Sunday, April 19, 2009

Easter in Spain - Day 9

Friday, our last day in Spain was forecast heavy rain, so we had kept the day for our initial visit to Doñana National Park, one of the major wetlands in Europe, of equivalent importance with the Danube delta in Romania and the Camargue in Southern France. Good for a rainy day because it has plenty of hides on its outskirts. On the basis we hadn’t pre-organised a guide for this leg of our visit and didn’t intend joining a public excursion onto the reserve on one of the tractor-buses, we had to make do with the visitor centres on the perimeter of the park.

Our first stop was the visitor centre at El Acebuche, which as well as providing information, loos and a café, and being the jump-off for the public tours, also has 2.5km of walks to eight hides. By the time we’d parked up the clouds were gathering as the weather system moved in from the Atlantic so we made haste to the hides. However all around it seemed were Azure-winged Magpies, and much less flighty than out in the wilds, I presume on the basis no one shoots at them here. This gave me the opportunity to photograph them in various activities:

Only two of the hides had structures resembling chairs and the viewing slots are set notably lower than in the UK, so bird watching involves either kneeling on hard stones or bending over to peer through. Nonetheless the birding was good. We heard and saw Savi’s Warblers, Great Reed Warblers:

The Great Reed Warbler flew from its singing position to see off a Reed Warbler before flying back again to resume singing. A pair of Red-crested Pochards idled past:

Along the path Serin were constantly singing and battling for position:

I fixed the monopod to the camera to capture this photo. Having taken it we heard a raucous pair of birds approach, which landed in a nearby tree, obscured from view. They appeared to be dark-brown magpie shaped birds, with speckles. One then the other flew off, Great Spotted Cuckoos, I tried to get a fix and take a picture but the monopod got in the way so no record shot, however we both got very good views of the bird and are confident we recognised them.

At one hide a Hoopoe startled us by flying up to the open window, from the ground in front of the hide I presume, to grab an insect, we enjoyed a brief moment of being less than a metre from a hovering Hoopoe who looked just as surprised at seeing us.

From another hide we watched a Little Grebe feeding a youngster:

Stonechats were also feeding fledglings as were Mallards. Whilst in this hide an Azure-Winged Magpie settled on a branch directly in front of the hide, even in the gathering gloom I was able to get a couple of cracking pictures of the bird:

Throughout our stay in Spain we’ve been struck by the Spring flowering plants that cover any open ground, and have photographed a number of examples:

Our second stop was the visitor centre at La Rocina, which again has a number of interconnected walks and hides. Large numbers of Woodchat Shrike were visible throughout this area. We walked out to the farthest hides first, and were surprised to find another Reed Warbler occupying a tree for feeding and singing:

From the path at the same spot we watched Glossy Ibis feeding:

Another ‘common’ bird in this area is the Nightingale, singing from trees and scrub alike, their bodies trembling with their song as they compete to attract a mate. Being surrounded by singing Nightingales is a wonderful experience and you cannot help but smile. Another common bird though much quieter of song is the Sardinian Warbler:

We also watched Black Kites, Marsh Harriers and a Booted Eagle soaring above the reserve searching for food. Having completed our walk here we set off for our last stop of the holiday further down the track from the visitor centre – the Palace of El Acebron and its surrounding walk. The palace is deserted now and used mostly by nesting House Martins.

The road between the visitor centre and the car park for the Palace was frequented by Bee-eaters:

Lots and lots of them. Of course if you get close they take off and fly on. It almost became a game trying to get close enough to take a picture yet keeping distant enough to not flush them on. The woodland walk in the gathering sunshine of a warm afternoon was lovely. Again we were surrounded throughout by singing Nightingales, joined by Serin, a pair of Ravens who clacked overhead, Chaffinch, Blackbirds and the Barn Swallows and House Martins overhead. The trees were literally buzzing with hundreds of Honey Bees, quite a noise when you hear it for the first time and realise it’s coming from above… It was a very pleasant way to finish our Spanish holiday and a really very pleasant spot.

New Species:
Savi’s Warbler
Great Spotted Cuckoo

Trip species total: 170
New species total: 42

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Easter in Spain - Day 8

On Thursday morning, we headed to Huelva on the border with Portugal and to our first stop on the beach at Punta Umbria. The town of Punta Umbria has been significantly developed since the guidebook we were using was initially published (Where to Watch Birds in Southern & Western Spain). So much so that the roads you often seek have been replaced and some of the locations described have been encroached upon or built upon. This is the case with Punta Umbria.

We did enjoy encountering a new species on the walk to the beach though, a screaming party of Pallid Swifts, that seemed to be feeding on insects about some vegetation growing from a gutter of a house:

A few Sandwich Terns flew by and there were also a few Yellow-legged Gulls on the water around the boats but birds were generally few and far between except of course the House Sparrows, which are almost everywhere you go in Spain. On the dunes we also spotted a few Crested Larks but nothing like what we’d hoped to encounter, that’ll be progress then…

Next we decided to head to the Marismas del Odiel on the other side of the river. En route a male Hen Harrier flew over us as we drove along the main road, a second new species for the day, though tricky to record at 100kmh with both hands on the wheel! The lady at the visitor centre on the Marismas was very helpful; she gave us a guide in both English and Spanish, explained which walks were closed due to breeding Ospreys and which were open and therefore accessible.

We started with the walk around the centre itself. A good choice. On the river a small group of Sandwich Terns:

were joined by a much larger group of Little Terns, plunge diving for fish:

On the shoreline a group of waders foraged including Dunlin:

Further round, by the old jetty a bigger group of waders moved up and down the shore, including Curlew Sandpiper, Ringed Plover and Kentish Plover. A Common Sandpiper was looking for a meal in the woodland, of course:

From the hides overlooking the lagoons at the rear of the visitor centre we were treated to an adult Spoonbill, preening:

Extending its wings:


With the wind blowing strongly the head plumage looked quite ‘punk’:

We headed out on the road and further down the island towards the next open area, stopping to photograph what looked like a wild rose on the roadside:

From the car park at walk number five we watched a Grey Plover:

and Whimbrel:

Again we were quite taken with the flowering fields all around:

After a short walk we jumped back in the car and headed further down the road, stopping to observe groups of waders on the sands. Here you can see a Sanderling and a Dunlin side-by-side:

Having thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Marismas del Odiel we headed on the Paraje Natural Lagunas de Palos y Las Madres. As we reached the roundabout at the head of the Island a pair of Hen Harriers were quartering the field. I did a u-turn to get back to a pull-out in the hope of getting a record shot before they disappeared from view, alas all I managed was a single blurry snap of the female before they both settled in the field undetectable. They are a real thrill to watch in flight and in no way might one confuse them with a pheasant and therefore shoot them if they happened across your path, unless of course you meant to shoot them in the first place…

The Paraje itself was a major disappointment with strawberry fields planted right up to the edge and with human excrement and litter everywhere:

This was a theme throughout our holiday, the majority of locals treat these preserved natural places as dumps and toilets, which is a huge shame. We headed quickly on to another local nature reserve, the Paraje Natural Estero de Domingo Rubio. This one we found overgrown and hard to access. The only path was to a fishing net cast across the flowing river under cover…

The day however was not yet done and we were enjoying the only really sunny day of our holiday so we decided to head back to Sevilla and to try and find the other place pointed out by Alfonso and referenced in the guide book, Isla Minima, the one we’d failed to find on Tuesday afternoon. Having re-read the instructions we worked out we’d misread them the first time around and needed to travel on quite a bit further than our first venture.

Pretty immediately we were in open country. We approached something called Dehesa de Abajo, which we hadn’t known about before we set out but which turned out to be a major reserve for breeding storks. We weren’t surprised to find that just like in England on one side of the road a nature reserve and on the other a sign for ‘Coto Deportivo de Caza’ – open hunting ground. Dehesa de Abajo however is a wonderful place. The gates were open though the centre itself was closed, however helpful maps and even pictures of potential birds were posted around the site, with names in Latin such that we could translate and reference our own field guides.

The White Storks abound on the site, nesting very close to the visitor centre; this one took off every time we used the nearby path:

Flew around and then landed again:

More beautiful fields of flowers:

Helen suggested the angle on that one and she was of course right. A lone Booted Eagle flew silently over the reserve:

Last but not least a Black Kite, this time with sufficient light to make out some of the plumage of the bird as it soared overhead:

We tried to locate the specific spot in the guidebook but the road leading to it was very rough and 4x4 country only so time to turn around and head back to the hotel for dinner. We really enjoyed the heavy rain today, which turned out to be only a very light shower for less than a minute :)

New Species for the day:

Pallid Swift
Hen Harrier
Booted Eagle

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Easter in Spain - Day 7

With the best forecast for the remainder of the week we headed to Sierra Norte (de Sevilla) hopeful, but not exactly in expectation of a great day.

Our first stop was the visitor centre just outside of Constantina, which was helpfully shut, even quite notably after its published opening time :)

We went for a walk along an adjoining track and enjoyed listening to Nightingales and getting our first glimpses of the very flighty and seemingly very nervous Azure-winged Magpies.

When the lady finally opened the centre and consented to sell us a map she was about as grumpy as one can possibly be, an ideal face for local tourism then. We headed from Constantina to Cerro del Hierro, watching Black Kites circle the road, and seeing Azure-winged Magpies fleeing in all directions at the first sign of humans. As well as being a Paraje Natural, Sierra Norte enjoys some fine geological features as you can see from this picture:

We walked the partially open trail and then headed back:

enjoying very good views of a Sub-alpine Warbler:

Above, more Black Kites together with a lone Griffon Vulture. On the way back down to the car park a Crested Lark allowed us to get really quite close:

Off the car park there is a ruin of some buildings, on which we saw fighting Blue Rock Thrushes and a number of Stonechats, this female decided to have a closer look at us:

Then closer still:

She was very agitated, we suspected her nest was close so we left them be.

On the drive to Cazella via Alanis we watched Crag Martins zooming around.

We stopped for lunch by an old monument by a waterfall and enjoyed listening to battling Blackcaps:

with accompanying Nightingales:

Blackbirds and Robins:

In the picnic area we disturbed a Hoopoe feeding:

Though it quickly forgot about us. Next up we opted for the scenic drive from Alanis to El Real del la Jara on which we spotted Mistle Thrush, Red-legged Partridge:

and lots of Woodchat Shrikes. We stopped off at the one place recommended for soaring raptors, but of course it was raining so we just enjoyed the view:

New Species for the day:

Azure-winged Magpie

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