This is the report of the trip I and three other Italian birdwatchers made in South-western Spain (Extremadura and Andalucia) from Dec. 26, 96 to Jan 7, 97. We saw 125 species of birds in a very successful trip, even if the weather was not very good, with plenty of rain, and pretty cold (for Spanish standards) with temperatures around 3-5 C in Extremadura and 8-10 C in Andalucia. The "muy frio" feeling was enhanced by the fact that in most hotels where we stayed heating was at best discontinuous. Otherwise the hotels were very clean and cheap.
The fact that Spain is in the same time zone of Italy and most central Europe has the effect that at 8 in the morning the darkness is still complete but you can bird until 6.30 in the evening. This together with the fact that there is no hope to have dinner in a Spanish restaurant before 8.30 pm, makes for very long days even in winter and even if you are not willing to get up very early.
We had both Spanish booklets of the "Finding birds in ..." series by Dave Gosney (Extremadura is covered in the Northern Spain booklet) which were very useful, "A birdwatcher's guide to Southern Spain and Gibraltar" by Clive Finlayson (we didn't use it much, because it covers mostly Southern Andalucia), a bird report by Paul Veron (obtained through the Dutch bird reports archive), and several suggestions by different people on EuroBirdNet, which I take the opportunity to thank.
We arrived in Madrid in the evening and rented our car (an Opel Astra stationwagon from Hertz). That evening we drove out of the city towards Extremadura and stopped for the night in Navalcarnero.
The only completely sunny day of the whole trip. We continued on road NV until Oropesa where, following suggestions of Gosney and others we drove to Las Ventas de San Julian and then back to the highway at La Calzada de Oropesa. This first birding was still in Castilla La Mancha, but the Extremadura border is very close. Here we met some of the common species of Extremadura in winter: Lapwing, White Stork, Magpie, Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Gray Heron, Meadow Pipit, Chiffchaff, Stonechat, Corn Bunting, Black Redstart, Spotless Starling, Hoopoe, Red Kite, Crested Lark, Great Grey Shrike, Skylark. We also met for the first time the Azure-winged Magpie. Other birds of note were Cetti's and Dartford Warblers, while towards the end of the detour we saw some flying Cranes and Griffon Vultures. While we were following these birds a sudden and very brief appearance was made by the bird for which this detour was recommended: a Black- shouldered Kite flew fast overhead, making a single turn to show off beyond any doubt its identity. Around noon time we took the highway again toward Trujillo and got out of it near Torrecilla de la Tiesa: by now Griffon Vultures were a common sight. This detour, which eventually lead to Belen, on the outskirts of Trujillo, yielded our first Great Bustards (a group of six birds) and Black Vulture (on the ground with several Griffons). Besides the birds already mentioned the common birds were Golden Plovers and Jackdaws. We eventually got to Trujillo and settled in a hotel which was to be our basis for the following four days. With hindsight I can say that it would be better to spend a couple of nights closer to Monfrague to avoid some morning and evening driving on the Trujillo-Torrejon el Rubio road, which is narrow and pretty slow. (Most other roads we drove, even very minor ones, are much better than I expected.)
This was still a rainless day, but windy, cloudy and pretty cold. We drove straight North from Trujillo towards Monfrague National Park, surely one of the (many) highlights of the trip. We went to all the sites mentioned by Gosney starting at bridge over Arroyo de la Vid where we had Red-legged Partridge. We spent several hours at the Castillo. The flights of the Vultures were very slow to start but eventually, even if no thermals appeared to be possible with that sort of weather, we were eyeball to eyeball with the Griffons which follow the ridge to explore in search for carcasses. This is really quite a sight, with Black Vultures also present (but none very close). The woods beyond the Castillo were filled with passerines (amazing numbers of Blackcaps) and we saw also a Black Wheatear there. Another amazing stop is at Penafalcon: the huge pinnacle above the river Tajo where hundreds of Griffons (together with Black Storks and Egyptian Vultures, now absent) nest. Several Griffons were carrying sticks at their nests, and the sheer number of huge birds flying and sitting on the rocks makes this sight unforgettable. The drive through the minor road to the right just past the little village of Villareal de San Carlos yielded more close encounters with Griffons: another colony is in front of Mirador Tajadilla (#5 in Gosney) and some were gathering around a carcass just before Mirador de la Higuera. In both this places we saw also Crag Martins and scrutiny of the woods below the Griffon colony (still on the other side of the river) yielded, besides the usual Azure- winged Magpies, several Hawfinches. Mirador de la Bascula which is reportedly a good site for raptors was not productive and we eventually got to Mirador de Portilla Tietar (#9 in Gosney) where we stayed until sundown. The site is quite amazing: there is a bend in the river and in front of you there is another colony of Griffons (with some Black Vultures; we saw also a Black Wheatear); but it's the acoustic of the place that makes it amazing: because of the echo every time a Vulture takes off you can hear the sound of the wings beating so that you feel like being amidst the birds. A couple of very good observations capped off the day: first an otter swimming in the river (and eventually landing on the other side, where perhaps another one was waiting) and then an Eagle Owl on top of the rocks (this is a well known Eagle Owl site).
The rain began to be a problem and often we were forced to bird through the car windows. We drove the roads described in the "Caceres to Trujillo" chapter of Gosney's booklet, i.e. Trujillo- Santa Marta de Magasca-back to N521-La Encinilla by the road starting from the SMdM road-bridge over rio Almonte-Monroy- Torrejon el Rubio. We had three groups of Great Bustards: 10 just after leaving the N521 highway, 7 where the SMdM road meets the N521 again, and 11 near La Encinilla. We saw about 30 Little Bustards flying by the La Encinilla road. It appears that in winter this species is much more elusive than its greater relative: it gathers in big flocks which are hard to locate. The Santa Marta de Magasca road yielded also several Red-legged Partridges (are they released by the hunters who apparently own all the area?), a brief sight of the only Rock Sparrow of our trip (feeding alongside Skylarks) and a male Hen Harrier. After passing the rio Almonte Griffon Vultures where again common (we saw also a single Black Vulture) and many Cranes were feeding between the cork oaks. Just after Monroy we tried to locate the site recommended by Gosney for Black-shouldered Kite: at the second attempt we got to the right place, but didn't see any kite, while an earlier track we took lead us to a small house where we saw the only Spanish Sparrows of the trip. We weren't able to locate the pylon where is a reported Imperial Eagle nest.
We decided to try our luck again at Monfrague, hoping to see some of the species we had missed two days earlier. and we drove from Trujillo to Navalmoral de la Mata to get in to the park from the north-east directly at Mirador de Portilla Tietar: after a few minutes there we saw (besides the by now usual vultures) the only Blue Rock Thrush of the trip, but soon we were forced to leave by the rain. At Mirador Tajadilla we could find some cover in the hide, but no special birds. When the rain stopped we spent quite some time at Mirador de la Bascula to no avail. Eventually we ended up having lunch in Villareal de San Carlos, where we spent some time studying Crested Larks without finding a Thekla Lark. Just before crossing the river Tajo we had some Griffons perching on rocks very close to the road (the drizzle undoubtedly made them quite unwilling to fly), at the same site several Black Wheatears allowed for good observations. Penafalcon was again amazing, with birds very close because of the bad weather. We eventually decided to move West of the park, trying the site recommended for Bonelli's Eagles near Serradilla by Gosney. We are not really sure that we managed to take the dirt track described in the booklet, and we didn't see any raptor (many Ravens and a single Dunnock were the best birds) at first because of the thick fog. However when the fog disappeared to a beautiful evening with clearing skies the view over the hills was quite beautiful.
After the beautiful evening of the night before we were hoping for some nice weather, but the morning was rainy again. We wanted to cover some of the sites described by Gosney in the "South of Caceres" section and left our hotel in Trujillo and drove West to Caceres, then South on N260 to the little village of Valdesalor. The track that connects Valdesalor to the N523 is reported as one of the best places for both bustards and also for Stone Curlew. To our dismay we soon found out that there was no hope to negotiate the track with our car: even if the rain had stopped the Rio Salor had gone out of its usual bed and was running through the track. We parked the car just after the bridge over the "usual" river, crossed by foot the stream running through the track and walked a bit on the track: many common birds, but no bustards and we soon gave up. We drove back to Caceres, SW on N523 and then took the secondary road which connects this highway to the village of Aliseda, West of Caceres. This road follows the ridge called Sierra de San Pedro and was very good: we didn't find the Imperial Eagles reported there, but we had a pair of Bonelli's Eagles hunting together and then sitting on a tree, Griffons and Black Vultures and a group of Woodlarks. After reaching Aliseda we drove back to Caceres and then South to Merida to reach La Serena, an area in South-eastern Extremadura renown for its steppe. We went through several downpours on our way to Castuero where we arrived in the darkness and found a hotel.
We spent the whole day in La Serena. The weather was nice in the morning but by evening we had our daily share of rain. We drove from Castuero almost to Cabeza del Buey and stopped for some time by the radar station around dawn, but the Cranes were already in the fields to the South: hundreds of them were far away in the fields and between the cork oaks and it looked like they had slept there (reportedly they sleep in Embalse del Zujar to the North and reach their feeding areas in the morning flying low over the radar station.) Around the observation point we had Sardinian Warbler and a lark which probably was a Thekla, but we couldn't be sure. We then drove the road from Cabeza del Buey to Embalse del Zujar, with several stops and side trips for the whole day. Closer Cranes were around the cork oaks at the beginning of the road, but soon we had our first group of Great Bustards. Sandgrouse (with both Black-bellied and Pin-tailed present in La Serena) were a major objective for us and we had 2 flying Black-bellied Sandgrouse, followed by 8 more. Leaving the main road we managed to locate 6 birds on the ground, but unfortunately they were quite far away. We tried the drinking site reported by Paul Veron (also in Gosney's booklet: La Calderuela) but the whole La Serena was so wet that it was silly to think that there could be a specific site at which sandgrouse gathered at that time of the year. We however saw more Great Bustards and a spectacular flight of around 150 Little Bustards: some of the latter were also located on the ground but very far away and almost completely disappearing in the grass. Later we stopped by a building along the road and on a small rock near it two larks allowed close scrutiny for several minutes: eventually we were fully convinced that they were Thekla Larks. At dusk our path was crossed several times by small groups of flying of Great Bustards, but we were not able to find neither Pin-tailed Sandgrouse nor Stone Curlews.
We decided to try our luck again at La Serena, hoping to see the two species we had missed the day before. We drove the C413 North of Castuera, which appears to have quite a bit of traffic: when we got to Embalse del Zujar we took again the road we had driven the day before but soon we had to give up our hopes because the rain was really heavy. We started our drive towards Andalucia and Coto Donana which took almost all day and was marked by almost continuous rain. Through Cordoba and Sevilla we reached the village of El Rocio where we had reserved rooms in a very nice inn through Discovering Donana, the El Rocio based company run by an Italian couple. Actually getting to the inn was far from easy: the roads in El Rocio are not paved and the continuous rain of the last days had changed them into river beds, digging streams of running water in the centre of each of them. Mud was everywhere and we even saw people trying to pull a jeep out of the mud in the centre of the village. However we managed to find our way to the inn without getting stuck, but we had to give up our hopes of birding before dusk. In the evening we made plans with Marina of Discovering Donana about the next day: at 8 we will leave the inn with Claudio on their jeep for a visit to some of the most interesting areas of the park.
A very windy day (even for Coto Donana standards, according to Claudio), but almost no rain and long breaks of sunshine. Claudio drove us, by way of a long detour NW of the park, to the area of Lucio Cerrado Garrido and Canada Mayor. Without his jeep we would never get there: the roads were often flooded and very bumpy and the vehicle proved to be a very useful windscreen. Without his guidance we would never see all the birds we saw. Greylag Geese were everywhere and the most common gull was the Lesser Black-backed. The first rarities were 7 Black Storks and in the same area we saw also several shorebirds and a flying Squacco Heron. By the roadside we saw a small party (adults and juveniles) of Purple Gallinules and a single Stone-curlew. later we had our first Imperial Eagles: 1 juvenile and 2 immatures were hunting along a small strip of land which was surrounded by water. Several unlucky rabbits were trapped there and the hunting was easy and rewarding for the young eagles. An Osprey flew over. Later we got near the visitor centre of Lucio Cerrado Garrido at the place where, according to Claudio, the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse gathered at this time of the year. We were indeed rewarded by at least one hundred of them feeding in the fields and making short flights at reasonable distance. They are so richly patterned that it is difficult to concentrate on specific features and so it is surprisingly hard to sex them. The visitor centre was almost only a toilet stop, but it holds also a small collection of feathers and other stuff. Then we drove along the embankment which is known as the "FAO wall" (apparently FAO financed its construction to dry out some areas for agriculture): waves were splashing on both sides over areas which are usually dry. Along the way we stopped to identify some Lesser Short-toed Larks. We eventually got just outside the area of Canada Mayor with a view over Palacio del Rey. There we saw 4 juveniles and 1 immature Imperial Eagles, 1 juvenile and 3 adults Egyptian Vultures, a Short-toed Eagle, a female Little Bustard, Griffon Vultures and moreover foxes, hares and fallow deer. We spent the last part of the day in the Canada Mayor woods, cruising with the jeep hoping to catch at least a glimpse of a lynx but we ended up seeing only a wonderful sunset. The day was not over yet: on our way back Claudio stopped twice for Barn Owls!
The weather had fallen in an acceptable pattern: rain at night and even some sunshine in the day. In the morning we had reserved our guided tour to the heart of the park. This is the only way to get there and is run on safari buses for the general public. The drive starts with a long trip on the beach, where Sanderlings and Oystercatchers abound. The driver made a very short stop in front of the old tower where a pair of Peregrines nests: both birds where sitting on top of the tower, but we couldn't set up our scopes. After the beach the trip moves in the woods with some more stops and we managed to see only some Red- legged Partridges, plenty of deers and (rather tame) boars. Eventually we were between the ridges of sand dunes and the road was very bumpy: one of us managed to get sick. I am not sure whether to recommend this excursion: it is not very rewarding birdwise and eventually gets a bit boring, but this is the only way to see some of the park habitats. The trip starts and ends at the El Acebuche visitor centre and we spent the early part of the afternoon exploring the hides that look over the Laguna de los Pajaros: the water level was very high and not many birds were around. We saw many Little Grebes and eventually a single male Ferruginous Duck. Later we moved to the hides near the La Rocina visitor centre, where we had a great show of Purple Gallinule, with several birds pretty close to the hides, allowing also for good photo opportunities. Garganey and Snipes were the other interesting birds we saw there.
We started the morning with some exploration of the lake (in drier seasons I understand this might be a lagoon or even dry almost completely out) just South of El Rocio: plenty of Greylag Geese, a few Pochards and not much more. From the highway bridge we overlooked the Laguna de los Pajaros and saw again the Purple Gallinules. We then drove to Matalascanas on the coast and then westward towards Huelva: once we took a side road to the sea and spent fifteen minutes without seeing any seabird. When we got to Huelva we crossed the Odiel river and followed the signs pointing to the "Juan Carlos primero" dike. Claudio of "Discovering Donana" had recommended this area, which is partly a nature preserve, for shorebirds and we were amply rewarded. First the road runs between saltpans, which are especially good with a high tide, and then reaches the sea, with beaches opening as the tide retires (so timing is essential). We saw 14 shorebirds species, including both Godwits, Turnstones, Knots (for us landlocked Southern birdwatchers quite exciting) and especially a Grey Phalarope (Claudio had seen two of them the day before leading other birders at Coto Donana). Other highlights were Osprey, Red-breasted Mergansers, Black-necked Grebe, Sandwich and Caspian Terns and several Spoonbills. But the real rarity was an adult Arctic Tern sitting on a sandbar. We enjoyed our last Spanish sunset between Spoonbills flying over.
After some consulting we decided to spend our last birding hours searching an agricultural area just Southwest of El Rocio: Claudio had told us this was a good site for Black-shouldered Kites and we managed to see very well one of them on a tree. We had to leave El Rocio around 11am to get in time to the Sevilla airport, where we took our flight back to Rome (via Barcelona) and eventually reached Torino later that night.
D = Coto Donana
E = Extremadura other than M and S
M = Monfrague
O = Odiel estuary
S = La Serena
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis Common in D,O Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus M,S,D Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis O Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo common Little Egret Egretta garzetta common Grey Heron Ardea cinerea common Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides D Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis common Black Stork Ciconia nigra D White Stork Ciconia ciconia common Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia O Greylag Goose Anser anser very common in D Shelduck Tadorna tadorna D Gadwall Anas strepera D Teal Anas crecca M,E,D Mallard Anas platyrhynchos common Pintail Anas acuta O Wigeon Anas penelope D Shoveler Anas clypeata E,D Pochard Aythya ferina D,O Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca D Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator O Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caeruleus E,D Red Kite Milvus milvus common Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus D Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus common almost everywhere Black Vulture Aegypius monachus M,E Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus D Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus D,O Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus E,S,D Buzzard Buteo buteo common Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila (heliaca) adalberti D Bonelli's Eagle Hieraaetus fasciatus E Osprey Pandion haliaetus D,O Kestrel Falco tinnunculus common Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus D Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa M,E,D Purple Gallinule Porphyrio porphyrio D Moorhen Gallinula chloropus D Coot Fulica atra D Crane Grus grus E,S Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax E,S,D Great Bustard Otis tarda E,S Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus D,O Thick-knee Burhinus oedicnemus D Golden-Plover Pluvialis apricaria common in E,S Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola O Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula D,O Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus D,O Lapwing Vanellus vanellus common Snipe Gallinago gallinago D Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa O Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica O Curlew Numenius arquata O Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus D Redshank Tringa totanus D Greenshank Tringa nebularia D,O Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus E Turnstone Arenaria interpres O Knot Calidris canutus O Sanderling Calidris alba D,O Little Stint Calidris minuta O Dunlin Calidris alpina O Ruff Philomachus pugnax D Grey Phalarope Phalaropus fulicaria O Herring Gull Larus argentatus D Yellow-legged Gull Larus cachinnans M,O Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus D,O Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus S,D,O Caspian Tern Sterna caspia O Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis O Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea O Pin-tailed Sandgrouse Pterocles alchata D Black-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles orientalis S Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus common Barn Owl Tyto alba D Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo M Little Owl Athene noctua E,S Kingfisher Alcedo atthis M,D,O Hoopoe Upupa epops common Calandra Lark Melanocorypha calandra S Lesser Short-toed Lark Calandrella rufescens D Crested Lark Galerida cristata common Thekla Lark Galerida theklae S Wood Lark Lullula arborea E Skylark Alauda arvensis E,S Crag-Martin Hirundo rupestris M,E White Wagtail Motacilla alba common Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea M Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis E,S,D Dunnock Prunella modularis E Blue Rock-Thrush Monticola solitarius M Blackbird Turdus merula M Song Thrush Turdus philomelos E Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus M,E Robin Erithacus rubecula common Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros common Stonechat Saxicola torquata common Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucura M Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti E Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita common Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla M,E Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala S Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata E Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus M Great Tit Parus major M Blue Tit Parus caeruleus E Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor common Jay Garrulus glandarius M Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyana common Magpie Pica pica common Jackdaw Corvus monedula E,S Raven Corvus corax E,S,D Starling Sturnus vulgaris S Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor common House Sparrow Passer domesticus common Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis E Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia E Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs common Serin Serinus serinus E,D Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis E,S,D Greenfinch Carduelis chloris common Linnet Carduelis cannabina M Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes M Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra common in E,S
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