Tuesday 3 March 2015

The Alagon valley, Rock buntings, and on the trail of wolves.

At the end of January we visited the southern part of the Sierra de Francia and the lush Alagon river valley with its mix of Holm oak, Cork oak, Chestnut, Strawberry tree and Pyrenean oak, and a local population of Black vulture, Golden eagle, Goshawk and Sparrow hawk. 
Pair of Black Vulture
In the village of Pinedas we had a look at the old houses with their incorporated hay lofts and the local church, and the views from the bell tower were stunning, but what surprised us most was that they also went back in time.  Crouched by the ‘lavaderos’ – the old communal washing place - was a local woman……doing her washing.  Needless to say the water temperature must have been about 3ºC but there she was.  Tough folk.
Mended church pillar
Moss world
We went for coffee in a bar decorated with objects from former times: farming tools and bee-keeping equipment.  A local man, Modesto, saw me looking at some flutes and, explaining that he’d made them invited us to visit his workshop, which we did.  Here we found a whole menagerie of creatures and objects carved in local wood: hawthorn and oak the most favoured.  Here’s a few of them. 
We walked along the south side of the Alagon valley, and just after arriving saw the most wonderful Russian mountain display of a male Golden Eagle which had me so mesmerized I forgot to get my camera out.  He kept plunging downwards and then looping up again only to repeat the process after a few wingbeats: absolutely stunning. 

Alagon valley
Then a pair of Black vulture appeared and flew up valley, and as we stopped by a pool we were watching some Bullfinches when suddenly a Sparrow hawk appeared and sent them fleeing.  Fortunately for the bullfinches they had a narrow escape.
The Alagon valley
Further upstream we entered the valley of the Sangusin river and began to descend along the trail, with tall holm oak and Pyrenean oak towering above us and their roots exposed to the air.  We found wild boar tracks and their unmistakable mud-baths: along a narrower track we even found a double bath, a kind of boar bath-house.  And we were privileged to see a Goshawk swooping along the valley.
Sangusin River 
WIld boar tracks and mudbath
Boar jacuzzi
Sangusin valley and the Sierra de Bejar
Sunset over Sierra de Francia

In late January we had a lovely walk towards the Sierra de Avila, and just as we got there a pair of Black vulture circled overhead quite low.  We saw Buzzard Water and Meadow pipits and a couple of very busy Rock Bunting which let me photograph them from quite close. 

Black vulture 
Meadow Pipit
Rock Bunting
In the walls at regular intervals are holes through which small fauna can pass, and this being a transhumance track (Cañada Real) there are enclosures for sheep and shepherd huts. There was still plenty of snow on the ground and some intriguing melted tracks which were probably badger.  
Fauna pass
Sheep enclosure with Shepherd hut
Not bear!
The Sierra de Avila
We also came across tracks compatible with Genet and on the roof of a barn a latrine typical of this elusive and beautiful mammal.
Compatible with Genet
Rooftop latrine
We went on a very interesting course to study Iberian wolf, with wolf specialist Javier Talegón of Llobu (pronounced ‘lyoboo’ in English: the local name for wolf in the north of Zamora and the Astur-Leonés area).  We learnt all about the wolf, it's social structure, and the cultural importance of wolves through the ages, how the wolf has been demonized and hunted down and yet the importance of its role in maintaining an equilibrium in the environment.  How shepherds and wolves have cohabited throughout time and what efforts can be made to protect sheep and cattle without needing to harm wolves.

The Spanish Mastiff is the guardian dog used traditionally to protect sheep and cattle, and Javier showed us his collection of spiked collars – known as  ‘carranca’ -, some very much home-made, donated by retired shepherds over the years and which protect the dogs from being bitten on the neck.

We had a field trip to the Sierra de la Culebra in Zamora, a very wild hilly area in which the local packs of wolves still survive despite persecution by hunters and maintain themselves on a diet of mainly wild boar, roe deer and red deer.  As they generally only attack the very young, ailing or elder specimens they afford a method of natural control in an area otherwise overgrazed by the deer.  On the link below you can see a very interesting video on the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the USA and the amazing effect this had on the ecosystem, in the form of a trophic cascade:
We visited a small village with traditional architecture consisting of human living quarters above the animal quarters as a natural form of central heating.

We wandered through oak and pine forests, and saw tracks and scats containing hair from wild boar and deer compatible with wolf, as well as fox, badger and roe deer tracks.  We saw herds of Red deer and a couple of Roe deer and we got rained, hailed and snowed on but unfortunately we didn’t get to see wolves.  Never mind: it was an amazing experience and we learnt a great deal.

Scat compatible with wolf
Herd of Red deer
In all weathers

Watching and waiting
Rainbow over the Sierra Culebra

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