Following a number of successful birding trips in the UK for the last few years and with an increasing desire to explore to a wider scale, plans were hatched in late 2016 for a short trip birding to the Iberian peninsula. As one of my favourite European countries, it didn’t take a huge effort to be on board for a group trip. Following some discussion, plans were formed looking to explore the pseudo-steppe habitats in Extremadura, an area that I had not previously visited, and with a small list of specialist species which I had not seen to date. For the rest of the group however, it was the first time many of them had ventured to the Iberian peninsula.
Our base for the week was located on a ridgeline overlooking one of the best areas of Steppe in Extremadura on the edge of a picturesque Mediterranean town, Sierra de Fuentes. Our accommodation proved to be very lively for birds, with many of our ‘target’ species being seen from the balcony of our accommodation!
One of our main reasons for our choice of accommodation was due to its proximity to the Steppe habitats of the Santa Marta loop, well known for its populations of many range restricted species.
The area is well known for its populations of both European Bustard species, Great and Little, however both have declined significantly, as mirrored across many areas of Iberia. However, both still exist in good numbers in the ‘loop’, with many giving fairly good views from the tracks and roads that cross their preferred habitat.
Great Bustard in particular proved particularly easy to find, with one seen flapping its way heavily over the motorway before we had even reached our accommodation for the first time. Not a bad way to start the trip! Needless to say, with our proximity to the Santa Marta loop, the species was seen on most days, with many sightings from the motorways. When venturing onto the plains, we often managed half decent views of the species, with good scope views on many occasions. A few displaying males were seen in full ‘bubble bath’ mode, gleaming white on the short grass fields. Varying numbers were seen, with flocks of up to 25 noted, but sightings of one, or a small number were much more common.
Little Bustard, (almost in contrast) was fairly difficult to find. Although seen frequently when birding the area, numbers were very low and we were often lucky to note more than a couple at a time at a single location. Maybe due to their habit of inhabiting longer grass areas they may have passed undetected, but few were also heard calling their ‘raspberry’ like call. Small numbers were noted throughout the trip though, and we managed a nice view of 1 male, displaying from atop a rock near the road.
For me in particular, one of my main targets for the trip were the 2 Sandgrouse species. Having previously visited areas with small, fragmented populations of these species, I had missed them on previous trips. However, we were well into their core range in Extremadura however they still proved difficult to pin down. On our first morning we managed to hear both species, but frustratingly could not locate the source of the sound. A number of mimicking Calandra Larks did not help the matter, with some remarkably similar sounds replicated in their songs by at least 2 individuals in areas we checked regularly. An early morning trip on the 13th to the area we had heard them previously finally produced the goods. Following a number of calls being heard, 3 Sandgrouse flew up quickly from behind a ridge. As they rose, we could hear them calling and with a slight movement, revealed a large black patch on their belly. Black-Bellied Sandgrouse! They flew straight towards the horizon, meaning only 2 of our group saw them before they disappeared. While scanning the same small ridge, another familiar call could be heard, Pin-tails! In a similar fashion to the earlier Sandgrouse, up rose a large flock from behind the ridge of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, skimming low across the plains. Following a short, circling flight, the flock dropped onto the near side of the ridge, allowing us some distant, but very enjoyable views of a flock of 17 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse!
As we watched, a distant sounding Black-bellied Sandgrouse led to great views of a pair as they flew towards us and across the road very quickly, by far the best views we managed of the species. A couple of rushed digi-scoped shots were taken in record time as they continued away from us.
Many other birds were seen over the course of the trip, and posts over the next week or so will show some of the highlights. of which there were many!