TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
Saturday 23 - Friday 29 June 2001
Saturday 23rd June
The flight to Toulouse was on schedule and after a quick minibus pick-up, we were leaving the airport at about 5.30 p.m. French time. The journey went very smoothly and there were lots of raptors to be seen. These included 12 Kestrels, 12 Buzzards and 66 Black Kites. After we left the péage, a Short-toed Eagle hovering low over some fields was a pleasant surprise as was the Red Kite to the south of Lourdes although we had seen one earlier, the difference being that now, we were not travelling at 70 miles an hour!
We arrived at the Hotel Montaigu just after 8 o'clock with a little time to see our rooms before we began our evening meal.
Sunday 24th June
Before breakfast, some of the group strolled up to the ruined castle above the hotel. Due to low cloud, the prospects for the day were not good. However, a Black Redstart was singing from the hotel roof and 2 Serins flew around the garden opposite. Blackcaps and a Wren were in full song while a couple of Jays flitted off among the oaks. A brightening of the skies through the valley to the east promised better weather but in the meantime, we had to be content with seeing a coupe of juvenile Green Woodpeckers, 3 Robins and 2 Bullfinches also in their duller, juvenile plumage. On the way back we found a superb singing male Cirl Bunting.
After breakfast, we headed south towards the Gavarnie region but made a couple of stops at the river on the way. These stops combined to produce Pyrenean Saxifrage, brief views of a Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Ramonda (mostly over). At this time we could see the skies beginning to clear.
Even before reaching Gavarnie we had seen our first Griffon Vulture, which had a few Alpine Choughs circling close to it. Just west of Gavarnie a pause at a waterfall was also good for flowers including Fragrant Orchids while high over a ridge, we saw more Griffon Vultures, at least 2 Lammergeiers and a Golden Eagle.
The twisting road up towards the Col des Especiéres produced many new birds including a pair of Rock Buntings with recently fledged chicks and most of the group were surprised by the size of the Marmot which called in alarm from the top of a rock. A large cliff held nesting Crag and House Martins but the main 'entertainment' here was between the group of Red-billed Choughs and a male Kestrel. The falcon must have had a nest on the cliff as it swooped at any chough that ventured near one particular rock crevice. On many of the rocky slopes, Wheatears were quite numerous and a fine male Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush was perched on a lichen covered rock. Then a Lammergeier flew overhead and it was difficult to decide which of the two to watch. Higher up Alpine Choughs were numerous and at one time they combined forces with their Red-billed cousins to mob a passing Honey Buzzard.
During lunch overlooking the Ossoue Valley we had another view of the same Lammergeier that we had seen earlier.
When we drove in to the Ossoue Valley we made frequent stops for flowers and birds. Due to the heat, a little paddling seemed in order though the excuse was that we needed to identify the orchids growing on the small island; they turned out to be Broad-leaved Marsh Orchids. Further along there were more Wheatears, another Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush and more Griffon Vultures were patrolling the ridges.
A relaxing walk near the Barrage d'Ossoue had us enjoying more flowers including Burnt Vanilla Orchids and a lone Gentian but in the end, the heat persuaded us that we should investigate the possibility of purchasing an ice cream in Gavarnie. This was soon accomplished and we returned to the hotel.
Whilst going through the checklist before dinner, another Honey Buzzard flew over, lots of Common Swifts circled high above the town and a Red Kite flapped lazily past.
Monday 25th June
The pre breakfast walk along the road began with a Black Redstart singing from the hotel roof. A little further on a pair of Cirl Buntings were feeding on a lawn. Things were quiet for a while until a Crested Tit was seen in some young pines and a Red Squirrel rapidly disappeared along a treed hedgerow. 2 Nuthatches completed the sightings for the walk.
During the drive to the Pont d'Espagne, a rainbow at a waterfall looked superb and shortly after he walk began, Grey Wagtails were beside the large waterfall though this time there was no rainbow. Among the pines, Crested Tit and Blue Tit were well seen while high over a ridge Griffon Vultures and a Lammergeier drifted past. A third species of raptor turned out to be a Golden Eagle in display flight. It would rise with much flapping and then fold its wings and plummet before rising again. This continued all along the ridge.
A Dipper with 2 young looked a picture when one chick perched on a decaying trunk lying in the river's edge. This was a suitable place for lunch and during lunch, 3 Isards were found walking across a snowfield to try and keep cool. After a while another three were on a different mountain and these included a small youngster. After we had finished lunch some of the group began a walk towards a waterfall to scan some cliffs but this adds nothing new. As we return to the river, participants feel they have earned a cooling 'head dip'.
Our return to the minibus was delayed a little when we investigated the refreshing effect of a beer ............. or two! And during the drive back to the hotel we saw a Common Buzzard and a possible Black Kite.
During the 'call over' of the day's birds, a couple of Firecrests were in the pine across the road and a Green Woodpecker called frequently.
Tuesday 26th June
The highlight during the pre breakfast walk was to see three species of Woodpecker, Green, Great Spotted & Middle Spotted. We also saw the first Marsh Tit of the tour.
At the Col de Tourmalet there were many Snow Finches close to the car park and by the end of our walk here we had probably seen in excess of 20. There were also 2 Rock Thrushes close to where we parked and after a fair walk and prolonged searching, we eventually found an adult Alpine Accentor feeding a recently fledged chick. There were also 2 or 3 Marmots, a few Northern Wheatears, plenty of Water Pipits and a constant stream of Griffon Vultures overhead. Well below us in the valleys each side, low cloud still lingered and so we moved a short distance east to clear the car park for our lunch. Here we were almost joined by 3 Marmots, a male Kestrel and a fine Red Kite.
We then drove through Luz and on through the cloudy valley. As we went past Donjon des Aigles about 14 Black Kites were circling in the hope of an easy meal when the falconry display began. As we began the climb towards Hautacam, an Egyptian Vulture caused some excitement and while we watched this there were about 30 Black Kites in view as well as our first Booted Eagle and Greenfinches. We drove up through the clouds pausing for a Yellowhammer as we went. Once we were above the clouds we were enjoying more high-flying raptors with more Griffon Vultures, a Red Kite and a Common Buzzard all being seen as were Skylarks, Tree Pipits, Red-backed Shrike and a Roe Deer to end the day's watching.
We returned to the hotel and during 'call over' of the bird and other wildlife recorded that day, a Short-toed Eagle circled high over the town against the darkening clouds of evening.
Wednesday 27th June
There was a dull start to the day with low clouds filling the valley and it was drizzling. We drove the winding road up through the Heas Valley and then up around countless hairpin bends to reach the Cirque de Troumouse. Our hopes were that we would rise above the clouds into clear weather but on this occasion the clouds were still all around us. During the drive we did manage to see 3 or 4 Alpine Marmots, a few Wheatears and Water Pipits and we could hear Alpine Chough calling a little way away. During a walk within the Cirque, flowers are the 'stars' because we could not see anything beyond the proverbial hand in front of our faces!!
We head for lower lying land in the Heas Valley and the weather improves a little and it seems to encourage 2 Red-backed Shrikes, 4 Serins and a Coal Tit to put in an appearance. We even noted a few Chaffinches which proves we were struggling for birds!!
During lunch the weather improves a little more and 4 large groups of Common Swifts are seen to be heading for clearer area of sky or the lower valley where insects may be rising from the river. As we too head for the brighter weather, first one then two Short-toed Eagles fly above us for some miles and almost in to Luz.
Near Vidalos we see another Short-toed Eagle plus two Vultures, one Griffon and one Egyptian. At Argeles-Gazost we spent some time beside the River Pau. Two Spotted Flycatchers, 2 Nuthatches and a Short-toed Treecreeper were among the riverside trees and masses of Common Swifts circled overhead feeding.
Further along the river 4 Sand Martins also flew around in the never ending search for food while 2 Dippers fed on and below a man-made dam. A Little Ringed Plover fed sedately in the shallow water flowing over the dam while many White Wagtails and a few Grey Wagtails seemed more anxious in their efforts to feed.
Despite the poor weather, we realised that we had ended up with a good list of birds for the day and we added yet one more species to the list when a Honey Buzzard flew over during pre dinner drinks.
Thursday 28th June
A short drive up the road behind the hotel enabled us to explore new areas and produced good views of Great Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Pipits, Firecrest, Chiffchaff and a Red Squirrel. Though we did not see it clearly, it must have been a Mole which we watched pushing its way through ground cover on the road side.
After breakfast, we drove to Gavarnie where we parked to begin our walk to the Cirque. Garden Warblers sang from the bushes along the river and a Yellowhammer gave good but brief views. Serins, Crested Tit, Firecrest and a male Bullfinch added interest as we walked through the conifer areas and with each step, the views of the Cirque improved as the clouds lifted. Not far short of the Cirque hotel, distant calls indicate the presence of a Black Woodpecker yet despite a concerted effort to see it, only one member of the group was looking in exactly the right spot to see it disappear in to dead ground. As the clouds parted over a high ridge, a group of at least 18 Isards could be seen on the skyline. Two Griffon Vultures drift along a ridge to gain lift from any thermals or breeze while a juvenile Golden Eagle flew across the valley perhaps heading for a known food source.
We walked further on into the Cirque from where we obtained more good views of the same Golden Eagle. There were also plenty of Wheatears and Black Redstarts and during our picnic lunch, a few Alpine Choughs landed very close to us presumably used to hand-outs at that time of day. We also found many more Isards including 19 quite low in the Cirque and at least a dozen on a higher ridge.
As we left the Cirque we paused at the Hotel for some 'liquid refreshment' and from our tables we managed to find yet more Isards and enthused other people to look at them,
Driving through the Heas Valley towards the Cirque de Troumouse, a female Red-backed Shrike perched obligingly on some roadside cables and as we began the serious, multi-hairpin-bend climb, we were able to look down on an Egyptian Vulture. This bird seemed to be involved in some strange tactics in trying to find a meal as it kept approaching some resting cows which were still very much alive. No doubt it could be heard muttering "Just checking, sorry to disturb you. Are you feeling poorly at all ........ ?!!!"
At the Cirque de Troumouse itself, we took a short walk to enjoy more fully the views we missed (or should that be mist?!!) the previous day. Gentians were in bloom today no doubt enjoying the improved weather just as we were. A few Griffon Vultures drifted past and we obtained a brief glimpse of a Lammergeier. Soon afterwards, 2 Golden Eagles drifted into view and held our attention for some time before they both landed high on a cliff ledge.
As we left to head back to the hotel, the valley which had held the Egyptian Vulture now had 20 Griffons perched on a high crag or flying over it. Then, an adult Lammergeier drifted into view and also perched at a suitable distance for good telescope views. Just before we left, yet another Golden Eagle put in an appearance to complete a superb day in the mountains.
Friday 29th June
After breakfast we loaded the minibus and made a gentle start on the journey towards Toulouse and the flight back to Gatwick though it would be over 4 hours before we actually left behind the great birding in these fabulous mountains. Our first destination was to be Hautacam where the birding began with a pair of lovely Red-backed Shrikes. A Whinchat was new for the list and on the higher grassy areas, there were a few Skylarks to be found. From our usual viewpoint, over a period of time we saw perhaps 100 Griffon Vultures and a Lammergeier briefly. A Hobby swooped after insects over a nearby slope and we also saw both Red and Black Kites before descending to the supermarket at Argeles Gazost.
During lunch a little to the north of town, 2 Egyptian Vultures and at least 5 Griffon Vultures patrolled the ridge above and a Honey Buzzard flew past. From the trees behind us a Chiffchaff was in almost constant song and one or two Nuthatches called occasionally.
The journey to Toulouse saw very good numbers of raptors with 198 Black Kites, 10 Common Buzzards, 8 Kestrels and 2 or 3 Red Kites. A Whitethroat (seen by 1 or 2 as it completed its song flight and heard by Mike at 90 km per hour!!) was a new species as was the Crested Lark found on an industrial site along the way. Nearing Toulouse, massed gulls over the gravel pits included many Black-headed and a few Yellow-legged.
We arrived at the airport in good time for our flight which took us smoothly home.
Great Crested Grebe Seen on the River Garonne on 23rd and 29th as we sped to and from the Pyrenees.
Grey Heron One during the journey to the Pyrenees on 23rd, one on the River Pau at Argeles Gazost on 27th and two during the return journey to the airport on 29th.
Cattle Egret The gravel pits close to Toulouse hold many breeding pairs of this species so we assumed that one or two of the egrets seen on each journey were of this species.
Little Egret Seen at the River Garonne during the journeys from and to Toulouse with perhaps 4 or 5 there on 29th.
Mallard 3 flew over the Autoroute on our way to the Pyrenees on 23rd and we saw at least 7 during the return journey on 29th.
(European) Honey Buzzard Two seen on 24th included one from the Hotel Montaigu. We also saw single birds on 27th, 29th and possibly 25th.
Black Kite An exceptionally good tour for this species began with 66 during the journey to Luz on 23rd. Just a single bird was noted the next day but then on 26th there were at least 50 along the valley from Luz to Argeles Gazost. About 30 the following day probably included many of the same birds as might the first 20 or so on 29th. During the journey back to Toulouse we had the amazing total of 198 many of which were close to fields which were being or were recently cut for hay.
Red Kite Seen every day except 25th with up to 9 seen on 26th at the Col du Tourmalet and on Hautacam. Occasionally seen from the Hotel Montaigu.
(Eurasian) Griffon Vulture Seen every day except 23rd. On most days there were over 30 sightings but on 29th we saw perhaps over 100 from Hautacam including at least 40 together rising up on the first thermals of the day.
Egyptian Vulture Singles seen on 26th, 27th and 28th at Argeles, near Vidalos and in the Heas Valley respectively. On 29th there were 2, again near Vidalos, which were presumably a pair.
Lammergeier 2 seen close to Gavarnie on 24th, 1 seen (twice) at the Pont d'Espagne on 25th, 3 seen on 28th at the Cirque de Gavarnie and the Cirque de Troumouse and finally, one was briefly seen on Hautacam on 29th.
Short-toed Eagle The first was seen between Tarbes and Lourdes on 23rd then one circled over the slopes near the hotel on 26th and then we saw three in the poor weather on 27th.
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Just two sightings; one on 24th and one the following day during breakfast.
Common Buzzard Seen every day with the highest numbers being seen as wejourneyed to and from the Pyrenees though the numbers on those days were somewhat lower than in previous years.
Golden Eagle One seen briefly on 24th in the company of 2 Lammergeiers in the Ossoue Valley and then the following day at the Pont d'Espagne where an adult performed a superb display flight along the length of a ridge high above us. This rising and stooping display lasted some minutes. On 28th we saw at least 4 different birds with the closest views being of a 2 year-old bird above us as we neared the Cirque de Gavarnie.
Booted Eagle Just a single sighting close to Argeles Gazost on 26th.
Common Kestrel Seen every day with a dozen noted during our journey to the Pyrenees on 23rd.
Eurasian Hobby A single sighting of a bird flying around catching insects above a ridge on Hautacam on 29th.
Common Coot Seen on 23rd and 29th during the journeys to and from the Pyrenees on roadside ponds.
Little Ringed Plover A single male was feeding in shallow water running over a weir on the River Pau close to Argeles Gazost on 27th. It may have been one of a pair as there were some gravel areas nearby.
Yellow-legged Gull Seen close to Toulouse and on the River Garonne during the journeys to and from the Pyrenees on 23rd and 29th.
Black-headed Gull A flock of perhaps 200 birds were flying over the gravel pits near Toulouse on 29th so it seems rather strange that we have not recorded the species here before.
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Seen every day.
(Eurasian) Collared Dove Seen every day.
Common Swift Seen every day usually over towns where they breed or over water (rivers and lakes) where they were feeding. The day we had lots of cloud and some light rain saw at least 3 flocks of 50+ birds heading west down the Heas Valley towards an area where much lighter sky almost suggested sunshine! Later we saw hundreds feeding over the River Pau near Argeles Gazost.
Great Spotted Woodpecker Noted on 4 days usually during the pre breakfast walks.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Just a single bird seen on 26th near the castle above the hotel. Again, this was during a pre breakfast walk.
Black Woodpecker Only noted on 28th when one was frequently heard during the walk to the Cirque de Gavarnie. One member of the group probably glimpsed the bird flying towards the valley but he just happened to be looking in the right direction at that particular moment!
Green Woodpecker Noted every day except 23rd.
Crested Lark Two seen at an industrial site during the journey to Toulouse on 29th.
(Eurasian) Sky Lark Seen and heard on Hautacam on 26th and 29th.
(Eurasian) Crag Martin Seen every day, except 29th, in varying numbers. The avalanche protection 'tunnels' south of Lourdes, provide them with good nesting sites and so we often encounter them here.
Barn Swallow Seen every day.
(Common) House Martin Seen every day.
Sand Martin At least 4 seen feeding low over the River Pau near Argeles on 27th then one seen on 29th.
White Wagtail Seen every day.
Grey Wagtail Seen every day except 23rd.
Tree Pipit Seen on Hautacam on 26th and 29th and also seen during the pre breakfast walk near Vizos on 28h.
Water Pipit Seen on 4 days (24th, 26th, 27th & 28th) on high grassy slopes where they breed.
Red-backed Shrike First seen on 24th near the Col des Especiéres then seen on 4 successive days from 26th.
(White-throated) Dipper Seen on 5 successive days from 24th at various rapid river locations. Perhaps the best view was on 25th just before lunch in the Pont d'Espagne area when we had good views of an adult collecting and taking food to a fledged juvenile.
(Winter) Wren Noted on 6 successive days from 24th.
Alpine Accentor An adult was feeding a recently fledged chick (perhaps with others out of our sight) above the Col de Tourmalet on 26th.
Hedge Accentor (Dunnock) Noted every day except 23rd and 28th. Many of the sightings were among scrub up on fairly high, open ground (on the way to Troumouse for instance).
(Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush One on the way to the Col des Especiéres and one in the Ossoue Valley both on 24th and 2 at the Col du Tourmalet on 26th.
(Common) Blackbird Seen every day.
Song Thrush Noted every day from 24th.
MistleThrush Seen on 24th, 27th, 28th and 29th.
(European) Robin Noted every day except 23rd with the best views being of 3 juveniles during the pre breakfast walk on 24th.
Black Redstart Seen every day and with a pair having its territory close to the hotel, is it any surprise that we saw them so frequently?
Whinchat 2 or 3 seen in the usual location on Hautacam on 29th.
(Common) Stonechat Seen on fences beside the autoroute on 23rd and 29th.
Northern Wheatear Seen well on 5 days especially on 24th near the Col des Especieres where birds could often be seen on roadside rocks etc.
Common Chiffchaff First heard during a brief stop beside the autoroute on 23rd then noted on the final 4 days.
Blackcap Seen every day except 23rd.
Garden Warbler Only seen on 28th during the walk to the Cirque de Gavarnie when we probably passed through 4 or 5 territories.
Common Whitethroat A single male seen and briefly heard as we headed along the autoroute towards Toulouse on 29th.
Firecrest 2 seen in the gardens of the Hotel Montaigu (during pre dinner drinks and the bird listing for the day) on 25th, heard close to the hotel on 27th and then seen near Vizos before breakfast and close to the Cirque de Gavarnie both on 28th.
Goldcrest Seen on 25th at the Pont d'Espagne and on 28th on the way to the Cirque de Gavarnie.
Spotted Flycatcher 2 seen well beside the River Pau at Argeles on 27th.
Long-tailed Tit First seen during the journey to the Pyrenees on 23rd when a small flock crossed the 'Aire' that we briefly paused in. We also noted the species on 27th and 28th.
Marsh Tit One during the pre breakfast walk on 26th and also seen during the Gavarnie walk on 28th.
Coal Tit Heard at the Pont d'Espagne on 25th then seen near the hotel on 27th and during the Gavarnie walk the following day.
Crested Tit First seen during the pre breakfast walk on 25th then not again until the Gavarnie walk on 28th.
Great Tit Noted every day except 23rd.
Blue Tit Seen every day except 23rd and 27th.
(Eurasian) Nuthatch 2 at Pont d'Espagne on 25th were the first then also seen on 26h, 27th and 29th.
Short-toed Treecreeper Just a single juvenile well seen by the River Pau on 27th.
Eurasian Treecreeper Heard calling during the Gavarnie walk on 28th.
Eurasian Jay Seen every day.
(Black-billed) Magpie Seen every day.
Red-billed Chough First seen on the way towards the Col des Especiéres on 24th when birds were often stooped at by a Kestrel presumably protecting a nest full of young. Also seen at the Col du Tourmalet on 26th and during the walk to the Cirque de Gavarnie on 28th.
Alpine (Yellow-billed) Chough Seen on 24th and 26th then heard calling (in the clouds/mist) on 27th but the best views were during our picnic lunch on 28th at the Cirque de Gavarnie when 3 or 4 birds landed within a few feet of us.
Carrion Crow Seen every day.
Common Raven Seen every day except 23rd and 26th.
Common (European) Starling Seen on 23rd and 29th during the journeys to and from the Pyrenees.
Yellowhammer The first two were seen on Hautacam on 26th then we saw 2 more on the way to the Cirque de Gavarnie on 28th and finally another one was on Hautacam on 29th.
Rock Bunting Only noted on 24th when a pair with at least one very recently fledged chick were seen on the roadside close to Gavarnie.
Cirl Bunting A male was well seen during the pre breakfast walk on 24th and a different pair were seen along the road towards Vizos the following morning.
(Common) Chaffinch Seen every day.
European Serin Seen every day from 24th with the best views being of a singing male beside the River Pau on 27th.
(European) Greenfinch 3 on 26th near Argeles Gazost and 1 on 29th near Vidalos were the only sightings.
(European) Goldfinch Seen every day.
(Common) Linnet Seen on 5 days usually on highish ground.
(Eurasian) Bullfinch 2 juveniles during the pre breakfast walk on 24th and a male during the Gavarnie walk on 28th were the only sightings.
House Sparrow Seen every day.
(Eurasian) Snowfinch As expected, we only saw this species on 26th when we visited the Col du Tourmalet and we saw in excess of 20 birds. There were quite a few family groups with the adults busily feeding well grown young who were well able to feed themselves .......... a feeling that many of us know!!
Roe Deer One glimpsed by some of the group high on Hautacam on 26th then another seen more clearly close to the Cirque Hotel on 28th.
Isard (Pyrenean Chamois) The first were 3 high on a snowfield above the Marcadou Valley in the morning of 25th. Then, during lunch that day, a female with a youngster of the year crossed a patch of snow on a different peak where another individual was also present. On 28th we saw probable record numbers for a Travelling Naturalist group when we located 4 or 5 groups totalling at least 60 individuals within and above the Cirque de Gavarnie.
Red Squirrel One on 25th and another on 28th were both during the pre breakfast walks close to the hotel.
Alpine Marmot Commonly seen on high ground every day from 24th onwards.
Mole Glimpsed occasionally as one burrowed its way along a roadside bank on 28th during the pre-breakfast walk.
Niobe Fritillary (an ex / late / deceased specimen!)
Alpine Sow Thistle
Butterwort, Large flowered
Dead Nettle, Purple
Gentian, Gt. Yellow
Heartsease (Viola subalpina)
Lady's Mantle, Alpine
Lady's Mantle, Rock
Lily, St Bruno's
Lily, Yellow Turkscap
Orchid, Black Vanilla
Orchid, Broad-leaved Marsh
Orchid, Lesser Butterfly
Rampion, Round headed
Rock Rose, Common
Violet, Heath Dog
Violet, Yellow Wood
A tour to just one habitat or region can often produce fewer species of birds and other groups. However this tour had us looking at or listening to a grand total of 87 bird species. And what some fabulous and unexpected species we saw! As always, the raptors took pride of place to some degree and with both species of Kite, three species of Vulture and a similar number of Eagles and you are off to a good start. Add in all the Warblers, Larks, Martins, Woodpeckers, Choughs and Finches together with all of the others and it turns out to be perhaps the best total for a Travelling Naturalist tour to the area.