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.