Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Castilla la Mancha & Extremadura

18th - 25th March 2011

Report by Julian Sykes

Friday 18th :– Two of the three couples (Rob, Kathy, Tony & Maggi) had driven up to Oliva the day before from their homes in Murcia. So it was a fairly relaxed start to the day and about 10am we set off inland towards Albacete. The roads were pretty clear and we made good time in getting into Castilla La Mancha on our drive to Madrid Airport. Having got a little spare time we stopped off, first in the Higueruela area where we found lots of Calandra Larks, Corn Buntings, Linnets plus a few Common Buzzards with an interesting buzzard type that could have easily been a Long-legged Buzzard. Sadly we didn’t get to see it through the telescope and examine the full salient features. After here we then visited the Coral Rubio area where we were lucky to find 20 Great Bustards and 4 Black-bellied Sandgrouse in one field. Time was moving on so we had our picnic lunch overlooking a shallow pool just outside the town. This was most productive with Black-winged Stilts, Barn Swallows, Mallard, Shoveler, Coot, Common Teal, 5 Pintail, Shelduck and a few Gadwalls to see. It was now time to leave so we carried on through to Petrola and beyond to Chinchilla where we joined up with the main road. Due to recent rains the roadside pools were full of water so on the way we got good views of some Greater Flamingos, more Shelduck and a couple of Marsh Harriers. The journey through to Madrid was quite quiet but we did see lots of Kestrels, a few more Common Buzzards and Carrion Crows. We got to Madrid just as Keith and Lynn had come through the arrivals lounge and were ready to leave immediately. So we loaded the minibus and headed south out of the city with Rob and Lynn seeing a White Stork en-route. Again the journey was fairly quiet with birdlife but soon enough we had arrived into Mota del Cuervo and we drove straight to the ‘Gigantes’ These windmills made famous by the Cervantes novel ‘Don Quixote’ dominate the hillside above the town and well worth a look. A Rock Sparrow was singing from an overhead power line so we got good views of it through the ‘scope’. However with the last hour of good daylight left, Julian wanted to visit the nearby wetland site of ‘Laguna de Manvajacas’. The journey through the agricultural fields produced several Red-legged Partridges and a few flying Mallard. At the lagoon we could see it was stacked with birds and when we got out of the minibus and used our telescopes we started to find lots of things. There were 100’s of Greater Flamingos, Shoveler, with lots of Mallard, Common Teal and Black-necked Grebes. There were also smaller numbers of Great Crested Grebes, Common Shelduck, Wigeon, Pintail, Gadwall, White-headed Duck, Common & Red Crested Pochards. Lots of Western Marsh Harriers patrolled the reed beds and around the edges we saw a couple of Little Ringed Plovers, a couple of Black-tailed Godwits and Avocets in flight. Rob did incredibly well finding a (possibly) conservative number of two Mediterranean Gulls amongst the throng of Black-headed’s and Western Yellow legged Gulls Lapwings made their distinctive calls from the field edges. The sun had dropped behind the horizon when we decided to go to our hotel and very quickly we got our rooms and after a very welcome drink and evening meal we retired to our rooms in anticipation of the next day.

Saturday 19th :– We woke to a beautiful sunny day and at 8am we were sitting down to our breakfast of delicious freshly squeezed orange juice, toast, coffee or tea. Once we were ready we  loaded the minibus and spent the morning visiting some of the wetlands in this area, which included the Laguna de Manvajacas, Laguna de Pedro Munoz and the Lagunas de Alcazar de San Juan. Over all of these very full lagoons we saw many birds with Little &  Black-necked Grebes, Grey Heron, Greater Flamingo, White Stork, Mallard, Shoveler, Teal, Red Crested & Common Pochard, White headed Duck, Marsh Harriers, Coot and Black winged Stilts and Black headed Gulls being by far the commonest birds on all these bodies of water and reed. However we also found quite a few other things with much smaller numbers of Great Crested Grebe, White Stork, Kestrel, Red legged Partridges, Moorhen, Lapwing and Lesser Black backed Gulls. There were also some special birds to see and 3 Lesser Kestrels (including 2 males) at Manvajacas were a good start to the day, as were the small numbers of Black tailed Godwits, Ruff, Avocet, Common Snipe, a single Redshank, several Stonechats and 3 ‘Spanish’ Yellow Wagtails. The journey to Pedro Munoz produced a gorgeous male Black eared Wheatear found by Kathy and while we were watching this Julian heard a Great Spotted Cuckoo, which was located by Tony. At Pedro Munoz we saw a Sparrowhawk and our first migrating Black Kites were seen along with Small Copper, Small White and Western Dappled White Butterflies. We then headed for Alcazar stopping in Campo del Criptana for a morning coffee. While we sat outside the café in the sunshine we saw Serins, Goldfinch and Barn Swallows plus several Carpenter Bees and a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Eventually we reached the Lagunas de Alcazar de San Juan and found several more waterbirds for the day’s list including a drake Wigeon and several Pintail, although very good finds were a couple of Bearded Tits by Julian and an excellent  drake Garganey by Lynn. It was nearing lunchtime when we headed west to Diamiel stopping just outside the town for lunch. After this we then drove out to one of Spain’s premier National reserves – Tablas de Diamiel. Like the previous places the lagoons were full of water due to the recent heavy rains, which isn’t very good for waders but definitely suitable for wildfowl. Today was a local holiday and I think most of Diamiel’s towns people were visiting this area, but thankfully it was now their lunchtime so they were mainly leaving the site as we got there. Just before the car park, Rob found a couple of Spanish Sparrows, which was superb as they are not common here. Then a walk along the purpose made boardwalk around the main area produced a lot of the same species as seen that morning but also some new birds. These included a couple of good views of Moustached Warbler in full song, a ‘heard only’ Reed Warbler, Kath found a Cetti’s Warbler, a Water Rail seen by Rob briefly, some Greylag Geese found by Keith, Zitting Cisticolas, a male Bluethroat, Little Egrets and 3 Cormorants flew over. One very interesting sight was a pair of Great White Egrets nest-building on the reserve, a bird not known to breed in Spain? It was now late afternoon so we returned to the minibus and finally headed for our hostel in Alcoba. Our journey was easy and seemless with lots of Cattle Egrets and a few Southern Grey Shrikes on overhead wires en-route. Once we reached the Sal Pri, we checked in and a little later reconvened for a short country walk – local to the hotel. It was an easy stroll but we did see lots of Barn Swallows and a few House Martins, Meadow Pipits, Stonechats, a single Mistle Thrush and a Blue Tit! We did also find a few frogs in a small stream that Julian identified as Iberian Water Frogs. So that night we enjoyed an excellent meal and a few drinks before heading to our rooms to sleep as an early start was required the following morning.

Sunday 20th :– This day actually started in the middle of the night with a very vocal pair of Scop’s Owls singing outside of the hostel in some nearby trees. This was then added too occasionally by a more distant but equally distinctive song of a Tawny Owl. We had a 7am start outside the accommodation and bleary eyed we greeted each other just as the 4 x 4 bus arrived being driven by our excellent guide Juanma. We loaded the bus with scopes and provisions for breakfast and set off to the entrance of the excellent National Park – Los Cabaneros. The journey was rapid but necessary as we needed to get the best of the early morning activity but we did stop when Kath found a Red Fox, 2 Ravens and a fabulous gathering of White Storks on their nests. Julian did see a pair of Little Owls sat in a dead tree but the minibus had gone past them before he could stop Juanma’s progress – hopefully we would see another at some point during the week? We eventually entered this huge 36.000 hectare reserve that’s akin to the African savannah. Juanma expertly drove us around some of the difficult tracks in the area so we got the best views of lots of birds with the common species including Corn Bunting, Mistle Thrush, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Linnet. Juanma found a large herd of Red Deer on the Rana, which disappeared into the mass of Rock Rose that covers the area. Our first good bird was a Woodchat Shrike found by Lynn, and then we came across a big number of Black & Griffon Vultures circling over the hills with some sat on the ground. Juanma took us up to the oak-covered hills that surround this National Park to show us a  Black Vulture sat on a nest. While we were here we also saw 2 distant Short toed Eagles sat in a dead tree and a few Black Kites were migrating north. Back in the open country Julian found a Northern Wheatear, which Rob thought was a Corn Bunting (obviously old age setting in!) and a Merlin was chasing the Calandra Larks across pseudo-steppe area. This was where Juanma found a Golden Eagle at 3 Kms range, which was amazing so we headed in that direction and got much better views of it along with Black Vulture, Blue Rock Thrush and Crag Martins. Next we came across a small flock of Azure-winged Magpies, along with Southern Grey Shrike and a lovely male Black Redstart. Juanma knew of a Spanish Imperial Eagle’s eyrie so we checked it out and got very good views of both adults coming and going. We spent quite a lot of time here as there were plenty of raptors with a pair of Sparrowhawks found by Maggi, Hen Harrier by Keith, 3 Short toed Eagles, a Red Kite, lots of vultures and Ravens. Sadly it was time to leave,  so we took  another route back to Alcoba, which was lucky as Kath & Tony saw a Beech Martin cross the track while the rest of us were slightly distracted by some Red Deer. On the way out we passed a small pool with Grey Herons and 2 Common Redshank, which was a nice way to finish the trip. Back in Alcoba we said goodbye and thank you to Juanma for a wonderful morning and had lunch in the hotel before heading off west. Over the mountains we see a couple of Short toed Eagles sat on pylons and while everyone was asleep Julian sees a Quail fly up from the side of the road. Eventually we cross the border into Extremadura and make good progress along the excellent road system. Mid-afternoon we turn off to the Embalse de Garcia Sola were we watch from the car park in the warm sunshine. We have an amazing time here seeing with no less than 3 Golden Eagles, a Bonelli’s Eagle, Red Kite, several Black Storks, Red rumped Swallows, Alpine Swifts and Red-billed Chough – the latter bizarrely only heard! After an hour we left and continued towards Trujillo stopping off at Vegas Altas were we drove slowly along the road. Here we several Lesser Kestrels sat on overhead wires, Spanish & Tree Sparrows, with small flocks of Red Avadavat. Late afternoon we drove straight to accommodation seeing Black Kites, White Storks and Cattle Egrets en-route through this beautiful countryside. We got to the Hotel Vina Las Torres with the sun illuminating the snow-capped mountains of the Gredos in the distance – what a picture. We were met by our hosts JP and Belen, along with Kymmie the dog and kindly shown to our rooms, with JP kindly giving us an introductory speech on the house and grounds. We were meeting later that evening so we did our own thing with Keith and Lynn going for a short walk and finding more Azure-winged Magpies. At 7pm we met for drinks and nibbles in the main lounge with  JP telling us more of the history of the house, which was followed by a fabulous meal made from local produce accompanied by some nice wine. The long day was completed with the bird list and a final drink before going to our lovely rooms.

Monday 21st :- An early start saw us joining Juanma on the 4x4 safari around Los Cabaneros, yet another of Spain’s premier reserves. Mammals were our first targets and soon we had found a large male Wild Boar running alongside the vehicle, plus a large herd of Red Deer, which were mainly females. We started seeing birds including Griffon Vulture, Common Buzzard, Southern Grey Shrike, Hoopoe, Corn Bunting and Wood Pigeon. We made a visit to a hillside and saw our first Black Vulture at the nest plus Dartford Warbler, Wren and Stonechat. Then we visited the premier location getting superb views of an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle sitting in a tree. Here we also managed to find a Sub-alpine Warbler, Hawfinches, Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush, Jays, Magpies, Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Blue Tit & Great Tit. Next we drove through the reserve to another hillside and a quick scan and Juanma found a Golden Eagle sitting on the hillside, and a little later we found another adult amongst a group of Griffon & Black Vultures. As it was cold we moved on to lower ground and visited a lovely piece of woodland where we saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker, 2 Nuthatches, Short toed Treecreeper, Chaffinches & Song Thrushes. It was now time to make our way back to Alcoba so Juanma drove us back out a different way finding a couple of Ravens along with yet more Black & Griffon Vultures. Back at the hotel we said our goodbyes to Juanma and thanked him for an excellent morning, loaded the mini-bus and headed west stopping for lunch en-route. Shortly after we arrived at the Embalse de Garcia Sola but the weather was deteriorating however, we enjoyed a couple of hours seeing some fantastic raptor species including a female Bonelli’s Eagle, Short toed Eagle, Goshawk, Peregrine, Griffon Vultures plus Black Storks, Crag Martins, Red billed Chough, Great Crested Grebes and Cormorants. Again we headed west into Extramadura stopping again at Vegas Atlas where we found our target species, Red Avadavat as well as Lesser Kestrels, Little Egrets, White Storks, Common Buzzard, Kingfisher, Hoopoes, Zitting Cisticolas, Cetti's Warbler, Spanish & Tree Sparrows. Finally we had to leave and made our way to the superb Vina las Torres where we were staying for the next five nights.

Tuesday 22nd :- Our first full day in Extramadura and as the weather wasn't too good we headed back to the Zorita area, and on the plains we soon found a small flock of Great Bustards plus Calandra & Crested Larks, Corn Buntings, Linnets and Goldfinches. Then we found our first few Little Bustards of the week but struggled for very good views as they fed amongst the vegetation. As it warmed up, so the raptors started to appear and we saw Black & Red Kites, Common Buzzard, Kestrel and Griffon Vultures drifting over the area, eventually we left and drove the short distance to Madrigalejo. Here we slowly made our way along the tracks checking the Holm Oaks for our main target species, during this time we found Little & Cattle Egrets, Mallard, Coot, Moorhen, more kites, (heard) a Quail, Southern Grey Shrikes, Little Owls, Stonechats, Zitting Cisticolas, White Storks, White Wagtails and Serins. I then found a bird in the distance and we quickly made our way towards it and from a safe distance it was confirmed as our first Black shouldered Kite and got fantastic scoped views of this rare raptor sat in a dead oak, then it was joined by a second bird before going off to hunt over the dehesa. Next we visited a nearby reservoir, which held very little water but we found quite a few waders including Black winged Stilt, Black tailed Godwit, Avocet, Green & Common Sandpipers, Little Stints, Dunlin, Ringed & Kentish Plovers plus a few Shovelers, Shelduck, Mallard, Cormorants and Marsh Harriers. A slow drive around the paddy fields produced better views of several Little Bustards, along with Common Snipe, Spanish Sparrows, Stonechats, Red Avadavats, Meadow & Water Pipits. After an excellent picnic lunch we continued to another set of paddy fields this time finding Common Waxbills, Chiffchaffs, Sardinian Warblers, more Spanish Sparrows, Cetti’s Warblers and a small flock of Common Cranes. Having now achieved all our target species for the day we decided to leave this area and make our way to Belen Plain near Torjillo, and enjoyed a superb couple of hours as we had a ‘raptor–feste’ which included a (1cy) Golden Eagle, 3 Short toed Eagles, Black & Red Kites, Common Buzzard, 10 Black Vultures, Egyptian Vulture, Griffon Vultures a female Hen Harrier, Sparrowhawk, Lesser & Common Kestrels. We also found our first pair of Great Spotted Cuckoos plus 3 Black bellied Sandgrouse, flocks of Calandra Larks, Crested Larks, Corn Buntings, Meadow Pipits, Goldfinches and Linnets. On the way back to our Casa Rural we stopped off at Trujillo and whilst enjoying a well-earned beverage in the main square we watched a few Pallid Swifts, House Martins, Lesser Kestrels, Jackdaws and White Storks, completing yet another brilliant days birdwatching.

Wednesday 23rd :- We all gathered for an early morning walk but unfortunately it was a little foggy, however we still managed to get good views of Red rumped & Barn Swallows sat on wires, Azure winged Magpies chasing each other, Song Thrushes, Great & Blue Tits, Sardinian Warbler, Blackcaps, Robins, Stonechat and Black Redstarts. After breakfast we headed north stopping a small heath near Jaraicejo where we spent an hour finding Black & Red Kites, Common Buzzard, Griffon Vultures, Kestrel, Red legged Partridge, Woodpigeons, Little Owl, Hoopoe, Crested, Thekla & Woodlarks, Dartford & Sardinian Warblers, Stonechats, Southern Grey Shrikes, Linnets and Serins. We then drove the short distance to the magnificent Monfrague National Park where we spent the rest of the day, visiting the Arroyo de la Vid, Monfrague Castle, Peña Falcon, the Tajo Bridge and Portilla de la Tietar. We were treated to the usual huge number of raptors with the highlights being a pair of Spanish Imperial Eagles, 4 Bonelli’s Eagles, Short toed Eagles, Black & Red Kites, Common Buzzards, lots of Griffon, Black & Egyptian Vultures, 2 Sparrowhawks, Peregrine and Kestrel. We also found Little Ringed Plovers, Crag & House Martins, Red rumped Swallows, Blue Rock Thrush, Blackcaps, Black Redstarts, Short toed Treecreeper, Ravens, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Serins, Hawfinch & Corn Buntings. The biggest highlight of the day and of the trip for some was an hour spent watching the adult female Eagle Owl at Portilla tending to her two young Owlets. We watched as she fed them a couple of (presumably) Brown Rats and then disposing of their bodies by flying out of the nest in broad daylight and dropping the carcasses. This was an absolute treat. Back at the hotel we enjoyed yet another fantastic evening meal before we ventured out into the starry night to listen to a singing Scops Owl near the Casa Rural.

Thursday 24th :- Another beautiful morning and a short pre-breakfast walk was enjoyed by most of us and we found a pair of Short toed Treecreepers, Blackcaps, Sardinian Warblers, Song Thrushes and White Stork. This morning we were looking for steppe species around the plains of Santa Marta de Magasca and the drive out produced the usual roadside Red & Black Kites, Common Buzzard, White Storks and a Hoopoe. The first pull-in produced one of those ‘magic hour's’ in wildlife watching when things are constantly happening and you don't know where to look. An initial scan found several Little Bustards and a single Great Bustard on the hillside but the larger of the two species soon departed like a B-52 Bomber , leaving a flock of 50+ of it's smaller cousins. We got fantastic ‘scoped views’ of these charismatic birds as some of the males continued with their head-bobbing, raspberry-blowing display or just wander around feeding in the short grass. A Short toed Eagle drifted over making the flock put to flight and joining them were a smaller group of Pin tailed Sandgrouse, which all landed together in full view. Although a little distant, through the telescope most of the gaudy colours of the male sandgrouse could be seen and also an interesting size comparison with the larger Little Bustards. Later we got an opportunity to examine a Pin tailed Sandgrouse, which had been stuffed and we saw just how small these birds really are. During this time we were constantly hearing and seeing several Great Spotted Cuckoos as they chased each other and the resident Magpies their main host species. Griffon Vultures continually drifted over as did Black & Red Kites some of which caused 3 Black bellied Sandgrouse to appear from over the ridge and fly round giving their distinctive bubbling call. What a superb start to the day. Grudgingly we decided to move on but after only a kilometre we stopped again for a female Hen Harrier quartering the plain, and like so often happens we also found lots of Calandra Larks, a small flock of Great Bustards on the distant hillside and a few Lapwings close by. Amanda did really well as she picked out a Golden Plover from amongst the Lapwings and then Wendy spied a distant shape (that I thought was a stone) but after a look through the scope miraculously it turned into a Stone Curlew – at least I was half right! We had bagged most of the steppe species within two hours of arriving, but now we craved a coffee stop to just let the fantastic morning (so far) sink in. We sat outside of the Santa Marta cafe in the warm sunshine and discussed the plan for the rest of the day. I had been given a tip from Martin about a couple of Alpine Accentors seen a few days previously at the hill-top castle of Montanchez but wasn't sure if they were still around. It turned out it was a potential target species for most of the group so we decided to ‘go for it’ and we headed out towards Caceres. En-route Michael saw a small black & white woodpecker on a telegraph pole but once we managed to turn round it had unfortunately departed, however we did get good views of another Short toed Eagle, a Black Vulture and a few Spanish Sparrows. Once we reached our destination we unpacked the picnic and sat on the edge of the olive grove to eat our lunch with Short toed Treecreeper, Hoopoe, Southern Grey Shrike and Chaffinches to keep us company. When we were ready we walked up through the village to the castle above and worked the perimeter finding several Blue Rock Thrushes, Pallid Swifts, Crag & House Martins, Black Redstart, Serins Greenfinch and Goldfinches, but not the hoped for Black Wheatear or accentors. We started to spread out and as I checked the rocks below the castle a male Black Wheatear hopped on to the wall below – bingo. I got the others and eventually had great views through the telescope, and while we were there 4 Ravens flew over with one mobbing a Short toed Eagle as it hunted for reptiles. At least we had one of the targets so we started to walk back but for some reason I checked the ruins within the walls of the castle and there on a grassy ledge was an Alpine Accentor. Fortunately Kathy had also come with me so I left her watching the bird while I ran off to inform everyone else of our find who had continued down the track. We all got very close views of this tame montane species as it fed quietly on the short grass and there were smiles all round. This time we all left but on the way down found one last good bird as a male Rock Bunting flew into view briefly before disappearing before everyone managed to see it. After a cold drink in Montanchez we got back to the minibus and returned to the hotel for a shower and another lovely evening meal from Belen. As it was our last night I suggested another walk to see if we could locate the Scop’s heard the previous night and everyone jumped at the chance. We heard one almost immediately but it was in deep vegetation out of sight but stayed to see if would move position, which sadly it didn't. After looking at a few constellations we wandered back to the hotel to find another Scop’s Owl singing in the trees right outside and this time we found it in the light. This rounded off a very special day and seeing Europe’s smallest owl for the first time was the highlight of the week for several people.

Friday 25th :- We were leaving the hotel this morning and after breakfast we said our thanks and goodbyes to JP and Belen for another wonderful stay. We were heading north to the hydro-electrical reservoir of Arrocampo, which has now been made into an excellent wetland area. We spent most of the morning there visiting many of the newly constructed hides which overlook the lagoons. Here we found Little & Great Crested Grebes, Cormorants, Purple & Grey Heron, Great White, Little & Cattle Egrets, a Spoonbill was a good find, White Storks, a Black Vulture flew over, as did 2 Short toed Eagles and 2 Marsh Harriers, Purple Gallinules, Black Winged Stilts, Lapwings, a Common Snipe, 2 Kingfishers, Hoopoes, Sand Martins, Zitting Cisticolas, an early Eurasian Reed, Cettis & Savi’s Warblers, Chiffchaff, Stonechats, Spanish Sparrows and Reed Buntings plus a bonus of Little Bitterns. We had our picnic sitting in the sun and watching the wetlands then afterwards, we set off east and out of Extramadura. Our journey to Madrid was easy with the fabulous road system now installed in Spain and we said our "goodbyes" to Keith & Lyn who were staying an extra couple of days in the nation's capital. It had been a excellent end to what had been another fantastic week in this wonderful region.



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