Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas local roundup

Hi all,

I haven’t blogged for a while – due mainly to the lack of birds to write about, but I thought I’d put pen to paper for those of you who have just got here or who have a few days available to get into the field – where do you go?

Birdwatching seems to be pretty quiet at the moment locally – OK if you’re in the northwest of Spain with flocks of Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead, or other ducks, geese or white winged gulls, but in our corner of Spain it’s been pretty quiet.  That was until this week, when some interesting waterfowl started to show up, finishing with a female Goosander in the Mar Menor and Great Northern Diver past Cabo de Palos the day before yesterday (23rd December – not seen by me).

Most of the activity has been in the Mar Menor, where on then 15th December the annual Great White Egret showed itself at the sailing club at Los Urrutias.  I say annual, but it wasn’t that long ago when this species was considered a local rarity.  But since February 2008 one has normally been seen each winter in this locality.  The same trip out also produced good numbers of Great Crested Grebes (30+), Black Necked Grebes (25+) and the large group (of around 1,200) of Cormorants from the km.8 marker of the perimeter road, opposite the ‘Marina de Carmoli’, and slightly further along this road at the ‘desembacadura de la rambla de Albujón’, 6 Greater Flamingos in the Mar Menor (very unusual to see them here) and a couple of Reed Buntings and Bluethroats in the reedbed.

 At the club nautico Los Urrutias, apart from the normal waterbirds ...
 ... the annual Great White Egret finally showed up ...
 ... and a group of Greater Flamingos has been present

Due to Christmas, our monthly count at the EDAR Beaza (Cartagena sewage farm) was brought forward to the middle of the month (the 16th to be precise).  There was nothing out of the ordinary in the way of ducks apart from some Pintail (the normal ducks being Mallard, Shoveler, White-headed Ducks and Teal), but with the water level in one of the two lagoons very low due to repair work, a wader of interest was a single Wood Sandpiper complimenting the Greens and Commons, and there was also a Red-rumped Swallow feeding over the area with the customary 50 or so Crag Martins.  Of interest, a juvenile Red-rumped Swallow was caught and ringed at the ‘rambla de Albujon’ about a week earlier, the ringers considering it had only been out of the nest only about 2 or 3 weeks.

After a day of rain on the 17th December, I called in on the 18th to one of the farm reservoirs I visit regularly.  Here I had a single Common Buzzard (which are much more common at this time of the year, being birds from more northern climes), a single male Pochard and three very smart male Ferruginous Ducks (sorry I can’t give out the exact location for these as they are on private land).  I also heard that in one of the lakes at the nearby Los Alcazares golf club there had been a further 3 of these ducks, plus up to 5 overwintering Blue-headed Wagtails, so definitely a place I need to visit. 

 Ferruginous Duck with Pochard and Coot ...

... and a further two Ferruginous ducks crash landing!
The same day I also called into the ‘desembocadura de la rambla de Albujón’, where in the mouth of the river were a further 10 Greater Flamingos, Curlew and Marsh Harrier (on the deck by the reedbeds).  Slightly further east along the Mar Menor, I called in at the km.8 area where out to sea I had a couple of male Gadwall, and my first Red-breasted Merganser (female or immature) of the winter.  Also, there seemed to be quite a good number of Black-necked Grebes, and on counting them I got up to 54.
 Unusual in the Mar Menor, two male Gadwalls ...

... and a record shot of now scarce female/imm. Red-breasted Merganser
My final stop of the day just as dusk was falling, was at the old ‘Salinas de Rasall’ in Calblanque.  My main intention was to read rings on the Audouins Gulls, but the majority of the 64 birds present were sat on the walls of the lagoons making ring-reading impossible and I only managed to read two, both originally ringed as chicks on Isla Grosa just off the coast at La Manga.  A very nice bird I DID manage to see from the first hide there, was a Water Rail which was ambling around the almost dry pool on the left as you look out of the hide.

 A not uncommon bird at Calblanque - if you can see it close enough to i.d. it - Thekla Lark

After some more days of rain, I went down to the Marchamalo (Cabo de Palos) Salinas on Saturday the 21st December.  There was almost nothing in the way of waders here (just Avocets) – the water levels are currently very high and although it beggars belief, they are still pumping water in from the Mar Menor (we can only hope that they continue to do so in the spring!).  Other birds seen here were a couple of Black Necked Grebes, 18 Greater Flamingos and a single Little Egret.
I moved on from here to the sailing club at Los Urrutias, where there was a group of eight Greater Flamingos, a very confiding Little Grebe, Greenshanks, Turnstones, Dunlin and Grey Plover, and the Great White Egret showed itself again.  Slightly further west at the ‘desembocadura de la rambla de Albujón’, the Red-breasted Merganser could be seen and a single Stone Curlew flew over, but there was nothing else of interest.

 A very confiding Little Grebe ...

 ... some of the now apparently resident Greater Flamingos ...

 ... a Great White Egret that decided to join in ...

 ... Greenshank having a snooze ...

 ... immature Grey Plover ...

... and a couple more Greenshank around the shoreline
 On Sunday 22nd I decided it was about time for another woodland walk, so I went over to ‘Monte Cenizas’ at the back of the La Manga Club, on the way to Portman.  Here once again things were very quiet, the majority of birds seen being of just one species, Long-tailed Tits, although I did also see Meadow Pipits, Sardinian and Dartford Warblers, Chaffinches, Chiffchaffs, Serins, Robins, Black Redstarts and Stonechats, and singletons of Kestrel and Sparrowhawk.

 The commonest local woodland bird around - Long-tailed Tit

And on electrical cables, quite often you come across Southern Grey Shrikes

From here I went round to the ‘Marina de Carmoli’ (Los Urrutias) to have another look at the sea.  On the way I had a dark morph Booted Eagle, and out on the Mar Menor the Red-breasted Merganser was harassing Black-necked Grebes of which there were at least 50, and there were a further 85 Great Crested Grebes.  While trying to photograph the Red-breasted Merganser, a Bluethroat popped up out of nowhere and allowed me to photograph it!

 Another record shot of the Red-breasted Merganser, this time with Great Crested Grebe

 The nearest I could get to a seasonal photo ...

 ... Robins are short on the ground around here ...

 ... so you'll have to make do with this Bluethroat instead!

 And on the way home in its regular spot, Little Owl

First thing on Monday 23rd, I got a message from a friend to say that a Goosander had just been seen in the Mar Menor (a first for the region of Murcia), so instead of work, guess where I spent the day!  Not that it did me an awful lot of good as I didn’t see the bird, but on my travels, I did manage to see a flock of 176 Golden Plover feeding in a field at Mar de Cristal; a flock of 10 Red-breasted Mergansers and three Richards Pipits at the ‘Arenal’, Los Nietos (plus a further 200+ Great Crested Grebes and 40+ Black Necks); at the club nautico at Los Urrutias a single Avocet along with the normal waders, and from the ‘marina de Carmolí’ the Red-breasted Merganser plus 60+ Great Crested Grebes and 30+ Black Necked Grebes, and a group of five Marsh Hariers that flew up from the marina and started soaring.

 Some of the Golden Plovers ...
 ... in a field at the side of the road ...

 ... but when a Kestrel flew over the field, they all got

The Red-breasted Merganser seen from the Marina de Carmoli (digiscoped this time)

 ... and at a roadside puddle, a group of Linnets having an afternoon drink ...

... while a White Wagtail searched for a snack

Yesterday, Tuesday 24th December I thought I’d just have a quick look at the area where the Goosander had been seen – and HOORAY, yes it was there.  A long way out, in with a group of 4 Great Crested Grebes diving a lot of the time, but unmistakable none the less, with its red head clearly demarcated from the white neck – a Spanish tick for me (and breaking my run of dips during the autumn!).  It was on the west (left) side of the bay where the ‘La Manga Caravanning’ site is (next to Playa Honda and Playa Paraiso), off from the point where there is a single house built on the peninsula.  After watching it for a couple of minutes I went round to the peninsula (at Mar de Cristal, where I almost stepped on an overwintering Quail scaring the **** out of both me and the Quail!) but after searching for than more than an hour for the Goosander, I couldn’t relocate it (the wind had started to get up, so waves were forming, and there was a lot of boat movement, so it may have gone, or just have been hidden by the waves), so I left some other people searching as I had to get back to work!

And that's about it for the moment, so from a very windy and wet Murcia, I wish you all a very happy Christmas, and until my next report, good birding!!


P.s. High winds are forecast for the next few days, so a seawatch may be worthwhile!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

6th – 8th December 2013 - A weekend with Cranes at the Laguna de Gallocanta

OK, it's not Murcia, but you've got to get out sometime.....  In the form of a trip report, a trip made last weekend.

The 6th and 8th December are fiesta days here in Spain (known as the ‘puente de la Constitución), and for the last couple of years I have gone to Extremadura to see the wintering Common Cranes (Grus grus) there.  This year for a change, I went with a local birdwatcher, Pepe Navarro, to another of their wintering areas, this time in the north of Spain, on the border of the provinces of Teruel and Zaragoza, the ‘Laguna de Gallocanta’.  Nestling amongst cereal fields at a height of 1,000 metres above sea level with a surface area of between 0 and 1,330 hectares depending on the amount of rainfall during the previous summer, this natural lagoon is one of the first places that the Cranes come to once they have crossed the Pyrenees on their way south to winter in Spain and north Africa.  Although many carry on further south, a lot of them stay in the area for the whole of the winter, and in a census taken on the day we arrived (5th December), the number counted was 37,857.

Logistics and location
Setting out from Los Belones (Cartagena, Murcia) on Thursday 5th December at 6:10pm and with a single short stop we arrived at Gallocanta at 11:30pm.  The distance covered was 530 km.  Our route was to take the AP-7 to Alicante, then the A-31, N-340, and A-7 to Valencia via Elda and Ibi, then from Valencia to Teruel on the A-23, continuing on the A-23 towards Zaragoza until coming off this motorway and taking the A-1507 to Tornos, then continuing on to Gallocanta itself.  All driving was on dual-carriageways except for the N-340 for a few kilometres on the way to Valencia, and the A-1507 to Tornos and Gallocanta.  On the return journey on Sunday 8th December, we used the same route leaving at just after 4:30pm, but although there was more traffic we still got back to Los Belones just before 10pm.

The location can be seen using Google Earth by copy and pasting the following co-ordinates in the search box 40.989717, -1.506738 (making sure that Google Earth is set to decimal degrees first), or just typing Gallocanta into the search box. 

We were staying in one of many ‘Casa Rural’ in Gallocanta itself, but there is also a hostel in the village, and we noted that several of the surrounding villages had rooms to let.

The lake itself is in a depression and surrounded by cereal fields (some of which were just stubble and the others currently being ploughed during our visit). These are crossed by local roads (the A-211, CV-633, A-1507 and A-2506) on which there are several small villages – Gallocanta, Berrueco, Tornos, Bello and Las Cuerlas.  In the villages of Gallocanta and Bello, there are information centres (both of which were open all weekend) where any further information can be obtained. Within the perimeter of the local roads mentioned above, there are many mud tracks that can be traversed – we were in a 4x4, but a normal car could also have used them as there obviously hadn’t been any rain for a while.

 Map of the area - available free in the information centres

During our 3 night stay there, the weather was excellent for viewing the Cranes apart from the night of our arrival and first morning, when there was thick fog which cleared by midday (we were later told that the fog was most unusual).  The rest of the time we had clear skies and no wind, with temperatures between -3º overnight and 10º at midday in a very dry atmosphere, so the 10º at midday seemed warm.  Daylight hours were from before we got up to around 6pm!

A word of advice - if you go there, check on your antifreeze and carry an ice-scraper!

Food and drink
The two evenings we spent at Gallocampo, we ate at the Hostel.  The food was basic but good, although portions on the small side, with 3 courses at a set price of 9€.  A word of warning though – as we were not staying at the hostel, we had to wait until people staying at the hostel finished their suppers before we could have ours.  This was not a problem as we could wait in the bar!  Breakfast and lunch were ‘bocadillos’ which we had made up at local bars depending on where we were at the time.

Day 1  - 6th December
After loading up the wood burning stove in the house, we set off at around 9-30am, but had to stop shortly after as the water in the windscreen washer had frozen and we couldn’t see through the windscreen.  Not that this stopped us from seeing birds – the thick fog everywhere did that!   
Once we got the windscreen de-iced, we set off again, taking a slow drive in an anticlockwise direction around the local roads that surround the lagoon.  Our first bird seen was an adult female Marsh HarrHH      Harrier that crossed the road in front of us and then settled on the back of a field at the side of the road – until it saw us get our cameras out!

The next birds were groups of Corn Buntings on the bushes at the side of the road, and then a group of mixed Spotless Starlings, Tree Sparrows and Rock Sparrows also at the side of the road. (The only sparrows we saw all weekend were Tree and Rock – not a sniff of House or Spanish).  We finally started to see through the fog some Cranes also in the fields at the sides of the roads, and snapped away frantically in case they were the only ones we were to see.  We needn’t have worried!!

 Our first sightings, of Cranes in the fog!

Continuing our route we had large groups of Linnets (with the occasional Goldfinch and Greenfinch), more Spotless Starlings, Tree Sparrows and Rock Sparrows, Kestrels, more Marsh Harriers and Hen Harrier in some of the spots where the fog was a little less dense, together with more Cranes on the fields.  On one occasion when we stopped to watch the Cranes in a field, I heard Black-bellied Sandgrouse calling, the closest we got to them, but on checking Pepe’s photos after we got back I noticed he had inadvertently photo’d a couple in a photo he took of the Cranes!

This may look like just another photo of Cranes in the fog, but note the two birds top right
 - out of focus, but definitely Black-bellied Sandgrouse
Photo courtesy of Pepe Navarro

 Also seen in the fog, here a Hen Harrier ...

 ... with groups of Rock Sparrows and Linnets along the roadside ...

  ... plus flocks of Tree Sparrows

Funny - we saw Tree Sparrows on the rocks, and Rock Sparrows in the trees!
Photo courtesy of Pepe Navarro

We wern't the only ones out on the prowl in the fog
Photo courtesy of Pepe Navarro

Group of Calandra Larks
Photo courtesy of Pepe Navarro

Another couple of Pepe's photos, of female and male Hen Harrier
Photos courtesy of Pepe Navarro

When we got as far as Tornos, the fog was noticeably less dense, so we decided to stop at the bar in the village, and have breakfast of a large ‘bocadillo’ and a beer.  We finished the circuit of the lagoon, and deciding to do a second round as the fog had lifted, but this time to be closer to the water, when we got to the village of Bello, we took one of the tracks down to the lagoon itself, stopping off at the various hides and having a picnic lunch at the ‘Ermita de la Virgen del Buen Acuerdo’ which is on a hill overlooking the lake and the village of Gallocanta, watching the Cranes dropping in to the lagoon in groups from 30 to 150 at a time.  We spent the rest of the daylight hours driving around the mud tracks, stopping when we saw anything interesting or photographable. We had the intention of being at the ‘Ermita’ at around 5:15pm, but got a little lost and came across a line of trees with a group of 5 Red Kites roosting in them. We watched these for a while, and then noticed that in the fields behind the trees, there were several male Hen Harriers sitting on the ground (7 in total, plus 3 females/immatures).  So finally at 5:45pm we were back at the ‘Ermita’ to watch the Cranes coming in – which they did in their thousands!  A rough estimate was of 15,000, but there could easily have been a lot more.  A real spectacle.  We remained there until they seemed to stop dropping in and when it got too cold to stay any more we retreated back to the bar in the Hostel for a few beers.  Later, after downloading photos and getting ourselves ready at our 'casa', we returned to the hostel (only about 100 metres away) for our supper at around 10pm.

The 'Ermita Virgen del Buen Acuerdo'

 View from the 'Ermita' looking over the lagoon to the village of Gallocanta

More views from the 'Ermita'

 The birds we'd come to see - Common Crane - from the 'Ermita'

 Here in the roadside fields ...

 ... and here closer to the lagoon, with the 'Reguera' observation hide in the background

 The Cranes were flying over constantly ...

 ... but were not the only birds we saw.  Here a male Hen Harrier ...

 ... and another photo of the same bird

and here a female

And in the evening, waiting for the arrival of the Cranes

Day 2 – 7th December
Although the morning didn’t start with fog, and we got the car windscreen clear with hot water, we still didn’t go out until just after 9am – about the time some people were coming back from seeing the Cranes go off from the lagoon.  We spent the whole day touring around, picking up groups of Skylarks and Calandra Larks, but were at the ‘Ermita’ at around 11:30am when large groups of Cranes came off of the surrounding fields to the lagoon itself.  Another spectacle, to see groups of up to several hundred birds in lines coming in from the distant horizons.  We stayed there for a picnic lunch and siesta before setting off around the fields again, and from there, looking over the hills behind Gallocanta, through the ‘scope I saw a group of four Griffon Vultures soaring, with a fifth resting on a rock.
 The 'Ermita' on top of a low hill

 Another of the observation hides overlooking the lagoon - this one the 'Los Ojos' hide

 The view from the hide

 Part of the midday arrival ...

  ... and here more of the same

 They just kept coming ...

 ... more and more of them ...

 ... until you lost count

 The entrance into Bello, one of the villages surrounding the lagoon

 The 'Bello' information centre

 The centre of the village of 'Tornos'

 Entering the village of Berrueco

 The 'Ermita del Buen Acuerdo' again, our favourite spot

 A general landscape view showing the type of terrain

 The observation hide 'La Reguera' gets pretty busy early evening!

 Female Hen Harrier seen on our travels

 A family dispute, maybe?

 In the fields, always a Carrion Crow somewhere

 And the evening arrival of the Cranes

 We didn't do too badly for raptors either - here a Red Kite ...

 ... and another, of one of the male Hen Harriers that were hanging about

Carrion Crow

 The Cranes as seen from the hide 'La Reguera'

A couple of the Red Kites seen roosting in one of the few trees

 In the fields we were looking in particular for photographable Hen Harriers and Red Kites, but although we saw both, they were too far for decent photos.  We called in at the hide called ‘La Reguera’ which is a stilted hide with good light (the sun is behind you), but there were so many people on the metallic platform that eventually we left. We finished the day again at the ‘Ermita’ at around 5pm watching the rest of the Cranes come in to the lagoon for an hour, after which we spent the evening much as the previous evening.

Day 3 – 8th December
Our last day, and as per the previous day, we set out at 9am, into the fields around the lake.  Here we finally had a stroke of luck with a Red Kite, which seemed to be interested in what we were up to, and circled over our heads for a few minutes.  We also had a couple of Great Bustards fly over the road, high up as if on migration.  Although they breed in this area, we’d been told they would be very difficult to see as most had moved off for the winter, and on asking in the information centre at Bello, we were told it was a very good record as the last record was of four birds at least two weeks previously.  At 11:30 we were at the ‘La Reguera’ hide again, this time with just one other couple of people there.  The sky seemed to fill with Cranes coming in to the lagoon. Hundreds upon hundreds for about half an hour – we calculated at least another 15,000, and the noise they made!  When the movement seemed to have finished (and we noted a line of 10 cars headed for us at the hide) we left and continued exploring towards the village of Bello.  We had a ‘bocadillo’ lunch in Tornos and then back to Gallocanta to collect our belongings, leaving at just after 4pm.

 First bird on our last day - Common Buzzard

And one of a couple of surprise birds, Great Bustards 
Photo courtesy of Pepe Navarro

 The Cranes still figured strongly

Part of another lunchtime arrival ...

 ... to roost on the dry areas of the lagoon

 Another of the common birds - Tree Sparrow ...

 ... and this time Kestrel

 This Red Kite seemed most interested in what we were up to ...

 ... circling overhead several times

 Back at Gallocanta, the hostel where we didn't stay, just used the bar!

 And finally, the protagonists of this trip!

Possibly the best place in Spain (that I have been to anyway) to see wintering Common Cranes, with a variety of other birds. The best place to watch them is either from the 'Ermita Virgen del Buen Acuerdo' or from the hide 'La Reguera', although this latter gets very busy.  The best times are either between 11:30 and 12:30 midday when a lot come in, or from 5pm onwards when more waves enter the lagoon.  As mentioned previously, there is a 'youth-hostel' style hostel in Gallocampo although this gets very busy, so pre-booking is essential.  Otherwise rent rooms or houses in the villages.
Of the other birds seen, there were a few surprises - no 'Spotty' Starlings or House Sparrows, for example, and only singles of Magpie, Little Owl and Southern Grey Shrikes, in terrain perfect for these species.
Possibly three nights was too long to stay as we had seen pretty much everything in our first two days, athough this is down to personal preference.
Birds seen during the weekend

Common Crane – Grus grus - Grulla 
Curlew – Numenius phaeopus - Zarapito real 
Blackbird – Turdus merula - Mirlo
Red Kite – Milvus milvus - Milano real 
Marsh Harrier – Circus aeruginosus - Aguilucho lagunero 
Hen Harrier – Circus cyaneus - Aguilucho pálido 
Common Buzzard – Buteo buteo - Busardo ratonero 
Kestrel – Falco tinnunculus - Cernícalo
Booted Eagle – Hieraaetus pennatus - Águila calzada 
Stonechat – Saxicola torquata - Tarabilla común 
Corn Bunting – Miliaria calandra - Triguero 
Black-bellied Sandgrouse – Pterocles orientalis - Ganga ortega 
Black Redstart – Phoenicurus ochruros - Colirrojo tizón 
Eurasian Wigeon – Anas Penelope - Ánade silbón 
Shoveler – Anas clypeata - Cuchara 
Mallard – Anas platyrhynchos - Ánade real 
Gadwall – Anas strepera - Ánade friso 
Common Teal – Anas crecca - Cerceta común 
Graylag Goose – Anser anser - Ánsar común 
Tree Sparrow – Passer montanus - Gorrión molinero 
Rock Sparrow – Petronia petronia - Gorrión chillón 
Magpie – Pica pica - Urraca 
Carrion Crow – Corvus corone - Corneja 
Meadow Pipit – Anthus pratense - Bisbita pratense 
Goldfinch – Carduelis carduelis - Jilguero 
Greenfinch – Carduelis chloris - Verderón 
Linnet – Carduelis cannabina - Pardillo 
Shelduck – Tadorna tadorna - Tarro blanco 
Spotless Starling – Sturnus unicolor - Estornino negro 
Woodpigeon – Columba palumbus - Paloma torcaz 
Collared Dove – Streptopelia decaocto - Tórtola turca 
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) – Columba livia - Paloma bravía 
White Wagtail – Motacilla alba alba - Lavandera blanca 
Southern Grey Shrike – Lanius meridionalis - Alcaudón real 
Skylark – Alauda arvensis - Alondra común 
Crested Lark – Galerida cristata - Cogujada común 
Calandra Lark – Melanocorypha calandra - Calandria
Great Tit – Parus major - Carbonera común 
Lapwing – Vanellus vanellus - Avefría 
Common Pochard – Aythya ferina - Porrón común 
Griffon Vulture – Gyps fulvus - Buitre leonado 
Little Owl – Athene noctua - Mochuelo

Great Bustard – Otis tarda - Avutarda 
Fan-tailed Warbler – Cisticola juncidis - Buitrón 
Reed Bunting – Emberiza schoeniclus - Escribano palustre

Hasta la proxima,

Richard Howard