Friday, 26 May 2017

Spain,Extremadura, 2017. Postscript

Looking back on our Spanish trip it wasn't the best one I have taken with Mike but there again, circumstances conspired against me and I had my share of bad luck. I know Mike had a much happier experience than I did but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it.
Where could I have improved on things? Well, realising my teleconverter was malfunctioning would have been a major help. I would have abandoned using it much earlier had I known and probably made more use of my 7D cropped body instead of the full frame one.
The hides? I never got the feeling that we were getting dealt with in a straight manor. For Jose it's his business and he needs to try and maximise his income which when things go well would not be inconsiderable but there are times when things must run a bit thin. However, when he's at a peak period for clients I think he's probably understaffed. Having just one other person working with him he needs to time all his client drop offs and collections carefully .We felt we could have been allocated more time in some hides than that allowed to us which could have been productive and certainly offered better value than the average 50 euros per hide each 2-3 hour session cost. 
I also got the feeling he was placing us in hides to suit his schedule rather than our desired choices. Maybe even giving other clients priority for what ever reason that we were not aware of.
Of the hides themselves though the Hoopoe one was probably the best I have experienced for that species, the Lesser Kestrel and Southern Grey Shrike were very good too, the Low Water hide was outstanding whilst the Drinking Pool one was not completely fit for purpose and the Vulture feeding not worth the extra expense it costs( 80 euros pp). Nature is fickle and there are no guarantees so it was my misfortune the Black-winged Kite and Little Owl hides were virtually a waste of time, in fairness though there was no charge for the non appearance of the Owl.
I also felt that Jose was unnaturally over cautious about his clients behaviour. I can only think that somewhere along the line someone has behaved really badly for him to take such a mistrusting attitude . Wiring you in to your hide is actually unacceptable really. I guess in an emergency it would be possible to break out but we never got to try. Hopefully you can!
The weather too makes a big difference, this was the earliest date we have set off on a trip and yet for Spain it was late in the season. I would recommend anyone wanting to use the hide set up to consider at least two weeks earlier than we did, basically mid April . By the time we has access it was too late for both Little and Great Bustards which was a shame as they had been our No1 and 2 targets in the hides.On the other hand our friends Rich and Steve had indeed booked those earlier dates and much of their experience was ruined by high winds and cold weather.
You pays your money and you take your chance as they say.
I suppose one of the biggest disappointments though was the lack of a decent meal during the last 9 nights of our stay. Fortunately we had been spoilt in our first stopping place but that said if I were to recommend a base Colera-Y-Chozas is pretty good as the road network is fabulous and the Cuatro Cominos very inexpensive, Almoharin was too far to the south.
Would I return?
Maybe, maybe not. If you haven't tried though it is definitely worth the visit.
The Sierra de Gredos and Castillo in Monfrague for fly by Vultures were both outstanding and free.
The hides could be very rewarding indeed if you get lucky and yes, I would probably sit in the Kite hide for 16 hours if I knew there would be a fair amount of action.
So it's over to you. I am sure there are other reports out there that might help convince you if this is the place for you.

Spain,Extremadura, 2017. Part 15. Vultures and Kites

We were all packed and the car loaded ready to head to Madrid and home but first we were off for our last hide session, the Vulture feeding hide.
it was a fairly long drive, it had been suggested we could follow Jose in our car but as it was heading in the opposite direction we saw little point.
Once again the weather seemed to be against us because its was lovely sunny morning in Colera Y Chozas but as we headed west and towards the base of the mountains there was a lot of low mist like cloud hanging over the place where the hide was situated. 
The light was pretty awful and to make matters worse we were shooting through glass. There were two hides alongside each other and once again there were three people. Mike and myself in one and a local Spaniard in the other. A container full of meat offcuts was largely dumped in two spots and  a few other pieces scattered around.
Jose retreated in his car to get his head down for a couple of hours and immediately the Vultures along with a few dozen Ravens all flew in to start the feeding.
I have been to Vulture feeding sites in The Gambia so I knew that the spectacle is usually chaotic with two many birds to get a decent shot. It was pretty similar here and whereas apparently sometimes the Vultures fly on to the perches that are available, today they didn't.
Still, I was pleased to see a couple of Cinereous Vultures in amongst the Griffons and I tried to catch one in flight.
Cinereous Vulture   Aegypius monachus
With the lens wide open and a moderate shutter speed of 1/1600th the ISO was still being pushed way up the scale to 12,800. That's why you pay so much for a 1DX2 though , the images are acceptable especially if you don't crop them too much.
Cinereous Vulture   Aegypius monachus
It was frustrating to see that beyond our field the mountain side was lit up by the morning sun. 
The Cinereous Vulture looks quite impressive when you see one head on too.
Cinereous Vulture   Aegypius monachus
Initially the Vutures were all cautious in their approach.
Griffon Vulture   Gyps fulvus
but once one made a move they all loped over to the waiting feast.
Cinereous Vulture   Aegypius monachus
Along with the Vultures and Ravens were a surprisingly large number of White Storks too, something I hadn't expected.
Cinereous Vulture   Aegypius monachus
This one was more intent on displaying than eating.
White Stork    Ciconia ciconia
A distant Fox was seen crossing the field and we were hoping it might come in for some meat but alas that wasn't to be.
Something spooked the Vultures though and they nearly all flew off which was actually a benefit as only a couple returned.
By now the sun was breaking through so the light was so much better.
Cinereous Vulture   Aegypius monachus
For a size comparison look at this!
Cinereous Vulture   Aegypius monachus
Still the Ravens were not intimidated in any way and probably got the best pieces of meat.
Overall, the show hadn't been the best. Apparently there were fewer Vultures present than normal and they didn't perform as they sometimes do. Flying on to perches, fighting amongst themselves and such like. Still, I was pleased to have captured some images of the Cinereous Vulture that I'd missed at Monfrague. Incidentally they are also known as the (Eurasian) Black Vulture.
Just when we thought it was all over though we suddenly had an aerial display to match anything we had seen so far.
Black Kites took over the feeding station to clear up the bits that had no appeal to the Vultures.
Fortunately the sun was out too so flight photography was made easier.
Black Kite  Milvus migrans
They were more than happy to land on the perches too.
black kite (Milvus migrans
so that made for more interesting shots.
Black Kite  Milvus migrans
Black Kite  Milvus migrans
Once again I had a feeling the glass windows softened the images a bit but it was an enjoyable spectacle and an interesting challenge and we both agreed, saved the day.
My favourite was probably this one.
Black Kite  Milvus migrans
Anyway, it was all over by about 10.30 or so and we were taken back to Colera Y Chozas. There we decided to have a last visit to the best eating place in the town. It only sells churros and the odd bought in piece of cake but the freshly made churros are, like their coffee, excellent. Shame they didn't start making them until 6.30am so too late most mornings!
With no other ideas on how to pass the time of day before our early evening flight we headed back to the airport in Madrid where we arrived with about 5 hours to spare!
Anyway, I'm glad we had plenty of time to find the airport because unlike our arrival which had been plain sailing, finding our way back wasn't quite so simple and I must have driven the wrong way around the city.
It was with some relief we delivered our car back to the rental place without a single mark on it. Driving around Madrid had been a bit like competing in "Whacky Races".
So that was it, another trip over.
Now we start thinking about next year.
Hope you have enjoyed taking the trip with us.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Spain,Extremadura, 2017. Part 14. Monfrague....again?!

This was our penultimate day. We both had hide sessions booked but not until 4.30pm for Mike, 6.45pm for me. Mike was doing Rollers and I was doing the Little Owl.
How would we fill the morning? Well I had no doubt where I wanted to go...... back to Monfrague. We were both down to do the Vulture feeding hide the following morning before setting off home but I knew we wouldn't get the flight shot opportunity that the Castillo at Monfrague offers and I didn't want to go home without trying. With equipment failure on the first visit, torrential rain on the second this was it. Mike very kindly agreed. There was no need, it was along drive and he already had all the species in the bag but fair do's that's were we headed.
Unbelievably, the weather worsened as we approached the national park.
We climbed the steps up to the very top and watched as the weather swept in.
Within minutes it was pouring down.
A "I don't believe it' moment. I had checked the forecast this time and it looked OK. Not brilliant but OK.
We took what little shelter there was on offer and waited to see if it would ease off but after an hour gave up and headed back to the car to drive to the viewing point well below. 
That's when the rain stopped!
So we climbed all those steps once more.
This time it stayed dry and as the wind came up, the vultures started to fly.
Griffon Vulture  Gyps fulvus
At first they were quite some way off but a cropped image wasn't too bad.
Griffon Vulture  Gyps fulvus
Much better than any attempt I had made when previously there.
Griffon Vulture  Gyps fulvus
Slowly but surely the birds were rising higher and higher.
Griffon Vulture  Gyps fulvus
I was using a bare 500mm lens on my full frame body so I needed them to get as close as possible.
Griffon Vulture  Gyps fulvus
and to my delight they were doing so!
Griffon Vulture  Gyps fulvus
We had been joined by three British birders who were asking questions about photography and looking at our shots.
"You make it look easy" they said.
Might look it on the back of the camera but there had been a lot off effort put in to getting those shots.
Three dawn starts, hundreds of kilometres driven to say nothing of getting wet, and climbing countless steps!
Griffon Vulture  Gyps fulvus
But at last it had been worthwhile.
Griffon Vulture  Gyps fulvus
The only disappointment was that there only seemed to be Griffon Vultures flying today, well near to us anyway. An Egyptian could be seen a long way off and Mike told me a Black Vulture had flown higher up but I'd missed it.
As we had lost a fair bit earlier it was soon time to head back to Colera-y-Chozas. We did make a quick stop on the way to seek out the Spanish Imperial Eagle's nest the 3 Brits had told us about.
Spanish Imperial Eagle.   Aquila adalberti
It was a long way off but the bird was sitting on the nest so that was another species to add to our trip list.
On the way back Mike asked if I'd swop my Little Owl session for his Roller. He'd drawn a blank when he had tried a couple of days previously and he was desperate to get some images of the species. So was I ! Selfishly I declined the invitation so at 4.30 off he went.
Later I, along with another person I hadn't seen before, headed off to the Little Owl hides, there are two spots. Taking me first, Jose told me I was getting the hide where someone had been very successful a couple of nights earlier. 
It wasn't that night though!
Another two and a half hours sat doing little although the weather was probably against me too. It even started to rain but at least I had a bedraggled Partridge come to keep me company for a while.
Red-legged Partridge
Returning to the hotel for our last night we had to settle our bills. Neither of us were charged for our Little Owl no show but we still parted company with 440 euros each.
Mike had had reasonable success with the Roller. It hadn't been active but it has posed for a few pictures so Mike was happy.
We settled the 9 night hotel bill which for two separate rooms, a couple of nightly beers each, (maybe three on some nights!), one rather poor meal, a bottle of cheap wine, countless bowls of nuts and crisps, some extra tapas, my baguettes for the hide day and it still only came to 559 euros for the two of us. I thought it was a bit of a bargain and I would happily recommend Hostel Cuarto Caminos to anyone.
Shame they can't produce decent food though.
One last morning session to go then it was back to Madrid and home.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Spain,Extremadura, 2017. Part 13. Double hide day!

No need to decide what to do today, it was all sorted. Mike and I would be doing the drinking pool, primarily for Azure-winged Magpie, in the morning and in the afternoon Mike was doing the Low water hide whilst I was doing the Roller or so I thought. Once again a change, why I don't know but Jose seemed to think the Roller wasn't performing very well. I didn't know what to think but reluctantly I agreed to the change. We would both be doing the Low water hide , the prime species being Black-winged Stilt, later that afternoon.
First though, the drinking pool.
Jose's driver picked us up and took us on the 30 minute drive to the hide, by far the furthest we had had to drive so far. Situated in a field in the middle of nowhere it was a raised artificial pool on a table with a few  perches placed at the far end.
Advised we should take our 500mm lenses that's what we took with nothing else bar a camera body, spare battery and our tripod heads. We'd got the hang of things now, no need to take too much gear, space in the hides was at a premium.
Big mistake.
On entering the hide we discovered there wasn't anywhere to mount a tripod head. The driver looked at us and gestured where were our tripods. He should have noticed when we got in the car that we hadn't got them. Too late now.
With no shelf in front of the glass window, no support we were having to hand hold the lenses.
Not a good start, we were a bit annoyed, well I was anyway.
Once the perches were heavily baited with fat and the water  in the pool topped up we were wired in to prevent escape and told we'd be picked up at 10.30.
The birds arrived immediately the driver had left.
Azure-winged Magpies. Lots of them!
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
Basically there were three perches, two of which were baited.
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
You had to grab the shot before they got a mouth full of fat.
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
It was soon apparent that we had a problem. The grass surrounding the pool was too long.
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
It was getting in all the shots unless the bird was at the extremity of the perch.
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
The shots along the side of the drinking pool were all but useless, our lenses were too big as well. 
We both regretted not bringing our 100-400 lens as that would have been perfect.
Too late now, we just had to make do with what we had.
Very soon we had more than our fill of perched Mapies so it was a question of trying for something a little bit different.
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
It wasn't easy either!
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
With poor light we were stuck with low shutter speeds.
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
and the 500mm lens was making life very difficult to try and capture the birds in flight.
The sun came out eventually though.
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
but we still had 500mm lenses and nothing else!
It was getting a bit too repetitive, the odd change in feeding habits 
Azure-winged Magpie   Cyanopica cyanus
and a Spotless Starling having a bath
Spotless Starling   Sturnus unicolor
was the limit of the variety.
In fairness, we hadn't managed a single shot of the Azure -winged Magpies prior to this session despite fairly frequent sightings but we were disappointed that the close singing Oriole and Cuckoo didn't drop in, probably as the pool was overcrowded with Magpies as their food seemed to last forever.
Not the best of drinking pool hides we have been to but at least it delivered on one species.
When I pointed out to Jose that the grass was too long he just shrugged and said it had been cut a week ago but was growing very fast at the moment.
That might be the case but we'd paid 100 euros for around two and a half hours. Everything should be fully prepared.
For our evening session there were three of us. Mike and myself in one hide, a Dutch guy in a separate one that was next to ours.
Again it had me thinking was this more for the convenience of Jose, one drop off one pick up, than for my benefit and an allegedly inactive Roller at the hide I was originally meant to be at?
I have to admit though, it was the best hide I had all week! Despite my reservations about Black-winged Stilts and having been there and done them before, this time was so much better.
Lying flat out on mats, the hide looked over a small sandy point on part of a much bigger pond.
Within minutes we had a pair of Stilts mating right in front of us and it wouldn't be the only time either so if you are a bit embarrassed cover your eyes now!
Black-winged Stilt   Himantopus himantopus
Actually, I'll keep those shots to later.
My only regret was I didn't have a 1.4 TC. The 2x on my 500mm lens was a frame filler.
Black-winged Stilt   Himantopus himantopus
Any movement and I'd be unable to get all the action in the frame.
Of course if a small bird came along it was fine.
Common Sandpiper    Actitis hypoleucos
A Common Sandpiper was hunting right round the little point so we had it on either side of the hide.
Common Sandpiper    Actitis hypoleucos
Sometimes it was too close as it walked right past us.
Of course it's sod's law the minute you take the teleconverter off the lens you need it again but there is no chance to re mount it or you'll miss the action.
Still a big crop on the shot does the trick too.
Little Grebe  Tachybaptus ruficollis
but you can loose some detail as this stunning breeding plumaged Dunlin demonstrates.
Dunlin  Calidris alpina
Another last minute entry just before were picked up was a Little Ringed Plover.
Little Ringed Plover   Charadrius dubius
but for me the stars were the hunting Common Sandpiper 
Common Sandpiper    Actitis hypoleucos
chasing flies which were in plentiful supply
Common Sandpiper    Actitis hypoleucos
The low angle of the shots were really pleasing.
Common Sandpiper    Actitis hypoleucos
The Stilts looked good too.
Black-winged Stilt   Himantopus himantopus
particularly as the sun started to sink lower in the sky.
Black-winged Stilt   Himantopus himantopus
But it was the action that really made the session outstanding.
Black Winged Stilt.    Himantopus himantopus
You can see why a 2x teleconverter would have missed half the shot now!
Black-winged Stilt   Himantopus himantopus
The whole courting and mating ritual made for fascinating watching.
Black-winged Stilt   Himantopus himantopus
There is a real bond of affection apparent too.
Black-winged Stilt   Himantopus himantopus
The act completed they perform a little side by side walk together before carrying on where they left off.
That was more than we were going to do though.
Crisps and salted peanuts at the bar again.
Still, it had been a good day otherwise.