Sunday, 5 May 2013

Trip Report Sierra de la Culebra March 2013

Trip report  Sierra de la Culebra 23/28th March 2013.

subtitled: "It'll burn off!"    

Saturday 23rd March.

The possible sighting of a Beech Marten crossing the road as John and I made our way to Villardeciervos augured well and we met Gerry and Paul at midday during a gap in the rainy weather which had plagued this area for the previous ten weeks. After years of low water levels in the reservoirs and rivers, somebody's prayers must have been answered, but it was not the wish of wildlife-watchers to be looking for wolves in the height of the longest period of torrential rain for many years. The wolves had been seen however, and upon our arrival at our hotel, to the greeting of a Green Woodpecker flying above us, we were pleased to be able to show Gerry and Paul photographs of a wolf taken the previous day at 10:00 and 14:00 at la pista. Thanks to friend and fellow wolf-watcher Roberto for showing us these photos transferred to his phone and let's hope Roberto gets his chance in July to take his own photographs. The wolf in the photographs was well fed and sported the same dark pelage that we had seen on one particular wolf on several occasions last year.

After settling in, we grasped a respite between showers to walk beneath the blue sky and savour the relaxing,gentle nature of our village which was to be our base for the tour. Blackbirds and Robins were both in full throat,vying for territorial rights with their strident songs,with the occasional interjection from a  Barn Swallow. Walking around the allotment area produced sightings of male Stonechat, Serin,Chaffinch, Robin, Black Redstart, Jay, Rock Bunting, Great Tit and Blackbird whilst we heard Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker amongst the Pyrenean Mountain Oak glades. Further along, after noting fox scat and deer tracks,we watched a Dunnock and some Pine Processionary cocoons in the trees.

An interesting interlude was provided when Javier Talegon invited Gerry and Paul to look at his collection of old, hand-crafted Mastin collars, worn by the huge dogs trained from puppy-hood to protect the flocks from wolf attack, We also appreciated a chance to handle skulls of wolves of varying ages and the wolf pelt helped Gerry and Paul visualise the size and markings of an Iberian Wolf.

We set off to look for tracks in surprisingly pleasant weather as a Common Kestrel hovered above us. The heavy rain of recent weeks made tracking quite tricky, but Gerry and Paul did very well, finding a large wolf-scat at a junction site, textbook stuff!, and indeed Gerry spotted the first wolf track of the tour.A delightful Roe buck was just ahead of us along the track and we stopped to enjoy this sight before noticing clear wild boar tracks and scat further along. A particularly good wild boar track was located by Paul in the deep mud which showed the spurs very clearly.

Returning via the church at Villardeciervos we watched the White Storks on the multiple nests at the church, where Paul spotted a Black Kite to our right.

The evening wolf-watch was thankfully clear of rain and we enjoyed watching plenty of Red Deer Stags in the heather and a Dartford Warbler at our feet. On our way to la pista we had noticed White Wagtail in our village, and a Mistle Thrush at the junction. The light started to fade at 19:50 when we packed up to return to a good dinner of cauliflower soup, tortilla with sausages and flan. The evening was enjoyable,as we walked around the village after dinner watching clouds scud across the large moon anticipating its fullness promised for later in the week. We returned to enjoy looking at Roberto's  photographs of Lammergeier and Griffon vultures taken during a successful Pyrenees visit before retiring to bed after an eventful first day.

Sunday 24th March.  07:00. 4'C.

Raining. Thick, low-lying mist at la pista meant that we diverted to Villardeciervos, where it was brighter and certainly by 08:00 there were patches of clear sky. During that first misty hour, we could hear the mocking call of the Green Woodpecker, along with the mewing of a Common Buzzard and the rasping vocals of a Dartford Warbler. The nearby drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker caught our attention until we all started to watch an elegant male Hen Harrier swerve and land close by. By 08:30 we were listening to the barks of Roe Deer to the left of us as 3 Stags and 3 Roe deer, one buck and two hinds, were all grazing on the field straight ahead.Two Crossbills flew over, and we were soon able to spot Hoopoe and

After breakfast, we set out admiring Chaffinches in full pre-breeding finery, plus a soaring Black Kite as we entered a corralle where until fairly recently, wolves, tempted by the  sheep, would enter only to discover they were trapped by the construction of the shelter and have no alternative but to await execution when discovered in the morning.  Here we spent some time watching and listening to the splendid sound of displaying Woodlark, plus Stonechat, Jay, Common \Buzzard and two Red-legged Partridge  in front of our vehicle.  Paul pointed out a Raven as we re-entered the road for our forest track and we noticed a Jay with an acorn plus Mistle Thrush and Stonechat as we drove off.

. Gerry spotted a good wild boar track at Ferreras de Arriba and we were heartened by the plentiful wolf tracks and scat there too.  In increasing sunshine clear badger tracks were also found. We enjoyed an excellent lunch at Roberto's surrounded by pictures and videos of our target species, after good sightings of Stonechat, Common Kestrel and Black Kite en route. As we left the friendly bar, a White Stork glided above our heads.

Our first sighting of the "Butcher Bird", namely the Iberian Grey Shrike, was at Saracen,together with male and female Serins and a flock of Chaffinches. The weather was improving significantly, and it was with high hopes that we set up our scopes at 18:15 at la pista in 10'C under a blue sky interrupted only slightly by patchy white clouds. The early evening light was lovely and we really enjoyed seeing the several Red and Roe Deer that also seemed to be appreciating this clear spell. At 19:35 Paul spotted one, and then two,large Wild Boar and we were all able to watch this boar and sow graze for a long time in the light grasses. The craters of the moon, nearly full and clear in this area of virtually nil light pollution, was mesmerising for us all and it added to the atmosphere of this very special place for wolf-watchers.

Dinner this evening was Antonio's paella, always a treat, followed by yoghurt. and all enjoyed with a bottle of  local tempranillo.

Monday 25th March.

Pouring down!Just how much rain can fall in this area?!! 5'C. It was not looking too promising,so we decided to try Ferreras for our morning's wolf-watch and at the junction near our watch,Gerry saw 9 Red Deer silhouetted against the bank-top. A perfect photo opportunity! As we set up our equipment,we could hear a Songthrush singing whilst 4 Red Deer were walking slowly across the ploughed clearing to our right. A Carrion Crow was sitting disconsolately on the wire above us,as mist made visibility poor.  Scopes were getting wet and various positions were tried until the only option was sitting in our vehicle near the road. Suddenly we were treated to the magnificent close sight of 16 Red Deer running across this very road not many metres in front of us! A great sight of speed and strength just ahead of us! As we finished our watch at 20:25, we decided to walk alongside the wood,where we found clear recent evidence of badger and wolf, plus some old scat. We heard Crossbill and Skylark, whilst watching Mistle Thrush, Crossbill and Dartford Warbler and once again, we were treated to several views of deer herds en route back to breakfast.

Discussion over coffee was concerning the weather,and the forecast. It was not expected to improve and so we decided to go to Portugal today,as there was no future hope of a clearer day during this "dreak"episode in Culebra's weather. Residents had been asking for rain during the previous dry years,so we could only presume that their prayers for precipitation were stronger than ours for a drying-off!

We set off for Portugal at 11:05 in the pouring rain,with our sightings along the normally fruitful Alcanices road being limited to Common Buzzard and Stonechat. The rain was getting heavier as we noticed former trickles were being transformed into positive rivers...the whole area seemed more like the Everglades than Espana. Our first bird in Portugal was a brave Mistle Thrush,followed by a Hoopoe on a nearby gate.Two large Mastin dogs came forward to check us out,whilst their shepherd master sheltered under an umbrella.

Aldeia Nova was a trifle damp and blustery,but we watched Crag Martin, Alpine Swift, Red-billed Chough, Mallard and Wren whilst hearing the presence of Blue Rock Thrush. This was ideal conditions for these Red-billed Choughs who thrive on performing aerobatics in such turbulence. Suddenly 6 Griffon Vultures swept form a nearby cliff-top to come very low above us, checking Paul out in particular. Such clear, close views of these huge birds was breathtaking and we felt very happy as we returned to our vehicle to go for lunch at Miranda de Douro where we watched between 12/20 Griffon Vultures  from our window-side table as a little Portuguese girl,obviously the waitress's daughter, studied us with similar intensity.

After an excellent lunch, we set off for Fariza, noting a shepherdess with her dogs, in pastureland busy with Barn Swallow,White Wagtail, House Martin and Crested Lark while White Stork swooped overhead. Gerry and Paul were becoming increasingly adept at spotting and identifying the local birds and they were pleased to have a 'John App' to aid avian identification. No mistaking the splendid sight of Golden Eagle at Fariza however, and to see this huge master of the air from above as he soared so close below us was special indeed. Along with Red-rumped Swallow, Crag Martin and Barn Swallow,this eagle-sighting, watched whilst fighting a forceful, almost horizontal deluge, made it all worthwhile, and we counted ourselves very lucky to have had these views of  raptors in such awful conditions. Our journey back to our base was punctuated by a clear sight of Black Kite on the road and White Stork frogging just before Mahide.

Don't walk too far into the woods with THAT coat on Gerry!

Gerry and Paul never allowed the dreadful rain and poor visibility to dampen their enthusiasm and good humour and so it was in good spirits that we again braved rain and thick mist for our evening wolf-watch. So bad were this evening's conditions, we decided at 18:20 to drive along a forest track where there was good, low heather all round us to remain in our vehicle with doors pulled back... and the evening proved remarkably fruitful.  With each of us taking a different side, we had 360' vision and with the rain driving across the heather in sheets, we settled to watch at first a Stonechat and a brave little Skylark singing despite the cold and rain.

At 19:30 Gerry was fixing her view on a huge Stag on the track behind us who seemed unconcerned about the presence of our vehicle with the back doors open wide.She also pointed out two young stags on the other side clearly visible in the low heather. As we watched these, a huge Wild Boar strolled across the track only 150 metres in front of us! He was massive and again,totally unphased by our vehicle's parked presence.The wildlife of this area is used to forestry vehicles and local cars collecting mushrooms and firewood, so we were nothing out of the ordinary to them and hence our quite extra-ordinary views on this murky evening. The Stag was getting really quite close to Gerry and Paul at the back of the vehicle and they could see the velvet of the antlers and every fold of his magnificent coat, dotted with moisture droplets. We dared not stir, in case we disturbed this memorable sighting for Gerry and Paul, and they will never forget this close encounter.

By 19:55, after we had heard and seen the Iberian Water Frogs croaking and mating in ponds pelted with the incessant strong rain, we returned with plenty to discuss over scrambled egg, pork with tomatoes and rice pudding with cinnamon.

Tuesday 26th March.

07:11...8'C...still raining!!! Parking up along the Boya/Cional road we spotted 5 Red Deer by a lone pine which had Carrion Crow noisily atop its branches. Two Mallards flew over us and we pondered on whether it was too wet for them to land!  The excessive dampness was proving a problem with some of the equipment but we did not need any scopes to see the very fresh wolf scat,encased in deer hair, just behind our vehicle.  Further exploring along the track gave us an Iberian Green Woodpecker. A Common Kestrel and a Meadow Pipit were sitting in the nearby bushes waiting for drier times, when John called out to us to come and see an Iberian Hare running around in nearby pastureland next to some beehives. We also got out to watch an Iberian Grey Shrike on the gorse bushes. Two lovely examples of a male and female Stonechat were showing themselves along with Spotless Starling and Blackbird coming out in the gradually improving weather. 8 Red Deer were running over the ridge by the beehives,along with a Roe Deer and a rare glimpse of the sun, before it disappeared coyly behind clouds again. On the Rio Valdalla at Cional we were pleased to see a Great Crested Grebe, amongst the  Mallards and with a Common Buzzard trying to dry off in the air above us. Barn Swallows were also beginning to come out on the wires in the clearer conditions here. A short stop at Villardeciervos, gained us good views of a large number of Crossbill and as we scanned the viewing site, we picked out a Roe Deer and a male Hen Harrier quartering over the heather.

After breakfast, we set off at 11:00 for Riomanzanas and Flechas. Conditions at the viewpoint at Flechas proved too misty, but we enjoyed greeting the locals in the village, and the main topic of conversation was, of course, the weather!  En route to the village, we saw Stonechat, Red-legged Partridge,Magpie, Woodlark, Linnet and Rabbit, plus some very fresh wolf scat at the quarry entrance.

At Riomanzanas, we were treated to Cirl Bunting,Chaffinch, Linnet, Greenfinch,and Barn Swallow as we talked with local residents,Francisco and Margarita, and we had a Grey Wagtail at the riverside.
Our return was via the Gallegos road pond,where Paul spotted male and female Lapwings and Common Kestrel. Gerry spent some time communicating with the plentiful Iberian Water Frogs,whilst a  nearby White Stork was interested in the frogs for a totally different purpose. We had close views of Hen Harrier hunting on the road and by the verges, with a Skylark hovering above several Spotless Starlings settled on a wall. Siskins were plentiful amongst the daisies. Noticing Common Buzzard, Black Kite, Common Kestrel and Stonechat along the way,we set off for lunch at Bar el Lobo. Our lunch of pinchos morunos, sardines, Iberico ham and patatas bravas was supplemented by a traditional poultry delicacy of the area- a gift from the chef's kitchen! We were also treated to a complimentary local liqueur which was so tasty as to encourage purchase of the same at the local shop.

On our way to the Villardeciervos shop for those essential supplies we were delighted to watch White Stork,Common Buzzard,Magpie and Goldfinch and as we looked out over the water, Paul noticed Great Crested Grebe and Black-headed Gull,plus Hen Harrier. There was evidence of otter here with crayfish remnants. Passing a shepherd with his two Mastins and other herding dogs,we spent some time in the shop deciding upon the local tipples,before returning to our base to rest a little and prepare for this evening's wolf watch.

18:00 at la pista with some visibility despite the threatening, low cloud. A Wren was seen,and heard, to be singing throughout the evening but as the rain increased it became obvious that this ebullient little bird was to be our only sighting tonight.

Wednesday 27th March.

07:00...No rain!! No rain did not equal "no mist" but with the mantra of this tour being "It'll burn off" our bunch of eternal optimists set up scopes at la pista thankful for dry conditions at least,trying to ignore the mocking call of the Iberian Green Woodpecker.

Dave and Dominique, with their bionic dog Cassie, had been watching since first light but to no avail and it soon became obvious that visibility was not going to improve here this morning. So by 08:00 we were at the Villardeciervos site,where we remained for forty minutes watching Hen Harrier, Raven, Blackbird, Mallard and one Stag to the tuneful sound of a Woodlark. On our return journey towards breakfast, a Jay flew above us at Boya as we looked at fresh fox scat on top of older wolf scat,containing several large bone fragments. As we entered our village,we had Common Buzzard landing on a tree nearby,with Cirl Bunting by the church and two Black Redstarts and one House Sparrow on the roof of the hotel

A brightening sky,plus a stunning Bullfinch just as we exited the village,all made us hopeful of a good day at the wonderful reserve of Villafafila. We paused to listen to the fruity,inventive tones of a Woodlark singing on the wires by some corralles, after spotting a Little Grebe on the pond near Ferreras. Jays, Common Buzzards,Black Kites and Red Kites were out in greater numbers than at any other time this week and we saw several Red Kites by the Rio Esla, plus White Wagtail, Cormorant,  Crag Martin, Siskin and Raven. We enjoyed good close views of Griffon Vulture, both in the air and also watching an individual on his vantage point on a rock just above the bridge. We all also managed to watch the American Mink for several minutes.This species is becoming more evident at this site, to the detriment of the native otter.

As we entered the reserve of Villafafila, which was certainly full of water now as opposed previous years, we spotted six Lesser Kestrels on the wire,plus Corn Bunting,Mallard,Crested Lark,Spotless Starling and White Stork. At the lagoon,we could easily see Lapwing,Shelduck, White Stork,Shoveller Duck,Coot,Greylag Goose,Black-winged Stilt,Crested Lark,Marsh Harrier and six Great Bustards. The Great Bustards were in the distance,but we were treated to much closer views at the observation post,where we could watch the fabulous lekking display of the attention-seeking males.Here we also watched Corn Bunting, Subalpine Warbler, Black Kite, Peregrine Falcon,Goldfinch,Avocet,Teal and Red Kite.

The nesting Storks were clacking their beaks in greeting and a charm of about 80 Goldfinches displayed their undulating flight as we left the observation post disturbing a White Wagtail and two scuttling Red-legged Partridges along the lane. Several Great Bustards also took off in flight which was quite a sight as they dwarfed the accompanying Red Kites.
Two wings or four?

After lunch in a lively local bar, El Palomar, the good weather we had certainly appreciated proved to be short-lived and rain seemed to be settling in again.

At 18:20 the light seemed promising at la pista, as we were quickly able to spot several Red Deer,but within ten minutes,the rain was torrential again.We watched several Red Deer from the shelter of our vehicle and listened to the Frogs croaking,but the light had gone by 20:05,and so had we. Our night drive gave us exciting,close views of deer and some unusual green-reflecting eyes,low to the ground. As we approached the village church,silently with torch-beam moving,John started suddenly as we encountered a very large Stag very close and very surprised! After that second of static surprise,it turned and thundered into the darkness and we returned to our hotel,to enjoy Antonio's very special soup from Murcia,his home region. Gypsy Soup consists of a tasty vegetable broth with a poached pear for each person included!

Thursday 28th March.

8'C...Rain.La pista was totally mist-encircled,so we decided to go to Ferreras instead where it was a little clearer. We spotted a Grey Heron by the roadside, which substantiated Gerry's possible sighting at the same place yesterday. A Little Grebe was on the pond and the sun was coming out as we set up at Ferreras and we could already see several Stags. As the light continued to improve,we decided to finish off the morning's watch at the beautiful, peaceful site of la pista,and we ended our watch there to the sounds of the Cuckoo hopefully signifying better weather...all just a little too late for Gerry and Paul.

A very pleasant walk up to the Hermitage after breakfast was punctuated by watching Common Buzzard, two Wrens and Robin with much evidence of Wild Boar rooting under the Pyrenean oaks. It was lovely to be able to stop and look at views which have been non-existent this week of dreadful weather, and to do this without waterproofs too! A very pleasant lunch at Villardeciervos preceded our drive back to the hotel,where the talk in the car was not of wolves surprisingly,but of Bats! Imagine our surprise, when right on cue, and in full daylight,we almost had to swerve to avoid three Soprano Pipistrelle Bats on the road past Boya! In the afternoon sunlight,their features were quite clear to see, and we felt surprised but happy to have seen these lovely little creatures so closely.

It was time to take our leave of Gerry and Paul, who were continuing their tour by experiencing Easter weekend in Salamanca, and our good-byes were more au-revoirs as they are determined to return to see wolf and in better weather this time!Having experienced the longest spell of torrential rain in Sierra de la Culebra for 60 years,they surely deserve excellent weather when next they return!

Throughout the whole tour,however, they never allowed the weather to dampen their spirits and we all had great fun. As I write this review, I am happy to note that every day we saw new species and I think it is marvellous that we saw as much as we did taking the conditions into account!

"We still talk about how wonderfully relaxing the whole experience was - in spite of the bad weather! It really was a great experience, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  We're still plotting a trip in July, would be lovely to see the area in summer"  Gerry.

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