Southern France, Midi-Pyrenees May 14th- 20th, 2008

Published by Mike Nelson (madbirder AT

Participants: Mike Nelson, Tim Ford


Photos with this report (click to enlarge)

European Bee-eater
European Bee-eater
European Griffon Vulture
European Griffon Vulture
Cirl Bunting
Cirl Bunting
Tree Pipit
Tree Pipit
Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush
Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush
Red-backed Shrike
Red-backed Shrike

I had the opportunity to stay with a birding friend who happens to own a winery in the foothills of the French Pyrenees so when the offer came to stay for a few days and do some birding I leapt at the chance.

My host, Tim Ford, lives on a 60 acre farm that butt’s up to another 600 acres of forest. There is pine and deciduous forest plus he has several fields for cows and cleared areas of brambles and a small creek that runs through the property that is lined with thick brush.

Tim met me at the Toulouse airport and asked if I felt up to going to see some vultures and I asked if he was kidding, of course I wanted to see some vultures. We drove south to the town of Sinset where a huge cliff face over looks the quaint little town. Along the way we saw European Magpie. This cliff face is popular with rock climbers but also with vultures. There is also a breeding pair of Lammergeier there.

We pulled into the parking lot across a shallow winding river and looked up at the massive massif that stood before us. Tim’s friend, a local bird guide named Terry, puts out carcasses from the butcher now and again and the vultures will come down to feed on them. Terry was not there yet so we walked around doing some birding. We started at the river where I was looking for my main target, White-throated Dipper. After a few minutes one came flying down the water course towards us and disappeared under the bridge. As we scanned the river for it we found, White Wagtail alba subspecies and a Grey Wagtail. A pair of Spotted Flycatchers were feeding their young and a pair of Blackcap’s flitted around in the trees next to the river. In a rock wall a pair of Black Redstarts had made their nest and the chicks called hungrily from inside.

Behind a row of houses a foot path climbed up through some tree lined gullies towards the cliff face. As we began to climb Tim spotted a bird high up on the cliff face. We both got bins on it and saw it was a Lammergeier, the big fan tailed vulture circled above us so high up that without the scope it wouldn’t have been easy to ID. We hiked in here to get above the town to look for some birds finding more Blackcaps singing and our first Rock Buntings. On the way back down we came across several Nightingales singing in the thick foliage along with a Common Blackbird.

When we arrived at the bottom Terry was in the car park with two Dutch birders so we waited for the vultures to arrive. I scoped the river while we waited and got superb views of the White-throated Dipper and finally found a Common Nightingale in a tall willow singing its heart out. Several Eurpean Crag Martins were hawking for insects over the trees.

Finally two specks appeared above the cliff face circling high above. Our first Eurasian Griffon Vultures appeared. After a few minutes several more appeared until they numbered in the twenties. Circling lower and lower they began to drop onto a huge stone where the carcass was and fought over the scraps. A Red Kite swooped in and grabbed a piece and flew off only to drop it a few minutes later from the weight. Several Black Kites joined the Red Kite and after a while a flash of white drifted by that turned out to be an Egyptian Vulture. We watched for an hour as vultures and kites drifted in and out looking for scrapes and circling high above. At one point we had a Booted Eagle drift past inspecting the scene.

We left here around 4:00 pm and drove another half hour to Tim’s house in the hills. The long driveway up the hill to the house is lined with telephone poles and sitting along them were six Eurasian Bee-eaters. As we crested the hill there was a Red-backed Shrike along the fence poles.

Once settled in I came out onto the back porch overlooking cow pastures and rolling hills covered with green trees. I could hear Eurasian Golden Orioles singing in the trees but they are notoriously difficult to find. My first European Goldfinches and Blue Tit’s gathered in the scattered trees in the yard. Tim and I walked the grounds and he pointed out Common Chaffinch and a Short-toed Treecreeper in the oaks at the top of the yard and a lone Tree Pipit sang from one of the flowering bushes in the pasture behind the house. He also found the only Whinchat of the trip resting on one of the fence poles. As evening approached two Orioles flew right past us as we watched. When night fell several Tawny Owls began to call back and forth and a lone bird flew over the field to our right.

May 15th

I woke early about 5:30 and headed out onto the jeep path that acts as thier driveway as I could still hear European Nightjars singing and wanted to get a recording. It was wet out from the previous evening’s rain but the Nightingales were still singing. The dawn chorus really kicked in with Blackbirds, Blackcaps and others singing all around me. Taking a wooded path to the bottom of the fields I found a European Chiffchaff singing from a dead snag and as I walked into the woods along the bottom of the field I found several Song Thrush’s announcing thier territory. Many other birds were calling but as I was unfamiliar with the calls I couldn’t Id them.

After breakfast we spent the day at the winery where I had a while were I was out in the vineyards where I saw Red-legged Partridge, Eurasian Bee-eaters, Black Redstart and Nightingale along a wooded river. During lunch we had several European Kestrel hawking over the vines. On the way home from the winery we found a Montagu's Harrier drifting over the fields outside the town of Belveze. A majestic looking bird.

May 16th

I woke early again this morning and took a different path that went through thick forest where I found European Nuthatch, Common Chaffinch, Song Thrush and Great Tit. When the forest opened up there was a small hillock covered with briers, willow and brush. Plenty of warblers were singing here. I had Blackcap and Melodious Warblers close with Winter Wren, Great Tit, European Turtle Dove and Wood Pigeon. I also had a Mistle Thrush fly over with its rattling call. European Chaffinch were singing from several perches.

Before lunch we met with another of Tim’s birding friends, Peter. He runs an abbey hotel and we had a few minutes on the grounds before he met us. The trees in the yard contained several European Serin, Blackbird, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Common Swifts. A lone Barn Swallow made and appearance and a Great Tit sang from a far fir tree. I could hear Golden Oriole in the distant woods too. Peter took us to a river that was very overgrown and he found Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge (heard only) and Blackcap. In the surrounding wheat fields we found a European Stonechat. Peter heard the call of a Eurasian Wryneck and several minutes later located it in an orchard where we had great scope views of this fantastic bird. Several Black Kites circled overhead before we left to get lunch.

We picked up some lunch at a wonderful patisserie in Mirepoix and drove south into the Pyrenees and an area called Ariege past the town of Vicdessos and up into the mountains proper. It was raining when we passed the dam at Etang de Soulsem and stopped at the gate. We walked from here finding plenty of Water Pipit and Dunnocks. As we moved higher up along the boulder strewn scenery we found plenty of Northern Wheatears and Black Redstart. A lone Kestrel flew from boulder to boulder higher up the slope. We continued on despite the misty rain and eventually found our target. A Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush flew from the ground up onto a large boulder in front of us and began to crush up a snail. We had fantastic scope views of this bird for several minutes while if feasted and then flew off. There was no one here apart from us and we could see all the way into Andorra. Truly beautiful scenery up here.

We stopped at the lake on the way down when we flushed up a Red-billed Chough and again below the dam where we found several Rock Buntings.

On the way back once out of the foothills we had a lone Eurasain Hobby belt past us with a quick but good look at the underneath of the delta wings.

When were returned home I sat out on the porch for a while and watched as three Golden Orioles and two European Jays argued with each other in some distant oak trees. This was one of the best looks at this bird while I was here.

May 17th

I went looking for European Nightjars this morning and could hear several singing in the predawn along with the Nightingales. As it was overcast several Nightjars were still flying around but it was too dark to make out any great patterns or colors. Many birds were active with the dawn chorus but nothing new that I could tell.

We stopped by the winery in the morning to check some things before we headed out and while outside I scanned the skies when several raptors flew over and counted six Eurasian Honey-buzzards in the course of half an hour. I found a Subalpine Warbler in some small pines and oaks at the back of the winery and Eurasian Collared Dove and Greenfinch.

We drove into the Montane Noir at Minervois to look at some vineyards. At the town of La Liviniere the terra cotta colored buildings rise up the slope into the surrounding hills. We drove up through the town to the vineyards at the top.The terrain is different here with rocky scree slopes, low bush and scrub and scattered trees. As we drove up a bumpy slope we spooked up a Red-legged Partridge from the rocky slopes of one vineyard and it flew across into a small copse of pines. Several Woodlarks were singing their downward spiraling songs above us and during the course of exploring several vineyards here we found Tawny and Meadow Pipit, Subalpine and Spectacled Warbler, Blackcap, a Eurasian Cuckoo did a flypast and we found a Nightingale. A pair of Eurasian Golden Orioles began to call and sing from stand of pines eventually showing really well from some open boughs.

As we were leaving we crested a rise before the main road and spooked up several pipits. One landed on a lone sang and as we were looking at this bird I found a Woodchat Shrike farther distant. We drove around and found it perched on a snag before it flew off gliding over a distant vineyard. We found it again on one of the fence posts before leaving. As we drove down the mountain it flew up and landed on one of the phone wires and we were able to drive right under it and get some great looks at the bird close.

We stopped on the way back at several large caves where many species of bats live hoping to find a Wallcreeper but not luck. We did see plenty of Crag Martin and Common Swift with one lone Alpine Swift scattered about the mouth of the caves.

May 18th

Had a lie in as it was windy and rainy this morning. We had a late breakfast and packed up the car and drove to the mountains. Our destination was the Plateau de Bey, which is a ski resort in the winter and one of the stages of the Tour de France during the summer. There was already painting on the road on the way up. It got very cold and windy as we got farther up. Eventually we arrived in fogged out conditions but we went for a walk anyway to see what we could find. There wasn’t much up here in the cold but on the course of our mile walk we found Goldcrest, Tree Pipit, Dunnock, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Coal Tit, Mistle Thrush, a Bullfinch, a lone Ring Ouzel and a pair of Crested Tit’s. With the weather being not so great we drove back down stopping along the road for a perched Short-toed Eagle that had all heads popping out of the vehicle for a better look. Sadly it spooked and flew down the slope into lusher greenery.

We stopped on the way home at Sinset again to watch for Vultures and were treated to several Griffon Vultures and a wonderful pair of Lammergeier at a much lower altitude this time. I had great scope views and good looks at color and the beard against the background of the steep massif in front of us.

After dinner I walked into the fields and found European Skylark, Cirl Bunting and Corn Bunting and several Tree Pipits. As it was getting dusk I walked to an open wooded area and found the first singing European Nightjars and had one flying around me doing the hovering flight and wing slapping. I watched for a while till it disappeared then walked farther down into the pine forest at the bottom to wait for owls. By 10:15 it was getting very dark and the only night animals I had seen were bats. At 10:24 the moon rose over the forest behind me and two Tawny Owls began to call to each other close by. As I walked a path into the forest I spooked up a Roe Deer that bounded off barking at me for quite a while.

May 19th

I had the morning to myself and walked a long jeep track in the rain. Covered on both sides by thick primary oak forest I had two Golden Orioles singing back and forth eventually finding one bird. Winter Wren, Nightingale and Blackcaps were singing from the hedgerow behind me. I found a foot path leading up into the forest and walked this for an hour finding, Chiffchaff, European Robin, Nightingale, Western Bonellis Warbler, Willow Warbler and Melodious Warbler.

From here I returned to the brier patch and continued through getting farther into the pines to look for birds finding Golden Oriole, Firecrest and Long-tailed Tit’s along with Chaffinch and Winter Wren.

After breakfast I pulled out the scope and sat on the back patio as the sun came out. With scattered cloud and light breezes this was perfect weather. I was rewarded a while later with a Northern Harrier that drifted over the house and towards the distant pine forest. I had a Honey-buzzard fifteen minutes later and as I watched this bird a dark object dropped through my line of vision. I quickly refocused on this bird and saw a Short-toed Eagle flare up into some trees before carrying through them and out the other side. There were several Common Buzzards around and one landed on a distant oak surveying the fields.

As the weather was nice I walked along the jeep track down to the main road to look for some of the European Bee-eaters and found several along the wires with the one and only Linnet of the trip. While waiting to find a nearby Cuckoo I found a pair of Hawfinch in a distant oak and had great scope views of them for several minutes. The calls and songs of Willow and
Western Bonellis Warbler
behind me destracted me away from them.

While Tim’s wife, Barbera, made us some lunch I was out taking pictures when six European Bee-eaters landed in the oak tree in the yard and began to hawk for insects. I got great scope views and several pictures here. Just beautiful birds.

After lunch we drove to Carcassonne to meet my sister so I didn’t do anymore birding that day.

May 20th

I had a lie in this morning after staying up late the night before but the sun was shining nicely this morning and as my sister and I were enjoying a tea a large raptor began cruising over the lower cow fields. We at first thought it was a larger buzzard but with my binoculars I could see white in the tail. It landed for a few seconds then took off again and promptly dropped into the field where it missed a hare that charged off into the woods. It climbed up along the tree line and past the house out of sight. I went and grabbed a guide and found that it was first year Golden Eagle. A few minutes later it came cruising over the house again and this time I got my camera as it drifted 30 feet over the top of me I snapped some great shots. An amazing bird to find here in the foothills. This was the last of any birding I did here and departed the next morning.

This is one of the most picturesque places I have visited and the birding is great. The birds call and sing all day even though the weather wasn’t great. I had a great time even though this wasn’t an organized birding trip and with a little bit of research you can find some great stuff here. It did help having a birding friend to stay with and I thank him and his family for their hospitality.

You can see photos from this tour in my France 2008 Flickr set.

Sounds from this tour can be found in my France 2008 Xeno-canto set.

Species Lists

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator)
Eurasian Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)
Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)
Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)
European Honey-Buzzard (Pernis apivorus)
Red Kite (Milvus milvus)
Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
Booted Eagle (Aquila pennatus)
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
Short-toed Snake-Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)
Northern or Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus)
Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus)
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo buteo; B.b.vulpinus)
Eurasian Hobby (Falco subuteo subuteo)
Common or Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa)
Common or Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)
European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)
Common Wood-Pigeon (Columba palumbus)
Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
European Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia turtur)
Common or Eurasian Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)
Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)
Eurasian Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus)
Common Swift (Apus apus)
Alpine Swift (Apus melba)
European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)
Eurasian Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)
Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla)
Sky Lark or Skylark (Alauda arvensis)
Wood Lark or Woodlark (Lullula arborea)
Sand Martin or Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia)
Eurasian Crag-Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris)
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Northern House-Martin (Delichon urbica)
Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)
Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris)
Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)
Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta)
Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)
Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus)
Hedge Accentor or Dunnock (Prunella modularis)
Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)
Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)
European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)
European Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)
Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush (Monticola saxatilis)
Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)
Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)
Common or Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula)
Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus)
Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)
Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti)
Western Bonelli's Warbler (Phylloscopus bonelli)
Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)
Common or Eurasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)
Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)
Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans cantillans; S.c.albistriata)
Spectacled Warbler (Sylvia conspicillata)
Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus)
Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)
Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)
Crested Tit (Parus cristatus)
Eurasian Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus)
Coal Tit (Parus ater)
Great Tit (Parus major)
Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus caudatus)
Eurasian or Wood Nuthatch (Sitta europaea caesia)
Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)
Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla)
Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)
Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator)
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica)
Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)
Common Raven (Corvus corax)
Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)
Eurasian Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)
Common or Eurasian Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Eurasian Golden-Oriole (Oriolus oriolus)
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus; P.d.italiae)
European Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs coelebs; F.c.africana)
European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
European Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)
Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)
Eurasian Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)
European Serin (Serinus serinus)
Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)
Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)
Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra)
Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus)
Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia)