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.


Bookshop

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

Eurasian Cranes at the Laguna Gallocanta

The Laguna Gallocanta near Zaragoza in north-eastern Spain provides an incredible spectacle in late February as thousands of cranes stop by on the way to northern European breeding grounds.

Doñana National Park

How to get the most out of a visit to the Doñana National Park. My recommendations after several visits.

Las Marismas del Odiel

The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain. Here’s how to make the best of a visit.


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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.


Resources

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.


Bookshop

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.


Bookshop

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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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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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Facilities

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

Sierra del Hornijo

A December road trip into the Cordillera Cantabrica in northern 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.


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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

Bookshop

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
Book cover
I think I need to add this to my collection
book cover
There is just SO MUCH information here, gathered by a former warden of the island.
Book cover
Life as a seasonal volunteer on the island.

Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links provides a small commission that helps with the cost of running of this website at no extra cost to you


More ideas for nature-watching in Wales

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.

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Nature-watching in the Swiss National Park

Why visit the Swiss National Park . . . .

  • Glorious scenery
  • 100km of hiking trails
  • Wilderness that has not been touched (away from the paths) for over 100 years
  • Wonderful Wildflowers
  • Brilliant butterflies and other invertebrates
  • A good variety of birds and mammals

About . . . .

The Swiss National Park is located in the canton of Graubünden, spread across the four communes of Zernez, S-chanf, Scuol and Val Müstair and covering an area of 170 km2 at an altitude of 1,400 to 3,174 metres.

Established in 1914, it is the oldest national park in the Alps and indeed the oldest in central Europe. As of April 2021, the site is listed on the IUCN’s Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas and is formally recognised as one of the 59 best managed sites in the world. 

Protected areas in Switzerland

Despite its small size, Switzerland manages to squeeze in a number of major sites of ecological importance.  Perhaps that is not so surprising in a country where 25% of the land is categorized as “non-productive”, ie high mountains and lakes.  However, until 2007, there was only a single national park.  Now there are a total of 18 areas designated, or proposed for designation as, national or regional nature parks, each of them at least 100 square kilometres in area.

There are also a handful of nature discovery parks – relatively small areas of only a few square kilometres within densely populated regions, offering intact spaces for local flora and fauna and improving the life quality of the urban population. Their primary purpose is to allow the public to experience nature and receive environmental education. 

Map from the Swiss National Park website which provides information in German, English, French and Italian.

Best things to do:

Go to the visitor centre

I’m an advocate for visitor centres. Having arrived in Zernez when it was raining, this visitor centre was most welcome, and I visited on several other occasions when the weather was poor during my ten-day stay in the area. There were exhibitions about various aspects of the park – geology, animals, plants, history, hiking, etc. The staff were helpful, even the park director was happy to talk to visitors who had questions that the centre staff couldn’t answer themselves.

It has all changed since then. Opened in 2008, the new national park centre at Zernez attracts some 40,000 visitors a year.  It’s well worth visiting for up-to-date information, and for maps and route guides from the shop.  There is a comprehensive, interactive exhibition on permanent show, with various digital information systems, temporary exhibitions and a theatre, all of which provide a set of interesting alternatives for when the weather is too wet for hiking to be pleasant.

Download the app

A fairly recent innovation, the Swiss National Park app is a digital hiking guide that leads you through the National Park region with stories, information and detailed maps. Not all areas of the Park have mobile phone/online coverage; so the app was created in offline mode – so download it when you have a wi-fi signal because it is a rather large file. The app is available in German, English, and French, so is also useful if you are on a guided walk and need help with understanding what the guide is saying in German.

Take a hike

There is a single road through the park, going on down to the Italian border. Along it, you’ll find car parks, hotels, and bus stops. These are all very handy when hiking through the park. The rules are strict. You must stay on the path, camping and fires are not allowed. But the 80km or so of footpaths are all well-worth exploring. I’ve been on about half of them. The campsite in Zernez provided a useful base for some short hikes, and the starting point for some of the longer ones. The need to get back to base meant a good deal of planning for buses or trains, and making sure there was enough time to catch the last one back to base. Nature-watching really tends to slow us down, but if you are just out for the hike, the distances are easy to do in plenty of time.

Go on a guided walk

A guide can give so much extra information and interpretation about the landscape. Guided hikes happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are usually conducted in German, and usually have a specialist theme. Alongside the human guides, you can use the app to provide extra information. Both kinds of tour provide an opportunity to uncover some of the secrets of the astounding abundance of flora and fauna – all to be found in the Swiss National Park.

Look for birds

Despite there being only half a dozen pairs of golden eagles in the park, we saw one or two every day. During the summer they feed mainly on marmots, while in the winter they scavenge deer carcasses and whatever else they can find. Carcasses are also important for the Lammergeier – also known as the bone vulture and the bearded vulture. This species has been the subject of an extensive reintroduction program throughout the Alps, including 26 young captive-bred released in the park between 1991 and 2007. They seem to be breeding by themselves now, so no further releases are needed.

Nutcrackers are members of the crow family, restricted in range to areas of pine forests and so most often found in the mountains and the far north where conifers form the main forests. Like jays, it stores its winter food supply in the ground, and the seeds that it doesn’t find again germinate and extend the forest. The nutcracker is the logo for the Swiss National Park.

Looking at the list of 56 species that I saw here, the ptarmigan, Alpine chough, Alpine accentor, and citril finch stand out as being special to the mountains, at least. Most of the other species are more generalist, and found in the lower areas – the forests and along the river corridors.

Shepherd’s Fritillary
Silky ringlet

Look for butterflies

The best place for butterflies proved to be the track alongside the river from Zernez – and on a couple of occasions, we barely managed a mile of hiking because of trying to photograph and identify all the butterflies. But to find the specialities of the region, you have to go to higher altitudes.

En route to Alp Trubchun, we found a shepherd’s fritillary basking on a stone (above left), and while we were trying to photograph that, the local form of the silky ringlet put in an appearance (above right). Depending on the light angle, this butterfly can look much like any other brown ringlet, or it can shimmer an iridescent green.

It’s really the blues and the fritillaries that dominate the butterfly lists here. And to have any hope of identifying unfamiliar species, you really have to photograph both the under-side and the upper-side. And nowadays, having the luxury of looking at the photos on a computer screen, much enlarged, makes it so much easier. I ended up with a list of 34 species, plus a few that I couldn’t identify, and of course, there were a few that didn’t hang around long enough for a photo.

Leontopodium alpinum. Edelweiss – close up of the small white flowers.

Enjoy the wildflowers

Where to start with the wildflowers! As in most mountain regions, there is a huge variety due to the variation in altitude and aspect. However, there are perhaps not so many here as elsewhere in the Alps, due to the dry climate (low in rainfall and in humidity), the extremes of temperature, and the lack of limestone rocks. Nevertheless, up to 600 species can be found here.

I didn’t really look hard at them – I was more interested in the butterflies – but was happy to at last find an Edelweiss. This iconic flower of the Alps prefers rocky limestone places at about 1,800–3,000 metres (5,900–9,800 ft) altitude. Its leaves and flowers are covered with dense hairs, which are believed to protect the plant from cold, aridity, and ultraviolet radiation. It is a scarce, short-lived flower found in remote mountain areas, although it will grow in gardens with a bit of help. It is a national symbol Switzerland and some other Alpine countries.  It is non-toxic and has been used in traditional medicine as a remedy against abdominal and respiratory diseases.

Look for mammals

We saw mammals, or signs of mammals, on each day. However, the best place is generally considered to be Alp Trubchun at the south-west end of the Park. We took the train from Zernez to S-chanf, and started the hike from there – although now there is a bus service that stops closer to the footpath. It’s a relatively easy hike, gently climbing 400m in 10km, but you do have to allow time to walk back too. The scenery is, as always, wonderful, but with the added views of plenty of wildlife. We had to try to ignore the birds, butterflies and plants on the outward journey through Val Trubchun, just to make sure we got to Alp Trubchun itself.

Herds of red deer grazed on the Alp, watching us from a distance. Amongst them were a few ibex. This species was surreptitiously reintroduced to the area in the early 1900s after being exterminated by 1650 – thanks mainly to the medicinal properties attributed to its flesh and horns – plus the fact that they often seem to have no fear of humans, and are therefore easy to hunt. Chamois were not quite so easy to see, as they spend the summer at even higher elevations, so you need time to continue to path up to Fuorcla Trupchun – a steady but much steeper and more difficult climb – from where you can even continue downhill to Livigno in Italy (and return to Zernez by bus, according to the Swiss National Park website).

Marmots are also common on the Alp, and we stopped to watch their antics on the way back. This was early August, and youngsters were out, playing around a rock next to their burrow. An adult posed obligingly outside its burrow nearby. It then wandered through the flowery meadow, stopping to bite off some vegetation here and there, or tug at a juicy root just underground. Then two more young marmots appeared. They hung around a burrow entrance under a rock for a while – mum climbed on the rock to keep an eye on us – then scampered up the hill. When she returned, the family did a lot of licking and grooming as a greeting ceremony, and then the youngsters disappeared into the burrow while the adult still lounged outside, soaking up the late afternoon sun.

Another hike that gave us good sightings of mammals was the route from Zernez via Cluozza to Ova Spin. First, there were signs of otter and fox alongside the river. Then through woodland with red squirrels, and a garden dormouse which, unfortunately, was dead. The woodland gave way to alpine pasture, with red deer, chamois (probably the closest views we ever had), a few ibex, and the inevitable marmots. This route was much more demanding than the Val Trubchun one, including two 700m climbs and requiring sure-footedness in places on the downhills. Fortunately, there was a bus service from Ova Spin back to Zernez, although a passing motorist offered us a ride before the bus arrived.

Photo of chamois with kid
Chamois

So there you have it

Those are my recommendations, but I feel I sampled only a little of the park.

What I’d do next time

Some of the hikes I didn’t do last time – perhaps including the one where you can do an overnight stay in a refuge – remember to book first.

Watch and photograph Lammergeiers – I’ve had only brief and distant views so far

Take more photos – especially now that I’ve got better equipment!


Best time to go

Winter: From mid-November onwards there is generally so much snow that footpaths are no longer visible, and there is a risk of avalanches. From now until the end of May the Park remains closed to visitors. The main Pass dal Fuorn (Ofenpass) road remains open in winter, ensuring access to the Val Müstair. However, the parking areas within the Park and the Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn are closed in winter.

Spring: During May there can still be heavy falls of snow, and large avalanches are not unusual. But by the end of the month, the trails in the lower and sunnier parts of the Park become accessible, and wildflowers begin to bloom. Trails in the higher areas remain under snow, and are generally only passable towards the end of June. The birds in particular are especially active at this time of year.

Summer: July and August are the ideal months to visit the National Park. All the trails are accessible; days are long and the temperatures pleasant.  At 2000 and 3000m, most flowering plants bloom during the second half of July. In high mountainous regions flowering can be delayed until well into August, according to snow conditions. Depending on the weather, the main flowering season may be delayed by 2 to 3 weeks. With the flowers come the butterflies, providing a visual feast of colour.

Autumn: As the days shorten and the temperature drops, nights can be frosty and the first snows fall in the upper regions. Footpaths may be frozen in places, and walkers heading out to higher regions should enquire about walking conditions at the National Park Centre. The highlight of the season is the red deer rut – when hundreds of stags can be heard roaring and strutting their stuff in traditional rutting areas, such as the Val Trupchun.


Resources

Swiss National Park website

Videos

This short video from the ‘Idle Brain’ YouTube channel will give you more idea of the scenery of the National Park.


How to get there

The Swiss National Park lies in the south-east of the country, and is accessible by rail, bus and road. The nearest railway station is at Zernez, and the line also passes through S-chanf for access to Val Trubchun.

Overnight accommodation within the National Park is available only in the  Chamanna Cluozza (mountain hut) or at the  Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn. Other accommodation in the region can be found via the  local tourist offices or via the internet. There is also a campsite at Zernez.


Bookshop

Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps towards the costs of this website at no extra cost to you.

Sadly the English version of this book is now out of print. It was a standard volume available in several languages. On walks, the guide would identify a flower, and whoever found it first in their book would call out the page number so everyone could mark it in their own book, regardless of language.

It’s a subject that seems to be more easily available locally rather than trying to buy something in advance.

 If you are trying to buy something in advance, make sure it is about the Alpine flora in Europe, rather than Alpine regions of North or South America, or Australia or New Zealand, for example.

Finding books specific to the Alpine Region seems to be best done when you are there. The National Park Visitor Centre usually has a good variety. There will be books in French, German and Italian, and it seems if you are lucky, in English too. Otherwise, the main guides to birds, mammals, etc covering the whole of Europe, will do the job. I am slowly replacing my older versions with those mentioned below.

The books below are my ‘go to’ books for European wildlife, when I can’t find anything more specific to a region. Click on the covers for more information.



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Photo of a puffin in flight

Resources for the naturalist visiting Iceland

We had a plan to go to Iceland a few years back. But health problems got in the way, then there was Covid, and still we’re not travelling yet. Iceland remains on the list . . . . and we will get there one day.

Preparation for any trip includes finding the appropriate books, websites, and other sources of information. I was well into searching for books before we had to cancel. The growing popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination has spawned a lot of general travel books.  Not quite so much for nature-watchers, but here is what I’ve found.  I haven’t actually bought any of them yet, so the information is from the publishers’ notes.


Note – click on any cover or link for more information. Buying through these links brings a small commission (at no extra cost to the the buyer) that helps with the maintenance of this website.

Crossbill Guides – Iceland

Picture of book cover - Crossbill guide to Iceland

Iceland is famous for its stunning landscapes, unique geology, and rich birdlife. There are few places on Earth where volcanism has resulted in such a multitude of different landscapes, and where such vast numbers of birds are easy to watch and photograph. The Crossbill Guide: Iceland shows everything Iceland’s nature has to offer, and contains 16 detailed itineraries for the best places to go. The guide also describes close to 50 sites with tips for visitors interested in geology, birds, marine mammals, flora, and history of the landscape.


Geology of Iceland

This is the first book describing the glorious geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle and four additional excursions:(1) the beautiful valleys and mountains of the fjord of Hvalfjörđur, (2) the unique landscape and geothermal fields of the Hengill Volcano, (3) the explosion craters, volcanic fissures, and lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and (4) the volcanoes (Hekla, Eyjafjallajökull, Katla), waterfalls, sandur plains, and rock columns of South Iceland. The Golden Circle offers a unique opportunity to observe and understand many of our planet’s forces in action. These forces move the Earth’s tectonic plates, rupture the crust, and generate earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, channels for rivers and waterfalls, and heat sources for hot springs and geysers.

The Golden Circle includes the famous rifting and earthquake fracture sites at þingvellir, the hot springs of the Geysir area, the waterfall of Gullfoss, and the Kerid volcanic crater. As The Glorious Geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle is primarily intended for people with no background in geosciences, no geological knowledge is assumed and technical terms are avoided as far as possible (those used are explained in a glossary). With more than 240 illustrations – mostly photographs – explaining geological structures and processes, it is also a useful resource for geoscientists.

Book cover - the Glorious Geology of Iceland's Golden Circle

Hiking in Iceland

Book cover - Cicerone guide to Iceland

This walking and trekking guidebook offers a total of 49 day-walks and 10 multi-stage treks set right across the magnificent country of Iceland.  It includes popular routes, such as the classic Laugavegur Trail from Landmannalaugar to Porsmork, as well as lesser-known trails.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland is split into 12 sections that cover all the best walking and trekking to be had in and around Iceland’s amazing and awe-inspiring volcanic, glacial landscapes. The routes range in difficulty from easy walks to challenging treks and give readers all the information they need to experience this wonderfully unique destination on foot. Venture inland to the remote interior and captivating ice caps, cross glaciers, lakes and see coastlines and geothermal areas.  Paddy Dillon’s guide to this ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ encourages visitors to explore all that Iceland has to offer, and will inspire lovers of the great outdoors to return time and time again.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland gives lots of tips for travellers on a budget as well as details on public transport and accommodation.


Birds in Iceland

This second edition of the popular Icelandic Bird Guide has been completely revised and expanded. It covers all Icelandic breeding birds and regular visitors in detail and also describes numerous annual vagrants – more than 160 species in total.

Icelandic Bird Guide is an ideal identification guide when travelling around Iceland for experienced birdwatchers and beginners alike. The clear and concise text describes the birds’ appearance and behaviour, as well their diet and habitat. Maps and diagrams clearly show distribution, movements and population sizes. It also includes photographs of eggs shown in actual size.

Book cover - Icelandic Bird Guide

Birdwatching map

Cover - Birdwatchers map of Iceland

A simple and accessible guide to Iceland`s birdlife, covering 70 species of breeding bird and 37 migrants, winter visitors and vagrants. Breeding birds are pictured together with maps showing their distribution and illustrations indicating the size and appearance of their eggs. The water-colour illustrations are by Jon Baldur Hlidberg. The Birdwatcher’s Map of Iceland is an essential companion for all nature lovers woh want to learn more about Iceland`s birdlife on their travels around the country.

There is a similar Geological Map of Iceland which shows the main features of the bedrock geology. Formations are classified by age, type and composition. The map also clearly shows the island’s volcanic zones and the distribution of the recent eruption sites. Lava fields of the Holocene are shown as pre-historic or historic. This is the second, revised, edition of the map.


Plants in Iceland

This illustrated field guide contains details of 465 Icelandic plant species arranged by flower colour, complete with photo keys and distribution maps. The unique features of each plant are briefly described, together with information about its habitat, distribution, flowering time and size. The latest edition of the Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland has been fully updated with many additional entries.

Cover Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland

Useful websites

Sustainable tourism in Iceland

Guide to Iceland – general tourism site – marketplace for activities, adventures, places to go, tours, accommodation, etc.

HeyIceland – Icelandic travel agency, seems to have some interesting self-guided tours of various lengths – accommodation, GPS and hire car included.

All links to the Iceland Nature Conservation Association seem to be unavailable.


The following blogs are not nature-specific, but do contain a lot of information about travelling around Iceland by people who have travelled there independently:

SueWhereWhyWhatWhat is Iceland facous for? 25 reasons to fall in love with Iceland

MyFabFiftiesLife – travelling the ring road in a camper

Meandering Wild – everything the author learnt from her time in Iceland


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Resources for other countries


Photo of Rocina Marshes

Doñana National Park

Why visit . . .

  • It is one of the largest and best-known wetlands in Spain
  • It holds internationally important numbers of geese and ducks in winter
  • Six species of herons, plus spoonbills and glossy ibis breed there
  • Nearly 400 species of bird, including vagrants from Africa, Asia and the Americas have been seen there.
  • The Iberian Lynx still survives there, along with 36 other mammal speces
  • 21 reptile, 11 amphibian and 20 freshwater fish species have also been recorded.
  • It is a World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere reserve

About . . . .

The Marismas (marshes) of the Guadalquivir found fame as the Coto Doñana – the hunting preserve of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, in the 16th century. It played host to hunting parties of the Kings of Spain for more than 300 years, and as many as 12,000 people were said to have assembled for the visit by Felipe IV in spring 1624.

In the 1960s, a group of scientists, including José Antonio Valverde and Guy de Montford, started to campaign for recognition of the importance of the area, leading it to be declared a national park in 1969. It has since been expanded, and a buffer area (pre-parque) set up around it, now designated a Parque Natural.

The Doñana National Park and its protected margins cover more the 1300km sq. of mostly flat marshes. The actions of the sea and the Guadalquivir river built-up a large sandbar that protected an inland sea of shallow lagoons and seasonally flooded salt flats. On the south side lie 35km of sandy beach, not accessible by vehicle and so populated only by a few dozen licenced fishermen. Inland, an extensive system of sand dunes is variously clothed in grassland, heath, cistus scrub, then stone pine and cork oak woodlands.

To the north and west, there are saltpans and rice paddies, these days giving way to polyculture – the growing of fruit and vegetables under never-ending rows of plastic poly-tunnels. While the micro-climate in these tunnels provides ideal growing conditions and conserves moisture, the very act of growing these crops demands that more and more water is extracted from water-courses and ground aquifers before it reaches the marshes. And then there are the pesticides and other chemicals used on the paddyfields. To the south-west, the expanding resort of Matalascanas wants to make golf courses and other tourist attractions that will further lower the water table.

Water isn’t the only threat to the marshes. In 1998 a retaining wall at the Aznalcollar mine, north of Doñana, collapsed, and five million cubic metres of toxic waste started flowing downstream. Fortunately, most of the waste was diverted to farmland that is now ‘decommissioned’ because of the high levels of zinc, cadmium and other metals. The mine is still in operation.

For now, the marismas and their associated habitats and species seem to be doing OK. They need to be seen and appreciated while they can be. Climate change will undoubtedly bring a slew of other problems to bear.


Eagle-watching

There is nothing special about booted eagles here – they can be found across Spain. However, on my first visit I met Gus, who was studying these birds, and his family. Gus showed us how he watched the birds and recorded their activities, and said he would be grateful for any observations. It wasn’t as if I needed an excuse to go out and just sit and watch for something to happen, but it helps when you know that what you are doing is useful. Keeping detailed notes also helps you to get a better understanding of the species. And you never know what else you might see.

Just looking at the notes of one afternoon, there were several pale and dark phase booted eagles (two different colour forms of the same species) hunting; a common buzzard sitting unobtrusively on a fence post; a pair of imperial eagles in display flight – stooping and dipping, pitching and rolling, etc, as if on their own personal roller-coasters – and later mating; a couple of red kites; a peregrine that swooped through the waders and wildfowl, but without catching anything; six griffon and one Egyptian vulture soaring overhead; from time to time there were also kestrels, sparrowhawks, and possibly a goshawk and a Montagu’s harrier, but these last two were too distant to be sure.

Spanish Imperial eagle – twice the size of the booted eagle.

On another occasion, a distant shape on the horizon that turned out to be a camel!  The last descendant of a herd of about eighty intro­duced to the Marismas in the early 1900s for meat and as draft animals.  Local people were not too happy about these newcomers, complaining that, amongst other things, they ate fodder that should have been for horses and cattle, and that the horses were terrified of them – horses were still an important part of life here in the 1980s.  They generally made life miserable for the camels, which did not thrive, and eventually the herd was left to its own devices.  Now, only this one remained.


Best places for watching birds

El Rocío and the Madre

After the road from Ayamonte to El Rocío via la Palma, with its thirsty red earth, never-ending orange groves and plas­tic covered strawberry beds, the Marismas of the Parque Nacional de Doñana came as an oasis: an outsize village pond on the edge of a collec­tion of whitewashed buildings and sandy roads.  As far as one could see through the heat haze there were birds, birds, and more birds.  Somewhere in the far distance, a huge flock took to the air.  They shimmered in the haze, giving off a faint pink glow to suggest they were flamingos. (My first impressions, back in 1989)

El Rocío is a town of whitewashed buildings and wide sandy roads, sitting right next to this vast shallow water often referred to as ‘the Madre’. Technically, the Madre de las Marismas is the stream feeding through from the west, but here it overspills the channel during winter, creating this vast shallow lagoon, dotted with birds – wading birds, shorebirds, ducks, geese, herons, gulls, small passerines looking for insects along the margins, and birds of prey overhead.

The promenade, which sort of separates the town from the water and continues across the Rocío Bridge on the old road, is the easiest place for bird-watching. And the place where most bird-watchers seem to congregate, so if there is something to be seen, you’ll soon know about it.

A Spaniard got out of his car, rushed across to where we had the telescope set up on the promenade, and muttered something about a lesser spotted eagle. Before we had time to process what he was on about, he had grabbed the telescope, pointed it in the appropriate direction, and was on his way back to his car. We peered through the haze at a large, fuzzy brownish bird on a very distant fence post. Lesser-spotted eagles were only occasional visitors here. The Spaniard, we discovered later, was in charge of censusing the birds in the Park.

Centro de La Rocina

Just south of the Rocío Bridge is the Visitor Centre of La Rocina. I don’t remember much about the centre itself, except for seeing booted eagles overhead as soon as I got there. Beyond the centre, a network of paths takes you through scrub and woodland, and to the hides along the south side of the Charco de la Boca (Charco = puddle or pool) a slow-flowing stream with boggy patches and islands and reedbeds. The hides provide welcome shade from the sun and the birds – anything can turn up here – can be seen at closer quarters than on the Madre.

Acebrón

Beyond La Rocina, the road continues some 7km to the Palacio del Acebrón – a good place to visit on a rainy day. It houses a permanent exhibition of traditional human life and exploitation of the marshes. A collection of stuffed birds and animals proved useful in looking at ID features for birds that didn’t hang around for close examination in real life. A stuffed lynx showed just how large these animals are, commensurate with the footprints I found along the Camino del Rey some time later.

Outside, there is a nature trail through semi-formal gardens, around the lake (El Charco del Acebrón), through woodlands and across waterways. My overriding memory of this place is walking through willow scrub in the sunshine of a spring morning, through a haze of yellow catkins and an incredibly loud buzz of insects. A week later, the flowering was over, and the insects had moved elsewhere.

Centro de Recepción El Acebuche

El Acebuche is closer to Matalascañas, and seems to be the main visitor centre – it houses displays, information, souvenir shops that include maps and books as well as car-stickers and T-shirts, and a cafe. Oh, and a pair of white storks nesting on the roof! A short walk takes you to the lagoon of El Acebuche, which is overlooked by seven large wooden hides – one of which had swallows nesting when I last saw it. The laguna is often the best place to see ferruginous ducks and purple swamphens, amongst many other waterfowl. A boardwalk trail goes off through the woods and scrub to the west, there are more hides, and usually plenty of birds.

phto of a western swamphen

Some strange noises had been coming from the reeds, honkings and hootings which one could imagine coming from a purple swamphen (gallinule) ‑ the largest rail in the western Palaearctic, with a wing‑span of nearly a metre, and a voice that seemed to come from way down in its boots.

After a while, a large blue‑black head with a huge bright red bill poked up from the vegetation.  A second gallinule appeared about twenty metres beyond, and the first one flew off with heavy wing-beats. The second bird waded ponderously towards the hide, picking its huge red feet clear of the water.  It climbed onto a pile of vegetation and looked around, calling continuously.  Then it selected some underwater stalk which it pulled on vigorously until it came free, and carried it in its bill to a nearby mat of reeds.  The stalk was dropped while the bird climbed out of the water, then picked up again and transferred to one of those huge feet to be held firmly, yet almost delicately, as the bird chewed chunks off the end.

The first gallinule flew back out into the open and the birds stood some distance apart, facing each other and performing exaggerated head-bobbing movements, and calling to each other.  The second bird wandered off, flicking its tail to show an expanse of white under-tail coverts.  The first flew closer to the hide, then pulled up a juicy stalk for its supper.

Later the honkings from the reeds increased in intensity: two gallinules were fighting ‑ we could see their wings flailing in the vegetation ‑ while a third bird peered over the top to see how things were progress­ing.  After a few minutes, the loser beat a hasty retreat. Others were heard in the distance.

Purple swamphens would not win any prizes for elegance, but they certainly are impres­sive.  They were surprisingly willing to fly ‑ perhaps those huge feet get in the way when they try to run in a hurry.

José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre

Following the Camino del Rey (a dirt road) eastwards from El Rocío takes you first through pinewoods (good for birds, butterflies, plants and reptiles) then into a more open area where the roads are often along the top of embankments. On my first visit (photo above), this was an open plain of swampy grassland, with deer and cattle grazing on the drier areas, and frogs calling from the irrigation/drainage channels. I saw my first sandgrouse at a bend in the road – known forever after (in my memory) as Sandgrouse Bend!

On my last visit, heavy rains had flooded these fields, they were occupied by black-necked grebes and other waterbirds. The road surface was slippery and as we drove along, I reminded myself of how to survive if the car slid off into the water (especially not knowing how deep the water was in the channels by the road.).

The road does, however, lead to the Jose Valverde Visitors’ Centre, where there are displays, a shop, and a cafe. It has picture windows and a short, screened boardwalk overlooking an adjacent permanent lake. This lake is the home of a large nesting colony of glossy ibises, as well as colonies of other species of heron. Neither the centre nor the ibises were here on my first visits!


Best time to visit

The National Park itself is not open to the public – only park staff and registered scientists are allowed in for their specific projects. However, there are guided tours, operated by approved companies and individuals, and they need to be booked well in advance. We tried a couple of times – waiting at the departure area in case somebody didn’t turn up. However, people working there said that we wouldn’t expect to see any species that we couldn’t see in the Parque Natural area, so don’t worry if you can’t get in.

My visits have been between February and April, when generally the weather is not too hot, there aren’t too many people around, and the bird numbers are at their highest. Even when the wintering birds depart, there are plenty of migrants coming through in March and April. Plants, insects and herptiles can be found at any time, though there was a noticeable increase in activity in spring.

Water levels vary with the rainfall, some years are very dry, and sometimes most of the park seems to be flooded. Generally, October to May is considered the best. The marshes are fed mainly by rainfall, so in summer they can dry up completely, and the birds relocate to other wetlands, such as the Brazo del Este on the east side of the Guadalquivir and the Odiel Marshes which are tidal.

Unless you are really there for the festival, the area is best avoided at Pentecost (seven weeks after Easter) when up to a million pilgrims converge for the Fiesta de Nuestra Senora del Rocío. Traditionally, some residents rented their houses at high enough rates that they lived on this festival income for the rest of the year.


So there you have it

My first visit to the Doñana National/Natural Park lasted a month, subsequent visits have been shorter. Most of that time was spent exploring the areas mentioned above, and anywhere else that took my fancy – the advantage of getting to know a place.

What I’d look for next time – José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre and its environs must be worth a longer visit (especially without the worry of driving on wet slippery tracks), and more time in the dunes near Matalascañas. But just wandering around those same areas as before – because with wildlife, you never quite know what might turn up. Perhaps being there in January when the cranes are wintering there – I had missed them by mid-February. Perhaps seeing what it is like in May – before it gets too hot, but the flowers, birds, butterflies and lizards should be abundant. Maybe I’d try again for one of the guided trips into the interior of the Nationa Park – just to see what it is like. Or one of the trips that specifically goes out looking for lynx – nothing is guaranteed, but it would be nice to see a real live one instead of just the pawprints (and the stuffed specimen!)

And I’d go with a list of all the places and things I didn’t photograph previously. A wildflower book would help too, so I could concentrate more on plants and butterflies, than on birds.


Resources

Websites

Doñana as a World Heritage Site

Doñana as a Ramsar site – for a detailed technical ecological appraisal of the park

Department of the Environment website – in Spanish (clicking English on the language tab doesn’t give you the whole website in English. You’ll probably need Google translate if you don’t read Spanish)

Wildside Holidays – lots of information about this and other sites in Spain, plus information about accommodation, guides, etc.

Getting there

The Donana National and Natural Park lies between Seville and Huelva. It is possible to get to El Rocío by bus, but this is time-consuming. And because of the size of the Park, a car is a necessity if you want to go further than the Madre and the la Rocina Centre. Hotels in Seville, and/or the tourist office, will have details of day trips by coach.

Visits to the protected area of the national park can only be undertaken with licenced operators. There are several, I don’t know anything about any of them, but these two have been mentioned by friends who have been there.

Discovering Doñana – tour operator – lots of information on their website

Doñana Visitas – tour operator – a local cooperative

There is plenty of accommodation in El Rocío, and in Matalascañas to the south.

Videos

This documentary from Planet DOC gives an excellent idea of the variety of wildlife of the Doñana


Bookshop

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More nature-watching in Andalucia

Brazo del Este Natural Area

If you’re staying somewhere between Malaga and Gibraltar, and you can’t get to the Doñana National Park on the other side of the river, then the Brazo del Este is the place to head for. A true oasis of wildlife surrounded by an agricultural desert – a desert in terms of wildlife.

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Photo of spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

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Why visit . . .

The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain.

One third of Europe’s spoonbills breed here.

The marshes lie on silt deposited by the rivers Odiel and Tinto, and provide a paradise for birds.

The protected area also includes salt-pans, lakes, forest, sandbank, tidal channels and rivers.

There is fairly easy access to the reserva from the town of Huelva.


About the Odiel Marshes

The estuary at Huelva has long been considered good for birds, but when a breeding colony of European spoonbills was discovered there in 1977, extra effort went into protecting the site. It was declared a Biophere reserve by UNESCO in 1983 because of its importance for wildlife, migratory birds in particular. It has also been recognised as a Ramsar Site (International Wetlands Convention), and a Special Area for Protection of Birds (Zonas de Especial Protección para las Aves) and Site of Community Importance by the European Union.

The main part of the 6750ha site lies at the confluence of the rivers Odiel and Tinto, with marshes forming behind the sandbar deposited along the coast by the sea. The variety of habitats include salt-pans, lakes, forest, sandbank, tidal channels and rivers. Small wonder that it has been described as a paradise for birds, despite being surrounded by the town of Huelva, the industrial activities based on the mining areas upstream, intensive agriculture (largely grown under plastic tunnels) and human recreation such as the the beach resorts at Playa de los Enebrales.


Best places to go

The best time to visit is in spring during the breeding season and in winter when there are lots of waterfowl. The Easter and summer periods bring lots of tourists.

La Calatilla Visitors’ Centre – Anastasio Senra

I’d always recommend starting with at least a quick visit to the visitor centre of any nature reserve or other protected area. If there are access issues (eg areas to avoid because of breeding birds, or damaged roads, etc) or something more exciting like what birds have been seen recently. It will also give information on any permit requirements, guided tours, etc.

The ‘Centro de Recepción La Calatilla – Anastasio Senra‘ visitor Centre was opened in 1994. It offers basic information on the different aspects of this natural area, via a very interesting exhibition with information boards, tools, samples of vegetation and animal life, archaeological remains and audiovisual information on the salt marshes. Although opening hours are limited, it proved a useful and interesting place to hide from the heavy showers on the day I visited. The Centre is also home to the offices that take care of the area and its natural habitat. There is a large car park and this makes a good starting point for some of the signed footpaths. It is located on the Dique San Juan Carlos I, and overlooks the River Odiel.

Usefully, there is a popular restaurant located next door!

Isla de Bacuta

From the visitor centre you can walk or cycle around this island of salt pans, and overlook creeks and marshes. At one point there is a covered look-out area – the Observatorio de Aves – with views across to the Isla Enmedio. There is usually a good range of waterbirds along here, and small birds in the scrub.

Photo of Flamingos
Greater Flamingos

El Dique San Juan Carlos I

The visitor centre sits beside the Dique San Juan Carlos I, a road that branches off the main A-497 just west of the two road bridges across the Odiel. The road carries on another 20km or so towards a lighthouse, passing through the centre of the saltmarshes. If there is little other traffic, it is easy to use the car as a hide, stopping at intervals along the road (note, this situation may have changed recently and at least in busy periods you may be able to park only in designated car parking areas). This is the best on a rising tide that is likely to bring birds closer to the road. It’s also quite an exposed road, and in winter the car provides welcome shelter from the wind and rain. The far end can be good for sea-watching, and there is a chance of dolphins here.

Photo of Sandwich Tern
The morning’s wind had died down and it was now calm and dry with good visibility. We saw four red-breasted mergansers, twenty‑five Balearic shearwaters, four common scoters, ten puffins, four razorbills, two great-crested grebes, thirty sandwich terns and thirteen gannets. And of course, lots of gulls, a huge flock that took to the air from time to time, perhaps being moved on by the tide. No dolphins this time

Photo of sage-leaved cistus
There were a number of plants in bloom along the tracks including blue lupins, and gum‑leaved and sage‑leaved cistus (above). Closer to the water’s edge were typical salt-tolerant plants such as Salicornia, Suaeda and Arthroc­nemum.

Punta Umbria

Punta Umbria lies at the end of another spit, which runs parallel to the salt-marshes. To get to it, follow signs on the west side of the Odiel to the Playas (beaches). However, if you use the older, smaller roads, you can access the surrounding scrub where small birds such as Dartford warblers can be found. This area is part of the Paraje Natural de Los Enebrales de Punta Umbria. There are also dirt tracks leading to the saltmarshes, etc. The pinewoods around Camping la Boca and eastwards to Punta Umbria are good for Iberian (Azure-winged) magpies, and during migration periods especially, for all sorts of birds. Punta Umbria was a fishing village, now more of a tourist resort (so food and drink easily available) with a long beach facing the Atlantic. Roads on the north side of the town do allow some views across the saltmarshes, and access to dirt roads and footpaths such as the Sendero Caño de Melilla Honda.

Photo of a pair of Kentish Plovers
About fifty kentish plover were loafing and feeding on the beach, some of them clearly paired up. We noticed the male apparently making a scrape. When that was done, he started opening and closing his bill and moving his head to and fro at the same time. Then a female circled him twice, stopped with her back to him and, with an exaggerated movement, bent forward and thrust her tail up. The male ran forward and jumped on top of her, seeming to make cloacal contact immediately. They stayed in this position for about two minutes with the male softly treading the female’s back. Then the female moved, causing the male to step off. After standing together for about a minute, they resumed feeding

Huelva City Waterfront

On the eastern side of the estuary, you can look across the water (and saltmarshes north of the city) from the coast road. It’s best in the morning with the sun behind you, but not in the brisk westerly that dominated the weather when I was there.

Following the road south-eastwards (towards the Doñana Natural Park), you come to the point where Christopher Columbus set sail to discover the Americas. Crossing the Rio Tinto gets you to La Rabida where various roads give views across the saltmarshes and saltpans – the jetty at Muela de Reina is recommended as large flocks of gulls often gather there. The creek between the road and La Rabida attracts herons, spoonbills and other waterfowl.

Photo of Audouin's Gull
Audouin’s Gull

La Rabida is full of historical monuments, and a new (1991) amphitheatre – the Foro Iberamericano. The Parque Botánico José Celestino Mutis is devoted to plants, especially trees, from South America. However, if you continue another 8km along the coast road you come to Jardín Botánico Dunas del Odiel another Botanical Garden, this one run by the local government and displaying plants of the Atlantic Coast.


So there you have it

The February weather wasn’t brilliant during my visit, but it’s on my list for another time – perhaps March or April when there will be more flowers out, with attendant butterflies.

There is plenty to see there, so not a place to rush through. However, if time is limited and you are on your way between the Algarve and the Natural Park of Doñana, it makes a worthwhile break in the journey.

Photo of white broom Retama monosperma
White broom – Retama monosperma – was abundant along the roadsides in February.

Getting there

Huelva is accessible by train, several parts of the reserve are accessible on foot or by bicycle. However, to make the most of the site, a car is recommended.

It is easily accessible from the Natural Park of Doñana, or the Algarve, though if you are hiring a car at Faro Airport, make sure you are allowed to take it into Spain (shouldn’t be a problem with reputable companies).


Resources

Useful Websites

UNESCO – about the biosphere reserve of the Marismas del Odiel

Andalucia department of the environment

Huelva tourist board – information about other things to do in Huelva, accommodation, etc.

Wildside Holidays – information about the site, accommodation, guides, and about wildlife in the rest of Spain

Local tour guides

Many nature tour companies include a visit to the Odiel Marshes within a trip to Andalucia, but the following locally based guides are able to give a more focussed tour of this site.

Wild Doñana is based in Huelva, and offers tours of several local wildlife hotspots

Living Doñana organises guided Andalucía bird watching and wildlife tours from 1-day trips, tours of up to several days and tailor-made trips seeking the best wildlife Andalusia has to offer.

Videos

No commentary on this one, but excellent videography to show off the area and its wildlife:


Bookshop

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Buying through these links earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


Other places for winter birds

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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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 geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here, where the Black Sea keeps the climate is a few degrees warmer than further inland. Here are some suggestions for the best places to visit.

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The Ayres

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The sand and pebble beach goes on for 8km. Behind it, the sand dunes and heaths of the Ayres National Nature reserve. This is the only National Nature reserve on the Isle of Man, and it’s located on the north coast, the newest part of the island, geologically speaking.

The name is from a Norse word meaning a gravel bank. It was formed from sand and gravel moved along the coast by tides and wind.

I visited in mid-May.

Cronk y Bing

We started exploring at the south-western end – though the small reserve of Cronk y Bing, owned by the Manx Wildlife Trust is not actually part of the NNR. Sandwiched between the sea and the Lhen Trench, this is one of the widest strips of yellow dune on the island, providing habitat for a variety of species that require a mobile sand habitat. Marram grass dominates, with pyramidal orchid, sea bindweed, rest-harrow, common stork’s bill, bugloss harebell, sheep’s bit, wild carrot, common cornsalad, burnet rose and wild mignonette all competing for space, and helping to stabilise the dunes. For the most part, rabbits graze them down to a short lawn between patches of bramble and blackthorn.

On the seaward side, sea holly and saltwort maintain a footing, while oysterplant Mertensia maritima is found on the more shingly areas. This is a rare species – disappointingly it wasn’t in flower yet (it flowers from June to September), so I still have no photos of it. It gets its name because the leaves are said to taste of oysters.

Photo of an oystercatcher in flight

This is a favoured breeding ground for little terns, oystercatchers (above), ringed plovers (top photo) and meadow pipits.

Photo of the Lhen Trench

The Lhen Trench was a melt-water channel from the ice-age, it had silted up but was dug open to drain the marshy land to the south-west, so this section of it runs in a straight line. It provides habitat for another slew of species, including the rare Isle of Man Cabbage. Unfortunately, this is another plant that doesn’t flower until June.

Photo of beach at Cronk y Bing

We continued along the coastal trail almost to Blue Point, before turning back.


Rue Point

Travel eastwards on the A10, and another road leads out to the sea at Rue Point. This is the western end of the NNR, though the habitat continues to Cronk-y-Bing. The road winds through grassy dunes to picnic areas. The rabbits again were keeping the turf short, and many plants were nibbled down to bonsai versions.

This is a great place for insects – the sun is able to warm the sand through the thin layer of vegetation, and provide suitable breeding grounds for solitary bees, grasshoppers, and a whole host of less obvious insects. Colletes succinctus – a small burrowing bee that collects pollen and stores it underground for its larvae. It unwittingly provides a home for the heath bee fly – a bee-mimic which throws its eggs into the burrows, the resulting larvae eat the provisions left for the bee larvae, and then consume the bee larvae themselves. The only other sites in Britain for this bee fly are on the Dorset Heaths of southern England.

Photo of the leaf-cutter bee Megachile maritima

Megachile maritima (above) is also found here, on the northern edge of its range in the British Isles. Like other leaf-cutting bees, it cuts neat chunks out of leaves with which to line its nest in a burrow in the sand. 

Photo of a little tern in flight

Out on the beach, an area of shore has been fenced off. This is the main breeding area for the little terns. A flock of thirty or so moved restlessly along the shore, in the company of arctic terns: they had not yet begun to nest.

Ayres visitor centre

The next road out to the shore leads to an observation platform and a visitor centre. The latter is run by the Manx Wildlife Trust, with the aim of increasing public understanding of the area, and to provide information about its birds, habitats and are plant communities. Unfortunately for us, it was only open in the afternoons from the end of May to the end of September, and this was a morning in mid-May.

The observation platform (erected in 2012) overlooks the NNR in all directions. It’s where the opening photo was taken. The considerable tidal range here provides excellent fishing – from the beach for humans, and close inshore for gannets – about two dozen of them providing a spectacular display. As the birds plunge from about 10-15m into the water, they twist around, almost somersaulting, and flashing their white plumage to alert other gannets to the feeding opportunity. The more gannets there are, the more the fish become confused and exhausted, and the more each individual gannet can catch. As the gannet reaches the water surface, it pulls back its wings to become a perfect arrow shape to dive through the water.

Photo of lichen heath on the Ayres NNR with the foghorn and lighthouse in the background.

Point of Ayres lighthouse

The final road out to the shore takes you to the lighthouse on the northern tip of the island, though you could, of course, walk along the shore.

The heathland here has extensive lichen flora, and a surprise is seeing Usnea articulata – a lichen that normally grows on trees – growing on the ground.

Photo of a chough in flight

A pair of choughs (red-legged crows) had taken up residence in the old foghorn – an interesting alternative to their normal breeding sites in caves and clefts in the cliffs.  We watched them coming and going, as they fed their ever-hungry chicks.  Then we went in search of a meal for ourselves.

The Ayres in winter

The lichen heath is less colourful in winter, but still a fascinating habitat. On my first visit, I watched a flock of several hundred golden plovers land on the heath and just disappear. They were incredibly well-camouflaged amongst the heather and lichen. Skylarks and other small birds were similarly hidden until you walked too close to them, and then they exploded into the air. In the late afternoon gloom, short-eared owls and hen harriers hunted for these small birds and mammals.

Along the shore itself, we have watched eider, scoter, grebes, divers (loons) and other seabirds on the water.

Photo of a red-throated diver flying over the sea.
Red-throated diver (loon) flying past the Point of Ayre in February

Isle of Man: resources

From the Point of Ayre in the north, to the Calf of Man in the south, there is a wealth of wildlife to explore on the Isle of Man.  The following links will help you make the most of a visit.

The Island is famous for the TT races – motorbike time trials that take place in late May/early June. Driving around the island can be difficult at this time because many roads are closed while racing takes place, and accommodation can be hard to find because of the influx of visitors.  

More about the Ayres

Getting there by boat

Isle of Man tourist information

Find accommodation

Video, including the Ayres from the air

Manx Wildlife Trust


Bookshop

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