Corsica 2015 part I – The Birds

As some of you may know, I recently went on a family holiday to Corsica- the small sun-baked island just above Sardinia off the coast of Italy. Although birding was not the main focus, it inevitably found its way into our time there, especially as there are several superb island endemics to see. My family’s extreme patience also allowed me to spend a lot of time looking for, photographing and observing the fantastic array of other wildlife species present on the isle- from butterflies to moths, reptiles to amphibians. It was all-in-all a great break, despite missing a few target species, with some good records and plenty of new and exciting species for me. I have decided to write a couple of blog posts on our time there, which will focus on one taxa at a time, more or less. This post will give a rough trip report on the birds that we encountered. I have included an annotated Google Map below as a reference point for the different sites we visited, which will be mentioned during the post.

If you would like to see more images from the trip, check out the following links:
 – Corsica photo album on my main website
 – Corsica album on Facebook
 – A selection of images on Flickr

And so, onto the trip report…

21/06/15 – Bastia to Galeria
We arrived in Bastia airport from Manchester at about 1100. After acquiring our hire car from Eurocar, we headed off on the N197 to Ponte Leccia. I was recovering from a cold at the time, so slept most of the way, but did note down some 30 or 40 Red Kites overhead- they seemed to be very common indeed. A stop at the reasonable supermarket in Ponte Leccia for lunch revealed Grey Wagtails on the river here, plus a Common Buzzard, Common Swifts, House Martins and Barn Swallows overhead. We continued on from here, heading west along the motorway past Calvi, and arriving at our destination mid-afternoon: Galeria. This small coastal town was where we were based for the first week, and presented some good birding, but perhaps without any of the island’s specialities.

The view towards the northern end of Galeria beach, taken from the southern harbour
male Cirl Bunting

22/06/15 – Galeria and Ponte Vechju
Eager to see what the area had to offer, I headed out early in the morning at about 6am, walking along the road towards the harbour, passing areas of rough scrub in between the houses. Spotted Flycatchers, Sardinian Warblers and House Sparrows were perhaps the most abundant species present. At the end car par, I followed a dirt track leading up a gentle mountainside- the track was surrounded by garrigue scrub, with a few olive trees, and here I noted Firecrests, Sardinian Warblers, a Blackcap, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, a Sparrowhawk, one Jay, Robins and Cirl Buntings.

After breakfast we decided to head to an attractive little river gorge at Ponte Vechju, where we spent most of the day exploring. Birdlife was in limited supply here, with Grey Wagtails, Firecrests, over 30 Sardinian Warblers, Wrens and Spotted Flycatchers being amongst my only sightings. A single Alpine Swift flew overhead on our drive back to the villa.

The Fangu river gorge, Ponte Vechju
Male Sardinian Warbler

23/06/15 – Girolata
Getting up at about 0700, we decided to spend the earlier part of the day making the walk to the isolated village of Girolata, on the coast not too far south of Galeria. Arriving at the car park at Boce di a Croce for 0930, we set off down the rough track, initially through giant heather and scrub habitats. This held plenty of Firecrests, Chaffinches, Great Tits and Blackcaps. The terrain got a little more open and changed to garrigue after a kilometre or so. As usual, this was full of Sardinian Warblers, as well as Dartford Warblers and some Robins. A beach half-way contained a small stream and bramble bushes, where I caught up with my first singing male Moltoni’s Warbler. There were at least four around this area, including two juveniles. It took perhaps 1 hour 30 mins to walk to Girolata, which turned out to be heaving with tourists coming in off motor boats. We spent a short time here, before heading back on the upper track over the hill, stopping off on the beach for lunch. Yellow-legged Gulls were loitering in the bay, and a single Crag Martin flew overhead. Walking back up to the car in the early afternoon, we heard several Peregrines where a small crag outcrop lay.

The midway beach between the car park and Girolata
Male Moltoni’s Warbler

24/06/15 – Galeria and Calca
Getting up early again, I decided to go for another birding walk in the town, heading for the same track along the scrubby hillside. I noted the usual Spotted Flycatchers, Blackbirds, Collared Doves, Hooded Crows, House Martins and Serins en route to the car park, with a single Jay also making an appearance. The dirt track proved a little quieter than my previous visit, but seeing Sardinian, Dartford and Moltoni’s Warblers in small numbers was great.

Since Dad had developed a nasty cold, we ended up going for a walk closer to ‘home’ for the majority of the day. We decided to walk up the valley above Galeria, then working round over a small arete into the village of Calca, before ending up back at our villa. The walk through the town on the tarmac road was largely uneventful birdwise. aside seeing adult Cirl Buntings feeding their young, and a fly over Common Buzzard. Taking a left off the road, we took a small rocky track that initially lead off through some giant heather, where there were lots of Blackcaps, Firecrest and Robins. The vegetation stayed similar to this as we continued up the valley, straddling the river. We came to a small reservoir after a little while, which was teeming with invertebrates (you’ll have to wait until the next post to find out what!). A Spotless Starling flew overhead here, and both Song Thrushes and Greater Spotted Woodpeckers were present in the trees. We continued along the river for another half hour, before taking a right at a small cairn, and walking up a very small path over to Calca. The garrigue scrub towards the top of the hill held the usual Sardinian and Moltoni’s Warblers, giving out their scratchy songs.

the reservoir above Galeria- a brilliant place for invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians

Red Kite

25/07/15 – Fangu River mouth
In the morning, I had a quick walk down to the edge of the shingle beach looking out from Galeria. Scanning the sea to the west I picked up on four or five Scopoli’s Shearwaters at a range of about 2 kilometres, along with plenty of Yellow-legged Gulls. The decent habitat of olive trees, scrub and bramble bushes en route to the beach produced Moltoni’s and Sardinian Warblers, Blackcaps, a single Common Swift, Hooded Crows, and Serins.

After breakfast, we headed up the coast on foot, to a nature reserve-type area not far out of Galeria. This reserve, called A Foce di u Fangu, is where the river Fangu enters the sea, and also where a wide variety of habitats can be found. The kilometre-long beach supports a textbook example of beach succession, which ends in mature woodland and beyond into scrub, whilst the slow-moving areas of the Fangu river are rimmed with small reed beds and damper habitats. It is located about 20 minutes away from Galeria (on foot).

Arriving at the dry hill above the beach, I could already pick out Cetti’s Warblers singing in the reeds, whilst an even better sight concerned that of a flock of about 30 Alpine Swifts which were screaming about and periodically dropping down to drink on the river mouth. I spent a while sat on the beach just five metres away from where the fantastic apodidae would sweep down and grab a mouthful of water. At least 30 House Martins were doing a similar thing. On the beach was a small breeding population of Little Ringed Plovers, and amongst the pioneer species of plants were two lonesome male Tawny Pipits.  Two Ravens flew overhead, along with the usual Red Kites and a few Common Buzzards. The area of dense woodland was home to the usual selection of deciduous woodland species.


Looking over to the town of Galeria from the beach near the Fangu reserve
male Tawny Pipit

26/07/15 – Bonifatu area
We awoke early on the 26th, heading over to the mountainous area of Bonifatu. Since we were roaming through farmland and more open terrain, it was great to be able to see some new species which had eluded me in the sites present around Galeria. Some nice sightings included a lot of Red-backed Shrikes, perhaps 15 en route; over 30 Spotless Starlings, a Bee-eater, two Zitting Cisticolas, Red Kites and Cirl Buntings also provided some entertainment from the car window.

It took about an hour to drive to the car park at Bonifatu. This area is a mountainous area with exposed craggy peaks and pine forest lining the sides of crystal clear river gorges. We went for a walk lasting a couple of hours, taking us through habitat that looked promising for a number of my target island endemics. However, there was actually not a lot to be seen: loads of Coal Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Firecrests, Blue Tits, Chaffinches, Jays and Chaffinches, but that was about it.

Superb scenery at Bonifatu

female Red-backed Shrike

27/07/15 – travelling from Galeria to Moltifao
It was time to leave Galeria and head for our second base near Moltifao. However, since we didn’t have to leave until late morning, I decided to take another look at the Fangu reserve in the early morning. Heading out at 0600, it was a pleasant birding walk with some nice sightings: at least five Cetti’s Warblers were present in the reeds on arrival, and a flock of 50 Yellow-legged Gulls took off from the beach, where seven Little Ringed Plovers scuttled about on the shingle. A pale-looking seabird in the distance turned out to be a desmarestii Shag, which was cool to see. The usual male Tawny Pipit was singing on territory, and singles of Little Grebe and Moorhen were new for the trip list. Two juvenile Woodlarks flew in and landed near the car park, whilst five Spotless Starlings flew overhead.

After tidying up the villa, we headed off at 1030, taking what is called the ‘Artisannes’ route. This smaller road weaves its way through countless quaint little villages perched on hilltops. It is a stunning route, with great scenery, brilliant insect life and some nice avian surprises. Birds of prey featured well during the road trip, with total figures including 100+ Red Kites, 20+ Buzzards, a single Golden Eagle and three Kestrels . Bee-eaters were a fairly common sight as we drove through the country, along with the smart Red-backed Shrikes. A small flock of swifts as we exitied Galeria included what looked like three Pallid Swifts, 30 Common Swifts and 24 Alpine Swifts. Every village we passed through was home to over 100 each of Common Swift and House Martin. In the open areas, we saw Stonechats, Cirl Buntings, Serins and Tawny Pipits, whilst a more densely-vegetated valley near Ponte Leccia contained two Woodchat Shrikes, 6 Red-backed Shrikes, a Hoopoe, four Nightingales and a handful of Sardinian Warblers.

We came to our lovely little cabin near Moltifao at about 1500. Here we were met by our extremely kind and friendly hosts Jany and Cathy. After introductions, Rachel and I headed up the road and found a track that lead to the nearby river. The whole area contained some brilliant habitats and great potential, with areas of garrigue, mature deciduous woodland, open fields, tall scrub, and the river system. I noted down the following birds on our productive little evening walk: Serins, 2ad 2j Hawfinches, Cirl Buntings, Sardinian Warblers, Jays, Spotted Flycatchers, Firecrests, Red Kites, Grey Wagtails, Blackcaps, House Sparrows and Sardinian Warblers.


The Asco River, flowing past our cabin just 500 metres away

Bee-eater
Alpine Swifts

28/07/15 – Tassineta Valley
I headed out for a stroll to the river before breakfast on the 28th, seeing if I could find anything different amongst the common species. It was great to see Hawfinches in the trees adjacent to the river, and to hear the Cirl Buntings singing all over. A Hoopoe also gave a few calls from a distance, and two Bee-eaters flew over. It was a bit of a surprise to have a bulky Rock Sparrow fly in and land on some electricity wires just above the cabin during breakfast! I didn’t see any during the rest of our stay.

From mid-morning onwards, we were hiking in the Tassineta Valley. This is a sort of tributary river to the Asco River, located about five kilometres up the valley past the village of Asco. It took perhaps 45 minutes to reach the car park, passing through some promosing habitat for the Nuthatch. Unfortunately there was no sign of this island endemic, but there were lots of Coal Tits, Grey Wagtails, Treecreepers, some Crossbills, Mistle Thrushes, Greater Spotted Woodpeckers and Jays in the pine forest. As we walked above the pretty river gorge, it was cool to see some Dippers of the black-bellied race, whilst a Golden Eagle graced the peaks above us, and singles of Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and Common Buzzard also flew overhead.


Tassineta Valley river gorge
Jay

29/06/15 – Restonica Valley
Having breakfast early, we decided to head off to walk up the Restonica Valley- a site that I was very eager to get to, having heard about it in a number of trip reports. It took over an hour to drive up to the car park, where we had to pay 6 euros to park. On the way up the forested valley I had seen lots of Coal Tits, Chaffinches, Jays, Robins etc. – the usual woodland species. We started off along the rocky track, which begins where the pine treeling starts to disnintegrate. Habitat above the pines, as far as the upper lake is low dwarf alder trees.

After perhaps five minutes of walking up the track, I scanned the craggy skyline high above us, and picked up on a flock of 30 Alpine Choughs, but the hoped-for Lammegier did not materialise. We reached a wide plato in the valley before the ascent to Lac de Melo. I spent quite a while searching around this slightly more open area. I was surprised to see four or five Water Pipits in this area, and then finally picked up on my first island endemic: a pair of smart Corsican Finches dropping down onto some rocks perhaps 100 metres away. Wrens, Coal Tits, Grey Wagtails, Chaffinches Stonechats and Blackcaps were quite common in the alder bush, whilst several Crag Martins flew overhead.

Reaching Lac de Melo, I scanned the skyline once again, seeing more Alpine Choughs and singles of Red Kite, Kestrel and Common Buzzard. Several Corsican Finches flew overhead, but I didn’t manage to get any decent views. Otherwise there was little else to see around the picturesque lake. After a brief stop here, we continued on the track up to the second lake – Lac de Capitello. This took another hour of walking, and up a steeper incline. It was worth the hot and sweaty hike, however, as when we arrived at the Lake a flock of Alpine Choughs descended onto a beach right next to us! We spent the next hour being entertained by these fantastic birds, feeding them half of our packed lunch! It was great to watch them and hear birds calling far overhead.

We started walking back down to Lac de Melo at about 1230, after Golden Eagle flew past one of the nearby crags. Down at the area surrounding the lake, I spent a while looking for reptiles and amphibians, which I failed at rather miserably. It was odd to hear a Chiffchaff singing away in the adjacent bush, and I picked up on a male Blue Rock Thrush on some rock above the opposite side of the lake. I spent a while photographing more Alpine Choughs down here, but then headed down the route that returns to the car park via the other side of the valley. On the way down I was constantly on the look out for Corsican Nuthatches, with no luck. I did, however, come across a flock of eight Corsican Finches near a refuge 3/4 of the way down, which showed nicely for photographs.


One of the peaks above Lac de Capitello

Looking down on Lac de Melo from Capitello
Alpine Choughs – too close to use the 300mm! (so I resort to a 15mm fisheye instead…)
Corsican Finch 

30/06/15 – Veru Valley (Calacuccia)
Starting off early, Rachel and I went for an early morning walk along the road and down to the Asco river from our cabin. Woodlarks and Cirl Buntings were singing away in the scrub adjacent to the road, and a Mistle Thrush flew over. In the scrub near the football pitch, we saw Moltoni’s and Sardinian Warblers, plus a family of Woodchat Shrikes. Four Bee-eaters flew overhead, and a Hoopoe also flickered past. The usual common woodland species were present around the river in the deciduous trees, with nothing new to note.

For the day’s hike, we headed off to Calacuccia, to a valley called Valle Veru. Another mountainous area with potential habitat for some target species, it looked a promising site. The drive took 45 minutes, and we parked up where the track started. The path was initially (for about 45 minutes of walking) a rough 4×4 forest track, lined with lots of really good nectar plants which were coveredin butterflies and beetles (…will feature in my next blog). Cirl Buntings were a common species here, and Coal Tits were present in large number. I also noted Firecrests, Crossbills, Serins, and Treecreepers in the pines. The path lead to a reuge which was part of the GR20. This naturally meant that it was pretty busy, and so we didn’t stay long before heading back down. I saw a small number of Crag Martins overhead, and found a Blue Rock Thrush on the crags a little way away. Raptors that passed overhead included Red Kites, Kestrels, a Peregrine and Common Buzzards.

We walked back down the valley on a slightly different trail, which ended up on the same 4×4 track, taking up back down to the car park. The walk took about five hours in total. I continued to keep a look-out for birds as we drove back down the valley, but nothing showed up. Back at the cabin in the evening, I could hear several Scops Owls calling away in the olive trees.

adult male and juvenile Woodchat Shrikes

01/07/15 – Monte Cinto (2706m)
Dad and I had decided that during our ‘holiday’, we were to try and scale the island’s highest peak: Monte Cinto. Looking at the weather forecasts, the 1st looked as a good a day as any, and so we decided the previous night that we would get up at 2am and head off to begin the hike in the moonlit coolness of the early hours. After a quick breakfast, we headed off at just past 0300, arriving in the car park at Lozzi just before 0400. The roads were very clear, and so it took us a very short time to arrive here. We geared up, and set off on the long hike to the cafe and refuge below the mountain. Walking up through fields and open areas of stunted scrub, there was a very pleasant dawn chorus to keep us entertained: Quails uttered their ‘lick-my-lip’, Wheatears, Skylarks, Stonechats, Cirl Buntings, Woodlarks and Chaffinches all pitched in. Two hours later, we arrived at the refuge as the morning light began creeping across the sky.

We had a brief rest here, before starting off on the ‘proper’ ascent. The track we chose zig-zagged its way up a scree slope on the south-east ridge, which was good habitat for a variety of species. A brief rest stop every now and then saw me looking at Corsican Finches, Stonechats, Alpine Choughs overhead, Water Pipits song-flighting, and Woodlarks singing a little way away. Three quarters of the way up the scree slope, I noticed a medium-sized passerine hoping up the jumbled rocks. At first thoughts of Rock Thrush flashed by, but getting my bins on the bird, I suddenly realsied I was looking at a very handsome Alpine Accentor! My first! It was hugely rewarding to find a pair of these birds here, which we watched for a little while, the male song-flighting every now and then.

It took a further a little over two hours to each the summit from the refuge, using the markers and cairns to guide us over rocky ridges and scrambly rock outrcrops. It was a stunning view from the top, made all the better by another Alpine Accentor, and a fly-by Alpine Swift at touching distance. We had ‘lunch’ here (at 0800!), taking in the satisfying feeling that comes with reaching the top of a mountain, whilst taking in the 360′ view of Corsican peaks. A Moufflon scrambled away down the slope on one side, which was cool to see. At 0840, we decided to begin the descent, as the sun crept higher in the sky and brought with it the blasted heat of day. The descent took two hours too, and was hard-going on the slippy scree. It was quite tricky, but great to see Corsican Finches, Alpine Accentors and a Black Redstart on the surrounding rocks.

After filling up with water at the refuge, we continued on our way back along the track towards the car park, leaving the mountains as the cloud rolled in. It was good to see the area we had walked past in the light, and get views of Woodlarks and hundreds of migrant lepidoptera. The highlights of our slog back down was coming across a family of Marmora’s Warblers in some fields 30 minutes from the car park- a species I had hoped to see on the island. It was great to hear the birds calling- almost exactly the same as a Stonechat alarm calling. There were at least four juvenile birds, and two adults still feeding them. I saw a further three males as we continued on down.
So that was Monte Cinto! It took us eight hours in total, and was quite an enjoyable hike- the descent being the most complicated part.

The refuge below Monte Cinto
the view from the summit of Monte Cinto
Alpine Accentor
Marmora’s Warbler (juvenile)

02/07/15 – Cascade de Anglais (Vizzavona)
After a good night’s sleep, I was up at 0630 to have another look around the area surrounding our cabin. I didn’t manage to find anything new in terms of birdlife, but it is always nice to see Woodlarks, Serins, Firecrests, Cirl Buntings, Hoopoes and Red Kites. For the day’s trip, we were decided upon an area of beech woodland near Vizzavona. This area contains a large area of beech woodland, which shades the river which is called Cascade de Anglais. It took about an hour to drive to the railway station, from where we began the walk.

It was a pleasant area, especially as the deciduous trees kept the temperatures below 35’C! As usual, the birds were typical of all the other woodlands, with Coal, Blue and Great Tits, Jays, Firecrests, Blackcaps, Treecreepers, Robins, Greater Spotted Woodpeckers and Spotted Flycatchers. It was a pleasant walk up to the river, through the ancient forest. However, it became extremely busy at the cascades, and it took an hour to find a pool to ourselves, where we settled down for lunch. A few Grey Wagtails were present in the more open area, but otherwise I failed to find anything different at this location, as pleasant as it was.

03/07/15 – Plage de Ostriconi (Ill’e Rouse)
We headed for the coast on the 2nd, driving about 30 minutes from Ponte Leccia to a small beach called Plage de Ostriconi. On our way, we passed through scrub country which was home to Red-backed Shrikes, Bee-eaters and Red Kites. We parked up a little way away from the beach, where the temperature was already soaring. As we walked along the road and descended into a flat-bottomed estuary-type area, I could see over the beach and get a feel for the area- it contained some great areas of habitat, from large reed-beds and freshwater lagoons, to small woodland and tamarisk forest edging the beach. It looked very promising.

Aside the fantastic array of invertebrate life, it was actually quite good for birds: my first Red-rumped Swallows of the trip flew around overhead, perhaps nesting in some abandoned buildings; Bee-eaters, Ravens and Red Kites also flew around above the woodland; in the reedbeds and lagoons were Cetti’s Warblers and Reed Warblers, plus Coots and Moorhens; Turtle Doves were a pleasant surprise in the cow pastures, and then the usual Moltoni’s and Sardinian Warblers skulked around in the bush. A good site with some brilliant insect life besides the birds.

After a while on the busy beach, we headed back to the cabin for lunch, and stayed around the area for the rest of the day. I spent a little while watching a family of Woodchat Shrikes, and trying to catch up with the busy adult Sardinian Warblers as they went about feeding their clutches in the scratchy scrub.


the inland freshwater lagoon at Plage de Ostriconia
Alpine Swifts

04/07/15 – Asco Ski Resort
On our last full day on the island, we decided to head up to the very top of our own valley – Asco – to try one last time for some nuthatches. It was a long drive up after breakfast, but through stunning scenery. We arrived at the ski resort car park at 1000, and tried to decide which routes would be best for a short walk. We took one slippery path that lead up the mountainside immediately behind the resort, in the hope that the large mature Corsican pines might hold my target species. I constantly kept my ears open for the characteristic call, but only heard of the Coal Tits, Firecrests, a couple of Goldcrests, Robins and Crossbills in the tree tops. Scanning the surrounding peaks revealed a few Alpine Choughs, Ravens, Red Kites, a Common Buzzard and a Crag Martin. Otherwise it was disappointingly devoid of nuthatches!

After out walk, we drove a little way down the valley, before stopping off at a point where we could get down to the river easily. Here we found some nice river pools and stayed around for lunch. I went for a couple of scouts up the hillside to check for nuthatches, but found none. We had a nice time here, despite the freezing temperatures of the pools, and then headed back down to the cabin in the early afternoon.

05/07/15 – Corsica to UK
We tidied up our Cabin and said goodbye to our hosts, before driving back to Bastia and boarding our EasyJet flight back to Manchester at 1100. A great trip, with some brilliant wildlife and nice birds.

I hope you enjoyed the first instalment of my trip report. The next post shall focus on the invertebrates of the isle.

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