Wednesday 12 September 2012

Spain, oh Spain - Part 1

Seems to be that I get to write my blog whilst sitting in Airports at the moment! I’m back at Heathrow waiting for my flight to Istanbul, where I will meet up with the rest of the Zegrahm Expeditions Staff and guests for a circumnavigation of the Black Sea. It should be a great trip (onboard the MV Clipper Odyssey), especially as it is a great time for migration of birds through the area.

Anyway, this is part one of my Spain experience. Wow, what an awesome country, definitely going to get back there and spend some time birding and travelling. The people are super nice and friendly, the scenery stunning, and the birds excellent. My visit was obviously timed between expedition ship trips, so I had no control over it, but it was timed perfectly with raptor migration (see the next installment) and the start of migration for passerines. It did however mean that birding in forested/land habitats for the specialties was not as good as it could have been, with late summer never a great time to be trying to locate specific species.

I arrived into Bilbao late on the first evening, and managed a 4-hour drive in just over three…much to the amazement of Roger and Julie who had been waiting for my arrival. The next morning it was straight into one of Roger’s hides located beside a small pool, and in about 3.5 hrs I had about 20 species visit the pool to drink and bath, managing to photograph most of them well. Got some shots I was really happy with, and possibly the highlight was hawfinch, which visited several times. I had hoped it might be possible to glimpse this species, but to have them literally metres away and be able to take almost full frame photos was amazing! Roger uses his 500mm lens from the hides, so we had pulled it a little closer to the pool, and I used my 400DO lens with a 1.4x extender. On the 1D MkIV this makes it roughly 720mm on a full-frame camera (Roger would have 800mm with his 500mm and 7D). I never use my 1.4x extender much as I feel it degrades the quality a bit too much, so was fairly hesitant to use this setup. However, I used f8 consistently (which apparently helps with image quality when using extenders) and hoped for the best. Many of the images are stunning, and with just a little sharpening in Lightroom came up really nice. So maybe I will use this setup a bit more when travelling…having the 800mm on trips like this would be awesome, but traveling on planes, ships, etc with an 800mm lens just isn’t practical!

So then we spent the afternoon photographing a carpenter bee piercing thorny apple flowers in the back yard, and two Algerian mice that Roger had caught in the house. One was very placid and quite well behaved, the other was like hell on paws and kept trying to escape and racing around the small terrarium Roger had set up. Anyway, got some nice shots and then we met with a friend of Roger’s, Carlos to go see a black-bellied sandgrouse nest he had been shown a day or two earlier. Unfortunately we arrived and at first couldn’t find it, until I spotted some feathers and we then found the females corpse and feathers. It looked like she had been taken by a raptor as her head had been taken off and she was partly plucked… a major bummer! We searched some of the local fields for great bustards which can normally be found in the area, but it seemed they had moved off the local breeding grounds to somewhere else.

Later we also cruised the local tracks in the car to see what we could find. A few wheatears and a woodchat shrike which we managed to position so it was backlit. Also a field of sunflowers which were being irrigated provided some photographic subjects.

Next day was up and off to another pool and hide. This one didn’t have the same diversity as the first, and the target species (Azure-winged magpie) clearly didn’t know it was supposed to turn up. But there were more hawfinches, as well as the more common stuff like willow warblers, great and blue tits and blackbirds. As the sun got up I headed back to Rogers place and we had lunch etc and then decided the best thing to do might be to try the same pool again in the afternoon. The magpies still hadn’t received the memo, but the hawfinches were there again and got some more nice shots.

Then it was time for some culture…with the next day being set aside for running of the bulls in Medina del Campo, a nearby town. We met with Carlos and headed into town, parking up in fields on the outskirts, where hopefully the bulls would come running past us (!) before being directed into town and into the local arena. It is always hit and miss, as you just don’t know where they are going to go, as they run about 5-6kms through the local countryside, being chased by several hundred horses and riders before reaching the final entry into the city. We set up with our camera gear at the ready, and then at 0900 the bulls were released and a commentary given by a rider on a horse travelling with them. Within minutes one bull had been darted as it was running amuck already, and the rest dribbled through one at a time. The first few were a wee way away, but got some atmospheric shots, and then when we got closer the crowd including the bulls headed across the field through the dust and closer to where we had been, but again got some nice shots. When all the bulls had headed into town we headed in and went to the arena, where we got to see all the local hot shots running round and testing their skills in front of two of the bulls. This is where all the local young guys show off in front of the girls and show what they have got. As the bulls get more tired the older, less athletic guys build up courage and start to have a go as well. Anyway, no accidents this time, but apparently it does happen!

We then headed into town and sampled a few of the local tapas and drinks…not a bad way to spend a few hours. Fiesta was certainly well underway, and it was a great atmosphere in town. We then ended up heading back to Roger and Julie’s place and that afternoon I headed back to one of the pools to photograph. Another great selection of birds, this time with a young woodchat shrike which I was very pleased to see, and a few other species I had photographed before, but still very happy. We had a very nice BBQ dinner, a few vinos and a rather late night! All very very enjoyable.

The next morning it was up early, a quick run along the tracks to see what was about, getting some shots of spotless starling, and then sad to say good-bye as I left to head north. A massive thanks to Roger and Julie for their absolutely awesome hospitality, and really hope to make it back next year, with some more time in Spain if I can work it…will see! Thanks so much guys!

Part two of this will be posted soon…

Serin drinking with reflection

Subalpine warbler with reflection

Common whitethroat about to drink

Bonelli's warbler thinking about coming down for a drink

Common whitethroat about to drink' '

A shabby moulting goldfinch on a thistle head near the pool

Carpenter bee with its mouthparts completely embedded in a flower

You lookin at me! Algerian mouse up close.

He's actually cleaning himself, not covering his eyes!

All that remained of the female black-bellied sandgrouse...

Grain fields where the sandgrouse was nesting

Northern wheatear perched on a post' '
Backlit juv woodchat shrike with a grasshopper in its bill

Sunflower filelds with irrigation' '
Into the sun...

More with the irrigation

Closer' '
A sunflower in flower

Umbrella pines

Hawfinch adult drinking

Reflection of the same

Double hawfinch reflection

Juvenile hawfinch, a little scruffy but still beautiful!

Probably my favourite hawfinch shot

I call this "Great tits'

Waiting for the bulls

Chasing the bulls on horseback

Into the dust

Can you see them from up there?

Here they come again

One bull and some cows, the last of the group

Entrance to the arena

The arena with all the tough guys waiting

Showing how it is done!

Pretty close


A bull by the horns!

Stop there, hand on forehead!

The bull was getting slow, so the older guys had a chance.

Juvenile woodchat shrike perched

Willow warbler up close

Turning its head

Garden warbler with blue tit in the foreground and serin behind

Common whitethroat taking a drink

Willow warbler after a bath

Blue tit, even if they are common they are great little birds!

What the?!

Spotless starlings bathing


  1. Dear Brent.
    all photograph is wonderfull.
    impression. very nice.
    enjoyed very much. Thank you so much

  2. Hello Brent,
    What a nice report from my neighbour country... I guess Spain has much more to offer than what I have seen... Really nice photos!
    All the best,

  3. Thanks Tokiko and Catarina,
    Yes, it was a magic trip! Thanks for the complements!