Day one we travelled from Toulouse Airport to Gedre in the Pyrenees stopping at a beautiful hill top near Ausseing where we ate al fresco lunch in an ancient meadow full of flowers and butterflies while watching for raptor migration.
A hobby obliged with stunning views and several buzzards drifted past. Four tree pipits sat on nearby wires showing their short hind claws and yellowish fronts while jays and great spotted woodpeckers called in the trees behind.
As we followed a river towards its source in the mountains an osprey flew backwards and forwards affording great views. Red-legged partridge crept into a maize field watched by whinchats perched on the tall stems. A stop close to the rubbish dump at Pibeste was circled by a flock of about 50 ravens out of which lolloped red kites, about 20 or so. Several hummingbird hawk moths were feeding in buddleia flowers. Highlight of the day was pulling up outside our hotel in Gedre - a la Brèche de Roland - and seeing an adult bearded vulture patrol one crag before returning to roost on another opposite.
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Little egret Egretta garzetta Osprey Pandion haliaetus Red kite * Milvus milvus Black kite Milvus migrans Bearded vulture (Lammergeier) Gypaetus barbatus Eurasian sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus Buzzard Buteo buteo Eurasian kestrel Falco tinnunculus Eurasian hobby Falco subbuteo Red-legged partridge Alectoris rufa Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Yellow-legged gull Larus cachinnans Common woodpigeon Columba palumbus Eurasian collared dove Streptopelia decaocto Common kingfisher Alcedo atthis Great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopus major Eurasian jay Garrulus glandarius Black-billed magpie Pica pica Carrion crow Corvus corone Northern raven Corvus corax Blackbird Turdus merula Starling Sturnus vulgaris European robin Erithacus rebecula Common redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus Whinchat Saxicola rubetra Common stonechat Saxicola torquata Eurasian nuthatch Sitta europaea Eurasian crag martin Hirundo rupestris Barn swallow Hirundo rustica House martin Delichon urbica Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla Great tit Parus major Blue tit Parus caeruleaus House sparrow Passer domesticus White wagtail Motacilla alba Tree pipit Anthus trivialis Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Cirl bunting Emberiza cirlus
We made our way up to the Cirque de Gavarnie after watching griffon vultures and two peregrines soaring over the bearded vulture roost site (no sign of the lammergeier, however).
The walk up to the Cirque was a constant succession of birds - Garden warblers, serins, a family of mistle thrushes, pied flycatcher, gold and firecrest, crested tit, and an adult bearded vulture which passed over our heads as if showing off. Among the migrants we saw were Bonelli's and willow warblers, redstarts, and chiffchaffs. Red-billed choughs and their alpine yellow-billed cousins tumbled down the mountain sides as golden eagles patrolled aloofly aloft.
At the old hotel overlooking the Cirque a shout went up as wallcreeper was spotted working the sides of a sheer gorge. It called frequently while flitting around the cliff face below us. Excited Frenchmen demanded a view and pronounced that it was a kingfisher, to be put right by those of us with educational leanings.
Later in the day at Endroit de Ossoue we watched short-toed eagle pass by demonstrating its favourite food with a snake's tail hanging out of its beak.
New birds for the day:
Eurasian griffon vulture Gyps fulvus Short-toed eagle Circaetus gallicus Golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos Peregrine Falco peregrinus Rock dove (feral pigeon) Columba livia Water pipit Anthus spinoletta Grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea Dipper Cinclus cinclus Winter wren Troglodytes troglodytes Hedge accentor (Dunnock) Prunella modularis Black redstart Phoenicurus ochruros Northern wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus Garden warbler Sylvia borin Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus Goldcrest Regulus regulus Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus European pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca Crested tit Parus cristatus Coal tit Parus ater Bonelli's warbler Phylloscopus bonelli Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria Alpine (Yellow-billed) chough Pyrrhocorax graculus Red-billed chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax European serin Serinus serinus Citril finch Serinus citrinella Red crossbill Loxia curvirostra Eurasian bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
Clear weather throughout the trip made sun-block necessary. And on day three it tempted us up onto the Pic du Midi.
Bearded vulture was again seen as were several golden eagles and griffon vultures on the way up. Water pipits were studied closely and the calls of marmots soon became familiar.
On reaching the top car park we walked along a contour path searching for snowfinch, but without success. When one was spotted on the walls of the observatory 1,000 feet up at the summit frustration really set in. My patience snapped after lunch and I trudged up the long path to the top, lungs hanging out of my mouth by the time I reached my goal. The reward was excellent views of snowfinches enjoyed by me and two other group members. An hour later the fittest of the remaining group came up slowly only to see the top disappear into mist, and with it the birds... We had great views of black woodpecker on the way back to the hotel.
New birds for the day:
Honey buzzard Pernis apivorus Tawny owl (heard) Strix aluco Black woodpecker Dryocopus martius (White-winged) Snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis Alpine accentor Prunella collaris Eurasian linnet Carduelis cannabina
Our last day in the mountains was spent high in the Vallee d'Ossoue where raptors put on a magnificent display. Up to 50 griffon vultures were in the air together at one moment, accompanied by three juvenile bearded vultures and two golden eagles. Altogether I saw seven different bearded and about 70 or more griffon vultures that day.
There were few migrants but we did see rufous-tailed rock thrush, northern wheatears and redstarts among the bushes close by.
A walk up to the Spanish border at Tourmelet later in the afternoon produced the tail end of a raptor passage with seven honey buzzards (one pale phase), two sparrowhawks and a marsh harrier passing at eye-level.
New birds for the day:
Western marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus Rufous-tailed rock-thrush Montecola saxatlis Rock bunting Emberiza cia
At the Barrage de Gloriette we saw several grounded migrants including blackcap, willow warbler, yellowhammer and robin. Golden eagle and griffon vulture were also seen.
The trip back to Toulouse was marked by an early morning bearded vulture from the hotel car park, a great start. At the rubbish dump a singing Cetti's warbler was added to the list while later we counted 49 buzzards along the 200 km route.
Our beautiful field produced swallow-tailed butterfly, Queen of Spain fritillary and many clouded yellows. In the woods behind we added long-tailed tit to the list.
New birds for the day:
Grey heron Ardea cinerea Long-tailed tit Aegithelos caudatus Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti Eurasian tree sparrow Passer montanus
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