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Monday, 26 July 2021

Etang de Bagnas and Lesser Kestrels nesting at St Pons de Mauchiens

We are going back to the end of June now for the last outing with Birding Languedoc of their Spring 2021 season. We felt it went out with a bang! We have really enjoyed our trips with them, both last year and this, and have seen innumerable lifers (not just lifer birds!), other wildlife galore and wildflowers to die for. We feel very lucky indeed to have moved here coinciding with them starting to run day trips for the people living here (as well as their more normal birding holidays). For them, with the pandemic arriving, it has been a godsend as it has helped them with a bit of, I'm sure, much needed income!

We started in the morning with a private visit to Etang de Bagnas, a reserve which normally has no public access, but allows accompanied visits. The lake entrance is locked off with a gate, so the public can only stop at the parking and view the lake from this one place. The reserve is one and a half hours from home using the motorway, near the resort town of Agde and close to the Etang de Thau, which runs from Marseillan at one end to the port of Sete at the other.


First we were given a short talk on the history of the reserve by our lovely guide, who I think was enjoying practising her rusty English, with some French thrown in for good measure, which most of us understood. This reserve is fairly surrounded by built up areas and campsites between the reserve and the beach (grey areas on above map), so thankfully this important wetland (dark green and blue areas on map) has not been able to be developed on. We then set off to the lake and walked along one side of it with stops along the way to see what we could see.

What at first seemed like only dozens of coots in fact turned out to be huge numbers of bird life. I know nothing about terns (apart from recognising that a bird is a tern 😀) but in fact there were five different species here! I think I saw three of them; they were moving around so fast it was hard to know which was which, especially with the other birds in the sky! We also had not only Common Swifts but Pallid Swifts swooping about overhead. We saw Glossy Ibis flying overhead, and a number of Purple Herons flew past us which I was really chuffed about as I've only ever seen a few of them, many years ago. 


There were Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) and cygnets and a female Pochard (Aythya ferina) with five ducklings, which were so cute to watch! (also in the photo above)




On an island which has a heronry there was a mix of Grey Heron, Great White and Little Egrets and also a juvenile Cattle Egret (on the left of the photo with a fluffy chestnut hairdo!) and a flamboyance of Flamingos (yes really! It's the collective noun which I've only just learned) standing in the water at the edge of it.




Every now and again a Purple Gallinule/Purple Swamphen would appear at the edge of the reeds, which was exciting to see (even though we have seen dozens of them at one place in Spain, and a lot closer up). Well, it was a first for us in France. Even better, a juvenile appeared behind the parent at one point!

I noticed a small blue damselfly so managed to get a few pictures which actually turned out a lot better than I thought they were going to, as my camera was refusing to focus on something so small (it drives me nuts when the SX50 does that). Once home though, I discovered it was a species I had never seen before, the Small Red-eyed Damselfly (Erythromma viridulum)!


Someone else spotted an amazing caterpillar, another lifer for me! This was a Spurge Hawkmoth (Hyles euphorbiae) caterpillar, and although it was already huge, I think it had one more moult to go as the pictures online show it has much more bright red colouring. Here it is eating the stem of what looks like a drying out/dying Euphorbia (commonly called Spurge).


We then went on to the Parc Departementale de Bessilles for our picnic lunch and had a walk around. Our birding guide Karline, who is amazing at spotting Ocellated Lizards, spotted this juvenile peeking out of hole in a dead tree!


After lunch we headed to St Pons de Mauchiens where there is a reintroduced colony of Lesser Kestrels (Falco naumanni) nesting in the roof tiles of the village buildings. This is one of the old villages built on a small hill with a church at the top, 


Credit: Fagairolles 34, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

From our arrival at the car park to our walk just to the lower town we were already seeing lots of Lesser Kestrels! Luckily for us, they seemed to enjoy perching on gutters and TV aerials with their prey, just sitting around, before they were off to feed their babies. These next photos were taken of a male with a butterfly chrysalis in the lower part of the town.




The most obvious difference between the Lesser Kestrel and the Common Kestrel is the lack of spots/markings on the back of the male Lesser, plus he has grey patches on his wings. Females and juveniles are quite similar, though to help with ID, the two species make different sounds and the Lesser is smaller than the Common.

There was also a male Rock Sparrow (Petronia petronia) on one of the roofs.


We then walked through the village up towards the church at the top of the hill. 


Credit: Keith Allen

We came to a little park area where we could look out over the roofs and the magnificent views beyond, and there was an orientation board naming all the mountains, hills and villages that we could see from there. The Lesser Kestrels were certainly giving us a wonderful display of flying, and posing with their prey. Then suddenly they would disappear under a roof tile to their nests. I did wonder how on earth they could fit under there and just how much space there would be for the nest and growing babies, but there obviously is! Karline, our birding guide, said that if you are there a few weeks later the youngsters come out from the nests and run about on the roofs before they start to fly! We will have to come back and see that next year. 

Male with a cicada:


Another male with unknown grub. We also saw one with a mouse, which it started to eat on the wing!


Female with insect - you can see how easy it is to tell the males from the females.


Credit: Keith Allen

This is where we were viewing the birds from:


The fabulous view beyond the roofs - here we are looking inland to the Haut Languedoc range of mountains:




The Lesser Kestrels were disappearing into their nests under the edge of these roof tiles!

Way off in the distance a Short-toed Snake Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) was spotted - with a snake! Keith managed to get a very distant shot of it, and Philippa from Birding Languedoc was just watching it through her scope when the Eagle "sucked the snake up like it was spaghetti"!! 😄


Credit: Keith Allen

One final photo - behind where we were standing watching the birds was this amazing wall - build around huge rocks. If you look closely (click on photo) you can see a couple of tiny windows, one of which has been filled in, so I don't know what is behind, possibly a basement area of the church. It's been patched up and mortared over the years/centuries and is so interesting when you just look at the structure of the building. Shame about the crowd control barrier in the scene but I imagine that's to stop people parking there. 


A full report of this trip with photos is available to read on the Birding Languedoc website, along with a list of species seen (and heard) during the day here. Amazingly it totalled 45 species, not that I saw them all, or some were just a glimpse!

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Market day in medieval Mirepoix

Finally, at long last, we went to a market! I chose Mirepoix as the market is held in the medieval centre and around the cathedral, and having visited briefly on one of our Moho trips a few years back, I knew it was very pretty and photo worthy.

Mirepoix is about 25 minutes drive from us, in the neighbouring department of Ariège. The market square, Les Couverts, is one of the finest surviving arcaded market squares. It is less easy to see the arcades when the market is in place as the umbrellas over the stalls hides them a bit, but you can just about see under the buildings in some of my photos. The beautiful half timbered houses showing all their different colours date from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The construction of the cathedral, St Maurice, dates from 1298 and continued over the next six centuries, then was restored in the 19thC.

I was very pleased to discover that masks must be worn at a market, despite being outdoors, because of the proximity of people. At last I found my plastic tablecloth-on-a-roll for my terrace table! Not to mention yet another handbag, well at 20 euros how could I resist. 😀 French markets are great for cheap handbags! I did note the absence of any fish/seafood stalls, something I found a bit odd after the Breton markets which always had plenty. Maybe we need to go closer to the coast? We weren't near the coast in Brittany though. Who knows? Finally I bought some tasty and spicy olives from a stall that you will see a photo of later. The sun shone, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. (I also took note, having gone to the supermarket after the market, that fruit was much cheaper at the market, something I am not used to as the Breton markets around where we used to live were always much more expensive than the supermarkets!)

I have included a photo of an ancient postcard showing the 19thC covered market, known in French as La Halle or Les Halles, so you can see what it looks like properly. Originally the agricultural markets were held in the space under four medieval houses, which were built up on stilts to make a covered area for the grains.

I'm not going to write any more as this post has many photos, so just sit back, scroll through, and enjoy!








Copyright: the Mairie de Mirepoix
Link about the history of La Halle, in French




























I hope you have enjoyed this tour around a southern French market!
All photos taken with my phone.

Monday, 5 July 2021

Lunch out and a walk on the garrigue at Leucate

Once our restaurant terraces opened again, and we'd had our second jabs, we decided it was time to brave it and go out and be 'normal' again! We chose a good day for the weather and off we set to a restaurant at La Franqui called "Le Bleu". We sat in the shade of the terrace beside the beach and the sea. It was bliss!








Keith chose the burger 'facon fish and chips' which he loved; he said the fish batter was perfect. It was served with a home made tartare sauce. I had the Thai green curry with prawns. They warned me it was hot, but French hot is usually our mild. However this was quite hot! I thought four prawns were a bit measly, but really with the rice it was very filling and I couldn't finish it all. As we were planning a walk after I forwent a dessert.


We drove around to the Leucate lighthouse which is perched up on a cliff close to La Franqui. There were still plenty of wildflowers and many butterflies, but mostly the two species that I managed to photograph, as follows.

This is a Western Marbled White (Melanargia occitanica). At home we are only seeing the regular Marbled White, so it's nice to see a different species. Not a lifer as I have seen them many times, but have never got a photo to confirm that I have the different species.




Showing a view of the habitat we were walking around in.


This is the other species that was abundant, in fact there were absolutely tons of them. They were all on the same plant which I later found out was Felty Germander (Teucrium polium). It had a lovely herby smell to it and is indeed used in cooking, and medicine. The butterfly is a Dusky Heath (Coenonympha dorus) and they fly low to the ground always perching with their wings closed. They are mostly to be found in Spain and the south of France into parts of Italy, and love this kind of habitat, hot rocky dusty places.








There are quite a few ruined stone buildings on the clifftop area and masses of dry stone walls too.


A view of the semaphore station, which being a military place was all fenced off from the public area.



Luckily for us, there were several Woodchat Shrikes (Lanius senator) flying around and perching on the fences! We also had a really great close up view of a Sardinian Warbler, but no time to get a photo. We also saw a Thekla Lark, making our birding fairly interesting, despite the majority of birds hiding away from the afternoon sun. 


Me by the lighthouse and the posh restaurant with a Michelin star. No, we havent been there. Michelin starred restaurants don't appeal to me.


The highlight of the day came right at the end. As we were putting our things back in the car, K suddenly called to me quietly and indicated with his hand to come and look! There, on the car parked next to ours, was a Two-tailed Pasha (Charaxes jasius)!! I had always wanted to see one of these large beauties, so another tick off the butterfly wish list!



By the way, anyone who gets my blog via email, they seem to be going into the spam/junk folder. Just in case anyone looks in who is wondering why I have not blogged for a while. I don't know myself how to do it, but apparently you can tell your computer that my blog posts are not spam and should go into your inbox!

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Honey Bee on Sedum

Honey Bee on Sedum

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Swallowtail Caterpillar