Sunday, 26 June 2011

Trip report May/June 2011 Sierra de la Culebra

Trip Report:  Sierra de la Culebra 28th May/5th June 2011.

Saturday 28th May.

This week’s trip started  as it obviously meant to continue, with father and son team Steve and Rick, spotting Black and Red Kites, Montague’s Harrier, Black Redstart, Crested Lark, Linnet, White Stork, Swifts, Wheatear, Carrion Crow, Raven and Booted Eagle  just from the airport carpark as bags were being loaded.

When on the road , travelling in bright , morning sunshine between fields of scarlet poppies, more Crested Larks could be seen, alongside Spotless Starlings.  The bustling town of Medina was looking colourful with balcony roses in full bloom, and Swifts and House Martins wheeling overhead..  Outside Medina, we saw Lesser Kestrel and Buzzard flying low over ripening grain fields.  Going through Villafrechos, we were already becoming quite blasé about Storks on the nest, racing Swifts and Red and Black Kites .  Our enjoyment at the excellent view of a Hoopoe at Villamayo was doubled a little further along the road where we managed to locate a Hoopoe’s nest- just opposite our welcome lunch stop! Whilst sampling local cerveza, coffee and raciones of tuna/tomato pastry, we were able to add Magpie, Collared Dove and Greenfinch  to our list…already looking impressive considering we’d only just begun out tour two hours ago!

Our first Corn Bunting was spotted on the road to Villafafila, near Tapioles, where Rick pointed out a Little Owl perching under some rafters, surrounded by House Martins nesting beneath the tiled roofs.

Back on the road to Villafafila, while Storks walked through the fields looking for amphibians, we had an excellent view of a female Marsh Harrier and our first encounter with Whiskered Terns. More of the same were seen at our first Observacione des Aves, plus Avocets in abundance.  In the nearby pond were Wagtails, Lapwings and Black-Winged Stilts whilst the trees hosted a sedentary Black Kite and a Stork’s nest with three noisy chicks. We enjoyed watching the grace of a circling Montague’s Harrier which finished with a dive to make a kill.  Rock Sparrows were nesting noisily inside the observation post, and a nearby  Northern Wheatear was displaying. About forty Great Bustards were in a field off the road, and Rick was amazed at how close he could walk up to them along the cart track through the fields.  Rick’s encounter with these huge birds certainly provided him with one of his life’s everlasting memories…along with a very close encounter with a Booted Eagle later in the week. Quail was heard but not seen…this was to happen on several occasions this week. 

At the Lagunas de Villafafila, we saw Lapwings, Avocets, Marsh Harrier, Stork, a Montague’s Harrier being mobbed by Black-winged Stilts, Black Kite, Buzzard, Corn Bunting, 2 Redshanks, Rock Sparrow, Whiskered Tern and a Black-headed Gull.

Travelling along the road from Villafafila, spotting Stonechat, Greenshank and Wheatear easily along the way, we aimed for Villarin de Campos where we were successful in our quest to find a colony of Lesser Kestrels.  Also in the village were Lesser Whitethroats, a pair of Goldfinches and Red-rumped Swallows.

These last two species were also seen along with Serins, Grey Heron, Black Redstart and a Bee-eater whilst scanning from the bridge over the Rio Esla.  Woodchat Shrikes began to be much in evidence from now on too.  Ferreras de Arriba produced a Rock Bunting and 2 Red-legged Partridges, to the background of the Iberian Green Woodpecker’s mocking call.

This bird, heard at Ferreras, was seen as we entered San Pedro de la Herrerias, and during a delightful village stroll we also saw Songthrush, Blackcap, Melodious Warbler, Wren, Blackbird, Great Tit, and watched Black Redstarts and Blue Tits feeding insistent young.

Antonio was waiting for us with his customary warm greeting, and the good news that the nearby piste was a strong possibility for  wolf action.

At the piste that evening, we were joined by a Spanish man from Benavente who proudly claimed wolf sightings most evenings of the previous week.  This was happy news indeed and bore out Antonio’s evidence.  We saw Dartford and Sardinian Warblers, Rock Thrush, Hen Harrier, Coal Tit, Cuckoo and Nightjar on the avian side, with views of 3 Wild Boar and 1 Red Deer as our mammal count.

This first day ended with Antonio’s paella accompanied by the customary cervezas and wine.

Sunday 29th May.

 On a cloudy morning at San Pedro, we still saw Great Tit, Nightingale, Turtle Dove, Black Redstart and White Wagtail whilst hearing a cuckoo. Watching a stag at La Piste, up to its antlers in heather, just served to underline how a wolf could travel undetected through such terrain.  However, our spirits were lifted by an excellent view on the track of 6 Wild Boar; with the big male rolling in his scent then the entire group scampering off to the side track.  Steve was interested in the 2 pairs of Rock Thrushes obviously nesting in close proximity, and he explored and found the site of one such nest.  A friendly Dunnock was with us for the whole watch…and for many others too.

After breakfast, the task of looking for signs of wolf in various likely areas was begun in earnest with a walk behind the hostal to the slate quarry, where much evidence of wolf had been found in March.  Tracks of Hedgehog, Badger, Red Deer and Fox were visible but no fresh wolf activity could be found.  Steve spotted an Iberian Hare and Rick was interested in the Iberian Green Frogs in the pools.  Bird-wise, we saw Jay, Tree Pipit, Chaffinch, Woodlark and White Wagtail.

A quick coffee at Villadeciervos with attendant Robin at our table followed a wonderful view of a Short-toed Eagle sitting in a tree.
Checking out L’Hermita as rain clouds cleared to enable us to appreciate the view in full sunshine, we spotted a Wall Lizard, Buzzard, Mistle Thrush and 4 Ravens, one of which was being mobbed by a Carrion Crow…but no wolf tracks.

Our spirits were lifted at Ferreras, having spotted an Iberian Green Woodpecker, Whinchat, Booted Eagle and some delightful little Natterjack Toads, and eventually some evidence of wolf!  Tracks and scat here were quite fresh and indicated several wolves.

At Villanueva we sat outside with our cervezas, whilst locals paraded the cross through the streets before partaking of mass all the while accompanied by one man ringing both huge church bells with gusto.  Sheet lightning gashed dramatically through the sky as the thunder grumbled ominously. Such storm threats did not affect our views of fresh wolf and boar tracks at nearby Boya, but certainly la tormenta revealed its true force during our evening wolf watch at la piste, where the only notable sights were 2 Stags and a Hind, a Hen Harrier, and Rick trapped beneath the fir trees unable to reach the car without falling victim to the vicious hailstones that were rapidly turning the track into a canal!

After our evening meal, we all walked out to see three Nightjars a nd several Bats hunting in the now clear night air around the church at San Pedro, to the hooting of a tawny owl.

Monday 30th May.

7:00am.  Plan A - La piste - abandoned owing to thick, low-lying mist.

                Plan B - Ferreras - equally poor visibility…so…

                Plan C - The viewpoint at  Flechas.  This seemed to be the best option and proved excellent  light for photography, with Stonechats displaying their colours proudly in the morning sunlight. We saw  Southern Grey Shrikes, a Kestrel and a Red-legged Partridge. Again, as at Villafafila, a Quail was heard but not seen.  A Black-shouldered Kite perched for several minutes on a nearby telegraph pole…What a morning for photo opportunities.!  The abundance of broom brightening up every turn and view combined with such clarity of morning light and the beauty of the subjects…even a monkey with a Kodak Brownie could have taken some good shots.  We watched a Lesser Whitethroat perched in a trackside bush, to a symphony  of morning calls with a light, warm breeze promising more settled weather than in previous days.  Watching Montague’s Harrier and Woodlark flying as Roe Deer grazed in short heather, we knew a wolf could be spotted here, but any scat found was fox, not wolf. This was borne out by Rick’s sighting of a Fox  trotting along a track within our scopes.
We were starting to feel a need for breakfast but decided to walk to the feeding station at Fleches when not too long onto the track we spotted very fresh wolf scat and tracks, whilst a Raven flew overhead. We saw a Linnet and upon our return to the car noted a Crested Tit, and heard a Cetti’s Warbler.  A Swallowtail Butterfly flew by the car, and Steve and Rick jumped out at the Flechas/Mahide junction to locate the hole for a green lizard seen crossing the road.  Too quick for us, and an interested passing Spaniard, we know it was a green lizard but were unable with such a momentary view to identify it further.  All in all, well worth delaying breakfast.

A young Tawny Pipit was seen on the road to Cional, where we managed to note Jay, Northern Wheatear, Southern Grey Shrike, Black and Red Kites, Kestrels and a Fox whilst en route to the Monday market in Puente de Sanabria. The embalse reaped a Booted Eagle, Crag Martins, Mallards and 6 Jackdaws: so much to see here that we just made it to the end of the mornings market.  Watching a feeding Black Redstart over coffee at CTR La Vensula- surely somewhere with the most impressive toilets in Northern Spain - we discussed fishing and discovered a Slow Worm!

At Ribadelago in Lago de Sanabria, Steve just wanted to stay to achieve his aim of a perfect Nightingale photograph, and this mother bird was certainly too busy feeding young to be camera shy.  We also got excellent views of Honey Buzzard, 1 Short-toed and 2 Booted eagles, Tree Sparrows and another elusive green lizard

Our evening activity included setting up a remote night camera at Boya, where fresh tracks of wolf and boar had been recorded and then finding very little activity, avian or mammal, during our  watch at La Piste.  The heavy hail and thunder storms served to create a dramatic mood, plus a bit of a white knuckle ride back along the track which provided nil traction in the aftermath of such storms.

Tuesday 31st May.

La Piste was much more lively this morning with the wonderful sight, almost reminiscent of a Disney cartoon, of a big male Wild Boar scratching his rear end and rolling round.  It only needed the rumba rhythm in the background!  Soon after, we were treated to 6 other boar family members rolling and crossing the track. Bird-wise we spotted  Jay, Raven, Dartford Warbler and a Woodlark on the wire but our main interest  was the proximity of two separate breeding pairs of Rock Thrushes- within 200 metres of each other.  Equally unusual, was the role of juvenile male assisting the adult male with the feeding of a brood .

Watching Booted Eagle, Red-rumped Swallows and Grey Shrikes en route to the night camera, which revealed nothing on this occasion, we did see a Cuckoo in a nearby tree.  Upon our return to San Pedro for breakfast we chanced upon 2 White Wagtails displaying a lengthy courtship ritual…he was really trying hard to impress!  We also saw a Nuthatch, Bonelli’s Warbler, Wryneck, nesting  Redstart and Lesser Whitethroat…all before breakfast!

For an afficionado of the “little brown birds” such as Steve, the road to Gallegos was sheer heaven.  All along the straight Roman road, warblers and larks were in evidence.  We saw Corn Bunting, Stonechat, Subalpine Warbler, Skylark, Golden Oriole. 2 Hoopoes plus Steve found a Crested lark on her well camouflaged chicks in the nest amongst the grasses.  Leaving Steve to wallow in such an area where so many birds were so evident, Rick enjoyed exploring the nearby natural pond, spotting Little Grebe amidst the dragonflies of myriad colours and the chorus of frog croaks.  When Steve said to Rick, “I’ve got something in my pocket for you” none of us imagined an Ocellated Lizard, a magnificent specimen and totally unphased by the attention.

Passing a Black Kite at Boya, we were ready for Antonio’s  cowboy soup followed by pork steaks and chips, after another eventful day.

Wednesday 1st June.

Our morning watch today was near Villardeciervos, where we highlighted Turtle Dove, Sparrowhawk, Crossbills, Stock Dove and Ravens.  We were heading into craggier country today as our journey to Aldeia Nova via Alcanices gave us views of the usual species plus Kestrel, Black and Red Kites, Montague’s Harrier, Woodchat Shrike, Mistle Thrush and a Buzzard carrying some unfortunate rodent. During our time at the beautifully peaceful site of Aldeia Nova, we saw Honey Buzzard, 3 Black Storks, Egyptian Vultures, Booted Eagle, Long-tailed Tit, Alpine Swift, Chough, Rock Dove, Blue Rock Thrush and heard a Nightingale.  Rick was almost decapitated by a Booted Eagle…but which got the greater shock at the time is hard to say!  It certainly provided Rick with yet another memorable encounter  this week.

A splendid lunch at Miranda del Douro, overlooking the gorge, at a restaurant complete with its own House Martin’s nest above the door, was followed by time spent at the hermitage site at Fariza…another stunning, atmospheric, calm part of the gorge where once again time stood still as we watched Yellowhammer, Dartford Warbler, Griffon Vulture, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting, Chough, Egyptian Vulture, Black Stork and Subalpine Warbler.

Our second sighting of Yellowhammer that day was on the road back to San Pedro, where we also saw Bee-eaters and Tawny Pipit…plus a dead snake on the road reminding us by it’s presence that Sierra de la Culebra is translated as  “Mountains of the Snake”.

Despite our excellent lunch, we still managed to make good work of Antonio’s potato soup and chicken stew later that evening.

Thursday 2nd  June.

Our morning began bright and sunny with a wolf watch at Ferreras.  Apart from 3 Red Deer and a Mistle Thrush, there was nothing else to report.  Nearer Villardeciervos we saw Bee-eaters, Iberian Green Woodpecker,  Red-legged Partridge and Black Kite.  We encountered Ortolan Bunting and Crossbills whilst also getting encouragement from very fresh wolf scat and tracks along a forestry track.

A bit of pond-dipping at Boya  after breakfast produced a Bosca’s Newt with it’s bright orange underbelly and a live grass snake about one metre long, crossing the road from Boya to Mahide. On the way to our favoured coffee stop at San Vitero where we aimed to make the owner smile by the end of the week (we were successful in this I add) we enjoyed views of Storks, Monague’s Harrier, Red Kite, Buntings and Warblers,  and a Buzzard. We all had fabulous views of a pair of Short-toed Eagles that flew across the road calling over our heads.  They provided Steve with the opportunity to take an excellent photograph.  The journey from San Vitero to Riomanzanas produced an Iberian Chiff-chaff, Nuthatch, Bee-eater, Bonelli’s Warbler, Blackbird and Subalpine Warbler.

Despite nearby road improvements, the ford near Riomanzanas still preserved its hypnotic, relaxing beauty as the clear  water meandered through the hay meadow with dainty blue Demoiselles teasing us to try to capture their magic on camera.  Green Dragonflies seemed particularly common along this river, and Steve found a Rock Bunting.

As we stopped for a welcoming cool beer in a bar at Riomanzanas we came across our old friend Francisco carrying a basket of eggs home.  Now in his 86th year, he has spent his entire life tending his livestock in the surrounding hill.  He regaled us with the tale,in colloquial Spanish!!, of his encounter with a wolf in younger days.  The wolf had attacked and killed his dog, so Francisco had beaten the wolf off with his shepherd's stick.

A first for this trip was a Black-eared Wheatear at Guadramil after which we went just a little further on to enjoy watching Sandmartins, a Songthrush and an aquatic Viper hunting in the Rio Onero. .  Such villages as we had seen today make it hard to believe that we are all in the same continent and the same century, as age-old ways of life prevail:  oxen carts use roads alongside our car, people bring produce from their patch of land to their homes situated above cattle sheds; but  such natural living supports the variety of bird and other wild life which we enjoy watching.

A rough road back via Robledo led us to our evening’s wolf watch near Villardeciervos where the fresh tracks and scat had been seen this morning. Our viewed list for that evening included 2 Storks, Hen Harrier, Wood Pigeon, the ubiquitous Dartford Warbler,2 Crows, Tawny Pipit and 1 Roe and 3 Red Deer. Just knowing that we were where a wolf must have been that morning added a frisson to our scanning.

Friday 3rd June.

After seeing only a Fox and a Hen Harrier at La Piste, our last full day’s activity was up for discussion over breakfast.  Steve and Rick had enjoyed great success with bird views, plus some reptiles seemed to be catching Steve’s thirst to find out more, and we felt we were getting closer to wolf as each watch enfolded….”just give us one more week” was Rick’s cry. So the timetable for today was dictated by what our 2 guests wanted to revisit or explore.  Steve chose his “Tawny Rock” where he had first seen his lifer Tawny Pipit earlier this week and whilst there we all were thrilled to get up close to a Bluethroat, plus Black-eared Wheatear and Sparrowhawk. We were excited at the proximity of the Bluethroat and for John, this was his bird of the tour.  (Insert Photo Sierra 005)We continued on to enjoy some more pond dipping at Boya, where we found a young Bosca’s Newt and were ourselves the objects of some interest for a friendly local feline and several greenfinches, Serins and House and Tree Sparrows.

We had no results from our camera left overnight near Villadeciervos but did see 2 Storks and 2 GriffonVultures, a Tawny Pipit and a Hen Harrier nearby. We then passed through to Mahide, noting Crested Larks and a Montague’s Harrier, on to the road to Gallegos where Rick found no difficulty in getting close to several Iberian Water Frogs and an Ocellated lizard was enjoying the summer heat. Another interesting sight on this road was the group of Storks frogging by the roadside, White and Black together.

To complete our morning we decided to walk behind our village of San Pedro amongst established oak woodland in the hope of seeing a Firecrest.  This was not to be, but we did encounter a Short-toed Tree- creeper which up till now had eluded us.

After an excellent lunch at Villardeciervos, Steve went birding whilst Rick, John and I walked the paths behind the piste at Cional looking for evidence of reported wolf activity. Some fox tracks were visible but there did not seem to be any wolf evidence there. It is good however, to see areas from all angles and to realise the vastness of landscape the Iberian Wolf has at its disposal.

It was decided that night at dinner that we would have our last wolf watch next morning at the site near Villardeciervos. During the evening watch here, Black Kite and Griffon Vulture were around and the warm evening air was full of expectancy as we set up the night camera there also.

Saturday 4th June.

Ready packed for our flight which was becoming increasingly imminent, we left San Pedro in glorious rising sunlight;  all of us feeling that we had obviously been in the presence and sight of wolf, but just not seen it! Ignoring the night camera for the present, we straightway set up our scopes as there was already Black Kite and Raven activity here.  We did not have too long to wait

“Wolf!”, Rick signalled to Steve and John for verification as he spotted a movement which emerged as a Wolf chasing a Stag. This sight only lasted a few seconds but to Rick in particular it gave meaning to the hours spent watching over the last week.  We were all quietly relieved that such patience and good fieldcraft had paid off, when our big, male Wolf emerged again and proceeded to lope, hunt, jump over ditches and track deer across the width of our scopes for the next 45 minutes.  The power and potency of this huge predator was obvious as he went about his business, with the morning sunlight reflecting his coat which was in peak condition!  After  videos, photographs and just wondrous watchings with a happy smile on our faces, we actually had to leave the wolf…as we had an airport to check in to!  Steve and Rick went to retrieve the night camera, passing a Honey Buzzard on a roadside fence, to find that the battery was dead and therefore we would have to wait until our return to the UK to view this.

But the atmosphere on our journey back to the airport was one of relieved euphoria;  from our first moment of bird-watching in the airport car park to the climax of that magnificent alpha male granting us a view into his life, through raptors and reptiles, via various coffees and cervezas, it was a week of tremendous moments just getting close to the balance of life in the Sierra.

Margaret Hallowell.                   June 2011.

P.S.  Wolf was on the night camera too!!

P.P.S.  “…a cracking trip!”   Rick Taylor.  May 2011.

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