A Flurry of Snowfinches

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The landscape was overwhelmingly beautiful but unforgiving. After stepping out of the car, my face soon numbed and toes froze. What would we find alive out here?

A steep crag rose out of the snow, facing the sun, gathering warmth. Four sets of binoculars scanned the rocks, and almost immediately we noticed restless flocks of brown-backed birds, briskly foraging among stones and plants, even digging in patches of snow.  Up went the telescopes, and you could see orange bills and contrasting black and white tails. Then every so often, a group would sweep off the ridge – a flurry of white birds magnified against the bluest of skies, clearly visible with the naked eye.

The snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis) is in fact grouped with the sparrows, as suggested by the Spanish name, Gorrion Alpino. Like the urban House sparrow, it’s learnt to take advantage of humans and, since home is above 1500 metres, looks for feeding opportunities at ski stations.

As well as snowfinches we saw Alpine accentors (Prunella collaris) and, very surprisingly, a wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria), first spotted by sharp-eyed Max. Our eyes were squinting and weeping with the glare, but as Mike said, sunglasses aren’t much use when birdwatching.

All kinds of intriguing tracks patterned the snow, some leading directly towards the snowfinches’ crag. A chamois in a thick winter coat of  brown and cream was grazing its way upwards.  Already at the top was a fox, surveying the land like a ginger cat.

If we tired of craning up at the rock, we could look the other way towards blue islands – Montserrat, and further away still, Collserola, with the minuscule needle of the Norman Foster tower.  The world was in reverse to my normal view from the coast.  Sometimes a Griffon vulture would float past or mount a thermal.  The snow-muffled silence was broken by the bark of a raven, the powerful light revealing contrasting shades of black on its wings, normally unnoticed. Lower down we’d seen crossbills, just next to the sign indicating the Ruta del Trencapinyes (Route of the Crossbills).

Back down in the valley, in Bagà, trees and rooves were dripping fast in full mid-afternoon thaw and the village cats sunned themselves in a spot freshly cleared of snow.  A dipper (Cinclus cinclus) probed the water under the medieval bridge.  The crooked shapes of Montserrat filled the horizon as we drove home.

Post script

What does a professional bird guide do when not working?  Go bird-watching of course.  Stephen Christopher of www.catalanbirdtours.com was intent on photographing the snowfinches, bad weather having thwarted his previous attempt a few days before.  The difficult light and restless nature of the birds meant he couldn’t secure a good shot.  He did get the following image, however: a Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), very rarely recorded in Catalunya.  Not bad for your day off.

Pyrenees (v) Port de Ratera

Written by Lucy Brzoska

It was cold at nearly 2,600m, but there were plenty of grassy hollows and boulders to shelter from the wind. The Port de Ratera was created when ice overflowed from the Ratera basin into the Saboredo. This colossal polishing has created a natural resting place, appreciated by walkers, whether approaching via the scree slopes from the Refugio d’Amitges, or climbing up from Val d’Aran.

The route from the Sant Maurici lake, the GR 11, rises in a series of giant steps, a typical pattern of glacial erosion in hard granitic rock. For the walker this translates as tough slogs interspersed with welcome respites.

On one of these pauses, among still water and scattered rocks, a herd of chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica) were foraging, a group of females and young. Separated from the rest, one of the adults came bounding past, hooves thudding as it circled the valley.

The renewed silence was broken by a piercing whistle, as if a referee had just stopped play. The first time I ever heard a marmot’s warning call, I was sure it was a bird. One tone warns of raptors and another of danger on the ground. The Pyrenean marmots didn’t survive the last ice age, but were re-introduced in 1948, and have been burrowing there extensively ever since. They are Europe’s largest and perhaps shaggiest rodents, preferring to stay underground on hot days, as well as hibernating throughout winter. This upright marmot was on lookout duty.

Black redstarts were ubiquitous at all levels, from the streets of Espot to the top of the pass. They’re also a familiar sight at sea level, visiting Barcelona in winter. Other birds I saw that day were rock bunting, wheatear and alpine accentor, and a solitary mallard in the Estanyet de Port de Ratera.

Near the pass I found Globe-headed rampion (Phyteuma hemisphaericum), which grows in the highest reaches of the park, up to 3,000m, thriving in thin sandy soils. Starry saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris) was in flower by a stream.

Another resilient high altitude species is the Mountain pine (Pinus uncinata). One grows near the pass, braced against the prevailing north-west wind. Another, on the south side of Els Encantats at 2,700m, is a candidate for the highest tree of Spain. Bark blending into stone, they are capable of growing out of a fissured rock.

Pyrenees (ii) Hanging Valley

Written by Lucy Brzoska

A mountain pass is a chance to look into another world, or at least into the next valley, so with a great choice of trails heading out from the Sant Maurici lake, I decided to walk to the Port de Ratera via the Refugio d’Amitges. The map showed an interesting looking path, an alternative to the more direct jeep track.

The way was unsignposted but quite well marked by cairns, and I only strayed twice, where the path branched. After a summer in sandals, I felt clumsy in heavy boots, stumbling over the rocks and gasping from the sheer steepness.

The path wound through a knot of Mountain pines and dense alpenrose, emerging onto a small plateau. It was a resting place for a narrow river that had just finished cascading down a cliff. It now paused to meander peacefully among grass and flowers, before resuming its turbulent course, crashing down into the Ratera lake, as the Cascada de la Ratera.

It was an arcadian scene at an altitude of 2,200 m. The water was crystal clear. Orange fritillaries floated among heather and harebells still glistening with rain drops after last night’s storm. The distant roar from the waterfall faded in and out with the gusts of wind. A one-horned chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica) foraged among the boulders on the other side, unperturbed as long as I kept my distance. Perhaps it had found a patch of alpine clover, with its delicious liquorice-flavoured roots.

After some false starts, I located the path on the other side of the stream, and more steep climbing took me to a cluster of small lakes. Tiny frogs clung to stalks of grass, among white starry flowers. Unexpected murmurs came from the rocks, where water trickled unseen.

Besides its proliferation of lakes (272 in all), the park is also renowned for the splintered crests of its mountains, a myriad of crags and needles, the result of freeze-thaw action. The roving clouds fragment the mountains even more, as the sun selectively illuminates a peak or picks out a crevasse. Highly sculpted, yet never static, it’s a landscape that is renewed with every step you take.

I also appreciated the park’s capacity for regeneration in another sense. It bears the weight of visitors lightly – you wouldn’t guess it had just emerged from the busiest month of the year. In the peace of that day, a weathered clothes tag found by a rock, “Boreal UK”, seemed it was lost a decade ago.

In such surroundings, and with so much new flora and fauna to take in, you enter a different time dynamic, disassociated with your watch. I could hardly believe the time – mid-afternoon and, although the Refugio d’Amitges was in sight, the Port de Ratera was still a long way off. I’d try again the following day.