BILBAO TO BOCA DE HUÉRGANO
We catch the morning British Airways flight from London Gatwick nonstop to Bilbao, where we will be met by our driver. The journey from the airport to our first hotel takes around 3.5 hours, and there is some fine scenery to enjoy along the way.
We first head west along the coastal highway past Santander, then south on another motorway with impressive viaducts and tunnels. Having turned off onto a quieter road, we keep a look out for Common Buzzards and Red Kites. Passing through increasingly remote landscapes en route, we arrive in the early evening at the picturesque village of Boca de Huérgano near Riaño, where we stay for five nights. Night Boca de Huérgano
Days 2 - 5
CANTABRIAN MOUNTAINS: BOCA DE HUÉRGANO & THE PICOS DE EUROPA
The main focus for the first part of the tour is our quest for Wolves and this is likely to occupy us for several early mornings and/or evenings, when the animals are active. Our normal routine will be a 6.30am departure having enjoyed coffee and cake at the hotel a little earlier; we generally take a packed breakfast with us to eat later.
Our specialist local guides from WildWatching Spain are likely to know of a few areas to which groups of cubs remain faithful until later in the autumn. Observing from an appropriate distance in order not to disturb these shy wild animals, we hope to enjoy sightings of this much sought-after and iconic mammal through our telescopes. We will need to be patient, but perseverance usually brings rewards which will live long in the memory. We may spot groups of Red Deer, or a Red Fox, whilst scanning for the Wolves.
In open riverine meadows not far from our hotel we will seek out Wildcats. There is a large population in this part of Spain and, although easier to find in some years than others, they can often be seen hunting small rodents. With luck, we hope to obtain some good, close range views. Usually we remain in our vehicles but, from time to time, a Wildcat is sufficiently distracted by its quest for prey that it doesn’t notice us as we quietly disembark for a better view!
Having spent the first part of each morning looking for mammals, we return to our hotel for a coffee and a chance to change out of the ‘winter plumage’ needed whilst being out early and into some lighter clothes more appropriate for the warmth of a late summer day in northern Spain. Our routine here is likely to involve a pre-lunch stroll from our hotel, and we have a number of possibilities.
We can expect to see Black Redstart and European Serin as we wander through the narrow lanes down to the river, which is frequented by Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Common Sandpiper. We also hope to find Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper and a singing Iberian Chiffchaff in the taller trees. The timing of our tour coincides with the southerly migration of passerines through Spain and we may well encounter significant numbers of European Pied Flycatchers as well as Whinchat, Common Redstart, Common Nightingale, Spotted Flycatcher and perhaps a Golden Oriole.
Just across the road from our hotel, fields give way to gentle slopes with scrub and pines. In some years Rock Sparrows are found here in small numbers. Iberian Green Woodpeckers can be heard calling noisily in this area; they are often hard to spot, but we hope to find one sitting out in the open so we can discuss how different this recently split species is from its relative in the UK. Other birds of note might include Rock and Cirl Buntings, and it will be worthwhile keeping our eyes to the skies, with Booted Eagle, European Honey Buzzard and Egyptian Vulture among raptor possibilities.
There are a number of other special birds in the Cantabrian Mountains. Bluethroat and Citril Finch breed locally in the hills and it is possible we may encounter them whilst we are out and about looking for mammals. The woods also harbour Black Woodpecker, Firecrest and Crested Tit, and in more open areas we will search for Dartford Warbler and both Red-backed and Southern Grey Shrikes.
Although early September falls towards the end of the butterfly season, a number of interesting species should still be on the wing. The meadow right next to our hotel holds Oberthűr’s Grizzled Skipper and both Long-tailed and Lang’s Short-tailed Blues, and nearby we hope to find Southern Gatekeeper, Brown Hairstreak, Bath and Wood Whites, Wall Brown, Scarce and Sooty Coppers, Mallow and Red Underwing Skippers, as well as Great Banded and Tree Graylings. We are unlikely to see many dragonflies here but Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Keeled Skimmer and Beautiful Demoiselle are all possible - the latter on the river near our hotel.
Weather permitting, we will spend a full day in the stunning Picos de Europa mountains. A cable car allows us to reach high elevations where we hope to find Wallcreeper. This species often allows very close observation in the Picos, as does another high altitude specialist: Alpine Accentor. Other key birds in this area include Griffon Vulture, Alpine Chough, Water Pipit and Eurasian Crag Martin. And if we are very lucky, we might encounter a Lammergeier or White-winged Snowfinches.
Butterflies are few and far between at this altitude in early September but possiblities include Clouded Yellow, Chalkhill Blue and the localised Lefèbvre’s Ringlet.
On the mammal front, Pyrenean Chamois are relatively common in the mountains and on the way back to our hotel we can scan for groups of Spanish Ibex as they clamber about on the rocky slopes. Four further nights Boca de Huérgano
BOCA DE HUÉRGANO & TRAVEL TO POLA DE SOMIEDO
We have a final morning in and around Boca de Huérgano to look for any species we may have missed before heading west to our second hotel, in the village of Pola de Somiedo. Allowing for a short break along the way, the journey should take around 2.5 hours and we will plan to arrive in time for a late lunch. We stay in Pola for the next two nights.
After a siesta, we head out late afternoon to spend an evening looking for Brown Bears! At this time of year, they are active feeding up on berries or hazelnuts before most hibernate during the winter months. Bear conservation in Spain has been amazingly successful and it's great to report that the population of the country is now in the low hundreds. Night Pola de Somiedo
SOMIEDO NATIONAL PARK
We will continue our search for Brown Bears in the early morning and evening today. Once again, as with all mammal watching, patience and concentration will be required as we scan the mountain slopes with our binoculars and telescopes.
As in the first part of our holiday, during the middle part of the day there will be time to enjoy the other wildlife of this remarkably scenic area. Birds of prey may include Golden and Short-toed Snake Eagles, with Red-billed Choughs also likely along the ridges (on which we have a small chance of encountering a Rock Thrush). Flowering meadows abound with butterflies, with Cardinal, High Brown, Silver-washed, Weaver’s and Queen of Spain Fritillaries, Berger’s Clouded Yellow, Marbled White and Adonis Blue among many species David has recorded on his previous tours here.
The small villages we pass through are examples of a way of life that is fast disappearing in rural Spain. The houses are stone built, with thatched roofs and windows that seem ill-equipped for the cold that winter brings. Farming is still carried out as it has been for centuries, with sheep grazed on the high summer pastures, tended by a shepherd and dogs, and the flocks being brought lower as the cold weather arrives.
In Pola de Somiedo there is a locally run ‘Bear Museum’ which is well worth a visit at the end of our afternoon siesta. Night Pola de Somiedo
POLA DE SOMIEDO TO BILBAO
We leave Pola de Somiedo first thing after breakfast this morning and take the coastal route back to Bilbao. The drive to the airport will take around 4.5 hours, but time permitting we will pause to stretch our legs at Santoña and have a quick look for birds on the estuary there. Possibilities include Horned and Black-necked Grebes, Eurasian Spoonbill, Little and Western Cattle Egrets, Mediterranean and Yellow-legged Gulls, plus a number of familiar waders such as Whimbrel.
Continuing on to Bilbao, we catch our return flight to London Gatwick, where our Wolves, Bears, Wildcats & Wallcreepers tour concludes.