Thats right - I've had a Shag in Benidorm, it was desmarestii if you care! Here is a cut and shut of my weeks birding on the Costa Blanca. Was a bit windy throughout so less spectacular than hoped but still very productive.
8 nights with an elderly relative may sound like purgatory but this came with the release of warm weather birding and habo on the doorstep. 22 lifers out of 84 species was a good haul. A very happy chappy.
We arrived to La Siesta, Torrevieja after a quick 2 hour 20 minute flight from Leeds/Bradford to Alicante airport. My wife's elderly aunt picked us up and we were at the apartment. It was pitch dark unfortunatly but I drifted into a fitfull sleep full of Hoopoes and Flamingos.
At 6.45 I was scouring the scrub alongside the apartment. This was part of a nature reserve called La Salinas del la Mata, a large lake which was formerly a salt pan.First bird was a House Sparrow followed by my first lifer in the form of Spotless Starling. These pretty little birds were ever present around the apartment and around any built up areas. As I got stuck into the scrub I heard the evocative trisylabic Hoop-hoop-hoop of a Hoopoe. I quickly saw a pair displaying to each other oblivious to me. I have never seen one before around the med - how I have avoided them im not sure! A lark rose from the bushes next to me, Crested Lark. A common bird on the continent and one I had seen on most european trips pereviously. 4 Greater Flamingos flew above the horizon and I couldn't yet see the lake side. Another lifer - 3 already. There were infact several hundred Flamingos around the lake. A pair of Shelduck were flying over the lake shore.
As I reached the lake shore another triumvirate of lifers awaited. First up a displaying pair of Slender-billed Gulls were hding in the margins. These were flushed by an incoming pair of Black-winged Stilts. Zitting above my head was a small and vocal bird whcih I soon twigged was the first of many Fan-tailed Warblers I would see.
Barn Swallows were hawking over the vegetation as were some higher flying birds. A group of Pallid Swifts moved slowly west over the streets. Under close scrutiny these subtle birds showed a few differences to their common relatives such as an obvious white throat, paler colouring (only obvious in good light and scaling to the body. Im not sure how useful the blunt wing tips are as it wasn't an obvious difference to me (bearing in mind I hadn't seen a Common Swift in 8 months).
Looking back at the lake it was obvious there were thousands of 'ducks' out at some distance. As I scoped these it became patent that these were infact a massive grouping of Black-necked Grebes. Perhaps 5,000 individuals were present, maybe more. Also sat on the water were many Black-headed Gulls and Yellow-legged Gulls. A Grey Heron flew overhead. A constant accompanyment was the scolding of many Sardinian Warblers followed by brief glimpses of flying birds or furtive glimpses in the pine scrub. Along the shore yet more stilts were mating and small groups of Avocets sat and loafed. I soon noticed that the majority of the flying passerines were very showy Serins.
I mooched back in for breakfast a smiling and sweaty fella.
Later the same day a walk with my wife produced a very pretty male western Subalpine Warber. This was to be my only sighting of this stunning warbler and preceded some unsettled weather in the afternoon. A pair of Red-legged Partridge flushed from vegetation as we walked.
A third walk of the day found me largely frustrated but a very cold female Woodchat Shrike showed down to a few feet. At this point I cursed not having my camera with me as it sat in the scope view for ages.
The next day I was due to hire a car and head 100 miles or so north to Pego Marshes so I slept a dreamless sleep after such a productive first day. The next morning a flyover Goldfinch was pretty standard fare and its delay in being noted was more likely my lack of attention to the familiar. We hired an Opel Corsa for 7 days for 125 euros which included a full tank of petrol. This little beauty gave me my first faltering steps in left hand drive motoring. A long drag up the 'A' road to Pego - at the very north of the province improved my confidence driving on the wrong side of the road.
Arriving at Pego it was windy. Not a bird could be heard but I got stuck in. Up first was a White Wagtail beside the board walk. Cruising over the reeds were many hirundines - swallows and both House and Sand Martins. Nothing more interesting but some Mallard flushed as did loads of Little Egrets. There must have been hundreds of these on sight as they were all over - concealed by reeds. A scan of the reed tops from a tower showed some raptors over the reeds - Marsh Harrier, four f them, 2 males and 2 females. I soon noticed a few herons flushing from the reeds and the third of these proved to be a Purple Heron - another lifer. Over the course of the afternoon these proved to be the most common large heron. I stumbled across some waders feeding in some damp meadows - Little Ringed Plover, a single Wood Sandpiper a bogey bird in Britain and several sowing machine like Snipe. Stilts were pretty much ubiquitus. A Greenfinch settled by the road (which incidently was always full of Little Egrets). A Cattle Egret sat atop a small building - a very dowdy individual and a large white heron was chasing a Purple Heron of equal size - it had to be a Great White Egret, a very good bird for the area. It flew again and its brilliant yellow bill was easily seen. On the mud bank several Spanish Yellow Wagtails were present. Coot, Moorhen & Little Grebe were present on the cut areas of reed. Several warblers were singing from the reedbeds - I'm sure one was a great reed warbler but didnt see the bird. One that I did see proved to be a reluctant Whitethroat.
The journey back was made on the toll Motorway at high speed! Added on the trip was a Kestrel. A common site in Alicante.
The 28th was less interesting birding wise as my wifes aunt insisted we visite Benidorm. This did provide a Shag just off Benidorm beach as I dipped my toes. Yellow-legged Gulls were all over. A few Sandwich Terns worked the surf zone. When we returned my wife picked out a Black Redstart sat atop next doors roof.
I went for a walk early evening down by the apartment in the scrub and Southern Grey Shrike was seen briefly. A very pink breasted individual, this species proved regular in suitable habitat. A female Bluethroat was flitting through the low shrubs next to the lake - appearing to be on passage. The ever present Crested Larks, Flamingos and Black-necked Grebes remained but I scanned the gulls roosting on the salinas finding several Mediterranean Gulls. A few Cormorants were amongst the gulls. On returning to the apartment a few Woodpigeons and Collared Doves were about.
The 29th brought a trip up into the mountains with the ball and chain. She wanted a walk - I wanted Bonelli's Eagle. What we got was a compromise - she saw a large raptor and I walked a bit! Four lifers were added - Chough, Black Wheatear, Crag Martin and Blue Rock Thrush and not a good view was had of any. The Crag Martins were zipping over the tops of the Sierra de Crevillente as the Chough worked the cliff face. The Rock Thrush and Wheatear were both seen on the skyline at about a miles difference and I had to looked at the undercarriage to seperate them as size didnt cut it at distance (the wheatear having a white arse as they say). Added to the trip list was a solitary Great Tit.
The afternoon found me exploring the eastern end of the salinas near the aprtment. Here I found a hide overlooking some ace wader scrapes full of Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Turnstone, Redshank, Little Stint and Sanderling. Kentish Plover being a lifer - I soon realised they were everywhere and even saw an extremely ickle baby.
The next day was an early start as I did what any east coast birder worth his salt does during migration and found myself at the top of the nearest headland with scrub. The Cabo de Santa Pola looks perfect but I saw nada, nothing, nowt, nicht. Rubbish.
I soon worked my way down to the salt pans of Santa Pola. Here many gulls, waders and flamingoes loafed. The fabled Marbled Duck was supposed to be around but did i see any, did I heck! I did see my first Red-rumped Swallow tagging with the Swallows and a breeding plumage Cattle Egret running around my car. A Great Crested Grebe was on the salinas and also one was just offshore from the beach. The salinas are very hard to work with limited viewing access and the very busy N332 running through. The rest of the usual fare was knocking about as was a single iberiae Yellow Wag.
Another site mentioned in my guidebook (A Birdwatching Guide to the Costa Blanca by Malcolm Palmer - very good for some ideas but lacks a lot of detail) was El Pinet jut to the south of the Santa Pola salinas. This site accessed from La Marina is a set of working salt extractions and some adjacent nature reserve. Here a group of 8 Hoopoe was notable as were single male Whinchat & Stonechat. It was 26 degrees and I soon gave up due to the call of the sea (ie the misses wanted to go to the beach) but not before seeing displaying Slender-billed and more interestingly Med Gulls. At the beach at Guardamar a couple of Audouin's Gulls flew over. Driving home a couple of raptors were going for each other at the west end of Salinas de la Mata - a Common Buzzard and a male Hen Harrier. It was my first male Hen Harrier as the winterers at Blacktoft recently have all been ringtails.
The monday rolled up and I fancied another day up at Sierra de Crevillente in the mountains. This was good fun on a week day and provided some good birds. The first new trip bird was a Sparrowhawk flushed from pine scrub which then circled the peak nearest for 20 minutes. A sylvia warbler in the gorge that ran alongside the footpath proved to be one of three Dartford Warblers, another shameful lifer! whilst looking at this a medium sized bird appeared to fly into on of the holes in the rock face - a good look at a surprised and surprising Little Owl followed. Some Kestrels were nesting in the crags further up and I watched the female appear to bring food whilst the male soared overhead. The only other bird added to the trip list were some nesting Jackdaws, a scarce bird for the province. I did flush some larks in the crags and I have a feeling these were thekla larks - they had plain tails - but no way of proving they weren't crested larks.
The journey home proved to be more productive with an Alpine Swift moving west over the western scrubs of La Mata and a massive raptor passing over head on the benijomar road. The underwings reminded of a male Hen Harrier with extensive black tips and no carpal mark. The wings were broader and wider at the base and a dirty white in colour - enhanced by the dark trailing edge. A scout through Collins reinforced my first impressions, a pale morph Booted Eagle. Was extremely chuffed - even more so when a small party of 4 Bee-eaters went overhead in the garden, vruuuting as they went.
A walk at the western end of La Mata on the 1st provided the last lifer of the trip, a bright Iberian Chiffchaff in subsong. 4 Hen Harriers were floating over the reedbed - 2 males and 2 ring tails, a glorious sight.
Despite being a built up area with pockets of habitat - it seems the Costa Blanca is a promising birding area with plenty of potential. I missed enough species to warrant a return and next time I intend to spend a day or 2 with Jules Sykes the bird forum member whose advice was gratefully received and who runs Oliva Rama tours based at Oliva near Pego marshes.