Pyrenean Birding

Bird Watching in the Vallées des Gaves (valleys south of Lourdes to the Spanish border) and the Hautes Pyrenees

There are many wonderful birds, both on passage and resident, rare and common, in the French Pyrenees.  There are also a number of birdwatchers that visit this beautiful area for some of these birds but also for the views, the countryside and the mountain vistas.  Charles, our resident specialist, has lived here for 6 years and says he still enjoys seeing new things and having new experiences – on a regular basis!

Expectations and Principal Birds

The main hit list of birders visiting the French Pyrenees starts with Wallcreeper (shown above) and includes 6 or 7 species.  Typically a list will include Wallcreeper, Lammergeier, White-backed Woodpecker, Alpine Accentor, Snow Finch, Black Woodpecker and Citril Finch and probably in that order.  All of these are found in the ‘Vallées des Gaves’ with varying degrees of difficulty.  Alongside these there a few other birds worthy of special note, mainly raptors, and also some fringe birds of general note such as Rock Thrush and Red Backed Shrike.

The Wallcreeper is the star bird of the Pyrenees.  Some months are easier than others to find Wallcreeper mainly mid-September into October when birds start to come off the ‘tops’ and disperse.  In summer they are found at the highest altitudes but sometimes, due to adverse weather in spring, forced to nest at lower altitudes.  In the early 00’s one nested 5 metres above a main road at c.1600m!  Gavarnie is the most popular site for this bird but it is not necessarily the easiest or most guaranteed.  A good tip is to look down as well as up as they like to ‘boulder’ along the streams, in any event they rarely sit still – perhaps that is just a perception because if it isn’t moving it is very hard to locate!  It is a bird that can be found in the ‘Vallées des Gaves’ year round.

The second bird on most wanted lists is the Lammergeier of which there are in excess of 20 pairs in the Western end of the Pyrenees.  5 pairs inhabit the ‘Vallées des Gaves’ and is difficult to miss on any trip of any length.  Away from the nest sites is generally seen alone patrolling mountain sides.  It won’t compete for food with the Griffon Vultures but will generally make a pass at a feeding site to ‘log’ where it has a meal when the others have finished!

In 2002, it was estimated that there were 300 (yes three hundred!) pairs of White-backed Woodpecker in the French Pyrenees.  Still the most reliable and well known sites are Iraty and Lourdios as found in ‘Gosney’ and most guides.  The eastern limit of the birds range seems to be the ‘Vallées des Gaves’ and new sites are still being discovered!  It is generally found at about 1000m but as low as 400m and as high as 1850m in old beech woods.  They are however, very hard to find and a lot of patience required.  Even known sites may require multiple visits – something visitors generally don’t usually have time for.

The Alpine Accentor is a true mountain bird rarely straying below 1500m.  In winter can be easily found around the mountain restaurants and even the ski station car parks during bad weather.  Up to 9 have been counted in the car park shuffling around under the cars!  In summer they nest and are found around 2000m but even known sites can require patience.  The Col des Tentes, Gavarnie, needs luck whilst the Tourmalet is a little easier.  These are the two best known sites for the bird.

As with the Alpine Accentor the Snow Finch is a high mountain bird which is easier to find in the winter and spring.  It nests in the ski lift stands and even under the summer road for the Tourmalet.    Searching around the Col du Tourmalet is generally a safe bet but from August onwards they tend to be found only at the highest altitudes making them very hard to find.  A long walk may be required or sometimes it is easier to pay for the Pic du Midi observatory – something that in any event is worth the trip!

The Black Woodpecker is found in most mountain mixed woods.  It is easily recognized by its’ call which it generally employs year round.  However, even at nest sites it can be elusive for long periods of time.  It is worth watching overhead if for example walking to the Cirque de Gavarnie.

Finally, Citril Finch is mainly found in the mountain conifers where it tends to nest in the highest fringes of the woods c.1900m.  These generally require a walk but fortunately they also come down to feed at lower altitudes.  Very little is known about this bird in winter but it generally returns to the breeding areas in May when it can found in small flocks c.15 birds at lower altitudes c.1500m.  This is the easiest time of the year to spot it.

For other birds worthy of note Eagles top the list.  In the ‘Vallées des Gaves’ there are three main species of Eagle namely Golden, Short Toed and Booted.  Booted tends to inhabit lower altitudes and is found in the fringes of the mountains.  Short Toed can be found at most altitudes and is probably the easiest to see.  Golden Eagle is generally restricted to the mountains and prefers higher altitudes.  There are about 25 pairs of Golden Eagle in the western Pyrenees.  Despite breeding in the mid seventies, in the area, Bonelli’s Eagle is not found at the western end of the French Pyrenees.  Indeed, the nearest pairs are found in Aude and Herault but even there, with less than 5 pairs, sightings are rare.

One raptor that requires special mention is the Black Shouldered Kite.  This bird only appeared on the radar in the mid nineties but seems to have prospered.  In 2009 there were 34 couples in France based on the plains producing 48 young.  This should definitely be a target species particularly in September when the birds ‘wander’ around, although rarely come into the foothills.

Western Bonelli’s Warbler is among the ‘fringe’ birds because it’s not necessarily associated with the mountain areas.  It does inhabit the lower ranges at c.300-400m (although known up to 1000m) generally in ‘small oak’ woods and is rare.  This warbler tends to be an early leaver so August is generally the limit to find this bird.  More commonly associated with the mountains is the Rock Thrush.  It likes rock falls and boulders and can easily be overlooked, despite its coloring.  They tend to arrive at the beginning of May and leave in early September.  However, stragglers, no longer red and blue, can be found in the last third of September.

Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture (lower altitudes), Crested Tit, Rock Bunting, Firecrest, Red-backed Shrike(known to nest up to 1800m), Red Billed and Alpine Choughs (highest altitudes) are usually ‘ticked’ in the ‘Vallées des Gaves’.  Capercaille, although present in high altitude woods away from tourist areas, is extremely shy and hard to find.  Usually, the limit of an encounter is the sound of one disappearing and a view of its tail!