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Day 1: Fri 7 June 2024 - Bilbao to Villalpando
After relaxing in our complimentary VIP Lounge, we fly from Gatwick to Bilbao, arriving mid-morning. Leaving the airport, we drive south-west our journey towards Zamora in the region of Castile Y Leon, a journey of around 3 hours, though longer with birding stops! Passing through a variety of habitats, at La Nava de Fuentes wetland on the edge of the vast plains, part of the huge over-drained basin is now managed especially for wildlife, particularly its scarce breeding birds. If time permits, we should be able to spend a couple of hours in this bird rich area, some of the land being farmed in a sympathetic method for many of the special breeding birds. Such habitats promise Great and Little Bustard and indeed this area holds the largest populations of Great Bustard in Europe! Other key species include Stone Curlew, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Short-toed and Calandra Lark and Tawny Pipit. A great start to our birding tour, we travel a further hour to our hotel in Villalpando, where we stay for 4 nights.
Day 2: Sat 8 June - Villafafila Plains
Our first full day birding on the plains around Lagunas de Villafafila, where our top target birds will be Great and Little Bustard again, as well as many of the key Spanish steppe species. We may visit The Information Centre overlooking Laguna de Barrillos which with a range of hides gives us excellent chances of finding Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Stone Curlew, Zitting Cisticola, Spectacled Warbler, Calandra and Short-toed Lark and Spotless Starling. Another area to visit is the abandoned village of Otero de Sariegos, for Rock Sparrow and Little Owl. During the tour we visit a variety of habitats including the Dehesa woodlands, seasonal lagoons and the riverine habitat around the Duero and its tributaries and later in the day may explore some of these.
On one evening, we may offer an optional night-time excursion for Eagle Owl or to try a suitable place nearby for Red-necked Nightjar, the latter having a lovely nocturnal call.
Day 3: Sun 9 June - Arribes de Duero Park
Our destination today is the Arribes del Duero International Park, which lies along the Spanish-Portuguese border. This is a very extensive area with a variety of habitats, including open Dehesa woodland interspersed with grassland grazed by cattle and sheep. Near the village of Fariza we can take a stroll in the open woodland, listening for calling Hoopoe and Turtle Dove or maybe a Wryneck This habitat creates a rich environment for several scarce species, including Rock Sparrow, Woodchat and Iberian Shrike, Black-shouldered Kite, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Roller and Iberian Magpie. In other areas we investigate scrubby ground for Dartford, Western Orphean and Western Bonelli's Warbler and perhaps Thekla Lark too. In the afternoon we can cross the border into Portugal to a river site for Crag Martin, Alpine and Pallid Swift and possibly Red-rumped Swallow too. The high sided cliffs around the river can also be good for raptors and we may see our first Golden and Bonelli's Eagle, Peregrine and vultures here.
Day 4: Mon 10 June - Villafalia Reserve and Riberas de Castronuno
Today our aim is to revisit several locations, catching up on any species missing from our list around the Villalfafila reserve. Driving off road on good quality tracks we can use the vehicle as a hide and cover more ground on the vast plains. Among our targets will be Greater Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit and Spectacled Warbler to name a few. Another area worthy of a visit is the Riberas de Castronuno along the Rio Duero, where the riverine woodland alongside the banks of the river has been dammed to create a small shallow reservoir with reed beds, willows and poplars. We expect to find plenty of breeding herons, egrets and possibly Little Bittern with Great Reed and Savis Warbler, Penduline Tit and Golden Oriole all likely.
Day 5: Tue 11 June - Transfer to the Picos de Europa
Leaving the vast plains for the high peaks of the Picos, a complete contrast to the last 4 days in Spain will be apparent as we travel. Taking quiet roads, we travel north towards the high mountains with ever changing scenery en route planning a stop at Laguna de la Nava for new species. Approaching Cervera de Pisuerga, we enjoy another change of scenery with extensive Beech Forest and mountains towering up to 2,500 meters above sea level. Convenient stops may give us Black Woodpecker or perhaps a singing Western Bonelli's Warbler, and further north at a height of 1375 meters on the Piedrasluengas Pass we make another stop at an altitude of 1375 meters to look for any raptors or choughs. The day's journey finishes at Espinama, a village set back in a time when many houses still have a part of their ground floor given over to cattle and horses, kept inside during the snowy winter months. On a walk around the village, we should find singing Serin, Common and Black Redstart in gardens and Dipper on the fast-flowing river Deva. On the steep meadows which surround, Red-backed Shrike can be abundant, with Northern Goshawk, Common Buzzard and Black Woodpecker possible overhead. Overnight Hostal Puente Deva for 3 nights.
Day 6: Wed 12 June - Espinama & Fuente De
If the weather forecast is favourable, we take our earliest opportunity to visit the high peaks via cable car. A spectacular journey, taking us to an elevation of 1823 meters above sea level in just four minutes. We aim to spend the full day birding at this high elevation to maximise our chances of finding our key targets - namely Wallcreeper, White-winged Snowfinch and Alpine Accentor! We also look out for raptors, with vultures and eagles frequently seen moving over the mountains or flying through the valleys. The whole area offers good chances for wandering Lammergeier too, wild, immature birds having been relocated here from the largest breeding population in the Pyrenees. Other birds in this alpine zone include Alpine Chough (perhaps in large flocks), Red-billed Chough, and Water Pipit. The Pipit can be a skittish bird, though with luck we should be able to see the pink suffusion on its breast, a real treat. We aim to take our time gently walking on the best tracks, among awe inspiring mountain scenery. A day up in the clouds is always a memorable one of exceptional birding, and with luck should see Chamois (an agile goat-antelope) grazing on the mountainside. If time permits and our targets found easily, we can explore a local valley where we have a chance of Wryneck breeding in an area of ancient Chestnut trees. Nearby we listen for singing Iberian Chiffchaff and in good conditions, raptor activity might include Short-toed and Booted Eagle, plus Egyptian and Griffon Vulture.
Day 7: Thur 13 June - La Vega De Liebana
Today we explore the valley around La Vega La Liebana, taking a scenic route away from the high peaks into an area of lower mountains with lush valleys and thickly forested hillsides. We should find plenty of Red-backed Shrike and Cirl Bunting, perhaps Pied Flycatcher too and as the day warms should witness plenty of raptor movement. Honey Buzzard may take to the thermals, slowly rising alongside Common Buzzard offering a great comparison. Other sightings might include Golden Eagle, both morphs of Booted Eagle or even a Short-toed Eagle carrying a snake! On more open slopes we may hear Tree Pipit singing, the scolding calls from Common Whitethroat all the while scanning for Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush which frequently breed. At Puerto San Gloria there is a magnificent viewpoint with stunning views of the surrounding high mountain peaks, and we can set up our scopes to scan the mountain side for any movement. We might be very lucky here and see Brown Bear, a memorable encounter! On a visit to this site in 2021 at this site, we located three Citril Finch in a pine plantation and further checks may reveal a breeding location for this species. Further along the valley, we lookout for Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock Thrush, plus Rock Bunting.
Day 8: Fri 14 June - Birding the coast to Bilbao
Leaving Espinama, we travel north to the coast via the breath-taking Hermida Gorge, where the River Deva has carved out a twisting route through the mountains - not for the feint hearted! On reaching the coast the scenery changes again to lush green rolling hills and sandy beaches, and at our first stop in the small seaside town of of San Vicente de la Barquera we may find a Shag or perhaps a passing Gannet at the harbour mouth. At the nearby estuary waders, terns and gulls are all likely, and if time allows can stop again at Santona, where there is a good hide overlooking this vast tidal zone. We aim to arrive at the airport early evening for our flight back to the UK.