North Spain Aug-Sep 2020 

Vince Lea, Wildlife MonitorI 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?

Why we decided to go ahead with our trip when Spain was placed on the travel restriction list?   

Firstly, my partner and I made our booking as soon as travel restrictions were lifted. We made a carefully considered decision to travel to a part of Spain which we already knew well, where we knew quiet campsites and wild open spaces which would be very low risk in terms of SARS-CoV-2 and with prior knowledge, we knew that we would be able to self-cater or find good food. Galicia in north Spain had exceptionally low covid-19 rates, with most cases in Spain being in the big cities and popular resorts.   

We had not visited this part of Spain in early autumn, but knew from various sources that it was likely to be a valuable time to visit to see a variety of seabirds, as migration brings a worldwide collection of birds through the rich waters of the Bay of Biscay. Many locations in Britain can also be good for some of these birds, but the numbers of birdwatchers in the United Kingdom is so much greater that these locations are likely to be crowded. The weather in late August/early September in north Spain was also appealing for visiting some of the mountain regions where high summer is too hot to go hiking. 

Cap Finistere When Spain later got put on the naughty step by the UK government, we had a serious look at whether to wait for the restrictions to lift (by which time, summer would be over, seabird migration finished), or try to find an alternative place to go.  

We made our decision and decided ferries were the safest route. Ferries offer so much more space to distance yourself from other passengers and sailing to north Spain is a great route for wildlife fans like us, as the boat goes across the Bay of Biscay and gives unrivalled views of seabirds and whales in this rich deep water.   

Why we wanted to make this our destination for 2020.  

From previous visits, we knew there was plenty of wildlife in the Bay of Biscay and northern Spain. On one trip, we had previously spotted over 200 fin whales (just a tad smaller than blue whales), plus minke, pilot, sperm, and Cuvier’s beaked whales, few Bottlenose Dolphins and Porpoises and on the mainland, we experienced fabulous butterfly and bird watching days. We were hooked!  

In 2016, we became aware that the plans to update the breeding bird maps for the European Breeding Bird Atlas. The new Atlas will update the distribution of birds compared with the 30-year-old Atlas, and therefore show which species are of most conservation concern, where species ranges are changing with habitat loss or climate change and so on. In 2017, the final year of fieldwork, we knew that records from Galicia had a few gaps to fill so we chose to help this important project along with the other 50,000 volunteers. We cannot wait to see the book when it finally gets published in December this year!  

We were surprised that parts of Spain needed help surveying, as so many birdwatchers go there for the rich variety of species on offer in an easy country to visit. Never having been to this part before, we took a decision to take a week in the autumn of 2016 and do a recce of the area, as the fieldwork had to be done in spring 2017 and we did not want to waste fieldwork time by not knowing our way around.  

Being October, many of the breeding birds were gone, but we found some wonderful wintering habitats around the coast, particularly at O Grove where we stayed – huge mudflats were home to thousands of wading birds, including hundreds of spoonbills, an exceedingly rare bird in Britain. High winds in 2016 brought seabirds close to shore and we saw hundreds of shearwaters of various species.  

The fieldwork in May 2017 was carefully planned to give us plenty of time. We had copies of the lists of birds seen in Galicia in the first Atlas and so we were able to see that some species had colonised in the interim period, such as Sardinian warbler and red-rumped swallow (these species had previously been more Mediterranean in distribution), while other more northern species such as guillemot and fulmar, seemed to have disappeared. Even our little bit of fieldwork was showing the effects of climate change. 

To sum up, we knew the place well, we knew there was great wildlife, scenery, and food to be enjoyed, and we knew we needed a holiday. North Spain, here we come. Two weeks quarantine would be spent with all the paperwork that accumulates over the spring and summer surveys and tending to the garden and house… preparations were made.  

21st Aug 2020

GannetThe holiday officially started once we are on board the ferry ship Cap Finistère birds or other wildlife seen from the boat start our list of sightings.   

Departing Portsmouth at 17:00 in a force 7-8 south-westerly meant that we did not have a lot of daylight while in the English Channel, and viewing was a bit challenging, but we did record lesser black-backed, great black-backed and herring gulls, plus seven gannets.   

We had seen that the forecast for the following day has much less wind in the Bay of Biscay, so was optimistic for a better day ahead, so long as we could get some sleep in the storm. We set the alarm for what we thought might be sunrise the next day, and tried to get some sleep.  

See you soon for news from the Bay of Biscay! 

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring

Read the next blog