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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

France: Birding à la Française

Birds, Wine and Cheese in Southern France

2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This was another fantastic ‘Birding à la française’ tour! Blessed by beautiful spring weather during most of the tour (we only had some rain the very last two days), we had fantastic encounters including stunning views on a beautiful male of Black Grouse displaying from the top of a tall spruce after our early dawn walk in the Vercors, three displaying males of Little Bustard in a grassy field near Camargue, elegant Yelkouan Shearwaters seen from our ferry when leaving the harbour of Bastia, distant but prolonged views on an immature and an adult Lammergeier in the impressive landscapes of Corsica, great close views on a large group of Slender-billed Gull on a windy day in Camargue, memorable views of large number of Griffon Vultures soaring high in the sky and also seen well at their nesting cliffs, repeated views on the beautiful Squacco Heron, a male Black Woodpecker flight over the beautiful alpine forest, a group of four Collared Pratincole seen close near their colony, and a long view of a handsome male of Moltoni’s Warbler while having a drink on a terrasse in the little Corsican village of Asco!

Beside birds, we also had great memories of our splendid picnics during which we tested more than 20 different kinds of cheese, several pâtés, hams, sausages, and other sort of charcuterie, always coming with excellent bread and obviously fantastic wines! The stunning flowering alpine meadows, the vast Camargue marshes and the dramatic Asco valley in Corsica were just a few of the many scenic places we travelled through during this tour. For sure, Fabrice and Pierre are already looking for the forthcoming editions of this succulent tour!

IN DETAIL: Our tour began in Bastia. We met at our hotel, and after a short introductory briefing we spent 10 minutes in front of the hotel, enjoying great views on 80+ Pallid Swifts, screaming and flying overhead, as well as our first Hooded Crows and Spotless Starlings. We were now all ready to start this exciting coming tour!

On our first morning we drove north to the village of Macinaggio, following a beautiful coastline with turquoise water and passing by a few lovely villages, and also stopping on the way to admire a beautiful Squacco Heron and three European Shags. Once at Macinaggio, we first birded some foothill shrubland, finding there a few Northern Weathers, two Tawny Pipits, a Wood Lark and a few European Goldfinches. In the sky, a few European Marsh Harriers were migrating north. But the main attraction here was doubtless a lovely pair of Marmora’s Warbler who showed very well atop some low shrubs.

We then drove back to the Macinaggio wetland. At the northern tip of the island, this wetland is a stunning stopover for migrants before their last step to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Walking along the beach, we rapidly found several Whinchats, three Common Sandpipers, while dozens of Barn Swallows and a few European Bee-eaters were flying over. A Corn Bunting was singing atop an isolated tree, when suddenly an immature male of the rare Pallid Harrier offered stunning views! Bill even had cracking pictures of this very rare birds in France (and regularly seen only in Corsica). We also great views on Cirl Bunting, a Eurasian Greenshank together with a Wood Sandpiper, a lovely pair of Sardinian Warbler, and a pair of migrating European Turtle-Dove.

After a beautiful morning, we had a delicious lunch of grilled fiches, and then headed towards the Biguglia Lake for a stop on our way towards the Asco Valley. There we enjoyed fantastic views on Eurasian Bee-eaters, a large group of Hooded Crows together with a few Jackdaws, our first Greater Flamingoes and Red-crested Pochards, and between a few dozen Yellow-legged Gulls we also spotted two of the beautiful Audouin’s Gull. We also had a fantastic view on a very cooperative Cetti’s Warbler most often detected by its very loud song.

We then followed our way towards the Asco valley. Surrounded by spectacular sceneries, we arrived at our hotel perched at 5,000 feet in the mountain in the late afternoon. After check-in and some rest, we were nicely welcomed by a succulent Corsican dinner and excellent Corsican red wine!

We had a full day admiring the ever-changing landscapes of the Asco valley. In the morning we mostly prospected the beautiful forest of Laricio Pine Tree, where after some effort we had unforgettable views on a Corsican Nuthatch, the only bird species endemic to France! In the forest we also had numerous Coal Tits, a nice group of Eurasian Jay, a few Chaffinches and we even encounter the lovely Eurasian Treecreeper.

In more open habitat we also found a singing male of Corsican Finch, a few Goldfinches, our first Stonechats and a beautiful male singing atop a small tree, while high in the sky were soaring Red Kites and two Golden Eagles. It was also fun that after having great views on the smallest European bird, the smart Firecrest, we found the largest European bird, the charismatic Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture soaring high in the sky.

After such a successful morning we had a lunch on the hotel terrasse to enjoy the stunning scenery and after a deserved break, we birded the lowest part of the Asco valley. Following the canyons of the lower part of the valley we found a pair of White-throated Dipper incessantly going back and worth to a probable best, offering repeated nice views. The beautiful Gray Wagtail was way more common and a pair is breeding every few hundred meters here.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a bar were Pierre and Fabrice are used to stopping for a Pastis, a Cap Corse, or a Pietra (Corsican bear made with chestnut), where while having a drink, we also enjoyed prolonged views on a lovely male of Moltoni’s Warbler.

After a beautiful day, it was now time to drive back to the hotel for a sumptuous dinner of Figatelu (a Corsican sausage) and Brocciu (a delicious sheep milk cheese), served with an excellent ‘Patrimonio’ red wine and a local grappa. What a day!

On our last day in Corsica, we did a last stop in the Asco valley, saying goodbye to Moltoni’s Warblers and the fields of Asphodele in bloom. We also had great views on a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and Diana even found two wild Rock Pigeons on a beautiful cliff where they were probably breeding. A beautiful male Mouflon was also seen well, sunbathing and dominating the impressive scenery.

Back to the lowlands, we found a beautiful Woodchat Shrike perched atop a Green Oak while a Wood Lark was singing from an electric wire. We also found a pair of the Mediterranean Flycatcher (a possible forthcoming split of Spotted Flycatcher) before following our way to Ponte Leccia to buy some picnic supplies.

After a delicious picnic near the Biguglia lake, we explored this protected wetland finding a few migrants such a Common Ringed Plover, two Ruffs, a Common Greenshank as well as our first Common Reed Warblers.

It was now time to board our ferry to sail to Continental France. Once on board, we all met outside to enjoy a glass of wine while watching Yelkouan’s and Scopoli’s Shearwater in the sunset lights.

After a smooth night and breakfast onboard, we arrived in the early morning in Marseille and drove straight to the Camargue. We had three full days to explore Camargue, Crau and Alpilles, some of the top birding areas in France. Camargue is a huge area mixing saltmarshes, reedbeds, ponds, extensive bulls and horses farming and ricefields, attracting large numbers of numerous bird species. It is a birding paradise, and we all envied Pierre to work here (when he is not guiding for WINGS!). During our two mornings in Camargue we saw plenty of birds and some of the best sightings included large flocks of Greater Flamingos and Mute Swans, numbers of waterbirds including groups of Common Shelducks, Red-crested Pochard, the elegant Pied Avocet and Black-winged Stilt, close groups of Slender-billed Gulls, Gull-billed, Sandwich Tern and the minute Little Tern, or the common and cute Western Yellow Wagtail. We also had great views at both Eurasian Marsh Harrier and Short-toed Eagle, as well as at Great Reed Warblers.

And amongst rarer species, let’s mention a fantastic view of a displaying Spectacled Warbler seen very well atop some short bushes, a few Western Swamphen prospecting the muddy edge of huge reedbed, a family group of Bearded Reedling seen very close and even a Great Spotted Cuckoo flying around us. Amazing! And obviously, both mornings in Camargue ended with great food, at typical local restaurants such as l’Estramborg in Sambuc where we could taste the delicious bull cheeks.

For our first evening, we explored the Alpilles. This is a beautiful low-elevation limestone range of typical Provence landscape, mostly dedicated to vineyard and olive tree plantations. We spent the evening walking in shrublands of Green and Kermess Oaks, having fantastic views on both Dartford and Subalpine Warblers. We also have been very lucky to see the rare and local Bonelli’s Eagle! This beautiful raptor gave us a wonderful show, with an adult feeding a young on a new nesting platform (nest discovered by Pierre only two weeks before the tour)!

During our second evening we visited the vineyard ‘Mas de Gourgonnier’. After learning about the history of this estate and their own winemaking process, and obviously tasting some of their excellent wines, we birded the almond orchards where breeds the beautiful Roller, having great views on Common Redstart, European Serin and two lovely Long-tailed Tits. After this vineyard visit, we went back to the Alpilles for an evening walk followed by a picnic dinner. We had stunning views on a singing Red-legged Partridge, found a pair of Iberian Gray Shrike, and heard and glimpsed a European Nightjar just after finishing our picnic.

For our third day in the Camargue area, we had an early start, as we had organized a private visit to the Nature Reserve of the Vigueirat marshes. Accompanied by a local guide, we explored the impressive reedbed, where alongside commoner Reed Warblers we heard a few Moustached Warblers, and found several species of herons including repeated close views on Purple Herons, two Squacco Herons and even had the great luck to find two Great Bitterns (one landing in the reeds close to our hide!). A migrant Whiskered Tern was also seen amongst the breeding Gull-billed Tern, and a few Wood Sandpipers were a bit late in their migration to their breeding grounds.

We used our last afternoon to explore the plain of Crau, as this is the only steppe area in France. The accumulation of polished, tan, or ochre rocks made by the flat and vast former Durance estuary created this unique habitat, and is now home for very specialized plants, insects and obviously birds. The visit rules of the Nature Reserve made the visit quite difficult, but we managed a special authorisation to drive a few kilometres into the reserve, allowing us to find a pair of Greater Short-toed Larks, a few Eurasian Thick-knees, and enjoyed excellent views on a few Lesser Kestrels breeding in a colony near the reserve headquarter. But also spotted a soaring Cinereous Vulture, very rare in this area!

After three wonderful days in the Camargue area, it was now time to explore the Baronnies, a beautiful region where agriculture is still quite respectful with environment and made of a mosaic of various crops surrounded by scenic landscapes.

We started our traveling day by the scenic drive through the impressive Nesque Canyon where breed several pairs of Griffon Vulture, and where we also had great views on a singing male of Rock Bunting. After this introduction, we drove along the Sault plateau, had a succulent picnic lunch followed by a coffee in the picturesque village of Aurel, stopped at the remarkable village of Montbrun-les-Bains and followed our way towards Remuzat. We spent the rest of the afternoon above the little village of Remuzat, near a known location where conservationists dispose carcasses for the vultures. We apparently arrived soon after a carcass was delivered as 100+ Eurasian Griffons were flying around and landing behind a ridge, as well as one individual of the rare Cinereous Vulture, and an even rarer Egyptian Vulture. To conclude this lovely day, we all enjoyed a glass of Clairette-de-Die, a local sparkling wine, followed by a succulent dinner at our lovely hotel in La-Motte-Chalancon.

As the weather forecast for the Alps wasn’t great, we decided to stay an extra morning in the Baronnies and we did well! Birding the same area than the previous evening, we found a few Red-backed Shrike, the very local Western Orphean Warbler, two Greater Whitethroats and the rare Ortolan’s Bunting. After a lunch at a nice little restaurant at La-Motte-Chalancon, we headed towards our final destination, the Vercors in the Alpes. The landscapes during our drive, of limestone cliffs alternating with patches of forest and respectful agriculture, were absolutely beautiful.

Before checking-in our hotel in La-Chapelle-en-Vercors, we spent part of the afternoon birding the nearby ‘Plateau du Vercors’ Nature Reserve. Protecting alpine forests and meadows, this is one of the remotest reserves in Metropolitan France and certainly the largest. The most common species in the high-elevation forests are Coal and Crested Tits, Goldcrest and Firecrest, Mistle Thrush, Eurasian Robin, Eurasian Jay and Chaffinch. Besides these common species that we all saw well and repeatedly, we also had a great view on a Black Woodpecker.

In the early morning, most of the group decided to visit a Black Grouse lek, actually starting our walk by night, reaching it at dawn after a 2 miles hike. Songs of Mistle Thrushes, Dunnocks, Eurasian Robins and Eurasian Blackbirds accompanied us during the walk. Arriving at the known clearing, nothing was singing but we decided to stay at the edge of the clearing. After waiting a good 15 minutes, a male suddenly arrived from nowhere, perched atop a pine tree, and started displaying! What a fantastic reward for our early walk.

On our way back we also found a few Citril Finches and Willow Tits. It was now time to drive back to the hotel for a full breakfast and to continue the day with the rest of the group.

We tried to bird the high elevation meadows, but some rain and heavy fog were not helping… Nonetheless we found a large flock of Red-billed Chough, two Yellowhammer and a few Linnets.

To conclude a wonderful tour, we had a memorable farewell dinner at a local well-known restaurant.

The weather was still bad for our last morning in the Alps, and couldn’t bird the high elevation spots we planned to, so we decided to drive down and stop at the lovely village of Point-en-Royans. There, we had great views on adults and fledglings White-throated Dippers, a few Common Merganser and even a Peregrine Falcon flying high in the sky, concluding a fantastic tour!

                                                                                                                                                                                 - Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 16 June 2023