Monday, 18 June 2012

Corsica - May 2012

Stephen at Cape Corse headland

Friday 4th May - As planned we had all agreed to meet up on the island of Corsica at Bastia airport. Everything worked out really well with the various travelling arrangements made by each client. One couple came by ferry from Nice and another from Livorno, both to the port of Bastia. The rest of the group flew in to Bastia airport  Stephen collected the minibus keys from Europcar as he, John and Doug waited for their luggage to come off their respective planes. The others in the group were waiting and within a short time we were heading out through the lovely green countryside towards our first hotel near Corte.
The weather was warm at 19oC and there was some traffic on the road mainly around the airport at Bastia and the drive was pretty straightforward. En route we picked up a few birds which included Common Kestrel, Barn Swallow, Hooded Crow, Common Buzzard and Feral Dove.

Once settled into our hotel we took a stroll along the side of the river to see what birds and plants were around. Grey Wagtail could be heard calling as it flew up the fast flowing river and it wasn't long before we spotted a lovely male bird on the large rocks. White-throated Dipper was another mountain river bird we watched and there was a newly fledged bird seen again on a large river boulder awaiting the turn of it's parents with food. Coal Tits flew into the pines and Common Blackbirds were seen squabbling above the road. A rabbit sounded the alarm (below)....

Sharp-eyed Andy spotted two raptors high above the crest of the mountain ridge, circling in the sky, being harried by a smaller nimbler raptor. Although fairly distant the view was good enough to make out the structure shape of all three birds and when they turned you could see some colour and markings on the underwing and tail. The two larger were Golden Eagles and the smaller bird turned out to be a Sparrowhawk. We saw the birds a couple of more times as we went back down the road to the hotel and it could be that they are local birds preparing to nest. Alpine Swifts came and went and at one point whizzed past the eagles a few times.
Later we took a drink on the hotel's terrace and a short while later walked down to a nearby restaurant and had a very good meal of charcuterie, fresh mountain trout with vegetables and rice and sweet chestnut ice-cream.
Walking back in the darkness we heard two Scops Owls calling and some small Pipistrelle Bats flying silhouetted against the moon.
It was a lovely start to the day and feeling quite tired after a long day's travelling, retired for the night.
 Great Tit on Corsica
Restonica Valley, our first location for four nights

'Signs' the past, the armed struggle for independence from France

Saturday 5th May  - A pre-breakfast walk was pretty quiet although we did see Common Buzzard, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Crag Martin, Coal Tit at a nest, Blue and Great Tits, Jay and Raven.

After breakfast at the hotel Stephen dropped off the group at Corte to watch Red Kite and Common Swift over the old town while he went to get picnic items at a local supermarket.
We all set off exploring the Resonica Valley which is a continuation of the road where our hotel is situated. The fast flowing river has huge boulders that have been eroded over the years and the clear waters are attractive to all kinds of wildlife. Flowering plants are numerous and varied in early May, with lots of hellebore, asphodel, cistus, geranium amongst the pine trees and heathers. Cyclamen seem to be flowering everywhere and there were a few orchids flowering here and there. A lovely Brimstone was seen as was a Swallowtail a Common Blue and Speckled Wood. We stopped off at a few river sites and  wider verges and found Long-tailed Tits and Common Buzzard.
We drove higher into the valley and as we climbed we stopped to find one more Golden Eagle dipping behind a far ridge. Choughs were seen displaying  and more Jays and a few Hooded Crows flew across the valley or the sine of the craggy ridges. The weather was rather chilly with strong winds at the car park at the top and our plan was to have a picnic there but it was too cold and none of the birds we wanted could be seen - in fact most of the birds were on the other side of the mountain away from the bad weather.
Some Tyrrhenian Wall Lizards were seen scurrying away in the undergrowth or basking in the sun and there seemed to be lots of nests of the Pine processional Moths hanging from many of the endemic Corsican Pine trees.
We drove back down and found a lovely smaller gorge sheltered somewhat from the winds and a good bit warmer. Here we set up our picnic and managed to watch a pair of Goldcrests coming in to see what we were up to!
Winding our way back down it gradually became quite warm and although birds were few we did see more interesting plants and a few more butterflies, Hover flies and more lizards.
Later we took a drive to a small village east of Corte and found Greenfinch, Chaffinch and a few more orchids and plants.
We returned to the hotel and later completed our lists of birds and other wildlife that we'd seen today and then walked down to the local restaurant where we had a tasty Corsican salad, delicious grilled Lamb and desert.

Bee-eater meadow
Chaffinch - a striking looking form on the island
Cirl Bunting, female
Cirl Bunting, male
Coal Tit

Sunday 6th May - A pre-breakfast walk by the river valley wasn't planned but Doug and Stephen went out to watch and photograph the Corsican endemic sub-species of Jay that seemed very confiding around the road leading down to Corte. Another bird species, endemic to Corsica was seen, the Corsican Finch. We had distant views of a male singing and the pair flew overhead then were lost in the treeline across the river.
The weather had changed and a low pressure system was moving quickly in from the South-western Mediterranean and the first spots of rain started just after breakfast. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that Sunday was election day in France. It didn't seem like election fever had gripped Corsica, but then again the island is a very different part of France!
Andrew didn't appear fro breakfast and had done something to his back. To cut a long story short, the group walked into Corte while we took him down to see a Doctor in the town and successfully managed to get some muscle relaxants and stronger painkillers. The rain got heavier and we met the rest of the group at a cafe in the town square. They had already seen many of the river birds on their walk
With Any now feeling better and able to take part we headed off in the minibus  a few kilometres to the east of Corte where we ventures out in the rain and managed to see a surprising number of new bird species. Goldfinches, Wood Lark, Tree Sparrow and Common Stonechat were watched. The leafy lanes held Great Spotted Woodpecker that were feeding on Cork-oaks and through the foliage we headr a Common Cuckoo calling and at least one bird was seen flying over the meadows. A Tree Pipit was also picked up  and a lovely pair of Cirl Buntings were watched. Blackcaps, Chaffinches, Blackbirds and Serin were seen and a Woodchat Shrike made its appearance on an electric cable, despite the rain. Many Starlings also sat along the wires and a few were the European while most were Spotless Starling

We headed off for a late lunch at a rural restaurant in the countryside as the rain now came down in 'cats and dogs'!
Venturing out again along the stone-walled lanes and flowering verges we saw more birds along the way that included White Wagtail and a pair of Robin. Grey Wagtails were seen in low numbers as were a few Dippers and a Wren was heard singing as were many Nightingales, a Wood Warbler and Song Thrush. A grey Heron was seen in flight as were many Hooded Crow and migrating Sand Martin that were feeding on insects along the river as they migrated northwards.
At an ancient bridge a few kilometers further downstream we stopped to watch a fabulous spectacle of House Martin, Sand Martin, Crag Martin, Barn Swallow and Common Swift all feeding there, swooping low under the bridge's three tall arches. Despite the rain it was a great sight to watch.
Our day ended on a happy note and later we enjoyed another lovely meal at our restaurant of a wonderful typical Corsican thick, vegetable soup and a dish of Smoked Salmon to follow. The usual deserts and coffees were taken and we had a brisk walk back to our hotel in the rain!

The High Asco Valley
Corsica has some wonderful walking routes as well as wonderful mountain scenery

Corsican Finches feeding amongst fresh mountain grasses

We managed to get some good photos of Corsican Finches

Another sought after bird is the endemic Corsican Nuthatch

Monday 7th May - The sun shone on a clear blue sky after the night's rainfall. Taking our riverside walk before breakfast we came across a lovely pair of Blue Rock Thrush bathed in sunlight. A male Sardinain Warbler flew below a rocky outcrop and Kath spotted a Ring Ouzel in flight. What a great start to the day! A Sparrowhawk and Red Kite were also seen and the usual tits and Grey Wagtails called by the river or flew past. Another Wren sang and remained invisible to us despite having a search through the olive trees, pines and scrub.

After breakfast we set off towards the valley to Calacuccia. En route we stopped to take in the splendour of the valleys and the surrounding views. Two Corsican Finches flew over the road and a pair of Marmora's Warbler were seen flitting about with nest materials. Alpine Chough flew over the ridges at some distance and Jay, Raven and Hooded Crow were also noted. We moved on further up the valley and took a left turn at the Calacuccia Resrvoir and headed up the fairly even track that goes through the ancient pine forest. We stopped to marvel at the massive pines and tried to find Corsican Nuthatch, another endemic to the island. Several Chaffinch, Great Tit, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Jay were seen, then we heard the call of the nuthatch - fantastic. Quickly Doug and John found it near the top of a pine and all had views of the bird.


Great Spotted Woodpecker


We descended down the long winding track and stopped to watch Great Spotted Woodpeckers, more Corsican Finch, Chaffinch Cirl Buntings and Coal and Great Tit.Red-legged Partridge were new birds for the list and we had a close look at a pair of pure form of Rock Dove. Before going back to Corte and our hotel we took a look around an area north of our base. Here we found Nightingale, Hoopoe, and Red-backed Shrike. Several Woodchat Shrike were also seen but we had great views of an immature Red-backed and two adults.
Back at our hotel we had a drink at the bar and completed the ever increasing bird and other wildlife species list, before walking down to our hotel. We dined on a really delicious salad starter then a wholesome country casserole of wild boar served with banded (not bandit!) pasta. The meal was excellent and of course we washed it down with a fine selection of Corsican wines.

A Hoopoe alights on a branch

Eurasian Jay, the Corsican form showing slight variance in head pattern

The elusive Lammergeier. Although searching for the birds at one reported nest site area we failed to catch up with it this year. This is a photo from a previous trip to Corsica

Tuesday 8th May - An early morning's walk in the sunshine and clear blue mountain skies brought the usual birds and Doug watched a Sparrowhawk fly northwards. Janet also had some Blackcap close to the hotel.
We said our goodbyes to Lucien and his staff at the hotel and headed down through Corte and along the main road to Bastia before turning off left and following the Asco River valley.  Almost at the turnoff to the valley we stopped to watch two raptors in the sky ahead. One turned out to be a Common Buzzard but the other was a Long-legged Buzzard! It certainly was a good start for the day's birding. Nightingales were singing in the hedgerows as we admired the lush flowering plants along the verges that seemed filled with spring Poppies, Common Vetch Viper's Bugloss and Everlasting Pea.
A Subalpine Warbler was seen as were the first of a few parties of Alpine Swift. Raven and Hooded Crow were fairly common as were Crag Martin and Jay.
We stopped for a coffee midway up the valley at the town of Asco later finding Firecrest and quite a few Citril Finch. Greenfinch was also quite abundant and a wren was heard. Close views of  a passing red Kite were quite spectacular as it passed overhead and flew down the valley, set against the pines.
We drove steadily up to the Station du Ski de Haut Asco and parked at the Plateau de Stagnu whereby we left the vehicle and walked up through the trail and into the ancient pines. We were looking for Corsican Nuthatch, although we had seen the birds the previous day this bird and Lammergeier were our two main target species for the day. Alas we had no luck with either but the sheer grandeur of the mountains and its valley were quite breathtaking. Doug watched a Sparrowhawk fly northwards and we had lots of Coal Tit and Great Tit in the pines. A few Alpine Choughs flew above but it was quite a quiet day for birds although Small Copper, Swallowtail and Brimstone butterflies were seen.
We picnicked under the pines below the plateau and used the massive boulders as tables to spread out the various salad dishes and other delicious local products.
Admiring the lovely blooming Alders on the way down we found more Cirl Buntings, Woodlarks one lone Tawny Pipit on a wire and several Common Kestrels.
As we approached our new hotel we picked up some falcon activity in the agricultural areas near the coast and saw six Red-Footed Falcons feeding with a few Common Kestrels around a field of freshly mown hay. An Audouin's Gull flew past and a few Yellow-Legged Gulls also were seen close to the coast.
Settling in to our new surroundings at our beach hotel, we watched Serin, Goldfinch around the gardens and John found a Hobby around some trees close to the shore.
Our evening dinner was excellent although we did have to suffer the noise of a rather enthusiastic bus group from Bordeaux who came in halfway through our meal. Fortunately they were only staying one night at the hotel.
After dinner we watched Scops Owls flying around the pines in the hotel's car park. We counted six in total and we could see them quite clearly as they flew from the large pines that were lit up by the car park lights. Black-winged Stilts were heard calling from the beach area

Another photo of the lovely Marmora's Warbler


Wednesday 9th May - Our pre breakfast walk around the hotel's gardens and surrounding woodland produced Yellow-legged and a few Great black-backed Gull. Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Serin and Italian Sparrows were heard and seen around the pines and scrubby Tamarisk and Letiscas outside the hotel. A look into an adjacent long, thick clump of Cistus plants produced Spectacled and Subbalpine Warblers in a very short time and Hooded and Carrion Crows were seen. Spotted Flycatcher and one Pied Flycatcher was seen and all this before breakfast!
Once we had finished our croissants and coffees we headed off around the Etang that is close to the hotel. Stopping briefly for supplies we stopped at some open meadows at the back of the main body of water of the etang, to watch flocks of Yellow Wagtails that were migrating northwards and Bee-eaters that were feeding, preening and resting in the area. We had some excellent views of these beautifully coloured birds and scoping around the area found two hunting Hobby, three  Marsh Harriers, numerous Red Kites and a few Common Buzzards. Common Kestrel and a lesser Kestrel were also seen and one distant Red-footed Falcon were also picked out.
Working our way around the lake and attempting to get clear views of water produced a pair of Great Cormorants, two Great and one Little Egret and Purple Heron in flight. Mallard, Common and Red Crested Pochard were seen swimming on the lake with Common Coot, Little and Great Crested Grebe. A Moorhen was also noted later in the day at a canal. It was hot and sticky in the afternoon although our picnic lunch went down a treat. Driving around the other side of the etang we saw Spectacled Warbler, Common Whitethroat and Sardinian Warblers. Some dragonfies had started flying around the wetland fringes and a Wryneck was seen briefly on the path. Back at our hotel we had a lovely dinner and later listened to the Scops Owls and watched them flying around the pines at the car park.

Pepper Beetles

Up early - Up high! Above Calacuccia Barage, looking for Lammergeier

Red-footed Falcons were a delight to watch

Thursday 10th May - A pre breakfast walk at 0715hrs was fairly productive with Great Black-backed Gulls and Shag being seen flying across the sea. A pair of Sardinian Warblers flitted around the scrub and three Whinchats sat up beautifully lit by the early morning sun. We also had good views of a Sparrowhawk hunting across the treeline.
We set off to Cap Corse passing through the bustling port of Bastia and along the winding east coast road that heads northwards. It's probably one of the most scenic roads of all the Mediterranean islands and with the beautiful weather just made it spectacular. Stopping for coffee at Macinaggio we then headed inland and climbed the last leg of the route, arriving at Tollare on the north coast.
A Golden Oriole male was seen as we left the coast and we passed lots of Hooded Crows, Ravens and Yellow-legged Gulls. A few Sardinian Warblers were also seen from the front of the minibus as they flitted across the road or the scrubby verges.
We explored a little of the headland around Tollare and looked at the nesting Yellow-legged Gulls on the island of La Giraglia. The small breeding colony of Audouin's Gulls on the back of the island unfortunately couldn't be seen nor did we see any of this lovely gull.

In the clear gree-blue water we found some Anchovie fry swimming in large shoals around the rocky coast and some small brightly blue coloured jellyfish were also seen. We took our picnic lunch  a little further around the headland then drove around to the Natural Reserve of Finnocchiarola which includes another small island with the same name. It was such a lovely place to sit out in the sunshine and take in the sights and sounds of this very peaceful and relatively undeveloped part of Corsica.
In the afternoon we walked along into the reserve and met a group of French bird ringers from the French mainland who have been recording species data and ringing migrant birds every spring for a considerable number of years. Garden Warblers were the most numerous of this day's birds caught in the nets along the river, followed by Great Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers. We saw that they had also ringed Cirl Bunting, Corn Bunting, Great Tit and Italian Sparrow. While there we spotted an Osprey passing closely carrying a fish.
On some boggy ground we saw Purple Heron and Little Egret. More Sardinian Warblers, Greenfinches, Singing Corn Buntings and a few Marmora's Warblers were also watched.
Painted Lady Butterfly and a Wall Brown were seen as well as some more dragonflies which included Scarlet Darter, Blue Chaser, Broad-bodied Chaser and Lesser Emperor.


Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, male. Always a rare and difficult bird to see on Corsica and this was the best views I have had here

There are lots of old, rustic looking buildings and outhouses that were built using local stone and slate. Life was tough and the history of Corsica and it's peoples often reads as many a romantic tale but in reality the strong willed people of this island have had a difficult existence

Happiness is a warm gun...

This Spotted Flycatcher was nesting on my hotel balcony

Spotted Flycatcher

Subalpine Warbler

It was a fairly long but very scenic drive back to our hotel on the other side of Bastia and when we parked the minibus we relaxed before dinner.

This was a lovely tour, and one that made it easier for myself as tour leader as we have all been with Andalucian Guides on several trips before. It was also great for me to have such an understanding and appreciative tour group as it was unseasonably cold and the subsequent migration in The Mediterranean was very slow to kick in. Cold winds from the north had been blowing all week and it wasn't until the last couple of days that the temperature rose to normal May levels. Nevertheless, we saw a fantastic array of birds and other wildlife and had lots of fun into the bargain. A big thanks to you all!

I left Bastia the next day, flying into Paris, Charles de Gaulle for my onward flight to Vienna where I stayed overnight, hired another mini-bus and met another group coming out from the UK, this time one of my Limosa Holidays tours down at Lake Neusiedl, in Burgenland, right on the border with Hungary. A busy season indeed!

White-throated Dipper

Newly fledged Dipper
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