Sunday, 19 August 2018

Coll de Pal, Catalonia - Bring forth the Bone-breaker!

Time for the family summer holiday. Having read a BBC wildlife article earlier this year on the reintroduction/augmentation of Lammergeiers to the Picos de Europa mountains of Northern Spain,  I realised it had been far too long since I had seen one of these majestic birds- 18 years in fact! So, a plan was hatched to head for Spain, not to the Picos, but to the Pyrenees. This was partly because we could combine this with a week of beach fun on the wild coast, the Costa Brava.

A smooth two hour flight from Leeds landed us at Girona, to the north of Barcelona, in the middle of a heatwave. It was 37 degrees by mid-afternoon, so we were pleased to head swiftly up to the mountains. We stayed in an AirBnB place in Baga, north of Berga. Baga is a historic and pleasant little town. lying at the foot of the winding road up the Serra del Cadi mountains, the summit of which is the Coll de Pal. The area is reputedly a good bet for Lammergeier, and other montane specials.

This map has been pinched from the Birding Spain website. You can view details of the Serra del Cadi on their most excellent website here.

4th August
The first morning, we headed up the road, up into the Serra del Cadi, through oak forest, which gave way to pine forest as we gained altitude.

c10Km up the Coll de Pal road.

We had discovered a leaflet in our AirBnB for a trail, entitled The Crossbill Trail (on the hairpin 14km out of Baga) and felt this would be a good place to get out of the car for a walk.

Butterflies were much in evidence, with Dark Green and Queen of Spain Fritillaries both common, along with abundant Iberian and Esper's Marbled Whites, plus many Ringlets, which I think are Piedmont Ringlet.

From top, Dark Green Fritillary, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Iberian Marbled White and Piedmont Ringlet.

Birding the Crossbill Trail, Coll de Pal.

Crossbills were chipping around, and Rock Buntings and Blackcaps were both singing. Firecrests, Coal Tits and Chaffinches were all much in evidence with smaller numbers of Crested Tits. We shortly arrived at the Mirador Del Orris, with a spectacular view over the head of a valley. I could hear Black Woodpeckers calling from the forest below and several Griffon Vultures glided past at close range.

Griffon Vulture.

Vicky suddenly asked what the birds were flying past below; I had been looking for Citril Finches, which I knew to be in the area, so I assumed she had seen some 'small stuff'. To my amazement, three adult Lammergeiers were cruising past! Panic - the mighty Bone-breaker! I called the kids, and we all watched these colossal birds as they headed off down the valley. They seemed to be a pair and a third adult. The pair glided off together, with the third bird splitting off. Awesome! Sadly, my sole photo was pretty dreadful as I had been too busy watching them.

We headed off round the loop. To my surprise, the third bird came back along the ridge, and was mobbed first by a Peregrine and secondly by a female Goshawk, which was absolutely dwarfed by this monster raptor. Corking stuff!

Back to the car, we drove on up to the Coll de Pal, the high pass. There was some great looking crags, which I checked for Wallcreeper to no avail. A little further on, and a small bird flew up from near the road and landed on a dead bush - a male Citril Finch! Nice! A long-awaited tick for me, having dipped this species several times in the past. The bird headed off into the meadow to feed. We carried on, adding Rock Thrush and Wheatear to the list. We reached the top and stopped for a scan. First up, a subadult Golden Eagle was soaring around fairly low over a nearby ridge, and below, his quarry, several Marmots, feeding nonchalantly on the short turf. These large alpine rodents were introduced here to provide food for raptors and other predators, in the 1960s, to remove predation pressure from the Chamois. They have since boomed and can be found across the Pyrenees. They had not been here since the Ice Age, but are doing well. a pair of (Red-billed) Choughs were investigating the nooks and crannies of a nearby cliff.

Nice Marmot!

Sadly, no further views of the 'Quebrantahuesos', the Bone Breaker.
5th August
The next day, we headed through the impressive 5km long Tunel Del Cadi, round to Las Molinas, a ski area on the north side of the Coll de Pal. We took the cable car up, and then hiked up to the summit. Along the way, several Citril Finches were seen, feeding with Linnets in the close-cropped meadows. A pair landed on the wires, allowing me to get a rather silhouetted photo.

Citril Finch. Feeding in the high meadows, rather than the forest areas.

At the top, we spent a bit of time scanning south over the valley where we had seen the Lammergeiers yesterday, and after a bit, this paid off, with Vicky again spotting them. Presumably the same pair came cruising past, at reasonably close range, enabling Vicky to get some pics with her 200mm lens. Really impressive birds these, great, long, narrow wings, and a huge tail, giving them a really distinctive shape. They headed off into the distance together, just as before. A little later on, as we wandered back down to the cable car station, I picked up a third bird, perhaps the same lone bird from yesterday, soaring round high over the ridge. A gang of Alpine Choughs were bouncing around over a crag.

 Birding Dad, scanning for raptors


Lammergeiers. Awesome birds.


The next day, we climbed part way up the impressive Pedraforc mountain, lying to the west. It is an imposing sight, with twin jagged peaks, like a broken tooth. Alpine Swifts chittered round the cliffs, and Crested Tits and Firecrests were in the woods. Otherwise, a bit quiet. Some more butterflies including Spanish Chalkhill Blue and what I have been told is Pearly Heath.


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