Feel free to post questions or comments on this new blog about Birding in and around Barcelona and Catalonia, Spain. Although currently still in progress, I have uploaded Trip Reports up until November 2010... with videos and month-by-month 'quick look' summaries still to come. Stephen Christopher

Monday 31 January 2011

Winter Wallcreeper, Snowfinch and Lammergeier

January 2009 - The Pyrenees, Catalonia, Spain
"Thank you so much for showing us so much.  So many birds.  Great memories of the Snowfinch (our favourite), bluethroat, hoopoe, etc. etc. etc. etc.

How wonderfully relaxed it all was - not having to think about where we were going and just being able to enjoy the scenery and look for the birds was about perfect and then lunch was served. Thanks again."

Dilys and Eric Powell, U.K. (after a full week's winter birding)

On 11th January, in The Pyrenees, we were staring up towards the rock face in front of us, binoculars gripped at at-the-ready-chin-height and waiting for the next white flashes to explode into the clarity of the blue-blue sky before arching and falling back down into the obscurity of white-on-white – Snowfinch on snow.

At officially up to 3cm longer than a Chaffinch, there’s no deception of how big these long- and white-winged relatives seem when you see them set against the azure sky, even at this distance, and it all just adds to the thrill.  We ‘ooo-ed’ and ‘argh-ed’ like children around a bonfire, calling ‘there!’ and ‘this side!’ as each small flock threw itself up and dropped back down.  Occasionally, again just like fireworks, we lucked upon one or two on the ground and gleefully gathered our telescopes around to watch them feeding.

The post-breeding movements of (White-winged) Snowfinches, which can start as early as late July, is always unpredictable, depending upon the weather as it does, but this has been a good year.  Out of the total of 613 birds rung in the Collada de Toses between 2005 and 2009, 328 have been rung this winter, with none in the two years previously [Although we've had them every year since, Stephen, 2011].

‘Wait a minute,’ I mumbled as I was scanning the rock face, and headed for my telescope to confirm an overactive imagination.  But, ‘Wallcreeper!’ Max shouted and sure enough, the apparent peering head, that I may have dismissed as fantasy without a back-up pair of eyes, turned out to be a crazy lone pela-roques, in Catalan, eeking out a lunatic living on the freezing cold, snow-covered cliffs of the magical, magical Pyrenees.

In turns, it was seen fluttering out way over our heads to disappear into thin air, avoiding the high-mag gaze of our scopes with some sleight-of-wing, and dropping like a Peregrine the whole height of the cliff only to be sucked onto it’s sheer surface just metres from certain death as if it was suddenly magnetised.  Wallcreeper are supposed to descend to lower altitudes in weather like this and, although it breeds at up to 3000m above sea level, I would hardly call the snow-covered 2000m at which we were now perched a descent!

Unlike (White-winged) Snowfinch, which rarely drop below 1500m, Wallcreeper are regularly found wintering even at sea level (see The Garraf) so it was really the former that inspired the trips up from Barcelona and, a few days before, on the 6th, we’d been lucky enough to watch more than one-hundred work their way down this same hill, rolling over each other back over front (like a slinky if you remember the seventies!), over our heads and settle along the edges of the melting snowline a few metres below us.  With us too engrossed and the flock restless, we didn’t think of photos but when we drove right into a small group a couple of hours later, we jammed on the brakes and clicked away as about a dozen skipped their way onto a roadside bank and grazed fearlessly at window-level as we followed on in first gear.  Worth the trip alone.

With a distinct feeling of dejà vu, and six kilometres, twenty-minutes and a three hundred metre drop in altitude later, we were doing exactly the same thing with a half-dozen disinterested Alpine Accentor.  What a plumage.  What a place. 

Alpine Accentor had been observed on the 11th too, sneaking between the feet of the Snowfinch, but a little too far to truly appreciate.  No matter, Alpine Accentor, again unlike Snowfinch, also make winter trips to low-level mountains ranges and can be found quite easily in the same spot in the Garraf, for instance, along with Wallcreeper.

And anyway, another better surprise was yet to come. 

Having been sent packing by a swarm of woollen hats and skis, we found ourselves car-tracking the white wings and tail edges of what we thought was a lone Snowfinch dipping and diving over the contours and corners of the winding road cutting it’s way through the deep snow of the Moixero Natural Park.  When it finally stopped, we did likewise, this time even managing a photograph – of a Snow Bunting!  The average for Catalonia is less than one per year so we were lucky we found a whole one.

In all the excitement it might have been easy to forget another rather startling moment of discovery.  Whilst enjoying the cliff-side matinee described earlier we were treated to a honking Raven flying low overhead.  Only to fill in time, or perhaps out of habit, we all raised our binoculars to the remarkable – and for me never-seen-before – sight of the underside of a Raven lit in a bounced snow light that revealed more shades and tones of brown than I’d ever seen.  I swear I could see every feather and will never think of a Raven as a black bird again.

Now fast forward to the 17th and we’re back again…déjà vu…as, standing in almost exactly the same spot, the same reflected snow light paints every contour of the underside of a truly majestic (there is no other word for this bird) low-flying, adult Lammergeier.  Orange.  Beard.  The lot.  For a fleeting moment I contemplated the fifteen metres between my self and the camera (in the boot of the car of course) but in the end thought, ‘sod it’ and just enjoyed it.  Wow.  It actually hung around for an hour or so, at one point deigning to land - but immediately taking off in the moments that it saw me glance towards my camera bag.

The snow remained but this encouraged the skiers as well as the Snowfinch, now estimated at around sixty birds, to hang around so the former made the job of tracking the latter much harder and unusually it took us until the afternoon.  In the meantime, the usual Peregrine, Griffon Vulture, Crossbill, Firecrest, Dipper and array of tits kept us entertained, we successfully out-waited the Alpine Accentors at their regular spot and a lovely flock of eighty chirping Alpine Chough floated around us and landed noisily on the road ahead.

It was clear that many birds, Wallcreeper included, found it hard to tear themselves away even in times of harsh and ruthless weather and on each and every visit, as we left the slope of the village main street and upped the gears onto the road back to Barcelona, I had no difficulty understanding why.

Photos by Dilys Powell, Max Andrews, Darren Shirley and Stephen Christopher.

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