We Visit Spain On Our Big Birding Adventure Way Back In 2008 Great Memories

Black Vulture April 2016 1

Huge Cinereous or Black Vultures were one of the first birds we enjoyed in Spain.

26th March 2008. After an overnight at a Travel Lodge near Gatwick Airport, London, we were soon back on a plane taking the relatively short flight down to Madrid, Spain. We were really looking forward to this leg as we both love Spain; Ruth even worked in Madrid for Save the Children briefly and I have birded here many times. As we know Spain very well we were doing it by ourselves: no guides, just birding on our own. After the whirlwind start to The Biggest Twitch we were thinking this would also give us a little recovery time as the number of new species possible was relatively low compared to the countries we had already birded in. We also know the species and most of the sites very well so it would be easy to rack up the wonderful birds we hoped to enjoy.

Our plane touched down in the warmth of a Spanish spring and a cobalt blue sky stretched forever, great. The new airport at Madrid is vast and rather ugly, all metal and glass, high ceilings and you feel very small as you find your way through the huge arrivals hall. You take a train to the baggage claim area and then wait for the bags to eventually appear. Bags collected, we trekked over to the hire car desks and found Hertz. They quickly found our booking and processed all the paperwork and we were sent off to the garage area to pick up our car. It was a long walk and we were glad when the Hertz signs appeared amongst the concrete pillars of the under-ground parking lot. The Hertz man showed us to our car. Immediately we could see it was damaged. A large dent right in the centre of the bonnet looked as though someone had landed on it in a recent crash! Closer inspection showed lots more damage. The wings were scraped, tyres damaged, wheels dented and so it went on. No way were we taking this car out on the Spanish roads in this state. The man on site could not help and suggested we return to the desk back in the airport. We trudged all the way back and told the tale of the damaged car. The first answer was,

“We have no more cars you will have to take that one”.

No way were we taking that wreck, and when we insisted that we would not take it, they miraculously found us another car. This one was rather different. It was BMW 118d, a very sporty model and brand-new and in immaculate condition! What a contrast! We immediately saw a problem; the ground clearance was almost non-existent. We knew we would be birding along dirt tracks and this car would struggle to do it. Explaining this to Mr Hertz, we were met with blank looks and we were told it was the BMW or nothing. We had already lost two hours of the day so we resigned ourselves to making the most of our shiny sports-car. Wel,l the luggage just about fitted in the tiny boot, a good job we travelled light. Then we had to start the thing! No key. How does this work? We eventually realised that the key-fob slips into a hole in the dashboard and then we had to push the button labelled ‘Start’. Easy when you know how! As we moved forward we nearly shot forward into the line of parked cars opposite, the clutch was vicious. This, remember, was the first time I had driven since back in early January in Arizona, and then it was a Jeep Cherokee. This was very different, an animal of a sports-car that was pulling at the leash and ready to go, fast. I dipped the clutch and the engine promptly cut out. Great! This was turning into a nightmare. What was wrong? I let the clutch up and the engine kicked in again, weird! Clutch down, engine off; clutch up and a roar as the engine cut in again. Never driven a car like this before.

This was not the first time I had had hire-car problems in Spain. On my second ever trip abroad I had flown to Malaga, then drove the not inconsiderable distance to the Coto Donana National Park in the south-west. I was with a non-birding partner at the time, whom I’d convinced to join me on a lovely holiday relaxing in the sun. Of course it was my plan to bird Donana and see loads of new birds! As it happened, it went reasonably well, at least from my point of view with lots of great birds. That was, until our final morning. An early start was called for if we were to get back in time for the afternoon flight. The car was packed, we jumped in, turned the key, and nothing! Tried again, dead. Great, now what? I figured it could be a flat battery so managed to persuaded a fat local van driver to tow me to bump start it. We picked up speed and I let out the clutch with the car in second gear, usually the way to bump start a car. Well, it didn’t start but a large cloud of white smoke did come from the exhaust. It didn’t look good. Now what? I phoned the hire company but no-one could speak English. Well, that wasn’t not quite true, he did know one English phrase: “Your problem!” Well, it wasn’t my problem, so I told him that I was leaving the car outside the hotel and it was now his problem! Slamming the phone down, I felt better for a moment. Then it sank in that we were hundreds of miles from the airport with no car.

Taxi, that’s the answer, but how much would it cost? We didn’t have many options and the clock was ticking. Luckily we quickly found a taxi driver who would take us all the way back to Malaga but he wanted £300! A huge amount of money but he would not budge on the price, he knew desperate when he saw it. So off we went. The driver made good time and it looked like we might make our flight. About fifty miles from the airport as we climbed up a steep hill a cloud of steam exploded from the engine and the car stopped. Opening the bonnet more steam escaped and it was obvious something was very wrong. We had passed a garage at the bottom of the hill so we managed to man-handle the car around and rolled down the hill to the garage. A radiator hose had split badly and they did not have a replacement.

What to do now? Our plane took off in only one hour! The taxi driver realised our predicament and jumped out into the road to flag down a passing car. After an animated conversation, none of which we understood, he motioned we should get in the car. No time to argue, we were off again! Whatever the taxi driver had told this guy it worked, he drove like a man possessed and delivered us to the airport only a few minutes late for our flight. Amazingly the flight had been delayed so we made it on board and headed for home, whew!

Back to Madrid 2008, and we left the airport and joined the busy motorway. The BMW was a beast to drive; it wanted to go, and go very fast. The visibility was shockingly bad, the back window was like a letter box, and we were so low to the ground that we felt we were on a rocket-powered skate board! This was horrible and felt very dangerous, plus the fact we were trying to navigate around a very busy city. Stress levels rocketed, and this was a leg of the trip we had hoped to find a bit more relaxing! Amazingly, Ruth navigated us smoothly through the chaos of the Madrid traffic and I guided the BMW south-west towards Extremadura. By now I had the measure of the rocket car and was beginning to really enjoy driving it. It stuck to the road like a squashed squirrel, roared like a lion when you put your foot down and purred like a contented tiger in the fast lane of the motorway. This is the life! Jeremy Clarkson eat your heart out! Now that we had done the hard part, we could start to relax and enjoy the drive down to Trujillo, our base for the next few days. Even though we were blasting down a motorway, we still saw some great birds. Montagu’s Harriers drifted majestically over bright yellow oilseed rape fields; three huge Cinereous Vultures soared against the blue sky, and we craned our necks to enjoy these vast birds. Driving was dangerous with such distractions!

We reached Trujillo in good time and quickly found our accommodation just south of the town. We had booked into a small family-run place called Casa Rural El Recuerdo in the village of San Clemente. A lovely place, an old farm converted into beautiful accommodation retaining the historic features such as the vaulted ceilings and a roaring log fire, it was a perfect base for our birding. Martin and Claudia Kelsey run the Casa and provided a really warm welcome and more importantly, it was soon obvious that Martin was a good birder with a wealth of local knowledge.

Azure winged Magpie March 2015 1

Azure-winged Magpies, now known as Iberian Magpie, were seen in the village.

We enjoyed a welcome drink and then headed out to find some birds in what little light remained. Even before we were out of the tiny village, we added the spectacular Azure-winged Magpie to our year list. We then headed into Trujillo and made straight for the bull ring, a site I knew had birds we needed. It’s perhaps not the most obvious place to begin our birding but the semi-derelict roof of the bull ring makes an ideal nesting spot for Lesser Kestrels. We only had to wait a minute or so before one flew in and landed on the broken red tiled roof. A lovely male with powder-grey head and chestnut mantle, he sat and peered down at us, unafraid, and we soaked up the views. Raucous calls drew our attention to another new bird. A party of Spotless Starlings had landed on nearby television aerials and were calling as more birds flew in to join them. Glossy purple-black in the last of the evening sun, these wild-crested birds flew onto the roof and climbed inside for the night. We called it a day too and headed back, but as we did, a gorgeous Red Kite soared low over the road. What a stunning bird, surely one of the best raptors any where in the world? The fox-red tail showed off wonderfully in the dying glow of the sunset, a fitting end to a long day. We felt we were in for a great time in Spain.

Back at the Casa, Martin and Claudia looked after us very well; drinks were followed by a lovely meal featuring vegetables from their own garden. Martin looked over our wish list of Spanish birds and was sure we could find most of them with his expert knowledge. The map was spread out and we talked birds.

Calandra Lark

Calandra Larks have a wonderful song and the plains were just full of lark song, beautiful.

27th March 2008. We drove west from Trujillo in the dark and took a narrow road north. On reaching a dirt track off to our right, we parked and waited for the first signs of dawn. It was cold, surprisingly cold and we left the car heater running for a while. As the first glimmers of light crept across the vast eastern horizon, we killed the engine and immediately heard birdsong. Skylarks were belting out sweet music across the vast rolling grass plain. The sound made the hair on the back of our necks stand on end with excited anticipation of the birding to come. This was a wild big place with undulating tilled fields stretched out in all directions like a rucked-up carpet. This place was full of birds and we had it all to ourselves to explore, just the two of us and the larks under a vast sky amongst carpets of glorious wild flowers. Stepping from our cocoon of warmth, we were hit by the chill of the dawn air and a biting wind, and we wished we had put on more clothes. A bird flew from the ground, flapping fast and rising almost vertically into the cold air, the black under-wing with white trailing edge gave away the identity, a Calandra Lark. A big cousin of the familiar Skylarks, this was new for our list and we watched spellbound as it rose in front of us singing at full volume. As the light improved, we began to see many Calandra Larks flying low over the grassland then pitching into the flowers, where only an inquisitive head could be seen looking from side to side. Other heads popped up amongst the flowers, but these weren’t larks. Long thin necks and stout bills gave away Little Bustards hiding in the grass. Five heads in a row looked back at us, and then, like a family of submarines they pulled down their periscopes one-by-one and vanished in the sea of flowers. This was another new bird and we wanted a better look. They must have heard our plea as a flock of forty Little Bustards came over the horizon and swept right past us, down a shallow valley and then dropped in to land, wow! We walked further along the rutted dirt track trying to shelter from the freezing wind by keeping close to a low stone wall. Two enormous birds were suddenly flying towards us. Only one thing that big out here: Great Bustards! Monster birds, how could they get their enormous bulk airborne? Looking at the huge effort put into each wing-beat, it was obviously not easy! These wonderful hulking brutes flapped past us and we stood open-mouthed in awe as they continued over the ridge out of sight. What a start to our day: both species of bustard and Calandra Lark on our list and it was only just getting light!

We continued down the track and at the end we peeped over the wall to see a flock of thirty-three Great Bustards strutting around a huge open field, Amazing! We quietly set up the scope and feasted our eyes on these magnificent birds. The males are just enormous, like turkeys with long legs and thick, long necks. Chestnut brown above, buff white below, white necks with orange-chestnut on the hind-neck, pale grey head, black eyes and a short stout bill all finished off with a bizarre white moustache that has been combed back either side of the head. The tail is fan-shaped, again rather like a turkey. But there is even more to these birds at this time of year. In early spring, the males are displaying. You would think that looking like they do, they wouldn’t need to display: they are very impressive just standing in a field, but they do, and very spectacularly at that. As we watched, one of the males began to puff his feathers out and right before our eyes he transformed himself from a largely brown bird into a massive white powder-puff! He literally turned his feathers inside-out so the white underside showed off to the females. It was a spectacular show, and if we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes, we wouldn’t have believed it. These are truly remarkable, fascinating and enthralling birds, and we felt privileged to have witnessed this display on the vast rolling Spanish steppes. We just hoped the female bustards were as impressed as we were, so that these creatures can continue to thrive here.

We crept away leaving the Great Bustards undisturbed to carry on their weird displays. Suddenly, one, then two more, Black-bellied Sandgrouse hurtled across the sky like some jet-propelled chickens that were late for a very important date. We made our back to the car serenaded all the way by larks and seeing more Little Bustards while Corn Buntings jangled their songs from every fence wire. What a wonderful place.

We shivered in the car until the heater kicked in and we slowly thawed out. That wind had been cruel, but what a stunning experience to be out at dawn in this spectacular landscape. A short drive north brought us to the brow of a small hill and gave us a commanding view across the rolling grasslands. We parked and scanned from the car. A fine male Montagu’s Harrier drifted past like a child’s balsawood model. It looked so light and graceful, the black markings on the wing-tips forming a wedge, a grey body with barred tail. What a beauty.

Then we heard a call. At first it was distant and hard to make out, then clearer: “Gawk, Gawk”. Sandgrouse! Pintailed Sandgrouse this time, and we needed to see them. We scanned the vast sky. The calls came again, closer now and more of them, panic, where are they? Then they were right above us! Perhaps forty of these scarce nomadic birds swept across the sky at high speed. We willed them to turn and they did! They circled twice, all the time calling loudly and catching the faint early morning sun as they banked first one way then the other. Sadly, they didn’t land in view but what an encounter, magic stuff and we were left breathless and elated. The Sandgrouse family is one of my favourites, and we had just seen two species in less than an hour.

We birded the minor roads that cross this huge steppe and enjoyed more wonderful views of Montagu’s Harriers and Calandra Larks. At a small narrow sheltered valley with a tumbling stream we took advantage of being out of the wind and walked alongside the bubbling water. It was still cold and we donned hats and gloves for our stroll. Two bulky finches flew across the small valley and we recognised those round wings, short-tail and bull necks: these were Hawfinches. Luckily one of these large-billed birds landed in view and we soon had it in the scope, a great-looking bird with a massive pale-blue bill that can crush a cherry-stone! The beautiful sound of a singing Woodlark came from above us and we spotted this small lark as a tiny dot against the sky. A European Cuckoo swept past calling its name as it disappeared down the valley. A Green Sandpiper flew from the water calling loudly and Crag Martins hawked low over the stream. No matter how hard we searched though there was no sign of a Cirl Bunting or Rock Sparrow, two species that we had found easily in this area on previous visits. Another bird we were missing was Little Owl, usually a common resident here.

We did pick up a large raptor flying head-on towards us though. It looked interesting, and we kept watching. Luckily it turned and soared, giving us good views of both upper and under sides. A Spanish Imperial Eagle, a lovely marked adult! We were thrilled to see this rare endemic on only our second day in Spain. All too soon it drifted off out of sight behind the ridge, and we punched the air in celebration!

Sadly all our April tours to Spain, three of them, have all been cancelled due to the virus but we hope to back in this beautiful bird rich region of Spain in 2021 and hopefully some of you will be with us. We do really hope so.

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