North Spain's natural paradise

Varied and unspoiled habitat makes Asturias a must-visit for British birdwatchers.

It would be hard to think of a better slogan for the ecotourism possibilities of an area like Asturias than ‘Natural Paradise’ – that’s exactly what you’ll find in this vibrantly green principality, lapped by the waters of the Cantabrian Sea, and including mountains, forests, and a variety of other biodiverse habitats. In fact, although it only includes 2% of the land area of Spain, it is home to 67% of the country’s species of vertebrates.

Protected natural areas cover more than a third of the principality, including a National Park (Picos de Europa), five nature parks, and a host of other reserves, including Spain’s first marine reserve.

The rich natural environment includes forests such as Muniellos, the largest and best preserved oakwood on the Iberian peninsula and one of the most important forest areas in Europe, while in other areas Beech, Yew and Cork Oak all dominate, each with their corresponding signature species.

Birding in Asturias

A total of 385 bird species have been listed in Asturias, ranging from seabirds such as Storm-petrel and Shag to mountain-dwellers such as the afore-mentioned Wallcreeper.

Perhaps most emblematic among them is the Cantabrian Capercaillie, an endemic subspecies that is a little smaller than the nominate race. Its rarity, and the necessity to protect it, means that sightings are rare, but its forest habitat is shared with species such as Middle Spotted Woodpecker, itself a must-see for British birdwatchers.

In the Picos de Europa, the majestic Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, shares the skies above with Golden Eagles, while Wallcreepers, beautiful ‘butterfly birds’, can also be found in the same habitat as well as on cliffs on the coastal plain.

In the central mountains, in the municipalities of Aller, Mieres, Lena, Morcin, Riosa and Ribera de Arriba, birding highlights can include the likes of Griffon Vulture, Hen Harrier, Goshawk, Black Woodpecker, Crag Martin, Alpine Accentor, Dartford Warbler, Alpine Chough, Chough, Snowfinch and Rock Bunting, joined in the summer by Honey Buzzard, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Nightjar, Wryneck, Black-eared Wheatear, Iberian Chiffchaff, Red-backed Shrike, and Western Bonelli’s Warbler.

Coastal areas provide a quite different set of avian attractions. Breeding species along the Gijon coast include Shag and Yellow-legged Gull, while species seen on migration and during the winter include Great Northern Diver, Great, Sooty and Balearic Shearwaters, Leach’s Storm Petrel, Pomarine Skua, Snow Bunting, Dotterel, Tawny Pipit and Scops Owl, while this is also a good area to view migrating seabirds such as large numbers of Gannets.

Best sites

Probably the best single area for birding in Asturias (and one of the best in Spain, a country not short of outstanding sites) is the Ria de Villaviciosa, an estuary and wetland of great international importance.

Here you can watch the likes of Osprey, a wide range of waders, Stone-curlew, large numbers of seabirds and wildfowl, Purple Heron, Spoonbill, Bittern and Squacco Heron, while the Eo Estuary is home to a similar range of birds, but is particularly rich in wildfowl and rarer grebes such as the Black-necked.

Finally, a visit to the La Reina Lookout is a great idea if you want to see and photograph birds of prey at relatively close quarters. Griffon, Egyptian and Bearded Vultures are fed here, and it also attracts Red Kites, Golden Eagles, and corvids.

Other wildlife

It isn’t only birdlife that will thrill you on a visit to the principality, though. Land mammals found here include Brown Bear, Wolf, Otter and Ibex, and as many as 25 species of cetaceans are found offshore – combined with the often breathtaking scenery they ensure that you’ll rarely be able to put your binoculars or camera down!

It all adds up to exactly what we began by talking about. A wealth of birds and biodiversity in general, in a beautiful, unspoiled landscape. A Natural Paradise indeed.

Love birdwatching. Love Spain

Pic: Jose Luis Sanchez

Pic: Jose Luis Sanchez

Anyone who has not yet been introduced to the avian delights of Spain is someone to be envied indeed.

Spain is deservedly one of the most popular birding destinations in the Western Palearctic with an excellent range of birds throughout the year and habitats ranging from 3,400 metre mountains to lowland marismas and semi-desert.

More than 630 bird species to observe and 200 species are possible on a spring visit, including such Iberian specialities as Marbled and White-headed Ducks, Black-winged Kite, Cinereous Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Western Swamphen, Red-knobbed Coot, Red-necked Nightjar and Iberian Magpie.

What’s more, it is all within three hours flying time from the UK, making it ideal for those who like the idea of a long weekend birding abroad. A short birdwatching trip in Spain would arguably be easier and probably cheaper than some of the more remote UK locations. Moreover, you may rest assured that the weather will certainly be more reliable.

Here are five key birding areas in Spain that you can visit whilst booking directly via the Blue Sky Wildlife website:

Extremadura

Pic: Steve West

Pic: Steve West

The Caceres-Trujillo Steppes of Extremadura are famous for bustards, but there is also a good range of other species present including a healthy Lesser Kestrel colony in the town of Caceres. Much of the once very extensive, undulating plains around and between these two towns have been lost to agriculture, but the remnants support more grassland birds than anywhere else in Spain. The plains consist of dry grassland and farmland with patches of scrub and, in some parts, small pinewoods.

In addition to bustards, these plains support Black-belled and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Stone Curlew and Calandra Lark. In areas of open woodland and scrub there are Roller, Bee-eater, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Iberian Magpie and Iberian Grey Shrike. Raptors include Montagu’s Harrier, three species of kite, Spanish Imperial, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, as well as Cinereous and Griffon Vultures. In the towns, there are breeding White Stork and Pallid Swift, while wetter areas have Cattle and Little Egrets, as well as Whiskered Tern. Black Stork is regular on passage, as is Crane in winter.

Pic: Jose Luis Sanchez

Pic: Jose Luis Sanchez

The best-known raptor site in Spain, Monfrague National Park, covers a stretch of the Tagus Valley in the Extremadura region and has much more besides, making it one of the most popular birding sites in the country. Habitats range from open grassland, wooded valleys and scrub-covered hillsides to high rocky crags. Part of the area has been planted with non-native trees, but much native woodland remains as well as dehesa, a habitat almost confined to Iberia, consisting of dry and open pasture with scattered patches of Cork and Holm Oaks.

The raptors of Monfrague number around 20 breeding species, including three vultures, and is probably the world’s best site for Cinereous Vulture and Spanish Imperial Eagle. There are also four other eagles, three kites and two harriers.

One of the best spots is the pinnacle of Penafalcon where vultures breed alongside other raptors, and there are also Alpine and White-rumped Swifts, Chough, Blue Rock Thrush, Crag Martin, and the other major birding attraction of the park, Black Stork. Cinereous Vulture, as well as Golden and Spanish Imperial Eagles, are probably best seen along the ridge of the Sierra de la Corchuelas.

Other birds of the upland areas include Red-rumped Swallow and Black-eared Wheatear, while the wooden valleys of the rivers Tagus and Tietar are home to Great Spotted Cuckoo, Iberian Magpie, Iberian Grey and Woodchat Shrikes and Bee-eater. The reservoirs hold Cattle Egret, as well as Purple and Night Herons, and the dry plains contain Little Bustard and Stone Curlew.

Operators: Birding Extremadura Centre, Birding the Strait, Inglorious Bustards, Birding Extremadura, Birding in Spain.

Doñana National Park

Pic Steve West

Pic Steve West

Despite its limited access, this area of over 1,300 square kilometres is one of the most famous birding destinations in Europe, with a wide range of breeding birds and internationally important numbers of waterfowl in winter and on passage.

Much of the park is formed by the marismas of the Guadalquivir River, a large area of shallow lagoons and seasonally flooded salt flats protected from the sea by a large sandbar. Inland, there are more dunes, Mediterranean scrub and Stone Pine and Cork Oak woodlands, each habitat having its own characteristic birds.

Breeders include a variety of herons, Spoonbill and Iberian specialities such as Marbled Duck, Red-knobbed Coot and Western Swamphen. In drier areas, breeding raptors include Red and Black Kites, Short-toed, Spanish Imperial and Booted Eagles, as well as Lesser Kestrel. Black-winged Kite occurs in the El Acebuche area.

The scrub has warblers, chats, shrikes and larks, with Iberian Magpie, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Crested Tit and Hawfinch among the many woodland birds. In spring and autumn, passage seabirds can be seen offshore including Audouin’s Gull, whilst the flooded areas inland hold Crane and large numbers of waterfowl.

Operators: Birding the Straight, Inglorious Bustards, Andalucía Nature Trips, Wild Doñana.

Gibraltar

The city of Gibraltar includes a spectacular giant limestone rock which rises 426 metres out of the Mediterranean off the southern tip of Spain. Many birders visit here to see Barbary Partridge, which only occurs elsewhere in Europe on Sardinia, and to experience at least a little of the heaviest raptor passage in Europe. Such an experience may not just involve distant views either, for in favourable weather conditions it is possible for many birds to pass close by.

During the autumn, almost twice as many birds pass over Gibraltar than its nearest rival, the Bosporus, including 100,000 Honey Buzzards, 2,000 Egyptian Vultures, 5,000 Short-toed Eagles and 5,000 Booted Eagles. In total, 25 species of raptor have been recorded making the 25-kilometre crossing between Europe and Africa, the most numerous of which are Honey Buzzard and Black Kite, which can often be seen in flocks containing hundreds of birds.

During March, Black Kite is the dominant species, although this is also the best month for Osprey, Short-toed Eagle and Lesser Kestrel. Species diversity usually reaches a peak in late March, when fifteen species may be seen in a single day, but the quantity of birds rises in April when as many as a thousand may pass over daily.

By May, most migrants are Honey Buzzards. Numbers are even higher during the autumn when the greatest diversity of species passes through in late September.

Operators: Birding the Straight, Inglorious Bustards, Andalucía Nature Trips.

Ebro Delta

Pic: Javier Elorriaga

Pic: Javier Elorriaga

Although somewhat overshadowed by Doñana National Park, the Ebro Delta is one of the finest wetland areas in Spain. Situated on the Mediterranean coast, the delta consists of rice fields, reed beds, riverine woodland, regularly flooded scrubland and, closer to the sea, channels and lagoons with saltmarsh, dunes and sandy beaches.

More than 300 bird species have been recorded and a range of species can be seen all year.

Breeders include various herons, Red-crested Pochard, Western Swamphen, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls and Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns. Black-winged Stilt, Avocet and Collared Pratincole also breed, whilst Glossy Ibis and Flamingo have done so in the past.

Summering raptors include Montagu’s Harrier, Short-toed and Booted Eagles. Red-necked Nightjar and Bee-eater are present in summer and passerines include Greater and Lesser Short-toed Larks, Zitting Cisticola, Moustached and Savi’s Warblers, Bearded Reedling and Spotless Starling. Passage often brings Marsh and Broad-billed Sandpipers, as well as Red-footed Falcon. More than 20,000 birds usually winter in the area including grebes, waterfowl, gulls and waders.

Operators: Boletas Birdwatching Centre, Birding in Spain

Aragon

With the adjoining Pyrenees National Park across the French border, the Ordesa National Park is the largest protected area in the Pyrenees. Long renowned for its exceptional beauty and fascinating range of plants and animals, the area has extensive beech forests and pinewoods, several caves, fast-flowing rivers and glaciers.

The area is famous for raptors, particularly Bearded Vulture, but others include Golden Eagle, Goshawk and, in summer, Egyptian Vulture. Other montane birds include Ptarmigan, Water Pipit, Alpine Accentor, Wallcreeper and Snowfinch. Both choughs occur and Alpine Swift and Crag Martin are common. The forests are home to Capercaillie, Black Woodpecker and Citril Finch.

The area around Jaca is probably the best birding area in the entire Pyrenean range, with most specialities and a range of other birds within easy reach.

Pic: Javier Elorriaga

Pic: Javier Elorriaga

One of the best-known birding sites is San Juan de la Pena, west of Jaca, where Bearded, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures are virtually guaranteed and eagles include Short-toed, Golden, Booted and Bonelli’s. These can all be seen from the monastery, as well as both choughs, Rock Sparrow and Rock Bunting.

Birds in surrounding forests include Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Crested Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper and Citril Finch. About ten kilometres further west is the Hecho Valley, which is one of the lowest parts of the Pyrenees to have regular Wallcreeper, at the Boca del Infierno, as well as many other typical Pyrenean birds. Higher parts of the valley host Ptarmigan, Alpine Accentor and Snowfinch. Griffon Vultures breed on the flat-topped Pena de Oroel, just south of Jaca, and the woods here are good for Black Woodpecker.

Operators: Boletas Birdwatching Centre

If you are seeking an alternative way to search for birdwatching holidays and tours in Spain with the ability to read Wildlife Reviews, download itineraries and book directly with birding day trips starting from €55 visit the Blue Sky Wildlife website now.

 

 

 

 

Birding in Galicia

Galicia, to save you reaching for the atlas, is the top left corner of Spain, the bit above Portugal. It has mountains, wooded gorges, plains and numerous ‘Rias’, where the Atlantic Ocean fingers its way into more than 1,000 miles of coastline. It was one of these Rias that was the focus of my three-night stay – the Ria de Arousa on the west coast. At the right time of the year (or is it the wrong time?) parts of this Ria attract more tourists than I want to be around, but this wasn’t an issue when I was there in March 2010, and with some shiny new birdwatching infrastructure in place, there is clearly a desire to attract birdwatchers to the area.

Galicia is not particularly difficult or expensive to get to, assuming flying doesn’t offend your ecological conscience too much. Vueling, a Spanish budget airline, flies from London Heathrow to La Coruña on Galicia’s northern coast, braking hard when it touches down on the short Iberian runway. A sample fare might be 59 Euros outbound, with a return flight five days later for just 39 Euros, all inclusive, so getting there needn’t break the bank.

A March trip wasn’t perhaps the best time to choose. A truly winter visit, one during autumn passage, or a stay in spring or early summer could have been a very different experience. When we were there the summer migrants hadn’t arrived, and the winter visitors were possibly past their most impressive, but there was still some good birding to be had. I don’t need oodles of rarities to enjoy time out with my bins and a highlight for me was the Spoonbills. I’ve seen Spoonbills in the UK and the Netherlands, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen 40 or more together before.

In this part of Galicia, they are most numerous between September and March with peak counts of over 250 – now I wouldn’t mind seeing that! I also enjoyed some of the birds that are common here, but not so common in the UK – Serin, Black Redstart and Cirl Bunting. Spotless Starling was notable, too, and with the world’s largest colony of Yellow-legged Gulls a bit further south on the Cíes Islands, you could get to know this species well, which might be useful back on your home patch. I had a pretty good look at one from my hotel room, and could see its large red gonydeal spot, a red ring around the eye, and, though my Collins guide says the bill can be darker than Herring Gull, my notes describe it as orange! Well worth studying.

Our visit was a short one, just two full days. Day one included various parts of O Grove, a chunk of land attached to the mainland by the A Lanzada isthmus. With its elevated position, a trip to the visitor centre and viewpoint at Con da Siradella, amidst pines and boulders, might help you get your bearings. You need to keep your eyes and ears open for Firecrest, and Crested Tits can also be found in the forests of O Grove. For wetland species head to one or more of the numerous watchpoints along the south-eastern coast of O Grove that overlook ‘The Bay’.

This area alone has clocked up over 200 bird species and is a top-notch wetland, part of a complex of sites that has ‘Ramsar’ status (the Ramsar convention exists to protect internationally important wetlands) and is part of the European Union’s Natura 2000 network (which includes all of the sites designated under the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive).

You’d expect shorebirds here and there were plenty – more than I could put an accurate figure to. My notebook says 2000+ but I tend to underestimate. The windswept, roadside hide provided too little shelter from the wind when I was there but the waders were impressive. Hundreds of Dunlin, with smaller numbers of Sanderling, Curlew, Turnstone, Oystercatcher, Greenshank, Redshank, godwits and plovers. Kentish Plovers can be seen here all year round though they didn’t get on to my list!

For a bit of variety, you can head for Bodeira Lake (Lagoa a Bodeira), a coastal lagoon on the north coast of O Grove. We didn’t see a lot here, with Little Grebe and a blast from a Cetti’s Warbler being the highlights, but a breeding season visit may be more productive. Sea-watching is a possibility, too. We did a little from an easily accessed viewing platform, and quickly picked up Gannets, a Long-tailed Duck and four divers (three were probably Great Northerns), and probable Common Scoters. Balearic Shearwaters can be seen all year round, but especially between April and October, when Cory’s Shearwaters are also possible. Storm Petrels and Shags are common and Mediterranean Shearwaters are sometimes seen, too.

Day two took us to the Umia Estuary, on the mainland to the east. This was a good spot, with a nice variety of birds – singing Cirl Bunting, Serin, Yellow-legged Gulls and a female Kingfisher – the first for our guide from Turgalicia. We then went on to the Caribbean-like (well the sea and sand looked good!) Punta Carreiron on the Illa de Arousa further north in the Ria.

Here there are pines and gorse, Goshawk, Mediterranean Gull, Scops Owl, Short-toed Treecreeper, Dartford, Sardinian and Melodious Warblers and Zitting Cisticolas. We saw the pines and the gorse...

Of course there is more to this part of Spain than the Ria de Arousa, and temptation rises if you add some other parts of Galicia to your itinerary. Between June and September boat trips take people to the Ons and Cies islands, part of the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park, while elsewhere there are Stone Curlews, Eagle Owls, Golden Eagles, Short-toed Eagles, Egyptian Vultures, Capercaillies, Great Reed Warblers and Little Bustards. Not to mention Otters, Wolves, Wild Boar, Wildcat and even Brown Bear.

If you don’t want to be watching wildlife during every waking minute, there are other things you can do. Historical Cambados, north of the Umia Estuary is the region’s wine capital, and then there are Europe’s highest cliffs, the world’s oldest functional lighthouse and of course, Santiago de Compostela. It is in the cathedral there that the body of St James is believed to rest.

One thing I won’t forget in a hurry is Galician seafood. I saw countless mussel farms, often littered with Cormorants – only China is more important when it comes to growing the world’s mussels. Lunch one day included no less than five types of mollusc – clams, tellins with garlic, cockles that taste like the sea, scallops and razor clams. Plus Spider Crab pie and about half a cow! For me, seafood is the taste of Galicia.

DAVID CHANDLER


David stayed at the Hotel Louxo La Toja on Isla de la Toja. Thanks to Nuria Riutard of the Spanish Tourist Office, Arturo Rodríguez González from Turgalicia, and María Arias Rodríguez.

Watching geese in Holland

Just a 45-minute flight away from central London lies a birding secret. Tens of thousands of wild geese feed in the fields of this flat land in the winter. They are the star attraction. Thousands... tens of thousands... even hundreds of thousands of Barnacle, Brent and White-fronted Geese stretch for distances that defy belief, making for a very noisy experience. Add to these species Bean, Pink-footed, Greylag, Canada, and Pale-bellied Brent Geese and you have a veritable feast of Ansers and Brantas. In February, when I visited, I saw Barnacle, Brent, Pink-footed, Greater White-fronted, Greylag, Bean and Canada. Also apparently present but evading our keen eyes were Lesser White-fronted, Red-breasted and Ross’s.

Leading my three-day whistlestop tour was Pieter van der Luit of Birding Holland. His 20+ years of Dutch birding experience was a massive help to a visiting birder like me. It was late on our first day – and it was cold. Very cold. The nearby sea was frozen as far as the eye could see, and there was nothing to stop the biting wind from chilling us to the bone. But we waited. Very soon, those huddled masses would be heading for their roosts and we wanted to be there to see it happen. We didn’t have to wait for long.

As one, a group of 25-30,000 Barnacle geese took to the sky, swirling in a loop until every one of their number was present. Then, just as we’ve seen Starlings do in life or nature documentaries, they moved as one noisy, swirling black mass, over our heads. While the Netherlands may not boast a massive bird list, dripping with endemics, nor feature exotic, outlandish species, a world away from our own birds, what it does offer is an unforgettable experience. There was a bit of a twitch going on, just a short drive from Rotterdam airport when I arrived. A White-headed Duck had arrived the day before. So, shortly after my touchdown in a Dutch town (I thangyoo) I was joining in. The White-headed showed obligingly for the many camera-wielding birders, all of us wrapped up well against the bitter cold. This lakeside stop also saw us tick Black-necked Grebe, along with a host of familiar duck species.

From there it was a short hop to a local woodland, where Pieter said we had a good chance of seeing Tawny Owl. This was the first of many times when it was clear Pieter really did know his patch – hidden from the view of many walkers, in a spot where only someone with massive local knowledge would find it, was indeed a Tawny Owl. For the first day of our trip we were joined by ace Dutch photographer Menno van Duijn (www.mvdphoto.com) who not only took some brilliant photos of the birds we saw, including the Tawny Owl, but knew a thing or two himself and was happy to share his knowledge.

Next stop: Amsterdam. Most visitors to the Netherlands don’t make it any further than Amsterdam, which is a shame, but understandable, as the Dutch capital’s charms are well documented. For birders, Amsterdam is gull city – and one gull in particular stood out from the crowd when we got there. Among the raucous Black-headeds, Commons and Herrings skating on the partially frozen canals, was a calm, creamy-coloured, white-winged bird: Iceland Gull. While gull-watching is the Amsterdam birder’s main pastime, the greys and whites are brightened up by flashes of luminous green; London isn’t the only European capital swarming with Ring-necked Parakeets. From the bicycle-laden streets and frozen canals of Amsterdam we headed north to the region of Friesland. While we’re travelling, let’s clear up the whole Holland/Netherlands thing. South Holland and North Holland are just two regions in the west of the Netherlands. Amsterdam is in North Holland, which is why it’s ok to say you’ve been to Holland if you’ve been to the capital, but not if you’ve been to Arnhem, which is in Gelderland. Still with me? Good.

Friesland is a land of agriculture (Frisian cattle, see?) and its many vast, flat fields are the perfect base for grazing geese and swans. Mute, Whooper and Bewick all allow close-up views, giving a great opportunity for some ID exercises, as well as the incredible spectacle described earlier. The following morning we hit the road again, and once more Pieter’s guiding expertise came to the fore. As if the Long-eared Owl we photographed at one of Pieter’s trusted spots wasn’t enough, as we made our way back to the car, we got a tantalising glimpse of a Firecrest and the unexpected bonus of a soaring Goshawk. A town park held a thriving population of Hawfinch and Siskin, and we then drove to a woodland where we stood a fairly good chance of seeing Black Woodpecker and Crested Tit. These were two birds I had told Pieter I would really like to see, but he warned me that a sighting of either was far from guaranteed. The drive was a long one, and tense, as we also waited for news of any Waxwings passing through. Nevertheless, as with all the drives on my trip, there was plenty to look at. Buzzards were everywhere. At times it seemed like every other streetlight and tree was occupied by one.

So then, these woodpeckers... I tried not to get my hopes up, but I failed. I just can’t get enough of woodpeckers, and Black Woodpeckers just looked so good in my fieldguide. As we walked quietly through the woods, Pieter gave a couple of calls – doing a remarkably good job of imitating the birds. They called back and we upped our pace, heading in the direction of the sound. As we stood in a clearing, ears cocked to the treetops, a little movement caught my eye and there, on an overhanging branch was a cheeky little Crested Tit, twitching to and fro with its rockabilly quiff. Then came another, closer woodpecker call, then a flash of black and that glaring red crown, and we faced a dash to find out where the bird had gone before the dark set in and it retired to its nesthole for the night. We peered round a tree trunk, trying to breathe as silently as possible, as both male and female Black Woodpecker put on a great show for us, hopping up trunks, drumming, and flying back and forth. A magical bird. Our final day was another goose-fest, as we returned to the open fields to get up close to this spectacle of nature. What we didn’t bargain for was a very rare encounter with an incredibly secretive bird. In a ditch at the side of the road stood a Jack Snipe, bobbing and feeding as if starring in a documentary on Jack Snipe feeding behaviour. It was a real treat to see such a skulking bird in the open and just one of many memories that will live with me for many years to come.

JACK THORPE


Jack travelled with Birding Holland

Birding in Iceland

Before actually arriving in Iceland my preconceived ideas of what I expected the country to be like were rather jaundiced. Eyjafjallajökull had recently erupted, famously spewing clouds of dust miles into the atmosphere causing the subsequent travel disruptions resulting in the protracted period of clear aircraft-free skies. I genuinely thought that I would arrive to see the countryside covered in a fine layer of volcanic ash and the Icelandic people to be downcast, psychologically affected by the shadow of the long, dark, Arctic winter months.

Perpetual daylight was awaiting me as I stepped off the plane in mid June at Keflavik, the main national airport around 35 miles from the capital Reykjavík. Mere minutes after meeting with my guide Hrafn Svavarsson from Gavia Travel we were watching Kittiwake, heaps of Common Eider, omnipresent Arctic Terns and distant auks over the grey choppy seas at Gardskagaviti. Despite being mid-summer, and supposedly warm, there was a definite nip in the air and I had to don my hat and gloves to stave off the chill. Perhaps it was my West Indian blood but maybe more likely, the fact that when you expect it to be warm your body cannot handle that it isn’t.

Gardskagaviti is on an extremity of land that juts out to the northwest of Reykjavík. It is an excellent place for seawatching and is particularly good for the chance of observing a passing cetacean. Whale-watching is big business in Iceland, particularly in the north, but it sits at odds with the country’s penchant for whale hunting. The surrounding grassy areas held large numbers of loafing Great Black-backs and Glaucous Gulls with a more than liberal sprinkling of Oystercatchers, Whimbrels, Golden Plovers and Starlings.

As I mentioned previously in my Urban Birder column (Bird Watching, Summer 2010), birding in Iceland is far from easy. Once you have seen all the regular birds (there are only 377 species on the country’s list) you have to start looking for the unusual visitors. But the birds that you can see are both often numerous and certainly incredible to watch. I had only seen a handful of Red-necked Phalaropes in my life for example, but in Iceland I was seeing a handful every few minutes. They were practically everywhere. My reintroduction to this unusual wader first occurred under the light of midnight sun from the shores of Ellidavatn on the outskirts of Reykjavík. This expansive lake supported large numbers of phalaropes; some busily spinning like wooden tops on the water surface alongside plentiful Scaup, Tufted Ducks and Teal.

It was also here that I was introduced to the ubiquitous Redwings and hoary looking Redpolls that were to be regular features of my Icelandic birding. Hrafn explained that Ellidavatn was a great place to look for oddities like the occasional Grey Heron or rare Swallow. I looked up into the bright overcast sky; it was 1am and instead of seeing hirundines and Swifts cutting shapes I saw grey clouds and the ever-present airborne drumming Snipe. On the nearby horizon on top of a boulder stood a male summer-plumaged Ptarmigan, a bird that I had only previously ever seen after a gut-busting climb up on the Cairngorms nearly 20 years ago. Here, despite being in decline, a situation possibly brought about by a greatly increased Arctic Fox population, they can still readily be seen.

The next day we explored the area to the north of Reykjavík seeing many of the Icelandic specialities like Black-tailed Godwit, Arctic Skua, Short-eared Owl and yet more Red-necked Phalaropes to add to the masses of Arctic Terns. At one point we stopped off for a picnic in the car outside a small coniferous wood on the extremely beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Woodlands of any sort are not a common habitat in Iceland. Mid-munch, Hrafn heard an unfamiliar trilling emanating from a nearby clump of trees. Warblers of any description are rarities to these shores so our excitement rose.

At first we thought that we were listening to the trill of a Wood Warbler – itself a mightily rare bird here. But it just didn’t sound right. Out came the iPod with all the Western Palearctic songs and we quickly realised that were listening to Iceland’s sixth ever Arctic Warbler. We spilled out of the car to glimpse a dark Phylloscopus flit off, never to be seen nor heard again.

Further north at Grundarfjördur we searched the rocky coastlines in the pouring rain for Harlequin Ducks. Iceland is of course the only place in Europe that this uniquely beautiful duck exists outside of its Nearctic stronghold. Eider, Fulmar and Kittiwakes abounded and eventually after a few hours of scanning and searching we discovered three males and a female Harlequin in a sheltered harbour. I was elated and raucously celebrated in a harbourside café over a cup of tea and a cake. Little did I know that over the ensuing days I would be finding many more with relative ease – almost as if I were tripping over Mallards!

The next stage of my visit was a flight to Akureyri in the north of the island to hook up with local ornithologist Arnór Sigfússon. He proudly took me around his patch at Dalvik where we watched Slavonian Grebe, Great Northern Diver, Pintail and Black-tailed Godwit going about their business. Icelandic people are very friendly, helpful and above all possess a wickedly dry sense of humour. Arnór was no different as we were cracking gags throughout and he kindly invited me back to his house to join him for dinner with his wife.

The next day I drove to Lake Myvatn to the northeast to meet up with ace birder and top Icelandic lister, Yann Kolbeinsson.

Myvatn is famously the place for waterbirds in Iceland and in particular ducks. Soon we were clocking up yodelling Long-tailed Duck, several of the area’s 400 pairs of Common Scoter, Harlequin Duck, Pink-footed Goose and another lifer for me, Barrow’s Goldeneye. Yann commented that like Common Goldeneye these birds are hole nesters and were prone to entering houses via windows looking for nesting sites! We also caught up with a vagrant American Wigeon and to crown the afternoon a fine Gyr Falcon put in an appearance. Its immense size was awe-inspiring as it was clearly bigger than a Peregrine. The following day Yann took me to an incredible expanse of marshland that stretched for at least 20 miles, packed to the rafters with nesting Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin. He had found a drumming Wilson’s Snipe, Iceland’s first, near Engidalur a few days before, so we waded out into the area he had last seen it and waited. The bleating of Common Snipe was the predominate sound but then we heard bleating of a slightly lower, slower pitch. We then saw the American Snipe in its undulating display and crucially, it showed two tail feathers sticking out at right angles at the base of its tail as distinct from the Common Snipe’s single feather.

I had a truly memorable time in Iceland there were just too many highlights I haven’t had room to mention – the Puffins at Hallbjarnarstadir, seeing nesting Brunnich’s Guillemot along other coastlines, the amazing waterfall at Dettifoss, being weirded out by the strange lunar-like landscapes and whale watching from a boat at Húsavik. It is truly a beautiful country.

Visiting Iceland is a must for any birder, not least for seeing species that you may already be familiar with but not so close up and in such large numbers. I can’t wait to get back there again.

DAVID LINDO

Atlantic France

Mike Unwin meets the birds and the people looking to provide a better future for them



This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Bird Watching. You can download back issues for iPad, iPhone and Android devices from the Apple App Store and Google Play.

The young bagueur – that’s ringer, to you and me, looked up and beckoned me: “Regardez...” He rummaged in his lucky dip of a cloth bag then produced a small fluttering wader, legs gently pinioned between thumb and forefinger. “C’est un bécasseau variable.”

I didn’t need a translator to tell me that this was a Dunlin. But it was a bird I was used to seeing as one of a distant flock of anonymous, drab little waders. Now, at point-blank range in the hands of its French captor, it was exquisite. I drank in the bright eye, stippled breast, chestnut-fringed scapulars and coal-black belly. It was feisty, too, flapping vigorously, impatient to make up time and get back on track to Siberia.

This was an early morning in early May, on the coastal marshes of the Reserve Naturelle Moëze-Olèron in the Poitou Charentes region of Atlantic France. The bagueur was one of a small team who had been working all night to ring the migratory waders that drop by on their annual odyssey to Arctic breeding grounds.

Soon the team was packing up, heading for a coffee. The last Dunlins – now ringed, their biometrics recorded – were released. Some simply walked out of their opened bags on the ground, as though to continue the journey on foot, before overcoming their temporary befuddlement and taking flight. The night’s haul had comprised some 260 birds, mostly Knot, Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit. All part of ongoing research to find out just how important the marshes are to their long-distance visitors.

The Poitou-Charentes coastline is riddled with wetlands and coastal lagoons that offer perfect pit-stops for passing migrants. But this particular reserve has the added bonus of being right on the doorstep of France’s premier conservation society. The LPO – Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux – is the Gallic equivalent of the RSPB and has its headquarters in nearby naval Rochefort. What’s more, it’s within easy reach of our shores. A Eurostar hop to Paris, followed by an extremely comfortable SNCF train south-west, had got me to this historic naval town by late afternoon the day before. I’d even spied Montagu’s Harrier and Golden Oriole from the window.

That evening, I’d enjoyed dinner just outside town at the charming home of Alison Duncan and her husband, two among roughly 40,000 Brits to have made their home in Poitou-Charentes. Alison works for the LPO, which celebrated its centenary in 2012 and, by coincidence, has roughly 40,000 members. This may seem small beer compared with the RSPB, but she explained how membership is rising nationally while, locally, some important environmental projects have helped get the community onside. As we chatted on the terrace, Nightingale song exploded from every thicket and Turtle Doves purred from the trees beyond, both species having just arrived in big numbers during the last few days. “They keep you up all night,” said Alison, of the latter. But I suspect she’d have it no other way.

The evening had been an eloquent reminder of the feathered riches of this part of the world, where farmland and birdlife still seem more compatible than on our side of the Channel. By the time Alison had reeled off some of the other local birds, including Stone-curlews in the surrounding fields and a winter roost of Long-eared Owls that have been known to tap at her kitchen window, I was already regretting that my visit would last only three days.

After bidding the bagueurs goodbye, I continued with guide Nathalie Bourret on a tour of Moëze-Olèron. We followed farm tracks past lush polders, where Corn Buntings and Yellow Wagtails sung from fenceposts and Marsh Harriers cruised the dykes. A quick scan from a wooden viewing platform revealed Shelduck, Little Egrets and a distant Spoonbill dotting the watery landscape with white. Nathalie told me how winter brings thousands of Greylag Geese and Pintail to these marshes. Binoculars revealed two White Storks clattering amorous bills high on their nest platform.

From a roadside hide we took a closer peek at one of the pools. Marsh Frogs croaked lustily, their tympana inflating like helium balloons, and a rare European Pond Terrapin plopped into the water from its log. While Nathalie explained how Purple Herons and Bitterns breed in these reedbeds, I watched Redshank working the shallows and a Snipe crouching at the back. Meanwhile, a Kingfisher dashed along a ditch, a Hoopoe flopped out of some nearby poplars and a Zitting Cisticola rose into the air, peeping monotonously.

The road ended at a tidal creek, from where a wooden boardwalk led onto the saltmarsh. Nathalie’s distracted air suggested she was trying to find me something. An interpretation board gave the game away. “Vous connaissez sans doute le rougegorge,” it read, meaning: “No doubt you’re familiar with the robin” (literally “red-throat”). “Mais avez-vous vu la gorgebleue a miroir?” Sure enough, a Stonechat-like ‘tutting’ betrayed a pristine male Bluethroat flashing his finery from a fence post. I enjoyed a quick view of the brilliant bib, complete with white ‘miroir’, before, caterpillar in bill, this avian A-lister disappeared into the scrub. Back in Rochefort, Alison gave us a quick tour of the LPO premises. Behind imposing sandstone walls, decorated with terns in flight, was a hive of activity and resources. As well as information about the local reserves, I found colourful displays illustrating ambitious projects further afield, including Lammergeier reintroduction in the Alps.

From Rochefort it was a 20-minute drive up the coast to our next stop, the Reserve Naturelle Marais D’Yves. At the modest visitor centre, an interpretation board boasted that the reserve’s rich soils support 574 plant species, including such gems as Seashore Iris, as well as 31 butterflies, 21 mammals, six reptiles and eight amphibians. This biodiversity seemed amazing for such a small patch of land.

Meanwhile, the tail end of the spring migration was still bringing in its share of feathered travellers. As visitor guide Jean-Paul Pillon led us out towards the coastal lagoons, pointing out the Highland cattle that munched away as part of the habitat management regime, I spied atop a low bush the upright silhouette of a shrike. The rufous crown identified it instantly as a Woodchat, so I was a little thrown when Jean-Paul lowered his binoculars and proclaimed “pie-griéche ecorcheur,” which, in my book, translates to Red-backed. Only then did I realise that there were two shrikes – one of each – two bushes apart.

Nightingales hollered from the thickets as we approached a wooden hide and it took a keen ear to pick out other voices: the frantic chatter of a Melodious Warbler; the abrupt jumble of a Cetti’s. Seated inside, we gazed out onto a mosaic of lagoons, where islands were loaded with waders: Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Grey Plover and Redshank. A cloud of Knot swept in over the sea wall, flashing and wheeling like a shoal of fish.

The next day, a more leisurely start allowed me to savour breakfast at the Hotel Roca Fortis, my bolthole in the heart of Rochefort. “Ah, les oiseaux,” observed my waiter as, through a mouthful of pain-au-chocolat, I explained the purpose of my trip. “Les Anglais aiment toujours les oiseaux.”

Bird nuts we may be, but it would have been a crime to visit Rochefort without exploring its rich heritage. The town came to prominence in the 17th Century as an arsenal for the French navy, its position on a meander loop of the Charentes, just inland from the sea, keeping it out of range of British gunships. My guide Christine Lacaud led me among the elegant stone buldings, visiting the Musée de la Marine, the Corderie Royale – where ropes were made for the navy, and which was at one time the longest 18th Century building in Europe – and the harbour. We then hopped aboard one of the regular ferries to the Île D’Aix, a tiny island just north of Rochefort on which, in 1806, Napoleon spent his last nights on French soil before the British carted him off to exile on St Helena. With no cars permitted, we meandered around the island on hired bicycles and from the return ferry I watched an Arctic Skua harassing Sandwich Terns against a glowering storm sky.

With an hour before sunset, we headed back through Rochefort to the Station de Lagunage, on the banks of the Charentes. A wastewater treatment plant may not top every tourist agenda: raw sewage, after all, struggles to compete with 18th Century galleons and a plate of fruits de mer. But this innovative facility, powered by its own renewable energy, is packed with birds. From the environmental education centre, we followed a boardwalk down to the settling ponds, passing chuntering Great Reed Warblers and an inquisitive Weasel.

Among the throng of waders, Black-tailed Godwits dominated, glowing auburn in the evening light, while Avocets, Greenshank and Black-winged Stilts picked their way through the crowd, Whiskered Terns fluttered over the water and a Black-necked Grebe popped up among the Shovelers at the back.

Early the next day, I was back on the train to Paris. A quick trawl of the internet will doubtless suggest that my three days had barely scratched the surface of birding in Poitou-Charentes. Out on the nearby Île de Ré, for instance, I could have found excellent sea-watching and three species of breeding harriers; inland, at Vienne,

I might have tracked down breeding Little Bustard and Ortolans. But, hey, I’d seen plenty of birds. And, what’s more, I was departing with a headful of Napoleon, a bellyful of French cuisine and a sense that the enormous riches of this place – both natural and cultural – were tailor-made for my next family holiday.


Mike Unwin travelled as a guest of Tourism Poitou-Charentes. For further information on holidays and birdwatching in Atlantic France and the Rochefort area, visit:

www.holidays-france-atlantic.com

www.rochefort-ocean.com

www.raileurope.com

The French Pyrenees

Sometimes, for a happy family life, you have to make concessions. If you don’t make the dinner, you do the washing-up. If you go to the football, it’s your turn to pick up your child from the school disco. If you spend the whole weekend birding... Well, let’s not go there. But it can work both ways – if your other half wants a quiet family holiday, you can earn brownie points by agreeing, while still allowing yourself a great birding break. Everyone’s a winner.

One ideal place to mix a great family holiday with some easy casual birding is the French Pyrenees. Not only are there birds almost everywhere you look, but many of them are species you’d be exceptionally lucky to see on your average local patch here. I flew, with my wife, Sam, and six-year-old daughter Emily, to Pau-Pyrenees airport, which is within three hours’ drive of Bordeaux and Carcassonne, two hours from Toulouse and under an hour’s drive from the tourist hotspot of Lourdes.

Our destination was Puydarrieux, a village an hour and a quarter from the airport and a short walk from the large Lake Puydarrieux, which has seen more than 200 bird species recorded since it was created in 1987. The star birding attraction around here comes every winter, when close to 1,000 Cranes fill the surrounding fields – a sight which even the local non-birders just have to sit back and watch in awe.

We visited in early May, when the Cranes would have been on their breeding grounds in Northern Europe, replaced at the lake by trees full of singing warblers. Just down the road from the lake and its surrounding woodland is Tresbos farmhouse, where we stayed. This fantastic house has four double bedrooms, two large bathrooms, a modern kitchen, outdoor eating area, heated swimming pool, huge garden, bicycles and dozens of toys and games for kids.

The garden boasts a view of the lake to the east and the snow-capped Pyrenees to the south – and is also the place where we saw three of our trip’s most memorable birds. But more of that later. The first thing that strikes you as you drive from the airport is that Black Kites and Buzzards are as common a sight as Carrion Crows or Rooks back home. It really is quite something to park up at a hypermarche and watch a Black Kite soaring low over your head. You have to keep reminding yourself you’re only a short distance from home.

As you head onto quieter, more rural roads, the birding changes. The kites and Buzzards remain, but they are joined by countless Stonechats, which fly up from the verges as you pass, perching on overhead cables to form a mini guard of honour. On the ground, hares dash across fields and, if you’re lucky, you may see a Wild Boar or two in the woodland fringes.

So, back to those garden birds at the farmhouse... The most common birds in the garden were White Wagtails and Goldfinches, but one regular visitor was a striking male Black Redstart, joined later in the week by its mate. We saw one or both of these birds each day, as they flitted between posts, walls and trees within the grounds. In fact it was while attempting to digiscope one of the flitty, flicky Black Redstarts that I saw the second of those three gorgeous garden visitors. Just behind a branch recently vacated by the redstart was a bigger, plumper, peachy-looking bird. It took only a glance through my bins to recognise my first ever Red-backed Shrike. I grabbed as many phone-digiscoped shots as I could, standing in the rain, sans jacket, to make sure I absorbed every moment of this chance encounter. I didn’t realise this masked character would reappear in our garden three or four more times during our stay.

Down at the lake, the sightings board revealed recent visits by Booted Eagle, Snipe, Purple Heron, Night Heron and Marsh Harrier. I saw plenty of Black Kites, a handful of Red Kites, bundles of Buzzards and a single, soaring Honey Buzzard – confirmed by the friendly reserve warden. The lake is exceptionally serene. To protect the wildlife, there’s no access to much of the shore, and there are no hides, just an information board and a hut where the warden makes coffee and records the birds.

The trees and scrub around the lake bristle with birdsong. Chiffchaff and Whitethroat were the most vocal and identifiable, while from somewhere deep in the woods a Cuckoo rang out its familiar call. Closer to the lake was a bird I found harder to ID. But a listen to the calls on my mp3 player and a flick through my Collins Guide revealed it to be a Melodious Warbler. Another lifer. The ease with which such birds could be seen in roadside trees and fields meant that trips to Lannemezan, Auch and Trie-sur-Baïse – each with its own fantastic market – became birding trips in their own right.

The owners of Tresbos, Andy and Vicki Coleman, provide a folder full of useful information and suggestions – one of which is a daytrip for tapas in Spain. An hour and a half away is the town of Bossost, essentially set up as a tourist trap for people looking to add another country to their list. There’s a selection of shops selling Flamenco dolls, bull keyrings and castanets, and a few bars offering tasty tapas.

But, for the birder, the main attraction is a fast-flowing, rocky river. While Emily explored a nearby playground, I took a few minutes to just sit and watch Swallows skim the surface of the river and Grey Wagtails hop from rock to rock. Fast-flowing, crystal-clear water, altitude, rocks... it seemed like perfect Dipper country – and right on cue, a chestnut brown dart flew past, landing on a rock just the other side of the river, before plunging beneath the white-rippled water. It was pretty close to being the birding highlight of the trip but, wait, I’ve only told you about two of our garden visitors.

The third of the garden trio was the bird I had hoped to see, and one I had to call Sam and Emily to see, too. No-one should miss out on a Hoopoe feeding on the lawn, just 20 metres away. Magic.

JACK THORPE

Birding in the Dordogne

Every year, 200,000 Brits pass through Bergerac airport in the Dordogne, drawn in by the scenery, the cuisine and the long, warm summers (not to mention mild winters). But an increasingly large percentage of visitors are also starting to take notice of the incredible birdlife in the region.

Perhaps surprisingly, Dordogne has more to offer in this respect than many French rural areas. This is due to the diversity of habitats found here, despite being a landlocked region. For example, special birds include Common Crane, Eagle Owl, Little Bustard, Short-toed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Dartford Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, Alpine Swift, Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Tawny Pipit, Subalpine Warbler and Ortolan Bunting. With a bit of local knowledge, timing and luck, a good range of species can be found, including some of the more sought-after ones.

The region is predominantly limestone countryside with mixed forest and farmland habitats above the main river valleys and dramatic cliffs lining the rivers in places. However in the west of the region lie additional interesting habitats: pine forest with mixed woodland on sands with areas of heathland in the central west and secondly arable plains in the south-west and north-west of the region. Driving is a pleasure, with so few cars on the road and the landscape beautiful with low hills, pretty little hamlets and villages of honey-coloured stone houses and scattered traditional farms.

For birding, the best time to visit is between April and June. In and around most villages you can find Hoopoe, Serin, Cirl Bunting, Tree Sparrow and Black Redstart. Hoopoe usually inhabit the edge of villages where there are lawns for feeding and old trees and outhouses for nesting.

Their persistent hollow ‘hoo-hoo-hoo’ call can be heard from mid March. Serins like fir trees and telephone wires in similar areas, from where their fast scratchy/jingly song is often delivered – or in a song flight. Tree Sparrows can be found among the House Sparrows in village centres whilst Black Redstarts choose rooftops from which to sing their strange crackly-ending song. In the fields surrounding villages and towns Cirl Buntings are common, the yellow and black-faced males sitting on top of bushes in spring delivering their rattling song.

The classic Dordogne habitat is the forest and field complex which covers much of the area. Commoner species in these habitats include Nightjar, Woodlark, Tree Pipit, Stonechat, Cuckoo, Golden Oriole, Melodious Warbler, Whitethroat, Nightingale and Cirl Bunting. Golden Oriole are easier heard than seen! They usually arrive in late April after the leaves open and the tree canopy closes. Listen out for a tropical sounding fluty four-note whistle. Red-backed Shrike can be found in scrubby patches amongst the rough grassland.

Short-toed Treecreepers sing constantly in spring and Firecrest are also common, though their high-pitched rattle may be hard to hear. Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Bonelli’s Warbler are the common warblers – the latter arrives in early April and is easily located with its short trill. It replaces the Willow Warbler this far south.

Woodpeckers are well-represented with Green and Great-spotted very common. Black Woodpeckers have recently colonised Dordogne and are best searched for (like all woodpeckers) in early spring when they are most vocal and territorial. Middle Spotted are thinly scattered in older woods and parkland throughout the area, listen out for their constant, quickly repeated ‘kuk kuk kuk’ call. Lesser Spotted occur along the river valleys but are never common. In 2000 I was lucky enough to find a Grey-headed Woodpecker in the south of the area – a very rare bird. Wrynecks also nest across the region though they are perhaps more frequent on passage. Buzzards and Sparrowhawks are common but Honey Buzzards are also present though inconspicuous. Their plaintive wader-like two-note whistle ‘pee-loo’ is most likely to draw attention to them.

Dropping down into the river valleys of the Dordogne and Vézère is another interesting bird community. All along the valleys are Black Kites nesting in loose colonies in riverside woods. One of the best ways to see them is on the ‘gabarre’ boat trip from Bergerac old town.

Crag Martins are common and even nest on the church in Lalinde and on Perigueux cathedral. A few pairs of Alpine Swift nest in Beynac and Roque Gageac but they are not easy to pick out amongst the other hirundines. In sunny warm weather they can be flying very high! Surprisingly, Dippers nest on some side streams upriver from Bergerac. Great White Egrets are regular from late summer until spring. On the stony islands at Mauzac, Little Ringed Plovers nest – as do Cetti’s Warblers in the adjacent marsh, which is also a nature reserve.

Eagle Owls are perhaps the most spectacular species nesting in this area. In 2009, six pairs were believed to be nesting, having gradually re-colonized the region since 2000. The best time to find them is early in the year when they commence nesting and the males are territorial and booming out their very deep resonant ‘oo-oo’ at dusk. Also in the winter months small numbers of Wallcreeper inhabit the cliffs and large stone buildings around Les Eyzies. By early April any remaining males look resplendent in their breeding plumage.

Less well-known are the arable plains in the south-west and north-west of the area and across into the Lot and Lot et Garonne départements. These areas are dotted with small areas of woodland, rough grassland and scrub, together with hay meadows. They harbour an interesting bird community including harriers and species such as Tawny Pipit. On a sunny afternoon in summer the temperature can be almost unbearable and birds non-existent. But return early or late in the day and it can be very productive. Quails call from the fields ‘whit whit whit’ whilst a curlew-like call will be a Stone Curlew; small numbers breed here. There are still a few pairs of Tawny Pipits on short dry grasslands, pale wagtail-like pipits with a wagtail-like call. Small hamlets or isolated buildings with stone walls sometimes harbour Rock Sparrows.

In the extreme south-east of our region a few pairs of Ortolan Bunting hang on. Listen out for the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth to locate one!

Short-toed Eagle nest in small numbers across the Dordogne, normally on high ground in dense forest, adjacent to open hunting grounds.

At migration times a whole range of other species pass through the region. Osprey, Red Kite, Honey Buzzard and Crane can be common but other raptors like Booted Eagle and Marsh Harrier and smaller birds like Bee-eater and Crossbill are also possible. Pied Flycatchers are often very common in late summer. A visit to one of the reservoirs, mainly located in the south-west of the region, can be rewarding for waders and other wetland species.

DAVID SIMPSON


David has recently had his guidebook, Birding Dordogne, published by BirdGuides. He runs a holiday cottage for wildlife lovers in Dordogne, as well as leading guided tours and wildlife holidays. David is now taking bookings for 2012. For further information email audave2505@yahoo.fr

Birding in Croatia

Part holiday resort, part untouched wilderness, could Croatia be the ultimate birding destination?


Ever-shrinking air fares and the disappearance of what, just over 20 years ago, looked like insuperable political barriers, has made the birding world a much bigger place.

Trips to far-flung locations such as Kazakhstan, Peru and Thailand have become commonplace, bringing all manner of exotic birds within reach of many birders. Even within Europe, it’s no longer a case of a quick dash across the Channel to France or the Low Countries. Finland, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary are just some of the locations now attracting large numbers of UK birdwatchers.

For those of you who like finding your own birds, though, there might be a twinge of regret at those developments. Surely there are a few corners of the world left where you can blaze your own trails?

Well, Croatia might be the place for you. It has the huge advantage of already being well geared to tourism, with its Adriatic coast having been a popular holiday destination in the years before the break-up of the former Yugosalvia.

Now it’s once more gaining a reputation as a beach holiday destination, with a Mediterranean climate and a wealth of history. Traces of the Roman and Austro-Hungarian Empires are noticeable in everything from the architecture to the food, while the vibrant Croatian culture shows the effects of living at one of the crossroads of Europe.

It also has plenty to offer the birdwatcher. For starters, driving from Zagreb towards the coast, it immediately becomes obvious that it’s largely unspoilt, with huge areas of unbroken forests stretching away on each side of the main road. There seemed to be a Buzzard on every other fencepost, but we had no time to hang around and watch them.

We were heading for Krk, one of the closest islands to the mainland, where after a short stop to taste the local wines, brandies and cuisine, we caught the ferry to Cres, the largest of the islands in the Adriatic.

In daylight, it revealed itself as an island of ancient hilltop towns and churches, olive groves, dry stone walls and fishing. Most of the population are involved in sheep farming, but there are huge areas of untouched scrub on the hillsides, the sort of warbler habitat to die for. It wasn’t any great shock that 215 bird species had been recorded there (around 100 breed), although it was a surprise that when we arrived in late September, most of the migrants seem to have left already, save for the odd family group of Spotted Flycatchers.

But we were on the trail of something larger. At the hilltop village of Beli, overlooking the sea on the north-eastern coast, the Eko-centar ‘Caput Insulae’ has been working to save the region’s unique population of Griffon Vultures since 1993.

The huge raptors (there are around 70 pairs on Cres, and 100 along the whole coast) face a number of threats. A decline in the number of sheep means the food supply is dwindling, while the illegal poisoning of introduced Wild Boar also hits them hard. Added to that there are the usual problems of electricity lines, wind turbines, poaching and increasing urbanisation, and finally the fact that the young Griffons have to make their first flights from sea cliffs, sometimes launching from just 10m above the water.

When tourist boats approach nests too closely, the young birds try to fly prematurely, ditch in the sea, and face death by drowning. The workers at the centre, though, rescue them and nurse them back to health until they can be released.

After seeing the work at the centre for ourselves, we headed back to the mainland, to the mountainous Gorski Kotar region and National Park Risnjak. Situated up against the Slovenian border, it’s heavily wooded, with limestone peaks emerging dramatically from the trees and mists, and alpine meadows studded with Autumn Crocuses. White and Grey Wagtails seemed to be all over every rooftop, all of a sudden, and Spotted Flycatchers hawked for insects non-stop, looking for that last energy-boost before the long flight south.

The next morning, though, we followed the valley of the River Kupa towards its source, watching Dippers (with the lighter underside typical of birds of the Central European race) flash past, and a Chamois scurrying away through the trees.

Small flocks of finches and tits were gathering, too, and there among one such group was my first new bird of the trip – a Sombre Tit. The name says it all in terms of colouring, making them look like a slightly washed-out (but Great Tit-sized) Willow Tit, but they’re still impressive. Once we’d found one, a second appeared, and further on more pairs were tucked away among their more common relatives.

Talking of impressive, the source of the river really needs to be seen to be believed. No limp trickle emerging from between rocks, but a deep (at least 80m), blue-green pool set in an amphitheatre of sheer rock walls.

As we watched, a high-pitched screaming call started to echo around, and we looked up to watch a Peregrine proclaiming its presence from the tallest pinnacle. It’s one of those birds that, wherever you go in the world, both reminds you of home and makes you feel that you’re in the wildest place imaginable.

But we were out of time. You got the distinct impression that, given a few days wandering among the valleys and peaks, the national park would give up all sorts of birding riches. Croatia has an impressively enlightened approach to conservation, but as yet it doesn’t have the coverage from birdwatchers (except in the eastern wetlands) that it really needs and deserves, so there’s plenty there to find.

If you fancy doing your own, modest bit of pioneering, why not start here? It’s beautiful, unspoiled and wild, but if the need for a bit of TLC strikes, you’re never far away from a bit of good old-fashioned R&R.

MATT MERRITT


At the southern tip of Cres, the island of Losinj includes the charming town of Mali Losinj. The surrounding seas can be good for sightings of Bottlenose, Common and Striped Dolphins, Fin Whale, Reef Shark, and Loggerhead Turtle.Getting there: Croatia Airlines has flights from London to Zagreb and Rijeka from £150 per person return, including all taxes. Visit to www.croatiaairlines.com Useful Websites:www.croatia.hr