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.
An interesting month weather wise, the first half of the month saw sunny weather virtually every day with temperatures well above average for the time of year. With this weather came a hive of activity. Then the weather started to become rather more seasonal, rain and some snow flurries with some sunny days that saw the snow rapidly disappear from low altitudes. Then, at the end of the month, arctic conditions, several inches of snow at low altitudes and considerably more higher up (wonderful skiing!), just when I was thinking spring was really going to get under way!
The first of February was a fabulous day, and right on cue the butterflies appeared. Brimstones were seen in several places--I saw four, my first butterflies of the year. Also on the first Small Tortoishells and Red Admirals were seen. The commonest butterfly of the month by far was the Small Tortoishell, with 25 plus being seen by Tim Nash on the tenth; he saw 20 plus on three other days during the month.
On the second of February the Comma was added to the species list, a very fresh looking specimen, also four Brimstones were seen. On the third Peacock was added to the list--this was one of the days when Tim Nash saw more than 20 Small Tortoishells, as was the fifth, another glorious day. He also spotted another Peacock and Comma on that day.
The next few days saw more Brimstones, Small Tortoishells and Red Admirals, then on the Tenth the first Clouded Yellow and Large Whites were seen. The Clouded Yellow did not suprise me at all, I sometimes see them in January, but the Large White was extremely early. Perhaps it had pupated in a rather warm situation, it is certainly the earliest I have ever seen one. On the Thirteenth the first Small Copper was sighted then on the fourteenth the first Wall Brown.
Of the moths, Humming Bird Hawks first made their appearance on the third, nectaring on Jamonica, they were seen several days in a row. I have seen some night flying moths in the car headlights, I think geometrids from their size and jiz. I really ought to put the moth trap out as soon as it gets mild again and see what is about.
The Snow Drops have continued to put on a good display during the first half of the month, in one valley at about 800m altitude I came across a small area of recently felled coppice, the ground was a sprinkling of white with Snow Drops everywhere. On the fourth the first Wood Anemonies were seen, just a small patch, presumably in a particularly warm spot. Then on the 21st I came across a bank of violets by the road side, the dominant colour on the bank was purple, they completely covered it. Lesser Celandines have been spotted in various places but like the Wood Anemonies, only a few at a time, not in the vast numbers that will appear very shortly now. On the 26th I found the first of the Hepatica flowers on a walk with the dogs near home. They had suddenly popped up because three days earlier along the same path there had been nothing. I found all three colour forms, blue, pink and white. On looking carefully there were a lot still in bud so in a few more days they will look fantastic. On the 27th I spotted some carpets of Germander Speedwell with its delicate blue flowers making a haze of pale blue on the ground. Everything is buried under the snow at presnet! But as soon as we get some sunshine it will melt very quickly at low altitudes and the flowers often emerge virtually unscathed.
At the beginning of the month the Crag Martins were more active and more numerous, suggesting some had returned from winter haunts just out of the mountains, now with the snow they have all disappeared again.
Very exciting news, the Lammergeyers have laid and are sitting on one or more eggs! Also whilst observing the Lammergeyers a pair of Peregrine falcons have been spotted constructing a nest not very far away. So raptor watching this spring promises to be very interesting indeed.
I was right at the top of my local ski station on the 29th with my 7 year old daughter, Eleanor and the weather was awful: horizontal fine snow, bad visibility and absolutely freezing. My fingers were numb in my ski gloves and the only part of Eleanor visible was her nose in between her ski goggles and a scarf! And yet, there flying about above us, coping no problem with the gusting wind and apparently no worse for the freezing conditions was a pair of Ravens flying around!! Unbelievable!! I pointed up into the air and shouted above the wind, look, there are some Ravens up there, Eleanor looked up at me and shouted back, Raisins daddy, what are you talking about? A bit lower down the ski station at around 2000m, when I was just starting to thaw out a little, I also saw two House Sparrows and a Tit, very likely a Crested Tit, flying from tree to tree.