TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
7 - 13 April 2005
A good trip, whose highlight was the overall variety of birds and flowers found over the six days in the field. Unrepeatable individual moments include the Trumpeter Finches quietly feeding on the ground 40 from the group, the Purple Gallinule flying across the road and almost into van and the variety of orchids at Sorbas. The only disappointment was the lack of large raptors, despite the repeated observations of Bonellis Eagles in 2000: the lack of sightings in 2005 is slightly worrying given the endangered nature of the species.
Thursday 7 April
Arrival Sierra de Alhamilla
After a quick trip from the airport (with Black Kite over the road seen by those in the front seat), we went for a short stroll around the hotel before dinner.
We analysed the fauna on the hotel itself - Spotless Starling, House Sparrow and Feral Dove, before gazing out southwards over the oasis below the hotel and we soon realised that amongst the House Martins and Swallows, there were also a pair of Red-rumped Swallows. Looking the other way behind the hotel up to a rocky ridge, we could just make out the figures of a couple of Blue Rock Thrushes on the skyline, as well as a few Crag Martins.
We then took a rough track up into the scrub, keeping our eyes fixed on the same rocky ridge. More Blue Rock Thrushes appeared, and after one false shout, a Black Wheatear graced the ridge top as well. Far beyond a Sparrowhawk circled.
Looking at the vegetation, we made a start with the bright purple flowers of Fagonia cretica, before moving onto some of the commoner shrubs such as Launea arborescens, Anthyllis cytisoides and Genista spartioides and flowers such as cut-leaved lavender Lavandula multifida, purple phlomis Phlomis purpurea, the white-flowered Helianthemum almeriensis and the yellow-flowered Fumana thymifolia.
Birdwise, we watched a group of Serins flitting around below, heard and saw the first of many Thekla Larks and had fine views of a Rock Bunting on a rock just above the path. From somewhere below, a Red-legged Partridge entertained us with its car-starter call.
On the way back, we stopped to watch some more Thekla larks on the ground, and to look at a couple of flowers we had missed on the way up: mallow-leaved bindweed Convolvulus althaeoides and a small rock milkwort Polygala rupestre growing in the midst of another shrub.
Friday 8 April
Cuevas de los Úbeda & Cabo de Gata Saltpans
A long but very fruitful day. We started out by taking the quiet road towards the small village of Cuevas de los Ubeda, lying at the foot of the Sierra de Alhamilla in the midst of the badlands at the foot of La Sierra de Alhamilla.
We parked and made our customary quick run through of the flora: first up and in pride of place, a woody crucifer going by the name of Euzomodendrom bourgeanea, endemic to the Sierra de Alhamilla, a sea heath, Frankenia corymosa with white flowers in groups of 4, Lathyrus clymenum and some highly visible yellow spikes of the broomrape Cistanche phelypaea subsp. lutea. We wandered up through the scrub towards a small hillock, which gave us good views over the surrounding rock outcrops and hillsides. We first noticed a gorgeous Gladiolus illyricus in perfect bloom, and then a couple of butterflies Green-striped White and the first of many Black-eyed Blues. Thekla Larks sung above us, a group of Bee-eaters flew over and a Kestrel and a pair of Jackdaws flew past the cliff face. And then, after hearing a short buzzing call, our main target for the day appeared: two Trumpeter Finches feeding on the ground a mere 40 metres away. We watched then well for 10 minutes or so, before they flew off, unfortunately not trumpeting.
The next surprise was a Fox looking down at us with interest from the main ridge in front of us, and then on the same ridge a male Northern Wheatear and a male Black-eared Wheatear. And, just to add to the collection, a pair of Black Wheatears appeared in the gully below us. And after another view of - this time - three Trumpeter Finches, we also got good views of a couple of Rock Sparrows, seemingly prospecting a nest site on the cliff face.
Back in the van, we moved on a bit along the road for another wander, which was precipitated by Mike spotting an interesting flower from the van. After parking, this turned out to be a splendidly tall Astragalus alopecuroides in full flower. From the road here we also got good views of 2 Hoopoes, Woodchat Shrike, Corn Bunting and another Black-eared Wheatear.
From here, we tore ourselves away and headed for the coast, where we made a quick stop in the dunes, now inside the Cabo de Gata Natural Park. Our main aim was to look at a type of Jujube bush, Ziziphous lotus, which grows in frost-free coastal habitats in south-eastern Spain. We approached one of these bushes, and realise that in fact there were three or four different types of bush all growing together; these bush communities are also valuable refugees for many species of animal such as the Spiny-footed Lizard, the young of which have bright red hindquarters, and oil beetles, both of which we all saw well. As the group wandered around, we found some of the frankly very phallic-like deep red Cynomorium coccineum, a parasite on goosefoots. Another element of this community is the Common African Tiger butterfly, whose larva feed only on the Ziziphous. Despite the wind, we duly found an obliging example, which was much photographed.
The wind was still annoyingly strong, and so we headed for the park information centre at Las Amoladeras, where we ate our sandwiches out of the wind. After a quick tour (including a Moorish Gecko inside the centre), we headed off to the saltpans of Cabo de Gata. Here from the hide we had good views of lots of Greater Flamingoes, Shelduck, Avocet and on the mud in front of the hide, Kentish Plover, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper, Redshank, Little Stint and a solitary Grey Plover. Slightly further away in the haze, we struggled to identify the groups of gulls and terns. In the end, most got up and flew past and we had good views of four Gull-billed Terns, a few Sandwich and Common Terns, and a number of Audouins Gulls.
Despite the gale, we continued on around the back of the saltpans where we had much better views of a large group of Audouins Gulls, as well as a Spotted Redshank, a solitary winter-plumaged Mediterranean Gull and a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls.
The steppe flowers here were wonderful: first we looked at our first Dwarf Fan Palms and Periploca laevigata, two more of the areas many exotic shrubs, before marvelling at the blues of the Limonium sinuatum and the many bright yellow tufts of sea aster Asteriscus maritimus. Also here were great blurs of cut-leaved lavender in the distance, a small as yet unidentified sea spurry and hollow stemmed asphodel Asphodelus fistulosus.
From here it was on a little further to a vantage point over the sea for a quick burst of seawatching with unusual results: a Raven and a Sea Mallow Lavatera maritima, with its subtle pink flowers with green centres, as well nesting Yellow-legged Gulls.
By now it was time to turn around and head for home. However, as we passed the saltpans on the far western end, a convenient lay-by gave us great views of lots of Black-winged Stilts sheltering from the wind (or even at times walking backwards), 25 Kentish Plover, 12 Little Terns, 3 Gull-billed Terns, 3 Mediterranean Gulls in full summer plumage, 8 Whimbrel, 1 Dunlin and a few Blue-headed Wagtails.
Our final stop of the day was at a small coastal wetland known as Rambla Morales. As we approached, we surprised a Woodchat Shrike in the dunes, but driving along side the water we realised that the wind was doing us a real disfavour. The water was so choppy that there was only a single Black-necked Grebe to be seen and there were no birds on the sand-bar. Once we had turned around, the reedy tail-end of the lagoon produced a few birds: 8 Common Sandpiper, 4 Avocets and 5 Little Egrets. And with that we headed for home.
Saturday 9 April
Sorbas & Sierra de Alhamilla above Turriellas
Our day started with a drive along the Almería-Murcia motorway as far as the area of Sorbas, famous for its karst scenery, sculpted out of a 100-m deep stratum of gypsum. First stop was a rather barren-looking scrub halfway to the village of Sorbas: Mike had promised three species of orchid but was proven wrong on two counts. Firstly we found four species fan-lipped Orchis saccata (= O. collina), pink butterfly O. papilionacae, sawfly Ophrys tenthredinifera and mirror O. speculum orchids and, secondly, what Mike had thought were pink butterfly initially, turned out to fan-lipped on closer inspection. Further confusion was caused by a very sturdy and pale fan-lipped orchid which we tried without success to turn into something else. Other plants around were the attractive bright green and yellow Euphorbia serrata and a pink flower-bedecked bush of white-leaved cistus Cistus albidus.
We moved onto the walk itself, through the gorge of the river Aguas. We started from a small village called Molinos del río Aguas, currently being restored by a British NGO called the Sunseed project, which is dedicated to promoting alternative energy sources.
The river here acts as an oasis for many plant and animal species, and our first find was, unexpectedly a male Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis, a reddish demoiselle that is found over much of Spain and southern France but not Britain. Later on we were also to find the females. From the river below we could here Nightingales and Cettis Warblers singing in fine style, while in the poplars along our path we saw a male Pied Flycatcher, Great Tits, Serins and a Blackbird. From one of the two small look out points we had views of Bee-eater, a Sardinian Warbler in song flight, a Woodchat Shrike and a handsome male Subalpine Warbler in a nearby bush. Flowerwise, everything took second place to the masses of bright yellow Helianthemum alypoides, endemic to the gypsum soils of this small corner of Andalusia.
We continued along our shady path, noting on our way white bryony Bryonia cretica subsp. dioica and the very Mediterranean sun-loving fern, scented cheilanthes Cheilanthes fragrans, which really did smell powerfully of cumin. We crossed the river and had lunch in a more open area where we were able to record Green Hairstreak, Green-striped White, Speckled Wood and Black-eyed Blue butterflies.
After lunch we continued along the river as far as the source of the river Aguas, where we observed a number of Iberian Pond Frogs in appropriately - a pool, and tufts of maidenhair fern Adiantum capillus-veneris. We all had excellent views of Bee-eaters carouselling in the sun and then immediately afterwards a pair of Black Wheatears, with the male performing his song flight.
On the way back our main find were the Barbary nut irises that had come out in afternoon sun, as well as a couple of damselflies - one an Ischnura graellsi, the Iberian equivalent of the British Blue-tailed Damselfly, and another which was probably Coenagrion caerulescens.
We then moved on to the Sierra de Alhamilla, by means of a narrow road winding up to the village of Turrillas that then heads to the high point of the ridge itself. We stopped halfway up for a poke around in the scrub, coming up with a single small fan-lipped orchid, a yellow gagea, fine sprays of large-flowered sandwort Arenaria montana (which David risked life and limb to photograph), the white-striped leaves of Lapiedra martinezii, Large Mediterranean Spurge Euphorbia characias, more rock milkwort (see day 1) and two contrasting bushes - Mediterranean buckthorn Rhamnus alaternus and R. lycioides. Pride of place, however, went to the numerous dull ophrys Ophrys fusca that we found in the scrub next to the road.
Birdwise there was little around and so we decided to head right for the top, as much to see what was there as to see birds. A Southern Grey Shrike on a wire was a bonus, but otherwise only a Black-eared Wheatear entertained us on the way up. On top, the view was dramatic - the whole Almerian coastline and ridge after ridge of mountains stretching away inland. A pair of Crossbills descended briefly, but otherwise there was just a pair of Ravens, a couple of Thekla larks and a Great Tit to show for our endeavours.
Sunday 10 April
Las Amoladeras & Cabo de Gata
We spent the whole day within the Cabo de Gata Natural Park, starting in the steppe area of Las Amoladeras, before entering the mountainous area of the park and ending up at Rambla Morales, the coastal wetland we had visited on the first day in a gale.
We parked just off the road in the midst of an old sisal plantation and headed east along a track into the steppe. With Thekla larks trilling all around us, we looked first at some of the most interesting flowers: Gladiolus illyricus, the yellow composite with spiny bracts Pallenis spinosa, the black-centred Reichardia tingitana, Barbary nut irises not yet out and clumps of a sideritis which we provisionally identified as Sideritis arborescens.
The sky was filled briefly with many swifts, most of which seemed to be Pallid Swifts with just a few Common Swifts mixed in. Our first new bird for the day were the numerous Lesser Short-toed Larks that were trilling all around us. Mike heard Black-bellied Sandgrouse in the distance, but it was not until well into the walk that we heard them close by and then had good views of a flock of nine flying around and away from us across the steppe.
Further along, a Spiny-foot Lizard entertained us and Mike and Joy had brief but good views of a Spectacled Warbler on top of a jujube bush. A little further on we looked closely at one of these bush communities, finding Withania fruticans mixed in and providing good cover for numerous other species of plants and animal.
On our way back, one of these bush communities played home to a confusing mixture of Whitethroat, Spectacled Warbler and Subalpine Warbler. Back near the van we all had excellent views of a Black-eared Wheatear perched on a sisal plant.
Ruth, who had stayed behind at the bus, then proceeded to describe a slender lark without a crest that had run along the track by where she was sitting and disappeared into a bush. After further enquiries were made, we realised that this was an excellent description of a Duponts Lark, and decided that we would be paying another visit to this spot.
Our second major stop of the day was the lighthouse of Vela Blanca, at the tip of the park and from where we set out (after lunch) on a walk along a track beneath the parks dramatic cliffs. The floral highlights were undoubtedly the many clumps of the Cabo de Gata endemic snapdragon Antirrhinum charidemi that grace the cliff-face here. Also here we found some plants we recognised from other days: sea mallow, Ononis natrix, Helianthemum almeriense and Launea arborescens. Few birds were around, although we did see our daily Black Wheatear and Rock Bunting, as well as Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Black-eyed Blues and Green-striped White. At the end of our walk, we admired the wonderful views down the coast to the sea cliffs composed of basalt columns and the huge mobile sand-dune shining white in the distance. A solitary Alpine Swift flew low overhead, while out to sea we watched a few Audouins Gulls fly past along with a number of Sandwich Terns.
Our final stop was a visit in decent weather conditions to Rambla Morales. We stopped unsuccessfully to listen for Short-toed Larks in the fields next to road, although we did have good views of Hoopoe and a group of Linnets. Once we had parked and were walking alongside the lagoon of the Rambla we had a quick view of a Subalpine Warbler and heard the zitting of a Fan-tailed Warbler. On the water itself, there were a number of Coots, and we were able to pick out a Black-Grebe in summer plumage, a couple of Little Grebes and, surprisingly, a single male White-headed Duck.
As well, we all also had good views of two male Blue-tailed Skimmers on the waters edge.
The flora of the dunes was dominated by the restharrow Ononis natrix, the curry plant Helichrysum stoechas, the furry Cottonweed Otanthus maritimus and a pink silene with fleshy leaves known as Silene littorea, as well as the first flowers of the yellow horned-poppy Glaucium flavum.
Right at the end of the beach we watched more Lesser Short-toed Larks singing (here with no or few Theklas to confuse matters), before turning for home. The return was slightly more productive: a male Marsh Harrier over the reeds, Black-winged Stilts, a Common Sandpiper and the Fan-tailed Warbler heard but not seen again.
Monday 11 April
Punta Entinas & Cañada de los Norias.
Today we spent most of the day around the saline coastal lagoons of Punta Entinas, and had a feast of practice of wader identification.
After a brief stop to buy water, we reached the first of the long string of lagoons that are squeezed between a sea of salt water (the Mediterranean) and a sea of plastic greenhouses. Despite being at first sight unpromising, our first stop with building work going on behind us brought lots of White-headed Ducks, Red-crested Pochards, Black-necked Grebes and Whiskered Terns on the least saline of all the lagoons. As we walked along the pavement (sic), Pallid Swifts filled the air around us and we spotted a Marsh Harrier circling the reeds nearby. Fan-tailed Warblers sung, as did a very secretive Reed Warbler, and a few Little and Cattle Egrets wandered over. Mike spotted a dark-coloured bird on the far side of the lagoon, which turned out to be a Glossy Ibis; a few minutes later Joy pointed it out as it flew towards us, and we then had fine views of first one and then two Glossy Ibises in the salt-marsh just in front of us. Around about the same time we spotted a quick Purple Heron which dropped down into the reeds on our side of the lagoon, but refused to show its head again.
Soon our minds turned to dragonflies, as a number of larger Aeshnidae began to appear. After a bit of a wait, first David and Ann, and then the rest of us got views of Vagrant Emperor on the ground, and then good flight views of a number of Lesser Emperors. As well, we had good views of a female Blue-tailed Skimmer.
The group minus David and Ann had views of a single Squacco Heron as it paraded itself over the marsh in front of us, and then we spotted at some distance a single Whimbrel and heard a nearby Water Rail.
Lunch was taken and then as we cruised gently along the track in the van, our wader spotting began in earnest. The shallows to our left turned up 12 Turnstone, 2 Knot and a number of Kentish Plovers. Then, as Mike changed sides of the track in the van, David spotted a Collared Pratincole on the same track (which Mike had all but run over would this have been a Travelling Natural first road kill?), and we had excellent views of this beautiful bird from very close range. Further on we added Spotted Redshank and a Ruff to our list and heard the trilling song, familiar from the previous day, of a Lesser Short-toed Lark.
From our parking place in the dunes, we proceeded to remind ourselves of some of the regions most typical plants: the vicious-looking (and feeling) Asparagus horridus, the curry plant, the prickly bush Lycium intricatrum, the small echium we had identified the previous day as Echium creticum, Lentisc Pistacia lentiscus and Phoenician Juniper Juniperus sabina. Where the track brought us to the edge of the saltpans (and as the mosquitos bit harder), we stopped to gaze over the birds lounging in and amongst the groups of Greater Flamingoes. To our delight we found a line of terns sitting on a dyke and were able to compare Sandwich, Common and Little all in the same field of vision. Even better, were 4 Slender-bill Gulls resting and swimming with their distinctive leaning-over posture.
We beat a retreat to the relatively mosquito-free beach and immediately saw a single Corys Shearwater as we started to seawatch. However, aside from a few gannets, we saw little else of interest. The dune flora here consisted of cottongrass, lots of French figwort Scrophularia canina subsp. frutescens, sea rocket Calike maritima, Senecio gallicus and Silene littoralis. David spent some time trying to photograph a Spiny-foot Lizard.
The return journey also proved fairly eventful. We continued our wader-spotting practice with a couple of Dunlin and Ringed Plover, along with a Greenshank and a Wood Sandpiper, all seen close-up and in excellent light. Right at the limit of the saltpans, we investigated a small pool David and Ann had found earlier on: here we found a Crested Coot equipped with a neck ring, identifying it as a bird that had been introduced somewhere into Spain and which seemed very well at home on this small, but over-disturbed pool.
From here our final port of call before heading home was La Cañada de las Norias, a gravel-pit-type habitat in the midst of an exceedingly ugly sea of plastic. However, the birds were not put off by their surroundings, and as we stopped we quickly spotted more White-headed Ducks, Pallid Swifts, Black-necked Grebes, Yellow (Blue-headed) Wagtails, Whiskered Terns and Cattle Egrets. However, most remarkable of all was the Purple Gallinule which we at first thought was a Moorhen: it flew up out of the thin patch of reeds on the left of the road, then crossed the road at shoulder height just in front of the van and crashed down onto an island of plastic bags just 30 from the shore. We watched it in amazement and soon found two others, surviving apparently in the most artificial, visually filthy and disturbed habitat imaginable.
We completed the tour of the Cañada, seeing some Common Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilts, a Cattle Egret roost and huge numbers of White-headed Ducks.
Tuesday 12 April
Our first visit on our last day was to the oasis of palm trees just below our hotel. Few birds other than Serins, Spotless Starling, House Sparrows and a Sardinian Warbler closely studied by Joy, Ruth and Rhoddy showed themselves; otherwise our attention was drawn by the Maidenhair fern on a small drainage channel and an Iberian Pool Frog croaking from a small pool. On the way back up Mike spotted a solitary Woodchat Shrike.
The rest of the morning was occupied by our much-heralded visit to the desert. We parked at the entrance to the Rambla de Tabernas and proceeded to walk up a dry western-style gulch, close to Mini Hollywood, and out into the dry badlands of Western Europes only true desert. The vegetation was dominated by Tamarisks, where numerous small warblers were flitting around. In the end, most turned out to be Subalpine Warblers, although we also had reasonable views of a Whitethroat, a few Chiffchaffs and a couple of Redstarts. The avian highlight of the morning was undoubtedly a spectacular flypast by 5 screaming Alpine Swifts. As well, there were plenty of Bee-eaters to be heard and seen, Rock Sparrows calling from the cliffs and a single Black-eared Wheatear spotted by Ruth.
Plantwise we were kept on our toes by a series of interesting plants. We found that a few plants of Limonium insigne, endemic to southeast Spain, were showing off their beautiful rose-pink flowers, and also found Limonium thouinii, this time a very small and with white and yellow flowers. We also found a small Astragalus sp. (possibly A. incanus), Moricandia foetida (much more discrete than its congener M. arvensis, although still with the same stem-clasping leaves), the tightly compressed leaves of Coastal crucinella Crucianella maritima, Silene littorea and just before we stopped for lunch, a visually stunning bush of Genista spartioides - a startling bright yellow glowing bright against a background of the grey desert cliffs.
Our journey back to the van was uneventful, although we were glad to reach some shade as the temperature was rising steadily. In light of our efforts, it was decided to go for an exploratory visit to the area east of Tabernas in the van (in the hope of finding a large raptor) before returning to the coastal steppe for our Duponts Lark vigil.