Monday 2nd April 2018

BUBO in ANDALUCIA - part 1

The annual BUBO birding trip took place during the Easter holidays, as has become traditional, but in 2018 only myself and Ian were available. We decided to head to Spain, staying in Tarifa, the southernmost town in the country and indeed the southernmost town on mainland Europe. The Tarifa area seems a popular destination at the moment for some quality, easy-to-get-to birding and we thought it would be ideal for a quick 4 or 5 day trip. We were especially keen on catching some raptor migration, as well as seeing some new species, or at least species we hadn't seen for a long time.

I flew to Gatwick the night before, successfully willing that the poor weather that was forecast would hold off for a few hours so I wouldn't get stuck in Guernsey. I dragged myself out of the hotel at 4 am and made my way to the terminal through the cold, wet darkness. I caught a very early BA flight and met up with Ian in Malaga Airport, both our journeys luckily going pretty smoothly. We checked in at the hire car desk and, after a few failed attempts, we eventually found the car park and were soon on our way around lunchtime, which meant we could do some afternoon birding. 


The first few miles were spent trying to navigate the Malaga road system using Ian's new SatNav, but we soon found our route, which was actually the exact opposite direction than Tarifa - we started heading North. Since the airport was just 50 minutes away from Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, the famous Greater Flamingo breeding site, we thought it was worth the brief backtracking, especially since we knew that there was a few rare Lesser Flamingos present.

After the motorway started ascending the hills north of the city we saw our first decent birds, a couple of massive Griffon Vultures circling above us. There wasn't a great deal else along the roadside until we descended back into the plains where more raptors were evident including a couple of Booted Eagles and a Hoopoe flew across in front of us. Pretty soon we were passing through Fuente de Piedra village towards the reserve. Turning into the approach road in beautiful weather, we saw a group of Gull-billed Terns flying over the fields to our right and a group of Greater Flamingos on the lagoon to our left. It already looked a superb site!

 Ian 'scoping the lake from the Fuente de Piedra visitor centre

Ian 'scoping the lake from the Fuente de Piedra visitor centre

We climbed the hill up to the visitor centre to get a viewpoint overlooking the lake where were could scan the flamingo flocks looking for the rare Lessers. These birds can be very easy or they can be very difficult. The main flock on the lake below our viewpoint did not contain anything other than Greater Flamingos but it was tricky to be sure since they were almost all asleep. Every now and again a very small bird was seen but always turned into a Greater - they seem a very variable species with respect to size. Also on the main lake were some Avocets and Black-winged Stilts. We knew there were other flamingos on the small lagoons nearby to check through but it was quite disheartening to 'scope the far far reaches of the lake and see thousands of tiny pink dots in the distance. Seeing these Lessers was becoming quite unlikely.

 Greater Flamingos - Fuente de Piedra

Greater Flamingos - Fuente de Piedra

We went for a walk along the tracks below the centre. There were some warblers around including resident Sardinian, Fan-tailed and Cetti's, plus migrating Chiffchaff and Blackcap. A Nightingale sang with gusto and a male Spanish Sparrow was seen briefly on the grass feeding with House Sparrows and lots of Spotless Starlings. On the drier tracks, Crested Larks fluted their songs.

 Pools by the visitor centre -  Fuente de Piedra

Pools by the visitor centre - Fuente de Piedra

Crossing the ditch closer to the lake a decent group of Yellow Wagtails was feeding on the short grass. Most of these were the local Spanish Wagtail (iberiae) with their darker caps, but there was also a few Blue-headed Wagtails (flava) plus a single British Yellow Wagtail (flavissima). Lovely to see a mixed flock.

 Blue-headed Wagtail -  Fuente de Piedra

Blue-headed Wagtail - Fuente de Piedra

Despite driving past the Gull-billed Terns on the way in, they appeared to have disappeared, so it was great to see them return to hawk over the same field. Watching these terns feeding over a grassy field much as most other terns feed over water was terrific. They often appeared right over our heads and gave spectacular views as they acrobatically chased insects.

 Gull-billed Tern -  Fuente de Piedra

Gull-billed Tern - Fuente de Piedra

  Gull-billed Tern -   Fuente de Piedra - looking odd as it was craning its neck round looking for prey

Gull-billed Tern - Fuente de Piedra - looking odd as it was craning its neck round looking for prey

  Gull-billed Tern -   Fuente de Piedra

Gull-billed Tern - Fuente de Piedra

  Gull-billed Tern -   Fuente de Piedra

Gull-billed Tern - Fuente de Piedra

  Gull-billed Tern -   Fuente de Piedra - has just spied an insect ahead of it (top left) and is going in for the kill...

Gull-billed Tern - Fuente de Piedra - has just spied an insect ahead of it (top left) and is going in for the kill...

  Gull-billed Tern -   Fuente de Piedra - ...and snap! there it goes - yum!

Gull-billed Tern - Fuente de Piedra - ...and snap! there it goes - yum!

We then wandered round to the approach road pool where we got terrific views of about 20 Greater Flamingos - no doubt the closest I've ever seen wild flamingos. They gave a great display for us - the iconic bird of Fuente de Piedra. Apparently as many as 20,000 pairs can breed here depending on the water levels. There were also a few Avocets and Stilts present as well as a single Little Ringed Plover.

  Greater Flamingos -   Fuente de Piedra

Greater Flamingos - Fuente de Piedra

  Greater Flamingos -   Fuente de Piedra

Greater Flamingos - Fuente de Piedra

  Greater Flamingos -   Fuente de Piedra

Greater Flamingos - Fuente de Piedra

  Greater Flamingos -   Fuente de Piedra

Greater Flamingos - Fuente de Piedra

  Greater Flamingos -   Fuente de Piedra - with Black-winged Stilt, Avocets and a Spanish Wagtail

Greater Flamingos - Fuente de Piedra - with Black-winged Stilt, Avocets and a Spanish Wagtail

  Black-winged Stilt -   Fuente de Piedra

Black-winged Stilt - Fuente de Piedra

From the slope near the car park we could just see onto a small pool at the back of the centre and spotted straight away a few White-headed Ducks swimming about. This was great as we'd forgotten about the presence of this other iconic Andalucian bird here. We could also see more flamingos on this pool which needed checking so we made our way round to the hides. These didn't really give much closer views but we were able to confirm that there were no Lessers in the flamingo flock. There were plenty of other waterbirds present on this back pool however. We counted at least 10 White-headed Ducks, some of them displaying. There were also about 15 Red-crested Pochards in amongst a few other duck species. Both Little and Black-necked Grebes were present, but a single Little Egret was the only heron we saw. An adult Med Gull was circling overhead.

  White-headed Ducks - Fuente de Piedra

White-headed Ducks - Fuente de Piedra

  Scarce Swallowtail - Fuente de Piedra - as well as this species, we saw a couple of Green-striped Whites by the hides.

Scarce Swallowtail - Fuente de Piedra - as well as this species, we saw a couple of Green-striped Whites by the hides.

As terrific as the birding was here, we had limited time and moved on. We had to decide whether it was worth trying to get closer to the distant flamingos further south. Since Lesser Flamingo was one of the only potential ticks Ian had to go for on the trip we concluded that it was worth a shot, so we headed round the lake hoping to find some viewpoints. The first viewpoint - or mirador - was at the very top of the lake but we couldn't really see any extra flamingos from there and we didn't fancy moving from the car much as there seemed to be a small pack of feral dogs wandering around! We did find more Gull-billed Terns though and they gave another fine show.

  Gull-billed Tern - Fuente de Piedra

Gull-billed Tern - Fuente de Piedra

At the south-western corner of the lake we saw signs to another viewpoint - Mirador de Cantarranas - and drove up the dirt track. This viewpoint was not exactly close to the lake (over a km away probably) but at least we could see distant flamingos everywhere. It was a tough ask picking out anything from this distance. We kept seeing smaller birds that might have been Lessers but straining our eyes to the limit we kept deciding that they weren't. After another false alarm we were thinking of giving up when Ian suddenly shouted out that he'd got two birds walking right to left! Following his directions I quickly found them as they strolled along the near bank of the lagoon and, as is often the case, these two birds needed no debate as they stuck out like a sore thumb. Not the white colour with subtle pink tones of the Greaters, these birds were bubble-gum pink all over! Really bright and glowing. We also managed to make out fully dark bills on the birds - two definite LESSER FLAMINGOS - my first new bird of the trip.

  Fuente de Piedra (south-west end) - just after ticking Lesser Flamingo

Fuente de Piedra (south-west end) - just after ticking Lesser Flamingo

Unfortunately these birds disappeared behind vegetation almost as soon as we found them but we carried on round the lake and found another mirador at the very south end. We could see the flamingos from here also at a similar distance and were able to find the two Lesser Flamingos again as they fed in the channels between the sand banks. The sun was shining bright and we picked up a few other migrants overhead - a fabulous pale-phase Booted Eagle passing us and a group of 7 calling Bee-eaters - superb stuff.

With the Lesser Flamingos now under the belt we headed off south-west towards the hills to our second planned stop off - the Teba Gorge. After following the annoying SatNav directions through the ridiculously narrow streets of the town of Teba, it was pretty late in the afternoon before we arrived at the gorge but it was a pretty spectacular sight. The gorge is a narrow crack through just a small hill really, and only in the foothills rather than the mountains, but was really excellent for 'craggy' birds and I had two main targets here. 

  Teba Gorge

Teba Gorge

From the road bridge we saw a couple of Grey Wagtails bobbing round the stream at the bottom and a few Crag Martins swooping up to nest sites. We scrambled down to the gorge floor and started making our way up the mini-canyon. Almost straight away we picked up a large raptor circling in the gap between the cliffs - a majestic adult Bonelli's Eagle! It was quite far away but we could still see the white belly with dark underwings, the long tail and bulging wings, and even the fag-ash sprinkling of white on the back. A top bird.

  Bonelli's Eagle - Teba Gorge

Bonelli's Eagle - Teba Gorge

Then, quick as a flash, my second new bird of the day swooped in from the top of the crag, down to the cliffs on the left - a cracking male BLACK WHEATEAR. It landed on the bright orange section of the left hand wall of the gorge (see pic above) and perched up for a few seconds before darting down and entering a hole in the large horizontal crack - no doubt nesting in there. It flew out again flashing its white rump and black-T'd tail before disappearing behind a bluff. We saw it a couple more times but mostly high up, at the very top of the gorge, where I was able to take very poor photos. A terrific looking bird - you can't beat a new wheatear for class!

  Black Wheatear - Teba Gorge

Black Wheatear - Teba Gorge

Other 'rocky' birds present in the gorge were a pair of Blue Rock Thrushes and a small flock of Choughs. Unfortunately we were unable to locate my other target bird, Rock Sparrow. We would have stood a good chance of finding them if we had more time to explore the area but we had to make a sharpish move. We had to get to Tarifa before 9 o'clock to meet the apartment owner to get the keys and we were cutting it a bit fine.

 Chough -  Teba Gorge

Chough - Teba Gorge

It was a long two hour drive to Tarifa and we didn't see many birds on the way, just the first Black Kite of the trip was notable. We got there in the nick of time without any delays and found the apartment on the west side of the town. We met the owners and I tried to remember my GCSE Spanish as they showed us around. We settled in, popped to the supermarket for some basics, took a shower and then met up with Niki and Simon, of the "Inglorious Bustards", for a beer in a town bar. They live in Tarifa and are local tour guides, so they were able to give us lots of tips about which places were good and what birds were around. We are both very grateful for their helpfulness and generosity - and for introducing me to sherry-flavoured beer! Walking back to the car in the dark they pointed out a few spots that we could visit in the morning for some quality birds and, as we reached the car park, a Tawny Owl called loudly from the surrounding trees. After a while it flew across and perched on a branch out in the open, lit up by the street lights of Tarifa. A fine ending to a tiring day.


If you are thinking about visiting the Tarifa area (or Donana, or Morocco) and are thinking about perhaps using a quality guide then why not check out Niki and Simon - The Inglorious Bustards - on their website here: https://ingloriousbustards.com/