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


  1. Muy completa croónica. Enhorabuena
    Ha sido como revivir cualquiera de las visitas a Gallocanta.
    Espero que informarais a los rock Sparrows y a los Tree Sparrows de su confusión..... El campo esta lleno de pájaros que no se leen los libros de ornitología ;-)

    1. Este monstra el peligro al nombrar aves por su habitat....

      Me gusta que has disfrutado de la crónica.

      Un saludo,


  2. Well, I came out. The quietest time of the year I have been out but thoroughly enjoyable. I met a couple of English guys at El Fondo who pointed out Bonellis Eagle among the many many Harriers over the marshes. I also made Glossy Ibis there (flocks making up to around 50 birds) and Bluethroat, several of which were posing by the small pond at the visitors centre. The only other new bird for me elsewhere was Ruff. Another highlight was a Dolphin at Cabo de Palos.. all in all.. great stuff in all the places I visited. Back in February :-)

    1. Yes, things have been pretty quiet of late. Still, you enjoyed yourself - the main thing.