SPAIN

 3rd - 7th AUGUST 2014
PICOS DE EUROPA
 

Picos De Europa - hikers paradise

Third visit to Spain. In the far north of the country this time around for a trip I'd originally planned to do two years ago, which for one reason or another didn't happen. The main aim was just to have a break - once the initial drive to the hotel was out of the way, I'd have a few days to chill out in an area of outstanding scenery and wildlife. The decision to go, flights and everything else were all booked at very short notice, which also meant I was back to being solo.

On my previous two trips to Spain, both times I'd considered (and ultimately rejected as unfeasible) whether it was possible to incorporate some high altitude birding - top of the list of the European birds I've always wanted see was Wallcreeper.

This time the birds of the high mountains were going to be the primary focus, with the intended targets being Alpine Chough, Alpine Accentor and Snow Finch (all considered nailed on), Wallcreeper (maybe 50:50), plus an outside chance of Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) and at lower altitudes Black Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Citril Finch.

Cantabrian Brown Bears and Iberian Wolves still exist in this part of Spain, and though I'd love to see both, they were considered unlikely in such a short non-targeted visit. A more realistic mammal was Chamois, which would still be a lifer.

Route for Bilbao to Cosgaya in the Picos De Europa

The Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe) are around a two and a half to three hour drive west of Bilbao, and offer probably one of the most accessible sites for Wallcreeper in the summer.

The peaks themselves, limestone massifs, rise to 2,648 metres (8,688 feet). At this kind of altitude, the number of bird species available would be limited, but what was likely to be present would be real quality.

As an added bonus, the scenery is some of the best in Europe.

A consistent factor in all of the trips I do, is that once that once you strip out the travel time, I've literally just got a few days, which leaves you at the mercy of the weather, and with this part of Spain having a wet and temperate maritime climate, it gets more than its fair share of cloud and rain, even in August.

Main references were Dave Gosney's guide and Steve Dudley's trip report from June 2012 (see links).


Logistics

Decided to take the option of flying from Stanstead to Bilbao for this trip, as it gave the chance of an early flight on the outward leg, together with a late flight for the return, hence maximising the available time for photography.

Due out of Stanstead at 7.00am on Sunday 3rd August, arriving in Bilbao at 10.00am taking into account the one hour time difference. The return flight was due out at 10.00pm on Thursday 7th August, with an arrival time back in the UK of 10.50pm.

Car hire was via Europcar (booked through Easyjet) and consisted of a diesel Opel/Vauxhall Corsa - fine for what I needed. For a change, all of the driving was expected to be on made up roads.

Accommodation was the Hotel Cosgaya, which was booked through booking.com, and located in the Liébana Valley on the CA-185 between Potes and Fuente Dé. Cost of the en suite room for four nights was €220.

The cable car cost €16 for a return ticket (there is the option of getting a single ticket and taking the four hour walk back down), and runs from 9.00am to 8.00pm at this time of year.

Alpine choughAlpine choughPicos de Europa - August 2014

Alpine Chough
 

Itinerary

Sunday would be a mostly travel day, with the chance of taking in a few sites en route to Cosgaya. Check in for the hotel was possible from 2.00pm.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were designated for the Picos themselves, and Thursday again would be a travel day, with the option to do some photography in the morning.

As usual the weather would decide what the exact itinerary was.

The basic plan was to be based close to the cable car at Fuente Dé and if the conditions were good enough, to go up onto the peaks at every opportunity. If I had rain or low cloud to contend with, it would be a case of birding in the valleys and picking up whatever I could.

Sunrise was around 7.00am and sunset at 9.30pm, so a huge improvement compared to the amount of daylight I had in Iceland back in February.


Day 1 - 3rd August 2014

Stayed overnight at the Ramada Hotel off the M11, after a very straightforward and quiet late evening drive south on the A1, A14 & M11. I was literally just a few miles from Stanstead Airport, managed a buffet breakfast at 4.00am and no pressure making the early morning check-in.

A relatively short flight to Spain arriving at 9.40am local time. Great view on a beautiful day of the northern coast of Spain from the plane on the descent - bright blue sea meeting a green, wooded hilly landscape, with some superb sandy bays on the coastal strip. No sign of any scorched earth here.
 

Hire car picked up without the usual really hard sell of extras, then out on the road for 10.30am.

It's getting on for a three hour drive to the hotel, mostly on the coastal E-70 or A8, before heading south on the N-621. With the excellent weather, took the decision to try and get up onto the peaks today, just in case the next few days were poor. Didn't really want to leave the car full of kit in the Fuente Dé car park, so paced it so that I could book in and unload at the hotel before getting the cable car.

The drive though Hermida Gorge on the N-621 is stunning, must be one of the outstanding drives in Spain - shame there were so few available parking spaces. Various raptors seen from the car including Griffin Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Common Buzzard, Black Kite and possible Honey Buzzard.

Booked into the hotel, great room on the top floor, clean and en suite facilities, with views out to the mountains. Then a quick drive to Fuente Dé, no queues at all so straight onto the first available cable car, hitting the top station on the peaks just before 3.00pm.

Cable car, Fuente DeCable car, Fuente DePicos de Europa - August 2014

Cable car, as viewed from the top station, and with Fuente Dé in the background
 

Fantastic vista - firstly looking down on the valley below, and then across to the peaks with their isolated pockets of snow, even at this time of year. Alpine Chough very easy from the viewing platform as they searched for left over scraps from picnickers - virtually every single bird was ringed.

Was just starting to leave the top station when I picked up a vulture sp. heading sort of in my direction - couldn't get much by way of plumage detail, and assumed it was going to be just a Griffin Vulture, but as it veered away the structure was wrong. The camera was in my rucksack, but managed to dig it out quickly enough to get a couple of record shots as it drifted further away - couldn't believe it was a young Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture). Some start to the trip, two of the target birds already sorted in just over five minutes, including a tricky one.

Mountain goatMountain goatPicos de Europa - August 2014

Mountain Goat

No sign of Alpine Accentor so far, so took the path into the mountains, before finally picking one up after maybe 600-800 yards further on. Difficult to get a decent photo, they don't do a huge amount apart from creep around unobtrusively. Also pretty common in this area were Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear and Water Pipit.

Alpine accentorAlpine accentorPicos de Europa - August 2014

Alpine Accentor

A bit further on a flock of maybe 12+ White-winged Snowfinch flew over - kept track of them to see where they landed, then followed to get a few images. Fairly accommodating, and so far all so easy.

White-winged snowfinchWhite-winged snowfinchPicos de Europa - August 2014

White-winged Snowfinch

Moved to my first Wallcreeper site, the buttress at the base of Peña Olvidada - was probably there for less than ten minutes before low cloud moved in, reducing visibility to next to nothing. Took that as my prompt to head back to the cable car.

All in an excellent start to the trip - being basically a travel day, any birds would have been a bonus, but to get four lifers in just a couple of hours was superb. It also meant I could be primarily focussed on locating Wallcreeper over the next few days.

Had some time to kill, so headed off to Potes, and nearest place of any size - plenty of character, with a bit of a medieval feel to it, and buzzing with tourists.

Finished off the day with Black-bellied Dipper on the River Deva, adjacent to the parking area for the hotel.

 

Day 2 - 4th August 2014

A cloudy start to the day, and from the hotel room I couldn't even see the mountain tops - reinforced that I'd made the right decision to go onto the peaks yesterday. Should really have gone out early to search for woodpeckers, but instead sorted through a few photos, then headed down for a buffet breakfast at 8.30am (the earliest time the hotel served it).

Being so close to Fuente Dé, it was worth double checking the conditions of the mountains just in case there were any clear areas, but it was the same result, shrouded in cloud. Only option now was to stay in the valley, and maybe try again later in the afternoon to see if the cloud base had lifted.

First stop was in a picnic area adjacent to the River Deva near to Los Llanos, between Cosgaya and Potes - straight away had three Black-bellied Dipper, but very flighty and the light was poor under the tree canopy.

Tried Pembes next, a village on the side of the valley, but what seemed to be the sole available parking place, outside of the church, was taken up by a JCB, so had to do a U turn. As an alternative moved onto Brez, another alpine type village, but this time with a decent (all relative) amount of parking. Great viewpoint here for raptors, with excellent views of Griffon Vulture, Black Kite and Honey Buzzard.

By this stage it was virtually lunchtime so headed off to the Lupa supermarket in Potes to stock up on food and drink.

Clouded yellowClouded yellowPicos de Europa - August 2014

Clouded Yellow

From there it was just a short drive north to the Church of Saint Mary of Lebeña - located near to the start of Hermida Gorge, this was a great viewpoint, and a good spot to have lunch. Similar raptors as I'd already picked up previously, mostly distant, but with a couple of low flying Short-toed Eagles giving a superb fly past. Good numbers of butterflies here as well including Swallowtail, but very active in the heat, and a nightmare to get pinned down for photos. Cirl Bunting was a new bird.
 

View from Church of Saint Mary of LebeñaView from Church of Saint Mary of LebeñaPicos de Europa - August 2014

View from Church of Saint Mary of Lebeña

Mid afternoon decided to head back to Fuente Dé to assess the chances of getting back up onto the tops. Certainly looked better than this morning, with occasional semi-breaks in the cloud, but the situation was very much in flux. Took the option to go up, but a waste of time and money really - thick mist, which refused to budge, so didn't even get that far from the upper cable car station.

Cable car, Fuente DeCable car, Fuente DePicos de Europa - August 2014

Cable cars at Fuente Dé heading into/out of the murk

Stopped off at Espinama en route back to the hotel, to watch the Crag Martins that were nesting under the eves of Apartmentos Sebrango. Had a spotted woodpecker sp. fly over the road here as well, but in a view that lasted just seconds, couldn't pick up any features that would positively confirm the ID as Great Spotted or Middle Spotted Woodpecker.

A tough time, very frustrating to not have the chance to search for Wallcreeper.

Birding was OK in the valleys, saw some decent stuff, but there was a big difference in finding birds compared to being able to photograph them. Didn't really get many photo opportunities today.


Day 3 - 5th August 2014

A look out of the hotel room window first thing and clear skies, with a great view of the mountains - looked excellent for a day on the high peaks.

Had a really quick breakfast, then made the dash to Fuente Dé to avoid the queues for the cable car. Unloaded the scope and tripod in the carpark in addition to all of the usual camera kit, as well as enough drink and food to last for a full day. Too much to carry, so sacrificed the scope and tripod, which went straight back into the boot.

Managed to get into the second cable car up, so was on the peaks for just after 9.00am. Everything today was geared towards finding Wallcreeper, so headed initially to my first potential site, the buttress of Peña Olvidada - sat it out for a couple of hours, scanning on a regular basis, but no sign of any crimson flashes. Every fly past vulture was also scrutinised, in the hope of connecting again with the Lammergeier, but nothing other than Griffon Vulture.
 

Plenty of birds in this area, with the usual Alpine Accentor, Alpine Chough and White-winged Snowfinch.

A very pleasant way to spend the morning at over 8,000 feet, bright blue skies, cool compared to the heat of the valley below, no wind and great scenery.

Picos de Europa - August 2014Picos de Europa - August 2014

La Vueltona track

Time to try the second potential Wallcreeper site, taking the La Vueltona track for three quarters of a mile or so, to view the caves and cliffs at the end. Instant results, with one on view straight away.

WallcreeperWallcreeperPicos de Europa - August 2014

Wallcreeper, with my Zeiss bins in the foreground

Thought I'd be lucky to get distant views of Wallcreeper on a cliff at the planning stage - what I actually got was a minimum of three birds in view at the same time (probably four in total, two adults and two juveniles), covering a decent area but at times showing at ridiculous range, even to the point where I had to move back. 

Spent the afternoon with these birds, superb views, and something I may not get the chance to do again. Also had my only Chamois along the La Vueltona track.

Chamois or isardChamois or isardPicos de Europa - August 2014

Only one seen.

Chamois

Set off for the cable car, arriving at the top station just after 6.00pm, only to find out that there was a two hour wait to get down. Would have gone back out to do some photography, but cloud rolled in from the valley, so had to sit it out in the restaurant, and took the time to sort through a few images. Wasn't too bad for me, as I'd been up on the mountains all day, but some people looked like they'd just popped up to take in the views.

Stuffed my plans to have a look around Potes, as well as making another trip to the supermarket, but couldn't moan - it had been a superb day.

No longer dependent on the weather - it could rain for the next couple of days, and it wouldn't cause any problems. Any additional sightings from now on would be a bonus.


Day 4 - 6th August 2014
 

Drifting towards the end of the visit now, flight home leaves tomorrow. I'd picked up everything I thought I'd see, apart from Black & Middle Spotted Woodpecker, as well as Citril Finch.

No intention of rushing around - for the next two days it would be a case of pottering, mostly in the valley, checking in particular the raptors.

Happy enough with the photos I had of the alpine species, but was still hoping to see the Lammergeier again - all I had of it so far was a single distant poor quality record shot. Another beautiful day, plenty of blue sky, so decided to head off back onto the mountains, and basically scan as many vultures as possible.

Alpine choughAlpine choughPicos de Europa - August 2014

Alpine Chough
 

The car park at Fuente Dé was heaving even at 9.15am. Didn't intend to walk too far today after lugging heavy kit around for 11 hours yesterday, so just set up by the top station and spent an hour scanning the ridges. Thin layers of wispy cloud were drifting along the valley, but as they hit the mountains at the end, the cloud was forced upwards, and all of a sudden thickened and started to reduce visibility. Hadn't picked up anything other than Griffon Vulture at this stage - strange that virtually the first vulture I saw on the tops was a Lammergeier, but after that, despite spending hours up in the mountains, no further sightings.

Back down in the valley decided to try Brez again - good views of raptors including Short-toed Eagle, at least three Honey Buzzards, Common Buzzard, Black Kite, ten plus close Griffon Vulture (decent numbers also soaring in the distance). A new bird for the trip was Red-billed Chough, with a single large flock of eighty plus birds in the air, finally saw Red-backed Shrike, and butterflies were out in force including Swallowtail, but mobile as ever no chance of any photos.

A relaxing way to spend the morning, really peaceful, with the only noises being the background jangling of cow bells and the odd passing Raven.

San Glorio Pass - August 2014San Glorio Pass - August 2014

San Glorio Pass

For a change of scene, headed back to Potes, then took the N-621 towards the San Glorio Pass - another terrifically scenic drive. Reached the picnic area, which is supposed to be a decent spot for Citril Finch, and after half an hour was rewarded with three or four birds on the ground, next to a wet area - lifer number six of the trip. Was a good spot to have lunch, and raptors drifting past including Griffin Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, pale phase Booted Eagle, Common Buzzard and Black Kite.
Citril finchCitril finchSan Glorio Pass - August 2014

Citril Finch

Just opposite the picnic area is a road that takes you up to Collado de Leisba, and this viewpoint looks right across to the Picos De Europa - could even see the top cable car station of Fuente Dé. Also had Crag Martin and Stonechat here, as well as a couple of Lizards.

Stopped off on the back roads around La Vega on the way back to Potes, and again had a spotted woodpecker sp. in flight, but views just too short to confirm an ID either way.


Day 5 - 7th August 2014

Last day, and due out on the 10.00pm fight from Bilbao. A rerun of the last few days, covering the same areas and seeing the same birds. The weather again was excellent, and I probably could have spent the day up on the peaks, but wanted to avoid the risk of getting caught in a long queue to get back down.
 

PotesPotesPicos de Europa - August 2014

Potes

Managed to get a decent parking space in Potes, and had a pleasant couple of hours exploring the town - lots of interesting buildings with character.

A break for a late lunch, before deciding to gradually drift towards Bilbao, and stopping en route anywhere that looked like it may be interesting. Stiflingly warm with temperatures hitting around 30°C, traffic wise it was a good run, and ended up at the airport in plenty of time. On the previous two trips I'd done to Spain, both locations had left the hire cars covered in a thick coating of dust - this time it was as clean getting dropped off as it was when I picked it up.
 

Everything went smoothly, and arrived back in North Yorkshire in the early hours of the morning after a drive on empty roads.
WallcreeperWallcreeperPicos de Europa - August 2014

Wallcreeper

Summary

Spain continues to deliver, a superb country for wildlife photography. Provided you do your research you can't fail to have a good time. The afternoon spent watching Wallcreepers at close range, in the main with no one else around, was about as good as it gets.

Would love to visit again and explore the coast as well as to do some proper hiking in the mountains.

Gallery from the trip is here - http://www.eastaytonbirding.com/p260028611.


Maps

Michelin 572 regional map for Asturias, Cantabria - scale 1:250,000.

This was the least driving I've done on a trip to Spain, and though I did use a Sat Nav, I would have been fine without it. The roads and the associated signage were very good.

For the mountains, there is a detailed topographical map available on Amazon - Picos De Europa, Central & Eastern Massifs - scale 1:25,000.


Links
 

Easyjet - http://www.easyjet.com/en/
Europcar - http://www.europcar.co.uk/

Weather conditions for the mountains - http://www.myweather2.com/Hill-and-Mountain/Spain/Picos-De-Europa.aspx
Accommodation - http://www.hotelcosgaya.es/

Steve Dudley's trip report - http://www.cloudbirders.com/tripreport/repository/DUDLEY_Spain_06_2012.pdf
Dave Gosney's guides - http://www.easybirder.co.uk/Books.html