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.
February 17, 2002
We have had a couple of weeks of very mild weather, daytime temperatures of up to 25 Centigrade and very sunny. At night it gets rather cold with frosts most mornings. For the last three days winter has well and truly returned with snow down to 500 metres and not a butterfly in sight!
Most of the overwintering hibernators have been seen, the first being the Small Tortoiseshell, seen on 29th January at an altitude of about 1000m. This was soon followed by Peacock, Red Admiral, Brimstone and Speckled wood, the first species that over winters as a chrysalis. These were all on the 4th of February.
On the 10th I added Large Tortoiseshell to the list, a very fine specimen who was very accommodating, just sitting there on some gravel, sunning himself while I slowly crept up and had a good look at him.
On the 13th I saw my first Comma, a male. He was very fresh looking, behaving typically at a woodland edge, patrolling round and settling on brambles that gave a good view of his territory. Clouded Yellow and Small White were also added to the list on the 13th, and there were a lot of Small Tortoiseshells flying about, as well as a smattering of Red Admiral, Peacock and Brimstones flitting by from time to time. The only species not yet seen that will be flying now is the Camberwell Beauty, which had a fantastic autumn so hopefully there will be good numbers around in spring, though with this species you have to go to 1000m or more to see it more regularly.
Of the day flying moths the pyralid Pyrausta cespitata and cingulata were seen on the 13th of February and on the 10th and 13th I have seen male Bagworms flying around, probably Oreopsyche plumifera because of the time of year and situation (though I am no Bagworm expert!)
Since late January the first flowers have been out, starting of course with the Snow Drop or Perce Neige ("Pierce snow") as it is called over here. Green Hellebore is in flower now and Stinking Hellebore is sending up vigorous new shoots. There are lots of Violets in flower along with the first of the Germander Speedwell and Cinqfoil, these three are providing valuable nectar sources for the early spring insects.
On the 13th of February I saw my first Cowslip in full flower, very early! It was on an old stone wall in a very sunny sheltered place, most of the cowslips are still just rosettes of leaves still. Also on the same day I found the first of the wild Daffodils coming into flower, three flowers in amongst a dense carpet of Snowdrops and Violets, the three together looked stunning, real heralds of spring.
The Early Purple Orchid leaves are well in evidence with the first inklings of a stalk starting to appear sometimes. But other early orchids such as Early Spider are still impossible to find, for me anyway.
February is not thought of as a particularly interesting time for birds. In England there are the winter mignrants, but most of them do not usually come this far south. Bramblings have been reported in the last month, and on the bird feeders there is the usual range of Tits but at a friend's house, who lives at about 800m there is the added attraction of Crested Tits, coming to the feeder just outside his kitchen door, fabulous little birds.
However the high lights of this time of year are mostly with the raptors--the Golden Eagles are displaying and building their nests. The display flights are dramatic, something once seen never forgotten. The other important raptor is the Lammergeier again nest building and starting to lay eggs very soon. They can be seen on large cliffs in various places in the Ariege, no dramatic display flights like the Golden Eagles, but they are fantastic to watch, gliding along the cliff face or just sitting perched on a piece of rock high up. Whilst looking at these raptors at this time of year one also has the possibility to stumble across a Wallcreeper hopping about. They come down to relatively low altitudes in winter, making a great bonus when one is looking for the large raptors.
February 23, 2002
The weather over the last week has been what I can only describe as seasonal. Cold, snow and rain with hardly any sun. In consequence I have not seen a single butterfly nor have the conditions been right for the Golden Eagles to do their display flights.
The butterfly needless to say total stands the same as last week at 8 specie; Small Tortoiseshell, Large Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma, Red Admiral, Brimstone, Small White, Speckled Wood. So it looks like the Small White and Specked Woods seen got their timing rather wrong, choosing to emerge just before a rather nasty cold snap.
Well even in bad weather you can go out looking for flowers and I found several early examples of spring flowers, Lesser Celandine is now well out in the foothills giving marvelous yellow displays as we drove along a lane to a friend's house. Where we live the Lesser Celandine leaves are appearing all over the place but no sign of any flowers yet.
More and more violets are appearing and also the lovely tiny blue flowers of Germander Speedwell are popping up all over the place. On a stone wall the other day was a Lungwort in full bloom, with its lovely blue and purple shaded flowers looking very attractive. This plant is very early due to its sunny and sheltered position, typically it is a plant of woodlands and when I am out walking the dog its characteristic leaves with their whitish blotches are easy to spot now, growing vigorously on the woodland floor.
The Hazel catkins are starting to look rather old now and the first Sallows are well in flower. Dormant buds are beginning to swell and the first leaves emerging for several woodland plant species, including Honey Suckle, Elder and the ever ubiquitous Bramble.
Nothing to report on the raptor front after wonderful sightings of Golden Eagles doing their display flights last week. However in the woods there is plenty of activity from small birds, the tits are well in evidence and the Great Tits are very vocal, seemingly insistent that spring is not very far away. In the garden we have a Marsh Tit coming regularly to our nut feeder as well as the Great and Blue Tits. The most exciting sighting this week and it was a good one, was of about 200 Cranes migrating north. They were seen by Dave Watts [a wildlife photographer] flying over the col near his house. Because of the low cloud they were not flying very high and he could hear their rather goose-like honking sound as they went over head.