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!


  1. Great post, Joseph. Well done with the Cirl Buntings and Golden Eagles. I'm still waiting for my first Cirls. Unlucky with the Nuthatch and Lammergier though... I'll be reading your next post to see if you manage to find them!


  2. Hi joseph , great post and i admire your patience and attitude in searching for those target species , well done with the cirls they are great birds to see ,look forward to the next post ! cheers rob

  3. Thanks very much bill! I didn't see Golden Eagles though :). It was just the Cirls that I saw. And hi again robbie, thanks very much for your kind words too! My next post will be my final post accounting my trip to Corsica, summarising two days rather than one.

  4. Great post, Joseph.
    Shame about the Goldie, well done on the Cirls though.

  5. Oops! My bad. Thanks for the comment on my blog anyway ;)

  6. Bill, that's no problem. No problem about the comment, thanks for following my blog!

    And Ashley thanks, I am glad you liked the post.

  7. hi Joseph some good writing there. Well done on the Cirl Buntings they are brilliant birds! Now the task is to get one in Britian.

  8. Hi Devil Birder, and thank you! Cirl Buntings are brilliant birds, I have to admit. As for seeing them in Britain, that's tricky! Maybe one day though!