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Birding halfway up the Alps (1 Viewer)

Richard Prior

Halfway up an Alp
More arrivals

30 May The LPO have asked me to keep a discreet eye on some House Martin nests just up the road from home at the Col de la Croix Fry, the building they nest on each year is being redecorated inside and out and the architect had indicated that two nests were on a wall that is to be demolished but promised to wait until the young fledge before proceeding. I had a look on Saturday when no work takes place and found two pairs finishing building the nests which seemed to have suffered some damage (hard to tell when though). Nearby was a very agitated Fieldfare so surely breeding I thought, and a displaying Serin.

Just 2kms further is a second Col, Merdassier where there are some nice damp, weedy areas where I’ve seen Whinchat breeding in the past, so I popped along to check it out. Quite a surprise when the chat singing from the wires at the usual site turned out to be a Stonechat, at over 1400m altitude this is very unusual, they don’t breed that high up in our region. Another surprise, I could hear a Quail ‘witt te witting’ on the other side of the road. This is a species that’s in decline at lower altitude but increasingly breeding higher up nowadays, even up to 1800m. It’s my first one within the Manigod commune boundaries though, unsurprisingly it remained unseen by me. Two or three male Whinchat were singing between this spot and the car park at the ski resort, I tried to photo one on a tree but it flew off, at that moment I heard a buzzing on the wind, reminiscent of a juv Starling, the sound was coming from a patch of enormous rhubarb - like leaves on a bank across a ditch 50m away. As I got closer I realised that the buzzing was the only part of a very varied song that I had been able to hear at that distance, closer up it was clear I’d found a Marsh Warbler, blimey, another ‘Manigod tick’ :t: Like an arthritic Chamois I jumped gracefully (;)) over the ditch and crept up the bank, luckily coming up right behind the songster that very kindly shuffled along the edge of a giant leaf to turn and sing right at me, even my rudimentary photographic skills couldn’t prevent me missing this one!

June 1 and 2 saw us doing gardening and maintenance work up at Les Frasses again and finally the Common Crossbill were back, a good flock of c60 flew over what is normally a regular place to see them year round, it was August 2019 since I’d seen any in Haute Savoie and looking at the LPO database for the département I see that they have indeed been very scarce. The first day a very young Black Redstart was hopping around our feet by the building, no adults or other young to be seen, it seemed to be waiting for parents to bring food, couldn’t really fly more than a few metres but after an hour it caught an ant, then another so we assumed it would manage for itself. Next morning I found it had died so I wonder whether we should have brought it home and released near the young of the same age that were around our house in the hope of an adoption by the local adults. Not sure whether they would have accepted a strange juv or not but perhaps it would have been worth a try. Willow Tit and a singing Bonelli’s Warbler up there were good to hear too.
A Bonelli’s was also singing about 500m from home on 7th as was a Tree Pipit, I’m sure I hadn’t overlooked them in recent weeks so either late arrivals or displaced by the change to wet and cool conditions, a Red Kite was a nice surprise on the slopes north of us, presumably breeding not far away. When the rain stopped 3 Crag Martins appeared and an adult male Peregrine whooshed over, my first June sighting here in 4 years’ watching, I’ve still to see a female and I suspect the breeding site is a good 5kms away near where we saw a juv female one summer.

8 June I actually left Haute Savoie for the first time since 14 Feb :eek!:as we went over the Col des Aravis and all of 2kms into Savoie for a morning walk before the forecast heavy rain arrived. It was, let’s say, ‘bracing’ and overcast after the first hour so the camera stayed in my rucksack throughout as we walked briskly to keep warm. On the higher parts (c 1600m) there were plenty of Whinchat, Red-backed Shrike, Northern Wheatear, Linnet Yellowhammer and Tree Pipit about plus Kestrel, Buzzard and Cuckoo, the last mentioned sounding a bit garbled at times. The more wooded areas had lots of Blackcap, singing Dunnock, Chiffchaff and a couple of Garden Warbler. Getting back to the car as the rain started we retreated back up to the Col and had a meal out for the first time since January, so much for the life of frequent French fine dining I imagine I’d be living in my retirement! It was only 7°C so the rest of the birding was from the car as the rain poured down, apart from a check on the House Martins’ nests and I was delighted to see a recently fledged Fieldfare being fed by an adult, a first for me here in Manigod. Amazingly at the Merdassier site there was now a female Stonechat as well as the male present and despite the temperature the Marsh Warbler was still singing and visible for my wife to admire (she already is thinking of doing a watercolour of the warbler and by the end of the day had done a very nice (I am a bit biased of course) painting of a Wheatear we’d seen during the morning.

June 9 to 12 Cool and wet throughout, the ornithological birding entertainment provided by a) our neighbours’ cherry tree which has proved a bird magnet this year, my only disappointment being that it didn’t pull in any passing Rosy Starling(!) and b) the antics of the White Wagtail couple that chose to nest in the old saucepan I had installed under the eaves of our patio. It’s an excellent year for all fruit by the looks of it, and the heavily laden cherry tree has had 13 different species feeding on it , topped off by a magnificent male Black Woodpecker at dusk on 12th, earlier in the evening two Alpine Swift were a welcome sight and a Common Crossbill flew over unseen (by me at least). The White Wagtail adults have been brilliant parents, sharing the egg brooding as well as all the feeding duties, they fledged five young, one managed to kill itself against a window on leaving the nest, so we kept the shutters closed for the next 36 hours until the last juv left the nest, so 4 out of 5 isn’t bad, a big flock of sheep with their lambs nearby guaranteed an easily accessed and plentiful food supply.

Photos: Marsh Warbler, White Wagtail parents, House Martins’ nests, Wheatear art and a popular perch for Whinchat (Yellow Gentian).


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Richard Prior

Halfway up an Alp
The Youth Club

13 June With rain forecast from midday we went on a morning outing, a new walk for me on what in winter are busy ski slopes around the Col de Merdassier just 3kms from home. All the chairlift installations don’t improve the view of the landscape but the flowers were magnificent and the birding not bad until the heavy rain began right on schedule. Up at 1550m the expected species were present, Lesser Whitethroat, Citril Finch, Northern Wheatear, Ring Ousel, Dunnock and Linnet and around the Col itself a bit lower down there were at least 5 different Whinchat territories, Yellowhammer, Red backed Shrike, Tree Pipit and the male Marsh Warbler still singing away. Given the chilly temperatures up there the Stonechat had unsurprisingly gone though.
14 June Good news from near the village, the Common Redstart pair were busy with at least two fledged young.

20 June My third visit to the Col de la Colombière in as many weeks, this time to do some leisurely birding with Bittern, incorporating a delicious ‘menu du jour’ outside at the now reopened restaurant. We carried a telescope with us so the camera stayed at home, of course that meant there were some photographic opportunities to miss, a particularly handsome Chamois in the morning, 34 Griffon Vultures while we were eating and very close Short toed Eagle and Bearded Vulture in the afternoon, we reckoned we saw four different individuals of this apparently still not self-sustaining Alpine population.;) A couple ‘that got away’- a snatch of garbled song heard just once made me wonder about Marsh Warbler near one farm (the next week someone photographed one singing at the same spot!) and a pair of Chough sp were probably Red-billed but against the strong sunlight the brief view we had couldn’t eliminate the commoner Alpine variety.
24 June We took our niece for a walk at the Col des Aravis on this lovely sunny day, the Col marks the boundary between Haute-Savoie and Savoie and despite it being a Wednesday (no school) and therefore a lot of people around we managed some birds as well as stream paddling, a Bearded Vulture to begin with and a handsome Grey Wagtail sharing the stream with us and still a good amount of pleasant birdsong from Whinchat, Blackcap, Garden Warbler and (yet another) Marsh Warbler.
25 June A Spotted Flycatcher down near Thônes was my first of the year, at home we have to wait until the post breeding period to see them (in the four years so far anyway) so it was a nice surprise to see an adult in our apple tree two days later. An even bigger surprise a few minutes later was only our second ever Middle Spotted Woodpecker briefly in the same tree, a species rarely seen as high as 1000m asl in our region.
Siskin is only a sporadic breeder here so a group of three which arrived on 28 June and heard or glimpsed daily thereafter were interesting, unfortunately they never kept still enough for me to confirm bird age, they were always in flight but probably hadn’t come far, unlike the increasing numbers of Crossbill also regularly seen in this period which I guess had come from much further north.
Otherwise the second half of the month saw me go down to Thônes three times at dusk to try and confirm Eagle Owl breeding but without success, still, no shortage of successful breeding amongst our local passerines, with Blue, Coal, Crested, Marsh and Great Tit, Blackbird, Robin, Black Redstart, Fieldfare, Song and Mistle Thrush, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, White Wagtail, Chaffinch and Greenfinch juveniles around the house (outside it I mean, apart from the young Black Redstart which fell down the chimney and chirped away inside the wood stove until I opened the door and got it out!).
Photos of Alpine flowers Spotted Flycatcher, juv Blackcap and G S Woodpecker with adults


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Richard Prior

Halfway up an Alp
Gypo (gypaete barbu)

And I thought you called them Lammys Charles!

I wonder, at the Pyrenees migration watch points do they call out Osprey as ‘ Balbu’ like they do here? Some of the French names are a bit cumbersome, imagine trying to get someone quickly on to a ‘Circaete Jean le blanc’ ;)


Well-known tool
Depends on the language

Lammergeier - Lammy - English
Gypa - Gypaete - French (although I call them Gypo)

Pikey - Egyptian Vulture from the french Perconoptre

Balbu - Osprey
Circa - ST Eagle

Richard Prior

Halfway up an Alp
July ‘staycation’

July saw us (as is the case each year) in full niece-minding mode plus having a Cocker Spaniel lodging with us for 10 days, but fortunately there’s always plenty of birding to be done here without travelling far (though I do wonder if I’ll end the year with a grand total of just two wader species seen!). Vanille, my brother in law’s family’s dog has proved a good bird finder in the past (Grasshopper Warbler her best ‘find’ previously) but her discoveries this visit were mammalian, I thought I’d lost her on the first evening when she startled a Brown Hare in our field, the hare and dog both sprinting into the forest, fortunately she reappeared exhausted five minutes later. Blow me down if she didn’t repeat the feat the following day in another field so from then on it was off the lead only in the forest where her noisy panting alerts any squirrels and martens that might be down from the trees.
Birdwise 1 July provided a good start to the month with my first Hobby of the year, in 4 years I have yet to see one here before 27 June (around the time the first hirundine juveniles take wing….:eek!:). Two more sightings during the month of what tend to be 2nd year birds at this time of the summer. I finally confirmed that one of the three Siskin we’d been seeing fly over was a juvenile and for the first time since late May the Short-toed Eagles reappeared, now hunting up at 2000m where they were last summer.
A check up at the Col de Merdassier the next day failed to see or hear the Marsh Warbler but at least 5 Whinchat were still singing, more sporadically now (they fell silent two weeks later), plenty of young Linnet about up there too.
4 July saw the first juvenile Common Buzzard on the wing, looking deceptively Honey Buzzard like at a distance with their bulging secondaries giving that pinched in effect at the tail. 6 July Two juv Raven with their parents gave me some entertainment and three Griffon Vulture flew over the house rather than cruise around the mountain pasture and crags to our west.
8 July Another new bird for the Garden List when the female Common Pheasant that our neighbour had said she’d seen two weeks previously flushed in front of us as we went into the vegetable garden! I had secretly hoped she’d misidentified a female Black Grouse or overestimated the size of a Hazel Hen but a tick’s a tick even though it’s a bit underwhelming compared to the other two.
I suspect we are close to where two Honey Buzzard territories overlap as later the same day I had the magnificent spectacle of two pairs overhead:t:
9 July Confirmation that it’s a good year for Red-backed Shrikes in our valley today with several adults seen carrying food on my walk from the house to the end of the road, one hardworking pair bringing items to four full-size hungry juveniles perched on the same branch of a hawthorn bush.
14 July a particularly dingy looking treecreeper shimmying up our old apple tree had the alarm bells ringing, surely not a second Short-toed Teecreeper for the garden after the brief singing male on 1 April? I managed to get the camera before it moved off and yes, a Short-toed it was and a juvenile to boot! I am certain that the species hasn’t bred here as they are quite a vocal species and it had been ‘radio silence’ since the one-off male. So, a dispersal from lower altitude as sometimes happens in July I decided. To add weight to my belief a juvenile Spotted Flycatcher appeared the same morning (they don’t bred around the close area either)! I heard the Short-toed Treecreeper (or another one!) on 21 and 22 as well, the heatwave no doubt helping it forget it was in the mountains (well halfway up )
12 July An unusual visitor to the garden for July was a very noisy adult Willow Tit and the Black Redstart second family was nearly reduced by one member as a Sparrowhawk missed one of the young by centimetres. The pair of adults have successfully raised two broods, three young reaching independence each time thanks to Herculean efforts of the parent birds, the male particularly good at warning the family of dangers, feline or human with its noisy clicking and showing no fear, flying at me and the neighbours’ cats on occasion. I think it may have got too close to one of the latter at the month’s end as my wife found two nice orange tail feathers by the front door, the male currently (3 August) sporting a slender wagtail-looking rear end!
16 July Some welcome rain saw a brief visit by a bedraggled and soggy Bonelli’s Warbler to the raspberry patch, mid-July the typical time for some warblers to start moving, but I was surprised to see and hear another one on 18 July, much smarter looking and singing away as though it was late April!
25 July It was getting very hot by now and flying ants were on the wing, much to the delight of the Black Kite, for a big bird they are surprisingly skilled at catching such small prey, an adult Red Kite that I had seen the day before joined in the feast and I saw a distant adult Lammergeier patrolling the scree on L’Etale mountain.
28 July Walking up to Les Frasses for one of our garden and maintenance days I found a Hazel Hen feather (thanks to Pyrtle of this parish for the id.) on the track where I saw my first one 12 years ago (first bird, not feather ), a gang of 46 Raven were charging about and a displaying Honey Buzzard showed off at one point.
31 July The male Peregrine had put in a couple more appearances during July but I’ve still never seen a female here, still a distant juvenile to end the month was good news. A few Common Swift went south, perhaps the last for this year.


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Richard Prior

Halfway up an Alp
August and September Staycation

Thanks to my telescope I’m able to spy on some of the mountain dwelling species without leaving home, however in August there seemed to be more holidaymakers than wildlife visible each time I scanned high up. It was actually a record August for the number of tourists in the Alps, fewer foreign visitors but a huge increase in French people holidaying here, apparently it was only the large cities like Paris that suffered due to the lack of foreign visitors. So although the mountain wildlife will have had more human disturbance in July and August I would guess that breeding success will have been boosted this year by the decent weather and the total lack of people up there during the lockdown period ending late May. September continued the trend, lengthening the tourist season by a good month with the devastating effect (for me at least) of a shortage of cheese available at the farm gates throughout the area – bl - - -y grockles:C!
Local birds’ breeding success seemed to be good with the exception of the Golden Eagle pair, two young fledged last year but none this, the 2nd year female was occasionally seen and on one occasion received an aggressive welcome from the adult male, perhaps emboldened by the spectacle an immature Lammergeier decided to have a go at a passing Griffon Vulture a few minutes later. Honey Buzzards did well as far as I could tell, at least two pairs had young on the wing at the end of August and Tawny Owl definitely did well, judging by the eerie noises some nights!. Autumn migration was a bit thin in terms of passerines, just a few Willow and Bonelli’s Warblers, no Sylvia species but I was chuffed to flush (twice) a smart Grasshopper Warbler on my walk to the village on 10 September (a feather in my cap as it’s the only one recorded in Haute Savoie this autumn (so far)). Hopefully our expanding raspberry patch will attract one closer next year, it would make a nice garden tick! Speaking of which, I had one addition to the garden list on 26 August, a ringtail Montagu’s Harrier hunting at dusk on the grass-topped Sulens mountain opposite before climbing high and heading south. For a location that is not at all well placed for raptor migration it was pleasing to achieve a Harrier double when a female Marsh Harrier migrated through on 10 September.
I developed the habit of scanning the Sulens each evening in case another Harrier appeared(!) and managed a mammal (from the) garden first one evening, a family of Wild Boar, two adults and four little ones, I was amused to see that 50m to their right a Fox was sat watching them! On a walk by the edge of the forest behind the house my wife and I came across the body of an Edible Dormouse, a new species for me, no signs of injury on it and very recently deceased it seemed (no rigor mortis). So, along with the Tengmalm’s Owl remains earlier this year, that’s two species that would be lifers if they’d been breathing!
Our lavender attracted bees and butterflies throughout the summer, the best species for us was a Jersey Tiger moth - our neighbours (who are beekeepers) were happy to sell us the honey from the bees that had visited (do you think we should have asked for a discount perhaps?;)).

A big drop in temperatures on 25 September prompted me to start putting out food for the birds, snow overnight resulted in an influx of Linnet (over 30 in a flock, in four years here we’d never seen more than two at a time!), c15 White Wagtail, 7 Black Redstart and 8 Yellowhammer, plus 3 Water Pipit which briefly strolled around on next door’s roof. After a two week gap, Barn Swallows passed by on the 30th September as did a Crag Martin, a species I rarely see at home despite them breeding less than 2kms away. A bit of drama also on 30th as our neighbour brought “a baby bird” to us that had stunned itself on their window. Not a ’baby’ but a Firecrest! After 15 minutes next to the fire in the ‘bird casualties’ shoebox it was clearly feeling none the worse for its adventure so I was able to release it and off it flew to the nearest tree:t:
Speaking of doing a flit, our Plan A was for us to have our first holiday away of 2020 during the first week of October, but the area of France we were to stay in is now on the Swiss Covid Alert Red List, so my wife who works in Geneva was told by her boss that if she went there she would have to stay at home for 10 days on returning (without pay!) for having knowingly visited an region listed! So we cancelled :Cand it’s October at home after all, maybe with the money saved I can drop some stronger hints about new binoculars for Christmas…………
Pics Jersey Tiger, Edible dormouse, Golden Eagle spat, Lammer chasing Griffon, a snowy 26 Sept


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