The Portland Naturalist

The Portland Naturalist

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Provence Trip - Day 1

I had the most photos and videos for this day, so the other posts will be shorter, I promise!


The night before I left for France, I had a great evenings moth trapping near Guildford, at the workplace (which happens to be a large garden) of an old friend from college.  We got one new macro moth for me, in the shape of an Ochreous Pug, and had great sightings of a roosting Tawny Owl, and a probably bat-hunting, Hobby.  As we packed up, my first Nightjar of the year was heard from the adjacent Whitmoor Common.  This evening may have caused me to have been sleep-deprived for my trip the next morning, but it was worth it!


The next day, After a 10 hour journey involving four trains and a minibus, I was quite knackered.  I’d already noted Black Kite and Hobby from the train by the time we got to Valence.   Spirits were high in anticipation amongst our group of 11, as we approached the heart of The Barronies, on the edge of the Alps.


As we were driven by our guide Andrew, into the small village of St Jalle, it was just getting dark, but we were still welcomed by a singing Nightingale.  On the short walk down to our accommodation, in a number of ‘gites’, we heard the odd call of the Scops Owl going on.  A promising start!



I attempted to have a lie-in in order to catch up on sleep, but my body clock wasn’t having it, and I couldn’t get back to sleep once I awoke at 6.  Oh well, may as well go birding then! 

It was a beautiful morning, and all the birds were singing.  The most prominent being the very numerous Serin

…and the Black Redstart, which seemed to be singing from every roof-top throughout the week.


On top of those, an odd song led me to some pines towards the centre of the village.  The two notes at the beginning of this Common Redstart song, was unlike what I was used to, and heard on their own in the distance sounded like nothing I immediately recognised.


Also just around the village, I saw a distant Turtle Dove, heard a Melodious Warbler, and saw Woodlark, Black Kite, Corn Bunting, and Cirl Bunting. What a place!

On arrival back at the gites ready for departure, I found out that someone had found a Scorpion in their accommodation!  Rather than being disgusted as many people would be, us nature lovers considered this to be brilliant!  What a strange lot.  The beast was only about 2 inches long, and I later discovered it to be a young Euscopius flavicaudis, which is often found inside buildings.


We did eventually tear ourselves away from the village, and headed for the first proper wildlife stop close-by in the lower Barronies.  Worth the visit for the view alone.


As soon as we rocked up, I spotted a Tawny Pipit sitting on a post by the road.  Lifer number two (if you count the heard-only Scops)!  We went on to see a few of these throughout the walk, often giving their rather unimaginative song.


Also right by the van, Andrew heard a Western Orphean Warbler singing, sounding like an unenthusiastic Blackbird.  It eventually showed well, or be it distantly.  This turned out to be the only one of the week.



This area is the place to see vultures, so it was no surprise that almost as soon as I started scanning the mountain ridges, I picked one up.  What was a surprise though, was that mine was in fact a Black Vulture, by far the rarer of the two larger species, identifiable at long-range by its drooping wing-tips.

We started walking through some lovely scrubby, rocky, and grassy habitat, and soon came across a number of interesting butterflies.  These included the bright orange Spotted Fritillary, as well as more familiar species like Small Heath and Speckled Wood, or be it the more rufous southern form.


Interesting birds continued to show left, right, and centre.  A fantastic Ortolan Bunting sung its Yellowhammer-like song, and a Red-backed Shrike came increasingly closer.


I continued to scan for raptors, finding a distant Goshawk (merely an also-ran on a day like this!), two brief, probably migrating, Honey Buzzard, and finally some of the enormous Griffon Vulture.

Butterflies were everywhere, even though it was only mid-morning.  The Blues were particularly mesmerising, but those I did ID were Mazarine, Adonis, and Common Blue (one of which rested on my scope, and then my hat, for half the journey!), as well as a few Small Blue.


As we were scanning the wheeling groups of Griffons, someone spotted a whiter bird with them.  An Egyptian Vulture!  It drifted closer and closer, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not get it in the camera in the featureless blue sky.

I was briefly distracted watching a Dingy Skipper, and found myself left behind by the group.  I took one last quick scan of a nearby mountain-top, and found not one, but two Short-toed Eagle circling around!  I had to film them even though they were distant.  But, what should appear out of the blue, but the Egyptian Vulture!  The 'Shorties' showed well in the end.


The Egyptian was the only one of the week.

Moving on, we entered a small wooded area, mostly made up of young Oaks.  This had a Southern White Admiral flicking around, and several singing Western Bonelli’s Warbler. 

There was also this pretty Jewel Beetle.


We’d already heard a Subalpine Warbler earlier, but finally, a male posed on a bush for us.  Also, I managed to spot some distant Alpine Swift.  They did eventually come closer, but not easy to film!


The plants were impressive also, with Lady, Lesser Butterfly, and Woodcock Orchids.

We made it to the ‘Rock of Cairo’, so called because it looks like a pyramid at some angles.


 From here, we had amazing views of the Griffons flying beneath us, and Andrew showed us one of their nests on the adjacent cliff.  Around this nest, I noticed a lot of hirundines flying about.  These were Crag Martin, which were also nesting in the vicinity.

On the insect side of things, I had this unidentified Scarab Beetle land on me…


…and there were a lot of both Scarce and Common Swallowtail butterflies flying around, though they were hard to capture on film.  This one a Scarce.


We made our way back to the bus for lunch, but I was constantly being distracted by various insects, and got left behind somewhat! 

There were a lot of these impressive Carpenter Bee about the place.


More of the familiar butterflies noted were Wall Brown and Brown Argus.  I also however, identified this Red-underwing Skipper.


On the way back past a stand of pines, I could swear I heard a Crested Tit, but it remained hidden.

Finally back at the bus, and there aren’t many places where you can eat lunch surrounded by the songs of Western Orphean Warbler, Ortolan Bunting, and Tawny Pipit, whilst circling over you are Alpine Swift, Short-toed Eagle, and these impressive beasts…


It was at this point my camera battery went flat!

Later, we had a short walk up a mountain track, where the wind was a tad stronger.  Indeed, we struggled to see any small birds at all.

Nonetheless, in a meadow by the van was a smorgasbord of interesting insects, including these Ant-lions, Libelloides coccajus.


We were supposedly heading for a viewpoint overlooking a Golden Eagle nest, but as it turned out, we needn’t have gone as far as that.  Because, we had views of the pair of eagles interacting distantly over a nearby mountain, before drifting off.

Also among the interesting insects here were a Small Purple-barred moth, a Bath White butterfly, and an unidentified small yellow butterfly/moth with a black border which baffled me.  More Spotted Fritillary were about, as well as the more familiar Pearl-bordered Fritillary.


Also here were a lot more Lady Orchid.


After that successful stop, we headed back to base through some beautiful farmland.


We came to a halt in the middle of some cereal crops, where this rare Pheasant’s-eye grew.


The main reason for stopping here though was for the farmland birds.  A Red-backed Shrike and two Turtle Dove were immediately in view.    A bit more scanning and the vice-leader Craig found a Montagu’s Harrier quartering nearby.  It was a young male, and it put on a bit of a show for us, or be it fairly distantly.

While at this spot, I noticed a distant sand-bank, and I could swear the two birds flying about over it were rather Bee-eater-shaped.

We drove on, only to come to a quick stop again, as the two Bee-eater were flying around over the road!  What stunners!


We finally made it back to the accommodation that I appreciated properly for the first time.  This was part of my room, based in an old Nunnery.  Rustic!


And the view from my veranda.


Just outside the building were a number of Lizard Orchid, or be it none of them in flower yet, as well as this huge Prickly-pear Cactus.


After a lovely meal at the local restaurant, we retired for the night, and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow!  What will tomorrow bring?

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