It’s 9pm on a saturday night, the rain is cold and unceasing. I crouch under a lone tree on the banks of the River Riaza desperately seeking shelter. I briefly question if this is how I should be spending my Saturday nights. The answer – an emphatic yes.
I have volunteered to take part in an otter census in Las Hoces del Rio Riaza for WWF España. Last year there were 10 sightings and 8 different individuals were identified. The invitation email warns us that we are unlikely to see one, but I’m still feeling hopeful that I will spot one of the playful critters.
We meet at Plaza Castilla, as we wait at the side of one of the busiest roundabouts in Madrid I dream of fresh air and open skies. Our driver, Jose Luis, is a bonafide nature ninja. He rummages through his glovebox, extracting CD after CD of bird songs until he finds the call of some bird I’ve never heard of. ‘It’s unmistakeable’ he says ‘you can’t confuse it’. I’m not so sure.
As we pass through Somosierra and enter the province of Segovia the sky is grey and brooding. ‘That cloud is sitting right above where we’ll be’ says Jose Luis. I hope he’s wrong.
We arrive at the Albergue and are greeted by the rest of the volunteers. Thirty-five in total, our watchful eyes will cover a 15km stretch of the river. The group are a diverse, motley bunch. They are also some of the most genuine people I’ve met – nature nerds and proud of it.
After a brief training session we are assigned our positions along the river. Mine is on the outskirts of the village Montejo de la Vega, above a bend in the river lined with reeds and tall poplars. I’m a bit disappointed not to be inside the nature reserve itself, but I can’t complain about my views.
The evening shift is from 8pm – 11pm. The weather is unseasonably cold, but as long as it doesn’t rain I should be warm enough. We’re given bird guides to help us identify species and a pen and paper to mark down what we see and when. The calls of the birds and the flow of the river are the only sounds in this sparsely populated area of Spain. Bright yellow Golden Orioles fly past – they look like overgrown bumble bees. Warblers play and sing amongst the reeds. Above me a rare Egyptian Vulture soars past, scouring the landscape for food.
It begins to rain, lightly at first. I stay put, gamely sticking to the task at hand. Eventually, drenched to the bone and with no sign of any otters, I find a tree and hide. After half an hour the heavy rain returns to drizzle and I make my way back to my post. A roe deer, grazing in the field below doesn’t notice me. I sit and watch this small, elegant animal before it bounds off out of sight.
Eventually the sun sets, birds are silhouetted against the dying embers of the day’s sun. It becomes too dark to see, I hear splashing in the river below, my heart says it’s the otters playing in the moonlight, my head says it’s trout catching their dinner. We startle a hare as we drive back to the Albergue. It runs in front of the car, caught in the headlights it leads us home.
5.30am Sunday morning. After an hour’s sleep I’m back at the river. It’s cold, very cold. The humidity from the river seeps through my layers and into my skin. The sun won’t rise for another hour. The morning passes slowly, ducks float downstream, the birds start to sing, signalling a new day. More roe deer come to the river. Multi-coloured Bee Eaters chase each other through the trees. As the sun rises, the cliffs glow orange in the early morning light, I chase the sun to keep warm.
At 8.30am my ride comes to collect me. The otters have managed to elude me and almost everyone else in the group. In total there were two potential sightings, a lot less than last year. Perhaps they were put off by the rain. We meet back at the hostel and compare animals seen – water voles, families of wild boar, weasels and many more.
As a consolation we walk through the spectacular canyon-walled valley of the River Riaza. This is now my third trip here, yet the sight of dozens, if not hundreds, of vultures and other birds of prey filling the sky will never get old.
Red-legged Partridge, Common House Martin, Swift, Swallow, Spotless Starling, White Stork, Sky Lark, European Goldfinch, Europan Serin, Corn Bunting, Booted Eagle, Black Kite, Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Golden Oriole, Eurasian Wren, Blackbird, European Bee-eater, Cetti’s warbler, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blue Tit.
Roe Deer, Hare.
Species not seen
Photo credit Otter: Tambako the Jaguar / Foter / CC BY-ND Photo credit Oriole: m-idre31 / Foter / CC BY