Saturday, November 26, 2016

Birding in France, Part 3 - Into the Pyrenees Mountains

From Boudrac, Nick and I drove down south a couple of hours to Bareges, a small ski village (population of over 200 people) butting up against the Pyrenees Mountains. This is where we would spend the next 4 days in search of some specialized mountain species. When we first arrived to our lovely apartment building, we stepped out to find Crag Martins swooping above and occasionally landing on the ledges of the building across from us. 

Our apartment in Bareges for a few days

Bareges, France

Crag Martin

Crag Martin

Bareges, France

That evening we strolled the quaint little road running through the middle of town and saw an immature or female Black Redstart (the first of many we’d see in and around town). Also, on my way back from picking up a baguette and jam (so French), we had our first looks at House Martins! They were nesting in the little corners and crannies of the buildings lining the main street. We witnessed parents coming back and forth to feed their young.

In the middle of town in Bareges

Black Redstart

House Martin at nest

House Martin nestling

The next morning was our first out of two days with our hired bird guide, Charles. He is an English expat who has been living in France for about 15 or so years. Nick and I combed the little urban park in Luz before he arrived and got some nice looks at the Blackbirds. Then we started our full day with a first stop was Lac de Gaves, a little lake where we’d hope to find Common Kingfisher, White-Throated Dipper, and some other water birds and passerines. 

Female Blackbird

juvenile Blackbird

A lovely male Chaffinch

We didn’t have luck with the kingfisher, but we did get distant looks at the dipper and our lifer Gray Wagtails, Long-Tailed Tit, Whinchats, and Green Sandpipers! Unfortunately we didn’t get any good shots of these birds this time, but I was able to get at least an ok pic of a Little Grebe, also a lifer.

Beautiful Demoiselle

Little Grebe

Catalonian Wall Lizard, maybe?

Yield to the White Wagtail!

Coming to France, we had four main target birds: Hoopoe, Wallcreeper, Griffon Vulture/ Eurasian Griffon and Lammergeier. Unfortunately, once we arrived, we were told that Hoopoes had already mostly migrated and Wallcreepers would only be found in very hard to reach areas that you could only access via some serious, icy climbing, which we were not going to do. So we had to just hope that we’d get the other two, and we were pretty much guaranteed to find them. Well, once we drove from Lac de Gaves to our next stop, an easily accessible little hawk watch spot in Agos Vidalos, we were granted our first of our two remaining wishlist birds immediately. We saw our first Griffon Vultures, and they were so awesome! These huge birds soared high above across the craggy mountainside.

Agos Vidalos - Le Pibeste

Griffon Vultures in flight

Griffon Vulture!!!

Griffon Vulture staredown

We were so pumped by seeing these super amazing Griffons and some of the other cool raptors, and it was just a warm up. We drove a bit farther away to the breathtaking landscape of Col de Soulor. Here was a more well established hawk watch with had about 10 or so people already there. The scenery was just so picturesque – grassy mountainsides with free-roaming cattle, sheep, and horses grazing their way through. You could hear the delightful sounds of the cattle bells ringing all around. But more important was what was flying above. We had more great looks at Griffons as well as big groups of Black Kites and Red Kites.

Col de Soulour

Hawk Watch Count: 9 Great Cormorants; 11 Red Kites; 49 Black Storks; 71 White Storks; 2,872 Honey Buzzards; 16 Sparrowhawks; 16 Montagu's Harrier; 8 Marsh Harrier; 5 Osprey; 2 Hobbies... Also Lammergeiers, Gryphon Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Peregrines, Golden Eagles, Common Buzzards, Common Kestrels, Booted and Short-toed Eagles

The mighty Pyrenees Mountains

Free-roaming, grazing sheep 

Blonde d'aquitaine - a French breed of cattle

Red Kite

But the kicker was our second granted wish – a freakin’ Lammergeier!!! They are also known as Bearded Vultures, and they are truly the badasses of the vulture world because they eat bones... That’s right… BONES. They are also fittingly giant birds – up to 49 inches long and huge wingspans up to of 9.3 feet. To give you some more perspective, a Golden Eagle's wingspan is 79 inches vs the 111 inches of a Lammy. That's about 40% wider! You can see its wedged tail (this one had a wonky or missing feather). They have a really limited range in Europe which is mostly just the Pyrenees mountains, so we were ecstatic to find this gorgeous creature.

First looks at a Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture!!!!!

Griffon Vulture

Griffon Vulture

Anything else this day was just going to be sprinkles on top of an already decadent, whipped-cream covered, layered cake. One of those sprinkles was a lovely Booted Eagle that flew in close range right above us. In one view, you can see what is nicknamed its “headlights” or “landing lights” on the leading edge of its wing. We also picked up some nice passerines like a juvenile Yellowhammer (badass name but not as badass looking) and juvenile Red-Backed Shrikes, which were adorable.

Booted Eagle

Booted Eagle
Juvenile Yellowhammer

Juvenile Red-Backed Shrike

Although the Lammergeier was definitely our top bird of the day, I must say that our best sighting had to be the absolutely spectacular views of Griffon Vultures towards the end of our day. While we were pulled over the side of a curvy mountain road, we saw a couple of Griffons land on a little outcropping of the cliff almost directly above us.

Then not long after that moment, we drove down to another narrow path in the road looking around, and then Charles and Nick went over to look beyond the guardrail to see what else may be around in the valley. What they spotted was about 5 Griffons just out in the open and about 100 feet away! This somehow topped our previous view as we were practically eye level with them.

One flew away almost as soon as I approached, the other remained just chillin’. This was an opportunity of a lifetime to get some Nat Geo-style pics of these guys. We were floored. And then when we went around a little bit farther, we saw that there were even more hanging out on this cliff than we had first thought. They were quite obliging as we snapped away with our cameras. Even our guide, Charles, was stunned about his amazingly closer encounter. It was truly an awesome way to end a fabulous day. We couldn’t wait for even more the next day.

This little rascal bid us farewell after checking himself out in the car mirror. Farewell!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Birding in France, Part 2 - Boudrac and Puydarrieux

Here's a familiar bird, the good ol' Barn Swallow. No matter how often we drove through a group of Barn Swallows in France, we kept getting our hopes up for something different - we couldn't wrap our heads around the European population being so damn white underneath! Also notice how much more pronounced the breast band is than on an American Barn Swallow. We wouldn't see another swallow species until we arrived in the Pyrenees, but that didn't stop me replaying Monty Python and the Holy Grail over and over in my head.

(Eurasian) Barn Swallow

Is it just me, or does this swallow look like it's whistling?

Maureen's Aunt and Uncle have a beautiful, lush yard with lots of lovely botanical and horticultural projects that attract birds and other pollinators. Even with persistent rains our first day in Boudrac, it was active nearly the entire time. We tallied Blackcaps, Blue Tits, Great Tits, and Chaffinches without any trouble. We struggled to turn some uncooperative birds into Greenfinches or Siskins, but the sky was too overcast and our lenses too dappled with rain for confident IDs.

Blue Tit

Even the butterflies didn't let the rain keep them down. I always struggle with blues - one of these is a Polyommatus sp., and the other remains a mystery. Another garden species, Map, is a sharp-looking fella. The bottom lep is a rare look at a perched Hummingbird Hawk-moth - a common garden visitor that we saw frequently, but usually hovering and feeding like its namesake.

Polyommatus sp.

Unidentified blue

Long-tailed Blue


Hummingbird Hawk-moth

Meanwhile, with all the excitement of being swarmed by lifers, we shrugged off the magpies to our later chagrin. I'd mistakenly thought these were the same as "our" magpies, thanks to iBird, which lists the scientific name for Black-billed Magpie as Pica pica, instead of Pica hudsonia. Bah! Oh well, it's still an armchair tick of sorts.

Unfortunately, our best look at a Willow Warbler

Red-veined Darter

We met with a friend of the family who had a sign for the Ligue pour la Protectio des Oiseaux (LPO) in his yard. He had banned hunting on his property and boasted how he's been ostracized from the townspeople in consequence. The sign featured a European Robin, coincidentally, not far from one of the best-showing Robins we found all trip, and posed in exact mirror image to the sign.

European Robin

Both nights we spent in Boudrac we were serenaded by a Tawny Owl at 4:30 in the morning. If something absolutely insists on waking me up at 4:30, it's best if that something is a lifer. Tawny was our only owl of the trip, but we started getting good looks at some diurnal raptors a few hours later, starting with Common Buzzard (a Buteo, like Red-tailed Hawk), and followed by a flyover Honey Buzzard (which is not a Buteo).

Common Buzzard

Honey Buzzard

The next day we had to pack up and head to the mountains, but first we took a quick trip out to Réservoir de Magnoac to pick up some water birds. Right off the bat, among the Great and Cattle Egrets -- a Little Egret! All over the surface of the reservoir in one and twos were a few dozen Great Crested Grebes, and the shores were lined with Common Sandpipers and Northern Lapwings.

Great and Little Egrets

Little Egret

Great Crested Grebes

Northern Lapwings

We were in the midst of a Euro bonanza. As we hiked closer to the water for better views, we had our introductory looks at White Wagtail, which would be one of the most common birds of our trip.

Flying out of a tree -- not where I would have expected to find a White Wagtail

On our way back to the car, we stopped to admire some more butterflies, including Painted Lady -- the same Painted Lady that's found all throughout the United States and Canada.

Painted Lady

Clouded Yellow sp.

Speckled Wood

Meadow Brown sp.

One last stop brought us to Lac de Puydarrieux. We expected we'd see pretty much the same stuff as at the reservoir, and for the most part we were right, except this time the nearly two dozen lapwings were mixed in with with three dozen Eurasian Curlews! But we were really in for a treat once we spotted three terns - an adult and two juveniles - flying around and plunge-diving. They were clearly Chlidonias terns of some kind, but based on range and time of year, I hadn't really counted on seeing any. It was a while before they came closer and the dark gray underparts proved they were Whiskered Terns. Really an awesome surprise.

Great Cormorants

adult Whiskered Tern

juvenile Whiskered Tern

Stay tuned for some genuine bucket-list birds in our next post!