Corsica is a spectacular island in the Mediterranean south of the coast of France. The British generally neglect it as a tourist destination as it does not feature in the general package brochures and direct links to the UK are relatively sparse. The island is a beguiling mix of beaches, mountains and maquis and is relatively underdeveloped. The mountains reach nearly 10,000 ft and hold snow for most of the year, and form some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. There is a well-developed footpath system throughout the island including the infamous GR20, the real monster of European long distance footpaths.
It is however famous in the birding world for holding one of Europe's true Endemics and depending on your feeling on taxonomy a share of another. The Corsican Nuthatch is the real target of birders and it is limited to the endemic pine forests above 3,000 ft. Most birders will spend time trying to connect with this species and there is plenty of documentary guidance of where to go and how to do this. The species is probably found whereever there are the pine trees that it is tied to and the range is therefore more widespread than the English literature suggests. The main reason for writing this is to add to the Nuthatch sites mentioned on the web.
The other endemic or near endemic is the Corsican Citril Finch and this is more widespread in the island is not, unlike is mainland European cousin, limited to the high ground. Following Hadoram Shirihai ground breaking Sylvia warblers book, and the proposed separation of Marmora's Warbler, this is probably the easiest place in the world to find the sarda form.
I travelled at the Whitsun break to Calvi for a family holiday with the intention of targeting the endemic species and picking up some of the local subspecies at the same time.
This was primarily family holiday and we travelled with VFB holidays of Cheltenham to a self-catering villa near Calvi. The deal included car hire, insurance and the use of the local hotel facilities within the mix. The Villa was relatively basic in that typically Mediterranean way, but comfortable and ideally placed on the maquis covered plain just inland from Calvi itself.
The flights were from Gatwick arriving at Bastia, comfortably arranged on a Sunday to Sunday basis using British Airways as the "charter" operator.
The car was a Renault Twingo, which was more than adequate except on the steepest of mountain roads, through Europcar. They have support offices throughout the island if you were unfortunate to need them - we didn't.
The main sites to visit are on a number of web pages and again thanks to Simon Woolley in particular for the feedback on his visit in 2000. I did get the impression that for the species I was looking for almost anywhere in the right habitat would be suitable. Although the island is a popular tourist destination, particularly for the French themselves, this time in May is low season for them and most areas were relatively quiet. In the hills, the GR20 attracts a steady stream of walkers.
The weather started the week as being warm (22-24oC) with scattered showers. We did have a drizzly day in the mountains but after that the temperature soared and hit about 35 degrees C - hot for this time of year.
The basic approach was to find good-looking habitat and explore. It really was as simple as that and in the main it worked. The number of species reflected the lack of specific ambition to maximise the trip list due in part to family commitments, it would be relatively easy to add wetland species by visiting Etang de Biguglia near Bastia and other high mountain species should have been relatively easy at Haut Asco. Having seen everything else around Europe I was happy to limit the amount of driving necessary and skip the opportunity to travel to these wider sites.
In the maquis all species seemed to be still singing and therefore comparatively simple to connect with. In the Mountains there was limited singing and in particular the Nuthatches were silent. This makes finding them very difficult to see. Using a recording of their song attracted a male at foret d'Aitone but even still he remained silent.
25th May - 8.30 flight Gatwick - Bastia, picked up hire car and drove to Calvi via Ponte Leccia. Walk around local maquis. Settled in to Villa attached to Hotel Le Padro
26th May - Day walking trip to foret de Bonifatu and the GR20
27th May - Circular tour in car, Calvi - Porto - Evisa - Foret d'Aitone- Calacuccia-Ponte Leccia - Calvi.
28th May - Day on beach and maquis around Calvi
29th May - Walk in the Foret de Bonifatu on Mare e Monti
30th May - Beach near Calvi and maquis around Calvi
31st May - Occi and beach near Calvi
1st June - Drive from Calvi to Bastia and 12.45 flight to Gatwick.
In some respects the approach to birding is habitat dependent and therefore any suitable habitat could lead to the same species list. The maquis is one such habitat. This low scrub of cistus and other bushes seemed to be full of birds and presumably any such patch of scrub could produce a similar list, the convenience of acres of the stuff just outside the villa terrace meant that most species could be seen from the terrace and the track immediately surrounding the villa.
The other key habitat is the Corsican Pine forests. This occurs in an altitude band across the island the key altitude being 1000-1500m. This is the habitat of the Corsican Nuthatch. The popular sites appear to be Haut Asco, Vizzavona and Restonica all easily accessible from Ajaccio and Corte. We didn't try these sites due in as much to success elsewhere.
This is closest site to Calvi that gives access to the higher ground and the targeted Corsican Pine forest. The Monte e Mare and the GR20 paths both leave the parking area at the auberge de foret here. Both paths lead to the forest - eventually but as the car park is at approx 550m you must expect a 2-hour footslog to get into the target habitat. The landscapes are spectacular and the two occasions we did walks from here I found the Monte e Mare the better and particularly the pine forest between Bocca di Bonassa and Bocca di l'Erbaghiolu where I saw a male Nuthatch foraging in the pines.
Apparently a French favourite for the Nuthatch. The weather was drizzly when we visited and we limited the walking to the easy stroll around the appropriately named 'Sentier de Sittelle' marked trail between Evisa and Col de Vergio. The forest is mixed here but managed to get a male Nuthatch to respond inquisitively to the recording of its song, the bird coming within 10m of me.
Le Padro was to the east and south of Calvi in the plain near to the airport. The area was relatively underdeveloped and the maquis seemed to be thick and full of birds. There is nothing to suggest that this is particularly unusual but the tracks made access easy and birds were numerous, particularly Sylvia warblers and the only place I connected with Quail.
Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii) - one off the beach nr Calvi on 28th.
Red Kite (Milvus milvus) - the commonest raptor seen daily over the maquis and lower hills near the coast.
Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus aeroginosus) - as single female was seen most days around Calvi airport and over the maquis at Le Padro
Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus wolterstorffi) - one seen at Calenzana on the 25th and 29th and another seen at foret de Bonifatu on 29th.
Buzzard (Buteo buteo arrigonii) - Seen daily in pairs or singles above the low hills near the coast.
Osprey (Pandion haliaeetus haliaeetus) - One seen over the beach nr Calvi on 28th.
Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus tinnunculus) - One seen daily over the maquis at Le Padro. Another seen at Bastia Airport on 25th and again on 1st June.
Quail (Coturnix coturnix coturnix) - heard daily from the maquis at Le Padro. Probably 3 males present and one flushed there on 26th.
Yellow legged Gull (Larus cachninnans michahellis) - seen daily and common along the coast in singles or loose groups. Larger flocks were around dumps inland
Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon (Columbia livia)- odd plumaged birds were seen in small numbers around Calvi
Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus palumbus) - Only seen at foret de Bonifatu with one on the 26th and two heard on 29th.
Turtle Dove (Streptopelia tutur turtur) - Seen daily in small numbers in agricultural areas near the coast.
Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto decaocto) - Common in villages and towns throughout
Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus canorus) - one seen nr Calenzana on 27th and another heard at Bocca di Bonassa on 29th.
Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus meridionalis)- one or two churring males heard most nights at Le Padro
Common Swift (Apus apus apus) - common around towns and villages, particularly around Calvi where flocks of a hundred or so birds were often wheeling around the Citadel.
European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) - Most were seen near a sand quarry below Bonifatu, with 8 there on 26th and 5 on the 29th. The odd single or pair flew over the maquis at Le Padro on most days.
Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major parroti) - common in most wooded areas and seen or heard daily.
Woodlark (Lullula arborea arborea) - First seen below Bonifatu on the 29th. Two were behind the beach nr Calvi on 30th.
Crested Lark (Galerida cristata cristata) - Only seen around Le Padro with records on the tracks through the Maquis on 25 & 26th.
Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris rupestris) - Common in the mountains above Bonifatu and Evisa
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica rustica) - Much less common than the next species although seen daily in small numbers. A few birds were seen leaving north for the French mainland from the beach Nr Calvi on 28th and 30th.
House Martin (Delichon urbica meridionalis) - common around towns and villages throughout.
Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea cinerea)- One on the GR20 above Bonifatu on 26th. Another Nr Evisa on 26th.
Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris campestris) - A displaying male was seen daily at Le Padro. Another male was found nr Occi beach on 31st.
Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes koenigi) - although heard in the foret de Bonifatu and foret d'Aitone the only one seen was nr Bocca di Bonassa on 29th.
Robin (Erithacus rubecula sardus) - Heard in the mixed woods of foret de Bonifatu, but only one seen there on 29th.
Common Nightingale (Luscina megarhynchos megarhynchos) - two heard in river valleys near Calvi on 25th
Stonechat (Saxicola torquata rubicola) - a pair with recently fledged young seen daily in the maquis at Le Padro.
Common Blackbird (Turdus merula merula) - seen daily and common around villages and open wooded areas.
Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus deichleri) - one singing and another seen along the Sentier de Sitelle in the Foret d'Aitone on 27th.
Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis juncidis) - one or more seen song-flighting over the maquis around Le Padro on most days.
Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata undata) - seen daily in the maquis around Le Padro. Over ten pairs appeared to be present.
Marmora's Warbler (Sylvia sarda sarda) - seen daily in the maquis around Le Padro. Not quite as common as Dartford warblers there. Also seen in other patches of Maquis and scrub icluding one at an altitude of 1150m at Bocca di Bonassa.
Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans cantillans) - one male seen and heard singing at Le Padro on 29th onwards.
Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala melanocephala) - seen daily in the Maquis around Le Padro and also coastal scrub around Calvi. Overall the commonest warbler.
Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla atricapilla) - One heard in the Foret de Bonifatu on the 26th and two males seen there on 29th.
Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita collybita)- only one heard in the Foret d'Aitone on the 27th.
Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus ignicapillus) seen at lower elevations than the next species, the commonest species in the mixed woods of Foret de Bonifatu on 26th and 29th
Goldcrest (Regulus regulus interni) - Only seen in the Corsican Pine forests of Foret de Bonifatu on 29th, where it appeared common.
Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata tyrrherica) - seen almost daily in open wooded areas and villages throughout.
Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus ogliastae) - Not particularly common but seen regularly in villages and wooded areas
Great Tit (Parus major corsus) - Not particularly common but seen regularly in villages and wooded areas
Coal Tit (Parus ater sardus) - regularly seen in the pines on the island, both the lowland Maritime and the high altitude Corsican pine.
Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus irbii) - a flock of four were seen on the GR20 at foret de Bonifatu on 26th. Three were seen below Occi on 31st.
Corsican Nuthatch (Sitta whiteheadi) - one cheat and one real one (as my wife says!). A male attracted to taped song at Sentier de Sitelle in Foret d'Aitone on 27th (Sitelle is French for Nuthatch!). Another male was seen briefly in Foret de Bonifatu on 29th between Bocca di Bonassa and Bocca di l'Erbaghiolu. Both birds were silent and unobtrusive and the second one was a lucky find without tape usage.
Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris corsa) - only seen in the Corsican pine forest at Bonifatu on 29th, a total of four birds seen.
Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio collurio) - seen around Le Padro daily and below Bonifatu on the 26th and 29th.
Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator badius) - only one seen just below Bonifatu on 26th
Spotless Starling (Sturnus unicolor) - common in villages and the associated farmland
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)- Common in low lying open orchards and also seen in Foret de Bonifatu on 29th.
Raven (Corvus corax corax) - singles and pairs seen most days.
Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix) - seen on all days in low numbers in all habitats
'Italian' Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis italiae) - seen in towns and villages
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs coelebs) - not particularly common, but occasional males seen in most habitats. Most frequently in foret de Bonifatu.
Serin (Serinus serinus) - Seen around Le Padro and Calenzana in small numbers
Corsican Citril Finch (Serinus (citrinella) corsicanus) - The odd pair was found in most areas including Le Padro and at both the foret d'Aitone and foret de Bonifatu.
Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris chloris) - Common on the edge of towns and villages, seen daily
Siskin (Carduelis spinus)- only heard at foret de Bonifatu on 29th.
Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis tschusii) - common in the lowlands, with small flocks seen daily.
Common Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra corsicana) - Only heard in Foret d'Aitone from Sentier de Sitelle on 27th.
Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra) - Common around maquis and farmland. The song was a familiar sound in most lowland areas.
Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus nigrostriata) - seen most days in the lowlands around farmland and open woodland