Biebrza Marshes, Poland: an unspoilt wetland gem

At the end of May, I was fortunate to lead a new tour for Greenwings Wildlife Holidays to Poland. This dual-centre wildlife trip was based in the Biebrza Marshes and Białowieża Forest in the north-east corner of Poland and both considered to be the finest reserves in the country. I was joined by a local guide for the week who had phenomenal knowledge of the area and its diverse fauna and flora. I have wanted to tell you about it ever since my return but have been so hectic with other tours and catching up on paperwork and image processing that I’ve only just got the opportunity to sit and write about it.

Our first base in the southern half of the Biebrza Marshes had us excellently positioned for 24 hour wildlife viewing should we be so inclined. With its own wildlife ponds in the grounds and views over both forest and marshland, there were endless interesting things to be seen, heard and photographed, including the potential for large, iconic species such as Moose and Wolf. We hoped therefore for good weather and good wildlife sightings in this beautiful, unspoilt corner of Poland.

The group met up at Warsaw Airport where we were greeted by Tomasz, our local guide and Lukasz, our driver for the week. Introductions made, we were soon heading out of the city to the North East. Along the way, a few things were spotted from the motorway including White Storks, Buzzards and a single Roe Deer. We stopped for lunch with just over an hour of the journey under our belts and enjoyed traditional pierogi dumplings in a small restaurant.

On our way once again, we had a lesson from Tomasz about the large fauna of the country and in particular, the regular placement of green bridges to allow them to cross the motorway safely. He explained that they were already obligatory once the motorway networks had begun to be developed and are therefore a common sight. We certainly passed beneath a number of them. We also spotted a couple more White Storks, one of which was on its nest. We were told we’d see plenty more and probably be bored of them by the end of the holiday as they are so common in Poland, but for now we were pleased to get good clear views albeit at high speed as we passed! 

It wasn’t long before we were leaving the motorway once more and we had barely been on the side road two minutes when we saw a lovely male Montagu’s Harrier quartering low over an arable field beside the road. A short distance further on we pulled onto a gravel track and Tomasz led us to a spot where we could see a Bee Eater colony. There were several birds on the telegraph wires nearby and we got good views with the help of his scope to see a pair on the far side of a deep quarry.

Having had a good look at the Bee Eaters, we had a wander to take in more of our surroundings. We were parked between fields of Barley and Rye which, unlike many of our British arable crops, held treasures among their stems in the form of azure blue Cornflowers and tiny white Field Pansies. A few butterflies were on the wing, most proving to be Painted Ladies but also Common Blue and Small Heath. 


Cornflower among Barley


Alkanet was flowering beside the track and we came across a mass of bumbling Rose Chafers busily feeding on a naturalised garden hybrid Iris. The soundtrack to much of this was a mixture of Skylarks trilling overhead, Yellowhammers singing of bread but no cheese, the cronking of a distant Raven pair and a Nightingale Thrush warbling its crystal clear notes over the top of them all. Walking a short distance down the track, I suddenly realised that the Goat Willow beside me bore not just one but many Cockchafers and these, plus some very large snails, were admired by the group while a Marsh Warbler sang from the bushes.

Moving on, we stopped the vehicle a few times having spotted lovely things; first for a pair of Common Crane where a female Golden Oriole was calling nearby; then a Great Grey Shrike sitting on the telegraph wires beside the road; another pair of Cranes closer to the road and Grey Partridges in a recently cut hay field. 

Our final stop was a particularly wonderful roadside spot where Tomasz managed to pick out Clouded Apollo butterflies on the verge. On clambering out to investigate, we established that there were at least four individuals, and that as well as nectaring on red clover flowers, they were making the most of the sun and basking on the lower leaves of the trees which gave us a good clear view of them. Growing here we also found Melampyrum nemorosum, the Wood Cow-wheat which has glorious yellow flowers beneath vibrant purple tipped leaves. There was a patch of Lily of the Valley here too but most of it was sadly going over.


Clouded Apollo


A little way up the road one of my guests found Graphosoma italica, strikingly striped red and black shield bugs which were favouring the Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) here.


Graphosoma italica


A couple of Chequered Skippers were also found flitting from flower to flower in the dappled light and an Orange Tip skimmed past. An impressive Black Veined Moth also caught our eye and all the while, Chiffchaff, Red-breasted flycatcher and Cuckoo called from the woods around us.


Chequered Skipper


A short drive onwards brought us to our first hotel for the trip and having checked in, most of us were soon out venturing in the grounds where Fire-Bellied Toads called in one pond and hybrid Pool/Marsh Frogs sang in another. Another guest from Germany showed us photos of a Moose he’d seen only moments earlier on the edge of the woodland, but sadly we didn’t catch a glimpse. We did hear and see a few birds though, with a guest spotting a pair of Red-Backed Shrike, while Woodlark and Hoopoe joined the Cuckoo’s chorus and a great many Swallows hawked for insects high above us. A Lapwing flew over and Greenfinch, Linnet and Pied Wagtail were spotted in the gardens.


Pool/Marsh Frog


A good supper awaited us and having settled in, eaten and made plans for the morning, we retired a happy bunch.

The following morning our day began exceedingly early, meeting at 4am to take a dawn drive down the road to look for moose. Our first attempts were unsuccessful, but we stopped at a high tower viewing point from which we enjoyed the dawn chorus. A Nightingale Thrush remained elusive while singing beautifully nearby; a Common Rosefinch provided us with fleeting views and sweet calls of “Pleased to meet you”, and a Red-Backed Shrike was spotted in a treetop on the roadside. A pair of Golden Orioles flitted tantalisingly between the trees but failed to stop for long in one place; a confiding White Wagtail came to investigate us from the safety of the closest Silver Birch, and a Chiffchaff sang with unerring regularity throughout. Blackcap and Blackbird joined the chorus along with Chaffinch, while Grasshopper and Savi’s Warblers reeled in the background. Corncrakes rattled, Common Cranes honked and overhead drumming Snipe joined the orchestra. The diversity of the Biebrza Marshes was astonishing and the lack of any human sounds like traffic or aircraft only added to our sense of wonder.

Back in the van to have another look for moose and before long Tomasz suddenly asks Lukasz to stop because he has seen one. It took us all rather a lot longer to locate as it was at quite a distance, but we had seen our first and were suitably impressed. We also noted that a tree stump beside the road showed evidence that Beavers had been in the area. They had begun gnawing it and humans had finished the job with a chainsaw, presumably as a safety precaution owing to its proximity to the road.

Our next stop was a section of boardwalk out to a viewing platform over the marsh. The walk down to the platform was briefly punctuated with pauses to look at flowering Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), singing Sedge Warbler and a large Drinker Moth Caterpillar. On reaching the platform, a second female Moose at closer quarters held our attention for a short while as it wandered across the reedbed. Several male Snipe drummed overhead while the females called from a short distance away; Black-Tailed Godwit flew over and males of both Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers came past. 




Tomasz explained the song of the Aquatic Warbler to us and we listened for some time. They were singing in the distance and we thought that a small bird performing an undulating song flight may have been one, but it was too far away to identify with positivity. A nearer Gasshopper Warbler was much more obliging and gave us fantastic views as it sang from the top of a small bush. As we were about to leave, I spotted a Tiger Moth caterpillar and one of my guests contorted himself around the fencing to take a hand held focus stacked image of it to great effect.

By this point it was trying to rain and so we moved on before it set in too steadily and returned to the guest house for a hearty Polish breakfast. Our hunger satisfied, a quick look around the ponds in the grounds revealed another amphibian to add to the list in the form of a European Tree Frog which we had great views of in a small Alder on the water’s edge. The numerous Tree Sparrows were admired and both Linnets and Spotted Flycatcher seen here too while Icterine Warbler called from the woodland nearby.


European Tree Frog


Setting out for the main part of the day, our first stop was at a section of boardwalk accessed via a small meadow. A brief but light rain shower greeted our arrival and we didn’t pause long in the meadow as a result, but the boardwalk area held a number of delights. We made our way to a viewing platform from where we had nice views of a male Reed Bunting singing from the top of a reed.


Male Reed Bunting


We could also hear Penduline Tit calling here and after a little exploration we found a visible nest just a few yards back the way we had come. It was hanging in the boughs of a Willow tree, halfway constructed with the male bird visiting to continue building work.


Male Penduline Tit visiting the nest


Tomasz also taught us the call of the Bluethroat as we heard one singing nearby. We had soon located it and over the course of our visit, we watched several.




Cuckoos were calling almost constantly and several made an appearance. A Common Rosefinch sang nearby too, though we failed to see it. A Grey Heron was spotted and several Black Headed Gulls flew over along with a Marsh Harrier. On the smaller scale there were some nice damselflies including White Legged and Azure plus a male Banded Demoiselle. Wood White, Green Veined White and Female Orange Tips were spotted along with a number of Painted Ladies. One of my guests delighted in finding and photographing jumping spiders and seeing Ruby Tailed Wasps. There was also a very large Weaver Beetle sitting nicely on the edge of the boardwalk.

Retracing our footsteps through the meadow in drier conditions, we admired a great number of Latticed Heath moths and a Small Heath butterfly plus Thrift, more usually associated with coastal locations, in good flower.




We moved on and had a slightly longer drive round to an area known as the Red Bog. After a brief wait, interrupted by a Black Redstart outside the van, Tomasz had collected our permit and we were on our way into the restricted area. We learnt that only five vehicles per day are allowed into this zone and he had had to book some months in advance to secure our place. It was soon apparent why, as this was a beautiful and particularly unspoilt area with patches of virgin forest.

Having parked up in a grassy glade, we enjoyed our packed lunches at the picnic table. Some rather large horseflies buzzed around and seemed a little alarming but in fact none seemed to be biting, much to our relief. A large ground beetle was spotted as we ate which could have been Carabus granulatus, but it had scuttled off by the time we had finished and so we didn’t get to examine it further.

Suitably replete, we prepared for a walk into the forest. It began with a great swathe of Lily of the Valley on one side of the path and May Lily on the other interspersed with small, delicate white Chickweed Wintergreen (which is actually neither a Chickweed nor a Wintergreen!).

Lily of the Valley


Chickweed Wintergreen


Only a short distance further on, we came across the stunning pink blooms of Bloody Cranesbill in another small clearing and the fluffy seedheads of Pulsatilla patens. Back beneath the trees, Solomon’s Seal had just gone over.


Bloody Cranesbill


We soon emerged onto a section of track which consisted of looser sand and was bordered on one side by a high sandy bank and on the other by long grass and the odd small sapling leading to the woodland edge. A Common Clubtail dragonfly was spotted by Tomasz who helpfully focused the scope on it for us to look through, particularly as it was tricky to locate even with binoculars let alone the naked eye.

The track here was sunnier too and several Painted Ladies were seen zipping past at high speed. Northern Dune Tiger Beetles flew ahead of us and occasionally a Sand Lizard darted off the path before we had a chance to take a closer look. Annual Knawel flowered inconspicuously among the lichens on the bank while Tufted Vetch put on a blousier display and Wood Cow-wheat flowered in the grass on the other side of the track. A number of bumblebees were making the most of the available nectar sources, among them Red-Tailed and Buff-Tailed, while Painted Ladies flitted about in the sun.


Northern Dune Tiger Beetle


We soon reached a viewing platform and on climbing the wooden steps to reach it we startled several large sand lizards that had been beneath them. From the top we had fantastic views over the marsh but despite our best efforts we could see very little. The breeze here was a pleasant respite from the heat of the afternoon though and so we were content to sit and watch a while. A couple of Ravens flew past while both Yellowhammer and Common Whitethroat sang from the Birch trees below. On the way back down, I came across an Antlion in the sand at the bottom of the stairs. 

Returning the way we had come, we noted a few more butterflies than earlier including Common Blue, Small Heath, Brimstone, Pale Clouded Yellow, Chequered Skipper and quite a few Sooty Copper.


Sooty Copper


A Scarce Chaser dragonfly was also seen resting atop a dead plant stem.


Scarce Chaser


Cuckoo had been calling almost constantly during our visit and one flew overhead here. Tomasz was also able to point out a very obliging female Sand Lizard on the edge of the track which allowed us all to photograph her and admire her beautiful markings. It’s no award winning photo for me, but I was happy to get such a clear view of a species I’d not seen before.


Female Sand Lizard


Having told us that Wolves tend to use the track to patrol their territory, Tomasz also explained that the recent rain had washed away any tracks that we might have seen, but he was able to show us an old scat which consisted mostly of fur.

On the way back through the wood a Clouded Apollo was briefly glimpsed, and in the glade beyond we looked for Scarce Heath butterflies but without success. On reaching the minibus we took a moment to rehydrate and relax. During our brief wanderings in doing so, we came across a single Map butterfly and a male Beautiful demoiselle.

When we eventually moved on we drove back towards the guest house and stopped at an area of raised bog which Tomasz described as a Fairytale Forest and we could soon see why.



It was beautiful with the foamy white flowers of Labrador Tea among vivid green Bog Bilberry leaves and Stiff Clubmoss beneath the Silver Birch trees. We had nice views of a Wood Warbler as we started out and a Tree Pipit called and was eventually located in the top of a Silver Birch a little further round. 


Labrador Tea


In some pools created by old peat cutting activity we found Round leaved Sundew growing alongside Cottongrass and a couple of small Marsh Frogs were spotted among the moss. Several Painted Ladies were chasing one another round the canopy and an Eggar type moth was seen briefly as it flew from the undergrowth. We found a few piles of Moose droppings beside the path too and noted their distinctive rugby ball shape.

We had heard a thunderstorm building while we walked and at the first few drops of rain we turned back, reaching the van just as the heavens opened. We only had a short drive back to the hotel and the rain only seemed to get heavier as we arrived, so we stayed put for a minute or two in the hope that it would abate. Eventually it did just long enough to grab our things and make a run for it to the cover of the hotel. When we reconvened for dinner later the storm had passed completely and there was barely any sign that it had happened save the odd puddle outside. We enjoyed another hearty meal and having gone through our species checklists, took an early night after our dawn start.

The next morning dawned cloudy but thankfully not wet. After breakfast, we set out to a small town where we stopped at a viewing area overlooking the river Biebrza below and the marshland beyond. It was chilly and trying to drizzle, but we weren’t dissuaded and our resilience soon paid off. Swifts wheeled overhead, Mute Swans patrolled the river and a Stork on a nest below us stood up to reveal three chicks safely sheltered beneath. We watched the adult birds swap over parental duties and listened to a Great Reed Warbler calling from somewhere nearby. It wasn’t until I got home and put my photos on my laptop that I spotted the interloper, a House Sparrow that had taken up residence in the bottom of the Stork’s nest, not an uncommon sight but an amusing one nevertheless!


White Stork and young


A White Tailed Eagle put in an appearance and circled slowly in front of us before moving off over the marsh, while a noisy flock of Rooks departed their Rookery for the day. A Common Rosefinch was spotted singing from the very top of a Silver Birch tree by the river but flew before Tomasz could set up the scope. He soon had it trained on a Roe Deer he had spotted in the distance though!

Just as we had decided to move on one of our eagle-eyed guests spotted a Falcon which sped overhead and disappeared. Despite hurrying back to the best viewing spot we were unable to locate it again to confirm the species but Tomasz thought it was likely either a Hobby or Red Footed Falcon.

We eventually did move on and our next stop was at a Bridge over a smaller river from where we could see a scrape beyond the riverside meadow. A Great White Egret had been spotted in flight only a few moments before we stopped and we were surprised to see five more and a Grey Heron all sharing a ditch! Black Headed Gulls were numerous here and Redshank called around us unseen. Lapwing flew over the scrape giving their “peewit” calls and Ruff were spotted. The meadow here was full of flowering Bistort and a confiding White Wagtail sat on the crash barrier a few feet from us while a Yellowhammer called nearby.


White Wagtail


Driving on, we asked if we could stop to photograph Storks in a meadow and duly came across a large non-breeding flock beside the road. Having photographed these we found a similar flock in the next field and several more in almost every one we passed. Tomasz estimated that there must have been nearly 100 in this one village alone!


White Storks


Another Stork caused us to stop to see what it was carrying – nesting material as it turned out – and just as we were about to move on Tomasz spotted a stunning male Red-Backed Shrike in a sapling right beside us. One of my guests carefully opened the door and we were all able to get a great view and photographs of this lovely bird.


Male Red Backed Shrike


Our next stop was in a village right by the river where Tomasz usually sees hundreds of Terns. He explained that this year they had had a very dry spring followed by a very wet week where the water level had risen by over twenty centimetres, and subsequently the Terns’ nests were flooded and so they had dispersed. Nevertheless we saw both Whiskered and Black Terns here as well as Black-Tailed Godwit, Redshank and Sand Martins skimming over the water.

Having checked a couple more spots in the village without success we continued to our lunch spot, pausing only briefly to photograph a roadside shrine decked out with ribbons and flowers, one of a great many seen during our trip. 

Lunch was at another viewing point overlooking the marsh and we enjoyed our sandwiches with a fantastic panorama in front of us. There was another group of Great White Egret here along with Grey Heron, the ubiquitous White Stork and more Black Terns. There were also several Shovelers, the first duck we had seen other than Mallard. We heard Cranes calling in the distance and a huge flock of seventy five flew over. Tomasz looked and looked for Black Stork but didn’t find any. He did spot a Moose however, again at a great distance. 

The Rye field beside us was once again full of Cornflowers but also Common Poppies and Scentless Mayweed. Artemisia absinthium grew here too and Tomasz enjoyed demonstrating its delicious scent to the group.



Near the edge of the field I found a Paper Wasp building a nest on a dry plant stem and this, along with Latticed Heath moths, weevils and various other small critters, became a favoured photographic subject here.


Paper Wasp building a nest


It was soon time to move on and Tomasz took us to another site to look for Black Storks. We waited in the minibus for a few minutes while he went off to scout it out. He came back shaking his head but we had kept ourselves entertained trying to make out whether a Wood Pigeon was actually a Stock Dove and watching another House Sparrow return to its nest in the bottom of a White Stork’s nest.

Driving on we made a brief stop to look at a Crane with two chicks only to find a second, also with two chicks in the distance too. Only a short way down the same road we stopped again having seen a White Tailed Eagle fly into a nearby tree. It was out of sight for us but we waited and sure enough it soon emerged, only to fly in the opposite direction meaning we didn’t get the views we were hoping for. Not to be disappointed though, we found all manner of insect life to look at instead, including a beautiful orange micromoth (Olethreutes sp.), a jumping spider, lots of Scorpion flies, several longhorn beetles, a variety of weevils, a Dock Bug, a Yellowtail moth caterpillar and a number of damselflies too. I also found the eggs of a predatory shield bug which were intriguingly edged with tiny spikes. We duly heard Bittern booming in the distance as well and saw a Mute Swan on a nest from the track on the other side of the road.


Olethreutes sp., a micro moth


Golden Bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle


Nettle Weevil


Predatory Shieldbug eggs


Tomasz was still hopeful that he could find a Black Stork to show us and so we visited one last stop to look for them. Collared doves flew past and a couple of domestic Guineafowl foraged in the undergrowth on the bank below us but the Storks were still elusive apart from the odd white one. There were the remains of a Second World War bunker here with a memorial which proved interesting though. Tomasz helped to translate the interpretation board which explained that in an extraordinary battle lasting three days, 720 Polish soldiers had held off 42,000 advancing German troops. When the captain realised that they had run out of ammunition he told his men to surrender to the Germans and blew himself up inside the bunker, destroying it in the process.

With this incredible but sobering tale in our thoughts, we climbed back into the vehicle to head to a spot where we would look for Citrine Wagtail. It turned out to be only a short distance up the road from where we had looked at the butterflies on the first afternoon. The Wagtails were not to be seen but we did have nice views of a Montagu’s Harrier and a couple of Lapwing. Water Plantain was growing in some of the puddles and a few damselflies were lurking in the undergrowth too.


Water Plantain


A Common Rosefinch called nearby and I located a Thrush Nightingale in the dense undergrowth beside the road, only for it to have moved by the time the group joined me. Instead, Tomasz played their contact call to lure it briefly into view. We also noted a number of branches of a nearby cherry tree covered in cobwebs containing caterpillars of the Orchard Ermine moth.

Our last stop of the day was at the boardwalk we had visited the previous morning. Sedge Warblers were still the most conspicuous residents here, but Meadow Pipits and Snipe were also seen and the Tiger moth caterpillar had hardly moved. Aquatic Warbler was heard calling in several spots and eventually located very close to the boardwalk allowing us all good views.


Aquatic Warbler


A few flower buds of Early Marsh Orchid were found, much to Tomasz’s surprise as he said they should be in full bloom already by now. Marsh Cinquefoil was also noted in distinctive flower.

On our return to the hotel we were once again treated to a delicious three course meal in the evening and having eaten, we retired to start packing up ready to move bases in the morning.

We woke to glorious blue skies the followingmorning. One of my guests had been out at 3.20am for a hike through the woods to a viewpoint recommended by Tomasz. Over breakfast he told us of a close encounter with Moose, hearing what he thought were howling Wolves and photographing a dew-jewelled Chequered Skipper roosting beside the path. Having eaten, we packed our luggage in the minibus to the sound of a Woodlark singing high overhead.

The first stop of the day was a very short drive away. We took a walk down a track through the Alder Carr and out to the wet meadows and marshland beyond. Our progress was slow as there was so much to see. We began finding jumping spiders to photograph only a short distance in and a Wood Warbler was spotted in the trees nearby. Painted Lady butterflies zoomed past every few minutes while Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap provided a steady background soundtrack interspersed with Common Rosefinch, Great Tit, Song Thrush, Thrush Nightingale and distant Cranes.


Female Jumping Spider


We also found quite a few caterpillars of the Scarce Fritillary. We looked in vain for adults too.


Scarce Fritillary Caterpillar


A few interesting plants were noted on our walk. Along with Wood Cow-wheat which is very common here, we found Herb Paris and Twayblades in bloom as well as the bud of a Lesser Butterfly orchid. Leaves of Broad Leaved Helleborine and Lady’s Slipper Orchid were also found but although the latter should have been flowering it was not yet. One unusual plant seen was Asarum europeum which has very round, glossy leaves and a strange, bell shaped flower at ground level which is pollinated by ants. Both Wood and Water Avens were flowering and Yellow Flag Iris blooms punctuated the pools either side of the track.


Water Avens


Further down the track a couple of Grass Snakes were spotted, one on the track itself which slithered off at our approach and another in the undergrowth to one side. On reaching the observation tower that we had been aiming for, we found that two vehicles which had passed us (to our surprise) were in fact those of wardens/rangers who were repairing the tower and boardwalk there. We went a short distance beyond to a point labelled as the end of the trail so that we could hear one another over the noise of their chainsaw and had a brief break, during which a Swallowtail was spotted flying at high speed just above the rushes in the marsh around us. Marsh Valerian was flowering here and still more Painted Ladies came in a steady stream overhead.

Turning back, we noted one Alder tree which seemed to have a lot of Cockchafers in the lower branches. On closer inspection each branch all the way up the tree must have held at least a dozen, meaning that this one tree would have had several hundred of these large beetles that are so scarce in Britain these days. 

We paused on the way back in a wet meadow full of Bistort, Meadow Thistle, Ragged Robin and Lesser Spearwort and studded with Marsh Orchids. This group of orchids is notoriously difficult to identify to species level, particularly as they hybridise readily, but after some discussion, Tomasz and I suggested that these were likely to be the Broad-Leaved Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza majalis. A Common Toad was also enjoying the meadow and Green Veined White, Peacock and Common Blue joined the Painted Ladies nectaring on the flowers here. Back on the track, Map, Scarce Heath and Heath Fritillary were spotted as well as both Chequered and Northern Chequered Skippers. A Common Lizard was also seen as it scampered off the path in front of us.


Chequered Skipper on Jacob’s Ladder


Northern Chequered Skipper


Heath Fritillary


By this time we were a little behind schedule as there had been so much to look at. We made our way steadily back to the road and were met by Lukasz in the minibus. He took us back to our guesthouse one last time for lunch and a quick break before we moved to our second base for the trip in the forest. It is at this point that I’m stopping for now. There is so much more to tell you but you’d be here all week reading about it and so you’ll have to wait for the next instalment!

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.


Sunrise from Ajaccio, Island of Corsica


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.



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.