Friday 12th August
Early warnings of delays by the Naturetrek Office ensured that group arrived with the minimum of waiting time and boarded about 2130ish with everyone settled into their outside facing cabins by 2300. An early night was taken ready for the all day watch on deck 11.
Saturday 13th August
Some early risers were on deck just after dawn, with others meeting up for a tour of the ship and its facilities at 0800. The three-hour delay in leaving meant that the ship was not in productive deep water until 1800 but the Channel produced both Minke Whale and Common Dolphin together with a constant stream of Gannets and gulls. By the evening the deeper water brought a number of shearwaters including nine Cory’s and three Greats to compare together with a few Storm Petrels. The weather was excellent with clearing skies as we left British waters and a moderate wind.
Sunday 14th August
We woke to bright clear skies and rising temperatures. The early risers saw a Cory’s Shearwater, Striped Dolphins and two Long-finned Pilot Whales before we arrived at Santurtzi Port close to Bilbao. Things went a little awry then as the car hire firm had left the two nine-seater minibuses but had taken the keys with them. It took some time to get in contact with the company as it was Sunday and eventually the leaders had to collect the keys from Bilbao in a taxi whilst the group relaxed and enjoyed refreshments prior to the start of the road journey.
All loaded up we set off along the coastal highway towards Santander with our first stop scheduled at the marsh and hide of Santoña, just east of Santander. We arrived on a high tide which was just starting to turn and the waders began moving into prime feeding areas. Turnstone, Dunlin, Ringed, Little Ringed and Kentish Plover were noted and the area is important for its large flocks of migrating Whimbrel. Whilst we ate our lunch, Cattle Egrets flew over and a Kingfisher paused briefly on the waters edge. (As conditions were dry in Spain this year, this was to be our only chance of seeing waders – something we did not appreciate until later in the week). We were soon back on the road heading for the Picos mountains so that we could get some more birding in before dusk.
The road through the Hermida Gorge is spectacular although fairly narrow so we took our time to take in the scenery whilst avoiding the huge tourist coaches heading back to the towns on this Spanish Bank Holiday weekend. Towards the end of the gorge we turned off towards a small village called Lebeña and then onto a watch point at Santa Maria de Lebeña. This car park offers magnificent views of the mountains surrounding the Hermida Gorge and the verges hold good numbers of butterflies. We saw our first Egyptian Vultures here, soaring on the wind with the commoner Griffons. A Short-toed Eagle sailed across the skies followed a while later by a dashing Peregrine. Butterflies included Lang’s Short-tailed and Long-tailed Blues, Clouded Yellows and Swallowtail.
The weather was now hot late on in the afternoon and it was decided to head towards our accommodation for the next two nights.
We drove through the scenic town of Potes and headed up the valley towards the impressive Fuente De peaks arriving at the family run Hotel Nevandi in Espinama by 1730. After settling in and some exploration we sat down to an excellent meal of tasty local Spanish food.
Monday 15th August
This was a Spanish Bank Holiday and we were warned that crowds would gather at the Fuente De cable car so we decided on an early start. Dawn broke to a cloudy, dull sky and the thoughts of disappearing up a mountain into damp cloud did not make the group too enthusiastic. However we were one of the first groups in the queue and were soon waiting in the loading bay for the cable car to appear out of the cloud. Packed into the car on one of the longest spanned cable routes in Europe we headed towards and then into the cloud. It felt slightly claustrophobic for a while then suddenly we broke free from the gloom into bright clear sunshine and the mountain peaks glistened with patches of winter snow still in some of the gullies. We had experienced the ‘sea of cloud’ that made a great photo subject when we arrived at the mountain cable car station.
After taking in all the sites, we started on our trail along the rising mountain tracks carrying our lunches in our rucksacks. The first birds we came across were a small group of young Alpine Accentors being attended to by their parents, Water Pipits fed in the rocks and Black Redstarts and Northern Wheatears seemed to be everywhere. We headed towards the base of the mountain peak towards some caves where Wallcreepers had nested in the spring, with the hope they may still be about and our journey passed more families of accentors, Black Redstarts and a lone juvenile Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. We arrived at the caves bang on lunchtime and a typical Naturetrek spread of local meats, cheeses, fruits and fresh bread was laid out with wine and fruit juice to wash it down. We stared hopefully up at the cliffs but the only movement was from Black Redstarts, accentors and Crag Martins and after a couple of hours we decided to head back to the cable car to try another area in the afternoon. Just as we had started to walk, Tim shouted ‘Wallcreeper’ and to our amazement and relief we watched a bird down to at times 20 feet on boulders strewn below us. In fact it turned out that we were watching two birds as when people stated it had just disappeared into rocks, others were watching a second bird in full view. This was what many had come for and the whole mood of the group changed from gentle satisfaction of being up in the beauty of the Picos to the euphoria of seeing a new bird and ‘back slapping’ rippled through the group, especially Tim’s!!
The journey back to the cable car station flew and we were soon back in the valley, still talking about Wallcreepers. We headed back towards the Hermida Gorge to a small valley just before a village called Bejes where we all got good views of Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Short-toed Eagle and a splendid adult Rock Bunting coming to drink in the stream. This was followed by a trip to Brez just outside Potes, which is a nice green valley and home to a large population of Red-backed Shrike; a family party of six birds were seen on a hedgerow. It was also a good place for woodpeckers. Although we did not see any we heard both Great and Middle-spotted calling in the valley and the strange call of the Iberian race of Green Woodpecker which has a different ‘laugh’ to those we hear in the UK.
We returned to Espinama for our last night in the hotel, where we had another excellent dinner and went through our lists, with of course much conversation on Tim’s Wallcreeper exploits.
Tuesday 16th August
A travelling day, heading through the eastern hills of the Picos and out onto the dry plains towards Zamora.
After a hearty breakfast we were packed and on the road by 09.00 and our first port of call was Potes where the leaders bought the lunch whilst the group explored this thriving town. Once we had shopped and fuelled up we headed out towards Cantabria. We stopped on the border with Castilla Leon at Puerto de San Gloria, a ‘saddle’ in the hills where birds migrate through to avoid the mountains peaks. A good number of Kestrels were passing through and close views of an Egyptian Vulture and Short-toed Eagle were rewarding. This is sometimes a good place to lunch but coupled with the fact that it was still early and there was a brisk wind blowing we decided to head further south to a site by a river. Here we found that the heat was starting to increase and gave us warning what it was going to be like for the next few days. (In fact later that day the weather changed in the Picos and they had torrential rain – so we timed it right). Enjoying our lunch we watched Griffon Vultures circle the cliffs where they bred and a Honey Buzzard gave good views allowing us to study the identification features. Refreshed we continued south leaving the hills and arriving into the dry northern plains of Spain. We headed for the reserve area of Villafáfila, where we got our first views of some distant Great Bustards feeding in the stubble fields. We were disappointed that the thriving lagoons were bone dry after an incredibly dry winter. Good views of Short-toed and Crested Larks made up for the lack of waders and duck and small patches of Giant Fennel held migrants birds trying to find shelter from the sun. We found up to three Melodious Warblers in one of these patches and saw both Whitethroat and Tree Sparrows in the sparse bushes.
With time pressing on we continued south to the historic walled town of Zamora where with the help of satellite navigation we went straight to our hotel situated close to the banks of the mighty River Duero. Greeted by hundreds of bill clapping White Storks on the surrounding roofs, we settled in and explored before a satisfying evening meal. Many retired early, as the plan was to leave early in the morning to catch the sunrise at one of the birding sites with a packed breakfast.
Wednesday 17th August
We gathered at the mini buses at 06.30 with a box of breakfast provisions and headed out onto the road towards Portugal in the darkness. As the sun rose we arrived at a small watering hole near to the village of Fariza where there was still a small pool and as the temperature rose we watched many birds come to drink. With our breakfast in one hand and binoculars in the other we had great views of Wood Larks and Rock Buntings coming down to drink. An obliging Ortolan Bunting put in an appearance and a flock of 70+ European Bee-eaters left their roost to feed over the plains. Once fed and watered we did a short round trip through the dry fields coming across many new species for the trip. Woodchat Shrikes shared their vantage points with Southern Grey Shrikes, Hoopoes and Golden Orioles dashed to and from cover and both Subalpine and Bonelli’s Warblers afforded good views of their identification features. We also added Short-toed Treecreeper, located by its distinctive call and Red-rumped Swallows shared the air with its commoner cousins. This was one of the most productive areas and it was sad to leave it but the day was starting to heat up and we moved further towards Portugal. We entered this new country at Miranda Del Duero where the leaders shopped for lunch whilst the group took a well-earned break for coffee. With lunch purchased we headed for the small church and picnic area on the edge of the high gorge cut by the Duero at Aldeia Nova. Lunch was spread on the sheltered picnic tables and we relaxed in the sun looking for raptors. Unfortunately it was very quiet with only Crag Martins seen in the sky but both Purple Hairstreak and Large Copper were feeding on the edge of the scrubland.
Our final stop was at the dam, which is at the head of the Embalse de Almendra with spectacular views over the Rio Tormes. Griffon Vultures breed in the gorge and a pair of Booted Eagles flew below us.
With an early start we headed back to Zamora for an early finish arriving around 1600 when group members were free to explore the banks of the Duero adding Mallard(!) and Reed Warbler to the day list.
Thursday 18th August
Another early start at 0630, this time heading west to the cereal fields near to Castronuño. We arrived just after dawn at a ‘set-aside’ field where we expected to find two species of bustards. After an hour walking the perimeter we had seen very little other than Calandra and Crested Lark and Great Bustards in the distance. (We later realised that a shepherd and his sheep had probably walked through the area prior to our arrival!) Just as we were about to leave a small number of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew past showing their gleaming white belly and under wings and a single Black-bellied Sandgrouse was identified from its main field marking – a black belly! We decided then to explore some of the other fields utilising the small dirt tracks off the main road. This was beneficial because as we approach a similar ‘set-aside’ seven Little Bustards flew out and settled in the next field where we were able to see one or two of them feeding in the long vegetation. A flock of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew over us and settled in a ploughed field where we managed to view them from the road. Pleased with our success we drove towards Castronuño to search for lunch and the first mini bus flushed five Azure-winged Magpies from roadside bushes. They promptly disappeared over the hillside much to the dismay of the second bus. A small shop in the town provided lunch and a nice roadside café/bar gave us a coffee infusion together with good rest rooms.
We took the lunch down a small track and over a railway bridge next to the River Duero where the local produce was enjoyed with new species added to the list. Birds such as Purple Heron, Great Crested Grebe, Avocet and Spotted Flycatcher were seen and Cetti’s Warblers called strongly from the bushes next to the minibuses but remained deep in cover. Bee-eaters dipped over the water to drink and Buzzards and Booted Eagles were always visible in the sky over this flat river plain landscape.
After lunch we took the vehicles over the river to the Riberas de Castronuño nature reserve where we shuttled the buses and passengers for a mile walk along the edge of the river. This area can be good for migrants but the heat of the day (over 32 degrees) was keeping most things in cover. Spotted and Pied Flycatchers were obvious and Reed Warblers fed in the reeds but all enjoyed the ambience of the area.
With the heat becoming a little oppressive we headed back to our hotel for the last night in Zamora and yet another good local dinner.
Friday 19th August
This was our travelling day back to Bilbao, so to make the most of the cool morning weather with set off at 0630 again to visit Villafáfila for the second time where we would eat our packed breakfast. It was surprisingly cool this morning as we arrived at the observation tower where we found two small pools of water. These attracted both Common and Green Sandpipers to feed and Spanish Yellow Wagtails flew in to drink. One of the raptor specialities in this area is the melanistic Montagu’s Harrier and we saw two from the tower hide, quartering the fields. During the morning we got great views of Short-toed Eagle, Lesser Kestrel and Great Bustards and just as we were leaving we came across a party of four Tawny Pipits on the roadside.
By 1030 we settled back in our seats and started our long journey back to Bilbao. Lunch we bought in a small town on route and eaten in a motorway rest area and we arrived in Bilbao and were settled in our hotel by 1700. That evening the group had free range to visit the city which was well into its annual fiesta and find a place to dine. Some visited the famous Guggenheim Museum, which they reported was marvellous while others just wondered the busy streets and took in the ambience of this thriving and expanding city.
Saturday 20th August
After an early breakfast we headed for the ferry port at Santurtzi. The clouds had built up overnight and there had been heavy rain as a depression had entered the southern bay. Heavy showers were regular during the morning as we waited to board the ferry and waterproofs were the order of the day. On board the vessel, Black, Common and Sandwich Terns were seen in the harbour and an adult Mediterranean Gull was added to the list.
Once we had set off we hit a moderate swell, which meant that only half of the group met on deck 11, and there were regular comings and goings for refreshments and to warm up. With the water being choppy and covered in ‘white horse’ cetacean watching was difficult. We missed the only Cuvier’s Beaked Whale as it surfaced in the troughs and only saw the ‘blows’ of the 16 or so Fin Whales during the day. However shearwater watchers were treated to some excellent close views of both Cory’s and Greats as they flew with the boat. The further north we went the dryer the weather became so it was much more pleasant to be on deck in the late afternoon although there was still a fair swell. We decided to have our final meeting that evening to run through the list and sort the next day’s landing procedures out and then we retired to our berths to be rocked to sleep.
Sunday 21st August
We woke to clear skies and smooth seas somewhere off the coast of the Brest peninsular.
Being this far north we had lost the shearwaters but the calm waters meant they we got great views of Common Dolphin and three Minke Whales as we entered the channel. As we slowly approached and passed the Isle of Wight we sadly said our goodbyes with promises to meet up again and by 2030 we were disembarking onto UK soil again.
It seemed unanimous that the trip was a huge success and both Alan and I would like to thank you all for your enthusiasm and patience throughout the week. We both enjoyed it and would hope to see you all on another trip to savour more wildlife in future years.
Finally thanks to Tim’s keen eyes in spotting the Wallcreeper, which was the highlight of the week for most and to ‘Mr TomTom’ for a superb job in navigating, especially in the cities!!!