Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Clayheads on Tour - NW Spain 12th March 2013 Birding the Hecho Valley and Riglos

We woke up in our hotel in the centre of Jaca to a damp morning. There was a bit of low cloud but it had at least it had stopped raining. We had ate our wonderful continental breakfast (consisting of bread, ham and jam) and we were on the road before 08:00hrs. We were heading for the Hecho Valley, primarily the Gabardito Refuge; a place for Lammergeier, Citril Finch and Wallcreeper.

The lower parts of the Hecho Valley were very lush and green, and we were soon stopping (fortunately the road was very quiet and so we could pull over wherever) for endless Red Kites, Griffon Vultures and a flock of c150 high, silent circling Chough sp. A flock of roadside Chaffinches and Goldfinches in the village of Hecho also saw a male Black Redstart feeding in a yard.

Heading up the Hecho Valley

As we climbed up the valley, more and more snow started to appear, initially on the mountain tops, but with the increase in height, we started getting more roadside snow. The road was still drivable though.

Beyond the village of Hecho, more snow appeared

We soon came to the start of the 7km track up to the Gabardito Refuge. The track was virtually a road (well tarmacked) at the bottom, and it was clear of snow. However, as we rose up the valley sides, slowly the snow got deeper. There was just one set of vehicle tracks in the snow, but in our Skoda I stuck to the fresh snow and slowly climbed. We never skidded or slipped once, but with about 2km to go, it was about four inches deep. We then met a ranger coming down. He stopped. We stopped and we couldn't get going again. He got out of his car and gabbled something in Spanish which went along the lines of  "What the 'ell are you doing driving a Skoda Fabia up the side of a hill in snow with no chains or winter tyres. You must be stupid English men trying to find a Wallcreeper I bet. Well I've got news for you. You ain't going any further as its about a foot deep up there. Fancy some paella?" I may have got a few words wrong but we understood the basics. We rolled backwards, turned the car round with a little push from Jose and back down the 5km track we went. Our first site of the day, three ticks to look for and we didn't even manage to get to it. What a downer! 

The track was clear at the bottom

But slowly became deeper as we climbed

Another Wallcreeper site was just up the road, and said to be a former reliable site - the Boca del Infierno. The whole site was dripping and damp with melting snow. The gorge was impressive, but no sign of any Wallcreepers. We did see our first Griffons of the day, which was good news in our quest for the Lammergeier. Despite the low cloud and mist, they were still up and about.

The impressive Boca del Infierno

We headed back down the Valley, and made a decision to visit Riglos. We hadn't really done much birding yet today. It just seemed like a lot of driving. We stopped again in the lower reaches of the Hecho Valley. The high circling flock of Chough sp that we had seen earlier were now flying around at tree level. I lifted my bins and saw a beautiful sight - all of them had yellow beaks. It was a flock of nearly 200 Alpine Chough. It was after midday, and we had finally seen our first tick of the trip.

A flock of nearly 200 Alpine Chough

It was good to get that first tick under our belts, and the drive to the warmer, sunnier Riglos was straight forward. Again the roads were quiet. Riglos was an impressive place in its own right, and the birding wasn't too bad either.

It was actually the first proper spell of birding that we had done. Another good wintering Wallcreeper site, the problem I found with this site was that you were looking directly up at the cliffs. It was like looking for the Long-eared Owls at Parkhall but worse. I even lay down at one stage, but the ground was damp. The were small flocks of Serin buzzing about, two Egyptian Vultures soaring over the cliffs and a Blue Rock Thrush was singing away. There were several Crag Martins, a Black Redstart, a Sardinian Warbler and the usual Griffon Vultures and Red Kite overhead. A decent spell, but we had to walk away with our eyes sore and our necks aching from searching the cliff face for an hour and no sign of any Wallcreepers. As we walked back along the base of the cliffs, three grey birds flew up and landed just in front of us on the cliff face. It was the three wintering Alpine Accentors. They showed incredibly well for us, and another of our target birds had been found. The day was slowly getting better.  
One of the Alpine Accentors at Riglos. Far better than our Dunnocks!

We headed back down towards Huesca to finally find the way to the Castiello de Mont Aragon. As we drove we had endless Black and Red Kite to spot, plus a few White Storks were starting to inspect their roadside nests. The road to the castle was found in the village of Quicena (thanks to a copy of Richard Powell's trip to area that I had taken with me).

On the way up to the top we met a group of birders stood scanning the hillside. As you always do when abroad and meet other birdwatchers, I assumed they were English and said hello to them. They certainly were English and we had a good chat exchanging a few bits of information. They had just been watching a Black Wheatear, but it was playing hide and seek and had gone out of view. We bade farewell and we had the whole area to ourselves. We stood and watched but the wheatear didn't return. We drove up to the top of the hill, and I decided to walk along the ridge to see where it had gone to. GAS stood by the castle and waited. I had walked virtually all the way to the end of the ridge past three valleys before I spotted the Black Wheatear below me. Another tick, my third of the day, but I now had to get GAS on to the bird. There was no way he could scramble down the ridge like I had done, so I decided to push the wheatear back towards him. I managed to do this quite easily and stood frantically waving at him as the Black Wheatear finally flew back into the original valley again. Unfortunately, GAS was constantly gazing in the wrong direction. I shouted and waved but nothing. I carried on walking until I too was in the valey and the Black Wheatear was right opposite me. I finally got his attention and pointed as it fed directly beneath him. He tried his best but he just couldn't see it. I later realised that due to his position it was impossible for him to see the area. The BW flew off and we'd lost it. 

We'd been in the area for quite a while, and had seen two Thekla Larks, three Dartford Warblers, 5+ Black Redstarts, Crag Martins and a singing Blue Rock Thrush. But GAS had dipped the Black Wheatear.

We returned to our hotel at Jaca. It had been a hard day, out birding for nearly ten hours. We'd dipped a few species and I'd had three ticks. But I knew we'd have to do better tomorrow. Wednesday was our last day in the Pyrenees and by the evening we would be in our hotel on the Steppes near Belchite.

Blue Rock Thrush at Mont Aragon

Driving back towards Jaca at the end of the day with the sun still shining on the snow capped Pyrenees. Starting to miss Westport by this point!