Thursday 20th April 2017

BUBO in CORSICA - part 7

For our last full day in Corsica we wanted to try somewhere different, so we headed to the southernmost part of the island, around the town of Bonifacio. This was a couple of hours drive but was quite a pleasant journey, especially the section snaking round the east coast cliffs. We had a couple of Turtle Doves by the roadside and a few Crag Martins around the taller buildings in the town. This southern tip of Corsica was very different from the rest of the island, with the granite replaced by soft limestone. We pulled up by the coast to the south of the town and looked across the turquoise seas to the white, sculpted cliffs - quite beautiful.

 The town of Bonifacio perched on the limestone cliffs

The town of Bonifacio perched on the limestone cliffs

As soon as we arrived, I was a little way down the path and the boys shouted down to me "shearwaters!" and I looked down at the sea to see a large, pale shearwater skim over the calm water. This was a Cory's Shearwater or, more correctly, as the IOC World List now splits the Mediterranean form, Scopoli's Shearwater. This was thus a new species for me, only having seen Cory's in Eilat before, where, I am assured, they are still Cory's. "Great" I thought, "I'll set my 'scope up in a minute to have a proper look, I'll just finish taking some photos of the cliffs". Stupid schoolboy error! Don't ever presume a bird will still be showing 'in a minute' just because it is showing at that moment! So, of course, by the time I had toddled up to the others and scanned again, there were no shearwaters to be seen. And to make it worse, the others had picked up a few Yelkouan Shearwaters too, another species I needed. I face-palmed like the fool I was.

Nevertheless, I didn't let this worry me, and we set out to explore the low scrub on the top of the cliffs. Our quarry - again - was Marmora's Warbler which was meant to be quite common in the area. So we tramped round the small tracks through the vegetation, quite confident of finding one, especially as Sardinian Warblers seemed exceptionally common here, popping out of many a bush and showing very well.

 Sardinian Warbler, Bonifacio cliffs

Sardinian Warbler, Bonifacio cliffs

It was an enjoyable stroll around the area with lots of interesting plants and insects out in the sun. Our efforts were somewhat hampered by a cold, stiff wind blowing in from the north which was keeping everything down low and making it difficult to hear where calls and songs were coming from. We had a Cuckoo and a Wheatear, which indicated that there were some migrants around. The area is probably a good spot for rarity-hunting, being on the north side of the channel between here and Sardinia. I was especially delighted to push my way through some dense scrub to be greeted by a superb Hermann's Tortoise staring at me from under a bush. It bolted, but I gave chase and just managed to keep up with the beast so that the other guys could get onto it too. It was difficult to get a good picture of it as it was head-first into a bush, so I just picked it up and turned it round! It's not often you can do that with wildlife to get a decent photo.

 Hermann's Tortoise, Bonifacio Cliffs

Hermann's Tortoise, Bonifacio Cliffs

 Hermann's Tortoise, Bonifacio Cliffs

Hermann's Tortoise, Bonifacio Cliffs

Regrouping, we tried another section of the cliffs just to the south, but again, no Marmora's. We were beginning to think that we might miss out on this speciality species but we weren't too panicked as this was something that we had, surprisingly, all seen in the UK. Mike and I had twitched the one at Spurn whilst we were still at university, Andy had had the one at Sizewell and Ian saw the original Yorkshire bird when he was just a baby birder. So since it wasn't a tick for any of us, we were quite relaxed about it, but still wanted to see one.

We then moved on further south and took a walk to the old lighthouse where we planned to do some seawatching and hopefully get some more shearwaters. We passed through lots more ideal Sylvia habitat, but again it was always just Sardinian Warblers. Another migrant bird, a Meadow Pipit, arrived in off the sea and plonked down on the path in front of us. We were thinking this was going to be a possibly good migrant day, especially if the forecasted rain showers appeared.

 Dense scrub by Bonifacio cliffs which you would have thought would be brimming with Marmora's Warblers.

Dense scrub by Bonifacio cliffs which you would have thought would be brimming with Marmora's Warblers.

We found a comfortable spot by the lighthouse and set up our 'scopes for seawatching. As we were looking south and it was about lunchtime, the light conditions were not exactly the best, but we had an excellent expanse of sea to look out over. Down on the rocks below we saw a few Shags sat out on the limestone. The Shags here are of the Mediterranean race desmarestii which are very pale when immature - and these were indeed very pale below. As you can imagine, I was desperate to grip back Yelkouan Shearwater so I was frantically scanning the sea. After a while we saw a much better Scopoli's Shearwater flying around quite close in, and this was followed by a second. It was impossible to see how these were different to Cory's from these views.

We saw a few other birds whilst scanning from here including a few raptors - a Hobby, a Marsh Harrier and an Osprey were all seen flying in. A group of three passerines came in over the sea towards us, passing us at head height, revealing themselves to be Short-toed Larks - a nice surprise. Just as we were thinking of giving up since there was not exactly a stream of shearwaters out there, I managed to pick up a Manx-type shearwater heading north-west past our viewpoint. Not very close views but definitely a Yelkouan Shearwater. A tick for me but still very unsatisfactory.

 Seawatchers at Bonifacio Lighthouse - the coats and jumpers indicating, despite the sun, it was quite chilly.

Seawatchers at Bonifacio Lighthouse - the coats and jumpers indicating, despite the sun, it was quite chilly.

 Bonifacio Lighthouse

Bonifacio Lighthouse

Our stomachs reminded us that we had hardly eaten anything all day so we headed back into the town of Bonifacio for lunch. A pretty town, perched on the side of the natural limestone harbour only spoilt by having awkward car parks and signs to cafés that don't seem to exist! This meant that we ended up wandering around the town's headland, jutting out into the sea, with a fort atop and cemetery, which was splendidly spectacular despite the lack of eateries. 

 Bonifacio Harbour

Bonifacio Harbour

 On the headland by Bonifacio Cemetery, looking out to Madonetta Lighthouse

On the headland by Bonifacio Cemetery, looking out to Madonetta Lighthouse

 Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

Whilst here, we looked up to see a couple of raptors overhead, which we quickly identified as ringtail Montagu's Harriers. They were circling in the blue sky, gaining height, after crossing the straight from Sardinia. I had flashbacks to my time in Israel, watching migrating raptors soaring in clear blue skies. We did eventually find an excellent café, perched on the edge of the cliff, which only had two items on the menu - Mussells and chips. I had the chips.

 Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

 Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

 Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

 Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

Montagu's Harrier, over Bonifacio Cemetery

We didn't really have any other particular sites to visit in the area so we headed back towards the area we'd been in during the morning. We tried a couple of side roads but we couldn't find any better habitat elsewhere, so we returned to the same part of the cliffs. We looked out to see and saw that there were about 5 Yelkouan Shearwaters feeding on the water below the cliffs giving much better views (although not good enough to see the identification features unfortunately - we just had them as dark and light Manx-like birds, not like the browner Balearic types).

Here we split up and did a "starburst" to have a final search for Marmora's but it was to no avail. We did notice that there were more migrants around than in the morning and we recorded a decent selection. Swallows and Swifts plus a single Alpine Swift, were heading NE across the headland at regularly intervals but I missed the group of Bee-eaters that were doing the same. We found a Wheatear and a female Redstart in a grassy field, and I was lucky to catch a Tawny Pipit flying past low over the scrub. A couple of Corsican Finches were flitting around, the first we'd seen away from the inland hills.

 Back at the cliffs, looking over Bonifacio Strait, with Sardinia in the background

Back at the cliffs, looking over Bonifacio Strait, with Sardinia in the background

 Yellow Ophrys Orchid, Bonifacio cliffs

Yellow Ophrys Orchid, Bonifacio cliffs

 Sardinian Warbler, Bonifacio cliffs

Sardinian Warbler, Bonifacio cliffs

 Sardinian Warbler, Bonifacio cliffs

Sardinian Warbler, Bonifacio cliffs

We headed back north in the evening and I was pleased to have two ticks under the belt from the day, albeit not exactly cracking views of the two shearwaters. We stopped for a nice pizza at a restaurant in Solenzara for our final evening meal. Afterwards, as we drove north we saw two different Barn Owls in the headlights - one just south of Ghisonaccia, and one near Aleria. The Barn owls here are of another Corsica-Sardinia endemic race - 'ernesti' - which is apparently Europe's whitest race of Barn Owl. Well, it certainly looked pretty white in the headlights! We went for a final beer in the campsite bar, said goodbye to our host Xavier and, I think for the first night of the trip, we failed to hear any Scops Owls.