Tuesday, 18 October 2011


My wife and i headed for a fortnight in the sunshine of southern Spain in mid September. The plan as always was to get as much birding in as allowed, as well as doing the usual holiday activities. As this was our first trip to mainland Spain we decided to travel around quite a bit. First port of call was Tarifa, the southernmost tip of Spain, then up to Coto Donana, onto Seville and finally for a fews days further north in Extremadura.

We flew Ryanair from Liverpool to Seville. Unfortunataly the plane had technical difficulties and had to land in Madrid for us to change planes. This delayed us somewhat but we were soon out of Seville airport in our hire car and heading south.

First stop was a lake called Laguna De Marida just off the road. This is a famous lake for white headed duck. Sure enough there was a small group of these stifftails in the corner of the lake. First new bird of the trip! Sadly no marbled teal or crested coot but other notable birds were black necked grebes, short toed eagle, melodious, cetti's and western olivaceous warbler. On the drive south we saw other birds that were to become familiar: spotless starlings, griffon vultures and white storks. Early evening checked into the hotel 2 miles west of Tarifa and headed into town for a meal.

Tarifa is famous for migration, in particular raptor migration. The next 5 days were spent heading to the viewpoints just east of Tarifa town, as well as visiting nearby farmland and paddy fields around La Janda, the hills at Bolinas along with tourist days visiting Gibraltar, whale watching and visiting the old city of Cadiz.

On each day i spent at least some days at either the Cazalla or the Algorrobo watchpoint with birders from all over Europe. It was great to get your eye in on the huge numbers of raptors either passing over or just hanging around. For the first 3 days there was a very strong Levante wind (easterly) which meant that very few birds crossed. This meant that more raptors were further west at Algorrobo which is more sheltered.

Honey Buzzard

Whilst the Levante was blowing there were still good numbers of raptors around. Small flocks of 5 to 30 birds of commoner species were seen. Black kites, honey buzzards, sparrowhawks, egyptian and griffon vultures, short toed and booted eagles were all plentiful. Small numbers of common and lesser kestrel, peregrine, osprey, common buzzard and marsh harriers were also passing through. The bird I most wanted to see though was Ruppells Vulture. This area has become the European hotspot for this African species with birds seen in very small numbers each Autumn and Spring with the juvenile Griffons which head to and from Africa.

Short Toed Eagle

Juv Egyptian Vulture

Day two I had no joy at Cazalla so headed to Algorrobo. Quite literally the first bird i saw on leaving my car at this site was a sub adult Ruppells over my head about 50 metres up. Magic! It was soon joined by a griff and a good comparison could be made. The smaller size, darker plumage and distinctive white line close to the forwing were all obvious. The dutchman next to me was over the moon and celebrated by offering me a high 5! Another lifer and it was great to catch up with Ruppells having missed them previously in Africa.

After another hour watching numerous raptors, bee eaters and red rumped swallows over head, we visited Gibraltar. I have to admit the town itself did not do much for me. The rock was interesting though. The Barbary macaques certainly were not shy. Sadly dipped the barbary partridge but there were still plenty of raptors passing overhead.

Pre breakfast and evening birding also had good birds. I visited Los Lances beach in a strong easterly. Juvenile honey buzzards were passing at eye level barely moving against the wind. Audouins and yellow legged gulls were plentiful, waders, crested larks, black stork and a few cory's were seen here. It wasn't until I got home that I reaslised I had dipped both a royal and a lesser crested tern here!

Yellow Legged Gull

La Janda.

This area of farmland with plentiful irrigation channels was full of birds. Spanish sparrow flocks, ortolan, crested larks, glossy ibis, hundreds of white storks, numerous marsh and montagues harriers, black shouldered kites and large flocks of lesser kestrel were all seen well. The best bird though was a juvenile lanner. This bird was reported to be around for a few days. Doubt however was raised when a photo appeared of an odd falcon which turned out to be a northern race peregrine from this same area. The lanner though appeared all brown on the back and wing with distinctive paler patch on the hind neck. The bird was photographed by someone else shwing a pale vent also. The northern peregrine had more grey on the back but from the photo online is quite unlike any peregrine I have ever seen!


This area a little further east is famous for breeding white rumped and little swifts. Sadly despite 3 visits I and many others saw none. They breed in a cave here and when nesting are very reliable. Sadly breeding was over and none were to be seen here or at other sites for these species. In theory the white rumoed should still be around and the littles are resident. The local griffons though put on a show along with blue rock thrushes, sardinian warblers and calandra larks.

A trip to the ancient city of Cadiz was pleasant. Few birds were added to the trip list, although flamingos were seen on route and there is a healthy population of monk parakeets in the city.

Monk Parakeets

As i'd earned a few brownie points we made a diversion on the way home to check out the pools near Jerez. Laguna de Medina was poor but the smaller lake down a bumpy track (amazing where hire cars will go, although by now it was making a nasty rattling noise) called Laguna de Puerto Real produced the goods. Plenty of flamingo, purple gallinule, ducks and waders were present. The highlight here and another lifer being 4 marbled teal.

On the 16th the wind shifted to a light Westerly and the raptor migration was on! I spent the moring up at the Cazalla watchpoint for one of the most spectacular mornings birding I have ever had. Raptors were on the move in their thousands. In the 4 hours I was there it was estimated that 3000 short toed and 3000 booted eagles passed over. Add to this 100 egyptian, 10 griffs, and 2 more Ruppells vulture, 200 black kite, 200 honey buzzard, 10 sparrowhawk, 10 kestrel sp, 80+black and 300 white storks along with hirundines, buzzing tree pipits and turtle doves all heading south. The sky was full of birds and a truely amazing spectacle!

I had to leave at lunch to go whale watching. From the boat we saw numerous pilot whales, a few bottle nosed dolphins and sunfish. Sadly only a few seabirds were seen including storm petrel, a single balearic and a few cory's shearwaters and caspian terns. Not many pelagics though produce osprey, short toed eagle and a monty!

Pilot Whale

The 17th saw us leaving Tarifa and heading to the lovely town of El Rocio near Coto Donana. On route we heard a rumour that a tour company had a stake out for bald ibis so we decided we would follow them. The re introduced birds are often to be found in early mornings feeding on a golf course in the area. After a little searching part of the flock were seen well feeding on the putting green. I believe these birds are now breeding in Spain so hopefully they will start to increase. Also seen here was green woodpecker of the Iberian race. Surely a good split in the near future. They look different, sound different and now i've seen them they should be split.

Coto Donana.

Squacco Heron

We spent the next 3 days around Coto Donana area. Not at its best in Autumn this special place still held many birds. Our first evening produced red necked nightjar on the road just after dark. I was really chuffed to get this species as they would soon be leaving for Africa and it was a another new bird for me.

We hired the services of a guide for a morning. Jose from Discovering Donana proved good company and knew his birds. He also had access to parts of the reserve we would not be allowed to get to. Highlights of the morning were pin tailed sandgrouse, lesser short toed lark, bluethroat, azure winged magpie, spectacled, western orphean and dartford warbler, slender billed gull, numerous flocks of glossy ibis, spoonbills, herons and egrets (squacco, night and purple heron with all 3 egrets) and best of all stonking views of a melanistic montagues Harrier. Sadly we missed imperial eagle but Jose pointed me in the direction of a good site close to El Rocio. Sure enough later that afternoon I was watching a Spanish imperial eagle soaring with a booted eagle and a griff for company.

Eurasian Spoonbill

We also explored nearby pools, lakes and farmland where waders and waterbirds were common. A few exotics were added to my list; black rumped waxbill and golden bishop. Red crested pochards and white headed ducks added some colour along with red kites. An odd looking buzzard had me hopeful that it was a long legged, but the proportions were wrong and the bright rufous tail had a dark sub terminal band pointing towards a probable steppe buzzard.

From here we spent 2 days in Seville. A great city with much to see (only added ring necked parakeet here).

The final 3 days of the holiday were spent in Extremadura about 3 hours north of Seville. We stayed with British birder Martin Kelsey and his wife Claudia in their guesthouse Casa Rural El Recuerdo near Trujillo. This was an excellent place to stay with great local food and good company, and hawfinch, red rumped swallow and azure winged magpies in the garden. We went out birding with Martin around the local plains as well as heading to Monfrague national park. This part or Spain is very rural with scattered old towns and villages but full of birdlife.

Birding on the plains was like stepping back in time with flocks of corn buntings and sparrows everywhere. Stars of the show were the great and little bustards, black bellied sandgrouse, black vultures, stone curlew, thekla and calandra larks and numerous raptors.

Monfrague national park is more rugged with steep hills and cliff faces. This is a famous place for watching breeding raptors and there was great numbers of griffs around along with a few black vultures, booted and short toed eagle, a late honey buzzard and peregrine all soaring around the rock faces. A new bird in the shape of a black wheatear showed nicely for us. Dartford warbler, iberian shrike, blue rock thrush, alpine swift and azure winged magpie were also seen whilst watching the skies for raptors.

Sadly our time was soon up and we had to head for home. Our final day had us heading south and visiting some towns on route. The last bird of the trip was a griffin vulture sunning itself on the roof of our airport hotel!

We had a great time seeing 162 species incuding 10 lifers and 21 raptors. We will definately head to Spain again soon and can only imagine how good it must be in the Spring.

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