Tag Archives: Blanes

Corbieres Garden Watch: Birds

I normally walk reasonably lengthy distances birding my second patch in the Corbieres region (reminder: think limestone hills and out-crops, medieval villages, scrubby, largely evergreen hillsides, and the beginning ripples of the Pyrenees) in the South of France. On this trip, given the extreme heat (we are a couple of hours drive from the record-breaking areas of 45-46 degree centigrade, but it was still 39 degrees when we arrived in France), and the fact that I now have a small baby, meant that I was a lot less mobile. This, in turn, meant most of my birding was done later in the morning in the shade from the house and sat on the patio looking west down the valley.

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My wife and son and the cypress mentioned in this post

Late June / early July is hardly peak time for passerine song, but three male Nightingale sang for brief periods daily (and nightly) within ear-shot of the house (I counted three more territories elsewhere on the land). Woodlark were not doing the big circling song-flights that I love watching in the Spring, but one or two would occasionally pop up and down for a brief burst and their stubby shapes were regular sights being flushed as we drove to-and-from the house down the 2km track. A new singer for me on the patch was Tawny Pipit; whilst common in the local region, it has eluded me hyper-locally until now.

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Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris)

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Classic Tawny Pipit territory – where I found it

Our other key songster, Melodious Warbler, was another daily regular, but was only heard in brief snippets of song once or twice. Our two most common warblers, Western Subalpine Warbler and, the year-round-resident, Sardinian Warbler, were both extra noticeable this year, but mostly not in song. Plenty of successful breeding evidence from both was noted, and family groups of Subalpine Warbler occasionally moved up and down the garden cypress tree with the juvenile birds having their catches supplemented. Common Whitethroat, Blackcap and Chiffchaff were much less prevalent but recorded nearby. I got one view, once, of a silent juvenile (or just dull female?) Dartford Warbler.

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Juv Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata)

That garden cypress tree proved a productive focal point for finches. The local Greenfinch and vocal Goldfinch flock used it, as did an occasional Serin. A Linnet flock of six birds preferred the ground in the scrubby meadow behind the house, and Chaffinch song was heard daily, but they seemed less inclined to come close to the house. Cirl Bunting sang a couple of times near the house, and slightly further up the hill I was pleased to connect with Rock Bunting, albeit disproving my own theory that they only showed up during winter months when the mountains were too snowy and ice-covered.

A row of cypress trees a few metres to the left of our big garden tree housed nesting Firecrest. Amongst the other visitors to the tree during the week, a highlight was Crested Tit which watched me from the top of the tree as I took its photo whilst sat in a deckchair (easy birding!).

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Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

Black Redstart continued to perform as one of the most reliable ‘garden’ birds and a fledgling bird, still with oversize-wide bill, hopped around on our patio as I watched it from the kitchen. There were also a pair of semi-fledged Great Tit still being fed by their parents on the floor, only partially covered by undergrowth, right next to the barn and Blue Tits also seem to have had a successful year.

In the spirit of ‘why go to the birds, when the birds can come to me’, Turtle Dove flew over once, but was heard burbling away somewhere nearby more frequently. Also largely invisible, but regularly audible was Cuckoo. Great Spotted Woodpecker – not a common bird at all in the scrub land – was heard one day from our nearest pines.

Two years ago I photographed a single colony of 33 Bee-eater fly over the house. I certainly didn’t get a repeat of that, but never have I so consistently seen and heard Bee-eaters around the house. Every day I would hear their calls, and eventually I even stopped scanning the hillsides to see them perched up of swooping up and down. As we drove out on a couple of trips, they perched tantalisingly close on telegraph wires, making me curse the fact I didn’t have my camera handy.

Our local breeding Raven were less of a feature of this trip than almost any I had made before, although I occasionally heard their calls distantly and watched a pair on one of the valley stone outcrops one evening. Jays were the only other corvid on the trip garden list.

Raptor watching was patchy at first and then, at times, truly excellent:Watching six Griffon Vulture kettling over the house was a patch-record and a highlight for me.
Short-toed Eagle, as usual for the summer months was the most commonly seen raptor; mostly sailing over silently, but on a rare walk to the top of our local hill (Mont Major at 541m above sea level), a pair made an absolute racket as they flew past together.
Frustratingly, I fluffed the ID of a suspected Booted Eagle which I saw briefly before it disappeared over a hill: shape and brief view of colouration looked good but my impression of size was that it was noticeably bigger than Short-toed Eagle.
A pair of noisy Peregrine appeared briefly (a rare sight over the patch).
I also got one view of a Kestrel flying purposefully past the house carrying prey.
The patch highlight of the trip was undoubtedly good views of a young Montagu’s Harrier our main ruin on the land. I noticed it almost static in the air some distance away, but it then scythed around the curved contours of the hillsides (a first for me here, although I once had a pair a few miles away over a field).

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

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Underside plumage in transition it seems – reds still visible

On my walk to the top of the hill, I got good views of Crag Martin and Common Swift (I have had Alpine Swift here in the past). Whilst not very exciting for readers, I recorded my first ever House Martin on the French Patch this trip, a small flock passing high over head and hawking with the Swifts. House Martin and Swallows are teeming in the local villages a few miles away, but neither seem to be seen over this wild and remote valley, which is where the wild things are (Crag Martin in this case), so this was a welcome sighting. As with buses, I saw them almost every day after that, so perhaps the local village populations are hunting further afield now.

Whilst not seen from my ‘garden watch’ location, Meadow Pipits and Red-legged Partridge were flushed by the car along the track within the patch boundaries and Hoopoe flew over the car about a mile from our track. The best local (off-patch) sighting of the trip was probably a circling White Stork near the Medieval village of Lagrasse – this is the closest I have seen this species to the Patch and raises the chances that I will hopefully get one one day from the House. Straying from birds, I finally added Hare to my patch mammal list, joining at least two bat species, Stoat, Wild Boar, and Roe Deer (unfortunately I have only experienced Red Deer from the tales of the hunters takings from around (or illegally on) our land).

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Juv European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Considering I barely left the garden, and we were largely being baked by the sun, this was still some enjoyable birding and this hopefully gives a sense to any readers of what can be found with minimal effort in the Corbieres. The butterflies probably outperformed the birds this trip, but I will save that for a separate trip report.

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The scene of most of my observations

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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The valleys

No, not Wales. I mean the valleys that make up my second patch in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I often climb our highest hill, Mont Major (about 530m above sea level), and just sit and look over the next valley and further South to the Pyrenees.

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200m vertically from me down to the valley floor –  a view I have photographed a hundred times

I have sat here and watched Golden Eagles on several occasions, but not this trip. Crag Martins seemed to scrape the rocks (to the right of the photo above) they flew so close in. One afternoon a much bigger shape scythed past me – it was noticeably larger than Common Swift – which I had seen drifting past in small migratory flocks – and the bright white underside showed well. For a life tick I identified it almost immediately: Alpine Swift. Unfortunately, I didn’t really manage to photograph it and only got the back view with a slight showing of the white as it flew hard and fast and south, parallel with my eyeline over the valley and towards the mountains beyond.

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Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba)

Further down the hillside, there was a lot of noise. I saw a pair of Bee-eaters hawking low over the maquis bushes. They settled back on the same tree time and again. I then realised that there weren’t two, but three, then four, five, eight, and eventually 12 of them all together. They were a long way away and below me, but I managed this photo in which nine Bee-eaters can be seen together.

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European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

What do you mean you can’t see them?! Treat it like a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ – there really are nine showing in the photo. if you have given up, here is the photo again with each Bee-eater circled, including the four together on the lower-left branch.

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12 Bee-eaters together was a European record for me. A record that would be broken just a few days later when 33 flew over our house in a single flock or ‘colony’ – I managed to get all of them in a single frame.

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Crossing over the ridge from one valley to the next was another bird hawking for large insects.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

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At one point another shape flashed out of the trees beside me and straight at the Hobby as if to mob it. I managed to steal a single usable photo of of it as it went over my head. Given the proximity, it had me thinking Goshawk at first, but was actually a large female Sparrowhawk.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Over the week we were there, the number and variety of raptors was poor. I imagine many of the Short-toed Eagle‘s must have flown South already. But the paucity of variety was mitigated by a second patch sighting of Griffon Vulture which flew straight over our house, albeit very high.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Back down on the land, my wife must get the credit for spotting a bird fly across our path as we went for a walk. It turned out to be another patch tick for me (one of the three this trip, alongside the Alpine Swift and a Western Orphean Warbler): Red-backed Shrike. It obviously enjoyed hunting on the land as I saw it again, along with a second bird a few days later. I have long known that the area is ideal for Shrikes and so am amazed it has taken almost a decade for me to find one two here.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

The wonderful – but at the same time, difficult – thing about my French patch is that I am the only birder. All the birds are self-found in just two or three short trips a year.

So, a three patch-tick trip – not bad. About average actually, although inevitably the number of new species will taper off as my list starts to creep up into respectability. But there was actually another ‘tick’ to be had on this trip. Not a patch tick (sadly), but a full-blown life tick, albeit belatedly…

I had nipped out to the shops for some groceries and drove out a bit beyond the nearest villages – wonderful examples of rural French charm.

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“Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” – Saint Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse

I watched a chattering of Red-billed Chough circle in the sky and then drove on. Through tree-lined roads and fields of French farming… when something caught my eye. Acrobatic flight from narrow-winged raptors low down over the field. A male and female by the look of it. I am used to seeing Hen Harrier on my patch so I didn’t question that they could have been anything else. That was foolish! I pulled over and clicked off a couple of very distant shots from the car and then drove on to get supplies of cheese and wine.

It was only later when reviewing the dreadful quality photos that I realised these weren’t Hen Harrier at all, but Montagu’s Harrier. In the cropped versions of the photos the thin  black wing-band can be seen and the extensive black wing-tips stretching down much further on both upper and under side of the wing than we would see with Hen Harrier.

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

These could be birds that have spent the summer here or they could be stopping for food and frolics part-way on a journey south through Europe on their way to Africa. This means I have finally seen all of the European Harriers, having only relatively recently ticked off Pallid Harrier in Norfolk, alongside our Hen Harrier (or what is left of them before grouse-shooting estates make them extinct in England and beyond) and the conservation success story that is Marsh Harrier.

My French Patch list is still small, but it has some cracking birds on it and I feel a real sense of achievement with every new sighting as the sole birder in these remote valleys. After a scorching day in the field, I often sit back in the late afternoon and early evening with a glass of wine, beer, or a gin & tonic looking out over our valley and reflect on what I have seen and how lucky I am to experience it.

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