A Pre-Christmas Trip up onto the Steppe
It´s always a privilege to be asked to provide guest posts and it is with gratitude that I write this. I hope that it´s of interest.
An important role of mine as a birding guide is to constantly visit my favoured sites as many times as possible throughout the year. This is essential in order to maintain and develop knowledge of an area and it´s changing characteristics and bird life throughout the seasons. That way, we ensure that our clients are taken to the sites that are “at their best” whenever their visit may take place. That today´s trip meant that I avoided having to go Christmas shopping only seemed to reinforce its value!
Our destination was the vast upland Steppe of Castilla de la Mancha, some 90 minutes’ drive due west from our home base of La Drova. This is an area for which I have real affection. It´s a tough place to live and work, as the majority of this land is situated at over 900 metres above sea level. The summers are relatively short but fiercely hot whilst the winters can be savage, with nights of -20oC not unheard of. The locals work mainly on the land, most of which is used for cereal farming although recently there´s been new developments of vine-yards. It´s a tough life up there and the farming villages seem untouched by the passage of time, but despite their remoteness, the locals are surprisingly welcoming and friendly.
It´s fair to say that you have to work for your birds and be prepared to move around in search of them. However, with effort, some local knowledge and a little luck, the area can provide some memorable days and great birding. It´s a place of surprises and each visit turns up something new, like a Red Kite or flocks of “on-passage” Dotterel.
To make the most of the day we left home at 7am on a dark and windy morning. We were however rewarded for our efforts by views of a fox that we caught in the headlights as we drove through a local wooded area. We stopped and watched as he turned and looked straight at us before running up the hill into the trees.
Having driven through a beautiful day-break we left the main Valencia – Albacete road and headed out across the steppe. The morning provided a good omen from the outset as we immediately spotted a group of 23 Great Bustards strutting across the fields just 200 metres from the road. Having parked the van, we left the warm cab to be greeted by a bitterly cold wind that made it feel close to freezing point…welcome to Castilla de la Mancha – it´s not always warm in Spain! Despite this we enjoyed superb views of these majestic birds for over 10 minutes before they took flight across the plains.
Our next stop was a favourite lagoon. This time prepared for the wind, we strategically parked the van so we could use it as a shelter as we set up the scopes! The usual busy flocks of Rock Sparrow were flitting around as were Goldfinch. A lone Fieldfare made a brief appearance, followed closely by a female Black Redstart.
Crested Larks and Lapwings were around in good numbers too. On the shore of the lagoon a Little Ringed Plover scurried around. Scoping across the water revealed Shoveler, Shelduck and Teal. As we stood there, proving that awful instant soup can taste heavenly when out in the freezing cold, a Buzzard passed over and landed in the edge of a nearby field. Then another highlight – a pair of Hen Harriers appeared over the hill and flew characteristically low over the fields, giving superb views. After a while we retreated to the van and headed on to our next lagoon where we watched Teal, Little Grebe, Pochard, and yet more Shelduck and Shoveler. A pair of Yellow Legged Gulls flew by before settling on the water. A flock of Spotless Starlings landed on one of the barns and Skylarks were also around in good numbers.
After a welcome coffee break in a village bar we set off across the steppe once more where we made various stops to scan around. We were indeed rewarded by the day´s second view of a flock of Great Bustard, probably the same birds as earlier but nonetheless great to see. Skylarks and Crested Larks were plentiful as were Kestrels. A Little Egret was feeding by the shore of a small pond and was soon joined by a Cattle Egret. A raptor passed over but was too far away to give a positive ID although Booted Eagle was the likelihood.
The third and final lagoon, beside which we sat in the hide gave great views of Kentish Plover, Ruff, Flamingo, Wood Sandpiper and an over-wintering Black Winged Stilt. Scoping across the water gave views of huge numbers of Shelduck, Shoveler and Teal. A Marsh Harrier passed by extremely close over the reeds.
Satisfied with a superb day out we headed back across the plains, making a few more brief stops during which we had super views of Stonechat, Green Woodpecker and Iberian Grey Shrike. As we all know, sometimes you have to brave the weather and put in a little effort, but when you do, the rewards are often fantastic! With some superb views and a species list of 37, today had been such a day.
I hope you´ve found this post to be of interest, and I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and plenty of great birding in 2012 – don´t forget to look me up if you fancy a trip over here to Valencia. Feliz Navidad!
David Warrington – Bird Watching Guide.