17 December 2018
This wasn’t an Anser trip although the notes and images may be of interest to readers who may plan to visit the area or would like to see some of what we recorded.
I had planned and arranged a budget trip to this part of Spain for our small party of four (myself, Joe, Neil and Bob) and had planned to visit some sites that I was familiar with from birding visits in the early 1990s and to call in on a few new ones. We flew from Bristol to Alicante (easyjet) with no issues and picked up the hire car (Sixt), we were well on the road by mid afternoon. We headed straight to El Hondo (or El Fondo) wetland reserve and visited some of the hides, it was warm, the winter sun was very welcome.
Booted Eagle (pale phase)
Birds/wildlife noted included a pale phase Booted Eagle, Southern Grey Shrikes, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti’s Warbler, Bluethroats, Cattle Egrets, Marsh Harriers, Greater Flamingo, Coot, plenty of Black-necked Grebes, Crag Martins, Sardinian Warbler,Chiffchaffs, Penduline Tit (heard) and representing odonata were Red-veined Darters (pictured) and a larger species of Hawker dragonfly.
Our next stop was at a service area before heading into the Sierra Aracena mountains in Murcia and then on to our ‘base’ for the next two nights in Eastern Andalucia (Cabo de Gata) in Almeria province.
The Aracena scenery was impressive but it was largely silent and still with few birds about, the high peak looked to have a very distant flock of Red-billed Chough wheeling around but they were largely out of view. One species of interest must now be locally extinct, the habitat that was once suitable for Dupont’s Larks is no more, either developed or fragmented by plastic greenhouses. A sunset drive saw us arrive hungry and ready for a drink and meal at the Hotel Blanc Brisa. Ice cold glasses of Turia on draught was our preferred beer if you ever call in, the vegetable paella dish was also agreeable.
18 December 2018
Our first stop of the day was right on the doorstep of Cabo de Gata, only minutes away was the beach track that led to Rambla Morales, a brackish lagoon where the virtually dried up river mouth is cut off by a sandbar. It was dawn, as it warmed in the bright sun, the birds began to wake. Southern Grey Shrikes, bright Stonechats, a flock of Lesser Short-toed Larks and Trumpeter Finches, Crested Larks and a flock of c60 Golden Plover were feeding in the dunes.
At the pool a Water Pipit showed well, 4+ Black-necked Grebes, lots of Chiffchaff, Crag Martins, Cetti’s Warbler, Shoveler, Wigeon, Teal, Pochard and one of my favourites-5+ White-headed Ducks (see above) were on the pool. Other notables were Bluethroat and Penduline Tits, the latter species calling regularly.
Later that morning we visited the nearby Las Almonaderas ‘desert’ reserve. Crested Larks, Black Redstarts, Stonechat, Southern Grey Shrike, a brief eagle species and a few Chiffchaff were present. Nearby a Little Owl watched and sunbathed from some boulders, it’s home now surrounded by new plastic greenhouses, they are continually developing a sea of plastic to grow fruit and vegetables for our consumption.
We stopped for a coffee and very sweet cake and made a plan to visit the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains hoping the roads were clear of snow. On the way we took in the spectacular ‘badland’ scenery as well as a stupendous castle (La Calahorra) with snow capped mountain backdrop. We drove the winding roads to the Puerto de la Ragua with no snow to worry about. Stopping on the roadside to scan the hawthorns we logged c50 very nervous Ring Ouzels and a few Song Thrushes. Up at the ski station we searched the ski runs with dog rose bushes and forest, c25 Red Crossbill, 10+ Siskin and a flock of Goldfinches were vocal, a couple of Citril Finch were seen. Rock Buntings and Crested Tits showed very well, another Ring Ouzel with Blackbirds kept a low profile. The biggest surprise at 2000m in December was a Queen of Spain Fritillary butterfly, it was 14c and sunny. It was a great place to be but we decided to head back down with just enough time to visit a quiet and remote mountain village in the Tabernas area at dusk.
Queen of Spain Fritillary, Crested Tit and Red Crossbill- Puerto de la Ragua, Sierra Nevada
19 December 2018
First port of call were the adjacent salt pans at Cabo de Gata where more Spotless Starling, Greater Flamingo, Slender-billed Gulls, Spoonbills, Shelduck, Greenshank and Redshank, Audouin’s Gulls, Ringed Plover, Little Stint and Dunlin were noted. A Dartford Warbler and Southern Grey Shrike was near the western public hide.
At the Cabo de Gata lighthouse we noted a Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting, Thekla Larks, Red-legged Partridge and Black Redstarts were all seen. Heading inland we tried our luck at more mountain villages with little to report other than plastic greenhouses. The area had changed considerably since the early 1990s, back then it was the first time I had seen them on such a scale around Almeria, the expansion since then is rather hard to take in, the birds and ‘Euro desert’ habitat has largely disappeared.
We got back the road and decided it was best to go coastal, it had been productive for us so far, plans were made at a service area to try our luck at Mar Menor and more salinas. A fine end to the day and smashing sunset at La Charcas mud baths with Slender-billed Gulls, Black-necked Grebes, Flamingos, Yellow-legged Gulls and a few waders including Turnstone, Sanderling and Common Sandpiper. At dusk we made our way to the hotel in Santa Pola, after a wash an brush up we met in the bar for a couple of drinks and then enjoyed another good meal.
Slender-billed Gull, Sanderling and Little Egret-Las Charcas mudbaths, Mar Menor
Black-necked Grebe-Las Charcas
20 December 2018
After a very good pre-dawn breakfast we discovered the hotel offered a decent vantage point over the north end of the Santa Pola salinas so I scanned through the wildfowl. Outside and only minutes down the road we made a few stops in the lay-bys and from an observation tower seeing more Slender-billed Gulls, Spoonbills, Flamingo, Dunlin, Little Stints, Kentish Plover (included a breeding plumaged male), Osprey, Audouin’s and Yellow-legged Gulls, Shelduck, Marsh Harriers, singing Southern Grey Shrike and the usual Cormorants and Little and Great White Egrets.
We had to leave to catch out flight home and be at the airport for 10:00am so this concluded our opportunistic birding break, the loss of habitats in key areas of Almeria and Murcia was worrying, on positive note the birds we did see were welcome, with continued protection the wetlands and salinas offer extremely important habitat for 1000s of birds. The Santa Pola/El Hondo complex was of particular interest but for me the time spent at Rambla Morales and Sierra Nevada offered us some very memorable birding time.