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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Quest for the Bonebreaker

Even "scientific" ornithologists and serious bird recorders enjoy seeing birds they have not seen before. This does not make them "twitchers", but simply naturalists who enjoy biological diversity. A particular bird might be regarded as beautiful, rare or just a challenge to find.

Two species in particular, for me, fit all three criteria, namely the Wallcreeper and the Lammergeier. I have sought the Wallcreeper on at least six occasions across Europe (sometimes with travel companion Stuart) and have failed; and three previous visits to the Spanish Pyrenees failed to reveal the legendary Lammergeier ("Bonebreaker"). This huge bird (also called the Bearded Vulture) is rare in Europe (though thanks to conservation is making a recovery) and is notorious for its dependence on bone marrow in its diet. And so, when other scavengers have finished with a carcass, the Lammergeier flies off with the bones, and drops them onto rocks from a height in order to smash them to release the bone marrow.

And so it was again that Stuart and I flew into Girona in Spain for one more attempt to locate these two species, in particular. The trip was in three sections - the coast; the plains; and the mountains.

At the coast of the Costa Brava we visited two nature reserves, the Cape Creus Peninsula, and the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Emporda.

We hiked to the highest point, to the ruined castle above the monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes and looked down on the Cape.
A view of Cap de Creus from the highest point
I visited this reserve on my visits to Spain last year and this year we saw a similar range of species, including Balearic Shearwater, Black Redstart and Sardinian Warbler, but added wintering Alpine Accentor located up near the monastery.

New to me was the large wetland nature reserve at Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Emporda, near the town of Roses. A day here revealed a diversity of wading birds and waterfowl, as well as White Storks that were commencing nesting activity, and specialities like Water Pipit, Hoopoe and Purple Gallinule.

The wetland Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Emporda nature reserve

Birdwatching from the top of the tower hide
Next on the itinerary was a long drive to the Zaragosa plains, south from Bujarloz in Aragón. This is arid steppe country, habitat of larks, bustards and sandgrouse. There were Calandra Larks (the largest of the European lark species) aplenty, and we found a covey of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a small flock of Great Bustards on the wing as they flew off into the morning mist. This is also the home of the rare and restricted DuPont's Lark, an extremely elusive species that sings at night and spends the day concealed in vegetation. We regarded ourselves fortunate to locate a couple of singing males as darkness fell and the air temperature plummeted.

The plains in Spain really do seem plain...

...until you see the gorge carved into them by the River Ebro near Escatrón
The final part of our excursion, and the most eagerly anticipated, was three days in the Spanish Pyrenees where we stayed at the Boletas Birdwatching Centre in the village of Loporzano near Huesca, as guests of Josele Saiz and his wife Esther. The target species here were unashamedly Wallcreeper and Lammergeier, and Josele was generous with local knowledge as to where we might search.

The Wallcreeper has always been an iconic bird for birdwatchers, not only because of its attractiveness, but because locating it on its breeding grounds on vertical rock faces high in alpine areas has always represented a challenge. It is only comparatively recently the birders have recognised the possibility of finding them in winter when they descend to the more accessible foothills. Our first stop was at the towering columns at Riglos, a well-known spot for Wallcreepers.
The pinnacles of Riglos ( the Mallos de Riglos)
Although we found no Wallcreeper here, we were rewarded with good views of hundreds of Griffon Vultures circling in the sky preparing to roost on the cliffs, and also a Black Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush. However, a stop by a reservoir damn a little further up the valley at Embalse de la Peña, Stuart spotted a bird sitting on a rock that gave us both a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Wallcreeper before it flew off. It was the next morning, on the face of a quarry suggested by Josele, that we obtained our really memorable views of a this bird.

Wallcreeper (image source)
Our final quest, the Lammergeier, demanded higher altitudes and on our last day we set off for the Spanish/French border above Sallent de Gállego, well above the snow line and among the ski resorts.
High in the Pyrenees

Maybe because of the number of skiers, birds of any kind were scarce, and we felt we had one remaining card to play: a foray into Spain's iconic Ordessa National Park. Rising into the park north from Torla, we eventually got to the car park (thanks to recent snow-plough activity) where we were confronted by the most stunning scenery.

The magnificent Ordessa National Park in the heart of the Pyrenees
High above the crags circled a flock of Alpine Choughs and a Golden Eagle. And it was in this area that we obtained our view of a Lammergeier circling over a ridge. Seen through a telescope it was unmistakeable with its slender, almost falcon-like wings and long dark wedge-shaped tail.

O'er Pyreneean mountain ridge and coll
With slender wings and diamond tail he soars;
Above the snow-capped peaks does never tire
With regal majesty the Lammergeier


Blogger TCA said...

Terrific pictures, and what a diverse array of habitats!


10:52 pm  
Blogger simon said...

this IS the BEST posting yet mate! I am UTTERLY jealous! Frankly I hope I can get my tax sorted so I can get over for some serious birding too!

BTW- do you recall the bird that does the opposite of a treecreeper? I.e. works the trunk of a tree from the top down instead of bottom up?

I saw one at Duns Swamp but could not find it in the book....

11:34 pm  
Blogger Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

Maalie.... this was wonderful to read.... and I will be back to read it all again. Your photos are wonderful, and you really did get into some varied habitats. Gosh... it would have been amazing to be with you!

5:32 am  
Blogger Raelha said...

A real adventure, and well told. And some lovely photos, I particularly like the ones of the Ordessa Park and the mallos de riglos

8:53 am  
Blogger lorenzothellama said...

Well done. Brilliant pictures.

5:32 pm  
Blogger Magdalene said...

A wonderful post and deserving of a gold star I think. What stunning landscapes and so great that you found what you were looking for. The wallcreeper is a gorgeous looking little creature.

On a more mundane note, but nonetheless bringing a warm fuzzy feeling to my circulatory pump, I've been rewarded recently by a proper flock of starlings regularly gathering in the garden trees in the evenings. Although nothing like the size of the flocks I watched as a child, they are still a big group by recent standards and I'm enjoying their synchronised aerobatic displays.

5:41 pm  
Blogger Ellee Seymour said...

What an incredible trip, the wallcreeper certainly looks stunning. Your pictures are fabulous. Did you get to see any flamenco dancers in Spain?

9:08 pm  
Blogger Ju's little sister said...

Brrr, Maalie that all looks so COLD!

How do you pronounce Lammergeier?

Isn't finding the wallcreeper in winter sort of like cheating? Just a little?

9:37 pm  
Blogger Ju's little sister said...

Sorry, I did mean to say that the Wallclimber seemed like a lovely little bird. Red and Black are the best colours of all (but then I'm a little one-eyed...)

9:58 pm  
Blogger Ju's little sister said...

Arrrgh climber/creeper.


Happy Valentine Maalie.

9:59 pm  
Blogger lorenzothellama said...

Was the wallcreeper creeping up a wall or a tree?
Did you go skiing?

10:05 pm  
Blogger Raelha said...

I forgot to ask before, did you get your cognac too?

10:48 pm  
Blogger Maalie said...

TCA: Yes, great to have so much diversity within a day's drive.

Simon: Yes, get over mate, I know how much you like Spanish food ;-)

Kiwi: Thanks, it was certainly a great trip.

Raelha: I will put up some pictures of buildings in Girona next week!

Magdalene: Your starlings appear to be a "pre-roost assembly". It would be interesting to discover exactly where they spend the night.

Ellee: No flamenco, I think that is more down in Andalucia, isn't it?

J.L.S.: Interesting question. Many species have distinct summering and wintering distributions and it is just as valid to observe them in winter quarters. What could be described as cheating is getting a tip-off from a local, but you see that we did actually find "our own" bird, however briefly. Thanks for Valentine wishes, I'm not holding my breath!

Lorenzo: No, no time for futile self-indulgent pursuits.

6:56 am  
Blogger Ted M. Gossard said...


What beautiful birds! And yes, what great pics!

Interesting the knowledge you share with us here. So glad you and Stuart could explore and end up having a good time there. I do kind of envy you. Glad you can take the time and pursue your interest, then share that with us.

9:09 am  
Blogger lorenzothellama said...

Don't be pompous Maalie. What about the wallcreeper. Witherest did it creep?

12:55 pm  
Blogger Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

My goodness, what an adventure.. it must be awful having to drag yourself off to all these places for us. We do appreceiate it though.. that was such a delight to read, you made it feel as though we were standing right there next to you!

1:15 pm  
Blogger Martin Stickland said...

Pretty bird with he red wings! looks like you had a great time.

Have you visited Abraham's blog!

He takes some cracking photos and also he has another blog too with all sorts of other wildlife that creeps in to his garden!


1:35 pm  
Blogger Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Stunning is right! Incredible - and that you were able to see both your birds too - what will you go after now?

I'm with Craver - what does it mean to you when you use runcible as an adjective? I have always wondered and could never figure it out by myself as the dictionary was not help at all!

Happy Valentine's Day to you!

2:27 pm  
Blogger Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

halfmom.... are you familiar in the US with the poem about the "Owl and the Pussycat", where they have a runcible spoon? I used to love the sound of this poem as a child, though I never understood in the least what runcible meant. In maalie's case I believe it is a synonym for 'incorrigible' ;-)

5:17 pm  
Blogger Rob Hopcott said...

Wonderful pictures Maalie.

Some looked somewhat scarily vertiginous.

Thanks for sharing.

5:36 pm  
Blogger simon said...

mate, I could easily eat the Spanish food simply to see a bone breaker...

9:51 pm  
Blogger Ellee Seymour said...

Happy Valentine's Day Maalie. I hope you lit some candles. :-}

10:59 pm  
Blogger NaNcY said...

i take it that you have returned to the homefront. by the looks of this post with photos, you had quite a few highlights on your trip. you posted some very nice looking pictures. what i really like to see fly in our neck of the woods is the great blue herron.

1:34 am  
Blogger NaNcY said...

i think that runcible means that a person is sharp and likes to get a scoop on things....or it could mean that one is a little prickley and round.

how something can be a spoon and a fork at the same time...i do not know...could be handy, though i have never really tried one.

1:59 am  
Blogger Scaredy Cat said...

Maalie is runcible when he pretends he doesn't like me, but when no one is looking, he gives me a furtive stroke.

6:54 pm  
Blogger Maalie said...

Thanks for lovely comments everyone :-)

9:09 pm  
Blogger Maalie said...

By the way, the drawing of the "runcible spoon" in Edward Lear's Owl and the Pussycatan artist's fantasy impression. It seems to be a hybrid fork/spoon implement, but that is not the adjectival meaning of the current context, as in "You runcible creature, you!".

9:13 pm  
Blogger Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

so, do you agree with Kiwi Nomad as to its particular use in reference to you - it's adjectival meaning that is?

12:39 am  
Blogger NaNcY said...

oh...i was going to say that if runcible had the meaning that one is a little prickley and round...that in that case i would in fact be a bit runcible.

anyway...good post of photos and all.


7:32 pm  
Blogger NaNcY said...

hi again maalie,
i ran across this blog this evening and thought you might want to see it because it is a lover of birds.


3:08 am  
Blogger NaNcY said...

oh dear!

here it is

ok now,

3:09 am  
Blogger simon said...

Its axiomatic as to what runcible means....

10:50 pm  
Blogger NaNcY said...

oh maalie!
you just have to look at this guys blogg...he is a bird person for sure! take a look at all the bloggs that he has listed that he reads! hope you enjoy it...i got his blog off of the lake life blogg.


3:21 am  
Blogger Maalie said...

Nancy, I have checked out that blog, I think it's really good, thank you!

8:41 am  
Blogger NaNcY said...

i often forget to add the link.
i hope you can put up with me.

11:48 pm  
Blogger Ju's little sister said...

Officially, I believe the purpose of a ball pien hammer is for shaping copper. But it is really used on all sorts of metal. The most common use my father had for the ball-side (from memory) was burring the ends over on home-made rivets.
The pien side of the hammer is another shaping tool, notice the cylindrical section of it is usually a little 'longer' than a claw hammer's.

2:07 am  
Blogger Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

Such beautiful photos of such varied Spanish terrain... everytime I look at them I want to be there walking tooooooo!

8:11 am  
Blogger Ellee Seymour said...

I wish one of the wallcreepers would migrate to Welney. Fancy you visiting and not letting me know...

5:51 pm  
Blogger Anonymous said...

Beautiful Wallcreeper and the photograph of Ordessa National Park is STUNNING!

5:02 am  
Blogger Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

Ahhhhhhhhhh!!! I have already been looking at where I might walk 'next' - though 'next' might be at the end of the five year plan. But this looks so fascinating all over again! I have been reading stuff about the Camino Aragonese, coming over the Pyrenees via the Somport Pass to Jaca.... and will have to work out how this relates geographically...

8:47 am  

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