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Sunbird – Itinerary

2019 Tour Price : £3,100

  • Single Room Supplement: : £310
  • Plus flights estimated at: : £350

France: Birding à la Française

Thursday 16 May to Sunday 26 May 2019
Wednesday 6 May to Saturday 16 May 2020
with Fabrice Schmitt and Pierre Defos Du Rau as leaders

Maximum group size: 10 with 2 leaders.

Eurasian Bee-eater in Ligagneau Photo: Fabrice Schmitt

France is best known for its food and wine, but it also has wonderful birds! Our tour will mix these ingredients; binoculars will never be very far from the corkscrew, and you will be reading your field guide with a mouthful of local cheese.

Our idea is simple. We’ll visit some of the best birding spots in southern France and the island of Corsica, while taking time to taste local cheeses, wines, and regional food specialities. Your leaders, who are both French and determined gourmets as well as excellent birders, will take you to memorable places in search of both birds and excellent local food.  In the French Alps, we’ll have a superb field breakfast while looking at displaying Black Grouse; in the Camargue we’ll taste the local telline (a type of clam) followed by watching colourful European Bee-Eaters and Greater Flamingos; in the Crau, part of the Natural Regional Park of Les Alpilles, we’ll celebrate our observations of rare Lesser Kestrels and Little Bustards while tasting local organic wines; and in Corsica we’ll look for the endemic Nuthatch and Citril Finch, and track down the equally endemic beer and sausage.

If you enjoy birding in gorgeous landscapes, and if your ideal picnic is a basket of local ham, cheese, and red wine, then this tour might be for you.

Day 1: We’ll meet at Lyon’s Saint Exupery airport at 1 pm. From there, we’ll drive towards the Haut-Plateaux du Vercors Nature Reserve. On the way, we’ll pass through the stunning scenery of the Combe Laval cirque, taking a narrow four-kilometre road along an impressive cliff, where we may spot our first Crag-Martin or even a soaring Golden Eagle. After checking-in to our hotel in the little village of La Chapelle-en-Vercors, we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the Nature Reserve and its birds including Great Spotted Woodpecker, Song Thrush, Firecrest, Goldcrest, Coal Tit, and perhaps even the beautiful Eurasian Bullfinch. Night in La Chapelle.

Day 2: We’ll take a full day to explore the Nature Reserve and its surroundings. With 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres), this is the largest continental reserve in mainland France. It protects alpine meadows and superb forests where no fewer than 750 species of plants are found, as well as numerous bird species such as Black Grouse, Eurasian Woodcock, the rare Eurasian Pygmy-Owl, Tengmalms Owl, and the superb Citril Finch. Alpine Chamois and Alpine Marmot also live here, and recently even the rare (and under-appreciated by farmers) Grey Wolf has been seen. Night in La Chapelle.

We’ll start before sunrise to be in place to witness the remarkable Black Grouse lekking displays. We’ll bring a suitably excellent field breakfast to accompany our observations. During the rest of the day, we’ll look for Red Crossbill, Mistle Thrush, Ring Ouzel, displaying Tree Pipits, Lesser Whitethroat, and the cute Eurasian Nuthatch. We may also encounter the quite vocal Black Woodpecker, the largest European woodpecker.

Day 3: Depending on yesterday’s birding success, we may spend this morning in the Haut-Plateaux du Vercors, or we’ll begin driving towards the Baronnies, a lovely Mediterranean region of middle elevation mountains (up to 1,600 metres/5,250 feet). Our drive should provide numerous good views of Eurasian Griffon Vulture, a spectacular species common to this area. We’ll need extremely good luck to spot the recently reintroduced Eurasian Black Vulture, or the rarer Egyptian Vulture, but we’ll scan the sky all day to increase our chances. Along the way, we’ll stop to look for passerines such as Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Linnet, and Yellowhammer, and we’ll certainly stop to buy some local cheese and enjoy a coffee or pastis in one of the many picturesque villages on our route. Night near Rémuzat.

Day 4: After a morning’s birding around the village of Rémuzat, dominated by an impressive cliff which are very attractive to Griffons, we’ll continue towards the charming village of Fontvieille where we’ll spend three nights. On the way, we’ll bird a rich agricultural area, mixing meadows, orchards, and pastures, where we can find a fine variety of birds such as European Turtle-Dove, Eurasian Wryneck, Green Woodpecker, European Stonechat, Western Orphean Warbler, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, and Ortolan and Cirl Buntings. We may even spot Eurasian Hobby, as they sometimes hunt in these semi-open habitats. If we arrive early enough in Fontvieille, we may visit the famous and picturesque nearby village of Les Baux-de-Provence, where it is common to see and hear the elegant Blue Rock-Thrush on the numerous cliffs of the village. Night in Fontvieille.

Days 5-6:  We’ll have two full days to explore the Camargue, the Crau, and Les Alpilles, some of the best birding areas in France. The Camargue is western Europe’s largest river delta consisting of a vast plain dotted with large lagoons cut off from the sea by sandbars and encircled by reed-covered marshes, as well as an extensively-cultivated area (mostly of rice) and pastures grazed by cattle and horses unique the area. These vast wetlands and salt meadows attract a wide variety of birds and are extremely important, at the European scale, to the wintering, migrating, and breeding avifauna. Although our visit comes at the end of the migration period, we’ll have a good chance of finding flocks of Dunlin, Little Stint, and Curlew Sandpiper foraging together, along with breeding Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, and Slender-billed Gull. Colourful Greater Flamingoes breed in the salt pans, as do Common Shelduck and Kentish Plover. In the reed-covered marshes, we’ll seek a long list of songbirds, such as Cetti’s, Moustached, and Melodious Warblers, Eurasian and Great Reed Warblers, the beautiful Bearded Reedling, and the handsome local subspecies of Reed Bunting, sometimes considered a separate species, the Southern Reed Bunting. Up to nine species of heron can be found in a single (lucky) day, including the elegant Purple Heron, the cryptic (when perched) Squacco Heron, and the elusive Little and Great Bitterns. In the agricultural fields, it’s common to find flocks of the stunning Mediterranean Gull and the Glossy Ibis. Populations of these, together with the rare Eurasian Spoonbill, have increased recently following the introduction of crayfish. In dryer habitats, we’ll look for the superb Collared Pratincole, one more of the Camargue’s specialities, and we’ll have many opportunities to admire the sparkling, ubiquitous European Bee-eater. Birds may be a focus here but it is also the place to taste the local telline (clams) or try some famous bull meat.

Located just to the east of the Camargue, the Crau (pronounced “crow”) is the ancient confluence of the Durance and Rhône rivers, and constitutes a vast flat alluvial fan. This is the only place in France, and one of the very last in Europe, where steppe habitat can still be found over a significant area. As such, it promises a fine selection of specialised steppe bird species. We’ll be looking for the charismatic Little Bustard, the vocal Greater Short-toed and Crested Larks, the rare and local Calandra Lark, breeding Lesser Kestrels, the unique Eurasian Hoopoe, and the elegant Southern Grey Shrike. With lots of luck, we may even spot Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, restricted in France to this little steppe territory.

In the background of the Camargue and the Crau are the famous Mediterranean hills of Les Alpilles. This scenic terrain is composed of arid limestone peaks separated by dry valleys and pine forests. Evening birding is a treat here, looking for Red-legged Partridge, the impressive Bonelli’s Eagle, the secretive but noisy Dartford, Subalpine and Sardinian Warblers, and the fancy European Roller. The villages of Les Alpilles are also known for excellent organic wines, so we may have no choice but to organise a picnic dinner, with local wine, cheese, charcuterie, and local fruits. We’ll remain until dusk, enjoying the food and birds, and watching the night sky for a glimpse of a massive Eurasian Eagle-Owl or its dwarf relative, the Eurasian Scops-Owl. Nights in Fontvieille.

Day 7: After a last morning in the Camargue or the Crau, we’ll head towards Marseille, stopping on the way for lunch in one of the attractive calanques, steep-sided rocky valley inlets along the Mediterranean shore. We’ll probably find a few interesting birds, but the main reason to stop here, beside the incredible scenery, is a little restaurant frying the catch of the day, which could be small fish or squid, and serving them with a dry white wine. After this pleasant casual lunch, we’ll have time to try out farniente (an Italian sport also widespread in France, consisting of doing nothing and enjoying life) or swimming in the Mediterranean. After our lazy afternoon, we’ll drive to Toulon to catch the ferry to Corsica. We’ll leave in the evening, but we may still have a chance to spot a few Yelkouan Shearwaters and even the rarer Scopoli’s (formerly Cory’s) Shearwater. Night onboard the ferry.

Days 8-10: Called L’île de beauté (island of beauty), Corsica will surprise you with wonderful landscapes, a fabulous coastline, tremendous mountains, and beautiful native pine tree forests. There are also beech and chestnut forests, patrolled by gangs of semi-wild pigs which serve as the base of the local charcuterie. Chestnuts also play an important role in Corsican food, as they are used in pastry, meat sauces, side dishes, beer, among other things. Our first stop may be to enjoy a view of Spotless Starlings and Hooded Crows, both common on the island, or to patronise a local delicatessen offering amazing wild boar sausage, goat and sheep cheeses, chestnut cream, and ‘cédrat’ (local citrus) jam.

During our three days in the island, we’ll spend time in the attractive Asco valley, where we could find Crag-Martins, flocks of Goldfinches, Cirl Bunting, and Moltoni’s and Marmora’s Warblers - the latter two both endemic to only a few Mediterranean islands, including Corsica. We’ll drive through scenic gorges, and alongside a delightful stream where we hope to find White-throated Dipper. Our hotel is perched high in the mountains surrounded by the wonderful scenery of the upper Asco valley. While enjoying a beer, or an intense Corsican wine, on the hotel terrace we might just possibly spot the very rare Lammergeier!

We’ll spend one morning in the magnificent Corsican pine forest of the upper Asco Valley looking for the only two bird species known to be endemic to France (so far - taxonomy is changing quickly): the uncommon Corsican Nuthatch and the lovely Corsican Finch. While looking for these, we have good chance of finding Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Eurasian Treecreepers, Raven, Eurasian Blackcap, and a few Red Kites.

We’ll also visit Vergio Pass and the picturesque village of Evisa where we’ll stay for a night. Corsica is a wonderful place for picnics so expect to savour local meats, cheeses, and chestnut ice-cream. Near Evisa, we’ll re-enter the Corsican pine forest to look for some species we may have missed in the Asco Valley, including the Corsican Crossbill and Balearic Spotted Flycatcher. While on the island we’ll spend one night in Evisa, one in Asco valley, and the final one in Bastia.

Day 11: After some morning birding around Biguglia Lake we’ll have our last lunch together then conclude the tour at the Bastia airport around 2:00 pm.

 

This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS

 

Updated: 27 September 2018