Crying Wolf – October 2016 – Malcolm Palmer

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In the company of two intrepid members of the Costa Blanca Bird Club, I set out on a pleasant Monday morning in early October with the avowed intent of seeing the elusive Iberian Wolf. The first obstacle to be overcome in this venture is a small matter of some 700 kilometres, which separates the Costa Blanca from the far extremities of Castilla y Leon, not the least of which is the need to get past Madrid’s frantic traffic. In the event, with all three of us taking turns at the wheel, it proved to be no great problem, and lunchtime saw us on the Sierra de Guadarrama, Red Kites sailing overhead. Black Vultures were soon spotted, and there seemed to be a Buzzard on every pole as we drove westwards into Zamora province. We booked into our comfortable rural hostal (Hostal Salao if you are interested) in Villardeciervos – a village in whose immediate vicinity there are reputed to be no less than four packs of wolves – ha! An evening walk revealed an inordinate number of Jays, but very little else.

Refreshed by a good night’s sleep we made for a site we had been told was the best place to stake out for the wolves. We staked out……………and staked out, for a long time, hearing Wrens and Great Spotted Woodpecker in the woodland behind, Dartford Warbler in the scrub ahead, and seeing the occasional Red Deer pass way across on the plain below. We met a Catalan Guy, who gave up sooner than we did, but vouchsafed some information. No wolves. They apparently only appear early and late, so we decided to go east to just north of the state capital, and the wonderful reserve of Villafafila. As we approached, Red Kites and Buzzards were everwhere, and a lone Bee Eater remained from the migrating flocks. Kestrels were plentiful, and included some Lesser Kestrels, for which nesting provisions have been made. Northern Wheatear and Zitting Cisticola were along the road, then a good sized flock of Great Bustard flew majestically over in front of us, landing quite close. Jackdaws and Crows were numerous, and Tree Sparrow flocks chattered. We took the recommended track across the plain close to the now dried-out lagoon, and immediately started to see Cranes heading towards us – in numbers! As we watched, it was hard to believe that we were still in early October, as some 150+ Common Cranes piled in to feed just behind the Great Bustards. Marsh Harriers included a lovely adult male. This must be a quite wonderful place when the water is more plentiful, and the winter geese come down from the north. Well pleased with Villafafila, we thought to have another bash at the wolves. We stood, telescopes at the ready, for some three hours, as the temperature – and the light – went down and down, and down. Deer, Boar, no wolves. Hot soup was a desperate need by this time, so back to our comfortable lodgings, for just that. Tomorrow, after all, is another day!

A good night’s sleep in our comfortable hostal should have got us off to a good start on our second day in Zamora province, but as soon as we got out onto the road, we knew things were going to be tough, as a thick, cold mist shrouded the landscape. We arrived at the ‘wolf’ watchpoint – nada! We could scarcely see each other, let alone the distant landscape. ‘Plan B’ came into operation! We headed west, passing through some lovely country – when we could see it – and finding few birds. Red Deer crossed the road, in response to the warning signs, and I remembered vividly once seeing a big stag embedded in a car in Kent, which had killed both stag and driver. We slowed down. Crossing into Portugal, heavier rain welcomed us, so when we had a coffee in Braganza, Rex’s idea of getting a taxi driver to show us the city seemed like a good one. Having contributed to the Lusitanian economy, we again took to the countryside and stopped for an excellent snack before a further halt, as the rain desisted, right back on the frontier. Here a Dipper was soon joined by its mate, and we enjoyed watching their antics, then strolled through some allotments, where a Dunnock was a pleasant surprise. The weather closed in again, so we took a drive north into the borders of Galicia, then headed back to our wolf-watching stake-out for another cold and fruitless couple of hours. (which we shared with a group headed by a ‘professional’ wolf-finder – ha!)

Next morning it was time to move off eastwards, as we thought it better to avoid Madrid on the return journey. The less said about the drive east along sodden motorways in pouring rain, the better, but a few Vultures were to be seen around Riaza, then we had more mist-enshrouded mountains as we headed south, enlivened when we found a berry-laden group of mountain ash being attacked by Mistle Thrushes. As we dropped towards the plains a group of Rock Sparrows and a Black Wheatear helped, but Guadalajara tested our geographical powers to their limits – there being a complete lack of useful road signs there! Somehow we made it to Sacedón, and a most excellent Pousada, for the night. Next morning, bad weather persisted until we left the higher country, then, when we reached Pedro Muñoz and Manjavacas, we discovered there was, ironically – no water! The lagoons were bone-dry, but we did see a very late Pied Flycatcher at the former site, then as we pulled away from the latter, the big prize, in the form of a flock of 23 Little Bustards, which joined a small group of their Great Bustard ‘cousins’ nearby. That was the ‘bird of the trip’ for me, and a nice male Peregine at Pétrola on our way back just set the seal on what had turned out to be a good day.