TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
24th June to 1st July 2000
Teresa Farino & Mike Lockwood
A very successful trip, with good weather throughout, as well as a knowledgeable and enthusiastic group to keep the leaders on their toes!
The total number of vascular plant species that we encountered during the week in the Picos de Europa came to around 400, with many more in the coastal habitats of Liencres on the first day.
We were all amazed by the sheer numbers of butterflies on the wing, which was also reflected in the high level of diversity. No less than 87 species were recorded, including 16 species of fritillary and 24 lycaenids, with an outstanding daily total of 51 on the day we went up to Piedrasluengas: almost as many as in the whole of the United Kingdom! Particular highlights were the Woodland Brown and Chequered Skipper on the Sierra de Beges, the Bog Fritillaries at Piedrasluengas and the Apollos in the Valle del Naranco (see Appendix 2).
A total of 90 birds was our tally for the week, but all must agree that quality in this case far outweighed quantity: we had good views of all the main raptors of the area (Griffon and Egyptian Vultures and Short-toed, Booted and Golden Eagles) and our close, albeit brief, views of a couple of Wallcreepers were for many the ornithological highlight of the week (see Appendix 1).
Unfortunately there just isn't room here to document everything we saw, so this report limits itself to recording some of the highlights of the course, rather than giving lists of species seen on each day, which we hope will make for more interesting reading.
Teresa and Mike welcomed the group at Bilbao airport and introduced them to José, the driver of the 22-seater coach which was to be at our disposal for the remainder of the week. After negotiating the industrial suburbs of Bilbao, we headed swiftly westwards along the Cantabrican coast, seeing many Black Kites and Common Buzzards from the road, as well as a group of Black-winged Stilts in a pool on a roadside estuary, before stopping at the parque natural of the Dunas de Liencres. Here we had a light lunch and then set off to explore the surrounding dunes and coastal cliffs.
Covering some 60ha, the Liencres reserve represents the largest continuous expanse of sand-dunes on the north coast of Spain which, despite being a popular spot with day-trippers, has managed to retain an important community of sand-loving plants. Almost immediately on leaving the car-park, we started to see some of the more characteristic psammophiles of Spain's North Atlantic coast. Sea spurge Euphorbia paralias, sea bindweed Calystegia soldanella and sea holly Eryngium maritimum were all abundant, the latter accompanied by its parasite carrot broomrape Orobanche maritima: a rare species in southern England, where it normally parasitises wild carrot, hence the vernacular name.
A little later on we came across the lovely western or Jersey pink Dianthus gallicus, and a member of the bedstraw family (Rubiaceae) which was unfamiliar to most members of the party: Crucianella maritima, a tough, sprawling species with whorls of honey-scented yellow flowers. Abundant clumps of sea daffodil Pancratium maritimum leaves made us wish that it were late July, rather than mid-June, when this exquisite species comes into bloom.
Having dealt with the most obvious of the typical dune plants, we then went on to identify such 'lesser beings' as sand sedge Carex arenaria, sharp rush Juncus acutus, the lovely grass known as harestail Lagurus ovatus and Boston horsetail Equisetum ramossisimum, all growing amid luxuriant clumps of pampas grass Cortaderia selloana, a South American species which is widely naturalised in Northern Spain.
Other less obligate dune plants - which we were also to encounter in the Picos de Europa - included the everlasting flower Helichrysum stoechas, a pink-flowered form of kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, evening primrose Oenothera biennis and sage-leaved cistus Cistus salvifolius, the latter dominating the rather desiccated dune slacks, where we also found our first orchids of the trip: a few rather poor specimens of large-flowered serapias Serapias cordigera.
Near the newly-installed boardwalk which traverses the 'exclosures', erected to allow the dune flora to recuperate from the considerable effects of trampling by day-trippers here, we had brief views of a Tawny Pipit, blending in well with its surroundings. Here too we found the composite Andryala arenaria, typical of such sandy habitats, as its common name suggests.
On the invertebrate front, we encountered a large number of Spurge Hawk-moth caterpillars, first some rather unimpressive, inch-long individuals, then increasingly bigger ones, culminating in half a dozen succulent red-and-black 'sausages' which must have been a good 10cm in length and on the verge of pupating.
The warm weather had also brought out the butterflies, for once, and in the dunes proper we recorded Clouded Yellow (including the whitish helice form of the female), Meadow Brown, Common and Long-tailed Blues and Spanish Brown Argus. As we crossed the carpark and headed eastwards along the cliffs, however, this list was boosted by large numbers of Marbled Whites feeding on the bramble flowers, as well as Painted Lady, a single Red Admiral, Speckled Wood, Adonis Blue, Small and Lulworth Skippers, Swallowtail and a Dappled White.
Yellow-legged Gulls glided along the cliff top and Teresa spotted three Shags on the offshore stacks below (the reason why the area is a SPA). In the fields, a few Fan-tailed Warblers, Skylarks and Corn Buntings were singing, while in a small stream, the entomologists among us were pleasantly surprised by the five species of Odonata present: several Mediterranean Demoiselles Calopteryx haemorroidalis, a number of Southern Damselflies Coenagrion mercuriale, Small Red Damselflies Ceriagrion tenellum and Ischnura graellsii (which replaces the Common Blue-tailed Damselfly in Spain) and a female Golden-ringed Dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii ovipositing in one of the small pools in the stream. Another stream a little further on turned up two Blue-headed Wagtails and a family of Black Redstarts.
The flora of the limestone cliffs was also of great interest, harbouring such typical coastal species as sea carrot Daucus carota ssp. gummifer, sea plantain Plantago maritima, golden samphire Inula crithmoides, rock samphire Crithmum maritimum, sea lavender Limonium sp. and thrift Armeria maritima. Here too were a number of species which we would also encounter in the week ahead in the Picos de Europa, including Cornish heath Erica vagans, viper's-bugloss Echium vulgare, swallow-wort Vincetoxicum hirundinaria, the thistle-like Carduncellus mitissimus, whose shaggy, violet flowers are almost stemless, the yellow-flowered labiate Sideritis hyssopifolia, large-flowered self-heal Prunella grandiflora and scrambling gromwell Lithodora diffusa, with brookweed Samolus valerandi and yellow flag Iris pseudacorus growing in the streams.
Towards the end of the walk we were also rewarded with a few plants of round-headed leek Allium sphaerocephalon, found only in the Avon Gorge in the UK, thus listed in the British Red Data Book of Vascular Plants (RDB) and protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), viper's-grass Scorzonera humilis, another RDB plant, confined to Dorset in Britain, and a couple of spikes of Pyrenean lily Lilium pyrenaicum, which Teresa had to assure everyone were really growing wild and not just garden escapes.
After a quick and welcome drink in a bar in Liencres, we travelled for a further two hours westwards to our hotel - La Balsa - in the village of Soto de Cangas, which was to be our base for the next four nights. We partook of our evening meal at a nearby restaurant called Casa Pepe, and very good it was too. On the way to the restaurant, we saw a white stork perched on top of a pylon: this species has vagrant status in the Picos, so we reluctantly concluded that the bird was more likely to have escaped from the nearby recuperation centre-cum-zoo.
After one of Juani's magnificent breakfasts - toast, cakes, croissant and an optional omelette or fried eggs with serrano ham - we south drove along Río Sella (one of the southernmost salmon rivers in Europe) through the impressive Desfiladero de los Beyos and up to the glorious mosaic of haymeadows and mixed deciduous forest above the village of Oseja de Sajambre.
The woods turned out to be quieter than usual: families of Blue Tits were most in evidence, apart from which only the odd Western Bonelli's Warbler, a few Garden Warblers and Iberian Chiffchaffs, Pied Flycatcher, Nuthatch and Short-toed Treecreeper were heard. The much heralded Middle Spotted Woodpecker only put in a brief appearance at lunchtime and the Black Woodpeckers were not calling today. As though in compensation, however, Mike inadvertently flushed a Long-eared Owl from a hawthorn next to the track, which landed in an ash tree about 20 metres below us, eventually providing good views for all and Mike and Teresa's first record for the Picos!
Among the more eye-catching plants of our stroll through the woods were spiked star-of-Bethlehem Ornithogalum pyrenaicum, great masterwort Astrantia major, bastard balm Melittis melissophyllum, black pea Lathyrus niger and rampion bellflower Campanula rapunculus (another UK RDB species), while the surrounding, rather acid meadows were teeming with yellow rattle Rhinanthus serotinus (here ssp. asturicus), betony Stachys officinalis and musk mallow Malva moschata.
Once through the woods and up to the base of the cliffs, we began to see more birds. A beautifully-clean, full adult Egyptian Vulture cruised low over the cliffs above our heads and a male Rock Thrush presented itself in full view on a nearby crag. Crag Martins cruised low and, on the way back, a little bird which popped out of the scrub and settled briefly on the rocks not 10 metres away from us turned out to be an Alpine Accentor, hundreds of metres below its usual breeding areas.
We began to get to grips with the many fritillaries of the area: first the reasonably familiar Silver-washed, High Brown and Small Pearl-bordered, but then we had to learn how to separate the Queen of Spain, Knapweed, Meadow and Provençal fritillaries. Other interesting butterflies here included Pearly Heath, Long-tailed Blue (particularly common this summer), Large Wall Brown and Piedmont Ringlet.
The path below the limestone crags was also home to a number of colourful species typical of the Picos, such as Pyrenean eryngo Eryngium bourgatii, daisy-leaved toadflax Anarrhinum bellidifolium, St Dabeoc's heath Daboecia cantabrica, small-flowered foxglove Digitalis parviflora and bloody cranesbill Geranium sanguineum. On the limestone cliffs themselves we came across the houseleek Sempervivum cantabricum, endemic to the Cordillera Cantábrica but unfortunately still in bud, the yellow-flowered, glandular-hairy toadflax Linaria saxatilis, Pyrenean germander Teucrium pyrenaicum, with flattened rosettes of cream and pink flowers, and the related wall germander T. chamaedrys, with rose-coloured blooms. A shady overhang also turned up the Picos endemic blue-leaved petrocoptis Petrocoptis glaucifolia.
After lunch, taken in the shade of some enormous oaks, we visited a wonderful haymeadow just across the road, where we came across greater butterfly orchids (Platanthera chlorantha), many fragrant and heath spotted orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea & Dactylorhiza maculata) and sheets of devil's-bit scabious Succisa pratensis. The wetter areas here were a riot of colour, dominated by a rather impressive pink-and-purple lousewort which goes by the name of Pedicularis mixta, growing together with yellow loosestrife Lysimachia vulgaris, the completely unrelated purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria, ragged robin Lychnis flos-cuculi, marsh ragwort Senecio aquaticus and marsh hawk's-beard Crepis paludosa.
Over the other side of the valley a Golden Eagle cruised across the ridge and was joined momentarily by a Goshawk, looking very small by comparison. On the bridge over the Sella, Mike spotted an extremely worn Camberwell Beauty, alas our only one of the trip.
We then walked down across the valley to the village of Pío, where we were collected by José and our coach. The heat of the day rendered this excursion almost birdless (a Griffon Vulture above the ridge of Peña Ten), but provided many opportunities for the numerous butterfly photographers in the group. New species included Ilex and False Ilex Hairstreaks, Marbled Skipper (reckoned to be one of the 20 rarest butterflies in Europe), Turquoise Blue and Wood White.
New plants along the way included the umbellifer Pimpinella siifolia, found only in northern Spain, narrow-leaved bittercress Cardamine impatiens and spurge laurel Daphne laureola in the woods, with the meadows providing a host of English irises Iris latifolia, as well as narrow-leaved everlasting pea Lathyrus sylvestris, grass-vetchling L. nissolia, bee orchids Ophrys apifera and the huge, puce-coloured toadflax Linaria triornithophora.
Once we had crossed a small stream, the final section of the path lay in the shade of Peña Ten, where we found a number of acidophilous ferns: scaly male Dryopteris affinis, lady Athyrium filix-femina and hard Blechnum spicant. Here too, in a small stream beneath the Pyrenean oaks Quercus pyrenaica, we found Pyrenean valerian Valeriana pyrenaica, with basal leaves almost 30cm across, and the lovely radish-leaved bittercress Cardamine raphanifolia.
A day to remember for the 'odonatologists'! We drove up the long winding road, past the Covadonga basilica, eventually emerging to spectacular views above the sea of cloud which covered the Asturian coast that day, and on to the sparkling glacial lakes of La Ercina and Enol. Once at the top, amid stunning scenery, we chose to circumnavigate the former, as it is shallower and has more interesting emergent vegetation and wildlife.
Our attention was immediately drawn the quantity of damselflies and dragonflies around the marshy edges of the lake: Four-spotted Chasers Libellula quadrimaculata were indulging in what passes for courtship in the dragonfly world (5 seconds between first meeting and egg-laying, with the time in between allocated to copulation), Emperors Anax imperator patrolled the open water, a few Large Red Damselflies Pyrrhosoma nymphula hovered over the bog bean Menyanthes trifoliata and, without exaggeration, thousands of blue damselflies (mainly Common Blue Enallagma cyathigerum, with rather fewer Azure Coenagrion puella) darted in and out of the vegetation.
As we walked round the lake no-one could remember having ever seen so many damselflies at one time before: just a blue haze hanging over the water. Mike counted around a thousand in a stretch of about 20m of water's edge. Now, if the total circumference of the lake is around 2km, it doesn't take a genius to realise the total numbers of damselflies (assuming many things such as uniform density, etc.) must have been around the 100,000 mark! And we hadn't finished yet: other Odonata species spotted later on were Keeled Skimmers Orthetrum coerulescens, a Golden-ringed Dragonfly, a Red-Veined Darter Sympetrum fonscolombii and a few Ruddy Darters S. sanguineum.
The birds around the lake included a few Northern Wheatears, Linnets and singing Water Pipits, with Red-billed and Alpine Choughs over the cliffs, and we were somewhat surprised to spy a group of three Green Sandpipers flying back and forth over the water. Butterflies were rather scarce, but we did spot female Piedmont Ringlets, with the distinctive white band on the under hindwing, Small Copper, Small Pearl-bordered and Queen of Spain Fritillaries and a Marbled Skipper (which Ted missed again).
These lakes are set in the midst of the Asturian Picos' main upland summer grazing area, and as such the flora has had to adapt to constant molestation from the teeth of the casina cattle (the native breed): we could see examples of the various strategies all around us.
One way of deterring potential herbivores is to be horribly spiny, such as the various species of Genista (G. legionensis and G. hispanica) and Pyrenean eryngo that we found here. Another option is to produce lethal toxins, as do the green hellebores Helleborus viridis and monkshoods (also known as wolfsbanes) Aconitum napellus (purple flowers) and A. lamarckii (yellow flowers), or to grow so close to the ground that nibbling teeth cannot get a grip, as do the so-called 'rosette' plants like hoary plantain Plantago media, mouse-ear hawkweed Hieracium pilosella and the common or garden daisy Bellis perennis.
By far the most popular strategy here, however, seemed to be simply to grow out of the cattle's reach, either by occupying the middle of a patch of spiny gorse or genista - we saw mountain sandwort Arenaria montana, scrambling gromwell, columbine Aquilegia vulgaris and St Dabeoc's heath all doing just this - or by clinging to inaccessible rock-faces, as do the majority of the calcicoles here.
In fact, the various limestone boulders scattered around the Lago de la Ercina provided us with our most exciting botanical discoveries of the day, including livelong, three-forked and grooved saxifrages Saxifraga paniculata, S. trifurcata and S. canaliculata (the latter two endemic to the Cordillera Cantábrica), fairy foxglove Erinus alpinus, the purple-flowered Picos endemic toadflax Linaria faucicola, fringed pink Dianthus monspessulanus, Pyrenean mignonette Reseda glauca and thick-leaved and dark stonecrops (Sedum dasyphyllum & S. atratum).
A closer inspection of the rocks also revealed a number of calcicolous fern species, including maidenhair and green spleenworts (Asplenium trichomanes & A. viride), wall-rue A. ruta-muraria, brittle bladder-fern Cystopteris fragilis, limestone polypody Gymnocarpium robertianum, holly fern Polystichum lonchitis and hard shield-fern P. aculeatum.
Once back at the car-park we were frankly horrified by the number of cars, coaches and 'tourists' which had appeared in our absence, such that we decided to drive back down to the basilica for our picnic. After lunch, in order to escape the madding crowd, we headed for the Cabrales area, where roadworks thwarted our intended excursion to the river at La Molina. A hurried discussion between Mike and Teresa resulted in us negotiating a narrow, winding road to the village of Berodia, where we walked up through the woods to a lovely little meadow, stuffed with botanical treasures.
Just out of the village we stopped to examine a stone water trough, which turned out to be home to a number of Palmate Newts. Wending our way up through the meadows, most of which had been cut, we revelled in the hoards of Meadow Browns and Marbled Whites, which reminded us of the morning's damselflies. Many insects employ what is known as an 'r-strategy', the adults expending all their energy on laying as many eggs as possible, since the chances are that some will hatch and ensure descendancy. The opposite 'K-strategy' (most large mammals, for example) is to devote their efforts to caring for a very reduced number of offspring.
New plants for the trip growing along the path included spreading bellflower Campanula patula (a British RDB species), clustered bellflower C. glomerata, slender St John's-wort Hypericum pulchrum, tutsan H. androsaemum, sticky flax Linum viscosum, with its lovely pink flowers, and butcher's broom Ruscus aculeatus. A small uncut meadow at the of the path, however, far exceeded all expectations, harbouring a large number of impressive individuals of large-flowered serapias, as well as marsh gentians Gentiana pneumonanthe, blue-eyed grass Sisyrinchium bermudiana, a member of the iris family which apparently only occurs in Asturias in Spain, and a carpet of the large-flowered, very hairy Mackay's heath Erica mackaiana, which Teresa hadn't seen in the Picos for 14 years!
Our plan for late afternoon was to visit the local zoo-cum-recuperation centre for local animals and birds, situated in our village of Soto de Cangas. The zoo is, of course, under-funded, but we did see some splendid creatures including Grey Wolves, Brown Bears and the rare local subspecies of Capercaillie (which is successfully breeding in captivity here), Black Woodpeckers, Egyptian Vultures, Golden Eagles, etc.. There were a few exotics as well, which confused the issue, such as the Great Horned Owl from America and colourful Lady Amherst's Pheasant!
By special request, our first stop was at the town of Cangas de Onís for a quick look at the very picturesque 'Roman' bridge (which dates from Medieval times), after which we headed along the north side of the Picos, through Cabrales, until we reached Panes, there turning south to negotiate the Desfiladero de La Hermida which, according to the local tourist office, is the second-deepest canyon in the world!
At the village of La Hermida itself - at about the midpoint of the gorge - we turned right and headed for the Sierra de Beges, a small ridge running east-west above the village of the same name. We left José and the coach in Beges and were ferried to the top of the ridge along an old mining track in Teresa's 4WD.
We strolled through meadows liberally sprinkled with perennial yellow woundwort Stachys recta, pepper saxifrage Silaum silaus, bitter vetch Lathyrus montanus, sulphur clover Trifolium ochroleucon and upright vetch Vicia orobus, before entering a short stretch of hazel Corylus avellana coppice and sessile oak Quercus petraea woodland, where we found many clumps of Pyrenean lilies and greater meadow-rue Thalictrum aquilegifolium.
Our destination was one of Teresa's 'special places', where red pasque-flowers Pulsatilla rubra grow in abundance, here in an almost black form which contrasts splendidly with the golden anthers. Other gems here were more large-flowered serapias, spotted rock-rose Tuberaria guttata, alpine St John's-wort Hypericum richeri ssp. burseri and a few St Bernard's lilies Anthericum liliago.
When the sun eventually came out we were treated to a feast of butterflies: our first Rock/Woodland Grayling (impossible to separate once they're perched with closed wings), Ilex, False Ilex, Sloe, Blue-spot and, eventually, Spanish Purple Hairstreaks (once they had come down from the ash trees), Dark Green, Meadow and Knapweed Fritillaries and Lang's Short-tailed, Long-tailed and Adonis Blues. There were also many Silver-studded Blues (separated with a hand lens from the Idas Blue) and innumerable Marsh Fritillaries.
We ate our picnic among the pasque-flowers, during which two Egyptian Vultures flew across the valley below. After lunch we explored the adjacent woodland, where Western Bonelli's Warblers were trilling, Nuthatches fluting and Tree Pipits parachuting in the clearings, while Teresa heard in the distance our only Black Woodpecker of the trip.
Once up past a known butterfly 'hilltopping' spot (just one Scarce Swallowtail whizzed overhead), we carried on round the hill, down through a meadow with lots of Ringlets, and into the woodland on the north side of the Sierra, whose understorey is a mass of yellow pea Lathyrus laevigatus. A pause for breath at a rather dirty water-trough turned up Alpine Newt, both sexes with white rings round the eyes and fluorescent orange bellies, with the rocks behind being clothed in hairy saxifrage Saxifraga hirsuta.
The sessile oakwood here is a renowned haunt of the Woodland Brown, one of Europe's rarest butterflies, and Ö. lo and behold, we spotted one basking on a frond of bracken just below the path. The photographers moved in en masse, although without great success as the butterfly flew off after only a few moments and didn't settle again.
We searched for more Woodland Browns without success - this was probably one of the first of the season - coming up instead with Silver-washed and Queen of Spain Fritillaries. Eventually we found ourselves back at the top of the mining track, but not before Mike had nipped into a nearby meadow and returned triumphantly with a Chequered Skipper, only the second record for Cantabria: we also found it here two years ago.
Although the morning dawned overcast, we took the cable car up through the low clouds and emerged into the sunny alpine rockscape at 1800m, high above Fuente Dé. In an effort to avoid the day-trippers we diverged from the main path and aimed for a small lake with just enough water remaining for the survival of dozens of Alpine Newts: one of the Spanish strongholds of this amphibian.
The birds in the area were mainly Northern Wheatears and Water Pipits, with Red-billed Choughs circling round the crags above, although Snow Finch and Alpine Accentor proved rather elusive at first and we didn't get good views until we were had passed the first pool and were on our way up through the screes.
Many of the plants here were familiar from our trip to the lakes at Covadonga, but - owing to the increased altitude (1800m as opposed to just 1100m) - more of the 'true' alpines were in evidence. Among the species new to us here were pink sandwort Arenaria purpurascens, Pyrenean flax Linum suffruticosum ssp. salsoloides, beautiful flax L. narbonense, honewort Trinia glauca, Pyrenean toadflax Linaria supina, Alpine aster Aster alpinus, Teesdale violet Viola rupestris, alpine forget-me-not Myosotis alpestris and hoary rockrose Helianthemum canum.
We also came across a few late flowering spring squills Scilla verna and gentians - both spring Gentiana verna and trumpet G. acaulis - as well as numerous mats of ciliate rock-jasmine Androsace villosa, the foodplant of the lovely Gavarnie Blue butterfly, of which we also saw a number, here belonging to the Picos endemic subspecies asturiensis.
We climbed up through the screes to rejoin the main track which heads into the Central Massif of the Picos in search of Wallcreeper, which involved a lot of neck-craning to examine the sheer cliffs up to our right. In the meantime to encountered a few new plants, namely large-flowered treacle-mustard Erysimum grandiflorum, Pyrenean lousewort Pedicularis pyrenaica, matted globularia Globularia repens, the Picos endemic rockrose Helianthemum nummularium ssp. urrielense (with extra-large, orange-spotted flowers) and a number of scree specialists: pygmy hawksbeard Crepis pygmaea, alpine toadflax Linaria alpina, here belonging to the subspecies filicaulis, which is unique to the Picos, and the lovely grey-leaved Pyrenean thistle Carduus carlinoides.
Just as we were setting out lunch, Mike spotted a small black and red bird - "probably only a Black Redstart" - which, much to everyone's delight, turned out to be a Wallcreeper, foraging in and amongst the boulders quite close to the path. Over the next ten minutes we had annoyingly-brief glimpses of at least two birds, moving quickly around the rocks, while Teresa saw a third fly away to the huge rock-face overhead, where it perched for a while before she lost it.
The main objective achieved, we strolled back down to the cable car, to be met by José at the bottom. As if we hadn't already seen enough for one day, Mike opted to walk back to the hotel with three brave stalwarts, during which time they recorded Berger's Clouded Yellow and Spanish Brown Argus.
A day up high among the fritillaries. The low cloud around the hotel suggested that once again we would have to head for the high hills in order to get above it, so we drove up to the San Glorio pass (1609m) to the south of the Picos proper. Luckily, the cloud was confined to the Liébana valley, with the León side of the pass being relatively mist-free, so we dropped down to the village of Llánaves and prepared to walk back to San Glorio along the remote valley of the Arroyo del Naranco.
We started off in a totally different habitat to previous days, the rather acid soils clothed in a mosaic of meadows interspersed with heathers and brooms and studded with outcrops of conglomerate rock. As soon as we started walking, it became clear that this was the place for butterflies: in particular, fritillaries. The very similar Heath, Meadow and Provençal were all flying together here, which meant that we could clearly see how to separate them. A mere list of what was also on the wing barely does justice to the riches of the meadows of the valley: Swallowtail, Queen of Spain, Small Pearl-bordered, Pearl-bordered, Spotted, Glanville, Knapweed and Marsh fritillaries, Purple-edged and Sooty coppers, Long-tailed, Adonis, Turquoise and Mazarine blues, and a supporting cast of commoner species such as Green Hairstreak (spotted by Ken), Lang's Short-tailed Blue and Piedmont Ringlet.
Two larger butterflies especially caught our attention: a couple of Apollos drifted across the meadows, too far away to photograph, while a rather large ringlet floated around gently. This turned out to be Chapman's Ringlet, with very bright ocelli and an hour-glass shaped red patch on the upper forewing; it is found only in a very restricted high mountain area on the borders of León with Cantabria and Asturias.
On the plant front, a number of species of the drier habitats were new to us, including maiden pink Dianthus deltoides, one of the mountain cornflowers Centaurea triumfetti and the related C. lagascana: a curious knapweed with a cluster of stemless creamy flowers in the midst of a rosette of spiny leaves, while the damper grasslands revealed horned pansy Viola cornuta, globeflowers Trollius europaeus, great burnet Sanguisorba officinalis and two rather inconspicuous umbellifers: spignel Meum athamanticum and Pyrenean angelica Selinum pyrenaeum.
Birdwise, we could hear Garden Warblers in the willows, while a few Red-backed Shrikes perched in their favoured rose bushes around the meadows. Once through the gap in the cliffs and en route back to the coach, we came across a few Water Pipits and could hear a Common Quail calling. At this point Teresa called a halt, having spotted a female Red Deer and young high on a scrub-covered slope ahead of us (she'd really thought it Brown Bear when she'd first seen the movement - San Glorio is a known corridor for bears on the move from one valley to another - and was therefore rather disappointed!).
After lunch, seeing that the high meadows on the north side of the pass were still wreathed in cloud,, we decided to head down to a very different habitat: the dry meadows and scrub around Tama, near Potes. Almost immediately we left the coach, a Booted Eagle flew over, closely followed by a Short-toed Eagle, although both birds disappeared rather too quickly for our liking.
We walked along a track through the cut meadows to an area of scrub where we began to look for evidence of the only Large Blue colony in the area. Despite an apparent shortage of the food plant (wild marjoram Origanum vulgare) compared to other years, several of these magnificent butterflies skimmed over our heads before Mike was able to catch one for us all to examine at close quarters. As a final parting shot we all had good views of a Baton Blue, one of the scarcer blues in the area, a Mallow Skipper and a Violet/Weaver's Fritillary.
The very Mediterranean nature of the vegetation here allowed us to add many more species to our by now considerable plant list, among the more memorable of which were turpentine tree Pistacia terebinthus, wild jasmine Jasminum fruticans, pitch trefoil Psoralea bituminosa, narrow-leaved trefoil Trifolium angustifolium, yellow-wort Blackstonia perfoliata, vervain Verbena officinalis, the composites Pallenis spinosa and the anagrammatical Mantisalca salmantica, and field eryngo Eryngium campestre, restricted to just four 10km x 10km squares in Britain and also protected by Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), although a common weed of dry places on the continent.
Again as a result of the low morning cloud, we headed for another of the high passes in the Cordillera Cantábrica: this time Piedrasluengas (1345m), to the southeast of the Picos. Up top we left all the clouds behind and revelled in the glorious sunshine.
Our first task was to examine a wet flush near the road, from which we had good views of a pale-phase Booted Eagle circling over the pass, the first that Mike and Teresa can recall in the area. One of our first butterflies of the day was a very strange Queen of Spain Fritillary with large black splodges on the forewing, which Ted duly recorded for posterity (thanks for the photo Ted!). Other species here included Chestnut Heath, Meadow and Small Pearl-bordered fritillaries, Rosy Grizzled Skipper (identified by Teresa on the basis on the 'signe of Blachier' present on the under hindwing) and Berger's Clouded Yellow.
Just at the top of the flush, Teresa - who had gone to answer a 'call of nature' - came back with the news of a handful of lizard orchids Himantoglossum hircinum, with innumerable clumps of the lovely violet mountain pansy Viola bubanii nearby. After the obligatory 'photo-stop', we started up the slope towards the base of some large limestone outcrops, with the pass down to our right.
Here Sue spotted a White Stork - another unusual bird for the area, which Mike initially identified as the rather more probable Egyptian vulture! - which circled over the pass for some time. Twenty kilometres to the south, around Cervera de Pisuerga, there is an important colony of storks and this bird probably came from there. Other birds around included Northern Wheatears, Linnets and, a bit further on, a stunning male Rock Thrush sitting on a fence post, which we observed for about five minutes as it dropped to the ground to feed and returned to its perch. It was at around this point that Mike first heard, then saw, a small group of Citril Finches fly into the beech forest below.
Lunch was taken in the bus shelter (a choice of sun or shade) before we drove a little way down the road to explore the wet meadows near a small limestone gorge. Here we encountered a wealth of butterflies, including Bog Fritillary in one of its few locations west of the Pyrenees. Up above the road, the edge of the beechwoods offered welcome shade and most of us collapsed here, whilst Teresa and a few other hardy souls carried along the stream finding more Bog Fritillaries, as well as Glanville, Knapweed, Dark Green and Small Pearl-bordered. Those resting in the shade had to make do with a Large Ringlet - a complete misnomer when you consider the size of a Piedmont or Chapman's - and a few martagon lilies Lilium martagon, still tightly furled in bud, just inside the forest.
These damp meadows were also home to dozens of spikes of great yellow gentian Gentiana lutea, in full flower, as well as Irish spurge Euphorbia hyberna, an extremely rare plant in southern England, but more abundant - as its name suggests - in Ireland, the butterfly-attracting composite Adenostyles alliariae, brook thistle Cirsium rivulare, alpine woundwort Stachys alpina (known only from Gloucestershire in the UK, and as such protected by the WCA), alpine rose Rosa pendulina and the yellow-flowered Lamarck's wolfsbane Aconitum lamarckii.
On the way home we stopped for a welcome beer/coca cola at Venta Pepín, surely one of the world's loneliest bars.
As we were scheduled to catch an evening flight, we just had time for a quick wander up the Río Cubo, which descends from San Glorio to join the Deva by the village of Cosgaya.
Not many butterflies were on the wing in the cool morning air as we walked up the valley, although Common Buzzards, Crag Martins and Kestrels kept us company above the crags up to our right. In fact, until we reached our 'turn-around' point, we only saw Silver-washed Fritillary, Large Skipper, Ringlet, Red Admiral and Comma, as well as an abundance of Marbled Whites, Pearly Heaths and Meadow Browns (cool weather often does not deter members of the Satyridae).
By the time we reached our self-imposed 'end of the road', the weather had warmed up somewhat, and we were pleased to find a couple of basking Marbled Fritillaries in one of their most typical habitats: a flowering bramble patch. On the way back down the hill, Ken spotted an Ilex Hairstreak, and we also boosted our daily list with the addition of Spanish Purple Hairstreak and Holly Blue.
Right at the bottom of the track, a spotted woodpecker held us up for a few minutes, but after much discussion and book-consultation we decided that it was a juvenile Great Spotted (complete with red head), so right to the last we were denied a decent view of the Middle Spotted Woodpecker for which Liébana is a national stronghold.
Lunch was taken outside the bar 'El Desfiladero' in the La Hermida gorge, where we were treated to a low-flying exhibition by an Egyptian vulture. From then on, however, our journey back to Bilbao was uneventful and we bade our farewells at the airport with plenty of time to spare.
Teresa Farino and Mike Lockwood; July 2000
Birds seen or heard on a daily basis during the Travelling Naturalist trip to the Picos de Europa; June/July 2000
Total number of species recorded: 90
Butterflies seen on a daily basis during the Travelling Naturalist trip to the Picos de Europa; June/July 2000
Total number of species recorded: 87
© The Travelling Naturalist 2000