Realising that the resident swifts have left us each year is a reminder that summer is now on the wane in the Mediterranean Pyrenees. Sadly we won't hear that marvellous screeching as squadrons of swifts race in formation around the rooftops again this year. But recently I've noticed the odd group of swifts cruising along at a much higher altitude in the skies above our village in the Alberes. Presumably these are migrating birds from more northerly latitudes passing through. I like to think that this area, being largely unspoiled and forested, must make for a rich source of flying insects - a handy pit stop for migrating birds to refuel en route. I don't know how many small insects there are flying at such heights, but what I can vouch for, painfully, is that there are plenty of the biting kind around at ground level this year.
The small floodlight above our garden was turned on that night, so we knew that as long as the creature hadn't been frightened away by it, we would be able to see it quite clearly were it to find something of interest in our garden. And sure enough we could sense something coming closer and closer, until we saw what was clearly quite a substantial mammal walking along a low garden wall. At this point we could see very little, so waited stock still, and wondered if perhaps it was a fox. We soon saw a long bushy tail, and brown coloured fur on the trunk of this animal. Shape-wise it looked a bit like a large ferret. By this stage we had become aware that there were TWO of these creatures moving around in our garden, and that both were heading for the heavy laden fig tree.
They then jumped up, climbed different branches, and started reaching through the leaves for "our" figs, which they munched happily... without so much as a by-your-leave! By this stage, thanks to the floodlight, we were able to see that these creatures were in fact a pair of martens. The distinctive head shape, the small ears and their almost white-looking chin and bib were very clear now. When they looked up towards us and the light, reflective retinas made their eyes glow back at us brightly (just as dogs' and cats' eyes do when you take a flash photograph at home)
I knew that trying to take a worthwhile photograph was out of the question, however I had managed to get my binoculars, so I could be absolutely sure of what I was looking at. And I am very happy to report my first ever sighting of a beech or stone marten (Martes foina, Fouine in French, positively identified almost immediately thanks to the wonderful L'Albera book (which has suddenly and very sadly become more elusive than some of the creatures in its pages, by the way!)
Instead though, I have two amazing memories that I will always cherish, and which I am sure will stay with me for life.
So whilst it is sad to be bidding the very hot weather goodbye for 2015, subsequent reports this week prove that such amazing sightings are not freak occurences, or once-in-a-lifetime encounters. Lesley spotted a beech marten at very close quarters in a tree whilst walking under cloudy skies in the Alberes with a friend a few days later. I'm hoping she will write that dramatic encounter up as a blog soon. And another friend was thrilled to see a Genette crossing a track in front of her car at very close quarters in the woods above Chateau Valmy, also in broad daylight! Which confirms that although the nights are drawing in, and the sunshine getting weaker, this really is an excellent time of year to watch wildlife. So keep your eyes peeled - it's all out there!
Isobel Mackintosh, August 2015
All photographs © Isobel Mackintosh