Birding France: It’s finally real

A vineyard in the Narbonne region in southern France.

It wasn’t until I took a bite of creamy brie at our first picnic on this birding tour that I knew it was real. We were finally in France.

We booked a birding trip for France in both 2020 and then in 2021, but COVID prevented that from happening. (The 2021 cancellation resulted in a quick pivot to birding in Iceland instead, which wasn’t a bad trade-off.)

I was convinced that something else was going to foil our plans in 2022 to finally get to France, and something certainly tried. In February 2022 Steve was in Chiapas, Mexico on a birding adventure while I stayed at home because of a big project at work. Steve ended up getting COVID while in Mexico, preventing him from returning to the U.S. He soon started running out of his insulin for diabetes, then ended up with severe food poisoning, landing him in a local hospital for a day.

When I was finally able to get him home, he continued to do poorly and two weeks later, I rushed him to the hospital where staff immediately wheeled him into surgery to remove a 7-inch clot from his leg. “If you came in an hour later,” the surgeon told me, “He would have lost his leg.”

An echocardiogram and angiogram led doctors to conclude that while Steve was in Mexico he suffered a heart attack on top of everything else.

“I know this sounds weirdly inappropriate to ask at this time,” I said to one of his cardiologists, “But do you think he’ll be ready to go to France by end of May?”

“He should be fine,” he told me. “Unless you’re doing something hardcore like biking around the South of France.”

“No, we’re just looking at birds.”

“Keep your plans,” he said.

A healthy Steve enters the Ferme Auberge Restaurant for our first lunch at the beautiful Cistercian abbey of Valmagne, overlooking a collection of heritage grape varieties in South of France.

Having done a lot of our birding in Latin America and North America, I wanted to branch out and visit a new area of the world. We’d been planning the France trip since 2019 and with all the false starts, the anticipation had been building. We booked a tour through Birding Languedoc, a team of birders who are focused on giving visitors to the area (as well as residents) the best birding experience possible.

Our “home base” for the week was at Maison de la Fontaine, a bed and breakfast inn at Embres-at-Castelmaure. Our hosts, Dominique and Peter Mc Donald were both charming and helpful. Dominique made us fabulous picnic lunches every day for our birding hikes and the whole family put together wonderful dinners every evening for us. Their grand children—around the ages of 9 and 10–were in town and they would bring out appetizers to us and help clear the plates. The breakfasts were also marvelous with croissants and fresh fruit, yogurts and eggs.

On our first morning in France we didn’t tightly secure our camera into the tripod and it went crashing onto the cement floor. It not only damaged the filter, but our 600 mm lens that we rely on to get close-up shots of birds would not focus. It was severely damaged. The only thing we could do was shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well,” and press on. It reminded me that birding doesn’t require a camera. We had our binoculars and new birds to see. That’s all we needed.

Sadly, the reason you won’t find many bird photos in my blog posts about France.

We trekked through the Aude flood plain and river banks where we searched for birds in a small vineyard backing onto a rocky escarpment We found a Woodchat Shrike, a late migrating female Red-backed Shrike, and views of a Black-eared Wheatear.

Our guide Karline Martorell (left) and our our leader, Philippa Benson (right) showing us the Woodchat Shrike.

At the nearby village of Lespignan we found male, female and juvenile Lesser Kestrels where they nest in the canal tile roofs of the old Languedoc houses. They flitted around the skies, giving us great views. Lespignan is also where we enjoyed the first of Dominique’s delicious picnics as we looked over the terracotta roofs, watching a Hoopoe move around the village.

Steve getting a good look at one of the Lesser Kestrels.
The first of many proper Mediterranean picnics we enjoyed on the tour.

When I took a bite of the of brie on that slice of perfectly-baked baguette, I knew it was real. We were finally in France. There seemed to have been multiple barriers to this trip: COVID, Steve’s heart attack and even the loss of our camera lens. But we were here now. It was finally time to take a deep breath.

Interested in a birding tour of the Languedoc region in France? We highly recommend Birding Languedoc. (We did not receive any compensation, perks or anything in exchange for this trip. Our review and comments about our experience with Birding Languedoc are genuine.)