Friday, 13 November 2015

North Spain trip, 15th to 22nd August 2015

Pre-amble:      Earlier this year I took a trip to the north of Spain, together with another five birders/naturalists from my home region of Southend in Essex.  One of the group, John, had made a similar trip last year.  The main object was to see mammals, and in particular Wolves, Bears and Wildcats.  I was particularly interested in seeing the Wildcats as I had never seen them before, and although I live in a region of Spain where they supposedly exist, they tend to be night-time animals, and have probably interbred with feral domestic cats.  I wanted to see the ‘real thing’ and in daylight!

Obviously, because of the places we would be going to, there would be plenty of opportunity to see some good birds – in particular a trip to Fuente Dé in the Picos de Europa, and a pelagic boat trip from the northern fishing port of Gijón. It was to be a guided trip in a mini-bus, with Karl from “Europe’s Big 5” acting as our guide and chauffeur.  The hotels we stayed at weren´t exactly 5 star, but were perfectly adequate (although the Begoña in Gijón being in the centre of the city was noisy).  The food (breakfast and main evening meal) was also perfectly adequate although typically Spanish.  All the hotels had WiFi internet (to varying degrees!).

15th August We all met at Madrid Barracas airport terminal 4 when my bus from
                      Cartagena got in – the rest of the group had come by plane from the UK
                      and had arrived earlier and been picked up by Karl.  Then a 4 hour
                      (400km) dash to the Picos de Europa, staying at the Hotel Tierra 
                      de la Reina at Boca de Huerfano, near the Embalse de Riaño on
                      the N-621.

                      Approaching the village of Boca de Huergano, the road (N-621) is
                      alongside the River Esla with some mountain pasture between the road
                      and river which must have been recently cut for hay, and here we had 
                      two separate short sightings of Wildcat  - on our first afternoon – even if
                      we saw nothing else, I could go back home now happy!

The pastures alongside the River Esla

 The entrance to the village

The River Esla flowing through the village

                      Arriving at the hotel, we unpacked and then had a little time to have a look around locally.  At the back of the hotel was a river, and in front, cultivated fields and then mountains.  We then went for an evening excursion in search of Wolves, in 4x4’s provided by the company Wildwatching Spain ( After a few km. Along the N-621, we cut into a mountain track, and after another km. or so had to dismount the 4x4’s and walk a last short although hilly grass track.  Stopping at a viewpoint, across a valley with our ‘scopes, we saw a male and female Wolf, and two cubs which appeared to be playing.  We spent about an hour here watching them – distantly but well – until the light began to go and it was time to return to the hotel.

                      Birds and Mammals seen on the 15th August (on the road from Madrid to Boca de Huergano and in Boca de Huergano itself)

                      Common Buzzard; Honey Buzzard; Grey Heron; Carrion Crow; Raven; Greenfinch; Goldfinch; Linnet; Serin; Chaffinch (heard); White Wagtail; Griffon Vulture; Wren (heard); Jay; Crag Martin; House Martin; Kestrel; Woodpigeon; Mistle Thrush; Collared Dove; Black Redstart; Grey Wagtail; Swallow; Red-rumped Swallow; Red Kite.

                      Wildcat; Wolf

16th August  We stayed in the Boca de Huergano area all day.  At first light, the rest of the group went on a trip to see Wolves again, but I stayed birdwatching around the hotel and was rewarded with Dipper in the river.

  The Dipper found in the river

 Another of the river birds, Grey Wagtail

                     The rest of the crew drove out for a few kilometres and then had an hour's walk up hill in a beautiful scenic but hilly area where a Wolf was seen plus 6 Red Deer stags and a Roe Deer. Arriving back at the hotel late morning where we met up, we spent the rest of the day checking out the area around the hotel, finding Red-backed Shrike and Wryneck and then the nearby Riaño reservoir and the Valle de Valdeón returning to the hotel in the late afternoon. In the early evening we again drove by the riverside pastures in a concerted effort for Wildcats - we saw 3 Wildcats, but this time relatively closely and at our leisure, as they didn´t disappear as soon as we got out of the mini-bus!

 Female Red-backed Shrike that was bringing up a single chick on her own

Marsh Tit
The crew at lunch at the National Park

The Picos de Europa National Park

 The ´Piedrashitas´lookout
 One of three Wildcats seen during the afternoon

                     Birds and Mammals seen on the 16th August (around Boca de Huergano, the Riaño reservoir and the Valdeón valley)

                     Black Redstart; House Martin; Swallow; Great Spotted Woodpecker; Serin; Grey Wagtail; Dipper; Red-rumped Swallow; Blue Tit; Jay; Linnet; Common Buzzard; Blackcap; Mistle Thrush; Grey Heron; Robin; Wren; Dunnock; Common Whitethroat; Chiffchaff; Wryneck; Tree Pipit; Red-backed Shrike; Raven; Griffon Vulture; Nuthatch; Coal Tit; Pied Flycatcher; Cormorant; Marsh Tit.

Wildcat; Wolf.

17th August  Packing up in the Boca de Huergano area, we had an early morning trip to the valleys around the Riaño Reservoir where we had Fox and both Iberian Ibex and 'Cantabrian' Chamois.

 View across the Riaño Reservoir
                     Andrew and Karl however decided to look for the wolf family we saw on the 15th instead but unfortunately drew a blank but did have a good view of a Wildcat. After breakfast we made an 80km dash on the N-621 and CA-185 to Fuente Dé, stopping en route at Potes to refurbish supplies (and having a group of 100 or so Red-billed Chough in a field, and an adult Egyptian Vulture fly overhead). 

 Adult Egyptian Vulture over Potes

                     At  Fuente Dé at around midday we took the famous cable-car to the mountain top to search for Wallcreeper, Snowfinch, Rock Thrush, Alpine Accentor, Alpine Chough, Lammergeier.  On a cloudy day, we didn’t have much luck with the birds – I lagged behind and struck it lucky seeing a single Wallcreeper flying around the Cable-car station which the others didn’t get, and of the other specialities we only saw Alpine Chough and Alpine Accentor.

 Our transport up the mountain at Fuente Dé

 From the top cablecar station, the view back down to the base station with Griffon Vulture drifting by

 Fuente Dé views

One of the birds we wanted to see, Alpine Chough ...

... and another, Alpine Accentor
                     Coming back down with the cloud dropping, we made our way to the fishing port of Gijón, which was to be our base for the night, staying in the centre of Gijón itself, in the hotel Begoña Centro.

                      Birds and Mammals seen on the 17th August (around Boca de Huergano, the Riaño reservoir, en route to Fuente Dé and Fuente Dé itself)

                      Red-billed Chough; Egyptian Vulture; Wallcreeper; Alpine Accentor; Alpine Chough; Black Redstart; Linnet; Peregrine; Griffon Vulture.

                      Ibex; Chamois; Fox.

18th August  An early morning start to get to the harbour for 8am for the pelagic boat trip
                      into the Bay of Biscay - but there were no crew until 9am!  Ah well, this is Spain!  Eventually a 7 hour trip from Gijón harbour, on a catamaran, so very stable, on a fairly windless day.  However by the end of it we all thought it had been worthwhile with both birds and mammals - for me the star sightings of the day were a couple of adult Sabine´s Gulls still in breeding plumage.

 Our transport for the day, the catamaran ´Cabopeñas´

 The city of Gijón from the sea

 Common Dolphins alongside the catamaran

 Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull

 Sandwich Tern

 Common Tern

 Storm Petrel

 Adult Black Tern

 Storm Petrel

 Adult Sabine´s Gull

 Juvenile Gannet

 Cory´s Shearwater

 Diving Gannet

 The second adult Sabine´s Gull

 Cory´s Shearwater

 Arctic Skua

 Adult Gannet

 Balearic Shearwater

 Arctic Skua

Adult Gannet

                     Late afternoon we travelled on to Somiedo National Park, to spend our next couple of nights at the Hotel Castillo de Alba in Pola de Somiedo.  We quickly dumped our bags and were off again in the van heading for a bear watchpoint at La Peral.  We had to drive past another bear watchpoint en route and on seeing that there were a lot of animated people with ´scopes we stopped for a look – and had our first bears, mother and cub. Also while there, we had Goshawk and Griffon Vulture.  The watchpoint is on the AS-227, at the Llamardal turn-off.

 Cantabrian Brown Bears, mother and cub

                     Birds and Mammals seen on the 18th August (pelagic from Gijón 20 nautical miles into the Bay of Biscay, and later en route to Pola de Somiedo)

                     Yellow-legged Gull; Great Black Backed Gull; Whimbrel; Common Sandpiper; Turnstone; Manx Shearwater; Cory’s Shearwater; Gannet; Common Tern; Lesser Black-backed Gull; Herring Gull; Sabine’s Gull; Storm Petrel; Arctic Skua; Balearic Shearwater; Goshawk; Griffon Vulture.

                      Common Dolphin; Bottle Nosed Dolphin; Fin Whale; Cantabrian Brown Bear.

19th August  An early morning trip to La Peral in the Somiedo park to search for more Cantabrian Bears, but the only mammals we got to see were more Chamois in the mountains, although one of our group Bob had a brief view of a Pine Marten. However we did have a good variety of birds while waiting at our watchpoint, such as Griffon Vulture, male Blue Rock Thrush, male Bullfinch, Garden Warbler, Black Redstart, Red-backed Shrike, Tree Pipit, Pied Flycatcher and Alpine Chough.

 Views around the Lagos de Saliencia

 Griffon Vulture overhead

                     We spent the most of the rest of the day at the Lagos de Saliencia, an area of outstanding beauty about forty minutes from Pola de Somiedo, where there were some very interesting butterflies, and in the evening returned to the previous evenings bear watchpoint where we had good views of a Golden Eagle, but bad weather - low cloud - brought an end to that without any bear sightings.

Birds and Mammals seen on the 19th August (Somiedo National Park)

Griffon Vulture; Golden Eagle; Blue Rock Thrush; Bullfinch; Stonechat; Linnet; Garden Warbler; Black Redstart; Red-backed Shrike; Tree Pipit; Jay; Alpine Chough; Pied Flycatcher.


20th August Another early morning trip to La Peral to look for Cantabrian Bear, but again drew a blank, the only mammal seen being a Stoat!  We did however do better with birds of prey, with around 20 Griffon Vultures, a Short-toed Eagle and male Montagu’s Harrier and a Honey Buzzard.

 Views from El Peral

                      After breakfast some of the group went off for a long walk on the hills at Llamardal, but Paul Baker and I decided to stay in Pola de Somiedo, and sitting by the river outside a bar, we had a Sparrowhawk take a Sparrow just above our heads! Other birds were Griffon Vultures, Common Buzzards and a Grey Wagtail.

 Our hotel at Pola de Somiedo

 Some views of Pola de Somiedo

                      In the afternoon we moved on to the Municipality of Cangas del Narcea  (89km, AS-15 and AS-227, approx 1 ½ hours), and to the Hotel Grabelon, in Gedrez. Here we went on to another well known watchpoint, at Fondosdevega, in Degaña (the AS-15 between km. 87 and 88) where apart from Chamois and a mother Cantabrian Brown Bear and its cub, there was a variety of woodland birds.

Birds and Mammals seen on the 20th August (Somiedo National Park) and Fondosdevega, Degaña

Griffon Vulture; Short-toed Eagle; Montagu´s Harrier; Common and Honey Buzzards; House Martin; Sparrowhawk; Grey Wagtail; Spanish Sparrow; Firecrest; Tree Pipit; Crested Tit (heard); Blue Tit; Robin

Stoat; Cantabrian Brown Bear; Chamois

21st August  A morning excursion back to the Fondosdevega watchpoint for Cantabrian Bears drew a blank, although the sighting of a Pine Martin proved popular, and Chamois were seen on the distant peaks.  The middle of the day was spent in the region of the Reserva Natural Integral de Muniellos (the largest Oak forest in western Europe) and the Puerto de Conio where with clear skies and no wind, the most interesting living things were butterflies which included Great Banded Grayling, a male Lesser Purple Emperor and several Wall.

 Iberian Emerald Lizard also known as Schreiber's Green Lizard 

 Great Banded Grayling


 The Muniellos Reserve

 Lesser Purple Emperor butterfly

 Beehives surrounded by thick wall to keep the Bears at bay

                      In the evening we all took the long walk to another supposed Bear watchpoint, at the Monesterio de Hermo, which produced no bears, but we did see more Chamois and our only Wild Boar of the week. We stayed overnight again at the Hotel Grabelon in Gedrez where a few beers and wines were downed on this, our last evening of the trip.

Birds and Mammals seen on the 21st August (Fondosdevega, Muniellos, Monesterio de Hermo)

Common Buzzard; Jay; Coal Tit; Firecrest; Grey Wagtail; Dipper; Tawny Owl (heard); Nuthatch; Pied Flycatcher; Bonellis Warbler (heard)

Pine Martin; Chamois; Wild Boar

22nd AugustTaking our leave of the excellent Hotel Grabelon, we stopped off one last time at the bear watchpoint at Fondosdevega, where we had final good views of the mother and cub Cantabrian Brown Bears we had seen the previous day.

 Cantabrian Brown Bear at Fondosdevega

                      From here we tore back south to Madrid airport, stopping off briefly to watch 17 Great Bustards and for a sandwich lunch at the Villafafila reserve, where being more meridional, we had some bird species that we hadn’t seen all week.  The watching concluded with us having an Iberian Magpie fly across the motorway in front of us as we approached the airport.

 Great Bustards at Villafafila

Birds and Mammals seen on the 22nd August (Fondosdevega, Villafafila, Madrid)

                      Great Bustard; Short-toed Eagle; Southern Grey Shrike; Northern Wheatear; Spotless Starling; Iberian Magpie; Common Buzzard; Woodchat Shrike.