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Trip Report: A Week Of Pyrenean Wildlife June 2013

Tuesday 25 June

We met up in Bilbao Airport.   Phil arrived from Sweden, Oron from Israel so it took a little while to get the rental minibuses – two very nice Mercedes - organised.  Phil drove off from the airport with the first arrivals and got to Casa Sarasa with no problems – he even had a scenic detour through Bilbao city!  Oron and I set off an hour or so later in our minibuses – we had a total of three for the 15 people in the group so there was plenty of room for us in each vehicle.   We had an easy drive to Casa Sarasa in Berdún, at first through the green hills and forests of the Basque Country and then, once past Pamplona, through dryer mediterranean country The change from one zone to the other is very marked and sudden going from Beech forests, pines and green pasture on one side of the Two dSisters Pass to Holm oaks, almonds and wheat fields on the other.   We saw plenty of Black and Red Kites on the way plus some Griffon Vultures and a Short toed Eagle was seen from Phil´s van.  I saw a greater Spotted Woodpecker and Cirl Buntings at our lunch stop – some excellent sandwiches, cake and coffee – at a small service area.  Once at Casa Sarasa the group settled in to the very nice rooms and we had drinks and an introduction with our hosts Pete and Melanie who then served us the first of some excellent dinners.

Wednesday 26 June  

A beautiful sunny day with not a cloud in the sky and about 27 degrees.  This was the weather for most of the week.  In the morning after a good breakfast we had a stroll along the tracks around the village enjoying the plants typical of this fairly dry habitat such as Iberian Jerusalem Sage, a lovely Restharrow – Ononis fruticosa, Bee Orchid, Santolina, Wall germander and some wonderful Leuzia conifera.  Other highlights were some dramatic Lizard orchids surrounded by Pyramidal and Man Orchids.  

Malcolm noticed some  Golden Egg bug (Phyllomorpha laciniata) which live around Paronychia argentea (Algerian tea plant) the bug is perfectly disguised to look like the plant´s dry, silvery flowers.  The bug is also unique in that both males and females carry their eggs stuck to the upper part of their thorax.  

David was on particular lookout for birds and we heard quail in the fields and Woodlark in the trees, saw Meadow Pipit, Crested Lark, White Wagtail, Stonechat and many Barn Swallows, Pallid and Common Swifts (hard to tell apart!)  Griffon Vultures, Common Buzzard, Black and Red Kites and the ever present Corn Bunting.   

There were plenty of butterflies on this glorious sunny moring although the wet and cold spring in the area had held things back a little.  We saw among others Wood Brown, Ilex Hairstreak, Painted Lady, Scarce Swallowtail, Marbled White, Meadow Brown  and Queen of Spain Fritillary which uses the Lucerne cultivated in the fields around the village as its food plant.  

By the time we had finished this ´short stroll´ it was getting hot and we were getting a bit peckish.  Pete and Mel very kindly laid out our picnic lunch in the dining room with some delicious salad, crusty bread, Spanish sausage, cheese and fruit set an excellent standard which they kept up for a week of great picnics.  

After lunch and a bit of a rest we ventured 3 km down to the River Aragón at Martes.  This is a ´Soto´ river margin with poplars, river flats, marsh and sandy soils.  A short walk brought us to a marshy area with Early Purple Orchids, Marsh Helleborine, Bug and Marsh Orchids all within a small area  A few of us were lucky to spot Golden Oriole and Hoopoe which weren´t obliging enough to hang around.  All of us had great views of the Beeeaters which have a large colony here making burrows into the sandy soil rather than into the vertical river banks which here are of mudstone (marg) too hard to make burrows.   In among the poplars were many plants including dogwood, wild asparagus, a very nice Dipcadi serotinum, Aphylantes, Bee, Pyramidal and Lesser Butterfly orchids and some beautiful St Bernards Lilies.  We heard Cettis Warblers and 

Dave was lucky to see a Yellow Wagtail – we also saw White and Grey Wagtail, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, woodchat Shrike and a few of us saw a female Hen Harrier and a dark phase Booted Eagle.   As far as invertebrates there were plenty of butterflies including Swallowtails, Green Veined Whites and  a Queen of Spain Fritillary which has its food plant in the nearby Lucerne fields (being cut while we were there). 

This was a really productive spot and we could have spent much longer than the three hours we spent there.  On the way back we stopped to photograph the village of Berdún looking wonderful across the barley fields with the snowcapped mountains in the background and scarlet poppies bringout the intense greens of the fields. 

A really wonderful first day out in the field and we had barely left the village!  In the evening we went over our lists with a beer or glass of wine in the excellent Casa Sarasa library (great reference books) before a good dinner well deserved after an intense day.

Thursday 27 June

Another fabulous, sunny day!  Today we changed the itinerary to go and see the vulture feeding station on a ridge up above the Hecho Valley 25 km north of Berdún.  The local authorities dispose of farm animal carcases by leaving them in fenced off areas (Muladar) where the massive local Griffon vulture population make very short work of them.  We were in plenty of time so we had a quick stop in the very pretty village of Hecho to buy postcards and have a wander around.  Soon vultures could be seen drifting across the valley towards the feeding station so we headed up the road to the muladar.

Having parked we had to make our way 500 metres along a dirt track bordered by Scots Pine and Oak – (Portuguese) and of course there was a huge selection of flowers to be seen including Sticky and Beautiful Flax, Rue Leaved Isopyrum, Gladiolus illyricus, Fragrant, Pyramidal, Lesser Butterfly and Bee Orchids ……  There were Swallowtail butterflies, Black veined Whites, a Poplar Admiral, Bee Hawkmoth, Scarce Swallowtails and all the while the flock of circling vultures soared above us and Egyptian Vultures, Kites (Black and Red) and Ravens began arriving for the feast.  The birds know when and where food is to be supplied before it arrives.  

Soon the the truck came and dumped some dead sheep and pigs and eventually, after a long wait (some of the group may have been too close to the feeding spot and the vultures here are very wary of humans), the first vulture flew down to tuck in.  In moments the carcases were totally obscured by about 400 huge Griffon Vultures – a spectacular if gruesome site.  We had great views in the scope and the photographers got some excellent close-ups.  What a spectacle!  We also had a view of a Lammergeier soaring to the North of us and clearly distinguishable from the Griffons. 

When the frenzy had calmed down and we had all had enough of the specatcle (and smell!) we drove back to the Hecho Valley and drove up the beautiful Boca del Infierno (Hell´s Mouth) gorge with its limestone cliffs and Beech and Pine forest and  craggy peaks above.  At Oza we had a picnic by the River Aragón Subordan enjoying the relative cool of the high valley and listening out for Black Woodpecker.  The birds were fairly quiet except for a brief appearance by a Citril Finch and Coal Tits in the pines and Griffon Vultures and Chough high above the peaks.  Speckled Wood butterflies and Swallowtails were active however.  While looking for Citril Finch we found a wonderful stand of Great Yellow Gentian in a clearing and saw a few Pine Bolete mushrooms.   

After lunch we drove further up the track towards  the head of the valley in wonderful alpine scenery.  There were a couple of Egyptian Vultures patrolling above the cattle herds grazing in the Valley below us.  It was about time to return to Berdún but we had a short stroll along the track seeing Welsh Poppy and local endemic Dragon´s mouth (Horminum pyreneicum).  There were Yellowhammer and Dunnock in the Dog Rose bushes and we heard Marmot calls.

This was another really varied and productive day in magnificent landscapes.  

Friday 28 June

This morning we headed East and then North to the Tena Valley a grandiose valley whose road runs up to the Portalet pass (1794metres) into France.  Here with its different geology (not just limestone but metamorphic rocks and some granite) we were hoping for some different alpine flowers and particularly hoping to see Ladies Slipper Orchid as one of the three sites in Spain is here.  

We weren´t disappointed!  At the Ladies Slipper site which we shared with an enthusiastic group of French botanists we found the orchid in question – a little worse for wear due to the cold and late spring - but still wonderful.  Nearby there was a huge amount to keep us on our knees marvelling at the variety of flowers - Broad Leaved Marsh Orchids, Lesser Butterfly, Elderflower, Fragrant, Black Vanilla and Burnt Orchids, Globeflowers,  Alpine Aster, Bogbean, Pyrenean Vetch, Pyrenean Lousewort, Spring Gentian, Cross Gentian and Trumpet Gentian.  Phil was thrilled to find a Pyrenean Brook Salamandar (Calotriton asper) and saw a possible wild cat that turned out to be a big domestic cat.   Linda took some wonderful photos of the flowers.  Being high up it was good to see Brown Argus and Green Hairstreak butterflies.  As we were leaving we saw a Marmot perched on a rock above the layby and checking us out.  

We drove up and over the border to France and were greeted with an amazing view of Pic Midi d ´Ossou (2844 metres) – a granite volcanic plug dominating this incredible high mountain country.  The good news was that there was still quite a lot of snow around so we could see some of the flowers which appear just as it melts.  We stopped shortly below the pass and had our picnic lunch on the alpine meadow with Choughs – Red billed and Alpine -  flying and chattering nearby and enjoying a perfect day high in the Pyrenees.  Linda particularly wanted to see Alpine Snowbells which we found just next to the picnic spot.  Perfect!  We also saw Pyrenean and Amplexicaule buttercups, Narcissus flowered anemones, Lesser Wild Daffodil, Birds Eye Primula, some beautiful Pyrenean Toadflax etc etc.  A wonderful selection and quite different to that just over the border in Spain.  

On the way back to Spain we stopped on the border with its bars and shops catering to French tourists buying cheap booze and us needing the loo!  A short stroll away from the buildings  gave us some great sights – a Rock thrush, Water Pipit, Northern Wheatear, Black Redstart and a stand of hundreds of Pyrenean Snakeshead Fritillaries, Martagon Lily, Pyrenean Squill Alpine Houseleek and sweet smelling Rock Jasmine.  Just on the North side there were some Dryas octopetala.   After half an hour or so we jumped into the minibuses in order to get back to Casa Sarasa at a decent time. A Lammergeier was spotted on the way down the valley by some of us.  We made one last stop in the hay meadows above the village of Sallent spotting a Red Backed Shrike, Hill Crickets chirruping away and Phil spotted a Broad Bordered Bee Hawkmoth.  There were many flowers with two kinds of Yellow Rattle, Spiked Rampion, Large Leaved Meadow Rue and swathes of Ox eye Daisies.  Beautiful!  This was another great spot that we had to tear ourselves away from in order to get back to Berdún in time to do our lists (lots to note down!) and relax before dinner – excellent as usual with some very welcome wine included!  

Saturday 29 June

For a change in habitats we headed South 40 miles to Riglos in the Pyrenean Foothills with their huge rock pinnacles, Maquis scrub, big stands of Holm Oak and Almond and Olive orchards.  The hotter, dryer climate means we had quite a different range of plants, invertebrates and birds to see.  The scenery here is a real highlight and the photographers had a great time taking landscape shots.

Our first stop was the village of Aguero dominated by their Mallos – huge masses of conglomerate rock.  Here we saw some nice Alliums, Yellow Archangel, lots of Scabiosa Knautia, Large Mediterranean Spurge – once used by the locals here as a fishing poison (they would mash it up in a hessian sack and put it in the river to knock out the trout!)  - several Sedums and lots of Juniper bushes.  We saw Spanish Gatekeeper and Gatekeeper butterflies and Swallowtails.  There were many Serin flying and the ubiquitous Griffon Vulture which nests in the cliffs here.  Martin was lucky to see Sardinian and Dartford  Warbler, a Lammergeier and a Blue Rock Thrush.  We also saw Rock Doves, Rock Sparrow, Kestrel and Red Billed Chough.

We then moved on towards the Mirador de Los Buitres (the Vulture Lookout) a vantage point on top of the cliffs above Riglos.  On the way we took a wrong turning along a dirt track which took us to a dead end.  This was serendipitous as on retracing our route we saw a Golden Eagle perched on a rock less than 20 feet from the vans.  Amazing and it seemed to take a long while to fly away – it was probably less than 10 seconds but being face to face with such an imposing bird was fabulous.   An added bonus was a female Hen Harrier seen shortly afterwards. 

Once up on the Vulture lookout we had our picnic while looking out over a simply amazing landscape.  A stroll after lunch gave us a Tawny Pipit – a lifer for Dave and quite a few Stonechat and some Bagworms (moth caterpillars encased in tiny bits of wood as a protective disguise).  On the way down from the picnic spot we saw a noisy family of Dartford Warblers and more Tawny Pipits and a Thekla Lark – a first for many of us.  We then stopped at the old castle of Sarsamarcuello with its 12th Century hermitage and huge views over the lowlands to the south.  Here we saw Rock Bunting, Cirl Bunting, Corn Bunting, Linnet, and Red Backed Shrike.  Of course Griffon and Egyptian Vultures were soaring above us – Riglos is a bit like Vulture Heathrow!

On the way back we had a quick stop near a small river.  It was very hot and little was stirring except for a Grey Wagtail by the river and a few Brimstones and an Ilex Hairstreak.  Lizard and Fragrant orchids were also seen.  However with the heat we decided to return to Berdún and a cool drink!  

An excellent day in a quite different habitat to the high Pyrenees.

Sunday 30 June

Today started with quite a long drive up to the high border pass at La Piedra de San Martin.  The scenery of the Roncal Valley is really special with steep sides, cliffs and gorges, thickly forested hillsides and, high up, a stunning landscape of karstic limestone with Bonsai style Mountain Pine, Beech and Silver Firs.   One of the vans saw a fox on the way up.  One of the main reasons for trekking all the way here was for the high mountain birds to be seen here quite reliably.  Once up just below the border at La Contienda we soon saw Citril Finch,  a young Crossbill, Ring Ouzel and a Honey Buzzard which was a real highlight for the birders.  The snow here had only just melted so flowers were the earliest ones such as Pyrenean and Carinthian Buttercup and Alpine snowbells – Other flowers seen included Entire Leaved Primula, , Spring squill, Alpine Milkwort, Fairy Foxglove and Alpenrose.  Just a week later there were many more different flowers in bloom here (see the trip report for this holiday).

We ate our picnic at La Contienda hearing and seeing the Citril Finches, Coal Tits and the occasional Ring Ouzel call.  A magical spot.  We then drove over the border and stopped to look for Alpine Accentor which nest on the hillside here – in winter it´s a ski slope.  We were lucky to see a very obliging male singing and moving around the low Juniper bushes rather than hiding as they often seem to.   Another great bird to add to the list!  A Honey Buzzard flying along the ridge above us was an extra bonus and we had great sights of Alpine and Red Billed Chough which seem to love flying just for the sake of it!  There were both Pyrenean and Alpine Toadflax on the slopes here as well as Moss Campion just coming into flower and low, matted Pyrenean Willow and Retuse Leaved Willow – which hugs the rocks even more.  The views down into France were wonderful though the haze meant we couldn´t see all the way to the coast at Biarritz.

On the way back to Berdún we came down a different route via the Ansó Valley and a few kilometres North of Berdún stopped in the Biniés Gorge.  This is a typical formation in the Pyrenees – a steep sided Foz eroded into a gorge very quickly by the water and debris from the glacier that once would have been just above it 15,000 or so years ago.  On a North facing bit of cliff we found Pyrenean speciality Ramonda Myconi – a must for the botanists and in flower here – up on the border we´d seen just the leaves.  Other plant seen here unique to this area were Petrocoptis pyreneica growing on the rocks, Pyrenean Saxifrage with their huge rosette of leaves and spike of white flowers, Pyrenean Germander , some very fine Allium pyreneicum and Pyrenean Honeysuckle.    Another plant seen here was Jasonia glutinosa - Rock Tea used by locals here as a pick me up herbal infusion.  

Martin saw a Peregrine flying above the gorge and Dipper was seen in the river below the road.  It was nice to see House Martin nests in the cliffs rather than on houses.  They choose different nest spots to the Crag Martins which are here all year round.  Griffon Vultures were omnipresent and there was a pair of Egyptian Vultures patrolling near their nest. We saw a very nice Glanville Fritillary and some Scarce Swallowtails and a Bee Beetle.  The gorge was beautiful with the river and some shade keeping things cool – it was hot down in the valley!

On the last leg back to Berdún Richard´s bus had a great view of a Short Toed Eagle perched on a Pylon.  Dave had his telescope up in a flash and the Eagle obliged us by staying perched for a long while.  Their faces are  so owl like when they look straight at you.  Dave and Mary were thrilled to get such a good sight.  We also saw a Hen Harrier – another female -  and Bee eaters as we passed the village of Biniés with its castle perched above the river. 

What a day!  Many highlights for birders and botanists alike!

Monday 1 July 

For our last day in the field we decided to go up to Gabardito in the Hecho Valley and try for Wallcreeper at their nesting site in the cliffs up above the mountain hut.  On the way up the road through the forest we spotted a Sword Leaved Helleborine and stopped for a look and found a Helleborine as well.  Just down in the slope in the Beech leaf litter was a Birds Nest Orchid – not a pretty flower but…!   Once at the hut we walked up the path towards the Wallcreeper site hearing Mistle and Song Thrush and seeing Wintergreen growing in the shady Beech and Pine forest.  Linda saw a Green Woodpecker and we saw Coal Tit, a couple of families of Crested Tit and heard Willow Tit, Nuthatch and Goldcrest.  At the cliffs we had great views of Egyptian Vultures which fly so precisely and elegantly.  Alpine Swifts gave themselves away as they screamed above the cliffs where they nest.  We were all craning our necks on the lookout for Wallcreeper which soon obliged with the appearance of not just one but four - parents and chicks - giving us a fantastic display flitting among the rocks.  What a sight!  A first for many of us and certainly one of the best moments of the trip.  As an extra bonus we had a distant view of  Lammergeier across the valley.  The views here were wonderful – there´s nothing to beat rugged limestone mountains.  On the way back to the hut we saw plenty of Maiden Pinks, three kinds of Primula, Burnt and Fragrant Orchids, Aquilegia and Green Hellebore.  It was great to see Southern white Admiral,  Duke of Burgundy Fritillary, Wood Whites and Swallowtails which can be seen in huge numbers on the peaks above here at breeding time (about now).  

After a picnic lunch (regretably the last of the trip!) we drove down to the main valley and drove up to Guarrinza .  Here in this quintessential alpine scenery of pasture complete with Pyrenean brown cows grazing, the river and the peaks towering above us we saw Yellow Veined Ascalaphid (Libelloides longicornis), Spanish Wall butterfly, de Prunners Ringlet and a Booted Eagle which was surprising as they usually patrol much further down the valley.   On a honeysuckle we found hundreds of beetles which we wern´t able to identify there and then.

Driving back down the valley we stopped at a spot to try and see Western Green Lizard but on this late afternoon they were keeping well out of the way.  There were some lovely St Bernard´s Lilies, many Fringed Pinks and Rock Soapwort.

Once back at Casa Sarasa we went over our lists for the last time and enjoyed a farewell dinner complete with Cava kindly provided by our hosts Pete and Mel.  

Tuesday 2 July

On the way back to the airport we saw a Booted Eagle just after leaving Berdún and then a Green Woodpecker  fly alongside the minibus for a few seconds as we passed the Yesa reservoir – a wonderful eyeball to eyeball sighting!

We stopped for coffee and cake halfway to Bilbao at a service area and in the car park found Military and Pyramidal Orchids just to finish off!  

It had been a fantastic week.  Thanks to everybody for taking part and bringing so much enthusiasm, interest and expertise with them.  It was a real privilege and a lot of fun to spend the week in your company and in such a fascinating and beautiful area.  Big thanks to Oron for his incredible botanical expertise and Phil for his all round knowledge of every living beast!  He deserves a medal for wearing wellies in a Spanish summer!


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