Last minute Spain

I was going to head down to Portland for a couple of days last weekend (23/24), taking the train and staying in the obs. The obs was fully booked and, by the time I’d taken into account the cost of the train and the potential cost of a hotel nearby, I realised I could nip out to Spain for the same time at quite literally the same cost. So, Friday afternoon, I flew out to Girona where I met Marc Illa, then on to Aiguamolls where Marc had been ringing for the past couple of days. 

Aiguamolls is a magical place and this is the first time I’d spent time back there since I lived there for three months in 2010. Not much had changed; it was still packed with amazing birds – Black-winged Stilts, Whiskered Terns, Garganey, Curlew Sandpipers, Greater Flamingoes, Yellow Wagtails (iberae and some migrant flava), Squacco Herons, etc etc etc. At the rice fields we found a small flock of Stone-curlew and, bah, an Egyptian Goose.

 
 

Having reacquainted myself overnight with the Barn Owl that’s still nesting above the bedrooms in the house at El Mata, we headed off early to Palau at the north end of the reseve. This was, when I was ringing here, my “office” and, bar some of the trees being a bit higher, it had hardly changed. It was nice to be back.

Our target was Aquatic Warbler; there seems to be a not insignificant number that pass through here in spring. We didn’t catch any, but we did manage to ring a good selection of other reedbed species plus a few other bits and pieces. And yes, putting this blog post together I did realised every bird I have an in-hand photo of is brown...

Moustached Warbler

Moustached Warbler

Zitting Cisticola

Zitting Cisticola

Nightingale

Nightingale

Bastard Nightingale (true story – look up the Spanish/Catalan name)

Bastard Nightingale (true story – look up the Spanish/Catalan name)

Great Reed Warbler. This one's only a teeny-tiny one. They can get about 10% bigger.

Great Reed Warbler. This one's only a teeny-tiny one. They can get about 10% bigger.

Blackcap, female. What you often don't see in the field – or indeed in field guides – is the subtle rufous spot on the rear of the ear coverts on some female Blackcaps. Up close they're a really attractive bird.

Blackcap, female. What you often don't see in the field – or indeed in field guides – is the subtle rufous spot on the rear of the ear coverts on some female Blackcaps. Up close they're a really attractive bird.

Sightings while we were ringing included Pallid and Alpine swifts, Red-rumped Swallow, and a smart male Pied Flycatcher.

 
Red-rumped Swallow

Red-rumped Swallow

 

After a morning at Palau, we headed inland towards Marc’s hometown. I spent a bit of time on some nearby farmland while Marc nipped back to his place. The thing that amazes me most about Spain is the number and range of bird species you can find, and walking around this farmland really hammered the point home.

 
 

Imagine going to any old bit of arable farmland with some scattered trees, sandwiched between a town and a small industrial estate and with a small canalised river running through it. You look up; what do you see? Here, a quick scan of the sky produced a Peregrine, 100s of swifts, House Martins, Barn Swallows, a couple of Common Buzzards, and a distant Griffon Vulture. Some Bee-eaters were plooping away just behind the industrial estate. In the trees along the river, Melodious Warblers, Long-tailed Tits (taiti), Firecrest, Cirl Buntings, Serins, Song Thrushes, Blackcaps, and migrant Common Whitethroats and Willow Warblers. Corn Bunting territories numbered one every couple of 100 metres. There were Nightingales, Cuckoos, Crested Larks. Around a small pool there was a Little Grebe, a Wood Sandpiper, Zitting Cisticolas and a Great Reed Warbler.  

Undeniably, a lot has to do with climate and avian distribution; but where in the UK could you take a walk through farmland and see so many and such a variety of birds and species? Spanish farmland is, frankly, a bit of a “mess”. Field edges are ill-defined, farm buildings have holes in the roof, marshy patches are scattered here and there. As you flick another fly off your arm or step over another ants' nest, you begin to realise how much more life there is in this "messy" farmland compared to the depressingly neat and sterile British countryside.

 
 

Late afternoon, we headed to a large stretch of arable farmland a short distance from Marc’s town to catch Quail.

Quail-catching with a view – Monserrat in the distance.

Quail-catching with a view – Monserrat in the distance.

Quail are, with the right set-up, particularly easy to catch and within ten minutes we’d caught two males – a second-year and, erm, well… These were my first Quails in-hand and to be honest I found them to be a bit of a mindfuck. A quail’s life is basically a repeating series of moult, breed, migrate, and it seems to be the case that birds are sexually mature within four months of hatching. The second bird I think is probably a first-year but the state of moult would suggest it must have hatched at least 8 weeks prior to being caught. Are Quail already breeding at the end of February in (?)Africa? Here are some pretty profile pics; the spread wing shots deserve their own blog post.

Quail 1

Sunday morning we tried – unsuccessful – to catch a pair of Black-eared Wheatears at a site close to Marc’s town. Both were carrying rings and were presumably the same pair that were ringed the last year but confirmation would have been good. If they’re returning year-on-year, they might be suitable for a study with loggers.

 
Male Black-eared Wheatear through the rear window. A really stunning bird... not that this photo shows that!

Male Black-eared Wheatear through the rear window. A really stunning bird... not that this photo shows that!

 

The birds were clearly wise to the traps though and, despite perching on the fence posts directly above, refused to take the bait. After an hour of waiting it was time to head to the airport and back to the UK.