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Saturday, 5 June 2021

Feathers, scales and prickles!

This was the title of a day out last Friday with Birding Languedoc but sponsored by the Decouvrons ENSemble programme of the Narbonnaise Regional Park and department of Aude, which luckily for us meant that our day out was free! We had been supposed to go on another Birding L. trip the day before, but it was cancelled during the week. We actually breathed a sigh of relief as these are long days out with a lot of driving at each end and a lot of standing and/or walking. Two trips in one week was quite enough, especially as for this day we had to leave home at 6.30am to meet up at 8am!!!

Today's trip was all based around the village of Feuilla in the Narbonnaise regional park, which just happens to be where Philippa, who runs Birding L., lives! So to make a nice change we were able to meet up at her house, and go back there for a mid morning coffee break plus lovely home made muffins. Having proper facilities in place of a bush for a toilet was great too! 😀

In the morning we visited a couple of places up on the garrigue around Feuilla. The weather was overcast all day which was a shame, in fact strange as it was due to be lovely and sunny and much warmer where we live inland! I guess it's the coastal influence, as we were not far from the coast. We saw a number of Woodchat Shrikes, Tawny Pipits, a Melodious Warbler and several different skulking garrigue warblers, including a Dartford Warbler that I would really like to see properly one day! We also saw Black-eared Wheatear which really pleased me as K and I have only seen them before in Greece, more than twenty years ago.

Mixed birds, not very good photos but for the record: Clockwise from top left, Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris), Western Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica) (photobombed by a Cirl Bunting that I didn't know was there until I looked closely at the photo!), and Woodchat Shrikes (Lanius senator).

This Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta) was somewhat closer so I was pleased with these images that I managed to capture of it singing its face off.

I finally got a proper look at an Orphean Warbler when we were back at Philippa's having a coffee break. No photos though, and I think it was the only lifer of the day - but the more species you see, the harder it is to see lifers, so we are being very fortunate on these organised outings!

Above, typical garrigue and below, Perennial Lettuce (Latuca perennis) with tiny bees. The leaves are small and insignificant but edible, not that I have tasted it.

The spectacular Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax).

Looking towards Etang de la Palme on the left and the Leucate cliffs on the right.

Despite being overcast there were still a few butterflies about, including a beauty which I think is a lifer (need to check back over some photos from a trip from some years back - but which trip?).

On the left is the beautiful Provence Chalkhill Blue (Lysandra hispana), which we saw both on the garrigue and in the garden in the afternoon. On the right, top is a Spanish Gatekeeper (Pyronia bathseba) - note the pale Y shape on the underwing, middle is a Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) and bottom is Zygaena lavandulae, the moth I mentioned in my last post, which is a part of the Burnet group of moths.

I forgot to post this collage of Brown Argus on my last post, so as we saw it on this day as well I'll post it here. You can see that these butterflies and moths love Scabious flowers!

After our picnic lunch we went to the Jardin Botanique de Foncaude, which is at the far end of the valley in which Feuilla is located. This is a family run garden that was started in the 90s by Dominique Jalabert who has a passion for cacti and succulents, amongst other plants, and gardens in a very natural and wildlife friendly way. This is no city botanic garden; here everything is left as naturally as possible and the cacti and other plants grow in amongst the native vegetation with winding paths along in amongst them.

Sadly there have been a few less than positive comments on social media saying that the gardens should be better looked after/tidied/weeded, but these people don't understand this kind of natural gardening. In the wild these cacti and succulents wouldn't be weeded around! So seeing native grasses, scabious and euphorbia growing in amongst the specialty plants may not be what you'd see with them in, say, Mexico or Peru, but it's what you see here in the garrigue. We were lucky to see wildlife in abundance here, from Nightingales and Golden Orioles serenading us to butterflies and moths and for the 'scales' part of the title of this post, a water snake (Natrix maura) curled up beside the small pond and as you will see in a later photo, a Western Three-toed Skink (Chalcides striatus) in the grass!

The Provence Chalkhill Blue was here in the garden too, along with absolutely tons of these Zygaena lavandulae moths.

When you first enter the garden in the bottom of the valley, there are a number of shrubs and trees from around the world, including a huge collection of (I think he said about 60 species) young oaks! Dominique has national collections of agaves, dasylirions and yuccas. He also has a huge amount of Opuntias, which are the prickly pear cactus.

This amazing tree stood out with its copper coloured bark which was really smooth to the touch. Arbutus xalapensis is is known as Texas Madrone and is native to Central America, Mexico and the southwestern United States. We know Arbutus unedo here in France as the Strawberry Tree, because it, and the other species of Arbutus, have edible red fruit.

We then moved on to the main part of the garden which is planted with cacti and succulents. I must admit I know next to nothing about cacti but know they have some extremely showy blooms. Sadly, there were only two plants actually flowering when we visited; it doesn't help that it was overcast. But we still enjoyed the stunning plants on display.

I was told that the cacti above is known as 'Mother in Law's Cushion'! 😀 Upon googling, it seems that they are normally a round or barrel shape and are called Echinocactus grusonii, popularly known as the Golden Barrel Cactus and are endangered in their native Mexico.

As they only cut the grass by strimming it, they can leave patches of specific wildflowers and most certainly any orchids coming up. There was a large patch of these Lizard Orchids (Himantoglossum hircinum) in flower - up to now all the ones we have seen on the garrigue have been in tight bud only.

Karline, our bird guide, with her eagle eye spotted this Western Three-toed Skink (Chalcides striatus)! I've never seen one before so you could say this and the water snake were lifers today as well as the Orphean Warbler. I couldn't get a very good photo as we were all trying to shoot it and it was liable to move off at any moment. Karline's partner is the son of the owner, Dominique, so she knows the garden very well and the creatures that make it their home, as she lives next door to her father-in-law (Dominique is both a male and female name in France). Because she lived close by she brought out her collection of snake moults for us to see (from three different kinds of snake) and bird feathers she had collected from colourful birds such as Rollers, Golden Orioles and Hoopoes. Like me, she has a collection of dead critters and hers included the Giant Peacock Moth (Saturnia pyri) - do you remember us finding the caterpillar in our laurel hedge last year?

To round off the day I bought a jar of creamy honey from the bees that feed on the flowers in the garden and surrounding garrigue. This had been a very special day out indeed. 💜 

Monday, 31 May 2021

Birding Trip around Lézignan-Corbières airfield and Massif de Fontfroide garrigue

This was one of our trips out with Birding Languedoc and we had a horribly early start, meeting at 8am by the small airfield at Lezignan Corbieres, not far from Narbonne. The habitat is wild open grassy areas punctuated with vines and sparse trees and shrubs. There were only six of us in total including Karline, who is the bird expert, and Philippa who runs Birding Languedoc and is very good with bird and plant ID herself. 

One of the target birds around here was the Little Bustard, which luckily we saw, three of them flying around quite clearly. Lifer no. 1 of 6 for Keith and me. Our guide has an amazing ear for birdsong and was IDing birds left right and centre from song she could hear, though most of us couldn't hear what she heard at all! One song we could clearly hear at the start of the day were Skylarks. There were also other larks, mostly heard rather than seen, though we didn't see another target species which was the Lesser Short Toed Lark. However there were plenty of other birds, including a number of Tawny Pipits (another target species for this habitat and lifer no. 2) including one which perched in a tree close enough for me to get a photo. We also saw a few Woodchat Shrikes.

Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris) looking puffed up.

There were a number of raptors seen in this area of flat land too, a Short-toed Eagle is good enough, but we also had Montagu's Harrier (lifer no. 3) and Eleonora's Falcon (lifer no. 4) overhead! I leave birds in flight to others to photograph and wander off to check out wildflowers and butterflies after a quick look through my binocs 😀. I have to admit that I know very little about raptors and find them next to impossible to ID other than a Buzzard sitting on a fence post by the side of the road or a Kestrel hovering overhead.

Little Bustards (Tetrax tetrax) - photo credit: Keith Allen

By 9am the sun had come out and our chilly early start started warming up a little. Butterflies started appearing and over the course of the day we had quite a nice selection spotted. I was the butterfly 'expert' of the day, with the others asking me "What's this?" or "What's that blue butterfly?". Thankfully I was able to ID them as a couple of the blue butterflies we saw in the afternoon up on the garrigue just happened to be the Green Underside Blue and the Black-eyed Blue which I had recently encountered close to home! We also saw a Spanish Gatekeeper but because others were trying to take photos and I was chatting with people, I didn't get a photo of it. We were fortunate also that Gill, the plant expert who lead the wildflower day out that we went on recently, was also on this trip, so we had a varied day looking at plants as well as birds and butterflies. Other butterflies seen were a Small or Essex Skipper, a Clouded Yellow, a Brown Argus, several Painted Ladies and lots of Marbled Whites.

Knapweed Fritillary (Melitaea phoebe)

We also saw mammals and reptiles. First up we spotted a vixen with a cub (and later spotted another cub) at the far end of a row of vines, and spent a good 15 minutes watching them - a fantastic experience. Strangely a rabbit kept bobbing up behind them, maybe trying to figure out how to get past them in an open area like a vineyard! What a funny sight to see. In another place we saw a hare between rows of vines as well. It really makes a difference to be walking around the vines rather than driving past, as you see so much more (obviously!).

You see quite a few wildflower meadows full of poppies at this time of year around this area - an absolutely gorgeous sight.

A number of small planes flew overhead and deposited parachutists. I found them a lot easier to photograph than birds in flight 😁 so I was able to see that in all my photos there were two people parachuting together. I guess this is the really beginner course or maybe they were skydiving before we saw them, I don't know.

The largest lizard in Europe is the Ocellated Lizard (Timon lepidus) and it lives in this area of France, in habitat such as olive groves and rocky scrub. It can reach up to 90cm in length, of which two-thirds is the tail. More information about them here on Planete Passion. We were particularly lucky that we saw them before they saw us, so we were able to creep up slowly and get reasonable photos. The first two photos are the female and the third is the male, who has a wider head than she does.

After lunch we went up into the garrigue hills of the Massif de Fontfroide where we saw a number of these Burnet moths, which don't have an English name as they aren't found in the UK. The Latin name is Zygaena lavandulae, and in French Zygène de la Lavande, so the translation of both would be Lavender Burnet moth. Although at first glance you might think it was a 5-spot Burnet, it's actually quite different if you look at a picture of the 5-spot. This photo doesn't show the main difference in wing colour but you can see the white collar, which makes for easy ID.

Also seen flying overhead whilst having our picnic were Griffon Vultures and Bee-eaters, who had a nest close by.

There were yet more lovely wildflowers, including this Bee Orchid, (Ophrys apifera).

This is another orchid, the Small-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis microphylla), but it wasn't flowering yet. I had to hold it as the wind was blowing so hard up here on the garrigue hills that I couldn't get a shot in focus otherwise!

It had turned cold, windy and overcast, and after searching in vain for another target species, the Common Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis), we headed back down to the cars. However, upon searching a little more by the cars, Philippa finally spotted one! They are beautiful birds (and so is the Blue Rock Thrush, which we have seen a few times). However our only image which K took is of a very small orange blob, as it was so far away! Thankfully with spotting scopes we were able to see it fairly well.

We were then blessed to have a special bird fly around and right over us, allowing for easier photography! It was a Eurasian Black Vulture (also known as the Monk Vulture or Cinereous Vulture) (Aegypius monachus). There is a reintroduced population in the south of France but they obviously aren't seen very often as it was a lifer for even our birding guide, Karline! This was a very tatty specimen though.

Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus) - photo credit: Keith Allen

Ending up the day with two more fantastic lifers really made our day and worth the very early start!

Friday, 21 May 2021

Sentier Botanique revisited and Sentier Bucheron, Montréal

We went back to the forest in late April to see how it had changed from the previous visit in March. Lots happens in the spring and it's a botantical wonderland so everchanging. The sign below explains a lot about the area and the walks and trails in the Malepere hills, though it's in French of course!

I've zoomed in on the walk that we did - this time though we followed the Sentier Botanique and then went on to do the Sentier Bucheron, making about 6km in all. The explanation about this area explains that this is an important geographical area for flora, as the Atlantic influence from the Aquitaine basin meets the Mediterranean influence here in these hills, and within a stretch of about 5km there is both typical dry Mediterranean garrigue and typical woodland of the north, for example, of the Parisian area. Then there are all sorts of plants in between. Mostly my photos are of the garrigue area as this was a new trail for us.

At the beginning of the trails there is a sandy, rocky bank with typical garrigue plants - here the Grey-leaved Cistus (Cistus albidus) is flowering and there is also Kermes Oak, which is the low growing holly-leaved evergreen one. When we came back down the hill on the Bucheron trail we were following this bank with lots of garrigue plants as you will see later.

First, we started off following the botanical path that we followed in March. This time of course it was a lot more green.

There were still a few flowers hanging on which had been flowering in March (Cuckoo Flower and Pulmonaria) and you can see here some of the spotty leaves from Pulmonaria, but Bugle was the predominant flower in the verges of the track.

Below is Purple Gromwell (Lithospermum purpurocaeruleum). A few friends ID'd it for me using, which I need to start using myself. I've seen it used out in the field and it's a very handy tool to use.

We then veered off to the Bucheron path rather than coming back on the Botanique loop, as I was feeling strong enough to tackle a longer walk this time. There was a lot of uphill at the start of this trail though! I hadn't realised at the time but this area is planted up with American Red Oak, which should be a lovely colour in the autumn. At the very top of the hill there is a conifer plantation, but apart from that, all the rest of the forest is native species.

At the top of the bank Hawthorn was flowering, but I'm not sure of the shrub flowering below - a Viburnum maybe? EDIT: it's a Wayfaring Tree (Viburnum lantana), thanks to Trev for the ID!

We started to come across patches of Bloody Cranesbill (Geranium sangiuneum), which likes chalky soil with low nutritional value. It is common in coastal areas and thrives in limestone pavements. I'm always excited when I see plants that I have cultivated in my own gardens growing in their native habitat!

Woodland at the top of the slope and the chalky bank with the Bloody Cranesbill and a yellow flowering Broom at the bottom, amongst other plants.

There were a couple of places where the vegetation opened up to give a view of the mountains - unfortunately not terribly clear, but they often are covered in cloud or haze when everything else is really sunny! This view is looking in the general direction of Andorra, and out village is over there somewhere, just out of view.

A close up of the bank, showing a Broom of some sort and oak saplings pushing through the sandy rock, and a small Grey-leaved Cistus (Cistus albidus) bottom left.

Both Grey-leaved and Sage-leaved Cistus (Cistus salviifolius).

Sage-leaved Cistus (Cistus salviifolius).

I found the following plant interesting as there are no leaves at the base, just a stem coming straight out of the soil. I've just used for the first time and it tells me it is Pale Madwort (Alyssum alyssoides). It does have small yellow flowers at the tip later on, which might have helped me to recognise it as from the brassica family!

A Common Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis) appeared, saw us so moved a little way, then stopped, thinking it was out of our view. Cheers little lizard, we had a chance to take photos of you for a change!

Now this insect was the star of the day. There were a number of them flitting around the start of the walk where there were grassy verges, as there is arable land beside the start of the walks. We also walked a little way along an open path following the route of a small stream, listening to Nightingales singing from the trees beside the stream. We were accompanied by these Owlflies which flitted about and often stopped in the long grass. Owlflies are part of the same order, Neuroptera, as Lacewings, Antlions and Mantidflies; many of these are some very interesting looking creatures and are predatory.

Wow, is all I can say about it!!! 😀

I don't know if we will revisit the forest before summer, as we went there in July last year and know what it's like then (dry, few flowers, but still quite a lot of butterflies, predominantly Gatekeepers and Silver-washed Fritillaries). However we will certainly go back in the autumn so I'll update the blog about it then. 

Next post may take a while coming... we went on an amazing organised wildflower day out on Tuesday and I took over 200 photos!! Plus next week we have three trips with the same organisation, Birding Languedoc - this time it's back to its usual bird trips. Due to lockdown and bad weather they have ended up all being reorganised and the trips we picked just happen to all fall in one week!

Going back to the puddling buttterflies, I forgot about this little video that Keith took, so here is a link to it.

Take care and stay safe xx