Saturday 28 September 2013

Wolf/Bear Tour 15th/25th August 2013

Watching for Wolves/ Browsing for Bears Tour 15th/25th August 2013.

Thursday 15th August.

14:30. It was a clear, sunny afternoon as James and Julie Dore enjoyed their descent into Oviedo (Asturias) airport, this surely being one of the most picturesque coastal airport approaches in Europe. If you ever venture on the short Eayjet Stansted/Oviedo flight, it's worth securing a window seat for this approach alone.  Having easily seen Pigeon at the arrivals door, we were discussing whether they would qualify as 1st bird of the trip, when we decided to confer that onto a Raven flying overhead.

The drive towards the A66 gave us 2 Black Kites soaring in the mountains, with Common Buzzard surveying from roadside wires.  More Black Kites were seen as we drew closer to Benavente, noticing that the nests on top of the most high spots, including pylons, were now devoid of White Stork. By the Rio Tera bridge,we noted Magpie and Cragmartin, and a light-phased Booted Eagle pleased us at the junction by the Rio Ciervos, along with Woodchat Shrike and Crow.Our first entrance to San Pedro gave us Blackbird and the cheery White Wagtail as we settled into our rooms before beginning our wolf-watching part of the tour.

Most of our attention was to be concentrated at La Pista over the next 5 nights and mornings and over this time we enjoyed several sights of Red and Roe Deer,  Julie, on this first evening, got onto a Red Deer Hind at 20:20 plus a Fox at 21:10, tracking it with binoculars until it came into full view on the track.  At 21 :30 however, we all enjoyed good views of a family party of Wild Boar, consisting of 3 adults and at least 7 young. The light started to diminish by 21:50 as the sounds of crickets and nightjars increased and Pipistrelle Bats winged around us as we packed up commenting on a pretty impressive first night. All not finished yet however! A large Beech Marten crossed the track with its characteristic lope/jump movement, thick tail outstretched, well within our headlamps. What a finale!

Friday 16th August.

At 07:05  we settled amidst the flitting Dartford Warblers at la Pista in good,clear light:  all was quiet with the exception of a Roe Deer bark at 08:10 and the ubiquitous mockery from an unseen but often heard Iberian Green Woodpecker.  Whilst watching the many fine Stags looking incredible in such morning light, John spotted a Wolf walking right to left across the adjacent hillside. After verification, we managed to get Julie onto this creature, large even at such a distance and walking directly across the low vegetation, before losing it in higher heather. The temperature began to rise and we focused on the cattle winding their way out from the village of Linarejos with 2 playful herding dogs in attendance, with obvious Crossbills sounding overhead, before we decided to go back for breakfast, having had Julie's first Wolf!

The sun must have been strong and in our eyes, as what we thought was a Tawny Pipit on the wires turned out to be a White Wagtail but also what we thought was a Collared Dove again on the wires turned out to be a Turtle Dove! There was no mistaking the cheery Black Redstart on the hotel roof as we returned to sample the local honey for breakfast.

Later that morning our walk around this peaceful village increased our avian count with Barn Swallow by the village ford, Pied Flycatcher flying from tree to tree as we could hear a Blackcap tacking and watch a Jay mobbing something unfortunate, plus Chaffinch,Blue Tit, Bee-eaters catching bees mid-air, 1male and 1 young Stonechat, House Sparrow, Sandmartin, Greenfinch, Black Redstart and a lovely male Linnet resplendent with his scarlet breast.  We enjoyed the green and black Dragonfly almost flying straight at us and marveled at the lichen, but I think a high spot of this morning's saunter was the chance to watch Fritillery, Scarce Swallowtail and Queen of Spain Butterflies on the lavender bushes.We also saw Beech Marten scat near the village.Typical of the welcome we receive in this part of Spain, we were invited into a villager's home to look at his photographs of the flora and fauna he has seen and recorded over the years in San Pedro.

A walk along the track at Villardeciervos revealed nothing of note, and we came in from the sun at 13:30 for a lunch of salad and melon, after which the sighting by Julie of a couple of Raptors a long way away developed into a group of about 30 Griffon Vultures, plus Black Kite. There were also several Spotless Starlings. Two Honey Buzzards, a male and a female, plus Black Kite, were circling above Cional as we explored the path at the back of Codesal. Two Linnets and Spotless Starlings were flying above this depleted pond as we could easily spot Iberian Water Frog and an interesting black and yellow Spider. Identification anyone please? There were no new tracks to be found along the hard, dry pathways and any wolfscat found was old. We did see a Stag at the wood edge and a family party of Linnets in the heather, plus Whitethroat and Greenfinch.

The road back out of Codesal had Carrion Crow and Common Buzzard over Villardeciervos, with Collared Dove on a rooftop.  There were 5 Griffon Vultures over the Hermitage hilltop. Black Redstarts,Barn Swallows and Bee-eaters were all in Ferreras de Arriba as the village prepared for fiesta time, with a light-phased Booted Eagle and several Spotless Starlings on the outskirts.

After a short rest, we were up at La Pista at 19:50 watching a Hind and her Fawn whilst a male Hen Harrier was hunting in the distance. At 21:30 two large Stags strode across the track.  As Nightjars whirred, we got our scopes onto Venus, only a tiny part of this magnificent sky for stars and night observations - although the space station kept eluding us, despite Julie's best efforts to track it down!

Saturday 17th August

 It was an atmospheric start to the day with low mist drifting around the valley when we arrived at 07:15, and this persisted throughout most of the watch.There were several opportunities to watch Red Deer, plus 2 Roe Deer, although shots regaling from a hunter complete with gun,dog and jeep in the paddocks on the hillside at 07:50 did make us question the probability of any sighting this morning.  We contented ourselves with watching Dartford Warbler,young Stonechat and Iberian Chiff-chaff, punctuated by Roe Deer barks through the still-prevailing mist when suddenly..."Wolf!".  At 08:45 it was spotted going left of the zig-zag track and reportedly was lying down beneath some trees,but no-one could make it out now. It was seen, then not, and all sights were sporadic.  This "Can you see him?""Where is he?" lasted until 09:50.  We agreed that this sighting was a bit like the epigram:-

"I danced with a man who danced with a girl, who danced with the Prince of Wales."

Did you see it?  No... but she did!

Packing up our scopes beneath two soaring Short-toed Eagles, we returned for breakfast and then, refreshed, set off for Portugal at 11:25.

Birds spotted en route to Aldeiea Nova included Common Buzzard and Common Kestrel. We noted the standing stones leaning like gravestones, around small pastures In one instance they were the only things unharmed after a recent fire had destroyed meadows and buildings on both sides of the road.  A similar scene was noted just outside Moveros. House Martins were feeding their second brood at Aldeiea Nova, and the church site - James' "Gorgeous Gorge" -quickly gave us Crag Martin,Alpine Swift, Red-rumped Swallow,House Martin and the Blue Rock Thrush was heard but not located.Crag Martins were also swooping around us in 102'F heat at the dam at Miranda do Douro as we leaned over to see shoals of large barbel in the warm shallows.  We saw multiple Woodchat Shrikes plus Bee-eaters, as we made our way to Fariza, where straightaway we could focus on 13 Griffon Vultures roosting on the crags....almost too hot for them.The Griffons were coming in low to us, enabling a coveted view from above of this winged master. By 17:00, both Egyptian Vulture parents returned to the rock-face where their chick was roosting.

As one parent went in to feed the young, we could watch the other eating and preening. The Griffon Vultures then proceeded to give us a wonderful aerial display aka Red Arrows style of wing-tip accuracy and sequence,and just after this at 17:20, the raucous call announced the arrival of 2 Red-billed Choughs flying around us at head height, clearly displaying their blood-red bills, and then returning to dive directly above us.Neck-craning stuff, but worth it.

Apart from a flock of Bee-eaters, the way back was quiet,with Common Buzzard and Iberian Grey Shrike being reported.

By 19:50 we were back at la Pista where it was still 86'F. The swishing of a tail to deter flies brought a Wolf to our attention-but this was its only movement.However, after watching this unusually static example for some minutes, we look away for a few seconds,then look back...and it's gone!

Sunday 18th August.

We were in for a frustrating morning's watch at La Pista today, as we left San Pedro noting a Pipistrelle Bat. At various moments during the watch, up to 5 Wolves were spotted,but only fleetingly.They were there, but we weren't all getting onto them.So our personal total of mammals for this watch was two lovely Roe Deer crossing the road in front of us.

After breakfast we enjoyed a foray by the forest at Boya, where very fresh wolf, deer,badger and wild boar tracks were seen in sandy parts of the otherwise hard track, plus examples of wild boars enjoying mud wallows. We flushed a Red Deer hind in the meadow by the firebreak, and also enjoyed seeing Clouded Yellow,Frittilleries,the interesting Grasshopper which flies blue, Psamadrommus Lizard and 2 Iberian Water Frogs.

Julie finds cheap souvenirs!

The Roman road gave us Dartford Warbler, Stonechat, Tawny Pipit and young Woodchat Shrike plus some very green Iberian Water Frogs, but no wolf scat. During an exploratory stroll at Ferreras where we looked at the now defunct hide,some wolf tracks and scat were noticed.

Lunch in Villanueva was certainly up to standard and we enjoyed it greatly.The entrepreneurial spirit of the owners was really put to the test as they tried to persuade us to buy acne soap?!?

The evening wolfwatch at Boya began at 19:15 in clear evening sunlight with good sightings of Crossbills and Iberian Green Woodpecker, a clear Sparrowhawk at 21:00 and a Red Deer crossing the track. We were to be "entertained" from 21:30 onwards by intermittent microphone testing obviously for a nearby fiesta...and we could certainly attest that the sound was clear enough from where we were sitting! The wildlife sounds to note were frogs and nightjars from 21:45 onwards,with our watch finishing with a vixen shriek at 22:15.

Monday 19th August.

By 07:25, we were watching 2 Red Deer at la Pista on a cooler morning.  The inquistive Dartford Warbler, so much a feature of this site,was getting closer and balancing on nearby blackberry branches,whilst our attention was also drawn to large flocks of House Martins and an abundance of Red Deer this morning.Julie got onto a Pied Flycatcher and James spotted a young rufous-tailed Rock Thrush.

On the road past Mahide we stopped to note a recently squashed Smooth Snake;  there was also a dark-phased Booted Eagle and a Red Kite doing some drastic preening during this moulting time. A White Wagtail was bobbing by the pond.

The village of Flechas was recovering from its recent fiesta and we enjoyed a walk around its well-irrigated and well-stocked allotments admiring the picturesque, old church, with Clouded Yellows, Fritilleries,Iberian Wall Lizard, young Stonechat and Red Kite to be watched too.

The Gallegos road gave us Woodchat Shrike, Iberian Water Frogs, blue Dragonflies, Common Buzzard, several Wheatear...or White arse as the name originally was...Iberian Grey Shrike, Crested Lark and a large flock of Carrion Crows.The village of Gallegos also provided good photo opportunities of Crested Lark,young Wheatear, White Wagtail and House Sparrows.

After a pleasant lunch of local ham and goat's cheese at the nearby campsite,we stopped at a viewpoint to watch Bee-eaters, House Martins, and a Dunnock.  Another flock of House Martins performed their aerial acrobatics as we stopped to look at the huge old Sweet Chestnut trees at the entrance to Riomanzanas. These ancient trees of massive girth and intriguing bark patterns provide excellent habitats and we  watched them amongst Linnets,Serins and ,House Sparrows. Whilst standing on the bridge in this fascinating village, we watched the drama of a pale-phased Booted Eagle being mobbed by crowds of  Barn Swallows and House Martins; they were successful in seeing off this threat.

On our journey back to our hotel we saw Black Kite at Mahide, Short-toed Eagle and Crested Lark at the garage at San Vitero. plus Stonechat and Common Buzzard near our base.

The evening wolfwatch at Ferreras was quiet but the sunset here was outstanding. Our main sighting was of a very large Wild Boar at 21:30, but apart from an earlier Black Kite hunting behind the wood, and lots of corvids following the cattle, that was it for tonight.

A night drive did not unearth anything other than Nightjars.

Tuesday 20th August.

Julie was surprised to have to unearth her boots out of a pile of polystyrene balls after this very windy night.  This I suspect will remain a mystery to us all.  We avoided a rising Nightjar as we drove along the track to la Pista for our morning wolfwatch. There was a definite chill in the air at this early hour of 07:15 as the Dartford Warbler darted its greeting around us. By 07:30 we had seen and heard Red and Roe Deer, with Stags starting to spar in play, up on their hind legs in mock fights which would become much more intense in future weeks.

We left at 10:45 for a day at Villafafila. stopping the car to talk to a shepherd en route, where we also saw Common Buzzard and Black and Red Kites.

At the serene Rio Esla bridge, we saw 2 plucky pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago in the August heat and Julie was delighted to show us a Honey Buzzard on a low lying branch with a Hoopoe pecking the ground below. As this ground changed from meadow to sandbank just below the Hoopoe, we noticed obvious Kingfisher nesting holes. Another interesting sight was a Hobby flying over the bridge, plus Willow Warbler,Sand Martin and about 40 Mallard were nearby.

Two Lesser Kestrels were a preview to many more of these gregarious birds and as we stopped to look at one of the dovecotes they now use for roosting,we could also watch 2 sub-adult Golden Eagles being mobbed by Barn Swallows. Even though the impressive Villafafila centre was closed until September,there was plenty to see as we walked towards a depleted laguna. Our interest was alerted by 2 Curlews flying right, Black Kite, Redshank,Little Ringed Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Coot,Mallard, Shelduck, Greylag Geese,Turtle Dove and the drama was provided by a Short-toed Eagle lifting Lapwings from their resting place in the heat of the day. Eyes upwards watched a Montague's Harrier glide effortlessly above our heads,while lower down on the ground we could watch industrious Ants carrying wheatstalks much longer than themselves and performing impressive pole-vaulting manoeuvres to aid their progress. However, we were targeting a much larger species than ants today,and acknowledging the difficulty of spotting these huge birds which tend to lie very low in the heat, we set off down a side track in search of a Great Bustard.

In a strong heat haze,we saw 2 Lesser Kestrels and 1 young Peregrine on the dry earth while the shadows of low-flying GriffonVultures darkened the car. Noting Booted Eagle,Black Kite,and Common Buzzard in the air, plus Iberian Grey Shrike on a field-side fence, we spent some time looking at Scarce Swallowtail and Small White butterflies around us. All this,plus Raven, Marsh Harrier, White Wagtail, Wheatear and House Sparrow,when Julie used her excellent spotting skills to locate 2 Great Bustards in a field by our car. As we drew closer,we were treated to a close view of them lifting their enormous bodies in flight!

At the observacion des aves, as well as three Mastin dogs, we watched Tree Sparrow, Rock Sparrow,a young Grey Wagtail at the pool,Crested Lark, Pied Flycatcher, Wheatear, Lesser Kestrel and Booted Eagle.

At Otero de Sariego, in 102'F in the shade, we explored the deserted buildings, which include a public bar left with glasses and toothpicks still out.  "Open for Business" but now strictly for the birds.

On our return journey, as well as Raven, Coot and Stonechat, James was"inspired"to coin the phrase"unbeleagueable raptors" as we finished our day trip watching dark-phased Booted Eagle and Short-toed Eagle above Tabara.

We had enjoyed a full day of excellent sights so we were quite happy to relax and enjoy the Red Deer from 21:00 at la Pista,then to return for another of Antonio's delicious dinners: tonight it was egg/tuna mayonnaise,steak and chips followed by a huge, sweet,juicy plum.

Wednesday 21st August.

The wolfwatch this morning at la Pista gave us the now almost customary fleeting views of Wolf amidst the high heather, but again it was difficult to get onto it in time. The light this morning was exceptional and Julie found the iridescence of the Spotless Starlings almost as it they were firebirds! So often we strain for the exceptional, the rarity, and in doing so can miss the beauty around us everyday and this morning's combination of dawn light and starling sheen reminded us all not to neglect the obvious.

After taking our leave of Antonio(s) and Soco, who once again had catered brilliantly for our every need, we set off for Somiedo...and the Cantabrian Brown Bear!
The view from our Somiedo Hotel.

Along the Boya/Cional road the continued exceptional light brought out the burnt orange breast and black head of a male Stonechat, plus also good examples of Wheatear and Serin.  We saw WhiteWagtail and Iberian Grey Shrike at the bridge by the confluence of the rivers Tera and Ciervos.

The best sighting as we travelled along the AP66 was of a Black Kite flying low above us with talons extended.  This was discussed over a lunch of local trout, followed by lemon mousse or rice pudding with cinnamon.

We were now at the entrance to the National Park, and it was a case of eyes right!...eyes left!  Within a very short distance we had watched a White Stork frogging in a field just before Heuvas with 2 Egyptian Vultures flying overhead.4 Griffon Vultures were flying by Meroy plus a Raven.

After settling into our hotel, we set off at 19:37 to Lammadahl. It had been a long day and this was the most accessible site.  Here we enjoyed our first sightings of Chamois, plus Red-billed Chough, Common Buzzard and Red Deer, after which we were happy to return to our hotel for dinner and bed.

Thursday 22nd August.

07:40 at La Peral.  The light was not at its best, but every day visibility was improving after the low clouds and mists of previous weeks in these mountains.However, by 08:00 we were watching our first Cantabrian Brown Bear of the tour;  a leggy, dark male, pulling down the branches of the Alpine Buckthorn on the bushes of the scree.This we watched for over an hour,interspersed with sightings  of Honey Buzzard and Short-toed Eagle. The Choughs could be heard calling and the walk back to our car gave us time to look at the pretty, star-shaped wild crocuses that were everywhere beneath our feet.

After a fine breakfast, we enjoyed a walk around the village, probably at its busiest, most bustling month.  The Bear Information Centre was helpful as ever and it made it even more interesting for James and Julie to watch the film as they had seen a bear doing much of the actions depicted on film that very morning.

The white-knuckle ride to La Perluna viewpoint is well worth it. To be almost surrounded by inquistiive Griffon Vultures provides lifelong memories and excellent photographic opportunities.  The close presence of a Common Buzzard went almost unrecognised in comparison. We also saw Swallowtail and Clouded Yellow Butterflies.

Lunch in Pola de Somiedo was a tasty omelette and chips at a table surrounded by photos of bears in less happy, less protected times. The very helpful waiter was proud to show his own photograph collection, which included the indigestible image of a snake eating a large trout.

This evening at La Peral we were watching the same dark Bear by 19:50,only to lose it.  But by 20:10 it was back in view and we could watch and share its pattern of walking from bush to bush almost stripping some branches, until the light faded at around 21:15.  There was also Red Deer, Red-billed Chough and a stationary cat hunting in a lower field which did raise our hopes for a wildcat sighting momentarily.

Dinner this evening included Fabada (a tasty local soup),calamari and lemon mousse.

What a good day! Two watches...and Bear in both!

Friday 23rd August.

Zoom's there!

At 07:00 with early morning mist clearing quickly to provide excellent light, we were setting up at La Peral.  By 07:50 we had located our regular dark bear as it moved across the scree into vegetation and we felt happy that we had been able to follow this individual's progress for several hours over the last few watches.It was therefore quite moving when we followed the determined path of "our" Bear up the steep slopes eventually reaching the summit. As it paused on the skyline, we almost expected a Disney-style wave from this creature who had unwittingly played so big a part in our time in Somiedo! After it had disappeared over the top and into further distant valleys, we then moved our attention to 8 Chamois gleaming in the morning sunlight, Serins and a Common Buzzard being mobbed by a Common Kestrel, before returning to our hotel for breakfast.

The village of Villar de Vildas is set amidst beautiful scenery, at one with rugged crags and gentle valleys,where we watched two workers cutting their broom for thatch in a way unchanged for decades.House Martins were gathering in their hundreds, like locusts, on every available wire,preparing for migration. We took time to watch the efforts of groups of these plucky little birds as they tried to tempt young out of the nests in readiness for flight. As well as Scarce Swallowtail, Fritilleries and a Large White, we also saw a Camberwell Beauty and Escher's Blue Butterflies on our stroll around the village. Honey Buzzard and Common Buzzard were also noted. We enjoyed looking at the branias and of course the characteristic houses on legs which are a feature here.  During a pleasant lunch of local ham, cheese and salad plus a tantalising ice-cream called Stolen Kiss which James could not resist,we were treated to some local chorizo after learning about, and seeing photographs of,the local women who make this tasty delicacy.

The scenic journey back to our hotel preceded a short rest, after which we were back at La Peral at 19:30 on a cloudier evening.It was looking to be a quieter watch until hand signals and mobile phone messages from the lower viewpoint indicated bear in the lower valley. We ran over there...each at their own pace!...and at 20:50 we were set up watching a large Bear eating then resting until it was lost in the vegetation with failing light at 21:20.  We also noted Common Kestrel, Honey Buzzard and Roe Deer on this watch.

Saturday 24th August.

Overnight rain clouds had not fully cleared by 07:00 and low cloud prevailed in the mountains A short stay at Llammardahl only provided Jay and Magpie through the mist,and when we arrived at a clearer Gua at 08:45 we learned that a Bear had been seen there,but had since gone over the tops. 

However, the mist cleared in good time for our walk to Val de Lago.  In the early stages of our walk we noticed Rock Bunting, Robin,Serin, Willow Warbler, Great Tit,Honey Buzzard, Common Buzzard and a Short-toed Eagle carrying an unfortunate frog. The gentle Alpine-looking pastures with their equally sanguine cattle were bordered by crags housing Griffon Vultures and a herd of Wild Goats. Our eventual arrival at this glacial lake gave Julie a good excuse to cool down her feet, and we all agreed it was worth the effort.

Lunch at 16:10 was one of local ham and blue-veined goat's cheese, after which we returned to our hotel for a rest getting close views of Crag Martin. Sparrowhawk, Chaffinch, Dunnock,young Pied Flycatcher and a very hairy caterpillar,probably a stage of the Garden Tiger Moth and therefore not advisable to touch!

By 19:10 we were out for a bear watch again,but the incoming mists made viewing difficult and cold.  We located 8 Chamois and 1 Nightjar as we returned for our evening meal, a highlight of which was the local beef stew and the local apple spirit served with melon.For us all,it had been a full and physically tiring day but despite this we had so much to talk about our stunning walk that day that we did not retire to bed until 23:50.

Sunday 25th August.

We set off on a clear but cool morning, 45'F, and were focusing on 7 Chamois and a couple of Carrion Crows,when we heard that a Bear was supposed to be somewhere in the right-handvalley. Then, at 07:50, James spotted it and he was able to ensure the others watching verified this bear with unusually light markings on its shoulders and neck which will forever be referred to in our company as the Dore Iberian Panda! We watched for an hour, but by 09:15 we had to leave this Bear still chewing on the freshly ripened Alpine Buckthorn, impervious to the attention it had created. Just avoiding a low-flying Buzzard on the road back,our eyes were fixed on the slopes looking for the bear; knowing it was still there.

After breakfast, it was a scenic journey to Oviedo (Asturias) airport to ensure arrival  in good time for James and Julie's flight back to Stansted flying out of this quiet airport which offers superb aerial views of this stunning coastline. Both areas of Spain are relatively unknown to most British travellers, although I am sure members of Cambridge Rugby Club will have heard quite a bit about Culebra and Somiedo by now!

Margaret Hallowell.

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