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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

France: Birding à la Française

Birds, Wine and Cheese in Southern France

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: After years of scouting little restaurants and testing local wines, Fabrice and Pierre finally decided to propose this ‘Birding à la française’ tour. And it was great fun! Despite the unusually cold spring and some rain slowing down the bird activity, we had fantastic encounters throughout the tour, including stunning views of a male Black Grouse displaying atop a little pine tree in the Vercors, an impressive Eurasian Eagle Owl hunting by daylight, a group of Great Spotted Cuckoo surprising us with amazing views at very short distance in Camargue, a superb European Roller in the no-less-superb Alpilles, elegant Scopoli’s Shearwaters seen well from our ferry on the way to Corsica, and finally fantastic views of the very local Corsican Nuthatch and Marmora’s Warbler in Corsica. In addition to birds, we also had great memories of our splendid picnics during which we tested more than 15 different kinds of cheese, several pâtés, hams, sausages and other sort of charcuterie, always served 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 edition of this excellent tour!

IN DETAIL: Our tour began in Lyon, where Fabrice picked up half of the group staying at an airport-area hotel while Pierre drove into downtown Lyon to find the rest of the group. After two hours’ drive, we all met at the deep and impressive ‘Combe Laval’ canyon. The tortuous road climbs into the steep cliffs and through narrow tunnels, alongside of this beautiful cirque. A few Crag Martins where flying overhead and a chamois (goat-antelope) even crossed the road. Our first lunch was a picnic made of local cheese (including Saint-Marcelin bought at the village where this cheese brand originates from) and charcuteries, traditional baguettes, and local pastries. And to highlight this wonderful introduction to our tour, a Golden Eagle mobbed by a Raven flew over our picnic table!

After checking into our hotel in La-Chapelle-en-Vercors, we spent the rest of the afternoon birding the nearby Vercors Nature Reserve. Protecting alpine forests and meadows, this is one of the remotest reserves in 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. We saw these common species well and repeatedly, but we also had our first view of three soaring Eurasian Griffons. A great meal and local wines concluded our first day.

Anticipating a rainy front moving towards the east of France, we decided to try a visit to a Black Grouse lek on our very first morning in Vercors. Checking such leks requires a very early, pre-dawn walk, reaching it at daybreak after a two mile hike. Songs of Mistle Thrushes, Dunnocks, Eurasian Robins and Eurasian Blackbirds accompanied us during the walk. Arriving at the known clearing, we heard a few distant grouses and decided to move slowly towards them, from one pine tree copse to the next. After 30 minutes’ search, we were luck to find a beautiful male singing atop a short pine tree. He stayed there for 15 long minutes, offering us fantastic scope views while he was displaying and spreading his lyre tail! This sighting will likely remain as one of the best of the tour, and Black Grouse will later be chosen as best bird of the tour by some participants. On our way back, we also had cracking views of two singing Wrynecks, a melodious Dunnock, a few Ring Ouzels and a lonely Willow Tit. We even found a small group of Eurasian Crossbill drinking and bathing in a puddle. It was still early in the morning, and we drove back to the hotel for a late breakfast.

As expected, rain arrived in the early afternoon, slightly affecting our birding. In the forest we found a nice pair of Eurasian Nuthatches and our first Chiffchaff, while in the agricultural fields and gardens bordering the village we found Goldfinches and Eurasian Serins, our first Great Tits, Carrion Crows and a few of elegant White Wagtails. After another fantastic birding day, we discovered the ‘feuilleté de Saint-Marcelin’ and a ‘crême brulée à la Chartreuse’, both staying high in the highlights of the trip.

Leaving the Vercors area, we did a couple of last stops at some high elevation and scenic spots, finding a few more specialized species including the lovely Northern Wheatear, a furtive Citril Finch, and a Tree Pipit singing atop a tree while his close cousin, the Water Pipit, was singing atop a building roof. Yellowhammers were defending their territories while several Skylarks were singing high in the sky. We also had good views of both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, and two Alpine Marmots were grazing in the alpine meadows. At a known stake-out, we also found an adult Eurasian Griffon taking care of his young chick.

On our way to La-Motte-Chalancon, we stopped for lunch at a very nice and friendly restaurant in the charming little city of Die, which served seasonal local products. The landscapes during our drive, of limestone cliffs alternating with patches of forest and respectful agriculture, were absolutely beautiful. Because of the rain we didn’t stop much during the drive, and so we arrived fairly early for check-in. We spent the rest of the afternoon above the picturesque village of Remuzat, near a known location where conservationists dispose of 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 three of the rare and recently reintroduced Cinereous Vulture, and an even rarer Egyptian Vulture. In the nearby fields and vineyards, we also had great views of some beautiful birds including Ciril Bunting, Red-backed Shrike, Subalpine Warbler, Eurasian Stonechat, Alpine Swift and a cooperative Western Bonelli’s Warbler. However, our day wasn’t over yet, and we had an amazing dinner at a farm were the owners almost exclusively cook and serve the products they farm themselves; succulent meat, fresh salads, local cheese and organic wine… life is great!

We had a full day exploring the Baronnies, a beautiful region where agriculture is still quite respectful to the environment and made of a mosaic of various crops surrounded by scenic landscapes. Unfortunately, a cold rain slowed down the bird activity most of the day and forced us to spend less time than expected in this beautiful area. But the rain didn’t slow down our motivation, and before breakfast we were already equipped with umbrellas and birding by a nice stream finding a territorial Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, a singing Short-toed Treecreeper and a few Eurasian Blue Tits. It took us about two hours to reach Sault, our next birding destination, driving through impressive canyons and landscapes, and stopping a moment to admire the beautiful village of Montbrun-les-Bains. Once at Sault, with the rain still coming down, we found a few Red-legged Partridges, Corn Buntings, Wood Larks, Common Redstarts, a singing Greater Whitethroat and a group of migrating European Honey-Buzzard on their way back from Africa! Following our journey, we stopped in the impressive canyon of ‘Gorges de la Nesque’, where we met Bill, a charismatic Texan living in France for many years now. While chatting with Bill, an Egyptian Vulture flew over the cliffs where it breeds and gave us a wonderful show to conclude our day. It was now time to follow our drive towards Fontvieille where we would stay the following three nights, doing a short stop to the lovely village of Les-Baux-de-Provence on the way.

We had two full days to explore Camargue, Crau and Alpilles, some of the top birding areas in France. The Camargue is a huge area of mixed habitats, including saltmarshes, reedbeds, ponds, extensive farming and ricefields, which attract large numbers of numerous bird species. It is a birding paradise, and we all envied Pierre’s work here (when he is not guiding). We saw plenty of birds in Camargue 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, as well as superb shorebirds such as Common Ringed Plover and Common Redshank, large flocks of Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gulls, Sandwich Tern and the minute Little Tern, the common and cute Western Yellow Wagtail. We also had great looks at both Eurasian Marsh Harrier and Short-toed Eagle, plus Cetti’s Warbler, Spectacled Warbler, Eurasian and Great Reed Warblers. We had wonderful, close-up looks at a group of three Great Spotted Cuckoos, an uncommon and unpredictable species here, and repeated looks of their more frequent relative the Common Cuckoo. While watching at a small flock of Whiskered Terns, we also enjoyed a group of Eurasian Hobby hunting flying insects close to us. Amongst rarer species, we saw two individuals of the drab but exciting Rock Sparrow, a male Montagu’s Harrier flying low with wild bulls in the background, a lovely Garganey and an elusive Water Rail foraging almost together between a few Gadwalls, a Squacco Heron and a Western Swamphen prospecting the muddy edge of huge reedbed. Obviously, both mornings in Camargue ended at typical local restaurants, where we enjoyed bull cheeks in wine sauce, and local fish and shellfish accompanied by red rice from Camargue and local wines.

After a deserved after-lunch break that most of us used as a nap, 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 visited the vineyard ‘Mas de Gourgonnier’. After learning about the history of this estate and their own winemaking process (and tasting some of their excellent wines), we birded the almond orchards finding a pair of Eurasian Hoopoe, European Serin and a few Wood Larks delivering their liquid song high in the sky. After that, we spent the evening walking in shrublands of Green and Kermess Oaks, looking for elusive Sardinian, Dartford and Subalpine Warblers. We also had great views of both Woodchat and Iberian Gray Shrike, a stunning Roller, and a few Red-legged Partridges. We even spotted the very rare (here) Black-eared Wheatear. But the best surprise during this evening walk was undoubtedly an impressive Eurasian Eagle-Owl, hunting rabbits by daylight and perching atop a rock pretty close to us. Unforgettable! There was probably no better way to end this day than organising a great picnic dinner in this countryside, enjoying a great variety of local cheese and charcuteries, breads and olives, obviously served with the excellent organic wines just purchased 3 hours ago directly from the winegrower. Just after finishing desert and the last bite of cheese, an Eurasian Nightjar sang and flew briefly near our picnic table.

We used the next 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 birds. The new visitation rules for the Nature Reserve made the visit quite difficult, but we managed to arrange a special authorisation to drive a few kilometres into the reserve, allowing us to find a few Crested Larks, a pair of Eurasian Thick-knee, and excellent views of a few Lesser Kestrels breeding in a colony near the reserve headquarters. Unfortunately, it was just a bit too windy to spend more time here, so we decided to drive back to our comfortable hotel in Fontvieille for packing and a last dinner here.

We had an early start leaving Fontvieille, 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 common Reed Warblers we had some close views of a pair of Moustached Warbler, while Gull-billed and Common Terns were flying overhead. Purple and Gray Herons were seen continuously, and a Squacco Heron was seen well, while one or two Little Bittern were singing deep into the reeds. Suddenly, a Great Bittern flew towards us and offered excellent views. We also had great sighting and photographic opportunity of the colourful European Bee-eaters and of the bright Western Green Lizard having a sunbath on our path.

Leaving the Camargue area, and on our way to Marseille, we stopped at the stunning ‘Calanques’ (costal canyons or coves) to have our lunch at a famous though unadvertised restaurant known to prepare the catch of the day, fishes or calamaris, and to serve some refreshing ‘pastis’ (a local drink) and white wine. After this typical meal, we had some relaxing time at the little harbour, used for a walk along the coast, or to read a book in the shade of pine trees or to confront Pierre and Fabrice at ‘pétanque’ the French national sport!

In the evening we boarded the ferry towards Corsica, and soon after checking-in our cabins, we all met on the upper/outside deck to enjoy the scenery leaving Marseille. A glass of white wine in hand, we had fantastic views of the old city of Marseille in the sunset, the beautiful rocky coastline, and soon after we enjoyed excellent and repeated views of Yelkouan and Scopoli’s Shearwaters, both breeding in some nearby islands.

After a smooth night onboard the ferry and close views of Striped Dolphin in the dawn light, we arrived in the early morning at Ile-Rousse in the North-West of Corsica. Soon after landing we headed towards a little café in the village main square for a typical French breakfast of croissants and coffee. Enjoying this breakfast, we also realized that Carrion Crow were replaced by Hooded Crow, European Starling by Spotless Starling, and House Sparrow by Italian Sparrow!

During our drive inland, we quickly realized why Corsica is nicknamed ‘Island of Beauty’. The scenery is fantastic here, and the Asco valley is one of the most beautiful parts of the island. The canyons in the lower part of the valley and the crystalline water running in the bottom of it are gorgeous, and that’s where we found a singing Blue Rock-Thrush and a much sought-after White-throated Dipper. Further up we organized our picnic lunch in superb Laricio Pine Tree forest and enjoyed an amazing variety of local pork charcuterie, strong cheese, quiches, olives and excellent Corsican wines. Finally, at the top of the valley and the very end of the road, we found our comfortable hotel surrounded by spectacular and snow-capped mountains.

We had plenty of time to explore the different habitats found in the Corsican Mountains. In the old Laricio pine forest we had excellent and close views of Corsican Nuthatch, the only true endemic bird species for France. The Corsican Finch, recently split from Citril Finch, is a France near-endemic (also present on Sardinia Island) and showed well on several occasions. In the valley, we also had repeated views of Golden Eagle, Raven, Coal Tits, European Greenfinch, Gray Wagtail, Eurasian Treecreeper and Mediterranean Flycatcher (a forthcoming split from Spotted Flycatcher). We also spent one of our morning above the picturesque village of Bigorno, where we quickly found the lovely Marmora’s Warbler, several Tawny Pipit, a singing Eurasian Wren and the beautiful Eurasian Linnet.

Finally, after two days enjoying the beautiful Corsican Mountains, we headed towards Bastia, our last destination. On the way we stopped at the Biguglia Lagoon where amongst commoner species we found the rare Audouin’s Gull named after Jean-Victor Audouin a French naturalist and ornithologist. In Bastia, after admiring the hundreds of Pallid Swift flocking in the evening over the harbour, we had a succulent farewell dinner to properly celebrate the end of this birdy and tasty tour.

Lastly, on our very last morning and just a few hours before ending the tour at the Bastia airport, we birded some open fields in order to admire some old friends such as European Stonechat, Corn Bunting, Sardinian Warbler and European Goldfinch. Suddenly, we spotted a singing male of Black-headed Bunting, a vagrant species, barely annual, in France! Everyone enjoyed a great view of that unexpected rarity – a proper ending to this fantastic tour!

- Fabrice 2019

Created: 18 June 2019