The Lords of La Mancha

Walking along the cobblestone streets of Almagro, just as the first hints of light began to lift the shadows from the buildings, felt like a stroll through the pages of a storybook. The traditional appearance of the town is strongly evocative of Don Quixote’s legendary journey, and I felt inspired to sally forth on a quest of my own. My goals, however, were far more tangible and realistic than the those of the famous knight errant. I was also accompanied by a partner so supportive that she puts Sancho Panza to shame, but at that moment she was exceedingly exhausted. We loaded up the car to the tune of a European Blackbird singing in the darkness before driving west to the Campo de Calatrava.

The expansive agricultural fields of La Mancha are home to a variety of birds that historically inhabited the Spanish steppes. As critical habitat across Europe continues to shrink and disappear, these open spaces provide an important refuge for a number of charismatic species. There are areas in Andalusia where some can be found in small numbers, but Campo de Calatrava offered much better odds of seeing our targets. Once we turned off the pavement onto the dirt paths that cross the region, we encountered common grassland dwellers like Crested Lark, Corn Bunting, Red-legged Partridge, and Northern Lapwing. Soon enough, we spied the first of the “steppe big five,” the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Two of the intricately-patterned birds were resting in a plot of dirt, and I could hear the squawking calls of a large flock further down the road.

As we slowly made our way north, a grove of olive trees came into view up ahead. Nearly a hundred truly gigantic birds were strutting around on the adjacent hillside, several of them flapping their powerful wings and taking to the air at the sight of our vehicle. These were Great Bustards, one of the heaviest living birds capable of flight. Neck and neck for the title with their cousin the Kori Bustard, male Greats usually weigh around 20-35 pounds, and the largest verified specimen clocked in at 46. These massive creatures are impressively imposing even at a distance, standing over 3 feet tall with a wingspan approaching 9 feet. Miriam was a touch uncomfortable with the huge size of these modern day dinosaurs, but I was completely thrilled to finally meet my quarry in the flesh. While I watched the burly birds going about their morning routine, a strange bubbling sound alerted me to the presence of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. A lone individual took off from the field, but I later spotted a pair heading towards a noisy congregation of Pin-tails. Several pheasant-sized Little Bustards were seen flying in behind the Greats and loitering along the periphery of the sandgrouse gang. We tracked down a single Stone Curlew hiding in the shade of an olive tree, and we also ticked Jackdaw, Calandra Lark, Greenfinch, and Spanish Sparrow before departing the fields. The day was off to a fantastic start, and I was hopeful that our lucky streak would continue at our next destination.

The primary reason Miriam and I traveled so far on our first afternoon in Spain was to visit Tablas de Daimiel National Park. We might have taken our chances seeking the bustards and sandgrouse at more southerly locations if it weren’t for a highly-desirable species that inhabits the scattered wetlands of La Mancha. Both of us had ranked the unusual Bearded Reedling near the top of our global “most wanted” lists, and we weren’t going to pass on the opportunity to make chase. Tablas also promised a wide array of other interesting possibilities, so we were eager to begin exploring the trails. Nesting White Storks greeted us at the park entrance, and we added Little Grebe, Black Redstart, and Hoopoe to our life lists before we even got out of the car. Common Cranes could be heard bugling in the distance once we opened the doors, and there were Chiffchaffs, Meadow Pipits, and a European Robin working the lawn next to our parking space. A pair of Great Tits and a Blue Tit fluttered through the trees at the start of the boardwalk that led out over the pools, where we found waterbirds like Coot and Graylag Goose.

There was a lot of activity visible in the reeds, and we took great care to inspect all of the movement that we observed among the swaying stems. Penduline-Tits gave us a start with their gray heads and dark masks, followed by Reed Buntings and a few Cetti’s Warblers clambering from stalk to stalk. All were lovely lifers, but not the birds we were looking for. Finally, Miriam paused, saying that she heard the diagnostic, pinging “pew” call of a Reedling. I listened intently and confirmed her discovery, though we were both surprised when a band of more than a dozen mustachioed songbirds popped out of the vegetation on the opposite side of the walkway. The bizarre, long-tailed fluffballs bounced over to us as if to say hello, delivering fantastic views of their acrobatic antics. The black facial ornaments and soft gray-blue heads of the males paired beautifully with their bright orange bodies and the delicate designs on their wings, making them stand out in the dull, yellowed backdrop of their grassy home. The females, though more subdued in coloration, were equally adorable and cooperative. My photos hardly do justice to these delightful beasties, which are so unique in terms of genetics, morphology, and behavior that they have been placed in their own monotypic family. After a few minutes keeping us company, the Beardies took flight and whizzed off into the distance. The encounter had lived up to our high expectations, and it was well worth the extended detour from Andalusia.

We ended up spending a sizable chunk of our day at Tablas de Daimiel, taking all of the sights and sounds that the national park had to offer. The water levels throughout the area were rather low, so we didn’t see as many ducks and other swimming species as I was expecting to. Green Sandpipers and Common Moorhens were still working the fringes of the shallows, and a carefree Water Rail foraging in the open was a nice surprise. New landbirds included Stonechat, Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Bluethroat, and Green Woodpecker. As the temperature began to rise, storks, cranes, and large kettle of Black Kites took advantage of the increase in thermal action. An observation blind at the Laguna Permanente was a nice spot for a stakeout, and we noted Gray Herons, Great Cormorants, and a Ruff feeding among some Lapwings.

We had another especially long drive ahead of us, so we left the park in the early afternoon. A small crew of Bearded Reedlings came out to say good bye as we were snapping our final photographs of the scenery. Miriam and I paused to get better acquainted with the iconic White Storks at close range before we turned the car southwest and began making our way towards Seville.

The trip from Daimiel to Seville was the longest stretch of on-the-road hours we experienced during the whole vacation. Even so, we made good time and arrived in the Macarena neighborhood of the city before sunset. Once we parked our car, we went for a walk along the side streets, finding Serin, Common Swift, and Lesser Kestrel before dusk. At the recommendation of our host, Miriam and I strolled across town on one of the older roads, which brought us to the spectacular Seville Cathedral. After some tasty late night tapas, we found our way back to the apartment and got into bed. Our first full day exploring Spain had been a brilliant success!

Year List Update, February 20 – 180 Species (+ European Blackbird, Red-legged Partridge, Crested Lark, Corn Bunting, Northern Lapwing, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Great Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Eurasian Jackdaw, Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, Calandra Lark, Spanish Sparrow, European Goldfinch, European Greenfinch, White Stork, Little Grebe, Black Redstart, Eurasian Hoopoe, Common Crane, Common Chiffchaff, Meadow Pipit, European Robin, Great Tit, Eurasian Blue Tit, Eurasian Coot, Graylag Goose, Eurasian Penduline-Tit, Reed Bunting, Cetti’s Warbler, Bearded Reedling, European Stonechat, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Black Kite, Green Sandpiper, Barn Swallow, Eurasian Moorhen, Water Rail, BluethroatGray Heron, Eurasian Green Woodpecker, Common Chaffinch, Black-headed Gull, Ruff, European Serin, Common Swift, Lesser Kestrel)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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