Alpine Chough at Lac de Melo, Corsica + Corsican Finch, Nuthatch and Crossbill: 25 – 29th Sep

I have just returned from a Naturetrek group tour to the Mediterranean island of Corsica. One of many highlights was a rough terrain hike on 28th at the high end of Restonica Gorge, a popular hiking route stretching 15km south-west from the old capital Corte. This culminated in sharing our picnic lunch with the local population of Alpine Chough, one of four bird lifers secured on this trip, by the shores of a glacial corrie lake: a novel experience indeed.

Other new birds observed through the week were the endemic Corsican Nuthatch and Corsican Finch; and fleetingly Marmora’s Warbler, a scarce resident. Some sources regard the Corsican race of Crossbill as a further endemic, and these birds were also seen well at one montane location. Details of all follow. Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture was a fifth trip target, but unsurprisingly perhaps since there are only six pairs on the entire island, Europe’s largest raptor eluded us this time.

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Alpine Chough thinking: ‘That’ll be the best stuff over there’

The high Restonica Gorge hiking trail starts from a road head with car park and café at 1370m, while Lac de Melo lies at 1711m. The route upward through a starkly dramatic glaciated valley is described as the most challenging walk of this tour. Our guide David Tattersfield, who has been leading natural history tours to Corsica for 20 years, prides himself on getting as many participants as possible up to the lake. Around half have nonetheless been known to turn back at some stage, while just two of our group of five attempted it. I can only say the experience was unforgettable, off the top of the scale!

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Do I look breathless?  This was fairly near the start, before the steep bit

Flocks of  acrobatic Alpine Chough soon became visible along the tops of soaring granite cliffs. In places the trail was discernible only by way marks painted on rocks, but there were always sufficient walkers ahead and behind for the general direction to remain clear. And so we strode on, higher and higher in pleasant sunlight until the steepest section was reached. The first two pictures in the sequence below were taken to the rear with light behind me. Ahead, into the sun lay a rock face that could only be negotiated with fixed chains and ladders before a final stretch of more boulder hopping up to the lake. The thought of going back down again was uncomfortable but I was not going to turn around.

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In the tranquil environs of Lac de Melo yellow-billed Chough, their whistling calls emanating from all around, were mingling with the intrepid hikers now scattered lazily over the rocky slopes. They are birds exclusively of high montane places (above 1500m) and remote before they are attracted fearlessly by human activity. People who have been to an Alpine ski resort must have had similar experiences of these intelligent, gregarious crows. When we began to prepare our picnic lunch they at once realised the potential and we became surrounded.

They were pretty much omnivorous, but their favourite was ham or the rind thereof. It was plain our new found companions knew the best food was being kept concealed away from the rocks on which we offered various scraps. One bold individual snatched most of the last, hidden slice and flew away from the others with this prize. I was also impressed by how they would clutch food in the claws of one foot to turn upwards then tear apart.

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“Can you see any big lenses?” … “Reckon they can’t get ’em up here”

Alpine Chough (pictured above) resemble their red-billed equivalent in being all black with red legs and fingered primaries; but are shorter winged, longer tailed and the bright yellow bill is much smaller. The juveniles (below) seemed to appear slimmer and scruffier than adults, with dark legs and a dark tip to their own ochre-coloured bills.

But there were two sides to all this and I felt conflicting emotions in these birds’ midst. It was good to be so up close and personal with a species being experienced for the first time, though also a more contrived situation than I would normally choose to exploit. I had previously observed Red-billed Chough only at a certain distance and so their yet more inaccessible cousins had a kind of mythical status for me as a lifer. Now I was feeding them like Pigeons in a park, but I could not have done that without first having accessed the inaccessible. I expect photographers would love the situation at Lac de Melo, supposing they could get their lenses up there in one piece. But I am a wildlife enthusiast who takes photographs and therein lies the difference. Ramble (and scribble) on!

A second glacial lake, Lac de Capitello lies 240 metres higher than the first. But that involved a further steep ascent and my tour colleague and I both decided to quit while we were ahead. The descent was less arduous than I had imagined, with the possible exception of the chain-assisted stretch. Exhilarated by the day’s activity it was not until the homeward leg of a shorter rough terrain walk the following morning that I began to feel weary. Then disorientation also began to set in and enough was enough.

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Corte, the former capital town of Corsica

This was a two centre tour. For the first three days  we were based at a beautiful mountain village, Evisa above Corsica’s north-western coastline. On walking out of the hotel to explore on 25th, the first three birds encountered were Cirl Bunting, Corsican Nuthatch and Corsican Finch. That was not a bad scene setter!

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Corsican Finch © rights of owner reserved

A Corsican Finch flock appeared to be resident in the village and was seen on each day of our stay. This smallish finch was formerly regarded as a sub-species of Citril Finch, a bird I had observed once before in the south of France (April 2013). Also found in Sardinia and some smaller Mediterranean islands, the endemic species (pictured below, left) is a clearer yellow beneath than its near relative, with dark-streaked brown upperparts and a less green-tinged face. There are also some differences in call intonation.

My first record shot of the endemic Corsican Nuthatch (above right), taken later in the week was equally indistinct. The island’s poster picture bird was observed several times throughout the tour, always in montane pine forests from 1000 – 1500m. It is up to 2cm less in length than Eurasian Nuthatch with smaller head, shorter bill, greyish buff underparts and a prominent white supercilium (eye stripe) that contrasts with a black (in male) or blue-grey (female) crown. The size differential was emphasised when we watched one individual coming to ground over and again to extract seed from pine cones, in company with a not much smaller Coal Tit. This encounter also yielded a slightly better picture (below).

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Corsican Nuthatch

At another high altitude site above the Forêt d’Aitone near Evisa we were treated to a grandstand display by a flock of the Corsican race of Crossbill. I believe the primary diagnostic lies in bill shape, but this is not a universally accepted endemic and certainly not listed as such in Collins. The occasion did produce some reasonable Crossbill pictures, however.

On 29th we went in search of the fourth lifer, Marmora’s Warbler along another hiking trail out of Corte, enjoying one near definite sighting. This similar but much plainer grey species to Dartford Warbler has the largest part of it’s limited range in Corsica, where it is a scarce resident. The site also holds Moltoni’s Subalpine Warbler, that one of my tour colleagues also glimpsed in the limited time available. If any Oxonbirders would be interested in a short spring visit to observe these two birds, and also see the Nuthatches and Choughs, please get in touch. I know where to find them all now.

On the tour’s final day my beloved, entry level Nikon D3100 SLR, with which I have captured all the insect images in this site’s galleries, suffered a fatal accident. The tour minibus was forced into an emergency stop and the camera smashed into the stanchions of the row of seats in front. I have already ordered a used replacement camera body and will hope to recover the cost through travel insurance. But I have no intention of upgrading since I will never attempt to become a bird photographer. That would be just too much to get my head around.

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