Tag Archives: south of France

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.

 

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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.

 

The salt marshes of Southern France

The town of Gruissan sits on the Southern french mediterranean coast next to Narbonne.

L'etang de Gruissan

L’etang de Gruissan

The salt marshes there are harvested for table salt and the water is the most extraordinary colour…

Salt pans

The shallow salty water attracts a large number of waders. They are shy and I was unable to get closer than about 20 metres to any (and many stayed much further than that), but walking in between the salt pans…

Salt pans

… allowed me to get just about within photography distance of:

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

and the closely related Black-winged Stilt (which I last saw on Safari in Africa)…

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

I was also pleased with a life-first view of a Kentish Plover (albeit at great distance for such tiny birds), seen characteristically scuttling up down looking for food:

Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)

Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)

Another life first for me was this Little Tern:

Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)

Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)

And most pleasingly was the view I got of a bird I just do not associate with Europe at all. Whilst not a life first, I was delighted with my European first sighting of Greater Flamingo:

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

As the sun beat down harshly, and a strong hot wind blew salt into my face as I walked for a couple of miles out through the marshes and onto the mediterranean beach, I reflected on how I was in one of only a small handful of sites in France where you can see Flamingos. To misquote some communists, there is an irrepressible joy and lightness of being in the wild:

Gruissan plage

A wild land? A photo-story from the South of France

Deep in the languedoc region of Southern France, in the mediterranean foothills of the Pyrenees, there lies a hidden valley…

Blanes valley

Whilst in the region of the vines of the Corbieres, the valley, and its surrounds, is wild and largely uncultivated…

Serre du Blanes

This is the land of wild boar. They leave their tracks…

wild boar tracks

…and markings everywhere…

boar markings

But wisely, these creatures are elusive, for this is also the land of hunters. Though many hours have been spent stepping carefully through the valley, I have only glimpsed flashes of the beasts. Only once, too, have I captured a distant shot of a roe deer…

Roe deer

In winter and summer, the fauna of the valley is shy and wild. Common birds that we know as garden friends, such as the Blackbird, are plentiful but almost as elusive as the boar. The merest tread of a foot sends theses birds diving deeper into thickets for cover squawking their alarm as they go. In half a decade of visits to the valley, this twig-obscured shot of a feasting female (taken this winter) is the best I have done…

Female Blackbird

In the winter, the Blackbird is joined by its migratory cousins from the frozen North, the Redwing…

Redwing

… and Fieldfare…

Fieldfare

The stony and often dry land is populated by a range of pines…

Pine cones

… and the evergreen Holm (or Holly) Oak, Quercus ilex, which has been used to build the classical ships and wagons of Homer and Hesiod for thousands of years and has fed wild boar from its acorns and root-protected truffles for millions of years…

Quercus ilex

What is wild?

At first glance, the valley seems wild, but it has not always been so. Amidst the natural outcrops of rock (pushed up by the Pyrenees) stand well camouflaged rocks laid out as walls by the hands of long-dead men…

walls

…and even in relatively recent decades, this land was used productively…

olive tree and contraption

The urge for man to reclaim the land is strong and I helped an inhabitant of the valley clear a small plot of brambles to make way for an olive grove. However, the valley is now largely in the ‘hands’ of the wild things.

Comparing the seasons

This winter, I walked past Old man’s beard…

Clematis vitalba

… and erupting Puff-ball fungi…

puff balls

… but in the Spring, flowers, not fungi, dominate including thousands of stalks of Asphodel…

Asphodel

… caterpillars emerge and turn to butterflies…

butterfly

… and weird creatures appear in the grasses, like this mantis…

mantis

I scoured the dwindling pools (it has been a dry winter so far) and found only Water boatman…

Water boatman

… whilst in warmer months past, I have watched newts, such as this Palmate…

Palmate newt

The birds that hide in thickets during the cold and scorching months, and those that migrate away from the chill, return during the spring to sing, such as this Serin…

Serin

… this resident warbler, the Blackcap…

Blackcap

…And at the right time of year, the valley chimes through day and much of the night with the song of the Nightingale…

Nightingale

Beyond the valley

If you climb the steep slopes of the valley, you reach the summit rocks where ravens and birds of prey feed. Looking down south from the pass, you see yet another similar valley…

the view

Lifting your eyes up out of this valley and staring south, the blue of the distance only partially hides the mighty peaks of the Pyrenees, such as Mount Canigou…

Canigou