Thursday, 23 May 2013


I'm still recovering from an intensive 10 day birding trip to Andalucia in Southern Spain with friends Mary & Paul. We met up at Malaga airport, where we collected our Fiat Doblo which turned out to be a pretty good bird-mobile with plenty of space & ground clearance…a must on the Andalucian roads.  We managed to see 138 species, 11 of which were 'lifers' for me. 

Here are a few of the highlights…..

On 7th May, whilst waiting for Paul to arrive, Mary & I went to the Rio Guadalhorce reserve in Malaga near the airport. We found 7 or 8 White-headed Ducks….my first! A good start to the trip.

On 8th May, our first full day, we went back to the Rio Guadalhorce reserve where we bumped into a very nice chap called Andy as we went in. He was meant to be doing chores having just returned from a birding trip to New York, but had been texted to say that there was a Broad-billed Sandpiper in the reserve. He's lived in Spain for 30 years & as this is his local patch, he'd dropped everything and dashed over, having only ever seen one before in his life. He showed us the way & found us a few other birds on the way. When we got to the lagoon where the sandpiper had been seen, we scanned the large number of waders around the edges. Andy spotted the bird first, and although it was quite distant we managed to see enough features for a positive ID. Lifer number 2 in the bag.

Paul, Mary & Andy watching the Broad-billed Sandpiper
It was only as we left that Andy asked which guides we were using for the trip. 'Where to Watch Birds in Southern Spain' was our main guide, and it turned out that he was Andrew Paterson a co-author of the book! My copy is now signed! 

We headed North towards Ronda, where we were booked in for two nights. On 9th we headed up to the Puerto de las Palomas, a col on the Grazelema-Zahara road with amazing views. We walked up a track from the col & heard one of our target species singing….Bonneli's Warbler. It took a while to find it but eventually it gave us reasonable views. Lifer number 3. We carried on walking & scanning the distant peak. It was Paul who spotted a bird in the distance. It took a while to be sure of its identity as the heat haze wasn't helping, but we managed to see enough to be sure it was a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush (number 4).
The impressive Ronda Gorge

The thrush was in the tree on the horizon to the right of Paul's right hand
The next two nights  we stayed at Matalascanas on the coast on the edge of the Donana National Park. We'd booked a tour of Donana on 11th with Peter Warham. We met him in Villamarique de la Condesa at 9am & spent the day being driven about in his 4 x 4. We spent time in the scrub looking for warblers & then went into the wetlands. Paul & I saw a Western Olivaceous Warbler (number 5), but Mary missed it so that one didn't go on the Team List. 

Peter, Paul & Mary (sounds like a good name for a group...)
We then had fantastic views of a male & female Montagu's Harrier flying over a corn field, including a food pass (number 6). We finished the tour at 630pm having enjoyed the day. Peter was a very nice chap & he'd found us some good birds. The only disappointment was that we didn't go into any areas that we couldn't have gone to by ourselves. 

We then paid a brief visit to La Rocina which was preparing for their annual festival. It was chaos. We quickly moved on to the reserve at La Rocina & drove the 7km through to the Palacio del Acebron where we had a brief walk in the woods which got us an Iberian Chiffchaff (number 7). We were keeping a close eye on the clock as the entrance gates would be locked at 10pm, it was fast approaching and we wanted to have a quick look for Red-necked Nightjar on the drive back. We stopped in a likely open sandy place at about 945pm, listened & sure enough we could hear them calling. After a few minutes Mary & I spotted two of them which appeared briefly (number 8). Paul missed them, and the clock was ticking. Just before our deadline for leaving, Paul finally saw them as they again put in a brief appearance & we happily hurried for the gate. On the way we had a too-close view as one almost flew into the windscreen. We drove out through the gates with 30 seconds to spare!

A lovely evening for nightjar hunting.....apart from the mozzies

On 12th May we planned to visit the 'El Acebuche' reserve, again within Donana. The car park was virtually empty & the visitor centre closed, but we could still access the lake & hides behind it. Our main target was Savi's Warbler, and it didn't take many minutes to find one singing from the top of a tree (number 9). We were very happy bunnies as we left the hide, but we then met an official who said they were going to lock the main gates to prevent festival goers from entering the site….so we had to leave. At least we'd got our bird….

We had to do a large loop through the stone pines to get round the festival road closures, then headed to Dehesa de Abajo in the north of Donana. It was a lovely reserve, with very helpful staff. We found Red-knobbed Coot on the lagoon then visited the stork colony, which was disappointingly short of storks. It was late when we left & the visitor centre was closing. Mary had a huge lucky break when a member off staff handed over her iPhone which she'd left in the centre earlier. Phew. 

Dehesa de Abajo

On 13th May we spent the morning at the Laguna de Palacios just north of Palacios y Villafranca, which was meant to be the centre of Olivacious Warbler & Rufous Bush Chat activity. It certainly had quite a few singing Olivacious Warblers, so Mary saw one & it was added to the Team List. However, no Rufous Bush Chats were to be seen, or heard. Mary had her second major stroke of luck when a small white van stopped beside us on the sandy track & handed over a foot from her tripod. It's truly staggering that he'd spotted it in the sand, realised what it was & tracked us down!

Are we getting a bit old for this sort of 'holiday'??

I'd been looking forward to visiting Brazo del Este to the East of the main Donana reserve, but it was an anti-climax when we couldn't find the site & then the road was awful. At least we found some Gull-billed Terns to cheer us up (number 10).

We spent 14th on the east bank of the Guadalquiver in the salinas & woods, a fair bit of that was stalking a very elusive warbler in the top of a tree. Eventually we all had a good enough view to be happy that it was an Western Orphean Warbler (number 11). I was particularly pleased as Mary & Paul had seen one briefly a few days before which I'd missed. It could now go on the Team List. 

There's an Orphean Warbler up there somewhere...

On 15th we made our way to Bolonia in search of Little & White-rumped Swifts that are meant to nest in the caves of the Sierra de la Plata. There were fantastic views from the road below the cave, but there wasn't a single swift of any variety in sight. We drove to the top of the road, which ended at a military establishment of some sort. We heard singing from the bushes that sounded remarkably like the recording we had of the Rufous Bush Chat. We stalked the bird for ages through the vegetation, but never got sight of it. Gave up on the swifts & spent the rest of the day on the plains of La Janda, where we saw a Black-shouldered Kite, before returning to the swift cave in the evening. Still no swifts. Back for a final attempt at first light on 16th, again no joy. We did meet a friendly Swiss chap called Esteban who we' d met at 2 other sites & exchanged info. He was much more hard core than us, having spent most of his nights sleeping in his small car! He was however much younger than us as well.

The Little Swift cave (apparently)
Fantastic view from below the swift cave

there must be a swift up there somewhere.....

We spent the afternoon of 16th battling with the awful roads through the corkwoods of the Ojen valley. The best bit was when a flashy British Aston Martin blatted past us as we approached a bend at the start of the road. It then reversed back around the bend after encountering the first of the potholes. Oh how we laughed in our underpowered, Postman Pat shaped car with its high ground clearance!

Interesting road surface....and other hazards

Paul, aka 'Heidi' herds goats off the road. We didn't laugh at all.
Our last stop was to Castellar de la Frontera, an old mountain fortress with amazing views across to Gibraltar and an entertaining Lesser Kestrel colony.

View from the old castle with Gibraltar in the distance
Lesser Kestrels... food delivery service

We flew back at various times on 17th, I was first at lunchtime. The weather was a bit manky so we didn't manage to do any decent birding before I left.

All in all it was an excellent trip. I'm not at all unhappy that we need to go back for the swifts & Rufous Bush Chat.