The following are a few notes on a ten day trip to southern France. With a toddler on board proper attention couldn't be given to birding, and we also fitted in a few cultural attractions, so we dipped on some fairly obvious species like little bustard, pin-tailed sandgrouse, white-tailed eagle and eagle owl. More attention was given to the two species I needed - wallcreeper and greater spotted eagle.
We flew from Bristol to Nice on Easy Jet at £50 return, which made up for the rather high prices we found on arrival. We hired a car from Suncars and a gite in St Remy through the Gites de France web-site; both very good value. The weather was changeable, with some overcast grey days rather too like February in England, a day of rain but also some nice bright sunny days. Food was very good - even for vegetarians (unlike most of France).
20th Feb: Late flight to Nice, taxi to Hotel Crondstadt - rather pricey but everything in Nice is.
21st Feb: All day in Nice, not much birding but two black-throated divers close in on the sea and crested tit, firecrest, serin etc in a park.
22nd Feb: Drive to St Remy de Provence via Aix-en-Provence, no birding. Former town is very nice, latter rather disappointing.
23rd Feb: Most of day at Les Baux, dipping on wallcreeper - there had been at least one there two weeks earlier but we couldn't find it. Saw blue rock thrush and alpine accentor - including a flock of 11 of the latter feeding at very close range within the castle grounds. In the afternoon went to the radio mast-topped mountain of La Caume. You now have to walk up - the road seems permanently closed to vehicles. Start from the only large car-park off the road between Les Baux and St Remy. Extremely quiet on the way up, but at the top saw a fine male wallcreeper on the crags to your right as you walk up, best viewed by walking as far right as you can go along the radio mast fence. Also a blue rock thrush on the same crag.
24th Feb: All day in St Remy and at the Glanum archaeological site just outside town. Not much by way of birds but nice views of cirl bunting, serin, sardinian warbler etc.
25th Feb: All day in The Camargue. First to the la Capeliere area on the eastern side of Etang de Vaccares, where we visited the information centre and checked the logbook, which has helpful English translations. Walked their 1.5 km trail - the first hide had a flock of c1000 tufted duck, with a scaup and a pair of red-crested pochard, and there were good numbers of penduline tits and smaller numbers of bearded tits in the reedbeds there. Then drove south to an area c2km south of Salin de Badon (an obvious large house with a big pine tree on your right). Very quickly had good views of booted eagle, long-legged buzzard and greater spotted eagle amongst the numerous marsh harriers and common buzzards to the left (east of the road) by an Australian gate. Other birds seen in the area included good numbers (100s) of greater flamingo and a few great white egrets. (L'Amphise, which we had seen mentioned several times but couldn't find on any maps, is another 2km south, just after the road kinks round to the west). Then had a rather fruitless time checking sites such as Etang du Fournelet, Mas d'Agon and Mejanes - all were pretty much birdless. Then had great views of more flamingoes just north of St Maries-de-la-Mer, from the minor road that goes past Mas de Cacharel - good birding all along here.
26th February: Back to Les Baux - still no wallcreeper. Then had a quick look at Le Crau but the weather was horrible and didn't really suit Tilda. Saw large numbers of red kite. Etang d'Entressen had huge numbers of gulls (nearby rubbish tip) but didn't find anything amongst them.
27th Feb: The Camargue again. Back to la Capeliere. The strong easterly wind had forced 100s of black-necked grebes to shelter close to the shore (saw 1 two days before!), with a solitary slavonian grebe. At la Capeliere they sold us a permit for Salin-de-Badon (for about 80p!). The first hide has brilliant views across the marshes; saw long-legged buzzard from here, plus avocet, moustached warbler etc and nutria, an introduced rodent. Then took the road towards le Sambuc, stopping off to look over the marshes using the remnants of a viewing platform burnt by hunters. Vast numbers of gadwall, pintail, wigeon and greater flamingo.
28th Feb: Morning in Avignon. Not very birdy, but a black kite and several common buzzards drifted over in the fine weather. Then to the Pont du Gard, the famous Roman aqueduct and sometime wallcreeper site - we didn't see many birds here, but better for plants (see below).
1st March: Drove to Castellane in the Verdon National Park. Stopped c6km east of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie for lunch. Two golden eagles were sitting on crags and we heard an unfamiliar partridge-type call. At Point Sublime had good views of re-introduced griffon vulture (spotted by 19 month old Tilda !). At Castellane had two crag martins and a bonellis eagle over the hillside just above the town, plus another blue rock thrush. When we arrived at c3.30pm all the hotels apart from a 3* place (we're too mean) were shut, either for a snooze or for the season. At 5pm a couple of reasonable places (c£25 per night for all of us) near the church opened. However, on Sunday these were both shut, so beware of turning up here on spec. It's a very nice town though.
2nd March: Drove around the Gorges du Verdon - a popular tourist attraction but very quiet on a rainy day in early March. At Point Sublime saw 21 griffon vulture and another 3 bonellis eagle plus crag martin, firecrest, crested tit etc.. In a high altitude pine wood had a flock of citril finch and saw black woodpecker damage in a tree, but didn't see or hear the birds. Then, gritting by the roadside at one of the high points on the southern, Corniche Sublime road in open box and white oak scrub, jammed into a rock partridge - perhaps explaining the calls heard a couple of days before. An unexpected bonus. Nearby were six alpine accentors in a small carpark by the road. Back at Castellane two more bonellis eagle - displaying over a hillside.
3rd March: Back home. Drove back to Nice via Grasse. Got out for a short wander at the highest point of the road - very cold, big patches of ice and frozen snow. Another flock of citril finch. After Grasse looked in desperation for a picnic spot in the very short stretch of countryside before Nice. Eventually sneaked into a shut camp site virtually on the edge of Nice, south-east of Roquefort-les-Pins. On a slope of garrigue had rock bunting, with short-toed treecreeper in the woods.. Fine for plants. Crag martins at Nice airport, then 4-30 flight back to Bristol..
Species List: I've mentioned all the decent birds above. Not much migration at this time of year - blackcap and chiffchaff were everywhere, but presumably they winter here, as do the sandwich terns we saw off Nice. Loads of cirl buntings around St Remy, a few siskin and redpoll here and there. Very few waders in The Camargue - thousands of black-tailed godwits and a few ruff and snipe - but there were plenty of records in the logbook, we just didn't find the right place. Little egrets were abundant around The Camargue and Cattle Egrets were fairly numerous..
Other wildlife: Basically, it was winter. The only butterflies we saw were red admiral, comma, brimstone and large and small whites. Hummingbird hawk-moths were out in good numbers though. The only mammals we saw, other than the nutria in The Camargue, were rabbit, fox and roe deer although the Verdons area is excellent for mammals apparently.
The flora looked like it would be excellent a month or two later. We saw a few good plants in flower: Barlia robertiana, giant orchid, was common. The viewpoint on the hill above the northern end of Point du Gard had abundant Narcissus panizzianus and some Iris lutescens; woods above the Gorge du Verdon had Crocus versicolor in very small quantity; and our picnic stop near Nice had flowering Hepatica nobilis and masses of very colourful Anemone hortensis. Generally quite good for small white crucifers, which included Lobularia maritima, Hornungia petraea, Iberis saxatilis, Thlaspi perfoliatum and Thlaspi praecox, if that's your kind of thing. Globularia alypum, Rosmarinus officinalis, Viburnum tinus etc were in flower in all hilly areas. Otherwise various leaves, seed heads etc.