Sunday, 9 August 2009

No Shags in Benidorm - Alicante Province, Spain 23rd July - 7th August 2009

With my wife being pregnant we decided to make a short haul trip for our fortnight somewhere warm and thus opted for Spain where we stayed with relatives near Torrevieja, Alicante. The villa we stayed in backed onto a major wetland nature reserve called La Mata, a large ex salt extraction lagoon. I managed to hit this pretty hard over the first few days. I also spent the 27th July with Jules Sykes, a bird guide who covers Alicante province. During the entire trip I managed 12 lifers and best ever views of a number of other species. Due to a strange shortage of hire cars I we didnt manage to hire one but we did have occasional use of my wifes aunts car.

Arriving at Alicante airport o the 23rd many Pallid Swifts overflew and Santa Pola salinas produced a few Little Egret, Whiskered Tern, Flamingo & Black-winged Stilt. Ah - was back in the med. It was however the hottest day we had at 42 celcius and we retired to the villa for the evening. The lack of aircon in the villa led to one of the most uncomfortable nights sleep i have ever had.


Rising early on the 24th I decided to give La Mata a darn good thrashing and was quickly rewarded with a Red-rumped Swallow flying round me in circles hawking for insects. Previously I have dipped these birds frequently and have only had a brief flypast further up the coast at Santa Pola. I soon found out that post breeding dispersal brings good numbers of Bee-eaters to La Mata as the familiar vrrt-vrrt call rang out. Infact we had a number from the swimming pool later in the week. Walking to the lake edge I reconnected with familiar species such as Sardinian Warbler, Woodchat & Southern Grey Shrikes. Galerida larks were abundant and over the week I found many pairs of crested and several pairs of Thekla Lark around La Mata. Many birds were down to genus only. A pseudo-lifer and potential armchair tick came in the form of Iberian Green Woodpecker - a flypast and usual view. I managed infinitely better views later in the week only to scare a juvenile off with my flash. Meandering down to the hide I saw several Swallowtail butterflies - sadly too fast for a photo but a near constant presence. A squadron of uvenile Spotless Starlings bombed past. Not as regular a site in August as in late spring although whether that is due to post-breeding dispersal or a general movement away from Torrevieja to breed im not sure. Every passerine I looked at seemed to be different and yet 9/10 times it was a House Sparrow - they are super common out there. At the hide a handful of passage waders were noted - a theme for the fortnight. Alongwith the expected horde of Kentish Plovers, a pair of sum plum Sanderling sat in full view whilst a pair of Turnstone - one in summer dress were further along the waters edge. Out on the lake a small proportion of the wintering Black-necked Grebes were out there with only 500 or so present (La Mata is the most significant wintering grounds for BN Grebe in western Europe with c4,000 present last March). The only other birds on the salina were Black-headed Gulls. Yawn. Another birder in the small hide pointed to a couple of Stone Curlew, a very definite lifer and significant tart removed. Earlier this spring I had visited Weeting Heath in Norfolk in order to lifetick Stone Curlew only to fail miserably so I was chuffed to find out these birds really did exist. As the morning heated up quickly I returned to base to tan and swim. And drink a little beer.


In the evening I went out for a brief walk which had a few Chlidonias Terns on the lake which I suspected were Whiskered Terns. Also flying over the scrubland were many Common Tern, a spanish tick and many Bee-eaters. A large roost was seen of Bee-eaters in the taller of the Stone Pines. Several gull species were seen roosting on the salina or overflying with Yellow-legged Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Slender-billed Gull & Audouin's Gull all putting in an appearance. Rather mundanely Blackbird, Shelduck and Collared Dove were added to the trip list. On returning to the villa a large lizard with a long whip like tail and raised front end shot across the path - seemingly a likely candidate for Spiny-fooed Lizard. A Sparrowhawk gave chase to a White Wagtail and the first of a few Hoopoes was flushed at my feet.


The 25th saw me trying to give the southern end of La Mata a good thrashing and produced little of note with Goldfinch the only trip tick on the way down. The southern hide provided a bit more interest with a Common Tern colony on the island in full view and many Little Terns resting amongst the Commons. Im not sure if they breed here. A couple of Red-legged Partridge ran across the saltmarsh and I picked out a lone Ringed Plover amongst its cogeners.


By the 26th I started to feel I had got to grips with most of what La Mata had to offer having spent around 10 hours pacing the paths over the previous two days. I decided to head to the northern end in the early evening and lok at the wader roost and reedbed. Sadly the access to the hide was closed but as I wandered up good numbers of the common waders were seen along with another Common Tern colony on an island in the lake. A large Yellow-legged Gull roost was seen with an all dark bird with orange undersides in amongst them wading in the shallows. Remarkably it was a juvenile Montagu's Harrier and its kin were sat higher up the saltmarsh - 2 brothers or sisters. The male soared across the mainroad at good height as rain started to fall on the hills. A magpie cackled unseen and a couple of Redshanks patrolled the edges of La Mata, further evidence of some wader passage.Feral pigeon and Spotted Flycatcher were duly added to the trip list. As I walked back I flushed an Iberian Green Woodie from a large area of grassy scrub with a single tree about 15 metres from myself and was treated to really good views of this distinctive form as it hit the tree, showing no black surrounding the eye. The bird proved to be a juvenile but was still very distinctive.


The 27th was a day I had been looking forward too for a very long time. I was to have a day tour with local bird guide Jules Sykes as my birthday/anniversary/graduation present. An early start gave me brief views of Red-necked Nightjar and after a brief misunderstanding we met up and were underway. Our first target was Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin. A single bird was heard but it seems we were a fortnight or so too late. I hoped this wasnt a portent to the day. Jules didnt seem overly optomistic but we pushed on. Jules is a Yorkshireman gone native in northern Alicante province who leads tours across Europe and the World but who patches Pego marshes and has found some amazing birds in Spain. If you ever find yourself on the Costa Blanca make sure you get in touch with him - he is a vibrant personality and highly competent birder. He had only just returned to Oliva from Scotland where he had been surveying raptors with a mutual acquaintance with camera issues who i had seen just a few days earlier at the Collared Pratincole twitch in East Yorkshire.


We next headed to the Clot de Galvany which yielded a couple of lifers which were remarkable in their ease. A group of White-headed Ducks with a single male and a harem of 4 females sat tight on the water. These cute ruddy-alikes are rapidly increasing in Alicante and were close enough to your common or garden yank stiff-tail that any I see I will be examining in blighty for the Spaniard in the pack. munching through the reeds in the background were a couple of Purple Gallinule/Swamphens. A breeding pair of Little Ringed Plovers were noted along with a couple of passage Common Sanpipers. Pochard and Mallard lurked in the shallows along with Little Grebe and Moorhen and Coot. A Reed Warbler flicked through the reed stems. Moving round to the hide I had high hopes as a Little Owl perched atop a dead tree and 3 Turtle doves gave a flypast. At the hide BW Stilts were everywhere but most impressive was a Purple Gallinule sat in the open, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around it. Sadly it was camera sensitive and quickly hid. No Marbled Teal but there were more sites to explore. A swarm of Red-rumped Swallows descended as we moved off.


Next up was Santa Pola salinas, a large area of salt workings. Bird of the day for Jules was seen here with a couple of summering adult Cormorants, an extremely rare bird out of winter. Glossy Ibis crossed the road - a first for Spain for me with an assortment of Terns blasting about. Collared Pratincole hawked with the Whiskered Terns and then two larger terns started blasting through - they immediately reminded me of winter plumage Sandwich Terns but Jules quickly had them down as Gull-billed Terns, my fourth lifer of the day aand a real surprise. Apart from a few Grey Herons nothing else new was forth coming and we headed into El Hondo filled apparently with great birds and abundent prostitutes on every corner.


We soon found a few Rollers with excellent views of them feeding and a nest hole amonst date-palms. A couple of Green Sandpiper and 2 parties of Whimbrel told us autumn had reached the med, even if it was 37 degrees. El Hondo reserve provided us with Squacco Heron, brief flight views of a male Little Bittern a lifer for me and Great Reed Warbler. A probable Moustached Warbler hid after brief flight views whilst we were surrounded by the beautiful Plain Tiger butterflies, a close relative of the Monarch. Pushing on quickly we saw large numbers of Cattle Egrets in the surrounding fields. We were headed for the mountains.


"Whats that raptor?!" Jules hollared as we sped towards Crevillente. My immediate impression was Buzzard but Jules wasnt convinced and we made an emergency stop on a roundabout. A first summer rufous morph Booted Eagle was the actual id and it was most out of place as it meandered towards perhaps Cabo de Gata before crossing into north Africa. Very much a surprise and by far my best view of this species after a similar experience where i couldnt stop when a pale morph passed over the previous year. Up into the mountains we headed with the sound of Monk Parakeet ringing in our ears from Crevillente high stree- this species is Cat C in Spain and a legitimate addition to a life list but i really didnt care enough to look. Plastic fantastic alright. Onto the Sierra we headed and Thekla larks sang with gusto. Southern Grey Shrikes sat atop most bushes and Bee-eaters were over head. A largish bird disappeared over an escarpment but i felt it was a Raven rather than anything more interesting. 40 minutes later and no raptors had been seen when the Bee-eaters went nuts. Jules quickly called me and I got onto an adult Bonelli's Eagle, a bird i had missed several times at the very same spot. The bird disappearred within a few seconds never to reappear. We moved to lower elavations elated with our luck. Several Alpine Swifts dallied over the crags as we descended.


Moving back to El Hondo we tried for one of the primary targets for the day Marbled Duck. We were giving up when a dstant duck sheltering round a drain cover had a Pintail like jizz and dark eye-mask. It was the badger - a Marbled Duck and a quality bird. The lifers didn't stop there as Jules picked a number of Lesser Short-toed Larks up in flight and ran through the diagnostics with the most important feature the 'dzzryd' buzzy call. It is likely i had merely overlooked these birds throughout my trip but getting to grips with them was satisfying. The last site of the day gave up a wandering colony of Collared Pratincoles. I was delighted with how the day went and Jules was equally pleased and somewhat surprised. It just shows what Alicante can hold.


The 28th had us heading to Murcia and Mar Menor golf resort to see Angelas parents, sister and family. Little was seen of note. More productive was a trip to La Manga for Torrevieja FC (the local kick and run merchants) versus U.D. Almeria from La Liga managed by Hugo Sanchez. 5-0 was the score but La Manga is a corking place set in the hills of Almeria beneath a dammed river. A reservoir by the resort held a colony of Gull-billed Terns plus a few Little Egrets and masses of Hirundines. I was fortunate enough to catch a Red-rumped Swallow drinking from a puddle.


Over the next week I managed little birding time as real life intervened but a brief escape to try for the Rufous-tailed Bush-Robins ended in total failure with an illegal Spanish rave on the site which was then closed down by the police at 8am whilst I sat and pondered in the car with the road closed by the police. Fortuitously my bins and lack of spanish had me marked out as a non-raver and i was soon allowed to go. The Clot de Galvany provided little new save for a few Black Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush on the escarpment above. Later that day I tried again with my wife in tow for the Bonelli's Eagles at Crevillente and soon found two adults perched doing nothing on the crags. After 40 minutes and the only movement coming from the unborn babies kicks to my wifes stomach we decided to leave when one Eagle flew. It gave the most spectacular display over the next ten minutes leaving even the devout non-birder speechless. A return to the crags hurried our departure to the beach at Guardamar.


The last couple of evenings in Spain saw me determined for a better view of the nightlife. Not in the grimey clubs but the nocturnal creatures of La Mata. Along the various paths beetles were on the prowl. Several types of bat were seen including large Noctule like ones, medium sized ones with large ears and small pipistrelles types. As i wandered I was unsurprised to see Nightjars moving about but a churring individual confused me - that was European Nightjar - as it turned out most of the 'jars were European but a large number were Red-necked, the predominant species in this area. A Barn Owl nearly took my hair off as it was mobbed by a Red-necked Nightjar and these two had a dogfight within spitting distance of my ears before the owl retreated to a bush. Stone Curlews flew overhead in screechy gangs and a couple of Scops Owls were heard only (must remember a spotlight next time!). As i made my way down to the lake on these nocturnal walks I kept an eye on the waders and several Curlew Sandpipers in full summer dress were adorning the shoreline. All very nice.
Here are a couple of photos I could do with a hand identifying - whilst both Galerida larks were seen this one looks quite intermediate with regards its bill. The second photo shows a lizard that thought I couldn't see it - I could but have no real idea what it is. Also seen of interest was Mediterranean Gecko in our villa kitchen most nights and a brown praying Mantis on the last evening (6th) on the drive after a successful quiz night.

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How brains and birds become mutually exclusive