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Spanish Pyrenees: July 2002
( 10 Days ) 128 Species of birds seen, 69 Species of Butterfly and much more!
Day 1 15th July
We all met on time at Plymouth Ferryport. Once we had loaded all our luggage onto the minibus, we joined the queue for the ferry and the start of our tour. Once aboard we found our cabins and then went to the front deck to position ourselves for sea-watching. Not far out of Plymouth Sound we had the first of three Storm Petrels, closely followed by the only Basking Shark of the trip. The journey down towards Spain was rather uneventful with few seabirds noted. The highlights were 29 Manx Shearwaters, 41 Common Scoter and 2 Great Skuas - one of which gave really good close views. A Common Swift looked rather strange right out in the middle of the English Channel, but apart from the usual Northern Gannets and Fulmars it was a rather quiet day. However, it was an extremely pleasant day with the sun shining down on and the sea being very calm and tranquil.
Day 2 16th July
A few of the group were up early and in position at the front of the ship. The sea conditions were still relatively calm and there was very little to be seen. A small pod of dolphins were spotted, but they never showed themselves well enough to be specifically identified. As we approached the sheltered harbour of Santander, Yellow-legged Gull's appeared and a single Sandwich Tern was seen. Common Swifts circled the city and before we knew it we were docking. Once we had left the ferry and gone through customs we parked up and Adam and I went and sorted out an additional hire car. Once everything was sorted, we all set off out of the city and on our long drive to the Pyrenees. It wasn't long before the first Black Kites and Common Buzzards were being spotted from the vehicles. Numbers increased and Black Kites were obviously moving as several flocks of thirty plus were seen. Continuing on we then started seeing huge Griffon Vultures and even a few Egyptian Vultures. A Honey Buzzard was seen by a few whilst a Short-toed Eagle and Common Kestrel were added to our list. Our first real stop was in a small village near the city of Vitoria, where we were soon enjoying close views of a pair of White Storks nesting on a church roof. After excellent looks at these and a singing Serin we had a quick snack and drink and then continued on. A few other species were spotted from the vehicle as we got closer to our destination. Lots of Black and Red Kites, more Griffon and Egyptian Vulture's and even Crested Larks and a couple of European Bee-eaters were seen. At the base of the Hecho valley we refuelled the vehicles, had a welcome ice-cream and then drove the last part of our journey up the valley to our ideally situated hotel and our welcoming hosts Imanol and Lucia. We also met Josele our local Spanish bird guide and good friend, who would be helping out on this tour. The eager group members were soon scoping birds from the lawn, including Griffons and a Short-toed Eagle and then a distant but never-the-less distinctive Lammergeier. We also saw the resident pair of Red-backed Shrikes in the little meadow adjacent to our hotel.
A little later we had a short drive down the valley to have a look around. It was quite windy and not a great deal was seen. A Red Kite came very close and investigated us while a distant Short-toed Eagle was seen. Several butterfly species were seen including, Clouded Yellow, Bath White, Spotted Fritillary and Common Blue. We then headed back towards the hotel stopping at a road tunnel where we all had excellent views of nesting Crag Martins. We had excellent scope views of a group of young birds on a rocky ledge, which were particularly appealing. We then went back to the hotel where a lovely evening meal was enjoyed and then our checklists were started.
Day 3 17th July
After breakfast we drove down the valley to Hecho village and then crossed over to the Anso valley. A stop was made at a high watch-point, and from here we soon located several Crested Tits, while above us a Red Kite and Egyptian Vulture were seen. A distant Honey Buzzard was also spotted and some of the group managed to see it in a scope. A good number of butterfly species were present and these included Pearly Heath, Spanish Gatekeeper, Marbled White's, Violet Fritillary, Great Banded Grayling and Long-tailed Blue. Leaving here we then drove down the Anso valley, stopping just before a deep gorge called the Foz de Binies. Along the way we made a quick stop for a Hoopoe and also got poor views of a female Subalpine Warbler. From another area full of butterflies we saw Dipper and Grey Wagtail on the river and above us squadrons of Griffon Vultures patrolled the skies, whilst Alpine Swifts wheeled around above the gorge. With the vehicles already driven to the other side, we then walked through this picturesque gorge. Griffon Vultures were seen well, with several close ones perched on ledges. A Black Kite flew very close by us and Crag Martins could be seen nesting everywhere. Black Redstart and a brief Bonelli's Warbler were seen and at the far side of the gorge a Pair of Blue Rock Thrushes were seen carrying food to a nest, which must have been nearby. More butterflies were encountered and they now included Clouded Yellow, Berger's Clouded Yellow and Pale-clouded Yellow, several Southern Scarce Swallowtails, Black Satyr, Cleopatra's and a Striped Grayling. After reaching the vehicles, we drove to the nearby hilltop village of Binies and had our picnic lunch in the small square. It was now hot so we relaxed a while before setting off to the nearby river Aragon. On the river bridge we saw a couple of Rock Sparrows and then walking a riverside track we soon found a group of about seven Bee-eaters. A family of Woodchat Shrikes showed well and in a spot closer to the river we had excellent views of several Bee-eaters sat in a dead tree. In a damp area there were some Marsh Helloborine's and a few Greater Butterfly Orchids. A juvenile Lark proved very interesting and needed better views, but may have been a Thekla! The nearby reed-bed was decidedly quiet as the weather was still a little to hot, so we decided to return to the vehicles. Back at the van we saw some Long-tailed Tits before setting off towards the hotel, stopping briefly to look at a female Marsh Harrier and then later a distant Booted Eagle. At the hotel we had a refreshing pot of tea or a beer and then we all made a short visit to the nearby Bocos de Inferno, which in total contrast to where we had been was cold and very windy. We did not see much, although a flowering Pyrenean Saxifrage was nice for some of the group and so we returned to the hotel.
Day 4 18th July
After breakfast we headed higher up the Hecho valley. As we passed through narrow gorges, with the rocky river just below us, we saw several Dippers and Grey Wagtails. At a more open area we stopped and had a short walk. In the woods we saw Crested and Coal Tits as well as Short-toed Treecreepers, Robin, Black Redstart and then a lovely pair of Firecrests. We continued further up the valley, beyond the woods and as far as we could take the vehicles. From here we walked back down the valley, passing through some fantastic scenery. At the top, a male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was found and it showed very well as it perched up on the obvious boulders. The huge Apollo Butterfly was spotted flying past and was the first of several of this high altitude and sought after species. Northern Wheatears, Linnets and Yellowhammers were common and above the hillside we saw a couple of Honey Buzzards, Egyptian and the ever-present Griffon Vultures. Further down, Kim found us an obliging Melodious Warbler and then we had a very close Bonelli's Warbler and in the forest edge one of a pair of Black Woodpecker's was seen flying and then perched. In a small stream we looked at a Pyrenean BrookSalamander and while looking at this a Lammergeier appeared over the hills. We watched this bird on several occasions as it lazily drifted along the ridge, way above us. We then saw two different Golden Eagles in the same area, and there were of course lot's of butterfly's including Escher's Blue, False Heath and Black-veined White, Meadow Fritillary, Piedmont Ringlet and Pale Clouded Yellow to name a few. Once we reached our vehicles we drove further down the valley for a picnic stop beside the river. While eating our packed lunch, we got distracted as three Golden Eagles appeared and gave us superb views as they drifted along the hillside right in front of us. Even more butterflies included Mallow and Grizzled Skippers, as well as several more Apollos. We then drove down to the hotel for ten minutes before driving high up to Gabardito Refuge. Here we walked through the woods until we reached a sheer rock-face. Griffon Vultures passed by in close squadrons and then a pair of Lammergeiers were seen flying and perched on a rocky ledge. Both Red and Yellow-billed Choughs flew around in small groups calling and a pair of Common Kestrels passed overhead. As we were about to leave, a Rock Bunting was spotted by Jackie,and we all got excellent views of this bird. It was soon time to get back to the hotel for our early evening meal. After the meal and a `quickish'! check-list we then drove down the valley to a spot between two wooded hills. Here we waited until dusk and after seeing several Nightjars flying around we then caught sight of a huge Eagle Owl drifting slowly down the valley. After this we returned to the hotel.
Day 5 19th July
This morning we split into two groups, with one group coming with me and Nick and the other going with Josele. With group one, we drove through the woods to the top of the mountain at Gabardito and here we took a short walk to the sheer rock face. Alpine Swifts showed very well as they wheeled around giving their high pitched scream. After a long wait the bird everyone was hoping to see suddenly appeared at the top of the cliff. A male Wallcreeper flew out and then back and only a few of the group saw it! We patiently waited and after what seemed an eternity it reappeared, landing on the sheer rock face and everyone got to see it well, even in the scope. Fantastic! With everyone ecstatic, we then made our way back to the minibus and returned to the hotel for lunch. A few of the group found a nice Martigon Lily along the way. Group two had a good time with Josele, and managed to see Lammergeier and add Turquoise Blue and Blue-spot Hairstreak to our butterfly list. After our lunch we took a short break and then headed down the valley where the temperature was decidedly hotter. A roadside stop was made to look at some Egyptian Vultures on the ground and then we continued on to San Juan de la Pena. After a high climb in the vehicles, we stopped at a viewpoint where the distant Pyrenean mountain range could be seen stretched out in front of us. Just as we pulled in, a Lammergeier was spotted flying low in front of us. Unfortunately it disappeared very quickly.
We hung around looking at the Griffon Vultures, which were nesting on the rocky ledges below. A Honey Buzzard showed well and a few butterfly species were being checked out. Suddenly the Lammergeier reappeared and we all had fantastic close flight views as it drifted slowly by. It was then seen again and this time it flew in and landed on a rocky ledge where we set our scopes up and enjoyed really good perched views of this magnificent bird. We then continued up to the top of this mountain and after parking we took a short walk to a viewpoint. It was rather hot and there were few birds to be seen. A Damon Blue found by Roger was a good butterfly for the trip. We left and returned towards the hotel. A quick stop in the lowlands found us a Marsh Harrier, some of the group saw Bee-eater but it was really still too hot. We then drove back to our hotel where the weather was absolutely perfect.
Day 6 20th July
After breakfast this morning we loaded up the vehicles and then set off on the drive to Candanchu ski resort. Once here we began the day with two Lammergeiers drifting lazily overhead. We then got together everything we needed from the vehicles and made our way to the chair lifts, which silently delivered us to the top of the mountain. The view from the top was fantastic and as soon as we were all ready we began to find a few new species of flower, including Eidelweiss.
As we made our way along the track, butterflies included Lefebre's Ringlet and Mountain Clouded Yellow. Alpine Choughs were then seen well and Northern Wheatear and Black Redstart spotted. We positioned ourselves on a grassy meadow with a spectacular view all around us including several snow capped peaks. Time and patience were now needed and with Josele positioned high on a hillside and the rest of us checking nearby rocky banks and cliffs it was just a matter of watching and waiting. A few Black Vanilla Orchids were in flower and Peak White butterfly was a good find. Josele then spotted our main target species: Snow Finch. Kim got the bird in a scope and most people got a reasonable view of it perched or flying away. An Alpine Accentor was then scoped at great distance, before we tucked into our picnic lunches. Afterwards Jackie found a much closer Alpine Accentor on the hillside and several of the group who were close enough got excellent views. The next half hour or so was one of those magical moments that make birding so exciting. After a brief view of Snow Finch, everyone then watched in amazement as one perched on a rock only forty feet away. Absolutely brilliant views were had of this true alpine bird, and then on the same rocks a pair of Alpine Accentors showed really well. To top it all off, a Wallcreeper flew in and landed briefly on the same piece of rock, before flying off. Fantastic! Very happy with all this, we then made our way slowly back towards the chair lift seeing Lammergeier, a Chamois stood on top of a mountain and then really good looks at a Marmot stretched out on a rock. We made our way back down the chair lifts and enjoyed a cold drink or two in a nearby bar to celebrate our success. We then set off on the drive back to Hecho village, which is a beautiful place where we had a walk around the narrow cobbled streets before enjoying the sunshine and sipping a few cold drinks outside a lovely local bar. After this we returned to the hotel and watched as a storm developed over the mountains. During the evening some of the group watched a Black Stork fly down through the valley below the hotel, obviously seeking shelter from the storm.
Day 7 21st July
Another beautiful morning saw us head back up into the mountains. We crossed into the Anso valley stopping first to look at a singing Cirl Bunting. As we made our way higher we had a few stops and picked up species such as Rock Bunting, Spotless Starling and in one very scenic spot with high mountains all around, we saw Booted Eagle, Honey Buzzard, Melodious Warbler and White Letter Hairstreak Butterfly. The next spot produced Dipper and Grey Wagtail, better views of Rock Bunting and then a superb Purple Emperor Butterfly which allowed us to get very close and photograph it. Continuing on we crossed into the Roncal Valley and on to Belagua. We climbed very high and then stopped at a refuge. Here we had good views of both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs feeding in the short grass. We climbed even higher and drove slowly along listening for our target bird: Citril Finch. At one point we got out to scope a male Crossbill sat in a tree and here were lots of Pyrenean Agualega.
At the top and over into France we stopped for our picnic lunch. Sue spotted a Citril Finch just before we parked, so several of us walked back and found the birds showing very well beside the road. As we ate our picnic there were Water Pipits and a few Citril Finches to be seen. Everyone then walked up the road and saw this species very well. Amongst the butterflies were Common Brassy Ringlet and Mountain Ringlet while a good selection of flowers was also found. It was soon time to start back down but not before a stop at the old border crossing. Here we got close views of Yellow-billed Chough and then a super Ring Ouzel, a family of Black Redstarts and Iberian Wall Lizards. We headed back down to the lower valley where a brief cool off in a stream also found us Swallowtail Butterfly and a Beautiful Demoiselle. We then drove back to Hecho via the pottery shop in the small village of Fago.
Day 8 22nd July
After breakfast we drove straight to the picturesque village of Riglos, which is set below the huge red pinnacles of Los Mallos. We pulled off the road to get some good photographs of the scenery, which resulted in reasonable views of Sardinian Warbler, before parking in the car park at the start of the small village. Walking up through the narrow streets brought us out into the scrubby hillside immediately below the huge, red sandstone pillars of the towering cliffs. Almost immediately a brilliant pair of Black Wheatears were spotted right at the base of the towering cliffs. We watched them for ages as they fed actively, on occasions flying quite high up onto the rock face. Overhead a Short-toed Eagle sailed by. We then walked around the small `allotments' searching for warblers. It was quite windy and very hot which did not make for ideal conditions and our efforts only resulted in poor views of a Melodius Warbler and a Dartford Warbler, which was seen by Nick. So it was with much relief that we all descended into the local and very cool bar for our picnic lunch and some much appreciated cold drinks. Feeling fully refreshed, we drove a bit further down to a new area for our Pyrenees trips. The Sotonera Lake is the only large body of water for miles around and as thus, has some interesting speci es. Josele led us along some tracks through the arable landscape until we arrived at a small pond. It was pretty quiet here, save for a couple of Green Sandpipers and a small flock of Bee-eaters in some nearby trees. All around us Crested Larks sang and had begun to form loose flocks, which flew quite close in front of our vehicles on occasion. We then headed towards the main body of water, passing more Bee-eaters and a female Black-eared Wheatear along the way. We all stopped on a narrow bridge and jumped out of the vehicles to have a look at a good assortment of birds in the shallow drainage channel that fed into the lake. A good tally of 8 Little Egrets was seen here, as well as 3 Cattle Egrets, 2 Purple Herons, several Little Ringed Plovers and both Green and Common Sandpipers. We all enjoyed good views of these birds before driving around the corner and walking the short distance to view the lake. We walked up to a viewpoint that overlooks the lake and on the way Roger found a Preying Mantis. The main body of water was quite far away, but through the scopes we were able to pick out a lone Spoonbill, White Stork, a couple of Black-winged Stilts, Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls. There was also a large flock of ducks in the distance that appeared to be all Mallards and a few Terns that were so far away, they defied identification. Leaving the hot lowlands behind, we returned to our hotel for a nice evening meal and to savour for the last time the astounding views all around us.
Day 9 23rd July
We were all up very early for the long drive to Santander this morning. Having loaded the luggage onto the minibus the night before, we had a quick coffee and croissant before saying our goodbyes to Imanol and headed back towards the coast. We stopped for refreshments along the way and in the early morning light we were fortunate to see a fast moving Hobby flying low overhead. We were soon in the queue for the ferry and then, after boarding the ship and dropping our luggage in the cabins, we all met up on the front deck. Leaving the sheltered harbour of Santander, we saw many Yellow-legged Gulls on the journey into the open ocean. The rest of the crossing that day was unusually quiet.
Day 10 24th July
As we neared the coast of Cornwall, we all met once again on the front deck this morning. Thankfully, there were a few more seabirds to look at including Gannets, Manx Shearwaters and several Storm Petrels. We were soon docking in Plymouth and shortly after were saying our goodbyes.
On reflection, we had an excellent trip in which we saw all the specialities of the Pyrenees and were able to enjoy a very light-hearted and fun tour. On behalf of Josele, Nick and myself, I would like to thank you all very much for making it such a pleasure to lead.