David's Diaries 2006
The Sierra de Guara: Spanish Pyrenees June 16 to 21 2006
PARTICIPANTS: John Anderson; Ian and Susan Lewis; Diane Vowles; Matthew, Roland and Pat Wade; Pamela Washer.
Ryanair whisked us down to Zaragoza speedily and on time, so we arrived at 1pm. The luggage arrived quickly, and I soon picked up our purple Mercedes-Benz Vito minibus. It was hot and sunny: around 30degC. Extracting ourselves from Zaragoza's traffic took time, but we were soon heading north on the Huesca road. After a short distance we branched off to the east, and headed across the hills of Monegros, and the cultivated valleys. Almost all the suitable buildings hosted nesting white storks, all with young that were nearly ready to fly. The white stork population in this area is clearly thriving. Otherwise birds seen from the bus were few, apart from several black kites, a marsh harrier and the inevitable crested larks.
Our first stop gave us an introduction into the diversity of butterflies to be found here. Most pleasing, and a lifer for all of us, was southern marbled skipper. There was also a Spanish gatekeeper, clouded yellow (Berger's?), a rather tatty hairstreak (false ilex?), numerous tiny blues, small (?) skipper, and the rather nice western dappled white.
A couple of further stops added birds to the list. Overlooking the extensive, circular lake at Sariñena, we saw great crested grebe, purple and grey herons, mallard, gadwall, coot, and heard a quail calling from the other side of the road. Another stop, overlooking rice paddies, produced our first distant bee-eaters, plus a buzzard. As we drove it became increasingly cloudy and thundery, while the temperature remained high, around 29degC.
View to Bierge
|We continued through quiet country roads, still single-track and with grass growing in the middle. Various birds were glimpsed, including woodchat shrike and stonechat, before we arrived at out hotel, the Hosteria de Guara, at about 5pm. We were shown to our attractive rooms by Eva, and settled in. The hosteria is pleasantly situated on the edge of the village, which is on slightly higher ground, so the view from the terrace is towards Bierge's church. A few of us ventured out for a short walk, but thunder was threatening so we didn't got far or see much except swallows, swifts and a bee-eater. A couple of bottles of the house white wine put us in the mood for dinner, which was excellent, with a small but interesting choice for each course. I had lamb chops which I thoroughly enjoyed. We ate on the terrace, and though the heavy rain had stopped and thunder had slipped away, it was quite cool. Everyone put on a sweater except for Matthew.
It was still dark at 5.30 when I woke, but quite light at 6.30 when Ian, John, Roland and Matthew joined me for a birding expedition. We drove a short way back along the road, stopping at the first bridge where we were serenaded by turtle doves, nightingales, song thrushes and golden orioles. We also had good views of melodious and Bonelli's warblers. A distant wryneck called a few times. Continuing on along the road, a male goshawk gave a brief but good view, and I scoped a hoopoe. We enjoyed watching several bee-eaters.
Our next stop was at the big bridge which spanned the river. Rock sparrows proved frustratingly shy but were eventually seen, and there were also blackcaps and a male subalpine warbler, grey wagtails, stonechats, more golden orioles (heard only) and nightingales. One of the latter gave good views as it hopped along the rocks down below us. As we drove back for breakfast we saw our first woodchat shrike in the area.
Breakfast was excellent. We left at 9.30, retracing our morning's route back to find a food shop, stopping on the way for a cock cirl bunting and at the bridge for the rock sparrows again. Here we also saw our first Egyptian vulture of the day, the first of several. The cramped, old-fashioned shop provided all we needed from wine and bread to dusty tomatoes, so we drove back into the hills. Our first stop was mainly for butterflies: banded grayling and Spanish marbled whites, but we also saw our first griffons here, plus a couple of distant eagles that dropped out of sight before I could get the scope on them. Golden? A subalpine warbler sang but proved difficult to see. Our first short-toed eagle flew over.
We continued to wind our way along the road, eventually turning off at Panzano. There were bee-eaters by the side of the road as we turned off. The car park gave a fine panoramic vista of the mountains, but the only raptors we saw from here were numerous griffons. I have since learnt that there is an observation point situated in a church bell tower here that gives views of a lammergeier feeding station. It is run by La asociación Fondo Amigos del Buitre (FAB). Butterflies again proved interesting, and our first swallowtail appeared.
I decided to retrace our steps and head up the valley to Rodellar, so we wound our way back towards Bierge, with most of the passengers nodding off to sleep (it was very warm by now). The valley produced fine scenery, if not really spectacular, but not that many birds. However, our lunch spot made up for that with a profusion of butterflies, many attracted to flowering thistles. Here we puzzled over the fritillaries before concluding that they were cardinal, niobe, high brown and dark-green, plus small pearl-bordered. The blues offer plenty of confusing choice, but we were confident of identifying Adonis blue, Spanish chalkhill blue and common blue. There were also clouded yellows, a couple of tatty black-veined whites (nearly over?), false ilex hairstreaks, meadow browns, Spanish gatekeepers, small and large whites, painted lady (good to see a butterfly we could identify with ease), swallowtails, small and southern marbled skippers. We netted some of the butterflies to help with identification: I managed to bag a pair of dark green fritillaries and a skipper in one sweep of the net.
According to the recently published book, Prime Butterfly Areas in Europe, the Sierra de Guara is the second richest national park in Spain for butterflies, with 137 species. Specialities include the yellow spring ringlet, marsh fritillary, large blue, cinquefoil skipper and the Apollo.
Overhead griffon vultures soared, and once a short-toed eagle flew across with a snake. Nightingales sang unseen around our butterfly meadow, and we also saw melodious warbler and spotted flycatcher.
We drove to the end of the road, where every parking space was taken. Apparently the most spectacular canyons in the Guara can only be reached by walking north through Rodellar. I then had a minor disaster with the head of my tripod, which broke and proved impossible to get working again. Most frustrating. (I was later to be rescued by Diana, who let me borrow her excellent, new Velbon carbonfibre tripod.) On our return route we stopped a couple of times, the last halt adding long-tailed blue and holly blue to our growing list. We also saw a couple more short-toed eagles.
Dinner was a little slow to be served, but it was much warmer on the terrace tonight and we enjoyed watching the screaming parties of swifts. The village church looked magnificent floodlit: we later discovered that it was only illuminated at weekends. The church has a wonderful clock that chimes once on the quarter hour, twice at the half hour and so on. On the hour it performs the required number of chimes for the time of day, then repeats it again a couple of minutes later in case you missed it the first time.
Out again at 6.30, to be greeted once again by nightingales. Birds came slowly at first, but a gathering of about 10 hoopoes was interesting, and we also had good views of bee-eaters, once with three bee-eaters and a hoopoe in the same tree. We saw the goshawk again, this time carrying prey back to where its nest must be. Rock sparrows were feeding in the fields, and a couple of cirl buntings were seen briefly. A spectacled warbler flitted away from the road but failed to give a satisfactory view, but we did scope a golden oriole (briefly) and a woodchat shrike. We saw the male goshawk again, this time flying back to the river valley carrying prey.
After breakfast we set off on the great wallcreeper hunt, driving north over the Coll de San Caprasio. The road climbed slowly through impressive limestone barancos. Birds were few, part from griffons and at least one raven. One stop for a terrific view produced a singing subalpine warbler which everyone eventually saw. At a viewpoint into a deep gorge (the Collado de Eripol) we watched alpine swifts, Egyptian and griffon vultures and crag martins. When a raven flew across the gorge a kestrel mobbed it, then two peregrines suddenly appeared and circled round, giving great views. As we left I spotted a distant eagle which I thought was a short-toed; it landed at the end of the gorge. I have a suspicion that it was really a Bonelli's, but it was much too far to identify with certainty.
We stopped by the side of the Rio Ena for lunch, with singing serins and nightingales. The river was almost dry, just a little trickle left running. Brimstones and (southern?) white admirals were seen here, and I heard and saw a garden warbler. Yesterday's bread wasn't wonderful, but the sausage was good.
We then drove on north without spending any time butterflying, as the distance to the wallcreeper gorge was still considerable. Fortunately the road was now a bit straighter, while from the sizeable town of Ainsa to Campo the road had been given the EU treatment so was smooth, straight and fast. We paused once for a soaring booted eagle, and as we stopped heavy spots of thundery rain hit us, though the sun was still shining hotly.
As the road turned north, we climbed towards the gorge and the temperature dropped. It had rained heavily not long before. The gorge, the Congosto de Ventamillo, looked just as it did three years ago, and I parked in the same shaded spot by the side of the road. The great rock face was busy with crag martins, many of which nest here, and there were also a couple of choughs. I braved the traffic by walking along the road, but found nothing other than an Egyptian vulture nesting in a cave, a grey wagtail and a spotted flycatcher. Back at the bus I was thinking of giving up when I suddenly glimpsed a wallcreeper fly out of the cliff on the scarp behind us. It proved impossible to find from farther up the road due to the trees, but when I got back to the bus Diana spotted it again, much to my relief, and Matthew also managed to see it. I walked back up the road and this time found it, enjoying good views for a minute or more, but just as members of the group joined me it disappeared behind a vertical ledge. A minute or so later it flew across the gorge. I ran back to the telescope but failed to see it again. It was last seen flying over the top of the cliff. Success, even if everyone didn't manage to see it. This is the third time I've visited this gorge and I have seen a wallcreeper every time.
Before leaving the gorge we saw a displaying honey buzzard high overhead, performing its distinctive wing-clapping display.
Our drive back was much easier and faster, heading directly south to Graus on fast straight roads that have been given the EU treatment. We did stop by the side of the dammed Rio Esera to see a couple of yellow-legged gulls, a black-headed gull, and perhaps 20 great crested grebes and a similar number of mallard. We stopped for the last time in another impressive narrow gorge, with a wonderful medieval stone foot bridge spanning the river. Here we at last saw and scoped a male blue rock thrush.
We arrived back at the hotel at 6.30.
A scops owl called continually for much of the night, finally stopping at 5.45, but it wasn't heard by anyone except me. We drove north out of Bierge for our pre-breakfast excursion, with our first stop producing the expected nightingales and golden orioles, plus a singing wryneck. I failed to get the van's fiddly CD player to work, so we were unable to try and call the wryneck up. A fine red kite flushed beneath us, followed a little while later by a juvenile. We then found the nest, decorated with bits of cloth and plastic.
Next came a walk in a dry, heathy area where we soon flushed a woodlark, and went on to watch woodchat shrikes and stonechats, corn buntings and goldfinches. As we walked back we saw a large dark-headed warbler skulk back to her nest: an orphean. We also spent some time looking for, rather than at, elusive Dartford warblers. Golden orioles called around us and were occasionally glimpsed, and there were plenty of bee-eaters, too.
After breakfast we drove south to Los Monegros. It was an easy drive, though with the thermometer in the car indicating a steadily rising temperature. Our first stop was for an area that had been heavily irrigated close to the river. Here we walked down a farm track and saw several little egrets and purple herons, as well as our first waders: little ringed plovers and six or seven green sandpipers. There were lots of singing warblers, including reed and great reed, Cetti's, fan-tailed and what I thought was most likely marsh. The distribution maps don't show marsh warblers breeding in Spain, but I have suspected their presence here before. However, a more likely explanation may have been a western olivaceous warbler, but I never managed to get a good view of the singing bird. A cuckoo called and was seen by Matthew, while we all enjoyed watching a hobby hawking for dragonflies. Black kites and marsh harriers were ever-present, as were white storks. It was a productive walk, if a hot one.
We then continued south to Alcolea de Cinca, then on to the road recommended in Where to watch birds as being very good for larks and sandgrouse. Perhaps it was once, but a huge and no-doubt enormously expensive EU-funded project is turning the steppe into corn fields, and there is little real steppe habitat left here. Our first stop produced a glimpse of a little owl and a couple of red-legged partridges, while at our next I was astonished to flush a pair of black-bellied sandgrouse which flew off making their lovely, far-carrying call. The only larks were a few crested. However, it was a touch of mad dogs and Englishmen, as the noon-day sun was now very hot. We gave up and drove east towards the river in the hope of finding a shady place for lunch. We passed a major irrigation scheme being installed, with enormous pipes being sunk into the ground.
Finding shade for lunch proved tricky. We tried driving down to a mature poplar grove by the river. It was an attractive spot filled with bird song (mainly nightingales), but there were also lots of mosquitoes so we moved on. We eventually found some off-road parking and shade by the Rio Cinca; it was a very late lunch at 3pm. After eating a few of us walked across the bridge and were rewarded with a kingfisher, as well as a yellow-legged gull.
After lunch we drove across to the impressive cliffs south of Alcolea de Cinca. They are almost perpendicular, several hundred feet high, and appear to be clay rather than rock. Here we saw jackdaws, several choughs and a raven, a couple of kestrels and several alpine swifts. Once a short-toed eagle came soaring over us, giving an excellent close view.
We drove home across the plains via Sariñena, but saw little in the way of birds. The barley harvest is now almost over, and though we saw combines at work, most fields had been cut, leaving golden stubbles. The temperature was high, peaking at 34degC. We stopped once and watched some griffons flying down to feed, but we didn't get a hint of a Montagu's harrier nor even a grey shrike. Disappointing.
We all had paella for dinner, which was much enjoyed. By the time I went to bed it had clouded over and was even raining lightly.
No scops owls in the night. As fuel was low in the bus we (Matthew, Roland, John and I) went for a walk. We enjoyed listening to garden warbler and blackcap singing at the same time, plus numerous nightingales. We saw several melodious warblers, heard more wrynecks and watched a hobby nearly catch a martin. It was an agreeable two-hour walk in a very pleasant temperature.
After breakfast and our customary halt at the little shop in Abiego we continued west towards Huesca, stopping for fuel (64 litres for 715km, or about 30mpg). We had to divert into Huesca to buy fruit and tomatoes: Diane doing the shopping while I double-parked in the street outside.
We then drove north up the new motorway before turning off for Sabayes, joining a tiny, little-used road. It soon took us into interesting habitat, with steep rocky hills that were only lightly vegetated. John spotted a rock thrush close to the road, so we stopped and then enjoyed an entrancing hour watching a variety of good birds. The rock thrushes showed really well, as did a cock black-eared wheatear, soon followed by a cock black wheatear. There were also rock sparrows and a tawny pipit, while I found a cock red-back shrike in the valley below us, but it flew out of sight before I could show it to anyone.
Our route then took us up towards Sta. Eulalia de la Pena, which gave great views of the two great conglomerate cliffs, San Miguel and Aman, which both plunge vertically for over 1,200ft down to the Rio Flumen. Just before parking to view the cliffs we paused for a pair of ortolan buntings in the road, a lifer for Diane. San Miguel looked promising for lammergeiers, and we hadn't stopped long before I spotted an adult perched on the cliff face. It stayed on the same ledge for ages, letting everyone get a good view as it preened. As I started to prepare lunch it slipped off the ledge, but we soon had great views of it flying, looking like a giant falcon. We watched it being dive-bombed by a determined kestrel, showing just how big it was. The kestrel was clearly an irritant, with the lammergeier sometimes being forced to roll on its back to repulse the attacks.
Our original bird was joined by another, and eventually a third individual, a dark-plumaged immature, thermalled up high into the blue sky with the two adults until they were almost lost from view.
After lunch we walked up the mountain road towards San Miguel, with a stunning panorama of countryside spread below us. It was hot in the sun, but thanks to our altitude not stifling. Butterflies were numerous, and included blues, hairstreaks, cleopatras, clouded yellows, Spanish gatekeepers, dusky heath, high-brown fritillary and what may well have been a Glanville fritillary. However, the butterflies took second place to the lammergeier, which proceeded to give us a demonstration of bone-braking, repeatedly flying up and dropping from its claws a piece of bone. The drop area was a patch of scree, and after each drop it flew down and landed and inspected the state of the bone, eating fragments. It was performing quite close to us, but unfortunately there was too much heat haze for photography.
At one stage a flock of griffons came over, together with a couple of black kites, one of which investigated what the vulture was up to. There were other birds to be seen, too, including a large flock of choughs, Dartford warblers in the scrub and once a female black wheatear which we scoped. As one by one members of the party dropped back, it became time for the rest of us to return to the bus. The temperature was around 31degC; according to Eva at the hotel, the weather is exceptionally hot for June, and has been for some time. The temperatures we have experienced are more typical of mid July.
After such success with the lammergeier it was impossible to do anything better, so we drove back to our hotel giving everyone plenty of time to relax before dinner. I joined John in the swimming pool, where we were entertained by swallows, house martins and swifts swooping in to drink, or, in the case of some of the swallows, to bathe. They flew within inches of us and were often quite spectacular as they came flashing past us.
We celebrated our success before dinner with a bottle of cava, plus white wine to wash it down. It was another warm, sultry evening, so ideal for eating out on the terrace for our last dinner here.
The longest day of the year, and a promising start with a clear sky. I decided to make the most of the last morning by driving to the valley of the Rio Guatizalema which we hadn't explored before. It took about 40 minutes to drive there, but we were rewarded with spectacular scenery with the great limestone massifs towering above us. Birds were few, but I'm sure it would be a great place to look for raptors once the thermals are rising. We did see griffons perched on the ledges, alpine swifts and crag martins, spotted flycatchers and a cooperative garden warbler singing strongly. As we drove back we saw several woodchat shrikes.
We were back at about 9.20. We had the bus packed and ready to go at 10.30, and the drive to Zaragoza took about 80 minutes, including a stop for bread. From Huesca to Zaragoza it's motorway (autovia) all the way, and there was hardly any traffic. We had a slight problem in Zaragoza, as the airport wasn't signposted as we approached the town, but we turned back to the ring road and eventually reached the airport 65 minutes before our plane was due to depart. It came in late, so we took off half an hour late, following a boring wait in the crowded departure lounge. The temperature felt like being in Africa as we walked across the hot Tarmac to the plane.
We arrived back at Stansted on a blustery afternoon. The temperature of 16degC was half what we had left behind.