Extramadura. Spain February 2014.

8th FEBRUARY 2014

It's been a week since we returned from Spain and I'm still missing the place. Along with my wife Sarah, we joined friends Mark & Gill, Jill on what was a truly lovely trip, despite the weather.
I took a smaller lens outfit for ease of getting around, so the images are purely record shots and not as sharp as I would liked, next time I shall struggle with the larger lens.We flew out from Luton heading for Madrid where we were to meet up with our friend/guide/and birding/historian guru Neil. Taking an early flight enabled us to get some birding in on the way to our apartments in Trujillo. Neil had the route planned out and once through the airport and hire car sorted, we were on our way. The traffic was fairly heavy around Madrid and once away from the airport we (myself,Sarah,Mark,Gill) found ourselves heading to the meeting point with Neil and Jill someway behind in Neil's car. 
The birding listing started as soon as we landed and as we travelled the motorway it was evident the most common bird around was Red Kite! By the time we had reached our meeting point out of Madrid we were on 30+ Kites! Unbelievable numbers and lovely to see. Once Neil and Jill had caught up we took a welcome drinks break before heading to Arrocampo Lakes and Reserve, not before ticking off Red Legged Partridge, House Sparrow,Corn Bunting from the car park. The rest of the journey proved to be quieter for Red Kites, but was quickly replaced by ever growing numbers of White Stork, probably 70+ by the end of the day, and nesting everywhere.
The weather was somewhat cloudy with a fresh breezy wind, if I remember rightly, but it was not raining. It was here that I got a feeling for the abundance of species and the numbers, back home I would of struggled to of seen one species lined up to the next and so on, here it was teeming. We stopped here some lunch, once the bins had been placed around our necks of course!, and my first taste of goats cheese courtesy of Neil, "Oh my God", what lovely cheese that was, and gladly supplied by Neil on all our lunch trips out.
 With Binoculars in one hand and sandwich in the other we were scanning and ticking birds in all directions. There were White Wagtails everywhere, Chiffchaffs seemed to be flitting around in every bush and reedbed. We had a couple of Marsh Harriers quartering the reeds, Cetti's Warbler, and a welcoming sight for February were Sand Martins followed by Swallow and House Martins. I certainly didn't expect to see those this early in the year.

We then caught a glimpse of a Purple Swamphen, it kept hidden very well but gave itself up for a couple of record shots before disappearing. That was a new species and a welcome one. We then watched amazed, as in the distance, over a mountain range we picked out a huge number of Vultures soaring high. Even at a distance we picked out Griffon Vulture, truly amazing and Sarah was elated with the sight.

Along the flooded verges there was a flock of around 20 Spanish Sparrow, the males looked stunning. Also amongst the roadside vegetation, I picked out Corn Bunting and a bird which did not give itself up but the call was distinct enough to get named, a Zitting Cisticola, yet another new species and we had only just started. After spotting a few more common species and a calling Purple Swamphen, what a weird noise they make, we moved back to the car to head off to the nearby new reserve with hides.

 But before we departed a Crested Lark showed well in a fenced off area, it posed for a couple of shots before I had to return to the car. I was overwhelmed by the amount of species on show here, truly wonderful and a few celebratory drinks later that night would surely be in order.

As we parked at Arrocampo Nature reserve the first new addition for the list was a Black Redstart followed by Serin, Stonechat, Green Sandpiper, another Zitting Cisticola which gave itself up for a few seconds, Common Snipe and our first distant views of Common Crane. A truly spectacular first days birding and as the light began to drop we headed on towards Trujillo to our apartments and a welcome dinner.
By the time we got our stuff dropped off and sorted it was getting late, so we all headed over to a restaurant that Neil knew. This was to become our regular dining haunt,except for one night, and turned out to be a truly welcoming and warming place. 

 Neil and owner Luby
Luby turned out to be a godsend at dinner time, she catered for all six of us, different dishes ordered, and amazingly got everything up to the table all at the same time, and she was the only chef!! And not forgetting the choice of red wine, very nice indeed, before our little parting tipple.
 The forecast was not to be pleasant whilst in Spain but that did not spoil our trip, Trujillo was a lovely place and the old stoned streets and characterful buildings just heightened the experience of being there. 
 As we walked across the Plaza, the sound of clattering Storks bills echoed around. I couldn't wait for the next day.

DAY 2 
What was to become quite normal due to the weather, most of the birding was done from the car, the weather was really quite bad, and on leaving the rubbish weather in the UK I thought we have a different forecast, but I was surprised at how much flooding there was in Spain. We viewed floods running through fields like rivers and small pockets of water like lakes. But that was not going to stop our adventure.
What I did enjoy was waking up to the sound of Spotless Starlings in the tree and building outside our apartment window. There was quite a flock of them and what a noise they made, but it was the first thing I would go and look at before my day started.
Around the market square flying overhead were Crag Martins, they were sheltering under the front of one building out of the rain. Mark did a grand job of driving us around, the only problem he had was the stupid electric handbrake system on the hire car, to say it was temperamental was an understatement and a downright pain in the back side! But he did a great job. Today we were off to venture around the areas surrounding Trujillo and beyond. Despite the weather we encountered a lot of birds. Neil and Jill would either meet us in Trujillo or we would drive to Neil's village not far from Trujillo. Every morning we would be greeted by Neil and Jill with the news that they had seen something whilst out on their morning walk with Kelly, and news of a new species would get the blood pumping. 
We stopped off at various pull in verges and scanned the fields, the ground feeding birds were in huge numbers, in England you wouldn't see anything if out in the rain, but here quite the opposite. There were Crested larks, Linnets, Meadow Pipits, numerous Lapwings everywhere, Corn Buntings singing, Stonechats on every next section of fencing, and the start of Iberian Grey Shrike sightings, by the end of the day we had seen at least 5 birds.

The roadside bushes were nearly all, it seemed, occupied by at least one Chiffchaff, and another new bird to start showing itself was the Azure Winged Magpies. These were somewhat elusive, preferring to stay among the trees, but they tended to give themselves up eventually if you tracked them through the canopies.
The weather did not better itself and so after a soggy day it was back to Trujillo and the prospect of a good forecast for Monday it looked like a trip to Monfrague was in order. 
Day 3
I awoke to my usual chorus of Spotless Starlings and the prospect of what was lining up to be a fantastic day. We were to head to the Monfrague National Park and on the menu...Vultures and Eagles
I had decided the previous night that I would be up for first light to photograph the White Storks and birds around the hilltop castle. Sarah joined me and we headed off around the back roads, working our way uphill. It was dry and with a low layer of cloud on the horizon, the sun was not winning its way through straight away. It was however freezing, and not far off a frost by the feel of it, probably only around 3 degrees. There was plenty of bird activity though with Serins calling, Spotless Starlings, Blue Tit, Blackbird and a couple of Black Redstarts.

As the sun rose higher, Sarah left me on my own to go back and get prepared for the days trip out. I stayed out for a while longer seeing what I could find and hoping the White Storks would become more active at the nest for some photos. What I thought was a Willow Warbler, pale legged bird, was later viewed as a Chiffchaff by Neil and some feedback from birders in Spain, due to the primary projection, not all Chiffchaff will show dark legs, so beware!

 A Crag Martin can be seen here flying around Trujillo at first light. This male Blackbird posed briefly, there were not that many Blackbirds seen around any place.
 Black Redstarts on the other hand were numerous and found in all terrain. 
I had just enough time to get a few White Stork images before heading back to the apartment to meet up with Sarah, Mark and Gill. The weather was looking great, albeit cold and windy, and the anticipation of another great days birding including Vultures had me buzzing.

Next it was short drive to what Neil refers to as Bustard corner. A place just up the road from his home, and where he had already seen Bustards. The fields had a wonderful backdrop of the snow capped mountains beyond. 
No sooner had we got there, and the birds begun to show, absolutely fabulous that straight away we had a group of 18 Great Bustards at the back of the field we were stopped next to. 
And if this wasn't a great start the sight of not so distant Griffon and Black Vulture and Common Buzzard had me excited at the thought of Monfrague. A view of distant Common Cranes in front of the mountainous backdrop and we were back in the car to head off.
Just down the road, after leaving the Bustards and we added, among other species, a stunning male Hen Harrier.
When nearly at Monfrague, we stopped off at a river valley where we could see numbers of Vultures flying by, Sarah found a Grey Wagtail along the riverbank, but it flew before connecting with it. THEN it happened, suddenly a eagle came into view and proceeded to circle overhead and away....SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE...everyone's neck was craned and what a sight, and not long after a second bird as well. These birds would be truly toasted a tipple later that night.

There now seemed to be more Griffon Vultures passing overhead, what an awesome sight, and one that I or Sarah had never witnessed before, mesmerising in that you couldn't take your eyes off the birds and the sheer size of the wingspan. 

After the second Spanish Imperial Eagle we stayed at the valley for a short period before heading up to the main viewpoints.

As we approached the viewpoints we could see the tower atop the mountain, where we would later walk to. First we headed to a lake viewing area surrounded by mountains and Vultures everywhere....oh my!

 Sarah pointed out a bird high up on the mountain, a stunning Blue Rock Thrush.

Some of the vultures where nesting and a few were seen carrying nesting material in.
Whilst watching this spectacle, a Peregrine Falcon was spotted atop the mountain. It was also noticeable that the Griffon's would be fairly low in height, but the Black Vultures tended to stay a lot higher when passing over.
 Peregrine Falcon
 Black Vultures
The wind was quite strong and I lent myself against the car to stop being rocked about whilst aiming skywards. Sarah found the best way for her was to lay down and just view upwards. We then headed around to the far side and parked up for some lunch before moving up towards the hilltop viewpoint. 
The abundance of species found walking up to the top as well as descending was incredible. There were Blackcaps, Sardinian Warbler, members of the Tit family, Black Redstart, more Blue Rock Thrush, Hawfinch, Firecrest, Short Toed Treecreeper, and more.

As we approached the top I began to get a bit apprehensive, I don't like heights and the view from up there was vast, I did not feel comfortable. The birding took my mind off it at times but the most I kept back from the edge. When we headed down, not far from the top, Neil and Mark picked up a Hawfinch calling. We tried in vain to catch a glimpse but it would not give itself up. Whilst searching for this though, I spotted a Rock Bunting, stunning head markings but annoyingly flew as Sarah caught a glimpse and out of sight for Mark and Neil to connect with although shortly after whilst descending, Neil picked up on one or two calling which we heard. As we headed back down, the plan was to return to the original viewpoint and await sunset in the hope of Eagle Owl. Then all eyes skyward as a Golden Eagle circled close by and gave great views.

The list just kept increasing, next up was a Chough which displayed well before perching atop the tower.
I could not refrain was photographing the Vultures again, once we had parked up at the first viewpoint. As the light began to drop the Black Vultures seemed to get lower and lower in the sky, a lot of the Griffons were taking up their nighttime spots on the mountain, the stream of vultures coming over just did not seem to dwindle.

As the moon rose higher and the sun started to set we heard our first Eagle Owl, a loud barking almost monkey like call from the other side of the lake in the woodland.

We ended up hearing at least 2 Eagle Owls, and eagle eye Neil, no pun intended, spotted one, high up on the mountain top luckily enough, so as the silhouette of the bird stood out lovely against the sky. A long day indeed and by the time we got back to Trujillo it was a late dinner and if I remember rightly a celebratory large Brandy before Sarah, Mark, Gill and I headed back to our apartments. WHAT A DAY AND WHAT FANTASTIC BIRDS.

I was really glad that the previous day at Monfrague had been so good bird wise and weather wise and Tuesday turned out to be a horrible dull wet day. We were soaked just from having the windows of the car open whilst we were birding. But we soldiered on and by the end of the day we had accumulated a decent tally of birds. Today was the day for the Cranes in the rice and crop fields. First we headed off for Bustards, and found a group feeding in a field. A lone Common Buzzard took flight and luckily for us flushed a group of 5 Little Bustards, what a great start to a dreary day. Next on the agenda were Stone Curlews, Neil took us to a regularly used spot, we indeed found the flock, which contained anything up to 50 birds. Pushing on next to the crop fields and where Jill's favourite bird flocked in huge numbers, it was a shame the weather was so bad as there proved no opportunity for photography today, just a couple of record shots. But the number of birds on an atrocious day was staggering with the best birds for me, so far, being, Little Bustard, Great Bustard, Stone Curlew, Zitting Cisticola, Iberian Shrikes.

Next stop were the rice fields, with the hope of adding some new species to the tally. On route the amount of Cattle Egrets seemed to be increasing in numbers, and a few Great White Egrets were nice to see. Greenshank and Green Sandpiper were the only waders seen, and Kingfisher was added. I did not realise there would be so many Zitting Cisticola's around, another addition was a Water Rail heard squealing. We then took to driving around looking for places to park up and scan around, an unexpected find was a Dartford Warbler around a ruined building. A few Hoopoe's were seen sheltering among small tree plantations, trying to keep out of the rain. A group of Red Avadavat's were found and a welcome addition to the list.

We headed back towards Trujillo and visited the fields again, with plenty of Crested Larks, Stonechat, Corn Buntings, Spanish Sparrow, Calandra Larks, Iberian Grey Shrikes. With the weather worsening we left Neil and Jill and headed back to Trujillo for dry clothing and some warmth.

The day dawned as before with my morning dose of Spotless Starlings. It was grey and dull but the forecast was a bit changeable with the chance of a bright spell. Today were visiting the local steppes and plains, with the numbers of birds about we knew it would be rewarding. First on the want list was Woodlark and there was a place nearby to Neil's, so we headed off to meet Neil and Jill at his. It didn't take long before we connected with the Woodlarks singing away. In the same fields we had a handful of Hoopoes actively chasing each other around. Then as 2 Red Kites took to the air from dep in amongst the wooded field, a third raptor took to the air and low and behold I was shouting Egyptian Vulture!! Unbelievable start to the day, and after a couple of record shots of the distant vulture we headed back to Bustard corner.

2 Hoopoes gave us a escort along the road to Bustard corner where we were to see a group of Great Bustards and a group of 9 Little Bustards popping their heads up every now and again giving themselves away.

With the weather turning out not as expected, the rain started yet again. We headed off and carried on seeing the same species, then away in a field on a wire fence a lovely unexpected find with a Great Spotted Cuckoo, stunning and if that wasn't good enough it then flew across the road we had stopped on and perched in a tree opposite us.

What a bird, and a great addition to the Egyptian Vulture, heading on the excitement continued with a male Lesser Kestrel sat on a post and then another Dartford Warbler flicked through the bushes next to us. Celebrations were imminent and we headed home to Trujillo for a celebratory evening again.

A perfect end to the day, Luby had a couple of paella's awaiting us all at La Sonata. Tonight I wanted to get some night time shots of Trujillo as it looked so picturesque with the street lights.

The gang sit down to another lovely evening's meal and great company. Time to update lists and partake in some lovely red wine.
Neil, Gill, Mark, Sarah, Gill, Luby

Tuck in Neil

More images of Trujillo 
Then on our way back to the apartments...
Brandy time..open up guvnor'

Good morning Spotless Starlings.
A dull and wet start yet again. We were heading to Montanchez Castle, for Alpine Accentor. As we got closer the weather started to improve and we actually saw the sun! But alas it did not last, as we turned towards the hills a thick mist loomed over us. By the time we arrived at the castle it was very bad to say the least. the wind was blowing the mist in strongly and the rain had started. We decided to move around to the slightly more sheltered side of the castle, hoping that if the Accentor was here it would more likely be there.

 As we began to search, Sarah moved out of the way for a work van driving from the castle, as she moved I then caught sight of the Alpine Accentor on the castle wall above Sarah. I told Sarah to freeze and then prompted the others to join us, we all gained views of the bird and a second one too! 

After we headed down to the town square and had a welcome warm drink. The shop next door sold a fantastic display of hams and cheeses, and Sarah and I took time out to watch the girl thinly slicing the ham off the leg, and offering us a sample, that was absolutely beautiful to taste.
We next headed to the Steppes for some more birding, looking out for Sandgrouse and Bustards. It had brightened up now we were down from the mountain, we found 2 groups of Great Bustards which were marginally closer that before. Larks were in abundance with Crested Larks so numerous, alongside Skylark and good albeit brief views of Calandra Lark, but no definitive sightings of Thekla Lark.
Then Sarah got us onto a low flying group of birds...and the shout of Black-Bellied Sandgrouse went up, a group of about 10 that quickly disappeared beyond the horizon, but not before showing off their black undersides. We stopped for lunch atop a hill where the tarmac finishes half way along the road! We could see the changing weather sweeping across the plains with Trujillo in the distance.

 Crested Larks

As the weather started to change and the rain clouds drew in, we moved on, stopping off at a couple of places before a early return to Trujillo to grab some items from the shops and to pack for a early flight back to the UK.

Luckily the weather turned out to be beautiful and bright later that afternoon and Mark,Gill,Sarah and I took a lengthy walk around the streets of Trujillo, enjoying the sights with plenty of photographs. Sadly it was an early departure the next morning and the end of a fabulous trip.

Probably the longest report I've written, but what a fantastic trip and a place I am still missing. I would like to say many thanks to Neil for being a great guide, great company and good friend, and introducing us to Kelly. To Mark,Gill,Jill and Sarah for being such great company on a truly memorable trip thank you. To Mark, for doing the driving on those long days out thank you. Luby if you ever read this, thank you for your company and fabulous cooking, and thank you to Spain and the beautiful birds...I hope to see you again.