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.