Lovely Spain – part one

Spain: is and has been for a long time a top destination on European soil in terms of wildlife. In this news item some atmospheric highlights of our visit this year (summer and autumn) on quests for Iberian Wolf and Iberian Lynx. At the end of February – beginning of March 2022 we will visit these areas again.

Sierra Culebra in summer

Titled as the cradle of Europe’s wolf watching in a previous EB5 news item. In the summer of 2021 Iberian Wolf observations were again prolonged, though less plentiful. Local tourist agencies with a focus on field sightings of wolves had already warned us: this season the wolves are very hard to find. Despite the fact that commitment and perseverance was indeed more necessary than usual, we again made some remarkable wolf observations.

The crippled one – an alfa male wolf on the scene for the ninth year in a row

When you get to know particular wolf packs, certain sightings become a joyful reunion. Likewise a sighting of the crippled alfa male accompanied by several pack members from the 2020 litter. This while scanning from the lines – probably one of the most well known wolf watching vantage points in the country. Equal with previous obs, the crippled one, accompanied by 4 younger individuals, arrived between 08.00 and 09.00 at a rendezvous site using a gravel track as a highway. Standard is the signal of the pack’s return in the morning: the chasing of Red Deer that are browsing in the vast area of broom and heather vegetation. The behaviour and speed shown by the wolves makes it clear the previous night’s hunt had been successful. Instead of sneaking into the vegetation to overlook the core area and potential prey, they amble up and down near a ploughed field in the middle of the area. The playful way in which the younger animals chase each other creates dust clouds, since the area is very dry during the summer. It is also interesting to see how they inspect certain places for scent marks from other wolves in the area. Here too, applying their own scent trails (through a combination of rear leg scraping and urination) creates clouds of dust on the area’s sandy roads. Familiar with previous observations, the wolves significantly change their behaviour by 09.00. The combination of increasing brightness and rising temperatures are the trigger for the wolves to change mode from a focused group of active apex predators into a low profile and less active group focusing on finding shade offered by thick bushes or a patch of dense forest in the area. This time they chose a dense thicket of broom to withdraw into to doze the day away. To reach this resting place, they all, one by one, jump over a stone wall which serves as a fence in a barren field for a herd of cows sometimes stationed in the area. Once hidden in their resting place, the wolves just vanish. Funny and great to see how a local oldie doing his morning stroll passes near the wolves shelter of the day without causing the wolves to stir whatsoever. It’s the signal for us to pack up our gear, drive back to our host, have breakfast and a nice cup of coffee. It is remarkable and smashing to see how wolves are present, although off the radar, during daytime in their territory! Especially with plenty of ungulates around!

Waking up, some roaming and getting ready for the night and the hunt

We saw it twice during the summer of 2021: a wolf that shows up in its territory in the evening and goes hunting. The behavior is opposite to that of the morning sessions: instead of looking for a place to sleep the hour after sunrise, we now see individuals whose behaviour is focused on the coming hunt. It is clear that the animals spend the day sleeping. After waking up, they suddenly appear in the middle of their core area. Sometimes the awakening and the grooming period that follows lasts right up to dusk only then do they switch to hunting mode just before full darkness. Other times you see animals go straight into hunting mode.

For example, while being stationary near one of the vantage points for a scanning session during the evening, we discoverd a wolf that moved leisurely but in a straight line through the heather. This in the direction of the vantage point where we have positioned ourselves. Following the wolf with binoculars or a telescope is not difficult; the combination of its red-brown (ears, snout, legs) and gray (back, forehead and flanks) summer coat makes the animal stand out in an otherwise mainly green environment. The animal disappears without a trace in a slope adjacent to a hidden, densely overgrown riverbed. It stays that way until dusk. What we don’t know is that the wolf has come close to the vantage point. In an open patch of vegetation, a few alert Roe Deer and Red Deer, more than usual, suddenly attract attention. A few seconds later, the same wolf suddenly shoots after them. However, the agile ungulates are too quick for the predator. The open character of the rough grassland makes them very manoeuvrable. But the wolf does not give up. Quickly retreating into and behind the broom vegetation, it allows it to hide from view of the confused ungulates. The displaced predator shows up elsewhere and performs some short surprise attacks again. Despite the dusk, our optical equipment gives us the opportunity to see the animal hunting well into the twilight. We enjoy a spectacle of prey and predator of which third parties on the spot do not even know what is happening in front of them and many even leave the vantage point. They pass in their cars while we watch this spectacle. This until the twilight ensures that we can no longer see anything. Pleased with this sighting we treat ourselves for a late visit to a local bar. The beers and patatas bravas taste like a real feast!

A sudden prolonged hunting scene out of the blue

On another evening we witnessed perhaps one of the most fantastic hunting scenes we have ever seen in this area. It is in fact an accidental sighting as we left another vantage point in the area earlier than planned due to disturbance caused by forestry work and its noisy machinery. The coolness of the evening is apparently the ideal time for the workmen to clear a part of the forest. The odd time to carry out the work doesn’t help us and the particular forest being thinned has long been known as a rendezvous site of a local wolf pack. Incomprehensible! Especially now that the place is also designated as one of the official vantage points recently made in the area. In any case our early departure means that we end up elsewhere in the last hour before sunset. Arriving at the different vantage point, a first look through the binoculars reveals a camper where the heather borders the pine forest. More disturbance! It turns out to be a family with young children who camp wild in the area. It feels like voyeurism when we see the mama of the brood brushing her teeth, the other family members have already withdrawn into the camper van. When the mommy hits the sliding door of the camper behind her as the last disruptor, I think the scene is over. Definately no chance to spot a wolf here! The presence of so many human sounds and smells can keep animals away from the immediate vicinity. That is something we mainly remember from literature, just when it seems better to leave here as well a wolf comes trotting from the forest on the slope behind. The animal makes it easy for itself: to get around it uses the unpaved firebreak that separates the heather from the forest edge. In no time the wolf also has the camper van in its sight. But the animal does not head back into the forest where it came from! Instead, with its tail curled under its body and head turned sideways, the predator passes the camper and continues its journey. Again the wolf is heading straight for us. Fortunately, given the vastness of the area, one motorhome is not a reason to disturb all residential wildlife. In the rough grassland amidst the vegetation of heather, broom and formations of pines, some deer browse in the area. The ungulates are completely unaware of an approaching predator. The wolf meanwhile is fully in hunting mode. The focused animal alternates sniffing with looking around criss-cross the area. Once a scent trail is found, the wolf moves super fast in the direction of the unsuspecting deer. But this wolf also fails to successfully bridge the last meters to his evening meal. With a few skittish jumps, the deer immediately distance themselves. In addition, the tall grass obstructs the wolf’s view. Incredibly beautiful to see how the wolf tries to relocate its prey while jumping through the vegetation, with its head above the grass! We also observe the same behavior during a second attack on a different deer. The whole observation lasts almost an hour; this counts from his infiltration into the area to his last attempt to outwit a Roe Deer! What a sighting again! It goes without saying that we are very pleased to find a local pub to treat ourselves following this unique observation. A local tour operator reports that he has never seen a wolf at the site of our spectacle…we feel quite fortunate and privileged!

Wolves vanished in autumn

As decribed above: last summer a lot of effort was needed to locate the wolves. Despite this in the end we had several great encounters although a bit less often compaired to previous years. But in autumn things where different. During our three-day presence in the area, in November 2021, we just made one very short sighting of a solitary, patrolling wolf. Difficult to ascertain the rumours (already spreading in the spring and summer) that the Sierra Culebra wolves seem indeed to have disappeared from the area. At least near the well known vantage points in the area. It was painful to confirm that reliable locations, in the area where we mostly find traces of wolves,  didn’t indeed show any indications – pugmarks, scats or scrapings – pointing to the presence of wolves in the area. We felt disappointed, displeased and indignant. After all, there is no shortage of prey the area is teeming with Red Deer and Roe Deer.  Inquiring to the locals the questions remain mainly unanswered. What is not strange however as a foreign wildlife guide you remain an intruder for many local agencies. Few share their information. Though, a rare answer says that the packs have undoubtly reproduced in the past year but that they are hanging out elsewhere due to disturbance caused by photographers (aka toggers) who invariably enter the area near the classic vantage points during the early morning and evening. It’s definitely something we noticed last summer: photographers walking around /driving down paths with the car just where the wolves have their rendezvous places. A phenomenon that you see more and more everywhere: people with a large lens, no binoculars or a telescope. For many, knowledge of the animals and their welfare is secondary to shooting the ultimate photo. Often just to show off their prize on social media afterwards. Wrong local management for us too is clearly a reason that puts the wolves under pressure. After 15 years of experience in the region the area is completely ready for mass ecotourism. Since the summer of 2021:  three classic vantage points in the area are now equipped with information panels, signposts, paths and a large parking lot. In itself something which you can only be positive about. More wolf tourism benefits the local economy. After all, people have to eat, sleep, refuel and buy souvenirs on site. Nature can and does contribute to local economic prosperity. But ecotourism always has to stay in balance with fragile ecosystems. A thin red line gone as soon as humans appear in big numbers…

Despite the positive trend towards ecotorism and a respect of nature, you can still question the overall picture concerning global management in the area.

Why provide infrastructure near a wolf core area when you’re clearing a forest on site that has served as the rendezvous of a local pack for years?

Why provide infrastructure near a wolf core area when you also allow hunters to shoot ungulates there? And is the area free of poaching? A strange sighting we witness of active hunters in the area already made us suspicious…

Why provide infrastructure near a core area for wolves when you replace an entire large piece of heather habitat on site with a huge meter high fenced newly planted production forest?

Of course it could also just be bad luck. When animals don’t appear people always try to find an explanation for it. Despite that, we openly ask ourselves what facilitates the absence of the wolves.

Are the local pack members periodically absent?
Have they not reproduced this year?
Have they swapped their core area in their territory?
Have they moved their home range?
Is disturbance or hunting the cause?

It is and remains guesswork. So, in the end it may just be that we are unlucky during our three-day stay this time. Wolves are and remain apex predators that are at the top of the food pyramid. Nowhere are they abundant. Nevertheless, according to local information and personal field experience, the truth will be somewhere in the middle and probably a combination of environmental factors and animals in the area just doing there own thing

The last evening during our stay (in the autumn of 2021) we fortunately discovered a place where some wolf pack members clearly loitered around recently. Numerous wolf tracks in the muddy sand of a firebreak at the spot in particular clearly indicates the presence of a pack in the area. It is also there that we observe a patrolling wolf during the last evening session. Unfortunately the observation is followed by the sighting of active hunters leaving the area, where the wolf enterd the forest, in a sneeky way at dusk.  The next morning the counter remains at zero. No hunters no wolf….

But we still made an observation. Many come to this area without a glimpse of this shy predator!
Fingers crossed and positive attitude for sure when we return!

It never gets boring

In itself Culebra remains a fantastic area for those who love open, big landscapes where nature is still abundant, you can walk completely alone or stroll in rustic villages. In summer, a local beach near a reservoir provides the ideal relaxation to get you through the day between morning and evening sessions observing wolves in the area. The bycatch of Mediterranean bird species also makes the area very pleasant for birding. A good area for birds are the nearby lagoons of Villafafila. Despite the predominantly agricultural character, you will find the largest concentration of Great Bustards in Europe on the uncultivated fields in the area. Driving down dusty dirt tracks in search of the heaviest flying land bird in Europe is always a joyful experience! Ditto a local ruin in which a colony of Lesser Kestrels can be found during the breeding season. Groups of Common Cranes also arrive in the autumn. The lagoons provide them with a safe haven from which they seek out nearby fields to forage. Striking and very beautiful are the very old chestnut forests of the area. Some trees, which are several hundred years old, are so impressive!