Vince Lea, Wildlife Monitor

North Spain Aug-Sep 2020 

I offered to write something for the CRT website as a daily account of our holiday when it became clear that, on return, I would be confined to home for two weeks self-isolation, following the government guidelines on travel restrictions to Spain and I would not be doing any fieldwork for a couple of weeks.   

I will look at many aspects of farming, forestry and fishing, climate change, pollution, local sustainable food production and see some great wildlife along the way. With maybe a few detours into cooking, physical and mental health, the joys, and pitfalls of camping holidays and when is it safe to abandon a productive garden?

So my partner Louise and I venture off to Galicia in north Spain. Why did we decided to go ahead with our trip?

28th August 

The wind kept blowing through the night, so we were keen to return to the sea watching, and managed to make an earlier start,  despite the workings of Mr Mole once again – this time, right underneath my head at about 2:30am. As well as the usual morning routine of breakfast and making up some food and drinks for the day ahead, we had the job of packing up the tent for our next move, which meant we could see the full extent of the mole tunnel network. He had clearly been digging just an inch under the groundsheet…

The first birds on arriving at Estaca de Bares were Manx shearwaters, and that set the tone for the morning, with hundreds of them sailing past the headland. I should point out that pretty much every single seabird seen was heading west: they have flown across the Bay of Biscay on a broad front, and found themselves too close to the Spanish coast for their liking in different positions along the coastline, then turned west to go round and continue south over the Atlantic.

Manx shearwater close to wave Image courtesy of
Chasula Aves/Xabier Vázquez Pumariño
They make this journey west along the coastline at considerable distance from land and are only visible from the Estaca de Bares because it juts out so far. This means we can set up the observation looking directly out towards the source of these birds - any that are difficult to identify or count can be watched for a few seconds or minutes, as they come towards and then go past us.

Lots of shearwaters

With Manx shearwaters, they are often in sizeable groups, a dozen or so, but not closely packed – strung out over a few hundred metres. They bank close to the waves, dipping in and out of view as they go behind the crests. They flash black and white as they bank and swerve – the upper side is very dark whereas the underparts bright white. The Manx stand out well when the underside is flashed but then disappear when the turn over with the upper side towards you, so concentrating on a flock to try and count them all can be hard, especially when something different flies through the loose flock and distracts you. Some of the other shearwaters are more uniform in colour, such as the all-dark sooty or the greyish Cory’s.

By the end of the morning session we had logged 392 Manx shearwaters and 41 Cory’s compared with 17 Manx and 111 Cory’s the day before – a completely different profile of the two commoner species of shearwater, probably reflecting that a slightly stronger, slightly more northerly wind was blowing.

All these seabirds are perfectly capable of dealing with immense wind speeds, but each species will have different thresholds at which they seek shelter from land, or sit out high winds on the sea, or where winds are too light to give them flight assistance.

Manx shearwaters are most common species of shearwater in the British Isles, but it was a real pleasure to see so many on their winter migration. These were probably adult birds, having finished feeding their chicks to a huge weight and then abandoning them! The chicks are given enough food to last them a couple more weeks on their own, during which time they convert the stored fat and protein from their last few weeks of food delivered by the parents into wing feathers and muscle and gradually start coming out of their burrows at night, exercising their new wings. Eventually they will have to fly, with no other way of getting food, and one night they launch themselves from their island home out to sea. They will also have to navigate to the Argentine coast for the winter, and then find their way to the breeding grounds in a few years’ time, ready to start nesting. Amazing birds!

We knew from our visit to Skokholm Island (2.5 miles off the coast of Pembrokeshire, Wales) last year that most of the chicks leave in September, so hundreds of birds in late August were probably adults, and this far south they were probably on migration rather than foraging to take food back to the nests.

The wind brought different species

The different wind conditions also brought about a difference in the less frequently seen species of course. Yesterday, we saw one tern – a Sandwich tern – but today there were lots of terns, 42 Sandwich terns, 94 black terns (sadly, all a dull grey colour as the black plumage is only seen in spring and summer) and 128 ‘commic’ terns – these are small sea terns which can’t be accurately identified at distance, either Arctic tern or common tern. The difference being how translucent the tip of the wing is, and whether the tip of the bill is red or black – tricky at half a mile away in a stormy sea!

The black terns are particularly nice to see as they are not really seabirds in summer, breeding on marshes and wetlands with plenty of insects to feed on, and only seen on migration in Britain. They have a lovely graceful flight.

Pomarine skua Image courtesy of Chasula Aves/Xabier Vázquez Pumariño
Pomarine skuas also made their first appearance today, 12 of these brutal beasts which like the other skuas harass other seabirds to get their food. In summer, they feed heavily on lemmings in the Arctic tundra. Quite a few of them were adult birds with their ‘tail spoons’ making identification straightforward.

Another high arctic breeding species is the grey phalarope, a small wading bird which in summer turns brick red, and in winter is a soft pale grey. We had seen these in breeding plumage once in Iceland but are more familiar with seeing them in their winter plumage, hurtling past the Norfolk coast in an easterly gale, but generally do not see them very often. They, and the slightly smaller fed-necked phalarope, are particularly unusual for waders in that they spend a lot of their time swimming in deep water! They spend their winters on the sea, picking up bits of plankton, off the African coast. Another wonder of the bird world.

We finished the day on a grand total of 1333 birds of 20 different species, both figures slightly up on the previous totals, and a different overall profile of species.

We departed the coast and headed inland to the biggest area of natural forest in Galicia, Fragas de Eume. The main part of this journey was on the super-efficient highway, but the final few kilometres  were on the incredible hairpins of the forest roads, where the Eume river has carved a steep deep valley through the rocks.

We was camping on the other side of the river and the shortest crossing point is in the heart of the forest, close to a hydro-electric station. Google Maps did not want to send us this way, choosing instead a massive detour to keep to the main road, so we told Google Maps we were cycling at which point the short, steep route was offered. Most of it was done in first gear, but it was a wonderful introduction to the forest. A fox ran across the road in front of us, no doubt confused to see a car on this little track. We got to the campsite in time to cook our evening meal, accompanied by a delightful family of firecrests, the parents feeding squeaky fledglings in the trees above our tent.

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring