A trip arranged at short notice to enable my son who is studying French to have some practical experience of the language. Birding objectives to find Lammergeier, Snowfinch and Black Woodpecker.
Caithness to Aberdeen by road. Aberdeen to Amsterdam by KLM UK, and then to Toulouse by KLM. Excellent service from KLM. Arrived Toulouse 2100hrs local time, and after collecting hire car stayed at 1st Premier hotel close to the airport. Good basic accommodation: room with two beds and shower/toilet plus breakfast for 220 francs for two.
We decided to make for Gavarnie as quickly as possible. Took A64 out of Toulouse (some toll sections included) to Junction 16 near Lannemazan. Only birds of note were two Black Kites. D929 to Arreau. D918 via Col d'Aspin and Col du Tourmalet, then D921 to Gavarnie. Late afternoon visit to Cirque de Troumouse (Yellow-billed Chough, Griffon Vulture and Water Pipit). Camped at Le Pain de Sucre campsite between Gèdre and Gavarnie. A pleasant level site along side of the river with views up in to the Cirque de Gavarnie. Melodious Warbler seen in the bushes along the river, and Crag Martins feeding overhead.
Early start to walk up to the Cirque de Gavarnie from Gavarnie. Selection of passerines in wooded areas including Firecrest, Crested Tit and Garden Warbler. Good views of ten Griffon Vultures and singles of Short-toed Eagle, Common Buzzard and Peregrine. Near the hotel a single juvenile Lammergeier gave brief flight views.
Returned to Gavarnie just as at the start of a thunder storm accompanied by torrential rain, which persisted on and off for the rest of the day.
In the afternoon drove along the Vallee d'Ossoue. Excellent scope views of two adult Lammergeiers with two juveniles on some cliffs at the entrance to the valley. Well seen in flight and at rest on the cliffs from the start of the road leading to Port de Boucharo.
Woke to rain and very low cloud - not a birding day. We decided to go north away from the mountains to visit the Grotte de Medous, the third largest cave system in Europe. The Col du Tourmalet was in low cloud when we arrived but we were greeted by a flock of 25 Snowfinch feeding by the side of the road and around the cafe. One was so close to the car that I had to wind down the window and lean out to get a view! Red-billed Chough and Black Redstarts were also in the vicinity.
While waiting in the drizzle to enter the caves two Black Woodpeckers flew through the trees. The return journey produced Fan-tailed Warbler in maize fields near Medous, a juvenile Honey Buzzard from the road between Luz-St Sauveur and another Black Woodpecker.
A clear cloudless morning. Drove up to Port de Boucharo. Initially crowded with many people heading towards Brêche de Roland, but once we turned off the main paths we had the hills to ourselves. Most astonishing bird of the day a Black Woodpecker at 2470 metres moving south from France into Spain. Only raptors seen were Griffon Vulture, Peregrine and Kestrel. Spectacular mountain scenery. Many sightings of Marmots.
Another clear fine day. Walked up to the Lac de Gaube from Pont d'Espagne. No raptors seen, and Crossbill the only notable addition to the trip list.
Decided to move east to be nearer to Toulouse in order to catch the flight home on 22nd. D921 to Luz-St Sauvour then D918 via Col du Tourmalet (Dipper in streams to the west of the Col) and Col d'Aspin to Arreau, then D618 to Bagnères de Luchon. A stop near Loudervielle produced Wryneck, Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit and Melodious Warbler. Excellent lunch at a small restaurant/guest house called Snow White. D125 to Frontignan and then D618 to St Girons. Stayed at an excellent camp site at Audinac les Bains which contained a varied selection of habitats which produced a number of list fillers including Nuthatch, Stock Dove, Sedge Warbler and Tawny Owl as well as a further record of Honey Buzzard.
Returned to Toulouse via D117, the D119 and the D919. The only two Red Kites of the trip and only the third Black Kite were seen on the D119. A visit to the Grotte du Maz d'Azil produced a flock of 26 Alpine Swifts over the cave entrance.
August is not the best time to visit the area as it is very crowded with largely French families on annual holidays. I suspect that September would be better as in June/July some high areas could be snow bound, and access may be a problem. All access points to the high mountains became very crowded early in the day, and parking quickly became a premium.
Gavarnie in August is, quite frankly, a dump to be avoided except for access to the Cirque and the Vallee d'Ossoue. It is a classic example of a place being totally swamped by the tourist industry and losing all of its own sense of identity. There must be a case for the authorities to restrict vehicle access as some times happens in the English Lake District. The amount of horse manure on the path up to the Cirque has to be seen to be believed. Having said all that, the Cirque should not be missed.
For anyone wishing to stay in the area I recommend Gèdre which is a delightful little town with friendly people. It has managed to avoid being overtaken by tourism and retains much of its original character. The restaurant and bar at the Hôtel de Pyrenées are recommended - well anyone that keeps a Newfoundland dog must be OK. Do not be put off by the rather brash exterior of La Grotte, the food is very good and reasonably priced.
The valleys into the Pyrenees run north to south, and they are long, and there are few roads connecting adjacent valleys. Thus anyone wishing to visit the heads of a number of different valleys would do best to stay north of the mountains at the head of a valley system otherwise you can waste a lot of time just travelling from place to place.
A successful trip which we both enjoyed, and language skills were improved. This is a stunningly beautiful part of the world, and we look forward to returning.
On the birding front our main objectives were achieved, but the raptors were disappointing. This was no doubt partly due to weather, but the area did not prove to be the haven for raptors that we had been led to believe. In all we saw 10 species, but other than Kestrel and Griffon Vulture none in significant numbers. For example, we saw more Common Buzzards on the return car drive from Aberdeen to Caithness in Scotland than during the whole week in France. But the Lammergeiers and Snowfinches alone were worth trip.
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