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The Brown Bear is a rare andendangered species in Spain today.Just 130 animals remain, splitbetween two isolated populations at eitherend of the Cordillera Cantábrica. Here theydwell in the wildest regions, high in thesteepest and most wooded parts of thisspectacular - but little-visited - mountainrange. The majority of the Bears, about100, are to be found in the westernpopulation, 20 of them in the deep valleysand rugged terrain of Somiedo NaturalPark. Established as recently as 1988 (anddeclared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCOin 2000), this 29,164-hectare park protectssome of the highest and most scenicpeaks and valleys of the region; a mostpleasant mix of dramatic and craggylimestone peaks and cliffs, upland lakes,fast-flowing streams and rivers, magnificent oak and Beech forests,ancient stone-walled upland pastures andhigh alpine meadows, regarded as thebest-preserved montane environment inthe Iberian peninsula. In particular, this richand varied tapestry of habitats not onlysuits the omnivorous Bear, but alsosupports a very large population ofChamois, Roe Deer and Red Deer, theprey of at least four packs of Wolves thatroam elusively through the rugged regionsof the park. We would, of course, beextremely lucky to see a Bear or a Wolf,but we will look hard for them nonethelessas we pursue our main focus - theregion's birdlife, flora, butterflies and othermammals - during our daily walks inthese mountains. It is the human presence, however, thatmakes this region so very special. As if thewonderful Asturian architecture of thestone and clay-tiled villages of Somiedo'svalleys - each dwelling with its separate,classically Asturian, stilted storehouse -were not enough, here the residentfarmers continue to practise an age-oldpastoralist lifestyle, maintaining theirtraditional and unique brañas. These areseasonal 'villages' of ancient stone andthatch huts, set in the high pastures, fromwhich the cow-herders manage their herdsof distinctive red Asturian cows eachspring, summer and autumn. The region is also the land of the vaqueiros, acommunity of pastoralists from the coastwho, for centuries, have seasonally driven (more often in a truck these daysthan on foot, as in the past!) their cattlebetween winter pastures on the coast and the high pastures in Somiedo'smountains where they spend each summerliving in traditional seasonal vaqueirovillages and hold colourful bi-annuallivestock fairs. We have chosen to visit in early July sincethis is the season during which the Bearsventure out into the pastures to 'graze' onthe spring grass before they retreat intothe forests to feed on fruit, nuts and otherforest produce. It is also, of course, thebest time of year for settled weather, birdsand for flowers. Amongst the birds, animportant though declining population ofCapercaillie is protected here. Residentbirds of prey include Golden Eagle,Goshawk, Peregrine and Griffon Vultureand these are joined in summer by goodnumbers of Black Kites, Short-toed Eagles,Honey Buzzards and Egyptian Vultures.Crag Martins, Rock Thrushes, Rock andOrtolan Buntings, and both Red-billed andAlpine Choughs frequent the highmeadows. Red-backed Shrikes, Subalpineand Melodious Warblers, Cirl Buntings andRock Sparrows may be found at lowerlevels, whilst Black Woodpeckers call fromthe beech forests and Crested Tits andCrossbills may be heard amongst theconiferous woodlands.Some 1,125 vascular plant species occurin Somiedo, and these include suchregional endemics as Centaurea janerisubsp. babiana,Armeria bigerrensissubsp. legionensis,Saxifraga babianaand,most notably, the very rare SomiedoCentaury (Centaurium somedanum).However, it is likely to be the sheerabundance of flowers along the waysideand in the hay meadows and alpinepastures, and the butterfly and insect-life itsupports, that affords us greatest pleasureat this season.To best enjoy the natural history of thesemountains, we will be based for the weekin one of the larger villages of Somiedoand will spend each day on foot, enjoyinga programme of gentle-paced day walkswhich we traditionally break with adelicious 'al fresco' picnic. In order tostand a chance of seeing a Bear, however,or even a Wolf, we must also put in long(but optional) hours of patient scanningfrom one spot, probably during the earlymornings and late evenings. But, whateverwe see on this holiday, it is the simplemagic of this rich, scenic and timelessregion, lying in a forgotten corner of ruralSpain, that is likely to leave us with ourmost lasting and delightful memories.FRANCE PORTUGAL SEVILLE BILBAOASTURIASCANTABRIAN MOUNTAINSSOMIEDOZAMORA MADRID ATLANTIC OCEAN MEDITERRANEAN SEA SPAIN136Call now or visit www.naturetrek.co.ukfor your free Trip ItineraryOutline itineraryDay 1Fly Asturias and transferto Somiedo NaturalPark. Day 2/7Day walks in theCantabrian Mountains ofthe Somiedo region.Day 8Return Asturias; flyStansted.Accommodation A single-centre holiday using aclean and comfortable village hotel,all rooms with private facilities. Food All included in the price.GradingGrade B. A programme of daywalks, at altitudes between 1,000and 2,000 metres.Focus Birds, plants, mammals, butterfliesand walking - with an optionalemphasis on Bear-spotting! LeadersByron Palacios (ornithologist) andGloria Lana or Jessica Turner(botanist).Single room supplement£150.Web quick search: ESP10Spain's CantabrianMountains - Realm of the BearAn 8-day holiday to the little-known western end of Spain's Cordillera Cantábrica, home to Bears, Wolves and a rich flora and birdlife. We will enjoy this wildlife on mountain walks through the spectacular Somiedo Natural Park.Monday 1st July - Monday 8th July Cost: £1,195Cordillera CantábricaGriffonVultureElderflower Orchid

Northern Spain has a very great dealto offer the naturalist. The dramaticlimestone peaks of the Picos deEuropa in the heart of the CantabrianMountains are justly famous for theirscenery and birds. Less well known, butonly a relatively short distance to thesouth, are the wide open plains of theupper Duero Valley, which offer a strikingscenic contrast to the mountains andsome very different but equally excitingbirds. Add to this a sea crossing thatprovides some of the best seabird andwhale-watching possibilities that Europehas to offer and you have the makings of avery memorable trip indeed.Our holiday starts with the ferry crossingfrom Portsmouth to Bilbao, a journey whichat this time of year regularly producessightings of an exciting range of whale anddolphin species. The ship is large andstable and provides a good vantage-pointfor scanning the sea ahead for that tell-talefin or that column of spray, as one of theseimpressive creatures surfaces momentarilyand 'blows'. The ship crosses thecontinental shelf during the night and themorning will find us in the southern Bay ofBiscay, a particularly rich feeding groundfor whales. Here we have a chance ofencountering such exciting species as Fin,Sei, Minke, Killer and Long-finned PilotWhales and Bottlenose, Common, Stripedand Risso's Dolphins. Seabirds are verylikely to be in evidence too, and at thistime of year we have a good chance ofseeing Balearic, Sooty, Cory's and GreatShearwaters, up to four species of skua,Sabine's Gull, Grey Phalarope and petrelsthat may even include Wilson's.Once in Bilbao, we will make the shortjourney inland to Espinama in the heart ofthe Picos de Europa mountains. From ourpleasant hotel here we are well positionedto explore the best that this remarkablyunspoilt region has to offer. Amongst thehigh limestone crags and screes, reachedby a short but spectacular journey on theFuente Dé cable car, we will search for arange of high mountain specialists. AlpineChoughs, Water Pipits, Alpine Accentors,Crag Martins and the attractive Chamoisare all common here and, with luck, we willfind Snowfinch, Rock Thrush, Rock Buntingand even Wallcreeper. Raptors are aconspicuous feature of the Picos and,amongst the Griffon Vultures which are sooften to be seen cruising effortlessly alongthe skyline, we must keep an eye open forEgyptian Vultures, Golden and Short-toedEagles and Peregrine Falcons.Lower down, in the valleys, we will discovera very different landscape. Here there aremixed woodlands, tumbling streams, flower-filled meadows, orchards and quiet,timeless villages. Amongst them we willlook out for Black and Middle SpottedWoodpeckers, Woodlark, Dipper, Short-toedTreecreeper, Firecrest, Bonelli's Warbler,Red-backed Shrike and Cirl Bunting.Overhead we could see Booted Eagle, RedKite, Honey Buzzard or Goshawk, whilst atour feet the meadows dazzle us with theirflowers and a range of butterflies that mayinclude Scarce Swallowtail, Cleopatra andthe strange Black Satyr. After our time in the Picos we will headsouth-westwards towards Zamora. In thecourse of an easy but remarkablemorning's drive which takes us over acouple of passes and through a series ofpicturesque valleys, we will descend fromhigh mountains onto the wide open rollingvastness of the Dueroplains. Our destination is alovely hotel in Zamora. Here,in accordance with European Uniondirectives, a large area of the plains isbeing farmed in a manner sympathetic to arange of sensitive and declining grasslandbird species. The result is one of thelargest concentrations of Great Bustards inthe world, together with good populationsof Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Montagu's Harrier,Lesser Kestrel and Calandra Lark. Withluck we will see all of these during ourvisit. Additionally, to add icing to the cake,the area has a series of saline lagoonswhich, provided they have a little water inthem at this, the driest time of the year, willbe full of migrant waders and otherwaterbirds. After this contrasting feast of scenery andbirds in two rather forgotten parts of Spain,we will have to return to Bilbao, where pastgroups have squeezed in a visit to theGuggenheim. Counting the MediterraneanGulls as we leave the harbour, we can lookforward to more whales, dolphins,shearwaters and skuas as we once againcross the continental shelf out in the Bay of Biscay. Whatever we see, it is likely tobe a fitting finale to a satisfying andmemorable holiday.137Outline itineraryDay 1/2Ferry journey fromPortsmouth to Bilbao.Day 3Arrive Bilbao; transfer toEspinama, Picos deEuropa.Day 4Picos de Europa.Day 5/7Zamora, Duero Valleyplains.Day 8 Bilbao.Day 9 Depart Bilbao by ferry.Day 10 Arrive Portsmouth.AccommodationTwin-bedded cabins aboard theferry. Comfortable hotels in Spain;all rooms with private facilities.FoodAll included in the price, except formeals aboard the ferry and eveningmeal in Bilbao.GradingEasy day walks. Grade A/B.FocusBirds and mammals (particularlywhales and dolphins).LeadersPeter Dunn and Byron Palacios.Single room supplement(in Spain)£115.Web quick search: ESP05FRANCE PORTUGAL SEVILLE BILBAOPICOS SANTANDERDE EUROPA ESPINAMA ZAMORA MADRID ATLANTIC OCEAN MEDITERRANEAN SEA SPAIN Book direct on 01962 733051or see page 284 for Booking InformationPicos & Plains - TheBest of Northern SpainA 10-day tour in search of whales, dolphins and seabirds in the Bay of Biscay and the special birds of the Picos de Europa mountains and the Zamoran plains.Sunday 4th August - Tuesday 13th August Cost: £1,295Picos de EuropaStriped DolphinBlack-eared Wheatear