SPANISH PYRENEES & BELCHITE STEPPES 8 th - 14 th June 2013 Text by Leonard Clark

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1 TRIP REPORT SPANISH PYRENEES & BELCHITE STEPPES 8 th - 14 th June 2013 Text by Leonard Clark Our group of seven, together with our guide Santiago Villa of Spainbirds, started from Madrid airport mid morning to spend several days in the Spanish Pyrenees Great scenery in the higher mountains and great birds too (such as Alpine Accentor) We then moved south to the vast plains of the Belchite Steppes, inland from the Ebro Basin. Again some great scenery, almost out of a Spaghetti Western at times, plus some great birds (such as El Diablo the Du Pont s Lark). And in between time, we explored the lower foothills of the Pyrenees where again we had some really splendid scenery plus some great birds (such as Wallcreeper).

2 When we arrived in Madrid, rain was falling in northern Spain and also around our initial destination, the foothills of the Pyrenees. A change of plan was called for and Santiago took us to the Daganzo Plains and the Henares River area, just north of Madrid - and all thoughts that the rain might spoil at least part of the tour were almost instantly forgotten. In the Daganzo Plains, a field some way off with several Great Bustards took our attention, plus a couple of distant Spanish Imperial Eagles, a Black Vulture and several Griffon Vultures. There were some Alpine Swifts above us, 3 Blackbellied Sandgrouse were found in another field plus a Marsh Harrier flying nearby when suddenly a flock of 31 Great Bustards appeared almost from nowhere, zoomed across the field close to us, too quick for a photograph - but we could just count them as they rapidly disappeared! Next was a deserted village, where we watched Rock Sparrows and Lesser Kestrels as they dived in and out of nesting holes in an old church.

3 Moving on to the Henares River area, we chased a Red-legged Partridge for some way along a lane between fields before we stopped by some other fields full of poppies and where steep cliffs dropped down to the far side of the river. A female Cuckoo gave its bubbling trill, Golden Orioles disclosed their presence with their beautiful fluting song and we glimpsed them as they flitted between riverside trees. A Melodious Warbler was in full song, as were several Cetti s Warblers, a Short-toed Eagle cruised low overhead - and then the highlight: on the cliff face opposite us, an adult Eagle Owl, together with two adult sized chicks - a super view in the sunshine. We arrived at our hotel in the Pyrenees in the early evening. It was still raining there but already on our first day, we had recorded 49 species including that superb Eagle Owl. The rain cleared late morning the following day and by then we were already exploring the lower valleys and fields of the Pyrenees, before moving on to higher areas during the next two days. So what did we see? Well there were some great views of Lammergeier in flight, and we were able to watch one bird as it landed in a ledge on the other side of the valley and was feeding on something.

4 whilst in the valleys, Marmots called and dived for cover whenever danger was sensed, and there were Chamois feeding on the steep slopes of surrounding cliffs. In the lower valleys, an obliging Tawny Pipit sat on a rock and allowed a close approach, whilst Ortolan and Cirl Buntings sang. Bee-eaters and then a Peregrine Falcon flew overhead. A pair of distant Golden Eagles were added to a growing list. From the trees and bushes that lined a narrow roadway, Bonelli s, Garden and Melodious Warblers sang and showed briefly, and then in a quiet, nearby valley another Garden Warbler was singing and we could also hear Woodlark, Nightingale plus another Orphean Warbler which gave tantalising glimpses as it moved around. A Sub-alpine Warbler called and then showed well. Rock Buntings called and sang Overhead Griffon Vultures circled and were followed by a Red Kite and then an Egyptian Vulture. Just before we moved on, a Short-toed Eagle landed near us and gave good views as it stretched and dried its wings. The search for the Wallcreeper nesting site took us into an area of attractive mountain peaks and valleys with wooded foothills and open pastures. Citril Finches were feeding young in the fields whilst overhead cruised Griffin Vultures, Ravens, Red-billed Choughs, Alpine Swifts and Lammergeiers.

5 Black Woodpeckers could be heard calling, with an occasional European Green Woodpecker joining in, as we worked our way to the Wallcreeper nesting location..where we spent some time bending our necks and peering upwards and searching the high, vertical cliff faces that towered above us, looking for a bird not much bigger than a Chaffinch.until it moved and, better still, flew over us allowing a great view of its colours and the distinctive shape of its wings. It was a day to enjoy as we later relaxed over a very pleasant tapas style lunch in the sun, with Red Kites cruising above us, perhaps looking for any leftovers (there were none!). We drove into France, well more or less France - up to the border, nearly 2000 metres up in the Pyrenees, where snow still lay quite deeply in some areas.

6 Alpine Choughs were up there in good numbers, and some good views were made of Ring Ouzel and, after some searching we were finally drawn to an attractive sounding song immediately behind us!! There, sitting on a rock singing away, was one of our key targets for the area, the Alpine Accentor. If it had come any closer we could have fed it by hand! We moved to a different part of the Spanish Pyrenees for some final great views of the mountains, adding a pair of Hobbies to our list and watched as they entertained us flying amongst Common and Alpine Swifts plus numerous Crag Martins. Working our way southwards and away from the high mountains, we arrived at the Belchite Steppes for the last part of the tour. The old Belchite town remains as a reminder of the fierce fighting that took place in this area during the Spanish Civil War when, in 1937, the whole town was destroyed and left as a living monument of war. In the town itself we saw Blue Rock Thrush and Black Redstart before we moved into the vast plains themselves

7 Haystacks and needles came to mind as we set out to find the last of our last target birds..but we managed OK! Amid a background chorus of song from Crested, Calandra, Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Larks, we picked out the unique song of the devilishly difficult to see El Diablo itself, the Dupont s Lark, which allowed us some excellent views. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were also very obliging..but Black-bellied Sandgrouse, although added to the list, were not quite so obliging! The group had around 114 species of birds, plus many other interesting items of note. A list of 33 different Butterflies plus 19 different Orchids, some of which had to be sniffed before they could be properly appreciated!

8 There were some giant size Egyptian Grasshoppers And even a Red Fox. All photos by Santi Villa (Spainbirds Nature Tours), Jeff Holmes and Len Clark

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