BUBO in ESPAÑA - part 7
It was already the middle of the afternoon when we reached our destination on the northern slopes of the Sierra de Gredos. We pulled into the car park at the side of the road by the Parador de Gredos, which seemed to be a large accommodation complex in the woods, and was our target site for Citril Finch. Immediately, with the change in habitat, we were seeing new birds in the pine trees with Wrens, Dunnocks, Robins, Coal Tits and a superb Crested Tit right by the car, the first I’d seen well for ages. It was a bit unclear whether we could enter the complex so we decided that we’d initially just walk back along the roadside. The woods alongside the road were really good for birds. We had both Short-toed Treecreeper and Nuthatch showing well on the pine trunks, and we saw a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers. There were both Firecrest and Goldcrest singing and calling from the branches. Another bird was singing from the roadside pines and we realised that it was Western Bonelli’s Warbler. We had about 3 of these in this short stretch and managed to get a decent look at one of them. We’d walked a little while and decided to turn back before we went too far. We then kept noticing movements on the rocks to the left of the road (see pic below) and realised that these were lizards darting into their holes. By the time we saw any of them, they were immediately hidden, they were that quick. Then, almost on the last bit of rock, a right bobby dazzler decided that it liked the sunshine so much it didn’t want to move, and we had cracking views of a blue-headed Schreiber’s Green Lizard, an Iberian endemic.
As we walked back along the road we had a small greenish finch fly over us and behind the line of pines. We were very sure that this was a Citril Finch but I was very unsure that it would be classed as a tickable view for me. I really needed to see one properly - even more so now! When we got back to the car, we looked through the trees, down the slope and saw two or three small birds fly up off a lawn and round the corner, and these birds also looked good for Citril. We scanned from the roadside but we couldn’t see them, only a fine Black Redstart hopping around the grass. There was no other option but to walk down into the Parador grounds to check them out - we were sure they wouldn’t mind. We skirted some buildings towards a tennis court and, after a short while of searching, the birds flew in and landed on the short grass surrounding the courts. They were awkward to get a good look at but they were definitely a couple of fabulous CITRIL FINCHES another new bird for me. They were spooked very easily and we never got close, but easiest to see when they perched up in a small tree for a few minutes. They were much duller than the Corsican Citrils we’d seen two years previously - not so many people I guess have ticked Corsican before normal Citril Finch.
Chuffed about finding our quarry, we rested on sheltered grassy slopes of this glade taking photos of butterflies and waited to see if the Citrils gave better views. We kept seeing them every now and again and we thought we had up to 4 birds. We also picked up 2 Crossbills in a court-side conifer and spent some time photographing butterflies. Then suddenly I looked up and an IBERIAN GREEN WOODPECKER shot out of the pines opposite, flew over the tennis court, then above our heads and carried on over the buildings behind us! This was a surprise and happened so quickly we didn’t really get our bins on the bird. Iberian Green Woodpecker (race sharpei) has been recently split from normal Green Woodpecker and does have one or two different plumage features. Now we certainly didn’t get a chance to pick out any distinguishing features on this bird, but since this is the only green ‘pecker round here it was a well-earnt tick. That was tick 8 and 9 for the trip for me whilst in the same spot!
We were umming and arring what to do in the late afternoon, whether to stay down in the foothills or to head to the high tops. We decided that, even though we might not have as much time as we’d have liked, that we would hit the mountains. The weather forecast wasn’t quite as good for the next day and we didn’t want to be slogging it up there in potentially poor visibility, so we thought it would be prudent to make the most of the decent weather. We drove up the road to the high car park at “La Plataforma de Gredos” and saw that, as it was the weekend, we would definitely not be having this to ourselves - muchos coches y muchas personas! The only real new bird target up here was Alpine Accentor and, from previous experience, I wasn’t genuinely expecting a positive result. Nevertheless, I was keen to ascend. When you live in a place with no mountains or hills, these upland locations are suddenly even more exciting!
Showing their fondness for car parks, a few Rock Buntings fed in between the vehicles. They seemed pretty common up here and we had double-figures of them in the area. Also from the car park, we saw a few Spanish Ibex which is a species endemic to Spain. These animals in the Gredos Mountains are quite isolated and are a separate subspecies victoriae. A new mammal species for me, as I have never seen ibex in the Alps. We did often see ibex in Israel but those were Nubian Ibex.
We followed a well-built path of large stones as it wound up the head of the valley. We soon reached a plateau of short, grassy tussocks where Skylarks could be heard singing all around and we also had an Iberian Wagtail briefly. This was also the habitat of some breeding ‘Northern’ Wheatears. These birds of central Spain are of the southern subspecies libanotica and they were very interesting and distinctive, almost looking like a different species. They seemed quite small with pale powdery grey upperparts. The underparts were very pale, almost whitish with only a pale yellowish central throat. There wasn’t a very contrasting supercilium and the forehead was quite whitish too. The dark parts were very black and the black cheeks were more extensive than our birds, extending further towards the throat, making the ear patch larger. I didn’t know about these beforehand and they were a pleasant surprise. Apparently, libanotica breeds in Iberia and the Balearics, and then a separate population from the Balkans eastwards. However, looking at photos of the eastern libanotica, they don’t quite look the same as the birds we saw. I wouldn’t be surprised if these central Spanish birds were some kind of intermediary form between Northern and Seebhom’s Wheatears, and could be a different subspecies altogether. (Although clearly I have not done any extensive studies on this, it is just a feeling…..)
We climbed as high as a small lake and wondered whether to go further, but there was still plenty of people on the path and we needed to find a quieter area. So we took a right angle from the main path and walked up the valley as shown on the photo below. As we were getting quite close to the snow line we thought there might be a chance of Alpine Accentors around. However, we had to contend with the almost constant songs of Dunnocks all around this area which added to the confusion. We’d hardly had any Dunnocks all week but here they were the commonest bird, definitely an alpine accentor (small a).
We made our way across the large slabs of rocks and clambered alongside waterfalls. It was a fun route but we searched in vain for the Alpacs. There were plenty of Water Pipits flying around up here, although we didn’t see any really pink ones. I rounded one boulder and was startled by a snake basking on the rocks right in front of me. I was so excited I shouted out to Andy but the slithering beastie was equally startled by me and immediately dived into a crack before I could take a picture. It didn’t seem the same as the Viperine Snake we saw in Extremadura and I think it was probably a Smooth Snake sp. Other birds seen up here around these high peaks included a few Black Redstarts and Crag Martins on the cliffs, and I had a single Chough appear from high up.
The sun started to drop below the mountain peaks to our west and we thought it was probably best that we turned round. The photo below is the highest spot we reached, almost to 2000m. Just a short drive and a casual walk and I’m easily higher than Ben Nevis here. Spain is a pretty “tall” country.
By the time we had descended close to the car park the sun had dropped down and most of the walkers had left the mountains. We came across a closer group of Spanish Ibex and these gave us a treat jumping between rocks in front of us. The Tarmac Bunting in the car park gave exceptional views nibbling on crumbs left by the daytrippers. A Blue Rock Thrush was noted on the craggy rocks and a Red-legged Partridge was momentarily confusing on the ridge skyline. We drove back down the road after a superb walk in the sierra.
Back down in the foothills our next task was to locate the hotel which should have been easy since it was on the main road. We drove back and forth however and could not see it anywhere in the village that was on the address displayed on the website. Eventually we realised that we should be searching in Barajas, the next village along and not in the village advertised. But that was only our first obstacle. When we tried the front door it was locked! There was a hand written note stuck to the door which had a phone number to phone but we couldn’t get through as it didn’t have the correct code for us. What a pickle! Luckily a Spanish geezer came out of the front door and we accosted him thinking he was there to let us in, but it transpired he was only a guest. He was nice enough to phone the number for us though and finally, the owners drove round to sort us out a room.
We were now rather peckish and wandered into the village to find something to eat. We stopped at a bar and I finally managed to order something that was actually delicious - it was a potato, egg and courgette dish with some very tasty oily, saucy stuff drizzled on top. I could have eaten it twice. Back outside we could hear Scops Owls calling from across the road, probably as many as three birds - it was surprising that these were our first of the trip. Even though we were in the uplands a bit and wasn’t as warm as on the plains, we thought it was rather excessive for the hotel to leave the radiators on full blast. Even so, after such a busy day, we fell fast asleep very quickly.