Bonelli eagles of the Sierra de San Pedro

 

End of March i will be spending a week in the Sierra de San Pedro, Estremadura, Spain. The Sierra de San Pedro is a mountain range and exists out of a range of fairly low hills and mountains, never exceeding 700 meters above sea level. It is very close to the Portuguese border and is part of the Estremadura province The Estremadura is an authentic part of Spain. No mass tourism, beaches or disco's but small villages and an unspoilt country side.

Estremadura is famous for its bird and wildlife and the Sierra de San Pedro is well known for its breeding Bonelli eagles but also for birds like Spanish Imperial eagle, Eyptian vulture, Golden eagle, Black kite and numerous other birds. A reason for many bird and nature photographers to visit this beautiful part of Spain. I will be trying to photograph a number of these birds from hides but will also be spending time photographing landscapes and the night sky, if the weather permits. Spring has, by the end of march kicked in, and temperatures could be well up to 20 degrees. I will update my diary on a daily basis and i hope you will follow me on my journey.

Bonelli eagle (Photo courtesy Helios Damau)

 

Iberian magpie (Photo courtesy Helios Damau)

 

Sierra de San Pedro and Tajo river (Photo courtesy Helios Damau)

Monday 27th of March

This day started as any other day of the trips that i have done in the past. An early morning Taxi ride to Heathrow Terminal 3. Check in was easy as it was very quiet. Before i knew it i was settling down in the lounge, waiting for the gate for flight BA500 to Lisbon to be called. bosarding caused a bit of a headache. My camera bag didnt fit in the luggage check and i was informed that the bag had to go in the hold. No way! I explained i had travelled with BA in the past and had never had any issues. Eventually a supervisor stepped in and i was allowed to board the plane. It looks like BA has become more strict and before i forget: short haul flights: no food, no drink! You need to buy it on board. 

The flight to Lisbon was pretty uneventfull. After 2 hours we arrived. Weather was cloudy and sunny. I made my way to Enterprise to pick up the rental car and all went very smooth. i ended up with a brand new Fiat Punto. I hit the motoroway for the 3 1/2 hours journey to Herreruela. There was hardly any traffic on the road from Portugal to the Spanish border. i made a stop to get some water and a few snacks and cracked on.

Spring is already on its way in this part of Europe. Storks everywhere, Swallows, Birds of Prey displaying and lots of shrubs already blooming! Before i knew it i had arrived in Herreruela. The best part of the village is the sign before you enter! The hotel is lovely. Small, family run and i have a lovely large room!

My lovely spacious room

I had a bit of lunch: Spanish ham,  bread and a bottle of  Amstel beer! Not a bad way to start this trip i would say. The people are very friendly but they hardly speak any english. Not a problem! I can practise my Spanish! I have a quick drive around the village and see a large number of Storks on theirt nests and many raptors. The weather is very changeable. Sunny one moment and raining the next! I receive a text message from helios, telling me he is at the hotel waiting for me. helios runs photoraptors and he will be my guide for the next week.

The best bit of Herreruela

I meet up and Helios discusses the plan for the week. Everything stands and falls with the weather. The forecast is very good but Helios says that the weather can change from one minute to the next, which means changing plans. Tomorrow i will be trying for Spanish Imperial eagle and Vultures. Other hides that are on the short list are; Passerine hide for Dartford warbler and Iberian magpie, Stork, Spotless Starling . Old farmhouse for Little owl and Spanish sparrow and in between some landscapes as well.

The lovely hotel and my rental Punto

Helios takes me to a great spot for Craig Martins not far from Herreruela. The Martins are there but unfortunately the light is rather poor, so no pictures. Instead you all have to do with pictures from the hotel and surroundings! Lets hope for a good day tomorrow.

The countryside around Herreruela: Holm oaks gallore

Tuesday 28th of March

The good thing about nature photography in Spain is the fact that you do not have to get up at crazy early hours! A leisurly start this morning for me. Breakfast at 06.45 and on the road half an hour later. Just a 10 minute drive to a small village called Salorino. This is where you park your car and where Helios picks you up in his 4 wheel drive. The good thing about the hides  is the fact that they are all close in the vicinity of the hotel. On average a drive to a hide is 30 minutes top! The weather is perfect. hardly any wind and sunny.Today i will be trying for Black and Griffon vultures. Estremadura is a fairly empty distrcit of spain. I would say it is so empty that i could drive on the othetr side of the road for 30 minutes without encounetring a car coming from the opposite direction!

The Vulture hides in Sierra de San Pedro

We arrive at hides. There are 2. One is a low by the ground hide and the other had a first and second floor. Helios prepares the site. Today i am not alone as there is a German photographer called Sascha. I decide to opt for the hide with the 2 floors. Actually this hide is hitec. You can rotate it as well!

As soon as Helios leaves, the vultures arrive. Mainy Black vultures but there are also a number of Griffon vultures. I always find it hard to photograph groups of birds. There is a lot of interaction but often the fighting is obscured by birds in front of the fight! But still i manage to get some nice images of both species. There are also Egpytian vultures (2 pairs) but they do not show today. Other entertainment is provided by Raven and after a while a lone Black kite joins the fun as well.

Black vulture upclose

Around midday Helios pickes us up and we return to Salorino. I drive back to the hotel, charge the batteries, downlaod my images and have a nice sandwich with a Dutch beer. The beer made me think of home. I am so emotional and of course i am dutch! Later this afternoon i will be spending time in one of the passerine hides.

Passerine hide

I meet helios at 16.00 hours and after a short drive we arrive at the passerine hide. It has been raining the days before, so i do not expect an awful lot to happen. The hides are all built on large privately owned estates. The passerine hide is large and comfortabel. Soon the first birds arrive. Among them Blue and Great tits, Iberian Nuthatch but also 15+ Iberian Magpies. They are lovely birds to photograph. New birds for me were the Rock sparrow and Spotless Starling. I am able to take some nice images of those birds. Helios picks me up around 20.30 and drives me back to Salorino. It has been a long day. At the hotel i am having a nice 3 course meal with sme local White wine. i think i derserved that. Tomorrow Spanish Imperial eagle and Dartford warbler. I can't wait. So far it has been pretty good!

Rock sparrow

Wednesday 29th of March

Up a bit earlier as we had to drive to the hide for the Spanish Imperial eagle. I met Helios and Sasha, the German photographer, at Sarolino around 07.00. Jumped in the Subaru Forester and off we went. The sky was full of stars and no wind. After a 20 minute drive we arrived. The 2 hides are built on a hill and it is a 10 minute walk. Like i wrote earlier: spring has already come to this part of Europe and in the distance i can hear a Cuckcoo calling. We arrive at the hides and Helios does some necessary prep work. A good 20 minutes later i am sitting in the hide waiting for things to come! The hides are fairly small and can occupy one photographer but the chair is comfortable, so i am sure i will manage till 16.00 hours.

One of the two hides

The sun slowly rises and it really is a beautiful start of the day. From the hides you can far reaching views of the Sierra de San Pedro mountains. The first birds to arrive are the ever present Ravens. They stick around the hides for quite some time till, all of sudden, the birds disappear! i look up and in front of me on the perch sits the majestic Spanish Imperial eagle. In my view the most beautiful of all Eagle species. My camera is clicking away and it is really handy to have a zoom lens in this situation. The SIgma 150-600 Sports is a god blessing!

All of a sudden a number of Griffon and Black vultures arrive, spooking the Spanish Imperial eagle. It disappears and a black vulture has decided to take over where the imperial eagle left! It is nice to have so few vultures around the hides. It makes it easier to get some nice portrait shots. Eventually the Spanish Imperial eagle returns, scares off the Black vulture and sticks around for another hour or so, flying from one perch to the other. The photographic opportunities from these 2 hides are great!

Helios at work

Dartford warblers are around as well. I do see them but as the wind is a bit stronger, they decide to stay down low in the vegetation. Once the Spanish imperial eagle flies off, the Ravens return. There is a lot of nice interaction between these birds and i happily shoot away although the light, by this time, is rather hard. A lone Black kite flies over a number of times but other then that: it is a quiet afternoon. Around 16.00 hours Helios picks us up and returns us to the cars, parked ,in Saroloni. I say goodbye to Sasha. He is heading back home. I make my way to the hotel for a bit of a rest, recharge the batteries and around 19,.00 hours i am out again. this time photographing Little owl, Spanish sparrow and Storck from an old deserted farm.

The majestic Spanish imperial eagle

I meet Helios again in Salorino around 19.00. Off we drive to the derelict farm. For those that think it is a good idea to go to the Sierra de San Pedro and try to do bird/nature photography solo i have some bad news : most estates are privately own and all fenced off! There are hardly any dirt tracks one can drive on to find birds and mammals to photograph. If this is what you want: you are better off going to Monfrague. If, on the other hand, you want something special, i would say get in touch with Helios!

The haunted farm, great for Stork and Little owl

We arrive at the farm. It looks like a haunted farm to me. In the attic is a space created where a nature photographer can have a overview of the roof and 3 Stork nests. Lovely to photography in the morning but even better in the evening when the sun is setting behind the birds. There are also Spanish sparrows, Spotless starlings and Little owl. It is still too early in the evening and most Storks are feeding in the field. By 20.30 the light starts to get much nicer and before i know it i see a little owl calling right in front of me! I am able to take some really nice images of this beautiful little owl on the old reddish roof. Soon the Storks return and i can take images of the birds greeting each other on the nest. Far too soon it is all over and Helios picks me up, drives me back to Salorino. Another great day has come to an end. Tomorrow; Bonelli eagle!

Last light Stork profile

Thursday 30th of March

Today we are off to the Bonelli eagle hides. There are 3 hides in total. I am not alone today as i have Joerg with me. A german digiscoper who is there on behalf of Swarovski. After a 20 m nute drive, we arrive near the hill where the 3 hides are positioned. The weather is somewhat overcast and its windy as well. We walk up the hill and soon we arrive. A beautiful landscape in front of us, with the Sierra de San Pedro mountains and the planes down below.

Sierra de San Pedro from above

We set ourselves up in the comfortable hide and wait for things to happen or not! After 15 minutes the male Bonelli eagle appears. Sits in one tree, feeds for a while and then flies over to another branch. Cameras are clicking non stop! This week turns out to be really good. The light has also improved but as the Bonelli eagles are quite light i don't m nd the diffuse light. After a while the bird flies off. It is likely that the female is already on the eggs.

One of the Bonelli eagle hides

For an hour nothing happens till suddenly the male reappears. Stays for quite some time and all of a sudden starts to call. After a little while the female appears and together they sit in the tree. The male apparently had enough and flies off but is clearly in the area as, all of a sudden, it flies past us and attacks an Egyptian vulture flying low below! The female stays and eats for quite sometime but around noon she had enough and flies off. Helios picks us up and we head back to the hotel for a rest, a ham sandwich and a cerveza! Later this afternoon we will try for Blue Rockthrush and Sardinian warbler. Blue Rockthrush will be difficult as it is not so regular at the drinking pool. I am sure i will get some nice images either way!

Bonelli eagle

This time i meet Helios near the entrance of the estate. It is the same estate as where the Bonelli hides and other passerine hide are. We follow the dirt track and park up. I can see the hide just 100 meters from the road. Soon i am sitting in the hide. Joerg is joining me for a dshort while as he has to drive to Trujillo to meet up with friends. There is not an awful lot happening. Very little birds around and the Blue Rockthrush is no where to be seen. All of a sudden we notice a noisy warbler with a long tail: Sardinian warbler. What a fantastic bird with its red eyes and black cap.

It moves around very quickly and i am struggling to get any images. Could well be an age thing! Before i know it the bird has disappaered and i have no images! The setting of this hide is beautiful. Overlooking the valley below, the sun behind you and a number of beautiful tperches for the bird to sit on. Joerg leaves around 18.00 and i decide to stay put and hope for the Sardinian warbler to return! And it does return! This time it stays longer, sits on one of the perches and it gives me great opportunities to photograph this stunning bird! During my stay the bird returns another 2 times and it even sings on one of the perches! Sorry Joerg!

By 20.00 Helios picks me up. There are many vultures in the sky and i can hear the first Bee eaters. According to Helios these birds are migrating north. Tomorrow an easier day. i don't have to get up too early and in the morning i will be trying for hoopoe and Spotless starling. So far this trip has been excellent.

The Sardinian warbler hide

Friday 31st of March

A leisurly start of the day! I can sleep for another hour. Just after 08.00 i make my way to Salorino, where Helios is waiting for me. This morning i will be spending in the Hoopoe hide. It is not only Hoopoe that i can photograph there but also smaller birds and Spotless starling. The latter breeds in the small farm building next to the hide. The weather this morning is cloudy and there is fog in some parts of the Sierra de San Pedro mountains. After a 15 minute drive we arrive at the Hoopoe hide. I already told this before: all hides are in close vicinity of the hotel and most are erected on the same estate, so easy does it.

Hoopoe hide with set-up

I set up my camera's  and wait for things to come. Well the only thing coming is rain! Not long but for 5 minutes it is raining steadily. Very, if any, birds show. I take some images of a Crested lark and the Hoopoe makes a brief visit and then disappears. The Spotless starlings are already breeding and i suspect some of them have already young, as they are flying in and out ignoring the perch that has been out up for them.

Spotless starling

Bird song is all around. Cuckoo, Nightingale and i believe i heard Golden oriole as well. This place very much reminds me of Bulgaria. Unspoilt, beautiful country site with many Oak trees dotted around. In the meantime there is very little happening around the hide. Helios will pick me up at 12.00 and believe it or not: a few minutes before 12.00 the Hoopoe returns and decides to display in front of me. Actually it is more agressive behaviour towards another Hoopoe but it gives me, at least, the opportunity to get some nice action shots of the bird! 

Soon Helios arrives and drives me back to Salorino. This afternoon i will be making my way to a place called Los Barruercos. A small lake with a rock formation in the middle with breeding Storks on it! It is just begging to be photographed by me!

Los Barruecos, a must if you visit Sierra de San Pedro

Around 14.00 i left for Los Barruercos, a 30 minute drive from Herrerruela. Easy to find and it's a fantastic place. Large bolders around a lake and on top of the hugh bolders are Stork nests. I also saw Spoonbills (actually surprised to see them here), Black kites overhead and fishing Little egrets. It can get very busy in the weekend apparently and today there were a lot of school children.

Spoonbills

I spent some time near the lake and took some "birds in landscape images" of the Storks on the bolders. I cut my stay short as i wasn't feeling too good but i will come back before i leave on Monday. My feeling is that it is best to visit this place late afternoon and stay till dusk. Must be beautiful to photograph the Storks at sunset. Tomorrow i will be spending another morning in the Spanish Imperial eagle hide and also spending some time trying to photograph Mongoose. In the afternoon i will go to the passerine hide again and work on my Iberian magpie images and anything else that might want to stop by.

Stork on a bolder at Los Barruecos

Friday 1st of April

Today i was going to spend in the Spanish Imperial eagle hide. My guide today was Helios partner: Jose. The Imperial eagle hide is not only good for eagles but also has a family of Egyptian mongoose living near by. These mammals were not introduced in Spain. A million years ago Spain and Africa were connected, so the Mongoose inhabits either side of the Gibraltar straight. An earlier start as we have to walk up the hill. A clear morning and stars and birdsong everywhere around!. There is a stiff breeze blowing.

We arrive at the hides and i decide to make myself comfortable in the same hide as last time. Not that it matters much in which hide you want to sit: both are facing the same direction and more or less the same angle as well. I can see Dartford warblers again but due to the wind they decide to stay low unfortunately. Maybe next year? Around 08.00 the sun starts to rise and the first visitors are the ever present Ravens. Lovely birds and photogenic in my book. An alarm call of one of the Ravens is the sign for the male Spanish Imperial eagle to arrive at the scene. It sits on the perch for some time, feeds, moves to the other perch and back again. All of a sudden it takes off and disappears in the distance. Flight shots are difficult as the wind is coming from behind me. 

Spanish Imperial eagle

There are a large  number of Griffon and Black vultures flying around as well. I do try for some flight shots, as at times, they fly along the hides. Moving the lens around is a bit difficult as the window is a bit small. The Ravens are back and all of a sudden they are gone. This is not an April fools day joke: another Spanish Imperial eagle arrives. Totally different bird then the first one (which is a 6 year old male). By the way: there are 24 breeding pairs in the Sierra de San Pedro.This is a 3 year old female bird. She is not as confident as the male and spends more time lsecuring the area then feeding. Eventually she does start to eat a bit but decides to take off. Only to come back again! This time she is flying parallel to the hide and i am able to get some nice flight shots. After a while she flies off in the distance. A Black kite stops by and also offers some great photographic opportunities.

Still no sign of the Mongoose family....till all of a sudden i spot one ahead of me. only to disappear again. It reappears in front of the hide. These mammals are very fast and do not sit still for a moment. I lose track again and then all of a sudden it sits on a trunk in front of the hide. Unfortunately facing away. The Mongoose disappears and i do not seem him again. Record shots is all i have but i am sure if more time was spent, i would be able to get something nice. There is always next year, or perhaps later this year!

Helios picks me up, drops me off by the car and i drive back for a rest at the hotel. Later this afternoon i will be spending a second session in the passerine hide. So far this trip has been excellent

Egyptian mongoose

Around 16.30 i arrive in Salorino and after a little while Helios arrives in his Subartu Forester. I follow him to the entrance of the estate. From there on it is a short drive to the passerine hide. Helios, as usual, prepares the hide and can i say these guys do an excellent job!

I make myself comfortabkle and set up 2 cameras on 2 tripods and wait for things to come. Actuyally not an awful lot is happening. I don't think it is the hide or anything else for that matter. I think for the passerine hide it is still a bit too early in the season and it should work much better once it gets really hot and more bird species have taken resident in this part of the Estremadura.

Iberian magpie having a bath

Nevertheless i am able to get some nice images. Iberian jay shows up, as usual, with about 20 birds in one go! The Rock sparrow is there as well, Crested lark, a few Tits and the Iberian Nuthatch. I dont' take that many images but i am happy with what i take. You can't always expect to fill a zillion SD cards in an afternoon!

Let's not forget the common birds!

Around 20.15 Helios and Jose pick me up and bring me back to the car. Tomorrow the last day. In the morning i will do my own stuff in the area and late afternoon Helios and myself will visit Los Barruecos again. This time late afternoon to photograph the Storks on the bolders with the setting sun. I am looking forward to this and will be a great closure of this great trip. I am not alone in the hotel this evening! A Dutch/Belgium couple is there. Mathijs and Eva who live in Seville. Matthijs is a a researcher on Vultures and is visiting the area together with his wife as a kind of weekend break. We have a nice chat about Vultures and of course.....photography!

Friday 2nd of April

Today is my last full day in the Sierra de San Pedro. it has b en a very good week. This morning i can do my own thing. I start the day a bit later then usual. Sunrise is not before 08.00. The weather is beautiful, not a cloud in the sky and no wind. I have breakfast and decide to have a little tour around the area to see if i encounter anything to photograph.In the afternon Helios will pick me up to go to los Barruecos.

Old Bridge on the road to Brozas

I decide to drive to Brozas. From Herreruela a 22 km drive through the hills. After a few kilometers you will cross a bridge. On the left is the old bridge and worthwhile to park the car and walk up to it. it looks like a good spot for all kind of birds, especially raptors that will fly in between the hills over the bridge. By the time i am there it is stiull very much oin shade, so i decide to drive on.

Old bridge near Membrio

The landscape changes. Getting nearer to Brozas, the hills make way for the plaines. Crested larks and birds of prey everywhere and i haven't mentioned the zillions of Storks! Problem is, and i have stated that in my diary already: there are very limited possibilities to turn off and drive on a dirt track. Everywhere are gates! When i arrive at brozas i follow the road in the direction of Alcantara. Mid way i turn off Membrio. Soon the plaines make way again for the Sierra de San Pedro. Just before Membrio, you will cross another new bridge and on the right this time, is the old bridge. I parked up here as there are many House martins and Craig martins breeding. I try my luck on flight shots but it is very very difficult. Many raptor fly overhead and i manage to get some nice images of Griffon vukture and black kite. 

Griffon tantem over the old bridge at Membrio

After a few hours i decide to drive back to the hotel. On the way i stop at a petrol station to fill the car up but paying with a credit card an  not being able to communicate makes it hard to pay! At the end i succeed. Back at the hotel i have some kunch, recharge the camera batteries and write my last first part of the diary!

There are just a "few" Storks breeding in Sierra de San Pedro

This afternoon is my last "tour" of the Sierra de San Pedro. Together with Helios i will be visiting Los Barruecos. It's a 30 minute drive. The area is a beauty spot. A couple of small lakes with massive bolders around it. On top of these bolders Storks breed and i would like to photograph them in the late evening sun. Los Barruecos is also famous beacuse of the sculptures of the Artist Wolf Vorstell. The Storks do seem to like! You only need to check out the image below!

Living art according to Helios

As it is Sunday, the place becomes very busy with locsls. It's not a nature reserve bit more a sophisticated recreation area.Best is to visit it durng the week when it is very quiet, but if you intend to go here this place is a must!. Nevertheless we drive around the site and find a couple of nice spots to photograph the Storks on the bolders, flying around and preening. Dartford warblers are singing nearby. One bird i would love to photograph but i guess it will have to wait for another year!

The later it gets the quieter it gets! Its' a beautiful sunset and i manage to get some really nice images of the Storks in the late evening sun. By 21.00 we decide to drive back to the hotel. The trip is officially over. I can honestly say it has been a very good trip and this area offers a lot for the serious bird/nature photographer. Helios and Jose are very professional and will do everything possible to make the trip worth your while. I will for sure come back to this beautiful part of Spain. Tomorrow i will drive back to Lisbon and gety an early evening flight back home to London. It will be nice to see my lovdely wife and children again!

Storks on bolders at Los Barruecos

Factsheet Sierra de San Pedro trip

I organised this trip myself. I got in touch with Photoraptors (Photoraptors.com) and spoke with Helios about a week itenerary. Helios and his partner Jose know their stuff. They are very professional and have excellent hides. You only pay for your session in the hide if you have been succesfull. There are hides for Bonelli and Spanish Imperial eagle, Passerines, Hoopoe, Roofhide for Spotless starling, Stork, Little owl and Spanish sparrow. Most hides worked really well. Except the passerine hide but this was more to the fact that it was still pretty early in the season (it needs to be really hot) Cost for the hides was EURO 700. A typical day starts around 07.00. You drive 10 minutes down the road to Salorino, park up and Helios will take you to the hide of choice. Sessions end around 14.00. You return to the hotel fo lunch and a rest and then out again around 16.00 till sunset.

I stayed in a small family run hotel in Herreruela called hotel Rural Sierra de San Pedro. Best is to book this through photoraptors. Cost per night incl breakfast, lunch and diner EURO 60. Excluding the excellent white wine. WIFI is at hand as well. Food is good and the family who run the hotel are very friendly and offer a great service. Google translate was a gods sent!

There are various ways to get here from London and other cities in Europe. You can fly to Madrid, Seville and Lisbon. The latter 2 are the best options. I opted to fly to Lisbon with British airways. A word of warning; on European flights, British airways has stopped serving food and drinks. You will need to pay for them! Also they have become rather stringent on hand luggage. i needed to speak with a supervisor to get my camera bag onboard. If British aiways wants to fight the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair they should also drop the cost of their airfares and not just the cost of food and drink! i paid for a return ticket including car rental £300. From Lisbon it is a 3 hours drive to Herreruela. Roads are very quiet.

Camera equipment : I used Olympus cameras and lenses and a Sony A7R2 with a Sigma 150-600 Sport lens. The latter didn't really work that well in my opinion. AF was slow and sometimes rather erratic. For the hides a zoomlens like the Sigma is a must as the birds are sometimes rather close. A 600mm is too much lens, a 500mm would work but overall a zoomlens is the best fit for these hides.

Weather in Estremadura around this tme of the year is pleasant. i had plenty of sunshine and temperatures around 20 degrees. The morning can still be rather chilly. While i am writing this i am preparing to drive back to Lisbon. It has been a very good week and i would like to thank Hellios and Jose of Photoraptors for their excellent service and hides. i can recommend anyone to pay them a visit and spend some time in their hides! Also the hotel was great and the people are very accomodating. If there are any questions or remarks, feel free to contact me. I hope you all enjoyed my write up.

The castle of Alburquerque...on the way back to Lisbon