Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A week in Aragon

Lots of Red Kites Milano Real Milvus milvus to be seen
19 November 2014

Along with Steve and Elena Powell (Jenny was unwell so did not travel) I took the AVE high-speed train from Malaga to Zaragoza last Tuesday (11th) to spend a week visiting birding sites both south and north of the city.  Good weather and absolutely fabulous scenery as the  leaves changed from red to goldens with the coming of autumn whilst, in the Pyrenees we had magnificent gorges and rushing rivers to accompany the colours of autumn,  Truly "gorgeous" as you might say.  Birds?  Not as many as we expected but, nevertheless, some wonderful sites and, I think, we managed to record six of our targeted eight species, the exceptions being Duppont's Lark and the illusive Wallcreeper.  I think that definitely calls for a return next June!  Great Bustard, Alpine Chough, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Lesser Short-toed Lark and the magnificent Lammergeier; all were seen.

One of three Lammergeier Quebrantahuesos Gypaetus barbatus appearing out of the clouds above
Great journey up with speeds of 300 kph on the screen and then the hire car collected in readiness for the following morning where we took in the large laguna at Gallocanta.  We had expected to see  in excess of 20,000 Cranes but, evidently, winter has been late in arriving in northern Europe and the birds are only just beginning to turn up in large numbers.  Indeed, we saw a number of large flocks heading towards the lake and, on enquiring, were told that only 8,000 have been counted a couple of days ago but at this moment there were now at least ten thousand.  A magnificent sight as the birds gathered and then took to the air.  We also had our first Hen Harriers of the winter with at least a handful of ringtails but had to wait another couple of days before seeing our first male.  Another addition as we set off to tour the lake was a rather lovely Merlin that dropped into the bank in front of us - but not before we had a good view.

Cranes Grulla Comun Grus grus by the thousands at Gallocanta
The steppes around Belchite were our destination for day two and here, in addition to more Hen Harriers and Golden Eagle we picked up both Sandgrouse and Lesser Short-toed Larks along with many smaller birds.  The biggest disappointment in an area conserved by SEO was to come across three different hunters out with their dogs and guns; not at all what we would have expected! Lovely to see Dartford Warbler and a good-sized flock of Linnets but we did also find Common Starling, Ravens and many, many Carrion Crows.  And it would seem, not all of the White Storks have retreated southwards as in an area on the outskirts of Bujaraloz where a farmer was ploughing a field with his tractor we had half a dozen along with at least twenty Buzzards and a score or more of Red Kites.  Magnificent sight.  We were just thinking that we were going to miss out on the Great Bustard when a large flock, about fifteen, birds flew over the road on the edge of the same time. What birds other than Cranes, Flamingos and geese fly in "V" formation?  Not Greylag Geese as Steve mentioned the sandy-coloured front and then the proverbial penny dropped; Great Bustards. Despite having to change my memory cad we got reasonably close to the group before they took off and as they passed I realised that I had reached 58 rather than 15!  Yes, our flock had picked up the birds already feeding.

Then the first of the Great Bustards Avutarda Comun Otis tarda arrived in front of us
Friday and Saturday saw us exploring the Rio Veral below Anso and the Hecho Valley.  What an absolutely spectacle these are at this time of the year even if we did not find the Wallcreeper.  We did have a Peregrine Falcon and loads of Buzzards and Red Kites but the sight of not one but three Lammergeier was a something really special that will be treasured in the birding memory bank.  It was also in this area that we recorded dozens of Griffon Vultures and found our Alpine Choughs.

A few of the Griffon Vultures Buitre Leonado Gyps fulvus at rest on the Belchite steppes
Making our way back towards Zaragoza on the late Saturday afternoon, having driven down the most scenic route from Santa Maria near Jaca towards Huesca via Ayerbe we called in at the the Embalsa de Sotonera where we found a Great White Egret and a quartet of Oystercatchers; now that was something different and quite unexpected.  Again, another route to return to and this time find time to visit the castle at Loarre and the wonderful rock formations of the Mullos de Riglos near La Pena.

The upper reaches of the beautiful Hecho Valley

Sunday was very strange as, on arriving, we found little water if any at the ox-bow lakes west of Zaragoza so drove up to the lake at Sarinena.  Skylark, Kingfisher and Penduline Tits plus a very late Barn Swallow, but just the one.  On the water itself Mallards and Teals plus a couple of Shelduck and a pair of Pintails with a number of Cormorants and Grey Herons.  In addition, both Little and Great Crested Grebes were sighted but not the resident Water Rails.  Other good sightings included a number of Marsh Harriers, a small number of Greylag Geese, Hoopoe and a rather close Reed Bunting.

Monday was spent sight-seeing in Zaragoza itself and then it was the Tuesday morning high-speed train back to Malaga where we discovered the heat once again!  All I have to do now is find the suitable photographs to add to the blog so readers may need to be a little patient!  Do I add the Azure-winged Magpies seen from the train in the north of Cordoba or leave the visit total at a reasonable 76 species?

There seemed to be Hen Harriers Aguilucho Palido Circus cyaneus (mainly females) everywhere
A few points on planning.  Other than the first night no hotels were reserved and we had no problem finding very good, cheap accommodation.  If travelling by train as a party, it is cheaper to buy a "table" (four passengers) than three individual tickets.  Never mind the pensioners discount of 40% from Monday through Thursday, it was still FAR cheaper to purchase the table, especially valuable if not everybody is over sixty-five years of age.  car hire from "Goldcar" was good and cheap even if we did have to "pay through the nose for the full tank of fuel including a refill charge.

Birds seen during the five birding days:
Greylag Goose, Shelduck, Mallard, Pintail, Teal, Red-legged Partridge, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Cormorant, Cattle Egret, Great White Egret, Grey Heron, White Stork, Red Kite, Lammergeier, Griffon Vulture, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Golden Eagle, Buzzard, Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Coot, Crane, Great Bustard, Oystercatcher, Black-headed Gull, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Rock Dove, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Kingfisher, Hoopoe, Calandra lark, Short-toed lark, Lesser Short-toed lark, Crested Lark, Thekla Lark, Shy Lark, Crag martin, Barn Swallow, Meadow Pipit, White Wagtail, Robin, Black Redstart, Stonechat, Blackbird, Cetti's warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Dartford Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Penduline Tit, Southern Grey Shrike, Magpie, Chough, Alpine Chough, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Raven, Common Starling, Spotless Starling, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Serin, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Linnet, Reed Bunting, Corn Bunting.

Check out the accompanying website at for the latest sightings, photographs and additional information.

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