It was 24'C on a sunny morning as John and I greeted Nick, Sarah, Hannah and Verity from their plane which had landed smoothly at Valladolid airport. Each day was getting warmer and we were soon on our way having spotted a Booted Eagle as our first bird of the tour. This was very promising, as was the good news John could give everyone that he had seen wolf at Villardeciervos the night before, so it was with high spirits that we all started spotting different birds,; a lovely Cock Linnet with roseate breast, singing on the wire, and a little further along an impressive Black Kite, being mobbed by Crows. Collared Dove was noted and we all saw a Northern Wheatear, the first of several on this tour. Each Wheatear we have seen this week was just so beautiful to watch either close by with naked eye or in our scopes. Nick was interested to see a colony of Lesser Kestrels exhibiting their gregarious flight and a Common Buzzard flew closely over us as we travelled on the road to our lunch stop. Just before this break, we just had to stop to watch the sheer ease and athleticism of a Montague's Harrier hunting alongside our car and the proximity and beauty of this streamlined master of the air gave us all a thrill. Sarah was particularly taken with the aura of this bird, and I do believe that despite all we later saw, this bird in flight would be one of her abiding memories of our tour...and all in the first half-hour!
The Great Bustards had been very much in evidence the previous week, and so it was with a confident air that we drove the tracks around the Villafafila reserve to locate these huge birds. But where were they? We saw Magpie, Short-toed Eagle (in itself a treat), and plenty of Grasshoppers serving the purpose of Bustard bait, but the massive birds were not going to be easily spotted that day it seemed. About 40 White Storks in a distant field proved a memorable spectacle through the telescopes and 2 Skylarks seemed very confident on a path nearby. Pulses started to race when we focussed upon a group of around 15 Griffon Vultures soaring overhead in the distance. Our decision to travel along a particular dusty track to get a better view of the Stork group proved well worth it when we focussed upon about 18 White Storks and our first Great Bustard...a female...and then more and more came into view! We saw 10 Great Bustards, male and female, in the cornfields, with some males still doggedly performing their lekking display...what optimists they must be! as the attitude of the females did not give any great encouragement. All this action as a male Montague's Harrier hunted up and down along the skyline and a Booted Eagle flew right over us. At the Observacion des Aves, we had a clear view of Rock Sparrow, and there was also Coot with young, Green Sandpiper and Cornbunting. By now we were almost getting blase' about the number of Great Bustards flying and walking well within view .John went to investigate what turned out to be a dead raven in the stubblefield,an action which flushed out several Great Bustards and we were able to enjoy these huge flying creatures at very close quarters!
Water levels have been extremely low all this year in this area of Spain, and normal lagoons bursting with waterbirds are mere dust-troughs at the moment, but happily there are some parts of the reserve at Villafafila where water is still to be enjoyed and we were delighted to find several water species there. As Black-headed Gulls mobbed a Booted Eagle above us and a Marsh Harrier skimmed the ground alongside our path, we watched Greylag Geese, Coot, Gadwall, Blackwinged Stilt, young Shelduck, Avocets with chicks, Little Ringed Plover, 2 young Grey Heron, Barn Swallow and White Wagtail. We encountered the Oil Beetles so numerous in these parts, along with large Ladybirds.
Hannah's first encounter with a snake in Culebra was pretty impressive; two Montague's Harriers flying above the road to La Tabla, one of them carrying the said snake in its talons
Moving into holm oak country over the bridge at Rio Esla, we stopped to take in the relaxing feel of this special site, remarking on the large Carp in the water, with Crag Martin and Coot well in evidence, and a Buzzard flying over the river.
Our first Black Redstart was spotted at Faramontanas de Tabara and near Otero we watched Common Kestrel and Stonechat. We made a mental note of a Griffon Vulture coasting the air over Ferreras de Arriba, as this is indeed wolfcountry now, and were delighted with our first Bee-eater view of the trip, plus the same for Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Wednesday 4th July.
The full moon was still very much in the sky as we met for our 06:45 start. The smell of herbs and mown grass contributed to the fresh feel of this time of the day, with Swifts already keeling through the village streets and a Black Redstart greeting us atop a nearby tiled roof. It was an outstanding sunrise as we aimed for Villardeciervos, and we were quite confident the slight low-lying mist would burn off. We set up our scopes to the sound of cowbells noticing Linnets, young Goldfinches, and Serins, all a pleasure to watch in the exceptionally good morning light here.Although we are aware that they pose no deterrent to the wolf, it is still a matter of concern when the two huge Mastin dogs decide to leave their bovine charges and explore the territory we were concentrating upon, and although we spotted the occasional Red and Roe Deer, plus a couple of brave cyclists, it all seemed a bit busy with things we did not want to see. A female Hen Harrier flew by plus a Great Spotted Woodpecker and we found several Ladybirds, Iberian Marbled White and Common Blue Butterflies. A detour via the forestry nursery whilst returning for breakfast proved very fruitful with Rock Bunting, young Stonechat, Mistle Thrush, Jay, Blackbird and a delightful Woodlark displaying in flight.
It was now 12:15 and we went tracking primarily for wolf signs. Verity had narrowly missed seeing wolf last year in British Columbia but knew how to look for tracks of this predator. She was fascinated by our first find of wolf scat at Boya. The ground is so dry and hard in Culebra at the moment , tracks are difficult to find so this scat was exciting if quite old. Just further along the track, however, Verity found some wolfscat that we knew was fresh, and was just a few days old maximum, so everyone checked this area over carefully. This site became even more promising when we found Wild Boar tracks and we were able to see the imprints of the bristly coat of these big beasts in a mudwallow area near this evidence. There was also evidence of Red and Roe Deer, plus several interesting Badger tracks.As the sun became higher in the clear blue sky, the sight of hundreds of native butterflies along with the sounds of wild and honey bees plus various other pollinating insects attracted by the multiplicity of wild flowers growing there created a wall of humming, buzzing and sheer movement inside which we could only stand still and absorb.
The watch started off eventfully with a Stag and Hind both taking off at full pelt copied by a Roe buck but no cause was identified and we soon settled into watching a Fox on the track and reacquainting ourselves with the female Hen Harrier. We had good views of Rock Bunting, Buzzard, Dartford Warbler and Swallow to the mocking call of Iberian Green Woodpecker whilst reflecting as the sun went down what a peaceful spot this was.(Rather too peaceful for my liking... a bit of wolf action for Verity would bring us peace I reflect). However there is rarely nothing to watch in Nature, and soon, while we were watching a Great Tit, a male Hen Harrier arrived at speed affording us the opportunity to enjoy the grace of this stunning bird. Once again, the Deer started running erratically and we heard a Roe Deer barking. As the Nightjars started their evening whirring, we had to pack up as the light faded but we did feel we had been close tonight. Dinner was butternut squash soup, veal with salad and followed by cherries from the local gardens, accompanied as ever by Antonio's good red wine and chilled water.
It was a clear, calm morning as we all set off at 07:00 for Villardeciervos, with the knowledge that any low-lying mist would soon clear. We stopped en route to admire 5 Red Deer crossing our road in beautiful sunrise silhouette and as we set up our scopes to the sounds of a barking Roe Deer, Iberian Green Woodpecker calling, Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and cow bells adding to the orchestral awakening of general birdsong in this valley of peace.A Roe buck walked calmly to the left of our view as 6 Red Deer were spotted on the track. Nick and Sarah were watching the behaviour of Blue Tits and Coal Tits in a nearby copse as 2 Ravens flew by to land in the valley. As well as the by now almost expected presence of the female Hen Harrier, we also enjoyed watching Bonelli's Warbler and Linnets. Verity spotted 2 Stags in peak condition and we all appreciated seeing such magnificent creatures. One little bird which had evaded our notice came to the fore this morning, that being Robin.
On our way back to breakfast, we took a diversion through the village of Boya to take in the experience of being amongst so many Swifts and Swallows careering, skimming wires and feeding young against a true, blue sky. A Black Kite soared above us as we rejoined our road to San Pedro for a 09:25 breakfast.
By 10:30 we were refreshed and out to visit Sanabria, with a Black Kite still in attendance. Driving past the village green at Boya, the Spotless Starlings seemed to shimmer in the heat. Once again, we had to stop for "deer crossing"; this time at Sagallos for a Red Deer hind. Our first planned stop was at the Embalse where we watched Crag Martin and Kestrel, noting the low water level here.
haffinch, Nuthatch, Sandmartin, White Wagtail, Mistle Thrush and Swallow feeding young.We saw an immature White Wagtail upon several occasions. The trout-filled river attracted Iberian Green Frogs, Dragonflies and Demoiselles and we noted Wall Brown Butterfly and an Iberian Wall Lizard.
The well-equipped Visitor's centre has excellent displays and caters for non-Spanish language speakers, although not a lot is made of any wolf presence. As ever, the car and coach park was almost empty and we have yet to see a month when it is even partly filled! However, all this just adds to the charm of this special area and we all appreciated the clarity of the displays and the helpful staff. Having enjoyed a Golden Oriole flying alongside our the road back to Culebra the mood was altered a little by the Guarda Civil requesting John's papers, but once they were assured that the long poles in the back of our vehicle were tripods and not anything more troublesome, we were soon on our way, being roundly entertained by Hannah's and Verity's word perfect renditions of Tom Lehrer songs!
Our evening wolfwatch was scheduled for La Piste, but an unusual incident involving two trains, various passengers and a police car persuaded us to upsticks and so it was 21:00 before we reached Villardeciervos site, to enjoy fairly soon afterwards flocks of Linnets, Barn Swallows, Goldfinches and a very close view of the Hen Harrier. Six Stags were quickly located, but the thrill of the evening, which overrode any excitement from the train/police incident, was the sound of wolfhowls, heard clearly by Verity, Sarah and myself. The light was going as we saw two Red-legged Partridge and a Fox, but talk that evening over our dinner of lentil soup, fish in cheese sauce and flan, was of the railway line mystery... and those howls.
Friday 6th July.
07:00am 8'C. A stunning sunrise through low clouds on the horizon at La Piste allowed us all simply to enjoy being there. We heard Woodpigeon and had good views of the Dartford Warbler plus Dunnock, Stonechat and several Deer. Just after eight o'clock, Sarah got three Rock Buntings on the telegraph wire, being two juveniles and one adult, to be swiftly followed by excellent views of Rock Thrush against by now a clear, blue sky. Nick spent some time watching a Small Wall Brown Butterfly and so it was after enjoying some lovely sights that we returned for a 09:30 breakfast, avoiding en route a fast police car on the track (obviously something concerning last night's train incident) and... much more interesting!... several Bee-eaters on the wire.
arter Dragonfly was good to see there too. Whilst looking for fresh scat on the Flechas road, we had Stonechat, young Crested Lark, Tawny Pipit, Montague's Harrier and several White Admiral Butterflies. The village of Flechas was pleasant to explore on such a sunny day, and the local women were preparing lunch, washing their lettuce in the stream water then using the same to water their remaining planted lettuces; recycling is a way of life to them! All the while watched by a Black Redstart on the rooftop.
By now it was getting up to 30'C and warm enough for reptiles and amphibians to abound, and a depleted pond Nick found along the Gallegos road had upwards of 13 Iberian Green Frogs. As the six of us watched the thirteen of them, normal boundaries seemed blurred and I wondered just who was observer and who the observed! Certainly the beautifully marked creatures ( and I refer to the frogs, not us!) seemed totally unphased by our close interest, and even a youngster kept very still for our inspection, intent on warming up in the mud of a Wild Boar roll site, where again the bristly coat marks after a happy hogroll were evident. In the same area we heard Skylark and saw Red Kite but a real treat was to see the beautifully marked Woodchat Shrike and Southern Grey Shrike through our scopes. Dragonfly variety abounded, with a whole palette of colours winging past our eyes...big blue "helicopters", delicate blue damoiselles, dragonflies with double wings, pillarbox- red, flying beauties.. we were entranced for a long time at this pond! With a soaring Black Kite above us, we began to look for reptiles, and Verity was soon excited to locate an Oscillated Lizard.We kept up with this until it disappeared under a pile of stones, only for Verity to find a discarded snakeskin there too. Hannah meanwhile was investigating an interest of hers...ants... and we all watched these fascinating creatures protecting their eggs from our presence. On a bit of a roll now, Verity pointed out a raptor, this being a Short-toed Eagle, and we could all get our binoculars onto this impressive bird. The skies and fields were alive with birds, seeing several Bonelli's Warblers, three Buzzards, Crested Lark, Swallows with their young, Red Kite and a Montague's Harrier intent on eating the grasshoppers from the road. House Sparrows were noted flying amongst the Storks' nests as we entered San Christobel de Aliste .
The light was exceptionally good for our 20:00 wolfwatch at Villardeciervos, where we had swallows skimming level with our heads as we set up our scopes. It was good to see the male Hen Harrier hunt along the heather lines, and the mocking blasts of the Iberian Green Woodpecker echoed by Jay shrieks sounded during what was otherwise a quiet night's watch. apart from seeing two Stags with beautiful "velvet" antlers not a lot was to be seen. Any despondency was quickly countered however when, during our return journey, we had a lovely young Roe deer crossing the road in good view, and not much further on, the car headlights shone on some little eyes on the side of the road and we found a very young Fox cub, which eventually took itself off across our path, but not before we had watched it for some time.
Saturday 7th July.
At 07:00 we met beside the vehicle with a Black Kite flying above us and a White Wagtail bobbing beside the car. It was another stunning morning at Villardeciervos, with light clouds almost looking lilac in colour in the unsullied light and the action started straightaway with about 14 Red Deer running in the centre of our view. They were being worried by 2 Mastins, which was a nuisance to us looking for clues to wolf presence, but also was valuable in showing the total different movement between the large dogs we had just seen,and the wolves watched on John's videos. At 07:45 John was pleased to get our intrepid watchers onto a soaring Honey Buzzard, and later Nick saw several of the same flying in a group. Raven was heard and Verity tracked movements of two individuals in her binoculars, realising the wolf potential of this bird. Surprisingly, a chill breeze blew up at 08:00 and extra layers of clothing were applied. The male Hen Harrier was circling low over the heather as his mate was also hunting close by, and then at 09:45 we returned for breakfast watching a young Crested Lark as we got into our car, noting the gathering grey clouds.
By the time of our departure for Portugal, 11:00, drops of rain could be felt but after passing Buzzards and Corn Buntings en route, plus Turtle Dove near Alcanices followed soon by an excellent Montague's Harrier, the temperature had settled at 20'C and no cloud in the sky .A large flock of Barn Sparrows were enjoying the grain spilt on the road to Miranda, with Black Kite and Crow nearby.
The atmospheric site of Aldeia Nova was quiet as ever, and we were the sole group to explore and discover some exciting species in the wonderful surroundings. A Golden Eagle soared over the hill but a long way away, only clearly visible in our scopes, and several Crag Martins flew around our heads and indeed below us. Nick saw his first Blue Rock Thrush and we all managed to get a memorable sight of this secretive bird in the scope. We also saw Alpine Swift and Black Kite, and were treated to extremely close views of an adult and an immature Egyptian Vulture. The temperature was rising steadily as we caught sight of an Iberian Wall Lizard just before we returned to our vehicle to go to Miranda de Duoro for an extremely tasty lunch in a lively, local restaurant overlooking the gorge. From our table we watched an impressive Egyptian Vulture and a Red Kite ride the thermals as we sampled the food,drink and atmosphere. The merluza (hake) was very popular with gambas (king prawns) or melon as starters although Hannah managed to do justice to an impressive lasagne for her first course! A short post- lunch wander beside the restaurant and over the dam gave us some very well-marked Greenfinch and several Goldfinch.
We continued our day in Portugal with a stop at a nearby pond where we had good views of two Egyptian Vultures, Serin, Crested Lark, Sparrow and a Donkey with Red Kites overhead. A little further on we had to stop as a small herd of black dairy cows were crossing the road; these farm creatures were of varying ages but even the old and infirm were moving slowly along full of milk. Shrikes were in view all along the little road to Fariza where we were able to admire the horsemanship of a local young man and his beautiful white steed as they pranced through their paces on the rocky pastures beside us.
The evening wolfwatch was at Villardeciervos in the customary beautiful light. Red and Roe deer emerged in small groups and the male Hen Harrier was mobbing a stationary Common Buzzard. As we listened to Iberian Green Wodpecker and Serin, an interested Guardia Civil joined us and was obviously wanting to discuss his own wolf-sightings and watch our videos. We had Crossbill and Kestrel flying over at intervals throughout the watch but our main attention was drawn to the frequent barking of a Roe Deer nearby and the raucous calls of two Ravens.
At 22:00 we had to leave as the light was fading but we encountered our little Fox Cub again on the road back to our hotel where Antonio had prepared for us a lovely egg salad, pork chop with lettuce and tomato followed by yoghurt.
Sunday 8th July.
A fresh, bright 6'C at 07:00 with low-lying mist below the sunrise drew us yet another memorable mental picture as we drove to our morning wolfwatch at Villardeciervos. Avoiding a powerful Stag on the road, plus a less awe-inspiring Rabbit, we set up our scopes to the sound of Roe Deer barking, cowbells clanging, Mastins barking, Iberian Green Woodpecker mocking, Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming, Linnets, Serins and Warblers sounding throaty choruses....the peace of the countryside?!... Once all this had settled down it was actually quite a quiet morning with sightings of Carrion Crow and a clear Crested Tit atop a pine tree plus two intrepid cyclists. There is no evidence of which we are aware that wolves are disturbed unduly by the presence of Mastins, or cyclists, indeed we can quote cases to the contrary, but we are not so confident on their effect on the deer presence whenever they are around. We saw Jay and Raven on the road back for breakfast.
We had lots to talk about over ham and cheese lunch at the nearby camp site, where we also showed everyone the stuffed Wolf, Wild Boar and Fox which adorn the dining room/reception office there. After refreshments, we explored a site at Ferreras after rumours of a carcass being seen there 10 days ago. Certainly there were Ravens in attendance there as we visited the now disused shooting site, along with Black Kite, Red Kite and Bee-eaters but no evidence of recent wolf action.
Today was Wimbledon Men's Singles Finals day and I think Nick and Sarah will always remember this final of 2012, watching the Federer/Murray match in a little village in very rural Spain and explaining to the bemused Antonio(s) just who is presenting the prizes, why should the Queen's cousin do this anyway, and why they need the rain covers over in "summer"!
The drive back to our hotel was eventful too, meeting a Sparrowhawk carrying prey in its talons, a kamikaze Vole which ran in front of the car on the track, and a lovely Tawny Owl in a tree beside the road. Bats and Nightjars were busy as we entered San Pedro, to return and enjoy courgette soup, tortilla with salad and custard with cinnamon.
Monday 9th July.
After breakfast we spent quite some time with a superb Green Lizard at our village stream. basking both in the heat and also in our attention. It posed proudly until we wondered just who was watching whom! With Black Kite hovering above and Swifts screaming around, I decided to start on counting our trip list, whilst the others had a walk to the top of the village to search for Red-rumped Swallow. I was definately the one who missed out here, as upon their return, I learned that, along with very good sights of Song Thrush, they had all watched a Peregrine Falcon being mobbed by a Black Kite.
By 22:15 the Nightjars were whirring and the light quality was disappearing pretty quickly. We took a final scan of the stunning sunset backdrop to the accompaniment of Ravens cawing, and moved amongst the Bats and Nightjars to return to San Pedro, certainly wishing that our fox sighting had been a wolf but realising that we had been witness to an amazing wildlife episode that evening. We were informed that the wolves had made a kill just over a neighbouring hill and therefore would be remaining in that area feeding and lying up. This just underlines the unpredictability and fascination of watching really wild wildlife; if it could be engineered to appear, it would not be truly wild!
Tuesday 10th July.
Thank you for all your endeavours and kindness over the last week. We had a wonderful time."
Nick. July 2012.