Saturday, 3 September 2016

Alicante June 2016

My first post is a trip report from a birding holiday in the Alicante area with my dad and local birder Bryan Thomas... Hopefully I can get out birding soon to see what's turned up after todays storm but I'm working 5 days in a row! 

Alicante Birding Trip Report, 6th – 12th June 2016 by Bob Bosisto

White Headed Duck – Bob Bosisto

This year me and my dad decided to take advantage of the cheap and convenient flights from Newquay to Alicante and go on a birding trip to the area for the week. A stunning trip ensued with a great variety of 137 species of birds found in vast marshes, Steppe habitat and mountains which where all within easy distance of Alicante thanks to Spain’s quiet motorways and some expert help from local birder and ex Scilly birder Bryan Thomas

Great Bustard – Bryan Thomas

Day 1

Hoopoe - Bob Bosisto

After a late arrival to our holiday home and the fact we where still enjoying a beer on our balcony at 3am we decided to have a lazy day on the first day. After getting some food and drink from the local supermarket and enjoying a Coffee and some Churros (a kind of Spanish donut) we drove to the local nature reserve, the Clot de Galvany. Situated right next to the busy Urbanisation of Gran Alacant the ‘ Clot ‘ (as the locals call it) is a cracking little spot that shows how good the whole area must have been before it was developed  and provides an oasis to some rare breeding birds in the area. Even though it was the worse time of day to visit we stacked up a fair list of species including a stunning male Montagu’s Harrier , 6 Hoopoe , Iberian Green Woodpecker , Male Little Bittern , 2 Little Owl , Squacco Heron and Singing Moustached Warbler. The jewel in the crown however was my first lifer of the holiday and one of the main reasons I booked the holiday, a stunning drake White Headed Duck! I was amazed at how blue its beak was and it was great to see a pair had obviously bred as two young white headed ducks where also seen feeding in the only pool of water left on the reserve. By now it was getting near 5pm and we where due to meet local birder Bryan Thomas at the hide to hopefully get some birding information on the area and maybe even spend a couple of days birding with him. Bryan soon turned up on his electric bike (lazy bugger!) and we were soon chatting birds and catching up on mutual friends who we both knew from Cornwall. What became obvious from the start was that Bryan was a top class birder (he was nailing everything on call and picked out a Squacco in a split second) and he was also a good laugh! I was delighted when he said he was free for a couple of days to join us and excited to hear he had a rare breeding bird lined up for us early in the morning….

 Day 2

Rufous Bushchat – Bob Bosisto (senior)

An earlier start today was easy enough in the glorious weather and I woke up to the sound of Pallid Swifts that bred under the balcony where we stayed. We set off to pick up Bryan (who only lived a couple of minutes down the road in the same town) and then after a 5 minute drive we stopped along the Carrabassi beach road by some pine trees. Our first target of the day was Rufous Bush Chat, a bird I had only ever seen once near Tarifa in the autumn so I was hoping for some better views. What we saw for the next 30 minutes was unforgettable as the normally skulky Rufous Bush Chat came right out into the open and hopped about around our feet! It turned out to be my Dad’s bird of the trip. From here we carried along the coast road to Santa Pola, a busy little fishing town where we watched 10 Audouins Gulls and countless Little Terns feeding around the harbour. We then joined the busy N332 coast road that goes along the edge of the huge Santa Pola Salinas. A network of Saltpans that continue for as far as the eye can see. Bryan explained that this place came into its own in the winter time and was quiet in the summer, but I was more than happy with 700 Flamingo’s , Purple Heron , Little Bittern and many breeding pairs of Little Tern and Kentish Plover.  We travelled another 5km and stopped off at El Pinet nature reserve which was part of the Salt Pan network of Santa Pola. I really loved it here as it was home to some huge breeding colonies of birds including : Slender Billed Gull ( circa 200 ) , Sandwich , Common and Little Terns , Avocets , Black Winged Stilt and my first lifer of the day; Collared Pratincole. They were much larger than I was expecting and even more stunning than in the field guides. We still had plenty to do before it got too hot so we headed onto some more arable land around La Mata. Bryan knew the area like the back of his hand as we went off-roading in the search for more local specialities and the birds were more than obliging! 12 Beeaters, 2 Great Spotted Cuckoo, 2 Southern Grey Shrikes, Little Owl and 2 Rollers and the only Tree Sparrows of the trip were all enjoyed and photographed from the car. We then arrived at our last stop of the day, the El Hondo Visitor Centre near San Felipe Neri, El Hondo is the largest marshland in the area and at the Visitor Centre you can get a feel for the birds in the area without having to trek out too far in the sun, it really is a brilliant place. As we ate lunch from a picnic area that overlooked a small pool I found it impossible to eat and not keep birding! Bryan had already picked out 7 Marbled Duck and dozens of Red Knobbed Coot, which were also accompanied by 4 Purple Gallinule, many Squacco Herons and an obliging Little Ringed Plover. From here we walked around a network of well constructed boardwalks and hides which where full of Whiskered Tern, several Great Reed Warblers and 20-30 Collared Pratincole. As we got back to the car we were all pretty knackered from the sun so we headed home ( still managing to stop and see 3 Rollers on the way !) and made a plan to get up early tomorrow and visit the Plains of Petrola and Bonete , I couldn’t wait!

Day 3
Plains near Yecla – Bob Bosisto (senior)

We picked Bryan up at 7am this morning and started the fairly long drive to the plains of Yecla. To be honest it was quite an easy trip along the motorway and without speeding we arrived in about an hour and ten minutes. This vast area was criss crossed by plenty of driveable farm tracks and as we started to explore I realised that this was quite a special place.

Thekla Lark – Bryan Thomas

Larks where singing everywhere and during the morning we watched countless Crested Larks , many Thekla Larks ( in which Bryan helped me with the finer points of I.D ) and good numbers of Short Toed and Calandra Larks , frustratingly we only heard and briefly saw a Lesser Short toed Lark flying away from us and not to be seen again.. The main target (at least for me) however was Sandgrouse and as we started to scan a ploughed field I couldn’t believe my eyes as I locked on to a pair of Pin Tailed Sandgrouse! After a couple of minutes they took off and Bryan taught me the call (a crow type sound) and said it was important to scan if we heard it again as they would be flying around. I was in my element now as my ears are a million times better than my eyes so over the next hour or so we would jump out of the car if we heard Sandgrouse resulting in 11 more Pin tailed and 10 Black bellied Sandgrouse.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse- Bryan Thomas

Lesser Kestrel – Bryan Thomas

I was contented with the whole holiday now and couldn’t believe our luck in seeing both species of Sandgrouse so well. We finished the area off by visiting a Lesser Kestrel breeding colony and whilst we enjoyed fantastic close views we also picked up good numbers of Rock Sparrow , Black-eared Wheatears , Pale phase Booted Eagle , 8 Great Spotted Cuckoo, Stone Curlews and plenty of Beeaters and Hoopoes for Bob senior to photograph. A further 30 minute drive including a stop at a nearby cafĂ© for a couple of quick coffees to give us a boost and we reached the area around Bonete. The first site we stopped at was a small gorge in which Bryan hoped we would see Black Wheatear. At first there was no sign but after a little walk I was stood face to face with a stonking male Black Wheatear! It didn’t hang around as it chased off a male Black Eared Wheatear (I was expecting a small Wheatear, but they are really quite big! Northern wheatear sized… and they have plenty of attitude! ) . We now journeyed into the wilderness and stopped in several different habitats adding Western Bonellis Warbler and Golden Oriole around a small copse plus a mass of wildfowl and waders on several small lakes which included 5 White headed Ducks , dozens of Gull billed Terns , 100’s of Red crested Pochard and a showy pair of Iberian Yellow Wagtail. Bryan was now starting to get excited (and a tad nervous I think as he didn’t want to break his 100% record!) as we headed into prime Bustard country. He didn’t need to worry as just where he said there could be some a Male Great Bustard strutted into view and gave great prolonged views, by far the best I had ever had… As we celebrated we saw a further seven across the road, a perfect end to an amazing days birding. As we drove home along the motorway Bryan and myself chatted about birding and I keenly listened to tales of mega days on Scilly and trips around the world including the time he co-discovered a Petrel that was thought to be extinct in New Zealand. Bryan was busy for the rest of the week now and we both thanked him for his efforts as without his local knowledge and birding skills we wouldn’t have seen anything near the amount that we did.

                             Greater Short-toed Lark – Bob Bosisto

Day Four

European Beeater – Bryan Thomas

After two days of wall to wall birding we had an easier day on Thursday, we spent a few hours on the beach and had a nice seafood meal out in Gran Alacant. However birds tend to find you in Spain and we still ended up seeing several Beeaters, Purple Gallinule, Nightingale and Great Spotted Cuckoo. In the evening we headed up to Santa Pola Lighthouse and as we waited for dusk we enjoyed the magnificent sea views whilst photographing the Ravens that are resident here plus plenty of Sardinian Warblers and Woodchat Shrike. Our main reason for visiting the Lighthouse was from a tip off by Brian that we had a good chance of getting Red necked Nightjar and as the sun set on the horizon I began to hear the strange mechanical churring of a male Red necked Nightjar. Although we only saw one briefly over our head it was a magical experience and I was also delighted to hear my first European Nightjar in Spain.

Day Five

Bob Scanning for Wheatears

Today we planned to visit the Mountainous area behind Alicante and after an easy drive for 45 minutes we soon began to ascend the mountain road to a peak called Font Roja. After being in more arid conditions for a few days it made a welcome change to see some greenery and as we walked to the summit of Font Roja (which nearly killed me!) we enjoyed the spectacular views and added plenty of passerines to the trip list. Crested Tits were especially common and we also caught up with 4 Western Subalpine Warblers, Rock Bunting, Western Olivaceous Warbler and several Firecrests. As we walked back to the car and stopped for a snack in a picnic area an adult Bonellis Eagle drifted across us which was a real bonus for the trip. From here we headed past the University town of Alcoy and drove up to an impressive Canyon in the search for the areas only breeding colony of Griffon Vulture. Both of us had never really visited such a place before and as we walked along the rocky path we could have easily been in the set of a Clint Eastwood movie such was the effect of the place. Apart from getting brilliant views of a dozen or so Griffons we found the canyon to be teeming with Rock Sparrow, Chough, Rock Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush, Golden Oriole and a great variety of Butterflies which kept my dad happy with his photography. As it was midday and the temperature had hit 38 degrees we headed back to a Cantina and enjoyed a cold beer and some Tapas before driving back to Gran Alacant.

Day 5
Whiskered Tern – Bryan Thomas

Saturday was our last full day of birding and we had pre booked to visit the North Gate reserve at El Hondo. As this reserve is only open to the public for 3 hours on a saturday morning each week, it is certainly not to be missed. I felt a tad rushed to begin with at this site as you only get three hours and it is such a vast area but I soon settled down and enjoyed visiting the several hides and walking the many boardwalks. Without a bit of local knowledge you can’t expect to see everything that breeds here but I was still blown away by the number of birds you could see, particularly Herons! Night Herons , Great White Egrets , Little Egrets , probably 50 Squacco Herons , Purple Herons , more Little Bitterns than I could count ( I actually got bored of them! ) plus Grey Herons and 500 or so Flamingo’s. On the Lagunas we watched hundreds of Black necked Grebe (including a leucistic individual) and counted 50 White Headed Duck and 3 Marbled Duck whilst we also spotted a late Black Tern feeding amongst the many Whiskered and Little Terns. El Hondo is also the place for Moustached Warbler but despite hearing a few singing I couldn’t get more than a fleeting glimpse of them. The rest of the day was spent driving around El Hondo watching Glossy Ibis and even more Herons, Gulls and Waders on nearby rice fields .We then headed home to watch some football and enjoy a nice meal out.

Day 6

Great spotted Cuckoo – Bryan Thomas

Sunday was our last day and whilst we had a few hours before we flew back to the rain we had our last birding fix at the Clot. The White Headed Ducks put on a good show and we also got good photos of Hoopoe, Beeater, Black winged Stilt and Serins as they fed close to the hide.


I would recommend anybody who lives in the southwest to visit the Alicante area for some birding. The accommodation is cheap (we paid £170 for a 3 bedroom house for a week), the Ryanair flights are really good value and despite what you hear sometimes about Ryanair I couldn’t fault them. Hire cars cost next to nothing really and the driving is a piece of cake , I hadn’t done much driving abroad but the roads are quiet and despite the tail gating Spanish drivers and feeling a bit like Collin McCrae when driving around the Steppes and along the mountain roads I didn’t have a problem. Food is much cheaper than England and the local Spanish people and ex Pats are very friendly and helpful. 

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