Tag Archives: Aude

Mapping the land

A sense of ‘place’ is very important to me. Understanding my ‘Patch’ in the UK requires understanding a bit about East London, Epping Forest, Essex, English parkland, scrub, grassland, and woodland.

I have written many words about the ‘place’ of the French ‘Patch’; the Mediterranean scrub (maquis and garrigue), the foothills of the Pyrenees, Aleppo Pine woodland etc. Context is important, whether that be geographical, geological, climate, botanical, etc.

For these reasons, I am slightly obsessed with mapping the land. I have done a bit of that before, but I wanted to share some free online tools that I find super useful when trying to understand the patch that I study.

First, location. The blue dot below shows you how close we are to the Mediterranean and to the Pyrenees.

France map

Thanks to Google Maps for this and the other maps

Second: area. The ‘Patch’, as I define it, sits within a trapezoid of four small French villages. The total area that I watch for birds and other flora and fauna is just under a whopping 10km squared. I know this because a website allows me to calculate it pretty accurately:

Blanes patch area

Remember that I am the only person who ‘works’ this Patch from a wildlife perspective, and only a few times a year. To set it in broader context, it is interestingly almost exactly twice the size as my London Patch (France c.10km2 vs Wanstead c.5km2) which is Wanstead Flats, Wanstead Park and some intervening streets combined as well as being ‘worked’ or watched by several other people on a regular basis.

In terms of elevation, the lowest point on the French Patch is around 166 metres above sea level whilst the highest point (Mont Major) is a pretty lofty 534m. My wife took the picture below of me standing on the highest point looking down over the Southern valley with the Pyrenees away in the distance.

IMG_4473v2.jpg

For another reference point, the Wanstead patch is exceedingly flat and low in comparison; ranging from 7m above sea level to 30m (that is the height of a medium sized tree!).

Although I know my way around the Patch pretty well now after a decade of regular walks, I have still found it useful to map key landmarks and paths on top of Google Map images to help me get a sense of scale.

Macro map Blanes

The entire Patch and surrounding villages

To give a sense of perspective, the red marked ‘track’ (or ‘chemin’), that we have to drive to reach the house, is almost exactly 2km long. If you are wondering how I can be so precise, it is because Google Maps has a helpful tool to measure distance accurately.

Track distance

Zooming in a bit from the colour-coded annotated map above, I have produced several more detailed maps showing routes of walks and landmarks, such as the example below. As you can see, I don’t exactly use scientific or formal names for the routes and places on the Patch (hence the ‘steep bit’) and will sometimes name places after wild features or species that I associate the area with, e.g., “Bee-eater Valley”, “Holm Oak Wood”, and “Griffon Vulture Hill”.

Mont Major

Using the nifty 3D functions on Google Maps (no, this isn’t a sponsored post), the topography is brought to life a little more by the the image below, with the house marked with a blue dot and the highest peak to the top left at the end of the orange line.

3D Blanes map

The main stream which rises on the Patch and flows West then North towards the little town of St Pierre-de-Champs is named after the land (or vice versa). ‘Ruisseau de Blanes’ is some 5km long (again thanks to the tool on a well known free online map) and joins a tributary of L’Orbieu river which, in turn, joins the river Aude (which shares a name with the department/province we live in) and flows into the Mediterranean just North of Narbonne.

Ruisseau de Blanes

For much of the year, the stream bed of Ruisseau de Blanes is dry above ground. As part of my obsession with understanding every bit of the Patch, the other day I decided to walk along the bed and track my way to the edge of the Patch. This is far easier said than done, as some sections of the river are inaccessible, extremely steep, or heavily overgrown.

valley1

Looking back upstream with the outcrop we call ‘Eagle Peak to the top left

IMG_3568v2

Scrambling my way over an ancient rock fall on the stream bed

At points the silence, that is so alien to my London sensibilities, was almost overwhelming. No traffic, no planes, no running water, no summer insects, very little bird noise. A Raven‘s deep croak echoed in the valley and got louder and louder until the giant corvid came into view low over the trees. I was staggered how loudly I could hear its wingbeats; wingbeats which sped up rapidly when the bird caught sight of me. The different pitches of the wingbeat of every bird that I came across became clear in the silence, even the high speed flutter of firecrest and Goldcrest as they darted from tree to tree.

It was a jolly adventure. Jolly that was, until I worked my way back the way I came and realised I had lost the point at which the woodland path joined the riverbed. I then remembered that when I had broken out of the heavy maquis onto the stream bed, I had taken a photograph looking downstream. I studied the picture and walked backwards trying to make the puzzle fit. Eventually, I found the right point (took another picture – see below – to illustrate the story) and then found the hidden path to the right.

Blanes brookv2

Image to the left taken about an hour before the one on the right

Of course, we have lost so many of the ancient instinctive skills of tracking and mind mapping the land that our ancestors would have used daily (and without the use of camera phones and Google Maps!)

Throughout history I imagine we have always looked for features to give us a sense of place. On the Patch we have a tiny remote chapel that is but a node on a huge long pilgrimage walk.

I often drop by, noting the goat droppings on the floor and the rusty little cross on a makeshift rock altar. But yesterday I noted a new feature, above the crucifix and some christian graffiti was a twisted stick. I don’t know what this stick was, but I perceived it as an echo of a more ancient religious mandala; a pagan offering, perhaps, helping to place this little religious building in the natural world around it. A sense of ‘place’ that seems to stand outside of time.

IMG_2305v2

Advertisements

Summer stories of France: Part II (A melody of warblers and Lulu)

Apparently, the collective noun for warblers is a “bouquet”, or a “fall”, or a “wrench”! If that isn’t confusing enough, another term for a group of warblers is a “confusion”.

In my ‘patch’ in the Aude region of the extreme South of France there are Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs much as I would find back in my home patch of the Wanstead Flats. But these are outnumbered massively by Sardinian and Subalpine Warblers:

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia Cantillans)

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia Cantillans)

In the mediterranean scrub that characterises the area, there seems to be barely a hedge that doesn’t contain a ticking or rattling warbler. Despite their prevalence, both species remain well hidden and often unseen, only rarely showing themselves.

Conversely, the Melodious Warbler is far bolder and sings loudly from prominent perches:

Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)

Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)

Indeed, one of these polyglots followed me for some time, sounding its alarm call loudly as it flitted angrily from branch to branch (undoubtedly protecting a nest) – a scene I briefly tried to capture on video (click here to watch or here to watch one sing)

Melodious Warbler

Another bird which I suspect breeds on the land, and which I videoed singing its wonderful declining song, is the Woodlark, or Alouette lulu in French (I think the French definitely win with that name). Many of us will know the song “Alouette, gentille alouette” as a cute French children’s song. But we might find it a little less cute if you know enough French to translate it:

“I’ll pluck the feathers off your back.
Off your back!
Off your tail!
Off your legs!
Off your wings!
Off your neck!
Off your eyes!
Off your beak!
Off your head!
Little lark!
O-o-o-oh”

…All for the crime of disturbing someone with its song!

The house in France is old and stone and has previously been used by nesting Wrynecks. This year, somewhere in the house, barn, or ruin, were a family of Black Redstart. By the end of our stay, I had counted three fledglings along with the adult female and male:

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Here is the full list of birds I recorded on the patch during our week there (cast in order of appearance):
Meolodious warbler
Cirl Bunting
Cuckoo
Nightingale (video)
Serin
Subalpine Warbler
Sardinian Warbler
Blackcap
Short-toed Eagle
Blackbird
Great Tit
Greenfinch
Goldfinch
Black Redstart
Barn Swallow
Raven
Linnet
Stonechat
Firecrest
Dunnock
Red-legged Partridge
Honey Buzzard
Bee-eater
Woodlark
Swift
Chaffinch
Crested Tit
Turtle Dove
Long-tailed Tit
Hen Harrier
Wood Pigeon
(31)

P.S. It blows my mind how many common birds aren’t present on the land, but how some wonderful birds seem to take their place e.g., no Carrion Crows or Jackdaws, but Ravens and Choughs instead. If you didn’t know you were in mountain country from the scenery, the birds present would soon tell you.

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Three scenes of Southern France

We returned from our last visit to France almost a month ago, but it has taken me this long to review some of the photos I took. I have recorded before some of our trips to the Aude region in the extreme south of the country here, here, and here.

I want to reflect back on, and share, three landscapes that are now very familiar to me, but may not be well known by others:

Scene One: The Medieval French Village
Lagrasse is a stunning village built around the famous Abbey which dates from the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th Century (and no, I haven’t forgotten a digit there) and can be seen rising above the trees in the background:
Lagrasse

Hirundines whip around the sky above the narrow and ancient streets such as these nesting House Martins:

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

And in the surrounding gardens a large number of birds can be found such as this Spotted Flycatcher:

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

[It’s digression time] Despite this not being a great photo, flycatchers are probably one of my favourite types of bird to photograph. Why?… (I hear you wearily but politely ask) Well, because birding and bird photograph is bloody difficult. Birds are generally small, shy (read as ‘far-away’) things that spend their time flying around quickly or hidden in bushes and trees. When walking around with a camera, a birder is often first aware of a nearby bird when it flies off startled by your presence (they invariably see or hear you before you see or hear them). A bird in flight is generally not a bird you are going to be able to photograph and it will not settle down for quite a distance. A flycatcher, however, is different. The birder is alerted to its presence by it flying, but then it settles on a perch. It takes off again – “damn! I missed it!” but never fear, because it is likely to settle back on the same perch it launched off from, as that is how it hunts.[here endith lengthy digression]

Scene Two: The Mediterranean Valley
I have mentioned before that my wife’s family have a home in a valley near Lagrasse. In case you want to consider staying there, have a look at their website, here. Here is a view from the top of the hill next to her home down into the steeper neighbouring valley:

Valley view

To give a sense of the topography of the area, I used the excellent website topographic-map.com which is powered by Google. Below you can see where my wife’s home is marked by a big red X and where I was standing and pointing to take the photograph above marked by an arrow. You can also see the precise elevation of the hill (I intend to use that website lots):

valley map

It was in this valley that I got my photo of a Bee Eater in France. Even though the photo is crap, you get a sense of the amazing colours of this bird – if anyone can think of a more exotic looking bird found in Europe, let me know:

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

I was also pleased to get my first definitive photo of an Eagle from my wife’s house – reassuring the residents after my previous dismissive comments that soaring raptors were buzzards. I hopefully made up for my previous cynicism by confirming that it was the wonderfully named Short-toed Snake Eagle:

Short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Scene Three: The Pyrenees
My wife’s home is only about an hour’s drive from the Pyrenees, and so my final scene is from the picturesque Gorges de la Frau. Lily can be seen walking up in front of me:

Pyrenees

With my new-found favourite map website, you can see where I took the photo (X, as always, marks the spot) and the altitude sign is on top of the mountain – Sarrat de Rouquieres – seen in the photo to the left – higher, we should observe, than any point in Britain:

Gorges de la Frau

It was craning my neck back to stare up at the mountain that I saw a corvid with what appeared to be blazing wing-tips. The photo is distant and poor of the wonderful Alpine Chough, but I cannot really explain the reason why the light at this angle makes its all-black wing-tips look like they are on fire. If there is magic anywhere in the world, surely it is with the wildlife that lives high in the mountains:

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

Firsts in France

Six years ago, on my first visit to the Southern French district of Aude, I saw my first and only Crested Tit. Despite travelling to this part of France at least annually ever since (here is my blog post from my visit last year), it wasn’t until my visit this April, that I saw this beautiful bird again. As with all the birds in the remote valley, they are shy and not easy to photograph, but this time I just managed to capture him in pixels:

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

When the sun shines in the valley, even in April, it can feel like it is perpetually blessed (and sometimes scorched) by Mediterranean heat (my wife’s family home can just be seen to the right of the picture below):

The valley

But lest anyone forgets that the valley sits in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the weather can change with frightening speed (that seems the calling card of mountainous lands); cloudless blue can be replaced by a river of fog in the space of a few hours (normally overnight):

in the clouds

I spent the days creeping through thickets trying to photograph the shy bird-life with only moderate success. Whilst we enjoyed the liquid tunes of several Nightingale throughout the days, the famous singers only let me get within maximum zoom-lens distance…

Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

…And despite large numbers of Warblers making themselves known to me through their clicks, calls, and songs, they rarely poked their heads above the thick vegetation to let me snap them (the stunning Sub-Alpine Warbler is joined in the valley by enough of its fellow species to surely be of scientific interest, but watching – or photographing – them closely is devilishly hard):

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

I also snapped the slightly bolder Pied Flycatchers near the house:

Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

European Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

… and in the same tree, although higher and hidden in the branches, came the high pitched whistles of one of my favourite birds – but one I have never succeeded (until now) in photographing:

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Each day the valley is crossed, to-and-fro, by the mightiest of the crow family, the Raven, announcing their presence with their distinctive ‘cronking’:

Common Raven (Corvus Corax)

Common Raven (Corvus Corax)

But some other dark silhouettes were smaller, faster, more acrobatic, and sharper billed. Their calls were higher pitched and harsher. Whilst I was sad not to see their distinctive blood-red bills, I was delighted to photograph shapes in the sky that were unmistakably the rarest of the European crow family (corvidae):

Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Slightly easier to photograph than the birds (although only just at times), were the valley’s array of butterflies, including:

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

… and the stunning…

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius)

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius)

Supposedly even easier to photograph (although I have never really embraced macro-photography), are flowers. The flora of the valley could easily be given a blog post of their own (maybe one day they will), but for now, I just want to broadcast a few of the stunning orchids blooming this spring:

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) with Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) with Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia)

Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia)

Yellow Ophyrs (Ophrys lutea)

Yellow Ophyrs (Ophrys lutea)

… and then a beauty I snapped in heavy rain with my iPhone…

Woodcock Bee-orchid (Ophrys scolopax)

Woodcock Bee-orchid (Ophrys scolopax)

I took many photos of many wonderful things in the valley and in the hills of one small part of Southern France (only a few of which I have shared today), but wanted to finish this post with a slightly obscured snap of the largest wild lizard I have seen on mainland Europe:

Western Green Lizard (Lacerta bilineata)

Western Green Lizard (Lacerta bilineata)