Taste of France
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.
“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.
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.
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