We’ve waited a while, but Jem and I finally got round to our first big holiday of the year: a week of guided birding in Andalucía with Peter Jones.
We arrived at Malaga Airport on the Sunday morning, met the rest of the group, and went straight off for a quick tapas lunch before the first birding stop: a rocky clifftop near Cañete La Real with several dozen Griffon Vultures swirling around, plus distant view of a Black Wheatear. As we drove away we stopped briefly near Serrato to watch a Montagu’s Harrier. After everyone else had got back into the minibus, whilst I was still trying to grab photos, Peter pointed out a flock of Corn Buntings, and a nearby singing Zitting Cisticola (aka Fan-tailed Warbler). We also stopped briefly to look for Bonelli’s Eagles. We didn’t see any, but we did get good views of some rare Spanish Ibex. We then arrived in El Burgo, our home for the first night, and Jem and I explored the nearby river. We found White Feathertail and Copper Demoiselle damselflies, a Water Vole, Grey Wagtail, Sparrowhawk and Spotted Flycatchers. After dinner, Jem and I went out for a walk to look to see if we could find any Scops Owls, but we got bats and geckos instead.
Monday saw us driving west towards the Doñana National Park. We stopped firstly in a valley for brief views of an Iberian Grey Shrike, Sardinian Warblers, Rock Buntings, a Peregrine, Common Rock Thrush and Blue Rock Thrush, although I didn’t manage to see the Blue Rock Thrush myself as I was busy trying to get a photo of the shrike (I failed). We then stopped near Ronda for a large flock of Rock Sparrows on telegraph wires, two more Iberian Grey Shrikes on a distant tree (which were seen off by a Kestrel), and some Greater Short-toed Larks. There was also a nice juvenile Lesser Kestrel on a wire near Montecorto, before we made our way to the picturesque mountainside village of Zahara for a morning coffee and to watch more Griffon Vultures and a nice Booted Eagle. I was pretty sure I saw an Egyptian Vulture just before we arrived there, but nobody else was able to confirm. Near to El Coronil we stopped for more Griffon Vultures and some Ravens before lunch. After lunch we traveled through to Doñana via the Dehesa de Abajo. We stopped for a Spotted Flycatcher on a fence, plus the incredible wetland spectacle of hundreds of White Stork, Glossy Ibis, Greater Flamingo, Black-crowned Night Heron, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Hoopoe and various waders, including a Kentish Plover, not to mention thousands of dragonflies. We eventually made it to the bizarre, sand-carpeted town of El Rocío which would be our base for the next two nights.
Tuesday saw us drive to the Marismas del Odiel – the Odiel Estuary at Huelva – to meet with Manu Mojarro who guided us around the various salt pans and pools. Lots of waders, some Marsh Harriers and Ospreys were on view, along with Black-necked Grebes, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls, Caspian Terns, Crested Tits, and some skulking Stone-curlews. There were also a couple of Dartford Warblers in a bush right in front of the minibus, but being sat at the back I couldn’t really see them – which was a huge shame as that’s a species I’ve wanted to find since I was a little kid and still haven’t managed to get a look at. In an ideal world we’d have done some walking here, maybe along one of the causeways between the pools, but the schedule of the trip meant there was virtually no walking done during the week. I’ve found that walking away from the minibus for a while usually gives better opportunities for photography – especially for the smaller birds – but I had to remind myself that this was a birding holiday, not a photography tour. In any case, the Stone-curlews made up for missing the Dartford Warblers. Jem and I also saw the tour’s only Purple Heron, but everyone else was looking out the other side of the bus. After lunch we returned to the Doñana National Park to feed the Iberian Azure-winged Magpies by the visitor centre, and we also saw our first Woodchat Shrikes by the side of the road on the way back to El Rocío. We found more geckos in the sandy streets after dinner and a tree that was filled with bats.
Wednesday was a day of driving as we made our way across to the Huerta Grande resort near Tarifa where we would be staying for the rest of the week. On the way we stopped at Dehesa de Abajo again where Jem and I saw the trip’s first Kingfisher, plus our first Squacco Herons, amongst the hundreds of Storks, Flamingos, Ibis and waders. There were also Gull-billed Terns. On the main part of the drive we saw brief views of a rare Long-legged Buzzard and four of us saw an immense raptor which we think was most likely a Spanish Imperial Eagle. We had lunch and a quick wetland-birding break at Barbate before continuing our drive to the hills around Tarifa. We stopped a few times for raptor-watching, especially for a juvenile Short-toed Eagle on a pylon, Marsh Harriers, Black Kites, and more Short-toed and Booted Eagles attempting to fight the coastal wind. After arriving at our lodgings Jem and I watched and photographed the raptors migrating overhead (one of which turned out to be our best view of a Bonelli’s Eagle), checked out various insects, plus a great view of an obliging Spotted Flycatcher in the woods (I’d never managed to photograph one before this trip).
Thursday saw us drive out to the wet fields near Tahivilla where we saw more hunting harriers, Yellow Wagtails, a very distant Bonelli’s Eagle, a solitary Bee-eater alongside a Black-eared Wheatear. After that we went to see more close-up Griffon Vultures – including a chick – near Bolonia. During lunch we watched hundreds of overhead raptors including Egyptian Vultures, plus lots of Black Storks. The strong winds in the afternoon meant we got to watch the strange sight of hundreds of raptors trying to migrate across the Strait to Morocco, only to be forced back inland. From various clifftop viewpoints we saw Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Black Kites, Honey Buzzards, Kestrels, a Sparrowhawk and a Hoopoe before returning to our lodgings for the afternoon. Jem and tried out the pool (where we rescued a dragonfly with a missing wing from drowning) and after dinner called to a male Tawny Owl that was a regular (audible-only) neighbour.
Stupidly, I went out on Friday morning without my tripod – which rendered my camera with 500mm lens attached almost useless. We spent the morning around the Castellar area where we saw Monarch butterflies by the river and then we watched more raptors from the village at the top of the hill. After lunch we went out in damper conditions to the valleys between Tarifa and Barbate to look for Dartford and Subalpine Warblers. We found neither, but there were possible tantalising rustles in bushes that could’ve been what we were looking for. The drive back saw us find a good flock of Bee-eaters, a Whinchat, Turtle Doves, and a Little Owl in a derelict building. The funny thing was, as we drove past it at a reasonable speed, I was just about to say to Jem that it looked like the kind of place where you’d find a Little Owl. A few seconds later the minibus stopped and reversed because Peter had seen one! It was perched quite boldly on an exposed girder. After we got back to Huerta Grande for a post-birding drink, the resort’s host asked Jem and I if we wanted to see a very rare carnivorous plant. After we said yes we were – disturbingly – bundled into a van full of Germans and taken up a mountain! We saw the plant, but then they took us further up to the top, seeing a few ferns and rhododendrons on the way, before stopping in a forest in the cold, damp clouds where we found blue-winged grasshoppers and wild mint. We finally made it back after more than two hours away from the lodge having missed our pre-dinner meeting with the rest of our group. It was just nice to get back alive. The lodges also brought us Iberian Chiffchaffs in the bushes outside our bedroom.
Our final full day saw a morning trip (seeing Calandra Larks on the way) back to Barbate where we watched waders, Caspian Terns and Ospreys at the wetlands and after our morning coffee in the town we returned to the wet fields where we’d seen our first Bee-eater on Wednesday. The usual harriers were around, and our solitary Bee-eater was still there on the same telegraph wire. We got out of the minibus for a few minutes to look at waders (I missed the Jack Snipe, which would’ve also been a first for me), but after everyone apart from Peter and I had got back onto the bus, I saw an interesting wader with a bronze underwing float past and land on a mud track. I pointed it out to Peter and he excitedly identified it as a young Collared Pratincole, which then got everyone back off the bus. Soon after that we got fairly distant views of a Spanish Imperial Eagle – which certainly looked very much like the huge raptor that four of us had seen earlier in the week – and after lunch we returned to the cliffs near Tarifa to watch the raptors struggling against the wind again. An ocean-going Cory’s Shearwater was seen along with Red-legged Partridges and a showy male Stonechat, and after we got back to Huerta Grande, a brief Goshawk flew low over us too.
It was a very early start on the Sunday as we all had different flights back from Malaga. Jem and I had a few hours to spare so we were dropped at one of the stations and walked down to the beach. I’m rubbish at identifying gulls so I don’t know what we saw there, but we did see lots of feral Monk Parakeets in the nearby park, bringing my own list of new ticks up to 37 for the week (and 391 in total).
So that concludes the story of our week in Andalucia. If I were being hyper-critical I would’ve have preferred to do a few proper walks, but the schedule didn’t really allow for that (I didn’t realise how vast Spain is and how long it takes to get from location to location). Also the evening meals gave very little choice. I’m a fussy eater so I like to have a bit of choice where possible. As we were paying customers I don’t think it’s fair that we should just be given food and expected to like it. Aside from those minor gripes, it was an incredible trip. We saw an amazing number of species in total (148 species of bird for me alone), Peter turned out to be a great guide, and great fun too. Usually on the birding trips I’ve been on there has been somebody moaning throughout, or just being difficult or irritating, but there was none of that here. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and a huge amount was fitted into the week. I’d definitely recommend it.