I was fortunate enough to travel extensively in the United States and Canada with my family when I was growing up, reaching all 50 states before I started college. In my undergrad years, I also made trips to St. Lucia, the Dominican Republic, and Cancun where I experienced a taste of the Neotropics. All of my adventures thus far had been confined to the Northern-Western Hemisphere. When Miriam and I began planning our February vacation back in October, however, I was presented with the opportunity to change that. After batting around several options, we settled on an expedition to southern Spain. I was excited for my first time visiting Europe, and I did a lot of homework leading up to our departure so we could make the most of our week-long holiday.
My main goal was to strike a balance between locations, activities, and birding targets that would make for a memorable experience. As usual, I reached out to others who had gone before me and picked their brains for ideas. Ben Barkley was able to provide me with a lot of great intel, and Doug Futuyma was kind enough to pass along the invaluable Where to Watch Birds in Southern and Western Spain. The Andalucía Bird Society was also a fantastic resource for learning about the most spectacular sites and recent observations of interest. After several long months of studying my new Birds of Europe field guide and trying to memorize vocalizations on the Spanish Birds Sounds app, I felt that I was finally ready.
Miriam and I departed from JFK on the evening of Sunday, February 18. Our overnight plane ride across the Atlantic inexplicably had two food servings which resulted in frustrating light and sound disturbances. Miriam bravely sacrificed her eye mask and ear plugs since I was the only driver registered to our rental car and needed to be awake and alert for the drive to our lodgings. Against the odds, I managed to get some much needed rest before we landed in Casablanca. Our layover was scheduled to last a few hours: a great opportunity to get started on the birding and add some checks for an African list! The coveted spot of First Bird of the Trip went to Lesser Black-backed Gull, which was at least a year bird. My first Old World lifer was White Wagtail, with several individuals strutting along the runway and flying around inside the terminal. A Eurasian Kestrel darted in to perch outside the window, and raptor circling in the distance was revealed as a Eurasian Marsh-Harrier when we raised our optics. It wasn’t long before we were heading out to the little propellor plane for the final leg of our flight across the Mediterranean.
When we finally landed in Málaga, we hopped aboard a shuttle to pick up our rental car. I was honestly a little apprehensive about our foreign road trip at first. The trials of traveling hundreds of miles over a full week in a different country are not to be taken lightly, and I wasn’t familiar with the brand of our diesel-powered temporary vehicle. Once our journey got underway, though, I realized my worries were misplaced. Driving in Spain is a dream compared to New York, with light traffic, observant and considerate motorists, well-marked roads and signage, and remarkably efficient roundabouts everywhere. It took nearly four hours to get to our bed in Almagro, but it was smooth sailing all the way.
The scenery along the route north was beautiful, with wooded ridges and green fields stretching out as far as the eye could see. We managed to spot a few new birds despite the difficulty of identifying totally unfamiliar species at 120 kph. Miriam and I learned quickly that the hefty and ubiquitous Wood-Pigeons can look surprisingly similar to birds of prey at a glance. Eurasian Magpies are fortunately conspicuous and distinctive, and large flocks of Red-billed Choughs were seen wheeling in the skies. Clear views confirmed that at least some of the starlings we were seeing were definitively Spotless, but most of the smaller passerines were left without names when they flitted up from the roadside as we whizzed past. The sun went down around the time we reached the border of Castilla-La Mancha, and I was pleased to see a classic windmill silhouetted on a hilltop. Almagro was a lovely little town with charming stone architecture, and we enjoyed our stay even though we only got to see it in the dark. With a full belly and a weary head, I crashed hard at the end of the night. The excitement was only just beginning, and we had an early start approaching in the morning.
Year List Update, February 19 – 133 Species (+ Lesser Black-backed Gull, White Wagtail, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Cattle Egret, Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Spotless Starling, Red-billed Chough)