Vulture culture in the Spanish Pyrenees
High up in the mountains, the wildlife is as majestic and powerful as the scenery, says Mike Unwin
Mike Unwin has written for The Independent since 2008. He has a particular interest in wildlife and family travel and specialises in Sub-Saharan Africa, although has covered destinations as diverse as Cuba, Indonesia, Turkey and the Falkland Islands. Mike previously worked in publishing and is the author of 23 books, including children's books, wildlife guides and travel guides.
Friday 30 May 2014
“Clackety-clack!” The noise rings out hard and hollow across the gulley. Hooves perhaps? A rockfall? I scan the skyline for a clue before a shadow slipping over the scree opposite gives the game away. A large bird wheels into sunlight, flashing silver against the dark cliffs behind. No mistaking that angled silhouette: it’s a bearded vulture. In Spanish, quebrantahuesos: “the breaker of bones”.
I’m halfway up Montañesa, an imposing limestone buttress that rears like the crown of a 2,200m fedora above the scorching, scrubby foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. My companions – family and friends – are strung out along the steep trail, grabbing this chance for a quick breather. Biscuits are unwrapped and water bottles swigged as we peer into the shadows of the canyon.
For birdwatchers in the Pyrenees, the bearded vulture is the big one. At a whopping 2.5m across the wings, this is one of the world’s largest raptors. Spain’s 300 or so pairs represent some 75 per cent of the European population. We’re lucky to see one. And that’s not all: the noise we heard suggests that the bird must be up to its party trick. Bearded vultures feed almost exclusively on bone marrow, which they obtain by carrying bones up into the air and dropping them to shatter on the rocks below. This remarkable habit explains their Spanish name. It may even explain the demise of the ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus, reputedly brained when an “eagle” dropped a tortoise on his distinguished pate around 456BC.
We watch as the great bird retrieves its prize from the mountainside then sails up to try again. Through binoculars I can see the piercing amber eye and eponymous facial whiskers (a tuft of black feathers) as it circles back into position. Sure enough, down comes the bone, spinning in a shaft of sunlight before hitting the slope with another echoing clatter. The bird glides down after it and is lost to view.
Montañesa was the first of the Pyrenean peaks to appear on the horizon as we drove north from Zaragoza airport a week ago and it dominates the view from our holiday cottage in the dusty hamlet of Guaso. The mountain has seemed since day one to be issuing a challenge and now, on our last day, we have risen to it. From these boulder-strewn slopes we can appreciate the full grandeur of Ordesa National Park, the mountain wilderness where we’ve spent much of the past week. Far below us, we can spy the red roofs of Aínsa, the medieval mountain town where last night we consumed what now feels like an unwise amount of very fiery tapas.
Aínsa is the gateway to Ordesa and has served us as a convenient base camp. Down beside the river is the supermarket and tourist information office, where we’ve planned routes, topped up water bottles and argued over the most practical forms of cheese to cart up a hot mountainside. But the real heart of the place lies up a steep, cobbled alleyway in the Old Town, where the ancient walls of the Plaza Mayor offer a 360-degree mountain panorama, and the numerous bars provide cool refuge by day and a lively night out beneath the stars.
In one corner of Aínsa’s ramparts we found the excellent little Eco Museum. A life-size model quebrantahuesos stood guard at the entrance and a peek inside attested to the celebrity value of this emblematic raptor, its rakish contours emblazoning everything from a hiking map to a novelty key ring. A video informed us how conservation has helped turn the bird’s fortunes around. Lest we became too complacent, it also explained how the more common griffon vulture is now struggling, with the switch from traditional herding to modern intensive farming – i.e. livestock cooped up in sheds – which means that there’s a dearth of carcasses on the hillsides. The museum maintains a nearby “vulture restaurant”, supplementing the birds’ diet with a weekly donation of heads, hooves, entrails and other off-cuts from local abattoirs.
Aínsa offers a historic rest stop
While vulture restaurants may not be to everyone’s taste, there’s no denying that the griffons cut a dash against this grand landscape; no view is complete without their great square silhouettes drifting over ridge-top and canyon. Of course, the best way to appreciate them – and the park’s other natural riches – is to hit the trail. Our motley party is no crack mountaineering team and the longer routes into the high peaks – some involving thigh-busting ascents, terrifying drops and nights in mountain refuges – are clearly beyond us (and, in any case, end up much too far from the nearest cold cerveza). But on more modest day hikes we have still made it past the treeline to the exhilarating open slopes above. It’s been hard work and not without its grumbles. But the cool breezes higher up are ample reward for the sweaty slog lower down and nothing quite beats a picnic on top of the world.
Furthermore, no two hikes have been the same. In the Añisclo Canyon we tramped in the shadow of forbidding cliffs beside a rushing river, with the jagged 3,355m summit of Monte Perdido looming ahead. In the Valle de Pineta, we zigzagged up through beech forests to alpine meadows carpeted in wildflowers, with a confetti of butterflies – fritillaries, ringlets, swallowtails – dancing over the gentians and irises. On a perfect cattle-cropped picnic knoll beneath the great slab of Castillo Mayor we munched on our bocadillas while chamois filed over a distant scree slope and a golden eagle did the full Tennyson “thunderbolt” from a clear blue sky.
Some trails led us to hamlets – many apparently half-abandoned, except for the odd slumbering dog or dripping pot of geraniums. In a village called Sin, north-east of the park, we sat on a bar terrace swapping unavoidable “How would you fancy living in Sin?” quips, while the bartender swung into action, wiping down tables as though expecting a coach party. Yes, he confirmed, many houses are standing empty. Times are tough in the mountains and young people are heading for the bright lights of Huesca and Zaragoza.
A hard life for the locals, then, but the perfect playground for the visitor in search of nature. Down along the Rio Zinca, which winds north from Aínsa towards the French border at Bielsa, we washed off the mountain dust in bracing, picture-perfect swimming holes then sprawled on sun-warmed rocks and watched the raptors stream over the skyline. Even a rest day back at the villa brought wildlife: Moorish geckos scuttling under eaves, bee-eaters hawking dragonflies over the garden and – as we sat out around the embers of our barbecue watching shooting stars – a family of wild boars grunting and snuffling though the allotment just below our garden wall.
Our week ends on Montañesa, the first mountain we saw. With the picnic consumed – its weight transferred from backpack to stomach – we make the final scramble to the summit. Except this turns out not to be the summit but rather a knife-edge ridge with a sheer drop beyond. A cairn reveals where the trail kinks right towards the real summit. That, we decide, is one cairn too far. I stare out over the vertiginous drop: it is an unholy distance straight down to the first wind-stunted conifers that mark the bottom of the cliff.
As I watch, two griffon vultures glide out below us, their great wings biscuit-coloured in the afternoon sun. Then a slimmer shadow announces another quebrantahuesos. It appears for one moment to size up our little party, exposed as we are like beetles on a rockery, before angling away around a shoulder of mountain. In the event of a tumble, I reflect, eyeing the abyss, at least my bones would go to a good cause.
Aínsa and the nearby Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park can be reached via a three-hour drive from Barcelona, a two-hour drive from Zaragoza, or a three-hour drive from Toulouse in France. It is hard to explore the park without a vehicle. Mike Unwin travelled courtesy of Rhinocarhire.com, which offers a five-door family car for seven days from Barcelona or Zaragoza from around £150.
The FPCQ (Fundacion para la Conservacion del Quebrantahuesos) offers conservation breaks at the Revilla research station inside the park. These help to fund its work with bearded vultures (quebrantahuesos.org).
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