Having heard last week that a Sociable Plover (Vanellus gregarious) had been found in amongst a flock of Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) in fields by the El Hondo (or El Fondo if you prefer) park at Elche, Alicante, about an hours’ drive for me from home, I thought I’d go and have a look. It’s many a long year since I’ve seen a Sociable and they are such attractive waders to see, plus the weather of late here has been very mild with cloudless warm days, and El Hondo is no bad place to go for a morning or afternoon’s birding.
So last Tuesday (3rd November) saw me up early and arriving at El Hondo South Gate just after 9am. Well I spent 4 ½ hours up there hunting around the fields, but the nearest I got was a group of 4 Lapwings in a wet field with a mass of other waders, such as Dunlin, Little Stints, Wood Sandpipers, but certainly no Sociable. In fact things seemed to be pretty quiet in general – of course there were the ‘normal’ birds – Booted Eagles, Marsh Harriers, a Squacco Heron, Bluethroats, Penduline Tits calling, but what caught my eye more than anything else were the Plain Tiger butterflies. They seemed to be everywhere I looked, appearing to fly quite slowly but in actual fact they are deceptively fast. As I say, I spent the morning there but decided to come back home for lunch.
Common at this time of year - Plain Tiger
My next (unscheduled) trip up there was on Saturday (7th November) after I received a call on Friday evening from Tomás Garcia to say that he was going up there the following day with Antonio Hernandez and did I want to go with. In the end I agreed to meet them up there as I wanted the freedom of my own transport, and I arrived there at 7-45 on a very foggy morning. Meeting up with Tomás, Antonio and Antonio’s son Sergio, we spent a fair amount of time waiting for the fog to lift, around the south gate where we were entertained by a Squacco Heron and several Cattle and Little Egrets, and by Kingfishers which were shooting back and forth across the road, and watching a male Merlin trying to take a Hoopoe but without success. The Hoopoe was one of three we saw by the abandoned house there. Slowly but surely the fog lifted and we were able to start searching in earnest. But much as we tried, there was once again no sign of any Lapwings. After covering all the fields on the South (East) side of the reserve, I suggested we split up - we did after all have telephone contact, and splitting up we would be able to cover more ground. I worked my way around fields more towards Dolores, and then came back to the information centre for a walk around the hides there, but again no luck. I did however have a Black Stork fly over me which partially made up for me missing the Spotted Eagle that the others had been watching just a few minutes earlier. I also had another Merlin (this time a female) sat in one of the fields, and then after rejoining the others and having lunch nearby (in a newly found restaurant during my explorations), I found a single Common Crane in a field which we all saw. But the Lapwings were eluding us! Towards the end of the afternoon, back in the visitors centre area, we saw a large raptor, presumably Spotted Eagle, and then to round the day off as it was getting towards dusk, a few thousand Greater Flamingos came in from Santa Pola and we had a couple of small flocks (22 and 25) of Glossy Ibises go past, and three late ‘flava’ Wagtails flew over.
Raptor not being put off by the fog!
Squacco Heron that kept us amused while waiting for the fog to clear
On a walk around the information centre area, this Black Stork flew over
At the information centre pond, this Red Crested Pochard was keeping busy ...
... while this Purple Gallinule was on the prowl
A common sight in the autumn, Southern Grey Shrike
Of late when I’ve been looking for birds at El Hondo, it seems to be a case of ‘third time lucky’ (I remember it being so with the Ring-necked Duck last winter), so I hadn’t COMPLETELY lost heart in my search for the Sociable Plover. In fact I was quite enjoying exploring different places around the reserve, and so when I found myself with nothing planned this last Tuesday (10th November), guess where I went! I took it a bit more leisurely though, not arriving there till 10:50, by which time the early morning mist/fog which has been prevalent of late, had burnt off. Starting with a couple of Common Buzzards, and then finding a Common Crane in a field which promptly decided to take off, I decided it was going to be my day. Over the lagoons inside the reserve, a couple of pale morph Booted Eagles were circling together with a Marsh Harrier, but wait, what was this closer but much bigger raptor circling around – only one of the Spotted Eagles!
Feeling pretty lonely, this Common Crane ...
... it soon decided to get off and look for company
Immature Spotted Eagle that circled over the car
Every so often you can get to see Black-necked Grebe ...
... and its cousin, the Little Grebe
Around the fringes of the reserve are plenty of Stonechat - very common lately
The morning soon went, and I had a spot of lunch in the same place as my previous visit, and in the afternoon decided to have a look at the Salinas at El Pinet, over by La Marina, which I’d found out was surprisingly close during some of my explorations. Well I must admit that the Salinas were a little disappointing, just about 80 Dunlin, some Black-winged Stilts, Little Stints, a couple of Redshank and half a dozen Greater Flamingos.
At El Pinet there were plenty of Dunlin, but little else
As I was so close, I decided to go up from there to the Salinas of Santa Pola, but in the few parking places there were very few birds visible and the traffic was mad, so I decided to get myself back to El Hondo, around the Vistabella road. The sun was by now starting to get low in the sky, so time for another hunt around the fields to see if any Lapwings had dropped in.
No Lapwings yet, but this Painted Lady was taking in the last rays of sunlight
An hour or so later, with the sun dropping and the female mosquitoes getting their jaws into practice (and I’m not talking about talking!), and I must admit, I was beginning to get a little disheartened. This is it, I thought, another blank. Time to go home. And that’s when it all happened. Driving along the Vistabella road, I went past a car that must have registered in my brain – and at the same time I noticed that at the bottom of the field where it was stopped, there was a mass of birds. So a very rapid ‘U’ turn and I pulled up next to the car, only to see a friend I haven’t seen for ages, get out of it – Pablo Perales, local to this parish! And the birds at the bottom of the field, about 200 of them were all Lapwings except for two. One of the two was a Golden Plover, but the other had a white ‘V’ round the back of the neck and a dark cap, had no crest and was running around in a most Sociable way.
Last knockings on my third visit and there it was, Sociable Plover!!! Boy, was I happy! I spent half an hour or so watching the birds, and the Pablo went off to see if he could find either the Crane or the Spotted Eagle. The Lapwings, like Lapwings everywhere, were mega-skittish, and I couldn’t go any closer to watch them as there was no cover (which is probably why they were there in the first place), and all of a sudden half of the flock suddenly got up and flew off. I was still trying to work out if the Sociable was still there or not when a massive flock of Starlings (about a couple of thousand) dropped into the same field. This was too much for the remaining Lapwings and they went off too, but in a different direction to the first lot. That’s it, I thought, but at least mission accomplished. So I started making my way back slowly checking out fields as I went, as the first lot of Lapwings had gone in much the same direction as my route home.
I bumped into Pablo again, and he told me that he’d seen the Spotted Eagle distantly, and that it’d dropped into one of the trees by the South gate. He was going to have a look at it from the banked up edge of the reserve. Well as there was still enough light, I thought I’d go with, and we were soon pointing ‘scopes to the trees near the south gate. The eagle had moved from the bare tree it had originally gone into, and while we were searching it out, what should happen but a flock of Lapwings dropped into the field directly across the road from us. They were obviously intending to roost there, and hadn’t seen us as we were shielded by the road barrier and the tall reeds behind us. With the ‘scopes we could see them really well, and yes, there in among them was the Sociable again! Well we stayed there until the light and mosquitoes got too bad. I’ve found that my bridge camera takes really good video footage in low light conditions, so I was able to take a small video even though the sun had gone down. And then it really WAS time for home!
Not easy to see in the failing light, but it IS there (or at least its head is)