Sunday, 20 September 2015

Spain's new bird fair

It is 29 years to the month since I last visited the Ebro Delta in north-east Spain, a fabulous expanse of wetlands and agriculture now home to its own major birding event, the Delta Birding Festival. I first met event organiser Francesc Kirchner on a trip to Sweden three years ago, and earlier this year we were able to showcase his new festival in Birdwatch. Francesc’s nature supplies shop in Barcelona, Oryx, stocked the magazine at the event, so I was pleased to travel out with copies to see the festival for myself.

Stars of the show: some of the many Greater Flamingos on view at Catalonia's Delta Birding Festival.
I was impressed. This was a well-organised event, thoughtfully planned by Francesc and his team, and full of attractions and activities, with an excellent line-up of speakers including Hadoram Shirihai, Dick Forsman, Carles Carboneras, Conor Jameson and Dani Lopez Velasco. It was also set in a superb location in the heart of an area of bird-rich lagoons and salt pans, and it’s the first trade show I’ve attended where visitors can watch glowing pink lines of Greater Flamingos, hawking Caspian and Whiskered Terns, and rafts of Red-crested Pochards while browsing books and testing optics.

The elegant Audouin's Gull, something of a speciality of the Catalan coast.
The schedule allowed for some birding before and after the event, and in company with Carles Oliver of Barcelona Birding Point, Conor and I had a good journey down from Barcelona on the first day, the varied species list including Griffon Vulture, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Little Bustard, Eurasian Crag Martin, Thekla Lark, Woodlark, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and Blue Rock Thrush, as well as Spanish Ibex.

Male Spanish Ibex on the lookout in the mountains of El Port, overlooking the Ebro Delta from the west.
Excursions in the Ebro Delta itself netted a good haul of waders and other mainly wetland species, from 'Mediterranean' Shag (the globally rare and declining subspecies desmarestii) and Red-necked Phalarope to the elegant Audouin’s Gull and a migrant Savi’s Warbler. Hadoram and I spent some time trying to photograph Purple Swamphens, now firmly re-established in this area since my previous visit; they proved too shy for good images, but we saw plenty. On the final morning, a pelagic on the flat-calm, sun-drenched Mediterranean brought Balearic Shearwater and more Audouin’s Gulls, as well as small numbers of European Honey-buzzards migrating overhead and – for a lucky few – glimpses of 'Mediterranean' Storm-petrel (the melitensis form of European).

A Little Bustard 'ups periscope' in a sea of alfalfa.
I was very impressed with the field skills and knowledge of the Spanish birders I met, and also by the fact that to a person every one of them could converse in fluent English (shame on most of us Brits for not being able to return the compliment). More generally, what also struck me about this short trip to Spain was that in the same amount of time it takes to drive to northern England from London, it is possible to get to Catalonia and enjoy an altogether more exotic avifauna. With numerous cheap flights to Barcelona from UK airports, I can see the Delta Birding Festival and its environs becoming increasingly popular with visiting British birders in future.

Thanks to Francesc Kirchner and colleagues, especially Ricard Gutiérrez and Miquel Rafa, for being such accommodating hosts.

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