Monday, 27 May 2013

The Monegros ´´Desert´´

I´ve just got back from a research trip to the Monegros - a desert steppe area just East of Zaragoza.  My good friend Borja is from the area and he really kindly showed me some magical places and we saw a huge variety of birds including Great Bustards.   

1500 year old Sabina

The area´s name Monegros translates as the Black Mountains and it comes from the ancient forest of the very dark looking Sabina trees which were here until the 17th/18th Centuries when most were cut down.  This is a Juniper species (Juniperus thurifera) which, if left, lives thousands of years.  It produces a rot and woodworm resistant timber that was used for building some of the finest houses and palaces in Aragón.  
Barley field
Monegros is a semi desert area dry and hot in Summer, dry and cold in Winter.  It is also swept by ferocious Cierzo (westerly) winds.  This Spring has been very wet however and everyone said they had never seen the area so green. There were flowers everywhere!  There were also a huge number of birds.  The highlights of our trip were the huge and very rare Great Bustards and Little Bustards and many birds of prey.  We saw Golden eagle, Booted eagle, many Montagu´s and Hen harriers, as well as numerous Griffon vultures and Red and Black kites.  There were also many larks.  We saw all of the spanish lark species except the Duponts lark which, as so often, is heard but not seen! An area of salt marshes revealed Black winged stilts which had just arrived. I will get the bird photos from Borja (excellent wildlife photographer) for another blog entry soon.  In the meantime you can see an album of his Monegros photos if you click on the link below. 

Upland arable
We visited the Sierra de Alcubierre where we spent the night in a hut very kindly lent to us by the local monks who use it for retreats. There is a hermitage on the Sierra with a fascinating set of cave dwellings and chapel carved out of the rock and used by the local friars of whom there are now just two left.

Cave Entrance

Cave Living room

The wooden framework is a ´just in case´.  This area has a lot of seismic activity so you can´t be too careful.
Cave Chapel
View South from the Caves

Lonesome Sabina

Flowers were everywhere and, although most were familiar, there are many plants which only grow in the Monegros.  There is also a Mudskipper (amphibious fish) adapted to live in this area.  In times of drought (most of the time) it buries itself in damp mud until the rains come again.

Flowers and Wide Open Spaces
The Monegros is fascinating.  A unique landscape with a huge amount of wildlife to be seen.  It´s well worth a visit particularly for birders and naturalists.  April and May are the best months to visit as it is cool enough and relatively green.  In August temperatures are above 40 degrees and winter can be bitterly cold.  Please get in touch if you´d like us to arrange a visit for you!

Grey leaved Cistus
To see Borjas bird photos from our trip click here

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Navatas & Navateros Log Rafts In the Hecho Valley

Steering under the bridge - hard work and good coordination! 

In the last few years the Chesos (people from Hecho) have re-enacted the old log raft (navata) river descents which were the way timber was once transported from these high Pyrenean valleys down to the lowlands along the Aragón and Ebro rivers and on to the Mediterranean.  Timber was cut during the winter in the high valley and then the logs were floated individually down the upper river making the most of  the spring snow melt.  Then the trunks were bound together into rafts using green willow laths and the rafts were floated downstream until the timber was sold along the Ebro or even at the coast. 

The original rafts would have been made of much bigger trunks
Slow growing Silver fir from the high Hecho Valley was often used for guitar tops by makers in Valencia as it was considered to have excellent acoustic properties.  Otherwise timber was sold for construction and furniture making.  Nowadays very little timber is cut in the valley as it is a conservation area.  The only timber  extracted now is pine used for a newly opened biomass plant in the Ansó Valley.

Willow laths for binding the logs together were freely available and were less likely to break than ropes
The navateros (rafters) job was tough and dangerous and it demanded a great deal of skill and strength to steer the rafts.  Cold wet feet, the danger of drowning or getting a limb crushed were everyday hazards.  The rafters had a reputation as tough, hard living and wild adventurers.   
In the 1950´s dam building along the Aragón and Ebro rivers put paid to this ancient trade and transport was done by road.  Log rafting still happens in the western USA and Canada and it´s quite possible that the skills used there originally came from this ancient Pyrenean tradition.
You can see the Navatas around the beginning of May in the Hecho, Roncal and Cinca Valleys.  It´s well worth it!