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




On the rocks: high altitude flora in the eastern Pyrenees

Written by Lucy Brzoska

We turned our backs on the complex of buildings, ski lifts and artificial lake, and started climbing. It was a cold clear morning in Núria on Sant Joan’s day, and the group of walkers off the cremallera* rapidly dispersed in a variety of directions.   * rack railway

The valley of Núria is an olla, or pot.  In a tough annual race, runners follow its rim, tracing the circle of mountains, which range between 2,700 and 3,000 metres.  But individually the peaks are very accessible for a day’s walk, considering your starting point is at 2,000 m.  Our destination was Noucreus, at 2,790 m.

Past the pines and extensions of alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum), marmots were bounding across the grassy slopes. One got chased into its burrow by a wheatear. The nesting bird fluttered incessantly around the rodent’s head like an angry butterfly.  Alpine gentians (Gentiana nivalis) cover the grass here, low to the ground, barely flinching in the sudden strong gusts of wind.

alpine-gentian-gentiana nivalis-in-nuria-pyrenees

The way is steep, so before long you’re commanding a good view of the valley, the Núria complex still in view but increasingly remote. Then the path zigzags onto the scree and the majesty of the surroundings takes over completely.


The sight of plants cheerfully flowering in this desolate expanse of rock took me by surprise. The Parnassus-leaved buttercup (Ranunculus parnassifolius) has large white petals densely veined in pink, and dark green leaves. Its secret to surviving in this shifting world of rubble is a thick clump of roots, ensuring a secure anchorage.



Nearby Spoon-leaved Candytuft (Iberis spathulata), a member of the Crucifer family, was peeking coquettishly out of the rocks.  This plant adopts a different strategy, spending the winter in seed-form until the next growing season.



Another plant, Senecio leucophyllus, still hadn’t produced its dense yellow flowerheads, but its velvety frilly leaves had spread widely.  Once decomposed, all this biomass would be a great contribution to the richness of the soil below the scree.


I felt exposed on this narrow path, teetering slightly after bending to take photographs. There was nothing to hold onto, just an expanse of grey stone, falling away steeply. But what at first glance might seem a harsh, inhospitable desert is clearly a good home for a well-adapted plant. Low clouds frequently shroud these mountains, and the moisture condenses on the stones, to trickle down below. The scree then protects the soil from drying out in the strong sun.

The stark scattering of iron crosses on the Noucreus pass mark the deaths of travellers who tried to cross the mountain in snow but conditions that June morning were very benign. We lingered for hours, enthralled by the view and the vultures that regularly coasted past, including two Lammergeiers, who cruised slowly above the peaks.  Far below in another valley was a herd of about 100 chamois – the young taking it easy while the mothers foraged.


On the peak itself there’s a sloping slab of rock, and sheltering underneath I found a Pyrenean endemic, Saxifraga pubescens.


Nearby, a tight cluster of soil-hugging rock plants had enabled the Alpine Forgetmenot to survive on the peaks, well above its usual alpine pasture habitat.


Early Spring in Montgrony

We were leaving the coast behind, Pyrenean-bound. Back in Barcelona, the trees were wearing light new foliage, and through the train window, we could see spring spreading inland along the River Ter. House martins and swallows swooped over the rain-swollen water, set to be torrential when the thaw reaches the mountains.

Climbing out of Campdevanol, spring receded with every step to an earlier phase.  The way was spotted yellow with Cinquefoil (Potentilla neumanniana), unchecked by any competition. The woods were lit up with white and purple anemones (Anemone hepatica).  In a sheltered spot, Peacock butterflies (Inachis io) came out with the sun, their rich colours as warming as brandy.

In the Sierra above Montgrony, rising to 2,000 metres, spring would presumably have even less of a foothold. But there were surprises. A strong scent invaded a clearing, its source a small solitary bush of Common Mezereon (Daphne mezereum), all bare branch and florid pink blossom. Horses were hungrily tearing at the short grass where emphatically blue Spring Gentians had sprung up. Higher up, purple crocuses could hardly wait for the patches of snow to melt.

We stood near the top looking over at the high mountains on the French border, white under an iron-grey sky. A line of geese crossed the ridge, heading north.

Wearing every spare layer, we got out our lunch. The silence was broken by a kronk, as two Ravens materialised, settling near by. Sometimes they rose up and circled us, black feathers shining like oil. As soon as we moved on, they came and cleared up the leftovers. The mountains felt very remote that day, but the ravens were a reminder that other people come up and have picnics too.

Large outstretched wings passed above – a Red Kite. Below, we saw the brown backs of Griffon Vultures. The Gombrèn valley is a busy highway for raptors moving in and out of the Cadi-Moixeró area. The day before we’d seen a pair of Egyptian Vultures, a very easterly sighting.

Descending under a shower, we watched the outlines of the hills opposite gradually merge with the clouds, and it was our turn for the sun again.

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 (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.

Pyrenees (iii): Two-legged and hoofless

Written by Lucy Brzoska

On my second attempt to walk to the Port de Ratera, I took the GR 11, which goes directly there and beyond. It takes you round the Estany (lake) de Ratera, with its marshy grass and hairy Bog cotton (eriophorum angustifolium).

Further up, the path narrows, and you reach the Estany de les Obagues de Ratera (the Lake on the dark side of the Ratera). Red and white poles stop you getting lost, so the map could’ve stayed folded, but once open, a tempting alternative materialised, leading away from the GR 11 up to some tiny lakes. The contrast with the previous day was brutal. The way was marked by cairns, to guide you over an avalanche of rocks. Going became a little easier as the path crept along a narrow strip of grass skirting a vertical wall. There were traces of chamois everywhere. What took me half an hour of awkward balancing they could skip across in 3 minutes. There was no sign of any lakes.

I reached an outcrop of Mountain pines (Pinus uncinata) and sat in their shade, as if for protection. Unsoftened by vegetation or water, this was the harsh side of the mountains. The dead silence was broken by the cawing of a raven. Back at the Estany de Obagues de Ratera, I noticed a round white spot in a crevice: a dipper (Cinclus cinclus). Scouting around the streams I found some late pink and white orchids (see discussion on forum). There were also Field gentians (Gentianella campestris), discrete but welcome flowers at the end of summer. Small details, but very reassuring after the stark wilderness higher up.

This time I kept to the GR 11, but in the other direction. Instead of taking one of the jeep taxis that wait on the hour at the Sant Maurici lake, I walked back to Espot. The path follows the sunny side of the Escrita river, through meadows and tunnels of hazlenut trees. The dark side is covered by a thick mass of uniform fir forest haunted by capercaillies. The setting sun escaped from the clouds, lighting up the valley and the leaf flurries shed by silver birches. Long shadows were cast eastwards towards the mountains of Andorra.

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.

Pyrenees (i) Espot – stone, slate and wood

Written by Lucy Brzoska

There’s an air of expectation about the village of Espot. Hikers are shouldering their packs. The main drag is lined with jeep taxis, ready to run people as far as the Sant Maurici lake. No sooner had I arrived, I was longing to be off, up the long Escrita valley, to the lakes and high peaks.

For Espot is essentially a place for practicalities, somewhere to find food and a bed: a good base for exploring the Aigüestortes and Sant Maurici National Park. It was only after three days, when a storm chased me down early from the heights, that I went to look around.

The river Escrita runs west to east and divides the village into Espot Solau (sunny) and Espot Obago (shady). The Solau is the flatter side- it’s where the wealthier villagers established their homes in the past. There’s the usual smattering of cranes as apartments go up. A new complex advertises “the privilege of living in the Solau”. You too can have your place in the sun.

But there’s still a meadow, recently mowed, and the old slate roofs have rustied over with a moss that glows mustard yellow in the sun.

Over on the shady side, the houses shelter close together on steep and narrow streets. Cats slip through gaps under wooden doors. Near the top, sheep were bleating inside a barn. Stone, slate and wood, and the occasional boulder, are the building materials.

After the downpour, children, supervised by their grandmothers, were back out playing, and birds had resumed their activities. In Espot Solau, there was a constant traffic of swallows flying in and out of a half-restored barn. A bunch of young Crag martins (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) perched on the end of a wooden beam.

They exercised their wings, took short flights and begged – off each other as much as their parents.