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France French Pyrenees in Summer

An 8-day, small-group birdwatching & butterflies tour to France

A summer ‘Birds & Butterflies’ tour centred on the glorious Gavarnie Valley - right at the heart of the beautiful French Pyrenees. Against a magnificent backdrop of snow-capped peaks and the dramatic Cirque de Gavarnie, we look for Lammergeier, Rock Thrush, Citril Finch and Snowfinch among an unrivalled range of montane specialities - along with upwards of 50 species of butterfly. At this time of year, 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 walls of the spectacular Cirque de Gavarnie are not only classified as an Exceptional Heritage Site but 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 breed in the towns and villages, Dipper and Grey Wagtail haunt the chill upland streams that tumble down the valleys and, in the forests of pine and beech that cling to the lower slopes, we should find Crested Tit and Firecrest. Our recent groups have usually seen Black and even Middle Spotted Woodpeckers here, too.

At higher elevations, upland treats to watch for include Alpine Accentor, Red-billed and Alpine Choughs, Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting, Citril Finch and Snowfinch.

The Gavarnie area is a veritable mountain paradise, but it’s 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!        

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

Limosa has been operating birding tours to the French Pyrenees for 25 years. Guide David Fairhurst led Limosa's June 2015, 2016 and 2017 tours to the French Pyrenees - and can't wait to return again this year! Join him for a wonderful week of alpine birds and butterflies set against a backcloth of fine summer blooms and stunning mountain scenery at the heart of the beautiful 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, TRANSFER TO LUZ VIA THE PRE-PYRENEAN FOOTHILLS

Our summer birds & butterflies tour to France begins with the British Airways morning flight from London (Heathrow) to Toulouse, in southwest France. 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 rolling forested foothills of the pre-Pyrenees, where we take to the back roads to explore flower-filled meadows and shady lanes that can be thronged with butterflies in June. 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 and continue on 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 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 very comfortable hotel offers good French food and is ideally situated to allow relatively short drives to a variety of different habitats and elevations. Our walks above the treeline will provide plenty of opportunity 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 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, busy Crag Martins and the confiding but surprisingly unobtrusive Alpine Accentor await our discovery. We may be fortunate to find 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 the cliffs, sure-footed Pyrenean Chamois (or ‘Izard’, en francais) go about their death-defying daily business on the more precipitous slopes.

Feeding quietly on the ground, Citril Finch can be easy to miss - but once found this attractive alpine finch will often allow close approach. Babbling mountain streams are patronised by white-shirted Dippers and vivacious Grey Wagtails, and craggy passes echo with the fluting notes of the gorgeous Rock Thrush, the males resplendent at this time of year in their summer finery of chestnut, blue and white. Less obvious will be the soft Dunnock-like jangling of the Rock Bunting's song, which we'll listen for along the stonier tracts. Woodlands at these higher elevations are dominated by Silver Firs, a tree much liked by Crested Tits, Firecrests and Common Crossbills.

Our visits to the lower slopes will reveal large stands of Beech. Here we shall be looking and listening for the elusive Black Woodpecker, wild-eyed and unmistakable when seen, with its striking pale bill and crimson topknot. We have often been lucky to find the localised Middle Spotted Woodpecker here too, surely Europe's most attractive woodpecker. Honey Buzzard, Red Kite and Sparrowhawk are among yet more exciting birds of prey to watch for.

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 must bid farewell to the Pyrenees after breakfast today, our leisurely journey back to Toulouse allows time to enjoy another picnic in the pre-Pyrenean foothills. Golden Oriole and Short-toed Treecreeper could be new additions to our bird list and we have another opportunity here to enjoy the crowds of butterflies on the wing - among them perhaps such treats as 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 'birds and butterflies' tour based in the glorious Gavarnie Valley - right at the heart of the beautiful French Pyrenees. Lammergeier, Alpine Chough, Alpine Accentor and Snowfinch are among specialities to watch for - and upwards of 50 species of butterfly are also possible. At this time of year, the Pyrenean plants can be wonderful, too.

By travelling via Toulose, we have opportunities along the way to explore the fabulous, butterfly-filled meadows of the pre-Pyrenean foothills - and to see birds such as Honey Buzzard, Hobby and Montagu's Harrier.

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

Birds

80-100 species

Mammals

Around 5 species

Butterflies

50+ species likely (depending upon the weather). Every year is different it seems, but we’ve now recorded more than 100 different species of butterfly on this remarkable tour!

PLANTS  
This 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 very good 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. Our breakfasts and dinners will be at the hotel, following in the best traditions of French cuisine. Our lunches will usually be taken as picnics in the field.

Walking

Predominantly short walks along alpine roads and good, largely stony 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 (one short section a little more strenuous than the rest on the way up). But we take it all 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!

Stout walking shoes or lightweight boots with sturdy corrugated soles for grip advised.

Travel

We fly from 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 Mr & Mrs DG, Pyrenees in Summer tour, France ... 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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