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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.


























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