Tag Archives: France

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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Exploring the land in black and white

I haven’t used black & white photography for quite a while. I tend to find it doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography for me (I’m not exactly Ansell Adams and nor am I generally taking pictures of such dramatic scenes), and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the ‘art’ of record shot wildlife photography that is my speciality ;).

But on my most recent trip to the South of France, I gave it another go. There is always a fine line for relatively unskilled amateur photographers like me between a poor photo masquerading behind pretension, and a photo that authentically works in monochrome. I’ll let you be the judge of which side of that line I am on with these scenes from our home and the surrounding land.

The ruin

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There are actually several ruins on the land, but this old farmhouse is the most substantial. The floor dimensions suggest this would have been a reasonably sizeable dwelling.

Another ruin

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There are currently three homes in the remote complex, but a fourth building is now just a shell and largely used as a sheltered place to hang washing with only this delicate tree, currently in blossom, casting shade over it.

Another shell

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The buildings aren’t the only things that have become retired shells on the land. I have seen photos of this car when it was on its ‘last wheels’ as a functioning vehicle 28 years ago. Now it is largely open to the elements, and being taken over with plants in the same way as the old ruined buildings.

The homes

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Set in recovering, rewilding mediterranean maquis scrub landscape in a valley, the homes are now the terminus for a road (really just a track) that used to pass right through the valley.

The gate and path

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The old road is now just a set of rocky paths, closed off from the homestead by an unintimidating old gate to keep the donkeys and horses away from any garden-grown plants and the track which eventually leads out to traffic and danger.

The other inhabitants

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Currently two horses and two donkeys keep some of the nearest vegetation low, the paths navigable, and parched, damaged soil manured. They are not the only large mammals in the valley…

The misty mountains

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Sometimes the sun scorches the valley, sometimes the wind blows through it like an industrial wind-tunnel, and sometimes mist clings to the hillside like a damp cloak. Sometimes ghost-like baritone bells can be heard invisibly from high-up in the hills as goats pass through. And deep, and normally hidden, in the misty scrub are the wilder inhabitants: wild boar, deer, and, I only recently found out, hare live in these hills.

The old trees

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Much of the vegetation in the valley is relatively young scrubby growth recolonising the former agricultural land. On the top of the hills, much of the plant life is kept very short by the goats, but on the cliff edges, some ancient Holm Oak hold on, too gnarly and big and old to be under threat from goats, and bent sharply and precariously, and overhanging huge drops, from the wind that scours the land.

It is after steep climbs to visit these sentinels of the wild and walking in wind that return journeys are accompanied with a longing for the warmth of the open fire back in the house.

The fire

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I took this photo in the knowledge that the slightly antiquated feel to the image absolutely accurately reflects the history of the fireplace. A place where we dry clothes today, and bath our baby in reach of the warmth from the flames in almost exactly the same way as will have been done for generation after generation in the same spot. The photo was taken with that most modern of devices: an iPhone, but the scene is not staged or fake; the fireplace really is as old as it looks.

 

February 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only recorded 56 species of birds in four patch visits during February. Of the 56, three were new for the year for me.

Highlights were:

  • Connecting pretty quickly with the Rook Bob found on Alexandra Pond on 17 Feb. Probably the same individual as last year.
  • Having a nice low fly-past from my first patch Common Buzzard of the year also on 17 Feb.
  • SSSI seeming to be a magnet for good numbers of Reed Bunting, Linnet, Pied Wagtail, and very large numbers of Goldfinch.
  • Finding a new colour-ringed Black-headed Gull on Alex on 18 Feb (Yellow TN9T): first sighting since ringed in Poland in June 2018.
  • A very high count of 44 Mute Swan on Jubilee for the WeBS count on 17 Feb.

Lowlights were:

  • Continued to fail to see Fieldfare (probably missed now until the Autumn) or Water Rail.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Seeing 1W Caspian Gull ‘X530’ at Stonebarges in Rainham (but sadly not finding either of the Glaucous Gull that have been around) on 19 Feb.
  • Seeing and hearing my first ever Penduline Tit. In London as well. with added bonus of several Bearded Tit/Reedling present too. All at Crossness in South London on 22 Feb.
  • Flying out to my French Patch (more to be reported for March) and, on first day out and about on last day (28th) of Feb felt like reconnecting with old friends: Sardinian Warbler rattling from bushes in large numbers, Raven courting, Stonechat posing, and Cirl Bunting singing.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Polish ringed ‘TN9T’ on Alex

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Glossy, wet, Mallard

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German Ringed X530 1W Caspian Gull

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Somewhere in that lot is probably a Glaucous – not that I found it/them

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Record shot of a Bearded Tit at Crossness – sadly wasn’t fast enough to capture the Penduline

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 butterflies of Blanes

The butterflies of my ‘French Patch’, Blanes, have been neglected compared with the birds. I don’t think they mind too much.

Some have, of course, been noticed like the stunning Scarce Swallowtail and the magnificent Two-tailed Pasha.

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Two-tailed Pasha (Charaxes jasius)

Watching the huge Charaxes flap around fearlessly, investigating food plants such as the Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a Mediterranean delight.

Geographical context: The Patch is situated about 40km inland from the Mediterranean, and about 80km North of the Spanish border. The scrubby maquis land ranges from around 300m to 540m above sea level and is just a few flaps of eagle wings away from peaks rising up to almost 3000m.

On my trip this August, there was still plenty on the wing and I figured I ought to pay them a bit more attention. I had flown out from London where I had spent time watching Common Blue and Brown Argus. The French Patch had these two species in abundance as well.

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

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Mating Common Blues

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Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

There were other species as well that are very familiar to me back on my London Patch; Small Heath and Meadow Brown for example.

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Female Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)

But then there are other, seemingly familiar, butterflies that are actually somewhat different. One of the most frequently seen butterflies on the Patch was a Gatekeeper, but  not all of them were the Gatekeeper species I commonly see in London. Some were Southern Gatekeeper close to the most Northerly part of their range.

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Male Southern Gatekeeper (Pyronia cecilia)

An unusual find on my London Patch is Marbled White. I have only seen one there in fact (last year), but they are believed to be one of the most numerous species in France. However, the one I found a few weeks ago on my French Patch was Iberian Marbled White (a nice life tick for me) which has a range that only snakes into a tiny sliver of the South East of France.

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Iberian Marbled White (Melanargia lachesis)

Just as Catalonian culture and language bleed and blend into this ultra rural part of Southern France, so too this Spanish butterfly’s range ignores the political borders of humankind.

Even where my two patches share the same species, sometimes there is noticeable sub-specific variation. This was most apparent with the Speckled Wood: a common butterfly in both London and the Languedoc, but with quite different appearances. The pale yellow/cream of the P.a.tircis form found in the UK, contrasting quite strongly with the orangey colour of the P.a.aegaria nominate form found in France:

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Speckled Wood (Parage aegaria aegaria)

A butterfly found in England but not seen in Wanstead is the Grayling; this was abundant in August.

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Grayling (Hipparchia semele)

As mentioned above, on this trip I actually paid attention to the butterflies and realised that what I thought were all Graylings, were actually a range of different species: most of them new to me. Ones I managed to identify were Tree Grayling, Striped Grayling, and False Grayling.

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False Grayling (Arethusana arethusana)

If a False Grayling were to appear on my Patch it would cause a frenzy of interest from Lepidopterists as only one has ever been recorded in the UK, in Surrey in 1974, with experts still unsure whether it was an errant vagrant from the continent or a bred specimen from a private collection.

Most of the blues seen were Common, but sometimes a large pale ghost-like blue would float past on the grassier parts of the Patch. This was another first for me: Provence Chalkhill Blue at the westernmost part of its narrow range.

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Provence Chalk-hill Blue (Lysandra hispana)

Another Blue I was thrilled to find was this gorgeous Long-tailed Blue:

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Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus)

I had lazily thought I had been looking at White Admiral until I noticed a blue sheen on these large and, and commonly seen, Nymphalidae. It was actually Southern White Admiral.

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Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta)

At the other end of the size spectrum are the skippers. I have a feeling there were a few species on the wing, but I only managed to photograph and identify a couple. With open wings, the Silver-spotted Skipper resembles a Large Skipper I am used to at home, but with closed wing the greenish tinge and white studding is very different.

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Silver-spotted Skipper (Hesperia comma)

Less classically attractive perhaps, but interesting nonetheless, is another butterfly where the South of France serves as the northernmost part of its range; Southern Marbled Skipper:

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Worn Southern Marbled Skipper (Carcharodus boeticus)

Butterflies I saw on this latest trip which I have not yet mentioned were, Wall, Spotted Fritillary, Clouded Yellow, and Wood White, taking my trip count to 23 if you include the butterfly I mention below. Not an enormous count, but respectable for a first real effort. I suspect I shall be far more observant on future trips as I look to build my overall list up and discover what else appears in this hilly, mediterranean, boundary land.

Of course, with so many butterflies around, there are inevitably other creatures which benefit from this, such as this stunning Wasp Spider:

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Female Wasp Spider (Argiope bruennichi)

Another yellow and black predator of butterflies is, of course, the Hornet. Watching a huge Two-tailed Pasha flap around in vain on the floor as a hornet repeatedly stung the helpless butterfly and eventually tear off its wings piece by piece while it was still alive was disturbingly brutal to my human sensibilities.

Butterflies are so deeply embedded in our cultural psyche as symbols of hope, change, resurrection, and life itself that it is difficult not feel drawn to them.

A special moment for me was seeing pulses of yellow, green, and orange in flight before, what appeared to be, a Brimstone (a butterfly I have seen before on the Patch) settled with its wings closed (they never settle with open wings). But the orange I had glimpsed in flight was a give away and a slight breeze helped to gently and fractionally open the wings of the resting Pieridae, again revealing the orange blush and instantly identifying it as a Cleopatra.

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Cleopatra (Gonepteryx cleopatra)

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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Paean to Phoenicurus and the other patch-breeding birds

Being away from the Patch when the Autumn passage migration begins is never easy. It is made easier by having the privilege of a second patch in a different country in which to holiday.

Common Redstart has been seen again in the East London patch; a bird I hope to catch up with when I return. But I can’t complain. On the French patch, Common Redstart are also migrants, but they stick around and breed over the summer rather than just pass through as with London.

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Immature male Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

I love redstarts: they are stunning birds with bags of character and are relatively bold affording us with great views. Sadly, the only bird not showing fantastically well was the mature breeding male – the best shot I managed was this:

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Female, left, and young male, right

They will soon head back to Africa. However, their similarly red-tailed relatives, the Black Redstart – that have also bred successfully – will stick around as they are full year residents. The family that breed year after year by the house beat their ‘common’ cousins as being the most showy of the patch birds.

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Juvenile Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

It has been great to watch young birds be fed, learn to feed themselves, and grow. Other birds visibly doing the same thing on the French Patch have been Stonechat – with immature birds perching up every now and again, and several of the resident and migrant-breeding warblers. The most successful sylvians here have always been the Subalpine Warblers and I have spent hours this trip watching families of this warbler making the most of the early autumn berry bonanza to supplement their invertebrate diet.

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Male Subalpine warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

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Male with juvenile

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Male feeding juvenile

There are, of course, several other breeding birds on the French Patch that have not proved as easy to observe. August can be a tricky month in that respect as birds are so quiet – there has been very little song. In fact, it can lead one to – sometimes incorrectly – conclude that birds have already migrated. I have only had brief views of Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, and Melodious Warbler with barely even a call out of any of them.

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Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)

In may and early June the land is alive with the song of prospecting and protective males of multiple species. Most beautiful, of course, is the Nightingale. I haven’t seen a single one of these notoriously shy songsters and had concluded they had left for the South when I was treated to a few grating calls and even a short burst of sub-song from deep within the scrub.

There are also some more exotic migrants which I will return to in a different post.

 

Winter and the sounds of silence

Silence.

The absence of sound: the concept; the mindset; the state of existence. So rare. As a birder mainly working an inner London patch, it is not something I am used to. But sometimes (most definitely not always) it can be found on my other ‘patch’ in the French foothills of the Pyrenees.

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South towards the Pyrenees

Arriving at the remote house, the silence hit me like a lump hammer. Miles from the nearest road, isolated from any flight paths, the patch is always wild. But the wild was silent too. No bird song, no bird calls (imagine the change from London: no gulls, no crows), no calling insects of the mediterranean. But also, no wind. Just cold air and bright sun. A frozen scene.

Birding the French patch is always a challenge. The birds are more secretive, far less visible, and sometimes silent. At first a sliver of panic set in: “are there any birds here at all?” – the foolish thought passed across my mind like an unwanted shadow.

Of course there were birds here, although the demographics had shifted quite significantly. The first bird I heard on the patch was a Blackbird; a low darting black shape and that ubiquitous furious squawking – its alarm call. But after an hour or so of walking around the maquis, I became aware of more and different thrushes. The chack-chacking of Fieldfare and occasional ripples of flocked flight from tree to tree that told me these winter migrants were here in large numbers. And then, the Song Thrushes. A bird I rarely see or hear on the patch – rather than the resident songbird that we know and love in the UK, and across much of Europe – these hilly foothills appear to be migrant territory only. Occasionally, the alarm calls took on a different pitch and the darting culprit was browner and more spotted than a female Blackbird. Over time, the thrush jigsaw was pieced together: Tens or even over a hundred Fieldfare and Song Thrushes skulking, waiting on the land – deep in the bushes and trees (still largely hidden in this evergreen utopia), and occasionally, rarely, when the sun shone strongest (stretching the temperature from below freezing to over 20 degrees centigrade in a matter of hours), the Song Thrush sang. The silence pierced by one of the most famous songs of the wild.

My winter patch had other surprises for me. Occasionally the silence was broken by a passing Tit flock.

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Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit. The flocks foraged in the Aleppo Pines on our hillsides joined by their mountain-loving cousins, Crested Tit. Larger numbers than I have ever seen before on the patch. The sparkling white peaks in the distance were a clue that that these stunning birds had moved down in altitude to find food in pines not frozen solid and not covered in a thick coat of snow.

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European Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

We are still several months away from our Summer migrants joining us again (the Nightingale, the Melodious Warbler, the Whitethroat, the Chiffchaff, the Sub-Alpine Warbler are all hundreds and thousands of miles South on a different continent), but there  are some warblers that stick it out. In fact I was blown away how many bushes would tick and rattle at me with Sardinian Warbler and Blackcap, both here in large numbers.

The bushes and trees of the maquis hold other winter secrets too. Firecrest are everywhere – moving through the Box, Holm Oak, and even navigating the tightly twisted branches and densely-spined leaves of the Kermes Oak. I remain convinced that this little king is the most numerous bird on the patch. Short-toed Treecreeper shuffle up and down the narrow twisted trunks of maquis growth, Wren peek out and occasionally call territorially, as does the Robin, ticking like an old pocket watch and signalling places where the ground has been disturbed.

Roe Deer tracks mosaic the mud, but sometimes the disturbance is more complete. I pushed my way through bars and thorns to be inside a Holm Oak wood and could smell and tell the recent presence of Wild Boar.

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Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) and boar-disturbed ground

The winter green (as so much of the maquis is evergreen) was occasionally punctuated by the seemingly unseasonal blossom of Strawberry Tree bell flowers whilst other trees of the same species were still full of fruit.

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Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

Its name proving to be a misnomer as my wife and Sister-in-Law happily ate several of the crimson balls: ‘Arbutus unedo‘ or ‘eat once’ as their appealing fruit are supposedly bitter.

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Fruit of the Strawberry Tree

The clear blue skies of the patch are rarely crossed by plane or passing bird – I have never seen a gull, duck, or goose fly over the patch, for example. Occasionally a comet of feather would arch over in a parabola from low to high to disappear, again low, in the undergrowth displaying the stumpy tail of the Woodlark – whose song I long to hear again in the warmer months, but who is now, silent.

Sometimes, too, the great silent blue was brought to life by the tinkling of Goldfinch (I counted a flock of thirty-plus one day) or the odd chup-chup of the Chaffinch. Last winter I added Hawfinch to my patch list. This year the silence was broken more comprehensively by a single male Siskin moving through the tops of the pines – it is the first and only Siskin I have seen on this patch in nine years of regular visits.

Goldfinch and Chaffinch were only beaten in their airborne vocal reliability by the cronking of our resident Ravens.

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Common Raven (Corvus corax)

During this visit, the most complete shattering of the silence – apart, perhaps, from the distant boom of hunters’ guns – was in the gathering of the largest flock of Raven I have ever seen (in fact it was two flocks totalling some 40 birds).

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An unkindness of Raven

The collective noun from, medieval venery, for Ravens is an ‘unkindness’. I consider this to be unkind in itself. I watched them swirl and court and ‘play’ in such a sociable manner high up on the thermals that I: a) could not believe their attention was really on any ground carrion; or b) simply disagree with the noun imposed on them.

To truly work a patch, it helps to have a clear idea of the shape, size and boundaries of it. With my London patch, I know this well as it is set out in maps and was agreed by others before I moved to the area. In France it is not so clear, partly because I am the only birder working the patch. The ownership of the land is not physically marked and is archaically legally patchwork (no pun intended) in nature. The boundaries are flexed by the distance I walk and were pushed to their limits this trip when I found two new birds for my patch list. I now decree it to be the land surrounding the house stretching in all directions up to the immediate vicinity of surrounding roads and villages (I must admit that this makes it really rather huge in size).

On one walk to a nearby village when the houses were in sight, albeit over 100 metres vertically below our hillside track in elevation, I heard and saw the first Carrion Crows I have recorded on the patch.

On another walk from our land to another village I finally saw a bird that has been the top of my patch wishlist for several years: the Griffon Vulture.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

The enormous bird circled around a hilltop several times before flying high right over our heads and fast off South back towards the Pyrenees. It did all of this without beating its giant wings once and, of course, it did it all in absolute silence.

I was mesmerised but very happy. The tenth raptor tick for this patch for me (dare I hold out hope for Lammergeier and Bonelli’s Eagle? Of course I do – I am an optimistic birder! Black Vulture may be pushing it a bit, but I live in hope) and I still haven’t seen Black kite and Booted Eagle on the patch which are both common in the area and I have seen many times further afield.

In the last two days, the weather has changed and the silence has been shattered by strong winds. Tough birding has also just got even tougher, although my wife and I stood on top of a hill yesterday and looked across the valley at a pair of Red-billed Chough battle expertly (but somewhat less acrobatically than in calmer weather) against the wind whilst hugging the rock escarpments known within the family as ‘Eagle Peak’.

30. That is the number of different species of birds I have counted in the few days we have been out here. That is around half what I would expect to tick off on my patch in London at the same time, but the experiences that come with these birds often make me stand still in awe and silence.

The Maquis

The Maquis is a fictional terrorist/paramilitary organisation in Star Trek (DS9, TNG, and VOY – if you don’t know what these abbreviations mean, you probably won’t want to know) that has been formed to fight against the Cardassian (think quasi-fascist, sharp witted, scaly aliens)/Federation (the ‘goodies’ in Star Trek) alliance. They are roughly based on…

The Maquis were a terrorist/paramilitary organisation in France and (later) Spain fighting against fascist Nazi-dominated Vichy France and later the quasi-fascist Franco regime. They were named after the type of terrain they were famous for occupying and carrying out their activities…

The Maquis is a shrubland biome/ecoregion, that, along with the even scrubbier garrigue, is recognised as typical mediterranean habitat. It happens to be a major feature of the land in my birding ‘patch’ in the extreme South of France.

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Maquis on the patch, with a hunters’ track carving through it

Rather like the barren uplands of the UK that many, who haven’t read George Monbiot’s ‘Feral’, perceive to be the epitome of British wilderness, people are mistaken in thinking that  this is ‘natural’ or ‘original’ (whatever that word means in evolving ecosystems) Mediterranean habitat. Hundreds and thousands of years of agriculture has deforested (and then inevitably de-soiled) the land leaving it only fertile enough for stunted and hardy plants to grow.

On steep hillsides where soil erosion has been most intense, the Maquis has diminished to the extent that it resembles alkaline garrigue biome:

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Sparse hilly maquis resembling garrigue, also on the patch

Sometimes the vegetation is further cropped by a herd of voracious mouths whose bells give away their presence long before you see them:

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But in other parts of the patch, less affected by agriculture or, at least less recently affected, a natural process of rewilding is occurring and thicker, denser, taller forest is returning (looking much closer to how the land would have looked before the spread of human civilisation and agriculture) – impenetrable apart from wild boar paths and where the hunters’ tracks carve through the landscape like giant ochre scars:

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Holm Oak, Phillyrea, and Box woodland

It is fascinating to observe how the wildlife changes depending on the subtle variations of maturity of the Maquis. Inevitably, the thickest woodland, often on steep slopes, is the hardest to monitor, but is well populated with Short-toed Treecreeper which occasionally break out of the woodland and make an appearance closer to the house:

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Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla) on ‘Heinrich’ the totem/statue

It seems – certainly in Spring when they call and sing a lot – that Firecrest is the most common bird on the patch. As long as there is a bush or two, Firecrest are common throughout every level of vegetation:

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Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)

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Firecrest with crest on full display

Sardinian Warblers are present throughout the year in the bushes, and had started singing – occasionally even conducting low flurries of song-flight before disappearing back into their bushes (often Kermes Oak I have noticed). By the time we had arrived in late March, the Subalpine Warblers had arrived in large numbers. In Spring and Summer, they appear to be the most numerous warbler, overtaking their resident sylvian cousins, the sardis.

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Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

If the Subalpine and Sardinian warblers take the 1st and 2nd spot, Chiffchaff (which had also arrived in March) must be number three:

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Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

I would allocate the fourth podium (when is there ever a fourth podium?) back to the sylvians with Blackcap – some of which probably overwinter closing off the warblers I saw whilst there for a couple of weeks early this Spring.

Melodious Warbler, a relatively common summer breeding bird on the patch had not yet arrived even by the end of the first week in April (incidentally, neither had our watch of Nightingales).

Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits seem to love the variety of Maquis vegetation, whilst Blue Tits are frequent, but less common. Crested Tits will occasionally show themselves in the Aleppo Pine woodland on the hill, but I didn’t find any on this trip (higher up in the Pyrenees, they are everywhere!) And, of course, where there are lots of tits and other small woodland birds, you inevitably also get:

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Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Sparrowhawk is common, but perhaps not seen as frequently – in season – as Short-toed Eagle:

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Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Sadly I did not see any Hen Harrier on this visit to the patch (although I did see one elsewhere in France) as they are true masters of the Maquis scrub.

Whilst the maquis may help dictate the type of avifauna found, almost anything can soar above it. On this trip I was genuinely thrilled to see a pair of Golden Eagle soaring effortlessly over the hills:

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Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Just as oblivious as to what vegetation is on the ground, was my first patch crag martin.

Falling back to earth and thinking back to the Aleppo Pine, a rather unwelcome resident is the Pine Processionary Moth, or rather its caterpillars which march nose-to-tail across paths like blind mice. The hairs on this caterpillar can cause extreme irritation – especially if inhaled or if blown into your eyes. Allergic reactions to this have proved fatal for dogs and other animals. The caterpillars feed on pine needles, and if infested with multiple nests, the de-nuded trees might become susceptible to other forms of parasitic attack, but research shows that they are not quite as damaging to trees as some fear. I would also love to see research on the strength of the silk they weave as their nests are phenomenally tough:

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Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa)

In more open areas of the Maquis, different birds seem to thrive.

Cirl Bunting are common and flit between bushes and trees to deliver their fast rattling songs, but I was even more pleased to find Rock Bunting for the first time on the Patch:

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Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia)

Occasionally, on walks, I would push through the spikes of Juniper or Kermes Oak bushes (almost everything on the patch has a defence mechanism) and flush some ground dwelling larks. On my patch in London, Skylarks are the feature bird, delivering their famous songs from high in the sky and often rising and fluttering down almost vertically. In the French patch, Woodlarks fill this niche and perform their songflight in great circling loops.

In the most open areas – on paths, meadows, and lawns near the houses, the Black Redstart is king. I find the male’s song quite extraordinary, sounding like crushed gravel after a bunch of initial whistles. They breed in the houses and ruins:

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Female Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Occasionally, the clearings and paths attract the stunning Hoopoe. This time I stopped the car to take photos of it on the track in to the house:

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Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

Overall, it is a fascinating privilege to watch the birds utilise different aspects of the varied stages of maquis development, and to watch the land slowly, but inexorably rewild.

 

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)