Francis Wharton.

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grown rocks impended darkly pools, whereon foam-flakes
slowly revolved, or the more rapid streams of Eeinosa, full
of cataracts and tearing " races *' that eat away their steep
gravel-banks — all these may prove blank, or a long day's
work be only rewarded by a few insignificant troutlets or

While fishing in the Eeinosa district, we were told by our
host that there lived some few leagues away un Ingles muy
aficionado — a fishing enthusiast. Thither we moved our
quarters: our new-made friend was one of those Anglo-
Saxon Crusoes whom one meets with, self-buried, for one
reason or another, in the recesses of wild lands, where
sport or solitude may be enjoyed in degrees not possible at
home. Eetired from a public service through an infirmity
begotten by the incidence of his duties, he was spending
the prime of life in this remote spot, satisfied with an
environment of Nature's purest scenes and with a modi-
cum of sport to reconcile him to exile. A type of the
British sportsman abroad was X., keen almost to a fault,
little apt to measure success solely by results, a hard day's
work was not deemed ill-rewarded by a brace or two of
red-legs, or half a dozen quail, while for the chance of a
boar he would walk well-nigh half the night, to reach by
dawn the point where the retreat of some old tusker,
which was ravaging the peasants' crops, might perchance
be cut off.

There were six or eight miles to walk on the morrow
ere a line was wetted — at first along a highway,
whence X. plunged in medias res, that is into a rough
strath, horrid with shifting shingle and thorny scrub,
where progress was painful enough: but our companion
never slacked speed, and when he continued his wild
career, unchecked, through a brawling torrent full of
boulders and well-nigh waist-deep, with a current like a
mill-race, doubts of his sanity began to arise : or was he
only testing ns? Soon afterwards, providentially, we
reached the main stream : fair trouting water, with rather
too much current, the runs being almost continuous, and
leaving scant space of ** slack." Here we set up our rods :

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the first seething pool yielded a brace, besides false rises,
and in half an hour we had ** creeled " several and began to
hope for better things. But it was not to be.

The trout here were white, or silvery in colour, more
like salmon-snlolts — none of the deep greens, violets and
gold of our home fish — and rose extremely shy, coming so
short that hardly one in three gave a chance of getting
fast. It was not that they rolled over the flies, or merely
" flicked *' at them — they simply came so short that, unless
self-hooked, they were gone almost ere they had come. A
dozen trout was the result of this day, yet our companion
told us he had not, during two years, made a better
basket. Oh, tantalizing streams and provoking troutlets
of Biscaya !

Pleasant days, nevertheless, were those spent by this
wild riverside* The love of sport is strong in our breasts,
but it is not the sole, or an all-potent factor therein.
Other things are strong to charm, and here the scenery
and accompaniments lacked nothing of beauty and interest
— the grand hills, not high but severe in jagged skylines
and escarpments that shone like marble in the sun. The
air resounded with the music of leaping waters, with the
merry carol of Sandpiper and gentler warble of Whinchat :
and further oflf the soaring flight of Buzzard and Eaven
lent life to the silent hills.* From rock-crannies, splashed
with the spray of trickling rivulets from above, peeped
bouquets of gentian and maiden-hair : the stony ^*haughs"
glowed with bloom of purple iris and asphodel, anemones
and wild geraniums, orchids, heaths, ferns, and wild-flowers
of a hundred kinds unknown to us.

The weather of the Cantabrian spring-time is strangely
variable : every day we had spells of sunshine and shower,
wind and calm, fog and fair alternately, often culminating
in a sudden clap of thunder that rolled majestically along
the deep ravines. Then, for an hour, came down the rain
in torrents, and we sought the shelter of some village
venta where, for a peseta, we fared sumptuously on good

• We found a nest of the Sandpiper {Totanus hypoleucus) with four
nearly fresh eggs on May 28rd — Provincia de Santand^r.

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white bread and the delicious cream-Hke cheese known as
queso de Burgos, washed down with the rough red wine of
Rioja, cheaper than ''smallest beer," and most refreshing.

In every hamlet hung fishing-nets : every day we saw
the " fishermen " fixing them, and heard of two-pounders.
Yet to us, striving with all the skill we possess, appeared
none of these leviathans. Nothing we could do availed to
cajole them — that is, assuming their existence. A basket
of one to two dozen trout daily, including sundry half-
pounders, appeared to be the measure of the river's
capacity, or of our skill.

Our best basket in this Province of Santander was
twenty-eight trout, weighing eight and a half pounds, and
the best fish a fine trout of just over the pound. Him we
killed in a deep pool so embedded amidst crags and so
diflScult of access, that it may be doubted whether
feathered fly had ever before flown over its virgin depths.
Our friend rose boldly to a small " red palmer " : and
within a few minutes two more, of hardly inferior weight,
had joined him in the basket.

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The wide pastoral province of Leon, with its unexplored
wilds of the Vierzo and the Maragateria, and many another
savage region bordering on the southern slopes of the
Galician and Cantabrian highlands, is practically a terra
incognita to British sportsman and naturalist. Well would
Leon repay either of these for the enterprise expended on
its exploration. Mountain and plain afford shelter for
game — large and small — of all the kinds native to Spain ;
while the rivers flowing southwards from the Asturian
ranges probably afford as good trout-fishing as any in the

Our own experiences in Leon were limited, as regards
its trouting capacities, to a mere flying visit, when we
alighted one morning in mid-May, at a wayside station in
North Leon, tempted to break a monotonous journey by
the trout-like appearance of a stream that, for some dis-
tance, had run more or less parallel with the railway.

The country immediately adjacent was not attractive ;
flat, tawny, and arid, with few trees and very partial
cultivation. On either bank, at a mile or two*s distance,
rose ranges of low broken hills, gradually increasing in
height as they closed in upon the river. Here and there
stood scattered hamlets, all built of the yellowish sun-
baked brick characteristic of Leon; the houses huddled
together, and usually enclosed by the remnants of a former
wall or fortification.

It was nearly noon ere we reached the waterside, at the
head of a long stretch of deep, still water, fringed on the
opposite shore with canes and bulrushes, and well rippled
by a strong breeze. The sun-glare was intense ; and;

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though the wind enabled us to command the whole water,
an hour's fishing (with fly) only resulted in the capture of
sundry large silvery coarse fish, resembling dace, and
weighing from half a pound to a pound and a quarter, and
a few small fry — we imagine, bleak. We therefore decided
to walk up-stream three or four miles, to the point where
its course joined one of the hill-ranges just mentioned.
Here, in many places, abrupt limestone crags formed the
farther shore ; beneath, the stream ran deep, bright, and
sparkling, shallowing away to the shelving gravel on our
shore, and at each bend forming a pretty pool.

For a long time this likely water produced actually
nothing, and we began to fear that our venture in stopping
at this outlandish spot was a failure. But as the shadows
lengthened and the sun left the water, there came a
change. The long-expected and welcome sensation of a
determined " rise *' was followed by another and another
in quick succession ; and in the last hour of the day we
landed nineteen trout, weighing between seven and eight
pounds, of which aggregate the three largest accounted for

Fully half the trout killed on this and succeeding days
rose to a small orange hackle; a bracken-clock, or "coch-y-
bondu," as we believe is the proper name, being the next
favourite. Winged flies should be small, and of bright
colours, and, in the clear waters of Spain, only the finest
gut should be used.

Further west, in the Astorga and Ponferrada districts,
are probably the best streams of Leon ; but these we have
not had time to visit.

The Asturias. — This province is to Spain what the
Scotch Highlands are to England — a

Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood.

From the north, the Asturias may be reached by sea ;
but on the south the only pass through the continuous
mountain-ranges which cut oflf this rugged province from
Leon and transmontane Spain, is by the puertos of

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Vegarada and Piedrafita, which lead into the upland
valleys of the Paj^res mountains, one of the chief strong-
holds of the Spanish bear, and where boar, chamois, and
other game are also found.

The extremely abrupt and rugged nature of the river-
valleys is, in some sense, a serious drawback to the angler.
Many a lovely pool or stretch of perfect trouting- water are
absolutely inaccessible — cut oflf for ever in the depths of
some precipitous defile. Broken boulders often impend the
river's course for miles, and hopelessly obstruct descent.
In other places the water-side can at length be reached
after perilous scrambles along rock-ledges, threading the
rod through a maze of birch and alder branches. And one
picks a precarious path downwards with the knowledge
that, even when reached^ the range of fishable water will
be limited, and the return journey almost worse than the

These hardly-gained pools are, however, worth the
trouble of trying. For, in proportion to their difficulty of
access, so are they neglected by the native pescador^ with
all his poaching paraphernalia and hateful engines of

Our first essay proved blank; the season (May) was,
perhaps, too early, and only a few silvery troutlets re-
warded a long day's work. This was a small stream,
overhung with magnificent chestnuts ; but a neighbouring
and larger river afforded, for Spain, fair sport. The first
series of pools yielded a dozen trout, averaging half a
pound. Then came the usual scramble to reach the next
fishable bit. While climbing out, over a chaos of tumbled
boulders, we almost stepped on a big Marten (Mustelamartes,
Linn.), which bounded from under foot, up the rocks ;
then turned, and stood chattering savagely at the intruder,
her yellow chest not twenty yards away. Probably she
had her brood hidden in^ some crevice, but we could see
nothing of them.

Thus, half fishing, half struggling with geological
obstructions, we had accumulated a basket of thirty odd
trout, when we observed in the glen below a stretch of

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lovely water. There were four pools, each debouching into
the next in a strong stream that ruflfled half the pool below.
But the river ran in a deep ravine, the descent was worse
than ever, and for some time it was doubtful if we should
ever stand on that virgin shore. We succeeded, however ;
and presently, across the throat of the upper "run,'* extended
the cast of stone-fly, black gnat, and orange-red spider —
possibly the first that ever swept the stream. In a moment
we were fast in a trout of the first rank, which had seized
the upper fly. His defence was sullen and strong, slowly
moving round the pool; then he twice threw himself a


clear yard out of water — a grand silver-clad trout. The
end canie in due course, but unhastened, and having no
net, no risks were run till he rolled over on his glittering
side, and could safely be towed in shore, and ** docked " in
a shallow creek. This trout (one of our best in Spain) was
a thick and shapely fish of rather under three pounds, pal
in colour, almost silvery, with delicate orange blush, which
hardly extended to the fins. He was fairly crammed with
creeper, or larvae of stone-fly (in Spanish, coco), yet had
fallen a victim to the similitude of the perfect insect — the
only large fish, by the way, killed on this fly, the majority
preferring the small orange-hackle.

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In the same pool we killed two more — a half-pounder,
with a smaller fish on the same cast ; while the three lower
pools yielded nine trout, three averaging a pound apiece,
two of three-quarters, and four of minor dimensions —
making a total for the day of forty-four trout.

This last short hour's work had realized some ten
pounds' weight of fish — the best sport with the trout-rod
the writer ever enjoyed in Spain.

The Game-birds of the Asturias. — It may be appro-
priate, before leaving this northern province, to add a few
lines on its game-birds, which differ greatly from those of
the south of Spain.

First comes the Capercaillie, which is spread along the
whole Cantabrian range, though in no great numbers,
and rarely seen in spring, when they lie extremely close in
the densest thickets of the forests. We only raised three
or four during many long rambles through the Asturian
forests in search of Bruin. The Asturian name is *' el

Ptarmigan are found in the Pyrenees, but do not seem to
extend further west than the province of Navarre. Manuel
de la Torre assured us that there was, in the Asturias, a
Perdiz grisa which lived exclusively in the woods, a tame
bird, lying very close, and in autumn flying in bands.
Could this be the Hazel-grouse ? According to Arevalo,
that species is only found in the Pyrenees.

Our familiar Grey Partridge (a bird entirely unknown in
the south) we also met with both in the Pyrenees and the
Asturias, where it is not uncommon ; but is said not to
pass southward of the great cordillera of Leon. In this
country, the Grey Partridge is confined to the higher
regions of the sierras, only coming down with the snow to
the faldas, or foothills, in winter, and is never found on the
plains as at home.

One other bird peculiar to this region, though not game,
deserves a remark: the Great Black Woodpecker {Picua
martins), which is found distributed along all the northern
forests. It is, however, very scarce — though least so in the
Pefias de Europa.

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I. — ^Forest and Plain.

With her vast expanses of sierra and lonely scrub-
clad wastes, scarcely inhabited save by ill-tended herds
of cattle or goats, but abounding in wild-life — furred,
feathered, and scaled — Spain affords conditions peculiarly
favourable to raptorial animals. Of the eagle-tribe some
eight or nine species are recognized as belonging to the
Spanish avi-fauna — some peculiar to the mountain-region,
others to the steppe and prairie, as we now proceed to
explain. We have ourselves shot all the different kinds
of eagle, save two, which are comparatively scarce and
irregular stragglers to the Peninsula — ^namely, HalueetuB
alhicilla and Aq* ncevia.

The first of the tribe to attract our attention was the
Spanish Imperial Eagle {Aquila odalbeHi of E. Brehm),
one of the handsomest of European species, a few pairs
of which still inhabit most of the wilder provinces of
Central and Southern Spain, though their numbers in
Andalucia have been grievously reduced since we first met
with them in 1872. To shoot this bird was long an ambi-
tion of the writer, the attainment of which cost many a
long week of hard work, hard fare, and more than one
bitter disappointment. All attempts in those earlier days
to approach the Imperial Eagle on the open plains which
form its favourite home proved futile; though on many
occasions we fell in with the bird conspicuously perched,
according to its habit during the mid-day heats, on some
dead tree or the top of a pine. In later years we have

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succeeded in this feat, but at that time the most carefully
executed " stalk " invariably failed for one reason or
another ; nor could the eagle be beguiled to come to a bait-
Nothing remained but to take what is perhaps an unfair
advantage. On April 16th we found a nest, a broad plat-
form of branches built on the very summit of a towering
alcomoque. Beneath this, in a hut of cistus-twigs, a prey
to myriad mosquitoes, I awaited the eagle's return.
Slowly passed some hours of torture before she re-appeared,
took one wide circuit around, and descended with a rush
like a whirlwind upon her eyry, completely disappearing
from view within its ample circumference. This event I
had not foreseen, and hoped to kill the eagle in the act of
alighting. Now it only remained to put her oflf. Gently I
removed my boots, crept from the hut, and walked round
the tree — a mountain of green foliage^ From no other
point was the great nest visible ; so I braced up my nerves
and shouted. There followed a slight rustling; then
the huge wings extended, and for a single instant I saw,
through intervening foliage, the whole of the coveted
symmetrical form, ere she wheeled back across the tree.
A No. 1 cartridge crashed through the branches ; a shower
of leaves and black feathers floated in the air — instinctively
I felt the blow must be mortal, though no vital spot had
been presented. Intense was my joy when next she
appeared, to see the eagle slanting downwards towards the
earth. There she recovered an even keel; the second
barrel, too careless perhaps, had no effect, and the great
bird slowly flap - - flapped away. Each moment I watched
for her collapse, but she still held on, on, across the
open, and behind some distant trees was lost to view.
Then the iron entered my soul, nor was it any solace to
hear, some time afterwards, that that very afternoon my
eagle had been found by a couple of carabincros ; not till
a fortnight later was the useless corpse recovered.

It was the 6th of May before we found another nest
in a distant dehesa — again built on an alcarnoque (cork-
oak), the highest of a clump bordering a small swamp.
This eagle sat close, not moving till I stood ready beneath.

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Then she rose to her feet and I shot as she stood on
the nest. She sprang buoyantly upwards, ignoring a
second charge placed under the wing as she wheeled back :
then soared blindly over Fehpe, receiving two more
cartridges, and after flying some half a mile slowly settled
down to earth in a series of descending circles. Sending


Felipe to recover her, I awaited the return of the male ;
but the sun was low on the horizon ere my eyes were
gladdened by the sight of his majestic flight, directly
approaching, and with a rabbit hanging from his claws.
With quick " yapping " bark, he perched on an outer
branch, and next moment fell, wing-broken, to the ground.

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A magnificent pair they were : their sable-black plumage
glossy with purplish iridescent sheen and. with snow-
white shoulders. On the occiput a patch of pale gold,
the crown being black. The feet and cere of this species
are pale lemon-yellow ; the irides golden, finely reticulated
with hazel.

This eyry contained two eaglets, clad in white down.
We have since had many opportunities of observing the
breeding habits of this species on the wooded plains of
Andalucia and Estremadura. The eggs, usually three in
number, are mostly white, more or less splashed or
spotted with faint evanesc^t reddish or brown shades,
and are laid about the middle of March. The nests of
the Imperial Eagle are about four feet across, and
invariably placed on the extreme summit of a tall tree —
cork-oak or pine — all projecting twigs being broken oflf so
as to offer no obstruction to the sitting bird's view. The
nests are flat, lined with fresh twigs and green pine-
needles, and all around and beneath lie strewn the skulls
of hares and rabbits — a perfect Golgotha. We have also
seen the remains of Partridge, Stone-Curlew, Mallard, and
wildfowl, but never those of reptiles. These large nests
are most difficult to get into ; their position affording no
hand-hold above, and from the extent to which they over-
hang, access can only be obtained by a manoeuvre analogous
to scaling the futtock-shrouds of an old line-of-battle ship.

The Imperial Eagle is exclusively confined to the
plains — we have never seen it in the mountains : its
prey consists almost entirely of rabbits and partridge : it
is also said to kill bustards, but this we think improbable,
though the bird, no doubt, is powerful enough. Its
hunting-grounds are the arid, barren dehesas and cistus-
wastes — it is not seen on the comlands frequented by
bustard. The adults are recognizable at a long distance by
their black plumage and snow-white epaulets — majestic
birds of massive, powerful appearance. One also sees on
the plains other large and powerful eagles of a rich tawny-
chestnut colour — ^very handsome objects as they sit in the
sunshine on some lofty pine.

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What all these large tawny eagles are is not quite clear ;
or rather, their precise specific status is not yet settled.
Several experienced ornithologists scattered throughout
the world — Hume, Brooks and Anderson in India, Cullen in
Turkey, Saunders, Irby and Lord Lilford in Spain — have
studied these birds, but hitherto the investigations of
these accomplished naturalists have resulted in qualified,
and sometimes clashing opinions. Extreme difficulties
beset the study of the eagle-tribe, for the living subjects
refuse to be studied, and resent one's most remote propin-
quity. To go out eagle-shooting is to court failure. Then,
owing to their prolonged adolescence and slow changes of
plumage, a single eagle may pass through several distinct
phases, each more pronounced than those which divide
species from species : added to which is the further fact
that while the genus contains several well-defined types,
yet its minor forms intergrade with perplexing persistency.
Without venturing on any dogmatic opinions, we will
relate, as a small contribution towards their natural
history, such facts as have come under our notice during
many years' observation of the Spanish eagles.

To clear the ground, we must first explain that the young
of the Imperial Eagle are, in their first plumage, of a
uniform, rich tawny chestnut, or cafe-au-lait colour. We
have shot beautiful examples in this stage in June and
July, when, during the intense mid-day heat, the young
eagles are wont to seek the shade of the tree whereon they
were hatched. This plumage continues during two or
three years — or more: but the original brightness and
depth of hue is rapidly lost with age and exposure to the
southern sun. In a few months, these young eagles have
faded to an almost colourless, " washed-out " shade that
appears almost white at a distance.*

Their next stage is to acquire the dark plumage of

* This transformation of colour is well represented (though not
designedly so) by the two plates at p. 88 of Dr, Breeds " Birds of
Europe " (2nd ed.). The " Tawny Eagle " there figured might be a
young Imperial of, say, two months old ; while Aquila culleni, so far
as colour is concerned, would do duty for the same bird at two years.

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maturity — a metamorphosis which probably extends over
several years. The black feathers growing gradually and
irregularly among the Ught ones, give the bird, during
this period, a peculiar piebald or spotted appearance — (see
photo below). It is also worth adding, as a curious fact,


that many of the feathers of the wing-coverts, scapulars,
&c., show light on one side of the shaft, and dark on the
other. During all this protracted adolescence, it has
usually been considered that these eagles did riot breed.

Online LibraryFrancis WhartonWharton and Stillé's medical jurisprudence .. → online text (page 15 of 36)