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?

27th August

On his way back towards the hedgerow, our mole decided another new tunnel would be better than going the way he had come, and this too went under our backs. This was starting to get annoying!

As forecast, the day dawned with wind whipping up the coast. The surfers (not normally known for their early starts) were up at the same time as us, walking through the campsite in their wetsuits and carrying their boards towards the sound of crashing waves on the shore at first light.

In hindsight, we should have got up a couple of hours earlier as our sea watching destination was quite a drive away, but for some reason needed a bit of a lie-in, having been rudely awoken by the mole a couple of times!

Sea watching is not as dull as it may sound

Looking out towards the Atlantic
We got to Estaca de Bares, the most northerly point of Spain, at 10:35. There were already a dozen Spanish birdwatchers in place when we arrived, but there was plenty of space to find somewhere to sit with the telescope and stare out to sea.

Sea watching might sound like a fairly dull pursuit, and there have been times on the North Sea when it has been worse than dull, with penetratingly cold winds and spray pounding into you, spattering the lenses and chilling the bones and fingers, with maybe a dozen birds going past per hour to show for the hardships. On other occasions, it is a way of seeing birds that you have no hope of seeing in any other way, short of hiring a boat trip. And when the sea is rough and the winds are bringing the birds close to shore, bobbing about on a boat is not always an appealing option either!

Although it was slightly overcast and the wind was around 20km/h it was easy to find a bit of shelter on the headland, and it was warm. The headland is high above the sea, with no risk of spray and a magnificent panoramic view of the birds. True pelagic (oceanic) birds do all they can to avoid land, where there are predators like peregrines, only coming ashore to breed in secure places.

Observatory at Estaca de Bares
Crossing the Bay of Biscay, they come close to the Spanish shore and turn west to head out towards the Atlantic, but the Estaca de Bares juts out far enough to give stunning views as the try to reorientate themselves.

On our previous visits we had seen gannets going right over our heads, and hundreds of shearwaters and a few skuas out to sea. But we had never been in the peak month of August. There is a small observatory here, and a detailed log is kept of birds as a way of monitoring numbers. At times, the descriptions on their website sound like a conveyer belt of the best seabirds Europe has to offer. We had high hopes and seeing a dozen birders already confirmed that this was worth a look, as there are not too many birdwatchers in Spain!

Louise in between two Spanish bird-watchers
We only brought one telescope with us, the best tool for sea watching with high magnification and stability on a tripod (ours give 28x magnification, compared to 8x for the binoculars we use). Binoculars are good for scanning large areas and finding potentially interesting birds to scrutinise with the ’scope, while the ’scope gives a close-up view of a narrow area and is generally directed at a point of reference (fishing boat, buoy or whatever – we had a lobster- and crab-pot fishing boat near us which was handy; in Norfolk it’s usually wind turbines these days).

Seabirds move fast, often close to the sea surface and can easily disappear behind waves or in confusion when another bird flies past one you are studying. Concentration is key. So, we decided to do half-hour shifts with the ‘scope, the other one jotting down the birds in the notebook and looking round with binoculars. It was clear that shearwaters were on the move in the distance, while gannets and gulls were travelling through closer to shore and could easily be identified and counted with binoculars, so we had a system in place quite quickly.

Cory's shearwater Image courtesy of Chasula Aves/Xabier Vázquez Pumariño
The main species in the first three sessions were similar to the first birds we saw from the ferry when we woke up in the Bay of Biscay – gannets and Cory’s shearwaters – but there were also numerous yellow-legged gulls, being much less oceanic and more coastal in nature.

We also saw groups of common scoter, an arctic-breeding duck species which spends its winters in coastal waters where it dives deep to the seabed to feed on shellfish, crustaceans and other invertebrates in the sand and mud. They fly in tight-knit flocks at high speed and counting the number of individuals in a flock can be hard as they overlap each other. The first group whizzed past with about 35 birds in it, a mixture of the pure black males and paler brown females.

Each sort of seabird has its own flight style, shearwaters sailing the winds on stiff wings, scoters whirring wings to propel their heavy bodies along, skuas using a dynamic flight and terns a more delicate dipping movement – getting used to these variations helps you to spot the odd bird before you even know what it is going to be.

The rapid passing of the common species here always meant staying alert for something different; the odd ones from the morning session were:

  • 3 Arctic Skuas
  • 2 Sooty Shearwaters
  • 1 Sandwich Tern
  • 17 Manx Shearwaters
  • 1 Balearic Shearwater
  • 1 European (aka British) Storm Petrel
  • 2 Kittiwakes

These 7 species added just 22 birds to the day’s log, whereas gannet, Cory’s shearwater and common scoter contributed 239 birds, the majority being 111 Cory’s.

After 12:00 the wind dropped a bit and quite a few of the Spanish watchers started to pack up and go. Unlike the scene in the UK, the average age was not in the retirement bracket, and it was good to see a strong showing by female birders, who are in the minority in Britain. We persisted, as even half the numbers we had seen earlier would constitute a good day back in England and we did not have the luxury of popping back any day we fancy like the locals.

Dolphin and gannets work together

Feeding Frenzy Image courtesy of Chasula Aves/Xabier Vázquez Pumariño

We were rewarded by a classic ‘feeding frenzy’ a little later – less related to the weather conditions and more about the teamwork between dolphins and gannets. If one or the other species finds a shoal of fish, they start tearing into them.

If it’s dolphins, the fish move closer to the surface to escape and this is where the gannets can capitalise on the bounty, who fly high and can see the spray and splash of leaping dolphins and scattering fish.

If it is gannets first, dolphins can hear their deep plunging dives and as the fish swim deep they pursue them and tighten up the shoal from below, each predator benefitting from the other. The high-diving bright white gannets catch the attention of other gannets, and soon bring in other seabirds many of which will pick up scraps of fish from the surface.

On this occasion we had a flock of about 90 gannets and about 20 to 30 common dolphins off to our right, and this brought in a Bonxie which is basically a pirate, stealing the fish off gannets as they come to the surface, sometimes doing so by aggressively pursuing them in flight until the fish is regurgitated. A group of 30 Cory’s shearwaters joined the feeding frenzy but apart from that there were just six Cory’s in 50 minutes, compared to the 111 that went by in the first 90 minutes.

The glory of this session was a lovely long-tailed skua, an elegant bird which is rarely encountered in the UK. By the time this bird appeared the feeding frenzy was over, and all the other watchers had left.

The afternoon was quieter still, but we had the biggest number of common scoters and more Manx shearwaters so it was certainly not dull, and we left with a total of 1312 birds of 18 species, including a few non-seabirds (some waders and a grey heron on migration). With winds forecast to return to high and changing direction slightly tomorrow to a north-westerly, we were definitely going back!

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring

The next day