Nature Notes August 2019
It is now high summer, mid-July as I write. I have just returned from a 1100 km eight week walk in the wilds of southern France and northern Spain along the pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The habitats and wildlife that I encountered along the way were frequently amazing. We started by walking across the very flat and sandy forest of Landes de Gascogne in Aquitaine, just a few metres above sea level. This is reputed to be the largest forest in Europe, and has been a source of French timber for several hundred years. Much of the forest is planted maritime pine, but the natural ecosystem is oak dominated woodland, with strawberry trees and heathers, which still persist in much of the area. I was amazed at the number of nightingales that I heard singing, not only in the French forests but also along Spanish sections of the Camino. There were also many wood warblers, both of the afore-mentioned species are increasingly rare in Britain.
A very rare plant that I have studied in Sussex because of its rarity called the spiked rampion was also frequently encountered along the French part of the Camino. Similarly, I studied the very rare early spider orchid on the South Downs near Brighton, but these were also frequently encountered along both the French and Spanish sections of the Camino.
Once out of Aquitaine, we were in the Pyrenean Mountains where we quickly encountered vultures, black and red kites and other birds of prey. However, the weather was so challenging with rain, wind and cold that it was not very conducive to nature study. Once over the Pyrenees we were on the high plains and further mountains of Northern Spain, encountering altitudes up to 1500 metres above sea level. The wild flowers in these areas were truly amazing, along with further rare birds such as the red-backed shrike, crested larks, cetti’s warblers and curl buntings. One of the most remarkable encounters was at the many churches along the Spanish Camino, the majority of which had one or more pairs of white storks breeding on the roofs and spires. Most of these were seen during May and June after arriving from their African wintering quarters, and had quite large nestlings. The adults, who are very mate faithful and long-lived, greeted each other frequently with clackering of their beaks sounding like the banging of a hollow log with drumsticks.