Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Nuthatch Story

(Excerpt from Wearing that beach plaid wherever you go)
THE FIRST DAY of the hunt for the endemic nuthatch (Sitta Whiteheadi) of Corsica began on the 13th of September.  It was Friday the 13th.  I should have noticed. Nuthatches can be a bit troublesome but every time I needed one, if I found myself in the right habitat, the little buggers would show up.  If not, a little call could induce them out of hiding.  Like big year plans, the plan to find this life bird would not go as a simple walk up into the trees and was full of many twists and turns and most of them, were on the Corsican road system.
            The highest point on Corsica is just a bit over 8,000 feet.  This is higher than Donner Pass.  This is higher than the entire state of South Dakota.  Being just around fifty miles across, and with the whole eastern side of the island being basically one big alluvial plain, when you get to the mountains, they are steep.  Steeper than I ever imagined.
            We chose to head south towards L’ Alta Rocca to look for the bird as the road seemed simple enough and since this bird lived in pines between 2000 and 6000 feet high, and this area had a national forest, finding one should prove to be pretty easy.  The Google map function told us that it would take just short of two hours to get to Levie, just under 100 KM away.  We would not see Levie until after 3 PM, and we would drive into the mountain village minus one very elusive bird.
            Our search started when we reached the pine forest near a closed ropes course.  It was very birdy.  A spotted flycatcher fallout was there, and we saw the other endemic bird, the Corsican finch.  These flighty things buzzed around the tree tops and only a lone one stood out to be photographed as best as I could.
Corsican Finch

            I thought I heard a nuthatch but after a while I started to doubt even my own existence.  It seems all things named beginning with Corsican were interesting and unique.

Corsican Heath, a very small orange and brown butterfly, only one we saw

Corsican Wall Brown.  Common up on the mountains.

We saw the species that were around, two species of butterflies only fly early in the year, so we had no chance for them.  We saw pretty much everything, and a surprising total of butterflies which were as numerous up on the hiking trails as anywhere I’ve ever been.  One can tell that insecticide is not used here to the degree it is elsewhere.
The views from on top of the mountains were stunning.  It was almost too much intensity for my camera, but we got the last parking spot at this trailhead and by the next village, even the cattle had to stand in the road as there was no place for them to even stand.

            The roads got narrow, my tire warning light came on for a low tire, but it looked okay, and so not ever seeing a place to do anything about it, I cautiously continued up the scary road.  the traffic heavy and the climb, steep and slow.  We had a nice picnic down on a stream near the road and then continued our search for the elusive nuthatch.  It was a bird that didn’t seem to exist at least not where we were.  We drove on and eventually focused on seeing some of the megalithic ruins, hoping that a nuthatch would just find us. 

            We drove around to Levie and then tried to find the museum to get some direction to find Cucuruzzu, one of the hill-top forts that are here.  The signs here are hard to figure out.  Nine times out of ten, the distance is blacked out, and half the time both the French and the Corsican word for the are blacked out, the French name is almost always blacked out.  No one here understands anything remotely in English so asking directions, not a chance.  I finally parked at a church in Levie and we walked to where I thought the museum was.  It was below that without much of a sign.
           We paid 4 euro to see the museum and get direction to the ruins.  We communicated in hand gestures and by the woman working at the museum in holding tickets.  We clearly understood that our ticket to the museum got in free to the ruins.
            We drove to the ruins and got slowed down by a flock of sheep on the road and then found the parking lot being careful not to hit this rock.  
Maybe they should have just moved it?  We then learned that after we showed the woman at the ticket place here, that we got in free at the museum in Levie, not the other way around.  It was only another 2.50 Euros, so it wasn’t that bad.
            We were hot and tired but survived another two kilometer walk up and down the hills and saw the ruins.

Olaf at Cucuruzzu.

I got a nice photo of a silver-washed fritillary as we were stumbling around.  It was my seventh lifer butterfly for the day.
Silver-washed fritillary.

            It was half past six and we had two hours of sunlight left and tow hours of hard windy driving to get home, minimum.  I took off thinking of lifer beer.  I drove, Chris played odd music for a while until something more fitting to driving, Lady Gaga came on, and the ladies in the back got tossed around the back.  The tire held and best of all, I beat the computer estimate of arrival by ten minutes.  I was drinking my beer by 8 PM.  
It was a long twelve hour day, everyone was exhausted, and we dipped on the elusive nuthatch.  I spent the next day buying internet and looking for better options of where to go to get this bird.  I also needed a day off from the narrow roads.  Only one person on Ebird had reported the nuthatch in the past two months, just one.  This one was quite far away and on the downhill side of the mountains.  I looked around and the closest looking hit, and one I thought I could find was in a village named Ghisoni.  It was about 40 kilometers away.  This tick was from April and he had seen four, but…had walked four kilometers.  So did he just start in Ghisoni or what?  I looked at other spots and some were about 2000 feet above Ghisoni in elevation so I figured if we struck out there, we’d keep going up, the road, however looked like it was a lot less of a road after that.
I spent the rest of the day sans clothing, it was just too dang hot outside and drank about a gallon of water and almost four glasses of wine.  I even drank a couple of beers, make up beers from previous lifers.  I watched French volleyball after everyone went to bed.
The next day started early as warning light and all, we headed up the hill again in the search of the little bastard nuthatch.  I had thought the roads were scary from before but this road quickly narrowed and then on the other side of the tunnel is got even narrower.  I crossed a bridge that was only eight feet wide but still had the lines painted down the middle.  I needed a break and we were in the pines so we got out and started looking.  A brownish bird flew up.  I took a quick picture.
Cirl Bunting

            A lifer Cirl bunting greeted me, the nice yellower male flew away from my side, but one takes what one can get.  I walked up a small road and we called and called.  We did find a pair of lifer goldcrest for both of us but the only bird that came out well were coal tits, yet another tit on the island of Corse of course.
Coal tit, resembling a couple of our species of chickadee

            I had wasted enough of the day down low, and we needed to get up to Ghisoni.  We parked the car on the outside of town and I looked up as I got out of the car and saw small birds working right away in the pines.  One certainly looked like the ass-end of a nuthatch and I called it out.  Chris never saw it and I lost it without a picture.  Would that be our only chance?  I sure hoped not, but sometimes…it can be.  If you are a birder, you understand that.
We walked around the road into Ghisoni without seeing another bird.  Dejection and desperation began to well up inside me.  “Oh, the futility of it all.”  I muttered as again Chris fell behind me and started to photograph passing motorcycles making the first corner into the village.  I kept looking for something, anything that would take us up into the pine trees.  I got to a very narrow bridge, probably the narrowest one of the whole day, so narrow, no one had even bothered to put a line down the middle, just in case two motorcycles would dare cross going in opposite directions.
I spotted a sign, not unlike ones I’d seen in the alps giving hourly directions to major cities, it was six hours to somewhere, 9 to another, 12 to somewhere else.  It was just across the bridge and so finally getting Chris going, we crossed and turned right up the trail.  We noticed a lack of traffic.  Chris stopped and started to snap pictures.  A dog was chewing on something leisurely lying in the middle of the road.  Traffic had stopped and the dog, didn’t care.

I walked up the trail leading my dog photographer buddy, Chris behind as I walked up the trail.  It soon split and I remained following the river for about a hundred meters before the trail became either a cement driveway into someone’s house or a narrow bridge that appeared to end in a garden, a really small garden.  There was also a gate,  I was apparently at a dead end.  I turned around and met Chris 50 meters behind me and passed him and led him up what looked like a set of switchbacks up the mountain above town.  Two hairpins later, the trail straightened out above town following the back of some three-story buildings.  I followed a retaining wall when I heard a man on top of the retaining wall shout at me something in the local version of French or is Corsican a version of Italian?
            “Pardon?”  I asked, trying to process.  He repeated himself with even more gestures and stood, domineering over me about six feet above me.
            “Je’n comprend pas.”  I said honestly, I had no clue what he was saying. 
            He uttered what was clearly a frustrated obscenity.  Smacked himself on the head.  Yes, I am dumb.  I thought.  He motioned for me to go back using both hands. I lifted up my camera.
            “Si, si.” He said forming his hands into a square which I took as being a picture.  He then said something else and now as I was still standing used both arms his hips and his head to get me to go the other way.  Confused I obliged.  He mumbled what could only be another expletive as I met Chris at the corner.  The man was still watching us and Chris could see him now as well.  I stopped and as we caught his eyes. 
He motioned up the hill again.  He said something that Chris described later fully.  “He is speaking Cussican to us.”  He said laughing going up the hill.  From then on, we called the local language Cussican.
What this man was trying to direct us to, wasn’t clear.  In the back of my mind I remember similar episodes always from non-birders that without exception led to finding the target bird but I looked up where we were going, very scattered old pines next to clearcut areas.  I walked up, passed an old narrow trail to a cemetery, and then the trail nothing more than a cow trail which eventually petered out.
“He must have thought we were looking for the cemetery.” I said turning around and feeling hot.  The coolness of the morning was gone.  The dry Corsican heat was replacing it.  I had given up, it was time to head down the hill.  The nuthatch would remain unseen.  Chris agreed and led me down the hill.  I played the nuthatch song some, but as of yet I hadn’t heard anything concrete and it seemed the only thing I had called in was tits.  I saw a bird come in and figuring it was a coal tit, decided I wanted a picture.  I put the camera on and noticed something…IT WAS A NUTHATCH!

“Nuthatch!”  I said loudly trying not to scream.  We were in ear shot of the local guy.  I wasn’t sure if Chris heard me, so I repeated more slowly, but loudly.  “Nut…hatch!”  I kept taking pictures.  Chris was right behind me and got the bird.  It flew off.
“Bingo!”  I said.  “I’m not doubting any local again.  “Chris though wanted better pictures so deciding seeing a bird straight over our head was not a good plan, we got up higher in the ancient cemetery.  For all I knew, Napoleon was from this village and his parents are here. 

Corsican Nuthatch the lifer bird of this trip.

            We did get better photos from the cemetery and while we were there Chris got a lifer bonus bird, a long-tail tit, yet another tit.
Long-tailed Tit, a much different looking subspecies than the one I previously saw in Sweden

            We saw a cow walking up the path and I told Chris to get my picture petting it and then something odd happened.  It stood its ground, snorted and feigned a charge.  It didn’t have a great tit, a blue tit, a coal tit, nor a long-tailed tit, it only had one tit because it was a bull!  I could see the headline.  American Tourist Birder killed by bull, the Corsican Nuthatch was his last bird.  Maybe the old man was warning me about the bull?  There was a bit of a stand off with this creature before it gave way a little and then took a quick step toward us, and then gave way again.  It was time to go, bird gotten, bull avoided, and it was getting hot, and I had a long trip back to Riva Bella.
            The road was more scary going down and when I got two cars behind me I let them pass and when we got to the one lane road where we met some cars, two of the women in the lead car we hanging out the window cell phones in hand, trying to get video from the chasm below.  Then, they just stopped, for no reason, finally I got back around them, avoided cars, vans, and many, many motorcycles and got to the bottom.   Then I pulled over to look at a red kite overhead.
            “Look at that pipe.”  Chris said pointing to a massively leaking water pipe feeding water to the towns below. 

            It made for entertainment, if nothing more as the water was just falling into the chasm below where a smaller creek had been sucked almost dry by the water diversion plan.  The leak was just giving the channel more of its water back.
            Later, we saw a nice red kite perched on a power pole.  This was our best look at this bird the entire trip.  Many are seen soaring overhead but we weren’t in a place to see them like this at Riva Bella.
            We were back by one, we had seen the nuthatch as one of three lifers for me on this little outing and had been safe.  Safety when driving in Corsica is a big issue as people here drive aggressively and many of the (mostly German) RV owners go up roads I’d never try to even my pickup truck.
            They say Corsica is a place where the locals believe in omens and the supernatural.  Napoleon never trusted the Corsicans despite being from here.  He thought it was better to have someone other than a Corsican govern them.  I had met an old man who ordered me to do something.  It was either, get your ass up that hill and see that nuthatch or get the hell off my island before you hurt yourself.  I’m not sure which but I hope he gave me the bird, like I said this has happened to me before, and it seemed a rather strange coincidence, but for me, coincidence and birding seems to be commonplace, maybe too commonplace for just my own dumb luck.
            The Corsican nuthatch was off my lifer board, I don’t think I will ever see the rarer Algerian nuthatch which lives in an isolated mountain range in northern Algeria.  I’d probably have to convert to another religion to do that and I already have a couple of religions.  The bird I found in Corsica numbers are declining as well and I suspect might be threatened soon as woodpeckers and logging of all things have taken their toll.  See them while you can, I guess, and at least I have this one.  


  1. O: Good story. I have never met anyone who has been to Corsica, let alone chase a bird there, let alone a nuthatch!!! Good on ya.


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