Spanish Pyrenees, June 2002

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


Christopher and Alison Hall

A chorus of Barn Swallows twittered outside our room at 3.30am. What a lovely way to start each day. Once light, huge Griffon Vultures would float low over the rooftops of higgledy piggledy terracotta pan tiles, where navy blue Spotless Starlings rang out their long descending whistles. And that's just before breakfast. After dinner, Scops Owl could be heard "peeping" in the darkness, while a stroll round the corner could often produce the spectre of a pair of Barn Owls emerging from their nest hole high in the church wall, to fly like ghosts across the night sky. El Rincón de Emilio, a traditional family run Spanish Hostal in the picturesque hill top village of Berdun, is the ideal base for exploring the beautiful valleys and mountains of Navarra and Aragón, where common everyday birds include Red and Black Kites, Griffons galore, Crag Martin, Black Redstart and Serin, with singing Nightingales as omnipresent here as Robins are back home.

A walk down the hill, through a vibrant rural landscape, to the nearby Rio Aragón, produced an exciting selection of farmland, woodland and waterbirds. A Hoopoe flitted moth-like between rustic farm buildings. With handsome Turtle Doves and Woodchat Shrikes perched on roadside wires, the surrounding cereal fields seemed to be full of Crested Larks, Corn Buntings and invisible calling Quail. Overhead the many raptors included a playful pair of majestic Short-toed Eagles and a Booted Eagle, clearly displaying its "headlights" each time it turned in the sun. Down by the river, a watch from the bridge revealed Common Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover, well camouflaged in their shingle home, along with a showy Yellow Wagtail. The riverside woods hid noisy Cetti's Warblers and the occasional flash of a male Golden Oriole. They don't come any brighter than this, although a musical party of Bee-eaters were worthy rivals.

Making a bee line for the Gabardito refuge, a pair of lovely Citril Finches feeding on the flowery pasture gave excellent scope views. On the trail through the pinewoods we had lively Crested Tits and our first of many Egyptian Vultures. Aiming for a cliff face in the hope of Wallcreeper, our patient stake out was rewarded with two of these highly prized birds, popping in and out of their nest crevice with that characteristic wing flicking action. After a very satisfying picnic lunch in glorious sunshine, we continued higher up the fabulous Hecho valley in search of more montane specialities. These included Chamois, huge ground squirrels known as Alpine Marmots, a dazzling male Rock Thrush and our first Lammergeier, soaring high above the head of the valley. On the lower slopes we also had very good views of Red-backed Shrike, Rock Bunting and a flock of Red-billed Choughs.

With another beautiful sunny day in store we explored a range of habitats in the stunning Roncal valley. Low down, a riverine wood was alive with the songs of Nightingale, Cetti's Warbler and Golden Oriole. The river gave us a flash of a Kingfisher and then a group of late migrant Honey Buzzards soared lazily by and away over the hills to the north. As the road wound ever higher we had Dipper on the racing river and Water Pipit in the alpine meadows. Approaching the French border, Alpine Choughs replaced their Red-billed cousins, giving very close views. From the border we gazed across a primeval landscape with wonderfully gnarled old pine trees, somehow managing to grow from almost bare rock, still bearing the remnants of last winter's snow. It was here that we managed to track down a pair of jumpy Ring Ouzels, which eventually showed very well for the whole group. A nice end to another super day's birding.

Today the weather broke as we headed west for the Lumbier gorge, so we delayed our walk for hot drinks in a local café. By the time we got to the gorge the rain lifted and the birds went into a frenzy of activity. The bushes were bursting with Cetti's, Subalpine and Melodious Warblers, plus Rock Sparrows and singing Corn and Cirl Buntings. After almost an hour we had only advanced a few hundred yards and so decided to retreat to the vehicle for lunch and start the walk in earnest afterwards. Cirl Buntings continued to impress as we set off through the maquis, with Dartford Warblers popping up at regular intervals. In a clear stony area we encountered a smart Black-eared Wheatear followed by Tawny Pipit, while a song to our left alerted us to the presence of Woodlark and we were soon stalking several of these dumpy looking birds as they darted among the bushes and foraged on open ground. Dropping down to the river, a small olive grove proved very productive with Nightingale and Wryneck in view at the same time! This was our first good look at a Nightingale but the Wryneck quickly stole the limelight and performed superbly by repeatedly perching in the open for all to see its cryptic markings and bizarrely contorted neck. Once in the gorge proper, we picked out several Alpine Swifts, larger and faster than the many Crag Martins hereabouts. The towering limestone walls of the gorge were covered in Griffons with many more whooshing around like huge flying carpets, making the Ravens and Egyptian Vultures look tiny in comparison. This was one of our most productive days.

Still in the grip of an unseasonal spell of weather we headed south to the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña. The pinewoods here were full of Citril Finches, especially juveniles, but also Crested Tits and Goldcrests. Eventually we teased out a lovely little Firecrest which performed nicely at very close range, occasionally flaring up a bright orange crown. Another highlight here was the delightful close up scope view of a Red Squirrel sitting quietly in a tree, feeding on a pine cone held between its little paws. After a brave open air picnic in a very cold wind and a welcome hot drink, we set off down to the Gállego valley in search of Great Reed Warbler, picking up a bonus Peregrine Falcon en route. We found the warblers with their harsh croaking song, but they were reluctant to show well in the now pouring rain. Who could blame them?

Onward to Riglos, where the village sits at the feet of some remarkable towering pink cliffs, home to yet more Griffons, Egyptian Vultures and Choughs, but also our main quarry, the Black Wheatear, which occurs here at the northern limit of its range. By now things were looking desperate as we scanned a windswept rain lashed hillside for any sign of movement, wondering what bird in its right mind would venture out in such conditions. Mercifully the weather improved and small black birds began to emerge. Soon they were everywhere, busily feeding young, but Black Redstarts, not wheatears! Suddenly David spotted something with a white rather than red tail. At last it was a Black Wheatear, followed by its mate. Now we could all retire to the village bar for a well earned hot drink. Could this really be Spain in June?

Our final day in the field, so we're off along the incredible Biniés gorge and into the stunning scenery of the Ansó valley, where a walk from the Linza refuge through tranquil beechwoods adds Marsh Tit and Short-toed Treecreeper to our list, making a grand total of 102 species for the group. Not bad considering some of the weather we had. Beyond the tree line, we stopped for lunch amid the wild flowers, in a hidden valley known as the Col de Petretxema, with Ring Ouzel singing high above. Suddenly the unmistakable outline of a Lammergeier came into view high above the col, circling effortlessly in the rarified air. As it planed across the face of a cliff, its cinnamon underparts and sheer size were clearly discernible, before disappearing over the ridge into French airspace. A fitting finale to an excellent week's birding.

Christopher and Alison Hall,
New Horizons (Bird Tours)