Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Bardenas Reales in Navarra.(The bad lands).

Following our memorable time spent in the high Pyrenees with the wonderful Lammergeier Vultures, the weather had thrown rain, sleet and snow at us. We had spent time exploring Ainsa before continuing across the mountain passes. Sometimes shrouded in the freezing clouds that even filled the valleys below us.

Our route had taken us through and around remote villages and panoramas of stunning
Autumnal colours.

Rivers of Glacial waters, and houses built off the rock.

We climbed high to the border crossing from Navarra into France, at the col Portalet, then spent that night in the Valle Pic de Midi d’Ossau, in France. Driving back the following morning to the 
col Portalet.

    We had watched Blue rock Thrush and rock buntings, Dippers were seen in the fast flowing stream below us, we then paused drinking a welcome coffee, watching a lone Lammergeier soar along the peaks.
 The col de Portalet can be quite bleak, as on that morning, with frozen rain driving into our faces, we took in the rugged landscape. The distant sound of water splashing over the rocks and the occasional eerie cry of a bird, engulfed us in a deep sense of solitude. One felt dwarfed in the vast space, with its towering snowy peaks.
   Back in the province of Navarra and having left the mountains behind us, we stopped at Lumbier, not to walk the ancient railway line through the narrow gorge, this we had enjoyed many times before. That day, we were intending to visit the vulture feeding station just outside the town.

As we neared the feeding station the hillsides were alive with Griffon vultures, resembling spectators at a football game, known in vulture terms as a “wake". The Griffons were watching the comings and goings from the carcass. These vultures may have eaten, if the crop is full they will sit sleepy even half torpid so to digest the food.

A frenzy of feeding, Griffon vultures are joined by Ravens and Red Kites.
We could hear the grunts and hisses, as they squabbled over the carcass, a sound also to be heard at their nesting sites.

 Feeding stations like this, have been set up across Spain since the BSE crisis, (mad cow disease) among stock herds across Europe. Throughout Spain carcasses were left out on the land, for the Vultures and other predators to clear up, farmers are now prohibited from this practice. 
The vultures very rarely take healthy stock, it is usually the sick and wounded that they predate upon. 

Overhead the Griffons were circling, this is known as a Kettle!

The vultures length can be up to 122cm, 48inches with a possible wingspan of 2.8 metres, 9.2 feet! 

They are a great scavenger, especially in hot regions, like Spain.

Their stomach acid is so corrosive it allows them to digest flesh from putrid carcasses that can contain Botulinum toxin even Anthrax (wool-sorters disease).

They rely on a soaring flight and have been found at altitudes as high as 32,800feet 10,000mtrs,
but can also glide low over the ground, when taking off or landing.

In 1980 there were around 1000 Griffons left in Spain, today however, there are tens of thousands.
Some of them are migratory, over wintering in Africa, whilst others are resident and nomadic.

Many people are of the opinion that their bald heads are so because of their feeding habit, all the blood and gore. This has been researched, infact it is found to be for keeping their heads at a stable temperature.

They seemed to be getting quite close to us as we enjoyed our ham sandwiches!
 We were hopeful they didn't like mustard, even if it was Dijon!

 We made our next stop, just to the north of the Bardenas Reales, at Laguna de Pitilas,
 a favourite birding site for us.

The light and clouds over the Laguna were beautiful.

Out on the Laguna there were good numbers of migratory birds. They included waders like Ruff in large numbers, as were the ducks, Red Crested Pochard, Pochard and Gadwall. There were also migrating Greylag Geese.

Then echoing across the hills came the deep trilling calls of large numbers of Common Cranes. They like us, had just crossed the Pyrenees, we could see how weary these birds were on their migration south. They would probably have been aiming for the Laguna de Gallacanta, south of Zaragosa,
but needed to land and rest.

Many more Cranes passed over, sometimes in small family groups.

 We also rested close by, falling asleep to their cries in the night.

That evening we also watched thousands of wintering Starlings head to their roost.

The next morning the Cranes were still passing overhead, as we made our way out on to the Bardenas Reales. These days with modern irrigation systems the landscape is starting to change, green fields are appearing virtually overnight, in the desert terrain.
The Bardenas Reales is a semi desert or bad lands covering forty two thousand hectares.
It is a classified UNESCO biosphere reserve.
There are enclaves of Mediterranean landscape and Aleppo pines.
It was in one of these areas that we searched for bird life.

Among some trees we found a small flock of Goldcrests, that were probably over wintering.

Not a great photo, but good to see a Blue throat, skulking in the rushes that surrounded a small pond.
No need to disturb such a beautiful bird, it was probably heading further South in Spain, or into Portugal!

 The Bardenas Reales, with its wonderful colours, ochres, blacks, greys and browns and incredible light. The heat haze, even in November, makes distant photography difficult.

The Cabezon de Castildetiera.

The landscape is full of isolated hills called Cabezos, made up of clay, chalk and sandstone. Wind and rains have eroded and shaped what we see today. This area is named the Bárdena Blanca, due to the abundant salt giving the area a white hue.

The distant view across Reso Javielo, a patchwork of seasonal streams cross the area, all were dry.

Millions of years ago the basin opened to the Mediterranean sea and it drained, leaving the rich deep sediments that are today farmed.

Clouds of gypsum dust, followed the modern agriculture machinery.

While another vista showed a more ancient way of life.

In that vast area sounds travel a long distance, we heard a noise that was getting louder and louder as were the massive grey shapes that got closer.

Seeming to rise up out of the distant sand came the C-17s, transporting the American 82nd Airborne Division.
Seven of these huge planes flew over us, the roar of their engines was deafening.

Far in the distance, they turned and disgorged their contents.

Apparently, we were in the middle of Trident Juncture, NATO’s biggest training exercise in many years.
On the 4th November they dropped 650 paratroopers from Fort Bragg in America onto the Zaragoza training area.

From our position on the Bardenas Reales we could make out the distant gunnery range. Where Czech and Spanish jets fired their cannons. Explosions filled the air.

Cougar attack helicopters, swept low over us.
Don’t Shoot!

An unusual end to our day, as the sun started to go down we watched a Spanish airforce F-18 prepare for landing at Zaragoza airbase, in the far distance we could see the snow capped peaks of the Pyrenees, where we had watched Lammergeier Vultures!

That evening as we drove towards Tudela, we had to stop and photograph the sun setting,
the sun and colours portraying the Spanish flag.

On the other side of the Bardenas Reales, the moon had started to rise.

For us many memories of birds, both feathered and metal!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Lammergeier Vultures in the Pyrenees.

We were recently asked if we planned our trips, or did we just set off? Well yes, we do plan them and usually they have a habit of diversifying as we travel.
 This Autumn trip below was planned to see if we could find two types of bird, one small and one nearly as big as they come. The little guys we went looking for were Dippers. The big birds, the Lammergeier, or Bearded Vultures.

From Pau we had headed towards Lourdes, from where the road
climbs up the French side of the Pyrenees towards Gavarnie.
 We had never visited the Cirque de Gavarnie before.

Our advance was slow, as we had to keep stopping to admire the magnificent views!

No Dippers yet!

As we trekked into the cirque itself, we can see the upper waterfall. The Grande Cascade de Gavarnie, that has a overall fall of 481mtrs, the highest in France. It is fed from a small glacier in Spain, which travels underground until it reaches the fall area.

The last part of the fall is 281mtrs, into the beginnings of the Gave de Pau stream. It then flows down  for 180 kilometres through Pau, from whence it got its name, joining the river Ardour that in turn flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

The following morning, after pouring over our maps, we decided to go higher pausing at the ski station then continuing up a rough single track road.

The views were quite stunning we found Pipits and Black Redstarts, higher and higher we drove.

We had climbed as far as possible, this little road leading to the border with Spain
 had now been closed off.
It was absolutely freezing, visibility was very bad and we were in the clouds, so the only solution was to turn round. It had also started snowing!

At a lower level we again went in search of Dippers. Stopping when we found a clear fast flowing stream.

Luck was with us we had found a
White Throated Dipper, (Cinclus cinclus) 

The iconic view of a Dipper, standing on a boulder in the fast flowing water whilst looking for food.
It dives and swims underwater for aquatic invertebrates, aided by it’s unique webbed feet.

Again the views were stunning as we passed over the Col d'Aspin, in the French Pyrenees.

We saw Crested tits along the road that we followed into Spain.

The Autumnal colours were fantastic.

We passed through the Bielsa tunnel and visited the nearby Valle De Pineta.
The weather here was not good, so we moved on towards the town of Aínsa. Anisa would be our base whilst we searched for Lammergeiers in the surrounding mountains..

The high mountains were to be our search area, as we attempted photographs of the Bearded Vultures.

The trekking was hard going, especially with our cameras, lenses, telescope, tripods etc and picnic!

The weather deteriorated as we climbed even higher and found ourselves in the teeth of a storm.

The wind became ferocious at times, screaming over and through the high peaks.

The rain caused a rainbow in the ravine below us, Griffon Vultures could be seen passing through it,  they all seemed to be flying down the mountains away from the storm!

Then a Lammergeier flew over us.
Amazing! this was our closest ever view of this magnificent Vulture.

We watched as it glided back and forth, for some time.

 Later we saw others. This example showing the orange red staining they acquire from the Iron rich mud and sand they use for bathing. They say the redder the staining, the tougher the Lammergeier?

 Using the large boulders and bushes as a hide, we were able to observe these huge
 Vultures for some time.
We would certainly not have wanted to disturb or frighten them, they are so rare!
and locally threatened.
Using the Canon  EF 600mm f4 IS lens and converters we were able to remain hidden at a long distance.

Also known as the “Bone Crusher” due to it’s eating habits 85% to 90% of their food is bone marrow.
The only bird species to specialise in feeding on marrow.
To feast upon the marrow, the bone is often carried to a high altitude and skilfully dropped on to rocks below. This is no mean feat and takes juvenile vultures up to seven years to master. The broken pieces are then swallowed, their strong stomach acids digest the bone within 24 hours!
Due to the fact that they are not just reliant on scavenging for meat, they can return to a carcass weeks later to take the marrow, giving them a advantage over other vultures and carrion.

Incredibly we had found one down and waited whilst it rested.
You can see it’s huge size, a length of up to 125cm or 49inches and a weight up to 7.8kg or a whopping 17.2lbs.

Then with a slow lumbering run down the hillside it was airborne again. It felt strange as we heard the pounding on the ground as it ran, that said, they are the size of a largish dog!

A juvenile Lammergeier suddenly appears over a grassy outcrop.
These young birds are dependent on the adults for two years after they fledge. This often gives the parent birds the problem of building a second huge nest in the interim year.

Perfect photograph for identifying a Lammergeier, huge and long winged, in fact up to 2.83mtrs or 9ft3ins of wingspan and the long wedge shaped tail.

That was it! we still had the long trek back down the mountains.

Looking back they were lost in the clouds of their secret world.

Smiles all round as we headed back down the mountains.

With the dawn of a new day we moved on, but memories of our days spent with the Lammergeiers
 in the high mountains will remain with us forever.