10th March 2018 Daniel Roca

Monegros right before spring

Technically it’s still winter, and most migrants and summer visitors are yet to arrive. But in the Monegros steppes, a region west of Catalonia belonging to Aragon, you can feel the spring is near. The sky already filled with the songs of Calandra Larks and Lesser Short-toed Larks. And even a much rarer song to hear these days, the secretive Dupont’s Lark, can be enjoyed at some special spots. Yesterday we were lucky enough get some pretty spectacular views of them.

Dupont’s Lark is in real trouble in Iberia, due mostly to loss of suitable habitat. Unlike other lark species, it is not well adapted to live in agricultural land. Moreover, Dupont’s Lark chooses only flat or nearly flat areas with low vegetation, disliking too steep terrains. But most of this land is already used to grow cereal or even worse, transformed into irrigation. Thankfully, European directives have forced to protect a part of its habitat, but much work still needs to be done.

Anyway, if you like wide horizons, amazing landscapes and rich wildlife, Aragon is surely a place you don’t want to miss. This is how it looked at sunrise.

Monegros sunrise
We were there well before dawn, as Dupont’s Lark likes to sing early in the morning. It is somehow magical to just sit, wait and listen to birds start singing. First, Stone Curlews, which are quite nocturnal, then a Thekla’s Lark, then a Calandra Lark, then… then this simple and beautiful song, just a few notes repeated every now and then. And yet so unique.

Here is a short video we managed to take. No audio recordings were used to lure the bird closer. Just a little patience. Turn up the volume to listen to its song.

Sometimes they call it “The Ghost of the Steppes”, because it is really hard to see. It manages to move fast among the short vegetation, like a mouse, and its cryptic plumage make it easy for it to go unnoticed. So don’t get fooled by the openness of its habitat. If it’s not singing, you probably won’t see it.

Here are some pics of this sought after bird. Click to enlarge:

Monegros Dupont's Lark
Monegros Dupont's Lark
Dupont's Lark singing
Monegros Dupont's Lark
Dupont's Lark singing
After enjoying for a while three birds singing at different spots, we moved on to other areas. Our checklist started to look quite nice, especially keeping in mind that there were no migrants around.

Window from outdoors to outdoors, witness of a long gone past.

Monegros ruins
A flock of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse landed on a nearby field.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flock
And different flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse were also seen, some flying by, others feeding on the fields.

Black-bellied Sandgrouse flock
The climate in the steppes is quite extreme, with cold and windy winters and very hot summers. But most of all, the limited annual rainfall is what defines its landscape and its wildlife. Yet, in this dry habitat there are some amphibians to be found, like this Natterjack Toad hiding under a rock.

Natterjack toad
Almond trees were blooming, and already attracting many bees and other insects.

Blooming almond tree
Old abandoned buildings, still standing, are perfect for Little Owls, Stock Doves, Choughs and soon European Rollers.

Monegros ruins
Another species in decline, the Little Bustard. We were able to find a group of 26.

Monegros Little Bustard group
After spending all morning birding in the Monegros steppes and having a wonderful time, we decided to visit the riparian forest of a nearby river, as well as some cliffs, where we had good views of Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush and Golden Eagle, among others. White Storks were already on their nest in riverside town.

White Storks on nest
Here is a complete list of the species seen during the day.

Little Owl
Stone Curlew
Dupont’s Lark
Calandra Lark
Lesser Short-toed Lark
Crested Lark
Thekla’s Lark
Pin-tailed Sandgouse
Black-bellied Sandgrouse
Linnet
Corn Bunting
Chough
Western Jackdaw
Little Bustard
Stonechat
Marsh Harrier
Common Kestrel
Hoopoe
Iberian Grey Shrike
Red-legged Partridge
Common Quail
Rock Dove
Meadow Pipit
Chaffinch
Goldfinch
Greenfinch
Serin
House Sparrow
Tree Sparrow
Rock Sparrow
Red Kite
Black Kite
White Wagtail
Spotless Starling
European Starling
Black Redstart
Dartford Warbler
Sardinian Warbler
Raven
Great Tit
Goshawk
Sparrowhawk
Blackcap
Common Buzzard
Magpie
Stock Dove
Green Sandpiper
Golden Eagle
Griffon Vulture
Cirl Bunting
Barn Swallow
Collared Dove
White Stork
Great Cormorant
Common Kingfisher
Iberian Green Woodpecker
Song Thrush
Water Rail
Penduline Tit
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Cetti’s Warbler
Mallard
Chiff-chaff
Blackbird
Wren
Wood Pigeon
Short-toed Treecreeper
European Robin
Black Wheater
Blue Rock Thrush

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