Thursday 11th :- I arrived at Barcelona Airport in good time for Tony’s flight and met Alan & Sue there as they had arrived the day before. Tony’s flight was on time and soon enough we had the vehicle packed and were heading south towards the Ebro Delta. Everyone was keen highlighting a few species on the route including a Common Buzzard on the edge of the city. Alan did well calling some wildfowl on a small pool just off the motorway which included several Common Pochard, Mallard and at least one Shelduck. Eventually we left the motorway and cut through the delta’s extensive rice fields seeing our first Grey Herons, Little & Cattle Egrets, Cormorants, White Wagtails, Western Yellow legged & Black headed Gulls. We arrived at the lovely single storey Delta Hotel and quickly checked in, which was then followed by a very wholesome lunch in their restaurant, discussing the few days ahead of us. Out of the window we watched a few birds come and go including a few Chiffchaffs, House Sparrows and the day’s only Robin. It was a lovely cloudless day but there was an awefully strong cold ‘Mistral’ (North West wind) blowing off the mountains, which was going to impact later that afternoon. After lunch and a time to freshen up we gather at the minibus already feeling the bite of the wind as it cut through our several layers. However we are hardy souls and set off towards Riumar the coastal tourist village at the eastern point of the Ebro Delta. En-route Sue spied a large raptor go over us, so I stopped and quickly identified it as a pale phase Booted Eagle. Stopping here was quite fortuitous as we continued to check the adjacent paddy fields finding 2 Green Sandpipers, Lapwings, Water & Meadow Pipits, Chaffinches and Reed Buntings. Two small flocks of Black tailed Godwits flew past and Tony found our first hirundines – Crag Martins. We soon decided to move on as the wind was making telescope viewing almost impossible and it seemed to strengthening all the time, I wasn’t looking forward to the coast. At Ruimar we parked and took the boardwalk to the beach but it was like being sand-blasted and we very quickly abandoned the idea of a walk but not without first finding a couple of Sanderling. I only really had one option left to try and get some respite from the buffeting wind and that was the open hide at the Bassa del Garxal, which thankfully paid dividends. Although we were still exposed the hide was protecting us from most of the blast and we were able to watch in relative comfort. Over the next hour we found many new species including a pair of Pintail, several Gadwall and Red Crested Pochard, lots of Shoveler, Mallard and Coot. Waders were very impressive as flocks of several species flew in and fed or just continued through to shallower waters. We saw Greenshanks, Spotted & Common Redshanks together, 30+ Grey Plover, plus good numbers of Common Snipe and Dunlin. Great White Egrets and Purple Gallinules patrolled the reedy fringes and a couple of Marsh Harriers quartered the area in search of food. Quite satisfied we left this excellent shallow lagoon and battled against the wind to get back to the minibus. Driving back to the hotel I decided to make a quick detour around the area of Canal Vell and a couple of lucky stops produced 30+ Ruff amongst a bigger flock of Lapwing. Followed by over 200 Glossy Ibis next to the road with equal numbers of Little & Cattle Egrets, which was a very impressive sight as their ‘glossy’ feathers shimmered in the afternoon sun. We got back to the Delta Hotel in plenty of time for a good relax before going for our evening meal and the daily log.
Friday 12th :- The wind had battered the hotel all night and was continuing to do so as we met up for breakfast at 08:30. I wanted to radically change the proposed itinerary for the day but needed to be sure that Tony was feeling better and thankfully he was. So I suggested that instead of staying at the coast we head inland to the Alfas Drylands as conditions there might be a little better and if they weren’t we would be able to work from the vehicle. Everyone agreed and later we set off north and then inland towards the historic city of Lleida. The journey wound it’s way up through some lovely mountain scenery and along the mighty Ebro River. We passed forests of Aleppo Pine and numerous groves of Hazel, Almond, and Olive then towards the end of the journey we started to see some new birds with the first Red Kites and Carrion Crows of the day. At Aflas we turned off the main road to a network of tracks that dissected the agricultural lands, it had obviously been very cold here during the night (and still was!) as the puddles in the tracks were covered in ice. Almost immediately found Corn Buntings, Linnets, Crested Larks and Red legged Partridges, a little further on we came across a large flock of Skylarks as well as another Red Kite sat in a tree. We drove to a strategic high point and spent some time getting good views of Calandra Larks; a Red Kite first mobbing a female Hen Harrier and then 2 male Hen Harriers, then Alan located 3 distant Pin tailed Sandgrouse flying off into the distance, which we all managed to see. A little further we then encountered a pair of Stonechats, Black Redstarts and 2 Common Buzzards however it was the sighting of a pair of Pin tailed Sandgrouse not 30m from the minibus, which really raised our spirits. This was then quickly followed by us finding (probably Alan’s) 3 more male Pin tailed Sandgrouse and getting to see them through the telescope, and being overwhelmed by their colourful yet cryptic plumage. Next up was yet another highlight of the day as we were treated to incredibly close views of a male Hen Harrier as it quartered the grasslands along with 2 young Marsh Harriers. The image of this ghost-like raptor as it flew back and forth was simply unforgettable. Time was now moving on and I knew we should be going for lunch soon but I wanted to try a couple more tracks. This paid dividends as we added a pair of Mistle Thrushes, a single Goldfinch and a few Stock Doves to the list followed by the sight of a male Merlin dashing low across the fields. It had been an incredible couple of hours on the ‘drylands’ even without finding any Little Bustards. We then headed for our lunch stop, which is a picnic area within a motorway services adjacent to this area. Although it was quite clod it was pleasant being sat in the glorious sunshine feeding the local House Sparrow population. Halfway through our lunch a Red Kite passed over and it flushed a group of birds from the nearby field. I could not believe it as 24 Little Bustards flew around right above our heads before heading over the motorway and out of sight. Our luck was certainly in today!. After the picnic we continued towards Ivars D’Urgell and as we passed through Mollerussa I spotted 6 White Storks circling over the town. At Ivars we continued through the town to the Estany d’Ivars, which is a wetland surrounded by reedbed and agricultural fields. We spent an hour here walking along the edge of the water to the excellent two storey hide which overlooks most of the lake. The walk had been quite productive producing 30+ Tree Sparrows, Cirl Bunting, Reed Buntings, Cetti’s Warbler, Water & Meadow Pipits, Chaffinches, Shoveler, Grey Herons and 2 more White Storks. However from the hide we could check the large group of wildfowl and found 2 Wigeon, Eurasian Teal and Common Pochard amongst the good numbers Mallard and Shoveler. A flock of 40+ Jackdaws flew though as did lots of Lapwing, several Marsh Harriers hunted over the reeds and as we left we found a couple of Common Snipe in a small puddle. This completed a superb day, and one that was totally unexpected given the weather conditions at the Ebro Delta that morning.
Saturday 13th :- The wind had subsided considerably but it was still very cold and after breakfast we gathered at the minibus in readiness for our day on the north side of the Ebro Delta. We made our way towards the large lagoon of Canal Vell but stopped to look at a rice field full of Black tailed Godwits, Lapwings, gulls, herons and egrets. While we were there Sue saw a Peregrine and we watched as it continued to strike a pigeon out of the air. However instead of the Peregrine enjoying its catch a female Marsh Harrier moved in and claimed the prize, much to the Peregrine’s disgust as it continually buzzed the Marsh Harrier. Then as the Peregrine started to get unconcerned with the Marsh Harrier stealing it’s kill a Merlin flew though buzzing its much larger cousin. It was an incredible sequence of events, which is difficult to describe in this trip report. Enough to be said it was a great start to the day. We continued to the huge lagoon of Canal Vell but the hunters were out in force and proved to be slightly off-putting. Although the walk to the observation tower proved worthwhile - as we got views of a Moustached Warbler in a small reedbed as well as Cetti’s Warbler, Reed Bunting, Chiffchaff, Common Snipe and Black Redstart. At the observation tower we overlooked a large body of water surrounded by phragmites and bulrush, with some drained rice-fields further beyond. Sadly the area was littered with hunters wanting shoot any wildfowl flying their way however there were still lots of birds around. On the shallow lagoon we found several Little & Great Crested Grebes, Great White Egrets fished from the edge of the reeds, a few Greater Flamingos stood asleep in the centre and the massive number of duck included Shelduck, Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler and Red Crested Pochards. Marsh Harriers patrolled the area creating havoc amongst the wildfowl and prehistoric-looking Purple Gallinule crept through the undergrowth. One surprise was to find 100+ Avocets in a tight bunch feeding in the centre of the lake being occasionally disturbed by a Marsh Harrier making them fly around in an impressive tight flock. A Kingfisher flashed past ‘peeping’ like a tiny electric blue exocet missile and a Penduline Tit showed briefly in the top of the nearby phragmites. Eventually we left the observation tower and walked back slowly to the minibus seeing a Common Sandpiper along the channel. We then drove slowly around the Canal Vell area again finding the large flock of Glossy Ibis in the flooded fields along with lots of Cattle & Little Egrets, Black headed Gulls and our first Water Pipit of the short break. A Spoonbill flew over the vehicle while we were searching this area but sadly didn’t land anywhere near. Back at the main road we headed towards L’Ampolla and Sue did incredibly well finding 2 White Storks from the vehicle as we headed along the main road. Near L’Ampolla we called in at the small local reserve of Bassa de les Olles but was unfortunately closed to the general public due to day’s hunting activities. However a small pool en-route to the reserve gave exceptional views of Crag Martins as they fed all around our heads making for one of the highlights of the week. So we returned to the vehicle and drove the short distance to the coastal tourist town of L’Ampolla where we enjoyed our picnic lunch while looking out over the marina and bay. There were several gulls around the marina, which were mainly Yellow legged & Black headed Gulls but we did find our first adult Audouin’s Gulls – looking fabulous with their pale grey mantle and distinctive red bills, tipped black & yellow. We really enjoyed these birds as they came closer to where we were standing giving Alan a chance to photograph them on the sandy beach. Then in flew a 1st winter Mediterranean Gull completing the expected larids to be found in this part of the Ebro Delta. We stood and watched the sea for a while and I saw a bird just off-shore coming from an inlet, which was out of view – Great Northern Diver surely?. It had dived so we waited for what seemed like an eternity before this rare Mediterranean vagrant appeared again. We were very lucky as it passed right in front of us continually diving and fishing about 50m off-shore showing all the cryptic details of its winter plumage – what a find in these waters and the leaders first sighting in Spain!. Incredibly pleased with our discovery we went for a celebratory coffee in a nearby hotel, which was most welcome as it gave a rest from the cold ‘Mistral’ that was still blowing. It was now mid-afternoon so we decided to head back to the Garxal Lagoon, which we had visited on our first afternoon. However on the way I called in at a bridge over a river where I had seen Night Herons previously but sadly the roost wasn’t there. Although it wasn’t a wasted trip as we got excellent views of a Kingfisher ‘fishing’ close to where we were sat in the mini-bus and a couple of over-wintering Whiskered Terns patrolled the water. Again we headed west towards the tip of the delta passing field upon field of herons, egrets, gulls, Lapwings, Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits and White Wagtails. Just outside Ruimar we stopped at a couple of partially flooded paddy fields that contained some good numbers of waders including 80+ Black tailed Godwits, 10+ Golden Plover, Green & Common Sandpipers, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank and lots of Common Snipe, with a male Stonechat acting as a sentry at the edge of the field. Finally we drove through to the parking area and walked the short distance to the open-air hide overlooking the El Garxal lagoon. We spent our final hour of the day sitting out of the strong wind enjoying the species on and around the lake. I picked out a couple of distant Slender billed Gulls amongst the large number of Black headed Gulls, a few more Whiskered Terns fed in with the commoner Sandwich Terns. Small groups of Dunlin flew past along with a few Spotted Redshanks, Greenshank and more Common Snipe going to roost in the shallow waters and muddy fringes. It was starting to get a little cold so it was agreed we would return to the hotel and have a good relax before the evening meal had been yet another very good day despite the weather conditions.
Sunday 14th :- We were greeted to another fine morning so I decided to stay with my original plan of heading inland to the Massis del Ports Nature Reserve within the Sistema Iberica mountain range. The forecast hadn’t been this good so it was worth the chance of missing the proposed inclement weather. So after breakfast we set off and journeyed through the Ebro Delta rice fields towards L’ Aldea and beyond to Tortosa. The ubiquitous Cattle & Little Egrets, Grey Herons, Black headed & Yellow legged Gulls, Lapwing, White Wagtails, House Sparrows and Spotless Starlings lined the roadside. Beyond Tortosa we followed the mighty River Ebro inland for a short way until we struck into the mountains along the impressive new road that links this road with Horta de Sant Joan. Previous years this journey had been slow and winding but not now as this new wide road made the trip much easier and much faster. Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Linnets and Chaffinches were seen from the vehicle as we headed up into the mountains and soon enough we were taking the minor road into the nature reserve. We slowly progressed seeing more thrushes and Chaffinches but also now Woodpigeons, Mistle Thrush, Greenfinch and Goldfinch. We made an initial roadside stop and found our first Sardinian Warbler, Blackcaps, Dunnock, Robin, Great & Blue Tits. Our next stop was at the mirador that overlooks some impressive sandstone rock formations, which was definitely worth a photograph or two. I was scanning the skies and saw a large ‘accipiter’ and quickly got my telescope on it, confirming it to be a female Goshawk. Unfortunately though it did stay in view long and the only other person to see it was Tony, which was a great shame for Alan & Sue. However we persevered but sadly it didn’t reappear and we decided to move on as we were getting cold with 2oC being shown on the car’s thermometer, plus a shocking wind chill factor!. We drove through the karst limestone and sandstone mountains, Griffon Vultures started to show over the ridges and I decided to stop to watch one gathering group. As so often happens in these situations with ‘kettles of vultures’ a sub-adult Golden Eagle drifted across the valley and joined the throng, enabling us to get some very good views of this lovely raptor. It soon left but was then pursued by our first Raven, chasing and harrying the eagle on it’s way, clearly showing the enormous difference in size between the two. After all this excitement we spent a little more time checking the skies but Sue instead looked over the local plant-life and found some good examples of Stinking Hellebor, which we all enjoyed. We continued into the heart of the reserve getting brief views of Great Spotted Woodpecker before arriving at the picnic area of Franqueta. There was about an hour before our proposed lunch break so we took the metalled road up the mountain in search of some more wildlife. I kept checking the ridges and eventually found my target species, which was a young Spanish Ibex feeding precariously on the steep slope. We all got very good telescope views of this native animal and during this observation we also got exceptional views of a Firecrest, which came to with a couple of metres. We continued to walk the track and I found another adult Golden Eagle as it started to do it’s deep undulating display flight. However it was very cold and our resolve was being tested to the extreme with the thought of a nice warm vehicle getting the better of us. So we turned round and headed back to the picnic area stopping en-route for a mixed flock of Long tailed, Great & Blue Tits. Back at the minibus we grabbed our picnic lunches from the boot and quickly climbed into our seats, not even a calling Nuthatch made us remain outside – and now it had started to snow a little!. Lunch was enjoyed by all as we put the vehicle’s heating on full blast and brought warmth back to our bodies. I knew the area was generally quiet and attributed it to the prolonged cold weather Spain had been getting so made the conscious decision to slowly make our way back to the coast, where it was certainly warmer. As we left Franqueta Tony saw what he thought to be a Nuthatch disappear into the dense woodland, and from his description it definitely sounded spot on. We slowly returned the route we had come finding some enormous mixed flocks of Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Serin & Goldfinch, along with plenty more Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and Blackcap. Sue did really well finding a Jay and I saw our only Hawfinch of the day as it flew over the minibus making on of the few DLT’s (dodgy leader tick!) of this trip. The journey back to the Ebro Delta was punctuated with views of Crested Larks and a couple of Common Buzzards along the way, with the weather steadily improving as we headed towards the coast. I drove round to the south side of the delta via San Carles de la Rapita where we saw a few gulls loitering in the marina. Back amongst the rice fields the egrets and herons started to show at every turn but our first 2 Barn Swallows amongst a large flock of Crag Martins was a nice surprise. We soon reached the first viewing platform at the Bassa de l’Encanyissada and immediately found 20 Marsh Harriers in the air together, in some sort of pre-roost gathering. We settled down on the platform and checked the wildfowl on the lagoon finding 100’s of Common Coot, with big numbers of Mallard, Gadwall and Red Crested Pochard. Several Great White Egrets fished in the shallow waters as did both Great Crested & Little Grebes. One surprise was to find several Sandwich Terns feeding over the water, a bird normally associated with the sea. We eventually left here and drove round to the main tower hide associated with l’Encanyissada but before we got there we found a Mute Swan on one of the smaller pools. Just beyond this a recently drained paddy field next to the road was alive with birds including our first Bluethroat, which gave excellent views as it ran around with it’s tail cocked high. Also here we found a couple of Water Pipits, several Meadow Pipits, Reed Buntings, White Wagtails, Stonechats and Chiffchaffs. At the hide we set up our ‘scopes’ and almost immediately I found a Black necked Grebe (actually there were 40+ here) amongst the flocks of Common Coot, Gadwall, Mallard, Great Crested & Little Grebes. Careful searching revealed a pair of Wigeon and we enjoyed the sight of another Bluethroat as it worked its way along a muddy shoreline. One highlight was finding a female Hen Harrier quartering the reeds in front of us, causing havoc with the Common Snipe population as they exploded out of their positions when it passed by. As the sun was dipping towards the Montsia mountains we headed back to Deltebre with Tony seeing another Barn Swallow and finding a couple of large flocks of European Starlings, our first of the short break. It had been another good day despite the cold of the mountains making things a little difficult for us earlier in the day.
Monday 15th :- This was our final full day and after breakfast we set off to the south of the River Ebro this time using the ‘transbordador’ (car ferry) from Deltebre to Sant Jaume. Not only does this save masses of time, but it’s also great fun as the floating car park speeds from shore to shore across the mighty river. The other advantage is that while you are waiting to board there are birds to be seen and Tony found us a lovely male Sardinian Warbler followed by a Blackbird. So soon enough we were driving through Sant Jaume and heading east towards the coast, our first sight being the tower hide at Bassa de l’Alfacada. As we drove through the drained rice fields we found the usual Great White, Little & Cattle Egrets, Grey Herons, Cormorants, Moorhens, Marsh Harriers, Kestrels, Green Sandpipers, Common Snipe, Lapwing, Black headed & Yellow legged Gulls, White Wagtails, Crested Larks, Spotless Starlings, Chaffinches and House Sparrows. As we neared l’Alfacada a large group of Golden Plover flew over the vehicle and into the nearby rice fields. At the lagoon, we parked and were greeted by the distinctive calls of Eurasian Teal, which were currently hidden by the trees between us and the wetland. However we did still see plenty of Purple Gallinules, Great Crested Grebe, Common Coot and Mallard. We climbed the steps to the top tier of the hide and set up looking over the large lagoon and found 100’s of Eurasian Teal with much smaller numbers of Shoveler, Mallard and Shelduck. Tony found a few Greylag Geese and Sue identified a group of 50+ Avocets feeding in the shallow waters followed by a distant Greenshank. Birds were literally everywhere with a Glossy Ibis, 2 Black tailed Godwits and Bluethroat being found amongst the numerous Common Snipe, Marsh Harriers, Great White Egrets and Purple Gallinules – it was superb. Eventually we managed to drag ourselves away and followed the same route back to Sant Jaume seeing a cracking male Marsh Harrier (carrying a rat) and surprisingly our only Hoopoe of the trip so far, much to the delight of Tony who’d never seen one before. Next on the itinerary was the lagoons of Bassa de la Tancada and unfortunately we got there to find the hide was closed off for repairs, however we were able to scan the water from the roadside. Here we got some very good views of Slender billed Gulls, with one particular individual very close to the road and allowing Alan to get some decent images. Sadly there weren’t many waders but we did find a single Grey Plover but also lots of Greater Flamingos, Coot, Mallard and Gadwall. So with time to spare before lunch I decided we should drive the trubacador to the salt works checking the Ports del Alfacs. This was very productive as we found plenty of waders along the beach including a single Oystercatcher, several Turnstone, Grey Plover and Sanderling. Off-shore was pretty good also as I found 5 Red breasted Mergansers (not always an easy bird in the Med), 100’s of Mallard, a few Great Crested Grebes and more Slender billed Gulls. It was now time for lunch and the weather was starting to worsen, it had been fairly grey and cold all morning (again!) but now it was starting to rain slightly. We headed to the nearby (excellent) reserve of Riet Vell and took refuge in the large bird hide overlooking their partially drained lagoon, which is surrounded by phragmites. Being partially drained meant there was plenty of exposed mud and a lot of birds were taking full advantage of this with 150+ Purple Gallinules, 50+ Common Snipe, Moorhen, Grey Heron and Great White Egret all on show. Although the highlight of this visit for us all were the 10+ Bluethroats, which came in all plumages, along with excellent views of Cetti’s Warbler, Robin and Stonechats as they fed on the mud. Sadly Alan informed me he wasn’t feeling too well so we agreed to take him back the Delta Hotel and the rest of us would do something on the north side of the delta. Back over the ‘transbordador’ we were quickly at our hotel and wishing Alan well, followed by a welcome coffee on such a cold & wet day. Soon enough Sue, Tony & I continued on our journey but the weather had got worse with now steady rain making things quite difficult. However we persevered and checked the paddy fields near Canal Vell (looking for Spoonbill) where again we found 200+ Glossy Ibis alongside the numerous herons & egrets. Several Green Sandpipers flew up from the ditches as we drove along and then we found a field with 67 Black tailed Godwits in. Nearer to Riumar we again stopped at the roadside paddy fields to check the waders and we were pleased to find another 50+ Black tailed Godwits, 70+ Ruff, 3 Spotted Redshanks, Common Redshank, Greenshank, 6 Ringed Plovers, Common Sandpiper, Lapwing and Common Snipe. Our considered walk along the beach at Riumar was abandoned due to the very inclement weather and we opted to go back to L’Ampolla to have one more look at the bay there. As we drove into this lovely coastal town, Sue said “there’s the diver” and sure enough close in-shore (again) was the winter plumage Great Northern Diver showing really well. So we parked up and walked out to where it was, en-route flushing a Grey wagtail from the shoreline. Again we got some fantastic close views of this seabird and a couple of fishing boats came in with several Audouin’s Gulls and a 1st winter Mediterranean Gull with the masses of Black headed & Yellow legged Gulls. It was now time to return to the hotel, which we did and got the important news that Alan was feeling slightly better and should be well enough to travel back to the airport the next day.
Tuesday 16th :- We were quite disappointed on our final morning to see that the weather hadn’t improved and it was looking decidedly ‘dreac’, actually with the cold wind more akin to Scotland than the Spanish Mediterranean!. After another good breakfast we had plenty of time to get our luggage together and settle any final bills before loading the vehicle and heading north. Barcelona Airport is very lucky to have the excellent Llobregat Delta nature reserve on it’s doorstep, making the final transfer to departures very easy. We arrived at the reserve around midday and sadly it was still cold and overcast but the rain had now become just a very light drizzle. We walked along the tracks checking the reed fringed pools finding Little Grebes, Mallard, Cormorant, Reed Buntings, Chiffchaffs and a very confiding Cetti’s Warbler. The track then runs through a grassed area with trees and shrubs and we flushed an Iberian Green Woodpecker off the ground, which was followed by Tony finding a Hoopoe sat in a carob tree, with Serins and Chaffinches flying back and forth. At the main hide we settled down out of the wind and the rain and enjoyed point blank views of the wildfowl sat on the shallow lagoon. There were mostly Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveler and Teal but we did also find a pair of Wigeon and Shelduck. A Little Stint flew in and landed on one of the small islands, then proceeded to play hide and seek with us but eventually we all got very good views of this tiny wader through the telescope. After this we left the hide and slowly walked back through the reserve to the other main body of water, which also has a good hide overlooking it. On the way we found a nice flock of Serins and then in the phragmites near the hide we saw several Penduline Tits moving slowly through the reeds. In the hide we were immediately greeted by a large group of Golden Plover roosting on a nearby island. This was then followed by an equally large gathering of Mediterranean Gulls in all plumages. Wildfowl included a few Grey lag Geese along with more Wigeon, Gadwall, Shoveler, Teal and Mallard. However it was the discovery of several Dunlin with a couple more Little Stints that enabled us to go through the important criteria for separation of these two difficult species. We were now starting to get a little cold in the hide and it was nearing lunchtime so we slowly made our way back to the car park. There we sat in the warmth of the vehicle and enjoyed our final picnic lunch and I went through the log and the highlights of everyone’s short break. It was now time to drive to the airport and shortly afterwards we arrived at Terminal 1 departures in plenty of time for their flight to Gatwick.