Steppe habitat just outside Castilla de la Mancha

The Spanish province of Valencia was visited in summer. One reason was to relax for a week. The second argument was to get a feel for avian delights of an area of the country normally thought of in mainstream tourism terms. As a habitual visitor to the more well-known birding destination of Andalucía and Portugal, I wasn’t expecting too much but was enjoyably surprised by the numbers and variety of Valencia’s avian inhabitants. One day I headed for the steppe habitat just outside Castilla de la Mancha. This area is blessed with an incredibly diverse range of habitats and excellent birding sites.

A stop at the tiny Bonete Municipal Cemetery en route meant we could search a small lake and a few trees, giving us great intimate views of Egyptian Vulture (Neophron pernocterus), Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica), Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula), a lonesome Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina) and – best of all – a yellow-and-black male Eurasian Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus). European Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) are common in these lowland areas.

Farms along the tracks near Corral Rubio yielded abundant buzzing and rattling Corn Buntings (Emberiza calandra), along with Eurasian Rock Sparrows (Petronia petronia) nesting in outbuildings alongside their more familiar relatives, the Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis). On a pole of a fence, we found a beautiful Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator), which stayed relaxed on the concrete pole for a while before it left. Onto the plains themselves we were soon watching Calandra Larks (Melanocorypha calandra) and Greater Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla) on the dusty tracks in front of the vehicle, while Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix) shouted their “pit-we-wit” from their dry grass hiding places. A fly-by pair of Great Spotted Cuckoo (Clamator glandarius) was an unexpected surprise. A far-distant Eurasian Stone-curlew or Eurasian Thick-knee (Burhinus oedicnemus) could be more coopertative. Maybe it was already too late during the day.

A stony fallow field soon produced the first of two targets for this trip, which can be a lot harder to see in some more well-known Spanish hot-spots these days. A male of a Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) showed well behind a rock on a hill. Soon after, a huge form flapped surprisingly gracefully across the road with big white wing stripes: a Great Bustard (Otis tarda), apparently heading towards its companions. During the heat of the middle of the day, Great Bustards are usually concealed in the shadows of trees so we were lucky indeed to see this dainty dirigible sail in front of us. A Thekla Lark (Galerida theklae) is normally a common sighting, but until that time hard to see well. A elegant hovering male Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus) could be seen over another fallow field.

In the late afternoon, taking in a stop to watch a thermalling 2nd -calendar-year Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus), we headed south towards the Parc Natural de la Serra de Mariola, in particular a gorge above the road where more Golden Orioles were seen, along with Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) and European Serin (Serinus serinus). The gorge itself gave up a Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitaries) and singing Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia).

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