Pyrenees birds and birds of prey
The birds in the Pyrenees are fantastic – particularly the birds of prey. Spain has one of the largest and most important vulture population in Europe and we regularly see lammergeier, griffon vultures and egyptian vultures. The eagles we most often see are golden eagles, booted eagles and short toed eagles. All of our guests love the sightings of these birds of prey on our walks – nobody can fail to be impressed when a griffon vulture with a two and a half metre wingspan flies just over their heads!
Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture
Europe’s largest and rarest vulture is fortunately a regular sighting in the Pyrenees. The lammergeier is a huge vulture with a wingspan of up to 2.8 metres. It feeds almost exclusively on bone marrow, dropping bones from a great height to smash them on the rocks below exposing the marrow and breaking the bones into smaller pieces which it then ingests. This unusual feeding behaviour gives rise to its Spanish name – Quebrantahuesos – the ‘bone breaker’.
The lammergeier’s distinctive profile with its long diamond shapes tail makes identification fairly easy even when flying at great heights. It’s rusty coloured body is easily visible when closer and through binoculars you can occasionally see the tuft of feathers under it’s beak that gives the lammergeier it’s alternative name of Bearded Vulture.
Lammergeier nest in the high inaccessible cliffs of the area and can be seen in both the Valle de Tena and the Ordesa National Park – last summer we had a lot of luck from the summit of Pico Anayet when we had good close sightings several times.
The griffon vulture is another huge bird with a wingspan of around two and a half metres. It’s the most common vulture in the area and a daily sight on our walks. There are large colonies nesting in the Añisclo canyon, the Sierra de Partacua and on the cliffs of Riglos. The colony around San Juan de la Peña is particularly impressive and an easy ridge walk gives us fantastic close-up views of the vultures as they land and take off from the cliffs beneath us – they often fly close enough for you to hear the wind blowing through their feathers.
A smaller vulture that is a summer visitor to the Pyrenees migrating to northern Africa in the winter. The Egyptian vulture is distinctively coloured with a bright white body, black and white wings and a yellow head. They have a rather unsavoury feeding habit, specialising on feeding on the afterbirth of cows and in early summer wherever you see fields of very young calves you find Egyptian vultures nearby – the fields around Biescas are a good place to spot them at this time. Later in the summer a pair nest near Ibon de Piedrafita and often give us a fantastic display to watch while we’re having lunch next to the lake.
A trophy sighting for bird enthusiasts, golden eagles are more elusive than vultures as they spend hours or even days motionless on their high perches where they are impossible to spot. However we do see them several times each summer. One family nests in the Valle de Tena with the young birds starting to lose their juvenile markings last summer. We had some great sightings of this group in the area of Col de Sabacos above Panticosa last year. As very territorial birds the area of the Ordesa National Park would normally only support one pair of golden eagles, however the abundance of wildlife (and therefore food!) in the park allows three breeding pairs to nest there.
Short Toed and Booted Eagles
The two other eagles we see are the booted and short toed eagles. Both are summer visitors to the Pyrenees that prefer the lower open meadows and woodlands rather than the high peaks. The short toed eagle likes to hunt snakes and has a distinctive hovering when hunting. The booted eagle gets its name from the fluffy feathers that cover its legs right down to the feet.
As well as raptors the Pyrenees are full of smaller birds. Alpine and red billed choughs wheel and play in the thermals around the cliffs of the Ordesa Valley. Many seem unfazed by humans as they scavenge around popular picnic spots.
If you reach the highest peaks you may well find an alpine accentor perched on the summit – every three thousand metre summit seems to have its own alpine accentor! Snowfinches can also be seen amongst the high mountains.
Those with keen eyesight will see treecreepers running up and down the trunks of the beech and silver fir in the Ordesa Valley. They share the woods with serins, bullfinch, great tits, chaffinches, crested tits and jays.
Around the villages of Torla, Biescas and Panticosa dozens of swifts, martins and swallows take to the air at dusk to feed on insects and redstarts nest in the barns.
Although our holidays are not specific bird watching holiday Phil always has a pair of binoculars on him to identify anything we see and gets overexcited when we spot a lammergeier or golden eagle!
Also take a look at our wild flower page.