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Birding halfway up the Alps

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Old Saturday 28th December 2019, 20:31   #1
Richard Prior
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Birding halfway up the Alps

I’ve decided I’m too old to join the wonderful world of blogging but thought that occasional posts on birding in my adopted homeland (and sometimes elsewhere) might be of interest, especially as a lot of birders visit the French Alps and nearby Switzerland on family holidays or work trips, hopefully my contributions will be of interest and give an idea of what is typical birding throughout the year. I consider my local patch to be anywhere I go to by walking from the house, we’re at 1,000m altitude on the side of the Fier river valley as it descends past our village (Manigod, in Haute-Savoie Département) on its way to flow just north of Annecy and on into the Rhône. Most of my birding is done on foot, but I like to wander down (in the car) to the lower altitudes every now and then (otherwise I’d never see any wildfowl or waders!), good sites that aren’t too far away are the three lakes and surrounding lowland habitats around Annecy, Aix les Bains and Geneva.
December doldrums are something local patchers are familiar with, migration is long over and the wintering species visiting the feeders tend not to change very much and although today didn’t produce any oddities it was nevertheless one of those days where everything clicked, producing what is my best-ever one day species total for December without straying more than 1km from the house.
28 December The usual suspects were taking advantage of the free food we and our neighbours supply, I estimated 2 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 2 Blackbird, 10 Marsh, 1 Crested, 5 Coal, 5 Blue and 10 Great Tit, a Magpie, 6(!) Jay, 40 Brambling, 25 Chaffinch, 15 Goldfinch, 6 Greenfinch, 1 or 2 Hawfinch, 20 Yellowhammer and the usual solitary male House Sparrow. Also a Siskin called but I couldn’t see it. A couple of Green Woodpeckers were about as usual and I heard, then later saw a Nuthatch. Siskin have been absent all winter so far apart from an occasional singleton, presumably they’re still a long way north in Scandinavia?
A nice surprise while I was scraping ice of the car mid-morning was our first proper flock of Fieldfare this winter, c40 chakk a chakking as they flew over. Redwing are uncommon here so it was frustrating to glimpse two smaller thrush sp with them, hopefully they’ll stick around to allow closer investigation. Things got better when I went for a walk, a Bullfinch over, a Wren calling and a pair of Mistle Thrush (first song heard a few days ago). There were at least 16 Yellowhammer on the straw and dung pile at the farm (so that’s where they go when they’re not eating the seed I put out!). A Raven was doing some acrobatics then dived into a tree where three more were waiting, a real cacophony ensued! Back near the house I heard a Nutcracker wheezing in the distance, the local Buzzard flew over mewing (most of the Common Buzzard leave us for milder climes in winter but one or two seem to stick it out) and a solitary Carrion Crow was perched in a tree top. Just before getting back home I heard an odd call I didn’t recognise from further up the valley, after a few seconds’ panic I located the source(s), two Golden Eagles wheeling around just above the rooftops up the road! Through my binoculars I could see one was a 1st year and the other an adult and after a couple of minutes a third one joined them, another slightly smaller adult. They circled, still quite low, for a minute or two before powering back up the valley. The nearest pair successfully fledged two young last summer about 5kms away at around 1400m altitude so I guess it was them, I wonder how long it will be before the young one gets driven away, pretty soon I imagine? A real thrill to see them down in the valley so near to home and the day was complete when through the window later on I had only my third sighting of Common Treecreeper from the house this year. If I’d only managed to see the usual Robin I’d have clocked up 30 species for the day!
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Old Saturday 28th December 2019, 20:46   #2
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Very welcome Richard. Looking forward to your posts.
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Old Saturday 28th December 2019, 21:03   #3
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Same here.
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Old Saturday 28th December 2019, 22:52   #4
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Yeah, me too. This kind of thread is always appreciated and enjoyed. I hope you see some brilliant stuff to keep us all entertained!
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Old Sunday 29th December 2019, 10:28   #5
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Very welcome Richard. Looking forward to your posts.
Good to see a thread on the 'patch' theme: it could develop quite nicely as a rancour-free thread.... Well, it is Christmas, and I'm hoping for the best!
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Old Sunday 29th December 2019, 18:08   #6
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Thanks all, hmm, «brilliant stuff» and «rancour -free», so no pressure on me then
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Old Monday 30th December 2019, 14:02   #7
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Thanks all, hmm, «brilliant stuff» and «rancour -free», so no pressure on me then
You're bound to get some who with Liliputian obsession will demand to know the reason you didn't title the thread Birding Halfway Down the Alps and will go on and on about it...**
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**Just my respectful nod to Dean Jonathan Swift who in 1726 adopted the idea that bolied-egg eaters divide dogmatically and ideologically between Big-Endians and Little-Endians on a national basis, as a savage satire on shallow politics...
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Old Monday 30th December 2019, 15:27   #8
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You're bound to get some who with Liliputian obsession will demand to know the reason you didn't title the thread Birding Halfway Down the Alps and will go on and on about it...**
MJB

**Just my respectful nod to Dean Jonathan Swift who in 1726 adopted the idea that bolied-egg eaters divide dogmatically and ideologically between Big-Endians and Little-Endians on a national basis, as a savage satire on shallow politics...
“we’re at 1,000m”

...surely that’s nowhere near halfway up? Barely a quarter?*

/pedantry

*Though depends on which alp I suppose
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Old Monday 30th December 2019, 15:31   #9
Richard Prior
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You're bound to get some who with Liliputian obsession will demand to know the reason you didn't title the thread Birding Halfway Down the Alps and will go on and on about it...**
MJB

**Just my respectful nod to Dean Jonathan Swift who in 1726 adopted the idea that bolied-egg eaters divide dogmatically and ideologically between Big-Endians and Little-Endians on a national basis, as a savage satire on shallow politics...
Thank goodness mankind has progressed since Swift’s day, oh, hang on.....
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Old Monday 30th December 2019, 16:42   #10
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With absolutely no rancour or even mickey taking I admit the first thing that came into my mind when I saw the thread (which I'm looking forward to immensely) was this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPhuafy0G3I

And who among us doesn't like a Robin?

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Old Monday 30th December 2019, 17:19   #11
Richard Prior
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With absolutely no rancour or even mickey taking I admit the first thing that came into my mind when I saw the thread (which I'm looking forward to immensely) was this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPhuafy0G3I

And who among us doesn't like a Robin?

John
Or even a Christopher Robin
Mind you, the wintering Robin seems to have vanished, any rancour on this thread is likely to be directed by me towards the FOUR cats that are now prowling around the patch, our kind-hearted neighbours 'rescued' one from the side of a road 50kms away two months ago, the other day it was proudly carrying an adult male Blackbird in its jaws, fingers crossed for an increase in the Wolf population hereabouts!
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Old Monday 30th December 2019, 17:28   #12
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Thank goodness mankind has progressed since Swift’s day, oh, hang on.....
Bazinga!

Slightly more seriously: "'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' (George Santayana-1905).

In a 1948 speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill allegedly changed the quote slightly when he said (paraphrased), 'Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.' Hansard is silent on this...
MJB
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Old Tuesday 31st December 2019, 18:05   #13
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Or even a Christopher Robin
Mind you, the wintering Robin seems to have vanished, any rancour on this thread is likely to be directed by me towards the FOUR cats that are now prowling around the patch, our kind-hearted neighbours 'rescued' one from the side of a road 50kms away two months ago, the other day it was proudly carrying an adult male Blackbird in its jaws, fingers crossed for an increase in the Wolf population hereabouts!
I think our summer Robins had gone. OK, I saw them and I heard them, but not as much as usually. And I keep my fingers crossed that we get our own Wolf pack here. (Too many cats, Raccoon Dogs and Minks).

And this Thread is great news!
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Old Friday 3rd January 2020, 20:20   #14
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Hi Rich,

Just discovered your "Blog" so will be watching with interest, at least my New Years' Day list on the Peninsula was more than three times your record day list for Winter (still jealous about the Nutcracker).

Ian
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Old Friday 3rd January 2020, 22:07   #15
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Hi Rich,

Just discovered your "Blog" so will be watching with interest, at least my New Years' Day list on the Peninsula was more than three times your record day list for Winter (still jealous about the Nutcracker).

Ian
Cheers Ian, as I’ve always said to my wife, it’s more about quality than quantity
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Old Saturday 4th January 2020, 06:05   #16
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Cheers Ian, as I’ve always said to my wife, it’s more about quality than quantity
Me too Richard, me too! Will be following this with interest!

Chris
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Old Sunday 12th January 2020, 05:56   #17
Richard Prior
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Early January 2020

Instead of clocking up the kilometres on a New Year’s Big Day as I have tended to do in recent years (often with ‘Bittern’ of this parish) this year saw me at home on 1st January, my wife got back at 9.30 from her night shift so I stayed ‘on call’ for the day, very local indeed! The valley and surrounding mountains were bathed in sunshine as the mild winter continued into 2020, the snow lying from about 1,100m up, the photo shows the valley looking up from the village, our place is the smallest of the three houses to the right of the small plantation in the centre of the image. By the end of the day I’d clocked up 21 species, the handsome male Hawfinch at a feeder perhaps the pick of the bunch though the c60 Brambling and 20 Yellowhammer provided a lot of colour, feeding on the seed I distribute on the ground at various points. This stops them congregating in too big gatherings under the feeders which hopefully also reduces the salmonella risk, the predominantly millet-based feed is a magnet for Yellowhammers, Chaffinch and Brambling (and other occasional less common species such as last November’s Pine Bunting), Goldfinch and the Tits don’t touch it though.
Although it’s only January we may have found the Bird of the Year on our walk the next day, we went up the slope behind the house and into the forest, climbing to an old farm/chalet at 1,300m, it was surprising to see how deep the snow was just 300m higher than our place. As usual for mid-winter, apart from a Willow Tit and Fieldfare lower down the forest seemed virtually birdless, even the Coal and Crested Tits were silent. Just as we set off back down the track the Golden Eagle pair cruised fairly low overhead, much to the delight of my wife’s brother who was visiting from New Zealand. Feeling ‘nature calling’ I asked my wife and her brother to walk on ahead as I had ‘to go to the petit coin’ as we charmingly call it out here. As I was (how can I put this?) occupied, a thrush-sized (and seemingly thrush-coloured) bird flew onto a branch just back up the track, its back was towards me –but so was its head, a Pygmy Owl! Reorganising my binoculars (and my trousers!) I was able to see it fly across to perch a bit closer. For some reason my wife and her brother were at first reluctant to come back to where I was (can’t imagine why…) but eventually we all had super views of what was only my third Pygmy Owl in 13 years of living in the region. My camera was at home of course but I took a few photos with a mobile phone, vowing to return the next day at the same time with all my gear (I did exactly that, with the inevitable result.....).
The absence of snow and only very slight frosts seem to have encouraged a few species to stay around when normally they would be absent between November and March, Common Kestrel, Grey Wagtail and Water Pipit all recorded in the first ten days of the year. On the 8th I did some dirty twitching around Geneva with Bittern, we found locally rare/uncommon birds such as Slavonian Grebe and Great Grey Shrike the highlights, but also logging a whole swathe of species that I never see up here in the mountains. Mid-winter birding all within 10kms of the centre of Geneva (and at sites accessible on Public Transport) can be surprisingly good, we managed four species of grebe, ducks such as Ferruginous and Red-Crested Pochard, Goldeneye and Goosander, Hen Harrier, Great Egret, Short-toed Treecreeper to name but a few. Cirl Bunting and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers are resident and Firecrest can be seen in the city’s parks.
The next day I tagged along to Annecy early morning with my wife, acting as her chauffeur between appointments. It was colder down there than up at our altitude, as usual the lake was sparsely populated bird-wise, just a few Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls, Coot, Mallard and Great Crested Grebes, though the Goosander were looking magnificent. Lake Annecy and Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) were the only French breeding sites for the species in the 1970s when the population was around 100 pairs, the last census shows the French population is now five times that figure, the species now breeds in eastern France from Grenoble in the south, to Alsace and the Rhine in the north. The main reason for me wanting to drive my wife to Annecy (apart from gaining a few Brownie points) was to enable me to check out the chateau in the old town, a site that hosts a Wallcreeper most winters. Alas, I failed to find one in the early morning cold (though the preferred tower was already sunlit), Firecrest, Chiffchaff, Short-toed Treecreeper and Grey Wagtail were all busily feeding around the chateau and the lakeside park so it wasn’t a waste of time by any means. Of course, someone saw the Wallcreeper there two days later (sigh). Lac d’ Annecy is beautiful and unpolluted, but doesn’t pull in the waterfowl like Lac de Bourget or Lac Léman do, there is enormous pressure on the lake and its shore from tourism activities, so for birding visitors although the Annecy area is a good base with all the facilities you need and close to lots of interesting sites, the lake itself tends to disappoint.
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Old Sunday 12th January 2020, 06:44   #18
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Lovely pictures Richard.
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Old Sunday 12th January 2020, 08:05   #19
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Thanks Nick, I’ve been back up twice to try and refind the Pygmy Owl, it’s quite a slog ( but probably fewer kms than you walked around Amsterdam Schipol last week!).
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Old Sunday 12th January 2020, 10:19   #20
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Thanks Nick, I’ve been back up twice to try and refind the Pygmy Owl, it’s quite a slog ( but probably fewer kms than you walked around Amsterdam Schipol last week!).
A similar thing happened, to Roy Dennis I believe, decades ago when in the middle of the Flow Country in northern Scotland, not a tree for many miles, he had to pause at a strategically placed P-stop, and found an American warbler in the bushes struggling to exist on the sheltered side of the brick convenience!
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Old Sunday 12th January 2020, 10:38   #21
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Great stuff Richard - I can't tell you how envious I am of the Pygmy Owl, a real bogey bird of mine! The scenery is stunning too!

Chris
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Old Sunday 12th January 2020, 11:24   #22
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What a stunning location!
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Old Sunday 12th January 2020, 13:39   #23
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A similar thing happened, to Roy Dennis I believe, decades ago when in the middle of the Flow Country in northern Scotland, not a tree for many miles, he had to pause at a strategically placed P-stop, and found an American warbler in the bushes struggling to exist on the sheltered side of the brick convenience!
MJB
The Flow Country indeed!
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Old Sunday 12th January 2020, 19:56   #24
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The Flow Country indeed!
It could prey on your mind on a long journey on single-track roads...!

Did you know you can call out a Pygmy Owl when it's holding territory? It's a half-whistled Whoo, Whoo, whoo-whoo-whoo, the first two notes lasting as long as the three rapid notes. It worked for me in Slovakia, but don't do it when it gets really dark - you'll get a male, claws first, into your face...

It's also a useful call when mapping out Pygmy Owl breeding territories. If it doesn't set off the small passerines uttering alarm calls in response, your location isn't a Pygmy Owl territory. If you get a Pygmy Owl response, it is!
MJB
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Old Sunday 12th January 2020, 20:34   #25
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Did you know you can call out a Pygmy Owl when it's holding territory? It's a half-whistled Whoo, Whoo, whoo-whoo-whoo, the first two notes lasting as long as the three rapid notes. It worked for me in Slovakia, but don't do it when it gets really dark - you'll get a male, claws first, into your face...

It's also a useful call when mapping out Pygmy Owl breeding territories. If it doesn't set off the small passerines uttering alarm calls in response, your location isn't a Pygmy Owl territory. If you get a Pygmy Owl response, it is!
MJB
Thanks for that, I mistakenly had thought that call was the ‘autumn’ one made by young males establishing territory, I have tried whistling both that call and the repetitive same note call, Coal and Crested Tits and Goldcrests have reacted but never the owl ( so far ).
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