5th June. Day 5 Monfrague again

Heading out to Monfrague at dawn we picked up a reasonably close Black Vulture feeding on fresh carrion just outside Torrejon.

Arriving just before 8am at the Castillo de Monfrague we were greeted by a reception party of at least half a dozen Hawfinch. Opting to view from the aerials instead of the top of the castle I soon picked up three White-rumped Swifts increasing to six before we left. Apparently they are becoming much commoner.
A couple of birders were already present when we arrived (an ex Brit and his Spanish son) and we were joined by another who informed us of a Imperial Eagle nest viewable at about half a mile away. Eventually he re-found it, distant and shrouded in heat haze (note how the excuses are building) a large dark raptor with a paler head was clearly visible. After watching it doing very little for a few minutes I was approached by the ex pat who exclaimed that he couldn't find the eagles nest and was it anywhere near the Black Vultures - oops!! I felt a right prick but consoled myself that it was miles away, hazy and that I shouldn't have got taken in by that other birder. I knew that things weren't right when the conversation between the ex pat and his son switched from English/Spanish to total Spanish. The whole Spanish conversation continued after the cock up but I did manage to identify a couple of Spanish words, one of which was the Spanish for incompetent. Incompetente!! Fortunately I redeemed myself shortly after, by picking up a real Imperial Eagle which perched up not too far away.

Dropping down to the Pena Falcon view point I bumped into the English /Spanish pair again and soon forgave the 'incompetente' dig when the young lad picked up a cracking Black Wheatear on one of the nearby rocks. Also a nest full of Black Stork young and a nice Blue Rock Thrush.

By now the locals were arriving in droves for their weekend recreation and making the equivalent noise of several coach loads - my only criticism of the Spanish is that they all talk very loudly! With this in mind we headed back to the hotel for a kip and a wander around Trujillo before going to Belen in the evening.

4th June. Extremadura Day 4. The Plains

Dawn start and we headed for the plains near Santa Marta. Taking the track marked as 'A' as far as we could safely go and walking the rest of the way to a suitable view point. It would appear that this spring has been a wet one as the grass here was far higher than I have experienced before, thus it made finding Little Bustard and Sandgrouse near impossible. We did however pick up 5 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse passing overhead. Apart from a distant female and chick Great Bustard and the only Short-toed Lark of the trip the rest was hugely disappointing and even more so when we took the track marked as B. The visit to this site was more memorable for the absence of birds e.g. Montagu's Harrier, so we headed to Belen before the heat haze took hold.

Belen on the other hand was much more rewarding. A total of 14 Great Bustards including a displaying male, Stone Curlews and a group of vultures (Black and Griffon) descending on carrion.

Lots of larks on the fence posts as we drove slowly along the deteriating road, giving me a chance to compare Crested and Thekla and appreciate the hugeness of Calandra, the latter frustratingly failed to pose for photos.

Thekla showing the typically shorter and straight bill, cone like crest and heavy bold streaking on the breast.
Following a quick breakfast and a supermarket stop (for picnic items) we were soon back out and heading for the plains further south where we picked up a few trip ticks namely Black-eared Wheatear, Roller and the only Montagu's Harrier of the trip!

Returning to Trujillo we spent a little time around the bull ring watching the Lesser Kestrels.

Before returning to Belen in the evening.

Ridiculously close views of Great Spotted Cuckoo again

Easily the commonest bird on the plains

12th June. Intermission

Just got in from a couple of hours at Orgreave (where it was surprisingly better than I anticipated 7 Redshanks, 6 Common Terns, 7 Ringed Plover and 3 Dunlin) only to foolishly follow a link to a story in the Torygraph.

Not sure what's going on in birding these days, but like all walks of life the media jump on the negative aspect bandwagon. This is not news, I'm sure that all pastimes attract some form of 'bother' at some stage - christ football fans have been hacking themselves to bits for decades. Is it because people think of birdwatchers as quiet, studious, laid back members of society whose only interest is marvelling over the beauty of birds? Bollocks the 'Birdwatcher', 'Twitcher', 'Birder', 'Dude' call it what you will comes from every walk of life, from the low life drug dealer to members of parliament (one of which is currently at her majesty's pleasure). The image of us all being flower sniffing anorak wearing saddos is and has always been wrong. When we congregate in large groups (flocks) there will be incidents and there always has been.

A scene from Spurn in the 1980's, where the annual end of spring barbecue turned ugly when it was revealed that Tengmalm's Owls really did taste like chicken!

In 25 years of twitching I've witnessed; fighting, verbal and physical threats including one with a knife, abuse at photographers and from photographers, stories of reserve wardens being struck with tripods, abuse hurled at and from dog walkers, situations where normally mild-mannered individuals lose it (a young Richard F' threatening to rip some blokes head off at the Felixstowe White-throated Sparrow, if he didn't shift was hilarious!) even I've been threatened with violence - for an article I once wrote in a local newsletter - I know unbelievable!!

As for hoaxing. That goes back even before the dawn of mainstream birding - who among us isn't aware of that wiley old fox George Bristow and the Hastings Rarities.

The real fact is that someone out there is desperately trying to make this hobby of ours fashionable, to turn it in to the new rock n roll, where aggressive celebrity wannabee birders get their name in the press at every given opportunity fueling their ego and dragging this hobby that we all love into the gutter press.

Yeah I'm a Rock n Roll star

And finally.

To quote Bill Oddie in the original Little Black Bird Book printed some thirty years ago; 'Birdwatchers are tense,competitive, selfish, shifty, dishonest, distrusting, boorish, pedantic, unsentimental, arrogant and - above all - envious.'

3rd June. Extremadura Day 3. Touristy

A later than normal start today with a relaxing days sightseeing around Montanchez and Merida, with a little bit of birding thrown in for good measure.

According to the Crossbill Guide the Moorish castle at Montanchez holds Black Wheatear. We failed on our visit but took consolation in finding a roosting Eagle Owl on the cliff below the castle.


Famed for its impressive Roman ruins Merida is a must if you got half a day or so to spare.

Merida Aqueduct

The Ampitheatre and Roman Theatre at Merida

Even managed a few birds around this busy city with the only Alpine Swifts of the trip and numerous Herons including three cracking adult Squaccos and a light phase Booted Eagle.

2nd June. Extremadura Day 2. Monfrague

Jo's birthday today so I gave her the choice of what to do. She didn't opt for the usual girly things like shopping, spa or drinking wine, she wanted only one thing - to see Eagle Owl (if Carlsberg made wives!). So with a quick breakfast and provisions packed in to the coolbag we headed towards the natural park of Monfrague.

Crossing the Rio Almonte, just outside Torrejon el Rubio, we stopped to explore the area for amphibians and perhaps a few reptiles. Exiting the car I picked up a couple of large raptors which I instantly recognised as a pair of Bonnelli's Eagles. Having only seen one before and missing them on my last trip I was delighted to pick them up without any effort (or frustration).

Snaking our way beyond Torrejon we headed up to the Castillo de Monfrague. With already a few people up here and worse still a huge party of school children on their way up this was going to be a short visit. Despite being a short midday visit we still managed a couple of White-rumped Swifts, but little else.

The heat was becoming a problem by now so we did what the Spanish do and stuck the car under an olive tree and had a couple of hours.

Woke at four with the heat still very oppressive so we looked at our options and decided to leave Monfrague, visit the wetland reserve at Almaraz then return to Monfrague for the Eagle Owls.

Almaraz is probably the best place at the moment for seeing Black-winged Kites - another species that eluded me on my last visit - and it certainly did come up with the goods when I stumbled across one by the roadside. Unfortunately it immediately flew off. Finding the information centre at Saucedilla we acquired a hide key from the attractive young lady (nothing like those old boilers that work at RSPB reserves) at the desk. Something that we noticed about Extremadura as that almost every visitor attraction is free! We spent a couple of hours driving from one hide to the other - none of that walking rubbish - enjoying great views of Little Bittern, Purple Gallinule, Great Reed Warbler and eventually a pair of Black-winged Kites.

After a great couple of hours we headed back into Monfrague. I've seen Eagle Owl during both previous visits, but they've never been easy and I've only seen juveniles in near darkness. So walking up to the viewpoint at 9pm I was delighted when the Spanish couple we'd met earlier pointed at their scope and said, "Bubo". This adult bird performed well for over an hour delighting us with it's massiveness and beautiful amber eyes. Happy Birthday Jo.

1st June. Extremadura Day One

To most established birders Extremadura is probably a bit old hat now, but for me this was my third trip and I was just as excited as I had been on the first visit. Despite already having seen everything that would be on offer I was very much looking forward to the whole experience.

As usual a nice straightforward Easyjet flight to Madrid from Luton (£127 return for two) hire car from Hertz (£160 including full excess waiver) tohether with a hotel room (hostal) in Trujillo (£40 a night including breakfast) made for a very low cost birding trip.

Arriving in Trujillo at 2pm we had a spot of lunch, a quick nap then out for a spot of birding at one of my favourite spots - the Belen Plains. Though dragging ourselves away from the excellent view across the square, where we could enjoy Storks, Lesser Kestrels and a 50-50 mix of Pallid and Common Swift, was difficult.

Room with a view

Don't believe the guide books the Belen Plains are the mutts nuts and I've always enjoyed far more success here than the Santa Marta Plains. This couple of hours was no exception. We enjoyed excellent views of a female Great Bustard with its chick, a good selection of raptors including 2 Short-toed Eagles, dark phase Booted Eagle and a Honey Buzzard. Countless Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Stone Curlews and many more.

Highlight though was a couple of showy Great-spotted Cuckoos, that Jo found whilst I was concentrating on the pot-holed filled road - that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!

Retiring to our hotel mid-evening gave me a chance to have a nosey at the next-door neighbours whilst enjoying a particulalrly good Rioja.

7th June. Hanging on in Hartlepool

Wind back 24 hours. Leaving our hotel in Trujillo, after an incredibly successful six days I was distracted by a text - distracted and subsequently distraught - 'White-throated Robin at Hartlepool!' Well there was bugger all I could do about it, our return flight wasn't due out of Madrid until 10pm. We spent the rest of the day as planned stopping at a few sites en-route. I tried to take my mind off the Robin but the barrage of gloating texts didn't make it easy. I had to console myself with Black-winged Kites, Red-necked Nightjars and a few specialities of the Spanish Steppe.

Constant texts continued to torment me through the day - yes I could have switched it off - and I made up my mind that I would go the following day on positive news. Our 10pm flight was delayed to almost 12am- following the biggest thunderstorm that I've ever seen - and our eventual arrival home at 3:30am didn't bode well for an early start. Almost wishing the bird to have gone in the clear night sky (the fatigue was taking hold) I was soon on my way when after just 3 hours sleep a text came through confirming that it had hung on for at least another day -phew!