FLY BARCELONA, TRANSFER TO DELTEBRE
Our spring birdwatching tour to northeast Spain commences with a morning flight from London to Barcelona, where Fernando will be waiting to welcome us. We take a short drive for lunch at a cosy restaurant in the small reserve at the Llobregat Delta, before continuing southwest along the blue Mediterranean coast towards the famous Ebro Delta, a journey of ca. 90 minutes.
Arriving at Deltebre, we head to our nice hotel in the heart of the Ebro, settle into our rooms -and if we have time go for a short walk about the grounds. This is an excellent location and boasts ‘garden birds’ such as Little Bittern, Whiskered Tern and Penduline Tit - amongst many others! Deltebre will be our very convenient base for the first three nights of the tour. Night Deltebre
Days 2 - 3
We have two full days to explore and enjoy the wonderful Ebro Delta, not just the birds but also the fascinating landscape. This internationally important Ramsar site covers 320 sq. km, with habitats ranging from reed beds and coastal lagoons to rice fields, sandy shores, salt marsh and marine bays.
To the south, there are a number of excellent observation towers, such as at Poblenou del Delta – and en route we should pick out the fabulous Squacco Heron in the ricefields, if we have not already bumped into one before. Looking out over l'Encanyissada lagoon there are often Little Bittern, Western Swamphen, Red-crested Pochard, Caspian Tern, Black-winged Stilt, Western Marsh Harrier, Greater Flamingo, Zitting Cisticola and Great Reed Warbler, while Savi's Warbler buzz from the reeds. At another observation tower, we might add Great Egret and Gull-billed Tern, with Bluethroat also possible on migration.
The Sant Antoni saltpans are a well-known spot for gulls, holding the largest Audouin’s Gull colony in the world, as well as many terns and waders. In May, with the breeding season well underway, Sandwich, Little and Common Terns are especially active. Hulking Caspian Terns can be seen loafing or flying about, but although Lesser Crested Tern breeds nearby, picking up one of these rare birds in flight is a matter of luck! Slender-billed and Yellow-legged Gulls are an almost constant presence, and migrant waders seen regularly include Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank and Ruff - the majority in summer dress and looking at their very best now. Avocet, Kentish and Ringed Plovers nest locally, and pink-hued Knot and the delicate Marsh Sandpiper may be found on migration in May. The white-throated Iberian race of Yellow Wagtail breeds in the low scrubby vegetation - a vivid splash of lemon to be looked for atop the Salicornia and proclaiming its territory with its buzzing call.
La Tancada lagoon has a hide overlooking it and is another spot good for waders and wildfowl, including Garganey. Osprey can sometimes be seen hovering above the lake, while stub-billed Lesser Short-toed Larks circle in display above the saltings performing their Serin-like songflight. An area of rough pasture at At Erms de la Tancada should reward us with Greater Short-toed Lark and the elegant Collared Pratincole, while a small patch of forest near the coast attracts all kind of migrants at this time of the year. From Nightjars, Hoopoes and Golden Orioles to a host of warblers and flycatchers. These can include some scarce migrants for Spain, such as Icterine and Wood Warblers, and Collared Flycatcher. Thanks to Fernando’s contacts with the network of local birders, we shall be among the first to hear the latest news.
To the north of Deltebre, further observation towers overlook the southern part of the Canal Vell lagoon. It's a regular spot for croaking Black-crowned Night Heron and Little Bittern, as well as bustling flocks of Greater Flamingo, Great Egret and Black-winged Stilt; Great Reed Warblers sing from the tops of the reeds and the tiny dots of Zitting Cisticolas (that's Fan-tailed Warbler in 'old money') bounce across the landscape. Lo Garxal is a shallow lagoon often alive with terns and waders, where we might find an elegant Marsh Sandpiper or coal-black Spotted Redshank. Excitingly, Little Gulls and Crested Coots have recently become a regular sight here, too. Two further nights Deltebre
INLAND TO SIURANA & MONTSONÍS
We depart Deltebre after an early breakfast today, leaving behind the flat rice fields and lagoons of the Ebro Delta and travelling north towards the Montstant mountain range.
The Parc Natura de la Serra de Montsant is one of the secret gems of Catalonia. An area seldom-visited by travelling birders, its picturesque villages, beautiful landscape and excellent wines are a 'must' if you are planning a visit to Cataluña. The numerous cliffs in the area are home to one of the highest densities of birds of prey in this corner of Spain. Species include Egyptian Vulture, Golden and Bonelli’s Eagle, Short-toed Snake Eagle and Peregrine.
The journey from the coast to Montsonís isn't a particularly long one (just a couple of hours if we were to go direct), but we shall be stopping along the way. Siurana is not only a clifftop village in the most beautiful of settings but home to specialities such as Melodious and Western Orphean Warblers, Firecrest, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Crested Tit and Rock Bunting.
Our ultimate destination today is Montsonís, a wonderfully preserved medieval village located halfway between the Lleida plains and the Pre Pyrenees, in the Sierra de Montsec in Catalonia. No more than 20 people live in this tiny hamlet, so peace and quiet are virtually guaranteed - at least until we arrive! Montsonís will be our base for the next four nights - and on the cliff in front of our hotel there is often a nesting pair of Bonelli’s Eagles...
Having settled into our rooms, we will spend time this afternoon birding between Montsonís and Rubio de Dalt, enjoying the mosaic of Holm and Pyrenean Oaks, scrub, rocky areas and field edges that support a rich flora and fauna. Here we can find Quail, Nightjar, Hoopoe, Bee-eater and Woodlark. Super Sylvias include Subalpine, Western Orphean and Dartford Warblers, and there are Western Bonelli's Warblers, Firecrest, Tawny Pipit and Ortolan, Cirl and Rock Buntings, too! Night Montsonís
Days 5 - 7
BELLMUNT, LLEIDA PLAINS & THE PRE PYRENEES
From Montsonís, we have three bird-filled days to discover our surroundings. On each of our days here we'll drive out to three very different areas, focusing on the various landscapes and key birds and wildlife that inhabit them. We may vary the order in which we visit them depending on weather at the time:
Drylands of Bellmunt
Lying just 20 minutes to the south of our hotel, the dry lands between Balaguer and the village of Bellmunt d'Urgell hold important numbers of Montagu's Harriers and the globally threatened Little Bustard - which at this time of year 'blow raspberries' in display in uncultivated patches!
Dryland farming and sheep herding have been the dominant form of land use for centuries in this area. As such these plains are one of the last strongholds for many grassland birds found in the region. Scanning the open steppe should reveal hovering Short-toed Snake Eagle and rakish Hobbies (after very different prey), Stone Curlew, glorious turquoise Rollers and dazzling Bee-eaters as well as the handsome Great Spotted Cuckoo, Little Owl, and several lark species - including Crested, Thekla, Greater Short-toed and Calandra Larks.
After enjoying lunch in a local restaurant, we will spend our afternoon at the most important interior wetland of Catalonia. Estany d’Ivars is a large lake that was drained during the 20th Century, but now has returned thanks to a very successful restoration program. Herons are well represented here, with Squacco and Purple Herons, Little Bittern and Black-crowned Night Heron all on the cards. Red-crested Pochard, Western Swamphen, Black-winged Stilt, and Black and Whiskered Terns add further to the appeal. Meanwhile the reeds can be alive with birds such as Penduline Tit, Great Reed and Eurasian Reed Warblers, Melodious Warbler and several pairs of breeding Marsh Harriers.
In the mosaic of agricultural fields and natural grassland near Montoliu de Lleida, the terraced scenery is notable for its low, table-topped hills rising from flat lowlands. The area is attractive to steppe birds, with large numbers of larks that includes the last population of Dupont’s Lark in Cataluña.
A much-sought after species, Dupont's Lark is notorious for being difficult to see. It sings in flight in the dark just before dawn, and just as the first glimmers of light make you think you will find it, then drops to the ground and runs off like a courser! In order to find this remarkable bird, we will need to be at the right spot at the right time. But with patience and Fernando to help, we have a great chance of finding this elusive species on the ground and in daylight! As we wait and watch for the lark to appear, other key species found here include Stone Curlew with its eerie calls, and Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse.
Lleida's hillsides and cliffs are covered with a mix of Mediterranean and semi-desert vegetation that supports a great variety of birds. We will spend time today looking for smart Black and Black-eared Wheatears, Red-rumped Swallow, Red-billed Chough, Iberian Grey Shrike, Spectacled Warbler, Tawny Pipit and - with a little local knowledge - Eurasian Eagle Owl. If that is not enough, a nearby rubbish dump (lovely!) attracts large numbers of White and Black Storks, Cattle Egrets and other scavengers, allowing good photo opportunities!
Today we head for the hills, driving north into the Pre Pyrenees. Still with peaks rising to over 2000m (6,500ft), these southern and lower ramparts of the Pyrenees possess both alpine and subalpine habitats that are home to a cracking range of species we won't find elsewhere during our tour. Mountain specialists such as Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture), Ring Ouzel, Citril Finch, Crossbill and Ortolan Bunting will occupy our time, along with Red-backed Shrike (here at the southwestern limit of its breeding range), Tree Pipit and Yellowhammer.
Driving through the beautiful landscapes of coniferous woodlands, spectacular gorges and immense cliffs, we arrive to our destination on the southern edge of the Parc Natural de Boumort. At this altitude, the forest gradually opens out to more scattered trees, rose bushes, Alpenrose heathland and flowery grasses that hold Tree Pipits and an amazing diversity of butterflies, including two of the most beautiful butterflies in Europe to be seen in May – Spanish Festoon and Spanish Fritillary. The cliffs around these meadows are also home to the southernmost breeding population of Alpine Choughs in Spain.
High above, the mountains and valleys at Boumort are the domain of all four European vultures - Lammergeier, Black, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures. This is the only place in the whole of Europe where all four species breed side-by-side. Other birds typical of this upland region include Golden Eagle, Raven, Crested Tit, Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper.
After a lovely picnic lunch, we’ll drive north to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the Congost de Collegats. Here, impressive canyons and caves have been cut through the limestone creating an area of high cliffs that hold a healthy population of raptors due to its inaccessibility. We have further chances of Golden Eagle as well as Lammergeier, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures. After another action-packed day, we then head back south for our final night at our village hotel. Three further nights Montsonís
RETURN TO COAST & LLOBREGAT DELTA, FLY BARCELONA-LONDON
After a final breakfast at lovely Montsonís, we travel two hours back to the coast at Barcelona and enjoy a couple of hours of birding around the Llobregat Delta, close to the airport.
The Llobregat Delta is a haven for wildlife on the outskirts of the city of Barcelona. It holds a surprising variety of interesting wetland birds. Although only a small reserve it has excellent hides, and a short visit here can be combined with an often profitable seawatch from the nearby shore, with chances of Balearic and Cory's Shearwaters, and Gannet, plus a good selection of terns and gulls including Audouin's, Little and Mediterranean.
After a leisurely lunch, we make the very short drive back to Barcelona Airport for farewells to Fernando and our return flight to London, where our May birdwatching tour to Northeast Spain concludes.