Watching for Wolves 15th/22nd January.
It was a clear afternoon as Ethna met John at Madrid airport to set off on her Watching for Wolves tour. She could enjoy close views of Red Kite on several occasions on the journey to the Sierra de la Culebra. The distant mountains were silhouetted against a fiery sunset sky before the light faded and Ethna settled into her hotel room.
Sightings of Red Kite were numerous during this tour, but we still admired each individual as their impressive aerial displays gave us several opportunities to see the striking markings of this bird. The first such view, even more striking with binoculars, was on the initial wolf watch on the morning of Thursday 16th January, where Red Kite and Common Buzzard could be observed hunting. Dartford Warbler, Wren and Crossbill could be heard as we watched many Red and several Roe Deer. These sights of Red and Roe Deer and Red Kite were repeated on the next morning's wolf watch, where heavy overnight rain and mist cleared in time for our scopes to be put to good use, watching stags and hinds a plenty. By Saturday morning, 17th January, the number of Red Deer sightings had depleted to a lone stag, but what a proud specimen! Bird-wise, we were lucky to see Grey Heron, Hen Harrier, Kestrel, Crossbill and the now almost inevitable Red Kite during our wolf watches.
An evening walk as dusk changed to darkness started in driving snow, but it soon cleared and we were excited at how close we were to several large Red Deer. We also caught Roe Deer in our torch as we wended our way back to the hotel, but even this was not the main event of the walk. As John stopped to skim the surrounding bushes with the torch, he highlighted some eye-shine which demanded closer attention. Focusing on a nearby copse, we were excited to make out first one, then two, sets of eyes which with binoculars could clearly be seen to belong to two Wolves; one in particular was standing stock still and staring back at us. The tension between us and the figures behind the eyes could almost have been touched and it was an excited trio who settled down to Antonio's superb meal that evening.
Another evening walk was enjoyed the next night as we followed fresh wolf tracks and scat seen on our daytime forays,with large numbers of roosting Crows adding to the atmosphere in the increasing darkness. But, fun as it was, it could not match up with Saturday's wild, dark,wolf encounter.
The thrilling sight of our target predator was topped the next morning however. John first spotted 2 Wolves, and having pointed out their position, both John and Ethna were treated to one and three-quarter hours watching 6 Wolves greeting, play-fighting, sitting and standing on rocky outcrops, and moving about the valley in the crisp,clear morning light with Raven overhead showing interest. The wolves had obviously fed well that night as they showed very little interest in the many red deer in the valley; indeed the pack were all looking in tip-top condition as individuals took on dominant and submissive role-play; one rolling over on its back with a sibling standing over in dominant posture,...what an experience! A light coating of snow helped to highlight the animals in the vastness of this terrain and as the morning sun rose in the sky, the 6 Wolves loped higher up the hillside to be lost to view as they lay down to sleep up for the rest of the day.
So, 2 Wolves in the black night on Saturday followed by 6 Wolves on the Sunday morning sunshine! This was proving to be an exceptional week for Ethna but it was not over yet. Even Sunday's experience was topped by an astounding encounter on Tuesday,which I suspect will feature amongst Ethna's most memorable few minutes of her already pretty eventful life. Whilst tracking by a wood, finding old bones and new tracks and scat, all three of us enjoyed close views of a Red Deer stag and several hinds as they left the wood and crossed the track in front of us. As John and I watched the progress of these deer, Ethna had her back to us, standing stock still by the wood-edge, binoculars to her eyes.
"It's a Wolf!"
Wolf about 75 metres into the wood and during those minutes of eye contact,she experienced a gamut of emotions aroused by the direct stare. Human and lupine eyes were linked as each became part of the other's psyche...such is the power of this moment which only the few who have experienced it can truly understand. The Wolf then,maintaining eye contact, moved into the surrounding trees and was lost to view, but had created an image which will be seared in Ethna's memory for the rest of her life. All this at 12:20 in the middle of the last full day of Ethna's Watching for Wolves tour, and a truly great climax.Our theory is that the wolf had been trailing the red deer which had come out of the wood in front of us and then had hung back in the wood aware of our presence.
Now to more mundane, but very enjoyable, times during this tour:-
The wet weather meant that the copious wolf, deer and wild boar tracks found on our walks were fresh and along with scat finds, were testimony to the wide-ranging activity of wolves and other wildlife in the Sierra de la Culebra. We noted Chaffinch, White Stork, Iberian Grey Shrike, Mistle Thrush, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Black Redstart, Robin, Tree Sparrow and Rock Bunting whilst walking around our village base where the trees, denuded of foliage but adorned with fabulous lichen, made us feel we were walking onto a set for a Grimm's fairy tale.
The road to Flechas garnered good views of Spotless Starling, Common Buzzard, Iberian Grey Shrike, Meadow Pipit, Chaffinch,Great Tit, Red-legged Partridge and of course, Red Kite giving a wonderful demonstration in the clouds. We saw the large Mastin dogs with their sheep and goats, and we enjoyed our walk in the sunshine,spotting Grey Wagtail and Iberian Chiff-chaff, whilst the villagers were more intent on visiting a travelling draper's shop. A Jay flew over as we entered Riomanzanas, where Margerita was ready as ever with her lively chatter,happy to show us her traditional way of rural, subsistence living. On the way to Puebla de Sanabria we had good numbers of Red Kites and Common Buzzards against a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
Our day trip to the Douro gorge meant that we escaped a day of almost total rain in Culebra, with us only experiencing a shower during our lunch at Miranda do Douro. At Moveros, Ethna and I set off in hot pursuit of a cart drawn by two oxen.
mode of transport still used here today, from our visit to the centre at Villafafila.
A Common Buzzard was looking down from
the wires at the Fariza junction and as we walked along to the viewpoint, we marveled at the number of Griffon Vultures soaring so close around us. Soon we discovered a possible reason for their close interest as we came upon a sheep with a lamb only minutes old. She was trying to lick it clean and the temptation of blood and afterbirth was proving irresistible to the Griffon Vultures who by now were in excess of 150.
Our trip to Villafafila began with a Dartford Warbler singing at our hotel and a Squirrel by the roadside at Ferreras de Arriba, where Ethna much admired the artistic metal work depicting the traditions of this area.
Antonio is to be complimented for his excellent,traditional cuisine this week as ever; highlights include merluza in Bechamel sauce, tasty soups of cauliflower and also carrot and leek, arroz a la Zamorana and mousse a limon. Thank you Antonio!
The journey back to Madrid is rarely uneventful and 22nd January was no exception. It seemed fitting that Red Kites were plentiful for this journey as Ethna had so appreciated their beauty,but the real surprise was the flight over the A6 of 2 Great Bustards, giving John and Ethna even more close views of these tremendous birds. And right up to the very end there were new discoveries....drawing close to Madrid John and Ethna had another new bird for the tour when a Hoopoe flew past the car as they pulled in for a lunch break.
And so ended an eventful and totally memorable Watching for Wolves tour. We hope the luck of the Irish which certainly smiled on Ethna during this tour, continues to work in her favour for all her exciting future plans.