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Rare Birds in Spain

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Trip-report: day-trip to the Ports de Tortosa i Beseït with Audouin Birding Tours

Text and all photos © Ricard Gutiérrez

All photos but the lateral thumbnail taken with Nikon D80 & Nikkor 80-300 mm f/5.6 or Nikkor DX 18-135mm. Right side thumbnail taken with Nikon Coolpix 5200 through Kowa TSN824 using digiscoping techniques.



Resumen en castellano

Productos comentados: Resumen de la excursión de un día a los Puertos de Tortosa y Beceite con Audouin Birding ToursSe resume la experiencia que supuso efectuar un tour familiar de un día con Audouin Birding en los puertos de Tortosa y Beceite, incluyendo la visita a un comedero de buitres (con alimoches y cuervos también), parte principal del recorrido de la mañana, y un paseo por el Parc Natural dels Ports, en la parte catalana de los puertos. Se observaron 43 especies de aves y hubo oportunidad de tomar buenas fotografías no sólo de aves sino también de invertebrados como libélulas o mariposas. Aunque sea un área a la cual se pueda acceder libremente, tomar un tour de éstos te ahorra tiempo, conducción del vehículo propio por caminos y facilita la detección de especies, por lo que en términos de coste-beneficio es recomendable para todos los públicos.


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Griffon Vultures at the Matarranya county vulture observatory.
Buitres Leonados en el observatorio de la comarca del Matarranya
Voltors comuns a l'observatori de voltors de la Matarranya

Introduction 

From time to time this website features reviews of recommended or reviewed products which in the past have included DVD compilations or gadgets for birdwatching. Being Audouin Birding Tours one of the sponsors of this website, we took the opportunity of sharing a day-trip off to the Ports de Tortosa Natural Park, one of the venues they offer from their website for either birdwatchers, wildlife photographers, families with a general interest in nature or people wanting to explore new areas beyond the usual well-known places.

Perhaps a 12th of July under 27-30ºC temperature conditions is not the best moment in the year to explore on feet the mountains, but this fact added interest to evaluate of the tour we were offered was well designed to be carried out in any time of the year. If we add my (this month’s) 30 years in-a-row birdwatching experience plus the fact of coming with my whole family, the test for the guide was an interesting one to conduct. Would he resist my 10 year-old son rhythm? Would my family (not so dead-ahead birders as me) remain interested in the trip all day long? Would it be interesting all in all, particularly for the combined birder-father-husband?. The answer was yes. How was that possible? Just see it below and check some of the photos we took that day. They speak for themselves.

Off to the mountains

It was 7:15 in the rather cloudy morning when we left from Ebro Delta where we were staying after having met Cristian Jensen, the tour-leader from Audouin Birding Tours. On board of his 9 seat wide and comfortable Mercedes Benz Vito van, we were leaving the green rice fields of the delta with passing by Squacco Herons, Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns plus the occasional Purple Heron heading to Amposta first then Tortosa and up the river heading for the Northern slope of the Ports de Tortosa Natural Park.

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Northern slopes of the The Parc Natural dels Ports de Tortosa i Beseït
Cara norte del Parque Natural de los Puertos de Tortosa y Beceite
Cara nord del Parc Natural dels Ports de Tortosa i Beseït

The Ports de Tortosa

The Parc Natural dels Ports de Tortosa i Beseït is a large protected area in S Catalonia, also covering parts of Valencia and Aragon regions, conveniently close to the major bird hotspot the Ebro delta is. There is more information on the park here and here with even a downloadable English version official brochure of the Park here (in pdf)

From the point of view of the birdwatcher, the area has always something to offer, even for us the local, used to Mediterranean species, birdwatchers. In spring and summer, all the migrant summer passerines are present with gems such as Western Orphean Warbler (Sylvia hortensis) or the much commoner Western Bonelli’s Warbler (Phylloscopus bonelli). Both Nightjars (Red-necked and Eurasian) are present and Eagle Owl has a safe population, nothing surprising if one sees the amount of walls and mountains available to them. A wide range of forest passerines and near passerines are present all year long such as Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus) or Crested Tits (Parus cristatus) with Crag Martins (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) along the cliffs. But perhaps the amount and diversity of raptors is one of the major points of interest of the area: breeding Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus), Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus), Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus), Bonelli’s (H.fasciatus), Golden (Aquila chrysaetos) add a constant fly-by of large birds around. To these the odd Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) with the regular Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) add interest to a nearby constant scan of the skies to see what’s around. Additional excitement comes in autumn-winter with overwintering Alpine Accentors (Prunella collaris) and Wallcreepers (Tichodroma muraria) and the chance of having at close range the occasional Black vulture (Aegypius monachus). Not bad!.

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Northern walls of the Ports de Tortosa i Beseït, home of some raptors and wintering Wallcreepers
Paredes norte de los Puertos de Tortosa y Beceite, hábitat de algunas rapaces y treparriscos invernantes
Parets de la cara nord dels Ports de Tortosa i Beseït, hàbitat d'algunes rapinyaires i de pelaroques hivernants.

On our way through la Terra Alta

The ‘Terres de l’Ebre’ is the area of S Catalonia comprising the Ebro delta and neighbouring areas and the Ebro basin north to the Mequinensa reservoir, in the Lleida province limit. To the West it comprises the county of la Terra Alta, a land of good wines, some cultural highlights such as the Picasso museum at Horta de Sant Joan village, or the remains of the areas where the Ebro battle of the Spanish Civil War took place.  While in the van, Cristian gave some explanations on the major points of the trip, particularly on the most interesting topics of the landscape plus also on the differences of bird richness of the county compared with others in the region: it seems to keep a better avifauna due to the lesser usage of pesticides, a fact that would benefit birds such as Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator) or Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster), some of those we recorded along the way along with a perched Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and a passing-by Sparrowhawk.

At nine, having done a 45’ –but interesting- detour because of road-works, we met José Ramón at Vall-de-Roures to join him in one of the best wildlife shows I’ve experienced in Europe in these 30 years of birdwatching I’m carrying in my shoulders: a vulture-feeding session from a hide located at close range and with excellent photo-opportunities. José Ramón holds this project on his own since May 2000, not having external support but that of people like Cristian bringing tours. He does not speak a word of English so coming with an organized party is essential for foreigners (and even for locals! The area is rather remote and I had never heard about it before!). Was it worth the effort? Yes it was.

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Griffon Vulture landing at the Matarranya county vulture observatory.
Buitre Leonado aterrizando en el observatorio de la comarca del Matarranya
Voltor comú aterrant a l'observatori de voltors de la Matarranya

The Vultures are coming

Hidden in the middle of a Aleppo pine forested slope rich in Firecrests, Short-toed Tree-creepers, Tits and Sardinian Warblers, and after a briefing on how to proceed (no cellular phones, no noises, etc...) we entered in one of the two available hides. The smaller, the one we initially were, was perhaps the best for photo-opportunities. Soon José Ramón came with some carrion to be given to the vultures and in seconds, a cloud of over 200 Griffons landed at barely 10-20 meters from us!. The fight for the food was astonishing and the dust they begun moving was somewhat reminding me of some African images we use to see at television (or the luckier directly at Africa).

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Griffon Vultures at the Matarranya county vulture observatory.
Buitres Leonados en el observatorio de la comarca del Matarranya
Voltors comuns a l'observatori de voltors de la Matarranya

Excitement raised when one, then two, adult Egyptian vultures arrived, followed by some Ravens (Corvus corax). The fights were constant and the cameras did not stop shooting at all during most of the time. Wife and children were astonished by the show and commented the scenes as the different aged vultures did one or another thing. In this visit the local Fox (Vulpes vulpes) which favours the carrion too did not appear. Latter we learnt that it had got a good piece of meat the day before (there are daily feedings there) and perhaps it was resting. But the whole show was worth the trip in itself. A latter visit to the new hide (a bigger house with toilet and other facilities rather than a hide) brought another view with better options to see the flight of the vultures, taking advantage of the termals, through the almost 360º wide protected windows. Up to 800 vultures have joined in that feeding area, and some hundreds gather regularly, being joined in winter by the occasional Black Vulture or other raptors such as Black Kite (Milvus migrans). Perhaps that’s the place to look for the next European northernmost sighting of Rüppell’s Vulture?... Definitely.

Egyptian Vulture at the Matarranya county vulture observatory.
Alimoche adulto en el observatorio de la comarca del Matarranya
Aufrany adult a l'observatori de voltors de la Matarranya

Midday hours

After the incredible show we had been offered, anything else would seem of less value. But the scenery of the Ports is so impressive that even in summer season it is interesting and worth walking through. Leaving Vall-de-roures and after some passerines, notably Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus), and a pale-phase Booted Eagle circling above us, we headed for Horta de Sant Joan. In the way, convenient stops for the Rock Sparrow (Petronia petronia). We had picnic close to a small river plenty of life in central hours of the day. Butterfly and Dragonfly devotes would be happy there since there were lots of species to see and photograph. We were not (yet!) very into these invertebrates but the beauty of Banded Dragonfly (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis) in flight or the deep blue body of Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens) were worth watching. The trees also hosted some tits and a Nuthatch (Sitta europaea). In the skies, Alpine Swifts (Apus melba) and an immature Golden Eagle on top of the hill. And more vultures.

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Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis

dragonfly2

Orthetrum coerulescens

Let’s walk again

If not well fitted or with some temporal health problems, the high cliffs in the area could scare you a bit. But the route Cristian had planned was very easy and almost flat, bringing you to the base of the cliffs where interesting rocky and forest species were to be recorded. After a walk along the stony path, a Peregrine was located perched on a tree of the nearby cliff. An adult that gave good views. Crag Martins were present and Common Swifts, perhaps already on passage, outnumbered the also present Alpines. In the middle of the always present vultures, a smaller but still large raptor appeared: an immature Bonelli’s Eagle! Another raptor to the bag!. A Kestrel playing with wind currents even seemed larger than it was. The familiar noise of two Red-billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) was followed by a number of birds in the shaded forest, including a breeding Robin or Coal Tit, some Eurosiberian species typical of the shaded northern-slopes of these mountains also home of the endemic Iberian Ibex (Capra hispanica). Cristian told us that those walls hold in winter a regular Wallcreeper overwintering population so perhaps coming in another colder season to repeat the venue was not going to be a bad idea.

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Walking across the Ports
Caminando por los Puertos
Caminant pels Ports

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Adult moulting Crag Martin. Note old outer primaries and newer inners,with also some old secondaries.
Adulto en muda de Avión roquero. Nótense las primarias externas viejas y las más nuevas interiores, con también algunas secundarias interiores
Adult de Roquerol en muda activa. Noteu les primàries més externes velles, i com creixen les més internes. Es veuen també les secundàries més internes que són velles.

Epilogue

All in all we recorded over 43 bird species in that sunny –and relaxed- day, including nine raptor species, and both me and the family had the opportunity of sharing not only the excitement of the vulture feeding station but the great views of the scenery of Ports and rest of wildlife, butterflies, Dragonflies and mammals. It is certainly worth the effort taking this tour regardless you come from Barcelona or from Leeds or Eindhoven because your visit will be tailor-made, say less intensive like in our case with the children around, or nearly target-species aimed. I think that with those unexpensive flights connecting Reus airport (less than an hour from Amposta and Tortosa through AP-7 motorway) and Europe, a combined visit to Ebro Delta and Ports de Tortosa can produce not only a large trip list but also a good range of photos and experiences such as those we had on 12th July 2009. Perhaps you may think in coming alone by yourself, but in cost-benefit terms, it's worth taking this trip: no driving, not getting lost, no worries but birding and enjoying nature. We certainly recommend it.



Audouin Birding Tours
 






Trip-report: day-trip to the Ports de Tortosa i Beseït with Audouin Birding Tours

Index

Resumen
Introduction
Off to the mountains
The Ports de Tortosa
On our way through la Terra Alta
The Vultures are coming
Midday hours
Let’s walk again
Epilogue


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