In June 2016 we flew to the Spanish island of Mallorca for a week’s stay in a beautiful, traditional Spannish-style villa, which was situated just outside Pollensa in the Ternelles Valley at the northern end of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range.
Mountain view from the drive of our villa
We arrived on the afternoon of Tuesday 7th June and had six days when we could be out early with the cameras. Although we’d holidayed in this general area before, this was the first time we’d gone specifically with the aim of doing a bit of bird photography. I had no real knowledge of where to visit, so with the limited time we had available I’d earmarked just three local areas, being the Tramuntana mountains, Formentor Peninsula and S’Albufera. A bit of pre-trip research and a couple of Google searches certainly confirmed that these were good areas to concentrate on. We obviously knew that they’d be popular places so we ensured that we were out early when the birds were most active and before the heat of the day. We guessed that others would have the same idea, but were pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case as generally everywhere was pretty quiet up to about 10am or so.
The following is a simple day-by-day account of the places we visited.
On our first morning we drove the length of the Formentor Peninsula and, although it was a pleasant drive, we were pretty disappointed as there were only a couple of places to stop on the long road down to to the lighthouse. From what I’d read, I envisaged spending time watching and photographing congregations of Eleonora’s Falcons flying round the cliffs, but all we managed to see were a few Swifts! The one good thing though, was that by getting out early we had the road out to ourselves, but after turning round at the lighthouse and making our way back towards Puerto Pollensa it quickly became apparent how busy the road could get. The only place that I knew where we could park and walk was the Bóquer Valley, which is at the neck of the peninsula, accessed through a private property from a rough parking area on the outskirts of town. At the right times of the year this is a prime site for watching birds travelling up and down the valley on migration to and from Europe to Africa. It’s a beautiful and very scenic valley about 3km long. We had a lovely walk down towards the coast and although the path was busier when we made our way back to the car late morning it was still relatively quiet. We saw very little though. Yes, there were a few small birds flitting around, but they were mostly at distance. The only species that settled close enough to photograph was a pair of Linnets. We did meet one English ‘birder’ who said he’d seen a Booted Eagle early in the morning, but most of the other species he mentioned had either just been heard or identified through binoculars!
Common Linnet [Linaria cannabina]
With only eight photos on the memory card from the previous day’s efforts, we decided that we’d make amends on the Thursday morning and visit the well known and internationally recognised S’Albufera or, to give it its full name, Parc Natural de S’Albufera, which is a large protected wetland area just outside Port d’Alcudia. This is a closely managed site with an information centre, half a dozen hides and a few viewing platforms all set within a large enclosed, mixed habitat, area mainly consisting saltmarsh, brackish lagoons, freshwater pools, interconnecting channels and extensive reedbeds. Clearly this is an established and important wildlife haven for a wide variety of both resident and migratory birds. The problem, however, is that despite the expanse of the reserve, the only practical places to photograph the majority of the birds was from the hides. But, with three of those hides effectively facing one way and three the other, there are not that many options unless you want to be facing into the light! Plus, of course, the reserve is very popular, not only with ‘birders’ and photographers, but with the hoards of holidaymakers who have decided to have few hours away from the beach! However, like the other sites we visited, if you get there early enough you can have a good couple of hours before it starts getting busy. But, that leads me onto another important point that certainly wasn’t evident from the information I’d read, which is that there is only one way onto the reserve through double gates that are only open from 9am to 6pm. There is also a sign that makes it clear that upon entry you are supposed to obtain a day pass, come visitor permit, from the information centre. So, upon arrival at around 7am, it was frustrating to find that we were locked out! Or, so it seemed, because we found that you can actually get round the side of the gate by climbing over a low wall. I was tempted, but looking down the long empty driveway I didn’t fancy being caught breaking the rules, so we resigned ourselves to the fact that we had no option other than to come back later when the gates were open. However, just as we were making our way back to the car, we saw a chap going in, so we followed his lead. I’d read that you need to get there early so had a feeling that there must of been a way of legally breaking the 9am entry rule. And there was, because later on after visiting the information centre, we found that if you were a ‘birder’ or photographer you could obtain a special (free) pass so that you can be on the reserve outside the normal opening hours and, better still, we didn't have any problem in getting it dated for the full duration of our stay.
We were now aware of the formalities and had a map of the reserve, so we set off to explore the area around the information centre, which is where all bar one of the hides are concentrated. Time was already ticking on and, in the end, we only managed a short session in two of the hides, plus a stroll along a few reed-fringed paths. From the hides we photographed Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt and Common Tern only. Whilst there was a lot of bird song and activity going on in the reeds, only one bird made itself visible, but it was a Great Reed Warbler, which was rather nice as it was a new species for my 'World Bird List'. It was an enjoyable morning, but frustrating at the same time as you sensed that there was far more there than you could actually see and photograph. We headed back down the long drive to the car late morning against a continuous flow of people heading into the reserve. But, now with a permit and some knowledge of the lay-out of the site we would be in a much better position later in the week when we planned to return.
Great Reed Warbler [Acrocephalus arundinaceus]
On the Friday morning we drove up into the Tramuntana mountains to visit the Cúber Reservoir, which is situated alongside the Ma-10 between Lluc and Sóller where there is a small parking area that provides direct and easy access. It’s a particularly beautiful spot with a footpath of around 4.5km that circumnavigates the lake, and with a longer extension of another 3.8km or so that takes you to the Puig de I’Orfe, which is a cone-shaped mountain at the end of the valley. The round trip is 12km and, consequently coupled with the easy access, is very popular with hikers (as we found out!).
We arrived reasonably early at about 7.30am and happily meandered along one side of the reservoir for a good hour or so before we saw anyone else. It stayed pretty quiet to just after 9.30am when I noticed, in the distance up on the road, that a coach had stopped and had dropped off a large group of walkers. The same thing happened about 15 minutes later. By this time though, we were on the far side of the reservoir so, despite the number of walkers that were now making their way along the main path, we only passed a few people that had decided to go the other way round. We had a very enjoyable morning there, leaving at just before mid-day. But, from a ‘birding' point of view there was, again, very little to photograph. There were a few Yellow-legged Gulls way out in the middle of the lake, although on occasions one or two would fly round the margins looking for crabs. Surprisingly I’d never photographed this species before, despite it being common through Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, so I was pleased when one actually flew and settled near us. We also had a bit of luck with a Spotted Flycatcher and a couple of Stonechats, but unfortunately that was about it. Again, I think it’s down to the time of year and a bit of luck, as the mixed woodland habitat around the lake is a good place for various small birds. I also read that if we’d been there a month or so earlier we could possibly have seen two of the island’s rarities - the Spectacled Warbler and the Rock Thrush. And, perhaps, if we’d walked further into the valley we may have seen Black Vultures flying. We did see three large birds of prey at distance, which could well have been vultures, but they were too far off to identify.
Spotted Flycatcher [Muscicapa striata]
We had tentatively planned to go back to the S’Albufera reserve on the Saturday morning, but thought that instead we’d go a bit further along the Ma-12 coastal road to just beyond Ca’n Picafort where there’s a publicly owned estate called Son Real, which hopefully would be far quieter than S’Albufera. It’s a large area of undeveloped and protected low-lying land that extends down to a pleasant stretch of rocky coastline on Alcúdia Bay. The walk down to the beach is about 1.7km long through coastal pine woods, and then into mixed scrub and heather along the coast. It’s a site where both Balearic and Sardinian Warblers are supposed to be abundant all year - well you could have fooled me, as apart from a Hoopoe that flew across the track and a couple of pairs of Woodchat Shrikes, we hardly spotted anything along the path. We did have a little bit more luck down on the coast where we actually managed to get a few, albeit not too close, shots of one reasonably confiding Sardinian Warbler that was out in the open. There were others around, but they were staying pretty well hidden. But, there were some other slightly more obliging species, notably Stonechats, Linnets and some Thekla's Larks. Plus, a few Audouin’s Gulls and Kentish Plovers on the rocks. The last three mentioned species were particularly welcome as they were all new species for me and, I’m pleased to say, I got a few good shots of each. All in all it turned out to be another very enjoyable morning, so much so that we decided we'd go back on our last day.
Kentish Plover [Charadrius alexandrinus]
On Sunday morning we arrived at Parc Natural de S’Albufera early and made our way directly down to one of the main hides. I tentatively opened the door hoping that there would be some space and was surprised to find that there was only one person there who was just about to make his way to another hide. So, we settled down, half expecting other people to turn up, and took photos of Black-winged Stilts and Common Terns, including juveniles / chicks of both species. There were also a few Kentish Plovers, but the hide was raised which meant that you were tending to look down on them so, with a few reasonably low-level shots from the day before, I ignored them. Then out of the reeds right in front of us came a Western Swamphen, that slowly made its way along, occasionally pulling down selected reed stems with one its enormous feet and then holding it while pecking away at the presumably fresher and softer growth at the tip. We managed to get some nice shots of this bird, which was my sixth new species of the trip.
Now, for anybody that knows me or has read some of my other reports, you’ll be aware that I’m not a great lover of hides. I generally find them somewhat claustrophobic and restrictive. There are some exceptions of course like the well-designed and thoughtfully positioned hides we used on our recent Danube Delta trip, but in the main I feel that not much attention is given to how and when people will use them, whether they be ‘birders’ or photographers. Obviously wildlife photographers are going to be more demanding, but there were three things that I found really frustrating. The first was the position of the hide relative to the morning sun and, of course I appreciate that will vary depending on time of year and day, but in my view the angle could have been better, because the light was coming in from your left rather than behind and, consequently, you could only really point your lens in one general direction. The second part about the design I didn’t like, and I’ve encountered this elsewhere, is that hinged openings were very shallow and only just deep enough to get my lens through. They were fine for binoculars or a scope, but restrictive for photographing with a long lens. A few centimetres deeper and I could have seen over the lens and could have manoeuvred it with a bit more freedom. And, the third observation is the usual one about obstructive vegetation. Again I appreciate that when birds are nesting you can’t start going into the area hacking down reeds and cutting grass, but I just feel that very little attention is given to keeping the viewing area tidy. I know I’m a grumpy old wildlife photographer who’s never happy, but I believe that a bit more thought and understanding wouldn’t go amiss. But, the good news was that we stayed in that hide for well over an hour without anybody else coming in.
We then went down to one of the hides we’d visited on the Thursday morning. It was mainly the same species, except that there were more Pied Avocets, again with young which was nice. There was more ‘action' at this hide though as there were a lot of territory disputes going on between the Avocets and the Stilts. Fun to watch, but almost impossible to pick out any good flight shots due to the power station and white industrial buildings in the background, because although they were a long way off you couldn’t avoid getting them in the shot. There was also an unwelcome visit by a Great White Egret, which the Avocets didn't like at all so made their feelings known with mock attacks and some frantic wing beating! Again we had the hide almost to ourselves with just a couple of brief interruptions. We stayed for the best part of an hour and then took the long walk down towards the Es Colombars hide which is situated close to the edge of the reserve near the power station. This is the most remote hide and the least visited. Generally there was very little to see, although there were a few Little Ringed Plovers flitting about, including an active breeding pair that were performing pretty close to the hide, so that alone made the walk down worth while.
Western Swamphen [Porphyrio porphyrio]
It was now late morning so we decided to call it a day and head back to the car, as we wanted to visit one final area before lunch called Son Bosc that was situated on the opposite side of the reserve and only accessible by driving round to it. The area is close to a working quarry and sewage treatment works and was once known for its flora and breeding colony of bee-eaters. That’s all changed now though due to the planned construction of a golf course, which has resulted in access to and from the reserve being fenced off. It’s still possible to drive down the road and through to a viewing deck that overlooks the reserve and one of the lakes, but it’s now just an overgrown area with little appeal. The highlight for us was watching three Marsh Harriers hunting across the reed beds. The road down to Son Bosc runs parallel with the main Ma-12 coastal road between Puerto de Alcúdia and Ca’n Picafort and is accessed off the Ma-3431 Muro / Sa Popla road.
On Monday morning we were back at Son Real as planned. The walk down to the coast was quiet as it was on the Saturday, except that we had a very welcome, although far too brief, encounter with a pair of Eleonora’s Falcons that were flying through. I saw one land in a tree some distance off and at first assumed it was a Kestrel, but then when it took off I realised what it was. Fortunately it only flew a short distance before landing again. It was some distance off the path, but in good light, so I was able to grab a couple of reasonable ‘record shots’ before it followed its mate, which we hadn’t seen, that took off from another tree. It was my seventh new species photographed and one that by now I didn’t expect to get. The rest of the morning was similar to what we’d experienced 48 hours before, except that there were far fewer birds along the coastline. On Saturday there’d been two or three pairs of Kentish Plovers, but today there were none to be seen. The Thekla's Larks that had been relatively easy to spot, although certainly not that easy to photograph, had now almost disappeared. And, even the Audouin’s Gulls were out of range on a rocky island.
Eleonora's Falcon [Falco eleonorae]
Thekla's Lark [Galerida theklae]
So that was it - somewhat disappointing from a photographic perspective, but all in all a very enjoyable week. We'd gone with the intention of doing some photography in the morning before it got too hot and busy, then going to Old Pollensa for a spot of lunch before heading back to the house for a relaxing afternoon and evening, and that's exactly what we did.
From a 'birding' point of view I think we were probably a few weeks too late. Mallorca and the Balearic Islands in general are located on the western European bird migratory highway between Africa and mainland Europe and, consequently, provide a convenient stop-over for many migratory species. If you read the guide books it's clear that Spring, from March through to May, is by far the best time to visit. However, I still thought we'd see and photograph more than we did. In saying that I still ended up adding seven new species to my 'World Bird List' - Western Swamphen, Yellow-legged Gull, Audouin's Gull, Kentish Plover, Eleonora's Falcon, Thekla's Lark and Great Reed Warbler - so I'm not complaining. I guess that my comments simply highlight the difference between a bird watcher's view and the expectations of a bird photographer!