SPANISH STEPPES AND PYRENEES
''Just a brief thank you note for a superb tour just completed. For me, the highlight had to be the vulture feeding station visit - a sight that will certainly take some beating.
As ever, the whole week was well organised and expertly lead..... 10 out of 10 to John and the local guides. Thanks again..'' ... Mr M, Skipton, July 2015
click here for a pdf version of this destination write-up - easier to print - no photos
After a gap of several years we are returning to revisit NE Spain. In the domain of the magnificent Lammergeier, the Pyrenees make a formidable barrier. They mark a dramatic change between the green riches of rural France and the hot dry plains of northern Spain. Our journey takes us from the steppes of Catalonia and the semi-desert areas in Aragon, upward through the low Pyrenean valleys to the high snow-capped mountains on the border with France.
This famous corner of NE Spain is like a country in itself. The Catalans have a strong local identity, and a rich history especially in the arts. In the Val díAran the local people also have their own language and customs. Many people there speak Aranese, Catalan and Castilian Spanish as well as some French and English!
Arriving in Barcelona, we will drive to Lecera, near Zaragoza, our base for the first three nights. The steppe habitats and marginal grasslands of the Zaragoza plains and Lleida plateau are very important areas for birdlife. A great diversity of species have adapted to survive in such extreme environmental conditions. The area is farmed in rotation leaving fallow fields where nesting birds can thrive. The result is good populations of steppe avifauna including Little Bustard, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Stone Curlew and a range of larks including Calandra, Crested, Thekla, Skylark and Greater Short-toed Lark. In areas of pristine steppe Lesser Short-toed Larks can be found. It is here that we have a good chance of the seeing the rare and elusive Dupontís Lark too.
On day four we will head north through the lush valleys of the Pyrenees, spending four nights in the Val díAran. Here we will visit several areas where Snowfinch and Wallcreeper breed. As well as the prominent bird species, the meadows are alive with Alpine flora and butterflies; 120 species of the latter have been recorded.
Thanks to protection schemes and reintroduction programmes vultures are once more abundant in these mountains. Four species occur; Griffon Vulture, the spectacular Lammergeier, the huge Black Vulture, and Egyptian Vulture.
LLEIDA AND ZARAGOZA
After arriving at Barcelona Airport we will head towards the Zaragoza plains, stopping for lunch in the Tarrega area. Tarrega is famous for its dry steppes. It is home to many interesting species such as Little Bustards, Rollers, Montaguís Harriers and literally hundreds of Calandra and Greater Short-toed Larks. After lunch we will continue to our accommodation in Lecera for a three nights stay at a comfortable rural hotel.
We will have two days to explore the desolate yet beautiful plains of Belchite and Los Monegros. The Dupontís Lark is one of our main target species here. An early start is necessary as the males sing best just after dawn. Both Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse come to drinking pools providing good opportunities to watch them. The sight and sound of these birds with their evocative calls is a highlight of the trip. During our search for the more elusive species we will, no doubt, encounter many other interesting birds that are adapted to this special habitat. These include Great Bustard, Stone Curlew, Lesser Kestrel, Little Owl, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Tawny Pipit, Black-eared Wheatear, Rock Sparrow, and Southern Grey and Woodchat Shrikes.
The landscape here is both colourful and spectacular; reminiscent, in fact, of southern Morocco. One site we will visit is the Planeron SEO Birdlife Reserve, an Area of Special Protection for Birds, created in 1992. There will also be the opportunity to visit Belchite which is famous for being one of the major battlegrounds of the Spanish Civil War.
We will take full advantage of the cooler early and late parts of the day when the birds are most active. Dartford and Spectacled Warblers add to the variety of species. Common birds of the fields and hedgerows include European Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Sardinian Warbler, Serin, Goldfinch, Corn Bunting, Cirl Bunting and Stonechat. It is here that the ranges of Starling and Spotless Starling overlap and the two species can be often seen together.
Heading north on day four, we will travel towards the Val díAran, high in the Pyrenees, stopping along the way to view the breathtaking landscapes. We will spend four nights in Vielha, just south of the French border. The River Garona actually flows north from the valley into France reaching the Atlantic coast at Bordeaux. On our doorstep are hidden valleys each with their own special flora, butterflies and birds.
Water Pipits can be found everywhere on the extensive alpine and grazing meadows near the ski resort of Beret. Alongside them are Yellowhammers, Northern Wheatears and numerous Black Redstarts. Higher up we will seek out Alpine Accentor, Alpine Chough, Ring Ouzel, Rock Thrush and perhaps Snowfinch. Wallcreepers also occur here but are becoming increasingly difficult to locate as they appear to now breed at even higher elevations due to the effects of climate change.
Brown Bears have been reintroduced into the mountains and we may be lucky to observe them as they feed in the alpine meadows. The Isard or Pyrenean Chamois can be found in small groups on the rocky slopes and amongst the higher stands of forest. The impressive Varrados Valley is a good place to observe them both. At the head of the valley we will find Lammergeiers and Griffon Vultures. Both Black Kites and Red Kites occur here together. Crag Martins and Rock Buntings breed on the cliff faces, whilst Red-backed Shrikes and Whinchats can be found in the meadows. Other mammals to look out for on this part of the tour include Alpine Marmot and Pine Marten.
The Val díAran is famous for its extensive forests. A mixture of old growth pine, birch oak and beech cover the slopes of this beautiful place. Woodpeckers are common, in particular the spectacular Black Woodpecker and Green Woodpecker. Middle Spotted Woodpeckers nest in the oak woods alongside the more abundant Great Spotted Woodpecker. Other common species of the mixed woodlands include Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Marsh Tit. At higher levels Citril Finches, Crested Tits and Common Crossbills appear whilst Goldcrests replace the Firecrests which occur at lower elevations.
Raptors are plentiful with displaying Honey Buzzards a regular sight across the valley being one of the highlights. Short-toed Eagles, Booted Eagles and Golden Eagles are all present and active above the higher slopes.
On one day we will make a full day excursion to the Pallars Sobira Valley. Here at an old deserted village there is a raptor feeding station which attracts Lammergeier, Black Vulture, Griffon Vulture and Egyptian Vulture. Hundreds of vultures visit this magical spot providing a most memorable birding experience.
On the final day we will take a short drive into France and depart from Toulouse Airport.
CLIMATE AND PACE
In summer the weather in the steppes will be cool in the morning, but hot by midday, depending on cloud cover. We shall concentrate birdwatching effort to the early and later parts of the day. In the mountains the weather should be generally sunny and pleasant though be prepared for low cloud and cooler conditions at higher elevations. Breakfast will be taken at 8am most mornings except on one or two days when we will go out birdwatching pre-breakfast. In the plains we will go out early and take lunch in a restaurant and siesta in the heat of the day. In the mountains we will go out for the full day and usually take a picnic along with us. On a daily basis we will undertake short walks conducted at the groupís pace. This will include a little uphill walking in the mountains.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
Full-board accommodation is provided, with three nights at the Rincon del Cierzo in Lecera (near Zaragoza) and four nights at Vielha in the Valíd Aran at the centrally located Hotel Riu Nere. All have en suite bathrooms. Lunch will a mix of picnics and visits to local restaurants. Snacks will also be available in the field if we are out early or late.
PRICE INCLUDES Ö..
All birdwatching excursions with expert leader and local guide, full-board accommodation (starting with lunch on 5th, ending with breakfast on 12th), soft drinks at meal times, bottled water throughout, transport by minibus, reserve entrance fees and international flights.
WHAT IS NOT INCLUDED
Travel insurance. Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry.
Return flight from both Manchester and London Heathrow to Barcelona, returning from Toulouse using the scheduled services of Jet2 and British Airways. Outbound flight departs early morning, return flight arrives back midday. It may also be possible to join this trip from other airports. Please contact us for details.
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