Winter birds of gorges and valleys

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So far this year, I have spent about six hours on the patch (Wanstead) and have got off to an acceptable start with my year-list (currently 58 from two Saturday morning walks).

French patch update

I have already spent far longer on my second patch, my wife’s land in a remote valley in the foothills of the Pyrenees as we went there shortly after Christmas and spent New Year there. My trip patch-list is very short – just 20 – but interesting.

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I just love how I can watch a Wren in a bush, cast my eyes up and the next bird I tick off is Golden Eagle.

I have watched large dark shapes in the extreme distance before, knowing them likely to be Golden Eagles (although Griffon and even Black Vultures could also turn up here), but this trip I was close enough to confirm it from size and wing shape (but not close enough to photograph).

I watched it soaring over the far side of our neighbouring valley above and beyond the Limestone rock features to the left of the photo below. The trees to the right, only about 500m above sea level, but almost 200m (c600ft) above the valley floor below, are ancient Holm Oak specimens.

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I also confirmed my suspicion that we have Goshawks hunting the land – seeing a huge (probable) female that I almost mistook for a Honey buzzard at first sight. With the summer Eagles in Africa, the only raptor I photographed was a Common Buzzard:

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

The Blackbirds were the stand-out common bird at this time of year; their numbers likely swelled by northern wintering migrants. The family of Ravens of the land were almost omnipresent as well, flying back and forth from one ridge to another cronking away as they went.

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Common Raven (Corvus corax)

But I also had two great additions to my patch list:

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Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

The second bird, I heard long before I saw it. The call was enormous and varied. At first I thought a child was screaming in the wood, but then it stopped and was followed by a thunderous drumming. It could only be one thing, and when it showed itself, with wing-beats that could be easily heard some distance away I was delighted to welcome the largest Eurasian Woodpecker (standing over half a metre head to tail), and second largest in the world, to my patch:

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Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius)

I spent a lot of time in the wooded parts of the patch, with Firecrests, Goldcrests, and some very vocal Short-toed Treecreeper:

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Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla)

At this time of year, the woody garrigue often acts like velcro as the clouds sweep low up and down the valley. I watched cloud peeling off the hills like skin or appearing as if the forest was on fire:

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Gorge watching

I only took one trip off the patch to watch birds – although I also saw probably the largest starling flock I have ever seen while on a shopping trip (the mega flock -not quite dense enough to be a murmuration in my view – took some minutes to drive past and must have had c100,000 individual birds in it).

I drove to the spectacular village of Minerve:

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Minerve

The place exudes history. The ruined tower to the left dates back to the siege when our very own Simon de Montfort (who springs up in a lot of historical places I know) laid siege to a garrison here just over 800 years ago. This is, of course, the land of the Cathars. They eventually surrendered after the well was destroyed but 140 of the 200-strong garrison refused to give up their faith and were burned at the stake as heretics.

But I was here for the gorge, or more specifically, the inhabitants of the gorge (and not the ghosts of Cathar martyrs). The gorge of the river Cesse is a long and impressive canyon that is not hugely wide but very deep; the land beneath your feet just seems to fall away with a dizzying drop to an unseen (because much of it is underground making the gorge even deeper) river.

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Cesse Gorge

I stood on one side of the gorge and watched the opposing rock-face carefully. I was hunting for a very specific quarry.

A distant flicker of movement and I trained my binoculars on the cliff face. It was not what I was looking for, but nice anyway (albeit too distant to get anything other than a fuzzy record shot):

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Blue rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius)

I stayed still and watched for around twenty minutes before another slight movement gave away a tiny camouflaged bird. Notoriously difficult to spot, I was still not fully prepared for how hard it was to see. The photo below was taken at maximum zoom with the cut-out heavily cropped:

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Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria)

I watched it … err.. creep quite quickly (I would almost use the word scurry if it was on a horizontal surface) up and down and side to side feeding on the wall. It was only when it occasionally opened its wings that I saw how stunning this rarely seen bird was (excuse another heavily zoomed and crop record shot and Google “Wallcreeper” to look at better photos of this amazing bird):

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Wallcreeper with open wings

I had driven for a couple of hours (mainly because I got lost without SatNav) but it was worth it for an amazing life-tick on the very last day of 2015. May 2016 bring me, and you all, wild adventures of a similar nature.

 

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