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,



  1. hi joseph great blog and interesting trip report, have you considered the group of 10 kestrels may have been lesser kestrels ? as i beleive they are often seen in small groups where as kestrels are often only seen in ones and twos , its just a thought thats all , and i dont really know the status of lesser kestrels in corsica ?? anyway like i say great blog and i will check it out again , rob

  2. Hi Robbie, thanks very much for your feedback. At the time I did consider that yes, but as per the Collin's Guide, Lesser Kestrel doesn't occur in Corsica, but does occur on the neighbouring island of Sardinia. Thank you for bringing it up anyway. If I hadn't have checked already I would have been quite excited!

  3. Hi Joseph

    Thank you very much for your kind comments on my blog.

    After reading some of your blog (and I'll be sure to keep tabs on it now) I am very impressed. Great detail illustrated by nice scenery shots.

    It's great to come across one more passionate young birder.



  4. David,

    Likewise, thank you very much for your kind comments. Your blog is of a very similar quality. Photo-wise I want to get into photographing birds but to be honest I don't have the equipment right now to get good pictures. I am going to start writing the next blog entry soon. I still have a good lot of catching up to do though before I reach present day!