It’s ok to fail – unless you don’t make a habit of it. As everyone knows, third time pays for all – so it took us three attempts to find the endemic lizards of the genus Iberolacerta in the Pyrenees. At our third try in August 2016, these were actually the last three European lizard species on our tick list – this time we simply had to be successful, even more as we were accompanied by the perfect team!
We started our first attempt during a France camping holiday in June 2008: Our target species were the Pyrenees lizards Iberolacerta aurelioi, Iberolacerta bonnali and Iberolacerta aranica. In those days we had no precise information where to find these lizards. Hence we had to rely on literature – a somehow naïve approach, admittedly. First, we wanted to go for Iberolacerta aurelioi which was supposed to occur in the mountains near Auzat... somewhere at Port del Rat, we had learned. So we started our hike before sunrise – the weather was great and we were optimistic, heading towards Port del Rat where we expected to find the lizards basking in the morning sun. Up there, on 2200 m, the rocks were still covered with snow, no lizards at all. After a long frustrating search we gave up.
After that, we had another try in the Southern Pyrenees – in the Spanish Ordesa NP: The next morning we started another sweaty hike in fantastic mountain scenery. Above Circo de Cotatuero we expected to find Iberolacerta bonnali. But we had to realize that the area was full of Podarcis muralis – no Iberolacerta at all. We realized that it would be impossible to find the Pyrenean lizards without precise spots. So we would have to try again in future…
July. Summer. Our second attempt: Düsseldorf – Saint-Lary-Soulain = 1.324 km. After an endless journey on French motorways we reached the Pyrenees in the late afternoon: Here, it was cold and rainy. Anyway, the next morning we tried our luck for Iberolacerta bonnali – this time we had a precise spot at 2000 m altitude, a 100% chance… When we arrived in the habitat, temperatures were below 10 °C, rather cloudy with a few sunny moments. However, some reptiles were active up there: we found Zootoca vivipara, Vipera aspis – and lots of Podarcis muralis. But unfortunately no Iberolacerta. An hour later, the sky was completely covered with clouds and we had to cancel our search. The weather forecast for Saint-Lary-Soulain was lousy. Hence we headed for Val d’Aran (Spain). We found an accommodation in Salardu, our next station, where we hoped to find Iberolacerta aranica the other day.
The next day: In the early morning we started the long hike to the Iberolacerta aranica spot. Unfortunately, after half an hour walk the path was blocked by a cattle of sheep which were guarded by about 10 fierce shepherd dogs. Not very brave, admittedly, but we preferred to go back to the valley. Later on in Salardu, we were informed that the way to the mountains had been blocked by ravines. This also explained why the cattle of sheep had been in our way. Another defeat. Next, we explored a mountain valley where we found Natrix maura and a nice Zamenis longissimus. In the afternoon, we went to Ordesa NP, where we had failed with Iberolacerta bonnali six years ago – but this time we had precise coordinates.
The next day: getting up early, again; the same sweaty hike as in 2008. When we arrived at the Iberolacerta spot the weather changed: cold wind and the sky covered with clouds. We were at a loss: meanwhile, the forecast for the whole Pyrenees was disastrous – also this time, we wouldn’t find the Iberolacertas… We decided to leave the Pyrenees and went to Andosilla (Navarra) to search for Psammodromus hispanicus (sensu stricto), a species which had been described in 2012. Unfortunately, the bad weather followed us: At Andosilla, heavy thunderstorms brought a temperature drop and continuous rain. The next day we waited for the rain to stop and when the first sunrays came through the clouds Psammodromus hispanicus appeared – At least, a new species for us.
In the afternoon, we went to the Burgos area, to search for Vipera latastei – a bad idea: here it was really cold; the locals were dressed in winter coats. The next morning: at 8 °C local temperature we checked the forecast: For Düsseldorf 30 °C had been announced that day! Our morale was ruined – we wanted to go home. Burgos – Düsseldorf = 1.527 km: On our way home we crossed France with speed of light (Note: getting into speed traps in France is quite expensive!).
We had given our best, but our goodwill didn’t help against the unfriendly weather conditions in the Pyrenees – those stubborn mountains were just too ignorant…
Since our diplomacy had not been fruitful with regard to Iberolacertas on the previous journeys, this time we decided to rely on military support. Hence, we engaged a team of well-trained combat machines: On 20th of August we took the flight to Barcelona, received our rental car and picked up Sjoerd van Bemmel (NL), Paul Lambourne (UK) and his fiancée Alison Guest at the airport. With this company, really nothing could go wrong! After our Super-Heroes were stowed on the back seat, we headed straightly to the Pyrenees. Our first goal: The Col de Puymorens, where a Pyrenan subspecies of Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis garzoni) can be found. Up in the Pyrenees, nothing was left of the Barcelona’s Mediterranean summer heat: on the mountain pass it was windy and foggy with some drizzle… we already were familiar with this kind of weather. Anyhow, after 10 seconds or so, Sjoerd found the first Sand Lizard –Super-Hero style… After photographing some Lacerta agilis, Podarcis muralis and Anguis fragilis we went to Tarascon-sur-Ariège, where we spent the night.
Today, Iberolacerta aurelioi was on our list: Hence we went towards Port del Rat, where we had our first attempt in 2008. The dense fog didn’t keep us from hiking uphill. The cloudy scenery rather resembled to “Lord of the Rings” (just the moment before the attack of the Orks) – but not to a lizard excursion in summer. Anyhow, after half an hour hiking the sky became clear and the lizard habitats were in full sun. Nothing could stop us now – and actually, at the expected spot we found those lizards basking in the sun. The surrounding heathlands were full of Zootoca vivipara and Paul fished some newts (Calotriton asper) out of the nearby brook. Yes! Strike! Mission completed: Our super-heroes had a quick well-deserved bath in the 4 °C mountain stream to cool down from the cooking 20 °C of the French Pyrenees. After this, we headed for Saint-Lary-Soulain, our next station.
Saint-Lary-Soulain: After our heroes had completed their morning training sessions, we went to the Iberolacerta bonnali-spot, where we had tried our luck in 2014. The mountains were in full sun. At first, it seemed that the complete area was spoiled with Podarcis muralis. But after a while, we also found some Iberolacertas: Uber-Yesss! The second tick! Next, we searched for Vipera aspis. We deployed and after a while Paul came back with a Vipera aspis. Soon, another Vipera was found – mission accomplished. Now we went towards Val d’Aran. During a stop-over in the valley where we found Zamenis longissimus in 2014, Sjoerd found – Zamenis longissimus.
As it was late in the afternoon, we were driving with admittedly “efficient” speed – and got stopped by the police. The Spanish police officers didn’t care about the fact that two sweaty naked mean and a lady in bikini were sitting on our back seat. But the tattered passports of our companions were in such a bad state that it took half an hour for the officers to check the IDs. The policemen also reacted rather humourless when we tried to take some pictures of the situation. Finally, we were allowed to drive on and finished this successful day with some beer and pizza in Salardu.
The next day: In the early morning we started the long hike to the Iberolacerta aranica spot (you will find the identical sentence in our 2014 chapter). To safe time, we tried to drive uphill with our car. Unfortunately, our VW-Touran turned out to be absolutely not super-hero proof and couldn’t cope with the trail conditions. Therefore, we had to walk. High up in the mountains we came across the fierce sherpherd dogs which attacked us in 2014. Well, they really enjoyed being cuddled by Paul and Alison… And so we reached the Iberolacerta habitat, which was still in shade. Now we had to wait for the sun to enter the valley – or maybe not? Paul turned a stone and found a lizard below. Uber-Yessssss! The last lizard species on our European tick list – Iberolacerta aranica (and yes: despite of differently stated rumours we were really happy!). As the sun finally came out, the lizards were everywhere – a really rewarding species to photograph.
Anyhow, we didn’t have much time to celebrate our success as we had new goals: Paul desperately wanted to see Rana pyrenaica. Hence we went to the western Pyrenees: It would be a four-hour ride, it was early afternoon – so there was a chance to find that species until sunset. Soon after the French border: the next police control. The French officer (he surprisingly was able to speak English) asked us if we had alcohol or cigarettes in our car. We answered “no” (faithful eyes) and drove on. At 6 pm we arrived at the frog habitat, an almost dried-up brook. Anyhow, we were able to find the frog. A successful day, so we celebrated with some delicious Basque food at our hotel in the evening (the Basque language turned out to be completely incomprehensible – but Sjoerd obviously was able to speak this language fluently, at least the roaring noise he made after he had some Coke sounded similar...).
We went to a well-known spot for Vipera seoanei – obviously this spot is known so well that there are not many Viperas left. At least we weren’t lucky. So we went to another place where we hoped to find Podarcis liolepis sebastiani, a subspecies of the Catalonian Wall Lizard. Maybe we would also find Viperas there? There was a promising boulder with an estimated weight of a medium-sized car which looked like a Vipera hide-out. Sjoerd accepted the challenge to turn that rock: He flipped it and of course he found a Vipera under it (which turned out to be Vipera aspis, however – we shouldn’t Vipera seoanei this time). At the very end we finally came across Podarcis liolepis. Taking some fast snapshots – and now it was about time to leave the Basque Country. Our team had their return flights from Barcelona the next morning. The journey back to Barcelona was a 570 km ride – Birgit did it with speed of light. We had a last memorable evening in Barcelona and dropped our team at the airport in the early morning. We hided our tears and said goodbye: Thanks for this legendary trip – travelling with you was great fun! We spent the last two days of our trip with sightseeing in Saragossa – a city with a remarkable street art culture and plenty of bars where we could celebrate our successful trip.