Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Bay of Biscay & Picos de Europa

20th - 29th July 2011

Report by Julian Sykes

Wednesday 20th – Julian got to the new Portsmouth Ferry Terminal early to meet the very small group of Angela & Christine, who also arrived a little ahead of schedule. We enjoyed a chat over refreshments as we waited to board Brittany Ferries latest acquisition the ‘Cap Finistere’. Sadly we were delayed by about 1.5 hours due to its late arrival but once on board it did not disappoint being like a floating luxury hotel. Even before we started out we had started our bird list with Great Cormorant, 10+ Little Egrets, Common Tern, Herring, Lesser Black-backed & Black-headed Gulls at the dock. Eventually we slowly made our way out of port passing a few small sandbars where we then added a few Turnstone and a couple of Oystercatchers – 2 ‘write-ins’ already! It was a grey day and quite cold on the top deck but after our lunch of hot soup and a sandwich we were ready to brave the elements. We stared out to sea for most of the afternoon taking a welcome break to listen to a talk on cetacean watching given by an ‘ORCA’ volunteer. As expected it was a slow start to the holiday with the only sea animal being the dorsal fin and tail of a Basking Shark plus lots of Gannets, a few Northern Fulmars, a single Manx Shearwater and an unexpected party of 6 summer plumage Dunlins heading south. Late afternoon we retired to our berths to freshen up before our evening meal, which was then followed by another session on deck. Unfortunately the weather and the sea-state had both deteriorated with stronger winds, low cloud and drizzle creating a much choppier sea. It was very quiet even the Gannets were few and far between but just before we returned to our cabins Angela found 2 more Manx Shearwaters following the boat. With hope of better things we all got an early night trying to remain optimistic for the morning when we would be over deep water.

Thursday 21st – Our intrepid guide Julian was out on deck for 6am followed shortly afterwards by Angela and then Christine, the weather had improved so fingers crossed. Sadly the minutes turned to hours and nothing was sighted at all, in fact it wasn’t until we were nearing the Iberian mainland we saw our first animal of any description – Western Yellow-legged Gull. Even the ORCA volunteers were mystified and very disappointed by the lack of cetaceans especially since only last week they had seen lots where we had been. So the Cap Finistere docked in Santander harbour and while we were waiting for the gangway to the terminal Julian picked out a Black Kite floating around above the city. Some success on board at last! Eventually we got off the ferry and quickly made our way to the vehicle rental company near the train station, where Julian organised our transportation for the next stage of our holiday. Sadly the weather wasn’t good and intermittent heavy showers kept our spirits a little low. Julian had a plan though, instead of heading straight for the mountains he wanted to visit the Santona Marshes, which was in the other direction. Just outside Santander we stopped for lunch in this wonderful bodega brimming with locals, hanging hams and racks of wine – traditional Spain at its best. After lunch we continued east towards Bilbao and then turned towards the estuary, a little way down this road we stopped for a pair of Egyptian Vultures in a man-made quarry, and got wonderful views as they cruised around. We then made our way quickly to the hide overlooking the estuary and sat there for almost an hour picking out lots of new species. There were lots of Little Egrets but also a couple of Spoonbills in the distance, Julian found a pair of Whimbrel with the Curlews and also a small flock of Dunlin. Sandwich Terns patrolled the channels and Angela found a lovely summer plumage Mediterranean Gull stood on a muddy islet. We also picked out a Great Black-backed Gull along with several Lesser Black-backed Gulls, along with Grey Herons, Mallard and Cormorants. Christine (who likes raptors) really enjoyed watching a Black Kite rip into a carcass right in front of the hide before another disturbed it and they both flew off. Then just before we left Angela saw a White Wagtail and we also got decent views of several Goldfinches in the Tamarisks. Next we drove to another part of the estuary and set up watching over a small river surrounded by fields being grazed by cattle. Almost straight away Julian found 2 White Storks in the fields, apparently not an easy bird to find here? We then got down to business by locating a single Little Grebe and Moorhen, a few Common Coot, plus lots of House Martins and Swallows. The inclement weather had also forced down masses of migrating (south) Common Swifts and they whizzed about our heads in search of flying insects. Angela and Christine were delighted by a small group of Cattle Egrets (some still in summer plumage) feeding amongst the cows and then they located a Yellow Wagtail, which sadly disappeared into the nearby marsh grass. It was now time to leave and head for our accommodation in Arenas de Cabrales as we were all tired after the long day’s travelling. The journey went quickly enough and we saw a few more Black Kites, as well as a couple of Common Buzzards and a Kestrel. The landscape changed from coastal to karst limestone cliffs and we really enjoyed our first drive along the Cares River to the town. Soon enough we reached the rural hotel and quickly got sorted out with our rooms by its ‘larger than life’ owner Jim. We have a bit of time to spare before Julian wants us to meet and the ‘ever keen’ Angela goes for a short walk around the immediate area. She does really well be finding a female Red-backed Shrike feeding young plus a pair of Common Buzzards and Stonechats. Before the evening meal we complete the log for the past two days over a welcome refreshment and then head to the restaurant. It is a lovely meal but everyone’s fairly tired and head for their rooms to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the following day. Although the two ladies decide on a nightcap and see a Peregrine fly over the hotel on their way back to their rooms.

Friday 22nd – Julian and Angela independently meet up in the hotel’s car park and enjoy a 15 minute spell seeing a juvenile Common Redstart, Tree Pipit, Stonechats and a Common Buzzard sat in a bare tree. Just before we go for breakfast we are joined by Christine and head to the restaurant together. This day’s activity was going to be weather dependant and after a brief chat with Pilar, we decide on the Fuente De option. Time is given to get our things together for the mountain top and as Julian and Christine convene at the vehicle a lovely male Red-backed Shrike is seen by them. So we set off for the cable car at Fuente De going through the spectacular Hermida Gorge, the area’s main town of Potes and up through some more fabulous countryside. Eventually we reach the cable car station and straight away get a transfer to the top an 800m ascent in 4 minutes! It is still quite cloudy at the top so we have a coffee to allow the crowds to disperse. We start our walk up the track and almost immediately find a couple of Alpine Choughs and a Water Pipit. There are lot of gentians around and the blue thistle-like Pyrenean Eryngo plus Bird’s foot Trefoil, Merendera and Tufted Catchfly. A little further we find a lovely male Northern Wheatear and a female Black Redstart along with more Water Pipits. Then Julian calls “Alpine Accentor” and there on the right of the track is this gorgeous Dunnock-like bird with vivid orange flanks. This is one of Angela’s major targets and she can’t believe how much better looking they are than Dunnock! Things were going astonishingly well as the weather started to improve and we were seeing so much. Then Julian again got excited as he had heard a familiar call and there landing just down from our position were a small flock of Snowfinches. This was amazing as we had seen most of our target species within 300m of leaving the cable car station. We watched these distinctive birds feed amongst the vegetation and at one point an adult was tending to a begging youngster – absolutely fabulous. We had to drag ourselves away but just a little further we encountered a Rebeco (Spanish Chamois) walking over the karst limestone rocks. The scenery was incredible and photo opportunities were everywhere so progress was, as expected, slow. However we followed the track up and towards our lunch stop with Julian glimpsing a Snow Vole as we walked along. We continued slowly upwards at near 2000m, over 1.5 times the height of Ben Nevis! Around lunchtime we got to Julian’s favourite area and settled down to our bocadillos, whilst looking out for the ‘holy grail’ of European birding – Wallcreeper. It happened to be a fairly long wait but we eventually got this fabulous crimson-winged bird working its way through the limestone boulders looking for insects before eventually flying off and away out of sight. Also here we were treated to incredibly close views of Alpine Chough as they fed on our left-over bread from lunch plus keen on butterflies Angela found a few Piedmont Ringlets on the wing in the now warm sunshine plus a couple of Small Tortoiseshells. Mid-afternoon the cloud started to roll back in so we started back down the track to the cable car station. The return journey yielded more views of Alpine Accentors, Black Redstarts and Water Pipits. However the highlight was first seeing half a dozen Snowfinches near the track, which then turned into an impressive flock of 20+, by far the most Julian had ever seen here at one time. Soon enough we were heading back down to the lower station and enjoying a coffee while sat outside at the picnic tables. A beautiful Red Squirrel showed really well for us in one of the fir trees, which was quickly followed by a Firecrest, a family party of Nuthatches, several Chaffinches and a Great Tit. It was now late afternoon and time to start back to Arenas de Cabrales, but first we had a brief stop in the historic town of Potes. We then continued and through the Hermida Gorge, Angela and Christine did extremely well seeing 2 Dippers, Grey Heron and Crag Martins along the River Deva. We got back to the accommodation at 6pm and did our ‘own thing’ until we met later for the daily log and evening meal. Angela again was the most productive by looking for the male Red-backed Shrike and finding him near where she had found the other shrikes the previous evening. It had been an excellent day and the conversation was very upbeat and positive after a slightly shaky start to the holiday.

Saturday 23rd – We awoke to a better morning as regards the weather and eventually we get our views of the National Park’s highest peak – Torrecerrado. A short pre-breakfast watch produces a couple of Common Redstarts, Robin, Red-backed Shrike and a calling Iberian Green Woodpecker (that we don’t see). After another excellent breakfast we soon head out to the fantastic Hermida Gorge stopping just outside the village of the same name. The pro-active residents of the area have funded an excellent footpath down the river to the village and back again on the other side. We get our things together and the ladies use the hotel’s plush facilities while Julian finds our first Grey Wagtail and Dipper of the day. However it isn’t the wildlife that creates the interest but the people bathing in the icy waters of the River Deva. Soon enough we head off along the boardwalk down the river scanning the crags and ridges that rise above us. A Common Buzzard is calling and we locate it sat on one of the many outcrops in the area. It is still cold and things generally are quiet, apart from a few more wagtails and Dippers. The weather is definitely improving and just before we reach the village of Hermida we see our first (of many) Griffon Vultures floating above the ridge. We then visit a local cafe for a coffee stop and sit outside looking for raptors. This proves quite productive as we see a Short-toed Eagle, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures and a Sparrowhawk. After the refreshments we start back towards the Hermida Hotel but on the other side of the river seeing more of the same species. Back at the hotel’s car park the ladies opt to use the facilities while Julian continues scanning for raptors. This pays major dividends as he finds an adult Golden Eagle loosely associating with a kettle of Griffon Vultures. He manages to get this impressive bird in the telescope and when Christine then Angela returns they also get good views of the eagle.  This is fast becoming a raptor-fest as we see in quick succession the Golden Eagle being mobbed by a Kestrel, the Griffon Vultures have now been joined by a Short-toed Eagle and there is also an Egyptian Vulture and Common Buzzard floating about. It is absolutely fantastic. We manage to drag ourselves away and drive up the hill towards Bejes, to a viewpoint overlooking the Hermida Gorge. Apart from the impressive views, this place is also excellent for butterflies, which we were also very keen on. While we were there we got super views of Cleopatra, Clouded Yellow, Silver wash Fritillary, Cardinal, Meadow Brown, Wall Brown, Gatekeepers, Short-tailed Blue and a superb Scarce Swallowtail. Also here Angela found one of her favourite insects on the Vipers Beaugloss – a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Before long we headed along this impressive valley to the hillside village of Bejes, a beautiful place with traditional rustic housing and well-manicured gardens of vibrant colour. It was now lunchtime so we collected our things from the vehicle and headed off through the quiet streets with Julian checking the water troughs and finding some Mid-wife Toad tadpoles. Just outside the village and looking down through this fabulous valley we sat at one of the local benches and enjoyed our picnic lunch. Julian watched a Short-toed Eagle land and trained his telescope on it for everyone and while we were there we saw several Crag Martins, Ravens, Common Buzzard and the now ubiquitous Griffon Vultures. Although the highlight was a lovely ‘dark-phase’ Booted Eagle that circled around where we were sat, giving superb views. Once ready we started a slow walk up the mountain on the road, which made the going easier. Serins called and showed along the hedgerows and we got brilliant views of a male Red-backed Shrike feeding one of its newly fledged young in a hawthorn bush. The butterflies kept coming with plenty of Iberian Marbled Whites, with Angela finding Large Chequered Skipper, Green-veined White and a Painted Lady. However it was Christine who got ‘find of the day’ with her comment “there’s a snake here?” which caused great excitement with Julian. There hidden in the stone wall amongst the sparse vegetation was this young Smooth Snake basking in the weak sunshine of the afternoon. Eventually Julian managed to pull himself away from watching it and we continued our uphill walk. We walked for a while longer finding the partially hidden ‘cheese caves’ as well as Red-billed Chough, Ravens and a very interesting ‘funnel-web’ type spider. At a suitable point we agreed we should start back down towards the village as we were getting a little tired and the weather was again starting to look threatening. It did not take long but Julian caused us to stop seeing a distant raptor in his binoculars. The bird was carrying something long and thin, which Julian initially mistook to be a snake; however it was probably a bone! Julian managed to get the large bird in his telescope and despite its long distance and direct flight he quickly identified it as an immature Lammergeier. This had to be one of the reintroduced birds that were in the area, and a very exciting find, which will be reported later. It was smiles all round with this discovery and the excellent day we were having on a whole. Eventually we got back to the car and started back towards Hermida stopping off at a couple of places along the valley but not seeing anything different. We wanted some refreshment and Julian knew where to take us so between Panes and Cabrales we pulled into the aptly named ‘Casa Julian’ which is situated right on the edge of the River Cares. The drinks were enjoyed in the sunshine and when finished we spent a little time watching the lovely Brown Trout in the river before heading back to the accommodation. The usual formats then proceeded with a pre-meal meeting for the daily check-list, check on the weather (plus the Test Match) and discuss the next day’s plans. We then went to the dining room and thoroughly enjoyed the awesome Lentil Soup, with Julian having three servings!!!

Sunday 24th – The forecast today was for heavy persistent rain in the mountains so Julian decided we would head north to the coast. The journey is a pleasant one and it’s punctuated with a stop for a Weasel that’s crossing the road to a grass verge and then back again to safety. We make our first stop outside the Rio de Villaviciosa NR visitor centre which overlooks the river. Being low tide there was plenty of exposed mud and we quickly found both Whimbrel and Curlew, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Mallard and Cormorants. The centre wasn’t due to open for another 30 minutes so we hang around and start to find other species such as Greenshank, Redshank, Common Sandpiper and Cattle Egret. Black Kites and Common Buzzards are constantly floating around but then Julian calls “Honey Buzzard” as a lovely adult drifts right over where we are standing. The lady arrives to open the centre and individually we get to look round. It has a good display and despite the displays being in Spanish they are all self-explanatory and there are some interesting live fish to look at. Once we had seen enough we make a further stop down the road to enjoy a coffee at the privately-owned Yacht Club. Before we enter the café area we scan the river finding more Curlew and Whimbrel but Julian spies something way off and goes back to the car for his telescope. He sets it up and looks, looks again and then looks quizzical.  He offers the scope to Angela without saying a word and she exclaims “Osprey on a nest!” and hands the scope to Christine to look. Julian then says “has it moved?” and a reply of “yes – its head a little” creates more puzzlement. Julian thinks there is something suspicious about this Osprey and says so, we then agree, it hasn’t moved. We assume it’s a decoy to try and encourage migrant Ospreys to breed here in the future! So laughing about this we head for the clubhouse and settle down on their terrace, watching birds and drinking coffee. Much the same species are seen but a raptor soars over and Julian asks what we think it is. Angela bravely offers “Booted Eagle?” which was the correct answer and a big well done from our guide. It was in fact a lovely ‘pale phase’ Booted Eagle and very much appreciated by everyone. We return to the car and continue along the river to our lunch stop but spend a little time checking the gulls and waders on the sand bars. Here we find a quite a few Ringed Plovers and a Dunlin, Lesser Black-backed & Black-headed Gulls. Lunch is taken on the edge of a Eucalyptus plantation also overlooking the river, where we watch the Sunday revellers. A Sandwich Tern flies in to join a small group of gulls and a Cormorant fishes in the near waters. The weather is fantastic and nothing like the forecast given the previous evening. After lunch we drive round to the east side of the river and some small pools. Here we start to find more waders with good numbers of summer-plumage Dunlin, a few Ringed Plover, a couple of Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt and Redshank. The Zitting Cisticolas prove difficult to locate but eventually we all get good views of at least one. There are ‘Spanish’ Yellow, Grey and White Wagtails here along with Stonechat and the explosive song of Cetti’s Warbler. It is now mid-afternoon and we decide to head back to the hotel for a short walk around the general area, which we haven’t done yet together. It’s a lovely journey back highlighting how much tourism is created by Spain’s first National Park, although it is a Sunday and a National holiday! We get back to the hotel and after a short break to freshen up we meet and slowly walk up the hill on the quiet tarmac road. We get astonishing views of a juvenile Red-backed Shrike in the telescope along with our first looks at Cirl Bunting. Angela finds Dingy Skipper, Common Blue, Small White and Clouded Yellow in the warmth of the evening sun. After a while we return to the accommodation for a shower and meet later for the usual log and evening meal.

Monday 25th – Today we are heading to Poncebos, which is only 15 minutes’ drive from Arenas de Cabrales to take the Funicular Train to the mountain village of Bulnes. Before the railway the only way to the village was to walk up a steep and winding track. The only reason for this seasonal hamlet (its empty in winter) was because there is excellent grazing nearby for the sheep and goats so you could make cheese and store it in the mountain caves at a cool temperature. We arrive at Poncebos early and have about 40 minutes to waste before the first train leaves so we decide to walk up the road and look up the valley. In the car park we find a mixed flock of Long-tailed, Blue & Great Tits plus there are Crag Martins wheeling around. Griffon Vultures are already on the wing as the weather is far better than the forecast, which thankfully lasts for the rest of the day. Julian then spies something different and points out a Short-toed Eagle flying over, and this is then followed by a male Goshawk that also shows really well. Soon enough we are on this incredible train that heads straight up through a tunnel in the mountain for just over 2Kms. We leave the Bulnes station and walk along the initial track to the village, where we find Chaffinches, Blackcaps, Red-billed Chough and more Griffon Vultures. Once in the village we decide to have a coffee and a comfort stop in one of the (proportionally) many cafes here! We sit beside the stream and watch the world go by having such stunning vistas to enjoy. Once we are ready we head up the hill to the second part of the village (Bulnes de Castillo), which is about a kilometre away but uphill. The weather is very mixed at the moment with some sunshine, cloud and drizzle but it’s still quite warm. Initially on the walk we get very good views of a male Blackcap and then we find a family party of Bullfinches. A little further Julian hears a familiar song and alerts everyone to an Iberian Chiffchaff in the nearby trees. In fact there is also a family party of these and get to see them well, with Julian explaining their salient points of identification. Angela then finds a young Coal Tit followed by Silver-washed Fritillary, Common Blue and Marbled White. There is a water trough just outside the village and find lots of Mid-wife Toad tadpoles and also several stunning Alpine Newts. Julian catches one for us to see the bright orange underside, spotted flanks and tail. We then walk through this quaint village and sit for a while enjoying the tremendous view back down towards Poncebos. There is a mixed flock of Red-billed & Alpine Choughs plus Griffon & Egyptian Vultures but they are all very distant. Julian also finds an adult Golden Eagle crossing the valley but proves difficult to locate in the open sky. As we sit Christine gets stung by a few Nettles and wants to know if she might go into Anaphylactic Shock. This causes Julian great hilarity! It’s now near lunchtime so we set off back down to Bulnes – El Poble spending some time checking the butterflies and finding Cleopatra, Brimstone, Meadow Brown and a probable Chalk-hill Blue, plus ones we have seen earlier. Back at the village we find a suitable spot near the river and enjoy our picnic lunch seeing more butterflies such as Speckled Wood found by Christine. After lunch we set down the valley opting to walk instead of returning with the funicular, something the ladies later might have rued. The walk is a tough one but we make plenty of stops for the fauna and flora. Birds are scarce but Christine finds a Black Redstart and we also get views of more Blackcaps, Serins, Red-billed & Alpine Choughs plus the ever-present Griffon Vultures. However there are some excellent flowers on show such as Spanish Rusty Foxglove, Wolfsbane, Spreading Bellflower, Large flowered Butterwort and swathes of the pretty Maidenhair Fern. Angela is busy looking for butterflies and finds Marbled White, Silver wash Fritillary and Lulworth Skipper with Julian adding a ‘hoped for’ Large Chequered Skipper. A Jersey Tiger Moth is a welcome addition to the growing list and is very appreciated by the group. The walk isn’t an easy one but we all get down to the road in one piece and really pleased with have achieved our objective. Julian promised us an ice cream but first we catch our breath at the river bridge where Julian incredibly finds a pair of Golden Eagles soaring around high amongst the low cloud. Eventually we drag ourselves away and start down towards Poncebos and one for the local refreshment outlets. Angela stops to get photos of Lulworth Skipper, Gatekeeper and Silver Wash Fritillary, while Christine enjoys the wild-roaming goats on the hillside. At the busy restaurant we first order some coffee and teas, which is then quickly followed by a delicious ice cream. Angela decides to look for more butterflies and returns saying she thinks she’s seen a Pearly Heath and possibly Rock Grayling, both of which are highly possible in this location. It is now time to leave and as we get back to the car Julian exclaims “Alpine Swift” and we all get good views of it wheeling round the adjacent cliff, a fitting end to a superb day.

Tuesday 26th – It was raining outside, how could it? Breakfast was slightly muted with lots of concerned looks out of the windows and unsurprising comments like “sure we will make the best of it!”. However this is the Picos de Europa and predicting the weather is harder than buying a winning lottery ticket. Julian checked out a couple od websites that didn’t read well at all for the day’s weather and Jim just shrugged his shoulders. So after breakfast geared up for the wet we set off Julian wondering if the coast was the best option but didn’t fancy the drive. Angela made a telling comment saying “stick to the plan its worked so far” was enough we headed south through the Hermida Gorge. We arrived just outside Potes about 10am and it was overcast but not raining and it did look promising, We set off along the River Deva and before long the sun came out and as a result so did the raptors and butterflies both things Julian had wanted to see today. The weather was warm and sunny for the rest of the day until we got back to the Hermida Gorge when it turned poor again. The initial part of the walk started quietly but soon enough Julian spied our first Short-toed Eagle over the ridge, which was shortly followed by a second. A couple of Booted Eagles then appeared as did several Griffon Vultures and a few Common Buzzards. Due to the earlier weather there were huge numbers of Common Swifts and hirundines (Swallows & House Martins) low down hawking insects. This gave an open invitation to the local Hobby to join in the raptor fun and buzz through the wheeling masses then mob a close Booted Eagle, All fascinating stuff and fabulous to see. In the now warm sunshine butterflies started to appear with lots of Clouded Yellows, Small Whites, Long-tailed Blues and Scarce Swallowtails This then became the focus as Julian and Angela were like children in a sweetie shop, finding photographing and identifying them as much as possible. The walk to Tama produced several good species including Meadow Fritillary, Wood White, Berger’s Clouded Yellow, Red-underwing Skipper, Lulworth Skipper, Marbled Skipper, Common Blue, Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown. Thankfully for Christine it wasn’t about butterflies and we also got very good views of a family of Red-backed Shrikes, Cirl Bunting and Jay. Due to all of this we got to the café for our obligatory ‘morning coffee’ late in fact it was now past noon much to Julian’s dismay. However we enjoyed the break with Julian seeing a Sparrowhawk and Booted Eagle while he sat in the sun. We knew we needed to back the same way to the vehicle and needed to be fairly quick or our lunch was going to be late. However, the mega-butterflies again got in the way as Angela endeavoured to find a beautiful Queen of Spain Fritillary, Marbled White and Small Heath. Actually we got back to Potes in reasonable time and drove the short distance towards Arguebanes and a set of picnic tables Julian knew. This was a lovely interlude sat in the sun watching the raptors drift over with Short-toed & Booted Eagles, Common Buzzard and Griffon Vulture showing well. Angela found our first Common Wall Lizard of the day and then went off to find some butterflies. Julian and Chris continued to watch the skies but didn’t add much to what they had already seen, but Angela return to say she had found an Adonis Blue and Small Heath amongst the commoner species. Eventually we dragged ourselves away from the site and drove the short distance to the village where wandered around checking the fields, gardens and stream. Angela almost immediately got very animated as she found another butterfly new to her, and Julian identified it as a Large Wall Brown. Our main target here was Middle Spotted Woodpecker but sadly we only got to hear one but we did see Nuthatch, Blackcaps, Grey Wagtails, Serins and a couple of Jays. In the stream Christine discovered a couple of Goldenring Dragonflies and when Julian went to look he also saw a Beautiful Demosielle. The butterfly list continued to grow for Angela with Large Skipper, Speckled Wood and another Large Wall Brown. It was now late afternoon and time to start back to our accommodation but just outside Potes we again stop for some refreshments. We then head back and as we get through the Hermida Gorge the weather starts to deteriorate becoming quite dire as we get to Arenas de Cabrales. Looks like we made the right choice in the morning! We are later back than normal but everyone’s in good spirits after such an excellent day, which is rounded off by a superb meal consisting of some delicious Gazpacho made especially for our small group.

Wednesday 27th – This was our final full day in the Picos de Europa and the weather again was sadly mixed on the north side of the mountains. Today Angela and Christine wanted to try and see a woodpecker and as we left the car park we heard an Iberian Green Woodpecker – was this a good sign? The journey through to Potes was again fairly quiet and like yesterday the weather improved as we headed south. Again like the day before we headed for the mountain village of Arguebanes in the hope of finding a woodpecker or two. Unlike the previous afternoon there was lots of bird activity going on and after a few moments we had seen Common Redstart, Grey & White Wagtails, a female Bullfinch and a Song Thrush. Christine’s comment of “we’ve seen more in 15 minutes than yesterday’s entire visit” was so true! We got our things together and walked slowly down the hill checking out the orchards and woodland of Ash, Beech, Cork & Holm Oak as we went along. Julian then heard a Middle Spotted Woodpecker down the road and we headed in that direction. All the time we were seeing more woodland species such as Nuthatch, Jay, Chaffinch, Great & Blue Tits. While scanning an open area Julian found a Mistle Thrush sat on a wire and we got excellent views through the telescope. However a little further Julian first heard and then saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker fly into a tree, getting everyone on to it quickly. This soon departed and it was smiles all round and then incredibly Julian turned round just as an adult Middle Spotted Woodpecker landed in an Apple Tree right next to where we were standing. We got brilliant views of this bird much to everyone’s delight and when he departed it was justified ‘Hi-5’s’ It had worked out really well but now we craved our late morning coffee fix and started back towards the car. We then came across a mini bird-wave involving lots of Great, Blue, Long-tailed and Coal Tits plus Nuthatches and a Middle Spotted Woodpecker. It was now getting warm and Griffon Vultures started soaring over along with Common Buzzards and a Booted Eagle. Soon enough we are heading back down to the main road and then up towards Fuente De to find a suitable stop for refreshments. Posadas (café/bars) are not difficult to find in this area and we happen on an excellent one at Los Llanos overlooking some great crags, in fact as soon as we arrive we see a pair of adult Egyptian Vultures. The coffees are ordered and we sit outside in the warm sunshine watching the raptors fly. Griffon Vultures are the most prevalent but we also get views of Short-toed & Booted Eagles, Common Buzzard and briefly a Peregrine Falcon. There are now several Common Wall Lizards sunning themselves and butterflies include Small Heath, Common Blue, Clouded Yellow and Scarce Swallowtail. Eventually we reluctantly leave and head back to towards another quaint mountain village – Brez. As we wind our way towards the village we stop for several singing Cirl Buntings but also here we find Red-backed Shrikes and a pair of Honey Buzzards drift over. Onward and upward we continue and just before Brez we stop at a pull-in with a bench for lunch. Julian produces a container of Gazpacho for everyone, which is very well received along with our bocadillos and fruit. Although lunch always takes second place to the wildlife and while we are there we see another pair of Short-toed Eagles and Egyptian Vulture. We also start to add some more butterflies with Large Skipper, Speckled Wood and Meadow Fritillary but a Purple Hairstreak was a new addition to the list. After lunch we drive the short distance to the outskirts of Brez village and ready ourselves for a walk in the area. This takes some time as there is a superb Black Kite flying around above us along with Common Buzzard and Griffon Vultures. Near the buildings we find Black Redstart, Tree Pipit, Robin, Serins and Goldfinches. We set off through the village stopping at some water troughs to admire the Midwife Toad tadpoles, some of which were quite well developed. We continue up and out into the open fields seeing a lot of the same species but the scenery is unbelievably spectacular and well worth the visit alone. We reach an open area and Christine decides she has walked enough and opts to sit and watch the wildlife develop around her. Julian and Angela carry on looking for butterflies and do well with a couple of False Ilex Hairstreaks, Lulworth & Marbled Skippers, Ringlet and Cleopatra. They turn back and on the way to Christine they then find a lovely Western Bonelli’s Warbler in the Holm Oaks. We get back to where Christine is sitting and find out she has probably seen a Beech Marten but wasn’t completely sure of its identification. They are not a rare mammal but difficult to see as they tend to be more nocturnal in their habits. Together we head back to Brez and on the way get brilliant views of both Griffon & Egyptian Vultures below us, along with our first Spotted Flycatcher of the holiday. We get back to the car hot and ready for another refreshment break before the drive back to the hotel. Again this is most welcome and we have a fabulous half hour chatting about some of the highlights of the week and our hopes for the sea journey back to Portsmouth the next day. The drive back is fairly slow and like the previous day the weather starts to deteriorate as we get through the Hermida Gorge. It has been yet another excellent day in this superb area of the Iberian Peninsula.
Thursday 28th – We awoke to a very pleasant day with the National Park’s highest peak – Torrecerrado, gleaming in the morning sunshine. This morning we were leaving the Picos and heading back to Santander via the Santona Marshes as we would have a couple of hours to kill. After breakfast we loaded the vehicle, said our “goodbyes” to Jim, Pilar and some of their staff and headed off out of the mountains. The journey was easy and just after exiting the motorway we stopped for our obligatory coffee. A little further we were driving through the estuary and pulling in to the hide’s car park. Things were much the same as the early visit with a few Spoonbills, Curlews, Whimbrels, Little Egrets, Black Kites and lots of gulls. So we didn’t stay there and decided to try the estuary mouth, which was more productive with us finding 3 Black-necked Grebes, female Pochard, Oystercatchers and Sandwich Tern. However the best find was a Melodious Warbler, which popped up in a small bush near where we were standing, something Julian hadn’t expected. It was now time to leave for the ferry terminal and we quickly made our way back to Santander, returned the rental car and made our way to the terminal. The ferry had docked from Portsmouth and very quickly we were boarding and waiting to leave. We got on the Cap Finistere early and stood on the top deck waiting to leave and watching for birds. Although we mainly saw Yellow-legged Gulls we did supplement this with an odd Mediterranean & Lesser Black-backed Gull, Sandwich & Common Tern. We left Santander about 3pm and fairly quickly got out into open water with 44 being our target number. This is the number of degrees north we needed to be to start and get into the deeper channels of the Continental Shelf. It was uncanny that just after crossing this latitude we saw our first cetaceans a few small groups of Common Dolphin. Sadly they were actively feeding so avoided the boat and didn’t show too well on the surface. We did manage to get a decent view of a couple of them, which enabled identification.  The conditions were near perfect for cetacean watching with a calm sea and good light, we were quite optimistic. About 30 minutes after seeing the dolphins Julian shouted excitedly “there’s a blow ahead, and another – there’s Fin Whales!” Frustratingly no-one else saw this initial sighting and several minutes passed before he again said “there, straight out – another blow”. This time most people of deck saw the plume of spray with their naked eyes and those with binoculars got on to one of the whales. The second largest animal on earth! This was the start of something rather special with at least 20 of these wonderful marine mammals being seen periodically in small groups until dusk. Angela even managed a photo of one of the Fin Whale blows, which is not an easy thing to do. To round off the day we sunset was also spectacular and very memorable after such a brilliant afternoon. This was the first time ever Julian had seen more whales than dolphins on a crossing and even the volunteers from ORCA thought it was fairly unique. So we all retired to our cabins with thoughts of the next morning and what it might bring. We knew that we would have passed over the deep water but there was always a chance of something.

Friday 29th – Julian was the first on deck and initially only saw the expected Northern Gannets but remained vigilant. We had agreed to meet for breakfast at 08:30 if there was nothing to see but around 7am things started to get better. First there was a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins, which was quickly followed by a European Storm-petrel, a couple of Fulmars and a Great Skua flew south. A little later Angela appeared and together they continued watching the large expanse of water as the ferry was getting into the English Channel. Julian found a couple of Harbour Porpoise and then Angela called a very close Basking Shark, which showed incredibly well. As we continued north-east we got more sightings of these species along with the constant companion of Gannet. At 08:30 we adjourned for breakfast as we had now been joined by Christine and the sea had definitely become quieter. This was a quite leisurely as we all knew that we were now unlikely to encounter anything different. However Julian and Angela persevered for a while after breakfast seeing a couple more Basking Sharks, another small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins and a few more European Storm-petrels. Around lunchtime we reconvened on the top deck where we had some lunch, went through the checklist and discussed the highlights of the holiday. The rest of the voyage was spent readying ourselves for Portsmouth and going home, which was interesting as we were the only three foot passengers on the ferry!



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