Monday, 16 January 2012

LAGUNA DE GALLOCANTO (Province of Aragon)

Why would you visit this forboding, empty landscape?

The Laguna is situated, south of Daroca and Zaragoza,on a high plateau 1000 mtrs above sea level, with temperatures that can rocket down to minus 20 degrees. We have been here in temperatures as low as minus 15 degrees! It is a shallow laguna fed by rain water, surrounded by hills on three sides, where as many as 50,000 Cranes, may overwinter.

It's a desolate, but to us, almost spiritual place. There is something about the light and the stillness at Gallocanta, as we wait for the Cranes to fly in to roost, from the surrounding area, this dusk vigil is, for us, unforgettable. The sky darkens, night draws in, then... first you hear them, their haunting cries coming ever closer, until they pass right over you, wave upon wave, so close, that you can even hear the the young ones cheeping, until the darkness engulfs us totally!

Bad weather seems to be coming!

We awoke next morning, to rain and fog, having seen it coming, last evening, we were not surprised. The Cranes are quite creatures of habit, not deciding to rise before 8am, very civilised! They then fly in groups to feed on the the surrounding countryside, so we decide to follow them, using the camper as a  mobile hide. The land here is so open that it's hopeless to go on foot, as they just fly off. In reality you need to get into a chosen, hidden position at about 7am. We drove, slowly, stopping and starting all around the Laguna getting some closer shots of the Cranes, all the time, the weather is worsening!

Cranes launching, with behind, the castelo.

A juvenile and an adult, note the head markings! 

We were lucky to see two juvenile Golden Eagles, sitting, wet and bedraggled on some rocks, huddled against the weather, but decided not to disturb them, just watching at a distance.
We had a coffee break at Gallocanta village, where there is now an amazing new visitor centre, then made a team decision to head homeward.
Once again, it will not be our last visit here!
Having followed the Cranes full circle , from the Lac du der Chantecoq, in north east France, we feel that "Mission Accomplished" at Gallocanta.
Heading homeward, we stopped at one of our favourite places, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, for the night,  Pitilas, where we heard all night long, the Cranes flying over, heading southward.
We will bid farewell to the Cranes and will await them on their return journey northward, when they fly over our house in the Dordogne, heralding a new Spring! 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

ALICANTE ( the secret gem) November 2011

Province of Alicante.

Deciding to leave Benicassim, we make an early start, as we have decided to make a few detours en route, to explore future birding sights, before reaching our destination of Guardamar de Segura, south of Alicante. We make a brief stop north of Valencia at Platja de Pucol, which looks promising for a future visit, birding on the marshes. We arrive at El Pinet, south of Santa Pola, where there are hides giving a good view of the salt pans, for photography and lovely walks through the dunes and pines. The water levels are high and not many birds to be seen, but we did see some Avocets, Sanderlings, Curlew Sandpiper and a few Gulls.

Exploration was on the agenda, so we hired a car. The next day, we set off to El Hondo nature reserve, hoping to see "Tonn" the Greater Spotted Eagle from Estonia, who we know has arrived here after being tracked across Europe. He has overwintered here for the last 4 years, but now experts are worried that the lack of water will mean he will come no more. This we witnessed photographing some Lapwings resting where a few months ago, Flamingos stood up to their bellies in water.

Lapwings on the mud.

Whilst sitting in one of the visitor hides, having a cup of coffee, we miss the cop of the day, as a Little Bittern suddenly erupted from the undergrowth and crashed headfirst into the reeds. Bird photography is like this, sometimes you are in the right place with good light, and sometimes you just miss the shot. No more coffee breaks!! A Spanish school party then arrived (noise as you can imagine!) putting paid to quiet bird watching, but I will NOT knock this, as it's so important for ecology and nature to educate, and we also enjoy these places in Spain FREE. We then drove to the south gate of the reserve and walked to a hide, over a wooden walkway, through the reeds, where we photographed the Lapwings above. There were Shelduck and two Ospreys there also, but at great distance, and the light had gone.
Returning eventually, in the direction of the car, we saw a great dark form, flap lazily,
 disappearing from view - "Tonn", at last we had seen him.

The next day dawns, unsettled, but bright. Inland towards the mountains, it's clagged in, so we head to the Clot de Galvany, on the coast nr Gran Alicante Urbanization. We took the very picturesque coast road from Santa Pola, running below the cliffs, far out to sea, Gannets dived for fish, and nearby Mike photographed this lovely Iberian Grey Shrike.

From here we travelled to the mountainous region just inland from Alicante, towards the village of Monnegre (Montnegre) and what a wonderful world we discovered there. Some of the most breathtaking
coloured rocks I have ever seen.

Rocks coloured as though graffiti!

To me, it was amazing that in the distance I could see Alicante, with all its noise, hustle and bustle, but here, another world of beauty, tranquility, distant vistas, and rocks of a rainbow hue.

 It's good here for Eagles, Vultures, Rock Sparrow, Rock Bunting, and the only breeding Trumpeter Finches in the area, but although we saw no birds to speak of, the landscape more than fulfilled our expectations.
Next day, the weather has changed for the worse, but we still set off to visit Font Roja Sanctuary, near the old university town of Alcoy. High in the mountains, it is normally good for bird watching, but this time, for us, it's White Out, freezing fog all arround. How ghostly the great pines looked.

Not to be put off, we still climbed to the mirador, (yes we did find it) We used our imaginations, the views must be amazing, we will come back another time!
We wound our way back down from the mountain and the fog, on to the Barranc del Clint, in the Park Natual Serra Mariold, where we parked at the foot of a towering gorge, with Griffon Vultures floating above, but the weather is still grey, not good for photography. Tramping up the gorge along a little rough track, we remembered that this was also a route for pilgrims going to Santiago de Campostella. I could not help thinking how wild and foreboading it must have felt for those pilgrims, back in time, with many a place for bandits and ambush, those great weatherbeaten rocks soaring above.

As though nature had caught my mood, we heard thunder rolling and the lightning flashed. Not a place to be in a storm, we made our way back rather faster than comming, just making it back to the car as the heavens opened, to deluge!

The day ended on a highnote of Sun! As we passed Santa Pola the sun was setting, so when we reached the Salinas, we pulled over to capture the sight, wonderful light and reflections on the water, great storm clouds rolling away.

Footnote- We would like to thank Grahame Critchell for his very informative guide to the area.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

BENICASSIM Province of Valencia (November 2011)

We arrive at Benicassim for some R&R, some sun, hopefully! It is situated near Castellon, south of Peniscola, north of Valencia. For a few days, we enjoy the beach and cycling, as the cycle routes are very good, flat, which I for one, enjoy. There is the lovely promenade here, with the most interesting villas, which where built in the 1880's, where the then jet set, writers and artists enjoyed a rather racy lifestyle. Later the likes of Ernest Hemmingway visited, had affairs, until all changed with the Spanish civil war, when the buildings were requisitioned for worthy causes, and the jet setters were thrown out!
Below are some examples of these wonderfull villas still there for us to see.

 The cycle paths extend to as far as Castellon and beyond, but I for one was very happy to stop there, where we enjoyed a cool beer, watching the colourful kite boarders, leaping the waves and so many happy Spanish families enjoying the day.
Rising inland are a range of hills, which we climbed, not seeing many birds, as they all seemed to be very camera shy, except for this lovely female Blackcap, who was most obliging.

 Up and up we climbed, we could no longer hear the traffic or the railway, it was a different world, up there, the vistas were amazing, great red rocks, wilderness, but below us, civilisation, the port at Castellon, with the many boats and tankers, but all so small, people all rushing about, living their lives, and there we were watching it all, as though watching an ant hill. I know where I would rather be!!

Vista towards Castellon.

 Wild places and red rocks.
Yes I am still smiling, in spite of the climb, to be here, in this place and seeing all that I see!

Below looking toward Castellon, the tankers all either waiting to dock or to take on new cargo. A different world to the one we are walking in.

 Here we are, it seems at the top of the world, looking down on all things, in one direction, wilderness and wild places and the other, all things man made and so busy. Here peace, quietness, birdsong, great open spaces that somehow free the mind, to think of another time, another place!

 On our walk downwards we entered the lower slopes, where there were so many beautiful orange groves, dripping their ripe fruit and very delicious it was too! ( Sorry we did scrump a little)  We saw this lovely little Southern Speckled Wood resting on the warm stones, enjoying the sun, as we did!


 We arrive at the wide open vistas, rice paddies and salt pans that make the delta such an unusual habitat, but this return trip at the beginning of November finds a very different place to our Spring visit. There seem to be very few birds here, waders, ducks or others, a strange feeling, as though we have just missed a really good party, or the party is next week!  But we cycle off in hope, to the Riet Vell, where there is a good hide overlooking a small lake surounded by rushes. We wait and watch, but only see some Coot, Moorhens and slulking Purple Swamp Hens. Not to be put off we move on to La Tancada, a very large expance of open water, normally covered in wild fowl... today only many many Coots, until we espy, sitting on a sand bar, two Caspian Terns, with their huge red beaks. Sadly they were at too great a distance to photograph, but we enjoyed watching them through the scope.

One of the original dwellings of the Delta, with La Tancada behind.

We stopped on the road that borders La Tancada and sitting quietly in a sheltered spot, along a waterway  
was this beautiful little Common Sandpiper, looking for all the world like a cave painting.

From here we cycled to L'Encanyissada, an elevated hide, near the village of Poble Nou del Delta, where we have seen so many Red Crested Poachard before, but this time there were only a few at great distance. Again we waited and waited and were rewared with this low flying Heron. There are so many Herons here on the Delta, but always one more phtograph to be taken.

Patience was rewarded also with this female Marsh Harrier, after she just seemed to want to evade the camera, dropping intermittently into the reeds.

Dawn broke the next day, very windy, with clouds skudding across the grey skies and blustery showers.
Wanting to be out and doing something, we decided to cycle to the Illa de Buda, following a cycle track that skirted the beach, this proved to be hard work and all seemed very desolate. I think all bird life must be hunkered down somewhere. However we were lucky enough to observe through the scope, a young Peregrin Falcon, down and resting. We watched it for some considerable time (nothing else about!) A small brown bird came to rest beside it, within 1ft of it. They looked at each other and the small bird flew off, very wise, I think, as it may have been on the menu!! After a round trip of some 35kms, into a head wind, we returned, saddle sore (me) and called in again at the Riet Vell, where Mike photographed this little Iberian Chiffchaff, we also just missed a Water Rail, that suddenly exploded from the rushes and just a quickly disappeared, crashing into some more!

Iberian Chiffchaff.

During that night, it blew a hooley and rained, next day dawn broke to a grey and threatening sky, so we decided to bid farewell to the Delta, hoping that the next time we visit, as we surely will, there will be more for us to photograph for you. But, as lovers of the wild places and nature, we are happy to take what we are given, see it, and marvel of the wonders of the natual world.