At the beginning of July 2017 I visited the Picos de Europa with Helen, my parents and my Nephew Lewis, all amateur naturalists, film makers or photographers.
On the 1st July we found ourselves heading towards the Picos de Europa Mountains, along the winding narrow road through the spectacular Hermida Gorge, spotting a Black-bellied Dipper on a rock in the river on the way.
On reaching the exit of the gorge the dramatic scenery of the mountains was revealed as we continued towards Potes and our cottage, El Empedrado, situated in the centre of the tiny mountainside village of Arguebanes. The 16th Century Farmhouse was a little difficult to find along the narrow village streets but once found we settled in ready for our first foray the following day.
I've divided our two week stay in Northern Spain into five routes as various places were visited on more than one occasion and each of the places visited were along one of these five routes.
Route 1 – Walks above Arguebanes
After breakfast on the 2nd July we decided to walk up into the hillside directly above the village where we found the dry arid mountainside Oak scrub to be an excellent habitat for numerous butterfly species.
The first butterflies to be encountered and the commonest along the track we walked in the morning were False Ilex Hairstreaks. The next species discovered was a Heath type Fritillary which has since been identified as an Iberian Heath Fritillary (Melitaea nevadensis). Other species seen along this walk at the side of the track were Ilex Hairstreak, Purple Hairstreak, Lang’s Short-tailed Blue, Clouded Yellow, Wall Brown, Grayling, Meadow Brown and a Large Pincertail Dragonfly.
At lunchtime we headed back into the village where a very worn female Common Blue was sighted along with nectaring Wood White and a Holly Blue perched on something left by the local dogs.
The afternoon walk took us from the local stream where a male Adonis Blue mud puddled beside Beautiful Demoiselles, up through birch woods into more open fields. Through the birch woodland we found our first Pearly Heaths and Weaver’s Fritillaries whilst in the open areas beside the fields were a profusion of butterflies that included Common Blue, Adonis Blue, Short-tailed Blue, Southern Mountain Argus, Silver-washed Fritillary, many Iberian Heath Fritillaries, False Heath Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary, Comma and Sooty Copper.
Higher up in some woodland were Dingy Skipper and White Admiral coming down to a small stream that crossed the path. After admiring the mountain scenery in the afternoon we headed back down for tea where we picked up Small, Large and Essex Skipper along the way.
Route 2 – Over The San Glorio Pass
The drive from Potes to the San Glorio Pass takes you initially through small villages set amongst small fields before the road climbs through fairly dense woodland before reaching the tops where there are grassy meadows and broom and heather clad mountainsides.
Our first trip along this route was with Teresa Farino a local wildlife expert who can be hired for a day trip or longer periods and is highly recommended. To contact Teresa or for further information please take a look at www.iberianwildlife.com/teresa-farino.htm
Our first stop was in a long grassy meadow near the top of the pass where we found our first Chapman’s Ringlet which was a huge female with a fair amount of marbling on the underside of her hindwing. These are the largest Ringlets to be found in Europe. Other species found here were the only Marbled Fritillary of the trip alongside many Lesser-marbled Fritillaries plus Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Marbled White, Meadow Brown, very worn Purple-edged Coppers and brighter looking Scarce Coppers. Teresa also managed to find a large Wart-biter Bush Cricket in the field.
The second stop along this route was an area of wet meadow and bog beside a small river, known by Teresa for Bog Fritillary. We visited this spot on at least three occasions but found no Bog Fritillaries. I think they may have been out earlier in the year and we had unfortunately missed them.
Another new species found at this site was the Iberian Marbled White which were actually flying along the roadside. The penultimate stop with Teresa was a field known to Teresa for a rare species of the area, the Dusky Large Blue. These were found sitting atop of their food plant the Large Burnet in most cases.
Our final stop with Teresa before heading for a local bar to discuss details of other sites was the Arroyo de Mostajal which is an area alongside a small river containing boggy fields, rocky arid ground and broom scrub. Here we found mud puddling skippers on our first visit. The mud had dried up on later visits. The skippers were mainly very attractive Marbled Skippers but included one or two Oberthur’s Grizzled Skippers. Other species around the damp parking area were Silver-studded Blue and lesser numbers of Idas Blues. Again Chapman’s Ringlets were found nectaring on wild roses and Scabious flowers and at the start of the track along the stream a smaller less well marked male ringlet was considered to be a male Piedmont Ringlet.
Route 3 – The Hermida Gorge
One day we walked above the village of Bejes where vultures were common sitting on the cliffs above the village in cloudy conditions.
Along this path we also saw Stonechats and a Bonelli’s Warbler. Butterflies included Silver-studded Blues, Small Copper, Ringlet, Wall Brown, Holly Blue and a very confiding male Piedmont Ringlet.
The main area of interest for me from the Hermida Gorge was the track from the gorge to the village of Cicera which is described in Teresa’s book of walks in the region.
The track was fairly steep as it followed a small stream up a side gorge towards the village. Insects including butterflies were plentiful along the track and included Great Green Bush Cricket, Bog Meadow Bush Cricket, the nymph of a Barbary Pincer Grasshopper and a black and white striped Beefly found cleaning its long proboscis.
The sides of the track were very steep and covered in flowers which fed butterflies such as Provencal and Spotted Fritillary, Cleopatra and Brimstone plus a multitude of Hairstreaks. There were Ilex and False Ilex Hairstreaks, some extremely fresh colourful Blue-spot Hairstreaks and to our delight several Spanish Hairstreaks including one worn male and up to 20 females some in great condition.
The butterfly that attracted me to this spot was the Large Chequered Skipper which we watched on our first visit here as they skipped past us in the heat of midday not stopping to feed. However, on a second visit earlier in the morning in cooler conditions two were spotted nectaring on Viper’s Bugloss along the path and two were found perched up on the steep hillside below the path. This was another new species I hadn’t seen before.
Route 4 – Over The Piedrasluengas Pass to Las Tuerces
This was the longest route of our holiday ending in Palencia near the town of Aguilar de Campoo. We began as always in Potes heading towards the Piedrasluengas Pass along the CA184 which passes Teresa’s house in Pesaguero. On one occasion we headed up a minor road to the village of Basieda where large flocks of Chough fed in the fields close to the village and a colony of Swifts were nesting in the roof tiles of the village houses.
A short circular walk from Basieda took to the local woods where we hoped to find Black Woodpeckers, but were unsuccessful. We did however; find Guadarrama Wall Lizards climbing the small path side cliffs plus Provencal and Iberian Heath Fritillaries, Gatekeeper and my first ever Rosy Grizzled Skipper. On returning to the village a Swallowtail fed beside the road in a small field.
Our route continued up to the Mirador that looks over the top of the Piedrasluengas Pass back towards the Liebana Valley and the peaks of the Picos de Europa. On a single occasion we parked up along a nearby farm track to walk into the surrounding hills. The area had been heavily grazed and flowering plants were scarce limiting the numbers of butterflies to be found. We did however; see quite a few Mountain Clouded Yellows flying strongly across the grazed mountainsides where Chalkhill Blue, Small Copper, Southern Mountain Argus, Mallow Skipper and Painted Lady were found. A short-toed Eagle sat on a rocky outcrop for a while and White Storks foraged in the freshly mown hay fields.
The route continues past the Requejada Reservoir where we spent an afternoon walking along a path in the Carrionas Fuentes Natural Park. Mint flowers lined the edge of the path and here we found a Piedmont Ringlet along with many other common species of butterflies. New species for the holiday were Sloe Hairstreak and a beautiful Southern White Admiral. A Great-banded Grayling was also noted taking up salts from a cow pat.
The final destination of this route was my second favourite site of Las Tuerces. Two visits were made here where we explored two different sites; one at the edge of some pine woods where huge numbers of knapweeds were in flower and one along the edge of some farmland where many Scabious and Alfalfa were in bloom. These sites attracted masses of butterflies with new species for the holiday being found at both.
The knapweeds and brambles along the woodland path attracted many Spanish Gatekeepers, Fritillaries including Dark Green, Queen of Spain, Lesser Marbled, Cardinal and Twin-spot plus Graylings including Great-banded and Rock Grayling, Iberian and Esper’s Marbled Whites, Painted Lady, Small Copper, Spanish Heath, Hairstreaks, Clouded Yellows and Berger’s Clouded Yellows. A pair of Crag Martins were nesting on a limestone cliff above the path and Quails called from the surrounding hillside.
Around the farmland were a completely different set of butterflies mainly feeding on roadside Alfalfa. On a circular walk along local dirt tracks we found many more Hairstreaks, a scarcely seen Small White, Red-underwing Skippers, Chalkhill, Common, Short-tailed, Long-tailed, Meleager’s and Adonis Blues plus much rarer, Ripart’s Anomalous Blue, Damon Blue and Forster’s Furry Blue all having white lines on the underside of their hindwings.
Route 5 – Fuente De
The short trip along the road to the cable car station and up into the mountains was definitely my favourite route of the holiday and was travelled three times in differing weather conditions. Firstly we visited in bright sunshine, the second visit was shrouded in clouds whilst the third trip took us above the clouds in the valley bottom to sunlit mountain tops.
We discovered the recently described Spiny Toad high up beside some of the mountain pools in which Alpine Salamanders swam.
The mountain birds were excellent with Alpine Accentors chattering around the sides of the paths and Alpine Choughs scavenging packed lunches from the many tourists wandering around the mountain tops. Commoner birds included Ravens, Water Pipits, Linnets, Northern Wheatears and Black Redstarts, whilst the rarer White-winged Snowfinch and Wallcreeper were much more difficult to find. I had some luck with Snowfinches especially on the cloudier day as they flew in fairly close to me whilst standing still. The Wallcreepers were found at a renowned spot where two showed themselves, finding insects amongst the cliffs before taking them off to a hidden nest site. Unfortunately some Spanish photographers attempted to get very close to these birds frightening them away on several occasions. The best views we had, although in a heat slight heat haze, were of a bird dust bathing on a scree slope.
On the first visit in the heat butterflies were seen in flight and included a single Gavarnie Blue female and several Lefebvre’s Ringlets beside the main path but most just sped past us preventing identification.
On the second trip up the mountain in the clouds very few butterflies were even seen. A single Chalkhill Blue was found by Helen covered in dew on a Pyrenean Eryngo and I managed to find two Western Brassy Ringlets hiding on the ground amongst the rocks where they were extremely well camouflaged. On this second trip we ended up heading back down the mountain and into the village of Espinama where the displays of plants in window boxes were attracting the Geranium Bronze.
On the third trip up the mountain we decided to ignore the birds and look for butterflies as soon as we arrived at the top. We initially headed over to the far side of the plateau at the top to avoid the wind where we scrambled down a rocky mountainside below a scree slope. The first species we found above the slope were Western Brassy Ringlet, Piedmont Ringlet and Small Tortoiseshell. Long the slope itself we found what I think was Large Grizzled Skipper, possibly of the form accretus as it was fairly brightly marked compared to those I have seen before.
At the bottom of the slope we walked an old path where Ringlets with a fairly bright discal line were warming up in the early morning sunshine. These are apparently female Piedmont Ringlets. The next butterflies to be found were good numbers of egg laying female Gavarnie Blues and territorial males perched on rocks along the path.
One of my favourites, an Apollo alighted on Pyrenean Eryngo to feed and other species seen were Common Blue, Mazarine Blue, Little Blue and rather surprisingly a female Brown Hairstreak landed beside us whilst we were eating our sandwiches, before heading back down the mountain.
This trip to Northern Spain was extremely enjoyable with breath taking scenery and superb wildlife. I have made a twin DVD set film about the trip which includes broadcast quality footage of 94 species of the butterflies seen plus some of the other wildlife encountered. For further information please take a look
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