A nature-watching road trip through Cantabria in winter
This journey was undertaken in the days before the internet and digital photography. The only information we had was about the Santona Marshes. Everything else was just there to be discovered.
We had expected the mountains to be snowy in winter, but in December, it was just frosty at times.
About the Cordillera Cantabrica
The northern strip of Spain is a more or less continuous mountain range, the Pyrenees forming a barrier between Spain and France, and the Cordillera Cantabrica separating the Spanish interior from the Bay of Biscay. As in many mountain regions, the inhabitants were isolated and developed a culture and language of their own. About 25,000 years ago, at the beginning of the last ice age, the forebears of the Basque people settled the eastern end of the Cordillera and the western Pyrenees. The mountains are littered with archaeological remains, including cave paintings at Altimira. The Basque language, Euskadi, is considered to be one of the oldest in the world and is said to have no affinity with any modern language – except that a few French and Spanish words have crept in here and there.
The Cordillera is formed from a layer of Carboniferous limestone up to a thousand metres thick with the main outcrop forming the Picos de Europa; shales and slates influence the landscape to the east, metamorphic rocks are found to the west. High precipitation from the Atlantic climate has given rise to typical karst formation of fissures and caverns, some of which formed permanent channels for water courses. Raptors favour the high cliffs and ledges, while chough make use of the more sheltered cracks and pot‑holes where their chicks are safe from predators.
In Laredo I tried out my Spanish – “Por favor, ¿Donde esta el correo?” (where is the post office?). The small Spanish lady looked at me quizzically and I repeated the question. “Ah, el corrrreeeeeo” she corrected my pronunciation in a voice that came from her boots and sounded as if it was loaded with flu viruses – I was to suffer later. Fortunately, the post office was not far away, and I just about understood her rapid-fire answer – helped by a lot of arm waving in one particular direction.
We continued to the Santona Marshes. The weather was calm and grey along the coast, and there was little out to sea. We didn’t have a plan – it would all depend on the weather. Dare we risk the mountains? We did not fancy getting caught in winter mountain weather but while it was settled, we could surely take a look.
A winter day at Santoña Marshes
The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.
Mountain roads were usually narrow and stopping places were few and far between. The first one we tried had been used as a rubbish dump and smelt bad ‑ a member of the civil guard drove past slowly and gave us a long what-are‑you‑up‑to sort of look. However, we were looking up at the end of a limestone bluff ‑ the Sierra de Hornijo ‑ there were goats up on the scarp slope, then three griffons sailed over the ridge.
Another stopping place, which looked up at the dip slope of the same ridge, was more pleasant. The vegetation on the slopes was a mosaic of eucalypt and conifer plantations, and of evergreen and autumnal deciduous trees ‑ mostly various species of oak ‑ and sweet chestnut which was now leafless.
We walked up a steep track through a eucalyptus plantation and then through conifers. Beyond that was lush rolling farmland. Although the rock massifs were limestone, much of the vegetation was more acid‑loving, including the oaks, gorse and eight kinds of heather found along the track. These mostly had seed heads rather than flowers and so proved difficult to identify, however they included St. Dabeoc’s heath, Spanish heath and Dorset heath.
On the farmland there was a usual selection of passerines: robins, blackbirds, tits, firecrests, chaffinches, and one female hawfinch which sat in a bare tree ‑ conveniently for us. There were some chough‑like calls and we located eight birds flying north, high overhead but in the poor light it was impossible to decide if they were the red‑billed or alpine kind. The most common corvid at all heights seemed to be the jay, noisily flying from oak tree to oak tree, and usually carrying an acorn.
As we headed downhill, the three griffons circled the limestone bluff again and settled on a pinnacle. Later forty or fifty corvids circled the area before settling to roost.
Barn owls were hissing and tawny owls were hooting close to the camper last night, and the tawnies were still quite vociferous again at dawn. There were two, one in the trees above and the other below where we were parked. They talked to each other in voices halfway between those of youngsters calling for food, and adults hooting.
We walked uphill along a minor road, birds were similar to those on the farmland yesterday but fewer of them. The very steep slope was covered with evergreen holm oak and deciduous species such as sessile oak, hawthorn, hazel, field maple, and some beech and privet.
We drove on and stopped for lunch at a view-point overlooking a sheer limestone cliff which was marked on the map as Cueva de Covalanas. There were a number of cave entrances visible and signs requesting visitors to check with the authorities before exploring them. Inside, there are cave paintings dating back 5,000 years or more. To protect and preserve the paintings, human visits are regulated, and the caves are closed at this time of year. A buzzard and a raven circled in the valley, and a couple of meadow pipits flew through. On the higher peaks on the other side of the valley were the three griffons again.
Mountain tops were generally in the clouds but the road went to 1000 metres at Alto de los Tornos and we followed it. Visibility was often down to 50 metres, so we stopped to listen for bird sounds ‑ mostly a few unidentifiable noises in the distance. Close to us was a chunky-looking pipit with white supercillium, eyestripe and moustachial stripe, faintly striped on the back, dark legs, and white belly and outer tail feathers. The elusive (for us) water pipit was found at last. There was another as we reached the viewpoint at the top, feeding along the road then bathing in a nearby puddle (photo above).
Day 4 – Vultures
We were surrounded by thick cloud again this morning and had to go down the road some way to get under it. Surprisingly griffons were amongst the first birds to be seen, floating along level with the cloud base, about thirty in all. At night these vultures roost communally in loose groups, usually on cliff ledges or rock outcrops. They leave as soon as temperatures rise sufficiently or wind currents are adequate for soaring. But on misty mornings, like today, they may not vacate the site until ten or eleven o’clock and birds may stay put when it is wet or foggy. The members of a colony fly off together up to sixty kilometres in one direction, then they split up and apparently each individual systematically circles one area, searching the ground but still keeping an eye on its neighbours just in case they find food first.
After a rather circuitous journey we managed to get onto rough ground above farmland. The vultures were descending onto something just over the ridge and out of our sight. Vultures are attracted to a carcass by sight, and often by the movements of other birds on the ground or in the air ‑ here crows, ravens and magpies were also in attendance. A hundred or more vultures may alight some distance from the food and approach timidly. We could see at least ten birds on the ground and another fifteen in the air. Those on the ground appeared to be pulling at something while others appeared to be defending themselves – or their meal.
Natural history films often show vultures feeding together in a squabbling mass, but this only happens if all the birds are equally hungry – and it looks more exciting on film. Usually they take turns, the hungriest birds first while others queue up and wait. Feeding birds maintain their positions by threatening, chasing and fighting others. Fights, which are usually brief and highly ritualised, also break out amongst the nearest onlookers. After feeding for several minutes a bird at the carcass may be displaced by a hungrier one from nearby group. Many gorge so much that they are unable to take off and may have to eject part of meal before flying.
Despite the fact that I was now struggling to breathe because of a bad cold (courtesy of the lady in Laredo, perhaps), we walked up a jeep track to level with the cloudbase, which had by then risen to about 950 metres, passing a plantation of what appeared to be cupressus sp. and Monterrey pine, eventually emerging in an area of heather, gorse and grass. A few ponies and cattle grazed the hills, but there were no sheep at this time of year. Higher up was deciduous wood ‑ beech, alder and Pyrenean oak. There were few small birds apart from half a dozen siskin around the alders and flying into an apparently moss-filled crevice.
By the time we reached the place where the vultures had been feeding, they had dispersed; a high fence and locked gate prevented us from seeing what they had been feeding on.
Traditionally, each community had its own “mule tip”, a place where they took mules, cattle, etc when they died and left the bodies to be cleaned up by the vultures. This practice is dying out as farmers prefer to bury the carcasses in pits and use a chemical to speed up the decomposition process. These pits are actually illegal and are depriving the vultures of food. People studying vultures now sometimes provide carcasses at convenient places, and in recent years the vulture population has increased by up to 400% in some areas. As this particular area was fenced off, we might have come across either a mule tip, or a study area here.
We circled back to the viewpoint near the Cueva de Covalanas. About twenty or thirty red‑billed chough were gathering on the rocks above us before going off to their roost. Jim scanned the rocks for smaller birds and discovered half a dozen crag martins hawking insects along the cliff top. This species is typically found feeding just below the tops of cliffs, where they catch insects carried up on air currents as well as those they disturb by flying close to the cliff face, and even picking insects directly off the rock as they fly past. They glide most of the time, occasionally giving a little shake, perhaps as they manoeuvre to catch a nearby insect.
There were some weird noises at dawn, the loudest being chough (above) possibly calling from one of the limestone caves which was acting as an echo chamber. Then there were some loud hoots which I suspected as being from ravens, but was surprised, later, to discover the callers were crows. Some chacking calls turned out to be black redstarts being chased off by a robin.
A track cut into the cliff‑side led up to a cave which had been bricked up but had two locked doors. A small flock of birds flew overhead and landed on the cliff even higher up. Through the binoculars they were dumpy grey and rufous birds but with the telescope Jim saw enough detail to confirm that they were alpine accentors, adults with speckled chins and first winter birds in plainer plumage. They did not stay long, perhaps they were just passing through for although alpine accentors sometimes move below 1800 metres for the winter, they do not normally utilise the kind of precipitous or broken terrain that characterised this area.
In fact, coming across many species here seemed to be a matter of luck. Yesterday’s crag martins were not seen again, the black redstarts were gone when we descended the track, and groups of siskins and linnets also came and went.
Halfway back down the track a vole was sitting out in the open eating grass. It did not seem to notice our approach, perhaps the large tick on its neck was interfering with its vision. I moved around for a better look but then it became alarmed and scuttled into the rocks. This vole was quite a dark colour, almost like a bank vole, however, its very short tail and uniform colour on the back and sides convinced me that it was actually a field vole.
A red squirrel clambered up a wall across a ravine. It stopped in a crevice for a while ‑ until we wondered if we were just looking at squirrel-shaped vegetation ‑ then it disappeared.
Day 6 – 8
We drove south, and then turned west towards the Embalse (reservoir) del Ebro. We were in the neighbouring provide of Burgo at this point, taking the main road rather than mountain roads. The route went through the Ojo Guareña Natural Monument – a huge area with extensive cave systems – 110 km of navigable natural tunnels deep in the limestone. Again there are places with cave paintings, though these are only hundreds of years old rather than thousands. Again it was closed for the winter, but pictures of the interior show something quite fantastic.
We stopped in the village of Soncillo to buy bread and milk; the storekeeper, on realising we were English, insisted that we visit an English couple in the nearby hamlet of Montoto. He gave us detailed instructions (in Spanish) and was most adamant that we should go there. We decided we might as well try.
The instructions were easy to follow, and Montoto turned out to be a hamlet of a dozen or so farmhouses. We drove through it in a few seconds and stopped for lunch at the side of a field. As we finished eating and were looking at birds in the field, I heard strange voices talking in English. By chance, the English couple had come out for a walk and taken the road we were parked on.
We joined them for the walk and later for coffee, discussing Britain and Spain and what we were all doing. Vicky was Spanish but had spent the last nineteen years in London. Andy was from Yorkshire but also had spent some years in London. They had both been involved in social work, and eventually got fed up with it.
They had considered buying a flat in Barcelona, then one of Vicky’s relatives had mentioned cheap houses for sale in Montoto and so they changed their minds, bought a huge farmhouse and moved out to it in October. One wall of the house is believed to be at least a thousand years old, other bits having been added as required. The place had not been properly lived in for some years and it did not have much in the way of mod cons. Andy and Vicky put in a bathroom, got the kitchen stove working and organised a bedroom. They are working on the rest of the house as they have funds and time available, and may convert it into holiday flats.
After a couple of days with Vicky and Andy, learning about the local environment, the effect of Spain joining the European Union, visiting a local dairy farmer for milk, fixing the battery properly in the camper (before it fell through the rusting base), and having a very nice meal in a local taverna, we continued our journey to the Embalse del Ebro
The Ebro is one of the largest and most important rivers in Spain. The Romans called it Iberus, from which the peninsular takes the name Iberia. It rises in the Cordillera Cantabrica about 40 km from the north coast and meanders along the inland edge of these mountains and the Pyrenees to drain into the Mediterranean via the vast Ebro Delta. It was dammed some ten kilometres from the source to form a reservoir (embalse in Spanish) twenty by four kilometres, the largest area of fresh water in Cantabria, with twelve villages lying beneath it.
The reservoir was at too high an altitude to attract large numbers of breeding or wintering birds but was a useful stop‑over point for migrants. So far as we could see it provided roosting places for black‑headed gulls and also held mallard, coot, gadwall, teal, tufted duck and great-crested grebe in small numbers. A peregrine flew in and watched proceedings from a mudbank.
The countryside around the Embalse del Ebro was rolling rather than mountainous but, being mostly above 600 metres, it looked harsh and hungry. In those fields which were cultivated the soil looked peaty and probably quite deep in places, yet most of the area was covered with heather and bracken with some scrub and the occasional small plantation. There were rocky out-crops and small ravines and plenty of power lines.
We stopped a few kilometres east of the dam and waited for birds to appear. They were slow in coming ‑ a griffon, a couple of ravens, crows, etc. A small bird appeared in a bush some 150 metres away and looked like a bullfinch; it appeared to have a pinkish breast, dark cap, grey back, white rump and dark tail. It came closer and was re‑identified as a great grey shrike as the markings and shape became clearer ‑ the white “rump” was actually white tips to the tertials (photo above).
The shrike moved closer in stages, stopping on a fence post or twig, looking around intently for a few minutes then perhaps swooping down on something on its way to the next post. It ignored passing cars but did not think much of the lorries. When we left it had done a circle back to the bush where we first saw it.
A collection of twenty or so red kites (photo below), numerous ravens, jackdaws and black-headed gulls and a few buzzards and crows near the town of Reinosa suggested the location of rubbish dump. We managed to get off the main road (the second stopping place we had seen in 50 km) and watched the kites for half an hour or so.
The weather was noticeably colder and we saw a snow plough ready for action on the road to Reinosa. Time to head back to the coast.
If this book had been available when we made this journey, it would have added so much.
For example, the book recommends driving along the south side of the Embalse del Ebro, while we drove in happy ignorance along the north side.
And there is even good bird-watching to be had in the Bay of Santander, ideal for stretching your legs if you’ve come in by ferry from Britain or Ireland.
Click on the cover for more information.
Buying books through this site earns me a small commission, at no extra charge to you, that helps with the cost of this website
Tripadvisor gives more information about history, access and facilities at the Embalse del Ebro
Wildside Holidays provide a lot of information, including accommodation and guides in the area
Cantabrian Tourist Board Website for more general information (English version here)
Wikitravel provides more information for visitors to Spain (but not much directly about Cantabria)
The Cabárceno Nature Park was conceived for educational, cultural, scientific, and recreational purposes, and has become one of the major tourist attractions in northern Spain. Something of a safari park, with animals from all continents but may be worth a visit to see some of Europe’s larger mammals – I haven’t been there myself. I’ve mentioned it here to distinguish it from the countryside areas designated Nature parks or Parque Natural.
More winter bird-watching ideas in Spain
Best places for wildlife in February
Europe can be as fascinating for wildlife in winter as it is in the warmer months. Here are some ideas on the best places to go in February
Eurasian Cranes at the Laguna Gallocanta
The Laguna Gallocanta near Zaragoza in north-eastern Spain provides an incredible spectacle in late February as thousands of cranes stop by on the way to northern European breeding grounds.
Doñana National Park
How to get the most out of a visit to the Doñana National Park. My recommendations after several visits.
Las Marismas del Odiel
The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain. Here’s how to make the best of a visit.
Best places to see nature in Spain in Winter
A round-up of the best places to go nature-watching in Spain in January.
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