Monday, 24 December 2012

Trip Report – Extremadura, 6th to 9th December 2012

Preamble:  The 6th and 8th of December in Spain are bank holidays, so by taking the 7th as an additional day a four day weekend could be made up.

The idea of going to Extremadura, principally to see the spectacle of the Common Cranes (Grus grus) was first mooted by Isidro Bartolomé.  In the general area of Extremadura, it is estimated that between 60,000 and 75,000 Cranes overwinter, and in the area we were going to, there were around 40,000 of these.  We had gone to the same place over the same weekend last year, and decided it would be a good idea to return, this time knowing something about the birds and places we would be visiting.

Members of our group from Cartagena were Isidro Bartolomé, Francisco Javier (Javi) and I, Richard Howard.  We were to meet the fourth member of our group, Yvonne, at the accommodation we had selected to be our base for the visit.

We would set off on the 6th at 7 a.m., have a couple of stops en-route and arrive at our base destination, Navalvillar de Pela (Badajoz) at around 3 p.m.

The area:  Extremadura is on the western half of the Iberian Peninsula, with the region of Castilla-La Mancha to the east and Portugal to the west, and is north of Andalucia.  Although it is an area that gets extremely hot in the summer, (with temperatures up to 45º C), it is not at all dry, having normally a good annual (mainly autumnal and winter) rainfall and many reservoirs, and has large areas dedicated to the cultivation of rice.  There are also many ‘dehesas’ (small grass covered hills with sparse trees – mainly cork-oak, used for (‘pata negra’) pig grazing but also adored by the Cranes in winter, for the small acorns).

Accomodation:  Our base at Navalvillar de Pela would be one of at least 3 hotels in the village, the two star Hotel Dehesas.  Our reason for choosing this hotel, apart from the fact that it was where we had stayed last year, was that it was the most economical one (33€ per person per night for a single person in a double room, or 50€ per night for the room with 2 people sharing).  An added advantage with this hotel is that it had a nightly  ‘menu’  (fixed price evening meal of 3 courses with drink included), although the bad side of this is that it is not served till 9pm.  This meal was basic, but sufficient, with a choice of 4 each of starters, main courses and sweets.  The hotel itself is normally used by hunters, so it is not unusual to see guns and rifles scattered about in the mornings.  One small word of warning for anyone using this hotel and in particular using your room shower – I have never been anywhere where the water pressure is so high – turning on the shower full would easily power the water straight across the room to the opposite wall, and the hot water is so hot it would probably burn a hole through that wall!

Our hotel

Day 1 – Thursday, 6th December 2012: Setting off from my house in Los Belones at 6-30 a.m., we collected Javi from Cartagena and were on the road again at 7-30 a.m.  We took the A30 dual carriageway to Murcia, then on the same dual carriageway to Albacete.  Just west of Albacete we went cross country to join with the N-430 towards Ciudad Real, and stopped for about an hour from 10:15 to 11:15, for a break from being in the car, at the Lagunas de Ruidera, where our first proper birdwatching began.  Here the sky was 6/8 overcast and it was a chilly 8º C, but there was no wind.  We saw a variety of common birds here, best birds being a Kingfisher and a group of 9 or 10 Hawfinches which we watched distantly in treetops for a while.

Resuming our journey west, in fields en-route we saw a few Jays, a lot of Lapwings, Kestrel and a ‘ringtail’ Hen Harrier. We stopped again at around 2 p.m. at the Embalse Puerto Peña on the N430 where it crosses the Rio Guadiana just in Badajoz.  There is a parking area above the road bridge with views across the river to the high cliffs opposite where there is a large colony of Griffon Vultures, and so while eating our sandwiches here, we watched around 80 Griffon Vultures come in from the south to roost.  Here we also saw a male Blue Rock Thrush, a Chiffchaff and our first group of around 12 Azure Winged Magpies.  Isidro and Javi also saw a Sparrowhawk which I missed.

 The N-430 crossing the Rio Guadiana at Puerto Peña

 The eastern side of the Rio Guadiana, where the Griffon Vultures roost

Carrying on west, we reached our destination of Navalvillar de Pela just after 3 p.m., having seen several Common Buzzards and a couple of Red Kites en route from the car.  After a quick check-in at the hotel and meeting up with Yvonne, the fourth member of our group, we got back out into the field again until 6-30 p.m.  The sky by now was totally overcast with a slight NW breeze and a chilly 11º C.  We had a general drive around before stopping at the information centre at Dehesa Moheda Alta where we went out to one of the hides to await the Cranes coming in to roost.  Which they did, in groups of hundreds.  We calculated that we saw in total around 6,000 of them, plus around 1,500 Greylag Geese.  And the noise that they all make!  Totally a spectacle.

 Arriving at Navalvillar, the sight that met us
 All the fields seemed to be full of Cranes
 The visitors centre at Moheda Alta

Other birds of note seen on this first afternoon were Cattle Egret; Corn Buntings (in thier hundreds); Hoopoe; Spanish Sparrow; Dartford Warbler; Black Shouldered Kite; White Stork; Marsh Harrier and another Hen Harrier (this time an adult male).

After this it was back to the hotel, a few drinks and supper, order and collect our ‘bocadillos’ for the next day, and bed.

Day 2 – Friday, 7th December 2012:  We had decided that we wanted to see the Cranes leaving their roost, so we had an early start, meeting in the hotel bar for breakfast (coffee and a doughnut) at 7 a.m., eventually getting into position in the field at Moheda Alta at 8 a.m.  Although it was just still dark and drizzling, there was already some movement of the Cranes.  We stayed there for a couple of hours before we decided we’d had enough of being out in the drizzle (the sky was totally overcast and it just didn’t seem to want to get fully light, and the temperature just about made it to 5º C), so we decided to have a drive around, if only to warm up.  So we took a slow drive alongside a canal until we reached the Embalse de Cubilar.  Here we stopped and explored for a while (we remembered that we had seen a few small birds last year), and left having seen Dartford and Sardinian Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Fan-tailed Warbler, Blue and Great Tit, Robins, Meadow Pipits and Corn Buntings plus a single Dunnock, and of larger birds, 4 Ravens and a Lesser Black-backed Gull.

 Another typical sight, of the Cranes in the dehesas

And a single female Sardinian Warbler by the dam
Our next stop was the much larger Embalse de Sierra Brava where there was a massive flock of ducks including an estimated 6,000 Shoveler and 1,500 Mallard.  By scanning through these, at least 6 Wigeon, 12 Pintail, 6 Gadwall and 20+ Teal could be picked out, and in the fields surrounding the reservoir we saw a couple of Marsh Harriers and Red Kites (and here it finally stopped drizzling).

After a stop of around an hour, we continued our drive, this time across the Llanos de Zorita, finally finding a place to stop to eat our ‘bocadillos’ at around 3 pm.  While driving slowly around, we had some interesting sightings, such as a couple of small groups of Golden Plover in amongst the Lapwings, 2 groups of Little Bustards totalling 60 birds in all, plenty of Skylarks and a single group of 15 Calandra Larks, our first group of (Spotted) Starlings numbering about 150, a Little Owl and a dark morph Booted Eagle.  After a rapid stop in the Puebla de Alcollarín for coffee, we gradually worked our way back to Navalvillar de Pela and Moheda Alta, but this time driving along the roads at the sides of the canals.  A word about this – although in theory this shouldn’t be done as there are ‘No Entry’ signs on them all, everyone seems to use them as shortcuts, and they are a very good way of surveying surrounding countryside as they tend to be higher than the surrounding areas (and keep an eye out for Great White Egrets actually IN the canals).  Also, the edges are reasonably mature with trees and bushes, so there is a wealth of wildlife very close (such as Spanish Sparrows).  It also seems to be a good way of getting close to Black Shouldered Kites even IF they won’t stay long enough to be photographed.  So on our way back we saw a couple more Black Shouldered Kites, a couple of Red Kites and a couple of Griffon Vultures, plus 2 Great White Egrets in the Canals.
Back at Moheda Alta, we stopped for the Cranes to come in to roost, and then it was back to the hotel, as per the previous night.

 Driving alongside the canals, we flushed out this Great White Egret...

 ...which proceeded to sit on top of a 'Cipressa', and then flew off
 More typical views of the rice fields...
 ... and more...

 ... and yet more

 A single Crane, off to roost

 ... and a few more

 Other birds along the canals included this smart male Marsh Harrier...

 ... these Spanish Sparrows...

 ... Lapwings...

 ... Black Shouldered Kites...

 ... Common Buzzards...

 ... and (a record shot of) Great Bustards

 Back to the principal aim of the visit, more Common Cranes...

... sharing their fields with 'pata negra' pigs

Day 3 – Saturday, 8th December 2012: We started early again in order to see the Cranes leaving their roost.  The weather was again overcast, but with no drizzle, and the temperature was a cool 4ºC. We had arranged to meet up with someone who was going to show us around the area to the west of Moheda Alta later in the morning, and as we also wanted to check out the farm reservoir at Moheda Alta as well, instead of using the hides to watch from, we decided to go up onto the wall of the reservoir.  This way we could check what was in the reservoir at the same time.  This proved to be a good move as we saw a good group of Common Pochard there as well as a couple of Tufted Duck, and from the reservoir looking over the rice fields we again saw about 5,000 Common Cranes, 1,500 Greylag Geese, 750 Pintail and around 100 Shoveler.

 Yuk! Who likes first thing in the morning, with a frost.  The farm reservoir...
 ... and more of the farm reservoir, where we saw the Pochard and Tufted Ducks

 The ricefields from the farm reservoir

 and the first Cranes going over
By 10 am. we had moved on to Madrigalejo, taking the road to the ‘Planta Termosolar’ (Solar Farm).  This area used to be another large roost for the Cranes, but is now only half the size it used to be, the rest having been taken over for the production of solar energy.  There was still a lot of avian life her though, and as we moved slowly through the area, we saw many more Common Cranes and Greylags, and a few White Storks, Marsh Harriers, Common Snipe, a couple of Black-shouldered Kites, Green Sandpipers, Common Buzzards and Lapwings.  We then moved on along the Rio Gargáligas to Zurbaran, Rena and Ruecas where we stopped for lunch alongside the river, birds seen en route being Moorhen, Common Buzzards, Common Cranes, Lapwing, Common Snipe, Black-headed Gulls, Azure Winged Magpies, Magpies, Little Egrets, Hoopoe, Black Winged Stilts, Carrion Crows, Raven, White Storks, Greylags, Linnet, Southern Grey Shrikes and Black Redstarts, and where we had lunch, Booted Eagles, Red Kites, Blackcaps, Marsh Harriers, Great Bustards, Chiffchaffs, a single Goldcrest and a group of about 30 Common Waxbill.  We also heard Wren and Water Rail there.

 The smallest bird we saw all trip, a female Goldcrest...
 ... and a relatively common bird, Spanish Sparrow
 By no means common, but there were a few White Storks overwintering
 And the commonest of the lot, Common Cranes

 One of a few raptors seen, Red Kite
 Another pair of birds at the side of the canal, but not wild!  Peacock and Peahen

 One of a few Marsh Harriers seen

From there we slowly wound our way back to Navalvillar for the evening roosting of the Cranes, the weather having changed to clear skies and no wind but still quite cool. 

 More views of the harvested ricefields...
 ... and yet more, seen from the canal...

 ... and a general view of one of the canals...

The fields where we had seen Great Bustards yesterday, but not today...
... and the silhouette of a Red Kite at the side of the canal


 Finally, back at Moheda Alta, the Cranes returning to their roost

As it was to be our last evening, we decided to give a bar in one of the other hotels our custom tonight,  and so stopped to have supper in the more expensive hotel, and rather than having a proper meal, we just selected a ‘tapas’ each from the menu and shared the food between us.  One of the tapas’s chosen was a speciality of the area, local sheep’s cheese, boiling hot which you paste onto small squares of toast.  It may not sound much but was absolutely delicious (and filling), and the total cost, including drinks came to 12€ a head – not bad at all (even though I think there might have been a mistake in our favour with the bill).

Day 4 – Sunday, 9th December 2012: Our last day (and our last early start!).  Today the weather was totally in our favour, with a clear sky and no wind (although somewhat chilly to start with).  Once again we went out to the wall of the farm reservoir to see the Cranes get up; although today there seemed to be fewer of them (I noted cerca. 3,000).  Apart from the by now usual birds, we also had a fleeting view of a small falcon flying low and fast over the fields – a female Merlin.

 In the 'Moheda Alta' farm reservoir, a small group of Common Pochard...
 ... with Common Cranes flying overhead...

 ... and a few Greylag Geese

In the fields, plenty of Corn Buntings...
... and the occasional Robin
From here we went back via the canal system to the ‘Embalse de Cubilar’ where we had been a couple of days previously.  Here there were a large number of duck in close – I estimated around 1,500 Common Teal and 500 Mallard, and in amongst these were at least 15 Gadwall and 6 Shoveler.  Other birds seen from the wall of the dam were a Black Shouldered Kite, 2 Common Buzzard, 2 Marsh Harriers, 2 Red Kite, 3 Griffon Vultures, 2 Raven and 6 Carrion Crows, while at the far end of the dam in the trees and bushes, we had 2 Dartford Warblers, Chiffchaff and Dunnock.

 On the way to the Cubilar dam, 3 Griffon Vultures waiting for it to warm up so they could soar...

... and a couple of Cranes in a ricefield

 The Cubilar dam itself...

... and the Dunnock that finally showed itself

As we had a few hours left before we set off on the long trip back (we had initially planned to go to the steppe area known as ‘La Sirena’ but as we had by now seen all the birds we may or may not see there, we decided to drop the idea), and as we hadn’t done any ‘woodland’ birding, we decided to try somewhere totally different.  To which end we went north to the hillier area of Guadalupe, to take one of the tracks alongside the ‘Rio Guadalupejo’, which according to one of our guides, was a good woodland walk.  So just before getting to the town of Guadalupe, having crossed the river, we parked up and did about 2 ½ hours of walking.  We did see a fair amount of woodland birds, including Long-tailed, Blue, Crested and Great Tits, Short-toed Treecreeper, Sparrowhawk, Serin, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Cirl Bunting, Blackcap and Robin, and we heard Wren. 

 The entrance to the 'Rio Guadalupejo' trail
 On the trail, a male Serin...

 ... and one of the Great Spotted Woodpeckers
And then all too soon it was time to turn back.  Stopping off at a high area that Isidro knew on the way back to Navalvillar, we picked up another couple of species for the trip, an immature Golden Eagle and a couple of Mistle Thrushes, and then on continuing our journey, from the car we had an immature Bonelli’s Eagle.

 Stopping off on the way back to Navalvillar...

... we occasioned across this Golden Eagle

And that was about it.  A quick lunch in Navalvillar followed by the 7 hour journey back to Cartagena and Los Belones.  A good long weekend, with just over 100 species seen and above all else lasting memories of the Cranes.  And economical too – accommodation 99€; diesel 50€ and food and drink another 50€, total 200€ for the 4 days.