Blog Archives: Overseas Tours – Pyrenees

Late Summer in the French Pyrénées

Last week I was lucky enough to be leading a tour for Naturetrek to the French Pyrénées. It was especially interesting for me as the first time I have led a trip to that area for more than a decade, and all my previous tours there have been in May and June. How would it have changed, over the years and between seasons?

Firstly, it’s great to report that overall the area looks pretty much the same as when I last saw it: the magnificent mountain scenery, like the Brèche de Roland, is of course still there, and the scars of ‘civilisation’ (ski development and the like) are no more intrusive than before. Like rural settlements all across our continent, though, our base of Gèdre seems to be in decline, many properties boarded up, even falling into disrepair, and services closing down. But our hotel at least seems to be bucking the trend, no doubt supported by its unique view up the valley to the eponymous Brèche.

Comparing the seasons produces more marked differences, a landscape of snow beds almost continuous above 2000m in some years being replaced by cliffs, rocks, screes and sparse vegetation. Bird-wise, many of the summer visitors had departed already – no swifts and shrikes, and few warblers aside from Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. And arguably the latter may well have been southbound migrants, along with Pied Flycatchers, Whinchats, Tree Pipits and a lone White Stork, standing incongruously amongst cattle high up in the Ossoue Valley.

Grounded migrants are always exciting, but nothing quite compares with the thrill of migration actually happening before ones eyes and ears. For us it was 20 minutes before lunch at the Col de Boucharo, one of the low ways (only 2200m up!) into Spain: under cobalt skies, we were treated to flickering parties of Swallows, hugging the turf, some 60 in total, along with a Sand Martin, five Meadow Pipits, two Linnets and 20 Yellow Wagtails.

And just prior to that we had bumped into a party of scientists from the University of Exeter who have deployed themselves there for two months to record the details of insect migration, especially hoverflies, over the pass. Just as remarkable as these feats of migration was that  one of the researchers was someone from my rather short list of ‘Twitter friends’….

The ‘big bird’ stars of the show – vultures and eagles – were also in good numbers, seemingly more than on my past visits, good news for the conservation efforts that these birds benefit. We even saw a Lammergeier, that icon of the Pyrénées, demonstrating its prowess at traversing the skies with barely a twitch of the wings over our base in Gèdre, well away from its core breeding areas. Potentially worrying though, the suite of high mountain passerine specialities – Alpine Accentor, Wallcreeper and Snow Finch – could not be found in previously expected locations: this may well represent a genuine change over the years, climate change having moved them up and out of easy reach.

My previous late Spring visits normally coincide with the transhumance of grazing stock to the high pastures, some of it still on foot, and the first hay cut. So not surprisingly, after a summer of munching and two hay cuts, the flowers were much less showy this year. But what was there was sometimes spectactular: damp, flushed hillsides swathed in Devil’s-bit Scabious and Grass-of-Parnassus, and high mountain tracksides with patches of two Pyrenean endemics, the Thistle and Eryngo, sustaining resident and migrating insects alike. Best of all, dry, cropped turf studded with pink stars of Merendera, opening wide on the sunnier days.

  

And then there were the insects, admittedly past their peak but at least as good as in late May, as numerous and often larger as in the case of the bush-crickets and grasshoppers. it was especially exciting to see three Camberwell Beauties, two very confiding, and an equally pristine Map, along with fading summer species such as Swallowtail and Apollo.

 

One of the best insect attractants was Buddleia in the towns. Contrary to often-quoted views that non-natural colour forms are less attractive than the wild type, one white-flowered bush close to Gèdre swimming pool clearly hasn’t read the books. Numerous Large Whites, Silver-Washed and Dark Green Fritillaries, Swallowtail, as many as 30 Hummingbird Hawk-moths at a time, Jersey Tiger and Hornet Hoverfly: a constant roll-call, even in overcast and blustery conditions.

Taking advantage of late-season nectar, pollen and warmth, the best of the rest included a range of tachinid flies, wasps, longhorn and chrysomelid beetles, Saddlebacks, and Great Green Bush crickets which serenaded the setting sun every day in the valleys.

  

Not forgetting those unexpected moments always encountered on a trip such as this, like the dead Asp Viper being ‘dealt with’ by Sexton Beetles, and the Alpine Marmots, ever alert, acting as our eyes and ears for passing Golden Eagles….

A wonderful, diverse week in a simply stunning part of the world.

A full tour report with lists can be found on the Naturetrek website: click here.

Butterflies and Moths of the Spanish Pyrenees

Butterflies and moths took star billing on my latest tour for Naturetrek to my old stamping grounds of the Spanish Pyrenees, and both groups lived up to hopes and expectations. Around 110 species of butterfly were recorded by the group over the week, a good number especially given the somewhat late summer after a cold winter, and also given the very intense hail storm which had moved through the high mountain areas just before our visit, giving landscape, plants and insects alike a battering. Spectacular species like Swallowtail and Spanish Swallowtail vied for our attention with a sometimes confusing array of fritillaries, brown and blues, and in places (including even the floriferous garden of our accommodation at Casa Sarasa in Berdun) the numbers of the commoner species such as Marbled White, Great Banded Grayling and Cleopatra were simply overwhelming.

 

Moths were represented by day-fliers such as Burnets, of which we encountered at least ten species, Foresters, Clearwings and of course Hummingbird Hawk-moths, together with the much larger number of night-fliers which visited our moth traps.

Moth trapping requires a licence in Spain, but Casa Sarasa has one (and a trap), and this covered the two additional traps brought over by tour participants. The final tally of moths will take some while to compile, but the ‘big game’ highlights included Privet, Lime, Oak, Spurge, Spanish Pine, Elephant, Small Elephant and Striped Hawks; several Goat Moths, Leopard Moth, a selection of Catocala Red and Yellow Underwings, and numerous Passengers.  Add to that moths unknown or very rare to us in the UK, including ‘counterpart species’ to ours, such as Spanish Character and Spanish Least Carpet, which have evolved into unique local species isolated from the rest of Europe by the formidable barrier of the Pyrenees.

But the tour delivered in so many other ways as well. Other insects – beetles (longhorns, jewels, rhinoceros, stags, chafers and magnificent oil beetles to highlight just a few groups); flies (including horseflies with eyes shining like green beacons, and parasitic tachinids scuttling around on many a Hogweed umbel); bees and wasps; bugs in a variety of forms including the unusual predatory Flattened Assassin-bug; dragonflies, cicadas and ant-lions… the list is almost endless, but will be as complete as possible for the tour report in due course.

  

Spiders too were reaping the rewards of this insect bonanza, many was the time we spotted an insect incongruously still on a flower, only to see on closer examination it had been captured and killed by a crab-spider, themselves in a range of colours from white to yellow and pink, lending camouflage to the killer-in-waiting.

Lower down, the flowers were well past their best, but in the high-level meadows and pastures, 1500m or more up, the displays where simply outstanding. Along with the scenery, geology, food, weather and company!

 

What were the highlights from such a cornucopia of delights? Well, birds have not yet been mentioned and indeed were probably overlooked (maybe even underlooked?) as we concentrated on the creatures around our feet. But occasionally lifting eyes skyward did almost always produce Griffon Vultures, and often Short-toed Eagles and Red and Black Kites. But on our first full day, one flypast assumed a very different shape, the cruciform, giant-falcon outline of a Lammergeier, the vulture with the biggest wingspan, reaching as much as 3m. It drifted over us, effortlessly, with never even a twitch of the wings, and was in my recent experience at least a rather unusual sighting down at Berdun.

Lammergeier is one natural icon of the Pyrenees. Another is the Spanish Moon Moth, which was a highlight of my May trip there. Too late for them in July, or at least the adults: but the huge, colourful, finger-sized caterpillar we located presumably searching for somewhere to pupate was just as good.

High on most peoples’ wish list for this trip is one of the largest European butterflies, a double-strength swallowtail, the Two-tailed Pasha. We usually visit the areas with its food-plant Strawberry-tree, and almost invariably fail to find it. Or if we do find it, usually ‘only’ the admittedly spectacular caterpillar. But on the way back to the airport, a final highlight was awaiting us in the Pre-Pyrenees, an adult Pasha, sitting proud on a pile of dog-poo….

That just leaves my own personal highlight of highlights. For forty years I have scoured the beechwoods of Europe for a plant so mysterious and unpredictable its presence is usually spoken about in hushed tones and generalities. And failed always to find it. One lunch-break, while others visited the café, I strolled through a dense dark beechwood, when a serendipitous shaft of sunlight lit up the woodland floor about five metres from me. And with it the characteristic, colourless, enigmatic (it’s no looker, so it needs to be bigged up!) form of a Ghost Orchid. Botanists’ Holy Grail!

Next challenge of course was refinding it for the anticipatory throng…just a hundred metres from where they were taking coffee, but densely-grown beech trees do all tend to look the same. However, I managed, and I think even the hardened lepidopterists felt privileged to have seen such an unexpected delight. And even found for themselves a second even more diminutive specimen close to the original.

 

Spring in the Spanish Pyrenees: a cornucopia of biodiversity

Despite rather inclement weather, with a strong, cold, northerly wind in the first few days, following on from a generally cold and late spring, the Spanish Pyrenees certainly lived up to its reputation as a European wildlife hotspot with Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays last week.

The day we arrived saw significant snowfalls above 1700m, so we kept low in the Canal de Berdún and the more southerly Pre-Pyrenees in the first half of the week, seeking some shelter from the wind. But the latter half was spent in the heart of the mountain, reaching 1600m in the glorious Aísa valley, where the floral displays rendered outstanding glacial landscape the best I have ever seen.

Bird migration was still under way, with Redstarts, Honey Buzzards, flycatchers and Common Swifts heading north, and the Rock Thrushes, Bee-eaters and Golden Orioles were just setting up home, lending drama to the resident Griffon Vultures and Lammergeiers…as if any further drama was needed! The gory Griffon feeding frenzy on a recently-dead horse by the roadside showed nature’s recyclers at their best (and worst), but at least it was a free-range event, not a staged feeding opportunity.

Low down, around our base at Casa Sarasa in Berdún, the Badlands were blooming with a rich array of flowers, brightening the arid, marly landscape; these included a good range of orchids, including Lady, Military, Burnt, Champagne and several Ophrys species and hybrids.

Higher up, the flowers were if anything even more showy, with Elder-flowered Orchids, Spring and Trumpet Gentians, primulas, buttercups and a host of other delights, studding the turf with splashes of intense colour.

Late spring should be a good time for reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates, although this year certainly lacked the volume of warmer springs. But some provided other highlights of the trip, including a couple of confiding, pristine Spanish Festoons and an equally confiding smart male Green Lizard.

And then there was the moth trap, a great feature of Casa Sarasa over the past couple of years, which benefits from the appropriate licence as required in Spain. We managed three nights’ trapping, although the first was very unproductive. The second also had few moths, but three of these were Giant Peacocks – quality not quantity!

And then the third night surpassed all expectations: two more Giant Peacocks, two Tigers (Cream-spot and Chaste Pellicle), and three Hawks (Small Elephant, Privet and Spurge).

And topping the lot, a Spanish Moon Moth, an icon of the Pyrenees, the Lammergeier of the moth world, a veritable flying Art Nouveau brooch. My third ever, and made me a very happy man!

As always with Honeyguide, a contribution is made by every participant on every tour to a conservation project in the places we visit. The recipient on this tour is SEO Aragon, the Birdlife Partner in the region, which does so much to protect and manage habitats for birds and other wildlife. I am proud to help support this work. But why is it not industry standard to put something back into the places a tour company visits. Honeyguide may only be a small company, but I like to hope it is leading the way, and that eventually all others will follow suit. Given that tourism is essentially exploitative, isn’t it right that every provider should do what they can to safeguard its most important assets: its destinations?