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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

After convening in Malaga on the evening of the 29th we headed west the next morning along the coast and birded the parks at the base of Gibraltar where a Tawny Owl was the highlight, before arriving at our hotel at Punta Secreta overlooking the Strait to Jebel Musa on the Moroccan side. The next few hours were filled with most amazing raptor encounters as they poured in from Africa with eye level views of Egyptian, Griffon and Cinereous Vultures, Booted and Short-toed Snake-eagles, Honey-buzzards, and Black Kites. A Black Stork, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Western Marsh Harrier also made the crossing. It was a great introduction. The rest of the day and next were spent between there and Tarifa where a good mix of shorebirds were seen including amazingly obliging Collared Pratincoles and leggy Black-winged Stilts along with Caspian Tern and a selection of larks around the beaches and saltpans. Some woodland time added Iberian Chiffchaffs, Hawfinches and Short-toed Treecreepers while the Northern Bald Ibis colony at Barca de Vejer was entertaining at their nesting cliffs. All the while Black Kites, Griffon Vultures, and European Honey-buzzards were on the move. We even got in some seawatching from the hotel and were surprised to see three Shearwater species and even the tiny whizzing shapes of Atlantic Puffins heading back out of the Mediterranean.

Onwards again on the 2nd May towards Doñana with a good stop around Bonanza where the flocks of northbound waders included chestnut Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints and local breeding Kentish Plovers.  Greater Flamingos shimmered and Gull-billed Terns croaked overhead.  The nearby lagunas gave us close views of the endangered White-headed and Marbled Ducks, Western Purple Swamphens and all the regular heron species along with naturalised Common Waxbills and Black-headed Weavers. A Mediterranean Chameleon may have stolen the show.

The Little Swifts performed in the stiff breeze at Chipiona sea front before the long loop around past Seville to our base for the next couple of days at the curiously time-warped lagoon-side town of El Rocío on the very edge of the Doñana national park. The shallow lake also held flocks of passage waders and we added our first Temminck’s Stints and all the herons and Glossy Ibis once again. A Western Olivaceous Warbler singing from a willow clump would prove to be our only one, and a Baillon’s Crake rattled early one morning but remained invisible. The local woodland and heaths around El Acebrón gave us Iberian Chiffchaffs, Magpies and Grey Shrikes along with Crested Tits, Hawfinches, Dartford Warblers, Thekla’s Larks and, in the evening, the tock tock song of Red-necked Nightjars. La Rocina on the edge of the heath was full of spoonbills and ibis but it was the Red-knobbed Coot that we were most pleased to find. Savi’s Warblers reeled and Eurasian Golden Orioles sung just out of sight and noisy parties of Iberian Magpies followed each other through the pines. A family of Water Rails was a good find. A challenging seawatch off Matalascañas added Black and Arctic Terns and Mediterranean and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, but it was hard work!

North again on the 5th with a comfort stop on the main road giving us seven species of raptor overhead before reaching the dam at Alange and the rock face behind where Alpine Swifts and Eurasian Crag Martins swooped and Egyptian and Griffon Vultures soared overhead. Black Wheatear was our target here and we eventually all saw him way up on top where Blue Rock Thrushes and Rock Buntings also sang. A pair of Bonelli’s Eagles were perched on a distant pylon. A jaunt out into the olive orchards and vineyards nearby saw us fall into a little pocket of four singing male Rufous Bush-chats and three independent Black-winged Kites still had one of their parents in attendance while down at the Marismas del Odiel. We timed it perfectly with the incoming tide to allow close views of Red Knot, Eurasian Curlews, Whimbrels, Bar-tailed Godwits and gleaming Black-bellied Plovers although it was the seven Razorbills fishing energetically in the clear water of the river that surprised us most! Purple Herons were noted along with two pairs of Osprey and a few Montagu’s Harriers.  Audouin’s Gulls were seen loafing in the harbour at Malagón on the way back to El Rocío. Lunch and the afternoon was spent in Mérida, the capital of Extremadura, with some quality urban birding being had. Eurasian Penduline-Tits were difficult to pin down, but Eurasian Golden Orioles were feeding with Spotless Starlings in the White Mulberry trees and Little Bittern at last gave some good views. There were some great dragonflies too.  Great Crested and Eared Grebe were seen at the Alcollarín Reservoir and European Bee-eaters, Common Kingfishers and Eurasian Hoopoe added colour. A Great Reed Warbler was ‘gurking’ but the close Common Quail refused to come out. Five European Rollers were a surprise roadside find around boxes put up near a new solar farm. They even tumbled for us! A Eurasian Scops Owl in Trujillo rounded the day off before we reached our hotel in Monfragüe which would be our base for the next two days. 

The next morning, we headed up to the famous castle viewpoint where Cinereous and Griffon Vultures cruised by us at eye level and we were lucky enough to find an early White-rumped Swift or two swooping about with the hirundines. Western Subalpine Warbler, Mistle Thrush and Eurasian Nuthatch were new and down below in the valley we found two Wild Boar with seven piglets and a group of Red Deer swimming across the river with only their heads showing. More close Vulture encounters were had at Peñafalcón as well as three pairs of cliff-nesting Black Storks, plus Peregrines and Common Ravens. Rock Buntings, Blue Rock Thrushes and Black Redstarts flicked around the rocky pinnacles. Western Orphean Warbler was found not far away with its amazing song and the Subalpines showed better. False Ilex and the scarce Spanish Hairstreak were both good butterflies and another local spot gave us good views of nesting Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. As usual, lunch was rewarding with Rock Sparrows in the cork oaks and Eurasian Hoopoes, Common Cuckoo and Eurasian Nuthatch all being heard, but the old swimming pool also attracted attention with huge Sharp-ribbed Newts, Iberian Water Frogs and a Viperine Snake! The way back to the Hospedería gave us views of a grumpy Eurasian Eagle-Owlet, plus Egyptian Vulture on the nest and a frustrating Spanish Imperial Eagle that flew below us leaving some of the group wanting…

The 7th was our one really early start as we wanted to be out on the steppes near Trujillo before dawn. A mad Iberian Hare was trapped in the headlights but eventually lolloped off the road on the way. What followed was a memorable and beautiful few hours spent with nothing but the sound of hundreds of singing Calandra and Crested Larks with Eurasian Hoopoes, European Bee-eaters, Common Cuckoos and Corn Buntings in the mix. Flocks of Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse could be heard long before we saw them, and six stately Great Bustard paraded around. Little Bustard is always tricky, but we saw six flying across the steppe and a male with his black and white neck briefly popped up above the grasses. Two Spanish Imperial Eagles laid the previous evening to rest and Cinereous and Griffon Vultures sat around waiting for some warmth, while the Black Kites were quite happy picking around on the ground, presumably after insects. We even had a Great Spotted Cuckoo noisily fly past us and a Little Owl on a distant roof top. After coffee we lucked into a couple of Red-legged Partridge at last and had three sub-adult Spanish Imperial Eagles drift down the same valley giving us magnificent views of this rare predator. The roadside telegraph poles all had European Roller boxes on them, and we ended up with about 20 birds before the end of the day, some of which were very close to the road. A sixth Spanish Imperial Eagle (a first-year bird) was found, but the highlight for the day for many was stumbling on a vulture feeding frenzy on a dead cow. It was awesome and the Cinereous looked even bigger on the ground! 

Spectacled Warblers on some heathland eventually gave themselves up before we called it a day having quite literally seen every single target species. A between-courses nip down the road for hawking Red-necked Nightjars was the perfect pre-dessert accompaniment.

We headed northwards again the next day towards the Gredos mountains, but not before a great stop at Arrocampo Reservoir where Little Bitterns and Purple Herons put on a show, Savi’s Warblers reeled and Gull-billed Terns patrolled. We connected with the naturalised Red Avadavats and even found a brood of Bearded Reedlings at their only site in the area along with at least two white-eyed Ferruginous Ducks. A Common Tern was a superb local find. Our hotel (the Hostal Almanzor) in Navarredonda de Gredos was superb and lunch inside looking out gave us views of Cirl and Rock Bunting, Eurasian Nuthatches, Coal Tits, European Robins, Eurasian Jays and a pair of Iberian Pied Flycatchers.  Iberian Green Woodpeckers quietly yaffled and would soon acquire alternative names. The evening was spent even higher up in the Puerto de Peña Negra where the birdlife changed once more and we found singing Bluethroat, Western Yellow Wagtail and Dunnocks of the local Iberian races, Ortolan Buntings, Water Pipits, Northern Wheatears, Dartford Warblers, Eurasian Skylarks and Rock Buntings. A Golden Eagle cruised over, and a pair of Red-backed Shrikes were also seen.

Dawn chorus the next morning was full of new sounds with Common Chiffchaff, Common Crossbills, Song Thrush, Black Redstarts, and Garden Warbler to go with the European Serins, Melodious Warblers, Eurasian Wryneck, Common Firecrests, Western Bonelli’s Warblers, and Invisible Green Woodpeckers as they were henceforth known. We climbed again to the Plataforma de Gredos for some more alpine birding. A similar suite were noted with the important addition of at least two male and a female Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes and a brief White-throated Dipper. Western Iberian Ibex scrambled across the cliffs and a male was skylined nicely in the distance. Both Common Firecrest and Goldcrest were seen along the local forest tracks and we had brief views of Citril Finch in a clearing before heading back for lunch and the onwards journey north once again.

We stopped at the ancient walled city of Ávila and then on into Segovia to see the stunning Roman aqueduct which conveniently also gave us the urbanised Red-billed Choughs and Lesser Kestrels. The journey was timed to spend the evening on the San Frutos track amongst the rolling heathland with commanding views. The six species of lark in song included the now very localised Dupont’s Lark and two males were heard giving their curious little song. A displaying bird was seen a couple of times and one distantly perched but hearing them in that landscape was just as rewarding. Western Black-eared Wheatear and Tawny Pipit were both in song and a flock of 23 Rock Sparrows had obviously been off foraging together. A mixed flock of Western Jackdaws and Red-billed Choughs were feeding in a ploughed field and two Roe Deer were seen on the drive back out to our hotel in Sepúlveda.

Pre-breakfast Eurasian Wrynecks, Woodlarks and Western Orphean Warblers got us going before the last push up the country to the Picos de Europa with two male Hen Harriers on the way being the first of the trip, while other short stops up in the foothills of the Picos gave us singing Tree Pipit, Common Firecrests, Black Redstarts and good views of Song Thrush. We looked for White-throated Dippers again, but they eluded us. We were greeted at our hotel in Tama by males of both Common and Black Redstarts feeding in the cut hay field alongside.

The 11th May was our one chance to get up to the top of the Picos as the weather was starting to turn for the worse and we arrived early at the bottom of the cable car at Fuente Dé. Both crests and Crested Tits kept us company but at 10am we were squeezed into the car for the four-minute journey to the station way up above our heads. We were greeted by light flurries of sleet snow and the next few hours were memorable for the epic views across the glaciated landscape, the towering rock faces (including one that looks like a giant Mandrill) and hardy alpine flora hugging the ground and cracks in the limestone. The birds were tricky, but we got four out of the five most wanted with cruising Lammergeiers, confiding Alpine Choughs and Accentors and unexpectedly good views of enigmatic White-winged Snow Finches. Only the Wallcreeper eluded us, but the weather was against us, and we were just grateful to have seen so much in the bitterly cold conditions. Back down at the bottom we had lunch, before a walk in the woods added Eurasian Treecreeper and Bullfinch amongst the now usual fayre but more White-throated Dipper hunting failed until Cosgaya when one noisily barrelled down the river and out of sight! 

The weather turned overnight and our last full day was largely spent dodging the rain but at least we were not attempting Fuente Dé as it had fallen as snow up on the high tops and birding would have been almost impossible. Middle Spotted Woodpecker was the main target but we had to be content with just a brief calling flyover despite many stops, but we did hear more Infuriating Greens and Eurasian Wryneck once again, along with a showy Western Bonelli’s Warbler. A long zig-zag up to the high pass at the Puerto de San Glorio saw us just sneaking into the snow line but the cold and occasional sleet was worth it for excellent views of both Tree Pipit and Yellowhammer which are both localised species. A final meal at the Posada before time to pack for the long road back to Madrid on the 13th. Even that last journey was eventful with stunning views from the top of the Piedrasluengas pass across the whole of snow-capped Picos de Europa and fields of wild daffodils on the way back down. A fine male Hen Harrier was a last gasp tick for many of the crew before the drop-off back at Madrid airport for their long flights back to the USA after a stunningly successful trip, taking in as much of this wonderful country as possible in just two weeks. We recorded a huge list of 243 bird species, with at least 42 butterflies, 12 dragonflies, eight reptiles and five amphibians as well! 

Created: 15 May 2023