Valira Torrent - bulletin of the Andorran Philatelic Study Circle. Issue 2, p6 (Nov 1975).

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The Philatelic Birds of Andorra

By W. D. Bent

Express stamp

The first Andorran stamp to show a bird illustration was the Spanish P.O. issued Express Letter Stamp in November, 1929, and described by Gibbons as "eagle over Pyrenees". In my view this is, in reality, just an artist's impression of a large "eagle-like" bird in flight and close examination of the illustration indicates several non-eagle like features. The tail, the head and neck and, most noticeably, the wing shape are incorrect. True, the eagle is to be found in the Pyrenees. The Golden Eagle (Aquila Chrysaetos) is present throughout Spain all the year round. It likes mainly mountainous country, often tree-less, and the majority of the Pyrenees is ideal territory for this bird. It is particularly beautiful in flight with majestic soaring and gliding with its wingtips splayed out and upturned, almost like feather-fingers (unlike the stamp illustration) and remains on the wing sometimes for hours. The Imperial Eagle (Aquila Heliaca) is found in the Balkans and Middle East generally but there is a Spanish race of Imperial eagle (Aquila Heliaca Adalberti) but this is quite rare and is found in lowland forest, plains and marshes of south-western Spain. It is believed that less than 100 birds now exist. It is very similar in appearance to the Golden Eagle but with a paler head and neck and with noticeably white "shoulders" clearly visible in flight. In my opinion the illustrated bird is most like the Lammergeier, otherwise known as the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus Barbatus). The adult bird has a diamond shaped tail in flight, lighter head and neck and does not have upturned wing tips characteristic of eagles, the wings in flight being much more angled as in the illustration. Again this bird is found in the Pyrenees, usually high up in remote mountain areas where it nests on rock ledges. I do not believe, however, that the illustration is of any particular kind of bird but merely a large "symbolic" bird to indicate speed and motion befitting an "Express Letter" stamp.

Since that issue no other bird stamp has been issued by the Spanish P.O. but fortunately the French P.O. have been a little more forthcoming.

1955 air - eagle

In 1955 appeared the l00fr. and 200fr. air stamps followed by the 500fr. in l957, each depicting the East Valira river over which is flying another Eagle type bird - this time more characteristic in some ways but not truly accurate. Three other species of eagle are to be found in the Pyrenees. One is Bonelli's Eagle (Hieraetus Fasciatus) smaller than the Golden Eagle, much lighter in colour, particularly on the underside which can appear almost white at a distance. This bird likes rocky wooded mountainsides but moves to more open countryside in the winter. The second is the Booted Eagle (Hieraetus Pennatus) smaller and buzzard-like but with a very gracious flight often weaving in and out of trees. In fact it lives in the forests, breeding in the top most high branches and is never found far from trees. The third is the Spotted Eagle (Aquila Clanga) which is normally a darker coloured bird but with paler spots on the wings and body. In flight this particular eagle crooks its wings and slightly droops its wing tips, but doesn't have the lighter shoulders or pale head and neck the stamp illustrations would indicate. The Spotted Eagle in fact spends it summers in Eastern Europe but winters in Spain and the Middle East.

1971 Capercaillie 1971 Bear

In 1971 the first of the "Nature Protection" series made its appearance. Two stamps made up the set, both being 80 cts. in value, one showing what is described as a grouse and the other a pyrenean bear. In the latter case to link nature protection jointly with bears is a little late in the day and anyone visiting Andorra hoping to see a bear is in for a disappointment. The grouse illustrated is in fact a male Capercaillie (Tetrao Urogallus), the largest of the grouse family. The bird shown on the stamp is a very colourful fellow and is seen in all his glory, doing his display stance with tail raised, peacock fashion, and also with raised hackles under the chin, which it does when alarmed. This bird lives in coniferous forests especially in hills and mountains, nesting in the undergrowth at the foot of pines or occasionally in scrub on open higher ground. At a quick glance it can be mistaken for a domestic turkey and can weigh up to l7lbs. and can be a very noisy bird when disturbed, rustling leaves and branches, and some males will defend their territory boldly against even dogs or human beings. The male is best viewed in the early spring when its colouring is best and it regularly performs its courtship display of fanning its tail and having mock battles with other males, leaping in the air and generally putting on a great performance to impress a mate. These birds are not popular with foresters as one of their main sources of diet are conifer shoots, but they also eat fruit and berries in the summer and occasionally insects.

In passing it is interesting to note that the two stamps in the 1971 set were printed by different processes. The Capercaillie by photogravure and the bear by recess. When the two stamps are viewed together the difference is very noticeable and it is quite unusual to find two different methods of printing used on a set of only two stamps.

1972 Eagle

The 1972 "Nature Protection" issue was a single stamp, 60cts. value showing a "Pyrenean Golden Eagle". This is an excellent likeness but I would have liked the stamp to have a little more colour from an ornithological point of view, the golden tinge on the head and the yellow and black of the powerful bill and claws. (There are nice maximum cards which show this bird in greater detail). It is interesting to note that Golden Eagles pair for life, prefer a nest site high up on inaccessible rocky slope and often have two or more nests, or eyries, which they use in rotation and add to each eyrie each time they use it rather than rebuild. Their wingspan can be up to 7 feet or so and they can dive on a victim for food, such as a rabbit, grouse, or carrion at up to 90mph. The eagles have interesting courtship displays in that occasionally a pair will soar slowly in spirals at a great height then plunge earthwards at speed with half closed wings, rolling over in flight so close together that it appears that their talons meet, almost as if the couple were trying to "hold hands".

1973 Bluetit

The l973 "Nature Protection" issue produced two really beautiful stamps. A 90cts. Blue Tit and a lfr. woodpecker. The first, the Blue Tit (Parus Caeruleus) is the only small bird in Europe to be almost entirely blue and yellow, with very distinct markings. It is found throughout Western Europe except for central and northern Scandinavia. The male and female have the same colouring which remains constant through the year. Its habitat is hedges and gardens and most kinds of mixed woodland. It nests in holes in trees, walls etc. and will readily take to man-made nest boxes. Blue tits have an unusual behaviour pattern in that if they get inside a house with wallpaper they often tear at loose corners, and books and newspapers are often attacked in the same way. It is believed that this is an instinctive action on the birds part because in the woodlands they tear at pieces of bark looking for insects, which form their main diet, plus small fruit, seeds and grain.

1973 Woodpecker

The lfr. "Woodpecker, described in French as Pic Epeichette is the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos Minor). It is the smallest of the European woodpeckers being distinguished by its smallness and the absence of any red under the tail coverts. The male (on the stamp) has a dull crimson crown and attractive "bar" markings across its back and wings. The birds live in small branches high in deciduous trees avoiding conifers. It nests in bore holes in decayed trees usually fairly high from the ground, making a shaft up to 10 inches long to a nesting chamber which is invariably bare except for a few wood chippings. Their main diet is grubs and moths, woodboring insects and beetles and occasionally soft fruit. The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker can certainly be found in the Pyrenees (in fact almost everywhere in Europe) and so too can the Black Woodpecker, the largest of European woodpeckers. The Green Woodpecker, of which there is a separate Spanish species, plus the Great Spotted, Middle Spotted and white backed woodpeckers, are also found too. Only the last two mentioned have the Lesser Spotted woodpecker's dislike of conifers and the others can be found in any type of woodland.

1974 Citril Finch 1974 Bullfinch

The l974 "Nature Protection" issue was again in two values, and two new birds. A 60cts. described in French as Venturon Montagnard or Citril Finch (Serinus Citrinella) and the 80cts. French Bouvreuil Pivoine or Bullfinch (Pyrrhula Pyrrhula). These two stamps are again beautifully produced and most accurately coloured and a pleasure to look at. The Citril Finch lives in mountain areas with scattered conifers and open rocky ground, usually over 5,000 feet above sea level in summer but moves lower in the winter. It is certainly found in the Pyrenees and also other parts of Spain, Southern France, Switzerland and Northern Italy. The Bullfinch is a slightly larger bird and is more widespread in Europe, certainly in Andorra, but is very secretive and is seldom found far from cover. It can be found in plantation thickets, hedgerows and gardens, and nests in garden trees and evergreens. It is a very striking bird, particularly the male, with red underparts and a white rump, black cap and chin and a very stubby black bill. The female is a sort of "toned down" version of the male. It is believed that they pair for life as, unlike many small birds, they do not separate during the winter. They eat tree seeds, berries and, in late winter and spring, eat buds of fruit trees. They feed their young, however, on caterpillars.

There are many more colourful birds in Andorra and it is hoped that more attractive issues are to follow with this ornithological theme, especially if they are up to the very high standard of the last two Nature Protection sets. Any bird watcher visiting Andorra will find much of interest. All that is needed is a sharp eye, a little patience, a good pair of binoculars and a first class guide to description etc. There are many good field guides on the market. I personally prefer the excellent guide "The Birds of Britain and Europe" published by Collins. The hundreds of full coloured illustrations are by Hermann Heinzel (whose name appears as the designer of the last two Nature Protection sets.) and who regularly visits Andorra. "Where to watch birds in Europe" by John Gooders, published by Andre Deutsch is also very good reading.

Ordino makes a good centre for bird watching and the little known Pallid Swift breeds in the road tunnel nearby. High up the valleys will be found the eagles, vultures and choughs and at lower levels a widening range of birds will be discovered. In addition to all those mentioned, Rock Sparrows, Rock Buntings, many kinds of warblers, Redstarts, Crossbills, Martins and colourful golden Orioles, numerous Grey Wagtails, and the interesing Dippers will be found in the streams.

A visit over the Spanish frontier to the valley of the Segre is worthwhile as is a trip further afield to the National Parks now established in the Pyrenees. Ordesa National Park, on the Spanish side, was established in l9l8 and in addition to birds contains Chamois, Bear, Pyrenean Ibex and many rare mammals. The Aigues Tortes National Park proves very difficult to reach by car due to road conditions. This park covers 41 square miles is some 26 miles due west of Andorra but four times the distance by any passable road. Capercaillies abound here as well as Chamois, Ibex, wild goats and wild boar.

Port-de-Gavarnie on the French side has an even wider selection of bird life and is noted for its birds of prey. The Pyrenees hold a treasure house of bird life and may the philatelic ornithologist be permitted to enlarge his aviary regularly for many years to come.

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Andorran Philatelic Study Circle / Hon. Librarian: E. J. Jewell / apsc@free.fr /
Updated 15 Feb 1998