Month: May 2023

Birding Catalunya, Spain: Odds & Ends (& Flamingos!)

Flamingos are a ridiculous sight, like a swan standing on electric pink stilts with a melting bill

It’s so fun a few weeks after a great adventure to relive it by writing up these posts. And our trip to northeast Spain was a great adventure. Travel can bog you down at times. By the end of a trip, you can feel exhausted. But once that fades with time, and you go back and remember all the places you’ve been and the things you saw, the treasure of travel does more than just return. It is reinforced. The takeaway is clear: go places. And so it is with this recap of the last couple of days of our Spanish sojourn. We were all a bit worn down. But we did some cool stuff.

Costa Brava: Empuries and L’Escala 

During our stay in Girona, we took a day trip to the Costa Brava, a scenic stretch of coastline in northeast Spain. There are coves, cliffs, castles (we had a fun stop at Castell d’Hostalric, entering through an underground tunnel), beaches, and charming small towns amidst beautiful rolling green hills. There are also beach resorts, but we stayed far away from those. Our destination was an old fishing village turned Spanish tourist destination called L’Escala. Our target wasn’t anchovies, but instead the ruins of a city called Empuries. It was founded in 575 B.C. by Greek traders, and later occupied and expanded by the Romans. 

The beachside Greco-Roman ruins of Empuries (photo via Tripadvisor)

The ruins really are that. It takes a lot of imagination, and the help of an audio tour guide and museum, to reconstruct what the town looked like when it was occupied. The grounds are great for exploring. Half the site is a compact set of ruins. The upper half has trees, fields, and some really cool Roman floor mosaics. It was in the upper section that I saw the most birds. They included a Black Redstart that was working on building a nest, and a lifer Cirl Bunting pair. I also got point-blank looks at White Wagtail and the melodious European Serin (a female House Finch hit by a yellow paint ball right in the face).

The museum on site had a cool 1st century- B.C. mosaic of a bird (aka the Roman eBird). I’ve identified it as a Red-legged Partridge. Modern eBird only allows entries as far back as 1800, so I couldn’t update the database with this documentation.

From the ruins, we headed to a big park in L’Escala atop a bluff looking over the Gulf of Roses and the Mediterranean Sea. It was a lot like La Jolla in San Diego. From atop the bluff, I scanned the sea and saw a lifer European Shag flying by just above the surface of the water. There was, disappointingly, little else on the water or along the rocky shore. But we had a nice time enjoying the traditional activity of throwing rocks into the water.

Garrotxa Volcanic Zone

On our second to last day of the trip, we drove from Girona back to Barcelona. Instead of returning the way we came, we wanted to get some sight-seeing in on the way. So we drove back via Olot. It’s a town amidst the 30+ ancient volcanic cones of Garrotxa and the foothills of the Pyrenees. On the way down a windy two-laner, our youngest son started feeling car sick. So we pulled over to get some fresh air. As I sat down next to him, I picked up a lifer Common Chaffinch singing in the trees above us. Olot was quiet and empty. We were there on Easter Sunday. In Catholic Spain, they take Easter Sunday seriously. Almost nothing at all was open. Nothing. We did a quick walk around the old center of town, saw the big church (Crag-Martin’s flying in front of the facade), and decide to move on.

A chapel rests inside a volcano crater like a bird’s egg in a nest

Our main destination for the day was the Santa Margarita Volcano just outside of town. It promised a 30 minute hike up a hill and down into the crater. Inside the crater, for some reason, was a small stone chapel. It’s a popular spot, and a pleasant walk. Halfway up, there is a picturesque country house surrounded by carved wood sculptures. Once we made it down into the crater, we busted out our sandwiches and snacks. I saw a few birds as we hiked. They either were Common (Chiffchaff, Bizzard), European (Robin, Goldfinch, Serin), or Eurasian (Blue Tit, Blackcap, Blackbird, Nuthatch). A lifer Eurasian Nuthatch was the best bird of the bunch. The hiking in this area looks amazing. Had we more time and ambition, I would’ve voted for a hike near Sadernes along the Ruta Sant Aniol.

Barcelona’s Delta del Llobregat & Platja del Prat

We returned to Barcelona for a one-night hotel stay near the airport. This accommodation put us, to my wife’s mind, suspiciously close to a major birding spot. It wasn’t on purpose, but I wasn’t complaining. The Barcelona airport is right next to a big river delta park called Delta del Llobregat. We flew directly over it when we arrived, and my son and I are convinced we saw flamingos in the river from the plane. A visit to the park promised a couple of dozen lifers–shorebirds and ducks and whatnot–if the cards fell right. But they didn’t. I showed up at 6:30pm, a good 90 minutes before sunrise, at the eastern section of the park (Mirador de Cal Lluquer). But it turns out that the money spot for birds is fenced off, and closes at 7pm. I reached the entry gate at 6:50pm, and found it cracked open (which I took as a hint not to come in). I walked in anyway and found an attendant. She said the area was closed. With my binoculars around my neck, I put on my nicest face and asked in my best Spanish if I could have 5 minutes to check out the river for the flamingos. Because this is a reliable spot for Greater Flamingo. She said yes, but insisted I only had 5 minutes.

I scurried from the gate to the river, past a pond that undoubtedly held some lifers. When I arrived at the river, I was treated to the absurdity of Great Flamingos. It was hard to take my eyes off of them. But a quick scan of the river got me two more quick lifers: Common Shelduck and Common Redshank. It was a disappointingly short but memorable stop. Frustratingly, the gates didn’t open in the morning until 9am, and we had to get to the airport at 10:30am. Attempting to salvage the moment, I drive 5 minutes to the beach to see what might be there at sunset. Not much, it turns out. A single gull flew by, which was a lifer Audoin’s Gull. But, again, there weren’t any birds in the water or on the sand.

I ended the trip with some distant views of flamingos from Terminal 1 of the Barcelona airport. In case you’ve got a layover and need a lifer, go to Gate C98 and look west. All told, I saw 73 species in Spain. Forty-seven were lifers. Not a bad tally for a trip that was not focused on birding.




Birding Girona, Spain: City Parks

The Sept of Baelor (aka the Girona Cathedral)

Girona is a Great Town

After several pleasant days in Barcelona, we rented a car and drove 100 kilometers northeast to Girona. It’s a charming city with a beautiful medieval section. Several different scenes in Games of Thrones were filmed there. Girona has a famous red iron bridge designed and built by Eiffel–the Pont de les Peixateries Velles–that ran directly underneath our airbnb. We did some nice people-watching (and bird watching) from the window above the bridge. In the mornings and evenings, Alpine and Common Swifts, Barn Swallow,s and Common House-Martins swooped above the river. During the day, Mallards, a Little Egret, an Egyptian Goose, and an Eurasian Moorhen worked the shallow River Onyar. We enjoyed a balcony-view of the Roman soldier-dominated Good Friday procession (a Girona tradition since 1751). We also had a great time wandering the area around the cathedral, and the old (9th century!) city wall. Girona is a wonderful mid-sized city to visit. 

Parc de la Devesa and Riu Ter

Girona also had some pretty good birding. It was better than the city birding in Barcelona. From our airbnb, it was a short walk across the Eiffel bridge to Parc de la Devesa. This big park was full of birds. There’s a garden area in the southeast corner with a variety of bushes and trees. There was good action here, including a pair of lifer Eurasian Jackdaws and some Eurasian Tree Sparrows. As in Barcelona, Monk Parakeets and Rose-ringed Parakeets were around, as well.

Most of the rest of Parc de la Devesa is covered with rows and rows of very tall trees. Working these trees were Iberian Green Woodpeckers, Great Tits, Eurasian Blue Tits, and Starlings. Twice, while walking through the rows of trees, I found a pair of Eurasian Hoopoe feeding. They were pretty chill as long as I stayed 25 feet away. Get closer and they’d flush. Thus ended my long, globe-trotting hunt for good looks and a photograph of this distinct bird.

At long last, I got eyes and camera on a spectacular hoopoe

The River Ter runs along the northern edge of the park. Along the banks is some nice riparian habitat that was super productive each time I walked by. Loudly calling from the riverside bushes were a couple of Cetti’s Warblers and Eurasian Wren. A small flock of Common Waxbills flushed some reeds. Perched in a tree above the river were some Great Cormorants, a bird I’ve failed to see in a decade of summer visits to Maine. Moving around the tall trees were some barky and subtly brilliant Eurasian Jays. A few shorebirds were in a sandbar in the middle of the river: Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, and Green Sandpiper.

Just under the bridge that takes you from the park to a convention center called Fontajau is a mini-waterfall with a jumble of boulders. There were two different wagtails here – the more common White Wagtail and a less common (and somewhat confusingly named) Gray Wagtail (it’s yellow underparts really stand out). A Little Egret stood on an exposed. Up river I saw a couple of Black-winged Stilts. Off in the distance a Common Kingfisher flew low across the river. A Purple Heron flew by overhead. The north end of the bridge offers good looks into a canopy of trees, which were buzzing with activity.

There is a vast open area on the north side of the River Ter with trails meandering through it. One morning I briefly wandered around. I added a trio of Willow Warblers and a lifer Common Redstart in this area. I would have liked to spend a little more time here, but I was creeping further from home and needed to get back to the family.

John Lennon Gardens

Back behind the Girona Cathedral are a set of hilly gardens that were a delight to explore. There were cobblestone paths, crumbling stairs, bridges, plazas, and tall medieval stone walls. Especially for an American like me residing on the West Coast (“some of these buildings are over 20 years old”), the age of everything was a little flabbergasting. No matter which we you turn, you should eventually come upon an access point to the old city wall. You can walk atop it for over a mile and enjoy grand vistas of the city and distant Pyrenees mountains. On the slope of one of the hills is a quiet green space called Jardins de John Lennon. This was a great spot for birding and quiet contemplation. Bird calls came from every direction. In addition to the usual songbird suspects, I finally got my lifer Common Buzzard here (there were surprisingly few hawks in the skies during our visit). My only look at a Great Spotted Woodpecker happened here. 

I’m so glad we spent a few days in Girona. It’s a wonderful city, and gave us the old European experience we were hoping to get (and I haven’t even mentioned our visit to the 1st century B.C. Greco-Roman seaside ruin of Empuries a half an hour away). In my next post, I’ll detail a couple of day trips we took nearby (Empuries, and a hike into the crater of a volcano). Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to drive up high into the Pyrenees, where the legendary Lammergeier resides. But like I always say – that’s gives us a reason to go back.