Sunday 7 July 2019

Iberia: Day two: 17th June 2019

Up with the larks – yep I could hear the Cresteds from inside and we soon got our ourselves together, had breakfast, watched the Iberian Magpies and made lunch before hitting the road. Not that we got very far as no sooner had we turned onto the ‘main’ road than I picked up Calandra Larks from the car near Santana de Cambas. We pulled over and had a scan around, seeing a couple of these paddle winged beasts over the dry steppe with Iberian Shrikes watching from the wires and our first Western Black-eared Wheatear hopping around.  The weird bubbling calls of Black-bellied Sandgrouse drifted from several directions and we soon picked up a couple in flight and with a track heading that way just a few yards up the road it would have been rude not to go for a look.

Iberian Magpies

Santana de Cambas - no sign of Carlos

Dusty - David Bradnum

Unfortunately they saw us before we saw them and they rapidly vacated the area but did leave us with three probing Hoopoes, a pair of Mistle Thrush and a family of Woodchats. More black underwinged Calandras circled the parched grassland and a Short-toed Lark pitched up on the path just in front, it certainly looked like an area that deserved more of our limited time.

Hoopoe and Cardoon


Old Windmill
Our main quarry for the day was White rumped Swift in, well, a quarry. Achada da Gama is a disused sulphur and iron mine in Mina de Sao Domingos and from Google Maps you can see the desparate scars across the landscape that this once busy mine exacted on the countryside.  It closed in 1965 and has largely been left to revert back to nature but there has been no clearance of old buildings or the back filling of the run off pools that now glow with all the brown, red, orange and yellow colours of the minerals that were extracted here. Given that it has been closed for over fifty years there is still a dearth of vegetation across most of the site with stands of non-native round the edges and a few cistus clumps here and there.
Unlike back home where the whole site would be seriously out of bounds, cleared, filled in, levelled, replanted, beautified before the public may be allowed back in; here there is a well marked track, new multi lingual interp boards and almost no prohibitive fencing in sight.  To us H&S mad Brits this was all just a little disturbing but oddly refreshing.

I suggest that you do not 'take the waters' here...

Without the old crumbling concrete buildings there would be no ‘caves’ and no nesting sites for Crag and House Martins, both Barn and the all important Red-rumped Swallows whose derelict nests the tiny population of White Rumped Swifts use as their own.
We picked up the Swifts surprisingly quickly as they fed over a Eucalyptus ridge with various hirundines and eventually they dropped down to say hello and zoomed in about of the ruins and convenient old culvert tunnel which allowed us the chance to actually look down on them with the rust red background of the slag heaps. The shape was quite subtle – perhaps more torpedo like and the forked tail was certainly more pronounced but only on a braking turn and the white throat was very prominent. Even the fine white tips to the secondaries could be seen at such close range and suitable angle. 

My White Rumped Swift pics are not too bad given I am using a bridge camera

An old culvert cave that one pair of Swifts were using
A mad old guy in a gyrocoptor thingy was buzzing around and made several ridiculously low passes at eye level with us over the main swift spot seemingly just to give us a wave!

Nutter - Shaun Harvey
To get this target species so readily was a most pleasing. I had only seen one briefly before on La Janda and it was new for the lads.  There was plenty else to see here and not only with the various hirundines hawking around us. Western Black-eared Wheatears sang and flicked like snowballs across the slag and Turtle Doves purred all around with Iberian Magpies a constant presence.  Golden Orioles were incredible vocal and a strange call that none of us had heard before was tracked down to two fledged juveniles begging for food from their parents and at one stage we had three adult males bouncing around the same trees with females cat calling further back and this allowed me to indulge in some communicating of my own...
Bee-eaters sallied from the wires and Iberian Green Woodpeckers yaffled in high pitched voices and we were lucky enough to see one too and Great Spot and Jay joined the list with Blue Rock Thrush, White Wagtail, Wood and Thekla’s Larks and Western Subalpine Warbler.

Crag Martin with a feather - Shaun Harvey

I am sure you could spend all day wandering the area but with a tight schedule we moved on towards some proper Steppe habitat passing literally dozens of White Stork nests on telegraph poles on the way out of the village, each with at least two almost fledged youngsters.

White Storks

We stopped not far up the road to take some pictures of fortified Mertola and added a calling Rock Bunting in the process.


Echballium elaterium growing in the view point car park
Our first Griffons were encountered just up the road at Alcaria Ruiva with a Short-toed Eagle in the same thermal and a Dartford Warbler churred in the scrub.


Short-toed Eagle

David was taking us to a hill top with a chapel that afforded amazing all round views and this took us along a straight road where workmen were busy strimming any verge vegetation, we presumed to create and extra firebreak to go with the ploughed margins within each fence line.  Bee-eaters lined the way and a random glance out of the window revealed a pale blob on a wire some way off. I called it as Kite and we hastily pulled over to find a pair of Black Winged beauties drifting between poles and engaging in some nuptials too.
Once on the wing they are effortless and hold their pointy wings in a proper full on ‘V’ and simply glide where their turns take them. Another tricky to find species under the belt with a bonus singing Quail and Hoopoe to go with them.

Black Winged Kite country

Black Winged Kite - given the haze...
Bee-eater with lunch
Lunch was then taken atop Ermida de Nossa Senhora de Aracelis where the white chapel glowed in the harsh light and the breeze drifted through the scented eucalypts. David was right to say the views were good with a patchwork of golden fields, harvested and otherwise interspersed with regimented Olive groves and dotted stately Cork Oaks.

The view beyond the lads would not look like this for much longer
Swallows were nesting in the out building and Sardinian Warblers churred while down below another Black Winged Kite glided through and Griffons soared above.  Golden Orioles sang around us and two Quails had an invisible sing off before we retraced our steps to Monte Salto and followed an intriguingly good set of signs depicting a fine Great Bustard.  As it turned out Monte Vale was a new accommodation residence but the track to the house was not a waste of time as Short-toed Larks sang all around and unbelievably a Quail barrelled across the path on cigar body and surprisingly long wings.   As we drove out we noticed a plume of grass fire smoke off in the distance to the east.

Getting going...
The Kites were back on their wires as we made our way back to the main road and we did not have far to go till we turned off at another great carved sign, this one showing a Roller. It seems that Monte de Aparica is a hot spot for this declining species and every other concrete telegraph pole had a Starling sized box attached to it.  There appeared to be no one home as we trundled down further, only to glance back and see a pair conduct a nest changeover so we snuck back up the road while they were not visible and watched from a safe distance and over the next ten minutes we had some lovely flight views as they went after large flying insects.   

Roller on a box
The haze was terrible by now and the fire we had seen earlier was now really getting going and we watch as it hurtled across the frazzled landscape covering what we judged to be several miles in just eight minutes to end up on the vegetated ridge just below where we had had lunch.  The speed was terrifying and the flames could be seen licking up into the sky and through the billowing smoke.

Lunch was taken on the left hand of the two 'hills' just right of centre

Eight minutes later

Twelve minutes later

Ermida de Nossa Senhora de Aracelis is on the far left...

You can just make out a helicopter to the left
Thank the gods both large and small that we were not still enjoying a lunch with that roiling towards us.  Two helicopters with dangling water buckets and the yellow fire plane were throwing water at the blaze and amazingly they had got it under control with 90 minutes.

Beyond the farm buildings on our track was a small reservoir that we thought we could get too but were halted in the farm but at least three more Rollers using the light fittings as look outs.  They showed so well and it was just wonderful to sit and watch them hawking for insects on those Royal blue wings.


Roller - presumed female

Roller - Shaun Harvey

adult and juvenile Crested Lark

It was now very hot but this did not stop me investigating the odonata around the lake and I found Lesser Emperor, Black-tailed Skimmer, Broad Scarlet, Violet Dropwing and a new one for me – a Black Percher.  Small Red-eyed and Common Blue Damsels were also seen.   

Black-tailed Skimmer - Orthetrum cancellatum

Black Percher - Diplacodes lefebvrii

Broad Scarlet - Crocothemis erythraea

Broad Scarlet - Crocothemis erythraea

Violet Dropwing - Trithemis annulata

Small Red-eyed Damselfly - Erythromma viridulum

Common Blue Damselfly - Enallagma cyathigerum
The shore line was littered with the claws of Red Signal Crayfish which is what the Glossy Ibises seems to be tackling.  A Kingfisher dashed through the trees and our first Spanish Sparrows were seen with the numerous House Sparrows. Red-winged Grasshoppers flicked up ahead of me as I walked along the edge.

On again and a stop at the Acude de Entredas – (Acude meaning dam). Hundreds of Cattle Egrets were feeding below the low concrete wall but soon moved up on top to see what we did. They were not very impressed when we got out and headed to join their brethren on the ponded up other side.
We reckoned that about 400 were present along with at least nine Spoonbill, three Ibis, two Grey Heron, Little Egret and a few waders with Black-winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers and five Collared Pratincoles present.  Coots and Little Grebes bobbed around and the whole lot were flushed periodically by Common Buzzard and Booted Eagle and a female Montagu’s Harrier and Short-toed Eagle made it a good raptor stop too.

Acude de Entredas

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets and Spoonbills
Cattle Egrets - Shaun Harvey

Cattle Egrets, Ibis and Prats

Montagu's Harrier with annoying fence
I checked out the damn overflow margins and found countless Iberian Marsh Froglets and several dragonfly species including Red-veined Darters and Broad Scarlets, Emperor, Black-tailed Skimmer, my first Long Skimmer and Iberian Blue-tailed Damselfly.  Blue-winged Grasshoppers tried to hide in the fallen leaves – but failed.

Long Skimmer - Orthetrum trinacria

Black-tailed Skimmer - Orthetrum cancellatum

Emperor - Anax imperator

Blue-winged grasshopper - Oedipoda caerulescens

A fine Limousin Bull

Iberian Pond Terrapin - Mauremys leprosa
It was time to head west again, our furthest point for the day, to the old railway station at Casevel. It is known for its Lesser Kestrel and Roller colony that utilise the old derelict buildings.  A researcher was present upon out arrival and was in fact the only person we saw during the whole trip with bins.  He kindly asked if we could not approach closer and view from the track. Apparently birders regularly drive into the complex for better views but we were more than content with watching at least forty Lesser Kestrels whizz in and out of their nests and dally with the thermals around us. They were very vocal and agile and it was certainly an educational experience.  A single Roller was seen perched up.

Estacao Casevel

Lesser Kestrel
Up above us there was big push of Swifts with Common, Pallid and our first Alpines zooming through on a feeding mission and the drive back out added a fine male Montagu’s Harrier, Booted Eagle, a dozen Black Kites and a spiral of 60 more Lesser Kestrels.  Given the Kites and the presence of both Raven and Carrion Crow I suspect that there was a tip somewhere out of sight.

Montagu’s Harrier
It was quite a drive back to Bens but we passed where the grass fire had started right alongside the main road, undoubtedly from a flicked fag end.  It had spread so quick that there were plants that still had green leaves on three foot off the ground and nothing below.  White Storks were striding through the ashes and Iberian Magpies were also out searching for crispy critters.
Back at Bens we were greeted by ever skittish Iberian Mags and a male Golden Oriole flashed through momentarily spooking the noisy Fan-tailed Warblers in the field opposite.  

Dinner consisted of lasagna and not the formidable Espada (scabbard fish) that we saw in the supermarket.  I have eaten it on Madeira and it tastes very nice!

Time for dinner and then back out to Santana de Cambas (where we first saw Sandgrouse) for a circuit across the Steppe and then through rocky heath and farmland in a circle that took us through Alves before looping back through Picoitos and Salgueiros and home.
The breeze had dropped and the light was magnificent.  Calandras and Crested Larks sang and the Sandgrouse could be heard bubbling and soon got up for the first of several fly rounds. As we entered the more rock areas the Crested Larks became replaced by Thekla’s and these predominated until we hit habitation again.  Iberian and Woodchats Shrikes were out hunting late and Hoopoes sang above the sound of sheep bells. 

Calandra Lark

Thekla's Lark

As the light dropped further Little Owls and Stone Curlews began to call and several Rabbits and our first Red-legged Partridge were seen.  I was delighted to find an Iberian Hare lolloping along with periodic stops to check out its surroundings.  We found three in the end and what a superb beast they are with richly ginger brown fur and silky white underparts dividing the top from bottom much like a huge Yellow-necked Mouse! The front legs were brown but appeared stuck on as the white front and belly went over the top of the leg and not under it.

Red-legged Partridges

Iberian Hare
We were not far from rejoining the main road when I asked David if we could stop so that I could take a sunset shot up the road behind. I got out and could hear a strange cackling and immediately told the lads that I thought I had a juvenile Great Spotted Cuckoo but had not heard one before.  A few seconds later I found it begging for food from its two Eurasian Magpie parents on the top of a dead tree.  Cue, scope out and some great views.  There was sound all around with Corn Buntings ‘plipping’ through on their way to roost; Stone Curlews circulating and eerily calling; vocal Little Owls setting up evening lookout from the wires and even the deep base ‘hoooo’ of a distant Eagle Owl.  

It was just gone nine and the light was fading and I called Sparrowhawk low and left only to realise that I was actually looking at a Red-necked Nightjar.
What happened over the next half hour was simply magical with a minimum of six of these long winged, long tailed Nightjars hawking around us with flashing wings spots, noisy wing claps and occasional deep ‘pruk’ type calls. Two males sang a duet for ten seconds but that was it. Suddenly the activity just stopped and our moment was passed...

You really do get to see how good your bins really are in low light and between us we covered the three major optics players and we were all very happy with the colour, clarity and sharpness.
We returned the short way to Bens in disbelief at such a memorable encounter and finished off the rest of the red wine with smiles all round.

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