Thursday, 29 March 2012

Ben's 5000




Ben’s list was unequivocal. An experienced birder who had travelled widely globally, this was his first birding trip to Spain. There were only 27 species on mainland Spain that he had not seen. Work schedules meant that he would be in Extremadura for just three days’ birding and then have a couple of days or so north of Madrid. It was mid-March. I love this type of challenge! Ben emailed me his target list and I indicated which ones were going to be possible in Extremadura: all but two of them in fact. But the timing was going to wrong for several: summer migrants that only arrive in April. There was also a species, Citril Finch, that would require a long and special journey and that Ben could find more easily during his trip north of Madrid. So the list was filtered down to 19. Of these there were about six that were unlikely to be around by this date, although conceivably were possible. So we were looking at 13 that I needed to find and a few more that we could look for, but would be bonuses.

Ben was joined by his friend Hans, who also had some targets including a couple that were different from Ben’s. The stakes rose!

Ben the previous evening had already seen Great Spotted Cuckoo and Azure-winged Magpie (species number one - see John Hawkins' photo above - and two) on his way to our house. Our first day concentrated on the birds of the open plains. As I have referred to in recent blogs, these habitats have been blighted by the drought this year. However, at our first stop, singing Corn Buntings surrounded us and a pair of Iberian Grey Shrike treated us with great views. Then we found a group of Little Bustard, the third of the target species to be seen. Three of four males were in full-breeding plumage with their black-and-white chevron necks. Just minutes later, a small party of Great Bustard (species number four) flew past with their slow, powerful wing beats. Others were to be seen over the next hour. Just minutes later we were watching some Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (species number five) which were initially stubbornly staying just in view on the skyline of the field, but with patience we were rewarded with fine views of this beautifully patterned bird as they fed.  We continued down a track, getting close views of Thekla Lark (number six), seeing Crested Larks nearby to provide a comparison. Then several Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over, splendidly set against a clear blue sky: species number seven, so far so good.

We explored another area of plains where often one of the possible targets: Black-eared Wheatears are present, but clearly we were still a bit too early in the season, however more Black-bellied Sandgrouse were seen. Following a distant view of a soaring Bonelli’s Eagle, but closer views of a Sardinian Warbler (species number eight) we stopped at a river valley to look for Cirl Bunting. I got very brief sightings of a pair on the ground and in a tree, but Ben saw only movement, not “tickable” views. We went down the path again after lunch and also drew a blank. We then decided to go to look for one of Hans’ species and just a minute after getting out of the car at Montánchez castle we were watching two confiding Alpine Accentors. It was a splendid afternoon there with Alpine Swift passing overhead, Red-rumped Swallows, Blue Rock Thrushes and more Sardinian Warblers.

The following morning, off to Monfragüe National Park and within minutes of arriving we were watching a superb Spanish Imperial Eagle (species number nine), along with Eagle Owl and Black Stork. Nearby Hans saw another of his sought-after species: Rock Sparrow. Then at another stop we found a singing Subalpine Warbler (species number ten). We enjoyed the rest of the day in Monfragüe before returning home. That evening Ben added Scops Owl to the list (No.11), with lovely views of one close to our house.

Ben felt that for his last morning he would really like to get good views of Great Bustards in display, rather than try again for Black-eared Wheatear on the steppes, so we visited a favourite spot of mine. Quickly we found a group of Great Bustards, but it looked as if they were not fully in the mood. Some males looked as if they might start their extraordinary display, but seemed to give up half way. Then we spotted a closer male, all on its own. He was a big, brightly-coloured specimen and as we watched slowly it lowered its wings, its neck inflated, it seemed to turn its wings and tail inside out, as it became a huge white quivering ball, its orange neck now like a medicine ball, almost touching the ground. Wow! As we left, we saw a group of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a Little Owl. We then headed to an area of scrubby habitat, excellent for warblers. However, despite good views of Dartford Warbler and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in some nearby Cork Oaks, the hoped for- possibles: Spectacled and Western Orphean Warblers, were not present – it was simply a little bit too early in the spring for them. Then onto the mountains to try for three remaining possible species. At our next stop we quickly found what we were looking for, prolonged if distant views of a male Black Wheatear (species number 12).  But we waited and waited for Cirl Bunting until, yes, one started singing. However, rather uncharacteristically for the species, it was singing from rather deep in an oak tree and try as we might all we saw was movement and then the bird flying off – again “untickable” views for Ben. Was this species going to let us down? I wanted then to try for Firecrest and we went to an area usually good for them. However, it was getting a bit late in the season for them and when we arrived the area was busy with roadworks. We spent a few minutes finding a quiet stretch of the road to walk along, but no joy.

I had to give up on this species, but felt that Ben could find this while birding north of Madrid later, so we took one last chance for Cirl Bunting, visiting a lovely stretch of the Almonte River. The afternoon light was glorious and birds were coming down to drink and bathe on the river. Meadow Pipits, White Wagtails and Chaffinches were splashing about. Unusually there was also a fine male Bluethroat also present.  Then I saw it: Cirl Bunting, a female coming down to bathe. Just when Ben got his binoculars on it, it hid behind a stone and all you could see was the water splashing as it bathed! Luckily Hans had also been looking and when I said that the bird was hidden, he replied that he could still see it. But he was looking somewhere else, and best of all, had found a beautifully-plumaged male. We whooped for joy when Ben feasted his eyes on it: Cirl Bunting (at last!) number 13.

And so the day ended, we had found all 13 species we were looking for, with the dates not being right to pick up extras. Ben revealed that he was now just two species short of reaching 5000 species on his life-list. Ben had two and a half of days left in Spain and with Hans they went to find White-headed Duck, but because of the severe drought the lagoons in question had more-or-less dried-up. However, I gave him some suggestions for finding Firecrest and Citril Finch in the mountains north of Madrid. There, on his birthday, having found Firecrest (4999 on his life list) the day before and having almost given up on Citril Finch, in falling snow and with barely enough time to make it back to the airport, he came across a flock of these gorgeous finches just a few metres from his car. What a bird to be number 5000, what a milestone to reach on his birthday and under what memorable circumstances. Well done Ben! 

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