The Pyrenees By Malcolm Palmer

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When Barry and I, set out from home, the weather was just about as bad as it gets in Alicante, with lowering grey skies, poor visibility, occasional rain, and a temperature more like January than late April – and the forecast, if anything, was worse! Foglights were in action as we passed Alcoy, but it brightened up a bit when Valencia was behind us, and we were in a better frame of mind when we stopped for lunch at the wine-producing town of Cariñena, in Zaragoza Province. The road to the desolate area of Belchite hadn’t improved in the dozen or so years since my last trip along it, but the first raptor soon showed up, a Black Kite, before we were directed to a hotel at the tiny hamlet of Lécera, the Rincon del Cierzo, which turned out to be an excellent, warm and welcoming establishment, and great value for money. We had an evening trip to the great reserve of El Planerón, and soon had terrific views of Greater and Lesser Short toed Larks, Calandra Lark and Skylark. A Stone Curlew flew across the path in front of us, and there were Wheatears, Crows and Ravens around – enough to whet the appetite. Next morning we were back at the Reserve by eight, and were able to hear – frustratingly – the wierd strains of the sought-after Dupont’s Lark, without clapping eyes on one, despite getting the car covered in mud. Red Kite and White Stork were soon added to our list, as we made our way quickly north through Huesca to the Pyrenean valley of Hecho.

Red billed and Alpine Chough by Malcolm Palmer
Red billed and Alpine Chough

After booking into an hotel at the village of Siresa, we went straight to the ‘Boca del Infierno’ – if hell is this cold, I shudder to think what the temperature of the other place will be! But after only a few minutes, I spotted the big prize! – a Wallcreeper, its carmine ‘butterfly’ wings just above our heads as it fluttered across in the freezing wind. Barry was ecstatic! Up the valley then, and into a world of snow – Golden Eagle soaring, Red billed Chough and Alpine Choughs by the hundred, and lots of migrant Robins and Wheatears, as well as an initially puzzling Water Pipit. Another view of the Wallcreeper on the way down, and we retired after a welcome bowl of hot soup!

We awoke in somewhat chilly rooms on the third morning of our  Pyrenean trip. Looking out of my window I was amazed to see not one but no less than 9 Egyptian Vultures strutting about amongst the cattle in a field. Grabbing my mobile, I alerted Barry, who rushed out to get photos. We drove over the hill in cold but not unpleasant weather, into the Anso valley, then took the road up between the great beetling cliffs to Zuriza, where snow covered the ground completely. Plenty of Griffon Vultures, the odd Red Kite and Black Kite were seen, but not a lot else, so we crossed over into Navarra, and found lodging at the splendid Hostal Lola in Isaba. We attempted a trip higher up towards Belagua, but the snow that had driven hundreds of Red billed Chough and Yellow billed Chough down into lower meadows stopped us from going any higher, and blizzard conditions prevailed. We drove down the valley into better conditions and spent the afternoon in the Foz de Burgui, where the great cliffs are always intresting, and we saw Short toed Eagle and Booted Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture and Sparrowhawk before returning to the comfort of the ‘Lola’ for the night. Next morning the Belagua pass was no more friendly, drifting snow soon turning us back, so we turned west deep into Navarra to take a look at the great beech forest of Irati. Again we were thwarted by conditions, but not before we had seen a surprising Bonelli’s Eagle. We found a pleasant hotel in the village of Ochegavia, and the monastery nearby produced a Bullfinch and a very tame Nuthatch, whilt Barry found a Dipper along the river. Rain hammered down next morning, but cleared like magic as we left to drive back to the Roncal valley. The little road over to Zuriza proved to be excellent, then, with Yellowhammers, Rock Bunting, and Citril Finches in plenty, all showing well in the sunlit meadows.

Rock Thrush by Malcolm Palmer
Rock Thrush by Malcolm Palmer

We had retreated eastwards from wet Navarra and left the wondrous valley between Isaba and Zoriza, where so many birds were to be seen, joining the upper reaches of the Anso Valley, where we stopped to study the massive cliffs. In no time at all we were rewarded with fantastic views of what was for Barry a ‘lifer,’ the spectacular bonebreaking Lammergeier. We watched a pair flying in and out of the cliff, accompanied by the many Griffon Vultures, before we had to head south and over – eventually – to the main road into France. A slight geographical hitch found us in foreign territory – my ancient map didn’t show the tunnel that now takes all the traffic safely through into France! So, amidst some hilarity, we wound our way back over the top into Spain, and stopped at the ski resort of Astun, closed, but still with plenty of snow. Alpine Choughs seemed to be all there were to be seen, until a splendid male Rock Thrush showed itself, and even posed for a photo. But the cold was intense at this altitude, and we decided to drop down to Jaca to seek accommodation. This we eventually found along the road to Puente de la Reina – the splendid Hostal Aragón. Next morning we braved the low clouds to visit the ‘lost world’ of San Juan de la Peña, an unlikely area of mature forest on top of a hill, where we found a Northern Treecreeper, as well as several Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and the inevitable squirrels. As we descended into more agricultural, rolling country, with nice untended patches of woodland, birds became much more numerous. A Honey Buzzard flew over, and every hedgerow seemed to hold something. Subalpine Warbler, Northern Wheatears, Yellow Wagtails – these were just a few of the birds we found as we headed for the main road to Huesca, near where we found a pleasant enough spot for a bite of lunch before continuing.

We were on our way back steadily southwards from the freezing Pyrenees, and skirted the Provincial capital of Huesca to hit the Monnegros region, always a good bet for migrants – and this day was no exception. We took an apparently prohibited road along a canal – it seemed to be heading in the right direction, even if it said you weren’t supposed to use it. The first car we saw was a Guardia Civil one! He stopped us, but only wanted a chat! Just about every migrant songbird you can think of was along the hedgerows – Whinchats, Wheatears, Whitethroats, Subalpine Warblers and Bee eaters abounded, and the numbers of Pied Flycatchers were staggering. Crossing the Ebro we made for Belchite’s lonely plains again, and two Black bellied Sandgrouse were soon found close to the road. We again booked in at the excellent Rincón Cierzo, at Lécera, from where we were able to sally forth at an early hour next morning. The track across the plains was nice and muddy, but our objective was soon realised, when we saw an elusive Dupont’s Lark rise in its distinctive song flight. All the other larks were well represented – a splendid morning. We wound our way along minor roads to Gallocanta, where few birds were on the lagoon, then spent the night at Monreal del Campo. Next morning we were on our way home, and called in at the Marjal del Moro, soon seeing Glossy Ibis and Collared Pratincole, then putting the icing on the cake with a pair of Marbled Ducks – now remarkably scarce birds. It had been a wonderful week’s trip. The Pyrenees can be visited at any season, and spring – probably a little later than our visit! – is the best, but an autumn trip can also be very rewarding.