The Pyrenees area in winter is beautiful, exciting, adventurous and fun! It’s a challenging place to survive for wildlife, and the harsh conditions bring some star avian species within easy reach for the intrepid birder, allowing to see them how you’ve never seen them before!
This is an area all about the specialists, and spending quality time with star species that you probably won’t see elsewhere. An area where Black Woodpecker, Citril Finch, White-winged Snowfinch, White-backed Woodpecker and Western Capercaillie are all possible.
Couple this with a visit to Aragòn’s sweeping steppe landscape near Gallocanta, winter home to Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Dupont’s Lark and thousands of Common Cranes, and you’ve certainly got yourself a trip to remember!
So there are many reasons to join us on the Spanish peaks and plains next winter! Here are just four of them!
After a hot coffee and some freshly baked pastries, spirits were high as our intrepid recce team donned gloves hats and scarves and set off up the Serra del Cadi for our first day´s mountain birding.
Hawfinches and Rock Buntings were feeding in the streets of the frozen villages. As we headed up from the valley floor, we passed through hushed frozen forests and streams and waterfalls caught in ice. We picked our way carefully up the frosty roads, feeling a little bit lame every time a local raced past us at speed, but preferring not to take a short cut back to the valley bottom!
A stop outside a mountain refuge hut brought us to conifers full of Common Crossbills and Crested Tits. As the road climbed higher up the mountainside, the forested slopes gave way to a rocky moonscape, where flocks of wild Chamois grazed. Taking a walk, it wasn’t long before we heard the characteristic call of a Rock Ptarmigan, which we later got a glimpse of.
The morning air was starting to warm, and as it did, it filled with Griffon Vultures leaving their roosts. Then suddenly, below us, there it was – our first Lammergeier!! What a stunner! This adult was flying along the valley below us – a rare view indeed! It was soon joined by another adult and a juvenile bird, as well as a Golden Eagle! A lifer for some in the group, this impressive eagle was pretty much blanked in favour of our circling Bone-breakers! We must have spent a good hour admiring these magnificent scavengers, of which we counted a total of at least four in the area, being drawn in by a carcass just over the hill from where we stood.
On the way down we encountered a flock of thirteen Alpine Accentors – what a bonus! We took an exploratory detour up a track and found ourselves surrounded by a massive tit flock, mostly Coal Tits but also Crested, Long-tailed and Great Tits, with a handful of Goldcrests and Firecrests chucked in for good measure – a magical end to a superb day’s birding!
Our search for this much-coveted, flashy little gem of a bird took us to some of the most beautiful places in Spain, as we wandered through haw-frost covered forests to search the walls of dramatic gorges like Mont Rebei, encountering Hawfinches, Black Redstarts, Golden Eagles, Blue Rock Thrush, Northern Ravens and Red-billed Chough as we went.
But in the end it was in the streets of an unprepossessing Pyrenean village that we found our prize!
The afternoon sun was by now warming the golden walls of the sandstone church. We scanned for a moment and there it was, sat under the eaves just metres above our heads!This incredibly confiding little bird hung out with us for a while, before disappearing under the church roof. On a hunch we checked a neighbouring street and sure enough it had emerged!
We watched its antics and snapped away until our memory cards were pretty much full, by which point it had flown back to the church. As luck would have it there was a café opposite, so we were able to have a beer with our stunning little
Wallcreeper before heading off back to our comfortable apartment to really celebrate!
3. Things beginning with ´Alpine´!
A heavy snowfall overnight was starting to abate by mid-morning, so after a relaxed start we explored some woodlands near Jaca, enjoying Crested Tits feeding round our feet and calling Red-billed Chough overhead. After a warming second breakfast back in town, we headed up the high slopes to a ski station at Astùn, where the clouds were lifting to reveal gorgeous blue skies and pristine white slopes. Birds gravitate to these man-made oases in the snow, and we enjoyed the novelty of seeing Great Tits and Blackbirds at 2000m! Wandering round the complex, it wasn´t long before we found an Alpine Accentor! Another ridiculously friendly bird, it perched on railings and walls just feet away allowing us all to get some great photos.
Carrying on out of the village we stopped just at the French border, where suddenly the characteristic call of Alpine Choughs filled the air! At first we could only see three, but soon we spotted a nearby area where dozens were swirling overhead and feeding near a meltwater stream. We got superb views of this hard-to-see high altitude corvid!
Just below the snowline as we headed home, we stopped at an area of riverside pastureland. We hit the raptor jackpot, and for a while it was hard to look! Within minutes we had seen Lammergeiers, Bonelli’s Eagle, Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Common Kestrel, and Griffon Vultures, all making use of the late afternoon thermals, along with a great spinning ‘chough-nado’ of Red-billed Chough, more than the team had ever seen together!
4. The sounds of the plains!
For lovers of birdsong (and who isn’t?!) there’s something incredibly special about the otherworldly steppe habitat of the Aragonese plains. At dawn, as the sun rises over the sweeping, empty landscape, the air fills with the bugling of thousands of Common Cranes, the bubbles of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and a cacophony of larksong including Skylarks, Lesser Short-toed, Calandra, Thekla and Crested – and in the right spot, with luck, the eerie song of the elusive Dupont’s Lark. We had an early start on the last day of our trip, with many miles to cover to reach our home in the Straits, but we couldn’t have wished for a better start to the day!