Our inaugural Loire Valley: Birds, Chateaux and Wine tour tested the new concept of combining one of our birds and wine tours with yet another component -- a bit of culture -- and the resulting combination seemed largely to be a success. We spent our mornings searching for birds in forests, grasslands, wetlands and agricultural areas between the mighty Loire River and several of its larger tributaries (with trips further afield to the pond-pocked regions of the Sologne and La Brenne on several days) and turned our attention to a few of the region's many wineries and chateaux in the afternoons.
We started our adventures in the town of Chinon (once we'd made our way there from the Paris-CDG airport, that is). This lovely old town, dominated by its partially reconstructed castle, sprawls along the banks of the Vienne, not far east of that river's confluence with the Loire. From there, we ventured out into the surrounding countryside, finding golden fields of ripening wheat and barley studded with bright red poppies and alive with the songs of Cirl Buntings, Melodious Warblers and Common Chaffinches. Small copses of woods held busy family parties of Great and Eurasian Blue Tits, a Mistle Thrush shouted challenges from a dead tree top, and a plain-faced Garden Warbler flitted along a pond edge. After a morning spent getting familiar with some of the region's common birds, we headed to Fontevraud for lunch (accompanied by our first regional rosé) followed by a visit to the massive Fontevraud Abbey, run for centuries by a series of powerful abbesses until they were turned out the by French revolutionaries, who turned it into a prison. We finished up our visit just in time to avoid getting doused by a massive thunderstorm that moved quickly in to the area.
We spent the early part of our second morning in a tiny remnant grassland, where the prizes of the day were several Little Bustards -- one black-and-white-necked bird seen throwing his head back as he performed and two males in flight, their black and white wings flashing in the early morning light. Other highlights there included Corn Buntings, a cadre of tail-wagging White Wagtails, a single Eurasian Thick-knee, a couple of speedy Red-legged Partridges and a European Stonechat hunting from a thistle stalk. A walk in some mixed woods and fields later in the morning added a ground-feeding Great Spotted Woodpecker (maybe gobbling up some of those too-numerous-to-count baby toads), several bustling young families of Eurasian Coots and an unmoving Black-crowned Night-Heron up to its middle in a pond. After lunch at a Chinon cafe, we headed up to Pierre and Bertrand Couly's vineyard, where we were treated to a grand tour of the place -- and an explanation of the importance of terroir -- by Bertrand himself, followed by a tasting of six of their Chinon varietals.
Another morning, another forest! This time we visited the big evergreen plantations east of Chinon, which are mixed with native deciduous woodlands. Patience and persistence netted us (after considerable effort) such treats as Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Western Bonelli's Warbler, while a Tree Pipit made fluttering display flights from a dead snag, a Firecrest worked its way along branches only feet off the ground, a regal Short-toed Snake-Eagle balanced on a roadside post, and our only Eurasian Hoopoe flitted down the road ahead of us. Then it was off to a catered picnic lunch in the country (complete with local wines) and a visit to the Villandry chateau, famous for its spectacular gardens -- some (like the extensive kitchen gardens, laid out in strictly regimented patterns) and others (like the wonderful "sun garden") a wildly exuberant profusion of growth.
Our transfer day proved a bit soggy, but we eked out a view of a wary Crested Tit, spotted our first flyby Common Cuckoo (after having heard what seemed like dozens) and enjoyed a pleasant (if damp) half hour along the Loire in the shelter of our raised van doors, watching Little and Common terns coursing over the river or sitting on their nests, plus Common Sandpipers, Eurasian Moorhens and a Little Ringed Plover. After a fabulous barbecue lunch at Teca's, and a visit to the troglodyte house in their back yard, we headed on to the winery of Chateau Gaudrelle, where Pedro took us on a short guided tour before offering us a taste of several of their white and sparkling wines paired with some fine local goat cheeses.
Our next hotel, in the town of Cours-Cheverny, allowed us to explore areas far to the east of Chinon. Our first morning there took us to the western edge of the vast area known as the Sologne -- a well-forested region pockmarked by thousands of manmade ponds. At the Etang de Beaumont, we watched our first Whiskered Terns quarter the marsh while Common Pochards and Tufted Ducks floated below them. A Purple Heron stalked the pond edge, a Eurasian Reed-Warbler chortled from his perch on a reed stem and a jewel-bright Common Kingfisher dazzled on a post by the blind. Our afternoon was spent exploring some the massive Chambord chateau, with its unique double-helix staircase (designed by Leonardo da Vinci) and period art and furniture -- fortunately or unfortunately, visitors don't have access to all 400 of its rooms!
We spent the next full day in La Brenne, a regional nature reserve located some 60 miles south of our hotel. As in the Sologne, thousands of small manmade lakes are again a feature of the region, and some of those bodies of water sheltered screaming colonies of Black-headed Gulls, flotillas of Red-crested Pochards, and scattered Great Cormorants, while a gang of Northern Lapwings snoozed along one shore, Red-backed Shrikes hunted from fence posts and bush tops, Greater Whitethroats chortled from hedges, and our first Cetti's Warbler slipped into view. We had multiple encounters with Eurasian Marsh Harriers, and a surprise Black Stork made an appearance low over the trees.
On the following morning, we headed to Etang de l'Arche in a successful attempt to find some grebes; we eventually located all three species (Great Crested, Eared and Little), plus a quick-moving family of Hawfinches, a cooperative Common Nightingale and our first perched Black Kite. A walk in a nearby farming area gave us our first Yellowhammer (a male perched right in the open) before the heat of the day finally chased us back to town for lunch. We headed south and west to the Caves Monmousseau after lunch, taking a self-guided tour through some of the vineyard's vast cave complex -- though far less than the whole 9km length! Then it was on to the fabulous Chenonceau chateau, which stretches all the way across the pretty Cher River, for the remainder of the day.
We headed back to the western edges of the Sologne on our final morning and were rewarded with eleventh-hour sightings of several noisy Wood Warblers, a couple of inquisitive Goldcrests and an all-too-brief adult Hawfinch. Then it was back to town for a final lunch at the local bistro, and the long drive back up to Paris to the airport hotel for our final dinner together.
Thanks so much for joining us on the tour; it was fun birding and wining and dining and exploring chateaux together with you all! We hope to see you again soon on another adventure somewhere. Meanwhile, happy birding!
-- Megan and Marcelo
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
Marcelo has provided the following list of the wines we tasted on the tour.
Winery, Wine name, Appellation, Wine type, Vintage
- Vignoble Roux, Domaine des Haut Sentiers, Saumur, Rose, 2016
- Le Logis de la Bouchardiere, Les Clos, Chinon, Red, 2016
- Earl Vacher, Saumur D’origine, Sparkling, no vintage
- Pierre & Bertrand Couly, N/A, Chinon, Rose, 2017
- Pierre & Bertrand Couly, Les Blancs Closeaux, Chinon, White, 2017
- Pierre & Bertrand Couly, N/A, Chinon, Red, 2017
- Pierre & Bertrand Couly, St Louans Le Parc, Chinon, Red, 2013
- Pierre & Bertrand Couly, Le Haute Olive, Chinon, Red, 2014
- Pierre & Bertrand Couly, V, Chinon, Red, 2012
- Domaine des Forges, Manoir de Louis XI, Chinon, Red, 2015
- Domaine du Raifault, N/A, Chinon, White, 2017
- Vignoble Dubreuil, Perle de Rose, Cremant de Loire, Sparkling, no vintage
- Domaine du Raifault, Cuvee Les Allets, Chinon, Red, 2014
- Domaine Des Hautes Brosses, Ancestra, Anjou, 2014
- Chateau Gaudrelle, Les Ges d’Amand, Vouvray, White, 2016
- Chateau Gaudrelle, Clos le Vigneau, Vouvray, White, 2016
- Chateau Gaudrelle, Brut Mellesime, Vouvray, Sparkling, 2015
- Chateau Gaudrelle, Reserve Speciale Moelleux, Vouvray, White, 2016
- Vendanges Manuelles, Vigneau Selection, Vouvray, White, 2012
- Domaine Octavie, Veilles Vignes, Touraine, Red, 2012
- Benoit Daridan, N/A, Cheverny, Red, 2015
- Chateau de la Presle, Pineau d’Auins, Touraine, Rose, 2016
- Andre Dezat Et Fils, Domaine Thibault, Pouilly Fume, White, 2016
- Domaine de la Desoucherie, Quartet de la Desoucherie, Cheverny, Red, 2014
- Chateau du Breuil, N/A, Coteaux du Layon, Red, 2013
- Pierre & Bertrand Couly, V, Chinon, Red, 2013
- Vigneau-Chevreau, Vigneau Selection, Vouvray, Sparkling, no vintage
- Pascale Jolivet, Montagu, Pouilly-Fume, White, 2017
Totals for the tour: 106 bird taxa and 5 mammal taxa