Thursday 11 July 2019

Iberia: Day Three: 18th June 2019

A dawnish rise with Hoopoes adding to the breakfast entourage of Iberian Magpies, Spotless Starlings, Bee-eaters and Fan-tailed Warblers before heading back west to the proper Steppe that we did not get to visit yesterday.  It was grey and actually quite cool but this meant that visibility was much improved and our chances of finding Bustards and the like was all the better for it.

Iberian Magpie

Iberian Magpie - youngster

Our route took us back through Mertola where several Lesser Kestrels were perched on the wires by the old bridge and a male Hawfinch flew up from a town centre car park as we drove past calling loudly as it did so. 

A brief stop to look at tree very fine buck Fallow Deer added three Woodlarks to the day list.

Fallow Deer

It took about an hour to reach our Steppe start point at Figuerinha and enter the very different rolling grassland landscape with interspersed wild patches of cistus maquis and not five minutes to come across our first Great Bustards with three of these imposing beasts sedately walking along the interface between the different vegetation.

Great Bustard

The next few hours were spent driving slowly between here and the private gate to the national park area at Guerreiro with regular stops to either watch Great Bustards from the car or have a good scan round and by the time we called it a morning we had seen at least 26 of these mega gamebirds along with 24 Black-bellied Sandgrouse as they speedily flew around in tight little groups.

Great Bustard

Great Bustard - Shaun Harvey

Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Black-bellied Sandgrouse
Spanish Sparrows predominated with a huge colony in the Eucalyptus grove at the end and Larks were ever present with Crested, Thekla and Short-toed singing around us with a few scattered Calandras.  However, large flocks of the latter were already gathering and I suspect that the three groups we saw totalled over 300 birds.

Spanish Sparrow

Spanish Sparrow

Spanish Sparrow nests

A flock of Spoonbills incongruously flew over
Thekla's Lark - short stubby bill and heavily spotted breast

Crested Lark - long pointy bill and lightly spotted breast

Crested Lark - and huge crest!

A male and two female Montagu’s Harriers quartered the dusty grassland with Buzzards, Kestrels, Lesser Kestrels, Short-toed, Booted and even an adult Golden Eagle over the plains with a few Griffons for loose company.   

Short-toed Eagle - they do not show quite as well here as I am used to!

female Montagu's Harrier

Griffon - Shaun Harvey
Iberian and Woodchat Shrikes dotted wires and three Black-eared Wheatears were seen while Golden Orioles, Quail and Red-legged Partridge were encountered.

Iberian Shrike

Iberian Shrike

Iberian Shrike - same shot from Shaun but with the DSLR rather than my Bridge

Woodchat Shrike - this one loved hovering
Western Black-eared Wheatear - the males would not pose

And all of this was experienced in splendid isolation; we did not see one other person, or hear one car or plane.  There was no wind and just the sound of comingled Lark song, chattering Sparrows and bubbling Sandgrouse and the flat light and coolness made it even more pleasurable.

A few spots in the air suggested that we move on and a random pull over to check a ridge for vultures rewarded us handsomely with a monstrous Black lazily cruising amongst the Griffs. Twenty-four of the latter gradually appeared and headed off presumably after all receiving a group WhatsApp message about a carcass somewhere yonder.

Suddenly I picked up two plummeting big Aquila eagles diving in unison down through the Vultures. We presumed Golden but when they hammered into another raptor on the ground near the base of a solitary tree, they banked and revealed a mass of shimmering white on the forewings!  We had only gone and found a pair of Spanish Imperials!

Over the next hour we enjoyed superb views and this territorial pair cruised the ridge line and did battle with passing and perched Griffs.  They always returned to near the tree and landed in it on three occasions; one on top and one going deep inside so it looks like we had stumbled on a nest site too.

Spanish Portuguese Imperial Eagle

Portuguese Imperial Eagles

Portuguese Imperial Eagles - you can see the forewings flashing and tail bands

This species is still a very rare breeder in Portugal with just a handful of pairs at the moment and was not even really on our radar for this short trip.

Alvares was our next destination and nestling amongst the olive groves was a rapidly drying lagoon that was home to about ten pairs of nesting Collared Pratincoles.  They were tottering around the muddy margins and we found several nests further up the dried mud where they blended in incredibly well. Every now and then one would return from a hunting foray and the wickering from them as they met filled the air to be joined by the angry kiking of the Black-winged Stilts also nesting here. They never need an excuse for a barney and both tiny and well grown young were present. Little Ringed Plover and Little Grebe families were also seen and a male Montagu’s Harrier floated over the trees.  Eight Fan Tailed Warblers erupted from the dried plants bordering the lagoon and a single Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew straight through. I was really hoping it would come down for a drink.

Collared Pratincole and Black-winged Stilt

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole

Black-winged Stilt - Shaun Harvey

This Little Owl was encountered on the drive back out
Late lunch was taken back at the bridge in Mertola where the rain became temporarily persistent and the Lesser Kestrels refused to play but it was still a good spot for lunch and despite the traffic we still saw seven Hawfinch, Crag Martin, two Golden Orioles and a male Blue Rock Thrush whilst munching.  

Blue Rock Thrush

Mertola Castle
Some real coffee was required so we moved to the other side of the bridge and parked where we saw the Hawfinch in the morning and ambled into this fortified town.  A suitable little cafe overlooking the river was found and Espresso and another Portuguese tart was consumed while heaps of House Martins swirled in and out of their multi-generational nest condos.  A Grey Wagtail sang as he bounced over the wall and down to the Guadiana below.   

Moorish entrance



House Martin condo
Souvenir shopping and then veering off again towards Moinho de Canais several miles up river. I am still trying to work out where we turned off the main road to get there but at the village of Corte Pequena there was a helpful sign to get you on the next dirt track to lead us down to Moinho de Canais.  

David had seen a pair of Golden Eagles here earlier in the spring and although the adults were awol we were lucky enough to see a very well grown youngster in the eerie, sitting on his haunches and showing off a set of enormous yellow feet.

Golden Eaglet

Three stag Red Deer were seen resting under a Cork Oak and Iberian Magpies were all around while up above in the now blue sky Pallid Swifts positively shone.

Genista sp - a Broom but not one I have seen before

Wild Pear I suspect but again not sure of species


Corl Oak

Despite the dryness there were a surprisng number of lichens

and some more

Red Deer

Red Deer with Spotless Starling

Down in the valley bottom we parked up at the end of the track opposite a small weir and enjoyed an hour poking around the shoreline with occasional glances up for the adult eagles. Four Common Sandpipers teetered on the rocks – apparently they do breed this far south – and a Green Sandpiper flew up and out of the valley.  Kingfishers zoomed around and both Grey and White Wagtails were catching insects around the margins while Grey Herons kept an eye on us and waited for us to leave. 

Quality folding in these thin mudstones

Grey Heron
This habitat was so unlike any we had been in so far and the birds could all have been from a Scottish river up until the point that a Rock Bunting hopped into view!  It was good to get some better views of this species and I think that it was my first for about ten years.

There were no dragonflies at all which was disappointing but I did eventually find a large damselfly that was identified by Roy when I got home as a White Featherleg (Platycnemis latipes). The only butterflies that settled turned out to be a Common Blue and Brown Argus (as usual) but I did find a superb Hemipenthes sp. which is a seriously funky fly.

Iberian Water Frog

Otter scat

Brown Argus

Hemipenthes sp - related to Beeflies

White Featherleg - Platycnemis latipes

There were even a few flowering plants – something that had been in short supply so far and I am still trying to work out what some of them are but will give it my best shot!  I am usually able to sort things out with my copy of Gey-Wilson and Blamey but it has been more problematical this time for some reason!

Shrub tabacco - Nicotiana glauca

Spiny Restharrow  - Ononis campestris

A yellow thistle but stumped at the moment
Verbascum sp

Nerium oleander

With one last look at the Eaglet we wended our way back up to Corte Pequena where three Golden Orioles and several Iberian Magpies greeted us in the same garden fig tree where they were tucking onto some succulent figgyness.  The views of the Orioles were some of the best I have ever had.

male Golden Oriole

female Golden Oriole

We popped back into Mertola to pick up something for dinner and marvelled at their local wildlife sculptures on the roundabout before heading back to Bens for a pasta meatball dinner.

Love it...

Tasted better than it looked
The beers were put on hold as there was still plenty of daylight to play with so we hopped back it eh car and went back to Achada da Gama for White Rumped Swift seconds.  The birdlife was almost the same but the light was even better and we were able to position ourselves to be on eye level with the birds as they approached the tunnel which gave Shaun (rather than me) the best opportunity to merrily pap away. The ensuing results were superb.

White Rumped Swift- Shaun Harvey

White Rumped Swift- Shaun Harvey

The Red-rumped Swallows and Crag Martins were using the same slope to hunt from, drifting in lazy circles and occasionally resting up and casting long shadows.

Red-rumped Swallow - Shaun Harvey

Red-rumped Swallow 

Red-rumped Swallow

Crag Martin

Black-eared Wheatears fizzed but remained aloof and the Bee-eaters were again hunting around the main building near the entrance where White Storks clattered on their nests with young begging for a last evening meal.

White Stork

White Stork - nearly fledged - there were over 30 consecutive telegraph poles with active nests

Red-legged Partridge
We were keen to get back to Salgueiros and the site of our Red-necked Nightjar glory from yesterday and we had almost made it to the turning when a juvenile Great Spotted Cuckoo flew noisily across the road. It circled the car and landed frustratingly straight into the light and we subsequently watched it with its sibling following around their beleaguered Magpie parents.

I could see the trees where we had the single last night and it was conceivable that they were the same family unit. Up the road we settled in for a short wait but would the Nightjars perform once again?

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Corn Buntings moved through to roost once again but we counted them this time and got to 229 and the Iberian Shrikes were still very active and making loads of noise.  The Little Owls were dotted all about and Stone Curlews circled us and then bang on cue at 9:05pm the first Nightjar appeared and we were then treated once again to a mesmerising display for the next twenty minutes or so. 


Iberian Magpies

Stone Curlew

Our phones were dragging in more light than our bins or cameras and we found that we could find them further away with our phones and then switch to bins when they came closer.  Being prepared this time even meant that I managed a few short video clips.
Red-necked Nightjar video grab

Red-necked Nightjar video grab

Two short little videos taken with my Galaxy S9+ phone in near darkness...

The Eagle Owl started up again and good guessing from David allowed him to pick it out sat on top of the old chimney up on the hill about a mile away.  Even from here you could see those ear tufts!

Eagle Owl - David Bradnum
Not quite believing our luck for the second night running we headed back to Bens for our delayed post dinner beers.

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