|Tonia & John at the Douro Gorge|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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.
|Photo: M. Hinks. "They all are made from the same mould!"|
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.
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.
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.
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