On a sunny spring day in May, Robin introduced me to this special place he and Martine have found, a stone’s throw from the flanks of Canigou. It’s rich in flora and fauna, and I was especially hoping to see large birds of prey, maybe even a very special type of vulture that they had spotted once or twice before in these parts.
It may sound perverse but part of the buzz you get from an excursion into the wild can come from the uncertainty and unpredictability about what you’ll see. Although you might have a fair idea of what should be around, according to the region, habitat, season, weather conditions and so on, there’s no guarantee that what you especially seek will obligingly fly, perch, run or stand in your line of sight at exactly the right moment – even if you’re camouflaged by a hide. You might simply be facing the wrong way or rummaging in your rucksack for an apple when the golden eagle soars past, thumbing his beak at you.
The beautiful, winding drive up through leafy beech woods, punctuated with glimpses of our sacred mountain against a Mediterranean blue sky, lulled me into a false sense of summer. Once we were out of the car, the wind, which had been blowing strongly back at home, took my breath away. The only upside to this was that any raptors brave enough to take to the air at all would be forced to fly lower than usual and would therefore be much easier to observe. If my eyes stopped streaming and I could hold the binoculars still.
After adding several layers of clothing, we first headed along the flat dirt track that leads towards the Tour de Batère. After only a few minutes a short-toed eagle came into view, relatively close and almost at eye-level. Despite the wind, it hung in the air for a moment, legs dangling, seeking its favourite prey (snake) on the slopes below the track. Soon something else – large and black – rose over the ridge above, to our left. All too quickly it dipped out of sight again. Raven? I was in a state of high alert by now, anxious not to miss anything else that might fly by, and glancing only briefly at the lovely flowers Robin was patiently trying to point out.
As we left the track, heading away from the tower and cutting up towards the northern ridgeline, I couldn’t stop looking behind, due south. With each step the view expanded further, across wave after wave of thickly wooded hills and on into Spain.
A small group of horses ambled over to us before continuing to graze the grass and wildflowers. We had barely said goodbye to them when, just beyond, a marmot bounded across the track. I’d never seen one before. It looked like a cross between a huge stoat and a small badger and, as Robin observed, they do move very like badgers. This one hadn’t noticed us because we were downwind. When we crept closer, trying not to make too much noise on the stony track, we realised there were three of them.
Two started playing together, reared up on their back legs in a kind of boxers’ hug, pushing and shoving until they collapsed in a heap and rolled over and over down the slope, in a tangle of fur. Game over, they checked for danger. One sat up like a meerkat and another, nearest to us, stayed motionless for some time. I don’t know if this stillness protects them from being spotted by predators, but to the human eye, at a distance they easily pass for rocks. Finally these three either smelt or saw us and, in a flash, disappeared down burrows.
By now skylarks were flying and singing around us – a magical sound I haven’t heard since leaving Britain nine years ago. And there was another that I didn’t recognise. Alpine choughs, Robin told me. I’d never even considered they could be found here. Sure enough we came upon a small flock of them. Glossy black, like small, elegant crows with bright yellow bills. A new species for me – and such a delight.
Smaller birds appeared as we climbed higher: pairs of wheatears, tree pipits (possibly), a small, greyish bird we failed to identify; and another marmot, watching – rock still – from a nearby boulder.
It was hard not to step on flowers as we continued up. Dotted among brilliant blue gentians were various types of milkwort and tiny forget-me-nots. Robin spotted some saxifrages coming out, including one that he thought resembled meadow saxifrage. From time to time we crossed damp areas – full of marsh marigolds – where spring water trickled down the hillside.
Still some distance from the ridge, I caught sight of another very big bird gliding high, but not close. Close enough, though, for the binoculars to reveal a white head and distinctive markings under the wings. No question: Lammergeier! And right behind it, another one. In seconds they were far away, heading south and west, already impossible to see with the naked eye. A marvellous moment and I couldn’t believe our luck.
Bearded vulture is another name for the lammergeier. While we paused to munch our sandwiches, we wondered what these amazing and very rare vultures find to eat. Do they rely solely on carrion or might they take a marmot? Research since our visit reveals that while they might occasionally take live prey, what they’re really after is bone marrow. To get at this, they’ll fly off with a bone, which they smash by dropping onto rocks from a great height. But it takes seven years to perfect the technique; meanwhile they will eat bones whole. I can’t imagine they have very rich pickings where we were walking, but their ranges will be vast – which makes me feel even luckier to have seen them.
My poor description above doesn’t do these magnificent birds justice, and there was no way we could get a photo of it; it was gliding by so fast in the wind and our equipment wasn’t up to the task. I don’t even remember getting a good view of its diamond-shaped tail.
On our way down, the terrain gradually changed again, until we were zigzagging along animal tracks through carpets of juniper. May is snake month – certainly at lower levels – and I felt they might be attracted to this habitat, where today it was very warm in the sun out of the wind. While I was looking out for them sunbathing underfoot, Robin’s keen eye picked out tiny white flowers growing in amongst the juniper.
A little later, his keen eye spotted something else in the distance – big and dark, gliding east to west, beneath us. It was another lammergeier – treating us to a final, dramatic flypast for the day. As the light shone silvery-grey on its back, I felt even more honoured.
By the time we re-joined the main track, we had added a hare, stonechat, and tadpoles in a puddle to our tally for the day.
We didn’t have the time or energy to extend our walk to the tower itself, but I knew I would be back.
Next time I might not be so lucky of course. Arrive late morning on a hot day in June, and I might “only” see flowers and insects. Raptors and vultures will be riding the thermals, too high to spot, never mind identify; most small birds and mammals will be hiding from the heat, in bushes or down burrows. But nothing ventured... You never know what might be round the next bend or over the next crest.