The Pyrenees and more: Northern Spain and Western France, 14th-26th June 2009


Recent holidays in Europe have taken me to Portugal and Corsica; both were quite successful for birding and very enjoyable, and yet I didn't come away with much desire to return to those places any time soon. By contrast this holiday was desperately unsuccessful in several respects, with nearly all of the target birds either remaining completely unseen or providing only the most unsatisfying of glimpses - and yet I would love to return.

At least 13 species of bird that I've not seen before were technically available and were specifically looked for; I always knew some of them would be difficult and never expected to see them all but in the end I managed to get good views of only 2 out of the 13, a staggeringly poor performance! Much time was spent looking for the targets and this meant there was less time to simply enjoy the birding, so the failure to connect with these birds was not only desperately disappointing in itself but also had the knock-on effect of reducing the time free to simply relax and enjoy the place and its wildlife.

That said, a lot of good birds and butterflies were seen and there are plenty of highlights to report on. The following report takes the usual format, this page detailing the itineray and its highlights with separate pages (click here) detailing all of the species seen during the holiday together with photos of many of these.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Belchite Steppes, 16-Jun-09

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, El Planerón, Belchite Steppes (Aragon, Spain), 16th June


Saturday 13th to Sunday 14th June: The English Channel and western France

We took an overnight ferry from Portsmouth to France arriving in St Malo at 8.30 am on Sunday 14th. Some confusion over the expected arrival time and a failure to appreciate how much later dawn was in northern France compared to Norfolk meant I awoke much earlier than necessary and yet didn't spend as much time looking for birds from the deck as hoped. Being mid June I wasn't expecting much, the odd seabird perhaps but I didn't anticipate that the dawn fog would ground any migrants. About 20-30 miles WSW of Jersey a small passerine flew around the boat with short wings, a broad round tail and a jerky flight before appearing to land on the very top of the boat and never being seen again (a butterfly and a Feral Pigeon did the same a little later). It can, I think, only have been a Fan-tailed Warbler - very unexpected given that they're rare vagrants to the Channel Islands!

With less sleep than hoped for on the ferry journey the drive south through France was harder going than planned, and I took in a couple of naps along the way. A planned stop for Grey-headed, Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers failed to deliver whilst an unplanned stop at some marshes and estuary about half way down produced some nice birds but nothing remarkable.


Monday 15th to Thursday 18th June: Northern Spain away from the Pyrenees

Dupont's Lark was the main target at Belchite Steppes, a species for which it is necessary to start looking at first light as they are supposed to stop singing at dawn. I wasn't sure if they'd still be singing in June - as it turned out they were, but these are extremely difficult birds to see even when you can hear them and with two mornings spent being frustratingly close to several singing birds I never even managed a glimpse. No shortage of other larks including many Lesser Short-toed Larks plus Thekla, Crested, Calandra and Short-toed, all showing themselves nicely, but not the Dupont's. Perhaps if it had been earlier in the year they would have sung a bit more constantly making it easier to pinpoint exactly where they were.

The best site for the larks is Lomaza and this is where I spent the first few hours of both days, but for birding in general El Planerón seemed better. I would have liked to have spent more time here earlier in the day but Dupont's were priority so this wasn't to be. Even late morning saw excellent numbers of Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a variety of other species, but I wasn't able to find the other back-up targets of Orphean Warbler and Black Wheatear, both of which occur in the area.

El Planeron, Belchite Steppes, 15-Jun-09 El Planeron, Belchite Steppes, 15-Jun-09
El Planeron, Belchite Steppes, 15-Jun-09

Belchite Steppes as viewed from the El Planerón reserve, 15th June

We stayed nearby at Zaragosa, a city Vitty was happy to visit and where a friend of hers lives. Cristina took us out for local Tapas one evening which was a nice introduction to typical Spanish eating. Less typical eating was had in Bilbao where we spent two nights for my city-loving wife and with no birding taking place. We arrived in Bilbao in good time but two hours later we established that our sat nav can't cope with either narrow streets lined with tall buildings nor the fact that half the streets were blocked by roadworks and the other half had the one-way system reversed or had been pedestrianised. Eventually we gave up driving to the hotel and decided that the public car park five minutes walk away was the nearest we would get. The Guggenheim museum was impressive as was the nine-course meal we had there - the most expensive food we've ever eaten! Excellent food indeed, although some courses were perhaps a little disappointing for the price and we felt that the lack of a Michelin star was deserved!

Basilica del Pilar, Zaragosa, 15-Jun-09 Basilica del Pilar, Zaragosa, 15-Jun-09

Basilica del Pilar, Zaragosa, 15th June


Bilbao, 17-Jun-09 Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09
Vitty, Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09 Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09
Vitty, Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09 Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09
Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09 Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09
Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09 Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09
Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09 Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09
Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09 Guggenheim, 17-Jun-09

Bilbao and the Guggenheim restaurant and museum, 17th June

Between Zaragosa and Bilbao we took a brief look at the Sierra de la Demanda, an area of high ground containing many interesting species and where I hoped for Citril Finch and Iberian Pied Flycatcher. Neither showed up but it was a worthwhile diversion despite the drizzle.

Sierra de la Demanda, 16-Jun-09

Sierra de la Demanda, 16th June

En route to the Pyrenees we had a walk down the valley at Lumbier. Here at last there was sunshine, but being early afternoon it was not the best time to be out in it and we didn't enjoy this walk nearly as much as we might have done. Orphean Warbler was the target here and I did manage a glimpse of something that had sounded promising but views were inconclusive before it disappeared and I had to move on. A good variety of species here though, birds and butterflies.


Friday 19th to Saturday 20th June: The Spanish Pyrenees in Navarre

Two nights were spent at Roncesvalles in surprisingly grand-for-the-price accommodation. The first night's food and drink at the next door hostel cost us less than a tenth of the cost of the previous night's meal but was adequate in quality if very basic. An empty restaurant at Burguete was good value the following evening.

The Navarre Pyrenees are the best place in Spain to see White-backed Woodpecker, and Black and Middle Spotted are possible as well, along with Tengmalm's Owl if you're really lucky. We heard Black Woodpecker but none showed. A single White-backed Woodpecker called close to me in the Selva de Irati and this time I managed a couple of brief glimpses. However these weren't satisfying as there's no way I'd have been able to identifiy it on those views if it hadn't been calling. The weather here wasn't great with much of the place shrouded in cloud for most of the time - we did glimpse some sun but at the best time of the day for birding (early) it was always raining with poor visibility. A night drive produced Polecats and Fire Salamanders but though there were lots of Scops Owls calling, no Tengmalm's Owls were evident.

above Ochagavia, 19-Jun-09 above Ochagavia, 20-Jun-09
above Ochagavia, 20-Jun-09 above Ochagavia, 20-Jun-09

views from above Ochagavía, 19th-20th June


Saturday 20th to Tuesday 23rd June: The Spanish Pyrenees in Aragon

The parts of the Pyrenees in Aragon are more famous for birding as they contain more of the alpine specialities. However many of these special birds are unaccessible in summer, at least to an un-fit invalid like me. I did have one site for Wallcreeper but despite later gaining specific information about where they had nested, they refused to show too. Citril Finch was equally elusive and none of the woodpeckers could be found here either.

We drove through Anso Valley and hoped to return there after finding the Wallcreepers the next day, but with not finding the Wallcreepers we didn't have time to return. We had hoped to spend two nights at Casa Blasquico in Hecho to maximise our chances with the Wallcreepers and other species nearby, but they were full up for the second night. Due to an email failure we never got confirmation of the one night's booking and when we arrived it turned out that we weren't expected at all. A shame as it was a nice place (we ate there, very nice local food) and, with the next best accommodation in Hecho also full up we ended up with a pretty awful hotel where the beds were about 3 feet long, the sheets rubber and everything in the bathroom was broken. Inexpensive but the car might have been as comfortable!

Gabardito, 21-Jun-09  

Gabardito, 21st June


Jasa, 21-Jun-09 Jasa - Aisa, 21-Jun-09

Around the Valle de Aragues and Jasa (between the Hecho and Gállego valleys), 21st June

This area did nevertheless provide some enjoyable birding but with most of the time invested in the Wallcreepers we didn't explore it as well as I would have liked. In contrast the Gállego Valley didn't feature in any of the information I had on birding in the Pyrenees and I didn't have specific targets which I knew to be present, so the time here was a little more relaxed and enjoyable. The 4-star hotel at Tramacastilla de Tena was extremely nice, though not really somewhere I could leave Vitty happily while I went out birding for the day, as we'd hoped. The restaurant here provided some of the best food of the holiday, though this hotel wasn't cheap!

Tramacastilla de Tena, 21-Jun-09 Tramacastilla de Tena, 22-Jun-09

view from the hotel room at Tramacastilla de Tena, 21st-22nd June

I returned to a spot where I had seen Marmots and Rock Bunting earlier and arrived as a tour group was leaving. I asked what they had been looking for/at and it turned out that I'd stumbled across one of the only remaining sites for Lady Slipper Orchid. A local conservationist was on site and she kindly took me up the path to see these most impressive of plants - one of two was still flowering and is quite unique among any of the orchids I've ever seen. A host of other orchids were seen here and elsewhere in the valley and, perhaps as much because of the improved weather as the wildflower meadows, this area produced the most butterflies of the trip so far. Plenty of interesting birds here too, including lots of Red-backed Shrikes, but the most tantalising were brief but inconclusive glimpses of what might have been Citril Finch and Snow Finch. Black Woodpecker proved to be in the valley, as one was heard singing, but once again they failed to show.

Valle de Gallego, 22-Jun-09 Sallent de Gallego, 22-Jun-09
Sallent de Gallego, 22-Jun-09 Sallent de Gallego, 22-Jun-09
Sallent de Gallego, 22-Jun-09 Sallent de Gallego, 22-Jun-09
Sallent de Gallego, 22-Jun-09  

Valle de Gállego (mostly around Sallent de Gállego), 22nd June


Tuesday 23rd to Thursday 25th June: The French Pyrenees

The drive across from the Col du Pourtalet to Barèges was fun, though quite hazardous with mad cyclists everywhere. Avian highlights included the only Golden Eagle of the trip. When we arrived at Les Sorbiers there was no-one in so we drove up to the Col du Tourmalet where Peter had kindly supplied us with detailed info about where we might find Snow Finch. For the first time this trip we located the target extremely easily, even before parking the car. One was seen feeding exactly where we'd been told and then on the way back we discovered another family party.

Col du Pourtalet, 22-Jun-09 Col du Pourtalet, 22-Jun-09
Col du Pourtalet, 23-Jun-09 Col du Pourtalet, 23-Jun-09

Col du Pourtalet, 23rd June


Col d'Aubisque, 23-Jun-09 Col d'Aubisque, 23-Jun-09
Col d'Aubisque, 23-Jun-09 E of Col d'Aubisque, 23-Jun-09
Col d'Aubisque, 23-Jun-09

Col d'Aubisque and east of there, 23rd June


Col du Tourmalet, 23-Jun-09 Col du Tourmalet, 23-Jun-09

Col du Tourmalet, 23rd June

Our hosts provided some information about where we might see Citril Finch and where Black Woodpecker had nested. Before and after breakfast I tried in vain to find either of these and after Vitty had had a look round the market we headed off for Gavarnie where I had two more sites for Citril Finch and where I hoped to find some interesting butterflies too. Despite really specific details for the finches in an area where it would be hard to imagine them hiding for long, there was no trace of them. I enjoyed great views of Alpine Choughs here, and lots of Marmots, as well as a good variety of other species. After several days of nicer weather it began to cloud over as I reached the best place for butterflies, but not enough to prevent me from finding a few new species, if nothing especially unusual.

Gavarnie, 24-Jun-09 Gavarnie, 24-Jun-09
Gavarnie, 24-Jun-09 Gavarnie, 24-Jun-09
Gavarnie, 24-Jun-09
Gavarnie, 24-Jun-09 Gavarnie, 24-Jun-09
Gavarnie, 24-Jun-09 Gavarnie, 24-Jun-09

Gavarnie, 24th June


Thursday 25th to Friday 26th June: Western France

We had planned to look for two naturalised species on the journey back north, Red-billed Leiothrix near Pau and Sacred Ibis around the Loire Estuary. I expected the former to be difficult, as they're small and elusive birds that hide in dense vegetation, whereas I though the Ibises would be easy as there are supposed to be loads of them now. However I had much more specific information about where to find Red-billed Leiothrix and armed with this I came across them almost immediately. For the Ibises on the other hand I had no specifics and relied on simply checking any suitable habitat in the general area; it turned out that I was on the wrong side of the estuary and didn't find any.

From the car on the way up between Pau and Bordeaux there were two more surprises. One wasn't a lifer, but a good bird and unexpected: Black-winged Kite hovering beside the road. The other was new, though not the sort of view I would have liked: a Middle Spotted Woodpecker flying across the road in front of us.

I'm sure if I'd researched them more carefully I would have known what to expect at the sites I checked around the Loire estuary, but not having done so it was in a way more enjoyable to stumble across interesting birds that I wasn't expecting. I think the highlight was finding a family of Bluethroats.

We stayed one night at Villa Flornoy in Pornichet, good accommodation and food, more than adequate to break the journey. Finally we had a look at the Bayeux Tapestry en route back to the ferry which we took from Cherbourg on the way home.

Bayeux Cathedral, 26-Jun-09 Bayeux Cathedral, 26-Jun-09

Bayeux Cathedral, 26th June 2009


Click here for photos and details of the birds and other wildlife seen.