Seven reasons to visit Caldey Island

. . . where the Monks make perfume . . . and chocolate . . . and the wildlife is thriving.

Religious retreats are, by their nature, remote and often inaccessible. Caldey Island, however, is an easily accessible retreat close to the holiday town of Tenby on the south Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales.

Caldey Island isn’t the first place you’d think about when looking for nature-watching sites in Pembrokeshire. It doesn’t have the huge numbers of seabirds that you can see on Skomer, for example, but it does have some advantages over the other islands.

It is easy access

Boats every half hour or so from Tenby Harbour, starting around 10am, every day except Sunday – weather permitting – and the trip takes only about twenty minutes.

Caldey 1306

The boat lands at the only jetty, which is in Priory Bay, on the sheltered north side of the island. To the east is a large sandy beach, backed by sand dunes. Sun-lovers need go no further than the beach, which is never crowded, but then they would be missing the other delights of the island.

if you are not good with climbing steps or walking on uneven footpaths, you don’t have to do that here. 

The only road runs from the jetty to the village and farm in the centre of the island, and then to the lighthouse. The trees and shrubbery alongside the road hide views of the farmland beyond. Caldey was an active farm, with mainly cattle grazing.  This used to provide milk for the small village community, and for the produce of the island dairy – ice cream, clotted cream, yoghurt, shortbread and chocolate – which is sold in the shop.  Now, the milk comes from the mainland. There are still a few cows, and sheep and ponies, but farming is a lesser part of the island now.

The village is small, the school having closed a decade ago through lack of pupils. There is still a gift shop, a post office, cafe, and a small museum, all under the shadow of the Abbey and other religious buildings. More about this later.

Caldey 1080735

The Lighthouse

Beyond the village, the road continues through the farmland to the lighthouse. This south side of the island is much more exposed and windswept, and is probably where the island got its name – Caldey being derived from the Viking Keld-eye or cold island. The walk is worth it for the spectacular views: the Pembrokeshire coast and the Preseli Hills to the north, the Gower Peninsula to the east, and Lundy Island to the south.

The lighthouse was built in 1829, and together with Lundy North Lighthouse provides for safe navigation in the north Bristol Channel. It was originally powered by oil, was converted to an automatic acetylene system in 1927, and since 1997 has been modernised and converted to mains electricity. Like most lighthouses, it is a large white imposing structure.

Caldey 1294

The flowers

The wild-flowers along the coast are spectacular. Thrift Ameria maritima and Kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria were in full bloom (above).  Then there were patches of sea campion Silene maritima and spring squill Scilla verna. The best time is mid-April to mid-July. Bluebells Endymion non-scripta and three-cornered leek Allium triquetrum provide a spectacular early season display alongside the road through the village.

And with the flower come the insects. In June there may be small blue butterflies on the kidney vetch, 24-spot ladybirds on the sea campion, gorse bugs on the gorse and green nettle weevil on the patches of nettles. I’ve found several species of bumble and solitary bees here too, over the years.

The birds

From the lighthouse, there is a mown path a short way to the east, and a long way to the west.  The path used to end at Windberry Bay, where you can admire the spectacular red sandstone cliffs. These cliffs are good for seabirds, but you really do need binoculars to appreciate them properly. You can see herring and lesser black-backed gulls, fulmars, razorbills, shags, cormorants, and choughs and peregrines. But remember that these seabirds are only here for the nesting season. By the end of July, most will have gone back out to sea.

A mown path takes you back across a field to the village, for tea and cake in the cafe.

Caldey 1302-Pano

Or you can follow the path further west to Sandtop Bay.  We usually eat our sandwiches overlooking this bay, watching for the choughs that nest in the cliffs on the far side. Sometimes a peregrine passes over. Again, an easy track takes you back to the village, where you visit the cafe and shops, and join the hard track back to the boat.

In the far left of the photo above, you can see St Margaret’s Island, which is a nature reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the main seabird colony.  Again mostly razorbills and guillemots, but also the largest cormorant colony in Wales.  At low tide (when this photo was taken), St Margaret’s appears to connect with Caldey, though the rocks are not quite continuous all the way across. At high tide, it is clearly a separate island.

The best way to see St Margaret’s is on a ’round the islands’ boat trip.

The red squirrels

Caldey Island is the only place in Pembrokeshire where you can see red squirrels. This species vanished from the county half a century ago as the introduced grey squirrels became more numerous here. After considerable consultation and an extensive program of rat eradication, three red squirrels were brought to the island in 2016, and then a further 12 were added in 2017.

The island doesn’t have the right habitats to support a totally self-sustaining population of squirrels, so they are closely monitored and given supplementary food. The aim is for the reds to live as natural a life as possible, so although some openly hang around the cafe area, please don’t give them human food. It isn’t good for them. The squirrels’ welfare is continually assessed, and so far they are enjoying their surroundings, building dreys, finding food, exploring the island, and raising young.

Hedgehogs have long been on Caldey, but now are being seen there more frequently – certainly, I’ve come across their droppings more often in the last few years (hedgehogs are nocturnal, so you are only likely to see one if you stay overnight on the island). They have probably benefitted from the rat eradication program.

Caldey as a religious retreat

The Abbey was built in 1910 by the Anglican Benedictine monks who came to the Island in 1906. It was designed by Penarth architect John Coates-Carter in traditional Italianate style, and is now a grade II* listed building. Tours of the abbey are available – but are for men only!

Older religious buildings include the Old Priory and the medieval churches of St David and St Illtud, where anyone can explore. The Priory is thought to occupy the site of the original 6th-century Celtic monastery, and was home to the Benedictine monks who lived on Caldey in medieval times, but has not been occupied since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in about 1540. Conversely, St Illtud’s, with its strange leaning spire and pebble floors, is, still a consecrated Roman Catholic church.

The original Anglican Community converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913 and then sold the Abbey to monks of the Reformed Cistercian Order in 1926. They still occupy Caldey Abbey today. They follow the strict lifestyle of their order, with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, observing a rule of silence between the hours of 7pm to 7am and following a demanding timetable of prayer, study and work.

The work includes the production of Caldey Island Perfumes, an industry that started in the 1950s with the sale of bunches of herbs to visitors. It then became more sophisticated and popular until the island ran out of raw materials and had to start importing. The perfumes are no longer developed on the island, but by a Belgian company. However, they are still made on Caldey, using a mixture of local plants, such as gorse, and imported essential oils. Lavender is again being grown in the Abbey gardens and sold in sachets in the shop.

Ancient history

Half of the island is red sandstone, the other half is limestone. The limestone was quarried in centuries past. As with most limestone areas, there are many caves – inaccessible to the casual visitor – and some of these have yielded archaeological artifacts showing that the island was inhabited perhaps some 12,000 years ago. It wasn’t an island then, the sea level was much lower during the ice age, and Caldey would have been a hill on the Bristol Channel Plain.

More information on the Caldey Island website


There are various Pembrokeshire books available in local outlets, but only these two easily available on-line.

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More ideas for nature-watching in Wales

Skomer Seabird Spectacular cruise

A seabird spectacular cruise offers an alternative (or an addition) to landing on Skomer Island – and a great chance to see the Manx Shearwaters that are hidden in burrows, or are out at sea during the day.

Botanising on the Great Orme

The Great Orme is a huge limestone outcrop along the North Wales coast. It’s a great place for hunting plants and butterflies, or just for enjoying a long walk.

Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.

Visiting Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire

Skomer Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire is a fantastic place for puffins and other seabirds, seals, plants, and a generally good day out. This article is about how to get there.

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Photo of geese

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

Part one – the north-east

Bulgaria in winter tends to be cold, with temperatures often a few degrees below freezing for days on end, and snow more likely than rain.  The climate along the Black Sea coast, however, tends to be less severe. So tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here.

We arranged a visit in February – planning it at fairly short notice – making use of local knowledge in the form of Branta Tours

Pavel Simeonov met us at Varna airport. He is a big man, with a big voice and a big personality. It’s an hour or so drive from there to the Branta Birding Lodge at Lake Durankulak. Pavel and his wife Tatyana run the lodge – and she provided excellent meals, packed lunches and great company too. You don’t have to go on one of their tours to stay there – there were two Danish birdwatchers (a father and son who knew someone we also knew in Denmark) staying there for a few days, and after them, two French couples. Pavel doles out his knowledge of the local birds and the birdwatching sites, salted with politics and music – he is a professional musician and we were treated to a brief impromptu concert one evening.

But this first afternoon, he stopped at the lodge only long enough to collect his telescope. Then we were off to see the red-breasted geese. Pavel was afraid that they could head back north at any time, so we had better make sure we saw them as soon as possible. As it turned out, we saw them most days.

On subsequent days, Pavel took us birdwatching at all the local sites, searching for as many species as possible. There was no set itinerary – our routes and destinations were dictated by the weather, and wherever Pavel thought would be best at the time. He was also in contact with other local birdwatchers, so had extra information on what was where. We never quite knew where we were going to end up, and often we called in at the same places several times because there might be something more interesting to see there.

Red-breasted Goose (this is a captive bird – we didn’t get this close to the wild ones)

Red-breasted Geese

Red-breasted geese nest on the Siberian tundra, from the Taymyr Peninsula, eastwards. In winter they move south-west, to the shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. Counting birds in both areas is difficult, both physically and politically. Population estimates vary from around 60,000 in the mid-1950s to 56,000 in 2015.

In Europe, opportunities to see this species are limited – pretty much to the Black Sea coasts of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. As winters become milder, the birds don’t seem to be coming so far south. Pavel said that 20,000 or more were regularly seen at Durankulak in winter, but have declined in the last decade or so, and if they weren’t around when we got there, he would take us to the Danube Delta in Romania. As it happened, a few hundred red-breasted geese joined the thousands of greater white-fronted geese a few days before we arrived, and left a few days after we did.

All the geese were always nervous, and Pavel always approached cautiously – driving slowly along a farm track and often not going past the start of the field the geese were feeding in. Although the hunting season had ended at the end of January, poaching was still a problem. Pavel gave careful and strict instructions to birdwatchers, but the hunters were beyond his control. The local staff of Birdlife International also did their best, but had a huge area to cover.

Photographing the geese in this field wasn’t easy – often the sun was in the wrong direction, or the light too dull, or the geese too far away. We had better luck later in the day when someone or something disturbed them so they would fly between the field and the Durankulak Ezero (lake). Predators big enough to tackle geese included white-tailed and great spotted eagles, which we saw at a great distance.

The migration of red-breasted geese is currently being studied by satellite tracking. Several birds have been fitted with GPS devices that transmit information every day. This allows their movements to be followed in detail – through Georgia, Kazakhstan, and then north to the Russian Arctic coast. This also encourages interest in local wildlife in schools etc en route. For more information, check the project website.

Durankulak Lake

Durankulak is a natural lake, separated from the Black Sea by a sand bar. It is a haven for thousands of migratory birds passing each year on the way to their breeding territories or remaining to spend the winter. In winter the variety of waterfowl is incredible: Black-necked Grebes, Pygmy Cormorants, Mute and Whooper Swans, Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Yellow-legged Gulls, and, of course, the tens of thousands of mostly White-fronted and Red-breasted Geese. 

The track along the sandbar, with the Black Sea to the right, and Durankulak Lake to the left behind the reedbeds. The campsite is on the horizon to the right.

The cold weather that had driven the geese here, had also caused the lake to freeze over – all except for a fairly small area kept open by roosting wildfowl. Pavel drove us along the sandbar, and then around the rest of the lake – the shore isn’t all accessible, and often a telescope was needed to distinguish the duck species.

Then there were the marsh harriers, hen harriers, common and long-legged buzzards, merlin, and the white-tailed and great spotted eagles.

Out on the Black Sea, we found Yellow-legged, Caspian, Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls, Black-throated divers (loons), and even a short-eared owl trying to make landfall, although the gulls forced it back over the open water (hopefully it found its way through further along the coast).

At the north end of the sandspit is a campsite, closed for the winter, but the gate was open and Pavel drove straight in. The buildings, trees, old caravans, etc all provided some welcome shelter from the wind, and the birds took advantage. The main attraction was the Syrian Woodpeckers – another speciality of south-eastern Europe that we haven’t seen before. Pavel was determined we should get plenty of photos of a pair that seemed to be collecting acorns from the ground and caching them in holes in tree-trunks.

Another speciality of the campsite was a pair of little owls. Pavel pointed out the building they nested in, but we didn’t see them on the first visit. The second time I had a glimpse of something that didn’t look metallic on top of a tractor. We stopped and backed-up. I must have been mesmerised by the pair of gorgeous yellow eyes staring back at me, as I just didn’t get around to taking any photos until it flew off, leaving me with a picture of just its tail.

The whole coastline is dotted with archaeological evidence of ancient European settlements, many of which are preserved as national monuments. This one is almost an island at Durankulak, and is considered to be one of the earliest settlements.

For more information, see Durankulak Lake – Important Bird Area

Shabla Lake complex

A few kilometres to the south of Durankulak is the Shabla Lake complex, another site of European importance for the conservation of rare and endangered species and habitats.  The coastal freshwater and brackish lakes, sandy beaches and reedbeds are used by thousands of birds as roosts during migration or while wintering. We didn’t see much on the lakes – though as Pavel said, they were worth visiting repeatedly because you never knew just what might turn up.

One day we spent a couple of hours on the Black Sea at Shabla beach in case a Pallas’ Gull flew past. Apparently, the conditions were just right (brisk northerly wind at this time of year), so we ate our lunch in the shelter of a cabin, while Pavel watched from the car and let us know when he saw one approaching. It really was only the one – and it flew nice and close along the shore, showing off its almost complete breeding plumage – the head will soon be completely black.

Of course, there were other birds flying past, gulls mostly, a grey heron, and way out over the sea, a long line of Bewick’s swans heading north.

For more information, see Shabla Lake – Important Bird Area

Nos Kaliakra

South of Shabla, the coast changes from sand to cliffs. Often the cliff-tops were scrubby grassland, the soil too thin for growing crops. It was the only place we saw livestock – a goat herder (complete with mobile phone) and his flock. There are several National Monuments – sites of historical importance – along with oil pumps extracting the black stuff from somewhere below. It proved a good place for larks, pipits, and birds that hunt them such as harriers and buzzards.

The cliffs themselves were home to seabirds such as the local subspecies of shag Gulosus aristotelis desmarestii which lives in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It is said to be smaller and paler than the regular shags we see at home. Nos (Cape) Kaliakra holds the only Bulgarian breeding colony of this species.

Nos Kaliakra sticks out southwards 2km into the Black Sea, and is probably the only place along this coast where you can see the sun rising and setting over the sea – elsewhere it sets over the land. It is littered with legends, historic buildings and spectacular views of the coast. The views now include lines of wind turbines, taking advantage of the incessant sea breezes.

Just to the north of the Cape, a deep ravine provides shelter. Pavel stopped here in the early evening to watch for eagle owls. I heard one as soon as we got out of the car, and we soon picked it out, as it sat conveniently on a cliff top silhouetted against the skyline.

The Steppes

Scenically, this north-east corner of Bulgaria doesn’t have much to offer. Away from the Black Sea shore, the land is gently undulating, huge areas of arable farming, and some areas of sparse scrubby grassland. Occasionally, a shelter-belt of trees – usually poplars – breaks up the landscape. Mostly, they seemed devoid of wildlife, yet harriers and buzzards appeared to be abundant. There must have been something hiding in the vegetation – small mammals and birds – to keep the raptors happy.

The natural vegetation here would probably have been extensive grassland, with patches of scrub and trees. It should hold a wealth of invertebrates and wildflowers as well as the birds. Probably in spring and summer, much of it still does – so we need to visit again, at a different time of year.

We did come across a large flock of Calandra Larks, and on another day, smaller numbers but close to the track, convinced it was spring and time to sing and squabble over territories.

Occasionally there are patches of woodland – often recently planted, perhaps orchards. One of these patches, Pavel told us, was the last remnant of ancient oak wood in the area. A tiny remnant. It contained few birds at this time of year, but a quick exploration on a sunny day gave us a few small plants, a marmalade hoverfly and two red admiral butterflies. Spring really must be on the way!

Pavel took us to a couple of small villages. One had been more or less abandoned since the end of communism, and the overgrown gardens and orchards could support a range of birds, especially in summer. We looked for Syrian Woodpeckers and Hawfinches here, but with only limited success for the former.

Another village, still fully occupied by humans, had a few trees that long-eared owls found attractive. These owls roost communally, often in traditional sites, outside the breeding season. We took a few photos, not wanting to disturb them, but it was only when looking at the photos later that we discovered we weren’t photographing just one bird – there were always two or three others hidden amongst the branches. Pavel mentioned counting over thirty leaving one group of trees in the past. I’ve heard long-eared owls in the wild before, but this was the first time I had actually seen them.

Woodland at Batova

For a change of scenery, and for a change of birds, Pavel took us to the forests around Batovo, an hour or so drive to the south-west of Durankulak. Bulgaria is blessed with a variety of woodpeckers, and with the weather turning spring-like, they may be beginning to display.

Grey-headed woodpeckers are often found along riverine woodland, and our first stop was on bare ground at the edge of Batovo village. We heard the woodpeckers – Pavel is good at imitating their calls and getting a response – but did not see them here. We tried another place, a bit more remote, and after a few minutes, watched a bird high in a tree.

Another species we were looking for here was the hawfinch. Pavel had taken us to several places where we might see one, and at last we struck lucky. A single bird, high in a tree, for just a few seconds – long enough to get a single photo.

Long-legged buzzards are widespread across parts of Africa and central Asia, but within Europe, you are likely to see them only in northern Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Visiting the area

While Bulgaria is fairly easily accessible, the main problem for the independent traveller is that road signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet (although on major roads, some may have Latin script too).

Finding wildlife, especially if you have limited time, may therefore be best achieved by joining an organised tour.

Branta Tours is the company we used.

Neophron Tours provides a bird-guide service to these sites in Bulgaria. I haven’t used them myself, but they were recommended by friends.

Birdwatching Bulgaria is a branch of a Danish tour operator, and offers a limited range of tours.

Wild Echo is a Bulgarian company that has been operating for 15 years, and provides a variety of standard trips as well as tailor-made trips.

Many nature tour companies based outside of Bulgaria also use guides provided by one of these companies.

Wikitravel provides a lot of information for the independent traveller to Bulgaria, and includes a section on the Black Sea Coast


Click on the covers for more information.

Malcolm Rymer’s fascination with waterfowl draws him to coastal Bulgaria each February to study the geese on their wintering grounds.

Many thousands of European White-fronted geese, wintering wildfowl, grebes, divers, larks, woodpeckers, owls, swans, pelicans, buzzards and eagles all feature in these videos.


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More ideas for wildlife-watching in Bulgaria

Watching Wolves in Europe

A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.


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Photo of Crete

Crete in Spring

Confessions of a (novice) tour leader

It was 2002. My friend Holly had encouraged me to become a tour leader with Gulliver’s Natural History Holidays.  My first trip was as a replacement driver – the main leader had broken his ankle while playing football in the garden with his son.  He could still lead, but someone else would have to drive . . . . .

The Journey

Holly was the other official leader on this trip to Crete, so she and I travelled together.  We got on the local train from Pembroke to Swansea where we should pick up the express to Gatwick (London airport).  The little train was so full that it struggled on the uphills, and was late getting to Carmarthen.  The powers that be decided it would be even later by the time it got to Swansea, so they got passengers off the train and onto buses to make sure we got to the express on time.  Huh!  Two busloads of passengers disappeared into the distance, leaving six of us waiting for transport.  Eventually a mini-bus turned up, loaded all our stuff, and took us off to a station beyond Swansea where we watched our train pull out as we arrived.  Apparently no-one had told the guard that there were still some passengers on their way from Carmarthen.  We got on the next train, an hour later, and had to stand for the four-hour journey because all the seats were booked.  Not a good start.

Holly, having lead a number of these trips before, had everything organised.  She had booked a night at a nice bed and breakfast place ten minutes from the airport, and as soon as we were installed there, she hauled me off to a restaurant five minutes’ walk down the road.  She went off to get the drinks, and came back with two rather large (double measures) of red wine, and before we had finished the meal, she got another two.  Now, I don’t usually drink even one small glass of wine with a meal, so I was rather glad of the brisk walk in the cold air to get back to our lodgings!

Next morning we were at the airport early to round up our clients.  Holly set up stall just inside the departure lounge, draping a bright green t-shirt with ‘Gulliver’s Natural History Holidays’ on it over a chair.  One by one, our clients arrived.  Holly said she found it useful to memorise people’s names before the trip, and then you only had to match faces when you met people, so we had been testing each other on the journey.  Now we actually met George and Anne, who had been on a trip with Holly previously, as had Rachel.  Tall Tony would be easily remembered, and he travelled with Sylvia, the tallest of the females.  Pauline and Derek went on various trips together, but never shared a room. With the exception of Rachel, and possibly Sylvia, I would guess that everyone was over 50. And so we got on the plane for the proper start to the trip.

Just before leaving, I had bought a woman’s magazine as something to read on the plane (the kind of thing I would normally read only in a doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room)  I had to laugh when I got to the horoscope page – it said “You’re still feeling your way into a new role and you’re wondering now whether you’ve taken on too much.”  So here I was, about to drive a vehicle of a size I hadn’t driven for ten years, a strange vehicle, with the steering wheel etc on the wrong side, and I was going to be driving on the wrong side of the road, in a place I’d never been to before, and worst of all, I was going to have an audience – passengers!  Really, it was a relief that my first trip for Gulliver’s was just as a driver, without all the responsibility of full leadership too. 

At the airport in Crete we met up with the other four people who had flown in from Manchester airport – Ian, the leader the with broken ankle who wasn’t allowed to drive, Sylvia and Jenny were the two that I could never remember who was who, and Cynthia, also from Pembrokeshire, and who had been on one of Holly’s trip before. 

Ian was worried that the company who provided the mini-buses hadn’t shown up.  After some consultation with Holly, and phone calls to the company, they realised that this time the mini-buses were being provided by a different company – only Ian didn’t know.  So a few more phone-calls and Holly and I collected two mini-buses from a very crowded parking lot.  Having got everybody organised, we drove about 25 miles and stopped for fuel.  Holly had a problem.  There was a red light flashing on her dashboard, and no-one had a clue what it meant.  A breakdown truck appeared half an hour later, and they didn’t know what the problem was either.  We headed back to the airport, where the company swapped Holly’s mini-bus for a taxi and a people carrier, and then we set off across the island again. 

By now it was getting dark.  We stopped at a taverna, where we were plied with vast amounts of souvlaki, omelette and salad, as well as the largest slices of cake imaginable (I wrapped mine in a napkin for later consumption).  We eventually arrived at the hotel at Plakias at about eleven pm, having seen a barn owl and an eastern hedgehog en route.  Ian was somewhat taken aback when we arrived at the hotel because the reception area had disappeared – the ground floor had been refurbished and the reception area moved.  Early April in the Mediterranean is not necessarily a warm time of year, and no-one had put the heating on.  Several people complained of the cold, and the lack of hot water, the next morning.  However, Holly and Ian got things sorted out with the hotel, the mini-bus company returned the second mini-bus during the day, and things went fairly smoothly from then on.


Wednesday, the first full day, we spent on the beach by the hotel.   We were not exactly lazing in the sun, but ambling slowly along the top of the beach looking for plants, butterflies, birds and whatever else we happened across.  So slowly, that it took about an hour to do the first quarter mile!  I indulged in plant photography, often finding myself left way behind as the group moved on to the next plant, and the next.  There were drifts of blooms, mostly small such as the tiny pick catchfly Silene colorata (top photo), the tiny Echium arenarium, (sorry, but you might have to find a plant book for some of these species – these are just the ones I heard the names of before everyone moved on), and creeping mats of the densely-woolly Sea Medick Medicago marina.

The tideline bore evidence of the previous week’s stormy weather – large amounts of the sea grass Posidonia oceanica had been washed up.  Dead rhizomes and the small pelotes de mer, balls of tiny fibres rolled together by the action of the waves, littered the beach.  The plant grows in water down to 100 feet, near the shore, around the Mediterranean, providing vital habitat for a number of sea creatures, including turtles.  In a shallow bay like that at Plakias, it also protects the shore from erosion.
The Sea Medick Medicago marina is comminly found on sandy beaches and shoreline dunes where it covers the sand and soil with its intertwining protrate stems. A densly hairy plant flowering from March – June along the Mediterranean and western European coasts

The clouds were building as we reached the headland and began to explore the rocky part of the shore.  At first the path passes through maquis – scrub that is waist to shoulder height and consisting largely of tree spurge and hairy thorny broom.  As the path continues, garrigue habitat takes over, low scrub dominated by the small plants of Jerusalem Sage and Three-leaved Sage.  All sorts of plants were found here, including orchids and the bizarre flowers of the Cretan Birthwort – like miniature saxophones with hairy throats.

Walking back to the hotel we had a brief view of a female Ruppell’s Warbler – brief enough for me to know it was something I hadn’t seen before, and to accept Ian’s identification. 

In the afternoon we went up the Kotsifos (blackbird) Gorge behind the village.  Crete has many endemic plants, and Ian introduced us to several of the chasmophytic (gorge-loving – no I hadn’t heard the word before either) species – Arum creticum, with its amazing orange-yellow spadix, the pink cress Ricotia cretica (sounds more like a cheese), Cretan Valerian, Procopiania cretica and the Shrubby Yellow Flax – I took a few pictures, but the cold wind and grey skies were not encouraging.  The first drops of rain fell as we returned to the hotel, and there was quite a downpour overnight.


Thursday morning we awoke to dense, dark cloud.  Ian, having led this trip several times before, worked out an itinerary that would allow us to be within easy distance of shelter if the weather deteriorated further.  We headed east, stopping at the Kourtaliotiko Gorge in hope of seeing a lammergeier – the bone vulture.  No lammergeiers, but marsh harriers on migration, blue rock thrushes and black-eared wheatear and others kept the birdwatchers happy.  While down on the ground there was golden drop and bladder vetch amongst the many plants by the roadside.

Photo of orchid

As we drove east to the Minoan site of Phaestos, the sky cleared to reveal the dramatic snowy peaks of Mount Ida, which rise to 7500 ft; the mountainous nature of the island is a real surprise.  Along the roadsides were large drifts of blue lupins, and of pink flowers which Ian said were Naked Man Orchids.  I remarked that they looked like heaps of fluffy pink marsh mallows, and Ian asked if I was inferring something.  The guffaws from the rest of my passengers told me that pink marsh mallows and naked men were not synonymous (as if I had ever thought they were!)

At Phaestos we explored the hillside by the car park, turning up a variety of good flowers . .  the tiniest Yellow-worts possible, no more than two inches high, the smaller-leaved Jerusalem Sage with soft oval leaves and the bold flowers of Mallow-leaved Bindweed.  Orchids were abundant, and everyone had a good chance to compare side by side the similar flowers of the Naked Man and Monkey Orchids.  The lip of the Monkey has ‘arms and legs’ with deep pink rounded tips, unlike those of the Naked Man which are more ragged and pointed.  And it’s pretty obvious where the Naked Man Orchid gets its name!  There were also some large iridescent greeny-yellow beetles clinging onto the blooms in the wind.

We had lunch on the veranda above the archaeological site, under the watchful eyes of a dozen or more cats, before Ian gave a short tour around the Minoan palace (he is a history teacher).  Although the ruins are very low, you can see how the various areas of the palace related to each other.  The palace dates back some 3500 years and we could have spent ages here.  I was intrigued by the huge storage urns that people could hide in, especially comparing them with a tiny ‘urn’ being built by a potter wasp on one of the ancient walls.

Afterwards, we continued along the road to what had been the site of the summer palace (if I remember Ian’s commentary correctly) at Agia Triada, in a cooler location than the main building.  We didn’t look at any ruins here, but at the swathes of Cretan Ebony, as well as Giant Orchid and the pink-flowered Cistus creticus.

On the way back we stopped in the pleasant town of Spili, where Daphne and others were keen to see the Venetian fountain with its 19 lion-head spouts.  Fountain wasn’t quite the right word, but there were 19 lion heads.  It was situated in a pleasantly shaded plateia, where fresh orange juice was the order of the day.  I decided to try the local ‘Yoghart with walnt and honey’ (we had a good laugh at the spelling on some of the menus) which was a meal in itself.  Derek managed to wheedle ‘Mother’s Chocolate Cake’ out of the waiter.  It was swiftly becoming clear that the group needed food on a very regular basis!

It was not only culinary delights that Spili offered, as Rachel was entranced by the paintings in the church, and Jenny captivated by the antics of Swallows making their nest outside one of the shops.  Holly and I did some window shopping.

The white flowers of the endemic Cyclamen Creticum are also called the Cretan Sowbread. Previously indiscriminately gathered by plant nurseries, it is now included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The Cretan Ebeny or Tree Clover Ebenus creticus provides a spectacle of of pink flowers on rocky slopes and along the roadsides of Crete throughout the spring.
The Algerian Iris Iris unguicularis cretensis produces deep blue-purple flowers from February to May on the rocky phrygana (Mediterranean scrub) covered slopes.

Moni Prevelli

Friday there was still a lot of cloud inland and to the west, so we wound our way down alongside the Megalopotomas (Big River?) to Moni Prevelli.  Ian said the scrubby hillside of Mastic and Cypress between the monastery and the coast could be very good for migrant birds and, sure enough, there were birds around.  However, for most of us the Wryneck was little more than a fleeting glimpse of something brown.  Nightingales were very much in evidence, singing their plaintive notes and even posing in the open for a lucky few.  Jenny, in particular, was thrilled with her first encounter with the species, especially in such a beautiful setting.  Meanwhile Sardinian Warblers sang their scratchy songs, wood warblers flitted among the olives and swallows moved steadily up the slope and away inland . . .while Chukar (partridge) called from the hillside above.  I just enjoyed the sounds while I concentrated on photographing more plants.

We made our way up the Kourtaliotiko Gorge (still no Lammergeier) at lunchtime and at the top veered off on a scenic detour to Mixorrouma, which allowed super views down to the entrance to the gorge, as we ascended.  After a quick stop in Spili, it was onwards and upwards to the Orchid Hill, as it is known.   To say that we found Orchis boryi, few flowered orchid, four-spotted orchid, bumble orchid, sawfly orchid, Ophrys iricolour and several other species is all very well, but it is the sheer numbers within a small area that takes the breath away.  Add to the orchids such delights as Tulipa doerfleri and Narcissus tazetta and this is botanising at its best!  It was just as well that the breeze made photography difficult, otherwise I wouldn’t have had any film left for the following days!

The endemic Cretan Bee Orchid Ophrys cretensis is found all over the island on stony, limey soil. It is pollinated by Melecta tuberculata.
The colourful Ladybird Orchid Ophrys heldreichii flowers from March-April on scrubby hillsides, woods and grassland in southern Europe.
The Monoan orchid Ophrys minoa is characterised by two slanting horn-like protuberances at the base of the lip. It is endemic to Crete


On Saturday (with the promise of better weather on Sunday) we took the long drive to the plain of Omolos. I felt sorry for Tony on the longer trips, as he had to fold his body into the mini-bus in an uncomfortable-looking posture, for three hours this time.  But at least we managed a stop at the Agia Reservoir halfway there.  One of the few areas of freshwater on Crete, this lake used to be superbly wild and overgrown, according to Ian.  Now it has been pushed into the 21st century by the addition of a Taverna and car park . . . and a man throwing whole loaves of bread out onto the water for the birds.  The taverna was closed when we arrived, so we had a cold half-hour watching ducks on the water as well as Little Crakes, Black-winged Stilts and Night Herons around the edge.  Then the rain came, and boy did it rain!!!!  The hundreds of  barn swallows that had been busily feeding over the surface finally gave up and took shelter in the bushes.  The taverna was open by the time the rain was over, and we all indulged in large cups of rich hot chocolate!

The Omolos is a strange place.  It’s not quite a plateau, more a depression in the hills, like a giant thumb-print at 3000 feet.  Apparently the geologists can’t agree on how it was formed.  My impression would be that it was once a lake bed, with the outlet being the spectacular Samaria Gorge.  The Gorge was closed to the public for safety reasons (it will open later in the spring) but if you walk down it, the only way out is a boat from the bottom.  We sat at the top to eat lunch, with some vague hope of eagles appearing out of the clouds, or a glimpse of the rare Cretan ibex – a kind of wild goat.  No luck either way, and we moved on before we got too cold.  Ian and Holly led the group along a footpath looking at flowers, while I drove one mini-bus down to a meeting point, and walked back to the top of the gorge to collect the other one (only a mile or so, but I was cold enough to want a very brisk walk).  A small brown bird calling from a nearby tree took my attention, and I stopped long enough to ascertain that it was an alpine accentor.  Ian was disgusted when I told him about it – he has looked for this bird in this area on every visit without success, and now I had ‘gripped him off’ in birder parlance. 

We enjoyed the plants – wild tulips as well as Chinodoxa cretica, Crocus sieberi and Gagea amblyopetala were all new, exciting species, specialities of the area (if only I could remember which was which) and ignored the cold.  I think Pauline, Daphne and Jenny would happily have spent longer exploring here, but it was a long journey home for dinner.

No matter, because it was then that the Lammergeiers chose to perform over the hillside.  What spectacular birds they are!  Otherwise known as the bearded vulture, they have a wingspan of over 9 feet and a huge, diamond-shaped tail.  They are increasingly rare in Europe, but they have a stable population of some 15 pairs on Crete, a testament to the islands vast and largely uninhabited interior.  We could scarcely have hope for better views, especially when one passed along the near side of the hill, carrying a large bone in its talons.  It is the only species of vultures to carry food in this way, carrying it high up to drop on a hard surface to crack it open to get at the marrow and break the bone into chunks small enough to swallow. Perhaps it was just as well I wasn’t equipped for bird photography – I’d probably have stayed all day.  We did just about get back in time for dinner!

The spectacular Tulipa bakeri flowers in large swathes over open rocky ground in the montane area of western Crete.
A small tulip, Cretan Tulip Tulipa cretica flowers in spring in stony and rocky situations all over the island of Crete.
The orange wild tulip Tulipa orphanidea flowers in April to June in montane meadows in central and southern Europe


At last, on the Sunday, we awoke to clear blue skies, and set off to the Imbros Gorge secure in the knowledge that it would be dry and safe to walk.  Holly, driving ahead of me, was flagged down by a Cretan elder – probably a shepherd from the cloud of flies surrounding his head. Ian said he wasn’t sure the guy knew where he was going, and certainly no-one else did.  About all they could ascertain was that he found Cynthias’ hat most attractive.  They dropped him in the next village, together with his swarm of flies, and headed on to the top of the Gorge.

There is a long and winding road from the coast to the top of the gorge – a good twenty minutes driving.  The problem of how we were going to get the buses back to the bottom to collect everyone at the end of the day was solved when I saw a sign advertising a taxi service. We dropped everybody off at the top, Holly and I drove back down, got a taxi back to the top, and soon caught up with the group as they ambled from flower to flower.  The scenery is gorgeous and the plants get better as you descend.  Holly oaks, normally only around head height, were here growing to over 30 ft. in the shelter of the gorge, together with some wonderful old Cypresses.  One of the commonest plants was the white Saxifraga chryosplenifolia, growing out of the rock alongside Spring Arabis, Anthemis chia and the Rustyback Fern.  There were tantalising glimpses of other later-flowering goodies, like Eryngium ternatum, Spiny Mullein and Ptliostemon chamaepeuce. There were cyclamens at the rock bases, Rock Tulips high up on the cliffs, and, finally, some splendid, large specimens of the endemic bellflower – Petromarula pinnata.  All the while, it was worth looking up too – I watched a super adult Bonelli’s Eagle circling lazily for about five minutes.  I tried to call the rest of the group, but they had moved out of earshot.  Fortunately the bird reappeared ten minutes later, so everyone had a good view of it.

It took some six hours to reach the bottom, and our tired legs and sprits welcomed the Kiosk as the bottom, with its deliciously fresh orange juice. George wanted a badge saying ‘I’ve walked the Imbros Gorge’ while Ian wondered how many others had ‘walked’ it on crutches.  It is very tiring, but also so worth the effort.  And we were really glad to have the buses there ready to go home.

This freshly emerged butterfly is Zerynthia cerisya cretica, a subspecies of the Eastern Festoon butterfly endemic to the Island of Crete, flying in March-April.
A small plain brown butterfly with few spots on the upper-wing, The Pygmy Skipper Gegenes pumilio is found along Mediterranean coasts and east to the Himalaya


The early Monday morning birdwatchers found a strange, almost reptilian-looking Stone Curlew anxiously scanning for danger before settling down among the pebbles on the beach.  Clearly tired, it would have just arrived from Africa, as would the assortment of yellow wagtails that trod delicately among the sheep behind the beach.  A nice way to start the day – and the first time the early morning effort has been worthwhile.

We went to Spili again, after breakfast, but to another point just beyond the orchid hill.  There were more orchids here – dense-flowered orchid, Anatolian orchid, pink butterfly orchid, as well as Erodium gruinum with its large blue flowers, and a small collection of snake’s-head fritillaries.  There were Griffon Vultures drifting past, woodlark singing and lizards beginning to emerge from the undergrowth – but only when I didn’t have the camera ready!  At least the sun was out this time, and made it much more pleasant that the cold grey wind of a couple of days ago.

We returned to Plakias for lunch.  Holly and I tried a local fish dish, very nice it was, cooked with vegetables in a foil wrapping.  Daphne and Rachel opted for an easy afternoon with a few last-minute purchases in the town, while the rest of us took a pleasant walk through the olive groves, behind the hotel, to the bottom of the Kotsifou gorge. One of the amazing sights in Crete was the little patches of rough ground between buildings that were filled to overflowing with wild flowers.  Even away from town, anywhere that was not cultivated was crammed with colour.  I was down to my last three rolls of film, and having a job to make it last the rest of the day. 

We had struggled a bit all week for sightings of lizards and butterflies.  The cool breeze and lack of sun were to blame.  On sunny days a Balkan Green Lizard basked in a bush outside the hotel shop, and we caught a glimpse or two of the colourful eastern festoon and Cleopatra butterflies.  Things improved somewhat on this last day, though most of the butterflies were species we would see in Britain later in the summer.  But the star of the day was an ocellated skink, which Pauline found hiding under a boulder.  We waited and waited, and eventually it showed itself before disappearing into the vegetation again. 

Our final tally for the week was 373 species of plant, 92 of birds, four of mammals – the most common being the beech martens killed along the main road, four reptiles, 17 butterflies (I’m not convinced of this) and an assortment of other brightly coloured insects like the large Egyptian grasshopper, carpenter bee and gold beetle.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I had a bat detector with me!  I returned to the olive groves that evening with four brave souls to face the cold evening breeze, hoping that something would be flying.  We came across a couple of bats feeding busily around a streetlight (why was there a streetlight in the middle of an olive grove?) and watched them for a while. 

The Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) often hides in crevices in dry stone walls by day. Animals from Crete (such as this one) and Greece are smaller than those from further west in the central Mediterranean region.

Homeward bound

Tuesday’s early morning birdwatchers admired a squacco heron on the beach and a woodchat shrike beside the road.  Then it was time to pile our luggage into the mini-buses and head back to the airport.  Our return journey was straightforward, and we stopped at  a rather pleasant Taverna with wonderful views over the centre of the island.  We had to wait a while for our snacks to arrive – it takes a while to cook those over-size portions!  Anyway, it set us up for the plane journey home.

Holly and I stayed near the airport again, she being determined to get me into bad habits with these large glasses of wine!  Next morning we were at the station in plenty of time for the train home, only to find it was cancelled due to works on the line.  That meant we had to travel through London – not my idea of fun, and Holly said it terrified her.  The London Underground was very busy at that time of morning.  Having gone down into the depths of the station I was looking for a map to tell us what platform and train we needed, but found Holly had seen a porter and immediately went to ask him where we should go.  Holly was happy with his directions, which seemed to me to have consisted of a couple of grunts, but it was enough to get us where we needed to be.  I still felt totally unprepared, not having seen a map yet.  We were both relieved to finally get on the train – and have seats – for the journey back to Pembroke, where our husbands were waiting for us.

I did a few more trips for Gulliver’s over the next five years, but the business ceased trading when the owners retired, and I didn’t get around to looking for another similar job.

However, Crete remains a popular destination for nature holiday companies, so organised trips are easy to find.


It seems that most books about the botany of Crete are either out-of-print or just not easily available. There is an English version of this book, but not currently available.

There were more books available on the island itself – some in tourist information centres, others in bookshops, if you are prepared to spend the time looking for them.

Or try googling books – wildflowers of Crete – and see what is available second-hand. I have one by George Sfikas that is worth looking out for, although it is not well-illustrated (take along a hand lens too).

There is also a Wildflowers of Crete website, and an associated FaceBook page

More travel tales

Adventures in French

Whatever the reason for your trip, it is worth learning at least a little of the language – especially if you are travelling independently.

photo of the sun rising over a lake

Planning for Bulgaria

There isn’t a right or wrong way to plan a trip.  It depends on the funds, the time available, your interests, perhaps family commitments, but mostly on your character.  I’d love to go back to the days when I could walk out the door and just go wherever the wind blows. 

But those days are over, my other half likes things planned, paid for, knowing what it going to happen when.  And he likes his home comforts – our campervan sits in the driveway, mostly doing nothing, but occasionally getting short trips to pre-booked campsites in the UK. 

As I get older, I’m beginning to agree with him.

So, how do we plan a trip now.

Our interests lie in natural history.  Birds, butterflies, botany, hiking in interesting places, and taking photos. Effectively, that means mainly birds in winter, and everything else when we can fit it in.

We aim for self-catering accommodation with access to public transport and places to walk and watch wildlife.  The Algarve is ideal.  Lanzarote worked well, as do some parts of mainland Spain. 

Lanzarote walking

Walking from Peurto del Carmen to the Playa Quemada with views of the Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches.

It is often difficult to find information about other areas – especially the public transport part.  Of course, we could hire a car, as most people do.  But then we’d have the extra stress of driving on, what is to us, the ‘wrong’ side of the road.  We have, at times, found ourselves staying in the middle of a busy holiday resort – definitely not somewhere we’d want to be driving.  And if there is a language problem, it can be even more complicated.  So, we have to plan differently.

Eastern Bulgaria – the Black Sea Coast – is such an area.  Not only is the language different to the Germanic and Latin languages of western Europe, but the alphabet is different.  You can’t just look at a word and get a vague idea of what it means.  I’d travelled through the old Yugoslavia and Greece back in 1989, and learnt the sounds of some of the Cyrillic letters just by the road signs that had place names in both alphabets.  But that was a long time ago and it takes some practice for the sounds to come easily.

Public transport?  It exists, but not necessarily going to the sort of places we are interested in visiting.

There were organised natural history trips to the area, but we were persuaded to try one of these to Poland a few years ago, and realised that they were not for us.  We like to have time to watch birds, look for butterflies and plants, to take photos, to walk, etc.

And then there is the problem of food – eating in different places when you have specific dietary requirements (even a simple dietary requirement of low fat for gallstone problems) and trying to make the most suitable choice from a menu – if indeed, there is a menu at all.  Hence a preference for self-catering accommodation.

Red-breasted Geese in flight

Getting down to it

But Eastern Bulgaria still looked interesting.  It is the only place in Europe for Red-breasted Geese in winter – they breed in Siberia.  There were likely to be a few other species we hadn’t seen before, or at least hadn’t photographed.  So how to solve the problem.

Amongst all the literature (paper brochures collected at Birdwatching Fairs over the years, adverts in wildlife magazines, as well as information from the internet) I found the Branta Birding Lodge right next to the red-breasted geese wintering grounds.  The birds are only there in January and February, and in January they are much disturbed by hunters.  Hunting officially ends at the end of January, and the birds start to settle down.  It was now early January, could we stay there in February?

An exchange of emails with the owner, Pavel Simeonov, said yes.  He would meet us at Varna Airport, be our guide for the time we were there, his rates included accommodation, food, guiding, a trip to the Danube Delta, and a couple of days based near Burgas at the south end of the Black Sea Coast.  Although his website suggested a seven-night itinerary, I asked to extend that to nine nights – no problem as he had no-one else booked in after us. (The top photo shows the sunrise from the lodge)

This is how we had organised our trips to Nepal and Sri Lanka 20 and 15 years ago – using local ground agents rather than organised tours meant we could be more flexible, say where we wanted to go, and how long to stay there.


With the accommodation etc sorted, the next problem was transport.  There are some direct flights to Varna, on the Black Sea coast, operated in winter by WizzAir.  They flew from London City or Liverpool, and arrived in Varna in the early hours of the morning – not very convenient.  We knew nothing about WizzAir, except that they had just pulled out of using Cardiff Airport.  Did that mean they were risky?  We had just avoided being stuck when another airline collapsed a few years ago, and didn’t want to take such chances.

A bit more googling showed that there were all sorts of routes available, often via a strange combination of airports, and often cheap.  But did we really want to change airlines en route with the attendant risk of losing luggage?  Then I discovered that SwissAir went to Varna via Vienna, leaving Heathrow at 6am (not much fun) but arriving and leaving Varna at more convenient times. That was that flights sorted.

But Heathrow is still several hours travel from home.  We could drive there and leave the car at the hotel or airport parking.  Or we could take the train.  Given the recent rail staff strikes, I wasn’t sure the train was a good idea, but Bob disagreed.  So, we went to the nearest train station where we could get tickets in person – and came away with Senior Citizen railcards, and seat reservations, as well as a personalised printed timetable that showed when we would be on the train, and when we would be using a bus replacement service due to work on the rails.  We’ll have to use the train at least once more this year to get the full benefit of the railcard reductions.

Almost done.  We booked a Premier Inn at Heathrow for a short night before the flight, and a taxi for the airport – the hotel hoppa buses didn’t start until 4am, and we were supposed to be at the terminal to check-in by then.

That leaves packing.

I’m a pretty minimalist packer.  Basically, just enough clothes to last the duration, plus one complete change in case of a soaking.  A basic toiletry kit.  A pair of indoor shoes of some kind (slippers this time) and a set of waterproofs.  Bulgaria is supposed to be quite cold in winter – snow across most of the country, but not so bad on the Black Sea coast.  So we made sure we had clothes for cold weather.  But how cold?  Pavel had mentioned that the winter had so far been very mild – up to 20C – and the red-fronted geese had not arrived, he would take us north into Romania to see them.  Hmm, perhaps not too cold.  Then two days before we left – 300 Red-breasted Geese just arrived with the cold weather. Hopefully they will stay until your arrival.  OK, perhaps very cold.  We added wellies and insulated snow pants, just in case.  It was the first time I’d ever had to sit on my suitcase to close it.

As it turned out, the cold weather meant a couple of days of snow that was more or less gone by the time we arrived.  The lake was still iced over, and there were cold northerly winds.  But we did not actually need or use that extra clothing.  But as I hate being cold, it was worth being prepared.  The geese stayed around for a week or so, and we did not go to Romania.

As I said earlier, we like to take photos, and photographing birds requires long lenses and heavy cameras.  For a winter trip with birds as the main focus, I took one camera with a long lens (Nikon Z6ii with Nikon 100-400mm lens), and one small camera (Fuji X100V) for scenery, and any flowers that might be showing.  There was no point in including everything for close-ups of flowers and insects.  Bob took more equipment, including an even longer lens, than I did. I’d like to have taken a tripod and sound recording equipment to make some videos, but that would have meant more weight and more bulk (and anyway, I’ve tried it before and not had a decent opportunity to use the equipment).

Fitting the equipment into a bag that is within cabin baggage requirements is often a bit tricky.  SwissAir said 55x40x22cm.  We had only one camera bag that was within the 22cm, so Bob bought yet another new one.  By the time we had added our laptops and binoculars, the weight was just below the 8kg limit for each of us. 

Snow on the frozen edges of Durankulak Lake. The Black Sea itself was not frozen.


Back to that language ‘problem’.  With Pavel and his wife Tatyana (the all-important cook and housekeeper) speaking good English, it wasn’t going to be a problem.  But, as always, I tried to learn a few words/phrases. 

Thank you – Merci – yes, they really do use the French word and it is simpler than the Bulgarian phrase (Благодаря ти Blagodarya ti).  Goodbye – Ciao – yes, the Italian word. 

Then there was hello (Здрасти, Zdrasti), yes (Да, Da), no (He, Ne), Okay (Добре, Dobre), and please (Моля, Molya)

But I never did master the Bulgarian habit of nodding the head to say no, and shaking it to say yes!


Well, we survived the trip, all the travel went smoothly, except for the one thing I hadn’t booked in advance. A few days before we left Bulgaria, I tried to book a hotel at Heathrow. I tried several times, got a sorry-something-has-gone-wrong-please-try-again-later message, and eventually gave up. Same response when we arrived at Heathrow. Bob was back in worrying mode, but we went to the hotel anyway. They told us to try booking again, as they still had a room, and this time it did work. I still don’t know what the problem was, but I guess it served me right for not doing the whole job properly to start with.

We came back home to what seemed like colder weather than we’d had in Bulgaria.  Now, it’s time to look through the thousands of photos, and the hastily scribbled notes, and get the trip stories written down before they are forgotten.

More winter bird-watching ideas

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. Tens of thousands of wildfowl including red-breasted and white-fronted geese, spend the winter here. We went in search of them with Branta Tours

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.


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Nature-watching in Finland in Winter

Who would want to go looking for nature in Finland in Winter?

It may not be obvious from a distance (eg a warmer country), but Finland isn’t just for skiers in winter.

According to the Lonely Planet guide (1996) Finland in January is cold dark and depressing everywhere.  The Kaamos (polar night) in Lapland may be of interest if you don’t want to see the sun at all (the sun never rises above the horizon at this time).  There is plenty of snow for skiing but perhaps not enough daylight.

As a non-skier, the only thing that appealed to me was the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights – the Aurora borealis. But is Finland really so bad in winter? Helsinki, in the south, is on roughly the same latitude as Shetland (an island group off the north of Scotland, for the uninitiated), so perhaps not all doom and gloom.

According to the Finnature website, the cold, short January days may appear rather bird-less in Finland but appearances can be deceiving. Although few birds are usually seen, many interesting species can still be found, even in the town centres.

Finland can be a place of extremes – 24 hours of winter night and 24 hours of summer day above the Arctic Circle. Freezing winter weather, and hot muggy summers plagued by mosquitoes and other biting insects. Years of abundant fruit production and small mammals, other years of apparently very little.

Finland in winter can be unpredictable. The bears go into hibernation to avoid problems with food supply. Reindeer avoid moving to conserve energy. Birds migrate to wherever they can find food – whether to the nearest town, or to the southern hemisphere. So, what is still there to watch?

The north-east

Towns are probably the best places to see birds. If there are berries left on rowan (mountain ash) Sorbus aucuparia trees, birds will flock to them. Likewise, if people are feeding birds – and there are more people in towns, so more likelihood of feeders – that’s where the birds will be. Thrushes, waxwings, pine grosbreaks, common, two-barred and parrot crossbills, Siberian jays, Siberian and crested tits, Arctic redpolls, etc. Willow grouse frequent roadsides, while hazel grouse call within forests. Snowy and hawk owls can be seen – all more easily in some years than in others.

Golden eagle, Aquila chryseatos, landing in snow. This species is found around the northern hemisphere, particularly in mountainous regions where it hunts over open ground.

Luxury bird photography

Just below the Arctic Circle, Kuusamo has a little more daylight in January – enough for photographing wintery landscapes of snow-covered forests and lakes. Finnature have heated hides where you can photograph golden eagles, Siberian jays and Siberian tits in comfort.

South-west of Kuusamo, Finnature have another heated hide at Utajärvi, where the main focus is on golden eagles – up to ten visit the hide daily.

And if you really want to make the most of it – Finnature have yet another hide. At the forest feeder hide in Liminka it is possible to photograph Goshawk, Nutcracker, Crested Tit, Bullfinch, Yellowhammer etc. And with the help of locals, you could also see great grey and hawk owls hunting.

Female snowy owl Bubo scandiacus

This western side of Finland is also the best place to see snowy owls. They are not easy to find, despite often perching on the roofs of barns. Probably the best way to find them is to contact local birdwatchers who may have located one or two in their New Year’s bird hunt.

Ranua Wildlife Park

Personally, I am not a great fan of keeping wild animals in enclosures. However, if such a place offers people the opportunity to encounter native wildlife in a safe place – especially for children and less mobile people – then the Ranua Wildlife Park has reason to exist. And it has good ratings on Trip-Advisor.

Ranua sits in the triangle between Oulu, Kuusamo and Rovaniemi, and is easily accessed by bus from Rovaniemi. So, if you’ve been to Santaland at Rovaniemi, this is a convenient day trip to see local wildlife – 200 individuals of 70 or so species, though some may be in hibernation at this time of year.

The south-west

There is much less snow in the south-west, and the sea is usually free of ice. Thousands of waterfowl spend the winter here, with Steller’s eider, long-tailed ducks, cormorants, etc. White-tailed eagles are attracted to carcasses set out for them. Small numbers of waders, such as purple sandpipers, feed on the rocky shores.

Adult male long-tailed duck Clangula hyemalis.

The Gulf of Bothnia

As you move up into the Gulf of Bothnia (Bothnia Bay) between Finland and Sweden, the ice becomes more and more solidly packed. There is little space for birds here, but grey seals give birth on the ice in January-February – rather later here than in British waters (Pupping starts in August on the Welsh coast). The timing is to do with water temperature and the availability of food – and the frozen surface means fewer predators and less competition for that food.

The Baltic ringed seals produce their pups in February – but the adults can still be seen at other times.


Finnature – I have no association with Finnature, but their website provides a lot of information about Finnish wildlife. And obviously, they want you to travel with them, and use their photographic hides.

Finland’s National Parks – excellent information for visitors

Luontoportti – Naturegate – excellent site for identifying almost anything found in Finland and elsewhere in northern Europe. They have ID apps as well as the website. And include a lot of background information on individual species.

Ranua Wildlife Park – good for a day trip from Rovaniemi/Santaland


Lots of background information to help you understand the landscape and the wildlife, as well as suggested itineraries for the independent traveller. Click here for more information

P.S. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.

More ideas for nature-watching in Finland

Urho Kekkonen National Park

Urho Kekkonen is the second largest national park in Finland. I visited in early-mid June, before the vacationers and the mosquitos, midges and black-flies really got going.


A round-up of opportunities for watching and photographing bears in Europe. Updated 12/01/2023

Luontoportti – NatureGate – a useful website

About NatureGate

NatureGate enables you to find fascinating information about hundreds of wild species together with thousands of superb images captured by top photographers. You can view and search for species in various ways – for instance using their English names, their scientific names, or by genus or family. Our unique identification tools also help you to get to know new species. They make the task of discovering new species easy, fast and fun. Try one of these tools right now!

Comprehensive information on nature in many languages

NatureGate mainly works in eight languages. Many of our featured species can be found right around the world. Our multilingual web services can benefit millions of people interested in nature, wherever they happen to be.

We also publish a free Finnish-language web magazine, featuring the latest news on the natural scene, longer articles and interviews, and news about our own work and events. Readers can also send questions about nature to the magazine section experts’ answers.

The NatureGate team welcome you to enjoy investigating the species featured on our site. We hope you will find our services both enjoyable and useful. Exploring our website should also give you a lot of good reasons to get outdoors and explore the natural environment!

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photo of red kite in flight

Sierra del Hornijo

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.

Day 1

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.

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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.

Day 5

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    

Day 9

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.


Book cover - where to watch birds in northern Spain

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

Other resources

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

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.

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photo of scarce swallowtail butterfly

Nature of the Queyras Natural Park

Why visit . . . .

  • spectacular scenery with great hiking routes
  • over 1400 species of plants
  • Mammals such as marmot, chamois, ibex, mouflon, deer, roe deer and wild boar.
  • Mountain birds, the rock ptarmigan and black grouse are among the most emblematic. Raptors such as the short-toed (snake) eagle, peregrine falcons, golden eagles and griffon vultures. Nutcrackers and wallcreepers number amongst the smaller birds.
  • 150 species of butterfly

About the Parc naturel regional du Queyras

Air France pilots call the Queyras ‘le trou bleu’ – the blue hole. While the rest of the Alps are frequently blanketed by cloud, Queyras boasts up to 300 days of sunshine a year – all thanks to the shelter it gets from the Écrins to the west.

But on June 18th, it was just grey, wet and miserable. So bad, that it seems I took only one photo! (the other photos here were taken in the French Alps, just not in Queyras)

Still, it was filled with sounds of yellowhammer, willow tit, coal tit, bullfinch, garden warbler and rock bunting. Grey rocks with white patches of snow towered above, green grass filled the valley bottom below, and conifers clothed the slopes in between.

Queyras is located in the Hautes-Alpes department of south-east France. It lies south-east of Grenoble, to the north of the Mercantour National Park, and to the south of the Vanoise National Park. Its eastern border coincides with the Italian border and it is possible to walk between the two countries in several places.

Covering some 65,000 hectares, Queyras consists of an ancient glacial valley with steep sides and a mountain stream. It is ringed by seven 3000m peaks. There are dense pine forests and higher up, hay-meadows on the beds of former lakes. Higher still there are extensive peatbogs and the park has some impressive cliff-faces. Not surprisingly, it is home to a great variety of flora and fauna – including chamois, marmots, hares and partridges. Many of the typical upland and forest birds of Central Europe can be found within the park

A Parc Naturel Regional is the equivalent of a British National Park. Basically, it is a region protected for its landscape value and its traditions and culture, with development and commercial exploitation – apart from tourism – being restricted. Any natural history interest is secondary, and hunting is usually permitted.

The main part of the Parc is a mountainous block with one road going right through it and a few other dead-end roads leading towards other corners. One of our books described it as a countryside of larch and spruce forest, where water from lakes pour out over waterfalls into mountain streams. From the road all we could see were steep slopes clothed in conifers under a ceiling of grey cloud, making the valley seem rather claustrophobic.

Saxifraga aizoides – one of many low-growing Alpine plants

It was a Sunday and the shops were closed, so we were unable to obtain a map showing the footpaths, or other information.  We hadn’t actually heard of the place until we noticed it on the road map and even now, with the internet, there doesn’t seem to be much information available, not in English anyway. 

We walked along the road, and turned a short way down each of several obvious paths – wary of wandering too far in an unknown direction. Nevertheless, we found a handful of usual woodland species jay, Bonelli’s warbler, crested and coal tits, a green woodpecker etc. A few butterflies flitted in sunny glades – a small fritillary, red admiral, scarce swallowtail and common blue. Flowers under the pines included box-leaved and common milkworts, pansy, and some legumes.

The most northerly point of the road through the Parc was the Col d’Izoard. Above the treeline the rocks were worn into weird shapes with scree slopes between. We could hear marmots calling across the valley. A souvenir kiosk marked the highest point. It began to rain a few minutes after we arrived there, but Jim had already gone looking for eagles. No luck with the raptors, but snow finch, fieldfare, black redstart, northern wheatear, whinchat, white wagtail and, at last, Alpine accentor, feeding in a patch of grass at the base of a cliff.

Beyond the pass the road descended quickly through open conifer forest with grass and alpine anemones on the floor. The rain continued and we didn’t hang around to look at the other flowers. Below the trees were alpine pastures grazed by Simmental and Swiss brown type cows.

Three grey-green finches fed by the side of the road and showed off pale rumps as they flew. They didn’t go far, and then came back to the roadside green crown, grey nape and neck, green on wings etc, all pointed to citril finch. They fed amongst the wildflowers, favouring the dandelion seedheads.

Best places for seeing plants and butterflies

Wandering around anywhere in the park seems to produce a good number of butterflies and alpine plants, but there do seem to be a few particular places worth a special mention.

The Ristolas Mont Viso National Nature Reserve is located at the South-East corner of the park. It extends over 2,295 hectares, from 1,800 m to 3,214 m above sea level so provides a huge elevation range and is wonderful for butterflies and alpine plants from mid-June to mid-August. You’ll find it at the end of the D947 road which connects Guillestre to Ristolas.

Belvédère du Viso, where a broad track goes through extensive meadows. On the track itself mud-puddling can be excellent with many Blues and Skippers easy to observe and to photograph. Mud-puddling? That means soft damp often clay soil where butterflies can congregate as they drink in the minerals they need for survival and reproduction, like the green-veined whites in the photo below..

Also near Ristolas, the Lac Egorgéou is a group of lakes at 2,400-2,500m famous for scarce plants and uncommon alpine butterflies as well as the high mountain scenery

Col d’Agniel: on the border with Italy, one of the highest road in the Alps (2,744 m) and with good access to high mountain butterflies and flowers. At 2,744 m, it is the third highest paved road pass of the Alps, after Stelvio Pass and Col de l’Iseran, and popular with cyclist (sometimes part of the Tour de France route).

Abriès is a village and ski resort (so good for accommodation) in the north-east corner of the park, good for plants and butterflies in meadows in the valley and a dry south-facing slope just above.

There is an especially fascinating creature here – the Lanza Salamander which lives only in this part of the Alps. It holds the record for longevity among amphibians: more than 20 years. They need this long life as the females carry their embryos for up to 4 years of gestation – not a true pregnancy, as there is no placenta, but the eggs 2-4 of them, develop inside the female. I haven’t seen any, but the best time to look for them is said to be at night during the spring mating season.

So there you have it

I enjoyed my time in the park, despite the grey weather. There were plenty of wildflowers and birds to keep me occupied, as well as a good few marmots. Maybe it was just as well I didn’t see many butterflies as trying to identify them all would be just too time-consuming.

What I’d look for next time – better weather, so the butterflies will be flying! But, remember that those 300 hot clear summer days also mean clear cold summer nights, even at elevations lower than other areas of the Alps.


The official website is in French, but can be automatically translated. Website: Parc Naturel Regionel de Queyras

For an idea of the scenery: Video of a journey through the park

For information about places to eat, stay, and visit: Queyras tourism website

The absence of glaciers makes the Queyras ideal hill-walking country as it has several high mountain summits accessible to the ordinary walker and scrambler. Another Queyras tourism website

For a challenging organised hike: For a challenging hike

For those are unfamiliar with travel in France: France travel information

How to get there

Public transport – nearest airport is at Nice on the south coast, and a train will get you half the way to the park. Coming from any other direction isn’t much better, so really, you need a car.


Click on covers for more information. The comments are from the publisher’s ‘blurb’

The stunning natural beauty of the Alps makes this range of mountains one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. This book helps visitors to gain a deeper appreciation of that beauty, by providing a guide to the geology and flowers of the Alps.

Written in straightforward language for those with little or no prior knowledge and illustrated by stunning photographs, maps and diagrams, this book reveals how different rocks were created and shaped into the present-day mountains by glaciers and other agents. The detailed guide to 344 stunning Alpine flowers and plants can be used for on-the-spot identification and is complemented by chapters describing just how these flowers survive in their harsh mountain environment. Finally, what better way to make use of your new-found understanding than to explore the Alps with the 23 suggested walks, which are located in some of the best geological and botanical spots of the Alps.

book cover - alpine flora

The vegetation of the French Alps has been studied for several decades and is often presented in technical publications or floras that feature only a small number of images. Walkers and botanist are often helpless in the correct identification of plants in situ. This is the one of the most comprehensive field guides with 1175 colour photos, covering most of the species in the Alps. The author has endeavored to describe each plant succinctly, using only botanical characteristics visible on the ground for a rapid effective and scientifically serious determination.

It is written in French, but that isn’t a problem for the keen botanist

Graceful flight, delicate colours, a fascinating development cycle: butterflies captivate because of their great diversity and can be easily observed in the mountains. Aimed at both expert and beginner enthusiasts, this guide helps Alpine mountain walkers to easily identify these fragile insects which are so threatened today. Each species entry groups together the main characteristics, the distribution area and the periods of the different stages of development (laying, caterpillars, chrysalis, butterfly). Photographs illustrate morphological details or different phases of the life cycle.

Language: French, with vernacular names in English, French, German, and Italian – but don’t let that put you off.

– Descriptions, illustrations and distribution maps to identify butterflies and know where and when to observe them

– For each species, the scientific name and the vernacular name in 4 languages (French, English, German, Italian)

– A guide covering all the Alps: Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland.

Buying through these links earns me a small commission which goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.

Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

The French Alps provide a wonderful backdrop for a botanical and/or butterfly trip. Here are some of my recommendations after a week at La Grave, near the Col du Galibier which is equally well-known for the tour du France cycle race.

Nature of Grindelwald

The area around Grindelwald, in the shadow of the Eiger and the Jungfrau, is great for plants, birds, and butterflies as well as just great scenery for hiking through.

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Photo of a gannet in flight

The hottest weekend

According to the Met Office, July 19, 2022 was the first time 40°C (104F) has been recorded in the UK. It was recorded at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, exceeding the previous record by 1.6°C. A total of 46 stations across the UK exceeded the previous UK record of 38.7°C.

The date for the BirdFair had been set months before, it was just bad luck that the two would coincide that weekend. Because, if we were going to drive 260 miles each way to the BirdFair, we might as well have a look at some nature reserves while we’re in that area.

Global BirdFair

The British Birdwatching Fair had been going for several decades, but, like nearly everything else, came to a stop during the pandemic.  It was revived this year, under the title ‘Global BirdFair‘, moved from its usual Rutland Water Nature Reserve site to the Rutland Showground, and was a rather smaller affair than before.

We travelled to Rutland on Thursday 15th, stayed at the Market Harborough Premier Inn, thought we’d have Friday at the BirdFair before the weather got too hot, then go on to Bempton Cliffs and maybe a few other places in the north.  Day by day the weather forecast was changing – always for the hotter.  Saturday was going to be the hottest, then Sunday, and finally they were saying Monday would reach 40C – previously the British Record had been set at 38C in Cambridge a couple of years ago.

The Friday was somewhat cool and cloudy.  We were stuck in traffic for the last half mile of the journey, but still got into the showground soon after the BirdFair opened.  It really was much smaller in scale than before – perhaps because it was like a new event, perhaps the pandemic had meant fewer people were travelling, perhaps inflation was getting in the way . . . Who knows.  Bob said it lacked atmosphere, but really, Fridays were always the quietest days.  It was the day when stall-holders did their networking, talking business, and especially networking between overseas holiday companies and local guides. 

We bought a few books, looked at some photographic equipment, went to a couple of talks, met up with Ian S and Anne and later with Ian T – who had (inevitably) just negotiated an exotic birding trip to somewhere on the other side of the world. 

The bird fair isn’t just about birds. Any conservation organisation can be part of it, and this photo was taken at the Mammal Society stand.

photo of a harvest mouse
Harvest Mouse (captive)

When the BirdFair was at Rutland Water, the entrance fee also gave visitors access to the adjacent Rutland Water Nature reserve, so you could split your visit between bird watching and the hustle of the fair.  It’s disappointing that we can’t do that now – well you can, but the two sites are several kilometres apart.

We left as the fair closed for the day, most people had already gone, and we missed any rush-hour traffic jams.  The journey to Lincoln Premier Inn was uneventful.  (My sister) Jane and Bill having moved back to Edinburgh meant we couldn’t stay with them this time.

The BirdFair raises money for international bird projects. This year it was the turn of the ‘Revive la Janda’ project which aims to revitalise a lake in Andalucia, Spain, that has largely been drained for agriculture. It is a vital link for migratory birds en route between the UK (and elsewhere in north-west Europe) and Africa. Water birds still attempt to spend winter on the semi-flooded fields, but the area available for them is decreasing drastically, and the nutrient status has been damaged by farming practices.

The total sum being donated by Global Birdfair to the 2022 Conservation Project is an incredible €100,000

RSPB Blacktoft Sands

Previously the BirdFair had been held in mid-August, so we would go on to visit a few sites good for bird migration as part of the same trip.  Migration starts in July, perhaps even late June, but as it’s mostly birds that have failed to breed successfully in the early part of the season, there might be nothing much to see anywhere.  So I didn’t have much expectation for the RSPB reserve at Blacktoft Sands on the south shore of the River Ouse, where it meets the River Trent and becomes the Humber Estuary.  Weather mostly warm and muggy.

A sign on the visitor centre door said ‘back in 15 minutes’, so we turned east and walked to the Singleton Hide, which was at the end of the trail.  It was too hot to hurry, so we admired dragonflies and damselflies, and other insects along the way.  The view from the hide was quiet – plenty of birds, but not doing much in the heat.  We listed 20 species, and took a few photos.

After a while we moved to the Townend Hide, which at first seemed even quieter.  However, there was more exposed mud, and we began to see a few things happening – birds coming and going, a distant marsh harrier looking for lunch, a greater variety of waders, etc.

And then some small brown birds on one patch of much at the base of the reeds. It took a while to sort them out through the heat haze, even through our long telephoto lenses. They were juvenile bearded reedlings presumably looking for seeds or invertebrates on the mud. Twenty-five species seen from this hide.

The First Hide is the one nearest the visitor centre. A magpie pattered around on the hot tin roof (no, it wasn’t really tin) for a while before investigating why the occupants weren’t feeding him.  The other occupants threw out a few crumbs, and he obviously wasn’t shy.  Eventually, he got bored and went elsewhere.  Fewer species here, but again including the elusive bearded tits.  There was less open water to be seen, but something moved along the channel below the hide, hidden by the reeds.  Probably a deer, but no-one actually saw anything.

By the time we got back to the visitor centre itself, the warden was unlocking the door.  He had been checking a water pump – pumping water into one of the lagoons while there was still any water to pump anywhere.  We had a drink and flapjack while he told us what was going on at the site.  Then we moved on slowly to the hides to the west, missing out on the Xerox hide because it wasn’t in use, and then settling in at the Marshland hide (above).  This is usually the best hide for wader-watching, and overlooked the lagoon that the water was being pumped into.  We didn’t get around to asking if they filled naturally on high spring tides (the reedbeds kept the estuary itself out of sight), or by water from drainage ditches, but if there was no water, there would be no food for birds, and therefore no birds to watch.  When the water pump ran out of fuel, we enjoyed a short period of quiet before the warden came out and fuelled it up again.  There was another hide, further west, but the afternoon was just too hot for us to want to make the effort to get there.

Still, we had 27 species here, and a tally of 44 species for the site today.

It was late afternoon as we continued our journey north, following the satnav directions to the Wrangham House Hotel near Filey.  The place seemed to be a bit of a madhouse, but this was explained as a big celebration that had been delayed since last year (or was it the previous year) because of covid.  Fortunately, it was quiet in our room, and we managed to book a late dinner when the partygoers (or at least the younger generation of them) were winding down.

RSPB Bempton Cliffs

The RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs was only a short drive away – I might have been tempted to walk if it wasn’t for carrying camera stuff in the heat.  A cool offshore breeze made the day more bearable, but stop long enough in a sheltered place and you got covered with tiny flies that didn’t want to leave.

The gannet colony was as noisy and busy as expected – but a few dead birds had Bob speculating that the dreaded bird flu may be affecting them here – some seabird colonies in Scotland are already being badly affected.

Like most seabirds, gannets are long-lived (20-30 years) and produce only a single chick per nest per year.

On our last visit – August 2019 – gannets were the only species here, but now, earlier in the season, the ledges still held quite a few razorbills and guillemots with some well-grown chicks.

There were also plenty of active kittiwake nests (above). The two birds in the middle are chicks, and those dark markings on the neck remind the adults that these are youngsters to be looked after rather than rivals to be chased off. Unlike most other gulls, these nest on sheer cliffs, and it’s a long way down if you fall off! As with other species of gulls, each pair can lay three or four eggs, though usually only one or two chicks will survive to fledge.

Many people were keen to see the albatross that has taken up residence here.  Apparently, it has a regular spot on the cliffs, though it can really only be seen from a distance, and it was difficult to make out which of the mostly-white birds it was – people with telescopes were convinced it really was there.  But later it took to the air, flying amongst the swirling gannets.  I was trying to video the gannets in flight along the cliffs, though it was difficult with the bright sunlight on the LCD screen.  It wasn’t until we were back home that I could be sure I really had got the albatross in there too.

Someone mentioned a Daurian/Isabelline Shrike – a vagrant from the area between the Caspian Sea and China – and told us roughly where to find it.  Having walked to the southern end of the reserve, we thought we might as well cross the two fields to see the bird while we were here.  A few others birdwatchers were already there, and the bird had been showing well along a particular hedge.  The lack of a huge crowd for it could be put down to the bird having been there a few weeks already, so it had been seen by most avid twitchers long ago.  I didn’t bother getting the camera out – a distant small brown bird through the heat haze wasn’t worth the effort.  It worked its way along a hedge until eventually a couple of cyclists on the track on the other side of the hedge caused it to move further away.  So we headed back to the visitor centre for a late lunch.  Then we spent the afternoon looking at the cliffs along the northern end of the reserve.

While bird flu didn’t seem too obvious during our visit, later in the summer things definitely got worse. At Bempton, most of the losses took place in August, when hundreds of gannet chicks died in the densest area of the colony, and some dead adult birds were recorded on the sea. For most of the 13,000 pairs of gannets nesting elsewhere in the colony, the impact “has been thankfully very small”, according to site manager Dave O”Hara in an interview for the Yorkshire Post “We are not complacent for next year – it will be a worrying time.”

Meanwhile, the good news is that kittiwakes had the best breeding season for over ten years with 44,000 pairs producing around 30,000 chicks.

With the forecast for record-breaking temperatures still in force for the Monday, and recommendations that people should stay indoors with the curtains shut where possible to keep the heat out and avoid heat-stroke, we had to consider our plans.  By leaving very early in the morning, we should get past the area predicted to be the hottest long before lunch, and probably get home by Monday evening.  And maybe there would still be an opportunity to stay out somewhere overnight near another nature reserve.

The hotelier agreed it was sensible, but no, they couldn’t do us breakfast THAT early – not that we had asked them to.  However, they had a portable fridge which we could have in our room, along with milk, yoghurt, fruit, cereal, etc. 

We started out about 6am, with guidance from the satnav on my phone rather than using the old unit which has a few quirks likely to send us off to parts unknown.  Things went smoothly for the first couple of hours, but then came a warning that there would be a delay of up to twenty minutes due to a vehicle fire on one section of motorway.  We found a different route through a town, feeling that keeping the car fan going on the move was better than sitting still in an oven.  The motorway was just clearing as we rejoined it.  The newscasts kept us up to date with the temperature situation, and we kept going (apart from a comfort stop) to the RSPB Burton Mere reserve on the west side of England.

RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands

Burton Mere was hot.  Very hot, and quite dry – though really we’d only seen it in early spring before.  We had a quick look around the visitor centre, then walked out to the Marsh Covert Hide.  Despite the 360 degree views from that hide, there was not much to see as the water levels were so low, but at least it was a chance to stretch our legs for half an hour.  There was no shade between here and the further hides, so we walked slowly back through the woodland to the visitor centre.

There was more water in the area in front of the visitor centre, so we sat there in the shade for a while and enjoyed a coffee and snack – they weren’t keeping much food in the shop because of the heat. Altogether, we had 33 species of birds – the last of them being something of a surprise. A huge skein of pink-footed geese flew in, calling as they swirled around and then landed in grassland some distance away. Surely these geese should not be arriving until September, at the earliest? But the staff said they had been around for the last few days.

Record temperatures in Wales

On through North Wales, and more warnings about the heat on the news.  The car’s AC hasn’t been working properly for a while now, so the best we managed was the ordinary fan on cold.  Better than nothing.  The west coast was supposed to be the coolest area, so we went that way.  The Craft Centre at Coris was open, and we managed to get a decent, but late, lunch there.  Further south, as we went through Bow Street, the car thermometer was reading 36C – which is what we were hearing on the radio, and at the time it was said to be the highest temperature in Wales.  Later, when all the data had been looked at, apparently the hottest place in Wales – 37.1C – was at Hawarden which we passed soon after leaving Burton Mere.

There didn’t seem to be much point in stopping anywhere else en route. Another time, we would have added a couple more nights and a few more reserves into the itinerary.

It was a relief to get home with the car and our sanity intact.


Click on covers for more information

Picture of book cover

Sadly out of print, but worth looking out for – covers all the RSPB reserves at the time of publication

An interactive guide to use on an iPad on-site at Bempton – sounds interesting, but I haven’t seen it myself.

The standard guide to birdwatching places in Britain – there are some regional versions too.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.

More places to go nature-watching in England

RSPB Pulborough Brooks

A visit to the RSPB Pulborough Brooks Reserve in Sussex, England, is about far more than birds.

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Photo of Laguna Gallocanta

Eurasian Cranes at the Laguna Gallocanta

At around 1,500ha, the Laguna Gallocanta is the largest natural lake in Spain.

Its other main claim to fame is that it is the major staging post for Eurasian cranes migrating between their wintering grounds in southern Spain, and their breeding grounds in northern Europe. 

The cranes arrive in November, with several thousand staying through the winter. The greatest spectacle is at the end of February, when they are heading north again.

About the lake

Laguna Gallocanta is situated at 1000m on a high plain in north-eastern Spain, meaning that temperatures can be bitterly cold in winter, and blisteringly hot in summer. Spring doesn’t seem to arrive until June, or so I was told on a cold windy day in April 1989. I certainly didn’t expect to visit again any earlier month of the year. However, there were no cranes on that first visit, and it is the cranes that bring people to the laguna in February and November. Some cranes remain for the winter, but most move on to Extremadura. 

The laguna lies in a tectonic depression. It is fed mainly by rainwater, and there is no outflow. Thus, the lake levels and extent vary by year as well as by season depending on rainfall. In a good year, the laguna covers some 1500ha (5.8 sq miles). In some years the water level is below ground and the lake bed remains dry for months. However, there are some freshwater springs that allow localised growth of Phragmites reeds, reedmace and other freshwater plants.  Yet it is still the most important saline lake in Western Europe, and is well-studied by students from various Spanish universities.

About the birds

The Laguna Gallocanta has long been known as a fantastic place for wintering birds – though the numbers depend on the severity of the winter in northern Europe, and on the level of water in the lake. The name Gallocanta can be translated as Chicken/Bird Song, though whether that refers to the trumpeting of the cranes in winter or the songs of other birds in spring is anybody’s guess.

Eurasian Cranes are large birds, with males standing up to 1.3m (4ft) tall and with a 2.4m wingspan – females are usually a bit smaller. That should make them easy to see, but their basically grey colour means they blend well with the background, and at a distance they often look like rocks strewn across the fields.

February 18-20th 2015 were calm days following frosty nights. Some 30,000 cranes were already trying to move north, although snow-storms over the Pyrenees were forcing many to stay in Spain. During the following few days, the numbers at the laguna increased, as more and more arrived from the south-west and had to wait for a break in the weather. 

The photo below was taken on the evening of the 23rd. It is impossible to show the sheer numbers involved – this is just a small section of the lake near Gallocanta village. 

The cranes are counted weekly during the migration period. Antonio Torrijo from the Association of Friends of Gallocanta, and José Antonio Román who coordinates the crane censuses in Spain, took out a team of six for the counts. The area is divided between them, and each person counts from a set vantage point. In the late afternoon, they count the birds already on the ground, and then at dusk, they count the birds coming in to roost. 

Some 82,906 cranes were counted on the 24th. But the weather held up migration for another few days, so the total was estimated at 110,000 by the weekend when the wind dropped and most were able to move on.

Of course, there are other species on the lake – up to 3000 gadwall, 80,000 common pochard, and 40,000 common coot, and smaller numbers of other species. We saw 82 species altogether, including raptors such as northern harriers, golden eagle and short-eared owls, and small birds like Calandra Lark, Rock Sparrow and Theckla Lark. Amazingly, I also saw 82 species on my brief visit in April 1989, with about 40 of them seen both times. 220 species have been recorded over the years, and 90 of these breed here.

We stayed at the Auberge Allucant from the 18th – 28th, walking down to the lake shore nearest the village, or driving around the lake (about 35km), stopping at various viewing points, walking along the Camino del Cid, and one day driving just a bit further afield.

A day in the freezer

Javier, who runs Allucant, told us there were hides that would get us really close to the birds, and he arranged for us to get a permit and a key from the offices in one of the nearby villages. We had to be in the hide half an hour before dawn, and couldn’t leave until it was dark in the evening. So two of us, in a small square box, camera lenses pointing out the ‘windows’, wrapped up for the Arctic but still getting colder and colder – there was a sleet shower in the afternoon – sat it out for 12 hours. Was it worth it? Definitely YES. Would we do it again? Well . . . maybe . . . . .

Ghostly shapes in the half-light – Cranes roost at the lake margins and in the shallow water. They leave before sunrise, heading for feeding areas within a few kilometres of the lake.

As the light improves, wave after wave of cranes leave the laguna, but somehow there are still a few left as the sun begins to warm the land.

For a while, the lagoon is quiet, but at around mid-morning the birds begin to return.

Now the birds spend their time preening and socialising, sometimes feeding, and sometimes roosting. The way to get yourself noticed is to shout – and they do. Cranes are 1m – 1.3m tall (3-4 feet) and have a voice to match. The males are bigger than the females, and most of the squabbling seemed to be amongst the males.

Another way to get noticed, by humans at least, is to wear leg rings. Only a small proportion are ringed at the nest each year, and a few are fitted with radio-transmitters too. This particular bird (and one of the others that we saw) was ringed in Brandenburg, Germany, in 2006. A third bird was ringed in Germany in 2003, and this was the first time it had been recorded in Spain. Reporting colour-ringed birds provides so much more information, both for the researchers and for the observer.

It’s not yet the breeding season, but the activity swings between frustration (top photo shown by picking up things and throwing them) and mild aggression. They stick in tight family groups, sometimes with a youngster from last year AND the previous year in tow. But by now, the older youngsters – teenagers perhaps – are mostly in groups of their own age. The adults pair for life, but the pair bonds are renewed by dancing and marching displays when they get closer to the breeding grounds. In adults, the eye colour varies, as does the extent of the red patch on the head. Neither is correlated with age, sex or season. However, as their threat displays involved showing off the red patch, it may be linked with dominance.

The weather was cold but mostly dry. However, the cold brought sleet showers, and the cranes had to put up with it. This weather extended to the Pyrenees, forcing the birds to postpone the next stage of their migration. When the sleet stopped in the late afternoon, many headed out to the fields to feed again. They returned at dusk to roost.

In the late afternoon, many of the birds head out to the fields to feed again. They return at dusk to roost. Inevitably there is some conflict between farmers and birds, but an agreement has been drawn up to provide compensation if crops are damaged.

The last day

February 28th the wind dropped from force 4 to force 2, and the birds could finally move on. Throughout the morning, the excitement of the cranes was palpable – the sound was deafening and it was hard not to be excited with them. They rose in great flocks, circling to gain height. There was still enough wind to push them back southwards, and some returned to the lake. But the majority moved northwards.

As we drove to Zaragoza airport, we passed under huge skeins of them. If they encountered a thermal, they made use of it to gain extra height. They will fly at 40-50 kph in calm conditions, covering 300-500km in a day as they return to northern and eastern Europe to breed.

The website GrusExtremadura provides up-to-date counts and maps showing the progression of the migration.


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A rough road circumnavigates the laguna, and is clearly signposted to keep tourists on track. Access is prohibited on other tracks through the farmland. The whole route is approximately 35km, with access points near the villages of Gallocanta, Tornos, Bello and Las Cuerlas. 

The Camino del Cid is a hiking route which passes along part of the above track. 

Two high observation platforms are accessible from the track. These provide a good view across the lake and fields, but may not get you close to the cranes – that depends on where they are feeding. 

The stone observation hides at los Ojos, la Ermita and at los Aguanares also provide some protection from the weather. 

The new interpretive centre (right) is more to do with local cultural history, but contains a collection of stuffed birds (these were previously housed in a small museum in the village). Glass walls provide a panoramic view. Entry is quite cheap. 

Another, smaller, information centre at the south end of the lake has more information about the wildlife, and the cranes in particular. 

Five photographic hides provide opportunities for close-up photography. They are administered by the local office in Bello, and there is a charge of 20 euros per day. However, it is a requirement that you enter the hide before sunrise, and do not leave until after sunset. 

There are limited accommodation and restaurant facilities in the nearby villages of Gallocanta, Berrueco, Tornos, Bello, and Las Cuerlas. We stayed at the Albergue Allucant in Gallocanta village, and can happily recommend it as providing good basic accommodation and excellent meals at a very reasonable price.  It can be quite busy, especially at weekends during the crane migration periods, and early booking is recommended. Not all rooms have en-suite facilities, but there are beds (and bunks) for up to 54 guests. 

Allucant boasts a good library of bird and wildlife books in a variety of languages. It provides a focus for birding activities in the area. The staff were very helpful, especially with regard to getting the permit for using one of the photographic hides. Muchas gracias, Señores, for giving us a good time.

How to get there

There is little in the way of public transport access to Gallocanta and the surrounding villages. Most routes suggested on Rome2Rio end with a taxi.

We flew to Zaragoza airport, picked up a hire car, and found it was a relatively easy journey not having driven on the right (wrong for us) side of the road for some years.

Once in Gallocanta or any of the other nearby villages, you can walk to the nearest bit of lakeshore and surrounding countryside, but you really do need a car, or at least a bike, to see the place properly. And in winter, we were especially appreciative of the car for shelter from the weather.

Some nature tour companies (eg NatureTrek) do include a day or two in the area as part of a longer winter trip in north-east Spain, often combining it with looking for birds in the Spanish Pyrenees to the north.

More information at Wildside Holidays – walking and wildlife holidays in Spain

More winter nature-watching in Spain

Winter birds on the Gulf of Morbihan

The Golfe du Morbihan provides a huge feast for wintering waders and wildfowl. Here are a few suggestions for places to watch them.

Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

Some 70,000 water birds spend their winter on the Tejo estuary near Lisbon in Portugal. That can mean some serious birdwatching there.

The Lauwersmeer in winter

The Lauwersmeer National Park, in the northern part of the Netherlands, provides a fantastic winter feeding ground for geese and other birds that breed further north.

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photo of a puffin in flight

Skomer Seabird Spectacular cruise

Landing on Skomer for the day (or longer) is only half the story. Yes, you get close to puffins, and you can spend all day watching them. But there is so much more to see and learn.

Several times a week, from May to July, an evening boat trip takes you to see the island, and its birds. More importantly, it takes you to see the Manx Shearwater, the most numerous bird breeding on Skomer and the one you don’t see when visiting Skomer during the day.

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The Dale Princess leaves Martin’s Haven at 7pm, with up to 30 passengers, a guide, and two crew.   A crew member gives a safety briefing as we leave the jetty – ending with ‘your emergency exits are  . . . . . ‘ as he points in all directions except down.  We pass Marloes Deer Park – a promontory walled off in the 18th century in anticipation of keeping deer there, but the deer never arrived.  The National Trust look after it now, managing the grazing to provide short turf for chough to probe into for leather-jackets and other mini-beasts.

photo of an island
Jack Sound and Skomer Island from Marloes Deer Park.

Beyond the Deer Park, the water opens out.  To the south is Jack Sound, a fast-flowing channel of water with rocks sticking out at low tide.  Many a boat has foundered here in the past.  A ridge of rock underwater causes quite a lot of rough water when the tide is running. 

Photo of a shag and a cormorant
Shag and cormorant in breeding plumage (the size difference is exaggerated in this photo)

Cormorants sit on the rocks, and ‘holding their wings out to dry’ – not so much their wings as their body feathers which aren’t very waterproof, and need to dry between fishing trips just to keep the birds warm.  If having non-waterproof feathers seems odd for a waterbird, it actually means they don’t keep so much air in their feathers when they dive, they aren’t so buoyant, so making it easier stay underwater to chase fish. The disadvantage is that they get waterlogged and cold after about 15 minutes.  Someone asks about the difference between cormorants and shags – shags are smaller, sleeker, blacker, narrower bill, and no pale patch on the throat (though young birds are paler on the underside, and a bit more difficult to separate without a good view).

Razorbills and a guillemot

Now we are seeing auks as well.  Puffins, razorbills and guillemots sit on the water or fly past, often coming in low and close.  The differences are obvious in close-up – puffins with their multi-coloured bill and orange feet, razorbills are black and white with a large beak the shape of an old-fashioned cut-throat razor, while guillemots are brown and white with pointed bills.  Questions come non-stop from the passengers, and they learn that seabirds are long-lived – thirty or forty years or more, don’t breed until they are several years old, mate for life, and only have one egg per year.  But they might get divorced!  If they have a couple of failed breeding seasons, perhaps it’s better to try with a new partner next time.  Puffins breed in burrows, razorbills nest on small ledges and in rock crevices, while guillemots believe in safety in numbers, choosing ledges where they can mass in their hundreds. 

Kittiwakes on the water below a small cliff where they nest

We chug along the ‘Neck’, the bit of Skomer Island with no human interference, look through the Lantern – a cave that runs underneath the island and out the other side, then the boat slows so we can hear the kittiwakes calling – kitti-wa-ake – at a small colony low on the cliffs.  These small and pretty gulls are hanging on here, despite having virtually disappeared from the Pembrokeshire mainland, and from other colonies further north.

Sometimes this journey throws up a real gem, and back in 1996  the skipper saw a couple of fins in the water just about here.  We went to investigate, and realised it was a fifteen-foot basking shark – just a young one really – and we were looking at the back fin and tail fin, and the shadow of its body under the water.  The boat got quite close before the shark dived.  It came up again a few yards away, but soon went under again and disappeared.    Basking sharks often come up through the Irish Sea, but mostly they are on the Irish side.  Probably less than one a year is seen on the Welsh side, and this is the only one I saw in twenty years of guiding these trips.

Guillemots on the cliffs in North Haven

The Princess moves into North Haven and the skipper cuts the engine.  The silence is wonderful!  The steep grassy slopes are seabird cities.  Rock ledges crammed with guillemots. Thousands of burrows, each with a puffin standing outside.  Yet there are still enough puffins to form a flying wheel – they fly circuits, apparently each bird more or less level with its burrow, and all the time birds are joining the wheel while others drop out and head for their burrows.  Then you begin to realise it isn’t really silent.  Apart from the whirr of countless wings (beating up to ten times per second), there are growls of puffins, gargles from guillemots and razorbills, the raucous cries of gulls, and even the songs of wrens nesting in scrub on the cliffs. 

photo of a puffin carrying fish
Puffin carrying sand-eels back to the nest

The relative quiet makes it easier to talk about the history of this island, 2-5000 years of human occupation, and farming that continued until the early 20th century.  It has been a nature reserve since 1960, owned by the Natural Resources Wales (successor to the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Council for Wales), is managed by a committee that includes various local organisations, and is administered by the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales.

Grey seals jostle for position on a rock exposed at low tide

The boat engines start up again, and the journey continues along the north coast of the island, stopping at the Garland Stone so we can appreciate the grey seals – come August, they will start dropping their pups on the beaches here and about 250 will be born by the end of the year.  

Porpoises are relatively small and unobtrusive

If the seabirds haven’t been spectacular enough so far, the real adventure is about to begin.  The skipper steers away from Skomer, and out into the open sea of St Bride’s Bay.  We aren’t going far out – keeping well within sight of land.  But now is time to keep our eyes peeled.  There is a good chance of porpoises – small dolphins that don’t really show much of themselves except a fin as they surface to breathe.  And just maybe there will be a pod of common dolphins – more rarely something really special such as a bottlenose dolphin or even a Risso’s dolphin.  But what we are really here to see are the Manx shearwaters.

Manx shearwaters tend to fly low over the water surface

Manx shearwaters are medium-sized relatives of albatrosses, and the Pembrokeshire Islands (Skomer, Skokholm and Ramsey) are home to about 400,000 pairs, or about half of the known world population.  They are the most numerous bird species breeding on Skomer, but the chances of seeing one alive during the day are slim.  They are very clumsy on land, and in order to evade predators (large gulls mostly) they nest in burrows and come to land only at night when the gulls are asleep.  On most nights, a few birds get caught out at dusk or dawn, or by moonlight, and the island is littered with corpses, testimony to the success of the gulls.  The numbers killed are, however, a minute proportion of the total population.  So the best way to see them is on a boat trip like this in the evening when the birds come back from the feeding grounds and form vast ‘rafts’ floating on the water, waiting for it to get dark.  The Manx part of their name is because the first ones to be described scientifically were taken from the Calf of Man – a small seabird island on the southern tip of the Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea.  Few live there now, because that island became overrun with rats, which predate ground- and burrow-nesting birds.

Anyway, we start to see small parties of shearwaters on the water and the skipper steers towards them.  They are flighty at first, especially if the numbers are small.  On some trips we see only a few dozen, but on a good night, usually in June and July, there can be thousands, even tens of thousands.  One parent will be out on an extended fishing trip – perhaps for three or four days – before returning to the nest with food for the chick.  The other parent will be with the egg or the chick (at least for a few days after it hatches) and then will go on short fishing trips.  So on any night, up to a fifth of the population could be waiting to come ashore.

Manx shearwaters coming gathering just offshore, waiting for it to get dark

Although they are black and white, like many other seabirds, they are quite distinctive with their long straight wings, gliding over the water surface, taking lift from the slightest breeze and from air currents over the waves.  A flock seems to move as one all showing their black uppersides, then turning to show their white undersides, then back again.  They fly so low that their wing tips seem to touch (shear) the water surface. They flap only when they have to, and this energetically economical form of flying means they can cover vast distances quite rapidly with very little effort.

As the numbers build up, the birds fly close to the boat, even those on the sea may allow the boat to drift in closer.  Care is taken to avoid extra disturbance – this is an internationally important population of this species.  Having heard about the habits of these birds, the passengers start firing more questions -how long do they live (the oldest known individual was at least 55 when last seen), how far do they travel (down to the coast of Argentina), where else do they live (the Calf of Man, Rhum in the Scottish Hebrides, on some of the islands around the coast of Ireland, Iceland, and a few are even in the mountains on Madeira – see here for a full map. )  What do they eat (small fish, squid, other small sea creatures that they catch underwater having dived from the surface.)

How do they find their burrows in the dark?  Come to that, how do they find their island homes when out in the middle of the ocean?  Like any migrating birds, they seem to have a built-in compass, but also an acute sense of smell that picks up the scents on the air currents helping them home in on the colony.

During the day, the birds are pretty silent – we rarely hear anything from the boat – but as it gets dark, and they fly to their burrows, it gets very noisy.  They have a very raucous call (listen here), with a rhythm a bit like ‘a cup of caawwfeee’, which is individual to each bird.  We can tell the difference between male and female calls, but they can tell the difference between individuals.  So as they get closer to their burrows they are listening out for answering calls from their mates or chicks.  The noise is so incredible that the Vikings refused to land on some islands because they thought they must be haunted.

Are they affected by oil spills?  Now there is a question!  The last big oil spill here was the Sea Empress in 1996.  Fortunately for our seabirds, this spill happened in February, before the birds returned to islands to breed.  Otherwise, they would have been sitting ducks – floating on the surfaces amid the oil, diving down and coming up through it, feeding on fish that may have been affected – the oil would have destroyed the air-trapping features of the feathers, so the birds would have got cold and waterlogged and died – as nearly 5000 others did, birds (mainly common scoter) that were wintering in the area.

There are more general questions about the area, the island, and the seabirds.  Then one young lad put his hand up. When are we going back? There was a shocked silence at his temerity.  Fortunately, he could be reassured that we were already heading back to Martin’s Haven – the evening was getting decidedly chilly.  I welcome the short but steep walk back to the car park – a chance to get the body moving and warmed up after two hours of sitting still on the boat.

The Seabird Spectacular cruises can be booked on-line through Dale Sailing, and run several times a week (depending on suitable weather) from May to July. By the end of July, most of the puffins, razorbills and guillemots have gone out to sea for the winter.

In August and September, Dale Sailing run a different Pembrokeshire Islands Safari on a fast boat (protective clothing provided) that includes Grassholm Island where there are nearly 40,000 gannets nesting.

If you are staying in the St Davids area of Pembrokeshire, Thousand Islands also run similar seabird trips, though I have no experience of them.

The Dale Princess


A must-have book if you are looking at sea-birds in general
Fascinating book, but a lot of research has been done since it was published
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I think I need to add this to my collection
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There is just SO MUCH information here, gathered by a former warden of the island.
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Life as a seasonal volunteer on the island.

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