France: Birding from the plains to the mountains

Each breakfast, Dominique greeted us with her sing-songy, “Bon jour!” It’s the way I want to wake up every morning, I decided. With a song and a croissant.

As we drove to our next location we passed fields of scarlet poppies blanketing the landscape. Spring came late with recent rains resulting in lots of poppies everywhere. The green-grayish leaves of the olive trees were silvery and I noticed farmers planted prickly pear cactus as fencing on the perimeter of their vineyards.

Only three things prosper in this soil, Philippa told me: grape vines, olive trees and fig trees. The earth is otherwise too rocky for anything else to thrive, with the exception of garlic, thyme, rosemary and fennel, which grow wild. On our hikes I felt like I was walking in earth’s mise en place. A place where all the ingredients were laid out for me to prepare a soup.

In Fitou we hiked a loop trail around mixed habitat of vineyards surrounded by garrigue with remnants of ancient stone walls. We were fortunate to see our main target species for this spot – the Black-eared Wheatear (both pale-throated morph and dark-throated morph as well as the warm brown colored female). Our guide, Karline heard and then found the elusive Ortolan bunting, which came out into the open to sing the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth for us. Other notable finds in this area included Greater Short-toed Lark and a Short-toed Snake Eagle flying overhead.

If you fancy birding around lovely vineyards, this is the place for you.

We visited the stone fruit orchards of the Roussillon plain where I was excited about the Rollers perched on power lines. Their lovely blue and orange feathers reminded me of colorful tropical birds we’d see in Latin America. We had another great picnic (thank you Dominique!), and just as we were driving off I spotted a Little Owl perched atop a fence post. I yelled, “Stop! Little Owl!” but not quick enough. Philippa pressed the brakes of the van and we stopped suddenly, only for Steve to see the Little Owl fly away. We added more Rollers to our lists along with Hoopoe, Black-winged Stilt, Woodchat Shrike and a super shy Golden Oriole.

From left to right: Karline, Brian, Ann, Philippa, me and Steve taking a picnic break during birding.
More brie, more baguette and another fantastic Mediterranean salad for our picnic.

The following day (the 6th day of the tour!), we headed to the mountains with our first stop at the Gorges du Verdouble. Alpine Swifts swirled above us, and Crag Martins, Grey wagtail and Ravens gave us lovely views.

The bridge at Gorges du Verdouble
As birders do. (Gorges du Verdouble)

The highlight of the day for me was our trip to the little French village, Bugarach. I’m accustomed to birding on trails in tropical forests, trying not to slip and fall on muddy trails with howler monkeys or spider monkeys above me in the forest canopy. It’s often hot and humid and I’m sweaty. But this stroll through Bugarach was a joy! Passing by centuries-old buildings with pale blue or pale green shutters and household cats inquisitively peering at us through windows.

Flowers were abloom everywhere as though they expected us there. Some looked familiar, like the red flowering salvia. “We have these in Texas!” I exclaimed, proud of my Texas native plant knowledge.

We found a Cirl Bunting on a electrical wire and then the House Martins building their nests just underneath the roof tiles on the buildings caught our attention. Young Blue Tits were flitting around in a tree near a small bridge on the edge of the village. It was such a lovely way to go birding.

Stopping to pose in Bugarach.
Karline and Brian getting snaps of the House Martins.
House Martin in nest.

We drove on to the vulture observation platform west of the village at L’equarissage Naturel, where we had our picnic. If you want to see vultures, this is where you go. About 17 Griffon Vultures circled above, giving us good views in flight, and they eventually landed on the rocky cliffs opposite of where we were.

Griffon Vultures perched on the rocky cliff at L-equarissage Naturel.

Just to the right of the spot where the Griffon Vultures were perched, Karline spotted a lone vulture on the top of a cliff near a feeding platform. It was an adult Lammergeier. We knew it was known to visit the area, but it was not guaranteed. We watched the majestic Bearded vulture—its face, eyes, long drooping moustache and magnificent ochre plumage—as it picked bones from an old carcass on the feeding platform.

(A reminder that this is the best I could do without our long lens, may it R.I.P.)

On our way back, we stopped for some homemade apricot sorbet at A la Fresca and Phillipa took us for a winding drive through the steep walled Gorges de Galamu in the heart of the Fenouillèdes massif. Some of the turns were tricky on the narrow road, particularly when we met a larger van driving toward us. But Philippa navigated it perfectly and we took some time to stop at the vista parking lot for a great view of the Ermitage de St. Antoine that was carved into a crevice in the seventh century by Franciscan monks.

Enjoying the homemade apricot sorbet.
The Ermitage de St. Antoine at Gorges de Galamu

After our long day in the mountains we were greeted by the poppies, the vines, fig and olive trees and I collapsed on my bed happy that France was more than just a hope, but a reality. Yet, I was a little sad that our time birding this area would soon come to an end.

Poppies in South of France

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.)