Late October in Spain

I spent the last week of Oct in Spain, first around Tarifa, at the southernmost tip of the country, moving then to Ciudad Real, in central Spain for the second half of the week.
The purpose of the tour was to first discuss a new field-guide for raptors with the people at Fundacion Migres , then to go north eagle-hunting, targeting the Spanish Imperial Eagle.

In the south I had the opportunity to do some birding, both alone and with Spanish friends, and managed to find some locally good birds, like a Richard’s Pipit and a Lesser Crested Tern. Together with the guys from Migres, we also had two different immature Ruppell’s Vultures, now a regular visitor to the Spanish side of the Straits. Many people come to twitch these birds for their lists, but unfortunately some of the claims, even some of the published photographs, have been of dark Eurasian Griffons! Compare the two species in the image below, where the darkness of Ruppell’s compared to the Griffon is obvious. There is no colour contrast in Ruppell’s between coverts and remiges, which there always is in Griffon, and immature Ruppell’s never show the warm brown colours of Griffon.

Immature Ruppell's left with immature Griffon. Note differences in general coloration and also in colour contrasts. 27th Oct, Pelayo, Algeciras.

Immature Ruppell's left with immature Griffon. Note differences in general coloration and also in colour contrasts. 27th Oct, Pelayo, Algeciras.

For the eagles I was on my own, working familiar areas which I had visited before. Centuries of persecution have turned the Spanish Imperials into extremely shy birds, and perched birds usually take off from a distance of 300 m or more, as soon as the car is stopped. When they fly, they usually go very high, and with the high temps of last week (+30 C on most days!) the heat haze made it impossible to get clear shots at those ranges. If they fly low, they veer off as soon as a human is spotted in their flight-path. They seem to take no risks whatsoever. Three full days with the eagles left me with very meagre results, although I learnt a lot about this very rare and localised eagle, actually one of the rarest in the world. During these days I saw at least 8 different adults, 4-5 juveniles, 2-3 second years and 1 older immature, with more than a dozen birds in some days. But the photographs I managed to get were no more than record shots. The adults were keeping close to their nests, doing some display flying in the early afternoons, but most of the time they were perched in tree-tops. The hunting was mostly done in the mornings, with birds, often the pair together, perched in tree-tops near some open ground with a good supply of rabbits. I even managed to photograph one hunt, where a juvenile Imperial managed to catch a rabbit, but the hunting skills of that bird still need a lot of honing, so clumsy was the attempt. Interestingly, in one of the displaying pairs both birds were just over one year old. However, it is perfectly normal for at least one of the birds in a breeding pair to be in immature plumage.

The opening picture was taken on the last day, when I had in fact given up. Somewhat disappointed with my success, I was already driving away from the core-area, to begin the long drive down to Malaga and the airport, when I spotted three raptors soaring quite low in the direction of the road. Getting closer the first one proved to be a Red Kite, which I was just going to stop for, when I realised that the other two, a bit further up the road, were juvenile Spanish Imperials! A Formula 1-type explosive start to get under the birds in no time, then a panic braking and a quick jump out with the camera ready managed to secure a few shots before the duo slowly circled higher drifting out across the fields.
I am sure this was all arranged by The Sender?

Thanks to Luis Barrios, Alex Onrubia, Antonio-Roman Muñoz, Javier Elorriaga and Juan Ramírez for their friendship and help with various matters, and to Miguel Ferrer and Ignacio Gil de Bernabé Rivero for the successful meeting in Sevilla.

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