Corsica, July 2016: Adventure in the Mediterranean Part 1

When thinking of the Mediterranean, one often thinks of Spain, Italy, Greece and such, but Corsica does not immediately leap to one’s mind. And yet, the island holds one endemic species of nuthatch, Europe’s rarest vulture & umpteen more delights. So when we booked a week-long holiday on this very island, I was naturally delighted.

Day 1Sunday 14th July- Bastia Poretta Airport – Sant’Ambroggio

Having left the house at 0130 BST (!!), we went straight through Security at Gatwick and were soon boarding a flight to Bastia, to land there at roughly 0930 EST. We picked up the hire car and soon embarked for our accommodation in the small town of Sant’Ambroggio, near Calvi. Differences in avifauna were noted immediately: Hooded Crows instead of Carrion Crows, Yellow-legged Gulls instead of Herring Gulls & Red Kites were absolutely everywhere!! I also had my first lifer of the trip: Italian Sparrow. Though the ornithology surrounding this species is basically a mess, it is generally considered that birds in Italy, Corsica, Crete & parts of Sicily are a ‘stable hybrid swarm’ between the closely related House & Spanish Sparrows. Indeed, the males were very pretty, but the females were identical to our House Sparrow. We settled into our accommodation, a small bungalow which overlooked the sea (this would come in handy later…), and relaxed during the afternoon, listening to Sardinian Warblers & Spotted Flycatchers outside.

Day 2– Monday 15th July- Sant’Ambroggio- Asco Valley- Anciennes Station du Ski Haut Asco

The first day dawned in a cloudless sky, and we made our way up to the Asco Valley (with a detour via Montecello yielding us a Serin). Literature examined before the trip determined this site to be the best for birds, and going upon the pretence that Lammergeiers were seen here quite frequently, we decided to try our luck with this one. We raced through the farmland & maquis slopes of the lower parts of the valley: this was Tawny Pipit country. Time prevented us from exploring them unfortunately, but we had bigger fish to fry up in the mountains that were now looming above us. We negotiated the road up through the gorge to the village of Asco & then beyond.

A layby at roughly 790m altitude beckoned before us. Our target: Moltoni’s Warbler. We had seen these birds on Mallorca last year high in the mountains, and we hoped we would be just as successful. When we got out of the car, we heard an unfamiliar song coming from the pines in front of us. What was stunning about this record is that this bird very rarely occurs below 1000m altitude, and most views obtained are high up in the pines. But here, right in front of our eyes, over 200m below the altitude it was supposed to occur, was a gorgeous adult male CORSICAN NUTHATCH!!! We could hardly believe our eyes (or ears) as we watched it pecking away at a pine trunk, allowing stunning images to be procured. This species is entirely confined to Corsica, with a population of only roughly 2000 pairs, so to be able to see one this well was a real treat. It was also nice to hear both its song & its Jay-like call.


Just as we were watching the nuthatch, we heard a ‘trrr’ come from the bushes on the slopes above. Sure as eggs, it was an adult male Moltoni’s Warbler! It was very flighty, however, and quite distant, before flying over the road & down into the valley below never to be seen again. We then turned our attention to the other birds around us: two Crossbills went over our heads, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew amongst the pines above us, Coal Tits flew around us, a Grey Wagtail flew up from the road, Firecrests flitted atop the pines around us. A walk along the road didn’t produce much, but I saw a shape flit briefly behind a pine. Could it be another Corsican Nuthatch? To see one, let alone two, so far down was a miracle, but before I could confirm that fact it disappeared behind the pine.

We drove up the valley, windows open, eyes ready. Rock Doves flew over the high crags, Blackbirds sang around us, Jays calling, Chaffinches flitting through the pines. We climbed and climbed up to the ski station at 1400m altitude. The car park has several paths leading off: the road to the east, the infamous GR20 to the south & north, and the ski slope off to the west.


Since it was still quite early for raptors, we elected on walking the various paths. The GR20 looked quite densely forested, and the path was rough, so we quickly made our way slowly down the road. We had a lovely male Chaffinch fly into a pine near us, and great views were obtained of a Cirl Bunting singing in a pine tree.



We were happily admiring the bunting when an unfamiliar call from the road below distracted us. It was a very metallic ‘jink’ sound, and we discovered the source of the sound upon finding three CORSICAN FINCHES on some rocks by the road!! Unfortunately, they didn’t stick around long before being scared off by a passing car, but that was two endemics out of three under the belt!! Ecstatic over our amazing start, we took breakfast in the nearby Le Chalet Restaurant surrounded by two calling Corsican Nuthatches & Alpine Swifts screaming above a distant crag in the rocks.

After a leisurely breakfast of croissants & ice tea (!!), we held a stakeout of the slopes from the car park, which despite previous reports offered a good panoramic, 360 degree view of the summits around us. The trusty scope was deployed, and I scanned the peaks whilst Dad had another explore of the pines around us. The list we tallied was low but impressive: two immature Golden Eagles circled over to the south of us, one being mobbed by a Peregrine; a Crag Martin was located amongst the swifts in the crags, Alpine Choughs circled high above the summits, but try as we might we couldn’t yield a Lammergeier, and we slowly started to make our descent. But the Asco Valley wasn’t done with us yet. Our first stop produced nothing except a very flighty Hoopoe in the pines & some gorgeous (but Lammergeier-less) peaks. Our second stop, however, was different.



The layby we had chosen had a good panoramic view over the mountain ridge to the north, with towering crags dominating the landscape. We arrived there at 1100 to find the sky filled with Red Kites; a count showed there to be at least 15. We had been there for 15 minutes when a large bird dropped over the ridge towards them: it wasn’t just any old bird, it was a gorgeous adult LAMMERGEIER which immediately proceeded to give jaw-dropping views above the river!! There being less than 20 birds on Corsica, we were extremely lucky to see this bird, let alone so well. There is also no reintroduction scheme (yet) so this bird was almost certainly a wild individual!! We remained here for at least another 15 minutes, before we sadly had to make our way down again for lunch back at the villa.


Day 3Tuesday 12th July- Sant’Ambroggio- Fort de Pasciolo- D69 Road- Col de Sorba

Another early start, with a brisker wind, we drove out of Sant’Ambroggio towards Vivario, but we made a rather unexpected stop before we’d even reached Ponte Leccia! A shape on the wires revealed itself to be a Balearic Woodchat Shrike, and we found another adult & one juvenile on a fence below. We considered ourselves lucky to have encountered these birds as we read that they were quite difficult to find on the island, and even so we had encountered a bird on Mallorca last year. Even so, it was a nice sighting.


The drive was long & very torturous, negotiating winding mountain roads, especially south of Corte. We finally arrived at the Fort de Pasciolo at about 0900 to find the SW wind had intensified & the sun was basking down. Not to be deterred, we took the western track from the layby. This site was meant to be very good for our target bird, MARMORA’S WARBLER, and it wasn’t long before we found a family party of these birds flitting amongst the scrub. They weren’t very vocal, being mid-July, but they were calling & providing enough views to secure photographs.


Once again, we turned our attention to the other wildlife in the area. The scrub was alive with warblers: on top of the Marmora’s, we saw Blackcap & Sardinian, Dartford & several Moltoni’s Warbler amongst the scrub. We also had great views of two Crag Martins over our heads, a Great Spotted Woodpecker amongst some trees at the back which also yielded both Jay & Crossbill; and also lovely views of our first Red-backed Shrike of the trip & a family of Cirl Buntings which decided to pay a visit.


With that, we hastily made our way past the famed Le Chalet Restaurant up the D69 towards the Col de Sorba, noting the sign at the start of the road being peppered with bullet holes. This place, theoretically, is the best on the island for the nuthatch, but since we’d seen one so well already we didn’t focus too long on finding these. Our first stop was at a layby off to the left at 1030m altitude which overlooks the amazing scenery.

Almost instantly after getting out of the car, we heard two Corsican Nuthatch in the trees!! We were also very lucky to see four Corsican Finch (2 adults, 2 juveniles) there: they are quite a localised bird apparently, and we noted in the reports over the past year that people have seen very few Corsican Finch on the island. They showed very well on the road & in the trees.


We also had our first Treecreeper & Wrens of the trip and some commoner species such as Coal Tit, Raven, a gorgeous male Serin & a heard-only Great Spotted Woodpecker. We swiftly proceeded to the Col itself which instead of being shot to pieces had been removed altogether, leaving a solitary metal post in the middle of the layby. We were unfortunately running out of time, which resulted in us only staying for 10 minutes, yielding only a solitary Chaffinch & four Crossbills. It was soon time to leave the Col & head back to Sant’Ambroggio, where the stretch of road between Ponte Leccia & L’Ile Rousse was christened ‘Red Kite Boulevard’ for the sheer number of Red Kites which were seen on there: the journey back yielded 16 different birds.

Due to the wind that had whipped up from the WNW, Dad decided to seawatch for a bit & had seen several Scopoli’s Shearwaters from the coast that evening. Upon returning with his scope, he revealed six YELKOUAN SHEARWATERS, a lifer for me. A further search after dinner found four Yelkouans & a count of at least twenty Scopoli’s.

Day 4– Wednesday 13th July- Sant’Ambroggio- Santa Regina Valley- Lozzi- Calacuccia- Foret de Valdo-Niello

Another very early & very windy start today, and we made our way south as far as Francardo before turning off onto the D84. We drove on towards Calacuccia, a small village nestled in the mountains near Monte Cinto, the tallest mountain on Corsica. Approximately four kilometres from the village, we stopped in a layby which supposedly held Moltoni’s Warblers. We didn’t find any as it was very windy, but we did have several Crag Martins amongst a huge flock of at least 60 House Martins, a female Blue Rock Thrush, singing Blackcap, a single Great Tit, a flock of 11 Hooded Crows & two Ravens.


The second layby, near an abandoned restaurant just 200yds up the road from the first, was more productive. First, a Woodlark flew into the field, then both a Kestrel & a Hobby flew over, followed by the discovery of at least six Rock Sparrows in the field behind!! I was especially pleased to see these birds as I had not seen them for five years, and even then I can’t remember where I saw them off the top of my head.


This field was really good for scrubland birds: we saw two Red-backed Shrikes with food here, as well as two Serins, Spotted Flycatchers, Italian Sparrows & more Hooded Crows.

Sadly, we had to move on to Lozzi, which, because of the wind, was fairly birdless. After breakfast in a cafe near Calacuccia & stopping to photograph a stonking male Italian Sparrow, we decided to go for a bit of an explore.


After an anticlockwise loop from Calacuccia to Lozzi and back round towards the reservoir was taken, yielding next to no birds, we swiftly moved on westwards. A drive deep into the Foret de Valdo Niello took us through prime nuthatch habitat, but we failed to find any: it was just too windy!! It wasn’t long before we made our way down again, noting a Raven on the ground amongst some pigs. We also had what looked like a Wild Boar on the road.

Surprisingly enough, we didn’t see any seabirds during a seawatch despite the wind clearly intensifying overnight!!

Days 5-8 are coming soon…



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