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Segovia & Soria - a long weekend in wonderful countryside

John Muddeman
04/06/2009 14:14:01

Spring is at its peak here on the N plateau, some 6-8 weeks later than in Extremadura!

Posted in: Flora, Butterflies and Moths, Dragonflies and Damselflies, Birds | Castile-Leon | Spanish Mainland, Central Spain

We've just spent a terrific long weekend in Castilla y León, visiting a few reserves and other protected areas. North of the Sistema Central spring arrives far later than to the S, and judging, perhaps falsely, from the orchids we found flowering, it is almost 2 months later!

A night at the lovely town of Sepúlveda in the Province of Segovia allowed us to visit the Hoces del Duratón reserve, one of my favourites, and enjoy a good cross section of its flora and fauna. Late May and early June, especially after spring rains, are a great time to visit, with many plants in flower on the otherwise rather sparsely vegetated rocky tops. Various mats and tufts of thymes, flaxes, Potentilla spp. and other small species of the open ground mix with the tall spears of asphodels, and colour the ground among the dense, dark prickly juniper bushes. With a generally rather bleached limestone background, the vivid greens of the poplar-lined rivers in the bottom of the gorges which snake through the reserve provide a stark contrast, and are also home to a number of breeding bird species all but absent just 1 hour to the S on the southern side of the mountains.

Yellow, Early Spider and Woodcock Ophrys were all in full flower, though the White Helleborines were largely over. The poplars were also shedding their seed down in abundance, soemthing we'd seen to the E of Madrid well over a month ago. Bird song, something already quietening down to the S of the mountains was still very good, and even in midday heat down by the river there was plenty of activity, with more 'northern' species including Song Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, Garden Warbler and Firecrest mixing with more Mediterranean species such as Golden Oriole, Western Bonelli's and Melodious Warblers, Rock Bunting and Serin. It was also fun to see the N Spanish race of Long-tailed Tit, rather than the more southerly grey-backed ssp. irbii I'm more used to seeing!

The open tops were quieter than hoped, but exactly as expected given the crystal clear skies and consequent heat. But even so Tawny Pipit, Woodlark, Skylark, Calandra, Thekla, Crested and Greater Short-toed Larks, Northern and Black-eared Wheatears, Woodchat Shrike, Western Orphean Warbler and Cirl Bunting were also noted, plus plentiful Crag Martin, a few Red-rumped Swallow, Griffon and a couple of Egyptian Vultures, Red-billed Choughs and noisy Rock Sparrows in the gorges. One or two Blue Rock Thrushes remained hidden, but along with smart Black Redstarts, gave themselves away while singing.

Almost two hours away is another area of limestone mountains and gorges which I'd not visited - the Cañon del Río Lobos and nearby 'La Fuentona'. To see the crystal clear waters in these gorges is a delight, and while the birdlife was relatively subdued, the overall diversity, including in the towns - where White Storks were busy feeding large young and noisy Rock Sparrows shreeped from ancient buildings - and among the otherwise rather species-poor pine woods and plantations - where Roe deer and Coal Tits abound - was extremely good.

A walk up the valley near Ucera quickly revealed a wealth of odonates along the rather slow-flowing old course of the river, with numerous Western Demoiselles, Large Red & Common Winter Damsels and Azure Bluets, plus a few Iberian Bluetails, with larger cousins being rather scarce, but including a single Common Goldenring and 4 or 5 Four-spotted Chasers over a fast stretch of the river. The latter were in marked contrast to the behaviour and habitat of the many thousands I saw just 2 weeks ago around Lake Neusiedl in E Austria.

The butterflies here were also excellent, including Brimstone, Wood White, Speckled Wood and a few Painted Ladies as we walked, plus at a super feeding concentration by the river, a few Red-underwing Skippers accompanied dozens of Little and numerous Panoptes Blues, with a scattering of Common, Adonis, Turquoise and a single Idas / Silver-studded Blue, plus single Queen-of-Spain Fritillary and a large unidentified pale skipper.

Birds here included a number of singing Garden Warblers, a singing Pied Flycatcher, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Crested Tit and Red-billed Chough, and a surprise plant (for me!) in the form of two emerging stems of a strongly violet-tinged Epipactis helleborine species.

The Monumento Natural La Fuentona was, if anything, even better. Walking some 600m up alongside the small river, the crystalline water is suddenly found to emerge from the mouth of a cave near the bottom of a large crater. This, despite being >20m deep, is so clear that it is possible to see the rocks on the bottom! Divers entering the cave system have found this to in fact reach down to 42m. A wide ring of floating and emergent plants, plus a shoal of large marauding native trout in the middle tend to keep eyes elsewhere though!

Exactly the same Odonata were present as along the Río Lobos, plus a single male Blue-eye damselfly, which was watched patrolling out over the middle. Vivid green Iberian Pool Frogs croaked noisily from the floating mats, but kept an eye open for the hunting Viperine Snakes also present. A group of butterflies supping salts on the gravel on one side included a Mazarine Blue, and several Provence Orange-tips were flying around, with a couple of very fresh Black-veined Whites on the viper's-bugloss spikes fringing the car park.

The birds were less varied, given that we covered less ground, but included Griffon vulture, Common Raven, Red-billed Chough, Golden Oriole, Crag Martins, Garden and Melodious Warblers, Short-toed Treecreeper (including fledglings) and plenty of noisy Iberian Magpies, here towards the NE part of their distribution in Spain.

With too little time and soaring midday temperatures, we didn't walk into another important reserve very closeby - a stand of ancient and impressively large Juniperus thurifera trees, but we'll be back!

With other birds in the area, or en route including breeding Common Redstart, Woodchat and Southern Grey Shrikes (but both of these rather more to the S), Corn Bunting, Red and Black Kites (also to the S), a few Booted Eagles, a Black Vulture over Ayllón, a few Montagu's Harriers en route plus a few scattered pairs of Red-rumped Swallows, it was an excellent long weekend!

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