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France French Pyrenees in Summer

An 8-day birdwatching and butterflies tour to France, focusing on the High Pyrenees

A single-centre, small group holiday looking for birds and butterflies in the glorious Gavarnie Valley, right at the heart of the beautiful French Pyrenees. Against a backdrop of spectacular Pyrenean scenery and the dramatic rock wall of the magnificent Cirque de Gavarnie, we look for an unrivalled range of alpine birds - including Lammergeier, Alpine Chough, Rock Thrush, Citril Finch and White-winged Snowfinch - and upwards of 50 species of butterfly. In June, the Pyrenean plants can be wonderful, too!

Tour Dates

2019

Available

Leaders
David Fairhurst

Max Group Size: 7
Duration: 8 Days

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Cost: £1795

inc return flights London Heathrow-Toulouse, nonstop with British Airways

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £195
Land Only: £1675

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Alpine Accentor perches atop a rock at the famous Col du Tourmalet - which we'll reach not by bike but in the minibus! © Arnoud van den Berg, Limosa Holidays

For this delightful summer tour to the French Pyrenees we base ourselves at a comfortable hotel in the small Pyrenean town of Luz St. Sauveur. Just a few miles to the north, the towering rock wall of the spectacular Cirque de Gavarnie is classified as an Exceptional Heritage Site and home to one of Europe’s rarest and most sought-after birds - the Lammergeier (or Bearded Vulture). We will visit a number of favoured haunts in search of this immense bird, and where all our previous groups have enjoyed marvellous views. A few have even been treated to the dramatic sight of a Lammergeier ‘doing its thing’ and dropping bones from height to break them into pieces small enough to swallow!         

In fact, this is a terrific tour for anyone with a penchant for birds of prey, for a good number of Europe’s most impressive raptors also breed in these mountains. Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle, Short-toed Snake Eagle, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite and Hobby are among a range of species we should come across during the week.         

Crag Martins float above the upland towns and villages, Dippers haunt the chill streams that tumble down the valleys and Crested Tits and Firecrests frequent the forests of pine and beech that cling to the slopes. And although June isn't the best time of year to look for woodpeckers, we have sometimes been lucky to find the big Black Woodpecker here, too.

At higher elevations, specialities to watch for include Alpine and Red-billed Choughs, Rock Thrush, Alpine Accentor, Water Pipit, White-winged Snowfinch, Citril Finch and Rock Bunting. Our June 2018 group even struck lucky with Wallcreeper, enjoying superb views of a crimson-winged male!         

The Gavarnie area is a veritable mountain paradise - but one that is only fully accessible during the summer months. Pyrenean Chamois and Alpine Marmot frequent the highest slopes, the latter’s distinctive bird-like whistles carrying far in the crystal air. And it’s only at this season that we have an opportunity to enjoy both the frenzy of alpine plants that grace the uncut hay meadows and upland pastures, and the bounty of montane butterflies that make their home in the High Pyrenees. Most trips produce upwards of 50 species of butterfly - weather permitting, of course - with the slow-flying Apollo, Piedmont and Bright-eyed Ringlets, Purple Emperor and Little, Turquoise and Gavarnie Blues amongst the tally of now more than 100 different species our groups have recorded here over the years!          

By travelling to the mountains via Toulose we also have chances along the way to enjoy the fabulous, butterfly-rich woods and meadows of the pre-Pyrenean foothills - as well as to look for lowland birds. Possibilities include the scarce Black-winged Kite (a species that's only recently arrived in southwest France), Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Melodious Warbler.

If you are seeking to combine the joys of summer birding in Europe with good food and a comfortable hotel, rewarding wildlife walks and a wider appreciation of the natural world, this easy-going trip to the south of France is for you.

Limosa has been running holidays to France for more than 25 years. Guide David Fairhurst led Limosa's tours to the French Pyrenees in June 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 - and can't wait to return again. Join him for a feast of alpine birds and butterflies set against a backcloth of fine summer blooms and stunning mountain scenery in the spectacular French Pyrenees.

1 EUR The walk to Boucharo Pyrenees France David Cottridge June 2010

Above the clouds: view on the walk up to the Port de Boucharo (2275m) © davidcottridge.com

Day 1
FLY TOULOUSE, TRAVEL TO LUZ VIA THE PRE-PYRENEAN FOOTHILLS

Our summer birdwatching and butterflies tour to the French Pyrenees begins with a British Airways morning flight from London Heathrow direct to Toulouse, in southwest France. From here, we drive west through an ever-more lovely landscape of wooded hills, meadows and rustic French villages and towns, enlivened by the cheerful songs of Serins and 'gravel-gargling' Black Redstarts.

Hobby, Red Kite and Common Buzzard may be soaring above the forested foothills of the pre-Pyrenees, where we take to the back roads to explore flower-filled meadows and shady lanes that, in June, can be alive with butterflies. Great Banded Grayling, Queen of Spain Fritillary and the exquisite Map are among a wealth of species we have recorded here, while birds to watch out for include Little Egret, Black Kite, Red-backed Shrike and Cirl Bunting.

We rejoin the autoroute to Lourdes, where we turn south and wind our way up into the Hautes Pyrénées. Our hotel for the week is situated in the small upland town of Luz St. Sauveur, in the picturesque Gavarnie Valley. Night Luz St Sauveur

Days 2 - 7
GAVARNIE VALLEY & BEYOND

With no changes of hotel to worry about during our holiday, we shall be free to devote ourselves fully to enjoying the beautiful Pyrenees National Park. At Luz, we are especially well placed to visit sites up and down the superb Gavarnie Valley, including the higher cols and cirques - the great rock walls that divide France from Spain. Our exact itinerary may be determined by the weather (usually good in June), but we will aim to spend time seeking the more interesting specialities of the region.

Our comfortable hotel offers good French food and is ideally situated, allowing easy access to a wide variety of different habitats and elevations. Our walks above the treeline will provide plenty of opportunities to watch for soaring Griffon Vultures and Golden Eagles. With an increasing population in the High Pyrenees, the mighty Lammergeier should also sail into view and we have good chances of finding Short-toed Snake Eagle, Peregrine and other birds of prey, too.

In the highest areas, where flower-rich alpine slopes give way to sheets of rocky scree, song-flighting Water Pipits, Crag Martins and the confiding but surprisingly unobtrusive Alpine Accentor await our discovery. We may be fortunate to find White-winged Snowfinch (we haven’t yet missed them here in summer), which should be busy feeding their young about now. Schools of Red-billed and Alpine Choughs soar playfully over the slopes and Alpine Marmots punctuate the stillness with sharp whistles that warn others in their clan of our approach - or the presence of an eagle soaring high overhead. High on most precipitous slopes, sure-footed Pyrenean Chamois (or ‘Izard’, en francais) go about their death-defying daily business.

Feeding quietly on the ground, Citril Finches can be easy to miss - but once found this attractive alpine denizen will often allow close approach. Babbling mountain streams are patronised by white-shirted Dippers and vivacious Grey Wagtails, and craggy passes echo to the fluting notes of the gorgeous Rock Thrush, the males looking especially resplendent at this time of year in their summer finery of rufous, blue and white. Less obvious will be the soft Dunnock-like jangling of the Rock Bunting's song, which we'll listen for along stonier tracts.

Woodlands at these higher elevations are dominated by Silver Fir - a tree much liked by Crested Tits, Firecrests and Common Crossbills - while our visits to the lower slopes will reveal large stands of Beech. Honey Buzzard, Red Kite and Sparrowhawk are among birds of prey to watch for here and we have sometimes been lucky to find the elusive Black Woodpecker - wild-eyed and unmistakable when seen, with its striking pale bill and crimson topknot.

If the weather is good, it is also possible to see more than 50 butterfly species during the week. Some years, the sheer volume of insects on the wing can be staggering, with clouds of Little Blues coursing the upland meadows and dozens of other species to watch for including Heath and Meadow Fritillaries, Turquoise, Mazarine and Gavarnie Blues, Lefèbvre’s and Piedmont Ringlets, Clouded Apollo and the slow-flying Apollo.

For those with an interest in wildflowers, the range of species can be quite overwhelming. With this in mind, we shall not labour over every individual species, but concentrate instead on seeing some of the specialities of the region. Flowering periods for many species are long, with individuals at higher altitudes flowering later than those lower on the slopes.

As we near the snowline, we are likely to find scattered colonies of Dog’s-tooth Violet, Hepatica and the fabulous Alpine Snowbell, flowering immediately the snow recedes. Lower down, the grassy slopes may be studded with the intense blue of Spring and Trumpet Gentians, whilst summer orchids can include the exquisite Black Vanilla and Burnt Tip Orchids. Among a number of showy Pyrenean endemics, we may find Ramonda, Pyrenean Saxifrage and Long-leaved Butterwort.

All in all, whatever your particular interest in the natural world, we are assured of a busy wildlife week in the mountains! Six further nights Luz St. Sauveur

Day 8                                    
RETURN TO TOULOUSE VIA THE PRE-PYRENEAN FOOTHILLS, FLY LONDON

Although we bid farewell to the Pyrenees after breakfast today, our leisurely journey back to Toulouse allows time to enjoy another picnic in the lovely pre-Pyrenean foothills.

The scarce Black-winged Kite, Golden Oriole, Melodious Warbler, Short-toed Treecreeper and Middle Spotted Woodpecker could be among possible new additions to our bird list today and we shall welcome another opportunity to enjoy the throng of summer butterflies on the wing - perhaps including White Admiral, High Brown Fritillary and the superb Cleopatra.

Returning to Toulouse, we catch British Airways late afternoon flight back to London Heathrow, where our tour concludes.

1EUR Pearl boardered Fritillary Pyrenees France David Cottridge June 2010

Pearl-bordered Fritillary in the Gavarnie Valley - one of more than 50 species of butterfly we could encounter on this superb summer tour © davidcottridge.com

What To Expect

A single-centre, small group holiday looking for birds and butterflies in the glorious Gavarnie Valley - right at the heart of the beautiful French Pyrenees. Against a backdrop of spectacular Pyrenean scenery and the dramatic rock wall of the magnificent Cirque de Gavarnie, we look for an unrivalled range of alpine birds - including Lammergeier, Alpine Chough, Rock Thrush, Citril Finch and White-winged Snowfinch - and upwards of 50 species of butterfly. In June, the Pyrenean plants can be wonderful, too!

By travelling via Toulose, we also have opportunities along the way to explore the fabulous, butterfly-filled meadows of the pre-Pyrenean foothills - and to look for birds such as the scarce Black-winged Kite, Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Melodious Warbler, too.

In mid-late June, the weather in the French Pyrenees is typically warm and sunny, with daily temperatures in the range of 12-26C (54-70F). As with any upland area, periods of rain or showers, low cloud or poor visibility are possible - even in mid-summer. However, in the mountains, it is often possible to avoid localised bad weather by moving to a different altitude - up or down! - and we have sometimes found ourselves birding in glorious sunshine above the rain clouds!

Good incidental photo opportunities, especially butterflies and flowers. Some alpine birds can be confiding - once we’ve found them! Landscapes are superbly scenic in the mountains.

Birds

80-100 species

Mammals

Up to 5 species

Butterflies

45-65 species likely, depending upon the weather. Every year is different but we’ve now recorded more than 100 different species of butterfly on this remarkable tour!

PLANTS  
June is an excellent time of year for wildflowers, especially alpines and including some Pyrenean endemics. A joy to behold even if you're not a botanist!

Accommodation

7 nights accommodation at a good and comfortable family-run hotel (French Tourist Board 3-star and Logis de France 3-cheminées award) in the small Pyrenean town of Luz St. Sauveur, right at the heart of the glorious Gavarnie Valley. All rooms are en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with lunch on Day 1 and concluding with lunch on Day 8.

Breakfasts and dinners will be taken at the hotel, following in the best traditions of French cuisine. Lunches will usually be delicious picnics in the field.

Walking

Predominantly short walks along good tracks in the mountains and foothills.

During the week we plan to take one full-day walk up to the breath-taking Cirque de Gavarnie and back - a round trip of ca. 7 km. The going on this day is mostly easy and the unmade stony track is wide and safe, but there are of course a few uphill stretches including one relatively short section that's a little more strenuous than the rest on the way up. But we take everything gently and the rewards at the top are well worth the effort - with the enticement of a cafe and a refreshing glass of beer at the furthest point... Plus it’s downhill all the way back again!

Stout walking shoes or lightweight boots with sturdy corrugated soles for grip recommended for this trip.

Travel

We fly London Heathrow to Toulouse, nonstop with British Airways.

Ground Transport   By minibus.

Snowfinch & boots French Pyrenees 0616 DF Limosa DSC03381 copy resized

How do you like to see your Snowfinches?... Close encounter of the bird kind at the famous Col de Tourmalet © David Fairhurst, Limosa

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1 SS, French Pyrenees tour A delightful trip! David is an excellent guide and driver. He handled our personalities and interactions with unfazed calm and good humour. [empty string]
2 MS, French Pyrenees tour Superb trip and as described in brochure. Every day had so many highlights and the hotel location was perfect. [empty string]
3 SE, French Pyrenees tour ... your brochure painted a glowing picture ... It was very accurate. I was bowled over by the beautiful scenery, the abundance of birds, butterflies and flowers ... [empty string]
4 ST, French Pyrenees tour David was an excellent guide. Dealt with all enquiries with good humour and kept the pace to our requirements at all times. A very worthwhile, and jaw dropping, scenic trip. [empty string]
5 Mr & Mrs DG, French Pyrenees tour David is a fantastic leader. His knowledge, attention to detail, personality and people skills are second to none. His enthusiasm for nature is highly infectious over a vast subject range. [empty string]
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