TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

French Pyrenees

9th - 15th September 2000


Leaders:
Mike Read

Diary:

Saturday 9th September:

The blockading of the oil refineries in France combined with the resulting fuel shortages suggested potential problems for this trip. Avis, our minibus rental company, could not even confirm a full tank before we set off for France. However, we set off from Gatwick (albeit an hour late!) and flew to Toulouse. A full tank of diesel awaited us and we were soon heading down relatively empty roads towards the Pyrenees. As usual, Common Buzzards were seen on roadside fence posts and nearby. The views towards the mountains were as stunning as ever and we reached the Hotel Montaigu in record time - and we had only used ¼ tank of fuel!

In France the weather was hot, calm and sunny.

Sunday 10th September

A couple of river stops en route towards Gavarnie produced the expected Dippers and Grey Wagtails. As we climbed from Gavarnie towards the Port de Gavarnie, a couple of stops produced good sightings of two juvenile Red-backed Shrikes and our first Alpine Marmots then two Golden Eagles and some Griffon Vultures. At least 50 Crag Martins were around one particular roadside cliff face. The car parking area near the Pic des Tantes was surprisingly full considering the fuel crisis so after taking in the stunning scenery for a while, we moved back down and had lunch overlooking the Valley d'Ossoue. From here, two juvenile Lammergeiers were well watched and a Honey Buzzard was in the company of a couple of Common Buzzards.

We drove up the Ossoue Valley and explored a large jumble of fallen rocks. Black Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers were well seen but three Rock Thrushes proved much more elusive. As we searched here, raptors were frequent along the ridge with a couple of Golden Eagles, two adult and one juvenile Lammergeier and a few Griffon Vultures to complete the day's birding.

A hot and sunny day with light breezes on the high ground.

Monday 11th September

Pont d'Espagne was our morning destination today and we decided on a walk along the Marcadau Valley. Pied Flycatchers were numerous among the trees where we also had good views of Eurasian Treecreeper, Coal and Crested Tit. A group of 7 or 8 Common Crossbills gave brief views as they flew out of a tree and off up the valley. As the morning warmed considerably, raptors began to appear - some were obvious residents like the 2 Lammergeiers, the Golden Eagle and the Griffon Vultures, while some were obviously passing through. The first migrating raptor was a Black Kite soaring high above the ridge. Three Honey Buzzards soon followed and then a pale phase Booted Eagle. After pausing for a 'part lunch' we began the walk back towards the car park and watched a Dipper for some time.

After completing our lunch, we drove up Hautacam where our first sighting was 4 rapidly moving Black Storks heading south, then a Red Kite gave good but brief views. As cloud cover increased and spilled up from the valley below, a Griffon Vulture flew past at exceptionally close range and a female Kestrel caught various insects nearby. As we journeyed back to the valley below, 4 Common and 2 Honey Buzzards were well seen and a further 2 Red Kites flew over low lying fields and woods.

Hot and sunny until about 3.00pm when cloud cover increased and we had one light shower of rain. Wind was light in the morning but rose to force 2-3 and was cooler later.

Tuesday 12th September

Once again the tack from the Col du Tourmalet up to the Pic du Midi was closed and so a walk up the track from the car park was the best option. Raptors were well in evidence once the thermals had begun. A Bonelli's Eagle drifted past at the start of the walk and an Osprey spiralled up before heading off southwards. A Sparrowhawk and a Lammergeier were also seen but at one stage, there seemed to be 'squadrons' of Griffon Vultures overhead! Rock Thrushes provided some close viewing. Despite prolonged searching, no Alpine Accentors were found in their usual haunts; was the weather just too good for them at these lower altitudes? As we returned to the minibus, our first Short-toed Eagle flew over a nearby ridge.

The Forêt de Lienz was quiet. A few typical woodland species were added to the list and the shade was most welcome.

Morning cloud cleared for another hot and sunny day but there was low cloud lingering in the valleys.

Wednesday 13th September:

The glorious Cirque de Troumouse was our morning destination today. The tortuous route to the Cirque itself, complete with numerous hairpin bends, proved as exciting (!) as always. From the car park, two herds of Isards could be seen on the high ridges, 'Scoped views revealed a grand total of at least 27 animals wandering sure-footedly across steeply sloping grass and rock areas towards patches of shade where they sheltered from the sun's increasing heat. Alpine and Red-billed Choughs circled and called overhead as we began our walk and Northern Wheatears seemed to be everywhere. Black Redstarts were common amongst the rocks but unfortunately no Alpine Accentors could be found. Lunch in the Heas Valley produced good views of at least 5 Ravens until a Golden arrived and repeatedly flew along the ridge above us.

After lunch, we drove to the Pont d' Espagne and took the chair lift towards Lac de Gaube. A cooling drink beside the lac gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the magnificent views and search the trees and skies for birds. Sadly, few birds were seen and this included during the walk back down to the car park through the pine forest where we had hopes of finding Black Woodpecker. Unfortunately these hopes were not realised but we did see a Bonelli's Eagle, a Sparrowhawk and a Crested Tit before we headed back to the hotel.

Another hot and sunny day with light breezes.

Thursday 14th September:

A group of American walkers which was also staying at the Montaigu hotel were having a 'free day' today and we were pleased that one of their number, Mrs. Nancy Wilson, joined us. She is a keen birder and was pleased when we paused beside the river and were able to see Grey Wagtails and at least 3 Dippers.

Recognised as the most spectacular location in the French Pyrenees, the Cirque de Gavarnie was to be our main destination today. As we began our walk from Gavarnie itself, we had fair views of a Honey Buzzard and distant views of a Golden Eagle and a few Griffon Vultures. Plenty of Crag Martins were feeding along nearby ridges while many Barn Swallows seemed to be heading south over the mountains.

After a well earned 'refreshment' break at the Cirque Hotel, we walked on into the 'bowl' of the Cirque for lunch. Afterwards, we wandered in search of more birds. Amongst a jumble of huge rocks, a group of 8 Citril Finches was a really good find among more numerous Black Redstarts and Northern Wheatears. Despite prolonged searching of the towering cliffs above us, the 'ever elusive' Wallcreepers remained种种种种种.. ever elusive!

The return walk produced our first sighting of Bullfinches as well as various Tit species including Coal, Crested, Blue and Great.

Hot and sunny once more with light breezes.

Friday 15th September:

Our evening flight meant that we could do some final Pyrenean birding before we began the journey to Toulouse. Hautacam was our first port of call where we had excellent views of 2 Red Kites and there were also a couple of Honey Buzzards and about 25 Griffon Vultures. Kestrels hovered close by and our only Hen Harrier, an adult male, drifted past heading southwards.

After a visit to the supermarket in Argeles Gazost, we headed a short way northwards for our final French picnic lunch of the tour. Eating was often temporarily suspended to watch Common Buzzards, 3 Red Kites and a Short-toed Eagle. During the journey to Toulouse, 1 Red Kite and 33 Common Buzzards added interest and we also saw 3 new species for the trip: Little Egret, Yellow-legged Gull and Woodpigeon.

BIRD LIST

Little Egret: Just a single bird on the River Garonne on 15th.

Grey Heron: 2 on 9th and 1 on 15th during the journeys to and from Toulouse.

Black Stork: 4 making good progress south over Hautacam on 11th.

Honey Buzzard: 1 on 10th, 5 on 11th, 1 on 14th and 2 on 15th ; a fair total for such good weather conditions in the area (poor, cloudy weather over the Pyrenees holds up migrating raptors which then pass in good numbers on the first fair weather day).

Black Kite: 1 at Pont d' Espagne on 11th and 1 over Hautacam on 15th were, surprisingly, the only two sightings.

Red Kite: 1 at Pont d' Espagne and 3 on Hautacam on 11th and 6 on 15th at various locations.

Lammergeier: 2 juveniles in one part of the Ossoue Valley and then 2 adults and 1 juvenile in another on 10th obviously refers to at least 4 different birds. These were followed by 2 at Pont d' Espagne on 11th, 1at the Col du Tourmalet on 12th and 1 at the Cirque de Troumouse on 13th.

Griffon Vulture: Seen every day from 10th onwards with a total of nearly 200 'contacts' through the period and a maximum of 60 over Tourmalet on 12th.

Short-toed Eagle: Distant views of a moulting bird on 12th, 1 closer on 14th and 1 (twice) during lunch on 15th.

Hen Harrier: Just a single male on Hautacam on 15th.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk: 8 sightings spread over the 5 days from 11th.

Common Buzzard: Seen every day except 13th with the best day being 15th when we saw 44 birds ¾ of which were during the journey to Toulouse.

Golden Eagle: 2 (twice) on 10th, 1 on 11th, 1 on 13th and 1 on 14th.

Booted Eagle: Just a single pale phase bird over the Pont d' Espagne on 11th.

Bonelli's Eagle: 1 at the Col du Tourmalet on 12th and another the following day at the Pont d' Espagne.

Osprey: A single sighting of a bird rising up on a thermal (in the company of Griffon Vultures!) before heading off south from Tourmalet on 12th.

Common Kestrel: Seen every day from 10th.

Yellow-legged Gull: At least one on the River Garonne on 15th.

Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon: Seen every day from 10th.

Woodpigeon: Just 2 during the journey to Toulouse on 15th.

Collared Dove: Seen every day from 10th.

Green Woodpecker: Often seen during the pre-breakfast walks. Noted on 5 consecutive days from 11th.

Great Spotted Woodpecker: Seen on 11th and 15th and heard on 12th.

Crag Martin: At least 50 on the edge of the Ossoue Valley on 10th and also seen on 4 other days.

Swallow: Surprisingly, only seen on the last three days when good numbers were heading south.

House Martin: Seen on 4 days.

Tree Pipit: 1 during the Gavarnie walk on 14th was followed by 3 on Hautacam the following day.

Meadow Pipit: Only seen on 10th and 12th.

Water Pipit: Seen every day from 10th on high grasslands.

Yellow Wagtail: Only seen on Hautacam on 11th.

Grey Wagtail: Seen on 10th, 11th and 14th usually close to running water.

White Wagtail: Seen on 4 consecutive days from 11th.

Dipper: 3 on 10th and 14th and 1 on 11th all on the river near Gèdre.

Wren: Heard or seen most days.

Dunnock: Seen on 10th, 11th & 14th.

Robin: Recorded every day from 10th.

Black Redstart: Seen every day from 10th.

Whinchat: 2 on Hautacam on 11th were the first but also noted on 12th & 14th.

Stonechat: Just a single bird as we drove down from Hautacam on 15th.

Northern Wheatear: Birds were obviously gradually moving south as they appeared in varying numbers on 4 days.

Rock Thrush: 3 well seen in the Ossoue Valley on 10th were followed by even better views on 12th & 13th.

Blackbird: seen every day from 10th.

Blackcap: Seen or heard every day from 11th.

Chiffchaff: Well heard during the Gavarnie walk on 14th but sadly not seen.

Willow Warbler: Noted on 4 days.

Goldcrest: Seen on 3 days with the best views being reserved for the Gavarnie walk on 14th.

Firecrest: Just a single bird elusive but eventually well seen by some in the Forêt de Lienz on 12th.

Spotted Flycatcher: Seen on 9th at Toulouse and on 11th at the Pont d' Espagne.

Pied Flycatcher: Seen on 3 consecutive days from 10th.

Long-tailed Tit: Only seen on 10th & 11th.

Marsh Tit: Well seen during the pre breakfast walk on 11th.

Crested Tit: Seen or heard in pine woods on 4 days from 11th.

Coal Tit: Seen on 4 days from 11th.

Blue Tit: Seen every day except 9th.

Great Tit: Seen every day except 9th & 15th.

Nuthatch: Well seen on 11th & 13th and also heard on 14th.

Eurasian Treecreeper: Seen on 11th at Pont d'Espagne and possibly the following day in the Forêt de Lienz.

Short-toed Treecreeper: Possibly seen in the Forêt de Lienz on 12th and also seen during the Gavarnie walk on 14th.

Red-backed Shrike: 2 juveniles amongst juniper scrub on the road to Port de Gavarnie on 10th was the only sighting.

Jay: Seen every day.

Magpie: Seen on 4 consecutive days from 11th.

Alpine Chough: Plenty seen on 5 days from 10th, with 80-90 close to Port de Gavarnie and a further 35 in the Ossoue Valley (both on 10th) being the best day.

Red-billed Chough: Seen, in much smaller numbers than the previous species, on 10th, 12th and 13th.

Carrion Crow: Seen every day from 10th.

Raven: Seen on 11th, 12th, 13th and 15th.

Common Starling: Seen during the journeys on 9th and 15th and also on 11th.

House Sparrow: Seen on 4 days.

Chaffinch: Seen every day from 10th.

Serin: Just a single sighting in Gavarnie on 14th - a disappointing tour for this species.

Citril Finch: At least 8 well seen in the Cirque de Gavarnie on 14th.

Greenfinch: Just a couple during the Gavarnie walk on 14th.

Goldfinch: 3 on 11th at the Pont d'Espagne and also seen during the journey to Toulouse on 15th.

Linnet: Seen mostly on high ground on 10th, 12th and 13th.

Bullfinch: The only sighting was of 2 birds during the Gavarnie walk on 14th.

Common Crossbill: A group of at least 7 flew out of pines and away - Pont d'Espagne on 11th.

Yellowhammer: First seen near the Col du Tourmalet on 11th and then seen on the following 2 days.

Cirl Bunting: Only seen during the pre breakfast walks on 12th and 14th in the usual place close to a roost site.

Butterflies

Apollo

Peacock

Large White

Red Admiral

Small White

Meadow Fritillary (?)

Clouded Yellow

Gatekeeper

Adonis Blue

Wall Brown

Common Blue

Small Copper

Mammals

Red Squirrel: Seen on 3 days including during the pre breakfast walk on 12th.

Alpine Marmot: Seen or heard on 5 consecutive days from 10th.

Roe Deer: 2 during the drive to the Pyrenees on 9th.

Bat species: Seen during the pre breakfast walks on 11th and 12th.

Izard: At least 27 on ridges and slopes at the Cirque de Troumouse on 13th. An excellent quantity - well seen but distant.

The excellent weather throughout most of this trip made this a most enjoyable autumn break. Not having to worry about inclement weather meant that we could visit all of the places we wanted to - with one exception. In previous years we have been able to drive much of the way up to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. Road works in recent years prevented the continuance of this practice but we hoped that with the completion of this work, we would be able to make the journey this time. Unfortunately, the road seemed to remain closed, even to walkers. This prevented us reaching the high ground to see Snow Finch for example. Also, despite prolonged searching at some of their usual haunts, no Alpine Accentors could be found.

However, we did see plenty of the rest of the usual 'specialities' of the region with Lammergeiers on 4 consecutive days, including at least 4 individual birds in the Ossoue Valley on 10th. Masses of Griffon Vultures were also seen including birds descending to a presumed carcass at the Cirque de Troumouse. A couple of sightings of Bonelli's Eagle and a single Osprey were also thoroughly enjoyed, but perhaps the most exciting record was of 4 Black Storks heading fairly rapidly south over Hautacam on 11th.

A grand total of 77 species of birds plus mammals, butterflies and some good autumn flowers (Autumn Crocus and Merendera included) all combined with good humour in the group and excellent food at the hotel, to make this another excellent tour.

Mike Read


© The Travelling Naturalist 2000