Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Trip report Sierra de la Culebra January 2012

Monday 9th January

10:21am and a chilly 1'C.  Our arrival and arrangements were dealt with as smoothly and quickly as we have come to expect of Valladolid airport. Soon we were in our vehicle on the open road although thick fog interfered with the normal vistas.Winter time can be very productive for wolf watching in the Sierra de la Culebra but the variety of birds increases come March/early April with the arrival of  the summer migrants which boost up the species possible to be seen.

Our first birds were a charm of Goldfinches disturbed by our entering the N601 along with  Carrion Crows. Green shoots were starting to show over the ploughed fields on either side of the road, with the hard frost petrifying roadside grasses and trees.  Spotless Starlings gathered on wires, Magpies flew out of the mist and at least the sightings we did have en route were close ones!  Red Kites and a Buzzard perched on poles somewhat disconsolately, but John and I were cheered by our eleven o' clock breakfast of warm tortilla, bread and coffee at Villalpando.

Back on the road by 12:17 and a heady 3'C now, we spotted White Wagtail, 2 Kestrels, Buzzards aplenty, Marsh Harrier, Red Kite, and around 400 Spotless Starlings in flight.  At Tapioles we also spotted Southern Grey Shrike and many House Sparrows on the roadside.

Red Kites and Marsh Harriers were hunting very close to the roadside verge at Villafafila where a very large flock of Greylag Geese congregated with Shelduck, Lapwing and Grey Heron also spotted. At the Observaciones de Aves, amongst a Kestrel atop a thistle and Red Kites, we also saw Chaffinch and 2 Ravens plus a lovely view of a female Marsh Harrier.  Look to one side to watch a shepherd walking his flock with his donkey and dogs: look to the other side to spot about 30 Red-legged Partridge. Observing the lake replete with Greylag Geese and Shelduck, Redshank was also spotted, along with several Buzzards,Kites and Kestrels staying low and reluctant to fly from their perches in the continuing fog. Unfortunately, such conditions hampered our efforts to locate Great Bustards.

At the deserted medieval buildings that make up most of Otero de Sariegos, once a thriving settlement based around refining salt from the nearby lagunes, we saw 5 Linnets on the fencewires, Corn Bunting, Cirl Bunting, White Wagtail and our first Black Redstart of the trip.  John sat by the side of the lake to watch a Marsh Harrier eating a Mallard whilst in the background a  Hen Harrier scoured the marshland for a tasty morsel. Many Dunlin were at the lake plus a Curlew.  Several Linnets were pecking on the road.
We were quite surprised to see a White Stork at Villarin de Campos;  we have been in the Sierra de la Culebra in February to witness their return, but to overwinter here? This was a rich birding stop, with 2 Shovellers, 4 Widgeon, 4 Teal, 300/400 Greylag Geese, 2 Ravens, a hunting Marsh Harrier and a Red Kite. Along the road to La Tabla, there were thousands of Greylag Geese.

15:40.  We did not expect too much from our favoured stop at the bridge over the Rio Esla owing to the fog but somehow, this little spot never fails to please or surprise.  Today  was no exception.  As well as Blackbird, Coot, Cormorant, Pochard, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Mallard and a Dunnock flying over the road, we were very pleased to watch a Great Egret on an island dwarfing the Grey Heron beside it.

!5:51.  The fog seemed to be lifting a little as we watched Wood Pigeon at Tabora, and by the time we reached Otero de Bodas it was clear and sunny.  We spotted an Iberian Green Woodpecker in a balmy 9'C at Ferreras de Arriba and the Jays were criss-crossing the interesting, oak-fringed road in the sunshine as we drove via Villardeciervos to settle in our welcome lodgings, greeting Antonio at San Pedro at 18:00.

La Piste is a very convenient, beautiful place to begin a week watching for wolves, and we relaxed here under a full moon, having clear views of Red Deer. The return journey rewarded us at Boya with a view of a Pine Martin in our headlights.

Tuesday 10th January.

-2'C.  8:02. And it's still dark!  One advantage of winter wolf watching is that there is certainly no early morning reveille!  But as the sunrise came up over the piste we enjoyed a beautiful morning, full of promise with easy views of nervous, twitchy Hinds, Stags sparring, 2 Ravens in their tumbling display and the ever-present (or so it seems) Iberian Green Woodpecker.

At 10:10 on our way back for breakfast we watched a male Blackcap being chased by a male Blackbird.  Walking around the village resulted in views of White Wagtail, Rock Bunting, Blue Tit and Robin.

The rest of the day was to be devoted to checking certain areas for clues to help us decide on wolf whereabouts...interspersed with coffee stops!...Fresh wolf, fox and dog tracks were evident at Flechas along with some very old wolf scat.  Eating a picnic lunch to accompanying buzzing of bees, the hermitage was as atmospheric as ever, but no recent wolf signs.  A Roe Buck crossed the forest track at Villardeciervos just ahead of us and there was an abundance of fresh, large wolf tracks, plus wolf scat of varying age. We heard a buzzard and saw Iberian Green Woodpecker, Jay and 2 Ravens circling.

17:17.  The evening wolfwatch at Villardeciervos gave us Dartford Warbler, many Red and Roe Deer and we then drove back detouring to have a nightwatch at Flechas in the frost, returning to a dinner of lentil and vegetable soup, chicken and tomatoes and clementines, plus red wine and water.

Wednesday 11th January.

-7'C. 8:07.  The frosty morning was punctuated with patchy fog and we saw Jackdaw, Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Hen Harrier, Crossbill, Southern Grey Shrike, 2 Stags and a Fox. Our village walk after breakfast produced Jay, Nuthatch, Blue Tit, Crested Tit and 2 Red Kites floating over the village.

Several Buzzards circling around Ferreras alerted us to possible carrion.  Two dogs were noisily harrying a Red Kite which was interested in the  remains of a  stag. The presence of fresh wolf scat and tracks made this a good possibility for future wolf watches.

On one of our coffee stops, this time at Villanueva, our friend Roberto proudly showed us a wolf's tail (la cola) taken from a road kill wolf in Sanabria that day.  We left suitably refreshed to watch a Stonechat and also to encounter the mastin dogs who protect the flocks from wolves.  The wolfwatch at Ferreras that night was very quiet, giving up only 2 Stags, 5 Hinds and some Jackdaws.

Dinner was a lovely homemade soup of beans with shellfish, followed by tortilla, then fruit.  Muchas gracias, Antonio!

Thursday 12th January.

 A clear, frosty 8 o'clock start soon garnered 4 Stags and 2 Roe Deer at the Villardeciervos site.  Several Ravens and Crows were making their presence obvious and 3 Crossbills flew across our sight. At 9:40, along the forest edge, John zoomed in on a shape which was interesting him.  Soon, he could see the white cheek patches of this stationary Wolf, which proceeded to turn its head, and then steadily walk along the forest track.  It then moved back into the wood to reappear out of the the shelter of the forest 10 metres further down the track.  it seemed to be watching a large Stag  which was grazing on the open land beyond the forest.  The Stag with its 12 pointer antlers would surely be a challenging adversary for the lone wolf!  When watching deer in the Culebra we have noticed the hinds always appear more wary and nervous and are always on the lookout.

Alerting two other watchers to its presence meant that the view was only a short one, and that  soon the wolf had disappeared from view.  However, it was seen again in the same area about forty minutes later.

As we had received reports of wolves being shot at both the Villardeciervos and the Ferreras sites this season, we were overjoyed to see actual wolf, to substantiate our track and scat evidence.  However the reluctance of the wolves to be as out in the open in these areas as they were on several sightings last year, can perhaps be attributed to this hunting tradition.  The season finishes on 15th February and it will be interesting to chart the interest in wolf shooting permits at the 2012 auction. (For durther details of last year's auction of wolf shooting permits, see my trip report on the website, in particular Saturday 12th March) We can also hope to  look forward to bolder wolf movement when the shooting season is over. John and I have spent many evenings discussing wolves with locals in village bars, and the younger generation are in general opposed to the trophy hunting of wolves,  Even the older village members, who proudly admit to shooting wolves as recently as 3 years ago and bring us photographs of their "prowess", also admit their awe of this magnificent predator, and concede that their generation shot with guns, but their grandchildren prefer to shoot with cameras.

After breakfast we enjoyed a slow drive along the Gallegos road...always a mecca for birders whatever the season  Here we easily listed Buzzard, Kestrel, Red Kite, Magpie, Lapwing, Spotless Starling, Chaffinch and Southern Grey Shrike, adding Mistle Thrush, Corn Bunting and male Stonechat at Villarinas de Cabal. En route we encountered a shepherd's dog, the Mastin, at close quarters...such a dog demands respect.  We were happy to give him that, and to leave plenty of space between us!

A large pile of wolf scat was prominent on the village green of the lovely village of Palazuela de las Cuevas where we enjoyed the afternoon sunshine watching several White Wagtails and  Chiff-chaff dipping into the river for insects.

By 16:47 we were at Villardeciervos for our evening wolfwatch in a pleasant 10'C.  Again, much Corvid activity and initially several Stags, but no repeat of the morning's wolf.  This pack is much more timid this month.

Friday 13th January.

8:11. -2'C.  passing a Fox mousing on the village green at Boya, we watched several red deer, 6 roe deer, Crested Tit, Coal Tit and Crossbill to the sounds of Iberian Green Woodpecker, Ravens and Southern Grey Shrike at Villardeciervos.

After breakfast we ventured for a beautiful sunny drive to Sanabria, saying that we might just come across a wolf along any road...and almost immediately come across 2 deer on our road...a wolf next time surely!

Crossing the embalse over the Rio Tera we were shocked at the lack of water for the season and understood the desires of the locals for rain...just not this week please!  Watching Jays at Asturianos, we realised it is the first time we have never seen snow atop the mountains... even in July it is present.

Enjoying a coffee in Puente de Sanabria in the sunshine, we dozed awhile, amidst an Iberian Green Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Blue Tit, Great Tit and a tribe of Long-tailed Tits.

The evening wolfwatch at Villardeciervos gave us Buzzard, Roe and Red Deer and Crested Tit.

Saturday 14th January.

The Red and Roe Deer viewed from our site at Villardeciervos were more wary this morning;  We met a French television crew who were filming in order to present a programme about Spanish wolves later this month on TVF1. They interviewed John and indeed later were so impressed with his video shots of wolves that he, and his videos, are to appear in the programme! So the disturbance possibly affected any views, but we did hear Iberian Green Woodpecker, Crossbill and Coal Tit. Also, as we were preparing to leave the site we heard a mournful howl coming from the depths of the forest.  We waited to hear if it was to be repeated, but sadly it was not.

On our way back to breakfast, we spotted clear, recent wolf tracks outside Boya and a lovely flock of Serins diving between the football posts  on the village green at Boya. Further investigation at Boya after breakfast gave us clear views of Red Kite and Rock Bunting, and we decided to try there for a more secluded wolfwatch that evening.  Our very enjoyable picnic lunch, partaken along one of the many forest tracks based on Roman roads, was monopolised by a singing Crossbill.

Just outside Ferreras, after stopping to watch a Southern Grey Shrike for some time, we spoke to a couple who were using donkeys to help plough their patch of land.  They were following a practice passed down for generations, but we felt that this would be the last generation to be tilling the soil that way.  They were very proud of their donkeys, and obviously cared for them.

16:41. As we settled for our evening wolfwatch at Boya forest, we were trying to be inconspicuous, which was difficult as we were being aurally accosted by a very cross Crossbill.  Eventually he bored of his one-way tirade and left us to enjoy close encounters with two Stags in beautiful, albeit fading, light.  The evening's night drive gave us Fox.

Sunday 15th January.

The forecasters, and raindancers, were right and we had had overnight rain bringing us misty conditions this morning.  The upshot was however...4'C at 8:05am!

The damp mist lifted fairly quickly over the Villardeciervos viewpoint, and we were on full alert after hearing repeated barking alarm calls from deer in the wood.  But apart from Raven, Jay and 3 magnificent Stags, it yielded little.

Yes, you have seen this hat before...but we DO have one each!!
A favourite circular walk of mine around San Pedro is through the oak woods at the back of the village and as we spent an hour of the morning walking this, we enjoyed sights of Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Coal Tit, Crested Tit, Dunnock, Short-toed Tree Creeper, Fieldfare and Firecrest plus spotting wolfscat.

Rain showers did not deter Kestrel, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Stonechat, Southern Grey Shrike and Wood Pigeon as we enjoyed our back door entrance to Portugal via Riomanzanas and Guadramil, both working villages...but working aka the nineteenth century.

A Red Kite being mobbed above Puebla de Sanabria, 3 Jays and a Raven at Ungilde, and 2 Iberian Green Woodpeckers at the embalse  completed the avian life that afternoon.

Not quite WILD Boar!
Slight snow at 16:30 for half and hour did not present any problem but it was an indication of the raw cold air felt during our evening watch at la piste. Upwards of 30 Deer were feeding and congregating, so there was plenty to watch generally, but 2 interesting highlights were the male Crossbill feeding a female who was expertly mimicking juvenile behaviour of wingflapping, atop an oak tree.  This mating/nesting activity was prolonged until our attention was grabbed by a family of Wild Boar, 2 adults and 2 juveniles, crossing the track and meandering through the short heather.  Ten minutes later, another, even larger, Wild Boar could be watched rooting around on the track.  Such views made us forget the often the Wild Boar are rushing for cover it was wonderful to watch them so closely and so relaxed.

Monday 16th January.

A very early flight time from Valladolid did not allow for a morning wolfwatch, but as ever in this area, you drive not knowing what you will encounter en route. However today it was fog and a blizzard, making travelling treacherous.  We arrived at the airport with only minutes to spare after allowing plenty of time for our journey, because all passengers were being told to embark early, in order to give the landcrew time to de-ice the wings!

So a tense start to our return journey but we arrived into Stansted in full sunshine - quite the reversal of roles! - and a pleasant, sunny drive home. Traditionally up here inNorthumberland we are never too complacent weather-wise and snow is already coating our Cheviot hills around us.  However, John and I immensely enjoyed our time in the Sierra de la Culebra, as ever, and are looking forward to sharing the hidden delights of the area with several of you throughout 2012.


Monday 16th January.

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