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 moon...it 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 tour...it 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


"Margaret/John. 


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


 Nick. July 2012.

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