Tag Archives: pyrenees

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.

 

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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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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 I (a grey ghost and silhouettes)

As any regular reader of this recently irregular blog will know, aside from my relatively new birding patch in East London, I have another patch.

My second ‘patch’ is in a remote part of Southern France in the foothills of the Pyrenees. As I type, it is a sweltering evening in East London. And so it was also sweltering a couple of weeks ago in France. Whilst I tried to avoid the mid-day heat, I walked out every morning and evening to record the wildlife as I have attempted to do for the last seven years.

Every day I would scan the sky for dark shapes… for raptors, such as…

Short-toed Snake Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Short-toed Snake Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

But what I was really hoping for was … other than the dreamy hope that a Griffon Vulture or Lammergeier might soar down the mountains to us … a view of a Hen Harrier. I have watched these birds glide low in the valley a couple of times before but not for a few years. Their horrendous persecution and near extinction in the UK intensifies my desire to see it anywhere now – like the sudden, almost guilt-driven, desire to see a terminally ill friend or relative.

One evening I walked back along our long dusty track to try and see a Turtle Dove – which I duly did, or rather I listened to its purring of bottled summer song.

I got to the point where I knew I needed to turn around to get home before dark, but sat for a few minutes by a small deserted building.

Ruin

The rocks I sat on were annoyingly uncomfortable, but the views in the golden light of evening, and the almost mystical awareness of nature that enveloped me on the hillside in the shadow of this ruin, compelled me to stay longer than I should. As I stood and wiped the dust from my shorts I became aware of something in the upper periphery of my vision.

After the initial flick of my head to see what what happening, I stood as still as the ruin and watched a Hen Harrier. Far closer than I have ever been before, it glided in front of my eyes, tracing the contours of the land and bushes as perfectly as if it was connected by some invisible wire to the ground. But the Harrier was connected to nothing. It was free, and by the time I had slowly exhaled a single breath, it had slipped over the brow of the hill like wind-blown smoke.

It was a male. As grey as dry slate with its wingtips dipped in black ink. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. And it was gone.

These words do not accurately depict what was going through my mind at the time. When the Harrier had disappeared over the brow of the hill, it was as if I were an anxious parent whose child had just slipped from his hands into great peril. Any reverie I had been in as it flew across my sightline had been shattered. I ran. In some dreadful contrast to the grace of the Harrier, I chased it like a greedy, chubby child might pursue a dangled chocolate. As the Harrier had only been 25-30 metres in front of me, I was over the hill in a small matter of seconds and ready with sweaty palms to claim my prize: a photo of my favourite bird.

But it was gone. Of course, it could not have ‘gone’ as it had been there just a few moments before and I now had a perfect view over the scrub and cultivated land for almost a mile in every direction. But it was gone. Logically, I can reason that it had swooped down on some unsuspecting prey just a few feet beneath its talons, or it had landed to avoid the sweaty ape that was invading its territory, but it seemed like it had vanished like a phantom, or disappeared like its kin due to the persecution of man. My greedy desire to photograph the Harrier then seemed to horribly mirror the greedy desires of those who cannot tolerate the competition the Harrier poses on their grouse moors. I stood in silence, still looking, but with the downcast outline of man shamed by the grotesque actions of his kind.

I felt like I had seen a ghost. And perhaps, tragically, in a way, I had.

If you can help the Harriers, please do.

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)