This was a long weekend birding trip with Rob Lee and Dave Norgate. Big thanks to Rob for doing most of the organising!
This page deals with the itinerary - the places we visited with a narrative diary-style account of each day. Full details and photos of the birds and other wildlife can be found in the systematic list.
Thursday 16th May
We flew out of Luton Airport arriving at Reus late afternoon. Here we picked up a rental car from Goldcar. The car was fine but Goldcar ripped us off badly when we returned it - a little bit of dirt in the floor-wells which was no more than you'd expect after a few days and could have been easily cleaned and a few days later we discovered that they charged us over £150 for valetting and administration. A quick check on the internet and it seems that Goldcar make a habit of this sort of thing - lots of people complaining that they were charged for spurious damage after returning the car, including some really bizarre cases like Goldcar claiming the car had been returned without its front seats! Most important lesson for anyone reading this - don't use Goldcar for car rental. They might look cheap but that's because they'll rip you off later.
We reckoned we had enough daylight to shoot over to Utxesa to see Moustached Warbler. A pleasant start to the holiday with surprise Red-footed Falcon being the highlight, but we failed to find the target species.
We stayed at a truckers' inn/cafe at Osera de Ebro which the others found satisfactory. I didn't agree! It was dirt cheap but if you want clean bedding and food that's not vile then I wouldn't suggest not staying here.
Friday 17th May
We started before dawn at El Planerón in the Belchite Steppes. One of my main targets for this trip was Dupont's Lark which I had missed here before and we could here them singing all around. Once it was light we struggled to find them but eventually I picked one up. I assume the other group of British birders there were looking for them as well, though they didn't seem very impressed or grateful when we pointed it out to them!
The steppes produced plenty of other good birds too like Lesser Short-toed Larks and both Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse.
After heading back to the place we were staying at briefly we went on to Sástago where we hoped to find Black Wheatear, another target for me. I think it was Dave who found one first, almost before I'd finished getting out of the car.
The road up to Los Monegros produced a few good birds between the heavy rain showers, the best of which were a Great Bustard and another Red-footed Falcon. We decided to look for a Lesser Kestrel colony which proved to be a good move, not so much because of the Lesser Kestrels along a track running north from Candasnos, nice though they were, but because this track produced a whole load of interesting birds. Little Bustards, both Sandgrouse, more Red-footed Falcons and Roller were just some of them.
The drive back to Osera was livened up by this lorry which carried on like this for ages before noticing he had a problem!
Saturday 18th May
Before heading up to the Pyrenees we checked another site for Dupont's Lark north of Osera de Ebro. We heard them but couldn't get any views, but we did see Spectacled Warbler.
As we left here heavy rain set in and the rain remained strong for the whole of the journey. A couple of stops in the Riglos/Agüero area would no doubt have been much more productive had it not been for the diabolical conditions. The rock formations at Riglos were impressive despite the rain.
As we head up to Hecho Valley the heavy rain turned into heavy snow. It's the middle of May - it wasn't meant to be snowing! The higher we got up the valley the worse it got, the road was becoming ever more treacherous and as much as we all wanted to see Wallcreeper (especially me) it became pretty clear that attempting to get up to Gabardito would be folly. Very reluctantly, we decided to head back down the valley.
All this weather did produce one birding highlight though - in fact for me it was one of the best bits of the trip - a massive hard-weather altitude movement of hundreds of Wheatears streaming down the valley along with Water Pipits, Black Redstarts and Rock Thrushes. I was hoping to see Rock Thrush on this trip but seeing 13 beside the road was a real bonus.
We tried San Juan de la Peña in the hope that the weather would be better, but it wasn't - still teaming with rain. So fed up with the weather we checked in early at the hotel in Jaca - infinitely nicer than the place in Osera de Ebro and Rob had found a good deal so it wasn't too expensive either. The torrential rain continued so Rob stayed put but Dave and I headed up the minor road running NW of Jaca where we found more birds pushed down from the tops by the snow, including another 6 Rock Thrushes.
Sunday 19th May
With the forecast promising the weather would clear up later on and with Rob in particular keen to see things like Lammergeier in the Pyrenees, we decided not to head straight up to Gabardito despite the very strong desire to see Wallcreeper. Instead we decided to head to a more lowland site first, and so returned to San Juan de la Peña. A Badger beside the road on the way up was a good start but it didn't provide the likes of Black Woodpecker as we were hoping. We did catch a few nice things like Western Bonelli's Warblers, but spent rather too long here before getting up to where the real birds were.
It was indeed better weather as we headed back up the Hecho Valley. Vast numbers of Chough were everywhere and raptors included 9 Egyptian Vultures. Thick snow was on the ground higher up and we eventually had to give up the drive up to Gabardito - there was only so much we could push the car each time it got stuck! But we reckoned we were only a kilometer or so from the car park and desperate to see Wallcreeper we decided to abandon the car and continue on foot. The car park produced one of our targets, a new species for me, Citril Finch, and fired up by these we trudge through the snow up the mountain to the stack where Wallcreepers breed. Actually we carried on past it because I didn't recognise it at first, despite having spent many hours staring at it in vain last time I was here.
Depressingly our best efforts failed to produce any sign of Wallcreepers. A couple of sightings of Lammergeier along with other goodies such as Golden Eagle cheered us up a bit but to me they were scant compensation for missing Wallcreeper once again. A drive up to the top of the valley produced tonnes of orchids and a few birds.
We spent the evening at Alastuey which could have produced, but didn't produce, Western Orphean Warbler and Eagle Owl.
Monday 20th May
As much as I was keen to have another go for Wallcreeper at Gabardito I could see the sense in Rob's preference of getting down to the Ebro Delta as soon as possible. At least there we would be assured of some decent birding and hopefully some better weather! So we headed off early, pausing a couple of times to look at things like Honey-Buzzards.
The Delta was fantastic. Whiskered Terns were everywhere, along with plenty of Gull-billed Terns, Audouin's and Slender-billed Gulls, Purple Swamphens and all manner of other goodies. After the disappointment of the Pyrenees this was a most enjoyable afternoon! We struggled to find the entrance to the Riet Vell reserve due to some duff directions but once we got there it proved to be quite a nice reserve, but sadly lacking the Moustached Warblers we were hoping for - apparently they're only here in winter.
At dusk we headed to a track where we hoped to see Red-necked Nightjar but disappointingly our arrival there coincided with the most dramatic thunder storm with torrential rain making it impossible to even look for Nightjars.
After checking in to a reasonably nice hotel at Deltebre we headed out again now that the rain had stopped. Almost as soon as we turned into our destination track a Red-necked Nightjar flashed in front of us. Further down the track others appeared, their eye shine giving themselves away. Most flew away as we approached them but one obliging individual stayed put even allowing us to get out of the car so we could photograph it without looking through the windscreen. A great end to a fabulous afternoon on the last full day of our trip.
Tuesday 21st May
Yesterday we'd covered the part of the delta that's on the south side of the river so today we started on the north side. This was disappointing so we headed back south, but even this was much less productive than yesterday. I think the stronger wind played a part in this. On the way out of the delta we stopped at a small reserve, Ullals de Baltasar, which provided a few dragonflies but not much in the way of birds. Finally we had to head back to the airport and home to England.
All in all it had been a good trip with some great birds, but with more than its fair share of disappointments - the days alternated between being unexpectedly good and disappointingly poor, but where it was poor this was often due to adverse weather. Still a very worthwile trip overall and one with some memories we'll cherish for a long time.