Wonderful Wildlife in the Hautes Pyrenees
This blog is about a short tour to the Haute Pyrenees in July 2019 to enjoy great weather, food and above all fantastic wildlife in stunning scenery. The sites around Gedre are my idea of paradise!
The area around Gedre, with meadows full of wildlife!
After the short flight to Toulouse, pick up the hire car and drive into the Pyrenees we checked in to our accommodation, hit the restaurant and enjoyed a cool beer on a warm summers evening, despite being over 1000m up already. The start of the wildlife tour was delayed the next day however as Le Tour was passing through Luz St Sauveur and as a keen cyclist going and watching the crazing caravan and then the peleton before it hit Le Col de Tourmalet was a must.
The crazy caravan of Le Tour de France!
That said, as we stood by the side of the road enjoying the great atmosphere of the build up whilst the kids excitedly gathered up freebies from the caravan floats, Griffon Vultures passed overhead and at one point we had our first Lammergeyer, albeit rather high up as you can see from the lousy picture!
It’s a Lammergeyer, promise!
I must have been one of the few onlookers though who was scannng a nearby tree and buddleia bushes! On the latter, Scarce Swallowtail, Swallowtail, Silver-washed Fritillary and Clouded Yellow were all keeping me amused, but I’d seen an unusual large butterfly whizz passed me that could only have been the orangey form of Lesser Purple Emperor.
A Scarce Swallowtail by the roadside whilst watching Le Tour
Frustratingly in the super warm conditions, the super charged butterflies were not hanging around, but standing for over 2 hours at the same spot proved perfect when I noticed another orangey butterfly up in the tree, and yes it was a stunning Lesser Purple Emperor (form clytie), made more stunning by the fact that it was buzzed by one of the more normal purple form (ilia) and then scanning through the tree, I counted no less than 10 or 12 Lesser Purple Emperors. It appeared I’d found a master tree. What an amazing start to the trip!
A Lesser Purple Emperor, high up in a tree as down below 170 cyclists whizzed past.
The following day I went for a 6 h gentle walk around the back roads and paths between Gedre and Lac de Gloriettes, including the lovely Les Moulins water mills. Crag Martins, Serin and a couple of Red-backed Shrikes were nice to see, as were more Griffon Vultures and again a Lammergeyer overhead, Butterflies were stunning, lots of Apollo, amazingly another clytie Lesser Purple Emperor, Scarce Copper, Ilex Hairstreak, a single Geranium Argus feeding on Thyme flowers, which was my first one in this part of the Pyrenees, Lesser Marbled and two Marbled Fritillary along with Weaver’s, False Heath, Spotted, Meadow and Southern Heath Fritillaries, Escher’s and Turquoise Blues, a few Pyrgus skippers (Large Grizzled, Olive and Oberthur’s) and a few Erebia ringlets including a single Bright-eyed and many Piedmont Ringlets were seen. A few Black-veined White seen but these were quite worn out suggesting an earlier emergence compared to last year.
A stunning male Scarce Copper
Highlight of the day though was a stunning male Purple Emperor which flew up from the path and landed on my shorts sipping salts from me for about 15 minutes. I even managed to sit down and let it crawl over me, but photographs were hard as it was too close! A superb experience to add to the 50 butterfly species on the list already. A well-earned beer or several in the garden later that afternoon whilst a Melodious Warbler sang from a fir tree no more than 20 feet away, Black Redstarts busied themselves feeding their young and the ever present vultures soared overhead. I even had another Purple Emperor fly past! I do like it here!
This male Purple Emperor sat on my leg for about 15 minutes but was so close photography was tricky!
My favourite site in the area is Val d’Oussoue. This long valley has some really wonderful hotspots for butterflies, as well as being one of the best places to see Alpine Marmots and get close prolonged views of Lammergeyer. The mountain stream also provides the chance for one of nature’s stunning sites, puddling butterflies. A mixture of blues, skippers, fritillaries and more of largely male butterflies coming down to sip salts from the damp ground makes for a kaleidoscope of colour that I could watch for hours whilst still finding new species in amongst them.
Puddling butterflies; the colours when they fly up are simply stunning.
The valley also has some local and rare species, including the much sought after Gavarnie Blue and similar Glandon Blue. We spent 3 days slowly exploring the valley over the duration of our stay last year and each visit saw a wealth of wildlife in perhaps one of the most peaceful and stunningly beautiful valleys I’ve ever been to.
The rare and local Gavarnie Blue
Glandon Blues taking salts from a rough track puddle
In contrast, the Col de Tourmalet is rather busier, being a huge attraction for cyclists and walkers alike. The scenery is stunning, but it’s too busy for me near the top and on the walk to the famous observatory, so I explore the mid altitude slopes for some target species. Pyrenees Brassy Ringlet, Gavarnie Ringlet and Shepherd’s Fritillary can be found fairly easily along with many of the species mentioned above. We had a few Mountain Clouded Yellows but they weren’t stopping for the camera. Again vultures are everywhere and Snow Finch are very tame around the cafe at the col itself.
Pyrenees Brassy Ringlet, a target species endemic to the Pyrenees
The most civilised walk in some of the most stunning scenery has to be from the Lac de Gloriettes to the Cirque d’Estaube. For one thing the buvette near the man-made lake has amazing crepes and lovely local cider! But it’s great for wildlife as once you get away from the car park its lovely and peaceful. Alpine Marmots are quite tame and the occasional Egyptian Vulture turns up amongst the Griffons. I had a Lammergeyer emerge from low cloud about 20 feet from me as it soared effortlessly away down the valley. Then the sun burnt trough and the butterflies came out. Plenty of Apollo, Southern Heath, Spotted and Meadow Fritillary, Gavarnie Ringlet and constans Yellow-Spotted and Western Brassy Ringlets. Alpine Accentors showed well, with adults feeding young and a nice male sat out in the open and preened. The usual Alpine Chough and Griffon Vultures seen and the Marmots showed well again including a super cute youngster that looked fresh out of its burrow. Some pure white Marsh Fragrant Orchids were nice to see and the plentiful Alpine Marsh Orchid. Nearby Dark Red Helleborine grew by the roadside. An unexpected find was a Melodious Warbler in a bush on the slope above the lake. We went on a mystery walk to an invisible lake that didn’t exist as well due to some rather dodgy sign reading!
The buvette at Lac de Gloriettes, a family favourite for crepes and cider!
So cute! A young Alpine Marmot
Alpine March Orchid
Marsh Fragrant Orchid
The Col de Tentes and Col de Boucharo on the Spanish border are favourite walks for the amazing scenery. Last year I found a small colony of the rare and very local False Dewy Ringlet, but this year views were too poor to be sure as when I was at the site it was simply roasting and butterflies were patrolling males super-charged by the sunshine. The views here are stunning, especially the panorama over the border in Spain where I walked looking for more ringlets and fritillaries. Lefebvre’s Ringlet showed eventually, with Piedmont, Mountain and a few Gavarnie Ringlets. A female Mountain Clouded Yellow was found egg laying. Apollo were numerous. Just in to Spain Pyrenees Brassy Ringlets were found as well as Shepherd’s Fritillary. A couple of Glandon Blue were seen puddling with Eros Blue. Alpine Chough, Griffon Vultures and Alpine Marmots all seen well, the latter endeavouring to scare the heck out of me when one jumped up calling just below me on the steep scree! On the decent we found some Creeping Lady’s Tresses orchids tucked in under scrub.
Spain, from the Port de Boucharo, where Pyrenees Brassy Ringlet, Gavarnie Ringlet, Glandon Blue, Alpine Accentor and Wallcreeper were seen.
Egg-laying Mountain Clouded Yellow
The final site to mention here that we returned to in 2019, is the Val de Bue. This simply gorgeous valley was our discovery on our very last day in 2018 and we looked forward to walking it properly. On the drive up, we had a Purple Emperor by the roadside and later we found another on an old disused farm building. But wow it was a hot day and we didn’t make the whole route on our first visit. The valley was teeming with butterflies; on one area of rocky scree there were 30+ Apollo gliding around with plenty of Spotted Fritillary, Clouded Yellows, Bath Whites and much, much more. Shepherd’s Fritillary, Scarce and Purple Shot Coppers, lots of the usual blues, skippers and fritillaries seen. We stopped on our decent by a small stream and I walked up a small heavily wooded scree that was grassy and damp, very unlike the open rocky scree inhabited by the Apollo further up. Here we had a highlight of one, possibly two, Clouded Apollo gliding over the grassy area right up to where I stood, before turning sharply away, seemingly far more timid than the larger Apollo of earlier. Back at the car, puddling blues, with 20+ Amanda’s Blue, and skippers was a nice end to the walk. This has become a real favourite site for us, being very peaceful and so full of nature and with simply gorgeous views.
Amanda’s and Mazarine Blues in Val de Bue
In ten days we saw so many wonderful species of birds, orchids and other wildlife including Salamanders, the very cute marmots, and an amazing total of 93 species of butterfly. Combined with the scenery, food, wine, beer, cider and feeling of escape, it’s one of our favourite places to travel to. If you have got any comments or feedback about this trip, please do reply/get in touch. We’ll be there again in July 2020, so get in touch if you’d like to join us for one or two days.
The Vale de Bue with its cascade is one of our top favourite sites now.