Tag Archives: Birding France

Trip Report: The wetlands of Gruissan

Stretching for many kilometres south of Narbonne are a range of plains and wetland habitats that are renowned birding and wildlife hotspots. I have visited several times. I thought a brief trip report might be of some value.

I spent a day there on 30 July 2021. 

Plains of Narbonne (eBird: Pont Gruissan and Roc de Conilhac)

I approached by car before sunrise on the small D32 road to the west of Gruissan. Crossing the Canal de la Robine at Ecluse de Mandirac (where on the way back Black Kites would be circling), I was almost immediately faced with fields full of White Stork and Cattle Egret.

After just a couple of kilometres along the D32, the flat fields open further into the wilder and wetter plains of Narbonne. Watching the sun rise over this vast area is spectacular. It is essentially a huge basin; very flat except for a strange mound (Roc de Conilhac) that rises up incongruously in the middle and to the right of the road I drove along. Roc de Conilhac is a renowned migration-watch hotspot and, when the North Westerlies blow in October huge numbers of raptors and storks etc are regularly counted (I intend to return some time to witness this).

The second canal (de la Reunion) you cross flows into one on the large ‘etangs’ (this translates rather oddly to ‘pond’ as some of these etangs are huge!) Étang de Campignol. A body of brackish marshy flats stretch out in between the Etang and the road. When I scanned with my bins from the Roc de Conilhac I could distantly make out large numbers of: Egrets (Great White, Cattle, and Little), Heron (Grey and no doubt Purple although I was too distant to confirm without a scope). There were also several Pelican there, which made me raise my eyebrows, but I now understand are long distance ‘fence hoppers’ from Sigean Zoo.

These wetland pools would be well worth a closer look through a careful scan with a scope as I am sure there were all kinds of goodies.

View SE from Roc de Conilhac

Zitting Cisticola perform their ‘zitting’ song flights along the edges of the plains and fields by the road. A bit further long, there is another bridge and I found the pool to the left (North) productive to watch from a parked position as there were a couple of Black-winged Stilt, and a handful of Kentish Plover tottering around the edges. It was also from here that I saw my first Flamingo of the day. 

The sun rose over Gruissan castle to the east – t’was pretty!

Looking east to Gruissan

Salt Flats of Gruissan (eBird: Salin de Gruissan) 

When the road reaches the edge of Gruissan, bear right so the road becomes the D232 and head south with the industrial salt flats to your left. If, like me, you like bleak landscapes, these are pretty cool in their own right. You drive past some buildings including a ‘salt’ gift shop on your left. Beyond this you will reach a small car park on your left where a path takes you in between the salt fields. It is a long-ish but nice walk to the beach (I do not recommend doing it in midday heat during the summer as there is zero shade).

These are great for waders, terns, and flamingos. Most notably while I was there: Kentish Plover clearly breed here in good numbers, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Common Redshank, and, most unusually perhaps, a Dunlin.

Avocet
Common Sandpiper – more obliging than most of the waders

Large numbers of Little Tern and Sandwich Tern clearly also breed here and parade up and down the pools noisily. I also recorded Common Tern and Gull-billed Tern.

Little Terns and Sandwich Terns
Gull-billed Tern
Sandwich Tern

The path takes you between the pools to a large salt Etang with large number of Flamingo (I counted a total of 428 across the pools and Etangs at this location alone).

Flamingo

Walking around the Etang, you get to the see the pumps bringing the sea water into the pools to harvest the Salt. You then reach the beach. Along the flood defences and tracts of coastal grasses and spurge, there are Tawny Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, White Wagtail, and a couple of Red-backed Shrike on look-out posts.

Red-backed Shrike

I didn’t attempt any sea-watching but there were hundreds or thousands of Yellow-legged Gull on the beach and smaller numbers of Black-headed Gull, Mediterranean Gull, and Slender-billed Gull. 

Gulls and bleak, industrial coastal landscape = heaven

Swallows, Swift, and smaller numbers of House Martin and Sand Martin are constant companions throughout the walk.

Franqui Plage (eBird: Grau de la Franqui)

A few days before my trip to Gruissan, I also went on a family beach trip to Franqui Plage. On a short walk away from the paddling and sun-bathing, towards the Grau de la Franqui and Etang de la Palme, I saw a smaller selection of the same birds listed above. I mention here as I got some great views of reasonable numbers of Slender-billed Gull here.

Slender-billed Gull

Whilst looking for a Stonechat

I’m in France – at my patch in the Corbieres in the South.

I realised – despite having been here almost a couple of weeks that I hadn’t seen any Stonechat yet. They breed here and normally just pop up on a bush in front of me. So, I decided one morning to go to a distant part of the patch where they are reliable: a large sometimes-sheep-grazed area of very scrubby garrigue.

As I walked along a dusty track just as the sun was hitting me in the horizontal – soon after dawn, I saw a bird perched up nicely in the distance.

When I raised my bins I could instantly see it was a bird I have hoped to find on the Patch for years; Woodchat Shrike. An adult female. It is honestly one of my favourite birds.

IMG_4475v2

Female Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator)

As I have never seen one here in 12 years of looking I kind of assumed it was a wandering loner or maybe a passage migrant. But then I saw a juvenile, another, and eventually three juveniles still occasionally being fed by the mother. My favourite bird is breeding on my patch. Delighted doesn’t cover it.

IMG_4493v2

Juvenile

IMG_4499v2

Juvenile with mother

I eventually also picked up the adult male on a telegraph pole in the distance.

IMG_4562v2

Male

IMG_4569v2

I just stood there for a bit watching them and feeling very happy. While I did so, a distant Hoopoe perched up on a wire as well.

IMG_4548v2

Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

Tawny Pipits and Woodlark occasionally popped up on bushes or flew around me. And then up-wind of me, a buck Roe Deer wandered right past me, only noticing me when it was very close before running off. Magical!

IMG_4531v2

Buck Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)

I walked back to the house feeling very happy. And there, right near the house was a family of Stonechat I had gone looking for.

IMG_4798v2

A young Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

Corbieres Garden Watch: Birds

I normally walk reasonably lengthy distances birding my second patch in the Corbieres region (reminder: think limestone hills and out-crops, medieval villages, scrubby, largely evergreen hillsides, and the beginning ripples of the Pyrenees) in the South of France. On this trip, given the extreme heat (we are a couple of hours drive from the record-breaking areas of 45-46 degree centigrade, but it was still 39 degrees when we arrived in France), and the fact that I now have a small baby, meant that I was a lot less mobile. This, in turn, meant most of my birding was done later in the morning in the shade from the house and sat on the patio looking west down the valley.

IMG_4193

My wife and son and the cypress mentioned in this post

Late June / early July is hardly peak time for passerine song, but three male Nightingale sang for brief periods daily (and nightly) within ear-shot of the house (I counted three more territories elsewhere on the land). Woodlark were not doing the big circling song-flights that I love watching in the Spring, but one or two would occasionally pop up and down for a brief burst and their stubby shapes were regular sights being flushed as we drove to-and-from the house down the 2km track. A new singer for me on the patch was Tawny Pipit; whilst common in the local region, it has eluded me hyper-locally until now.

IMG_0322v2

Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris)

IMG_4286v2

Classic Tawny Pipit territory – where I found it

Our other key songster, Melodious Warbler, was another daily regular, but was only heard in brief snippets of song once or twice. Our two most common warblers, Western Subalpine Warbler and, the year-round-resident, Sardinian Warbler, were both extra noticeable this year, but mostly not in song. Plenty of successful breeding evidence from both was noted, and family groups of Subalpine Warbler occasionally moved up and down the garden cypress tree with the juvenile birds having their catches supplemented. Common Whitethroat, Blackcap and Chiffchaff were much less prevalent but recorded nearby. I got one view, once, of a silent juvenile (or just dull female?) Dartford Warbler.

IMG_0340v2

Juv Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata)

That garden cypress tree proved a productive focal point for finches. The local Greenfinch and vocal Goldfinch flock used it, as did an occasional Serin. A Linnet flock of six birds preferred the ground in the scrubby meadow behind the house, and Chaffinch song was heard daily, but they seemed less inclined to come close to the house. Cirl Bunting sang a couple of times near the house, and slightly further up the hill I was pleased to connect with Rock Bunting, albeit disproving my own theory that they only showed up during winter months when the mountains were too snowy and ice-covered.

A row of cypress trees a few metres to the left of our big garden tree housed nesting Firecrest. Amongst the other visitors to the tree during the week, a highlight was Crested Tit which watched me from the top of the tree as I took its photo whilst sat in a deckchair (easy birding!).

IMG_0050v2

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

Black Redstart continued to perform as one of the most reliable ‘garden’ birds and a fledgling bird, still with oversize-wide bill, hopped around on our patio as I watched it from the kitchen. There were also a pair of semi-fledged Great Tit still being fed by their parents on the floor, only partially covered by undergrowth, right next to the barn and Blue Tits also seem to have had a successful year.

In the spirit of ‘why go to the birds, when the birds can come to me’, Turtle Dove flew over once, but was heard burbling away somewhere nearby more frequently. Also largely invisible, but regularly audible was Cuckoo. Great Spotted Woodpecker – not a common bird at all in the scrub land – was heard one day from our nearest pines.

Two years ago I photographed a single colony of 33 Bee-eater fly over the house. I certainly didn’t get a repeat of that, but never have I so consistently seen and heard Bee-eaters around the house. Every day I would hear their calls, and eventually I even stopped scanning the hillsides to see them perched up of swooping up and down. As we drove out on a couple of trips, they perched tantalisingly close on telegraph wires, making me curse the fact I didn’t have my camera handy.

Our local breeding Raven were less of a feature of this trip than almost any I had made before, although I occasionally heard their calls distantly and watched a pair on one of the valley stone outcrops one evening. Jays were the only other corvid on the trip garden list.

Raptor watching was patchy at first and then, at times, truly excellent:Watching six Griffon Vulture kettling over the house was a patch-record and a highlight for me.
Short-toed Eagle, as usual for the summer months was the most commonly seen raptor; mostly sailing over silently, but on a rare walk to the top of our local hill (Mont Major at 541m above sea level), a pair made an absolute racket as they flew past together.
Frustratingly, I fluffed the ID of a suspected Booted Eagle which I saw briefly before it disappeared over a hill: shape and brief view of colouration looked good but my impression of size was that it was noticeably bigger than Short-toed Eagle.
A pair of noisy Peregrine appeared briefly (a rare sight over the patch).
I also got one view of a Kestrel flying purposefully past the house carrying prey.
The patch highlight of the trip was undoubtedly good views of a young Montagu’s Harrier our main ruin on the land. I noticed it almost static in the air some distance away, but it then scythed around the curved contours of the hillsides (a first for me here, although I once had a pair a few miles away over a field).

IMG_0420v2

Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

IMG_0389v2

Underside plumage in transition it seems – reds still visible

On my walk to the top of the hill, I got good views of Crag Martin and Common Swift (I have had Alpine Swift here in the past). Whilst not very exciting for readers, I recorded my first ever House Martin on the French Patch this trip, a small flock passing high over head and hawking with the Swifts. House Martin and Swallows are teeming in the local villages a few miles away, but neither seem to be seen over this wild and remote valley, which is where the wild things are (Crag Martin in this case), so this was a welcome sighting. As with buses, I saw them almost every day after that, so perhaps the local village populations are hunting further afield now.

Whilst not seen from my ‘garden watch’ location, Meadow Pipits and Red-legged Partridge were flushed by the car along the track within the patch boundaries and Hoopoe flew over the car about a mile from our track. The best local (off-patch) sighting of the trip was probably a circling White Stork near the Medieval village of Lagrasse – this is the closest I have seen this species to the Patch and raises the chances that I will hopefully get one one day from the House. Straying from birds, I finally added Hare to my patch mammal list, joining at least two bat species, Stoat, Wild Boar, and Roe Deer (unfortunately I have only experienced Red Deer from the tales of the hunters takings from around (or illegally on) our land).

IMG_0266v2

Juv European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Considering I barely left the garden, and we were largely being baked by the sun, this was still some enjoyable birding and this hopefully gives a sense to any readers of what can be found with minimal effort in the Corbieres. The butterflies probably outperformed the birds this trip, but I will save that for a separate trip report.

IMG_4357v2

The scene of most of my observations

IMG_4330v2

March 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only made it out on to the patch three times in March, recording 50 species of birds. Five of these species were new for the year, and one was a patch life tick.

Highlights were:

  • The stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond found by Rob S. on 31 March – my first full patch life tick this year.
  • Winning the local Wheatear sweepstake by correctly predicting 17 March as the first arrival. Seeing it perch up nicely after being found by Tony B.
  • Hearing my first Cetti’s Warbler (found by Marco J.) on Wanstead Flats (last bird being on the Roding) also on 17 March.
  • Spring being sealed on 23 March by singing Blackcap and first sighting of Sand Martin.

Lowlights were:

  • Whilst pleased to see some of the early Spring arrivals, I missed a few others that my colleagues picked up, namely a record early House Martin and Swallow.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Adding a new bird to my French Patch list (albeit not the most exciting of additions): Mistle Thrush.
  • Other highlights of a week working my French Patch were: Griffon Vulture, lots of Golden Eagle sightings, courting Ravens, singing Woodlark, Black Redstart, Stonechat closer to the house than I have had before, Crested Tit, singing Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting, and more Sardinian Warbler than you would know what to do with.

My birding month in five pictures:

IMG_9106v2

Crested Tit – France

IMG_9165v2

Black Redstart – France

IMG_9277v2

Skylark – Wanstead

IMG_9295v2

Wheatear – Wanstead

IMG_9358v2

Garganey – Wanstead!