BUBO in ESPAÑA - part 1
For our annual BUBO birding trip this year we decided to return to Spain, but central Spain this time, mainly in Extremadura. I had plenty of new birds to go for in that area as I have only really been birding in the very south of Spain before. Ian and Andy didn’t really have multiple ticks to go for as they had been birding here before, but they assured me that the birding was so good in the area they were happy to go again. Due to the peculiarities of the school holiday system, Ian would only be able to ‘overlap’ with me for two or three days before having to get back home. So he and his son went out to Spain half a week earlier than us and focussed their attention further south, where they gripped us off majorly with Iberian Lynx! I was to meet Andy at Madrid Airport and we were to join Ian and Daniel at our base in Extremadura.
As usual I flew out to Gatwick the day before, the same day I finished work for the holidays, and stayed in the Premier Inn for the night. Late the next morning I took the Norwegian Airways flight to Madrid Airport with only about half an hour or so delay. Andy’s arrival from Stansted was due to arrive an hour after mine but he also had a slight delay so I had to hang around Madrid airport for a while. It was late afternoon when Andy appeared and we eventually set off in the hire car which we were very pleased to see was already quite scratched and dented. We negotiated the roads out of the airport and joined the motorway, skirting the south edge of the city and passing the new Atletico Madrid stadium. I managed one slight (!) mis-navigation which stalled us for a short while but I blame it on the strange decision to give Spanish roads multiple names - the M40 is the same as the E5 etc. Pretty soon we had left the city and were heading west into the Spanish countryside. The typical roadside birds of the area became evident with White Storks and Crested Larks, a few Black-winged Stilts on roadside pools, a flyover Hoopoe and the ubiquitous Corn Buntings. We picked up a few mid-sized raptors with Black Kites, a Common Buzzard and a Booted Eagle visible from the road.
Just before we reached the Extremadura region, a few kilometres short of the town of Oropesa, we passed a white bird perched on a roadside electricity wire. It was a bird of prey and, once the image had processed in our brains, we both blurted out that it was a BLACK-WINGED KITE. A new bird for me already and we hadn’t even got to where we were going yet! A species I’ve wanted to see since I was little, this was always the first bird of prey in the bird book and had a very restricted range back then, although it has expanded recently. After searching and searching in Andalucia last year, I can’t believe it was so easy. However, of course we were racing down a main road and we passed it by instantly. Luckily there was a slip road straight away to some services, then a dirt track parallel to the road that we doubled back on. When we rounded the bend, we could see it straight ahead of us hovering over the track. We managed a brief view in the bins through the windscreen before it swooped behind a bush. We drove closer and scanned but we never saw it again.
Rather than meet Ian and Daniel at the hotel, we decided to rendezvous inside the Montfrague National Park. We turned off the main road at Bazagona and headed south. As soon as we started driving down the minor roads we started seeing more birds, starting with a superb flock of Bee-eaters around some old buildings. We saw a Red Fox running in a field which stopped and stood quite close to a White Stork which was also feeding in the field. Andy correctly remembered that “The Fox and the Stork” was one of the Aesop’s Fables and we had just witnessed the live version. We reached a rocky ravine which is the north-eastern entrance to Montfrague and pulled up at the side of the road. It was getting quite late now and the sun had dropped behind the hillside casting a shadow across the cliffs opposite.
There was no sign of Ian yet so we started strolling up the road towards the viewpoint. We’d only gone a few yards when we looked up above the ridge on our side of the ravine and saw a raptor riding on the wind. We realised pretty quickly that this was an eagle and, no doubt about it, only an adult SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE to boot! Incredible scenes, another new bird and now two out of three raptor targets in just the last hour or so. I couldn’t believe our fortune to bump into both the kite and this so easily. The eagle seemed to enjoy soaring into the breeze and it just sat up the sky motionless for ages. Ian and Daniel arrived just as we were watching it and it still hung there hardly moving. You could see the features really clearly despite it being relatively high up - the golden shawl glowed in the evening sun and the silver leading edge to the wing was shining.
One of the reasons we chose to meet here - the Mirador del Tietar - was because, years ago, Ian had seen Eagle Owl on the cliff opposite. Despite our constant scanning of the rocks we couldn’t find one, but there again we didn’t have any recent gen that they were still around. The cliff face did have lots of other birds on it though. It was a Griffon Vulture nesting site and we had at least 20 birds hanging around, probably preparing to roost. There were plenty of hirundines racing round including Crag Martins and small numbers of Red-rumped Swallows. We picked out distant Black Redstart and Blue Rock Thrush on the crags and a few Red Deer were strolling around the scrub above the cliffs. On this side of the water there were plenty of passerines singing from the bushes, including a Subalpine Warbler, Nightingale, Cetti’s Warbler and a few Serins. Finally, just as we were starting to lose the light a flock of up to 30 Azure-winged Magpies swooped into roost below us. Another bird I was really looking forward to seeing, my previous unsatisfactory sighting being 20-odd years ago, briefly flying over a barbecue near Cordoba. We didn’t see them very well at all though this evening but I was sure we’d get better views later. We had hardly moved from this spot and we had seen so many birds already. Montfrague clearly lives up to its reputation and is stacked with bird life!
By now I had a stinking headache - not uncommon when I travel - and was desperate to get some rest. However, we had been probably a little ambitious and underestimated the distances in this vast area of Spain, because it took us ages and ages to get to Plasenzuela. We rocked up to the hotel about 10pm and luckily we managed to order some food there before they closed the kitchen. The “Hotel Rural El Labriego” was really nice and was apparently used by the Monegasque royals when they came to hunt. Well they can say they’ve also had birding royalty now!