Everyone will tell you that the Pyrénées Orientales are well-known for wind, but little more than a week ago, that reputation was more than deserved. We had several days with beautiful blue skies but also with a particularly energetic wind blowing nearly all the time. It was not good for the garden or the orchard, but it was surprisingly good for sightings of raptors, and our little group of enthusiasts were sending excited emails about things we thought we might have seen!
From the house, I had been having the usual views of buzzards and kestrels, but at the weekend I decided to go up to St. Marsal, almost in the foothills of Canigou, and as soon as we started to climb out of Vallespir I began to have sightings of big birds. The problem is that the road is narrow, mostly tree-lined, and full of sharp bends, so sightings are brief and opportunities to stop and look, very few and far between. Once I glimpsed something that might have been a black kite, but I could not stop, another time I could stop just a few yards ahead, did so and ran back to the gap in the trees- but the big bird, inevitably, had gone! And so it continued until I decided it was time for my picnic lunch. I stopped above St. Marsal, at the Col Xatard, where there is a large parking area, with a good view of the impressive massif of Canigou, and, 'though I did not realise its significance at the time, a bit of rough ground in the foreground, with scrubby bushes. While I was enjoying the view - and my sandwiches - I discovered that I had chosen a good viewpoint. First of all, a big kestrel, (must have been a female), hovered energetically for a while in front of the car, but then she moved off when another, larger bird turned up to hover in its turn. Now there are not that many raptors which actually hover: the kestrel obviously, buzzards (but not golden eagles, which can be a useful tip when in the Scottish Highlands!), ospreys - and short-toed eagles! This was my first definite sighting of one of the latter and I was impressed by the stillness of the wings while hovering - legs somewhat extended, head forward and down, a very recognisable "stance" - in the air! And, of course, remarkably pale underneath, again rather like an osprey. Despite the strength of the wind buffeting through the col, this one appeared remarkably calm and collected, and two or three times dived for prey.
But I was not the only one out-and-about this windy weekend - here Lesley takes up the story!
When you have dogs you go out in all weathers. My two usually have their noses stuck to the ground or in bushes. As for me, even though the paths that wind through the hills are stony and uneven, I’m paying little attention to where I’m putting my feet (which can have unfortunate consequences). I’m scanning the sky, looking for movement, for interesting or unfamiliar silhouettes.
Windy days often herald some excitement. This last tramontane brought me, as it did Robin, short-toed eagles. A pair, flying together, low overhead. They’re quite vocal at this time of year and often I hear them before seeing them. Their plaintive cry is more two-tone, or two-syllable, than that of the buzzard. A bit like a seagull gone wrong!
Encouraged by that sighting, I later sat in the garden, binoculars poised, waiting to see what passed by. Normally when I do that everything goes to ground immediately. But this time I was rewarded with a pale form booted eagle. I'd given up on seeing these until Robin spotted a couple in the Vallespir last year. Since then I’ve been more actively on the look-out and have seen a couple. This one didn't hang around, quickly carried out of sight by the north-westerly.
Later that same weekend, the gale still blowing hard, I drove into Spain. Several large somethings were circling above the péage at the small border town-cum-truck-stop La Jonquera. The birds looked so big I wondered if they might be vultures but I reluctantly had to focus on the road (a motorway in my case) and collect my ticket at the toll. Perhaps I completely misjudged their height - it can be so hard to judge perspective - and they were kites, or common buzzards. Perhaps I just had vultures on my mind as I was excited about a forthcoming trip with Robin into Canigou country, where griffons often soar.
And that's a story for another day.