Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Iberian Wolf in N/W Spain

13th - 17th October 2010

Trip Report by Julian Sykes

Wednesday 13th :– The journey through to Madrid was difficult due to the strong winds and rain affecting much of Valencia & Castilla La Mancha but I got to Madrid Airport on time. Aileen had already arrived and we turned round straight away and headed out of the city on the A2 towards A Coruna seeing a Red Kite, Spotless Starling and Feral Pigeons almost immediately. Just beyond the Guadarrama Mountains we stopped for a coffee and then a little further on I pulled into a layby for a bit to eat. I like to stop here because over-looks some water but today there was very little and devoid of bird-life. However Aileen had skilfully found a group of 11 Common Cranes on migration while driving there and they appeared not long after getting there, bugling their distinctive call. This was the start of something special as over the next 30 minutes we saw a wonderful sub-adult Spanish Imperial Eagle, a single Black Vulture, 50+ Griffon Vultures, 10+ Red Kites, Common Buzzard and a Kestrel plus lots of Skylarks heading south. What a fantastic start. So we continued to north and west to San Pedro de Herrerias with Aileen finding a couple of Marsh Harriers, more Common Buzzards and Red Kites with a couple of Southern Grey Shrikes on the overhead wires. Eventually we got to San Pedro and parked at the CTR Veniata where we immediately met up with Mal & Lorraine who were joining our party for the short break followed by Thomas & Sheila, who had just driven down from the Picos de Europa. So we quickly agreed a meeting time and soon enough we were heading for the watchpoint of Pistas de Linarejos. Here we set up our telescopes and waited with anticipation scanning continuously the sierra beyond. Initially it was very quiet with just a couple of Jays to keep us company but then later things got interesting. I spied (at least) a couple of animals moving swiftly through the deep heather and recognised them as Iberian Wolves then tried to get the others on to them. Sadly they quite quickly disappeared with only Mal getting a better view and Thomas getting a very brief view of them. It was all very frustrating but also encouraging that they were around and still active in the area. About 30 minutes later Sheila saw an animal near the main track but was unsure of its identification and couldn’t rule out wolf! However near to where she was looking an adult closely followed by 5 young Wild Boar crossed the track and disappeared into the undergrowth. It was now getting quite late (7pm) and quite cold as the sun had gone behind the mountains. Things did continue to happen as next I found a Fallow Dear closely followed by a few Red Deer including one large Stag. Finally as dusk was taking over we (myself, Aileen, Thomas & Sheila) decided to head back to the CTR Veniata for a warm and our evening meal. Thomas and Sheila had obviously been most attentive as they heard the resident Tawny Owl outside their bedroom window. It had been a fabulous day and hopefully the next day will continue in the same vein – time will tell!!!

Thursday 14th :– We convened just before 07:30 and had a hot drink before venturing out into a wonderful starlight sky – it was cold but we knew it was going to be a lovely day. We drove the short distance to the Pistas de Linarejos watchpoint and set up while it was still dark with Sheila identifying Venus and then a passing satellite. The dawn broke over the Sierra de Cabrales to the east and it was a spectacular event as the sun rose clearly above the distant mountains. Sadly the wildlife didn’t take full advantage of this beautiful early morning and by 09:30 we had just seen a few Red Deer. Thomas found a nice male Stonechat and we also saw a Dunnock, Jays, Coal Tits, Wren, Blackbirds and Mel found a Southern Grey Shrike. So we returned to the CTR Veniata after seeing a Raven sat on a pylon, for a very welcome breakfast that Antonio had already set out for us. After breakfast we met by the church in the village and spent the rest of the morning walking around this very peaceful hamlet in glorious sunshine. During these few hours we saw some very good birds with Aileen finding an unseasonal Garden Warbler amongst the good numbers of Blackcaps and Lorraine incredibly spying a roosting Tawny Owl tucked up into a vent of a chimney. We also got very good views of a pair of Firecrests, several Crested Tits, Short toed Treecreeper, a male Crossbill flew over, House & Tree Sparrows, Black Redstarts, 2 Crag Martins, Serins, Linnets, Cirl & Rock Buntings. Birds were not the only focus and we also saw a few Speckled Woods, Lang’s Short tailed Blue, Small Copper, Red Admiral and Small White butterflies, the unseasonal warm weather produced a Bocage’s Wall Lizard on the cemetery wall! All in all it had been a very productive morning and we headed back to the accommodation for our lunch and a mid-afternoon siesta. We started again late afternoon and headed out towards Ferreras de Arriba stopping first at the cattle drinking tanks for Marbled Newt but apart from me seeing one briefly we were without success although an Emerald Damselfly and Migrant Hawker were a nice addition. We then moved to the more natural pool and a few of us only got brief views of Iberian Frog before they dove into the water. Things were not going well this afternoon and our next stop was equally abortive as we intended on walking a small path to look for evidence of wolf but we were stopped by one of the local wardens. A little despondent we then continued through Otero and back towards Villardeciervos and beyond the village stopped for several flocks of birds. A large number were Spotless Starlings but we also saw over 300 Rock Sparrows and lots of Corn Buntings. Mel had been scanning the skies and found 5 soaring Griffon Vultures with a couple of Red Kites, which looked to be dropping down to a carcass? So we drove to where we thought it was and sure enough there was a dead Red Deer (just head & shoulders!) that was surrounded by vultures, kites and Ravens. As we were watching our only Black Vulture of the day drifted over but we continued to watch the morbid spectacle of these birds feeding on the carcass. After about an hour we again moved on and set up to look for wolf near Villardeciervos, where we stayed until dusk without success. Thomas found our only mammals of the evening with a couple of Roe Deer, but apart from a fly-through juvenile Hobby it was very quiet.  In fact the main highlight of the evening was in fact the good views we had of Jupiter and its moons! So later we enjoyed our evening meal and Aileen had requested a night walk around the village looking for owls. Around 10pm we did this and had mixed fortunes with just hearing a Tawny Owl but also seeing some Common Pipistrelle bats. So the day finished, although disappointed we were still optimistic on seeing more wolves.

Friday 15th :– We set out a little later than the previous morning since it was still quite dark when we there, so today we arrived as dawn was breaking. At Pistas de Linarejos we met up with my Dutch friend Will who is a regular visitor here and he informed us that a few Wolves had been howling about 30 minutes earlier. So we waited in great expectation. Sadly we had another ‘no-show’ despite waiting till after 09:30 before going for breakfast. In fact it was very quiet all round with just a couple of Red Deer and a few bird species such as Iberian Green Woodpecker and a Crossbill flying over and a few Coal & Great Tits. Things were a little despondent during breakfast but I said we must try and remain positive! Eventually we set off for Portugal seeing Red Kites, Common Buzzards, Kestrel, and Southern Grey Shrike on the way. Just outside Miranda do Duero we pulled into a car park that overlooked the mighty River Duero (Spain’s 3rd largest river) and almost immediately we were finding birds with a pair of Red rumped Swallows and a few Crag Martins flying above us. I then found a male Blue Rock Thrush on some distant crags, which was soon followed by a second individual. Whilst watching these we also managed to add Black Redstart and Rock Sparrow to the day’s list. An interestingly ‘washed-out’ Cardinal butterfly created an identification challenge and this was followed by Sheila finding an Iberian Wall Lizard near the road. Aileen saw a few Cormorants on the river but it was when she said “what’s this raptor?” that things got interesting. Mel and I looked at it and we both knew it was something new t the trip with Mel asking “is it a Bonelli’s” as I reached for my scope. He was absolutely spot on; an adult Bonelli’s Eagle and incredibly it was then joined by a second adult and they flew around above the cliffs. Absolutely thrilled with this (it was my first here) we left Portugal and headed for Fariza stopping on the way for refreshments at a roadside café. At Fariza we headed out towards the Ermita de Nuestra Senora where we parked the vehicle and after our picnic lunch we then walked out to the Los Barrancos watchpoint. On the way there Mel, Lorraine and I saw a Sparrowhawk plus a few Griffon Vultures and Red Kites. We stopped at this incredibly scenic watchpoint for a couple of hours finding a few birds including several more Griffon Vultures and Red Kites along with House & Crag Martins, Black Redstart, Red billed Chough and a Thekla Lark flew over. Late afternoon we started back to San Pedro and as we entered Portugal at Miranda we happened upon an injured Viperine Snake in the middle of the main road. So we stopped and I ran back to where it was and moved it into a safer position, making sure it was still alive. Thankfully it was and looked to be recovering nicely despite some bleeding from the mouth. Anyway we had to leave it in the vegetation at the side of the road so hopefully it will have made a full recovery. The journey back to the CTR Veniata was punctuated with views of Red Kites, Common Buzzards and Southern Grey Shrike from the mini-van before getting to our destination.  Once back we had an hour to freshen up before again heading out to Pistas de Linarejos and looking for wolf. We stayed until dusk despite the cold wind without any luck with the wolves but we did see an adult Wild Boar, a couple of Roe Deer and surprisingly lots of Red Deer (after the morning’s absence!). In the distance I found a female Hen Harrier but it quickly disappeared into the thick heather, with other birds being quite thin on the ground. The journey back to the hotel was notable for a Wood Mouse crossing the track in front of the vehicle and for Jupiter again showing its moons in another position. That night the evening meal was excellent with traditional Spanish fayre and copious amounts of red wine, it all made for a very good evening.

Saturday 16th :- It was again a cold morning with a little more mist and fog around especially at Linarejos where we watch from again with a sadly diminishing hopeful attitude, which couldn’t really be helped. We saw the usual Red Deer but not a lot else and decided to give it up around 09:15 and go for breakfast. San Pedro village seemed full of birds so before going into the hotel, I walked down to the fields and hedgerows just beyond the church and watched for a while. Here I got great views of several Rock & Tree Sparrows, Serins, Goldfinches, Song Thrush, Blackbirds, Blackcaps, Cirl Bunting and a Southern Grey Shrike. It was brilliant. Then after breakfast just before the others arrived Aileen and I did the same thing and saw pretty much the same birds. Once we were ready we set off and headed out towards Otero seeing the usual Red Kites, Common Buzzards and Ravens en-route. Just outside Otero I spied a falcon-like bird hovering over a ploughed field and thought that’s not a Kestrel! Sure enough once I had stopped and got in my binoculars I positively identified it as a Black shouldered Kite. So we pulled into a nearby track and watched this and a second bird hunting together over the field. These gorgeous pair of raptors showed really well and was thoroughly enjoyed by the whole group, and in addition there were also lots of Skylarks flying round.  So we continued on towards Villafafila and a few kilometres before the village we stopped for our first 11 Great Bustards that Aileen had seen from the vehicle. Mel and I set up our scopes and we all enjoyed superb views of these magnificent birds along with a Northern Wheatear, more Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, a few Red Kites and Common Buzzard. We got into Villafafila and drove straight out to one of the lagoons that still had a bit of shallow water in and found plenty of waders, which included lots of Ruff, a few Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlin, Little Stints and Ringed Plovers. It was a glorious day and the sun wasn’t in the best position for viewing but it was good for raptors and over the course of half an hour we were treated to excellent views of Red Kites, Common Buzzards, Hen & Marsh Harriers sometimes all flying together, which gave a fabulous species comparison. As I knew this area very well I knew where to look and in the distance I spied more Great Bustards. So we made a quick visit to the agricultural drylands getting much better views of these superb birds along with couple of Hen Harriers, Red legged Partridges, Stonechat and a nice flock of Skylarks. It was now time for our picnic lunch so we drove the short distance back towards the seasonal pools to a small area with tables and benches to use. This is also a very good area for the steppe species and we easily found about 50 more Great Bustards feeding in the ploughed fields. There were also some large birds flying in the distance, which were mainly Greylag Geese but also our first Common Cranes looking their majestic selves in their ‘V’ formation flight. We watched them until they dropped into the fields in the distance so hopefully later we could get closer and better views of these wintering birds. Then I heard a call I recognised and called “Black bellied Sandgrouse” and sure enough flying low over the fields were a flock 12 birds. Although initially distant and difficult to see they eventually flew quite close to where we were standing and we all got good views of them. A little later Mel said “I think I have some more sandgrouse?” but when I looked at them through my binoculars they didn’t feel right. So I quickly got my telescope on to them and discovered they were in fact Little Bustards, a species not often seen here. It had been a brilliant lunch stop and with the weather being so warm we saw a few butterflies on the wing including Western Dappled White, Speckled Wood and Clouded Yellows. Once the picnic had been completed we got back into the vehicle and headed back towards the main road and returning towards Villafafila. Near the town I turned off the road and again drove slowly along the metalled track towards the observatory at Otero that overlooked the main lagoon of Villafafila. The drive proved fruitful as we now got a lot closer to the Common Cranes and got some fabulous views as they fed in the extensive grasslands. We continued towards Otero finding a few Northern Wheatears, Meadow Pipits, White Wagtails and Crested Larks. We stopped in the car park of the observatory but sadly the lagoon was almost dry with just a small patch of water in the distance exposed with Greylag Geese and 2 Shelduck but nothing else. However this place is also good for Little Owl and my regular bird did not disappoint as I found it sat on the usual broken down dovecot. The day was wearing on and I was still keen to visit another good site en-route back to San Pedro de Herrerias. So we set off back and soon enough we pulled in where the bridge crosses the Rio Esla. I have been here many times but this was by far the best visit due to the level of activity. Initially we found the usual Little & Great Crested Grebes, Grey Heron, Mallards and Gadwall with Crag Martins and a lone Barn Swallow catching insect around the bridge. While I was watching these Aileen walked over and said “there’s an egret over here, the one with the yellow bill”. Thinking this was a Cattle Egret and a fairly good record I went to look and when I saw it I was speechless as it was the size of a Grey Heron. It was in fact a Great White Egret and an excellent (and notable) record for this area, Aileen was right it did have a big yellow bill!  While were admiring this I heard a familiar ‘peep’ call and a Kingfisher flew in and landed below us, giving great views through the telescope as it caught a fish in the river.  It was now time to return to San Pedro for an hour’s rest before our final evening looking for the elusive Iberian Wolf. That evening I wanted to try and find another site I hadn’t visited before near Ferrerias de Arriba where carcasses were sometimes put out for the wolves.  After a little searching we eventually found the right track up the mountain to the Ermita. This was then followed by a short walk through the woodland with a clearing to see across the valley and on the other side we could plainly see the bones of long dead animals. Sadly there was nothing fresh but we decided to stay there and wait until dusk to see if anything happened along. Unfortunately it didn’t but we did get good views of several Griffon Vultures on the top of the ridge and couple of Jays in the Oak trees. As dusk fell we resigned ourselves to the fact that we were not going to see another Iberian Wolf this trip and headed back to the accommodation for our final evening meal and drinks.

Sunday 17th :- We again woke to another gloriously crisp morning but we were quite sad to be leaving this wonderful location. Aileen needed to be at the airport for midday so we needed to leave around 10am almost straight after breakfast. Mel & Lorraine were continuing on their journey to Britain, with Thomas & Sheila spending a few more days in Spain before going home. So we all said our fond farewells to Antonio and thanked him for being such a fantastic host, before saying goodbye to each other. The journey back to Madrid was seemless with the completion of the by-pass around Zamora and along the route we saw White Storks, Cattle Egrets, Southern Grey Shrike, Red Kites, Common Buzzards, Griffon Vultures and Crested Larks. I returned Aileen to the airport in good time for her flight and then continued through to my home in Valencia. Despite the frustrations of the wolf sighting it had again been a fabulous short break to a fantastic area of Spain.


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