FLY BILBAO, TRANSFER TO JACA
Our birdwatching tour to the Spanish Pyrenees begins with a morning flight from London Heathrow to Bilbao. It is a 3 hour drive through increasingly rugged landscapes until we reach the picturesque Aragón Valley and the small town of Jaca, where we stay for the week. Even on this day of largely travel however, we are likely to see Griffon Vultures, for Aragón and adjacent Navarra have perhaps the highest densities of this species anywhere in the world.
Our hotel in Jaca is a good 3-star, offering comfortable rooms and good food. By staying here - plum in the centre of the region, with roads radiating out in all directions from town - the amount of travelling each day is cut to a minimum. And with no changes of hotel to worry about, we shall have plenty of time to get to know the area well.
For those who enjoy an early morning stroll, the hotel is ideally situated. Nightingales serenade us as we step out in the early morning sun, with Bee-eaters, Spotless Starlings and Golden Orioles among likely companions. Even the nearby town park can hold surprises, with scampering Red Squirrels, Firecrests, Crested Tits and Short-toed Treecreepers all waiting to be enjoyed - and Scops Owl possible as an after dinner treat! Night Jaca
Days 2 - 7
SPANISH PYRENEES: JACA, RIGLOS & THE ARAGON PLAIN
Starting at the high tops, Water Pipits scurry across the short turf in the shadow of majestic 3000 metre peaks. Where the last patches of winter snow are still retreating, Spring Gentians enliven the scene as we scan the skies above the now sleeping ski resort for birds of prey.
Golden Eagle is possible here, but our main quarry is the Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier (the latter a Dutch word meaning ‘bonecrusher’), which scours the slopes for fallen sheep and the endemic Pyrenean Chamois. With their enormous wingspan and long diamond tail, these huge birds are magnificent to behold. Numbers are slowly increasing in the Pyrenees and most years we see individuals on several occasions during our stay.
Where barren scree covers the ground, we’ll search for Black Redstart and the dazzling Rock Thrush. Open stands of Western Mountain Pine are home to another high altitude specialist, the delightful Citril Finch, often to be found feeding in summer on dandelion heads. Even at this height, Crag Martins can be found hawking insects. The valleys echo to the shrill, bird-like cries of Alpine Marmots and the extraordinary whistles and trills of playful Alpine Chough.
At this time of year, the high alpine pastures should be coming into bloom, with endemic specialities such as Pyrenean Fritillary, Pyrenean Lousewort and Pyrenean Bluebell in flower, as well as Elder-flowered and Broad-leaved Marsh Orchids, Dragonmouth, Narcissus-flowered Anemone, White Pasque Flower, Birdseye Primrose, Pyrenean Kidney-vetch, Alpenrose - and many more! A highlight on all our recent tours has been a visit to enjoy the exquisite and increasingly rare Lady’s Slipper Orchid. This year’s trip runs over similar dates so we shall keep our fingers crossed that they will be blooming 'on time' again then!
Moving lower, we find ourselves enveloped in majestic alpine forests, dominated by Beech and Silver Fir. Many of the birds here - including Marsh Tit, Nuthatch and Bullfinch - are typical of those to be seen at home, although in Spain this is their main outpost. Firecrests are frequent in these woodlands, where we’ll also try for the imposing Black Woodpecker.
Before long, we are down amongst stands of familiar Scots Pine and the warm air is laden with the scent of resin. Crested Tits trill overhead, Grey Wagtails haunt the streams and the panoramic views are ideal for scanning for raptors. Griffon Vultures seem to be ever-present in the skies and we can also hope to encounter the declining Egyptian Vulture, Booted Eagle and Short-toed Snake Eagle, Common Buzzard, Eurasian Honey Buzzard and maybe Goshawk, too.
Over the millennia, the rushing watercourses have carved deep fissures. Here, where the sun doesn’t penetrate, scrubby oak, lime, alder and maple grow impossibly from clefts in the rock. Such places hold Western Bonelli’s Warblers, while the flat terraces alongside - which are warmer and rich in showy asphodels, gorse and box - provide good habitat for Woodlark, Dartford and Western Subalpine Warblers, Red-backed Shrike and Cirl Bunting. We have a good chance of finding Rock Bunting too, with its jangling Dunnock-like song. But it's the bare rock faces that will be of greatest interest, for it's here that we have our best chances of finding the elusive Wallcreeper.
We’ll walk some of these limestone gorges, looking up at the Red-billed Choughs, together with Alpine Swifts and Blue Rock Thrushes, while Rock Sparrows wheeze from the crevices. In one particular spot, we have enjoyed stunning views of the remarkable Wallcreeper less than ten metres above us, and we’ll hope that this pair returns again. (Our track record for finding this species to date must surely be second to none - but we also have a second site up our sleeves, just in case!) Flowers to enjoy include several orchids, violet Ramonda and glorious cascades of endemic Pyrenean Saxifrage clinging to the rock faces.
We shall have plenty of chances to explore the high valleys during our stay - but we won’t want to ignore the areas beckoning from below either!
Nestling at the foot of the Pyrenees, the flat alluvial Aragón plain bustles with avian activity, its patchwork of ripening cornfields interspersed with crumbling ‘badlands’ of grey marl forming a splendid wildlife habitat. Birds here are characteristic of the Mediterranean region and include Hoopoe, Sardinian and Melodious Warblers, Tawny Pipit and Serin. Crested Larks are common, while Black and Red Kites, and rainbow-hued Bee-eaters swoop gracefully overhead. Loud-voiced Cetti’s Warblers shout at us from secluded streamsides as we pass, Great Reed Warblers grunt from the reeds and Golden Orioles flute from the orchid-rich poplar groves. Here we know of a flower-rich hillside that is home to a good number of Ortolan Buntings.
The southern slopes now reflect a true Mediterranean environment, as the heavenly scent of thymes, Rosemary and Gum Cistus lay siege to our senses. Travelling through this lovely countryside, we reach the almost surreal, pink sandstone pillars that are the towering Los Mallos de Riglos. The village below these amazing cliffs sits amidst fields that can be swarming with butterflies, while the seemingly barren scree has somehow provided ground for villagers to cultivate orchards of fragrant almonds and olives. With vultures in constant attendance above, it is in this chequerboard landscape that we’ll search for Peregrine and Rock Dove, smartly dressed Black and Black-eared Wheatears, furtive Western Orphean Warblers and the showy Woodchat Shrike.
This tour can be excellent for butterflies, too! Given sunny weather, we have recorded as many as 75 species during the week. Past tour highlights have included Common and Iberian Swallowtails, Nettle-tree Butterfly, Camberwell Beauty, Spanish Fritillary and Purple Emperor as well as a host of fritillaries, blues and hairstreaks. On the high slopes, slow flying Apollos drift across open, flowery meadows; in sunny woodland glades, Duke of Burgundy and Southern White Admiral enliven our walks; while on flower-filled banks in the foothills, handsome Spanish Gatekeepers, stunning Cleopatras and sublime Black-veined Whites vie for our attention.
As with any tour to mountain regions, our daily itinerary will remain flexible to allow for possible vagaries in the weather. But we shall be sure to visit the full range of habitats available, to get the best from our week in this special area. Six further nights Jaca
RETURN TO BILBAO, FLY LONDON
We have time for a last look around Jaca today before making our way back to Bilbao.
Late afternoon check-in for our evening flight home from Bilbao to London Heathrow, where our spring 'birds and butterflies' tour to the Spanish Pyrenees concludes.