Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Bird Nerd’s Guide to Provence

Hugh Harrop is a professional naturalist, author and photographer who owns and runs Shetland Wildlife, an award-winning eco-tourism business based in the Shetland Islands. Just like the crimson-winged Wallcreeper, Hugh appears in Provence each winter… leading his popular February birding trips. We asked him to share some field notes from his most recent trip and this is what he sent.

With those crimson wings and its subtle dove-grey back, the Wallcreeper has to be one of Europe’s most handsome and sought-after birds. Breeding in remote rocky canyons in the mountains--from the Spanish Picos de Europa to the European Alps-- his high-altitude denizen can be extremely elusive in its summer quarters. During the non-breeding season, however, Wallcreepers move to lower elevations and the beautiful citadel of Les Baux de Provence is where we had excellent views of this 'Holy Grail' of a bird.

This was my eighth visit to the region and I’ve always found the limestone cliffs on which the citadel and extensive Roman ruins sit to be the best place to see them. Les Baux also gave us great views of another high-altitude species: Alpine Accentor. We found small parties of these gregarious ‘giant Dunnocks’ in the castle but they can also usually be seen along the cobbled streets in and around the town, looking for crumbs dropped from outside dining tables. But with a stiff mistral blowing last month, nobody was dining outside--so the birds were a little harder to locate. Other species you might encounter around the citadel of Les Baux include Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart, Crag Martin, Sardinian Warbler, Crested Tit, Serin, Firecrest and Cirl Bunting. Nearby we had amazing views of the rare Bonelli's Eagle.

One thing I love about Provence is the diversity of habitats and the proximity of great birding destinations. One such place, one that every birdwatcher will have heard of, is the Camargue. Thousands of waterfowl spend the winter here and among the masses of Shelduck, Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler, Pintail, Pochard and
Tufted Duck we’ve also found Black-Necked Grebes, Red-Crested Pochard, Bewick's Swans and Cranes. It goes without saying that such large numbers of waterfowl attract predators and every year a few eagles come to winter in the region. Very small numbers of Spotted Eagles can usually be found, while both Marsh and Hen Harriers, Merlin and Peregrine are also present in good numbers. The reed beds are home to delightful Penduline Tits, Bearded Tits and noisy Cetti’s Warbler and, with patience and luck, we sometimes catch sight of Moustached Warblers and Bitterns.

The region’s industrial saltpans hold large numbers of the famous Greater Flamingos but, to be honest, I find it hard to take pink birds seriously! As a true bird nerd, I find seagulls far more interesting and we’re always on the lookout for delightful slender-billed or white-winged Mediterranean Gulls.

La Crau, the “stony desert” region south of St. Martin de Crau, is also as famous in bird-watching circles and it never ceases to amaze me that such a barren looking environment can be so good for birds. The region is actually an ancient delta of the Durance River and now shelters a community of important 'steppe' birds that are pretty much unique in France. Indeed, this is the only site in France where we can find Pin-Tailed Sandgrouse and other specialities like Little Bustards and Stone Curlews. The Bustards form huge flocks prior to pairing up for the breeding season and flock sizes in excess of 500 birds are not unknown!

Southern Grey Shrikes and Dartford Warblers were birds we were also keen to see, as were the giant Calandra Larks. This rare bird is seen by very few people during winter but we managed to find a flock of 150. To cap it all off, we spent a super day on Mont Ventoux . At 1900 metres above sea-level, the mountain sits between the Alpine massif to the north and the Mediterranean massifs to the south. This year, the mountain was covered in snow with big concentrations of birds around the Chalet Reynard area. Here we saw the delightful European endemic--Citril Finch-- while the Beech, Juniper and Scots Pine forests produced Crossbills, Marsh and Crested Tits, Short-toed Treecreepers and stunning views of the crow-sized Black Woodpecker. I've also seen Golden Eagles from the mountain. And the cafe has the best hot chocolate for miles around!

 For more info on Hugh’s birding holidays and other eco trips: www.shetlandwildlife.co.uk. To see more of Hugh's photographic work, go to: www.hughharrop.com and to http://hughharropwildlifephotography.blogspot.com. To contact Hugh directly: hugh@hughharrop.com.

(Pictured: Hugh's photos of the Citril Finch, Black Woodpecker, Wallcreeper.)

3 comments:

  1. What a great feature. I look at birds every day in our garden and never appreciated just how others perceive them - let alone visit here for them!

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  2. Oh, I just love this post. I am fascinated by what birds are in Europe, as they look slightly familiar, but not. The differences are interesting.

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  3. Nice piece from your man Harrap. I have just completed a small piece on Birds in Provence - not much material anywhere, so thanks!

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