Northwestern Spain, 16.-23.9.2017

Yes, there were still some lizards left in northwestern Iberia, which we wanted to photograph. Our British friends Paul Lambourne & Trevor James wanted to join us, as they had not visited the area before – so we were looking forward to another trip with team UK! Reality turned out differently from what we had expected – but overall, we look back on a rather successful trip. Thanks to Frank Deschandol & Matthieu Berroneau!

Our route through northwestern Spain
Our route through northwestern Spain



Our flight from Düsseldorf was scheduled for noontime and we expected to arrive in Madrid in the afternoon – at the same time as our English friends. However, just before take-off, we received a message that Paul couldn’t join us because his passport wasn’t accepted at the security control. Actually, in Madrid Trevor was waiting for us – without Paul, whose passport obviously was in such a desolate condition that he was refused to enter the plane (we refrain from any comment about professional trip preparation…). However, our decimated team headed towards La Alberca, our first station, where we arrived after sunset. In the late evening, we had an opulent dinner with the typical local cuisine (ham and meat) in remembrance of those who had to stay at home.




La Alberca is a good starting point for a trip to Peña de Francia, home of Iberolacerta martinezricai. We had been searching for this species already in 2010 but only found juveniles that time. Now, we wanted to photograph adult specimens. On top of Peña de Francia the weather was sunny but rather windy. Anyhow, we came across some lizards but they all turned out to be Podarcis guadarramae – no Iberolacerta seen during the whole day. In late summer, this species can be like a phantom. We cancelled our search and hoped for more luck at the next day. In the evening, we had an opulent dinner with the typical local cuisine (meat with ham).



Although the weather wasn’t very promising, we headed again to the peak of Peña de Francia. Up there: dense fog, strong wind, 7 °C – no chance to see any Iberolacerta… We decided not to waste more time waiting for better weather and headed north, towards Montes de León. Three hours later, we arrived in the area of Truchas, a lonely mountain area that we had already visited in 2011 and 2014. The weather was still windy but sunny at least. Anyhow, we only found a few Podarcis bocagei – rather disappointing. Furthermore, we were shocked by the fact that these mountains obviously have suffered from the heat and drought of summer 2017: bushfires have destroyed some valleys and mountain slopes for many kilometers. Similar fires in adjoining Portugal and Galicia were caused by fire raising. Things seem to turn worse in northwestern Iberia… In the evening, we headed towards Puebla de Sanabria, our next station, and had an opulent dinner with the typical local cuisine (meat with ham).



Perfect weather: From Puebla de Sanabria we went to Laguna de los Peces to take shots of Iberolacerta galani. We were able to take pictures of these lizards easily. Furthermore, we found Rana iberica, Alytes obstetricans, Natrix maura, Natrix astreptophora at the Laguna. Afterwards, we went to slightly lower altitudes to search for Podarcis bocagei and Timon Lepidus. This turned out to be rather tricky: we only found females and juveniles. Finally, we had a stopover at the shores of Lago de Sanabria. There, we came across numerous Podarcis guadarramae – very photogenic lizards – and a couple of Lacerta schreiberi. Actually a quite successful day – apart from the fact that also the western slopes at Lago de Sanabria had been burned, recently. Destruction of nature has gained remarkable speed in northwestern Iberia. In the late afternoon, we headed towards our next station, Villablino, where we arrived after sunset. We had an opulent dinner with the typical local cuisine (meat, sausage and ham).



Three years ago, we had visited the area of Villablino to search (unsuccessfully) for Iberolacerta monticola astur, a subspecies that has been recently described (in 2014). This time, we had precise coordinates. The lizard habitat was located in a lovely and very lonely mountain area. First, we only came across numerous Podarcis muralis but after searching a while, we finally found some Iberolacertas, which turned out to be quite shy. With some patience, we managed to take pictures. We didn’t have much time to enjoy the landscape: We went to the next mountain range to search for Vipera seoanei. First, we only found some frogs and a Bufo spinosus. Hence, we tried another spot in the mountains: Here, Trevor soon spotted a Vipera on a woodpile – this man has eyes like an eagle! Soon, we found another specimen and at a stopover on our way back, another one creeped over the road just beneath our car. Vipera seoanei seems to be quite common in that area. Back at Villablino, we had an opulent dinner with the typical local cuisine (meat and sausage on Pizza).



In the morning, it was cloudy – so we left Villablino and headed towards Picos de Europa. Two hours later, we arrived at the western slopes of these mountains. Here, we wanted to search for Chioglossa lusitanica. This species we found easily, but we didn’t have much time to admire the animals: The weather became worse and we still wanted to visit a population of Podarcis guadarramae in the Liébana area east of the Picos de Europa. To get there, we had to cross the complete Picos de Europa – a three and a half hour ride. At a short stopover in the mountains, we found a black snake, which turned out to be a melanistic Coronella austriaca – not so common. Too bad that it escaped before we could take good pictures; only a blurred snapshot for us. The weather worsened and we had to hurry up. After a hot ride we finally arrived at the Podarcis habitat in Liébana – the sun was about to disappear behind the clouds. We had five minutes left to photograph, when it got cold and the lizards disappeared. Perfect timing! The lizards from the Liébana population look different from other Podarcis guadarramae: They show a pattern of distinct fine dots. This could be an undescribed subspecies, but probably it is just a color morph. Anyhow, we were happy that we found those lizards. Afterwards, we searched for an accommodation and had an opulent dinner with the typical local cuisine (meat filled with ham).


It was still cloudy and we left Liébana towards Burgos to visit a habitat of Vipera latastei. Two hours later, we arrived at the spot. There, it was cold and cloudy too, but we were lucky: soon we found two Viperas and an adult Timon Lepidus – mission accomplished! Afterwards, we headed towards Madrid and went to a hotel at the southern slopes of Sierra de Guadarrama. Here, we hoped to find Podarcis virescens. Anyhow, this region still suffered from extreme drought of late summer. Apart from Tarentola mauritanica, no reptiles were found. We celebrated our last evening with a somewhat cultivated dinner (pizza).



We went to Puerto de la Morcuera where we had found Iberolacerta cyreni in earlier years. But also up there, in 2000 m altitude, it was extremely dry. No lizards, apart from some juvenile Podarcis guadarramae. At noontime, we cancelled our search and went to the airport. Time to say goodbye to Trevor: we shed some tears and after a warm embrace, we went to the terminal for our return flight.



1500 kms by car and five different stations within one week – with this schedule you will likely risk some shortage of time, in particular, if the weather is not optimal. But, despite of the sometimes contrary weather we found most of our target species. Therefore, we can be quite satisfied with this trip. Only the extreme drought of 2017 and its sad consequences somehow reduced our enthusiasm. Of course, you cannot draw any conclusion from one single year to overall climate. Anyhow, there seems to happen some change in northwestern Iberia. This, combined with fire raising might lead to a loss of precious habitats in the near future.