David's Diaries 2006
Cranes and trumpeters in Almeria February 7 to 14, 2006
Not a good start to our trip. Our lady minibus driver arrived on time, and we set off for the airport at 8.30 sharp. However, we hadn't gone far when the traffic report on the radio told us that the A14 had a hold-up because of an overturned lorry. We should have heeded this; instead, we joined the solid crawl of traffic on the A14. In 15 minutes we only got as far as the next junction, so we came off and travelled cross-country through Cavenham, joining the All at Barton Mills. Feeling pleased with ourselves, we then heard the next traffic report: the All blocked in both directions due to a lorry fire. We stayed on the A14 round the north of Cambridge, avoiding the hold up completely. Our driver kept her foot down, so we did a steady 90mph except through the road works, and arrived at Stansted at 10.20. Check in was quick, and though the plane suffered a slight delay, we arrived in a sunny Almeria on time at 3.40. Our smart red VW Transporter was waiting for us, but unfortunately Ian's bag didn't join us.
The drive north was easy on an empty motorway. Among the few birds glimpsed were southern grey shrike, jackdaw, spotless starling and black redstart. We found our pink house eventually, and were welcomed to our rooms by David. This hotel is quite eccentric but charming. A short walk before it got dark produced chiffchaffs, serins and not a lot else, but the scenery is fine.
Dinner, cooked by David and served by Graeme, was excellent. We started with a terrine of wild mushrooms with broccoli and cheese sauce, followed by spicy shank of lamb with couscous, then a very light lemon sponge with a strawberry and lemon sauce.
We met at 8.15 on a distinctly cool morning. From the track we soon started seeing blackcaps and corn buntings (the latter were singing). There was an abundance of small birds, including several black redstarts (the cocks of the Iberian race, showing a lot of white on the back), serins, siskins, chiffchaffs, house sparrows, crested larks, spotless starlings and a single kestrel. I saw (briefly) two rock sparrows, but failed to get anyone else to see them, while buntings proved difficult to watch. I identified cirl buntings, while Gabriel was sure he had seen a rock bunting. Robin, blackbird, song thrush were all reminders of home.
Back for a 9.30 breakfast which proved to be a lengthy affair, with bacon and eggs available for those who wanted them. We left at 10.30, driving towards the coast past a southern grey shrike. We soon found damp fields with birds, and at our first stop we saw ringed and Kentish plovers, lapwings, a green sandpiper and a greenshank, plus black-winged stilts. Stonechats were common, as were chiffchaffs. A single soaring buzzard raised our hopes that it might be something more exciting. A small flock of cattle egrets flew across the road.
After stocking up at the supermarket we stopped again overlooking a large shallow wetland area surrounded by on-going developments in all directions. There were several shovelers, mallard, coot, more stilts, and cranes in all directions. A distant flock of stone curlews numbered about 50. Four flying wigeon added to the list, and we followed them not long afterwards with a trio of teal, plus distant views of the stone curlews on the ground. Crag martins were all around us. Waders included Kentish plover and little stint.
The developments looked far from attractive, and one was left wondering who on earth would want to live in such ghastly buildings. The future of the Salinas wetlands overlooked by these new villas and apartments must be in considerable doubt.
We carried on to the coast, away from the developers, though a fringing wood of eucalyptus trees was hardly natural-looking. In the bay were several great crested grebes and a scattering of black-necks. One small flock of the latter included a bird in almost full breeding plumage. Far out to sea we saw a couple of gannets, while the gulls were yellow-legged and black-headed. Once a green woodpecker called from the nearby woodland. We ate our lunch looking out to sea, and spotted a trio of red-breasted mergansers as we ate. By now the sun was pleasantly warm, but a breeze kept the temperature down.
After lunch we drove up to the deeply embanked, waterless Almo river. We walked to the mouth, where the delta must once have been. Either side the flat land was farmed with an intensity it would be hard to imagine in northern Europe. Lines of lettuces greened the ground, while tatty plastic greenhouses held the inevitable tomatoes. Once we came across a line of workers, resting by the side of the road: all were negro, and very black, suggesting that they had come from well south of the Sahara. They looked at us warily, with no smiles.
The tall reedbed at the mouth of the river seemed birdless apart from two cormorants in a pool. On rocky spits just offshore there were a number of gulls, and here we saw several Audouin's gulls at reasonably close range, plus black-headed, yellow-legged and a single Sandwich tern. Audouin's gull is a handsome bird when seen well, with its distinctive dark beak, grey back and long black-tipped wings. There were several species of waders here, and we managed to see a single whimbrel, a couple of dunlin, several little stints (all in adult winter plumage), a flock of sanderlings and a couple of turnstones.
We then drove inland, following the embanked river. A stop in the river valley produced some good birding on the numerous shallow polls, with little ringed (3) and ringed plovers, plus singles of greenshank, green sandpiper and common sandpiper. We also saw a meadow pipit and I also found a water pipit, though no-one else saw the latter. Chiffchaffs were common. This site was relatively attractive as it was quite green, but you didn't have to look far to see scattered plastic bottles and the inevitable litter of 21st century Spain.
For our last stop of the day we drove a few miles to the top of the impressive if unattractive dam, which gave a commanding view for miles around. Far below us on the water, coloured a shade of beaten copper by the setting sun, there was a flock of pochard with a single tufted duck, as well as a few mallard and our first little grebes of the day. We walked along the top of the dam, soon finding a pleasing pair of handsome black wheatears which showed well. A blackbird was singing, and though it was very distant, its song carried clearly on the still air. We also heard the tilling song of canaries: there was an aviary far below us. It was now after 6pm, so time to head home; as we drove a call came through on Ian's mobile, and we were delighted to hear that his bag had arrived.
The total of species for the day was around 75, which wasn't bad. It had been an enjoyable day with some good birdwatching, but the overwhelming development of the area, with the numerous urbanications, was depressing to see.
Dinner was up to standard, with goat's cheese wrapped in pastry with a pesto sauce followed by fresh cod served on a bed of spinach with creamy mashed potato, cabbage and strips of carrots. We finished with treacle pudding with a cherry sauce.
Another cold morning, though this time the sky was clear so sheltered pockets of ground were silvered with frost. We started our pre-breakfast walk by dropping down towards the (dry) river valley, but saw few birds as we walked apart from corn and rock buntings, though we heard distant red-legged partridges. We climbed back up again and walked back towards the golf course, pausing for a Dartford warbler that showed well, if briefly. Around the gold course we saw the same mixture of birds as the morning before, but this time the sun was warm and cheering.
After breakfast we dropped down to Turre, where Jan did the shopping and Gabriel found an ATM that gave him some euros. I looked in an estate agent's window and discovered apartments for sale from 69,000 euros, and villas for anything from 125,000 to 250,000. None were inspiring.
We drove out of town and back to the main road to Garrucha, stopping soon for the flooded fields we had viewed yesterday. Here we walked round the flooded areas, having a very pleasant walk in the sunshine, which was now really warm. All the expected birds: cattle egrets, grey herons, mallard, stilts, wagtails, stonechats and a variety of finches (green, chaff, gold) and several uncooperative rock buntings flashing their white outer tail feathers. A little owl gave everyone a good view, and fantailed warblers were seen several times. We had hoped to walk round in a circle, but deep water-filled ditches prevented us from doing so, so we retraced our steps.
In the afternoon we drove up into the mountains behind the Finca. The scenery was beautiful, with the rugged mountains quite green, and the bare almond trees smothered in white or pink blossom. Birds were few other than serins, thekla larks and crag martins, but here were a number of butterflies to be seen. Big, bright cleopatras searched for females, while Bath whites chased each other around furiously. We also saw several walls, a red admiral and a number of Spanish festoons, a butterfly with a name as attractive as itself. Despite searching the sky, we failed to see any raptors other than a kestrel. It was beautifully warm and sunny, the sky a deep blue.
After a good walk we continued our drive over the sierras. We saw two green woodpeckers flying, but failed to scope them perched. The Iberian green woodpecker is of the raced sharpei, and has a noticeably grey face, while the red malar has a narrow black border. It's quite likely to be split in due course.
We continued our drive until we reached the motorway, then drove home having completed a circle. Dinner started with potato cakes wrapped in smoked salmon, followed by exquisite local roast lamb, finished with creme brulée.
There had been a slight shower of rain in the night and it was cloudy when we set off for our stroll to the golf course. Though we saw most of the usual birds, it was an unexciting morning, with nothing really of note other than the big flock of corn buntings we watched as we came back. A rock bunting allowed itself to be scoped briefly.
After checking out and packing the bus we set off towards the sierras, crossing the motorway. The hills were stark, with little cover, but our first stop as we ascended gave good views of common starlings, which winter here, plus a couple of hoopoes, black redstarts and serins. The scenery became more attractive as we travelled, with the numerous blossoming almond trees adding greatly to the scene. Our second stop as we descended into a broad plain produced a soaring sparrowhawk, though at great range. However, it wasn't going to be a day for raptors, as we were to see nothing else other than a few kestrels.
We stopped to buy lunch at the attractive town of Sobras, and while Jan tracked down the bread, most of admired the handsome cliffs. There were black wheatears here, and the usual supporting cast of blackcaps, black redstarts and spotless starlings.
From Sobras we branched off the main road seeing a flock of mistle thrushes soon after leaving it. The scenery was attractive, with relatively little agriculture. At then climbed on a relatively narrow mountain road, with substantial unprotected drops. Fortunately we didn't meet anything coming the other way. At the end we stopped and admired the terrific view across the plain to the snow-topped sierras. Here we also had great views of a male blue rock thrush which showed how appropriate the name is in good light, for now the sun was shining warmly. We also looked at larks here that seemed to be convincing theklas, and a small flock of linnets (our first) flew over.
I decided against driving over the top of the sierras, so we dropped back down to the main road and retraced our route, stopping a little before the town for lunch. It was an attractive spot, with the handsome hills rising ruggedly behind us, and the ground falling away gently below us. Larks again were the main entertainment, with the voting split between thekla and crested. The former got my vote, and my photograph suggests (but doesn't prove) that I was right.
After lunch we continued along the winding mountain road, though fortunately there weren't too many precipitous drops. It was remarkably birdless, apart from the black redstarts flitting across in front of us. We continued back to civilisation, crossing the plains ruined by the huge plastic greenhouses. Some of these appeared to be professionally designed and built, but the majority were the usual ugly constructions made from opaque plastic.
As we drove closer to San José the scenery improved, and was quite agreeable around our hotel, the Cortijo El Sotillo. The rooms are spacious and quite attractive, but it does seem to be rather an expensive hotel for what it offers.
We did have a walk before dark, flushing a flock of larks with crests (I thought thekla again) and several red-legged partridges. A pair of ravens played over the nearest mountain.
Dinner was surprisingly good, and the two young waiters tried hard for us. We did have to establish that we could choose three courses off the menu, as part of our half-board package.
It was pretty chilly and grey when we ventured out for our pre-breakfast exploration. We drove about a mile to a headland overlooking the sea, and where there were few birds to be found other than the usual black redstarts, stonechats and black wheatears. A couple of Dartford warblers were glimpsed, and Jenny spotted a gannet out to sea.
Breakfast was a major disappointment. There wasn't a buffet, as expected, so instead we were dished up with toast and lukewarm coffee. Not satisfactory for a hotel costing as much as this. (We queried the lack of a buffet: one was supplied for the next four mornings.)
After a brief shopping expedition in San José we set off to find birds, returning back through the deeply depressing plastic greenhouses. We eventually came across the first hide overlooking the Albufera, the Reserva de las Salinas. Here was an attractive information board, but we didn't venture into the hide itself. By now the sun was shining, and it was, of course, straight into our eyes. We didn't linger, but had still added flamingo, avocet and slender-billed gull to the list. There were more hides on the seaward side of the Salinas, so we headed for these.
As we were unloading from the bus, I glanced across the road and spotted a group of small birds hopping about on the sand. Expecting lesser short-toed larks, I lifted the binoculars to find a small flock of six or seven trumpeter finches. This was a major triumph, as we'd found our No 1 target bird with no effort. The birds proved relatively tame and approachable, and we all enjoyed good views. Ian spotted a couple of auks out to sea, but as they were diving continually we lost sight of them.
Across at the hide we soon started adding birds to the growing list. There were in fact three hides, all of which we walked to, and were rewarded with a fine selection of waders, including redshank, spotted redshank, marsh sandpiper (1), curlew sandpiper (several), dunlin, little stint, Kentish plover, avocet, oystercatcher (1), black-tailed godwit (many), turnstone(1), sanderling. There were a few ducks, but of different species: pintail (4 or 5), wigeon (2), teal (2), mallard (2), shoveler (2). Many of the flamingoes were really pink, and one pair were seen mating.
Slender-billed gulls were numerous, and we also saw at least 50 Sandwich terns and a 20 or so black-backed gulls, the majority of which appeared to be the nominate fuscus along with several graeselii. A large flock of linnets was flying around, and a Dartford warbler was glimpsed again in the scrub. In addition, I saw at least three black-necked grebes out on the water.
While walking back along the beach to collect the car, a single swallow flew along the tideline. Fortunately everyone else saw it, too.
It was now lunchtime, so we continued along the coast road, past the small and ugly cluster of buildings that made up the salt works and the fishing village, then wound our way up the road towards the Cabo de Gata. At one stage the road became very narrow, only wide enough for one car, and too narrow to allow the numerous coaches to pass. There was, inevitably, a steep drop on the seaward side. We were lucky enough not to meet anything coming the other way.
Birdwatching during lunch was poor, to put it mildly. The dry landscape doesn't lend itself much to birds, and there were very few. We did see a black redstart, and a single kestrel, but apart from a passing linnet that was it.
We continued to the mirador at the lighthouse, where a seawatch in the warm sunshine soon produced several small flocks of dusky-looking shearwaters which we presumed were Balearic. A distant gannet or two was also seen. A couple of British motorhomes had parked here, and their owners fell upon each other with enthusiasm. We moved away to continue our seawatch. Suddenly a pair of small birds landed on the wall next to us: two more trumpeter finches. I rushed back for my camera and managed to get one half decent shot before they flew. I followed them, and discovered that there was a flock of at least 50 of them feeding on the ground. They were easy to approach, the only difficulty being that they are so well camouflaged that they are easy to overlook, so as you stalk one you flush another that was rather closer to you.
As it was impossible to continue on the coast road we had to retrace our route back, meeting a large 4x4 on the narrow section, but with just enough room for us to squeeze by. We stopped once to look at gulls on the beach, and found instead a flock of sanderlings and Kentish plovers. Gabriel searched the sea and found a single razorbill. Though it was diving continually and spending only a few seconds on the surface we managed to get good views.
A last stop at the final (or first) hide gave good views of many of the waders we had already seen, most notably spotted redshank, ruff and redshank. Ian managed to spot a distant flock of resting curlews that numbered 12 (and I had glimpsed one in the same area earlier in the day).
After returning to base, Richard, Jenny and I drove down to the beach beyond San José. We saw little of note, but it is an attractive area with a broad, sweeping sandy beach.
Dinner was fun: mixed salad, followed by beans with scrambled eggs and shrimps, then (for most of us) paella. It was raining very slightly as we returned to our rooms.
No early morning excursions. We left shortly before 10am, driving first of all to the information centre for the steppe park. It was a good centre, with informative and well presented displays. Outside it was cool and grey, with not a bird to be seen.
We continued up to the motorway, then drove south past Almeria, before turning off for our first site. This was Cañada deLas Norias, a horrible manmade lake surrounded entirely by wall-to-wall plastic greenhouses. If this is the future of birdwatching then count me out. There were, remarkably, some good birds to be seen in this area of dereliction (the only sites not occupied by greenhouses were taken by factories recycling plastic to make more polytunnels). White-headed ducks were numerous (swimming among the abandoned bottles and other debris), and there were also many pochard, plus shoveler, mallard and our first gadwall. Scores of crag martins, plus a few house martins and swallows, hawked over the water. Ian surpassed himself by finding a single squacco heron, while several grey herons sat around with the cormorants, looking hunch-backed and miserable. It was a great relief to leave this hideous place behind.
We continued for a couple of miles through an avenue of more plastic greenhouses until reaching the Salinas Vieja and Cerrillos, an oasis of almost natural habitat. We crossed the Salinas, pausing for excellent close views of a variety of waders, including marsh sandpiper, spotted and common redshank, little stint, ringed plover, dunlin and stilt. After parking the car we walked to the lighthouse, not seeing too much of note other than our first marsh harrier, several flamingoes, and numerous greenfinches. From the lighthouse we could see the sea, and a steady passage of Sandwich terns and gannets offshore. Ian spotted a passing swallow which he was convinced was a red-rumped.
Back to the bus for lunch, with a chilly wind blowing and keeping the temperature down.
After lunch we drove along the Salinas, eventually venturing out in the bus across a causeway between two pans, ignoring the no entry signs. However, it was too narrow at the end for the bus to get through. Here we watched flamingoes feeding with slender-billed and black-headed gulls in attendance, and a party of 20Audouin's gulls sitting on the next causeway. We walked across the low scrub to a ruined tower, getting fleeting views of Dartford warblers as we did so, as well as flushing a sizeable flock of stone curlews (probably more than 40 birds, but seldom more than 12 in the air at once). As we walked back I spotted a very distant pan with numerous shovelers, and four flying red-crested pochards. There was also a large flock of roosting lesser black-backed gulls, predominately graselli. Some rather long-billed dunlin caused a little confusion, but a flock of sanderlings feeding right in front of gave entertaining viewing.
We climbed back into the car and drove back along the road towards Roquetas, hoping to find the ducks, but they were almost impossible to see well. However, two snipe flushed from the margins of the reeds.
Continuing along the road, we came to some high ground giving a fine view of Roquetas and an extensive reed-fringed lake in front of it. We parked by the polytunnels and scoped across, soon finding the red-crested pochards, though they stayed mainly out of view tucked into the reeds. The light was behind us, making for excellent viewing even if the range was great. The lake also held a large number of white-headed ducks, possibly 400 or more, mainly tucked into the reeds where they were sleeping (do they feed at night?), along with a small number of teal and gadwall, pochard (200), wigeon (30), black-necked grebes and a scattered feeding flock of flamingoes. It was now well after 5pm, so time to start heading for home. We drove through the huge and ugly sprawl of Roquetas de Mar, festooned with cranes and being developed at a furious rate. No doubt the sales brochures for the new flats and apartments tell you of wonderful views to the snow-capped sierras (true) but fail to tell you of several miles of wall-to-wall plastic in between. A truly ghastly place, and one which I won't return to. The entire area between the motorway and the coast is filled with plastic or buildings, and the only area to escape seems to be the Salinas and the narrow coastal fringe beyond them.
We eventually extricated ourselves from the urban sprawl and reached the motorway, which was busy. It didn't take too long to reach our turn-off and head back, through more sprawling plastic, to San Jose.
We were given a set meal which was jolly good: we started with small fried red mullet which we ate as whitebait, together with a tasty almond-based sauce, then followed this with shank of kid.
A cold clear night, so the car was soaked with dew. We left shortly before 10am for Los Amoladeras Steppe Reserve. It was only a 20-minute drive, so we soon arrived and found the site: a dry, broad steppe stretching for a considerable distance. For a while we just stood and watched, warmed by the sun. Birds were few: several thekla larks, a southern grey shrike and that was about it. The distinctive call of black-bellied sandgrouse was heard briefly just once, but no birds seen. We then went for a walk, soon finding lesser short-toed larks feeding on the ground. We found two small flocks, and probably saw about 15 birds in total. No other excitements, but we enjoyed our couple of hours here.
We returned briefly to the Cortija, before driving back along the road and taking the first turn right towards the coast. The sun was bright and the coastline most attractive. We stopped in a fold of the hills for lunch, and though birds were few (the usual assortment of thekla larks, stonechats and black redstarts) it made a pleasant interlude, especially as the sun was warm. Two house martins were worthy of note.
We then drove on a short way to the Valle de Rodalquilar, quite the most attractive site we have seen, and about the only one that could be described as unspoilt. As we arrived we parked by a large flock of sheep and goats, with several white wagtails feeding on insects disturbed by the flock. We then walked towards the sea, with the late afternoon sun behind us. Before long we found a large flock (c100) of rock sparrows feeding on the ground. They were typically shy and wary, but we all enjoyed good views. They were feeding in company with a similarly large flock of corn buntings, but it was noticeable that when the sparrows flushed, no buntings flew with them. Other birds here included numerous thekla larks, greenfinches and a few goldfinches. There were several yellow-legged gulls on the sea, and a single shag flew by, the first of the trip.
We then drove along the coast, viewing another unattractive development around what must have been until recently an attractive seaside village.
The seafood paella duly arrived for dinner, preceded by mixed salad and then eggs and mushrooms. No complaints about the food here, nor the wine.
Richard and I left at 7am for the steppe reserve, a 20-minute drive away. When we arrived it was cloudy, with a wind blowing, but we heard one, probably two, Dupont's larks singing. They stopped abruptly as soon it started to get light - there was no dramatic dawn. Thekla larks sang around us, but at a low density, and we also heard red-legs and a singing hoopoe. Several lesser short-toed larks also seen and heard, but not a hint of a sandgrouse. We drove back to base, arriving at 8.40.
After breakfast and checking out we drove back to our beautiful bay. It was cloudy as we drove, but the sun soon came out and gave way to a warm and sunny morning. There were plenty of birds to be seen: great views of black wheatears and Dartford warblers, as well as trumpeter finches. Two small grey warblers with whitethroats were confusing: I thought that they were spectacled warblers, but they were more likely to have been female Sardinians. If only we could have seen them better and for a little longer. Then, suddenly, a fine Bonelli's eagle appeared above us and was seen by almost everyone. It was our last new bird of the trip, and a very welcome one. This part of Spain has the lowest density of raptors of any area I have visited, though I suspect that black kites and short-toed eagles must occur in spring and summer.
We had an easy, unhurried drive back to the airport. I filled up the minibus for 66 euros, having covered about 850km (520 miles). That worked out at less than 6 euros per person for fuel. We said goodbye to Gabriel and Angela, who were staying on for a week, and checked our luggage through to London.