Monday, 11 March 2013

Spring in the Pyrenean Foothills

While the snow is metres deep in the high Pyrenees in the foothills the almonds are in blossom and the sun gives a blissful feeling of warmth and well being. The Mallos de Riglos pinnacles in the background are the nesting site of hundreds of Griffon Vultures whose chicks will soon be hatching. Roll on the spring!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Improbable Ladies Slipper Orchid

The amazing Ladies Slipper Orchid Cypripedum calceolus is in bloom (Usually the first half of June but later this year due to a cold snap in May) in the Tena Valley near Sallent de Gallego.   This site, one of three in the Pyrenees,was first discovered in the 1980´s by a french school teacher who glimpsed them from a bus while on a school trip!

On our nature trips in June we always go for a look at this super rare and flamboyant orchid. 

All that show is designed for pollination.   Bees  of the Andrena family are attracted to the flower.  They perch on the edge of the the big yellow sac and slip into it.  Once inside they can´t exit the way they have arrived as the inside of the sac is slippery and has an overhang preventing exit.  However the flower has a translucent ´window´ which the bee heads for, climbing up some hairs and into a narrow tunnel where it picks up and/or deposits pollen on the orchid´s pollen sacs. Then the bee squeezes out of the tunnel and flies away.  A complex process!  For a great explanation of how Ladies Slipper pollination happens see the excellent blog 

The Ladies Slipper also replicates itself vegetatively and at Sallent there are many plants over quite a large area.  It takes about 9 years from when the plant first emerges to when it first flowers.  The orchid lives about 30 years though they can live much longer.  There is an example in Estonia that is over 190 years old.

The site is guarded during flowering season.  In the valley are found many more orchids and higher up towards the Portalet pass the alpine flowers are magnificent and easy to see near the road.  The geology of the area - metamorhic transition zone between limestone and granite favours a big diversity of flower species.  There are some great hiking routes in the valley once you get away from the ugly Formigal ski resort.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Marmots in the Pyrenees

Marmot, Hecho Valley
Last week out walking with a group I was lucky to get close enough to a Marmot for a decent photo.  We see them very often but usually in the Pyrenees they are very wary and shoot down their burrow at any sign of danger.  This is unlike some places in the Alps where they are practically tame.

Marmota marmota - The Alpine marmot, is Europe´s biggest rodent and was present in the Pyrenees until about 10,000 years ago when the end of the ice age and temperature increases wiped them out.  This could also have been exacerbated by hunting by an increasing human population which moved in as the glaciers retreated.  Marmots were re-introduced on the French side of the Pyrenees from 1955 as a way of increasing prey for Golden eagles.  Since then they have spread over both sides of the range and, year by year, you can observe new colonies being established.  For more info on the spread of Marmots in the Spanish Pyrenees see:   .

The animals live in family groups with the young staying for two or three years after birth before moving away.  Their ideal habitat is mountain pasture at between 1400 and 2900 metres usually with rocks under which they dig their burrows and hide from predators.   They eat grasses and herbs and, during the winter, hibernate and reproduce in their burrows, occasionally emerging - sometimes in winter when we are out ski touring or snow shoeing we see tracks around their burrows.

Marmots are an important prey of Golden eagles and foxes and when a group of Marmots is grazing there is always one animal on guard duty - usually standing on top of a rock - looking out for danger.  At the first sign of danger it will give a high pitched call to warn the family.  The greater, or more imminent the danger, the louder and more intense the calls.

The Greek historian Herodotus (circa 484 - 425 B.C)  told of gold digging ants in the Himalayas.  This ´legend´ could have been based on fact. On the India Pakistan border the closely related Himalayan Marmot´s burrow digging reveals dark soil sometimes containing gold dust.  Local tribal peoples apparently still collect the gold.  See an article on this at :

On a more sinister note the Marmot could have been (and still be) the primary carrier of Bubonic plague which killed over 25% of the Eurasian population in the 14th Century.  They, like other rodents, carry the Yersinia bacteria responsible for the plague which is transmitted to humans and other mammals by flea bites.  Bubonic plague was spread by Bobak Marmots in Siberia in 1910.  Marmot pelts were in high demand and hunters caught and spread the disease which killed 60,000 people in Siberia and Manchuria.  See:

In 2010 a chinese man died of the plague after eating an infected marmot. see:

Probably best not to eat Marmot!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Timeless Jobs - De Vecinal

Every year people who use the village irrigation system get together de vecinal (communal job) to clean the ditches before water is channeled into them. In teams of two or three, one person cuts the grass, brambles etc and one or two others rake up and remove the debris so it doesn´t block the channels. Gravel and sand is also shovelled away so it doesn´t cause an obstruction.

In the ditch
We have to construct a small dam to channel water into the acequia (irrigation channel) - If only we could have a permanent structure! Unfortunately the river authority isn´t keen to let us. One day...
A hot discussion topic on the job is always the people who use the irrigation but won´t pay/work their quota for upkeep of the system.
Today it was hot sweaty and dusty, but it´s fun to be out with the ´old boys´. - At nearly 50 I´m the youngest!
Now at last I can irrigate my veg garden rather than water by hand. watch this space...........

Checking the ´´dam´´


Friday, 15 June 2012

Green Lizard Hecho Valley

Green Lizard
I´ve just finished guiding a nature photography trip for Naturetrek here in the Pyrenees.  We found   this beautiful European Green lizard (Lacerta viridis) - the second largest of the Iberian lizards after 
the Ocellated Lizard found at slightly lower altitudes.  This one was seen at 1100 metres.  As the sun hadn´t been up for long it was still sluggish and allowed me to get close enough for a decent photo.

Ocellated Lizard.  Photo by Josemi
For more pics and info see my colleague, photography teacher, Sergio Padura´s page at: and Naturetrek´s page at:

On this tour we stay at the wonderful Casa Sarasa in Berdun.  See:

Magical Places in the Foothills #1

On a walking trip recently in the Foothills we descended a rocky gully into a river gorge and came  
  upon this cave cut into the cliff by the river.  An amazing spot - blue green water reflecting             
  patterns   onto the honey coloured rocks.  Above us Griffon vultures soared and Nightingales            sang in the  undergrowth.  A magical moment in a wonderful week.

20,000 years ago these Foothill canyons were inhabited by early man who hunted deer and horses and found refuge in the many cave shelters around.  You can still see paintings in some of them.   More info on our tailor made trips at

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Good Year for the Poppies - apologies to Elvis Costello

Poppies Berdún.  Bisaurin (2670 metres) in the backround
This Spring there have been more poppies in the Barley fields than for years.  Farmers sprayed to control them.  This year with costs going through the roof - fuel, herbicides, fertilisers (any fossil fuel based product) they have chosen to save money and not spray against poppies - I imagine the tiny seeds don´t seriously contaminate the grain which around here mostly goes for animal feed and brewing.
Anyway, the economic recession -25% unemployed and counting here in Spain- may have some positive environmental benefits!
Good to return to the blog again! 

Monday, 19 January 2009

Best Snow Ever!

Just finished a week guiding, back country skiing, snow shoeing and winter mountaineering with a lovely journalist from Wyoming. We had the best snow ever and great weather except a blizzard high on the Col de Foraton which made things interesting on Tuesday afternoon.
The snow is deep powder and back country skiing in the valleys is pure bliss!

In the picture skiing along the cross country track at Linza in the Ansó Valley. The mini Matterhorn in the background is called Txamantxoia. The border between Aragón and Navarra is just on the ridge.
The ski circuit is being run by a new company - Talon Libre (free heel)- who keep the pistes perfectly groomed and rent out high quality equipment. The day we went there were only two other skiers but I hope they get more clientele as the word gets round that Linza is one of the best XC ski circuits in Alto Aragón.

Las Esquilas de San Antón

The Evening before San Antón (17 Jan). The men of Ansó turn out in force each with a big goat bell - called an esquila- and process around the narrow streets of Ansó banging/ringing the bells. The effect of 30 plus bells clanging in unison is surprisingly moving and it feels like a pagan ceremony - in fact people say that the tradition goes back to pre Christian times. Perhaps it was seen as a defiance of deepest winter and a call for the days to get longer.
In the photo (no flash so a bit blurry) are Jose Amezua and Antonio of the wonderful Mendiara bakers ringing their bells.
We´re having a hard winter - very cold but with the best snow there has been in my 15 years in the valleys.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Lammergeier - Bone breaker of the Pyrenees

Out ski touring up towards the French border on Saturday when this majestic Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) circled above us on its regular patrol around these hills in the Hecho Valley.

This bird and its mate nest around the Acherito Valley and can nearly always be seen here if we are out walking or skiing. They have a massive 2.6 metre wingspan. Their main food is bones from dead animals which they break by dropping them on rocks from a height and then eating the pieces. Their Spanish name - Quebrantahuesos means bone breaker.

As you can see from the picture we had a magnificent day. No cloud and freezing temperatures. Snow is predicted for the next few days. So far it´s being one of the best winter seasons ever.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Grass Snake

Saw this grass snake - Natrix natrix - in the Selva de Oza here in the Hecho Valley on July 1st 2008. It felt threatened when I took the photo and puffed itself up to look more menacing. Even though I know they are completely harmless I didn´t want to get too close!
Their scientific name Natrix natrix refers to their excellent swimming ability. Their main prey are frogs, other small reptiles and small fish. The valley here with its healthy river and mountain streams is an ideal habitat for them.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Los Chotos in Sandiniés

Sandiniés is one of our favourite villages to play. They call us to entertain at their fiestas every August. It´s the most authentic village in the Valle de Tena as it has escaped the worst of the building boom which has spoiled most local villages.
From left to right: Enrique vocals and acordion, Sylvia percussion, Lulu percussion, Bolis vocals and guitarrico (ukelele), Kike vocals and squeezebox and Richard mandolin.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Kitchen Boys

Montxo and David, two of the Kitchen Boys, the hottest country band in Alto Aragón!

Griffon Vulture

Snapped this Griffon (Gyps fulvus) as it came over the village. The Griffon lives in the Pyrenees all year round nesting on South facing cliffs and eating carrion. They depend on traditional hill farming for much of their food - cows and sheep which die on mountain pastures.
Winter is a hard time for them with freezing temperatures (it can drop to minus 30 degrees where they nest) and not much food available. Amazingly they can live more than 100 years.

Los Fastuosos New Album!

Los Fastuosos de La Ribera have a new LP out.
R&B, Country & Allman Brothers style rock from these Bilbao phenomenons.
Playing country style acoustic gig on 28th December too. Watch this space!