Extremadura - 2017

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This rather long write-up follows my journal section '2017 - Q2 diary' entry in order to provide some general information about this area of Spain, as well as being a personal reminder regarding the places we visited and the birds we were able to photograph during our week's holiday there at the end of May 2017.

Extremadura is a beautiful unspoilt region that’s located in the southwest of the country, bordered by Portugal to the west and Andalucia to the south. Whilst the region extends to an area of 41,633 km2 (16,075 sq miles), making it the fifth largest of the seventeen Spanish 'autonomous communities’, it’s actually one of the least populated with only around 1.1million inhabitants at the last census. There are two provinces: Cáceres in the north, and the slightly larger province of Badajoz in the south. The administrative capital is the city of Mérida. We stayed in the small village of Pago de San Clemente, which is around 10km south of the historic hilltop town of Trujillo, which itself is situated conveniently in the centre of the region within an hour or so drive of many of the well-known ‘birding’ sites.

ExtremaduraStepMap


The local countryside is characterised by two rather special habitat types, known as ‘dehesas’ and ‘pseudosteppe’. The ‘dehesas’ are well-tended areas of open woodlands - large expanses of rolling pasture with scattered trees, primarily holm and cork oak. Although their primary use is for grazing and various non-timber forest produce such as mushrooms, honey and cork, they also provide an important ecosystem for a number of bird species including common cranes in the winter. The ‘pseudosteppe’ is the name given to the wide open plains (llanos in Spanish). These sprawling areas of grassland were originally formed many hundreds of years ago when the land was cleared of trees and shrubs. Given time they would revert back to their natural state if they were not regularly maintained, hence ‘pseudo’ for artificially developed rather than naturally evolved. Most of these steppe grasslands merge into adjoining agricultural fields, thereby providing the perfect habitat for species like bustards and sandgrouse, as well as larks, corn buntings and various other small birds. Whilst these two described habitats cover much of Extremadura’s rural countryside there are also large expanses of Mediterranean scrub, reservoir systems, associated wetlands and rice fields, plus river valleys, cliffs and mountains.

We spent some time in each of these environments during the week we were there, with the following being a summary of what we did each day (extracted from a trip report that was kindly provided by Martin Kelsey at the end of our stay).

We left home early on Friday 19th May for the 9.15am flight from Heathrow to Madrid, where we were picked up by Martin at around 1pm for the three hour drive south. Our return flight was the following Friday 26th in the afternoon, so we had six full days to explore as many areas as we could.

On the first day we set off southwards, through the town of Zorita and out onto the plains of Campo Lugar. Here we took a slow drive down a quiet track, at which point it immediately became apparent that photography was going to be challenging. Firstly, the plains are just that, being wide open spaces with no cover. So, for anything close, it was going to be a case of using Martin’s Landrover as a mobile hide (another good reason to have a local guide to drive you around) and to be sure that both of us (Tris being in the back) could photograph from the same side of the vehicle. Over the next few days we found that a lot of our photography would be done this way and, consequently, wherever possible we would make sure that the sun was behind us. Another feature of taking photos along these tracks (rather evident from a lot of the shots) is that most small birds are going to be perched on wire fences or posts - the only raised vantage spot they can use. And then, probably the most frustrating of the issues, was distance, because nearly every time we spotted a more interesting bird, such as a great bustard or eagle for example, they were simply too far away even for an effective 700mm focal length lens. But, putting all those challenges aside, we managed that first morning to get usable shots of various species, including Little Owl, Lesser Kestrel, Crested, Calandra and Short-toed Larks and a Zitting Cisticola, which Martin informed us was also called the Fantail Warbler. In addition to those birds, we also saw a few Great Bustards flying and very nearly managed to get a shot of one on the ground, several Black Kites, a Short-toed Eagle and a ‘gang’ of nine or ten Hoopoe grubbing about on the track in front of us.

Later in the morning we moved on to the Alcollarín Reservoir system where there was a small colony of European Bee-eaters nesting very close to a quiet road. But, again, the only way of photographing them was when they were perched on a wire fence. I’m sure that if I’d been outside the vehicle I could have got a flight shot or two, but then they probably wouldn’t have settled on the fence, so it was a case of spending time watching them and taking any photo opportunities that came along. During the time we were parked up at this spot, we also saw and photographed Crested Lark, Woodchat Shrike and Hoopoe.

European Bee-eater ~ Alcollarín Reservoir
European Bee-eater ~ Alcollarín Reservoir
 

After lunch, we criss-crossed our way through a large area of rice fields near the town of Madrigalejo. Although he didn’t say so at the time, I distinctly got the impression that Martin was a bit disappointed at what was there. Many of the fields were still dry, so it was a case of driving around the network of tracks looking for areas that had been flooded and where rice was starting to grow in the hope that we would come across fields that were attracting birds. Whilst most areas seemed void of life, we did encounter several nesting pairs of Black-winged Stilts and a few White Storks. At distance, we also saw a few Collared Pratincole and a couple of Gull-billed Terns. And, just prior to rejoining the main road, we came across a male Marsh Harrier that was down on the ground, albeit with its back to us and in harsh afternoon sunshine.

Our return drive back to Trujillo took us close to the Sierra Brava Reservoir where we found a lone Black-eared Wheatear alongside the road singing from the top of a tall wooden pylon pole.

We woke on Sunday morning to rather different weather conditions than we’d enjoyed the previous day, as it was overcast and rather breezy. Being a weekend though, Martin still thought it best to keep away from the more popular areas around Monfrague and to venture northwest of Trujillo, along the road to Monroy, and onto the open plains north of the village of Santa Marta de Magasca - a large area more commonly known as the Magasca Plains. Our first stop was on a patch of higher ground that overlooked surrounding fields where there were a number of nesting Montagu’s Harrier. Whilst we saw two birds at reasonably close range that were hunting near the road as we arrived, they had all but disappeared from view by the time we’d parked. We did have a couple of more sightings, but the blustery conditions were keeping them down, so we decided that we’d move on and try for them again later in the week. We drove through the village and took a road that ran for some distance alongside a line of wooden pylon poles that had all been fitted with high-level nesting boxes for European Rollers, albeit they had also attracting Little Owls, Lesser Kestrels and Jackdaws. We saw all these species and took a few photos, but in truth they weren’t very inspiring shots against the grey sky.

After returning to the village for a coffee, we made our way back up the ‘roller road’ and out onto a long rough track that ran westward across open country. It was a nice quite drive with no other vehicles around, so we were able to stop anywhere we wanted. Here we photographed Corn Buntings, Calandra and Thekla Larks, and an obliging Hoopoe. They were all at eye-level or lower from the car window so fortunately we weren't having to photograph them against the dull sky.

Eurasian Hoopoe ~ Magasca Plains
Eurasian Hoopoe ~ Magasca Plains
 

We had lunch beside the Talaván Reservoir, following which we drove to a quiet parking spot beside some pine trees to photograph the rather beautiful Iberian Azure-winged Magpies that gather there. They were very obliging. We then drove through Monroy, returning to Trujillo on the road that we had started out on in the morning. This took us back through the area where we’d seen the Montagu’s Harriers and where we had another distant sighting, and then further along that road where we saw some Black Kites and Buzzards, and a smart looking Iberian Grey Shrike that was just about in range for a few shots.

Iberian Azure-winged Magpie ~ Magasca Plains near Monroy
Iberian Azure-winged Magpie ~ Magasca Plains near Monroy
 

We had an early 6.15am breakfast on the Monday as we had a reasonably long drive north up to the town of Torrejón El Rubio near Monfragüe where we’d planned to meet a local farmer at 7.30am who was going to take us down to his specially constructed vulture hide. Unfortunately the skies were very overcast again, which meant that we were fighting the poor light with high ISO’s, wide apertures and often lower than required shutter speeds. However, despite the rather frustrating conditions, the vultures performed really well. At one point we counted in excess of a hundred Griffon Vultures accompanied by around twenty Cinereous (Eurasian Black) Vultures, along with three of the much rarer small Egyptian variety, a few Black Kites and a couple of White Storks. They kept us entertained as we were waiting for the light to improve. It was strange to watch, as the larger and more numerous birds were the last to come in for the bait. First up was a stork who happily stood there swallowing virtually all of the smaller pieces of meet, presumably to take back for its chicks. The other stork soon followed, immediately after which a number of kites started taking an interest. All the time this was happening the vulture numbers increased, but they were all hanging back either in large groups on the ground, or settled in the surrounding trees. The Egyptian Vultures were not as wary and, although they kept away from the two larger pieces of meat that the farmer had put out, were content picking around, somewhat reminiscent of chicken behaviour rather than what you’d expect of a raptor. In fact two other names for this particular species are the White Scavenger Vulture and Pharaoh’s Chicken! After slowly creeping forward as a group, one Griffon Vulture finally decided that one of the pieces of meat looked appetising enough to take the risk of being the first bird in. But, no sooner it had made its move, another fifty or so birds descended on it. The situation then quickly turned into a feeding frenzy, rugby scrum affair, with dozens of birds trying to get a share. The daft thing was that all the time they were fighting over this one piece of meat the other chunk lay about 10m away! They eventually set on that piece in the same manner and within half an hour or so virtually all of what had been put out had been devoured.

Griffon Vultures
Griffon Vultures
 

Typically the clouds started to disperse shortly after the action had died down and finally the sun was out enough for the camera’s ISO to be dropped and the aperture narrowed down a bit. We stayed for about another hour and a half until there were only five vultures left in sight. It was a great experience and I’m pleased that we’d asked Martin to book it for us. Despite very poor light early on we got some pretty good vulture shots, particularly towards the end of the session, that we certainly wouldn’t have got trying to photograph them in Monfragüe, so as far as I’m concerned it was worth the €180 charge.

Cinereous (Eurasian Black) Vulture
Cinereous (Eurasian Black) Vulture
 

After a late morning coffee we made our way up the road into the Monfragüe National Park. This is the most well-known and most popular area to visit in Extremadura. I’d heard a lot about the place and was really looking forward to getting some good shots of vultures sitting on the rocks and the possibility of other raptors, such as eagles and hopefully a peregrine. However, as soon as we arrived at the main ‘Salto de Gitano' viewpoint (also known as Peña Falcón), I knew that I was going to be disappointed as the rock face was on the other side of the Tagus River, way further than I expected. Personally I thought it was pointless trying to photograph birds at that distance when we’d had them within 15m or so in front of us earlier in the day at the hide. It was a similar situation with the small birds because, although they were on the rocks our side of the river, they were well below us and no more than the size of the central focus point when you managed to get one in the viewfinder. Fortunately the high megapixels of the D810 coupled with a 700mm focal length allowed me to get a few reasonable ‘record shots’ of Blue Rock-Thrush, Rock Bunting and Crag Martin after heavy cropping.

Blue Rock-Thrush ~ Monfragüe National Park
Blue Rock-Thrush ~ Monfragüe National Park
 

We did see both Griffon and Black Vultures though and also our first sighting of a Black Stork. There were also a couple of Black Kites flying over the river, but we didn’t see any eagles.

After a lunch break alongside the river, we made our way up to the famous castle, which we reached following a pretty steep climb. But, again I was disappointed, because although there was a fantastic panoramic view from the ramparts, I thought that it was close to a rock face where would be able to get shots of the vultures. I’m not sure why I pictured it the way I had, because the only birds you could photograph were those flying past. I did however manage one close up of a Rock Bunting, albeit on a railing. We stayed up there for about an hour and then made our way slowly down for the drive back to Trujillo.

Despite our general disappointment (purely from a photography point of view), we maintained our plan for the Tuesday and headed back to Monfragüe straight after an early breakfast. We took the same road into the park driving past 'Salto de Gitano' and on much further to another spot called the 'Portilla del Tiétar' viewpoint. The beauty here was that although the rock face was the other side of the river, as it is at ‘Salto de Gitano’, we were essentially on our own there for the first two to three hours. Martin said that this was probably our only chance to see a Spanish Imperial Eagle as there were a pair in this vicinity. However, upon arrival there was hardly a bird to be seen - there were a handful of vultures perched here and there on the rock face, but nothing was in the air. But then, with almost perfect timing, Martin heard the barking call of an eagle and shortly after he was proven right as the pair came into view. I took a couple of very long range ‘record shots’ and assumed that they would drift off as quickly as they had arrived. Fortunately I was wrong in this assumption as the pair hung around and entertained us for more than two hours. They were never close enough to get descent photos, but they did provide a number of opportunities for distant shots, particularly when they interacted with the vultures. This was more a case of the eagles carrying out mobbing acts on both the bigger Griffon and even larger Black Vultures, both harrowing them in flight and, on at least a couple of occasions, dive-bombing them on the cliff face in order to push them off. They were clearly being mischievous in this behaviour as the vultures weren’t causing them any threat. So, we saw and photographed the Spanish Imperial Eagle. And, we also had a Short-toed Eagle fly past, as well as an Egyptian Vulture and a Black Stork, all three of which I was again able to photograph at distance.

Spanish Imperial Eagle chasing off a Griffon Vulture
Spanish Imperial Eagle chasing off a Griffon Vulture
 

The rest of the day was rather quite. After another late morning coffee break we made our way back through the park before stopping for a picnic lunch at the ‘Tajadilla' viewpoint. We then decided to stop at 'Salto de Gitano' again before the drive back to Trujillo, but on the way there Martin showed us a place where there were a pair of Black-eared Wheatears and, that if we were lucky, may just present us with a photo opportunity. We were lucky as both the male and the female were busily catching insects to take back to their nest. Whilst the female was only seen at distance the male obligingly perched on a fence within camera distance. Back at the main viewpoint it was much the same as the previous day, albeit somewhat busier as a coach full of ‘birders’ had just arrived. We stayed no more than an hour. On the way back to the guesthouse we made a late afternoon stop beside the Trujillo Bull Ring in the hope of being able to photograph Lesser Kestrels that nest there. I managed to get a shot of one on the roof of the building and a couple in flight, but generally it was quiet. We did however have both a Short-toed and a Booted Eagle fly over, and witnessed a Black Kite grabbing a small bird, which we think was probably a Spotless Starling chick, off the roof of a neighbouring building.

Lesser Kestrel ~ Trujillo Bull Ring
Lesser Kestrel ~ Trujillo Bull Ring
 

We set off in clear skies and early morning sunshine on Wednesday morning for a drive up the motorway, back in the direction of Madrid, to the Arrocampo Reservoir and wetlands area near the village of Saucedilla. The first two hours were spent alongside a patch of reedbeds on the edge of the village where there was a good opportunity of photographing Little Bittern. This was the main attraction for me and definitely my target species for this session. But, as with a lot of wildlife photography, being in a position to photograph a particular species is an awful lot more difficult than actually seeing it. You also need an element of luck, but if you put yourself in the right place at the right time you increase your chances tremendously. Despite Martin insisting that this was a good area for the species I was rather sceptical, because I know how small and secretive these birds can be. Seeing one would be start, and then if we really got lucky we might just get a shot of one out on the edge of the reeds. Well, I was certainly surprised when we arrived, as incredibly we saw three birds flying within the first five minutes. But, as I’ve just noted, seeing isn’t photographing. These birds are surprisingly fast in flight and would give no warning where they were going to pop up. They’d suddenly take flight from within the reedbed, often travelling no more than 20-30m before disappearing again. You needed quick reactions, and a more suitable lighter and shorter lens than I was using. Tris managed a couple of reasonably flight shots, but I all but failed. We watched a number of birds doing this over the first hour and a half, but despite a couple coming down near the edge of the reeds none were showing themselves. But then, just as I was resigning myself to not getting the shot I was after, Martin spotted one making its way along the far side of the canal we were overlooking. I know he’s experienced, but I was amazed he saw it as it took me a while to pick it out even after being shown where it was. We watched it picking its way along, often disappearing from view for a while before half emerging for a few seconds, but all the time frustratingly in a position where you couldn’t hope to photograph it. However, our patience paid off, because it finally made its way out to the edge of the reeds where it stayed for a short while. Over the next hour we had three more sightings of both male and female birds. We returned to this spot later in the day and had another two similar opportunities, including watching a male bird fishing, that was in full breeding plumage with a bright coral-red coloured bill. Comparing notes at the time, we agreed that during the course of the day we’d probably seen at least five different birds. It could even have been more including the birds in flight, although Martin doubted that the relatively small area of reeds we were overlooking could support more than three pairs.

Whilst I concentrated almost solely on the Little Bitterns, we also saw Purple Herons, a very brief view of a Swamp Hen and, at another area just down the road, Squacco Heron at distance and Black-crowned Night-Heron. During the middle of the day we took a drive along some minor roads to the west of the village, but saw next to nothing, with the only bird photographed being a Great White Egret. Just prior to lunch, we stopped briefly alongside the Arrocampo Reservoir where I managed a couple of poor ‘record shots’ of Gull-billed Tern, which was a new species for me.

Little Bittern ~ Arrocampo Wetlands
Little Bittern ~ Arrocampo Wetlands
 

We decided to spend our final morning on the plains, starting on the Llanos de Trujillo in the hope of finding a photographical bustard, and then back onto the Magasca Plains to try our luck again with the Montagu’s Harriers. Incredibly, Martin located a Little Bustard as soon as we arrived, but it was no more than a spec in his scope. There was no chance of it ever getting into camera range so we elected to move on and make the best of the early morning light. We saw a number of good birds, but with the emphasis definitely on the word saw. They included both Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Booted and Short-toed Eagle, Little Owl and no less than five Cuckoos. But the highlight, was without doubt the sighting of a Honey-Buzzard that was initially spotted on the ground, but unfortunately flew as soon as we stopped the vehicle. It landed a short distance away, albeit just out of view, but then took off almost immediately giving us a reasonable sighting and brief photo opportunity. This was another new species for me so I was pleased just to get a ‘record shot’ of it.

We then moved north of Santa Marta de Magasca back to the area where we’d previously seen the Montagu’s Harriers. The conditions were much better than they’d been on Sunday when we were there, which was evident as soon as we arrived as we could see at least four birds flying in the distance. We parked and walked back to the best spot we could find alongside the wire fence that bordered the field, but it was a bit frustrating on two counts - firstly, the birds were generally far too far away, and secondly, the field rolled down to form a depression and, consequently, a more protective area that they favoured and that we couldn’t see. The large area in which they were flying, displaying and occasionally hunting in was also heavily side lit, so unless the birds came up over the ridge from our right there was no hope of getting any usable shots of them. It was, however, a real thrill to be able to observe these graceful raptors through binoculars. In the time we were there we observed at least three pairs, which was clear evidence that this protected habitat was a perfect nesting site for them.

The sun was now getting high in the sky so we agreed to have another drive along the ‘roller road’ south of the village, before stopping for coffee. En route we stopped briefly at a viewpoint overlooking the River Tamuja as Martin said it was a good spot for passing eagles and vultures. Although it was very picturesque, we didn’t stop long as there weren’t any birds around and we wanted to try for some better roller photos (albeit on electrical cables) than we achieved on Sunday when it was rather grey and overcast. We managed to get photos of the three species we’d previously seen there - European Roller, Lesser Kestrel and Little Owl - all of which gave us slightly more pleasing and detailed images than we’d previously managed.

After the obligatory late morning coffee break we agreed to make the longish drive south, back down to the rice fields near Madrigalejo on the off chance that there may be a bit more activity than when we were there on Saturday. However, it turned out to be even quieter than our earlier visit, and although we photographed a few more Black-winged Stilts and White Storks I ended up deleting most of the shots due to heat haze and lack of detail.

Black-winged Stilt ~ Madrigalejo rice fields
Black-winged Stilt ~ Madrigalejo rice fields
 

So, that was it, six full days with far more species photographed than I thought we’d see. I was also surprised at how many new species I recorded. I’d expected to add Griffon, Cinerous/Eurasian Black and Egyptian Vultures to my 'World Bird List' as they were one of the primary reasons for visiting Extremadura plus, of course, that we’d asked Martin to book the hide for us. I also thought that we’d see a few other species such as Lesser Kestrel, Calandra Lark and possibly Black-eared Wheatear that I hadn’t photographed before, but to finish with 18 was unexpected. The other new species were Black Stork, Gull-billed Tern, Spanish Imperial Eagle, European Honey-Buzzard, Iberian Azure-winged Magpie, Spotless Starling, Blue Rock-Thrush, Rock Bunting, Crag Martin, Iberian Grey Shrike, Zitting Cisticola and Greater Short-toed Lark.

We’ve already pencilled in a return visit at the end of January 2019 as this, apparently, is a good time of year for other species such as Great and Little Bustard, Common Crane and Stone Curlew.