Tuesday 20 October 2015

Pyrenean Adventure - the Final Chapter

16th September

Today was our last chance of Lilford’s Woodpecker and we headed north west (I think) through wonderful countryside but on tortuously windy roads. Julen had told us it would take about 90 minutes to get to the forest of Irati, and so, with a fuller understanding about Basque minutes (they invented time and watches by the way) we correctly added a healthy 30 extra onto that!

Various bits and abobs were seen from the bus including Griffons, Buzzard, Black Kite, male Marsh Harrier and our first Booted Eagle that was timed perfectly with a garage where we all piled out and were as grateful for the fresh air as the stunning almost pied bird playing in the wind above our heads.  After this we encountered an obvious passage of raptors with many Griffons heading south along a valley ridge along with at least four Red Kites.

After negotiating passage with a feisty Basque lady at the reserve ‘welcome’ hut, Julen drove us along a forest track to a car park by a reservoir.  It was still windy and I have to admit that I was not confident of any success.  We followed the main track around the shore and into the stunning beech woodland. There trees were even taller and straighter than at the Angel Oloron walk but like before where amazingly quiet. Common Treecreepers and Nuthatches were vocal and Marsh and Crested Tits were heard but of the six species of woodpecker that live here there were no sign other than the severe amount of carpentry that had been carried out on any dead tree, branch or stump.

The wind was howling above with clouds scudding in two directions and occasionally descended to tree level to give them and us a good shake. A wonderful piece of interpretation clearly pointed out the various species that we could indeed see if we opened our eyes although the revelation of the day and perhaps the whole trip was that the answer to that eternal question... What came first? The chicken or the egg? Well the answer is quite clearly Woodpecker...

Please read carefully....

Chicken damage....

Five Black Kites got blown through but we were still in a Woodpecker free zone and then on the slog back (using Basque miles I’m sure) it all changed when a bird flew over head and into the beeches in front.  Not only was it a Woodpecker but a male Lilford’s and within a few minutes he had settled down and moved to an obviously favoured dead tree where over the next fifteen minutes superb views were had as he probed, pecked, pooed and then drummed for us.  Sometimes he appeared quite rangy and like the northern White-backs I have seen but at other times the shape became more Middle Spot like. The full ladder back, red crown and long slender bill were obvious while the undertail coverts were MSW pink and not red and there was extensive streaking all the way up to the malar. A male Great Spot came in in response to his drumming and pushed him off his top perch and with that the moved off. That walk back was with lighter steps and big smiles and it was good to see the relief on Julen’s face. A mini sunlit patch added a few Speckled Woods to the day list and Common Darter got Roy momentarily excited.

Lilford's Woodpecker

Lilford's Woodpecker
Jerry Hoare worked some magic on my videos but Youtube has still made them annoyingly fuzzy...

We stopped for lunch in a taverna in Orbara where they put on a fine simple spread for us – superb sausages!  The outside wall had a painting of a male Black Woodpecker feeding its chickens and a huge Lammergeir and proved a suitable spot for a group photo.

The drive down out of the hills towards Lumbier added Short-toed eagle to the list. A stop in the outskirts of town at a bridge failed to produce any Iberian Greens but there were scores of griffons and several Red Kites, many House Martins and three more Booted Eagles. 

The Foz de Lumbier was out destination and as we exited the van there were Griffons cruising past at eye level along with groups of mixed Red-billed Chough and our first Jackdaws.  A sunflower field was full of House Sparrows, Serins, Linnets, Gold, Green and Chaffinches and I could hear the ‘sip’ calls of Cirl Buntings although only the briefest views were had. Crag Martins followed us into the gorge and after entering via the old railway tunnel we were treated to stunning views along and up both walls of this imposing gash in the earth.

It was incredibly windy but perseverance paid off with Julen picking up a nice male Blue Rock Thrush while I found our first stripy Rock Sparrow trying to shelter in the dangling tangle of fig stems and roots.  Over 100 Crag Martins were restig up on one cliff wall while you soon became aware of the hulking shapes of Griffons looking down on you along with the various corvids perching nearby. Kestrels and Booted Eagles were seen and three adult Egyptian Vultures were found including two perched up on a crag. 


Griff & Gypos

Essence of Rock Sparrow
Black Redstarts fed on the path and Kingfishers and Grey Wagtails were on the rushing river below us. With the wind increasing and bits of the Foz starting to ping down around us we decided to beat a retreat where there were 17 Rock Sparrows to greet us on the wires as we left!

We did not travel far to the next stop – the Foz de Arbaium. For this one we were at the top and looking down from a large concrete platform that delightfully jutted out over the shear decent. Mike did very well given his fear of heights, Neil went for a Burton and David got carried off by a hungry Lammergeir...

Mike being braver than you can imagine....

Traumas aside it was a superb spot and there were dozens of Griffons drifting in and out along with four more Egyptians, three Booteds, two Shorties and a pair of Peregrine.  We failed to find and Wallcreepers but did pick up some more Crag martins and Black Redstarts before the first few spots sent us to the van before the heavens opened.

The rain followed us all the way back to Burgui but soon past leaving the blue sky and sunsine for the last half hour before dinner. I used it well and visited the river where the Dipper performed superbly for me. It was interesting to note that it looked just like our ones with chestnut and black on the belly and was not wholly black as we had expected. Black Redstarts were vocal after the rain and a fine male Common Redstart fed around the allotment. Up above there were several Crag Martins (our first in the village) and two Sparrowhawks and three Booted Eagles moved through.  The latter were very vocal with exaggerated flying and loud mewing. Long-tailed Tits, Blackcaps, tits and a Pied Fly foraged along the river bank and rounded up another great day.

Snoozing Dipper


Male Redstart

Booted Eagle

Black Redstart

17th September

After a final breakfast we bid our farewells to the lovely couple who ran the hotel and Julen whisked us back off into the mountains to check for Rock Bunting at Canada de los Roncaleses - a spot above Burgui that we passed in the rain yesterday evening. We popped out of the low cloud into a blue sky and sunshine.  The views back into the valley below were stunning.   

No buntings were forthcoming but some tiny flickering House Martins and our first Skylark headed south at height and Crested Tits churred at us from the pines. As we were leaving Neil shouted bunting and we quickly stopped and decamped on the roadside where superb views were had a smart male Rock as he called (Cirl-like) from his chosen pine. There were several others flitting around and a Stonechat was on the other side of the road.

Rock Bunting

From here we dropped down onto the plain – albeit still ay height – and Red Kites, Buzzards and our first Crested Larks were seen in roadside fields where two flashby Southern Grey Shrikes were seen and Spotless Starlings started to appear in good numbers around the villages.

A stop on a rather unimposing track up to a rocky, scrubby view point quickly added several species to the list including some cold grey Thekla Larks, scolding Dartford, Sardinian and Melodious Warblers, Tree Pipit and a very embarrassing Golden Eagle that flew over my head and I failed to identify for a variety of fairly spurious reasons! 

Raptors were obviously moving with both Kites, Booted Eagle and Marsh Harrier seen along with Buzzards and Kestrels. A Woodlark was seen by the others further up the track and four more Rock Buntings were a nice bonus.

Golden Eagle

The River Aragon was our destination as it was here that we were to search for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the riparian habitat and associated small poplar plantations. It was great to be back in small bird country again and the two stops we made were chock full Pied Flycatchers, a Spot Fly, Melodious Warbler, Blackcaps, Whitethroat, Serins, Black Redstarts and Sardinian Warblers. Two Penduline Tits were heard by the river by Roy and I and a Great Spotted Woodpecker called. Somehow Neil located a Rock Thrush dot on a Cliffside ruin. Only the bird’s jizz, dagger of a bill and fiery red tail gave away the identity! 

The Rock Thrush was on that outcrop on the right!

Beaver action...

Overhead there were plenty of raptors for us to get wrong... another low level Golden Eagle caught us all out once again and only the attentions of a Booted Eagle caused a chorus of embarrassed coughs... All in all nine Booteds were seen here along with three Honey Buzzards, singles of Hobby, Sparrowhawk, Short-toed Eagle and Marsh Harrier and the ever present looming Griffons.

From here it was a main road drive back towards Bilboa using Julen’s very long Basque miles but in between naps we did manage to see 12 Lesser Kestrels and a Southern Grey Shrike perched on the same telegraph wire along with the usual assortment of other raptors and a couple of Red-legged Partridges. 

Our final stop was the vast forest of Iski and after stopping in a clearing with huge panoramic views over the woodland we struck out for the most prominent track. Some paddocks looked promising for Iberian Green Woodpecker and almost immediately we heard one do its high pitched yaffle and over the next twenty minutes good flight views were had as it moved between the trees.  As when I saw this species in Barbate, it look very plain headed in flight, probably caused by the lack of black around the face. It would have been nice to see one perched but at least everyone had got to see one. 

While this was going on a couple of Middle Spots started calling and after some tracking we got superb views of a feisty male who showed off all his attributes including his fully raised red crown feathers.   

Cracking views of some Cirl Buntings, Short-toed Treecreepers and a very obliging Red Squirrel brought proceedings to a close and so we left the Woodwards to head off back to Zaragoza while we travelled onto the imposing Hotel Seminario in Bilbao where we would spend our final evening before flying out early the next morning.

Endless corridors

Goodbye to the Basque country...

And so ended our Basque adventure with an almost full Woodpecker contingent (no LSW), 142 species on the list, some old friends properly reacquainted and some new friends firmly made.

Julen was impeccable as a host, guide and font of all things historically Basque and Gerard brought his inexhaustible knowledge and blue (not red) Scouse humour to the party. A great time was had by all...

Sandwich Tern
Reed Warbler
Rock Dove
Melodious Warbler
Wood Pigeon
Willow Warbler
Collared Dove
Bonelli's Warbler
Turtle Dove
Tawny Owl
Common Swift
Red-legged Partridge
Black Woodpecker
Spotted Flycatcher
Little Grebe
Iberian Green Woodpecker
Pied Flycatcher
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Cattle Egret
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Coal Tit
Little Egret
Lilford's Woodpecker
Blue Tit
Grey Heron
Crested Tit
Marsh Tit
Crested Lark
Long-tailed Tit
Griffon Vulture
Thekla Lark
Penduline Tit
Egyptian Vulture
Sand Martin
Golden Eagle
Crag Martin
Short-toed Eagle
Short-toed Treecreeper
Booted Eagle
House Martin
Iberian Grey Shrike
Red Kite
Water Pipit
Black Kite
Meadow Pipit
Marsh Harrier
Tree Pipit
Common Buzzard
White Wagtail
Honey Buzzard
Grey Wagtail
Alpine Chough
Yellow Wagtail
Carrion Crow
Lesser Kestrel
Spotless Starling
Alpine Accentor
House Sparrow
Rock Sparrow
Water Rail
Black Redstart
Northern Wheatear
Ringed Plover
Citril Finch
Song Thrush
Wood Sandpiper
Mistle Thrush
Green Sandpiper
Common Crossbill
Common Sandpiper
Blue Rock Thrush
Rock Thrush
Cirl Bunting
Garden Warbler
Rock Bunting
Black-tailed Godwit
Corn Bunting

Lesser Whitethroat

Black-headed Gull
Sardinian Warbler

Yellow-legged Gull
Dartford Warbler

Lesser -black Backed Gull
Cetti's Warbler


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