Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Twitching the World's Rarest Cat

A visit to the Sierra Morena in southern Spain has become a bit of a pilgrimage for Wildlifers in recent years due to the more than reasonable chance of seeing Iberian Lynx, the world's rarest feline. Until recently, the Coto Donana was the best place to see this elusive and enigmatic cat, but sightings by the public were few and far between. And so focus turned to the Sierra Morena to the east of Cordoba, the last stronghold of the Iberian Lynx with a population of between 67 and 190 individuals in 2008. The cats rely virtually entirely on Rabbits for prey and they have been catastrophically affected by disease in recent years, and when combined with habitat loss and traffic collisions, the future has become dangerously precarious for the Iberian Lynx. With the world population being so tiny, conservation efforts have been really stepped up and a number of reintroduction projects are taking place. We told everybody we could why we were visiting in a hope this would inspire local pride in this beautiful species and encourage more protection measures.

At the last minute, Philip Precey and myself had decided to give this trip a try and then were joined by Andy Gibson. We stayed in Los Pinos Hotel near Andujar, a regular haunt for Lynx botherers like us. The staff were great, food reasonable and available very late, which was helpful as we would be staying out late, and the location perfect. We flew into Malaga and the drive took c3 hours on good roads.

Much has been written about finding Lynx in the hills here and we followed the guidance we had found on the internet. Our preferred stake out was along the potholed track to La Lancha which took c40 minutes from Los Pinos. It was only c20 km but the first part was very windy through the hills and the last 5km was very slow due to the immense number of car-killing potholes. We parked up just before some large white concrete blocks by the side of the road and grilled the shallow valley below. Over the next three days, we were out before dawn and looked for Lynx until about 10.30 when it got pretty hot and then went off elsewhere, breaking for lunch about 1pm and then back out at 4pm to watch until dark, before slowly driving back. The Lynx are seen regularly along the road but we had no luck.

The biggest tip I can offer is to listen to the Magpies and Red-legged Partridges. Whenever Lynx were present, even if you can't see them, they go mad, constantly alarm calling and collecting in the nearest bush or tree. If the Lynx moves, they follow it and are a great guide. If all is quiet, chill out and enjoy the birding, or scan the more distant slopes for Lynx and other mammals.

Friday 8 May
It is always arriving somewhere in the dark and then seeing what the daylight brings. As we loaded into our tiny car, a Nightingale sang, unseen in the gloom. We headed off up the hill road peering into the gloom hoping for a cat to prowl across the road in front of us. As dawn broke, Golden Orioles sang from the Holm Oaks, along with more familiar Blackbirds and Chaffinches. Red Deer looked up from the glades and Little Owls glared from overhead wires. On to the rough track, we paused to watch Crested Larks, Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies and Corn Buntings. The habitat was lovely, flower-stuffed verges, stone post fence lines, and boulder-strewn open woodlands. The land became more hilly, the road more rough and after being jiggled thoroughly, we arrived at our stake out, a little after daybreak. A couple of Spaniards were already on watch, along with a Belgian lad. They had not seen anything. Then began our wait.

We scanned and scanned for hours. The road clung to the edge of a moderate to steep slope, which was strewn with boulders and patches of scrub, Rosemary thickets and the occasional stand of Oaks. Iberian Green Woodpeckers yaffled away, punctuating the rattles of Dartford and Sardinian Warblers. Red-legged Partridges chuntered away from the tops of boulders and Serins tinkled past. Small groups of Magpies chatted as they went about their morning rounds and a little further away the collosal shape of an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle glided along a ridge and landed clumsily in a tree that seemed far too small to bear it's regal weight.


I chatted to Mike, the Belgian. He had arrived four days ago and had been shown the back of a camera by a Dutchman who had just had wonderful views of a Lynx. Sadly, this was the only view Mike had had and he had spent the last three and a half days in a fruitless vigil. I asked if he had seen Mouflon, another of our target mammals and he had drawn a blank there too. Still he had until lunchtime to get lucky.

The minutes turned to hours and still no Lynx. As the temperature warmed up, a stream of Griffon Vultures glided northwest along the ridge, while in the valley, the birds began to quieten down and reduce their activity, so we decided it wasn't going to happen this morning. We wished Mike well with his continuing Spanish trip - he said he might return before heading back to Belgium. I hope he has more luck next time. I began to feel that this might not be as easy as we had hoped. I know several friends who have made this trip and been successful. However, Mike's news reduced our optimism. We decided to have a break and head down to the end of the road where we had a chance of Spanish Ibex.

Large Tortoiseshell

The road ended at a dam on the River Jandula, forming a large reservoir. No sign of any Ibex but we managed to spot some Daubenton's Bats huddled in holes in the roof of a nearby tunnel plus some fabulous large Greater Mouse-eared Bats, plus a cluster of smaller bats, which may have been Schreiber's. Crag Martins were nesting in the mouth of the tunnel too, seemingly unconcerned by us.

Greater Mouse-eared Bat. Surely one of the most handsome bats!

Food and siesta called. We were knackered having had about five hours sleep!

Friday evening.
Suitably refreshed, we had a look down the other road, which revealed some nice views of Bee-eaters splash-bathing in the river, but we didn't fancy our chances with Lynx there, so decided to head back to the original site.

Woodlarks sang over some of the larger clearings and a few Hawfinches ticked in the oaks. A Rock Sparrow was a nice surprise, sitting on a nearby fence post.

Arriving on site, we noted Mike had departed, replaced by a pleasant French couple in a campervan and the same two Spaniards. After a little while, the Magpies started making a racket. This immediately intensified our efforts, I handed out the radios in order to keep in touch and we spread out along the road edge to scan for cats. The atmosphere was electric. The Magpies were going mad, seriously cross at something. They relentlessly shouted into the bushes, diving in to the base of the rock pile and then shooting out again. Suddenly, I saw a glimpse of sandy fur, disappearing down the slope - Lynx? I radioed Andy and said that I thought I had got one, but then, a large Red Deer walked out from the bushes. Oops! I radioed out an apology. The tension continued. And then Andy radioed that he had got one. There was no doubt in his voice, so I grabbed my gear and sprinted back down the road. Andy had said a Lynx had just stood up in the grass and then walked off behind some bushes. Panic! Where was it? The Magpies knew, they were still going crazy down in the valley bottom, about 30 metres away. I was anxious - what if it had dropped into the thick line of scrub in the gulley? We might never seen it. Mike had said the Dutch guy had watched the Magpies follow the Lynx all the way along this gulley without getting a single glimpse before the cat had suddenly appeared on a rock right in front of him. It could therefore slip away just as easily. But no! Andy suddenly announced he had it again, and this time, we all got on it. A Boxer-dog size, dark brown cat was pacing casually across a glade, black and white tufted ears erect. Iberian Lynx! Get in! The cat headed across the glade and then into cover. But seconds later, it was out again, still walking away from us. It vanished again. The French couple still hadn't seen it. Then it appeared again, a little further away, but this time side on. Through the scope you could see the black spotted brown coat, the little stumpy black tail and the long sideburns, so characteristic of this rare feline. Wow! I grabbed the Frenchman, who still hadn't got on it, and literally shoved his eye to my scope so he could see it before it disappeared. He was elated. The Lynx moved across some grass and into a thick belt of scrub and trees and evaporated. The Magpies gave up. Even they couldn't track it in there. I have never seen such big grins on friends and strangers. High fives all round. Our quest had been successful and so quickly too, though only hours earlier, I thought we may well fail.

No photos sadly as this was a moment to savour, rather than fiddle about with my camera. So I have pinched one off Google in case you don't know what they look like. This is how it looked just before it slipped away. If this is your photo, thank you.

The bearded one.

And our third magic mammal was to come. As we bounced back through the potholes in the dark, Philip shouted Mouflon! And there, on a rocky outcrop were two Mouflon, a ewe and a young ram. Awesome! Philip was stoked as he really wanted to see this species. Andy and me were quite impressed too. What a day!

Out before dawn, in the half-light we came across a staggering flock of 21 Mouflon next to the road - wow! After the pothole experience, we arrived at the valley to be greeted by the French couple who excitedly told us in thick French accents 'We 'ave just seen the Lynx, going from 'ere to there - five minutes ago!' The cat was clearly still there as our friendly assistants, the Magpies were going crackers down below. We again spread out and within minutes we all came running as this time Philip announced 'It is on a rock'. A few moments later, it was on the move. I couldn't get on it at first in the scrub, but after a few moments, it ran up a grassy slope and we all managed a view, if only brief. Andy was sure this was a smaller individual than the one we had seen last night, but I couldn't tell. We scanned hard for the next few hours, but sadly, it had melted away unseen. A few Honey Buzzards headed north overhead. We checked out the local butterflies: Blue Spot and False Ilex Hairstreaks, Spanish Gatekeeper, Cleopatra, European Swallowtail, Green-striped White etc, plus an amazing Ribbon-winged Lacewing, the like of which I had never seen before. But no Lynx.

Today was getting scorching, so we turned in for lunch at the super cafe across the road from Los Pinos, adding Iberian Long-tailed Tit to the list on the way back.

Saturday Evening
A kettle of vultures dropping in to a corpse contained c50 Griffons and at least four Blacks.

So far, so good, but it seemed out luck had run out. No more noisy Magpies and no more cats. All was quiet, until dusk when in the valley below us a couple of Red-necked Nightjars gave a rousing chorus of Kutock-Kutock-Kutock and then flew around in a stunning performance, with wing-clapping, chasing etc, all viewed from above (once I had moved out from behind the tree that was completely obscuring my view...).

Sunday morning
A Wild Boar on the way up the road was the first one I had ever seen, and surprisingly, our only sighting of the trip.

Again, all was quiet in the valley. The Lynx had clearly gone elsewhere and the relaxed atmosphere of the local Magpies, Partridges and Rabbits was palpable.

A small number of Honey Buzzards were heading north, some of which came through low enough to be photographed.

Honey Buzzard, plus two of the local common birds, Southern Grey Shrike and Golden Oriole.

So there ended our trip. We headed back to Malaga, noting White Storks, Short-toed Eagles and Montague's Harrier en route. A lovely way to spend a weekend, a top laugh and a successful quest for the rarest cat in the World. Let's hope there is a brighter future for the Iberian Lynx.

1 comment:

Andrew Houseman said...

Really enjoyed that. Brought back lovely memories of being in DoƱana a few years ago. Did we see Lynx?.........well we saw a footprint from one!