Dr Duncan James > Nature Travel Guide > Where > Planet Earth > Europe > France > Gavarnie

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Nature Travel Guide

Location 1: Gavarnie (France)

"Glacial cirques, birds of prey, butterflies and flowers."

I recommend the Butterfly Bingo (premium link) activity.

My favourite site is the Val d'Ossoue (premium link). I think the glacial geology is spectacular throughout Gavarnie, such as is found at Cirque de Troumouse (premium link), Cirque de Gavarnie (premium link) and Breche de Roland (premium link).

Gavarnie is a valley in the centre of the Pyrenees mountains in the south of France. It is one of my favourite places to go wildlife watching in the whole world: it has large numbers of birds, flowers and butterflies in incredible scenery. Unless otherwise stated I am talking about a visit in the summer. In the winter it is very snowy and there is not so much wildlife to be seen.

Early summer is a good time to visit because the flower meadows are close to their best, it avoids the heat of July/August and there are fewer general tourists disturbing sensitive wildlife. However, later in the summer if you select higher-elevation sites to visit it can still be amazing and I strongly recommend Gavarnie if you are trying to find a wildlife holiday for the European summer holidays.

On a typical day you might see Bearded Vulture, Golden Eagle and Peregrine Falcons fly overhead, marmots and izard on the slopes and incredible numbers of flowers and butterflies in the meadows and by the rivers. The tourist infrastructure is good and the roads go very high into the mountains to make exploring generally easier compared to other mountain ranges such as the Alps.

  • The Cirque de Gavarnie (site 1) (premium link) is a major tourist attraction with a glacial bowl 1.5km high and some great wildlife too. Sensitive wildlife can be disturbed by the visitors meaning there is sometimes less to see at this site. (GPS coords 42.7352N 00.0103W)
  • The Cirque de Troumouse (site 2) (premium link) is much wider than the Cirque de Gavarnie but not as high. This site can be described as one giant flower meadow that is kilometres across and surrounded by cliffs towering into the sky. Wow! The drive to get here can be a bit hairy. (GPS coords 42.7281N 00.0962E)
  • At the Breche de Roland (site 3) (premium link) the road goes high into the mountains. It is a good opportunity for non-hikers to experience higher elevations. (GPS coords 42.7138N 00.0511E)
  • Possibly the premier destination in the Gavarnie valley is the Val d'Ossoue (site 4) (premium link). I have seen incredible amounts of wildlife throughout the valley. Early mornings can reward you with closer views of mammals such as Pyrenean Izard. (GPS coords 42.7408N 00.0151W)
  • On the way to the Cirque de Troumouse, the Lac des Gloriettes (site 5) is a great place to go for a walk. Stop at the car park and take the path around the west of the lake and then south up into the mountains. There are displays of iris across the flower meadows as the summer progresses. By going far enough up into the mountains, others have told me they have found the flower Edelweiss. (GPS coords 42.7514N 00.0518E)
  • The Plateau de Saugue (site 6) (premium link) is a flower meadow high above the Gavarnie valley. (GPS coords 42.7440N 00.0235W)
  • Pragneres Valley Walk (site 7) heads east from the main road up a valley, eventually reaching mountain views. I have done this a few times and enjoyed it as a contrast. However, it is a long walk and I would not recommend it if you have limited time as other sites have more of the wildlife characteristic of the Gavarnie valley. The start of the walk can be tricky to find. (GPS coords 42.8204N 00.0010E)
  • Lienz (site 8) (premium link) has a wide variety of habitat including woodland, river, meadow and mountains. It is quite heavily grazed but still offers some of the best wildlife watching at Gavarnie. (GPS coords 42.8945N 00.0790E)
  • Col du Tourmalet (site 9) has rarer high mountain birds such as Snowfinch to be found around the ski resorts! Brave drivers only are recommended to go up here. This is also famous due to its mountainous views and because it is one of the most difficult climbs in the Tour de France cycle race. (GPS coords 42.9102N 00.1723E)
  • The Luz Butterfly Walk (site 10) (premium link) describes one of the best spots in Gavarnie that I have found for butterflies. I have enjoyed exploring the hillside above Luz for flowers and butterflies throughout the summer. (GPS coords 42.8753N 00.0063E)
  • The Gavarnie Side Path (site 11) (premium link) is the route that I used to take my customers on when I worked as a wildlife guide here. It avoids the crowds and gives some alternative views. After ending up at the same, fantastic view of the cirque you can then join the crowds on the standard route on the way back for a circular walk and a smug feeling. (GPS coords 42.7323N 00.0106E)
  • If you are staying in Luz you may just want to go shopping if you have some time in town. However, the Luz Town Walk (site 12) (premium link) is a walk I used to share with my customers to see some good flowers, butterflies and birds whilst getting to know the land right around Luz. (GPS coords 42.8835N 00.0141E)
  • I have included the Ossoue Aire (site 13) (premium link) as a site because you may stay at this aire in a campervan/motorhome or stay at the large hikers mountain chalet. It is a good base for visiting many nearby sites on foot. (GPS coords 42.7386N 00.0197E)
  • I have spent many summer days enjoying butterfly identification in the Val de Gavarnie (premium link).
  • When I am doing flower identification in the Val de Gavarnie (premium link) I mainly look for families and only a few key individual species to give time for other wildlife watching as well.
  • Birds of prey, woodland birds and open-habitat birds are on the list of birds that I saw in 4 days at Gavarnie in summer (premium link).
  • There were 22 species of butterflies that I saw in 7 days at Gavarnie in summer (premium link) despite also doing plenty of other activities during the week.

This is a typical view from Col du Tourmalet on a clear day.

Birdwatching in the Val de Gavarnie

The birds I most commonly saw on a 4 day trip to the Val de Gavarnie in late summer 2014 were:- Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) 23x4 (m20), Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) 13x2 (m5), Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) 10x2 (m3), Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) 8x2 (m2), Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) 7x2 (m3), Jay (Garrulus glandarius) 7x2 (m2), House Martin (Delichon urbicum) 6x7 (m15), Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) 6x3 (m8), Swift (Apus apus) 5x6 (m20), Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) 5x1 (m1), Coal Tit (Parus ater) 5x2 (m3), Lammergeier/Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) 4x2 (m2), Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) 4x2 (m3), Great Tit (Parus major) 4x2 (m2), Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) 4x2 (m2), Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) 4x3 (m4), Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus) 3x1 (m1), Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta) 3x11 (m30), Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) 3x1 (m1), Robin (Erithacus rubecula) 3x1 (m1), Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) 3x1 (m1), Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) 3x5 (m8), Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) 3x1 (m1).

For me, the highlight of the fantastic birdwatching are the birds of prey including Golden Eagle and vultures. If you have good binoculars or a telescope I recommend that you keep looking up every few minutes. One of the easiest birds to see are the Griffon Vultures: if the weather is good and you look at a random point on the horizon it can be amazing how often you see them gliding in the sky.

If you have a telescope it can be worth scanning the rock faces for Wallcreeper. I met another local guide who would do this every lunch stop and regularly find one. I never had that much luck with this method, perhaps because I am really into seeing butterflies which are often a distraction during a lunch break.

Choughs often fly too high to easily identify. If you can get used to the slight difference in profile between the Chough and the Alpine Chough (I find the fan-shaped tail of the Alpine Chough is very distinctive) then identification can be easy at all distances. Towards the end of the summer the local population of warblers is boosted by migrants. I often see small brown birds such as pipits, larks and finches which I cannot identify. The Pied Flycatcher is very common in autumn.

Mammal Watching in the Val de Gavarnie

A close view of a marmot I enjoyed near Breche de Roland.

During a typical one week trip I think you can expect to see izard (also known as chamois) once or twice (although if you get up early and/or look up onto the higher grass with binoculars or a telescope regularly you can see more). I have had the most luck in three places: Val d'Ossoue earlier in the morning; the slopes above the route to the Cirque de Gavarnie and; at the Cirque de Troumouse earlier in the summer season.

Marmots are a fun mammal to see. Being so large gives them plenty of fur and fat reserves to survive the hibernation through the very long winter in tunnels under the snow. They are only found at higher elevations and I regularly see them at Cirque de Troumouse, Plateau de Saugue, Val d'Ossoue, Cirque de Gavarnie (although there is a lot of disturbance from tourists) and Breche de Roland. If I visit one of these higher elevations during the summer I usually see a small group of marmots at least 2 or 3 times a day. I listen out for their whistling alarm call and then stop to look for them. Alternatively, if you are in a rocky area with good grass I recommend looking around on the grass and on the tops of rocks to see if you can spot one. The most reliable places I have found over the years are the start of the Val d'Ossoue and the road up to the Breche de Roland.

Other Wildlife in the Val de Gavarnie

The Scarce Swallowtail is one of many species of butterfly that can be seen in the Gavarnie valley throughout the summer.

I have seen lots of grasshoppers in this valley. Perhaps the large amount of unimproved grassland helps with this. I love trying to spot them in the grass and then watch them singing as they rub their wings/legs together. On a rare occasion I manage to focus my telescope close (to maybe 7m) and get an incredible view of one singing.

Amphibians are a feature of the wildlife at Gavarnie. An endemic species to look out for is Pyrenean Brook Newt - I once saw a female that correctly showed a broken yellow line along its back. A nocturnal walk (perhaps even waiting until well after it gets dark) in a damp area, such as near a river, will often produce 20 or more frogs and toads of different species. A good book I have found if you want to identify them is "Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe (Collins Field Guide)" by Nicholas Arnold and Denys Ovenden.

This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on October 19th 2018.

Larger-scale information relating to this page include the Planet Earth, Europe and France articles.

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