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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

France: Birding à la Française

Birds, Wine and Cheese in Southern France

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This was another wonderful ‘Birding à la française’ tour led by Fabrice and Pierre! We were lucky to have a beautiful weather during the second half of May (not a single drop of rain!), and the birds were there! It would be too long to mention all the great observations made during the tour, but let’s mention at least an incredible European Pygmy-Owl showing very well in the Vercors, flocks of the bright Greater Flamingoes in Camargue, Eurasian Griffon seen together with Cinereous and Egyptian Vultures in the Baronnies, an incredible sighting of a pair of the rare Bonelli’s Eagle in the Alpilles, the simply superb European Bee-eater and Roller in Camargue, fantastic views on no less than 6 species of Mediterranean warblers, the beautiful males of Lesser Kestrel found in La Crau, both Scopoli’s and Yelkouan Shearwater seen during our crossing to Corsica, and also an excellent sighting of Corsican Nuthatch in the superb Asco Valley!

Besides 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 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 edition of this succulent tour!

IN DETAIL: Our tour started with an introductory meeting and dinner at the Lyon airport hotel. On our first morning, we first drove to the handsome little village of Pont-en-Royans, where we saw our first Gray Wagtail, Common Swift and Bee-eaters, and where we found a pair of breeding European Dipper! We also stopped at Saint-Laurent-en-Royans to buy some supplies for our first picnic, and then drove the scenic road of ‘Combe Laval’. The tortuous road climbs into the steep cliffs and through narrow tunnels, alongside of this beautiful cirque. A few Alpine Swifts where flying overhead, and a Chamois even crossed the road. Our first lunch was a picnic made of local cheese (including Saint-Marcelin from a village we drove through) and charcuteries and traditional baguettes, obviously coming with excellent wine!

After checking into our hotel in La-Chapelle-en-Vercors and some rest, 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 Metropolitan France and certainly the largest. The most common species in the high-elevation forests are Coal and Crested Tits, Goldcrest and Firecrest, Tree Pipit, Eurasian Robin and Chaffinch. Besides these common species that we all saw well, we also had good view on two Eurasian Bullfinch. A great meal and local wines concluded our first day.

This morning we decided to try a visit to a Black Grouse lek. Checking such lek requires very early walk, actually beginning 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, we heard a few distant grouses and decided to move slowly towards them, from one pine trees patch to the other. After 30 min search, unfortunately, we couldn’t find the birds and they stopped singing. But even if we couldn’t see the birds, we all enjoyed very much this early walk with an almost full moon right above the forest, and finding other great birds such Citril Finch, Wryneck, Willow Tit, Eurasian Treecreeper or Bullfinches. A beautiful adult of Golden Eagle also gave us a wonderful show soaring over the forest. But the best find of the morning was certainly a stunning Eurasian Pygmy-Owl singing atop a tree and giving fantastic views!

After driving back to La-Chapelle-en-Vercors to pick-up the ones who stayed at the hotel, we did a bit more birding in the morning and then enjoyed a delicious picnic, discovering new cheese and delicatessen as well as wine. It was now time for a deserved rest!

In the late afternoon we drove back to the Vercors Natural Reserve, enjoying as much the sceneries, the birds and many stunning flowers! After another fantastic birding day, we discovered the ‘feuilleté de Saint-Marcelin’ and the local ravioles, and enjoyed very much the local ‘Clairette de Die’. After dinner some, were motivated enough for a night drive during which we had a carking view on a Tawny Owl.

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 Northern Wheatear and singing Water Pipits, and a Yellowhammer defending his territory while several Skylarks were singing high in the sky. We also had good views on both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, and a few Alpine Marmots were grazing in the blooming 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 little restaurant in the charming village of Vassieux-en-Vercors. The landscapes during our drive, of limestone cliffs alternating with patches of forest and respectful agriculture, were absolutely beautiful. After our check-in at the hotel in La Motte-Clalancon and some rest, we spent the rest of the afternoon above the picturesque village of Remuzat, near a known location where conservationists dispose carcasses for the vultures. A few dozen Eurasian Griffons were flying high above a ridge, as well as one of the rare Cinereous Vulture, and two of the even rarer Egyptian Vulture. In the nearby fields and vineyards, we also had great views on some beautiful birds including Cirl Bunting, Red-backed Shrike, Dartford and Western Subalpine Warbler, Eurasian Stonechat, Alpine Swift and a lovely male of Ortolan’s Bunting. Now our day wasn’t over yet, and we had an amazing dinner on the terrasse of the hotel, made from succulent local 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 with environment and made of a mosaic of various crops surrounded by scenic landscapes.

We started our day by some pre-breakfast birding along l’Oule, the river running through La-Motte-Chalancon and had some great views on Great and Eurasian Blue Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper, Eurasian Nuthatch, a group of Long-tailed Tit, Common and Black Redstart and our first Eurasian Jays.

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, we had a lovely picnic accompanied by the song of Western Subalpine Warbler, Cirl Bunting and Eurasian Cuckoo. It was very hot this day, and bird activity was very low at lunch time so we decided to enjoy a drink on a terrasse of the lovely village of Sault. Following our journey, we stopped in the impressive canyon of ‘Gorges de la Nesque’, where we had some stunning views on Eurasian Griffon and Eurasian Crag-Martin. It was now time to follow our drive towards Fontvieille where we stayed the following three nights.

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 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!). 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 Pochards, the elegant Pied Avocet and Black-winged Stilt, as well as superb shorebirds such as Common Ringed Plover and Black-bellied Plover in breeding plumage, flocks of Black-headed, Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gulls, the minute Little Tern, or cute Western Yellow Wagtail. We also had great views at both Eurasian Marsh Harrier and Short-toed Eagle, Spectacled Warbler and Eurasian Reed Warblers! We had repeated looks on the vocal Common Cuckoo and amongst rarer species, let’s mention a few of the lovely Garganey and Western Swamphen prospecting the muddy edge of huge reedbed, cracking views on a dozen Collared Pratincole, a superb Little Bustard found on a field during one of the morning drives and a pair of the sparkling European Roller. And obviously, both mornings in Camargue ended at typical local restaurants, where we enjoyed bull cheeks in wine sauce, or local grilled meat accompanied with red rice from Camargue and local wines!

On our first day, 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 spent our evening walking in shrublands of Green and Kermess Oaks, looking for elusive Sardinian, Dartford and Western Subalpine Warblers. We also had great views on a pair of Iberian Gray Shrike, a distant Red-legged Partridges, and a few Wood Larks. But the best surprise during this evening walk was undoubtedly to find a pair of the very rare and local Bonelli’s Eagle! Spotted by Pierre from the parking lot (where he was starting to prepare our picnic), we enjoyed fantastic views on this beautiful raptor! 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 local wines. And just after finishing desert or the last bite of cheese, a Eurasian Nightjar started to sing near our picnic table!

We used the second afternoon to visit 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 explored the nearby 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 few Skylarks, a pair of Eurasian Thick-knee, and enjoyed excellent views on a few Lesser Kestrels breeding in a colony near the reserve headquarter. We had another lovely picnic dinner here, enjoying the unique atmosphere of La Crau before driving back to our comfortable hotel in Fontvieille.

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 commoner Reed Warblers we had some close views on a pair of Moustached Warbler, while Gull-billed and Common Terns were flying overhead. Purple and Gray Herons were seen continuously, and even a Squacco Heron was seen well, while two Great Bitterns were singing deep into the reeds. We also had great sighting of the colourful European Bee-eaters.

After a lovely lunch prepared by the reserve staff, we drove to the picturesque Baux-de-Provence for an afternoon break before our drive to Marseille. 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 on the old city of Marseille in the sunset, the beautiful rocky coastline, and soon after we enjoyed excellent and repeated views on Yelkouan and Scopoli’s Shearwaters, both breeding in some nearby islands.

After a smooth night onboard the ferry, 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 understood while Corsica is nicknamed ‘Island of Beauty’. Sceneries are fantastic here, and we couldn’t resist to make a few photo/birding stops. On one of these stops we had excellent views on the near endemic Corsican Finch. Taking the scenic road to the lovely village of Bigorno, we stopped at the pass and quickly found a responsive male of the lovely Marmora’s Warbler, a few Tawny Pipit, a beautiful Eurasian Linnet, a pair of Red-backed Shrike, and a few Red Kites. An impressive Golden Eagle also flew over us, mobbed by a pair of Raven, and finally perched on a close tree offering amazing scope views for about 10 minutes! What a stunning introduction to Corsica!

We arrived in the Asco valley around mid-day, and this is definitely 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. Our hotel is perched at the very end of the road, high in the valley, and is surrounded by splendid landscapes. After check-in we had a nice rest before exploring this stunning area.

We had plenty of time to explore the different habitats found in the Asco Valley. In the old Laricio Pine Tree Forest we had excellent close views on Corsican Nuthatch, the only Metropolitan France true endemic bird species. The lovely Moltoni’s Warbler also showed very well, as well as the charismatic Eurasian Dipper along the fast-running Asco River. We also had repeated views, on European Serin, Coal Tits, Eurasian Chaffinch, Firecrest and other common species.

Finally, after two days enjoying the beautiful Corsican mountains, we headed towards Bastia, our last destination. On the way we stopped at a suitable habitat for shrike, and actually found a beautiful Woodchat Shrike after only a few minutes! Well done! A Mediterranean (Spotted) Flycatcher was also seen during our shopping/restroom stop at Ponte Leccia.

Near Bastia, we birded the Biguglia Lagoon where amongst commoner species we found the rare Audouin’s Gull named after Jean-Victor Audouin a French naturalist and ornithologist. It was now time to conclude our beautiful tour by a last tasty picnic of Corsican cheese, cold cuts and wines! Cheers everyone for a memorable tour through some beautiful regions of France!

                                                                                                                                                                   - Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 24 June 2022