Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Iberian Wolf in N/W Spain

16th - 20th October 2008

Report by Andy Carroll

Friday 16th October :- As the plane touched down in Madrid, I was filled with a happy optimism.  Wolf was the target, and I for one was confident that we were going to see them.  The air was warm and it was reassuring to know that in a few short hours, we would be far removed from the hustle of the airport.  Ken, Caroline and I sat waiting on Jules, commenting on how the Spanish really know how to make coffee and cakes!. Jules arrived and after a short wait on the 5th member of the party (Geoff) we headed out into Madrid to begin our 3 hour journey north. The 9 seater bus ate the miles as the sprawling metropolis of Madrid gave way to suburbs and then farms, the vast countryside began to sweep out on either side of the motorway and the first birds began to appear. Red Kites danced along beside the car, their trademark forked tails tilting and adjusting their position with ease. Common Buzzards, Marsh Harrier and then several distance Griffon vultures were seen whilst hurtling up the concrete highway. Jules decided that we should stop at a service station for some lunch and Ken and Geoff immediately got on 2 Common Crossbills on a solitary pine tree in the car park.  After refueling, we ploughed on.  The Spanish countryside was breathtaking; the vastness of the area was almost overwhelming.  Huge expanses of mixed agriculture merged with acre upon acre of natural woodland.  The mountains stood like sentries on either side, as if guarding this wonderful landscape. The light was fading as we arrived at San Pedro for our first stab at catching a glimpse of the rare and elusive Iberian Wolf.  Estimates vary, but their numbers are put anywhere from 1800-2500 animals.  The 5 of us were out of the bus, scopes lined up and patiently scanning the scrub filled valley below.  Jules informed us that there was a pack of around 5 wolves that ranged this area.  This served to step up my attempts to see them, scanning carefully, checking each perceived unnatural movement of any bush or patch of long grass.  Red Deer moved through the area, raising their heads in contemplation of danger.  This was after all the valley of the wolf; there was no reward for complacency here.  A huge stag bellowed it’s prehistoric like warning to a smaller individual as they crossed, but despite being October, the rut didn’t seem to have started in earnest. With light fading, we retreated to our accommodation. We were to be stationed in the village of Pedro De Las Herrerias (St Peter of the Blacksmith) in a place called La Veniata. The 5 of us sat around having a drink and in the half light, I spotted a male Black Redstart on top of an adjacent chimney.  The hotel was a fabulous place, the tiled floors and dark wood interior gave it a rustic but homely feel. The balcony from our room was an added bonus in an already warm and hospitable place. Antonio, the owner, was very helpful, giving us tips on the places to see wolf and perhaps more importantly, keeping the wine and brandy flowing!  We retired and looked forward to the next day’s events.

Saturday 17th October :- We were in position at San Pedro as dawn broke.  There was a blanket of mist lying in the valley floor like a warm quilt. Lights twinkled to the north, east and west of the valley and with us standing to the south, I couldn’t help thinking that the wolves were surrounded.  Dartford Warblers called as the light began to creep across the land.  It was cold; hands in pockets, my breath reminded me of my time as a smoker as I exhaled.  Then thick fog began to roll in like a roman legion marching on the enemy and soon viewing was limited to a few yards, our first morning wolf watching had ended with the weather robbing us of any opportunity. We left the fog filled valley and headed for the plains of Villafafila. On route, in an area of scattered bushes, Ken picked up a Black shouldered Kite!  Jules spun the van around and more or less kicked us out on the busy highway, speeding off to leave us with fantastic views of this rare European raptor.  What a start to our days birding and some consolation for the lack of wolf. Whilst sat at traffic lights in a small village, Geoff pointed out a White Stork, perched on someone’s ariel. Despite this being common place in Spain, I still found it unusual to see this huge bird on a roof. The road out to the steppe country was littered with crested larks and the telephone wires provided perches for several hunting Southern Grey Shrike.The Steppes were as I had imagined a mosaic of arable fields and rough grazing. Farmers were busying themselves with producing, their tractors kicking up clouds of dust as they trundled down the dry sandy tracks to access fields. Ken then indicated he had 12 Great Bustards flying across some distant fields.  This was a new bird for me and whilst I was excited, the views were not great as the birds flew purposefully away from the bus.  I shouldn’t have been concerned however, within minutes we were watching bustards on the ground, walking almost ostrich like through the fields. We decided to go for a short walk along a track where superb views of Great Bustard were obtained. Zitting Cisticola was also seen as well as a good number of Crested & Calandra Larks.  This was turning into another great day and it wasn’t even lunchtime! We returned to the bus and continued to drive around the area; Peregrine and Merlin were added to the already impressive raptor list and we were soon watching another!  Jules spotted a Griffon Vulture sat in a stubble field.  The huge and rather ungainly bird looked somewhat out of place on the ground.  We watched the giant scavenger for a bit, the first time I had seen one in the wild but everyone agreed that vultures were much more impressive in the air.  It now seemed to be raining birds, larks and pipits were everywhere and then there was a shout of Black bellied Sandgrouse.  7 birds turned and twisted as they sped across the arid fields and landed, their cryptic plumage belying their presence as they were lost to view. On the way to a well earned lunch, 12 Cattle Egrets lived up to their names by picking around at a herd of cow’s feet.  After eating the largest roll with ham and cheese I had ever seen, (the roll resembled a large piece of tree trunk!), we started to check some wetland areas. A fantastic Little Owl was watched in the window of a ruined building, the bird displaying the classic one eye open as it literally kept half an eye out for danger.  A circling White Stork was also seen, as well as Black headed Gulls and Shelduck. It was at this point that butterflies took over.  In a small area around what appeared to be a closed visitor centre, Wall Brown, Swallowtail, Red Admiral, Lang's Short tailed Blue and Clouded Yellow were all witnessed bringing a fantastic splash of colour to proceedings and 3 new species for me. Whilst watching the butterflies, Geoff had spotted a Lesser Kestrel.  The bird was hunting from a post allowing us all to obtain good views. The afternoon was stretching out, so it was decided to head back to the accommodation before trying again for the main target of the trip, the wolf.  Of course, there were places to stop on the way back and Marsh Harrier, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Rock Sparrow were added to the trip list. After 30 minutes back at the hotel, we headed out in the evening to Flechas. This was a new site that Jules had never tried before. Many people, we had been reliably informed, were lucky enough to have seen wolf recently in this area.  Indeed a Spanish girl who was staying at our hotel and came with us was very enthusiastic about Flechas as she had seen 5 wolves on a bare patch of the wooded hill. This served to reignite my optimism. Again we waited.  The temperature plummeted and the light began to fail. The area was scanned repeatedly, each of us hoping that we would be first onto the rare mammal.  The last of the light leaked away to the west and we were again wolfless.  It is hard in these situations not to think negatively. “Is there a better place?” “I wonder if we had gone back to the original place if we would have seen wolf.” This is the nature of watching wildlife and why, it is so unpredictable and indeed exciting, you just never know what, if anything you are going to see.

Sunday 18th October :- We were again stood in the dark, awaiting dawn.  We had returned to San Pedro after failing to see wolf at Flechas the previous night.  The silence was only broken by the odd cough of one of the group or the crunching of gravel as people shuffled around.  The 5 of us again scanned and rescanned the valley.  I let out an uncontrolled audible sigh as dawn gave way to day. Despite our best efforts we climbed back into the bus disappointed but not beaten, we still had 3 more wolf sessions to go. Jules (being the tremendous guide that he is) reckoned there was also somewhere else that might be worth trying if we were not successful this evening. We may not have encountered wolf yet, but the birds had been fantastic so far and I had the feeling that today was going to be no different.  The sun was strong for October, the fantastic light disguising the fact that we were in fact in the middle of autumn. Our first stop was on a suspension bridge (puerte de Embalse de Castro).  Had there not been Crag Martin and Red rumped Swallow flying around, I may not have been so quick to exit the bus!  The bridge shook as cars rolled past; the drop down to the discolored river below was several hundred feet. This was not my idea of fun.  A Cetti's Warbler called from beneath the metal structure.  We decided to my relief, to move on.  As we climbed out of the valley, I looked back at the bridge, it looked as shaky as it had felt!. Our next stop was the Arribes del Duero National Park.  We parked at a stunning church, the twin bells on Ermita de Fariza’s roof reminding me of churches in horror movies.  This was certainly not a scary place however; the church was situated at the head of a stunning valley.  The sheer black cliffs fell several hundred feet into the river which had carved out the canyon we were now standing looking down.  It was quite simply breathtaking. There’s a Griffon Vulture Caroline gestured, as we looked there were more and more and more.  In all 50+ circled and climbed above the crags.  We could hear Red billed Chough calling and then we saw them.  3 glossy black corvids with their unusual red down curved beaks and red feet circled out from the valley floor until they were level with us and then flew off calling noisily. Woodlarks sang from tree top vantage points and arrays of common birds were seen. Then an adult Golden Eagle was picked up.  How many birds of prey were we going to see on this trip?  Soon we were watching a pair interacting with the larger griffon vultures. Then there were 3!!  A probable 2nd year bird appeared with the adults and joined in the acrobatics with the vultures.  Ken then picked up an Iberian Green Woodpecker, a Hawfinch flew past and then a Lesser Kestrel and Sparrowhawk flew up the valley.  It was literally wall to wall birds!  We were in a stunning place watching stunning birds, what was going to show up next?. We lunched in Portugal (Miranda del deuro) and stopped in a lay by on the way back towards the Spanish border.  Sardinian warbler, Blackcap and Common Swift were all seen but again our attention was taken up with butterflies. Short tailed Blue, Small & Large Whites were added to a growing list. Jules and Geoff then had another Golden Eagle circling over a far crag. With the afternoon again wearing on, we decided to head for the hotel.  We walked around the immediate area of the accommodation, and saw 3 Rock Buntings, stunning little birds which were joined by an equally impressive supporting cast of Black Redstart and Nuthatch.  After the walk, we set off in darkening sky in search of the elusive wolf. Our chosen spot was again Flechas. It seemed reasonable as they had been seen that morning by a warden for the area. The sunset filled the sky with a radiant pink glow but as the sun slipped away, so did our chances of seeing the wolf. It was becoming difficult to stay positive, “Perhaps this isn’t the best time of year.” I said to Caroline. As we drank and ate that evening, we discussed staying around the area of the hotel for our last full day.  Caroline saw a Tawny Owl from our balcony as we retired for the evening.  Maybe we would be luckier with the wolf tomorrow?

Monday 19th October :- The light spilled across San Pedro as what had been distorted shapes in the half light revealed themselves to be trees and bushes.  A slight heat haze danced across the land as the sun struggled reluctantly above the horizon.  No wolves.  This was our last full day, there was a sense from us all of both disappointment and desperation. Jules had investigated another site the previous day and it was Ferreras de Arriba that we headed for after breakfast.  On arrival, we were greeted by a group of Spanish men who were out for a walk.  They pointed out the carcass of a cow and said that they had seen a wolf at it earlier on that morning.  Why couldn’t we have come here I thought to myself.  The Spanish chaps were obviously not believers in the wisdom that quiet observation is the way to look for elusive mammals.  They chatted loudly, laughed and chain smoked as we scanned around the carcass. We have no chance with them here I thought.  Then Ken said quietly and calmly, “Got a Wolf, walking left past the carcass.”  My heart raced, and I reluctantly told Caroline to keep watching with my scope.  Soon there were various celebratory comments coming from each piece of optical equipment.  I could only see the animal distantly with my binoculars and desperately wanted a scope view.  Still I allowed Caroline to watch.  My heart rate was raised and I was panicking slightly when Jules allowed me to look through his scope.  Wow! My first Iberian Wolf!! This was fantastic.  It was very nervous and continually sniffed the air for signs of impending danger.  Geoff then spotted a Wild Boar, the wolf not relishing the company of the large pig as it jumped in alarm. Jules had said at dinner one evening that if we saw a wolf, we would feel privileged.  He was right.  As the animal tore at the carcass, I felt lucky, privileged and delighted. The wait had been worth it, the animal was watched for around 15 minutes before it slipped away as quickly as it had appeared.  The jubilation amongst the group as we returned to the hotel for lunch was obvious.  Jokes flowed and there was almost a sense that, “Och aye, knew we would see one.”  All the doubts and negativity had been wiped away in 15 minutes of magical mammal watching. We returned to the same spot in the afternoon, but not before we had seen another Black shouldered Kite on route.  Back at the carcass Red Kites circled and then landed on the dead cow.  It was the first time I had seen kites on a carcass of this size, they generally prefer to pick their carrion up and fly off with it, often eating on the wing. As we waited hopefully for another encounter with the wolf, Common Crossbills flew over, Short toed Treecreeper called and a Crested Tit danced along the pines with Long tailed Tits. Then the Wolf reappeared!  This time I was calmer and enjoyed the spectacle even more than the first time around.  I felt more privileged the second time around.  This is a very rare animal.  Not many people in have had the views I have had, not many people have been as lucky as I have. We decided to give San Pedro one more try after the Ferreras De Arriba wolf had retreated into the undergrowth.  We were all buoyant and happy as we got off the bus at San Pedro. We had been standing for around 10 minutes when Caroline said, “Got 3 Wolves here!!”  We all stumbled around and eventually had very brief views of 3 wolves. Ken had another Wild Boar as we tried desperately but unsuccessfully to relocate the 3 wolves.  The light was ebbing away and soon it was almost dark.  Our last day had been unbelievable but in truth the whole break had been sensational, black shouldered kite, 50+ Griffon Vultures, 130+ Great Bustards, 4 Golden Eagles, 2 Wild Boar and 4 Iberian Wolves, not to mention the supporting cast of over 80 other species. Put simply, an awesome 4 days in an awesome place.


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