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In Search of the Littlest Grizzly in the Somiedo Natural Park: 2013 Trip Report

Teresa Farino
07/11/2013 13:47:26

This trip was organised to maximise our chances of seeing one or perhaps more of the 200 or so wild and naturally elusive Brown Bears present in the beautiful and rugged Cantabrican Mountains in northern Spain.

Posted in: Flora, Butterflies and Moths, Dragonflies and Damselflies, Other Invertebrates, Birds, Mammals | Asturias | Mainland Spain, Northern Spain

Bear road-sign © Teresa FarinoWelcome to Somiedo!© Teresa FarinoHowever, in stark contrast to most other tours to see the species in Europe, no hides are used here, no feeding is allowed, and the observations of bears behaving completely naturally in truly wild surroundings usually take place from some distance. Our base in the spectacular Somiedo Natural Park was very carefully chosen to allow us not only to maximise our chances of bear sightings – both here and in nearby areas – but also to enjoy the stunning surroundings and the abundance of other fauna and, indeed, flora.

Naturally, working in close collaboration with the Brown Bear Foundation (Fundación Oso Pardo) enabled us to promote good bear-watching practices and also helped us to demonstrate to the regional conservation authorities - in something of a showcase example - that wildlife tourism involving brown bear observation and conservation can go hand in hand. Indeed Iberian Wildlife Tours is one of only two tour operators to collaborate with FOP, and the only Where the bears live... © Teresa FarinoPenolta: prime bear habitat© Teresa Farinoforeign one. The fact that IWT was featured in an article in the most widely selling regional newspaper during our stay should help this cause!

Obviously, one can’t simply go to the area and see bears just wandering around, even though the tour was carefully timed to coincide with a particular peak of summer bear activity, as the areas favoured by feeding bears are strictly off-limits. In theory, at this time of year the now quite rapidly increasing population of Brown Bears that inhabits these extensive valleys, forests and peaks shows a marked preference for feeding on the berries of Alpine Buckthorn Rhamnus alpinus – and to a lesser degree Red Currants Ribes rubrum – in the limestone areas, or Bilberries Vaccinium myrtillus on more acid soils. And typically, in late summer this usually involves the locally breeding females who come out above the tree-line with their cubs to forage among the bushes on the higher mountain slopes, where they are far more visible than in the forests below. It’s been suggested that this is a strategy to allow the females to keep a crucial eye out for the larger males, as the latter will sometimes kill cubs – especially if they are not their own – in order to bring the females back into breeding condition.

Alpine Buckthorn berries - Rhamnus alpinus © Teresa FarinoAlpine Buckthorn berries
Rhamnus alpinus
© Teresa Farino
But of course, this is not a zoo and not everything goes as planned... The late winter of 2012/2013 continued through to a late spring that was both wet and much colder than usual. This massively delayed the flowering of many of the spring and summer plants, and in consequence the development of their fruits. As a result, this summer the bears – which usually switch from eating cherries (once these run out) around the end of July, to the Alpine Buckthorn fruits a few weeks later – were in some cases still up the cherry trees at night during our stay! In addition, several other fruits, particularly the Bilberries on the nearby siliceous mountains to the south and west, had almost completely failed due to the bad spring weather ruining the flowers, such that these bears were almost impossible to locate as they were foraging over a much larger area than usual in search of other resources. Luckily for us, most of the Alpine Buckthorn bushes in the Somiedo Natural Park were simply laden with fruit when we arrived (at least at the start of the week!).

Bear-watching at La Peral © Teresa FarinoBear-watching at La Peral© Teresa FarinoUnfortunately, it seems that none of the Somiedo female Brown Bears had cubs this year. That said, however, we were rewarded by repeated sightings of many adults and older cubs over the course of the week, as well as observing multiple interactions between different individuals. In fact, it will probably be impossible in the future to repeat what we did see: between one and five different bears on every single one of our 11 dawn/dusk watches, involving a minimum of 10 individuals. The FOP wardens who accompanied us on almost all our watches repeatedly asserted that it is very difficult to identify individual bears with certainty, and even telling males from females can be all but impossible with these relatively small individuals, as we found out. However, we certainly distinguished at least two big black males (apparently the females here are never black), two sets of emancipated young brothers (in their second and third years of life), several ‘blond’ bears, including three on one watch, and several ‘patchwork’ individuals. Big black male - Ursus arctos © Teresa FarinoBig black male
Ursus arctos
© Teresa Farino

Nearly all our observations were made from just one or two viewpoints, and even though large groups of watchers were present most days (up to 85 people on one occasion!), this had no visible impact on the bears or their behaviour, other than for one brief moment when a breeze was blowing across the valley towards them, and one or two sat down on the tops of boulders for a few minutes, aiming their huge noses towards us, obviously registering that we were there, but apparently not a threat.

Of course, the weather also had a considerable part to play in all this. Many of the observations are made at around 1300 or 1400m above sea level and the cloud can blow in at any time. But throughout our stay we were consistently blessed with exceptionally good weather, meaning that only one of our evening watches was marginally cut short for this reason.

This also meant that while the birds in the park were rather thin on the ground and low in diversity, given summer moult and only small numbers of migrants, the butterflies more than made up for this, with over 60 species recorded within the park during our midday excursions, including hundreds of Chalk-hill Blues most days, an apparently new colony of Black Satyr for Asturias, a couple of late Purple Emperors and Apollos and Mud-puddling Chalk-hill Blues - Polyommatus cordon © Teresa FarinoMud-puddling Chalk-hill Blues
Polyommatus coridon
© John Muddeman
even the discovery – albeit just outside the park, in the neighbouring province of León – of a thriving colony of the extremely local and usually very scarce Spanish Argus.

One day we headed south into León, to an area that brown bears are currently recolonising after decades of being absent; rounding off the morning we made a specific stop to observe damage to cherry trees caused by bears, before moving to a local restaurant for lunch. An afternoon walk revealed Wolf and Brown Bear droppings adjacent to a bog studded with flowering Marsh Gentians, while after a picnic dinner a last-minute, distant dusk bear sighting came just moments before a tremendous meteorite was observed by most! As if this were not enough, on the journey back, a lovely Beech Marten on the roadside bank gave repeated views for most in the second bus!

Tuesday 27 August

After collecting everyone from Asturias airport, a 90-minute drive southwards - along ever more narrowing and winding roads - took us to our accommodation in Pola de Somiedo. After a short settling-in period we made a preliminary visit to the FOP Information Centre on the outskirts of the town, where we met Somiedo FOP wardens Yummy Alpine Buckthorn berries! © Teresa FarinoYummy Alpine Buckthorn berries!© Teresa Farino Marcos and Toño, who were to be our principal guides for the dawn and dusk watches.

Given the fact that bears had been seen repeatedly over the previous few days, we then headed out for our first dusk watch at La Peral, where we also met FOP founder and Director Guillermo Palomero, who had generously and unstintingly collaborated with IWT in the organisation of this tour.

La Peral was looking like being THE place to see bears this summer. Indeed, seemingly unbelievably, two yearling cubs – presumed to be siblings born over the winter of 2011/12 – were already on show as we arrived, foraging on the Alpine Buckthorn berries, and a third – a large black male – appeared shortly afterwards. We couldn’t believe our luck to have seen these magnificent but elusive animals at our very first attempt! We finished off with a last-minute view of a Southern Chamois before poor light terminated the day’s play.

While very late by British standards, we returned to the first of the huge and excellent dinners we were treated to during our stay at Casa Miño and then, once a number of disoriented party members had been rounded up off the streets and redirected to their hotel, finally fell into bed, many of us no doubt dreaming of plantigrades that night!

Wednesday 28 August
A 6am, pre-breakfast coffee and magdalena was a great start, and the great majority of us were off before dawn under a star-festooned sky to get back to La Peral as early as possible. A Tawny Owl was flushed by the first minibus and just seen by the second, but our sole Eurasian Nightjar of the week was only seen by a few as it flew down the road between the vehicles for a few seconds.

The watch was once again successful with at least three bears being seen. Although superficially very similar to the previous evening’s individuals, the FOP wardens insisted that it is almost impossible to identify individual bears with any certainty, especially at telescope range. That said, we were determined to have a go, noting how the fur on different bears varied, both in overall colour and also in the extent and distribution of the paler patches, particularly around the neck and shoulders, making an initial separation of the large Purple Emperor - Apatura iris © Teresa FarinoPurple Emperor
Apatura iris
© Teresa Farino
black male bears from the more numerous and generally smaller ‘blonde’ or ‘patchwork’ bears, which could be either males or females.

A few birds were noted during the watch, including several calling Red-billed Choughs which then flew overhead, while small birds in the village included a few Tree and Water Pipits, Black Redstarts and Common Linnets, all of which were to become standard daily fare.

After our ‘proper’ breakfast starting shortly after 10 am, and a subsequent change of clothing from heavier dawn/dusk garments to lightweight daytime attire, we reconvened in the centre of town and headed back to La Peral for a walk along a fairly flat track below the watch point. Despite a cool breeze, it was hot and sunny, so not surprisingly the rich mixture of haymeadows and pastures, woodland patches and rocky slopes turned up a wealth of butterflies. Indeed, just entering the village we found the first of numerous Chalk-hill Blues, a Tree Grayling and a Mallow Skipper, and then another butterfly that had us guessing for a while but turned out to be a female Black Satyr. Most remarkable, however, was a male Purple Emperor supping on a dubious looking little ‘slick’ in the road. Indeed it turned out to be groggy and was simply picked up to move it off the road and to safety and away from possible traffic or stray boots!

Large Wall Brown - Lasiommata maera © Teresa FarinoLarge Wall Brown
Lasiommata maera
© John Muddeman
With widely differing interests among the members of the group it turned out to be almost impossible to walk at the same speed, so we ended up strung out along the path, trying to see as much of everything as possible. Butterfly lovers were rewarded by clouds of Chalk-hill Blues, Mountain Arguses and Green-veined Whites supping mineral salts from wet patches on the track, plus Marbled Whites galore nectaring in the adjacent meadows. Other species noted included many Clouded and a few Berger’s Clouded Yellows, Dark Green, High Brown, Silver-washed, Queen-of-Spain and Knapweed Fritillaries, Sooty and Scarce Coppers, Common and Holly Blues, Brimstones and Cleopatras, an occasional Small Tortoiseshell and even a very late Blue-spot Hairstreak, as well as lone individuals of Oberthür’s Grizzled and Silver-spotted Skippers and Rock and Great Banded Graylings. Rocky outcrops further along were attractive to a few Large Wall Browns while a couple of stunning Apollos and Swallowtails were also noted. A butterfly feast!

An adult male Red-backed Shrike was a fine bird to start with, while thanks to a few people detouring along a side track, several small birds that were hiding in some trees moved out into view for the rest of us, notably a fine Wryneck, plus Whinchats, Common Stonechats and a couple of flighty Common Redstarts. Closer at hand we noted the difference between the black-and-yellow-striped Asturian Bush-crickets Steropleurus asturiensis and the rather larger, all-green Lusitanian Bush-crickets Neocallicrania selligera, the flightless males of both species ‘zipping’ noisily from the wayside brooms. We were also able to separate Female Asturian Bush-cricket - Steropleurus asturiensis © Teresa FarinoFemale Asturian Bush-cricket
Steropleurus asturiensis
© Teresa Farino
these easily from the long-winged Great Green Bush-crickets Tettigonia viridissima, both by sight and by ear, as the males of the latter stridulate quite differently.

Plant-wise, the Fringed Gentians Gentianopsis ciliata ssp. ciliata in a damp meadow below the path were the greatest cause for excitement, as these are now incredibly rare in Britain (listed as Critically Endangered) but we also noted with interest the berry-laden Alpine Buckthorn bushes along the field margins, speculating that the fruits did indeed look rather tasty!

We had our picnic lunch in the meagre shade cast by some stream-side bushes below La Peral; a good idea in principal, although large numbers of flies made it a rather less leisurely affair than we had hoped. A huge Common Goldenring dragonfly cruised up and down past the group, and a couple of calling Willow Warblers and Iberian Chiffchaffs also tried to break our concentration.

We returned to our hotel for a quick siesta and then late afternoon again headed back up to the same bear-watching spot. While there were one or two raised eyebrows regarding returning to the same location, we reassured folks that the FOP wardens had told us this was the only viewpoint producing regular observations right now. On this occasion, we once again saw a big black male bear, a pair of rather larger siblings with different fur patterns to those observed previously, and a lone, long-legged yearling that we nicknamed Patoso, as he seemed to be rather clumsy at negotiating the boulder-laden scree.

Thursday 29 August
Our second full day and the ‘schedule’ was falling into place, with once again, successful observations of bears on both the dawn and dusk watches from La Peral. While very, very distant, a fortunate few were just about able to make out the yellow beaks of some Alpine Choughs circling high up in front of the cliffs above the main bear feeding area, while further views of many more Southern Chamois were also made as we started to ‘get our eyes in’ during our scans of the mountains slopes and crags.

After a very brief pause to photograph a male Silver-washed Fritillary on the Buddleja in Pola de Somiedo, and then another as the occupants of the first minibus contemplated our first Camberwell Beauty in the middle of the road, the midday excursion took us up the Saliencia valley. We drove slowly up this spectacular valley, enjoying the stunning views and geological formations, finally stopping at the highest point: Alto de la Silver-studded Blue - Plebejus argus © Teresa FarinoSilver-studded Blue
Plebejus argus
© Teresa Farino
Farrapona. We then took a short, and partly downhill walk to a point overlooking one of the main glacial lakes in the region. Splitting into two groups allowed us to bird and butterfly or botanise and butterfly respectively, while one or two of the more intrepid even managed to make it down to the lake itself, noting Arctic Char in the chilly waters!

Bird interest was high as soon as we disembarked from the minibuses, with a passing Black Vulture – a very scarce species for this part of the world – admired by all as it glided overhead in the beautiful sunny conditions, giving us an excellent opportunity to compare it to the local wandering Griffons. Small birds calling from the scrub included Blackcap, European Robin and Dunnock, the latter of which is a high mountain breeder here, rather than a drab dweller of UK gardens, while the very flighty European Serins more Mediterranean fare! A few Pied Flycatchers and furtive Willow Warblers on autumn migration kept us alert as we walked, while at the end, at a fine viewpoint, we watched a couple of Crag Martins swooping around the rock-faces, and a small flock of moulting Rock Buntings lurking in the shade on the side of a small cliff.

Male León Rock Lizard - Iberolacerta galani © Teresa FarinoMale León Rock Lizard
Iberolacerta galani
© John Muddeman
With a notable breeze the butterflies were fewer and more difficult to observe, and we never did get really good views of a few dashing ringlets to see what they definitely were, but a couple of Silver-studded Blues were new, and a greenish lizard which came out to bask in front of many as we sat quietly contemplating the scenery turned out to be a male León (Iberian) Rock Lizard. Indeed, just sitting here turned out to be a very good idea, as we heard a few sweet notes from a song coming from somewhere behind a fine cabaña. Searching with the scope revealed a couple of rather mobile Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes, and most of us got decent, albeit fairly long-distance views.

Stag's-horn Clubmoss - Lycopodium clavatum © Teresa FarinoStag's-horn Clubmoss
Lycopodium clavatum
© Teresa Farino
The more botanically minded members of the group moved at a much slower pace, noting a phenomenal variety of ‘alpine’ plants, including interesting pteridophytes such as Stag's-horn Clubmoss Lycopodium clavatum, Lesser Clubmoss Selaginella selaginoides, Moonwort Botrychium lunaria, Lemon-scented Fern Lastraea limbosperma and Holly-fern Polystichum lonchitis and late-flowering angiosperms such as Ashy Crane’s-bill Geranium cinereum ssp. subargenteum, Pyrenean Eryngo Eryngium bourgatii, Astrantia Astrantia major, Field Gentian Gentianella campestris and White False Helleborine Veratrum album.

We also encountered a whole host of interesting species in fruit – Thore’s Buttercup Ranunculus thora, Alpine Pasque-flower Pulsatilla alpina ssp. cantabrica, the white-flowered Anemone pavoniana and crucifer Teesdaliopsis conferta (both of which are unique to northern Spain), Alpine St John’s-wort Hypericum richeri ssp. burseri, Common Wintergreen Pyrola minor, St Patrick's cabbage Saxifraga spathularis, Cone Saxifrage S. conifera (a Cordillera Cantábrica endemic), Livelong Saxifrage S. paniculata, Spring Gentian Gentiana verna, Pyrenean Germander Teucrium pyrenaicum, Dragonmouth Horminum pyrenaicum, Spiked Pyrenean Speedwell Veronica ponae, Small-flowered Foxglove Digitalis parviflora, Hairless Blue-sowthistle Cicerbita plumieri, Valeriana montana, Martagon Lily Lilium martagon and Frog Orchid Coeloglossum viride (= Dactylorhiza viridis) – giving not a few of us the idea that we simply must return earlier in the year to see them in flower!

Streptopus - Streptopus amplexifolius © Teresa FarinoStreptopus
Streptopus amplexifolius
© Teresa Farino
We made our back up to the car-park and set up our picnic lunch in a small patch of shade on the main track, this clearly being the envy of a string of passers-by. A huge female Purple Emperor even flew in then drifted back and forth to take a ‘sniff’ at what was present! Just before we returned to base, Mark returned from yet another botanical foray with tales of yet another interesting plant; it turned out to be Streptopus Streptopus amplexifolius, a species that Teresa had only previously seen in the central Pyrenees, but apparently also occurs sporadically in the mountains of northern Spain.

An integral part of the tour was to learn a little more about the Brown Bears both in the park and in the Cantabrican Mountains as a whole, so later that afternoon we attended a session organised especially for our group by Fernando Ballesteros, principal biologist with FOP. He talked at length about the biology, demography and conservation of the Spanish Brown Bears, then patiently answered our many questions, after which he joined us for the evening watch, which turned out to be one of the best so far, with much interaction between the larger pair of siblings and an enormous black male, who seemed determined to run them off his patch!

Friday 30 August
A change of rhythm saw us omitting the morning watch, so as to have time to visit another renowned bear locality in Villablino, over the mountains in neighbouring León. Our guide for the day was another FOP warden called Luis, who is also a top-notch ornithologist.

We walked out from the small village of Rabanal through a mixture of habitats ranging from pastures and open poplar groves to denser species-rich deciduous woodland on a steep slope. Most of the group managed to reach the end of the route, to admire a couple of small water mills beside a lovely little river.

The birds were very much in evidence from the beginning of the walk, with the back-markers enjoying a fine European Honey-buzzard gliding across the valley and over us almost before we’d started, while the pastures ahead turned up myriad migrant Whinchats, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers, Common Redstart and Common Whitethroat on the fences and dry-stone walls. With Luis trying to talk to us about bear behaviour, activity and signs it was difficult to all keep together at times, and when an Iberian Green Woodpecker flew up to perch up in a tree, it obviously took precedence! A variety of small woodland birds was also present, including a couple of relatively showy Short-toed Treecreepers, but a superb close Short-toed Eagle that soared slowly up in front of us in the valley ahead was undoubtedly the highlight.

Female Speckled Bush-cricket - Leptophyes punctatissima © Teresa FarinoFemale Speckled Bush-cricket
Leptophyes punctatissima
© Teresa Farino
The butterflies on these acid soils were also slightly different, with the first of several Lang’s Short-tailed Blues and False Ilex and Purple Hairstreaks putting in an appearance, with Grayling, Black Satyr and even a late White Admiral also duly noted. Other invertebrates encountered along the way included the handsome black-and-red shield bug Graphosoma italicum, both male and female Speckled Bush-crickets Leptophyes punctatissima and several flamboyant Jersey Tiger moths Euplagia quadripunctaria. The botanical highlights included Wood Crane’s-bill Geranium sylvaticum, the simply enormous umbellifer Angelica major, which is endemic to Central-Western Iberia, the large, fluorescent-pink toadflax Linaria triornithophora, both Spreading and Rampion Bellflowers (Campanula patula and C. rapunculus, respectively) and drifts of Meadow Saffron Colchicum autumnale.

Time started to slip away, so we headed back down to the village, jumped in the minibuses and then stopped again nearby to observe bear damage. While we’d been unable to find bear footprints earlier on a wetter section of the morning’s track where they are sometimes seen –the continuing dry weather meant tracks and signs of bears were proving to be all but impossible to find – here was a great alternative. Looking across an allotment we could see how several branches of a slender cherry tree beyond were either doubled-over in the tree or even torn off and lying on the ground: classic signs of damage caused by bears feeding at night on the tasty fruits. That the same bear then decided to shin up a huge cherry tree growing beside a cottage, giving the owner a fright one night when she shone a torch into its eyes just feet away, just illustrated how, as the bear population starts to recover, potential conflicts with humans can arise. The details of this rather amusing story of course were undoubtedly best appreciated in situ!

Marsh Gentian - Gentiana pneumonanthe © Teresa FarinoMarsh Gentian
Gentiana pneumonanthe
© John Muddeman
Lunch was also a change today, being a 3-course sit-down meal in a local restaurant, and once finished, despite it being quite hot, we headed off with Luis again in the direction of our evening viewpoint, not far from Valdeprado. Here we were to meet José, another FOP warden who stayed with us for the watch, but before that Luis took most of us off along a small track through an area of heathland and down towards some acid bogs in search of more signs of bears and other wildlife. A large Wolf scat he’d located the week before had disappeared though, much to his confusion, until one of the party came up and asked what sort of fur it was they’d found lying on the ground... The scat was so packed with Wild Boar hair that after just a few days breaking down it just looked like a tuft of bristles lying on the ground! A few more Wolf scats of varying freshness were also found along the trail, while a fairly fresh Brown Bear dropping, full of Bilberry seeds, was also discovered by Luis.

After one tense moment, the local goat-herder’s dogs - one equipped with a full spiked collar as protection against wolves - thankfully decided we were not a threat to the large herd, but we gave them as wide a berth as possible just to be on the safe side. The very dry conditions were not conducive to good displays of wildflowers, but the botanists worked hard again and turned up a number of peatbog specialties, including Marsh Violet Viola palustris, several superb Marsh Gentians Gentiana pneumonanthe in full bloom and, amongst the less showy species, Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia and Marsh Clubmoss Lycopodiella inundata, the latter a rather scarce Red Data Book species in both Spain and the United Kingdom.

Queen of Spain Fritillary - Issoria lathonia © Teresa FarinoQueen of Spain Fritillary
Issoria lathonia
© Teresa Farino
Those who were finding it simply too hot to walk after lunch stayed to rest in the shade where we’d parked. Once cooled down, however, most people wandered off to examine the wealth of butterflies around the clearing, turning up Swallowtail, Blue-spot Hairstreak, Scarce and Sooty Coppers and huge numbers of Peacocks and Queen of Spain Fritillaries nectaring on stands of Hemp Agrimony Eupatoria cannabina.

We finished the day with a picnic dinner at the evening’s watch point. A few small birds were on show early on, while the biggest surprise for two ladies ‘looking for bushes’ were two fine Garden Dormice which ran across the path in front of them. Another ‘aside’ was the small raised bog located by Teresa while she was similarly occupied, which turned up several trailing plants of Ivy-leaved Bellflower Wahlenbergia hederacea.

With a cool, at times even chilly, breeze blowing, it was difficult to keep looking the whole time, and as the light really started to fail, we had basically resigned ourselves to drawing a blank.

Bear-watching can be tough... © Teresa FarinoBear-watching can be tough...© John MuddemanJosé had other ideas though, and with just minutes of usable light left, he located a bear feeding high up on the slopes. Most of us were able to get onto this individual before it really became too dark, but even while we were still smiling at our luck and walking towards the vehicles another big surprise was in store: a substantial meteorite burned a path across the eastern sky in front of us, clearly fracturing into several pieces during its fall... Simply spectacular for those who were fortunate enough to be looking in the right direction!

With over an hour’s drive to get back to Somiedo we started off, first being guided towards Villablino and once there, we were on our own. Keeping his distance in the second bus, John was delayed at one point thinking he’d seen a possible snake in the road. Returning and stopping revealed a remarkably reptilian stick, but the delay worked in our favour: just a couple of minutes further on, two eyes glinted as their owner ran across the road... A fluffy-tailed shape bounded onto the bottom of a steep cutting on our right and a superb Stone (Beech) Marten peered back at us! This was a difficult angle, but at least most in the front and those on the right could see it as it moved higher up, then after hiding behind a stone, peered out again giving fine views of its large white bib. It finally disappeared up over the top and once again we were left with smiles on our faces, which even the dense fog - making driving very tricky at times on the upper part of the descent to Pola - failed to budge!

Saturday 31 August
Teresa took four up for the early morning watch. It turned out to be another spectacle of bear interaction as we watched one large black male chase another very similar individual from one side of the valley to the other; both had their mouths wide open, and were obviously very tired. A large ‘blonde’ bear with black rings round its eyes and a distinctive scar on the shoulder was also in evidence, and we Grass-of-Parnassus - Parnassia palustris © Teresa FarinoGrass-of-Parnassus
Parnassia palustris
© Teresa Farino
surmised that this was perhaps bear number eight of our tally during the week. A fourth bear was apparently seen on the slopes above Llamardal, on the opposite side of the valley, but unfortunately we didn’t manage to spot this one.

After we’d all reassembled mid-morning, we headed south again, this time stopping at the Puerto de Somiedo. Although much drier than usual, there were still wet areas with plenty of Bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata, Grass-of-Parnassus Parnassia palustris, Marsh Ragwort Senecio aquaticus and two species that are distinctly rare in the UK: Creeping Marshwort Apium repens and Flat-sedge Blysmus compressus. The insects included some fine Red-underwing and Lulworth Skippers, a striking Broom Moth caterpillar and plenty of Yellow-winged Darters and Keeled Skimmers, plus a few Moorland Hawkers, which in Spain are restricted to higher altitude bog areas. Birds were very thin on the ground, but calling Red-billed Choughs, a few Water Pipits, several Northern Wheatears and a flock of very elusive moulting Rock Buntings were noted.

We then headed further south, over the pass towards the dry limestones of La Cueta (Babia), pausing en route to look at a Roe Deer in some scrub, then watching a male Goshawk flying into the same. The rock outcrops along this delightful road were clearly creating something of a heat trap and with the crystalline river adjacent to this, we stopped and took a good walk, either one way up the road, or down and back, to investigate the flora and fauna present.

Spanish Argus - Aricia morronensis © Teresa FarinoSpanish Argus
Aricia morronensis
© Teresa Farino
Most notable was the superb abundance of butterflies: Silver-spotted Skippers, Chalk-hill and Turquoise Blues, Mountain Arguses, numerous Black Satyrs and Rock Graylings, bright Scarce Coppers, a few Esper’s Marbled Whites and even the odd, albeit very worn, Iberian Marbled White. The highlight, however, was undoubtedly the discovery of a colony of the delightful little Iberian endemic Spanish Argus.

A few Brown Trout were also seen in the river, and Ann’s (sadly unsuccessful!) quest to see Iberian Desman led to her spotting both a White-throated Dipper and a single male Schreiber’s Green Lizard on the banks. The botanists were also having fun, locating a number of new species for the trip, including Mountain Tragacanth Astragalus sempervirens, Swallow-wort Vincetoxicum hirundinaria, Wall Germander Teucrium chamaedrys, the exceedingly fragrant Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis, Narrow-leaved Valerian Centranthus lecoqii, Clustered [iBellflower Campanula glomerata, mat-forming Globularia repens and the huge flat-topped inflorescences of Golden Ragwort Senecio doria on the margins of the river. Hyssop - Hyssopus officinalis © Teresa FarinoHyssop
Hyssopus officinalis
© Teresa Farino

A little later than planned, we lunched on a beautiful ancient bridge over the river, where shade from a few trees was welcome respite from the intense sun. We eventually pulled ourselves away and headed back to Pola for a bit of a break before returning out to La Peral for the dusk watch. Once again the two black males were present, feeding peacefully at some distance from one another for about an hour before the smaller individual once again chased the larger one over the top of the ridge.

Yet another big black male - ...or maybe the same one? © Teresa FarinoYet another big black male ...or maybe the same one!© John MuddemanSome 85 watchers were counted leaving the site that evening, so over 100 people had visited: testament to the incredible growth in interest in seeing bears in the wild and also to the fact that this was undoubtedly the most productive observation point in the area at the time of our visit.

Sunday 1 September
With Teresa unfortunately laid-up with a very nasty bug that had finally got the better of her, John took a minibus full up to the La Peral watch point for the morning ‘bearfest’.

To compensate for having just one leader, the midday excursion was simplified to an out-and-back walk along a good trail that winds its way gently up along the valley above the Somiedo River. With dense scrub and woodland cloaking the often near vertical flanks of the gorge it was at least partly shaded, and we were very grateful for this. This was a lower and hotter location as compared to our previous high-mountain forays, so the Southern Hawker - Aeshna mixta © Teresa FarinoSouthern Hawker
Aeshna mixta
© John Muddeman
vegetation was markedly different, including abundant Western Holm Oak Quercus ilex ssp. ballota and a few Broad-leaved Lime Trees Tilia platyphyllos amongst others. Unfortunately, the unusually hot and dry conditions though meant that few plants were at their best, but the botanists did manage to locate the seeding spikes of Marsh Helleborine Epipactis palustris and Common Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris in a wet flush, where we also spotted two male Keeled Skimmers, a superb Common Goldenring and, on our return, single Blue and Migrant Hawkers patrolling nearby.

Small woodland birds were much more in evidence through their calls here, including Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits, Short-toed Treecreeper and Eurasian Nuthatch, while a key sighting was of a small family party of Firecrests moving noisily through the dense canopy low overhead at one point.

The butterflies were also good from the start, including Lulworth Skipper, Marbled White, several False Ilex and a single Purple Hairstreak, common Cleopatras and a few Brimstones, a Camberwell Beauty, several fritillaries including Silver-washed, Knapweed and Queen-of-Spain, Red Admiral, Speckled Wood, a couple of Dusky Heaths, and no less than four species of Grayling, including the ever-impressive Great Banded Grayling, Rock and Tree. A very worn Small Copper as we returned to the vehicle was, remarkably, our only one of the trip, as was a stunning male Adonis Blue!

The long hot walk to some unfortunately over-dry meadows near the far end nearly finished some of the group off, but these were rapidly revitalised after rejoining the rest of the party who had set up and were tucking into Teresa’s excellent lunch in a lovely shaded picnic area near the river.

With Teresa still sadly out of action, the decision was made not to go out for the evening bear-watch and to have dinner at an earlier time for those who were still finding it difficult adjusting to late Spanish eating hours!

Monday 2 September
A small group made it out for the La Peral pre-breakfast bear watch where, for a ...no problems with the rock terrain! © Teresa Farino...no problems with the rocky terrain!© John Muddemanchange, most activity was focussed on the slopes above Llamardal: two largish brownish bears, both with silvery dorsal patches, were seen chasing one another up the scree and over the ridge. In addition, a ‘patchwork’ bear spent most of our watch feeding assiduously amongst the Alpine Buckthorn bushes on the Penolta side of the watch-point.

Our midday excursion took us from the village of Llamardal across the slope to the Braña de Mumián; fortunately we were given permission to bus those who were feeling the strain of the long hours up to the start of the path, to avoid walking up the steep access road to the hamlet.

The quite long slow ascent traversed the steep slope we’d been seeing daily during the bear watches, providing us with much wildlife of interest. Relatively cool at the start, it gave us superb views along and across the valley, soon crossing a copse of Beech trees, where Don decided to sit quietly in the shade to birdwatch. The rest of us continued walking until we reached the scree slopes, where we could see at close quarters just how steep the areas are that the bears prefer, as well as the density of the fruiting Alpine Buckthorn bushes, some visibly bent over from the foraging bears.

Setina cantabrica © Teresa FarinoSetina cantabrica© Teresa FarinoBirds were almost absent, but we delighted in the abundant butterflies, plus a few moths too, including a mixture of two very similar day-flying Dew Moths: Setina flavicans, which is a Western European/Mediterranean species; and Setina cantabrica, with dark spots on the upper hindwings, which is endemic to the western reaches of the Cordillera Cantábrica. Other moths of interest included the stunning Red-collared Burnet (also known as Chalk Burnet), seen at a couple of spots feeding on the waving heads of scabious, and a green Forester Moth Adscita sp. – very difficult to determine the species in this genus – for a lucky few.

Dusky Heath - Coenonympha-dorus © Teresa FarinoDusky Heath
© John Muddeman
Several things were new on the botanical front, including Kidney Saxifrage Saxifraga hirsuta, Angular Solomon’s-seal Polygonatum odoratum and Mountain Onion Allium senescens ssp. montanum, plus several species that are rather scarce in the UK, such as the diminutive Small Hare’s-ear Bupleurum baldense and Fly Honeysuckle Lonicera xylosteum, while Virginia found the attractive ‘thistle’ Carduncellus mitissimus, which is apparently very rare in Asturias.

The track reached a little peak and then dropped down again to the attractive braña itself. Looking closely at these cabins, our accompanying FOP warden Toño explained construction and uses to a rather reduced group, whilst the wildlife here included another colourful male León Rock Lizard as well as foraging Hummingbird Hawk-moths.

We returned to Llamardal in dribs and drabs, then – given the intense sun and lack of shade– drove back down to our cooler picnic spot of the day before for yet another fine lunch.

Teresa and a few of the more bear-besotted members of the party returned once again to La Peral in the evening for their final bear-watching fix! Not one of the more memorable occasions, unfortunately, with just the ‘patchwork’ individual from the morning’s watch on view, but we could hardly complain, as we’d not failed to see a bear on ANY of our many watches during the week!

Tuesday 3rd September
All good things must come to an end, and in order to see a fraction more of Asturias in addition to the Somiedo Natural Park and its mountainous surroundings, Teresa organised a gentle and easy drive down to the picturesque coastline. We stopped first at the viewpoint at the Punta del Espíritu Santo, which gave fantastic views along the cliff-edged coastline, as well as a fine Long-tailed Blue, and a few dragonflies basking in the sun on the sheltered side of the cliff-top. We also spotted a European Shag as it scudded along the cliffs, which led us to locate a small stack just offshore with a group of these birds ‘drying’ in the sun.

We finished off with a very relaxing coffee break in the nearby town bordering the estuary of the River Nalón before heading off to the airport for our respective flights and journeys home.

Compiling this report and reliving the trip has been a delightful experience, and has brought home to us just how much we owe the success of the trip to the efforts of the staff of the Fundación Oso Pardo and Casa Miño. Especial thanks to Guillermo Palomero, Marcos Simón, Toño Martín, Fernando Ballesteros, Luis Fernández and José Manuel Ramón, from FOP, and to our host Miño for attending willingly – and with unstinting good humour – to our somewhat eclectic needs between 6am and midnight for seven days on the trot!
Broom Moth caterpillar - Ceramica pisi © Teresa FarinoBroom Moth caterpillar
Ceramica pisi
© Teresa Farino

© John Muddeman & Teresa Farino; November 2013

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