UEA Lammergeier tour 1984

UEA Lammergeier Tour 1984

UEA Lammergeier tour 1984

UEA Lammergeier tour t-shirt 1984

It was early April 1984. We drove through France and as we approached the south it was just a little bit like travelling in time. In Britain it was still cold and grey, but in France we saw pink blossoming trees, we heard Chiffchaffs and then screeched to a roadside halt and, paying little heed to the angry shouts of French motorists, we watched a flock of migrating Black Kites heading north.

We reached the Spanish border in the Pyrenees and once past the intimidating border control guards we had a whole new playground full of wonders to explore. John spotted the first Egyptian Vulture from the van, virtually quoting the text from his new Lars Johnson identification guide to convince us that that indeed was what he had seen.

There are blank pages my memory has jumped, but I do remember that we saw a Lammergeier at Riglos, and also at San Juan de la Peña, and that my impression was that we had most of the vast and stunning countryside to ourselves. Why can’t I remember where the first Lammergeier was? Never mind… I have other things to consider, like, what did the Lammergeier mean to me then, and what does it mean now?

For one thing, nowadays I no longer see nor expect to see Lammergeier at Riglos nor, sadly, do I at San Juan de la Peña. That’s a shame, because Riglos and San Juan de la Peña are the most marvellous backdrops to a marvellous bird. It’s a powerful combination. It’s an explosive cocktail, shaken or stirred. Birders have the ability to make a place “theirs” through the memories of the birds they have seen there at some time in their own past. The bird and the place, or the combination of the two, become uniquely personalised. “This is where I saw my first Lammergeier, on a sunny morning in early spring, when the snow still capped the mountains on the horizon”; or “this is where I was a 20 year old on his first ever foreign birding trip – there were so many marvellous things to see and to share with my travel mates, who were just as impressionable as I was”.

I have to say that I remember San Juan de la Peña more for the Short-toed Eagles than the Lammergeier. As we watched them grappling talons and plummeting head over heels towards the valley floor way below it was the feeling of spring; the fresh sap rising through our veins, warming our extremities to our finger tips and stimulating parts of us we didn’t know could be stimulated until that moment (eh, think clean!).

I can be saddened by the loss of that youth if I let it happen; melancholy lingers in the trail of the Lammergeiers where I first saw them almost 40 years ago; there are too many thoughts and impulses which can blemish my memory of those moments. But change is inevitable. Accept that, and also accept that you have an ambitious vision, and very limited means. Don’t be disappointed by that; that’s a fact of life. Instead take heart that you still have something to live for, because living means struggling for something better, always something better. For you, for the birds, for anyone who cares.

Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus

Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus. Photo by Chris Schenk

Thankfully, the Lammergeier still thrives in these mountains, in other places maybe, but the bird which lives and flourishes in silence is still here. And now, thanks to the years that have passed, I know where to find another Lammergeier or two when I really need to.

UEA Lammergeier tour 1984

UEA Lammergeier tour t-shirt 1984

Wallcreeper wanderings

So, you want to see a Wallcreeper, eh?

The pressure is on again: will we see the Wallcreeper at the first attempt, at the first location? If not, how much time should we allocate to searching for it at the first site? Can we get there before the rock climbers take over? Then, when we decide to search another area, how long will it take to get there? What if that fails too? Can we get a third site in on the same day?
As a bird guide the pressure is always on before you see the bird that people really want to see. And the bird that people most often want to see is the Wallcreeper. Apart from that, there’s another affliction that’s endemic to looking for this bird: Wallcreeper neck. If you want to know how that feels trying standing at the base of a vertical cliff and stare upwards, to about 50 metres directly overhead for as long as you can. Then try some more, because you haven’t spotted the bird yet. Tried it? Now you know what Wallcreeper neck is!

Wallcreeper photography

Two fresh candidates for Wallcreeper neck

Over the past two decades I’ve spent many a day exposing myself to the hazards of searching for Wallcreepers which, in addition to the above include keeping one eye out for falling rocks, puffing and scrambling up steep slopes and gazing forlornly at miles and miles of limestone crags stretching across the horizon and wondering how many Wallcreepers there must have been picking their way across them in the time that I have been staring at one single rock face vainly hoping for a flash of those beautiful wings.

Looking for Wallcreepers

That’s a lot of rock!

Some will say that that’s the beauty of birding. You just never know what the birds are going to do, what exactly you’re going to see (or not). Yeah, OK, but for me just being there is like planting the seed which in itself is not deeply satisfying. When the bird suddenly appears though, your flowers have bloomed, and that is the true beauty of birding. You and the Wallcreeper are both there at the same time and the same place because you made a conscious decision to try and get another glimpse of the bird in its world, and the Wallcreeper decided to play along. Magic!

Another Wallcreeper Autumn

Wallcreeper magic

The magic of the Wallcreeper needs little introduction to most European birders. The Wallcreeper clings and flits about vertical walls and rock faces, probing its long downcurved bill into nooks and crannies to fish out insects, arachnids and other small invertebrates that form its diet. The Wallcreeper is a very active little bird, that tumbles and climbs, edges along, flits this way and that, and then with for no apparent reason departs with a fluttery, butterfly flight that takes it around the corner and out of your view. Follow it if you can – you can’t.

Wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria

Wallcreeper on rocks

The Wallcreeper inspires awe and admiration in part because of where it is and what it does to be there, but even so the Wallcreeper wouldn’t be quite the prize that it is without its striking wing markings – those carmine panels and clean white wing spots on a nitid black background – and also, in the relative effort that it takes for the average birder to see one. Wallcreepers don’t grow on trees, and not even on rocks!

In northeast Spain Wallcreepers breed only in the Pyrenees and at altitudes which deter all but the most determined – and fit – to find them. Hence, it is our immense good luck that come the autumn Wallcreepers all but abandon their high mountain haunts and start frequenting places the average birder isn’t so challenged to get to. We have an opportunity to see one, now let’s not waste it!

November is the month I feel most confident about when an eager client approaches me with the request to see a Wallcreeper. Followed by February and March. Why? By November virtually all the Wallcreepers have left their high mountains and descended to rock faces at lower altitudes. To places in the Pre-Pyrenees of Lleida, Huesca and Zaragoza, where they might decide to stay until the food runs out in the depths of winter and it’s time to move on. Then, move on to where? Further south, to another range? Or just around another part of the rock face, somewhere away from prying birders? Either way, the following deep winter period of late December and January corresponds to a time when I find it difficult to predict how reliable the usual wintering sites will be at giving our hungry eyes a feast of the Wallcreeper.

Wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria

wallcreeper on rocks

But November? November has been generous with its Wallcreepers over the years. And this year has been no exception. With Adam and Daniela we saw no fewer than 5 Wallcreepers in two days, with a maximum of four at one site. Then, in mid-December (I know, but I had my doubts) Eirik and I hit the Wallcreeper jackpot again, this time with 3 Wallcreepers at the same site as the November 4.

What’s more, Adam, Daniela and Eirik were all bird photographers, and it’s my personal belief that bird photographers are never happy with what they have got. “Oh, yes, but the light,” “the background could be better”, “too much contrast,” “not close enough,” “too far away” “I was hoping for an adult bird”… and a long etcetera. So if they all went away happy with their Wallcreeper shots we all must have done something right!

WHere the birds are in northeast Spain

Where the birds are in northeast Spain

Check out the itineraries on the Birding In Spain website to see some of the places where you can find the dazzling Wallcreeper. Or go one step further and buy the book “Where the birds are in northeast Spain“. Or go for the ultimate time saver: ask us to lead you to a Wallcreeper or two in person. Fortunately the Wallcreeper still frequents most of the sites described therein. Then stay here for more to follow on this marvellous bird …