Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Where the Wildcats roam

Another day spent just outside the Picos de Europa watching Wildcats. Today they were generally more distant and skittish, though quite surprisingly were still out hiunting in the middle of the day. This one in the evening was much more photogenic, though it did have a dodgy eye.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Wildcat heaven

Sadly the following morning and evening in Somiedo were rather less fruitful than Friday evening, with the wind picking up and squally showers setting in, followed by torrential rain overnight and unsurprisingly no further bear or wolf sightings. The male Black Redstart that had been singing in Caunedo every morning finally posed for some photographs on the rooftop opposite the bedroom window after a couple of days of frustrating me.

Male Black Redstart in full voice

Following a post on a Mammal Watching Europe group on Facebook of a possible Wildcat spot over towards the Picos de Europa where we were planning on heading next anyway, we left Somiedo and it's amazing memory behind and headed off. A stop for lunch and a quick look around a couple of roads in the Montana de Riano Regional Park produced a rather unexpected Lammergeier near the village of Liegos, along with many Chough and an Osprey circling over the road by the Embalse de Riano and then carried on to Los Espejos to check in to our accommodation.

Having found our accommodation and had a short rest, we set out for a quick early evening drive to check out the area along the road between Boca de Huergano and Guardo where the post had suggested. Amazingly, we had been driving for little over five minutes when we saw our first Wildcat sitting in a roadside meadow, and in the next field was another one! We had no idea they would be quite this easy, and quite so early in the evening!!! Unfortunately this road is quite a fast road and doesn't have many places where it is easy to pull of the road with bends and/or barriers causing problems for would-be photographers! We ended up having to drive several miles past the cats to turn round and then back to the Boca de Huergano and then go back to find them but thankfully they were still in the same spot and one quite close to the road was by a wider part of the road where we could pull off. Unfortunately I wasn't quite as ready as Toni who was sat in the back of the car clicking away and by the time I had unfastened my seatbelt and got my camera up into position, the cat gave me a stare and then ran off a short way down the field.

After another drive up and down the road, seeing a third cat as we passed, we returned to the original cat who had now moved to the field slightly further away and now was completely unconcerned by our presence as it stalked across the field searching for Montane Water Voles which live in burrows in the fields. 

At one point, it successfully caught a vole and quickly dispatched and ate it before carrying on hunting, so we left it in peace to look for its next meal.

In total we saw 5 different Wildcats in just a 6 mile stretch of this road, we thought we'd be doing well to see one! Most though inconveniently were in fields where there were barriers and so no chance of being able to stop near them, though we have another day in this area, so will certainly be having another go in the morning when hopefully the light will be at a better angle.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

A howling experience


Somiedo National Park, on the border of Asturias and Castile y Leon has become the go-to place to look for Brown Bears, along with the outside chance of Iberian Wolves, in Spain. With four days here we hoped to be successful, and our accommodation in Caunedo, in the heart of the park with views of likely hillsides giving us ample opportunity. Along with the view from the window are several well known viewpoints from where bears can often be seen, especially at this time of the year when they are fattening up on berries ahead of hibernating.

Having spent a morning and evening staring out of the bedroom window at the hillsides north of the village with nothing but a few bellowing Red Deer and a distant Chamois to look at and then a morning visiting one of the known stakeout viewpoints at Puertos de la Farrapona, again with lots of Chamois, but no bears or wolves, we were starting to wonder if we would be lucky.

After a gruelling, and not very exciting walk up to Braa de Mumián in the afternoon heat in the feint hope of finding a Wallcreeper, my legs were glad of a short break before heading back out for another bear hunt in the evening. A mile north of Caunedo is the village of Gua, which has a viewpoint behind the chapel near the Mirador de Gua. There is no parking in the village itself, but there are a few convenient pull-ins along the road, which soon fill up with would-be bear watchers. As we arrived, Toni realised in her rush to get moving, she had left her binoculars at the house and so went back, while I walked up the short, sharp hill to the viewpoint, much to my legs’ dislike. As I arrived, a gathering of bearwatchers were at the viewpoint, excitedly looking at the hill to the west, and a quick scan with the binoculars revealed why, there was a Brown Bear sat on the hillside, a few hundred yards away!! As I hadn’t expected to see anything close enough to warrant needing a camera, having lugged it up the Braa de Mumián hill, I had decided to leave it in the car! This turned out to be a big mistake and so I rushed back down the hill, getting back to the car just as Toni returned, I grabbed the camera and, fuelled by adrenalin since my legs clearly weren’t enjoying the experience, went back up to the viewpoint but by the time we got back up there the bear had wandered off.

We sat at the viewpoint for a while as the light began to fade, and over the talking I heard faintly what I assumed was just a bellowing Red Deer on the hillside on the opposite side of the river, but it sounded a bit too high pitched. One of the bearwatchers also heard the noise and then uttered the word “Lobo”, which is Spanish for Wolf! I thought he too was being overeager, but then as the voices silenced to listen, we heard it again and it was indeed the unmistakable sound of a wolf howling. A frantic scan of the hillside then ensued and despite the distance, the unmistakable ears of a wolf were visible sticking above a rock right along the crest. After a few minutes, the wolf revealed itself fully, and walked along the ridge, stopping for a brief stretch and a scratch and then stopped and began to howl, which echoed around the valley. The atmosphere at the viewpoint was electric as everyone enjoyed watching the wolf work its way along, stopping occasionally to howl for the rest of its pack, as another wolf nearby began to howl in reply. Even though it was quite a way off and the lens had to be handheld, or rested on my knee, I still managed to get some acceptable photos (well, with a fair amount of cropping in needed) and video, and learned a firm lesson in always take your camera with you.

It may not look like much but the first proper view of a wolf is always special!

Starting its walk along the crest of the hill

I call this, the "Downward Wolf" pose

Howling for its pack

Howling wolf in habitat

Friday, 19 February 2021

Spring is in the Hare

Every year, I spend hours around suitable fields trying to photograph the local Brown Hares boxing, and for one reason or another, every year I never get anything I'm really happy with. Usually they only box when they are far away from me on the other side of a field or are facing the wrong way, but I persevere.

The Nunnery Lakes Reserve adjoins the Shadwell Estate which has a good population of hares, and in the last couple of weeks they have become more obvious and with increadingly spring-like temperatures in the last few days, have become rather more frisky than they were during the recent cold snap. 

This morning I headed out on my daily walk around the reserve, and as the wind had dropped, I headed straight to the best hare field, and waited. At first a couple of pairs of ears were just visible over the brow of the field, and after another half an hour, the first couple of hares came closer over the brow and looked quite settled. It was only when two more hares joined the party that the first chasing around started and eventually two had a proper boxing match, luckily I had been following the correct couple of hares in the viewfinder and then kept my finger on the shutter while they had their bout, before one conceded defeat and ran off. There's no finesse when it comes to boxing, it seems to be close your eyes, flail your arms around and hope you land a blow!

Monday, 21 September 2020

In leaps and bounds

With Wednesday being a write off with the glorious weather of the previous day instead being grey, cold and windy, wildlife watching was hard going. A look off Fort George, which lies on the opposite side of the bay to Chanonry Point in the hope the dolphins may be closer in off there drew a blank, though seabirds were more numerous in the conditions, including a group of Arctic Skuas terrorising terns for their food which I always enjoy watching! The Findhorn Valley wasn't any more productive, with no sign of any Golden Eagles, just a few 'Tourist Eagles', a.k.a. Buzzards seen. A walk through the woods at Boat of Garten in the hope of Red Squirrels proved fruitless, though several Crested Tits called loudly high in the pines and a Roe Deer looked unsure of us but stood his ground.

Thursday we again woke to beautiful sunny weather, and so headed back to Nairn Harbour where at least 3 Basking Sharks were still feeding offshore, but more distantly than on Tuesday. A group of Bottlenose Dolphins loitered in Nairn Bay, so we went just down the coast to Whiteness to try to see them closer, but they were still distant, only a confiding group of juvenile Sanderling on the beach made the visit worthwhile.

With such nice weather, we carried on to Chanonry Point in the hope of closer views of the dolphins. Our hopes were realised immediately as we arrived with a group of Bottlenose Dolphins were bounding through the bay just offshore, occasionally jumping clear of the water much to the delight of the gathered watchers on the beach.

After while the dolphins moved further out and many of the dolphin watchers left, and as we sat and waited in the hope of the dolphins returning, a group of 6 Ringed Plover flew in, with a slightly larger wader, and landed on the beach in front of us. It was a surprise when I lifted my bins and realised the larger wader was a very smart-looking juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, not a bird I was expecting to see here! 

With the dolphins not returning, we headed to Glen Affric. At the head of the glen is a short steep walk up to a viewpoint, which gives a superb view of the surrounding hills, excellent for looking for raptors. Initially only a few Buzzards and a Kestrel were on show, and eventually a Golden Eagle appeared, soaring majestically, and was soon joined by a second bird. Initially both eagles were distant, and once one landed, the original bird, a first year bird judging by the white on the tail and wings appeared closer and gave superb 'scope views.

With the hope of photographing Red Squirrels, we went around the other side of the glen to Plodda where they are reportedly abundant. Typically, none were to be seen, but better was a Crossbill, which looked good for Scottish going off the bill shape which perched on top of pines around the car park, calling loudly, but frustratingly I wasn't able to get a photo.

Friday was another gorgeous morning, with the thick fog soon burning off as we headed toward Speyside. With Toni wanting another go at photographing dolphins, I took myself off up Cairngorm to look for Ptarmigan. The warm weather made for a tough walk up Coire an t-Sneachda where I have had success in the past, and despite a 5 hour walk with stunning views back over Loch Morlich, I couldn't find a Ptarmigan anywhere!

Saturday was our final day and after a quick visit to Lochindorb, which is my favourite loch, to do a WeBS Count, which produced an unexpected Slavonian Grebe with as small group of Goldeneye, lingering fog around Speyside brought our week-long trip to a conclusion, just the 10 hour drive home to look forward to...

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Scottish weather, seriously?

 After a couple of wet and windy days on the west coast of Scotland, including the arduous drive down Ardnamurchan Point to be greeted by a bank of fog, only the resident American Black Duck at Strontian and a couple of sparring White-tailed Eagles to slightly raise the excitement levels, we headed across to Speyside. 

Arriving in our accommodation late afternoon, a wander around the forest produced a superb but all too brief juvenile Goshawk, darting across a clearing, perching briefly before disappearing into the trees.

This morning we awoke to the sound of rain, and following a leisurely breakfast, we took the chance that the Met Office forecast for Inverness was correct and headed to the Moray Firth in search of some dolphins. Amazingly the forecast was correct as the sun broke through the clouds and there wasn't a breath of wind, something I can't remember ever experiencing at usually one of the coldest spots in Scotland - Chanonry Point. Typically the small car park here was already nearly full when we arrived and the only dolphins were very distant, and they stayed that way the whole 2 hours were were there. 

A chance text message from our AirBnB owner told us of a couple of Basking Sharks on Nairn Harbour, something we had hoped to see on the west coast, but the weather was far from suitable. Here though, the sea was like a mill pond, and immediately on arrival at the harbour, we could see the distinctive fin and tail tips of a Basking Shark offshore. A scan around revealed at least four other Basking Sharks, though most quite distant, and became more distant as the tide receded.

With the glorious weather, we had to drag ourselves away for a prior appointment in Badger Hide. We met our host, Allan, in Boat of Garten and followed him in his car to the parking spot, and after a short walk arrived at the hide. The hide is run by the Boat of Garten Wildlife Group who do other conservation initiatives in the village. Less than half an hour after arriving and the peanuts being put out, the Badger arrived, as early as 7pm while it was still light. This was quickly followed by a couple more and eventually had 5 at one time, including a cub. The badgers fed completely unconcerned just feet from the hide, and were completely unconcerned by camera noises or even our host talking about some conservation issues.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

What's that coming over the hill....is it a monster??!!

When news of a Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture if you follow new names, broke of a bird photographed over a garden near Coventry at the end of June, British birders hoped it would get relocated, and last weekend their hopes were realised, when after a series of sightings in the Peak District, the bird was found to favour a rocky outcrop on the moors above Ladybower Reservoir just to the west of Sheffield.

Although I don't twitch that often these days, stunning photographs and videos on Twitter over the weekend, and even on the BBC News website, meant that it was getting very hard to ignore, and on Monday morning the decision was made to go for it. The main drawback is the 8 mile round walk to view its favoured roost site, but in preparation, we drove up and stayed in a B&B at Dungworth Green, a few miles from the site ready to embark first thing in the morning, hopefully before it left its roost.

Arriving at the parking spot shortly after 6am where the road was already lined with 30+ cars, we set off on the walk, and straight into a headwind up a hill, which living in Norfolk, is not something our legs are used to. About an hour later, we reached the turnoff from the track from where we had to trudge across some boggy moorland and across a stream to the favoured area, to be greeted by the news it had already left its roost and flown off to the northeast, and so we sat down and waited...

After an hour sat on a grassy tussock, the cold brisk wind was getting to us (that's what happens when you trust and dress for the Met Office forecast of sunny and 18 degrees, as opposed to 11 degrees and cloudy that it actually was!), and so we decided to slowly head back toward the car and rethink the plan or hope it got relocated somewhere else. About half way back to the car, feeling dejected and discussing that after the failure at the Belgian Wallcreeper twitch earlier in the year that maybe I should give up twitching for good, we noticed a couple of young birders stood off the path just ahead of us intently watching something. As we took a few more steps, it soon became clear what, it was the Lammergeier, being mobbed by a couple of Ravens, that looked like flies in comparison! I frantically got my camera out of the bag and took a series of photos as the bird circled and drifted slightly closer and then carried on back toward where we had just come from, eventually dropping behind the hill and out of sight.

Even though our views were nothing like some of those by other birders, it was still an amazing sight, an absolute monster of a bird with its 2.5m wingspan, and well worth the walk, even if the powers that be do eventually decide it's not officially tickable on the British list due to it thought to be the offspring of a pair of reintroduced birds from the Alps. Whatever its origin, there won't be many more spectacular birds to occur in this country, and certainly none anywhere near as big!!