Saturday, 20 September 2008

Corsican Nuthatches, September 2008

For the second part of our honeymoon,
Hazel and me took a budget flight to Corsica,
to spend a week photographing their endemic
Corsican Nuthatch.

Four species of nuthatch breed in Europe and,
of these, the delightful little Corsican Nuthatch
Sitta whiteheadi is the most restricted in range.
It is endemic to the western Mediterranean
island of Corsica, where it is confined to the
Corsican Pine forests of the mountainous spine
of the island.
Corsica is administratively part of France. It
lies about 100 miles southeast of the south
coast of mainland France, but it is actually closer
to Italy (c.50 miles to the east) while the larger,
Italian island of Sardinia lies only 11 miles from
its southern tip.
In September 2008, we flew
from London Stansted to Alghero in Sardinia,
hired a car there, and then drove north and took
one of the daily car ferries from Santa Theresa
across the Strait of Bonifacio to Corsica. The
crossing to the beautiful port of Bonifacio takes
only about an hour.
Hoping to see and photograph the nuthatch,
we based ourselves for a week at the Gorges de
la Restonica (at the Hotel Dominique), southwest
of the northern town of Corte, and this put
us within easy reach of the mountain pine
forests where we hoped to find the birds. From
Corte, we headed south on the N193 for about
22km to Vivario. At the south end of this small
town, a restaurant on the left hand side of the
road marks the junction of the D69, which leads
to the village of Ghisoni in about 30km. But,
after only about 3km along this road from
Vivario, well before the Col de Sorba, you are
already in the habitat of the tall pines that the
nuthatch favours.

Female Corsican nuthatch were especially hard to locate, rarely coming down from the tops of the pines

We parked, and could hear the nuthatches
calling almost immediately. Before too long, we
had enjoyed excellent views of at least one
(albeit high up in the trees). It was obvious that,
to photograph the nuthatches, we would have to
be higher than the area we were in, so that
we could look down on them. So we drove
further up the valley towards Ghisoni and
parked again.
We could hear Corsican Nuthatches again as
soon as we opened our car doors. Our height
relative to the trees seemed potentially better
for photography here, but we quickly decided
that our best chances of obtaining some good
images would be to move a few dead and fallen
branches into a spot that would suit both us and
the birds. With time and patience, it worked: the
inquisitive birds eventually came into view at
photographic range.
Later in our trip, however, we enjoyed even
better views of the nuthatches back in the
Gorges de la Restonica, where we were staying.
It seemed clear that wherever good Corsican
Pine forest was to be found, so too would the
nuthatch. During our week’s stay on Corsica, we
also visited the ski resort Haut Asco, another
well-known area for the nuthatches. We did not
actually see any here, but we heard them several
times. By the end of the week, driving between
the various nuthatch areas, we hoped we had
obtained enough images of the bird, which does
not seem to have been photographed very often.

We can thoroughly recommend Corsica for a
birding trip. It is an inexpensive place to visit,
the scenery is spectacular, the roads are excellent,
the climate is warm and, besides the
endemic nuthatch, the other endemic, Corsican
Finch can also be seen (although, in September,
they did not seem to be as common as I had
thought they might be). Amongst other species,
we also saw Marmora’s Warblers in the Gorges
du Tavignano and Audouin’s Gulls in the southwestern
port of Propriano.