Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Birding in France, Part 5: Refuge de la Glére and Lac de l'Aigue Longue

After an already epic morning, we returned back to Refuge de la Glére after birding the Col du Tourmalet. We sat under the shade of a tree to rest and eat lunch, but it only took a few bites in for us to start jumping around and checking out the birds that were flitting around.

Wearing my American Kestrel Partnership shirt while watching Common Kestrels

Juvenile Black Redstart 
A juvenile Black Redstart looking like a crybaby

Mostly we saw our old friends, the Black Redstarts. Our target was the Citril Finch, which has a pretty limited range. We had failed to pick one up the evening before and earlier that day. Alas, we did not ever get that little yellow finch, but we did turn up a cute little yellow European Serin.

European Serin

Another little juvy Black Redstart

A nice-looking adult Male Black Redstart

As we wandered around, we soaked up the view and saw various shades of gray when we found a few other familiar faces, including Water Pipit, Chaffinch and Gray Wagtail. 

Lovely mountain view

Water Pipit


Gray Wagtail

After we finally gave up on the Citril Finch, we drove around the narrow streets of town to run the clock on the rest of the day. We managed to pick up a few new species, including Marsh Tit and Cirl Bunting. After an amazing two days birding with Charles, we bid him adieu, but not before he gave us some pointers on other places to go birding nearby. 

Cirl Bunting

Nick with our guide, Charles

The next day we wanted to visit the little town of Pau (pronounced Po) to get a little bit of our culture on. But before that, we wanted to do a bit of birding, of course. We first checked out the Lac de l'Aigue Longue in the Aquitaine region. We got great views of Northern Lapwings – truly the most beautiful of shorebirds. They have gorgeous iridescent feathers with hints of purple and green. And who couldn’t love that little “wispy crest” (as described in the Collins guide)?

A pair of Northern Lapwings

Little coneheads

Looks kind of hoppy

As we walked around the lake, we picked up some other shorebirds feeding in the mud, including Ruff and the adorable Little Ringed Plover. It’s too bad the Ruffs weren’t in their full Liberace-esque plumage, but still a great sight!


Ruff taking a stretch

Little Ringed Plover

In the shrubs and trees (including some wild chestnut trees) flitted LBJ’s (little brown jobs). We had a tough time getting good looks at them, but we were able to at least identify Common Chiffchaff and Greater (or Common) Whitethroat. And a bright little Blue Tit was a nice pop of color. 

Greater (or Common) Whitethroat

Blue Tit

Chestnut tree

The non-birds, including butterflies, lizards, and a dead mole (?), were also some good finds. That mole had quite the big, shovel-like, digging hands with creepy little fingers. 

Holly Blue
Speckled Wood

Dead mole?

In the lake, we got some nice looks at Great Cormorants, Eurasian Coots, and nice flyby views of Gray Heron and Little Egret. But it was another bird that would fill me with the most glee...

Great Cormorants

European Coots

Gray Heron

Little Egret in flight

Mostly Cattle Egrets with a couple of Little Egrets mixed in

Look at these beautiful Great Crested Grebes! We had gotten some OK looks at some before at Réservoir de Magnoac, but there were so many here and at much closer range. These birds are absolutely gorgeous, and such a delight to watch. We made use of the blind at the lake to catch some fun glimpses of a baby grebe nagging and following its parent, who seemed all too annoyed at it.

Just a bit of elegant preening

I could have watched these guys all day. They’re so lovely and elegant, yet spunky at the same time. They almost have a David Bowie quality to them. And those crests are indeed great!

Maybe my favorite GCGR pic

A nice look at those crests

It was a fun morning checking out the lovely birds and other critters at the lake. But the rest of the day was spent eating crepes and enjoying the sights of Pau. More birding would have to wait until the next day.

In Pau

Chateau de Pau

Our first funicular ride! It was only for a couple of minutes, but fun!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Birding in France, Part 4: Col du Tourmalet

After all the excitement of the hawkwatch from the previous post, we were ready relax with some wine and a classically French meal. The restaurant we had in mind wasn’t serving dinner, but no matter — the restaurant was at the entrance to the Refuge de la Glére, and we were content for the time being just to watch the dozen or so White Wagtails eat their dinner. In any case, we had just missed a calf being born, and staring at the dangling afterbirth wasn’t super conducive to working up an appetite.

White Wagtail

It was still worth coming up here, since our guide, Charles, had giving us some homework when he dropped us off: if we could find Black Woodpecker and Citril Finch on our own that evening, it would save us a trip the following morning. We weren’t able to turn up anything new on our own, but early next day lifers were popping up left and right. The trees were alive with Goldcrests, Crested Tits, and Coal Tits. 

juvenile Goldcrest

Crested Tit

Coal Tit

Eurasian Jay

Charles knew exactly where to go for the Black Woodpecker, and we watched with mouths agape as it bounded down from out of nowhere to land right in front of us, and perched in the sun. Incredible. 

Black Woodpecker

From there we worked our way up the Col du Tourmalet, the highest, most famous mountain in the Tour de France. Cycling enthusiasts we are not, but we fell in love with the place once we quickly picked up Missile Thrush, Water Pipets, and Northern Wheatears. 

Mistle Thrush

Water Pipit

Water Pipit

Water Pipit

Northern Wheatear

About the Wheatears, we didn’t notice it until we started going through photos once we got home, but we saw no fewer than two individuals who had some sort of weevil hanging out on its bill. There must be some kind of relationship between them that I can’t find any information for, but if you Google “wheatear weevil” you get a whole slew of photos showing the same phenomenon. Very strange.

Wheatear / weevil combination

A major target up here was Alpine Accentor, a bird that Europeans travel from all over to come find in the Pyrenees. En route to the top, Charles pulled over to point out a group of Dunnocks, a similar, related accentor species. Apparently, some birders only get this far up, mistakenly tick Alpine Accentor, and call it a day. Fortunately we had a guide who knew exactly where to go, and I mean EXACTLY. After driving as high as the roads would take us, we got out and started hiking. At some point, Charles announced that after we rounded the next bend, when we look up toward the top of the slope we'd fine the accentor. And that exactly what we thought we had, until I posted the photo in the very blog post you're reading, only to discover it was a Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush. 


Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush

The view from Col du Tourmalet

With our intrepid guide, Charles

The hike back to the car turned up a Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush that vanished before we could get a camera on it. We also got our closest encounter with Black Kites, as a pair flew directly overhead. We grabbed some espressos at the cafe and started photographing every distant kestrel that popped into view. The default kestrel up here was Common, but it’s always possible a Lesser Kestrel could turn up during migration. Unfortunately, individuals of the two can appear nearly identical, and the most reliable way of differentiating them is the color of the claws. So we’d repeatedly take a series of terrible photos, and try to zoom in as much as possible to see if the claws were black (Common) or yellow (Lesser). We weren’t able to turn any of them into a Lesser, but we did at least get some of the kestrels to cooperate with us. 

Black Kite

Red Kite

Common Kestrel

Common Kestrel

We faced a similar problem when we had to sort through a couple dozen Red-billed Choughs to see if we could turn up an Alpine / Yellow-billed Chough or two. Choughs are a really strange group of corvids that are mainly restricted to mountains. According to Cornish legend, King Arthur never died, but instead turned into a Red-billed Chough, so maybe we had a celebrity sighting and didn’t even know it. Juvenile Red-billed Choughs have yellowish bills, and we’d seen some of those the previous day. Finally, way high up, we were able to make out a couple pairs of choughs that had smaller, yellow bills, shorter wings, and longer tails. 

Red-billed Chough

Alpine Though

It was around this point that we had the greatest encounter of the trip. Remember that our #1 target bird was the Lammergeier. The previous day, we were ecstatic to see a distant individual at the hawkwatch, drift back and forth over the mountaintops. Now we had a pair of them fly close overhead. We lost our minds. It would have been impossible to imagine that we would see a bucket list bird so nearby. The only thing that could possibly have improved it would have been if we’d seem them smash open a sheep femur, or something. It was unbelievable. 



On the way back down we picked up Eurasian Linnets (a type of finch), and a sunning marmot. Alpine Marmots are hilariously, monstrously huge. They looked like they just ate one of our Yellow-bellied Marmots. With more targets waiting for us at the Refuge de la Glére, we headed there for lunch, when the next post will pick up.


Alpine Marmot