This gave me a unique, straight-lined impression of the whole country, or, more accurately, a narrow corridor of the country. Bird-wise the first region, Andalusia, was one of the most fertile sections of the trip, with the most new species added as we encountered each new habitat.
This trip was the third in a series of big endurance efforts for Turtle Doves which I affectionately call Dove Step. The premise is that through endurance, with the help of friends, I can raise both funds and awareness for Operation Turtle Dove. Turtle Doves are in free-fall decline with a 93% reduction in breeding birds in the UK and a comparable 80% decline on the near continent. Dove Step 3 was our most successful effort yet and achieved the objectives of endurance, fundraising and awareness extremely efficiently. At the time of writing, the fundraising total stands at £5873.12 and £6857.90 when GiftAid is added. Our fundraising goes directly to the RSPB and is specifically for use by Operation Turtle Dove. Funds from the first journey allowed for nine hectares of Turtle Dove friendly habitat to be installed in the eastern region, providing food for Turtle Doves upon arrival from Africa and again when they have young to feed later in the season. Funds from the second Dove Step supported research into issues affecting Turtle Doves on the wintering grounds. Research across the last two wintering periods has started to fill knowledge gaps in habitat preference, changing land-use and favoured sites for Turtle Dove congregations. This is vital understanding given that Turtle Doves spend two-thirds of the year on the wintering grounds. Funds raised from this latest effort will similarly support the objectives of Operation Turtle Dove.
The walk itself was the most arduous of the journeys undertaken so far, even more so than walking 300 miles in 13 days as we did on Dove Step 1. It was more demanding than the 700 mile triathlon; 25 mile sea kayak, 570 mile cycle and 150 mile walk completed in 14 days on Dove Step 2. The sheer landscape level movement, across 28 consecutive days, walking at least 25 miles a day, takes a uniquely brutal toll on the body. Each day I would be out from just after dawn until late afternoon, or early evening depending on distance. I experienced a wealth of temperatures, weather and terrain in the process. Given the scale of the challenge, many issues cropped up that had to be overcome. Self-motivation and keeping mentally resolute were essential. The birds encountered were a big part of keeping me up-beat; I am after all a bird watcher, that is why I became interested in and wholly steeped in Turtle Dove conservation. Bird watching, for me, is something of a gateway drug, the stepping stone to everything else I have come to do: endurance, fundraising, public speaking and writing. Bird watching has a lot to answer for!
Andalusia was the most fertile section of the trip, with the most species and new habitats encountered across the first few days. Seeing a new bird or spectacular congregation of birds provided mental stimulus and kept the mind off any ailments or inclement weather throughout the trip. White Storks and Griffon Vulture, for example, were a near constant as we passed through Andalusia and beyond and I never grew tired of their presence; either bird appearing on a thermal ahead usually coincided with a warming of the day and the comfort of knowing I had covered 10 - 20km.
Black-shouldered Kite, Crested Lark, Kentish Plover and Spotless Starling were all lifers for me on the first day as we walked from Tarifa Beach to Venta de Retin. Audouin's Gull, Crag Martin and Sardinia Warbler were birds I had only seen once before, the latter two in particular, were frequently encountered across the first week. The second day’s walking took us straight through La Janda. This was not pre-planned, but a happy coincidence and the birding was immense; Bluethroat, Purple Swamphen, Sponnbill, Booted Eagle and masses of Cranes to name a few. This certainly was not the fastest walking of the trip, as Rob and I paused to take in as much of the action as possible. Calandra Lark en route and Lesser Kestrel at Alcala de los Gazules - where we finished for the day - were both lifers, as were the White-headed Duck on a reservoir near Arcos de la Frontera the next day.
Once clear of Seville, the centre of which was covered in Ring-necked Parakeet, the habitat changed and in the Sierra Norte National Park I started to encounter Azure-winged Magpies amongst the Holm and Cork Oaks. All-in I encountered around 90 species in Andalusia - not bad at all for the first region of the trip and in the context of a trip list of 125 species.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Andalusian leg of the epic walk and, fortunately, it was sufficiently early in the effort that I was fresh enough to enjoy the birds. From the 5th day of the trip and Seville, I walked solo until the 24th day of the trip; this gave the birds a newly heightened level of importance. With the onset of fatigue, injury, ever-increasing hunger and loneliness - at least within the walking hours - birds were a companion and a most welcome distraction. My favoured adage that ‘Only Nature Is Real’ took on a heightened meaning when your natural surroundings are your companion, enemy and saviour all at once and across multiple miles each day. The terrain and weather could be wholly conspiring against a day’s mileage - but an overflying Red or Black Kite would offer a welcome lift no matter how debilitated.
Extremadura, for me at least, meant one thing; the desire to see a bustard! Ideally a Great Bustard! This would not be a stretch at all if you were in-car and able to drive up on known areas and habitats. I wouldn't deviate from my pre-planned route and so had to rely more on luck. Days in Extremadura ticked over with plenty of new species for the trip, notably: Spanish Sparrow and Southern Grey Shrike. It wasn't until the day after Caceres that I would meet my quarry; having left the city limits pre-dawn, I dropped into more bustard-suitable, steppe habitat and immediately took out my Opticron Traveller binoculars. Miles passed and I dutifully scanned likely looking high points for bustards, to no avail. Then, in the rightmost limit of my peripheral vision, a large bird honed into view. I had already seen a perched Griffon Vulture and thought it may have been that taking flight. It wasn’t! It was another big Bertha, an iconic species – the Great Bustard. It gave prolonged flight views arcing across the whole landscape before dropping out of view behind an escarpment. I couldn't have been happier. I needed that lift because the day was to morph into an extremely gruelling slog, with the remaining 30km of the 45km day on rough ground and even involving cross-country navigation to avoid a route diversion.
The next day birding again came to the fore. It was really hot and carrying full pack as I remained solo for this section of the trip, I had yet again to cross a river. The crossing was fine and I was even assisted by a local who guided me through the most sensible sections and offered me a t-shirt by way of towel when I made it over! Delighted! However, after the rhythm of covering hard terrain, with full pack and the heat of the day, the cold water body-shocked me. I made it to the top of the next hill and took a moment to regain my composure. After a few minutes, I opened my eyes and the sky was full of vultures! I am sure this was pure coincidence and they hadn't mistaken my resting form for a cadaver; the assembled vulture mega-flock did have the benefit of gaining me Egyptian Vulture for the trip and I remain a big fan of both Black and Griffon Vultures, despite having encountered them already.
The section of the trip after Extremadura didn't hold the same volume of iconic species, but did manage to add a good number of ‘padders’ throughout Castilla y Leon, notably: Tree Sparrow, Dipper and Rook! Birds that would otherwise be wholly taken for granted.
On the border of Castilla y Leon and the very last region walked - Asturias - Rob rejoined me and we tackled the mighty Picos de Europa. A worthy mountain range if ever I’ve encountered one. The change of terrain gave us some real specials, including lifers for me, such as: Rock Bunting and Rock Sparrow. We may have failed to happen upon a Wallcreeper, but I was content with Rock Bunting in particular. What a superbly marked species.
During the tail end of the trip, largely in transit or waiting for the delayed ferry home, we encountered a good number of estuarine and seabird species. Whilst I don't count this as formally as the species encountered walking, they do take the trip tally up to a worthy 125 species. In re-visiting the birds seen along the way, the trip does read as very Andalusia heavy. This is a symptom of the freshness of the observers, Rob and myself, at that point and also the early stage of the trip. By the last two weeks and certainly by the last week, I was not routinely carrying my camera and not always taking my binoculars out of the pack. Whilst the trip was completed capably, I was seriously fatigued it the latter stages. It required all my output to simply keep going.
All images © Jonny Rankin. I used Opticron Traveller binoculars and Bridgedale socks exclusively throughout Dove Step 3. You can still support our fundraising at the following link; https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/DoveStep3