This is a report on a trip to the French Pyrenees (with a day in Spain) which Neil Frampton and I made between 17 and 21 May 2004. We stayed at Gurmencon, just South of Oloron St Marie on the road from Pau through the Somport Pass to Spain
Click here to see the Species list
The weather throughout the trip was fine and hot, warm in the hills but cold out of the sun. On the afternoon of the 20 th there was a spectacular thunderstorm in the mountains - straight out of Lord of the Rings.
Apparently it had been fine and warm only for 3 days prior to our arrival - before this it had been cold (10 deg) cloudy and wet for a long period. It seems that Spring had only just arrived when we got there, as evidenced by the postponement of the local annual transhumance festival (taking the cattle up into the mountains for the Summer) 1
We travelled down from Stanstead courtesy of Ryanair, and I enjoyed superb high-altitude views of the Baie de Mont St Michel, where we had excellent birding in September 2002. Once landed at Pau Pyrenees airport, the first species was a Black Kite hunting over the runway verge as we trudged across the concrete from the plane. We left the airport at about 12.50 local time. Time from landing, through customs, immigration, baggage, AND car hire was 25 minutes!
We made our way to a "reserve" at Artix on the Gave de Pau - about 15 miles West of the airport. This is a large river which is dammed at the road, and the reserve is the lake formed behind a substantial steel pile wall. The river, in common with all others in the area, was going full blast from snow melt. From the carpark and viewing area we had grandstand views of the Egret colony situated in trees standing in the water, where large numbers of Night Heron and Cattle Egret, smaller numbers of Grey Heron, Little Egret and Cormorant all breed. According to the information board, Little Bittern are here too, but we didn't see any
A nearby angler helpfully told me there was a single Great White Egret here, apparently present for 2 years, and pointed out a white bird away across the stream. (Closer exam through Neil's 'scope showed this to be a Little Egret!). He also seemed proud of the Yellow-legged Gull with chicks nesting on a tree stump about 50m from the viewing platform. Also there were some tree-nesting Black Headed Gulls
We walked back over the bridge to the North side to get a better view into the colony, and while Neil looked for the Little Bittern and a Black-Necked Grebe he had glimpsed earlier, I spoke to another angler who showed me a fine 2.5Kg Perch he had caught by ledgering. He said they pick up Trout this way, too, but told me he preferred the Perch to eat, as they are sweeter (fly fishers can have a fit now if they like)
At this stage frequent checking of the large numbers of big raptors in the sky paid off, for among the tens of Black Kite, a few Red Kite, and a Honey Buzzard stooging about, there appeared a super-duper Black Stork, which my angling friend seemed to think very unusual. Here, too, we watched an active Great Spotted Woodpecker nest
By the time we'd left for a cross-country trip to the hotel in Gurmençon, by way of Monein, Cardesse and Oloron St Marie, the trip list was at 30, and as we wound our way through the wooded hills we added Raven, Serin, Common Buzzard and Swallow
A walk through the village before the bar opened boxed off Black Redstart, Cirl Bunting (cracking close views of a pair), Goldfinch, Green Woodpecker and Starling. I make the point about the bar because during this stroll, there came drifting over what we believe to have been a Bonelli's Eagle, preceded by 2 Griffon Vultures. These, my first ever vultures, were initially identified as Egyptian, because of the light underparts. As always, when you see one, you know - the Egyptians are very much more contrasting black and white underneath
First light found me out walking in the village but no new species were added to the trip list. In the early light the mountains seemed close across the flat, fertile farmland - a deception
We set off for Argeles-Gazost and Gavarnie, following the various guides - best of which was Dave Gosney's, looking for the Vulture viewing site at a layby beside the N21 at Vidalos, eschewing the tasty-looking woodland we passed through, and remaining "focussed" on the mountain itinerary for the day!
There is a new road hereabouts, and Gosney's layby is now a fully-fledged "aire" with a lovely smooth level tarmac surface just right for stable tripod/telescope operation - how convenient
There were tens of Griffon up on the escarpment hundreds of feet above us, together with a dozen or so Egyptian Vultures, either ridge soaring or sitting on the brink. We drooled over superb views, and enjoyed a Peregrine giving a Kestrel a real dusting, watched by Ravens and both Black and Red Kites!
Arrived in Gavarnie there was confusion and a misunderstanding arising from the various guides we were using, and we went up to the ski station above the village at Gavarnie-Gèdre.
Good though this was, we would have enjoyed better birding if we had gone straight into the village and walked the 2 miles up to the Cirque de Gavarnie, instead of me struggling up to the crest above the valley and peering down from several hundreds of feet above
A stop halfway up to the ski station produced the first Water Pipit records, together with Common Wheatear. We also found the first Marmots. In the ski station car park there was snow, the road beyond was impassable, and there were up to 200 Yellow billed, or Alpine Choughs, entertaining birds with a most unlikely trilling call, and just 2 or 3 pairs of Red billed Chough. Even more Water Pipit were present right up against the snow-line, with Black Redstart and Dunnock, too
From here we drove halfway back to Gavarnie, on the way stopping for a scan around. As we did so, an Accipiter came dashing past and away, allowing only the briefest of glimpses, but we remain confident it was a Goshawk.
Then we turned left up the Ossoue valley, where we abandoned the car and walked about 3 miles up the valley (road closed). Here there were the first Lammergeiers of the trip, soaring miles above us - but still HUGE, and with prominent long tails. Shortly after they were seen, 2 Golden Eagles came into view high above us, too, and I found a Dipper which Neil missed. Here too we found Common Buzzard, more Ravens, and Swifts
This mornings pre- breakfast stroll added Song Thrush and, suprisingly, Cetti's Warbler to the trip list - the latter singing from a riverside bush - and gave the usual good views of Black Kite and Cirl Bunting
From Gurmençon we drove South along the N134 into the hills as far as Bedous, and then into the wooded slopes of the Fôret d'Issaux, looking for the White Backed Woodpecker site. After parking by a bridge over the phenomenally deep and narrow gorge of the Gave d'Issaux, we were particularly struck here by something which we had been half aware of during the previous two days - the apparent absence, or scarcity of small passerines. The woodland here was superb mixed age Broad Leaved Lime interspersed with conifers (the higher the altitude, the more conifers), and by our experience at home and elsewhere in France, it should have been alive with l b j's. Well, it wasn't - there were birds, but at low density. This was our experience throughout the trip - in France. When we dived over the mountains into Spain later on, the opposite was true - a remarkable phenomenon
Anyway, we wandered off along a level stretch of road and onto an old logging track which led gently upwards, finding Crested Tit, Firecrest, Goldcrest, and Dunnock - almost our only record below the mountain tops for this species. Raven, Golden Eagle, Common Buzzard, and both species of Kite drifted over at various altitudes as we sauntered along, until a woodpecker alarm call stopped us - it was like a Great Spotted, but more mellow and bell-like - and there it was, on a dead Conifer - a fine White Backed Woodpecker. We didn't enjoy marvellous views as it was a bit of a skulker, but we both clocked the bits we needed to complete a positive identification (white back, of course, no black on top of it's head, and an "open" almost innocent expression reminiscent of a Middle Spotted). Also, the bird struck me as being large for a black and white woodpecker, almost the size of a green one
Back towards the car, a Nuthatch called briefly, otherwise the woods were strangely quiet. We didn't see or hear any treecreepers, thrushes, warblers (apart from the ubiquitous Blackcap and occasional Chiffchaff), nor any tits apart from the one Crested Tit. No small raptors, and only very few Robins or Wrens
We next made our way up through the trees, which increasingly became coniferous until we arrived at a small road junction, to fork off left towards the ski resort above Arrète - la - Pierre St Martin. Here a pair of Yellowhammer played games of "I'm a strange Bunting" for a while, and we caught up with Bullfinch, Blue and Great Tit and Meadow Pipit. This was a lovely open habitat, with wide views up into the high mountains, but few birds to look at
The ski village was deserted, the only sound that of snow melting, and several Ring Ouzels singing lustily away, each one perched prominently on it's own pine tree
We found Chaffinch, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Swallow, Common Swift, Water Pipit, Dunnock, Yellow Billed Chough, Raven, Common Buzzard in the general area, and once out among the chalets we stopped for a good old burn up. In the distance a Cuckoo could be heard - the only one of the trip - and Wheatear, Serin and Black Redstart were feeding and calling among the conifers and snow. Just as we were accepting that we weren't going to find any, 3 Citril Finches appeared on some bare ground beneath a nearby pine tree, and so, as we watched them, they became easier to find - just as the book said
We left the village and went over the crest, apparently into Spain, where we spent some time up in the snow fields looking unsuccessfully for Alpine Accentor and Snow Finch - we did find Linnet, some more Wheatear and Water Pipit, and a Kestrel, too. On the way back down the mountain, we stopped occasionally to listen and scan about, but the habitat remained apparently deserted, although at one halt we found some Coal Tit. Back in Gurmençon, a walk out of the village towards the next hamlet discovered a few House Martin, the first Turtle Dove of the trip, and, as we wended our way back towards the bar for 7o'clock beers, another pair of Griffon drifted over
Today was probably a bit illegal, for we didn't tell the hire company we might drive into Spain - a point to remember when we go again - but the birding was the best of the trip. We drove directly South on the N134, eschewing the tunnel, and over the Somport summit into Spain, turning immediately left to the ski village of Astun. On the south-facing slope, now devoid of snow, were Yellowhammer, Red-Backed Shrike, Mistle Thrush and Whinchat among the scrub. Around the hotel and apartments were House Martin, Crag Martin, and Ravens, oh - and a Magpie to admire before we returned to the main road and dived down to Jaca.
We easily found our way to the old citadel, well - it was difficult to miss, and I stupidly left my camera in the car. As we had already noted on the way down, birds were much more abundant, and a walk from wherever it was I managed to park, along a bluff overlooking farmland and round to the grass encircled citadel gave us views of Red Kite, Black Kite, distant vultures - probably Griffons, more Blackcap, Turtle Dove, Serin, and Common Swift.
The citadel itself was breathtaking, with clouds of Swifts chasing around. With some difficulty we separated the Pallid Swifts, but there were so many birds chasing and screaming (literally) around our heads, it was very difficult to get any really good views. We easily found the resident Rock Sparrows, with both House Sparrows and Tree Sparrows for comparison. Here too, as we grew used to the sheer numbers of birds, we identified Common and Spotless Starlings, a fine Honey Buzzard, and yet more Kites and Vultures soaring in the distance - all in a place not dissimilar in my mind to Richborough, or Pevensey
Having bought some lunch, we left and headed somewhat bemusedly West along the Aragon valley, halting about 3 miles out of Jaca at a campsite between the road and the river. Here we discovered that the grassy camping area had been liberally dosed with dung, not to the detriment of the local bird population. We found Golden Oriole, more Red Backed Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Blackbird, Hoopoe, Cirl Bunting, Short Toed Treecreeper, Hobby, Nightingale, and Neil found a skulking Garden Warbler, too. Here also I found a Swallowtail butterfly, almost better than all the birds!
The while Red Kites came hunting along the valley, and we ate our baguettes with our eyes everywhere. There were more Spotless Starlings here, too, before we set off West again for the Hecho valley, taking a side turning to where we were able to stand on a river bridge and Neil at last found a Common Sandpiper.
Nearby, at a small village, we found ourselves close to what must have been a Vulture feeding station, for there were tens of Griffons and Egyptian Vultures circling around, giving excellent close views as we added Stonechat to the trip list, and noted the gathering clouds up in the hills
Having moved on and taken the turning up the Hecho valley, it was foot to the floor to try and beat the cloud and rain to the Wallcreeper site at the Bocca del Infierno tunnel. We paused up in the hills to clock some dots high in the air. Not knowing the area, and having passed through a modern looking concrete road tunnel, Neil asked the occupants of a spanish registered car about the Bocca, to find they were Welsh birders who were wondering about the dots. As we sorted them out, we learned the site was further still into the hills, from which ominous peals of thunder were becoming increasingly frequent. No matter, for 2 Lammergeier, several Egyptian Vulture, a Short Toed Eagle, 2 Bonelli's Eagles, and yet more Griffons were identified - the Eagles especially being close and easy to observe
At the tunnel, the heavens opened, and we sheltered under the rocky overhang to scan the opposite rock face for a good 30 minutes, but no wallcreepers did we see
The noise from the thunder, and the raging torrent below, all added to the dramatic impact of this remarkable place, from which we at last set off back to the hotel. Down the valley somewhere under the edge of the storm we stopped and enjoyed the best views I have had of Red Kite for many a long time
And so back to Gurmençon, the evening walk, and 2 major ticks - the only Woodpigeon and Pheasant records of the trip 21 May
Going home time, we looked again at the reserve at Artix, where there were noticeably fewer Kites, and some nearby farmland, where I found a Melodious Warbler, before turning the car in at the airport and waiting in the lounge. This had a fine view out across the apron to the grass, and even better - excellent views of a hunting dark-phase Montagu's Harrier. Neil, ever the optimist, kept searching and found a lark with a whopping big crest. This was probably a Crested Lark, but Neil spent the flight home wondering if it had been a Thekla Lark
Conclusion - a superb break, with many excellent birding experiences, and some memorable sightings. The great enigma though - where were all the passerines? Typically, it is remarkable to recall that of all the dozen or more Dunnock records, all but one were above the snow line. We plan a return trip, but the base will be in Spain, where the drier more scrubby habitat, greater abundance and diversity of birds, and the more open terrain, promises a broader and richer ornithology
We are now agreed on a trip list of 98 species, each of which is reported in the Species list for the Pyrenees
Maps - IGN green series , sheets 69 and 70 - Institut Geographique Francais
Hotel - Au Relais Aspois - Le Relais Aspois
Guides 1 - Finding Birds in Southern France - D Gosney
2 - Birdwatchers Guide to France South of the Loire - J Crozier
3 - Birdwatchers Guide to the Pyrenees - J Crozier