Mike and I were up early enough for a walk down to the Rio Esca before breakfast and despite the fact that it was technically still dark we did hear several tawny Owls, the fizzing and popping of the local early rising male Black Redstarts, the peeping of a Kingfisher and a white fronted bodkin that careened past my head and could only have been a Dipper.
|The hotel and it’s wondrous geraniums...|
Breakfast was fine and the coffee strong and Julen soon arrived to whisk us out for the day. The first Red-billed Choughs descended into the valley from their cliff top roosts as we packed the van. We were heading north east towards the French border passing through Isaba (where Julen lives and picking up lunch) before climbing up past Griffons and migrant Kestrels to the rugged stunted pine forest clinging to the jagged limestone pavement beyond Roncalia.
Slowing after a bend I spied some big fat Crossbills from the bus window and shouted a stop. It was good to get out after all those upward wiggles and the chill mountain air soon freshened us all up. The Crossbills performed very well and some were even giving song flight but the calls were also very interesting with the majority sounding distinctly deeper and more Parrotish that Common. Although they appeared big headed there was nothing about the large bills to suggest anything other than the expected. A musical little flock of Citril Finches bimbled over and two briefly perched along with a fine male Serin. A Black Redstart sang and a Mistle Thrush rattled from a pine top. This is the main Capercaille location in the area but although the trees are sparse the terrain is impossible. Venturing off the road must be an adventure all by itself. I suddenly heard the mournful mew of a Black Woodpecker. It called again but was a long way off and no amount of coaxing by Gerard and his excellent imitations could persuade it to come and investigate.
Onwards and quite literally upwards, around the loop-the-loop bend (some engineering) and past a rather rotund and camera shy Alpine Marmot and into France. The landscape flattened out somewhat with ice smoothed curves and grassy slopes with attendant groups of both Red-billed and Alpine Choughs but we did not stop and pressed on past la Pierre St Martin ski resort and then onto the D441 where we descended into the lush damp and misty world of the Pyrenean Atlantic coast forest where we would be searching the Foret d’Issauix for the very localised lilfordii race of White-backed Woodpecker which is confined to just a few pockets in these mountains and similar spots in Italy, Turkey and the Balkan states (see I was paying attention Gerard!). This southern form was once treated as a separate species – Lilford’s Woodpecker – and perhaps one day soon it will again but to get that opportunity we had to see one first.
The towering branchless shafts of the smooth barked Beech trees disappeared into the murk and although there was plenty of both Lilford’s and Black Woodpecker evidence in the numerous stumps and standing dead wood, of the birds there was no sign and we had to be content with cracking views of Crested Tits, Marsh Tits, Nuthatches and Common Treecreepers. With selective but inherently destructive logging of the Beeches taking place within earshot we decided to cut our losses and head back out of the gloom.
A brief stop just beyond the ski resort produced a very brief Alpine Accentor for Gerard, several very annoying Dunnocks obviously still on their mountain breeding territories, a nice flock of dapper little Citril Finches, Wheatears, several Water Pipits and a wheeling flock of Alpine Choughs while Griffs cruised overhead.
|David still trying to bird with his straightjacket on...|
We double backed and Julen took the van up and path that only a 4x4 should really have been attempting before coming to a halt on a grassy plateaux basin at over 2000m. There were birds all around and the next couple of hours were spent exploring the area. Mixed flocks of Citrils, Serins, Goldfinches and Linnets with the odd Chaffinch too fed on the low thistle heads while Black Redstarts, Wheatears and more irritating Dunnocks were scattered all about. White and Grey wagtails and strange looking Water Pipits with no big white supercilliums or even noticeable wing bars (but nice white tail edges) fed in the sheep pens. Even the call was even more Meadow Pipit like that the Rainham foreshore birds that we get. There were even a couple of ground feeding Willow Warblers and a fly over Yellow Wagtail while high up in the blue a flock of Lesser Black-backed Gulls headed south over the peaks.
|Mountain Violet of some sort|
There were other things in the sky too... massed flocks of piping, tumbling Alpine Choughs, several Kestrels and Griffons, Peregrine, a lone Honey Buzzard and best of all the much hoped for Lammergeirs with at least three adults seen scanning the ground below for a carcass to scavenge. They are still one of my favourites and those long narrow wings and Maltese Cross shape are a silhouette never to be forgotten.
Neil then pulled out a little bit of mountain magic and found a Wallcreeper flouncing around on those scarlet and pied spotty wings on a low escarpment not too far away. There was much jubilation and punching of the air and each other and I was able to then the team of my 100% strike rate with this species – something I had not dared to say before we came away. It soon moved on around the other side of the bluff and despite searching only Neil saw it again as it moved once more.
|Wheatear after a spot of lunch|
Lunch of more finest Iberico ham and fruit saw us happy before heading back down to the Spanish side albeit without any more Alpine Accs or Snowfinches which must still be occupying higher elevations.
We passed a mass gathering of Alpine Choughs at the roadside as they got themselves ready for an early night roosting in this amazing limestone sinkhole...
A stop for a coffee and leg stretch at a campsite on the valley floor provided us with a Whinchat, Black Redstart and bobby White Wagtails as well as a very obliging Nuthatch that spent some time investigating our camera bags and a Carrion Crow making the most astonishing noises I have ever heard from a corvid!
We took the next left and headed (at Julen cross country speed) up a dirt and gravel forest road until we popped out in an alpine meadow looking up to a stand of thick, twisted trunked pines and old beech at a spot called Pass Maze. Time for some more woodpecker action or so we hoped but despite our best efforts we only managed calling from both Black and the elusive Iberian Green and neither showed in the time we spent there. It was time well spent though with Griffons on permanent view along with our first Ravens, Peregrine and amazingly high Red-billed Choughs.
Both Treecreeper species along with Coal, Marsh and Crested Tits were foraging in the pines and a Chiffchaff sang below us. The sun even came out and warmed our bones and encouraged Wall and Meadow Browns, Speckled Woods, Clouded Yellows and Common Blues to venture out. Grasshoppers were plentiful and I spent a while tracking a couple of hoverflies which I think are of the Dasysyrphus genus. The Autumn Crocuses were popular with pink flowers pushing through the short sward and the scent off the Juniper scrub filled the senses with the thoughts of a cold G&T.
|Mike in his fetching... umm... err... kilt... I think|
Several small Oil type beetles were seen with their distended abdomens and large Dor Beetles thrummed around with the sun shining off metallic wing cases and making it look like they had a pair of large silvery eyes!
With our chances exhausted and our bellies rumbling we called it a day and headed the short way back to Burgui where the Dipper duly obliged and a couple of large Crayfish worked their way over a silt covered boulder while the Black Redstarts serenaded us back in for the evening.
Dinner was once again exceptional and we continued our Rioja assisted education about how the Basque people had in fact invented nearly every product (the hairpin bend for instance but NOT the Basque itself which is absolutely French), food (wine and cheese), sport (including tennis and football) and even philosophical concepts –... and don’t get them started on Ferdinand Magellan (he was Portuguese – not Spanish – or Basque) as his navigator, Juan Sebastián del Cano (who was very definitely Basque) was actually the first person to circumnavigate the globe as his Captain was already as stiff as a Norwegian Blue by the time they got to the Philippines... oh well...
After another good night’s kip we headed our early to venture back up to Pass Maze where a Black Woodpecker was being incredibly vocal but refusing to reveal itself. Eventually I picked her up she flew in to a closer tree showing that white dagger of a bill and red nape patch. For those Pic Noir virgins amongst the crew there was much happiness. It would have been great to see one perched but sometimes you just have to be thankful! Little flocks of Citril Finches moved through the pines while the same tit species as yesterday kept us company and we added a bushy Fox, Roe Deer and a dashing Red Squirrel to the list too!
On to the main job for the day and so back up the valley to a spot below where we had the Crossbills the day before. We pulled off at a disused hotel, part of which is now the Angel Oloron mountain refuge (a bothy) and after absorbing the sight and sound of a flock of 250 mixed Choughs we struck out for the meadows below and the dense broadleaved woodland jammed into the steep water cut gullies in search once again of Lilford’s Woodpecker.
We wended our way down through bell clanging Alpine cows and chunky Pyrenean ponies with Water Pipits around their feet and Black Redstarts and Wheatears on the rocks before entering the eerily quiet woodland below. The next few hours were spent amongst wonderful towering beech trees growing on rocky, boulder strewn slopes but with nothing to show for our patience and long slog. It was incredibly windy, which did not help but there was still so little to be seen or heard. In fact although I heard Nuthatches, Treecreepers and a few tits and Blackbirds, I never actually saw anything until we had the sky once again and a Griffon flew over. Julen and Gerard were as frustrated as we were and a pair of Yellowhammers on the walk back out were scant consolation as a trip tick. We used the shelter for our lunch but everyone was too knackered to talk and I just looked out at the stunning vista as day dreamed over more Lammergeirs...
|There were some interestingly inappropriate fungi...|
|Huge leaf like Lichen|
After this we tried for Alpine Accentors alongside the road but amazingly once again we were thwarted by the boulder hopping Dunnocks who seemed to think it was amusing to be occupying the winter haunts of their plumper cousins. The Alpine Choughs were excellent though and the views today were so much better with a large swathe of France being laid our below us. It was a bit chilly in shorts and sandals but I persevered!
|Looking into France|
|The Marmots showed a little better!|
|Mountain Iberico Ham factory|
|Alpine Chough harvesting Juniper berries|
Coming back down the mountain we saw a few Griffons dropping in and pulled off the road to see what they had found... as it was they were just loafing around on a grazed slope with over twenty down at one stage and other s dropping in from a great height obviously thinking that they had found a carcass. Simply superb views at close range of these huge birds...
Back in the valley bottom a juvenile Griffon was found perched on a hawthorn bush eyeing up some scrawny lambs – not that he would have taken one but I suspect that he was just hoping that one would peg it before his hungry eyes!
Our next stop was for more caffeine respite and the campsite at Zuriza offered the most astonishing views of the Sierra de Alano with towering Limestone cliffs of sheer smooth rock with only a sequence of caves along a fault line breaking the flatness and these were clearly home to the local vultures whose millennia of guano streaked the walls below each opening. The nearer, lower slopes were checked for Chamois and Julen soon found a small group and with scopes out we soon reached nine of these along with three female Red Deer. Meanwhile our first Crag Martins hawked over the meadows and a Pied Flycatcher called.
|There are Chamois and Red Deer in this shot!|
One more stop and a final chance that day for Iberian Green Woodpecker. The rain had started to fall and the temperature dropped and our vigil in the meadows only gave us another Yellowhammer, two Whinchats and some damp feet....
Time for more Rioja I think....