September is a lovely time to visit southern France. From the Camargue, where golden fields of ripening rice stretch to the horizons and white salt pans bake under cloudless blue skies, to the Pyrenees, where rumpled mountains scrape craggy fingers against the clouds and conifer forests mass darkly against the rock, the landscape provides a beautiful backdrop against which to look for the region's special birds. And there were plenty to search out.
We started with four days near the mouth of the Rhone River in France's vast Camargue National Park and Nature Reserve. Here, among salt pans, thick stands of reed and myriad rice paddies, we connected with both migrants and resident breeders. Before we'd even left the airport, we found a furtive group of Little Bustards feeding quietly in tall grasses beyond the end of the runway. Near the walled city of Aigues-Mortes, frosty-winged Mediterranean Gulls flew over busy roadways among the more numerous Black-headed and Yellow-legged gulls. Clouds of dusty pink Greater Flamingos massed in waterways or flew past in wavering lines on scarlet and black wings, trailing their long legs behind. European Rollers sat stolidly on telephone wires before dropping after some hapless insect in a flurry of brilliant turquoise wings. A jewel-bright Common Kingfisher dazzled from its perch on a post, and another gave us quick glimpses as it shot by several our bridge-top perch several times. A little group of Spectacled Warblers popped repeatedly up on Salicornia bushes as they moved across a field. Dozens of Eurasian Curlews preened with long, scythe-shaped bills. A trio of Slender-billed Gulls floated on a seaside pond. European Bee-eaters flew in colorful circles over our heads, calling their distinctive "proops" to each other. On the Crau steppe, a male Lesser Kestrel sat atop a pile of stones while Iberian Gray Shrikes hunted from bush tops. A European Nightjar sailed over our heads, its white wing and tail patches bright in the flashlight beam. And who will soon forget our encounter with "Le Grand Duke" -- the massive Eurasian Eagle-Owl that hooted from a stony ledge as the light drained slowly out of the sky and then flew up to parade around (its silhouette looking surprisingly catlike) on the clifftop. What a great finale to our stay in the lowlands!
Then it was the long transfer to the high Pyrenees, trading the flat coast for spectacular jagged peaks and glacier-carved valleys, tumbling mountain streams, restless flocks of sheep and a whole new suite of birds. We started with a hike up into the Cirque de Gavarnie on a gloriously sunny day, followed the next day with a leisurely stroll along a vast, glacier-carved valley into Spain, and the day after that with a ramble around a mountain lake and a visit to a stately pine forest. And (nearly) everywhere we went, there were birds. Busy mixed tit flocks swirled through trailside trees. A White-throated Dipper plunged repeatedly into a rushing mountain stream, returning again and again to the same rock with mouthful after tasty mouthful of prey. Enormous Eurasian Griffons soared past, sometimes barely above head height. A Great Spotted Woodpecker hitched its way up a trunk. Whinchats and European Stonechats hunted from dead flower spikes. Yellow-billed Choughs formed loose "bird tornadoes" above mountain peaks. An Alpine Accentor spent long minutes rearranging its feathers, seemingly oblivious to (or unconcerned about) our nearby presence. Bearded Vultures circled against the clouds or coursed back and forth in front of cliff faces, and one strikingly peachy individual sailed in to land on a rocky outcrop. A tiny Eurasian Wren shouted challenges from a roadside branch. Noisy pairs of Red-billed Choughs prodded grassy slopes with their curving beaks. An Iberian Green Woodpecker preened on a bare snag. And we finished the tour with a graceful cadre of Red Kites, which spiraled over pastoral countryside with effortless flicks of their long wings and tails.
Willy and I greatly enjoyed sharing some birding adventures -- and bonus wining and dining -- with all of you. We hope to see you all again in the field, somewhere, some day!
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 across the Camargue, with particularly large numbers in the pans at Salin de Giraud. We were struck by how many feeding birds had a Black-headed Gull in close attendance, just in case the swan produced some tasty morsel with the vegetation it was pulling up.
COMMON SHELDUCK (Tadorna tadorna)
A few sprinkled among the flamingoes at Salin de Giraud. Most were youngsters, with notably dull bills.
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Spatula clypeata)
A few, still in their eclipse plumage, loafed and snoozed on a busy pond near La Capeliere.
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
A few floated on various waterways around the Camargue and a dozen or more flew back and forth over the "Toreau" field (where the signs warned of "dangerous bulls") near Mejanes.
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (EURASIAN) (Anas crecca crecca)
A few foraged in a flooded field along the road down to Salin de Giraud, lurking behind the multitude of Glossy Ibises and Little Egrets. Others snoozed on an islet in the pond with all the Eurasian Curlews near La Capeliere.
RING-NECKED PHEASANT (Phasianus colchicus)
Scattered birds in the lowlands, including a gang of five females scurrying across a grassy track near Mejanes and a bright male picking his way across a farm track on the road out to the Peau de Meau.
GREATER FLAMINGO (Phoenicopterus roseus)
Scores. Hundreds. Thousands! Clouds of these gangly, long-legged birds -- paler than the American Flamingoes, but still gorgeous -- foraged (seemingly headless) in ponds, lakes and salt pans across the Camargue, floated like pink swans (up to their bellies) on the water's surface, or flew in wavering lines of black, rose and carmine above the wetlands. We saw depressingly few youngsters, which suggests they had a poor breeding season this year. This one handily won the "Favorite Bird of the Tour" honors.
LITTLE GREBE (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Bob spotted one while we prepared lunch at Salin de Giraud on our first full day in the Camargue, but the rest of us had to wait until we got to the marshy area near Mas d'Agon -- where we found a half dozen or so actively diving in one of the ponds, and another handful floating among the water weeds on another.
GREAT CRESTED GREBE (Podiceps cristatus)
A half dozen or so floated on one of the big ponds at Salin de Giraud (a few snoozing with their distinctive heads tucked, others diving after prey) and others did the same on the Etang des Vaccares.
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia)
Flocks in various places along roads in the Camargue -- including a mob in an overgrown farm field en route to Salin de Giraud -- with fewer in the mountains. All of the birds we saw were feral; truly wild birds (i.e. with no domestic ancestry) are gone from virtually all of Europe.
COMMON WOOD-PIGEON (Columba palumbus)
Abundant in the lowlands, with smaller numbers in the mountains. Their huge size, and the white slash in their wings, made them easy to identify -- when they weren't being mistaken for raptors, that is!
EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE (Streptopelia decaocto)
Also common in the lowlands and foothills, often perched on roadside light poles, utility wires or TV antennae. We were serenaded by them most mornings at Hotel des Granges. Surprisingly, this species only reached Europe at the beginning of the 1900s.
LITTLE BUSTARD (Tetrax tetrax)
At least five picked their way furtively through taller grasses at the Montpellier Airport, occasionally sliding into the open. This grassland specialist is losing ground all over Europe, and is now considered (by the International Union for Conservation of Nature) to be Near Threatened.
EURASIAN NIGHTJAR (Caprimulgus europaeus)
We heard the short, sharp flight call of one from somewhere nearby as we walked back to the vans after our eagle-owl encounter. A quick call back brought a territorial male in right over our heads. He made a number of wing-clapping passes, giving us some great views in the spotlight. It seemed rather late for him to still be defending a breeding territory (since most nightjars are well on their way south by September), but he was certainly committed!
WATER RAIL (Rallus aquaticus)
They were oh-so-close in the reeds edging the boardwalk trail at Tour Carbonniere, but only a lucky few caught a glimpse. We certainly all heard their grunting calls though!
EURASIAN MOORHEN (Gallinula chloropus chloropus)
A few chugged across the ponds at Tour Carbonniere, their smaller size, red bills and shields, and the white horizontal line on their mantle feathers helping to quickly separate them from the nearby coots.
EURASIAN COOT (Fulica atra)
Abundant in the Camargue, including hundreds floating on Etang des Vaccares -- the vanguard of the tens of thousands that will overwinter in the area.
WESTERN SWAMPHEN (Porphyrio porphyrio)
One worked its way along the edge of the reed grass edging a pond near Mas d'Agon, where its fluffy white undertail coverts caught our eye.
EURASIAN THICK-KNEE (Burhinus oedicnemus)
Nearly two dozen rested on the stony Crau steppe -- though we only spotted less than half that number before they all took off! Their streaky brown and white plumage really camouflaged them well.
BLACK-WINGED STILT (Himantopus himantopus)
Common in the Camargue, where we saw dozens striding around on their long pink legs. They were particularly plentiful in the salt pans at Salin de Giraud.
PIED AVOCET (Recurvirostra avosetta)
Plenty of good looks at these dapper shorebirds in the pans at Salin de Giraud, where some demonstrated their distinctive sweeping style of feeding.
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (Pluvialis squatarola)
A double handful, included several still in fine breeding plumage, rested on the edges of a pond near La Capeliere.
NORTHERN LAPWING (Vanellus vanellus)
Quite common in the Camargue this year, which isn't always the case. We had some great views of those distinctive crests in that wet field along the road to Salin de Giraud and around the tower of Tour Carbonniere.
KENTISH PLOVER (KENTISH) (Charadrius alexandrinus alexandrinus)
Good numbers of these small plovers pattered along the muddy edges of the pans at Salin de Giraud. This is a relatively recent split from the Snowy Plover.
COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula)
Also common in the pans at Salin de Giraud, including a big scattered group snoozing on one of the mud bars. Many were youngsters, but we saw at least a few adult males, still sporting their bold black neck rings and bright orange legs.
LITTLE RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius dubius)
Best seen on the first afternoon, where a half dozen or so foraged among the vegetation on the muddy edges of the ponds at the Tour Carbonniere -- close enough we could even see their diagnostic yellow eye rings.
EURASIAN CURLEW (Numenius arquata)
Best seen in the pond near La Capeliere, where more than 40 snoozed or poked their long bills into the muddy edges of the water, searching for tidbits. The plain face and long, pink-based bill of this species help to distinguish it from the smaller (and less common) Whimbrel.
RUFF (Calidris pugnax)
Our first was a youngster among the Northern Lapwings and Common Snipe in one of the ponds near the Tour Carbonniere -- great spotting, Richard! We saw others (at least four) at the back end of the wet field we birded on our drive to Salin de Giraud.
CURLEW SANDPIPER (Calidris ferruginea)
A few in one of the pans at Salin de Giraud still showed traces of their brick-red breeding plumage.
TEMMINCK'S STINT (Calidris temminckii)
One poking and prodding in the mud at the Tour Carbonniere, in the company of a Ruff and a Common Snipe, gave us good chances to study it in the scopes -- good spotting Neil!
LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta)
Good numbers of these little peeps pattered across the muddy edges of the salt pans at Salin de Giraud. Most were already in their drab winter plumage.
COMMON SNIPE (Gallinago gallinago)
A dozen or so rummaged on several of the muddy islets at Tour Carbonniere, their long bills and boldly striped backs making them easy to pick out.
COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos)
Small numbers each day in the Camargue, typically waggling their way along the edge of a pond somewhere. They have the same stiff-winged flight as their close cousin, the Spotted Sandpiper.
GREEN SANDPIPER (Tringa ochropus)
Two along the back edge of the nearly dry pond at La Capeliere weren't very obliging; between the distance, the heat haze and their rapid disappearance into the reeds, they gave most of us less than satisfactory views!
SPOTTED REDSHANK (Tringa erythropus)
At least two (both in winter plumage) patrolled the back edge of the pond near La Capeliere, showing the longer, thinner bill that helps to separate them from the Common Redshank.
COMMON GREENSHANK (Tringa nebularia)
A half dozen or so in the pond near La Capeliere, looking small and pale among the much bigger Eurasian Curlews. This is the Old World replacement for the Greater Yellowlegs.
WOOD SANDPIPER (Tringa glareola)
A handful of these leggy shorebirds rummaged on the mudflats near Tour Carbonniere. Their bold white eyebrow is a good field mark, as is their white rump (best seen in flight).
COMMON REDSHANK (Tringa totanus)
A few in the pans at Salin de Giraud, with another along the back edge of the pond near La Capeliere. The wide white wedge on the trailing edge of their wing (in flight) is a great diagnostic field mark for this species.
SLENDER-BILLED GULL (Chroicocephalus genei)
A trio, including one vaguely pinkish adult, floated on one of the ponds close to the sea on the day we visited Salin de Giraud. Their long, pinkish bills made them easy to pick out from the nearby Black-headed Gulls.
BLACK-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
The common smaller gull of the Camargue, easily outnumbering both Slender-billed and Mediterranean. All of the birds we saw were already in non-breeding garb, with only tiny dark "earmuffs" instead of the chocolate-brown head of their breeding plumage.
MEDITERRANEAN GULL (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus)
Dozens flapped over, heading for the sea, while we birded the roadside at Aigues-Mortes. Their broad, all-white wings helped to quickly distinguish them from the ubiquitous Black-headed Gulls. We saw a few others at Salin de Giraud, where they've begun to appear in recent years.
YELLOW-LEGGED GULL (Larus michahellis)
Abundant in the Camargue, including plenty of scruffy brown youngsters. This species was split from the Herring Gull, but DNA studies have shown it is actually more closely related to the Lesser Black-backed Gull.
LITTLE TERN (Sternula albifrons)
A handful flashed over the pans at Salin de Giraud, and a few rested on sandbars in the pans themselves. These are Europe's smallest terns, closely related to the Least Tern of the New World.
GULL-BILLED TERN (Gelochelidon nilotica)
At least two hunted over the flooded field where we found our big flock of Glossy Ibis, on the drive down to Salin de Giraud. Unlike most terns, this one is primarily an insect eater, though it will also take fish (from the water's surface), reptiles and amphibians, small mammals and even the chicks of other terns.
CASPIAN TERN (Hydroprogne caspia)
A half-dozen or so of these big terns -- largest in the world -- rested on the pans at Salin de Giraud or flew above them, calling harshly. Their huge red bills make this species easy to identify.
BLACK TERN (EURASIAN) (Chlidonias niger niger)
A couple of dainty, winter-dulled birds foraged above the Etang des Vaccares.
WHISKERED TERN (Chlidonias hybrida)
Best seen along the road past Mas d'Agon, where we watched 8-10 of them -- including one still in its striking breeding plumage -- quartering back and forth over the marshes.
COMMON TERN (Sterna hirundo)
Small numbers around Salin de Giraud, loafing in the pans with other terns or hunting over various waterways there.
SANDWICH TERN (Thalasseus sandvicensis)
A few over the salt pans near Aigues-Mortes (seen while we watched for Mediterranean Gulls) with many others in and around the pans at Salin de Giraud. The pale tip on the black bill of this species can be tough to see without a scope, but we got some nice, close views.
BLACK STORK (Ciconia nigra)
Sadly, the only two we saw were very far away, and spiraled down out of view before everybody found them.
WHITE STORK (Ciconia ciconia)
One soared past (some distance away) while we slogged our way around the Peau de Meau. The dark flight feathers on an otherwise white bird are distinctive.
GREAT CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Common in waterways around the Camargue, often standing spread-eagled on a post or fishing weir. These are winter visitors to southern France.
GRAY HERON (Ardea cinerea)
Scattered individuals each day in the Camargue.
GREAT EGRET (Ardea alba)
A few, sprinkled among the more common herons and egrets in various Camargue wet spots. This fairly recent arrival to western Europe is a winter visitor to southern France.
LITTLE EGRET (Egretta garzetta)
Reasonably common in the Camargue, including a handful among the myriad Glossy Ibis in a flooded field en route to Salin de Giraud.
CATTLE EGRET (Bubulcus ibis)
Abundant in the lowlands, where they hovered around the feet of just about every herd of livestock we saw. A few still showed traces of their "toasted marshmallow" breeding plumage.
GLOSSY IBIS (Plegadis falcinellus)
One hundred or more foraged in a flooded field en route to Salin de Giraud, and we saw a few others in the marshy ponds near Mas d'Agon. Believe it or not, we miss this species some years!
EURASIAN SPOONBILL (Platalea leucorodia)
Two flew past one way, and then the other, while we birded the pond near La Capeliere one afternoon -- great spotting, Richard! This is a rare, but increasing, winter visitor to southern France.
OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus)
We saw several at Salin de Giraud (including one carrying a fish) with another over Mejanes. This is a migrant through southern France.
BLACK-WINGED KITE (Elanus caeruleus)
One preening on the crossbar of a power pylon near our Arles hotel before breakfast one morning was a surprise; it was a long way from where it should have been! Even more surprisingly, we had a second bird soaring among the Red Kites over a field near Cieutat. These kites have been expanding their range northwards and eastwards from Africa and the Iberian peninsula in recent years.
BEARDED VULTURE (Gypaetus barbatus)
We saw two circling with the griffons high over the ridges on our hike up to the Cirque de Gavarnie, and others along the ridges in the Vallee d'Ossoue, but our best views came at Lac des Gloriettes, where a youngster and an adult coursed back and forth in front of the cliffs. The adult eventually landed, allowing us to get the scopes on it; we could even see its namesake "beard".
EUROPEAN HONEY-BUZZARD (Pernis apivorus)
Our best views came on our hot walk at the Peau de Meau, when we spotted a flock of several dozen gliding southwards overhead. We saw a couple of others flapping low overhead near the Red Kite spot in Cieutat on our last afternoon. This species comes in an impressive variety of plumages, but the lozenge-shaped dark spot at the bend of the wing can be a helpful field mark. It's subtly longer-tailed and smaller-headed than the Common Buzzard.
EURASIAN GRIFFON (Gyps fulvus)
Plenty of these "Gary Larsen vultures" in the highlands, with some big kettles swirling over the ridges in the Cirque de Gavarnie and the Vallee d'Ossoue, and some thrillingly close flybys at the Lac des Gloriettes.
SHORT-TOED SNAKE-EAGLE (Circaetus gallicus)
Regular throughout, including some nice scope views of birds perched on power pylons near our Arles hotel and two sitting on a sheep barn early one morning at the Peau de Meau.
BOOTED EAGLE (Hieraaetus pennatus)
All-too-brief views of one circling far off at Cieutat. I think Linda may have been the only one to see it in the scope.
EURASIAN MARSH-HARRIER (Circus aeruginosus)
Regular in the Camargue, where we saw mostly females and immatures -- but at least one colorful adult male. One migrating through the pass at the Port de Boucharo had us hoping for a Booted Eagle (those "headlights"!) but Jeanette's great photo clearly ID'ed it as a harrier.
MONTAGU'S HARRIER (Circus pygargus)
Splendid views of one coursing over a field beside the road north of the Etang des Vaccares, showing nicely its white rump and rusty body. We watched for quite a while as it worked its way steadily away from us, low across a series of fields and hedgerows.
EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK (Accipiter nisus)
Scattered birds, particularly in the mountains. The pair soaring over our lunch spot just north of Gedre (where we found the dipper) gave us especially good views. They have the typical flap-flap-glide flight style of the Accipiters.
RED KITE (Milvus milvus)
The six close birds wheeling and tussling over fields at Cieutat were pretty spectacular, giving us views of just about every conceivable angle. We saw others at the Aire des Comminges and the Port de Boucharo.
COMMON BUZZARD (Buteo buteo)
Seen (and/or heard) on most days in both the lowlands and highlands. As we saw, they too come in a variety of plumages.
EURASIAN EAGLE-OWL (Bubo bubo)
WOW! Our evening excursion to the cliffs around Les Baux turned up trumps when we found one of these huge owls tucked into a ledge -- great spotting, Nancie! It proceeded to call for a while, showing its flashy white throat patch as it did so, then moved up to the clifftop, where it paraded around and called for a bit before finally flying off into the growing dusk. This was tied for second place in the "Favorite Bird" ranking.
TAWNY OWL (Strix aluco)
As usual, we heard the quavering calls of this one nightly from the hillside behind our Gedre hotel, but laying eyes on one proved considerably harder! The persistent among us saw one fly a few times one night, and the really persistent even got to see one perched high in the canopy of one of the hillside's bigger trees.
EURASIAN HOOPOE (Upupa epops)
A distant bird rummaging in a newly mown hayfield at Mejanes was a challenge to find among the heaps of hay, but I think we all got there in the end -- nice spotting, Jim!
COMMON KINGFISHER (Alcedo atthis)
Daily in the Camargue, with particularly nice views of one perched on a post near Tour Carbonniere -- a streak of iridescent blue! We had some close but brief views of others along the stream near Mas d'Agon.
EUROPEAN BEE-EATER (Merops apiaster)
Regular in the lowlands, often high overhead in flight. The group hunting low over us as we birded the little stream near Mas d'Agon gave us some fine views, as did one perched in a treetop near Tour Carbonniere.
EUROPEAN ROLLER (Coracias garrulus)
Plenty of these thick-necked insect eaters on wires along various roadways in the Camargue, with others perched up on bushes at La Capeliere and on the Crau steppe. Their flashy turquoise wings are particularly apparent in flight.
MIDDLE SPOTTED WOODPECKER (Dendrocoptes medius)
We found one in the forest at Mauvezin, but it certainly proved less than cooperative! It called regularly, but only provided fleeting flight views to all but the lucky few who happened to be standing in the right place and looking in the right direction when it landed. As usual, it sat very quietly and still, high in the canopy, once it landed -- typical behavior from a Middle Spotted Woodpecker!
GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos major)
This one, on the other hand, performed admirably! A cooperative bird in the forest of Le Lienz foraged in a tree right beside the road, not far from the ski jump. We found it (or another) again the next day.
EURASIAN GREEN WOODPECKER (Picus viridis)
Brief flight views for some in my van of a bird that fled off down the road as we headed towards our lunch spot after a morning on the Peau de Meau. The large size, ollive color and bright yellowish rump patch of this ant specialist are distinctive.
IBERIAN GREEN WOODPECKER (Picus sharpei)
A very showy bird in the back garden of our Gedre hotel put a fine cap on our stay at that lovely lodge. He spent a long time preening on a dead twig right in the open at the top of a tree. As its name suggests, this bird is primarily found on the Iberian peninsula; it just squeaks across the border into France in the Pyrenees.
LESSER KESTREL (Falco naumanni)
Our best views came on our second visit to the Crau steppe, where we found a couple of males perched on rock piles as the sun slowly rose. There's a small breeding colony based at the Peau de Meau (where they've built a special wall for them to nest in); these social breeders like company!
EURASIAN KESTREL (Falco tinnunculus)
Common throughout, seen on every day of the tour. We had especially nice looks at several hunting along the Port de Boucharo, including some that we could look DOWN onto -- an unusual angle when it comes to raptors!
PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus)
One soared around high over the cafe at the Cirque de Gavarnie, its classic crossbow shape silhouetted nicely against the blue, blue sky.
RED-BACKED SHRIKE (Lanius collurio)
A youngster hunting from a series of bushes along a hedgerow near Cieutat was an unexpected bonus bird when we stopped to check out some circling Red Kites.
IBERIAN GRAY SHRIKE (Lanius meridionalis)
A sprinkling on the Crau steppe, with our best views coming on our pre-dawn visit to the Peau de Meau -- before the heat haze set in!
EURASIAN JAY (Garrulus glandarius)
Scattered birds in the highlands, with our best views coming at two that circled around us in the forest of Le Lienz. As several of you noted, jays are far shyer in Europe than they are in North America.
EURASIAN MAGPIE (Pica pica)
Common in the lowlands, with small parties seen regularly there, often foraging along the roadsides, on lawns or in pastures.
RED-BILLED CHOUGH (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)
Super looks at several (conveniently close to the next species) in the Port de Boucharo, with others in the Vallee d'Ossoue and around the Lac des Gloriettes. The long, down-curved bill of this species quickly separates it from Yellow-billed.
YELLOW-BILLED CHOUGH (Pyrrhocorax graculus)
Scores wheeled over the ridges as we climbed to the Cirque de Gavarnie, but our best views came in the Port de Boucharo, where dozens foraged on nearby hillsides. The stubby, straight yellow bills help to distinguish Yellow-billed Choughs from young Red-billed Choughs, which also (confusingly) have yellow bills.
EURASIAN JACKDAW (Corvus monedula)
Abundant in the lowlands, with noisy flocks flying past our Arles hotel each morning as they headed out from their nearby roost, and scores swarming over fields throughout the Camargue and the Crau. The pale eye and frosty nape of this small corvid quickly separates it from all other European crows.
ROOK (Corvus frugilegus)
A fairly distant group gathered on a power pylon and wires near our Arles hotel during our first pre-breakfast walk there, showing (in the scopes) their long, white-based bills and larger size in comparison to some nearby jackdaws. This species isn't known to breed in southern Europe, so presumably they were the vanguard of wintering visitors.
CARRION CROW (Corvus corone)
Regular throughout, particularly in the Crau (where dozens foraged among the stone piles) and in the highlands. This species got its common name in the Middle Ages, due to their habit of following armies to scavenge the dead.
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax)
Small numbers in the mountains and foothills, including two soaring with a Bearded Vulture along a ridge in the Vallee d'Ossoue and a pair with a big nest on a power pole at Cieutat.
COAL TIT (Periparus ater)
Regular in the mountain forests, including some noisy gangs along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie and others at Le Lienz. This is the species that looks most like the chickadees of North America.
CRESTED TIT (Lophophanes cristatus)
Fine views of these fabulous little charmers in the mountains, with a few along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie and others at Le Lienz.
MARSH TIT (Poecile palustris)
An eye-level pair in the leafy forest at Mauvezin gave us great looks at their tiny bibs. In fact, you can't even call it a bib -- more like a goatee!
EURASIAN BLUE TIT (Cyanistes caeruleus)
Regular on the second half of the tour -- from a couple with the young Common Firecrest near our picnic spot overlooking Carcassonne to the busy gangs in the forest of Mauvezin. This is the smaller of the yellow-bellied tits.
GREAT TIT (Parus major)
Plenty of these -- as its name suggests, the largest of Europe's tits -- throughout the tour.
EURASIAN SKYLARK (Alauda arvensis)
A trio rummaging in a grassy strip near Digue a la Mer provided less than satisfactory views as they winked in and out of sight.
CRESTED LARK (Galerida cristata)
Seen only in flight, but the one that sailed right over our heads at Mejanes showed nicely the rounded wingtips, peachy underwings and distinctively short tail of this species.
ZITTING CISTICOLA (Cisticola juncidis)
Super views of one feeding in a scruffy Tamarisk tree near the parking lot at the Tour Carbonniere; nice spotting, Richard! We saw others on most days in the Camargue.
BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)
Regular in the lowlands, sometimes (as around Tour Carbonniere) in big numbers. This species is known as the "Sand Martin" in Europe.
EURASIAN CRAG-MARTIN (Ptyonoprogne rupestris)
Daily in the mountains, with particularly nice studies of the birds coursing back and forth over our lunch spot in the Vallee d'Ossoue.
BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica)
Dozens. Scores. Hundreds! These were more or less "aerial plankton" throughout the lowlands -- pretty much in view at all times in all directions! The subspecies found in Europe (rustica) is much paler-bellied than that found in North America.
COMMON HOUSE-MARTIN (Delichon urbicum)
Fairly common in the mountains, including a big flock (presumably migrants) wheeling over the Vallee d'Ossoue. The white rump of this compact species helps to quickly separate it from the tour's other swallows.
WILLOW WARBLER (Phylloscopus trochilus)
One quite yellow youngster glowed among a twitchy group of Dunnocks in a dense tangle of bushes near the Barrage des Gloriettes parking lot. Pale legs help to distinguish this species from the very similar Chiffchaff.
COMMON CHIFFCHAFF (Phylloscopus collybita)
Small numbers of these migrants in the foothills mountains, including one hunting near our first Whinchat on the drive to the Port de Boucharo, and others in the forests of Le Lienz and Mauvezin. The dark legs of this species -- and its habit of regularly dipping its tail -- help to separate it from the Willow Warbler.
CETTI'S WARBLER (Cettia cetti)
Unfortunately, we only ever got fleeting glimpses of these skulking marsh dwellers, typically as they shot from one side of an open ditch to the other. However, their loud, explosive songs were a regular part of the Camargue soundtrack.
LONG-TAILED TIT (Aegithalos caudatus)
A busy group of 9 or 10 swirled through the trees at the edge of a picnic grove in the forest near Mauvezin, calling shrilly to each other and pausing now and then in the open. These tiny birds are mostly tail, with a tiny stubby beak and a body that averages only 2-2.5 inches long.
EURASIAN BLACKCAP (Sylvia atricapilla)
A few of these big warblers (both males and brown-capped females) flicked around in the undergrowth near a stand of Rowan trees on the walk up to the Cirque de Gavarnie, and we spotted another near the parking lot at Lac des Gloriettes.
SARDINIAN WARBLER (Curruca melanocephala)
Best seen near our lunch spot in the pans at Salin de Giraud, when we found a pair twitching through the bushes near where we parked. With some considerably effort (!!) I think everybody managed to get a look.
GREATER WHITETHROAT (Curruca communis)
One foraging high in a tree over the parking lot at the Crau Ecomuseum proved a bit of a puzzle initially. We had another nicely near the parking lot of the Barrage des Gloriettes.
SPECTACLED WARBLER (Curruca conspicillata)
A little family group of 4-5 birds cartwheeled through the Salicornia scrub at Digue a la Mer, regularly posing up atop bushes for a good look around.
GOLDCREST (Regulus regulus)
Nice looks along the track to the Cirque de Gavarnie and in the forest of Le Lienz, where we had good comparisons with nearby Common Firecrests. This is Europe's smallest bird.
COMMON FIRECREST (Regulus ignicapilla)
Our first was a stripey-faced youngster at the Carcassonne lunch spot; it completely lacked a "fire crest". Fortunately, we found another pair in the forest at Le Lienz -- and when the male flared his crown, we understood the root of his scientific name. It looked like his head was on fire!
EURASIAN NUTHATCH (Sitta europaea)
Our first was a noisy bird in the back garden of our Gedre hotel. Fortunately for those who missed it, we found another showy pair in the forest of Le Lienz and a busy gang in Mauvezin.
EURASIAN TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris)
Our first was a trunk-crawler moving with a big mixed tit flock along the track up to the Cirque de Gavarnie. We had a couple of others in the forest of Le Lienz, not far from the puddle where the all the thrushes were bathing. Though very similar to the next species, this one tends to be whiter-bellied and has a subtly different wing pattern. We all agreed we'd probably completely overlook it as a Brown Creeper if one ever showed up in a yard in North America though!
SHORT-TOED TREECREEPER (Certhia brachydactyla)
It took some patience and persistence, but we all finally got good looks at one (or both) of the birds that crawled up the trunks of pines at our lunch spot near Carcassonne. This species is found at lower elevations (and latitudes) than the previous.
EURASIAN WREN (Troglodytes troglodytes)
Fabulous views of one of these little charmers singing in the underbrush along the track at Le Lienz. This is the only wren species in all of Europe, Asia and Africa.
WHITE-THROATED DIPPER (Cinclus cinclus)
Our first was bopping along the edge of the Gave de Pau near where we parked to walk up the Cirque de Gavarnie. But our best looks came at our picnic lunch spot north of Gedre, when we found one resting along the stream edge, and then actively hunting -- throwing itself into the water again and again, returning to the same rock to subdue and devour its prey.
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris)
Common in the lowlands, including some huge flocks unspooling across the skies on several pre-breakfast walks near our Arles hotel. Surprisingly, this is a Red Data species in Europe; its numbers have dropped by more than 30% over the past few decades, primarily due to changes in farming practices.
MISTLE THRUSH (Turdus viscivorus)
One sitting atop one of the few tall trees near the Lac des Gloriettes showed its spotty belly and gray face pretty well in the scopes, despite the distance -- nice spotting, Bob! The species is resident in the Pyrenees, but numbers are often augmented during the time of our tour by migrant birds from northern Europe.
SONG THRUSH (Turdus philomelos)
Some fine views in the forest of Le Lienz, where we spotted several bathing in puddles in the middle of the bumpy road. These are smaller and a warmer brown than the previous species, lacking the black facial markings of the Mistle Thrush and with arrowhead shaped (rather than round) spots on the breast and belly.
EURASIAN BLACKBIRD (Turdus merula)
A few (seen primarily as they flashed across the road in front of us) at Le Lienz, with others in the forest at Mauvezin. This species can be surprisingly tough to get a good look at on this tour.
EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula)
Our best looks came on the hike up to the Cirque de Gavarnie, where we found a number of family groups -- including some still speckly youngsters -- feeding in the berry bushes. We saw others nicely around the parking lot at the Barrage des Gloriettes.
EUROPEAN PIED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hypoleuca)
Small numbers in the foothills and highlands, including a few hunting in the pine trees around our Carcassonne picnic spot. By the time of our tour, all of them are in their drab winter plumage, but they still retain their flashy white wing patches.
COMMON REDSTART (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)
A young male entertained us as it pirouetted on a rocky outcrop along the track at the Lac des Gloriettes -- good spotting, Nancie!
BLACK REDSTART (Phoenicurus ochruros)
Common in the mountains, where they hunted from rocks and boulders in all directions. Their habit of quivering those rusty tails when they landed really drew the eye to them.
RUFOUS-TAILED ROCK-THRUSH (Monticola saxatilis)
One preening on a rocky outcrop high above the track through the Port de Boucharo gave us some good scope views -- great spotting, Richard! We found another on another stony ledge near the narrow trail around the Lac des Gloriettes.
WHINCHAT (Saxicola rubetra)
Especially nice views of one of these migrants hunting from tall weeds in a gully along the road up to the Port de Boucharo, with another near the Lac des Gloriettes. The bold white eyebrow of this species helps to quickly separate it from the next.
EUROPEAN STONECHAT (Saxicola rubicola rubicola)
Particularly common in the Vallee d'Ossoue, where little family parties hunted from tall flower stems and bush tops all along the valley. We saw others on the drive up to the Port de Boucharo and on a wire fence in Cieutat. The all-dark face of this one separates it from the Whinchat.
NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Abundant in the mountains, with others on the Crau steppe. The white flash of their tails made them easy to pick out among the boulders, especially in flight -- and potentially gave rise to their common name. "Wheatear" is said to possibly be a corruption of the old Saxon name for the bird: which was basically "White Ass"!
ALPINE ACCENTOR (Prunella collaris)
WOW! Stupendous views of one preening on a slaty outcrop along the Port de Boucharo track. It was completely unfazed by our attention and we finally walked away after ogling it for a good 15 minutes -- and when we returned an hour later, it was still there.
DUNNOCK (Prunella modularis)
As usual, the Barrage des Gloriettes proved to be the best spot for these "little brown jobs" (which is pretty much what their common name means); we got fine views of a twitchy, wing-flicking group of six around the parking lot.
HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus)
Abundant in the lowlands, including scores in the hedgerows near our Arles hotel. This is another species which is declining precipitously across Europe, for reasons that aren't clear.
EURASIAN TREE SPARROW (Passer montanus)
A few in the bushes around Tour Carbonniere, but our best views came in the little town of Salin de Giraud, where one scratched around under a tree near where we'd parked. This is another of the species hard-hit by Europe's changing agricultural practices.
GRAY WAGTAIL (Motacilla cinerea)
Common in the mountains, where we regularly found them waggling their way along mountain streams -- including a pair foraging in the stream near our picnic spot outside Gedre. This is the longest-tailed of Europe's wagtails.
WESTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL (Motacilla flava)
A bright adult on a muddy bank near the start of the Salin de Giraud salt pans got our time there off to a good start -- nice spotting, Linda! We saw a few paler youngsters in a recently mown hay meadow at Mejanes the following day.
WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba)
Seen on half the days of the tour (primarily in the mountains), but in much lower numbers than is typical. A few on the roofs in Gavarnie showed well, and one on a fence near our final picnic spot gave us an especially nice chance to study it in the scopes.
TAWNY PIPIT (Anthus campestris)
A few trotted around the recently mown hay meadow at Mejanes, in the company of several Western Yellow Wagtails. This pipit is far paler than the next, with virtually no streaking above or below.
WATER PIPIT (Anthus spinoletta)
Surprisingly absent from the boulder field in the Cirque de Gavarnie, but gratifyingly abundant in the Port de Boucharo and the Vallee d'Ossoue, with others (in the fog!) at the Col du Tourmalet. This species is resident in the Pyrenees, but its numbers are supplemented by winter visitors from further north.
COMMON CHAFFINCH (Fringilla coelebs)
Amazingly, it took until the very end of the tour to find our one and only -- a calling female (or young male) near the parking lot at the Barrage des Gloriettes. This is usually a common species in the mountains.
EURASIAN BULLFINCH (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)
A few of those near the back of the pack on the walk up to the Cirque de Gavarnie spotted a male in one of the Rowan trees along the way.
EURASIAN LINNET (Linaria cannabina)
Fine views of a busy flock nibbling thistle seeds along the road up to the Port de Boucharo, with others doing the same below the track near the pass into Spain. The white rump is distinctive, particularly when the bird flies.
EUROPEAN GOLDFINCH (Carduelis carduelis)
A few chattering birds in the pines around our Carcassonne picnic spot, but our best views probably came on the drive up to the Port de Boucharo, when we found a couple of red-faced adults chomping on the fluffy heads of tall thistle plants.
EUROPEAN SERIN (Serinus serinus)
A pair working their way up the hill from the parking lot at Barrage des Gloriettes posed all-too-briefly on a wire fence, giving us time to note their yellow plumage, but not a whole lot more.
CORN BUNTING (Emberiza calandra)
Our best views came on the drive back to our hotel from Salin de Giraud. After driving past dozens, we finally found a spot where we could pull off and get one in the scope. These big streaky buntings are another of Europe's declining species, primarily due to intensive farming practices.
YELLOWHAMMER (Emberiza citrinella)
Lovely views of a pair in a leafless bush along the track around the Lac des Gloriettes. In answer to a question that came up on the tour, the name Yellowhammer derives from the German word "Ammer", meaning "bunting" -- i.e. the name means "yellow bunting", which is certainly appropriate, particularly for the male!
OLD WORLD RABBIT (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
A passel of them scuttled along the edge of the road as we made our way out to the Peau de Meau on our second visit.
EUROPEAN BROWN HARE (Lepus europaeus)
Quite common on the Crau steppe, where one or two streaked away from across across the stony ground, and the distinctively long, black-tipped ears of others stuck up from various patches of vegetation.
ALPINE MARMOT (Marmota marmota)
Plenty in the mountains: waddling along the edges of the road, sprawled on rocky perches, scuffling on hillsides and shouting shrill alarm calls to each other when they saw approaching danger. These plump rodents were introduced from the Alps (as their name suggests) to give Pyrenean shepherds something to eat other than their own sheep!
EUROPEAN RED SQUIRREL (Sciurus vulgaris)
Superb views of one energetic individual repeatedly scampering up and down a pine tree in the Cirque de Gavarnie, carting pinecones off to stash them somewhere. What a handsome animal!
NUTRIA (Myocastor coypus)
One (possibly two) paddled across one of the ponds along the road near Mas d'Agon in the Camargue. This species was introduced to France for the fur trade, but didn't prove a success and thus were released into the wild.
OCELLATED LIZARD (Timon lepidus)
One of these stout, showy lizards seen on our first visit to the Crau steppe.
COMMON WALL LIZARD (Podarcis muralis)
A couple of these small lizards, including one chasing the green dot around on the trail at the Port de Boucharo.
Totals for the tour: 148 bird taxa and 5 mammal taxa