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.
The weather for the most part has been fantastic, lots of sunny days, a few big downpours associated with thunder storms. Some areas are now becoming very very dry indeed. Our land at Alas looks very sad, everything is brown, the leaves on Blackthorn bushes are all dried up and falling fast. Low numbers of nectar plants, just a few scabious that seem to be more resistant to the drought. Small herbs like Birds Foot Trefoil just cannot be found. It is starting to get a bit worrying. At Les Cabannes we are luckier, we had a couple of very big downpours and quite a few things are still green with plenty of nectar sources for butterflies.
TAt Alas perhaps the best place to look for butterflies is in the garden with its three Buddleias which are attracting good numbers of Large Fritillaries, Swallowtails (both ordinary and Scarce), blues, with even one Large Blue being seen, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, Large, Small and Southern Small Whites and some day flying moths, the commonest of which is the Humming Bird Hawk and we were lucky enough to see one Broad Bordered Bee Hawk. Also there have been a fair number Silver Y.
The most exciting butterfly trip of the month was with Nick Bowles, we went up to a col to see the Tour de France pass. You have to arrive hours early to get a parking place so we had a few hours to kill. We found a magnificent piece of limestone grassland, rather heavily grazed in parts by a great big herd of sheep. Where it was heavily grazed there were loads of thistles, these were all rather low, thirty to 60 centimetres high. On these there were loads of butterflies, mostly just two species, Dark Green Fritillaries and Great Sooty Satyres. Also seen were quite a few Painted Ladies, a few Silver Spotted Skippers, Large Grizzled Skipper, Large and Small Whites, Marbled White, Wall Brown and Large Wall Brown. It was amazing to see all these Dark Green Fritillaries flying round, often two or three on one thistle plant. This reminded me of oh about thirty years ago, with two friends I went to Juniper Bottom, next to Box Hill on the North Downs in Surrey, we climbed up to the top of the hill and were greeted by the sight just like here of hundreds of Dark Green Fritillaries flying about, quite fantastic. Sadly now the Dark Green Fritillary is a lot less common on the North Downs, but here, it took me back to my youth, it was a real privilege to see all these marvellous butterflies. Not only that, but the Great Sooty Satyr is not recorded on the Ariege, and it is quite a few years since I have seen one and never in great numbers like here. However, we were just over the border in the Haute Garonne, so it was not a new species for the Ariege but just shows that it would be worth looking on the Ariege side of the border just in case there is a colony there. When I got home I looked in Lafranchis, my French butterfly bible and was astonished to see that the Great Sooty Satyr has not been recorded in the Haute Garonne for the last twenty years, so by pure luck we had stumbled on a superb colony of a butterfly thought to be disappeared from the departement
.. kind of gives you a buzz!!
With the generally very dry conditions the flowers have been suffering, though as I said above, some seem more drought resistant than others. There are some magnificent displays of scabious and thistles and of course the Buddlea which has naturalised here and is now very widespread and common. Another naturalised plant is Himalayan Balsam which is found along stream sides and valley bottoms in damp situations, it completely takes over being up to about 1 m high, shading out all the native plants that grow in those situations, the one consolation is that the Large Elephant Hawk moth uses it as a food plant.
I have been out looking at wild Sedums or stonecrops with the object of finding Sedum album, White Stonecrop, the principal food plant of the Apollo butterfly. The reason being that there is a proposal to quarry the site, a limestone outcrop. It is right in the centre of the mountains just next to Col de Choula, a cross country ski station and popular summer walking destination. I have found quite a lot of Sedum album on the site, which is known to be a good place to see Apollos. As the adult butterfly flies there in good numbers and the larval food plant is there, it strongly suggests that it breeds there. The Apollo is one of the most protected butterflies in national French and international law, so hopefully we will be able to stop this abominable proposal.
July is a quiet time for the birds, they are all busy feeding young and often difficult to spot, however the birds of prey drifting about in the sky on lazy wings are usually to be seen. If you go up to a col or other high point and wait and watch then you are sure to see something. In mid July I went up to Plateau de Beille with my eldest girl Eleanor, it was mainly to take a short helicopter flight. Whilst we were waiting we spotted half a dozen Griffon Vultures all circling around in the thermals, one even came quite close. Once we were up in helicopter our sightings of these Vultures were amazing--they did not seem to be bothered by the helicopter. First of all I saw two underneath us, two or three hundred metres away, then a smaller bird or prey, with a lot of white on it--it was an Egyptian Vulture. Then we were flying at the same height and same direction as a Griffon Vulture that was no more than 100 metres away. We continued like this for thirty seconds or so...absolute magic!