Northern Spain has a very great deal to offer the naturalist. The dramatic limestone peaks of the Picos de Europa in the heart of the Cantabrian Mountains are justly famous for their scenery and birds. Less well known, but only a relatively short distance to the south, are the wide open plains of the upper Duero Valley, which offer a striking scenic contrast to the mountains and some very different but equally exciting birds. Add to this a sea crossing that provides some of the best seabird and whale watching possibilities that Europe has to offer and you have the makings of a very memorable trip indeed.
Our holiday starts with the ferry crossing from the south coast to Santander, a journey which at this time of year can produce sightings of an exciting range of whale and dolphin species. The ship is large and stable and provides a good vantage-point for scanning the sea ahead for that tell-tale fin or that column of spray, as one of these impressive creatures surfaces momentarily and ‘blows’. The ship crosses the continental shelf during the night and the morning will find us in the southern Bay of Biscay, a particularly rich feeding ground for whales. Here we have a chance of encountering such exciting species as Fin, Sei, Minke, Killer and Pilot Whales and Bottlenose, Common, Striped and Risso’s Dolphins. Seabirds are very likely to be in evidence too, and at this time of year we have a good chance of seeing Balearic, Sooty, Cory’s and Great Shearwaters, up to four species of skua, Sabine’s Gull, Grey Phalarope and petrels that may even include Wilson’s.
Once in Santander, we will make the short journey inland to Espinama in the heart of the Picos de Europa mountains. From our pleasant hotel here we are well positioned to explore the best that this remarkably unspoilt region has to offer. Amongst the high limestone crags and screes, reached by a short but spectacular journey on the Fuente Dé cable car, we will search for a range of high mountain specialists. Alpine Choughs, Water Pipits, Alpine Accentors, Crag Martins and the attractive Chamois are all common here and, with luck, we will find Snowfinch, Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting and even Wallcreeper. Raptors are a conspicuous feature of the Picos and, amongst the Griffon Vultures which are so often to be seen cruising effortlessly along the skyline, we must keep an eye open for Egyptian Vultures, Golden and Short-toed Eagles and Peregrine Falcons. Lower down, in the valleys, we will discover a very different landscape. Here there are mixed woodlands, tumbling streams, flower filled meadows, orchards and quiet, timeless villages. Amongst them we will look out for Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Woodlark, Dipper, Short-toed Treecreeper, Firecrest, Bonelli’s Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Cirl Bunting. Overhead we could see Booted Eagle, Red Kite, Honey Buzzard or Goshawk, whilst at our feet the meadows dazzle us with their flowers and a range of butterflies that may include Scarce Swallowtail, Cleopatra and the strange Black Satyr.
After our time in the Picos we will head south-west towards Zamora. In the course of an easy but remarkable morning’s drive which takes us over a couple of passes and through a series of picturesque valleys, we will descend from high mountains onto the wide open rolling vastness of the Duero plains. Here, in accordance with European Union directives, a large area of the plains are being farmed in a manner sympathetic to a range of sensitive and declining grassland bird species. The result is one of the largest concentrations of Great Bustards in the world, together with good populations of Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Montagu’s Harrier, Lesser Kestrel and Calandra Lark. With luck we will see all of these during our visit.
After this contrasting feast of scenery and birds in two rather forgotten parts of Spain, we will have to return to Santander. Counting the Mediterranean Gulls as we leave the harbour, we can look forward to more whales, dolphins, shearwaters and skuas as we once again cross the continental shelf out in the Bay of Biscay. Whatever we see, it is likely to be a fitting finale to a satisfying and memorable holiday.
This holiday was our first with Naturetrek. It will not be our last. We were looked after, and treated with respect, despite our obvious novice status regrading birdwatching. Both leaders were knowledgeable and patient. They answered all questions and understood the differing needs of individuals. The leaders complemented each other in their areas of expertise to provide a comprehensive knowledge of birds, flora and fauna. The views on this tour were breathtaking. The vastness of the seas on day one was matched by the vastness of the mountains and plains that followed. Every day we looked forward to a new adventure and were never disappointed. We made wonderful new acquaintances and have photographic evidence of some memorable moments. Thanks to you all.
I enjoyed the wide variety of habitats explored on this holiday, even including the opportunity to look round the towns of Potes and Zamora.
While the focus of the holiday was birds and mammals, I particularly enjoyed the general interest amongst the group in butterflies and dragonflies, and flowers. This added a great deal to the holiday. I particularly enjoyed the whale-watching - pilot whales and Cuvier’s (beaked whale).
A thoroughly enjoyable holiday with everything I expected.
Thank you very much for a well organised tour. I really enjoyed the holiday, finding it relaxing and informative.
Byron was, as he always is, an excellent leader. His knowledge is encyclopaedic and he looked after everyone's welfare meticulously. Laura, new to us, was also great. Everyone on the trip was impressed by her knowledge - a real all-rounder. Her local knowledge really enhanced our experience.
I was blown away by the trip. We saw huge numbers of familiar and new species of birds, butterflies and mammals, as well as spectacular scenery.
A brilliant trip. Both trip leaders excellent. Locations and birds seen were fantastic.
Thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish, it was wonderful seeing the 'real' Spain with two wonderful, knowledgeable guides
The leaders did their best to give all of us a good time and prepared splendid picnics using local fresh food.
Our leaders were really nice people and keen for us all to see everything. I know it was a birdwatching holiday, but there were plants around too and Zamora was a wonderful cultural town.
A special thank you to Peter and Alan, the tour leaders. They showed every care, consideration and kindness. I saw wonderful things that I'll never forget and enjoyed every minute.
This was our first Naturetrek holiday and it lived up to all our hopes and expectations. The tour leaders in particular were outstanding, with an amazing range of knowledge which they were always keen to share with everyone in the group. Their enthusiasm was infectious and was a major influence in bonding everyone in the group together and making it, for us, a particularly wonderful week. Our son also enjoyed himself tremendously and we are sure that he will wish to go on many more Naturetrek holidays in years to come.
The tour leaders were absolutely brilliant. They were amazingly knowledgeable about the vast majority of wildlife seen and heard and did a fantastic job of getting people to see species of all kinds. I can't thank them both enough: two genuinely interested and dedicated guys. Thank you! The variety of habitats and wildlife seen was mind-boggling and I truly loved every single moment - even to the point of seeing my third consecutive sunrise! I came on the holiday unsure of what to expect (it was my 1st such holiday), with a list of birds I wanted to see but with little hope of seeing them. However, by the 3rd and 4th days in Spain I had to think of new species to add to the list, having had stunning views of all of them! Add in the many other beautiful species, the numerous whales and dolphins, the dazzling butterflies and breathtaking scenery, and you have one incredible package. Thank you once more!
Superb in all respects - both leaders worked really hard to facilitate sightings for the whole group; both were patient, helpful, good-humoured, safe drivers, competent caterers and highly knowledgeable about a broad range of wildlife, especially, of course, birds and butterflies.
Once again, Peter Dunn and his co-leaders have provided an excellent service. Their knowledge and skill of their subject was first class.
This was another memorable trip - now our 4th with Naturetrek. Peter and Alan were excellent, both in terms of their expertise regarding the wildlife and their organisational skills.
Overall and extremely enjoyable holiday providing a great range of wildlife viewing opportunities. It was great to travel by ferry as this was an integral part of the holiday, rather than just a means of transport. Peter and Alan were both excellent leaders, and generated a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Minibus and lunch stops were well chosen. Lunches were excellent. As you can tell I really enjoyed this holiday and would definitely recommend it.
Thank you to both our excellent leaders for making the trip so enjoyable.
The leaders worked together very well as a team; they were very helpful and good fun.