Getting to know the landscapes, plants and birds of the Languedoc

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Booted eagle

By Dave Burges and Ute Collier

At the end of summer 2018, we were fortunate to acquire a property in Colombières-sur-Orb, just west of Lamalou-les-Bains. Since then we’ve made several visits, mostly to organise the refurbishment of the house (and do quite a lot of painting ourselves!), but also to begin to explore the landscapes, botany and avifauna of the surrounding area.  Colombières is also a good base to explore a wider range of other habitats within a reasonable distance as the crow flies, such as the coast around Gruissan, or the canyons and garrigue surrounding Minerve.

We’re very conscious that many others have done this before us (the contributions to the Walks in Languedoc Facebook Group curated by Pam Smith provides just one example of the level of interest), but it is great fun to explore a new area for yourself. This is especially true if you are interested in natural history, as a new “local patch” is almost like starting all over again! So in addition to walking for its own sake, Ute and I enjoy all aspects of natural history, but Ute especially likes flowering plants, and I have been a keen birder for some forty years.

Our visits so far in autumn, winter and spring (we’ve yet to try mid summer!) are helping us to build up a picture of which species are present and where, and of course (especially for birds) how their occurrence, numbers and distribution change through the seasons.

Our most recent visit in May revealed just how different the dawn chorus is compared to south east England! Instead of robins, blackbirds and song thrushes, each morning starts with a wonderful cacophony of nightingales, black and common redstarts, firecrests, golden orioles and hoopoes. We were lucky to see a little of the spring migration up the Orb Valley too. Some of this involves birds familiar across much of north-western Europe (such as 1-2,000 house martins on 29th April), some species that are much more common in continental Europe than in the UK (honey buzzards totals of 49 and 84+ on 1st and 7th May respectively) and birds which are rarely encountered at home, such as the bee-eater with totals of 50+ and 63+ on the 1st and 7th May respectively. We even had three bee-eaters perched in a tree just fifty metres from our lounge window!

May, before the summer heat arrives, is also great for seeing wildflowers. We particularly enjoyed coming across orchids in many places – early purple, military, pyramidal to name just a few. In the villages, the gorgeous judas trees were just coming to the end of their bright pink blossom while purple irises and orange poppies seemed to be in almost every garden. The butterflies and bees also enjoyed the flower spectacle – the swallowtails were particularly stunning.

Monkey orchid (we’re fairly certain!)

The reverse autumn migration seems impressive too, especially for birds of prey, starting with returning honey buzzards in early September and then red kites, sparrowhawks and buzzards as we head into October. Pied flycatchers seemed to be sprinkled everywhere, and we even saw a juvenile Bonelli’s eagle, the rarest Mediterranean raptor. I’m sure more autumn birding will produce some surprises as it tends to be the time when “almost anything can turn up”. We just don’t know what the range of possibilities is yet!

Things inevitably quieten down in winter, but we have seen golden eagle, peregrine, ravens and dippers and grey wagtails move further down stream towards the valley floor. Surely we can find the stunning wallcreeper in either the Gorges d’Héric or Gorges de Colombières with a little persistence?

Here are some quick sketches of some walks we have completed recently to illustrate the wide range of species that can be seen.

Saint-Geniès-de-Varensal on the 1st May.

We walked west of the village on the south facing slope of the Orque valley, returning on the north-facing side. The first is Mediterranean in character, the second more temperate with the path going through a large exotic conifer plantation for part of its length.

Around the village several cirl buntings were singing, and a grey wagtail was feeding a youngster on the stream. Up into the woods we encountered the first of many singing firecrests, a few (presumably recently arrived) Western Bonelli’s warblers. We heard at least one sub-alpine warbler and, it seemed strange here, a handful of blackbirds! Overhead were crag martins, black kites, griffon vultures, short-toed eagles, buzzards, sparrowhawks, a raven, hobbies and kestrels. A harrier species heading high to the north was probably a Montagu’s, but was too far away to identify with certainty. The highlight was a superb adult golden eagle which swooped down to perch right above where we decided to have lunch. We had wonderful views through the telescope as s/he preened and surveyed the valley, eventually drifting off over the cliff on the breeze. Tennyson came to mind!

The Etang de Vendres on 3rd May.

We broke up a day’s shopping around Beziers with an early afternoon walk at the north end of the vast Etang de Vendres. Just head for Vendres village (due south of Béziers) and make for its southern end. We parked on the roadside just inside the village and walked out past the horse paddock on the right to the edge of the etang. You can walk a little way south west to the ruins of The Temple of Venus, and/or go south east where there are several viewpoints on the bank overlooking the water, and vast reedbeds with tamarisk bushes. It was a bit windy for reedbed birding, but pleasant all the same. We saw 2 white storks, many grey herons and little egrets, one great white egret, great crested grebes, a pochard and many red-crested pochards. Birds of prey included 4+ short-toed eagles, 3+ buzzards and 10+ marsh harriers. A nice selection of terns included Sandwich, common and little terns, and one very distant whiskered tern. The wind kept a lot of the smaller birds down, but we saw or heard fan-tailed, Cetti’s and reed warblers, and heard the inevitable nightingales. At least ten bee-eaters were whizzing about overhead, and the highlight were three purple herons flying over the reeds.

The ridge above Tarassac on 4th May.

Follow the well-marked track out of the village past the old campsite, and then you have various options around the ridge on the south side of the Orb Valley. A windy day, but we did reasonably well with a nice surprise to finish on. Around the village and in the woods and scrub there were singing firecrests, a common redstart, robins (!), nightingales, subalpine and Sardinian warblers, and a single western Bonelli’s warbler. With regular stops to look overhead and scan the ridges, we saw one each of raven and sparrowhawk, 16 griffon vultures, 3 buzzards, 2+ kestrels, up to 9 black kites, 3 short-toed eagles and – saving the best until last – a single booted eagle heading east.

Lastly Minerve on 6th May.

There is a well marked and well-documented walk to the west of the village (starting just before the main car parks), taking you out over the garrigue with various options to either walk in or around parts of the gorge. You return via the impressive and ever-so slightly precarious steps and bridges at the east of the village. Worth it for the ice-cream!

Marvellous Mediterranean birding here, with stunning views to the Pyrenees to the south. We saw 5 griffon vultures, 1 short-toed eagle, 1 peregrine, a golden eagle mobbed by a raven (and the other bird of the pair), a pair of superb, displaying Montagu’s harriers (plus another male on the drive out), a black kite and a honey buzzard, a couple of kestrels, at least three cuckoos, two turtle doves and several corn buntings. It was good to just “bump into” these latter two species, which have both declined by about 90% in the UK over the past few decades. More Mediterranean specialities included a woodchat shrike, orphean and subalpine warblers, a single alpine swift, at least half a dozen red-rumped swallows, crag martins, two pied flycatchers and – one of my favourite European birds – a singing woodlark. Last of all – and enjoyed with the ice cream – was a singing male golden oriole in the gorge woodland below the village. What a great site!

As we noted at the start, there probably isn’t anything here that surprises readers who know these areas well – and we know that we missed some species that we should have seen. But there’s always next time. Nevertheless, much of this is fairly easy birding, and might encourage others to head out with a pair of binoculars to see what you can find!

By Dave Burges and Ute Collier