Sunday, 31 March 2013

Saturday 30th March - The Clayheads visit The Brecks

On Good Friday, I went out with GAS for a bit of birding in Staffordshire. We visited Aqualate and Branston, but both sites were quiet. The summer migrants hadn't arrived yet, and there were no new birds coming into the area. We didn't really see much.

PJ had suggested an Easter weekend trip, and with the prospects for Staffs looking bleak, we decided to go ahead. With the BLACK-BELLIED DIPPERS still lingering around Thetford, Norfolk, we headed down there for the day. It was the first time this year that the four of us were out on a trip. We set off at 05:00hrs, arriving just over three hours later. It was breezy and cool, and throughout the day we had frequent snow showers.

We decided to be ambitious and go for four target birds and Breckland specialities - Golden Pheasant, Stone-curlew, Goshawk and the Black-bellied Dipper.

First stop was for Golden Pheasant. We found a place to park and started to walk through the wood. We were all scanning away when in the distance I spotted a male Golden Pheasant walking through the undergrowth. I babbled out directions, but the Golden Pheasant was slowly dropping down a slope, then disappeared behind a tree and never came out again. We moved position but despite hearing it call several times, we never saw it again. First target birds are important to get the day off to a flyer, and when only one member of the group sees a bird, its not a good start.

Then it was off to Thetford for the long staying Black-bellied Dipper. PJ was also keen to catch up with the Otters that were present here. We managed to get a space in the car park as one car drove out, but the area was heaving with blokes with scopes in camouflaged coats, and blokes with massive lenses, no bins and camouflaged coats. Every little stretch of stream and every bridge had someone in position, ready and poised. PJ asked a returning long lens boy/birder if it was showing. The man gave PJ directions and off he hurtled upstream. As I tagged along behind (I'm able to keep up with him now with my new improved ticker) I discovered we were off to see the Otters first.

As I arrived at the small crowd of long lens boys, the Otter had plopped into the stream. The long lens boys then started running down stream, stopping off at various vantage points and bends. Some of them hurled themselves to the ground and lay flat, long lens poised. The Otter then popped his head up and the clicking would start. Sometimes the Otter came out on the bank showing down to a few feet, and the carefully positioned ones would get another magnificent full frame shot to go with their 400 other magnificent full frame shots. It did become a bit of a stampede as the Otter swam downstream. Digiscoping with my scope wasn't too success, but PJ with his short long lens camera did score with a frame filler. It was an incredible experience to watch an Otter at such close quarters. (CJW and myself did wonder if it was going to jump thru any hoops or balance a ball on its nose at anythime, but it didn't. We didn't even dare try the bread test!)

This was my best attempt - but it does show PJ taking the photo below

 Otter at Thetford by PJ 

Another shot by PJ as it came out on the bank opposite

The Otter eventually went onto a part of the river with no access and all the long lens boys came to a shuddering halt and ended up in a heap on the floor. We then started to try and find the long staying Black-bellied Dipper. No one who we spoke to had seen the bird yet today, but there were rumours that it had been seen earlier on, although there were no messages on any of the pagers confirming this. We wandered around, checking quite a few different spots, but with the only suitable streams being very small, narrow and with birders walking along side them, we didn't hold out much hope.

It hadn't been a succesful start to the day really. A group decision was made and we headed off to see Stone-curlew. We arrived at the site, but the weather had turned a little, and it was now dull and quite windy. At first there was no sign of any Stone-curlews (we did think it was a wee bit early for them), but with careful scanning, I soon found two birds sheltering from the wind, and this time, I managed to get everyone on them.

A Stone-curlew not showing well

At last, we all had seen something, and despite the slightly unsuitable weather, we decided to go and try for Goshawk. As we drove there, the sky went black and we had another blizzard. Fortunately, we parked up just as it stopped and we had a pleasant walk to the watchpoint. We had only been on site for a few minutes when a Goshawk, probably a male, appeared and started to circle around over one of the woods. It eventually disappeared and there was no further sign.

GAS made all the effort to walk to the Watchpoint and then someone goes and stands in front of him

Fieldcraft at its best - The Clayheads waiting for Goshawk, using the logs as camouflage to break up the outline seats

We had about an hour left before we had to head for home. We called back in to see if the Golden Pheasant had stopped hiding. Afternoons are never the best for these, but despite hearing one again, we didn't see it. We then called into Thetford again. Still full of birders/long lens boys. We parked up, asked a bloke who was putting his stuff back in the boot if the Dipper had been seen yet, but it hadn't. We called it a day and headed for home. (The Black-bellied Dipper was eventually found about 1km west of the town centre. We wondered if the volume of people in the area had pushed it out or not).

All day long we had seen muntjac wherever we went. An amazing number were seen. This one was seen feeding at the rear of the Esso Station on the A11, feeding off bits that had fallen out of the bin.

Muntjac by Phil Jones

Here is a Black-bellied Dipper I saw earlier - Back in February 2008 in Yorkshire. This was also on a narrow, slow flowing stream, but in the countryside.


Monday, 25 March 2013

Clayheads on Tour - NW Spain 15th March 2013 -The final day

It was our last day in Spain, but we didn't have to be at Zaragoza for our flight back until 11:00hrs. That gave us another chance to visit El Planeron. We didn't mess up today and we arrived at the car park  (41.36961N, 00.62882W) while it was still dark. The wind had also dropped to only 10mph!

There were three Dupont's Larks singing away while it was still pitch black, an amazing sound and experience. But as it became lighter, they sang less and less, and by 07:00hrs, the area was silent. It was too early for the Lesser Short-toed Larks and Calandra Larks to start singing. It was most strange. In fact, despite it being a far better morning than yesterday weather wise, there was far less lark activity as a whole.

Sunrise at El Planeron

Dupont's habitat

We had a wander around, seeing 23 Teal and a Lapwing on the lake, a Marsh Harrier and two Southern Grey Shrikes in the same field as yesterday. Then, as we were driving out, four Black-bellied Sandgrouse and two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew out of a field, giving us good views again.

Unfortunately, it was time to head back to get our bags. As we drove off the plains, I caught sight of a bird flying into the verge. I quickly reversed back, parked up and we both jumped out of the car. As we did, a Hoopoe flew out and away across the fields - our only one of the trip and a fitting end to an excellent roller coaster of a trip to North Spain.

The haunting ruins of old Belchite town - bombed by a German plane during the Spanish Civil War

Our motel at Hotel Rincon del Cierzo

Last look at the snow capped Pyrenees

Flying over Northern France - the white is the recent snow piled up against the walls of the fields

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Clayheads on Tour - NW Spain 14th March 2013 El Planeron

The alarm was set for 05:30hrs so that we could be at El Planeron before dawn. As I woke up, I could still hear the wind and a squeaking sign outside still blowing. I opened the door and it wasn't as bad as last night but it was still blowy.

We struggled to find both tracks onto the reserve marked "El Planeron" in the dark, but when we retraced our steps, we realised we'd missed the first signpost and found the second track first, and thats why we had driven along the road and not found another track.

There was another car driving around the tracks with three Devon (ish) biders in. We only located one singing Dupont's Lark (41.36961N, 00.62882W), and as we arrived after first light due to our navigation problems, it was a good job it was still singing in the wind until after 08:30hrs. I had good views of Calandra Lark plus there were loads of singing Lesser Short-toed Larks around.  

The track across El Planeron

We had driven around again once the Dupont's went quiet and returned to again to see if it had started singing again. We met David from and had a great chat to him about various things. He told us about a good LITTLE BUSTARD/SANDGROUSE site on the outskirts of Belchite, so with things quietening down on the plains we headed off. We had planned to return to the hotel for our advertised breakfast of one toast one coffee but with more birding to do, we decided to skip breakfast.  

If only all birds were signposted

Dupont's Lark - we only had them in this type of habitat

As we were driving off the plains, we paused to check a ploughed field and we were soon watching a Southern Grey Shrike, perching on the clumps of soils trying to feed in the ever increasing wind. I casually glanced to check the field opposite and immediately saw five bird shapes sat there. I lifted my bins and was met with an amazing sight. It was five Pin-tailed Sandgrouse sitting literally feet from the car. They saw me and started to move away before taking flight. It was at this moment that I realised that despite dipping the Wallcreeper repeatedly, we'd actually had quite a lot of lucky sightings on this holiday. Bumping into the Alpine Accentors, amazing views of the Lammergeier and now these PTSG. We headed off for the LITTLE BUSTARD site with a spring in our step. We'd only got one more target bird to find now a bird we'd both dipped before in Portugal.

David from had told us that the A1307 road out of Belchite (signposted to Escatron) was good for LITTLE BUSTARD and SANDGROUSE. We soon found a track leading off the main road that went towards the huge windmill farm here. We didn't see many birds at all on the huge open fields, but we did see three Griffon Vultures, good views of a male Lesser Kestrel and our first Northern Wheatear.

We carried on driving towards the site we were originally heading for, the Salinas between Sastago and Bujaralos (fgrom the gosney guide). The drive took us about an hour to complete, but it didn't look that far on the map. Again, we very rarely saw another car on the same road. We eventually found the Laguna la Playa but there was hardly any water in it. The guide told us to explore the tracks opposite, but again it was just masses of lifeless fields, all with grass growing in them. We did find one overgrown field (41.43069N, 00.22119W) and pulled up alongside it. Without even getting out of the car, two Black-bellied Sandgrouse and four Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew up and across the road. I got out of the car and another two Black-bellied  and two Pin-tailed flew up, and a then a more distant flock of three Black-bellied and two Pin-tailed flew off. We had convinced ourselves that it was a birdless area. We drove back down the track, but I kept on thinking that one species was missing. We came to the bottom of the field, seeing another Lesser Kestrel round one of the disused farm buildings and we decided to see what was in this part of the field. We had only taken a few steps in when six Little Bustard flew up and over the ridge. Success!
The barren field that contained 15 Sandgrouse sp and 6 Little Bustards

We realised that we hadn't actually had anything to eat yet today and it was after midday. Another meal from a service station was consumed and then we didn't really know where to head to next. We headed back along the motorway and returned to Belchite and El Planeron.

A large bull keeps a check on passing motorists

The road down to Belchite from the north includes a straight section of 19km!

We saw bits and bobs at El Planeron in the afternoon such as our only Moorhen of the trip, a few more Black Redstarts, two Black-bellied Sandgrouse but there was not a lot of lark activity. It was 16:00hrs and too early to return to our room. We looked in our guides and headed back north towards the Ebro River. We hadn't seen many ducks so we headed for a reserve called Galacho de la Alfranca.

The car looking rather dirty following its day on the Steppes

Amazing scenary at El Planeron

An amazing place according to the guide books, but when we arrived, the lakes were totally birdless. In a field nearby we had 26 Crane and a White Stork, and then when we eventually found the hide, our target bird was found - a single Coot! You have to have a Coot on your trip list.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Clayheads on Tour - NW Spain 13th March 2013 In seach of Wallcreeper and Lammergeier

We had seven target birds that we wanted to see in the Pyrenees, and I'd seen three of them. We had one day left to see them, and we had to drive down to Belchite later in the day. We had two choices - either go up to a ski resort for SNOWFINCH, or try as many sites for WALLCREEPER and LAMMERGEIER. We decided two ticks were better than one, and so armed with our Gosney Guide, we aimed to visit as many "good sites for Wallcreepers" as possible.

The weather changed slightly today. When we woke up, there was a smattering of snow in Jaca. All of the forecasts we checked also said that it would be windy today (and the next few days) with winds of around 30-35mph predicted. I was a bit concerned that this would affect our chances today, but off we set again, on the road again before 08:00hrs.

The view from our hotel window in Jaca - note the snow

Hard crusty snow on the windscreen and we hadn't packed our de-icing kit!

When we had met up with the birding group at Montaragon, they told us that they had seen a WALLCREEPER on the cliff face directly behind the church at Riglos. We headed back to there first to give it another go. When we arrived, we were the only people present on site. We positioned ourselves behind the church, sitting on a wall which meant we could lean back and scan the face more comfortably.

It was all quiet and we were sheltered from the wind. I heard a unfamiliar call coming from the base of the cliffs. I slowly walked up the slope to investigate. I glanced overhead at a soaring raptor. I immediately knew it wasn't a Griffon Vulture. Incredibly it was an adult Lammergeier. GAS was on to it as well and we had excellent views as it flew along the cliffs before disappearing over the top. That meant we now had the whole day to search for the WALLCREEPER.

Griffon Vulture on the cliffs at Riglos

Lammergeier by Phil Jones

Next stop was at Castiello de Mont Aragon where we had unfinished business with the BLACK WHEATEAR. It was getting even windier now, but we stood in the same place as on our previous visit. I soon spotted the Black Wheatear at the bottom of the first ridge, but before I could set the scope up, it had disappeared round the corner again. This bird was starting to annoy us. GAS couldn't walk along the top of the ridge, so we decided to walk along the flat path at the base of the cliffs instead. We saw several Black Redstarts again, the Blue Rock Thrush and two Chiffchaff. I left GAS half way along and carried on all the way to the end and there was no further sign. I couldn't understand how a bird could prove so tricky to see. I slowly headed back to where GAS was sitting, admitting defeat. I checked the slope below as I walked back, and there was the Black Wheatear. I waved at GAS and he immediately started scanning. However, he couldn't actually see the slope so I waved him over. In a flash he sprinted over and there finally was the awkward little Black Wheatear. We also had a Sardinian Warbler, 12+ Griffon over, two White Stork, Crag Martin, Thekla Lark and a nice flock of seven Common Crane trying to head north in the wind.  

Black Wheatear at Mont Aragon.

Black Wheatear by Phil Jones
Perfect habitat for the elusive Black Wheatear

With our Gosney guide ready we headed for the Sierra de Guarra. (Quote - "the area has so many sites for wintering Wallcreeper that really you can't go wrong - if you fail at one site, there's always plenty more to try"). First stop was at Calcon Dam. As we drove to this site, we didn't pass another car at all. Its such a quiet area. The dam was very picturesque with its beautiful emerald green water and excellent gorges.

Calcon Dam

It was very serene but then I had to try and open the car door. The wind was so strong I found it very difficult to even get out of the car. As we stood trying to scan the cliffs and by clothes flapping about, I knew exactly how it felt being a skydiver. We leaned over the railings to scan the gorge below us and one particular strong gust came straight down the centre of the reservoir. We retreated back to the car, thinking that maybe it wasn't such a good idea. We did see our only Short-toed Eagle of the trip overhead. 

Driving towards the Sierra de Guarra

 We headed off to a few more sites, driving for hours on deserted roads. Next stop was at Santa Cilia where a vulture feeding station has been set up. The birding group we had spoken to had seen two LAMMERGEIER here so we thought it was a good idea to pop in. Unfortunately the hide was in the direct force of the wind, and it was difficult to even look through your bins. I don't think any food had been put out as the whole valley was devoid of any birdlife. In fact we only saw one distant Griffon. It was a good job we had jammed into that Lammergeier at Riglos earlier in the day.

We tried to find another Wallcreeper site at Morrano but we just couldn't find the corrct path. The afternoon was fizzling out and we were seing nothing. We decided to go back to Vadiello Dam where we had started on our first afternoon. It took about an hour to get there and yet again, there was no shelter at all from the wind. It very nearly took the car door off as I opened it which would have meant a rather drafty car for the rest of the holiday. We walked across the dam again but in the ever increasing gusts, we again felt a little bit unsafe. It was quite a drop below. At 16:40hrs we admitted defeat and started the journey down to Belchite.

The motorway down to Zaragoza was totally exposed, and the car was continually being buffeted in the wind. All the time i was aware that the forecast for Thursday was for stronger winds. That was to be our day on the Steppes at El Planeron. We found our hotel behind the petrol station in Lecera and settled in the our room. The wind was howling and tumble weed was blowing across the road. As we watched the new pope being presented on the balcony, we hoped for some divine inspiration to end the howling gale. Two forecasts predicted slightly lowe winds in the morning of 20-25mph, but a third forecast predicted 50mph winds. We would just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Clayheads on Tour - NW Spain 12th March 2013 Birding the Hecho Valley and Riglos

We woke up in our hotel in the centre of Jaca to a damp morning. There was a bit of low cloud but it had at least it had stopped raining. We had ate our wonderful continental breakfast (consisting of bread, ham and jam) and we were on the road before 08:00hrs. We were heading for the Hecho Valley, primarily the Gabardito Refuge; a place for Lammergeier, Citril Finch and Wallcreeper.

The lower parts of the Hecho Valley were very lush and green, and we were soon stopping (fortunately the road was very quiet and so we could pull over wherever) for endless Red Kites, Griffon Vultures and a flock of c150 high, silent circling Chough sp. A flock of roadside Chaffinches and Goldfinches in the village of Hecho also saw a male Black Redstart feeding in a yard.

Heading up the Hecho Valley

As we climbed up the valley, more and more snow started to appear, initially on the mountain tops, but with the increase in height, we started getting more roadside snow. The road was still drivable though.

Beyond the village of Hecho, more snow appeared

We soon came to the start of the 7km track up to the Gabardito Refuge. The track was virtually a road (well tarmacked) at the bottom, and it was clear of snow. However, as we rose up the valley sides, slowly the snow got deeper. There was just one set of vehicle tracks in the snow, but in our Skoda I stuck to the fresh snow and slowly climbed. We never skidded or slipped once, but with about 2km to go, it was about four inches deep. We then met a ranger coming down. He stopped. We stopped and we couldn't get going again. He got out of his car and gabbled something in Spanish which went along the lines of  "What the 'ell are you doing driving a Skoda Fabia up the side of a hill in snow with no chains or winter tyres. You must be stupid English men trying to find a Wallcreeper I bet. Well I've got news for you. You ain't going any further as its about a foot deep up there. Fancy some paella?" I may have got a few words wrong but we understood the basics. We rolled backwards, turned the car round with a little push from Jose and back down the 5km track we went. Our first site of the day, three ticks to look for and we didn't even manage to get to it. What a downer! 

The track was clear at the bottom

But slowly became deeper as we climbed

Another Wallcreeper site was just up the road, and said to be a former reliable site - the Boca del Infierno. The whole site was dripping and damp with melting snow. The gorge was impressive, but no sign of any Wallcreepers. We did see our first Griffons of the day, which was good news in our quest for the Lammergeier. Despite the low cloud and mist, they were still up and about.

The impressive Boca del Infierno

We headed back down the Valley, and made a decision to visit Riglos. We hadn't really done much birding yet today. It just seemed like a lot of driving. We stopped again in the lower reaches of the Hecho Valley. The high circling flock of Chough sp that we had seen earlier were now flying around at tree level. I lifted my bins and saw a beautiful sight - all of them had yellow beaks. It was a flock of nearly 200 Alpine Chough. It was after midday, and we had finally seen our first tick of the trip.

A flock of nearly 200 Alpine Chough

It was good to get that first tick under our belts, and the drive to the warmer, sunnier Riglos was straight forward. Again the roads were quiet. Riglos was an impressive place in its own right, and the birding wasn't too bad either.

It was actually the first proper spell of birding that we had done. Another good wintering Wallcreeper site, the problem I found with this site was that you were looking directly up at the cliffs. It was like looking for the Long-eared Owls at Parkhall but worse. I even lay down at one stage, but the ground was damp. The were small flocks of Serin buzzing about, two Egyptian Vultures soaring over the cliffs and a Blue Rock Thrush was singing away. There were several Crag Martins, a Black Redstart, a Sardinian Warbler and the usual Griffon Vultures and Red Kite overhead. A decent spell, but we had to walk away with our eyes sore and our necks aching from searching the cliff face for an hour and no sign of any Wallcreepers. As we walked back along the base of the cliffs, three grey birds flew up and landed just in front of us on the cliff face. It was the three wintering Alpine Accentors. They showed incredibly well for us, and another of our target birds had been found. The day was slowly getting better.  
One of the Alpine Accentors at Riglos. Far better than our Dunnocks!

We headed back down towards Huesca to finally find the way to the Castiello de Mont Aragon. As we drove we had endless Black and Red Kite to spot, plus a few White Storks were starting to inspect their roadside nests. The road to the castle was found in the village of Quicena (thanks to a copy of Richard Powell's trip to area that I had taken with me).

On the way up to the top we met a group of birders stood scanning the hillside. As you always do when abroad and meet other birdwatchers, I assumed they were English and said hello to them. They certainly were English and we had a good chat exchanging a few bits of information. They had just been watching a Black Wheatear, but it was playing hide and seek and had gone out of view. We bade farewell and we had the whole area to ourselves. We stood and watched but the wheatear didn't return. We drove up to the top of the hill, and I decided to walk along the ridge to see where it had gone to. GAS stood by the castle and waited. I had walked virtually all the way to the end of the ridge past three valleys before I spotted the Black Wheatear below me. Another tick, my third of the day, but I now had to get GAS on to the bird. There was no way he could scramble down the ridge like I had done, so I decided to push the wheatear back towards him. I managed to do this quite easily and stood frantically waving at him as the Black Wheatear finally flew back into the original valley again. Unfortunately, GAS was constantly gazing in the wrong direction. I shouted and waved but nothing. I carried on walking until I too was in the valey and the Black Wheatear was right opposite me. I finally got his attention and pointed as it fed directly beneath him. He tried his best but he just couldn't see it. I later realised that due to his position it was impossible for him to see the area. The BW flew off and we'd lost it. 

We'd been in the area for quite a while, and had seen two Thekla Larks, three Dartford Warblers, 5+ Black Redstarts, Crag Martins and a singing Blue Rock Thrush. But GAS had dipped the Black Wheatear.

We returned to our hotel at Jaca. It had been a hard day, out birding for nearly ten hours. We'd dipped a few species and I'd had three ticks. But I knew we'd have to do better tomorrow. Wednesday was our last day in the Pyrenees and by the evening we would be in our hotel on the Steppes near Belchite.

Blue Rock Thrush at Mont Aragon

Driving back towards Jaca at the end of the day with the sun still shining on the snow capped Pyrenees. Starting to miss Westport by this point!