Black Vulture nailed at last in Les Cévennes + Western Bonelli’s Warbler – 18 & 19th May

After two days largely of frustration I took a break from butterflying to devote some time to that noble and dwindling band of birds, “the stragglers” of my southern Europe wish list. Prominent amongst these and not just by its size was Black Vulture that I had failed to locate on all of my visits to the special protection areas of Portugal’s Baixo Alentejo. But they and other large raptors have been re-introduced to the Causses (limestone plateaux) and gorges of the south-west Cévennes. So this trip presented a good opportunity to nail this straggler.

Birding has not been a priority so far this week. But on early reconnoitres while waiting for the day to warm up I have noted several Red-backed Shrike and a few Cirl Bunting by the roadside. This morning involved a quick 50km drive south on the A75 trunk road that was a nice change from negotiating endless hair pin bends into low sun. My destination was the spectacular Gorges de la Jonte (pictured below), where just west of a village Le Truel there is a vulture observatory Belvedere des Vautours.

DSC_0080

Gorges de la Jonte

Griffon Vultures died out in Les Cévennes in the 1940s due to shooting, poisoning of mammals, and compulsory disposal of sheep carcasses. But since 1976 all birds of prey have been protected by law in France, and vulture re-introduction with feeding on private land began in the 1980s. A Griffon colony at Gorges de la Jonte has grown to 443 nesting pairs in 2015. Black or Cinerous Vulture were re-introduced to Les Causses between 1992 and 2004 and now number some 80 individuals and 20 breeding pairs. Since 2012 Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture have completed the scheme, and two breeding pairs of migratory Egyptian Vulture also return to the area each year. So this is potentially the only place in France in which all four species may be seen.

DSC_0075

When I drew into the observatory car park, this (pictured above) was the welcoming party. I set up my scope quickly to find almost all the soaring and cliff-top birds were Griffons, but then a darker individual flew in and perched prominently on one crag. I began to pick off the diagnostics then this bird turned its head to reveal a purplish blue beak. This was indeed my Black Vulture for the trip, then Griffons landed on either side of it for comparison before harassing the interloper off its perch.

Seeing this lifer upon my arrival showed that its removal from the straggler ranks here was meant, after so much fruitless searching in Portugal. And although Belvedere des Vautours may be termed a Loch Garten or Rutland Water type location, finding a Black Vulture here still has provenance in my view. There is no certainty of seeing the latter since as tree nesters they do not breed on the cliffs with the Griffons. But individuals do stop by so I had been fortunate to have sighted one so well.

Once this excitement was over I went into the observatory where 6.70 euros gains admission to a museum that educates visitors on all things vautour. When a group of people builds up everyone is invited inside for a very informative audio visual presentation with English subtitles. Afterwards I stayed on the observatory roof for some time watching the Griffons on the cliffs overhead (pictured below), but it could have been a long wait for a Lammergeier or Egyptian to drop in. So around midday I decided to drive north into Le Causse Mejean on the off chance of crossing paths with either of these or Golden Eagle that are also in this area.

DSC_0079

The cliffs at Belvedere des Vautours

Choosing an ascent at random I became distracted by a broad and butterfly friendly looking track that led up a wooded valley from N44° 13.401′ E3° 17.631′. Eventually this took a hairpin and emerged above the tree line. I had brought a recording here of another straggler Western Bonelli’s Warbler that I familiarised myself with at the start of this walk. Now here was that very call coming from cover at one side of the track. I had several views of the bird but it didn’t stay still for long enough to focus on. So that was both my bird trip targets gained in one morning.

I began to regret not having genned up on Western Orphean as well. On the walk back down I did hear Bonelli’s again in two more locations and it’s a call I will not now forget. I must be getting to grips with this Xeno Canto malarky, having identified three new warblers on call in the last five months. The others were Dusky at Ham Wall, Somerset (see here) and Iberian Chiffchaff at Telford, Shropshire; but since the latter wasn’t seen it hasn’t been blogged either.

The following day I started at Gorges de la Jonte again, finding another large concentration of Griffons a little to the east of Belvedere des Vautours at N44° 92.394′ E3° 97.452′. Here there was also a large colony of cliff-nesting Red-billed Chough, that are widespread in the gorges of Les Cevennes. Having got to know this corvid so well on Portugal’s Sagres peninsula in January it was good to have another satisfying experience of them here.

Advertisements

Trip report – Butterflies in Les Cévennes National Park, France: 15-20th May

I have driven many hire cars around more hairpin bends than I could ever count in a lot of scenic southern European uplands in the last five years, but this is right up there with the most spectacular regions of them all. Les Cévennes lies around 200 miles from Provence at the south-eastern edge of France’s Massif Central. This is a huge and largely unspoilt landscape of high granite peaks, limestone plateaux dissected by dramatic gorges, towering inland cliffs and endless forests (pictured below).

DSC_0164So where does a lone lepidopterist begin to look for butterflies in all this vastness? As a week earlier in Provence I arrived here unresearched with a “go out and see” attitude to things. But if Le Luberon dwarfed Les Alpilles then this place is, well massif as they say here. On Sunday I drove out from my base at Marvejols with a vague idea of exploring the Gorges du Tarn route. This follows the D90 road roughly south-west of Florac, the administrative centre of the park.

But winding roads in scenic uplands inevitably means bikers. There are hundreds of them here. Well each to their own, so at a village Molines I turned off the D90 and headed north along the D31 back towards Marvejols to seek peace and solitude. The road climbs one side of a sunny, sheltered valley that looked good butterfly country, so I turned off to the right then walked back down a rough path (pictured below) through stony, wild flower-rich habitat.

The first butterflies to appear were inevitably Wall Brown, seemingly a default species in this part of France. The first encounter of note was with a cluster of Marsh Fritillary, that were soon followed by two more of that family. Weaver’s Fritillary (pictured left below), a lifer is fairly widespread throughout southern France. To me the clearest diagnostic is the occasional larger dots in the row just above the base of the hind wings. One Glanville Fritillary (right below) was also recorded here.

Thereafter the roll call just kept on growing. Skippers – Dingy, Grizzled and what I took to be Red Underwing – were competing for territory with Common and Small Blues and Brown Argus. Scarce Swallowtail, regular and Pale Clouded Yellow (lifer) would waft past at intervals. Small Heath, Small Copper, Orange Tip, Small and Wood White, Brimstone and Osiris Blue (lifer) made up a total of 19 species at this first, randomly discovered site.

I followed the path downhill almost as far as the village. Then on the way back up again the site’s 20th and stand-out butterfly, a fourth lifer made itself known. Escher’s Blue in appearance (pictured above) lies somewhere between Adonis and Common Blue, being not quite as bright as the former but with a more iridescent purple tint than the latter. Quite a large blue, it is widespread in the Mediterranean region from eastern Spain to Greece, flying in flowery, rocky places such as this from May through to August.

On my uphill walk many more Marsh Fritillary had become active. These are very photogenic butterflies in my experience and I usually capture interesting pictures of them. The following will add some different back-drops to my collection.

I remained here until 2pm then went on to look for further good sites in different habitats, but without success. It had been an excellent start but over the next two days things were much more difficult. I know of no on-line resources for locating butterflies in France, and have found just one published trip report from Limosa Holidays in 2011. Butterflies seemed to be a lower priority than botany and birds for that particular group and they had lousy weather, but the report did suggest more sites in the north-east Cevennes that I investigated on Monday.

Immediately east of Florac and north of the D998 road to Le Pont-de-Montvert is a hilly area called les Bondons. There along a very minor road to a village Chadenet was a sunny corner that produced two more new butterflies. The first of these was a Sooty Copper (pictured below) that I watched for some time returning to the same spot as they are said to do. This one displayed a more purple tone than Collins’ illustration and photographs on the web site butterfliesoffrance.com show. I suppose that like a Purple Emperor in miniature this depends on how light catches the insect.

The second lifer here was an as attractive Chequered Blue that looks like a bigger version of Baton Blue on the top-side but has very bright and distinctive underwing markings. It is quite a localised and sporadic species in southern Europe, that in France occurs in south-eastern areas. This little beauty too kept returning to the same place on a wood pile but without ever settling in a position to photograph well.

Out of Les Bondons flows the River Briançon. From a bridge on the D135 road at N44°22.072′ E3° 37.124′ an often overgrown track runs north to a village Lozerette. Along here one or two big butterflies crossed my path without stopping, then I spotted a very big butterfly indeed. This was a Camberwell Beauty, the first I have ever seen. But it was being harassed by a small Fritillary every time it tried to settle, before gliding majestically and disdainfully away and up into the trees. Nothing else settled here either and I didn’t get any pictures at this site. There were more Chequered Blue here too and a lot of Wood White.

From here I drove on to Le Pont-de-Montvert then north over Mont Lozère, the highest ground in this part of les Cévennes; but without finding more productive sites. On Tuesday morning I started at the granite peak of Lozère, around which lies wet heather moorland. This is said to be good habitat for several species I have yet to see, but at three stops in sample habitat I found only Green Hairstreak. The feeling was growing in me, having begun a day earlier that perhaps I have timed this visit too early for many butterflies read about.

green hairstreak.1604 cevennes

Green Hairstreak

Naturetrek comes here in mid-June, and I next checked out a locality on their agenda. This is a ridge to the south-east of Florac called Corniche des Cévennes, along the top of which a road runs to the town of Le Pompidou. Here there were wonderful wildflower meadows with myriad Orchids and Pasque Flowers but very few butterflies save for Green Hairstreak again. I suppose this sort of habitat is more associated with high summer than May species but it was still disappointing not to see more.

My sense of discomfort was now growing into the fear that I had made a serious error of judgement in coming to les Cévennes. I needed very much to see and photograph some butterflies, and so set the satnav for that superb spot from day one. So why is this location at N44° 23.237′ E3° 31.378′ so butterfly friendly whilst almost everywhere else has been disappointing? Well it’s rocky, flowery habitat in a sunny but sheltered open valley and I just haven’t come across more places like it. Steep, forested and fenced off is more usual here.

Most of the same butterflies were active again, so what was happening second time around?  The Marsh Frits were sitting up to be noticed as ever but I had done them justice three days earlier. Mr and Mrs Escher were getting it on in the late afternoon sunshine (pictured above left), while the tinies continued to battle for bragging rights all around them. There seemed to be more Escher’s Blue here today as if they are still emerging, as they should be at this time.

But the butterfly I most wanted to photograph was Pale Clouded Yellow and one duly obliged (pictured below, left). Further down the track I came across what I identified as two of the brighter, lemon yellow Berger’s Clouded Yellow, one of which went into the can too (below, right). These are the ones that always flew past and kept on going in Provence. I hope I have identified the two smaller CY species correctly, but if not am open to expert guidance. With these results my spirits were restored.

Over the next three days I continued to look for butterflies in different habitats at randomly selected sites, with varying degrees of success. On Wednesday in one of the limestone plateaux of the western Cevennes, le Causse Mejean I followed a good looking track that climbed a wooded valley from N44° 13.401′ E3° 17.631′. Here in overcast conditions I noticed Small Blue-sized butterflies with violet blue top sides going past me. These had to be Osiris Blue that occurs in low density in southern France but whose range extends from Spain to Central Asia. When settled in the cool temperature they were very approachable and so the ID was clinched.

On reviewing my pictures and checking them against butterfliesoffrance.com I realised I had also seen this species on day one at the site by the D31 road north of Molines. By comparison with Small Blue the male Osiris has sharply defined black marginal borders, and both genders have a noticeably different underwing pattern to Small Blue. In the following collage I have included a Small Blue top side image from this trip and an underside picture from my archive.

This site also produced two Fritillary additions to my life list, but I didn’t realise what they were until reviewing my photographs back at home. I had rather hoped that some finds might turn up at this later stage. The left hand butterfly (below) is, I believe a female Weaver’s Fritillary that I confused with Small Pearl-bordered until matching my picture to those on butterfliesoffrance.com. In the same way I had initially thought the male Weaver’s recorded on day one was Pearl-bordered, unlikely as that other setting had seemed.

I believe the right hand butterfly (above) is a female Twin-spot Fritillary that I have identified from Collins. An uncommon species in the region, this is also a little early to observe one. But as the lepidopterist Roger Gibbons says on his most excellent web site that I am quoting above (see here) the unexpected is always possible in France. Much of the country is under-recorded and things are often found where or when they are not meant to be, by which I mean according to published reference books.

Thursday morning was lost to the only heavy rain of this week. The afternoon was spent exploring some southern areas of Les Cévennes, drawing blank for butterflies time and again. A very cold wind was blowing now, and chatting to a staff member at the Mont l’Aigoual tourist office I learned it had been an unusually cold spring in the region this year. So here was a possible explanation why so few butterfly species were on the wing in many places searched.

DSC_0124

Limestone country of Les Causses

On my final day I didn’t wish to travel too far from base and so explored another north-eastern limestone plateau, Le Causse de Sauveterre. Along a minor road south-west of a village Champerboux I located a promising looking area (pictured above) and walked from N44° 23.838′ E3° 23.527 along a rising track through rocky, grassy land with a rich limestone flora. The profusion of Pasque flowers in particular here was astonishing.

DSC_0022

Pasque flower plot

It was a gloriously sunny day to end the trip. Amongst all this warmth and colour were varying quantities of smaller grassland butterflies seen each May in England: Green Hairstreak, Dingy and Grizzled Skipper, Small Heath, Orange Tip, Brown Argus, Common and Small Blue.  Remarkably to me there were even Wood White here, a species that I associate with woodland at home but have encountered in much more open habitats here. Some Baton Blue (pictured below) were also on the wing.

baton blue.1605 cevennes

Baton Blue

In place of Adonis Blue there was another less bright butterfly of similar size and jizz. This lacked both the purplish iridescence of the Escher’s seen earlier in the week, and the diagnostic black lines through the white marginal borders of Adonis, though the black of the border extended inwards along the veins . There were plenty of them here that I identified as Turquoise Blue (pictured below top). This grassland species of upland slopes ranges across southern and eastern Europe as far as the Caucasus. It was my fifth new blue of the trip and the stand out butterfly of the final day. The following grid includes male Adonis Blue (middle row) from Provence and Escher’s Blue (bottom row) from this trip for comparison.

No Cévennes trip report would be complete without some orchids. The national park is renowned for them and there were plenty in the wild flower meadows of this Causse de Sauveterre landscape. Here (pictured below) are some that caught my eye especially, though I do not know their names.

Eventually I left this scenic and uplifting location to see if anything new was flying at the productive site of day one. There were now more Escher’s and Osiris Blue here than previously, and in two spots I found congregations of different blues (below left) possibly extracting moisture or salt from the soil. Amongst these was another lifer Green-underside Blue, a fairly common and widespread species of diverse habitat that flies across much of continental Europe from late April to early July. The top butterfly in the right hand picture is one.

So my first serious excursion into butterflying France was over. Despite appearances the fortnight in Provence then Les Cévennes was by any standards a half-baked experience. I was disappointed to gain only 11 life list additions in  a country with so many species to offer, and the trip just involved too much searching and not enough finding. I left with the impression that an imminent explosion of lepidopteron life and colour awaited anyone who might time their 2016 Cévennes visit a little later than I did. But this was intended as a fact finding exercise and I expect I’ll return at some future time, probably in June and definitely better researched.

Butterflying in Provence: the rocky hills above Les Baux – 12th May

Les Baux de Provence had been a superb place to visit in winter (see here). But today I hurried past the high season tourist trap’s overflowing car parks and jostling coaches disgorging visitors, into the limestone hills just to the north. Here in May 2012, possibly while hoping to see passing raptors, I had first come across Provence Chalkhill Blue and had no idea what these delicate charmers were. My access point then has been blocked off with boulders and deterring signs but the next stopping place was just a little further on.

les baux.1627 from north

Les Baux de Provence from the north

From here (N43° 45.114′ E4° 47.481) a track penetrated the rocky, wild flower rich landscape that faces the bastion of the fortress village (pictured above) across a steep-sided valley. Butterflies soon began to cross my path as I walked in here. I realised the browns were all Walls of which there were many, and both Swallowtail and Scarce Swallowtail would flop by at intervals then go on their way in the sunshine. It was perfect butterfly weather and habitat.

The Provence Chalkhill Blue here were offering nice open wing poses (below left), revealing a slightly subtler toning compared to their British equivalents. Then the mystery was solved of the tiny blues I had seen a few times already this week, as one little beauty (below right) allowed a close approach. This was at last a life list addition for the trip, or sort of because Baton Blue is one of three very difficult to distinguish species.

I encountered one of these, which I took to be Panoptes Blue in the Algarve hills several times in May 2014. Then an on-line respondent to my trip report offered a tutorial on comparative ID. The confusion species is apparently False Baton Blue whose range is also limited to the Iberian peninsula. But according to Collins Baton Blue is the one found in France, so I’m ticking it and reverting my previous sightings to Panoptes.

I next drove on another 5km following a winding descent that seemed to be popular with the lycra-clad kamikaze brigade, and so required some care. At a point N43° 45.714″ E4° 47.677′ a forest trail led off to one side into a wooded valley that it soon became clear was superb butterfly country. Amongst the first to speed past were the trip’s first Berger’s Clouded Yellow but whenever seen these always did just that. They are very fast fliers and not inclined to settle.

provencal fritillary.1612 les baux

Provençal Fritillary

A short distance along the trail there were both Glanville and Provençal Fritillary, and this week’s first significant showing of Skippers: Grizzled and Mallow. Then a Southern White Admiral glided onto some Euphorbia before posing even more nicely against a green backdrop. The British equivalent is never so co-operative back home in Bernwood Forest, Bucks where in five years I have yet to capture a truly satisfying image of one. These south European stunners (pictured below, left) are possibly my butterfly of this trip, the fresh ones having an almost metallic quality as they soak up sunlight open winged, Several were seen here today.

Further along still I began to see male Provence Orange Tip (pictured above, right) and eventually managed slightly better record shots than two days earlier. I continued for some distance up into the hills enjoying butterflies all along the trail, then the sun went in so there was no repeat experience on the return walk. Now only the ever plentiful Wall Brown remained active, then as the greyness intensified even they were no longer to be seen. Back at the car rain set in and this best butterfly day of the week was over.

Slender-billed Gulls at la Palissade and more in la Camargue – 11th May

There was a rain interval today so I spent the wet morning blogging then shopping for provisions, then in the merely grey and dismal afternoon paid a visit to the Slender-billed Gulls at the mouth of the Rhone. Two sites here at They de Roustan to the east of the Grand Rhone channel, and la Palissade on the west side are reputed to be the best places in the Parc Naturel Regional de Camargue for observing this gull.

I visited both locations in March 2013 during three days here that were blighted by the Mistral, finding my first ever SBGs at la Palissade and witnessing them flying backwards in the wind. Up until then this had been a jinx bird on my southern European travels. Then in January this year I looked for them again at They de Roustan without success, but didn’t have time to cross over to the western site. Hence my interest in checking out la Palissade now.

Getting there meant a potentially nice and birdy drive through la Camargue, along the D36 road south from Arles. On the way out the top head turners were a quartet of roadside European Roller, Gull-billed Tern over some rice paddies, and a group of several summer plumaged Curlew Sandpiper on the approach to la Palissade itself. Then there were Cattle Egrets sometimes almost matching the numbers of livestock in roadside fields, summer plumaged Sanderling and Kentish Plover, those common Oxon residents Marsh Harrier, large numbers of Avocet, and of course oodles and oodles of Greater Flamingo. It’s a pretty bad holiday interruption when all that’s left to do is bird la Camargue!

Blue skies prevailed when I reached journey’s end (N43°21.079′ E4° 46.922′) and the first thing I saw was a good sized flock of Slender-billed Gull (pictured above). They must be a fixture here and this is the only place where I have found them in any numbers. I watched for about half an hour. To me they have a slightly comical, droopy-nosed appearance reminiscent of Concorde, and a character of their own amongst other Gulls. I was pleased to have had this second encounter here, after the foul conditions of that original experience.

Driving back the stand-out bird sightings were a Blue-headed Wagtail, Little and Sandwich Terns, my first Caspian Tern for France, and a Squacco Heron. And all this in a few hours spent casually in la Camargue without leaving the car. Eventually I was ticked-off by a pair of passing gendarmes for stopping at the roadside taking pictures. They seemed unimpressed by my explanation that I was observing birds as people come here from all over the world to do.

Butterflying in Provence: Le Luberon – 9 & 10th May

The vast limestone plateau of Le Luberon fills the horizon east of les Alpilles. Today I revisited two sites at the western end of this range, around the village of Merindol, that I discovered during my first Provence trip in May 2012. It must have been references in the Helm birding guide to France that brought me here then, but the memory I took away was of butterflies.

Merindol is tucked in under the limestone escarpment. Here at the top of rue du Vallon Bernard is what looks like a disused quarry from where hiking trails lead along the face of and into the upland. At this spot in 2012 I found Provençal, Glanville  and Knapweed Fritillaries and Southern White Admiral. Today I wanted to repeat the exercise if possible and see if anything else could be found here.

Overcast conditions persisted throughout the day, but purely by chance my arrival at this spot coincided with the one sunny window of opportunity. An initial reconnoitre around midday had produced nothing, but after returning to my car for a sandwich the sun came out and so of course did the butterflies. Singles of Painted Lady, Red Admiral and Swallowtail were the first to appear. Then while tracking the last named I came across a Fritillary attempting to warm itself on a mossy patch with wings spread flat and wide.

provençal fritillary.1601 merindol

Provençal Fritillary

This was the first of a few Provençal Fritillary (pictured above) seen here today and it was soon joined by Knapweed Fritillary, a quite common south European species. The latter is very variable in form between the Iberian peninsula and France, regionally within France and even at the same site. The left hand individual (below) for instance has brighter orange hind wings compared to the possibly female butterfly in the right hand picture. Both these specimens were observed at Merindol today.

The sunny interval lasted for no more than 45 minutes after which I followed the hiking trail east along the escarpment’s face. But conditions quickly became cool and windy and the only butterflies to show themselves were frequent Wall Brown. Back in the relative shelter of the quarry, Common and Adonis Blue were flying but the Fritillaries had all gone to cover.

adonis blue.1605 luberon

Adonis Blue

It was now mid-afternoon and I set off to find a location where in 2012 there were plentiful Berger’s Clouded Yellow and Provence Orange Tip. But in bright sunlight those colourful subjects had been impossible to photograph since they would not settle. This roadside spot lies along the very scenic Route Forestiere de Fonte de l’Orme that penetrates le Luberon to the north-west of Merindol. Today the only co-operative butterflies were Adonis Blue, until a very pale and ghostly Wood White also allowed some point blank macro work.

wood white.1601 luberon

Wood White

Tuesday morning dawned with blue skies at last so I decided to revisit both Merindol sites seeking in particular 2012’s two bright yellow stars Berger’s and Provence Orange Tip. The massive inland cliffs of le Luberon loomed large in a pleasing light as I approached. But once on site a contest between sun and cloud began that continued throughout the morning. The forest route was still in shade on my arrival at 9:15 and so I went to check out the quarry.

There it was just like butterflying on the Chilterns escarpment at home: watching the grey stuff edging ever closer then waiting, waiting for the sun to break through again. At first only Blues were active but then up popped a photo opportunity that made all the hanging around worthwhile: a Glanville Fritillary nectaring on Red Valerian (pictured below).

I had previously photographed a re-introduced Glanville in grass at Hutchinson’s Bank, Surrey (see here) but this today was much more satisfying being both truly kosher and self-found. I have waited some time to gain such results, via finding my camera battery was flat at another re-introduction site Wrecclesham, Surrey; then having that single immobile GF pointed out to me at Hutchinson’s Bank. After today’s experience I doubt very much whether I’ll bother to go after this species in blighty this year.

I stayed at the Merindol quarry (N43°45.585′ E5° 12.375′) for around 90 minutes. Brown Argus, the southern European race of Speckled Wood, and Mallow Skipper all put themselves onto the trip list here, while Red-billed Chough called and flew out from the cliffs overhead. By 11am the sun when out was high enough in the sky to be illuminating the roadside spot (N43° 45.700′ E5° 11.932′) along the Route Forestiere de Fonte de l’Orme, so I went back.

As soon as I got out of the car a male Provence Orange Tip flew powerfully past and kept on going. That was enough to tantalise me into searching the site repeatedly for over an hour during which the POT was not seen again. Bath and Large Whites, a tiny blue, regular Orange Tip, Brimsone and Cleopatra all put in appearances. More of the orange-toned Knappers (below left) seen at the quarry a day earlier were also active here. I believe the right hand butterfly (below) is another very variable species Spotted Fritillary.

But the standout butterfly was a briefly encountered Southern White Admiral. That last splendid species (pictured below, left) is almost like a hybrid with Purple Emperor, having the latter’s purple sheen though Collins calls it steely blue. There is also a slightly different top wing pattern to the browner White Admiral that occurs in Great Britain.

Eventually I walked back along the lane towards Merindol, encountering the male Provence Orange Tip repeatedly for the next hour. What I assumed to be the same individual seemed to be patrolling a circuit over and over again, always disappearing up one rock face at the same spot before I would relocate it back along the lane somewhere. This reminded me of certain dragonflies such as Moorland (or Common) Hawker and Brilliant Emerald that behave in exactly the same way and rarely settle.

This POT was a very fast flyer for it’s size and shared the regular Orange Tip’s habits of mostly keeping ahead of the observer, never settling for long and hence being difficult usually to photograph. But the distant record shot (below right) shows what I am writing about. Eventually my little yellow and orange quest made it all the way back to where I had parked. There a female of the same species (below left) was rather more obliging.

It had been later in May when I came here in 2012. So I assumed it is still early in the flight season for Provence Orange Tip while 2016 Berger’s Clouded Yellow have yet to emerge.

Butterflying in Provence: Les Alpilles – 8 & 10th May

Le Parc Naturel Regionel des Alpilles is a limestone upland lying immediately east of Les Baux (see here). The hiking here is as excellent as the scenery and I enjoyed three good walks of varying length through the first day of this trip. I have returned to Provence largely un-researched and with no agenda of what to look for. As in Portugal’s Algarve hills two years ago (see trip reports tab) the intention is to lose myself in wild places and see what can be found, with the greater emphasis on butterflies.

This Sunday provided a modest start with just seven species recorded. Conditions in the morning were lightly overcast, turning greyer as the day progressed, so not ideal for butterflies. Hence an early season reminder of how so much time observing insects is spent waiting for the sun. The most frequent and widespread butterfly was Western Marbled White that is in the middle of it’s April to June flight period, and hence at peak numbers if not in peak condition.

western marbled white.1601 alpilles

Western Marbled White

This species (above) occurs on much of the Iberian peninsula, in Morocco, Algeria, Sicily and Mediterranean France. It is generally paler in appearance than the Marbled White seen in Great Britain with light blue dots on the lower hindwings. Two more regional equivalents of British butterflies that fly later in the season were also encountered. Like WMW, the range of Spanish Gatekeeper (below) extends into north Africa and southernmost France. It has two black dots on each hindwing and a bolder underwing pattern than the late summer British species. And like their Portuguese cousins these Provence Gatekeepers liked to settle in dappled shade.

spanish gatekeeper.1601 alpilles

Spanish Gatekeeper

Provence Chalkhill Blue falls into the category of understated little beauty. It occurs only in the western Mediterranean from eastern Spain to north Italy. Greyer and more subtly toned than the butterflies found from July in southern English chalk lands, this CHB is in all respects a joy to behold. Just three individuals were seen today, as well as one Adonis Blue. Occasional interesting looking smaller blues escaped identification.

provence chalkhill blue.1603 alpilles

Provence Chalkhill Blue

In the overcast conditions, butterflies resting on the ground would typically fly up on my approach before settling again out of range. But eventually and as the temperature cooled later in the day I managed close-ups of all the above. Other species seen were many and often faded Wall Brown, a few Clouded Yellow and Small White.

alpilles.1601I made an afternoon revisit to one location (pictured above) two days later in bright sunlight, to see what else could be found in more butterfly friendly conditions. This is a flat area of scrub land north of the D17 road between Eyguieres and Aureille. If anything there seemed to be less on the wing than on day one. I recalled how in Portugal the Gatekeepers in particular liked to keep in shady cover in hot weather. Everything was now that much flightier and the wind made photographing perched subjects difficult.

The Western Marbled White were showing their undersides to good effect as they nectared on thistles (above left) and other wild plants, revealing the diagnostic blue hindwing dots. New species for the site included singles of Swallowtail and Spanish Festoon, and I also came across a small colony of Provencal Fritillary (above right). But I was disappointed not to have found more here, or indeed any lifers.

The first precious jewels of spring – 5th May

It is that time of year when my heart is gladdened by the re-appearance of Green Hairstreak, one of my favourite British butterflies. The northerly air flows of the latter part of April held up the emergence of this most precious of all lepidopteron jewels, along with other early-season specialities such as Dingy and Grizzled Skipper, Duke of Burgundy and Pearl-bordered Fritillary. But with fair weather forecast for the early part of May the new butterfly season should be well and truly under way.

I have been checking out Aston Rowant NNR, Oxon on both sides of the M40 on sunny days since mid-April. Yesterday afternoon I found a season’s first Green Hairstreak on the noisy northern hillside above the motorway, then this morning there were three more sightings and I captured these images (below).

In two days time I head for the south of France again for a fortnight’s serious butterflying during which I hope to add many new species to my life list. Having presented almost a full English butterfly season in this journal in 2015 I do not intend to repeat that exercise this year. But Green Hairstreak is the one butterfly that I wanted to blog before my departure abroad. Thank heaven for the beautiful, intricate and fascinating creatures that butterflies are, and for this little gem in particular. I just love ’em!