Thursday 29 August 2019

Mallorca day 7: island hopping

As the end of our first week approached, we decided to push the boat out - literally - with a day trip to the island of Dragonera off the far western tip of Mallorca. Dragonera hosts a breeding colony of Scopoli's Shearwater, a close relative of Cory's Shearwater which some authorities regard as a separate species, so I was delighted when we passed a small raft of what I presumed to be Scopoli's on the short (and very affordable) crossing from the town of Sant Elm. This seemed a just reward for getting up early enough to make the 60 minute journey to Sant Elm so that we could get the first boat of the morning over at 0930. Seeing these birds reminded me of my last Scilly pelagic, where Cory's Shearwater gave similarly close views.
Scopoli's Shearwater - white in the primaries extending into the 'hand' (which is all dark in Cory's Shearwater)
Excellent views as we crossed the short straight between Sant Elm and Dragonera
Our boat went close to a raft of Shearwaters and a few gave us a close fly-past
An elegant bird which I had not expected to see so well on this trip
The island - named for its shape and for the large number of endemic Lilford's Wall Lizards which reside there - is designated as a natural park, being important for breeding birds including Audouin's Gull, Balearic Shearwater (which was on its hols elsewhere while we were on ours), Balearic Warbler and Eleonora's Falcon, of which I was still keen to see more. On arrival a warden advised that it was not the best time of year to see the falcons, but they could be encountered anywhere on the island. We set off on the long, hot walk to the southern end where my guide book suggested there was a good viewpoint of their breeding cliffs, but before we had got a quarter of the way down the two mile track, I was enjoying views of Eleonora's Falcon at eye level hunting around the coast.
Pale morph Booted Eagle gave excellent views on Dragonera…
...shortly before a dark morph Booted Eagle did likewise
The dark morph bird circled a few times...
...then got into a tussle with the pale morph bird
Over the course of our visit I saw at least a dozen Eleonora's Falcon, all of them well, so a visit is highly recommended for anyone wanting to see this species at reasonably close range. The viewpoint recommended in Graham Hearl's guidebook, just before the lighthouse at the southern end of the island where the path abuts the cliff edge, was indeed a good place to see them - several falcons swooped and stopped around the sheer cliff faces or hung on the thermals above them, including a frustratingly distant dark morph bird.
Eleonora's Falcon seemed to be everywhere on Dragonera
When hunting they seem to hang in the air without flapping - not hovering like a Kestrel, just floating
From the high cliffs at the southern end of Dragonera it was possible to watch Eleonora's Falcon hunting from above
This bird hung in the air above the sheer cliff face then went into a stoop after an unseen item of prey
Birdlife on Dragonera was otherwise a case of quality not quantity - a couple of Booted Eagle and a Balearic Warbler being the highlights - though the local lizards were something else, swarming around the lighthouse compound like little green zombies waiting for crumbs from the picnic lunches of tourists!
A dark phase Eleonora's Falcon stayed frustratingly high overhead
It appeared to have a full crop
A few birds were perched on the cliffs but I needed to add a teleconverter to photograph them
A pale morph Eleonora's Falcon
We had booked to return on a 13:30 boat but phoned the operator to extend this to 15:30, providing time for a leisurely return to the quay in what had become baking heat - followed by a swim before our return to the mainland. A highly recommended day-trip - but give yourself plenty of time and take supplies as there are none on the island. I had considered a trip to Cabrera, an archipelago off the southern tip of Majorca which is also reportedly good for wildlife - but most of the species one might hope to see there can also be seen on Dragonera, and it is a longer and more expensive boat trip, so we decided to leave that for another time.
The lighthouse at the southern end of Dragonera
I believe this is Lilford's Wall Lizard, endemic to the Balearics

Hundreds of lizards thronged around the lighthouse compound
This lizard took a liking to my camera bag
The family complained constantly about the long walk in the extreme heat. I had to get this far in front to (i) take a photo with my long lens and (ii) get out of earshot from the whining :-)

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Mallorca day 6: back to the mountains

After a brief respite from being swung around winding mountain roads in the back of our hired Alfa Romeo, the family acceded to another mountain trip today - not a return to the lofty heights of the Serra de Tramuntana this time, but to the gentler slopes of the Arta peninsula in the northern part of the Serres de Llevant which run down the eastern side of Mallorca.
Thekla Lark looking a bit windswept
Charming bird in a charming location
The target for me was Thekla Lark, an Iberian/North African species which overlaps in range with the similar Crested Lark - but not on the Balearics where only Thekla is present. It was one of those excursions where, again, I wasn't sure whether my 20 year old guide book would still deliver the goods. But I needn't have worried - the guide suggested trying a gravel track which headed towards a small reservoir and, as nature abhors a vacuum, so larks love a gravel track and I inadvertently flushed two unseen birds from the overgrown track which perched up long enough for a few photos.
Thekla Lark
Spiky crest and bill both a bit shorter than on the similar Crested Lark
I exchanged notes with the only other birder I saw in two weeks outside of S'Albufera - a Belgian with his family who was looking for Booted Eagle. He hadn't seen the Larks, so I pointed out where to go, but he had seen a couple of Two-tailed Pasha, a species I would have given if not my right arm at least one of the less useful digits to see. It sounded like they were hill-topping around the ridge, so, knowing their liking for rotten fruit and animal excrement, I mustered what banana skins and goat dung I could and prepared a little picnic. Sadly it wasn't enough to tempt one back before the family asked to move on - understandable as the car thermometer had topped 40 degrees by this point.
Paysandisia archon, or Palm Borer moth
An invasive species but a spectacular one 
The Two-tailed Pasha may not have performed but the ridge was not entirely without interest on the Lepidoptera front as several large hawk-moth-like creatures were flying around and perching on low palm trees providing excellent photo opportunities. A bit of research revealed these to be Paysandisia archon, or Palm Borer moth, aka Surreptitious Palm Borer, an invasive species from South America whose larvae feed in the stems and trunks of palm trees.
Pale phase Booted Eagle
A view of the Booted Eagle's upperwing

Thursday 22 August 2019

Mallorca day 5: all at sea

With the family still not ready to let me drive them around the mountain roads of Mallorca again, and my need to get better views of Eleonora's Falcon becoming more pressing by the day, a compromise was reached on day 5 of the family holiday: a boat trip to the Formentor peninsula.
Eleonora's Falcon is a speciality of Mallorca
This species fills the ecological niche, if you'll forgive the technical jargon, between 'skinny Peregrine' and 'chubby Hobby'
The approach to Formentor by sea was recommended by my pal James Lowen in his book '52 European Wildlife Weekends'. If you don't have this book you must have something against Europe (possible), wildlife (unforgivable) or weekends (unthinkable), but the picture painted in the chapter on Mallorca of falcons dashing low over the sea didn't quite pan out for us unfortunately. To be fair, it's more likely in the autumn when they are hunting migrant passerines, from which they pluck the wings and tail before stuffing the hapless, flightless victims into cavities in the cliffs - a gruesome limestone larder of fresh meat for later in the season. But the boat trip still provided my best views to date as several birds floated around the clifftops, including my first dark phase individual.
This dark morph Eleonora's Falcon was dismembering something in mid-air
Unfortunately the dark morph bird remained distant - a shame as it is a stunning and unusual looking bird in this plumage
On the return journey, we passed a series of lower cliffs which also held Eleonora's Falcon, providing even closer views, through a bit of chop as we battled against the prevailing swell made photographing them a challenge, and brought back memories of a Scilly pelagic! Yellow-legged and Audouin's Gull buzzed the boat, and we jealously eyed the homes of the rich and famous (including the fort used as the home of Hugh Laurie's arch-baddie Richard Roper in 'The Night Manager'). A highly recommended trip - but don't forget your speedos (the boat drops anchor long enough for a swim having rounded the Formentor headland).
Two falcons were perched on low cliffs on the return boat journey
Formentor by boat - highly recommended

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Mallorca day 4: street life

After a long day in the mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana, I faced a choice: either accede to demands for a rest day or deal with a full scale mutiny from the rest of the family. Being the dutiful father and husband I plumped for the former, and made what became my daily trip to the patisserie on the corner for breakfast pastries. This provided the dubious wildlife highlight of the day when a small butterfly flew across the street in front of me and landed on the only greenery for 100 metres - a pot plant in front of the patisserie. As I suspected, it turned out on closer inspection to be a Geranium Bronze - a first for me - but regarded as a pest in Mallorca where it became established some decades ago following an accidental introduction.
Geranium Bronze (iPhone pic), a native of South Africa, occasionally turns up in Britain, accidentally imported on cultivated flowers - but this was the first I had seen anywhere
And this was the habitat chosen by the Geranium Bronze - a barren street with a single succulent plant growing from a pot at the entrance to my favourite patisserie - impeccable taste!

Monday 19 August 2019

Mallorca day 3 (part II): a castle in the air

After spending the morning at the Cuber reservoir, the itinerary for today's Dadventure (4th August) dictated that we should head west into the mountains to the town of Soller, then south towards Bunyola before heading back in a north-easterly direction to Orient and south again towards Alaro. Before reaching the latter, however, we took the road up to the Castell d'Alaro as recommended in Graham Hearl's 'Birdwatching Guide to Mallorca'.
Booted Eagle, Castell d'Alaro
The 'landing lights' at the join of neck and forewing can just be seen in these photos - characteristic of Booted Eagle
Sitting 815m above sea level, the castle is perched on a plug of rock offering expansive views to most points of the compass. The castle remains date from the 15th century but it previously served as one of the last strongholds of the Moorish occupiers of the island. The reviews of the landscape and birdlife sounded good but we didn't really know what to expect.
A more distant pale morph Booted Eagle at Castell d'Aloro
Screenshot of a typical satnav image of the route to Castell d'Aloro!
The Hearl guide suggested that this was one of the best sites in Mallorca for Booted Eagle - but I couldn't have imagined how good: as we parked by the Es Verger restaurant, about an hour's walk from the top, a dark phase Booted Eagle stooped down from the ramparts and gave a regal flypast, almost at eye level. The restaurant is about as far up as one can sensibly drive without a 4x4 and while the 'road' goes higher, driving it is not for the faint-hearted as it narrows and deteriorates into barely a donkey track.
Castell d'Alaro from below
Castell d'Alaro sits atop this superb Crag Martin habitat
It was another hot day so the walk to the top was demanding - but worth every bead of sweat shed to get there. Possibly one of the most spectacular locations I have ever visited, the ruins at the summit were like something from a Lord of the Rings film - except the real Eagles were far more convincing than Peter Jackson's CGI raptors! The crags below also held, appropriately, Crag Martin, and we found ourselves in the unusual position of being able to look down on them as they flicked around on powerful thermals.
Crag Martin
A wider crop of the same Crag Martin against the landscape below the castle

We saw Crag Martin at several sites but this was the only place I saw one perched
A more fitting location than Chesterfield's football stadium, where I saw one in 2015!
I would say whatever your reasons for visiting Mallorca, a visit to Castell d'Aloro (pronounced to rhyme with Alomo, apparently) should be considered an essential part of the itinerary.
The last few steps to the top
The family check out the view
Stunning views on three sides from the summit of Castell d'Alaro