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Day 1 Sunday 11th July
Everyone met on time at the ferry terminal in Millbay Docks, Plymouth for the 8pm sailing to Santander, Spain. As the Pont Aven sailed out of Plymouth Sound, we began seeing our first Northern Gannets of the trip, but the sea was very quiet, and only Pat C was able to find a European Storm Petrel. So with a beautiful red sunset and fading light, everyone retired to enjoy the activities below decks! With a cinema, swimming pool, games rooms, and several bars with live music and entertainments, there were plenty of things to keep us all occupied.
Day 2 Monday 12th July
With sunrise at 5.30am, some of us were already on deck watching a fine Cory's Shearwater. However, seabird passage was very quiet, with only a couple more Cory's, a few Northern Gannets and five Common Scoters to keep us entertained. Cetaceans on the other hand were much more evident, with pretty good views of at least twelve Fin Whales, a couple of which showed very close to the ship. One feature about them today was the low, angled and very bushy blows given, which were more reminiscent of Sperm Whale. To compliment this, at least two Sperm Whales showed, with one of them even seen breaching. On arrival at Santander, once the formalities of the vehicle hire were taken care off, we hot-footed it along the north coast towards Bilbao, seeing a Little Egret and our first Black Kites. Near Vitoria Gasteiz, we pulled in for our usual coffee stop, and were treated to the atmospheric sight of a pair of White Storks stood next to their huge nest on a church tower. These birds and another pair seen at a nest on the other side of the motorway were the only ones of the tour. After a refreshing round of Coca Cola and Cafe Con Leches at the local bar, complete with singing European Serins and flyover Spotless Starlings, we carried on our journey towards the Pyrenees. As the rolling hills finally gave way to rather impressive mountains, we made a stop along the road to view the Hoz de Lumbier, which proved well worthwhile. With Alpine Swifts zooming overhead, Eurasian Griffon Vultures appearing by the dozens, and a spectacular flock of Red-billed Choughs flying in to roost, everyone got a real buzz from a good half an hours quality birding before the light began to fade. With a couple Rock Sparrows perched on nearby telegraph wires, and a close Corn Bunting we finally managed to tear ourselves away and continue on our journey. The drive along the Aragon Valley produced a flyover Northern Goshawk, with several Great Crested Grebes being seen on the Embalse de Yesa, and loads of Red and Black Kites perched and flying around the fields on the lower section of the Hecho Valley. On arrival at our hotel deep in the Hecho Valley, we were greeted by our hosts, Lucia and Imanol, before meeting our final group member, Joel from Switzerland. It was great to finally sit down and enjoy a wonderful meal prepared by Lucia, complete with copious amounts of red wine!
Day 3 Tuesday 13th July
Viv and some of the group took a short walk before breakfast this morning, taking their first looks at the stunning scenery surrounding the hotel. They racked up a pretty good list, with good views of several Red-backed Shrikes, a wonderfully bright European Serin, several Crested Tits, a juvenile Common Crossbill, Garden Warbler, and our first awesome Lammergeier. Following breakfast we followed a winding road that took us ever upwards through dense pine forest to the refuge at Gabardito. With huge towering cliffs all around, the scenery was pretty dramatic to say the least. A short walk from here through the forest led us to the base of a cliff, where we positioned ourselves and waited patiently for our first target species. This is a traditional site for what is possibly the most wanted bird of the entire trip, Wallcreeper. However, the rock face seemed deserted, so we just sat and waited, and waited, and waited. Meanwhile there were plenty of other distractions to keep us occupied, with several Black Redstarts, and a family party of Red-billed Choughs nearby. Overhead, huge Eurasian Griffon Vultures cruised slowly by, and we scoped several of these awesome creatures perched on the cliff face on the other side of the valley, whilst several smaller Egyptian Vultures also put in an appearance. Eventually the Wallcreeper appeared, high up near the top of the cliff and in all the excitement not everyone managed to catch a glimpse before it disappeared. Fortunately it returned several minutes later, and this time stayed for quite a while.
We watched it clinging to the sheer rock face, flicking its wings to reveal the most stunning red. Several times it took flight, revealing broad crimson wings and really putting on a show. Once more it disappeared around the corner, and during this lull in the excitement a Rock Bunting began calling. After a few moments I spotted it perched in a low bush and everyone had cracking views! Once it had flown off, our rumbling stomachs told us it was nearing lunchtime, so we headed back to the vehicles. As the trail started to turn away from the cliff, the Wallcreeper reappeared, giving us our best views so far, as it was seen quite low down. What was rather amazing, was watching it feed a juvenile Black Redstart and ignoring its own youngster in the process. The young Black Redstart seemed to be more persistent in its vociferous begging and definitely seemed to be winning the survival stakes! By now butterfly activity had increased, and we saw amongst others, Silver-washed and Dark-green Fritillaries, Black-veined White, Marbled Fritillary, and Scarce Copper. The open grassy meadow was dotted with Pyrenean Eryngo, and seemed alive with butterflies, so we spent a while here. A Black Woodpecker could be heard calling, and with a little encouragement a male flew right overhead giving great views. We were definitely on a roll this morning, and were even treated to another flight view, this time of a female. So following a picnic lunch near the refuge, it was decided to drive lower down the valley. As we started descending, an Apollo butterfly was seen alongside the road. Our next destination was the Anso Viewpoint, a scenic spot overlooking the Anso Valley, and which has been a very productive area in the past for raptors and butterflies. It was extremely hot by now, and not surprisingly the only bird of note was a rather distant Booted Eagle. However, the roadside was covered in flowers and these attracted some good butterflies, with Great Banded Grayling, Damon Blue, and False Ilex Hairstreak being the highlights. With the heat being a little overpowering, we headed down into the Anso Valley and followed the narrow winding road to the Foz de Binies, where I assured everyone we could find some shade. The small meadow at the base of the gorge is always worth a look, and both Lesser Marbled Fritillary and Blue-spot Hairstreak were found. The undoubted highlight here was the exceptionally close and breathtaking views of an adult Lammergeier as it circled low over the meadow. Every detail of its plumage could be seen, even individual feathers - a simply amazing sighting. Unfortunately not all the group were present as some had walked down into the gorge, so I did a good impression of Michael Schumacher and brought everybody back up to the meadow, with Viv excitedly relaying directions over the walkie-talkie. But this was all to no avail, as the bird which had seemingly been set to linger or even perch, disappeared over the cliffs. A mixture of broad grins and furrowed brows could be seen amongst the group - if only we had a crystal ball to tell us how good the views were going to be of this quality raptor over the next few days! Still, everyone was very impressed with the Foz de Binies - well, you had to be with huge cliffs either side of the road, Crag Martins passing low overhead, and the closest perched Eurasian Griffon Vultures of the entire trip. There was also Spotted Flycatcher and Grey Wagtail to keep us entertained. From here it was only a short drive to the bottom of the valley, where the scenery changed to flat arable fields, and we rejoined the main road to Puenta La Reina. This was akin to the successful finding of the Holy Grail, with cold drinks and ice creams all round, before returning to the hotel for another wonderful dinner.
Day 4 Wednesday 14th July
With the mountain tops looking clear, we drove up the Hecho Valley to Selva de Oza this morning. Our first stop along the fast flowing river resulted in a couple Black-bellied Dippers and a Grey Wagtail, whilst a Pipistrelle Bat was found stuck to some weeds which we soon released. Driving higher up the valley, the road soon passed beyond the treeline to reveal a wide, grassy valley bordered either side by steep mountains. Parking by the barrier, it wasn't long before a stunning Apollo butterfly was found, quickly followed by a pair of adult Golden Eagles flying overhead. Walking higher up the valley, another Golden Eagle was seen, just before a most welcome juvenile Lammergeier appeared above us. In fact we had superb views of three immature Lammergeiers that kept circling over a group of Eurasian Griffon Vultures feeding at a carcass across the valley, and they were joined later on by an adult Lammergeier. Meanwhile we kept walking up the road seeing a Short-toed Eagle drifting across the valley and right over our heads, whilst a family group of Marmots were watched for some time below us, with one adult sunbathing on a large boulder. Meanwhile, a male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was picked up by Pat C on the other side of the valley amongst the stark grey boulders and we watched both male and female bringing food to three young.
Walking back down the same track produced several Northern Wheatears, as well as lots of European Serins, Black Redstarts, and Yellowhammers. A few Red-backed Shrikes were seen perched on bushes, whilst a Water Pipit was scoped as it sang from a perch on the hillside above. With stunning scenery and even more Apollo's to keep us company, everyone was very satisfied with the mornings walk. The time really passed quickly in this picturesque setting, so just one stop was made on the drive back down. At a small stream two Pyrenean Brook Newts were observed at the edge of a muddy puddle, much to Roger's delight, and whilst here Mick found yet another male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. This time we had much closer views, and could really appreciate his stunning plumage. After a picnic lunch alongside the river, we drove to Puente La Reina, seeing lots of Black and Red Kites, as well as a couple Red-backed Shrikes and a few Rock Sparrows on the wires along the roadside. From here it is just a short drive to Berdun, where we searched the fields seeing a very close Tawny Pipit on wires, as well as a rather brief Subalpine Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, and three Melodius Warblers in a tree. It was very hot here in the lowlands, so we headed down to the river which was not only cooler but provided some welcome shade. The area of scrub, bushes and reeds produced several Woodchat Shrikes, a Blue-headed Wagtail, and quite a few Garden Warblers. Our search for orioles proved fruitless, but this was more than compensated for by stunningly close views of several European Bee-eaters, some of which flew extremely close to us whilst others perched unconcerned on some dead branches. An elusive Eurasian Wryneck was also found, and it took a great deal of running around before everyone saw it. Our return journey was punctuated by an abortive attempt at finding a Southern Grey Shrike that I spotted along the road, so we made good time back to the hotel for dinner.
Day 5 Thursday 15th July
After an early breakfast we headed down through the Hecho Valley to Puente La Reina and drove to a site about an hour away. A huge flock of Common Swifts greeted our arrival, numbering over a thousand as we made our way through the narrow streets. Once we reached the scrub filled hillside below the cliffs, we set up our scopes and scanned the area. Eurasian Griffon Vultures were much in evidence, squadrons of these huge beasts patrolled the skies in company with the daintier Egyptian Vultures. A few sylvia warblers could be heard calling from deep within the impenetrable mass of gorse and bushes, but didn't show themselves, and we were all concentrating very hard on finding our quarry, so didn't pay too much attention to them anyway. A couple male Blue Rock Thrushes certainly demanded our attention, being `good lookers'. After an hour the group split up, with some taking the lower trail around the cliffs, whilst the rest of us took the narrow higher trail. Our plan finally paid off, with everyone seeing a superb male Black Wheatear. He was extremely flighty, and never settled in one place for too long, but with a little perseverance we were all satisfied with the views. Once we had succeeded with our main target of the morning, we turned our attention to the surrounding bushes, and had a great time with Sardinian, Subalpine and Dartford Warblers all being seen. From here we headed up into the hills, passing a reedbed with a singing European Reed Warbler, and saw several European Bee-eaters perched on telegraph wires on the barren looking hillside. The road we followed was very winding, and it took quite a while to reach the top, with only a flyover Short-toed Eagle carrying a snake to distract us. However, it was really worthwhile to reach the picnic site as the view was superb and we enjoyed a veritable feast amongst the pine trees - complete with a nice little bar and even picnic tables. Our lunch was interspersed with bird sightings, with all our target birds being seen without moving a muscle! First of all an inquisitive Short-toed Treecreeper appeared, closely followed by a cute little Crested Tit. Then a couple Western Bonelli's Warblers began calling before appearing overhead, and finally a Firecrest was seen.
Not bad for a lunchtime! Once our feeding frenzy was over, a short drive produced brief views of a European Honey Buzzard as it flew through the forest, but try as we might we never really managed any views of it perched. Back at our picnic site, we were treated to incredibly close views of at least three Firecrests as they moved around a group of trees no more than 10 feet in front of us. Once they had moved away, we had further views of Western Bonelli's Warblers, before leaving and heading back towards the Hecho Valley, seeing another Short-toed Eagle along the roadside and Roger found an Iberian Water Snake. One last stop before dinner was made along some stubbly fields we have come to call the `bunting fields' over the last couple of years, seeing both Corn and Cirl Buntings quite well. This evening after the checklist we headed back down the valley and had a go for European Eagle Owl, which produced very brief flight views. At least two European Nightjars were also seen hawking for insects against the sky this evening.
Day 6 Friday 16th July
Quite often on these trips, the day we spend at Candanchu is the highlight for everyone, and I think I'm right in saying today would prove no exception! The drive from Jaca up to the ski station is quite dramatic, with the mountains getting bigger and bigger the closer we got to Candanchu. Once I had sorted out our tickets, we went in two's and three's up the chairlift - and what an experience! Once at the top, we took a little time to savour the stunning scenery, and found a few patches of Edelweiss before Mick had very brief views of a Wallcreeper.
There is quite a broad path leading up to the distant peaks and we followed this for a while, scanning the scree slopes every so often. Several Water Pipits were conspicuous, singing from on top of large boulders or songflighting. A single White-winged Snowfinch gave an all too brief appearance as it flew overhead and away into the distance - how frustrating, but a Marmot was much more obliging as it sunned itself on the rocks below us. So with lunchtime beckoning, we made our stop at the usual place, enjoying biscuits and cakes with views of a flyby Wallcreeper and a couple Citril Finches, as well as both Mountain and Lefebvre's Ringlets to keep us entertained. Several patches of English Iris and Black Vanilla Orchids were also dotted around us. With no sign of any snowfinches or accentors, we began a slow walk back to the chairlift. This time several Alpine Accentors were found and they gave a fantastic display, with one pair in particular singing, songflighting and acting out a territorial dispute with a rival male. It appeared that this pair still had young in the nest as every so often one would be seen carrying food into a crevice. You simply couldn't have had better views. It was about now that the dark, rain-threatening clouds appeared ready to deliver their promise of a thunderstorm, and so with deep rolls of thunder in the distance, we hot-footed it to the bar at the top of the chairlift and watched the rain in comfort! After a few beers and coffees the rain stopped and the sun came out, so we retraced our steps, finding yet another White-winged Snowfinch that again gave just flight views, no doubt on its way to a nest high up on the scree slopes way in the distance.
The rest of our walk yielded views of another Marmot, and several Chamois, including a herd of 15. So with all target species safely tucked under our belts, we all looked forward to the ride back down the mountain. Some of us enjoyed the bravado of the mountain bikers that carried their bikes up on the chairlift to the top, without the comfort of the safety bar - oblivious to the drop below! Out drive to Jaca was interspersed with a short stop to look at the architecture of a local abandoned railway station, and even here we saw birds with a Black-bellied Dipper spotted on the fast flowing river. And finally, we made a stop in Jaca for refreshments and a little shopping, and where the old fort is home to a few Rock and Tree Sparrows - a good way to end a great days birding.
Day 7 Saturday 17th July
This morning we drove up to the Anso viewpoint once again, obtaining superb views of a really low flying adult Lammergeier. We watched it for a long time as it circled around, well and truly dispelling the trauma (for some) of the bird near the Binies Gorge a few days previously. Our journey took us up the Anso Valley to Zuriza, and the scenery was once again stunning with huge cliffs looming over the road and scenic forests with fast flowing streams. A stop was made at Zuriza, just where the narrow valley opens up to reveal broad sweeping grassy meadows. Here we saw many European Serins, and a few Black Redstarts by a paddock. Whilst watching these, a Juvenile European Honey Buzzard was spotted flying low over the trees on the other side of the valley and we watched it perch on top of a dead tree. Continuing on, we drove over to the Roncal Valley via Belagua, and followed the winding road ever upwards. The view from up here was stunning, and we made a stop at an old restaurant where there were plenty of Alpine Choughs, Water Pipits, and a flock of rather distant Citril Finches way down in the valley below. The road carried on up higher, and we crossed over into France at La Pierre de St Martin, where as I promised we could see the cloud hanging over the French side. Beside the road here, we enjoyed great views of a family of Citril Finches as they fed, and with both adults and juveniles present we were really privileged to be able to study all the relevant plumage features. Satisfied with this, our picnic stop was literally just around the corner, and we were all delighted to share our sandwiches with the attendant Alpine Choughs. After a leisurely lunch stop, when everyone had done their own thing and wandered around the area, we were just packing up when Mick suspected a bird flying over the road quite a way off was a Ring Ouzel, so we drove further into France, and parked up to scan a rocky gulley. I picked up a young Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, before Pat C found a juvenile Ring Ouzel. Superb! The return journey was productive, with a nice Pyrenean Aquilega and Small Blue Butterfly being seen on the way back down. At Zuriza, a Rock Bunting gave brilliant close views, whilst in another area an adult and young Lammergeier could be scoped as they perched on a scree slope. Some time looking for butterflies here produced White-letter Hairstreak, Grizzled Skipper, Comma, and Large Skipper.
The Anso viewpoint was quiet for birds once again, but produced Damon Blue, Brown Argus and False Ilex Hairstreak amongst the commoner butterflies. After an action packed day, we were all relieved to get back to the hotel for some rather welcome cold beers and another superb evening meal. But the day wasn't yet over, and after the checklist we made another attempt for and had good perched views of the European Eagle Owl, which Alan spotted flying in. It remained perched on the skyline for ages, giving us some of the best views we have ever had at this site.
Day 8 Sunday 18th July
After breakfast we drove down to the bunting fields, where we were constantly interrupted by light showers. However it was rather cool and bird activity was good. Both Cirl and Corn Bunting showed well, as did Woodchat Shrike, whilst both Golden Oriole and Garden Warbler were heard but not seen. The unmistakable sound of a Common Quail could be heard from a nearby stubble field, and as usual with this species they remained invisible despite thorough scrutiny by all of us. But when we had just about given up hope, two took flight and were watched flying across the field in front of us, then over the road and they dropped down in the weedy field by the vehicles. Unbelievable! Flushed with our success, we even managed to find an elusive Ortolan Bunting on the hillside, with most of the group getting reasonable views. A Pied Flycatcher was also seen here briefly. A little way along the road is an area of oak trees and here we found several Western Bonelli's and Garden Warblers, as well as a brief Eurasian Wryneck, whilst a lovely Queen of Spain Fritillary was also found by Vic. But by now it was very hot, so after some ice creams in Puente La Reina we headed back up the Hecho Valley to a new area. The scenery here was quite dramatic, and as we ate our picnic lunch, a cracking Rock Bunting flew into the tree behind us and began singing. A short walk produced Yellowhammer, immature Lammergeier, Egyptian Vulture, the ever present Eurasian Griffon Vulture, and a Chamois. Driving back to our hotel we stopped in Hecho village for a little souvenir shopping, before taking a look at the young Crag Martins in their nest in the tunnel, and whilst here Vic picked up our only Southern White Admiral of the trip.
We had a really great final evening meal, rounded off rather nicely by some home brewed liquor and a few complimentary speeches.
Day 9 Monday 19th July
Sadly it was time to leave the wonderful Hotel Uson after breakfast and head back for our afternoon ferry. We stopped along the way to scan from the bridge on the road to Sos Del Rey de Catolico. A Common Kingfisher was new for the trip, as was a pair of Common Sandpipers, a Melodius Warbler showed briefly, whilst a European Bee-eater was perched near the river. From here it was a relatively straight forward journey up to the north coast, with sightings of all the usual raptors, and the White Storks seen again near Vitoria Gasteiz.
By early afternoon we had reached the coastal marshes near Santona where we consumed our picnic lunches, including the `by now famous' sandwiches. A Zitting Cisticola was song flighting over the marsh next to us, whilst Mallard and several Mediterranean Gulls were also seen - the latter included several smart breeding plumaged birds. Out on the estuary and nearby lagoons we saw Eurasian Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and some distant Greenshanks, whilst a nearby hide provided views of Peregrine Falcon. By the time we reached Santander and returned the hire vehicles, everyone was looking forward to some seawatching. In the harbour, several Common Terns were seen, as well as Harbour Porpoise. Within a couple hours of leaving dock we were seeing our first cetaceans, with several huge Fin Whales particularly obliging, and a Cuvier's Beaked Whale was also seen. However, there were two separate pods of False Killer Whales and a Northern Bottlenose Whale which were the main highlights of our return journey. More Fin Whales followed, whilst a pod of 14 Long-finned Pilot Whales `skyhopping' showed really well near to the ship.
Day 10 Tuesday 20th July
The early risers in the group were treated to a Minke Whale breaching several times, just as the ship passed the north-west corner of France. However, nothing really of interest was seen at all for the rest of this morning's journey, with just the usual Northern Gannets being our only company.
On behalf of Viv and myself, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the group for making it such a pleasure to lead. Special thanks to Vic for sorting the butterflies, Roger for his amphibian list and extremely kind speech, and to Viv for his overall contribution and enthusiasm.