BUBO in CORSICA - part 1
After our successful and enjoyable BUBO trip to Poland in 2016 we were very keen to try another birding holiday again soon. When Mike let us know that he'd be spending a few months in the UK during the first half of 2017 we decided to make the most of it, and arrange our second trip so that he could be involved this time. With the five members of BUBO living so spread out around the globe - Guernsey, Norfolk, Scotland, India, Australia - getting altogether in any one place and at any one time simply doesn't happen, and we had to make the most of this opportunity.
The next question was where to go. We needed somewhere which was close to the UK for just a short time away and also where we'd all get a couple of new species at this time of year. This was not an easy task as we had all been to different spots and seen different things. In the end we decided on Corsica, since none of us had been there before and is somewhere we'd all want to travel to at some point in the future to see the endemic species there. Top target was, of course the famous Corsican Nuthatch.
Travelling there would be complicated, as we were all setting off from different locations and there are not any direct flights from the UK on the day we wanted to arrive. Each of us managed to find flights that would get to Bastia in the evening of 16th April but we were not hugely optimistic that the travel gods would be kind to us and we'd all make our connections. The best way for me to get there was via Gatwick and then Nice Airports, and with the Guernsey fog-factor to take into account, I set off just after lunch the day before and spent the evening in the Premier Inn, Gatwick.
The next day I was in no rush and I relaxed in the airport, having to buy a pair of sunglasses since, annoyingly, I'd lost my others in the hotel somewhere! The flight from Gatwick to Nice set off around midday with no delays and I was soon speeding through the sky, looking down over the sunny Mediterranean and the snowy Alps. It had been ages and ages since I had been this far south. Apart from a brief sojourn to Bilbao on the ferry, the previous time was on our holidays to Spain in 1998, before kids! As well as the handful of new species I was gunning for, there were plenty of birds in Corsica that I had seen before, but not for twenty years or more.
Walking out onto the tarmac at Nice Airport I was blinded by the bright afternoon sun but the temperatures weren't too hot which was nice. I walked through the arrivals gate and was pleased to see Andy and Mike waiting for me. I had not seen Mike for ten years or so I think. We had a couple of hours to kill before we caught our shorter flight to Bastia and so we went for a wander outside, with the boys pointing out to me a Crag Martin nest in the concrete beams right above the airport entrance - our first Mediterranean exotic of the holiday!
Nice Airport is situated right next to the River Var, just at the point it reaches the Mediterranean after its journey from the Alps. So we dragged our cases across the airport car park and set ourselves up at the side of the road looking across the river. The viewing was not ideal and the sun was right in our faces but there was a surprising number of birds to look at.
In the shallows of the river there must have been a hundred or so terns bathing, mostly Common Terns, and these were constantly and noisily flying up and down the river. Also there were lots of gulls resting on the pebbly banks - Yellow-legged and Mediterranean Gulls - and in amongst them was a superb Caspian Tern, not something we expected to be seeing here. A flock of five Wood Sandpipers pottered around amongst these and we also saw Common Sandpiper and a few flyover Purple Herons briefly. The Crag Martins were constantly flying back and forth above the tree tops and we saw a couple of Yellow Wagtails going over, one of which I am sure had a darker cap.
We were more than pleased with what we had seen in such a short time, right next to the airport and then, as we were thinking of heading back inside, two tiny finch-like birds flew across the river, away from us, calling. They were pretty plain grey-brown in colour and we couldn't place what they might be, although Mike said that if he was in India he'd say they were Indian Silverbill. Of course, back in the airport waiting for the check-in to open, we looked on the internet, and discovered that the species is now a category C bird in France, mainly due to the 1000+ birds that are common and breeding in the city of Nice! Well, that's handy, Indian Silverbills they were then!
Our six o'clock Air Corsica flight to Bastia left on time and we were soon out over the open sea. It didn't take long to cross the water and the plane flew alongside the impressive Cap Corse peninsula and low over the coastal lagoons, before touching down on the runway. Things were definitely different here as the starlings on the terminal roof were Spotless Starlings and the crows on the apron were Hooded Crows.
As we passed through security, we were greeted by Ian who had arrived on the Paris flight a couple of hours earlier. We'd done it! All here, all on time and all luggage present. Now my easiest new species for the trip was Italian Sparrow (which is currently classed as a species rather than a hybrid) and Ian had already seen some around the terminal building. I could hear some faint chirruping but was struggling with my luggage and didn't want to be looking at anything until I'd got my bins out and was all sorted - so I purposely ignored them! We managed to cram everything into the hire car and a Serin was singing to us as we drove away from the airport.
We headed south down the main road across the coastal plain and from the window we saw Corn Bunting, Kestrels and a Buzzard as we skipped through the small towns. We were getting rather peckish after our long day of travelling and we called in at a roadside restaurant called "U Caradellu". As we got out of the car we could hear straight away some sparrows chirping, and looking back across the road in the bushes we saw a female and then a male ITALIAN SPARROW, tick number one for me! Although superficially a half-way House Sparrow, showing features of Spanish Sparrow, there is something a little different about Italian, which means it looks like neither of them in particular, so I can see why it is thought of as a separate species. Along the stream by the restaurant there was a Cetti's Warbler singing and we dined in good spirits looking forward to some top drawer birding.
After eating, we needed to get to our digs, so we continued south to Aleria where we turned inland towards the foothills of the mountainous interior. It was very dark when we arrived and the friendly owner of "U Sortipiani" invited us in for a nightcap of his homemade clementine-based spirit - it had quite a kick! We followed him round to our accommodation which was a cross between a mobile home and a prefab cottage and ideal for us. When on a birding trip it is vital not to worry about booking somewhere too nice to stay, since you never really spend any time in the place. It is solely for sleeping. I was very pleased to win the coin-toss to claim the double bed! We headed back up to the bar for a beer and, upon leaving to turn in for the night, we were serenaded by calling Scops Owls from the trees across the road, wishing us good luck for the birding ahead.