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!


  1. Terrific shots of the Griffon Vulture! That must have been an amazing experience to see them so close up.

    1. Thanks, Jacquelin! It was quite amazing, indeed! :)