On a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees, a massive Lammergeier cruises among the peaks towards our group of birders.
Someone shouts out the sighting, “large raptor nine o’clock” and lunches are abandoned as everyone focusses on the bird.
Our guide scrambles to get a telescope set up for his guests and then to focus the heavy zoom lens on the raptor, cruising thousands of metres up among these peaks.
Excitement mounts as the Lammergeier’s ID is confirmed, and Gypaetus barbatus flys towards us on its huge wingspan. We are somewhere high on the Spanish-French mountain border in the Pyrenees.
This is my target bird for the trip, but on this day I’m battling illness and so both my camera and binoculars are stranded in the van. In those long seconds that stretch into minutes I can only stand and watch transfixed as the Lammergeier comes closer, gliding effortlessly on a thermal.
To our amazement it swoops to within 50 metres, circles around several times in front of the peak beside us, quartering the rocky slopes before slowly disappearing over a pass. Our guide’s relief is palpable and his delight matches ours. The pressure is off him — at least for this much requested bird.
This Lammergeier is an adult and its long narrow, brown wings are about two and a half metres from long fingered, feathered wingtip to wingtip. Its head, neck and lower body are stained to an earthy orange from its mineral rich clay environment.
Lammergeiers are striking not just for their size and strong features, but also their ability to survive in this harsh environment. They are extraordinary raptors — Old World Vultures - that inhabit the rugged mountain ranges of Africa and across Eurasia, occuring in small numbers in Spain — both in the Pyrenees and in the mountains of Extremadura in the west.
And they are legend for their behaviour of picking up large animal bones in their talons, flying up and dropping a large bone onto mountain rocks at just the right angle and speed to break them open so they can feed on the marrow.
The Lammergeier is only one of many stunning raptors that we saw during our ten day exploration of Spain’s mountains, plains and coastal wetlands in the eastern region of Catalonia.
On our first day heading inland near the Lleida steppes, we were watching two Little Bustards in wheat stubble when a young Red-footed Falcon rose out of a nearby hedgerow and landed in the field. It hopped around briefly before whirling up into the air at speed and disappearing north.
These Western Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus), breed in western central Europe and migrate to southern Africa in winter. That sighting was completely unexpected in the area for the time of year — a hot summer’s day in early June. Surprises like these are of course, the essence of birding.
The trip was not confined to raptors and every day we added to an extensive bird list that finally totalled nearly 180 species. Other alpine birding highlights in the foothills and mountain valleys of the Pyrenees included tiny Bonelli’s and Sub-alpine Warblers, a Ring Ouzel, Red and Yellow-billed Choughs, Rock Bunting, and the gorgeous deep blue of the Blue Rock Thrush — to name just a few. We even hiked up a narrow mountain track to get a laid-back (literally!) glimpse of a tiny black and red Wallcreeper flitting about, high on a sheer cliff face.
Raptors were always my main focus and we started our second day with a surprise sighting of a Eurasian Eagle Owl, (Bubo bubo) perched on a cliff ledge near Loporzano. Unfortunately it was too distant for a good photo, but in the telescope we good see its piercing and beautiful, bright amber eyes peering back.
Black Kites (Milvus migrans) were seen every day and Red Kites (Milvus milvus) were relatively common too with Buzzards (Buteo buteo) and Griffon Vultures (Gyps vulvus) also putting in regular daily appearances.
We had fleeting daily views of Eqyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus) and of Common Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) with Short-toed Eagles (Circaetus gallicus) often seen from the van as we crossed areas of steppe. There were also a few Hobby and Peregrines seen, usually moving at high speed along river valleys where we often stopped for morning or afternoon refreshments.
There were plenty of other raptor highlights to come as we moved from our base in the Pyrenees to lodgings in the central steppes between Belchite and the Monegros region.
In a beautiful stark steppe landscape of low scrub plains and striking metallic ochre and grey hills, we spent several days exploring parts of El Planeron, a 700 hectare reserve owned by the Spanish Ornithological Society.
There we had a glimpse of the almost mythically elusive Dupont’s Lark — heard calling at dawn and seen later the next day. We also saw a variety of other larks including Thekla, Crested, Short-toed, Lesser Short-toed, and the large Calandra Lark.
We saw other steppe dwellers too, including Little Owl, Stone Curlew, Black-eared Wheatear, Tawny Pipit, Hoopoes, and both Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse.
Nearer Monegros, we got lucky with good views of six Great Bustards feeding in wheat field stubble in the noon-day heat — up to around 33C most days. Those were large birds, but there were still plenty of raptors around to steal our attention — not least the group of hungry looking Griffon Vultures waiting to feed on carrion outside a pig farm.
Not far from the Great Bustards, we came upon a group of four Buzzards feeding on large numbers of juicy crickets in the stubble. On closer inspection, our guide identified one of the perched Buzzards as a Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus) — another rare find for the Spanish steppes.
On the way back to our accommodation we stopped in a narrow rocky gorge by a reservoir lake and had distant views of a Bonelli’s Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus) perched in a tree on the far side. We also saw Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus) on several occasions in this area.
Another raptor highlight was a beautifully marked Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus) out hunting low, over the steppe scrublands near El Planeron, and we had frequent views of the smartly attired Lesser Kestrel, (Falco naumanni) hovering there too.
On our last day in the steppes we stopped in the late afternoon near a farm building on a ridge where the roof tiles had been adapted to encourage Lesser Kestrel to nest there.
We had excellent views of Lesser Kestrel coming and going from the roof nests, as well as a pair of Rollers making use of some nest boxes, whose beautiful pale blue to turquoise plumage was lit up, iridescent in the afternoon sun.
From that same spot, we looked across the valley to our right for stunning views of a pair of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), that circled slowly up on the thermals, eventually rising to a height, closing their wings and disappearing from view.
Our guide pointed out a Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), coursing a nearby wetland and delivered us a brief but exciting view of a beautiful large grey, Long-eared Owl (Asio otus), perched in a copse of trees beside a farm building.
As we left the steppes the next day, we left most of our raptor watching behind us, as our coastal wetland destination, the Ebro Delta hosts very few raptors.
On the way there though, we stopped at several wetlands and lakes. One such lunch stop featured a determined Hobby (Falco subbuteo) speedily chasing and catching large blue dragonflys over a wetland lake for much of the time we were there. Dipping and diving and scything at the air.
Another stop revealed a lakeside nesting colony of Sand Martins with chicks waiting outside their tiny muddy bank burrows for the split-second feeding visit of a parent.
We spent the next three days based at the Ebro Delta where our guide showed us the wetland and coastal birding riches of this area. Best were closeup views of a Purple Heron, Collared Pratincole, Little Bittern, Audouin’s Gull and chick, Redshank, and the elegant Greater Flamingos that stalked the ponds and inlets.
After we had all but exhausted the Ebro’s birding highlights, we spent a day in the nearby Els Ports mountains with a visit to Mas de Bunyol, a vulture feeding station run by the dedicated Josep Ramon Moragrega, who had fed vultures there every day for the past 20 years.
We drove from the nearby village of Valderrobres to the feeding station and walked up a track through trees to a beautifully appointed hide, (that also had accommodation available), where we had excellent views seated in front of large glass windows.
The sky soon filled with hundreds of circling Griffon Vultures, and as Josep appeared pushing a wheelbarrow of offal, they began to land and devour the scraps.
Josep explained later that EU regulations prevent farmers from leaving any animal carcasses outside, so many vultures that had previously relied on cleaning up countryside farm carrion, were now going hungry. His special license allowed him to divert offal and other scraps from a slaughterhouse to feed the vultures under controlled conditions.
Four wheelbarrows later, there were about hundreds of Griffon Vultures fed or feeding (and one wary and very out-numbered ‘little’ Egyptian Vulture). After their meal, the vultures mostly walked sedately up to the pond to the right of our hide, for a drink. They then arranged themselves along the terraced take-off area before launching into the air and disappearing down the valley.
The trip was a good introduction to raptor watching in Spain, but I’m told it is just the beginning, because the serious raptor watchers time their visits for the spring and autumn migrations between Europe and Africa when Morocco and the Straits of Gibraltar are the places to be. That’s when and where I hope to visit in the future.