Thursday, 28 April 2011

Big Day Out

We were up early and out by 7.30am.  A big day planned with Stephen Moss and Rod Leslie.

We started at Capestang and began the walk across the marsh.  We immediately enjoyed good views of a Purple Heron wrestling with an eel.  Later on a muddy pool we encountered a Wood Sandpiper and a Little Stint.  Looking around we counted about 10 Great White Egrets and 5 Squacco Herons.  Black Kites and Marsh Harriers quartered the marsh and a single Red-rumped Swallow flew over with Barn Swallows.

In the reedbeds Reed and Great Reed Warblers were singing and a single Bearded Tit appeared.  We just noticed a Purple Swamphen running along a reedy path and 2 Black-winged Stilts flew over.

Just before leaving we noted 4 White Storks soaring away in the distance and 2 Gull-billed Terns flying over the marsh.

We moved on to Lesignan and stopping by a series of vineyards and meadows we discovered 2 Ortolan Buntings and a Golden Oriole called in the distance.

Next stop was Fleury where about 6 Lesser Kestrels from the reintroduction project were showing well. Turtle Doves purred in the background and a Melodious Warbler chattered away in a nearby hedge.

Next stop was at the sewerage lagoons at Pissevache.  Two Whiskered Terns were feeding accompanied by a White-winged Tern found by Rod on the previous day.  A pair of Red-crested Pochard were also present.  Opposite to the lagoons a great flock of Sandwich, Common and Little Terns were joined by 6 Mediterranean Gulls which flew in calling.

We moved on to Gruissan and the Ile de St.Martin.  Eating our picnic we spent a bit of time concentrating on butterflies and Stephen using his net identified Silver Studded Blue, Spanish Gatekeeper and Black-veined Whites.  Driving around the vineyards behind rocky outcrops we were very pleased to find 2 male Black-eared Wheatears, 2 Whinchats and a Rock Sparrow.

We checked two more areas but found little different and stopped in Olonzac for a beer before heading home.

Tomorrow we plan to visit Northern Spain.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Farting Ducks

I dropped off Bronwen at Beziers Airport and then waited for the plane to arrive which would deliver to me Stephen Moss for a few days of birding.  Whilst waiting I checked the end of the runway and soon located a male Little Bustard patrolling a rough grassy area.  Good now I had to hope it stayed for Stephen.  I returned to the Airport as the Ryanair flight approached and parked up by the runway.  A Stone Curlew called and a Buzzard quartered the area.

Soon the terminal disgorged its passengers and there was Stephen. After a brief greeting we immediately set off and after a little while the male Little Bustard did his stuff strutting around and convulsing as he uttered his strange rasping call.  A great moment for Stephen because this was a LIFER for him and an equally great moment for me.  Personally there is no greater pleasure than finding somebody a new bird.

We moved off to another area of poor agriculture - a communal area of vineyards and herb rich grassland.  Immediately we found Great Spotted Cuckoos raucously patrolling the bushier areas and irritating local Magpies their host species.  A couple of Tawny Pipits showed well by a track but thereafter we were treated to a Little Bustard spectacular.  Some males called from long grass whilst others flew like wildfowl in pairs their wings whistling and the males with quivering wings and dangling feet.  Truly amazing display.

The flying birds really did look like wildfowl and their calls like the distant passing of wind.  No wonder they are often referred to in France as "Farting Ducks".

Returning home we saw a magnificent male Montagu's Harrier en route and a Black Kite, Short-toed Eagle and a Sparrowhawk as we drank a welcome glass of wine.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Nothing new

Brilliant weather today if a bit windy.  Last night we had a collosal thunder storm which gave everything a good soaking.

I did expect a bit more visible migration but very little.  A single female Pied Flycatcher was all I could find.

Thinking about what I have not seen here yet Tawny Pipit, Golden Oriole, Whinchat, Spotted Flycatcher and Turtle Dove are still missing.  Also Melodious Warbler has not appeared yet.

The winds have mainly been coming from the north so maybe that is holding things up a bit.  It is interesting to see elsewhere that Wales has had more Woodchat Shrikes than I have seen here so far.

Weather forecast for next few days is hopeful which is just as well as Stephen Moss is arriving tomorrow and we will be putting in some big efforts to find plenty of birds.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Nightingale morning

I took a short walk around our hill this morning.  We have just had one and a half days of rain and everywhere is looking so fresh.  Nightingales are singing everywhere and I count over 20 singing birds in a quite small area.  Western Orphean Warblers and Subalpine Warblers were also in song and a male Montagu's Harrier sailed over carrying prey.

Butterflies were very much in evidence with lots of Scarce Swallowtails and a few Clouded Yellows.  One or two Walls sunning themselves on rocks and when I returned home another superb Giant Peacock Moth sitting on the wall of the house.

My daughter Bronwen has joined us and we tooka pizza lunch on the terrace at Minerve.  A Blue Rock Thrush was there as usual as well as Crag Martins and Red-rumped Swallows.

This afternoon a Honey Buzzard and another sighting of a male Montagu's Harrier.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Just a couple of raptors

Cutting grass in the garden today with rain forecast for the weekend.

Not much new today except for a superb Hobby overhead and later a single Honey Buzzard made its way up the hill and away to the north.

Our daily Red-rumped Swallows also increased to five today.

Cannot resist having a little dig at my Ipswich friends for the amazing 5-1 defeat they suffered at the hands of my beloved Norwich.  That is 9-2 to us this season.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Back to the marsh

At the request of my neighbours John and Hanne we took an afternoon walk at the marsh at Capestang.  Almost as soon as we started walking 5 Squacco Herons flew up from a flooded meadow together with a few Little Egrets.  Initially the same species as seen and heard on previous visits were visible.

On reaching the bend in the track and looking right we noted a Spoonbill feeding amongst Shelducks and a large group of Black-winged Stilts.  By now were seeing large numbers of Swifts overhead and inevitably after a while there was a Hobby causing havoc amongst the flocks.

Black Kites and Marsh Harriers were evident and a single White Stork passed by high overhead.  A group of 15 Whiskered Terns moved north and were later found hawking for insects over a flooded meadow.  Purple Herons passed over every now and then and a Wood Sandpiper flew over uttering its "chiff chiff" call.

Great Reed, Reed and Cetti's Warblers were all in song and once again the marsh gave immense pleasure for a brief walk.

Heading home a male Woodchat Shrike perched on a dead branch in a hedgerow.

Finally thanks to Susan Wallis and Ken Hall for pointing our that my green beetle (April 17th posting) is a Rose Chafer Cetonia aurata

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Etangs to the south

We set off this morning aiming to go as far south as Cap Leucate and then work our way back to Narbonne.

Approaching Olonzac a single Honey Buzzard was heading north battling a stiff north easterly breeze.

We saw nothing else of note until we reached Cap Leucate.  Heading of down into the wanderful valley of sweet smelling thyme we searched the bushes for migrants.  Orphean Warbler and Spectacled Warbler were singing but only the latter was seen and that a very brief view in flight.  Moving on we were so thrilled to find a pair of Black-eared Wheatears the male co-operatively posing for a photograph.  Apart from lots of Swallows moving north there was little sign of real migration.  Heading back to the car we found a pair of the elusive Thekla Larks so similar to Crested but we noted their distinct call and the grey underwing as they flew.

We turned north to Franqui and there were only four gulls on the lagoon.  Two Yellow-legged and 2 Slender-billed Gulls.  The latter always a good find.  We moved on and enjoyed our picnic by the lagoons and beach between La Palme and Port Nouvelle.  Another Slender-billed Gull was the only diversion.  Later on the beach there were 15 Sanderling and 10 Kentish Plovers.  Over a hundred Greater Flamingos were close to Port Nouvelle and later heading along the lagoon road to Bages we counted another 150.

Also on the Bages lagoons there were at least 12 pairs of Black-winged Stilts, 4 Great Crested Grebes, 5 Kentish Plovers and a few Blue-headed Wagtails.

Back home whilst watering some newly planted trees in the garden 4 Red-rumped Swallows fed above pine trees.  A few minutes later another Honey Buzzard lumbered over.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Migration continues

It is market day in nearby Olonzac on Tuesdays so no time for looking for birds until after lunch.  Sitting in the lounge I noticed a female Pied Flycatcher in the almond tree outside and then a few minutes later it was joined by a male.  The latter in Europe are much browner than those found in Britain.

Later I had to take a short walk to a neighbour's house and on my return noted 4 Red-rumped Swallows over our garden.  They nest nearby mostly in the Cesse Gorge or under bridges.  They are a species that has colonised France recently and have spread through this region.  The weather has been so dry recently that there are currently no puddles providing mud for these birds.  Maybe I need to create some.

This evening we went to one of our neighbouring villages Oupia to enjoy drinks and nibbles at Susan and Tims wonderful house with friends Rod and Jill.  Chatting away our attention was drawn to a Hoopoe on an adjoining rooftop followed quickly by a flypast of half a dozen Bee-eaters and finally 3 Short-toed Eagles lumbering their way north.  What a way to spend an evening.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Capestang marsh again

As planned I was back on the marsh at Capestang by mid morning.  The weather was bright and sunny but with bit of chill in the fresh easterly wind.  Almost immediately a couple of White Storks soared over and Purple Herons were noted flying in the distance.

Next the highlight of the day.  I met Tomes Poblet a student working for LPO (RSPB equivalent) on a number of projects in the area.  Today he was visiting the marsh with Bitterns in mind.  His task is a difficult one.  He aims to locate the many land owners of the marsh and try to persuade them to agree in principle a management agreement to enhance the habitats on the site.  The phragmites reedbeds need a cutting regime introduced and better control of water levels would also be a positive move. Bitterns breed in small numbers at this site.

Some of the owners have already talked to Tomes but do not want their neighbours to know.  There is a distinct dislike of any green movement as they see them as a threat to their way of life.  That life of course includes hunting.  I do hope that eventually they will realise that there is a common interest in protecting the marsh in perpetuity.  Hunting and biodiversity in general will benefit from a management plan and resources to put it inplace.

At least I am glad that somebody cares and is trying to make things happen.

Walking with Tomes was a pleasure.  We encountered a large flock of migrating Swifts and a single Woodchat Shrike.  Large numbers of Yellow Wagtails were also present and Reed and Great Reed Warblers were singing loudly.  I managed to hear a snatch of the song of Moustached Warbler but could not set eyes on it.  Bearded Tits were also very active in the reedbeds.

Returning to our cars a passing Marsh Harrier flushed many Little Egrets from a marsh and in addition 5 Squacco Herons. The latter are annual but scarce in this area.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Garden Wildlife

Spent the whole day in our French garden distributing the soil we collected yesterday.

There is always so much to see and it is worth keeping a look out for interesting insects.  Today on our flowering hedge I encountered a very splendid green beetle.  It was apparently taking nectar and
I have seen these before but I have no idea what it is.  Any ideas?

I sat down for a rest on a seat and within minutes this splendid male Common Redstart appeared and began feeding from a perch in the Pyracantha hedge.  Other migrants today included a White Wagtail, Sparrowhawk and a female Montagu's Harrier.  Our resident Short-toed Eagles were also overhead calling during the morning.

After lunch it became quite warm (23 degrees) and I noted a bit of Ocellated Lizard activity.  These large creatures seem to like my drainage pipes and every one has droppings at its entrance.  I watched three in all including this one the size of a rat and I wondered how he squeezed down the pipe.

With the work now done for a while I intend to go back to the marsh at Capestang tomorrow to see how things might have changed.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Just when I thought the day was over

I stepped outside around 10.30pm to admire the splendid night sky with almost a full moon when I enjoyed the first "sonic" calls of a Scops Owl.  They nest nearby and we enjoy their calling all summer long.

My attention was also drawn to a large moth under the terrace lights.  Closer inspection and a camera revealed a very battered Giant Peacock Moth.

Migrants continue to arrive

Another fantastic day and it began for us  today by being taken by our good neighbours John & Hanne to Narbonne where we loaded up a trailer with free soil created by green recycling.  A fantastic operation providing a good service for local people.  Our chalky boulder clay flower beds will welcome a bit of variety.

Sitting on the terrace at lunch time a Nightingale was singing close by and then I could clearly pick out the "hurdy gurdy" song of Western Orphean Warbler.  I have a feeling that this was a bit earlier than last spring.  Even more surprising was a Roller flying high north and passing over the house.  It is normally the end of the month before I see this species.

During the afternoon we went out again with our neighbours to look at the plethora of wild flowers out on the garrigue.  We were particularly interested to look at some fritillaries known as Pyrenean Snakeshead which we had discovered a few days earlier.  They were still looking pretty good.  A Short-toed Eagle flew overhead and at another site a Western Bonelli's Warbler sang.

Back at home and gazing out of the window produced a splendid male Pied Flycatcher feeding from an almond tree.

Roll on tomorrow.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Spread of the Phsycadelic Moorhen

When I was very young I somehow acquired a stuffed Purple Swamphen or Purple Gallinule as it was then known.  At the time we got the thing we had no idea what it was.  The Observers Book of Birds did not cover such exotica and it was known affectionately as "The Phsycadelic Moorhen".  Only when the first Peterson Guide arrived did we discover its identity and also that its grey head made it the race found in Asia.

Now for years the closest place for British birders to catch up with this species has been the Iberian Peninsula and to the far south especially Coto Donana in Spain.  More recently this spectacular bird was introduced into the Ebro Delta Spain's second great wetland.  From here these birds have moved north to the Gulf of Roses and even more recently crossed into France.  They have done so well they are now in the Camargue.

In Languedoc they are now quite regularly seen in coastal reedbeds and inland a bit near Capestang.  As elsewhere in Europe they are very difficult to see skulking in dense reeds and only occasionally showing themselves.  This species is widespread and they are certainly easier to see elsewhere.  In India I saw them feeding in the open in filthy pools by Bharatpur, and in Wester Australia we had to fend this purple pest off as it regularly jumped onto our picnic table at Herdsman's lake in Perth in an attempt to steal our lunch.

I was lucky recently to get three views in a morning in France.  One walked across the path, another got up at my feet and flew powerfully across the marsh and a third swam out and posed with a Mallard.

My photos show the latter and an Australian bird posing.

How long before they reach the UK?

Connected at last! News from France

I am none the wiser at how France Telecom/Orange work but today we got connected 5 days before we expected it.  So here is a round up of wildlife news from France so far.

Arriving on April 1st the first migrant in the garden was a female Redstart followed by a Black Kite a few minutes later. A small group of Willow Warblers passed through before duskApril 3rd was the next chance for a look round and 8 Swallows moving through first thing was followed by a very active Hoopoe.  In fact Hoopoes have become a daily sight since. I checked the local Lac de Jouarre and apart from 30 more Swallows nothing much yet.  Back at home a Red Kite and a Cuckoo were the highlights of April 4th and a pair of Short-toed Eagles were April 5th.

On April 6th we made our first excursion to the coast.  Starting at Etang de Vendres we watched feverish activity at the heronry with Grey Herons, Cattle & Little Egrets all busy with nesting.  In the surrounding reeds a couple of Purple Herons appeared and Black Kites and Marsh Harriers flew overhead.  We moved south to Pissevache and found 27 Avocets on the shallow lagoon with about 30 Sandwich Terns.  Close to the sewerage works c100 Greater Flamingos loafed around but 3 Slender-billed Gulls raised the adrenalin. White and Blue-headed Wagtails were obvious in the salt marsh before we moved on to the Gruissan area.  At Mandaric c30 Spotted Redshanks fed with a couple of Black-winged Stilts and another Purple Heron flew over.

On April 7th we walked over the garrigue behind our house and it was soon apparent that Subalpine Warblers were well in with singing birds widespread. A male Redstart looked superb in a blossom tree also visited by Hummingbird Hawkmoth and a Scarce Swallowtail. Two male and a ring-tail Montagu's Harriers floated over the Cesse Gorge and a Wheater perched by open grassland.

On the evening of April 8th we enjoyed a pizza in the ancient village of Minerve and as we walked back to the car in the evening sun 3 Crag Martins and 2 Red-rumped Swallows circled above the church tower and 2 Blue Rock Thrushes cavorted on the roof tops.

On April 10th I went with my friend Stuart Gregory to a lonely gorge where we watched for an hour or so a Bonelli's Eagle sitting peacefully on its nest. This is our nearest nest and is onbe of only 29 in France.  There have been successful here for several years.  As we left a Firecrest was singing loudly.

On April 11th we took another walk around the local garrigue stooping first to admire flowering Wild Tulips.  10 House Martins went over followed by a female Montagu's Harrier. A bit later eagle-eyed Beryl picked up a high flying Griffon Vulture heading north. Lots more Subalpine Warblers and a single Whitethroat were pleasing but just before reaching our gate we came across a Western Bonelli's Warbler singing in a neighbour's garden.  Taking a drive later back to woods in the hills we found another 3 singing.

April 13th saw me heading for the large marsh just south of Capestang.  Very heavy rain in March has left high water levels with some fields flooded that I have never seen damp in 10 years.  I took the usual walk across the centre of the marsh.  Black Kites and Marsh Harriers soared overhead and hordes of Grey Herons and Little Egrets flew up from reeds and 5 Great White Egrets were still present.  Soon a few Purple Herons took to the sky and a single White Stork headed north.  Over a hundred Blue-headed Wagtails fed by the track and a few Reed Buntings were in song.  A single Coypu (remember them?) startled me by dropping into the water and then watching me from a safe distance.

Reaching the dense reedbeds a few Reed Warblers and a Sedge Warbler were singing and then a couple of Great Reed Warblers struck up with their guttural deliveries.  The marsh was noisy now and the many squeals turned out to be Purple Swamphens and 3 were seen (see next blog).  I turned and started my walk back just in time to note 2 Alpine Swifts heading north with larger numbers of Sand Martins.  Stopping by one of the flooded meadows I picked out 6 Whiskered Terns, 20 Greenshanks and c60 Black-winged Stilts amongst hundreds of Black-headed Gulls.

Right up todate today we once again headed for the coast driving out onto Gruissan beach.  A few Wheatears were all we found there but at Mandirac the Spotted Redshanks were still present accompanied now by a Wood Sandpiper.  Finally on the way home a Great Spotted Cuckoo flew across the road just west of Narbonne.

So far wonderful and with some amazing weather.  On two days temperatures hit 33 degrees but thankfully now a more manageable 23.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

No internet in France

Very frustrating that I have no internet connection and will not get one until April 20th.  I am usinga friend's connection.

Spring is very obvious here with two days when temperatures reached 33 degrees.  Migrants are arriving daily.  So far lots of Subalpine Warblers are singing plus one day of Bonelli's Warblers everywhere.  Hoopoes are displaying as I write this and a cock Redstart resplendant in a cherry tree.

No Nightingales yet so we wait for their songs keeping us awake at night.

More soon