Monday, 2 September 2013

En Vacances en Famille

As you may have guessed from the title, this year the Gnome family holidayed in la belle France. We'd booked a week in what was billed as a characterful old building in the Aveyron department and were going to take a few days to drive down and back, stopping off en route to look at stuff. This was going to be a strictly family holiday in a relatively birdless area so I wasn't holding out much hope of anything. Still, I wasn't going to leave my bins at home and in order to generate some sort of birding interest I decided to resort to that timeless birding tool, namely The List. A list of all the birds that I saw in France would at least give me something to do on the birding front and even common species would afford some interest as a result.

On the way down we stayed the night at Rouen, went to Giverny for Monet's Garden, stayed the night at Bourges and then drove down through the Auvergne region before arriving at our cottage on Saturday evening. My list by this point was a stunning 34 species, mostly made up of what I could glimpse through the car window as we hurtled along the motorway though Monet's Garden added a few species including a surprise Little Ringed Plover in the car park briefly. I say "cottage" though in fact it was a Medieval fortified manor house on a hill overlooking a valley. Mrs Gnome had wanted to stay somewhere characterful and it certainly was that. It was over 700 years old with a a large gate and protective wall, small tower, a pool area, a terrace overlooking an orchard and a couple of donkeys in a paddock below the house. There was even a consecrated chapel in the building should one feel the need for religious solace. All this was perched on top of a hillside of fields and woodland.

The "cottage" was full of character!

I soon slipped into the habit of getting up at some time after 7 am and having a wander down the road to the bottom of the hill to see what I could find. It was then back for breakfast and a morning which was often spent on the terrace chillaxing and looking out for birds in the garden there.

 The Orchard overlooking the valley

This routine turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable with plenty of bird life to look at. There was nothing rare but it's just interesting to see some birds which aren't so easy for us but which are common over there. In the garden itself and surrounding the house there was a large colony of House Sparrows and about fifty Swallows (with a few House Martins). A Blackcap pair had clearly raised a family as there was almost always several of them flitting about the garden. A Golden Oriole family lived somewhere on the hill and various members of this family would occasionally pop in to the garden though they were predictably rather shy. A pair of Serin would sometimes pop in and trill away though not every day. I also saw both Black and Common Redstarts regularly and even had a Melodius Warbler visit the orchard briefly on one day. Each morning at some time between 10 and 11 a.m. once it had got hot enough, a pair of Honey Buzzards would soar up into the sky from their roost somewhere close by and there were plenty of Buzzards and Red Kites about.

Soaring Honey Buzzard record shot

 Common Redstart

 Skulking Serin

There were Lizards everywhere about the garden

There was also plenty of interesting butterfly life to look at with Silver-washed Fritillaries, Great Banded Grayling, Scarce Swallowtail, Clouded Yellows and plenty of Wall Browns visiting the various flowers in the garden. I didn't spend too much time on the moths whilst there though I did come across a few of interest including White Point (seen in Britain as a migrant).

Clouded Yellow
Great Banded Grayling
Silver-washed Fritillary
Scarce Swallowtail

Snout species - perhaps a White-line Snout
White-spot - a less common migrant to the UK

This black Bee in Monet's Garden was absolutely huge

A freaky-looking Centipede

This large beetle's "horns" were at least twice its body length - a truly bizarre creature

On my daily morning walks I soon found a family of Pied Flycatchers in a nearby orchard and a male Cirl Bunting who was rather skulking though his simple song (which sounds like a Yellowhammer doing a Lesser Whitethroat impersonation) would give him away. Further down the road there was a steep scrub-covered slope by the road that always caught the morning sun and I would spend quite a bit of time here looking for warblers. On a couple of occasions I managed to see or hear a (Western) Bonelli's Warbler and there were plenty of young Willow Warblers and Chiffies about. I did also see a female-type Collard Flycatcher on one occasion. There were plenty of woodland birds on show including loads of Nuthatches, Greater-spotted Woodpeckers, Marsh Tit and Short-toed Treecreepers. In addition one would occasional hear the fluty calls of the Golden Oriole from deep within the wood.

As well as working on my list there was a second reason for my early morning birding trips. As I've been getting older of course I've noticed my hearing starting to deteriorate. As a birder naturally I often rely on song and call to help locate and identify birds so it's a very sad thing to find myself starting to lose this ability. Now, I read somewhere that musicians tend to keep their hearing longer than the average person because they're using it all the time and I've presumed that using my hearing for birding would have the same affect. I've noticed however that it seemed to have got a lot worse over the last couple of months and realise that this is because I've not been out birding nearly so much - instead I've been concentrating on the moths and butterflies over June and July. Therefore, in order to sharpen up my hearing again I wanted to spend lots of time trying to winkle out warblers and other passerines from within deep cover using my hearing to assist. I'm pleased to say that over the course of the holiday I noticed a definite improvement so I'm definitely going to keep up this exercise.

The Cirl Bunting, making a brief appearance

Whilst most of our afternoon excursions were fairly uneventful from a birding point of view, one trip did stand out, namely a visit to Conques. This is a Medieval village with church on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, set high on a mountain side by a river gorge. There I managed to find a Crag Martin soaring over the valley, distinctive with its large sze and black armpits, along with several Common Swifts. I also heard a Rock Bunting singing away though I never managed to see it.

The picturesque Medieval village of Conques, perched on the mountain side 
overlooking the river gorge.

All too quickly our week was over and we started to work our way back north. On our return journey we clipped the west side of the mountainous CĂ©venne region where we managed great views of a Golden Eagle as we drove by - the low cloud cover was keeping it down to just above the road level. We also came across a thermal packed with several dozen soaring raptors. I'd have loved to have pulled over to take a good look but there was no where to stop.

We spent a couple of days in the volvanic Auvergne region again where we saw quite a few Black and Red Kites whilst driving around. Further north we stopped off at Chambord to see the castle (where I managed to add Reed Warbler and Tree Pipit to the list) before heading up to Rouen for the night again. From here it was back to Calais for the ferry.

 Black Redstart at Chambord Castle

Usually the Dover-Calais ferry crossing is pretty crap for birds but coming back we had an hour to kill before boarding so I wandered down to the docks where I spent an enjoyable time checking out the gulls and boosting my French list - by this stage I'd got to about 70 but hadn't seen any gulls to speak of so far. The crossing itself was surprisingly good for birding. We'd settled in the dining lounge right at the front of the boat where we had good views over the bow. Heading out of Calais harbour there were at least 50 Common Terns, a few Kittiwakes, a Common Scoter, three Arctic Skuas and two Bonxies, all passing close to the boat and giving great views. I reflected as I munched my food what a pleasant way to sea-watch this was - warm and comfortable with close views and no eye-watering wind to contend with.

 Calais Juvenile Herring Gull

After that it was back in Blighty with an uneventful journey back home to chateau Gnome. It had been a surprisingly productive trip from a birding point of view. I suppose that the key is to go in with no expectations - that way you can only be pleasantly surprised. My list total ended up at a pleasing 80 species - not bad considering that I'd not seen any ducks apart from Mallard nor any waders apart from the passing LRP and a flock of Lapwings from the car. The highlights for me were: Golden Oriole, Meloldius Warbler, Bonelli's Warbler, Serin, Cirl Bunting, Common Redstart, Black Redstart, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Red Kite, Golden Eagle, Crag Martin, Rock Bunting, Collard Flycatcher and Pied Flycatcher. The only common local speciality that I might have expected but didn't get to see would have been Hoopoe and Wryneck. I would have also liked to have seen some of the mountain specialities and some of the less common raptors but we weren't really in the right area. Oh well, there's always next time. At least I now have a continental list to work on.

1 comment:

ANTHONY PRICHARD said...

Your White-line Snout possibility looks more like the micro Synaphe punctalis or European look alike.