Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Volcanic Ash Cloud Latest: Birder comes home the long way and sees 100 species from a bus

Apologies for the tabloid-like title... gladly I've missed all the news back home!

Well, it was a journey comprising a hire car, bus, ferry, train, tube and foot in 36 hours from Southern Spain to London! After being stranded just as the field course was ending we waited around for several days to see if Aer Lingus could fly us back to London and after no change in the situation, we eventually hired a bus (with no toilet!) to take us north through Spain and France to Calais for the ferry to Dover.

Last year I blogged about 100 species seen from a boat in the Amazon as I returned from some field work (see here). This time I decided to make use of this potentially arduous journey on a coach as an opportunity to make a species list as I crossed a range of life zones from Mediterranean evergreen scrub at 36° to temperate deciduous woodland at 51° latitude. As a result the journey was highly enjoyable and seemed to pass quicker than a horrible overnighter from London to Scotland on a National Express coach. I recorded every species seen in every 30 minutes time slot, taking GPS readings and noting kilometre road markings. This information will appear in an article on my main website at some stage but for now I’ll summarise the cumulative list of new species from south to north.

The journey home began in Zahara de los Atunes on the Costa de la Luz in southern Andalucia, our base for the ecological genetics field course since 7 April. This area is fresh and green at this time of year but soon becomes a hot, parched area as the summer progresses. As I packed the car, a Blue Rock Thrush could just be heard singing from the old Castello de las Almadrabas over the din of a noisy House Sparrow roost in the palms of the Avenida de la Playa and the Spotless Starlings added some snap, crackle and pop sounds. Leaving the town of the tuna fish, the Barn Swallows were already searching for insects in the pre-dawn light and Cattle Egrets were passing overhead, probably from their roost site near Vejer. The trip towards Algeciras and along the Costa del Sol to Marbella added Montagu’s Harrier, White Stork, Crested Lark, Common Kestrel, Feral Pigeon, Collared Dove, Red-rumped Swallow and House Martin to the list after a brief stop at the Mirador del Estrecho in some dramatic light [13 species at 0920h].

Arriving at Elviria in Marbella, there was a 90 minute wait until the coach departed and I noted Blackbird, Pallid Swift, Blue Tit, Jay and Sardinian Warbler around the Umbrella Pines before a breakfast of coffee, hot chocolate and churros. The coach departed at 1050h and trawled through the package holiday resorts before climbing across the Montes de Málaga with Yellow-legged Gull, Crag Martin, and Lesser Kestrel seen. The roads inland (A-45, A-92) towards Granada provided Linnet, Greenfinch, Stonechat, Bee-eater, Serin, Corn Bunting and Magpie [28 species at 1247h].

By 1300h the bus was crossing the classic Jaen landscapes of olive plantations as far as the eye could see and a Red-legged Partridge flow through one grove close to the road. After a Mallard in small hill stream, the first of several Hoopoes was seen in typical ‘butterfly’ flight and Sand Martin, Short-toed Eagle and Woodchat Shrike showed between Km 16.5 and Km 5 on the A-44 road. The next section towards Madrid produced the ubiquitous Goldfinch and some of the most exciting species of the trip with Griffon Vulture, Azure-winged Magpie, Turtle Dove, Spanish Sparrow all seen before our first 45 minute break near Almuradiel El Viso [39 species at 1510h].

After a standard lunch of bread, cheese and chorizo, the bus continued and the first of three Great Spotted Cuckoos was noted at Km 215.5 on the A-4. Things were quiet until Km-158.5 when a Buzzard was seen and several Whiskered Terns were glimpsed at a roadside wetland near Daimiel in the Ciudad Real province. Following Jackdaw and Wood Pigeon, the next highlight was the only Roller of the trip at Km 76 on the A-4. A group of Little Egrets was on the bank of the Río Tajo in the north of the Castilla La Mancha region. Not surprisingly, the Madrid ring road didn’t provide much interest but once on the road to Burgos in Castilla y Leon, a Green Woodpecker bombed over in distinctive undulating flight. In the last hour before our second stop in northern Spain, Cuckoo, Carrion Crow and Red-backed Shrike were found around 1000m altitude in rocky landscapes of boulder strewn grassland, and jaggy peaks overlooking pastures demarcated with dry stane dykes [50 species at 1927h].

The ‘El Soto’ service station at 1074m was surrounded by an open stunted oak landscape and Skylark, Whitethroat, Nightingale, Long-tailed Tit and Chaffinch were found before I grabbed a bite to eat. The light was fading as the coach continued at 2025h and the last species noted in Spain was a Raven at 2044h. Tomorrow I would wake up somewhere in France and continue the list [56 species].

I’m not really that familiar with regions in France but when I woke around 0700h I saw signs for Nantes and realised we were quite far north in the Loire Valley. The flat arable landscapes dotted with copses and poplar plantations later changed to gently rolling countryside with small woods, pasture with scrubland where mistletoe hung from almost every tree. Along the A-28, Common Starling, Black-headed Gull. Stock Dove, Coot, Moorhen and Pheasant made up a species composition more familiar to birders in Britain but a Black Kite at 0736h reminded me that I was still far from the end of the journey. Numerous small reservoir-like wetlands occur along the A-28 and these provided the first of many Little Grebes. Little Owl and Rook were noted before a breakfast stop near Aleçon in Normandy at 0845h where a Meadow Pipit was displaying and a White Wagtail was feeding on the grass [68 species].

Heading towards Roen on the A-28 saw Dunnock, Yellowhammer, Great Spotted Woodpecker and the first of many Yellow Wagtails. A very interesting moment occurred as the bus was slowing near some roadside wetlands with lots of exposed mud and many waders! With eyes frantically checking everything I saw Greenshank, Redshank, Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper! Close by, another wetland held a Wood Sandpiper. Driving though Roen, a Song Thrush was noted on a grass verge and thirty minutes later a single Common Swift was seen heading north [79 species at 1148h].

At this stage. I realised that a list of 100 may be attainable but I was getting sleepy! After popping some pro plus and looking really hard at the passing arable fields, the first pair of Grey Partridges was found. Another wetland held a Great Crested Grebe and some Greylag and Canada Geese were noted on a lake as the landscape changed to chalk grassland (mostly farmed as in southern England). Displaying Lapwings were noted from 1258h and later two raptor species were noted within two minutes; Peregrine and Sparrowhawk. The final period before reaching Calais was quite productive with Green Sandpiper, Tree Sparrow and Mute Swan seen [89 species at 1329h].

After nearly 27 hours on the coach we off-loaded and went to book tickets on the next available ferry. Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls wheeled overhead. On the 75 minute ferry crossing to Dover I hoped to pick up several seabirds but it was pretty quiet! Nonetheless, Common Tern and Cormorant were found in the harbour and Sandwich Tern, Fulmar, Great Black-backed Gull and Gannet were seen ‘at sea’ bringing the list up to 97 species! Surely three species could be found before arriving home in north London?

The high speed train link to St. Pancras via Folkestone and Ashford is a great way to travel – it’s just too fast to see any birds from it! Grey Heron was still missing from the list and even a Little Egret was seen even before a heron was noted in Kent at 1730h. Into Essex at 225 km per hour, the train passed Rainham Marshes but it was all a blur. We arrived at St. Pancras just before 1800h and said our goodbyes until the field course symposium next month. But the listing wasn’t over yet! I was confident of picking up at least four more species as I passed Sunny Hill Park on the walk home after taking the Northern Line tube. A Robin was singing outside Hendon Library at 1855h. After being on the road for 36 hours from southern Spain, I settled on a singing Wren in St. Mary’s Churchyard on the edge of Sunny Hill Park as the 100th bird of the trip. Goldcrest and Mistle Thrush would no doubt appear but minutes later I was home and it was time to chill that bottle of Pacharán.


Warren Baker said...

100 Not out!

Enjoy the wine - you deserve it, I'm sipping a nice red as read your post :-)

Mike Weedon said...

Marvellous! Wish me and obsessive bike rider Brian Stone luck on Bank Holiday Monday as we attempt a self-powered day-list around Peterborough. Last year's total of 105 will be a tough beat, but we have one or two trump cards lined up...
Mike W

Fraser Simpson said...

Thanks Warren.

Its a sloe-infused Anisette - so a little stronger than wine - from Navarre. Will sample some this bank hol weekend when Lisa comes down (maybe after a day's birding in the Lea Valley)!

Fraser Simpson said...

Sounds like a great day to come Mike, and of course, good luck! Look forward to reading of your exploits.

Brian said...

Cracking read. Just the sort of thing I'd do faced with a journey like that. Makes it all the more bearable.

Wish us luck on Monday!

Fraser Simpson said...

Thanks Brian, good luck, hope the weather holds up!