After the Raptors trip & my overnight stop in Madrid, it was time to head back to the airport to meet the group arriving from the UK for the Calera tour – and a second visit for me. Calera is about 1h 30mins to the west of Madrid in the Castilla-la-Mancha region. It would be another week of early starts and longs days in hides but I knew it would also be a week of excellent bird photography and I was looking forward to it very much.
The local guide has worked very hard establishing hides in the region and they give amazing opportunities to photograph some of the iconic birds of Spain. Species available during the week we were there included Great Bustard, Little Bustard, Bee-Eater, Hoopoe, Little Owl, Black-winged Kite, Southern Grey Shrike, Lesser Kestrels, Black Kite, Black & Griffon Vultures, a Lake Hide for various wading birds, and a reflection pool mainly visited by Azure-winged Magpies.
This year I elected not to spend time with the Bustards because there were so many other species I wanted to photograph, and I knew I would want to revisit some of those hides to maximise opportunities to photograph the birds in different lighting conditions or exhibiting different behaviours. Here’s what I spent the week photographing.
I had 2-afternoon sessions with the Bee-Eaters. There is a lot of activity to be seen at this time of year – squabbling over perches, food passes between paired birds, and mating. If the temperature falls below 14 degrees centigrade (which means their prey is not flying) then the birds can be relatively inactive – but you can still get good portrait shots.
I was fortunate that temperatures were reasonably high, even on a windy day and so I was able to witness the full range of behaviours on my visits.
They have to be one of my favourite birds. Although I had already spent 3 sessions photographing them in my first week in Spain, I knew the location in Calera would offer me some different images. Two years ago, the birds were further along in their annual cycle and I had a parent bird feeding a chick. This year the female spent most of her time in the nest, incubating the eggs, and the male was bringing in food items to her. Midway during the week, I noticed that both birds were leaving the nest – so the chicks must have hatched and both parents were now busy.
I didn’t try this hide 2 years ago, so I wanted to spend some time in it this year. It’s a ground level hide so that you are shooting just above the water. I was hoping for a lovely calm evening with great evening light. It didn’t happen! Instead, on both the evening sessions I was there, the skies were mostly overcast and the wind was often rippling the surface of the lake. The image I had in mind – mating Black-winged Stilts with a perfect reflection, and bathed in warm evening light – just wasn’t going to be. But I still managed to get some cracking images of the Stilts – and in some ways, these are among my favourite images from the trip. Also present were Little Grebes and Little Ringed Plover (which sometimes would wander so close it filled the frame).
I loved this location the first time I photographed these birds in 2015. The 2-person hide is on a short scaffold tower at the same height as a tumble-down barn roof that the colony nests in. There are about 25 pairs nesting here; your view across this part of the roof covers 5 nesting pairs. The males are out hunting and bringing back food to the females – mole crickets are a favourite prey item, but you also see caterpillars, centipedes, mice and sometimes lizards.
This is mating season, and after the male lesser kestrel passes the food to the female, the female usually calls to him to mate with her. With 5 pairs there’s always something happening! There are other birds flying around, with a few perching on the roof from time to time. This year there were quite a few Spotless Starlings, and there was a lot of displaying behaviour.
A little further west of Calera there are a couple of hides set in a remote field with the Gredos Mountains as a backdrop. Food is put out primarily for the Vultures, but the food attracts a number of other species. Black Kites, one or two Red Kites, Storks and Carrion Crows also visit. As for the vultures, these are predominantly Griffon & Black Vultures. We did also see an Egyptian Vulture but it was quickly chased away. You are in glass-ffronted hides under a tree. The glass means you can see and photograph birds as they fly in and, when they are on the ground, some of the birds come really close, giving great opportunities for portrait images.
This is the only hide in Europe to be able to photograph these beautiful birds, and it’s the hide owner’s signature hide. Early in the season, monitoring of the birds’ activity begins as they pair up for breeding – Where are their territories? Where are they likely to nest? Will David be able to get a hide and perch in the right setting for a clean background, etc etc. To achieve the results he does, David works very hard, and this year had 5 locations under investigation. Only one of those was successful, and it was very successful for the 4 of us that each spent a day in this hide. You enter and leave the hide under the cover of darkness – so it’s a long day on your own. I was in the hide from about 6am until 10pm.
On my previous trip, I had photographed the male bringing prey items back to the perch where he would prepare them for the female who would then come in and take them from him and return to the nest to feed the chick(s). This year, the chicks had already fledged and there were 2 very noisy juvenile birds calling for attention most of the day. The parents would feed them, but they were also capable of catching their own food.
The day I spent in the hide was a wet one – thunderstorms were passing over – but it didn’t mean I “lucked out”. On the contrary, I had the best session I could imagine. In the early morning, with the rain obscuring the background even more, I was treated to an adult bird set against beautiful pastel colours – one of my favourite images from this trip. Later in the day, I had one of the juvenile birds on the perch. It sat there dripping in the rain. Once the rain had passed I was treated to a whole hour of preening and wing flapping. The dull light made exposure of the black and white feathers easier than it would have been in harsh sunlight.
Two of us went out for a morning drive with our guide to photograph Red-legged Partridge in the ploughed fields or rough ground around a small local town – apparently a good site to see them.
I spent a morning at the reflection pool hide photographing the Azure-winged Magpies and another short morning session photographing a Southern Grey Shrike.
On my final evening, I visited a nesting Little Owl site. I had been warned that the birds might not appear (as they are not baited, there are no guarantees). But as the last light of the evening raked across the olive grove, the Little Owl suddenly appeared at the base of the olive tree in front of me. A magical end to a magical week.
I really did enjoy this week – so much so that I’m sure I will go back to capture more images of the Birds of Spain, yes, for the third time!