On the rocks: high altitude fauna in the eastern Pyrenees

Written by Lucy Brzoska

silhouette of mouflon in Vall de Nuria

Early on an October morning, the light among the ski installations of the Nuria valley was grey, and the sky overhead a cold blue.  As we walked up the steep Noucreus path, an invisible sun ignited the tall grass on the mountain crest. Stars flew in the firmament – seeds blown by a wind we couldn’t feel.

wind sends grass seeds soaring

On the crest of La Olla, where strong gusts sent vapours whirling, butterflies were on the wing, at 2,800 metres: Clouded yellow, Red admiral and Painted lady. Some males were waiting there to pick up a mate on migration.

The turn-off point was the Coll de l’Eina, and the low sun illuminated the herds of mouflon in the valley below.  It was their rutting season, and rams were gathering in large numbers, pursuing the ewes with gaping mouths.

a ram for each ewe

mouflon ram in the rutting season

On the way down, we startled some chamois – a young one ran after its mother.

young pyrenean chamois

Marmots were still whistling above ground, though they were layered up in fat and thick coats, ready for hibernation.

fat marmot with thick winter coat ready for hibernation

The most common birds still active in the mountains were Water pipits and Black redstarts. A flock of Citril finches foraged near the cremallera station. Among the vulture traffic were a pair of Lammergeiers, swooping close together. One clutched what looked like a jaw bone with teeth.

bearded vultures in the eastern pyrenees

 

 

 

Pyrenean trip report

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The end of the Ansó and Hecho Valleys, where Huesca meets Navarra, is one of the least visited corners of the Spanish Pyrenees.  What comes out in these random nature notes is the amazing sense of abundance that you can feel in wild places in August.

Flora

We kept coming across faded irises and it felt a shame to have missed them.  But at 2000 metres and above they were still in bloom. It was breath-taking to find swathes of these flamboyant deep purple flowers spread over the stark mountain, surrounded by bare limestone and a fiercely blue late-August sky.

irises-in-the-pyrenees-iris-latifolia

Another marvel: I associate Granny’s Nightcaps with woodland clearings in spring time, so it was something of a surprise to find them flowering at 2,000 metres on a high rocky pass, among scree slopes and lone twisted pines.  They turned out to be the Pyrenean species, Aquilegia pyrenaica.

grannys-nightcap-aquilegia-pyrenaica

Amphibians

In the depths of the Gamueta beech wood, in the pools of a plunging crystalline stream, Pyrenean newts softly padded over the rocks on their chubby feet, with a dreamy look in their eyes.  They’re also known as Pyrenean Brook Salamanders.  (Huesca has some of the best conserved beech woods in Spain.)

pyrenean-newt-euproctus-asper

Evening walks in the moonlight were accompanied by legions of Common Toads.  At moments, they seemed the most prolific species in the world.  The quiet night was filled with soft plops as they propelled themselves along the track.  When an occasional vehicle approached, it was heartening to see how fast they could suddenly lollop if necessary.

common-toad-bufo-bufo-out-night-walking

Reptiles

Not a hint of a snake, but lizards abounded.  Certain paths were so crowded with baby wall lizards, you were afraid of treading on one.  One day I was putting on my boot, and it felt very tight in the toe.  I took it off and turned it upside down to give it a shake.  I don’t know who was more startled, me or the lizard who’d taken refuge inside.  He was unsquashed and hid under the skirting board.

Birds

The mountains belonged to the jet-black Alpine Choughs.  Vast flocks would fill the sky and the silent peaks would echo with their calls and the falling stones they dislodged.  Some were cheeky  – they knew the popular peaks where people climb, and circled them for picnic leftovers.

flock-of-alpine-choughs-in-pyrenees

The most exciting bird sighting was on the Collado de Lenito, just above the Hotel Usón (see below), where the bones of a cow lay stripped clean.  We were talking about vultures when two low-flying Lammergeyers overtook us on the way down.  A shepherd thought the cow bones would be too large for them though.

Griffon vultures soaring majestically were a constant.  One was spotted perching opportunistically by a sheep pen.  Inside the barn you could hear lambs bleating, so maybe there were placentas available.

griffon-vulture-perching-by-sheep-pen

Insects

Like the Choughs, the butterflies took advantage of summer visitors.  A variety of Blues in particular were attracted to mineral-rich hikers.  I had one clamped to my nose, like the sausage in the fairy-tale.  Sunglasses and hands were also popular.

butterfly-taking-salts

Crowds of Blues puddled by streams, but it often felt just too hot to try and identify them.  The Damon Blue was nicely distinguishable.

damon-blue-agrodiaetus-damon

Mammals

Giving themselves away by their warning whistles, it was a game to spot the angular features of a marmot frozen among the jumbled rocks.

marmot-in-pyrenees-huesca

Sheep

Mountain livestock are usually in admirably good shape, like these sheep, galloping down to drink in the river and return to their pen.

athletic-sheep-in-the-pyrenees

This lot weren’t in the mood for going anywhere and had locked themselves into a wheel.

sheep-in-a-wheel

Landscape

For a non-mountaineer, the Petretxema is a rewarding peak to climb.  Its popularity is clear by the depth of the path, a deep rut in the turf. The final part is like a stone rocket launch into the sky. It was so peaceful at the top, one woman wrapped herself in a scarf and fell asleep.  When I left, there was only her, curled up on the rocks and the Choughs, hopping closer.

well-trodden-path-to-the-petretxema

In this landscape, the sloping peak on the left is the Petretxema.  Below is the tiny Ibón d’Ansabère, one of the most western lakes of the Pyrenees.

petretxema-and-lake

Nice places to stay

The camping site at Zuriza, which also has hostal/mountain-refuge style accomodation, makes a good base for walking at the end of the Ansó valley.  Clientele is mainly Basque, the location is idyllic though the bar/restaurant can be quite hectic at night.  Meals are hearty and midnight curfew respected.

In complete contrast, at the small Hotel Usón tucked away on its own towards the end of the Hecho Valley, the nights are very calm.  There’s a garden to relax in after dinner and watch the moon rise. Owners Imanol and Lucia are very hospitable (and speak some English).   80% of their energy is provided by the sun and wind, and the peppers they grow in their garden make smoke come out of your ears.