7 Days in Provence

2020 certainly has shaped up as a year to remember for everyone, everywhere. And for mostly the wrong reasons, or perhaps “reason.” A two-week trip to Spain was cancelled earlier in the summer (first-world problem) with all the uncertainty of what was going on, but we were fortunate to be in a position in July to book a quick getaway to France. Originally we were looking at Dordogne or Brittany, but as usual, the lure of the Mediterranean and its regular host of species won me (and my family) over. Yes, it meant quite a bit more driving and a definite overnight on the way down, but, as expected, it was worth it for the family break and the wildlife.

Rather than a day by day account, I’ve broken the trip down by location and, like many, am indebted to Dave Gosney and his “Finding Birds in…” series of guides. They have slightly more worn corners to them now.

The Drive

It’s always fun driving the length of France. The sheer number of habitats you make your way through is impressive and certainly gets the imagination going as to what might be lurking just off the next motorway junction. We did our usual overnight in Dijon but had some great birds from the car before getting there. The Champagne area, with its vast fields of corn and miles and miles of fencing gave us our first red-backed shrikes of the trip and one lone woodchat shrike. A Montagu’s harrier was also seen quartering crop fields, and stonechats lined the motorway. We also had our first black kite and honey buzzards of the trip. Plenty to get the blood pressure up.

The Farm / Simiane-la-Rotonde

We really lucked out on this trip in terms of hospitality and accommodation. Christiane, the owner of the barn we stayed in, was incredible in letting us know what wildlife was in the area, asking her relatives for info on where to see owls, eagles etc. Thank you so much Christiane! I highly recommend Maison Authentique in Simiane-la-Rotande for a stay!

We arrived at our farm accommodation towards the end of the second day and straight away I knew this was one great spot. Nestled at the top end of a valley, surrounded by farmland, scrub and woodland, the habitats were promising. No sooner had we arrived that the first of many black redstarts made itself known. There were at least 20 of the birds around the farm, with good numbers of young just coming out of their juvenile plumage. House sparrows, swallows, swifts and white wagtails flitted about close to the buildings. Woodlark, serin, subalpine warblers, common redstart and hoopoe were all easily found on the grounds. I found my first Western Bonelli’s warbler on my first morning and saw several more through the week.

One of my favourite birds, the wryneck, turned up on day 4 and presented itself daily – presented for a wryneck usually means sitting out of view in thick scrub and that’s mainly what it did. It did however come within meters of me a few times and gave incredible fleeting views but not long enough for me to get the camera on it.

Wryneck hiding, as they tend to do

Another of my favourite birds, the nightjar, also put a daily appearance in, the first being a flyover right above our heads on the first evening and a flyby right in front of the car on another evening. I also managed to locate it through my scope sitting in a felled piece of woodland on the valley side. A climb up the mountain one afternoon in hope of finding it roosting was unproductive – needle in a haystack. Scops, tawny and little owls all frequent the area although we didn’t manage to see any little owls.

Serin

Raptors were good around the farm with kestrels, buzzards and sparrowhawks joined by short-toed eagles, one with snake in tow – likely an asp viper judging by photographs. The biggest surprise was definitely one morning, when two ravens brought my attention to a large bird of prey, as they mobbed it. A golden eagle! Over our place. Wow! So wonderful to see.

Christiane told me about a family of rollers living nearby and she was right. Not only one family but at least 2-3 families were seen during the week along the road from the farm. What a bird. We would often see at least seven birds lacing the wires long the road each time we drove into town. Stop too close and they’d fly off. I managed to get out one morning on my own in the car and stalked them but never got as close as I’d like to have done.

Other birds of note around in the fields around the farm included my first ever tawny pipit, red-backed shrikes, red-legged partridge and turtle doves.

The farm was also great for other wildlife, especially butterflies with common blue, adonis blue, clouded yellow, great banded grayling, glanville, spotted and knapweed fritillary, dingy, cinquefoil, oberthur’s grizzled, mallow, grizzled and carline skipper all making an appearance. Tree grayling and wood white were also found in surrounding wooded areas.

We had our best views yet of wild boar, and red dear were frequently seen. Beech martins were also spotted from the car on several occasions. Nathusius’s pipistrelle, soprano pipstrelle and Leisler’s bat were all recorded around the farm.

Wall lizards were common around the entrance of the farm but the first night gave us a pair of yellow-tailed scorpions on the door which was fun for the family to navigate.

The Camargue

The Camargue is a site I’ve been to a couple times now and every time I’m reminded of just how much there is to see, how many tiny roads there are to explore and how much research it needs pre-visit. Luckily this time I had my trusty Gosney guide in tow and managed to map out a tour of the park, targeting locations known for terns, pratincole and herons.

Sadly, another year has gone by without seeing a collared pratincole, an incredibly rare bird in the Camargue with less than 30 pairs now breeding annually. A conservation programme is doing all it can to protect them so fingers crossed.

We started early and decided to try the area of fields north of Etang du Vaccares, stopping at points 8-12 in the Gosney guide. This gave us good views of glossy ibis, squacco, night and purple herons, as well as the first gull-billed and whiskered terns, two marsh species that had eluded me on previous trips to South France. White storks were frequent, greater flamingos were in good numbers especially on roadside leading to La Capeliere. Turtle dove, hobby, marsh harrier, zitting cisticola, bee eaters, great reed warbler, yellow wagtail and a pair of stone curlew were good to see.

A drive over to La Scamandre just before lunch gave us views of spoonbills, little terns, wood, common and green sandpipers and black-winged stilts but the place was rather busy and birds were a little thin on the ground. We did have great views of capybara and European pond turtle.

I had hoped to find some slender billed gulls in the Plage du Piemanson are in the North East of the park and decided to combine it with a family swim. Sadly, the area is really popular now thanks to tourists like ourselves so it seems the gulls have vacated for quieter zones. Lovely views of avocets along the way though!

Given the visit tot the beach, we decided to move our visit to La Crau to another day. Sadly, this was an unfortunate decision. The day we visited La Crau, they were unable to give permits as they had had to close the park due to word that an illegal rave was going to take place in the nature reserve, full of sensitive species and biomes. I was gutted but totally understood why they had to close. Idiot rave cretins. Hope they got arrested.

Instead we headed down to the Vigueirat Marshes, a lovely reserve that was rather quiet bird-wise but did give us great views of kingfisher, rollers on the road in, the first cuckoo of the trip and more gull billed terns.

Les Alpilles

We had an afternoon spare given the La Crau closure so decided to try our luck at La Caume in Les Alpilles, a beautiful mini mountain range erupting seemingly out of nowhere. Again, pretty quiet with birds like crested tit and chaffinch making an appearance in the woods and subalpine warbler in the car park, but we did have distant view of a pair of Bonelli’s eagles, a first for me. What a bird!

We then stopped off at Le Destet to try the well-documented eagle owls that nest annually on the ridge there. Sadly all tracks mentioned in the Gosney guide have been blocked and it isn’t possible to reach the track anymore. We did have a goshawk fly over so all was not lost!

Mont Ventoux et environs

We tried Les Gorges de la Nesque for raptors. None were around at the top but we did have a booted eagle flying pretty low down in the valley and a black kite on the way up. The most surprising thing in the lay by at the main gorge was a very tame, but wild, family of wild boar. At one point they even tried to get into our car, clearly driven by the smell of brioche.

The summit of Mont Ventoux was busy and the only birds of note were wheatear, raven and crested tit. On the drive down though, we stopped at Chalet Reynard where the family had a drink and I ventured up the path alongside the chalet. Again very quiet but did find a red-backed shrike, common redstart , a saddle-back katydid and my first ever purple-shot, sooty and large copper, rock and false grayling butterflies, all around one particular bush. Wonderful.

Observatoire Ornithologique

We stopped very briefly here one day on the way to see friends. I am so glad we did. No sooner had we pulled up near the bird hide, i spotted what looked like a white stork circling above – white with black on the wings. But no long neck and no trailing legs. Bins out – Egyptian vulture. And not just one, but two. They circled for several minutes before coming lower and flying right over my head. I couldn’t believe it. Talk about right place at the right time. It was my first time to see this incredible bird – another species that is struggling to hold onto its smaller fragmented populations.

Egyptian Vulture

Lac d’Orient

On the way back to the UK, we managed a quick stop at Lac d’Orient to see if any black woodpecker were around the carp park area mentioned in Gosney. Sadly, none showed or called but we did get treated a superb fly past from a honey buzzard along the shore edge, spotted flycatchers and middle spotted woodpecker. Lovely spot.

Honey buzzard fly past

Etangs du Romelaere

Situated very close to Calais, this was our final stop of the trip. We hoped to catch some late bluethroats, a bird that nests here but we didn’t manage even a peep. The site is pretty cool but gets pretty busy. Other than the usual marsh birds we did get lucky with an osprey on passage back to Africa. Will hopefully visit again one day earlier in the summer.

An incredible 7 days overall with an impressive 124 species of bird seen and 40 species of butterfly. The South of France always delivers.

Bird Species

1. Kestrel
2. Jackdaw
3. Herring gull
4. Wood pigeon
5. Magpie
6. Swallow
7. Montagu Harrier
8. House Martin
9. Blackbird
10. Greenfinch
11. Mallard
12. Grey heron
13. House sparrow
14. Carrion crow
15. Buzzard
16. Red backed shrike
17. Black headed gull
18. Coot
19. Tufted duck
20. Linnet
21. Collared dove
22. Stock dove
23. Rook
24. White wagtail
25. Starling
26. Common tern
27. Sand martin
28. Crag martin
29. Black kite
30. Black redstart
31. Green woodpecker
32. Jay
33. Roller
34. Serin
35. Goldfinch
36. Corn bunting
37. Cirl bunting
38. Great tit
39. Red legged partridge
40. Western Bonelli warbler *
41. Long tailed tit
42. Nightjar
43. Scope owl
44. Nightingale
45. Nuthatch
46. Alpine swift
47. Wheatear
48. Booted eagle
49. Crested tit
50. Woodlark
51. Common redstart
52. Short toed eagle
53. Swift
54. Mute swan
55. Spotted redshank
56. Redshank
57. Common sandpiper
58. Greater flamingo
59. Kingfisher
60. Sparrowhawk
61. Cetti’s warbler
62. Sardinian warbler
63. Zitting Cisticola
64. Whiskered tern *
65. Common tern
66. Bee eater
67. Black winged stilt
68. Yellow wagtail
69. Great reed warbler
70. Reed warbler
71. Lapwing
72. Glossy ibis
73. Purple heron
74. Little egret
75. Cattle egret
76. Squacco heron
77. Black crowned night heron
78. Black tern
79. Mediterranean gull
80. Great crested grebe
81. Cormorant
82. Wood sandpiper
83. Little tern
84. Gadwall
85. Great egret
86. Spoonbill
87. Ruff
88. Marsh harrier
89. Turtle dove
90. Yellow legged gull
91. Blue tit
92. Moorhen
93. Tawny owl
94. Snipe
95. Stone curlew
96. Green sandpiper
97. Stonechat
98. Sandwich tern
99. Avocet
100. Ringed plover
101. Lesser black backed gull
102. Dunlin
103. Hobby
104. Gull billed tern *
105. White stork
106. Wryneck
107. Golden eagle
108. Chaffinch
109. Goshawk
110. Cuckoo
111. Bonellis Eagle *
112. Egyptian vulture *
113. Great spotted woodpecker
114. Tawny pipit *
115. Wren
116. Spotted flycatcher
117. Song thrush
118. Middle spotted woodpecker
119. Coal tit
120. Robin
121. Osprey
122. Chiffchaff
123. Sedge warbler
124. Blackcap

Butterfly Species

1. Clouded yellow
2. Wall brown
3. Small tortoiseshell
4. Large white
5. Small white
6. Southern white admiral
7. Great banded grayling
8. Scarce Swallowtail
9. Gatekeeper
10. Common blue
11. Glanville fritillary
12. Spotted fritillary
13. Knapweed fritillary
14. Silver washed fritillary
15. Wood white
16. Holly blue
17. Adonis blue
18. Meadow brown
19. Small copper
20. Tree grayling
21. Dingy skipper
22. Carline skipper
23. Grizzled skipper
24. Swallowtail
25. Cleopatra
26. Mallow skipper
27. Bath White
28. Red Admiral
29. Southern gatekeeper
30. Rock grayling
31. Brown argus
32. Cinquefoil skipper
33. Oberthurs grizzled skipper
34. Purple-shot copper
35. False grayling
36. Large copper
37. Sooty copper
38. Large skipper
39. Small skipper
40. Peacock

Reptile Species

  1. Wall lizard
  2. European pond turtle
  3. Asp viper

Amphibian Species

  1. Marsh frog
  2. common frog

Mammal Species

  1. Beech marten
  2. Wild boar
  3. Badger
  4. Red dear
  5. Fox
  6. Coypu
  7. Brown hare
  8. Common pipistrelle
  9. Sopranos pipistrelle
  10. Leisler’s bat
  11. Nathusius pipistrelle
  12. Brown long-eared bat

Invertebrate species of note

  1. Yellow tailed scorpion

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