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 (iv) Els Encantats

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Presiding over the Sant Maurici lake, this vast two-peaked monolith is omnipresent in local hikes – a yardstick to measure how far you’ve walked and how high you’ve reached.

In the legend of Els Encantats, two hunters were enticed onto the mountain by the biggest chamois they’d ever seen, and then blasted by lightening for daring to mock the good villagers at mass in Sant Maurici’s chapel. Their fossilised remains, two splinters of rock, can be seen between the peaks.

Everywhere there are bleached, twisted wrecks of trees, another reminder of the dangers of lightning. With afternoon storms forecast, I didn’t aim to go far. The day had started misty and still, but seemingly from nowhere, waves of wind began searing through the crags. Suddenly the sky was an electric blue, and my hands were frozen. Clouds were surging past, and over the shoulders of Els Encantats a cumulo-nimbus was rising. Enhancing the vividness of the moment, a stunning tangerine-coloured butterfly was browsing at the shore of the Sant Maurici lake: a Scarce copper (Lycaena virgaureae).

I climbed up to a spot protected from the wind, with the whole majestic block of Els Encantats in view – from the peaks, with the doomed hunters inbetween, to the creamy-white glaciar in its belly button – a vestige of the 400m-deep glacier that once filled the Escrita valley.

I could see silver glitter racing across the Estany de Sant Maurici in the valley bottom, the water a deep turquoise compared to the dark blue of higher lakes, which lack sediments, minerals and algae. I was watching a flock of crossbills prise open pine cones but the sky beyond the great mountain was now the darkest blue – time to go.