Ariège Wildlife Report by Graham Hart
Graham Hart has lived in Ariège since May 1998 and has known the area since 1991. He has a life-long interest in natural history, which started with butterflies and birds and now includes other insects (especially moths) and flowers. He leads butterfly watching holidays in the region and is writing a book on the butterflies of Ariège. When not out chasing butterflies Graham works as a vet in Ax-les-Thermes.
Most of the winter was like last spring and summer, very dry. The ski stations struggled badly and I got used to skiing on ice. Every one has been talking about the green house effect, with predictions in the newspapers that in 100 years time the south of France will be a desert and snow on the Pyrenees will be a thing of the past. All the farmers were concerned about the continuing drought, but suddenly in March it really rained and slightly higher up, really snowed (I never thought I would be skiing in knee deep powder snow this winter!!). Since then we have had quite a lot of rain so all the plants are now growing rapidly.
However we are going to need an awful lot more rain to really make everything wet enough this spring to keep plants growing through what is forecast to be a hotter summer than last year. If the spring is nice and wet then there is enough water for plenty of transpiration from the plants, especially the trees. This, in summer, leads to the formation of lots of cumulus clouds in the late afternoon. Thunderstorms follow in the evening, recycling the water and clearing the skies for another cloudless night and morning. Without enough rain in the spring, the drought will return. So we are all praying for a very wet spring.
They started very early. All the hibernators except the Camberwell Beauty were seen in January. At the beginning of March Holly Blues appeared as did some Small Whites and a few Orange Tips and I saw one Grizzled Skipper. There were also loads of, what I am reasonably certain were Orange Underwing moths, flitting about when I didnt have my net with me. Then we had our snowy spell which lasted over three weeks and all went very dead on the butterfly front.
As soon as there was sun again, the butterflies magically appeared. On the 6th of April I spotted my first Scarce Swallowtail. Then a week later, a friend reported seeing them in numbers in the foothills. Orange Tips are now very numerous and Wood Whites have been spotted from early in the month. The Holly Blue has been seen regularly though not in great numbers. However there have been plenty of Small Coppers and a couple of Sooty Coppers.
There was an unidentified skipper in the garden the other day, probably a Dingy or possible a Mallow Skipper. Weavers Fritillaries, always the first of the fritillaries to appear here, were spotted by Tim Nash at the beginning of the month. Wall Browns and Speckled Woods have been putting in appearances since February. The only butterflies conspicuous by their absence are Camberwell Beauty and, more unsually, Green Hairstreak which I am sure will be spotted before too long.
The flowers have been starting to come out since January. The first Snowdrops were seen on the 12th, two weeks earlier than my previous first sighting (25th). The Stinking Hellebores put on a fabulous show right through the winter - it is a very common plant here. Violets, Coltsfoot and Speedwells were all out in good numbers from mid February and continue to flower in profusion, though Coltsfoot is now flowering only at mid altitudes having already gone to seed lower down. Hepatica is in flower all over the place but, it has to be said, not in the numbers sometimes seen. In the woods, Wild Daffodils and Corydalis have also been flowering everywhere.
The Black Kites are back, as are Swallows and some House Martins. I have also seen a couple of Redstarts, rather brighter than the Black Redstarts which are much more common here. Towards the end of the month I heard my first Cuckoo. The Egyptian Vultures are back and already well ahead with nesting plans and there is a rumour that the first Lammergeier chick has been spotted at a nestsite.