Monday 31 July 2023

Thirty Years Ago - June - July 1993


[Eds: I can find no reference to me actually doing any British birding at all and was just in full Uni work mode. Thankfully the Spanish Pyrenees came to the rescue late in the month.

Middlesex Poly had a Climbing Club which I joined solely to be able to go on this heavily subsidised week away in the mountains.  I seem to remember that technically there were only two or three people actually interested in climbing and most saw it as the chance of a booze up on the continent!  I on the other hand saw it as an opportunity to try and see some of my most wanted mountain birds.]

26th June:

Dad drove me over to Ponders End in the wee small hours, stopping on the way to see how many rucksacks we could stuff into the back of a Carlton at Kate’s house to save them having to walk round with their bags.  Thus on a mild Saturday morning we headed down to Dover for a smooth crossing over to Calais on the ferry. A female Peregrine followed us out of the port with many Fulmars and Kittiwakes.  Two Gadwall heading west were a surprise while Swifts and Gannets were encountered all the way across along with a lone Great Skua.

Soon we were wending our way out of the French port picking up two Crested Larks, a single Med Gull and a even a male Golden Oriole that flew alongside the coach. Hours of monotony followed. The French countryside was very flat and boring [Eds: sorry Priscille if you ever read this!] with only sporadic patches of trees and the odd hedge and hence little was seen other than Larks, Corn Buntings, Turtle Doves and Red-legged Partridges [Eds: I obviously did not think at the time that these would have been my first ‘proper wild’ birds.]

The traffic through eastern outskirts of Paris was atrocious but a nice Melodious Warbler was seen in some bushes while we were stationary! We even saw the Eiffel Tower through the congregation of tower blocks and cranes jostling for the skyline.  Our first stop was well after leaving Paris behind and I spent the ten minute break trying to identify and singing Sylvia Warbler that eventually became my first Orphean.  A few Chaffinches and a singing Wryneck were heard.  Raptors started to be seen and before it got dark I had notched up 16 Buzzard, four Black Kite, two Red Kite, Honey Buzzard, two Marsh Harrier and a female Montagu’s Harrier.  Kestrels were numerous and in a stretch of pine forest I saw two Woodlarks chasing a Sparrowhawk.

We made two other short stops in the coach with an unopened agricultural museum whose courtyard was excellent for playing frisbee!  A Black Redstart was seen along with a couple of parading Crested Larks. The last stop was in a small village in a river valley and Swifts screamed through the rooftops in the warm air and Grey and White Wagtails fed in the square.  Herons of various species moved overhead towards the river and marsh presumably to roost and I counted eight Grey, three Purple, eight Night Herons and three Little Egret along with a male Marsh Harrier.

I eventually dozed off and was woken at some ludicrous hour to be told that we were lost and did I have a map! The next thing I knew it was 3am and we had arrived at our camp site about a mile from the village of Torla on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees .  Tired limbs and brains had to be awakened as we still had to put up out tents in the dark.  It was a stunning night with the whole of the Milky Way strung out overhead , only obscured in places by the obviously high relief of the surrounding silhouetted landscape.  Only morning would reveal more.

My orange Vango (?) tent. I even took my scope and tripod!

27th June:

For me this was not far away as I made the mistake of peering outside at 6.50.  I was knocked back by what I saw – huge stepped cliffs surrounded us, the lower slopes covered in thick mixed woodland while higher up small green slopes and scattered pines gave way to precipitous limestone crags and in some places snow. Initially the only sound was of the Rio Ara gushing below but soon I picked up Garden Warblers and trilling Serins and wonderful parties of Alpine Swifts that chittered in a fashion horribly close to the noise I image beings from the Dungeon Dimensions make – I will have to ask Rincewind [Eds: I was in the height of my love for Terry Pratchett Discworld books] These agile creatures were joined by many House Martins and few chunky Crag Martins and several Choughs whose nest I subsequently found.

A glance up at the sheer rock face opposite provided me with my first Egyptian Vultures with an adult and immature bird.  The sun was just contemplating visiting our part of the Odesa when across the valley glided a huge adult Lammergeier. All too soon it disappeared but my scanning produced the first Griffon of the trip.  Three vultures in under an hour.  I was quite pleased with myself.

By now others were stirring and so I had some breakfast [Eds: no idea at all if we had to make this ourselves. I remember no cooking or even eating of any sort!]  and then explored a bit further around the campsite finding an aggressive pair of Red-backed Shrikes and a few Yellowhammers.  There were plenty of butterflies and I identified Spanish Marbled Whites, two Blues, Grizzled-type Skipper and a rather large ApolloCommon and Catalonian [Eds: as it is now split to] Wall Lizards were seen around the walls of the toilet block but the pride of place went to the male Ocellated Lizard at over a foot long.  He was bright lime green with blue flank spots and was a most imposing beast as he watched me from his small dry stone wall.

We hung around the camp till midday and popped into Torla where Serins and Black Redstarts sung from the rooftops and Common and Pallid Swifts screamed through the eaves. We then headed up the valley in the coach to some waterfalls and pools that we approached after a dodgy scree slop descent.  We intended to go for a swim but the water was absolutely freezing.  I almost wet in waist deep but I soon lost the feeling in my feet and lower legs and was somewhat worried about that feeling reaching higher up so I scrambled out. Some of the more hardy souls – namely the girls, went completely in! the sun was beating down and the water gurgled – it was perfect and high above Alpine Choughs danced and Alpine Swifts rocketed between them.

Pallid Swifts

A pair of Golden Eagles circled with barely a beat and were untroubled by the Choughs and another Eagle – a Bonelli’s was a welcome addition to my life list while Ravens tumbled lower down. Chaffinches, Marsh and Great Tits sung in the woods around us and Grey Wagtails were on the river.

I tried to identify some of the flora including the Pyrenean-violet (Ramonda myconi) with its hairy wavy leaves, Columbines, vivid pink Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) and the huge Pyrenean Saxifrages.  From a rosette of long leaves a large droopy cascade of white flowers projected looking – high on the cliff walls, like little sheep.

Back at the coach we had to wait around for James and Stewart to return from untangling their climbing ropes and this gave the chance to scan around once again.  Griffons circled and I could see some truly crazy climbers dangling of ropes over an immense drop.

Back at camp I was informed that if I wanted to climb Monte Perdido I should get packing as Phil, H and Jo were leaving for a three day trek in just two hours!  This would be my best chance to connect with the alpine specialities I so wanted to see but I had no idea of just how much I had bitten off. After munching some bangers and beans I hastily and rather ineffectively packed my rucksack including my trusty geological hammer just in in case I needed it.  It was quite strange having your hand shaken by your friends wishing you luck as if you might just not make it back.  

[Eds: Monte Perdido is the third highest peak in the Pyrenees at 3355m (11,007 feet) and as you will see, we had no right even to be attempting to summit – fortune, in this instance favoured the foolish but I still wonder how we did not actually come a cropper up there]

We set off at 9pm into the receding light and powered up the road for nearly 90 minutes and got to the first refuge beyond the little car park, hearing the woods go to sleep with singing Song Thrushes and Robins but no hoped for Eagle Owl hoots.  A very large Toad [Eds: which I now know to be Spiny Toad – a split from Common Toad] crashed through the verge-side vegetation but other than a few Bats there was no other wildlife on the move.

Phil, H and Jo making camp

28th June:

There is strictly no camping in the Ordesa boundaries so Jo and I decided to bivvy out on the concrete pad around the refuge while Phil and H put up their tent. On arising at 5.15 I wandered down to the river to get some water and heard a vehicle approaching.  It was the Rangers and I shouted to the others to turn the light the torches off! I lurked while the Parc Jeep screeched to a halt and two Rangers leapt out commando style.  After a quick dressing down they sped off again!

We set off just after 6am and Jo and I got up quite a lead and only stopped after about an hour of uphill walking.  This had taken us through varying habitats including pine and mixed deciduous woodland with towering beech trees. There were few birds about but amongst the Tits I was pleased to find several Cresteds although they were an absolute bugger to see.   At our drink stop, Short-toed Treecreeper were singing and were easily tracked down. A very dark Red Squirrel was less obliging and Jays were everywhere and were probably the most common bird I saw. Phil and H caught us up and as they did a raucous call attracted my attention that for some reason I just knew was Black Woodpecker. I started to scramble up the slope and suddenly a black shape bounded through the Ash trees but the call was still coming from straight in front.  A huge hole thirty foot up had a male Black Woodpecker perched outside complete with red crown, white eyes and ivory bill. A youngster hung half out of the next and also had a red crown.  The male then departed and attempted to call the young bird out of the hole but all it did was whimper.  Truly a wonderful bird and even more impressive than I could ever have imagined.

Black Woodpeckers

On again and the forest was starting to thin out and by now the sun was beating down fiercely. Only a few Alpine Swifts and Alpine Choughs cruised the tops but there were no Vultures . We then made it to the last stepped waterfalls and from just above them we had our first view of our imposing goal – Monte Perdido with its summit capped by snow. We were now in the upper reaches of the Ordesa valley in an alpine region complete with cows with cow bells. The vegetation changed as the trees disappeared leaving low grass, Orchids, Saxifrages and a small pink Rhododendron ferrugineum. Amongst the boulders came the whistling of Alpine Marmots but my stalking only gave me a few brief views. Black Redstarts and Northern Wheatears were singing everywhere.

The boggy areas around the streams that entered the river were home to several pairs of immaculate Water Pipits along with Meadow Pipits and Grey Wagtails. A small Linnet flock was a surprise but the birds with them were, in some respects, not.  Five delightful Citril Finches that looked like a mix between a Serin and a Canary.  Three Chamois became my second new mammal of the day.

We continued up the valley passing more belled Cows before reaching the Cascada de la Cola de Caballo – the Horse Tail Falls.  The path took us up the walls of the Cirque de Sosa to get to the refuge above.  There were two official routes – the first using a rope and pre-placed pegs was out of the question with such large rucksacks and the other was up a much longer tedious winding path up the scree slope. Phil opted to take H and I up the middle route which would involve climbing two chimneys. It was a lot more tricky that we thought but in the intense sun we clambered up the first rock face. Phil went on to scout out the second and came back sheepishly apologising it not only went up twenty feet but also went down a hundred. Thus we had to retrace our steps but then cut across to the original path about half was up.  A male Citril Finch sung from a stunted pine growing right out of the cliff face. Butterworts and Burnt Orchids grew in the boggy areas.

Cascada de la Cola de Caballo

We all made it to the next elevation and quenched our thirst straight from a gushing streamlet running out over pinky Marble. Jo had taken the direct approach up the scree slope and we found him exhausted on a large slab of limestone surrounded by absolutely stunning meadows. The list of Rock Roses, Legumes, Lilies, Orchids and Saxifrages was amazing.  A brew was needed and some time to regain some energy.  Bees, Butterflies and Beetles milled around us while Alpine Choughs cavorted on the thermals and had a pop at a passing Peregrine. The Marmots also saw him coming and Raven kronked higher up. Back down in the valley an Egyptian Vulture passed below us but Black Redstarts were the only visible passerines at this point although a singing bird reminded me of Rock Thrush.

Contemplating the view after scaling the Cascada de la Cola de Caballo

Some Brits passed us on their way down and so we asked them what the mountain was like. ‘ No problem’ they said ‘no need for ice-axes or crampons’.  I was pleased as I had neither. Little did we know. With that we packed up and I put back on my disgustingly rancid, sweat and tannin Stained (from my belt) t-shirt and off we went. The last two hours to the refuge were a bit of a blur and ever upwards and quite tricky at times but I did see my first Alpine Accentor of the climb.  As we approached the refuge I dread to think what the assembled Europeans thought of the four dishevelled British hikers. H booked us some beds for the night and we set about sorting out our gear. Much to my horror I had not picked up a spare T-shirt and only a pair of shorts instead! Thus I was left with a vest for evening wear and my rather interestingly odoriferous, multi-stained white t-shirt for everything else. To compound issues I had also failed miserably to bring enough food – five Mars Bars, a tin of ravioli, four stale rolls, a jar of honey and a rather chewy malt loaf is not what I would call good eating for three days in the field. We could have dined in the refuge but at approximately £30 per head for a three course meal, our meagre funds would not even allow such an idea to be contemplated.

While preparing our own dinner the cloud started to build up and this forced the circling Griffons to descend. Obviously a storm was brewing. I went for a short walk and managed to track down some Marmots and their whistles echoed around the valley. Alpine Choughs were everywhere and with a much higher vocal range than the Red-bills.  For some reason a large white horse was tethered outside the refuge although how it got up here was somewhat puzzling while a mangey dog preferred to drink from the holes in the ground that passed for loos rather than the streams around us. Then the weather broke with a clatter and a massive hail storm with fantastic fork lightening and instantaneous thunder that rebounded off each summit.

The accommodation was not quite what I had expected – triple bunks, mixed and ten mattresses in a row. The natural music outside soon sent us to sleep with thoughts of reaching the summit the next day.

29th June:

I awoke at 5.50am and we all crept downstairs and repacked our bags once again for the climb – bare essentials only. I was told not to bother with the spoil of rope I had carried all the way up from Torla…

We were soon on our way and picking a route along the rough path from cairn to cairn. The cloud still filled the Ordesa below through which the distant cow bells could be heard. Within an hour we were at our first major snowfield – so much for ‘little snow’. Black Redstarts were still singing around us at about 2400m.

Phil was in front and had only gone a few paces when he fell through the snow so that the only thing supporting him was his outstretched arms. With only the mildest sense of urgency he requested an ice axe as he could see running water someway beneath his feet. Jo inched forward and promptly joined Phil. H and I beat a hasty retreat to the nearest boulder – a rope would have been handy.

Jo almost out of the snow hole

Fortunately they both extracted themselves with only a few scratches. Time for crampons – oh hang on, I did not have any and they all did.  What on earth had I been thinking! We struggled on with basically no breaks in the snow which was still a bit tricky in places. The only birds at this point were the Alpine Choughs and another of my targets – the chunky Snow Finch.  They were ridiculously tame with curious calls and a Chaffinch like gait. The glided around on triangular wings and were finding many small insects scattered over the snowy surface.

I can almost smell my t-shirt after 30 years

After crossing the second snow field we got our first real look at the summit up to our right. A semi-frozen aquamarine tarn was situated a little below us and I thought we would cross around this to climb the opposite face and the traverse across to the summit. Nope – the correct route was decidedly more direct and looked terrifying. I was feeling pretty rough at this point and started to lag behind. I actually have quite a small lung capacity and I suspect that being above 10,000 feet may have had something to do with it. [Eds: no kidding!] 

It was getting steeper and steeper and I was finding it increasingly difficult to dig toe holds. I was glad of my trusty hammer and the finger holds left my last night’s epic hail storm. Eventually the face became almost vertical and I had to stop. I have never been so scared. All I could do was think about moving upwards but my legs would not co-operate. The view down behind me would, at another time have been quite spectacular but the prospect of sliding all the way down to the lake or more likely if I could not somehow perform a hard right manoeuvre, a plummet over a vertical cliff edge where a prolonged feeling of weightlessness would have ensued.

Jo and I behind

The terrifying view of what was to come

Some time later... 

Jo encouraged me to press on but the cloud came in and I started to get cold so I somehow had to take off my rucksack whilst hoping my toe holds held, take out my fleece, put it on and put the rucksack back on without well, dying.  Feeling a little warmer and a little less hungry after consuming a frozen Mars, we both continued on. Snow Finches and Alpine Accentors seemed to be following our accent. Phil and H were already out of sight. A final precarious zig-zig traverse saw us on the last ridge and there was Phil gesturing us onwards. ‘Ten metres to go!’ we thought he was having us on but there it was – the top.  It was a real summit a mere ten metres across and not a plateau like most of the other local peaks. The feeling was very confusing; a mixture of elation, pure exhaustion and trepidation about the descent.

We had a small pocket of blue sky around us which was cool and through the clouds below we could see the glaciers on the northern, French, side of the mountain. Insects coated the top. Some were still alive and a Small Tortoiseshell fluttered over pursued by a flock of Snow Finches.

Summit! 11007 feet! I still have my MU vest; that old fleece is now my garden one and my geological rock hammer has just had a 30 year facelift from Barry J!

As expected, going down was not easy. Phil and H had gone ahead for safety while Jo and I followed cautiously behind. He lent me his ice axe as he had crampons.  It was a little quicker going down but equally un-nerving especially where the snow had gone slushy. On several occasions I had to perform a controlled slide to the extent of the ice axe reach above me to get me past areas where heal hold were impossible. It was whilst on one of these tricky spots that a bird fluttered by and I instantly recognised the silhouette and gibbered ‘WALLCREEPER!’ and tried to stand up.  Stupid boy and thank the gods for the ice axe.

Shortly after this Jo and I stopped for a drink on a bare rock outcrop. A male Snow Finch came and joined us and hopped around inches from our feet while Alpine Choughs danced close by and Alpine Accentors seemed to be everywhere.  I had been too distracted on the way up to notice them.  Off in front Phil and H had taken a more direct route with Phil losing one of his crampons in the process which made an even quicker descent. We stopped to regroup but I was struggling once again with freezing feet due to my lack of gaiters and the snow had been quite happily filling up my boots and other areas due to the unfortunate positioning of a rip on my trousers.  The group got strung out again and I was becoming increasingly paranoid about the numbness in my frozen feet while feel was also feeling pretty ropey at this stage.  I was very glad when we made it out of the last snowfield and another stop was called. This one included some more chocolate and some cake made by H and brought with her from home! It was whilst recuperating that I caught a glimpse of something red out of the corner of my eye.  I turned to look, but it was gone but I could put my finger on it! [Eds: No apologies for the fact I was heavily into Pink Floyd] a male Wallcreeper in immaculate summer plumage. It scuttled over the boulders flicking its red, grey, black and white spotted wings.  I was in shock, nothing could have prepared me for seeing such a mythical bird as well as this. I followed it over a house sized rock and it took flight just a few feet from me in s splash of colour. It was then joined by a female and what I presume was a begging juvenile. Someone was watching over me that day.  Four Wallcreepers in one day.

Alpine Accentor

Snow Finch

Wallcreeper Chocolate stop

The weather was closing in once again and a couple of short sharp hail storms only turned into light rain.  The next snow patch looked inconsequential but jo managed to repeat his earlier trick of falling through the surface, looking for all the world like Little Red Riding Hood stuck in a snow drift. Shortly after this I totally seized up but I knew my way back from here and let the others go on ahead [Eds: once again – stupid boy].  I was reduced to walk a couple of steps and stop – the feeling of isolation was immense. There was not a visible sign of humankind in any direction.

H with Jo and I dots behind

I got back to the Regugio de Goriz about ten minutes after the others and I have never felt so physically exhausted in my life. My poor old T-shirt was now even more offensive.  I think that I had leached out a lifetime of bodily poisons.  I left it outside to air unlike Phil’s socks which he had the audacity to hang up over the fireplace indoors! Jo gave me a bag of muesli and a tin of mackerel for dinner – a most sumptuous feast. We made it through till about 10pm before the day’s deeds finally caught up with us. Getting to sleep was surprisingly difficult as I was still hyped up but my body seriously disagreed and eventually won the battle. We had conquered Monte Perdido…

30th June:

I awoke at 6.15am feeling like I was being cooked alive in a stinky sauna with 30 other people. The smell was incredible and moisture of some description was streaming down the windows.  I slid out of my sleeping bag and crept downstairs to repack my rucksack yet again and we were soon all up and on our way. Breakfast had consisted of another bowl of rehydrated muesli and a cup of black coffee. It looked like it would be a fine day and we planned a fairly quick descent.  Feeling surprisingly sprightly and with quickly drying feet and boots, I actually took the lead on the first section.  It looked very different coming the other way and we even overtook a French group on the zig-zig scree path. I had more time to observe what was around me and was actually enjoying myself. With the steepest part of the descent out of the way we stopped for a breather at the Horse Tail Falls. My T-shirt was not in a healthy state and the red tannin stain had spread and was now joined by green on the shoulders from the rucksack, black from the rubber of my Zeiss bins, general sweaty dirt and some curious pink and yellow areas that I dared not investigate further! I could stand it no more and peeled it off and dunked it in the ice cold river.  It came out wet but the tenacious smell still remained… oh well. We were now back with the cows once again and I was surprised to discover a pair of Dunnocks [Eds: technically the first time I had seen the now potentially split Iberian Dunnock!] amongst the rocks with the Black Redstarts and I even found tree nests of the latter.  A bird whizzed across in front of me and I knew immediately that it was a male Rock Thrush and I found him perched proudly on top of a boulder.  What a bird! Dippers were along the river with equally bobby Grey Wagtails and Garden Warblers sang as we reached the tree line.

Jo disappeared off as soon as we hit the main path but we had already arranged to meet up at the Black Woodpecker spot.  A scratched note from Jo told us that he had actually pressed on again and both Common and Short-toed Treecreepers were in the area – the latter seemingly always on mossy boulders rather than trees.  The Black Woodpeckers were still squawking and the Crested Tits showed well again while Red Squirrels bounded around. Up above in the blue a Golden Eagle soared.

Somehow we got split up again and it was I that actually got to the car park first as Jo had somehow made a wrong turn somewhere.  I made a b-line to the café that was now open and scoffed two fabulous cornetto style ice-creams. The others arrived and we all retired to the river where tired and tender feet were soothed.  Fortunately I had no blisters.  With two miles downhill to go we soon set off again but the tarmac was not kind to our sore feet and it was by no means a quick walk but we made it and we strode triumphantly into camp to be met by absolutely no one.  The coach was gone and the site deserted!

That evening after a wonderfully long hot shower and a tin of beans for dinner, we retired to the veranda of the bar where we were discovered when the coach returned.  Tales of daring dos were regaled and it was good to be the centre of attention. To make it a perfect day the Lammergeier circled around the crags. I do not remember even going to bed that night.

1st July:

I was up early as usual and went out to check on the campsite birds. The pair of Red-backed Shrikes were still there and got very defensive and vocal and both performed a curious circular movement in both directions with their tales. It was quite hypnotic and distracting.  The Ocellated Lizard was still patrolling his patch of wall and the Alpine Swifts and various Martins were all around.  A dispute about where we all went for the day resulted in much time being wasted before 15 of us headed off I the coach to Lourdes for the day.  For me this was not about anything vaguely religious but a ‘what can I see from a coach’ opportunity!  It took far too long to get there due to a landslide (five hours!) but it took us through some amazing scenery and many raptors were seen. With so few people on the coach I was able to move around and get good views of everything! In total there and back I saw nine Kestrel, three Red Kite, 25 Black Kite, 33 Buzzard, Honey Buzzard, five Short-toed Eagles, two Booted Eagles, possible Bonelli’s Eagle, Egyptian Vulture, 16 Griffons and amazingly a huge Black Vulture which I was not expecting at all!

The weather was terrible for most of the journey and at the French border you could barely see outside.  Corn Buntings, Crested Larks, White Wagtails and even a male Rock Bunting were all seen.  [Eds: I will not risk offense by replicating what I wrote at the time about what I thought about Lourdes…] Lourdes, was well, Lourdes and a Black Redstart flycatching from a very un-amused Virgin Mary statue was my highlight.  

Feeling a bit peckish we gave up on ‘First one to a hundred Nuns’ and ‘Spot the Bishop’ and headed for a traditional French meal.  Well, the best we could do was un Big Mac avec frits s’il vous plait.  Feeling guilty we then engaged in a chocolate crepe from a stall outside. Black Kites cruised overhead and Crag Martins hawked over the fast flowing river.  We got back late but were greeted in Torla by a pair of Nightjars with the female sat in the middle of the road as we approached.

2nd July:

It dawned bright and clear but soon clouded over and started to rain but after lunch and drink I headed for a walk up the next valley.  The heavens opened again but a good coffee shop at the first campsite was appreciated and after it had let up I explored the verges and collected a handful of Wild Strawberries from amongst the Orchids on the verge.  These were later devoured with a fresh baguette and some la vache qui rit cheese triangles!

Singing Firecrest, Chiffchaff and Redstart were all new and my return route alongside the other side of the river added both Birds Nest and Butterfly Orchids as well as evidence of Wild Boar snuffling.

That night we all hit the town for a meal in the an eatery the rest of the party had been using before going to a disco [Eds: Really? I have no recollection of this but my notes suggest that we showed the Spanish how to dance and almost had a run in with some squaddies from Birmingham…]

3rd July:

I left the disco at 3.40am and decided to go off and look for Wild Boar in the first glimmers of dawn which resulted in me nearly falling off a cliff and into the river.  I did not see an pigs!  Back at camp no one was up yet so I had a cup of Earl Grey with Tom a Dutch chap we had all befriended. A fine male Rock Bunting with his stripy face perched up in a Birch near the tents.  I took myself off to the river with the intention of having a swim but it was just too cold and I bottled it. The Lammergeiers were already soaring about and I saw them on and off all day and eventually found a nest with two young in a cave on the vertical cliff face. Both adults were in attendance and a third adult drifted overhead while a pair of Egyptian Vultures were also found nesting not far from their bigger cousins.  Two Golden Eagles were also seen and Serins jangled in the trees around me. Spotted Flycatchers and a singing Nightingale were new trip birds. 


The day wore on and it was soon time to pack up the tents before it got dark and after several hitches we hit the road at 10.30pm. I had refused to doze off during the day and was asleep within minutes but woke up with no hearing as my ears had not adjusted to the descent out of the mountains although a big sneeze at 6am somewhere in the French countryside sorted that problem out! It was a very tedious journey home from here and a little under 24 hours after leaving Torla we were back in Ponders End where Mum and dad picked me up.  After bidding temporary farewells I went home, had a shower and got changed and headed back to The Goat for a drink before closing. A fitting end to an adventure that exceeded my wildest expectations.

Monday 24 July 2023

The Spanish Tour for WINGS - Day 9 - 8th May 2023

A pre-breakfast farewell to Monfragüe with the local Hoopoes singing madly and the Crag Martins put on a fantastic show as we were packing the vans for the next leg of our north bound journey.

Crag Martins

The Hoopoe deterrents did not work...

Our first stop was near the town of Saucedilla (sorry, but for some reason I could see a giant HP Sauce bottle with lots of teeth terrorising the countryside) where the vast Arrocampo Reservoir is to be found with its amazing cooling (if I remember correctly) towers.

We arrived to discover two other groups just departing but they did not linger to chat about what they had seen.  Little Bitterns were quite literally flying all over the place with several adults and already fledged youngster going back and forth over the closest reedy pool.

Little Bitterns

A single gleaming Squacco in white and orange with a carmine bill drifted by and Purple and Grey Herons, Great White, Little and Cattle Egrets were all seen from our initial viewpoint. A Purple Swamphen plucked roots from the edge with its outsized toes and snipped them with that secateur bill and a couple of tiny not quite Red Avadavats bounced around and occasionally perched up.  I think I had only seen this non-native species in the Nile before.

Purple Swamphen

Purple Swamphen

Purple Heron

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egrets

A Savi’s Warbler briefly reeled and Reed and Cetti’s Warblers were in fine voice as we drove the short way to the first hide.  The ramp to the hide offered views over the reeds and lagoon but was a little wobbly and uncomfortable on the slope but we persevered and spent an hour watching breeding Purple Herons and close feeding Spoonbills, fishing Gull-billed Terns, more Swamphens and Herons while Great Reed  Warblers and three more Savi’s sung but seeing either well proved frustrating.  Zitting Cisticolas bounded around us and a male Stonechat came to perch on the hand railing but it was the family of Bearded Tits that we were most happy to see as this is the only place in Extremadura where they occur.  It took a bit of effort but we got everyone on the eventually.

Gull-billed Tern

Gull-billed Tern

Purple Heron


Water Rails were heard and a Kingfisher flashed by and we were treated to two good views of different male Ferruginous Ducks as they flew down to our end of the lack but both landed out of view.  This was another excellent bird for the site but suddenly the call of a Common Tern was heard and we picked it up as it passed back and forth.  John was particularly pleased as this was the first one that he had seen in the region.

Ferruginous Duck

Un-Common Tern

Marsh Harriers hunted the far reeds and upset the Purple Herons who reacted in a flurry of wings legs and flared crests while an Otter was seen porpoising for just a few seconds. Raptors were always on view with several Griffon stacks, Black and Red Kites and a Common Kestrel. It was very hot so we retreated for a cold drink on the other side of the road passing a dapper little male Banded Groundling on the way.

Banded Groundling

Spotless Starlings were feasting on the Mulberries and a pale Booted Eagles put the wind up all the local House Martins and Swallow followed by a Hobby doing just the same thing.  As is the norm with me being abroad, it was good to bump into Adrian Thomas, one of my good friends from my time with the RSPB where he still works tirelessly.

Booted Eagle

Spotless Starling

Spotless Starling

Suitably refreshed, we moved on north again on a long main road drive before heading straight for the zig-zag road up and over the Puerto del Pico. The views back down to the plains to the south was stunning and we stopped in the cool air at the summit viewpoint adding a singing Whitethroat and our first Queen of Spain Fritillaries in the process. Jim saw a couple of Red-billed Choughs as we descended the other side into what felt like a proper Alpine glaciated valley.

This young man (Kevin I think his name was) offered to clean the windows

Puerto del Pico

Before too long we had arrived at Almanzor, our lodgings on the outskirts of the picturesque Navarredonda de Gredos.  There were birds to be seen immediately and our sumptuous lunch was somewhat disturbed but hearing Iberian Green Woodpecker and getting our first good views of Robin, Coal Tit, Nuthatch, Cirl Bunting, Jay and a pair of fabulous Iberian Pied Flycatchers.

Birding between mouthfuls

We all loved the bespoke plates


There was time for a wander around the grounds before our afternoon jaunt up into the high Gredos. The Iberian Pied Flycatchers were particularly accommodating and intriguing baring more than a passing resemblance to Semi-collared especially with the coldness of the plumage tone and median covert bar on the female and suggestion of a paler collar along with big wing patch.  The male also had a large conjoined white forehead patch more like Collared and importantly, the already split Atlas along with a big primary patch, extended white onto the outer greater coverts and a hint of a pale rump.  Surely if Atlas is deserving of full species then Iberian should at least be a form of that?

Iberian Pied Flycatchers 

Rock Buntings and Western Bonelli’s Warbler were to be heard along with Goldcrest, our first Carrion Crows and a flopping Hoopoe going to its nest.  A fine blue headed male Schreiber's Green Lizard briefly paused by the drinking pool.

Rock Bunting

Schreiber's Green Lizard - Jim Hully

A lilac tree was in full bloom and attracted a host of Butterflies with Large Whites, Small Tortoiseshells, Green Veined Whites, Small Heath, Queen of Spain Fritillaries and a fabulous Striped Hawkmoth that hovered energetically. Orange Tips zipped around at ground level but were trumped by the outrageous yellow and orange Provence Orange Tip.  There was not the slightest chance of getting a shot as both species never seem to stop.

Striped Hawkmoth

Striped Hawkmoth

Small Tortoiseshell

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Large White

Small Heath

Red Kites tumbled overhead

Not sure on this Wall Lizard yet

We soon headed up the road and started to climb up into the rocky pasture land and Broom scrub.  It was a lovely evening and a completely different suite of birds were encountered.  A pair of Red-backed Shrikes were found on the way up in a Bramble clump – this is about as far south as they get in Spain.  Knapweed Frits and both Small and Iberian Sooty Copper were new to the Butterfly list.

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Bath White

Iberian Sooty Copper

Tarantula burrow - no one was home

Red-backed Shrike

As we climbed we started to notice Dunnocks singing from the boulders.  In Iberia they are a mid to high altitude species and they certainly ‘felt’ different to the birds we encounter back home being browner and sleeker and with a different cadence to the reedy song.  I have read that there is a move to create a three way split with Iberian, Caucuses and the rest of Europe. 

Tree Heath

Iberian Dunnock

Iberian Dunnock

There were Skylarks up here too which sounded slightly different and the couple I saw on boulders looked quite short billed. Perhaps the Gredos is holding other cryptic species? Ortolan was a new songster for me and I was not expecting them in habitat similar to Cretzschmar’s as I had imagined them as a forest edge, big garden species.  Like their congener they loved to sing from the top of big boulders and blended seamlessly with the orange and green lichens.



Water Pipits and Iberian Wagtails were dotted around the boggy areas but we could not find the relict Snipe population. A couple of smart male Northern Wheatears were seen and at least one male Bluethroat of the completely blue throated local race was found out on the hillside. He was a little far off by the scope did the job and we all saw him singing from the top before displaying and flashing his rufous tail patches.  My friend Kevin Hazelgrove was here a week later and had a bit more time than us and got some amazing shots of these and the Buntings which has allowed me to use here.

Northern Wheatear


Ortolan - Kevin Hazelgrove

Bluethroat  - Kevin Hazelgrove

Black Redstarts, Rock Buntings, Whitethroats, Dartford and Sardinian Warblers were all in song and up above us an adult Golden Eagle cruised through and out over such a vast landscape view that it took my breath away.


Dartford Warbler

Golden Eagle

Rock Bunting

Rock Bunting

Rock Bunting

We retraced our steps finding a sow Boar with some stripy piglets across the valley and had another look at the Shrikes before returning to our second fine meal at Almanzor.  A Striped Hawkmoth was in the lobby and as we made our way to our rooms we could here Scops Owl ‘pooping’ and the high speed calls of Iberian Tree Frogs to round of another fantastic Spanish day.