Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Two Weeks Away: The First Day in Corsica

A few days after my day in Norfolk, it was time to leave Britain altogether, and to head to Corsica. I would be spending a week in Corsica, just with my Mum, who isn't a birder, so I'd be birding alone. For those of you that don't know, Corsica is an island located west of Italy, southeast of the French mainland and to the north of Sardinia. I would be getting to the island via a flight from London Gatwick to Marseille, then from Marseille to the town of Calvi. Calvi is a town in the north-west of Corsica. It is circled in the map below. The report of my birding here doesn't just hope to give you a good idea of the birdlife, but also hopes to show you what the island was like in an interesting and informative way.

Overall, if I hadn't have had to wait for 4 hours at Marseille Airport for the flight to Calvi, the journey would have been just a few hours long. However this wait increased it to 7, and by the time we arrived at Calvi Airport it was dark. Once we had landed we got our hire car, a rather nice Renault Scenic, and set off to our apartment in a hotel called Residence Le Padro. Residence Le Padro was a hotel situated just inland from Calvi (10 minutes from the Airport), and consisted of many, self-catering holiday apartments in the countryside. We chose a yellow apartment at the back of the hotel. Obviously, when we first arrived there we were unable to see the countryside surrounding the hotel, so that night we simply just unpacked. As I lay in bed that night, I became very excited. I was in a foreign country, and tomorrow I would start exploring it and its birdlife! What, in the next week, would Corsica hold? I was well informed on the birds of the island, and the best places to see these birds, so how was I going to do?

The next morning I was woken up at 7:30am, and the first thing I did was open the doors to have a look at my surroundings. The view was just beautiful. The countryside view from this part the hotel consisted of low-lying, Mediterranean bush and fields, and all this was encompassed by rocky, jagged and high mountains. Here are a few pictures to give you an idea of what the view was like:

The bushes were teeming with birds and calls that I didn't recognise, and I was keen to have a look at what was down there. So, after some breakfast, I headed down to the nearby bushes, finding a convienient place to sit and watch for any birds in them. Unfortunately I couldn't deep into the them, as there was a fence, but this wouldn't prove to be much of a hassle. When I got down there, I noticed that the bushes were alive with warblers; they were calling constantly, and I occasionally saw them flitting from one bush to another. At this point in time, I wasn't sure what species a majority of them were, as I was by no means familiar with the birds of the area and thus wasn't able to make ID's of any of the warblers, although I did come to the conclusion that most of them were Sylvias. I did also manage to find a male Blackcap. As I was trying to figure out what species the warblers were, I had a pleasant surprise; a Black Redstart. This bird was first seen and identified in flight, when I saw the flash of its prominent, rusty red tail. It then proceeded to land on a wall, giving me a chance to put a gender to it (it was a female) and to examine its behaviour. Unlike the migrant Black Redstarts I had seen in Norfolk a few days earlier, this Black Redstart seemed full of life, much like I had expected the Black Redstarts in Norfolk to be. This bird perched upright on the wall, constantly vibrating its red tail and flitting up and down off the wall (presumably in anxiety). I had been watching it for some time when I was distracted from a loud, high-pitched, piping call. I took my bins off the Black Redstart, and looked up to find a big,bird of prey flying towards the hotel. It was a Red Kite. Up in Scotland, I have only seen a few Red Kites; so seeing one in Corsica was quite an exciting experience for me. An adult, it flew on very long wings in a buoyant and leisurely fashion, almost like a crow, as it constantly twisted its rufous, forked tail and continued to fly towards me. Eventually, some Hooded Crows, which seemed to be the common corvids, rose from the ground, and started mobbing it. At this point the Kite's flight changed from slow and leisurely to fast and urgent, wanting to get the crows off its back as they as they harrassed it. The Kite and its harrassers eventually flew right over my head (which was a beautiful sight) and then dipped behind the hotel. This was one of another 6 or 7 Red Kites I would see in that hour or so, thus proving themselves to be the common raptor. Common Kestrel and Buzzard were also seen in that period of time, but they hardly seemed as common as the Red Kites. After seeing the first Red Kite I had a look at the wall where the Black Redstart had been, but it had gone. As I was doing this, a sizeable (but not big) flock of Starlings flew past and then landed on the fields. I was happy to find that they were Spotless Starlings. A lot of them were winter plumage birds, and I was able to distinguish them from winter plumage European Starling from the distinct lack of spots and much darker plumage (the winter plumage starling is very spotty and has hints of brown on by the wing). They called constantly in communication with one another, sounding very similar to European Starling but with a sharper tone to it and stronger and more rolling trills. Spotless Starling has a restricted range in Europe; Corsica is one of very few places in Europe you can see them. However, at the turn of new year I had been in the Iberian Peninsula, where they also occured and I first saw them, so this species wasn't new to me. I stayed out there for around an hour and a half, as my Mum got ready us for a trip to Calvi. Once my time was up, I noted down the species I had seen, and we headed off to Calvi. Here is a picture from where the area of bush that I was primarily looking at that morning.

Before having look round Calvi itself, we stopped off at Calvi beach. The beach was like no other that I had been to. It was long and stretching with silver sand, with views of the mountains to the east, and a view of the town and its 13th century citadel to the west. Fringing this beach was a few kilometeres of beautiful pine. From this pine, you could enter the beach. Here are a couple of pictures taken from the beach (notice the Citadel in the first right of the first picture, and the emptiness of the beach due to it being 'out of season'):

Whilst on the beach, a brisk wind was present, and I had a look out at sea for any mediterranean sea-birds. There seemed to be nothing going past, however, apart from one Shag, this bird of the mediterranean subspecies. A few Yellow-legged Gulls were also present, my first for the holiday. The wind on the beach became a tad annoying after a while, and we eventually headed into the pine forests, deciding to have our lunch in it. Here a few Goldcrests were calling, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was seen, some Collared Doves were present, and I heard the explosive and abrupt call of a Cetti's Warbler in the reedbeds towards the back of the forest. I also managed to have a couple of seconds view of a definite Phylloscopus warbler, but I didn't have time to ID the bird as it very quickly disappeared from view.

So, after this pleasant trip to the beach we headed into Calvi. Calvi is a port which was particularly busy in the Roman era. Its most famous for the Citadel, a thirteenth century fortress situated at the far end of the town. My mum and I were going to visit the Citadel and also have a look at the rest of Calvi. By wintibird (Andre) of Birdforum, I was advised to check out every gull in Calvi for an Audouins Gull, which are a scarce but not rare gull in Corsica. As we were walking through Calvi and up to the Citadel, I did just as wintibird had told me, and checked each gull I saw. However, I was surprised to find that even Yellow-legged Gulls weren't exactly ubiquitous in Calvi, so this made me think it would be pretty tricky trying to find one. However, I wasn't too bothered, as I was enjoying the town, its culture and its architecture. From where we had parked it was about 20 minutes walk to the Citadel. Here is a picture I took of it from Calvi's lovely marina.
Once we were within Citadel walls, we climbed up the cobbled roads, tightly packed with archetypal Mediterranean houses, towards the top. When we got there, there were some brilliant views, with a magnificent backdrop for the red-tiled town below and its palm-tree planted harbour, with the tall, rocky mountains looming above it. Also at the top of Citadel , there was a big cathedral named La Cath├ędrale Saint Jean-Baptiste (the cathedral of St. John the Baptist, see last picture).

Up here bird-wise parties of Town Pigeon/Rock Dove occasionally flew over, quite a good number of Yellow-legged Gulls circled over it, and House Sparrows were common. The House Sparrows in Corsica are interesting as they are said to either be a subspecies of Spanish Sparrow or a hybrid between the two species, the latter of which I suspect is accurate. After a visit to a cathedral and a full wonder round the top of the Citadel, we headed back down to the town, where I fell upon yet another Black Redstart, this time a beautiful male perching on a the edge of one of the many houses and acting very much like the female I had seen earlier that day. This was the last bird I saw in the town.

It was around 5:00pm when we arrived back from Calvi, and there were a couple of hours of daylight remaining. Now, if you go to the otherside of the hotel from where I was looking that morning, you get an entirely different view of things. Of course, you can still see the mountains, but instead of the countryside being fields with occasionally bushes scattered amongst them, here its basically just low-lying bush. This low-lying bush is called maquis, and when I woke up that morning and saw it I was very happy. The maquis in Corsica is a great place to see warblers and migrant passerines, and I thought that my chances of having it right outside the hotel were minimal and that as a result I would have less chance of seeing warblers such as: Sardinian, Dartford, Cetti's and the scarce breeding Marmora's. But the fact that there was maquis meant that I had good chances of seeing all those species! So, after something to eat, I alone headed out into the maquis for my first look for some warblers. I planned to regularly check this maquis on my trip. I entered the maquis via a small track that presumably went down to someone's house. Here are some pictures of the maquis:

I spent a good hour and a half searching through the maquis, walking through it trying to flush up any warblers. There were plenty of them in there, they were calling regularly. However, I didn't recognise these calls at this point so I didn't actually know what wI was hearing, although I knew that Sardinian and Dartford Warbler were probably present. In my look through the maquis though, I wasn't able to identify these species. I was pretty sure that they were the birds I was flushing up, and I wished that they would show themselves. But unfortunately they didn't. However, despite not seeing these two species, I did find loads Stonechats, a Grey Wagtail, another Blackcap (this time a female), and there were tons more Spotless Starlings. I was also very surprised to flush up a Cetti's Warbler, which I was able to identify when it briefly perched itself on the top of some maquis, its tail cocked and its warm-brown plumage its giveaway feature. 10 seconds later it dipped out of sight. Besides passerines, there were several Red Kites quartering the maquis, as well as a Kestrel and two Ravens.
It was getting dark when I finished looking in the maquis, so I gave up birding for the day, the mountains gradually become silhoutted as sunset took place and then disappearing it finally became dark. Overall, I had a really lovely day; not just getting to know the birds of the areas I was checking, but also getting to know the actual areas themselves. I may not have seen a huge deal, but nonetheless, I was happy, and I would have plenty of time to see more birds! Thanks for reading. If you want to find out what happened the next day, tune in again in a day or so's time!


  1. What a fantastic, stylish, creative and well
    written blog Joseph! its obvious you have got a talent for writing. Keep up the good work m8!!

  2. Thanks TJ! I'm going to be writing a lot more in the next few days; I've still got a lot to say about Corsica!

  3. See,I'm not the only one who reckons you are a writer in the making. And I reckon you have saved me a lot of dosh - no need for me actually to go birding in Corsica - just reading your report is like being there.

  4. Thank you Ken, I am happy you feel that way! I've had an interest in writing ever since I was a young boy. I used to write a lot of stories, but now I tend to do writing more like this. Its great fun for me, even though it takes me a long time!