Ringing and birding in Catalonia: part I


For the last four years I've been making regular trips to Catalonia in northeast Spain. I'm lucky enough that two of my closest friends live there and, with Ryanair and easyJet both flying directly to the area at bargain prices, I'm never short of an excuse to go and visit. It just so happens that both of them are also birders, which has resulted in me being given the extremely pleasurable opportunity of going birding in the area as a 'semi-native', rather than simply sticking to the well-known spots.

My previous visits were generally in early summer, at the start of the academic summer holidays, so I had managed to see most of the breeding species on offer in the area. A brief trip in January 2008 added Wallcreeper to my Catalan list and gave me the chance to experience winter birding in the region. The only things I was missing were migrants. Spring, in particular the last week of April and first week of May, can be exceptionally productive in Catalonia. Indeed, the European day-list record is held by a Catalan team, who managed to see a whopping 217 species in the region in a single day! Unfortunately for me, May always meant exams, study, and no time for birding. This year, though, was my first spring since graduation and I had no exams and no other commitments. I began to put together a grand plan for visiting the area at the end of April, mopping up all those species that had thus far eluded me, and generally relaxing and enjoying the birding on offer. Things didn't work out quite as planned...

Bee-eater, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Rock Bunting are just part of what makes birding in Catalonia so special. (Photos: Stephen Menzie)

My original plan had included a bit of ringing at Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Empordà on the Costa Brava, but a combination of events resulted in one of the greatest opportunities of my life. The end result was that I spent three months there, working with the Catalan Institute for Ornithology (ICO) on their spring migrant monitoring campaign. By the end of January everything was confirmed, and a month later I was off, ready to start life in Catalonia.

On arrival in Spain, the first challenge to overcome was driving on the right. Exiting the port onto a gridlocked motorway in the Bilbao rush-hour was certainly a baptism of fire, but it worked, and in no time it felt natural to be driving on the 'wrong' side. My first stop on the way across was at Belchite, near Zaragoza, famed for its breeding Dupont's Larks. Lesser Short-toed Larks were seemingly everywhere, a Golden Eagle floated overhead, passing by singing Calandra Larks as it did so, several Southern Grey Shrikes were hunting around the reserve, and, as dusk approached, flocks of Common Cranes flew in to roost: a total of 170 in all.

The steppes of El Planerón nature reserve near Belchite, Zaragoza. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Darkness descended onto the steppe and, just as the last light in the sky disappeared, the first Dupont's Lark started singing. It was breezy though, and often all that was heard was a whistle or two carried in the wind. There were at least two birds, perhaps a third, and then they suddenly all went quiet as two Red Foxes came wandering over. With the birds now silent, I decided to move on and start the drive overnight to Aiguamolls. I hadn't seen the Larks, but just hearing them was something quite magical.

I arrived at Aiguamolls reserve in the early hours of the morning, just enough time to grab a few hours' kip in the car. I then met up with Oriol Clarabuch from ICO, with whom I would be working, and other local birders who were carrying out a duck count on the reserve. The accommodation here probably didn't qualify as five-star inside, but, for a birder, the front garden was six-star. The house was in the middle of the reserve and the front windows looked out over El Matà, an area of wet marsh and probably one of the best birding sites in Spain throughout the spring.

The view from the kitchen window. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Our first day of ringing was 2nd March and by the second net round I'd already had a new bird: a beautiful male Bluethroat. This was probably about the commonest bird I still 'needed', and by the end of the three months I had seen about 30, though I never did tire of seeing them.

A male Bluethroat of the cyanecula race. One of 24 to be ringed over the spring. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

It was surprisingly easy to settle into the routine: up before dawn, ring for seven hours from dawn, home for lunch, out birding (or, more often, setting up a scope out of the kitchen window!), ring for another four hours before dusk. Highlights were plentiful, and not a single day went by without seeing something interesting, be it a rarity in the garden or a handling a bird with atypical moult. The experiences of the three months really did span all aspects of birding! With so much to cover, covering day-to-day events would be something of a laborious task, both to write and to read, so I'll attempt to summarise the 90 days and give a flavour of what it was all about. I make no attempt to pretend my photographs are anywhere near good, but the inclusion of a few 'record shots' and in-hand photographs will hopefully brighten the text up.

"How's the weather?"

It's stereotypically British to ask about the weather, but my time in Catalonia certainly gave me enough to talk about when asked. We suffered some of the worst weather the region has seen for a generation. The area had experienced its wettest winter for 10 years, and consequently the ringing site was underwater when I arrived and waders were essential to get round all the nets. Not long afterwards, temperatures started to drop and it wasn't too unusual to go out in the morning to find everything — including the nets — white with frost. Daytime temperatures remained in single figures all day, but by 8th March the temperature at midday was somewhere around freezing. While I was having lunch, it began to sleet. Then it began to snow. Then the snow got heavier. And heavier. By late evening, there was four inches of snow on the ground and thanks to a howling north wind it had drifted to over a foot deep in some places! Snow is regular in the Pyrenees — in fact, I could see snow-capped mountains in the distance right throughout my stay — but I was at sea level and about half a mile from the coast. This was the worst snowfall the area had seen in 65 years, and the first time snow had hit the ground there for several decades. The biggest surprise for me was finding my first Yellow Wagtail of the year pottering about in the snow, with a flock of four Garganey sitting out the bad weather on the frozen marsh. As if heavy snow outside wasn't enough, the electricity inside soon went off — not such a good thing when your only source of heat is an electric wall-heater and your boiler is electric powered.

Blizzard conditions at Mata and the same view the next day. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

The next day dawned sunny and bright. With my car snowed in, I took the chance to take a walk around the reserve. The snow was already starting to melt and water levels were rising rapidly, in some places by almost three feet — footpaths were hardly distinguishable from the marsh around them.

Welcome to the sunny Coasta Brava! At least the sun is shining here, though the rough sea and snow might not be exactly what holidaymakers were expecting. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

On our ringing site, the water had risen by a similar amount and we were now unable to open the reedbed nets. The next few days were hard work — the lowest temperature I recorded was –5°C and the water on site remained frozen for the entire morning. With the water as deep as it was, my shins took a battering acting as icebreakers on net rounds.

The main problem ringing in this area is the wind: the area is famed locally for its strong north wind. I was lucky that this year the north wind was largely absent, but when it did blow it really blew! We suffered gusting wind of up to 70 mph, strong enough to blow over road signs and traffic lights.

Later in the season, just as water levels were beginning to drop and I was almost able to drive onto the ringing site, a weather front passed through and it rained for two days solid. Once again, water levels rose back to a few feet deep. The rather grim side to this was that many of the Swallows and Sand Martins were unable to feed, with large numbers of them sheltering in the open garage next to my house. I came out the next morning to the sad sight of 25 dead Swallows, four dead Sand Martins, three dead House Martins and a dead Red-rumped Swallow.

So, I'd suffered just about any weather you could think of. The only thing I didn't have to suffer, ironically, was blisteringly high temperatures — the highest I recorded was a just-about-comfortable 30°C.

Lunchtime birding

Obviously mid-afternoon was never the most productive time for birding, but I still managed to see some excellent birds, and never had far to travel to see them. Species seen within 15 minutes of home included Black-shouldered Kite, a drake Green-winged Teal, a drake Ferruginous Duck, and, perhaps best of all, a Sociable Plover.

This long-staying Black-shouldered Kite was just outside the park boundary. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Despite it being only a five-minute walk away from where I was living, and it staying for over a month, I only managed to catch up with this elusive drake Green-winged Teal once. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

A scarce bird in the area, this drake Ferruginous Duck was intermittently seen on the reserve from the end of March to the start of April. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

I found out that a Sociable Plover was present on site whilst I was still in the UK, and thankfully it was still there when I arrived in Catalonia five days later. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

'Front garden' birding was always the most productive and from the tower hide next door I even managed to 'scope Black-throated Diver and Gannet offshore. Highlights from el Matà itself were numerous and included Western Reef Egret (seen on several occasions), two Little Crakes, Spotted Crake, Red-throated Pipits, a flock of five Temminck's Stints, Marsh Sandpiper, Collared Pratincoles, Squacco Herons and Audouin's Gulls. The majority of these were viewable from the kitchen window at some point or another, albeit rather distantly. The commonest waders were Black-winged Stilt, Wood Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper, and Short-toed Eagles regularly passed overhead.

Two Squacco Herons and a Little Egret in front of the building where I was living. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

A concrete post in the front garden, surrounded by (clockwise from top left) Western Reef Egret, Cattle Egret, Mallards, Little Egret, another Mallard, and a Collared Pratincole. All bar the Western Reef Egret were regularly seen from the kitchen window. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

The same Western Reef Egret as above. A grey-and-white hybrid-type bird had been seen on the reserve the previous week so, when I was told there was "what seems to be a Western Reef Egret", I was fully expecting to see the same bird. Imagine my surprise when I clapped eyes on this beauty! (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Up to five Red-throated Pipits could be seen at any one time, with double-figure counts on some days. By the third week of April, when all but one or two of the Water Pipits had left, this was the commonest pipit. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Aiguamolls is one of the best areas in Spain, if not Europe, to observe Little Crakes. Up to eight birds were seen together on a single pool in front of the aptly named 'Little Crake hide'. The female (right) was photographed from this hide and the male was one of two birds seen near the house. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

One of a group of five Temminck's Stints that spent a day on the reserve. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Audouin's Gull attempted to breed on the reserve for the second year in a row, but sadly the nests were predated. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

By May, Black-winged Stilt was the commonest wader on the reserve; three-figure counts from the kitchen window were not unusual! However, due to high water levels and rapid vegetation growth on the marsh, very few pairs attempted to nest. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

A little further away was Cap de Creus, another natural park jutting out into the Mediterranean. An afternoon seawatch when it was too windy to ring produced a conservative count of 1,800 Yelkouan Shearwaters, most of which were fishing in large flocks close inshore, along with about five Balearic Shearwaters, a single Scopoli's Shearwater, 50 or so Mediterranean Gulls and 24 Little Gulls. Nearby we also found an Eagle Owl nest with two large chicks and the female in attendance. A scan of some nearby scree soon located the male of the pair. Spectacled Warbler, Bonelli's Eagle, Thekla Lark, Blue Rock Thrush, Western Black-eared Wheatear, Tawny Pipit, Rock Sparrow and Red-rumped Swallow were all seen around the area over the course of several visits.

A lucky find: scanning the rock face, we found this Eagle Owl nest with female and two chicks. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Birding at work

The vast majority of my time was spent at the ringing site. And part of my work was to carry out a daily count of birds on site — basically an excuse to do some more birding. Early mornings were good for migrant passerines, including a singing Iberian Chiffchaff one morning — a rarity in the region. As the morning went on, there was often a passage of raptors and White Storks. Honey Buzzards were most numerous, though were only present on a couple of days in large, extended flocks. Other raptors recorded included Lesser Kestrel, Short-toed Eagle, migrating Marsh Harriers (in addition to the residents), two Ospreys, several Hobbies, a distant Egyptian Vulture, seven Griffon Vultures, a couple of Montagu's Harriers (including a dark-morph female one day — I'm unashamed to say that I had no idea what it was when I first clapped eyes on it), and a frustratingly brief female 'Pallid-type' Harrier. Evenings often saw a movement of herons and, in calm conditions, it wasn't unusual to count double figures of Purple Herons along with smaller numbers of Grey Herons. As dusk approached, Night Herons were often seen (or heard) flying out of their roost and one night three Bitterns left the reedbed and migrated north.

Regularly seen overhead around the reserve; this Short-toed Eagle was hunting over the ringing site. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Two pairs of Rollers bred in specially erected nest boxes near the ringing site. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Never shy but always hard to approach; this Rock Sparrow was one of four seen at dusk. (Photo: Stephen Menzie)

Written by: Stephen Menzie