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 ventured off to Galicia in north Spain. Why did we decided to go ahead with our trip?

26th August 

Jasper Carrott was a comedian from the previous century, and he did this sketch about a troublesome Mole in his garden… Well, we had one tunnelling under our tent last night.

Now, we have had some interesting wildlife experiences camping, many wonderful ones such as hearing bird song at first light, even the previous site at the Picos had some fascinating solitary bees tunnelling in the sandy soil round our tent. Other experiences make you start to question whether wildlife and camping is quite as wonderful as it’s cracked up to be, like hedgehogs getting under the tent flap on the Scilly Isles, wild pigs snuffling round where we’d drained our tuna tin outside the door on a rainy a Chilean riverbank, and what the farmer told us must have been a fox (we think it was his dog) ripping the tent open to get our biscuits while we were walking the Pembrokeshire coast path… but never had a mole tunnelling underneath before. According to my partner Louise (who got the worst of it), it is quite disconcerting feeling your feet being pushed up from below. We did not work out what was going on until we got up and saw a line of fresh mole hills leading up to the tent, and then reappearing on the other side!

Today felt like a passerine day

The day dawned damp and no doubt the worms were on the move, encouraging Mr. Mole into his labours. It felt like one of those days in autumn migration season when birds heading south in favourable conditions find themselves disorientated by the fog and bedraggled by the rain, and seek landfall as soon as possible to sit out their passage until conditions improve.

Coastal regions are always of interest at migration time, according to the location, the conditions and season you might get a ‘fall’ of small passerines (songbirds) on days like this, making the first available landfall after a hazardous sea crossing.

On other days there could be seabirds blown in close to shore if you get strong onshore winds, or there may be an ever-changing portfolio of wading birds exploiting the muddy estuaries and so on as they depart the short breeding season of the Arctic summer and head for temperate or tropical regions to spend their winter.

Cape Ortegal in the fog
With very light winds and a thick layer of mist and drizzle, today felt like a passerine day.

We headed round the coast to areas of scrubby heathland on the headlands jutting north into the Bay of Biscay, Cabo Ortegal. Unfortunately, our hunch completely failed to pay off, and there was only a selection of the typical birds of the region on show.

It was nice to see a Dartford warbler, a species which you have to travel to the south of England to see at home, where they inhabit the heathlands of Dorset, Surrey and thereabouts, but these are really one of the least migratory of the warblers and no doubt this one was at home in its local patch of heath on Cabo Ortegal.

Can you see the lighthouse? 
The coast here has a ‘scenic drive’ with lots of viewpoints advertised by roadside signs, but with thick fog on the headland it was not exactly what the brochures advertise – nonetheless quite a few tourists were doing the trail and visiting the viewpoints, particularly at the magnificent lighthouse at the tip of the cape. While we were here, the clouds started to lift and we got some good views out to sea – nothing of interest in terms of seabirds, just the usual yellow-legged gulls and a few gannets. At least our hunch that seabird passage was not going to be worth investigating was proved correct.

Plan B: find some wader habitats

Ortiguera Marshes
Our next stop was the Ortiguera Marshes, a vast expanse of mudflats adjacent to some saltmarsh and reedbeds. With good access thanks to a beach car park – the majority of people turn left to go to the beach, we went right to the marshes,  a site where we had seen a plethora of waders, spoonbills and herons in the past. Today? A few gulls. One of the tribulations of migration time – birds come and go. Today, they had gone. We tried Lago San Martin, a vast estuary complex. Way off in the far distance, we could make out a spoonbill and five oystercatchers through the heat haze by using the telescope, but very little else.

We crossed the corner of Galicia, to see if the west-facing coast would be any better than the north-facing coast we had explored during the morning and early afternoon.

Eurasian whimbrel
On route we stopped at the upper part of another estuary where a couple of bar-tailed godwits and a whimbrel livened up the day’s bird list, both being high Arctic breeding species heading for Africa.

Safe bird-watching 
We then explored Xubia, a new place for us. The whole of this part of the Galician coast has a series of ‘Rias’, where rivers reach the sea and create excellent estuarine conditions. Although heavily industrialised with active ports and fishing activities, there is a bit of natural habitat. The rivers are generally small, but the land mass has lowered slightly to ‘drown’ them, creating larger estuaries than the rivers would ordinarily achieve, with vast expanses of mudflats. The shellfish is exploited for seafood, but with this comes a certain amount of protection from over-exploitation and pollution.

Xubia was a very slight improvement on the morning’s tally with a few common sandpipers and some lovely fish-watching with shoals of grey mullet moving up the estuary as the tide started coming in. While watching the fish in the shallows, a large European eel came out of its lair and moved into another secret eel-y place. We had seen another one going down the throat of one of the cormorants.

Eels are struggling across Europe as their upstream river migrations become harder with dams and weirs constructed across many rivers, and with pollution and over-exploitation affecting them everywhere, so it was good to see them here.

The birdwatching was not exactly riveting but the first greenfinch of the trip got a mention in the notebook. We headed out to the western-most point here and another great lighthouse Cabo Priorino, but the same selection of gulls and gannets were on offer here as had been seen earlier.

Time to head back to the campsite

While we cooked our meal a couple of choughs flew over the campsite – probably the best birds we had seen all day! Camping and wildlife was once again in happy harmony.  

Tomorrow’s weather forecast was for somewhat stronger winds and we decided that the seabirds might be worth a look. Unfortunately, the increasing wind also meant that one of the planned activities, a wildlife-watching boat trip out into the Atlantic for later in the week, had to be postponed.  

We could only hope the mole had finished his earthworks.

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring