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
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.