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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

France: Birding à la Française

Birds, Wine and Cheese in Southern France

2024 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This was another fantastic ‘Birding à la française’ tour! Blessed by beautiful spring weather during most of the tour (we only had some rain the very last two days), we had fantastic encounters including prolonged views on a lovely Eurasian Wryneck in Corsica, scope views on a beautiful male of Black Grouse displaying from the top of a tall spruce after our early dawn walk in the Vercors, close and prolonged views of a Ring Ouzel perched just overhead in the Vercors, several displaying males of Little Bustard in a grassy field near Camargue, memorable views of 200+ Griffon Vultures litteraly diving from the sky to a carrion, repeated views on the beautiful Squacco Heron, a group of a dozen Collared Pratincole flying close overhead and offering fantastic views,  flocks of colourful Greater Flamingos, or the minute punk-like Firecrest showing well its flashy crest! Beside birds, we also had great memories of our splendid picnics during which we tested more than 20 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 editions of this succulent tour!

IN DETAIL: Our tour began in Bastia. We met at our hotel, and after a short introductory briefing we spent 20 minutes in front of the hotel, enjoying great views on 150+ Pallid Swifts, screaming and flying overhead together with a few Common Swifts, as well as our first Hooded Crows and Yellow-legged Gulls. We were now all ready to start this exciting coming tour!

On our first morning we drove north to the village of Macinaggio, following a beautiful coastline with turquoise water and passing by a few lovely villages, and also stopping on the way to admire a beautiful male of Blue Rock Thrush singing on a rocky ridge. Once at Macinaggio, we first birded some foothill shrubland, finding there a female Northern Weather, two Tawny Pipits, a pair of Woodlark and a few European Goldfinches. High in the sky, a European Marsh Harrier was migrating north. But the main attraction here was doubtless a lovely male of Marmora’s Warbler who showed very well preening atop some low shrubs.

We then drove back to the Macinaggio wetland. At the northern tip of the island, this wetland is a stunning stopover for migrants before their last step to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Walking along the wet fields, we rapidly found a few singing Corn Buntings, European Starlings together with its close relative Spotless Starling, a pair of Whinchat, a male Red-backed Shrike, or a Great Reed Warbler, while dozens of European Bee-eaters and a few Barn Swallows were migrating north. A lovely male of Moltoni’s Warbler was doing its flight display, when suddenly an immature male of the rare Pallid Harrier offered stunning views!

After a beautiful morning, we had a delicious lunch of grilled fishes, and then headed towards the Biguglia Lake for a stop on our way towards the Asco Valley. There we enjoyed fantastic views on Eurasian Bee-eaters, a large group of Hooded Crows, our first Greater Flamingos, Red-crested Pochards, and between a few dozen Yellow-legged Gulls we also spotted three of the beautiful Audouin’s Gull. We also had a fantastic view on a very cooperative Cetti’s Warbler most often detected by its very loud song, a Common Reed Warbler, and a lovely male of Sardinian Warbler. But the most unexpected sighting here were probably the two Little Bitterns flying close and landing in a dense reedbed. Fantastic!

We then followed our way towards the Asco valley. Doing a stop by an open field, where we had cracking views on no less than three Woodchat Shrikes of the insular badius subspecies, as well as on a pair of European Stonechat and Tawny Pipit. Surrounded by spectacular sceneries, we then arrived at our hotel perched at 5,000 feet in the mountain in the late afternoon. After check-in and some rest, we were nicely welcomed by a succulent Corsican dinner and excellent Corsican red wine.

We had a full day admiring the ever-changing landscapes of the Asco valley. In the morning, we mostly prospected the beautiful forest of Laricio Pine Tree, where we had unforgettable views on a Corsican Nuthatch, the only bird species endemic to France! In the forest we also had numerous Coal Tits, a few Chaffinches and we even encounter the lovely Eurasian Treecreeper.

In more open habitat we also found a few Corsican Finches, a few Goldfinches, a singing Blackcap, while high in the sky were soaring Red Kites and Golden Eagles. The beautiful and tiny Firecrest was also seen well, and beside birds we also discovered an amazing number of beautiful flowers, including the impressive Asphodel fields. After such a successful morning we had a lunch at the hotel and after a deserved break, we birded the lowest part of the Asco valley. Following the canyons of the lower part of the valley we found a lovely White-throated Dipper as well as the beautiful Gray Wagtail foraging on the riverside.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a bar were Pierre and Fabrice are used to stopping for a Pastis, a Cap Corse, or a Pietra (Corsican bear made with chestnut), where beside drinks, we also enjoyed prolonged views on Ravens and Red Kites. After a beautiful day, it was now time to drive back to the hotel for a sumptuous dinner of Figatelu (a Corsican sausage) and Brocciu (a delicious sheep milk cheese), served with an excellent ‘Patrimonio’ red wine. What a day!

On our last day in Corsica, we did a last stop in the Asco valley, saying goodbye to Moltoni’s Warblers and the fields of Asphodele in bloom. We also had great views on a pair of Great Spotted Woodpecker, and even spotted a soaring Sparrowhawk and a beautiful male Mouflon was also seen well, dominating the impressive scenery!

Back to the lowlands, we stopped at a small forest patch, where we found a lovely singing European Turtle Dove, a male Eurasian Blackcap, a few Spotless Starlings, and our first Eurasian Robins. But the best find here was definitely the stunning Eurasian Wryneck that perched in the open and offered great scope views. We then stopped at the small village of Ponte Leccia to buy some picnic supplies, and followed our way to Biguglia Lake. Scanning some grass fields, we have been lucky enough to find a beautiful 2nd year male of Red-footed Falcon, hunting for insects and giving stunning views. What a bird!

After a delicious picnic near the Biguglia lake, we explored this protected wetland finding a few new birds such as Little Grebe, a Eurasian Hobby and Zitting Cisticola. It was now time to board our ferry to sail to Continental France. Once onboard, we all met outside to enjoy a glass of wine while watching Yelkouan’s and Scopoli’s Shearwater in the sunset lights.

After a smooth night and breakfast onboard, we arrived in the early morning in Marseille and drove straight to the Camargue. We had three full days to explore the Camargue, Crau and Alpilles, some of the top birding areas in France. 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!). During our three mornings in Camargue we saw plenty of birds and some of the best sightings included large flocks of Greater Flamingos and Mute Swans, numbers of waterbirds including groups of Common Shelducks, hundreds of Dunlins in breeding plumage together with Little Stints, Sanderlings and Curlew Sandpipers, the elegant Pied Avocets and Black-winged Stilts, close groups of Slender-billed Gulls, Gull-billed, Sandwich Terns and the minute Little Terns, or the common and cute Western Yellow Wagtails. We also had great views at both Eurasian Marsh Harrier and Short-toed Eagle, as well as at Great Reed Warblers, Melodious Warblers, Common Cuckoos and so many more!

And amongst rarer species, let’s mention a fantastic view of a displaying Spectacled Warbler seen very well atop some short bushes, a stunning male of Bearded Reedling seen very close, a beautiful male of White-winged Tern in full breeding plumage together with a few Whiskered Terns, a few lovely Squacco Herons, or a group of 14 Red Knots in full breeding plumage slightly delayed in their migration to the North. Amazing! And obviously, all mornings in Camargue ended with great food, at typical local restaurants such as Mas Saint-Bertrand near Sambuc where we could taste the delicious bull stew!

During two of our evenings, 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 one of the evenings visiting the vineyard ‘Mas de Gourgonnier’, where we obviously tasted some of their excellent wines. Another day, we walked in shrublands of Green and Kermess Oaks, having great views on both Dartford and Subalpine Warblers, as well as on a colourful pair of Red-legged Partridge. We also have been very lucky to see the rare and local Bonelli’s Eagle! And after a picnic dinner to enjoy the evening lights, we also had fantastic views on an adult Eurasian Eagle-Owl together with its two chicks still in down, a displaying Eurasian Nightjar, and the minuscule Eurasian Scops-Owl seen so well perched on a telephone post!

We also explored 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 obviously birds. The visit rules of the Nature Reserve made the visit quite difficult, but walking along one of the tracks crossing the reserve, we found a few Eurasian Thick-knees, got excellent views on a dozen Lesser Kestrels, and enjoyed the song of Skylarks and nice views on Crested Larks. After 2 km walk, we even found a few of the very rare and local Calandra Larks!

After three wonderful days in the Camargue area, it was now time to explore 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 traveling day by the scenic drive through the impressive Nesque Canyon where several pairs of Griffon Vulture breed, and where we also had great views on a singing male of Rock Bunting. After this introduction, we drove along the Sault plateau, had a succulent picnic lunch introduced by a pleasant ‘apéro’ in the picturesque village of Aurel, stopped at the remarkable village of Montbrun-les-Bains, and followed our way towards Remuzat. We spent most of the afternoon above the little village of Remuzat, near a known location where conservationists dispose carcasses for the vultures. 100+ Eurasian Griffons were flying around and amongst them we found at least three individuals of the rare Cinereous Vulture. A few European Honey-Buzzard were also migrating north high in the sky, Red-backed Shrikes and Common Nightingale were breeding in the edges, and different kinds of wild orchids were blooming in the meadows. To conclude this lovely day, we all enjoyed a glass of Clairette-de-Die, a local sparkling wine, followed by a succulent dinner at our lovely hotel in La-Motte-Chalancon.

Coming back in the morning to this stunning spot, we found our first Common Chiffchaff, the very local Western Orphean Warbler, and a beautiful male Ortolan’s Bunting singing atop a small tree. We then headed towards our final destination, the Vercors in the Alpes. The landscapes during our drive, of limestone cliffs alternating with patches of forest and respectful agriculture, were absolutely beautiful. On the way, we stopped at another vulture feeding station, and luckily just after a carrion has been dropped: hundreds of griffons were soaring above the spot, and studently dove to the carrion! What an impressive and memorable sight!

Before checking-in our hotel in La-Chapelle-en-Vercors, we spent part of the afternoon birding the nearby ‘Plateau du 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, Mistle Thrush, Eurasian Robin, Eurasian Jay and Chaffinch. Besides these common species we also had good views on Willow Tits, Eurasian Bullfinches and Tree Pipit.

In the early morning, most of the group decided to visit a Black Grouse lek, actually starting our walk by night while a Eurasian Woodcock was still displaying, reaching it at dawn after a 1,5 miles hike. Songs of Mistle Thrushes, Dunnocks, Eurasian Robins and Eurasian Blackbirds accompanied us during the walk. Arriving at the known clearing, nothing was singing but we decided to stay at the edge of the clearing. A male Ring Ouzel was alarming in a nearby tree, but after 30 minutes, we still couldn’t locate any Black Grouse. The wind wasn’t helping much to locate them, but walking through the open area, we finally located a displaying male, offering nice scope views! What a fantastic reward for our early walk!

On our way back we also found a few Citril Finches and heard a distant Black Woodpecker. It was now time to drive back to the hotel for a full breakfast and to continue our birding morning. Visiting some high elevation meadows, we found a large flock of Yellow-billed Chough, a few Red-billed Chough, some singing Yellowhammers and a few Northern Wheatears in beautiful breeding plumage. Our afternoon birding was complicated by some rain and wind, but after some efforts we manage to add the Eurasian Nuthatch and Marsh Tit on our already very long list.

To conclude a wonderful tour, we had a memorable farewell dinner at a local well-known restaurant. The weather being still bad for our last morning in the Alps, we decided to drive down and stop at the lovely village of Point-en-Royans. There, we had great views on adults and fledglings White-throated Dippers, as well as Common Merganser including two females carrying young chicks on her back, concluding a fantastic tour!

                                                                                                                                                                            -          Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 21 May 2024