BUBO in CORSICA - part 2
Target for the first day on the island was the legendary Corsican Nuthatch. To get this species we'd have to climb higher up into the hills and the weather forecast suggested that today would be our best bet for mountain birding, with sunny skies and light winds. Later on in the week there was a bit of rain and wind forecast so we definitely wanted to get our prime target under our belts straight off. Unfortunately we didn't really have anything much to eat for breakfast apart from a few biscuits and milk-less tea but we enjoyed the Red Kite flying over the river. We set off west, up the valley towards the pine forests, the haunt of the enigmatic nuthatch.
We turned off the main road and onto a smaller, windier one crossing the hillside towards our destination. It may have been the heat, as I was wearing too many layers, or it may have been the heady mixture of last night's beer, wine and Clementine moonshine, or maybe just the constant curves in the road, but whatever it was, I suddenly felt the need to stop the car! After a few minutes of fresh air and peeling off a jumper or two, I felt well enough to carry on, luckily with my guts still intact. We made our way southwards towards the town of Vivario where we flushed a Grey Wagtail from the roadside. The woods above this town, below the Col de Sorba, were a well-known spot for the Nuthatch and most people who went there were successful, especially along a certain track a few miles past the town.
Above the town the road hugged the hillside, and as we came to a viewpoint looking down the valley, we saw a few finch-like birds fly down to the edge of the road next to a small wall. We stopped quickly and, through the car window, saw a couple of these were Greenfinch, but feeding with them were about five CORSICAN FINCHES. A distinctive bird with their yellow-green underparts and grey shawl around the nape, they were feeding on the ground, pecking for seeds right by where the cars pull in to look at the scenic view. These birds are very similar to the Citril Finches of the Alps and have only recently been split as a separate species. The big difference in plumage is the darker, browner back which has streaks, unlike the plain green back of the Citril. Also their habits and habitat are different, Corsican Finch being less restricted to Alpine areas. It occurs in Sardinia also but is endemic to this pair of islands and so has a very restricted world range.
This was a new bird for all of us and we were excited we'd ticked before we'd even started proper birding! We pulled in and piled out of the car and took a few photos of the Corsican Finches, although they didn't seem to stay for long.
The lookout was called "Belvedere de Pasciolo" and was a very nice location to take in the habitat of the area. Looking uphill there were forests of pines, and looking below us there was the scrubby, bushy habitat that is known as the 'Maquis'. There were lots of interesting flowers on the verge including orchids and the ubiquitous Asphodel, and we could hear a Cuckoo calling.
Just as we were about to head off again, whilst I was taking photo above, I could hear a distinctive but unfamiliar Sylvia warbler song from the bushes directly below where I was standing. I called the other guys back and we struggled to listen to where it was coming from. It didn't seem very far away and we wondered which species it was, as there are a variety of Sylvias in this neck of the woods. We hoped that it would be a singing Moltoni's Warbler, which we knew breeds in these parts, but we didn't know whether they would be in yet (although Ian had seen Subalpines in Mallorca last week). I tried a quick blast of Moltoni's song from my phone, and straight away a bird flew across and showed well in the bushes below us - a superb male MOLTONI'S WARBLER.
Moltoni's is a relatively new species, created by the split of one of the three forms of Subalpine Warbler - Western, Eastern and the 'middle one', which is this one. It breeds in the Balearics, Corsica, Sardinia and northern Italy and is only subtly different from Subalpine in plumage. You can just make out on the photos below that the underparts are a pale rose-salmon colour with none of the deeper maroon or orangey tones on either the western or eastern birds. The song does have differences I'm sure, but the main clincher is the call which is unlike any other form of Subalpine. Luckily for us, for confirmation, this one called a few times - a distinctive Wren-like rattle. We watched it for a while, being joined by a couple of Blackcaps and a selection of tits, sometimes coming quite close but eluding my camera when it did so. I couldn't believe my luck. Three lifers already and I'd barely walked ten yards! We left the lookout, and drove on to the nuthatch site.
In just a couple of minutes we had left the maquis and were driving through the pine forests on the steep slopes of the mountainside. We found a pull-in, parked up and set off for a stroll up a dirt rack. The skies were already a bright blue but there was a pleasant chill in the air to keep us cool. We'd had a listen to the calls and song of Corsican Nuthatch before getting out of the car, as we thought this was the key to finding one. The call reminded me a lot of a Whimbrel and we were pretty sure that we could hear one calling almost as soon as we set off but we had to try and get it pinned down.
As is typical of pine forest birding, we didn't see a huge variety but we did find species very regularly along the track. One of the first we saw was a really nice Great Spotted Woodpecker which flew into a pine ahead of us. We were able to see that the bird had very dusky, almost pale brown underparts, which is typical of the endemic Corsican subspecies of Great Spot - parroti. A surprising species to see in amongst the pines was Cirl Bunting. I suppose if you are used to seeing them in the UK then you don't realise that they have a more varied habitat in Europe. We watched a pair of buntings at really close range and the female dropped down to a puddle on the side of the track to drink. There it was soon joined by a few Corsican Finches and we had some more great views of this species.
We pushed on and watched a couple of Crossbills in the top of a pine and then round the next corner we were sure we could hear nuthatch again. We listened for a short while looking up the slope, then suddenly I spotted a tiny bullet of a bird fly across and land in an overhanging pine bough. I got the bins on it and saw that it was indeed a CORSICAN NUTHATCH. Hallelujah!
It was a tricky bird to get a good view of as it was quick and kept disappearing amongst the tangles of needles, before popping up a short distance away. Also, it wasn't that close to us and we were looking up a steep slope against the blue sky. After a while of struggling it seemed to disappear and we carried on to see if we could find some more and hopefully get better views. When we got to the top of the ridge the woodland opened out a little and there was a little flurry of activity. A Woodlark sang from a branch and another Great Spotted Woodpecker showed well.
I came across a flock of about 15 or so Crossbills who were being very vocal and I managed to record a few of their contact calls. These birds were presumably of the endemic sub-species corsicana which is restricted to these high pine forests in the centre of the island. They are meant to be a slightly darker colour than northern European birds with the females lacking obvious green colouration. The photo below shows quite a dull, brown-grey bird with hardly any green tones, and to me it also seems to have quite a thick conical bill. The calls of Crossbills are notoriously complex group, with many different populations calling slightly differently. I can't find much info about the calls of Corsican Crossbill, but the spectrogram below has a distinctive and consistent pattern.
(note, as well as the Crossbills there are a variety of other species calling and singing on the recording)
After a while of searching we failed to find any further nuthatches and, keen to get better views, we thought it sensible to head back down to where we originally saw the first bird. In the same spot as before we picked out another bird, this one looking like a female compared to the first, which we thought was probably a male, but it was behaving in a similar manner as before and again giving unsatisfying views. So we thought it was about time to crack open the mobile phone and play a few nuthatch calls to tempt it closer. I know that 'tape-luring' is sometimes thought of as bad news, but so long as it isn't persistent, I don't think it can have too much of a negative effect on the birds.
Well, it certainly had a positive effect on our birding, because almost straight away after hearing the sound, the male Corsican Nuthatch came down the hill to see us. It was again very quick and difficult to keep an eye on. As soon as you saw where it landed it was almost always gone when your bins shot up. But eventually it crossed the other side of the track and stayed in one pine for a while, where we all managed terrific views. Photography was still difficult - as the poor efforts below indicate - but it was such a privilege to see up close such an iconic species. When I used to flick through my European field guide as a boy, I never dreamed I'd see such exotic species as Corsican Nuthatch.
As we were all enjoying the nuthatch, someone shouted out "Gos!" pointing upwards. Above the pines, against the blue sky, a fantastic Goshawk drifted across! I didn't really have time to focus for a good photo but you can get the idea from the pic below. The Goshawks here are of the smaller and darker sub-species arrigonii which is restricted to Corsica and Sardinia, and is apparently quite an endangered bird with only about 150 pairs.
After the excitement of hitting our number one target species we strolled back to the car to go and search for some breakfast. Other species we recorded in this forest included four species of tit, a couple of singing Firecrest and Cuckoos, plus 4 or 5 Jays. Like with many other species, the Jays on Corsica are of an endemic race - corsicanus - and are meant to be a little bit darker in body plumage, although this was definitely not obvious (see photo below). We got back in the car and stopped at the Chalet Restaurant at the bottom of the hill to enjoy some well earned nourishment.
After our break, the sun was starting to get brighter but as we were at altitude we didn't feel too hot, so we decided to have a walk round the meadow on the hillside behind the restaurant, since people have recorded Marmora's Warbler here in the past. After a while we did find a Sylvia warbler singing from a line of bushes which was sounding very Marmora's-like, but it was very elusive. We did eventually get a quick view of it flit between bushes and it looked good, being long-tailed and plain greyish. Again we tried to tempt it out with the song playing on the mobile but it still wasn't being helpful, until it suddenly appeared at the top of the slope and showed us a bright rufous breast - it was a Dartford Warbler.
We did not record a lot of bird species here that were different from what we had seen earlier, the best being an Alpine Swift swooping distantly, high over the valley, but also a Red Kite, Raven, and what appeared to be a few more Corsican Finches. The meadow though was full of insects and there was a wide variety of unfamiliar flowers, so it was a very pleasant walk with plenty of interest to look at. However, as it was now nearly midday, we headed off north to try another part of the mountains for the afternoon.