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 firstname.lastname@example.org