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News in Brief: Scotland, Germany, the Scilly Isles, Italy, Ireland, France, Spain

In Scotland…

1. St Kilda & the Hebrides

St. Kilda (Sara Frost)

St Kilda (Sara Frost)

‘Our time spent cruising the Hebrides was blessed with flat calm seas and wonderful (verging on tropical!) weather’, writes tour leader Sara Frost. ‘The undoubted highlight was successfully reaching St Kilda, the “Edge of the World”, and a sought after destination for many. Entering Village Bay is an experience few can ever forget – slowly sailing alongside sea cliffs and underneath swarms of screaming Guillemots, Fulmars, Puffins and Gannets noisily going about their business is a thrilling welcome to the islands, encompassing the very wild spirit of St Kilda herself. We enjoyed 2 nights anchored in Village Bay, and spent a day walking on Hirta, the main island, in glorious sunshine with clear skies. Wildlife highlights on our journey included the St Kilda Wren, Minke Whales, Bottlenose, Common and White-beaked Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, White-tailed Eagles, walking amongst countless Puffins on Lunga (Treshnish Isles) and an incredible sighting of a Basking Shark which came right alongside our boat (which we filmed – see the video here! In a world where long-haul destinations are now so accessible, it can be easy to overlook the treasures that we have on our doorstep. This tour was fortunate to enjoy the best of what the UK has to offer – celebrating our rich British heritage, fantastic weather (!) and, of course, our wildlife!’

To register your interest for our next St Kilda & the Hebrides holiday, please call Paul on 01962 733051 or email paul@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.

2. Ardnamurchan - Wild Scotland in Spring

Pine Marten

Pine Marten, Ardnamurchan

‘Our two “Ardnamurchan – Wild Scotland in Spring” trips enjoyed mostly dry sunny weather with temperatures peaking at 23 degrees; unseasonably warm for this part of the world! The late UK spring delayed the emergence of Scottish Midges, for which we were very thankful!’ writes tour leader (Neil McMahon). ‘Mammals were on good form, with both groups enjoying excellent Pine Marten and otter sightings. Accommodation at the Ardnamurchan Bunkhouse next to Glenborrodale Castle proved to be a magnet for wildlife, with Red Deer on the lawns and plenty of birds on the feeders. Boat trips to the Treshnish Isles yielded splendidly close views of breeding seabirds, including all four species of auk, terns, skuas, Manx Shearwaters, Shags and Kittiwakes. Both groups were able to see plenty of eagles, both White-tailed and Golden, (one group sighting eleven different individuals on one unforgettable day) a long-staying American Black Duck and a host of other species. Excellent weather, wildlife, accommodation and home cooking made these 8-day tours of the Ardnamurchan peninsula especially memorable!’

Our next 8-day Ardnamurchan - Wild Scotland in Spring holiday departs on Monday 13th May 2019. Please call Tom Mabbett on 01962 733051 or email tom@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.

In Germany…

Tour leaders Andy and Ingrid Patmore write 'We had perfect weather every day which made it possible to enjoy the stunning and varied scenery to the full. The locals were suggesting that Spring was at least 2 weeks in advance and this was confirmed by plants found that we have not recorded before flowering in early June. Highlights included pristine Marsh, Red and Dark Red Helleborines amongst other Orchids and Alpine species in profusion. Golden Eagle, Alpine Accentor, Marmots and Chamois, and numerous butterflies including Clouded Apollo and Swallowtail were observed on our forays into the Berchtesgaden Alpine National Park. A visit to Hitler's infamous Eagle's Nest and a trip to the beautiful historic city of Salzburg completed the 8 day tour with less than 200 miles travelled in the minibuses. Do join us next year!'

Our next 8-day Bavarian Alps holiday departs Monday 3rd June 2019. Please call Andy Tucker on 01962 733051 or email Andy@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.

In Italy…

Jessica Turner reports back from the four tours she’s led this spring to Puglia, Sardinia, Sicily and Abruzzo.

Scilly

Matera (Tom Ambrose)

'Italy is a glorious country with some wonderful scenery, wildlife and hospitality. In Puglia in early April we saw migrating Western Marsh, Hen and Montagu’s Harriers in good numbers as they reached the Capo d’Otranto, along with Lesser Kestrels, Bee-eaters, Woodchat Shrike and other summer visitors. The stand-outs, though, were the sheer adbundance and diversity of orchids amongst the other spring flowers, and the fascinating cave dwellings of the ancient city of Matera. Sardinia offered lots of Flamingoes, and Bottlenose Dolphins in an azure sea in the first week, and less good weather but more migration in the second. We enjoyed the many endemic species of reptiles, plants (especially the orchids), butterflies and island races of birds which make this wild and beautiful island their home. Sicily also has many endemic plants, especially on the imposing and dramatic Mount Etna, where snow and lava meet. In the rugged and beautiful Madonie mountains the fragrance of the original Sweet Pea is memorable, along with more, sometimes bewildering, orchids. Yet more orchids appear in Abruzzo, where the Lady’s Slipper was just coming into flower. Both groups were fortunate with extended views, albeit quite distant, of a Marsican Brown Bear at Gioia Vecchio (different individuals), and the Abruzzo Chamois were a delight.'

We also ran two back-to-back holidays to The Gargano Peninsula this year led by Andrew Cleave and Pete Stevens. Although a botanical holiday, the tour gets off to a good birding start with Greater Flamingos, Slender-billed Gulls, Pygmy Cormorant and Black-headed Wagtail among other birds at a coastal lagoon complex en route to the first hotel' (writes Pete). ' Here we saw our first orchid: Giant Orchid. A great start to the holiday. The following days were concentrated on the dazzling array of wildflowers including dozens of Orchid species. Some of the highlights were Bertoloni's Bee Orchid, six species of Tongue Orchid, Pink Bee Orchid and a magnificent stand of more than a hundred Lady Orchids. Other plants of interest are too many to list, but included Pheasant's-eye Daffodil, the sweet smelling Spiny Spurge, Spotted Rockrose and a profusion of Flowering Ash in the woodlands. Butterflies did not disappoint with beauties such as Swallowtails, Southern Festoon and Large Tortoiseshell. When we could raise our eyes from the displays of plants, an occasional bird of prey drifted over on their way north, including Montagu's and Marsh Harriers, Hobby and also the occasional group of European Bee-eaters. Subalpine Warblers and Western Bonelli's Warblers called from the bushes and on the final days’ stay by the coast we were treated to a flock of trilling Alpine Swifts in the evenings.

For more information to our tours to Italy, click here or email andy@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.

In Ireland…

Pine Marten

Spring Gentians

'This year’s tour to the Burren, Ireland, led by Dawn Nelson, was blessed with fine weather' (writes co-leader Joe Monkhouse). 'This region of karst limestone in County Clare is known for its unique combination of plant life, and species seldom found side by side thriving together within the dips and fractures in the stone. During the 5 day tour we covered a variety of Burren habitats, from the dunes of Fanore, searching for Sea Spurge (Euphorbia paralias), the limestone pavement of Poll Salach and the turloughs of Mullach Mor, where the Shrubby Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticose) and Turlough Dandelion (Taraxacum amarellum) were showing well. Particular highlights of the trip included the rare Pyramidal Bugle (Ajuga pyramidalis), the carnivorous Large-flowered Butterwort (Pinguicula grandiflora) and the Dense-flowered Orchid (Neotinea maculata). Fine specimens of each were complimented by hillsides awash with Spring Gentians (Gentiana verna), Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) and mounds of Irish Saxifrage. The visit to Caher Bridge Garden was another memorable experience as creator Carl Wright delivered a wonderful tour of the garden, walking guests through his fascinating collection of plants, each layer blending seamlessly into the surreal Burren landscape. The days were filled with the songs of spring passerines lifted along by the Atlantic breeze, and the distant echo of Cuckoos brought a pleasant soundtrack to the gentle pace. The group spent each night at Sheedys, a charming hotel on the edge of Lisdoonvarna and, as always, we were met with first class service and fine dining. After dinner, guests would take a short walk to the Roadside Tavern and enjoyed an evening of live traditional Irish music, with a Guinness in hand.'

Our next 5-day 'The Burren' holiday departs Monday 20th May 2019. Please call Andy Tucker on 01962 733051 or email andy@naturetrek.co.ukfor further details.

In France…

1. France - The Cévennes

'In the southernmost part of the Massif Central is the rugged and dramatic landscapes of the Cévennes and Causses surrounding the attractive town of Florac. This area, with its diversity of landscapes, meant a wildlife rich week in this beautiful and peaceful part of France, enjoying masses of colourful and intriguing plants, many species of butterflies and some great birds' (writes tour leader Jenny Willsher). 'As we ascended the Corniche de Cévennes on our arrival day the roadsides were dotted with orchids and Meadow Saxifrage, and a meadow of Poet's Narcissi gave us a flavour of the week ahead.

The colours of the forests, meadows and rocky roadside banks were wonderful. The weather was better than the early forecast had suggested, indeed there had been snow on the Causse Mejean only a few days earlier, and even on the notorious Mont Aigoul we had sunshine but it was not quite clear enough for the promised views to the Camargue, the Alps or the Pyrenees. Orchid species were prolific, with drifts of the red and yellow Elderflowered Orchid and banks of Monkey, Lady and Military Orchids in profusion, and the air was rich with the scent of various broom species. Birding highlights included regular sightings of Griffon Vultures, plus Egyptian Vulture, Hobby, Northern Goshawk, and migrating Honey Buzzards. Crag Martins, Serins and Black Redstarts were common around the hotel and we had regular sightings of Red-backed Shrikes and the constant sound of Nightingales and Cuckoos.

A week of great wildlife, enthusiastic company, lovely food and stunning scenery in this beautiful area of France!'

Our next 8-day 'France - The Cévennes' holiday departs Wednesday 15th May 2019. Please call Andy Tucker on 01962 733051 or email andy@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.

2. The French Pyrenees

Pine Marten

French Pyrenees (Tom Ambrose)

'Our June tour to the French Pyrenees recorded an excellent list of flora and we enjoyed some superb birdwatching' (writes tour leader Tom Ambrose). 'The holiday started brightly, with views of Lammergeier, Golden Eagle and Pyrenean Chamois from outside our hotel. The weather was good as we explored the varied habitats around the Cirque de Gavarnie, adding many endemics to our burgeoning plant list. Unfortunately, the weather turned for the worse midweek, but we took advantage of intermittent clear periods and comfort from the warm hospitality at our family-run hotel in Gedre. The undisputed highlight of the trip was provided by a stunning adult Lammergeier, which circled very close overhead before gliding effortlessly into the valley below. Other avian highlights were Citril Finch, Short-toed Eagle and Alpine Accentor. Botanists found a plethora of orchids and interesting endemics including Pyrenean Yam (Borderea pyrenaica), Pyrenean Saxifrage (Saxifraga Longifolia), Ramonda (Ramonda myconi) and the beautiful Pyrenean Snakeshead (Fritillaria pyrenaica).'

Our next 8-day French Pyrenees holiday departs Wednesday 5th September 2018. Please call Andy Tucker on 01962 733051 or email andy@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.

3. The Vercors

Vercors

The Vercors

Pete co-led our two holidays in the Vercors, France, this spring with Paul Harmes. 'The diversity of the landscape and wildlife of this pre-alps upland area of France has escaped the notice of many visitors to France. However, as our group was to discover in May, it holds scenery and wildlife to match any of the better known destinations (writes Pete). On the high Plateaux we were treated to drifts of wild daffodils and Alpine Heartsease, while Alpine Chough wheeled above us and Alpine Marmot called from the top of rocks. Orchids were to be seen almost everywhere lower down the hills, with forty plus species in the week, including the local speciality Drome Bee Orchid, some very impressive Man Orchids and the exotic looking Lady's Slipper Orchid. On the warmest days our butterfly list was quite impressive. Berger's Clouded Yellow was common and Scarce Swallowtail was seen most days. Seven species of Blue were noted over the week, as well as Glanville, Spotted and Heath Fritillaries, Grizzled and Chequered Skippers. Then there were the day-flying moths! During the week we were treated to the delights of our hotel's garden birds, Black Redstart, Serin, Firecrest and Crossbill to mention just a few, while nearby Red-backed Shrike could be seen. Among the birds of prey seen were several Short-toed Snake Eagles including one with a snake. After good views of Wallcreeper one day, on the next we saw one on a wall! What a week!'

Our next 8-day France - The Vercors holiday departs Sunday 19th May 2019. Please call Andy Tucker on 01962 733051 or email andy@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.

In Spain…

St. Kilda (Sara Frost)

Sawfly Orchid, Picos de Europa

'Spain's Picos de Europa Mountains holiday took us to arguably the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the Cantabrian region of Spain, including the dramatic Cares Gorge, the breath-taking ascent in the cable car of Fuente Dé and picturesque villages' (writes tour leader Javi Elloriaga). 'We explored a variety of habitats from the coast to 2,000m above sea level, with a special focus on botanical endemics. Highlights included Pyrenean Lily, Asturian Daffodil, Spoon-leaved Candytuft, Mossy and Cone Saxifrage, Pyrenean Trumpet and Spring Gentian, Alpine and Pyrenean Toadflax, Cantabrian Anemone and Perennial Snapdragon to name but a few. Orchids deserve special mention with over 20 species seen amongst them Lizard, Pink butterfly, Sawfly, and hundreds of Common Spotted Orchids. Regarding birds, the iconic wallcreeper and close views of Wryneck, White-winged Snowfinches, Egyptian Vultures and the inquisitive Alpine Choughs played the leading role. Green Lizard, Palmate Newt, Spanish Purple Hairstreak, Crowned Moth and close encounters with Isards added diversity to this trip. Furthermore, we tasted Cabrales cheese, a local speciality which matures in the karstic caves of Picos. All in all we had a remarkably varied, colourful and highly scenic week in northern Spain!'

Our next 8-day Spain's Picos de Europa Mountains holiday departs Thursday 13th June 2019. Please call Andy Tucker on 01962 733051 or email andy@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.

In the Scilly Isles …

Scilly

Scilly boat trip

'A week on the Isles of Scilly in bright sunny weather, with only the occasional rainy spell, was enjoyed by clients on the May tour', writes leader Andrew Cleave. 'The sea crossings to and from Penzance were enlivened by the sight of hundreds of Manx Shearwaters and other seabirds, and other boat trips during the week enabled us to see more of the islands’ seabird population. We had remarkably close encounters with Razorbills on the Eastern Isles when we took an exciting trip out in a RIB. Grey Seals played around the boat, and we got close to Shags and Oystercatchers on the rocks, which provided everyone with some good photo opportunities.

A memorable evening boat trip to see Manx Shearwaters coming in to their breeding colony gave us views of  Great Northern Divers in summer plumage, whilst Puffins, Guillemots and Common Terns were spotted close to the boat. On our daily walks we enjoyed spectacular coastal scenery, and birds such as Rock Pipits, Wheatears and Stonechats were frequently seen. On the beaches we often came across small flocks of Whimbrel, a few Curlew and the ever-present Oystercatchers. Everyone enjoyed watching the remarkably confiding Song Thrushes, but we were also impressed by the great numbers of species such as House Sparrows and Starlings which are abundant on the islands, but less common on the mainland.

Many of the special plants of the islands were found including some of the tiny rarities like Dwarf Pansy Viola kitaibeliana and Orange Bird’s-foot Ornithopus pinnatus, but we also enjoyed the more conspicuous species like the Spring Squill Scilla verna, Thrift Armeria maritima and Small-flowered Catchfly Silene gallica. Amongst the exotic introduced flora the Madeiran Cranesbill Geranium maderense was very eye-catching and we were impressed by the numbers and variety of bees and other insects visiting the Tree Echiums which were flowering prolifically. Butterflies were spotted in good numbers on most days, with Small Copper and Holly Blue being quite frequent, and we also had good views of the island race of Speckled Wood, looking more like the continental form of this butterfly. Red Squirrels on Tresco appeared obligingly in several places and we had a few bat sightings in the evenings to add to our mammal list. There were some very low tides during the week so we also explored the sea shore, finding many interesting shells, crabs and seaweeds. There was plenty of time to sample the delights of Scillonian food at the various pubs and cafes we visited on St Mary’s and the off-islands.'

Our next 8-day Isles of Scilly holiday departs Saturday 15th September 2019. Please call Alison Steel on 01962 733051 or email alison@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.