Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Spain in search of bears and wolves

A lifelong ambition of mine, and now Josie's, is to see a wolf in the wild. Scenes of them in films and documentaries have fascinated and drawn me all my life, seeing them in zoos and wildlife centres has done nothing but increase the desire to actually see one behaving in totally natural surroundings.

We first thought of this trip a couple of years ago, research undertaken drew us to Naturetrek, a well regarded company whose guides are amongst the finest there are. Obviously the trips are not cheap and have to fit within the available budget, last year we decided the time was right and made the booking.

Since then despite some memorable trips around the north of the UK my mind has been fixed on this venture, maybe finally we would see the wolf we yearned for.

Sailing out of Portsmouth, about a 280 mile drive, we decided to enjoy a couple of days in the New Forest prior to departure. A comfortable flat above a village inn was rented and turned out to be a delightful place to stay, plus we took advantage of the location to finally meet up with some fellow Facebook wildlife fans for a drink and a very enjoyable walk.

Some advice from them enabled me to get a pretty good little egret shot at a local reserve...

...and maybe my best yet kestrel

And so to the main event...a short drive to Portsmouth Ferry Point and the correct car park, luggage unloaded and into the departure lounge, happily less crowded than the airport variety!

A kind lady approached and asked if we were with the Naturetrek trip, dead giveaway with camera bags and binoculars strapped to me! We joined the other eleven guests, ranging from London, High Wycombe, Chorley, Newcastle, Inverness and Aberdeen we seemed like a disparate group and yet a love of wildlife bound us together.

Our tour guides arrived and dealt with the ticket details and cabins located we managed to get on deck not too long after the six o'clock departure. By the time we reached open sea darkness was descending and watching was pointless, bars and restaurants were located and friendships began to forge.

We had a pre-arranged viewpoint for the next morning on the top starboard side of the ferry and I managed to get decent shots of a great shearwater....

...and a common dolphin

I added quite a few birds to my list of first time sightings during the day, mainly thanks to the expertise of the guides and Graeme a fellow guest who has way more knowledge than me! A very calm crossing and we arrived in Santander in early evening. With a long drive to come the next day we were booked in at a 4 star hotel just across the road from the ferry, instructions were given as to meeting up the next day and then we were left alone to find some supper, good fun with my command of Spanish and distinct lack of English either understood or spoken in the port!

We managed to find some great food and after a good sleep and a tasty breakfast we met for the two mini buses to be loaded for the trip to our first base. Our two guides were Gerald Broddelez, a Belgian national and Byron Palacios, originally from Ecuador but now resident in the UK, more on them later.

We were on Byron's bus and quickly established a good rapport with him and our fellow passengers, similar things happenened on Gerald's bus too, people can bond surprisingly quickly when they have a common interest.

After a long but interesting journey we finally arrived at our first proper location in wild Spain, Pola de Somiedo in the Asturias region. We were given a while to relax then it was out on our first wildlife trip, further up into the Cantabrian mountains to look for bears.

A short but steep uphill walk from the parking place took us to a vantage point....

Wild boar were spotted in the increasing darkness....then a red fox...

But that was it, but we were here and not a bad first night.

After a traditional meal at the hotel, delicious by the way, we were given the timetable for the following day, one that would become routine.

Meet at seven am for a quick coffee then out for a couple of hours, back for breakfast and maybe half an hour to ourselves then out again in the increasing heat for a bird and butterfly walk, back at the hotel between two thirty and three, siesta time! Back out between four and five until darkness, then sometimes as late as ten we ate our evening meal. It sounds easy but believe me it gets more and more tiring. For the first day we were allowed breakfast before we set off, thank goodness!

We set off in good spirits the next day, despite some us really enjoying the free wine that accompanied the evening meal. An alert passenger had spotted a female wildcat out hunting, their main prey is the mole rat and we saw her catch one!

There is no doubt she knew we were there, but it proves the value of staying still when instructed by people who know the behaviour well.

We proceeded up to a bear observatory point by a roadside, a large wooden bear advertises that this is the correct place. Just to show how hard it can be one recent trip had three four hour visits to this point and saw a bear for five minutes, nothing is guaranteed.

We scanned the screes and forest edges patiently for a couple of hours or more, lunch was enjoyed in a rota with some still scanning. Scopes and binoculars were constantly moving across the slopes about 200 metres away and then a loud whisper "We have a bear!"....everyone moved to get a view as first an adult female and then a youngster emerged, by moving down the road we watched them for over an hour, just magical.

Along with some grazing Chamois as I scoured the slopes through my camera!

We enjoyed a hearty supper that evening and the following day we drove up to some glacial remnants that provided some real highlights with the birds of prey.

First up a common frog in a mountain cave stream about 5,500 ft asl

A black redstart

A mountain green veined white butterfly

A booted eagle

Two griffon vultures...waiting for something to die...
An egyptian vulture

A griffon vulture in flight

and a short toed snake eagle

A couple of local scenery shots

These were taken enroute to our next next location.... Villadeciervos in the Zamora region, now the really hard work began, the team knew each other, one guide with over 8,000 of the worlds 9,500 birds seen and the other tests scopes for Swarovski and leads bird tours all over the world, these guys know what they are doing and we listened intently when they told us what we had to do.

A couple of hours to relax before the first trip, it's hot but I'm wired so we go for a wander and find a wall lizard...

Later we were introduced to late night wildlife watching, when the light is going and you stare for too long your mind goes a bit strange and things appear to move, even when there is no wildlife there. I whispered to Gerald who was stood nearby and he came over.."What have you seen?" "I think it may be a wolf by the tree edges" I directed him to my scope........"Has it moved?" "No"....we moved away a few yards and he gave some great advice which I should have known...."Look for 10-15 seconds then look somewhere else, look back and if it has not moved it is 99% not an animal" I felt dumb but others would make the same mistake too.

Some of us had a post dinner drink or two every night, with no absentees from the early morning outings, we found humour a great way to release any tensions that can easily build up with strangers thrown together, some great friendships were forming as well.

The lunchtime bird and butterfly walks brought some beautiful sights though I have little clue to their identities!

The evening walk provided no wolves either but my my first clear sight of a dartford warbler, shame I only got most of it on my photograph!

We tried and tried, we saw red deer through the mist


More butterflies

A black or cinereous vulture, a huge bird...

A mixture of house and sand martins en route to Africa

 A juvenile garden warbler...

An almost wolf wolf shaped cloud, imagination may be necessary :-)

And on our last morning some wolf droppings, you can see the fur or hairs from their prey, it was still warm and we searched and searched. Parking up I wandered down a track quietly for a smoke (allowed by the guides), I stood and silently said "I know you are out there fella" tears rolled down my face, not sadness, not defeat just knowing the wolf will be there one day for us.

As I joined the main group we could see red deer stags grazing...

And on our last drive back to Santander, the massive great bustard...about twice the size of an average turkey....

And so a great trip ended, a wonderful last night together on the ferry with some great fun.

We came home with wonderful memories of great, friendly people and an increased respect for just how a group with similar aims can get on together. Massive respect for our guides for their knowledge, humour and above all their people skills, two great guys.

Between us we logged over 120 birds, my personal count was 103 including 31 new ones.

Thanks to all on the trip from me and Josie :-)

Many thanks to all who read, don't forget if you do comment that the comments come to me first for moderation.

One day me and the wolf will get together.................