At the end of May I was lucky enough to join a tour to the Spanish Pyrenees with Experience Nature Ltd with the aim of photographing Lammergeiers as well as the other three European species of vultures.
We started with a butterfly. This stunning Blue Spot Hairstreak was one of the first things we saw before we even reached our destination. We pulled off the road into a layby overlooking a beautiful lake, and this gorgeous butterfly was one of several species making the most of the Field Scabious and other wildflowers on the roadside.
Having finally arrived at the house that we were to call home for the next few days, we went for a wander to see what was around. There were lots of butterflies as well as various flowers. Some were endemic to the area such as a dainty pink Pyrenean Rock-Rose while others were more common such as Meadow Clary and Viper’s Bugloss. I especially liked this Pyrenean Flax, with pretty purple veining on the petals. It actually extends its range beyond the Pyrenees but is particularly plentiful here.
The next morning we did a recce of a local site to look for Rock Thrush and Citril Finch. While there we were looking to see what other species were around as well. We had a brief glimpse of a Wryneck and a Red Backed Shrike on the way, neither of which I had seen before. There were some interesting flowers including Alpine Aster and False Sainfoin as well as a plethora of insects. Day flying moths such as the Burnet Companion joined masses of butterflies including Small Tortoiseshell, Silver Studded Blue and Painted Ladies.
There were also Hairy Flower Chafers and a type of Dung Beetle which we saw actually rolling a dung ball! As for birds, we didn’t find the Thrush but we did see Citril Finch a little way off, as well as Black Redstart and a pair of Bonelli’s Warblers.
The afternoon was the turn of the main attraction. The focus of the tour was the vultures and we were lucky to be in one of the few locations where all four European species congregate together. After a hot and relatively steep climb to the hides high on the hillside above the house, I could barely believe my eyes at the numbers of birds beginning to circle overhead. What fascinated me was that you could almost see the thermals they were catching due to the sheer number of birds in the air. This snap captures only a few of them!
Soon enough they were gathering on the ground to feed in front of us. The noise was indescribable. Not only were they squawking and chittering at each other but you could hear the wind in their feathers as they came in to land with a thud and a tearing sound as they ripped flesh from bone. Even if I hadn’t had a camera I would have been happy, it was an experience I’ll never forget.
Needless to say I did have a camera and I took a huge number of photos over the next few hours. I won’t share them all with you, but I will pick a few of my favourites and hope that you enjoy them.
First on the ground were the Griffon Vultures. There were at least two hundred and they were really quite characterful. This one is looking for a suitable landing spot among the others that are already down.
They may not be everybody’s idea of the most attractive creature but there was definitely something about them that I couldn’t help but like. They seemed a little cheeky and were certainly inquisitive which I found made for quite pleasing portrait style images.
Next in were the Monk Vultures (confusingly also known as Black or Cinereous Vultures). I have to say I think these were my favourites. They are the largest of the four European species with a 10ft wingspan! Despite their size they have a gentle side to them too; we watched a pair passing food to each other in a very delicate manner for such huge birds. Interestingly, the skin around their beak is almost blue in places which contrasts well against their dark feathers and makes for lovely images.
By contrast to the Monk Vulture, the Egyptian Vulture is the smallest species in Europe with a wingspan of around 2.5ft, similar to that of a Red Kite. These bold birds were next to arrive and didn’t seem shy of getting stuck in with the larger birds, although they did tend to keep on eye on the sky!
Talking of Red Kites, we had one of these beauties drop in too. I have long wanted to get some decent flight shots of one and despite now having a regular visiting Kite over our garden, I haven’t achieved it. At last I got the opportunity I was after and, as well as some standard flight images, I even managed to capture it eating on the wing.
A little later than the other birds, the star of the show arrived. Lammergeiers are fascinating birds which rely more on the bone and bone marrow for sustenance than the meat itself. The juveniles are completely black to begin with and gradually lighten until they reach maturity at about eight years old. This bird is likely to be in its first year.
The different colouring makes it quite easy to distinguish them. This is an adult bird showing off its beautiful plumage and wonderful moustache, which gives them another of their common names as the Bearded Vulture.
We trudged back down the hill a happy bunch and, after chatting endlessly about vultures over a lovely evening meal, we enjoyed a fantastic sunset from the terrace in front of the house.
The following morning we set up in a different hide near the house to take advantage of a lovely reflection pool which various species come to drink at. The list of birds which we saw was an astonishing mix with Subalpine Warbler, Crossbill, Serin, Cirl Bunting, Jay and Rock Pipit to name but a few. Here the latter fluffs itself up on a perch between dips in the shallows.
There was a persistent Blackbird too which seemed to enjoy fishing for dragonfly nymphs as well as picking off the odd newly emerged adult. There are Red Squirrels in the pine forest there as well which occasionally come to drink, but we didn’t see any on this occasion. One of the highlights though was a Hoopoe which didn’t actually come to the pool but was foraging just outside the hide. At one point it was so close that I couldn’t focus on it!
The second highlight was a lizard which I didn’t even know existed. The Ocellated Lizard is the largest in Europe and is strikingly coloured. The individual which we saw was nearly 2ft long and absolutely stunning. Having had a drink among the reeds it scampered up a dry stone wall where I managed to capture this image of it resting in a nook.
The next day saw me looking for wildflowers while the chaps were in yet another hide waiting for a Golden Eagle. Their patience paid off and in the meantime I found a few interesting bits and pieces. My favourite find was this Thalictrum tuberosum which was particularly pretty. There was also quite a lot of Blue Aphyllanthes which I rather liked too.
The afternoon was spent sitting on a bank behind the house watching Dartford Warblers. I have never had any luck in seeing these delightful little birds in the UK, so was thrilled to find them here. They were nesting among the Spiny Broom and so quite secretive. Not wanting to disturb them I kept my distance but managed this image when one popped up with a caterpillar.
The following morning I was out looking for butterflies before it warmed up too much. I was really pleased with this photo of a Chapman’s Blue which I found still roosting on a grass stem.
There were some more nice flowers to enjoy as well including Tassel Hyacinth and this lovely Jack go to bed at Noon, so called because the flower opens in the morning and closes by midday before repeating again the next day.
I found a very trusting Wall Lizard just by the house too, which let me take a lovely portrait before scampering off to bask on a different rock.
The final full day consisted of another hike up the hill for a last hurrah with the Vultures. There seemed to be more than ever and although I now knew what to expect it still took my breath away. The usual suspects were there and I managed a couple of different shots to the previous time. For example, some of the Griffon Vultures were alighting in the trees before coming down to feed.
I also got the fright of my life when a Griffon Vulture flew straight into the hide window only inches from my face while I was taking a photo in the other direction! Shortly after this one landed on the roof of the hide and peered over the edge allowing me a completely different perspective.
The Lammergeiers turned up a little earlier this time too which was great as we had more time to watch them interact. The juveniles were always trying to steal food off the adults and constantly pestered them both on the ground and in the air, which led to some amazing aerobatics and chases.
Lammergeiers are best known for their behaviour of taking bones and dropping them from a height onto rocks to break them and retrieve the marrow from the centre. What is perhaps less known is that they have strong enough stomach acid to eat the bone itself and sometimes in quite large pieces. We had really good views of an adult swallowing what seemed to be an impossibly large bone!
We had several visits from a Red Fox too. The same individual had appeared briefly the last time but not in a suitable place to photograph. This time I was able to get a couple of shots that I was happy with. My favourite is this image of the Fox checking out what competition it has from the top of a small ridge.
The last evening also brought another great sunset and I found myself once again longing to stay just a little bit longer in another slice of heaven on earth.
An early start to get back to the airport brought that daydream to a rather abrupt end but it wouldn’t be long before I was travelling again, with just thirty six hours at home to empty and re-pack my suitcase for the next adventure. I’ll tell you about that one next week though!