A return to the Picos de Europa in north-west Spain, July 2014, with Alan Bernard and a chance to meet up again with Teresa Farino

Wednesday 9 July

Alan drove to Stansted for the Easyjet flight to Asturias, a mere 90 minutes away. The Avis car hire desk was quiet and we were soon heading east along the almost traffic-free E70 in our excellent white VW Golf, and there were no delays until we reached the end of the dual carriageway near Colombres where the road is still being built. Our turn-off town into the Picos, Unquera, was 2 hours from the airport. Heading due south now towards Potes we made our first short stop a short way up the road towards Beges, as much to stretch our legs as anything else. But we encountered Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia), Lulworth Skipper (Thymelicus acteon), Small Skuppers (Thymelicus sylvestris) and Large Skippers (Ochlodes sylvanus), False ilex Hairstreak (Satyrium esculi), and Marbled White (Melanargia galathea), amongst other common species.

 

Espinama and the Hostal Nevandi concluded our journey by 6pm and having checked-in we sampled our first very welcome beers. (I'd stayed here in 2003 with a Travelling Naturalist group led by Teresa Farino and had met her again last year when she joined three of us on La Palma). Feeling adventurous in the hotel restaurant we both chose the 'tipico' peasant's dinner, an honest mistake not to be repeated! The large bowl was piled high with chickpeas, dumplings, some kind of meats, all swimming in an oily broth, but the bottle of red wine we consumed offered some compensation. The Argentina - Netherlands World Cup semi-final was being shown in the bar and with a 0-0 half-time score Al called it a day. I stayed until the 90 minutes were up, around midnight, but with the score unchanged I decided I'd also had enough. (Argentina won 4-2 on penalties).

 

Thursday 10 July

Stuck my nose outside before breakfast at 8 and despite the blue sky the air was distinctly chilly. The small Spar supermarket underneath the hotel provided our water and apples for the day. After yesterday's travelling the plan today was to stay local. We gave the air temperature some time to warm up and at 10am walked from the hotel up the lane immediately to the right. Soon we were on a rough but driveable tree-lined track with meadows on either side. The lane was initially in shadow but we took the first opportunity to visit a sunny meadow on the left to be met by Dark Green Fritillaries (Argynnis aglaja), still warming up, and Adonis Blues (Polyommatus bellargus). The rest of the morning was spent in other meadows up the lane, and time passed quickly. 

 

A salad lunch in the bar/restaurant directly across the road from our hotel was excellent, their ensalada verde in particular with its walnuts, goat cheese, herbs and dressing. Afterwards I drove us up to the towering face of Fuente De, just 3½k up the road, where the large free car park was nearly full. We explored the grassy slopes at the base of the massive limestone rock-wall - a collapsed cavern maybe? -  heavily grazed by cattle, horses, and goats, but despite that we found a tired Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene), Chestnut Heaths (Coenonympha glycerion) and a Spanish Brown Argus (Aricia cramera).

 

By 5pm we'd returned to the hotel and sat at the side of the small pool with a large beer and completed the day list, did some sun worship, and sitting with my legs in the water managed to nod off! Dinner was taken at the earliest opportunity, at 8pm, and tonight we played it safe. I chose lamb chops and was presented with 6 of them but I expect they came off an old sheep. After dinner we walked down the road to settle our stomachs but I was shivering with cold by the time we returned to the hostal at 10pm.

Friday 11 July

Made the standard visit to the Spar before setting off for Fuente De in sunshine though the mountain tops were shrouded in low cloud. The cable car was running regularly and whisked us up the 800m vertical cliff face to the precarious-looking terminal shed at the top. Up here it was still quite cool so we followed the main track eventually dropping down to the two lakes. No butterflies were seen. The path that goes off to the left at an acute angle and wraps itself around the bluff beckoned and almost immediately a Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) flew up from the ground. We continued around the bend and finally stopped to eat our lunch as low cloud drifted through. When I'd been here 11 years ago the rock crevices had been filled with Euphorbia pyrenaica and the Alpine linaria but both were hard to spot amongst the other plants, much less advanced than before. A clatter of Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) hung around for tit-bits and on the skyline behind us several Chamois kept watch. With cloud still rolling through we began to wander back and then, all of a sudden, there they were - 4 or 5 Gavarnie Blues (Plebejus pyrenaicus) flying on a small sheltered bank, spotted initially by Al, where Androsace villosa, the larval foodplant, was growing. A Small Blue (Cupido minimus) or Osiris Blue (Cupido osiris) was also there. Then, as soon as the sun disappeared again, so did the Blues. Back down on the main path Al wanted to traverse the snowfield for fun, so we did, and then returned! Our route back to the cable car took us across the greener vale below the main path and two more Gavarnie Blues were seen but then the cloud rolled in again and the day was finished. Surprised not to have seen a single erebia today….

 

Caught the cable car down around 4pm and dropped in to check-out Pido, taking the car as far as we could into the village before coming back down to the river bridge. On a nearby dungheap were Adonis Blue, Short-tailed Blue (Cupido argiades), and Escher's Blues (Polyommatus escheri). Al finally took the car up the road alongside the hotel, where we'd walked yesterday, stopping at the town water supply where we saw Peacock (Aglais io), Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia), Silver-washed Fritillaries and Heath Fritillaries (Melitaea athalia), thence to the hotel. Time again for beers by the pool but by 7pm it had become chilly again. We had chosen the Hostal Puente Deva across the road as our dinner venue and although the food was OK the service wasn't - locals were being well looked after however. We had to ask for bread, drinks again, cutlery, the bill again and so on. Back at the hotel the maitre d' found the local grappa equivalent, known in these parts as orujo. Not bad! 

 

Saturday 12 July

Usual Spar shop at 9.30 and then off, me driving, via Potes turning south towards the Puerto de San Glorio where the Picos merges into the Cordillera Cantabrica. Made our first stop on the climb up the Valle de Cereceda at a large silo and crossed the road into the woods. It was very floriferous here attracting Pearly Heaths (Coenonympha arcania), Silver-washed and Dark Green Fritillaries, and Wood Whites (Leptidea sinapis). Stopped on the crest in breezy conditions and spent a lot of time trying to crack the ids of Heath, Provençal (Melitaea deione) and Meadow Fritillaries (Melitaea parthenoides) - not an easy task (and still not 100% confident we got it right!). Alan defied the law by using his net to catch a Turquoise Blue (Polyommatus dorylas) and a Black-veined White (Aporia crataegi). We continued through the official Pass then took a sharp right doubling back on ourselves towards the Mirador del Oso, stopping almost straight away for lunch. In blustery conditions we saw Apollos (Parnassius apollo), the rare Chapman's Ringlet (Erebia palarica), and various Fritillaries.

 

The view from the Oso statue was fantastic with the Picos illuminated in the strong sunshine. A species of leafless mauve crocus or colchicum dotted the hillsides. Our journey took us down the Naranco valley stopping first at Llanaves de la Reina at the start of the gorge. Iberian Marbled White (Melanargia lachesis) was here along with the lovely Scarce Copper (Lycaena virgaureae ssp miegii) plus Large Wall Brown (Lasiommata maera) and Peacock. Further down the valley, just beyond Portilla de la Reina, we stopped by the stream and found Esper's Marbled White (Melanargia russiae) and a host of biting mosquitos, cutting short our visit. At 4.30 we headed back to Espinama reaching the hotel at 5.40. Another poolside beer was spoilt by 3 young couples noisily bombing into the small pool and then getting too smoochy on the sun beds.

 

This evening for dinner we selected the Posada Sobrevilla along the lane by our hotel and had a very good time being made to feel very welcome by the maitresse d'h until half time which became our cue to return to the Nevandi, and the end of another day.

 

Sunday 13 July

Woke to low cloud cover and a poor forecast. But by 9.30 the sun was through on the hillsides across from the hotel, perfect for our planned walk through Pido. We walked through the quiet village and followed the footpath into the mostly dense beech woods which largely shaded the path making it unproductive. But on an open stretch we picked up Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Heath, Dark Green and Silver-washed Fritillaries, a very worn Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi), Large Wall Brown, etc. The geology here is acid rock. We strolled back to Espinama for a salad in our hotel and then at 2.30 made a second visit to the top of Fuente De completely mis-reading the weather - the hot sun in the valley was slowly being replaced 'up top' by cloud. But the erebias were on the wing in continuous flight, impossible to get anywhere near. For a while we lost the sun and when it came back through we saw a couple of Gavarnie Blues before rejoining the main track. Where the track splits for the Espinama track an erebia suddenly stopped about 5 feet from us partly obscured by the scree but I managed to fire off a single shot before it flew - from the photo it looks like a Silky Ringlet (Erebia gorge) but I'll send it to Teresa to see what she thinks. Two or three more erebias were seen on the way back to the terminus but with zero chance of an id.

 

Got back to the hotel for 6pm and dined-in to watch the World Cup final, latterly in the bar. Wanted Argentina to win but the Germans deserved their narrow success. Enjoyed a losing bet with our waitress.

 

Monday 14 July

Breakfast at 8, then the Spar, and off to Tudes. This village, set back in time, sits in a Mediterranean habitat, very unexpected, with holly oak, cistus, arbutus, erica etc and very dry. Initially there was no sun but as it came through an unpromising start turned into our best day yet. Species here included Cardinal (Argynnis pandora), Cleopatra (Gonepteryx cleopatra), Chalkhill Blue (Polyommatus coridon) and Holly Blues (Celastrina argiolus), Grayling (Hipparchia semele) and Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera), amongst others. Back to the village around 1.30 we sat at the picnic table under the trees and ate our bread and sardines where we were joined by the local very fine cockerel and his harem.

 

The afternoon was spent fairly close by, a short way to the south before taking the right turn towards Campollo. By now a fair breeze was blowing and the afternoon seemed to be past its best so after about 2k we pulled up at the roadside to check-out the verge. We both strolled up the road to a sharp right hand bend where Alan disappeared into an orchard whilst I stayed on the tarmac. But the orchard was relatively sheltered and I climbed over the gate to join Al. And what a spot! A Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa) made occasional fast fly-bys well above head height and then a Large Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychlorus) passed through, stopping momentarily. A White Admiral (Limenitis camilla) and Adonis Blues added to the impressive list.

 

Around 5pm, in cloudy weather, we got back to the hotel and prepared to meet Teresa Farino, our dinner guest, in the bar at 7pm. Naturally enough she put us right on a few things - e.g. there is no Chapman's Blue we thought we'd seen earlier in Asturias, so it was probably Escher's we'd seen - and generously pin-pointed locations where we could expect to see Bog Fritillary (Boloria eunomia), Dusky Large Blue (Phengaris nausithous), and Woodland Brown (Lopinga achine), going as far as drawing maps on the back of my species list pages. She also told us about her favourite site in Cantabria. Dinner was full and lively until around 11pm when she set off for the 45 minute drive home.

 

Tuesday 15 July

Armed with Teresa's intelligence we headed for Piedrasluegas, stopping briefly in Potes so that Alan could buy a small penknife, a tool for illicit gardening purposes. At the Puerto we stopped to take in the fantastic north vista across to the Picos and became reunited with the stream of bikers who'd agitated to get past us, and others, up the ascent. 'Is that Yorkshire accents I'm hearing?' I said to the leathery group. Nay, 'twere better than that, they was from Leeds and elsewhere in West Yorkshire!

 

The bog was located easily enough but the target namesake Fritillary was nowhere to be seen, replaced by Knapweed Fritillary (Melitaea phoebe) and Glanville Fritillaries (Melitaea cinxia): we concluded its flight period must now be over. So, in lovely weather, Al continued the long drive south not stopping until we reached our destination, and Teresa's favourite, the name of which I'll keep to myself. The first task was to eat lunch, with some difficulty as the butterflies were so varied and abundant. In hot sunshine we recorded Grayling, Iberian Marbled White, Cardinal, White Admiral, Furry Blue (Polyommatus dolus), Ripart's Anomalous Blue (Polyommatus ripartii), Turquoise Blue (Polyommatus dorylas), Swallowtail (Papilio machaon gorganus), Great-banded Grayling (Brintesia circe), our first Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas), High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe) along with Silver-washed and Dark Green Fritillaries, and so on, bringing the day's total to 48 species.

 

Very weary after a hot day in the field, and a long drive, we returned to the hotel around 7pm and chose the nearby Posada Sobrevilla for dinner. Had a great evening with the maitresse d'h, again, and locals who tolerated our Sp'Ingles and Alan's recollections of his schoolboy Spanish. Another shared bottle of red, plus the now obligatory orujos, capped a fine occasion. But on returning to our hotel (at midnight) we found it in darkness and our outdoor keys were not opening any locks. Oh dear! But then a face appeared at the door and we were fortunately let in. 

 

Wednesday 16 July

Today we'd go up to Beges to find the Woodland Brown site, setting off in bright sun. But as we approached Potes we noticed that the cloud was very low, almost fog, but we pressed on and kept going up the pass through Beges and then up the steep zig-zag concrete road. At the final hairpin we parked and walked up the road through the heavy mist in which nothing would be flying - we'd clearly called it wrong. However, Silver-studded Blues (Plebejus argus) weren't too dissuaded to fly short distances so at least we saw something. On the top the cloud was so low we had no chance of locating the site given to us by Teresa, so at 11.30 we returned to the car and headed back. With time running out we decided to head way south to find another Bog Fritillary site on the road to Valdeon at Mostajal, deep in Cantabria. Once again, the bog failed to yield up its namesake frit, but a small isolated colony of Dusky Large Blue and a Marbled Skipper (Carcharodus lavatherae) offered some consolation.

 

Not being the types to give in, we decided to go all the way back to Beges in a final attempt to find the rare and elusive Woodland Brown. But despite much better weather we were unable to spot our quarry so returned to the hotel by 7.20 for our last dinner in Espinama

 

Thursday 17 July

With plenty of time to get to Asturias airport we nevertheless drove away by 9am and made good progress until we took a wrong turn in the spaghetti motorways near Oviedo, finding ourselves heading south towards Leon! It was my fault as navigator - but as our inward journey had been so straightforward I just assumed that the return would be too. Complacency! No major problem, we turned back as soon as we could and followed the signs for La Corunna and a trouble-free flight home.