Thursday 30 August 2018

Creatures of the Cols part II

As well as providing some close encounters with Lammergeier, two visits to the Col de la Colombière during our recent trip to the French Alps proved productive for several high altitude species of butterfly. My favourite among these was the Mountain Clouded Yellow, a pallid version of the more familiar Clouded Yellow which we see in the UK, with a distinctive dusting of black scales on the upperwing.
Mountain Clouded Yellow - always lands with the wings closed
The beautiful upperwing could therefore only be captured only in flight
Reminiscent of the patterns made by iron filings with a magnet!
This individual showed the distinctive dark dusting through the underwing
It turns out that continental butterflies are every bit as unfussy with their tastes as our own: we christened a particularly large pile of dog-mess near the Col 'the turd of plenty' on account of the number of butterflies it attracted, including two new species for me: Red Underwing Skipper and Common Brassy Ringlet (the latter sounding a bit like a Shakespearian insult, I think).
Red Underwing Skipper doing what it says on the tin
Upperwing shot of Red Underwing Skipper
Common Brassy Ringlet taking a break from feasting on excrement 
This more discerning Large Wall Brown eschewed the turd of plenty to roost on a rock
A walk into the mountains west of Sallanches to the Refuge de Doran produced a few more new species including an attractive Damon Blue and an elusive Alpine Heath which led me a merry dance around a scree slope before I eventually pinned it down for a photograph. Still to come in future posts: a few Alpine mammals, fun with Fritillaries and some Erebian nightmares...
Alpine Heath - a reasonably straightforward species to identify with the broad spotted white band in the underwing
Closer crop of the Alpine Heath
Damon Blue underside - another fairly easy one to identify
Damon Blue upperside

Sunday 26 August 2018

Creatures of the Cols part I

If the birding was hard work on our recent holiday in the French Alps, butterflying was a bit easier and more productive - we caught the end of the continental heatwave, enjoyed good weather even at altitude, and I saw several species for the first time. Colleagues are still helping me with some of the trickier identifications - oh for the simplicity of the British butterfly list and its 59 reasonably discrete species! So this post, the first of a couple focusing on the species I was reasonably confident about identifying myself, may be followed by others as my tentative identifications are either confirmed or corrected.
Queen of Spain Fritillary, Col du Grand Colombiere
The closest I got to photographing the stunning pearls of the Queen of Spain's underwing
Queen of Spain Fritillary
One of our first excursions to higher altitude from our base near Annecy took us west to the Col du Grand Colombiere, just shy of 1500m. This was a recommendation from Dr Martin Warren who kindly provided some site info before I left - and a good recommendation it was too. Within a few minutes I had seen Apollo, Scarce Copper, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Large Wall Brown as well as species familiar from home in the UK like Adonis Blue, Chalkhill Blue and Silver-spotted Skipper.

Scarce Copper - the first of several new species for me
A view of the Scarce Copper underwing
The first Apollo of the trip was the smartest - but a bit distant for a good photo
From there we dropped down into the lowlands and the beautiful Marais de Lavours, another recommendation from Martin. A boardwalk took us through a variety of wetland habitats but it was too hot for both us and the wildlife it seemed - a False Heath Fritillary and a fleeting view of a probable Southern White Admiral were the highlights.
Adonis Blue was one of a number of species familiar from home
Ditto, Chalkhill Blue...
...and Silver-spotted Skipper - this species appeared quite widespread - more range restricted back at home
From there we again went in search of the cooler air of high altitude, driving up to the top of Mont du Chat, an attractive location who phonetic pronunciation caused much mirth with my increasingly puerile children. I really don't know where they get it from. As well as spectacular views, Mont du Chat offered a close encounter with a hilltopping Swallowtail of the gorganus sub-species which prevails in continental Europe.
The Silver-spotted Skippers (this a female) appeared darker to my eyes than those we see at home...
...the field guide suggests this is a feature of higher altitude specimens - this one a male
False Heath Fritillary at Marais de Lavours
With the heat of the day receding we descended to the lowlands to meet up with friends for a swim in Lac de Bourget. The lakeshore area was too developed to see much in the way of wildlife but for someone who is not much of a swimmer I must say even I enjoyed a dip in the refreshing mountain waters.
This Swallowtail was in excellent condition
Found in very different habitats to the britannicus sub-species I saw in Norfolk earlier this year
Returning to base near Annecy was a reminder that we didn't need to climb into the high mountains to see good butterflies - there were Brown Hairstreaks nectaring in the garden and I even rescued a Glanville Fritillary from the swimming pool!
Brown Hairstreak - not bad for a garden butterfly
This Glanville Fritillary was water-logged in the pool
I was able to see the attractive underwing pattern as it dried out

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Alpine birding

Alpine birding is a case of quality over quantity at the best of times, but even more so on our recent family holiday. We made quite of bit of effort to get into the high mountains, but, with hindsight, probably not high enough to connect with some of the more sought after species like Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor and Snowfinch. We still managed memorable encounters with some special birds of the area though - in addition to the raptors in my last post, some other highlights are below.
You have to get up high to see an Alpine Chough - but when you do they can be very confiding
Son George and I hiked up from the Col de la Colombiere at 1600m to a high ridge at 2300m to see these
First sign of an Alpine Chough is the distinctive call - even more high pitched and wheezy than its red-billed cousin which we get in the UK
Characterful birds
A pair were scavenging scraps from picnickers on the ridge
On the way up to the ridge we passed through the feeding area for the local Crag Martin colony
A difficult bird to photograph
Eventually captured on film after a close fly-past
A robust bird, bigger than the local House Martins
Black Redstart appeared to be the commonest bird in the Alpine pastures...
...followed closely by Water Pipit
Female Black Redstart
Unable to photograph a couple of Citril Finch which flew past at Col de la Colombiere, I had more success with this male Linnet
Despite gaining considerable height, this was as close as I got to a Griffon Vulture (Col de la Colombiere)
Alpine Chough gather in large flocks on the Alpine Peaks
Yomping up another slope above Col du Petit Saint Bernard on the French-Italian border (more on which in a later post), a Marmot's alarm call gave away the presence of an immature Golden Eagle - the second Eagle of the trip

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Vulture culture

I wasn't expecting to squeeze much in the way of wildlife photography into a family holiday in the French Alps with friends earlier this month, but I knew it would put me within striking distance of the area where a small population of Lammergeier had been established by a reintroduction scheme in the latter part of the last century. So when the folks we had travelled with spent a day visiting some other friends in the Annecy area, the balance of power within our party shifted in favour of a trip to the mountains east of there.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience of being eye-balled by a Lammergeier at point blank range - cropped only slightly
Finding good gen on birding in the French Alps wasn't easy - my old 'Where to watch birds in France' guide suggested the area around Sallanches was the place to head for the Lammergeier, a.k.a the Bearded Vulture. However, it was otherwise a bit short on specifics: 'from here, a minor road heads west into the mountains', it said, which didn't really narrow things down. Googling produced a few more recent blog posts from visiting British birders which suggested that the area around the Col de la Colombiere, a high mountain pass at about 1,600m, might be worth a visit.
With a cloudless sky not even I could screw up this photo-opportunity too badly (taken 11th August)
An early start was recommended due to high visitor numbers and limited parking at the col, but by the time I had roused my team with croissants and coffee, and circumnavigated a road closure en route, we didn't arrive until mid-morning. In view of this we were fortunate to bag a parking slot a few hundred yards below the col near the first hairpin bend to the west. Fate intervened, not for the last time that day, as the alarm call of an unseen Alpine Marmot betrayed the presence of a Short-toed Eagle sitting in a tree not 50 yards away.
The Lammergeier from our first close encounter on 8th August
It stayed long enough for us to set up the telescope for exceptional views, which we shared with a family from Bristol who had pulled up next to us. On reflection, I was probably keener to show them this amazing bird than they were to look at it, but they smiled politely and appeared impressed, so thanks for indulging the geeky bloke with 'scope, mystery Bristolians!
Kestrel attacks Lammergeier...
This auspicious start sent us up the track north of the col with springs in our steps, though our enthusiasm was soon curbed by a combination of the steep gradient and the intense heat. About 20 minutes walk from the col we found ourselves on a grassy shelf overlooking the switchback road towards Cluses to the east and with a good view of a horseshoe of imposing peaks to the north. Here I met another British birder who seemed to know the area well and who advised that, if we wanted to see Lammergeier, this was the place to be. I needed no further encouragement to down tools (I was regretting carrying that telescope by this point) and wait.
...and the Lammergeier responds
Within half an hour the English guy called 'Lammergeier' as the massive flying cross of a dark-plumaged juvenile appeared from behind a crag. It was much closer that my only previous sighting of this species in the Pyrenees over a decade ago, so I was delighted with the views and the photographs. Within the hour we had seen an adult bird cruising the ridge some 700m above us, and while my wife and eldest son decided to hike further up the slope, my youngest was flagging in the heat so we returned towards a cafe on the col intent on procuring age-appropriate cold beverages.
With a beady eye out for another Kestrel attack, the Lammergeier dropped below the col and away
As we descended to just above the car park, another shrill alarm call caused us to look up - this time it was given by a Kestrel rather than a Marmot, and was aimed not at a Short-toed Eagle but at a Lammergeier just above our heads! Unfortunately it was coasting away from us and I feared I had blown the chance of a close photograph. Racing up the slope more in hope than expectation, to my surprise it banked and came back towards the col, giving unbelievably good views, first hanging above me in a cloudy sky, then soaring slowly in front of a cliff face which made finding the right exposure a bit easier.
The bird at the col came too close to fit in the frame with the lens at 400mm
Still shaking from the excitement of this unexpectedly close encounter, things got even better when the impudent Kestrel returned for another tilt at the vulture, causing it to bank sharply at point blank range, drop to within a few metres of Rowan's head, and proceed to spar with the plucky falcon almost directly below us.
I was pleased with this initial view of an immature Lammergeieir, let alone what came later
I never dreamt I would witness a Lammergeier defending itself with a full, talons-up body roll, even less so that I would be able to photograph such a rare interaction between the mis-matched raptors. Fortunately I was able to track most of the spectacle with the camera and a few frames came out reasonably sharp. Rowan was buzzing almost as much as his father having been close enough to the vulture to hear the wind in its wings.
I had been a bit miffed with Claire and George for yomping off up the mountain but, again, fate had clearly intended it to be so as had they not done this, we wouldn't have returned to the car when we did to witness the encounter. My only regret was that they weren't there to share the experience. On their return Claire gave a reasonably convincing description of what sounded like a colony of Cynthia's Fritillary around some pools above the col at about 2,100m. This was enough to encourage us to return to the col a few days later, after our friends had returned to England, as we made our way from our base near Annecy to a budget hotel in Sallanches for a few additional nights in France.
An imposing bird at any distance, but particularly up close
On this second visit, Rowan and Clare opted to sit out the climb and George, who has become something of a mountain goat, kindly agreed to drag me up in his wake. It was another fantastic few hours, providing my first views of Ibex, a picnic with a pair of Alpine Chough and a Crag Martin fly-past (more on which later). There were also opportunities to photograph some new Alpine butterflies (to feature in a later post when they have passed the rigorous Butterfly Conservation identification review panel process, sparing me the embarrassment of labelling them incorrectly :-)).
I thought these close views of Short-toed Eagle would take some beating...
When we reached the high pools we could find nothing resembling a Cynthia's Fritillary (on returning breathless and sweaty to the col Claire clarified that she had, in fact, just seen the one, and then only briefly...) so we pressed on up to the ridge above at about 2,300m. the Lammergeier, it gave us the full hard stare treatment
This razor-blade of rock seemed as good a spot as any to stop for our basic lunch of French loaf, on which I almost choked as a massive shadow rolled down the cliff in front of us and another adult Lammergeier broke the horizon of a cloudless sky. In an instant it was over us and heading away but we were able to track its flight until it alighted on a distant crag.
A slight heat haze - but still my best views of this species
I considered myself exceptionally fortunate to have seen both star raptors so well, and delighted that both children were able to experience the awe of a close encounter with them too. Stand by for more news from the Alps in the coming days. Lots of photos to get through!
Short-toed Eagle, Col de la Colombiere