subtitled..."wolves in sheep's clothing?"
Tuesday 9th July.
It was a typical sunny Madrid morning as we waited to greet Keith and Rosemary off the plane at Terminal 1 and although we immediately felt a rapport and a desire to see as much wildlife as the Sierra de la Culebra could offer us, the sight of a Mallard as our first bird was slightly deflating. Our enthusiasm was fuelled however, by excellent views of Black Kite skimming around the Franco mauseleum. Two White Storks were spotted flying amongst Black Kite near Avila and we were delighted to see our first stork's nest of the tour at Orbita with parent Stork in residence. Noting the temperature of 32'C at 13:30, we just had time to enjoy the sight of the colourful Hoopoe crossing our carriageway before we stopped for a lunch of tortilla at Villalpando. Feeling refreshed, and having noted House Sparrow, Collared Dove and more White Stork by our lunch stop, we drove off to Villafafila, seeing Carrion Crow, Northern Wheatear and Skylark en route.
The lagunas were still replete with water and hence there was a lot of life at the water areas.We enjoyed watching two White Storks frogging with a hovering Common Buzzard above. While we watched one of the fascinating Grasshoppers of the area, which resemble a blue butterfly once disturbed, our attention was drawn to a shepherd with his flock of sheep on the skyline. Little did we know then just how often our attention was to be drawn to such herds;indeed, a theme of most of our visits this week seemed to involve sheep with their accompanying Mastin guards, often at unnecessarily close quarters! We counted 24 White Storks lift into the air nearby, and what a lovely sight! This was topped with a male Montague's Harrier hunting on slender wings just to our side. By 15:45 we were treated to the amazing sight at close quarters of 6 Great Bustards taking flight just by our vehicle, dwarfing a Common Buzzard which was also flying above. Crested Larks were clearly displaying their striking crests and a Wheatear flashed its white tail as we watched both male and female Montague's Harriers through our scopes. A Raven flew into the trees by the Observacione des Aves,where we got close to Spotless Starlings,Wheatear,Rock Sparrow, Black-winged Stilt and Crested Lark Whilst looking at the Coots,we disturbed some Iberian Water Frogs on the same pond as about 15 White Storks, Gull-billed Terns;and a Mallard with ducklings.
At 16:40,we were just congratulating ourselves on a fruitful interlude, when the sight of something loping across the ploughed field to our right caused a sharp intake of breath. It was a Wolf!
|Seen Bustards! Seen Wolf! What's next?!|
But thank goodness Keith and Rosemary did not return to UK quite so quickly as a wildlife holiday to remember was awaiting them.
By the centre at Villafafila we were able to see Avocets with chicks,Black-winged Stilt, Marsh Harrier,Hoopoe and Shoveller Duck. As we entered Otero de Sariegos we noticed Common Buzzard atop the plinths intended for the Lesser Kestrels.As White Storks frogged in the surrounding grassland,we noted Barn and Rock Sparrow, several Lesser Kestrels,c100 Avocets, feral Dove, Barn Swallow,Mallard, Shoveller Duck and a Peregrine Falcon playing catch- me-if-you- can on the telegraph posts beside our road out of this very atmospheric wildlife haven. Leaving the area of Villafafila was still paying dividends as we spotted another lovely Montague's Harrier,Turtle Dove and Short-toed Eagle in the sky above the road to Rio Esla.
As we travelled through into holm oak countryside, we could see Marsh Harrier above our vehicle for quite sometime.Stopping at the bridge over the Rio Esla gave us views of Serin, Crag Martin,Cormorant, Black Kite, Grey Heron,Beeeater,Raven,Yellowhammer,Blackcap amongst c60/70 Mallard and some huge Carp in the river. At the turn-off for Ferreras we watched a Carrion Crow being mobbed by a Red Kite.
Both Antonios were out to greet us as we arrived at our hotel along with some other local characters,all of whom were impressed at the wolf sighting we could report to them. We were all ready for a refreshing break enabling us to settle into our hotel rooms after such an exciting and eventful journey from the airport,so we arranged to reconvene at 20:30 for our first wolf-watch of the tour.
The Bee-eaters on the wires along to the pista were soon to become part of our tapestry for the area, and the quiet evening's watch , punctuated only by a Red Deer's rear in the distance!,proved a welcome balance to the excitement of the first day. For Keith and Rosemary, Gatwick airport seemed a long way away, and a long time ago, as we retired after an excellent dinner to recharge our batteries for our first full day tomorrow in the Sierra de la Culebra.
Wednesday 10th July.
07:00 was an assault on the senses with the smell of new mown hay and Swifts soaring against the angry red sun of this promising, clear morning at la pista,having already spotted a Dunnock on the short drive to our viewpoint. We were enjoying excellent views of several Red Deer, plus Wood Pigeon, when at 07:25 John saw a Wolf loping across the light grass well in the distance. This was too far and too quick to get everyone onto it,but the view confirmed both that the wolf sighting yesterday had been exceptional in its closeness and clarity, and that the wolves were certainly still at this site which has been most rewarding this year. As the morning watch progressed, a thick misty haze swirled around dips in the valley, from where we could hear barks from Roe Deer.Nearer to our seats we watched a Dartford Warbler amongst the thick,bee-laden bramble bushes which also proved to be a haven for Marbled White Butterflies. As the sound of the Green Woodpeckers chorused, we decided to return for breakfast at 09:00, but not before we spotted a Rock Bunting in the heather and the statutory Bee-eater on the wire.
The relaxing air of this village worked its eternal magic this morning as we set off at 10:50 for a short stroll which lasted for over an hour and a half and which just had to include a sit in the shade awaiting the re-emergence of an Oscellated Lizard.
The trails around Boya are also packed with abundant butterfly life at this time of year, and here we noted Brimstone and Clouded Yellow butterflies and beautiful Dragonflies. There was evidence of Wolf with scat of differing ages, and we were excited to see tracks of Wolf,Wild Boar, Red and Roe Deer. John and Rosemary were lured by the sound of croaking,and sure enough,there was still a lot of frog life here along with large blue Dragonflies.Two Iberian Water Frogs were seen as we also noted Great Spotted Woodpecker and Tawny Pipit whilst hearing Bonelli's Warbler.
Our evening wolf-watch meant that we became reacquainted with the Bee-eaters on the wire...3 this time...and the constant buzz of busy honey and bumble bees nearby. A Blackbird flew across our route as we prepared for anything! There were times when the background of constant buzzing would stop immediately,only to resume after about 10 minutes without any reason for this interruption which our mere human senses could decipher. The highlight of this evening's watch was a large Wild Boar with three young routing around on the flat field by the quarry. Such low vegetation gave us good views and Keith in particular was delighted with his first view in the wild of this huge creature. Deer sightings were restricted to a Red Deer Hind grazing the circular pattern of low grass before being lost to our view in the low heather.We also heard Roe Deer barks again close-by. As the light faded at 22:15 we heard the hint of a Nightjar and a definite Green Woodpecker,plus a couple of Roe Deer barks, as we left this atmospheric valley to play out its nocturnal dramas without our prying eyes.
up a Nightjar in flight.
Another wonderful dinner,cooked by Antonio,finished off a full and fruitful day.
07:00 on a slightly breezy morning of 17'C saw us setting up our scopes at Flechas where there had been reports from locals of a wolf and cubs regularly being observed. Every lead has to be followed up, plus the site at Flechas has a particular atmosphere.Straightaway a Red Fox trotted across the road and we all were hopeful for a lot of sightings here,but not in quite such numbers as transpired! The large sheep, and even larger Mastins,plus the little herding dogs and their 2 shepherds,quite literally took over the area,much to the amusement of Keith and Rosemary.
After this invasion, we drove along to visit the old village of Flechas with Red-legged Partridge flying in front of us. As we strolled around the small hamlet, picking out several "des res?!?", a Songthrush sang out from somewhere amongst the fertile subsistence vegetable plots and we noted an old lady dragging her firewood along the road towards her home. This is no picture book idylll of rural life, rather an area which has remained unchanged for generations and which lives with the wolf in its midst now as has always been.
Breakfast duly enjoyed...thank you Antonio...we set off at 10:45 for Portugal; still with a slight breeze but certainly very sunny and bright. Keith pointed out a large female Black Kite atop a telegraph pole and that set the pace for lots of interesting sights en route. These included Bee-eater, Iberian Grey Shrike,White Stork,Common Buzzard, Montague's Harrier,Stonechat,Magpie,Spotless Starling, Jay,White Admiral Butterflies...and sheep of course. We were interested to note the standing stones style of marking boundaries as we neared the border, and our first bird in Portugal was a Spotless Starling, closely followed by Wood Pigeon and four White Storks flying alongside our car as we progressed to Aldeia Nova.
This picturesque village,so definitely Portuguese and not Spanish, was sleepy as ever, with the old black dog dozing in the village square,while two little girls played, happily greeting us, with House Martins and Red-rumped Swallows swooping around our heads.
The gorge gave us tremendous views of Crag Martin, Alpine Swift, Hoopoe, Bee-eater, Mallard, Common Kestrel within a short while, but the highlights of this stop were the two Egyptian Vultures putting up quite an aerial show, and the sight of Blue Rock Thrush after hearing several taunting sounds of this shy bird. After spending sometime watching Golden Oriole and a Golden Eagle soaring above us in 36'C, we felt exhilarated but also ready to escape the heat so we set off for lunch in Miranda do Douro.
We ate our lovely salad lunch with accompanying Black Kite views from our window table, and then set off for Fariza. At the dam we marveled at the size of the carp,with Crag Martins, House Martins and two Egyptian Vultures flying around us.A Golden Eagle was very close to our car as we entered Spain again and we noticed the temperature drop from 41'C to a mere 35'C as we began to climb. We saw Northern Wheatear on the wires plus Woodchat Shrike.
Avoiding Iberian Wall Lizard on the road, we stopped to photograph the Clapper bridge on our way out of Fariza and we returned via Alcanices where we saw Black Kite fly over the road.
After a short rest break, we were back in action at la pista, noting the Bee-eaters on the wire,and straightaway enjoying 4 Stags running across the track and in the low heather in good light and warm conditions. A Honey Buzzard spent most of the evening perched atop a rock to the left of the pista. Other than this action,it was a quiet night, and we returned to the hotel at 22:00 for a sumptuous meal of egg & tuna mayonnaise starter, pork tenderloin in orange sauce followed by very sweet cherries from a local tree.
Friday 12th July.
After a night of torrential, dramatic electrical storms,we set off for Ferreras in 14'C temperatures watching several Blackbirds in the red sunrise. As we turned into the wooded area of Ferreras, the wind dropped and rain ceased. By 07:40 we were set up at our watch site, looking at 6 Red Deer grazing whilst continuing to be on the move. As the morning progressed we could not but notice the number of helicopters flying low over the area carrying water, and after some joking about the purposes of these craft, we became well aware of the difficult reality of patrolling and safeguarding these dry forested areas. By 09:00 we had seen Great Spotted Woodpecker,Red Kite, Crow, Crossbill, Dartford Warbler and Bee-eater but our best sight of the morning's watch was a Light-phased Booted Eagle in the sky above us on our return.
After breakfast, we were lucky enough to get good views of a Short-toed Eagle at the crossroads at Mahide with White Stork above and a very brave Woodchat Shrike and Crested Lark below. The White Admiral Butterflies were almost getting in the way they were so plentiful at the Gallegos pond! After some discussion,it was agreed that the snake found here was a
A short walk in a nearby oak copse garnered a family of the elusive Bonelli's Warbler with lots of Iberian Marbled White Butterflies.Sixteen Lesser Kestrels were counted on the road past this copse, along with Common Buzzard,Woodchat Shrike, plus 2 White Storks together on top of a pylon in exactly the same position at the Mahide crossroads as when we had passed them that morning!
By 14:00 we had reached the village of Riomanzanas, a place where you have to have been to believe....every description of this place sounds like hyperbole unless you have actually seen it. Keith and Rosemary certainly can say they have seen it,meeting local characters going about their business whether that be animal husbandry using methods from bygone ages, or renovation of houses but obviously without any Health and Safety requirements.
After spotting Common Buzzard on the way,we all enjoyed a hearty lunch at Roberto's and emerged to see a female Montague's Harrier at close quarters.
As we set off for an evening wolf-watch at Ferreras, we spent time watching a White Wagtail in the stream at our hotel while a dark-phased Booted Eagle soared above us.Birds seemed to be active this evening,with Orphean Warbler flying by the road just before Ferreras de Arriba, while an Iberian Green Woodpecker flew across our path soon after with Iberian Grey Shrike on the roadside wires. A strong wind whipped up at 20:30 and a Black Kite seemed to be enjoying its show of aerobatics on the blasts. At 21:30 two large Wild Boar ran across the field edge at speed,lifting the Crows from the low-set field behind, only to disappear into the neighbouring wood. By 22:05 we had decided to pack up and after another super dinner,this time consisting of soup,chicken and... a speciality of the house..., Antonio's rice pudding, we spent an enjoyable 15 minutes watching Nightjars flitting around the local church tower.
Saturday 13th July.
This was a still morning at la pista with the general calm only occasionally broken by a dog barking and the distant jaffel of an Iberian Green Woodpecker.A grazing Hind in the distance also seemed to exude calmness and some of us allowed our minds and scopes to focus on personal favourite areas within our sights; I enjoyed watching a distant apiarist adding more boxes to the already tall hives to accommodate the fruits of such working honey bees as we hear in the bushes at our feet. Keith continued to scour the area and he pointed out an impressive Stag trotting into the copse. Apart from a transient but insistent Dartford Warbler, this was a quiet morning's watch.
By 10:50 we were spotting Iberian Green Woodpecker as we left our hotel to visit Puebla de Sanabria,a charming medieval market town nearby. We stopped to watch Booted Eagle and Black Kite sparring in the air above Cional pond and were impressed with sightings of Honey Buzzard above Sagallos.
Puebla de Sanabria was bustling with a wedding at the castle and there was news of a regatta in the picturesque and normally deserted area of Sanabria. We only found out too late that this was a motorbike regatta! Throughout the afternoon we were treated to thousands ( I do not exaggerate) of motorbikes competing with the screaming of the Swifts as the normally quiet streets were filled with both. A detour to a normally quiet river to look for Dipper etc merely left us surrounded by...you've guessed it...herds of sheep with ever-present shepherds and Mastins; I was beginning to suspect a recurring theme to this tour.What a contrast to this morning's peaceful beginning!
However, we enjoyed a splendid lunch at Ribadelago but we agreed that today the sultry atmosphere, plus motorcycles, had affected our chances of wildlife sights.
|The memorial to the families who perished in the flood at Ribedelago|
The temperature had dropped to 13'C and water was evaporating from the road causing mist clouds as we drove to Boya for our evening's wolf-watch. Once settled in the woods, we scoured the area for a close sight, to the sound of croaking frogs. We heard a Nightjar and later one flew across our road but this was the only close encounter with wildlife that evening...with the exception of the midges. Rosemary heard the sound of a Tree Frog behind her, but in truth it had been a quiet watch. A lovely dinner of soup, very tender steak and homemade lemon mousse was very welcome,thank you Antonio!
Sunday 14th July.
The air seemed cooler at 14'C but more settled as we set off at 07:00 for la pista when a Roe Deer ran across the road close in front of us, We set up our scopes to the sound of Roe Deer barking and we soon had several Red Deer within our sight, including a grand Stag at the rendez-vous site. A Short-toed Eagle was perched on a rocky outcrop, beneath a scenic sky of long cigar-shaped clouds serrating the sun.
At 08:50 we were delighted to see a Stag,Hind and a small spotted Calf walking in single file through the high heather. John called our attention to a shape he had seen fleetingly running along the track on the horizon of the pista; he was sure it had been a wolf but no-one else had been focusing in that direction. By 09:30 we returned for breakfast acknowledging our regular Bee-eater on the wire along the track.
Noting the large cherries growing in the fruitful orchards and allotment areas, we set off after breakfast for Codesal aiming to walk the area behind la pista where wolf had been seen earlier this tour. We enjoyed a good view of Red Fox on the roadside by San Pedro with Honey Buzzard just above the road outside the hotel. Looking for Iberian Hare, we were almost taken in by a rather trickily shaped Iberian Rock!,but we did spot Chaffinch, Sub-alpine Warbler and Stonechat with White Admiral and Marbled White Butterflies in adundance as Deer ran past the bee-hives.
The peaceful pond at Codesal gave us excellent views of Iberian Water Frog and Dragonflies; it all seemed to be a butterfly heaven imbued with the scent of honey. After a lovely interlude just sitting by this wildlife haven,home to the Red-backed Shrike,we set off to walk the tracks and were soon treated to excellent evidence with wolf scat and very recent tracks. These were of a large wolf and were fresh imprints in mud; all this supported John's sighting at that very place earlier today. We also found a baby Toad! Colourful Bee-eaters were aplenty plus Serin and Goldfinch.
After lunch at the interesting Bar el Lobo,we walked around the tracks at Ferreras,noting wolf scat and tracks of Wild Boar and Deer. A cheery Robin was at the millstream upon our return to our hotel for some free time before the evening wolf-watch.
Thunder and lightning pervaded our rest time and the rain started at 19:30 but it had dried up within half an hour as we set off for la pista with thunder still rumbling in the background. The Bees were still valiantly working through these conditions,and we had a quick glimpse of two Wild Boar at 20:45,but by 21:00 rain was the victor and we decamped to the forest edge to watch from our vehicle. It was soon evident that this too was going to be non-productive and so we returned to enjoy dinner with friend Jaime and Antonio. Of course,an excellent night was enjoyed by all,eating good food (Antonio's own paella recipe), good local wine and excellent company.
Monday 15th July.
On a cooler morning, we set off for the Villardeciervos site, lifting a Turtle Dove as we left our hotel.Two Mallards flew nearby as we enjoyed the natural beauty of the low-lying mist mixing with the rising sun. A young Fox ran across the road as we reached the lay-by. We were prepared for the noisy farmer and his dogs,and by 07:30 we had already noted three Stags gleaming in the sunlight,two Quail,and Iberian Green Woodpecker. Owing to thickening mist,we then left to drive towards Villanueva where we saw White Stork in the fields and Common Kestrel on the wires...all with the same intent of hunting for food. Also in the search for food was Black Kite and Common Buzzard on pylons with Bee-eater complete with a beak of bee. Whilst watching at Ferreras we noted several Crossbills and White Storks,while a Coal Tit flew past.
11:10 saw us all out and about at Boya on a pond-dipping session and we were lucky to find 2 young Bosca's Newts and Turtle Dove,with a strong scent coming from the mint growing wild around the ponds. A walk around part of the large lake at Cional gave us all a chance to stop, sit and wait for nature to come to us. A huge Carp swam close to our feet and we all saw and heard Golden Oriole. There were also sightings of Honey Buzzard,Jay and Cormorant, plus strong evidence of recent otters with the crayfish remnants left around.
Lunch was enjoyed by this lake and we then returned to our base for some free time,during which John and I saw Short-toed Eagle flying just above us with a snake in its beak. Still the search for food where-ever you watch.
We all enjoyed the peace of the evening's wolf-watch further along the pista, where we could spy lots of Bee-eaters,and had excellent close views of a Stag,Hind and Calf, amongst other good deer views this evening. By 22:00 the Nightjars had started whirring and as the light was going, we packed up after a pleasant watch to enjoy dinner of green bean starter, steak with tomatoes then flan. We were delighted to toast Keith and Rosemary's wedding anniversary with generous measures of "The Queen's Choice" whisky and we hope this is an anniversary they will remember for a long time!
Tuesday 16th July.
07:00 The calm,almost eerie stillness of this atmospheric valley, part mist shrouded beneath a glowing red sun, encouraged a personal stillness and satisfaction as we took time to savour this place before our return to city life. "There's a lovely Stag!" "Look at the velvet antlers on this one!" As the morning progressed,both Keith and Rosemary enjoyed their improved spotting skills and as the 07:50 train tooted its greeting, we reminisced upon that first day when as well as Great Bustards, we all saw that Wolf, in daylight and a full view! Our discussions stopped however when we noticed that the deer seemed to be quite skittish and they were certainly keeping on the move all the time. But if there was a predator there,it was not allowing us to see him.A rufous-tailed Rock Thrush landed on a nearby wire with a caterpillar in its beak as we had to pack up to return for breakfast and the journey back to Madrid. The Bee-eaters were on their wire, plus Chaffinch and Great Spotted Woodpecker put in an appearance as we returned to our hotel.
The journey back to Madrid provided lots to see as per usual, and these included Short-toed Eagle,Cirl Bunting,Black Kite, Swifts, pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago and surprise,surprise,plenty of sheep complete with shepherds,and Mastins. At the Rio Esla bridge,we saw 30/40 Mallard, two Grey Heron,two Egyptian Vultures and one Black Kite. We noted how the fields of sunflowers had ripened in the short space of one week,but then we realised just how much we had achieved in this time too! Lesser Kestrels were flying around the dovecotes and we enjoyed the sight of the effortless flight of three Montague's Harriers at Villafafila. White Storks were plentiful in these fields along with a young Peregrine Falcon in a ploughed field next to the road.As we took time to go off-road a little,we disturbed a Little Owl and we also watched Hoopoe and Northern Wheatear.
The A6 provided us with views of Booted Eagle,Black Kite,Griffon Vulture and White Stork...quite an impressive list for an airport run! We said our "Good-byes"to Keith and Rosemary at Madrid airport leaving them with happy memories of their notoriety within the community of the Sierra de la Culebra if only for the speed with which they saw "their " wolf!
P.S.Keith, you will always be able to find employment with us as man i/c stools.
"Thank you both very much for organising such a wonderful wild wolf holiday. It was a truly memorable experience for so many reasons. We couldn’t have chosen nicer people to show us around such a stunning part of Spain (and Portugal). Your wealth of knowledge, expertise and generosity humbled us. The Veniata was great – both Antonios so hospitable and the accommodation so comfortable. Many thanks for collecting and taking us back to the airport which made it so easy travel wise, and you even laid on a wolf! Our holiday with you was quite unique, and will long remain a favourite of our wildlife experiences."