Ota, island of Corsica, through the clouds

The Island of Corsica in Spring

At the beginning of April, I had the wonderful opportunity to lead a tour to the island of Corsica for Greentours alongside the small flower enthusiast and incredibly knowledgeable Paul Cardy. Unfortunately at this time of year it is rather an awkward place to reach when travelling from the UK as flights don’t run direct to the island until later in the year. Nevertheless, after a day’s travelling, I and the single guest who was travelling with me arrived after dark to persistent rain. The only plus side was that at this hour and in such a small airport as Ajaccio, there was no wait for the hire car and we only had to walk out into the carpark and find it.

Having done so, we navigated our way through the downpour to our hotel with only one minor detour in Ajaccio when we found ourselves in a carpark having taken a wrong turn! On check in at our hotel, we found instructions for the following day awaiting us at reception, so we settled in for the night with the hope that the rain which had greeted our arrival would have abated by morning.

Thankfully we awoke to find that the weather had indeed improved and, while there were still some clouds around the sun was trying to peek through. I was able to capture the afterglow from sunrise from my balcony and get my first glimpse of our idyllic location.

 

 

Having made our introductions at breakfast and discussed the Greenfinches and Blackbirds in the hotel gardens, we left our luggage in the hotel store room and set off for a short drive west along the coast road to La Parata headland. Dense Calicotome villosa scrub characterised the slopes here, and despite Paul’s insistence that the flowers weren’t as good as usual, there were plenty of interesting species to look at. We found many widespread Mediterranean plants, as well as usually scarcer species like Succowia balearica, with its distinctive fruits. Both Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum and Mesembryanthemum crystallinum were in leaf, and Anthemis maritima, Lobularia maritima, and Ruta chalepensis were in flower. Plants continued with Lathyrus clymenum, Plantago afra, and Bunias erucago.

Another plant which we found here and which would be seen almost daily across the island was the Three-Cornered Leek, Allium triquetrum. I’ve heard several gardeners talk of it with frustration as it tends to be a bit of a thug in the garden when it gets going but to see it growing wild along the roadsides here was lovely.

 

Three-cornered Leek, Allium triquetrum

 

The walk up onto the rocky outcrop afforded fine views of the red granite Iles Sanguinaires beyond and allowed us a good look at the Yellow Legged Gulls which were hanging on the breeze at eye level.

 

 

There were very few, if any butterflies on the wing but a Humming-bird Hawkmoth was seen on the way up and a Moorish Gecko scuttled into a rock crevice having been spotted on the way back down. It was also noted that in the time it had taken us to climb the headland, several flowers nearer the carpark had opened as the warmth of the sun had increased. Erodium malacoides and Linum bienne were among the most noticeable in having done so. 

Our next stop was another short drive away where a roadside bank yielded Lupinus angustifolius and our first orchids of the day, Orchis papilionacea. An orangey southern form of Speckled Wood flitted about in the sunshine.

 

Lupinus angustifolius

 

We moved on once more to a field beside the road full of Aspodelus microcarpus which to our dismay had been newly fenced and no longer allowed easy access to the Serapias neglecta within. One of our guests was feeling bold and shimmied under the wire while we watched on, but soon Paul found a good specimen on the opposite side of the road which allowed us all to compare the differences between that and a nearby Serapias lingua. Strangely, many of the plants were very stunted this year, being only 3 or 4 inches high at most, but were still in good flower.

Another comparison to make here was between the Spotted Rockrose, Tuberaria guttata growing almost side by side in it’s traditional spotty form and it’s spotless form.

 

Spotted Rockrose, Tuberaria guttata

 

Unspotted form of Spotted Rockrose, Tuberaria guttata

 

Another Lupin was also found here, Lupinus micranthus, alongside French Lavender and Cistus monspelliensis. Nearer the vehicles the orchid list continued with more Orchis papilionacea and Anacamptis morio, while Silene gallica and Fumaria bastardii were also added to the list. A Cirl Bunting called and the sun had brought out a good number of butterflies including Clouded Yellow, Small White, Orange Tip and Holly Blue.

 

Green-winged Orchid, Anacamptis morio

 

Another short drive brought us to a nearby beach where we were greeted by Swifts over the car park and a Corn Bunting singing. The dunes here had attractive Matthiola tricuspidata and Silene sericea as well as Sonchus bulbosus and Polygonum maritimum, and on rocks nearby was the endemic Limonium articulatum. 

Having shaken the sand out of our shoes, we headed a short way inland where we set out the extensive picnic, always especially good in France. Short wanderings while enjoying our feast allowed us to add Cistus creticus and Cistus salvifolius to our list. A particularly large example of Misopates orontium was noted, a Willow Warbler was spotted in a nearby tree and Green-underside Blues were seen among the flowering shrubs.

It was soon time to leave this beautiful place, and head back through busy Ajaccio. We made a short stop at the hotel to collect our luggage. Another short stop in the dunes near the airport on our way out of town yielded little of the interesting flora that we had hoped to see, but we did come across Paronychia argentea before moving on.

Soon we were in a very different world as we climbed steadily up into the mountains. A stop in still leafless woodland where water rushed downhill through a rocky riverbed had us admiring the first fine Helleborus argutifolius of which we would see very many more. Cyclamen repandum was in fine flower too along with Cruciata glabra, Potentilla micrantha and Viola odorata. 

 

Spring Sowbread, Cyclamen repandum

 

At a viewpoint stop overlooking a fort with a fine mountain backdrop,  it was discovered that we had inadvertently packed another hotel guest’s luggage with our own. While I drove back to Ajaccio to deliver it,  some of the group braved a heavy rain shower to investigate a few Milky Orchids before heading purposefully to our hotel at Corte. I reached the hotel just in time to join the others for a delicious Corsican meal in the adjacent restaurant, beside the rushing river.

The next day we awoke to a chilly but reasonably bright morning and enjoyed a lovely time exploring the Restonica Gorge that stretches above the hotel. Paul went early into Corte for picnic shopping and we were soon on our way.

Our first stop was in extensive Corsican Pine forest in the hope of seeing that gem of an endemic, the Corsican Nuthatch. None were to be seen but Jays, Coal Tits and Common Treecreepers were spotted and a great many Helleborus argutifolius were in flower. There were some attractive clumps of Euphorbia characias which looked particularly fine with the early morning dew still spangling their leaves.

 

Large Mediterranean Spurge, Euphorbia characias

 

Most other things in flower here were diminutive including a very pretty Viola parvula, but we did find Arabis turrita in flower .

 

Viola parvula

 

We enjoyed the pristine habitat and the roaring river. Searching pools beside the river failed to produce the hoped for Corsican Fire Salamander larva or Tyrrhenian Painted Frogs though sadly.

 

 

Further up the valley, we stopped to look for Pancratium illyricum. We found a few examples in bud but sadly none yet in flower. However, we did manage to find a few things of interest including flowering Barbarea rupicola and Potentilla crassinervia in leaf, which was new for the tour. 

 

Barbarea rupicola

 

Further up the gorge we were soon seeing the first of many Crocus corsicus though many were going over or looking rather bedraggled. One bank had a few Gagea bohemica along with another, very similar Gagea and  a crucifer, Teesdalia coronopifolia. Common Dog Violets and Sweet Violets were also in flower. Ferns were rather a feature too, among them Maidenhair Fern, Black Spleenwort, Asplenium onopteris, Maidenhair Spleenwort, Brittle Bladder Fern, Southern Polypody, and Soft Shield Fern. 

 

Crocus corsicus

 

On reaching the refugio, we found the carpark to have been cut off and the whole area rather crowded so we dropped back down the road a short way to find a suitable spot to park. From here we admired the snow covered slopes and views above. We had reached the community of Berberis aetnensis and Alnus alnobetula which characterises these altitudes. Around a collection of small buildings beside the road we found a particularly impressive display of Crocus corsicus, in much better condition here than further down the mountain and a few Gagea fistulosa in flower.

 

 

Crocus corsicus

 

The wind here was rather icy and so we decided to drive lower for lunch, where the riverside spot was somewhat warmer. Sadly the Corsican Nuthatches still declined to put in appearance but the warm sun was enjoyed by all, particularly as it brought out the Tyrrhenian Wall Lizards in good numbers. A few butterflies made an appearance too including Corsican Swallowtail and a particularly obliging Green Hairstreak which sat on a guest’s trousers for a short while. A new flower of note was a tiny Romulea columnae which another guest came across between her feet mid-picnic!

 

Tyrrhenian Wall Lizard

 

Re-tracing our route back past the hotel we drove to the east of Corte where a minor road took us into interesting habitat. At the first stop we looked for Ophrys incubacea, but sadly there were none to be seen. There was lots of Woad all along the roadside however and a Hoopoe called nearby while Swallows swooped low overhead. 

Heading on uphill we had a pleasant meander along a side road which had fantastic panoramic views back over Corte to the mountains we had explored that morning. There were a few butterflies here with the first spotted being a Holly Blue quickly followed by a pair of Wood White performing a courtship dance complete with wing-waving. There was Viola riviniana in good flower on one bank.

 

Courting Wood Whites

 

We soon returned to a lower spot where sunny rocky roadside had a selection of aromatic plants, mostly unpleasant smelling such as Stachys glutinosa. There was Tree Heath, Erica arborea in good flower here too, in places looking almost like drifts of snow had covered the hillside. Another stop had a bank of primroses in flower, not a common species here, alongside Cyclamen repandum. A particularly good display of Viburnum tinus in full flower was admired from the vehicles on the way back to the hotel. 

 

Tree Heath, Erica arborea

 

In the evening we went through the already extensive plant list before enjoying another superb dinner. 

The following day was spent completing a circuit down to the east coast and back into the mountains via a beautiful gorge, enjoying a great range of habitat and flora during the day. Initially a short stop was made in Corte to buy fresh picnic supplies. Once en route, the first stop had several rosettes of Dactylorhiza insularis in tight bud, as well as a few Green Winged Orchids in flower.

Our next stop had the parasitic Cytinus ruber growing on Cistus monspelliensis and a keen guest found some very large specimens of Galium rotundifolium which had us pondering their identity for a while owing to their size. A wasp nest was also spotted in one of the Cork Oaks.

 

Cytinus ruber

 

A third stop yielded a variety of butterflies including Holly Blue and a Scarce Swallowtail which kept returning to a particular puddle. Beside the old road, we found Selaginella denticulata in large matts up an exposed rock cutting. Further round, the interesting legume Anthyllis hermanniae was in attractive flower , a few Anemone hortensis were found and a single Verbascum blattaria surprised us being in very early flower. 

 

Anemone hortensis

 

We soon reached the east coast where we explored a large tract of unspoilt dune vegetation near the small town of Aleria. Rumex bucephalophorus, Silene gallica, Centaurium maritimum and Galactites tomentosa were among the species found along with a reasonable number of Pink Butterfly Orchids in good flower. A number of Corsican Swallowtails were on the wing, with one nectaring on the Galactites, unfortunately despite my best efforts it was too fast for me to capture a decent photo!

Other butterflies included Corsican Heath and Clouded Yellow. Paul delighted in showing the group the tiny Plantago bellardii. Peas were also a feature, among them Lathyrus angulatus, Lathyrus cicera, Trifolium nigrescens and Trifolium tomentosum. Some parasitic Cytinus hypocistus was also found in tight bud. It is orange and yellow rather than the red and white Cytinus ruber that we had found earlier. Anthemis martima was also in flower and several of the blooms held small green beetles.

 

Beetles mating on Anthemis marítima

 

Among the Cistus blooms there were also some interesting little things lurking including a Crab Spider awaiting an unsuspecting pollinator and an intriguing True Bug which I have yet to identify.

 

Crab spider in a Cistus monspelliensis flower


We stopped for lunch a little further long the track where we had better access to the beach and the interesting dune flora, including Matthiola sinuata in flower. Here, Paul picked out the more unusual Erodium lebelii ssp. marcuccii among Erodium maritimum. Otherwise the dunes had the typical community of Sea Holly, Sea Medick, Medicago littoralis, Ononis variegata, and Sea Daffodil leaves. We had spectacular views of Elba, along with the smaller island of Pianosa. 

After lunch we headed inland where a series of short stops yielded much of interest. A serpentine outcrop had the endemic Biscutella rotgersi. Kohlrauschia velutina and Petrorhagia saxifraga were in flower. Stachys glutinosa was in flower at a second stop on serpentine, whilst Teucrium flavum was just coming into bloom. Pancratium illyricum was in impressive flower down a steep slope which one sure-footed guest negotiated mountain goat-style to photograph it. Above us, Crag Martins wheeled and a pair came to rest on the rock face giving good views.

In the Inzecca gorge, itself impressive, the endemic Brassica insularis was very floriferous along with Coincya monensis recurvata and another flowering Pancratium illyricum was spotted a good way down a vertiginous slope below us.

 

Brassica insularis

 

The journey became very spectacular as we climbed slowly up a very good, almost deserted road to a col with ever finer views of the snow capped peaks and lower mountains all around us. Another vigil for Corsican Nuthatch failed to produce this special endemic at what is another regular site for it. Another stop at the viewpoint from which I had returned to Ajaccio a couple of days previously found slightly better weather than the earlier stop there. A walk on the outcrop above produced some rather small Orchis lactea as well as Viola parvula in good numbers.

 

Fortin de Pasciola

We were soon back at the hotel for yet another wonderful dinner.

The next morning, from Corte we first headed north a short way before turning west to approach the beautiful scenery of the Scala de Santa Regina. At the first stop were a few rosettes of Ophrys incubacea, though none in flower and some Green-winged Orchids. The first of three saxifrages in the day was much Saxifraga tridactylites in flower.

A usually reliable Corsican Swallowtail stop was much too wet and cold today for any of this endemic to be on the wing but having seen many the day before, we weren’t too worried. In the gorge Saxifraga cervicornis was in bloom, along with endemic Coincya monensis recurvata.

 

Saxifraga cervicornis

Armeria leucocephala was in early flower this year in places with much in bud elsewhere. Purple Arabis verna was also found in flower and Crag Martins were in the air.

Next, a short but picturesque riverside stroll yielded several Gagea villosa, but the third saxifrage of the morning, Saxifraga corsica was only in leaf. Wild Celery was in leaf under the trees, and an eagle-eyed guest found an interesting Strap Fern, Asplenium septentrionale, not looking much like a fern at all to the untrained eye!

Soon we were in extensive Corsican Pine forest, the mistletoe Viscum album ssp.austriacum becoming common on the pines. Crocuses were notably much less numerous on the roadsides here than is usual at this time, although again most were closed in the cool weather. There was much remaining snow on the roadsides. Unfortunately, heavy rain set in and was rather persistent.

The Col de Verghio was cold and wet so we decided to head on downhill to find a drier picnic spot if possible. We stumbled on the perfect site at a viewpoint where the rain had stopped and the clouds parted to reveal the distant hillside town of Ota lit by the sun with the blue of the Mediterranean beyond. We enjoyed watching the clouds as we ate, constantly moving and changing to reveal different parts of the landscape. Euphorbia lathyris was growing just beyond the retaining wall here too. 

 

 

We retraced our route uphill to reach the Col as planned. The rain seemed to have eased and so we ventured out to have a look for some new plants. There were quite a number of rather weather battered Crocus corsicus here.  We found the hoped for Gagea lutea as well as Gagea fistulosa and the diminutive Corydalis pumila. The rain returned rather sooner than we had hoped and quickly turned to sleet, then snow so we retreated to the dry warmth of the vehicles and headed back to Restonica for a run-through of the checklist and our last dinner there.

The next day, saying farewell to Restonica we again drove down to the east coast, rather purposefully this time as there was much to see later in the day. Red Kites were, as usual, a feature of the journey.

Having reached the coast, and finding a quiet beach for a short break, we found a meadow with a few rather  stunted Orchis laxiflora and several Serapias lingua. A Geranium Bronze butterfly was new for this year in the meadow too. On the beach, Paronychia argentea and Sea Rocket were in flower. Here too was a poignant memorial to the liberation of Corsica, in 1943. Corsica was the first department of metropolitan France to be liberated.

 

Sea Rocket, Cakile maritima

 

Further south another quiet bay supported a small patch of native vegetation that had escaped the extensive coastal development, and here survived the endangered endemic Anchusa crispa, which was in fine flower today with 18 plants counted this year. Poppies featured with Yellow Horned Poppy, Hypecoum procumbens, and naturalised Eschscholzia californica all here, as well as the Annual Asphodel, Asphodelus fistulosus.

 

Annual Asphodel, Asphodelus fistulosus

 

In addition to the lovely flowers, one of our guests came across a stick insect while inspecting the flowers of a non-native Acacia tree, it’s camouflage was astonishing.

 

Stick insect in Acacia

 

At the site we chose to stop for lunch were a number of Pink Butterfly Orchids past their best and more Anemone hortensis than we had seen elsewhere this tour. There were also some nice specimens of Tassel Hyacinth, one of which bore a Brown Argus.

 

Tassel Hyacinth

Brown Argus on Tassel Hyacinth

 

Aristolochia rotunda insularis was in good flower in a shadier, damper corner under the trees.

 

Aristolochia rotunda ssp. insularis

 

Cetti’s Warbler called and a Moorhen was spotted over the road. Paul took delight in identifying a Tamarisk as Tamarix africana and several Bee Chafers were spotted.

 

Bee Chafer

 

The afternoon was spent exploring the fascinating limestone habitats of this extreme south-eastern corner of the island of Corsica. A very productive roadside had many orchids, among them Ophrys panormitana praecox, Ophrys tenthredinifera, Ophrys morisii, Ophrys incubacea, and Man Orchid.

 

Sawfly Orchid, Ophrys tenthredinifera

 

Ophrys incubacea

 

Man Orchid, Orchis anthropophora

 

There were many cyclamen, anemones, and Arabis sagittata. I was particularly drawn to a white Anemone hortensis as well as another bud with a cricket nymph perched on top.

 

White Anemone hortensis

 

Elsewhere on the same stretch of road, Lonicera implexa was in flower and nearby a Long-horned Bee rested on the leaf of a Smilax aspera vine.

 

 

One of the botanical highlights of the area is Simethis mattiazii, Kerry Lily, locally rather common here. We found fantastic numbers of Romulea requienii in good flower. Paul delighted in showing the group the very tiny flowers of Ranunculus revelierei. Wet hollows had Isoetes histrix and we also found the very small Plantago weldenii beside the road. Cistus in fine flower was a feature, with Cistus creticus, Cistus monspeliensis, and Cistus salvifolius all in bloom. Prospero corsicum was still in good flower on one bank too. A Rosemary Leaf Beetle was found among the Lavender and the endemic Ferula arrigonii was in flower on roadsides. 

 

Romulea requienii

 

We arrived at our final hotel and a few of us had a wander down the road while Paul organised the rooms. Some fine Serapias lingua, a number of Pink Butterfly orchids and a blue mass of Lupinus angustifolius were enjoyed along with Kohlrauschia velutina. Bisserula pelecinus was a new species for the trip. 

 

Roadside lupins

 

Having checked in, dinner was enjoyed and even more so as we were almost the only guests.

Remarkably the following morning on our full day here we awoke to completely calm conditions and superb weather.

The morning was spent exploring the fascinating limestone habitats around Bonifacio. The flora was notably different from any we had yet seen. Phoenician Juniper was a feature of the area and we were soon struck by the many impressive large hummocks of Astragalus massiliensis so characteristic here on the open slopes. Many of the plants were in impressive flower and had bumblebees busy taking advantage of the bloom.

 

Bumblebee feeding on Astragalus massiliensis

 

We walked a limestone gully down to coastal cliffs. Fine Matthiola tricuspidata and Silene velutina were in flower, and the endemic Morisia monanthos (also on Sardinia) was in fine flower. Together they created a wonderful carpet of flowers over the clifftop, making for a particularly picturesque image with Bonficaio in the background.

 

Silene velutina

 

 

The simply superb endemic Erodium corsicum was in beautiful condition. Narcissus tazetta was still in bloom, but most of the Pancratium illyricum was in leaf or bud. Senecio transiens was in good flower, with several plants bearing an interesting rust and Romulea requienii flowered in rock crevices. Looking out over the channel we had fine views of Sardinia and watched Cory’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters over the water while Raven and Blue Rock Thrush called overhead.

 

Erodium corsicum

 

Senecio transiens

 

Narcissus tazetta

 

We timed this stop perfectly as the rain just started falling as we returned to the vehicles. Paul took us to a coastal spot not too far distant where we were able to dodge the weather. As we pulled up a Hoopoe flew overhead. Scorpiurus muricatus was found flowering right by the vehicles and a little way further down the track we found the striking seed heads of Trifolium stellatum as well as the beautiful Vicia altissima in flower and a good display of Purple Viper’s Bugloss.

 

Vicia altissima

 

Purple Viper’s Bugloss, Echium purpureum

 

On the beach, I found a number of tiny seashells including bright green Smaragdia viridis, red patterned Tricolia pullus and several Gibbula species. Meanwhile the rest of the group were looking at a lovely Allium roseum nearby.

In order to further dodge the rain showers we tried a number of different spots but eventually settled on having lunch in the hotel carpark where we could retreat inside if the rain came again.

After lunch we set out once more and hoped the weather would improve, which it thankfully did. Orchids featured at the next stop. There were the regional endemics Ophrys marmorata and Ophrys morisii, as well as the common Pink Butterfly Orchids. Bithynian Vetch was also in flower and one of our guests discovered a good number of Gennaria diphylla, though the flowers were past their best. The diminutive Euphorbia exigua was also flowering here between the shrubs. 

 

Ophrys morisii

 

Ophrys marmorata

 

Bithynian Vetch, Vicia benghalensis

 

We continued our afternoon’s exploration on the opposite side of the road taking a track towards the clifftops. Paul was particularly delighted to find a Juniper Carpet moth on a Phoenecian Juniper bush and we were fascinated to watch a predatory wasp tussle with an ant over an incapacitated spider that she had prepared to put down her burrow for her young to feed on.

Ruta chalepensis was in good flower with several blooms supporting beetles and other pollinators. White Mignonette was widespread here too while Matthiola incana bloomed on the cliffs. Paul once again found a tiny species to point out in the form of Valantia muralis.

 

Beetle on Fringed Rue, Ruta chalepensis

 

White Mignonette, Reseda alba

 

A particularly unusual shaped rocky outcrop at the top of the cliff had several of us discussing what we thought it resembled but was also subject of a discussion as to just how tenacious some of these plants have to be to get a foothold and survive the elements. Either way I felt it made for an interesting image, particularly with the blue of the Mediterranean as a backdrop.

 

 

A few Ophrys panormitana praecox were found beside the road on the way back to the vehicles and we left the stunning views of Bonifacio perched on its precarious looking clifftops under a brooding cloud behind us.

 

Bonifacio

On our way back to the hotel we called at the Bonifacio ferry terminal so Paul could buy a ticket for his crossing the next morning. Before dinner we caught up with all checklists. We enjoyed the last dinner, the hotel full tonight, and said our farewells in anticipation of separate travel plans the following morning after a really enjoyable week.

In the morning, Paul left early to catch the Ferry back to Sardinia. He had booked a taxi for those flying from Filitosa Airport, conveniently not far from the hotel. Meanwhile I drove myself and three guests back to Ajaccio for our return flights. There were no new species added to the list although Spotless Starlings were seen from the car and the scenery was very pleasant. A stop just outside town for a coffee and a cake in a beachside cafe was welcome and proved a fitting end to a wonderful trip exploring the beautiful island of Corsica and all that spring has to offer there.

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