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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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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 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.
The low drone built steadily into an ear-filling roar as the jet passed low overhead. I watched it briefly as it banked eastwards, wondering how the birds put up with the noise. Turning back to the task at hand, re-finding the Spotted Crake that had shown itself fleetlingly minutes before, I raised my bins and started scanning the bank again.
Twenty minutes, six planes and two Greater Flamingos later it was time to move on. The crake had remained elusive, but there were more birds to see and only a short time in which to see them. I had only been in Spain for 90 minutes though, so to have a new tick already, no matter how frustratingly short a sighting it was, was a pretty great start as far as I was concerned. Considering its proximity to Barcelona Airport, the Llobregat Delta is a surprisingly peaceful and pleasantly bird-rich reserve that I would recommend as the perfect post-flight leg-stretch.
For several minutes I watched Collared Pratincoles from the coolness of the hide. I was quite taken with this part-Swift, part-tern-like bird, sweeping quickly through the air, performing stuttering, jinking manoeuvres as it caught insects. Below, Ringed Plovers and Ruff probed the mud, weaving around the numerous sentry-like Black-winged Stilts. At the edge of the reedbeds, Purple Swamphens posed for the photographers among us as I tried, in vain, to identify all the warblers in a nearby tree by sound alone. On the opposite side of the airport, a 10 minute drive from Llobregat, is a small Audouin’s Gull colony. This is still quite a rare gull, though there is a fair-sized breeding population on the Ebro Delta to the south of Barcelona, and it was another first for me.
The next morning, the warm weather had gone and been replaced with a much more UK-like chill. It was almost like being home, I thought, as we strode out into the thyme-filled fields of Alfes. Almost that is, as a Great Spotted Cuckoo landed on a wire nearby. The site we were visiting had, until recently, been the only place in Catalonia where you could see Dupont’s Lark. Sadly though, due to farming, irrigation and over-grazing, the species has not been present since 2006. However there is hope that, if the land is managed properly and the steppe protected, one day Dupont’s Lark may return to the Lleida region of Catalonia. That aside this still looked like a great place to bird, as is Catalonia in general. On a recent bird race, more than 200 species were identified in a single 24-hour period. Impressive, though not too surprising when you consider the vast range of habitat that Catalonia possesses – from the Pyrenees in the north to the Mediterranean coast in the east, with the steppe nestled nicely between those two extremes.
Calandra Larks rose with the sun, one at a time at first, but soon the air was full of the sounds of their dawn chorus, and the aroma from the wild thyme that covered the ground in all directions rose to overpowering levels as the air warmed. For more than an hour the larks kept up their varied song, even imitating Bee-eaters with annoying regularity, their flight style reminiscent of the flappy flight of bats.Underneath the chirruping, the raspberry-blowing like call of a Little Bustard could be detected and it took a fair bit of searching the scrub before anyone managed to get it in a scope. We needn’t have bothered though as just over the next ridge three of them were sauntering about a field some 100 metres from where we stood. Sharing the field were a couple of gangly Stone Curlews – one of the greatest looking birds around in my opinion – and a couple more Great Spotted Cuckoos, this time a pair chasing one another rapidly. Crested Larks sang from bushes around and there was a lengthy, and unresolved, debate on whether we had a Thekla Lark amidst the Cresteds. Check your Collins guide and you’ll see why it went unresolved.
The highlight of the morning came shortly afterwards however, when a Montagu’s Harrier came floating in from who-knows-where and began to search the thyme fields for a breakfast snack. The Calandra Larks had vanished, and I had some of the best, and closest, views of any raptor, let alone something as special as a Montagu’s, I had ever seen. Silence reigned as it slowly covered the ground at head height in search of a breakfast bite, at times not more than 30 metres away. Twice it made to dive, and twice it aborted at the last second before disappearing into the distance. Magnificent!
Many more birds came and went as the day passed. Black Wheatears dotted the rocky outcrops, streams of Swifts were joined by small flocks of Red-rumped Swallows and Lesser Kestrels that teased with only very distant views. There is a downside to all of these wonderful species, however. Unless you get incredibly lucky or, like us, have an expert guide who knows the area inside out then you could easily miss a lot of the star species. The Llieda steppe may be small in comparison to neighbouring regions of Spain, but it is still a big place and a fair bit of travelling and patience will probably be required. Of course, if you persevere and have the time then you will be rewarded with a spectacular list.
In sharp comparison to the vast flatness of Llieda are the towering peaks of the Pyrenees in the north of Catalonia. Lammergeier and Wallcreeper were top of the hit list here, though Citril Finch was a close second. And it was the finch that greeted us as we arrived. We had been quite confident of finding this bright little bird, though didn’t expect it to be waiting on the road for us as though it were welcoming us on behalf of the mountains. The small flock that greeted us darted quickly from tree top to road, not resting for a moment in the freezing temperatures.
But time waits for no man and nor would the Lammergeier and if we were to catch them before the day warmed enough for them to take to the skies we needed to get a move on. Amazingly, our luck held. Ten minutes of twisting and turning mountain road later we arrived at a small layby where the guides began to point frantically across the valley. Two minutes later I was looking through my scope at a dot on the mountain on the other side of the valley. It was definitely a Lammergeier, I swear, but it could easily have just been rock.
Another tick for sure, but one that left me feeling a bit flat. In my mind’s eye I’d pictured this massive raptor gliding overhead, huge wings casting long shadows across the landscape as it scoured the mountainside for prey. Oh well, maybe next time.
En route to our final target, the elusive Wallcreeper, the bird of prey list grew and grew. Buzzard, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Golden, Short-toed and Bonelli’s Eagles, Griffon and Egyptian Vulture – it was a real raptor-fest and quite amazing to get species after species after species.
We only had an hour to find Wallcreeper when we got to the most likely site. Again, having good local guides was essential for us on such a tight schedule, though also having 16 birders with scopes all trained on a relatively small area of cliff helped a great deal as it only took us a few minutes to find the bird, as it swung down the cliff to begin another climb. Up, up, up it crept, poking its bill into nook and crannies all the while. Several times I lost sight of it as it passed through shadows, the grey and black plumage a near perfect disguise. Then it reached the top of whatever invisible path it was walking, and leapt. For a split second it was almost freefalling, before a quick burst of flapping, only to land and begin the climb again. And again. And again.
Some hours later, enjoying a cold cerveza at Barcelona Airport, I found myself thinking that I could easily come back to Catalonia again. And again. And again...
Trevor would to thank the Oficina Catalana de Turisme Ornitologic, in particular Ma Angels Lacruz Téllez, for organising the trip. For more information visit click here or email email@example.com
You may not have thought of Sardinia as a birding hotspot, but more and more of us are heading there. Here’s why...
After a few hours in Sardinia it’s not hard to see why it is becoming increasingly popular with British birders. This Italian island – the second largest in the Mediterranean, has an abundance of species you just don’t see in the UK and they’re not difficult to find.
We flew into Alghero, on the west coast, and set up base in the Bosa area, only 40 minutes from the airport and home to Sardinia’s two remaining colonies of Griffon Vultures.
Finding the vulture colony is as easy as falling off a log, as just outside Bosa on the coast road is a pizzeria conveniently called the Grifone, even more conveniently there is a large layby just opposite where you can park up and scan the cliffs behind. We managed to get four birds soaring above as we pulled up.
Our friends, however, got nearly into double figures when they took the high road back to Alghero behind the colony. This road is also good for Little Kestrel.
If you have time, it’s worth taking a quick trip to Cape Caccia (about 20 minutes west of Algerho) where, in the car park right at edge of the cliffs you can look down and pick up excellent views of Crag Martin and Pallid and Alpine Swift. Melodious Warbler is also possible there and if you get there early in the morning, before the tourist buses start arriving to visit the huge cave, you may even see Barbary Partridge.
We stayed in Magadomas, one of the small hilltop villages to the south of Bosa. I would recommend staying in, or going to, one of these villages, as you are already some 400 feet up and you can look down on some amazing raptors. From here we got Golden and Bonnelli’s Eagles, Goshawk, Montagu’s Harrier and, of course, Sardinian Warbler.
Generally speaking, Sardinia has far more scrub and oak forests than mainland Italy and has been nowhere near as intensively farmed. It also has a tremendous number of salty lagoons that are important sites for superb species, including Purple Gallinule, Greater Flamingo and Slender-billed Gull.
In the south-west, San Pietro island hosts one of the best known Eleonora’s Falcon colonies in the Mediterranean, and Marmora’s Warbler and Blue Rock Thrush can also be picked up here. We drove up along the coast to get the ferry from the northeast port of Palau on the La Maddelana Archipelago some 20 minutes by ferry. Here we had two nights and you can actually explore two islands, as a bridge lets you cross over on to Carpera.
An hour’s drive to the south from Magadomas brings you to Oristano and the riches of the lagoons around it. I would recommend exploring for a couple of days here as the possibilities are endless. In October we got Marsh Harrier feeding no more that 50 yards away and Greater Flamingo really close in. Purple Gallinule, Ferruginous Duck, numerous herons and Great White Egret are all possible in the water systems to the south and west of the city.
From the road to Tharros from Cabras it’s well worth turning off on to the dirt tracks that lead down to the sea, as you can pick up some interesting warblers. A day in Cagliari is also a good idea. The huge lagoons around the city will give you Greater Flamingo and the full range of herons.
Many of the villages, such as Cabras, are also worth exploring – for their charm as much as their views. One of the great things about Sardinia is that nowhere is really more than a couple of hours away if you position yourself correctly, although we found that having a two centre break made all the difference. The road system is excellent and you will have no trouble finding anywhere. Also many of the little dirt tracks leading off can be highly productive.
The birds here are amazing and very obliging when they display. Little Bustard and many other rarities are all possibilities. What’s more, the people of Sardinia are clamping down on illegal shooting and are fast embracing the idea of conservation – and it shows. The future certainly looks bright for Sardinia’s birds – and birders.
You’ll get excellent information from www.sardegnaturismo.it. You can download maps of Sardinia to plan your trip free of charge at www.discover-sardinia.com We used the Michelin 366 which is superb, but remember that a map is only as accurate as the day it is printed and some new roads have been built around the bigger towns since this came out. Getting there: The nearest airport is Alghero, served by Ryanair. You can also fly into Olbia on the east coast and take just over an hour’s drive on the 199 to get to the area. Olbia is served by Easyjet, Ryanair, Jet2.com and a host of other carriers from Italy and Europe.
We were sitting in a small boat, trying not to blink as we alternated our steady gaze between the largish dead fish floating a way away on the water and the distant tops of the spruces lining the shore of the fjord. Overhead, a dozen Herring and Black-headed Gulls shrieked as they circled. Occasionally, they would swoop to the fish but it was slightly bigger than they were prepared to tackle, so they left it alone. They had already feasted on some smaller fish, thrown out to attract them in the first place. Attracting the gulls was part of the strategy to catch the attention of the eagle. Now we saw it come. Straight as an arrow, massive wings outspread, intent on only one thing: our fishy offering. In the back of my head the Dambusters theme played as the White-tailed Eagle came in, resembling nothing so much as a World War Two bomber powering over the fjord from half a mile away.
In seconds it was upon us, spiralling lower and lower until, in a last moment snatch and grab, it thrust its powerful talons forward and lifted the fish. Then it was away, oblivious to the harrying gulls that trailed in its wake. We all breathed again. That was the culmination of our two-hour wait and without question the highlight of our trip to Norway’s Trondheimfjord.
It was, however, the highlight in a week of highlights. Nestled warmly in my memory are Great Snipe and Ruff lekking, Tengmalm’s, Hawk and Pigmy Owls nesting, Hazel, Willow and Black Grouse and Capercaillie, a pair of Rough-legged Buzzards, a Wryneck, Slavonian Grebes by the dozen, a King Eider... the list of fabulous birds goes on.
We were staying by the side of the fjord in a peaceful rural spot most often frequented by fishermen. In mid-May, the sun set sometime around midnight and rose again at about 3am, a situation which led to one panicky awakening when I thought my 6am alarm hadn’t gone off and I’d missed out on the day trip on the mountain road to Sweden to get Willow Grouse. I was halfway to the door before I realised the sun really was shining in the middle of the night and there was still four hours to go before we were supposed to meet our guide.
The fields around the accommodation were full of Hooded Crows and Fieldfares. I thought about how excited I am to see just two or three of the latter in my winter garden. In Norway they were everywhere. I’ve also never seen so many Eider gathered together in one place. About 15 minutes drive from where we were staying there was a narrow neck of fast-running water at the edge of a town where a river emptied into a fjord.
This was Eider Alley. Local photographers position themselves at the narrowest part and get superb fly-by shots without really trying, as the birds motor downstream and then fly back up. At the time we were there, you could count 200 or more birds without straying out into the fjord or scanning the riverbank where those tired of running the rapids were resting. The Eider were predominantly male, the females being rooted to secret nests in their month-long solitary egg-sit.
For most of the time we were in Norway we were self-guided, using an ingenious system devised by our hosts, Dintur Nature Travel. At the airport we picked up a hire car, complete with a satellite navigation device. In the accommodation there was a folder with descriptions of many local birding hotspots, what you can see there and the best strategy to adopt to get the best birds.
Each area was allocated a code which corresponded to the codes programmed into the GPS sat nav. We chose where we wanted to go, selected the number in the sat nav and off we went. There’s even a mechanical English voice to guide you on the road, which you can select in the instrument’s settings. With this kind of help, making the most of your birding in an unfamiliar area is easy.
The sat nav guided us to some of the best spots for waders and some late-departing Pink-footed Geese. It led us to waterfowl at beautiful Vera lake – Goldeneye, Scaup and Common and Velvet Scoter – and it guided us to mixed woodland where we saw Icterine Warbler. We found a lot of great birds under our own steam, but for the stars of the show we needed the expert local knowledge of a human guide – ornithologist and ace photographer, Terje Kolaas, who knew just where to find the goodies.
On a day with Terje we had the thrill of standing under the nest of Rough-legged Buzzard, tucked carefully into the face of a jagged rock formation that overhung a mountain road. As we watched, the male circled and the female called, encouraging him down with his prey. At the side of a field overlooking a lake we heard the distinctive ping-pong ball sound of a Great Snipe lekking, which enabled us to scope out the bird. Turning slightly to our left we picked out a Ruff from a flock of Golden Plover, which promptly obliged us with its own lekking display.
Our owl nest encounters were all down to Terje, who is careful to keep secret the locations of the nests. Just off a road, next to a riverbed, he pointed out an Aspen tree with a Black Woodpecker hole high up on the trunk. As we watched, the resident Tengmalm’s Owl looked out. In no way fazed by an audience, it surveyed the scene below for some minutes before ducking back down to the nest.
Perhaps the biggest owl thrill, though, came at dusk when we trekked into the heart of a spruce forest to a tree and the small hole made by a Three-toed Woodpecker, at head height in the trunk. We stood in drizzling rain for half an hour, on the other side of a clearing from the target tree, and were rewarded not only with a chirpy Crested Tit, that paused a while near the tree we were under, but by the appearance of a female Pigmy Owl which flew out of the old woodpecker hole, left the area for perhaps 10 minutes and then returned to perch on a branch just above our heads. After a minute or two, establishing that all was well, she darted back into the hole and left us to make our way back to the car, elated.
In Norway you can see many of the common birds we see at home but sometimes they show with brighter colours or in greater numbers. And you can see some fantastic birds that you don’t get here. People are friendly and helpful, the roads are all but empty outside of the main towns and life has a slow pace. Food and drink are expensive but if you cater for yourself and stock up on the duty free on the way out, you can have an unforgettable birding experience.
For more information contact Dintur Nature travel or call 0047 7407 3000
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.
Matt Merritt enjoys 24-hour daylight, open spaces, evocative names and birds galore in the far north
No matter how much you love birds, there’s a point in any long day’s watching when you begin to be thankful for the onset of dusk. Thoughts turn to good food, a drink or two, perhaps, a chat about the day’s most memorable sightings round a blazing fire, and bed.
Visit the far north of Iceland in late spring, though, and you run into a problem. It’s not that the cuisine is bad (it’s excellent), the company disagreeable (it’s very friendly) or the accommodation uncomfortable (it’s a home from home). It is, of course, that it never really gets dark.
Theoretically, you can birdwatch around the clock, or at least until you drop from exhaustion. On our first full day in the far north, we gave it a go. We’d been given an inkling of what was in store on the 50-minute drive from Akureyri airport to Hotel Raudaskrida the previous day. The mountains and fells were only just emerging from their snow cover, and the wide river valley that the hotel sits in was studded with pools of every size. Gloriously ruddy Black-tailed Godwits probed the edges, while Red-necked Phalaropes swam in circles. The fields were full of Whimbrels, and Snipe appeared on every fencepost.
For the next few days, in fact, there was barely a waking moment at the hotel during which a Snipe wasn’t overhead, doing its beautifully bizarre drumming display. If there was, it was only because a Golden Plover had briefly grabbed the limelight with its own display, a slow, buoyant ‘butterfly’ flight.
Add in Ptarmigan (my bogey bird in the UK) displaying just a few yards from the door of my room, and more of those godwits just beyond the car park, and you could almost start to think there was no reason to leave the hotel at all.
But leave it we did, at 7am on a gloriously sunny day (the weather was mild and dry throughout, even though we were just a few miles short of the Arctic Circle). Stopping off in nearby Husavik to pick up our second guide, we had an admiring look at the redpolls flocking to his feeders and marvelled at Golden Plovers feeding on suburban lawns, before heading off on an 18-hour odyssey round the north-east coast of Iceland.
Even early, brief stops around Lon and Vikingavatn brought a distant Gyrfalcon, Puffin, Fulmar, Long-tailed Duck, Scaup, Raven, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Slavonian Grebe and, remarkably, around 200 Red-necked Phalaropes. It’s impossible to emphasise enough just how empty the landscape is of human clutter, meaning that if you couldn’t find something to watch just offshore, you were sure to turn something up on one of the many little pools inland.
A little further on, Skjalftavatn is a rich wetland created by earthquakes in 1976 – we added Bonxie, Red-breasted Merganser, Barnacle and Pink-footed Goose and Merlin to our list, plus many more phalaropes.
There’s a visitor centre at Asbyrgi, in the Vatnajokull National Park, where a deep glacial gorge features nesting Fulmars (the sea is a few miles away), and a small lake had a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye.
As we headed north along the coast, small estuaries and pools just behind the shoreline turned up pretty well every gull you’d expect, including Glaucous and Iceland, plus an Arctic Skua or two, while Scaup, Knot, and both Great Northern and Red-throated Divers were seen well.
We were heading for the Langanes peninsula, right at the north-east corner of Iceland. A greater range of waders started to become obvious, including large numbers of Ringed Plover and Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin, and a few Purple Sandpipers. Kittiwakes were plentiful, with the odd Gannet fishing offshore, large rafts of Eider bobbed on the waves, and a single skua put the whole lot up like a Peregrine.
We glimpsed Snow Buntings from the van, but we were in a hurry to get to Skoruvikurbjarg, where the cliffs are thronged with nesting seabirds. The Gannets are mainly on a rock just offshore, although significant numbers nest on the mainland, and all are easy to photograph from close range with a little care. The same goes for the Razorbills and Guillemots, and a patient scan of the crowd turned up Brünnich’s Guillemots among their commoner cousins.
I woke the next morning to two pale morph Arctic Skuas chasing each other above the hotel, amid a babel of wader-talk, and we took things a bit easier for the morning, driving to nearby Bjorg for a tour of an Eider ‘farm’. In fact, the farmer simply collects the valuable down from the nests at the end of the season – these are genuinely wild birds, nesting on an island in the estuary, and the farmer’s main role is one of keeping an eye on how the ducks are doing. It takes 60 nests for a kilo of down, and there are 300 nests on the island, but when a kilo fetches over £1,000, it’s easy to see why they bother. After lunch we headed into Husavik, and boarded one of the RIBs run by Gentle Giants, and made for the island of Flatey.
Getting there was half the fun, though. If having Arctic Terns and Fulmars skimming alongside wasn’t enough, Harbour Porpoise, Minke and Humpback Whales were amazing close-range sightings, with one of the latter surfacing almost underneath the boat.
On the island, once inhabited but now used only by summer visitors, we found a Gyrfalcon, feeding on its kill on the beach. And, even better, as we arrived back at the little harbour, was a single female Grey Phalaraope in all its breeding finery.
Lake Myvatn was the next day’s destination – we were early enough in the year to avoid the midges that give it its name, so we could concentrate on wildlfowl. First, though, we got great views of Slavonian Grebe, Ring-necked Duck, Goosander and Barrow’s Goldeneye on the way, plus Merlin and the only Short-eared Owl of our trip.
We saw a few Harlequin Ducks near Laugar, but a stop on the river close to Myvatn brought us face to face with these gorgeous birds, making light work of what looked like a fairly powerful current. It’s remarkable how inconspicuous such a strongly-marked bird can look, a perfect example of dazzle-pattern camouflage.
Myvatn has a bird museum in the bay of Neslandavik, which is a good place to scan the plentiful ducks on the water for American rarities, or to watch the Slavonian Grebes that drift close inshore. But in truth, wherever you go around the lake, you’re never away from the whistling of Wigeon, broken only by the occasional yodel of a Long-tailed Duck, or the eerie call of the Great Northern Diver. The area around Hotel Reykjahlid brought Slavonian Grebes dancing, plentiful Red-necked Phalaropes, Pintail, Wheatear, and one of those rarities I mentioned, an American Wigeon. The park at Hofdi provided both views across the water and birch woodland, in which Snipe were surprisingly common.
Our stay had been far too short, but we had time the next morning to join Gentle Giants in Husavik again and take the boat around the small island of Lundey.
It’s hard to steal the scene from a Humpback Whale, but the sight of what must have been 250,000 Puffins on or shuttling to and from the cliffs fairly takes the breath away, transforming the sea-parrots from clowns to objects of awe.
And that’s Iceland in a nutshell. There aren’t that many species that you won’t have seen in Britain, but you won’t have seen them like this before, or in such a bizarrely beautiful setting. Embark on your own Icelandic saga.
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.
It’s a political hot potato, but Gibraltar’s also a great place to see continental birds in a familiar setting. Trevor Ward pulled on his best macaque-proof trousers and set off to investigate (and popped over to Africa, too)
The shroud of mist that enveloped the Rock of Gibraltar when we’d arrived a few hours earlier had burnt off by the time we rode the cable car up to the top. Gibraltar’s famous Barbary Macaques formed a small welcoming committee as we stepped off the cable car and started out on to the Rock in search of another of Gibraltar’s famous species – the Barbary Partridge.
Our guide warned several times that the odds of us finding a partridge were low, so, predictably, within 30 minutes we were all staring through our scopes watching a single Barbary Partridge duck in and out of the bushes. The Rock has a commanding view of the surrounding waters and the Moroccan coast can be clearly made out. We were there in mid-April so were hoping for some raptor migration, though the prevailing easterly winds made this unlikely, pushing the birds towards Tarifa in Spain instead.
The next morning we all piled into our minibus and left Gibraltar, in search of those migrating raptors. And we didn’t have long to wait. Some good sized flocks of White Storks preceded flocks of Black Kites that passed right overhead, Griffon Vultures passed through in ones and twos and the odd Short-toed Eagle soared over in the distance. Wind farms seem to cover this entire area. I’d been told of them, but the sheer number was still a surprise.
We stopped below the turbine-strewn hills at Los Lances Beach, just west of Tarifa, where we enjoyed a couple of lovely Kentish Plovers and Audouin’s Gull among the Yellow-legs while scanning the skies for incoming raptors.
A visit to the Bald Ibis colony near Vejer de la Frontera followed our morning at the coast. Not sure what to expect, or how managed the colony would be, it was a surprise to see two Bald Ibises picking up nesting material from the car park we were pulling into. There was a tangle of scopes, tripods and cameras as everyone scrambled to get their shot of the birds before they flew. The colony, however, was only 20m away, on the opposite side of the fairly busy road. The views were fantastic (apart from the odd passing lorry) and the opportunity for close up pictures of the ibises’ frankly ugly heads not one to be missed – some nests were barely 10m away. These newly reintroduced birds, part of one of many programmes across Europe, are doing surprisingly well and there is a cautious optimism for the future.
The afternoon found us birding in the La Janda area where we saw what was, for me, the bird of the trip. A short lunch break in the warm afternoon sun spent admiring large passing flocks of White Stork was rounded off with superb views of a Black-shouldered Kite. Flushed by our passing minibus, it took to the air and settled on a nearby pylon for several minutes. We just managed to squeeze in 20 minutes to enjoy Tarifa’s Lesser Kestrel colony in the buffeting winds next to the ferry port before dinner and the night ferry to Morocco.
We made an early start the next day, down the coast at Lac Sidi Boughaba. We hoped to see several species of duck at this lake, and again our guide’s local knowledge didn’t let us down. White-headed Duck, Ferruginous Duck, Marbled Duck and Red-crested Pochards were waiting for us. Marsh Harriers, three at one point, languidly circled the reeds and, for several minutes, I enjoyed the best, closest views I’ve ever had of this bird.
On the water below, Red-knobbed Coots went about their business and dragonflies zipped about constantly – the lake is a good site to see Hobby hunt in the evenings. We also had ‘African’ Blue Tit, a possible future split, though the differences were a little subtle for me to discern in the field. Next up on this whistle stop tour was Merdja Zerga and a boat trip into the tidal lagoons here. The sun was beating down and it was getting pretty hot, so the breeze coming in off the Atlantic provided welcome relief as our boats crossed the water, weaving between sandbars and cockle-pickers.
Greenshank made up the majority of the waders, with Curlew, Whimbrel, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Little Egrets and Greater Flamingo putting in appearances. Of course, this site will always be remembered as one of the last places the Slender-billed Curlew was seen. The day finished nearby with us waiting, hoping, for a glimpse of the African Marsh Owl. After an hour watching the skies in the fading light, we had to admit defeat.
The morning of our final day began in the main square of the town of Larache, where we’d spent the night, watching a small colony of Little Swifts wheel about in between the buildings and in and out of their nests. Noticeably smaller than the Swift, with an obvious white rump, they are a joy to watch and were the perfect start to a good day’s birding.
A brief return to Merdja Zerga rewarded us with us Collared Pratincole and several Montagu’s Harriers. Then it was off to the Lower Loukos Marshes, just north of Larache, which would be final birding stop in Morocco. We were told that this large wetland habitat is under threat from developers and agriculture, and a high speed rail link that will pass right through it. For now, though, it was all about the birds. An unusually wet spring meant the fields were flooded, which had resulted in bumper numbers of Squacco Heron, Little and Cattle Egrets, Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis and a first for me, Western Reef Egret. Red-knobbed Coots, Collared Pratincoles, Wood Sandpipers, three flyover Purple Herons and a small flock of Black Terns followed on a bird-crammed morning. An amazing place.
Finally, though, it was time to leave, and, as though to mark the start of our journey home a Kingfisher alighted on a branch just across a small river, a sweet reminder of home after a continent-straddling birding odyssey.
Thanks to Blands Travel (blandstravel.com) of Gibraltar, in particular to Nuria Saccone for looking after us all so well. Thanks also to Keith Betton for organising the trip and to our excellent guide Javier Elorriaga.
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.
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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
A couple of relatively short flights from London via Helsinki to Tallinn, then out on the road and we were soon heading out to western Estonia, heartland of some of northern Europe’s best autumnal birding. The first scheduled stop saw our motley gang of journalists and tour leaders delving into our still unpacked luggage. We were promised some Cranes and a cold wind was blowing, so we bunged on some layers and hats and set up some scopes.
In a few minutes we were perched on the platform of the Rannajoe birdwatching tower overlooking a vast expanse of damp grassland, woodland and marsh of Matsalu National Park. Down below in the distance a couple of hundred Cranes were settling themselves for the evening roost. Estonia sees an autumn passage of hundreds of thousands of Cranes and at any time there can be tens of thousands in the country. The herd below were just a taster, but we could hear the unmistakable murmur of more in the distance drifting in. Soon, a group of a few hundred more came in a V over the trees and the wonderful calls of the flying birds mixed with the welcome of the birds below.
Over near the Cranes was a mixed flock of grey geese: Beans and White-fronts and Greylags. It was early evening, and our hosts, conscious of the cold, asked if we wished to move on to our ‘hotel’ or would we like to brave out the weather in the hope of more Cranes. Our unanimous decision to stick it out was rewarded with great riches, as almost from the moment it was made, the action started to hot up.
Firstly, more Cranes came into the roost, with the several hundred now on the marsh starting to dance and leap with excitement as the numbers swelled. Then flocks of Barnacle Geese came through the gaps in the trees and over our heads, yelping. Then more Cranes and more Barnacles.
Someone picked up a hunting Great Grey Shrike, which passed along a line of small trees, stopped and hovered like a Kestrel at a height of 50 feet for what seemed like minutes and minutes, quite a wonderful sight. Over beyond the shrike, golden Roe Deer were appearing in little groups and, straight out, we noticed one or two male Black Grouse standing in the grass. More Cranes came in and by now the field was bubbling with the haunting trumpets of perhaps 5,000 of them – more than I have ever seen in my life by thousands!
And, as the light was thinking of dimming, perhaps my highlight of this wonderful evening, a female and baby Elk (Moose) splashing over the wet ground, the poor calf finding it hard to keep up with its tall, white-legged mother.
The whole evening served as a wonderful introduction to the nature of Estonian birdwatching. It is all about atmosphere and wildness, migration and mammals, and not a little about a preserved ancient working environment, giving a privileged glimpse through time to the sort of landscape which must have dominated much of northern Europe in former times.
Though most of us know its history as a former Soviet state, this country is far from grim and forbidding. Rather, its mix of damp mixed woodland and ‘old fashioned’ agriculture gives it a charming rural feel, yet recent EU membership has helped link the country with fabulous, un-congested, ‘easy’ roads. And those roads are the sort of roads that make you feel something could cross your path at any stage, keeping you alert. We were lucky enough to see a Pine Marten crossing, plus had glimpses of perhaps half-a-dozen Raccoon-dogs during our stay of a few days and nights. Even stranger, though, was a Corn Crake which popped up in front of us on a country lane, stood up straight, flapped its wings a couple of times, then disappeared into the grass. But this is what Estonian birding is about: the unexpected could be lurking around any corner.
Its geographical position, just a short hop from Finland, makes Estonia an ideal stopping off point for the great autumnal migration, when masses of birds attempt to escape the frozen wastes of Fennoscandia. There are great masses of wildfowl enjoying the rich waters and where there are wildfowl and water, there are White-tailed Eagles. Nowhere was this more dramatically illustrated than in the city of Happsalu where we lunched at the wonderful, historic Kuursaal restaurant overlooking the water. It really is hard to concentrate on eating when out of the window there are thousands of ducks and above them threee White-tailed Eagles battling for a fish!
Migrants were unavoidable while I was in Estonia in mid-September. One morning, there was a small ‘fall’ of Whinchats outside our guesthouse, and migrating Redstarts, Red-backed Shrikes and Scandinavian Chiffchaffs were liberally scattered. Round every bend, there was always a chance of another cluster of Cranes waiting in a field.
At the coast, we could watch migration in action on a grand scale. There were Sparrowhawks, Chaffinches and Pied Wagtails spilling over the waves, big flocks of Velvet Scoter and Scaup moving; Black-throated Divers passing in procession, and flocks of more than 30 Willow Tits growing in the coastal trees. Perhaps most impressive of all was a pre-dawn drive along the long, thin peninsula that fingers to the west of the off-shore island of Hiiumaa. The glistening wet forested road was almost carpeted with little blobs, which flitted away as we approached. They were hundreds upon hundreds of Robins, presumably just having flown in and seeking an easy meal on the damp road surface.
Our hosts, though, were saving the best till last. On the last morning, the weather cleared for the first time and also for the first time we were able to witness visible migration of landbirds, at Soometsa Forest. With the first rays of sunshine came the first calls of Chaffinches and Bramblings, Meadow Pipits and Tree Pipits. A steady flow of Sky Larks started to pass over. Then we noticed the odd Crossbill and Hawfinch.
As the sun rose, a steady passage of Jays was moving through, interspersed with scattered Nutcrackers. During the morning, thousands of passerines passed over, all heading roughly south and west, all leaving Fennoscandia for warmer climes.
Who can blame them for leaving the frozen north, and who can also blame them for choosing the rich wonderful birding land of Estonia for their first stop-over.
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.
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