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.