Saturday 1 December 2012

Newsletter December 2012

Sierra de la Culebra February 2012
Hello Everyone,

Iberian Lynx May 2012
As the days shorten, it is increasingly a time for looking back over the past year and anticipating the year to come. 2012 has been a busy year for John and me and we feel privileged to have shared so much time with such a wide variety of wonderful people this past year. We reminisce about the hilarious moments, frustrating times, breathtaking views and those unforgettable wildlife encounters!

 Looking ahead to 2013, we continue to offer our Watching for Wolves and Looking for Lynx tours, plus two new additions - Browsing for Bears in the stunning Somiedo National Park and the Extremadura Experience . I hope you find time to look at our website again to discover details of what we have to offer for the coming year.

On a more chilling note, I draw your attention to a disturbing article from the Center (sic) for Biological Diversity detailing the fate of wolves which are once again being legally persecuted:-

"Since wolves in Wyoming lost their Endangered Species Act protection last month, 49 wolves have been killed in state-sanctioned hunts and unregulated killing on "predator" zones.  In the three Rocky Mountain states where wolves have been delisted - Idaho, Montana and Wyoming - 177 wolves have been killed after just one month of hunting and trapping."

Sierra de la Culebra May 2012
We cannot close our eyes to trigger-happy trophy hunting, and I thank Shirley and Jim for alerting me to this article, but we can only hope that education plus sensitive eco-tourism can eventually prove strong enough to relegate such practices to the history books.

On a positive note, we have learned that the three local wolf packs which we concentrate upon in Sierra de la Culebra  have each successfully reared 5 cubs this summer;  promising news for some good sightings in 2013 we hope!

John and I thank you for your interest throughout 2012 and wish all friends of Wild Wolf Experience a peaceful and prosperous 2013.

All best wishes,



Thursday 1 November 2012

Trip report Sierra de la Culebra October 2012

Trip report Sierra de la Culebra 13/17th October 2012.

Subtitled "Now if I was a wolf...."

Saturday 13th October.

After a period of heavy showers splitting up the sunshine, John and I were delighted that the first impressions of Madrid for Shirley and Jim were of warm sun beating down through unsullied blue skies and we set off in good spirits noting the Spotless Startling as our first bird. However, Jim quickly spotted a Griffon Vulture to the right of the road with Red Kite on our left. The Spanish authorities are worried about the status of the Red Kite in Spain due to changing farming methods, poisoning and lack of carrion being available and they are hoping to redress this problem in future years , hopefully by once more allowing  fallen stock to be placed out for these beautiful birds.  Having said this, there seemed to be no shortage of Red Kites  throughout this week! Along with Magpie and Common Buzzard, we had a healthy total of good sightings before our lunch stop at Villalpando where we added Booted Eagle and Black Redstart to our list.

We always appreciate the opportunity afforded on the road at Villafafila where it is possible to stop the car whenever we see something of note and today we were able to admire a Marsh Harrier quartering the ploughed fields with Raven flying overhead and a Large White Butterfly fluttering around our wheels. Just as we were being impressed by the horsemanship of a local farmer on his Arab steed, we caught sight of several Great Bustards on the skyline.  11 of them in total, we turned down the track and managed to get closer views enjoying our chance to see these massive birds flying nearby; the heaviest flying bird in the world was flying just by us! On our way we also heard and then saw a Crested Lark.  A young Northern Wheatear was perched on the wire, preparing for its journey to Africa. All in all, a most enjoyable set of sightings here.

At Tapioles, was our first view of House Sparrow and although I was sent out as bait to attract the local Mastin dog which often proves quite aggressive to visitors, but is worth seeing as part of the culture of protecting livestock, no dog was in evidence today, much to my personal relief. We were able to get a good look at the Spotless Starling however, and notice its sleek coat, whilst a Red Kite circled above.  We spotted a  White Wagtail at the junction out of the village plus another good view of a male Marsh Harrier quartering the fields above a flock of sheep by the road.

There is always the fear that by watching something in this area, you are missing something else...and our next incident shows just how useful it is to have good eyes all over  when in such a plentiful wildlife haven as this.  While John, Shirley and I were concentrating on a beautiful Red Kite on our left, Jim shouted out "What's this?" and so quickly, we were treated to the spectacle of 22 Black-bellied Sandgrouse being flushed and mobbed by a Montague's Harrier! Eyes right immediately and what a spectacle!

As we drove slowly down another sidetrack to a pool which would be quite a magnet for wildlife in this area of drought, we had a close view of a Northern Wheatear  plus Carrion Crow, Corn Bunting and a charm of Goldfinches. Three White Wagtails were staying close by the pond edge.

The pond at the Observacion des Aves was fuller than in previous weeks, testifying to the recent rain, and we were delighted to get  views of Green Sandpiper, Crested Lark, Robin, Raven, Willow Warbler and 3 Great Bustards in the distance. There was a pellet probably from a Short-eared Owl which we examined. A shepherd provided a bucolic scene with his sheep, dogs, and horse all walking together, only to stop at a dustpatch for the horse to roll appreciatively then get up with a thorough shake. 3 Common Buzzards were circling overhead as we settled our eyes on a nearby dovecote where Common Kestrel lingered.

It was 4 o'clock in a warm afternoon with temperatures of 23'C and Shirley and Jim had been up in the early hours to fly here, but any flagging attention was immediately dispersed by the sight of our first wolf scat as we walked the track beside the Villafafila reserve.  "Now if I were a wolf," started Jim, "I'd be ..."  Throughout the tour, Jim empathised with the wolf  and we were often treated to his thoughts on how the mind of his target would, or should, work. To get into the psyche of your prey proved a novel approach and one which helped Jim structure and refine his already good tracking and watching skills. At the pond there we saw Coot, Greylag Goose, Shoveller, Mallard, Stock Dove, Marsh Harrier along with the aforementioned wolf and fox scat.

Our time at Otero de Sariegos was productive too, with the ruined buildings inviting all to look in and imagine them being inhabited not too long ago  whilst a female Marsh Harrier was hunting by the ruined church and we spotted Rock Sparrow on the wire. The sounds of sheep alerted us to a shepherd with his donkey and dogs nearby, resting in the still increasing heat, and as we set off we started to watch a Common Buzzard take off from an old dovecote when suddenly a Peregrine Falcon flew over us with a pigeon in its talons.  We followed it from pole to pole as it attempted to land and snatch down some of its prey before our presence necessitated a  move to the next pole.  Eventually it tired of our interest and flew off to complete its meal without our intervention!

Driving through a change of habitat in holm oak countryside we appreciated a stop at the Rio Esla bridge, where Shirley tried out her paces along part of the Camino de Santiago for future holiday ideas. Meanwhile, Jim, John and I were looking at the birdlife on the river which always nurtures a sense of peace and beauty...Luton Airport seemed a long  way away now.  Jim pointed out two Cormorants flying onto the water to join the Mallards already there, whilst on the bankside two Grey Herons were frogging with a Great White Egret joining in. We were delighted to talk with a local fisherman who had just struggled up the steep bankside from the water, carrying a large Pike which he had just caught.  It was a fine specimen,weighing  6.3 kilos, and Jim was happy to hold and pose with the huge fish whilst the fisherman lit his cigarette, until the creature gave a sudden, powerful, twisting squirm!  Jim admirably resisted the automatic response to throw it back...this would not have helped international relations.... and the fish was soon much quieter when posing for photographs.

Narrowly missing a flock of House Sparrows rising up in flight after feasting on a field of sweetcorn with Common Buzzard atop a pylon, we were able to spend time watching a Common Kestrel hunting by our left side before stetting off for our San Pedro to settle into our hotel.  There was a good view of a Rock Bunting along the Ferreras road, but we were looking for other sightings as we were now deep in  wolf country!

It had already been a long, productive day for Jim and Shirley but there was more excitement to come, and quickly! We arrived at la pista at 18:50 having noted that this viewpoint had given up regular sightings in the last week.  Indeed, there had been 4 wolves seen there that very morning! However, we were not prepared for the call from Shirley within two minutes of our arrival at the site. "There's something on the's just run across by the trees there left to right!", Shirley said as she had settled straight into watching while the rest of us were busy setting up tripods and cameras. " I saw the legs and the tail, it wasn't a fox!"

This was very exciting and must count as our fastest sighting yet, but as no-one else in the party had been looking, it could not be verified.  However, three minutes later, an excited Sergi, wolf expert and enthusiast, who had been watching further along the valley, arrived asking if we had seen the wolf. This verified our suspicions, and it was a Wolf! So Shirley had seen her wolf but just too quickly!!

The rest of the lovely, clear evening passed with good views of Red Deer, including 4 grand Stags by the beehives, until by 20:20 the light was going.  Another wolfwatcher alerted our attention to 4 possible wolves going uphill some way away and we continued to scan for a while but the lack of light defeated any further attempts at a view.  It was indeed very likely that these had been the Linarejos pack wolves as we later identified the area where they had been sighted as the rendez-vous site. Our dinner of courgette soup, gammon & sausages with tomato, followed by homemade pineapple flan all washed down with Spanish beer and wine, concluded a long and eventful day for Shirley and Jim   and we all arranged to meet the next morning at 07:45, ensuring our watches were synchronised to continental time.

Sunday 14th October. 

 The overnight rain  had stopped by 07:45 and we all met in the hotel lobby , on time. There was significant mist which we hoped would lift, and it was very atmospheric as we heard the rutting bellows of nearby stags at la pista.  The breeze which seemed to be developing was good for blowing the mist away...but also would blow it back too! So there were teasing moments of clarity until by 08:35 the area became more clearly visible and we all enjoyed seeing shapes of Red Deer emerge and then define as they came out fully from the gloom. In spite of the misty conditions, we did rather well for avian views, with good sightings of Crossbill, Dunnock, Songthrush, Coal Tit, Jay and finally, at 10:00, three Cormorants flying right to left;.. quite an unusual bird for this habitat.

It was on our return to San Pedro for breakfast when the awful clash of Jim's camera was heard as Canon body and lens dropped onto the concrete path when getting out of the car.  There was no sign of life  despite all attempts at resusitation and we all drooped into the hotel  feeling sick to the stomach. Yes we would put a brave face on it and obviously Jim would get our photographs as all our clients do, but this creator of personal mementos seemed doomed.  Shirley, Jim. John and I are all very positive people but this was going to test our resolves to remain stoic and we were not enjoying our coffee as much as normal, when a broad smile from Jim as he entered the dining room conveyed the news that the camera had just been in shock and was intact! This was a wonderful relief  and also ensured that we all were vigilant about camera security for the rest of the tour.

Our walk around the charming village of San Pedro de las Herrerias was undertaken in very English weather, misty and damp, but the pervasive smell of woodsmoke and the plentiful areas of unspoilt wildlife habitat helped to make this a most enjoyable morning. Shirley and Jim were amazed at the profusion of lichen draping every tree branch - a sure sign of unpolluted, pure air.Birds spotted this morning were Blue Tit, Great Tit, Bonelli's  Warbler, Robin, Chaffinch, Black Redstart, White Wagtail, Rock Bunting, Pied Flycatcher, Wren, young Willow Warbler, Mistle Thrush,  and a mixed flock of  Tree Sparrow, House Sparrow and Dunnock. We were very interested in several Wild Boar tracks which were quite fresh and very close to our village.

Coffee at Villardeciervos was delayed by the slight detour to look at a Red Deer roadkill which had been put to the side of the road, and had been gnawed with great strength. Scat from Fox, Wild Boar and possibly Wolf was much in evidence, with several ribs eaten away and yet there was still much haunch meat on the carcase.  We resolved to check this the next day and Sergi would also let us know what was on his stealth camera which was set up at the site for that evening.

"A Candleabra of Crossbills"
The tracking along the Roman Road near Villardeciervos gave Jim much opportunity for his anthromorphic approach to wildlife tracking and we located several examples of wolfscat ranging from pretty old to very fresh.  Even more exciting were the clear tracks from multiple wolves in dust all along our route... wolves had passed this way very recently!   By the  water hole, there were distinct, recent wolf tracks in the mud along with tracks from Deer and Wild Boar. As Ravenscroaked overhead, Shirley enjoyed finding unusual and delicately patterned pieces of rock and twisted wood, and, ever the entrepeneur, Jim was already envisaging a market for such trinkets, including  wolf scat cordpulls; every bathroom should have one, or so it seems.  Rather more delicately, Shirley and John were photographing Crossbills which were much in evidence here today and at one particular tree there seemed to be a Crossbill on each branch,  prompting Shirley to invent an original and incredibly apt collective noun for these gregarious little birds..."a candleabra of crossbills".

A tasty lunch of pork, tomatoes, onions, tostadas, beer and coffee at Roberto's whilst looking at their excellent photo library of wolf activity in the area  left us all feeling like a little nap before the evening wolfwatch, so we returned to our hotel for thirty minutes rest.  En route, we saw Common Kestrel, Spotless Starling, Dunnock, Common Buzzard and a Stonechat on the wire.  At the Villardeciervos layby, three Red-legged Partridge ran across the road.

We reconvened at 18:20 for a wolfwatch at la pista this time in bright light with a temperature of 18'C, although a cool wind made it feel distinctly less than this.  There was about 50% cloud cover. Unlike last night, when what has been dubbed "Shirley's corner" provided the excitement of a speedy wolf, this evening we were only subjected to a clear view of a male cyclist  dismounting to urinate at the very spot where our fleeting view had been, totally unaware of several sets of eyes, binoculars and telescopes. Two local Guardia Civil, regular attenders at local wolfwatching sites, arrived at 19:20.It is indeed good to discuss sightings with them and to realise the interest shown in wildlife tourism by the community,  Jim was just getting into his "If I was a wolf" mode  when we saw a movement around the rendez-vous site, but it was the male Hen Harrier floating effortlessly as two Ravens moved less silently overhead. By 20:10 the light was fading, but we still enjoyed a good sight of a Nightjar on the track as we returned to our base for a satisfying dinner of chicken noodle soup, chops and chips followed by homemade yoghurt dessert served with local Culebra honey.

Shirley with the remains of the last group of wolfwatchers?!
Monday 15th October.

This was a cool morning of 3'C but very litlte chill factor so we settled down  near Villardeciervos for our morning watch. There was a lot of deer noise, Stags roaring and Roe Deer barking , plus sounds of Iberian Green Woodpecker and Crossbill, as a flock of noisy Carrion Crows blustered across the sky. After noting Blackbird, Dartford Warbler, Jay and Common Buzzard, we were all interested in the sound of a Roe Deer barking for several minutes, with increasing urgency, and we marvelled as the sound echoed around this veritable amphitheatre of a valley. We all felt honoured to be part of the awakening of the countryside as the sun began to streak across the forest and fields by 08:50 and although there had been no wolf action, we appreciated such peace at the start of our day. During breakfast we discovered that the only creature caught on the stealth camera was a wild boar.

11:05 and off to Portugal! We were accompanied by friends from the Netherlands, Joep and Sophie, and one of the most common birds en route were Buzzards, particularly along the road to Alcanices. We also enjoyed watching a very large gathering of Spotless Starlings there. At the turn-off from the major route, a Dartford Warbler and a Jay flew across and we soon were in amongst roads lined with Pyrenean Mountain oak, with the light streaming through the already colourful leaves. Our first bird in Portugal was the lovely Mistle Thrush, swiftly followed by Linnets in the hedgerows and Red-legged Partridge. As we stopped to photograph a couple of donkeys, we spotted a Hoopoe and a Jay, whilst a Griffon Vulture circled above.  There was also a Common Buzzard taking an interest in us, but the closest inspection of all was reserved for that of a Red Kite which was certainly checking us out. We also had views of a young Pied Flycatcher and White Wagtail. Further along the narrow road, we encountered a regular traveller of this route,that being an old gentleman riding on his donkey, with a "spare" in case of difficulty!, using only a long stick to direct his beautiful cattle along the road.

 Once at Aldeia Nova where Jim felt the urge to do a spot of  blood 'n thunder preaching at the little outdoor pulpit below the circling of distant vultures, we all enjoyed the sunshine and isolation of this incredible spot, and Crag Martin and Rock Sparrow  were flying close to hand.  Joep heard Cirl Bunting and Blue Rock Thrush whilst John heard Chough.  The stroll to a different angled viewpoint delivered good sights of Iberian Wall Lizard and delicate Fritilleries.  Just as we were returning to our vehicles,two majestic Golden Eagles soared into sight and we stood under the almond trees  for several minutes as the magnificent pair soared, then dropped at speed performing their goldenball dives in sheer enjoyment, revelling in their ability to achieve such aerial stunts.  We had to drag ourselves away  and leave these awesome birds who were still  putting on their performance as  we wound our way up the track towards the road for Miranda de Duoro.

Lunch was a slap-up 3 course meal at Miranda de Duoro...or the" town of a thousand towel shops" as Shirley rechristened it... and we enjoyed  watching Common Kestrel  from our table as the conversation flowed.

But the day's visit was only half over, and we set off for Fariza, spotting red Kite, Jay and Carrion Crow along the way, plus several flocks of Crested Lark.  As we drove along the rural road to the hermitage site, we saw Crag Martin, and very promisingly, three Griffon Vultures high up in the air. This was just a prelude to an excellent afternoon watching Griffons roosting, flying extremely close to check us out, doing solo flights and flying in groups, and giving Jim the opportunity to photograph these huge birds in flight from all angles and also from above and below. (Thank goodness Jim's camera was working!!) So graceful in flight, but when we watched their antics on their roosting cliff-edges, so cumbersome too.  Very well camouflaged when collecting on the cliffs,  it was interesting to see the jostling for position amongst these veritably primeval birds, as they often made several attempts before being allowed to land on certain prime sites.

We were interested to see lambs in the small fields with their ewes, and the lemon  and quince trees looked ready for a better harvest than those in our gardens in UK. As well as various donkeys, quite a feature of life here, we also noted Common Buzzard, Jay and Collared Dove. We were anxious to get back in time for a good wolfwatch before the light defeated us, but we really HAD to stop when a Black-shouldered Kite on a kill came into view along the straight road to Alcanices. We enjoyed excellent views of this special bird , and although it was already 19:00 this was time well spent.  Within a short space, we also saw Iberian Grey Shrike and watched the Spotless Starlings create impressive flight patterns in their roosting groups.

We were at la pista by 19:22 however,  spotting a Jay flying across the track and soon a cheery Dartford Warbler came close up to greet us. There were some impressive Stags on the track which we watched with interest, but secretly wishing it were a Wolf! The evening seemed to call out for a nightdrive, which was fun to do but reaped only one Nightjar and one leaf masquerading as a salamander. Such a clear night, in such an area free from light pollution, also demanded that we stopped just to look upwards to attempt to take in the myriad of stars, including a very obvious Milky Way, and we just had to continue to be out on such a night.  So as we watched Pipstrelle Bats flying around the village church, we could actually hear some of their calls,and just as we were wondering as to the amount of insect life around at this time of year for them, one lucky individual snatched a large moth right in front of us!

Quite an eventful day and despite our excellent lunch, we still managed to do justice to Antonio's courgette soup, chicken and chips and custard pudding.

Tuesday 16th October.

07:50    8'C  It was a bit of a misty start at la pista, and we were cheered by the regular Black Redstart just outside our hotel door.  Nothing much was to be seen, until at 09:00 6 hinds and a stag were spotted moving in the heather then crossing the track in good view. One hind remained further back, looking wary, sniffing the air.  There were sounds of stag roaring as the mist slowly lifted, then silence.  Even a pine cone dropping in the copse behind us created a frisson of expectation. The morning chirrups of small birds, their behaviour being confused by the resolute low cloud, broke the weighty silence and we were able to hear Crossbills amongst other calls.  Just as a Raven flew noisily across our view at 9:30, a hind ran across the heather looking very ill-at-ease.  By 9:50 we left la pista to look for evidence at Boya, where we saw Dunnock, White Wagtail and old wolf scat. As well as Red and Roe Deer tracks, however, we were interested to look at clear Wild Boar tracks with evidence of recent rooting activity.

We thought we had better have breakfast before going to check the carcase, which was a good idea as the remains were not to be viewed on an empty stomach!  With Red Kite and Common Buzzard circling overhead and CarrionCrow just lifting upon our arrival, plus more pretty little specimens such as Chaffinch and Blackbird, we could see very fresh fox scat with a strong berry component and probable gorged wolf scat.  Our much-heard but seldom seen Iberian Green Woodpecker put in an appearance too. The carcase was well-chewed with not a lot left; there was much evidence of Wild Boar, but not really enough now to tempt  lupine palettes when there is ready meat awaiting capture in the forests.  Looking at the meagre remains  prompted Jim to philosophise, "If I was a Wolf......I'd go to Portugal".  This was probably reflecting the wolf's protected status just over the border, but also highlighted the fact that there wasn't much to attract a wolf to this particular spot any more!

Along the road to Fleches, a shepherdess was taking her herd of well-tended cows and an impressive bull to water and fresh grazing, while an Iberian Grey Shrike looked on. There was a clear Stonechat on a roadside bush near some examples of fresh and older wolf and fox scat, plus some oldish tracks, probably wolf, amongst the many sheep tracks. We enjoyed our wander around the village of Fleches, noting a Black Redstart posing on the roof of the ancient church cross, and a male Blackcap on a fig tree. Jim spotted Dunnock, Great Tit and Grey Wagtail on the river bank while Shirley scouted out the 'Se Vende' dwellings. A Griffon Vulture and two Common Buzzards circled closely to us as we took the road back, past the abandoned slate quarry to reach the Gallegos road, with two Red Kites above us and two very ardent hunting dogs running at our car from the roadside! We saw the Wild Boar wallowing pits at the pond here, where a Grey Heron was looking hopefully for amphibians, in the company of two Mistle Thrushes, Spotless Starlings and Northern Wheatears. After seeing House Sparrows and Crested Lark in the quiet village of Gallegos del Campo, where it was remarked that there were more wheelbarrows than people, our enthusiasm was fuelled again at the sight of a Black-shouldered Kite hovering and landing by the telegraph posts by the crossroads. Our eyes were focussed on this special sight for quite a while, not giving too much attention to the low-flying Common Buzzard and Red Kite which were also present.

A Jay flew across the road as we entered Riomanzanas, overshadowed by a large flock of about 40 Linnets,, plus Dunnock, Songthrush, Rock Bunting, Reed Bunting, Chaffinch and Serin all seen within this atmospheric village which is a little piece of  history still being lived. We were able to chat with one just such example of living history, old friend Francisco who, with his son, was sweeping the street outside his home,  after which we decided to have a quick coffee stop in the local bar. I was sure the door to get out of the ladies' toilets would have been mended since my last "lock-in" 18 months ago, but after a long time with Shirley missing from our table, and the sound of distant knocking, we realised such repairs had not been executed. We rescued Shirley and all together again, we proceeded to enjoy even more views of the Black-shouldered Kite on top of a telegraph pole at San Vitero, where we enjoyed a lunch of garlic beef, eggs and an interesting, rather fatty, tapas dish, which we elected John should sample.

The abandoned quarry behind San Pedro is always worth looking at, and we watched 4 Mallard as we walked to the now defunct shooting hide at Fleches, where there was no recent wolf evidence found. Jim saw two Crossbills and a Stonechat near a junction further towards our village, where there was fairly fresh wolf scat on top of old.

Having popped in to our rooms for extra layers of clothing as the evening promised to be cool, we arrived at our watch at la pista in time to see 2 hinds and 1 calf on the track, with a Dartford Warbler calling. By 19:15 there was a big twelve-pointer Stag on the track as well. This was probably the very one that Shirley spotted at 19:40 as it re-appeared on the track and then paraded grandly into the heather, just after we had been watching two Roe Deer nearby. between now and when the light started to lapse at 20:00, there were several incidents of deer running erratically, leading to the supposition of the presence of wolf, but poor light was making definite watching difficult. By 20:10 the light had faded; such a frustrating situation as often in autumn the light is superb, but just not this time! Driving around the area in the dark, we came across a Red Deer hind and a lovely Tawny Owl.  We have heard this bird on several occasions this week, but this was the first sighting.

It was paella night !!

Wednesday 17th October.

07:45 Rain. Not a Black Redstart, but a Common Toad outside our hotel this morning;  an interesting find and indicative of the weather. Our plan to wolfwatch along the top of the Villardeciervos road had to be aborted owing to the total lack of visibility, so we drove down to the bottom road, this being a good spot for close watching and wolves are accustomed to vehicles around these forestry tracks. As we parked up in Villardeciervos forest, two Roe Deer came running out of the trees across the track.  We heard Crossbills and had a good view of an Iberian Green Woodpecker. But no wolf.  No-one else was seeing wolf this week either, which was some small comfort, if slightly frustrating, when views the previous week had been regular in the better weather and visibility.

After breakfast, we drove along the forestry track aiming eventually for Santa Cruz, trying to describe the beauty and striking colour of the region normally during autumn en route, we saw Dunnock, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Robin, Crossbill, Mistle Thrush and Dartford Warbler, whilst noting White Wagtail, Rock Bunting and Jay at Villarin de Manzanas.  Redwing was spotted near Linarejos and we all felt that the dreak weather contributed to the age-old atmosphere in Santa Cruz. We spent quite some time walking around this medieval village, looking into nooks and crannies, eating walnuts from the trees, and reading the welcome notes to the village,which amongst other snippets just happened to inform the reader the most common illnesses suffered by local residents.  (Catarrh and pulmonary if you're interested!)

We enjoyed an excellent lunch freshly cooked from local fare and amongst the village characters at Bar el Lobo, where they seem to remember every non-local caller in detail, and spotted Chaffinch and Mistle Thrush on our way to view the heavily depleted embalse, where again a Grey Heron was searching for food. At the confluence of rivers Tera and Ciervos, we were able to watch White Wagtail and Cormorant, with a Common Buzzard on the wire above. More sightings of Common Buzzard were at the Playa at Villardeciervos, plus Blackbird, Mallard and Spotless Starlings, but our most exciting moment here was when Jim spotted well away in the distant sky, approximately 100 Vultures, a sure sign of a recent wolf kill. Vultures will travel 60/70 miles to gorge on the carrion left from a wolf kill.  This was to be investigated and we tried with compass points, maps, our local knowledge, and just plain driving along tracks to search, to locate where they were gathering, but after some time we had lost them. A group of Rock Buntings, a male Stonechat, Iberian Green Woodpecker, even a Black Redstart having a bath along an agricultural road behind Cional could not console us...where were the vultures? Bouncing our vehicle along tracks at the back of Codesal, we scoured the horizon but to no avail. Two Roe Deer jumped over a nearby wall giving us quite a start, but we eventually had to admit that the mist was the winner in this instance.

We parked our vehicle in place along the Roman road for our evening wolfwatch and enjoyed the sight of a male Hen Harrier quartering, but it was otherwise very quiet and we returned to a warming dinner of lentil soup, tortilla with tomato then yoghurt pudding, thinking the day's events were now over, until Sophie calls from her cigarette break outside the hotel ..

"Do you want to come and see this?"

Well yes, of course we did, and John jumped up from the dinner table calling something about salamanders. True indeed, with the recent rain, the salamanders were migrating from the village stream  aiming for holes in walls and houses where they could hibernate until next spring, and we were able to witness this migration of eight Fire-bellied Salamanders parading the deserted village streets looking for solace from the oncoming winter weather.  Had it not rained we would not have witnessed this memorable event, and this was a cheering end to the day, walking the streets calling "Here's another one!" as these brashly-coloured individuals marched intently in answer to their instincts

Thursday 18th October.

This morning's rain resembled stair-rods and any optical equipment was superfluous as we set out to look at Boya , parking up in the midst of the forest tracks in our vehicle as the low-lying mist looked to be settled in for this our last morning's watch.Just as we were leaving our watch, three shapes loomed out of the heather beside our car and a Stag with his two Hinds stopped to look then turned to run off into the mist.

We set off for Madrid airport after breakfast, and the whole hotel  ie Antonio, Joep and Sophie, waved us off!  Passing Red Kites and Common Buzzards looking forlorn on the telegraph wires, we stopped once again at the Rio Esla bridge and reflected that it may not be so much fun being a Camino de Santiago pilgrim in this weather. A loud plop indicated a large fish jumping nearby bringing back memories of the Pike (was that really only 5 days ago?!), as we watched Cormorants, Robin, Serin, Mallard and Great Tit.

 Slightly clearer conditions at Villafafila gave us good views of about 40 Linnets in flight, plus Marsh Harrier, Red Kite, Lapwing, Kestrel and the Great Bustards again. There was slightly more water in the lagoons now and we noticed about 200 Mallard happy in the rain. There were remains of an Iberian Hare by the observation post and we watched four Common Buzzards in the distance hopping and frogging on the ground by the water. Quite exceptional behaviour.

Black Vulture
The rain was still heavy as we drove past Avila where a grey heron was enjoying this influx of water. A lunch stop nearby gave us Red Kite , but our last, notable birds of this tour for Jim and Shirley were one Black Vulture  and several Griffon Vultures soaring by the side of the road just before entering the Madrid conurbation. We were seeing new birds right to the very last moment!

Dropping Jim and Shirley at the airport from where they were moving on to a world of conferences and deadlines, we felt we were saying "Goodbye" to friends  and hoped that the peace of some of our wolfwatches, where even the pinecones could be heard, and the memory of those soaring Griffon Vultures with the sun on their backs, would remain in their minds throughout the next hectic few weeks.

Margaret Hallowell.

"We had a great trip with you. Even though we didn't get a good look at the wolf, we loved the wildness of the area and seeing all the birds/amphibians!"                           Shirley.

Friday 21 September 2012

Trip report Sierra de la Culebra August 2012

Trip Report Sierra de la Culebra 9th/13th August 2012.

Tonia & John at the Douro Gorge
subtitled "Even bee-eaters must die sometime".

Thursday 9th August.

The sunny, clear journey to Valladolid airport was a joy to travel with an excellent post-breeding flock of Bee-eaters to watch en route. With such clear sights of such pretty little birds still in our mind, it was a slight comedown to have Carrion Crow as the first bird of the trip, seen not long after Michael, Wendy and Tonia had arrived from their flight. This was soon added to with Black Kite being spotted on the airport tower, plus plenty of Common Buzzards and Swifts being quickly noted. As we drove into the grain belt, several Lesser Kestrels attracted our attention and everyone enjoyed the views of such gregarious birds..

The temperature of 33'C at our lunch stop at Villalpando (tortilla, beer and coffee) was a welcome change for Michael and Wendy in particular who were getting quite tired of the English "summer" and certainly they felt ready to appreciate the predicted beautiful sunshine of the following days to the full. For Tonia, who was visiting from Tasmania, the sunshine was not so much of an issue but we all agreed that  the promised good weather would make the hours of wolf-watching more manageable.  We watched House Sparrows and a Common Kestrel from our lunch table, whilst noticing a Pale-phased Booted Eagle and a Black Kite soaring above us as we set off towards Tapioles , perchance to see a resident, albeit shy, Little Owl. There was a very realistic piece of sacking shaped rather like a Little Owl in situ, but we did see Common Buzzard and a splendid little Northern Wheatear.

As we turned off the road to look for signs of Great Bustard, what at first we thought was Partridge sauntered across the track.  Upon closer inspection, it was a pair of Black-Bellied Sandgrouse who seemed unphased by our presence.  Great to see, along with Black Kite on the track plus several Wheatears, Magpie and Common Buzzard close by. There was a distant Marsh Harrier flying by with closer views of Crested Lark, Montague's Harrier and Raven with smaller creatures spotted including Clouded Yellow Butterfly, Swallowtail Butterfly and Dragonfly. We felt lucky indeed to see a Marsh Harrier and Common Buzzard at a nearby pool drinking whilst Barn Swallows skimmed the top of the water as it was the hottest time of day during a very dry season and we could have been resigned to seeing very little avian life. As we watched this episode, we heard Ravens honking and spotted about twelve Great Bustards sheltering from the sun under some nearby trees.

At the Observaciones des Aves we again had excellent views of these special birds, the largest population outside Russia, as the Great Bustards were attempting to cope with the heat by opening their wing and tail feathers, mouths agape. Several Iberian Water Frogs were congregating in the depleted pool and we noticed their pink chins. Crested Lark was also an interesting bird to watch, along with Common Buzzard, female Lesser Kestrel, Raven and Fantailed Warbler. Wendy spotted an excellent Rock Sparrow, beautifully marked, sheltering amidst a small bush.

At the remaining water in the Villafafila reserve, birds gathered in concentrated numbers, namely Spotless Starling, Mallard, Coot, Greylag Goose, Lapwing, Avocet, Hoopoe, Black-winged Stilt, Grey Heron, young Black-headed Gull, Common Buzzard, Redshank, female Lesser Kestrel, Little Ringed Plover, Green Sandpiper, Gadwall and Shelduck with a  Marsh Harrier watching the action from the rooftop. Tonia inspected what could possibly be a wolf track in the dust but we always err on the side of scepticism...until further evidence is found and it was!... in the form of wolf scat a little further along this productive track. What an excellent stop!

We spent some time at the atmospheric Otero de Sariegos with its artistic "graffiti", watching NorthernWheatear on the wires with Common Buzzard and Swifts in abundance.  Red-legged Partridge scuttled nearby our track as we returned to our vehicle to drive further on to holm oak habitat, to be overjoyed to spot  6 Great Bustards in the shade of a neighbouring tree.

Rumours of a kingfisher meant that there were a few people watching at the Rio Esla bridge, but although perfect kingfisher habitat, none was forthcoming this time and we were content to breathe in the relaxing atmosphere here  in Barn Swallow and Coot company. As we entered the centre of our wolf tracking area we delighted in about 20 Bee-eaters in late afternoon sunshine on the road to Ferreras de Arriba. After a  quick snackshop stop at Villardeciervos we all arrived at San Pedro, our home base for the 5 nights, to be greeted by Antonio, his wife Soco, friend Jaime and his sister, who were all waiting with interest  in the subdued lighting of the hotel foyer to meet our guests this tour, particularly Tonia, who had travelled from the antipodes to watch for wolves here in Culebra. Tonia's entrance into this reception, dark after the bright sunshine outside, was, shall we say, forceful and our hosts were quite surprised as she stormed through their little welcoming party to get to the light, like a moth flying out of the dark towards the flame! This little interlude, amongst several others, was to be recalled with great hilarity over the course of the next few days, and was certainly one of our more individual ways of introducing our guests to their hosts.

Perhaps we all needed some time to settle in now and so we decided to reconvene at 19:45 for our first wolfwatch, at La Pista.  And what a beautiful evening it was, from a smart Blackbird on the way out of the hotel road to the changing sunset creating several stunning tableaux  for Michael's camera to the sighting of Barn Swallows skimming close by, Fox, Roe Deer, a Red Deer hind, a male Hen Harrier, Wild Boar and the sights of several Red Deer Stags looking magnificent and ready for their prime in the rut the next month.  The presence of a ranger on the rocks served to highlight the strong possibility of wolf activity here. The whole area around La Piste was closely monitored by rangers throughout the summer as the likelihood of cubs emerging became stronger, and on this first occasion we watched hopefully , taking note of a Short-toed Eagle overhead. John and I were pleased to meet friend and fellow wolf enthusiast , Roberto Abadia Sanchez, again and it is always good to have plenty of keen eyes looking out over the wide territory. As the light faded, and the Nightjars started to chirr at about 22:15, we began to pack up but were drawn to a halt as we heard several howls from the woodland not far from us. These grew to a crescendo with the addition of 2 or 3 younger howls and lasted for several, goosebump- producing minutes, before leaving the air totally still and hushed. What a finale to our first night!

It was with broad smiles that we enjoyed our evening meal that night. Courgette soup, steak and salad was on the menu but I doubt we even noticed as the talk was all of the howls, and the close presence of Wolf.

Friday 10th August.

Such a beautiful dawn makes it worthwhile getting up and out by 07:10 and action started straightaway with a large Stag running across the hillside in front of us.  To the left were 2 Stags sparring up on their hind legs and as our eyes became accustomed we could easily see about 14 Stags standing motionless above the heather.  To the right was a delightful Roe Deer grazing the light grass and further up we had great fun watching the antics of young Roe Deer running, jumping, chasing...just full of the sheer joy of being alive. As Ravens croaked and flew above the omnipresent ranger, we had close views of Dunnock and Dartford Warbler.

Over breakfast, discussion flowed freely;  the Tuscan-type scenery as Michael reflected;  the quality of the Stags and how exciting the annual rut is;  the demise in the UK of such birds as the Dartford Warbler;  the peculiar way of eating cornflakes as exhibited by some of the other wolfwatchers this morning; and the itinerary for today, which included a morning stroll around this normally sleepy little village but which in August is very much alive, lived in by Spanish families who return to their family homes to escape the heat of this month further south.

At the village ford a White Wagtail was strutting  around with a Linnet in the overhanging tree and young Barn Swallows chattering on the aerials, whilst an Iberian Water Frog remained motionless and camouflaged by the side of the brook. A Black Redstart was seen in the gardens along with Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Goldfinch, female Blackcap and juvenile Pied Flycatcher. We heard  Wren and Greenfinch above the constant buzz of busy Bees.

The interesting sight of a Moth being parasitised  led us to the allotments where stunning Serins and Spotless Starlings were still flying around even though it was really a bit too hot for much bird activity Humming "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" we strode forth along some of the  tracks encircling the village enjoying  the butterflies which included White Admiral and Iberian Marbled White.  We spotted badger scat  and red deer tracks amongst the many crickets and grasshoppers and returned to the stream to spot a Psammodromus Lizard.

It was getting hot now and we all appreciated some time to be inside and prepare for our expedition to look for wolf evidence which we started at 14:30.  Immediately, our interest was alerted by the presence just above our village of 1 Black Vulture and 2 Griffon Vultures soaring accompanied by Booted Eagle and Short-toed Eagle.

At Boya, Tonia spotted recent wolf tracks at the entrance to the forestry track as Woodpigeon flew across our path. Still scanning any dusty part of the dehydrated paths, we found fox tracks and older wolf scat. The seemingly nondescript Grasshoppers changed instantly once disturbed as they took to the air with bright blue wings and we spent some considerable time in this haven for bees and butterflies, some of the best being the most understated eg a lovely little Banded Grayling on a heather bush. We were waxing lyrical about such gems and how fortunate we are to have the time to enjoy such relatively undiscovered beauty, when Tonia's voice called over asking John to identify her recent find, delicately described as.."Well John, it's one dried-out sloppy scat of some description!" I'm sure we can't wait to see her holiday snaps!

35'C still at 14:00 so the hint of a breeze was welcome although the sky was beginning to look more heavy and thundery as we turned off along the Roman Road, having seen Stonechat at the forestry nursery plus Great Spotted Woodpecker. Bee-eaters were flying over in a post-breeding display and we were all entranced by a confident Blue Darter Dragonfly at the waterhole. Scat of various ages was found along this road and the hot weather was not helping in ageing this material, but there was no doubting the freshness of the wolftracks in the dust. A large individual was definately using this route, regularly and recently. Badger tracks were noted too. We also had good views of Wheatear and a lovely young Pied Flycatcher in the little copse near the end of our walk. plus a probable Bonelli's Warbler. Our return walk gleaned young Dartford Warbler and Griffon Vulture.

Lunch of pinchos morenos, tortilla, beer and coffee was followed by an exploration of the Ferreras area where we were saddened to notice a dead Bee-eater on the road.  Thus followed a discussion...we were very good at discussions!... about the possible causes and the odds for such a death, hence our subtitle for the trip report.

In such dry conditions, any place where fresh water collects is worth a check and we were very interested to find very fresh wolf scat and  a wolf track equally fresh by a pond in the area, to add to the older scat already there, underlining the fact of the proximity of these wonderful predators.

Our evening wolfwatch began at 19:45 where we decided to watch the tracks we had walked earlier that day near Villardeciervos.  Our journey was slowed to accommodate 2 Red-legged Partridge with 3 youngsters who manically tried to flee the car by running in front of our route. We set up our scopes noting Swifts in flight and a Mistle Thrush, and were full of expectation. "Peep, Peeeeeeeeeeeep!!" A small white saloon car drove into view, releasing a lively little dog to bounce across the heather, followed by the driver of the aforementioned car.  The intrepid pair managed to catch the attention of the grazing cattle and their accompanying Mastins and with much hullaballoo the cattle were eventually herded into whereever the 'cattleherd' required but not until the light had gone along with the likelihood of any wolf activity here in the near future.

We packed up still in good humour appreciating the tremendous, silvery sunset which turned pink almost as we watched to the accompaniment of Crickets and Nightjars.  A Red Deer walked out onto the track easily within view and we watched, trying hard not to wish it a wolf. As we drove back to the main road, John did an emergency stop..."Snake!" As we jumped out, the Lataste's Viper hissed but remained stationary on the road and Michael was able to photograph this large reptile in detail.

It had been a full first day, and we were excited but tired as we enjoyed our meal of egg salad, pork fillet and the sweetest melon we had tasted for a while. Tonia and Wendy were ready to go to sleep but Michael, John and I decided to go out to the local church tower in search of Nightjars and Bats in flight. Well, we did not see the Nightjars, but we did get inviegled into the annual village 'Chocolate and Schnapps' celebration where a full cup of liquid, sweet, viscous chocolate was indeed needed to nullify the effect of the local firewater which had to be swallowed first. Local residents were certainly fired up to talk with us and regaled us with tales of wolf-hunting around the village in former days.All quite an experience, and difficult to explain to the other two just how it would have been wrong to refuse the offer of such interesting company and taste sensations until the early hours. The things we have to do in the name of international co-operation.

Saturday 11th August.

And a chillier 15'C it was too, so armed with fleeces we set up our scopes at La Pista to the persistent cheep of Chaffinch and an excellent sight of a grand Stag on the track. Plenty of Red and Roe deer plus a family party of 7 Wild Boar kept our interest plus a sedentary Black Vulture on the rocks by the copse...quite a significant bird to see loitering around this area.

We were fairly prompt to breakfast today as it was our excursion to the Douro Gorge  and we set off at 11:00 heartened by the sight of about 40 Bee-eaters swooping and calling over our hotel. Just out of Mahide we had a fruitful few yards, with two Woodchat Shrikes  and a female Montague's Harrier on the right of us, with Iberian Shrike, Buzzards, Kestrel and male Montague's Harrier to the left. As we drew closer to Alcanices we spotted a Black Kite in the distance and two acrobatic Red Kites at San Juan del Rebollar.
House Sparrow and Carrion Crow were our first birds in Portugal, not very exciting but it was soon to change, with clear close views of Montague's Harrier, two Griffon Vultures, Woodchat Shrikes and Spotless Starlings at Ifanes. The quaint tiled houses at Aldea Nova proved a contrast to the Spanish style of building, and we saw the village cobbler at his craft in his little workshop whilst Michael made some new friends. The House Martins,Crag Martins and Red-rumped Swallows were wheeling around the little chapel although we were transfixed by the close view of an Egyptian Vulture with its 7/8 foot wingspan just above us. Along with Rock Dove, Woodpigeon and Blackbird we were happy with the bird sightings as we went off to Miranda del Douro for lunch.

En route to Fariza after our lunchstop, we aimed to look at a little pond by the roadside but this was of course dried up.  However, it still garnered Goldfinch, Serin, Crested .Lark, Barn Swallow, Linnet,  House Sparrow, Woodchat Shrike, 2 Black Kites in display mode and an impressive Iberian Water Frog. As we turned off for Fariza, a lovely Bee-eater flew over, only to be upstaged by an impressive Golden Eagle in mid-display. We all enjoyed getting our scopes onto the Griffon Vulture chicks at the monastery site, whilst no scopes were needed for good views of the adults! Two Chough were enjoying the windy blasts and there were Woodchat Shrike in abundance around the site. Red and Black Kites were perfoming "twisty tails" movements above us as we drove slowly out of the area looking to left and right at Bee-eaters, Goldfinch, Montague's Harrier and Michael was happy to spot a Skylark. The annual hay festival was in full swing at Quintillana with the whole village turning out, plus a fair population of Black Kites. Upon entering Alcanices, we had Stonechat, Magpie and Turtle Dove, whilst further en route gave us Kestrels and Buzzard.

Griffon Vulture at Douro Gorge

Back at our hotel the mystery flapping in Tonia's room was identified as a lovely Red Underwing Moth; such a plain creature until its wings were opened and then it proved stunning. Plain or stunning, it was better out of Tonia's room so this was duly done.

It had been a lovely day and we were in good humour as we settled at La Pista for the evening wolfwatch, back in our fleeces again. We were able to follow the antics of our group of playful Roe deer as they were soon in view, and we totally enjoyed watching the group of Wild Boar well out in the open. The kaleidoscopic colour changes of the sky create their own magic in this beatuiful place and I know Michael and Tonia took several photographs of just this feature...although each picture would probably be accused of being touched up, so defined and breathtaking were the sunsets here this week. Crickets, then Nightjars, ...must be time for dinner, but wait...and as we listen, all wolfwatchers totally still in the encroaching darkness, there carries over to us the  sound of  several high pitched yelps followed by two howls of a lone wolf.  A long pause and then we realise there will be nothing more for us here tonight, and so we bid the wolves, who are definately there, a silent Goodnight and return to Antonio's dinner of courgette soup, tortilla and tomato followed by two puddings!! i.e homemade apple tart plus the melon we were so complimentary about yesterday!.

Sunday 12th August.

As we set up at La Pista at 07:10 John and Tonia caught sight of a Nightjar still hunting and we hear the rasping Dartford Warbler calling. We watch Roe Deer Doe and Hind grazing as the sun's rays stream through low lying mist onto the rough, arid pasture, creating a vista of long shadows and silhouette pines rising up as if from an arboreal Atlantis. Several Red and Roe Deer began to emerge into our sights as the mist lifted and at 08:10 Tonia was pleased to see two Dartford Warblers  and a Dunnock, getting good views in the scope of both of these little charmers.

A fellow wolfwatcher  came running along the track  Wolf!... at 09:10.  he had seen the predator bound across the piste only to disappear into the heather.  This creature was not seen any more that morning but served to heighten everyone's concentration and the air was full of expectancy  for the rest of the viewing time.

After breakfast, we watched a Songthrush around the outskirts of the village, before setting off for the Gallegos/Fleches road  The road between Mahide and Fleches was full of activity with two Griffon Vultures, Red Kite, Barn Swallows, Common Kestrel, Montague's Harrier, Woodchat Shrike and a Schreiber's Green Lizard across the road.

Photo: M. Hinks. "They all are made from the same mould!"
Along with many of the villages in August, there were festival preparations going on in Fleches and the normally quiet settlement had a definite buzz...or was that just in expectation of Michael? Certainly he seemed to have a winning way with some of the local ladies, who insisted he took their photos and they even gave him their name and phone number!  It lent new meaning to the phrase..."Oh  I've got a new bird!" whenever Michael dared to utter this.

The road by Gallegos  can always be relied upon to give up some lovely birds, and this month of August it still managed to show many Stonechats, Woodchat Shrikes, White Wagtail, Iberian Grey Shrikes, Northern Wheatear, Rock Sparrow and Rock Bunting, with an additional Red Damselfly hovering hopefully around the totally dehydrated pond. A snack of local  ham and cheese  was greatly enjoyed whilst watching Melodious Warbler, Red Kite and Goldfinch and we were in good spirits as we set off for Riomanzanas. The normally stunning views however were tarnished buy a recent forest fire, which had not happened three weeks earlier when John and I were going along the same route, and the whole basin of heathland was now blackened;  indeed it was still smoking and smelling. We all enjoyed experiencing the quaint village with its working population still living  in many cases in medieval conditions  and our stroll around the streets gave us a Stonechat whilst remarking upon the number of large blue Dragonflies around the stepping stones.

We were now ready for lunch and this was taken surrounded by photographs and videos of local wolf sightings in a friendly busy local bar. Overlooked by a Short-toed Eagle we returned to our hotel for a rest before setting off for an evening's wolfwatch at Boya in the peace of the woodland. A Weasel ran across the road and as two flocks of Spotless Starlings flew overhead we just got settled before a good sighting of a Roe Deer walking along the track ahead. Despite Tonia wearing her lucky wolf socks, a good view of a Wild Boar at 21:15 was the only other mammal sighting  that evening, although we all appreciated that the opportunity to sit in such a calm place was memorable in itself.  We enjoyed a lively dinner eating chicken noodle soup, hake and salad with our requested favourite, melon, for afters, and we retired to bed requesting Tonia to leave her lucky socks in the laundry basket for our next, and last, day to try for Wolf.

Monday 12th August.

We set off at 06:54 to watch at La Pista  spotting several Nightjars en route.  The air was cooler with low mist in the valleys and the clouds appearing alternately pink and orange.  The distant lights of Mombuey were still twinkling invitingly and we settled with a sense of intent. Michael regaled us all with his understanding of the highlights from the closing ceremony of the Olympics as he had viewed this last night, but in reality we were all intent on watching and almost willing a wolf to appear. We knew they were there....they knew we were there....then  at 07:25 on the track moves a is a Red Deer hind.  A beautiful creature, but just as we were consoling ourselves  Wolf!  At 07:30a large solo Wolf was spotted going between trees and along the railway track.As it goes below the heather line, John gathers us together with instructions to watch the track as it should come out there.  He sees it come out, walk across the track,stop and look over to us from about 60 metres away then turn its head and walk into the copse to the right of our well-watched track. "Did you see it? So close!!" But the irony of this is that the wolf was too close! Most of us, myself included, had not even considered the wolf would be so near and had been concentrating our viewing on a further copse while the magnificent creature had literally walked in front of us!  But we were still excited...the wolf had been there watching us! Furthermore, later investigation revealed tracks of this very wolf which had crossed the dusty path which served as our viewpoint, coming over from Fleches area, and then proceeded to cross the line and stalk along in front of us until it could disappear into the trees by the track. This whole episode fuelled our concentration if that had been necessary, and the remaining patches of low lying mist created even more atmosphere. No matter how much the Dartford Warbler postured and called scratchily, our focus was concentrated on more lupine matters now!  We saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker as the sun started to warm up at 09:00 and we were delighted to see a large family party of Wild Boar race across the heather at 09:20 with a Short-toed Eagle also in evidence. What a morning!! And it wasn't even breakfast-time yet!

We were fired up with enthusiasm as we set off after breakfast to try to locate Bluethroat.  We know the sites for this lovely little bird but seeing it is not easy in the height of August .  We spotted Jay and Stonechat, and then with patience and good eyes, we saw our Bluethroats.  One juvenile and 2/3 young birds, and Tonia in particular was delighted to have one more of her targets fulfilled.

Passing White Wagtail at Cional and noticing the low water levels at the embalse with aerobatic Crag Martins, we all enjoyed some time in the shops and medieval buildings of Puebla de Sanabria. No matter that Michael mistook the majestic castle for a cement works, a good time was had by all and our first White Stork was seen flying overhead. Watching Green Dragonflies, huge Pond Skaters and a Grey Wagtail on the Rio Tera  to the sound of Cetti's Warbler, two Iberian Wall Lizards were getting the benefit of the sunny rocks and did not seem inclined to move. Our time at Ribedelago produced House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Black Redstart, young Willow Warbler, White Wagtail, Linnet and Long-tailed Tit as we watched various stages of Trout in the river.  Wendy spotted a real beauty of an Iberian Water Frog surrounded by various Damselflies, Clouded Yellow, Fritilleries, Graylings and White Admiral Butterfly plus Iberian Wall Lizard,  Psammadromus and the real speciality of only this area, the Iberian Rock Lizard.  We investigated a shed snakeskin as we also looked at the variety of colours of Cricket in the stonewalls around the park whilst also admiring two Griffon Vultures on the brow of the hill. A suspected Peregrine Falcon picked up by Tonia then confirmed by John was exciting to follow and we were all able to see the Common Buzzard in the sky above us. After light refreshment in Sanabria, we returned for our last wolfwatch, catching good views of Common Kestrel at Mombuey and Black-shouldered Kite flying by our roadside. Amongst Stonechat, Woodchat Shrike and Bee-eater, we also noted Theckla's Lark on the road to Villardeciervos.

 Hopefully, we set off again at 20:00  in good time to set up our scopes at La Pista for our last wolfwatch of the tour. Apart from a Jay it was all very quiet until 20:30when a family party of Wild Boar came out on the track shadowed by a majestic Stag in the nearby heather. By 20:50, in clear, excellent light we were able to watch two large Wild Boar moving slowly through the same heather patch and we were enjoying this spectacle when "Wolf!".   This time we all got excellent views of a dark, large Wolf which sniffed the ground in the light, dry grass and then proceeded to move to the right for some distance, with measured pace, before disappearing from view in the taller heather, leaving us to celebrate and share the moment when three more people, Michael, Wendy and Tonia had joined the exclusive group of people who had seen Iberian Wolf totally in its wild habitat. After hours of patient scanning, during which time this group had never allowed themselves to become despondent, we had all had wonderful views of a collected, supreme individual. Feeling totally happy with the world now, we settled to fulfil our last half hour of decent light for this final wolfwatch, and Tonia was really appreciating using the scope to get views of the clear, red eye on a nearby Dartford Warbler while the others basked in the evening breeze, when she  nearly danced with excitement.  Tonia had in her scope the same Wolf and was able to direct us and follow its movement loping left until he lengthened his stride and set off at speed, as if "on a mission" was Tonia's feeling, to be lost to view in the long heather. However, ten minutes later, "He's on the track!". Again, not rushing, the 'shadow' as he had been dubbed, appeared on the piste and keeping close to the left side, walked up the track only to merge into the increasing gloom of the pine copse.

This time, we had to tear ourselves away as the light was beating us , but we were totally exhilarated by the quality and length of such views of an individual which Michael, Wendy and Tonia will always regard as 'their Wolf.'

Tuesday 14th August.

The journey from San Pedro to Valladolid airport is often full of  worthwhile sights and hence we always try to leave enough time  to be able to savour anything which presents itself en route. Today was no exception.
After warm farewells between our 3 happy clients and Antonio, Soco and Antonio  we set off in the morning sunshine, feasting our eyes on a Hind and Fawn crossing the road silhouetted against the sun near Villardeciervos, plus 8 Red Deer at Ferreras. The Rio Esla stop was time to reflect upon our eventful 6 days in Culebra whilst watching a wandering pilgrim, and several Mallards. At Villafafila, we were treated to the spectacle of about sixty Great Bustards in flight, along with two Black-bellied Sandgrouse also in flight.  Common Buzzard, and Kestrels were flying close by, plus an Iberian Shrike, Spotless Starlings, two Marsh Harriers and a female Montague's Harrier. Watching the interesting combination of a shepherd with sheep, dogs, donkey and a deckchair we also noticed another White Stork in a field near Villalpando, and amongst Kestrels, Buzzards, a Black Kite and a Montague's Harrier, our final bird of an eventful, full trip was a Black Kite hovering over the airport.  We left Michael, Wendy and Tonia at the airport with smiles and warm hugs and John and I both wish them well for all future travels, knowing that the memory of that 'shadow Wolf'  will be recalled many times with smiles and satisfaction.

Margaret H.

The three of us are sittiing in Lincoln looking out at the rain and talking about wolves. We have been 'on a high' ever since Monday night. We cannot thank you enough for a fabulous time and for all you showed us. Your company was brilliant and you worked so hard to find everything that we wanted to see. We loved the area and you have located the trip at an excellent hotel...So from three very grateful clients a big thank you for all your kindness, hospitality and friendship. You made the trip very special for all three of us and one that will remain in our memories for the rest of our lives    


 I am still raving to all who will listen about the wolf trip, and really had a great time. Thank you so much for making it all possible, and for your enthusiasm and eagerness to show us that special part of the world. It has certainly changed my perception of Spain....Thank you so much once again for making the trip so special and please pass on my thanks to those such as Antonio who helped make it so memorable 


Sunday 29 July 2012

Trip Report Sierra de la Culebra July 2012

Tuesday 3rd July.

It was 24'C on a sunny morning as John and I greeted  Nick, Sarah, Hannah and Verity from their plane which had landed smoothly at Valladolid airport. Each day was getting warmer and we were soon on our way having spotted a Booted Eagle as our first bird of the tour. This was very promising, as was the good news John could give everyone that he had seen wolf at Villardeciervos the night before, so it was with high spirits that we all started  spotting different birds,; a lovely Cock Linnet with roseate breast, singing on the wire, and a little further along an impressive Black Kite, being mobbed by Crows. Collared Dove was noted and we all saw a Northern Wheatear, the first of several on this tour. Each Wheatear we have seen this week was just so beautiful to watch either close by with naked eye or in our scopes. Nick was interested to see a colony of Lesser Kestrels exhibiting their gregarious flight and a Common Buzzard flew closely over us as we travelled on the road to our lunch stop. Just before this break, we just had to stop to watch the sheer ease and athleticism of a Montague's Harrier hunting alongside our car and the proximity and beauty of this streamlined master of the air gave us all a thrill.  Sarah was particularly taken with the aura of this bird, and I do believe that despite all we later saw, this bird in flight would be one of her abiding memories of our tour...and all in the first half-hour!

Our lunchstop at Villalpando replete with tortilla, beer, soft drinks and coffee went down a treat and we all enjoyed getting to know each other better, to the backdrop of Lesser Kestrels, House Sparrow, Spotless Starling and Blackbird. Tapioles was our first visit to a rural village of the tour and we had good views of many House Martins, with an impressive Black Kite floating lazily on the thermals.

The Great Bustards had been very much in evidence the previous week, and so it was with a confident air that we drove the tracks around the Villafafila reserve to locate these huge birds.  But where were they? We saw Magpie, Short-toed Eagle (in itself a treat), and plenty of Grasshoppers serving the purpose of Bustard bait, but the massive birds were not going to be easily spotted that day it seemed.  About 40 White Storks in a distant field proved a memorable spectacle through the telescopes and 2 Skylarks seemed very confident on a path nearby. Pulses started to race when we focussed upon a group of around 15 Griffon Vultures soaring overhead in the distance. Our decision to travel along a particular dusty track to get a better view of the Stork group proved well worth it when we focussed upon about 18 White Storks and our first Great Bustard...a female...and then more and more came into view!  We saw 10 Great Bustards, male and female, in the cornfields, with some males still doggedly performing their lekking display...what optimists they must be! as the attitude of the females did not give any great encouragement. All this action as a male Montague's Harrier hunted up and down along the skyline and a Booted Eagle flew right over us. At the Observacion des Aves, we had a clear view of Rock Sparrow, and there was also Coot with young, Green Sandpiper and Cornbunting.  By now we were almost getting blase' about the number of Great Bustards flying and walking well within view .John went to investigate what turned out to be a dead raven in the stubblefield,an action which flushed out several Great Bustards and we were able to enjoy these huge flying creatures at very close quarters!

We enjoyed a walk around the deserted village of Otero de Sariegos, watching the Lesser Kestrels fly and perch amongst ruined buildings and also with nest and perch sites specially constructed for them.A Short-toed Eagle remained stationary upon one such perch enabling a good photo opportunity. Other birds noted here were Magpie, Black Kite, Jackdaw and Cornbunting.  We also enjoyed a number of Iberian Marbled White Butterfly encounters. This village had been a hub of vital activity from Roman times  with the  all-important salt being taken from their lagoons, but it is now important for its avian life instead.  A walk around this place however does have a certain atmosphere, in all seasons.

Water levels have been extremely low all this year in this area of Spain, and normal lagoons bursting with waterbirds are mere dust-troughs at the moment, but happily  there are some parts of the reserve at Villafafila where water is still to be enjoyed and we were delighted to find several water species there.  As Black-headed Gulls mobbed a Booted Eagle above us and a Marsh Harrier skimmed the ground alongside our path, we watched Greylag Geese, Coot, Gadwall,  Blackwinged Stilt, young Shelduck, Avocets with chicks, Little Ringed Plover, 2 young Grey Heron, Barn Swallow and White Wagtail. We encountered the Oil Beetles so numerous in these parts, along with large Ladybirds.

Hannah's first encounter with a snake in Culebra was pretty impressive; two Montague's Harriers flying above the road to La Tabla, one of them carrying the said snake in its talons

Moving into holm oak country over the bridge at Rio Esla, we stopped to take in the relaxing feel of this special site,  remarking on the large Carp in the water, with Crag Martin and Coot well in evidence, and a Buzzard flying over the river.

Our first Black Redstart was spotted at Faramontanas de Tabara and near Otero we watched Common Kestrel and Stonechat. We made a mental note of a Griffon Vulture coasting the air over Ferreras de Arriba, as this is indeed wolfcountry now, and were delighted with our first Bee-eater view of the trip, plus the same for Great Spotted Woodpecker.

After settling in to our rooms at our hotel, we set off at 20:20 for our first wolfwatch, tonight at La Piste, noting from the board that the last wolf seen was by John on 3rd July, and the one previous to that had been by me at La Piste the previous month. To the sound of a Dartford Warbler, we all soaked in the beauty of this special place, watching Crossbill and Red Deer under the full doesn't get more atmospheric than this! After our evening meal of courgette soup, chicken stew and  custard pudding, we spent some time watching the Pipistrelle Bats and Nightjars flying around the nearby churchsteeple before retiring to bed after a very eventful, initial day.

Wednesday 4th July.

The full moon was still very much in the sky as we met for our 06:45 start.  The smell of herbs and mown grass contributed to the fresh feel of this time of the day, with Swifts already keeling through the village streets and a Black Redstart greeting us atop a nearby tiled roof. It was an outstanding sunrise as we aimed for Villardeciervos, and we were quite confident the slight low-lying mist would burn off. We set up our scopes to the sound of cowbells noticing Linnets, young Goldfinches, and Serins, all a pleasure to watch in the exceptionally good morning light here.Although we are aware that they pose no deterrent to the wolf, it is still a matter of concern when the two huge Mastin dogs decide to leave their bovine charges and explore the territory we were concentrating upon, and although we spotted the occasional Red and Roe Deer, plus a couple of brave cyclists, it all seemed a bit busy with things we did not want to see. A female Hen Harrier flew by plus a Great Spotted Woodpecker and we found several Ladybirds, Iberian Marbled White and Common Blue Butterflies. A detour via the forestry nursery whilst returning for breakfast proved very fruitful with Rock Bunting, young Stonechat,  Mistle Thrush, Jay, Blackbird and a delightful Woodlark displaying in flight.

To walk around this quiet village which is our base for the week is always a pleasure and we all enjoyed our time after breakfast looking at the houses, sharing friendly greetings with welcoming local people whilst catching sound of a Blackcap to a background of Swifts still screaming in true daredevil fashion between the low roofs.  Whilst watching a marbled White Butterfly by the stream, we were happy to check our bird count from this short wander, it consisted of good views of Western Bonelli's Warbler, Melodious Warbler,  House Sparrow, Stonechat, White Wagtail and Greenfinch. Nick and Sarah enjoyed the walk along a village trail which gave up impressive butterfly encounters, including White Admiral, and plenty of interesting Orchid  plants. We had good views of Dartford Warbler, Rock Bunting and 2 young Blue Tits, plus Fox scat.

It was now 12:15 and we went tracking primarily for wolf signs. Verity had narrowly missed seeing wolf last year in British Columbia  but knew how to look for tracks of this predator. She was fascinated by our first find of wolf scat at Boya.  The ground is so dry and hard in Culebra at the moment , tracks are difficult to find so this scat was exciting if quite old.  Just further along the track, however, Verity found some wolfscat that we knew was fresh, and was just a few days old maximum, so everyone checked this area over carefully.  This site became even more promising when we found Wild Boar tracks and we were able to see the imprints of the bristly coat of these big beasts in a mudwallow area near this evidence.  There was also evidence of Red and Roe Deer, plus several interesting Badger tracks.As the sun became higher in the clear blue sky,  the sight of hundreds of native butterflies along with the sounds of  wild and honey bees plus various other pollinating insects attracted by the multiplicity of wild flowers growing there created a wall of humming, buzzing and sheer movement inside which we could only stand still and absorb.

This had been a very worthwhile hour's tracking, and we next tracked along the Roman Road near the Villardeciervos site. Such dry conditions do not give up evidence easily, and we saw tracks plus a large amount of scat evidence, the latter being of different ages, some quite decomposed but interesting to see the diet and hair remains, and some very fresh indeed. The water hole along the track, complete with rather elegant, non-natural fish!?, allowed us lovely views of Dragonfly, green and red being the predominant colours. A tunnelweb from some spider gave us opportunity for thought as we walked back to our car enjoying the total blue-ness of the sky. Pleased to be driven now, as the temperature was rising, we drove up the hillside where much fresh scat was seen, along with Woodpigeon amd Collared Dove.  A quiet time of day for birds, too, we had lunch at Villardeciervos plus a short supermarket shop for snacking provisions, then felt we were all ready for a couple of hours free time in our village to ensure fresh eyes and minds for the evening wolfwatch at Villardeciervos at 20:00.

The watch started off eventfully with a Stag and Hind both taking off at full pelt copied by a Roe buck but no cause was identified and we soon settled into watching a Fox on the track and reacquainting ourselves with the female Hen Harrier.  We had good views of Rock Bunting, Buzzard, Dartford Warbler and Swallow to the mocking call of Iberian Green Woodpecker whilst reflecting as the sun went down what a peaceful spot this was.(Rather too peaceful for my liking... a bit of wolf action for Verity would bring us peace I reflect).  However there is rarely nothing to watch in Nature, and soon, while we were watching a Great Tit, a male Hen Harrier arrived at speed affording us the opportunity to enjoy the grace of this stunning bird. Once again, the Deer started running erratically and we heard a Roe Deer barking. As the Nightjars started their evening whirring, we had to pack up as the light faded but we did feel we had been close tonight. Dinner was butternut squash soup, veal with salad and followed by cherries from the local gardens, accompanied as ever  by Antonio's good red wine and chilled water.

Thursday 5th July.

It was a clear, calm morning as we all set off at 07:00 for Villardeciervos, with the knowledge that any low-lying mist would soon clear. We stopped en route to admire 5 Red Deer crossing our road in  beautiful sunrise silhouette and as we set up our scopes to the sounds of a barking Roe Deer, Iberian Green Woodpecker calling, Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and cow bells adding to the orchestral awakening of general birdsong in this valley of peace.A  Roe buck walked calmly to the left of our view as 6 Red Deer were spotted on the track. Nick and Sarah were watching the behaviour of Blue Tits and Coal Tits in a nearby copse as 2 Ravens flew by to land in the valley. As well as the by now almost expected presence of the female Hen Harrier, we also enjoyed watching Bonelli's Warbler and Linnets. Verity spotted 2 Stags in peak condition and we all appreciated seeing such magnificent creatures. One little bird which had evaded our notice came to the fore this morning, that being Robin.

On our way back to breakfast, we took a diversion through the village of Boya to take in the experience of being amongst so many Swifts and Swallows careering, skimming wires and feeding young against a true, blue sky. A Black Kite soared above us as we rejoined our road to San Pedro for a 09:25 breakfast.

By 10:30 we were refreshed and out to visit Sanabria, with a Black Kite still in attendance. Driving past the village green at Boya, the Spotless Starlings seemed to shimmer in the heat. Once again, we had to stop for "deer crossing"; this time at Sagallos for a Red Deer hind.  Our first planned stop was at the Embalse where we watched Crag Martin and Kestrel, noting the low water level here.

The Roman town of Puebla de Sanabria with its imposing castle towering above interesting medieval streets  is always a pleasant place to visit and we spent a couple of hours looking around and sampling the local tapas.

Lago de Sanabria was beautiful as ever, and several of us just could not resist a quick paddle in the Lake which was surprisingly warm! Passing Storks frogging in the roadside field, we moved on to Ribedelago and paid our respects at the statue for the victims of the dam-burst and subsequent flood which caused the  total wipeout of all residents of the old village.  The serenity of this area meant that we could wander at will and see sights that will remain with us for a long time;  for example, after spotting a Kingfisher obviously intent upon feeding young, John located its nest and we were lucky enough to see this wary bird entering and leaving it's nest with fish in it's beak for the young. Not much further along, John spotted a bird of prey, which turned out to be a Golden Eagle, and Nick hurried away to alert the rest of the group. All of us got on to it and were able to watch for quite a while. We also saw Serin, Linnet, Greenfinch,Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Nuthatch, Sandmartin, White Wagtail, Mistle Thrush and Swallow feeding young.We saw  an immature White Wagtail upon several occasions. The trout-filled river attracted Iberian Green Frogs, Dragonflies and Demoiselles and we noted  Wall Brown Butterfly and an Iberian Wall Lizard.

The well-equipped Visitor's centre has excellent displays and caters for non-Spanish language speakers, although not a lot is made of any wolf presence. As ever, the car and coach park was almost empty and we have yet to see a month when it is even partly filled! However, all this just adds to the charm of this special area and we all appreciated the clarity of the displays and the helpful staff. Having enjoyed a Golden Oriole flying alongside our the road back to Culebra the mood was altered a little by the Guarda Civil requesting John's papers, but once they were assured that the long poles in the back of our vehicle were tripods and not anything more troublesome, we were soon on our way, being roundly entertained by Hannah's and Verity's word perfect renditions of Tom Lehrer songs!

We had a wonderful  hundred yards just before entering Villardeciervos village, where we all watched Southern Grey Shrike and Woodchat Shrike, plus 2 Bee-eaters, one complete with bee.

Our evening wolfwatch was scheduled for La Piste, but an unusual incident involving two trains, various passengers and a police car persuaded us to  upsticks and so it was 21:00 before we reached Villardeciervos site, to enjoy fairly soon afterwards flocks of Linnets, Barn Swallows, Goldfinches and a very close view of the Hen Harrier. Six Stags were quickly located, but the thrill of the evening, which overrode any excitement from the train/police incident, was the sound of wolfhowls, heard clearly by Verity, Sarah and myself. The light was going as we saw two Red-legged Partridge and a Fox, but talk that evening over our dinner of lentil soup, fish in cheese sauce and flan, was of the railway line mystery... and those howls.

Friday 6th July.

 07:00am 8'C. A stunning sunrise through low clouds on the horizon at La Piste allowed us all simply to enjoy being there. We heard Woodpigeon and had good views of the  Dartford Warbler plus Dunnock, Stonechat and  several Deer.  Just after eight o'clock, Sarah got three Rock Buntings on the telegraph wire, being two juveniles and one adult, to be swiftly followed by excellent views of Rock Thrush against by now a clear, blue sky. Nick spent some time watching  a Small Wall Brown Butterfly and so it was after enjoying some lovely sights that we returned for a 09:30 breakfast, avoiding en route a fast police car on the track (obviously something concerning last night's train incident) and... much more interesting!... several Bee-eaters on the wire.

After some free rest time, we convened at midday to look along the Gallegos/Flechas road.  About 18 White Storks were gathered at Mahide. along with White Wagtail and a Buzzard by the pondside. A stunning Red Darter Dragonfly was good to see there too. Whilst looking for fresh scat on the Flechas road, we had Stonechat, young Crested Lark, Tawny Pipit, Montague's Harrier and several White Admiral Butterflies. The village of Flechas was pleasant to explore on such a sunny day, and the local women were preparing lunch, washing their lettuce in the stream water then using the same to water their remaining planted lettuces;  recycling is a way of life to them! All the while watched by a Black Redstart on the rooftop.

By now it was getting up to 30'C and warm enough for reptiles and amphibians to abound, and a depleted pond Nick found along the Gallegos road had upwards of 13 Iberian Green Frogs. As the six of us watched the thirteen of them, normal  boundaries seemed blurred and I wondered just who was observer and who the observed! Certainly the beautifully marked creatures ( and I refer to the frogs, not us!) seemed totally unphased by our close interest, and even a youngster  kept very still for our inspection, intent on warming up in the mud of a Wild Boar roll site, where again the bristly coat marks after a happy hogroll were evident. In the same area we heard Skylark and saw Red Kite but a real treat was to see the beautifully marked Woodchat Shrike and Southern Grey Shrike through our scopes. Dragonfly variety abounded, with a whole palette of colours winging past our eyes...big blue "helicopters", delicate blue damoiselles, dragonflies with double wings, pillarbox- red, flying beauties.. we were entranced for a long time at this pond! With a soaring Black Kite above us, we began to look for reptiles, and Verity was soon excited to locate an Oscillated Lizard.We kept up with this  until it disappeared under a pile of stones, only for Verity to find a discarded snakeskin there too. Hannah meanwhile was investigating an interest of hers...ants... and we all watched these fascinating creatures protecting their eggs from our presence.  On a bit of a roll now,  Verity pointed out a raptor, this being a Short-toed Eagle, and we could all get our binoculars onto this impressive bird. The skies and fields were alive with birds, seeing several Bonelli's Warblers, three Buzzards, Crested Lark, Swallows with their young, Red Kite and a Montague's Harrier intent on eating the grasshoppers from the road. House Sparrows were noted flying amongst the Storks' nests as we entered San Christobel de Aliste .

Along "The Road", that long straight highway reminiscent of those in the United States, we spotted Buzzard, Magpie, Black Kite, Southern Grey Shrike and as two Short-toed Eagles soared above San Pedro, we collected the swimming things and went off to cool down in the lake at Cional, where an Iberian Wall Lizard awaited us on the steps.

The light was exceptionally good for our 20:00 wolfwatch at Villardeciervos, where we had swallows skimming level with our heads as we set up our scopes. It was good to see the male Hen Harrier hunt along the heather lines, and the mocking blasts of the Iberian Green Woodpecker echoed by Jay shrieks sounded during what was otherwise a quiet night's watch.  apart from seeing two Stags with beautiful "velvet" antlers not a lot was to be seen. Any despondency was quickly countered however when, during our return journey, we had a lovely young Roe deer crossing the road in good view, and not much further on, the car headlights shone on some little eyes on the side of the road and we found a very young Fox cub, which eventually took itself off across our path, but not before we had watched it for some time.

Antonio had made his very special seafood paella for us followed by melon. Thank you Antonio!

Saturday 7th July.

At 07:00 we met beside the vehicle with a Black Kite flying above us and a White Wagtail bobbing beside the car. It was another stunning morning at Villardeciervos, with light clouds almost looking lilac in colour in the unsullied light and the action started straightaway with about 14 Red Deer running in the centre of our view. They were being worried by 2 Mastins, which was a nuisance to us looking for clues to wolf presence, but also was valuable in showing the total different movement between the large dogs we had just seen,and the wolves watched on John's videos.  At 07:45 John was pleased to get our intrepid watchers onto a soaring Honey Buzzard, and later Nick saw several of the same flying in a group. Raven was heard and Verity tracked  movements of two individuals in her binoculars, realising the wolf potential of this bird. Surprisingly, a chill breeze blew up at 08:00 and extra layers of clothing were applied. The male Hen Harrier was circling low over the heather as his mate was also hunting close by, and then at 09:45 we returned for breakfast watching a young Crested Lark as we got into our car, noting the gathering grey clouds.

By the time of our departure for Portugal, 11:00, drops of rain could be felt but after passing Buzzards  and Corn Buntings en route, plus Turtle Dove near Alcanices followed soon by an excellent Montague's Harrier, the temperature had settled at 20'C and no cloud in the sky .A large flock of Barn Sparrows were enjoying the grain spilt on the road to Miranda,  with Black Kite and Crow nearby.

Our first bird in Portugal was Montague's Harrier, and not one but three flying low over our road. This was particularly gratifying for Sarah, who had appreciated the seamless beauty of this bird's movement each time of watching, and we were happy to stop and enjoy this spectacle once more. Another favourite of this tour , the Woodchat Shrike, was obvious at the turn off for Aldeia Nova, along with Golden Oriole. We took time out to walk around this old village, so close to, and yet so different from, the villages we have explored this week in Sierra de la Culebra. House Martins nested against the painted walls of old homes and as we turned down towards the church we came across Rock Dove and Red-legged Partridge.

The atmospheric site of Aldeia Nova  was quiet as ever, and we were the sole group to explore and discover some exciting species in the wonderful surroundings.  A Golden Eagle soared over the hill but a long way away, only clearly visible in our scopes, and several Crag Martins flew around our heads and indeed below us. Nick saw his first Blue Rock Thrush and we all managed to get a memorable sight of this secretive bird in the scope. We also saw Alpine Swift and Black Kite, and were treated to extremely close views of  an adult and an immature Egyptian Vulture. The temperature was rising steadily as we caught sight of an Iberian Wall Lizard just before we returned to our vehicle to go to Miranda de Duoro for an extremely tasty lunch in a lively, local restaurant overlooking the gorge.  From our table we watched an impressive Egyptian Vulture and a Red Kite ride the thermals as we sampled the food,drink and atmosphere. The merluza (hake) was very popular with gambas (king prawns) or melon as starters although Hannah managed to do justice to an impressive lasagne for her first course! A short post- lunch wander beside the restaurant and over the dam gave us some very well-marked Greenfinch and several Goldfinch.

We continued our day in Portugal with a stop at a nearby pond where we had good views of two Egyptian Vultures, Serin, Crested Lark, Sparrow and a Donkey with Red Kites overhead. A little further on we had to stop as a small herd of black dairy cows were crossing the road;  these farm creatures were of varying ages but even the old and infirm were moving slowly along full of milk.  Shrikes were in view all along the little road to Fariza where we were able to admire the horsemanship of a local young man and his beautiful white steed as they pranced  through their paces on the rocky pastures beside us.

Upon our arrival at the former monastery site of Fariza a short stroll brought us to the wonderful viewpoint and we were all happy to admire the close presence of around twenty Griffon Vultures  soaring and landing so close to us. The quality of the sunlight reflecting off their wings as they spanned all around us...checking us out?!...was intense and just as we were noticing the comparison in size of these wonderful birds with a nearby Common Kestrel, an even greater treat appeared.  A Golden Eagle was enjoying the warm air and in joyous demonstration of its territory and power, this magnificent bird began a series of lengthy goldenball dives easy to watch even with the naked eye. We watched for several minutes and then after noting Sandmartin and Cragmartin, we had to take our leave in order to get back in time for our evening wolfwatch.  The journey back to San Pedro was quiet; Nick noticed a female Golden Oriole flying in front of us at Badilla and there was another Red Kite at Miranda de Duoro. Flocks of sheep and cattle were returning to their night shelters with the shepherds and the dogs large and small, as we saw an elegant Montague's Harrier en route and a young Spotless Starling close by the roadside at San Pedro.

The evening wolfwatch was at Villardeciervos in the customary beautiful light. Red and Roe deer emerged in small groups and the male Hen Harrier was mobbing a stationary Common Buzzard. As we listened to Iberian Green Wodpecker and Serin, an interested Guardia Civil joined us and was obviously wanting to discuss his own wolf-sightings and watch our videos. We had Crossbill and Kestrel flying over at intervals throughout the watch but our main attention was drawn to the frequent barking of a Roe Deer nearby and  the raucous calls of two Ravens.

At 22:00 we had to leave as the light was fading but we encountered our little Fox Cub again on the road back to our hotel where Antonio had prepared for us a lovely egg salad, pork chop with lettuce and tomato followed by yoghurt.

Sunday 8th July.

A fresh, bright 6'C at 07:00 with low-lying mist below the sunrise drew us yet another memorable mental picture as we drove to our morning wolfwatch at Villardeciervos. Avoiding a powerful Stag on the road, plus a less awe-inspiring Rabbit, we set up our scopes to the sound of Roe Deer barking, cowbells clanging, Mastins barking, Iberian Green Woodpecker mocking, Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming, Linnets, Serins and Warblers sounding throaty choruses....the peace of the countryside?!... Once all this had settled down it was actually quite a quiet morning with sightings of Carrion Crow and a clear Crested Tit atop a pine tree plus two intrepid cyclists. There is no evidence of which we are aware that wolves are disturbed unduly by the presence of Mastins, or cyclists, indeed we can quote cases to the contrary, but we are not so confident on their effect on the deer presence whenever they are around. We saw Jay and Raven on the road back for breakfast.

After this break, we went off to see the antiquated, living village of Riomanzanas which is surrounded by well-tended, allotment-type gardens. Sarah noted that the fruit trees, probably peach, were all netted and the land was well irrigated despite the water shortage. Like at Flechas, we suspected the wholesale application of recycling water has been a way of life in this area and such shortages are not often experienced here.  Just before entering the village, John stopped the car when he saw a lovely Cirl Bunting on the wire above us. We were able to locate this little bird when it flew away by listening for it's crackling call and we all enjoyed doing this.  Inside the village, we were lucky to meet our old friend Francisco who was "encantado" to be introduced to Nick, Sarah, Hannah and Verity and who proudly showed them his bull, cow, calves and sheep living beneath his own living space. He also made sure to let us know that he would be 87 years old on 10th August.  As John and I will be back in Sierra de la Culebra for most of August, we made mental note of this.  We moved on to explore the quaint, peaceful village at our own speed the clear, running river with its ancient bridge and stepping stones and the style of such buildings that look shaky on their foundations but have obviously served a purpose for generations.  We had Grey Wagtail and Grey Heron at the river edge.

As we left Riomanzanas, at the junction just over the old road bridge,  we stopped to get closer to an Oscillated Lizard who was on the roadside.  Not much further along, we had to swerve to dodge an Iberian Wall Lizard on the same road.

We had lots to talk about over ham and cheese lunch at the nearby camp site, where we also showed everyone the stuffed Wolf, Wild Boar and Fox which adorn the dining room/reception office there.  After refreshments, we explored a site at Ferreras after rumours of a carcass being seen there 10 days ago.  Certainly there were Ravens in attendance there as we visited the now disused shooting site, along with Black Kite, Red Kite and Bee-eaters but no evidence of recent wolf action.

Today was Wimbledon Men's Singles Finals day and I think Nick and Sarah will always remember this final of 2012, watching the Federer/Murray match in a little village in very rural Spain and explaining to the bemused Antonio(s) just who is presenting the prizes, why should the Queen's cousin do this anyway, and why they need the rain covers over in "summer"!

This evening's wolfwatch was at Boya.  This is a site where any view should be a good , close one and we have seen wolf, wild boar and deer here on several occasions in the past.  With the promising results of our tracking here earlier in the week, we felt that it was worth our attention and so on a lovely, tranquil evening we began our watch listening to Iberian Green Woodpecker and Red-legged Partridge, and watching Woodpigeon. Sounds emanating from the wood all around and behind us kept us all in a state of alert expectation, and we soon had good views of Fox and Roe Deer. At 21:45, just as John had whispered to Sarah, " This is just the right time now....anything could happen".....two mountain cyclists in bright red and white football strips came hurtling along the forest track with accompanying whoops of excitement.  Not only that, but adding insult to injury, one of the two had a puncture right where we were focussing and they proceeded to change the said tyre. In true Victor Meldrew style, "I don't believe it " echoed around us and we felt as if we had might as well pack up, but Sarah whispered  "John, what's that on the track?"  and whist these two youngsters changed their tyre , three Wild Boar came out onto the track and were not in the least perturbed by the activity below them! Having just seen a Wild Boar at close quarters during lunch that day, it was amazing and exciting to watch these creatures, normally so wary, go about their evening business. By 22:00 the Nightjars had started competing with the sound of the mosquitos but we felt that this site was so promising that we would keep watching.  By 22:15 the Fox had returned and we were able to get a good view again., until another whirring sound was heard, and several men, not forestry rangers, drove along the track in a large Jeep.  We felt unsure of their intent  but they did not linger and after a couple of minutes calm descended once again and the whirring was of the Nightjars.

The drive back to our hotel was eventful too, meeting a Sparrowhawk carrying prey in its talons, a kamikaze Vole which ran in front of the car on the track, and a lovely Tawny Owl in a tree beside the road.  Bats and Nightjars were busy as we entered San Pedro, to return and enjoy courgette soup, tortilla with salad and custard with cinnamon.

Monday 9th July.

The birds were chirruping and the herbal, grassy scents were all around as we left at 07:00 for our morning watch at Villardeciervos.  An outstanding sight of this watch was a dramatic Cock Linnet who was posing as if he knew he was magnificent this morning. Nick located several Crossbills also looking good, and singing with energy. Although a Roe Buck was barking, six nearby Hinds with one Stag did not react and continued grazing. At 08:20 a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew out from the trees beside us chirruping loudly and this was followed by the sound of a Woodlark singing. After listening for quite some time, Nick and Hannah decided to go and try to locate it for us.  At 09:00 we were enjoying a mixed flock of Goldfinches and Linnets in their perfect habitat when our attention was drawn to ...yes indeed another cyclist! By 09:15 in the warmth of the sun we decided to call  a halt to our watch;  the morning had been beautiful but there was no wolf show here.

After breakfast we spent quite some time with a superb Green Lizard at our village stream.  basking both in the heat and also in our attention. It posed proudly until we wondered just who was watching whom! With Black Kite hovering above and Swifts screaming around, I decided to start on counting our trip list, whilst the others had a walk to the top of the village to search for Red-rumped Swallow.  I was definately the one who missed out here, as upon their return, I learned that, along with very good sights of Song Thrush, they had all watched a Peregrine Falcon being mobbed by a Black Kite.

 Our pond dip at Boya was great fun despite the depleted water levels as John fished out several tadpoles and two young Bosca's Newts. After carefully replacing these lovely little creatures which are totally indigenous to this area and therefore even more special, we set off to enjoy lunch at Villanueva where we could watch video evidence of our target species.  Two White Storks were flying over the village of Villanueva as we left to go to Ferreras, and Sarah brought our attention to several raptors flying close overhead.  We were soon to get very excited as we witnessed upwards of 50 Black and Griffon Vultures and several Ravens in the air. Parking off road, we walked to the old feeding station, a walk which was thrilling with the constant arrival of yet more birds of prey and their circling so close to us we could hear their wings beating in the air above.  We stalked along the track and  saw evidence of a carcass which was the reason for all this activity. This decided us for our final wolfwatch of the had to be at Ferreras! On a lighter note, Nick managed to get an excellent Sub-alpine Warbler (juvenile) in his scope and we also enjoyed some lovely views of Bee-eater on the wire with White Storks frogging in the fields near Villardeciervos.

It had been  a hot, exciting day and we arranged for a cool-off swim at Cional for a couple of hours before an early start at Ferreras  for our final wolfwatch. When tired of swimming, entertainment was provided by a local man feeding Crayfish to his pet dachshund!

 By 18:30 we were passing Bee-eaters and Red-legged Partridge as we got ourselves expectantly in place by 19:15, watching the  sight of several Vultures squabbling over the rapidly diminishing remains of a deer  They had made short work of this , and we could see three Black Vultures, one Black Kite and the rest Griffon Vultures perform their rituals of gorging and bullying with their grotesque hopping and wingstretching over this carcass.  By 20:30 these huge birds were gorged and they were standing guard near the scant remains when a Fox emerged from the wood.  A Black Vulture could just about gather the energy to look on with seeming disgust but no opposition was offered as the Fox sniffed, explored and scuttled around the nearby ploughed field scavenging meat dropped in the earlier vulture flurry. Seemingly the carcass had been put out the day before and we hoped that wolves might visit it tonight.  The presence of rangers with scopes also helped us know that if wolf was to be seen tonight, this was the place to be.  Verity had so wanted to see a wolf, having tried on other parts of the world with little success, and she had given 100% concentration every minute of our watches this week.  We were oblivious to other distractions as we all concentrated on the area in front of us. As we watched even the rest of the natural world seemed hushed and expectant. At 20:50 we saw the Black Vulture reapproach the carcass to begin refuelling, for ten minutes, warning off any other hopefuls. At 21:20 our attention was drawn to a clear family of Wild Boar moving to our right through the heather, and we all had great views of the adults and their young. I was just watching a tiny little Vole going to and fro by my foot into the heather, when an enormous grunt  and the sound of twigs breaking very close behind us made us spin around. It was the sound of a very large, very close, Wild Boar! The younger of the two rangers left his scope and rushed into the wood , armed with a pepper spray from his vehicle. Occasions such as this underline how close we are to the whole wild life of the area when we are silently watching... anything could, and sometimes does, happen!

By 22:15 the Nightjars were whirring and the light quality was disappearing pretty quickly. We took a final scan of the stunning sunset backdrop to the accompaniment of Ravens cawing, and moved amongst the Bats and Nightjars to return to San Pedro, certainly wishing that our fox  sighting had been a wolf  but realising that we had been witness to an amazing wildlife episode that evening.  We were informed that the wolves had made a kill  just over a neighbouring hill and therefore would be remaining in that area feeding and lying up.  This just underlines the unpredictability and fascination of watching really wild wildlife; if it could be engineered to appear, it would not be truly wild!

Tuesday 10th July.

After a breakfast at 07:00 we were packed and ready for the return journey to Valladolid airport on a sunny morning. This is not a tedious road to travel however, and we were all alert to spotting and sharing species en route. There was a good view of  Rock Bunting at the Rio Esla bridge, plus a pilgrim bravely walking the  Camino de Santiago early in the morning before the heat of the July sun.  The high spot however was our reacquaintance with Great Bustards both flying and feeding as we drove through the grain area of Villafafila. along with a group of 15 White Storks, Montague's Harrier and Black Kite.  We arrived at the airport in good time  for a relaxing coffee with no queues for luggagedrop etc. We were all agreed that it was difficult to believe that only a short two hour flight would have us back into the hustle and bustle of Stansted Airport and the busy English motorways. What a contrast to the past seven days!

Margaret Hallowell


 Thank you for all your endeavours and kindness over the last week.  We had a wonderful time." 

 Nick. July 2012.