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 was generally very good in June, the first half of which is usually rather wet. As a consequence of this a lot of things appeared early and some were quite quickly over.
The butterflies certainly took advantage of the good weather and because it was dry they congregated by damp patches, sometimes in large numbers. We went on one walk on a track by the river Ariège where there were remains of puddles every twenty metres or so. At each one there were blue butterflies, mostly Silver Studded Blues, all busy sucking salts up from the damp earth, and as we walked past they rose in a flurry, darting around for a minute or so before again settling and resuming their mud puddling activity. At the same time there was the occasional large fritillary flying past, at this date, mid june, they should be either Niobe or High Brown Fritillaries. Eventually I got a look at one settled, mud puddling like the blues. I needed to get down very close to be able to differentiate Niobe and High Brown, fortunately is was so preoccupied with its mud puddling that I was able to study the underside closely ..High Brown. Then right near the end of the walk as we were coming back to the car a dark butterfly went gliding by, it held its wings flat and every few seconds flapped its wings rapidly a few times then continued gliding, it was a real acrobat of the air, turning, dipping down, zooming up .fortunately it came very close, and it became easy to see a white band on the wings, even the extra white mark on the forewing that enabled me straight away to differentiate it from its close relative the White Admiral, it was a Southern White Admiral.
A couple of days later I went up with a friend to climb a small mountain... well I say small, 2400m, but we started from a col at 2000m. The weather was rather changeable and it wasnt until we were nearly down back at the col that the sun came out. During the ascent we had passed some fabulous looking habitat with loads of Snowbells growing amongst heather, I mentally noted to return here in late July if possible to check it out for Glandon Blue. Down back near the col I found Piedemont, Small Mountain and one De Prunners Ringlets, as well as Small Heath, Grizzled Skipper and Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary. On peering over into a gully sheltered from the wind I spotted an early Mountain Clouded Yellow, looking greenish white rather than yellow.
As we came down from the col we came to a wet flattish area where as well as many flowers I spotted my first Apollo of the season. I stopped the car and we got out to follow it and try to have a close look. We followed it for a couple of hundred metres but never got closer than about 20 metres to it. However, we neednt have bothered to follow it, for a few hundred metres further on along the road there was another .then another .then another, four more in all, right by the road and one stopped on an umbellifer inflorescence. I stopped the car and for a couple of minutes we just sat staring at this beautiful butterfly as it greedily took the nectar-- pure magic.
On the 14th of June my wife and I climbed a hill right near home that we have looked at often but never found the time to do. At the top there were loads of butterflies flying around, including a Grayling, only the fourth record for a Grayling for the Ariège, and in Mid June not late July as in the UK, leading me to suspect that the grayling is actually not all that rare in the Ariège, but flies in low numbers and at a time when there are not many recorders, most people coming on holiday come in July and August. Also it would be possible to confuse it with the Large Wall Brown which is very common and widespread here.
Towards the end of June a number of other species appeared, White admiral, Silver Washed and Dark Green Fritillaries, Purple Emperor, Great Banded Grayling and Woodland Graying and the first of the second generation Maps looking like tiny White Admrials.
The orchids low down were all over early as a result of the weather, but higher up the number of Marsh and Spotted Orchids was stunning; on the day when I saw my first Apollo of the year, where we stopped to follow the Apollo there must have been thousands of Spotted and Marsh orchids. The Spotted Orchids were very variable, usually quite large with intense red or pink markings, quite dazzling. I am sure you could have made a book just of the variations of this species here. In amongst the orchids there was Ragged Robin with its lovely pink ragged flowers. Also occasionally there were umbellifer plants, Wild Angelica was identifiable by its thick stems with typical swellings at each embranchment. Also on this same day, whilst climbing the mountain, as I mentioned earlier, I found Snowbells. Im not sure if they were Alpine or Pyreneen, I didnt have a book with me to be able to differentiate them.
The Pyreneen Turks Cap Lilly starts to flower in June, early on low down at around 500m altitude and as the altitude increases it flowers in late June and July. When you find one you usually find at least several and sometimes quite a few. This is the case not far from home in the Aston valley, there I was wandering along looking at the orchids growing in the woodland and suddenly there were about 20 Turks Cap Lillies right in front of me with their lovely yellow drooping flowers almost looking as if they were made of some sort of plastic.
A pair of Egyptian Vultures have taken up residence in the nest made at the beginning of the year and then abandoned by the Lammergeiers, they arrived in May and are certainly sitting on one or more eggs now. I have seen one a couple of times sailing along up and down the valley, they are very striking with their black and white plumage and when looked at in a pair of binoculars the yellow colour of their heads is easy to make out. Our House Martins are nesting but, not in the four artificial nests that I put up. They have reconstructed an old nest which was between the two pairs of artificial ones, and there they are happily bringing up a family, it is wonderful to watch them zipping up to the nest to feed the young, and see the little heads just poking out over the edge of the nest. Hopefully we will get one or two more pairs moving in in the future.