Thursday, 21 July 2016

My French Adventure (Part 3)

Travelling along a mountain road
Day 3 was a long one. We were aiming for the spectacular Font d' Urle, a plateau where we hope to find Alpine marmots as well as other alpine wildlife. We made a few stops along the way. First was at Les Jarrands to look for more plants and birds along the roadside and the fast-flowing stream. Sadly, it was rather disappointing as someone had strimmed the roadside verges and for us birders, I saw a black redstart, a grey wagtail and two dippers briefly and heard a tree pipit.

View of the river at Pont Valchevriere

Moving on, we stopped by Pont Valchevriere, a busy road bridge. I took in the magnificent views of the river and the mountain scenery while dodging traffic. House and crag martins were darting over and under the bridge, while a pair of buzzards were having a dispute high above the peaks. We watched the crag martins fly to their nest sites built under rock ledges jutting out from the face of the cliff opposite the bridge. We also found a small colony of paper wasps, some fairy's thimbles and an almond-eyed ringlet.


Paper Wasps
Fairy's Thimbles
Large Skipper
Almond-eyed Ringlet

We then made a quick stop at Vessieux to pay our respects at a graveyard for the members of the French Resistance who lost their lives at a nearby battle site during World War Two. While there, I found this chafer beetle on the graveyard wall as well as plenty of butterflies.
Chafer Beetle
Marbled White
Further up the road (and up the gorge), we made a short stop by the roadside to take in the view. Suddenly, a large butterfly glided past and landed on a rock nearby. It was an Apollo butterfly, a beautiful looking species found only around the slopes of mountains. I was about to take a picture of it, when annoyingly, someone in our group got too close and caused it to fly off! I was told that there were other opportunities later during the week to get a photo of one. Time will tell if that was true or not.
Views of the gorge

Our next stop was for lunch at a picnic table somewhere along the Col de la Chau, a mountain road which is often used during the Tour d' France. The roadside verges here was full of greater and lesser butterfly orchids and fragrant orchids. We also found a purple treble-bar moth, a pine hawk-moth and a bee beetle.
Lesser Butterfly Orchid
Greater Butterfly Orchid
Fragrant Orchid

Bee Beetle
Purple Treble-bar Moth
Pine Hawk-moth

Alpine Choughs
After lunch, we finally had reached the top of the plateau at Font d' Urle. It was very windy and very cold! It was at that point that I had realized that I had left my coat at the hotel after I had thought that I had packed it! I was not dressed well for this part of the trip. Wearing shorts was a bad idea and to make things worse for me, it was too windy to keep my cap on my head. I had to stick it inside my fleece pocket so that it didn't get blown off the mountain side. I was so cold, but my best and only method in keeping warm was to keep moving. As soon as we started moving away from the buses, we were greeted by a large flock of about 50 or so alpine choughs flying over us. Seeing a new bird as charismatic as this seemed to have lifted my spirit and added some extra warmth within me.
King of the Mountain!

Alpine Marmot
Rambling further up the plateau, I got even more excited as there was a small furry head peeking out from behind a rock. An alpine marmot! Then we saw another one and then another! These large ground squirrels were posing well for their photo to be taken as they sat on the tops of rocks. I couldn't help but to instantly fall in love with their cuddly cuteness! You could hear them squeaking loudly everywhere you went up here, it just adds to their charismatic nature. They were also busy feeding on the vegetation, fattening up for hibernation, which they spend almost over half of the year doing.  Water pipits and black redstarts were also on the rocks with them, while alpine swifts swoop the skies above them. We also saw a northern wheatear and found a stunning Adonis blue butterfly and a common brassy ringlet, too.
Water Pipit
Northern Wheatear

Adonis Blue
Common Brassy Ringlet

Black Vanilla Orchid
Most of the group were plant enthusiasts, so for them, the marmots were minor distractions. They were more interested in finding alpine plants. There was plenty of plant life up here to keep them busy. Bistort was the most numerous thing on the plateau as their pink flowers carpeted this rugged landscape. There were a few special orchids hidden amongst them too. Tiny black vanilla orchids were easy enough to spot with their dark flower heads  clearly visible peeking out from windswept grass. The pink heads of globe flower orchids (also known as round-headed orchids) were less so and Paul had to point them out for me. Both these orchids grow in the mountains of the Alps. We also found a frog orchid as well as alpine aster and thyme broomrape.

Round-headed Orchid
More Bistort
A pink carpet of Bistort over the plateau
Frog Orchid
Alpine Aster
Thyme Broomrape
More great views!

Dark Red Helleborine
Creeping Ladies Tresses
We made one last stop before our evening meal at a restaurant at Les Muniers. It was at another roadside verge and it had plenty more orchids to look at. There were pyramidal and burnt orchids, but also some beautiful dark red helleborines out in flower and some creeping ladies tresses in bud, a few days from flowering. There was also a one-sided wintergreen, which is another extremely rare plant in the UK.

One-sided Wintergreen
Burnt Orchid
Pyramidal Orchid
Marbled White on Pyramidal Orchid

After our meal at Les Muniers, we watched these pipistrelle bats flying over the pond (which was apparently a swimming pool) as the light was fading. You should, in this video, see them skimming the water for a drink.

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