TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
5 - 12 June 2004
5th June - Heathrow to Hecho via Bilbao. Warm and sunny with scattered cloud and a gentle easterly breeze.
Our flight arrived on time in Bilbao in the early afternoon and after clearing the airport and collecting our vehicle we began the four-hour drive to Hecho. The journey through the rolling green Basque countryside and then into the rather more arid vistas of Aragon gave us our first inkling of both the stunning scenery and the large number of birds of prey that were to be constant features of the week. We stopped for nesting White Storks near Vitoria, coffee near Pamplona and a view over the Aragon River near Berdun. We finally arrived at our hotel in the stunningly scenic upper Hecho Valley a little after 6pm with ample time to settle in before dinner.
6th June - Gabardito. Sunny and very warm with scattered cloud in the afternoon.
After breakfast we drove the short distance steeply up through pine and beech forest to the Gabardito refuge in its beautiful grassy clearing surrounded by steep forested slopes and towering limestone crags. Almost as soon as we got out of the bus our attention was drawn to a superb adult Golden Eagle being mobbed by a very much smaller Common Buzzard. The dogfight continued out over the valley in front of us for several minutes and we were all able to enjoy marvellous comparative views of both birds. Soon after this, as we walked across the clearing, we heard the distinctive piping call of a Citril Finch and found a party of adults and juveniles busily but unobtrusively shredding dandelion clocks on the grass in front of us. With scopes up in a trice we were treated to prolonged views of these lovely and rather special little finches at very close quarters.
Flushed with this early success we began walking a trail up through the forest. Along the wayside we found an impressive array of flowers including Trumpet and Spring Gentians, Dragonmouth, Fairy Foxglove, Leafless-stemmed Globularia, and Burnt-tip, Fragrant and Elderflower Orchids. Butterflies included Scarce Swallowtail, Small Blue, Duke of Burgundy and Silver-washed Fritillary. Good birds continued to appear too and through the course of the morning and early afternoon we saw lots of impressive Griffon Vultures, two adult and one immature Lammergeier, dozens of Crag Martins and both Red-billed and Alpine Choughs. At the cliffs of Salto de la Vieja some of us managed to get some brief neck-breaking views of a male Wallcreeper flitting around on the rocks high above and after our picnic lunch in a beautiful flower-studded streamside meadow we came across a stunning male Green Lizard resplendent with his blue chin blazing in the strong sunlight. Back at the refuge we enjoyed a cool beer and watched a smart adult Egyptian Vulture circling over the clearing before we began the drive back down the hairpins to the valley bottom and our hotel. A last impromptu stop was made en-route for a stand of immaculate Sword-leaved Helleborines - a fitting way to end a very satisfying first day.
7th June - Portalet and Formigal. Sunny and warm with scattered cloud in the morning, becoming increasingly overcast and then showery in the afternoon. Breezy.
Three Red-backed Shrikes just a mile down the road from the hotel prompted the first stop of the morning after which we continued via Jaca and Sabinanigo to the Col de Portalet, 1800 metres up and right on the border with France. The bulk of the day was then spent here among the alpine meadows and snow patches. The scenery was dramatic and the meadows a dazzling riot of colour and form, with masses of Spring and Trumpet Gentians, both yellow and purple Elderflower Orchids, Birdseye Primrose, Narcissus-flowered Anemone, Pyrenean Buttercups, Alpine Pasque Flower, Pyrenean Fritillary, Spring Squill, Pyrenean Hyacinth and Alpine Snowbell - lovely! Birds were typically "high altitude", with lots of Northern Wheatears and parachuting Water Pipits, both Yellowhammer and Ortolan Bunting, several close Alpine Choughs and a trio of superb Rock Thrushes. On our way back down the valley we stopped near the ski resort of Formigal and, dodging the rain, admired several dozen spikes of Lady's Slipper Orchid growing in a roadside field - a wonderful sight indeed! Finally, just north of Puenta la Reina in the Hecho valley, we stopped by an old river bridge for a late cup of coffee and were treated to some very good views of a pair of Short-toed Eagles soaring over a distant slope. As we watched them a Hobby tracked fast across the sky to add a final touch of quality to another good day.
8th June - Berdun and the Aragon Valley. Sunny with scattered cloud, very warm, gentle breeze.
A spot of pre-breakfast birding for some of the group along the road below the hotel brought some excellent views of Red-backed Shrike, Cirl Bunting, Serin, Crested Tit and Crag Martin plus a surprise Red Fox sauntering along the edge of a meadow. After breakfast we drove down to Puenta la Reina and then westwards to Berdun. We spent the first part of the morning exploring the mosaic of arable fields, almond orchards and scrub covered "Badlands" that lie between Berdun and the Aragon River. Here we encountered a wide range of birds that included both Red and Black Kites, Crested Lark, Tawny Pipit, Melodious and Orphean Warblers, Stonechat and Corn Bunting. At the river itself we found Rock Sparrows nesting in the bridge, had some glorious views of Bee-eaters and Iberian Yellow Wagtails, surprised a male Woodchat Shrike and got some tantalising glimpses of a Penduline Tit wheezing in the poplars. We ate our picnic on the riverbank and then explored a little further into the woods and found Military, Lesser Butterfly and Bee Orchids, Purple Toothwort and a fine stand of Adder's Tongue Ferns. Here too were Golden Orioles and we had an exciting few minutes as two pairs of these superb birds whistled and squawked in the trees around us and then finally gave us a colourful flypast.
In the middle of the afternoon we went up to Berdun for an afternoon drink and to look around this very attractive traditional Aragonsese village before driving back to Hecho via the spectacular Foz de Binies gorge on the Veral River. A stop at the bottom of the gorge brought us Pyramidal Orchids and good views of a singing Nightingale, whilst a stop at the top produced a Chequered Blue Butterfly perched on a Yellow Onion, a brief Smooth Snake and a fine pale phase Booted Eagle. After this it was just a short and very scenic drive back to Hecho.
After dinner, late in the evening, we drove to a site near Puenta la Reina where we had heard we might see an Eagle Owl or two. We were not disappointed as first one and then a second of these mighty owls flew along the wooded ridge above us, with one perching for some time high up on the slope and allowing reasonable telescope views in the fading light. Three European Nightjars, which flashed across the road ahead of us as we were leaving, concluded another very successful day.
9th June - The Aisa Valley. Sunny with scattered cloud building up in the afternoon. Warm and breezy.
With breakfast completed we drove down past Hecho and then eastwards along another very scenic route through the village of Jasa, noting two Woodlarks en-route, and thus up to the beautiful and pristine Aisa Valley. Once again both the scenery and the flowers were sensational. At times we were walking through carpets of Red Kidney Vetch, Marsh Orchids, Trumpet Gentians and Large flowered Butterworts, whilst other goodies included Matted Globularia, Snow Gentian, Alpine Ladies Mantle and Frog Orchid. Viviparous Lizards skittered over the rocks, a Chamois sunbathed on a high snow patch and birds included Rock Bunting, Rock Thrush, Raven, Red-billed and Alpine Choughs and an impressive Short-toed Eagle. A couple of short stops in the woods as we drove back down the valley in the afternoon produced both Lady and Man Orchids side by side, a singing Bonelli's Warbler and a pair of Crested Tits.
10th June - Pena Reservoir, Riglos and Loarre Castle. Sunny and warm with scattered cloud building up in the afternoon and a variable breeze.
This morning we drove south over the Sierra de la Pena to the Pena Reservoir where we spent some time admiring a singing Great Reed Warbler, two surprise Black-winged Stilts, a flighty male Blue Rock Thrush, dozens of Griffon Vultures and Crag Martins and a range of interesting plants that included lots of Blue Lettuce and a few flowering spikes of Pyrenean Saxifrage. On this southern side of the hills the landscape had a much more Mediterranean feel and this was reflected at a short roadside stop near Riglos where we found a Black-eared Wheatear and heard both Sardinian and Orphean Warblers. At Riglos itself we were all suitably awed by the towering red conglomerate cliffs and enjoyed yet more views of Griffon and Egyptian Vultures plus a pair of Peregrines, several aerobatic Red-billed Choughs, a dozen or more chittering Alpine Swifts, several smart Black Redstarts and, after a little searching, a rather distant male Black Wheatear. Butterflies here were good too, with Scarce Swallowtail, Western Dappled White, False Ilex Hairstreak, Spanish Gatekeeper and Green-underside Blue providing the highlights.
We ate our picnic lunch in some nearby fields with views back up to Riglos and then headed on south through the little market town of Ayerbe and up to the spectacularly positioned 11th century Castillo de Loarre. A short walk here and an exploration of the wonderful castle itself produced fine views of Hoopoe, Tawny Pipit and Blue Rock Thrush, a further range of butterflies including Bath White and Moroccan Orange Tip and a couple of plant oddities in the form of the wonderfully spiny Hedgehog Broom Echinospartum horridium and Leuzia conifera with its strange papery cone-shaped flower head.
11th June - St. Juan de la Pena and Gabardito. Overcast first thing, then sunny through the morning becoming overcast and thundery in the afternoon. Warm.
After breakfast we set off to St Juan de la Pena and spent an enjoyable morning exploring the old monastery and walking up through the woods to a ridge-top viewpoint that afforded us spectacular views of the High Pyrenees and the Aragon Valley to the north and the Sierra de la Pena to the south. On the rock faces we found masses of flowering Ramonda and in the woods, St Bernard's Lily, Sweet Soloman's Seal, White Helleborine and Green-winged Orchid. Butterflies were numerous, with perhaps the most notable being Spanish Fritillary, Purple Shot Copper and a superb Southern White Admiral, whilst other insects included a handsome Ascalaphid. The woodland birds remained frustratingly heard rather than seen but on the ridge-top itself our reward came in the form of a pair of adult Lammergeiers close overhead with the Griffons.
In the afternoon some of the group opted for another go at the Gabardito Wallcreepers and after a brisk walk up from the refuge to the Salto de la Vieja cliffs dodging the thundery rain we settled ourselves down on the rocky track for a potentially log vigil searching the crags above. An adult Lammergeier drifted by at moustache tweaking distance and then the Wallcreepers appeared. Thus ensued a happy half hour during which we all ultimately got some very nice views of these beautiful and engaging little birds as they went about their business on the rock face high above us - a perfect finale to a very satisfying and enjoyable trip!
12th June - Hecho to Heathrow via Bilbao. Sunny first thing in Aragon, Overcast in Navarre with occasional drizzle and fog.
After an early breakfast and a Red Squirrel in the hotel car park trees we began the drive back to Bilbao. Everything went smoothly, the flight was on time and we all arrived safely back at Heathrow a couple of hours later.
All in all a very successful and enjoyable trip. We managed to see most of the specialties of the region and the sometimes fickle mountain weather was kind to us throughout. Thanks are due to the staff at the Hotel Uson for being so accommodating, to Jim and Judith for their expertise with the butterflies and plants and to all the other members of the group who each in their own way helped to make this a very memorable trip.
Red Fox (various sites), Chamois (Aisa), Red Squirrel (hotel car park) and Alpine Marmot (Col de Portalet).
Reptiles and Amphibians
Palmate Newt (Col de Portalet), Common Toad (Col de Portalet), Western Spadefoot (tadpoles only, Aisa), Common Frog (Col de Portalet and Aisa), Iberian Pool Frog (various lowland sites), Large Psammodromus (Foz de Binies), Common Wall Lizard (various sites), Green Lizard (Gabardito and St Juan de la Pena), Viviparous Lizard (various sites) and Smooth Snake (Foz de Binies).
Duke of Burgundy
Southern White Admiral
Western Bath White
Dark Green Fritillary
Western Dappled White
small Fritillaries spp.
Moroccan Orange Tip
Marbled White sp.
False Ilex Hairstreak
Large Wall Brown
Other notable invertebrates
Violet Carpenter Bee
Chimney Sweeper Moth
White-collared Burnet Moth
Great Diving Beetle
Green Tiger Beetle
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus - Singles on the Yesa Reservoir on the 5th and the 12th. 2/2
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea - Small numbers seen on four dates with a max. of four on the 12th. 4/9
Little Egret Egretta garzetta - One by the Aragon river at Puenta la Reina on the 7th. 1/1
White Stork Ciconia ciconia - Several seen at nests in the Vitoria area on the 5th and 12th. 2/7
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos - One at the Yesa Reservoir on the 12th. 1/1
Black Kite Milvus migrans - Common. Seen almost daily, with a max. of 20 on the 8th. 7/80
Red Kite Milvus milvus - Common. Seen daily with a max of 20 on the 7th. 8/75
Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus - Common. Seen daily with a max. of 100+ on the 10th. 8/400+
Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus - Small numbers seen daily with a max. of six on the 8th and the 10th. 8/28
Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus - Two adults and an immature at Gabardito on the 6th and then two adults at St. Juan de la Pena and another at Gabardito on the 11th. 2/6
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus - Two near Puenta la Reina on the 7th, two in the Aisa Valley on the 9th and then three in the Riglos area on the 10th. 3/7
Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus - A female hunting over wheat fields near Berdun on the 8th. 1/1
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo - Small numbers seen almost daily with a max. of five on the 10th. 7/20
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos - One adult at Gabardito on the 6th. 1/1
Booted Eagle Hieraeetus pennatus - A total of six birds seen on four dates. 4/6
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus - A total of 11 birds seen on five dates. 5/11
Hobby Falco subbuteo - One near Puenta la Reina on the 7th. 1/1
Peregrine Falco peregrinus - One near Berdun on the 8th and two at Riglos on the 10th. 2/3
Common Quail Coturnix coturnix - Two heard near Berdun on the 8th. 1/2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra - One on the Yesa Reservoir on the 12th. 1/1
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus - Two at the Pena Reservoir on the 10th. 1/2
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos - One heard by the Aragon River near Berdun on the 8th and one by the Yesa Reservoir on the 12th. 1/2
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis - Small numbers seen in Bilbao on the 5th, one over the Aragon near Berdun on the 8th and one at the Pena Reservoir on the 10th. 3/7
Rock Dove Columba livia - Six at Riglos on the 10th. 1/10
Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus - Small numbers seen on three dates. 3/9
Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur - One or two seen or heard on three dates. 3/4
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto - Small numbers seen on four dates. 4/8
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus - Singles heard on five dates. 5/5
Eurasian Eagle Owl Bubo bubo - Two near Puenta la Reina on the evening of the 8th. 1/2
European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus - At least three at the Eagle Owl site near Puenta la Reina on the 8th. 1/3
Alpine Swift Apus melba - 12 at Riglos on the 10th. 1/12
Common Swift Apus apus - Common, seen daily. 8/150+
European Bee-eater Merops apiaster - Seen on three dates with a max. of 20+ by the Aragon near Berdun on the 8th. 3/25+
Hoopoe Upupa epops - One carrying food to a nest site at Loarre Castle on the 10th. 1/1
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major - Singles seen or heard on six dates. 6/6
Green Woodpecker Picus viridis - One or two heard on three dates. 3/5
Crested Lark Galerida cristata - Small numbers seen on four dates. 4/17
Wood Lark Lullula arborea - Two near Hecho on the 9th and one heard near Riglos on the 10th. 2/3
Sky Lark Alauda arvensis - Two heard at the Col de Portalet on the 7th. 1/2
Sand Martin Riparia riparia - 10 0ver the Aragon near Berdun on the 5th and two nearby on the 8th. 2/12
Crag Martin Hirundo rupestris - Common. Seen almost daily. 7/160+
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica - Small numbers seen daily. 8/35+
House Martin Delichon urbica - Common, seen daily. 8/200+
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava - Three by the Aragon near Berdun on the 8th. 1/3
White Wagtail Motacilla alba - Small numbers seen almost daily. 6/15
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea - One or two birds seen on four dates. 4/6
Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris -Two near Berdun on the 8th and one at Loarre Castle on the 10th. 2/3
Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta - At least 12 at the Col de Portalet on the 7th. 1/12
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio - A welcome feature of the Upper Hecho Valley. Small numbers seen on four dates. 4/13
Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator - Replaces Red-backed Shrike at lower altitudes. Small numbers seen at a variety of locations on five dates. 5/10
Wren Troglodytes troglodytes - Small numbers seen or heard almost daily. 6/25
Dunnock Prunella modularis - Common in the high altitude Box scrub. Seen or heard almost daily. 7/30
Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis - Two males and a female at the Col de Portalet on the 7th and another male in the Aisa Valley on the 9th. 2/4
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius - One male at the Pena Reservoir and two at Loarre Castle on the 10th. 1/3
Blackbird Turdus merula - Common, seen daily. 8/40
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos - Small numbers seen or heard almost daily. 7/16
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus - At least two in the woods below Gabardito on the 6th and one there on the 11th. 2/3
Robin Erithacus rubecula - Small numbers seen or heard almost daily. 6/14
Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos - Small numbers heard at a variety of lowland localities on five dates with one seen well at the bottom of the Binies Gorge on the 8th. 5/25
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros - Common, seen almost daily. 7/35
Common Stonechat Saxicola torquata - Small numbers seen on four dates. 4/10
Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucura - One distant male seen at Riglos on the 10th. 1/1
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe Oenanthe - Small numbers seen on four dates with a max. of 12+ at the Col de Portalet on the 7th. 4/16
Black-eared Wheatear Oenanthe hispanica - One female near Riglos on the 10th. 1/1
Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti - At least two heard by the Aragon near Berdun on the 8th and another at the Pena Reservoir on the 10th. 2/3
Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus - One singing bird seen well at the Pena reservoir on the 10th. 1/1
Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta - Small numbers seen or heard on four dates at a variety of locations in the lowlands. 4/13
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita - One's and two's seen or heard almost daily. 6/12
Western Bonelli's Warbler Phylloscopus bonelli - One seen well in the Aisa Valley on the 9th and others heard at the Pena Reservoir on the 10th and at St Juan de la Pena on the 11th. 3/4
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla - Common, seen and heard daily. 8/40
Garden Warbler Sylvia borin - Common, seen and heard almost daily. 7/40
Orphean Warbler Sylvia hortensis - Two singing males in an almond orchard near Berdun on the 8th and another heard near Riglos on the 10th. 2/3
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala - At least five heard in the Riglos area on the 10th. 1/5
Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans - One near Berdun on the 8th, singles at the Pena Reservoir, Riglos and Loarre Castle on the 10th and one at St. Juan de la Pena on the 11th. 3/5
Firecrest Regulus ignicapillis - Small numbers seen or heard daily. 8/20
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata - Singles at the Pena Reservoir on the 10th and at St. Juan de la Pena on the 11th. 2/2
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus - Family parties at the Pena Reservoir on the 10th and at St Juan de la Pena on the 11th . 2/12
Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus - One seen briefly by the Aragon near Berdun on the 8th. 1/1
Coal Tit Parus ater - Common. Seen or heard at a variety of locations on five dates. 5/30
Crested Tit Parus cristatus - Common. Seen or heard at a variety of locations on five dates. 5/30
Great Tit Parus major - Common. Small numbers seen or heard almost daily. 6/25
Blue Tit Parus caeruleus - Common. Small numbers seen or heard almost daily. 6/20
Nuthatch Sitta europaea - Three at St Juan de la Pena on the 11th. 1/3
Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria - One seen briefly at the Salto de la Vieja cliffs above Gabardito on the 6th and a pair seen well there on the 11th. 2/3
Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla - Heard in the Aisa Valley on the 9th and at St. Juan de la Pena on the 11th. 2/4
Jay Garrulus glandarius - Small numbers seen almost daily. 7/15
Magpie Pica pica - Common. Seen almost daily. 7/35
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax - Seen on five dates at a variety of locations. 5/60
Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus - Seen on five dates at a variety of locations. 5/120
Carrion Crow Corvus corone - Common, seen daily. 8/40
Raven Corvus corax - Small numbers seen daily. 8/20
Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus - Two pairs displaying in Poplar woods by the Aragon near Berdun on the 8th. 1/4
Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor - Fairly common. Small numbers seen almost daily in the lowlands. 6/50
House Sparrow Passer domesticus - Common, seen almost daily. 7/130
Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia - Small numbers seen or heard at a variety of locations on three dates with perhaps those nesting in the bridge over the Aragon near Berdun on the 8th being the most memorable. 3/20+
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs - Common, seen daily. 8/75
Serin Serinus serinus - Common, seen daily. 8/70
Citril Finch Serinus citrinella - Eight seen very well at Gabardito on the 6th and another two there on the 11th. 2/10
Greenfinch Carduelis chloris - Scarce. Small numbers seen on four dates. 4/11
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis - Small numbers seen on four dates. 4/21
Linnet Carduelis cannabina - Common, seen almost daily. 6/50
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula - One at Gabardito on the 6th and one in the Aisa Valley on the 9th. 2/2
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella - Small numbers on three dates. 3/6
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia - Widespread but elusive. Seen or heard on five dates with the best views being in the Aisa Valley on the 9th. 5/15
Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana - One singing male seen well at the Col de Portalet on the 7th.1/1
Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus - Seen or heard at a variety of locations on five dates. A conspicuous early morning bird around the hotel. 5/18
Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra - Common in the lowlands. 6/60 .