Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Corsica solo bike bird quest

Corsica is a beautiful, pastoral island where agricultural practices are done the old-timey way and the countryside is protected by a vast regional park. People and nature seem to be living in harmony and are very welcoming and helpful to a humble bike traveller/backpacker like myself. My quest to bike it's epic mountain roads and tick it's birds began in London...
The route

I reluctantly said goodbye to Ramata as I was quite enjoying a hefty episode of Attenborough. However, my night had just begun. I took the last train to Tottenham Hale and from there bought a ticket to Stansted which ended up being a waste since nobody was checking at that hour (an interesting hack for the future). You may notice that I allude to breaking of the law. Well, rest assured, I paid the full 15 quid, but you've got to consider these things when living in London! Otherwise it just isn't doable. After a short but agreeable sleep behind that little café thing (you might know the spot), I rose to catch my 6:30 am flight to Marseille to meet an old friend.

"I got you a present but I forgot to bring it" I said. Aziza didn't seem to care. Anyway, we were both pretty tired from life so we went to the beach, jumped off a cliff and swam deep into the clear coldness of the Mediterranean. We talked of life, mainly our never-ending quest for happiness. Saying goodbye after an all-too-brief visit, I headed to Toulon which turned out to be way less straightforward than I'd planned.

I got off the train and walked around to find a hotel. I asked locals where to find one and it seemed like the going rate was about 50 euros. They were all booked up. Getting toward 11 pm I was desperate. The only room in town was the Best Western at 114 euros. Flip! The receptionist at the Ibis called me a cab to take me to Seyne-sur-mer where there was a room for 40 euros but the cab was 30. I couldn't even get a ride with anyone since they were all leaving Corsica, so I paid another 30 to get to the ferry. The least I could do was snag a baguette from the delivery batch lying beside the entrance. I was already set back 100 euros. Gone are the days of real traveling when you could just turn up to a place and ask people where to stay. Now, it's like travelling means you need to go on this nonsense like weeks in advance just to not get [too] ripped off. And stuff wasn't so expensive always. Travelling is now the cool way to live your life as glorified by facebook and the secret is out for pretty much all these places. If you know a cool part of the globe that hasn't become a racket, please do not share it on Facebook because you're helping perpetuate this ridiculous madness across the internet until there isn't a corner of the planet that hasn't been selfied.

Yelkouan Shearwaters
Anyway, I got on the ferry and was soon onto some Yelkouan Shearwaters but staring at the waves non-stop was inducing sleep and I hadn't seen any bird for an hour so I went to a chair for a nap. I woke up, ready to be on the lookout for pelagics but to my shock we'd reached the harbour already! I'd blown my chance for my much-needed European Storm-petrel and Balearic Shearwater, the whole point of this ferry ride. On top of that, the bike place wasn't open on Sunday so I had to find a campground and so I took the bus, an old man was sitting next to me on the bench and asked for 2 euros. I said I needed it for the bus. Actually, I wasn't really sure if I didn't have any but at this point I was just trying to hold on to every euro I had. At that exact moment I read to give to the poor in my Quran (yes, I'm reading the Quran). This made me feel rather bad. I got up to the campground and slept for 13 hours.

Getting to the bike place I realize it's closed but after 10 minutes of standing there and thinking of what to do, the guy came from the back room and opened the shop. Cool. Off I went on an extremely heavily-laden bike but free nonetheless. It turned out to be one of the most demanding physical feats of my life doing 255 km or so up and down mountains.

If the climb was anything more than a slight grade then I'd have to walk the bike. Therefore, it was slow going most of the way. And it was bloody hot! Luckily there were some river access points where I once jumped straight into the frigid mountain brook, and some public roadside fountains fed by mountain springs. Each time I'd walk my bike up a brutally long stretch, it would be like hell. But each time I got to cruise down a stretch of downhill, it was the best feeling in the world. I was almost at the famous Col de Sorba which is the best spot for Corsican Nuthatch. I climbed up a steep wooded slope hoping for a flat spot to hide my bike/tent but all I ended up finding was scratched legs from the aborted attempt. Better to continue up the road more. It was one last horrible climb toward the epic switchbacks of the Col. The fact that around each bend was better nuthatch habitat provided enough morale boost. Finally around 7pm I pulled over to a small gravel lot which overlooked an epic valley and right in this old growth pine forest. I had just enough energy to bird for half an hour and spotted 2 Corsican Finches from the camp - another morale boost. I'd forgotten about the effect of travelling solo in the wilderness - especially with challenges. In my tent, I felt a sense of lonesomeness wondering what I was doing there. I could be chillin' at home watching Attenborough with Ramata eating pasta in that new chair I got which is super comfortable and a beer in my hand. I tried ringing her and surprisingly, I had reception and the sound of her voice was sweeter than a cool mountain stream to my ears. Refreshed, I fell into a deep sleep to the music of Scops Owls all around.

I awoke to singing birds which included Spotted Flycatchers, Blue Tits and Corsican Finches. I biked a couple of hours up that mountain through the gorgeous pine forest. The Nuthatch clearly wasn't gonna give itself up easily. I regretted bringing my sniper on this trip as it was quite heavy. Just as I was starting to think I might be here for a long time, I spotted a small, distinctly wedge-shaped butt sticking out from behind a branch. Corsican Nuthatch! The bird turned, revealing its upturned bill and drab coloration. I could have easily missed it. A bit further down, I stopped to investigate a Dartford-like warbler I'd heard on the way up. This required a sketchy climb up a steep roadside slope. Leaving the bike behind, skirting around the bird so it wasn't in the sun, the light revealed it to be a stunning Marmora's Warbler. 3/5 target birds met! Only left were Moltoni's and Lammergeier. I packed up and carried on toward Corte. En route, there were 2 Red-backed Shrikes in perfect light. Lifer #4! A bit further, I heard a song a bit like the Marmora's but possibly different. The darn thing was so shy that after 30 minutes of chasing it around I gave up!  Then out of nowhere I heard a roar as 2 Eurofighters flew through the canyon almost at eye-level before arcing through the pass upside-down! Pilot would have been a cool job choice. I continued and heard another warble and this time managed a 10-second view revealing a pale bird with a light salmon wash and thin moustache - Moltoni's Warbler! 4/5 targets secured in one morning!

Corsican Nuthatch, female

Red Kite
Marmora's Warbler
Things were quieting down around 10 am so I continued to Corte to get my bearings and decide whether it was worth it or not to head up to Restonica Valley, when a gas station mechanic - an old Corse gentleman - asked me what I was up to. I told him I was after birds and showed him the Lammergeier in my book. He said he had a friend who used to work for the Parc Régional, so he called him up and asked him where the best spots were. He said I best go up the Vallée de Restonica (about 13 km) and that's what I did. I cheekily asked if he could call his friend back and asked about the Wallcreeper. The guy said not sure so I decided to head on. At the intersection, the old man pulled up on a bike, he'd caught up to inform me that his friend had got back to him - turned out you can't find Wallcreepers anywhere in summer but I thanked him heartily for the information!

I ended the day lying next to a beautiful mountain stream looking forward to biking up the road with no gear to look for a Lammergeier. And I sipped the best damn ice cold Coca Cola I've ever had.

The bike to Bergerie de Grotelle was epic but there was no Lammergeier. I could have hiked up to "the lakes" but I felt I needed to press on as I had many km to do by nightfall. So I cruised down that amazing road, packed up camp and biked toward the mountain village of Lozzi where I was to camp at L'Arimone, picking up Italian Sparrow and Corn Buntings along the way.
Spotted Flycatcher
Corsican Nuthatches 
Tyrrhenian Wall Lizard
There are a lot of cows in Corsica!
Can you find the Treecreeper?
Valée de la Restonica

My only shorts got caught on the bike seat but luckily I borrowed a handy sewing kit from some Germans in a camper van.
My sustenance
Heading up to Monte Cintu
I rose at 4:30 to begin riding up the mountain. Luckily, the first 10km or so could be done by bike. After that, I'd have to hike. The sun painted the mountainside in gold as I spotted Linnets, Red-backed Shrikes, Spectacled Warblers, Common Rock Thrushes and Water Pipits. Higher up, I found an interpretive panel about the Wallcreeper. A good omen, perhaps?

Higher up, a Golden Eagle flushed from the ground. Closer investigation revealed an eviscerated baby Mouflon. Up on a high cliff, the mom was peering morbidly down at her devoured baby. A little spooked, I carried on but the cairn-marked route, getting ever steeper and seemingly endless, started skirting a cliffside and became quite perilous. It got so ridiculous I knew I had gone astray so I turned around and regained the proper route. Crest after endless crest, it was one of the toughest hikes of my life. Eventually the snow-capped summit came into view and I broke into an ecstatic run. Alpine Choughs greeted me at the top, hoping for any morsel.

Mouflon lamb fallen prey to a Golden Eagle
View from summit at 2,706m
Alpine Choughs
I figured that a Lammer can't be any more uncommon than a Golden here so I waited up top, overlooking the Valée de l'Asco where they are known to occur. With a storm rumored to be brewing, I gave up and joined a party of sausage-eating Germans on the way back down, taking the scenic detour. Suddenly storm clouds started brewing and within an hour it was fully hailing. We continued but the hail increased in intensity and size and my friends sought refuge under a cliff overhang when lightning started to appear. I decided I wasn't going to wait out here for this storm to pass so I ran as fast as I could across the tundra in a muddy stream that had once been the trail as the icy nuggets pelted my face, turning to heavy rain. About 40 lightning strikes crashed all around me, some not more than 1 km away by my estimate. I ran for my life down that valley. When I got the bike, I blazed down the mountain so fast I was Tokyo drifting around the bends, splaying arcs of mud as the rain lashed against my face and lighting strikes cracked on both sides. When I reached the bottom, I was very cold and fully soaked. My phone was broken from water damage. I went for a hot shower, sat in front of a heater in the bar with a hot cocoa from the bartender, and thanked God for sparing my life that day.

Eve of the Great Gray

Ramata really wanted to see a bear, so we typed "landfill" into which took us to Clearwater Landfill near Wells Gray. Unfortunately, is out of date, the dump closed in 2013 so we saw nothing other than old wolf scat. We needed to get to Kamloops by about 6 pm to search for Great Gray Owl along some back roads south of town. Our progress was delayed by two soaring Broad-winged Hawks which I pulled over to bin, not sure if this was unusual on the west side of the Rockies. While looking skyward, I spotted 3 Black Swifts, the only ones of the trip!

Broad-winged Hawk
Black Swift
Later, amidst the smoke of the forest fires we found 5 Lewis' Woodpeckers. Ramata could not understand how I could spot and ID such a bird while driving on the highway. It's kind of hard to explain.

Lewis's Woodpecker epic highway spotting! 
Habitat at Goose Lake Road
Behind schedule, we hastened to Goose Lake Road, a tranquil area chocked full of prime Great Gray habitat: forest of Engleman Sruce, lodgepole pine and Douglas Fir bordered by open meadows and complete with saplings offering the perfect hunting perch. The Great Gray is my favourite bird and I was in rage mode 9, obsessed with showing Ramata this awesome species. Carefully checking every tree, we followed a string of ebird sightings until we got to the most southerly one. A pond contained immature Barrow's goldeneyes and Sora, a brief distraction. "It probably won't be exactly at the same spot...and then...ooohhaaaahhhhhhhh GREAT GRAY OWL!!!" It was pretty much at the same spot.

Since it was on the passenger's side, I passed Ramata and she smoked it.

Great Gray Owl (photo credit: Ramata Cisse)

Great Gray Owl (photo credit: Ramata Cisse)
A few seconds after we stopped it flew off and we weren't able to get close again. We camped at Tunkwa Lake Provincial Park and rose at 4:30am to try for more.

Habitat at Tunkwa Lake Provincial Park
Say's Phoebe
We drove up and down the road and walked a nature trail but could not find another Great Gray. However, the birding was good with Merlin, Sora, Gray Jays, Bald Eagles, Mountain Chickadees, Western Tanagers and more giving great views in the morning light. Time to drive to Vancouver for a much-anticipated day bucket-list feasting, culminating in Ramata's first poutine experience!!

Complete with Montréal smoked meat cubes


Mt. Robson is one of the most epic trails in the Rockies, so I had to take Ramata there. Keep in mind, this was her third time camping (EVER) and only second time doing backcountry. Fortunately, BC parks maintains a quota for the Berg Lake trail, so the masses attracted to this great trail are kept to a tolerable level. We managed to secure 2 nights at Kinney Lake which is lucky; people we talked to reserved on October 1st! We stayed at Adolphus Lake (Jasper) for the middle two nights which was quite easy to get as it is little-known.

Day 1
We started with an easy 7km on the first day (a good boost of confidence on the first day/excellent suggestion from Steve Pike!).

Day 2
We hiked 19km to Adolphus Lake (Jasper) which is 3 km past the Berg Lake trail. We stopped at Emperor Falls for an epic photoshoot.

Spruce Grouse
Storing food the old-fashioned way
Day 3
This was the day we were going to climb up Snowbird Pass. We started at 5:15am and leaving our gear behind we hiked the 26 km (return).

En route, we picked up Brewer's Sparrows, Pikas, Clark's Nutcrackers in the whitebark pine area and startled a White-tailed Ptarmigan which bursted into flight from right beside the trail. I'd finally ended my years-long battle with this nemesis just 2 days earlier, having seen 5 at Whistler's Mountain, Jasper via the gondola ride (which is cheating I know!). Critics will note that we found one under the power of our own steam! As we climbed higher toward the pass, the trail became more and more treacherous and Ramata discovered she had a fear of precipitous cliffs which is not all that unreasonable. We were reduced to a crawl but her determination overcame her fear of imminent death. With each segment I occupied my mind with contemplating the probability of death if I were to fall down this or that slope. Of course, I did not say these thoughts out loud! Stopping for a break having traversed the more deadly section, a female Ptarmigan with chicks appeared up on a slope!

Clark's Nutcracker
White-tailed Ptarmigan!
American Dipper
We broke into the vast alpine meadows too glorious to describe. As the cool glacial waters flowed in the alpine stream, so the juice of life flowed through our veins! A Prairie Falcon flew overhead. A Dipper dipped in the stream. The trail turned steeper but the reward I can quite solidly say was the best view I've ever had in my life, by far - a commanding vista over the Robson glacier and the Reef icefield to reawaken our city-blunted sense of wonder.

Mt. Robson
Mountain Arnica
Moss Campion

Our senses blasted with epicness, we began the arduous descent, braving the cliffs once more. We came within 1m of the female ptarmigan (1 foot from a chick) but my camera died! I nearly got it on my touch list but it scuttled away. We pulled into Adolphus Lake for a frigid swim and Ramata discovered a new favourite activity of jumping in frigid alpine lakes!

Day 4
We left at 4:40am on this day in order to catch the sunrise. We started two Moose on Adolphus Lake in the morning mist. Robson was epic, and pink. 19 km later we were at Kinney Lake fully beat and ready for a feast of Lipton's sidekicks and canned fish. Now both our spirits and our bodies were fully nourished.

View from Emperor Falls
Indian Paintbrush
I no longer have to spoon Dom to keep warm
Day 5
A well-earned sleep-in with only 7km left and triumphant return to the parking lot (78km later) where a friendly Varied Thrush awaited.

Varied Thrush
As per tradition, a stop at a highway burger shack was well in order!