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


  1. Replies
    1. Muito obrigado! Desejamos o mesmo para você e um feliz 2017

  2. Happy New Year to you both. Glad you had a great time in the Pyrenees! One small error is the photo of the Alpine Accentor is a Rock Thrush...

    Look forward to the return Wallcreeper finding visit.


    1. Hey Charles - great to hear from you! That's a real bummer about the accentor, since that was the only one we encountered, and the rock-thrush was right where you expected the accentor to be. Oh well, just one more thing to find when we come back for the Wallcreeper, I guess!

      Happy New Year, and Happy Birding!

  3. We did see an Alpine Accentor it's just this isn't the picture of it! Sorry for the confusion. If you remember the bird was quite a bit above us so also the angle isn't right (nor the grass). There must be some photo with a time after this and before the Kestrels (I think you took some close ups of the pair of Black Kites just after the Accentor).

    As for news, two locals Lammergeiers are covering eggs so only one pair to find (nest has moved). Eagle Owls are back in situ - got a bonus Wallcreeper at this site last week.