Monday, June 24, 2019
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Travels Around Spain

gypsum-hills

 

Articles on our (sadly not too frequent) wildlife trips around the rest of Spain.

Never Mind the Bustards

The weather forecast wasn't looking good for any wildlife-watching anywhere within reachable distance (which is actually quite far with Teresa driving) so we decided that if it was going to be wet it may as well be warm too. Instead of wolves in Zamora we headed further south to Extremadura for bustards and cranes for me and dragonflies and moths for T.
We drove through heavy showers to the Laguna de La Nava where as much as I tried to make a goose a crane, the Anatidae won.

Fuentes de la Nava

From the hide for the disabled (recommended for the best views) we saw huge flocks of Greylag geese, a fair number of White storks, a few Marsh harriers and heard Cetti's warbler. T also spotted a brave lone dragonfly perched on the wooden entrance rail. We made the campsite at Monfrague with just enough light left to erect the tent, forty three Red kites later, by which time the rain had eased to occasional light showers.

Approaching Monfrague from the south

Morning brought the promised Azure-winged magpies as well as another favourite of mine, singing Spotless starlings. Driving into Monfragüe National Park, through ripped-out eucalyptus plantations replaced by young indigenous oaks, we made the obligatory stop at Peña Falcón, the iconic (and disappointingly just about the only) peak of the area where a solitary Black vulture, Aegypius monachus, obliged us with its presence among the ever-present Griffons.

The Black vulture at Peña Falcon

I'd seen one once in Liebana among a flock of Gyps fulvus and recognised the dark air-born plank of a bird though this was the first time I´d had a good look at its prominently pale legs.
Continuing south over the Tajo and through Torrejon el Rubio we visited a small, reed-fringed reservoir having decided to avoid any large bodies of water with inaccesibly steep banks, hoping for closer views of water fowl and late-autumn invertebrate life.

Nice weather for Snipe

While T checked out the area around the bridge I scanned the main channel where water flowed in. Little egrets, snipe, lapwing, otter......Otter!!? While I watched it hunt in the water another appeared slipping out of the reeds. My first ever otter sighting had doubled in numbers to a mother and cub.

The otter family

Enthusiasm undampened by the drizzle, we watched them swim until they disappeared from view. We returned to the dry and warm of the car to head to Caceres for supplies, our heads full of otters. What do you call a female otter? Bitch just didn't seem right, but it is. Luckily we were inside the supermarket when the weather turned torrential. The locals dashing in seemed rather under-equipped for the unusual inclemency.
Back to business we had a tip off from Teresa's mate John on where to look for feeding cranes. Slowly trawling the dehesa land between Monroy and Torrejon while at the same time keeping an eye on the tree canopies for Black-shouldered kites my eyes were beginning to glaze over when we turned up trumps.

Common cranes and Greylag geese near Monroy

To our left a small group of Grus grus in the golden light of the late afternoon. It was only on jumping out of the car that T noticed a much bigger group further up the field feeding alongside some Greylag geese. No Lisa, not Great bustards. Satisfied somewhat it was time to make our way to canvas home to dream of otters.
I was still on my first coffee of the morning when T brought me a present. When an entomologist says close your eyes and open your hand who isn't going to feel a little apprehensive? Relieved to feel the plastic pot I opened my eyes to a gorgeous little tree frog.

Tree frog at the campsite

I'd been vaguely looking for them having been told they were here but must admit had been looking for a slightly larger amphibian. Still, small is beautiful. I carried on with my routine morning photo shoot of Azure-winged magpies, and a surprise Hoopoe, while T scoured the toilet block and neighbouring chalets for moths. On receiving her second present of the day I was much happier for it to be in a pot. One of two Rhinoceros beetles that she'd found (now identified as Copris hispanus, a similar Dung beetle but with grooved lines running the length of the elytra ).

Copris hispanus, close up of its mouth

Lovely. Really.

Rhinocerous beetle released from pot


Leaving the campsite for our next day's excursion we were drawn back to what were now "our" otters. And what a treat they gave us, a real otter-fest. The mother emerged from their holt among the reeds followed by first one cub, then another! The three swam across the channel to emerge onto the far bank.

The otters playing on the spit

Gambolling along the spit they chased away a competing Little egret before returning to the water and swimming towards the main body of the reservoir, followed by a very excited otter-watcher.

One of the otter cubs seeing off the Little egret

Creeping carefully low among the vegetation near the water's edge I found the cubs playing on a small rocky promontory.

The playful otter cubs waiting for the next meal

Mum was concentrating on feeding her playful brood, bringing fish and crayfish and calling every now and then.

Mum and cub eating a fish

T caught up with me after having had her own otter experience by the old bridge, a single adult Lutra lutra that we assume must have been the dog.An Extremaduran Cork oak He had his own holt there, a multitude of spraints and crayfish remains in its vicinity. European dog otters maintain large territories, presumably because they eat a lot of fish and crustaceans etc. but will share territory with a bitch.

I was surprised at how vocal our family of three was, and how unconcerned the mother was by our proximity. She regularly stared in our direction before apparently deciding we were not a threat and continuing her hunt for food in the deeper waters of the now choppy reservoir. In total we watched them for around three hours before dragging ourselves away for a scour of the plains around Trujillo for bustards.


After a couple of hours every stone and bush appeared to be one. I can't think of a better analogy than the needle in a haystack but at least the haystack gave us the white underwing flashes of a couple of Black-bellied sandgrouse taking flight, a juvenile Hen harrier and lots of larks.

 

 

Trujillo

By day four the weather had improved so much that T drove to Torrejon el Rubio to look for dragonflies on what turned out to be an extremely elusive body of water that she had visited years before. We did see, however, great views of a Hoopoe fishing about a dry-stone wall with it's curved probe of a bill.

Hoopoe at Torrejon el Rubio

Back towards Monroy to re-find the Common cranes of a couple of days ago a Black, or Cinereous, Black, or Cinereous, vulture, Agypius monachusvulture flew over us. Crossing the Rio Almonte I spied an otter dive into the water. I was, by now, expecting to see them everywhere. We dashed down for a closer look past Crag martins and flushing a pair of startled noisy sandpipers (possibly Green). What could have been a Two-tailed pasha, but which will just have to remain a large, dark butterfly, also skimmed past me. The otter didn't reappear which was just as well because my camera battery had just died.


We'd been commandeering the washing room on the campsite every evening to re-charge camera batteries while writing up notes with a bottle or two. Somehow mine hadn't fully charged. An early lunch in an amenable bar was called for and found in Madrigalejo. Not only the nearby rice paddies but the town itself was evidently crane country. As we approached the hostal/restaurant the air was alive with the screeching honks of flocks moving around. Battery recharged and tummies full of bocadillos de tortilla de bacon y queso it was a relief to get back outside, leave the frustration and follow the birds. Whether in our car hide or on foot we tried to creep up slowly and quietly but the flat lands with little cover made it impossible to get within a decent distance.

Cranes in the arrrozales (rice paddies) of Madrigalejo

We were finally thwarted good and proper by a fallen tree that Hercules could have moved and we couldn't but at least it meant we were still there at roosting time to witness hundreds of cranes taking to the air, calling it a day... loudly.

Cranes heading for their evening roost

One last creep the length of a track beside the rice and I spotted a bright red bird in the bushes on my side. Not a robin and something I'd never seen before, a Red avadavat, Amandava amandava, an exotic Asian species that has recently made its home in certain parts of Iberia.

Male Red avadavat in full breeding plumage

An autumn-breeding bird he was sporting his most colourful plumage.

Juvenile Red avadavat

The flock was moving around the bushes alongside another of Waxbills. The Vegas de Madrigalejo also gave us Marsh harriers, a beautiful male Hen harrier, Hoopoes galore, Fan-tailed warbler and a Little grebe paddling about an irrigation ditch.

Azure-winged magpie, Cyanopica cooki, Plasencia campsite

The Azure winged magpies actually preferred Doritos


Our last morning dawned and we couldn't possibly leave without going to say goodbye to our otters. We were joined by another fan, pausing during his deliveries of restaurant supplies to enjoy the "nutrias", as mother and cubs frolicked in the murky waters just yards from us on the bridge.

Our otter family

Suerte

When dispersal time comes we hope the young ones avoid the road. The male that day was fishing the far end of the embalse, breaching and diving dolphin-like while T stumbled across an amazing red-eyed Praying mantis. I've since read that the eyes of Mantis religiosa can darken in poor light conditions.

Red-eyed Mantis religiosa


The Red kite count on the way home was completely scuppered by a large number in a field next to the motorway, now into Castile-Leon. We took the next turning off and followed a track towards them, an ominously overpowering smell penetrating the car. Windows now firmly shut there was no sign of a carcass. As we braved the smell to take photos a tractor appeared from below, drove past and stopped beyond us before entering the field, a sign on its side proclaiming its contents of dead animals not for anyone's consumption, 'cept for kites.

The tractor in full smelly spray mode

The driver was curious (and curiously, chewing a ring-pull from a can) because apparently they don't get strangers around those parts. I wonder what he thought about us?

 

Red kite, Milvus milvus, off the motorway

Spain, Butterflies and Little White Flowers

(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.

Cañon Rio Lobos

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.

Gallocanta lagoon

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.

Squirting cucumber, Ecbalium elaterium

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.

The Montgo spider, 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.

Lapiedra martiezii and the cowpat Urginea maritima

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.

Pego-Oliva marshes


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. Grey heron fishing at Pego-Oliva
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!


The Serra de Espadá couldn’t possibly be missed out, not least because an actual picture of one of our quarry, a Two-tailed pasha, is proudly displayed on its pages in our bible, the afore-mentioned Traveller’s Nature Guide to Spain.

A stripped cork oak in the Serra D'Espada

We searched thoroughly though couldn’t turn up a single Strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, their caterpillar’s food plants. Thankfully the Cork oaks swathing the mountainside were photogenic and home to woodpeckers, their tell-tale nesting holes now abandoned, Nuthatch, Firecrest and the biggest ant I’ve ever seen (aren’t they all?), a Wood ant.

The Wood ant

I was surprisingly pleased to see a Great tit, realising that with all the summer visitors at home it had been a long time since I’d noticed one. A camera-shy, female Large psammodromus, one of the few lizards we saw this trip, scurried under the fallen leaves. There was just time to try and digitally catch a Yellow-veined darter and powdery blue skimmers before carrying on our journey. But would we have time to fit in Els Ports and a drink with Tony?

With two nights in comfy beds under our belts and the disappointment of the Espadá mountain range, we decided it was time to dig out the tent from under the gear in the car and look forward to a night camping on the Ebro delta.

Dawn on the Ebro delta


Driving through the rice paddies gave us a taste of what was to come. Grey herons and all three species of egret were everywhere we looked and, joy of joys, a Kingfisher shot along the ditch next to the road, flashing its turquoise blue and burnt orange colours. (It was about this point that I gave up scanning for little white flowers.)
Conservation of this important wetland is complicated by the fact that so many people live and work in the delta. Towns, low-rise and long, meld with the landscape, taking up as little of the precious reclaimed ground as possible. A great deal of the land is given over to rice production and while we were there the harvest was well under way, egrets dicing with death to enjoy easy pickings from the blades of the great machinery.

Village on the Ebro delta


T plumped for the campsite near the dunes on the north-east side of the delta in a last-ditch attempt to find those Plain tigers and we arrived with minutes to spare before the site closed its gates. I hate campsites. On this one I saw my first kitchen tents, microwaves and all. Still, the place was nearly empty and I slept well without the need to zip up my sleeping bag and dreamt of flamingos.
At dawn we were up and raring to go. A brisk stretch of the legs took us to a hide where, along with the early-rising Marsh harriers, a Hummingbird hawkmoth was up with the lark and seemingly enjoying the sap seeping from the green wood of the new look-out. There were more Purple gallinule stalking around the reeds and lots of ducks. I’m sorry to say that unless it’s a Mallard, a duck is a duck to me, although T did point out some Red-crested pochard later. A couple of Black or Bar-tailed godwits rummaged around in the sand at the water’s edge, probing with their extremely long, slightly upturned bills.
An unpromising, choppy sea didn’t bode well for any butterfly species at all but at least the wind had blown the clouds away. Dashing back to the campsite to pack up, a more than likely Short-eared owl skimmed the ground in front of us.
We optimistically started our search in the dunes of the Platja de la Marquesa, turning up plenty of milkweed but, you guessed it, no Danaus chrysippus. Leaving T to it, I played at creeping up unawares on the Kingfishers plying the dyke between the rice and the sea. The blue and orange team won. Crested larks kept slightly more still. In fact, larks in their various forms were probably the most numerous birds throughout the whole trip, although very few were identifiable. Back in the dunes for more stationary objects, only briefly sheltered from the stiff breeze, I spied something black and orange. Could it be a Plain tiger caterpillar? On the wrong plant for a start, it turned out to be a strangely-named Kew arches, Brithys crini. A boringly plain brown as an adult moth, this striking youth was feeding on a Sea daffodil, Pancratium maritimum, the white flowers long gone and the pods now dropping lustrously black seeds resembling little lumps of coal.

Kew arches, Brithys crini, caterpillar

Nearby, a small group of bronze-coloured fungi had popped up through the fine sand. (A small but important piece of advice here, don’t forget you might still have bins around your neck when lying on sand to photograph the finer details of dune wildlife.)
Abandoning the north and east-facing flanks of the delta, we crossed the majestic Ebro aboard one of the flat-bottomed car ferries and aimed for the lagoons and salt pans of the southern side, eyes now peeled for Glossy ibis and Greater flamingo.

Crossing the Ebro on a ferry

The former didn’t appear at all but we did see a few, far-off flamingos though even with the bins not close enough for a good study. We paused between lagoons for yet another cheese and ham sandwich while a Caspian tern amused us with its aerial displays of fishing tactics.Avocets on the Ebro Yet another Kingfisher amenably (and surprisingly) perched, close by, long enough for a good look at its impressively outsized bill. I discovered that many of these birds leave their summer inland territories to over-winter in sites on the coast. The Ebro delta is obviously a favourite!
A little further on, a party of Avocets were siesta-ing and three Cormorants were sitting on poles sticking out of the sea. Looking up, expecting a large raptor to be another Marsh harrier, an Osprey was joining in the fishing bonanza. I dashed up a handily-positioned look-out tower and had great views as it circled close by, too excited to bother with the camera, I just enjoyed watching my first Osprey!
The last of the day’s sun was catching a huge, threatening cumulonimbus above the hills from the motorway as I spied out of the corner of my eye…..a green kestrel? Parakeet! We must be nearing Barcelona and dinner at Nick’s with Lucy.

 


If you’re going to live in a big city you may as well live right in the middle of it, as Nick Lloyd sensibly does, just off one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares. He wasn’t too difficult to find in the dark. We eventually parked in an underground lock-up and climbed the stairs to chez Lloyd, a high-ceilinged, book-lined flat up among the tops of the nettle trees (probably Celtis australis) within aroma-wafting distance of the local Pakistani restaurant.
Strawberry tree fruitA delicious meal of mejillones and almejas and a good, if brief, night’s sleep later, we were ready to hit the wildlife spots of Nick and Lucy’s hometown. We were off first to the Garraf, home to the Bonelli’s eagle webcam, assiduously monitored (by me at least) until the tragic demise of the first chick. The mainly limestone massif of the Garraf Natural Park rises almost directly from the coast giving tremendous views of the sea below. It’s all up and down in the Garraf. Countless ravines topped by rocky outcrops cut through the hills making mine and Lucy’s game of “Spot the Bonelli’s nesting site” a tad difficult. “Spot the Two-tailed pasha” looked like a winner though when we realised that the carpark of the information centre was littered with Strawberry trees. Not enjoying the ripe fruits of said as we’d expected, but preferring the figs instead, there they were! Appearing a little the worse for wear but nevertheless there, I counted four flitting among the fig trees after the first one on the steps had shown me the way. I’d been saving a banana in the car just for this moment, having read that a good, over-ripe one could attract the species nicely. Having earlier scoffed at the idea of setting “bait”, I noted that T wasn’t so adverse to the idea now. It worked a treat, the butterflies came to the powerfully-whiffy open bag almost immediately but weren’t so keen on a smidgen of the bruised fruit being stuck to a fig branch.

A Two-tailed pasha! Charaxes jasius


Meanwhile, Lucy and Nick had been for a wander in the botanical garden. The ensuing conservation on their return revealed that they’d seen a solitary “little white flower”. Could it be? Two in one day? Lucy’s camera provided the proof of the pudding, showing a pretty specimen of an Autumn-flowering narcissus. T gamely decided to continue our exploration further into the park, wanting to find her own I suspect.

Probable Araneus diadematus


Of the invertebrates encountered in the Garraf that I remember; a spider very siBagwormmilar to the one found in Montgó with a V-shaped zig-zag pattern but this time more brightly marked and edged with white (Araneus diadematus?), a wingless female Glowworm (the females hang around glowing while the males look for them on the wing) and a Bagworm found dangling from a metal roadside barrier. An intriguing creature, the caterpillar crawls around eating leaves and attaching twigs to itself as it goes until it’s big enough then closes the end of its “bag” to pupate. Apparently the male of the species can’t live long because its mouth is not fully developed so it can’t feed.

Following a prolonged debate on whether we could fit in both the Delta del Llobregat and Collserola, on Nick’s insistence we visited the former first. Approaching the marshes we passed by a haze of white in the shade of some pines and eucalyptus. Reversing revealed a veritable sea of narcissi. Thank Darwin for that, Narcissus seratinus! We braved the mosquitos to get in there and grab some photos of what reminded me of bluebell woods in the U.K.

 

The little white flowers, Narcissus serotinus


The excitement must have been too much for Nick who selflessly offered to have a siesta/look after the car while us girls ventured into the reserve. The proximity of the Delta del Llobregat Grey heronNatural Reserve to Barcelona airport quickly became apparent although the birdlife doesn’t appear to be affected by the noise. The area is also close to another destructive human activity, the red-light district of El Prat de Llobregat. Thankfully the area has been cleaned up and the hides have returned to their original use.
First bird, an Osprey! I was becoming quite adept at identifying them now. Luckily Lucy saw it too and concurred. The lakes and reedbeds are accessed by a wooden walkway that runs around and through the marsh. The path takes you first straight into some reeds and is boarded on either side with viewing slits at various heights, though I can’t believe any bird worth its salt would be fooled by that. Still, I had a look just in case there was the odd brave one. We entered a hide and settled to find Kingfishers darting around the sides. I saw a bird I didn’t know with a rose-coloured breast. T saw it too but knew it was a Waxbill. A couple of Spoonbills weaved through the water on the outskirts of an island in the middle of the lake while we laughed (quietly), along with a very nice man with a very big lens, at the antics of a Cattle egret balancing on a horse’s back. See Lucy’s IberiaNature blog for more photos. Eagle-eyed Lucy pointed out the sun highlighting a Grey heron motionless in the water, surrounded by mosquitos dancing in the rays. Those eyes also spotted Red-eared terrapins sunbathing closer than the ones that had caught my eyes. Dragging ourselves away from this gem, we also saw a sandpiper (possibly Green), more Marsh harriers, Lapwings and Little grebe.

Adult and juvenile Red-eared terrapins, Trachemys scripta elegans


Rousing Nick, we just had time to squeeze in a taster of Collserola (pronounced “Coyserolla” in Catalán), a natural park of wooded hills spread over 8,000 ha. and practically in the city centre. Towards the top of one of its hills, aided by T, Lucy and Nick added to their already impressive knowledge of Collserola’s plantlife. Their new venture as native English-speaking nature guides, sharing their knowledge with others, promises to be a rip-roaring success. As they studied I was more intrigued by the tuneful, and loud, song of a small bird flitting about in the bushes. Determined to see who was singing, I caught a glimpse of a startling eye surrounded by yellow and attached to a bright red beak. What the…? Turns out it was a Pekin robin, Leiothrix lutea, a colony of which are breeding in Collserola having escaped their cages. I wish them luck too.
We had to go, Lucy and Nick to the metro and T and myself towards Lleida (Lérida) and an area I really wanted to see for myself – Los Monegros. With only two more nights remaining on our jaunt, the bears in the Sierra de Cadí and the Arán valley/ a beer with Simon would have to wait for another time.


Nothing had really prepared me for the subtle beauty of Los Monegros. I was expecting an arid, barren desert, although thanks to Insectarium Virtual’s “Testing Los Monegros” I knew it was extraordinarily rich in insect life. What I wasn’t expecting were the vast canvasses of colours, shapes and forms. Shadowy folds in the moulded, flat-topped hills, once dark with Spanish juniper and pines now almost denuded by man, contrasted with foregrounds of the palest of soils dotted with dark green mounds of wild herbs, all blanketed by that big blue sky.

Los Monegros


As the Friends of Los Monegros suggest, perhaps it takes an outsider to appreciate the true worth of this steppe environment. A statement that’s certainly true if all the inhabitants can come up with to revitalise their home ground is to plaster it with casinos!
Argiope lobataHaving spent our first night in a strangely false castillo of a roadside hostal, with the added interest of what I first took to be an aviary but which turned out to be a starling roost right outside our window (were we that obvious?), we started our exploration in a conserved wooded area called the Retuerta de Pino. The underlying rock here is gypsum, glittery white and crumbly where exposed. The hillocky scrub pockmarked with rabbit warrens seemed to me to be perfect lynx territory, or would be if there were enough of it left intact. Instead we found a fantastic Argiope lobata amid the morning song of Woodlark.
Heading in a south-westerly direction with the morning sun warming things up nicely, we paused for another rummage around on the slope of a rise overlooking harvested cereal crops, the Loma de Piedrafita. A wheatear joined us briefly but I couldn’t get the bins on it before it disappeared. We heard Black-bellied sandgrouse and I found the best reptile of the trip, a juvenile Spiny-footed lizard Acanthodactylus erythrurus, striped and sporting its young bright red tail. There was plenty of sky here for Marsh harrier, Red kite and a group of 14 Griffons flying low.

A juvenile Spiny-footed lizard, Acanthodactylus erythrurus


Driving on through olive groves, we crossed the Ebro into the part of the basin known as El Planerón, eyes down for Dupont’s lark. I was having enough trouble with Crested, Thekla and all the rest without another one being thrown into the equation. Calandra was the only one that I’d been able to confidently agree with, the white on their wings helpfully distinguishing them when they were in flight. One possible giveaway I remember is that Dupont’s tend to run away in front of you rather than take to the air. Anyway, we didn’t see any. We scoured the edges of the furrowed fields for perfectly camouflaged Little bustards too, which didn’t reveal themselves either.

The ruined church in Belchite


A slight detour led us to the eerily preserved old town of Belchite. Bombed almost to smithereens during the Spanish civil war, the bricks left standing have been kept as a reminder of the destruction although the site is not completely deserted, some buildings being re-cycled as barns for a few sheep and goats. We were hoping for Blue rock thrush here. In their place we encountered House sparrows imitating them and Spotless starlings doing a good impression of Golden oriole.
A short climb from Belchite up to a tiny sierra of ploughed white fields, we stopped in a sheltered butterfly haven near Puebla de Albortón accompanied by Stonechats and warblers. Graylings, Clouded yellows and a myriad blues were enjoying the residual heat of the autumn sun in the purple haze of sea lavenders next to an old railway line, the old walls of which were inhabited by at least one gecko too nervous to let on whether it was Turkish or Moorish.


Back on track towards home T took me to the Bardenas Reales, just over the border into Navarra, halfway between Zaragoza and Logroño. Compared to the pseudosteppes of the Monegros there’s nothing delicate about these in-your-face gypsum beige and sandstone red stratum of drastically eroded hill monsters. Like demanding children, they seemed to be calling “Take a picture of me!”

Castil de Tierra in the Bardenas Reales

Miraculously there are small, reed-fringed lagoons punctuating the spaghetti-western desert landscape. We were investigating one of these when a distant tinkling of bells caught my attention. A cloud of dust on the horizon was moving inexorably towards us. Sheep. And not a small flock either. We were about to be trampled by nigh on a couple of thousand thirsty beasts. I moved to the relative safety of a metre-high knoll and, taking a deep breath, let the scene unfold with no idea of T’s whereabouts apart from knowing that she was somewhere between the reeds and the water. The sheep, mixed with some large-horned goats, just kept on coming.

Flock of sheep in Las Bardenas

In the lead were two smallish dogs. Almost as unnerving as the herd itself was the knowledge that, guarding it there would be, how many mastines?? Sure enough, trotting alongside the livestock, just visible through the dust, there was one. Passing me by, the young dog submissively dropped his body expectantly like a young wolf greeting an elder, giving T’s position away. The shepherd brought up the rear, a lamb dangling upside down from his hand was allowed its own drink from the vigilant mother. It took forever for them all to quench their collective thirst, and even then they can’t all have drunk. Slowly they moved off to where-ever they were going to spend the night, shadows lengthening across the plain. An age-old scene I felt privileged to have witnessed.
Still buzzing, it was our turn to find a refuge for the night. First though it was just a quick hop to check out the next day’s setting, the Laguna de Pitillas which according to the book is Navarra’s most important wetland.

Pitillas lagoon

On our way, in the village of Traibuenas, we were surprised to see a couple of White storks still on a nest. Had they missed the migration boat? The sun set as we witnessed egrets flying in to roost, bats beginning their night’s hunting and a solitary rabbit heading for bed. We searched the nearby towns for suitable beds for ourselves. Some hours later we returned to the lagoon to, don’t tell anyone, camp. Once settled in our bags we needn’t have bothered stemming the flow of ghost stories as a banshee-like screech startled us very close by. My first thought was a wader as they are sometimes very loud but this didn’t have a bird-like quality, it seemed almost feline to me. The scream appeared to echo around the lake, or was there another creature answering on the other side? Or was the same creature moving that fast, screeching as it went? I’ve since tried to find out what Western polecats sound like but have come to the conclusion that T had it right with vixen. Still, we slept.
Cattle egret in Pitillas lagoonDawn and a couple of coffees later, we identified the egrets of the evening as Cattle, lots of them. Great whites, Grey herons and many Cormorants too with the ever-present Marsh harriers. Two medium-sized owls flew by and we both saw dark heads and white rumps on both as they headed towards some distant woods. These are a mystery. They definitely had the outline of flat faces of owl but on consulting an expert and looking in field guides, we still can’t identify these raptors. Taking a stroll along the lakeside we found birds I had long wanted to see, Bearded tits (or reedlings as they’re now known), the small flock of which annoyingly moved a little further on with each slow approach. Never mind, I caught the salmon pink/beige flush of the breasts and the black droopy sideburns on their faces before they scarpered on to the next clump of reeds. T heard Water rail. The dominant butterfly species on the surrounding edges of the cultivated land was Green-veined white, along with Bath whites and Clouded yellows. A lone Iberian hare, Lepus granatensis, watched us briefly before hightailing it into the cover of a nearby vineyard.
It was our last day so we had to move nearer to home. On the motorway, AP68, just north-west of Calahorra, I counted 40+ Griffon vultures riding the thermals. My mind returned to the sheep of the day before.
Very close now to the Cantabrian border, we just had time for a final stop at the Hoyos del Tozo, back in a familiar limestone landscape. We left the car at the entrance to a wind tunnel of a small gorge. While studying a battered Queen of Spain fritillary we heard a dreadful noise that sounded like something dying an extremely painful death. Heading, not with a little trepidation, further into the gorge the wailing continued. I scanned some trees just off the road but the noise was coming from higher up. T had found the culprit and was pointing up the cliff to where a young Griffon was lying spreadeagled at the entrance to a small cave. After a while it stood up and carried on with the noise. The only problem we could see was its possible annoyance with two other birds that were perched quietly nearby. Teenagers! Thoughts of bears killing deer dispelled, we headed home.
A day of noisy wildlife (that I wished now I’d had the presence of mind to record) drew to a close as did six wonderful days that I’ll never forget. We’re already planning our next excursion, Villafafila and the Sierra de la Culebra. Expect a trip report from the Balearics!

Flora and Fauna of the Picos de Europa
Go to Iberian Wildlife
Over the past 25 years, Teresa Farino has compiled a report (more than 100 A4 pages) that includes lists of all the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, grasshoppers & crickets and vascular plants ever recorded the Picos de Europa, plus summaries of each of these groups and an eight-page introduction to the natural history of these mountains. If you would like to purchase a copy, the price is 17.50€, excluding postage and packaging; alternatively, a copyrighted PDF document sent by email costs 11.50€. Click on the image to contact Teresa for further details or to place your order.

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