Diary of the Bargain Birder – Richard Hanman – Part One

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It was great to be back in Spain just 1 month after leading our first overseas ‘Bargain Birding Club’ trip to Alicante. Good old fashioned birding with my pal Bryan on his local patch. Happy days!

Sunday 1st November 2015 – Santa Pola, El Pinet and Vistabella Road

My Monarch flight left Gatwick at 8.15am in thick fog and 2 hours later touched down at Alicante. The weather was overcast and windy but the temperature was still a very pleasant 22oC. I met Bryan at his villa in Gran Alicant just after 12.30am and after a quick catch up we were soon out birding. First stop was the Santa Pola tower layby where we picked up all the usual species; Greater Flamingo, Spoonbill, Grey Heron, Great White Egret, Little Egret, Cormorant, Avocet, Great Crested Grebe, Black-winged Stilt, Dunlin, Little Stint, Turnstone, Yellow-legged Gull and Slender-billed Gull. An Osprey struggled against a headwind in the distance, while a small group of Sandwich Terns made better progress twisting in the air and plunging into the water in pursuit of a fishy meal. Overhead a lone Crag Martin was soon followed by a Barn Swallow.

Next stop was El Pinet lagoons. En route we picked up Spotless Starling, Jackdaw, Woodpigeon, Black-headed Gull and Stock Dove. Behind the screens in the car park we could see Little Stint and Dunlin at reasonably close quarters, and Kentish Plover and Ringed Plover in the distance. From the boardwalk we could see a pair of Sanderling and a group of c.50 Black-tailed Godwits, most of which had their heads tucked under their wings out of the wind. House Sparrows flitted in the car park hoping for a free lunch. In the distance in the main lagoon we could see Greater Flamingo standing motionless in the water and Yellow-legged Gull roosting on the islands.

From El Pinet we took the back roads towards El Hondo. We soon picked up Zitting Cisticola, Cattle Egret, White Wagtail, Crested Lark, Magpie and Iberian Stonechat. As we passed a small cluster of houses we got a fleeting view of a Black Redstart. It posed for a split second on the top of a fence but then disappeared before we could lock our lenses on it. We came across a field with standing water that had attracted White Wagtails, Meadow Pipit, Water Pipit and a Mediterranean Gull. A Sardinian Warbler and a Chiffchaff called from the reeds while Skylark searched for food in a recently ploughed field. We joined the Vistabella Road (CV861) and soon came across a recently ploughed field that had attracted the attention of c.50 Lapwing. As we scanned the flock we noticed a bird that looked different from all the rest. Chunkier, browner and standing slightly more upright than the Lapwings, the mystery bird grabbed our attention. My first thought was Stone Curlew but as we drove down the track to get a closer view a broad white supercillium soon became visible. We quickly dismissed Golden Plover and our thoughts then turned towards Dotterel. Then Bryan called out … “wait a minute!” We swapped bins for a big lens and fired off a record shot. Blowing up the image on the camera screen revealed diagnostic black and white wing markings, black legs and a white face mask. “I don’t believe it said Bryan … that’s a (beep) Sociable Plover!” We cross-referenced the bird guide on my phone and sure enough an almost text book juvenile winter Sociable Plover – BOOM!

We spent an hour driving up and down the track alongside the field trying to get closer views. Each time we got within 100m the flock spooked and flew off to the opposite end of the field. The resulting photos serve only as record shots and also helped pick out three Ruff. The Sociable Plover was a ‘lifer’ for me, a first for Bryan in Spain, and after some research back at Bryan’s, last seen in Alicante 10 years ago! So whichever way you look at it … a mega rarity … and its only day 1!

Monday 2nd November 2015 – San Felipe and El Hondo

Today started with a Blue Rock Thrush on the roof of a neighbours villa in Gran Alicant. Heavy rain last night and this morning delayed our return visit to the Sociable Lapwing on the Vistabello Road. We arrived just after midday and were met by a small group of Spanish and expat birders that had seen our post on Rare Bird Alert last night. Until now I hadn’t appreciated just how rare the bird was. With c.1600 breeding pairs left in the world this was a mega rarity and we felt duty bound to find the bird again for the waiting crowd. However, locating the bird today had become significantly harder on account of the Lapwing flock having swelled from 50 to 500 birds and the flock now some 500m from the road. Heavy rain last night made the farm tracks impassable by car and so we had to be content with very distant views of the bird feeding in and flying above a water-logged field.

We left the ‘twitch’ in search of new birds and took the back roads to San Felipe Visitors Centre at El Hondo picking up Raven, Glossy Ibis, Little Owl, Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Linnet, Robin, Collared Dove, Common Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper. Perched on a pylon in the distance we saw a Booted Eagle. In an attempt to get closer we took a track through a pomegranate and orange farm but we still couldn’t shorten the distance between us and the bird. A brief moment of drama came when we retraced our steps only to find the farmer had padlocked the chain across the track! We could see the farmer in the distance and after some frantic arm waving we attracted his attention and he returned to unlock the gate …. But not before uttering some choice words in Spanish. We just smiled, said thank you and drove off sheepishly.

When we eventually arrived at San Felipe, the same Booted Eagle circled high above us. No doubt rewarding us with a fly-past for our efforts … but maybe also muttering a few words in Spanish! From the observation deck at San Felipe we picked up Red-crested Pochard and a sparing pair of Purple Swamphen. Red-knobbed Coot remained elusive so we made do with regular Coot, Moorhen and Little Grebe. As we walked across the boardwalk we ‘pished’ Bluethroat and Chiffchaff out into the open but light levels and the skitty nature of the birds afforded us only partial views. We saw numerous Kingfisher darting around the reserve, and a Marsh Harrier hawked low over some distant reeds.

Our time at the hide was cut short by the marauding mosquitoes which were in abundance and very active following last nights heavy rain. We quickly noted Greater Flamingo, Shelduck, Shoveler, Mallard and Pochard before escaping their itchy bites. We ‘pished’ again for Bluethroat and got slightly better sightings. In doing so we flushed a Little Bittern which flapped frantically out of sight before we could take a photo. On the way back to the car park we caught further sightings of Marsh Harrier, Grey Heron, Great White Egret, Little Egret and Cattle Egret. A pair of domesticated Muscovy Duck prompted a “tick or no tick” debate …. Tick won so they’re on the list … along with an Indian Peafowl (Peacock) seen perched on a farm wall near El Hondo!

As the light levels dropped, we took a route back to Alicante via Vistabella Road but the Lapwings were still very distant. Flocks of Glossy Ibis and Cattle Egret flew overhead towards their nightime roosts.