Birding On A Cruise To Spain - September 2018

Our latest trip has been a cruise from Amsterdam to Barcelona, calling at Zeebrugge (Belgium), Le Havre (for Paris, etc.), Bilbao (Northern Spain), Lisbon, Cadiz, Gibraltar, and Cartegena. To make the most of the migration season, I had prearranged local birding guides on the Iberian peninsular - in Bilbao, Cadiz (for the Donana national park), Gibraltar and Barcelona.

A recent National Geographic article states that over the period since 1980 the number of birds inhabiting European farmlands has shrunk by 55%, a decline no doubt largely fuelled by loss of habitat and loss of insect prey due to pesticides and changed farming methods (e.g. Germany reported to have lost 75% of flying insect mass in the last 27 years). Despite these dire statistics, we had high hopes, especially for our brief wetland and Gibraltar visits, plus the possibilities at sea. We were not to be disappointed, recording 120 species in total.

At Amsterdam, our first stop, there was no time for serious birding. There were too many alternative attractions in this fascinating canal-filled city dominated by bicycles, and not counting the dubious invitations of Yvonne and her co-workers from their red-curtained windows around the corner from our agency-booked short-stay hotel! Having travelled by plane, we also managed to avoid the deadly terrorist stabbings in Central station just down the road from said hotel.

As to the birding there, the nearest I got to a decent birding image of the occasional Mute Swans on the canals is this wonderful painting in the Gallery of Honour of the famous Rijksmuseum - “the Threatened Swan” by Dutch Golden Age painter Jan Asselijn in 1650. The painting shows a life-sized swan defending its nest against a dog (bottom left). It is considered an allegory of the then top official of Holland defending the state against its enemies (including of course, and principally at that time, the UK).

[click on a photo for a larger view]

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Our voyage down the canals to the North Sea from Amsterdam was equally uneventful birdingwise. Apart from the usual pigeons, gulls, terns, grebes, cormorants, coots, ducks, Canada geese and the odd Buzzard, I was pleasantly surprised to see several groups of colourful Egyptian geese. Being essentially immigrant breeders, they seem to like the Netherlands as much as East Anglia and other parts of the UK. Here is a feral pair in close-up that I took a few years ago in Hyde Park of all places – much better than the shots I could get this time from a moving ship.

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Prospects for sea-watching improved as the ship moved along the coast into the English Channel, thence into the Bay of Biscay, then along the northern coast of Spain, down the coast of Portugal and particularly along the southern coast of the Iberian peninsular towards Cadiz. We saw lots of Gannets, of all ages, occasionally doing their spectacular plunge-diving for fish. Such a successful species, I read that unlike many sea-going species around Britain, Gannet numbers are increasing, a factor mainly attributed to its extensive foraging range.

But I was really hoping to see shearwaters too. Here is my best shot of our largest species, a Cory’s Shearwater, a common species beyond the Bay of Biscay, as it steadily flies centimetres above the water off the Portuguese coast.

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And near Cadiz at the entrance to the Straits, a large flock of the smaller, rarer, but gregarious Balearic Shearwaters flew about, some settling on the water, no doubt attracted by the fishing potential at the narrowing entrance to the Mediterranean.

Our most unusual sightings at sea were, however, a Kestrel that hovered briefly over the deck at sea before flying away, and then this adult White Wagtail. It flew in off the sea on to the top deck- a real lawn designed for putting and bowls. On the grass it then proceeded to catch insects which seemed invisible to the naked eye.

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Our first decent birding opportunity ashore came at our second port of call – Le Havre. Here, we navigated the local buses to the unusual “Jardins Suspendus”, a very large garden with lots of greenhouses on a hill overlooking the Seine estuary, and created out of an old fortress. Here is a shot of the view from the top of the garden over the city and estuary.

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There we saw our first Robin, Blackbirds, Chiffchaffs, Blue tits and several of these charming Spotted Flycatchers – very active as they were no doubt stocking up for the long journey south to Africa.

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Our next stop, after a day at sea, was Getxo, Bilbao’s port on the Spanish northern coast. Here we visited first the cliffs to the west of Getxo near Sonabia beach in Cantabria. A wall of limestone rises 470 feet behind the beach. Our guide, Alejandro Herrera, reported these cliffs to be only one of just two locations on Europe’s coasts (along with Tarifa/Algeciras) where Griffon Vultures nest – over 100 pairs. These are huge birds with wingspans of over 8 feet.

Here is a photo of the secluded cove at Sonabia and part of this towering wall of rock.

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We watched some 20 individual vultures perched at the very top. Many then took off, circling with little effort on the thermals. Here is my best shot of a pair silhouetted against the rock face as they glided effortlessly down the cliffs.

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This site was also great for only my second ever sighting of a group of a dozen resident Alpine Choughs, their shortish yellow bills plainly visible with a telescope even though the birds were too high up for a decent photo. As with the vultures, our guide reported that this is one of the very few areas in Spain to find them near the coast.

Here we also saw a few Ravens, one Hoopoe and our first Sardinian warbler.

After these cliffs we visited the salt marshes of Santona, a very large Ramsar site just a bit further west along the coast. Here is a view of part of that site being viewed by Alejandro with his telescope.

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Santona is apparently the most important wetlands in the north of the Iberian peninsular - important inter alia for migrating water birds and particularly the Spoonbill. For example, over 50% of Dutch Spoonbills are reported to regularly spend the winter here. Our guide counted 67 in just one area of the marsh. Here is a photo of a pair which I took later in our voyage, in the Donana National park, when we got a closer view.

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The marsh was alive with other waders and assorted water birds- Greenshanks, Redshanks, Dunlin, Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Black-tailed Godwits, Little Egrets, Grey Herons, Curlews, Whimbrels, a few Black-winged Stilts, a pair of Lapwing, 1 Knot, Great Crested Grebes, Black-necked grebes, Little Grebes, Shags, Cormorants, Sandwich Terns, a few Greater Black-backed gulls, Yellow-legged, Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed gulls and several types of duck (including many Mallard) but which were otherwise too far away to identify.

We also saw our first Willow warbler (one of many stopping on migration Alejandro said); a juvenile Peregrine quartering the marsh overhead; a resident female Sparrowhawk, which shot out of a hedge at high speed as we drove from one area of the marsh to another; and, this single Northern Wheatear standing on a post.

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But our best sighting here was this single Purple Heron creeping stealthily along the edge of a reedbed. Alejandro reported that there were 3 pairs breeding on the marsh but was surprised that this individual had not left yet for Africa. What an impressive bill on such a sinuous neck! The bird looks positively evil.

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Our next stop after the Bilbao area was Lisbon, where we opted for tours of an ancient winery and a craft tile-making workshop. So no birding to report other than Collared doves and a large number of huge White Stork nests built (with a few occupied) on top of electricity pylons on the other side of the main bridge over the Tagus.

Our next real birding expedition ashore was from the next stop, Cadiz. Here we drove into the Donana Natural Park on the edge of the famous Donana National park, around Sanlucar near to the mouth of the Guadalquivir.

Our excellent guide here, Juan Martin Bermudez, took us to various lakes and water bodies interspersed among dry pine woodland. Here we added to our sightings several Night Herons, a Great Bittern hiding on the edge of a reedbed, and an even more elusive Little Bittern. We watched as it stood motionless for several minutes, hardly visible until it started to slowly climb up a thick reed stalk – only the second time I have ever seen one.

In front of the Bitterns, a flock of some 20 marsh terns, mainly Whiskered terns (including juveniles) circulated acrobatically above the water, periodically diving to the water surface to pick off an insect. Juan said that they will be gone to Africa in a few weeks.

Also seen were our first White-headed ducks of the trip and even a few of the very rare Marbled ducks - only the second most important site in Spain (around 20 breeding pairs) for this species, after El Hondo near Alicante which visited in April. Teal, Common Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Gadwall and Wigeon were seen too. A few familiar Greylag geese also popped up - resident breeders here too, Juan reported.

From a small hide we had this close view of a juvenile Black-winged Stilt – not yet acquired its adult plumage.

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And this close up of a foraging Little Ringed Plover.

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And this Common Sandpiper

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But the most spectacular sighting here was this group of 10 Greater Flamingos, which took off in unison in front of us. This was the best showing I have ever seen of their lovely pink and black plumage.

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Above the marsh, a distant Marsh Harrier was spotted and this large group of White Storks circled. Juan mentioned that some of the Storks are now staying the winter in Spain – no doubt due to climate change.

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A big group of Avocets were feeding in the water among the Godwits, Flamingos and other waders. A juvenile Purple Swamp Hen also showed well.

In the pine woods we watched a Short-toed Treecreeper, more noisy Sardinian warblers foraging and another Spotted Flycatcher. On the telephone wires a Woodchat Shrike perched watchfully.

But one of the most memorable events here relates to another local creature, not to the birds. For lunch Juan introduced us to an isolated restaurant in the national park that served local delicacies. When asked if she liked shrimps, my wife agreed, thinking of course of the prawns we get in the supermarket. Here was what appeared!

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Harvested from the salt ponds, Juan explained that you eat the whole creature - eyes, shells, legs, antenna and all. As can be seen, we didn’t finish the dish – but the accompanying local beer, locally-tinned mackerel fillets, bread, beef tomatoes, onions and chips were brilliant!

We discovered later that these were brine shrimps, eaten in the wild by wildlife, particularly flamingos and other waders, but also bred commonly for feeding to fish in aquaculture. The shrimps contain the carotene that turns the plumage of flamingos pink. I also read that brine shrimps reproduce very rapidly and avoid predatory fish by tolerating high levels of salinity. As yet I have not started to turn pink myself, but there again, I was not tempted to eat many!

After Cadiz our ship stopped next in Gibraltar harbour. Meeting our new guide, Miguel Gonzalez, just over the border at La Linea, we travelled west towards Tarifa. We stopped first at El Algarrobo, an ornithological observatory near Algeciras, and then up in the hills at El Bujeo.

As expected, resident Griffon vultures were present (over 200 breeding pairs reportedly). Before they took off I got this nearer shot of some of the group perched at El Bujeo.

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Amongst the 30 or so Griffons circling above El Bujeo (alongside a few Black Kites and other raptors), Miguel then pointed out a single, similar but very slightly smaller (and darker), Ruppell’s vulture - a first for me. I read that occasionally these North African vultures stray into Spain and sometimes stay in Griffon colonies.

More attractive though was a pair of Egyptian vultures, also perched initially, but close together. They were an adult in full plumage (perhaps Mum?) preening and a very dark (almost black) juvenile. Miguel explained that juveniles usually spend up to 5 years in Africa before returning to Spain when they have achieved full maturity. Pity we weren’t close enough for a decent shot! The adult is a lovely looking bird.

Another attractive bird Miguel also found for us was a pale morph Booted Eagle, also perched high up on a rock and preening. One of the smallest eagles, very slightly smaller than a Buzzard, it was a great view, though distant - a welcome change to seeing them circling high in the air.

But our most impressive raptor sighting was a steady stream of Honey Buzzards high above El Algarrobo and making their way down to the straits. There were literally scores at a time. The previous day, Miguel said, there had been 2,000 crossing. In a typical season apparently some 80,000 cross the straits. Travelling down from the forests of Europe and Russia, these numbers are apparently dwarfed by the over 500,000 that travel down through the Middle East.

Mingling amongst the Buzzards, and also on their way to Africa, were some 5 Short-toed snake eagles and more Booted Eagles.

In addition to the raptors, at the two sites we added to our list of sightings Pallid Swifts, Common Swifts, Barn Swallows, Black-eared Wheatears, Stonechats, a noisy Jay, another Hoopoe, more Ravens, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, a Greenfinch, a Crested Lark and 4 Cirl Buntings.

At our final port of call, Cartagena on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, it poured with rain. So no birding! Even the White Wagtail had departed the ship. But our final destination, Barcelona, soon made up for that.

In Barcelona, our local guide Daniel Roca took us initially to the extensive reserve that runs along the Llobregat river to the sea.

Here we added to our sightings Mediterranean gulls (without their summer black hoods), a Snipe in flight, a party of Serins feeding apparently on a stream of tiny ants crossing the path, a distant Osprey fishing, a brief Kingfisher, a Ruff, a single prominent Moustached Warbler, a Reed Warbler, a Cetti’s Warbler diving into a bush, a single Squacco Heron catching a fish, more Purple Swamphens with their extraordinarily large red feet, a Glossy Ibis foraging, several Bee-eaters in flight, several Zitting Cisticolas, a male Pheasant, Monk Parakeets, and this obliging female Stonechat which had been ringed on the site.

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Roaming the reserve were a few Camargue horses, introduced to crop the vegetation. Cattle Egrets like these stood on their backs, ready to pick off irritating insects. The horses seemed completely oblivious, no doubt welcoming the attention.

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But the best sighting was undoubtedly of several flocks of tiny but attractive Waxbills feeding on the seeds of the reedbeds. Here is a close-up of one of the group showing the typical red belly, as well as the bright red eye-stripe and delicate grey–brown vermiculation in the plumage. Introduced to the Iberian peninsular many years ago from Africa, small colonies have become well established.

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Apart from the birds, we came across a few other interesting creatures in the reserve. For instance, I had never seen a freshwater crayfish (a sort of mini lobster) in the wild. There was one lurking in a ditch. Daniel said that it was the introduced American variety. The endangered native European species, he explained, is now limited to a few mountain streams. As in the UK, it has been largely killed off by a fungal infection carried by the introduced American species (echoes of the Red Squirrel in the UK?). Once a culinary delicacy, it is now a protected species. So the Spanish have to use other varieties for their table, like the one we saw, but apparently that is also good to eat.

Here is a photo of the splendid bright green Spanish Water frog in the same ditch.

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As to insects, here is a face-on view of the Ruddy Darter dragonfly in the reedbed.

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And here is a Speckled Wood butterfly typically warming itself in the sun. Unlike the specimens we see in the UK, the Spanish version has more attractive orangey colours.

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After Llobregat, Daniel took us to some nearby farmland to look for Woodpeckers. Sure enough we got great views of several resident Green Woodpeckers flying and clinging to the sides of trees that were sometimes pocked with woodpecker holes. These were the Iberian subspecies – with very little black on their faces. But we also saw here several Pied Flycatchers – no doubt on their way south.

Thence we went to the sea cliffs of Garraf, looking for resident Blue Rock Thrushes. Eventually we tracked down a splendid male by his calls and also saw a Crag Martin flying quite low down along the cliff face.

Our final destination with Daniel was an isolated Buddhist temple high up in the hills above Barcelona. This turned out to be an inspired choice. For the first time ever I had this great, though distant, view of a male Golden Oriole sitting nonchalantly at the top of a pine tree, instead of actively flitting about. Though September is the normal date for their departure to Africa, Daniel was as surprised as us to see an Oriole in plain sight that didn’t move from a fairly open perch for a long period.

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Peter M
September 2018

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