Thursday 24 December 2015

A Week in the Costa Blanca

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting a relation in Spain for 7 days. Without my wife or my children... I had built up a bank of lieu time to take thanks to a busy summer of survey work and a trip to the relative warmth of Alicante seemed appealing. I jetted out from Leeds early on Saturday 21st November with a return ticket for just over £100 with Ryanair and the hire car plus super insurance was about £120 including a tank of petrol from Drivalia so all in all pretty cheap. Despite a few delays I arrived mid-afternoon and was soon setting off south towards La Siesta, Torrevieja which is adjacent to the La Mata Parc Natural (my away patch).

El Hondo at dusk looking west
The airport produced naught of interest with a single Kestrel hunting the rough grass adjacent to the runway and the local House Sparrows and Woodpigeons in evidence. Onward south and I decided the light would allow half an hour at Santa Pola Salinas - some extensive salt pans which hold huge aggregations of water birds. Driving in I saw my only Swallows of the trip amongst the clouds of Crag Martins. The weather had taken a turn for the worse over the 24 hours prior to my arrival and 26c became 16c with cloud and drizzle. This made my visit to Santa Pola somewhat briefer as the scope got a little soggy. The salinas were chocka block with Flamingos and Yellow-legged Gulls. Also in evidence were Slender-billed and Black-headed Gulls feeding en masse. There was an attendant Sandwich Tern which was making hay with the numerous fish fry. More standards were quickly added to the trip list with Little Egret and Black-winged Stilt stalking the lagoons. A brace of calling passerines quickly added themselves to the trip list as flyover Goldfinch and Meadow Pipit were noted. Scanning the Salinas in the drizzle I added Grey Heron, Green Sandpiper, Shelduck and Great Crested Grebe before retreating to the warmth of my Fiat Panda. The car for its underpowered gutless soul was immensely practical as it was small, roomy inside with a good sized boot which is essential in areas with an abundance of petty thieves ready to relieve you of the bag left on the back seat.

Making headway I noticed my first Cattle Egrets, White Wagtails and Collared Doves as I traversed the farmland between Guadamar and Quesada. Pulling into La Siesta the hweet of many Chiffchaffs and the ticking call of the myriad of Black Redstarts was immediately evident as were the local Feral Pigeons. With darkness drawing in quickly and a 2 1/2 gap in visiting I was keen to see Auntie Anne (neither called Anne nor my Aunt), the sprightly 84 year old who I was staying with. I soon introduced myself to the San Miguel that she had stocked up on and settled in to watch the latest edition of El Classico.

Waking early on Sunday 22nd eager to get out and make the most of my trip I noshed on a quickfire breakfast and headed to El Hondo but not before hearing the familiar rattle of the local Sardinian Warblers which are ever present in the area. El Hondo is simply the best nature reserve you have never heard of. It makes Minsmere look like a pygmy and is relatable to Donana and the Carmague. It is a giant wetland complex created by the draining of an immense inland lagoon for agriculture. Now it has two enormous reservoirs which are fringed by reedbeds and then surrounding this are pools and lagoons some very good farmland habitats outside the reserve. The whole area is served by a range of dykes, ditches and canals to control the water levels and there is a rubbish dump between the reserve and Elche. There is a central line of Eucalyptus trees which separate the reservoirs and to the north there are extensive date palm plantations. To the south are field networks which hold huge numbers of birds. My plan for the week was to a) search this area extensively, b) see a Great Spotted Eagle well and c) refind the Sociable Plover which has been in the locale since early November. This is all made harder by the lack of access to the main reserve where birders are only allowed in on Saturday morning (and I was flying home on the Friday). Fortunately there are plenty of points of interest from the boundaries, especially the South and West including the Vistabella Road with the Santa Agueda hides which are new and the official visitors centre at San Felipe Neri. The reserve holds hordes of birds and I hoped to catch up with a few.

So back to Sunday and I decided to start at the San Felipe Neri visitor centre which is known as El Raicon. Here the reintroduction of Red-knobbed Coot was commenced and I hoped to catch up with one although they are now less tied to this area after several years. Before I had parked new additions were leaping onto the list with Fan-tailed Warbler, Linnet and the ever present Stonechats quickly seen. The first of many Marsh Harriers, an immature female, quartered a bare field which held a torrent of finches. Inside the visitor centre I checked out the pool where the RK Coots were first released but to no avail although Coot, Moorhen and Water Rail were in evidence. Little Grebes whinnied from further away and the first Jackdaw was seen in a flock of Cattle Egrets. Booted Eagles winter in this semi-arid area and several were seen most days with all but two pale morphs. So obviously the first bird I clocked, soaring over the centre on thermals was a dark morph juvenile...

Moving out onto the boardwalk and small flocks of Glossy Ibis commuted between Hondo and the fields outside its boundaries. These guys were scarcities when I first visited 7 years ago but they have exploded in numbers in Southern Spain which reflects the numbers which arrive in autumn in the UK. Looking like Moorhens which have had too much growth hormone, Purple Swamphens were a common if unobtrusive presence on the margins of the reeds whilst the first wintering Robins and Reed Buntings were recorded around the edges of the reeds. A fence alongside a large area of salicornia threw up the first Iberian Grey Shrike of the trip. This distinctive form of Grey Shrike is now widely given species status separate to other Southern forms and is a common sight harassing passerines in winter from an exposed perch. Along the fence and a 1st winter male Bluethroat was sat out in the open momentarily. White-spotted Bluethroats are common in winter but a bugger to see sometimes and this was only my second. I was to see several more during the week and didnt once lose their appeal. A male Merlin scudded over the reeds proving terminal for the first Starling of the trip. Thankfully many thousands winter here alongside their Spotless relations which were soon picked out amongst the flocks.

The path to the hides yielded the only Little Bittern of the trip as a female shot across the path and hid in an isolated stand of 12 foot high reed never to be seen again. From the hides the first Cormorant, Pochard, Lapwing and Mallard were seen with the ever present Cetti's Warblers producing the backing track. This area of Spain holds the majority of Western Europe's wintering Black-necked Grebes and many were seen on the lagoons. Flocks of loafing Flamingo and Shelduck were seen but more interesting were the four flocks of c50 Stone Curlew which flew low over the reeds in tight formations. Not a behaviour I am familar with. The temperature remained in the low teens and the cool northerly breeze stiffened as I moved round the tracks. Blackbird, Buzzard, Kingfisher and Shoveler are all common in winter and were noted around the platform which proved chilly as the piercing cold weather from the UK which produced snow at home managed to upset El Hondo's equilibrium. A Red-crested Pochard was seen loafing with Mallards in a eutrophic pool and a couple of late Plain Tiger butterflies quietly traversed the salicornia. Moving round to the Vistabella Road looking for the Sociable Plover and there was little of note aside from the first Crested Larks of the trip and a Common Snipe which was flushed from a soggy field corner.

Getting peckish I decamped to Santa Pola for my lunch where I enjoyed my chorizo salad in the company of several hundred Flamingos and half a dozen Spoonbills. The Sandwich Tern was still present with the gulls and a range of waders were added including Avocet, Redshank, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Black-tailed Godwit. The rest remained tantalizingly out of range. A roost of five Great White Egrets were the only birds noted on the trip although this has more to do with not looking for them than any scarcity. After lunch I went for a stroll at Clot de Galvany where little was notable but Thekla Lark, Wigeon, Teal and Chaffinch were firsts for the trip. Difficult viewing and high levels of disturbance meant I didnt return to this little reserve which can be very promising. Arriving back in La Siesta the calls of Serins were heard emanating from the trees fringing the La Mata reserve. After 24 hours I had recorded 70 species which wasnt a bad start but there were few exceptional sightings.

Day 2 started at La Mata where I went for a furtle round the pine plantations. This is a regular place for Mistle Thrush and Hoopoe in winter and both were duly bombing about along with several hundred thousand Black Redstarts (or so it seemed). A tit flock held plenty of Long-tailed Tits but not the hoped for Firecrest which is usually guarenteed here. The Iberian race of Red Squirrel is present here and comes in a couple of morphs: either black or blonde, both with a ginger tinge. These guys were shooting between trees and trying to keep clear of the park rangers who were brushing up pine needles (why I have no idea - must be a good way to waste time). This area of plantation is enclosed with chainlink fence and sat upon this were the first definite Spotted Starlings of the trip. There is usually a small flock here and it is the local breeding birds whereas down at El Hondo there will be thousands of migrants from all over Iberia associating with their common cousins from further north and east. Outside the fence there is several acres of allotment and amenity grassland and here were a couple of Skylarks. The allotments held hundreds of Serin and Meadow Pipit plus the ubiquitous Stonechats which are everywhere.

I headed to the wader screen after failing to find any Richard's Pipits. Again. Apparently there are 3-4 wintering in the area but I never connect. Useless! A yaffling call as I headed along the sandy track which leads to the screen revealed a flyover Iberian Green Woodpecker. In the lowlands this is the only species of woodpecker in this part of Spain and whilst never in great densities they are easy to see (and hear) all around La Mata. At the screen the usual horde of non-birding Germans and Scandinavians enjoying their morning walk were monopolising the blinds but I could see several hundred waders bobbing about. A little patience and the throng cleared revealing a mix of Little Stint, Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover plus a brace of Grey Plover, a single Kentish Plover and a lone Turnstone. Beyond them a flotilla of about 2,500 Black-necked Grebes floated around the middle of the lake which is the most important wintering ground for this species in Europe. A bakers dozen of Flamingos fed in the shallows whilst Cormorants lounged on the tern islands.

I ran out of enthusiasm for La Mata before too long and decided on an afternoon looking for the Sociable Plover at El Hondo. This was focused on the Vistabella road on the south of the site and working the agricultural fields between here and Dolores, a veritable maze of small roads of fertile fields making the task very difficult and one I would repeat on a number of occasions throughout the week. I managed to slip the fence that prevents viewing of the lagoons on the reserve and a bund provided views of Poniente. Here I saw amonst the horde of Pochard and Shoveler a handful of White-headed Ducks. The weather was chilly and aside from a few Marsh Harriers and clouds of Crag Martins there was little else to warm the blood. I started working the smaller fields and found a male Merlin dismantling a Crested Lark in a field. Merlins are surprisingly common here in winter and this stonking adult gave prolonged views in the middle of a field. Glossy Ibis shuttled about - I only saw a handful on the deck all week but they were a constant presence in the air. My first Magpie of the week shot out of a stand of reeds whilst a squealing Water Rail made its presence known. Kingfishers darted along drains with regularity. I was joined by a Norwegian who was also seeking the plover. We tracked the Lapwings leaving the reserve to a field by Dolores but extended watching merely turned up a trio of Golden Plover associating with them.

I gave up and headed to the north end of La Mata to the raptor tower for the Hen Harrier roost. Usually there are 4 or so birds which roost in winter which are replaced by a couple of pairs of Montagu's Harriers for the summer. Sadly this time nothing came into roost but I did get a much anticipated lifer as a band of four Monk Parakeets shot past. Erm, awesome?

The third full day was my trip to the steppes of Bonete and Higueruela, south-east of Albacete and about 100 miles from where I was staying, This was not my most successful trip to this region but it did turn up some very good birds. As I crossed the railway at Bonete I noticed four distant Great Bustards flying away from me at high speed including one adult male. I pressed on up the road to Higueruela to areas where I had seen bustards before and only added Calandra Lark on the extensive drilled fields. An area that held displaying Little Bustards in spring held some medium sized game birds in the long grass which resolved into male Little Bustards when they crossed a gap. Up to five different Marsh Harriers were seen and unlike El Hondo where all were cream crowns there were 4 adult males and a juvenile female. The males were combing the fields with a fine tooth comb in bitter temperatures as the thermometer dipped to freezing. As I turned at Higueruela a group of Sandgrouse belted over. There were about 25 in the flock and none showed black bellies which meant they were a rather underwhelming view of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, my second lifer of the trip, as they flew directly away with almost golden plover like flight.

I moved on to Corral Rubio and beyond to Petrola with increasing disinterest as the temperature and paucity of avian delights whithering my desire. Between Bonete and Corral Rubio I found a group of 14 Great Bustards in a field close to where I had displaying birds previously. These showed beautifully in the chilly wind and were still present when I was leaving some 90 minutes later. The standing water around Corral Rubio held plenty of wildfowl and Lapwings but nothing new. As I arrived at Petrola I set up camp in a hide by the lagoon in a hide, scoffing my chorizo bocadillo. From here there was the odd sight of Flamingos with encroaching ice and a large group of ducks including Teal, Pintail and Mallards making it feel like a visit to Rutland in the dead of winter. With no further additions I headed to the relative warmth of the lowlands.

I was back at El Hondo around the fields off the Vistabella Road looking for the plover which I suspected had done a flit. Despite this I was enjoying time in the habitat (and the feeling of sun on my back rather than icicles in my nethers). A Cetti's gave brief views and I started moving around the farm tracks. A raptor sat in the same place as a Buzzard the previous day looked large and weirdly long-tailed. I was a little purplexed until it got up and I realised it was a subadult Bonelli's Eagle. All the Crag Martins went batshit and disappeared to the horizon but the eagle just lumbered off south towards La Marina. As it disappeared a heron landed on the road near to where I was stood. This confused me a bit as it was obviously 20% taller than another 30 yards up the road which I hadnt looked at. A quick glimpse through the bins and I realised the one I had been ignoring was a very late juvenile Purple Heron which was certainly not a species I had been expecting so late. I failed to find the Lapwings as I went towards Dolores but did connect with half a dozen Tree Sparrows which are winter migrants from further north.

Sub-adult Bonelli's Eagle
I finished at Santa Agueda platforms overlooking the south of El Hondo. There were a couple of hundred Flamingos and plenty of Marsh Harriers. Around the edges were rails, coots and Purple Gallinules. Amongst the flood of ducks were lots of White-headed Ducks and my first Spanish Tufted Ducks. Sat amongst the Pochard was a 1st winter drake and an adult drake. Scanning the edge of the lagoon I got a surprise when a preening Osprey I had overlooked had a flap before settling down. This is a species I expect to see in Spain at this time of year but one I resolutely failed to do so apart from this individual. 

The 25th was easily the best day of the trip where tremendous luck and some great birds came together to provide a spectacle which just cant be seen in Western Europe apart from at El Hondo. I started the day with a brief seawatch from La Mata beach adding a few decent birds to the trip list including a brace of Spanish ticks. I have never done any winter seawatching in Spain so didnt really know what to expect and half an hour of Gannets and Sandwich Terns was pretty much the limit of my ambitions. A few Grey Plover and Turnstones pootled about on the beach whilst a trio of Little Egrets headed south offshore. Suddenly I picked up a dark duck heading south close inshore. Picked up way to the north in excellent light I waited a while for it to resolve which it duly did, into an adult female Common Scoter. This was a superb Spanish tick as they are decidedly scarce in the region. Point blank views were enjoyed but back to staring out to the horizon. Suddenly one of the Yellow-legged Gulls following the trawlers way out bank vertically upward and it soon became apparent why as an adult pale morph Arctic Skua was scorching after it. A brief chase and one dropped fish and the skua sallied on like a giant bee-eater. Spanish tick of the day number two! I soon packed up as the heat haze meant identifying anything further than a couple of hundred meters offshore became a forlorn hope.

Over the years there have been some very odd sightings of Azure-winged Magpies in the Alicante region with a trio seen at Clot de Galvany and singles at El Hondo despite this being 150 miles to the east of the closest breeding birds. Well that was until a small colony was found breeding at Los Balcones recently which represents a massive range expansion from central Andalusia eastward. For those that are interested head out of Torrevieja towards Los Balcones past the hospital and take the second signed turn into the urbanization. Turn right and park before the derelict land between the urbanization and the lake. Almost immediately I had three AW Magpies on the edge of the garden but these were all restless and flighty so I pushed on to an enclosed derelict garden where at least six birds were in trees and foraging on the ground. The restless nature meant that they didnt relax until hidden deep in trees and it was only on the rare occasions that they were visibile in the trees that extended views were enjoyed. After half an hour I had got a few decent photos and added Greenfinch to the trip list before I pushed off to El Hondo.

After lunch I went to the Vistabella Road area again. I had accepted by now that the plover was not going to happen but I did want to catch up with a very special wintering bird for the region and I was hopeful that today would be that day. I have had one brief view of a Greater Spotted Eagle before but it was distant and brief. I found myself looking over Poniente at similar stuff to previously when the first non-Marsh Harrier shaped raptor I saw was BIG. A lumbering hulk with a short tail, a white cresent rump and some spotting on the wings. A sub-adult Spotted Eagle. The bird circled for a minute or two before crossing the lagoon and landing in the eucalyptus trees that run down the centre of El Hondo. This was superb views of an awesome raptor. I wandered round to the fields to see if I could find the Bonelli's Eagle again after this but drew a blank only for what looked like a giant Glossy Ibis to fly out of a ditch some 200m up the track. But the ibis had a white belly and straight bill - a vagrant Black Stork!!! Some 20 minutes after mind-blowing views of a Spotted Eagle I have turned up a Black Stork which neither breeds nor passes through the area in any number and should by late November be in sub-saharan Africa. The bird, an immature, dropped down some 400m away after a couple of minutes never to be seen again.

To try and get better views of the perched Spotted Eagle I moved round to Santa Agueda where an adult Bonelli's Eagle was soaring high above the reserve along with a trio of light morph Booted Eagles. The Spotted Eagle was sitting tight out of view and before too long it trundled off north-east giving decent views again. There wasnt much happening aside from a single Red-crested Pochard and the usual plethora of Black-necked Grebes and White-headed Ducks. Off to the visitor centre at San Felipe Neri and the hope of a decent raptor roost in mind the 'usual' light morph Booted Eagle was sat devouring a Moorhen just 30 yards from me. Cracking views were had as I managed to sneak even closer before it was pushed off by a gay couple out for a "discrete" liaison somewhere out in the reeds. Thankfully they soon disappeared when they realised that there was somebody else about. That would have made the roost awkward. Floating above the reeds there were double figure counts of Marsh Harriers but no Hen Harriers. I didnt manage to connect with Hen Harrier all trip in fact when they are usually a doddle in winter at La Mata and El Hondo. Ah well! The raptors dry up for a while and I try to dig out one of the Crested Coots from amongst the Commons on the re-introduction pool but no luck. I notice a sparrow digging around the base of a palm tree - bins on it and its a Wryneck. What an absolute bonus - they winter in tiny numbers so I am delighted to reel off some photos.

Back on the roost and the Glossy Ibis, Little and Cattle Egrets return from the surrounding fields and drains as the sun drops low in the sky. A sub-adult Bonelli's Eagle lifts off from the marsh, presumably the one from the previous day, and it heads off towards the territory in the surrounding mountains disappearing into the Sierra de Crevillent some 10 minutes later. Whenever I scanned through the scope 3 or 4 Booted Eagles would be circling high over the wetland. Almost straight away another big eagle came in from the west. This time its an adult Spotted Eagle. The eagle circled for over 15 minutes, sometimes close over Poniente and at other times miles away over Levante. At no point was there a transmitter pack or antennae visible so it must have been 'Not Tonn'. A distant Osprey commuted over the marsh and settled down. Just as the sun was dipping the Cetti's Warblers were shouting away, a female Bluethroat was on the visitor centre wall and a Spanish tick of Bearded Tits were pinging their way through the reeds. Time to head back to base.

Merry Christmas from Dolores
Knowing that Friday 27th November was dedicated to seeing old aquaintances and ensuring a return trip would be well received I decided to do some further cleaning up on Thursday and so started on the promenade at Torrevieja, There were hundreds of birds dotted on the horizon but few resolved into anything as the birds stuck to the fishing fleet. Gulls commuted between the fleet and the harbour. There was a loafing flock of several hundred Lesser Black-backed Gulls with dotted Yellow-legged Gulls, Auduoin's Gulls and my first Spanish Great Black-backed Gulls with 4 birds present amongst their cogeners. Offshore there were plenty of 'shearing' seabirds but only Gannets and Balearic Shearwaters were identifiable. I was hoping for Yelkouan and Cory's/Scopoli's Shears as well but distance made that an impossiblility.

A mid-morning return to the El Hondo visitor centre at San Felipe Neri wasnt much cop but the Wryneck continued to show well. There were still no Crested Coots but the Booted Eagle was still hanging about. A brace of Water Pipits were bimbling about the marsh and were an Alicante tick for me having only seen them up in the Sierra de Culebra a couple of years ago when Wolf watching. There were decent views of Green Sandpiper, Bluethroat, Iberian Grey Shrike and Fan-tailed Warbler but I got restless pretty quickly as no further new birds were added and I craved a wander around La Mata accessing from La Siesta in the hope of adding a few trip ticks.

Booted Eagle
After a hearty lunch of salcisson, chorizo and cheese I went for a wander as showers scudded past. These proved to be extremely heavy but during a brief period between them I ventured out. The low pine scrub can be quite fruitful at times and I saw a good few butterflies including Pale Clouded Yellow, Clouded Yellow and Red Admiral. A couple of mundane additions were duly added to the trip list with Great Tit and Song Thrush. I got to a meadow which in spring holds breeding Corn Bunting and Woodchat Shrike. This time it merely held an Iberian Grey Shrike and the inevitable Stonechat. This is the domain of Dartford Warblers and due to their parasitic nature with Stonechats, especially in winter, I kept a close eye on the male Stonechat. Soon a vinous coloured warbler was sat at the top of a stem and duly foraged in the Stonechats wake.

This was to be my final act of birding on this trip but I remain hungry for more and it looks likely that in the summer I will be returning for a fortnight in August. In total the trip list finished at 114 species.

How birds and brains become mutually exclusive

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