Trip Report: South England and Spain (Almeria and Granada), April 2-17, 1993

Mark Oberle, 2690 Briarlake Woods Way, Atlanta, GA 30345-3906, USA;

This trip was primarily a chance to meet my wife's British relatives, so only a few days of birding will be noted. I had only one full day of birding and squeezed in mornings while William (age 2), Annie (age 14) and my wife, Mardie, slept in. In the text that follows I'll mention more unusual species from a North American's perspective, especially those that were lifers for me. I had 138 species including 47 life birds. A trip list appears at the end.

April 3-5: We stayed in Alfriston near Eastbourne, Sussex, with my wife's aunt at the Dawes House B&B (tel: 0323 870662), a very nice old country home just north of the village and Drusillas zoo park (a great diversion for the kids, with railway, shops, gardens and kids' zoo, 0323 870234). I birded along the country lanes and drove one windy afternoon to Firston Forest and Beachy Head, a prominent coastal spot for migrants. I also explored the preserve at the mouth of the Cuchmere River where Little Egret (increasingly common in Britain), Twite, and Redshank had been reported on the nature center bulletin board, but it was raining heavily, and I ran out of time [note: most nature centers and bird observatories seem to have a prominent white board with updated bird sightings, unlike the scrap paper list behind the counter in US parks].

Unfortunately, late March through April 20 is a dead time when the winter birds have left, and few spring migrants have arrived. Frequent storms also limited birding time. In the Alfriston area I saw my life Song Thrush (quite common and vocal throughout our trip), Long-tailed Tit, Linnet, European Goldfinch, and Meadow Pipit (2 as fly-by, but a very common and approachable bird later in trip; this species also breeds in Eastern Greenland). Dunnock was quite common in the hedgerows and far more active and vocal than I had understood from the bird guides. On April 4 I found three active, singing Willow Warblers along the stream just N of town. They are among the early spring migrants.

April 6: Took cheap Monarch airlines flight from Luton airport to Alicante, Spain. Drove through Murcia to Lubrin, a small town NE of Almeria, where some friends live 4 miles from the nearest phone.

Birding this far inland was somewhat limited to local breeding birds. The lack of raptors was striking. Also the extensive orange groves, most of which were filled with rotting oranges due to French preferences for importing cheap Moroccan oranges into the EC. Another striking feature of the arid hillsides were the abandoned cortijos: old stone country homes that are now used only once a year, if at all. Goat herding is so uneconomical that much of this area has been depopulated in the last decade. The few remaining goatherds are mostly older men who may not be replaced when they retire. The hillsides may be recovering from overgrazing.....maybe an analogous change will happen in the American West when grazing fees are not subsidizing herding on public lands.

April 7: Along dry stream beds (called ramblas in Spain) near Lubrin were singing Cirl Buntings, Spotless Starlings, Woodchat Shrikes and of course, lots of House Sparrows. I didn't check the latter carefully for Tree or Rock Sparrows. Sardinian Warbler was common in thick brush (call like a Bewick's Wren and song like a gnatcatcher). Red-legged Partridge flushed at a distance (they are a lot tamer in the UK, where they aren't hunted as relentlessly).

We drove to Almeria where Swift and Pallid Swifts swirled over downtown. Jose Manuel Lopez Martos, a self-taught naturalist with the national Agencia para el Medio Ambiente y la Naturaleza took us on a free tour of the salt pans west of town (Punta Entina to Punta Sabinar which are partially protected by the agency). He and other naturalists usually take school groups, but apparently if you seek out the agency headquarters in provincial capitals it is possible to arrange a tour for visiting birders. Jose Manuel claimed that due to Spain's backward economy and political isolation until the 1970s, many areas were left in a primitive state by default. However, the area near the coast is fast being built up with high rise apartment buildings. In the last ten years there has also been a boom of plastic greenhouses for the truck garden trade. In fact, El Ejido, a town NW of Almeria is one of the wealthiest in the country and is surrounded by low greenhouses to the horizon. This has led to decreased habitat for Stone Curlews (European Thick Knees) and other species, and to excessive groundwater withdrawals and salination, just like in the American West, southern Georgia, etc.

We went through locked gates to salt ponds with Greater Flamingo, Little Egret, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, and all plumages of Audouin's Gull. There were some more isolated ponds with Redshank, Little Stint, Ruff, Spotted Sandpiper, Greenshank, Dunlin and other species. However, it was still early for rarer migrants such as Temminck's Stint. Short toed Lark, Black-eared Stonechat, Barn Swallow and Hoopoe were in the flats between the ponds. East of El Ejido was an old quarry with reeds (White-headed Duck, Little Ringed Plover, Little Grebe), but we didn't hear any warblers at mid-day. Interestingly, the introduced Ruddy Duck is interbreeding with the native White-headed Duck, and Europeans are trying to control the Ruddy Duck population.

April 8: Along hillsides near Lubrin, I saw Orphean Warbler, Corn Bunting, Northern Wheatear and lots of Serins, Bee-eaters, and Crested Larks. On the drive out of town a Little Owl boldly stood on a bridge wall (this species was introduced to the UK). The drive to Granada was devoid of road birds. I saw only one Kestrel (a lot bigger than our kestrel in USA). The Alhambra is architecturally amazing, and the gardens are enticing, with running water everywhere to cool the tree groves. There were a lot of garden birds singing, but none new for the trip.

April 9: The drive from Granada to Lubrin was uneventful: Crested Larks, House Sparrow, Bee-eater here and there. Over Lubrin a raptor took advantage of the thermals (Honey Buzzard?), but young William was so inconsolable we couldn't stop. A Black Wheatear flew by with an odd, jerky flight.

April 12: Back in England, we stayed on a friend's farm in the hamlet of The Shoe, Wiltshire. Two mornings I birded the wooded hillside south of The Ford. Chiffchaffs had begun to sing, and a Blackcap traveled with a mixed flock of tits. Speaking of tits, the Blue and Great Tits had a variety of calls and song which took a while to figure out. Robin and to a lesser extent, Chaffinch also had a varied repertoire that took time to sort out. I found a Treecreeper nest on a ten-foot tall, ivy-covered stump. The treecreepers were more approachable than our Brown Creeper and had a wider assortment of vocalizations.

April 15: My only full day of birding. At 5:45 I met John Archer (21b Radford Rd., Lewisham, London SE13 6SB, 081-244-3199), an environmental planner with what is left of the Greater London Council, who supplements his income by guiding birders. He drove to Landguard, the harbor entrance to Felixstowe, Suffolk. Three Greylag Geese (feral?) flew over farmland as we approached town. At the point, Linnets were everywhere. Two female Black Redstarts were the only rarities, and we missed the Ring Ouzel which the bird observatory volunteers had seen there for several days (change to mild weather may have offered good flying). A Eurasian Curlew flew overhead calling. Meadow Pipits and Red-legged Partridge allowed close approach. A single Fulmar flew overhead (these birds have undergone a population explosion in UK in the last century which some people attribute to feeding on offal).

We then drove to Minsmere, the premier RSPB preserve, which opens at 9 although the public hides near the shore are open earlier (closed Tues.; free admission with National Audubon Society membership card). Amazingly, there were no signs for the preserve on the roads. As we approached the parking lot, we passed an oak forest that grew in thin soil but had been toppled by a hurricane.

An elevated hide was now useless over the windfall. At the first hide, Sedge Warblers had just arrived and begun singing in the marsh (some song elements sound a lot like a Marsh Wren's). One fellow in the first hide said he saw a Marsh Warbler, but we never heard or saw it. A Reed Bunting sang from distant bushes in the marsh. Both Willow and Marsh Tits were in nearby woodlands, and a Stoat crossed the trail. John heard a Grasshopper Warbler in the distance, but it only sang once, and I could not pick it out of the chorus. A Fieldfare put in an appearance in a field where the Ringed Ouzel had been reported the day before, but not today. At the scrape (the central ponds), there was a lot of activity: displaying Lapwings, Oystercatchers, and Redshanks; feeding Black-tailed Godwits, Common Ringed Plover, Avocet, Garganey and other ducks. The Little Tern seen the day before did not appear. Along the beach dunes, there were Common Stonechats (Clements splits this species from Siberian Stonechat, the vagrant in Alaska), but the ocean only had 2 Black-headed Gulls. As we circled the scrape we heard a Bittern (a much more resounding, deeper call than the American Bittern's; 22 breeding pairs in UK in 1992). Several Meadow Pipits were in the area, and one bird sounded suspiciously like a Water Pipit (this split species winters in UK), but it only called once, so we didn't count it. A Green Sandpiper called and circled in the distance. It flew low overhead, kindly displaying its field marks, and landed in a ditch. We tried to approach on the trail, but it flushed at some distance. We returned to the hides closer to the visitor center and waited 20 minutes for brief looks at a male Bearded Tit that had been giving its strange "poing" call in the reeds. We also heard a Water Rail while we waited there.

We had a brief lunch in the car and decided not to look for the 8 Common Cranes at the Broads farther north since they might be hard to find if nesting. We drove on winding, poorly marked arterial roads to Weeting Heath reserve west of Weeting (one pound admission). At the eastern hide we met a birder from Cambridge and one from Cameroon. They had missed the Redwing seen earlier in the day and had not seen any of the 6 Stone Curlews reported at the reserve. The field was hopping with American Cottontails which kept the grass closely cropped and created a lot of false alarms. After much searching at the western hide, John found a Stone Curlew through his Kowa. It was sitting still and never rose as we watched.

As dusk approached, we drove 3 miles south of Brandon on B1106 and walked the forestry commission road (west of a small road marker labeled "10"), past some buildings (locally known as Mayday farm) and a transmitter tower to an area where the plantation pines were 6-10 feet tall. A forestry sign barred entry to the grove because of nesting goshawks, woodlarks and nightjars (a May arrival). A Green Woodpecker foraged on the ground like a flicker. Here we heard a song somewhat like a chat's, and after much searching, I saw a Woodlark land in the distance on an exposed branch. Some local birders were concentrating on finches at a water hole farther west, but by the time they reached us, they missed the Woodlark. One later flew overhead looking remarkably short-tailed (a good field mark until early summer when fledgling Skylarks also look short-tailed). We checked out the small waterhole. Brambling, Siskin, and Chaffinch came in to water. Crossbills and redpolls flew overhead (The call note definitely sounded different, more like a call type 2 in S. Appalachians; when Scottish Crossbills come south, John isn't always sure which is which, so there is some doubt about the split). Then a (Brown) Tree Pipit flew up and sang long enough for good scope views, including hind toe! We walked east of the transmitter tower to larger pines where we had heard Golden Pheasant calling (more like a cough than a call). They fled into denser small pines, offering a vague view -- but better than what many birders get after multiple trips.

As dusk approached, we waited for Eurasian Woodcock to display. John heard some shrews calling, but for the first time, my high pitched hearing loss (from my first factory job) cut me out of the action: I could only hear the sound of scurrying in the leaves. A Eurasian Woodcock gave a deep call, then a higher pitched call and began "roding." It displayed earlier at dusk than the smaller American Woodcock in North America, so it was possible to see its color as it flew at tree top level and out over the younger pines. The "roading" flight looked like an aerodynamic impossibility, at stall speed. The bird had a silhouette like a hatchet fish, and a jizz like an animal from The Beetles' movie, Yellow Submarine. They apparently were seen in North America, including Alabama in the nineteenth century but have become rare in the New World (perhaps there are just fewer of them in Europe, with habitat destruction). As we walked back to the car in the slowly gathering darkness (52 degrees North), a Tawny Owl called in the distance. John said they are a lot easier to find in city parks than in woodland. Since they are smaller than our Spotted or Barred Owls, they can find adequate forage and shelter in more fragmented woodlands, such as Regents' Park in London. A herd of native Roe Deer crossed the dirt road and grunted like incensed boar as they fled.

We had a Mars Bar for dinner and drove back to London, talking birds. I got stranded on the underground train when a switch broke down, but got "home" at 11, in time to sleep until 10:30AM.

April 17: Explored The Pens and surrounding woodlands and meadow in Richmond Park, an old royal hunting preserve. The gates are closed to autos at 6:30, but I could walk in. A mountain biker flushed a Snipe (?) from a ditch. Introduced Red and Fallow Deer allowed close approach. At the Pens ponds, a male Mandarin Duck was somewhat elusive (a feral population of 1000 lives south of London). A pair of Great Crested Grebes, a Red-crested Pochard and a Black Swan were there (origin?). A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers and some Green Woodpeckers were in old oaks. A Carrion Crow persistently chased an introduced Gray Squirrel around an oak trunk. In the meadow east of the lower pond, Meadow Pipits and Reed Bunting defended territories. As the drizzle began to intensify, I saw a Treecreeper in a row of isolated streamside trees.


Here is my trip species list for both countries. Contact me for more information on locations and dates (English names are Clements').

  Little Grebe                          Tachybaptus ruficollis
  Great Crested Grebe                   Podiceps cristatus
  Northern Fulmar                       Fulmarus glacialis
  Great Cormorant                       Phalacrocorax carbo
  White-headed Duck                     Oxyura leucocephala
  Mute Swan                             Cygnus olor
  Greylag Goose                         Anser anser
  Canada Goose                          Branta canadensis
  Common Shelduck                       Tadorna tadorna
  Mandarin Duck                         Aix galericulata
  Eurasian Wigeon                       Anas penelope
  Gadwall                               Anas strepera
  Common Teal                           Anas crecca
  Mallard                               Anas platyrhynchos
  Northern Pintail                      Anas acuta
  Garganey                              Anas querquedula
  Northern Shoveler                     Anas clypeata
  Red-crested Pochard                   Netta rufina
  Common Pochard                        Aythya ferina
  Tufted Duck                           Aythya fuligula
  Greater Flamingo                      Phoenicopterus ruber
  Little Egret                          Egretta garzetta
  Gray Heron                            Ardea cinerea
  Cattle Egret                          Bubulcus ibis
  Great Bittern                         Botaurus stellaris
  Western Marsh-Harrier                 Circus aeruginosus
  Northern Harrier                      Circus cyaneus
  Eurasian Sparrowhawk                  Accipiter nisus
  Eurasian Kestrel                      Falco tinnunculus
  Peregrine Falcon                      Falco peregrinus
  Red-legged Partridge                  Alectoris rufa
  Common Pheasant                       Phasianus colchicus
  Golden Pheasant                       Chrysolophus pictus
  Water Rail                            Rallus aquaticus
  Common Moorhen                        Gallinula chloropus
  Eurasian Coot                         Fulica atra
  Eurasian Woodcock                     Scolopax rusticola
  Common Snipe                          Gallinago gallinago
  Black-tailed Godwit                   Limosa limosa
  Eurasian Curlew                       Numenius arquata
  Common Redshank                       Tringa totanus
  Common Greenshank                     Tringa nebularia
  Green Sandpiper                       Tringa ochropus
  Common Sandpiper                      Tringa hypoleucos
  Ruddy Turnstone                       Arenaria interpres
  Little Stint                          Calidris minuta
  Dunlin                                Calidris alpina
  Ruff                                  Philomachus pugnax
  Eurasian Thick-knee                   Burhinus oedicnemus
  Eurasian Oystercatcher                Haematopus ostralegus
  Black-winged Stilt                    Himantopus himantopus
  Pied Avocet                           Recurvirostra avosetta
  Common Ringed Plover                  Charadrius hiaticula
  Little Ringed Plover                  Charadrius dubius
  (Kentish) Snowy Plover                Charadrius alexandrinus
  Northern Lapwing                      Vanellus vanellus
  Mew Gull                              Larus canus
  Audouin's Gull                        Larus audouinii
  Great Black-backed Gull               Larus marinus
  Herring Gull                          Larus argentatus
  Lesser Black-backed Gull              Larus fuscus
  Common Black-headed Gull              Larus ridibundus
  Sandwich Tern                         Sterna sandvicensis
  Common Tern                           Sterna hirundo
  Rock Dove                             Columba livia
  Stock Pigeon                          Columba oenas
  Common Wood Pigeon                    Columba palumbus
  Eurasian Collared-Dove                Streptopelia decaocto
  Common Cuckoo                         Cuculus canorus
  Tawny Owl                             Strix aluco
  Little Owl                            Athene noctua
  Common Swift                          Apus apus
  Pallid Swift                          Apus pallidus
  European Bee-eater                    Merops apiaster
  Eurasian Hoopoe                       Upupa epops
  Great Spotted Woodpecker              Dendrocopos major
  Eurasian Green Woodpecker             Picus viridis
  Eurasian Jay                          Garrulus glandarius
  Black-billed Magpie                   Pica pica
  Eurasian Jackdaw                      Corvus monedula
  Rook                                  Corvus frugilegus
  Carrion Crow                          Corvus corone
  Common Raven                          Corvus corax
  Woodchat Shrike                       Lanius senator
  Eurasian Blackbird                    Turdus merula
  Fieldfare                             Turdus pilaris
  Song Thrush                           Turdus philomelos
  Mistle Thrush                         Turdus viscivorus
  Common Starling                       Sturnus vulgaris
  Spotless Starling                     Sturnus unicolor
  European Robin                        Erithacus rubecula
  Black Redstart                        Phoenicurus ochruros
  Common Stonechat                      Saxicola torquata
  Black Wheatear                        Oenanthe leucura
  Northern Wheatear                     Oenanthe oenanthe
  Black-eared Wheatear                  Oenanthe hispanica
  Eurasian Nuthatch                     Sitta europaea
  Eurasian Treecreeper                  Certhia familiaris
  Winter Wren                           Troglodytes troglodytes
  Long-tailed Tit                       Aegithalos caudatus
  Sand Martin                           Riparia riparia
  Barn Swallow                          Hirundo rustica
  House Martin                          Delichon urbica
  Goldcrest                             Regulus regulus
  Sedge Warbler                         Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
  Willow Warbler                        Phylloscopus trochilus
  Eurasian Chiffchaff                   Phylloscopus collybita
  Blackcap                              Sylvia atricapilla
  Orphean Warbler                       Sylvia hortensis
  Sardinian Warbler                     Sylvia melanocephala
  Bearded Reedling (Tit)                Panurus biarmicus
  Marsh Tit                             Parus palustris
  Willow Tit                            Parus montanus
  Coal Tit                              Parus ater
  Great Tit                             Parus major
  Blue Tit                              Parus caeruleus
  Greater Short-toed Lark               Calandrella brachydactyla
  Crested Lark                          Galerida cristata
  Wood Lark                             Lullula arborea
  Eurasian Skylark                      Alauda arvensis
  House Sparrow                         Passer domesticus
  White Wagtail                         Motacilla alba
  Tree Pipit                            Anthus trivialis
  Meadow Pipit                          Anthus pratensis
  Dunnock                               Prunella modularis
  Chaffinch                             Fringilla coelebs
  Brambling                             Fringilla montifringilla
  European Serin                        Serinus serinus
  European Greenfinch                   Carduelis chloris
  Eurasian Siskin                       Carduelis spinus
  European Goldfinch                    Carduelis carduelis
  Common Redpoll                        Carduelis flammea
  Eurasian Linnet                       Carduelis cannabina
  Red Crossbill                         Loxia curvirostra
  Yellowhammer                          Emberiza citrinella
  Cirl Bunting                          Emberiza cirlus
  Reed Bunting                          Emberiza schoeniclus
  Corn Bunting                          Emberiza calandra

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