So, after a very successful spring back home, it was off to the Spanish Pyrenees with Naturetrek for our big holiday of the year.
Day One (Sunday) was basically the travel day. We had the convenience of flying to Zaragoza from Stansted, so that meant an easy train trip from Tottenham Hale direct to the airport, but the downside was that we were flying with Ryanair, which seems to be the only airline whose cabin baggage restrictions meant my new rucksack is just too big, forcing me to take my older, smaller one. Jem took my binoculars in her bag so I still managed to take most of the stuff I wanted to take. After a fairly uneventful flight – although I was surprised that the seats on Ryanair planes don’t even have pockets for magazines and things, which is surely taking their cost-cutting a bit too far – and a bit of rough descent into Zaragoza, we met the rest of our group and the guides, Phil and David, and also the hotel proprietor, Peter, who drove one of the minibuses for the journey north through the foothills to our base in Berdún. Leaving Zaragoza we noticed lots of Black Kites, a single Marsh Harrier, and a few Crested Larks. We also had a brief stop near the Mallos de Riglos to take a few photos and view the Griffon Vultures that were circling around the pinnacles in a very blustery wind. Soon after leaving we noticed an Egyptian Vulture float over the road – which at the time was best view I’d ever had of the species after seeing just one juvenile high up in the sky when we were in Andalucía back in 2013. After settling into the hotel and having a fine dinner, Jem and I headed to the one of the lookout points at the top of the village where I took a few long-exposure photos. My plan was to try to photograph the Milky Way at some stage during the week, but that would obviously be dependent on the weather.
Day Two began with great views of a Black Redstart in the garden in front of our room. After breakfast we walked on a winding track around the outskirts of the village to a riverside area described as the ‘badlands’. On the way down we noticed more Black Kites, Red Kites, a couple of Egyptian Vultures, and a large kettle of several dozen Griffon Vultures preparing for their day’s soaring. One Red Kite appeared to be carrying nesting material, but when I zoomed in on the photos I took I could see that it was carrying – as well as a ball of fibrous stuff – a small bird, probably a Great Tit. We also saw our first Melodious Warbler (#453 on the lifelist) singing from a nearby branch, and several Corn and Cirl Buntings, and a bit of a rarity: a Black Stork flying overhead. A Grey Wagtail flew over when we reached the bridge over the river, and on the other side we had at least two Golden Orioles fly past us, and a brief look at a Bee-eater too. On the way back up the track to the village we had further views of the Melodious Warbler, brief views of a Serin flying around, and a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in some scrubby trees. We also found a rather unwell-looking bat under the eaves of a small outhouse building as we made our way back to the hotel for lunch.
After lunch it was off to the Aragón River a short distance away for a second walk. Whilst here I noticed one of many small blue butterflies flitting around. For no particular reason I decided to have a look at one individual that I saw landing in a tussock and I suddenly realised it was struggling – it had been caught by a Crowned Mantis. I’ve always been interested in the mantid family of insects but I’d never seen one in the wild before, so this was particularly interesting. It didn’t seem to be too bothered as we all took close-up photos of it while it munched on its meal. Moving on we had a Marsh Harrier, lots more butterflies, a second mantis that had recently shed its skin, and at the end of the track, a Sparrowhawk which circled in front of us and then went into the woodland on the opposite bank, and then a Short-toed Treecreeper on the way back. More Orioles were heard but not seen. We bumped into another tour group on the way back and they told us that there were Bee-eaters near to where we’d parked our minibuses. As we neared I could see at least one Bee-eater perched by the nesting bank, but when we got closer it had gone. We waited a while but we only got a very brief further look, and I didn’t manage to get any photos.
Day Three began with a short walk high on a wooded hillside near the Hermitage of the Virgin of la Peña. We picked up views – eventually – of our first Western Bonelli’s Warblers (#454) and the Western subspecies of the Subalpine Warbler (which may well be split into a full species in the not-too-distant future). It took some coaxing to be able to get a view of either of these species, and I was particularly happy with the Subalpine Warbler as it’s one of my favourite birds and my attempts to get photos of the many Eastern subspecies we saw in Lesvos last year didn’t get me the results I wanted. One individual this time – after we eventually located it – perched obligingly for me and I managed to get a few frames. We also had a good look at a pair of Firecrests here, and there was a calling Cuckoo somewhere in the forest valley below. Next we made our way to the vulture feeding hide. There were a few vultures floating around, a nice Stonechat which perched several times right in front of the hide, and another Cuckoo calling somewhere nearby. Sadly, the man with the pig carcasses didn’t show up – for the second consecutive year for this tour. So we had to make do without the spectacle of the vulture feed, but we did get further Subalpine Warbler views as we walked back to the minibuses, plus a couple of Psammodromus lizards on a rock. A Short-toed Eagle floated past just before we left.
We had lunch at the monasteries of St Juan de la Peña, where a short woodland walk brought us further views of Firecrests, plus Crossbills, a Crested Tit and a Nuthatch. Moving up through more woodland to a lookout point where we got a spectacular Pyrenean vista, we heard a calling Black Woodpecker below us. I didn’t see it myself, but some of the group did. Back at base we had dinner and then headed out for our first attempt at finding an Eagle Owl. The light levels dropped and just before it got too dark a large owl-shaped silhouette floated off out the tops of the wooded hillside and off into the distance. Definitely our first Eagle Owl (#455), but not the greatest of views. As we drove off we soon found a Nightjar sat in the middle of the road. Unfortunately, as Phil turned off the minibus engine the headlights went out too, and the bird decided it was time to leave. We got a good close view of a hare on the way back, but no more Nightjars.
Day Four was our first real trip up at altitude as we made our way up to the Aisa Valley. Just as we were arriving David noticed a large raptor overhead, and excitedly identified it as a juvenile Lammergeier (#456). It wasn’t a bad view either, although it was against a bland white cloudy sky. The walk along the valley was a fairly long one, though not too challenging. We had broken cloud and warm sun all the way and we noted our first Alpine Choughs (#457), lots of Red-billed Choughs, distant Pyrenean Chamois, my first Citril Finch (#458), and various raptors overhead. Jem and I had the idea – when we booked the holiday – that we’d like to see some nice alpine meadows and this really gave us that. At least half the group were more botanically-focused and they had a wealth of orchids, saxifrages, helleborines and gentians throughout the week, and there seemed to be plenty for them to see here in particular. I was mainly keeping my eyes upwards to check out the raptors soaring over the mountaintops but I also took some time to photograph the landscapes and mountain streams. After a picnic lunch on a mound at the end of the valley some of us took the opportunity to climb up onto a higher ridge. This was the most challenging climb of the whole week – and probably the most challenging climb I’ve ever done – particularly as I was carrying a camera with 500mm lens attached, a tripod, and a heavy rucksack. As we slowly inched our way up I noticed an interesting raptor fly through the cleft just over our heads and a few minutes later it reappeared in front and headed off over the mountain ridge – an adult Lammergeier. We also noted the Rock Buntings on the rocky edge. When we finally got up onto the ridge we found ourselves at the snow line. The group moved on a bit further but Jem and I stopped to check out a dark thrush-like bird on a nearby bush. We assumed it was a Blue Rock Thrush, but were later told that it was unlikely, so was probably just a Blackbird looking a bit iridescent in the light. The downside of this distraction is that we didn’t notice the Lammergeier returning and floating right over us. I got some snaps as it flew away giving the rest of the group better views, but I was disappointed to have missed the chance to get better photos. As we began to head back down two more Lammergeiers appeared high in the sky and were driven off by an angry Golden Eagle. The Lammergeiers were seen off pretty quickly and headed back down through the valley and I managed to get a couple of shots of them against the snow and rock, but I had to admit defeat in getting anything special. Still, it wasn’t a photography tour, and so just seeing the birds is more than good enough for us. On the return leg we got a few more interesting sights: a pair of confiding Yellowhammers in the grass, a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush on a rocky slope, an Alpine Marmot that bounded past, and a Red-backed Shrike. This was the most exhausting day of the holiday and my feet were pretty sore (I’d also managed to fill my left hand with splinters when ascending the steep ridge), but it really helped us get in shape for the rest of the week.
Day Five was a drive south for a walk between the villages of Agüero and Murillo de Gállego. We began around the foot of the Mallos de Agüero – similar to those at nearby Riglos – and enjoyed the many Griffon Vultures and occasional Egyptian Vultures overhead. We found our first Western Orphean Warbler (#459) here, as well as Sardinian Warblers, Western Subalpine Warblers, Firecrests, and a Blue Rock Thrush that Jem found perched on a tree with a large centipede in its beak. The walk towards Murillo de Gállego brought us purring Turtle Doves, a few Bee-eaters (skittish as usual), Woodchat Shrikes, a brief flypast from a Golden Oriole, a singing Woodlark, yet another calling-but-hidden Cuckoo, more Red and Black Kites, a Booted Eagle, and lots more flowers and butterflies. The low-point of the holiday came after our picnic lunch when we all headed off through the village to a cafe for ice-cream whilst our guides were taken back to Agüero to pick up the minibuses. Jem was at the back of the group and somehow went missing and I ended up walking through the maze of narrow streets, calling her name in the burning heat. Luckily she’d found her way to the cafe via a parallel route. Panic over, but I desperately needed the ice-lolly to cool me down.
After this we drove up to the Castillo de Loarre for an hour’s birding before heading back to the hotel, and we saw a pair of aerobatic Peregrines on the way. Up here we had a stunning Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush sat on top of one of the castle walls right in front of us. Plenty of raptors soared overhead, including the usual Griffons and also a few Honey Buzzards and another Peregrine. There were Red-billed Choughs and Crag Martins all around, and I was the only member of the group that managed to get a look at a Hoopoe which flew out of the castle wall and around the rocks in front. We also found a huge grasshopper on the way back to the minibuses. We were in the second minibus on this day, driven by David, and we had some luck here. As we drove out onto the main roads we had the windows down and heard a Wryneck calling from the trees beside a junction. A very quick stop, but we got great views of the bird as it perched on an exposed branch in front of us. After our evening meal some of us went for a walk up through the village where I took a few more evening landscape shots. We had a drink at Phil and David’s hotel where David and I discussed the surprising lack of Scops Owls in the village. After Jem and I returned to our hotel I went out into the garden to try to photograph the night sky, when a male Scops started to call in the next field. Jem and I explored the surrounding roads to see if we could get a look at it, when a female began to respond from a tree right behind our room. We located the tree and I made some recordings, but even with a torch we couldn’t see the owl. Eventually it relocated to a nearby telegraph wire and we got a brief look at her before she moved on.
Day Six was back up the mountains, this time up to Portalet on the French border. On the way we made a brief stop at a roadside to see the rare Lady’s Slipper Orchid – which even had its own warden looking after it from a lay-by on the other side of the road – before we left the minibuses at the small square at Portalet. There was a Short-toed Eagle hovering just to the south and plenty of Black Redstarts around the track as we made our way up to the plateau and across the border into France. A small pond-like area of water brought us our first Water Pipits of the trip. There were several marmots around here, including one that we watched eating all the orchids in one particular meadow. We also found several Northern Wheatears and at least one Pyrenean Chamois up on the crest of the mountain ridge. After a lunch at an especially windy spot, those of us who wanted to see an Alpine Accentor set off up the steep mountainside to look for it amongst the rocky scree. Unfortunately, none were to be found, although we did find more Black Redstarts and another Chamois. Two very high Golden Eagles soared overhead and we also had a Red Kite come down over us, but it was a relatively light day on the raptor front. After a quick ice-cream stop in the cafe back in Portalet we headed back down to lower altitudes and back towards the village. After another fine evening meal we headed off for a second go at seeing the Eagle Owl. This time we had better luck as the owl swooped around the treetops and even briefly perched, silhouetted against the sky. After a few minutes it had gone and we began to notice storm clouds closing in and distant lightning. The drive back didn’t bring us any Nightjars this time, but we watched as the storm moved parallel to us and we just made it back to the hotel as it hit. I took the opportunity to try to photograph some of the lightning as it mainly skirted the village. I didn’t quite get the photos I was looking for, but I did get to hear the Scops Owls calling again, although a bit more distant this time.
Day Seven and it was back up to altitude on a cool and cloudy morning, eventually arriving at the Refugio de Gabardito where we left the minibuses and headed off along a forest trail. There were some good close encounters with raptors – especially Griffon Vultures – as they circled above the valley close to our eye level, and we’d also found an obliging Crested Tit and a brief Treecreeper. The reason for the walk was to reach the rock face at the end of the track in the hope of finding a Wallcreeper. We were prepared for anything up to a two-hour wait, but luckily it only took a few minutes for David to locate one high above our heads (#460). We watched it flitting around between the various rock faces and and ledges, and at one stage it even stayed in one place long enough to get the scope onto it. Other birds around here included lots of hirundines and a Kestrel which landed on a prominent ledge. A few more distant Lammergeiers were also seen from here, floating above the crest of the opposite mountain. We made our way back through the forest and had lunch by the refuge (where the cafe owner had angrily prevented us from using his picnic tables – and therefore ensured that none of us were going to be buying anything from him). It was still cool and cloudy up here, but we enjoyed watching the cows with their bells jangling, and there was a flock of Citril Finches that passed through the trees a couple of times too.
After lunch we drove back down the mountain and went for a walk along the Foz de Biniés gorge. By now it was burning hot, so the occasional shade cast by the cliffs was very helpful. Again, it was a great spot for raptors. Loads of Griffons, a couple of Egyptians, and a few Kites floated up and down the gorge. We looked for Dippers without any luck, but there were at least a couple of Grey Wagtails calling from the water below. I also managed to get a look at a Blackcap for the first time on the trip. At the end of the walk we had a good look at several butterflies drinking from a wet tyre track, and a Hobby with damaged tail feathers flew over too. When the minibuses picked us up it was just nice to get out of the sun – the only time all week that we’d felt a bit uncomfortable. Back at the hotel I was somewhat sidetracked by news of the Play-off Final. Had I not been here in Spain I’d have been at Wembley cheering Wednesday on, but sadly they fell short and will have to spend at least another season outside the Premier League. After dinner I tried to get some photos of the Milky Way again. It was a shame not to have had a proper cloudless night sky all week, but this was at least the best opportunity I’d had. I wandered around the village, taking shots from various locations, but the best celestial views I got were found from the hotel garden anyway.
The final day saw us check out of the hotel and get back on the road south. We stopped at a couple of locations near to Huesca, the first being a kind of reservoir. On the way we saw more Bee-eaters and had our first good views of a Hoopoe flying towards its nest site in an old out-building. When we got out of the minibuses by the reservoir we got good looks at Calandra Larks and a Greater Short-toed Lark that flew over our heads. There was also a new species for us: Western Cattle Egret (#461), plus Red-crested Pochards, a Woodchat Shrike, a Marsh Harrier, a couple of Purple Herons (the best views I’ve had of these to date), and a Little Ringed Plover. We also heard Great Reed Warbler, but couldn’t get a look. Then it was finally off to the Castillo de Montearagón for lunch. Here we had good views of both Black-eared and Black Wheatears, and I also got a final life tick: a Thekla Lark (#462) that sat on a rocky outcrop for a few moments. As we tried to relocate the Black Wheatear after it had flown down the hillside from the castle walls a small falcon flew straight past me. Nobody else saw it apart from Jem, but it looked good for Lesser Kestrel. After that it was the final drive back to Zaragoza and our flight home. Lots of Black Kites and a couple more Bee-eaters were seen, but nothing else to add to the list.
So, a pretty good holiday. I saw ten new life species: Melodious Warbler, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Lammergeier, Alpine Chough, Citril Finch, Western Orphean Warbler, Wallcreeper, Western Cattle Egret and Thekla Lark, taking my global lifelist up to 462. The only real failure was the Alpine Accentor, but my three main targets were the Lammergeier, Wallcreeper and Eagle Owl – if we’d seen no other new species I’d still have come away very happy. The vulture feeding would have been nice to see but there wasn’t much we could do about that. I was also happy to have seen the Western Subalpine Warbler for the first time even though it’s not a full species yet. If I counted correctly we saw 106 different bird species. Aside from the birds it was interesting to see so many butterflies, and the Crowned Mantis was also a highlight. Although I’m not really into flowers the botanical focus made it refreshingly different to the trips we normally go on, and I really enjoyed the clean air, the alpine meadows and the stunning mountain landscapes. The guides were very good – working well together and displaying an incredible wealth of knowledge across all the different flora and fauna. And the hotel was also very nice with friendly hosts, comfortable rooms, and great food and wine. And weather was very comfortable for the most part too with minimal rain and plenty of sun. We chose our holiday well!
A full album of photos can be found on my Flickr page.
Prints of some of the photos can be purchased here.