Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Pyrenees!

The Pyrenees in the Hecho Valley (Photos by Narca)

As we drive into the Hecho Valley in the Pyrenees, nor far from the border between Spain and France, the grand massif rises around us, and wildflowers cloak the slopes. We've arrived at the peak of summer, and it is very, very beautiful.

Hotel Uson, a guesthouse that serves breakfast and dinner

We stay at a rural guesthouse, Hotel Uson, perfectly located for exploring hiking trails and finding Wallcreepers. Our hosts, Lucía and Imanol, point us in the direction we need to go, with explicit instructions for finding a Wallcreeper territory which they are familiar with. All we need to do in order to stay on the right trail is follow the red and white markers.

Easy, right? We've allowed three days, just in case.

The Wallcreeper is a Grail bird, with wings that flash maroon, black and white. It occupies a niche unlike any other bird's: it creeps like a nuthatch across the face of immense cliffs. Perhaps it is the combination of rarity, beauty, and lifestyle that so sets it apart from other birds, and makes seeing one an imperative.

We've looked for Wallcreeper in China. We've looked for it in France. We looked for it once before here––just up the road from Hotel Uson, at Boca de Infierno––in spring, when the site lived up to its name, the "Mouth of Hell." We searched then, with no chance of success, in the teeth of a fierce late spring storm which blew sheets of horizontal snow between us and the cliffs frequented by Wallcreepers.

Trail at Gabardito Reserve

Our first morning we set out from Hotel Uson, following the precise directions to the parking area at Gabardito Reserve, only a few miles away. The red and white flagging is obvious, and we follow it, remarking how well-marked the trail is. But the 2-kilometer walk we're expecting seems a lot longer than 2 kilometers! Hours later we finally find a cliff, and it seems remotely to fit the description of The Territory. It is late afternoon, and we've enjoyed flowers, butterflies, and Lammergeiers. We vow to clarify matters and return!

Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, a Grail species for many!

Next day a big footrace happens. It turns out, all that flagging was marking the route of the race. Our markers are little peeling rectangles of red and white, painted at rare intervals on rocks.

But our kind hosts have corrected our idea of where to walk, and we return by a much shorter route to yesterday's cliff, and continue a little further around it. There indeed is the Wallcreeper Cleft-in-the-Cliff––and there is the Wallcreeper! It has been worth every hour of effort over the years!

A Wallcreeper territory

The Wallcreeper frequents a deep cleft in the cliff face. He forages around plants that cling to a precarious perch, and we think we see the location of the nest, as he returns occasionally bearing food. Once he chases the kestrel that is nesting nearby on the same massive rock wall. Once two Wallcreepers are visible.

A female Common Kestrel approaches her nest, showing warm tones in her tail.

The Wallcreepers come and go on foraging forays. They appear tiny on the gray immensity of the cliff face. We spend hours savoring them––and their environs.

Red-billed Choughs also nest nearby.

Griffon Vulture

Griffon Vultures, Red-billed Choughs, Alpine Swifts, Crag Martins, and Lammergeiers all soar overhead.

Coal Tit, a cousin to our chickadees

A Coal Tit hammers on a seed. The very air sparkles. We find an immense lily, which I'm still trying to identify. Butterflies are abundant. (I'll do a separate post on them!)

You'd probably enjoy seeing what a Wallcreeper looks like. I've added an arrow to help. They aren't easy to find, are they?

The Grail (Computer-enhanced Pen & Ink by Narca)

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Segovia is an ancient walled city topped by the Alcazar, or royal palace. It fully deserves its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Leona, Wendi, Alan and I spent a day wandering its maze of narrow streets and marveling at the exquisite craftmanship in the details of the old buildings.

Segovia's magnificent cathedral––the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain

Segovia's deepest roots are Celtic. The settlement next fell into Roman hands, and Romans built the 2000-year-old aqueduct which today dominates the approach to the old walled city. The city's fortunes waxed and waned over the centuries. Its location along major travel routes led to its becoming an important center of trade for wool and other textiles.

Segovia's 2000-year-old Roman aqueduct, complete with Common Swifts

Segovia is deeply entwined with the birth of the Spanish nation. Here Isabella I was proclaimed Queen of Castille and León in 1474. Her marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon united the core of what became the Spanish nation, a feat that was cemented by their conquest of the Moors in Granada at the end of 1491. Isabella brought public order and effective reform to her kingdom. One day a week the monarchs made themselves available to hear the problems and complaints of their people.

The Alcazar, where Isabella was proclaimed queen

Ceilings in the Alcazar are a marvel...

... and doors across the entire country are works of art.

A store's window display in Segovia

Legend is that when Columbus approached the Royal Eminences in the throne room of the newly-conquered Alhambra, Ferdinand laughed at the notion that the Earth was round. But Isabella gave Columbus her jewels to finance his voyage.

Their union fused two major dialects as well, and gave birth to the Castillian Spanish that is spoken today. (Many years ago, I studied the origins of Spanish as part of being a Spainish major. We read the Spanish classics––Don Quixote, Don Juan and La Celestina––in their original form, rather like reading Chaucer in Old English.)

Segovia's golden age came in the late Middle Ages, when the Jewish population took learning and commerce to new heights. (All that came to an end with the Spanish Inquisition, when harsh treatment of the Jews was initiated by Ferdinand and the friar Torquemada.)

This street sign marks the old Jewish quarter of Segovia.

The city's fortunes may have waxed and waned, but one constant has likely been the swifts that swoop overhead, feasting on airborne insects. Hundreds of Common Swifts still nest in the aqueduct's nooks and in various crannies across the old city.

And, to top it all off, Segovia and Tucson are sister cities!

But can you imagine approaching Tucson in summer as a Conquistador, wearing that?!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Village Storks

If you drive the back roads (and even not-so-back roads) in Spain during the nesting season, you'll still find the iconic village storks, their immense stick nests decorating church steeples and farm houses. These are White Storks, and they have nested in small Spanish villages for as long as there have been villages––and probably since the ice relinquished its grip on Europe!  Twenty-five-million-year-old fossils from either a White or Black Stork have been found in Kenya. Their lineage is ancient.

White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) nest atop a church's bell tower. 
(Photos by Narca)

Chicks are well cared for. Adults were reported by Lefebvre, Nicolakakis and Boire to deliver water to their young by squeezing moss, thereby dripping water into the beaks of their chicks––an example of tool use.

Juvenile White Storks

The enormous nests often turn into apartment houses: smaller birds like House Sparrows and even European Rollers will claim a nook of the nest for themselves.

With a wingspan up to 8 feet across, these huge, heavy birds depend on thermals to carry them on their long-distance migrations. If you were able to fly south with the migrating storks, you might end up on the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania, striding amongst the Wildebeest and towering over thousands of Thomson's Gazelles.

An adult White Stork, dignified and stately

In the Iberian Peninsula, an estimated 40,000 pairs are considered to be secure, although they have suffered some declines due in part to changes in agricultural practices. Elsewhere, storks have declined in many regions. Conservation and reintroduction efforts in Europe are returning storks to former strongholds like the Rhine River Valley, where their population had declined to the point of vanishing. Perhaps a quarter of the world population nests in Poland. Other very strong centers for breeding White Storks are the Ukraine and Lithuania.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Butterflies in the Sierra de Guadarrama

The Sierra de Guadarrama towers between Madrid and the ancient Roman town of Segovia (our next destination). Forests of pine and Holm Oak cloak the slopes. Any of several wide places in the road give access to hiking trails, and we find a couple of very rewarding walks: Pinar de la Barranca and Los Montes de Valsaín. Both are alive with birdsong and dozens of butterflies.

Pine forest at Pinar de la Barranca (Photos by Narca)

Although it is a treat to renew acquaintance with Spanish birds, the insects really grab my attention. Wendi spots this spectacular, bizarre beast: a Spoonwing, or Thread-winged Antlion. It is a relative of dragonflies. What fun to run across a category of creature that you never suspected to exist!

A Spoonwing, Nemoptera bipennis

The butterflies fall into recognizable groups: fritillaries, pierids, coppers, blues, swallowtails, skippers.

Marbled Fritillary, Brenthis daphne

Brimstone, Gonepteryx rhamni, is a close match to our angled-sulphurs.
(WHY was the venerable name of Brimstone abandoned? Not all of the angled-sulphurs even have angles, and the former name applied to one of ours, Ghost Brimstone, was so much more evocative!)

This lovely pierid, the Black-veined White, has translucent wings.

Leona finds a scintillating treasure trove of three copper species, most nectaring on a rayless composite.

A male Scarce Copper, Lycaena vigaureae, nectaring on Eryngium, is as lustrous as coppers come. (This one was photographed in the Pyrenees.)

A female Purple-shot Copper, Lycaena alciphron gordius

Female Purple-shot Copper

A male Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas

Small Copper male

Iberian Marbled White, Melanargia lachesis, is actually a satyr.

Satyrs and blues are especially diverse in Europe. In contrast, the skippers are few and much more easily sorted than in North America.

Our short hike at Montes de Valsaín produced a Eurasian Dipper along the stream and this wonderful nymphalid. Those are serious eyespots, enough to startle any predator!

Peacock Butterfly, Inachis io

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Art in Madrid

On this trip to Spain, Wendi, Leona, Meeka, Alan and I added a few days in Madrid in order to visit two of its world-class art museums. Usually Alan and I are so taken with wild places that we bypass the human artifacts, but it doesn't really take much encouragement to pull me into an art museum.

Okay, so the birds still catch our eye! Common Swifts ply the skies over Madrid, here seen from our apartment. (Photos by Narca)

Madrid's finest offerings include the Prado and the Thyssen museums. The famous Prado has classic collections, with an emphasis on Spanish art (surprise!) from 1100 to 1910. It also has rich collections of German, Italian, French and British work dating from about 1300 to 1800. There you will see plenty of Old and Newer Masters, including van der Weyden, Memling, Hieronymus Bosch ( think Garden of Earthly Delights!), Brueghel, Dürer, Raphael, Titian, Fra Angelico, Tintoretto, El Greco, Caravaggio, Zurbarán, Murillo, Rubens, Van Dyck, Goya––and, yes, Rembrandt. One of the Prado's most famous pieces is Las Meninas by Velasquez, a painting so admired by Picasso that he devoted painting after painting to his interpretations of Las Meninas.

For me the show-stopper was a marble sculpture of a veiled woman's head. Usually I can see how an artist arrived at the final piece, but this bust was completely mystifying. The face was delicately visible beneath the draped veil. Without touching it, I couldn't figure out how the effect had been achieved. How deeply was the marble cut? The very rock appeared translucent, with the face glowing under the marble veil.

As satisfying as it was to see, in the flesh, pieces that I had studied years ago in art history classes, the Prado does not cover my favorite period of art. The Thyssen does!

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum houses the remarkable private collection of a single family, often considered to be the world's most important private art collection. Indeed, it is not to be missed! Spain acquired the collection (valued at about $1 billion) for $350,000,000 in 1992. Out of 1600 works, about 800 are in the main collection, housed across the street from the Prado in the Palace of Villahermosa––itself a beautiful neoclassical building.

The Thyssen collection spans 800 years of mainly European art and is presented chronologically, beginning on the top of three floors with works from the Renaissance and Classical periods, continuing all the way through Cubism, Avant-garde, and Pop Art. Each piece is a carefully-chosen gem by artists that include Van Eyck, Dürer, Holbein (portrait of Henry VIII), Rembrandt (the self-portrait!), Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyck, Murillo, Hals, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Miró, Dalí, Mondrian, Hopper, Cézanne, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O'Keeffe, Rodin, and many more.

My favorites at the Thyssen included the French Impressionists and North American painters like O'Keeffe, Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargeant. I was riveted by Van Gogh's self-portrait. Several Degas pieces are outstanding: we are all familiar with his masterful depictions of dancers, but racehorces? I hadn't known of that one, and it's a winner.

As exquisite as the early masterpieces are, it is a great relief to move from their gloomy colors into the fresh, lively colors of the recent era, and into the loose (but still masterful) brush strokes of, say, Homer's beach scene.

I wonder what the actual colors were, at the time the early pieces were painted? Were they really so uniformly dark? Or have aging varnishes and impermanent paints caused them to darken over the centuries?

We try to preserve miracles of accomplishment and for a while may stem the flow of change, but in the end... change comes.

Each of these museums requires at least a day to see, and both are closed on Mondays. You will find it best to buy entry tickets on-line before your visit, to avoid standing in long lines. Or investigate the Madrid Tourist Card, which includes free entry to these museums, as well as other benefits, and is valid for a year.

A Starbucks is strategically located near the museums. (The Starbucks app shows all the locations in Spain, for die-hard connoisseurs.) But we also found, mainly in Barcelona, an incredibly rich, thick Spanish mocha, so do experiment!

The Metro––subway––stop closest to the museums is Atocha on Line 1. We found the Metro easy to use (though visitors are cautioned to be wary of pickpockets). If several people are traveling together, or if you'll use the Metro for a number of trips, it is less expensive to buy one 10-ride ticket and share it. It is fine for more than one person to use that type of ticket. Just pass it back to the next person after you've cleared the turnstyle. (Another Metro line runs from the international airport to downtown Madrid.)

The Plaza Mayor, with living statues and other street performers, was about 4 blocks from our apartment.

As for lodging in Madrid, we found and booked on-line a self-catering apartment in the heart of the old city, near the La Latina Metro stop. This lodging was less than most hotels would cost for the four (at times, five) of us and included a well-supplied kitchen, wireless router for internet, and washing machine. Three nights cost 453 euros, for an apartment that could have slept 7 people in beds (and more in more creatively-contrived berths). Location was excellent.

To contact this company, email Catalín was our contact, and he spoke excellent English.

Our apartment in Madrid, on Calle de los Estudios

In the sultry summer evenings, we ambled through the neighborhood of our apartment, where tapas bars, street performers and sidewalk artists abound. One fellow, painted gray, impersonated a statue that silently clowned with passers-by.

For food, we alternated between sampling tapas and restaurants, and picking up food at nearby grocery stores. Try the Limón y Nada lemonade! And the ciruela––prune––yogurt. A classic, easy Spanish breakfast is a slice of good baguette bread, spread with olive oil and topped with tomato and cured Spanish ham. Think I'll have some now....

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Greetings, Friends!

Very soon I'll be posting accounts (with photos) of our recent journey to Spain: the Pyrenees at the height of blooms and butterflies, complete with Wallcreepers; the fantastical Gaudi architecture of Barcelona; tips on travel in that marvelous country. But for today, here is a quote from Mark Twain:

"I've been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."

As we travel, we learn that most of the potentially upsetting stuff resolves into treasured experiences. When something unexpected occurs, I wake up. What gift, what new possibility, is hidden in this sudden shift, when plans go awry?