Sunday, 17 May 2015

Spain - Coto Donana/Extremadura: 21st-29th April, 2015 - Part Two


The Intrepid Explorers!
After checking out of our hotel and sadly saying goodbye to Amy, we set off on the long trip north, towards Madrid and Extremadura. I had stupidly mislaid my room key and only found it when I unpacked my bag in Extremadura. How the hell had it jumped in there?

Earlier, before we left, we were treated to a sight of several of the locals on horseback, in all their finery. Was there to be a rodeo? Or was this Naturetrek trying to keep the costs down by having us travel by equine express?

The journey north wasn't too bad as it turned out, as it rained for most of the day. If it was going to rain on a birding holiday, better to do it when we were travelling. We stopped several times, mainly for a coffee break and to stretch our legs.

Lunch was at a very scenic spot overlooking an impressive hydro dam. Dave told us it was the 'Embalse de Alange'. I'd never heard of it but I gave him my best suitably impressed look. Before, during and after lunch we kept an eye out and spotted Alpine Swift; Red-rumped Swallow; Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Bunting, all specialists of the area. Happily the Rain God had taken pity on us, letting the sun shine down during our break.

We continued our journey north, accompanied by further rain showers. The Rain God wasn't that generous. We finally found ourselves around Trujillo, stopping and exploring the surrounding steppe. Here we spotted our first Great Bustards, with accompanying Calandra and Crested Larks. The sunshine tried to make an appearance but was beaten back by more dark rain clouds. It was a case of drive, stop, get out, spot the bird, avoid the rain and get back in to the mini-buses.

But then we spotted our first Little Bustard, about 50 metres away, head-tilting, looking as if it was in full display mode. I was also delighted to see several Stone Curlew nearby.

Eventually we turned up at our hotel, a fabulous looking place, out in the open countryside. A beautiful former stately home, which was reserved just for our group. Our Hosts, Juan Pedro and Belen, met us and showed us to our lovely rooms.

Our Hotel in Extremadura
Outside, around the hotel grounds, we spotted Firecrest; Hoopoe and lots of singing Nightingales. We were then served a wonderful dinner, including sampling the local wine and afterwards we were entertained with musical accompaniment by their children. Then Dave came back in with a Marbled Newt in his hand! Classic!

Usual time for brekkers. That was after I had managed to work out the shower. Unfortunately, most of the water ended up on the bathroom floor until I realised that the 'C' on the tap mean 'Hot' and not 'Cold'. Before we set off I took a quick look around the grounds where I found the newt, under a rock and then a couple of Holly Blue; a male Orange Tip and a pair of Speckled Wood butterflies appeared in the morning sun.

Brown Argus
But, a little later, the sun was soon eclipsed by a few light rain showers. More dark clouds were starting to accumulate. It was also noticeably colder than further south. I had to dig out the wet weather gear.

Our first stop was the village of Santa Marta de Magasca, where we found a wet-looking Lesser Kestrel colony perched up on the local Bullring roof. They looked a little fed up as it was still raining. I knew how they felt. I was beginning to wish we were back in the dry warmth of Coto Donana.

It's a tough job, this bird-watching lark. But someone has do it!
We then found ourselves on the open grasslands where we spotted around another 20-odd Great Bustards. But it was a bit of a wash out as it continued to pour with rain for most of the morning. There were so many Corn Buntings and Crested Larks around that we gave up looking at them. Now rare in our country, I guess that was because they were all over here.

After yet another coffee stop we drove to the Tamuja Valley, where finally the sun came out. Here we had good views of Spanish Sparrow, along with Wagtails, Grey and White. Moving on we could see several pairs of European Roller on the power lines, with nest-boxes that had been kindly put in place for them. 

After a fairly quick lunch in the hotel gardens the group split up, with some being dropped off to explore Trujillo, where the scourge of the Incas, Francisco Pizarro was born, while the rest of us moved on to the Belen Plain, where we saw Quail; more Rollers; Little Owl; more Little Bustard and a Beech Marten, which was sheltering in a barn. Further down the track we came across raptor city again, including several Cinereous Vultures. Huge birds, dwarfing even the Black Kites. It rained again towards the end but then brightened up, just as we arrived home.

Back at the hotel in the evening we experienced another wonderful dinner with more musical accompaniment. Afterwards, I continued to bore all the others with some of my photographs.

The next day was a top day! I thought it might be a little boring as we were to concentrate on raptors. But in the event, we saw a lot more than just raptors. It began even before we left the hotel. Whilst loading up the buses, Dave spotted a Great-spotted Cuckoo, out over the adjacent fields along with some more Iberian Magpies; Hoopoes and Shrikes that were about.

Corn Bunting anyone?
We then drove out to the Monfrague National Park. On the way we spotted lots of Corn Buntings (again!); Red-rumped Swallow and Crag Martin; Serin and Stonechat. I continued to delight in the amount of wild flower fields around here. I can't remember when I last saw a wild flower field in the UK.

Today was partly cloudy, partly sunny with a few rain showers. But, thankfully, it only rained towards the end of the day. We soon found ourselves at a place called Pennafalcon, where we could see what could only be described as 'Raptor Mountain'. Where we found plenty of Griffon Vultures; Egyptian Vultures; Black Vultures and a few Black Storks, all gliding the thermals around the cliffs. It was almost mesmeric watching them all.

I wanted to concentrate on birds that were closer up and so I took a walk along the tow-path, seeing Blue-Rock Thrush; Rock Bunting and Black Redstart. Then I was delighted to spot some Red-rumped Swallows and Crag Martins taking lots of mud from a roadside puddle. They were only a few yards away and didn't seem to mind me getting a little closer to photograph them.

We drove a little further on, where we briefly stopped to see a pair of Black-eared Wheatears. The hoped-for Black Wheatear didn't make an appearance unfortunately. Lunch was at a place called Rio Tietar. Did I mention that wine and beer was also laid on for us? Only to help wash down the delicious food, of course.

Our afternoon destination were the cliffs on Portilla del Tietar. We immediately spotted a stunning Spanish Imperial Eagle, which was calling out high above us. It looked like a flying barn door. We continued to walk down the road and were delighted to spot a Subalpine Warbler, collecting insects for its' young. It continued to fly back and forth, allowing some brilliant, close-up views.

We ended up at Montfrague Castle, which gave us some wonderful views of the valley laid out around us. Unfortunately, this was where it started to pour down with rain and I had inadvertently left my rain jacket in the bus. I had also added more butterflies and insects to the list today and I knew I would be pouring over the books when I arrived home.

Back at the Hotel we again enjoyed another wonderful meal, cooked by Belen herself. The wine flowed. I could get used to this.

The next day was much better, weather-wise. Today we decided to try and spot the birds that had eluded us on previous days, so we headed to the steppes around Trujillo. Here we found more Crested Larks and Corn Buntings.

'There's a Corn Bunting in the scope for anyone that hasn't seen one!' cried Dave.

But we also spotted some Thekla Larks, sat atop the bushes, posing for us. Then someone shouted out that a flock of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were flying past. Then we spotted the other target species, Black-bellied Sandgrouse flying in, albeit a bit distant. There were more Great and Little Bustard around the area, amongst lots of grazing cattle, including a single, lone, displaying Great Bustard.

It had started to turn into a very hot day, but with a merciful light breeze. Time to dump the wet weather gear. We stopped for yet another coffee break before heading north to the highest point of the area, where we watched quite a few Montague's Harriers sky-dancing.

Cue Dave again: 'What a lovely pair of Monty's!'

While everyone watched the raptors I again concentrated on insects, seeing Iberian Marbled White and Swallowtail, as well as a Red-striped Oil Beetle. There was another Marbled Newt here, but it was a dead one, so it didn't really count.

After another delicious ploughman's lunch (I loved the bread over here) we drove to the Sierra Guadeloupe, where we disembarked and took a slow walk down the road. I soon found myself on my own and concentrated on the ground, seeing plenty of Iberian Wall Lizards, all scuttling away when I approached. I was also delighted to spot a Queen of Spain Fritillary.

When I met up with the others I found that I had missed seeing a few Golden Eagles; Hawfinch; Cirl Bunting and Wryneck. Doh! But a little later on we had a good view of a Hawfinch and I could hear the call of a Cirl Bunting. I had already seen Golden Eagle and Wryneck before, so it wasn't too much of a problem. Just before we left this particular area we came across some Wild Peony and then one of the specialities of the area, a pair of Spanish Festoon butterflies. Beautiful!

It was the last night of our trip and we celebrated with another fantastic meal and, of course, some more wine.

Our flight home wasn't until late afternoon and so, after breakfast, we took a short walk down the road from the hotel, seeing pretty much the same thing as before. We packed up our gear and loaded it aboard the buses for the journey back to Madrid Airport. I even managed to remember to leave my hotel door key behind!

We made good time to Madrid, making a few more inevitable coffee stops along the way. Then it was a case of settling in to the usual travel routine. I made my farewells to everyone and managed to get home, relatively trouble-free around 11pm.

What a fantastic trip!

'To travel is to live.' Hans Christian Andersen

'There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.' Orson Welles

For more of my photos please visit my Flickr site.