Biscay and the Picos de Europa, 11th - 17th September 2002

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


Nick Ransdale and Corazon Dye


The combination of Biscay with what must be Europe's easiest summer Wallcreeper site is very easy to do independently - why go all that way to spend only four hours in Spain? Our trip covered seven days, including a weekend, giving four full days in Spain. The scenery in the Picos is magnificent; there are also beautiful beaches and some excellent saltmarsh areas between Bilbao and the mountains, a drive of around four hours. There is plenty of accommodation around to suit all budgets. If you've got a lightweight tent and sleeping bag, this could be a seriously cheap trip. We looked at a couple of camping sites in the Picos that had superb facilities in equally superb settings; some also have chalets to rent.

Although covered by a few trip reports, I've attempted to update information on some important aspects, and to fill in on things that haven't previously been covered, to my knowledge.

There's an obvious dilemma here which one has to resolve before booking; the ultimate time for birding the Picos is probably late April, May and into June; not the best time for doing Biscay. Basically it's down to personal priorities; late May is probably a good compromise.


10/9 - Boarded Pride of Bilbao 19:00 hrs, Portsmouth.
11/9 - At sea.
12/9 - Arrived Santurtzi 7:00 hrs. Took taxi from terminal approx. 10 miles to Bilbao city centre to pick up hire car. Drove to Marismas de Santona saltmarshes, then on to Fuenta De.
13/9 - Fuenta De.
14/9 - Fuenta De and Potes area, then on to Sotres.
15/9 - Sotres area, then on to Santona.
16/9 - Santona to Bilbao to drop off hire car, then taxi to Santuztzi ferry terminal. Boarded ferry 11:30 hrs, sailing at 12:30 hrs.
17/9 - At sea, arriving Portsmouth 17:30 hrs.


The Pride of Bilbao.

Watch from the uppermost deck - the "heli-deck"- with the helicopter landing circle. Fortunately no plastic sun loungers are allowed up there for safety reasons. Viewing range from here can be 20 miles plus as it is some 30 metres above sea-level.

On crossings where strong winds prevail, [we had force 5 to 7 on both journeys] only very small areas of the deck are "useable", ie with telescope. The bridge provides some shelter, but check the wind direction. For example, on our outward crossing strong N/NE winds, force 5+, meant that only on a small area to starboard [right], behind the bridge, and a tiny "window" aft of the cetacean display board, could one use a 'scope. Alternatively use the next lowest deck, leeward side of the wind.

These areas obviously get crowded in such conditions. It's virtually impossible to use a scope in a force 7.

Some tour groups have exclusive access to the roof of the bridge. This looks incredibly exposed in strong winds, but apparently a vacuum effect is created along the front edge providing enough calm air for good 360 degree viewing in most conditions. However, some [but not all, in September] crossings have on board a P & O/Bay of Biscay Cetacean Watch representative who relays info on cetacean sightings via the P/A system, and watches from the heli-deck or roof of the bridge. He also presents an illustrated talk sometime during the trip [announced] and is generally available to give advice during the busiest periods, ie southern Biscay. On our trip, he was only on board for the return journey.


Bar prices are very reasonable. Beer about £2.30/pint, with cheap deals on [enormous] shots of spirits even during the evenings. Cigarettes are half UK price. Note that many areas of the ship are non-smoking.
We used the self-service restaurant for all meals; good value, quick, easy, especially for breakfasts "on the run", etc. There is also an a la carte restaurant, and a carvery [£15/head].

One excellent idea of P&O's is the ordering of booze to take home. Obviously this is to encourage us all to buy from P&O and not in Spain, which is cheaper, but it also saves a lot of hassle carting the stuff about [for foot passengers] and there are some good deals, eg case of lager [1664, Carlsberg Export, etc] 24- 500ml cans for £10, when we went. The shop has a huge range of wines and spirits. Simply order and pay for what you want. This is all put aside for you, and is ready at the dockside for collection when you disembark. Load onto a trolley, straight through customs and into the terminal. From here, you can either walk down the road and pick up your car, return to the terminal and load up, [easiest], or wait for a P&0 coach to take you and your stuff the few hundred yards to whichever car park you're in.


Parking arrangements are a little strange, location and fee seemingly dependent on when you arrive. We arrived early, upon arrival at the signposted area [long-stay], were directed to underground parking beneath nearby flats, manned by P&O staff and totally secure. We paid £20 [cash only] for our seven-day trip; others apparently paid £6/night.

Marismas de Santona.

Michael Rebane's book [see references] gives some details for this site, including a handy little map. Approaching from Bilbao along the Cantabrian motorway, the A8, take signs to Santona, across the N634 [roundabout], stay on this road, which goes across saltmarshes. Various small pull-ins, mainly on the right, provide viewing; a couple give access to footpaths onto the marshes. After a few bridges over various inlets, less than a mile from Santona town, on the right is a super new birdhide. From here a large part of the marshes can be viewed. Continuing from here towards town, a pull-in on left immediately before the last bridge provides more viewing; over the bridge turn first left into industrial estate, follow road round to right, pull up before main road junction to view brackish lake. Walk across main road to view only area of fresh water that I could find [wildfowl]. This appears to be the only shortcoming; an almost complete lack of fresh water, at least in September. A fresh water scrape here really would pull stuff in. The whole area is worth exploring, towards Argonos and Gama, with sea watching off the coast just north of Santona, and some excellent, largely deserted beaches.

NB; Most, if not all Spoonbills seen here are from the Dutch population; some are ringed. Please report any readable rings to the ringers at . One of our birds had last been reported in 1999 off the coast of Mauritania.

Fuenta De area.

Fuenta De is the famous Wallcreeper site mentioned in many trip reports, and rather reminiscent of Cirque De Gavarnie in the French Pyrenees.

A factor here which may be of importance is that nowhere here is quite high enough to hold year round SNOW! Having not seen Snow Finch before, the reports I'd read for September never mentioned this fact - just that observers had been unlucky in not seeing Snow Finch. I had always assumed that in late summer birds started to flock and followed snowfields to the highest altitudes feeding on newly uncovered seeds, etc, until the winter weather set in again. This may, of course, be complete baloney, but I'd always thought "no snow - no Snow Finches", at least in spring/summer/autumn. Anyway, at Fuenta De, in September, there's no snow and no Snow Finches, as far as I'm aware !!

Also, the mountain road/track to Refugio de Aliva is driveable with care; in fact we drove virtually to the junction with the Wallcreeper track, and could have gone all the way to the top if we hadn't wanted to walk this track and bird around this area. We did this really more by accident than design. We intended to drive the track as far as we could one day, and get the cable car from Fuenta De village the next, to do the high altitude stuff. In the end we just carried on driving and birding.

I have reservations about recommending this - the best way to do the top is by cable car; it only takes four minutes. It's an area of great natural beauty - they probably don't need carloads of birders belting up there ! If you're with somebody who has a problem walking to the car outside your house [as I was!], take the cable car; the walk to the Wallcreeper site is about 4kms return.

If you do decide to drive, I'd advise not going past Refugio de Aliva, where there's ample car parking behind the building, for the 4-wheel drive tours that stop here. Only attempt this in bone-dry conditions. From the Refugio it's about 8kms return to the Wallcreeper site. The scenery here is spectacular, and many people walk from the top down to the start of the track in Espinama village, a full days walk but nearly all downhill.

Food and drink available only at the Refugio; currently there's nothing at the cable car top station.

Wallcreeper site.

Well described by others, especially Gary Woodburn [FBRIS trip report, Sept. '98]. After about 1.2kms from cable car top station a track goes off left [well used]; take this track which gently follows the contours of the mountainside, scree and large boulders at this point. After c.1km the ravine closes in and there's a rough track going off left, with the cliff face on that side containing a small cave. After a short while a Wallcreeper appeared on this cliff, around the cave, and then on the scree back towards the main track junction. It showed well for 10 minutes or so until flushed by some noisy hikers, never to be seen again. Still, not a bad bird for Friday 13th! Weekends may prove difficult for Wallcreeper here - probably best avoided. Back to the main track, this junction proved by far the best for Alpine Accentor [c6 birds present], with the Wallcreeper track adding another two. Numbers of this species and Rock Thrush seem much diminished since the above report.

Lower down the track towards Espinama, the area below the old iron gates and the ruined village are still good. Again well described in the above report, this was the only place we saw Rock Bunting; an adult male exactly in the area described, around the stream below the gates and around the uppermost buildings, often skulking in the short grass.

Further down still, the area just above the tree line looked good for woodpeckers but didn't actually produce anything. From here there are good views over the woodland above Espinama, with many dead trees obviously used by woodpeckers; more time spent here would probably produce Black Woodpecker even in September.

Potes, La Hermida, Sotres

We spent the rest of our time in the mountains "being tourists", driving around; general "low pressure" birding.

Potes is the largest town in the Picos, and although touristy it's very picturesque. Here we had our only accommodation problem, as we wanted to stay here one night and explore the area. However, that weekend there was a massive local festival, with everything booked solid, including campsites. We stayed to enjoy the marching bands and the livestock auction, but had to leave the area completely to find a room, so went to Sotres in the northern part of the Picos.

Potes held a remarkable Black-bellied Dipper [C. c. atroventer?] in the town centre [G. Woodburn's report], the bird was feeding in the stream amongst discarded red wine cartons, seen from the smaller stone bridge, to the accompaniment of a truly deafening brass band!

La Hermida gorge is excellent for dippers and raptors, with no real surprises found. The Griffon Vulture population seems be very healthy; a stark contrast to the demise of gyps vultures in some other parts of the world. Various lay-bys and the church at La Hermida provide viewing points.

Sotres is an isolated village at the end of a spectacular road, and a minor hiking centre as you can walk from here through the heart of the Picos to Espinama. A really chilled place to stay. Birds as seen in rest of the mountains.


Fuenta De

Hotel Rebeco, Fuenta De, 39588 Camaleno-Cantabria. Tel. 942/73 66 01 - 73 66 02 Fax 942/73 66 00.

2 stars. Most rooms have balconies. £35/night double room with balcony. Being a typical birder, I originally baulked at the price. Then I remembered we were in Europe, looked at the wonderful room, stepped onto the balcony, and instantly decided it was worth that for the view alone. Alpine Choughs for breakfast! A truly magical place. The food's pretty good as well.


Hostal Bar La Perdiz, Sotres, Cabrales, Asturias. Small 2 star hostal at the end of the village on the left. Pleasant rooms overlooking alpine meadows. Bar and patio. £19/night double room.


Hostal de Berria, Playa de Berria s/n, 39740 Santona, Cantabria. Tel. 942 66 08 47. Fax 942 66 05 11. 2 stars. Adequate room with balcony right on the beach at Playa de Berria, just outside [north of] Santona. Beautiful sandy beach with scrub/marim grass behind; looked good for migrants, sea watching, and bathing. £25/night double room with balcony.


Hertz Car Rental Booked on-line. Hertz beat all the rest on price, including Spanish companies. NB: Every company I approached WOULD NOT, for some reason, deliver a car to the ferry terminal at Santurtzi, 10 miles from Bilbao, even though I enquired about delivery/collection charges. All companies have offices in Bilbao city centre, some also at the airport; this may be a better bet, as it's probably easier to get in and out of. The taxi fare in to/out of Bilbao was about £10 each way. We had an Opel Corsa costing £71 for 4 days, no extras. The car was fine and was returned unscathed!

P&O Booked on-line.


Collins Bird Guide Mullarney, Svensson, Zetterstrom and Grant. Collins 1999.

Whales Dolphins & Porpoises M. Carwardine. Dorling Kindersley 1995. The standard reference.

Whales & Dolphins of the European Atlantic G. Cresswell and D. Walker. Ocean Guides, 2001. ESSENTIAL, packed with useful info. Available through ORCA at

WTWB in North & East Spain M. Rebane, Helm 1999. Excellent.

Plymouth - Santander and Northern Spain trip report, Sept 1998 G. Woodburn. Available from Steve Whitehouse at FBRIS. Very useful report with maps and lots of info.

General Info on Bilbao Ferry, Biscay, etc G. Ekins.

Various other trip reports covering the Picos found on the intanet but all in spring and early summer.

Picos de Europa East/central Excellent large scale map [1:25,000] available from Subbuteo Order well in advance as it has to be come from Spain. Strangely not seen for sale whilst out there.

Various maps available in Spain - motorway service areas and garages being the best source.

Michelin map number 442 would be worth buying before going out there - I just about made do with maps supplied by Hertz.


This four-day trip is just an example of areas to be explored, although I would think Fuenta De is a must. Many birders also go to the Poncebos/Cares Gorge [Sotres area], or Covadonga and the lakes of Enol and Ercina, NW Picos. The forests of Saja-Besaya east of Potes also look promising.

Thanks to Gary Woodburn for producing by far the best report I could find on or off the web, also to the group of birders from Nottinghamshire met on the return sea passage who had done this pelagic a few times before and really knew their stuff - the more pairs of eyes the better. Finally thanks to the Spanish people we met whose charm and patience made travelling in their country the delight that it always is.

Nick Ransdale and Corazon Dye
7 Elm Rise



A total of 105 bird species were seen, and no great effort was put into charging around building a big list of common Iberian species. We liked Santona so we stayed there, doing the saltmarshes twice; we rarely get flocks of 40 Spoonbills or counts of 33 Black-necked Grebes in Essex! A dedicated four-day twitch of mountains and coast would probably knock up a total in excess of 140 with relative ease. It may be that into September productive sea crossings are largely a matter of luck with the weather.


BLACK-NECKED GREBE, 3 12/9, 33 15/9 SA.
FULMAR, 3 11/9.
CORY'S SHEARWATER, 3 11/9, 1 16/9.
GREAT SHEARWATER, 40+ 11/9, 100+ 16/9.
SOOTY SHEARWATER, 6 11/9, 100+ 16/9.
GANNET, 80+ outward, 30+ return.
CORMORANT, 10+ 12/9, 10+ 15/9 SA, 6+ 16/9.
SHAG, 1 ad. SA 15/9.
LITTLE EGRET, 30+ 12/9, 30+ 15/9, 10+ 16/9 SA.
GREY HERON, 10+ 12/9, 10+ 15/9, 10+ 16/9 SA.
SPOONBILL, c.40 12/9, 32+ 15/9, 9 16/9 SA. 3 birds had readable rings.
GADWALL, c.10 pairs SA 15/9.
POCHARD, 10+ SA 15/9.
COMMON TEAL, 10+ SA 15/9.
MALLARD, 10+ 12/9, 10+ 15/9, 2 16/9 SA.
EGYPTIAN VULTURE, 1 ad.+1 imm. FD 12/9.
GRIFFON VULTURE, 50+ seen every day in the Picos.
SHORT-TOED EAGLE, 2 La Hermida 14/9.
SPARROWHAWK, Seen daily in lower mountains.
BUZZARD, Very common SA and lower mountains.
KESTREL, 2 SA 15/9.
PEREGRINE, 1 Hermida Gorge 12/9.
MOORHEN, 1 SA 15/9.
COOT, 3 12/9, 40+ 15/9, 20+ 16/9 SA.
RINGED PLOVER, 4+ 12/9, 10+ 15/9, 10+ 16/9 SA.
BAR-TAILED GODWIT, 50+ 12/9, 50+ 15/9, 10+ 16/9 SA.
WHIMBREL, 2 12/9, c.10 15/9, 2 16/9 SA.
CURLEW, 20+ 12/9, 100+ 15/9, 10+ 16/9 SA.
GREENSHANK, 15+ 12/9, 3 15/9, 10+ 16/9 SA.
COMMON SANDPIPER, 5 15/9, 2 16/9 SA.
DUNLIN, 2 12/9, 10+ 15/9, 2 16/9 SA.
GREAT SKUA, 1 11/9, 2 17/9.
SABINE'S GULL, 2 16/9.
GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL, A few seen at sea and on coast.
COMMON TERN, 3 11/9.
BLACK TERN, 1+ 11/9.
KINGFISHER, 2 12/9, 2 15/9 SA.
SAND MARTIN, 1 SA 12/9, 8 17/9.
CRAG MARTIN, 10+ 12/9, 10+ 14/9 Hermida Gorge.
BARN SWALLOW, 2 SA 12/9, 50+ near coast 15/9, 3+ 17/9.
HOUSE MARTIN, 50+ FD 12/9.
WATER PIPIT, 10+ 13/9, 6+ 14/9 FD, 5+ Sotres 15/9.
WHITE WAGTAIL, Very common in the Picos.
YELLOW WAGTAIL, A few seen on coast, and even at Ref. De Aliva.
GREY WAGTAIL, Common Picos bird.
BLACK-BELLIED DIPPER, 2+ Hermida Gorge 12/9, 1 Potes 14/9.
WREN, Common FD.
ROBIN, Very Common Picos bird.
BLACK REDSTART, Very common FD, etc, especially high altitude.
WHINCHAT, Quite common in the Picos.
STONECHAT, 1 FD 14/9, 1 Sotres 15/9.
NORTHERN WHEATEAR, 15+ FD 13/9, 1 16/9.
BLUE ROCK THRUSH, 1 male FD 12/9.
BLACKBIRD, 3 Sotres 15/9.
CETTI'S WARBLER, 1 12/9, 1 15/9 SA.
MELODIOUS WARBLER, 3 SA 12/9 showed surprisingly well feeding in tamerisks.
BLACKCAP, Fairly common FD etc.
PIED FLYCATCHER, Common in the Picos, some presumably migrants.
COAL TIT, Very common in the mountains.
GREAT TIT, ditto.
BLUE TIT, ditto.
NUTHATCH, Quite common FD.
WALLCREEPER, 1 winter ad. type FD 13/9.
RED-BACKED SHRIKE, 1 male FD 13/9.
JAY, Common FD etc.
CHOUGH, Common in the mountains.
ALPINE CHOUGH, Only seen FD, eg 20+ 12/9, at high altitude.
RAVEN, 3+ FD 13/9.
SERIN, Very common in mountains.
BULLFINCH, 1 female Sotres 15/9.
ROCK BUNTING, 1 ad. male FD 13/9.

FIN WHALE, 1 11/9, c.19.00 hrs, 1 16/9 c.13.00hrs.
COMMON DOLPHIN, 30+ 11/9, 10+ 16/9.
STRIPED DOLPHIN, 1+ 11/9, 2 16/9.

Unidentified rorquals 2 16/9.

TUNA sp. 50+ both outward and return; some nearly as big as Common Dolphins!