28 Dec 2008

31st Dec 1988 - Ria d'Aveiro

The sun and wind are out in force again this morning but, using the van as a shelter, Jim spends about three hours sea watching. There isn't a great deal of anything in particular, more a steady trickle including five shear­waters at some distance, puffins, gannets, sandwich terns and two skuas, which seem to be small and medium sized but, again, at too great a distance for positive ident­ification.

Ria d'Aveiro

The Ria d'Aveiro comprises a 6,000 ha tidal lagoon and a network of channels, many of them clogged by rushes and eelgrass. Although the lagoon has a large fish population, excessive algal growth prevents it being exploited. Instead, the seaweed itself is harvested for fertiliser and production reached 150,000 tonnes a year in the 1970s. The lagoon is separated from the sea by a long narrow strip of sand, much of which is cultivated, either as small-holdings or maritime pine plantation. Some 700 ha near the southern tip has been desig­nated a nature reserve and includes pine forest with a heronry comprising about 400 little and cattle egret nests.

It is high tide when we arrive in the area, the wind has dropped and the water is like a millpond, inhabited by thousands of gulls. There is only a narrow channel for water to flow out into the ocean and so the tide recedes quite slow­ly. As mudflats are exposed, waders begin to appear: grey plover and redshank being the noisiest, but also good numbers of god­wit, dunlin, etc. The area has lost its importance for other species of waterfowl because of disturbance: hunt­ing pressure is severe in winter.

We find a place to park for the night in an area of mature forest. Crested tits and wrens call in the trees. Blackbirds here seem to have a rather metallic call. A barn owl flies over a couple of times, commuting between farmland and saltmarsh.

30th Dec 1988 - Portugal

We cross into Portugal at Tui, to find our­selves on roads of bumpy brick cobbles. There are plenty of police around, carrying radios and other equip­ment and looking as though they are doing radar checks, but I cannot imagine anybody going over the speed limit on this kind of road. Fort­unately there is a good tarmac surface after the first few kilometres.

The main road more or less follows the coast, being bordered on the inland side by mountains. This coastal strip gradually widens and is inten­sively cultivated by hand for fruit and vegetables which are often sold along the roadside. Donkey and cattle‑drawn carts are not uncommon on the roads, but it seems that only the main highway has a tarmac surface, all other roads were sand or stone.

We find ourselves a quiet beach by which to spend the night, and are watched carefully by a little owl as we go about our evening's busi­ness

30th Dec 1988 - Rio Minho

The Rio Miño, or Minho if you are in Portugal (it is pronounced the same), forms part of the north­ern border between the two countries. As we drive through A Guarda on the Spanish side, Jim notices a sign indicating 'observatorio ornitologia', so we take a look.

At the end of a stony track we find an area of saltmarsh and fresh-water marsh with some scrub and phragmites, and a hide on stilts overlooking the estuary. After three days of hot sun, today is quite cold and the easterly wind funnelling through the hide turns it into a refrig­erator, we do not stay there for long. The sun and its reflection are shining into the hide and making it difficult to see any­thing.

A kingfisher flies along the water's edge, stopping every few metres to hover and look into the water for prey. There are no branches or posts for it to use as hunting look‑outs, and we are impressed by the length of time it spends in each hover. Hovering may be a more energetic way of hunting, but it is considerably more successful, presumably because the bird can choose where to hover instead of making do with wherever a perch happens to be.

There is a pair of yellow‑legged herring gulls doing a parallel walk along the shore. They mostly walk side by side, but if one bird runs a short distance, the other runs to catch up. Then they start to peck at the ground, pulling hard at short vegetation ‑ when one bird pulls a stalk free, it loses its balance and almost falls over. One of the birds then gathers up a large beakful of vege­tation, carries it a metre or so, and arranges it on the ground before sitting on it. Then it rearranges other nearby material, pulling some closer. Meanwhile the other bird walks over to the water and appears to drink, the bird from the 'nest' does the same. Then both birds swim off without further ceremony.

29th Dec 1988

We awake to another day of warm sun ‑ an English couple we met yesterday told us it is not usually this hot at Christmas. On the hill above the Cape and there was broken ground with low growing gorse and heather between lumps of metamorphic rock. The place was alive with birds of the same species as yesterday, in­cluding a couple of rock buntings giving the weak nuthatch-like call we had heard before seeing the first one a week ago.

A cart track leads down the hill and through pasture land. Our attention is taken by some small lizards running over nearby rocks, appar­ent­ly preferring the vertical surfaces to the hori­zontal ones. Consultation with the reptiles and amphibians book suggested that we were seeing two forms of the common wall lizard, but it also warned that north‑­west Iberia is one of the most confusing places for small lizards because, al­though there are only four species, they are all very variable and can often look alike.

Further along the track Jim finds a bird which, through the binoculars, looks like a whitethroat with a cocked tail. Then we see through the tele­scope that it has a red eye ring ‑ a female Sardinian warbler some hundred kilo­metres from where the book says it should be. Its range is thought to be linked with the distribution of olive groves, and as olive growing has spread, so have the birds. It skulks along the bottom of a wall and then goes under a hedge, not allowing us to observe much more.

We normally try to avoid towns and vil­lages, but the track takes us through a community that is not nearly as tightly packed as those we have seen in the mountains. There are small fields between houses, and along the stream are communal laundry troughs. We haven't seen donkeys or mules since leaving the mountains but here people have small herds of livestock ‑ which might include cattle, horses, goats, and sheep with young lambs ‑ grazing the roadside or open country. This being school holiday time, often children are left tending these flocks.

28th Dec 1988

Hundreds of yellow-legged herring gulls roost on the rocks a few metres offshore. Their leg colour actually ranges light to dark yellow with some peachy ones in between. A few birds have pink legs: these were probably British or French birds wintering here in warmer climes.

In comparing the two types, we think some of the dark yellow-legged ones had very slightly darker grey backs, other­wise there seemed no obvious differences. This was at odds with the books, which tell us that the Iberian and Med­iterranean birds should be larger and darker than British ones. Something is dif­ferent about them though, perhaps because their heads do not have much grey streaking in winter, and they have a dark orange or red eye ring instead of the yellow or paler orange of the 'Bri­tish' herring gull, so the eye looks more dis­tinct.

Of the twenty or so birds loafing on a large rock, one stands on a boulder and called several times, sounding like a 'cat's chorus'. Another bird lands nearby on the same boulder. The first bird stares at its own feet; the second bird started a 'long call', the first bird joins in then chases the second bird away. This perform­ance is repeated twice more.

As well as more very dark black redstarts, there are rock buntings on the rocks, the orange of their belly blending in well with the orange lichens. Turnstones are common and there are two purple sandpipers. Dunlin, oyster­catcher and whimbrel passed by. The rubbish by the road attracts flies, and stonechats are flying out from favourite perches to catch them.

We have been looking for fan‑tailed warblers since the west coast of France but were told that a succession of bad winters had almost wiped them out there. Here there are at least two, so dis­tinctive in jizz as to be easily recognised. They have a hesitant flight pattern with the body held at an angle and the largish tail held almost vert­ically below the body ‑ it looks quite a struggle for them to stay airborne. They quickly disap­pear into the vegetation, but we see them later perched out on a bush, flicking their tails and telling us 'zit‑zit'. Like the stonechats they are flying out to catch insects on the wing.

Although the field guide says that fan‑tails inhabit marshes and crops, these birds are in gorse scrub along the coast, as are wrens, robins, serins, dartford warblers and chiff­chaffs, the last appar­ently stalking flies along the old stone walls.

There were a few plants in flower, mostly compos­itae and legumes.

27th Dec 1988

We awake to a very misty morning and do not see the sun until early after­noon when the road takes us above 500m. At the Puerta del Fuen­ifria at 800m the mist is still hanging low in the valleys ahead with the hilltops in sunshine.

In the gorse on the slope in front of us there are dartford warblers, robins, wrens and dunnocks ‑ a paler race of the latter here than in Britain. The scene is marred by the Spanish habit of dumping rubbish by the roadside anywhere there is room to stop a car. Many small communities do designate a special area for tipping and large community rub­bish bins are usually provided, but it only solves part of the problem. Litter, in particular, does not seem to be considered as something to be put in rubbish bins!

Cabo Silliero

We reach the Atlantic coast again at A Ramellosa in warm sunshine that would not have been out of place in Britain in May. A roost of gulls on the beach consists mainly of black-headed adults (only two first winter birds) and herring gulls with a wide variety of leg colour in the adults. With them are a handful each of turnstone, dunlin, oystercatcher, grey plover and two golden plover. Two green sandpipers peck their way along the edge of a grassy area in front of us.

The coast road around Cabo Silliero has re­cently been widened and straightened, leaving a number of 'laybys' of the old road, at least one of which is suitable for us to stop for the night. A few kilometres offshore we could see the Islas Cies, a parque natural with the most southerly colony of lesser black‑backed gulls, the largest shag colony in Iberia, and guillemots which are on the verge of extinction. Being on the southern edge of their range, the guillemots were vulnerable anyway, but the problem here is thought to be human ‑ the dumping of oil etc., and competition in fishing areas.

26th Dec 1988 - Rio Sil

We continue south‑west generally following the Rio Sil which has been dammed in many places for H.E.P. Some of the reservoirs are quite low ‑ waiting for the winter snow and rain. Then the bright limestone mountains give way to a rather murky grey area dominated by coal mining and coal dust. The grey rock, bare trees and early morning gloom added to the atmosphere.

The mist gets thicker and thicker, the road passes along viaducts and tunnels - though it is hard to tell which are which - through the moun­tains. We come out of a third tunnel into bril­liant sunshine and a lush landscape of pines, broom and vineyards, the hills are still big but rounded and red. Somewhere here we surprise a small covey of grey partridge on the road ‑ they are found in only a relatively small area of north west Spain.

It is lunch‑time as we come across a car park next to a small reservoir. A cetti's warbler calls from the vegetation, and a pair of rock buntings forage in the crevices of an exposed patch of slate.

The Rio Sil flows through a gorge for some kilometres before it joins the Rio Miño, and the road takes a detour through Monforte. The road joins the Miño and follows the gorge of that river, winding steeply downhill to Orense. The steep slopes were either well wooded or terraced for cultivation, and the low level of water in many of the reservoirs show more terraces that have been drowned. These river valleys still form the main communications routes of the area, and must have supported a fairly dense human popula­tion to make the building of terraces worthwhile. It seems a shame that so many have been destroyed by the creation of the reser­voirs. A few mallard are all that we saw on the water.

We find an open campsite between the vine­yards at Leiro, and spend most of the remaining daylight watching siskins doing acrobatics while feeding on the seeds of oriental plane trees. Over the rocks of a distant hill Jim picks out crag martins ‑ just about visible through the telescope.

25th Dec 1988 - Somiedo

There are many more places that we could visit in the Cordillera Cantabrica: the Reserva Nacional de Fuentes Carrionas, el Bierzo, el Bosque de Muniel­los, Parque Nacional de Covadonga, the Reserva Nacional del Sueve, and many others are all known for their wildness and natural history. But the mountains are really a summer area, with some 600 species of plant and 130 of butterflies in the haymeadows alone. The higher areas are decidedly cold now, though not as bitter as the Netherlands. We have enjoyed the unexpected opportunity to explore them, but now it is time to move on.

We choose a route that will cut off the north‑west corner of Iberia, but would take us through the Reserva Nacional de Somiedo. This area is the local stronghold of the brown bear. The absence of roads through the area has helped to protect the species, but not prevented their decline ‑ from about seventy in 1962 to less than thirty in the early 1970s ‑ numbers are thought to be stable now at about 30 individuals. Red and roe deer are also to be found here, along with chamois and wild boar, and the Cantabrican race of the capercaillie. All remain out of our sight.

The road follows south along the Rio Piguena, through a patchwork of forest and heathland scrub communities, then through mountains of contorted limestone up to the Puerto de Somiedo at 1500 metres. There is little wildlife to be seen anywhere. Just south of the Pass a whole village is shuttered up for winter, the inhabitants having taken their livestock off the hills for the shelter of the valleys. The house martins had deserted their homes in an earlier season.

25th Dec 1988 - Spanish Christmas

This morning we watch a dipper as it stands on a stone in the river below and sings for a while. Its beak hardly moves but it pumps hard with its throat to make an attractive warble. Like many birds that hold winter territories, it sings year round, and the females sing too. This was the bird song we had been unable to identify two days ago.

Then the dipper takes to feeding. Looking almost straight down we can see it flying under­water and poking around stones etc. Some­times it allows itself to be carried along in the current, then disappears underwater and reappears on a rock upstream. Apart from a short preening session, it feeds almost non-stop for an hour.

Another dipper flies in, giving a contact call as it lands a few metres downstream. The first bird, which is standing on a rock, immedi­ately stiffens, and adopts a more upright posture, with bill pointing skywards, dropped wingtips, and tail lowered and fanned. We can’t hear any calls. The intruding bird looks as though it was going to walk into the water, but changes its mind and flies off. The first bird relaxed and resumed feeding.

Back in Arena de Cabrales, we stop by the river and watch white and grey wagtails, dipper, black-birds, robins, song thrush, magpies, buz­zards etc. A very dark red squirrel carries some prize in its mouth as it goes along the riverbank and up into an ivy‑covered tree. Great tits are singing noisily.

We are quite surprised to be able to by bread and fuel on Christmas Day, but life seems to go on as any normal Sunday and there are few trappings of Christmas as we know it. A few houses have lighted Christmas trees on their porches and there are a few coachloads of people going to church. The main celebrations of Christ­­mas will take place on January 6th, the day that the three kings brought gifts for Jesus, and so here, too, gifts are exchanged on that date. There seems relatively little commercialisation of the season, though we are told that things are changing, especially in the cities.

24th Dec 1988 - Garganta del Cares

The day starts off quite cold and we are almost glad there are few birds about ‑ the brisk walk­ing soon warms us up. We don’t expect to cover the whole twelve kilometres at our normal bird­watching speed and decide that we will turn back at 3 pm, regardless of the distance covered, to ensure we are back on the good road by dusk.

The original mule track has long fallen into disrepair - in places we can look down and see it crumbling or covered with scree. The track used now follows an aqueduct serving the small hydro-electric power (H.E.P.) station at Poncebos. It is well maintained, though in places it is made of sharp bits of rock. From Poncebos the track climbs 200 metres fairly rapidly and then more or less follows the level of the aqueduct.

Birds of any sort prove few and far be­tween, mainly wrens and robins, and an occasional vul­ture or raven overhead. The sheer, vertical cliffs, rising to over two thousand metres in places, are said to be a favourite haunt of the wallcreeper. We look hard, for it is an at­tractive bird that we both want to see, but there is no sign of any today.

The National Game Preserve of the Picos de Europa occupies most of the central massif and holds some 2,000 chamois. The game preserve itself dates from 1970, however the area had already been put under protection in 1905 to pro­tect the chamois. During the civil war the Picos became an area of guerilla warfare and the chamois were slaughtered for food by both sides.

In 1940 numbers were thought to have been reduced to sixty animals, and hunting was for­bidden for eight years to allow the species to recover. There was restricted hunting in the early fifties, then it was banned again until 1963. Today hunting is allowed during September, October and November by permit only.
The single chamois that we see on the pas­tures way above the track is probably a male, since they tend to live solitarily while the females and youngsters generally form small herds.

There are no towns or villages inside the game preserve, and human activity is tradi­tionally confined to raising cattle, hunting, and, since the last century, mining. The cattle, sheep and goats are kept indoors during the winter and taken to the high pastures in May. Their milk is turned into cheese, which is cured in caves and taken down to market shortly before the snow made transport impossible.

As we scan these high pastures for more chamois, a call which sounds like a raptor catches our attention and we spend the best part of the next three hours looking for the caller. There are at least two birds involved, each with two calls, and they move along the valley well below the path. In another season I would have said there was a young­ster calling for food and then using an excitement call when the food arrived. The main call was pi-oooo and the second one a low pitched cackling.

After studying B.W.P. this evening we decide on sparrowhawk as a likely candidate: we know they were around and had seen them in the valley bottoms. Their relatively small size would allow them to perch unseen by us, and to fly inconspicuously ‑ small birds flying through were quickly lost against the background of broken rock, grass, small trees, etc. But for the time being the noise must remain a mystery.

Although we complete probably only half the walk, we are well able to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of the gorge. The cliffs often fall 100m or more straight below us and went several hundred more straight up. Jim walks on the rock side of the path, daring to look down only when standing still. If we go further, the path crosses the gorge twice on iron foot‑bridges and in some places goes inside the mountain itself. Below us the ice-clear water of the Cares flows noisily towards Poncebos.

The sun has been shining all day on the moun­tain tops but at this time of year it does not penetrate far down the gorge, and dusk lasts a long time. As we head back to Poncebos, groups of siskin fly past; they disappear into the rocks presumably to roost in crevices.

23rd Dec 1988

According to B.W.P. the dippers here are a differ­ent race to those we see in Britain. We had not noticed any obvious differences yester­day, so this morning we have another look.

The north-west Iberian form should be dark brown on the head and have a uniform dark belly. We disagree with each other about the belly col­our, though I think the light, reflected off the water, is playing tricks on us. In flight the chocolate brown head and back contrast with the dark grey of the wings and upper body.

Although dippers are generally unsociable outside the breeding season, they will congre­gate in a good feeding area, often a stretch of rough water, and this particular stretch was occupied by at least five birds. Usually they walk into the water off a rock, having first dipped the head in several times; at other times they dive straight in from the air.

The tourist office in Arenas de Cabrales is open and the information officer gives us a few leaf­lets, including one in English about the National Game Preserves of the Picos de Europa and of Sueve. He is also able to tell us that the weather forecast for the next few days is good and there should be no problems with camping in the mountains.

We stock up with groceries then leave the main road to follow the Rio Cares upstream to the hamlet of Poncebos in the Picos. The limestone scenery becomes more spectacular as the narrow road takes us along an ever narrowing gorge. Some­where down below us a bird is singing, but we don’t recognise the song.

The Picos comprises three limestone massifs separated from one another by steep gorges. The central massif is said to be the wildest, and steepest, and the most awe‑inspiring. It includes a number of peaks over 2,600 metres, of which the star is Naranjo de Bulnes. Although not the highest point of the massif, this almost conical block of limestone seems to tower above the land­scape, it was not conquered by man until 1904.

From Poncebos we climbed up a steep footpath to the Mirador del Naranjo from where there was an excellent view of Naranjo de Bulnes in the dis­tance. The few birds around include white and grey wagtails down by the river, a few tits in the trees around the farms, and a small flock of siskin passing through. Surprisingly, there are a number of plants in bloom, unfortunately I do not have plant identi­fication books for the region and can only say that they included a gromwell and a large flowered hemp nettle type in the farmland, and a number of small flowers such as eyebright, toadflax, mountain sandwort, rock‑rose and pink in the bare rocky areas. All give testimony to the relatively shel­tered and mild climate of these gorges.

The western massifs of the Picos are divided by the most spectacular gorge in the Picos, the Gar­ganta Devina, formed by the fast‑flowing Rio Cares, and stretching for some twelve kilometres from Poncebos to Cain. Tomorrow we want to walk along the mule track that has been carved from the wall of the Garganta, high above the river. This evening we just check out where the track begins.

22 Dec 2008

22nd Dec Picos de Europe

As the weather is still good we take a road along the northern edge of the Picos de Eur­opa, following the narrow limestone gorge of the Rio Cares. As dusk falls we find a parking place ‑ the first we have seen alongside the river. At about ten o'clock I go outside the van and find the gorge bathed in the light of the full moon. It gives the limestone an ethereal luminescence and with the sound of goat bells in the fields above there is a touch of Shangri‑la about the place. We go for a moonlight walk along the road.

Dec 22

First thing this morning there is cloud on the top of the cliffs, but the bottom of the valley is clear. Down by the river and we watch dippers and grey wagtails for a while. As the cloud evapor­ates in the sun, griffons and buzzards soar overhead. On the high rocks another griffon sits on a pile of vegetation, hold­ing his wings out for the warmth of the sun and showing off the dark centred coverts. Perhaps he had eaten well yesterday for he is still there when we leave at about midday. A heron flies downstream, sees us and has to work quite hard to gain height to get out of the valley without coming any closer to a human than absolutely nece­ssary.

After a cup of coffee we walk back along the road. A sparrowhawk flies low over the river below and has a go at something on the rocks but the victim escapes. A sparrowhawk needs to be able to mount surprise attacks on its victims, coming at them from the cover of woodland edges, glades, copses, hedges etc. Here it has to make do with the cover of boulders along the stream.

There is a road marked Oceña 4.5 km. On a map the distance would have been more like one kilometre but the road switches back and forth to climb the almost shear rock face.

Despite the alarming changes mentioned previously, farming in these mountains is still very much small scale stuff. The workhorse is often a mule, the farmer may have a half-dozen or so cows, and forage is cut by hand in pocket-hand­kerchief sized fields. Some fields have small stone barns and at one of these we see a farmer who had ridden past us on his mule, seen to his cows and cleaned out the barn, and now rides back down the road with a milk churn fixed to the saddle. It is not a very profitable livelihood and the farm houses, though strongly built, tend to look in need of external care.

Another farmer arrives at his field in a truck ‑ a big vehicle for the winding mountain roads. He walks back to where we are watching through the telescope and asks if we were looking at vultures. He speaks no English but with the help of the field guide pictures (it doesn’t have Spanish bird names) we are able to converse about birds. We ask about golden and bonelli's eagles, and he says there were golden eagles in the Picos and also white eagles (bonelli's or booted or short-toed - they all have white, but none of the spanish names for eagle translates as white eagle). Rock buntings and rock sparrows are around but not rock thrush; blackbirds he knows but not ring ouzel; dippers and wagtail live down by the river; robin and wren he points out; and firecrest which he tells us sleep in crev­ices in rocks. He hasn't seen wall-creeper in the area but surprisingly also says no to alpine chough which we see a few hours later. Still it is nice to see that some farmers at least are aware of the crea­tures around them.

Some way further up this road we come upon a flatter landscape ‑ a patchwork of small terraced fields, woodland, stony broken ground and rocky outcrops. There are a number of small-bird calls, most of which we recognise, however, amongst them was a very weak nuthatch type call but different enough to make us stop and look around. Eventually Jim locates a strange bunting perched on a bare tree near a barn. It looks very much like a yellowhammer except that it has black and grey stripes on its head, and, when it turns towards us, orangy underparts. This is a male rock bunting, the only one we see in the area.

Higher still we watch two male bullfinches feeding on brambles ‑ flying up and hovering to pick off fruit that could not be reached from a nearby stem. A firecrest works its way down a tree, hovering under a leaf stalk for whatever it could find then landing briefly on a twig before going down to the next leaf.
On the highest broken ground are about a dozen alpine choughs, acting like red‑billed chough except that they are using their shorter stouter bills to poke about in quite long vegetation. Earlier we had seen some flying along the top of a ridge mobbing a kestrel.

Going back down the road we hear green wood­peckers calling loudly. There are two voices, one quite strong and the other with a sharper tinnier sound that we have heard before and we wonder if it really is a wood-pecker. This time we locate the birds and, even in the failing light, could see that the head markings are slightly different to usual, in particular there is not so much black around the eye. This is the Iberian race, which is generally greyer on the head than the main European race, and which has this tinnier sound to its call. One of the woodpeckers is on a tree trunk a short way below us. The black moustachial stripe indicates that this is a female, and she has the higher pitched voice. Most of the time she appears to be looking around and listening in­tently, however this may have been a head swaying movement which is used in threat and courtship displays, and which, in spring, is used to strengthen the pair bond at times of change‑over at the nest. Normally pair formation takes place in March and April, but green wood-peckers roosting in neighbouring trees may begin pairing up in November. Prospective partners give loud and frequent advert­ising calls from their roosting tees, especially in the morning and evening, and the calls carry for about one and a half kilo­metres.

Tawny owls were also calling in the dusk, somewhere up in the trees or rock crevices.


Meeting Vicky and Andy was the climax of the chain of events which started with the mail not being ready for us, and the subsequent trips into the Cordillera to kill time ‑ we had not planned to visit the mountains, expecting there to be snow and ice blocking our way. We stopped in the village of Soncillo to buy bread and milk; the storekeeper, on realising we are English, insist that we visit an English couple in the near­by hamlet of Montoto. He gives us detailed in­structions (in spanish) and is most adamant that we should go there. We decide we might as well try.

The instructions are easy to follow, and Montoto turns out to be a hamlet of a dozen or so farmhouses. We drive through it in a few seconds and stop for lunch at the side of a field. As we finish eating and are looking at birds in the field, I hear strange voices talking English. By chance the English couple have come out for a walk and taken the road we are parked on.We join them for the walk and later for coffee, discussing Britain and Spain and what we were all doing.

Vicky is Spanish but had spent the last nineteen years in London. Andy is from York­shire but also had spent some years in London. They had both been involved in social work, and event­ually got fed up of 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.

The local bank manager asked if they would be interested in teaching English at the local pri­mary school, and they accepted on the basis that the three hours or so of teaching each week would help them to keep in contact with the local com­munity. The dozen or so students they expected turned into thirty-two of all ages and so far they have enjoyed it.

Andy is something of a spare time mechanic, and with his advice and tools we check the bat­tery and change the oil in the camper. Neither Jim or I have any interest in things mechanical. If a vehicle doesn't work, we call out the AA or its equivalent; Europe is a civilised enough place that we could get away with it. In more sparsely popul­ated areas people like us would soon come unstuck without being able to fix vehicles as and when necessary.Taking the battery out reveals a gaping hole in the metal it is sitting on and we may one day have found the battery falling out as we drove along. Again with Andy's help and advice, we make a tray from a bit of tin clipped from under the bonnet of an old abandoned car and get the battery bolted back in safely. We get quite a buzz of achievement out of it.

All this takes us two afternoons of half work­ing, half bird‑watching and half talking. We take them out for a meal, to a place they had recom­mended. The food and drink is cheap ‑ by British standards ‑ but good. It is a bit strange to have a bigger first course than second course but there is plenty of bread and wine to go with it all.

Twice we go with Vicky to the local diary farm for fresh milk. The farmer has about thirty cows, a mixture of a local breed, friesian types, and some white faced ones too. There is a vacuum pump but only one bucket and machine, so milking seems to be a mixture of machine and hand work. The farmer is horrified that, not only we had been milking 140 cows, but also that the British farmer got only 35 pesetas a litre when he gets nearer 45 pesetas. The scale and econ­omics of milk production are vastly dif­ferent here compared with Britain. Tuberculin testing had started only a few years ago with Spain joining the EEC, and some farmers were still resentful of having to slaughter infected cattle, even though they got reasonable compensation for the loss.

In fact the EEC is encouraging all sorts of profound and extensive changes to these mountain ecosystems. For example, in its bid to reduce milk production, it is giving grants for changing trad­itional livestock pastures into plantations of quick‑growing species such as monterrey pine and eucalyptus for short term profit.

However, this is not the first time that humans have imposed their will on the mountains. From Roman times until the Middle ages, the inhab­itants of the mountains deforested extensive areas, wher­ever the land was flat enough, to plough or provide fodder for their flocks. This brought about the disappear­ance of numerous spec­ies, e.g. red deer, wolf, bear and lynx, which became confined to the more inaccess­ible areas of the Pyrenees in the east or Galicia in the west. The ecosystem reached a new equilibrium, compris­ing subsistence level farming on the new fields, sustainable use of the remaining woodlands by local communities, and the rest of nature being allowed to get on with its own business more or less unmolested.

But another set of radical changes swept through the Cordillera as part of the process of recovery from the civil war in the 1950s. The subsequent economic development, especially in the 1960s, has brought about rapid and profound changes in social and economic structure. The industrial develop­ment east of Bilbao was an ob­vious example. And where industrialisation was not possible, tourism was being encouraged.

By visiting the area in the middle of winter, we saw little evidence of tourism, except for a small tourist office in Arenas de Cabra­les. However, the Autonomous Community of Asturi­as, in whose area lies the Picos de Europa, based its publicity for tourism on the slogan 'Asturias ‑ natural paradise' and has provided infrastruc­ture in the form of new roads, cable cars, moun­tain hotels, etc. The success of their policy was indicated by the several hundred thousand visitors now attracted to the area each summer.These changes are bringing alterations to the traditional ecosystems, and the animals and plants that live in them. Where farming has been aban­doned, the traditional flower-filled hay meadows are being taken over by rank grasses. The replac­ement of cattle and horses by sheep and goats deprives birds such as the chough of prey items (e.g. beetles) which colonise the faeces of the larger animals. The increase in ramblers and walkers is disturbing the breeding and feeding activ­ities of many animals. The sustain­able exploita­tion of fruit and berries by local people has become wholesale destruction as tourists and weekend visitors join the harvest. Litter and other rubbish has become a problem.

The local people are also becoming a threat to wildlife, in that changing their occupation from farming to service industries allows them more free time and money. They engage in outdoor activities, in particular, hunting has undergone considerable expansion in the last few years. The one and a half million hunting licences now issued in Spain (in Galicia one person in 25 has a hunt­ing licence) has resulted in the depletion of traditional hunting quarry and the subsequent persecution of species that were never considered to be cinegetic (quarry) species. Unfortunately the authorities show little interest in control­ling the situation. Hunting is, however, limited to two days a week, and we saw no signs of shoot­ing outside of those two days.The wildlife protection laws which do exist are administered by regional governments and their application varies widely. For example in Santan­der the Agricultural Council pays a ,100 bounty for each dead wolf; by contrast in Asturias (and in Andalucia in the south) wolves are protected and heavy fines are imposed on anyone shooting them ‑ in Asturias compensation is paid to shepherds who suffer losses assumed to be the result of attacks by bears or wolves. (Ref: Garcia Dory 1988)

On the Thursday we headed back to Laredo through pouring rain. Rivers were swollen and racing, and bird‑watching was impossible. We reached Laredo to find that the post office opened only the mornings, so we had to find a camping place and try yet again the next day. The mail arrived with that morning's delivery, and we continued our journey.

We followed the coast road, stopping a couple of times, but found only herring gulls and gannets out at sea. There were firecrests, tits and black-birds in the nearby vegetation and a pair of ravens in the top of a quarry behind us. One of these ravens indulged in aerial display ‑ closing its wings and turning onto its back, calling cluc­k‑cluck as it righted itself, and repeating the manoeuvre several times.

18 Dec 2008

17th Dec 1988 - Embalse del Ebro

The countryside around the Embalse del Ebro is rolling rather than mountainous but, being mostly above 600 metres, it looks harsh and hungry. In those fields which are cultivated the soil looks peaty and probably quite deep in places, yet most of the area is covered with heather and bracken with some scrub and the occasional small plant­ation. There are rocky out-crops and small ravines and plenty of power lines.We stop a few kilometres east of the Emb­alse and wait for birds to appear. They are slow in coming ‑ a griffon, a couple of ravens, crows, etc.

A small bird appears in a bush some 150 metres away and looks like a large pale bullfinch; it appears to have a pinkish breast, dark cap, grey back, white rump and dark tail. It comes closer and morphs into a great grey shrike as the markings and shape become clearer ‑ the white "rump" is actually white tips to the tertials. This is the southern race ‑ generally darker than the one we saw in Belgium with a pinkish breast and belly.The shrike moves 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 ignores passing cars but does not think much of the lorries. When we leave it has done a circle back to the bush where we first saw it.

16th Dec 1988 - Embalse del Ebro

Yesterday was more or less a write‑off: the morning was taken up with trying to collect mail that still had not arrived and the afternoon with find­ing what seemed to be the only open campsite in Cantabria ‑ we were in need of a shower again. The only items of natural history note were black redstarts on the coast in the morning. The males were very black with very conspicuous white wing patches and under­tail coverts ‑ more like the southern Iberian race ‑ Phoenicurus ochuros alter­rimus.

Sea watching in calm but cold weather at Cabo Mayor this morning is disappointing, so we move back up into the mountains. A collection of twenty or so red kites, numerous ravens, jackdaws and black-headed gulls and a few buzzards and crows near the town of Reinosa suggest the location of rubbish dump. We manage to get off the main road (the second stopping place we have seen in 50 km) and watch the kites for half an hour or so.

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 has been dammed some ten kilometres from the source to form a reservoir (embalse in spanish) twenty by eight kilometres, the largest area of fresh water in Cantabria, with twelve villages lying beneath it.

The reservoir is at too high an altitude to attract large numbers of breeding or wintering birds but is a useful stop‑over point for migrants. It provides roosting places for the black‑headed gulls from the rubbish tip and also holds small numbers of mallard, coot, gadwall, teal, tufted duck and great-crested grebes. A peregrine flies in and watches proceedings from a mudbank.

The weather is noticeably colder and we see a snow plough ready for action on the road to Reinosa.
Dec 17

The countryside around the Embalse del Ebro is rolling rather than mountainous but, being mostly above 600 metres, it looks harsh and hungry. In those fields which are cultivated the soil looks peaty and probably quite deep in places, yet most of the area is covered with heather and bracken with some scrub and the occasional small plant­ation. There are rocky out-crops and small ravines and plenty of power lines.

We stop a few kilometres east of the Emb­alse and wait for birds to appear. They are slow in coming ‑ a griffon, a couple of ravens, crows, etc. A small bird appears in a bush some 150 metres away and looks like a large pale bullfinch; it appears to have a pinkish breast, dark cap, grey back, white rump and dark tail. It comes closer and morphs into a great grey shrike as the markings and shape become clearer ‑ the white "rump" is actually white tips to the tertials. This is the southern race ‑ generally darker than the one we saw in Belgium with a pinkish breast and belly.

The shrike moves 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 ignores passing cars but does not think much of the lorries. When we leave it has done a circle back to the bush where we first saw it.

14th Dec 1988 - Cuevas de Covolanas

Heading back towards the coast, we stop at the Cuevas de Covalanas again. About twenty or thirty red‑billed choughs gather on the rocks above us before going off to their roost. Jim scans the rocks for smaller birds and discovers half a dozen crag martins hawking insects along the cliff top. This species is typically found feeding just below the tops of cliffs, where they catch insects carried up on air currents as well as those they disturb by flying close to the cliff face, and even picking insects directly off the rock as they fly past. They glide most of the time, occasionally giving a little shake, perhaps as they manoeuvre to catch a nearby insect.

There were some weird noises at dawn, the loudest being chough possibly calling from one of the limestone caves which acts as an echo cham­ber. Then come some loud hoots which I thought at first were ravens, but am surprised to discover the callers are crows. Some chacking calls turn out to be black redstarts being chased off by the local robin.

A track cut into the cliff‑side leads up to a cave which has been bricked up but has two locked doors. A small flock of birds flies overhead and lands on the cliff even higher up. Through the binoculars they look dumpy grey and rufous birds but with the telescope we see enough detail to confirm that they are alpine accentors, adults with speckled chins and first winter birds in plainer plumage. They do not stay long, perhaps they are 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 sits out in the open eating grass. It does not seem to notice our approach, perhaps the large tick on its neck is interfering with its vision. I move round for a better look but it becomes alarmed and scuttles into the rocks. This vole is 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 is actu­ally a field vole.

A red squirrel clambers up a wall across a ravine. It stops in a crevice for a while ‑ until we wonder if we are just looking at squi­rrel-shaped vegetation ‑ then it disappears.

13th Dec 1988 - Vultures

We are surrounded by thick cloud again this morn­ing and have to go down the road some way to get under it. Surprisingly griffons are 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 manage to get onto rough ground above farmland, and then we see the vultures descending on 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 are also in attendance. A hundred or more vultures may alight some distance from the food and approach timidly. We see at least ten birds on the ground and another fifteen in the air. Those on the ground appear to be pulling at something while others appear 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.

We walk 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 graze the hills, but there are no sheep at this time of year. Higher up there is deciduous woodland ‑ beech, alder and Pyrenean oak. There are few small birds, apart from half a dozen siskin around the alders and flying into a crevice contain­ing only mosses so far as we could see.

By the time we reach the place where the vultures were feeding, they have dispersed; a high fence and locked gate prevent 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.

12th Dec 1988

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.

This morning we walk uphill along a minor road, birds are similar to those on the farmland yesterday but fewer of them. We are on a very steep slope covered with evergreen holm oak and deciduous species such as sessile oak, hawthorn, hazel, field maple, and some beech and privet.

We drive on and stop for lunch at a view-point overlooking a sheer limestone cliff which is marked on the map as Cuevas de Covalanas. There are a number of cave entrances visible and signs re­questing visitors to check with the authorities before exploring them. A buzzard and a raven circle in the valley, and a couple of meadow pipits fly through. On the higher peaks on the other side of the valley are the three griffons again.

Mountain tops aere generally in the clouds but the road goes to 1000 metres at Alto de los Tornos and we follow it. Visibility is often down to 50 metres, so we stop to listen for bird sounds ‑ mostly a few unidentifi­able noises in the distance. Close to us is a chunky looking pipit with white supercilium, eyestripe and moustachial stripe, faintly striped on the back, dark legs, and white belly and outer tail feathers. The elusive (for us) water pipit found at last. There is another as we reach the viewpoint at the top, feeding along the road then bathing in a nearby puddle.

11th Dec 1988 - Cordillera Cantabrica

In Laredo I try out my Spanish - "Donde esta el correo?" (where is the post office?). The small Spanish lady looks at me quizzically and I repea­t the question. "Ah, el corrrreeeeeo" she cor­rects my pronunciation in a voice that comes from her boots and is loaded with cold viruses - I will suffer later. The post office is not far away, but our mail has not arrived.

The weather is calm and grey along the coast, and there is little out to sea. The mountains look inviting, so we make a relatively short circuit in and out of the foothills - we do not fancy get­ting caught in winter mountain weather.

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.
Mountain roads are usually narrow, and places to stop are few and far between. The first one we find has been used as a rubbish dump and smells bad ‑ a member of the civil guard drives past slowly and gives us a long what-are‑you‑up‑to sort of look. However, we are looking up at the end of a lime­stone bluff ‑ the Sierra de Hornijo ‑ there are goats up on the scarp slope, then three griffons sail over the ridge.

Another stopping place, which looks up at the dip slope of the same ridge, is more pleas­ant. The vegetation on the slopes is a mosaic of eucalypt and conifer plantations, and of evergreen and autumnal deciduous trees ‑ mostly various species of oak ‑ and sweet chestnut which is now leafless.

We walk up a steep track through a euca­lyptus plantation and then through conifers. Beyond that is lush rolling farmland. Although the rock massifs are limestone, much of the vege­tation is more acid‑loving, including the oaks, gorse and eight kinds of heather found along the track. These mostly have seed heads rather than flowers and so prove difficult to identify, how­ever they include St. Dabeoc's heath, Spanish heath and Dorset heath.

On the farmland there is a usual selection of passerines: robins, blackbirds, tits, fire­crests, chaffinches, and one female hawfinch which sits in a bare tree ‑ conveniently for us. There are some chough‑like calls and we locate eight birds flying north, high overhead but in the poor light it is impossible to decide if they were the red‑billed or alpine kind. The most common corvid at all heights seems to be the jay, noisily fly­ing from oak tree to oak tree, and usually carry­ing an acorn.

As we heed 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.

16 Dec 2008

10th Dec 1988, Santoña Marshes

West of the industrial region mentioned above there are rivers which flow from the mountains to the sea in a clean state; and the marshes and estuaries they form are of immense importance to wildlife. Three fairly short rivers flow into the bay at Santoña and Laredo, and saltmarsh is creep­ing onto the mudflats exposed at low tide. Shelt­ered from Atlantic storms by the limestone massif of Monte Buciero at the harbour mouth, the bay attracts sun‑seekers in summer and flocks of migrant wildfowl and waders in winter.

Spoonbills stop here on migration, and shelduck also are said to have taken a liking to the place in recent years, though there are none to be seen today. The marshes are the principal site on the north coast for grey plover, dunlin, greenshank and curlew. The most numerous species that we see is wigeon, there are thousands settled quietly on the water.

The map shows a minor road crossing the marshes ‑ two lanes with crumbling edges, no stop­ping places and fast Spanish traffic. We park at the Santoña end and walk back. About half way along there is an area surrounded by a dyke and partly drained, it has a few healthy-looking ponds and willow scrub in the wetter part, while the drier area comprises a small eucalypt plantation. The trees are regenerat­ing, but there is no under-storey since the ground is carpeted with slow-decomposing eucalyptus leaves which inhibit the growth of other species.

Eucalyptus was introduced to Europe in 1804, within a few years of the discovery of Australia, and was soon found to grow well on deforested land where the soil was so thin and badly eroded that few other tree-species could find sufficient sustenance. Throughout the nine­teenth century it spread on eroding, near-desert lands around the Mediter­ranean, serving as windbreaks, providing welcome shade and stabilising the soils. It is only relatively recently that its use in forestry has become important, the wood is ideal for pulping to make paper, and on less impover­ished soils the trees grows very quickly.

Like most introduced species, the eucalyptus has a reputation for being no good for birds: however we find that the few small birds here are hidden by the large ever­green leaves.

While the tide is low there are a number of people out on the marshes, variously fishing, digging or probing for whatever is there. We watch a couple of fishermen under a bridge. They have a wok‑shaped basket on the end of a rope. It is baited with a sizeable piece of fish and, with the aid of a forked stick, lowered vertically into the water and laid on a ledge or mudbank. After a few minutes it is slowly pulled out of the water and the catch ‑ crabs and crayfish ‑ is emptied into a wicker basket.

Today is grey and murky with neither wind nor sun, but some drizzle in the afternoon. The tide is coming in and bringing with it a juvenile red-throated diver and an adult great northern diver which we are able to study at much closer than usual quarters. The red‑throated looks small and finely built compared with the heavy angular great northern. The latter swims mostly in a hunched posture, but then preens, and finally goes fishing. For this it swims around with its head and neck stretched along the water surface, then dives, sometimes coming up with a crab.

Four red-breasted mergansers fly in and spend most of the time vigor­ously stirring up the mud and shallow water. Eider and scoter also move up-stream, some of the female and juvenile scoter looking almost chestnut in colour.

An adult Mediterranean gull roosts on the mudflat, then becomes active as the tide disturbs it. It walks a few metres and picks up an amor­phous lump from the mud, takes it to a nearby puddle and washes it thoroughly several times, then shakes it vigorously for a few seconds before swallowing it whole. This species' winter diet consists mainly of molluscs and marine fish.

Two little egrets fish close to the shore, one moving slowly and deliberately, stirring up mud with its foot, the other more energetic, rushing from side to side and flapping its wings to dis­turb prey. The first one seems more successful. Later a dozen egrets join a feeding frenzy of gulls, cormorants and herons, then at high tide roost with the latter two species on a half submerged wreck.

Among the waders common sandpiper and whim­brel are of particular note as we were now in their wintering areas. Some of the bar‑tailed godwit have cinnamon plumage on their necks, breast and scapulars indicating they are juveniles.

Out on the open channels, there are about forty black-necked grebe, roosting or preening. As the tide brings them in, they disperse into smaller groups and begin feeding. Often a group dive together, leaving the water empty. They are quite noisy, calling to each other with high pitched whistles. If a bird surfaced alone, it sometimes gets quite frantic, whistling loudly and paddling around to find its mates. Their rather contrasty plumage made the little grebe look quite drab.

A peregrine flies in, calling, and settles atop an electricity pylon to watch the world go by. We make our way back to the van through drizzle.

9th Dec 1988 - northern SPain

Our introduction to Spain is almost as much of a nightmare as our first day in the Netherlands, except that now we are more used to driving on the right hand side of the road.

Finding that the banks were closed yesterday because it was a National Holiday was bad enough, but today is not much better. If a building has 'Banco' or 'Wechsel ‑ Cambio ‑ Exchange' on the outside, at least you know it is a bank of some sort. But not all banks are designated thus. Many just have 'Caja de Ahorros', or the Basque equivalent, which we didn't realise also meant bank until the dic­tionary trans­lated it as 'box of savings'.

Our money problems are not quite solved by just going to the bank. When we stop for pet­rol, the attendant gives me the change, and goes to great pains to point out something about one part­icular coin. Yes, I can see it says 500 pesetas on the back, but my limited spanish has gone into retire­ment after trying to deal with french for the last few weeks and I cannot make out what he wants. My confusion causes him to repeat the explan­a­tion several times. (As the coin is also explained to me in a few shops during the next few days I can only think that it is a new coin and shopkeepers have been told to make sure that cus­tomers knew what it is.)

Our natural history information mentions only one place to visit in winter on the north coast of Spain: the Santoña Marshes near Laredo, so we have arranged for mail to be sent to Laredo too. To get there, we have to travel through the Basque region, and then negotiate Bilbao. In hindsight we should have taken the toll road.

Between San Sebastian and Bilbao there is industry on almost every flat piece of land. It is obvious the rivers below are well polluted ‑ often a muddy grey colour ‑ and there is plenty of debris and rubbish tipped down the banks. Gen­erally there is an unpleasant industrial smell and we soon head back to the cleaner air and more precipitous roads of the coast. The strong fishy smell around the village of Bermeo is quite plea­sant by comparison, and there the harbour is chock full of traditional fishing boats ‑ a change from the expensive yachting marinas we have often seen in France and the Nether­lands.

The Basque region, like Wales, has a language 'problem'. Most of the signs are in both Basque and Spanish, which can be confusing enough when the list of eight or ten names on a sign actually refers to only four or five places. However the locals often object to the Spanish names and blank them out with spray point, this is most frus­trating as our map gives only the Spanish name.

From our road atlas it looks to be possible to avoid Bilbao. We try three times but still end up screaming at each other in the hell of a crowded, slow‑moving city centre traffic jam. There just do not seem to be any signposts to tell us which road goes to Santander, the next city to the west. On the third attempt we know that whatever else we do, we have to get across the river. And once we are across, there were signs in profusion. Vicky and Andy (see later) tell us they had had the same problem.

15 Dec 2008

8th Dec 1988 - Pyrenees

It is a bank holiday in Spain, so we go back into France for petrol and food. We take a minor road through the edge of the Pyrenees, wind­ing and steep in places, but the van copes easily ‑ we have not driven it on such steep slopes before.

We pull onto a wide verge which overlooks one end of a valley with trees and farmland on the lower slopes and open ground higher up. Within a few minutes there is a sparrowhawk soaring in front of us, mobbed by crows and smaller passe­rines. Then there is a red kite swinging back and forth along the valley, seeming to bounce on the air currents.

Next a group of huge birds appear along the ridge behind the kite. They have wings like barn doors, primaries extended and upturned, small pale heads and small fanned tails. It takes us a few minutes to comprehend in the size of these birds, they are griffon vultures with a 3 metre wingspan. More appear after them, often below the level of the ridge and flapping heavily. The sun shines brightly from behind us, allowing us to see their colour and markings ‑ very dark flight feathers and brown coverts on top, paler brown coverts below often with a yellow‑cream line on the median coverts, and a pale brown body. They soar and circle, coming towards us but gaining height so not really getting close.

There are seven in all, then four come in high from the left, then more in ones and twos until there are eighteen. They continue to soar, now on wings almost motionless and with tails acting as rudders, then drift off over the ridge to our left. They return several times, mostly as a large group with one or two stragglers, giv­ing us ample opportunity to study and photograph them.

There are several red kites ‑ maximum three at once - searching the ground from a much lower view­point. Buzzards usually announce their arri­val with a loud mewing. A kestrel flies slowly along the ridge then hovers briefly before plung­ing on some unsus­pecting prey. Jim sees a pere­grine in the same area. Small birds in the bushes and trees around us are the usual farmland spec­ies. But is the vultures that dominate the scene.

On the high pastures there are many stooks of dried bracken, it having been cut and dried on the hills for use as winter bedding for livestock. This practice is essential to the traditional economy, although in some areas the bracken is being ploughed up and replaced with grass to pro­vide all year grazing for cattle.

First thing this morning there was some mist about but while we stopped to watch the raptors it was sunny and still ‑ quite warm in fact. However small cotton wool clouds blowing over the ridges show just how windy it is on the high tops. I am vaguely surprised that there isn't snow on the peaks ‑ 900m or more, and I certainly didn't expect to see leaves on the trees still ‑ mostly oaks in autumn dress. The need for petrol, food and a camp-site send us down to the coast in the mid‑afternoon, but we can see clouds building up, quite dark ones in the late afternoon, so it probably would not be a good idea to stay up there for too much longer.

Birds around the campsite include blackcaps, wrens, thrushes, wagtails, tree sparrows, etc. A nearby field of sweetcorn is inhabited by a swarm of several hundred house sparrows which fly over the campsite when alarmed; a number of chaffinches on the far side take to the line of trees when appropriate and a few robins vigorously defend their terri­tories along a hedge.

7th Dec 1988 - Pilat

Pilat owes its fame to having the highest sand dune (120 m) in Europe, and probably the most commercialised one too. From the tourist centre on the inland side it looks like a heap of bare sand, being too high to support vegetation such as maritime pines like all the other dunes did. The tourist centre ‑ in summer you have to pay for the car parks etc ‑ is closed and there are no information boards.

Other people are climbing the dune and we do likewise, partly to get warmed up. It is quite a steep climb on soft sand, but only from the top can the dune be properly appreciated. It is massive, being broader than it is high. From the top more dunes can be seen to the north and south; they are threatening to engulf the edge of the forest as their ancestors have engulfed the marshes previously.

From our vantage point we see red-breasted mergansers, guille­mots, and three sorts of divers, all little more than dots on the ocean way below. There are some offshore sandbars well populated with roosting gulls and waders.

Around the tourist centre and in the pines we find a variety of small birds including a crested tit feeding on the ground. The scrub includes strawberry tree, a sign that we are in striking distance of Mediterranean winters.

We decide to push on to Spain, as there doesn't seem to be anything else to see in this part of France in winter that we won't see in Spain.

6th Dec 1988 - Bassin d'Arcachon

Bassin d'Arcachon

Within the forest there are several large lakes lying parallel with the coast, but cut off from the sea by huge sand dunes. The northernmost body of water, the Bassin d'Arcachon is, however, still connected to the sea via a quite narrow opening. Several reserves, totalling some 10,000 ha, have been created here, with a consequent increase in the numbers of wintering waders and wildfowl, including up to 220,000 dunlin, and some 2,500 brent geeser.

It rains on and off for most of the day and birding is limited to a short session by the Parc Ornithologique on the southern shore of the Bas­sin. The park is open daily from 1 March to 31 October, and weekends the rest of the year. Today it is inhabited by a coachload of noisy school-children.

Near the park entrance is the Observatoire du Delta de l'Eyre. This consists of what looked like some kind of spoil heap with a track going up to a plat­form at the top. It overlooks a large area of scrub and farmland in this corner of the Bassin, but is too far from the open water part for identifying the birds there.

Virtually the first bird we see in flight is a crane, not just any crane, but a crowned crane displaying his crown; presumably he originates from the parc ornithologique. Then there are three garganey, but as they float all the time as a tight group not moving a muscle between them, we conclude they are decoys for the nearby shooting bunker. There are also marsh harriers, herons, little egrets, mute swans and a variety of scrub birds.

We find another place to overlook some of the open water area, the tide is well up and among the more interesting birds are a sandwich tern ‑ we are now in their wintering range ‑ and a black‑headed gull sporting an out‑of‑season black head.

6th Dec 1988 - Les Landes

We moved well south last night, going around the Gironde Estuary to Bordeaux and then back to the coast at the Bassin d'Arcachon. Here there is an area of extensive forest, mostly conifers, known as Les Landes. The forest looks almost natural, but was in fact planted as part of a reafforest­ation policy which began about 150 years ago.

Until the eighteenth century this area was a vast marshy plain. But Atlantic rollers had piled up high sand dunes along the coast, and the west­erly gales were whipping them inland at the rate of some twenty metres a year. The sand was chang­ing the marsh to a desert, engulfing small vil­lages and even menacing the Bordeaux vineyards.

In 1776 a French road and bridge engineer by the name of Bremontier proposed that the sands be fixed by planting a species of deep‑rooting wild grass and a quick‑growing variety of pine. Sup­ported by the government, which took temporary possession of the land, Bremontier's plan was carried out. There was, naturally, opposition from landowners and shepherds who tried to recover their pasture­land and sometimes went so far as to set the plan­tations on fire. The work took fifty years. Then the remain­ing marshes were drained and also planted with pines. The result was the greatest continuous forest expanse in western Europe, over a million hectares of produc­tive woodland.

Today this forest stretches for 250 km along the coast and up to 100 km inland. It is a mono­tonous, and often gloomy, landscape; very thinly populated except for the touristy coastal strip. A few farms along the main road comprised huge flat fields with huge irrigation systems. Maize was the main crop. The forest has, however, brought prosperity to a hitherto poor area, for the trees are used for timber and paper making, and the resin is tapped for glue and other products.

Forest fires have been a problem; in 1949 fire devastated some 300,000 ha and a number of fire-fighters were killed. Now techniques have been developed to control fire, for example by ploughing wide firebreaks, and by having well organised fire-fighting teams. Camping is not allowed in any state forest, not only because the camper might start a fire, but also he risks being caught in one.

5th Dec 1988 - Palmyre

Judging from the map, sea watching sites are few and far between. The most obvious place is at a light­house, but even this proves to be a few hun­dred metres from the coast; the build‑up of sand spits and dunes in front of it are now also thre­atening to cut off a small bay from the sea. We watched the bay while having lunch at a forest picnic site; there is a second winter Mediter­ranean gull, a few black-headed gulls and a half-dozen eider. In the trees around us there are goldfinches, chaffinches, great, blue, coal and crested tits, blackbirds, greenfinches, robins and crows.

Eventually we found a place for sea-watching at Palmyre, though the sand is whipped pain­fully into our faces by the force seven north­wester­lies. There is a stream of gulls passing northwards ‑ little, black‑headed, herring, great and lesser black‑back gulls. Of these last, adults outnumbered immatures four to one, but all winter plumages are represented to be studied alongside a few immature herring gulls. The gulls, and a great northern diver, battle against the wind. As they draw level with us they head out to sea towards a sandspit rather than go all the way around the edge of the bay. There are also two black‑necked and one great‑­crested grebe, ten common scoter, and about thirty cormorants; wind-surfers were the only mammal to be seen.

5th Dec 1988 - Moeze

Another reserve, Moeze, a short distance south of the Marais d'Yves, comprises some 6,500 ha of mudflats and 214 ha of rough dunes and grazing. Its main interest is at migration time when no less that 31 species of wader and 19 of wildfowl have been recorded. Until the area was protected in 1985 the pressure of hunting limited the number of over‑win­tering birds. However, there is great biological potential in the mudflats, and it is expected that winter wildfowl numbers will improve in the future.

A leaflet about Moeze gave an impressive list of species: "The channels are the domain of the grey heron and little egret which, in the summer, are joined by the purple heron. Each spring s­poonbills stop on migration. Raptors are repre­sented by three species of harriers and two fal­cons ‑ hobby and kestrel, plus short‑toed eagle in summer. At night barn, little and long-eared owls haunt the marshes. Black terns and whiskered terns fish in the lagoon in the company of little terns; sandwich and common terns prefer the sea. In the saltmarsh bluethroat and fan tailed warbler sing, reed bunting and great reed warbler exploit the vegetation around the edge, and many pairs of yellow wagtails raise their young each year. And, of course, there are waders and wildfowl in winter. There are also six species of reptile and 23 species of mammal from otter to pygmy shrew."

It would have been nice to see that lot, but this was the wrong time of year, and there was no public access to the reserve although it could be overlooked from coastal roads on the Ile d'Oleron or from a dirt track just north of the mainland part of the reserve. During a couple of hours as the tide rolled in we saw only shelduck, dunlin, grey plovers and avocets in small numbers plus gadwall, mallard, cormorants, great-crested grebe, brent geese and a few gulls.

We moved on south through an area of what seemed to be small square flooded fields. Actual­ly they were fishponds, this coastal strip being Fran­ce's main breeding ground for mussels and oysters. In an average year the district of Char­ente Maritime produces over 50,000 tonnes of oysters, some 60% of the total French output.

A weasel crossed the road in front of us, and a few minutes later crossed back with a vole.

4th Dec 1988 - Baie d-Yves

According to the reserve leaflet, beyond the lines of dunes beyond the lake there were vast mudflats full of the small animals which were much apprec­iated by the waders and the ducks which pass through on migration, while the back country com­prises a vast marsh which is flooded in winter. With a sunny aspect and a cooling breeze, the marsh was transformed into a 'verit­able palace of hospitality for birdlife' in summer. This area was the Reserve Nationale de Chasse Maritime of the Baie d'Yves.

A thousand years ago the sea retreated and left immense alluvial beaches along the coast. A small stream flowed into the Baie d'Yves here, but during the Middle Ages, sand and pebbles were heaped up by the wind and sea at its mouth, form­ing a dam and creating a vast marsh on the land­ward side. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, man created a channel to take the waters of the stream into the Charente River and began to drain the marsh, which lies below the high tide level.
Following the second world war the numbers of migrating and wintering wildfowl were drastically reduced. This was the result of the drainage of much of the marsh and its subsequent culti­vation, plus the pressure of uncontrolled hunting ‑ the hunters exercised their right to every prize they could find. The peace of the resting place was destroyed and "the thousands of birds that turned the day into night" were gone.
The Reserve Nationale was created in 1973. It extends along four kilo­metres of coast and comprises 1800 ha of foreshore. The protection was soon noticed by the passing birds, and now some two to three thousand each of wildfowl and waders winter here.
A 55 ha lagoon, which forms the northern part of the maritime reserve, and its surrounding area was proposed as a nature reserve because of its ornitho­logical interest. It officially became the reserve of Marais d'Yves in August 1981. It com­prises 184 ha of diverse habitat resulting from the extraction of materials such as sand and salt during the past century. These excavations, of various sizes, are more or less permanent; some are old enough to be colonised by willows, while the most recent are still almost devoid of vegetation. Between them are natural grasslands, while in the west the line of beach sands covered with short vegetation isolates the brackish lagoon, from the sea.
Bird-watchers were delighted when, in March 1983, thousands of grey geese, 200 shoveller and 100 garganey made a migration stopover here. In April 1983, 114 species of bird were recorded. Mallard, garganey, shoveller, gadwall, shelduck and coot nest now in good numbers, while house and sand martins and swifts concentrate here in tens of thousands when the 'vagaries of meteor­ology' interrupt their spring migration.
The botanical interest is rather limited, generally to flowers of the marsh and wet grass­lands which bloom profusely. Nine types of orchid have been seen, including the rare fragrant orchid.
Management of the reserve has included the recognition of the importance of grazing, so fifty hectares of grassland are being used for cattle rearing; and the control of water levels so that the lake remains brackish rather than salt. To encourage the waders to breed, and to create high tide roosts, many artificial islets are being built. There is also a twenty hectare oyster farm; this, and the cattle, provide an indication of the health of the land and water. Scientific work was also going on, mainly in the form of bird censuses and ringing, and studies to improve the site by habitat modifi­cation and better management. There was no public access, except for viewing from the visitor centre and car park, although guided walks were occasionally organised in the summer.

4th Dec 1988 - Marais d'Yves

Sea-watching in the rain proves unproductive this morning, so we continue south. Just beyond La Rochelle a sign declares 'Reserve Natur­elle' so we stop to investigate. An information board says the visitor centre is open from 2 ‑ 6 pm on Sundays ‑ and today is Sunday!! It is 1.30 so we have lunch. The reserve can be watched from the parking area, but it doesn’t seem a good idea with the wind and rain coming in the window. This is the reserve of Marais d'Yves, part of the much larger Reserve Nationale de Chasse Maritime of the Baie d'Yves

The place opens on time. A wall‑sized win­dow over‑looks the main area of open water and is partly sheltered from the rain by the roof. Jim finds a clear piece of glass through which to aim one of the centre's tele­scopes and spends the afternoon watching the birds. Outside there are a few thou­sand dunlin which disappear when threatened by a marsh harrier; also curlew, lapwing, 100 avocet including one with a broken bill; shelduck, shoveller, etc, and thousands of adult black-headed gulls but again only a half-dozen first winter birds.

Meanwhile, I look around the centre. There is a small sales area with various identification books and sou­venirs. Books seem to be rather expensive ‑ due in part to sales tax. One room has a television and thirty or so chairs set out for watching videos. This after­noon they show films about brown bears in the Pyrenees, people and birds on the Baie de l'Aiguill­on, and, finally, raptors in the Pyrenees. All are in French, naturally, but it is fairly easy to get the gist of them. On an upper floor there is a small library with more books in French, some of which I flick through and leave me wishing I understood more of the language. Also a few copies of Les Oiseaux, the LPO equiva­lent of the RSPB's 'BIRDS', very similar in format and content.

12 Dec 2008

4th Dec 1988 - St Denis du Payre

The meadow of St Denis du Payre has never been ploughed, nor have fertil­isers or herbicides been used. It is, however, a man‑made ecosystem, being reclaimed land. It is marshy and badly drained in places, and often flooded in winter, yet it is traditionally used for cattle grazing and this has probably helped to maintain its value as a habitat for breeding waders. It is also of botanic inter­est, being one of the few places in western France where the butterfly iris is found – but not at this time of year!

The meadow has been isolated from the sur­round­ing improved farmland, and its water table carefully controlled so that there is a large shallow lake in winter which slowly dries out during the summer. Today there are a dozen greylag geese and half as many mute swans on the lake. It is open to the public daily in July and August. We park outside the locked gate and have lunch.

A brown bunting lands on the fence nearby then flies to the ground to feed. A few minutes later it is joined by another similar bird. The first bird is quite pale and broadly streaked, with a pale crown stripe and pale brown legs. The other bird is also streaked, but gen­erally a darker, more chestnut colour, with a narrower supercilium and orangy-red legs. Both birds suddenly fly off, and do not return; we walk along the road in an unsuccessful search for them.

We debate their identity for some time. The second bird is probably a female reed bunting except that its legs are much paler than shown in the field-guide. The other bird is more of a mys­tery: the pale crown stripe suggests immature lapland bunting ‑ we were told the other day that there was a lapland bunting in the area a few days ago ‑ but the book shows lapland as having even darker legs than reed bunting. Perhaps it is a leucistic reed bunting. The observation high­lights how little we know about reed buntings, at home they are the main black-headed type bunting and their identifi­cation is taken almost for granted.

Raptors are well represented in the general area, marsh harriers being outnumbered by hen har­riers, perhaps indicating the relative dryness of these marshes. Kestrels are in abundance ‑ scan­ning the distance with the telescope produces a hovering bird every few degrees. A buzzard soars over­head. We are packing up to leave when Jim catches sight of a distant bird with the angu­lar silhouette and buoyant, effort­less flight that is distinctive of a red kite.

In fact are two kites, so Jim watches one through the telescope while I keep an eye on the other with binoculars. The birds fly very slowly, bobbing up and down as if on elastic, and with wings and tail moving inde­pendently to catch every ounce of air to prevent them stalling at such low speeds. The one in the telescope flies towards us showing off its grey head and reddish plumage.

Every so often its underwings catch the sun, flashing the large white patch on the primaries. Less often it turns to show the broad pale crescent of its greater coverts con­trasting with the red body and forewings and darker primaries. The other bird makes faster prog­ress but keep lower over the ground, then it gains height and soars on a thermal showing slightly arched wings kinked at the carpel.

The red kite is considered to be one of the most accom­plished fliers amongst the raptors as it derives the lift for soaring not only from ther­mals over warm ground, but from rising air cur­rents over cool hilly terrain. Not surprisingly it is capable of hovering and is even agile enough to take birds in flight. More generally it finds its prey on open ground, where low veg­etation makes carrion and live prey more easily detectable from either high circling or low har­rier‑like quartering of the ground.

3rd Dec 1988 - Pointe d'Arcay

The Pointe d'Arcay Nature Reserve is regarded as one of the most important wetlands for waders and wildfowl on the Atlantic coast of France. It comprises a sand bar which has grown southwards across the estuary of the River lay. The bar is now mainly forested with maritime pine, although there are also some areas of scrubby heathland and open grass. The whole reserve is also of considerable interest for plants and terrestrial birds, and is probably an entirely undisturbed terrestrial ecosystem.

In winter there are considerable numbers of pintail, mallard, teal, shoveler, wigeon and shelduck, and a few brent geese. Spoonbill and avocet are seen from time to time and waders are particularly well represented. In summer hoopoes and shrikes can be seen along the fringe of the woodland and many smaller birds of interest are found in the scrubby areas. Since 1951, when it was first protected, much research has been carried out into the feeding behaviour of its migrant birds.

In view of its undisturbed nature, it is not surprising to find that a permit is required for visiting the reserve. However, it is said to be possible to see the high tide wader roost by walking along the beach to the Pointe, but first you have to find the beach and then you walk for about 3 km. As the tide is already well up when we arrive, we don't think we'd get there in time even if we knew the exact way.

A tidal creek to the east of the reserve is deserted of water birds, but there are plenty of passerines in the surrounding scrub. About a hundred goldfinches sounding more like a flock of starlings. They are feeding on knap­weed, plan­tain and grass seeds, and every so often fly to the top of a nearby bare tree, then return to feed again. There are also green­finches and chaffinches and a single bramb­ling. A serin sits in a shrub eating
seeds off a nearby grass stem, and a male black­cap lurks in a privet bush.

We find a better watching place on the eastern side of the next creek where a sea wall begins. Birds seen from here include fifty avocets, plus dunlin, redshank, curlew, godwit, and hundreds of oystercatchers.

2nd Dec 1988 - Pointe de Guin de Cou

Further south, the Pointe de Guin de Cou is sup­posed to be good for divers in the right weather conditions but in the calm of today there are only herring gulls. One has a starfish which is appro­priated by a another bird. He washes it and stabs it a few times, flies about with it and then repeats the process. Eventually he swal­lows it whole and is left with strange lumps on his neck. Another bird defends its starfish for a while but then drops it. It is caught by a rival who loses it to another a few seconds later. The starfish has now lost an arm or two and is swallowed easily before the next attack.

The tide is well out, exposing some flat, algae‑covered rocks where the gulls had been feed­ing. Along the edge of these rocks we find a number of orange and red starfish, five to eight centimetres across, that have been stranded by the tide. The gulls could have easy pickings but they seem to prefer food that has been caught by some­one else. Also stranded is a small skate about fifteen centimetres across the wings, a chunk has been taken out of one wing but it is otherwise intact. There are plenty of bivalve shells, especially small mussels attached in clumps to sea weed, razor-shells and some small pale shells that have a trap-door neatly cut out of one shell by a predator trying to get at the flesh. A few small echinoderms and jellyfish complete the list. The fossil imprint of a nautilus type mollusc, about twelve centimetres across, shows clearly in one rock.

2nd Dec 1988

We spend the morning exploring a deserted camp­site looking for small birds amongst the shrubs, espec­ially tamarisk which was imported from Africa and grows well along the coast here. There are gold­finches, meadow pipits, house sparrows, goldcrests, magpies and skylarks. A song drifts in from the distance, we can't see the singer but think it may be a woodlark.

A cirl bunting sings from the top of a building, then comes towards us and settles on top of a bush quite close by. He is far more heavily streaked than the one we saw the other day, and looks more black than yellow. These birds show individual variation similar to yellowhammers and it is obvious why they could be confused. The rump colour is an ade­quate distinc­tion from behind, but from the front the cirl bun­ting had a dark crown where the yellow­hammer has a yellow one. A cirl bunting in breeding plumage has a black neck band and so should be more dis­tinc­tive. The females, like most female buntings, need a little more time and care to ident­ify.

Out on the beach the constant noise of the surf contrasts with the now calm sunny weather, and the beach material, despite being yellow, is more gravel than sand. A female scoter spends her morning amongst the surf, facing into waves as they break over her but otherwise unconcerned with the situation. Others fly past out to sea. Black-throated seem to be the more common of the divers flying past and on the water. Cormor­ants use the platform of a lighthouse as a convenient roost.

1st Dec 1988 - Ile d'Olonne

Early in the morning we walk along the coast and dunes at la Garenne de Brem. There are patches of sea mist and Atlantic breakers are spil­ling surf onto the sand. Beyond the breakers, gulls ride the swell ‑ herring, lesser and great black-backs. A few kittiwakes and little gulls fly back and forth above the waves, while black‑­headed gulls prefer to keep to the land. Further out to sea there are cormorants, divers and gannets.

The Ile d'Olonne is a huge sandbar now afforested and inhabited, and no longer cut off by the sea. The tidal creek that was once here has been turned into saltpans but these are apparently mostly disused. One end of the saltpans has been a bird reserve since 1963 and now has over 400 pairs of breeding avocet, the only colony in west­ern France. The Observatoire des Oiseaux is well signposted, although access to the reserve itself is limited to an inform­ation hut (now closed for winter) and an observation platform which over­looks the reserve itself. During the summer there are regular guided tours. The D87 road runs along one side of the reserve but there are no parking places there.

The main part of the reserve comprises three large shallow lakes in which the water level is controlled, several ditches lined with shrubs, and a scrubby area. On the farthest lakes are corm­orants and ducks while waders inhabit the near­est one. The scrub near the lookout holds a good variety of passer­ines. Harriers hunt the whole area.

Someone appears from the small research station beyond the lakes, and comes round to talk to us. He is interested in what we have seen, and then goes on to tell us a bit about the place and its birds. His English is excellent and he is most enthusiastic about birds and cons­ervation. He suggests we send the black brant record to the French rarities committee, and marks on our map a few more local sites that might be worth visiting.

The dunlin and grey plovers are quite skit­tish, what with harriers flying around and a hunter shoot­ing at birds in the area next to the reserve. Each time they settle, one plover is very noticeable because its tail and flight feathers seem to be white underneath ‑ it looks as if the sun is shining through, though none of the others show the effect. When the birds are all on the ground this individual is indist­inguishable, perhaps it is a partial albino.

Jim studies every marsh harrier that comes into view and reckons that there are eight to ten individuals, all brown birds except for one sub­adult male which has dark wing-tips and mottled grey‑brown plumage above and below. Two of the harriers perch on bushes on opposite sides of the reserve for a while, but mostly they just come, quarter a sec­tion, and then go away again.

The kee‑kee‑kee call of a kestrel attracts our attention to a male doing some kind of dis­play, hovering briefly, flying sideways, hovering again, etc, calling all the time. This 'dance' lasts perhaps twenty to thirty seconds, then the bird disappears behind a bush. It reappears and perches on the top of this bush staring at the ground. Later still we hear a similar call but more persistent. This time it is a female com­plaining about the crow that is mobbing her for the mouse she is carrying.

A stoat or weasel runs along the track in front the tower. Through the vegetation we can see its shape and movement but not get a look at the tip of its tail to identify it properly.