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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Maalie's Girona for Beginners

With apologies to Merisi for the title!

During our time birdwatching in Spain it was inevitable that we would have to wast... errrm, I mean spend (Oooops!), some time in a town. The town we used as a base was Girona, 100km or so north from Barcelona, not far from the border with France. Here are some images of Girona.

The cathedral towers above the apartments along the central river. The cathedral has the biggest nave in Christendom

The old city wall behind the cathedral

Old Girona at night, the back of the cathedral

A labyrinth off passage ways in Old Girona

Shops were open late into the evening. The window of a cherub shop is shown in the post below. This is a delicatessen

In the first week of February there were stylised blood-pump icons aplenty

This was the best shop...

Our enforced time in Girona was not entirely without reward: on our last afternoon before heading to the airport we found Little Egret and Kingfisher (new for our "trip list") along the river through the centre of the town.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The ugliest cherub in the world?

This one?

Or this one?

Both in the window of a cherub shop in Girona, Spain.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Quest for the Bonebreaker

Even "scientific" ornithologists and serious bird recorders enjoy seeing birds they have not seen before. This does not make them "twitchers", but simply naturalists who enjoy biological diversity. A particular bird might be regarded as beautiful, rare or just a challenge to find.

Two species in particular, for me, fit all three criteria, namely the Wallcreeper and the Lammergeier. I have sought the Wallcreeper on at least six occasions across Europe (sometimes with travel companion Stuart) and have failed; and three previous visits to the Spanish Pyrenees failed to reveal the legendary Lammergeier ("Bonebreaker"). This huge bird (also called the Bearded Vulture) is rare in Europe (though thanks to conservation is making a recovery) and is notorious for its dependence on bone marrow in its diet. And so, when other scavengers have finished with a carcass, the Lammergeier flies off with the bones, and drops them onto rocks from a height in order to smash them to release the bone marrow.

And so it was again that Stuart and I flew into Girona in Spain for one more attempt to locate these two species, in particular. The trip was in three sections - the coast; the plains; and the mountains.

At the coast of the Costa Brava we visited two nature reserves, the Cape Creus Peninsula, and the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Emporda.

We hiked to the highest point, to the ruined castle above the monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes and looked down on the Cape.
A view of Cap de Creus from the highest point
I visited this reserve on my visits to Spain last year and this year we saw a similar range of species, including Balearic Shearwater, Black Redstart and Sardinian Warbler, but added wintering Alpine Accentor located up near the monastery.

New to me was the large wetland nature reserve at Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Emporda, near the town of Roses. A day here revealed a diversity of wading birds and waterfowl, as well as White Storks that were commencing nesting activity, and specialities like Water Pipit, Hoopoe and Purple Gallinule.

The wetland Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Emporda nature reserve

Birdwatching from the top of the tower hide
Next on the itinerary was a long drive to the Zaragosa plains, south from Bujarloz in Aragón. This is arid steppe country, habitat of larks, bustards and sandgrouse. There were Calandra Larks (the largest of the European lark species) aplenty, and we found a covey of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a small flock of Great Bustards on the wing as they flew off into the morning mist. This is also the home of the rare and restricted DuPont's Lark, an extremely elusive species that sings at night and spends the day concealed in vegetation. We regarded ourselves fortunate to locate a couple of singing males as darkness fell and the air temperature plummeted.

The plains in Spain really do seem plain...

...until you see the gorge carved into them by the River Ebro near Escatrón
The final part of our excursion, and the most eagerly anticipated, was three days in the Spanish Pyrenees where we stayed at the Boletas Birdwatching Centre in the village of Loporzano near Huesca, as guests of Josele Saiz and his wife Esther. The target species here were unashamedly Wallcreeper and Lammergeier, and Josele was generous with local knowledge as to where we might search.

The Wallcreeper has always been an iconic bird for birdwatchers, not only because of its attractiveness, but because locating it on its breeding grounds on vertical rock faces high in alpine areas has always represented a challenge. It is only comparatively recently the birders have recognised the possibility of finding them in winter when they descend to the more accessible foothills. Our first stop was at the towering columns at Riglos, a well-known spot for Wallcreepers.
The pinnacles of Riglos ( the Mallos de Riglos)
Although we found no Wallcreeper here, we were rewarded with good views of hundreds of Griffon Vultures circling in the sky preparing to roost on the cliffs, and also a Black Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush. However, a stop by a reservoir damn a little further up the valley at Embalse de la Peña, Stuart spotted a bird sitting on a rock that gave us both a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Wallcreeper before it flew off. It was the next morning, on the face of a quarry suggested by Josele, that we obtained our really memorable views of a this bird.

Wallcreeper (image source)
Our final quest, the Lammergeier, demanded higher altitudes and on our last day we set off for the Spanish/French border above Sallent de Gállego, well above the snow line and among the ski resorts.
High in the Pyrenees

Maybe because of the number of skiers, birds of any kind were scarce, and we felt we had one remaining card to play: a foray into Spain's iconic Ordessa National Park. Rising into the park north from Torla, we eventually got to the car park (thanks to recent snow-plough activity) where we were confronted by the most stunning scenery.

The magnificent Ordessa National Park in the heart of the Pyrenees
High above the crags circled a flock of Alpine Choughs and a Golden Eagle. And it was in this area that we obtained our view of a Lammergeier circling over a ridge. Seen through a telescope it was unmistakeable with its slender, almost falcon-like wings and long dark wedge-shaped tail.

O'er Pyreneean mountain ridge and coll
With slender wings and diamond tail he soars;
Above the snow-capped peaks does never tire
With regal majesty the Lammergeier

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Maalie on a Mission

Maalie deserves a break. He is on a mission to the Spanish Pyrenees on a quest for the Bonebreaker. A report will follow upon return, about 12 February. Regards to all.