David's Diaries 2006
Castille Leon March 16 to 21 2006
RYANAIR kept up its reputation for punctuality by arriving 15 minutes early. Having left Stansted in falling snow, it was a pleasure to find it warm and sunny at Valladolid. I bought a couple of tickets for the bus to town, expecting to have to fetch the minibus, but was delighted to find a girl in the airport holding a sign with my name on it. Our minibus, a Citroen Jumper, had indeed arrived at the airport, so we were soon on our way, driving through a vast, flat landscape. We saw a few birds as we travelled west towards Benevente: white storks, a red kite, a few lesser kestrels, swallows, spotless starlings, corn buntings but nothing too exciting. The parador, situated at Benevente's highest point, was well signposted, and as we drove up to it Jan and I realised that we had stayed here before, in 1992.
We soon checked into our rooms, and from the balcony I watched blackbirds, swallows, greenfinches and chaffinches, saw both a goldcrest and a chiffchaff and a black redstart. Collared doves were numerous: they wouldn't have been here 14 years ago. There was a sudden panic when a sparrowhawk came dashing through the trees, doing a quick circuit but departing empty-clawed. At dusk numerous bats appeared, circling around the tower.
Dinner, with no English version of the menu, was a challenge as it took ages to order. As a result we ate rather late.
Woken by blackbirds and collared doves singing in the garden. I had a short walk in town before breakfast: yesterday's warmth had gone, and the sky was a uniform grey.
After the usual excellent parador breakfast, eaten in the dining room with a panoramic view west (and from which we watched a passing stork) we left for our day's outing at 9.15, pausing briefly at a supermarket on our way out of town. It didn't take long to leave the main Madrid road, signposted south to Las Lagunas de Villafáfila. We hadn't been going far when I decided to stop for a circling raptor which was may have been a dark-phase booted eagle, but was too far to be sure. (It was probably a marsh harrier.) Corn buntings and larks were singing, and a red kite and a lesser kestrel flew past. Scanning around, I eventually found a flock of more than 30 cock great bustards which gave an excellent, if slightly distant, view. It was an encouraging start to the day. We then drove on to the village of Villafáfila where we tried to visit the interpretation centre for one of the beautiful pigeon houses (palomores) which, we discovered, are such a feature here. It was shut, as was the huge and impressive visitor centre for the lagunas, another 2km up the road. However, we discovered it was due to open at 4pm. We walked along its perimeter fence, peering in to its artificial lagoons with lots of coots, greylag geese (and a pair of pinioned barnacles and a single bar-headed). There were also tufted ducks and pochard and a few little grebes. From the lowest vantage point we looked out over the marshes, and saw a variety of waders including stilts, snipe, ruff and redshank. There was usually a patrolling red kite to be seen somewhere, and once a black kite came overhead. It remained grey and gloomy, while the wind was chilly.
From here we moved south, driving back through Villafáfila, and then east across the bottom of the southernmost lake. Here there were great numbers of shovelers, probably as many as 3,ooo, and a variety of other surface-feeding duck that included gadwall, wigeon, mallard, teal and pintail. I eventually found five garganey, four drakes and a duck. There were also many avocets, as well as more stilts and a flock of black-tailed godwits. From an attractive hide that had been built to look rather like a pigeon house we looked out over the lake. Here three busloads of British birdwatchers had arrived just before us, but we didn't talk to them. There was also a party of Spanish birdwatchers.
The tiny village of Otero de Sariegos held a dilapidated church which was obviously a breeding site for lesser kestrels, nesting in the pigeon holes in the eaves. It was a real one-horse town, and one could imagine Clint Eastwood riding in.
Before we left I spotted a pair of great bustards flying towards us from the direction of Villafáfila. They eventually came right over us, giving a great view. Flying appeared to be quite an effort, as they had their beaks open. They joined a small group of bustards behind us on the top of a hill which we hadn't seen before. We climbed into the bus for a better view, and were rewarded with our best bustards yet. The group consisted of at least 35, probably 40 cocks, and we enjoyed some wonderful displays. Alas, the light was poor and as we watched the first spots of rain started to fall. It was to be a wet afternoon. We decided to go back to the hide for lunch, but no sooner had Jan spread out all the lunch than the warden came to close the place for lunch (2-4). We returned to the bus, grumbling. Lunch was eaten in the pouring rain, and finding a distant spoonbill (asleep) was no compensation.
After lunch we killed time until the visitor centre opened, driving around and generally looking for birds with little success in the pouring rain. We did get great views of a curlew, and spot a distant flock of calandra larks. The centre duly opened on time, and we admired the fine displays. It was, of course, funded by the EU, and must have cost several million euros. I digiscoped a nesting white stork from the building.
A walk here to the lower hides produced a few new birds: fantailed warbler, little stint, dunlin, little ringed plover and Kentish plover. It was still raining as we walked back, and as we drove home to Benevente.
Gerald, Jan and I went for a walk in the town before dinner. The rain had stopped, so we wandered along the narrow streets, most of which were pedestrianised. Scores of kids were hanging about: none were scruffy or even unpleasant, but they didn't add to Benevente's appeal.
We had our pre-dinner drinks in the tower bar, while dinner was simplified by eating off the special 27 euro menu, which gave both fish and meat courses, though the latter was tiny. However, it was all we needed. It was raining again when we went to bed.
The rain had stopped by the morning, and there were breaks in the cloud which promised a more cheerful day. We left soon after 9.15, driving south on the Zamora road, then forking off west at Breto, then south again at Bretocino. The road was difficult to find at Bretocino, and we had a short tour of the town before we found our route. A short way out of town we came across a great spotted cuckoo sitting in a tree by the side of the road, but unfortunately there was a car behind us and another one coming towards us. We turned round to come back and try again, passing a wheatear, but by the time we got back the cuckoo had gone.
By now it had started raining, and it was raining quite steadily when we found a southern grey shrike sitting on a tree just a few feet from the road. It sat and let us admire it for some time. Our route took us through attractive rolling countryside with plenty of vegetation and small trees. By the time we stopped again the rain had given up and the sun tried to come out. We had an enjoyable walk in a quiet and attractive valley with woodlarks singing. Here we also saw a pair of red-rumped swallows, blue tit and coal tit, scores of chaffinches and both serins and siskins. I saw a cirl bunting, but as soon as I got the scope on it, it flew. Several red kites and buzzards soared over. As we walked back to the car a hoopoe called from across the valley.
We then joined a more major road which took us back across the river Esla, widened here by a dam farther downstream. It was an attractive spot, and we stopped on the bridge for a while to enjoy the view and the birds. The latter included our first crag martins and rock sparrows, both of which we saw well. A kingfisher flew under the bridge, but not many people saw it. Overhead, seven ravens soared together and we also saw several more red kites. A surprise find was a distant soaring osprey - heading back to Scotland?
We soon left the river valley behind and returned to the wide open treeless steppe. We travelled just south of Villafáfila, driving across to Castronuevo. I was hoping for a sandgrouse, but no luck, though we did stop for two distant great bustards that I had spotted. I wonder how many we drove by and didn't see. We eventually found a tiny shop with helpful staff where we stocked up with food for lunch, and had our picnic just outside the small town of Gallegos del Pan. Here our picnic site was in a river valley and well away from both town and other roads. The sun shone at times, warming our backs, and we watched lesser kestrels, red kites and buzzards. A hoopoe was scoped, and then I spotted a distant bird sitting motionless on a fence post. I couldn't identify at first as the range was so great. As we walked closer I suspected that it was a merlin, but then it flew and I didn't even see it depart. However, the sun was still shining so we walked on up the valley. We watched red-legged partridges and meadow pipits when suddenly the mystery bird reappeared, flying back down the valley, though a considerable distance from us. It flared up, changed direction and then landed, confirming that it really was a merlin.
Our hotel, the Convento I, was just 10 minutes drive from our picnic spot, and we soon found it, a huge building crowned by a stork's nest. It is an extraordinary place, and it seems that it must once have been a convent or at least a religious retreat of some sort. It is extremely hot inside, and even throwing the window open in our room hardly managed to drop the temperature.
After a 40-minute interval we went out again, driving south to Riberas de Castronuño, a dam on the Duero. En route we passed an azure-winged magpie at the side of the road, and I also glimpsed both a long-tailed tit and great spotted woodpecker as we drove. The dam was a bit disappointing, though I suspect the reedbeds must be good for birds in the breeding season. We added great crested grebe to the list and heard a green woodpecker call several times. Marsh harrier, black kite and buzzard were all seen, while there were numerous nesting white storks. We admired the splendid new bird hide with its impressive board walk, but didn't see much from it. There were some siskins in the alders which I digiscoped. On the drive back a goshawk flew out of a pine wood by the side of the road, but it wasn't a road on which it was safe to stop. Puddles by the side of the road indicated that we had missed a good downpour.
The bar didn't open until 9, so we improvised with a drink in the card room. The dining room was quite extraordinary with its rows of chandeliers and frescoed ceilings, full of angels and cherubs. Dinner itself didn't quite live up the surroundings, though it was by no means bad.
John and I ventured out for a pre-breakfast excursion, but it wasn't a success: it started raining before we left, and continued on and off for the next hour.
We left the hotel at 9.30, driving through a wet and miserable-looking Zamora where the shops all seemed to be closed. We then crossed the Duero, heading first towards to Bermillo de Sayago where we managed to find two open shops where we bought lunch. Numerous red and black kites were seen as we travelled. We then headed on towards the Portuguese border, before turning north towards Fomillos and Mamoles. The scenery was most attractive, with dry-stone walls surrounding tiny fields, and lots of stunted holm oaks and juniper bushes. Our first walk along the road produced distant views of several griffons, one black and one Egyptian vulture. Woodlarks and corn buntings sung all around us, and the big larks were most probably thekla. A pleasing find was a splendid cock subalpine warbler which eventually everyone enjoyed good views of as it foraged along the brambles and the dry-stone wall. Stonechats were common, and more and more griffons appeared in view. The wind was very chilly, but the rain held off and we enjoyed brief bursts of sunshine.
At Mamoles we parked by the church, then followed the excellent trail past tiny fields surrounded by dry-stone walls to the mirador overlooking the Duero. This was a spectacular viewpoint, and from it we enjoyed great views of both griffon and Egyptian vultures. (We saw several pairs of Egyptians during the day). The wind remained cold, but the sun was pleasing and even tempted out a few butterflies: small white, large tortoiseshell and clouded yellow were all seen. Wrens were singing, serins were numerous and we also had a brief view of a female cirl bunting. I also heard a short-toed treecreeper singing, but I failed to find it.
We had lunch by the church, with sunshine alternating with light rain. There was plenty to see, from a ewe with a pair of lambs, one black, one white with black markings, a couple of donkeys, a very large mule and a couple of friendly dogs that came to share our food. A few griffons and red kites flew over and a cirl bunting sang, but again I couldn't find it.
Our next walk was near Cozcuritta, a most attractive spot, but the cold wind spoilt it and we didn't see many birds other than lots of serins and a couple of mistle thrushes. From here we headed for home, going back via Bermillo and Fresno de Sayago. It was an attractive drive, and the last part memorable for brilliant sunshine. We did pause for a few birds, including a great spotted cuckoo which I scoped and a flock of calandra larks close to the road. We got back to the hotel at 6pm.
We had drinks once again in the card room. Dinner was in the small restaurant, which was much nicer. No duff wine tonight, either. I discovered that the name of our helpful English-speaking girl is Raquel.
The last day of winter, and it certainly felt like it. I doubt if the temperature climbed much above 8degC all day today, while in the sierras it felt even colder due to the wind. Add in frequent rain showers and little sun and it was a generally unpleasant day. In theory my plan was a good one: drive north-west to the Sierra de la Culebra, the area with the densest wolf population in western Europe. Here the chances of eagles had to be good. However, in such dull conditions, with no thermals, conditions were unsuitable for soaring birds, which probably explains why we saw so little, apart from a few red and black kites and buzzards. Our biggest excitement of the morning was trying to find a shop in the town of Ferreruela. We made it in the end, but only after asking two locals for directions. Most of the towns here seem to have far more houses shuttered up than are actually lived in, while from the outside the shops look just like houses.
We did have a walk near the town of Escober, along an attractive little river, but it was cold and raw and muddy underfoot. Compensations were few: cirl bunting, long-tailed tit and a Cetti's warbler which was heard, plus numerous serins. We enjoyed seeing a pair of white storks, but the walk wasn't really much fun.
Retracing our steps, we stopped just outside the town of San Martin for a trio of bullfinches, all females. This is the southern edge of the bullfinch's breeding range, but they do winter farther south in Spain. We carried on across desolate hills where any agriculture has long been abandoned. Finally, as we dropped down towards the dammed Rio Aliste, we found an eagle: Bonelli's. We lost it after the first glimpse, but then saw it well as it came over us and soared away.
We ate lunch on a quiet lane where nothing passed all the time we were eating. It was cold and wintry, but woodlarks were singing and we also scoped a fine male cirl bunting. Other birds included great tit, stonechat, blackbird, red kite and another bullfinch.
At the town of Cerezla we had a good walk, but birds were few in variety. We did see a single distant griffon vulture, but nothing of real note. It stayed dry until we got back to the bus. Then it was on into Zamora for a stop at the supermarket, where several pairs of shoes were bought.
We got back to the hotel at 5.45; John and I then set off to look for azure-winged magpies in the nearby pinewoods. The first wood drew blank, but at the second wood we eventually came across a party of perhaps 20 or 30, but they proved elusive and difficult to see.
Dinner was good: everyone enjoyed either their leg of lamb or the fish.
Not a good night's sleep, as the occupant of the next-door room had his television on very loud from 2.30 to 3.30. Though it was the first day of spring it was even colder this morning than on any of our previous days, with the familiar grey cloud cover. We drove directly north through the cereal planes, heading for Villafáfila. Few birds of note other than the usual goldfinches, corn buntings, lesser kestrels, red kites and buzzards, but we did see a splendid cock hen harrier. We stopped at vantage point by a ruined farm and scoped over the landscape below, but didn't see anything special, though a Cetti's warbler was singing from the river. As we left a merlin dashed past.
At Otero de Sariegos we soon saw a distant flock of great bustards. I decided to try and drive closer to them but soon had to abandon the idea as the road we had driven on a few days before was now treacherous and slippery due to the rain. I reversed back and was lucky not to get stuck. We climbed up next to a pigeon house to watch the bustards, but a biting cold wind made it unpleasant.
We continued on to the bird hide which, according the opening times, should have been unlocked. It wasn't. Instead we drove east, then forked right onto a farm road that took us into the heart of the rolling cereal fields. We drove two or three miles before coming into a huge bowl with numerous great bustards and a small flock of little bustards. The later flew for us and then landed a few hundred yards away where I was able to scope them. It was a mixed flock of males and females, and one of the males displayed, though rather half-heartedly. Flocks of great bustards were flying around, looking spectacular. Gerald wandered a few feet from the bus and flushed a quail which flew back past us, while out on the fields there was a large flock of perhaps 200 calandra larks.
We had an excellent vantage point, but it was too cold to hang around for long in the hope of seeing sandgrouse. We drove back to the hide, which hadn't been opened, so we continued through Villafáfila and past the information centre. This was, of course, closed. However, a mile or so up the road we found another bird hide, open to the elements and so unlockable, where Jan prepared lunch. As we arrived a flock of 12 adult spoonbills flew right over us, looking really good against the blue sky (we were enjoying a sunny interlude). Out on the water were hundreds of avocets, plus wigeon, shoveler, pintail and a few gadwall. Unfortunately we were looking into the light, while the cold wind continued to nag at us. However, this must be the easiest place in Spain to see great bustards, as flocks and small groups were visible in almost every direction.
As we drove off we came across more great bustards, most of them females. I stopped to digiscope them as the range was reasonable and the light good. Then it was an easy drive back to the airport, with almost everyone except Gerald asleep. We abandoned the bus in the car park, having covered 940km and averaged about 37mpg.
Checking in was a hassle, as my bag was a kilo and half overweight. I took my leather jacket out and put it on, solving the problem. John ran into similar problems, so the check-in man, a generally unhelpful Spaniard, summoned the police. It was all sorted in the end. My rucksack was checked through by the security guards. Boarding the aircraft was chaotic, as priority was given to those with boarding cards numbered one to 90, which was just about everyone. However, we all got on in the end, and the plane took off on time.
The bags came through quickly at Stansted, but we had to queue for sometime to get the bus to the long-term car park, and when the bus finally arrived there was a rush of people from the back of the queue who pushed in front of us. Most unpleasant, and we only just managed to get on. Not the best end to a trip.