Sunday, 6 March 2016

Birding the Brecks

I must admit that my trips to the Brecks always seem to be a bit 'hit and miss' in terms on connecting with the target species. Not sure whether it is down to luck or not visiting the right places...?

Decided to head that way today for the first time this year and it proved to be a decent day.

Started of well with a stop on the way to look for goshawks. I was surprised that only one other car was there given that it was the weekend so there was plenty of space to park. It wasn't long before all the woodpigeons were flushing out of the trees and the first male goshawk came into view and started displaying over the woods. I called over to the other birders who got on the bird. Apparently they had been there for over an hour and hadn't seen anything, we'd been there for about 15mins!
Several buzzards were seen displaying (7 in total) along with a male sparrowhawk. After beeing at the site for about 40mins I picked up another goshawk that quickly turned into two birds. A male and female together for 10mins circling around together occasionally joined by one of the buzzards. A great start to the day.

Into the Brecks 'proper' we had a walk around the forest edge at Santon Warren. Probably unsurprisingly the conifer plantations were very quiet with only the odd goldcrest and coal tit calling. The only place there was more life were the deciduous patches along the rides. A walk back along the river was also quiet but we did get good views of a pair of grey wagtails.

Next stop was a new area for me, the back of Grimes Graves. Following the forest tracks we had a pair of woodlark in a recently planted plantation and then a second pair in a sheep grazed area. We looked over Grimes Graves but there was no sign of the great grey shrike from our vantage point. The 3rd goshawk of the day was displaying over the trees in the distance.

Final stop of the day was a search for hawfinches at Lynford. Plenty of goldcrests were singing in the conifers but no firecrests yet, the food put out on the bridge attracted a marsh tit and a nice male reed bunting and siskins were displaying everywhere. We walked to the edge of the paddocks and scanned the big trees. Very little was happening before Sally (and husband) from work bumped into us. They had already walked around the paddocks and not seen anything. While we were chatting I started to hear a 'tick' call coming from the direction of the trees. Sally and I both looked at one of the trees and saw a hawfinch flick up towards the top of the tree. It showed well for a few minutes before moving in to the next tree. It showed better here and through the scope you could see when the bird was calling. After about 5mins, the bird flew across the paddock and into the tall conifers and wasn't seen again.

A good end to a pretty successful day.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Spain - mopping up day

Following the wash out on Saturday, we decided to revisit the sites we didn't manage to do in the rain.

First up was the lake at Estany d' Ivars. Despite not understanding the signs, the lake is a relatively new thing having been created over the last 10 years. It is mainly a large open body of water with a vegetated fringe. At the west end a small area of reeds and sedge held purple swamphen, 3 calling water rails and at least 2 pairs of territorial marsh harriers. At the eastern end is a larger reedbed, probably bigger that at Titchwell. The looked pretty dry and old although a marshy area next to it looked good. It had been horse grazed and was much more open with lots of muddy wet areas. At least 13 snipe came out and bluethroats apparently have been wintering.

We were able round the whole lake today and although there were still the same waterfowl, there were definitely more migrants about. For my sins I counted chiffchaffs (32) and there was an increase in swallows and a load of house martins (30) were new in. Several white stork platforms were in use and despite the cold wind they were bill clapping, nest building and mating.
The surrounding bushes were quiet, probably heaving in another month, but we had great close  views of a couple of firecrests.

We had heard several penduline tits on the walk round and I was determined to see a couple that I had heard at the start of the walk. I could hear them and see the bulrush seed blowing but they took an age to find. In the end we had decent views of the male.

We then revisited the stony plateau in search of sandgrouse again but by the time we got there the wind had picked up significantly making birding tricky. I had a good walk about but the wind was keeping the birds low. I didn't see and sandgrouse, warblers or wheatear but a green sand was on a small flooded area.

On the way back to the main road, Rachael picked up our last new species of the trip, 2 stone curlews sheltering on the edge of a field.

At the end of 4.5 days we ended up with a trip total of 114 species (8 lifers) which I think is pretty good.

We got to see lots of different habitats all a short distance from our base in Lleida. The roads are good and very quiet making travelling very easy. A short return trip in the spring sometime to see the plains alive with larks is definitely on the cards

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Spain - Big Bustards

Today we were out on the dry plains weather Lleida in search of bustards and sandgrouse.

First stop were the large arable fields around the village of Bujaraloz for the great bustards. It didn't take long before we picked up 3 in the roadside fields. A slow drive around the area produced a total of 14, including 7 together, although it was a bit early for them to be displaying yet.

Next stop was a large salt lake. The area used to produce salt but is now derelict. The ruins did produce our first lesser kestrel of the trip and the fields were full of larks. The highlight was a big group of common cranes moving north over the area.
We had a drive round some of the muddy tracks looking for little bustards but with no luck.

A quick stop to look for the great bustards only produced 4 but the light was better showing off their colour well.

We moved back east to spend the afternoon around the Los Monegros. This is a good area for raptors and sandgrouse.
While looking for a good site to watch for raptors we had already seen a couple of ringtail hen harriers and a nice group of 75 feeding chough.

There are tracks all over the plateau so actually finding any birds is a bit of a lottery which made finding our 'own' little bustard special. A little further up the road we picked up 15 pin tailed sandgrouse very close to the car but unfortunately they flushed into the next field before we could stop. As we got to the next field we fussed some more sandgrouse but these were black bellied!! Thankfully they flew a short distance and joined the pin tailed.  17 pin tailed and 15 black bellied together.

We spent a couple of hours at the edge of the plateau looking for raptors. It had been good, 2 golden eagle, griffon vultures and red kites when I picked up what I thought was a booted eagle.

When I saw the bird with one of the golden eagles i realised it wasn't a booted but something bigger and much better. The bird didn't seem to be doing much. It circled around the same area for 10mins before slowly heading east giving great views. I tried hard to get some phonescoped pics but couldn't. The only thing in the book that fitted was Spanish imperial eagle but it seemed too out of range!

We had another look at the little bustard, toured around some more tracks finding a hoopoe and another 11 black bellied sandgrouse before heading back to the hotel.

After an Internet search and a chat with Steve West, I am happy with the id of my eagle. Despite only seeing one in the area in over 20 years, Steve said there has been a small number seen here in the last 10 years. I can't believe I found and identified such a rare bird today.

Most definitely the bird of the trip!

Saturday, 27 February 2016

The rain in Spain fell mainly on us today!

Despite heavy rain being forecast for today we had hoped that it would be like at home and they had got it wrong. Sadly for us that wasn't the case and we woke to heavy rain

Steve had told us about a couple of different sites yesterday so we thought we'd give them a try.

Just east of Lleida is a largish man made lake with a reed fringe that holds decent numbers of wildfowl in the winter. We weren't quite expecting the rain to change to sleet and snow but thankfully it wasn't far to a viewing tower that gave good views over the lake.
1st birds as we walked to the tower were a couple of calling penduline tits in the reeds along with a couple of chiffchaffs.

Out on the lake were lots of shoveler, teal and mallard with a nice surprise 5 garganey.  Over the lake were small numbers of swallow and in the reed fringe were several purple swamphens. 

The rain didn't stop so we decided to check a local site for a wintering flock of little bustards. Steve said check the alfalfa fields by the 3rd roundabout and sure enough, a flock of 85 little bustards. A bit bedraggled but smart little birds.

With no let up in the rain we headed to the other site Steve had told us about yesterday to the south of the town. By the time we got there the weather had improved although the track to the parking area was a bit muddy in places!
The target was sandgrouse although it is a big area. Around the sheep farm were several southern grey shrikes, hoopoe, black redstart and loads of chough. A calling little owl wouldn't show.
The first valley was too low so we headed up onto the rocky plateau. Lifer #2 of the day apeared in the form of 3 black wheatear on the walk up.

The top if the plateau was a mix of arable fields and areas that had been left bare for the sandgrouse.

A funny call drew our attention to a group of birds dropping into the bare ground close by, 13 pin tailed sandgrouse!!! We managed to get a bit closer and get great views of them feeding in the open. Another dozen birds were still flying about but they never dropped in.

As the sun came out it encouraged birds to start singing. On the walk back we added sardinian warbler to the list.

A day that started out soggy and cold, turned out good in the end

Friday, 26 February 2016

Spain - pre-Pyrenees

When we were planning this trip we didn't realise that we were close enough to the mountains to get there easily.

Having done so Internet searching I found a site guide by a guy called Steve West (birdinginSpain.com) who I contacted to see if her could take us up into the mountains for a day. A wise choice as he was excellent and I would thoroughly recommend him if you're this way.

Steve met us early outside the hotel and we headed north towards the foothills of the Pyrenees. First on the agenda was a small village church that had been visited recently by a wallcreeper but we drew a blank. Nice narrow streets to explore though.

A short drive further north to check some riverside gorges but still no luck. Did manage nice views of crag martin and black bellied dipper though.

We headed higher still towards one of the raptor feeding stations that have been set up to help boost the vulture populations thoughout the region in the hope of seeing lammergeier.
The drive up was pretty productive adding providing my 2nd lifer (citril finch) of the trip, singing woodlarks,  Dartford warbler, firecrest, crossbill and several crested tits.

As soon as we reached the top of the hill there were already good numbers of griffon vultures in the air and it wasn't long before the first lammergeier came into view. It was soon joined by another 2 juvs with another 3 distant birds over a far ridge. At one stage we has black & griffon vultures, lammergeier and golden eagle (1 of 5 we saw) in the same binocular view!
It got better as we picked a sub adult bird over the ridge that came really close overhead. Through the scope to could see the orangy underparts and even seen the 'beard' drooping either side of the bill. Awesome bird and the 2nd lifer of the day.

We spent a bit of time looking for alpine chough and alpine accentor before lunch but it seemed that they had already moved to higher altitude with the mild weather. It was good to see decent flock of mixed finches including some cracking cirl bunting and a small group of rock sparrows.

The afternoon was spent hunting for accentors. At one stop I asked Steve if he was looking for wallcreeper. His response was 'I don't think we will see one here' As he finished the sentence, I picked up a wallcreeper on the rockface!!! Although I had seen one on India, this one was actually on a wall and showed brilliantly. Flicking its wings and it moved about the cliffs feeding on spiders.

Our final road of the day didn't produce any accentors either but we did add our 4th vulture species of the day in the form of 4 Egyptian at a small rubbish dump.

A superb day birding made all the better with the local knowledge from Steve giving us an impressive total of...

Lammergeier - 16
Black vulture - 8
Egyptian vulture - 4
Griffon vulture - 200+
Golden eagle - 5
Peregrine - 3
Kestrel
Sparrowhawk
Buzzard
Black kite - 1
Red kite - 10
Wallcreeper - 1
Red billed chough - 100+

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Spain - settling in

Rather that stay at home, we decided to use up the last of my leave on a short break to NE Spain with the hope of seeing a few bustards and larks.

After a 90min flight this morning we were heading west of Barcelona to the plains around the town of Lleida.

Birding started as soon as we got into our room over the adjacent wasteground from the window. Black redstart, serin, crested lark, tree sparrow, blackcap and cirl bunting all seen before unpacking the scope.

We decided to spend the afternoon looking around the fields south of the town for sandgrouse and larks.

Several corn buntings were feeding around a small pool when I had my first tick of the trip, 4 calandra larks flying over.
Good numbers of raptors were in the area and it was nice to compare black and red kites sparring together. At least 2 marsh harriers and a smart male hen harrier were also present.

The highlight of the afternoon were the calandra larks. Once we had moved out of the arable fields they were everywhere. Most of the views were in flight as they displayed but we did see several really well on the tracks. The song reminded me a bit of corn bunting.

We continued to tour the tracks for sandgrouse. Didn't get any  although a couple of hoopoe were a bonus. We did find a couple of pools that we will visit early doors to see if they use them.

Probably the strangest sighting of the day were 9 red - billed chough! A species that we normally associate with rugged coastline looked so out of place feeding in the dry arable fields!

A good start to the trip.