Photo of a gannet in flight

The hottest weekend

According to the Met Office, July 19, 2022 was the first time 40°C (104F) has been recorded in the UK. It was recorded at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, exceeding the previous record by 1.6°C. A total of 46 stations across the UK exceeded the previous UK record of 38.7°C.

The date for the BirdFair had been set months before, it was just bad luck that the two would coincide that weekend. Because, if we were going to drive 260 miles each way to the BirdFair, we might as well have a look at some nature reserves while we’re in that area.

Global BirdFair

The British Birdwatching Fair had been going for several decades, but, like nearly everything else, came to a stop during the pandemic.  It was revived this year, under the title ‘Global BirdFair‘, moved from its usual Rutland Water Nature Reserve site to the Rutland Showground, and was a rather smaller affair than before.

We travelled to Rutland on Thursday 15th, stayed at the Market Harborough Premier Inn, thought we’d have Friday at the BirdFair before the weather got too hot, then go on to Bempton Cliffs and maybe a few other places in the north.  Day by day the weather forecast was changing – always for the hotter.  Saturday was going to be the hottest, then Sunday, and finally they were saying Monday would reach 40C – previously the British Record had been set at 38C in Cambridge a couple of years ago.

The Friday was somewhat cool and cloudy.  We were stuck in traffic for the last half mile of the journey, but still got into the showground soon after the BirdFair opened.  It really was much smaller in scale than before – perhaps because it was like a new event, perhaps the pandemic had meant fewer people were travelling, perhaps inflation was getting in the way . . . Who knows.  Bob said it lacked atmosphere, but really, Fridays were always the quietest days.  It was the day when stall-holders did their networking, talking business, and especially networking between overseas holiday companies and local guides. 

We bought a few books, looked at some photographic equipment, went to a couple of talks, met up with Ian S and Anne and later with Ian T – who had (inevitably) just negotiated an exotic birding trip to somewhere on the other side of the world. 

The bird fair isn’t just about birds. Any conservation can be part of it, and this photo was taken at the Mammal Society stand.

photo of a harvest mouse
Harvest Mouse (captive)

When the BirdFair was at Rutland Water, the entrance fee also gave visitors access to the adjacent Rutland Water Nature reserve, so you could split your visit between bird watching and the hustle of the fair.  It’s disappointing that we can’t do that now – well you can, but the two sites are several kilometres apart.

We left as the fair closed for the day, most people had already gone, and we missed any rush-hour traffic jams.  The journey to Lincoln Premier Inn was uneventful.  (My sister) Jane and Bill having moved back to Edinburgh meant we couldn’t stay with them this time.

The BirdFair raises money for international bird projects. This year it was the turn of the ‘Revive la Janda’ project which aims to revitalise a lake in Andalucia, Spain, that has largely been drained for agriculture. It is a vital link for migratory birds en route between the UK (and elsewhere in north-west Europe) and Africa. Water birds still attempt to spend winter on the semi-flooded fields, but the area available for them is decreasing drastically, and the nutrient status has been damaged by farming practices.

The total sum being donated by Global Birdfair to the 2022 Conservation Project is an incredible €100,000


RSPB Blacktoft Sands

Previously the BirdFair had been held in mid-August, so we would go on to visit a few sites good for bird migration as part of the same trip.  Migration starts in July, perhaps even late June, but as it’s mostly birds that have failed to breed successfully in the early part of the season, there might be nothing much to see anywhere.  So I didn’t have much expectation for the RSPB reserve at Blacktoft Sands on the south shore of the River Ouse, where it meets the River Trent and becomes the Humber Estuary.  Weather mostly warm and muggy.

A sign on the visitor centre door said ‘back in 15 minutes’, so we turned east and walked to the Singleton Hide, which was at the end of the trail.  It was too hot to hurry, so we admired dragonflies and damselflies, and other insects along the way.  The view from the hide was quiet – plenty of birds, but not doing much in the heat.  We listed 20 species, and took a few photos.

After a while we moved to the Townend Hide, which at first seemed even quieter.  However, there was more exposed mud, and we began to see a few things happening – birds coming and going, a distant marsh harrier looking for lunch, a greater variety of waders, etc.

And then some small brown birds on one patch of much at the base of the reeds. It took a while to sort them out through the heat haze, even through our long telephoto lenses. They were juvenile bearded reedlings presumably looking for seeds or invertebrates on the mud. Twenty-five species seen from this hide.

The First Hide is the one nearest the visitor centre. A magpie pattered around on the hot tin roof for a while before investigating why the occupants weren’t feeding him.  The other occupants threw out a few crumbs, and he obviously wasn’t shy.  Eventually, he got bored and went elsewhere.  Fewer species here, but again including the elusive bearded tits.  There was less open water to be seen, but something moved along the channel below the hide, hidden by the reeds.  Probably a deer, but no-one actually saw anything.

By the time we got back to the visitor centre itself, the warden was unlocking the door.  He had been checking a water pump – pumping water into one of the lagoons while there was still any water to pump anywhere.  We had a drink and flapjack while he told us what was going on at the site.  Then we moved on slowly to the hides to the west, missing out on the Xerox hide because it wasn’t in use, and then settling in at the Marshland hide (above).  This is usually the best hide for wader-watching, and overlooked the lagoon that the water was being pumped into.  We didn’t get around to asking if they filled naturally on high spring tides (the reedbeds kept the estuary itself out of sight), or by water from drainage ditches, but if there was no water, there would be no food for birds, and therefore no birds to watch.  When the water pump ran out of fuel, we enjoyed a short period of quiet before the warden came out and fuelled it up again.  There was another hide, further west, but the afternoon was just too hot for us to want to make the effort to get there.

Still, we had 27 species here, and a tally of 44 species for the site today.

It was late afternoon as we continued our journey north, following the satnav directions to the Wrangham House Hotel near Filey.  The place seemed to be a bit of a madhouse, but this was explained as a big celebration that had been delayed since last year (or was it the previous year) because of covid.  Fortunately, it was quiet in our room, and we managed to book a late dinner when the partygoers (or at least the younger generation of them) were winding down.


RSPB Bempton Cliffs

The RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs was only a short drive away – I might have been tempted to walk if it wasn’t for carrying camera stuff in the heat.  A cool offshore breeze made the day more bearable, but stop long enough in a sheltered place and you got covered with tiny flies that didn’t want to leave.

The gannet colony was as noisy and busy as expected – but a few dead birds had Bob speculating that the dreaded bird flu may be affecting them here – some seabird colonies in Scotland are already being badly affected.

Like most seabirds, gannets are long-lived (20-30 years) and produce only a single chick per nest per year.

On our last visit – August 2019 – gannets were the only species here, but now, earlier in the season, the ledges still held quite a few razorbills and guillemots with some well-grown chicks.

There were also plenty of active kittiwake nests (above). The two birds in the middle are chicks, and those dark markings on the neck remind the adults that these are youngsters to be looked after rather than rivals to be chased off. Unlike most other gulls, these nest on sheer cliffs, and it’s a long way down if you fall off! As with other species of gulls, each pair can lay three or four eggs, though usually only one or two chicks will survive to fledge.

Many people were keen to see the albatross that has taken up residence here.  Apparently it has a regular spot on the cliffs, though it can really only be seen from a distance, and it was difficult to make out which of the mostly-white birds it was – people with telescopes were convinced it really was there.  But later it took to the air, flying amongst the swirling gannets.  I was trying to video the gannets in flight along the cliffs, though it was difficult with the bright sunlight on the LCD screen.  It wasn’t until we were back home that I could be sure I really had got the albatross in there too.

Someone mentioned a Daurian/Isabelline Shrike – a vagrant from the area between the Caspian Sea and China – and told us roughly where to find it.  Having walked to the southern end of the reserve, we thought we might as well cross the two fields to see the bird while we were here.  A few others birdwatchers were already there, and the bird had been showing well along a particular hedge.  The lack of a huge crowd for it could be put down to the bird having been there a few weeks already, so it had been seen by most avid twitchers long ago.  I didn’t bother getting the camera out – a distant small brown bird through the heat haze wasn’t worth the effort.  It worked its way along a hedge, until eventually a couple of cyclists on the track on the other side of the hedge caused it to move further away.  So we headed back to the visitor centre for a late lunch.  Then we spent the afternoon looking at the cliffs along the northern end of the reserve.

While bird flu didn’t seem too obvious during our visit, later in the summer things definitely got worse. At Bempton, most of the losses took place in August, when hundreds of gannet chicks died in the densest area of the colony, and some dead adult birds were recorded on the sea. For most of the 13,000 pairs of gannets nesting elsewhere in the colony, the impact “has been thankfully very small”, according to site manager Dave O”Hara in an interview for the Yorkshire Post “We are not complacent for next year – it will be a worrying time.”

Meanwhile, the good news is that kittiwakes had the best breeding season for over ten years with 44,000 pairs producing around 30,000 chicks.

With the forecast for record-breaking temperatures still in force for the Monday, and recommendations that people should stay indoors with the curtains shut where possible to keep the heat out and avoid heat-stroke, we had to consider our plans.  By leaving very early in the morning, we should get past the area predicted to be the hottest long before lunch, and probably get home by Monday evening.  And maybe there would still be an opportunity to stay out somewhere overnight near another nature reserve.

The hotelier agreed it was sensible, but no, they couldn’t do us breakfast THAT early – not that we had asked them to.  However, they had a portable fridge which we could have in our room, along with milk, yoghurt, fruit, cereal, etc. 


We started out about 6am, with guidance from the satnav on my phone rather than using the old unit which has a few quirks likely to send us off to parts unknown.  Things went smoothly for the first couple of hours, but then came a warning that there would be a delay of up to twenty minutes due to a vehicle fire on one section of motorway.  We found a different route through a town, feeling that keeping the car fan going on the move was better than sitting still in an oven.  The motorway was just clearing as we rejoined it.  The newscasts kept us up to date with the temperature situation, and we kept going (apart from a comfort stop) to the RSPB Burton Mere reserve on the west side of England.


RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands

Burton Mere was hot.  Very hot, and quite dry – though really we’d only seen it in early spring before.  We had a quick look around the visitor centre, then walked out to the Marsh Covert Hide.  Despite the 360 degree views from that hide, there was not much to see as the water levels were so low, but at least it was a chance to stretch our legs for half an hour.  There was no shade between here and the further hides, so we walked slowly back through the woodland to the visitor centre.

There was more water in the area in front of the visitor centre, so we sat there in the shade for a while and enjoyed a coffee and snack – they weren’t keeping much food in the shop because of the heat. Altogether, we had 33 species of birds – the last of them being something of a surprise. A huge skein of pink-footed geese flew in, calling as they swirled around and then landed in grassland some distance away. Surely these geese should not be arriving until September, at the earliest? But the staff said they had been around for the last few days.


Record temperatures in Wales

On through North Wales, and more warnings about the heat on the news.  The car’s AC hasn’t been working properly for a while now, so the best we managed was the ordinary fan on cold.  Better than nothing.  The west coast was supposed to be the coolest area, so we went that way.  The Craft Centre at Coris was open, and we managed to get a decent, but late, lunch there.  Further south, as we went through Bow Street the car thermometer was reading 36C – which is what we were hearing on the radio, and at the time it was said to be the highest temperature in Wales.  Later, when all the data had been looked at, apparently the hottest place in Wales – 37.1C – was at Hawarden which we passed soon after leaving Burton Mere.

There didn’t seem to be much point in stopping anywhere else en route. Another time, we would have added a couple more nights and a few more reserves into the itinerary.

It was a relief to get home with the car and our sanity intact.


Bookshop

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Sadly out of print, but worth looking out for – covers all the RSPB reserves at the time of publication

An interactive guide to use on an iPad on-site at Bempton – sounds interesting, but I haven’t seen it myself.

The standard guide to birdwatching places in Britain – there are some regional versions too.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


More places to go nature-watching in England

RSPB Pulborough Brooks

A visit to the RSPB Pulborough Brooks Reserve in Sussex, England, is about far more than birds.


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Photo of Laguna Gallocanta

Eurasian Cranes at the Laguna Gallocanta

At around 1,500ha, the Laguna Gallocanta is the largest natural lake in Spain.

Its other main claim to fame is that it is the major staging post for Eurasian cranes migrating between their wintering grounds in southern Spain, and their breeding grounds in northern Europe. 

The cranes arrive in November, with several thousand staying through the winter. The greatest spectacle is at the end of February, when they are heading north again.

About the lake

Laguna Gallocanta is situated at 1000m on a high plain in north-eastern Spain, meaning that temperatures can be bitterly cold in winter, and blisteringly hot in summer. Spring doesn’t seem to arrive until June, or so I was told on a cold windy day in April 1989. I certainly didn’t expect to visit again any earlier month of the year. However, there were no cranes on that first visit, and it is the cranes that bring people to the laguna in February and November. Some cranes remain for the winter, but most move on to Extremadura. 

The laguna lies in a tectonic depression. It is fed mainly by rainwater, and there is no outflow. Thus, the lake levels and extent vary by year as well as by season depending on rainfall. In a good year, the laguna covers some 1500ha ( sq miles). In some years the water level is below ground and the lake bed remains dry for months. However, there are some freshwater springs that allow localised growth of Phragmites reeds, reedmace and other freshwater plants.  Yet it is still the most important saline lake in Western Europe, and is well-studied by students from various Spanish universities.

About the birds

The Laguna Gallocanta has long been known as a fantastic place for wintering birds – though the numbers depend on the severity of the winter in northern Europe, and on the level of water in the lake. The name Gallocanta can be translated as Chicken/Bird Song, though whether that refers to the trumpeting of the cranes in winter or the songs of other birds in spring is anybody’s guess.

Eurasian Cranes are large birds, with males standing up to 1.3m (4ft) tall and with a 2.4m wingspan – females are usually a bit smaller. That should make them easy to see, but their basically grey colour means they blend well with the background, and at a distance they often look like rocks strewn across the fields.

February 18-20th 2015 were calm days following frosty nights. Some 30,000 cranes were already trying to move north, although snow-storms over the Pyrenees were forcing many to stay in Spain. During the following few days, the numbers at the laguna increased, as more and more arrived from the south-west and had to wait for a break in the weather. 

The photo below was taken on the evening of the 23rd. It is impossible to show the sheer numbers involved – this is just a small section of the lake near Gallocanta village. 

The cranes are counted weekly during the migration period. Antonio Torrijo from the Association of Friends of Gallocanta, and José Antonio Román who coordinates the crane censuses in Spain, took out a team of six for the counts. The area is divided between them, and each person counts from a set vantage point. In the late afternoon, they count the birds already on the ground, and then at dusk, they count the birds coming in to roost. 

Some 82,906 cranes were counted on the 24th. But the weather held up migration for another few days, so the total was estimated at 110,000 by the weekend when the wind dropped and most were able to move on.

Of course, there are other species on the lake – up to 3000 gadwall, 80,000 common pochard, and 40,000 common coot, and smaller numbers of other species. We saw 82 species altogether, including raptors such as northern harriers, golden eagle and short-eared owls, and small birds like Calandra Lark, Rock Sparrow and Theckla Lark. Amazingly, I also saw 82 species on my brief visit in April 1989, with about 40 of them seen both times. 220 species have been recorded over the years, and 90 of these breed here.

We stayed at the Auberge Allucant from the 18th – 28th, walking down to the lake shore nearest the village, or driving around the lake (about 35km), stopping at various viewing points, walking along the Camino del Cid, and one day driving just a bit further afield.


A day in the freezer

Javier, who runs Allucant, told us there were hides that would get us really close to the birds, and he arranged for us to get a permit and a key from the offices in one of the nearby villages. We had to be in the hide half an hour before dawn, and couldn’t leave until it was dark in the evening. So two of us, in a small square box, camera lenses pointing out the ‘windows’, wrapped up for the Arctic but still getting colder and colder – there was a sleet shower in the afternoon – sat it out for 12 hours. Was it worth it? Definitely YES. Would we do it again? Well . . . maybe . . . . .

Ghostly shapes in the half-light – Cranes roost at the lake margins and in the shallow water. They leave before sunrise, heading for feeding areas within a few kilometres of the lake.

As the light improves, wave after wave of cranes leave the laguna, but somehow there are still a few left as the sun begins to warm the land.

For a while, the lagoon is quiet, but at around mid-morning the birds begin to return.

Now the birds spend their time preening and socialising, sometimes feeding, and sometimes roosting. The way to get yourself noticed is to shout – and they do. Cranes are 1m – 1.3m tall (3-4 feet) and have a voice to match. The males are bigger than the females, and most of the squabbling seemed to be amongst the males.

Another way to get noticed, by humans at least, is to wear leg rings. Only a small proportion are ringed at the nest each year, and a few are fitted with radio-transmitters too. This particular bird (and one of the others that we saw) was ringed in Brandenburg, Germany, in 2006. A third bird was ringed in Germany in 2003, and this was the first time it had been recorded in Spain. Reporting colour-ringed birds provides so much more information, both for the researchers and for the observer.

It’s not yet the breeding season, but the activity swings between frustration (top photo shown by picking up things and throwing them) and mild aggression. They stick in tight family groups, sometimes with a youngster from last year AND the previous year in tow. But by now, the older youngsters – teenagers perhaps – are mostly in groups of their own age. The adults pair for life, but the pair bonds are renewed by dancing and marching displays when they get closer to the breeding grounds. In adults, the eye colour varies, as does the extent of the red patch on the head. Neither is correlated with age, sex or season. However, as their threat displays involved showing off the red patch, it may be linked with dominance.

The weather was cold but mostly dry. However, the cold brought sleet showers, and the cranes had to put up with it. This weather extended to the Pyrenees, forcing the birds to postpone the next stage of their migration. When the sleet stopped in the late afternoon, many headed out to the fields to feed again. They returned at dusk to roost.

In the late afternoon, many of the birds head out to the fields to feed again. They return at dusk to roost. Inevitably there is some conflict between farmers and birds, but an agreement has been drawn up to provide compensation if crops are damaged.

The last day

February 28th the wind dropped from force 4 to force 2, and the birds could finally move on. Throughout the morning, the excitement of the cranes was palpable – the sound was deafening and it was hard not to be excited with them. They rose in great flocks, circling to gain height. There was still enough wind to push them back southwards, and some returned to the lake. But the majority rest moved northwards.

As we drove to Zaragoza airport, we passed under huge skeins of them. If they encountered a thermal, they made use of it to gain extra height. They will fly at 40-50 kph in calm conditions, covering 300-500km in a day as they return to northern and eastern Europe to breed.

The website GrusExtremadura provides up-to-date counts and maps showing the progression of the migration.


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Facilities

A rough road circumnavigates the laguna, and is clearly signposted to keep tourists on track. Access is prohibited on other tracks through the farmland. The whole route is approximately 35km, with access points near the villages of Gallocanta, Tornos, Bello and Las Cuerlas. 

The Camino del Cid is a hiking route which passes along part of the above track. 

Two high observation platforms are accessible from the track. These provide a good view across the lake and fields, but may not get you close to the cranes – that depends on where they are feeding. 

The stone observation hides at los Ojos, la Ermita and at los Aguanares also provide some protection from the weather. 

The new interpretive centre (right) is more to do with local cultural history, but contains a collection of stuffed birds (these were previously housed in a small museum in the village). Glass walls provide a panoramic view. Entry is quite cheap. 

Another, smaller, information centre at the south end of the lake has more information about the wildlife, and the cranes in particular. 

Five photographic hides provide opportunities for close-up photography. They are administered by the local office in Bello, and there is a charge of 20 euros per day. However, it is a requirement that you enter the hide before sunrise, and do not leave until after sunset. 

There are limited accommodation and restaurant facilities in the nearby villages of Gallocanta, Berrueco, Tornos, Bello, and Las Cuerlas. We stayed at the Albergue Allucant in Gallocanta village, and can happily recommend it as providing good basic accommodation and excellent meals at a very reasonable price.  It can be quite busy, especially at weekends during the crane migration periods, and early booking is recommended. Not all rooms have en-suite facilities, but there are beds (and bunks) for up to 54 guests. 

Allucant boasts a good library of bird and wildlife books in a variety of languages. It provides a focus for birding activities in the area. The staff were very helpful, especially with regard to getting the permit for using one of the photographic hides. Muchas gracias, Señores, for giving us a good time.


How to get there

There is little in the way of public transport access to Gallocanta and the surrounding villages. Most routes suggested on Rome2Rio end with a taxi.

We flew to Zaragoza airport, picked up a hire car, and found it was a relatively easy journey not having driven on the right (wrong for us) side of the road for some years.

Once in Gallocanta or any of the other nearby villages, you can walk to the nearest bit of lake shore and surrounding countryside, but you really do need a car, or at least a bike, to see the place properly. And in winter, we were especially appreciative of the car for shelter from the weather.

Some nature tour companies (eg NatureTrek) do include a day or two in the area as part of a longer winter trip in north-east Spain, often combining it with looking for birds in the Spanish Pyrenees to the north.

More information at Wildside Holidays – walking and wildlife holidays in Spain


More winter nature-watching in Spain

Photo of Rocina Marshes

Doñana National Park

How to get the most out of a visit to the Doñana National Park. My recommendations after several visits.

Photo of spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain. Here’s how to make the best of a visit.


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photo of a puffin in flight

Skomer Seabird Spectacular cruise

Landing on Skomer for the day (or longer) is only half the story. Yes, you get close to puffins, and you can spend all day watching them. But there is so much more to see and learn.

Several times a week, from May to July, an evening boat trip takes you to see the island, and its birds. More importantly, it takes you to see the Manx Shearwater, the most numerous bird breeding on Skomer and the one you don’t see when visiting Skomer during the day.

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The Dale Princess leaves Martin’s Haven at 7pm, with up to 30 passengers, a guide, and two crew.   A crew member gives a safety briefing as we leave the jetty – ending with ‘your emergency exits are  . . . . . ‘ as he points in all directions except down.  We pass Marloes Deer Park – a promontory walled off in the 18th century in anticipation of keeping deer there, but the deer never arrived.  The National Trust look after it now, managing the grazing to provide short turf for chough to probe into for leather-jackets and other mini-beasts.

photo of an island
Jack Sound and Skomer Island from Marloes Deer Park.

Beyond the Deer Park, the water opens out.  To the south is Jack Sound, a fast-flowing channel of water with rocks sticking out at low tide.  Many a boat has foundered here in the past.  A ridge of rock underwater causes quite a lot of rough water when the tide is running. 

Photo of a shag and a cormorant
Shag and cormorant in breeding plumage (the size difference is exaggerated in this photo)

Cormorants sit on the rocks, and ‘holding their wings out to dry’ – not so much their wings as their body feathers which aren’t very waterproof, and need to dry between fishing trips just to keep the birds warm.  If having non-waterproof feathers seems odd for a waterbird, it actually means they don’t keep so much air in their feathers when they dive, they aren’t so buoyant, so making it easier stay underwater to chase fish. The disadvantage is that they get waterlogged and cold after about 15 minutes.  Someone asks about the difference between cormorants and shags – shags are smaller, sleeker, blacker, narrower bill, and no pale patch on the throat (though young birds are paler on the underside, and a bit more difficult to separate without a good view).

Razorbills and a guillemot

Now we are seeing auks as well.  Puffins, razorbills and guillemots sit on the water or fly past, often coming in low and close.  The differences are obvious in close-up – puffins with their multi-coloured bill and orange feet, razorbills are black and white with a large beak the shape of an old-fashioned cut-throat razor, while guillemots are brown and white with pointed bills.  Questions come non-stop from the passengers, and they learn that seabirds are long-lived – thirty or forty years or more, don’t breed until they are several years old, mate for life, and only have one egg per year.  But they might get divorced!  If they have a couple of failed breeding seasons, perhaps it’s better to try with a new partner next time.  Puffins breed in burrows, razorbills nest on small ledges and in rock crevices, while guillemots believe in safety in numbers, choosing ledges where they can mass in their hundreds. 

Kittiwakes on the water below a small cliff where they nest

We chug along the ‘Neck’, the bit of Skomer Island with no human interference, look through the Lantern – a cave that runs underneath the island and out the other side, then the boat slows so we can hear the kittiwakes calling – kitti-wa-ake – at a small colony low on the cliffs.  These small and pretty gulls are hanging on here, despite having virtually disappeared from the Pembrokeshire mainland, and from other colonies further north.

Sometimes this journey throws up a real gem, and back in 1996  the skipper saw a couple of fins in the water just about here.  We went to investigate, and realised it was a fifteen-foot basking shark – just a young one really – and we were looking at the back fin and tail fin, and the shadow of its body under the water.  The boat got quite close before the shark dived.  It came up again a few yards away, but soon went under again and disappeared.    Basking sharks often come up through the Irish Sea, but mostly they are on the Irish side.  Probably less than one a year is seen on the Welsh side, and this is the only one I saw in twenty years of guiding these trips.

Guillemots on the cliffs in North Haven

The Princess moves into North Haven and the skipper cuts the engine.  The silence is wonderful!  The steep grassy slopes are seabird cities.  Rock ledges crammed with guillemots. Thousands of burrows, each with a puffin standing outside.  Yet there are still enough puffins to form a flying wheel – they fly circuits, apparently each bird more or less level with its burrow, and all the time birds are joining the wheel while others drop out and head for their burrows.  Then you begin to realise it isn’t really silent.  Apart from the whirr of countless wings (beating up to ten times per second), there are growls of puffins, gargles from guillemots and razorbills, the raucous cries of gulls, and even the songs of wrens nesting in scrub on the cliffs. 

photo of a puffin carrying fish
Puffin carrying sand-eels back to the nest

The relative quiet makes it easier to talk about the history of this island, 2-5000 years of human occupation, and farming that continued until the early 20th century.  It has been a nature reserve since 1960, owned by the Natural Resources Wales (successor to the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Council for Wales), is managed by a committee that includes various local organisations, and is administered by the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales.

Grey seals jostle for position on a rock exposed at low tide

The boat engines start up again, and the journey continues along the north coast of the island, stopping at the Garland Stone so we can appreciate the grey seals – come August, they will start dropping their pups on the beaches here and about 250 will be born by the end of the year.  

Porpoises are relatively small and unobtrusive

If the seabirds haven’t been spectacular enough so far, the real adventure is about to begin.  The skipper steers away from Skomer, and out into the open sea of St Bride’s Bay.  We aren’t going far out – keeping well within sight of land.  But now is time to keep our eyes peeled.  There is a good chance of porpoises – small dolphins that don’t really show much of themselves except a fin as they surface to breathe.  And just maybe there will be a pod of common dolphins – more rarely something really special such as a bottlenose dolphin or even a Risso’s dolphin.  But what we are really here to see are the Manx shearwaters.

Manx shearwaters tend to fly low over the water surface

Manx shearwaters are medium-sized relatives of albatrosses, and the Pembrokeshire Islands (Skomer, Skokholm and Ramsey) are home to about 400,000 pairs, or about half of the known world population.  They are the most numerous bird species breeding on Skomer, but the chances of seeing one alive during the day are slim.  They are very clumsy on land, and in order to evade predators (large gulls mostly) they nest in burrows and come to land only at night when the gulls are asleep.  On most nights, a few birds get caught out at dusk or dawn, or by moonlight, and the island is littered with corpses, testimony to the success of the gulls.  The numbers killed are, however, a minute proportion of the total population.  So the best way to see them is on a boat trip like this in the evening when the birds come back from the feeding grounds and form vast ‘rafts’ floating on the water, waiting for it to get dark.  The Manx part of their name is because the first ones to be described scientifically were taken from the Calf of Man – a small seabird island on the southern tip of the Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea.  Few live there now, because that island became overrun with rats, which predate ground- and burrow-nesting birds.

Anyway, we start to see small parties of shearwaters on the water and the skipper steers towards them.  They are flighty at first, especially if the numbers are small.  On some trips we see only a few dozen, but on a good night, usually in June and July, there can be thousands, even tens of thousands.  One parent will be out on an extended fishing trip – perhaps for three or four days – before returning to the nest with food for the chick.  The other parent will be with the egg or the chick (at least for a few days after it hatches) and then will go on short fishing trips.  So on any night, up to a fifth of the population could be waiting to come ashore.

Manx shearwaters coming gathering just offshore, waiting for it to get dark

Although they are black and white, like many other seabirds, they are quite distinctive with their long straight wings, gliding over the water surface, taking lift from the slightest breeze and from air currents over the waves.  A flock seems to move as one all showing their black uppersides, then turning to show their white undersides, then back again.  They fly so low that their wing tips seem to touch (shear) the water surface. They flap only when they have to, and this energetically economical form of flying means they can cover vast distances quite rapidly with very little effort.

As the numbers build up, the birds fly close to the boat, even those on the sea may allow the boat to drift in closer.  Care is taken to avoid extra disturbance – this is an internationally important population of this species.  Having heard about the habits of these birds, the passengers start firing more questions -how long do they live (the oldest known individual was at least 55 when last seen), how far do they travel (down to the coast of Argentina), where else do they live (the Calf of Man, Rhum in the Scottish Hebrides, on some of the islands around the coast of Ireland, Iceland, and a few are even in the mountains on Madeira – see here for a full map. )  What do they eat (small fish, squid, other small sea creatures that they catch underwater having dived from the surface.)

How do they find their burrows in the dark?  Come to that, how do they find their island homes when out in the middle of the ocean?  Like any migrating birds, they seem to have a built-in compass, but also an acute sense of smell that picks up the scents on the air currents helping them home in on the colony.

During the day, the birds are pretty silent – we rarely hear anything from the boat – but as it gets dark, and they fly to their burrows, it gets very noisy.  They have a very raucous call (listen here), with a rhythm a bit like ‘a cup of caawwfeee’, which is individual to each bird.  We can tell the difference between male and female calls, but they can tell the difference between individuals.  So as they get closer to their burrows they are listening out for answering calls from their mates or chicks.  The noise is so incredible that the Vikings refused to land on some islands because they thought they must be haunted.

Are they affected by oil spills?  Now there is a question!  The last big oil spill here was the Sea Empress in 1996.  Fortunately for our seabirds, this spill happened in February, before the birds returned to islands to breed.  Otherwise, they would have been sitting ducks – floating on the surfaces amid the oil, diving down and coming up through it, feeding on fish that may have been affected – the oil would have destroyed the air-trapping features of the feathers, so the birds would have got cold and waterlogged and died – as nearly 5000 others did, birds (mainly common scoter) that were wintering in the area.

There are more general questions about the area, the island, and the seabirds.  Then one young lad put his hand up. When are we going back? There was a shocked silence at his temerity.  Fortunately, he could be reassured that we were already heading back to Martin’s Haven – the evening was getting decidedly chilly.  I welcome the short but steep walk back to the car park – a chance to get the body moving and warmed up after two hours of sitting still on the boat.

The Seabird Spectacular cruises can be booked on-line through Dale Sailing, and run several times a week (depending on suitable weather) from May to July. By the end of July, most of the puffins, razorbills and guillemots have gone out to sea for the winter.

In August and September, Dale Sailing run a different Pembrokeshire Islands Safari on a fast boat (protective clothing provided) that includes Grassholm Island where there are nearly 40,000 gannets nesting.

If you are staying in the St Davids area of Pembrokeshire, Thousand Islands also run similar seabird trips, though I have no experience of them.

The Dale Princess

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A must-have book if you are looking at sea-birds in general
Fascinating book, but a lot of research has been done since it was published
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I think I need to add this to my collection
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There is just SO MUCH information here, gathered by a former warden of the island.
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Life as a seasonal volunteer on the island.

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More ideas for nature-watching in Wales

Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.

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Brazo del Este Natural Area

The Brazo del Este is located 20 km south of Seville in the Guadalquivir river estuary.

This former branch (brazo) of the Guadalquivir lies to the east of the main river and is surrounded by rice plains and intensive farmland.

It is quite possible to see over 100 species during a one-day visit here.

I first came across the Brazo del Este by happy accident, trying to drive from Seville to San Lucar de Barrameda on the back roads, keeping close to the Guadalquivir and hoping the often unpaved roads wouldn’t come to a dead end. The intensively cultivated landscape changed suddenly to something more wild – reedbeds alongside a river that didn’t go in a straight line. And then a volume of birdsong that had been missing since we left the Doñana Natural Park early that morning. Not forgetting the occasional wide verge full of flowers and insects.


About the Brazo del Este

The Brazo del Este Natural Park starts 17km south of Seville, where there is a fork in the main channel of the Guadalquivir. The brazo twists and turns along 39km of meanders, rejoining the main channel some 16km further down. Somehow, this channel has survived the 100 years or so of human intervention, and become an exceptionally important wetland for birds.

It is at least as important as the Doñana National Park Natural Park on the other side of the Guadalquivir – indeed, it has the advantage that it does not dry out in summer, and so provides a refuge for birds trying to escape the summer drought. The abundance of ducks (pintail, mallard, shoveler, teal), birds of prey, various herons, egrets, a colony of white storks, as well as a variety of other birds has meant that it has been declared a Special Protection Area (SPA or ZEPA in Spanish).

The wetland vegetation is mainly made up of marsh-loving plants, with reedmace and giant reed Arundo donax lining the channels. Tamarisk is abundant in drier areas. There are few trees, with some isolated specimens of ash and white poplar in the last stretch of the channel. However, it is not all natural. Red eucalyptus was introduced from Australia as an ornamental garden species, it escaped and here it now grows in abundance along paths and several sections of the river – an invasive species that may be creating problems.


Best places for seeing . . . . .

It’s hard to mention best places – we drove around and there seemed to be something new around every corner. This was the end of March:

After some kilometres (from Seville) we came to an area of olive scrub on slightly elevated ground.   The rain stopped (more or less) and we stopped too, exchanging the sound of the engine for that of birdsong.  It took us a while to work out what was singing.  So many birds were singing that distinguishing a single song from all the others was difficult, but we eventually realised that they were mostly blackcaps.  Scores of them.  A few birds showed themselves, some looking decidedly wet and bedrag­gled while others were smart and dry. Serins, house sparrows and blackbirds tried to make them­selves heard above the blackcaps’ din.

photo of blackcap
Blackcap singing

Jim saw a cape hare on his side of the van, and a few minutes later there was one on my side too.  It looked us up and down, then disappeared into the scrub again.

Egrets flew over the road, along with white storks, black kites, and hoopoes.  There was a strong passage of hirundines and swifts.  Along the road were gold- and greenfinches, great tits, chiffchaffs and Sardinian warblers.  After lunch we heard our first cuckoo of the year, and a little owl crooned from somewhere close by.

In places, the roadside verge was a ten-metre wide carpet of wild-flowers: asphodel, French lavender, broom, yellow crucifers, masses of pink Mediterranean catchfly, poppy, ramping fumitory, purple viper’s bugloss, bugle, weasel’s snout, Barbary nut and chives, to name but a few. Here and there I found small patches of ‘insect’ orchids; they did not correspond exactly with anything in the book, though the nearest seemed to be the early spider orchid.

A blue butterfly rested on a lavender stem, sheltering from the weather.  It walked onto my finger ‑ presumably attracted by the warmth.  We compared it closely with the diagrams in the butterfly book.  The blue-grey underwings, with black spots rimmed with white. Then it opened the wings to show brilliant blue colouring with prominent white veins on the forewing and a black margin.  The body was also blue and hairy.  Having warmed itself suffic­iently the butterfly flew off along the road.  It was a black‑eyed blue, which should not have been on the wing until April.

There were more stunning invertebrates to come, firstly a huge brown slug clambering along thistle leaves – slugs might not appeal to everyone, but this one’s size was impressive. I have no idea what kind it is, though.

Then an oil (blister) beetle with a massive body about 50mm long ‑ all black but with red between the abdominal segments ‑ and small wing‑buds (they are flightless).  The insect book did not show enough examples to identify the species so ID had to wait – in fact it had to wait several years, but this has now been identified as the red-striped oil beetleBerberomeloe majalis. The female oil beetle needs this large abdomen to produce vast numbers – up to 10,000 – eggs, and it is a wonder that any larvae ever get to adulthood as most of them fail to reach maturity either for lack of food or through predation. The larvae are only about 3mm long, and their development proceeds through hypermetamorphosis – a process in which the larval stages are of different forms. Unlike the larvae of oil beetles of the genus Meloe that we have in Britain, the first stage larva has to actively seek out a suitable solitary bee host. Once the larva has consumed the egg and then the stored nectar and pollen from a bee’s nest, they leave it. They then moult again, and emerge with their back legs formed. From this stage they pupate, and emerge from the chrysalis as adults. If a larva accidentally selects the wrong type of bee as host, it will die.

But it was the water birds that dominated.

Purple Heron

The road continued through the Isla Menor agricultural desert.  The marshes shown on the map had been turned into arable fields with only a handful of small wet areas remaining.  Neverthe­less they did contain coot, moorhen, little grebes, grey, purple and squacco herons, marsh harriers, black kites, mallard, cattle and little egrets, snipe, Savi’s and fan‑tailed warblers, and red-crested pochard.  Purple gallinules honked from the reeds.

photo of bird on water
Little Grebe in breeding plumage

In May, the migrants have arrived mostly settled down, and you can expect to add collared pratincole, black, whiskered, gull-billed and Capsian terns, as well as a variety of ducks, waders, little bitterns, spoonbills, booted eagles, hoopoes, and more warblers.

Summer and autumn brings a greater variety as birds breeding in the Arctic begin to migrate south again – those that failed at nesting will be the first to arrive. In winter add greylag goose and marbled duck, little crake, bluethroats and a whole lot more.


So there you have it

If you’re staying anywhere between Malaga and Gibraltar, and don’t have time to visit the Doñana National Park, then this is the next best thing. Take a GPS/SatNav – they didn’t exist when I first visited, so we had to hope that we were actually using the roads that we thought we were.

The heronries – I missed the heron roosts because I didn’t know they were there, never mind exactly where they were. Where to Watch Birds in Southern and Western Spain has the details.

Other species to look out for include purple and squacco herons, black stork, glossy ibis, marbled teal, purple swamphen, penduline tit, bluethroat, Spanish sparrow

The butterflies and flowers change too, with the seasons, so there is always something of interest.


Resources

Websites

Andalucia tourism website

Andalucia.com – tourism site, links to accommodation

Discovering Donana website – for information, local guides, etc.

Videos

Views of the area and its birds
Good views of the habitats. People talking in Spanish about the area.
The birds speak for themselves – with music.

Getting there

Public transport – not easy. There is a bus service between Seville and Cadiz, with the nearest towns en route being Los Palacios y Villafranca and Las Cabezas de San Juan from where it is a long hike, or a taxi ride.

According to the Discovering Donana websiteThe main dirt road that cuts the Brazo and the old Carretera del Práctico (Coast Pilot Road), which runs along the Guadalquivir River, are the main access points, but to these must be added an intricate network of secondary roads and channels that make navigation difficult in the area, hence the usefulness of a local guide – and, obviously, they would prefer you to use one of theirs.


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Winter birds on the Gulf of Morbihan

The ‘Mor-Bihan’ – which means ‘little sea’ in Breton – lies on the southern coast of Brittany.

The ‘Golfe du Morbihan’ comprises 12,000 hectares of the Atlantic enclosed by land except for a 1km wide bottleneck, through which the tide comes and goes. 

Due to its location along the Atlantic coast flyway, and its high diversity of wetlands, the Gulf of Morbihan is one of 20 major sites for waterbirds in France

About the Gulf

The term ‘gulf’ was traditionally used for large highly-indented navigable bodies of saltwater that are enclosed by the coastline. So basically, a gulf is a large inlet from the ocean into a landmass, typically with a narrow opening to the sea – which is what the Morbihan is. However, the name Morbihan is given to the département, and so the embayment is referred to as the Golfe du Morbihan.

The Mor-Bihan was filled by Atlantic waters several thousand years ago, when the rising sea-levels (after the last Ice Age) flooded the existing river valleys. The result was a huge shallow pan of water, with some 500km of coastline and around 60 islands which vary in size from rocky islets to large enough to support whole villages. 

Over time, the Gulf developed a range of natural habitats and rich biodiversity. It is a designated Natura 2000 area and is also protected by various international and national regulations including Ramsar (for the protection of wetlands), decrees on biotope protection, and its designated statuses as a natural reserve, protected area and national heritage site. Processes are now underway to declare the area a Regional Natural Park. 

The area around the Gulf of Morbihan is densely inhabited with 230 inhabitants per km² which is twice the national average. Yet the natural beauty and tranquillity of the Gulf attract two million visitors each year, making tourism is the main economic activity. Other major economic activities include oyster farming (with 1,600 hectares given over to this activity) fishing, and agriculture (in decline). The area around the gulf is home to an extraordinary range of megalithic monuments. The best-known is Carnac, where the remains of a dozen rows of huge standing stones can be followed for over 10km. The passage tomb of Gavrinis, on a small island, is one of the most important such sites in Europe. There is more information on the tourist website for the area

In the Gulf itself, Huge areas of mudflats are exposed at low tide and there are saltmarshes and numerous islands, channels and lagoons as well as arable farmland, shingle beaches and rocky shores nearby. This makes it an extremely important stopover and wintering area for waders and waterfowl, with tens of thousands of birds present from Autumn to spring.

Winter Birds

Morbihan is the principal French haunt of dark-bellied brent geese from Siberia – some 20,000 over-winter here. 

From October to March, it also supports high numbers of Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Common Teal as well as Common Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye. 

Waders include most of the regular species of north-western Europe and other species found here in winter include Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe and around 1000 Black-necked Grebe. 

By summer, most birds have left for their northern breeding grounds, but a few remain to breed. These include Little Egret, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet and Marsh Harrier while Eurasian Spoonbill occurs regularly in some numbers during both passage periods. A passerine speciality of Morbihan is Bluethroat which breeds at the Reserve Naturelle de Sene near Vannes and can also be found at the Marais de Suscinio to the south of Sarzeau. 

The land surrounding the Golfe has extensive pinewoods with a good range of bird species including Black Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and various warblers. 

The site regularly exceeds the threshold of 20,000 birds counted simultaneously during the winter (October to February). This makes it of International Importance for its bird populations. However, the total number of migratory and wintering birds (waterfowl and shorebirds) is between 50,000 and 100,000 individuals

Dunlin

Maximum counts for winter 2011-12 (the most recent figures I can find on-line)

  • Pintail 1285
  • Brent Goose 16,594 (20-yr average 20,000)
  • Shelduck 4249
  • Shoveler 669
  • Wigeon 5395
  • Merganser 1231
  • Pochard 53 (20-yr average 664)
  • Black-necked grebe 938
  • Spoonbill 50 passage
  • Avocet 1400
  • Lapwing 5441
  • Ringed Plover 839
  • Grey plover 1784
  • Black-tailed godwit 3660
  • Curlew 710
  • Spotted redshank 104
  • Redshank 1500 passage 463 winter
  • Dunlin 20305
  • Turnstone 238 (20yr average 91) 

Morbihan is also important for its breeding birds: 

  • Lesser black-back gull 400 pairs
  • Common tern 100 pairs
  • Avocet 150 pairs
  • Marsh harrier 6 pairs
  • Oystercatcher 50 pairs
  • Little Egret 100 pairs
Redshank

Bird-watching places around the Morbihan

We camped overnight at Kerhillion Plage, and did some early morning sea-watching, then wandered around the area for a while before moving east to the Morbihan itself.

The place is huge, by the time you’ve added the marshes, sand dunes, salt pans and islands to the sea area, you are talking about some 23 square kilometres (8 square miles). Then the indentations of the coastline plus the narrow roads mean that you can’t really race around it in a day. If, like us, you enjoy watching birds, rather than just ticking them off a list, then you need several days. And if it is sunny, then you have to take that into account, as the low winter sun bouncing off the water isn’t pleasant. Oh, and don’t forget the tide. When it is out, there isn’t much to see on the mudflats unless you have a telescope

Toulvern: a wooded peninsula in the north-west corner of the Morbihan, with the Etang de Toulveryn on one side, and more tidal flats on the other. Lots of access points and a seafood restaurant at the end. Coots, teal, shoveler, mallard, shelduck, grebes, and spoonbills can all be seen here – and a telescope is useful. 

Le Marais de Pen in Toul: a mix of salt- and freshwater habitats, this is the largest marsh in the west of the Morbihan. It has been protected since the late 1990s. There is a useful viewing platform located on a water tower, overlooking the marshes, and a walking route of about 3.5km. The area is freely accessible all year round. 

Ile de Berder: from a small parking area close to the island, it is possible to observe Roseate Terns, especially in September and October – but they were long gone by our visit in late November. The terns often land on the oyster barges that are in the cove. Also good for goldeneye and red-breasted merganser who regularly feed on the plentiful oyster beds here.  You can cross to the island, but the road is submerged at high tide (so we gave it a miss because of not knowing the tide times).

Pond Pump: at Le Moustoir along the D316 which connects Larmor-Baden in Arradon. Gulls and plovers especially gather on the edge of this private pond – but be aware of the heavy and fast road traffic (we didn’t stay there for long) – though there is now a cafe – La Chaumière de Pomper – nearby that might provide a parking place if you eat there, and also the old mill – Le Moulin de Pomper that has been turned into an antiques shop. 

The banks of Vincin: sandwiched between the suburbs of Vannes and the muddy shores of the Riviere duVincin this is easily accessible by coast path (wheelchair-friendly) from the town, or from the le Conleau campsite, or the best Western hotel on the Lily de Conleau. Going east from any of these takes you past the golf course to the Pointe des Emigres. It can be disappointing when the tide is out, but it is home to large numbers of ducks, such as mallard, teal and shelduck.

Shelduck feeding as the tide rises

Séné Marshes

From Vannes, go south on the D199 to the village of Séné. From there, the reserve is signposted. The entrance fee is about €5 and that gives access to the visitor centre, two footpaths, five hides, information from ornithological guides, and the chance to watch a film about the reserve.  However, the reserve centre is closed from mid-September to the end of January so during this time you’re limited to a free access trail in one part of the reserve.

The reserve covers 410 hectares, and is located on the river Noyalo. It was declared by Ministerial Decree of 23 August 1996. It comprises a section of the estuary with mudflats bordered by vast salt marshes, tidal creeks, channels and ponds. These marshes are in fairly good condition, some being replaced by areas of wet meadows, hedgerows and fallow land. 

Some 220 species of birds have been observed on this reserve, including the 76 that nest there regularly. It is a migratory stop-over used by almost all shorebird and wildfowl species regularly seen in Western Europe. It is also a haven for amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies, butterflies and a quarter of the plant species found in Brittany have been recorded here.

The reserve website (in French, but google did a reasonable translation to English) includes a library of videos about the marshes

Wigeon and other winter waterbirds

Noyalo bridge: On the opposite of the Chanel de Saint-Leonard is the village of Noyalo. There are a few places where you can stop along the D780, and the bridge at Noyalo proved interesting even though the tide was still low – shelduck, avocets and curlews, various gulls, several marsh harriers, egrets, etc.

At le Hézo people seemed keen to point us in the right direction to see birds, although it wasn’t until the tide was coming in that we fully appreciated the place. The road runs alongside the mudflats near the old mill – the Moulin à marées du Hézo – and there is a footpath from the parking area there, and another along the old saltpans just to the south. We watched waders pushed along in front of the rising tide, looking like a necklace along the water-line at dusk. As with many of the large semi-enclosed embayments, the high tide seems to last a long time. The next morning (obviously it had been out again during the night) we had to wait for it to go down a bit before we could walk the shore behind the houses. Here we found large numbers of the Brent Geese that the area is known for, and amongst them was a black brant – the Canadian sub-species rarely seen in Europe.

Lasné Marsh is just south of le Hezo, and can be partially circumnavigated by following the coastal path. Part of it is a quiet zone, closed to the public. Avocets and terns are very easy to observe during the breeding season at Saint-Armel. In addition, the coastal path opens directly onto the mudflat east of Tascon, which hosts one of the largest concentrations of birds wintering in the Gulf of Morbihan. Then there is another marshy area between Lasne and Saint-Colombier

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The Reserve of the Pointe du Duer is just south of Saint-Colombier.  Old salt pans dating from the 15th century and in use until the 1950s are now managed to provide safe roosting places for wading birds in winter and on migration. In spring and summer black-winged stilt, common tern and shelduck breed here. Two hides and a small pine plantation provide shelter, and various pathways leading to them. The footpaths are laid out to allow access without disturbing the birds. Again, large numbers of birds can be seen from the tower hide, especially at high tide.  Some 160 species have been recorded here, including resident black woodpeckers and crested tits.

If you continue along the southern edge of the Morbihan, you find more places to watch birds on the mudflats – for example the Rue du Pont du Lindin is recommended for a variety of waders including grey plover, and from the Port du Logeo you can see groups of red-breasted mergansers and black-necked grebe (especially in January and February) – though a telescope is recommended. 

The marshes of the Château de Suscinio are near Sarzeau on the south side. Just follow signs towards the castle. Once there, turn right towards the sea and park your vehicle in the car park. The marshes spread along several hundred meters in both directions and are very attractive to birds which can be observed from close-by, especially in the morning. 


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Other places to go bird-watching in winter

Photo of Laguna Gallocanta

Eurasian Cranes at the Laguna Gallocanta

The Laguna Gallocanta near Zaragoza in north-eastern Spain provides an incredible spectacle in late February as thousands of cranes stop by on the way to northern European breeding grounds.

Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

Some 70,000 water birds spend their winter on the Tejo estuary near Lisbon in Portugal. That can mean some serious birdwatching there.

The Lauwersmeer in winter

The Lauwersmeer National Park, in the northern part of the Netherlands, provides a fantastic winter feeding ground for geese and other birds that breed further north.

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.

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Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

The Rio Tejo (Spanish Rio Tagus) rises at the Fuente de Garcia in Teruel province, Aragon, Spain, flows 1038km (645 miles) across the Iberian peninsula to reach the Atlantic at Lisbon, Portugal. Its course has been dammed in several places for irrigation and water supplies. Just above Lisbon are the plains of Leziria, where the estuary itself has been drained, irrigated and planted on a huge scale.

To get to the estuary from the north, you drive along a broad dirt track. It seems unnecessarily wide, until you meet a tractor the size of a house trundling along it. The intensively cultivated fields eventually give way to pasture, grazed by the famous bulls used in bullfights. And at last, you reach the muddy creeks and channels of what is left of the estuary.

But the journey is worth the effort. This is the largest estuary in Western Europe, holding 54% of Portugal’s wintering waders, 30% of its wintering waterfowl, and 4% of its wintering herons. There are regularly over 50,000 birds in winter, and double that during the migration seasons.

About the Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve

Despite the 20,000ha of reclaimed land, the estuary upstream of Lisbon is still a vast intertidal zone of mudflats, bordered by 2,800 ha of saltmarsh (the largest in Portugal), saline marshlands, mudflats, shallow lagoons. Beyond this is a hinterland of dry grassland, cornfields, rice fields, stone pine and cork oak woodland. To the east some of this polder landscape has been somewhat modified by industrial and military installations which pose a serious threat of pollution, but the estuary is still frequented in winter and migration time by over 70,000 waders including 15% of western Europe’s wintering avocet, plus dunlin and curlew and several thousand duck.

Some 22,850 ha of the saltmarsh, mudflats and islands are included in a Reserva Natural, which was established in 1976 and covers an area of over 14,000 ha. Shooting and other forms of exploitation, except fishing, are forbidden. Access to the reserve for visitors is by road to perimeter then by footpath to points of interest, however, there is no entry to three strict nature reserves Reserva Integral areas that are left for nature to get on with its own business and even scientists are allowed in only to monitor the situation.

The protected area extends from 10m below sea level to 11m above, and is important for marine life such as fish, molluscs, crustaceans, etc, as well as birds.

Fortunately, the powers that be have recognised the value of the estuary:

  • 1976 – creation of the Natural Reserve of the Tagus Estuary
  • 1980 – declared a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention
  • 1994 – established as a Special Protection Area for Wild Birds, under EEC directive 79/409
Young bulls, reared for bullfighting, graze the pastures.

Through the farmland

There were larks, finches and linnets in good-sized flocks, plenty of house sparrows and thousands of common starlings. Snowstorms of gulls followed tractors in the distance. Half a dozen little egrets flew out of a ditch as we approached and joined others in the fields together with lapwing, golden plover and godwit. Three cattle egrets stalked through another field, occasionally one stopped to stir up invertebrates with its foot, the way little egrets do in water. These birds have a peculiar rolling, goose like gait which distinguishes them from little egrets even at some distance.

A great grey shrike (below) hunted from the tops of weed stalks in a dry pasture, and a crested lark called.

January 5th, 1989

It was in the middle of nowhere with not a soul in sight. At about six-thirty yesterday evening a police vehicle pulled up; no questions asked but we could stay there for one night only. No problem.

At some time in the small hours, there was a banging on the camper door. It was the police again, the night shift wanted to know what we were doing. The guy with the torch asked if we spoke French, and his face fell when I said no (not at that time of night anyway!). We showed him our passports and the bird book, saying that we were looking for ‘aves’.

This morning I checked in the phrasebook that I had the right word for birds, only to find that birds are ‘pajaros’ and ‘aves’ are chickens. The police must have had a good laugh at us, looking for chickens out here. But we were told later that aves is the scientific term for birds, so perhaps we impressed them instead.

There was a drug-smuggling problem around Lisbon, and our stopping place for the night was at the end of the Tagus Estuary where a small boat could have brought in contraband. Thus the police probably made a point of checking the area regularly.

Some of the birds

Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta

An elegant wader found in the intertidal areas and salt pans. It is most active at dawn and dusk, and also feeds by moonlight on insects and small crustaceans. It sweeps its up-curved bill through the water and mud, finding prey by touch. Seen mostly on migration and during winter, but also occasionally nests on the reserve. Wintering birds come from the Waddenzee area, and the Tejo estuary holds about 15% of the population that winters on the western European coast.

Black-Winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus

Found in saline lagoons and other wetlands, where its long legs enable it to feed in deeper water than other waders. It preys on floating or underwater animals such as tadpoles, water bugs, beetles and fly larvae. It is a common nesting species here, with some individuals staying over winter, however, most spend the winter in Africa.

Cattle Egret  Bubulcus ibis

In one field there were some cows with very young calves, and also a number of cattle egrets hunched up against early morning mist. The egrets have a heavy-jowled, grouchy appearance that is matched by their complaining voice and reluctance to ‘get out of bed’ at a decent hour. One calf, only a day or so old and not quite sure how far its nose was in front of its eyes, found itself surrounded by egrets.

The calf tentatively tried to find its way out of the circle but always found its way blocked. It approached one egret, which shuffled off and made the calf jump. It approached another, which waved its beak threateningly and again the calf backed off. After several minutes, in sheer desperation (and probably with its eyes closed) it charged back to mum, scattering the egrets faster than they wanted to go.

Another calf, a day or two older and by now an old hand, charged around threatening a few birds which shuffled out of the way in disgust at the disturbance.

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Found mainly in intertidal areas where it feeds on invertebrates on the mud near the mud surface as the tide recedes. At high tide it roosts in salt pans or marsh-side banks. Common passage migrant, and winter visitor with over 1% of the western European population in some winters.

Redshank Tringa totanus

Found in intertidal zones with thin sediments, salt pans and waterlogged agricultural land. Also known as the sentinel of the marshes, this species is always on the lookout for danger, and noisily proclaims it. Usually feeds in loose flocks. Common winter visitor, with about 2% of the European wintering population on the estuary. Also seen on migration, and has nested occasionally.

Wigeon Anas Penelope

Found in intertidal areas, in the shallow waters of the Estuary and in Saragoça salt pan. Flocks lift off almost vertically and land again as one. Feeds on vegetation, both submerged and on the surface. Common winter visitor with about 1% of the European population recorded here.

Shoveler Anas clypeata

It is very active at night, sifting the upper layers of water and mud for freshwater fleas, mosquito larvae, and other invertebrates through the beak. Common winter visitor, with about 2.3% of the European population recorded here.

Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus

Male marsh harrier

Hunts over shallow, fresh or brackish waters, where there is emergent aquatic vegetation, and also over dense marshes. Spends the night on the ground or in marshes. Individuals spend the night in regularly-used roosts, which are located in marshes and reed beds. Nesting resident. Not common, but the reserve seems to support 40 to 50% of the national breeding population.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed godwits winter here in their thousands. Most of the birds breed in Iceland. They like to feed on invertebrates living in soft mud. So as well as the estuarine mudflats, you can find them on the rice fields. Their distribution depends on the timing of rice cropping, which in turn depends on the rainfall.

The Giganta rice paddies , located about 4 km southwest of Porto Alto, extend for several kilometres and are an excellent place to see birds at all times of the year;  In autumn and winter, when the area is covered with stubble flooded, the land is frequented by flocks of lapwing and, snipe as well as the black-tailed godwits. Occasionally flocks of flamingos appear here too.

EVOA

Espaço de Visitação e Observação de Aves (Bird Observation and Visitation Space)

These days, there is a delight at the end of the long road. The Tagus Estuary Bird-watching and Conservation Area provides a facility to attract birds to lagoons and scrapes in front of a visitor centre and a series of hides. There are a shop, café, exhibition centre, classroom, guided tours, and other activities on site.

The site opened in 2012, after my last visit to the area. Most reviews of the place are good.  Experienced birdwatchers have told me the birds are wonderful, but the guided tours etc are a disappointment.  But, as with most places trying to attract customers, the tours etc are designed for the general public and for educational needs, so that needs to be borne in mind.

The EVOA website is being updated and expanded, but offers plenty of information about the tours etc. in Portuguese, English and French, and also a calendar of what birds you are likely to see in each month. Make sure you choose the language from the menu bar, or you get some very strange google translations of bird names.

Visitor centre and lagoons at EVOA (c) EVOA

Getting there

If have a car, access is from the N10, across the river from Vila Franco de Zira. EVOA is signposted. Some of the dirt roads are accessible if your vehicle has reasonably good ground clearance. Other areas are gated off, but you can buy a pass that allows access. There is more information about access and a map on the Portuguese Birdwatching site If you have a car, you can take your time, drive slowly and stop almost anywhere to look at birds. But don’t forget those huge tractors and whatever huge farm machinery they may be pulling.

If you are staying in Lisbon, you can get to Vila Franco de Zira by train, but will need a taxi from there. Probably the best way to see the area is by using a local bird-guide – several are listed on Birding Pals.

Bookshop

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Pin for later

More nature-watching in Portugal

Watching Wolves in Europe

A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.

Parque Natural do Alvão

The Parque Natural do Alvão in the north-east of Portugal has Medieval villages, traditional farming, and a wealth of nature. Even through the mist, there was plenty of interest for a day out.

Birdwatching in Hungary in Spring-Summer

Why Hungary?

With a scenic landscape of wooded hills and endless flat plains, dotted with reed-fringed lakes and cut by the mighty Danube River, it is not surprising to find that Hungary is one of Europe’s best wildlife destinations.

It has abundant and varied birdlife, and also has much to offer in terms of butterflies and other wildlife. 

And then there is a rich folklore, culture, wines and food.

In early May the resident birds are joined by migrating waders, warblers and raptors on their way further north and the woods are alive with birdsong.

While there is plenty to explore, for those on a time-limited trip, probably the best places are the forested Zemplen Hills and the Bukk National Park in the north-east, and the lowland steppe, grassland and farmlands of the Kiskunság and Hortobágy National Parks.

Kiskunság National Park

Just an hour’s drive from Budapest, the Kiskunság National Park is a tranquil lowland region of steppe, sandy dunes, farmland and wooded copses. It is one of Hungary’s most important areas for the great bustard, which should be displaying in April and May.  Collared pratincoles breed here, whilst the ponds and gravel pits attract three species of marsh terns, plus red-crested pochard, ferruginous duck, garganey and pygmy cormorant. The reedbeds are home to moustached, Savi’s and great reed warblers, whilst overhead you can see Montagu’s harrier, saker falcon and red-footed falcon. Keep an eye on utility wires for roller and lesser grey shrike.  An evening walk could well produce scops owl, long-eared owl and nightjar.

Eagle Owl

Zemplen Hills

North-east of Kiskunság, the Zemplen protected landscape is characterised by dense broad-leaved forests, traditionally farmed fields, flowering meadows and vineyards. Nine species of woodpecker (including the rare white-backed woodpecker) can be found here. This is the best area for Ural and eagle owls. It is also rich in other birds of prey, with goshawk, eastern imperial, short-toed and lesser spotted eagles all breeding. While corncrakes are more likely to be heard than seen, there will be many more obvious birds to enjoy such as woodlark, red-backed shrike, black redstart, barred warbler and golden oriole to name but a few.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Bükk National Park

The hills and forests of Hungary’s largest national park include important geological features, as well as some 90 species of breeding birds.

In the abandoned, uneven-aged forest, woodpeckers and flycatchers are common.  Eight species of woodpecker are resident here including Syrian, lesser-spotted, middle-spotted, white-backed, grey-headed and the mighty black woodpecker, and wrynecks are now back from their wintering areas.  Other species include hawfinch, turtle dove, yellowhammer, corn bunting, both short-toed and common treecreepers, Eurasian tree sparrow, marsh tit, the white-headed form of long-tailed tit, serin, barred warbler and black redstart. This area is remote and unspoiled enough to have black stork, saker falcon, and imperial, golden, lesser-spotted and short-toed eagles breeding. White storks are obvious on their huge nests in villages while black storks are a little harder to find.  Evenings sounds are dominated by owls, especially the crooning of Eurasian eagle owls.

And of course, there are plenty of plants, butterflies and other wildlife too.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Hortobágy National Park

Probably the best-known of the Hungarian National Parks, the Hortobágy is the foremost wildlife region of the country and one of Europe’s most valuable ecological areas. It is a flat land of distant horizons, small woodlands and reed-fringed fish ponds, but dominated by the lowland semi-steppe and grassland known as the ‘puszta’.

The grasslands are home to an abundance of small mammals, including the souslik (a kind of ground squirrel) and insects, making this an excellent area for long-legged buzzards, imperial eagles, Montagu’s harriers and saker and red-footed falcons.  Great bustards, stone curlews, collared pratincoles and white-winged terns can be found here. White storks nest on the roofs of cottages, flocks of gaggling white geese, shepherds with their scruffy ‘puli’ dogs, are all part of the atmosphere of the puszta, an area which is steeped in folklore and myth.

The huge complexes of fishponds that dot the Hortobágy are rich in breeding marshland birds and are a magnet for migrating waders and passerines. In May, the reedbeds are a cacophony of song, from the loud, harsh notes of great reed Warblers, to the sweeter, mellow songs of marsh and moustached warblers and the reeling of Savi’s warblers. Adjacent to the fishponds are sedge beds which are also home to the beautiful, but sadly declining, aquatic warbler. By early May the herons and egrets are nesting in their large raucous colonies. As well as spoonbill, great egret, purple heron and glossy ibis, the secretive bittern also occurs, and can often be heard booming from the surrounding reedbeds. Other interesting species include whiskered tern, black-necked grebe and pygmy cormorant.

Collared Pratincoles

Fertő-Hanság National Park

Fertő is the Hungarian name for the Neusiedler See.  The two national parks are part of the same ecosystem – based around the lake and the surrounding landscapes. The reedbeds are extensive, and good for a variety of heron species. Shoveler and ferruginous ducks breed there, as do black-tailed godwits and Kentish plovers. Reedbed warblers are common, and it’s probably the best place in Hungary for moustached warblers which may stay right through until October. National Park website

Lake Fertő


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information.

P.S. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.


Resources

Hungarian Tourist Information

Hungary travel guide (Wikitravel)

Birding Pals in Hungary – links to local birders

Hungarian-based websites/tour operators

Farm Lator is an eco-friendly farmhouse accommodation & campsite located in North-eastern Hungary. It is run by an English-speaking wildlife guide offering various nature holidays for independent travellers and groups. They cater for birdwatching, butterflies and moths, general natural history, wildlife photography tours/workshops, mammal trips and family holidays.

Hungarianbirdwatching.com is an association of young, enthusiastic birders who organise birding tours and birdwatching holidays in Hungary and in Budapest. Their birding tours are highly customised to your needs.

Birding Hungary – for bird sightings

Ecotours organise a variety of natural history tours in Eastern Europe. Their Kondor EcoLodge offers a unique place at the westernmost edge of the Eurasian Steppe to discover the special mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, other invertebrates, wildflowers and other natural values of the “Hungarian Puszta” or flat grassland.

Saker Tour specialise in bird and bird photography holidays in Eastern Europe – their blog gives an idea of what you are likely to see from their photography hides in the Hortobágy

The Axios Delta National Park

Or, to give it its full title: The National Park of the Deltas of Axios – Loudias – Aliakmonas

Why visit the Axios Delta?

Being close to Thessaloniki, it is fairly accessible

  • 299 species of birds, in other words 66% of the species observed in Greece today, of which 106 nest
  • 350 species and subspecies of plants
  • 40 species of mammals
  • 18 species of reptiles
  • 9 species of amphibians
  • 7 species of invertebrates
  • 25 habitats, of which two are priority habitats on a European level

About the delta area

Given its location on one of the main migratory routes in Europe, it’s not surprising that thousands of water birds stop in this wetland in order to feed and rest. Important numbers of waterbirds (at a European level) gather here during the winter. It’s not just the sheer number of individual birds that is impressive. A total of 299 species of birds have been documented in this area – that is, 66% of all bird species observed to be present in Greece. Of those 299 species, 106 nest here.

Parts of the area were designated a Ramsar Site in 1975 – when it was described as an extensive river delta including brackish lagoons, saltmarshes, and large areas of mudflats. Vegetation consists of scrub, riparian forest, wet meadows, reedbeds, and halophytic communities. 30 freshwater fish species occur in the river. An extremely important area for nesting and migrating waterbirds.

Thanks to its considerable ecological importance, this area is included in the Natura 2000 network of European ecological regions. The largest part of this protected area has been listed as a National Park since 2009 – it comprises 33.800 hectares, including the deltas and the estuaries of four rivers, the Lagoon of Kalochori and the Alykes Kitrous, the wetland of Nea Agathoupoli and the riverbed of Axios, reaching upstream to the Elli dam.

The importance of the delta area goes well beyond just the wildlife. It offers multiple benefits to man, for example a water for water supply and irrigation, it protects the inhabited and rural areas from flooding, regulates the climate, provides food, as well as allowing for research, education and recreation.

There is a lot more useful information on the Axios National Park website.

The red pointer is the location of the national park information centre. Alyki Kitrous is at the bottom (left of centre).

When to visit

Winter and spring are generally considered the best times to visit for birds. However, the autumn period is great for passage migrants – I visited in September, and it was pretty spectacular – 100 species in four days of just enjoying being there rather than trying to see as many species as possible. The greatest numbers of birds are seen in winter. The rice fields are flooded in late spring, providing food for the breeding birds, especially herons, egrets and cormorant. Avoid the summer it can be blisteringly hot, and generally unpleasant except at dawn and dusk.

There was certainly an abundance of dragonflies, mostly Sympetrum species, in September. However, the best time for plants, butterflies and insects in general is probably a bit earlier in the year.

At almost any time of year, the weather can change between hot and cold from one day to another. The Meltemi, a cold wind coming off the mountains to the north, is responsible for this. While the Meltemi can make the heat more bearable, at other times a warm and windproof coat is worth packing.

Note that most of the area is farmland criss-crossed with dykes and dirt roads used by farm vehicles. Most of the roads are drive-able in dry weather, but can be slippery (and treacherous) after rain, and there is a good chance of getting bogged down after prolonged wet weather. Even those that have tarmac are often damaged by heavy tractors and farm machinery.

Sousliks are a kind of ground squirrel. They fill a similar niche to rabbits in western Europe and marmots in the Alps, in terms of eating grass and digging burrows. They were once widespread across eastern Europe, but are becoming scarce. The Axios Delta is one of the best places to see them.

Best places to visit

Kalochori Lagoon

Kalochori village is easily accessible by bus from Thessaloniki, and footpaths lead from there to the lagoon. In winter there are flamingos, great flocks of them. And from autumn to spring there are plenty of waders (shorebirds) too – avocets, black-winged stilts, Kentish plovers, to name just a few. In recent years, water buffalo have been introduced to the area.

Gallikos river estuary

Avocets, black-winged stilts, common terns and little terns breed on the Gallikos estuary, which is accessible via footpaths from the Kalochori area, or further upstream. It also provides breeding areas for smaller birds – Cetti’s and other warblers – and herons. Ospreys and other raptors, and a whole variety of waders stop by on migration, and then there are wildfowl in winter.

White-tailed eagle

Axios RiverMavroni river mouthLoudias EstuaryAliakmonas Delta

As I was researching this area, making notes from my experiences and trying to update them from various websites, I discovered a page on the Axios Delta website that suggests several worthwhile routes through this main expanse of the delta, and what you might see on each.

Most of it is a rice-growing area. Rice fields attract lots of amphibians and fish, and these in turn attract lots of herons, as well as other waterbirds. The herons are particularly numerous – a census in 2015 estimated that this mixed colony of little egrets, night herons, squaccos, as well as cormorants, pygmy cormorants, spoonbills and glossy ibises (below), held over 2,500 nests!

Glossy ibis

Nea Agathoupoli

Nea Agathoupoli is at the western end of the main part of the national park. From the village, a track leads north to an observation tower from where you can overlook the Aliakmonas delta.  The tower is open only for limited periods, but there is plenty to be seen from the track as you pass scrub, salt flats, drainage channels, orchards, and a variety of other crops.  Beyond the tower, the track links with a network of other tracks (of varying quality) across the area, so plenty of opportunity for finding birds and other wildlife.

This area is host to thousands of mallard, teals, pochards, wigeon, mallard, pintail, gadwall and shoveler in winter. Herons, glossy ibis, shelduck, Kentish plover, Dalmatian pelican and white-tailed eagle are also seen here. And it’s also good for spur-thighed tortoises, water snakes, green lizards and dragonflies.

Common pratincoles are a regular attraction at the Alyki Kitrous

Alyki Kitrous

Alyki is Greek for saltpans, or salinas. The lagoon and saltworks at Kitrous are some 20km south of the main part of the national park. This site seems to be particularly good a migration periods. Access to the actual saltworks is limited, but you can walk around the lagoon and along the shore.

The park boasts eighteen species of reptile, including a large population of Hermann’s tortoise near the Alyki Kitrous.

So, there you have it

My guide to the Axios Delta National Park.

For my first visit in 1989, I had only sketch maps provided by other birdwatchers – in particular, Dave Gosney’s Finding Birds in Northern Greece. The book has been updated since then, but now, with the availability of Google maps and aerial photos, I get a much clearer image of where to go and what I missed previously.

The area was declared a national park in 2009, and now has a national park information office and visitor centre at Chalastra, so I expect that on my next visit, I’ll learn a lot more about the place.


Bookshop

There are a few books available that are specific to Greece. Birding in Greece is about bird-watching sites produced by the Greek Ornithogical Society. The finding birds book is the updated version of the book I used on my initial travels. (click on the cover for more information)

Most of the other books I have used are now out of print, but the general ones for Europe, shown below, are perfectly adequate.

This is the standard flora for Greece.

First published in 1987, this guide lists many of the richest plant-hunting areas in southeast Europe at first hand, and each description is accompanied by several line drawings.

Names and describes almost 3,000 species of flowering plants in the region.

However, it is a key, and if you prefer to ID your flowers from pictures, then there are other books that might suit better, but are not as comprehensive.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


Other posts about Greece

Nature amongst the ruins at Delphi

Delphi may be best-known for the ruins of an ancient Greek settlement, but it is also a wonderful place for plants and insects. Best to visit in spring, before the vegetation is strimmed and tidied-up for the summer visitors.

Keep reading

Albania in Spring

Why Albania

Despite being a small country, Albania, especially in spring, displays huge biodiversity. The countryside is alive with plants, birds, insects, mammals, rivers, lakes, green countryside

I have not yet been to Albania, though I have looked across the border from Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro (top photo). That was back in the day when Albania was closed off from the outside world, when Communism was the order of the day in the Balkans, and the internet did not exist.

Now, things have changed. Albania is emerging as a tourist destination, and for its natural values as well as for the cultural aspects of the country. This post was prompted by somebody sending me a link to a brochure on issuu.com. That led me to a few more booklets of various kinds stacked here

According to the Natura.al website:

Although a small country, Albania is very rich in biological diversity. The tremendous diversity of ecosystems and habitats supports about 3,200 species of vascular plants, 2,350 species of non-vascular plants, and 15,600 species of invertebrates and vertebrates, many of which are threatened at the global or European level.

Albania has recently made significant progress in expanding the network of protected areas from 5.2% of the country’s territory in 2005 to 16% in 2014. The 799 protected areas cover about 16% (4,600 km²) of its territory. The majority of them have been designated in the category nature monument (750) and are mostly quite small in size.

Recommended places to visit

Wikipedia gives information about 14 national parks and one marine park. One of these, Prespa National Park, is shared with Greece and Macedonia.

Subalpine Warbler

Divjaka-Karavasta National Park is halfway along the coast. It includes the 4,000-hectare Karavasta lagoon, the largest in the country with 5% of the world’s breeding Dalmatian Pelicans. Elsewhere marshes and shallow pools are teeming with other life. Garganey and greater flamingoes can be present in their hundreds. Pygmy cormorants, marsh sandpipers and Caspian terns, to name but a few. The surrounding pinewoods are home to collared flycatchers, subalpine warblers (above) and nightingales.

Kentish Plover

The Vjosë- Nartë protected area south of Karavasta comprises a huge complex of saltpans and coastal dunes around the Nartë lagoon. It’s a magnet for migrating birds and can offer some of the best wader-watching in Europe, with black-winged stilts, avocets, spotted redshanks, Kentish plovers (above), stints and sandpipers in abundance. You can also expect to see slender-billed gulls, collared pratincoles, stone curlews, bee-eaters and hoopoes.

Green-winged Orchid. Anacamptis morio

The Valbonë Valley National Park lies in the Albanian Alps and next to the border with Montenegro. It is another area with a wealth of natural history, and some good mountain hiking. Brown bears and wolves are present, but elusive and hard to see. Chamois, hazel grouse, rock partridge and black woodpecker are rather more obliging. This area is also wonderfully rich botanically: meadows of green-winged orchid (above), beech woodland with Coralroot and Bird’s-nest Orchids . . . and the list goes on.

Desarashimi1, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dajte National Park

The Dajti National Park (above) lies to the east of the capital, Tirana. It is an extensive, forested mountain range featuring waterfalls, canyons & caves. A bus ride, followed by a fifteen-minute scenic cablecar ride takes you from the capital to the park. A new visitor centre welcomes tourists and visitors at the “Natural Balcony of Tirana”.

“Preserving natural resources and raising awareness about the rich biodiversity of Albania is fundamental for the development of a more environmental-friendly tourism model and culture. The kind of tourism that builds on nature conservation to support sustainable development,” stated Ambassador Soreca during the inauguration ceremony.

“Dajti Visitor Centre is the seventh centre built around Protected Areas in Albania. They are serving not just as information centres but as communication bridges which will support sustainable tourism development,” said Minister of Tourism and Environment Blendi Klosi. (This was from a news release on the NATUR.AL Website)

So, the government is taking nature tourism seriously, and that effort will probably only be sustained if it is supported by people visiting these places.

Bookshop

Click on the covers below for more information. There are few books specifically about Albanian nature. Books about the Balkans or the eastern Mediterranean areas in general will help. Also check the Albania nature website for booklets and leaflets in English which may be relevant.

Albania book cover

P.S. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.

More resources

  • To understand more about travelling in Albania, here is a blog post (with links to others) that is well worth reading.
  • If your trip includes time in the capital, Tirana, here is a blog post full of suggestions for things to do there
  • Kami provides some useful tips for travelling in the country
  • Chasing the donkey blog has a post on the national parks of Albania
  • Wikitravel also has a lot of background information for independent travellers
  • Responsible Travel has plenty of ideas for more organised trips and eco-volunteering
  • Naturetrek offers two tours – one in April which is more bird focussed, while the late May alternative has more botanical and butterfly interest.
The Golden Eagle is the national bird of Albania

Vultures at the Hoces del Duratón

Why visit the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park?

Fantastic scenery looking into this 25km long miniature ‘Grand Canyon’ in the middle of Spain – Hoces = gorges/canyons

  • 400-500 pairs of red-billed chough
  • 500 pairs of griffon vultures
  • golden eagles, peregrine falcons
  • Summer visitors include Egyptian vultures, goshawks, booted and short-toed eagles, and bee-eaters
  • Blue rock thrush, eagle owl,
  • Herons, kingfishers and dippers along the river
  • Dupont’s lark and black wheatear on the plains above the gorge.

Easy walking along the river

Abundant flowers and butterflies in the spring and summer

About the Hoces del Rio Duratón Natural Park

Along some 27 kilometres of its course, the Duratón River cuts through the limestone rock, reaching a depth of over one hundred metres in some places. The cliffs hosts huge population of cliff-nesting birds. An area of over 5000 hectares was declared Natural Park in 1989 to protect these birds. It is a Special Protection Area under the European Birds Directive, and is included in the Natura 2000 network.

Hoces del Río Duratón Natural Park lies about an hour’s drive to the north of Segovia, or two hours north of Madrid.

The canyon of the Duraton has been dammed to provide water for Madrid.

How to enjoy nature at the Hoces del Duratón

Information centre in Sepúlveda

I’d usually start by visiting an information centre, but I was with an organised group and local guides, so did not need to visit. There are mixed reviews of the Casa del Parque de las Hoces del Río Duratón in the Iglesia de Santiago (separate to the Sepúlveda tourism information centre), and the website is in Spanish only. You have to go there to get a permit for hiking through the restricted areas in the vulture breeding season. They do provide maps, leaflets, and guides on-line as well as at the centre itself. Displays include information about the geology and nature of the park, and in particular of the griffon vulture, or the EL BUITRE LEONADO as it is called in Spanish.

From Sepúlveda it is a 20 minute hike to the Puente de Talcano – an old Roman Bridge – from where you can join the footpath alongside the river. The landscape here is pleasant, the walking easy, and there is plenty for the nature-watcher to linger over. The path goes 10km to the Puente de Villaseca where there is a cafe, and then you return via the same route.

The Puente de Villaseca.

Of course you can do the above walk in reverse, starting at the Puenta Vellaseca. Or you can take a shorter hike along the Senda de la Mollinilla further downstream from here. There is limited parking space, so our coach dropped us here, and went off somewhere else for most of the day.

It was amazing to get out of the coach and be face-to-face with a griffon vulture (above) – almost too close to photograph with a long lens. It was probably a young bird, inquisitive about the world around. When it flew off, it tried landing in a tree, and found itself stuck there amongst the branches for a while, but eventually managed to escape.

The area between the bridge and just beyond the cafe is more open, and is an excellent area for plants, butterflies and other insects.

View of the 12th century Romanesque chapel of San Frutos

The Hermitage of San Frutos

Watching the vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park is easy, even if you don’t want to hike along the river. Further downstream, and not far from the dam across the Rio Duraton, an ancient hermitage sits on a rock promontory. It overlooks a look in the part of the canyon and the views are fantastic. It is a popular place for general visitors, so a large car-parking area has been provided about 1km away.

Cardinal Butterfly Argynnis pandora

The track from the car park proved to be good for butterflies. This Cardinal was the biggest of them. Unfortunately at the end of October, most were looking quite worn and tatty. Nine species (including hermit, Bath white, mallow skipper and Spanish chalk-hill blue) during our short visit is surely an excuse to go back for more. There were few flowers to provide nectar at this time of year, but a visit earlier in the year will be productive.

But the real stars of the show were the griffon vultures. They flew above the cliffs, below the cliffs, and zoomed past at head height almost close enough to touch. Some cliffs still held nesting pairs – or at least the chicks that were now almost full grown. It was very hot, with hardly any wind, so the cliffs were baking. For the vultures, the best place to be was high up, circling in the thermals, reaching for the cooler air at higher altitudes.

A kettle of vultures, circling overhead

If you’ve never seen a griffon, or any other vulture, close-up, this is the place to come. You won’t see them fighting over carcasses because the food is out on the plains. They can travel vast distances in search of food, and will return to the nest with as much as they can carry in their crops (this is a chamber in the throat – so they don’t carry food in their talons/feet) to feed the chicks.

A dipper in the stream at the bottom of the canyon

In search of other birds

Three main habitats dominate the area – the riverine woodland, the cliffs, and the plains above the canyon. In the spring and summer, the woodland is full of a variety of birds. Even in October, we managed a respectable list here – including short-toed treecreeper and dipper.

The open plains have a more specialist range of birds, including Dupont’s, Calandra and Thekla larks, stone curlew, and several kinds of wheatear. There is little shade here, except in the patches of pine and juniper woodland. But these woodlands do provide for hoopoes, owls, Iberian (azure-winged) magpies, amongst many others.

Theckla lark keeping an eye out for danger

So there you have it

We were in Segovia for a conference, and this trip to watch vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park was organised as part of that. However, it is easy to visit by car, and day trips by coach are available from Segovia and from Madrid – check at the tourist information centres.

Obviously, visiting under you own steam means you can do more exploring. Our guide pointed out the general area for Dupont’s larks – best looked for in spring when they are singing. We just missed the Egyptian vultures, as they were on their way south for winter. For these and the other summer visitors, we need to visit earlier in the year.

However, note that the main vulture breeding areas are not freely accessible from January to June. Contact the visitor centre in advance if you are planning to visit at this time. Of course, you’ll still be able to see the vultures in the air at any time.

November to March can be decidedly chilly. May to September can be hot. Even early October was hot. As we headed back to the coach at 5pm, the heat was going out of the day. More and more people were streaming along the path to the Ermita de San Frutos to look at the vultures.

Useful resources:

  • Local tour guides – Vultour Naturaleza – I don’t know anything about them, but their website suggests they could be worth trying.
  • Wingspan Bird Tours do short break trips from the UK to the Madrid area. Again I don’t know anything about the company.

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including Duraton. Click on the covers for more information.

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