Not long after my husband and I moved out here in 2005 we met Bruce, who told me about a lake not far from home, hidden among orchards and vineyards between the River Tech and busy main road that runs from Le Boulou to Argelès-sur-Mer. It's known as the plan d'eau de Villelongue-dels-Monts. Which has always struck me as odd because it's much closer to the village of St Génis des Fontaines.
For at least three years I came here a lot with my first dog. It only takes about fifteen minutes to circuit the whole thing, but the northern shore is a few hundred yards from the river, so we would often extend walks over there. The general area had a variety of habitats: land immediately to the east and west of the lake was sand quarry. The west one was no longer worked, but the other was active. While far less scenic and tranquil – especially when diggers and trucks were reversing and beeping – several sand heaps and high quarry banks were favourite nest sites for colonies of bee-eaters. I had my best ever views of these birds in that spot, and have yet to come across another breeding ground.
Bruce often reported that while hunting dragonflies down by the river, he had found spraint containing fragments of bone and shell, on stones. Were there otters here? When he later found the near-skeleton remains of one by the lake, our question was answered. Determined to see the living creatures, we once mounted a sunset otterwatch expedition. I’d heard that pine martens have a sweet tooth and can’t resist jam, so if it worked for them... After daubing the otters’ favourite rock with strawberry compote, we scrambled up the bank and concealed ourselves as best we could among the trees at the bottom of the concrete flood barrier; binoculars trained on Jam Rock. The wind direction was in our favour and dusk was falling. We neither moved nor spoke.
All was quiet until a bell-jangling flock of sheep trotted along the flood barrier above us. Their shepherd, on the other side, might not have been aware of us, but several sheep gave us funny looks as they passed. No otters showed up. We weren't that surprised – it was always a long shot and, in retrospect, a fillet of trout might have been a more appropriate lure. The trip wasn’t a complete waste of time, though. Sometime after the sheep had disappeared, suddenly – as if from nowhere – a kingfisher landed on a twig right in front of us.
Over time the west quarry became overgrown; sand heaps were removed from the east quarry, and it was hollowed out, leaving a bare, bleak basin, before all work stopped. The bee-eaters lost their summer homes and were forced to move elsewhere. Although neither quarry filled with water the way the central lake has (I assume that was a quarry too at some point), they stayed damp from autumn to spring. If I walked along the high, man-made ridge separating the lake from the east quarry, I would sometimes see black-winged stilts striding about in big puddles in the bottom. Unfortunately, all too soon the most frequent visitors were youngsters on quad bikes and motor scooters. Peaceful walks became impossible at weekends and throughout the summer. Increasing numbers of free campers in tents and campervans began to invade the lake surrounds too, transforming the landscape into a refuse tip and public toilet.
I stopped going.
My first trip back for about seven years was in May 2015, on an outing with the local bird group (GOR). They call the lake by its Catalan name: Al Bachous. We set off at about 8.30am, when there weren't too many other people about. The main aim of that trip was to look for amphibians and reptiles in the former west quarry, which by then had turned into a natural marshy habitat, repopulated with grasses, low shrubs and poplar trees.
On the way, our leader pointed out a couple of night herons on the edge of the wooded island in the middle of the lake. I was used to seeing grey and white herons on there, but night herons were entirely new to me. They must have been present years ago as well, and I'd never noticed them – never thought to look! We were too far away for good views, even through binoculars, but to me they were like the undertakers of the bird world, standing on or in the trees, hunched and motionless, sombre and silent, waiting for night to fall again.
I also learned that, years ago, there were always penduline tits around the lake. They built their hanging, flask-shaped nests of cobwebs and "cotton" (plant down) from the water-loving black poplars that grew here. I would love to have seen those. But there are no more black poplars (I think due mainly to drainage and hybridisation), so the penduline tits have gone elsewhere too. I'm not clear as to whether all black poplars have disappeared from these parts, however, so that will be something to investigate one day.
While frog hunting in the marshes, we were also lucky enough to see a black kite, a pair of short-toed eagles and a solitary griffon vulture pass low overhead. All probably migrating – I've certainly never seen griffons in the Albères before or since.
One evening a few weeks after the GOR trip, I took Isobel there. Bruce met us and, while I did a circuit of the lake, they both sat by the water, close to where we'd parked; Isobel, armed with camera and long lens, watching for night herons on the island; Bruce watching for dragonflies. By the time I got back to them, Isobel had taken some lovely shots of a great crested grebe, and of swallows skimming the water's surface – as well as a distant night heron. The peace was soon shattered, however, by a couple on a quad bike, haring noisily up and down the track mere yards from us, kicking up choking clouds of dust as it skidded round the car park, trying to impress. Or annoy. Interestingly, although we couldn't get away fast enough, none of the birds seemed bothered at all.
It wasn't until earlier this month that I decided to venture over there again, intrigued to see what might have changed.
I took a leaf out of the GOR's book and arrived early, at around 8am. At the entrance, a big sign declared that the only activity allowed at the lake is fishing. There was also a low concrete arch over the road (height restriction 1.9m.). Impossible not to duck as I drove under that. In the car park – deserted but for me – a couple of large dustbins were chained to trees. No litter or broken glass. This was encouraging.
I headed west first of all, to the point where the lakeshore is nearest the island. Against the early, low sunlight, dozens of house martins were skimming the water for insects, and carp were leaping and splashing heavily in every direction. On the island several egrets, two cormorants and one grey heron were immediately obvious in trees at the water's edge. After some scanning and squinting, I was delighted to finally spot two night herons as well. They were, once again, mere silhouettes through the binoculars, but on checking photos cropped to fuzziness later, both turned out to be juveniles (brown, with streaked chests). They are stockier than their larger grey cousins, and their normal stance – legs straight and set quite wide apart – creates a slightly comical appearance head-on.
At the western shore I passed several fishermen/women, plus a couple of campers. It's still possible (even if interdit) to drive round three-quarters of the lake, so I don't see how camping will ever be stopped completely, assuming that’s the objective.
At this point I left the lake and climbed over the ridge, which was (and has always been) covered in the ubiquitous bamboo that blocks one's view of so much of our waterways), skirted the old quarry marshes I'd explored with the bird group, and carried on to the river. Here, I was able to walk on stretches that spend the winter underwater. I had to watch where I was putting my feet – first of all crossing mud that was hard-packed, worn smooth and slime-coated, then scrambling over ankle-twisting loose rocks.
As I reached an islet, an explosive warble in a bush a few feet away stopped me in my tracks. The sound kept moving around but whatever was making it must have been wearing a cloak of invisibility. A little further on I found a bigger, flattish rock where I could sit and wait, with a short view upstream. Several warblers were teasing me with their song now, and I did finally glimpse one (small, brown - could have been anything) flying across the river. After recording their call on my phone, I've since confirmed that they were Cetti's warblers. Non-migratory. The I.D. was a surprise because I thought I'd recorded a Cetti's a few years ago by the pond in the vineyards; turns out I misidentified that one.
The soundtrack of birds, running water and breeze through poplar leaves, combined with the sight of several female mallard pootling about in the shallows up ahead made for a very pleasant fifteen minutes’ rest. Flies, dragonflies and moths were constantly flitting over the river, and these drew my attention to more distant “somethings” that proved very puzzling. In a deeply shaded stretch under overhanging bushes by the far bank, they seemed to be skimming back and forth on the water (like pond skaters, only much bigger) and then dipping underneath the surface. I didn't think they were frogs or fish. Big beetles perhaps? There were lots of them. Also over there, between them and me, a big boulder sticking out of deeper water had droppings on it. Very likely otter, I thought.
Then another movement caught my eye: a small bird, flying low and fast as a dart, upstream. A flash of tangerine below, turquoise above as it passed. Kingfisher! Fantastic to see they're still here, and within yards of where Jam Rock used to be. The end of the summer can be a good time to see them, apparently - when rivers are low and fish are concentrated in the shallows. In five seconds this one had gone, and didn't return - I was lucky to have seen it at all.
It was impossible to walk downstream alongside the Tech for far, but after detouring back inland for a few hundred yards, I got to the river's edge again. More droppings on stones here too.
At that point I was east of the lake. From there, through breaks in the bamboo, I could see another side of the island. Perched in a tree on its edge – though still too far away for a good photo – stood an adult night heron, looking this way and that. His or her pale creamy chest, dark head and back were quite unlike the youngsters. By then it was nearly 10 o'clock. Rather late for a night heron to be out?
This morning I went back, and had the whole place to myself. I wanted to see if I could explore the former east quarry, and found a way in on the side closest to the river. It involved slithering down a pebbly slope (dog in tow), onto a disused vehicle track. This seemed to be the only way through and, the further we walked, the more overgrown it became. Very few people must venture down here. The most prolific plant life, after poplar, seemed to be those tough, spiky grasses you associate with marshland (I have no idea what species), some kind of myrtle, wild carrot, pampas grass and bamboo.
Although not especially boggy, the ground was still fairly damp – it’s unusual for my walking boots to get wet at this time of year. And there were dragonflies. All the same species, I think: hawkers of some kind, with blue and black abdomens. (I must check with Bruce.) They rarely settled, but one or two hovered for several seconds, right in front of me. Once or twice I noticed one curl its abdomen under and round to its head for a few seconds, while it was flying. I have no idea what that was all about – it was all on its own, so no hanky-panky was going on. Common blue butterflies and grasshoppers were the only other insects of note. I can imagine this will be alive with birds in spring, but today I only heard Cetti’s warblers again, plus one or two goldfinches. Any amphibians were keeping a low profile, but I didn’t go rooting about disturbing them. It will certainly be worth visiting again in different seasons.
The other reason for today’s return was to recce the second area of the river where I saw more possible signs of otters last time. With a view to a pre-dawn visit (without jam), I wanted to find a spot with a decent view of the river.
To get there from the quarry was a short but strenuous scramble (for me if not for Digby the dog) over a series of steep, stony ridge and furrows – created deliberately, I imagine, to discourage kids on bikes and quads.
While I was examining one lot, Digby found a fresher specimen, I think, which he licked before trying to rub it behind his ears. A few minutes later his nose went up, sniffing and pointing towards a thicket just across a narrow stretch of shallows on the other side of the islet. No way were we going to investigate that.
I was more interested in a huge tree root left by a flood. Bruce has written about flood debris before, and I’m always staggered by the volume, height and weight of it to be found along the Tech. Whatever deposited this would have been an awesome and terrifying sight.
It did. Neither camera nor binoculars got baptised.
Time to quit while I was ahead, nevertheless. And, back on the main bank, I found what might be a good spot from which to watch for otters sometime soon.
What strikes me most about both visits this month is how the habitats around the lake have changed in only the twelve years I've lived here. The east quarry, now a lush, dense expanse of green – mostly young poplars, same as the west side – is near impenetrable to all but animals and birds, and has such different residents these days. The bee-eaters' arrival in and departure from this little spot seems to have been wholly dependent upon human activity. On the one hand it's sad that those birds have been forced out, but on the other, it's pleasing to see how quickly nature has reclaimed the land – with very little human help – and is currently providing a wonderful damp, safe haven for many different species.
It also means that Al Bachous may be back on my regular walking itinerary.