Travelling by numbers

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By George McKinney

Number 200 was rather special, and not just because it was the target-number.  The weather was hot and sticky as we were visiting the Delta de l’Ebre (Ebro Delta for non-Catalans).  Not even the mosquitoes could spoil the view out over the browning rice fields and past the large-tired machines needed to harvest the crop.   Come to think of it, number 190 was rather fine too as I swam on my back in the hotel pool and looked up into the skies above Rodalquilar in Almeria, Southern Spain.   But, of course, number 1 was the reason I started this list as it acted as a trigger for this one-year experiment.

We all remember places we have visited in different ways.  This year many of my memories have numbers associated with them; as you can see.   By now you may have guessed that the bird, a Black Stork which had deviated from its more usual territory and flew over our cortijo in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Southern Spain on the 1st of January, inspired me to keep a list of all the bird species I identified throughout the year.   That is why this year’s travel memories are associated with my progress towards listing 200 different species.

The first 82 species were spotted and listed from around our cortijo or down on the salinas (used and disused sea-salt pans) along the coastal areas only a few hours away.  January is a good month for seeing birds as the trees have few leaves and, as we love to walk in the cooler air, we spend a lot of time in the countryside.  The valleys which stretch up into the mountains behind us are home to so many species and local walks allow us to see Bonelli’s and  Golden Eagles alongside owls, Crossbills, Buntings and Shrikes. On the Salinas the air does not quiver and obscure as much as it does in the summer months so Flamingo, White-headed Duck and Spotted Redshank all appear in clear focus.

Then back to our home in England near the Yorkshire Dales where our walks took us to the 12th Century Augustinian monastery/part-ruin of Bolton Abbey and along the banks of the River Wharfe.  Here the water is forced into a narrow, deep and dangerous channel called The Strid.  Numbers 83 to 101 were seen with Paul and family on this winter walk with a little help from a bird-feeding station high above the rushing water.  Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers fed on the seeds while Mandarin ducks and Dippers brightened the dark rushing waters below.

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Numbers 102 to 124 were all rather special too.  Most were seen from the deck of one of the many Hurtigruten boats that service the long coastal land and islands of Norway.  The journey from Bergen to Kirkenes (over 4000 Km round trip) took us through narrow channels between darkened cliffs that plummet into the grey seas.  The sea itself was a reflection of the grey weather so the hoped-for night-time views of the Northern Lights never materialised. We didn’t mind however, as the many stops at small harbours and the way the occasional patch of blue lit up water and sky alike, were ample compensation.  Now we were spotting Black Guillemot, King, Common and Steller’s Eider Ducks, Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls.  I can picture myself on deck, wrapped up very well as usual and entering Vadso harbour. 

The light was better and, as we sailed past Amundsen’s old air-ship mast, there, bobbing in the grey sea, was one of the most colourful sea-birds I have seen; a King Eider Duck. Very exciting!  Our three hour stop-over in Kirkenes was filled with a 2-hour return trip inland to see Pine Grosbeaks, Siberian-Tits, Willow Tits and Jays near a remote log cabin amongst silver birch and snow-covered low scrub. This is a white wonderland where farmers, miners and fisher-folk work and play, way up in the Arctic Circle where the Norwegian, Russian and Finnish borders meet.  When traffic was held up to allow those competitors in the annual 1,000Km Finnmarksløpet sled dog race to cross the road, we feared we may miss our boat.

In April a visit to the coast near Flamborough was planned with Sheila’s brother Ian and his wife Margie as they wanted to visit a friend, Martin, who had been ill.  Numbers 130 to 141 are associated with that outing as we followed Martin’s local advice.  He is a significant birder and has recently published detailed advice on separating out confusing species (see ‘Birding Frontiers’ below).   We spotted our first Barn Swallow of the year along with great views of a Yellow-hammer near a small pool just off the beaten track.

The birth of a grandson, Owen Gareth, on 11th June prompted a visit to Gosforth near Newcastle, and a boat-trip to the Farne Islands where the Arctic Terns ‘welcomed’ you onto the island with a sharp attack on your skull and poo down your clothes. Here Puffins dive to gather Sand-eels out at sea and then run the gauntlet of ‘lazy’ gulls who try to steal the eels before the Puffins can dive into their burrows to feed their young.

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The Anglesey cliffs near North Stack helped Sean, Sheila and I get close-up views of Peregrine Falcons as we walked the scenic loop from the RSPB Visitor Centre at Ellins Tower via Holyhead.  On the walk we had a chance to marvel again at the ingenuity of the 19th Century workers who built the 3km breakwater stretching out from, and protecting, Holyhead harbour.  We had been close-up to the wall earlier on a boat trip out for more head-banging by the Terns on The Skerries, so this view from higher up was all the nicer in the clear weather.

Summer took us back for a family holiday in southern Spain then we did what we have done before; shut up the cortijo and had a ‘holiday’ from this busy retired life, into the Spanish hinterland.  Our first stop was in the Sierra Espuña just north of Lorca; scene of that serious earthquake in May 2011.   Number 172 was spotted as we settled down into our travel seats for a lunch looking out towards some dramatic limestone cliffs soaring up some 150 metres towards an army communication ‘golf-ball’.  My question, “Why are we not seeing any vultures here”, was quickly answered as over 100 Griffon Vultures soared into view and used the warm updrafts from the cliffs to help them join so many migrant birds on their way south to Tarifa and the 13.5Km crossing to Africa.

Then on to the Ebro/e River and Delta with 182 species confirmed on my expanding list.  183 was a Little Bittern which flew out past a Water Rail (184) and across the misty, fast-flowing river.  Ian and Margie joined us in the apartment in Móra d’Ebre for a few days before we left Templar (yes the Knights were here) country and went to register for the first ever Ebre Delta Bird Festival.  This was a great success with talks and guided tours to areas not usually open to visitors. Here I ‘cheated’ a bit as I noted and listed birds shown to us by those catching, ringing and listing resident and migrant birds.  So Savi’s and Willow Warblers were added along with a White Spotted Bluethroat.

Then it happened.  Number 200 flew into view and it was indeed very special.  It was an Osprey on its way to West Africa.  It may or may not, have been the one I saw a few years ago when we travelled across Rugen Island in the Baltic but I made the link anyway.

What was number 190 I hear you ask?  It was a small flock of Alpine Swifts flying south to join the Griffons. A view which looked all the better from my relaxed position in the hotel pool!

Travelling and walking alone, with family or friends is so rewarding and interesting that it hardly needs to be enhanced.  Yet I find that these experiences are added to as I appreciate what I see and extend my understanding and knowledge of the birds that share our spaces.  Next year, however, I think I’ll not bother with the numbers, I’ll just keep the memories.

Martin Garner’s book can be checked out on; http://birdingfrontiers.com/

Words and pictures by George McKinney

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