Taste of France

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: DO­MINIC COUZENS

What to ex­pect on a bird­watch­ing trip to the Langue­doc re­gion

En­joy some great bird­ing – and sam­ple some won­der­ful wine, of course – on a bird­ing trip to the Langue­doc re­gion

Ap­par­ently, they have a thing go­ing with wine in Langue­doc. If you are trav­el­ling to this south-south­east cor­ner of France on a purely bird­ing trip, peo­ple au­to­mat­i­cally sus­pect you have mixed mo­tives. They raise their eye­brows and say things like: “Bird­ing, eh? Stay sober.” Or wink and re­mark, “Lots of species in those vine­yards, aren’t there?” It was with jibes ring­ing in my ears that I landed at Toulouse air­port on a sunny late April evening, for a brief taster ses­sion. Of bird­ing. I just had time to see sev­eral Short-toed Ea­gles be­fore the sun set and I set­tled into the kind of com­fort­able, rus­tic ac­com­mo­da­tion that only the French can do, in a small vil­lage nes­tled in the Cor­bières. I breathed in the sweet scent of a huge lilac bush in the court­yard op­po­site my room, sipped a naughty Mer­lot and fell asleep dream­ing of sun­lit, colour­ful birds. The pre-break­fast stroll con­firmed ev­ery­thing that I had ex­pected of this small piece of per­fec­tion. The old oak trees and sculpted cy­presses, wild-rose be­spat­tered gar­rigue and aged build­ings throbbed with bird song from ev­ery branch and ev­ery cor­ner. And they throbbed, too, with redo­lence of a sound­track from Bri­tain’s past abun­dance: Cuck­oos echo­ing across the gen­tle hills, Cirl Buntings buzzing from the cy­press-tops, Wood Larks lilt­ing as they wa­vered across the clear sky. And there were Nightin­gales, ev­ery­where, al­most spoil­ing their own vir­tu­os­ity by be­ing too loud. To add a south­ern French ex­otic aura, a Hoopoe perched on a dead tree, puff­ing its neck as it sang ‘hoo-poo-poo’ at trot­ting pace, all black-and-white and medium cop­per in the morn­ing sun. I couldn’t see the Nightin­gales, or the Black­caps and Sar­dinian War­blers that were also singing. There was an­other voice, too, vaguely Black­bird-like, that I just couldn’t place.

Dra­matic change

“Good pre-break­fast?” asked Philippa Ben­son, or­gan­iser of Bird­ing Langue­doc, a non-profit out­fit geared to pro­mot­ing bird­ing in the area, par­tic­u­larly the nearby Parc Ré­gional Na­turel Nar­bon­naise. We gulped a heav­enly cup of English tea and made our way into the hin­ter­land of Cor­bières, ac­com­pa­nied by two young ecol­o­gists and guides, Kar­line Mar­torell and Jérémy Jal­abert. On the nearby Pla de Cas­tel, the scenery

Dur­ing our ex­cur­sion, i tried out my French and, par­tic­u­larly, my bird names. it Didn’t start well

changed dra­mat­i­cally, to a plateau-like hill­top where the gar­rigue vege­ta­tion, blasted by the wind, was lower and thin­ner. Here, we were treated to a trickle of rap­tor migration, with 13 Honey Buz­zards, as well as six Black Kites (and some Swifts) pass­ing by, de­spite the wind com­ing from the wrong di­rec­tion. The sup­port­ing cast here came in the form of a male Black-eared Wheatear, so per­fectly be­decked in black-and-cream that it could have been choco­late and pas­try straight out of the lo­cal boulan­gerie. A West­ern Bonelli’s War­bler buzzed from the near­est small copse.

rep­tiles and am­phib­ians

Down­hill, we checked a de­light­ful old ruin that Philippa knew, where a pair of Hoopoes were nest­ing. Once again it was a ru­ral de­light, with Corn Buntings jan­gling and dan­gling (their song and their legs, in dis­play, re­spec­tively) from the edge of the vine­yards, and more Wood Larks vent­ing their air of semi­tones. The ex­ul­tant mixed with the despotic, as we watched a ‘pair’ of Cuck­oos ap­par­ently work in tan­dem, the male singing loudly as a small bird buzzed it, while an­other Cuckoo, seem­ingly a fe­male, stole into the nearby vege­ta­tion. This was brood par­a­sitism made flesh, in the seem­ingly idyl­lic sur­round­ings. Dur­ing our ex­cur­sion, I tried out my French and, par­tic­u­larly, my bird names. It didn’t start well. “Chardon­nay,” I pointed, as a Goldfinch flew over. “You mean Chardon­neret,” said Philippa. Jérémy, mean­while, had dis­ap­peared, and not for the first time. I had be­gun to won­der whether he was very shy, or per­haps had an up­set stom­ach. How­ever, af­ter a short while he emerged from the other side of the ruin and beck­oned us over, point­ing to the roof. It took a lit­tle peer­ing, but soon we re­alised that he was di­rect­ing us to an enor­mous Ocel­lated Lizard, blue spots on its speck­led green skin, wait­ing for an in­sect to land fa­tally on the sun-warmed tiles. At a safe dis­tance, a Moor­ish Gecko was also hunt­ing. “My big­gest in­ter­est is herps,” ex­plained Jérémy [‘herps’ are rep­tiles and am­phib­ians], “al­though of course I like birds, too.” Un­ex­pect­edly, the week­end di­ver­si­fied in the most de­light­ful way as we all rev­elled in Jérémy’s cold-blooded de­lights. Ev­ery­where we looked for birds there was a her­peto­log­i­cal sideshow. Thus, a nest­ing pair of Spot­less Star­lings near Leu­cate in the Parc Nar­bon­naise shared star billing with a Cat­alo­nian Wall Lizard, while an ex­cel­lent shel­tered scrubby, marshy spot played host to mi­grant Pied Fly­catch­ers, Red­starts, Whin­chat and the more earth­bound Ed­wards’s Psam­mod­ro­mus, a range-re­stricted lizard.

Frothy cack­ling

To­wards af­ter­noon, we com­pleted an un­usual dou­ble. We had spent some time around Les Cous­soules, look­ing in the ver­dant scrub and light grass­land for mi­grants and breed­ing birds. A flock of Bee-eaters swept over, still on their way north, and a Lit­tle Ringed Plover ap­peared on a pud­dle in the track, as these mysterious mi­grants ha­bit­u­ally do. Crested Larks gave their brief, breezy phrases and Serins danced in the tree­tops. And with­out warn­ing there was a loud, frothy cack­ling, like a Jack­daw call played back­wards, and two gor­geous Great Spotted Cuck­oos flew past, all dark tails trail­ing, ragged grey crest and throat smeared with but­ter­scotch. Watch­ing them, it was ob­vi­ous that they were a pair, our sec­ond Cuckoo duo of the day. In Great Spotted Cuck­oos, male and fe­male stay to­gether for the breed­ing at­tempts, un­like Cuck­oos, and they use Car­rion Crows and Mag­pies as hosts. It is com­mon for males to act as de­coys while the fe­males steal into corvid nests, which is what we were sure we had wit­nessed in the Cor­bières hin­ter­land. The morn­ing of our sec­ond day saw us back at the Pla de Cas­tel, where we took a longer walk around the gar­rigue, catch­ing up with some prizes we missed on the short check the pre­vi­ous morn­ing. An Or­tolan Bunt­ing sang en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, the ‘Beethoven’s 5th phrase’ sound­ing oddly dry and sun­lit un­der a spring squall. A Tawny Pipit per­formed its high-fly­ing dis­play-flight in the grey clouds and a covey of Red-legged Par­tridges scut­tled away. “Aha,” said Kar­line as we ap­proached a small copse of pines. “I can hear an Or­phean War­bler singing.”

My bird­ing radar sud­denly turned up full vol­ume, as I had been par­tic­u­larly keen to see this skulk­ing, Black­cap-like war­bler with the star­ing white eye. Kar­line pointed as a shape dis­ap­peared into a tan­gle of nee­dles. And then the song be­gan, an eclec­tic mix of brief and rushed, yet sweet and sump­tu­ous phrases, like a very hes­i­tant Black­bird. And then it struck me. This dis­tinc­tive, fit­ful but gor­geous song; this was the one I had heard in the gar­den where I was stay­ing. I had been par­tic­u­larly hop­ing to see this bird, hav­ing never re­ally got to grips with it be­fore. In this area, West­ern Or­phean War­blers were gar­den sta­ples, ob­vi­ously quite com­mon. Af­ter this rev­e­la­tion, we drove back down to the coastal re­gions of the Parc Re­gional Nar­bon­naise. We had cof­fee on the sea-front at La Fron­qui, a well-known spot for some of Langue­doc’s salt­wa­ter spe­cials. Lit­tle Terns fed over the shal­low in­let, while Ken­tish Plovers teetered on the edge of the dis­tant mud­flats, but the high­lights here were the Slen­der­billed Gulls. These gulls are re­stricted to a nar­row cli­matic range around the Mediter­ranean and Black Sea and they are never com­mon, es­chew­ing the choppy seas favoured by many gulls. With their white eyes, long neck and long legs, they are dis­tinc­tive for gulls, par­tic­u­larly when, as in this case, their bel­lies were washed by a del­i­cate pink. While en­joy­ing the Slen­der-billed Gulls I de­cided to have a quick look beyond the har­bour mouth to the open sea. It was no more than a rou­tine glance to check that noth­ing was there, but a Gan­net caught my at­ten­tion im­me­di­ately. Then, to my as­ton­ish­ment, an Arc­tic Skua ap­peared, too, chas­ing some Sand­wich Terns. In­cred­i­bly, the next mir­a­cle was a party of three Po­ma­rine Skuas, and sev­eral other Arc­tics. For a mo­ment it felt as though I was bird­ing in the West­ern Isles, not the Mediter­ranean. We went up the coast to re­cover from this marvel, wondering whether we might have been imag­in­ing it all. Or drink­ing. We glanced over some salt­pans, and the ‘right’ birds were there: Black-winged Stilts and Avo­cets. Soon af­ter­wards, a smart squadron of Glossy Ibises flew past, lit up by the evening sun, their plumage the colour of a de­cent red Bur­gundy. And not far away, those poster-birds of South­ern France fed on the salt­pans: Greater Flamin­gos. “Ah, fla­mant rose,” called Kar­line. And in my mind, I mused: “Is that rose or rosé?” Langue­doc was seep­ing in.

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Hoopoe

Cirl Bunt­ing

Goldfinch

Fields of vines at sun­set near the French hill­top vil­lage of Montclar in the Cor­bières re­gion

Parc Na­turel Ré­gional de la Nar­bon­naise en Méditer­ranée

Fe­male West­ern Or­phean War­bler

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