Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Halloween Richard's Pipit and The Case Of The Dove

Saturday 31st October 2009. Or, in short terms; Halloween. A week earlier, it was my last day in Corsica and I had been looking at Dartford Warblers and Sardinian Warblers in the lush maquis shrub. But now I was back in Aberdeen, and had been so since the 26th. I didn't find it hard to settle back in to Scotland and Aberdeen, despite the drastic differences between it and Corsica, and I didn't feel at all 'birdwatched out', so to speak. In fact, I found myself out birding that next Saturday. However, this wouldn't have happened if I hadn't have been lured out by a particular species of bird....

Whilst I was in Corsica I was very disappointed to find that, due to a horrific spell of heavy rain and stormy weather, that I had missed the biggest fall of Firecrests in Aberdeenshire to date, with maybe up to 10 birds present in coastal areas of the county at one time, with birds at the Ythan, the nearby town of Collieston, Rattray Head, Longhaven... the list goes on. Not just that, there were also good numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers, a couple of Red-breasted Flycatchers and Pallas's Warblers, and a Radde's Warbler all reported, the latter species reported in the battery at Girdleness, a location I had been searching meticulously all year for passerines! To know I had missed all this got me annoyed. My Dad, despite being in Aberdeen whilst the birds were reported, wasn't able to see any of them either, and by the time I had arrived back all the birds reported had cleared off. However, that Saturday morning when I checked Birdguides, I was in for a surprise.... A Richard's Pipit had been reported at Girdlness. After a year thus far pretty much devoid of any rare passerine species at Girdleness, my Dad and I thought it only fair to go down and see this bird. Not only that, but we had missed the Richard's Pipit at West Runton in October, making it even more justifiable to go down there.

The bird was reported at roughly 10:45am, seen flitting in the long grass beside the golf course on St Fitticks road. This long grass was near to a derelict building and a purple burger van. Obviously readers that haven't been to Girdleness won't associate with this particular area, but if your wondering, here was where it had been seen. Yes, its not exactly the nicest area to behold, but still!

When we arrived we saw around 6 birders with their eyes on the area pictued above. We walked up to them, and got some information as to the pipit's exact whereabouts.

"It's in the long grass towards the wall and the fence at the back there," said one man, " Its hard to see through the bins but with the scope you should be able to see it. Its a bit flighty, and may occasionally go up onto the wall too."

Excitedly I set up our equipment and focused on the area where the bird had been seen. For a minute or so I couldn't find the bird, but eventually, and to my delight, I saw the head of a bird pop up above the long grass. It was the Richard's Pipit. There really was no mistaking it. It was a very large pipit, looking bigger than something of Skylark size, with long legs and a very long tail (almost wagtail length tail). I noticed some markings on the breast but generally the bird was very pale.The lorals were black, and the characterstic stance with the head turned upwards was one of its main giveaway features. I also noticed a very prominent, creamy supercilium on the bird. Here is a picture of the bird. This is not my own, it is Ken Hall's, who saw it on a different occasion from me. I thank him for giving me permission to use his photo.

The pipit stayed in the long grass by the derelict building for a good half an hour. On a couple of occasions it flitted up on to the wall, giving better views than in the grass, but it generally spent most of its time in the grass, meaning we weren't watching it constantly for half an hour, just every couple of minutes appear above the grass. When the bird did show it was so satisfying to watch; it was my first rare pipit ever, and its general behaviour and plumage patterns were interesting to study. It was funny to think that it had come all the way from Siberia, and was now flying about just outside Aberdeen! Presumably it had also been brought in by the nasty weather that had occured that week. When a group of boisterous children dressed up in their halloween costumes waded through the grass, shouting their heads off, the pipit took to the air. It stayed in flight for a while, but was tracked by each and every birder until it landed on the other side of the road. Watching it whilst in the air was interesting. The flight pattern was undulating, yet another similar feature it had to wagtails. In flight the longness of the tail was also more prominent, and it really just looked like an oversized wagtail. It was a good distance away when it was re-located (on the grass near a muddy pool on the other side of the road from the derelict building and the golf course) so views weren't really as satisfactory as before, despite the bird not being concealed by the long grass. But you could still see it there. Eventually a few impatient birders decided they were going to try and get closer to it for some record shots and better views. This was a bad move, as they managed to scare off the bird, and from then on it wasn't relocated that day. Overall I was very happy to have seen the Richard's Pipit, and it was great just to hear the bird reported and drive down to see it straight afterwards. It was also a life tick for me. I guess you could call that outing twitching, but hardly extreme twitching when it was basically in my local patch just a 15 minutes drive away and a few miles from my house in the centre of Aberdeen! The pipit would later be seen by other observers, and stayed around for another few days after my sighting.

So, that was my Halloween basically, nothing else went on! A few weeks later, or to be precise 14th November, I was out again for my first proper birdwatch since I had returned from Corsica (the Richard's Pipit experience was basically just a pop down to see it and then back home again, not really a proper birding day!). I planned to check all three places that I regularly visit: Girdleness, the Ythan Estuary and the Loch of Strathbeg. We started out at Girdleness, where we particularly hoped to pick up a flock of 8 Snow Buntings that had been spotted in Greyhope Bay car park near the lighthouse. From reports from previous observers of this flock, we found out that they were showing very well there, and were feeding on birdseed presumably put out from them by a mystery individual. After a little look round the corner at Nigg Bay and the golf course on St Fitticks Road (just in case the Richard's Pipit was still present!), we headed to Greyhope Bay. When we arrived there, sure enough there were the Snow Buntings, feeding busily at the far edge of the car park. Beside them a man was kneeling, camera in hand and taking pictures of the flock. This man we soon discovered was Andrew Whitehouse, who I'd been acquainted with in September at the Scottish Birdforum Bash. We quickly greeted, and then he left to check the rest of the Ness. At this point I went with the camera to approach the buntings, which had flown to the otherside of the car park when a member of public had driven off. This time I managed to get wonderfully close to them without scaring them off, maybe 5ft away from them. Picture-wise however there was just one problem. It was horribly windy, and as I tried to picture the birds the image was horribly blurry and at times shot nowhere near the actually birds. I decided to wait for a while until the the wind died down a bit, and took the chance to just look at the birds, which was just fantastic! They were all winter plumage birds, each with superb colourations; generally very pale and white, but with a mottled pale ginger, blackish and white above, and pale ginger and white below. 7 of the 8 birds were female, with the male clearly standing out from his female companions with quite a lot more white visible in his plumage. The views of them really couldn't have been better, and it was just magical being right up close to them, being able to experience what its like being that close to nature. It was just brilliant. The wind did eventually die down a little, enough for me to get some shots. They're pretty crappy pictures of a flock of birds that were maximum 10ft away from me, but its the best I could do in the conditions I was facing and with the limited technology I have! Here are some of them, the first of which is probably the best.

I sat there by the birds for half an hour, just admiring them. I must admit they are one of my favourite species of passerine. My Dad watched them from the car whilst looking for other things in the bay. I eventually joined him in the car, where he pointed out a Black-throated Diver pretty close to the shore, a good year tick for us. There were also a few Red-throated Divers close in shore (the Black-throated clearly much darker than these birds), the albino oystercatcher known to Ness birders as The Freak, and a count of 18 Purple Sandpipers. We decided, having had very satisfying views of the Snow Buntings and having checked the rest of the area that we would push off from Girdleness and get on with the rest of our day as we'd planned. However, just as we were leaving, we saw Andrew again. As he saw us, he walked over to the car. He had something to tell us. What was it?

"A Rufous Turtle Dove has just been reported at Collieston"

'Rufous Turtle Dove?!' I thought to myself in excitement, 'Now that's seriously rare!'

" Feel free to hop in Andrew," replied my Dad, " We were going up that way anyway!"

Rufous Turtle Doves are otherwise known as Oriental Turtle Doves. There are just 8 records of this species in the UK, and when Andrew told us of this bird being reported I knew that we were possibly in for an amazing day's birding! With keeness we headed up to Collieston. On the way, I had a look at what the bird looked like in the Collin's Guide, and to me, it wasn't that much different from a European Turtle Dove; just browner, a bit bigger and with more rufous on the wing. This Rufous Turtle Dove was reported to be of the subspecies Streptopelia orientalis meena, or in shortened terms, meena. The other subspecies is Streptopelia orientalis orientalis. The latter is seen in Siberia, whilst meena is seen in parts of Central Asia. On the way the three of us basically discussed the bird and its characteristics, and Andrew gave us the exact location of the bird, saying that it was in a garden towards the Sand Loch, which is a loch just outside the village and is part of the Forvie National Reserve. As we arrived in Collieston we were slightly confused as how to get to this location. However, we were lucky enough to bump into a man with binoculars walking down the villages main road. This man happened to be the spotter of the bird (I will leave his name anonymous). He kindly gave us directions, and we soon found a place to park and were advancing to where the bird was being watched. As we left the village behind us and the land opened out into the rolling Aberdeenshire countryside, we saw a good number of birders in the distance, all with scopes and with their eyes on a stubble field. We approached them.

" Is the Dove showing?" I asked one of the birders excitedly as we joined the group.

" Not right now....," he replied, " Before you arrived it was showing well in one of the trees in the garden of the house nearest to us looking awfully bedraggled and exhausted. The horrible weather must have nearly killed the poor thing... But yes, it has flown into this stubble field ford food and is at present not showing. Its been seen a couple of times since its been in there though, and is close to the top of where the field rises slightly. If you have patience it should eventually show, considering how many of us are here trying to see it."

With this information the three of us set up our equipment and waited. The weather, however, made it difficult to be patinet. It was just foul. Earlier in the day it had been sunny, but by the time we reached Collieston it had gone grey. The wind, as it had been earlier was still very strong, but it was much colder than before. Having the incredibly strong wind beating against your face constantly and being cold was not by any means a pleasurable experience, and you had this sort of tendency to want to retire back to the car. However, in the end, patience paid off, when a birder made an ejaculation of delight:

" Its showing again! Towards the top of the dip like before!"

At the time I was using the scope, and I was quickly onto the bird. Above the stubble, you could see its head and the upper part of its body. As I watched it, it struck me as hardly that different from an ordinary European Turtle Dove. It was clearly one of those birds that had very subtle differences from a related species (e.g. Pacific Golden and Golden Plover). Despite the bird bearing very little difference I was still delighted to watch it. I didn't have a clue that I'd be seeing something of such rarity! It stayed in view for 30 seconds, and then popped out of view again. From watching the bird for that short period of time I drew a few conclusions. It did appear more dusky, dark and brown in comparison to a Turtle Dove, especially on the neck and belly. I also noticed a few rufous feathers on the upper back and wings which were quite prominent. A couple of minutes later, it showed again, but for hardly as long, maybe for 15 seconds max. This, for me, however, weren't good enough views. I would have much preferred to have seen it in the garden before, when it was showing well rather than briefly. Having shown twice, we all waited for it appear again..... but it didn't. 20 minutes or so passed, and a lot of us were getting concerned. Had it gone over the dip in the field? None of us really wanted to enter the field as we thought it would be private property. Also, the horrible weather conditions were continuing to get to us all. What to do now?

Eventually, the spotter of the Dove appeared and he told us that it should be ok to enter the field. With this confirmation, a mass of us entered the field in the hope that we'd flush it up. It was a rather comical sight, watching up to 15 birders trudging through a field in search of a single dove, but how else were we going to re-find the bird? The whole of the field was covered, and a few birders including Andrew checked the adjacent fields for the bird But nothing.... Where was it? We all congregated back by the garden as we had done originally, with those that had had good views of it in the garden heading home. How much longer could we stand before we too would head off? Would that be the last we'd see of the bird? We were nigh on giving up when all of a sudden there was another shout:

" Here it is. Its just flown into the shelter of a bush on the otherside of the road from the stubble field!"

Relief, immense relief! That's what we all experienced. Having tried to re-locate it for a good hour and a half in the bitter weather conditions, this was our reward! The views were excellent, at maybe only 10 feet away, just perfect for pictures. You didn't even need to look at it through the bins. Andrew got a picture, and he has very kindly let me use his picture for this blog. Thanks very much Andrew!

As you can see here though, the bird was fairly knackered, all fluffed up in a ball like shape, looking very sleepy. Now I could see its whole body it was clear just how brown it was; it was way darker than any Turtle Dove I had seen previously. It stayed there for a good half an hour, with many people getting record shots of the bird. Unfortunately my camera was out of battery due to all the faffing about I had to do to get pictures of the Snow Buntings I had seen earlier that day, so I wasn't able to get any pictures of my own. Eventually, it took off from its shelter area and headed seawards. Having now had much better views, we decided it was time to head off, as it was near to getting dark. The original plan for the day, which was to check all three of my patches, had clearly not gone through, but for good reasons. Seeing that the Rufous Turtle Dove I was watching was a mega rarity and the 8th bird to ever have turned up in the UK, it was well worth staying to see the bird at Collieston, despite the amount of time that was wasted looking for it! I also love doves in general. I think they are beautiful birds, with some exquisite plumages. It was just brilliant watching it as it was a lovely looking bird and I knew it was the rarest bird in the country at that point So, very satisified, we headed back to Aberdeen, dropping off Andrew at his home in Torry on the way.

That evening I logged on to Birdforum to see what people's reaction to the Rufous Turtle Dove's arrival. I read the whole thread on the bird, and most people's reactions seemed to be surprised and rather jealous of the bird. Some people all the way down from England were willing to come up and twitch it, and a lot were eager to see pictures of the bird. Eventually the first picture was shown. This picture was the start of huge controversy.... It was now being doubted whether this bird was a Rufous Turtle Dove at all... On the thread loads of complex and in depth discussion took place, with people giving their opinions on the bird and giving comparison pictures of definite Rufous Turtle Doves. Post by post, I watched what was happening on the thread, and each time I was getting more worried... Most people were saying that it was a Turtle Dove, and very few people gave evidence to how the bird could be a Rufous Turtle Dove....

The next day it was concluded that the bird was actually a Turtle Dove, with a major world birder giving his say elsewhere on the Internet that it was a Turtle and the local county bird recorder Paul Baxter and well known aberdeenshire birder Andy Webb also giving their opinions, stating that the horrible wind and rain had caused a false impression, making it seem a lot browner and different than a normal Turtle Dove. Obviously, if the dove isn't accepted by the county bird recorder then it isn't a Rufous Turtle Dove. This did annoy me to be frank, as I had been deprived of what would have been the rarest bird I had ever seen, and I had spent all that time looking for it. I am sure quite a few of all the birders that went to see it would have felt similar to me. However, even though the dove was confirmed a Eursian Turtle, I was still pretty happy. Turtle Doves are basically vagrants in Scotland, and there have been very few records of them in the country I imagine. I also had only seen two Turtle Doves prior to this bird, with both being seen in South-east England, so its very rare for me to see them anyway! It would definitely be a first for Scotland for most that went to see it, so it was still good to have put in the effort to go there. I guess everyone conclude that it was an 'educational' bird, and certainly one that most have learnt from. If you're interested in looking at the topic in which all this controversy over what species the dove was took place (if you haven't already), see here:

I am now that bit closer to getting up to date with my blog. Eventually I will make it!

Anyway, thanks for reading this entry,


Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Two Weeks Away: The Last Two Days

When I first woke up the morning after my day in the Asco Valley the blinds were still drawn. But I could hear a sound; a sound which disappointed me... The sound of heavy rain... the first rain I had seen on the whole of the trip. As my Mum opened the blinds I looked at the mountains surrounding the hotel. Huge batches of cloud loomed over them, and as I looked at my surroundings disappointedly, I knew the clouds weren't going to shift in a hurry; and they didn't. It poured with rain for the majority of that morning, and my Mum and I were confined to staying in our apartment, where the wasn't a great deal to do. When you are in a foreign country you have this desire to want to explore it; to see its beauties, and in my case, its avifauna. But with this desire, you know that you have limited time to explore, and that weather is always a potential obstacle. It certainly was an obstacle that morning! However, at midday the rain stopped for the first time, and it became a little brighter. We took advantage of this change in weather, and set out.

We planned to spend the afternoon in Le Foret de Bonifato, one of the most well known areas of forest in Corsica, popular especially amongst walkers. We knew that going to the forest even if it did start raining again wouldn't be so bad as we would be to a degree protected from the rain, so that's why decided to go anywhere else rather than anywhere else. Before going to Le Foret de Bonifato though, we decided to get some lunch, heading to the nearest supermarket. We ate this lunch (which consisted of baguette and chocolate) down at Calvi Beach. This was my second visit of the holiday to the beach, and I was eager to see if the rain had managed to bring in some seabirds. So after lunch, we went for a walk down by the sea. The sea was rough, just perfect for a wandering Cory's or Great Shearwater, but despite a good 10 minutes seawatching, no luck of such birds. A few gulls were present not far offshore, but these were just Yellow-leggeds, not Audouins, my target coastline bird. A Cetti's Warbler, however, was seen briefly flying above the reedbeds in the shoreline forest however, and a Sardinian Warbler called. There were also plenty of Hooded Crows and a couple of Red Kites. We then headed to Bonifato, arriving at around 2:00pm.

There were loads of walks you could take from the parking area at Bonfato. We took the shortest, which was actually quite long. The route was called the Boucle du Calatoghiu, and was supposed to take 1hr 30mins if you walked at a good pace. But were we really going to walk so quickly? No! Other walks were between 3-6 hours long, which of course we were never going to take. The countryside surrounding Bonifato was quite like the forest part of the Asco Valley, but at a lower alititude. The mountains were hardly as high, but they shared that more rocky and jagged appearance, and pine forests were dotted on them, presumably Corsican Pines. The walk we took was basically a climb through these beautiful pines. Eventually you'd reach a clearing with fantastic, expansive views looking down towards Calvi, and then, after a small traverse across the top, starting to descend, eventually ending up where you start. The walk was very pleasant and refreshing, and it was lovely to experience the views at the top and be amongst the Corsican Pines. Unfortunately, there weren't any birds seen on the walk, due to the weather. For the majority of the walk, it was raining lightly, enough to have to use the lens cover on the bins and put them under my waterproof. I did hear a good number of species though. There were at least two Great-Spotted Woodpecker calling, plenty of Goldcrests, and a weird call which I later found out in the Collins Guide was that of a Corsican Citril Finch! It was pity that it was raining, otherwise I may have been able to see Corsican Citril Finch, which would have been another target bird seen and my second life tick of the holiday! But alas, I wasn't able to see one and the rain didn't push off... Here are some pictures I managed to take on the walk. The first couple are on the way up, and the very last is of when we're descending. The pictures in between of course are of the views from the highest point, which would have been a lot better if the weather hadn't been so bad!

And really, our walk at Le Foret de Bonifato was our main activity of the day; a day annoyingly deprived of birdwatching because of the weather. There was now only one day to go before we would leave Corsica altogether, and on the morning of that day (24/10/09) I knew that if I was going to see any of the target bird species that were still within reach, namely Audouin's Gull and Marmora's Warbler, then it would have to be then. The weather had very much improved from the previous day, with the sun shining and blues skies. Before breakfast, which we would have in Calvi, I took a brief trip into the maquis at the other end of the department, as I knew that I would have to be persistent with the maquis if I was to have any chance of Marmora's Warbler. Whilst I was out there the maquis was teeming with Sardinian Warblers (I saw a total of 5 birds in that brief stop), and I spotted a small group of 3 Corn Bunting sitting on a bush when I heard one of the birds calling. There were also Dartford Warblers calling, but no Marmora's. After this brief look in the maquis, we headed to Calvi for breakfast, eating at a typical French cafe which had the most beautiful tasting croissants and baguettes. In Calvi I had another look for Audouin's Gull, but despite looking thoroughly for them once again on my third visit to the town, there was none. However, I got a pleasant surprise in the form of 2 female Black Redstarts together down by the marina, making it a total of 4 birds that I had seen on the holiday.

We planned to spend the rest of our last day in Corsica just relaxing at the hotel. However, I needed to give the maquis one last thorough search before the day came to a close. After a game of tennis and a swim in the morning, that afternoon my Mum and I took a different path into the maquis than we had done previously, heading a bit further away from the apartment. It just so happened that this different route and particular adventure into the maquis was the best yet. In the space of the hour and a half that I spent searching the maquis, I managed to total a number of 13 Sardinian Warblers, 6 Stonechat, a single (and my only) Meadow Pipit,Italic 7 Red Kites, 1 Grey Wagtail and 3 Dartford Warblers. I was particularly pleased by the number of the latter species that I saw, and the views I got of them. It seemed that the Dartford Warbler I had seen on my previous adventure into the maquis had got me familiar with the species, and having learnt its call was a big help too. The three birds I saw were all seen at different times, with my best view of one being the first bird I saw, a cracking which was down to 20 feet and was perched on top of some maquis, its tail cocked in that characteristic way. The last of the three birds seen was spotted in flight, whilst the second was seen from quite a distance away also perched on top of some maquis. But still Marmora's Warbler wasn't present; I hadn't even heard one on the holiday! I had lost all hope of seeing the species, until all of a sudden I heard a fairly quiet, croaky, monotone call coming from the maquis as I was on the way back to the apartment. When I heard that call, I knew it was a Marmora's Warbler, and now I just had to track the bird down and try and flush up. It wasn't coming from very far away, and was coming from the maquis heading westwards towards Calvi. I was determined, excited and eager to see the bird, so I headed straight into the maquis to roughly where I thought I had heard it. It called again once I was some way into the maquis. The call seemed louder now, and it felt much nearer. I continued, eventually arriving to where roughly I had heard it the second time. I then stopped, and looked around me, waiting for the bird to call again.... But it didn't.... All hope was now lost. Either it had flown when I wasn't looking, or it was just keeping very quiet. Whatever stopped it from calling, it didn't call again, and thus I wasn't able to get any closer to tracking it down. Exasperated, I gave up and rejoined my Mum, and together we walked back to the hotel... I was so close to seeing a Marmora's Warbler, but in the end, not quite! My time for birding was now up.... That was the last bit of birding I did in Corsica. The next day we would take an early flight from Calvi Aiport to Marseille, and from Marseille to Gatwick. From Gatwick we would then drive up to Aberdeen, taking a stop in Durham overnight (where a couple of days earlier an Eastern Crowned Warbler had been spotted, but by that time it had disappeared!).

Overall, if I had to reflect on my birding experiences in Corsica, I'd say they were overall beneficial. I learnt a lot from my experiences; I learnt of the challenges that foreign birdwatching hosts and how persistence and dedication can get you a long way, but there are some birds that always escape you, such as the Golden Eagle, Corsican Nuthatch and Corsican Citril Finch in the Asco Valley, and of course the Marmora's Warbler, Rock Sparrow and Audouin's Gull. I also became more experienced with mediterranean warblers when in Corsica. When I go to the mediterranean again, I will now know how to fully identify a Sardinian Warbler and be able to differentiate them from any different species of warblers. Yet despite the trip highlighting the difficulties of seeing foreign birds and me failing to see most of the real target birds and specialities of the island, I really, really enjoyed what I did see. I particularly admired the abundancy of the Red Kites as it allowed me to see them really well for the first time, to study their beautiful plumages and every other aspect and feature of them. The two Cirl Buntings I saw in Asco probably come second to Red Kites in terms of the most enjoyable birds of the holiday. They were my only life tick of the holiday, and were such exquisite birds too, with absolutely beautiful plumages. The few Dartford Warblers I saw were lovely too, as prior to the Corsica trip I had only had brief views of one in Dunwich Heath, Suffolk. As for the places I went in Corsica, they were all lovely. Calvi is a great town, with great things to see, a beautiful beach, and scrumptious food. I also admired Calenzana and the many other villages in Corsica such as Montegrosso and Asco for their continuity of tradition and how they seemed relatively untouched by tourism. As for the countryside itself, I will never forget the height and beauty of the mountains, whether they aren't so high such as in the lush Regino Valley or are hugely high such as the jaw-dropping Haut'Asco. And, on top of all the birds and sights I saw in Corsica, there was my very productive and enjoyable day in Norfolk. In all honesty, I couldn't have hoped for a nice couple of weeks birding and holiday! Thank you very much for reading about my two weeks away during my October break, I hope you've enjoyed reading about it, and I will now try and get up to date with birding in Aberdeenshire. I leave you with the full list of birds I saw in Corsica. Once again, thank you!

Yellow legged Gull, Black Redstart (x4), Red Kite (many), Hooded Crow, Spotless Starling, Cetti's Warbler (a couple seen and heard), Great Spotted Woodpecker, Collared Dove, Grey Wagtail, White Wagtail, House Sparrow, Town Pigeon, Goldfinch, Linnet, Greenfinch, Robin, Grey Heron (on migration), Jay, Blackcap, Wood Piegon, Buzzard, Kestrel, Great Tit, Raven, Goldcrest, Blackbird, Sardinian Warbler (many seen and heard), Eurasian Crag Martin, Blue Tit, Stonechat, Dartford Warbler (x4 seen and several heard), Coal Tit, Cirl Bunting (x2 at Asco), Long-tailed Tit, Meadow Pipit, Shag, Corn Bunting

Total = 38 species


Joseph N

Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Two Weeks Away: The Asco Valley and Haut'Asco

Before I left for Corsica, I was determined to find out what speciality species you could get on the island. With the help of people on Birdforum, I found out there were a few birds I could see there. The list of these birds is seen below, and these were the birds I would be aiming to see during my holiday.

Corsican Nuthatch - A species of Nuthatch endemic to the Corsican Pines in Corsica (c.2000 pairs)

Corsican Citril Finch - Once an endemic subspecies of the Citril Finch, it is now regarded as a seperate species as its vocalizations and morphology from that of the Citril Finch. They can be seen in the Corsican Pines and at high levels all around the island.

Lammergeier - With just 8 or 9 pairs on the island, this massive vulture can only be seen on the very highest mountain tops. That is if you are patient enough!
Golden Eagle - A rare bird on the island that too can only really be seen at very high altitude

When I found out these birds were present on the island I asked on Birdforum where the best place to go to have good chances of seeing the above four species would be. The area they reccomended to me was the Asco valley and Haut'Asco.

This map depicts the route we took to get to the Haut'Asco area. The route is actually rather annoying, as if you venture south east of Calvi Haut'Asco, our main destination, isn't actually a huge distance away from where we were staying. Just one problem; there's no road heading in that direction! Instead you have to take the N197 past L'Ile Rousse, and continue on it for some 90km before arriving at Ponte Leccia (circled in green). Just as you reach Ponte Leccia you take a right, and down that yellow coloured road going off from Ponte Leccia is the Asco Valley, with the skii station of Haut'Asco at the highest point and dead end of the road (marked in red). It is very beautiful and montainous, as you'll see in the pictures I put on this blog entry. Birdwise the Asco Valley and Haut'Asco are really the only places in the north-west of Corsica that you have any chance of seeing Corsican Nuthatch (which is of course endemic), Lammergeiers, and Golden Eagle. The main reason for me going to this area obviously was to see if I could see the three aforementioned species, as well as Corsican Citrl Finch. Wintibird of Birdforum also mentioned that in Asco village itself, which is about halfway through the valley, there is a good chance of seeing Cirl Bunting. With knowledge of these birds being in Asco I thought it only right to make them target birds for the holiday. So, which of these species would I see, if any? Please read on if you want to know how I did.

That morning (22/10/09) we drove to the Asco Valley, both excited about what we would experience and see in the hours to come. The journey to Ponte Leccia and the start of the Asco Valley was about an hour and a half, so having set out at around 9:30 we arrived at about 11:00am. Hitherto I'd been birding in coastal maquis shrubs and the chesnuts and oaks of the Regino Valley. However that day we would be much further inland, our surroundings would be entirely different. When we first turned off onto the Asco Valley road the land seemed quite soft, with low-lying and gentle green fields and the typical Corsican bushes still remaining, but we could see the very high mountains ahead of us, and as I looked at the mountains I felt a feeling of exhiliration; the fact that it was in these mountains that I'd spend the day and possibly be seeing Golden Eagle and Lammergeier on their peaks was an exciting prospect. Here is a picture taken from the very start of the Asco Valley. As I took this picture 3 Red Kites were circling behind me.

We continued to drive along beside the lush, low lying fields and bushes for a good 10 minutes. The road seemed to be positively straight, and we were wondering when we'd start to ascend. Eventually we came to a bend, and round this bend our surroundings changed completely. We crossed a small bridge, and all of a sudden the lush countryside disappeared, to make way for a steep sided rocky gorge cutting in towards the mountains. At the same time the road narrowed considerably and we started climbing, being pressed up right close to the sides of the gorge. As we climbed and twisted round the many sharp bends of the narrow road, the drop to the other side of us,down into the gorge and the river below, became increasingly steep. This drop was nerve-wracking as, despite us not being at great altitude thus far, it was very sheer and to exacerbate our anxiety there were no road barriers to protect vehicles from falling off the edge and very few passing places, so whenver an oncoming car passed there was barely room to get passed. We had to reverse to let a few cars through and there was always the sense that an accident was waiting to happen (especially my Mum)! However, we managed to let those cars we did meet pass. A good way through our climb up the gorge we took a stop where there was a place to park, and I carefully took a scan of the peaks for any birds of prey. I focused mainly on the highest peaks, and to my excitement I managed to instantly catch my eye on a bird of prey raising up into the sky. However, no sooner had it caught my eye than it dipped out of sight, not coming up again for the entirety of the stop. For the split second that I saw it I must say it wasn't looking awfully big, definitely not a Lammergeier and it probably wasn't even high enough altitude for Golden Eagle. However, my view was brief and I didn't see the bird circling, so you never know. I was annoyed that it had managed to elude me, and I wished that I had seen more of it, but it was a sign of hope and possible things to come.... On the stop I also had a look for any higher altitude birds such as Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Sparrow, but no such luck; just a few Coal Tits and a party of Long-tailed Tits. Here are a couple of pictures from where we stopped. You can see that there is a road barrier in the first picture, but it is, as you can see, very small and although there is a line down the middle of the road there was no way room for two vehicles!

There were no other places to stop as we drove through the gorge, so I wasn't really able to look for any raptors. Luckily there wasn't any that I could see; if there had been we wouldn't have been able to stop for them due to the narrowness of the road! After a good 15km or so we emerged from the gorge, and we entered the small village of Asco. The scenery round it was lovely, but Asco itself was a remote village which seemed kind of closed up. It didn't seem to have any life to it; very few people seemed to live there, although we did see a few peasants tending to a litter of cats and a cow was left to wander on the road. Asco didn't even seem to have any shops; I asked the peasants if there was a boulangerie anywhere and what I understood from the reply was that a van goes all the way up the valley to deliver bread to the locals. That's how little contact the village had with elsewhere! Here is a picture of the view down towards the gorge from Asco and a couple of pictures of the village itself.

As we were heading back to the car after an exploration of the village, I found an area of bush that was full of birds. They were calling strangely; a call I wasn't familiar with at all. I scanned the bushes to see if I could clap eyes on any of the birds. I did, and oh my I was absolutely delighted! There, sitting on a bush, was a superb, adult summer CIRL BUNTING. This was the first Cirl Bunting I had ever seen, a life tick for me! I had been told by wintibird of Birdforum that I had a chance of seeing them in the village, and now I had seen one! It had a beautiful plumage, a lovely contrast of yellow, black and russety brown. The top of its head was mostly grey, and it had a wee crest. Its breast was a lemon yellow. Its face too was mostly yellow, but with a black neck and a black stripe right through its eye. The rest of its body was a russety brown/reddy colour. It was later joined by another bird of the same gender. Watching the two birds together was an experience I would never forget, not just the feeling of happiness I had from seeing them for the first time, but they were such gorgeous birds; the colour of their plumages were so defined, so perfect! The two birds eventually flew off, and that was the last I saw of any Cirl Buntings. I was almost positive there were more Cirl Buntings flying about in those bushes, but I didn't have time to look for any more as my Mum was waiting in the car, ready to take the final leg of the journey up to the skii station at Haut'Asco. Now we had gone through Asco village we were at a much higher altitude than we had been when we were driving through the gorge. A little way after Asco we took ta brief stop to take a picture of a beautiful view ahead of us, where you could see a high mountain covered in snow white cloud in front of us. I looked for a flock of birds that I had seen take off from the road. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to track down these birds. However, a male Sardinian Warbler and a pair of stonechats were seen in the bushes on the slopes, 2 Red Kites were circling above me, and a couple of Ravens flew by.
5 kilometres or so after leaving Asco we started climbing a lot higher, and the road considerably widened. Still following the river, we soon entered the beautiful Corsican Pine forest known to you or I as Le Foret de Carrozzica, one of the few places that the endemic Corsican Nuthatch has made its home. Not long after we entered the forest, we parked up, and I entered the forest in search of this endemic species. I knew it wasn't going to be easy at all. I had been told on Birdforum that Corsican Nuthatches were very hard to see in the late Autumn months. Not only that, but I was told that if I was to have any goodish chance of seeing a Corsican Nuthatch I must have a playback the Corsican Nuthatch's call on my camera, but unfortunately I didn't have this, so this again lessened my chances. But I was still hopeful, so I stood there patiently, watching for any bird that scuttered up the many tall pines that surrounded me. As I waited Coal Tits were constantly calling, I heard a single Common Crossbill (I didn't add this to the 'Holiday List' though as any bird I added had to be seen), there were at least 2 Great Spotted Woodpeckers calling and one, maybe one of the two birds I had heard, was seen in flight. However, for the entirety of the 45 minutes that I scoured that particular area of forest, there was no Corsican Nuthatch to be seen. Climbing up the constantly winding road towards Haut'Asco a good way, we stopped again for another look for Nuthatches. This stop wasn't as long, maybe around 20 minutes. Much the same birds I have mentioned were present again, with the addition of a Dipper darting through the river. Yet again though there were no Corsican Nuthatches. I now realised how dependent a lot of birders were on the playback of its call, and I was starting to think that I had very little chance of seeing one at this point, despite the possibility of seeing them at Haut'Asco itself and on the way back down. Of course, I was a little disappointed, but I knew my chances were minimal. Having given the forest a good look, we then continued our journey. Here are a few pictures taken whilst climing through Le Foret de Carozzicca. Just from the forest iself the views were astounding.

At the time I took the last of the last picture the road was winding incredibly high, and all of a sudden, just a couple of kilometres later, there was a man made clearing and the road came to a stop. We had arrived at Haut'Asco! It was an absolutely beautiful location; I had never been anywhere so high or with such brilliant views in my life. We were right up amongst the rocky and jagged peaks of the mountains. It was like being a bowl, we were completely surrounded by them and from the car park we could see absolutely miles down the valley towards the gorge. The mountains felt overwhelmingly huge, wherever you looked they seemed to be looming over you. Some peaks were higher than others, and some even had snow on them, this was due to the much colder weather, which was understandable at an altitude of 1422m (4665ft)! One thing for sure, this was the perfect location for Lammergeier and Golden Eagle! I'll let the pictures show you just how spectacular it was up there! The following are taken from the car park at the skii station, which was pretty much abandoned due to the time of year.

After getting use to the sheer beauty of our surroundings we headed away from the skii station in order to find a place to sit and scan the mountains for any bird of prey that decides to venture above the mountains. We didn't have to walk far when we came to a clearing, with closer and greater views of the peaks than we had before. It was here that my Mum and I would spend the afternoon looking for Lammergeier, Golden Eagle and Corsican Nuthatch. Here are some more pictures taken from the clearing, and a link to a video I took of the landscape.

Once we got all set up, I started to scan the peaks. My mum had a book to keep herself occupied. I sat there patiently for a good hour, unfortunately with the result of no birds of prey seen, despite me looking as carefully and keenly as I could. A party of 4 Ravens did fly over however, croaking in that typical Raven way as they went, and a Great-spotted Woodpecker was present, its call reverberating throughout the mountains and the only sound to be heard in the deadly silence of the place. The area seemed annoyingly devoid of birdlife, nothing was calling at all apart from the Great-spotted Woodpecker every now and then. So once that hour had passed I decided I was going to have one last look for Corsican Nuthatch, my Mum coming with me and us walking and climbing a little higher than we had been for the first hour. We went a good way, yet there were no signs of any bird whatsoever, let alone any Corsican Nuthatches. Another hour or so had passed with my final search for the Corsican Nuthatch, and we arrived back at the clearance in the forest. I was now starting to think that I had little hope of seeing any of the target species for the day.... I spent a total of two more hours scanning the peaks patiently. I had tried my utmost, but there was nothing I could do.... No majestic raptors rising above the mountains and no little bird scuttling up the great Corsican pines. Evening light was creeping in, and it was time for us to leave....
If I had to be frank with you, Haut'Asco could have been better. That was my reflection of the place as we drove back through the forest, Asco village and the beautiful gorge. I spent many hours of meticulous searching up there, yet with literally no results and barely any birds apart from the Ravens and Great-Spotted Woodpecker near the beginning, and I had been denied of seeing any of the target species apart from the beautiful Cirl Bunting in Asco village, not out of inpatience, its just the way it was. I guess it really highlights the challenges of searching for such birds. But it was very understandable why I didn't see any raptors or endemics. I mean, Corsican Nuthatches have 2000 pairs in the whole of Corsica and are hard to see in October, whilst with the Lammergeier is extremely hard to see in Corsica with a maximum of 8 pairs on the island. The Golden Eagle is too a rare resident on Corsica. So I guess I shouldn't feel too disappointed about the day, my chances were fairly low anyway of seeing the target species,. Anyway, it was beautiful being in the Asco Valley and at Haut Asco anyway. I had seen some beautiful sights of which will stay forever fresh in my mind, and the general experience of being up there was very pleasing and lovely! Seeing the two Cirl Buntings was also a memorable experience for me too, and the fact that I'd never seen them before made me ever more proud and happy about my sighting.
And so the day ended... it had been a tiring one, and I slept well that night. My birding in Corsica wasn't completely over either, I still had a couple days left on the island. In my next entry you can read about the birds I saw and what I did on those last two days. Thanks very much for reading!