Although Birdwatching Breaks have offered winter tours to southern France in the past, this is the first time we have combined the delights of Provence with a visit to the island of Corsica. I think that it can safely be said that this combination proved to be a great success, with a wealth of great birds seen on the French mainland and the important target birds also seen well in Corsica.
Our explorations of the Camargue produced highlights in the form of Greater Spotted Eagle, Hen and Marsh Harrier, White Stork, Glossy Ibis, Common Crane, Greater Flamingo and Bewick's Swan. At Les Baux we enjoyed a fine encounter with the hoped for Wallcreeper (plus another at the Pont du Gard) and Alpine Accentors. The rather bleak semi-desert like landscape of La Crau provided us with a wonderful encounter with flocks of Little Bustards plus Southern Grey Shrike. Our visit to Mount Ventoux was cold and windy but Citril Finch, Firecrest and a flock of Alpine Accentors were among the highlights here.
On Corsica we easily found Corsican Nuthatch and had good views on several occasions. Marmora's Warbler, Lammergeier and Golden Eagle also performed nicely and whilst Corsican Finch proved a little harder to find than we had expected, but nevertheless we had excellent views of a pair near Corte.
All in all this trip delivered some fine winter birding amongst some wonderfully spectacular landscapes and is thoroughly recommended.
11th February: Marseille - Camargue (western side). Beaucaire.
Weather: overcast and chilly with a brisk wind and a few spots of very light rain.
The group met up with me at Marseille airport and with the rental vehicle ready to go it was not long before we were heading west towards Arles, the gateway town for the Camargue. We headed into the western part of this famous wetland area and we were soon seeing some good birds. Common Cranes were feeding in roadside fields whilst Great and Little Egrets, Buzzards and a few Kestrels were also noted. Our first Greater Flamingos didn't take long to find and on the first sizeable lake Black-necked Grebe was logged. Heading along a fairly rough track we came across a group of local birders scoping up a raptor in a tree. This turned out to be an adult Greater Spotted Eagle, a rare but regular visitor to the Camargue in very small numbers.
A cold breeze was blowing, so conditions outside the vehicle were not too comfortable. Therefore we checked a number of locations that we could work from the car or sheltered by it. A large lake had a nice herd of Bewick's Swans (perhaps not the first species that springs to mind when one thinks of the Camargue). Also present were good numbers of Shoveler, Wigeon and Gadwall. The same area was good for raptors with Marsh and Hen Harriers in evidence and the adjacent reedbeds provided us with opportunities to watch Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaff. Moving along we paused for flocks of Corn and Reed Buntings and at the edge of the huge Etang Vaccares Red-breasted Merganser, Common Sandpiper and adult Slender-billed Gull. A pause at a roadside copse yielded a sighting of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker along with a number of commoner species and proved an excellent way with which to end the day.
12th February: Les Baux, La Crau, Eyguieres airfield.
Weather: Fairly mild, but with a strong wind that was chilly in exposed areas.
First up today was a visit to the town of Les Baux perched atop a rocky outcrop in Les Alpilles hills. We began with a visit to the well-known stake out for Wallcreeper. However a wait here in the strong winds produced no sighting of our quarry. A Woodlark sang down in the valley below. Crag Martin was overhead. The scrub hosted wintering Blackcaps. Deciding to try something different we headed up into town and despite the strong wind enjoyed good views of Serin, our first Black Redstarts and the hoped for Alpine Accentors. Returning to our Wallcreeper search we soon located our target and enjoyed some prolonged views as it fed on the cliffs.
Pleased with our morning we dropped down to La Crau where we had lunch whilst searching this semi-desert like landscape. The wind was still blowing fairly strongly and it was fairly quiet, but Southern Grey Shrike, a singing Crested Lark, sizeable flocks of Linnets and Goldfinches and Black Redstart were in all evidence. A late afternoon visit to Eyguieres airfield was our final site of the day and here we enjoyed seeing a flock of Golden Plover, a hunting female Merlin and best of all sizeable flocks of Little Bustards totaling in excess of 40 birds and seen nicely in flight, feeding and doing some display. A wonderful way in which to end a most rewarding day birding.
13th February: Mont Ventoux, Pont du Gard.
Weather: Cold at higher elevations with a few flakes of snow. Windy. Milder and less wind at Pont du Gard.
Today we headed north to the mountain habitats of Mont Ventoux. The drive took a little over an hour, passing Avignon en-route. We made various stops in the woodlands that cloak the lower and mid elevations of the mountain, and despite the rather cold, cloudy and windy conditions we managed to find a nice selection of woodland species which included the commoner species such as Crested, Marsh, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, many Chaffinches and quite a few Crossbills. We enjoyed some nice views of Firecrest and a Short-toed Treecreeper, and higher up saw a few groups of Citril Finches. Arriving at Chalet Reynard we parked by the barrier across the road and continued uphill. A strong and rather cold wind was blowing, and conditions were far from ideal. However our walk produced several Fieldfares, a few Ravens and a flock of ca 15 Alpine Accentors which obliged with some close views.
After a warm drink at Chalet Reynard we had our lunch and then headed off to the somewhat milder climate of Pont du Gard. Here we enjoyed nice views of Black Redstart, half a dozen Crag Martins, Rock Sparrow and a superb Wallcreeper.
14th February: Camargue, Eyguieres Airfield.
Weather: Breezy, overcast, 15C.
Our final day in Provence began with a visit to La Capeliere reserve in the Camargue. On the road leading to the reserve we found a small group of White Storks. In the nearby reeds and bushes Firecrest, Chiffchaff and Cetti's Warbler were all present with Penduline Tits calling but remaining unseen. Around the reserve things were fairly quiet, but Snipe and Water Pipit were new for the list, whilst the final hide produced a splendid Bittern to finish the visit to this reserve on a high note.
Moving further down the road we explored the Digue de la Mer, where a few wader flocks comprised Little Stint, Dunlin, Kentish Plover plus a few Grey Plover and Curlew. We had our lunch overlooking reed fringed pools in the Mas d’Agon area with good numbers of Glossy Ibis for company.
The next stop was Mas Chauvet a regular wintering site for Richard's Pipit. Two had been reported here so we were pleased to see one sat in a field before the vehicle had even come to a halt. We got some nice views, but were rather surprised to find not one or two Richard' Pipits, but five! Excellent stuff. Also here a Cattle Egret flew over.
Pleased with our views of Richards Pipits we decided to return to Eyguieres airfield in the hope of further encounters with Little Bustards. We certainly were not disappointed as we had excellent scope views of at least 77 birds both feeding on the ground and flying around the airfield when disturbed by aircraft. Fantastic.
With sunset not far off our final stop of the day was at a regular stake out for Eagle Owl near Les Baux. As the light faded we got brief glimpses of Cirl Bunting and Crested Tit as they headed to roost. A Sparrowhawk was hunting over the rocky outcrops and then about 20 minutes after sunset, an Eagle Owl flew across the hillside and gave us some decent flight views.
15th February: Travel to Marseille. Flight to Bastia. Etang de Biguglia. Col de Sorba. Corte.
Weather: Pleasantly warm and sunny in the lowlands. Chilly with snow on the ground in the mountains.
The day began with an early drive to Marseille airport where we caught our flight to Bastia on the island of Corsica. The flight arrived on schedule and it was not long before we had picked up our rental vehicle and were on our way. There can't be too many airports in the western world where traffic in the vicinity is held up by sheep, but we had a short wait whilst the local flock were moved between fields. Etang de Biguglia is close to the airport and provided our first Corsican birds. Red Kites were obvious, along with Italian Sparrow, Spotless Starling and Blackcap. On the lake the only Tufted Ducks of the trip, plus Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes. Towards the northern end we enjoyed excellent views of three adult Audouin's Gulls perched on posts, with a few Sandwich Terns also here.
By late morning we headed up into the hills with the Col de Sorba our destination. As we drove inland the scenery got ever more spectacular with many dramatic snow-capped peaks to marvel at. We tried a few patches of Corsican Pine forest below the Col de Sorba with little other than Jay, Coal Tit and Chaffinch to show for our efforts. Moving higher up there were some accumulations of snow by the roadside and on getting out of the car at the top of the pass Gill almost immediately found our quarry as a male Corsican Nuthatch foraged on a nearby tree. We enjoyed good if fairly brief views before it moved off calling.
Other birds here included Crossbill, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Eurasian Treecreeper. Pleased with finding our major target bird with relative ease we returned to Corte and checked into our comfortable hotel that was to be home for the next three nights.
16th February: Restonica Valley, Fort de Pisciolo, Col de Sorba. Le Golo valley.
Weather: Sunny with clear skies. 2-16C.
Our hotel was situated in the Restonica Valley on the edge of Corte, so we headed off up the valley making stops for birds as we went. The usual suspects of Chaffinch, Blackcap, Coal, Great and Blue Tit were seen in good numbers, but new were Goldcrest, Siskin and a pair of Dippers. A Corsican Nuthatch gave brief views, before we reached a point where a road bridge had been washed away and we could continue no further. Returning the way we had come we added Blue Rock Thrush and Cirl Bunting to our morning haul of birds. Our next stop was Vivario and the nearby Fort de Pisciolo. Here as soon as we got out of the vehicle we found a smart male Marmora's Warbler singing from the low maquis. Excellent! Gill then found a Wryneck, which seemed a surprising find at the time, but this species is apparently a regular winterer on Corsica. A walk towards the fort added a further pair of rather skulking Marmora's Warblers, Crag Martin and our first Corsican Finch of the trip, although disappointingly the latter did not linger.
As we were close by, we decided on a return visit to Col de Sorba in the hope of further views of Corsican Nuthatch. We were not disappointed and at least three were calling from the trees around the pass, with two affording nice views. After a sandwich at Le Chalet restaurant the afternoon was spent exploring the Le Golo valley. A stop at some fields yielded a few common species but little of note. Further up the valley we made further stops with little of particular note to show for our efforts. However just as we were thinking about returning the way we had come a Golden Eagle soared into view, closely followed by a shout from Jane that there were also two adult Lammergeiers in view. Great stuff! We enjoyed excellent views of these magnificent birds as they circled and gained height over the nearby hilltop before drifting away. The drive back to Corte produced a sighting of two more adult Golden Eagles and we arrived back very pleased with the day's birds.
17th February: Corte, Etang d'Urbino, Etang de Diane.
Weather: Sunny with clear skies. 3-19C. Very little wind.
The plan for the day was to head down into the lowlands for a slight change of scene. Unfortunately the main road down to the coast was closed a few miles out of Corte. Whilst we tried to work out an alternative route a stop at a mixture of fields, scrub and a stream provided some very enjoyable birding which kept us amused for the next couple of hours. Singing Woodlarks performed very nicely, as did Cirl Bunting and a pair of Corsican Finches that gave some good scope views. Red Kites hunted low overhead, whilst the supporting cast also included Blue Rock Thrush, Corn Bunting and Sardinian Warbler.
Finally figuring out a suitable route down to the coast we passed through some more fabulous scenery before ending up viewing the Etang d'Urbino. This site would appear to have great potential for migrants, but this early in the season it was fairly quiet. Nevertheless we enjoyed views of Greater Flamingo, Great and Little Egret, our only Pochard of the tour, Water Pipit, numerous Robins, Song Thrushes and Chaffinches plus very brief views of a Water Rail as it dashed across the track in front of the car.
A short seawatch at the southern end of Etang de Diane added Yelkouan Shearwater to the trip list, whilst our final stop on the lake produced Common Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover. Our drive back up to Corte was enlivened by a large flock of 50+ Ravens.
18th February: Corte - Bastia. Flight to London via Marseille.
An early start saw us heading to Bastia in time for our 0715 hours flight to Marseille, which had a delayed departure. After a wait in Marseille we headed for London where we arrived in the late afternoon.