As Robin and Martine’s recent blog shows, this spot in the mountains never fails to disappoint. From vast, wooded slopes as far as the eye can see, to small bugs around your feet, there’s always something of interest. But when Bruce and I went there at the beginning of October, I have to admit to not so secretly hoping we (that is to say, Bruce) might get a photo of a large raptor or two. With the autumn migration underway, who knew what might fly by: Egyptian vulture, booted eagle, honey buzzard ... and there was just a chance those vultures Robin and Martine saw might still be hanging around. I so wanted to see those.
It was Bruce’s first trip to the area, so I’ll hand over to him:
The road from Les Albères into the high Mediterranean Pyrenees climbs past Amélie-Les-Bains and Arles-sur-Tech. The Canigou is often visible, majestically appearing between other mountain peaks as you head upwards. Turn off the main road after Arles-Sur-Tech and take a typical country road - well, typical for the Pyrenees - as it twists and turns, ever narrower, ever more windy, and ever more awe inspiring to the faint hearted.
After more than 15 tight hairpin bends you finally arrive at the Col de la Descarga, about 1,400 metres above sea level, where you leave the car and walk. Here, we are on the tree line. Along the piste that leads towards the ruins of the Tour de Batère there is abundant wildlife, the exciting thing being that the species are often quite different from those that we are used to seeing at lower levels in Les Albères.
But what about those birds? Neither they, nor Bruce and his camera, were to disappoint!
At the start of our walk, when the three hang gliders suddenly rose out of the valley behind the car park, I was both surprised and, to be honest, upset. The horses’ reaction alone showed how intrusive they were – even though completely silent. But I had to put my annoyance to one side when I spotted something else in the sky and realised not just horses were being driven towards us, but five or six griffon vultures as well.
We had magnificent views. With their scrawny necks pulled in during flight, their heads looked quite white as they soared across the grassy slopes and over the ridgeline. And occasionally, as they turned, the sun would pick up the two-tone colouring on their backs.
And what fantastic shots Bruce got. Birds are notoriously difficult to photograph – especially in flight.
Just as thrilling was the sight of a golden eagle at the start and end of our trip. Through the binoculars, I wasn’t 100% sure of identification – having only seen about three or four in my life. But the photo below confirms identification, and those residual white patches on the tail and wings show the bird was a sub-adult. Robin is more experienced at watching these eagles and thinks, from the photos, that this one might be five or six years old – still classed as sub-adult, though. The poor thing was quietly going about its business, not out to cause trouble, but one or two alpine choughs left the main flock on the ridgeline anyway – to harry it on its way.
There’s always a reason to go back here.