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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 Pl@nt.net, 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 Pl@nt.net 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

Friday, 14 May 2021

Puddling blue butterflies

On a local walk we came across a load of blue butterflies puddling - something I have never seen en masse before - at most about 6 before which was exciting enough. I was SO chuffed to see so many! We must have spent a good 15 minutes watching and taking photos. Before, however, I noticed these Green Tiger Beetles (Cicindela campestris) mating on the path! Aren't they gorgeous?


Now onto the butterflies - here's just a few of what we saw in a damp rut where a tractor had driven through. This was at the bottom of a valley close to a little stream, and it was after we had finally had a reasonable amount of rain after a very dry couple of months. Nearly all of these butterflies are Common Blues (Polyommatus icarus), but note the Green Hairstreak in amongst them - another lovely surprise!

Most of you know that to ID a Common Blue you look for that extra dark spot on their front forewing. However, apparently some of them don't have this mark. If they don't have the mark, they could be Chapman's Blue. The way to tell, apparently, is look at a selection of the butterflies. If the vast majority have the extra mark, then it is most likely you are seeing Common Blues with a few of them lacking that extra mark. If most of them are lacking the mark, then you are likely seeing Chapman's Blue with a few Common Blues in amongst them. Complicated, isn't it?! I reckon these are Common Blues, but if you click on the photos to open them up larger you will see some without the mark.



Zooming in a bit closer:


Closer still:


Here's the beautiful Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi). I didn't have my 'butterfly camera' with me but my Lumix did a good enough job I reckon as I have been able to crop in on many of the photos.




Something different - the brightly coloured butterfly on the left is an Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus).


The Adonis Blue is on the left - they usually look very similar to the Common Blue as they also have that extra mark on the forewing underside, but this specimen has very pronounced black markings. Adonis Blues however have black chequering in the white outer of the wings, as well as the males having a very different blue colour to the Common Blues.


This butterfly landed and it was much smaller than the Common Blues, but I don't know what it is. I can't find anything like it in my butterfly book! It doesn't help that I don't have a picture of the underwings.


I suppose it is possible that it is the same butterfly as below, which is the next one on my camera. Hmmm! This I think though, is a Green-underside Blue (Glaucopsyche alexis), as when it showed it's underwings, it has their markings. There are only them and the Black-eyed Blue who have that line of large spots on the underside of the forewings. I loved that it was photobombed by this Common Blue (I think)!


Showing the marking on the underside of the wings:


This one below (right) is almost definitely a Green-underside Blue, a nice fresh specimen, unlike the one above, with a Common Blue.


Showing the line of well defined large spots on the underneath of the forewings:


Below, I spotted this Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages) landing on the path. Only got this one shot before it flew off, but I'm smiling over discovering the tiger beetle in the photo which I only noticed when cropping the photo!


Also on the path was this tiny blue butterfly, which I had first seen on coastal garrigue in April. It's a Baton Blue (Pseudophilotes baton), and the caterpillar feeds on thyme, which is all over the place flowering at the moment - see later photo. The Baton Blue is a fair bit smaller than the Common Blue.


We don't often see farm animals around here, but this year there have been more sheep around, including some further down the valley. I haven't a clue as to what species they are, but all the lambs are brown. They are always guarded by a dog or two who always come up barking at the electric fence when anyone walks by. Doing their job well! It's a good idea as they keep predators away from the lambs when they are born/small.


The sheep guard dog!


And here's a bank of thyme beside the track on our way back to the village.


As usual I am behind with blogging, as I have another post to do about the woodland at Montreal revisited at the end of April, but I wanted to post these butterflies first. I have been doing some redecorating in our bedroom so haven't had much time this last week for blogging. 

I had my second Covid jab nearly two weeks ago, and Keith had his last Saturday, so we are both feeling a LOT safer, and looking forward to when our restaurant terraces open up later this month! This time we will be going out to eat!!! 😀

 

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Honey Bee on Sedum

Honey Bee on Sedum

Dewy Web

Dewy Web

Coneflowers

Coneflowers

Broad Bodied Chaser

Broad Bodied Chaser

Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth

Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth

Cats past and present

Cats past and present

Cats Past and Present

Cats Past and Present

Holly Blue Butterfly

Holly Blue Butterfly

Swallowtail Butterfly

Swallowtail Butterfly

Nuthatch

Nuthatch

Cricket

Cricket

Dahlia

Dahlia

Marmalade Hoverfly

Marmalade Hoverfly

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

Swallowtail Caterpillar

Swallowtail Caterpillar