Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Iberian Wolf in N/W Spain

6th - 11th November 2009

Trip report by Steve Addinall

Thursday 6th November :- Myself, Chris & Stuart were picked up from Madrid Airport by our leader, Jules. After a 3 hour drive, we arrived in the area of the Sierra de Culebra where we would be based for all five days of our trip. Ken, Keith &d Ian were already looking for wolves, having travelled overland from France. The journey provided our first views of Red Kites, Kestrels and Griffon Vultures en-route. We arrived to the news that wolves had been difficult to come by over the previous week or so – the challenge was on!. Jules took us to our accommodation which was a lovely “eco-friendly” lodge in the middle of the tiny village of San Pedro de las Herrerias. Our host, Antonio was very welcoming himself being a knowledgeable and experienced wolf-watcher with recent sightings displayed in the entrance hall. Elsewhere in the lodge, there is a cosy living room with a real fire, a pleasant dining room, well-stocked with red wine and the bedrooms were very comfortable. Food during our stay was excellent, breakfast consisted of toasted bread and croissants, cheese, jam, honey, freshly-brewed coffee, tea and orange juice. Lunch was available either inside or packed if we were going further afield, and included such dishes as paella or Spanish omelette (tortilla). The three course evening meal was always welcome and extremely tasty.

Friday 7th November :- Having visited on numerous occasions, with a high success-rate of finding wolves, Jules is well acquainted with the established watch points in the area. So, after a comfortable night, we were in place not long after dawn the next morning, at the Pistas de Linares watchpoint just a couple of kilometres from the accommodation. We familiarised ourselves with the habitat which consisted of moorland mixed with deciduous and coniferous woodland and small patches of crop fields. Evidently, the accepted approach to finding wolves here is to scan over as large an area as possible, concentrating on early mornings and late evenings. We paid particular attention to dirt roads and tracks across the landscape, since wolves sometimes follow these. We also noticed that the numerous Red Deer liked to feed in the small ploughed fields, whereas Roe Deer kept a lower profile, rarely coming out in the open for very long. We wondered whether these deer might attract a wolf or two! After a wolf-free morning followed by breakfast, we did some local birding. At the same time, Jules took us to some of the other wolf-watching overlooks while reccéing the whole area for other likely spots. Wolf footprints found in some mud were an impressive size and encouraged us for the evening’s watching. During the day we saw Griffon Vultures (35), Black Vultures (2), Hen Harriers (2), Red Kites (8), Black Redstart, Dartford Warblers, Jays, Southern Grey Shrike, Stonechats, Crossbills (20+), Cirl Buntings (6), Rock Buntings (3), and 100+ Ravens. It was an excellent introduction to some of the local birds. As we prepared for our evening’s wolf-watching, Jules suggested that we split up – he would watch the regular local viewpoint and the rest of us would go to a different overlook that we had passed during the day. After an hour or so, we were enjoying wonderful views of male Hen Harriers hunting over the moorland, accompanied by the gentle “churring” of Dartford Warblers from the scrub and “pipping” of Crested Tits from the nearby conifers, but there had been no sign of any wolves. A fellow wolf-watcher who was staying in the same accommodation as us – Dave the Belgian baker – and his family turned up and we quickly got him on to a Hen Harrier. “I see it” he said, “… and a Wolf!!!”. This was quite a shock for the rest of us, since we had been watching quite intensely for the last hour! We all had fantastic views of this impressive beast as it tore into a large mound of soil with its front paws, presumably looking for a snack of small rodents, then as it loped quickly but effortlessly through the moor and into the wooded valley nearby. It was brief but remarkable – we had seen Iberian Wolf on our first full day! We called Jules at the other site and he was over the moon that we had scored so quickly. Later that evening over dinner Jules told us he had never watched from that point before – it was therefore a truly inspired choice on his part and a brilliant decision to split up!

Saturday 8th November :- The next day was mostly a birding day – we travelled further afield and actually crossed the border into Portugal. This was specifically so we could visit some spectacular gorges along the Douro River with extremely high cliffs on either side. This was excellent habitat for Crag Martins and raptors, both of which we saw in abundance, and generally was just a nice area to bird. During the day we saw 60 Griffon Vultures, 1 Black Vulture, 5 Golden Eagles (one at extremely close range below us in one of the gorges), 3 Common Buzzard, 25 Red Kites, 1 Black-shouldered Kite, 15 Serin, 30 Crag Martin, Red-billed Chough, 6 Southern Grey Shrike a flock of 12 Firecrests and much more. We also saw butterflies – Clouded Yellow, Red Admiral, Wall Brown and Blue-winged Grasshopper. The day finished with a wolfless but enjoyable evening vigil, watching Jays foraging over the moorland, with parties of Crossbills and other finches passing over.

Sunday 9th November :- On day three, we drove to Villafafila, an area of grassland and occasional flooded fields. This was a magnificent place for birding and the undoubted highlights were the 332 Great Bustards that we counted in the surrounding fields! Alongside these were 62 Common Cranes, in small family-parties. Up to 5 Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over us making their distinctive “burbling” call but we never did manage to find any on the ground. A few Little Bustards put in an unexpected appearance, their distinctive flight style, with rapid, shallow wingbeats, allowed everyone to get on to them despite it being a brief view. In the same area, there were Merlins, Marsh Harriers, Common Buzzards and Red Kites and numerous larks. These were mostly Skylarks (500+) but also included some very impressive Calandra Larks (50+). A small wetland area held 300+ Greylag Geese and 500+ Mallards – common species for us but these were impressive numbers. The return to the accommodation was noted for getting more fantastic views of another Black shouldered Kite just outside San Vitero. While birding the fields and scrub around San Pedro de las Herrerias that afternoon Keith found a Citril Finch and Ian saw a Hawfinch. The evening ended with another wolf-watch, this time without wolves!

Monday 10th November :- The final full day of our trip began just after dawn, with the group split again between the two wolf-watching points. Early morning mist hampered one group’s attempts while the other group enjoyed a large movement of thrushes and finches – 550 Song Thrushes, 450 Redwings, 21 Fieldfare, 20 Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Siskins, 1 Bullfinch etc. After breakfast we decided to concentrate on San Pedro de las Herrerias and its surroundings again. Some of us had never seen Citril Finch, so a concerted (but ultimately unsuccessful) effort was made to relocate the bird from the previous day. Never-the-less birding in this area was excellent with 2 Peregrines (one making a kill directly above my head in the village), Black & Griffon Vultures, Southern Grey Shrike, Firecrests, Rock & Cirl Buntings, Black Redstart, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Nuthatches and a Brambling amongst the large flocks of Chaffinches were all observed just yards from our accommodation! Brimstone, Large White, Red Admiral, Wall Brown and Speckled Wood butterflies were also seen. This evening was our last chance for more wolves and Chris and Stuart decided to walk up to the Linares viewpoint for a bit of “pre-wolf” birding. When the rest of us arrived in the van, these two had just been treated to excellent views of another Iberian Wolf! So there you have it, the wolves round here don’t just come out at dawn and dusk. This one had been viewed in essentially full light at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The rest of the evening had us all on tenterhooks to see if the wolf would put in another appearance but sadly it did not. However we were treated to more Red Deer than on any other night, one of which bathed itself in a large puddle. Finally, just before darkness set in, a Wild Boar made an appearance next to the same puddle. It managed to find a small area of mud to sit in before snuffling off back into the undergrowth. Excellent!

Tuesday 11th November :- We reluctantly left the next morning, having had a superb trip. Two wolves in a wonderful setting, lots of quality birds and a few surprises. On the journey back to Madrid Airport Chris, Stewart, Jules and myself saw at least 50 Red Kites, as well as 3 Black Vultures and a Black-shouldered Kite.

 

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