Friday, May 30, 2008

Steppe-ing out

Features editor Matt Merritt writes: Just back from a week in Aragon on a 'fam' trip - birding, eating too much, and drinking lots of splendid wine. I won't even attempt to call it work, because it really was a lot of fun with a great group of people.

One of the things that really struck me was just how huge and empty the landscape is - it's something that takes you completely by surprise in western Europe. Given that around half of Aragon's 1.2 million population lives in the capital, Zaragoza, that probably shouldn't be a shock, but it is. Standing out on the steppes (above left), you can imagine yourself in the middle of the American South West.

Birding highlights included seeing several glorious Lammergeiers, a Golden Eagle on the nest feeding young, more Griffon Vultures than I could even have imagined, a very showy Rock Thrush in the spectacular setting of Castillo Loarre, a displaying Little Bustard out on the steppes, the maddeningly elusive Dupont's Larks, and both Black and Black-eared Wheatears (one of the latter subjecting a male Cuckoo to the most fierce mobbing I've ever seen from a small bird). And then there were Bee-eaters and Hoopoes galore, Alpine Swifts chattering overhead, and a whole host of great warblers, including Subalpine, Dartford, Sardinian, the not-very-aptly named Melodious, and the lovely Bonelli's (basically the southern equivalent of our Wood Warbler).

I shouldn't forget the Nightingales. Other than on the steppes, they were everywhere we went, and when we stayed a couple of nights in the mountaintop village of Alquezar (pictured right), you could hear them singing throughout the night (luckily, we were far too shattered to be kept awake by it). In fact, the local name for them is Ruisenor, meaning 'noisy man', which hits the nail right on the head.

It's a part of Spain that has tended to be overshadowed by the likes of the Extremadura or the Ebro Delta, but it offers fantastic birding in a memorable landscape. You'll be hearing a lot more of it in the future, not least in a forthcoming issue of Bird Watching. For now, here's a picture of our tired but happy group to close with...

PS. As you'll see, the rain in Spain doesn't fall mainly on the plain at all.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Peewit composite

Mike Weedon writes:

When I was a child, I thought the Woodcock was the Peewit – somehow the name suited the extraordinary appearance of this most charismatic of our waders. You could still sort of argue that that is what they squeak between croaks in the magnificent roding display flight.
I had a joyous evening at a site near here on Friday, watching multiple roding Woodcocks, including a pair chasing each other with short excited clipped notes. Grasshopper Warblers were everywhere, Nightingales trying to out-dominate them. Tawny Ows hooted and a Barn Owl screeched repeatedly, while an angry Chinese Water Deer barked out its evil warning.
But best of all was a duetting pair of Long-eared Owls, with one bird even indulging in a spot of wing-clap display.
Pure summer joy for the lover of the glorious, crepuscular gloaming.