Thursday, 19 June 2014

Mercantour National Park - Alpha, Le Parc des Loups

Here is the second of my blog posts about our recent trip to southern France. As well as spending a few days in Nice, we also stayed in the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes Maritimes. Our hosts were Liz and Mel at their lovely gîtes in beautiful Berthemont les Bains:

Our base!
View from Berthemont Les Bains.
Meadow in Berthemont les Bains.
As well as the awesome scenery and comfy accommodation, our stay here included a different guided walk every day and all the delicious food you could eat! Liz and Mel were great hosts and I would recommend their services to anyone thinking of visiting this part of France :o) Here are a few photos of the garden of the gîtes, the underlying limestone bedrock meant the lawn was very species-rich, full of beautiful and unfamiliar flowers most of which I was unable to identify!

The garden.
Mystery flower 1!

Mystery flower 2!
Good ol' Quaking Grass (Briza media), one of my favourites :o)

The surrounding area was teeming with bird life too - Cuckoos were calling all day and Tawny Owls all night in the valley, and among others I saw Spotted Flycatchers, Serins and Crag Martins in the village. I also saw a pair of Peregrines circling high up around a crag, and we saw a distant pair of eagles near the same crag but their identification remains a bit of a mystery - they looked to have pale underwings but with darker coverts, and weren't light enough underneath to be Short-Toed, nor dark enough for Golden, and I think we were a bit outside the usual range of Bonelli's Eagle. Hmmm! If only my raptor ID skills were better :oD

Our first trip was to the Alpha Parc des Loups (wolf park) in Le Boréon. Here there are three captive semi-wild wolf packs of varying sizes, which are kept in large enclosures in the forest. Wolves have in the past couple of decades recolonised the French Alps from Italy and the park concentrates on the ecology of the wolf and the conflict that has arisen as a result of their return to France. 

Alpha Parc des Loups.

There were three different 'scénovision' presentations that combined audio, video and various props and scenes to tell the story of wolves in the Alps from three different viewpoints. They were an old shepherd who was pretty peeved about the wolves returning, as they predate his sheep and his only defence is his dogs; his son who has become a wolf ecologist working in Italy (the two of them don't get on); and the son's teenage daughter who has followed in her grandad's footsteps but at the same time, sees that the wolves play an important ecological role and hopes that humans can work out ways to coexist with them. I kind of assumed that they were fictional characters, invented to perfectly encapsulate all the opportunities and problems brought by wolves, but it turned out they are actually a real family! This brought extra depth to the stories for me; unsurprisingly I found the wolf ecologist's viewpoint most interesting. We particularly enjoyed the dramatic nighttime footage of several vigilant and tireless sheepdogs defending their flock of sheep against attack by a wolf pack!

Le Boréon.
In the thick coniferous forest of the park, I could once again hear what I assumed were Firecrests - however this time I finally managed to see one, woop! There were Coal Tits aplenty too, and Ravens which hang around waiting for the wolves to be fed. I also got a bit excited about the rocks - there were lovely chunks of gneiss everywhere..... when I did the geology module of my OU degree we got a box full of examples of different rocks, and the gneiss in that looked exactly the same as the bits we were seeing!

Textbook gniess! Mmm look at those layers of segregated mafic and felsic minerals, like a lovely cake!
In between watching the presentations, we had plenty of time to see the wolf packs. In the morning we watched the park's newest arrivals, three young Canadian wolves, being fed. They were very different in appearance to the park's other wolves, which were all European; although not yet fully-grown, they were larger, with much darker fur and longer snouts.

Canadian wolves feeding time.
In the afternoon it was time to watch the largest wolf pack being fed! It was really interesting to observe their behaviour, the hierarchical structure of their society was clear with the most dominant animals getting first dibs and some of the less dominant wolves getting less or even nothing to eat. They also for the most part took their food off somewhere to eat it alone, although some animals went to the same place which inevitably led to squabbles and growling.

Milling around pre-feed.
Feeding time.
A cheeky Raven getting in on the action!

Some of the younger wolves inspected the food, but decided not to take any, presumably as they might risk punishment from older, more dominant wolves if they did.
Bit of argy-bargy over food.
Well hello.

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