Thursday, September 29, 2011

Europe 2011, Part Two- La Costa Verde

An horrio, or grain storage shed, a common sight in Asturias

Ok, I finally have the time to write this, part 2 of my European trip. When I left off, I was leaving Paris to head to Asturias, in Northern Spain, sometimes referred to as the Costa Verde (green coast), because of its lush vegetation and rainy climate. Our plane was supposed to leave Paris at 10:30 and, after a brief stop in Madrid, arrive in Oviedo (the capital of Asturias) by 2:30. I am not going to relate all of the gory details, but suffice to say that we were all exhausted by the time we finally arrived at our hotel, at around midnight. So much for our first day of Spain-- this would prove to be the only day all trip that I did not see a new bird. On the plus side, the owner of the hotel, Corte de Lugas, was very friendly, immediately going outside to fly the American flag to herald our arrival.

Day 1, Friday (8/26)- I wake up to the sound of birdsong. Internal monologue- "Huh, where am I? Spain, right? Definitely Spain. Birds. Birds!!" And I jumped out of bed and rushed to the window to view a spectacle of avifauna. There was a large cloud of swallows twittering overhead- all Barn Swallow and House Martins, as far as I could tell. Then a large, dark bird of prey flew by, harassed by swallows-- a Common Buzzard. A small flock of songbirds alighted in a tree long enough for me to identify them as European Goldfinches. A Common Magpie made a brief appearance, striking in black, white and blue. In the same tree as the goldfinches, two birds- one rather drab yellowish, with a supercillium and a nervous tail-twitch (Iberian Chiffchaff) and the other black and rufous with a silvery brow (Common Redstart). Additionally, there were Carrion Crows, Chaffinches, Robins, Blackcaps, and White Wagtails. That made 5 life birds without even leaving the hotel! Not a bad start at all.

After a very good breakfast at the hotel, our friend Jesus arrived, and we began our first day of sightseeing. Jesus lives in Asturias, and was a very good "tour guide" in showing us around the province. Our first stop was Rodilles Beach, which is at the mouth of the Rio Villaviciosa. At the beach, I spotted a Northern Wheatear hopping around in the dune grass. The really good birding came in the river, however, where there is a tidal estuary that creates excellent mudflats. It's a nature preserve, and apparently quite a good shorebirding spot, a fact that my experience strongly supports. We were going over a shore bridge that overlooks some flats, when I spotted a large group of shorebirds. We stopped, I got out of the car, and quickly spotted 4 life birds- Common Redshanks in abundance, a few Common Greenshanks, a Little Egret, and best of all, a couple of cool Eurasian Curlews.
Rodilles Beach
The game plan was to sight-see along the spectacularly scenic Asturian coast for the day. The next stop was at "bufones" region, where waves crashing on high rocky cliffs have carved out passages in the rock. This results in blowholes at the top of the cliffs, which make a roaring sound and spew spray. We also went to a couple of beautiful beaches, where we swam, and a few scenic seaside towns. In Llanes we got churros y chocolate, the delicious fried dough and melted chocolate snack that is a Spanish specialty. Along the way I picked up a few new birds, including Yellow-legged Gull and Stonechat, as well as a Gannet out over the ocean.

In typical Asturian fashion, we ate at close to 10 o'clock, at a sideria, or ciderhouse. Asturias takes its  (hard) cider seriously-- instead of bars, there are siderias, which sell mostly tapas and the drink, which is served in a rather ritualized fashion. A small amount of cider is poured from above your head into a glass at your hip, and then drunk immediately, so as not to lose any of the fizz. It's actually rather good, and so are a lot of the other typical Asturian foods- Chorizos (sausages) in cider sauce, shrimp, and many varieties of fish are among the best. On the other hand, the famous Asturian blue cheese was a bit too strong for my taste, to put it lightly.
 Day 2, Saturday (8/27)- This was our mountain day, where we set off on an expedition to the top of the Picos de Europa, a large (8,000+ peaks) mountain range that divides the Northern coast from the rest of the country. This was my most anticipated birding day, because some of my targets were cool high elevation birds that I could not see at any other time, and also because I was getting very close to life bird #500, which I was expecting to see in the mountains somewhere. I made the first step towards that milestone looking out the window of my hotel room, when a pair of European Serins landed in a nearby tree.

Our first stop was at the so-called "Roman Bridge,"  actually medieval, in the town of Cangas de Onis. I quickly turned my attention to the stream that the bridge crosses, however, with one bird foremost in my mind. Grey Wagtails were a nice bird, with their tails even longer than the comically long tails of their more common relative, the White Wagtail, which were also present. Then I spotted my real target, and one of the avian highlights of the trip- a White-throated Dipper splashing around in the water almost directly below me. Dippers are among the coolest of birds, songbirds that are undaunted by water and have evolved to the point where they can swim and dive to feed on aquatic invertebrates. And out of the 7 species worldwide, the White-throated is one of the best looking, with a sharp white bib contrasting with its overall black and chocolate brown plumage. A Willow Warbler was also flitting around in the trees overhanging the river, and I was only 5 life birds away from 500, with one of my biggest targets already found.

We drove on to Covadonga, site of a 6th century battle between Moors and the residents of Asturias, who were led by Pelayo (who would become the first king of Asturias). The outnumbered Asturians won, marking the end of Moorish advances and beginning the reconquista. The Asturians attributed their victory to divine intervention, and set up a shrine at the site. Many centuries later, a basilica was also built in Covadonga, nestled amount the mountains. The location was great for birds as well, with more than a dozen gigantic Griffon Vultures circling overhead (another of my target birds), and some Crag Martins, with their distinctive white tail patches, darting around, and presumably nesting on the walls of the basilica. As well as having two of the best bird names in Europe, they were my 496th and 497th birds, respectively.

The road to the lakes
We intended to drive up to the Lakes of Covadonga, two scenic high-elevation lakes that can be reached from the basilica, but learned that the only way up during the high season is by bus, so we took that option. The bus ride was impressive, up a very narrow, winding, steep mountain road, with spectacular view on all sides and only a couple of inches between us and buses going the other direction. Seemingly against the odds, we made it to the lakes intact, and were treated to some really beautiful mountain scenery, as well as some nice mountain birds. In addition to the now-ubiquitous Griffon Vultures, there were Water Pipits, Stonechats, Great Tits, Chaffinches, a Common Raven, some Eurasian Coots, and lots of Red-billed Choughs. The pipit and choughs (another hoped-for high-elevation species) were life birds, bringing me to within a bird of 500. Then, at the overlook between the two lakes, I spotted a distant bird of prey: smaller than a Griffon Vulture, and a different shape. As it turned, I saw that is was mostly white-- an Egyptian Vulture, and my 500th life bird!

Lago Ercina
Lago Enol
Also Lago Enol
We completed the loop trail and headed back down to Covadonga, quite a bit behind schedule but still psyched about the milestone bird, and drove onward towards our last, and highest stop, the cable car at Fuente De. The drive there was through a deep gorge, with high crags surrounding a river and the road that went alongside it. At one point a Griffon Vulture flew low over the car before landing on a rocky outcropping, giving us a new sense of how huge (9 foot wingspan) those birds were-- they seem to have more in common with the mythical Griffon (or Gryphon) than "normal" vultures.

I spotted my life Grey Heron perched in a tree next to the river, and at a quick stop to take a photo, I found 4 birds of prey: Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Common Buzzard, and a life bird, a neat pale-morph Booted Eagle. Then we out of the gorge and on the other side of the mountains, in Cantabria. As we arrived at the cable car, I spotted a Red-backed Shrike perched on a wire, and a Coal Tit (as well as some Great Tits, Nuthatches, Chaffinches, and Robins) in a pine grove at the base of the cable car station.

The cable car, or teleferico in Spanish, at Fuente De is the easiest way to get to some real alpine habitat in the Picos, and is a good spot for some alpine birds, including my main target, the Wallcreeper. After a somewhat scary ride to the top, we disembarked into an otherworldly landscape of rocky scree, crags, and sheer cliffs, far above the valley. 

Fear of heights, anyone?

 Immediately obvious as soon as we got outside were the Alpine Choughs, small corvids with bright yellow bills, no fear of humans, and a tendency to never go below 5,000 or so feet above sea level. So while they were abundant up there, "up there" is the only place to see them, and I really enjoyed it-- they are very fun birds. We began hiking to the spot where I had heard Wallcreepers were most likely to be, along the way stopping to look at every smaller bird that we saw, in the hopes of something unusual. Mostly they were Water Pipits, Northern Wheatears, and especially often Black Redstarts, but I did quickly spot something out of the ordinary: an Alpine Accentor. The rotund songbird, colored in reddish and gray, is a member of a small and generally mountain-bound family of birds, and another species that it would be impossible to see elsewhere on the trip. 

Find the accentor!

I think this pretty butterfly is a Silver-studded Blue
 Unfortunately, we soon reached the "wallcreeper spot" and realized the difficulty of the task. There are hundreds of feet of cliffs, and a lot of area for a non-vocal, small, elusive gray bird to hide. After some searching, we had to give up and head back, leaving my life Wallcreeper for another time. We descended and headed back to Villaviciosa, where we met up with Jesus and my uncle Tim, and had dinner at our hotel.

Day 3, Sunday (8/28)- Before breakfast, I birding the area around the hotel, and, as well as the most common Asturian birds, such as Goldfinch, Chaffinch, White Wagtail, Blackcap, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Magpie, Buzzard, Carrion Crow, Iberian Chaffinch, White Wagtail, Robin, Blackbird, House Martin, and Barn Swallow, spotted two lifers, both green: Greenfinch and Green Woodpecker, the latter seemingly the emerald European alternative to our Northern Flicker. 

My family, Tim, and Jesus headed to Rodilles Beach. On the way, asked to be dropped off along the Rio Villaviciosa, and had a very productive half-hour of birding before rejoining them at the beach. In addition to the Greenshanks, Redshanks, and Curlews that I had seen earlier, I added Common Sandpiper, Little Stint, and Common Ringed Plover as shorebird lifers. Other nice birds included Gray Heron, Little Egret, Common Moorhen, Linnet, and Whinchat, the latter two also lifers. 
Birding Rio Villaviciosa
After swimming, we again headed up into the mountains, this time to a lower coastal ridge called Sierra Sueve, where there was a hiking trail that Tim was very enthusiastic about. It was a very nice hike, with views of high peaks to one side, and down to the ocean on the other.
Looking North
Looking South. Note that what appears to be a high band
of dark clouds is actually the tops of mountains
Birding-wise, Griffon Vultures were absolutely everywhere, often quite low. Rounding out the raptors were plenty of Buzzards, and a single Booted Eagle. The common songbirds were present, and were joined by a few sharply patterned Pied Flycatchers. There were also cows (and sheep, goats, and horses).

After heading back to sea level, we found a sideria in La Isla, a picturesque seaside town. I also found some more shorebirds, though all of them familiar North American ones-- Sanderlings, Dunlins, and Ruddy Turnstones.

 We had dinner in Gijon, the largest city in Asturias, a port city with a promenade alongside a nice beach, right in the middle of the city. More of the same excellent food and cider, with one addition- a dish that is essentially two slices of beef, with ham and cheese inside, all breaded and fried. It was really good, if not exactly a health food. 

Day 4, Monday (8/30)- Our last day in Asturias. We spent the morning in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, known for its very old churches and its university.

After dropping Tim off at the airport for his flight home to London, we headed west to Cabo Penas, a series of cliffs at the tip of a peninsula that juts out into the Bay of Biscay/Mar de Cantabria. The cliffs are nearly 300 straight down, and unlike in the states, where there would be extensive signs and fences to keep people from falling, here there is, at most, a low wood fence and a sign telling you not to fall off.

Bird-wise, there were Yellow-legged Gulls everywhere, lots of Common Buzzards and Kestrels, Black Redstarts, and Northern Wheatears. Because of the location, I was hoping for some pelagics, and while I did spot a very distant shearwater (perhaps Manx or Balearic), I was unable to identify it. I did suddenly spot two  black birds standing on a rock below, and a look through my binoculars confirmed my suspicions-- they were European Shags, which would turn out to be the penultimate lifer of the trip.
A nice Black Redstart.
Yellow-legged Gull on a precipice.
Northern Wheatear
Those black specks are the Shags.
Black Redstart
On the way back from the cliffs, we drove through Gijon, in daylight this time, to get a good look at the waterfront there. Because we had to leave at 5:00 the next morning, we wanted to eat dinner at a normal, American time, around 7 o'clock. Jesus pointed out that no restaurants in any of the cities would serve food before 9, so we went into the country and stopped at a Merendera, essential a rural ciderhouse, for dinner of more cider and seafood. We sat outside, so I got to try my hand at pouring the cider, with mixed results. In the parking lot, I saw a hawk reflected in the window of our car, and quickly realized that it was a Sparrowhawk. I looked up and, for a second, couldn't find it, leading me to ponder whether the reflection of a life bird is countable. The point became moot, however, as I spotted the bird, my 60th and last lifer of the trip, with a flock of European Starlings. The next day we left before dawn, and flew home to New York.


  1. Wow that sounds like a fantastic trip! That dipper looks really sharp! I'm not surprised that you missed Wallcreeper, I've heard they are very difficult. You bring up a good point at the end... I wonder if you can count a bird where you only see the reflection...


  2. Sounds like a great trip Eamon! Fabulous Black Redstart Pic there, and again congrats on #500!