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!
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 track...it'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.
|"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?!|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Do you want to come and see this?"
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.
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.
"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.