Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Two Weeks Away: The Mountainside Villages and the Maquis Search

My day in the Regino Valley had provided me with an achievement of sorts. This achievement was seeing my first Sardinian Warbler on the island. This sighting meant I was able to identify Sardinian Warbler on call and was now able to make comparisons with the other warblers present on the island. As you know, I checked the calls of Dartford and Marmora's Warbler in the Collins Guide that night, and the next day I would attempt to see both those other species. With my comparison with Sardinian Warbler intact, would I suceed? Well, this entry will tell you if I do or not, as well as a number of other things.

That morning I woke earlier than I had done before because my Mum planned to have a typical French breakfast in the nearest mountainside village to us, Calenzana. Calenzana was about the same distance from our hotel as Calvi, and about a 10 minutes drive. After a cup of tea to wake us up and me taking the briefest of looks in the area of bush in front of the apartment that I had made my patch, we headed out to Calenzana. In my brief look I was lucky to get some close and cracking views of two male Sardinian Warblers, which was a gorgeous sight.

Calenzana is a charming, traditional little village with a very mediterranean feel to it. It is embraced by the high Corsican mountains and has many winding, paved alleys and squares. Its basically the closest settlement to Calvi at just 12.5km south east of it, but despite this short distance, it feels like you are in a whole different world from the seaside glitz of Calvi with its yachts and beaches. Calenzana feels much more rugged, remote, but in its way more charming than Calvi, more traditional; more unspoiled. You get a better feel of Corsica at Calenzana than in Calvi. The other thing about Calenzana is that a lot of tourists tend to bypass it, which allows a wider appreciation of its traditional, untouched quality. We spent a couple of hours in Calenzana, having a delcious breakfast of croissants and baguettes before exploring the village itself. Here is some pictures I got of the village. The last picture is of the view down to the coast from Calenzna, and the second last is the church tower in the town square. Bird-wise in Calenzana there wasn't much apart from the commoner suspects (Spotless Starling, Great, Blue and Coal Tit).

After our exploration of Calenzana, we came to the conclusion that we'd spend the morning exploring a few of the other mountainside villages within the arrondissement of Calvi, and then spend the afternoon doing things around the hotel. Our main port of call village wise was Sant Antonino. However, we planned to see some of the villages on the way to San Antonino. So we made our way into the beautiful, lush Corsican countryside, entering the steep, winding roads with astounding panoramic views once again. Our first village stop was at a place called Montegrosso, a village quite similar to Calenzana. However, Montegrosso was perched on a hill, had better views than Calenzana, had bell tower as its defining feature and looked slightly more rugged than Calenzana. Montegrosso wasn't bad for birds either; zipping around the bell tower (see pictures below) were loads of Eurasian Crag Martins, maybe about 50 birds in all. Some were constantly zipping round and round the bell tower, whilst others decided to sit on the bell tower itself. Also sitting on the bell tower were up to 10 Spotless Starlings. Meanwhile, in the trees round the village there was a small party of Long-tailed Tits amongst the common Blue and Great Tits, and a single Sardinian Warbler was heard calling. Surprisingly no Red Kites were seen from the viewpoint at Montegrosso or flying over the village itself. Here are a few pictures of Montegrosso (one is from the viewpoint).

From Montegrosso we slowly made our way towards Sant Antonino. What interested me as we made our way there was that there we no villages between Montegrosso and San Antonino, and it was basically just countryside. We took stops where we could to admire the countryside between Montegrosso and Sant Antonino, although the roads were steep and dangerous. One stop was particularly intriguing bird-wise. It was the first stop, and at this point we weren't as high as we would be on later stops; low enough to bear warblers, which is why I thought it would be a good idea to stop at that particular place. When I got out of the car to have a look for these warblers, my eye was instantly attracted to a sparrow/bunting sized bird sitting on a telephone wire not very far away from me. Looking at it through the bins, it wasn't anything I instantly recognised. Quietly, I creeped closer towards it, trying to get good views of the bird; however poorish light disabled me from making a positive ID. It was a very brown bird, with very apparent streaks all over its body. It lacked bulk, which bunting wise ruled out Corn Bunting, so as I was watching the bird I was thinking it could have been either a juvenile Cirl Bunting or a Rock Sparrow. It wasn't small enough for any finch you could get on the island, far to small for Corsican Citril Finch or European Serin. Eventually I got too close to the bird and a result it flew off, not calling as it flew. I was annoyed that I wasn't able to make the ID, but there are always birds that escape you and bamboozle you in this world. Its something we have to put up with. ID wise I was generally leaning towards juvenile Cirl Bunting, but as I checked the Collins Guide when I got back into the car I couldn't be certain. I continued to think about the bird for a while, and eventually decided to let it escape me. Also during this stop, I interestingly saw up to 10 Kestrels flying together at once (I had never seen so many falcons together at once, let alone . Kestrels), and a few Red Kites were present.

After about 20 minutes of driving, we arrived at Sant Antonino itself. Perched atop a 500m hill, it is known, according to various sources, to be one of the most beautiful villages in France and is the oldest in Corsica. You can't drive through Sant Antonino, as it is strictly forbidden to do so. This, for me, was one of its great advantages. We had to park in a car park just below the village. The views from the car park itself were lovely and very steep, you could see for literally miles and the mountains seemed more embracing than they had ever been before. By the car park was a baroque church, and behind this some heather-like bush, from which I could loads of birds. Before heading up into the village itself I decided to have a look in the heathery area for any birds whilst my Mum had a look in the church. I did so for around 10 minutes. During this 10 minutes I discovered what species of bird was primarily calling in the heather. This species turned out to be Goldfinch. The place was teeming with them, with well over a hundred birds present in just that one little area. There were also a lot of Spotless Starlings, I could hear several Sardinian Warblers calling (one female was seen), and 10 Stonechats in total were seen perching on the tops of the heather. There may have not been any birds that I hadn't seen there before, but the sheer multitude of birds in that one area was astonishing and satisfying. After my mum returned from looking in the church we stopped in a cafe at the very start of the village. If you want to go into the village, you have to walk up it or go by donkey. However we hardly had to walk far from the car park to get to this cafe. Here are a few pictures of San Antonino. I would have taken more, but unfortunately my camera failed me and ran out of battery whilst at the cafe! The first picture is of San Antonino from a distance, to give you an idea of its altitude, the second is from the heather where most of the birds were, the third is a winding street and the fourth is from the cafe. From the cafe I sat and drunk some tea whilst at the same time watching up to 6 Red Kites quartering the hills. It was lovely to see the Kites at this height as from where I was sitting I was basically level with them. One of these Kites was a juvenile; which was interesting as I hadn't seen any juvenile Red Kites up until that point.

Sant Antonino, as you can see, is the cluster of many ancient houses clustered at the top of the hill. These ancient houses border a maze of narrow cobbled streets that ascend to the very top of the village. After our stop at the cafe we walked all the way to the top of the village, passing through those lovely streets. From the top, which is at a great altitude, the views are just astounding, far better than from the car park, you could see a very long way, right down to the coast which was further away than it had been in Montegrosso, as well as all the way down to Calvi, which was a good 25km away, and round the corner to parts of the island you couldn't see from other viewpoints. I wish I had got pictures from there, as it was so beautiful. We stayed up there and admired the view for a good 15 minutes, and then made our way slowly down to the car park again. We were quite tired when we reached the bottom again, as the climb was taxing in its way! After a little rest, we decided it was time to make our way back to the hotel for some lunch, and we did so.

We spent most of that afternoon playing tennis and swimming in the hotel outdoor swimming. However, by the time we had finished both these activities, there was still a couple of hours before sunset. In this couple of hours I set out into the maquis in search for more warblers, as I had been aiming to do. Like before, the maquis was full of warblers. But unlike when the first time I went into the maquis, I now knew the call of the Sardinian Warbler, so any warbler that wasn't a Sardinian I had a good chance of tracking down, although, having checked the Bird Guide the previous night I had found that the alarm call of the Dartford Warbler was very similar to the Sardinian Warblers but just higher in pitch, and I found that the warblers were constantly using their alarm calls, (presumably because my presence was making them worried), so it was going to be harder than I thought. Whilst walking down the path, I could hear that most of the warblers were either Sardinian or Dartford Warblers, as I wasn't hearing the croaky call of the Marmora's Warbler which I had read about. After walking some way down the path and not getting great views of any warblers from it (although I could see lots of them flitting about all the time, a good number of which I could see were Sardinians), I decided to walk into the maquis itself. Here I would maximise my chances of seeing any warbler that wasn't a Sardinian. I walked a long way into the maquis, far enough to not be visible from the path. As I walked through I totalled a number of 15 Sardinian Warblers seen flitting from one piece of maquis to the next. As I kept on going though, I was wondering why I wasn't seeing anything else apart from Sardinian Warblers. And it was then that I saw it. Just as I started walking back towards the path, I flushed up a warbler with a clear wine-red breast. This was my first Dartford Warbler of the holiday! This warbler didn't move far, but just from that one flash of wine-red I could tell it was a Dartford Warbler. When it disappeared out of view, I headed towards where it had landed, and to my joy, managed to flush it up again. Yet again it didn't move far, and even better, this time it briefly perched itself on a piece of maquis. Absolute definite Dartford. As it perched itself on the maquis top its long, tail was cocked, archetypal of a Dartford Warbler, and I could see its wine red breast clearly. It looked generally darker in appearance than Sardinian Warbler. It sat there for about 10 seconds, looking around excitedly, before eventually flying off again as I tried to get closer to it, and this time out of view completely. This Dartford Warbler was a source of great joy for me, it meant I had seen two of three warbler species I aimed to see on the holiday! Not only this, but I love Dartford Warblers, I think they're beautiful birds, and I like they're wine red breasts in particular. And furthermore, this was only my second Dartford Warbler ever (my first was seen in 2006, North Warren, Suffolk). So in the end, I was overjoyed with my spotting of this warbler.

I left the maquis that evening with a sense of satisfaction, knowing that now it was just Marmora's Warbler that I had to see. Obviously this would prove difficult as during that session in the maquis I didn't hear anything that sounded like a Marmora's. However, I would still have plenty of time to find Marmora's Warbler in the coming few days. Overall, it had been a nice day for me. Exploring the mountainside villages was lovely, and the birds I saw whilst I was in these places were very nice, especially the 50 or so Crag Martins at Montegrosso, and seeing the Dartford Warbler was great! Of course, there was the strange passerine species that managed to elude me whilst on the way to Sant Antonino, but these things happen!

Now, the next day would be the most important day birding-wise of all. It would be the day in which I went to the Asco Valley in search of Lammegeiers, Golden Eagles, and the two endemics; Corsican Citrl Finch and Corsican Nuthatch! Would I see any of these birds? Find out in my next entry, which will chart my birding experiences in the Asco Valley!

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Two Weeks Away: The Regino Valley and the Second Day

On my first day in Corsica, I had really enjoyed myself. I had seen some lovely sights and some nice birds. By the end of the second day (the day in which I will now write about) I would be feeling much the same. Just like on the previous morning, very quickly after I woke up I was checking the bushes just outside the apartment for birdlife. That morning there were a similar variety of birds out there as there had been on the second day, a good number of Red Kites, plenty of Spotless Starlings and many warbler calls of which I was still unable to identify (as well as warblers flitting from bush to bush that I didn't have time to identify), but no Black Redstarts. I also managed to get a Cetti's Warbler on call, two Blackcaps, and a party of finches flew over that I didn't recognise. My suspicsion was that they were Serins, but this was by no means a certain ID, so I just let them escape me. A brief check from the otherside of the hotel produced a Grey Heron at sea. Grey Herons can be seen on migration in Corsica, so this was quite an interesting spot for me. All the mentioned species were seen within the space of half an hour. After this brief birdwatch I had breakfast, and then my Mum and I set out for a day in the heart of the Corsican mountains.

Saying 'The Heart of the Corsican Mountains', however, is rather vague, as Corsica is covered in mountains (in fact it is the most mountainous island in the whole of the Mediterranean). We would be spending a day out in the Regino Valley. As you can see in the map above, I have circled a place called L'Ile-Rousse. Going just a little south from L'Ile Rousse, you will see a small red dot. This is roughly where the Regino Valley is. To get it to it, we would have to take the N197 all the way up to L'Ile Rousse then take a small road inland. The idea of going to Regino Valley came from wintibird (Andre) of Birdforum, not because we had heard about it. In one of his pms to me discussing the birds of Corsica, he told me that the Regino Valley was a good place to go, stating that it takes you through a variety of different habitats and gives you good chances of many of the islands passerines, mentioning in particular that I had good chances of Marmora's Warbler and Rock Sparrow . I was obviously tempted by this, so I asked my Mum if I could go there. She, luckily for me, obliged. So, at around 9:30am that morning we set out in the direction of the Regino Valley. However, we wouldn't be heading straight there. We would first make a visit to L'Ile Rousse, which was a goodish drive from where we staying (maybe half an hour). And on the way to L'Ile Rousse we stopped at the little village of Lumio, which had a nice viewpoint down towards Calvi from it (see picture). In the foliage around this viewpoint, my only two Woodpigeons were seen, and there were a good number of Jays both calling and flying about, as well as the calls of those ubiquitous warblers that I was still unable to identify. The fact I wasn't seeing any of these warblers was really starting to get on my nerves now, and that day I determined to at least be able to identify one of the mystery species. I knew roughly the species of warblers that were in there from having looked up what warblers you get in Corsica, its just I couldn't see them and I didn't know any of their calls.

L'Ile Rousse, like Calvi, is built on a bay. Its name (The Red Isle) refeea to the rocky islets of red porphyry, a type of rock, that are bounded slightly to the north west of the town. Most people visit the town to see these red rocks. However, we didn't visit them, as we were only hoping to visit the town briefly and get some food/money there. To the south of the rocks is an immaculate, white sand beach similar to the beach in the Calvi (but with no pine forests), of which we did visit. Birdwise on the beach there was nothing; just a few Yellow-legged Gulls. I guess this is explainable, as the beach at L'Ile Rousse is literally right in by the town, whilst Calvi Beach is more extensive and continues quite a few kilometeres out of the town. Here is a pictures I took at L'Ile Rousse Beach.

It overall doesn't quite have the beauty of Calvi Beach, and the same can be said about the town. L'Ile Rousse was by no means as nice as Calvi. It didn't have the same feel to it. The town has an old and new part of it; the new town towards the east and the old town in the west. Between these two different areas of the town there is square called Le Place Paoli, named after the founder of the town Pasquale Paoli, a Corsican patriot and leader. This square was arguably the nicest part of L'Ile Rousse, very close to the beach and with some nice architecture and a very typical French market.

So, after a little exploration of both the old and new town, we headed towards the Regino Valley. The change in scene from the town to the mountainside was quick and drastic. Very soon after we left Ile Rousse we started to climb, driving up the foothills on very twisty and narrow roads. We were now in the heart of the mountains that we were seeing from our apartment at Residence Le Padro. As we made our way upwards, I had a very brief stop in search of any mountain bird life. In this stop I saw several flock Red Kites as well as 4 Ravens. We kept climbing and climbing, going through many a typical Corsican mountainside village, when we eventually reached the village of Santa Reparata. Looking down from here we could see just what were we'd be spending the rest of the day; the Regino Valley itself, covered in a mass of beautiful meditarreanean flora that was mostly dominated by chesnut, olive and oak trees, and surrounding it all, high, jagged and rocky mountains, the highest of which were snowcapped. Also from here you could see a big lake and some vineyards, both of which we would be paying a visit to, as reccomended by wintibird and the latter of which we would be visiting first. The prospect of spending time in this beautiful area of countryside was a lovely and exciting thought, so without further ado, we made our way into the valley, creeping down the narrow roads slowly and surely until eventually we were in the heart of the flora. On the way to the Clos Regino Vineyards, as they were called, we took several stops. I obviously seized the chance to have a look for birds on these stops. The first of these stops was the most frutiful. Parking the car on a little layby, we took a walk right into the trees. On this walk I saw around 30 Red Kites, all in one massive flock basically just circling the mountains and the surrounding area. I had never seen so many birds of prey together in the sky before, let alone Red Kites! It was a beautiful spectacle! In the trees and bushes themselves were plenty of warblers, and to my relief and delight I was finally able to see and identify one. My first Sardinian Warbler of the holiday! It first caught my attention when I heard it calling (a loud trilling call, trr-trr-trr-trr-trrr-trrr) nearby, and after a scan through the bins, I found it scurrying about in a bush; It was a beautiful male that was instantly identified with its fully jet black head and red eyes! The view was brief as after about 10 seconds it went out of sight, but it was enough to ensure instant identification. I must say, I was really happy and relieved about seeing this Sardinian Warbler, as from that point onwards I would know its call from having heard it call before seeing it. No doubt there were many more of them in there, and lots of other species of passerines! The area was virtually teeming with bird calls (lots of Sardinians were calling), much more so than anywhere on the island I had been thus far. During the other stops on the way to the vineyards, I didn't see anything new, just a similar variety of birds. Here's a picture of me watching the Red Kites:

So, after all the stops on the way, we finally arrived at the Clos Regino Vineyards. As we were going up the road to the vineyards, we were blissed by the closest view of a Red Kite yet. It was sitting on a post, and I managed to get a picture of it. The fact it was so close gave me the chance to study its beautiful plumage. When my Mum turned on the engine again to drive on it took off on very long wings. Previous to this it had been sitting there proudly with its head turned in our direction, as you can see in the picture. In the picture, you can't see its features so well, but from its outline you should be able to tell its one.

Soon after this pleasant experince we parked up and I alone had a look around the vineyards. Wintibird, in one of his pms to me, had mentioned that Rock Sparrow occured in the vineyards, and this is what I had come to look for. The vineyards weren't looking exactly pretty, as they weren't in season, but the views from the vineyards were the most breathtaking I had experienced yet. It may not look hugely exciting from the picture, but trust me, being there was a different story, it was hard not to admire it!

I searched for Rock Sparrow for about 20 minutes, but wasn't able to find one in the end. But I did have two possibles, which I flushed up from the vines but was unable to identify. They weren't calling and looked Rock Sparrow-sized, but I couldn't guarentee that that was what they were as the light was quite poor. However, there were plenty of other birds here, with several Sardinian Warblers calling, a good number of Goldcrests, a few Jays, and lots of Coal Tits and Blue Tits, as well as a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a few more Red Kites and a Kestrel. I also still had chances of seeing Rock Sparrow elsewhere, so I wasn't too annoyed. After looking for the Rock Sparrows, we then aimed to head down to the lake which wintibird had mentioned was good for all sorts of things, including 5 species of warbler (Blackcap, Sardinian Warbler, Dartford Warbler, Marmora's Warbler and Cetti' s Warbler), Rock Sparrow, several species of finch and Corn and Cirl Bunting. However, we got lost when trying to find the road to the lake, taking a big detour further into the mountains. We took a late lunch (at around 2:30pm) on our detour. A picture is below from where we had it. Here bird wise Jays were shrieking, there were several Ravens and another male Sardinian Warbler showed itself in a beautiful fashion, found without the aid of it calling.

After lunch and a good look at the map of the area, we soon discovered that we had quite obviously gone some way off course, so we set back in the direction we had originally come from in hope that we would find the road to the lake. We did, and it was hardly any distance from the vineyards, so how we had come to miss it was a mystery! Going down this road took us deeper into the valley and more amongst the flora. Eventually, the lake came into view, and we parked in a little area convieniently close to it. When I got out, I was instantly enchanted by the bird life. As soon as I got out, I could see and hear loads of birds. Sardinian and other warblers were calling incessantly, with the occasional Cetti's Warbler bursting into song, as well as many other strange bird calls and familiar British ones such as Robins, Stonechats flew from bush top to bush top (the occcasional pair seen together), and Red Kites were everywhere! It was at the lake in particular that I discovered the sheer abundnance of the Red Kite in Corsica. At one point, I had 12 birds in view at once, with half of them in flight and half proudly perched on tree tops, and this was without scan. I could see silhouttes of other birds of prey in the distance that were presumably also Red Kites. I thought their commonness was so enchanting and so delightful; it really was a lovely sight to see some of the loveliest birds (in my opinion) in such plenitude! And their, high pitched whistling call was really nice too! They were so common that I managed to video a few birds in flight. You can see the video now on this link to Birdforum TV (Blogspot can't load my videos). Apologies though, the camera shakes about A LOT! And also the program I am using doesn't have amazing quality, so apologies for that too. Note that this video takes you directly to the video window rather than opening up a new one.

We planned to spend the rest of the afternoon in this area, with my Mum just being left to take in the beautiful scenery whilst I searched the flora and the lake for birds. Considering how much time I had to search the area, I didn't head straight down to the lake. Instead I took a look in the trees and bushes on the other side of the road from the lake. Here the variety of birds there was a distinct variety of passerines; almost all the passerines I mentioned I am sure were present, but I didn't know all their calls and simply didn't see quite a few of the species! However, I did managed to see 4 more Sardinian Warblers, 3 being males (with two males seen together at once) and one female. Stonechats and the birds also common in Britain continued to be abundant, and I had a flock of Long-tailed Tits as well. Looking in the bushes round the lake produced much the same (I had another 6 Sardinians from this side). Of course, I would have liked to know all the unidentified bird calls and seen those birds, but what can you expect from a young, British guy that doesn't have a good deal of experience on identifing bird calls in foreign countries? When my Mum had a walk down by the lake however, I was given a nice surprise. A flock of about 20 Eurasian Crag Martins were flying about the lake, dipping low over the water every now and then after circling in the air. They were identifiable from their very plain, brown plumage, and the fact that they didn't have any white at all on their belly whatsoever. They called as they constantly flew around the lake, their call sounding almost House Martin like (a single noted 'treet'). I continued to see them as we walked. The other reason how I knew they were Eurasian Crag Martins is because they are the only type of Martin you can see in Corsica during that time of year (Sand Martins do summer). This species, however, wasn't a life tick for me. Like with the Spotless Starling, I had seen a good number of Eurasian Crag Martin on my holiday to the Iberian Peninsula at the end of 2008. This didn't stop my enjoyment of seeing them though. Also on the lake itself was a single Cormorant, and two Grey Herons, presumably stopping on migration. Whilst at the lake I took a few pictures. The first two pictures are of the lake itself, whilst the third is a view if you turn away from the lake, and the fourth is a picture of a Red Kite flying over it.

By the time we had finished the walk round the lake, evening light was creeping in, so we decided it would be best to leave so as to avoid driving on the high mountain roads in the dark. On the road back, we took a stop where the view was just amazing. I have yet another Youtube video link for you to watch so you can see just what I mean! Notice there are some Ravens in this video. Apologies again, the quality isn't brilliant.

So, overall I really enjoyed the day. I saw some really lovely birds, and got to know the countryside in the heart of the Corsican Mountains. I thought the Regino Valley was absolutely lovely, and if I was given choice to go back there I most certainly would! The highlight species was I guess was Crag Martin, but you could leave it down to the amount of Red Kites or the first Sardinian Warbler I saw. Regardless of the most noteworthy bird I saw, the fact is that I had a lovely day! We arrived back at the apartment at Residence La Padro at around 6:30pm, by which time the lunch was setting. That night, I wrote down all the new birds I saw, and decided to have a look into the calls of the Dartford and Marmora's Warbler. Having read what the Collin's Guide said about their calls, I would set out the next day to see if I could find them. Find out if I saw them in my next entry. Thank you for reading, folks!