In March, 2019, my wife and I went to France for vacation. We flew into Paris, spent the night there, took the train the next afternoon down to Arles, stayed there for four days, then took the train back to Paris for the remaining four days of the trip. When we were in the Arles region I did some intensive birding.
I am indebted to various trip reports posted on the Internet for information about specific sites and target birds: Chris Hall (Camargue, March 2008), Phil Bentley (Provence, January 2014), Chris Batty (Southern France, February 2003), Stephen Burch (Camargue/Alpilles/La Crau, February-March 2009), and Limosa/David Fairhurst (Camargue and Provence, March 2018). The Burch and Bentley reports were particularly helpful with very specific directions and advice on certain key spots.
In the following account I will generally refer to a bird species only the first time it was seen during the trip, thus avoiding tiresome repetition of references to woodpigeons, chaffinches, and other such common birds. Life birds are identified in all capitals.
Thursday the seventh: Our overnight flight into Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris landed at approximately noon. We took the RER train into Paris at Gare du Nord, caught a taxi to the Hotel d’Orsay, relaxed for the rest of the afternoon, took a walk through the Jardin des Tuilleries, had dinner, and spent about an hour or so at the Musee d’Orsay before it closed. Birds seen incidentally between Charles de Gaulle and Paris included pigeon, black-headed gull, common gull, carrion crow, woodpigeon, mallard, Eurasian blackbird, European starling, great tit, mute swan, and house sparrow.
Friday the eighth: Lisa slept in but I decided to take a quick walk before breakfast. I returned to the Jardin des Tuilleries, which was just across the Seine from our hotel, and found Eurasian wren, common moorhen (somewhat of a surprise), chaffinch, blue tit, and multiple chiffchaffs.
That afternoon we took the TGV train to Arles. On the journey I noted black-billed magpie, cattle egret, black kite, and jackdaw in the countryside passing us by.
We obtained a rental car in Arles and with minimal difficulty found our way to our hotel, the Hotel Mas Saint Florent. This was a converted country manor on a spacious estate – an enormous, traditional structure with opulent furnishings and unlimited old world charm. Because we were the only guests in our off-season visit, we were allowed to upgrade without additional cost to the best room in the house, an enormous royal bedroom with a heavy curtain that could separate the bedroom proper from a large sitting area. Lisa was also delighted with the bathroom, which featured a deep bathtub perfect for soaking in the ample hot water.
Our hosts were the owners, Gilbert and Oliver, both friendly fellows. Gilbert was generous with suggestions about things to do in the area, while Oliver led the cooking team and delivered us one night a specially-prepared beef course that was outstanding. We also had breakfast at the hotel at least three mornings, and the spread was marvelous and very European. There was a patisserie in a small hamlet just down the road where we obtained freshly-baked croissants and pains du chocolat on two mornings.
After we settled in to the hotel and unpacked our necessaries, I convinced Lisa to make a quick run with me for a surprise. We followed the directions I had generated up into the Alpilles, a small mountain chain to the northeast, and reached the location of the Hotel Mas de l’Oulivie, with the entire drive taking less than half an hour. A track along the edge of the hotel’s grounds led up into the foothills. I was surprised to find my objective – a hydrant with the number 29 on it – after only a couple minutes’ walk, and we set up the scope and waited.
It was about 6:15 p.m. when we arrived, and except for the ordinary daytime birds, we didn’t hear anything. By 6:40 the light was starting to fail. Then a single middle-range “hooo” came from the rock outcroppings we were studying. Soon after, the bird began calling with fair regularity. I swept the area from which the sound seemed to be issuing and picked up the bird where it was vocalizing. It immediately flew across the face of the outcropping and rose up to perch at the corner of a small plateau at the top, framed against trees. Lisa and I had long, somewhat dim looks at the EURASIAN EAGLE-OWL, well-known to be regular at this location. It and another unseen bird exchanged incessant calls. We were able to see its face and the dark streaking on its breast, but most evident was the large white beard or bib, which noticeably changed shape each time the owl extended its beak to deliver another “hooo.” Eventually, after Lisa and I had fully satisfied ourselves, it flew again left across the rock face, to disappear in the increasing dimness, and we left.
Saturday the ninth: As Lisa was recovering from a long-lingering cold, as well as ample sleep deprivation in the week leading up to the vacation, I left early to let her sleep in (way in) while I did my morning’s birding in the world-famous Camargue reserve. I traveled down the D85a through the Cacharel horse riding center, just south of Pioch Badet, to where a gravel track leads northeast between two of the small lakes of the Camargue. While still on the D85a I saw a pair of greater flamingos fly over the road; they would prove to be the first of many I would see. Just before I reached the track I had a raptor by the side of the road, possibly a honey buzzard, but it was still not light enough for an identification.
At the beginning of the track, I had some shelducks loitering on the ponds, and Eurasian skylarks running about on the gravel. A female reed bunting, the first of many of both genders and various ages, scolded from the vegetation. As I moved beyond the initial section (which had horse pasture on the north side), low swamp vegetation took over and I found about twenty purple swamphens making no secret of their presence. The next small pond on that side held Eurasian coots, little egrets, and a small number of great egrets.
The broader stretch of water to the south featured several European oystercatchers and one or two Eurasian curlews, as well as several common ringed plovers. The local cormorants, as expected, turned out to be great cormorants, and a grey heron or two were found. Great crested grebes swam about here and there.
I continued through a stretch of track with tall reeds on the north side, where a local expert informed me I would have my best chance of seeing bearded tit (a/k/a bearded reedling). I had neither sight nor sound of the birds, however, and eventually found myself passing the point where two of the lakes of the Camargue nearly touch. Beyond that isthmus open agricultural fields gave good views of distant woodlands, and raptors were readily observed in that area. Common buzzards and marsh harriers were present here. Great spotted eagles have been regular as well, but I did not see anything that I suspected of being that species.
Lisa and I had scheduled to have breakfast at the hotel at 10:30, so after running up and down the track a few times without securing any life birds, I headed back up the D85a to the turn north on the D570. A few meters north of the junction, a WHITE STORK sat on a nest up on a roadside stump. Its white back, neck and head, and reddish-pink bill were visible; a few days later I would see it standing on the nest, showing the black secondaries and primaries in the folded wing.
Back at the hotel I had breakfast with Lisa and then she wanted to take another quick nap (this was a seriously long-lasting cold she was recovering from). So I did a tour of the hotel grounds, finding green woodpecker and robin. Some flocking birds that would not come out to be seen clearly in the noon sunshine later proved to be serin.
That afternoon I brought Lisa back to the Cacharel track so she could see the flamingos. By that time the wind had started to pick up, and bird activity had dropped accordingly. Again, no bearded tits were in evidence or calling, but we did have several reasonably close views of the flamingos, which satisfied Lisa. I also spotted two EURASIAN SPOONBILLS in flight, identified by their uniformly white plumage, extended-neck flight styles, and obvious long spatulate bills. We also found a few pipits of indeterminate species, and glossy ibises frequented some of the shallower pools.
Sunday the tenth: Again I headed for the Cacharel track in the morning, hoping to find bearded and penduline tits and an assortment of other target birds. A few hours of ranging along the productive two to three kilometers of the track yielded “Vega” herring gull, an unidentified falcon, black-bellied plover, Eurasian (or “pied”) avocet, Sardinian warbler, spotted redshank in basic plumage, and redshank (non-spotted).
Back at the hotel Lisa and I found the expected European goldfinches.
In the afternoon we went to Les Baux de Provence, on the D78, where I looked for wallcreeper at the location of the statue of the Vierge Noire, known to be a reliable spot. To get to this location, you can park in a roadside parking area for free, and walk up the D78 a shrot ways to a broad paved track signed “Le Village.” As soon as you start that track, there is a narrow path to the right; the statue is right there, and above it the rock faces where wallcreeper is commonly seen. Unfortunately, either it was too windy or the bird had already migrated away, because I had zero luck. We wandered around the scenic town and the public areas of the fort at the peak, enjoying dramatic views of the surrounding rocky prominences. Around the town I found alpine swift, redstarts in nonbreeding plumage, greenfinch, and linnet. A falcon flew by that I guessed to be one of the kestrel clan, but I saw it only in silhouette, and that briefly. Also, I had a momentary view of a bird that probably was a rock bunting, but it was gone before I could get a better look.
Returning on the D83, I noted the trip’s only ring-necked pheasant in a field by the road.
Monday the eleventh: I returned to Les Baux in the morning and did a half-circuit of the hill looking up at the rock faces leading to the walls. The wind was very strong, however, and some heard-only birds that were likely firecrests dodged away without coming in view. I had another view of the falcon from yesterday and noticed it had a wedge-ended tail, marking it as a LESSER KESTREL. No other new trip birds were seen, and in particular neither wallcreeper, alpine accentor, nor blue rock thrush showed. The strong wind probably accounts for the absence of the latter; as to the wallcreeper and accentor, I question whether I had arrived too late, even by a few days, to catch these winter visitors.
Giving up on Les Baux, I ran over to the trail to La Caume plateau (the trailhead and parking area are on the D37 north of Maussane, only ten minutes or less from Les Baux). I had limited time and was only able to reach the last turn before the summit when I had to head back down. In one portion of the trail that was relatively sheltered, I heard chickadee-like calls from up a steep dirt slope, and picked up three CRESTED TITS, one of which showed itself briefly at some distance. I was very pleased to see them as they had eluded me in Scotland sixteen years earlier and the miss had rankled. I tried scrambling up the slope for a better view but the birds disappeared into the scattered woodlands over the crest beyond. However, shortly after I returned to the trail, another crested tit came out onto a small pile of dead brush and posed in full view within about thirty feet of me. I was able to get excellent views of the crest and facial pattern, both of which were reminiscent of the bridled titmouse of the American west. Otherwise the plumage was typical of the tit/titmouse/chickadee clan, with white underparts and gray-blue mantle and wings.
Hurrying back down the trail, I resumed the car and joined Lisa back at the hotel for breakfast. We relaxed together for most of the afternoon and then I drove out to the area of the Eyguieres Airfield. Stopping at a field just short of the airfield, I started up several RED-LEGGED PARTRIDGES, which would prove to be relatively common in the area. Although these individuals flew off across a field and ended up strutting into the brush out of sight, I found a number more in the area, including one at the airfield that stood and studied me at no great distance from my car. I closely examined the chukar-like facial pattern, with brown instead of gray on the crown; the band around the base of the neck, which, rather than having a clean-cut lower border, devolved into a mottled pattern; the extensive scalloping on the flanks; and, of course, the red legs.
Continuing to the airfield, I surveyed it from several vantage points, using shelter wherever I could find it from the ferociously strong wind that otherwise made the scope nearly useless. Here I found a flock of EUROPEAN GOLDEN-PLOVERS accompanied by a single Northern lapwing, common kestrel, and rock ptarmigan in intermediate dress between summer and winter plumage (white bodies with brown wings).
Tuesday the twelfth: I had specific directions to a location supposed to be reliable for penduline tit, and not wanting to leave the Camargue without at least one of the specialty tit species, I decided to try the visitor’s center at La Capeliere, on the eastern edge of the Camargue. When I arrived I walked back to the road and went south checking the reeds in the ditch. Within about five minutes I heard thin calls which presently led me to sightings of two PENDULINE TITS, one of which came almost to the edge of the reeds and showed itself mostly unobstructed. Naturally the black mask was the msot prominent feature, but I appreciated the subtle combination of grey crown, broan shoulders, and grey-and-black primaries and tail.
Elated at this early success, I next ran the trail from the visitor’s center, but found it largely unproductive of new species – possibly because the strong north winds of the past two days had stymied migration. All I added here were sightings of Cetti’s warbler, Northern shoveler, and green-winged teal of the Eurasian form.
With only an hour and a half left on my last serious birding outing for the vacation, I thought I’d try to run down to Cacharel from the other end of the track, beginning in Domaine Mejanes. Unfortunately I hit the wrong track, and after a few miles it petered out, with only a corn bunting as a new trip bird. Retracing my steps back to Domaine Mejanes cost additional time and I was left with only an hour or so to bird.
In desperation I circled back around the entire north end of the Camarague region to get to the now-familiar western end of the track, arriving with just over twenty minutes to spare. I drove up past the point where the two lakes nearly met and scanned for raptors, but again found nothing but marsh harriers. I returned to the stretch of track with tall reeds along the north side, and with barely ten minutes left, decided that I would go out birding the way I preferred – out of the car on my own two feet. I walked a short distance east and was surprised to hear the short tension-wire bursts of the tits’ calls. After a moment I realized the birds were in a bare bush that stood out of the reeds right by the road. I was elated to see first one, then two, then three BEARDED TITS, perched up beautifully instead of skulking in the reads – the highest one was in full unobstructed view and in excellent light. These were perhaps the most colorful and striking small birds seen during the trip, with broad black mustache marks depending vertically from the red bill; yellow eyes; crown, cheeks, and nape an appealing smooth shade of blue; ochre flanks and upperparts, with stretches of white and black in the wings; and white breast and chin.
With not one, but both specialty tits in the bag, I headed back to the hotel for breakfast. There a common cuckoo was calling.
After breakfast we packed up, took a leisurely last stroll around the hotel grounds and caught the train back to Paris.
Wednesday the thirteenth: With Lisa, predictably enough, sleeping in again, I took a walk to the Jardin des Plantes, where I focused on the Ecological Garden. I was searching for European nuthatch, but learned from a birding group I ran into that no nuthatches had been present for several years. I quickly found European jay, and was surprised to find plentiful ROSE-RINGED PARAKEETS, including several frequenting the hanging seed feeders. A dunnock also showed there among the house sparrows. Finally, as I neared the zoo and museum, I followed sibilant calls to a well-viewed SHORT-TOED TREECREEPER, so close and obligng I was even able to study the toes.
The remainder of our vacation focused on cultural tourism in Paris and there were no real opportunities for productive birding. All in all, it was a wonderful combination of birding and more traditional vacation activities. Visiting a week or two earlier, or less windy conditions during the birding portion of the trip, might have yielded better results (particularly at Les Baux and La Caume), but of course that just means I have birding-related incentive to return – something we definitely intend to do.