Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Spain and Portugal - February 2009

21/02/09- Castro Marim, Portugal - Caspian Terns and Ocellated Lizard

This was our fourth long weekend visit to the region in the past couple of years. All have been in winter and all have been in glorious sunshine, with temperatures this week reaching 24’C during the day. We flew from Liverpool to Faro in Portugal, and stayed in a holiday house in el Portil, Spain. Total cost for flights, car hire and accommodation came to £180. Eating out was more expensive than usual, but about the same or less than the UK.

We touched down at Faro at 9:30am on Saturday 21st February. After the preliminaries of collecting the luggage and the car, we set off to our first birding stop, a whole 5 minutes drive from the airport, at Ludo on the road to Praia de Faro. This is usually an excellent spot for Caspian Tern, and we weren’t disappointed, with one seen almost immediately we stopped the car. Also here a decent selection of waders and our first Flamingos of the trip, as well as our first lizard, an incredibly long tailed Large Psammadromus.

However, we didn’t want to linger too long here, because we had a lot to cram into the day, and our first major stop was at Castro Marim on the border with Spain, about a one hour drive away. Here there were many waders, 10 Caspian Terns, 6 Stone Curlew, 20 Spoonbills, an Osprey, a single Lesser Short-toed Lark and a few Southern Grey Shrikes. We also saw up to 6 Iberian Hares and a huge Ocellated Lizard. This is a large, powerful green lizard with blue spots on its flanks, which can grow up to 80cm from snout to tip of the tail.

Our final destination of the day was the Laguna at el Portil. It was a little disappointing, with a good selection of ducks, Crested Tits and Purple Gallinules, but not quite as good as anticipated. Certainly no sign of any hoped for White-headed Ducks or Red-knobbed Coots. An adult Audoiuns Gull on the water with Lesser black-backs did provide some compensation.

22/02/09 - Sierra de Norte - Fire Salamander

The following day we were up early and out at first light. We had about a two hour drive ahead of us to the Sierra de Norte, a truly beautiful range of British sized mountains just north of Seville. These mountains offer a good contrast to the coastal marismas, and many species can be found here which either don’t occur or are very scarce on the marismas. On the way, about 30 miles from Seville, a flock of about 20 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew over the car.

Crag Martins became quite common, Nuthatches called from every woodland, Grey Wagtails frequented every stream and the call of the Green Woodpecker was never far way. Lesser spotted Woodpeckers can be found here, whilst overhead there can be 100 Griffon Vultures and a few Black Vultures. We also saw a flock of 25 Common Cranes flying overhead and a single Great-spotted Cuckoo being chased by several Azure-winged (Iberian) Magpies.

However, great though these fabulous birds were, they weren’t the main reason for our visit to these mountains. We had come here in search of an amphibian, the elusive Fire Salamander, which has distinct race in this area, known as morenica. Fire Salamander is about as big as a large newt, and is glossy black with large yellow spots, and is a species we have searched for in vain throughout Europe over the past 20 years or more. To find a Fire Salamander, you either need to be at a rocky stream in the mountains at night with torches, or you have to turn over countless logs and rocks in suitable habitat and hope that one day you will get lucky. Today was that day! We spent hours looking under rocks and logs along wooded streams, and had more or less given up, when suddenly we turned over a large railway sleeper in what seemed quite unsuitable habitat, and there it was, a Fire Salamander in all its glory! We took a few photographs before returning it gently to its sleeper.

23/02/09 - Madre de la Marismas del Rocio

Next day we were up early again. Today was the day we were heading off to el Rocio and Donana, but I wanted to make a brief stop at the visitor centre at Marismas del Odiel at Huelva, on the off chance that there might be Red-knobbed Coot there, a species I desperately wanted to see in the area. Once again it was our lucky day, because there in the centre of the first lagoon we scanned was a Red-knobbed Coot chasing around a few Common Coots. It seemed to be nest building, but we couldn’t find a second bird. I was struck by how different Red-knobbed Coot is when compared to Common Coot. Not only does it have the two red knobs on its head, its white shield is a distinctly different shape and its neck seemed thinner.

Now we were on our way to Donana full of anticipation, and it was still only 9am. It was only three months since we had last been at the place, so this time we decided to not bother with the northern marshes, and concentrate on the area around el Rocio. That’s one of the advantages of going to a place so often – the pressure to see everything is off, because you’ve already seen it. Now you can concentrate on the detail, and who cares if you miss the odd species. We took the coastal route past the delights of the industrialised part of Huelva, and past Mazagon. Our first stop was the El Acebuche centre, which truth to tell I find one of the more boring parts of Donana, but we did at least see a few Purple Gallinules.

Then it was on to el Rocio. This is the best way to approach the village, because it comes upon you so dramatically. One minute you’re driving through miles of sand dunes with Stone Pine, the next you’re crossing La Rocina bridge and in front of you is Madre de la Marismas del Rocio, the Mother of the marshes, with the village of el Rocio as a backdrop, dominated by the magnificent, church. A quite stunning view (see photo).There were moderate numbers of birds on the marsh. Not as many as on some visits, but more than others. We counted about 500 Flamingos, 60 Glossy Ibis and 50 Spoonbills, plus many egrets Marsh Harriers, Red Kites, a good selection of waders and ducks and about 300 hirundines, which included a couple of Red-rumped Swallows. Best of all, we came upon two flocks of Penduline Tits totalling 10 birds in all. Quite stunning little birds, almost like miniature Red-backed shrikes, with silvery grey heads, black masks and red backs, they were easiest to pick out by looking out for the falling bulrush seeds as they fed in the reedbed.The promenade at el Rocio holds a small population of Carbonell’s Wall Lizard, which seemed to enjoy basking in the warm winter sun. We’ve seen these here every time we’ve been, and they never seem to hibernate. At the back of the village we came across another large Ocellated Lizard, as well as a few Marsh and Tree Frogs.

We walked across the field at the back of the village, and then along the fence until we came to the Raya Real, the track which leads off into the woods towards Cota del Rey. There was lots of woodland activity here, including Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and lots of Azure-winged Magpies. In the fields just before the woods we saw a male Hen Harrier and over the woods Spanish Imperial Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, pale phase Booted Eagle and several Buzzards. In the woods a Tawny Owl was hooting, despite the fact it was broad daylight, and Spotless Starlings were abundant everywhere. As we walked back to the village, we came across the very unexpected sight of three Short-eared Owls mobbing a Marsh Harrier.

24/02/09 - Castro Verde to Mertola - Bustards and Sandgrouse

Tuesday was the last day of our brief but productive break. Since we needed to be back at Faro airport by 6pm, we decided to spend the day in Portugal, and headed up to Mertola and then across to Castro Verde. This is the southern part of the Alentejo, and is bustard country.

The drive up to Mertola was not as bad as memory suggested, and we were in the town by 9:30am, having seen Great Spotted Cuckoo, Short-toed Eagle and as small flock of 50 Golden Plover on the way. After a brief look at the spectacular bridge, we set off towards Castro Verde.

This is a great road for birding. A line of White Stork nests on telegraph poles followed the road. At our very first stop, we saw three distant birds flying away from us which I suspected to be sandgrouse. Then at the next stop, a male Great Bustard flew over, and then suddenly I spotted a small group on the ground in the distance. As I watched they took to the air and flew towards us, and I was amazed to see that there were over 40 birds in the flock. A magnificent sight. Also here two Little Bustards flew past and landed in the field in front of us. Surprisingly, these were the only Little Bustards we saw.

We pressed on, and found a nice looking damp field with a stream which looked ideal for amphibians. We squelched around for a while and found nothing, presumably its former inhabitants eaten by the masses of storks (or possibly they had just evolved to be good at hiding!). Three Red Kites flew over the stony field behind us, and suddenly a group of about 20 medium sized birds, perhaps the size of partridge, flew up and circled around the field. Really beautiful birds, they were Black-bellied Sandgrouse! The light shone on them perfectly and they had bright chestnut backs and black bellies. When they landed I could clearly see their grey breasts and chestnut throats. Wonderful birds! Southern Grey Shrikes were quite common in this area, and there was another flock of Golden Plover, this time numbering at least 200 birds. We still had time to find another 7 Great Bustards, all males, and as we watched they briefly displayed to each other.

Reptiles and amphibians were a bit thin on the ground, with just 2 Spanish Terrapins seen, and a single Western Iberian Painted Frog.Our last stop of the day before we headed back to the airport was at a pond just west of Castro Verde itself.

We turned over many rocks and bits of rubbish and wood, until at last under a rock, we found two Worm Lizards. Really strange, subterranean legless lizards which live underground most of the time and are virtually blind. A fantastic way to end our short break to south west Iberia. Can’t wait for our next visit!

Saturday, 21 February 2009

A few photos from Spain and Portugal February 2009

Worm Lizard

White Stork


Red-knobbed Coot

Penduline Tit

Greater Flamingos - el Rocio

Crested Lark

Fire Salamander

Madre de la Marismas del Rocio

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Ainsdale Beach

Snow Bunting 5 (3 males, 2 females)
Red-throated Diver 20+
Great crested Grebe 20+
Guillemot 10

Hilbre had 63 Red-throated Divers one day last week, so I suppose that 20 offshore at Ainsdale probably wasn't too surprising, but a great sight non-the-less.

Eccleston Mere

Goldeneye 14 (7 adult males, 2 sub adult males, 5 females)
Pink-footed Goose 1000 (flew over NW in five flocks of about 200 birds each)

I don't think I've ever seen 7 adult Goldeneye on the mere before. It certainly has been a good year for them.

There was clearly a big movement of Pink-feet today, with five flocks seen heading NW in just over one hour. Looks like they're moving out of Norfolk and heading back to Lancashire.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Eccleston Mere

Goldeneye 3
Willow Tit 2 (in SW corner)
Kingfisher 1
Little Grebe 1

Another cold day, with 95% ice cover leaving very little on the water, but in the sun it was fairly pleasant. There was quite a lot of woodland bird activity, with plenty of Treecreepers, Goldcrests and a few Siskins. The Kingfisher was on the stream. Singing birds included plenty of Robins, Coal Tit and Great Tits.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Eccleston Mere

Goldeneye 6
Little Grebe 1

Not much on the water, coz there wasn't much water! about 75% iced over. Some nice views though!

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Eccleston Mere

Goldeneye 15 (6mm, 9ff)
Pochard 17
Tufted Duck 8
Great crested Grebe 18
Willow Tit 1 (in SE corner on feeders.)
Lapwing 25
Siskin 10

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