Monday, 24 February 2014

A day out at El Hondo

On Saturday, 22nd February, together with Mick Brewer, I went out of the region of Murcia for my first visit of the year to the ‘El Hondo’ reserve which is inland from Santa Pola in the neighbouring province of Alicante.  This has to be one of the best organised reserves in the east of Spain, although due to budget cuts, the information centre is now closed on Saturdays!  This doesn’t stop the ornithological trail from being open from 9-30 am until 12-30 (in fact it’s now ONLY open on Saturdays, and it is necessary to pre-book a visit to this trail).

Arriving at just after 9, there was already quite a queue of cars waiting to go in, and we actually went in at 9-10, heading directly for the large raised hide at the end of the trail.  From here it is possible to see two lagoons, one to the west of the hide and the other to the east. However, viewing the lagoon to the east (which invariably has the most birds on it), you are always looking into the sun and so virtually everything is in silhouette.  The light for the view to the western lagoon is perfect, but the only birds on the water there today were many Coots, and a few Little Grebes which were trilling away to form pairs.  At the edge of the reeds around the lagoon we had a couple of Great White Egrets fly over, and singing from the reeds I could hear at least two Moustached Warblers (the advantage of going to El Hondo at this time of the year is that the Reed Warblers have not arrived yet, and so the birds that sound like Reed Warblers are invariably Moustached Warblers).  They took some searching for, as they often sing from the bases of the reeds, but being in the hide which is on legs (and so about 4 metres above ground level) eventually we managed to get good views of one through the ‘scope.  In the same area of reeds I could also hear some Penduline Tits – it’s amazing how well they blend in considering their bright colours – but again with some prolonged searching we managed to see at least 3 birds.

 The Booted Eagle sat in a tree for quite a while

 View from the hide looking west.  In the reeds we had Moustached Warbler and Penduline Tits

 The raised hide at the end of the trail

We had Chiffchaffs singing all the time, and Cetti’s Warblers and Water Rails occasionally added to the sounds.  Perched in one of the dead trees we had a Booted Eagle for about 15 minutes and on an electricity pylon, a Common Buzzard perched with another flying around.  Over the reeds there always seemed to be at least one Marsh Harrier in the air, and we also had a flock of about 50 Glossy Ibises fly past, and small flock of six Common Snipe. A couple of times we had a falcon zoom by that wasn’t a Kestrel or Peregrine, which we eventually decided was a Merlin, but the highlight from that hide was seeing distantly towards the south end of the line of eucalyptus trees, two Spotted Eagles one of which was attacking the other (whether just in play or seriously we don’t know).  We saw these on and off over about 20 minutes.

At about 11-15 we left that hide, as we still had some other hides to look from, and going back to the first hide along the trail, we were lucky enough to see a third much closer Spotted Eagle, this one an adult, which was being mobbed firstly by three Grey Herons, and then later by a Marsh Harrier.  From the first hide we could see a lot of duck (mainly Teal, Shoveler, Shelduck and Mallard), a few Lapwing and a largish group of around 50 Black-tailed Godwits, a Ruff, Green Sandpiper plus some other smaller waders (probably Dunlin), but by this time of the morning the heat haze was such that it was almost impossible to see these birds clearly to identify them.  We could also see some of the Glossy Ibises there.

 Adult Spotted Eagle ...
 ... attacked first by three Grey Herons ...

 ... and then by a Marsh Harrier

View to the south, where all the waders were to be seen

Leaving the ornithological trail at 12-30, we went round to the information centre for a sandwich lunch.  Here there are picnic table set out under a shaded area, next to which is a small lagoon where there are always Moorhens, Coots, Purple Gallinules and Little Grebes, and some introduced Crested Coots.  Flying over this lagoon were good numbers of Crag and House Martins, and a few Swallows.

 At the pool by the picnic area, one of the introduced Crested Coots

From here we took a walk along the boardwalk area with views over the reedbeds, and then a look from the two ‘VOLCAM’ hides, but by this time of day things were pretty quiet (although we did have another distant view of one of the Spotted Eagles). On one of the lagoons there was nothing but Coots and Little Grebes, but on the other were good numbers of Pochard and around 15 Tufted Ducks – quite a large number for this species.

Views from the 'VOLCAM' hides

We decided to finish the day round the other (south-eastern) side of the reserve, along what is known as the ‘Vistabella Road’, but going past the rubbish tip near to the north gate, we saw a large number of gulls flying around, so we decided to investigate (we’d already been there once, but the tip wasn’t working and there didn’t seem to be any birds there at all).  From a small raised bank we could look into the tip works area where there were hundreds of gulls, mainly Black-headed but also a few Mediterranean and Yellow-legged. Also there were masses of Cattle Egrets and a few Jackdaws.

 At the rubbish tip, there were plenty of gulls - mainly Black-headed, but Mediterraneans as well ...

 ... and large numbers of Cattle Egrets

But the commonest gulls were Black-headed

Round at the south side of the reserve, we had more Marsh Harriers and Booted Eagles flying around, and we found the new hide that has been put up – and what a great hide it is!  About 150 metres into the reserve, it has panoramic views over water, reedbeds and a little bit of marshy edge.  We spent the rest of our time there just watching and waiting – here we had a large flock of gulls (Black-headed and Mediterranean) on the water, plus more Pochard, and Tufted Ducks, and some Red Crested Pochards (males and females).  We had Little Grebes trilling all the time, and a single Great Crested Grebe asleep on the lagoon, at least four Great White Egrets and a Purple Gallinule, many Cormorants on posts and the best bird from there, an Osprey which was also perched on a post all the time we were there.  And there seemed to be a flock of around 100 Glossy Ibises which just didn’t know where to settle – they must have flown over at least six times, to and fro.

 Part of the group of Glossy Ibises that kept flying around

 Marsh Harriers were with us all day long

 The Ibises did some pretty close flypasts ...
 ... as did this group of Cattle Egrets

 One minute one way, the next minute another ...

 ... the Ibises just couldn't make up their minds where they wanted to go

Also seen and heard all day, Little Grebes

This Osprey spent all the time we were there, on this post ...

 ... although the majority of birds on posts were Cormorants

 The hide where we spent a few hours in the afternoon

All too soon, it was time to set off for home, so after a quick look at some of the nearby fields for Common Crane (one of the few birds we DIDN’T see) it was back onto the motorway and home.

Bird species seen/heard during the day:

Little Grebe; Great Crested Grebe; Black Necked Grebe; Cormorant; Cattle Egret; Little Egret; Great White Egret; Grey Heron; Glossy Ibis; Greater Flamingo; Shelduck; Mallard; Shoveler; Teal; Red Crested Pochard; Pochard; Tufted Duck; White-headed Duck; Marsh Harrier; Common Buzzard; Golden Eagle; Spotted Eagle; Booted Eagle; Osprey; Kestrel; Merlin; Red-legged Partridge; Water Rail; Purple Gallinule; Moorhen; Coot; Crested Coot; Black Winged Stilt; Avocet; Lapwing; Ruff; CommonSnipe; Black-tailed Godwit; Redshank; Greenshank; Green Sandpiper; Mediterranean Gull; Black-headed Gull; Yellow-legged Gull; Woodpigeon; Collared Dove; Kingfisher; Hoopoe; Crested Lark; Swallow; House Martin; Crag Martin; Meadow Pipit; White Wagtail; Stonechat; Blackbird; Cetti’s Warbler; Moustached Warbler; Sardinian Warbler; Fan-tailed Warbler; Chiffchaff; Penduline Tit; Southern Grey Shrike; Magpie; Jackdaw; Spotless Starling; House Sparrow; Reed Bunting.


  1. Thanks for the update of your trips Richard. I went up to the top of Sierra Espuna on Sunday but it was very quiet. I have another ring for you. It was on a first year Slender billed gull, white band, black letters read from bottom to top on the left leg. the code is NFP. Birds are starting to get in the mood at last, it must be spring. My project this year is to get photos of birds in action, not just portraits. We will see. Looking forward to your next post. Geoff.

    1. Hi Geoff,
      Can you let me know WHERE and WHEN you saw the Slender-billed Gull?
      Good luck with the action shots!

    2. Hi Richard, Sunday afternoon 25th. San pedro salinas, There were quite a few feeding in the frothy margins on the right just were the road bends right and there are cars parked on the left.

    3. Richard could you tell me , are Eagle Owls migratory.I have seen them on the road from Torremendo to San Miguel in the summer and I know that we have one of the largest populations in Spain in our area.

    4. Hi Geoff, sorry to go on about this but the details have to be right! When you say Sunday 25th, do you mean Sunday 23rd or Tuesday 25th?
      Re the Eagle Owls, they aren't migratory, but I would expect there would be more around in the summer as the young would have recently come out of their nests, and so presumably would be on post-breeding dispersal.

    5. Sorry Richard it was Sunday the 23rd. I have been off work for 2 weeks and have lost track of which day it is just like most of the pensioners who live our village. I s a taste of things to come when i am retired. Thanks for the info on the owls.

    6. Hi Geoff, the bird you saw was ringed on the 26th June 2013 as a pullus (nestling still unable to fly) at Pinet, Alicante (Santa Pola salinas), and yours was the first sighting after ringing.

  2. Thanks, thats very interesting. I promise I will take a lot more care with the details of any other sightings in the future.