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.
October was pretty good weather wise, and so good for the wildlife after a very mixed summer. In hay meadows there was a second flowering of previously cut plants and butterflies were fluttering around in abundance.
Only one new species (but a new species in October is pretty good!), the Geranium Bronze. I am surprised I did not see it earlier in the year, normally it is spotted by July, but its numbers gradually build up over the summer so it is most common in the autumn. This is a species that was accidentally introduced from South Africa several years ago onto the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean sea. It quickly proliferated and spread to the mainland and has now colonised large parts of Spain and Portugal and the southern part of France, being first recorded in Ariege in 1998. It feeds on Geraniums, a plant very popular in France and Spain and in fact it was introduced on imported Geraniums. Quite how the butterfly overwinters here is a bit of a mystery; I have seen it flying several kilometres from the nearest village (and so from the nearest potted Geraniums). There are plenty of wild members of the Geranium family that grow here and I am strongly suspicious that it is using one or more of these. Probably passing the winter as a caterpillar which feeds on warm days and develops very slowly. I am it sure survives like this on people's potted Geraniums that are brought inside in the winter to protect them from frosts.
October was good for migrants--there was an explosion of both Long Tailed and Langs Short Tailed Blues, I saw several Bath Whites and Clouded Yellows were moderately common. There were loads and loads of Small and Large Whites but whether these were migrants or locally bred it is impossible to say.
The Speckled Wood was very common in October. I had them taking up territories in my garden which has one large bush and a fig tree in it and is about 60 metres from some woods. I counted up to 5 males in small woodland clearings that more usually would have had one or two.
Small Coppers were popping up all over the place as also was the occasional Sooty Copper and one of the Pyrgus skippers, I believe Oberthurs Grizzled Skipper, was abundant. This skipper has at least two generations a year, flying from late April right until mid to late October.
The hay meadows have been quite a blaze of colour, with loads of Knapweeds having a second flowering after being cut in June and also natures last blast before winter, the Autumn Crocuses. Some meadows were a complete wash of purple, absolutely beautiful. These were mostly the autumn flowering Crocus as opposed to the Autumn Crocus Colocynthis autumnalis , which is more of a (though not exclusively) woodland plant. The two species both produce leaves in the spring and it is then that they are easy to differentiate for the autumn flowering crocus has typical fine small crocus leaves with a white stripe along the middle whereas the Autumn Crocus has long green fleshy leaves two to four centimetres wide with a large seed head at the base of the leaves, absolutely unmistakable.
In the last few days I have noticed the first leaves of spring flowers coming through, Lesser Celandine and Hedge Mustard, very strange because in England I always associated these with early spring. Also Stinking Hellebore is almost in flower! Is it that it is just different here or is it that with changing weather patterns these plants are producing their first leaves far too early? If any one has any ideas I would be interested to hear them.
We have had large flocks of Swallows coming through, it was great to watch them one lunchtime, flying between about two and ten metres high over some meadows, feeding up before crossing the mountains. Dippers are a common sight at the moment in the streams and rivers, I think because with the leaves falling off of the trees they are just easier to spot. It is a species that stays here over winter and I was fascinated to watch one last winter. From its name and films that I have seen I thought it hunted for food by just diving in the water from stones, making brief dives. So I was amazed to see one in mid stream, just bobbing along in the water. It floats very low down in the water, resting there for a few seconds then diving, staying under the water for ten or more seconds then bobbing up again several metres down stream and continuing the process. When it had covered thirty of forty metres like this it took of and flew back to its starting point and repeated the process over and over again.
On the raptor front, some friends have been excitedly watching a pair of Lammergeiers that have been using a cave on a sheer rock face as a repository for sticks. It had been hoped they would begin building a nest about now ready for breeding. But alas no the last time my friends looked they found rock climbers going up the rock face just beside the cave, and this on a Natura 2000 site. In England a situation like this would have been very carefully protected but here in France there is nothing that one can do, no legal statutory protection and certainly no one available on the ground to enforce it!! Sometimes I think this country is crazy!