The WVBS Birdwatching Trip That Never Happened. By Andrew Brown

Having been ‘let go’ as a company director, after one takeover too many at the age of 45, I
weighed up my future prospects and decided I was in a financial position where I could just
about get by with being self-employed. After a while, having explored a couple of business
possibilities, I became a teacher of English to foreign businessmen. The teaching was either
done in my own home or in the home and/or business premises of the client. I had clients from
all over Europe visit me and the main countries I visited were France, Spain and Italy. This
enabled me to do quite a lot of birdwatching in those countries.
My favourite location was quarterly two-week visits to the foothills of the French Pyrenees and
two experiences there were especially enjoyable.
The first was in early March one year when my teaching in the chateau of the company owner
was interrupted by the amazing sound of literally thousands of Common Cranes moving
northward on migration. Everybody around stopped what they were doing to gaze up at this
fantastic sight which seemed to go on forever.
The second experience was equally unexpected and, like the first, was a good twenty years
ago. I decided one afternoon to have a look in the woods not far from my hotel. I was pleased
to see a Hawfinch and a Firecrest, when suddenly I came across a group of highly coloured
large finches the like of which I had never seen or heard of before. They were multi-coloured,
yellow, orange, red, blue, green, grey and orange but what was constant and noticeable was
their bright red beaks. It was actually difficult to commit to memory an exact description of the
birds. I had to wait until I returned home before I could attempt to identify them. The red beak
eventually identified them as Red-billed Leiothrix, also known as the Pekin Robin or Nightingale.
This bird originates from Asia and over the years was introduced into several European
countries including England where it did not establish itself as it did in France, Italy, Spain and
Portugal.
The other experiences I want to write about were all associated with what almost resulted in a
free trip for WVBS members to Extremadura in Spain, close to the north east border of
Portugal. A client arrived from Madrid who happened to be a member of perhaps the wealthiest
family in Spain. As a result of their wealth they owned huge estancias across Spain. I was
asked by the family to spend a couple of weeks one summer at their main family home on a
huge estancia in Extremadura not far from Monfrague, perhaps the most famous birding site in
Spain and maybe Europe, to help the family with their English. They had other estates south of
Madrid and south of Seville, just north of Donana National Park, another major birding site.
Whilst in Extremadura for the first time I enjoyed the company of one of the brothers who
unusually for Spain, was an enthusiastic birder, not surprising perhaps when the family name
was Oriol! My most memorable experience on that visit was one evening when I was sitting on
a ladder seat, hide-looking down onto a pond frequented by many birds. After a while a sizable
animal with short legs and a long tail and body cautiously wandered up to the pond for a drink.
I learnt afterwards that it was an Egyptian Mongoose.
Soon after my return to the UK, I was contacted by Olimpia, one of the family members, who
was a keen photographer of nature. The family had decided to investigate the possibility of
utilising spare capacity on their estates by establishing bird watching facilities and saw the UK
as the most important market for visitors and asked me to advise them how to develop this
business.
They booked a stand at the RSPB Bird Fair and there I met other people who had become
involved in the project, Jorge a specialist on Calendra larks and an excellent guide together
with another older man whose name I forget but who was a Professor of raptors at Madrid
university. He had a very lucrative side-line, advising the sheiks in the Middle East on their
hunting birds.
The Oriol family invited me to visit and evaluate the suitability of their properties for utilisation
as birdwatching holidays. In late October, Olimpia met me at Bilbao airport and I stayed with
her in northern Spain for a couple of days. On the first day we explored the northern Spanish
coast and on the second day she took me inland to the Picos of Europe. We took a cable car
to 6,000ft where there were some buildings and deep snow all around. Flying around there
quite happily, and very amenable to being photographed, was an elusive bird that is at the top
of the wish list for many English birders. When they are lucky enough to see it, it is often a
fleeting glimpse up some very steep mountainside, for there was a beautiful Wallcreeper, albeit
in winter plumage but still with its bright red wings seeming to entertain us with its flying skills
for as long as we wanted. What a happy bird despite its harsh environment! There were a
couple of other species that came to the station every time the lift arrived and not far off was a
group of Iberian ibex which were waiting for visitors to leave.
The next day Olimpia put me on the train to Madrid where I met the Professor and Jorge. Whilst
in Madrid we visited a family estate south of Madrid, memorable for its Purple Gallinule and
large flocks of geese flying in to roost.
The next day we drove from Madrid to Extremadura where we stayed in a very large, extremely
well furnished hunting lodge in rugged country some distance from the main premises I had
stayed in previously. I have never seen so many raptors, vultures and other birds which inhabit
such wild, remote areas. The property, El Millaron, was eminently suitable for the
accommodation of at least ten visitors for the purpose of birdwatching subject to a few minor
amendments such as improved heating for winter visits.

After a couple of days exploring the area for both types of bustard and other local specialities
we drove back to Madrid and as we neared the city we met a colleague of the Professor’s with
a Peregrine Falcon and a Golden Eagle. The eagle was female, eighteen months old and
weighed nearly 5Kg, quite a bit heavier than the male. As you can see from the picture, I was
allowed to handle her. I flew her twice and she successfully landed back on my glove containing
food. It’s quite unnerving to handle such a large bird with her enormous beak a few feet from
your eyes.
I was then given a demonstration by a first year Peregrine. She was released and climbed to a
considerable height at which point a pigeon was released. The falcon stooped and hit the
pigeon but was unable to hold on to it.The speed of a stooping Peregrine under normal
circumstances would damage its lungs and eyes and probably break its feet or legs without it
taking special precautions. The airflow into its lungs is slowed by bends in its windpipe: it has
four eyelids which close progressively as it gains speed; as it approaches its prey it clenches
its feet into a ball which then swing forward as it attacks its prey. In the demonstration I watched
the falcon hit its prey, probably fatally, but was unable to catch it in the air.
For some time after my visit I was in discussion with the family as to how best to develop the
business but there was a lack of drive, commitment and financial acumen from that end which
caused the brother in charge of finances to abandon the idea. This happened just after I had
persuaded them to let me put together ten birders from WVBS to act as guinea pigs on a week’s
trial visit to Extremadura with the members only having to pay for their own transport to Spain.
After that with the family’s agreement I contacted various tour organisers in the UK to see if
they were interested in adding these sites to their holidays but sadly nothing came of it.
As a result of writing this, I contacted Olimpia who told me that they had finally got round to
establishing nature watching visits with a special emphasis on wild life photography just as the
pandemic took hold. Look online at the various sites for El Millaron to see their pictures of the
local wild life. You have to click on the pictures to see many more in that grouping. Olimpia has
promised to find the Wallcreeper pictures but they haven’t arrived at the time of publication.

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