In Association with:
PYRENEES TOUR 1999 28th June - 7th July 1999
DAY 1: Monday 28th June
Rees and I met everyone on time at Plymouth ferryport. We loaded ourselves and the luggage into the minibus and then after a short wait we bearded the "Val de Loire" and commenced our journey to Santander, Spain. The ship left at 08.30am and once we had found our cabins, we all met for something to eat and drink. Those who wished, then joined myself and Rees at the front of the ship where we searched for seabirds.
Our first Manx Shearwater was soon spotted and shortly after good views were obtained of a Cory's Shearwater and a Storm Petrel. After lunch an Arctic Skua put in an appearance and the numbers of Cory's Shearwater started to increase, while three racing Pigeons decide to take a rest on board.
At 4.15 pm we all went to the bridge for a viewing and to see how the ship was run. This proved an interesting insight into parts of the ship others never get to see. An hour later myself, Roy and Colin braved the increasing wind and had excellent close views of several Cory's as they flew alongside the ship. Two Great Skuas were spotted and after a long day and an evening meal, our final look at the sea brought our total of Cory's to 25, while adding Gannet, Fulmar and Kittiwake.
DAY 2: Tuesday 29th June
Up early to look at the sea again. Cory's were soon noted as well as Storm Petrels, three Balearic Shearwaters and two small groups of Common Dolphin before we docked at 09.00am. Once we were all aboard the minibus we were soon on our way through Santander, on past busy Bilbao and then to our first stop at Vitoria. Here on the roof top of an old church was a family of five White Storks. Everyone got their cameras out as these elegant birds posed for us.
Moving on it wasn't long before we stopped at a roadside hotel for a coffee and snack break. Distractions came in the form of several close Red and Black Kites. Nearby, along the field edges was a female Red-backed Shrike, a Serin was singing and Spotless Starlings flew back and forth from their nests under the roof tiles.
When refreshed we moved on again. As we got nearer to the Pyrenees raptors became more evident, both Red and Black Kites were commonplace and Griffon Vultures were appearing in ever larger groups. The scenery was now changing, becoming more mountainous. It looked spectacular but our minibus was having to go into lower and lower gear. Now only a few minutes from our hotel we stopped briefly to look at a Short-toed Eagle sat on a telegraph pole. Due to a diversion we arrived at our perfectly situated hotel a little late. Nethertheless it wasn't long before our hosts Imanol and Lucia brought out a pot of tea and we could all sit outside in the hotel garden enjoying this and soaking up the sun and magnificent scenery. We could see many Griffon Vultures but jumped from our seats to look through the telescope at three Lammergeiers circling the mountain top. We had only been at our hotel for about one hour; what a good start to our holiday! To cap it all a pair of Red-backed Shrikes were nesting in the hotel grounds, and just down the road underneath the roof of a road tunnel were a pair of Crag Martins whose nest was literally bulging with young. It had been a long day, so as soon as we had finished our evening meal and wine we all retired early.
DAY 3: Wednesday 30th June
Our first morning saw a few of us up and out before breakfast. A short walk along the road produced Crested Tits, Coal Tits, Firecrest, Blackcap, Serin and our first Egyptian Vulture. After breakfast while everyone was getting organised, Rees and I drove down to the nearby shop to get some extra provisions for our picnic lunch. En-route we stopped briefly for a Wryneck which was singing from a telegraph wire.
Remembering the spot, we all returned to try and relocate the bird, but search as we may we could not find it. Views of Peregrine, Hobby, and Red-backed Shrike were some compensation while Nightingale could be heard singing down the valley.
We now headed back up the Hecho valley, stopping by the road tunnel for the nesting Crag Martins. We all had a quick look at the young peering out from their nest and had excellent views of the adult birds flying around and perched on rocks. Beside our parked minibus a male Rock Bunting sat on the top of a dead tree for twenty minutes, allowing everyone to have a good look at this often shy bird. Continuing further up the valley we decided to eat our picnic beside an open area and a small stream. After lunch we continued right up to the top of the Hecho valley until we had to stop by a road barrier. We then all walked the track slowly getting higher in this superb landscape. A group of Alpine Chough were watched feeding alongside some Red-billed Chough and eventually they all flew closer giving us excellent views. A Lammergeier was watched as it flew along the mountain top and a distant Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was spotted on the top of some rocks.
Flowers were plentiful and butterflies included several beautiful Apollo, a False Apollo and Piedmont Ringlet. Later we identified another good butterfly as a Glandon Blue. We tracked down the source of a high pitched whistle. It was an Alpine Marmot making all the noise and we were able to watch it sunbathe and search the grass on a nearby hillside. We returned to our hotel for our welcome pot of tea, and later, some lovely home cooked food. Myself and Rees then set up our moth trap to see if we could attract any interesting species. We stayed up for a while but then decided to retire and check the trap in the morning.
DAY 4: Thursday 1st July
Our early morning walk today produced several Garden Warblers and a family of Rock Buntings, with Crested Tit and Firecrest being seen regularly around the hotel.
After breakfast as we drove south down the Hecho valley, a few of us got brief views of the Wryneck as it flew from a small tree beside the road. We passed many Red and Black Kites on the way to our next stop beside a small plantation of Poplar trees. As soon as we got out of the minibus we were greeted by the beautiful song of several Golden Orioles. Although we could hear these brightly coloured birds we could not get a view of them as they kept to the highest and most thickly covered part of the trees.
At the far end of the wood, overlooking some arable fields a flock of 30-40 Black Kites were seen circling an area that had just been harvested. Returning to the vehicle we set up the telescopes to look at a male Rock Sparrow which was singing from the roof of a small farmhouse.
Continuing on we soon approached the valley of the river Aragon. Here the temperature soared and it was now very hot indeed. Alongside the road we saw a Crested Lark and a Subalpine Warbler, while down towards the river, and a convenient picnic stop, a Hoopoe was seen to fly past. On the river itself two Black Kites and a Little Ringed Plover were seen, and in the shade of a wood we saw and heard Garden Warblers, Nightingale and Great Reed Warbler. Rees also found a baby Viparine Adder in a small pool. Once we had all seen it, it swam off into cover.
Continuing on we drove up to Berdun village, passing a couple of Woodchat Shrikes en-route. A welcome cold drink, and ice cream was had in the local bar after which we looked around this small medieval settlement. Scarce Swallowtail butterflies seemed to be everywhere and one kept trying to land on us, while Rock Sparrows sat on posts giving their nasal song, and a Nightingale put in a brief appearance. On the way back we again stopped in the area where the Wryneck had been seen, and although we could not find this bird we did enjoy close views of a pair of Subalpine Warblers feeding their young. Our early evening cup of tea on the lawn was once again enlivened by the sighting of Lammergeier flying over the mountain top.
After our evening meal Rees, Colin and I walked up towards the Bocas de inferno. Apart from bats, bush and field crickets all we could find was a European Hedgehog.
DAY 5: Friday 2nd July
An early morning pre breakfast visit to the Wryneck site produced good views of the Subalpine Warblers and Serin, but we only managed to hear the Wryneck calling from low down in the valley.
Today we drove to the French border at Candanchu. Other companies seldom visit this spot as the chair lift only starts operating from the beginning of July. Here there is easy access to the high altitude species. A stop for loos produced two Short-toed Eagles flying over and calling, while a little further down the road we stopped by a small pool to enjoy our picnic lunch prior to catching the chair lift to the top of the mountain, an area rich in birds, butterflies and flowers.
The two Eileens overcame their nerves and joined everyone else as we were carried smoothly up the hillside. At the top the scenery was superb. Amongst the carpets of wild flowers were Edelweiss, Black Vanilla Orchid, Trumpet Gentian and Alpine Wood Forget-me-not. Piedmont Ringlet butterflies were common and an adult Lammergeier flew slowly overhead allowing everyone to watch it at leisure. An Alpine Accentor was only seen by half the group, while a lazy Marmot was seen by all of us. Both Alpine and Red-billed Chough were seen well as they constantly flew back and forth, and a pale phase Booted Eagle gave absolutely stunningly close views. I think it was intrigued to see what we were up to. On another area of flat mountain meadow we watched Water Pipit, Common Wheatear, several Citril Finches and a lovely male Rock Thrush which was collecting food for its young.
(On our next tour, two weeks later, Snow Finch were also seen here We sat down to enjoy our picnic lunch when the distant calls of a flock of birds had us grabbing our binoculars, and it wasn't long before nine Snow Finch came into view, flashing their black and white wings. Although present in the Pyrenees this species is extremely difficult to find without going on long, arduous hikes. This is probably one of the best and easiest spots to try and see them. After finishing our lunch we made our way down the track until we found the flock of Snow Finch feeding amongst the rock strewn hillside, here we all got good scope views of this much sought after species.)
Back on the chair lift we saw several more Citril Finches, Water Pipits and a family of Black Redstarts. On our return journey we stopped at the town of Jaca where several of us went to look at the shops while the rest looked for birds in the local park. As well as a lovely ice-cream we all had exceptionally close views, even down to just two feet away, of a family of Short-toed Treecreepers. Such close views enabled us to point out all the features, often so hard to see, that separate this species from its more common cousin. Back at the hotel after we had finished our evening meal we put out the moth trap to see if we could attract anything interesting.
DAY 6: Saturday 3rd July
A quick sort through the many moths in the trap produced a Privet Hawk, four species of Emerald, Lobster Moth, Orange Moth, Swallowtail and Clouded Buff amongst the many others. After this a pre-breakfast visit to nearby Garbadito found us two Roe Deer alongside the road, fields full of English Iris, two Red Squirrels, lots of Griffon Vultures sat with young on their nest ledges, and the distant sound of Black Woodpeckers calling.
After breakfast we drove south to Loarre Castle where once again the weather was hot.
A male Blue Rock Thrush posed for us on top of a rocky pinnacle and Crag Martins flew all around. In the hillside bushes Sardinian Warblers were seen but best of all was an Olivaceous Warbler which showed briefly before disappearing into cover. The metallic call of a Tawny Pipit drew our attention to this plain bird as it sat on top of a distant hill. In the woods both Firecrest and Crested Tit showed well. We had our lunch and then headed for Riglos. The huge towering red rocks made for an impressive sight with Griffon Vultures soaring effortlessly above our heads occasionally joined by Egyptian Vultures and a small group of Alpine Swifts. Genuine Rock Doves could be seen going into a small cave, while the elusive Black Wheatear showed to just a few.
Back at the minibus Eileen saw a lovely male Golden Oriole fly past, while the rest of us spotted an ice-cream stand. On our return journey we stopped by a lake which is normally devoid of birds and here we found three elegant Black-winged Stilts, an unusual sighting at this time of year in the Pyrenees. Colin then turned what looked like a log into a Green Sandpiper, another good wader for here. We then returned to an eagerly awaited pot of tea and some more Lammergeier spotting.
DAY 7: Sunday 4th July
This morning those that wished paid a pre-breakfast visit just four minutes up the road to the Bocas de Inferno, a deep gorge cut out by a fast flowing river. There was a bit of a chilly wind blowing from the mountains, but at ten minutes to seven we were rewarded when a male Wallcreeper flew across onto the cliff-face in front of us and proceeded to make its way up the vertical rocks. Always a thrilling and beautiful bird to see, those that had managed to get up early were very happy as we trained our telescopes on this tiny bird, flicking its crimson wings it eventually reached the cliff too and then disappeared.
After breakfast a quick look at the moth trap found us a lovely Eyed-Hawk Moth. We then drove towards the Anso valley stopping first at a lookout, or high point. A Black Woodpecker could be heard drumming on some distant pines and Griffon Vulture and Red Kite put in an appearance.
There were lots of butterflies here including Rock Grayling, Long-tailed Blue, Great Banded Grayling, Turquoise Blue and Berger's Clouded Yellow.
Continuing on we drove through the impressive Anso valley stopping at a steep gorge where once again butterflies were plentiful and a Golden Eagle drifted effortlessly along the mountain top. Driving on we got higher and passed through some spectacular scenery. We stopped at a woodland near Belagua for lunch, after which we continued even higher until we were eye to eye with a hovering Short-toed Eagle. Passing through an area reminiscent of a prehistoric age, Rees found some superb examples of Pyrenean Columbine before we eventually reached the French border, where we were immediately greeted by some very confiding Alpine Choughs.
Other species we found here included Water Pipits, Common Wheatear, and several Citril Finches. A male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was also found. Back at the hotel the usual Cirl Bunting and Red-backed Shrike were in the garden. We had an early evening meal, after which everyone grabbed their gear and we drove to the bottom of the Hecho valley where we were to wait for our prize, an Eagle Owl! We got to the site at ten minutes to ten, and waited as the sun set. A Nightjar put in an appearance and then the Eagle Owl was spotted drifting low over the treetops and across a setting sun. A little further down the road we stopped by a bridge where we could compare the calls of both Scops Owl and the very similar Mid-wife Toad, surprisingly difficult to tell apart without experience. We then drove back to our hotel.
DAY 8: Monday 5th July
After yesterday's success with the Wallcreeper everyone decided to go this morning, including a nice couple who we had told when and where to visit. The Wallcreeper once again performed on time and everyone enjoyed excellent views, including the couple we had met.
After breakfast we visited nearby Garbadito, stopping at the car park by the refuge. We then walked through the wood, on through fields full of English Iris and Pyrenean Thistle and slowly up towards a sheer rock-face. Birds in this area included Firecrest, Crested Tit and amazing views of nesting Griffon Vultures. High on the rock-face above us we found Red-billed Choughs and then Rees spotted our second Wallcreeper of the day. This bird was seen collecting food and carrying it to an area where it must have had young.
A challenge then ensued as I was asked to find a Chamois. Unbelievably after just a couple of minutes scanning the high alpine pastures I found one, feeding all alone on the mountain top. What luck!
Egyptian Vultures and Red Kite were seen, plus several butterflies including Scarce Copper and Black-veined White. Back at the car park several Citril Finches were seen as we enjoyed our picnic lunch. En-route back to our hotel we made a brief stop so that those interested in flowers could look at a Small Yellow Foxglove. Those that wanted an easy last afternoon were dropped off at the hotel while the rest of us had an afternoon walk along the lower forested valley below Garbadito. There were few birds here apart from the ever common Crested Tits, but the place was alive with many species of butterfly, including lots of Apollos and new for Rees and I a Purple-edged Copper.
DAY 9: Tuesday 6th July
An early morning start from our hotel saw us arrive at Santander by mid morning in time for our ferry crossing back to Plymouth. We boarded the ship, found our cabins and then set about either finding something to eat or positioning ourselves in an ideal spot ready for some sea-watching.
The front of the boat below the observation salon was ideal and it wasn't long before our first Gannets and Cory's Shearwaters were being seen. A few Storm Petrels flew by and Dolphins became more evident with sightings of Common, Bottle-nosed and several Striped. About five hours out from Santander a Great Skua flew twenty feet above us, while two adult Sabines Gulls gradually got closer over a period of thirty minutes until they flew across right in front of the ship. Everyone saw these birds.
Six hours out of port and there were only a few of us left on deck as hunger took over. It was at this point that I spotted a small dark shearwater take flight from in front of the ship. The pale silvery panels in the wings got me interested and then as the bird turned side on it revealed itself to be a Little Shearwater, a superb find for us lucky few. Elated and excited it was hard to tear ourselves away and get something to eat. Later we returned and enjoyed numerous Cory's Shearwaters giving excellent views. We watched these and dolphins until it was dark.
(On the return journey on the follow up tour a couple of weeks later Fin Whales were seen . Just out of port, while some of our group were finding something to eat, our first Balearic Shearwaters were seen. Not too long after this Cory's Shearwaters started putting in an appearance and we saw our first small groups of Common Dolphin. The sea was flat calm, ideal sea-watch conditions. Two petrels sat on the water in front of the ship. Through the telescope at least one was positively identified as a Wilson's Petrel, its toes could even be seen trailing beyond the tail. More Cory's started to appear and at one stage the sea erupted with what must have been several hundred dolphins. Amongst these were Common and several Striped. Our first whales were then spotted with one or two huge Fin Whales seen breaking the surface and blowing. By the end of the day we had seen at least six Fin Whales, but pride of place must go to the Northern Bottle-nosed Whale that swam right underneath the front of the ship giving us superb views.)
DAY 10: Wednesday 7th July
Early morning saw us only a few hours from Plymouth. Within site of the Eddystone Lighthouse another two Cory's were seen as well as several Storm Petrels and lots of Gannets and Fulmars. It wasn't long before we were docking and concluding this wonderful trip to the Spanish Pyrenees.
Thanks to Rees and everyone else who made this tour so memorable.
BIRDLIST FOR PYRENEES 1999