My guilt at taking my first flights for over five years was swiftly replaced by a growing fear that karma had hired an ash cloud to scupper my airborne journey to Spain. This was my first excursion overseas for half a decade, and though the main reason was the wedding of two of my close friends, I was hoping that the week-long break with some friends in the run up to the nuptials would provide an opportunity to see some of our European feathered friends, and provide an alternate window on the world of birds.
I have often considered what it would be like to go on a wildlife watching tour, and although my companions were a little less concerned about the local avifauna than I was, I was sure there would be plenty of outdoor activities during the week that would allow me to don my optics. We had booked a villa in a small village called Asin in Northern Spain, at the base of the Pyrenees. We should have known how isolated it would be when the only instructions we received for our arrival were to come to the village and ‘ask for Jesus’! Jesus was the owner of the villa, and clearly well known to the local population. This was rural Spain at its finest, with small hills giving way to larger mountains, giving way to snow-capped peaks.
And not a word of English spoken. This was actually very refreshing, as it forced us to improve our linguistics in readiness for the cross-cultural wedding. During one exchange, I managed to convey to Jesus that I was looking for birds. A multinational game of charades followed in which he described, perhaps, how it was better to see birds there in autumn. After much nodding of heads, he beckoned me to his house and found a map on which he circled all of the best local sites. Having bid him ‘adios’, he arrived at the villa half an hour later with a bird guide for the local region, and to my disbelief the bird on the front cover was a cirl bunting! When travelling abroad, or to any new place, in search of birds or other wildlife, it is important to do some homework on what you might find and where. There are invariably guide books available for most sites, although the Collin’s Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe covers many of the species you’re likely to find on the continent. A learned travelling friend was able to provide a map and a guide to birding sites in Spain, which added to my pre-trip reading, and allowed me to develop a target list of species.
The delight of visiting a new site is the possibility of finding something unfamiliar and being able to identify it. As such, all of the senses are tuned to maximum efficiency. Not only was I able to see new species, but I could study birds that are less frequent visitors to our shores in different plumages, and exhibiting alternate behaviours. I have seen black redstart in Portscatho each winter, but I have never before heard its song, or recorded the white patch in the wing it displays during the breeding season. The Cornish corn bunting population has declined to probably less than 100 territories, but where I was the key-jangling call was ever-present. And though our red kite population is now increasing after years of re-introduction and conservation, out there they drifted lazily over every village. The mix of cultivated fields and open scrub provided a good mix of habitat for a range of species. Woodchat and red-backed shrike were hawking the low bushes, golden oriole and nightingale preferred the few trees that sprung up in the valley bottom, cirl and corn bunting were omnipresent at the field edges, bee-eater and hoopoe scanned the landscape from telephone wires, and house martin and red-rumped swallow sucked mud from the puddles for their nests. Spain is well known for its raptor populations, and there was no difficulty adding red and black kites, booted eagle and griffon vulture to the list. I had to wait until we foraged further north into the Pyrenees to see one of my main targets – Lammergeier. This magnificent vulture is very uncommon in Europe, with an isolated population in the highest and most remote peaks in the Pyrenees. The adults drop bones onto rocks to break them into fragments, which they then swallow, and it has a unique shape in flight, with a long wedge-shaped tail and narrow, pointed wings. It was a wonderful and memorable first for me.
Foreign travel provides a wealth of excitement for natural history enthusiasts. The prospect of new species and unfamiliar observations maintains the adrenaline levels for wildlife junkies like me. But for those not unable to leave our shores this summer, there is much to be said for discovering a new place in this country. With ‘staycation’ the buzzword of travel in these most scrupulous of times, I am all in favour of expanding my knowledge at home whenever possible. The UK and Cornwall have some fantastic places to visit, and you don’t have to fly to get there! You need not travel far for a new experience – you just have to get out! Wherever you go and whatever you do, a memorable experience is not far away. Whether it’s your first basking shark in the bay or the joy of seeing a goldfinch through a telescope, the scent of wild garlic or the pleasure gained from sharing these experiences with someone else, grab these opportunities and store them away. Last weekend, for the first time n my life, I saw a pair of Chough fly overhead whilst I was swimming in the sea – an experience that made the freezing water, aching muscles and grazed shin totally worthwhile! And if the aerial disruption and fine weather continue, perhaps more of us will discover something or somewhere new in this country. Every cloud has a silver lining!