Wandering up the mountain valleys is a real treat.
Every day all day you will see griffons. Magnificent they soar to great heights and seldom do they flap their huge wings. On occasions you will see the spectacular display of griffons parachuting down from the sky onto a carcass. They come as if from nowhere. One minute the sky is clear, the next griffons are there in quite large numbers. Even if there is no carcass for them it is not uncommon to see 30+ griffons tracking along a mountainside in search for one.
This griffon had just been involved with about 35+ of his mates in attempting to separate a lamb from its mother. The ewe put up a good fight and was aided by some French people who charged the griffons. Clearly the griffons were very hungry as they were very tenacious and only left after much provocation. In 2011 we saw the same behaviour with griffons trying to take a new born calf from its mother.
In 2018 I saw 30+ griffons coming from all directions and parachuting down behind a ridge. On investigation I found they were stripping a sheep carcass. I flushed them up as they saw my head appear above the horizon.
Short Toed Eagles
Short toed eagles are very common and can be seen most days. Any of the valleys and mountain areas listed is likely to reveal them and they are unmistakeable.
A funny story from the campsite owner went as follows.
“Hey Chris do any eagles eat snakes?”
“Yes the short toed why?”
“Well I have just had a snake fall out of the sky onto my car bonnet!”
You can see from the picture how big these are. The black birds are choughs at about the same height. The lammergeier dwarfs them. This was taken in the Val d’Ossou, take a right out of Gavarnie. This is a well known place for them and they do breed in the valley. Val des Gloriettes is another good spot but keep looking up they could be anywhere in the high mountains. A friend of mine took a great shot of one flying right in front of him at the Port de Boucharo. It was wing tagged and he was able to get chapter and verse on her.
Generally around the area but my best site has been the Col de Soulor where in 2012 I had about 6 sightings during the day. This was three birds+ but I am sure I saw the same ones more than once.
When driving down the Val d’Azun on the way back I saw another and this time quite low over some fields. Nowhere to stop the car though.
Like the Lammergeier the Golden Eagle roams the high ridges. They are reasonably common, if you in the area for a week you are sure to see one. Any of the valleys and ridges will provide a view its just a question of looking up regularly.
Still have not got close enough to take a decent picture.
Crag Martins can be seen in the river valleys and towns. They like the Pont Napoleon bridge at St Sauveur and from here you can try to get a good picture. I have found this very difficult – they fly so fast and keeping the lens on them is frustrating.
They nest on buildings in most of the towns.
You read the books and think you know what a honey buzzard looks like. When you see them as silhouettes at a distance it all becomes a little more difficult. However when you see a flock of 31 buzzards in the same thermal you know the migration of honey buzzards is on. They are regulars in the valley at Luz and one landed in a tree only 100 yards from us when we were eating breakfast one morning but the best place is Col de Soulor, that’s where the 31 were.
This will be the most common bird you see in the mountains. They can be spotted perched on top of a rock then they flit off to catch insects in the grass. Any valley and mountain side will reveal them.
I have to say that this was a bit of luck. I was halfway up to the Cirque de Troumouse opposite the restaurant. This Wryneck suddenly appeared, its the only one I have seen in the Pyrenees in 20 years so don’t hold your breath.
Whilst clamberring up to the Taillon we stopped at a refuge just below the famous Breche de Roland and tossed this Alpine accentor a few crumbs. It was quite happy to feed at my feet. This would be at about 8000ft above sea level.
They can also been seen often on the closed road from the Port de Boucharo car park to the Spanish border.
Alpine choughs frequent the higher mountain valleys and passes. They are fairly wary but this one was on the top of Le Taillon near Gavarnie and was clearing up the remains of sandwiches left by very hungry climbers. It’s a bit of a struggle to get to the top here but the views are fantastic.
I also watched a pair at close quarters near the Port de Boucharo car park.
In September the area is full of pied flycatchers and you don’t need to go and find them. This one decided my car aerial was a good perch to spot flies and kept darting out and returning with a fly.
Another bird that can be found everywhere is the black redstart. Usually in September they look a bit scruffy but quite a nice bird nonetheless.
The common redstart was present in very large numbers in 2012 and a few in full summer colours. Most though were such as this one.
Timing of migration is key and we have found that for different species this varies from year to year.
In (2012) the valleys were full of redstarts, pied flycatchers and yellowhammers. There were however very few swallows and martins compared with 2010 when we were inundated with these. Sometimes honey buzzards are passing through in large numbers and in other years they seem to be largely missing.
This year I did not see any black kites but these pass through the pyrenees in huge numbers probably more towards the end of August though.
I struggle to get good pictures of these. They always seem to be in dappled shade and their contrasting plumage and the shade seems to leave me with poor images. Must try harder.
They can be found in all of the valleys where there are suitable trees. Try behind the restaurant at the Pont d’Espagne, in the bowl of the Cirque de Gavarnie or up the Maracadau valley.
Wow what a gorgeous bird. In summer and autumn you have to look hard for these and of course when moving around a rock face they look fairly plain. But, when the wings open the red and white pattern looks stunning. Look in the small gorge in the Val des Gloriettes and if you can make it the Breche de Roland. However, we have found them in more accessible places but nowhere near as often. Try the rock faces opposite the hotel restaurant actually in the Cirque de Gavarnie.
I had some real luck and found one actually in Gavarnie opposite the helicopter base feeding on the walls of a cafe.
They are cuddly and always great fun to watch. One thing is certain, they will see you before you see them and the whistle will warn all of their mates. In autumn they are much less wary though, they need to get weight on for the winter and can be found grazing most of the higher valleys on rock strewn grassy slopes.
On the way up to the Port de Boucharo they can be at the side of the road and you will see them scuttle away as you approach. In the spring once we found two of them boxing like hares do, superb fun to watch.