The big thirst

Early June i will travel again to Spain for a week of "birdphotography indulgement". I will be flying to Barcelona and spend a week in Catalonia to photograph vultures, passerines and the speciality of the area: Black bellied Sandgrouse. Upon arrival in Barcelona, a 2 hour drive, will take me to Solsana. A village in the Spanish country side. Here there are a number of hides for passerines and vultures. I hope to photograph Blue Rock thrush, Nightingale and many ohter smaller birds that will stop by to drink and bath. There are also excellent hides for vultures. lammergeier, Griffon vultures are all regualr visitors here and i hope to be able to get some nice images of these magnificent birds.

Blue rock thrush (image courtesy Richard Steel)

Mid week i wil drive to Belchite. The speciality here is Black-bellied Sandgrouse, which can be photographed from 2 hides. Generally Sandgrouse will only show if there has been a long dry spell. In that case they are forced to come to the drinking pool. Of course there will be plenty of other birds to photograph like Stone curlew, various lark species  and Spotless starling. Weather should be warm and dry throughout but of course you never know......

I wil update my diary on a daily basis and hopefully you will all stop by to see what has happened during the day!

Nightingale

Thursday 1st of June

At 04.00 the alarm goes off and an hour later i'm off in the taxi to Gatwick. I would have preferred to fly from Heathrow but British Airways charges a ridiculous amount of money for a flight to Barcelona, £500 to be precise, as where Easyjet charges £230 return. So worth whlle a cab fare to Gatwick! It is amazing how busy an airport is, so early in the morning. Checking in goes all very quickly and with a 30 minutes delay i take off to Barcelona.

A good 1 1/2 hour later i arrive, pick up my bags and the shuttle bus takes me to the Rental car company (Centauro), where i have to wait for the other 4 photographers to arrive. This trip was organized by a Dutch company called Birdingbreaks in conjunction with Photologistics. The latter are the owners of the splendid hides that i will visit over the coming 5 days.

My room

A good hour later and the other photographers (3 from Belgium and one from Holland)  have arrived together with the Belgium guide Rudi Debruyne. We pack up the car and start the 1 1/2 hour drive to Claret. A small hamlet in the middle of nowhere. We arrive later that afternoon. Wat a wonderful place this is. It reminds me very much of the trip to Spain with Steve Coogan. It is absolutely lovely. We wait for Carles, one of the owners of Photologistics to arrive, to explain the plan for the next couple of days. The weather is ok. Warm but cloudy and the forecast is not the best. this could mean no Sandgrouse! Sandgrouse will only come to the drinking pools if there is a long spell of no rain but...rain is forecasted over the weekend. Shame but i will make the best of it for sure!

The hide on the field with pool to the right

Carles tells us that around the hamlet there are several hides, wich will easily cater for all of us. It is great that the hides are so close by! There are hides for various warbler species, Blue Rockthrush, Mistle thrush, Nightingale, Serin. The list is endless. I decide to opt for the hide situated on a ploughed field. The other 3 photographers will use the concrete hide for warblers and other birds. The hide where i am staying can be reached within a few minutes.

Where are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon?

The hide is fairly compact and there is not an awful lot of space. Cees and myself make ourselves comfortable and wait for things to happen. Within no time Greenfinch, Serin, Robin, Mistle trush appear regularly in front of the hide. Bee eaters are flying around and at times drop themselves in the small pond. I have never seen that before! It is getting a bit cloudy and there is, for a brief spell, some light rain. I prefer to photograph the birds when they are perched and not on the ploughed field. Too many distractions. Oh well: bird photographers always have something to complain about!

Typical landscape around Claret, no wonder birds like it!

 

2 hours later and Carles picks Cees and myself up. We go back to the hotel and sit outside with a well deserved cold beer! Soon the others return from the other hides and they had an absolute ball. Birds like Alpine warbler, Nightingale, Dartford warbler and Blue Rockthrush were all photographed in a very nice setting. A pretty good start of the tour! Tomorrow 3 of us will spend the day photographing Vultures, whereas myself and Cees will stay in Claret to try the various hides which will be at our disposal. Starting  with the Blue Rockthrush hide.

Mistle thrush

Friday 2nd of June

A rather relaxed start of the first full day in Claret. Breakfast at 07.30 and the weather is gorgeous. Whether it will stay like this is a hugh question mark, but we will see. 3 of the group will drive to the vulture hide, while Cees, Jan and myself will stay at Claret and try our luck with the Blue Rockthrush hide. The light will "fall on the hide" by 09.00 and Oscar takes us to the hide. In fact: they are 2 small hides next to each other. The Rock thrush breeds in Claret every year and according to Carles and Oscar it should be possible to get some nice images of these lovely birds. Jan is trying his luck in another hide. He has photographed Blue Rockthrush there yesterday afternoon late.

The hides are compact but all the gear fits in it. I set myself up with the Uniqball bridge with my D750 and 500mm on one end and the D500 with 200-500 on the other. I also have a Sony A6500 with the latest Sigma 100-400 to try out. A nice compact camera, which you can use handheld.A bottle of water is at hand, as the hides get pretty hot. Birdsong is all around! Goldenoriole, Bee eaters, warblers. A great place to be!

Blue rockthrush

After a while i see a pretty large bird flying towards the hides and before i know it i am starring at the female Rockthrush. She stays around for a bit and then decides to fly off. Apparently they breed in a derilict building in Claret. After a little while, a flicker of blue! The male Rock thrush appears. What a great start of the day this turns out to be. Camera's clicking and an obliging bird! The birds frequently stop by but also a lovely pair of black redstarts are frequent visitor. 

Around 10.30 things start to die down a bit but all of a sudden BOTH male and female Blue Rockthrush appear and what happened next was amazing! The male starts to sing and display right in front of me! A great end of the morning session, as Carles frees Cees and myself from the very hot hides by 11.00! this afternoon, i will be spending in the Warbler bunker hide. The others had a lot of success yesterday afternoon and here is hoping that i can get the same results as well. So far so good!

Blue Rockthrush set-up

After a nice lunch with 2 Cerveza's and a fantastic omelette, it was time to go to the hide i will call the bunker. Why bunker? Well it is built out of concrete. Not only rock solid but also a sauna! I settle down around 4 in the afternoon. The hide is just 2 kilometers from Claret. The weather is a bit changeable this afternoon and i can hear thunder in the distance. The bunker is hot, i mean HOT! Water is dripping in bucket loads from my face, arms and rest of the body. In no time i have taken off my top. Caroline: i hope you are reading this! (the rest stayed on this time...i was not alone)

Ocellated lizard, an unexpected surprise

Soon the first birds start to trickle in. Corn bunting, very regular, a couple of Jays, Sirin, Linnet and to my surprise 2 Siskins! The setting of this hide is stunning. You can see that Photologistics take great care in constructing these hides. A 500mm is enough lens for this hide and i also opted to use (again) the small but furious Sony A6500 with the Sigma 100-400. The Nikon 200-500 is also a very useful friend in this hide.

Bird traffic is ,at times, a bit slow and the thunder storm seems to get closer and closer but, for whatever reason, it decides not to drop the rain on the hide and me. Rain would be no good for this kind of photography as the birds have no reason to visit the hide for a drink and a wash as water will be (even if it is temporarily) readily available.The warblers are a bit slow but eventually i photograph Sub-alpine warbler and later on Dartford warbler!

Cornbunting, a regular visitor

A visit by a hare and 2 beautiful Ocellated lizards that came to drink topped off a damned good afternoon in the Bunker hide. Around 19.00 it starts to rain a bit, but just before the rain started i also managed to photograph the Cirl bunting. Around 19.30 i'm being picked up and driven back to the hotel. A quick shower and 2 more Cerveza's to finish off a very good day. Tomorrow? I am not sure what i will do. Vultures or stick around Claret and photograph more passerines. I will decide later on this evening. First a nice meal with a nice glass of Rose.

The bunker, fab hide with looming thunderstorm

 

 

Saturday 3rd of June

This morning i was going to travel into the foothills of the Pyrenees to photograph vultures from a hide. Not only Egyptian and Griffon vultures but also the elusive Bearded vulture...if it decides to show up that is. Around 08.15 i leave Claret for the hour journey to the hide. The landscape is unspoilt and beautiful. Fields full of poppies and other flowers. Loads of butterflies flying around. It must be heaven here if you are in macro photography! The weather is a mixed bag, but at least it is not raining (it did for quite some time overnight). Rudi would drive me and my 2 fellow photographers to Solsona, a pretty small town 30 minutes from Claret where we would swap cars. A Photologistics guide would take us into the Pyrenees to the hide.

Around 10.00 we arrived aty the hide. Decent weather, beautiful scenery and a strategic placed hide overlooking the valley below and the mountains in the distance. What could possibly go wrong? The hide is comfortable and can easily hold 3 photographers with gear and there is a toilet but no privacy to speak off!. For this hide a zoom lens like a 200-500 or a 150-600 would be ideal.

After 15 mimutes the first Raven appears and starts to eat away from the rabbit carcasses. Not much later the first Griffon vulture lands, followed by another 4. The eating frenzy starts and soon a large number of other Griffon vultures join the feast as well. The birds are very close to the hide and some use the hide as an elavated viewpoint. With a lot of noise they fly up and take residence on the roof of the hide. the weather slowly starts to turn for the worst and dark clouds are starting to appear.

When most of the eating is done the Griffon vultures leave one by one. The only birds that are left are the Ravens. Still no sign of the Bearded vulture and with the weather changing chances of the bird appearing are diminishing fast. It startts to rain and then ,all of a sudden, out of nowhere to Bearded vulture lands in front of the hide. What a fantastic bird! Easily the prettiest (if you can say that...) of all vultures. It is a very rare bird in Erope. It sta ysaround for not more then 5 minujtes, gulps down a massive bone and eventually flies off not to return

Vulture hide very comfortable with toilet!

Rudi picks us up at 15.00 and we drive into the Pyrenees to a ski resort. Here we hope to photograph Citril finch from a hide. So much rain has fallen that the drinking pool next to the hide is dead.A few of us decide to give it a try but Cees and myself decide that it might be better to drive around and get some images from the car. We manage to get some nice images of Citril finch perched in a fir tree. Not much else shows. We return to the hide and swap places but it is totally dead. By 20.00 we are back in Claret. Diner is waiting (food is excellent) and so is the locally brewed schnaps. Tomorrow one more short session in Claret and around 11.00 we will leave for Zaragoza, a 3 hour journey. The final stop is for Sandgrouse. So far it has been a rewarding trip. i didn't take many images but what i did took was really special!

Griffon vulture, close up

Sunday 4th of June

The final morning in Claret and i opt to go to a new hide, a bit further from the village. I was up early and took some images of the surroundings before the rain set in. Did i tell you it rained? Well it rained and rained and rained for most of this Sunday. Not a good sign if you want to photograph birds coming to drink or if you want to photograph Sandgrouse! The hide is very nice. The small pool is built vertically, length wise from the hide. The hide itself is very wide and gives ample room for 2 photographers and with a gentle push 3. There is also an automatic water feeder. Once the water level gets too low, a small pump will irrigate the pond with water. very clever. The hide was only put in this position recently, so i guess birds have to get used to it. To cut a long story short; no pictures were taken and by 10.30 i return to the hotel. Packed my bags, said goodbye to the lovely hosts, vowed to come back one day and off we went to Belchite, the final stop on this trip.

Claret, a little Spanish gem

 

Belchite is THE place to photograph Sandgrouse but as i already stated; it rained the whole day and when i arrived in Belchite it has finally stopped raining but there are large pools of water everywhere. Gone is the incentive for the Sandgrouse to fly to the few drinking pools as there is plenty of water available. I suppose i have to hope for the best!

The hotel is behind the Repsol petrol station and it even comes with its own pond with frogs. It is certainly not as glamarous as the hotel in Claret but it will do. Rooms are large, clean and the food? no idea but i will be able to tell you about that tomorrow. An evening visit to the hide is on the programm today but the weather is dull an dark. i do not have a lot of hope but who knows...maybe a Sandgrouse or any other bird might stop by. I am not sure i will be able to update you with the evening outing today. Might be happening tomorrow after the early morning visit to the hide.

Early morning Claret and typical landscape
Hotel in Belchite with excellent bird pond (might put up my hide)
My room in Belchite
Almost forgot these die hards (Breakfast, Diner and Bar at the hotel in Claret)

So i apolize for not updating earlier but it has all been rather hectic. So sticking with Sunday. Around 14.00 in the afternoon the heavens opened. Not a little bit of rain but it was a deluge that lasted till past midnight! The area around Belchite didn't have any rain for 5 weeks and the rain would also have consequensces for the Sandgrouse photography: the Sandgrouse ONLY visit the 2 small ponds if there is no other water readily available...well after the rain they had plenty of choice! The evening session was subsequesntly cancelled. Diner was served and i was hoping for the best for the next day. 

Monday 5th of june

The weather has improved, no rain but there is a stiff breeze and it is rather cold as well. We load up the car and make our way to the 2 hides. One hide is more situated in the open and has a lot of room for 3 photographers, whereas the other hide is surrounded by small shrubs but still has a great view of the small pond. I opt to go to the latter together with Cees but as we open the hide....30 cm of water make it impossible to spend a morning in it!  No session for us. Rudi keeps the spirits high but it is all a bit depressing. We decide to use the morning to drive through this dessert and try our luck photographing birds from the car. It is not the way i like to conduct my photography but it is, under the circumstances, the best we can come up with. We see many Larks, Bonelli eagle, Griffon vulture but i do not take any images.

Sandgrouse hide 1

Around noon we return to the other hide to pick up the other photographers but they haven't seen any Sandgrouse either and they didn't take any images worth mentioning. What a shame! We decide to return back to the hotel for lunch and discuss the plan for the rest of the day. Over lunch Rudi decides to get some buckets and empty the hide of the water, so that i can be used by the other photographers. I will be using the "dry" hide. Later in the afternoon we go to the hide and put up our gear. Issue with both hides is, is that you are looking straight into the light. Not ideal unless you like to take images like that. Again it is quiet. We have a few Spotless starlings, a few larks and thats about it. By 19.00 we decide to pack it all in. I have all the kit already in the Thinktank when we all see 3 Sandgrouse flying straight towards us. They drop down in some shrubs and eventually one of them walks up towards the hide but is clearly rather wary. We managed a few images but really more record shots then anything else. Within 3 minutes the bird flies off. I suppose that's it for my Sandgrouse experience.

Sandgrouse hide 2

We return to the hotel and Rudi suggests that we start really early Tuesday morning. It will be a short session, as we need to leave around 11.00 to make our way to Barcelona, which is a 3 hour drive. We have a late diner that Monday night and hope we get some Sandgrouse in front of the hide with good light.

Tuesday 6th of june

Up at 05.00 hours. The weather is great. Clear skies but again a stiff breeze. I decided not to go to the hide that is now dry but filled with soggy mud. I like to be comfortable while photographing! So the dry hide it will be. I arrive at the hide around 06.30 and will be picked up 3 hours later. No pressure there then! The light is great and after some time i am able to get some nice images of Larks, lovely Spotless startlings, Magpies but no Sandgrouse. I do see them flying and hear their calls but still there are pools of water available, so still no great incentive to visit the hide.

It's now almost 08.00 and 1 1/2 hour left to get some Sandgrouse images. I start to believe i have to come back in July and in my head i already start to think of dates, flights, cost till all of a sudden i see 2 Sandgrouse approaching the hide. I can't believe it! I call it Lastminutesandgrouse.com! The birds approach the waters edge and start to drink, i take a large number of images. The light and the birds are absolutey stunning. They do not hang about and within 5 minutes they fly off!

Half an hour later and 2 other birds approach the hide. This time from the left. Carefully they approach the water's edge, drink, wet their feathers (that's the way they supply their chicks with water) and take off. So all in all i had 10 minutes of great light and 4 Sandgrouse. Of course i would have liked more time and believe me: if the weather wasn't that bad, i would have had many images of Sandgrouse but for now i am more then happy with what i have!

Rudi picks me up. We go back to the hotel. Pack our bags, have a quick shower and a late breakfast. We leave around 11.00 for the drive to Barcelona airport. We make a brief stop on the road and by 14.30 i say goodbye to the other photographers, check in and by 21.00 i am back home. It was a nice trip. The weather good have been better but overall i am happy with what i got out of it. I can greatly recommend a trip to this beautiful part of Spain (especially Claret is wonderful)

Sandgrouse, White beliied variation

Factsheet The Big Thirst

The trip was organized by Birdingbreaks (birdingbreaks.nl). They organize trips for birdwatchers and also cater for bird/nature photographers. The tour was well organized, good communication throughout and Rudi Debruyne was an excellent guide and kept spirits high...even when they should have been down! My only criticism is, is that this trip was 5 days and it is simply TOO short. I lost 2 complete days because of the poor weather and some significant travel time from Claret to Belchite and there is hardly any time to recover these days. I would urge Birdingbreaks to make this tour a week. The cost for this week worked out at around £1500 and given it was 5 days, i thought it was a bit too expensive, if it was 7 days i would have been ok with it. The hides were from Photologistics and they really are superb. These guys know what they are doing and they offer many other hides for photographers in Spain (photo-logistics.com)

I flew with Easyjet from Gatwick to Barcelona. Cost for a return ticket was approximately £240. If you compare this with British Airways (who have decided not to serve drinks and a sandwich on European flight anymore) it was £250 cheaper! if BA wants to compete with the likes of Easyjet...it takes a bit more then just dropping drinks and food in my opinion! Speedy boarding with Easyjet also allows you to take a laptop bag and camera bag onboard. 

Weather in Spain should have been hot and dry but it was a rather mixed bag. Decent in Claret and very changeable and wet in Belchite. The hotel in Claret was absolutely wonderful (Hotel Cal Miramunt). Great location and 5-6 hides within walking distance. The hotel in Belchite was comfortable but more basic but food and wine were great and Olga is a great host! (Hotel Rincon del Cierzo)

Camera wise i used; Nikon D500 and D750 with a 500mm and 200-500 zoom. Most used lens was the 200-500 zoom. For hide work by far the best option.600mm would be too much lens in many circumstances. I also used a Sony A6500 with the new Sigma 100-400. very small package, good image quality and a decent AF, i liked it a lot and again used it quite a bit. All camera kit was carried in a Thinktank Airport Accelarator.

That's it from me. It was a great trip and i can recommend it! Any questions or remarks: drop me a line any time.