Background Switcher (Hidden)

Release the Hounds! (In a National Park??)

Tuesday, January 28, 2020


One of my greatest joys is being able to tell a story, to document something that's happened from start to finish. Sometimes it takes years to get the story. And then there are those rare moments when you see something unfolding and you have your camera ready, and you just get the story.

That said...
One of my greatest frustrations about Blogger is the way it shrinks my photos. If you click on a photo it'll give you blown-up versions of all of them. And trust me, for this post, you're gonna need to click on photos. Promise me you will. Because all this happened at a great distance, and the light was terrible, as it usually is, and I was excited, as I usually am. 

While watching the griffons, some of them spooked from their perches on the mountainside. From across the river, on the other side of the mountain, we heard gunshots and men yelling. And then we heard the chilling sound of dogs baying. Lots of dogs. 

Our unbelieving eyes discerned a pack of particolored dogs literally pouring down the flank of the mountain where the vultures perched. This seemed a very odd thing to be happening in a national park,  close to the Christmas holiday. Or anytime. What is a huge pack of dogs doing in a national park where threatened birds are nesting? 

Something in the dogs' appearance pricked at my memory. Hounds. Very fast, very lean, greyhound like forms. Sight hounds. I've got it! They're Ibizan hounds!

I've blown up a small section of my photo here so you can see what I'm talking about--the red-tan and white, graceful forms of what I believe to be Ibizan hounds. Bang! Bang! Yahhh! Still the human voices rang through the dehesa (oak forest).

As you know, I love to see a dog doing its job. I can see red trackers on these dogs' collars, which tells me they are valued animals, set out on a hunt on purpose.

I've done a little reading on Ibizan hounds. They're sight hounds who are likely little diferent from their original form of several thousand years ago. The breed, also called Podenco Ibicenco or Balaeric Dog, is derived from the pariah dogs brought from Egypt to the island of Ibiza off Spain's coast, by Phoenician traders. Because they were isolated on Ibiza, they have remained virtually unchanged for several thousand years. Seeing one is like looking at a heiroglyph!

 Once again, that antiquity thing, only this time it's expressed in flesh. In beautiful dogs. They're similar to Pharoah hounds. Here's a photo from Seattle Purebred Dogs/Shutterstock that I grabbed off the Net. Egad they're lovely animals. Unless you're an animal--any animal-- trying to live its life in Monfragüe National Park when they're loosed...I would not want to be trying to outrun this hound.

All this--what ARE those dogs?? Why are they hunting in a pack in a national park? What about the vultures? What about the Iberian lynx that are supposed live here??  is running through my head as I am striving to get photos of the little river of hounds pouring down the steep flank of the mountain.

 And as I'm shooting photos I hear a sharp clattering on the steep rocky riverbank, on the far side, below where the hounds are coursing. What in the Sam Hill? It's hooves on rock!

Through my lens, I can see it is a beautiful Iberian deer, a stag, and he's running for his very life. Into the frigid river he plunges, without hesitation.

And he begins to swim.

Who can blame him, as the shots and yells ring out behind him? As the hounds get ever closer?

Liam, Phoebe and I watch and marvel as he swims, slender legs churning underwater, being swept by the current, but making headway nonetheless.
Animals and birds continually do things I cannot even contemplate. Heroic, impossible things.

All told, by the timestamps on my photos, it took him about eight minutes to make the crossing. You can be sure it felt like forever to us. I'd have drowned in the first 50 feet.

 Liam ran down the observation walk to get a better perspective on the stag when he came out--I was blocked by trees--and yelled to me to hurry over. I hugged my big camera and ran over as fast as I could, and managed to get him just as he emerged from the river. Hooray! He made it!

A beautiful stag lives to see another day. I shared my photos with the kind Belgian birder who showed us the griffon nest. Our respective situational awareness and sharing wound up benefiting us all.

 I am exhilarated, having caught the hunters and the hunted, and seen a magnificent stag escape to safety. But I am also angry to have witnessed this in a national park. What is the meaning of a park, anyway, if this kind of indiscriminate hunting still goes on here?

Monfragüe is home not only to the griffons, black vultures and black storks, but to a few Iberian lynx, known to be one of the most critically endangered felines in the world.  Little wonder, given the amount of predator "control"  that goes on in Spain.

Lynx ex situ (i.e. captive) CNRLI/ICNF, taken from

Apparently this hunting with dogs is legal in the park. Let that sink in for a bit. Though lynx were legally protected in Spain in 1973, they are still being shot. And snaring and trapping goes on. Coursing with hounds is about the most indiscriminate kind of hunting one could do, and I understand that a radio-collared Iberian lynx was recently run out of Monfragüe by hounds. Great. Forced out of the habitat set aside for it. Well, it's not protected in the park, either, with this kind of hunting going on.

Our thrilling chase and escape story ends on a somber note. How could the Spanish government possibly justify such activities within a national park? 

Well, we don't set the best example for anyone to follow, with our Lands of Many Uses. Cattle grazing, clearcutting and oil/gas exploration and drilling, anyone?  

On a more hopeful note, here's an October 2019 article from Smithsonian that cites a spectacularly successful captive breeding and release program for Iberian lynx that has brought their numbers from around 100 to more than 700 animals since 2002! Cats do love to breed, and that is working in their favor, thank goodness!

Lynx ex situ (i.e. captive) CNRLI/ICNF, taken from

 Lynx have been reintroduced to an area about 7x the size of their shrunken range at the start of conservation efforts. Furthermore, their survival percentages once released have far exceeded expectations. Let's hear it for an endangered cat that is doing everything it can to stay with the living,
Ibizan hounds, yahoos with guns and all. 

Lynx ex situ (i.e. captive) CNRLI/ICNF, taken from
Just look at that coat pattern! What a beautiful beast! And so very different from our Canada lynx. A lot bobcattier.

Read about the heartening rebound of Iberian lynx at Smithsonian Magazine's site.

I was so excited to have documented both the hunt and the stag's escape that I pretty much grinned and jabbered for the rest of the afternoon. Liam would lean over and ask, "So...did you get the pictures, Ma?" And then the kids would both laugh at me.

Yes I did, punk. And I got a few of you, too. I like this one with the landscape lines all converging on your head, like you're having a mind-blowing moment amidst the lichens. 

Living Gargoyles

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Despite the allure of sunny Sanibel and Key West, from whence I just returned, I am doggedly returning to late December in Spain, specifically Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. 
I may have to take a Key Deer break in here somewhere, but for now, we're gonna look at griffons.
Griffon vultures. Enormous fabulous legendary Old World vultures that somehow manage to nest and thrive in this rugged and forbidding place. 
This is one of their strongholds for roosting and nesting. Spain, in fact, holds Europe's largest single colony of griffon vultures, in Hoces del Rio Duratón National Park, in the province of Segovia. Get this: From a low of just a few thousand around 1980, there are now more than 25,000 griffons plying the air in Spain. And they're increasing in Italy, having been shot out. People are beginning to wake up, even across the Mediterranean, that you don't just willy-nilly shoot everything that flies. Oh, it's so good to hear good news about vultures. However their populations are always at threat. Apparently a ruling that barred leaving cow carcasses out (for fear of transmitting Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) really bit into the Pyrenees griffon populations, and they turned to attacking young and weak living animals, something they normally eschew. 

And another tidbit (sorry) from Wikipedia: In May 2013, a 52-year-old woman who was hiking in the Pyrenees and had fallen off a cliff to her death was eaten by griffon vultures before rescue workers were able to recover her body, leaving only her clothes and a few of her bones. Due to her being the first human to be documented being eaten by griffon vultures, the story brought worldwide attention to the griffon vulture problems in Southern Europe. 

Imagine!! The cleanup crew takes care of her. All of which makes me think about my promise to my kids not to leave myself out for the turkey vultures. Sigh. I won't, I won't. But a girl can dream. 

We watched the great birds cruising around the oak forests known as dehesa. 

The sediment-filled river roiled below the great rock, and a griffon dropped down to perch near its tossing waves. 

It was such a rare privilege to be able to stand on an overlook and look down on a bird whose back one generally never gets to see. It reminded me of Andrew Wyeth's excellent painting of a turkey vulture and the landscape it surveys, from above. 

Some passed at eye level. 

To look into the cool hard yellow eye of a griffon is a fine, fine thing.

Please click on these. You'll see the griffon's great foot coming up to scratch its head!

Thos impossibly long secondaries! The great sails that hold this massive bird aloft! Oh, I can smell those feathers!

Looking more closely at the mountain, we could see it finely crenulated by the silhouettes of vultures.
Use "crenulated" in a sentence today! (I didn't have time to get my pie crust crenulated, dear. You'll have to eat it smooth.)

For a closer look, here they are, wings spread. They can't be sunning. It wasn't sunny in Extremadura. Or Madrid. Or Trujillo. Or anywhere, until we got to La Gomera. Whew. Brr. 

Phoebe, Liam and I were hanging out, watching vultures and other fascinating wildlife. We instinctively knew that it doesn't get any better than this, so we stayed there for a couple of hours at least, wind and cold and all. 

There was a quiet birdwatcher in the parking area with his scope set up pointing up toward a nearby stack. He kind of watched us for an hour or so, and must have decided we were OK, because he motioned for us to come look through his scope. Well I'll be danged. There was a griffon there, and it was tending a nest! In late December! Holy crow!

I had lugged my scope and tripod to Spain. But I  had zero idea there was a griffon nest right next to us. O bless you, Belgian birder who now lives in Extremadura!! I swung my scope over to the nearby nest, and set up my digiscoping rig with the old iPhone 6. 

 I really fought with myself over whether to bring the scope at all, because I knew the kids and I would be traipsing through pueblos and walled cities and Roman ruins, too, not just birding. And the extra weight was a thing.  Had I known what I now know about birding in the dead of winter in Extremadura, I would never have brought it. Except. The ONE time I got it set up on a cooperative bird, this happened. 

I was content watching the wind ruffle the piano-key like feathers of the sitting vulture. And then its mate dropped in.

I do not know what those big round doo-dads are on the birds' upper breast, but I like them a lot. They're decorative, if not somewhat sexy.
Bring the scope. It's always going to be worth it. 


Churches and Birds--So Much to Love

Sunday, January 19, 2020


As tourists, it's hard for us to go inside the buildings we so admire from the outside. We are outside people. 
But we ducked into a few cathedrals on our pilgrimage to Spain, and were richly rewarded. 

Cold, drafty, echoey and awe-inspiring,  Santa Maria Mayor, Trujillo's great cathedral, with original paintings stacked up as high as you could see. It was likely built atop a mosque around the 13th century, which in turn had been built atop a Visigoth temple (5th-8th century).  My head is spinning, how's yours? It's that antiquity thing...I have no way to comprehend it. 
The ribbed vault was added in the 16th century, so I'm guessing the paintings are from the 1500's, too.

The paintings are by Fernando Gallego, and they're set in incredibly ornate gilded wood frames. I can't even imagine how this stuff survives the centuries without burning down, but it does, and that's just one thing to be grateful for. The level and meticulousness of curation of these treasures is staggering. It was this cathedral whose tower we climbed in the previous post. Our Air BnB host, Carlos, works at the cathedral, and it was he who heard our voices in the empty street, stuck his head out its great wooden doors, and told us to come in and take a look at the cathedral, on the house! 

We climbed the tower, as chronicled in the previous post, and wandered little roads on the outskirts of the village.

Evening came too soon, and the Christmas lights illuminated the narrow streets, so beautifully cobbled and shining with rain. 

We peeked in the windows of a museum, where there were myriad old tools and vessels. Who even knows how old they are? Recalibrating...

Spain does nativities up right. We saw some really beautiful nativities, including depictions of the entire town of Bethlehem and its outskirts. Setting these dioramas up in churches seems to be a holiday thing, and people were bringing their kids to see them. 

This scene of Bethlehem covered probably the size of a couple pool tables. It was amazing. 

I'm cheating a bit--this one was in the walled city of Caceres.  But you get the idea. Fabulous. The figures were maybe 7" tall.

Having steeped ourselves in the true meaning of Christmas, we did a little frippery around the edges.

This Trujillo bakery, family owned since 1939 (antiquity I can get behind), was the bomb-diggity. We made a little box of goodies to take back to the apartment. Yum! It was so nice to have homemade stuff when we were so far from home. Cookies. That's the thing when you're traveling!

We found a bulk-food store with the most beautiful teas and beans. We bought some exotic rooibos which I am enjoying right now.

Oh these BEANS!! Grown in Asturias, a province (state?) Phoebe has recently visited. That hospital-green color!! I can't stand it. It's too beautiful. My bathroom is painted this shade, only darker. I may borrow this color for another room.

I suspect this "espagueti" (these espaguetis?) has (have)  been colored with squid ink. Can't imagine what else they'd use. I understand that squid ink can stain your teeth and turn your poop black. It's got a rich briny flavor. I'd like to try it! Always up for an experiment, especially one that requires Science Chimpy follow-up.

My kind of shop. Textures and colors and photo ops galore!

The next morning, we headed to Monfragüe National Park, about a half hour from Trujillo. On the outskirts of town, we spotted a colorful flock of Eurasian goldfinches, a bird I had been dying to get a look at. Well, this was all the look we got. They were in constant motion and spooky as hell. We chased them until we realized we were never going to see them sitting still. If you click on the photo you'll see one's red face mask in the lower right corner. I was so hoping for a good shot of one.  On to the park!

We hadn't gotten far when we spotted an enormous bird circling alone in the leaden sky. I am so thankful we jumped out of the car and gave it a really good look. 
Try as I might, I couldn't pick up any color on the head or body other than black. The wedge-shaped tail seemed like a good mark, as did the perfectly flat wing profile. 
Of course, my field guide was inaccessible. I was talking a mile a minute to myself, winging the ID.

"Kids, I do believe this is our first black vulture." (Not in the least the same thing as our New World black vulture Coragyps atratus, the Eurasian black vulture Aegypius monachus is Europe's largest raptorial bird. Its range in Europe is virtually limited to Extremadura in Spain, with a couple of Mediterranean sites. Then it occurs much farther east. It is rare, very rare, dwindled in Europe to perhaps 1,000 pairs, all of them in Extremadura. They don't nest until they're 6, if that tells you anything. Black vultures do life slowly. This would be the only one we would see. Bird every bird. 

What an honor, what a privilege to see a black vulture, especially on such a crummy day for soaring! We quickly learned to look hard at every single bird we saw, because birds were scarce and each one was going to be a lifer for all of us.

Here are those famous Iberian hogs, grazing and looking for acorns beneath cork oaks. And to the left are a couple of cranes. Europe got there first, so they named their crane Crane. No modifier. Just Crane. Grus grus. 
To our disappointment, the cranes were terribly wary and began walking off as soon as our car stopped. This was a theme throughout our Spanish visit. The birds of Extremadura operate on an entirely different approachability scale than do the birds of the New World.
I was glad I brought my scope, for what fleeting looks we got at the cranes. I suspected that these birds, from cranes down to the tiniest songbirds, have been hunted, hunted long and hunted hard, to behave the way they do. The Mediterranean flight corridor is the cruelest of all. People, especially in Malta and Gozo, are still shooting, netting and trapping wild birds to eat, and they should have stopped that horrible nonsense centuries ago. Yet their government supports it, with a "legal limit" of 16,000 rare and protected migratory birds to be killed every year. It's absolutely hideous. You can learn more and help stop it with BirdLife Malta here. 

Perhaps the most common raptor we observed was the gloriously beautiful red kite. Again, it was very difficult to get close enough to get a decent shot, but every once in awhile one would pop up over our car and I'd fire quickly out the window.

One of the famous black fighting bulls for which Extremadura is known. Such a classic outline. We saw some, but not as many as I'd been led to expect. Most of the cattle we saw were cream-colored or brown, and seemed to be raised for meat.

If you look closely, you'll see some griffon vultures sailing over the cork-oak dotted landscape. They are fed on cow carcasses at certain places, which certainly helps keep them healthy, and around.

It was griffon vultures who gave us our biggest birding thrill, after the lone black vulture. At last, a bird that didn't seem to mind being looked at. I don't know what immunity from persecution griffons enjoy, but they were tolerant of my camera and our admiring eyes, and for that I'm grateful. What cool birds. Huge birds. Fairy-tale birds. Vultures have taken an enormous hit, from habitat loss; from poisoning in India (eating cow carcasses contaminated with the arthritis painkiller Diclofenac); and poisoning and shooting in Africa (poachers kill them so they don't betray the location of carcasses). I'm so glad these beautiful, majestic vultures seem to be thriving in Monfragüe National Park. More on them next post!

[Back to Top]