Birding Trip report from Catalunia and North West Spain November 2010

by John Fox

A party of 8 members of the Tolka Branch of Birdwatch Ireland traveled with Ryanair from Dublin to Barcelona on 26th November. Flight costs were about €106 incl taxes etc. At Barcelona airport we collected our hire car a 9 seater VW Caravelle people carrier, at a cost of €260 for the 5 days. While the drivers in the group went through the paperwork others in the group had views of Monk Parakeet, White Wagtail, House Sparrow, Buzzard, Kestrel, Magpie and Wood Pigeon from the airport car park.

White Stork

From the airport we made our way to the Villa Ibiza which we had rented at a cost of €995 for the 5 days, in the Olivella area which is about 30 minutes from Barcelona airport and 15 minutes north west of Sitges. Good directions had been provided to our villa, however we stopped before reaching it to bird a small wooded area at Mas Mestre where we had our first views of Crested Tit, a lifer for many of our party. At this location we also had good views of Firecrest, Collared Dove, Common Starling, Robin, Dunnock, Coal Tit, Goldcrest, Chaffinch and Long-tailed Tit. A pair of Crossbills also flew over head, calling as they went.

The Villa was well appointed with a large living area and five twin bedrooms. We traveled into Sitges for dinner and drinks that evening. A couple of Tawny Owls were calling on our return. All were in bed by midnight as our guide was calling to the villa at 7.00am the next day. 

Our guide Stephen Christopher of Catalan Bird Tours ( had been contacted a few month earlier by Dermot and had been engaged for 3 full days at a cost of €985.00 or €109.00 per person for a party of 9 people. Lorraine the 9th member of our party would join us later that morning, flying in from Brussels. 

Stephen was anxious that we set off directly and to his credit we were on the road by 07.10. Stephen had his own transport and took three of the group in his car leaving much more space in the VW for the rest of the group and their equipment. 

Just before sunrise we arrived at the edge of the Garaff Natural Park which is located on the mediterranean coast between Barcelona and Sitges. Following a short walk we positioned ourselves quietly at the foot of an almost vertical cliff to await the arrival of our first target bird. Stephen had done much research in advance of our arrival and as such was quite confident that our bird would show up. About five minutes later, as predicted, Stephen spotted our quarry, a stunning Wallcreeper. Speedily he got his scope trained on the bird and then he made sure that everyone got a view of the bird either through his scope, or by helping others to get their own scope on it. The bird, moved about on the cliff face for 30 minutes or so as the sun rose and flooded the cliff with light. The bird which was a lifer for everyone but our guide, eventually slipped out of sight as it moved south along the cliff face. Crag Martins glided about above the cliff as Black Redstarts foraged on the cliff below, a single Blue Rock Thrush perched at the cliff top for a few minutes while a pair of Peregrine headed out to sea. Cormorant, Gannet, Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls were seen over the sea while Serin and Rock Dove were also present in the area. Finally we had lovely views of a single Audouin’s Gull at a marina along the coast.

 Wallcreeper                                                                                                              Audouin’s Gull

From there we headed up into the mountains of the Parc Natural de Garraf, a beautiful area of mountainous heath. We spent a few hours walking in this area as much of it is restricted to vehicles. Here we had good views of Red-legged Partridge, Thekla Lark, Spotless Starling, Southern Grey Shrike with Dartford Warbler popping in and out of view regularly. Other birds seen in the area were Stonechat, Blackcap, Serin, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Linnet, Dunnock and Robin. Later in the day we drove further into the Parc Natural de Garraf where we saw Rock Sparrow, Wood Lark, Rock Bunting and a Sparrowhawk. As the light began to fade our eagle-eyed guide, Stephen spotted a pair of flying Bonelli’s Eagles, one of which perched within scope range of our vehicles. We studied the majestic Eagle for a while as Stephen explained some of the bird’s key identification features to those of us for whom the bird was unfamiliar.

We returned to the Villa happy that we had a great first day with many new ticks under our belts.

Sunday 6.00am we met with Stephen a few miles from the villa for our second early start. This time our destination was further afield the Los Monegros Steppe near Candason which is about 50km West of Lleida and about 170km West of Barcelona. We arrived just after dawn to a precise location selected by Stephen. A hard frost still clung to the vegetation as we scoured the area for Sand Grouse. As we searched we had views of flying Carrion Crow, Jackdaw, Red-billed Chough, Hen Harrier, Marsh Harrier and a Merlin while in the scrub Corn Bunting, Lesser Short-toed and Thekla Lark foraged. Scanning the middle distance with the scopes eventualy revealed the elusive Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. A small flock made up of both species was on the highest ground presumably taking advantage of the earliest rays of sunshine to warm themselves after the cold night. It was great to see both species side by side enabling good comparisons to be made. As the day warmed more species became active such as Dartford Warbler, Stock Dove, Red Kite, Hoopoe and small flocks of Calandra Lark rose in the sky revealing their diagnostic dark underwings. 

    Thelka Lark                                                                                                  Corn Bunting

On arrival at our second site of the day, a strong and very cold wind swept across the Steppe making us reluctant to leave the cars. This worked in our favour as Stephen informed us that our target bird is much more approachable by car than on foot and it was not long before we had our first but distant views of a small flock of Great Bustard. Some of these birds were seen sheltering behind small bushes to keep out of the icy wind. We drove around the area a little longer finding a flock of about 20 Black-bellied Sandgrouse and eventually were rewarded with closer views of three more Great Bustard. We hoped to connect with Little Bustard in this area too but unfortunately that species eluded us. 

From Los Monegros we returned East towards Lleida and the Lleida Steppe. We had lovely views of 3 Griffon Vultures that glided effortlessly across the road as we drove east. Once there Stephen guided us to a landfill site where we had superb and most spectacular views of hundreds of White Stork, Cattle Egrets and Black-headed Gulls together with 20 or more Red Kites, several Grey Herons, Lapwing and a thousand or more Starlings. A single Common Buzzard was also perched in the area. All the birds present appeared to be feeding on the contents of the dump.

Pintailed Sandgrouse

After leaving the dump area we found another flock of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse which were quite approachable due in the main to the absence in the flock of their close relatives, the more skittish Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Several Green Woodpeckers were also seen nearby in a small orchard close to the road.

Returning eastward, Stephen took us to another of his well researched locations at Mas de Melons this time for Black Wheatear and we were not disappointed. We connected quite quickly with a family party of several birds. Good views were had by all of both male and female of the species. 

We made one more stop in the Mas de Melons area at a spot where Stephen was confident that we would see Stone Curlew. After a short walk from the car we entered a field where we had wonderful views of a flock of perhaps 50 Stone Curlew all resting in a ploughed field. A few flew up as we tried to approached unseen, but they quickly settled back into the flock. I had seen Stone Curlew before but never so well or in such numbers. It was an unexpected treat and a lovely finish to our second guided day. 

Stone Curlew                                                                                                     Stone Curlew

From here we headed back towards Barcelona and our villa where after a quick shower and change of cloths we returned again to Sitges for dinner followed by an early night in preparation for another early start and our last full day.
We met up with Stephen again on Monday at 6.30am for our trip up into the Pyrenees. We drove to Parc Natural Cadi-Moixero where we reached an altitude of over 2000m. With a little snow on the ground and more threatening, we parked up in temperatures as low as minus 8 degrees. Hoping for the sun to break through we began our trek up the mountain road. Jay, Mistle Thrush, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Coal Tit and Ring Ouzel were seen before we had our first views of Alpine Chough with flocks of thirty or more birds seen wheeling over the cliffs above, their yellow bills clearly visible even in the poor light. Several Chamois stared down at us from the mountain side briefly halting their foraging in the spartan vegetation to check us out. Rounding a corner on the road which overlooked a small stream one of our party spotted a Dipper working its way up stream. This sighting was quickly followed up by great views of a flock of 5 Alpine Accentors, another of our target birds which delighted everyone and once more confirmed to us our guide’s knowledge of the area. We had found the birds within a few meters of where Stephen suggested that a sighting was possible. 

With the Sun failing to break through the thickening cloud we started back towards the cars to warm up, as we were all quite cold at this stage. Shortly after reaching the cars we were treated to close views of two Griffon Vultures that soared out over the cliffs above. They were followed almost immediatly by another bird, one that we all had at the top of our wish lists; Lammergeier. The views we had of this wonderful vulture were superb let down only by the dull grey sky. We watched it for a minute or so as it passed directly overhead before it silently glided down the valley and out of sight. Its sighting made us all forget how cold we were, though only briefly. 

Lammergeier                                                                                                   Alpine Accentor

With snow starting to fall we happily got into the cars and headed down the mountain. As we decended we had a brief view of another Wallcreeper that flew out from a cliff face over the cars. We stopped for a few minutes in a village some way down the mountain where we had another Dipper, Long-tailed, Blue and Crested Tit together with a Firecrest. 
Returning to The Barcelona Area we entered the Llobregat wetland Reserve near Barcelona airport. This is a managed/wardened area with many hides and a good range of species. Birds seen here included Mallard, Shoveler, Teal, Gadwall, Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, Great Crested Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Marsh Harrier, Sparrowhawk, Common Pheasant, Moorhen, Coot, Dunlin, Green Sandpiper, Golden Plover, Sandwich Tern, Kingfisher, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti’s Warbler, Moustached Warbler and Water Pipit. The gulls present were Black-headed, Yellow-legged and a two Mediterranean Gulls. The best bird for me from this area was Purple Swamp Hen and we had great views of two of them from one of the hides. We had hoped to connect with Penduline Tit in this wetland area but dipped on that species.

As the light was fading, we said good by to Stephen our superb guide for the 3 days. He had been everything we had hoped for and more. He knew the birds we were after and put in the time to locate them prior to our arrival. He found most of them for us in the short time we were there. He was happy to answer all our questions, no matter how obvious or obtuse, with a breath of knowlege that only comes with years of experience and time in the field. I would have no hesitation in recommending him to others interested in birding the area, a view which I believe would be endorsed by all of our group.

We returned to our Villa that evening very satisfied with our trip and the birds we had seen. Rain set in over night and we departed a wet Spain the following morning, returning home to a snow covered Ireland.

Our group included the following members of the Tolka Branch of Birdwatch Ireland: Dermot McCabe, Lorraine Benson, Bill and Heather Quinn, Gerald Franck, Philip Clancy, Chris Evans, Darragh Hogg and myself John Fox

             Chamois                                                                           Southern Grey Shrike (Iberian)




© Copyright, Tolka Branch, Birdwatch Ireland 2006