Saturday, 25 July 2015

Roncal Valley

Well another 8am breakfast before heading out for another relaxing day in the Spanish Pyrenees. A male Red Crossbill calling from the conifers at the edge of the car park was a bit of a surprise before leaving and heading to the Anso Viewpoint. A calling Western Bonelli’s Warbler was only seen by a couple of us, but a flotilla of Eurasian Griffons overhead was quite a spectacle, and they were joined by a Booted Eagle, Red Kite and European Honey Buzzard in quite an impressive kettle. 

Eurasian Griffon

European Honey Buzzard

This open forest was superb for butterflies with Woodland, Great Banded and Rock Graylings, and a Ripart’s Anomalous Blue

Ripart's Anamolous Blue - great name huh..

Dark-Green Fritillary

Marbled White

We then crossed into the Anso Valley where a brief appearance by a Lammergeier left us a little frustrated before we set off up and over to the Roncal Valley. Great scenery continued as we headed up higher and higher, stopping for coffee and fries at a little restaurant.

Beautiful scenery high up in the Roncal Valley

Well I’m pleased to report we got Citril Finch at their usual spot very easily (the same place I last saw them 6 years ago!) , before searching for Alpine Accentor which took a little longer to find. But we eventually had 3 birds, one of which flew in and landed 3 metres away!! Wow! 

Alpine Choughs are common...

Alpine Choughs were common up here, and distracted us a little from the accentors, with a singing bird on top of a conifer being very obliging as well. 

Alpine Accentor

The Citril Finches were on view for ages, whilst a Common Quail was flushed from an alpine meadow and an awesome Lammergeier hunted right in front of us. 

A poor effort at phone-scoping a Citril Finch

Must admit this is one of my favourite spots with spectacular views, beautiful craggy habitat, nice weather and good birds. We even spotted a Pyrenean Aquilegia on the way down and then drove straight back to the Hecho Valley. More time for chilling, quaffing beer and relaxing. Ahhh this is the life! 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Birds, Butterflies and Beer...

It really is a feature of this ‘holiday’, and yes we can call this a birding holiday rather than a birding tour that we thoroughly enjoyed our 8am breakfast after a good night’s sleep. And pretty surreal for me to be back here as it must have been 6 years since I last brought a group here – but the experience of leading 15+ tours over the years to these mountains means it quite quickly feels like a ‘home from home’.

After collecting our picnic lunch we drove a short distance to the usual stake-out site for Wallcreeper, which entails a slow 30 minute walk through coniferous forest before the trail opens out to a rocky path. Along the way, Nigel found our first Crested Tit and we saw a few other common birds before reaching the base of some tall cliffs where Alpine Swifts were zooming across the sky and heading like Exocet missiles into their nesting crevices high above us. Many Eurasian Crag Martins were also nesting here, a few Black Redstarts were singing, Red-billed Choughs flew over and some Eurasian Griffons patrolled the skies. But we were here for one species in particular and after a short wait a large ‘butterfly-like’ bird with broad red wings flew overhead and landed on the cliff above us – Wallcreeper! Such an adrenalin rush and this iconic species then showed on and off for the next 2 hours as we watched a pair bringing large beakfulls of grubs into a nest in a hidden crevice. Such a relief for me as this pair will pretty soon take their fledged young off to higher grounds and leave this picturesque place. Phew!

An English Iris in the Spanish Pyrenees.

We also had our first butterflies of the day here with Wall Brown and Large Skipper showing well before heading back down to the minibus for lunch. It was quite hot by now and the alpine meadows were hosting Silver-washed Fritillary, Long-tailed Blue, Scarce Copper, Silver-studded and Common Blues, Piedmont Ringlet and others. A Firecrest and another Crested Tit also showed well on the walk back down, with some families of Coal and Blue Tits in the conifer forest as well.

Long-tailed Blue.
Large Skipper

Upon reaching the minibus we had our picnic lunch and then enjoyed some cold drinks at the bar of the refuge, as well as seeing Dark-green Fritillary and a Common Swallowtail. Driving down the winding road we saw our first Marbled White and Brimstone before heading off to the Anso Valley. Just a few kilometres down the road we stopped when a Short-toed Eagle flew over carrying a snake and we jumped out to have a look. Just then we noticed some flowers were attracting more butterflies and we found Spanish Purple Hairstreak, Pearly Heath and a Spotted Fritillary

Spanish Purple Hairstreak

Driving up to the Anso Viewpoint, it was teeming with yet more butterflies most of which were Marbled White, but amongst many fritillaries High-brown was new, and we also had Pale Clouded or Berger’s Clouded Yellow (struggling with the i.d of this one), as well as Small Skipper

High-brown Fritillary

We then drove down to the Foz de Binies and walked into the gorge where some Eurasian Griffons were patrolling overhead, and a few Black Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers were present. A short stop at Puenta La Reina for fuel and Magnums followed and we then drove back up the Hecho Valley. A pale-phase Booted Eagle showed well and a Southern White Admiral was seen before reaching our lovely hotel with plenty of time to enjoy some cold beers and get ready for dinner.

And we thoroughly enjoyed some home cooked dinner by our fabulous hostess, Lucia. Oh and now this hotel has their own brewery so it would have been rude not to taste a little.... Mmmm...

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Spanish Pyrenees

So we flew from Bristol and East Midlands Airports on the short flight to Barcelona, met up and drove to the Hecho Valley in the Spanish Pyrenees. Along the way we saw many European Bee-eaters, White Storks on nests and a brief Eurasian Golden Oriole before reaching our base of the Hecho Valley. Here an Ortolan Bunting was seen amongst many Corn Buntings, a pair of Tawny Pipits were on the road in front of us and we had our first taste of the stunning array of butterflies on offer with Dusky Heath and Spanish Gatekeeper being noteworthy. It was just a short drive to he excellent Hotel Uson, situated high up the scenic Hecho Valley and our home for the next 6 nights.

Here's a couple photos of the view from my bedroom window.....

Not a bad view from our hotel room....!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sichuan - The End....

Leaving at 5am from our hotel we drive a short distance to a lovely patch of forest from where the unbelievable happens, and a huge Pere David’s Owl flies over us and lands on the top of a nearby conifer. We watch this beauty for some 20 minutes as it flies all around us and it even at one point passes low over our heads, circling us before alighting nearby – stunning views indeed. Needless to say we were all elated at this sighting and what a way to wrap up the tour. The rest of the forest was pretty quiet and we could only find some commoner species, so return to our hotel for a quick shower and to pack before setting off on the long drive to Chengdu and the end of a fabulous tour.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Baxi Forest

So a nice relaxing 6am departure for Baxi Forest and it’s a lovely clear morning and we can actually see the sun as we drive along. We walk into the moss-encrusted pine forest hoping for really only two birds that we still need (Three-banded Rosefinch and Chinese Nuthatch) but neither are present, although on an other day the birds we see would constitute a good walk: Chinese Leaf-Warbler, Przevalski’s Nuthatch, Sichuan Tit, Red Crossbill, Chinese White-browed Rosefinch and others. We do get a Long-tailed Thrush teed up in the scopes as it sings right from the top of a tall conifer – very nice indeed.

Breakfast is a jovial affair before walking up a beautiful valley with scrub and bushes on both sides where a Sharpe’s Rosefinch had been recently seen. There are a couple fine male White-browed Tit-Warblers, Chinese Fulvetta, Plain Laughingthrush, many Yellow-streaked Warblers, Greenish Warbler, Kessler’s Thrush, Rufous-breasted Accentor, plenty of Common Rosefinches, and best of all a very unexpected Spectacled Parrotbill that comes in very close. Wow! And further up the valley a flock of 14 Tibetan Siskins are feeding in a bush at eye level – again another species giving crippling views and we watch them for ages until they fly off.

Higher up the valley we find many Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches and there’s a nesting pair of White-browed Tits here as well. But all too soon it’s time to leave the Tibetan Plateau and we head towards our next hotel, getting close Daurian Jackdaws by the roadside before stopping at my usual site to scope a superb male Siberian Rubythroat singing from on top of a bush for several minutes. We arrive at the hotel at 4.45pm and have plenty of time to relax this evening.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Tibetan Plateau

Leaving at 5.30am we drive across the plateau and drop down into Baxi Forest, staking out our usual spot for Blue Eared-Pheasant. We wait at an overlook in the cold morning air but there’s no sign of the pheasants, but luckily Jay spots a very distant bird feeding on a hillside way in the distance. All of a sudden Derek spots a Chinese Grouse that has been calling for a while below us and everyone enjoys the most incredible scope views of a male bird for at least 10 minutes before it walks off. Wow! As if that isn’t enough a pair of Snowy-cheeked (Sukatschev’s) Laughingthrushes come in very close to check us out and are also on view for maybe 10 minutes, with one bird in particular coming to about 5 metres away and calling from a bare bush……. Mmmmm… Oh and a pair of Chinese Serow are scoped on the hillside opposite us to kick start a particularly good day for mammals.

After yet another picnic breakfast we drive lower and walk along the forest edge ( I must admit I picked the wrong spot to start walking and was about a kilometre uphill from where I usually begin walking) and this turns out to be a little bit of divine inspiration as a pair of the extremely rare Sika Deer are scoped on the hillside above. Then a flock of Red Crossbills fly into the treetops including some lovely bright males and as we scope them a Sichuan Jay appears on the top of the conifer immediately behind them. Further inside the forest and a Chinese Song Thrush puts in an appearance, and we watch a Przewalski’s Nuthatch taking food into its very large nest hole. We also enjoy fine views of both Chestnut and Kessler’s Thrushes, Plain and Elliot’s Laughingthrushes, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Sichuan Tit, and others before driving back up towards the plateau. On the way we get real lucky with a cracking Blue Eared-Pheasant spotted feeding in an open area below the road. Higher up there’s yet another White-browed Tit, Hodgson’s Redstart and a Eurasian Hoopoe.

Possibly the worst photo i've ever posted on the blog - but its a phone scoped Chinese Grouse

Following lunch at a restaurant in Ruoergai we drive towards Flower Lake, and Ron spots a snowfinch which prompts a hasty exit and we find many White-rumped Snowfinches. After watching them running around the Plateau Pika colony, our first Rufous-necked Snowfinch is found nearby. Despite a light drizzle we thoroughly enjoy watching them, and then things get even better as we scope a distant Saker feeding on some recently caught prey.

Once at Flower Lake we take the shuttle bus down to the lake and follow the boardwalk which takes us to a series of viewing platforms. I am very pleasantly surprised to see many superb White-winged Terns and a few Whiskered Terns flying over the marshes. Other goodies are at least 3 Great Bitterns seen flying over the tall grasses at the water’s edge and even walking out in the open, a lone Eurasian Spoonbill, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Red-crested Pochard and many Ferruginous Ducks

Excellent habitat at Flower Lake

For me, the star bird is Salim Ali’s Swift, with maybe 100+ flying low over our heads, across the water and literally flying all around us giving us crippling looks at their scaly undersides. Other birds present include Greylag Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Mallard, Northern Shoveller, Northern Pintail, Eastern Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Himalayan Griffon Vultures, Lesser Sandplover, Tibetana Common Tern, Horned Larks, Tibetan Larks, and a few Tibetan Citrine Wagtails.

The drive back to the hotel is enlivened by 2 Tibetan Foxes and our second Eurasian Hobby of the tour perched on telegraph wires.