Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Picos de Europa & N/W Spain

14th - 21st June 2008

Report by Julian Sykes

Saturday 14th June :- I had met Allan and Frank at Alicante Airport the previous evening and immediately headed inland to Castilla la Mancha. We were stopping en-route to Madrid at Chinchilla and were lucky enough to see an Eagle Owl fly up from the side of the road. Today was bright & fine and after breakfast we again set off towards the Ruta de Don Quixote and the lagoon of Manvajacas. Our time was limited but very well spent as in just one hour we had found Grey Heron, Greater Flamingos, White Storks, Red Crested Pochard, Gadwall, Shelduck, Montagu's & Marsh Harriers Lesser & Common Kestrels, Red legged Partridges, Moorhen, Stone Curlew, Black winged Stilts, Kentish & Ringed Plovers, Redshanks, Greenshanks, Black tailed Godwits, Ruff,  Whiskered, Black & Gull billed Terns, Pin tailed Sandgrouse, Bearded Tits, Zitting Cisticolas, Great Reed & Savi's Warblers. We left the lagoon and drove the short distance to Madrid seeing a pair of roadside Great Bustards, Pin tailed Sandgrouse plus a few more Montagu's Harriers, Black Kites and a Ladder Snake slowly crossing the road. We arrived at Madrid's (Barajas) Airport and immediately met Bob & Corinna with Martin & Shirley landing on time, an hour later. We loaded the mini-bus and soon after we were heading north to Sepulveda seeing our first Griffon Vultures as we passed over the Guadarrama Mountains. Shortly before Sepulveda we pulled in and at a wooded area went for a short walk, were we found many new species including several lifers for Martin with highlights being a pair of adult Golden Eagles circling above amongst the Griffon Vultures, Booted Eagle, Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo, Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, 2 Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Wren, Robin, Nightingale, Black & Common Redstarts, Blackbirds, Western Bonelli’s Warbler putting on a fine show, Melodious Warblers, Spotted Flycatchers, Long tailed, Great & Blue Tits, Rock Sparrows, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Serins. Eventually we left and drove the short distance to our hotel on the outskirts of Sepulveda, where we checked in and enjoyed a welcome refreshment. Once ready we drove out to the nearby Hoces del Rio Duraton Nature Reserve, a fabulously diverse area that is good for many interesting species. Stops along the road produced a Black & Red Kites, Common Buzzards, Corn Buntings, Northern & Black eared Wheatears, Hoopoe, Stonechats, Woodchat & Southern Grey Shrikes. At the reserve we walked along the edge of reserve with it's expansive spikes of White Asphodel and fragrant herbs of Rosemary & Thyme. This fantastic area is ‘lark heaven’ and although we failed to find the mythical Dupont's lark which frequents the undergrowth, we did see many Skylarks, Calandra, Short toed, Thekla, Crested Larks. Here we also found Short toed Eagle, another Montagu's Harrier, more Bee-eaters, plus Tawny Pipits, a lovely Spectacled Warbler, Southern Grey Shrike, Red billed Chough and Linnets. It had been a very good start to the holiday so we returned to the hotel in good time to get ready for our evening meal followed by the daily log.

Sunday 15th June :- We were making a pre-breakfast visit to the Hoces de Rio Duraton with a specific target – El Diablo, the rare and very elusive Duponts Lark, and as we drove out to the reserve we experienced some light showers but these stopped as we parked on the main track. Almost immediately we could hear the larks distinctive song but (as usual) could not see the bird, there was however, a very close Spectacled Warbler showing, plus lots of Calandra, Thekla & Short toed Larks, Tawny Pipits, Northern & Black eared Wheatears. Then, after some careful scanning I found a Dupont's Lark sitting out in full view on a rock and over the next few minutes we obtained extensive scoped views of this very special bird. Bob was elated as this constituted 50% of his target species for the week, so we returned to the hotel for our breakfast and to meet up with Alan & Frank who had decided not to come with us but do their own thing having already seen Dupont's Lark with me on a past Pyrenean Trip. They had also had a very good time taking a local walk straight from the hotel finding a pair of Common Cuckoos, a Golden Oriole, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Song Thrush, Melodious, Garden & Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Cirl & Corn Bunting. After breakfast we loaded up the mini-bus and returned to the reserve, this time stopping en-route to look into the canyon where we found an Egyptian Vulture, Booted Eagle, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Sparrows, Linnets, Crag Martins, Mistle Thrush and a Hobby, which just zipped through. At the heart of the reserve we had another particular target in mind, being a lifer for several of the group and soon enough we were watching a pair of Western Orphean Warblers amongst the Juniper trees, plus we saw Dartford Warblers, Woodlarks, Thekla Larks, Bee-eaters, Southern Grey & Woodchat Shrikes in this same small area. Sadly it was now time to leave Sepulveda and head north to the Picos de Europa, the skies had become increasingly grey with frequent showers but at Cervera de Pisguera it had stopped, so after a coffee we walked along the river and produced the ‘hoped for’ Dipper and Grey Wagtails around the bridge. The final leg over the Cordillera Cantabrian mountain range towards Potes was fairly quiet due to the weather but a pair of Red back Shrikes by the roadside was a good find by the observant passengers. We eventually arrived at Casa Gustavo as the rain was stopping so once we had found our rooms we gathered on the balcony for a glass of local red wine, watching for birds around the valley. During this time we found a Wryneck singing from a tree in the opposite garden, a Honey Buzzard drifted over along with a Booted Eagle, Griffon Vultures, Common Buzzards & Ravens. That evening we enjoyed a fantastic meal prepared by our hostess Lisa along with some more fine wine ending the night with Mike supplying a nightcap of some 'arujo', a locally-made liqueur, an excellent end to a great day.

Monday 16th June :- The day started cold and overcast but a few of us gathered for a pre-breakfast walk from the guesthouse. Almost immediately we found a lovely male Redstart singing from the top of a telegraph pole,(something it did each day) followed by good views of a Wryneck and a Melodious Warbler near the orchard.  Very pleased we strolled back to Casa Gustavo for our breakfast.  Today, we had decided to go to Bejes and take a long mountain walk up the road from the village.  We drove down and passed through the incredibly scenic valley to this hamlet tucked away in the hillside. Unfortunately, the weather was not improving but so far the rain was holding off. Shirley, who could be related to a mountain hare, asked if she could go ahead as walking (fast & uphill), was her thing not really birdwatching, so after agreeing a couple of things with her and Martin, her husband, she set off towards the top of the mountain. Our progress was expectedly slow frequently stopping to look at the large variety of wildlife such as, Palmate Newt and full grown Midwife Toad Tadpoles in a water trough, beautiful Woodcock, Burnt & Early Purple Orchids along the roadside and birds which included Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, Black Kites, Short toed Eagle, Common Buzzards, Booted Eagle, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Crag Martins, Tree Pipits (displaying), a Dunnock found by Allan, Red backed Shrikes, Red billed Chough, Yellowhammers & Rock Buntings, plus Bob found a few butterflies including Piedmont Ringlet, Wood White and Large Grizzled Skipper. About half way up the rains started so Martin, Frank and  I continued to the arranged meeting point with Shirley while the others made their way back to Bejes and  as we got higher we added Northern Wheatears and a couple of Water Pipits to the list. Sensibly, Shirley had started back down and met us walking up so we were all able to return to the mini-bus, although Shirley ran back down!. Back at the van we left the valley and went to village of La Hermida - nestled in the impressive Hermida Gorge for refreshments, and afterwards decided to return to the guesthouse for another short walk from there. However from the mini-bus, both Alan & Bob heard what they thought was an Iberian Chiffchaff singing from the roadside so we pulled over and stopped. Sure enough there was the distinctive song of this fairly scarce ‘phyloscophus warbler’ and after a short wait it appeared in the trees above our heads looking like a cross between a Common Chiffchaff & a Willow Warbler. What happened next was slightly frustrating but quite comical as we happened to get caught up in the ‘Mountain Tour’ cycling race and told, in no uncertain terms not to leave where we were by the Guardia Civil. It was fascinating watching hundreds of cyclists from all over the world race past being pursued by an entourage of manic drivers on motorbikes and in cars at great speeds. Eventually, the race passed and we were able to continue on to Tama and our accommodation, but it was now late afternoon so we decided to do a bit more raptor-watching from the balcony which again produced Honey & Common Buzzards, Short toed Eagle, Booted Eagle and big numbers of Ravens. That night another fantastic meal was prepared by Lisa & Mike, which was very much enjoyed by all of us.

Tuesday 17th June :- The weather today had improved slightly but it was still a little cloud, the pre- breakfast walk produced yet again Common & Black Redstarts singing from the rooftops plus Iberian Green Woodpecker, Wryneck feeding on the path, Melodious & Garden Warblers, Jays and Serins. During breakfast we discussed the day ahead as we were lucky enough to have Dr. John Barkham with us, as a local expert on the wonderful flora of the Picos de Europa National Park. He suggested a walk from Pido to Fuente De, which was about two kilometres then going (via the cable car) to the top of the mountain and was received very well. The walk was fantastic for flowers although unfortunately not very good for birds with only Yellowhammers, Griffon Vultures & Common Buzzards seen along the route. However John found us many species of orchid including Lax - Flowered, Early Spider, Sawfly, Woodcock, Pyramidal and Man Orchids and the localised Birds Nest Orchid found in pristine condition, Frank - another wild flower enthusiast was in his element finding many plant species himself. Once we reached the car park at Fuente De we left Shirley (who was walking up) and took the cable car to the high tops where we were met by a whole new landscape of karst limestone crags, boulders and scree covered with scarce alpine plants. The birds here are also very specialist and just around the cable car station we found Alpine Choughs and our first Alpine Accentors. We walked slowly up the track with John and Frank finding many alpine plant species such as Spring & Alpine Gentians, Scrambling Gromwell,(great name),Alpine Toadflax and Alpine Squill to name a few. Up here one of our main targets was Snowfinch as it was a new bird for most of the group and soon we located an adult Snowfinch flying overhead, although the flight views weren't brilliant, so we continued to search. A little further we found two more feeding amongst the scree slopes and managed to get very good views through the telescope, as we watched it was evident they were visiting a nest in the crags above where they were feeding. We watched from a safe distance as they flew back and forth obviously feeding their young high up on the rock wall, also here we found a small group of Rebeco (Chamois) also feeding on the scree slopes. Eventually we left and walked further along the track to a site for Wallcreeper but sadly we could not find this special montane species, which was very disappointing. Before long we had to leave returning to the cable car station finding more Alpine Accentors, Water Pipits, Northern Wheatears, Raven and Alpine Chough en-route and the journey back down was again amazing. At the bottom we were enjoyed a cold drink in the car park picnic site were we got fabulous views of a Firecrest just above our heads, as well as 2 Nuthatches, Coal, Great & Blue Tits. We returned to Casa Gustavo sitting on the balcony of the guesthouse watching for raptors, seeing Booted & Short toed Eagles, Black Kite, Common Buzzards and Griffon Vultures. That evening we talked about the next days itinerary and due to the disappointment of missing the Wallcreeper we decided to return to Fuerte De and hope this time we will have more luck.

Wednesday 18th June :-The weather was glorious and we saw the valley in it’s full beauty with cloudless blue skies and sunshine, and a walk produced a Sparrowhawk, Booted Eagle, Robin, Common & Black Redstarts, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Woodpigeons, Jay, Jackdaw, Raven and Goldfinches. After breakfast we set off and reached Fuerte De quite early but as expected it was busy with walkers & holiday- makers wanting take the cable car to the top of the mountain. Shirley had once again opted to walk the track up to the top and we agreed to see her back at Espinama, the village at the bottom of the mountain. Eventually we reached the top and walked straight up to the Wallcreeper site, again stopping for the Snowfinches, Alpine Accentors, Alpine Chough, Water Pipits and Northern Wheatears plus Rebeco were found high up on the crags defying gravity as they make their way along the ridge. A little further on we reached the best area for Wallcreeper and almost immediately Martin finds one disappearing into a small cave in the rock face, so we move to where it was seen and actually find an adult Wallcreeper on the boulder scree just above where we were standing before it flew off out of sight. We sat for a while tempting the inquisitive Alpine Choughs with a few morsels of bread and cheese, before Allan, Frank and I walked for a short distance and incredibly disturbed another adult Wallcreeper from boulders below us. Luckily it only moved a short distance and incredibly started dust –bathing a few metres from where we stood - this was quite an amazing experience to see such a brilliant bird at close quarters for about 10 minutes. This was the icing on the cake and certainly the bird of the week for most of us. When it finished dust-bathing, the Wallcreeper continued searching a few rocks and crevices, finding a large juicy spider and flew off in the same direction as the other adult seen previously. That could not be bettered and with a long walk ahead we set off back down the mountain opting to walk the full 10km back to Espinama, although very sensibly, Corinna decided to return to Fuente De by cable car since she was struggling with some of the long walks. The route was downhill on a good track and we slowly made our way finding 2 Red tailed Rock Thrush, Water Pipits, Grey Wagtail, Dipper, Northern Wheatears, Red billed Chough, Crag & House Martins, Griffon & Egyptian Vultures, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Serin, Linnets, Cirl Bunting & Yellowhammers but the butterflies were disappointing with just Small Tortoiseshell being seen. In the streams and troughs of the meadows we found  an Alpine Newt and Midwife Toads plus the amazing flowers included Common Spotted, Robust, Marsh & the awesome Lizard Orchids. By the time we had reached the Espinama we had been joined by Shirley so we enjoyed an ice cream in this quaint village. Since most of us were pretty tired I volunteered to walk the last 3km back up to the Fuerte De car park but was very kindly joined by Shirley who was on a personal mission to finish the whole circuit - an incredible feat. We set off and got back to the car park in good time where we met up with Corinna who had had a great time finding more alpine species around the top cable car station and woodland birds around the car park at the bottom. When we got back to Espinama we found the others watching the mountain top where they had seen a pair of Golden Eagles and a Honey Buzzard circling over the ridge.

Thursday 19th June :- Today was fine and sunny again and we had decided to return to the Sierra de Bejes hoping to find Pasque Flower. a beautiful and rare alpine plant. The pre-breakfast walk was a casual affair with most of us opting to stay close to the accommodation enjoying a cup of tea, Corinna and Bob decided on a longer walk, which brought Corinna her first sighting of an Iberian Green Woodpecker. We drove slowly down through the Hermida Gorge and then through the incredibly scenic valley to the village of Bejes, this time we drove most of the way up to the sierra to save some time. Since the weather had improved the butterflies were starting to fly with Swallowtail, Queen of Spain & Small pearl bordered Fritillaries, Large Wall Brown, Large Grizzled Skipper and Black veined White being seen. Frank found some lovely Lady Orchids plus both Broad & Narrow Tongue Orchids before hitting the jackpot with a small group of pristine Pasque Flowers, a real treat for us all. We sat and watched raptors soaring over the ridge including Griffon & Egyptian Vultures, Short toed & Booted Eagles, Common Buzzard and Common Kestrels plus Ravens & Red billed Choughs. In the oak woodland we got great views of a Western Bonelli’s Warbler, a few Tree Pipits, Short toed Treecreeper and a Spotted Flycatcher, it had been a very easy morning and we enjoyed our picnic amongst the flowers of the sierra in the warm  midday sunshine. After lunch Alan, Frank & Bob wanted to walk back down the mountain to Bejes so Corinna, Martin and I (Shirley had set off back to Casa Gustavo over the mountains on foot) drove back down and visited an area just below the village where we found Red backed Shrike, Stonechat, Dunnock, Yellowhammer and Rock Bunting. Eventually we were joined by the others and spent a while around the bridge over the stream where we got superb views of a Firecrest right in front of us, plus a couple of Grey Wagtails, Stonechat and a Willow Warbler. We left the Bejes Valley and drove into La Hermida where we enjoyed a cool drink next to the river where we found at least one Dipper, Grey & White Wagtails. We scoped the high crags finding a few Alpine Swifts with the Common Swifts which everyone saw but I had to agree they weren’t easy at such a distance. After our refreshments we returned to Casa Gustavo for another raptor watch from the balcony and this time got good views 2 Short toed Eagles and several Booted Eagles, Bob and Alan found a Honey Buzzard along with Common Buzzards, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, Sparrowhawk and the usual masses of Ravens heading to roost. Our final evening meal was alfresco and very much enjoyed by all as we sat in the cool of the night under a blanket of stars.

Friday 20th June :- Our final full day was going to be spent travelling so we loaded the mini-bus, had our breakfast, said our goodbye’s to Mike and Lisa and left this wonderfully hospitable place. It was another gorgeous day and at the Piedrasluengas watchpoint we stopped for an hour, which proved to be a very fortuitous move as it also provided one of the highlights of the week. We had been there a while finding Rock Buntings, Mistle Thrush and a few Griffon Vultures but nothing new, and then overhead flew an adult Honey Buzzard showing all it’s fine plumage features and as it moved away it started it's ‘wing clapping’ looking like a huge nightjar in a jaw-dropping display . This was a pure "WOW" moment as it repeated the sequence at least four times before crossing the valley and out of site. This was quickly followed by a Sparrowhawk zipping through and mobbing a Common Buzzard, then finally a male Hen Harrier flew into view, making for a magical fifteen minutes and very much voted the ‘magic moment' of the week. It was time to leave so we dropped down the south side of this Cantabrian Mountain range to Cervera de Pisguera for a coffee stop yet Shirley and I were invited to try some lovely local produce by a very generous shop lady. The drive through the agricultural lands of Leon produced several Black & Red Kites, Booted Eagles, Montague’s Harriers, Common Buzzards, White Storks, Red legged Partridge, Northern & Black Wheatears, Southern Grey Shrikes and Bee-eaters. The reserve of Laguna de la Nava is a set of freshwater lakes with reed beds surrounded by extensive wheat fields and can be a haven for birds amongst the local drylands, so we visited the birdwatching hide and boardwalks where we found Little & Great Crested Grebes, 6 Purple Herons, Mallard, Red Crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Shelduck, Marsh Harriers, Moorhen, Coot, Northern Lapwing, Tawny Pipit, Spanish Yellow Wagtails, Stonechat, Cetti’s, Reed & Great Reed Warblers, Zitting Cisticolas, a lovely male Penduline Tit, Tree & House Sparrows. This had been an excellent detour but now it was starting to get very hot so we set off again south east towards Sepulveda and eventually arrived at the hotel where we were spending our final night. We decided to take a last walk from the accommodation and at a puddle we found many butterflies including Marsh Fritillary, Small Skipper, Mazarine, Eshers and Silver Studded Blues. The birds were quiet but we still managed to find Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nightingale, Long tailed & Great Tits, Melodious Warblers, Jackdaws, Golden Oriole, Goldfinches, Greenfinches and cracking views of a Short toed Treecreeper. The evening meal was fairly subdued with everyone going to bed reasonably early due to the start we needed to make the next morning for the airport. I decided to go for a gentle stroll in the cool night and was rewarded with the distant calls of a Scop's Owl not too far from the hotel.

Saturday 21st June :- Due to the flight times we  had to leave early from the hotel and make out way south to Madrid were we were in good time for the flights back to Britain, en-route we managed to see a few Griffon Vultures, Black Kites, and a Montagu's Harrier. A nice way to finish what was a tremendous week in this wonderful area.


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