Yes I've deliberately put the emphasis on the family aspect of this holiday. My wife is very tolerant of my birding activities and has been on a number of twitches with me in the UK over the last few years. Likewise, my 16-year-old daughter smiles benignly at the "Sad Old Man" she deems me to be but like her mum has become used to accommodating my foibles. The poor girl has had to suffer holidays to awful destinations like Scilly, Florida and Cyprus to name a few and we've always managed to strike a good balance between birding and holidaying. Still they deserve their holiday too and exclusive birding was not on their (or my) itinerary.
Firstly some minor detail, which might help you should you want go to the same area and try a family/birding holiday in the south of France. This was a step in the dark for our family. The house, the flight, the hire car and the overnight hotel stops were all booked via the Internet. I was slightly unsure how well this would all hang together but clearly all the staff members at the various locations we pitched up at were very familiar with the process and it all went swimmingly.
This year's holiday was booked for Villeneuve les Béziers; we settled on a house we found on le-guide.com. As I guess everyone does, we weighed the options between the costs of taking our car with ferry or tunnel and petrol expenses against flying and renting a car. We took the cheapest option and finally settled on the choice of flying to Paris (£53 return each with bmibaby) and hiring a car from the airport and driving to Villeneuve les Béziers. Too late we realised easyjet fly to Gerona (near Barcelona), which is only 2 to 3 hours drive away. Never mind, maybe we can try that route next time.
The flight from East Midlands to Charles de Gaulle airport was uneventful enough. Service was very good for the price and all ran to time. Amazingly there was plenty of room on the aircraft. As a 6 footer I'm often a bit cramped for leg space on charter flights but "well done bmibaby" this was a very comfortable flight. We booked the car via skycars.com. It turned out to be a spanking new diesel engined Volkswagen Golf SDi (only 720km on the clock), which we collected from the EuropCar desk. Note we actually saved a few quid over booking via skycars rather than booking direct.
Getting out of the airport parking was well signed but actually quite difficult, with fast taxis coming from all directions. We eventually made the motorway, which was pretty busy but no worse than the M60 at the same time of day and with the first 10km safely under the wheels, we ran into some heavy Bastille weekend traffic. 4 hours but only 120km later we pulled off the motorway at Orleans and stopped at a Holiday Inn Express (booked via octopustravel.com, as was the Formula1 we used on the way home). B&B for the three of us cost just under 50 euros. The room was clean and the cold buffet breakfast very good for the price.
No real birding opportunities at the hotel, although nice to see a decent sized flock of House Sparrow
dust bathing and foraging on and around the car park. We were soon driving down on the motorway continuing the journey, where I expected to catch glimpses of at least some raptors. Common Buzzard
soon joined the list the later spotted first by my daughter. I was more surprised by the good number of Black Kite
Although we travelled on Bastille weekend (something else we didn't realise when we booked) once we were south of Orleans the roads were exactly what you would expect for France. Well maintained, decidedly under crowded, very fast and soon covered.
We stopped a few times between Orleans and Clement Ferrand at what we might call service stations in the UK. That's where the similarity ended. The car parks and buildings were very clean and the food superb and well priced. Having said that the toilets at some of the smaller 'Aires' are primitive but clean. We were now getting a really good scenery fix. The views from the motorway were absolutely spectacular, especially when we got into the Massif Central. We also saw a good number of Red Kite
in this section of the trip.
The area around Millau is one to remember. On the trip down the problem was the shear volume of traffic which all had to leave the motorway and wind its way down into the town and back out again to the motorway. Sadly the link around Millau won't be finished for another year or so, still it was worth the queue on the way back (more on that later).
No matter how good the car (and it was great) nor how good the scenery (truly magic) you can't beat actually arriving at your final destination. And finally we rolled into Villeneuve Les Béziers in the late afternoon sun, parking outside our holiday home before getting to know the local supermarket.
To reduce costs we were sharing with another family, Hugh Pulsford, a regular birding pal (both twitching, general and holiday birding), his wife and teenage daughters had flown from Manchester (via Gatwick) to Toulouse with British Airways and driven from there in a hired diesel Citroen Picasso (also from skycars) to meet us at the house. Later that evening found us in the town square settling into the local café/bar where the food was good value and very tasty. Bastille weekend ensured that the locals were out in force and a very friendly carnival atmosphere made our first night memorable.
If you've managed to read this far without falling asleep, you'll be wondering what birds we managed to see on our two-week holiday. Well House Martin, Barn Swallow, Common Swift, Skylark, House Sparrow, Linnet, Magpie, Black Redstart, Crested Lark, White Wagtail, Serin, Bee-eater
and Fan-tailed Warbler
seemed to be present everywhere. The high numbers of the first 7 species were in marked contrast to what I've seen in Cheshire this year. The house had nesting House Sparrow
and Common Swift
. Many other houses had nesting House Martin
. We were entertained each evening over a G&T with Bee-eater
overflying our courtyard. Every stretch of water had its Black-headed Gulls, Common Coot
and Little Egret
Outing 1 (Family/Birding) - 13th July
Really just a late morning walk out of the house and along the Canal du Midi, and a chance to suss out the local area. The local Mallard and Muscovy duck were easy to find. Bee-eater
were about. Some small, pale falcon sp., resolved themselves into Lesser Kestrels
but the find of the walk was a perched Short-toed Eagle
(a moment of great excitement, little did we know Short-toed Eagle was going to be one of the most regularly sighted raptors of the holiday).
Outing 2 (Birding) - 14th July
Up early this morning. I woke Elaine as I was dressing and she decided to come along (Elaine is becoming quite a keen birder). We targeted a short trip to the area around Pissevache Lake (between Fleury and St Pierre sur mer), for this morning's trip. A Southern Great Grey Shrike
was the first bird of real note, although we were struggling with the unfamiliarity of large numbers of Barn Swallow; House Martin; House Sparrow
and Common Swift,
which we found everywhere. We stopped at the obligatory smelly sewage pond/settling tanks and found Black-headed
and Yellow-legged Gull
s in abundance, with a few each of Common
& Green Sandpiper
with Crested Lark
on the dry fringes. Otherwise nothing else of note here and it was much too smelly, on this particular day, for any further birding. We set off back to the holiday house via Lespignan village, where we had been told to search for Rock Sparrow. We had a number of 'banker sites' for this species, so when we spotted what was almost certainly a Rock Sparrow
as we overlooked the house roofs we felt we didn't need to chase it up. Black Kite
and Short-toed Eagle
were seen hunting near the D37 road home.
Outing 3 (Birding) - 16th July
Boys only trip this morning. Hugh and I went over to Béziers Airport signed off the N112 (n.b. - you can fly to this airport from Paris with Air Littoral) where I was informed that we could find Little Bustard
. And sure enough after a good search we saw a splendid male flying across the airfield. My eye was drawn to a couple of aerobatics planes coming in on the far side of the airfield, if I hadn't had a look at them we might have missed the bustard. Sadly the bird flew to the opposite side of the runway from us, so no chance to follow up when or where it landed. Happy that we'd seen a such a key species so well we pushed our luck and ventured (by car) down a little used farm track. It was on the map as a white road (D 28E) but the tarmac soon ran out and we were glad the mud track was so dry. As we passed through the middle of some vineyards good numbers of Corn Bunting
kept us amused. Near the village of Cers we spooked a couple of Magpies
. But we soon discovered they weren't too bothered about us, as we then spotted at least two Great Spotted Cuckoos
, who were diligently following the Magpies. The guidebooks say these birds leave the area in June!
Outing 4 (Family/Birding)
The trip today was a full family, two-car trip for some history/culture. We called in at an historical hill top site called Oppidum d'ensèrune near Colombiers. We saw some great insects here, in the hot sun and as well as pair of Woodchat Shrike
. As we headed for the museum at the site a Short-toed Eagle
burst out of cover, complete with a snake clutched in its talons. Obligatory raptors seen on the trip to Minerve, Common Buzzard, Black Kite
and a Short-toed Eagle
. This was one of our banker sites for Rock Sparrow; sadly we couldn't find a trace. No sign of the expected Alpine Swift or Red-rumped Swallow, both supposed to breed around Minerve. Still, Crag Martin
was a new bird here as were Blue Rock Thrush
and Ortolan Bunting
(the latter being spotted by Elaine from the loo window at the bar where we had lunch). I can recommend this town, well worth the trip. The walk around the outer walls produced lots of views of Crag Martin, Serin, House Sparrow, Common Swift
and sundry other commoner birds. As we climbed back up into the town an Orphean Warbler
called and showed in a bush at the side of the path. Unfortunately, this bird was flushed from its bush before I saw it. A number of hours later, on the drive home Emma casually remarked, "What was that eagle thing we've just passed on the telegraph post". We see Common Buzzard a lot in Cheshire so Emma is quite familiar with them, so this could be good, at the next opportunity I turned round and drove back quickly. We then saw what will remain a 'mystery eagle sp'. It closely resembled a juv. Bonnelli's Eagle but equally it could have been a juv. Honey Buzzard. Sadly a farmer in his old truck flushed the bird from its perch on a telegraph pole before I could get good views.
Outing 5 (Family)
Today we all took a trip to the medieval town of Carcasonne, via the caves at Gouffre de Cabrespine, near the town of Cabrespine. This was a really belting trip with magnificent scenery in the mountains and gorges and beautiful stalactites and stalagmite in the caves. The caves are due to be declared a world heritage site this year and the 40odd minutes out of the blazing sun were welcome. Carcasonne is a fabulously well-preserved old fortified town, much used by filmmakers. Another site where I'd hoped for Rock Sparrow, yet again no sign.
Outing 6 (Family)
The hill town of Roquebrun was the target of today's trip for a visit to the Mediterranean garden there. This site had an interesting walk around a planted garden that was cut into a hillside. One path in particular ran past a rock ledge (about 5m distance) where we could see Crag Martins
flying in and out feeding young. Above here, Blue Rock Thrush
was watching our progress up the hillside. At least one Bonelli's Warbler
and a couple of Garden Warblers
were feeding in the ornamental bushes near the path. In the town the council had piled up the riverbed shingle to form a swimming pool within the river where many were cavorting in the cooling river water and canoe hire was doing a roaring trade.
Outing 7 (Family)
Hillside spa town of Lamalou-les-bains was today's destination. Lamalou is a nice spa town, not unlike Buxton, but very hot and with an interesting warm spring. An attractive looking forest walk was on offer but with the tourist information office closed (fancy not being open on a Sunday!) we had no map and no guidance in the forest either. As it turned out it was far too hot and humid to do any walking.
Outing 8 (Family/Birding)
We split up today with Elaine, Emma and I heading for Marseillan, via a private reserve (Salins de Bagnas) on the Marseillan to Agde road. Sadly we could only view from a roadside lay-by. Guided tours were available, arranged by phone. As Elaine tried to photograph an obliging Fan-tailed Warbler,
I turned to see a slow and very close (10m) fly past by a superb adult male Little Bittern
. The only other bird of note here was our first Purple Heron
of the trip, a number of Yellow-legged Gulls
loafed here also. In spring this must be a fantastic area for migration. We went on to visit the Noilly Prat (like a posh dry martini/vermouth type drink) factory in Marseillan, very interesting and followed by an extensive tasting of their produce.
Outing 9 (Birding) - 23rd July
Hugh and I went back to Pissevache Lake in the late afternoon, and the area proved to be much more productive. Hugh had popped here on his own and seen Flamingo
and White Pelican
(sadly the Pelicans were free flying birds from a collection). Today's big surprise was a Thekla Lark
. Very different in appearance from the Sky and Crested Larks we were seeing each day, but it wouldn't stand still for a photograph and ambled off into cover on private land. On another area of the site we saw a good number of Purple Heron
, with Grey Heron
for comparison. An interesting mixture of Yellow Wagtail
races nest in this area; we saw Blue and Black headed varieties, plus some intermediate types. Many young Sand Martins
were resting on the dry mud in the area. Common, Green
, and Wood Sandpiper
were here also. A pair of Kentish Plovers
gave us a fantastic distraction display, pretending to have broken wings, etc. We moved on quickly down the footpath to avoid further disturbance and spotted Short-toed Eagle
hunting in the distance. Black-winged Stilt
were present, with the obligatory Little Egret
. A few Mediterranean Gulls
here also. I'd seen a few from the beaches we'd been to, but hadn't looked properly, as I don't think binoculars and topless beaches mix very well, too much chance of confusion!
Outing 10 (Birding) - 24th July
A bit of a family walk on a nature trail attached to a Lespignan vineyard (Sentier Ornithologique de la Pie Grièche, étang de la Matte Lespignan)). The sign promised Lesser Grey Shrike. But the small section of the nature trail didn't live up to this promise. Many Bee-eaters
where about, and we discovered a sandy bank with many nest holes. Although a few Cattle Egrets
in a field of white horses were a nice sight we decided to try to walk the full trail (7km) the next morning.
Outing 11 (Birding) - 25th July
In the early morning light things seemed more promising. The walk down the dusty trail soon gave views of Cattle Egret
. Fan-tailed warblers
actually sat in bushes to be viewed. Viewing the reeds nearby, gave reasonable views of Great Reed Warbler
, while Bearded Tit
'pinged' nearby. Once past the area we'd got to the previous day a Nightingale
showed really well in a nearby bush and we spotted some pale blobs in the distance. We stalked closer and the blobs resolved themselves into two adult and two young Lesser Grey Shrikes
, who seemed ready to begin migration south. Further exploration led us along a pitisporum hedge, which kind of reminded me of birding on Scilly (or should that be the other way round). A couple of Bonelli's Warblers
chased each other along the hedge. A Melodious Warbler
was very reluctant for us to see it well enough for a positive identification, as was the skulking Moustached Warbler
further along the hedge. Lesser
and Common Whitethroat
were also in this hedge. We spotted some commotion amongst the Yellow-legged gulls
loafing nearby and a quick scan produced a Black Kite
. Watching a large bush nearby gave us a nice bonus with both adult and juvenile Woodchat Shrike
showing very well. As we headed back to the car in search of some well deserved breakfast we spotted distant Marsh Harrier
and Short-toed Eagle
. Much closer to the car a Hoopoe
flew past and we were treated to a close fly past by Montague's Harrier
, a beautiful male followed by a ringtail.
The only thing we didn't do which was recommended to us was to visit the LPO (Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux www.lpo.fr - www.chew.demon.co.uk/lponews.htm
- UK site) centre at Gruissan. We may have been able to pick up different information there, although we did see all the birds we expected to see, eventually. We had intended to make a day out of a visit to the Camargue, however, my contact Francois Guerquin told me and I quote "Of course you could also target Camargue but I don't advise it, too hot in summer - it is best in migration and in winter. The only guaranteed species in July is mosquito", so we took his advise and stayed away.
And so to the journey home which passed uneventfully with nothing dramatic to report. As I said earlier the trek through Millau was to be even more memorable. Elaine and I planned to 'do' the Gorge du Tarn to pick up Rock Sparrow and hopefully Griffon Vulture; it wasn't too far off the motorway and would replace a rest/stretch stop. That idea changed as we wound down the hill (again in heavy stop/start traffic) into Millau. Emma looked out of the rear window and casually asked "What's that bird then". Elaine twisted round in her seat and promised faithfully it was a Griffon Vulture. Luckily there was a pull in cum observation point nearby, and as I piloted the car down the hill towards this point Elaine watched though the car windows using my binoculars. Elaine swears she also saw a smaller but still large bird that was much paler; the only bird Collins has to fit what she described is Egyptian Vulture. Eventually (OK so a few minutes later) we pulled off the road and I grabbed the binoculars and was rewarded with a very close Alpine Swift
. Not one but four Griffon Vultures
soared overhead as did at least one Black Vulture
. Three Ravens
flew over looking quite small. At the top of the viewpoint area, I scanned the rocky outcrops to find not only Rock Thrush
but also a stonking adult Rock Sparrow
. Odd as it may seem, we felt the Gorges du Tarn trip wasn't really necessary.
The remainder of the drive to our Formula1 hotel (which cost us 23 Euros for B&B) was pretty uneventful. The room was clean and the breakfast (bread, croissants, butter and jam provided) was adequate. The flight home left Paris and arrived at East Midlands on time and was as uneventful as we'd hoped.
So that takes care of high summer birding in the Béziers area but what to do with the family? You'll have your own preferences of course. Beaches next to the road (the N112) between Agde and Sète were excellent with white sand and a gentle slope into the sea, but limited facilities. Also Serignan Plage (vaguely reminiscent of the Norfolk coast around the Holme area), Valras Plage, and St. Pierre sur Mer (both with public loos on the beach and near to cafés) were close by, clean and sandy. The beaches were the only places we could find where the heat and humidity weren't overpowering, due to the on shore breeze. In hindsight, this was probably a poor time of year for us to visit this area. We looked around various gorges (we recommend the snack bar at Gorges D'Heric, this gorge has a tarmac track running up it, so it does get quite busy). The escalier d'ecluse (stairway of locks) on the Canal du Midi was interesting (another world heritage site) and the views of Beziers from here fantastic. The canal itself is good for cycling. Driving up into the hills was easy and brought some relief from the high temperatures near the coast. The Allée Pierre-Paul Riquet was lively each evening in the centre of Béziers. The Festa D'Oc was on whilst we were on holiday so events took place in the Allée each evening. Shopping in Béziers (16 year old daughter, remember) was fairly stress free. Food and drink were reasonable value when eating out in the many small café/bars. Our local bars both had a 3 course set menu for 12 euros, but even this was more expensive than we had expected for France. There were plenty of hypermarkets about that sold almost everything. It may well be worth getting a photocard driving licence if you do a trip to France where you might want to use a credit card. I found the checkout staff at the larger hypermarkets reluctant to accept my credit card without the back up of some other form of identification. In my case this had to be my passport but I'm informed they are willing to accept a photocard driving-license. Again things were very similarly priced to the big supermarkets at home, which was something of a surprise. This may be due to the fact that this is a very popular tourist area for most of Europe. We saw cars from every country in northern Europe (including Poland) and Scandinavia.
Final piece of advice, Elaine, Emma and I don't think it's worth trying to save money by not getting a car with air conditioning. Driving back to the house after a day out, the car became a little oasis from the steaming heat. If you are hiring and covering big distances (we did 3000km) try to get a diesel-fuelled car. Diesel (gas oil) was between 70.9 cents to 83 cents per litre (for the Brits reading this that equates to approx. £2.33 to £2.77 per gallon) and the Golf returned an average of 20km/litre (~55mpg).
· Collins Bird Guide
· Where to Watch birds in France (south of the Loire) - J Crozier (very good value)
· Finding birds in Southern France - Dave Gosney (not good value, 16 stapled sheets of A4 made into a booklet, 7 years old and none of the good birding sites mentioned above were included - wait for a reprint)
· IGN green tourist map Béziers/Montpellier
This report wouldn't be complete without offering thanks to the following people who were all kind enough to respond to my requests for information.
· John Charman
· Francois Guerquin
· Georges Olioso
· Ken Hall (UK LPO Representative) with whom we checked out some sightings and
· My cousin Julia Crawley (who teaches French in New Zealand), without her translations of various letters and e-mails about birding, we'd have been stuck, a genuine advantage of the World Wide Web.