Madrid, 2004

Gran Vía, Madrid

I wasn’t expecting to get eight lifers in a major European capital but Madrid at the end of February and beginning of March was a surprise, especially as I was focussing on museums.

Indeed on day one that was all I did and saw only the usual city birds. But on day two I found one spotless starling just outside the Prado and later I took some time out to walk round the Retiro, which is the main green space in the centre of Madrid. It was cold, so I wasn’t hanging around. Fortunately my first problem bird very obligingly fed on the ground close to me and I was able to study it for a while. I knew I was looking at a serin but I needed to get its details because I wasn’t carrying a field guide. Generally I don’t: it forces me to get an accurate description of the bird. We shall see how this discipline failed later on.

The next birds should have been easy to identify immediately but they were so unexpected that it took me a while. I had heard them calling with high whistles long before I actually located them. Eventually I got a good view of one – large bill, white wing bar, pinkish wash on the cheeks and black wing tips. I was still thinking of some exotic finch when it dawned on me that I was getting only my third ever view of hawfinches. And so close now. They were all around and low down in the bushes – brilliant.

I wasn’t expecting any gulls so far inland but I shouldn’t have been surprised. I guess the one flying over Estanque, the lake in the middle of the park, was a yellow-legged but it did look dark enough to be lesser black-backed. I suppose there must be some overlap area between the two.

Lago de la Casa de Campo, Madrid

The next day, the 29th, I walked out into Casa de Campo, where a few tree sparrows mingled with the numerous house sparrows. Incidentally I didn’t see a single Spanish sparrow and eventually gave up checking through the plentiful small flocks for them.

I had to walk a long way before I finally caught a glimpse of a large white bird with some dark markings away in the distance. I had it down for a white stork straight away although I saw from my field guide that they were summer visitors. I didn’t need to worry too much about a dodgy identification because they soon became numerous and obvious.

Not long after I saw yet another summer visitor – a black kite. I thought that this was a lifer but when I got back to Brighton and entered my sightings, I found that it wasn’t. I had seen a black kite in Australia and assumed that I had entered it wrong but there were no other candidates for the right bird. I didn’t have my Aussie field guide with me, so the Web had to deliver. Lo and behold! They were the same species – a widespread bird.

So to March 1st and a walk along the Manzanares from El Pardo. This trip really delivered with immediate gryphon vultures and later black vultures. Soon into the day I also came a cropper with cirl buntings. They weren’t yellow, so I misidentified them as rock buntings even though they had a massive bib, which the field guide insisted they didn’t. I only corrected my mistake later with a better field guide but then I didn’t have my little sketch of them for final confirmation – the pitfall of using the guide in the field!

The biggest thrill of the day was a black redstart hawking from a fence. I had searched for this species in Britain without success. Fortunately it is distinctive once you get the colour of the tail.

Parque Juan Carlos I, Madrid

I was surprised to see house martins and at first doubted my glimpse of them. But there were plenty later on and even a sand martin too. Spring migration was truly underway. My first Cetti’s of the year were also calling all along the river.

The next day I dumped my bags at the airport and went back one stop on the Metro to Parque Juan Carlos I. This was a filler while waiting for my flight and I wasn’t expecting much. However, I got the best bird of the trip bounding past me like a woodpecker – hoopoe! I had seen one before but they are so striking that I can’t get enough of them.

A Sardinian warbler was also a nice find and my stroll rounded off with another lifer – a couple of crested larks. So, I can recommend Madrid for a combination of culture and birding, a rare mix.

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