Richard Smart - Nature Photography

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      Haute Pyrenees - France


 

It's a long way, about 900 miles from Gloucester, but it is worth it. 
The Pyrenees stretch from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and define the border between France and Spain.  Look over the border into Spain and in places you see a sun baked moonscape.  Look back into France and you see green mountain valleys with substantial forests of pine and deciduous trees.  The high peaks can be 4000m but there are many access roads that take you up high to view the glorious scenery and wildlife.
We have been going now for about 15 years mainly in the first two weeks of September.  This is a period when you can see a good number of migrating birds, particularly raptors.
The area we find most attractive is the region deep in the mountains south of Lourdes.  Luz St Sauveur is an excellent place for a base and allows easy access to several main valley systems including the world heritage site the Cirque de Gavarnie.
The area is not spoilt by tourism but embraces it and acknowledges the importance of outdoor activity and natural history.

Click for an overview Google map

 There are ski centres and these in a way are a benefit because they ensure that access to the higher mountain slopes are accessible both in summer and winter.
The following pictures and yarns on this site are a compilation of various trips.  We still have unfinished work, I am not satisfied with the photography I have done there so I need to go back.
If you are looking for a holiday destination and you like beautiful mountain scenery with crystal clear rivers in tree lined valleys filled with wonderful wildlife - go, you won't regret it.

Click to see species pictures I have taken in the region.

Click to see a full list of species I have seen, (there are still many to be found and added)


Places to visit.
Col de Solour / Col d'Aubisque.
The heading picture shows the Col de Solour (well known by Tour de France cycling fans).  Each year an enthusiastic birding group mount a watch here to count whatever passes.  They have a large chart on the ground to tot up numbers.  I have seen booted eagle, short toed eagle, golden eagle, griffon and egyptian vulctures, lammergeier, osprey, marsh harrier, goshawk, sparrowhawk, honey buzzard, common buzzard, kestrel, red kite, black kite, alpine chough, black stork, raven, crow, yellowhammer, stonechat, whinchat, hoopoe,  meadow pipits, all from this spot.
The Col de Solour is at the head of a most beautiful valley - the Val d'Azun.  A wide valley it allows plenty of sun in and provides breathtaking views.
On from the top is the Col d'Aubisque, further wildlife interest and superb views. 
Cirque de Gavarnie.
Gavarnie sucks in the tourist coaches and the campervans but don't be put off.  The coach passengers generally don't go more than 500 yards from the coach and the area is so large that you can be on your own after a 10 minute walk.  There is a main path to the main glaciated bowl - the huge and impressive Cirque de Gavarnie - but keep to the right of this and you can be in an open area with great bird watching.  Overhead are all the main raptors including Lammergeier regularly.  Notable small birds include crested tits, redstarts - black and common, pied flycatchers, firecrests and goldcrests, stonechats, and whinchats. Choughs and ravens circle overhead.
Port de Boucharo.
If when approaching Gavarnie and are challenged to pay for parking you might prefer to announce that you are going to the Port de Boucharo. The Port is the point at which the French road stops at the border with Spain at about 7000 ft.  Fortunately the Spanish have not yet built the road from their side and therefore its a dead end and you need to park at the top.  This is a great advantage though, Very little traffic and places to stop all the way up you can scan the rocky mountain side for rock thrush and rock bunting. Alpine and red billed chough will be around and if you wander on from the top car park along the rock strewn redundant road you can frequently see alpine accentors.  If you draw a blank on birds (very unlikely) you can amuse yourself marmotte spotting. You will hear their whistles all the time but you need to get your eye in.

The Breche from close to the refuge.


The Spanish side - great wallcreeper country.

Breche de Roland.
Now this is a bit more of a challenge but it is fairly reliable for wallcreeper.  In September wallcreepers are still fairly high up (although I did see one on a restaurant in the centre of Gavarnie).  You need good boots and some determination.  The route is obvious and there are plenty of people to follow.  Leave the Port de Bucharro car park and head to the road end at the Spanish border.  Turn east onto a path taking you along the mountain side.  When you get to a fast flowing stream you need to start climbing up a zig zag path.  Then you have the exciting bit, you have to cross the stream - sounds easy - make sure you hang onto the chains.  More zig zags and you get to a refuge.  You will need a cup of tea now.  Eat your sandwiches and feed the alpine accentors, alpine choughs, snow buntings which are there quite often.  The most bizarre thing I saw there was a stoat (yes a stoat at 7000 ft). Now if you have not seen a wallcreeper yet (they are fairly scarce) you might stand a better chance in the Breche de Roland itself.  You can see the breche from the refuge.  It does not look far but it will take about 50 mins. steep climbing over a scree slope, a small glacier, and lastly boulders.  When there you can see straight into Spain with the Ordessa gorge in front of you.  The landscape looks like the moon.  The curtain walls either side of you are a hot spot for wallcreeper - I saw two pairs there at the same time.
If you still have energy to spare (and time) carry on up to the Taillon - the peak to the west of the breche. The height allows you to see for 10s of miles along the peaks of the Pyrenees. By this time though you will really know you are at altitude and your lungs will be gasping a bit.
Not for the faint hearted but a great day out.  Start early, check the weather forecast and take food water and extra clothing and walking poles.
The last time I did it was when I was 65 and I once saw a group of American retired tourists in the Breche itself.  They were coming down using the five point technique, two arms, two legs and a bum.
Val des Gloriettes.
Signposted from Gedre. Park at the top car park alongside the dam. Follow the path up the valley as far as you want but about 2km up is a small gorge.  This has proved good for wallcreeper (the picture is from there). This valley is very good for choughs and lammergeier.  This is where I saw two lammergeiers link talons.  I saw rock bunting here and golden eagles can usually be seen.
The river is good for dipper.

From the car park I saw 29 griffons pass around the mountain face towards the Cirque de Troumouse.

Marcadau valley.
Through Cauterets and up to the Pont d'Espagne you will find an enormous car park to start your walk.  From here there are two valleys the Gaube to the left and the Marcadau to the right. I prefer the Marcadau - fewer people and not so steep.  I had 15 mins of the best birdwatching here in my life.  Magpies and crows were making a real fuss in some scrub on a rock face. Within no time griffon vulctures started to parachute down from the sky (15 in all). They were diving into the scrub and looked as if they might damage themselves but I guess they are very tough birds. A few minutes on and an adult and a young golden eagle passed high over to have a look, then another couple of minutes and a lammergeier.  After about 15 minutes I was just putting the camera away when a short toed eagle came along and circled over my head, whipped out the camera again and got some decent photos.
Further up the Marcadau where it starts to climb into the mountain peaks I found an area of trees that had been hacked to pieces, ripped off bark and large holes. I heard it "peeeew",  "peeeew", then I saw a large black bird fly from one of the trees, yes black woodpecker.
All around the car park and in the trees on the way up both valleys expect to find crested tits and gold/fire crests.
The restaurant at Lac d'Gaube serves the most delicious trout.  If you don't fancy the hour walk up you can always get the ski lift.
Lienz
Take a right turn off the road to the Col de Tourmalet (from Luz) to a wooded area at Lienz. This is a hot spot for black woodpecker apparently although I have so far (only two visits) been unlucky.  Also white backed woodpecker is reported here but careful searching will be required.
The woodland verges provided great views of common redstart in 2012.
Plateau de Saugue
Driving towards Gavarnie you will pass through Gedre.  On a hairpin bend as you leave you will see a road over a bridge signposted Plateau de Saugue.  This winds up steeply, follow this until you reach the end at a point that overlooks the Cirque de Gavarnie. The views are spectacular but so is the birdlife. I have seen hen harrier here many times and short toed eagle are common. I even had an agitated farmer once ask me if I had seen any bears.  He could see I was using binoculars and there is a great deal of controversy regarding the reintroduction and protection of bears in the region.  You will notice graffiti such as "death to bears (Ors)" or even "death to shepherds".
I have often looked at the kestrels in this area which group.  They have always looked a little different to me and this year I got proof of lesser kestrels.  Forgive the photo but I think it illustrates the point.