BUBO in CORSICA - part 4
With the main endemic species UTB - (under the belt) - we were happy to have a more relaxing day today in the mountains. With the forecast of some rain to come, we knew we had to make the most of the alpine areas, as we may struggle for visibility during the rest of the week. The pine forests were not a priority today since we had covered them very well yesterday, so we decided to head to the highest peaks possible, to look for some real alpine birds. There were two or three potential, but elusive, ticks for me above the treeline, although these species are pretty easy in the Alps or Pyrenees so the other guys did not need them. The easiest place to get to these high mountains was the Asco Valley, where the road continues to the Ski Centre just below Corsica's highest peak, Mount Cinto. This valley was a couple of ridges north of Restonica, so it was a little further to drive, but we made good time via the towns of Corte and Ponte Leccia.
The lower section of the Asco Valley was pretty narrow, with the mountains either side squeezing the road into the bottom of a 'V'. This part of the valley appears to be known as Asco Gorge. The road up the valley is quite long and it is always difficult to know exactly where to stop and bird at such sites, especially when the habitat is pretty uniform - unless you have very specific directions. So it was just a case of making the most of any pull-ins. Down in this low part of the valley there was thick maquis and we hoped for maybe more Sylvias. However, all we could find was numerous Blackcaps singing. There were plenty of woodland birds present including some nice Firecrests and Jays. Above the bushes on the rocky overhangs we noticed some Crag Martins swooping into their nest sites. We were very fortunate to catch a brief sight of a fine Golden Eagle drifting across the gorge. We were definitely not expecting a Goldie this far down the valley.
We thought it would be a good idea to get right to the top of the valley as soon as possible making the most of the nice weather, and then we could make our way down as slowly as we wanted in the afternoon. The road up the valley was a little disconcerting at first, being chiselled out of the bottom of the gorge, just above the bubbling river. However, as the valley widened out and the altitude got higher, I clung to the door handle with increasingly whitening fingers - I was not used to this lark! The road was pretty narrow, and 'hair-pinned', with rather hair-raising rocky slopes below and no barriers at all. And then when cows suddenly appeared around blind corners I thought I would lose my mind! Mike was behind the wheel though and, being used to Indian roads, this was a casual Sunday drive to him. Luckily, there was very little traffic, and although I soon got used to the dangerousness of the drive, I did give Mike a firm, thankful pat on the back as we pulled into the Haute Asco ski centre car park.
As we drove up the valley the habitat changed from maquis to pine forest and there was lots of nuthatch habitat round here. A Mistle Thrush was a new bird for the trip by the roadside. As seemed typical in Corsica, the signage was a little on the unhelpful side, so we initially just headed up the ski slope underneath the ski lift to try to get above the trees. However, we had to abandon this route as it was far too 'scrambly', and returned a little lower to search for a proper path. We soon found a picnic site though and, beyond this, located a marked trail heading up through the pine trees.
As we were so high now, there were not as many birds present as in the pine forest a bit lower down but we did have our first Goldcrests in the trees above the trail and a handful of Crossbill were calling at one point. The main species here was Coal Tit and, apart from the odd Chaffinch and Great Tit, it was quite bird-less. The trail was actually quite a tough one, with sudden steep sections, then parts where the path disappeared altogether and it was just a case of scrambling over boulders, following cairns of rocks. It was difficult going - I was definitely feeling my age!
Just as I felt I was reaching my limit on boulder-scrambling the pine trees thinned out and we hit the proper alpine slopes. The habitat here was very rocky with sparse vegetation, apart from by the stream where there was dense willow-like scrub. The main target for me here was Alpine Accentor, which apparently is present in this area, but despite searching we could not find any. Mike and I thought we could hear a Dunnock-like song coming from the top of the valley but upon investigating we couldn't see anything. It was difficult to make out where birds were calling from since a stiff, cool wind was whistling down from over the col, distorting sounds.
We saw very little up here apart from two or three Water Pipits in typical habitat, a few Crag Martins and a handful of tiny dots in the sky that were clearly Alpine Choughs. We heard snatches of an unfamiliar song right up next to the snow line which we were surprised to find came from a male Black Redstart. In fact, when we investigated the dense scrub by the stream we saw that there were a few birds skulking away in there - Wrens, Blackbirds, Blackcaps - not the species we expected by the snow. We walked as high as we thought sensible and had to admit defeat on the accentors, but I found the whole experience of being up in the sky very exhilarating. It had been years since I had been so high up a mountain.
We then had the slog of retracing our steps back down the mountain. It was very difficult to negotiate the large boulders on the so-called path through the pines. When we reached one spot I put my foot on a stone in a narrow gap between rocks, and the stone promptly skidded away from me on pine needles and I fell backwards, cutting my elbow - ouch! As I turned round to look at the others behind me I saw Ian immediately hit the deck too, his leg buckling right under his body - ouch2!! We were worried he'd really hurt his leg and we'd have to fashion a makeshift stretcher from Mike's tripod and a coat. Luckily though, no damage was done. Just where we both fell, I noticed an ancient pine stump looking at us. Corsica was one of the last places in Europe to embrace Christianity, with neolithic paganism surviving quite late in its history. I am pretty sure that this stump, clearly possessed by ancient, evil spirits, was what caused us to fall over.
We eventually made it back to the car after our hike into the hills and we were in urgent need of food and drink. Since the ski centre was all closed up for the summer, we had to drive back down the valley to Asco Village, leaving the Corsican pine forests behind for the last time. The road was just as bad on the way down, and this time we were closer to the edge as the steep drop was on the right hand side! We found a terrifically-located café clinging to the edge of the hillside above the village where we got drinks and snacks, despite the owner finding our presence and business a bit of a nuisance, disturbing her relaxing afternoon.
We stopped at a few spots along the road on the way down. Andy and I explored an alpine stream looking for salamanders, newts and frogs, but apart from a very brief view of a tiny newt/salamander, we failed to find anything positive. Another couple of stops lower down in the Asco Gorge and we picked up sightings of Crag Martins, Peregrine, Grey Wagtail and a Blue Rock Thrush.
We had read in the bird guide that the maquis around the "Village de Tortues" (a tortoise sanctuary) was very good, and we had a walk round there as we were leaving the valley. It was indeed a really nice spot with trees, flowers, lizards and insects a-plenty, but we did not find it especially good for birds, although it may have been something to do with the hot sun and the time of day. We saw a lot of Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Jays, and in the skies above we had Red Kites, Buzzards and a nice Alpine Swift, but warblers and the like were not evident.
As we passed the town of Capannace, we stopped by the roadside to look in a field where we had singing Woodlarks and a Hoopoe flying across from some trees.
It was now evening and we made our way back to the campsite. However, we decided that we would drive past our accommodation and head further east, to the coastal town of Aleria for our evening meal. We had spent all our time so far in the hills and mountains and we soon saw the habitat change as we dropped down towards the coastal plain. There was still an hour or so of birding light left in the day, so we drove to some fields near Aghione to see what was there. The only reason that we chose these fields was that in one of the trip reports, they had reported that California Quails were present in that area. The quails are a category C species on the island and there are meant to be a few thousand of them. Not really a priority for the trip, but it was a curio we were interested in seeing.
As we turned down the minor road between the vine fields, one of the first birds we saw was a fine Woodchat Shrike on top of a roadside tree. The Woodchats here are of the race 'badius' or Balearic Woodchat Shrike and have been mooted as a potential split. They lack the large white primary patch of other Woodchat Shrikes (the one below does have a patch but it is very small, maybe because the bird seems to be a first-summer male) and they have a narrower band of black on forehead (which the bird below definitely shows).
We never found any California Quails but we were very impressed by the number of birds present in the fields here, maybe boosted by migrants looking for somewhere to rest before overnight rain arrived. Red Kites, Serins, Cetti's Warblers and Corn Buntings were all present in area and we found two Stone Curlews pottering around in between the vine groves. In a little scrubby corner we located our first Sardinian and Fan-tailed Warblers singing, and we had a flock of c.40 Yellow Wagtails go over, maybe to roost. It was a nice area to bird but soon enough, dark brooding clouds arrived over the mountains from the west and we went off to eat pizzas in Aleria.
So today was not really a bird day, as can be seen from the lack of bird photos on this page, but I especially enjoyed my first mountain hike for many years. We returned to U Sortipiani well after dark to be greeted by a Blair's Mocha by the outside light of the mobile home. We looked at the weather forecast and saw that rain was definitely forecast tomorrow at some point, so we decided that we would hit the nearby coastal plains and lagoons and play it by ear.