BUBO in ESPAÑA - part 9
Ye olde birding gods had clearly been feeling kind during the night. We woke to our alarm in the pre-dawn darkness and we could not hear any wind or rain or other inclemencies from our room. The gusts of the previous evening had dropped to almost zero and there was no sign of any rain or even clouds above us. This was ideal since this morning’s plan was a serious attempt at ticking off Dupont’s Lark, something which is tricky at the best of times and almost impossible in poor weather. This enthused us and we were up and out of the hotel in good time.
We drove to the “Dupont’s track” and were pleased that we’d already been there so we knew the lay of the land. When we got out it was still almost totally dark but we cold see a faint glow on the eastern horizon and the clear skies meant it was pretty chilly and I wish I’d put on more layers. In the distance we could hear a low hooting noise which was probably an Eagle Owl but it was a long way away, far enough for me to ignore anyway. Pretty quickly, without having to wait long at all, we could hear a lark-like song which was a DUPONT’S LARK. I wasn’t 100% sure initially but Andy assured me it was one (as can be heard in the first audio recording below!). All I knew was that the bird we were hearing was not exactly the same as the bird on the Collins app recording that I’d revised earlier. This bird was more varied whereas the one on my phone was a particular repeated phrase. This is the main reason that I have trouble with bird song, the individual variation is confusing. As opposed to bird calls which are always the same more or less. However, I soon picked up the regular ending to the song was usually the same distinctive squeaky rising note, which can be seen on the right of the spectrogram below. It was singing very regularly but it was so difficult to work out exactly where it was. It often appeared to be coming from the floor and often from right above our heads.
We could hear at least two birds from this spot but the first bird seemed to be singing less regularly and we moved up to the second bird which appeared to be singing quite close to the track. The light was beginning to appear and we wondered if the birds would stop singing, since we had heard that they often become quiet once the sun is up. Even in the semi-darkness Andy picked up a bird in the sky above which was probably a song-flighting Dupont’s but I never even saw a glimpse. I had already decided that I would add Dupont’s Lark to my life list even if I didn’t see one so long as I could hear them singing clearly. However, we were desperate to get a view.
We waited in that spot until it was light enough for us to actually see and the Dupont’s was still singing away in short bursts. As it was so close we were confident that it was not now song-flighting as we would have definitely seen it, so it must be singing from the ground. We decided to (carefully) walk into the habitat for 20 metres to try and get a better handle on exactly where it was. We could still hear it every now and again and it was frustratingly close to us. We settled on a spot by a bush which would hopefully disguise our silhouette (fieldcraft!). We waited and waited and suddenly we had a small dark bird run between tussocks, but we couldn’t get our bins on it properly. Then we saw it briefly again in the same area (I think just to the left of the bush in the photo below, where our shadows stretch to). But we had to remember there were loads of other larks in this terrain too.
Then suddenly, we had the bird 90 degrees further to the left that flew quickly between tussocks. The fact that it had walked past us without us noticing was an indication that it was likely a Dupont’s as the other lark species here didn’t seem that shy. Also, each of our views implied a darker bird that these other pale species, so we were getting confident we’d found one. We got another indication of where it was when we could see the grass moving and we crept a little closer. Then another brief sighting of a dark shape behind a clump. It was now very near to the road, and we inched even closer. We then saw it moving behind the grass just 20 yards away and could keep our bins on it. And then - ye gods! - it walked out into a gap between two tussocks. An absolute cracker of a DUPONT’S LARK was just stood there in front of us!
It was only stood there for a couple of seconds but, for those brief moments it gave an excellent view, and I now have the image of this enigmatic and rare species etched on my mind forever. Quite an odd-looking thing and a totally different shape than any of the other larks. The combination of short legs and a long neck in particular meant an odd front-heavy stance. The bill was long and downcurved like a Crested but noticeably finer and held pointing upwards. The plumage was very streaky and was a distinctive darker brown colour above, with paler fringes making it look quite scaly. I would honestly have been satisfied with a dark shape flying against the sky in the half-light, but to see the bird so well and so close, albeit briefly, was much more than I ever imagined. The bird then took flight and we watched it fly along the edge of the road and land in another patch of grass further up where we left it to get on with its morning.
With our target species well and truly ticked off, we strolled up the road to see what else was present this morning. The local larks were showing very well with about 8 Short-toed Larks along the edges of the track. They all had pretty rufous caps which is typical of the Spanish-breeding birds. We had more Thekla Larks and a Woodlark, as well as Northern Wheatear and Tawny Pipit in the same area.
We were surprised that, despite the birding lore, the Dupont’s Larks continued to sing after sunrise. Not as often as when it was dark, but we were still hearing them every now and again all the time we were there. According to the timestamp on the recording below, it was at five past eight, a couple of hours after first light. We think we had a minimum of 4 Dupont’s Larks in the area.
One of the last birds we saw before we had to set off for the airport was a superb Black-eared Wheatear, maybe the same one as yesterday, which flew up from the side of the road into a small tree where it started to sing. It was one of those occasions that you start stalking a bird with your camera and you expect it to fly off at each step, but it doesn’t and you get closer and closer and it’s still there. You end up with hundreds of snaps of an increasingly larger bird. This bird was a superb specimen and perhaps my favourite individual of the whole trip, photogenically-wise.
Well the time had come that we had to set off for the airport and we drove down the motorway towards Madrid. It was quite a nice drive initially as the road went over the sierra but less so as Madrid became closer. Our final quality bird was when we stopped to refill our petrol north of the city and as I returned from a comfort break, Andy pointed out a nice Black Vulture circling over the garage. We found the car hire return and waited for the people in front to get through the barrier but it wouldn’t lift up for them. They managed to manoeuvre back out so we could get in - but it wouldn’t move for us either! By now a snake of hire cars was behind us and no-one could return their cars. We weren’t late or anything but time was pushing on for Andy to catch his flight and it was starting to concern. Of course there was no-one around to help so I jogged over to the car hire office and tried to explain, but the fella just shrugged and pointed me to the airport building, clearly not wanting to leave his seat. So I went to tell the ladies at the info desk inside the airport and one came out to see what the problem was and said that there’s nothing she could do and just walked back in! Quality service from Madrid Airport. Just as we started thinking about doing a Dukes of Hazard style ramp over the fence, the barrier lifted and we drove in.
Due to a late departure time change for Andy’s flight, our plans of leaving at a similar hour were scuppered and it meant that I had a long 4 hours or so to hang around in Madrid Airport which was busy and had few seats and it was not very pleasant. But at least the flight was on time and I got to the Premier Inn before they stopped serving tea. The next day, I returned to Guernsey, and all went smoothly.
The trip was a big success with ten new species a better-than-expected total. The main things I went to see were quite easily found - Great Bustard, Spanish Imperial, Black Vulture, Black-winged Kite, Dupont’s Lark - plus some other species I wanted to ‘mop up’ were seen - Rock Sparrow, Citril Finch, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Red Avadavat. I didn’t know whether we were too early for Orphean before we went but clearly not as we had quite a few. No bad dips happened - Alpine Accentor was really just a bonus possibility, and Eagle Owl we didn’t have any recent sites for so couldn’t really be thought of as a miss. Plus I saw a few species I hadn’t seen for twenty years - Azure-winged Magpie, Black-eared Wheatear, the sandgrouse, Roller, Iberian Grey Shrike, Rock Bunting, Bonelli’s Warbler. Also, plenty of other wildlife I’ve never seen before - I was particularly impressed by the Viperine Snake, Long Skimmer, Nettle-tree Butterfly, Ibex and the oil beetles. I think that is Spain covered for Easter-time birding but another trip there in the summer would mean some late stuff that I missed, eg Red-necked Nightjar, Western Olivaceous, White-rumped Swift, or up the Picos for Wallcreeper. So that’s the 4th year in a row we’ve done a BUBO Easter trip, hopefully we can do something in 2020.