Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Southern Catalonia

24th - 29th October 2011

Monday 24th :- After literally a stormy start to the day Julian got to Barcelona Airport T1 where he met up with Michael quickly followed by Deirdre, Mike & Jane. We loaded up the minibus and drove the short distance round to T2 where from the car park Julian found our first of several Alpine Swifts flying around the area plus a few Crag Martins, Monk Parakeet, White Wagtail and Spotless Starling. After a short while and a chance to have a coffee we met Elizabeth who arrived right on time from Leeds/Bradford. Around lunchtime we were heading south towards the Ebro Delta and the 2 hour journey was fairly productive with a Hoopoe seen by Jane and Julian, plus a Common Buzzard, Woodpigeons, and a couple of Common Kestrels. We entered the network of rice fields just south of L’Ampolla and weaved our way slowly through to Deltebre seeing our first 6 Glossy Ibis, along with Great White, Cattle & Little Egrets, Grey Heron, Lapwings, Black-headed, Western Yellow-legged & Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We arrived at the Delta Hotel late afternoon and with the improved weather conditions arranged to meet an hour and a half later. We had barely got into our rooms and a message from Mike & Jane came through saying they had a Kingfisher from their room window! We gathered everyone and we all got fabulous views of this electric blue and orange gem as it sat on a branch just outside the window. Then Elizabeth said she had a lovely moth in her room so Julian kindly went to look at it and it was a very smart Crimson Speckled. Julian needed to visit the local supermarket and we all wanted to join him so we met a little earlier in the car park seeing Red Admiral and Small White butterflies. We bought our provisions and we saw some Collared Doves around the town with Elizabeth also adding Blackbird to the list. Soon after this we were heading out to Canal Vell where we spent a couple of hours birdwatching around the area. Sadly the weather had become again a little inclement so we had to spend most of our time birding from the minibus but we still managed a very good evening. The major highlight was seeing a combined total of 2000+ Glossy Ibis flying about and feeding in the wet fields – what a sight. Although this was closely followed by some good numbers of waders including Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Ruff, Wood, Green & Common Sandpipers, Common Snipe, and Ringed Plovers. We also saw lots more herons, egrets, gulls, Moorhen and a few Marsh Harriers. As we were starting back towards the accommodation Julian stopped for another group of gulls finding 2 adult Audouin’s Gulls standing away from the main group of commoner ones. We got back in plenty of time to freshen up before meeting for the evening meal, which was excellent followed by the daily log. Everyone was now quite tired after a long day’s travelling so we soon headed off to our rooms for a good night’s sleep, looking forward to the following day in the wonderful area.

Tuesday 25th :- We woke to lovely fine day so after breakfast we gathered our things for the day and met in the car park. The Montsia Mountains looked fabulous in the morning sunlight so we stood for a while enjoying this plus seeing our first Kingfisher of the day. A little later than planned we drove the short distance to Canal Vell where we parked at the head of the track to the viewing platform about 200m away. We had already seen the usual species on the drive in such as all three egrets, Grey Herons, Glossy Ibis, Common Sandpiper and lots of Black-headed & Yellow-legged Gulls. Just as we left the minibus Jane found our first (of several) Black Redstarts and eventually everyone got good views of this or another bird. There were also a few Tree Sparrows along with lots of House Sparrows, Common Chiffchaffs flitted around the bushes, we saw our first Robin and European Starlings plus Julian pointed out another couple of adult Audouin’s Gulls for those who’d missed them the evening before. We had been there 30 minutes and barely gone 100m! The second half of the short walk was done slightly quicker, although sightings of Little Grebe, Swallow, Zitting Cisticola, Greenshank and Marsh Harrier still delayed our progress. Eventually we reached the viewing platform and this is when the fun really began. The initial view showed the lagoon to be full of wildfowl but then an immature Night Heron flew up from the nearby trees giving fabulous views as it circled right in front of us. It then landed allowing us to get some more superb views through the telescopes. Our attentions then turned the lake and we quickly saw there were lots of Mallard, Shoveler and Coot, with smaller numbers of Red Crested & Common Pochard. We also saw plenty of Great Crested & Little Grebes and a large flock of Greater Flamingos huddled together in one far corner. Mike did very well finding an Osprey flying in and we got an amazing sight of it dropping into the water to catch a fish, making an enormous splash. The good weather was bringing out the raptors as several Marsh Harriers floated over the reeds. A commotion amongst the Coot drew our attention another raptor, which was quickly identified as a ‘light phase’ Booted Eagle and again we watched as it drifted around occasionally being mobbed by the local harriers. Things started to calm down a little and Julian continued his search through the pack of duck, adding Gadwall and Wigeon to the growing list. We remained there for a while longer trying to find the vocal Cetti’s Warbler, seeing several wader species including Greenshanks, Green Sandpipers and a Common Snipe. We had to leave despite the fabulous activity but we could have easily spent most of the day there. We walked slowly back to the minibus seeing more of the same species including some more excellent views of Audouin’s Gulls. We set off and continued through the rice fields particularly looking for waders finding just a few Wood Sandpipers and more Lapwing and Greenshank. Back at the main road we headed east towards the coast, to the resort of Riumar, which was now pretty deserted being out of season. We stopped at the coast road and walked out to the beach with Mike and Jane getting brief views of a Crested Lark as it flew away.  The on-shore winds had made the sea very impressive with white horses and a large swell. Several large gulls were moving up & down the coastline but our attention was on the waders running up the beach. The clockwork-like Sanderling kept us entertained in their small flocks and we also found several Kentish Plovers sat amongst the dunes. These were the key species that we had been looking for and satisfied with our views we wandered back to the vehicle. We then drove the very short distance to the track leading to the El Garxal Lagoon and walked slowly through the stands of glasswort to the small open-ended hide. We had our picnic lunch here while looking out over the water and reed beds, but the rise in water levels made it quiet for wading birds. In spite of this we did find a huge flock of Common Coot, a couple of Great White Egrets and some Marsh Harriers that quartered the reed beds. Julian was scanning with his telescope and picked out our first Purple Gallinule of the trip, but it was distant. Having spent lunchtime there we wandered back to the minibus and drove right across the Northern Delta to the coastal town of L’Ampolla, where we visited the natural reserve of Bassa del Olles. We parked at the visitors centre and walked slowly through the reeds seeing several Stonechats, Zitting Cisticolas and Chiffchaffs. Mike drew our attention to a small flock of birds heading inland from the sea which Julian quickly identified as winter plumaged Whiskered Terns but sadly they did not remain in the area.  We got to the viewing platform to find the lagoon was pretty empty apart from a couple of Great Crested Grebes & Mallard, although here we did get better views of a family party of Purple Gallinules feeding on the roots of phragmites.   We returned to the minibus and headed into L’Ampolla for a welcome coffee.  Whilst we sat at the café in the warm afternoon sunshine we checked the gulls in the harbour finding several Audouin’s & Yellow-legged Gulls. After the coffee stop we spent some time enjoying the ambience of this Mediterranean resort while watching for birds out to sea. Julian changed the mood by getting excited about a dark gull-like bird flying low over the water and when he got it in his telescope, confirmed his thoughts about it being an Arctic Skua. We watched it as it flew into the bay, chased a couple of Black-headed Gulls and headed back out to sea. He was obviously on a roll as then he picked out a distant wader, tentatively identifying it as a roosting Whimbrel, but we needed better views.  In order to get these, we walked along the coastal path and re-found this curlew- like bird as it now fed amongst the rock pools.  Sadly, it was then disturbed by some fishermen and flew off across the bay. It was now late afternoon and time to head back to the hotel, so we drove slowly through the extensive rice fields re-viewing most of the species we had already seen and ending a very good first day.

Wednesday 26th :-  Due to the unpredictability of the weather later in the week, Julian had decided that today would be our travelling day inland to the psuedo-steppes of Lleida.  So, after an early breakfast we headed off through the rice fields and Jane did very well calling out 3 White Storks feeding with all the egrets & herons. We took the motorway north before heading inland through the very scenic Serra de Montsant with its pine woodland and limestone cliffs. We saw several Blackbird, Song Thrush and Woodpigeons as we travelled along, eventually arriving in Alfez village where we stopped for a coffee at the petrol station on the edge of town. It was now quite warm so we sat outside watching for birds and Mike found a few Greenfinch & Julian a Red Kite sat on a distant pylon.  Mike went for a short walk and soon came back saying he had good views of Spotless Starling & Black Redstart, so we all went to have a look. As so often happens we ended up finding a lot more, with Elizabeth picking out a Southern Grey Shrike sat on an almond tree, plus Sardinian Warbler, Crested Lark and another couple of Red Kites. After this we drove the short distance to the (dry) agricultural land that makes up this steppe-like area.  We scanned the ploughed fields initially finding Crested & Skylarks, Red-legged Partridge & Carrion Crows.  Around the aerodrome we spotted our first Thekla Larks and Julian got really excited as he saw a Black Stork circling with the resident Red Kites. Mike did extremely well finding a distant Little Owl sat on a rock & Jane equally so by finding a male Merlin sat in a ploughed field. Over the next few hours we traversed the area, scanning the fields and bushes, locating a large flock of Calandra Lark, a pair of Dartford Warblers & several Northern Wheatears. Other highlights included 2 more Little Owls, a big mixed flock of Red-billed Chough and Jackdaws wheeling around together, a Sparrowhawk and a Goshawk flying over this bird rich area. It was now mid-afternoon and Julian wanted to visit one further site before returning to Deltebre, so we headed for Castelldans.  Just before the town we turned off onto a metalled road which headed out over an area known as Mas de Melons.  Elizabeth calls us to a halt and points out a mid-sized bird sat on the roof apex of a dis-used building and confirms it as a lovely male Blue Rock Thrush. Further on this road we find lots of birds sat on overhead wires which were a huge flock of Rock Sparrows and a lone Corn Bunting to add to our daily list. A little further along we find a small reed fringed pool & passerines flitting around include a mixed finch flock of Linnets, Greenfinch & Goldfinch plus Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs in the mature trees.  It is now time to head back to the hotel with another good day under our belts, even though sadly we had missed a couple of key species.  Julian decided to take a different route back following the mighty Ebro to the mouth and just outside Tortosa we encountered a small flock of Crag Martins around the buildings and Julian had brief views of a pair of Hoopoes sat on overhead wires. 

Thursday 27th :-  Today we were heading to the southern half of the Ebro Delta on a day of high winds and rain showers, so not the best! After breakfast we drove out through Deltebre and over the newly constructed bridge that now connects this town and Sant Jaume. Although the small car ferries (transbordadors) were good fun, this was a much easier and quicker way of reaching the south and not dependant on calm river conditions. We quickly made our way out of Sant Jaume heading west towards the tower hide at Alcafada. As always there were people ploughing through the now harvested rice fields and consequently flocks of birds were in attendance. As always there was the usual mix of Little & Cattle Egrets, Grey Herons, Black-headed, Yellow-legged & Lesser Black-backed Gulls but also this time there were hundreds of Glossy Ibis and smaller number of Great White Egrets and Audouin’s Gulls. A little further we stopped at the reed-fringed river Migjorn where we found our first (of many) Purple Gallinules of the day but Julian and Jane also got brief views of a male Bluethroat and a Moustached Warbler – but it was definitely a BVN (better views needed!). We continued to the tower hide where we climbed to the top level and scanned the sea and the surrounding pools. Initial views produced a (surprising) single Greater Flamingo, 10+ Greylag Geese, Shelduck, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Moorhen and Common Coot. A few Common Snipe were occasionally flying over the reeds and Elizabeth called 6 Avocets flying over, which was brilliant. Kingfishers flew back and forth along the Gola de Migjorn occasionally landing and giving good views through the telescopes. We checked the scrubby areas below the tower finding a couple of Robins, Chiffchaff, Black Redstart and a Sardinian Warbler, and a possible Bluethroat, which sadly disappeared before we could clinch the identification. Mid-morning we left and drove back towards San Jaume and the south east to an excellent area known as the Bassa de la Tancada another series of coastal brackish lagoons. We first checked an area traditionally known to be good for waders but the high water levels proved to be a problem. We did see several Common Redshank and Common Snipe but not much else, although we did find several Sandwich Terns sat on buoys in the bay and a few Great Crested Grebes. Greater Flamingos are a feature of this area and here we saw hundreds of them of all ages – from the pale immature birds to the deep rosy pink of the mature adults. Julian was a little disappointed with Tancada and suggested making the interesting journey along sand spit to the salt pans of Punta de la Banya. It had been wet recently and the high sea had covered the spit a few days before but now the track was just about drivable. We had great fun speeding over the compacted sand and through the large puddles that had recently developed. About half way along the 7km track we stopped to look at a small group of waders, which included a Grey Plover, several Turnstone, Kentish Plovers, Sanderling and a Dunlin. We continued to the end of the track, which culminated with Julian ‘going for it’ through some particularly big puddles! We eventually parked at the entrance to the salt works (complete with salt mountains) after Julian had tried to get in and told in no uncertain terms by the guard he wasn’t allowed. So we resigned ourselves with a 2km walk (you were right Jane!) along the beach to the hide overlooking the pans. We sat and had our picnics while searching for birds, which were again disappointingly scarce near to where we were, although in the distance we could see a large flock of Greater Flamingos, with some Dunlin running about their legs and even further away a Marsh Harrier disturbed another large flock of waders, which were probably Black-tailed Godwits. So we had to satisfy ourselves with closer birds such as Sanderling and Kentish Plover but nothing more prolific. After lunch and when the rain had abated a little we set off back slowly to the minibus, getting there as the rain started to fall in earnest yet again. We made our way back across the sand to Tancada where we stopped at the main hide and scanned the wildfowl. Amongst the huge mixed flock of Mallard and Common Coot we found Wigeon, Shelduck, Gadwall, Shoveler and Eurasian Teal. After a short while here we ventured round to Riet Vell, a small nature reserve owned by the SEO (Sociedad Española de Ornitología) and surrounded by organic rice fields. In the car park, Deirdre found a Grey Wagtail sat on a nearby roof and a lovely male Black Redstart watched us intently from a nearby tree. We walked slowly round to the large hide stopping at a track where Deirdre and Jane got views of a Cetti’s Warbler and Julian found another Bluethroat again playing ‘hide & seek’. We all managed to get a brief view of this bird but still not very satisfactory - we would keep persevering. As a contrast, there were Purple Gallinules everywhere and showing extremely well in the plough rice fields, which was a lovely sight. At the hide we settled down to look out over the small lagoon finding Great Crested & Little Grebes, Mallard, Gadwall, Moorhen and a very confiding Common Snipe. Julian then heard a Bluethroat call and searched the adjacent field, where he found it right out in the open. Thankfully we all managed to get a decent view of this bird, which was then chased away by a second individual. After this success we walked back to the minibus and a suggestion of a coffee stop by Julian was very well received. We drove west through the maze of fields until we came to the café on the edge of the Encanyissada Lagoon, where we stopped for a welcome break. After we visited the hide overlooking the water and trying to ignore the ‘vocal’ school children we looked for birds finding a couple of Black-necked Grebes, masses of wildfowl (mainly Red Crested Pochard) and a fabulous view of a Kingfisher at close quarters through the telescope – no wonder it was some people’s species of the trip. We left the hide and walked the short distance to Casa de la Fusta, a visitor centre cum shop that only sells locally grown produce and artifacts. After some of us parted with a little money we all got back into the minibus and drove around to the other platform that overlooked the reeds and lagoon. From here we stayed until nearly dusk watching the Marsh Harriers come into roost and the starlings gather in their huge flocks wheeling their way across the sky. Common Pipistrelle bats use purpose-built boxes around here and just before we left they started to appear feeding gainfully on the masses of insects. We got back to Deltebre just as it was getting dark, it had been a fairly long day but extremely enjoyable and after a ‘freshen up’, we were all ready for a pre-meal beverage followed by another excellent dinner.

Friday 28th :- This was our final full day and we were heading to the mountain chain known as the Sistema Iberico, and particularly Els Ports nature reserve. The weather wasn’t brilliant but we were thankfully avoiding the rain, which had been forecast. The journey to Horta de San Juan is now a fast one with the advent of a nice new road up through the mountains but we stopped just outside Prat de Compte for our first Griffon Vultures of the day plus a good mixed flock of Chaffinches, Goldfinches and sparrows. A coffee stop was negotiated by the team so just before the turn off for the natural park Julian pulled into a really pleasant tavern where a really affable host served yet more great drinks. In fact Jane was yet again heard to say “they do make great coffee in Spain” and no-one disagreed with this statement. As we were leaving the bar/restaurant Julian heard the familiar song of a Woodlark and started searching the tops of the trees. However it was the eagle-eyed Jane that picked it out and through the telescope we got good views of this little songster. As so often happens in this situation one bird led to another and soon we had seen a Sardinian Warbler, Song Thrush, Great Tit and more finches. Eventually we set off down the road that cuts through the mountain but didn’t get far before Julian was stopping for another Woodlark, Mistle Thrush, Jay and a couple of Serins. It was actually getting to lunchtime so we drove slowly through the very scenic park to the Franqueta picnic area, getting there as the heaven’s opened. Thankfully there is an under-cover area so we ate our picnic lunch and waited for the rain to stop, which it did not long later. This was a wake-up call to the birds of the area and a little searching of the surrounding trees produced a host of new species including a lovely Red Squirrel, Nuthatch, Crested, Coal & Blue Tit. We could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming but couldn’t locate it until Michael wandered over and asked if we had seen it as in plain view to him for the past few minutes! Then high on the hillside Mike found our first 2 Spanish Ibex, (female and calf) and we watched as they made their way across the slippery rocks with consummate ease, even the young one. This was then followed by a second mature female who showed very well through the telescope as she stood on the sky-line. It started to drizzle again so we packed up and walked back to the minibus and started back down the road to the park’s entrance. After a few kilometres Julian pulled over he had heard a Firecrest in the pines next to the road, and after a little gentle persuasion we got fabulous views of three individuals right above our heads. It didn’t stop there as it was ‘winter mixed flock’ and also moving through the foliage were Long-tailed, Crested, Coal, Blue & Great Tits, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatches. We continued back towards Horta de San Juan stopping for a while at an excellent ‘mirador’ at the entrance, with views of the stunning karst limestone rock formations. Here we saw plenty more Griffon Vultures plus Red-billed Chough, Mistle Thrush, Chaffinches, Woodpigeons and a small group of Barn Swallows heading south. Although the highlight was eventually finding a male Cirl Bunting, thanks to Elizabeth sat in the under-storey of a pine tree. Mid-afternoon we left the mountains of Els Ports and drove back to the coast and as we passed through Tortosa we encountered a small flock of Crag Martins feeding over the outskirts of the city. Instead of going straight back to the hotel we wanted to see a little more of the delta so Julian detoured up to L’Ampolla. This was a good move as we had a quick look at the bay and found several Mediterranean Gulls flying along the tideline plus Sandwich Terns and other gull species. We started in towards Deltebre again finding several fields being ploughed by the specially adapted tractors each with their masses of birds in attendance. At Deltebre we carried on to the Canal Vell area where we spent our last hour checking the rice fields, which produced much the same species as previous visits such as Glossy Ibis, Marsh Harrier, Booted Eagle, Green & Common Sandpipers. It was now time to return to the hotel and ready ourselves for the evening meal and our departure the next morning.

Saturday 29th :-  We needed to leave Deltebre at 09.00 in order to get us all back to Barcelona in good time for our return journeys home.  Before setting off, Deirdre spent an hour around the hotel seeing the usual mix of egrets & herons plus excellent views of Hoopoe and a female Reed Bunting which was a new bird for the trip.  We made good time as we headed north in a mixture of sunshine and rain showers following the coastal highway back to Llobregat.  We said our goodbyes to Elizabeth at the airport and drove the short distance to the Filipines nature reserve on the edge of the Llobregat River.  Bizarrely this reserve does not allow cars onto it at the weekends, so Julian dropped the group off and waited at the car park with the minibus some 2 km away!! The rest of us spent a couple of hours wandering around this excellent small wetland reserve seeing the usual Great Crested & Little Grebes, Gadwall, Shoveler, Common Pochard & Marsh Harriers.  Although here, there were a couple of highlights, with excellent views of 2 Iberian Green Woodpeckers and Jane finding our final species with brief views of Common Waxbill. Around lunchtime Julian collected the group at the reserve entrance and drove back to the airport, to finish what for all, was an excellent short break in Southern Catalonia.


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