South-west France, 24th May - 8th June 2008

Published by Mark Lewis (lewis_sparky AT

Participants: Mark Lewis


This was a trip of two halves, the first week being spent in the skiing resort of Gourette, in the Pyrenees, and the second based in Bidart, on the basque coast, not too far south of Biarritz. It was primarily a holiday for my girlfriend and I, rather than being a birding trip, but the good lady is extremely understanding when it comes to these things, so we visited one or two places specifically for birding.

An indispensable guide in this part of the world is Croziers “Where to watch birds in France, south of the Loire. Most of the sites visited feature in this book, and I generally found it to be accurate, up to date, and with easy to follow directions. Available from NHBS and other reputable bird book dealers.


The little skiing resort of Gourette is something of a blot on the otherwise very pretty landscape of this part of the Ossau valley, with its club med style accommodation and bars. It is situated 4kms from the Col d’Aubisque and the various cols around Gourette have easy access by road, but are pretty low by Pyrenean standards. Therefore, at this time of year, high mountain specialities such as snow finch and wallcreeper are very difficult here. If you want to have a pop at these species, and don’t fancy walking for hours, then Gourette is not the place for you. To get anywhere in the Pyrenees by road takes a long time, and for us to get to the higher areas would have involved driving all the way down the Ossau valley into the lowlands, and back up whichever valley we had chosen to visit. A trip to Gavarnie, for example, well within 50 kms as the crow (alpine chough?) flies, would have involved about 6 hours driving all together. Despite its shortcomings, it was still a pretty good base for us to explore the area, as there were a couple of bars open, and it was a 15 minute scoot down the valley to Laruns, which had petrol and a selection of shops.

The weather in the mountains ranged from very nice, to not very nice. It would be pretty stupid to visit this area unprepared, so expect rain, wind and cold, as well as beautiful cloudless skies. It snowed at the pourtalet, at the top of the Ossau valley, a few days before we arrived.

Despite the weather and (lack of) altitude, we still managed a decent selection of birds. Griffon vultures, crag martins and red kites were seen throughout the valley, and higher up, alpine choughs and water pipits were common.

Pourtalet Pass - We visited here twice, once in the pouring rain, when we saw not a lot, and once in the baking sun, which was a whole lot more pleasant and productive. On the rainy day, on the French side of the pass, I had both species of chough, water pipit, and wheatear, by exploring the rocky area to the left of the tacky selection of shops and bars. If knives, drug paraphernalia, and cheap booze are your thing (and lets face it, who doesn’t like cheap booze?) then the shops are worth a look. We then drove over the border into Spain, and just outside the first village (sorry, didn’t make a note of the name) had a cracking male rock thrush singing on the wires near the road, and a few whinchats. Heading back towards France, we decided to explore along a road signed to “parking sarrios” It turned out to be quite a long road just to get to a car park, so we didn’t get all the way along it. Here we had a female rock thrush, and raven.

On the second visit we spent a while in the rocky area near the shops, and had alpine choughs, water pipits, both kites, and griffon vulture, as well as Isard (chamois) on the crags above. We then explored along the track behind the shop/bar called “venta sancha”. The wild flowers along here were stunning, and there were lots of Marmots in the area too. Marmots are actually pretty common throughout the pyrenees, and it’s worth familiarising yourself with there yelping before you go off chasing some unknown bird. To me they sound a bit like a deeper sounding oystercatcher. To anyone else, they’ll probably sound completely different, but hey, at least I tried. Along this road we had rock thrush, Egyptian vulture and yellowhammer (an upland species in this part of the world) as well as all the more usual stuff. The signs along this road say “danger, mining area” or words to that effect, so if you should explore this track, it’s worth remembering that it’s a dangerous mining area.

Vallee de Valentin - This is the branch of the Vallee d’Ossau that contains Gourette, and runs up to the Col d’ Aubisque from Laruns. Laruns itself is worth a stop, as many raptors can be seen from the town square. Many griffon vultures and black kites were seen from here, as well as single buzzard, kestrel and Egyptian vulture, and on other visits I’ve had honey buzzard over the town and lammergeier nearby. The valley is dominated by steep sides and thick vegetation from here up to the tree line at Gourette. No doubt these woods hold interesting birds - white backed woodpecker are probably present, and the amount of trees relieved of there bark indicates a healthy population of black woodpeckers. Unfortunately, I neither saw or heard either of these species, and the sides of the valley were so steep there was no way of gaining any meaningful access to the forest. Earlier in the year, when there are fewer leaves on the trees and the birds are more vocal, would be a better bet for these. In and around Gourette, among the commoner stuff I had the occasional serin and crested tit, and overhead at various times were crag martin, both choughs, griffon vultures, and a couple of short-toed eagles. On one day we walked up the fairly obvious trail or piste that starts by the ski lift in Gourette. The walking was easy and in an hour or so we were well above the tree line and into some pretty interesting looking habitat. This was to prove the most productive little outing of the trip, with all the usual mountain stuff as well as great views of both golden eagle and lammergeier. I also heard what was probably wallcreeper calling in the distance but failed to see it or hear it conclusively.

Lowland sites

Toulouse - We visited Toulouse for a night to visit the girlfriends family. Early(ish) in the morning we got up and went for a stroll along the banks of the Garonne, which was conveniently close. I’m afraid I’ve got no idea where abouts in Toulouse we were, but I reckon anywhere along the river with a reasonable amount of vegetation would hold the same species we came across. Cetti’s warbler, hoopoe and melodious warbler were all present, but the biggest surprise was a drake pintail floating around on the river.

Lac d’Artix - This is a good little site for a stop if you’re travelling through the area, being just off the main road between Pau and the coast. Access to the reserve itself would take some effort, but luckily most things can be seen from the viewing area. The sight is probably best known for its heronry - for the moment the night herons seem to be resisting the cattle egret onslaught, and they’re easy to see here. Either I’ve been lucky, or the site is also a reasonably good bet for booted eagle. I’ve been twice in summer and seen them both times, this time getting great views of a dark phase bird. There was also a hobby guzzling dragonflies overhead on this visit too.

Les Barthes - We found this site pretty easily, following instructions in Crozier. The instructions led us to a tower hide overlooking a wetland area, but there is probably much worthy of exploration in the whole area, if you have the time. To be honest, I was a little disappointed by the birding from the tower hide, as there were very few birds on show here – a couple of spoonbill, a few pairs of white stork on nests, a few egrets and a lone night heron. It has oodles of potential, however, so may well be worth a look. Black stork pass through this neck of the woods regularly, and the site looks good for marsh terns, waders etc. Access to other bodies of water in the area seem to be restricted (by road, at least) but may well reward some intrepid exploration. There’s also plenty of very lush looking vegetation here, as well as plenty of water, so don’t be surprised if you see (or more likely hear) nightingale, melodious warbler, golden oriole etc.

Marais d’Orx - This is a huge wetland complex to the east of Labenne, and again was found easily by following instructions in Crozier. It consists of a complex of large bodies of water, and it’s primarily a winter site, hosting goodies such as crane, great white egret, spotted, and white tailed eagles, as well as loads of ducks and some greylag geese at that time of year. Again, it has loads of potential for stuff on passage (see species mentioned above), but, again, the birds on display on our visit were a little disappointing. A few white storks and egrets were around the waters edge, and on the section with much shallower water (a marsh rather than a lake) there were great crested grebes by the bucketful, as well as a lone redshank and black winged stilt. If I’d had my scope here I’d probably have seen a bit more.

There is a visitor centre at this site that has some interesting displays and the usual tat for sale. Also from the visitor centre are some walks that go around the various lakes, and with a little effort I got good views of Cetti’s and melodious warblers, and nightingale.

Both sites are definitely worth a look if you are in the area. Winter and passage seem to be the best times for both areas, so perhaps I was just a little too late to cash in on spring movements. Early autumn might be a good time as after a long hot summer water levels may drop enough to make both sites attractive for waders. In fact, I think an early autumn trip to this area could be extremely productive as it could be combined with a Biscay pelagic and time at Organbidexka for raptor passage, as well as rare potential at sites like Hendaye and Hossegor. Anyway, enough speculation!

Hendaye - Yet again another disappointing site which oozed potential. The river estuary at Hendaye looks absolutely brilliant for waders, gulls, and terns, and at the right time of year is probably jam packed with them. On my visit, there was very little going on here apart from about 100 yellow legged gulls roosting, and a few grey herons and little egrets. For a while I thought that there wasn’t a single wader present, as I walked almost the entire eastern shore of the estuary without seeing a single one. It was only when I got to the rather touristy end of the site that I was rewarded with 6 dunlin, 2 ringed plover, and single curlew and sanderling. Well worth it, I don’t think! 2 honey buzzards that flew over were the only ones of the trip, and a wee surprise came in the form of a melodious warbler singing in an isolated little tree behind the industrial area at the upstream end of the site. Its worth taking a scope to this site if possible, although I don’t think I missed very much at all by not having one!

South of Dax - Crozier mentions that the area to the south of Dax may be worth a shot for Black shouldered kite. Well, we had a kind of half arsed look around and unsurprisingly didn’t skor. Perhaps further east and south towards Pau, where the terrain looks a little flatter might be better…..although I should make it clear that I don’t really know what I’m talking about with regards to the birds habitat preference in this part of the world, or, whether the terrain actually is flatter, or if it just looks it on a map! Despite not connecting with the biggie, it was quite a good area for raptors, with booted eagles quite easy to come across here.

Good birding!

Mark Lewis