Saturday, 28 June 2014

The wonderful Pyrenees in early summer (Intro & Day 1 15/06/14)

OUR summer holiday this year was in the Pyrenees in French France.  Our choice of location was inspired by Bob Gibbons' Wildflower Wonders of the World book, which I highly recommend to anyone with even the vaguest interest in international floras.

We based ourselves in a lovely little Gite near Argeles-Gazost in the southern part of the country and visited a number of places including the Pic du Midi de Bigore, the area near the Cirque de Gavarnie, as well as two of the Tour de France routes via the Col du Tourmalet.  It was a wonderful holiday in a landscape full of wildlife.

Cirque de Gavarnie from the north (at 2000m)
The region is of course at altitude (up to 6000ft) with snow still lying in patches on the ground above a certain height.  In the valleys, early summer was in full swing with huge flowery meadows, some just being cut for their hay, whilst on the mountain tops it could be quite cool with bulbs emerging from beneath an icy covering on the grazed pastures.

Soaring Griffon Vultures
The area is famous for its vultures, and other birds of prey, as well as some larger mammals, even the odd bear.  It also hosts a wide range of butterflies, including swallowtails (seen but not photographed), plus a healthy population of reptiles.

Some mountains are used for skiing in the winter as is evident in certain locations by the lifts and some hideous buildings - but these are few and far between and don't detract from the wonderful overall experience.

DAY 1.

We took it fairly easy on our first day having had a long journey due to flight delays but were instantly captivated by the landscape and fantastic flora, and explored the area by car.  We drove towards the Pont d'Espagne via Cauterets, where we lunched in a square admiring the slightly faded charm of this spa town.  The valley that we traveled up was packed with views and interesting plants.

The river thundered down, cascading between rocks where the ground was steep.

Rhododendrons - wild in the Pyrenees
Composite photo of this glacial river valley
All sorts of news flower species were seen, many of which are specialists to the Pyrenees, such as Gouan's buttercup, with its noticeably larger yellow flowers:

The Pyrenees has around 200 endemic plant species - now there's a challenge!

  1. Book: The Alpine Flowers of Britain and Europe - Wilson & Blamey. Pub. Collins
  2. Book: Wildflower Wonders of the World - Bob Gibbons Pub. New Holland
  3. Book: Pyrenees 2 French Central Pyrenees: Arrens - Seix - Roger Budeler. Pub: Rother
  4. Map: Michelin 432: Hautes-Pyrenees, Pyrenees Atlantiques 1:150 000 (useful for a local overview - but not for detailed walking at that scale unless obvious routes)

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A sunny day with surprises

ONE of the wonderful things about going out into the countryside to watch wildlife and take pictures is that no two visits are the same and you never know quite what you'll stumble upon.  Often I have a target species in mind but quite often these do not show but others, equally delightful, come to light; today was no exception.

There were no otters or kingfishers, in spite of an impressive level of patience shown on my part (!), but other interesting things were seen on the Somerset Levels:

Swimming grass-snake
Marsh harrier fending off a crow

Just as I was about to leave the hide, I realised that the reason that the reed warbler had been moving around in the reeds in front of me, was that it had a nest hidden only a yard or two away.

The reserve is carefully managed to provide ideal habitats for many species.  The white admiral requires spindly honeysuckle on which to lay its eggs in woodlands and woodland rides. The adults drink the honeydew of aphids, or will visit bramble flowers in sunny spots. The adult is usually only alive between mid June to mid August and so it was a real treat to see so many today. Its a real corker...

Other insect highlights included this skipper (below), hoards of damsel and dragonflies of all sizes, and even a comma looking characteristically angular.

Monday, 9 June 2014

NT's Killerton House and Gardens, Devon

THIS weekend provided an opportunity to enjoy south Devon - well a small and very special part of Devon anyway, in the form of the NT's Killerton House and Gardens, as fortunately a member of the family lives on the estate.

The Park and Devon beyond

It's is a wonderful parkland stuffed full of old (ancient), pollarded and gnarly oaks and sweet chestnut trees.

Is there a face?

There are also many planted and now mature exotics in the garden, which were collected directly from source by the previous owners when such things were all the rage.  The estate lies on an extinct volcano of all things and includes the site of an ancient hill fort.  There are long views all round and specialness (is that a word?) of the estate belies the fact that it is just outside Exeter and near the M5.

The mature trees are nothing short of spectacular and play host to a myriad of insects and bird life.  It was something to get up early, sit below the spreading boughs and simply watch the comings and and goings.  There were a large number of small birds feeding on its boughs including treecreepers and nuthatches, plus woodpeckers.

A young blackbird on an oak branch waiting to be fed

In the garden of the house where we stayed, a family of wrens had made a nest; the parent birds made frequent visits to feed the insatiable appetite of their young:


Around the grounds the deadwood provides wonderful habitats for all sorts of insects and grubs and the predators that feed on the them, such as this rusty coloured toad.

In amongst the scrub the warblers were still evident by their strident song, particularly the chiff-chaffs, garden warblers and this blackcap:

The foxglove flowers have now opened and many are yet to drop even their lowest pink trumpet.  Bees are frequent visitors to the nectar that these flowers provide.

Thanks guys.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A Garden Safari

A quick garden safari this evening and a good species count: a bat (unid'd), a large hedgehog, frogs and smooth newts - all excellent in their own way, however the star of the night was a female cockchafer.

This individual was languishing in the bottom of a bucket from where it was saved, once it had completed its photo call...what an amazing beast:

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Hobbies on the Somerset Levels

IN the wonderful sunshine today the dragonflies were buzzing about everywhere and where there are rich pickings the hobbies have an easy time.  However they are fast and far away so the images are more for records:

Other wildlife seen today included little egret and herons (below), great white egret, common terns, summer warblers, common birds such as wrens (singing below), cuckoos, marsh harrier and a red kite:


Gargany and young
Of the myriad of summer sounds some the loudest are surprisingly the marsh frogs, which croak madly all day, but are quite hard to pin point.