Spanish Pyrenees Part 3  –  The Carrion Eaters

Hello and welcome to the latest blog from The Olivia Rose Diaries on January 6th 2023.

We recently took a day out to see one of the local places of interest.  Let me share our experience with you.

‘It seems a weird thing to market as a tourist attraction,’ I said as we followed the winding road deeper and deeper up into the mountains.

‘What’s weird about bird-watching?’ asked Michael.

‘Vultures are hardly in the same category as a robin or a blackbird. And we’re not here to listen to the birdsong, we’re here to watch them feed. On a dead cow, or a dead sheep. Pulling all the innards out and getting covered in blood and gore.’

‘It’s what vultures do. And a blackbird eats worms. It’s all a matter of scale.’

‘Not exactly. What vultures do naturally is to spot a dead carcass on the side of the mountain and go down and clear it up. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a natural process. What happens here is a big truck arrives, full of dead cattle and sheep and goodness knows what else, upends them on some sort of feeding platform and then its a free-for-all. There’s nothing natural about that. Dinner served on a plate. We’re domesticating the wildest of birds and it feels wrong, not to mention excessively grisly.’

‘We don’t have to go if you don’t want to,’ said Michael.

‘Part of me wants to, and part of me doesn’t. We’re nearly there now. I can’t see any birds wheeling about overhead so maybe the truck isn’t coming today.’

We pulled off the road. There were no signs to confirm that this was the spot, or the place to park, but Michael had been for a walk not far from here in the previous week and seen the viewing hut from a distance. A gravel track curved around the contour of the hill and so we locked the van and followed it on foot.

‘Still no sign of any birds,’ said Michael, squinting up at the sky. ‘Looks like we shan’t see anything today.’

After walking along the track for 500 metres we saw a pair of metal gates and behind them a fenced-off area.  Just inside the gates was a large, shallow trough filled with a green-tinged liquid and we guessed that this was a disinfectant trough for the truck. The ground fell steeply away in front of it and then levelled out onto a small stony plateau, which was where the truck would deposit its load, probably tipping the animals out so they could roll down the slope and end up on the flat area. Something caught my eye on the ground in front of the gates, and as we came closer I could see that it was a rib cage, a spine and part of a skull. The rump of the skeleton was partially covered in fur, thick and coarse like that of a wild boar, although I hadn’t heard of wild boar being disposed of in this way. Peering round the side of the fencing we could see the feeding area more clearly. The ground was covered in bones, all shapes and sizes, lying entangled and mixed up so that it was impossible from this distance to work out what animal they had originally come from. There were an awful lot of them.

‘You’d think there would be a smell,’ said Michael. ‘But there’s nothing.’

Now he mentioned it I could see what he meant. Having spent so many years walking round the Welsh hills we knew what death smelt like. The rotting carcasses of dead sheep were not exactly a common site, but they were a part of the landscape, and the foxes and badgers cleaned them up in the same way that the vultures did here. Given the sheer number of  bones piled up on the grass below us, the smell could have been awful, but they were picked meticulously clean, no flesh, no skin, no fleece or cow hide. Just bones.

The track carried on past the gates for another 200 metres to the hut, a small wooden cabin with slotted openings in the front from which to watch the birds, but there seemed little point going to look at it today.

‘Do we want to try again next week?’ asked Michael, sounding subdued.

‘I don’t know. Let’s get out of here. It’s giving me the creeps.’

We walked back towards the car and I was struck by the silence. We were in a remote part of the mountains, with hardly any cars on the roads and no sign of any walkers, not unusual in this part of Spain. It was one of the world’s quiet places and usually I love the silence that comes from being far away from other human beings but something about this emptiness felt sinister, gave me a tingle up my spine, a sense of being watched despite the fact that we were quite alone. I was glad when we reached the car and drove away.

We didn’t see any vultures that day, but we saw them on many other occasions as we drove up narrow gorges and walked beneath sheer cliff faces, circling effortlessly in the sky high above us or sitting on craggy rocks, warming themselves in the sunshine.

Bit hazy but it was a grey day and taken on zoom lens.

Although there are several different species of vulture that breed in this region, it is the Griffon vulture that is the most regularly seen. One of the largest flying birds on Earth it has a wing span of up to 2.6 metres and incredibly powerful eyesight, able to spot a carcass from several kilometres away. They are scavengers, with a strong hooked beak for ripping and pulling a carcass apart, but their talons are weak, not designed to cause injury or death and so they are not killers, although there are reports of them taking young, sickly calves or lambs when food becomes scarce. Their digestive systems are extremely acidic allowing them to eat rotten meat without any ill effects.

Michael’s drawing of a Griffon vulture.

The other vulture that might be seen, although less commonly, is the Bearded vulture, slightly larger than the Griffon. It feeds on bone marrow and has earnt the nickname of ‘The Bone-breaker’ due to the habit of flying up high with the bone in its talons, and then dropping it onto rocks where it shatters, giving the bird easier access to the marrow. We found a bone lying on the rough ground immediately in front of the house during our stay here.

It was big enough that it could only have come from the leg of a cow. I had a hankering to see a Bearded vulture, not just because they are rare but also because it seemed more of a colourful bird, quite handsome in its way, but even though I scoured the skies each day after spotting the bone, the Bone-breaker remained as elusive as ever.

The first impression of these birds is that they are incredibly ugly, but when you start to look more closely, the ugliness fades and they become fascinating. I can only admire how evolution has produced a creature so perfectly equipped for the job that it does.

A close -up drawing. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

We never did go back to the feeding station. It was enough to watch them wheeling above the mountains, powerful wings carrying them effortlessly up on the thermals. A magnificent sight.

Our time here is drawing to an end. We haven’t yet had any snow, the weather unseasonably warm here as it is everywhere else, although we have had some frosty mornings.

These peaks would normally have snow on them.

Looking ahead to the weather forecast for the day we leave, the rain finally arrives and the snow levels are due to come down to 1100 metres. As long as they don’t come down any further we shall be fine.

See you soon!

MJ

8 thoughts on “Spanish Pyrenees Part 3  –  The Carrion Eaters

  1. I agree with you, a somewhat grizzly activity. But is it not the same principle as feeding Red Kites in this country ? I am not sure that either are very pleasant or necessary. Enjoy your trip home.

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    1. Hi Antony. I agree with you. I think there might be a difference in the spectacle in that the kite feeding I have seen feeds the birds with bits of meat rather than whole carcasses, which is a bit less overwhelming I suspect.
      MJ

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  2. Feeding time does sound a bit grisly! I have never seen a vulture in the flesh (as it were…), but then we don’t have them around here. Lots of buzzards and kites, though. Michael is a very accomplished artist.

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  3. It didn’t sound like a place I would like to be either, very gruesome and scary, although I suppose, everything has to survive and they are dead animals they are fed on! They have to go somewhere to be disposed of ….. Like everyone else, Michael’s drawings are absolutely lovely. He should enter a competition and he surely has talent. Enjoy your trip back to Le Shack, and take care.

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