This account outlines the wildlife adventures of two visitors from Scotland as we explored the birding delights of Andalucia in mid-March 2014.
My friend, Lesley Silcock and I hoped to see a wide variety of birds, mammals and other creatures with the help of our guide for the first week, Julian Sykes of Wildlife Holidays.
Our visit was prompted when I met Julian and decided that I would like to do his trip in search of the Iberian Lynx in the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Andujar, Jaen Province. Lesley Silcock decided to join us, a first trip to Andalucia for her. Lesley and I extended our trip to include a further five days, travelling to Cabo de Gata to coincide with the ABS Fieldtrip on 22nd March. Our route took in many good sites in central and eastern Andalucia. We saw both wintering and migrant birds with plenty of evidence of courtship and some fine fresh plumages. With Julian, we saw 14 mammal species including Wild Cat and Egyptian Mongoose, 13 butterfly and moth species, 6 reptiles and amphibians and 97 bird species. In and around Cabo de Gata we saw 61 bird species and made a respectable contribution to the final ABS fieldtrip tally of 86 species. Our total for the whole trip was 172 species.
We headed north from Malaga with Julian. Stopping for a coffee north of Antequera, Julian bumped into Mick Richardson who directed us to a good laguna on Los Llanos de Antequera, just to the west. Here we saw 2 Gull-billed Terns, around 10 Little Stint, 5 Green Sandpiper and Ruff amongst a variety of waders, and out in the cereal fields, around 22 Little Bustards. We pressed on to Laguna de Dulce at Campillos and saw around 50 Black-necked Grebe plus Great Crested and Little Grebe, Purple Swamphen and interesting ducks including White-headed Duck, Red Crested and Common Pochard, Shoveler, Common Shelduck, Tufted Duck and Gadwall. A singing Chiffchaff greeted us and we saw a male Spanish Sparrow amongst the House Sparrows. On the main road we noticed around 40 migrating Lesser Kestrels. At Fuente de Piedra, we visited the Mirador Cantarranas and La Vicaria hide and saw the massed Flamingos along with Avocet, Lapwing and much more, including a pair of Egyptian Mongoose foraging through the scrubby reeds. South of Cordoba, around Los Visos, we spotted a seriously impressive “swarm” of hundreds of migrant Black Kites in a huge kettle. A great start to the trip.
We pressed on to Jaen Province and stayed in Las Vinas in the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Andujar. We were ready for a marathon with early starts and evening sessions in our search for Iberian Lynx. We spent much time overlooking the favoured La Lancha Valley. The “cats” had been seen and sometimes amble across the road. We were diverted by good views of Sylvia warblers and above us some great views of Spanish Imperial Eagle, a perched Golden Eagle, Black and Griffon Vultures, migrating Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Black Kites and a pair of Raven. Many Red Deer and a few Fallow Deer foraged below us and a Wild Boar family worked across the hill opposite. It was very hot and at times, in the early hours, very cold but always beautiful. But no Lynx! They are more visible in February before the females go to ground.
We didn’t give up; on the way to the valley is El Escoriales, also known for Lynx. The fighting bull farm has fine pastures and woodland, heaving with bird life. We saw Hoopoe, Iberian Magpie, Eurasian Magpie, Woodchat and Iberian Grey Shrikes, Corn Bunting, Rock Bunting, Linnets, Goldfinch, Serin, Meadow Pipit, White and Grey Wagtails, House Sparrows, both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Mistle Thrush, Blackbird, Robin, Black Redstart and migrating Green Sandpipers in the stream. In the early morning Wild Boar and then a Wild Cat casually crossed the road ahead of us and stared back showing its characteristic flat face and short ears. A Goshawk flew over. We went to the Rio Jandula at Encinarejos, a fine riverine woodland area. Lynx are seen here but only clear paw prints and a strong scent revealed its presence. The river held big Catfish and Brown Trout and both stood out in the sunshine. We were surprised when Julian picked up Golden Oriole calling. Far too early surely, it must be a Starling, but it kept going and was clearly the real thing. We couldn’t catch sight of it. Crested Tits, Iberian Magpie, Nuthatch, Long-tailed Tit, Jay, Hawfinch, Greenfinch and Crossbills were around and we had excellent views of singing Woodlark, Short-toed Treecreeper and Cirl Bunting, all on territory. An adult Golden Eagle flew over. There are Otter here but they eluded us. Kingfisher and Grey Heron were well in evidence. The highlight was a newly arrived male Common Cuckoo who was ecstatic in its display and calls, with a fine flared tail.
At the Embalse de Jandula, we searched for bats in the tunnel, finding 4 Daubenton’s and 2 Great Mouse-eared Bats and picked up a number of Blue Rock Thrush, Red-billed Chough and Black Redstart. At the mirador above, a Nuthatch was vocal and was finally found nest building. We were intrigued by its light colouring. A large raptor flashed past Lesley and eventually gave me a good sighting as it flew. A male Goshawk. Later back at La Lancha, a large female Goshawk flew over, possibly from the same pair. Julian knew this area well and gave us a marvellous insight into the area, with many good sightings.
Julian was due in Madrid on his way to Extremadura, so Lesley and I returned to Malaga on the AVE high speed train. The 55 minute trip from Cordoba to Malaga was impressively fast and this proved a great way to travel. We picked up our car and set off on our adventure, first to Almeria. Bob Wright had kindly agreed to allow us to join the ABS Fieldtrip at Cabo de Gata. We met many fellow members at the Hotel Blanca Brisa and were made very welcome. It was quickly apparent that the group was large so we took off, to explore the variety of locations recommended by Bob. At the river to the west were Slender-billed Gulls, Black-necked Grebes, Kentish Plover, Yellow Wagtail (iberiae), White-headed Duck and many hirundines including Red-rumped Swallow, which stood out amongst a good array of birds. A calling Caspian Tern flew over, heading north along the coast.
We went on to the parque visitor centre at Las Amoladeras to gather information on Dupont’s Lark, one of my targets for the trip. An early morning venture on to the reserve produced a most beautiful setting amongst the Agave stems, topped by a number of calling Iberian Grey Shrike. There were many Crested Lark and Sylvia warblers but not the singing Dupont’s Lark. In compensation, 3 Black-bellied Sand Grouse flew up as we flushed them. The Ranger assured us that there are a few pairs of Dupont’s Lark, favouring the higher grassy areas to the north of the reserve. At the Cabo we found Black, Black-eared and a migrant Northern Wheatear, along with Black Redstart, Dartford Warbler, Stonechats and Blue Rock Thrush. At sea were a number of Gannets and Sandwich Terns amongst the gulls. Most impressive were the range of birds on the lagunas. We compared the Redshank, Spotted Redshank and Greenshank feeding close together, along with courtship displays from the Avocets. We missed the Great Bustard seen by some ABS members but did find a good perched Peregrine Falcon and two Stone Curlews. Best was our last bird of the day, a fine male Marsh Harrier flying in from the coast – his markings were fabulous and the tricoloured wings stood out in the evening sunlight.
Leaving Cabo de Gata, we navigated our way through Roquetas de Mar and to the Reserve Natural Punta Entinas-Sabinar, a series of old salinas along the coast. They are usually productive and didn’t disappoint. We found the Red-knobbed Coots on the “duck pond” along with White-headed Duck, Little Grebe, Red-crested and Common Pochard. There was a good flock of Redshank, a Spotted Redshank, many more ducks and Flamingos on the main lagunas and a nice close view of Kentish Plover in pristine breeding plumage. Passing through the acres of plastic greenhouses, we visited the old salinas at Las Norias. This is a grim area but the lagoons had been productive on my last visit in 2011. A good wet area on the north side was completely destroyed, dry and a disappointment but the east-most lagoon produced eight pairs of Great Crested Grebe, all vying for space in the grottiest of pools. It must have something!
We set off the next day for the Ventas de Zafarraya. I had stayed at Alcaucin before and did not want to miss this area. By chance we bumped into Bob Wright again who gave us some useful pointers for the high ground above Zafarraya. At Ventas we got excellent views of the Red-billed Chough displaying at their nesting holes, Peregrine Falcon, a pair of Common Kestrel, Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting, Stonechat and a strident Serin. I picked out a Blue Rock Thrush on the opposite cliff and an Alpine Accentor came into my scope, giving Lesley time to see it. We moved on to the “Magpie” woods recommended by Bob and saw dozens of Iberian Magpies foraging along under the trees. The karst dehesa here is particularly intriguing and the Almond trees were in full flower. We felt we were in an ancient landscape. Higher up we searched for the Calandra Larks seen by Bob but couldn’t find them, but we did see a fine white morph Booted Eagle. We drove through the beautiful hills between Zafarraya and Antequerra, arriving in the town of Fuente de Piedra at dusk. On the way we saw another exceptionally good male Marsh Harrier – is he following us? This area would justify much more exploration.
We devoted the whole of the next day to Laguna Fuente de Piedra and the Lagunas Campillos. We returned to our warm clothes to face a cold northerly wind but were well rewarded, firstly at the visitor centre with a Little Owl in the Holme Oaks and then fine close views of 2 Wood Sandpiper, the best I have ever had. Also Common Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit reaching breeding plumage and Yellow Wagtails, both iberiae and flava. Up at the centre, a Scarce Swallowtail landed briefly on Lesley’s arm as we studied the many gulls and ducks on the small lagunas, including Common Teal. The best was a frantically displaying White-headed Duck, scooting around like a clock work mouse and then “pinging” its head and tail into the air. It was defending a territory from all comers and gave both the Mallards and Coots short shrift. We tried to catch sight of the many Cetti’s Warblers but could only pin down the Sardinians. The Flamingos were impressive in their huge numbers, in their spread across the entire lagoon, in their beauty in the air and hundreds, in a mass courtship display below the centre. Round at El Mirador da Cantarranas, Lesley picked out a Purple Swamphen and a Little Egret, and we watched a male and two female Marsh Harriers apparently prospecting the reeds for a nest site. A kettle of about 14 Black Kites flew past overhead.
We then returned to Las Lagunas Campillos, visiting Dulce first, but the rougher conditions and sharp wind were forcing the birds to hunker down. The hundreds of Coots formed tight rafts against the wind. Lots of Hirundines appeared un-phased as they hawked over the water. We sought out the smaller lagunas in the area. Laguna Salada was less productive but a party of 13 newly returned Gull-billed Terns roosted on a spit. Laguna Redonda was nearly dry but held a pair each of Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers. Laguna Capacete was too bright in the evening sun and a morning visit would be necessary.
On our last day we started south back to Malaga, first visiting the Sierra de Teba. I had visited this spot in November on Peter Jones’ recommendation. We quickly picked out Griffon Vultures in the air but surprisingly, only one on the ledges. There were about ten Alpine Swifts above the cliff, plus Rock Dove, Crag Martins, Red-billed Chough and many Starlings. I then found a Peregrine Falcon perched against the skyline. That seemed to be all when a scan along the skyline revealed an interesting pair of raptors at the far right end. Yes, one of my targets for the trip, Bonelli’s Eagles! We studied them carefully to be sure. Peter had told me about Bonelli’s Eagles here but there was some doubt that they remained. One flew out and there was no doubt about the characteristic underside markings. We moved on to Embalse Guadalhorce and scanned the scrubby banks for Sylvia warblers. We took a lovely walk through the pine forest to El Desfiladero de los Gaitanes, a huge cleft through the mountain. A light morph Booted Eagle flew over and the Serins were eager in their calls. Lesley detected an unusual contact call and we eventually found the source – a fine male Rock Bunting close by. We then detected several calling males in this rocky woodland. We heard and saw a good variety of birds; Iberian Woodpecker, a male Crossbill, Great Tit and Blue Tit, Wren, Blackbird, Short-toed Treecreeper, and Greenfinch and by the embalse, Blackcap, Cetti’s Warbler, Mallard and Kingfisher.
Things got rather frightening when we stopped on the road to El Chorro for our picnic. We were suddenly attacked by extremely aggressive bees. Lesley was stung on the head and we beat a very hasty retreat. Further down we parked in a more open area. This was fortuitous as we found at least 20 Griffin Vultures perched on ledges, along with a number of Alpine Swifts. Fortified by lunch, Lesley was feeling better and spotted a Spanish Ibex high on the crags above El Chorro. Another Bonelli’s Eagle flew out from the crags and kept returning, once attacking a Griffin Vulture in mid-air and then performing a huge dive-bomb, back over the horizon. What a fine finish to our trip; we will be back, Andalucia.
Hilary MacBean – ABS Member