Tag Archives: birding in France

The valleys

No, not Wales. I mean the valleys that make up my second patch in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I often climb our highest hill, Mont Major (about 530m above sea level), and just sit and look over the next valley and further South to the Pyrenees.

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200m vertically from me down to the valley floor –  a view I have photographed a hundred times

I have sat here and watched Golden Eagles on several occasions, but not this trip. Crag Martins seemed to scrape the rocks (to the right of the photo above) they flew so close in. One afternoon a much bigger shape scythed past me – it was noticeably larger than Common Swift – which I had seen drifting past in small migratory flocks – and the bright white underside showed well. For a life tick I identified it almost immediately: Alpine Swift. Unfortunately, I didn’t really manage to photograph it and only got the back view with a slight showing of the white as it flew hard and fast and south, parallel with my eyeline over the valley and towards the mountains beyond.

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Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba)

Further down the hillside, there was a lot of noise. I saw a pair of Bee-eaters hawking low over the maquis bushes. They settled back on the same tree time and again. I then realised that there weren’t two, but three, then four, five, eight, and eventually 12 of them all together. They were a long way away and below me, but I managed this photo in which nine Bee-eaters can be seen together.

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European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

What do you mean you can’t see them?! Treat it like a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ – there really are nine showing in the photo. if you have given up, here is the photo again with each Bee-eater circled, including the four together on the lower-left branch.

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12 Bee-eaters together was a European record for me. A record that would be broken just a few days later when 33 flew over our house in a single flock or ‘colony’ – I managed to get all of them in a single frame.

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Crossing over the ridge from one valley to the next was another bird hawking for large insects.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

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At one point another shape flashed out of the trees beside me and straight at the Hobby as if to mob it. I managed to steal a single usable photo of of it as it went over my head. Given the proximity, it had me thinking Goshawk at first, but was actually a large female Sparrowhawk.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Over the week we were there, the number and variety of raptors was poor. I imagine many of the Short-toed Eagle‘s must have flown South already. But the paucity of variety was mitigated by a second patch sighting of Griffon Vulture which flew straight over our house, albeit very high.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Back down on the land, my wife must get the credit for spotting a bird fly across our path as we went for a walk. It turned out to be another patch tick for me (one of the three this trip, alongside the Alpine Swift and a Western Orphean Warbler): Red-backed Shrike. It obviously enjoyed hunting on the land as I saw it again, along with a second bird a few days later. I have long known that the area is ideal for Shrikes and so am amazed it has taken almost a decade for me to find one two here.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

The wonderful – but at the same time, difficult – thing about my French patch is that I am the only birder. All the birds are self-found in just two or three short trips a year.

So, a three patch-tick trip – not bad. About average actually, although inevitably the number of new species will taper off as my list starts to creep up into respectability. But there was actually another ‘tick’ to be had on this trip. Not a patch tick (sadly), but a full-blown life tick, albeit belatedly…

I had nipped out to the shops for some groceries and drove out a bit beyond the nearest villages – wonderful examples of rural French charm.

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“Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” – Saint Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse

I watched a chattering of Red-billed Chough circle in the sky and then drove on. Through tree-lined roads and fields of French farming… when something caught my eye. Acrobatic flight from narrow-winged raptors low down over the field. A male and female by the look of it. I am used to seeing Hen Harrier on my patch so I didn’t question that they could have been anything else. That was foolish! I pulled over and clicked off a couple of very distant shots from the car and then drove on to get supplies of cheese and wine.

It was only later when reviewing the dreadful quality photos that I realised these weren’t Hen Harrier at all, but Montagu’s Harrier. In the cropped versions of the photos the thin  black wing-band can be seen and the extensive black wing-tips stretching down much further on both upper and under side of the wing than we would see with Hen Harrier.

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

These could be birds that have spent the summer here or they could be stopping for food and frolics part-way on a journey south through Europe on their way to Africa. This means I have finally seen all of the European Harriers, having only relatively recently ticked off Pallid Harrier in Norfolk, alongside our Hen Harrier (or what is left of them before grouse-shooting estates make them extinct in England and beyond) and the conservation success story that is Marsh Harrier.

My French Patch list is still small, but it has some cracking birds on it and I feel a real sense of achievement with every new sighting as the sole birder in these remote valleys. After a scorching day in the field, I often sit back in the late afternoon and early evening with a glass of wine, beer, or a gin & tonic looking out over our valley and reflect on what I have seen and how lucky I am to experience it.

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The Maquis

The Maquis is a fictional terrorist/paramilitary organisation in Star Trek (DS9, TNG, and VOY – if you don’t know what these abbreviations mean, you probably won’t want to know) that has been formed to fight against the Cardassian (think quasi-fascist, sharp witted, scaly aliens)/Federation (the ‘goodies’ in Star Trek) alliance. They are roughly based on…

The Maquis were a terrorist/paramilitary organisation in France and (later) Spain fighting against fascist Nazi-dominated Vichy France and later the quasi-fascist Franco regime. They were named after the type of terrain they were famous for occupying and carrying out their activities…

The Maquis is a shrubland biome/ecoregion, that, along with the even scrubbier garrigue, is recognised as typical mediterranean habitat. It happens to be a major feature of the land in my birding ‘patch’ in the extreme South of France.

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Maquis on the patch, with a hunters’ track carving through it

Rather like the barren uplands of the UK that many, who haven’t read George Monbiot’s ‘Feral’, perceive to be the epitome of British wilderness, people are mistaken in thinking that  this is ‘natural’ or ‘original’ (whatever that word means in evolving ecosystems) Mediterranean habitat. Hundreds and thousands of years of agriculture has deforested (and then inevitably de-soiled) the land leaving it only fertile enough for stunted and hardy plants to grow.

On steep hillsides where soil erosion has been most intense, the Maquis has diminished to the extent that it resembles alkaline garrigue biome:

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Sparse hilly maquis resembling garrigue, also on the patch

Sometimes the vegetation is further cropped by a herd of voracious mouths whose bells give away their presence long before you see them:

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But in other parts of the patch, less affected by agriculture or, at least less recently affected, a natural process of rewilding is occurring and thicker, denser, taller forest is returning (looking much closer to how the land would have looked before the spread of human civilisation and agriculture) – impenetrable apart from wild boar paths and where the hunters’ tracks carve through the landscape like giant ochre scars:

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Holm Oak, Phillyrea, and Box woodland

It is fascinating to observe how the wildlife changes depending on the subtle variations of maturity of the Maquis. Inevitably, the thickest woodland, often on steep slopes, is the hardest to monitor, but is well populated with Short-toed Treecreeper which occasionally break out of the woodland and make an appearance closer to the house:

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Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla) on ‘Heinrich’ the totem/statue

It seems – certainly in Spring when they call and sing a lot – that Firecrest is the most common bird on the patch. As long as there is a bush or two, Firecrest are common throughout every level of vegetation:

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Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)

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Firecrest with crest on full display

Sardinian Warblers are present throughout the year in the bushes, and had started singing – occasionally even conducting low flurries of song-flight before disappearing back into their bushes (often Kermes Oak I have noticed). By the time we had arrived in late March, the Subalpine Warblers had arrived in large numbers. In Spring and Summer, they appear to be the most numerous warbler, overtaking their resident sylvian cousins, the sardis.

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Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

If the Subalpine and Sardinian warblers take the 1st and 2nd spot, Chiffchaff (which had also arrived in March) must be number three:

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Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

I would allocate the fourth podium (when is there ever a fourth podium?) back to the sylvians with Blackcap – some of which probably overwinter closing off the warblers I saw whilst there for a couple of weeks early this Spring.

Melodious Warbler, a relatively common summer breeding bird on the patch had not yet arrived even by the end of the first week in April (incidentally, neither had our watch of Nightingales).

Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits seem to love the variety of Maquis vegetation, whilst Blue Tits are frequent, but less common. Crested Tits will occasionally show themselves in the Aleppo Pine woodland on the hill, but I didn’t find any on this trip (higher up in the Pyrenees, they are everywhere!) And, of course, where there are lots of tits and other small woodland birds, you inevitably also get:

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Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Sparrowhawk is common, but perhaps not seen as frequently – in season – as Short-toed Eagle:

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Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Sadly I did not see any Hen Harrier on this visit to the patch (although I did see one elsewhere in France) as they are true masters of the Maquis scrub.

Whilst the maquis may help dictate the type of avifauna found, almost anything can soar above it. On this trip I was genuinely thrilled to see a pair of Golden Eagle soaring effortlessly over the hills:

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Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Just as oblivious as to what vegetation is on the ground, was my first patch crag martin.

Falling back to earth and thinking back to the Aleppo Pine, a rather unwelcome resident is the Pine Processionary Moth, or rather its caterpillars which march nose-to-tail across paths like blind mice. The hairs on this caterpillar can cause extreme irritation – especially if inhaled or if blown into your eyes. Allergic reactions to this have proved fatal for dogs and other animals. The caterpillars feed on pine needles, and if infested with multiple nests, the de-nuded trees might become susceptible to other forms of parasitic attack, but research shows that they are not quite as damaging to trees as some fear. I would also love to see research on the strength of the silk they weave as their nests are phenomenally tough:

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Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa)

In more open areas of the Maquis, different birds seem to thrive.

Cirl Bunting are common and flit between bushes and trees to deliver their fast rattling songs, but I was even more pleased to find Rock Bunting for the first time on the Patch:

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Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia)

Occasionally, on walks, I would push through the spikes of Juniper or Kermes Oak bushes (almost everything on the patch has a defence mechanism) and flush some ground dwelling larks. On my patch in London, Skylarks are the feature bird, delivering their famous songs from high in the sky and often rising and fluttering down almost vertically. In the French patch, Woodlarks fill this niche and perform their songflight in great circling loops.

In the most open areas – on paths, meadows, and lawns near the houses, the Black Redstart is king. I find the male’s song quite extraordinary, sounding like crushed gravel after a bunch of initial whistles. They breed in the houses and ruins:

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Female Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Occasionally, the clearings and paths attract the stunning Hoopoe. This time I stopped the car to take photos of it on the track in to the house:

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Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

Overall, it is a fascinating privilege to watch the birds utilise different aspects of the varied stages of maquis development, and to watch the land slowly, but inexorably rewild.

 

Three scenes of Southern France

We returned from our last visit to France almost a month ago, but it has taken me this long to review some of the photos I took. I have recorded before some of our trips to the Aude region in the extreme south of the country here, here, and here.

I want to reflect back on, and share, three landscapes that are now very familiar to me, but may not be well known by others:

Scene One: The Medieval French Village
Lagrasse is a stunning village built around the famous Abbey which dates from the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th Century (and no, I haven’t forgotten a digit there) and can be seen rising above the trees in the background:
Lagrasse

Hirundines whip around the sky above the narrow and ancient streets such as these nesting House Martins:

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

And in the surrounding gardens a large number of birds can be found such as this Spotted Flycatcher:

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

[It’s digression time] Despite this not being a great photo, flycatchers are probably one of my favourite types of bird to photograph. Why?… (I hear you wearily but politely ask) Well, because birding and bird photograph is bloody difficult. Birds are generally small, shy (read as ‘far-away’) things that spend their time flying around quickly or hidden in bushes and trees. When walking around with a camera, a birder is often first aware of a nearby bird when it flies off startled by your presence (they invariably see or hear you before you see or hear them). A bird in flight is generally not a bird you are going to be able to photograph and it will not settle down for quite a distance. A flycatcher, however, is different. The birder is alerted to its presence by it flying, but then it settles on a perch. It takes off again – “damn! I missed it!” but never fear, because it is likely to settle back on the same perch it launched off from, as that is how it hunts.[here endith lengthy digression]

Scene Two: The Mediterranean Valley
I have mentioned before that my wife’s family have a home in a valley near Lagrasse. In case you want to consider staying there, have a look at their website, here. Here is a view from the top of the hill next to her home down into the steeper neighbouring valley:

Valley view

To give a sense of the topography of the area, I used the excellent website topographic-map.com which is powered by Google. Below you can see where my wife’s home is marked by a big red X and where I was standing and pointing to take the photograph above marked by an arrow. You can also see the precise elevation of the hill (I intend to use that website lots):

valley map

It was in this valley that I got my photo of a Bee Eater in France. Even though the photo is crap, you get a sense of the amazing colours of this bird – if anyone can think of a more exotic looking bird found in Europe, let me know:

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

I was also pleased to get my first definitive photo of an Eagle from my wife’s house – reassuring the residents after my previous dismissive comments that soaring raptors were buzzards. I hopefully made up for my previous cynicism by confirming that it was the wonderfully named Short-toed Snake Eagle:

Short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Scene Three: The Pyrenees
My wife’s home is only about an hour’s drive from the Pyrenees, and so my final scene is from the picturesque Gorges de la Frau. Lily can be seen walking up in front of me:

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With my new-found favourite map website, you can see where I took the photo (X, as always, marks the spot) and the altitude sign is on top of the mountain – Sarrat de Rouquieres – seen in the photo to the left – higher, we should observe, than any point in Britain:

Gorges de la Frau

It was craning my neck back to stare up at the mountain that I saw a corvid with what appeared to be blazing wing-tips. The photo is distant and poor of the wonderful Alpine Chough, but I cannot really explain the reason why the light at this angle makes its all-black wing-tips look like they are on fire. If there is magic anywhere in the world, surely it is with the wildlife that lives high in the mountains:

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

The salt marshes of Southern France

The town of Gruissan sits on the Southern french mediterranean coast next to Narbonne.

L'etang de Gruissan

L’etang de Gruissan

The salt marshes there are harvested for table salt and the water is the most extraordinary colour…

Salt pans

The shallow salty water attracts a large number of waders. They are shy and I was unable to get closer than about 20 metres to any (and many stayed much further than that), but walking in between the salt pans…

Salt pans

… allowed me to get just about within photography distance of:

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

and the closely related Black-winged Stilt (which I last saw on Safari in Africa)…

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

I was also pleased with a life-first view of a Kentish Plover (albeit at great distance for such tiny birds), seen characteristically scuttling up down looking for food:

Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)

Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)

Another life first for me was this Little Tern:

Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)

Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)

And most pleasingly was the view I got of a bird I just do not associate with Europe at all. Whilst not a life first, I was delighted with my European first sighting of Greater Flamingo:

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

As the sun beat down harshly, and a strong hot wind blew salt into my face as I walked for a couple of miles out through the marshes and onto the mediterranean beach, I reflected on how I was in one of only a small handful of sites in France where you can see Flamingos. To misquote some communists, there is an irrepressible joy and lightness of being in the wild:

Gruissan plage