BUBO in ESPAÑA - part 8
Not wanting to waste our last full day in Spain we woke early before it was properly light and we were serenaded in our beds by a calling Scops Owl. We were to drive north-east today but thought we’d do some early morning birding locally first. A suitable target was to try to get better views of Iberian Green Woodpecker, rather than our brief fly over. On the way to the mountains yesterday we’d passed through a valley which looked ideal - large areas of woodland interspersed with short grassy fields - the kind of place you’d get Green Woodpecker in the UK anyway. This was the valley of the Rio Tormes.
We stopped by the side of the road near a campground and wandered around listening. The woods in the valley were mainly pines and we had a nice selection of woodland birds. A few Great Spotted Woodpeckers were present along with both Nuthatches and Short-toed Treecreepers. There were Goldcrest, Coal and Crested Tits calling from the trees and we had one or two Crossbills calling overhead. Eventually we could hear the laughing call of an Iberian Green Woodpecker but it was a little distant and so we got in the car and drove towards the sound.
We found a minor road which followed the river valley bottom and drove along there, looking for open areas to stop and search. The first time we stopped we again heard distant woodpeckers and we also had a small flock of Crossbills land in a pine across the field and a Woodlark was singing. A bit further down, the road did a little twist as it climbed a small ridge, and just as we rounded a blind corner we saw two decent-sized birds fly up from the roadside and away from us showing a yellowish rump. They were indeed Iberian Green Woodpeckers and, luckily, instead of carrying on over the rise one decided to pause briefly on a small trunk and let me get my bins on it just for a second (it was the left hand trunk in the photo below). Very pleased with a perched view, we got out and tried to see it again but the area was fenced off. Surprisingly we had a Rock Bunting on the boulders here and we had a loud Bonelli’s Warbler singing from the trees on the other side of the road which I managed to record on my phone. The woodpeckers were nowhere to be seen and we moved on.
A little further on we found another wide open area which looked good for a scan (below). Again we could hear the woodpeckers calling from somewhere, and we also had a few Jay flying around the trees. The calling woodpeckers didn’t seem very close but I could hear the general direction they were coming from. I looked through a gap in the closer pines and saw a few dead trees at the far side of the next field. I thought to myself “that’s the exact spot where I’d expect to see a woodpecker” and sure enough, through the bins I could see a little greenish dot clinging to the trunk - a static Iberian Green Woodpecker!. We grabbed the scope out of the car and got decent ‘scope views of the bird as it sat there. It’s not obvious on the (poor camera-through-scope) photo below but the bird had less black in the face than a normal Green Woodpecker which gave the bird a more gentle, less angry-bird expression. We reckon we had about 6 different Iberian Green Woodpeckers along this short stretch, so a pretty good site for them.
It was getting close to our allocated breakfast time and so we thought we should head back towards the hotel. We turned north from the valley road and as we drove past a few buildings (the entrance to a camping ground) we stopped to look at something. As we stopped we could hear something calling which was unfamiliar, a bit Siskin-like but a little squeaky. We couldn’t quite see where it was coming from until we noticed the bird on the roof of the building - it was another Rock Sparrow. We might have realised what it was sooner if we were in a more expected, dry, rocky area, but this bird was singing on the edge of a pine wood. Although we failed to get very close to it, I was pleased at last to see one perched and visible. After dipping on the previous two trips, I had now seen Rock Sparrow three times and, for each one, just bumped into it. We saw that there were two birds present before they flew off - perhaps they were breeding here.
The breakfast at the hotel was pretty meagre - basically coffee, bread and jam - but we ate up and set off north with 2 to 3 hours of driving ahead of us. It was a really dull day compared to recently with lots of cloud and spots of rain. It was a pleasant drive through the rolling hills and upland valleys until we spilled out onto flatter more agricultural areas. Near the village of Solosancho we saw our only Great White Egret of the trip and we reached the town of Avila. Here we decided that we should visit a supermarket where I stocked up on cheese and bread for some much-needed sandwiches plus some crisps and biscuits - we would not go hungry today!
After our stop we continued north-east, skirting the old city of Segovia and with the next sierra to our right. Our route crossed through some lovely green arable land and we saw Calandra Larks here and two different male Montagu’s Harriers. The further we went away from the foothills, the drier the terrain got and we soon snaked down the edge of a gorge into the rather spectacular town of Sepulveda. This is a well visited town by birders, because it is the closest area to Madrid where the enigmatic Dupont’s Lark can be found, and of course, this was the reason we were here. The town itself clings onto the rocks which span between two deep gorges, the kind of place which was founded when defending from pillaging hordes was a priority. We checked into the hotel and had a little rest before heading out again.
It is well known that Dupont’s Lark is a bird of the early morning and so we didn’t really plan to go searching for it until the next day. However, we thought it might be a good idea to check out the stake out, which is along a road about 10km NW of Sepulveda. Andy had been here before and had Dupont’s on his list but he hadn’t seen one very well (as nobody hardly does) so was keen for another shot. By now the sun was out but the wind had picked up and would be classed as pretty strong and annoying. Approaching the site, the road dropped into a little gulley and we decided that we’d make the most of it and see what was here, out of the wind.
We found it was a nice little spot and we had plenty of birds here. The best looking was no doubt the male Black-eared Wheatear which flew across and perched up on the rocks. I was really pleased to see this - I thought we’d have had one before now. This was the first BEW I had seen for many years and even then I’d only ever seen the eastern race before, so this was a new subspecies - always useful in these days of heavy splitting! We also had a singing lark on the same rocks and only after a while we realised that it looked a bit different than the Crested Larks that we’d been seeing, and was no doubt a Thekla Lark. The id of this species is notoriously hard but this bird was a lot more “in focus” than the Crested Larks, which always seemed to have their features a bit fuzzy and blurred. You could see every sharp streak on the Thekla, especially on its breast. We also saw a showy Woodchat Shrike and a peculiar Field Cricket crossing the track (not sure of the species - I think they have a few types here).
Driving back on top of the plateau the wind seemed to be still gusting strongly, making birding pretty unlikely. We decided that we’d head to the end car park where you could go look at the Hermitage of San Fructus - the patron saint of all things sugary. We were very impressed by this tourist site, perched on a narrow promontory above the flooded gorge below, steep cliffs 300 degrees all round. We spent a relaxing time here looking round the site. There were a few birds to see including a mixed flock of Jackdaw and c.30 Chough swirling round the cliff tops on the opposite sides. As well as the mighty Griffons which were quite common we had a single Egyptian Vulture go over. In one of the bushes along the promontory we were surprised to find a male Subalpine Warbler battling against the wind to sing its song. On the walls of the Hermitage itself we saw a nicely marked wall lizard sp sunning itself and clumps of an unusual flower we later learned was called Sarcocapnos enneaphylla or “Zapatitos de la Virgen” (Virgin’s Slippers). We only saw it here and in Sepulveda town centre.
We returned to the car and it was now quite late in the afternoon. The wind was still whipping across the gorge and we didn’t really have any further plans or anywhere else to go. Not wanting to waste the little time we had left we thought we’d just keep stopping along the “Dupont’s Track” and see what we could see. The first thing was another excellent male Black-eared Wheatear at very close quarters this time that we were able to watch from the car - what a cracker of a specimen!
For the next hour or so we took it in turns to sit in the car whilst the other person went for a wander through the rocky terrain. Just looking at the habitat here you could see how a Dupont’s could spend all of its time hidden away - lots of rocks and lots of tussocks to hide behind. Nevertheless, I still had enough enthusiasm to search and did see plenty of larks including a nice Woodlark and a Short-toed. There were also both Crested and Thekla here, or so it appeared and I think I managed a photo of both together. I got startled about five times by flushing hares from right in front of me. Reading up on these, it seems that these hares are a different species to British ones, being Iberian or Granada Hare (Lepus granatensis). The variety of species in these rocky fields here wasn’t huge but we did get a couple of Tawny Pipits and a Cirl Bunting as it was starting to get dark. But despite my laughably unrealistic hopes, no surprise Dupont’s.
Back at the hotel, it was now dark and the photo by the reception desk of a laughing Dupont’s Lark mocked our foolish attempts at looking in the day time. Of course, we didn’t really think we’d see one, tomorrow at first light was our plan to tick it off. We freshened up in the room and watched Notre Dame burn on the television before heading out into the town for something to eat. We found a backstreet restaurant which, quite surprisingly from its outward appearance, was bedecked in neon strip lights and plastic palm trees. The food was a let down from the previous evening and I was back to Spanish omelette yet again. After a beer or two we wandered back to our lodgings ready to get up before first light for a proper try for the elusive denizen of the Spanish steppes, the Dupont’s Lark.