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Flocks of Greater Flamingos float like pink clouds on the lagoons of the Camargue, and when they take flight -- wow, what color! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Birding in France in the fall has been a staple of my schedule for nearly two decades now, and I can't think of a more enjoyable way to spend a week-plus. The combination of gourmet food, fine wines, spectacular scenery, and plenty of birds yields a trip to remember. And while the diversity may seem low to those more used to the frenetic activity of the American tropics, it gives us the chance to really savor every encounter.
We started our tour in the vast, watery wonderland of the Camargue, a mosaic of rice paddies and salt pans, marshy meadows, weedy pastures, and enormous lakes. Species tied to the water were among the highlights here. Shorebirds by the hundreds pattered across flooded salt pans and muddy wetlands: Common Ringed, Little Ringed, and Kentish plovers foraged side-by side, allowing easy comparison, Curlew Sandpipers still bearing traces of their gorgeous breeding plumage poked and prodded among the drabber Little Stints, a trio of uncommon Temminck's Stints crept among a busy gang of Wood Sandpipers, and snappy Pied Avocets and long-legged Black-winged Stilts strode among the omnipresent pink clouds of Greater Flamingoes. We found not one, but TWO, quartets of Eurasian Spoonbills (uncommon here) scything their way across roadside ponds. At Salin de Giraud, where mountains of sea salt stood piled against the horizon, we found a massive flock of some 3000 terns -- five species in all -- plus a double handful of nose-y Slender-billed Gulls and single aptly-named Little Gull; the liftoff of that giant flock when a hunting Peregrine Falcon streaked past was pretty darned impressive!
But it wasn't all waterbirds. A morning at Mèjanes yielded great, close views of a couple of Spectacled Warblers as they rummaged along the edge of a dried-up ditch. A young Woodchat Shrike, usually long gone by the time of our tour, hunted from a woodpile. A handsome male Blue Rock-Thrush sang brief phrases from his perch atop a roadside cliff. A couple of visits to the stony Crau steppe -- once the mouth of the mighty Durance River -- yielded nice views of a preening male Lesser Kestrel, a couple of rusty-bellied, immature Montagu's Harriers hunting low over the stone piles, a well-camouflaged quartet of immature Eurasian Dotterel, sparring Tawny Pipits, ubiquitous Northern Wheatears, and scuttling pairs of Crested, Greater Short-toed, and Sky larks.
Our weather in the lowlands was hot and dry, and the earth around the Camargue seemed parched and crispy. The rasps of the region's famous cicadas echoed from dusty hillsides when we climbed into Les Alpilles, and the scents of sage and thyme and fennel and rosemary drifted up every time we stepped off road or path. The fine, settled weather may have impacted somewhat the number of migrants we saw (no need for them to stop!), but it also allowed us to enjoy our superb Provençal dinners al fresco, under the dense cover of well-cropped trees in our hotel's courtyard. And it gave us a fine evening for our picnic hors-d'oeuvres supper in an olive grove near Les Baux: wine and cheese, pate and sausages, olives, smoked salmon, a host of chopped vegetables, pears and grapes, zucchini spread and crackers, followed (after a fair bit of looking and listening) by a thrilling encounter with a pair of mighty "Grand Ducs" -- the massive Eurasian Eagle-Owl.
Then it was off to the mountains of the High Pyrenees, trading the white-stuccoed buildings with their red tiled roofs for stone houses and barns with slate roofs, and flat, waving fields of grain for brooding mountains cloaked in dense forests of spruce and fir. This is the scenic part of the tour: sweeping vistas of vast glacial bowls (like the huge Cirque de Gavarnie, where Europe's highest waterfall is dwarfed by the surrounding cliffs), jewel-toned lakes reflecting blue, blue skies and craggy mountain peaks (like the reservoir mirroring its surroundings at Lac des Gloriettes), and broad glacial valleys stretching off into the distance, bracketed by jagged ridges. This is the land of raptors. Two rare Egyptian Vultures circled around the pointed Pic du Pibeste. A young Lammergeier -- probably a chick two summers ago -- sailed past, so close that we could see its distinctive "beard". Ponderous flocks of Eurasian Griffons -- massive birds with wingspans approaching 9 feet -- cruised the ridge tops, sharing airspace with whirling swarms of Yellow-billed Choughs. Eurasian Kestrels hovered over grassy hillsides, hunting for prey.
The scenic hike up to the Cirque de Gavarnie brought many new species our way, including a big Black Woodpecker bounding back and forth over the forest, a busy mixed tit flock in one of the flats, and a little gang of Citril Finches flitting through the grasses (and on some of the larger boulders) in the Cirque itself. Our stroll into Spain through the Port de Boucharo yielded a point-blank trio of Alpine Accentors (one practically at our boot tips), good views of both species of chough, a watchful pair of Ortolan Buntings, a stripe-bellied Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, and the closest Pyrenean Chamois I've ever encountered. An afternoon in the sleepy forest of Le Lienz added hunting Spotted Flycatchers, an arm's length Crested Tit, a bevy of orange-sherbet Eurasian Bullfinches gobbling similarly colored fruits, and plenty of tiny Goldcrests. The garden of our Gèdre hotel proved the perfect place to enjoy a pair of duetting Tawny Owls, which glided overhead before landing side-by-side on a branch. A couple of White-bellied Dippers splashed in the swiftly tumbling stream just outside town. Two visits to the glorious Lac des Gloriettes gave us an agile Eurasian Wryneck, a noisy Eurasian Wren, and a pack of Dunnocks along the edge of the parking lot, and a host of Song Thrushes and European Serins along the roadway. Just no Wallcreeper, darn it!
We were still finding new birds as we worked our way back to Toulouse on our last afternoon. A picnic lunch spot just outside Bagnères de Bigorre netted us great flight views of a soaring Booted Eagle (which made multiple passes overhead) and a close Red Kite -- as well as a noisy pair of Eurasian Nuthatches. And the lovely deciduous forest around Mauvezin turned up a trio of inquisitive Marsh Tits and a single, territorial Middle Spotted Woodpecker.
Thanks so much for joining Tom and me for the ride; the fun group dynamics definitely added a nice dimension to the tour! We hope to see you all again soon on another adventure.
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)
GRAYLAG GOOSE (Anser anser)
A Red-legged Partridge scurries across the Crau steppe like a wind-up toy. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor)
COMMON SHELDUCK (Tadorna tadorna)
GADWALL (Anas strepera)
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Anas clypeata)
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (EURASIAN) (Anas crecca crecca)
Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)
RED-LEGGED PARTRIDGE (Alectoris rufa)
A short spell of lowering clouds and increasing winds brought several kettles of migrating Black Storks down into nearby marshy fields. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
GREAT CRESTED GREBE (Podiceps cristatus)
EARED GREBE (Podiceps nigricollis)
GREATER FLAMINGO (Phoenicopterus roseus)
BLACK STORK (Ciconia nigra)
Little Egrets, sister species to Snowy Egrets of the Americas were common across the Camargue. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)
GREAT CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Ardeidae (Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns)
GRAY HERON (Ardea cinerea)
PURPLE HERON (Ardea purpurea)
GREAT EGRET (Ardea alba)
LITTLE EGRET (Egretta garzetta)
The tour's only Squacco Heron flaps over the marshes, flashing its distinctively white wings. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
CATTLE EGRET (Bubulcus ibis)
SQUACCO HERON (Ardeola ralloides)
Threskiornithidae (Ibises and Spoonbills)
GLOSSY IBIS (Plegadis falcinellus)
EURASIAN SPOONBILL (Platalea leucorodia)
OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus)
According to reports from friends who live in France, there has been a surge of Eurasian Spoonbills breeding in the Camargue this year. We saw quartets on several days -- including this youngster, identified as such by its black wingtips. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)
LAMMERGEIER (Gypaetus barbatus)
EGYPTIAN VULTURE (Neophron percnopterus)
EUROPEAN HONEY-BUZZARD (Pernis apivorus)
EURASIAN GRIFFON (Gyps fulvus)
A Common Raven keeps tabs on a Short-toed Snake-Eagle passing through its territory. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
SHORT-TOED SNAKE-EAGLE (Circaetus gallicus)
BOOTED EAGLE (Hieraaetus pennatus)
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)
EURASIAN MARSH-HARRIER (Circus aeruginosus)
MONTAGU'S HARRIER (Circus pygargus)
A dark morph, juvenile Eurasian Honey-Buzzard shows the narrow head and long tail that help to separate it from its cousin, the Common Buzzard. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK (Accipiter nisus)
RED KITE (Milvus milvus)
COMMON BUZZARD (Buteo buteo)
LITTLE BUSTARD (Tetrax tetrax)
A Eurasian Sparrowhawk flaps across a peachy early morning sky, headed south. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, and Coots)
WATER RAIL (Rallus aquaticus)
EURASIAN MOORHEN (Gallinula chloropus chloropus)
EURASIAN COOT (Fulica atra)
Recurvirostridae (Stilts and Avocets)
BLACK-WINGED STILT (Himantopus himantopus)
PIED AVOCET (Recurvirostra avosetta)
The restored medieval city of Carcassonne makes a lovely backdrop for a picnic lunch en-route to the Pyrenees. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (Pluvialis squatarola)
NORTHERN LAPWING (Vanellus vanellus)
KENTISH PLOVER (KENTISH) (Charadrius alexandrinus alexandrinus)
COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula)
A quartet of migrating Eurasian Dotterels rest on the Crau steppe. As you can see, they're amazingly well-camouflaged! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
LITTLE RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius dubius)
EURASIAN DOTTEREL (Charadrius morinellus)
Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)
COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos)
GREEN SANDPIPER (Tringa ochropus)
COMMON GREENSHANK (Tringa nebularia) [*]
A snowy-winged Mediterranean Gull makes a close pass overhead. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
WOOD SANDPIPER (Tringa glareola)
COMMON REDSHANK (Tringa totanus)
EURASIAN CURLEW (Numenius arquata)
CURLEW SANDPIPER (Calidris ferruginea)
TEMMINCK'S STINT (Calidris temminckii)
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)
A Slender-billed Gull brackets the right end of a line of Black-headed Gulls on the Camargue. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta)
COMMON SNIPE (Gallinago gallinago)
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
SLENDER-BILLED GULL (Chroicocephalus genei)
BLACK-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus)
MEDITERRANEAN GULL (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus)
The big Yellow-legged Gull was only recently split from the Herring Gull complex, though studies have shown its more closely related to the Lesser Black-backed Gull. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
YELLOW-LEGGED GULL (Larus michahellis)
LITTLE TERN (Sternula albifrons)
GULL-BILLED TERN (Gelochelidon nilotica)
CASPIAN TERN (Hydroprogne caspia)
BLACK TERN (EURASIAN) (Chlidonias niger niger)
WHISKERED TERN (Chlidonias hybrida)
A selection of the spectacular vistas we see on the tour. Video by guide Tom Johnson.
COMMON TERN (Sterna hirundo)
SANDWICH TERN (Thalasseus sandvicensis)
Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia)
COMMON WOOD-PIGEON (Columba palumbus)
EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (Streptopelia decaocto)
EURASIAN EAGLE-OWL (Bubo bubo)
Huge Alpine Swifts cut rakish silhouettes over the track up to the Cirque de Gavarnie. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
LITTLE OWL (Athene noctua)
TAWNY OWL (Strix aluco)
ALPINE SWIFT (Apus melba)
EURASIAN HOOPOE (Upupa epops)
A flyby Eurasian Hoopoe nicely shows its flashy black-and-white wings. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
COMMON KINGFISHER (Alcedo atthis)
EUROPEAN BEE-EATER (Merops apiaster)
EUROPEAN ROLLER (Coracias garrulus)
The gorgeous European Bee-eater certainly refutes the idea that all European birds are boring little brown things! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
EURASIAN WRYNECK (Jynx torquilla)
LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos minor)
MIDDLE SPOTTED WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos medius)
BLACK WOODPECKER (Dryocopus martius)
EURASIAN GREEN WOODPECKER (Picus viridis)
The European Roller really comes into its own in flight, where its flashing navy and turquoise wings are obvious. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)
LESSER KESTREL (Falco naumanni)
EURASIAN KESTREL (Falco tinnunculus)
EURASIAN HOBBY (Falco subbuteo)
PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus)
SOUTHERN GRAY SHRIKE (Lanius meridionalis)
In older, more superstitious times, Europeans killed Eurasian Wrynecks, as witches were believed to ride them. Fortunately, now we can just enjoy their twisty antics! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
WOODCHAT SHRIKE (Lanius senator)
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)
EURASIAN JAY (Garrulus glandarius)
EURASIAN MAGPIE (Pica pica)
RED-BILLED CHOUGH (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)
YELLOW-BILLED CHOUGH (Pyrrhocorax graculus)
Eurasian Kestrels were common throughout the tour. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
EURASIAN JACKDAW (Corvus monedula)
ROOK (Corvus frugilegus)
CARRION CROW (Corvus corone)
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
GREATER SHORT-TOED LARK (Calandrella brachydactyla)
A hunting Peregrine Falcon caused terror in the ranks of terns and shorebirds gathered on the salt pans at Salin de Giraud. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
CRESTED LARK (Galerida cristata)
SKY LARK (Alauda arvensis)
BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)
EURASIAN CRAG-MARTIN (Ptyonoprogne rupestris)
BARN SWALLOW (WHITE-BELLIED) (Hirundo rustica rustica)
When they're this close, nobody has any trouble seeing the diagnostic beak on the Yellow-billed Chough! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
COMMON HOUSE-MARTIN (Delichon urbicum)
Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)
COAL TIT (Periparus ater)
CRESTED TIT (Lophophanes cristatus)
MARSH TIT (Poecile palustris)
EURASIAN BLUE TIT (Cyanistes caeruleus)
GREAT TIT (Parus major)
The Eurasian Crag-Martin is certainly not one of the world's more colorful birds! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Aegithalidae (Long-tailed Tits)
LONG-TAILED TIT (Aegithalos caudatus)
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (Sitta europaea)
EURASIAN TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris)
SHORT-TOED TREECREEPER (Certhia brachydactyla)
This little Short-toed Treecreeper appeared to be having a snooze while clinging to the bottom of a pine cone! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
EURASIAN WREN (Troglodytes troglodytes)
WHITE-THROATED DIPPER (Cinclus cinclus)
GOLDCREST (Regulus regulus)
FIRECREST (Regulus ignicapilla)
A trio of the Camargue's famous denizens -- white horses, black fighting bulls, and "gardians" (French cowboys) -- in one shot! More unusually, though, they were accompanied by a filming drone... Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Cettiidae (Bush-Warblers and Allies)
CETTI'S WARBLER (Cettia cetti)
Phylloscopidae (Leaf Warblers)
WILLOW WARBLER (Phylloscopus trochilus)
COMMON CHIFFCHAFF (Phylloscopus collybita)
Acrocephalidae (Reed-Warblers and Allies)
EURASIAN REED-WARBLER (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)
The Zitting Cisticola's wings are so short, they hardly look capable of sustained flight! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Cisticolidae (Cisticolas and Allies)
ZITTING CISTICOLA (Cisticola juncidis)
Sylviidae (Sylviid Warblers)
EURASIAN BLACKCAP (Sylvia atricapilla)
SARDINIAN WARBLER (Sylvia melanocephala)
SPECTACLED WARBLER (Sylvia conspicillata)
Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)
SPOTTED FLYCATCHER (Muscicapa striata)
Getting a good look at a couple of Spectacled Warblers was a highlight of our morning at Mèjanes. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula)
EUROPEAN PIED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hypoleuca)
BLACK REDSTART (Phoenicurus ochruros)
RUFOUS-TAILED ROCK-THRUSH (Monticola saxatilis)
BLUE ROCK-THRUSH (Monticola solitarius)
WHINCHAT (Saxicola rubetra)
The endearing little European Robin is a far cry from North America's big American Robin! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
EUROPEAN STONECHAT (Saxicola rubicola rubicola)
NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)
EURASIAN BLACKBIRD (Turdus merula)
SONG THRUSH (Turdus philomelos)
MISTLE THRUSH (Turdus viscivorus)
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris)
European Pied Flycatchers were among the tour's most common migrants, seen nearly every day. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
ALPINE ACCENTOR (Prunella collaris)
DUNNOCK (Prunella modularis)
Motacillidae (Wagtails and Pipits)
WESTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL (Motacilla flava)
GRAY WAGTAIL (Motacilla cinerea)
Black Redstarts perched on nearly every available elevated spot in the highlands. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba)
TAWNY PIPIT (Anthus campestris)
TREE PIPIT (Anthus trivialis)
WATER PIPIT (Anthus spinoletta)
Emberizidae (Buntings and New World Sparrows)
YELLOWHAMMER (Emberiza citrinella)
ROCK BUNTING (Emberiza cia)
Alpine Accentors proved exceptionally confiding in the Port de Boucharo, where they fed right beside the path. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
ORTOLAN BUNTING (Emberiza hortulana)
CORN BUNTING (Emberiza calandra)
Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)
COMMON CHAFFINCH (Fringilla coelebs)
EURASIAN BULLFINCH (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)
RED CROSSBILL (Loxia curvirostra)
EUROPEAN GOLDFINCH (Carduelis carduelis)
Water Pipits were reasonably common in the high elevation meadows of the Port de Boucharo and the Col du Tourmalet. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
EURASIAN LINNET (Carduelis cannabina)
CITRIL FINCH (Serinus citrinella)
EUROPEAN SERIN (Serinus serinus)
Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)
HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus)
EURASIAN TREE SPARROW (Passer montanus)
The distinctively crossed bill of the Red Crossbill identifies it even in silhouette. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
OLD WORLD RABBIT (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
EUROPEAN BROWN HARE (Lepus europaeus)
ALPINE MARMOT (Marmota marmota)
EUROPEAN RED SQUIRREL (Sciurus vulgaris)
EDIBLE DORMOUSE (Glis glis)
NUTRIA (Myocastor coypus)
Alpine Marmots were introduced to the Pyrenees from the Alps, to give the local shepherds something other than their own sheep to eat. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
STOAT (SHORT-TAILED WEASEL) (Mustela erminea)
PYRENEAN CHAMOIS (ISARD) (Rupicapra pyrenaica)
Totals for the tour: 161 bird taxa and 8 mammal taxa