After several years without a Camargue and Pyrenees tour on our books, it was wonderful to get back to that delightful corner of the world. And France welcomed us back with pleasant weather (despite an initially rather dire forecast), spectacular scenery, some great food and wine, and a plethora of fine birding encounters. Add a fun group of traveling companions, and what more could you ask for?!
We started, as usual, in the flat, sunny lowlands of the Camargue. Though it had been remarkably hot and dry in France for many months before our tour, we were surprised to find copious standing water throughout the region -- and plenty of herons, waterfowl and shorebirds taking advantage of its presence. Clouds of dusky pink Greater Flamingoes stomped their feet in virtually every waterway. Scores of snowy white Mediterranean Gulls flapped over the salt pans at Aigues-Mortes and "nose-y", pink-tinged Slender-billed Gulls preened and paddled in the pans at Salins de Giraud. A quartet of Red-necked Phalaropes floated near a couple of scarcely-larger Little Gulls. A handful of familiar shorebirds rubbed shoulders with a host of unfamiliar cousins: leggy Black-winged Stilts, elegant Pied Avocets, an incredibly long-billed Eurasian Curlew, a few Spotted Redshanks (including one still sporting traces of its striking black breeding plumage), Little Stints scuttling like windup toys, mixed groups of Common Ringed, Little Ringed and Kentish plovers, and many more. A trio of Eurasian Spoonbills sieved the shallow waters of a pond at La Capeliere, two Little Bitterns crept through the branches of a roadside shrub, and more than a dozen Eurasian Thick-knees rested in a recently-plowed field.
Eurasian Marsh-Harriers floated over the marshes. A Little Bustard stood stock-still in a grassy farm field. A blizzard of Yellow Wagtails swirled around us while Tawny Pipits and Sardinian Warblers posed on nearby fence wires. Jewel-bright Common Kingfishers flashed back and forth along a little river, where a furtive Eurasian Reed-Warbler peered from honey-gold reed stems. A pair of White-winged Terns flashed among a hunting group of Whiskered Terns. Hammer-headed Eurasian Hoopoes enlivened a pre-breakfast walk, and others later shot past in a flurry of black-and-white wings. And who will soon forget our evening outing to the rose-gold cliffs near Les Baux, where Jay spotted a roosting Eurasian Eagle-Owl -- a huge beastie known locally as the "Grand Duc" -- almost as soon as we arrived?
From the flat lowlands, we moved to the dramatically upthrust mountains of the Pyrenees, with a few stops along the way. Lunch overlooking the picturesque walled city of Carcassone brought us a couple of diminutive Firecrests and a trunk-crawling Short-toed Treecreeper, while a motorway pit stop with a well-wooded parking area yielded a sleepy Middle-spotted Woodpecker and a busy mixed flock of locals and migrants -- including a confiding Melodious Warbler with two Chiffchaffs for convenient comparison. The mountains provided a whole new suite of birds, against absolutely spectacular backdrops. Peachy-plumaged Bearded Vultures (aka Lammergeiers) coursed against tiger-striped cliffs of the same color; one even landed on a ledge above us, giving us the chance to see its namesake "beard" in the scopes. Two different Black Woodpeckers made flashing flybys, shouting challenges as they went. Inquisitive Coal and Crested tits rummaged their way through dense evergreens, in the company of Goldcrests, Eurasian Treecreepers and Eurasian Nuthatches. Nut-brown Eurasian Crag-Martins coursed over hillsides where Black Redstarts and Northern Wheatears hunted from rock piles and Water Pipits strode across grassy swards. The shrill calls of Alpine Marmots alerted us to Golden Eagles and Short-toed Snake-Eagles, Yellow-billed Choughs swirled in huge tornadoes over ridge lines, and huge Eurasian Griffons sailed repeatedly up and down the valleys, searching for fallen livestock.
White-throated Dippers paused on convenient rocks between bouts of throwing themselves into rushing mountain streams, while tail-wagging Gray Wagtails patrolled the water's edge nearby. Fruit-laden Red-berried Elder bushes in several locations attracted a host of locals and migrants, including Blackcaps, Garden and Willow warblers, European Robins (including some still-spotty youngsters), Common Redstarts, and a juvenile Eurasian Bullfinch. A busy family of Eurasian Jays investigated the bob/luge track behind our hotel, while a trio of Great Spotted Woodpeckers checked out the nearby apple trees. A Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, winter-dulled but still handsome, sang softly from a massive boulder. And on our way back to Toulouse, a mixed flock of Long-tailed and Marsh tits (plus a few other species) entertained at one stop while a surprise Booted Eagle made a roadside stop for Red Kite even more productive. All in all, it was a most enjoyable trip.
Thanks so much for joining us for some birding -- and eating -- adventures in France. It was great fun to be back "out in the world" again. Jay and I hope to see you in the field again soon. Until then, good birding!
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
MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor)
Regular in the Camargue, especially on the Etang des Vaccares, where dozens floated among the flamingos.
COMMON SHELDUCK (Tadorna tadorna)
Several small parties on the Salins de Giraud -- some adults with bright red bills and solidly green heads, and some youngsters with more muted tones.
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)
Common in the Camargue, with most largely still in eclipse plumage.
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
Abundant in the Camargue, though outnumbered by the previous species in some places.
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (EURASIAN) (Anas crecca crecca)
Dozens snoozed along the back edge of a pond near La Capeliere, and others floated in the pond we could see from the hide on the reserve itself. Many taxonomists split this as a separate species: the Common or Eurasian Teal.
RED-LEGGED PARTRIDGE (Alectoris rufa)
A few in Jay's van got quick looks at some high-stepping across a field on our drive to the Salins de Giraud.
GREATER FLAMINGO (Phoenicopterus roseus)
Scores. Hundreds! Thousands? They gathered in soft pink drifts on virtually every body of water in the Camargue and flew in wavering, long-legged, long-necked lines over salt pans and etangs. They made it onto a number of "Three Favorite Birds" lists!
LITTLE GREBE (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Two seen from the Tour Carbonniere our first afternoon with a few others in the marshy ponds near Mas d'Agon. These small powderpuffs are closely related to the Least Grebe.
GREAT CRESTED GREBE (Podiceps cristatus)
Good looks at these large, stately grebes daily in the Camargue.
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia)
Common in the lowlands, rare in the mountains. All of the birds we saw were feral.
COMMON WOOD-PIGEON (Columba palumbus)
Abundant in the Camargue, and much rarer in the mountains -- though we did spot a few flying high over the Vallee d'Ossoue.
EUROPEAN TURTLE-DOVE (Streptopelia turtur)
One along the track near our Arles hotel, and a surprising group of four or five with the big pigeon flock at our first thick-knee spot. This species is in catastrophic decline all across Europe -- thanks in no small part to spring hunting of the species on Malta.
EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (Streptopelia decaocto) [N]
Like the other pigeons and doves, this one was regular in the lowlands and absent from the mountains. We found an active nest with chicks at the Comminges rest stop.
LITTLE BUSTARD (Tetrax tetrax)
Our first encounter was certainly frustrating -- we spotted a big group in flight near the airport, but they dropped out of sight into tall vegetation before we really got much of a look at them. Fortunately, we found a very close bird standing stock-still in an agricultural field on our drive to the Peau de Meau; that allowed us much better views!
EURASIAN NIGHTJAR (Caprimulgus europaeus)
One called several times, then zoomed past us at our eagle-owl spot near Les Baux. Most have already gone by the time of our tour.
ALPINE SWIFT (Apus melba)
A couple of these enormous swifts scythed over the pine forest near the head of the Vallee d'Ossoue, dwarfing the swallows they were hunting among. Their wingspan is a whopping 18 to 22 inches!
COMMON SWIFT (Apus apus)
A single bird -- doubtless a tardy youngster -- shot through the pass at the Port de Boucharo as we made our way back along the blustery track. Most Common Swifts are long gone towards their African wintering grounds by the time of our tour.
WATER RAIL (Rallus aquaticus) [*]
We heard their distinctive "pig squeal" calls on several days, but never did lay eyes on one.
EURASIAN MOORHEN (Gallinula chloropus chloropus)
A few -- including a fairly nondescript brown youngster -- seen from the Tour Carbonniere on our first afternoon. This species was recently split from North America's Common Gallinule.
EURASIAN COOT (Fulica atra)
Abundant, with thousands on the Etang des Vaccares. These are but the vanguard of the huge numbers that will arrive to overwinter in the area.
EURASIAN THICK-KNEE (Burhinus oedicnemus)
Some great spotting by Jay netted us more than a dozen of these aberrant shorebirds squatting in a roadside field on our drive to Salins de Giraud; their cryptic plumage really helped to camouflage them well. We saw a handful of others resting in the stony field we checked en route to the Peau de Meau. Their huge yellow eyes hint at their largely nocturnal habits.
BLACK-WINGED STILT (Himantopus himantopus)
Common in the Camargue's wetlands, particularly at Salins de Giraud, where dozens strode around on their long, pink legs.
PIED AVOCET (Recurvirostra avosetta)
Scores in the flooded pans at Salins de Giraud, including many demonstrating their distinctive, sweeping feeding style.
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (Pluvialis squatarola)
A handful, including one still in pretty nice breeding plumage, pattered along the muddy edge of the Etang des Vaccares. Though a small number overwinter in the area, most will continue south of the Sahara to western Africa; the Camargue is just a rest and refueling stop.
NORTHERN LAPWING (Vanellus vanellus)
Several hundred flapped slowly past in front of the dramatic storm clouds building north of Mas d'Agon late one afternoon. Their broad, rounded wings and strikingly black-and-white plumage (or so it looks from any distance) are distinctive in flight.
KENTISH PLOVER (KENTISH) (Charadrius alexandrinus alexandrinus)
Small numbers of these pale little plovers trotted around on the drier portions of the Salins de Giraud. This species was split from North America's Snowy Plover.
COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula)
Very common at Salins de Giraud, where many small groups rested together on mudflats or foraged along the lagoon edges. Their orange legs and chunky bills help to distinguish them from the other small plovers, as does their stockier shape.
LITTLE RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius dubius)
Far less common than the previous species, but a few seen nicely at Salins de Giraud and La Capeliere. The yellow eye ring makes this one easy to identify at close range, and the thin, pale legs and longer "back end" (i.e. wing extension) can help at a greater distances.
WHIMBREL (EUROPEAN) (Numenius phaeopus phaeopus)
One of these northern breeders stopped in the lagoon across from La Capeliere for a top-up -- conveniently close to the next species for easy comparison. This one has a shorter bill and a more boldly striped head than does the next.
EURASIAN CURLEW (Numenius arquata)
One, showing nicely its strikingly long bill, probed in the mud across from La Capeliere, giving us a leisurely opportunity to compare it with the previous species.
BLACK-TAILED GODWIT (Limosa limosa)
Kathryn and Roger found one of these passage migrants in the pond at La Capeliere during their explorations while Jay and I made our picnic lunch. Roger's photo confirmed its identity.
RUFF (Calidris pugnax)
Several scattered among the multitude of shorebirds at Salins de Giraud -- including a few males still sporting traces of their snazzy breeding plumage -- with others at La Capeliere. The long mantle feathers of this species are regularly "rucked up", which can be a useful behavioral ID clue.
CURLEW SANDPIPER (Calidris ferruginea)
A handful among the many Dunlin at Salins de Giraud, including several still showing signs of their brick-red breeding plumage. This is another passage migrant, with most spending their winters in Africa.
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)
Hundreds foraged in the lagoons at Salins de Giraud or snoozed in dark-bellied masses on the muddy fingers of slightly higher ground there. Two of the three subspecies that occur in the Mediterranean continue on to Africa for the winter.
LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta)
Quite common at Salin de Giraud, scuttling like little wind-up toys along the edges of the lagoons.
COMMON SNIPE (Gallinago gallinago)
Several surprisingly large -- and surprisingly obvious -- groups at Salins de Giraud, with others at La Capeliere. Their long bills made them easy to pick out.
RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus lobatus)
At least four (and maybe as many as six) paddled among the gulls on one of the lagoons at Salins de Giraud. This is a vagrant to the Mediterranean in the autumn; most go much further east, to the Arabian Sea.
COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos)
Small numbers teetered along the edges of various ponds, lagoons and salt pans throughout the Camargue, or flew on stiff wings across them. This is the sister species to the Spotted Sandpiper.
GREEN SANDPIPER (Tringa ochropus)
And this one is the sister species to the Solitary Sandpiper, which it strongly resembles. We saw good numbers of them around the Camargue, including eight together at La Capeliere. The dark underwing of this species in flight is distinctive.
SPOTTED REDSHANK (Tringa erythropus)
A couple at La Capeliere -- including one still showing strong hints of its black-bodied breeding plumage -- with others along the edge of the Etang des Vaccares.
COMMON GREENSHANK (Tringa nebularia)
Scattered individuals foraged along the edges of the Etang des Vaccares, often wading almost belly-deep in water. This species resembles the Greater Yellowlegs -- though with far less flashy legs.
WOOD SANDPIPER (Tringa glareola)
A little group foraged together in the pond at La Capeliere. Their bold white eyebrows -- and white rump -- help to identify these medium-sized shorebirds.
COMMON REDSHANK (Tringa totanus)
Surprisingly few seen this year, though we did get nice looks at some along the fringes of the Etang des Vaccares. Their bright red-orange legs and the bold, white wedge along the trailing edge of their wings are good field marks.
SLENDER-BILLED GULL (Chroicocephalus genei)
A group of these "nosy" gulls -- a mix of adults and immatures -- rested and preened among a big group of Black-headed Gulls at Salins de Giraud. One of the adults still showed a strong pink flush to its plumage. We found another adult in a ditch right beside the road as we worked our way out to the beach.
BLACK-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
Plentiful throughout the Camargue, where they were by far the most common of the smaller gulls. Most had already lost all trace (except for a tiny black "ear muff") of their black heads.
LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus)
A few sprinkled among the other gulls on the Salins de Giraud. They weren't a whole lot bigger than the nearby Red-necked Phalaropes!
MEDITERRANEAN GULL (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus)
Most common around the salt pans at Aigues Mortes, though we did find a trio near our lunch spot at Salins de Giraud. The all-white primary feathers of adult birds are diagnostic -- and easy to spot in flight.
YELLOW-LEGGED GULL (Larus michahellis)
Abundant and widespread in the Camargue, including big flocks rummaging in various agricultural fields. This species was split from the Herring Gull some years ago, but genetic studies have since shown that it is actually more closely related to the next species.
LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus fuscus)
A single adult foraged among a huge flock of Yellow-legged Gulls on a field along the road to the Peau de Meau. Its dark back made it easy to pick out among its paler cousins.
LITTLE TERN (Sternula albifrons)
Regular in small numbers on most days in the Camargue, including a half dozen or so chasing each other around at Mesjanes and a few roosting among the larger terns at Salins de Giraud. This is closely related to the Least Tern, which it strongly resembles.
GULL-BILLED TERN (Gelochelidon nilotica)
Best seen in the marshes around Mas d'Agon, where an adult and begging youngster made multiple passes.
CASPIAN TERN (Hydroprogne caspia)
Singles on several days, including one at Tour Carbonniere, a couple of calling birds at Mesjanes and another quartering over the marshes around Mas D'Agon. This is the world's largest tern.
WHITE-WINGED TERN (Chlidonias leucopterus)
At least two among the cadre of terns hunting a pond near La Capeliere, distinguished from the nearby Whiskered Terns by their whitish rumps and darker wing tips.
WHISKERED TERN (Chlidonias hybrida)
Regular over freshwater marshes around the Camargue, with especially nice views of the birds hunting near Mas d'Agon. A few were still is quite nice breeding plumage, showing their white "whiskers".
COMMON TERN (Sterna hirundo)
Regular in the salty and brackish waterways around the Camargue, with good numbers at the Salins de Giraud.
SANDWICH TERN (Thalasseus sandvicensis)
Abundant on the Salins de Giraud, where hundreds crammed together on some of the muddy islets in the pans, and around Aigues-Mortes.
BLACK STORK (Ciconia nigra)
A loose migrant flock spiraled over the marshes near Mas d'Agon late in the afternoon, dropping slowly down out of sight. This species breeds in big, swampy conifer forests (primarily in northern and eastern Europe), and migrates to Africa for the winter.
GREAT CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Common in the Camargue, particularly on the Etang des Vaccares where they decorated many a fishing net pole.
LITTLE BITTERN (Ixobrychus minutus)
Two in the roadside ditch at Mas d'Agon were a surprise -- only the second time the species has been recorded on one of our France tours! We had fabulous looks at the first, which crept slowly up a dead tree right beside us, apparently hoping that we hadn't noticed it. This is the sister species to North America's Least Bittern.
GRAY HERON (Ardea cinerea)
Good numbers sprinkled across the wetlands of the Camargue, with another seen flying over our hotel at Gedre on a couple of day, and one migrating over the Vallee d'Ossoue.
PURPLE HERON (Ardea purpurea)
Typically one of the tour's rarer herons, and this year proved no exception. We did get some fine views of one in an overgrown pasture near the bridge at Mas d'Agon, and another in flight where we enjoyed our first mob of Eurasian Thick-knees.
GREAT EGRET (Ardea alba)
Regular in the Camargue. This was a rare species in western Europe when we first started doing France tours 25 years ago.
LITTLE EGRET (Egretta garzetta)
Abundant throughout the Camargue, including dozens hunting in the marshes around the Tour Carbonniere our first afternoon. This medium-sized heron has yellow "slippers" like the Snowy Egret does, but shows blue-gray lores rather than the yellow of the Snowy's.
CATTLE EGRET (Bubulcus ibis)
Abundant in the Camargue, where attentive birds hovered around the feet of just about every herd of livestock we passed.
SQUACCO HERON (Ardeola ralloides)
As usual, this was the tour's other "rare heron", seen only on our first afternoon at the Tour Carbonniere. As Jay pointed out, it's really a pond-heron, and like other pond-herons, transforms from mostly brown to mostly white when it flies.
BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON (Nycticorax nycticorax)
A good-sized roost along a narrow stream near Mas d'Agon contained at least a few adults and a whole passel of jumpy youngsters.
GLOSSY IBIS (Plegadis falcinellus)
Small numbers seen on most days in the Camargue, typically in flight. This species is far more common in the eastern Mediterranean than it is in the west.
EURASIAN SPOONBILL (Platalea leucorodia)
A little group feeding in the pond at La Capeliere was a nice surprise. This species is uncommon in the Camargue.
OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus)
One flapped over the salt pans at Salins de Giraud, and another did the same at Mesjanes. Europe's birds head to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter.
BEARDED VULTURE (Gypaetus barbatus)
Fabulous encounters with one peachy adult at our lunch spot in the Vallee d'Ossoue; it glided in and perched on a ledge on the cliffs, giving us the chance to study it in the scopes. We saw a couple of others -- including a dark youngster -- at Lac de Gloriettes, and a final bird over the hotel in Gedre on the morning we headed back to Toulouse. This was another on a lot of "Top Three Bird" lists.
EUROPEAN HONEY-BUZZARD (Pernis apivorus)
Unfortunately distant views of kettling flocks on our way to the Crau steppe and from the Port de Boucharo, and one right overhead at the Col du Tourmalet (photographed by Pete). Honey-buzzards are slightly longer-winged and subtly longer-tailed than are "regular" buzzards, and are far more likely to migrate in flocks.
EURASIAN GRIFFON (Gyps fulvus)
Gratifyingly common in the Pyrenees, including some especially sizable groups over the Vallee d'Ossoue. This is one of the few places in the world where its numbers are holding steady.
SHORT-TOED SNAKE-EAGLE (Circaetus gallicus)
Seen all but one day of the tour -- and we probably just didn't look hard enough that day! Our first was sitting atop a light pole right at the Montpellier airport. We saw plenty of others, mostly in flight.
BOOTED EAGLE (Hieraaetus pennatus)
A dark-morph bird floated over the farmlands we drove through on our way back to Toulouse on the final afternoon of the tour. The distinctive pale patches on its upperwings were visible as it circled.
GOLDEN EAGLE (Aquila chrysaetos)
Seen on most days in the mountains, including one soaring above the Cirque de Gavarnie, another gliding along the ridge line in the Vallee d'Ossoue and a couple cruising back and forth in front of the cliffs at Lac de Gloriettes.
EURASIAN MARSH-HARRIER (Circus aeruginosus)
Regular in the Camargue, generally quartering close to the ground -- though not always anywhere near marsh, despite their name! We saw a migrant high over the Cirque de Gavarnie, headed for Spain.
EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK (Accipiter nisus)
A sprinkling of individuals, both in the lowlands (where we saw one flap-flap-glide past as we investigated the thick-knee spot) and in the mountains (including one soaring over the Cirque de Gavarnie.
RED KITE (Milvus milvus)
Surprisingly thin on the ground this year, with a couple seen over the motorway as we drove to the mountains, and a single distant bird at Lac de Gloriettes. Fortunately, we finally connected with a close bird on our drive back to Toulouse -- and it was in a spot where we could get out of the vehicles to enjoy good looks.
COMMON BUZZARD (Buteo buteo)
Common and widespread, recorded day. As we saw, they come in a whole variety of plumages.
EURASIAN EAGLE-OWL (Bubo bubo)
Wow! Some superb spotting by Jay netted us great scope views of this huge, orange-eyed owl shortly after we arrived at the "secret spot". Did it even take him 20 seconds?! Break out the celebratory wine!
LITTLE OWL (Athene noctua)
One sat on a stone wall near one of the sheep sheds on the Crau steppe on our early morning visit there. These small owls are partially diurnal.
TAWNY OWL (Strix aluco) [*]
A few folks heard the quavering calls of one from the hillside behind our Gedre hotel late one evening.
EURASIAN HOOPOE (Upupa epops)
Our first were a pair flicking through a tree near our Arles hotel -- a highlight of one pre-breakfast walk there. We had others at Mesjanes (where we got to see their flashy black-and-white wings as they flew) and one flew across the highway on our drive back to Toulouse. This was the third species tied for the top spot on the "Three Favorite Birds" list.
COMMON KINGFISHER (Alcedo atthis)
Regular in the Camargue, with particularly great views of the pair along the little river at Mas d'Agon, seen perched multiple times as we birded the area.
EUROPEAN BEE-EATER (Merops apiaster)
Flocks seen on all but our first day in the lowlands -- often calling from high overhead as they migrated south. We had some lovely looks at birds hunting just above the road at Mas d'Agon, particularly when they perched on some roadside wires.
EUROPEAN ROLLER (Coracias garrulus)
Also common in the lowlands, where we found many perched on wires along the roads. Their heavy-headed, "thick-necked" look was distinctive -- and their iridescent, azure wings were gorgeous in flight.
EURASIAN WRYNECK (Jynx torquilla)
One perched high in a dead conifer on the grounds of our Arles hotel got a pre-breakfast walk off to a good start. These aberrant woodpeckers typically spend much of their time on the ground, eating ants.
MIDDLE SPOTTED WOODPECKER (Dendrocoptes medius)
One clinging to the trunk of a dead tree at a highway rest stop was a nice highlight on our visit there. Its finely streaked breast and rosy vent were nicely visible in the scope.
GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos major)
One at Mas d'Agon was only seen in flight by most. Fortunately, a trio on the grounds of our Gedre hotel gave us a fantastic chance to study them up close. This is typically the most common of the tour's black-and-white woodpeckers.
EURASIAN GREEN WOODPECKER (Picus viridis) [*]
Unfortunately, we never got a look at this one, though we heard it calling several times from the trees edging the Peau de Meau.
BLACK WOODPECKER (Dryocopus martius)
One calling bird flew high overhead from one forested hillside along the track up to Cirque de Gavarnie to the other. We had closer looks at another in the forest at Le Lienz, when it made a pass by us over one of the ski runs. This crow-sized bird is Europe's biggest woodpecker.
LESSER KESTREL (Falco naumanni)
Surprisingly tough to find this year, no thanks in part to the ongoing drought and the lack of vegetation (i.e. food for prey items) that resulted. Thanks to Kathryn's sharp eyes, we did find one distant male perched on a pile of stones; its all-blue face was visible in the scopes. We saw small groups of kestrels that were probably this species interacting near some of the sheep sheds, but they were too far away to be 100% sure of their ID.
EURASIAN KESTREL (Falco tinnunculus)
Common and widespread, seen every day of the tour.
RED-FOOTED FALCON (Falco vespertinus)
A youngster perched on a pile of rocks at the Peau de Meau on our second visit -- first tentatively identified pending further photo analysis -- has now been confirmed. This is a rare vagrant to western Europe, but there was a little push of them (even as far as the UK) this autumn.
EURASIAN HOBBY (Falco subbuteo)
One raked over the fields at Mesjanes, in pursuit of dragonflies (or Yellow Wagtails!) and another did the same along the Etang des Vaccares. The dark underparts of this speedy falcon help to separate it from the kestrels.
IBERIAN GRAY SHRIKE (Lanius meridionalis)
Our first was little more than a wavering grayish blob (albeit with some flashy black and white markings) atop a distant bush near the Crau steppe. Fortunately, we got a closer look at one near one of the crumbling sheep sheds by the Peau de Meau on our last morning in the lowlands.
WOODCHAT SHRIKE (Lanius senator)
A youngster hunting along a line of bushes at Mesjanes was a nice surprise. Though they breed across southern Europe, most Woodchat Shrikes are gone by the time of our tour.
EURASIAN JAY (Garrulus glandarius)
Fleeting glimpses of several flying across roads or through trees for some -- until our last morning, when a busy family group swarmed across the bob/luge track, giving us lots of great views. This handsome bird is certainly a lot shyer than North America's jays.
EURASIAN MAGPIE (Pica pica)
Abundant throughout, with many nice encounters. Once thought to be conspecific with the Black-billed Magpie, this one was separated on the basis of various morphological and behavioral differences -- including the fact that Eurasian birds don't have "helpers" at the nest.
RED-BILLED CHOUGH (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)
Regular in small numbers in the mountains, including several small groups swirling across the hillsides in the Vallee d'Ossoue, where we could clearly see their long, down-curved red bills. In general, these travel in far smaller flocks than the next species -- often just with their mate and/or offspring.
YELLOW-BILLED CHOUGH (Pyrrhocorax graculus)
Vast flocks soared in noisy tornadoes over the ridges in the Vallee d'Ossoue and the Cirque de Gavarnie, but our best looks came in the Port de Boucharo, where a pair glided past at eye level. At close range, those stubby yellow bills are certainly eye-catching!
EURASIAN JACKDAW (Corvus monedula)
Common in the lowlands and missing completely from the mountains. The gang at the Montpellier airport gave us our first chance to see their distinctively pale eyes.
ROOK (Corvus frugilegus)
Good numbers of these shaggy crows, with their distinctively white-based bills, on the stony Crau steppe. They are typically found in sizable flocks and often fraternize with the smaller Eurasian Jackdaws.
CARRION CROW (Corvus corone)
Regular throughout, typically as individuals or pairs.
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
Scattered pairs in the mountains, including a couple keeping an eye on the Golden Eagle over the Vallee d'Ossoue, and others at Lac des Gloriettes and the Col du Tourmalet.
COAL TIT (Periparus ater)
Some great looks at several birds in mixed flocks along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie, with others in the forest at Le Lienz. This looks a lot like North America's chickadees -- though with a big white "thumbprint" on the back of its head.
CRESTED TIT (Lophophanes cristatus)
It took a bit of searching, but we finally found a couple of these handsome little chaps, with their distinctively pointy crests with one of the mixed tit flocks on the walk up to the Cirque de Gavarnie.
MARSH TIT (Poecile palustris)
A wonderfully confiding pair swirled through the trees right over our heads at an old picnic spot near Bagneres de Bigorre. The black "bib" of this species is distinctively small.
EURASIAN BLUE TIT (Cyanistes caeruleus)
Our first were a little group rummaging through the trees with the mixed flock at the rest area where we birded after filling the vans with gas. We had others on most days in the mountains, including many along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie and some right around our hotel.
GREAT TIT (Parus major)
A few on the grounds of our Arles hotel during one pre-breakfast walk, some with the mixed flock at the Comminges rest area, and more along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie. As its name suggests, this is Europe's largest tit.
GREATER SHORT-TOED LARK (Calandrella brachydactyla)
A little group scuttled through the low vegetation on the Crau steppe, winking in and out of view but eventually showing well for all.
CRESTED LARK (Galerida cristata)
A handful, sporting their distinctively pointy crests, trotted around on the dusty track at Mesjanes. We had multiple looks at their peachy underwings and short tails when passing cars and bicycles flushed them off the road.
ZITTING CISTICOLA (Cisticola juncidis)
Quite common in the Salicornia scrub around Mesjanes, including some doing their bounding "zit zit zit" display flights over neighboring fields. We had nice looks at several of these tiny songbirds in the scopes.
MELODIOUS WARBLER (Hippolais polyglotta)
Jay got one in the scope for some near where we found our first Eurasian Thick-knees (part of that big flock of Willow Warblers) but our best views came at the Comminges rest area, where a feeding bird with a mixed flock spent long minutes in the open.
EURASIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)
Super views of several creeping through the reeds along the edge of a channel at Mas d'Agon. These honey-colored warblers are pretty plain!
BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)
Quite common above the marshes at the Tour Carbonniere our first afternoon, and then never seen again for the rest of the tour. This is known as the "Sand Martin" in Europe.
EURASIAN CRAG-MARTIN (Ptyonoprogne rupestris)
Daily in the mountains, with especially nice views of several coursing back and forth over our picnic spot in the Vallee d'Ossoue.
BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica)
Daily, often in good numbers -- including the scores swirling in the skies over the Cirque de Gavarnie, heading for Africa.
COMMON HOUSE-MARTIN (Delichon urbicum)
A few among the Barn Swallows at Salins de Giraud, but most were seen in the mountains -- particularly at Lac de Gloriettes, where hundreds coursed back and forth in front of the cliffs. Their white rumps are visible from a surprising distance.
WILLOW WARBLER (Phylloscopus trochilus)
Regular throughout, with especially nice looks at the busy gang in the trees along the road to Salins de Giraud, discovered when we "de-vanned" to get a better look at the Eurasian Thick-knees across the road.
COMMON CHIFFCHAFF (Phylloscopus collybita)
Common in the mountains, where their more "golden" (i.e. less yellow) hue and wagging tails helped to separate them from the previous species. We had some particularly nice views of two twitching through a rose bush at the Comminges rest area.
CETTI'S WARBLER (Cettia cetti)
As usual, far more frequently heard than seen, but some caught a glimpse of one in the scrubby brambles near our big flock of Willow Warblers en route to the Salins de Giraud, and Kathryn and I spotted one in a weedy tree near Mas d'Agon.
LONG-TAILED TIT (Aegithalos caudatus)
A busy gang boiled around us at a roadside stop near Bagneres de Bigorre, part of a big mixed flock. Despite their name, these little birds are not closely related to the other tits; in fact, they're more closely related to North America's Bushtits!
EURASIAN BLACKCAP (Sylvia atricapilla)
Some great views of both males and females in berrying bushes along the track up to the Cirque de Gavarnie, with others in the Vallee d'Ossoue, and around the parking lot at Lac des Gloriettes.
GARDEN WARBLER (Sylvia borin)
The plain face of this plain warbler helped to quickly distinguish it from the nearby Eurasian Blackcaps in the berrying bushes on the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie. We found two in the end.
SARDINIAN WARBLER (Curruca melanocephala)
Another species far more regularly heard than seen, with their scratchy calls coming from dense patches all around the Camargue. Fortunately, we found a number of showy pairs around Mesjanes, including some that spent long minutes sitting on fence wires.
GREATER WHITETHROAT (Curruca communis)
Our first popped up to the top of the bramble hedge near the parking lot at the Peau de Meau, and another flicked through the fruiting trees at the big rockfall in the Vallee d'Ossoue.
GOLDCREST (Regulus regulus)
A few of these tiny birds -- smallest in Europe -- flitted among a mixed flock on the track up to the Cirque de Gavarnie. The pale eye ring and plain face help to separate it from the next species.
COMMON FIRECREST (Regulus ignicapilla)
Our first were a pair in the pines down the hill from our picnic spot at Carcassone, with others at our roadside lunch spot in the pine forest as we descended from the Col du Tourmalet.
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (Sitta europaea)
One hitched its way along branches in pine trees along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie, and another pirouetted near the top of a tree at a stop at near Bagneres de Bigorre, on our way back to Toulouse, part of the same big mixed flock that held our Long-tailed Tits.
EURASIAN TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris)
Some great views of one inching its way up trunks right near us along the track up to the Cirque de Gavarnie, with another heard calling from the forest near our lunch spot down the mountain from the Col du Tourmalet. This little Brown Creeper lookalike is the higher-elevation replacement of the previous species.
SHORT-TOED TREECREEPER (Certhia brachydactyla)
A couple at our Carcassone picnic spot spent much of their time creeping along branches near the tops of the trees. This species tends to be somewhat duskier on the flanks than does the "cleaner" Eurasian Treecreeper.
EURASIAN WREN (Troglodytes troglodytes)
After hearing one singing along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie (recognizably similar to the song of a Winter Wren), we had fine views of one creeping through a dead downed tree in the forest of Le Lienz -- great spotting, Pete!
WHITE-THROATED DIPPER (Cinclus cinclus)
Our first two bobbed on rocks in the middle of the stream near the public restrooms in Gavarnie, and we found another pair near the little dam at Pragneres. This widespread species is found along streams at higher elevations across much of Europe, as well as the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris)
Common in the lowlands, with some huge flocks on the Camargue. Surprisingly, this is a Red Data species in many countries in Europe, with declines ranging between 30-80% over the past several decades. Poor survival rates for young birds (primarily due to lack of food as a result of changing agricultural practices) seems to be the primary cause.
MISTLE THRUSH (Turdus viscivorus)
Seen on most days in the mountains, with our best views coming in the forest of Le Lienz, where a big migrant flock bounced across one of the ski slopes, feeding busily.
EURASIAN BLACKBIRD (Turdus merula)
It's always surprising how tough these birds are to see well in France. We had a few -- typically in flight, or only as fleeting glimpses -- along the track up to the Cirque de Gavarnie.
SPOTTED FLYCATCHER (Muscicapa striata)
One hunting near the parking lot at Lac de Gloriettes was wonderfully confiding, allowing great looks.
EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula)
Seen in the mountains, particularly on our walk up to the Cirque de Gavarnie, where we found a couple of spotty youngsters among the more numerous adults.
EUROPEAN PIED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hypoleuca)
Seen nearly every day, though only in small numbers on most of them. The big white patch in their wing is a good field mark.
COMMON REDSTART (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)
A couple -- one male and one female -- near the big rockfall in the Vallee d'Ossoue. This woodland species breeds across most of Europe and retreats to Africa for the winter.
BLACK REDSTART (Phoenicurus ochruros)
Our first was one doing pushups on a tiled roof across the road from our Arles hotel, with another on the Crau steppe. But they really came into their own in the mountains, where they bounced with quivering tails on boulders and bushes everywhere.
RUFOUS-TAILED ROCK-THRUSH (Monticola saxatilis)
A singing bird entertained us at the rockfall in the Vallee d'Ossoue, and another showed nicely at Lac des Gloriettes.
WHINCHAT (Saxicola rubetra)
Our first few were working along a hedge line at Mesjanes (drawing our attention to the Woodchat Shrike) and hunting from weedy spikes on the Peau de Meau, but we saw most of them in the mountains.
EUROPEAN STONECHAT (Saxicola rubicola rubicola)
A pair with the Whinchats at Mesjanes, with numerous others in the Vallee d'Ossoue. The plainer face of female helps to separate it from the similar previous species.
NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Regular throughout, including a trio right at the Montpellier airport on our first afternoon. The white rump and tail of this species is a real eye-catcher.
ALPINE ACCENTOR (Prunella collaris)
It took a while, but we finally found a couple of these highland specialties along the track in the Port de Boucharo. As usual, they were pretty confiding once we located them, giving us a good chance to study them in the scopes.
DUNNOCK (Prunella modularis)
Regular in small numbers in the mountains, with particularly nice looks at the ones bouncing around the parking lot at Lac des Gloriettes.
HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus)
Abundant in the lowlands -- including a very large roost on the grounds of our Arles hotel -- with a scattering of others in Gavarnie and Gedre.
GRAY WAGTAIL (Motacilla cinerea)
Daily in the mountains, including a handful waggling among the boulders on the river near our first White-throated Dippers. This is the longest-tailed of the tour's wagtails.
WESTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL (Motacilla flava)
There was a veritable blizzard of them at Mesjanes, with hundreds and hundreds swirling above the fields and road there. We had others (in far smaller numbers) at Salins de Giraud and along the Etang des Vaccares.
WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba)
Surprisingly scarce this year, with a couple wandering around the parking lot at the Comminges rest area and others at the Lac des Gloriettes.
TAWNY PIPIT (Anthus campestris)
Lovely views of several at Mesjanes (where some cooperative birds sat up on fence posts and wires) with others on the Peau de Meau. This is the least-marked of the tour's pipits.
TREE PIPIT (Anthus trivialis)
Bonnie and I spotted one briefly at Mesjanes, but it got away before anybody else had a chance to get on it. Fortunately, we found another perched (appropriately) in a little tree at the edge of the Peau de Meau on our pre-breakfast visit there.
WATER PIPIT (Anthus spinoletta)
Abundant in the mountains, with dozens striding around in short grass areas throughout.
COMMON CHAFFINCH (Fringilla coelebs)
Daily in the mountains -- including lots along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie and at the rockfall in the Vallee d'Ossoue -- with others at the Comminges rest area.
EURASIAN BULLFINCH (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)
A few along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie -- a male that matched the nearby rowan berries for a lucky few, and a yellowish youngster that spent long minutes in the open near the old avalanche scar, low down where it was easy to see.
EURASIAN LINNET (Linaria cannabina)
Best seen along the road up to the Port de Boucharo, with others at Lac des Gloriettes.
EUROPEAN GOLDFINCH (Carduelis carduelis)
Some particularly good looks at the busy gang in the trees around our Arles hotel on several mornings, with others with the gang of Willow Warblers we found near our first Eurasian Thick-knees.
EUROPEAN SERIN (Serinus serinus)
Fine studies of some near the edge of the parking lot at Le Lienz for those in Jay's van -- and "from the top" looks at others bouncing through the grass below the dam for everyone. The yellow rump on these little seedeaters is distinctive.
CORN BUNTING (Emberiza calandra)
We found several flocks of migrants in the lowlands -- a gang along the dusty road at Mesjanes and another along the edge of the Peau de Meau on our early-morning visit. This species is declining all over Europe.
ROCK BUNTING (Emberiza cia)
At least one youngster sat buried in a bush near the quarry in Vallee d'Ossoue; fortunately, it was regularly calling, which drew our attention to it. Its distinctive head pattern wasn't fully showing yet, but its peachy breast and long white outer tail feathers were more easily visible.
YELLOWHAMMER (Emberiza citrinella)
A couple of youngsters in the same area as the young Rock Bunting led to some initial confusion about the identity of all involved! These were the ones with the streaky breasts and rusty rumps.
ORTOLAN BUNTING (Emberiza hortulana)
A lucky few got a quick glimpse or two (in binoculars or scope) of two quick-moving birds flicking among the boulders down the hill from the windy track at the Port de Boucharo. Unfortunately, they vanished among the rocks before everybody could get a look.
OLD WORLD RABBIT (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
One hopped across the track beside Hotel des Granges one morning before breakfast, seen by a few of us.
EUROPEAN BROWN HARE (Lepus europaeus)
We saw one rocket away across the stony Crau steppe while walking at the Peau de Meau. This species is heavily hunted -- and thus very wary -- in southern France.
ALPINE MARMOT (Marmota marmota)
Almost absurdly abundant in the Pyrenees, with dozens seen sprawled on rock outcroppings or waddling away from roadsides. Their shrill whistles were a regular part of the highland soundtrack -- and kept us looking skyward for passing eagles!
NUTRIA (Myocastor coypus) [I]
At least one paddled across the pond at Tour Carbonniere. This species was introduced to the country for the fur trade.
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
One curled up on a bank at Mesjanes got up and left soon after it spotted us.
STOAT (SHORT-TAILED WEASEL) (Mustela erminea)
Some in Jay's van spotted one bounding across the roadway while we drove along the track near Mesjanes.
WILD BOAR (Sus scrofa)
A family of four -- two full-grown animals and two youngsters -- trotted across the stony ground of the Peau de Meau on the morning of our second visit.
PYRENEAN CHAMOIS (ISARD) (Rupicapra pyrenaica)
Ridiculously close looks at one nibbling grass near our picnic spot at Lac des Gloriettes. They sure look smaller close up! We saw others grazing on a hillside high above us as we climbed to the Cirque de Gavarnie.
MARSH FROG (Pelophylax ridibundus) [*]
We heard some croaking from the reed beds while birding along the road through Mas d'Agon.
EUROPEAN GREEN LIZARD (Lacerta viridis)
Roger spotted one of these well-named lizards in the Vallee d'Ossoue.
COMMON WALL LIZARD (Podarcis muralis)
These small, striped, brown lizards were pretty common in the mountains, particularly along the rocky path at Port de Boucharo and in the Vallee d'Ossoue.
Totals for the tour: 164 bird taxa and 8 mammal taxa