Bikes and Birds Part Two

The blog earlier in the year (click here to read) explained how Pete Murray and Les Bowler were travelling by motorcycle through Spain to the Pyrenees to join the “Tour des Cols”.On their way they would visit the Urdaibai Bird Centre and reserve in Northern Spain . This is their story and Osprey 30’s in September 2015.

In the shadow of Osprey 30

In late summer Osprey 30 grew restless. On the 31st August 2015, on a dismal late summer day, she set off, crossed the English Channel by mid-afternoon, and spent her first night in Normandy. Unlike our motorcycle trip, she had no spares, no travel insurance, didn’t need any documents or ferry tickets to sort out. Her only baggage is the miniature satellite transponder which allows us to track her position, speed and altitude and to follow her day to day activity but more important her migration.

On the same day that 30 headed south, Les and I packed our motorcycle gear and got ready to leave the UK for a tour in the Pyrenees. Les was riding  his 1959 BMW and I was taking a 1979 Moto Guzzi  and our journey would begin with a visit the Urdaibai  Bird Centre where Osprey 30 should make landfall in northern Spain after crossing the Bay of Biscay, that is assuming she followed the same route that we had tracked on her migration the previous year. Unfortunately for us, 30 had a head start and Les and I had a ferry to catch, and we were also relying on two rather aged motorcycles as means of transport.


Pete and Les outside the Lyndon Centre in Summer – Osprey 30 should be around somewhere

Our road journey took us to Portsmouth where 30 had left England to cross the channel, and she was already averaging a flying speed of about 40mph. Meanwhile on the Portsmouth to Santander ferry our progress was more leisurely and on a beautiful evening we watched England fade into the distance as seabirds wheeled overhead.


On the ferry, crossing the Bay of Biscay. Osprey 30 well to the south of us on the same route!

As night fell our boat made steady progress west of France and into the Bay of Biscay. We did not see any migrating ospreys on our journey south even though many follow a similar route across the Bay of Biscay, and according to tracking data ospreys can be as little as 10 or 20m above the waves.

What we did see at daybreak on our journey was a huge fin whale breaching the surface right next to the ship! On board the Cap Finistere were a volunteer whale watching team from “Orca”, an international cetacean study charity. I suggested to them that they should keep an eye out for ospreys, but it would be quite difficult to distinguish ospreys with the so many sea birds around the ship.

Osprey 30 had an epic flight on her second day. From Normandy she went due south crossing the Bay of Biscay and crossed the Spanish coast at Urdaibai at 2pm, but instead of stopping, she pushed on into northern Spain clocking 831 km in a long 14 hour day. She managed a creditable average of 36mph, but meanwhile on the Cap Finistere ferry we experienced a more leisurely 18-20mph!  Osprey 30 then carried on south the next day.

We disembarked from the ferry on a warm sunny evening and spent our first night just outside Bilbao. We enjoyed the setting sun on our terrace and enjoyed a locally made empanada and a mixed salad for tea. No doubt 30 had fish- if she could find any.

By dawn osprey 30 was miles away, but we had planned a motorcycle route through the rural Basque country to the Udaibai Bird Centre where 30 had crossed the coast. The coast of this part of northern Spain is very rugged with a patchwork of agricultural land at lower levels rising up to oak and pine forest on the hillsides. The roads we took east climbed and descend a great deal and on the bikes we made nothing like 30’s average flying speeds. Traffic was sparse and we made good progress.

A little after 1pm we pulled in to the Urdaibai Bird Centre car park. We were met by Xarles and Edorta from the centre whom I had only “met” before using during the Rutland Ospreys skype links with them in World Osprey Week in the Spring.


Pete, Xarles, Edorta + Les in front of the Urdaibai centre

The Urdaibai Biosphere reserve is located in a large estuary surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills. Because of its position and aspect, it is an area of international importance for migrating and resident bird species on the northern Spanish coast, with many important habitats including salt and fresh water wetland.

At the south side of the reserve, a modern visitor centre facility which has been constructed using the structure of an old fish canning factory- so the ospreys would approve. The lower level is the main visitor area with displays, some multiscreen video presentation suites, which explain about the Urdaibai wetlands and the many facets of the reserve, its importance and its conservation projects. At the northern end of the building are large viewing areas on two levels over the over the reserve. Telescopes, cameras and audio feeds from the wetlands allow many ways to experience this magnificent site. A climb up the “tower” gives a third story view over the reserve.

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On the second level is the staff kitchen with accommodation for the volunteers. Les and I expected a floor to sleep on. Not so, as we were each taken to our own “volunteer” room each with its own facilities!

Ikr from the local Montorre and Urretxindorra Schools arrived, and with Xarles we were taken on a VIP tour of the area. On a sunny warm day we drove out past the impressive Castle and from the road followed a woodland track high up above the eastern side of the reserve. We left the car and walked up a steep track through the oak forest to the church and old fortifications on the summit. Far below you could see just how large the wetland is, with a patchwork of habitats.


Panorama of the Reserve, with the Uradibai Bird centre left and the patchwork of wetland, agricultural and forest habitats so important the diversity of wildlife in this area.

Our hosts took us to a busy local restaurant for lunch, serving delicious traditional Basque food. Xarles told us about the 5 year osprey reintroduction project at Urdaibai. This is now in its third year, with collaboration from the Scottish Government and Highland Foundation for Wildlife. With special permission Roy Dennis and his team have “translocated” osprey chicks from Scotland to this Spanish reserve and once released these birds then consider Urdaibai as their home. Once mature, the male ospreys should return from Africa, attract mates and set up nest sites in Urdaibai so that in the future ospreys will recolonise this ideal location. The really good news is that Urdaibai have had their first returns of 3 year old translocated birds in 2015 and with observation on site and the data from the satellite tracking of some of these birds we can understand their day to day behaviour and follow their movements and migration routes.

In the afternoon after circumnavigating the beautiful coastal area coast we went to see the area where the young ospreys had been released and had the wonderful sight of an osprey “fly by” and another perched on a pole in the wetland about 100 yards away.


Osprey on the pole!

September not only is a month when ospreys migrate south to Africa, it is also when many of the volunteers, project officers and assistants take on other roles for the winter. We were lucky to be invited to the final “get together” at the local community centre for a convivial traditional meal which began with an introduction to the traditional game of “Basque pelota” – they had a court in the centre, but probably luckily for us we did not have time to set it up and play! (It does look a very energetic and potentially hazardous game) Local traditional foods including bread, vegetables and salads, fish cooked in two different ways, and some delicious sweets showed the culinary skills of many people associated with the Urdaibai project. It was a great experience.

The following day after enjoying a spectacular view of the reserve at dawn and a final look around, we said our goodbyes just before lunch, and set off to join the start our motorcycle “Tour des Cols” which began 150 miles or so to the east in the Spanish Pyrenees. This ‘bike tour over the next 10 days would take us to many landmarks and over many mountain passes or “cols”, and cover about 1500miles, before we returned to the UK.


In the Pyreenes on the “Tour des Cols”. A high mountain pass is not high enough for an Osprey as to cross the Pyrenees they have to fly over them!

Meanwhile in half that time osprey 30 had flown the length of Spain, crossed the Mediterranean, gone over the Atlas Mountains and then the Sahara Desert, and finally gone to her overwintering site in Senegal. Coincidentally her flight from Spain to Senegal was also distance of around 1500 miles but due south.

Our visit to Urdaibai was a wonderful start to our motorcycle trip and we heard when we got home that the tracking data from their Osprey “Mandella” had told them that on the 23rd of September Mandella had reached Cape Vert, close to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. From here he moved into the Ferlo River area where he will be based until his migration north back to Urdaibai next spring.

Our thanks to all at Urdaibai for their welcome, hospitality, and sharing their enthusiasm for their reserve. We also would like to thank Osprey 30 for guiding us to our friends who have a common interest in ospreys around 1000 miles to the south of Rutland– yet only 5 days as the osprey flies!


Story by Pete Murray

Pete is an Education Officer with the Rutland Osprey Project. Pete and Les live in Little Bytham, Lincolnshire, and as well as ospreys also like motorcycling and enjoy cake.


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