Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Iberian Wolf in N/W Spain

29th April - 4th May 2010

Trip Report by Julian Sykes

April 29th :- Not the best start to our short break involved sorting out the minibus after being let down by the rental company and then the group were delayed by two hours in Gatwick!. However everyone (Ali, Christine, Connie, Keith, Mike, Rhona, Graham and Pat.) arrived into Madrid’s Barajas Airport and after carefully loading the minibus we headed out of the city on the A6. As we climbed over the Guadarrama Mountains we started to see our first White Storks and Black Kites (of which there were plenty en-route) followed by our only Red Kite of the journey. The agricultural grape fields around Rueda started to produce a few Kestrels and a handsome male Western Marsh Harrier at the side of the motorway. After a break just after Tordesillas we continued towards Zamora and in the city we saw 100’s of Common Swifts hawking insects over the roof tops, and a group of White Storks in their nests on the church roof. Once through Zamora we headed towards Alcañices finding a male Montagu’s Harrier along the way. Mike saw a Hoopoe and Rhona saw at least one House Martin amongst the constant stream of Barn Swallows along the road. Once through Alcañices we made the final leg to San Pedro de Herrerias (St Peter of the Blacksmiths) and in the open areas we saw a Common Buzzard sat on a telegraph post, several Magpies and a female Montagu’s Harrier. At last we arrived into the village and parked near out accommodation, the superb CTR Veniata, run by the enigmatic Antonio. As we took the luggage from the minibus we saw and heard Black Redstart, Blackbird, Goldfinch, Blue & Great Tit. Antonio kindly showed us to our rooms and with plenty of time to relax and shower before the evening meal a few of us were lucky enough to hear a Common Cuckoo calling. The meal was the usual good Spanish fayre I have come to expect here with a starter of lentil & vegetable soup, Fillet of Pork or Hake with chips, and a sweet of chocolate mousse, with the local red wine, beer and water.

April 30th :- We all gathered in the lounge of the hotel at 7am for a quick hot drink before getting into the minibus and leaving for the nearby watchpoint of Pistas de Linares. As we lined up overlooking the sierra, Pat suddenly said excitedly “what’s this on the track?” so I got my binoculars where she was looking and there was a Wild Boar. What a fantastic start. Unfortunately it soon disappeared but Mike relocated it later on and the group enjoyed decent telescope views of this much-persecuted mammal. Very soon after this we found our first of many Red Deer grazing just down from where we stood and they remained in this immediate area for the next two hours. Birds were the main feature of the morning, none more so than a gorgeous male Rufous tailed Rock Thrush, which Mike found on an overhead wire. It was a little distant so we walked towards it and at a respectable distance we stopped and got tremendous views of this locally rare bird. Other birds of interest during the morning included Common Cuckoo, Sub-alpine & Dartford Warblers, Jays, Dunnock, and a brief view of a Rock Bunting. We returned to the hotel for breakfast and then headed off for the day along the Portuguese border. As we headed the main Roman road to Alcanices we saw the usual mix of Montagu’s Harrier, Common Buzzards, Kestrels, Black & Red Kites, a Southern Grey Shrike sat on the wires as did several Corn Buntings and Magpies. Just beyond Alcanices we crossed the border into Portugal, which was quite underwhelming as the only indication of this was a small roadside sign! However it did feel strange as we realised the clocks had suddenly gone back one hour to British Summer Time. A little further a couple of circling raptors (Common Buzzards) made us stop near a small cemetery and like so often happens more birds were found in the vicinity. During the half hour we were there we managed to find a pair of Woodchat Shrikes, Common Cuckoo, Stonechat, Common Whitethroat and Cirl Bunting. The grassed areas held White Asphodel, French Lavender and the beautiful Grape Hyacinth with a few butterflies including Small White, Southern Scarce Swallowtail, Black eyed Blue, Clouded Yellow and Spanish Festoon. We continued along the country lanes and stopped again for a White Stork on its nest and we also found a few Crested Larks and another pair of Woodchat Shrikes. Eventually we reached the turning to Aldeia and followed the narrow lanes to the isolated village parking at the top of the hill leading to the Ermita (Chapel) de Aldeia Nova, which overlooked the mighty Rio Duero. The walk down was quiet although we did manage to get brief views of a male Golden Oriole, after hearing it clearly on several occasions. Mike got photos of a lovely Pearl bordered Fritillary and other butterflies included Orange-tip and Moroccan Orange-tip, Red Admiral, Brimstone and Painted Lady. At this quaint chapel we spent some time admiring the spectacular views along this river gorge that forms the border of these two Iberian countries. This also produced a few different birds as we found several Crag Martins hawking insects over the water and our first Griffon Vultures of the holiday, which were fantastic as they drifted right over our heads. A Grey Heron was found by Keith on the edge of the river and Woodlarks sang from the scattered Holm Oaks. As it was now quite warm and we were enjoying this area so much I had walked back up to the minibus and drove it down the steep hill so we could have our lunch in the sunshine. This was very well received as I think the thought of walking back up the hill didn’t appeal to a few of our guests. Once lunch was completed we packed up the bus and headed off towards Miranda do Duero the main town of the area where we made a welcome comfort stop. Beyond the town I pulled into a car park on the edge of the river and spent a little time watching from here. This place also produced a few Griffon Vultures but also a singing Nightingale, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart and a Raven. Time was moving on and I wanted to get to one of my favourite places of the short break – the Los Barrancos Watchpoint near Fariza. It didn’t take too long to drive there from Miranda though some open grass lands, Holm Oak copses and very sleepy villages. We parked near the Ermita de Nuestra Senora and walked slowly down to the viewpoint, which was traditionally very good for raptors. It again did not disappoint with incredibly close views of both Griffon and Egyptian Vultures below where we were standing. Two adult Golden Eagles put in an appearance over the adjacent hillside and we watched as they were mobbed by a Common Buzzard and a Kestrel. Then as we were leaving we got very good views of a ‘pale phase’ Booted Eagle as it flew over our heads. Red billed Choughs added to the new species as did Sub-alpine Warbler and Alpine Swift. What a fantastic site and well worth the votes given for the ‘Place of the Trip’. It was now quite late so and very warm, so we drove straight back to the accommodation for a brief time to ourselves to freshen up before driving out again to Pistas de Linares. This evening it was very quiet with the usual Dartford Warblers, Dunnocks and singing Common Cuckoo from the watchpoint. Lots of Red Deer were scattered over the sierra and as dusk fell a Soprano Pipistrelle flew briefly back and forth. So we got back to the CTR Veniata and enjoyed the meal before retiring to our beds after a fairly long day.

May 1st :- Another dawn start at Linares and it was yet again a lovely late Spring morning and as we watched out over the sierra we found many things. Red Deer were grazing on the heather and I saw a male Hen Harrier, which only Graham managed to see before it disappeared behind the pine forest. Mike got good views of a handsome male Dartford Warbler and a Common Cuckoo sat singing from the top of a tree. While we were watching for wolves we also added Firecrest, Chaffinches, Dunnock, Stonechat, Crested, Coal and Great Tits to the morning’s tally. Around 9am we returned to the hotel for breakfast, which was most welcome. Today was our local day and when everyone was ready we met outside the hotel for the start of our walk around the village. Keith had been out before the rest of us and had been fortunate enough to have a Hawfinch fly over the hotel. However we didn’t have to go very far before we encountered some very good birdlife as the White Stork was sat on its nest and near here we also found a Red rumped Swallows nest. While we were watching these a Melodious Warbler sang from a nearby bush and eventually I managed to find it and look at him through the telescope. Then a Wryneck flew out and landed on the overhead wires with Common Whitethroats, Blackcaps, and Serins singing from the hedgerows. Although this was good the highlight was having a massive female Goshawk power its way over the forest, making me quite animated! As we wandered up through the village we encountered a few more woodland species including Short toed Treecreeper, Nuthatch, and Great Spotted Woodpecker but a handsome male Common Redstart was a delight to see in the telescope. We started to walk a track and all most immediately Ali found a cracking Schreiber’s Green Lizard that was sunning itself before running into a shallow hole. Even in the hole we could see this locally scarce reptile and everyone got superb views and most cases photographs. While we were watching the lizard, a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly flew past and over a grassed area covered in delightful Sand Crocuses, followed by a small group of Bee-eaters. We continued along the track for a short way finding a stunning Pearl bordered Fritillary, black & red striped Oil Beetle, Keith found a distant Short toed Eagle. Carpenter Bees, but superb views of a close Firecrest and a pair of Crossbills were fantastic. Butterflies were a feature with Ali finding a stunning Southern Scarce Swallowtail, which posed nicely for photographs. Back at the village we walked slowly to the man-made pools seeing again the Common Redstart in the hope of Fire Salamander. Sadly there weren’t any salamanders to be found but we were compensated with a young Iberian Water Frog. We continued up and through the ancient lichen-covered Oak woodland, which skirts the back of the village adding more species particularly Western Bonelli’s Warbler and Iberian Chiffchaff. It was now lunchtime so we headed back to the accommodation in now glorious sunshine, we’d had a fabulous morning seeing lots of different species not 15 minutes walk from the hotel. Antonio at the CTR Veniata produced yet another wonderful meal of traditional Paella and salad with an ice cream dessert and an odd glass of wine for the non-drivers. After lunch we took time-out to ourselves for a while before meeting up at the minibus for the second part of the day. We set off and headed out towards Otero, a village about 30 minutes drive away but our first stop was at a couple of water tanks en-route. Here I had previous success with some pond dipping and today was just as good as I managed to extract a lovely male Marbled Newt with my net. This area is also good for another local speciality – Bocage’s Wall Lizard and we managed to find a couple sun-bathing on the exposed banking. Amongst the Oaks we managed to see the usual Short toed Treecreeper, Jay, Iberian Chiffchaffs and Chaffinches but generally things were quiet in the ‘heat of the day’. Our next stop was another roadside pool but this one was natural with some good muddy fringes and home to the delightful European Tree Frog. Almost immediately we found one amongst the pool-side vegetation, so I picked it up and sat this tiny amphibian on an open branch. This was yet another highlight for the group especially the photographers who made full use of this tiny frog sat out in the open. Also here we found a couple of Bosca’s Newts in the pond another scarce localised amphibian, plus Griffon Vultures soaring around using the thermals of the nearby ridge, and Ali discovered a male Montagu’s Harrier quartering the sierra. We carried on the incredibly quiet roads through the sleepy village of Ferrerias de Arriba (actually we may have seen one person there!) then out towards Otero. This part of the Sierra de Culebra holds another wolf pack and one which is sometime supplemented by carcasses from the local farmers. It is always worth checking this site not just for the hope of a fresh carcass but also to see wolf tracks that can be found in the nearby mud. Unfortunately there weren’t any new animals but we did find some fantastic prints including one of the biggest I have ever seen. In addition to these, Pat also found some wolf scats, pretty much totally consisted of fur & bone (not that I examined it too closely). Due to the carcasses – certain birds tend to target this area and while we were there we got very good views of a couple of Ravens and a Red Kite. As we made our way back to the minibus we checked an area I had previously seen Ortolan Bunting but not today, however we did manage to find a Tawny Pipit, Linnets and Northern Wheatear. We made now our way back to San Pedro stopping along the Boya Road to look for wolf. Although it did look very good we again ‘lucked out’ on this elusive predator. However like lots of these situations we still managed to find something new as Keith discovered a nesting pair of Hen Harriers. We watched them periodically hunting the sierra before returning to the same patch of heather. We got good views of several Red and a couple of Roe Deer, a Firecrest put in a fine display for Mike, Rhona and I, plus we saw Crossbills flying over, Woodchat Shrike, Dunnock, Rock Bunting, Dartford & Sub-alpine Warblers. So we returned to the hotel for our evening meal but with the intention of going out later to look for Scop’s Owl. So after the meal we drove off south into the star-lit night to San Vitero and a walk through the village did produce a Scop’s Owl but only heard and we couldn’t encourage it any closer. I took everyone to the local bar in the village for a drink, which everyone really enjoyed as it was like nothing else they had experienced before. Soon enough it was time to drive the short distance back to San Pedro which produced a new mammal for the trip – Iberian Hare, with several along the roadside.

May 2nd :- Due to the late finish the previous night and the full day ahead, we dispelled with the usual dawn outing for wolf and enjoyed breakfast after a good sleep. I got a pleasant surprise when I woke as I could hear a Wryneck singing outside my window, so opened the shutters and found it sat on the balcony in full view – absolutely amazing!. Today we were driving the hour or so journey to the agricultural farmlands of Villafafila, where the biggest concentrations of Great Bustards occur in the world. The drive through is punctuated with a couple of stops - one for a female Hen Harrier hunting at the side of the road and the second for a superb male Black eared Wheatear, which gave fabulous telescope views along the edge of a ploughed field. Also here keen-eyed Pat discovered an Early Purple Orchid along the verge of the track. Our first stop was at the derelict buildings of Estacion de La Tabla where a fantastic colony of Lesser Kestrel breeds alongside Rock, Tree and House Sparrows. We stayed here for some time watching these aerial masters catch insects on the wing and trying to get some photographs doing so. A Montagu’s Harrier quartered the wheat fields and a Black Kite joined the melee of Lesser Kestrels causing some annoyance to the smaller raptors. Eventually we carried on the ‘one-horse’ town of Villafafila and as the day were now getting hotter straight out again to an area known for bustards. This is the Sierra de Villafafila (my name), which essentially is a network of cereal fields broken up by (some) drivable tracks. As we entered the site we saw lots of birds lining the wire fence, which turned out to be some Crested Larks, Corn Buntings, Linnets and a few Northern Wheatears. However it was the Great Bustards in the distance that caused us to exit the vehicle and set up our telescopes. We were getting some decent views through the scopes but a little distant and with some heat haze so we hoped for better further on, however as Christine rightly said “At least we have seen them”. We drove on very slowly and in doing so I heard a very familiar call to all of us – Quail, so I stopped and scanned the adjacent field. I could not believe it as I almost immediately found one amongst the vegetation occasionally lifting its head to call “wet my lips, wet my lips”. I eventually managed to get everyone on to what were now two birds using anything possible as a marker. However I needn’t have panicked as soon after this the group of 5 Common Quail ran out into the open right next to the bus and flew across the track in full view – brilliant. I can fully understand why Pat made it her ‘species of the trip’ you just don’t see them that well normally. So we continued and a few hundred metres further on we stopped in amazement as we were surrounded by male Great Bustards. We got out and again set up the telescopes and had incredible views of these large majestic birds, which can be so graceful both flying and walking through the wheat and barley fields. These were voted the ‘bird of the trip’ and invoked a couple of ‘magic moments’ and rightly so. I think it was Connie that said “Wow - they look like ships sailing through the wheat”. Bustards weren’t the only things around as several Calandra Larks buzzed their song-flight overhead and we did eventually manage to see one on the ground. It was now very hot and also time for lunch so I drove off the sierra and down to a picnic site on the edge of the Lagunas de Villafafila natural park. In the shade of a large tree we ate our tortilla and rice salad with lovely crusty bread, watching the Clouded Yellows, Brimstones, Orange-tips, Western Dappled Whites, Painted Ladies and Gatekeeper butterflies fly around. Bird-wise it was fairly quiet due to the hot afternoon but we did find a smart male ‘Spanish’ Yellow Wagtail sat on top of some marsh grass. After lunch we packed up the picnic and got back into the minibus where the air-conditioning kept us cool during our drive round the lagoon. Northern Wheatears graced fence posts and we saw a few Red legged Partridge and several more Crested Larks, Linnets and Corn Buntings before reaching the lagoon’s observatory. Here we stood in the shade of the building scanning the large body of water in front of us, quickly finding several new species for the trip. A Little Egret was a good find here amongst the Grey Herons and White Storks, water birds included Great Crested Grebes, Common Shelduck, Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Common Pochard and Coot. I found an adult Mediterranean Gull amongst the small Black headed Gull colony, several Gull billed Terns flew past where we were standing and 3 Black Terns were an excellent discovery. Waders were now thin on the ground but we did manage to find between us plenty of Avocets, Black winged Stilts and Lapwings along with an odd Common Redshank, Common Sandpiper and Ringed Plover. A Marsh Harrier created some disturbance for the resting wildfowl and yet more Lesser Kestrels hawked insects over the fields behind us. It was now mid afternoon we decided to leave Villafafila and return to the hotel for a good rest before going out again that evening to Pistas de Linares and the hope of seeing an Iberian Wolf. We got back for 4:30pm and two hours later we were driving the short journey to the watchpoint, where we stayed until dusk seeing just the usual suspects of Red and Roe Deer but no wolves!!!.

May 3rd :- We gathered for the final morning at 7am and after a quick hot drink we headed out to the site we had been the previous evening – Villardeciervos. The sky was clear again but this morning there was a strong biting wind from the North West, which made it very cold. We lined up looking out over the sierra searching the heath and forest tracks for our main prey. A few Red Deer were seen walking purposefully across the terrain but sadly this morning mammals were in short supply. However there is always something to occupy us and a stunning Firecrest flashing a stunning red crest brought smiles of disbelief to Mike & Rhona. Ali found a male Montagu’s Harrier, which sitting in the heather being initially described as “as a white blob!” it then quartered the area for a few minutes before landing in the same place, which it did two or three times. Could there be a nest in the area?. We also encountered the more familiar species with Rock Buntings, Dunnocks and Jays being seen, Crossbills ‘chupped’ as they flew over and a male Sub-alpine Warbler tacked from a hawthorn behind us. As the sun got higher and started to fully illuminate the rich landscape of this wonderful part of Spain Pat quietly said “I will remember this magical place one cold wet morning while I’m doing the ironing”. Around 9am we returned to the CTR Veniata for breakfast and the hot croissants, toast, coffee & tea were most welcome after being stood in the cold wind. During breakfast I confirmed our plans of where we were going and warned that it might get colder and I would be wearing boots not my usual sandals, which caused a few gasps and raised eyebrows. So we set off and drove through the narrow roads and quaint villages with their narrow streets ands quirky uneven stone buildings towards Sanabria – one of the main tourist towns of the region. Pat, Keith & I who are in the front see a Mistle Thrush fly up from the side of the road, as well as a couple of Grey Herons, White Storks and a Black Kite. From Sanabria we head up past El Puente where there is a wonderful outdoor market going on and the place is alive with people. Beyond the town we carry on climbing through deciduous woodlands that are primarily of Oak to our first stop the Lagunas de Sanabria Visitor Centre. We spend about 30 minutes looking around the building and watching the DVD showing the various natural parks in the region and Rhona cheekily gets a few photos off the television screen. As we return to the minibus I hear a Short toed Treecreeper and soon enough we are watching it climb the trunks and branches of a nearby Oak. Back in the minibus we continue to climb and the winding road produces some stunning vistas of the crystal clear Lago de Sanabria below us. Before long we are above the tree-line and into more moorland-like conditions with hillsides of stunted Broom and Heather. Rhona spots a Tawny Pipit at the side of the road, which is joined by a Stonechat and Linnet on the same boulder. At the top we park and climb out into the Arctic conditions (it’s now snowing very lightly!) but we brave the elements and prepare to make the short walk down to the smaller Laguna de Las Peces. Rhona & Christine are already busy photographing the daffodils and crocuses carpeting the short grass. A little way down the track I find a summer plumage Water Pipit and a Skylark is unbelievably song-flighting in the strong cold wind. Even at 1800m there is still a lot of snow around (there was none earlier than this time last year) and we have to negotiate a large strip that’s covering the track, but eventually we reach the lake. This place holds a special reptile and while I am searching for it Rhona finds a single duck on the water, which turns out to be a male Common Pochard and Mike finds a dead Mouse in the icy waters. Despite the freezing conditions I soon find what I am looking for, an Iberian Rock Lizard – restricted only to the N/W of Iberia. Again our wildlife paparazzi are producing some stunning shots of the lovely dappled blue/green lizard as it hides amongst the granite rocks. However we are now in a full-on snow-storm so needing to get warm we head back to the minibus without much argument and I plan where we might have our picnic lunch. The Spanish are a wonderfully accommodating people and in the village of St. Martin I call in at the local café-bar and ask if we purchase some drinks could we use his facilities for eating our picnic, which was no problem. So sheltered from the wind on there terrace we enjoyed a very tasty seafood rice salad, which was supplemented by some French fries and drinks from the café. After lunch we head back down the mountain with Pat finding an Iberian Wall Lizard near the minibus before we set off. I decide we should take the scenic route back to San Pedro as we pass through some wonderful habitat. Being a warm afternoon things are a little quiet but just driving through the ancient villages with their quaint houses and roadside donkeys was pleasure enough. However as we passed through an open bit of open land with some scattered oak trees a Bee-eater flies across the road and alights on one of the nearby trees. So we pull over and enjoy half an hour watching several of these incredibly colourful birds hawking insects from their perches. Alison found a Short toed Treecreeper and we also saw Coal, Great and Blue tits amongst the oaks. We continued along the road and just outside the village of Cional a close male Montagu’s Harrier made us stop along the road, however it was Christine who the ‘star species’. She had been looking out of her window and found a very pretty bird near the vehicle and inquired about its identification. I took a quick look and was incredibly pleased to say “male Ortolan Bunting” our first and only one of the trip. This species is quite a late migrant and not always guaranteed on this holiday. After we had all got very good and close views of it we again set off and arrived back at the CTR Veniata late afternoon. We then had a couple of hours to relax before our final try for wolf at Pistas de Linares, which sadly went the way of the other attempts in failure to see any. However we did get one fabulous animal sighting as an adult Wild Boar with 4 piglets. They trotted across the sierra in very comic fashion with the adult leading the young who were lined up behind her in true Benny Hill fashion. At dusk we returned to the hotel for our meal and straight afterwards we headed out again to look for night species. We returned to San Vitero where we listened for the Scop’s Owl but without success although Pat thought she saw one fly across the road and disappear into the night. After about an hour, (having had a drink in the local bar!) we returned to San Pedro and out in the open country we had a couple of Iberian Hares in the headlights. Then I saw a shape sat on a sign at the side of the road and quickly stopped with enough time to get the headlights on it – Tawny Owl sat right out in the open and in full view for everyone to see. At last we had seen an owl species and our hard work had paid off on the last night in the Sierra de Culebra.

May 4th :- It was decided not to try for the Iberian Wolf this morning as we needed to get back to Madrid Airport for an early afternoon flight back to Britain. However as we were loading the minibus we heard the regular singing Wryneck, plus seeing a Black Redstart, White Wagtail, Great & Blue Tits. The journey passed fairly quickly and en-route we saw the usual Common Kestrels, Common Buzzards, Black & Red Kites at the roadside. We arrived into Madrid with plenty of time for the flight and thankfully there was no ‘ash cloud’ disruption so the Easyjet flight was just about on time. Despite the disappointment of not seeing an Iberian Wolf everyone agreed it had still been a fantastic trip and a destination well worth visiting.

 

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