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Llobregat Delta Nature Reserve, Guara mountains, San Juan de Peña, Hecho Valley, Roncal Valley, Monegros (7 days)

This trip was arranged by Boletas Birdwatching Centre for Tom Gibbons

Group leaders: Tom Gibbons, Josele J. Saiz & Cristian Jensen Marcet

Trip report written by Tom Gibbons

149 bird species recorded

For a long time the Pyrenees has had a reputation for being a beautiful area with spectacular scenery, wonderful flora and a range of birds to tempt many birders. On this trip the Pyrenees fully lived up to its reputation.

We had experienced a variety of habitats from the wetlands near Barcelona, through the steppes, up to the pre-Pyrenees to the snow-capped peaks of the actual Pyrenees. New birds were seen daily, but there is no doubt the birding stars of the trip were the Wallcreepers and the Lammergeiers, although there were many others which ran them a close thing. For example the singing Wryneck which gave superb views for everyone was "bird of the trip" for many for a long time.

Our thanks go to the two excellent guides, Josele and Cristian, for ensuring we made the very most of our time in this exciting part of Spain - their experience and local knowledge of the area was so special in getting us to see all the birds we did.

Day 1 - Thursday May 31st

Weather:  Dry, breezy and bright - temperatures warm

We arrived in the warmth of Barcelona in the late morning and were met by our guides for the week, Josele and Cristian.

We wasted no time and soon we were birding in the nearby Llobregat Wetlands. This reserve is being funded mainly by the nearby airport as a price for agreement to extend the flight facilities there.

Several Black-winged Stilts were in the shallows as was a Little Ringed Plover and Serins were making their jangling calls. An unusual sight though, was a group of Monk Parakeets flying over- these have a couple of self-sustaining colonies around Barcelona. Yellow-legged and Audouin's Gulls flew over the pools, together with a Whiskered Tern. A female Red-crested Pochard swam from the reeds accompanied by her small brood of young. We were then lucky to see a Collared Pratincole fly past and it continued to give excellent views as it circled in front of the hide.

Cristian picked up a small grass-snake from the path where it was sunning itself to let everyone have a close look. As we were leaving the reserve, a Little Bittern was briefly seen flying into the reeds. The raucous calls of Great Reed Warblers were everywhere, although we only managed to get one singing at the top of some reeds. After our flight, this was a very pleasant, easygoing start to get the legs moving and to start the species count.

We then drove to our first base near Bierge in the pre-Pyrenees, on the way seeing Purple Heron, Short Toed Eagle, Hoopoe and the first of many Black Kites and Griffon Vultures.

There was some amusement among the group, as after we had been shown our very comfortable rooms, Tom showed them his, which could only be described as the "honeymoon suite" complete with four-poster bed!!

Day 2 - June 1st

Weather: Dry, again breezy but bright and very warm

We began the day in the Loporzano area but around the hotel itself we had Black Redstart and Serins with many hirundines actually nesting in the eaves of the hotel. As we drove along, we saw Woodlark and a brief glimpse of a flying Rock Thrush and above us we had our first Egyptian Vultures, soon followed by a group of seven of them. Both dark and light throated forms of Black Eared Wheatear and Corn Buntings were noted, but the number of singing Corn Buntings was a stark reminder of the reduction in numbers of these birds in the UK now. A noteworthy bird was a Melodious Warbler as it perched in full view for several minutes and sung its heart out. Then above us we all thrilled as a Lammergeier, Griffon Vulture and a Golden Eagle circled together - Lammergeier was one of the main birds most of the group wanted to see and here one was on our first full day!

Other raptors included both Kites, Kestrel, Honey Buzzard and Short Toed Eagle. The light winds seemed to be keeping the passerines low and quiet, but the valley more than made up for this by the number of raptors.

He headed for Salto de Roldan (Roldan’s Leap) where we saw a large Green Lizard (approx 18ins long). The rock formations here were spectacular with huge limestone cliffs and the floor of the valley being carpeted by many colourful alpine flowers, including orchids. This was a wonderful backdrop for the display of birds such as Black Wheatears, Choughs and Blue Rock Thrushes. A singing Bonelli’s Warbler was heard and we eventually traced it, to get excellent views. The main target, though, was Bonelli’s Eagle and for a long time it looked as though we might miss it, but eventually one appeared to make the wait worthwhile.

Our final destination for the day was Montearagon Castle- this small area beneath the ruined castle is one of the few in Spain where Black Wheatear, Northern Wheatear and Black Eared Wheatear can all be seen in close proximity and all were duly recorded. Spectacled Warbler and Tawny Pipit were also noted before we left for the hotel.

Day 3 - Saturday June 2nd

Weather: Very warm and sunny. Dry but breezy later.

First to the beautiful village of Alquezar, sited on top of a hill and having a maze of tiny, narrow streets - you could see how this village is so popular for visitors. From here we walked the hillsides to see Crag Martin, Melodious Warbler, Dartford Warbler, briefly a Sardinian Warbler and a Western Orphean Warbler, the latter now split from the Eastern race as a separate species. A Cirl Bunting sang and showed well nearby and Black Redstarts and Blue Rock Thrushes were on the rock faces.. Rock Sparrows were quite common here. We survived the very steep walks (on the hillside and in the village streets) and also the very loud and frequent canon shots which were part of some wedding celebrations going on!

At our lunch stop, a Lammergeier flew low over our heads- a remarkable sight.

Then we went to Flumen Ponds and were surprised to see FOUR Southern Grey Shrikes. Bee-eaters flew regularly from their perches and a Cuckoo and a Marsh Harrier were seen. As we walked through the trees, a Wryneck was heard calling and then it appeared, to give everyone really good views, immediately making itself the “bird of the trip” - even Josele was excited at the views. A Purple Heron was disturbed but it then perched briefly on a branch to give us a good look and then Short Toed Treecreeper and a brief fly-past by a Penduline Tit were noted. Nearby was a nest on a chimney stack of White Storks- 2 adults and 2 juveniles. John and Liz were rewarded for their persistence in trying to find the singing Nightingale.

Day 4 - June 3th

Weather: Warm, bright and dry. Cooler at Hecho Valley.  

Today we left the hotel in the pre-Pyrenees and headed up to the Hecho Valley. We only got a short distance when Josele in the first bus stopped suddenly on seeing a flying Subalpine Warbler. Fortunately, it landed in a bush where we all managed to get a good look at it.

As we moved higher, we stopped at San Juan de la Pena, having driven the meandering road up the hillside, past the old monastery which was built almost into the rock-face, to the summit where the new monastery had been built. The views on the way up were spectacular, looking across wooded mountains and valleys to the snow-capped peaks beyond. 

Black Redstart, Booted Eagle, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Firecrest were soon seen but the group unfortunately missed the Black Woodpecker. Trish even found a dragonfly pond here, although we had little time to fully explore it.

After the picnic lunch, we left and drove up the Hecho Valley but turned off to Aragues where Red Backed Shrikes and Short Toed Eagle were seen from the buses. However, the most exciting sighting was from the first bus as a Wildcat crossed the road in front of them - these are rarely seen and Josele was highly delighted. At the top we left the buses and walked up the head of the valley and were pleased to see a couple of Golden Eagles. Crossbills and Crested Tits were picked out by John and Cristian. A flock of Choughs flew above us, most of which were Yellow-billed. Then a Chamois was spotted right on top of the mountain, looking down the valley at us- seemingly surveying his valley! The ground around here was beautiful, with a large number of alpine flowers and several types of orchid - almost impossible not to stand on them. 

Approaching the rest-area, where very welcome refreshments were taken, a call alerted Tom and Josele shouted "Citril Finch". A pair were feeding and allowed us to get fairly close to look at them and photograph them.

Day 5 - Monday June 4th

Weather: Cold and showery in the upper slopes in the morning. Hot and sunny in the lower valley.

The target today was the iconic Wallcreeper.

We drove the short distance from the hotel to Gabardito, where there was an old refuge and parked the buses. A few Citril Finches fed on the ground nearby.. The usual Griffon and Egyptian Vultures and Red Kites circled above but by now, the group was quite blasé about them having seen so many  since the start of the trip.

After a while on the trek for the Wallcreeper, we paused to check the valley cliff-face opposite. Cristian picked out a perched but distant Golden Eagle while Josele was thrilled to spot a pair of perched Lammergeiers. A very large mixed flock of Choughs flew over and more Crested Tits and Firecrests were seen on the track - but were we ever going to get to the Wallcreepers? Eventually, we arrived at the base of a huge cliff-face where there were already a couple of Danish birders, much to the surprise to Cristian who has a Danish father and girlfriend! We were told that a couple of Wallcreepers had recently been seen and so we prepared for a possible long time scanning the vertical cliff above us- Cristian had the right idea when he lay on the ground to look up. As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long before the shout of “Wallcreeper” went up and we all frantically tried to get on to them -two males. They flew above us and did what their name implied. Fantastic, our two key birds for the group had now been seen.

The walk back seemed a lot shorter and quicker having seen the Wallcreepers!

As we had time, we then headed to the head of Hecho Valley where we added Garden Warbler, Blackcap and Chiffchaff. We also had our first sight of a Dipper along the stream by the road. This was a different race to the one we see in the UK, this one having an almost black belly compared to the brick-red on the British bird.

Later we went back to the bottom of the valley and stopped at a farmyard where Red Backed Shrike, Cirl Bunting and Turtle Doves were perched on wires. Then it was off to a nearby field where we tried for Ortolan Bunting, unfortunately without success. We did spend some time trying to see a Quail which was continually calling, but as these birds seem to have the ability to “throw their voice”, we didn’t manage to pin it down.- not even when Josele ran through the grass in an effort to get the bird to fly, although it did cause some amusement among the group.

Day 6 - Tuesday June 5th

Weather: Low cloud and swirling mist on the upper slopes. Cool. Some quite heavy rain on the return to the hotel.

Forecast bad weather on the summits prevented us searching for Snowfinch, so we headed up the Anso Valley, parallel to our Hecho Valley. At a stop on the way up, Rick was lucky to briefly see a Black Woodpecker flying into the trees. The mist was swirling in the upper valley but we decided to continue higher to the Belagua area of the Roncal Valley. Despite the height, the woodland here was almost British-like with beech, birch and oak trees. In there we saw Crested Tit, Nuthatch, Marsh Tit and Linnets while overhead were the "usual" Yellow-billed Chough and Griffons. Much more exciting though, as we walked through the wood, we disturbed a Wild Boar and it crashed through the vegetation, across our path a little ahead of us and off into the wood. It was ironic we had chosen wild boar for the menu that night! Trish also spotted a Tree Pipit, a bird which should have been more common but this proved to be the only one we were to see.

As we exited the wood and approached the former skiing station, a Rock Bunting gave good views.

Despite the mist moving in even more, we decided to try for Alpine Accentor and so we moved up to Raco de San Martin, which was actually just over the border into France. We searched and made calls initially without success, although we did get Water Pipit. Then a Rock Thrush perched atop a large boulder and despite it being a distance away and slightly misty, we still enjoyed this lovely bird and certainly one of the "specials" of the trip. Then at last an Alpine Accentor showed up, close to where the Rock Thrush had been- another excellent bird for the trip and making the search very worthwhile and justifying the decision to go higher.

Before returning to the hotel, we scanned a nearby area and found a couple of Ring Ouzels, although they made it difficult by frequently going into cover. The return trip was through rain for most of the trip but it was still a very good day’s birding - and the wild boar for the meal was delicious!

Day 7 - Wednesday June 6th

Weather: Hot, dry and sunny on the steppes.

Our final day’s birding and we left the Hecho Valley, saying goodbye to the Nightingale just behind the hotel and which had seemed to have continually sung day and through the night during our stay. Barbara and Bob managed to watch a Green Woodpecker before breakfast. We had no idea at this stage what a big finish we would have for the day.

Going down the valley, all the telephone posts seemed to be occupied by Red and Black Kites and Buzzards while the wires between often had Corn Buntings and Red backed Shrikes.

Our first stop though was a return to San Juan de la Pena to try again for the Black Woodpecker where previously we had been unsuccessful, but that may have been because the area then had been so busy with weekend visitors. Anyway, we parked up and while some went off to search for Crested Tit (which they duly got), the remainder watched the nest hole from a short distance. It wasn’t long before the male poked his head out of the nest hole and then quickly flew off and disappeared. We waited awhile and then he returned and we saw him fly in, perch on the tree and go back into the nest hole. We were glad to have returned for the bird.

Leaving Jaca, we stopped to look at a Short toed Eagle perched on a post just off the road and then after we had scoped it, it flew around and slowly glided right over us and low ( no more than about 60 feet) to give marvellous views.

We stopped near Alcolea, where the pylons were festooned with White Stork nests- there were dozens of storks and we could clearly hear the welcoming ritual of beak “fencing” as they returned to their respective partners. A few of the group were delighted to watch a Nightingale out in the open here.

We had arranged a late meal tonight which would give us the maximum time out on the steppes- and we were going to need it! Josele explained that this area was planned to be irrigated and agriculturally developed ( and a lot of the irrigation pipes were visible) and this could have serious implications for the steppe birds- birds very special to this part of Spain.

Once birding, we had a Little Owl on an old building and the larks included Calandra, Great and Lesser Short toed and Thekla. A Spectacled Warbler gave very good views as it was spotted in a small bush. Bee-eaters and a Hoopoe were also noted. The birding on the steppes was far busier than most of the group had anticipated because the steppes, on first view, looked very unpromising. Then Josele spotted two Black bellied Sandgrouse- a key target bird here- and we watched them feeding before they flew off. Cristian then shouted “Great Spotted Cuckoo” and we watched it as it flew into a bush, then catch and eat a cicada. A female Montagu’s Harrier was a good bird to find as it flew across a field.

As we went to look for a Roller, at the bottom of the field, Josele spotted some Stone Curlews but just as we started to focus on them, Josele somehow saw two Pin tailed Sandgrouse. We edged nearer and watched the sandgrouse feeding unconcerned. To have seen both species of sandgrouse in a matter of minutes was fantastically lucky and very special. John, however, wasn’t satisfied with his views of the Black bellied and continued to scan to where they had flown to. Eventually his perseverance paid off- another satisfied customer! The Roller we came for was seen but only as it flew away from us, but we did see others later, particularly delighting Mike, Rick & Liz..

Our last target was Little Bustard but after much scanning and a false alarm as Cristian spotted a couple of Red legged Partridges, it remained absent. We decided to split and cross a field and as we did so a group of four Black bellied Sandgrouse flew by. Finally, as we neared the end of the field, a Little Bustard was put up and we all got great views as it flew away- life-birds for several group members had appeared throughout the trip and here was another right at the end.

Before we went to the hotel, we tried for Eagle Owl but not before the police pulled us aside in Alcolea and Josele had his papers checked. It seemed he hadn't fully stopped at a junction but he managed to "sweet-talk" the officers and no action was taken! On the way to the owl site, a 4 feet Montpellier Snake was taking the evening sun on the road and it then slithered away as we stopped for a closer look.

Unfortunately the Eagle Owl had left its nesting area but we did see a Hobby, obviously out feeding. We were about to put our scopes and bins away for the last time when Trish somehow spotted on the cliff face, a Barn Owl - full marks for perseverance and observation.

The Barn Owl brought the total species seen to 145 plus another 4 heard (Goldcrest, Song Thrush, Wren and Skylark). So it was now off to the hotel after a very hectic last day’s birding for a very welcome drink and meal.

Bird list of the tour

  1. Great Crested Grebe - Podiceps cristatus
  2. Black-necked Grebe - Podiceps nigricollis
  3. Little Grebe - Tachybaptus ruficollis             
  4. Grey Heron - Ardea cinerea
  5. Purple Heron - Ardea purpurea
  6. Little Egret - Egretta garzetta
  7. Cattle Egret - Bubulcus ibis
  8. Little Bittern - Ixobrychus minutus
  9. White Stork - Ciconia ciconia
  10. Common Shelduck - Tadorna tadorna
  11. Mallard - Anas platyrhynchos
  12. Gadwall - Anas strepera
  13. Red-crested Pochard - Netta rufina
  14. Egyptian Vulture - Neophron percnopterus
  15. Lammergeier - Gypaetus barbatus
  16. Eurasian Griffon Vulture - Gyps fulvus
  17. Osprey - Pandion haliaetus
  18. European Honey Buzzard - Pernis apivorus
  19. Red Kite - Milvus milvus
  20. Black Kite - Milvus migrans
  21. Bonelli's Eagle - Hieraaetus fasciatus
  22. Booted Eagle - Hieraaetus pennatus
  23. Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos
  24. Eurasian Sparrowhawk - Accipiter nisus
  25. Common Buzzard - Buteo buteo
  26. Western Marsh Harrier - Circus aeruginosus
  27. Montagu's Harrier - Circus pygargus   
  28. Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus
  29. Eurasian Hobby - Falco subbuteo
  30. Common Kestrel - Falco tinnunculus
  31. Common Quail - Coturnix coturnix
  32. Red-legged Partridge - Alectoris rufa
  33. Common Coot - Fulica atra
  34. Purple Swamphen - Porphyrio porphyrio
  35. Common Moorhen - Gallinula chloropus
  36. Little Bustard - Tetrax tetrax
  37. Black-winged Stilt - Himantopus himantopus
  38. Little Ringed Plover - Charadrius dubius
  39. Collared Pratincole - Glareola pratincola  
  40. Black-headed Gull - Larus ridibundus
  41. Yellow-legged Gull - Larus michahellis
  42. Audouin's Gull - Larus audouinii
  43. Whiskered Tern - Chlidonias hybridus
  44. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse - Pterocles alchata
  45. Black-bellied Sandgrouse - Pterocles orientalis
  46. Feral Pigeon - Columba livia feral
  47. Stock Dove - Columba oenas 
  48. Common Wood Pigeon - Columba palumbus
  49. Eurasian Collared Dove - Streptopelia decaocto
  50. European Turtle Dove - Streptopelia turtur
  51. Monk Parakeet - Myiopsitta monachus
  52. Great Spotted Cuckoo - Clamator glandarius
  53. Eurasian Cuckoo - Cuculus canorus
  54. Barn Owl - Tyto alba
  55. Little Owl - Athene noctua
  56. Common Swift - Apus apus
  57. Alpine Swift - Apus melba
  58. European Bee-eater - Merops apiaster
  59. European Roller - Coracias garrulus
  60. Hoopoe - Upupa epops
  61. Eurasian Wryneck - Jynx torquilla
  62. Black Woodpecker - Dryocopus martius
  63. Great Spotted Woodpecker - Dendrocopos major
  64. Green Woodpecker - Picus viridis sharpei
  65. Calandra Lark - Melanocorypha calandra 
  66. Skylark - Alauda arvensis
  67. Woodlark - Lullula arborea
  68. Crested Lark - Galerida cristata 
  69. Thekla Lark - Galerida theklae
  70. Greater Short-toed Lark - Calandrella brachydactyla             
  71. Lesser Short-toed Lark - Calandrella rufescens
  72. Eurasian Crag Martin - Hirundo rupestris            
  73. Barn Swallow - Hirundo rustica
  74. Northern House Martin - Delichon urbica
  75. Tawny Pipit - Anthus campestris
  76. Water Pipit - Anthus spinoletta
  77. White Wagtail - Motacilla alba alba
  78. Yellow Wagtail - Motacilla flava
  79. Grey Wagtail - Motacilla cinerea
  80. Red-backed Shrike - Lanius collurio 
  81. Woodchat Shrike - Lanius senator
  82. Southern Grey Shrike - Lanius meridionalis
  83. Dunnock - Prunella modularis
  84. Alpine Accentor - Prunella collaris
  85. Great Reed Warbler - Acrocephalus arundinaceus
  86. Zitting Cisticola - Cisticola juncidis 
  87. Cetti's Warbler - Cettia cetti 
  88. Melodious Warbler - Hippolais polyglotta          
  89. Orphean Warbler - Sylvia hortensis 
  90. Garden Warbler - Sylvia borin
  91. Blackcap - Sylvia atricapilla
  92. Sardinian Warbler - Sylvia melanocephala
  93. Subalpine Warbler - Sylvia cantillans  
  94. Spectacled Warbler - Sylvia conspicillata
  95. Dartford Warbler - Sylvia undata  
  96. Western Bonelli's Warbler - Phylloscopus bonelli                      
  97. Common Chiffchaff - Phylloscopus collybita
  98. Firecrest - Regulus ignicapillus
  99. Goldcrest - Regulus regulus
  100. Spotted Flycatcher - Muscicapa striata   
  101. Common Stonechat - Saxicola rubicola
  102. Rock Thrush - Monticola saxatilis
  103. Blue Rock Thrush - Monticola solitarius 
  104. Northern Wheatear - Oenanthe oenanthe
  105. Black-eared Wheatear - Oenanthe hispanica 
  106. Black Wheatear - Oenanthe leucura
  107. Black Redstart - Phoenicurus ochruros   
  108. European Robin - Erithacus rubecula
  109. Common Nightingale - Luscinia megarhynchos
  110. Mistle Thrush - Turdus viscivorus 
  111. Song Thrush - Turdus philomelos
  112. Blackbird - Turdus merula
  113. Ring Ouzel - Turdus torquatus 
  114. Eurasian Penduline Tit - Remiz pendulinus                            
  115. Crested Tit - Parus cristatus
  116. European Blue Tit - Parus caeruleus
  117. Coal Tit - Parus ater
  118. Great Tit - Parus major
  119. Marsh Tit - Parus palustris
  120. Eurasian Nuthatch - Sitta europaea caesia                 
  121. Wallcreeper - Tichodroma muraria
  122. Eurasian Treecreeper - Certhia familiaris                    
  123. Short-toed Treecreeper - Certhia brachydactyla  
  124. Dipper - Cinclus cinclus
  125. Winter Wren - Troglodytes troglodytes
  126. Eurasian Jay - Garrulus glandarius
  127. Eurasian Magpie - Pica pica
  128. Northern Raven - Corvus corax
  129. Carrion Crow - Corvus corone
  130. Eurasian Jackdaw - Corvus monedula
  131. Red-billed Chough - Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
  132. Alpine Chough - Pyrrhocorax graculus
  133. House Sparrow - Passer domesticus
  134. Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Passer montanus  
  135. Spotless Starling - Sturnus unicolor
  136. Golden Oriole - Oriolus oriolus
  137. Chaffinch - Fringilla coelebs
  138. Eurasian Bullfinch - Pyrrhula pyrrhula
  139. European Serin - Serinus serinus                               
  140. Citril Finch - Serinus citrinella
  141. European Goldfinch - Carduelis carduelis
  142. European Greenfinch - Carduelis chloris
  143. Eurasian Linnet - Carduelis cannabina
  144. Common Crossbill - Loxia curvirostra
  145. Rock Sparrow - Petronia petronia
  146. Corn Bunting - Miliaria calandra
  147. Cirl Bunting - Emberiza cirlus
  148. Yellowhammer - Emberiza citrinella
  149. Rock Bunting - Emberiza cia

Only by the leaders:

Eurasian Reed Warbler - Acrocephalus scirpaceus
Common Waxbill - Estrilda astrild
Water Rail - Rallus aquaticus

List of Mammals seen in the tour 

  1. Red squirrel - Sciurus vulgaris
  2. Wild Cat - Felis Silvestris
  3. Wild Boar - Sus scrofa
  4. Southern Chamois - Rupicapra pyrenaica


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