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Mallorca Birding – part two

The Balearic Warbler singing its scratchy song from atop a coastal boulder was definitely one of the incredible images etched into my memory from my trip to Mallorca. I was so excited to see this lifer several times at Cap de Formentor as well as in the Boquer Valley, a scenic valley running to the coast, some 3km northeast of my base in Pollença.

The Boquer Valley is a birding hotspot that is well worth scheduling into your Mallorca itinerary. Booted Eagle breed on the cliffs and the scrub can hold some interesting migrants during the appropriate seasons. My visit, although bathed in sunshine, was marred by a gusty wind that prevented prolonged views of any small birds. However, I was lucky enough to glimpse a super-elusive European Roller that had been lurking in and around the valley for the previous few days.

As I said in my previous post, general birding in and around Pollença was fairly productive. One of the best birds that I saw on my amble around the vicinity was a couple of newly arrived European Honey Buzzards that were drifting north overhead. I subsequently learned that they represented the first records for the island of this majestic summer visitor this spring.

Albufera Marsh was yet another Mallorcan hotspot that I was dying to visit as I had heard so much about it. Situated by the coast on the edge of urbanity just south of Alcudia it is famed for some of the amazing birds that it plays host to. I was still being plagued by a very blustery wind that put paid to my slim chances of locating one of the areas’ speciality species: the Moustached Warbler. Plus, I dipped on the reported dazzling male Collared Flycatcher that had been hanging around for a few days. But, I did spy the legendary escaped Golden Eagle that has been roaming the island for some eight years. My attention was alerted to this huge raptor when I noticed several distant Eleonora’s Falcons mobbing it.

It was the waterbirds and waders that ruled here. Common Shelduck were rubbing alulae with rare Marbled Duck and waders were well represented with Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Kentish, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers foraging with Spotted Redshank, Dunlin and Curlew Sandpiper.

Perhaps the most exciting place I visited during my stay was the Isla de Cabrera National Park just south of the mainland. At the right time of the year it is a migrant trap with more than its fair share of rarities. Indeed, the day before my appearance on the island a putative Pallas’ Grasshopper Warbler had been briefly seen. If accepted, it will be Spain’s first record of this Asian skulker. To get to Isla de Cabrera National Park you have board a boat that takes you and other daytrippers on the 45 minute crossing to the island. The seas were calm on my trip and the wind had died down. Those conditions yielded me great close-up views of a few Scopoli’s Shearwater along with a solitary Balearic Shearwater.

One thing that I would say is this boat trip is extortionately priced. €38 per person for what was essentially a 4 hour landing did not represent good value. Worst still, you are only allowed on the island during the heat of the day, as there is no early morning boat. It is possible to stay overnight, by prior arrangement, but you still have to leave by the following afternoon. Additionally, you are not free to roam across the whole island. There is a strict policy allowing visitors access to approximately just a third of the island.

However, birding on the island was exciting as it was overrun with migrants. Common Redstart, Whinchat and Common Nightingale in the small patch of weedy ground known amongst birders as the ‘football pitch’ whilst in the wooded areas we successfully searched for European Turtle Dove and found migrant Wood Warbler and Tree Pipit.

Mallorca Birding – part one

“The war-ah in Majorka don’t taste like what it ough-ah” was probably the phrase that first introduced me to Mallorca as a youngster. It came from an 80’s British TV commercial for Heineken beer. Latterly, many non–birders unfortunately associate the island with Shagaluf, the derogratory description for Magaluf- the famous resort on the southern coastline, southwest of the capital Palma.

Birders, cyclists and walkers know another Mallorca; a beautiful Balearic island set in the azure Mediterranean Sea. It’s the largest island in the Balearics that also includes Menorca, Ibiza and many other small islands and islets and has a population of over 400,000 swelling to excess of 23 million annually when you add in all the tourists. I added to that tourism statistic when I visited the islands in early May at the behest of my good friend Pere Tomas who runs Mallorca Natural Tours.

After landing in Palma I registered numerous Common Swift, screaming as they chased each other around the rooftops. I also saw a pair of Audouin’s Gull within minutes as I strolled along the crowded beach. They came from nowhere and chose to land right between two groups of sunbathers. For me they were an incongruous sight, as I had expected to see one of the many Yellow-legged Gulls swilling over to pitch down. To the holidaymakers, this beautiful range restricted seabird was just another “seagull”. Needless to say, I didn’t have my camera so I couldn’t record the event. Urban birding around Palma over the next day produced few surprises with the obligatory European Serin, Spotless Starlings and Collared Doves heading the cast.

The rest of my five days in Mallorca were largely spent in the north, arguably the best location to be for birds. I was based in Pollença, a guest in Pere’s home. Birding around Pollença was pretty good with plentiful Cirl Bunting, Hoopoe and over the nearby mountains a Black Vulture that was one of the re-introduction scheme birds.

I also noted many of the Balearic island race Spotted Flycatchers which are much paler and greyer than the nominate continental birds. Indeed, there are calls to make this distinctive subspecies that is also apparently found on the other Mediterranean islands, a distinct species the Balearic or Tyrrhenian Spotted Flycatcher.

Visits were made to several localities in search of birds and flora. They included Cap de Formentor, a great headland were we watched coastal nesting Peregrine and Osprey. It is also a great spot for observing migrating passerines but the day that we chose to descend upon the site despite being sunny was horribly windy. So we had to be happy with a few continental Spotted Flycatchers and glimpses of Willow Warbler. The best bird though was a superb Balearic Warbler that put in a fine performance by singing right in front of us – even on the rocks!

Thanks to Pere Tomas at Mallorca Natural Tours for his guidance.

Waiting for spring in Mérida

So far, I have been spending a fair amount of time in Extremadura, Spain and in particular it’s capital city, Mérida. I have a lot of familiarity with the city having visited it for the past six years. During that time I have amassed a city list of 72 species thus far.

Mérida is a small city of 100,000 or so inhabitants and is essentially surrounded by countryside. Most tourists visit the city to see its rich Roman heritage as there are plenty of ruins around, not least the Roman Bridge – the world’s longest of its kind. It cuts across the Guadiana River seperating the old town from the more recent part of the city on the westside.

Birders also come here, primarily to stand on the Roman Bridge to search for Purple Gallinules foraging alongside the reedbeds. It is indeed, one of the best places in the whole of Extremadura for this oversided moorhen.

Currently the water levels are artificially low because the local council are clearing the margins of a Water Hyacinth, a virulent invasive alien plant that has been choking everything in its path.

The draining has created some interesting looking muddy margins that I was hoping would have yielded a few waders. Instead, I have only been treated to a Common Sandpiper once and a scarce Pied Wagtail or two.

My patch is essentially the riverbank on the western side of the Guadiana from the Roman Bridge to the Iron Bridge (a railway bridge) 1.5 miles north downstream. There’s an interesting area of land that is currently being churned up by bulldozers. Despite that there are some small areas of thick vegetation, muddy puddles and piles of compost. All looking very inviting to passing migrants. The compost heaps have been crawling with Chiffchaffs with at least 30 snapping up the insects the other day.

I have flushed Snipe and found two Little Ringed Plover from the muddy pools and in the vegetated bits I’ve watched Hawfinch, Sardinian Warbler, Cetti’s Warbler and Spanish Sparrow. From the Iron Bridge sing Spotless Starling and on a reeded island in the middle of the river a pair of Marsh Harriers display.

Anyway, here are a selection of the birds that I have seen in the last month – and spring is not even here yet!

The draining has created some interesting looking muddy margins that I was hoping would have yielded a few waders. Instead, I have only been treated to a Common Sandpiper once and a scarce Pied Wagtail or two.

La Barrosa, nr Cádiz, Andalucia

Took a brief afternoon stroll around a section of La Barrosa – an extensive and protected salt marsh. The weather was pretty dull, windy with squally rain at times – hardly what you would expected from southern Spain!

Aside from an array of waders like Common Redshank, Grey Plover, Kentish Plover and Black-winged Stilt, I also managed to glimpse a Yellow Wagtail of the Iberian blue-headed race. An early migrant.

Marsh Harrier on my Mérida patch

Yesterday, I discovered a Marsh Harrier harrassing the local Black-headed Gulls and Coots whilst I stood on the Roman Bridge. It was always just a little too distant for decent photography but I managed to rattle off a few record shots. This bird had clearly buffy forewings and head perhaps more what that a typical female would show.

It’s not the first Marsh Harrier that I have seen from the bridge because I had one in mid-October this year when I was co-leading a tour at the time. No doubt they are regular visitors.

I also saw a couple Red Kite – a typical winter visiting raptor to the region. Finally, couldn’t resist snapping a Stonechat. They are such photogenic little birds!

Bat Patch – Mérida, Extremadura

Every day I seem to be seeing additions to my growing Mérida list. But I wasn’t expecting to see a bat hunting in broad daylight.

It was flying around the top of a riparian tree chasing after insects with extreme agility. It had the body size of a House Martin with longer wings.

Probable Noctule Bat

Whilst marvelling at the bat a group of cranes flew over plus I caught a glimpse of rapidly passing Crag Martin.

A couple of Red Kites decided to appear with one choosing to dive-bomb some nearby feral cats. One of the moggies pelted up a tree!

There was plenty of calling eminating from the trees with most of the sounds coming from the throats of the abundant Serins. Many of the males were in full display mode replete with their Greenfinch- like slow flappy display flight.

I also glanced at an Iberian Grey Shrike, a bird (the same bird?) that I noticed equally briefly last week.

Iberian Grey Shrike

Pied Wagtail in Mérida

Whilst birding from the Roman Bridge I came across a Pied Wagtail feeding around a floating island of debris vegetation.

Then two things struck me. The first I always thought that Pied Wagtails were predominantly found in the British Isles to be replaced in mainland Europe by White Wagtails. So to be confronted by a lone Pied in southern Spain was quite a surprise.

The key identifying feature is the black rump. White Wagtails have a grey rump. The thing that confused me was the rather pale grey mantle and the sharp demarcation between the black nape and grey mantle.

Some of my more learned colleagues have suggested that it may be a hybrid – a thought that also had crossed my mind.

Later however, I came across another Pied Wagtail on a lawn within the Roman Theatre ruins in the city. It looked like a blatant Pied to me – perhaps supporting the notion that they are very scarce winter visitors.

Pied Wagtail in Mérida

Urban birding Mérida, Extremadura

For the next few weeks I have switched location from Wormwood Scrubs, West London to Mérida, the principle city of Extremadura, Spain. It’s all about recharging batteries before wading back into the fray in 2016. So, seeing as I am staying in this ancient city why not study the birdlife to be found within its confines.

Currently, I have identified two potential local patches. The first is the environs around the Guadiana River that courses through the city and in particular, birding from the pedestrianised Roman bridge, literally 10 minutes walk from where I’m staying. Known simply as The Roman Bridge it straddles the Guadiana River in the heart of the city and at 790 metres, is the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world.

The habitats along the banks of the river includes roadbeds, scrub and waterside woodland. Within the river are a couple of wooded islands that are good for roosting egrets and herons. I’m familiar with the Roman Bridge and some of the riverside habitat having had led tours in the area etc for the past six years.

The other place I identified as a place to watch over is an area of brownfield land just five minutes to the west of where I am based. I have only noticed Crested Larks and sparrows there but it would interesting to see what I find there over the next few weeks.