though they were very shy and on the wrong side of the car (the south side).

Spanish Sparrow

By lunch time we were back in the square at Trujillo for the most enjoyable part of the day - lunch and a few more beers.

Next day we were out early(ish) and off to Montfrague and the Salto del Gitano mirador. It was heaving with birdwatchers and photographers. Seeing the vultures was easy finding one close enough to photograph not so. Blue rock thrush and rock bunting were conspicuous by their absence. 3 (possibly 4) black storks provided the only real entertainment of the morning.

Around lunch time we went up to the visitor centre at Villarreal de San Carlos for a coffee and a wander where we had nightingale, woodchat shrike, and I'm pretty sure subalpine and spectacled warblers were singing in the scrub.

On the return trip we stopped again at the Salto del Gitano and it was excellent. There were not many people around at this time and blue rock thrush and rock bunting both came really close. Even the vultures put in a few incredibly close fly-bys.

Rock Bunting
Blue rock thrush

The final outing of our stay at Trujillo saw us start at the lake/dam at Alcollarin where we has excellent views of a black vulture plus bee-eaters and stonechats.

Black Vulture

From there we went towards Zorita  turning off just before the town and heading north along a minor road that links up with the CC24.1. We then turned right off the 24.1 just before  Santa Cruz de la Sierra in the direction of Madronera but taking the Ex208 back to base. Along these roads we saw at minimum 5 woodchat shrikes, 3 southern grey shrikes, several hoopoes and a small flock of bee-eaters but failed to get a single decent picture. It was very frustrating.

A very distant Southern Grey Shrike