Three weeks in France, May 22nd-June 13th

Southern France landscape at Lac de Ste Croix, in the Haute-Provence region, May 31st.
Southern France landscape at Lac de Ste Croix, in the Haute-Provence region, May 31st.

Le Plan de la Tour, near St Tropez in the south of France, was the location for my wedding on June 11th. Beforehand, I spent a leisurely few weeks with my wife-to-be and my family, cruising slowly down through France. It wasn’t exactly a birding holiday, but nonetheless I managed to see quite a few year ticks. Being in France is always nostalgic for me as it reminds me of summer holidays as a teenager when I first started getting into birding, when everything I saw was new and exciting.

The casual birding started on the outskirts of Calais, where Meadow Pipit made its belated appearance on the year list, and continued through northern France, with Melodious Warbler and Green Woodpecker en route. At Chenonceaux, in the Loire Valley, I ticked some more southerly species: Cirl Bunting, Firecrest, and rather surprisingly Mediterranean Gull, which I regularly saw overhead in the area especially in the evenings.

Western Bonelli’s Warbler was commonly heard singing in the Dordogne region, but I didn’t actually manage to see one until I reached Nimes, much further south. Another bird that I heard often but didn’t manage to see at all was European Nightjar, so it looks like I’ve missed out on that one for the year. A viewpoint in the village of Domme was notable for numerous Black Kites, several Peregrines, and a pair of Crag Martins – the furthest north I have seen this species in France.

Further south, we stayed on a campsite in Sommieres, near Montpellier, which was notable for high numbers of breeding Common Redstarts in the oak woods there. One pair was even using the toilet block as a nest site. My first European Bee-Eaters for the year hawked overhead. An hour or two in the early morning at a nearby area of Mediterranean garrigue habitat produced several showy Western Subalpine Warblers and Sardinian Warblers, as well as other common Mediterranean birds including Woodlark, Serin and Common Nightingale.

A most useful year tick flew across in front of me as I drove along the A9 near Nimes: a Glossy Ibis, definitely a cut above your usual “seen from the car” kind of bird in France. Nearby, a midday visit to the legendary Camargue was predictably quiet given the time of year and windy conditions, although I finally laid eyes on a Cetti’s Warbler for the year list. Greater Flamingoes were present in their hundreds, and several Slender-billed Gulls were on the saltpans.

The Gorge de Verdon in Haute-Provence is scenically stunning, and potentially quite a good site for birds, with Bonelli’s Eagle known to occur here. I had no luck with eagles but half an hour at a viewpoint produced seven or eight Eurasian Griffon Vultures – these birds are doing well in France and have presumably spread from their Cevennes core breeding area to the west. A small group of Alpine Swifts also showed well here.

Finally, the Plan de la Tour area produced a few interesting birds on the few occasions that I had the time to look for them between wedding planning and socialising with guests. An early morning at the Plaine des Maures was excellent, with Dartford Warbler for the year list plus a decent selection of Mediterranean specialities including European Roller, Tawny Pipit, European Bee-Eater, European Golden Oriole, Western Subalpine Warbler and Red-rumped Swallow. The village finally gave me Crested Tit and Short-toed Treecreeper for the year, with Red-backed Shrike among typical maquis species in the nearby hills and vineyards.

2015 Year Ticks: Meadow Pipit, Green Woodpecker, Melodious Warbler, Firecrest, Cirl Bunting, Mediterranean Gull, Glossy Ibis, European Bee-Eater, Crag Martin, Sardinian Warbler, Subalpine Warbler, Dartford Warbler, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Cetti’s Warbler, Eurasian Griffon Vulture, Alpine Swift, Crested Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper (total 734).

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Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Eurasian Stone-Curlew and Lesser Kestrel, La Crau, May 29th

Open steppes near Vergieres, Plaine de la Crau, May 29th.
Open steppes near Vergieres, Plaine de la Crau, May 29th.

This location in southern France is one of my most nostalgic of birding spots. Constituting the old delta of the river Durance, La Crau is a vast stony plain that has been used as pastureland since Roman times. It’s a unique habitat in France, and supports the country’s only remaining populations of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Lesser Kestrel, both of which are fairly easy to find with a little time and patience.

It was a day trip here and to the nearby Camargue in August 1992 that really cemented my growing interest in birds. Species such as European Roller, European Bee-eater and Southern Grey Shrike seemed impossibly exotic in those days. It was a memorable day yielding many lifers, and despite having seen all the special birds here on numerous occasions since, I still get the same feeling of excitement whenever I make a return visit.

This site is always at its best during the first few hours of daylight, before the hot sun stifles bird activity and heat haze makes viewing difficult. I decided to concentrate on the area around Vergieres, which these days is now a protected reserve complete with signboards and a hide. Despite the inevitable changes to the surrounding areas, thankfully the birds here are more or less the same as they were on that first visit 23 years ago.

Today I spent around three hours slowly walking a clockwise circuit of the Vergieres steppe. One of the first birds I saw, close to the parking area, was a Eurasian Stone-Curlew. I went on to see a couple more of these enigmatic birds during my visit. Greater Short-toed Larks are very numerous here, regularly seen song-flighting overhead, but far harder to get close to on the ground. A couple of Crested Larks and two Tawny Pipits were also typical birds for this area.

One of the key target species, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, proved fairly easy to find, with several pairs and groups of birds seen. I didn’t manage to locate any on the ground, but enjoyed some excellent and close flight views. From the “hide” in the top of an old barn, several flocks of Lesser Kestrels hunted or perched on the stone mounds. I didn’t have a telescope, which would have been useful to scan for Little Bustard, so unfortunately I didn’t see one today although an extremely distant Common Shelduck standing in the desert briefly gave me cause for a double take (what was it doing there?).

Other notable birds seen during my most enjoyable walk included an adult female Hen Harrier, several Red-legged Partridges and a Hoopoe.

2015 Year Ticks: Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Lesser Kestrel, Eurasian Stone-Curlew, Tawny Pipit, Greater Short-toed Lark (total 725).