Diary of the Bargain Birder – Richard Hanman – Part Three

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Thursday 5th November 2015 – Yecla, Estacion, Petrola & Corral Rubio

We left Gran Alacant as dawn was breaking at 7.15am and drove to an area of rolling farmland just north of Yecla. On arrival at 8.30am we heard the unmistakable ‘jangling keys’ call of Corn Bunting, and we watched a flock of c. 50 Stone Curlew take to the air from a recently ploughed field, do a large circular flight and then drop back down in the same spot.

Our plan was to drive the length of the Travesia de Caudette track which runs through an arable area of grape vines and cereal crops, bordered by the Sierra del Cuchillo mountains on the right-hand side, and the larger Sierra de Olivio mountains on the left. At the start of the track we came across a pair of churring Mistle Thrush perched on a telegraph wire. A Merlin scoured the field perched on a rock just a few inches off the ground, no doubt observing flocks of Goldfinch that kept their distance feeding on thistle seeds. We were able to separate Thekla Lark from Crested Lark, on account of the dagger-like bill of Thekla, and also picked up small flocks of Calandra Lark. Behind us we heard Black-bellied Sandgrouse call and as we spun round two birds shot across the sky and disappeared out of sight. Other birds seen included Kestrel, Buzzard, Black Redstart, Hoopoe, Spotless Starling, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Southern Grey Shrike, Woodpigeon and Stock Dove.

When the track passed by a small farm we could see small birds congregating in a Horse Chestnut tree. Closer inspection revealed a flock of Rock Sparrow with their distinctive streaky head pattern. Our time observing the sparrows was cut short when two huge wolf-like dogs came bounding towards us. We wound up the windows when we saw the size of their teeth and for a good 5 minutes the dogs literally chased our car along the track even attempting to bite the wing mirrors. We sped up and eventually the dogs gave up the chase. They trotted back to the farm and we continued on our way. Around 12 noon we reached the end of the track and re-joined the main road. Next stop was Estacion where we observed a larger flock of Rock Sparrow and three Marsh Harriers. We then spotted a group of 10 Great Bustard in the distance but had to settle for scope views only.

We took the CM3209 road from Estacion towards Higuereula. A quick stop at the ice caves in search of Black Wheatear only produced Goldfinch. A few hundred yards further on opposite a ruined building we picked up Jay, Mistle Thrush and Black Redstart, but still no Black Wheatear. We continued through the small town of Higuereula and took the B10 road (signposted Alamansa) to Petrola. Birds of note en-route included Black Redstart, Stonechat, Corn Bunting and Marsh Harrier. Where the road crosses the railway line we had an elevated vantage point overlooking two large pools which held large numbers of White-headed Duck, Shoveler and Mallard, as well as a few juvenile Greater Flamingo. We continued across the rolling Petrola plains towards Petrola Lagoon.

As we drove down the approach track it all seemed very quiet at first with large expanses of bird-less water. However, at the point where the road literally disappeared into the lake we picked up good views of single birds of Black-winged Stilt, Ruff, White Wagtail, Water Pipit and Temminck’s Stint … all feeding in the foam by the waters edge.

After a late 3pm lunch stop we moved on to Corral Rubio. In the reedy water margins we picked up Black-winged Stilt, Water Pipit, Meadow Pipit and White Wagtail. On the large expanse of water were hundreds of ducks including Mallard, Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Teal, Shoveler and Gadwall. Lapwing gathered on the far bank while Marsh Harrier and Common Buzzard soured overhead. As the track was flooded we had to do a big loop to get to the other side of the lagoon. Once there we spotted a Wood Sandpiper, Greater Flamingo and a group of 26 Snipe.

Just when we thought the birding day was over we spotted a group of 40 Great Bustard and 4 Common Crane in the middle of a field. A very muddy farm track showed signs of promise of a closer view. With the back end of the car slipping and sliding for about half a mile the track suddenly came to an abrupt end. With no concern of our exit route I continued the ‘chase’ on foot using the cover of a few large trees. I managed to get within 200m of these magnificent birds and fired off a few shots before they took to the air. A startled Sparrowhawk added to the moment.

I returned to the car with a big smile on my face when the reality of the fact that I’d parked it in the middle of a field with no obvious exit route fully dawned. Undaunted, I could see the tarmac road only 100m away … it just meant we had to drive across a wet (but fortunately stoney) field. Never under-estimate the resilience of a Ford Fiesta! It had already been rescued from a ditch, outrun two ‘killer dogs’ and hovercrafted down a muddy farm track … the stoney field was a relative walk in the park. Back on terrafirma, Bryan gave me a look that could kill. I burst out laughing and we continued on our way home. He who dares … wins!

Friday 6th November 2015 – Pego, San Felipe, El Pinet & Carabassi Road

Our last full day out birding saw us leaving Gran Alacant at 7.30am and heading north to Pego Marshes in the region of Valencia. We arrived just before 9am and quickly picked up Grey Heron, Little Egret, Kingfisher, Hoopoe, White Wagtail and Reed Bunting. A distant flash on the far bank of a rice field showed all the signs of a Little Bittern. In the reeds we picked up Cetti’s Warbler, Moustached Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Chiffchaff and Tree Sparrow. Disappointingly all but one of the tracks were blocked by locked chains. The one drivable track produced Booted Eagle, Kestrel and an Osprey-like bird that we couldn’t identify in the field. Analysis of photos later revealed it was in fact a rare Bonelli’s Eagle!

At 11am we headed back to San Felipe visitors centre. Birds present included Little Grebe, Little Egret, Pochard, Kingfisher, Stonechat, Bluethroat and Marsh Harrier. An Osprey and Great Spotted Eagle provided an added bonus. We opted for one last drive around the Vistabella Road / Green Sandpiper Alley / Palm Farm Road circuit and were rewarded with good views of Southern Grey Shrike, Marsh Harrier, Buzzard and Kestrel, and fleeting glimpses of a male Hen Harrier.

We took the back road to La Marina and in the scrub picked up Hoopoe, Stonechat and a pair of Dartford Warbler. At El Pinet, Dunlin and Little Stint were close in just behind the screens in the car park and Greater Flamingo were feeding in the main lagoon. As the light faded we took the Carabassi Road from Santa Pola beach to Gran Alacant and added two new ‘ticks’ in the shape of Audouin’s Gull and Mediterranean Shag.

Saturday 7th November 2015 – Carabassi Road & Clot de Galvany

After dropping Trish off at the airport for her flight back to Cardiff, Bryan and myself made the most of our last couple of hours birding together. The morning mist was thick at Santa Pola so we diverted along the Carabassi Road back to ‘The Clot’ picking up a Gannet on the way. At ‘The Clot’ itself we got decent views of Bluethroat and Sardinian Warbler, and our first sighting of Song Thrush.

At 10.30am it was time to call an end to this trip. As always, another memorable birding experience with Bryan that delivered 128 species in just over 5 days.