(A Whirlwind Trip Around Spain with Teresa Farino)
A pre-dawn start from Liébana and the Picos, necessary not only to cram in as much natural history as we could in the six-day break before us but also because my dog had eaten the constantly-travelling Teresa’s passport the night before, set the standard for the rest of the trip. Instead of going to Zamora, the plan had changed to visit the Mediterranean coast to see what was flowering in the autumn and to see a couple of new butterfly species for T. Almost all of what we saw, of course, was new to me.
Over the Piedraslenguas pass, our adventure began. First stop, the Cañon del Rio Lobos where we had a quick look around a promising part of the river for butterflies, reptiles and amphibians but instead heard and saw my first Cetti’s warbler as well as a couple of Iberian Azure-winged magpies. Back into our trusty steed and up to the top of the great big lump of juniper-clothed limestone, we experienced a taste of things to come. I’m quite used to, but still not bored by, big rocky cliffs with Griffons scanning the depths and the odd Red-billed chough taking the air, but here the accompanying expansive views of plains as far as the horizon is pure Spanish meseta.
We lost our way only slightly around Soria, noting that our lapses of concentration tended to happen at the most vital moments while we were discussing anything from Pyrenean bear introductions to child psychology. The main destination of our first day was nearing, Spain’s largest, natural inland body of water, the Laguna de Gallocanta. Lying in an endorheic basin, it’s probably better described as potentially the largest because the saline lagoon is reliant on rainfall to boost its levels and subject to massive evaporation from the Spanish summer.
Mid-afternoon so early in October was probably not the best time to visit as Gallocanta is famous for the thousands of Cranes, Grus grus, (!) that over-winter there, arriving at dawn from their roosting sites and returning at dusk. Anyway, from a vantage point of a hide built on stilts we made out seven individuals hunched at the edge of the water. Above neighbouring fields of drooping sunflowers, and much nearer, were a 2nd year Marsh harrier (the first of countless to be seen on our trip) and an unforgettable close-up view of a brilliantly pied Black-shouldered kite. Within minutes of these two birds a couple of large raptors appeared that we decided were probably Golden eagles, followed by a Black stork! Checking migration routes, we came to the conclusion that this one must have been a little off-course. Tearing ourselves away from this place of ornithological surprises, a Blue rock thrush was spotted perched, as they do, on the most obvious viewpoint, this time the edge of a barn roof.
Onwards and further south than originally intended, we drove through Teruel to the Valencian coast where we hit the motorway at Cagunt and drove to the town of Altea between Calpe and Benidorm where T’s friend Josefina is temporarily living. Although the night-time temperature was autumnal, it still felt exotic to me. The Med! Memories of late night swims on family holidays mixed with awe at the size of the plants growing on the roadsides (that in my home grow in pots) combined to make me wish it were morning already.
Before we could get outdoors properly however, we had a visit to the British Consulate’s offices in Alicante to be endured. Fairly successful, T arranged for the necessary papers to be couriered to her home and we escaped the metropolis northwards to Montgó in search of milkweed, food plant of Plain tiger caterpillars while keeping our eyes peeled for mysterious “little white flowers.”
Climbing a track through Aleppo pines on a slope of the chunky mountain, sheltered from the coastal wind, we found Squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium), a curious low, spreading and poisonous plant that when tapped, spectacularly shoots out its seeds. I kept my distance while T demonstrated.
Another adrenalin rush was fuelled by the discovery of a rather large, stripey-legged spider that T had managed to walk under without disturbing. She was quite amenable, the spider, so a photo session ensued, entering a pot with not too much resistance for an even closer look. It has since been identified as probably Araneus angulatus.
Lang’s short-tailed blues and various odonata darted about in the dappled shade and we found plenty of milkweeds trailing around, but no sign of that elusive large, spotty-bodied butterfly. Were we too early for their second brood in this unusually late year or just plain unlucky? A solitary Griffon vulture coasted by overhead, not something I was expecting so close to the sea. We would have liked to reach the top of the ridge and I would have enjoyed exploring the caves but we had to move on to check out the promontory on the sea side of the mountain. Walking out towards the lighthouse I watched a falcon battling the winds (possibly Eleanora’s?) while also checking out the Yellow-legged gulls for any coloured rings. Feeling very at home on the limestone fissures, T found Sea squill shooting up from its cowpat-like bulb, the daintier lilac-coloured Autumn squill and a, but not the, little white flower, another lily, Lapiedra martinezii, all superficially resembling their relatives in the lily family, the asphodels, and no easy feat to photograph in the glare of the white rock in the sun.
Timed to perfection, we had a date with Jules Sykes of Oliva Rama Tours in his home town of, well, Oliva. We chatted and enjoyed a drink sitting on his terrace which backs onto an Orange grove (what doesn’t in Valencia?), alive with Mole crickets and, as was later proven, hunting ground of Little owls. The importance of local knowledge was first revealed here with Jules (apart from touring with the co-author of the Traveller’s Nature Guides, Spain of course) as he encouraged us to visit his patch - the marshes at Marjál de Pegó-Oliva. Homemade maps were very kindly provided and another early start was in order, the lure of Bluethroats and Hoopoe being enough for me.
Following Jules’s advice we checked out the reedbeds first, a mix of Common and Giant reeds. Post-dawn at a hide at the end of a boardwalk, using my newly-borrowed binoculars, I exclaimed/whispered “Otter!” These bins are really very good - Pentax Papilio 8.5 x 21. Developed mainly for close-ups of invertebrates they also double up well for birding because they’re so light. While T scorned my identification I had a better look at the scale of the reeds. Bank vole was much more likely, later confirmed looking at the mammal guide among the box of books thoughtfully packed in the back of the car. We spotted more rodents, though this time dead, on the tracks around the reedbeds. Brown rats, or Black, we weren’t sure. A consolation for me is that they were run over rather than poisoned although being a Ramsar and Zepa site, I don’t suppose anyone would poison wildlife here.
Back to the birds, Bluethroats (White-spotted) were among the first to appear among the tall stems. Lowering our eyes we saw Purple gallinules pecking about the ground, dashing for cover when they realised they were being watched. Exploring further, back to the road and the grid of tracks criss-crossing the rice paddies with the sun now glistening on the town of Pegó behind and the distant hills beyond, we moved habitats. Grey herons were quietly fishing on the irrigation banks, accompanied by Great white, Little and Cattle egrets. The ubiquitous and aptly named Marsh harriers were patrolling the morning skies and we watched Black-headed gulls and Whiskered terns diving for crayfish with the warbling croaks of Iberian water frogs serenading the whole scene. Jules’s map had the miniature aircraft field down as a good spot for Hoopoe so we drove around the hill for a looksee. Sure enough, we almost ran one over. Amazing how these eye-catching birds can disappear completely into the undergrowth. A small flock of Long-tailed tits were much easier to see, flitting from one tree to the next. As we moved away I was very pleased to spot a Southern grey shrike sitting on a wire above. Nice and easy for a fledgling birder to identify.
Time was pressing now (again!) and we had to tear ourselves away from Jules’s jewel. I could happily have spent the whole day, or more, here even though there was still no sign of those elusive Plain tigers. Thanks Jules!