Northern Spain

Asturias, Cantabria, Castilla y Léon

After a couple of Greek adventures last year it was time to get back to the Iberian peninsula, albeit to a unknown part for me personally, la costa verde (the green coast) on the Atlantic. This area contrasts parts of Spain where I have spent a lot of time in the south with it’s humid climate, lush all year round vegetation and stunning scenery sometimes looking more like Costa Rica than Spain. Kevin and Suzanne Byrnes visited this area a couple of years ago and were desperate to go back and I was desperate to go with them. Yorkshire’s whitest rose Carl Corbidge was just as eager to go here as I was and in the end we all found and number of new species to us in the wild.

Thanks to Borja de las Heras, Gertjan Verspui and Bobby Bok for some hints for this trip and to our landlady Ana!

Day 1

After a morning flight from the hell I call Stansted airport we arrived in Santander in the early afternoon and soon set out searching en route to our nice mountain cottage accommodation. The weather was pretty poor to start with but as the sun came out Kev spotted a “green lizard”. Flipping a log we made a catch for two lizards, to our delight these turned out to be a male and female Schreiber’s green lizard (Lacerta schreiberi). We didn’t expect to find these so easily and in the end they were the only two specimens we saw during the entire trip! A few three-toed skinks (Chalcides striatus) were warming up and slithering like mad through the rough grassland as well. An evening rendez-vous with our landlady was followed by a few wanderings around the fields next to our accommodation, this resulted in a few Common wall lizards (Podarcis muralis), a female Common midwife toad (Alytes obstretricans) and then I flipped our first Fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra bernardezi). Champion! However, a punctured tyre in our hire car meant that the next morning we would have to travel to Gijon for a replacement.

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Day 2

After getting a replacement hire car we headed to a valley where we thought we would have a good chance of seeing Golden striped salamanders (Chioglossa lusitiana). Indeed we found some juveniles straight away followed by a few adults. A couple of Common frogs (Rana temporaria) and Palmate newts (Lissotriton helveticus) showed up too. That evening we explored a spot hinted to us by our landlady who sees many newts in a cistern. Straight away a few Alpine newts (Messotriton alpestris) and Palmates were found with many larvae of common midwife toad. A few toads started beeping from their daytime retreats. Shortly afterwards a slow-worm (Anguis fragilis) and 9 Fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra bernardezi) and a midwife toad were found. Marvellous! After dark a further four fire salamanders were found wandering in the field next to our cottage.

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Day 3

This day would be dedicated to visiting the Picos de Europa mountain range in search of the Iberian rock lizard (Iberolacerta monticola). First stop was a cistern with more palmate newts and midwife toads. At a known rock lizard location the sun was shining and we soon found many individuals from vivid green males to tiny grey juveniles. Kev found a couple of slow worms and midwife toads as well.

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Day 4

This day we headed south out of Asturias and into Castilla y Léon in search of vipers. After a two hour journey we arrived in a more Mediterranean-like habitat and as soon as we left the car Kev spotted an Asp viper (Vipera aspis). The white rose soon found a second, bigger viper basking on a drystone wall. Flipping rocks here I found a beautiful adult male Ocellated lizard (Timon lepidus) but as the rock was so heavy I couldn’t hold it and grab the lizard at the same time. Let’s take a look at what you could’ve won….Moving on to known area for Lataste’s viper (Vipera latastei) a considerable effort resulted in no vipers being found, this was compensated with Marbled newt (Triturus marmoratus), Iberian water frog (Pelophylax perezi), some skinks, western green lizard and two Viperine snakes (Natrix maura). On the way home we stopped at a known place for vipers but only more newts.

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Day 5
My favourite day of the trip! It started badly as I went outside the cottage to pee as someone was using the bathroom I went to check and stone wall and saw a basking Seoanei’s viper (Vipera seoanei). Sadly it vanished into the dense bramble before I could get a photo. So, we headed back to Picos de Europa and after following slow coaches the whole way it felt too hot to see snakes by the time we arrived. Luckily we were wrong and within 10 minutes I found a smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) and Carl found a uniform seoanei’s viper. Absolutely smashing! At a cistern a dead fire salamander, some wall lizards and midwife toad tadpoles were found. After this fun we went up the cable car to the snow-covered peaks. Extensive vulture photography followed from Carl and myself who are fond of feathered things while Kevin and Suzanne explored an alpine lake with alpine newts and breeding common toads (Bufo bufo).
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Day 6
We were intending on looking for more vipers but the weather was rainy, which gave us a great opportunity to find a subspecies of Fire salamander we had failed to find earlier: Salamandra salamandra alfredschmitii. In wet weather it was easier this time, I found two within a minute and then Kev found a third. Very beautiful salamanders! Rocks had been turned before us which indicated this was a well known spot. As the day brightened up we headed to the coast where we visited on our first day. Before leaving this place Kev found some Bosca’s newts (Lissotriton boscai) and I’ve never seen him so excited about finding a new species as with these small rascals. The weather was hot and aside from lots of old, naked men we didn’t really find very much. Eventually some western green lizards (Lacerta bilineata) posed for our cameras and then Kev got wet trousers to catch a nice Grass snake (Natrix natrix astreptophora). Quite marvellous! That rounded up the trip nicely and then we headed to the bar for a stimulating beverage. All in all a very satisfying trip which was quite “easy” in terms of searching and finding animals and with beautiful scenery.
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Species Lists
Grass snake Natrix natrix astreptophora
Viperine Snake Natrix maura
Smooth Snake Coronella austriaca
Seoane’s viper Vipera seoanei
Asp Viper Vipera aspis
Western Green Lizard Lacerta bilineata
Schreibers Green Lizard Lacerta schreiberi
Ocellated Lizard Timon lepidus
Slow Worm Anguis fragilis
Common Wall Lizard Podarcis muralis
Iberian rock lizard Iberolacerta monticola
Western Three toed skink Chalcides striatus
Bosca’s newt Lissotriton boscai
Alpine Newt Icthyosaura alpestris
Palmate Newt Lissotriton helveticus
Marbled Newt Triturus marmaratus
Fire Salamander Salamandra s alfredschmidti and bernardezi
Golden Striped Salamander Chioglossa lusitanica
Midwife Toad Alytes obstetricans
Common Toad Bufo bufo
Iberian Water Frog Pelophylax perezi
Common Frog Rana temporaria

6 Comments on “Northern Spain

  1. Excellent blog, Matt, featuring one of my favourite places, and some great photos, as usual. Your hard work was rewarded with a terrific variety of species: I’m very envious of the Seoane’s Viper which has always eluded me (so far).


  2. My family and I travel to Northern Spain and Portugal each summer and the highlights of our visits are often the wildlife. We saw griffon vultures feeding yesterday, as well as woodchat shrikes. My daughter found a viperine snake and we saw a large lizard too, as yet unidentified. Can you please give some advice on finding more reptiles and amphibians please. Thankyou


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