This was one of our trips out with Birding Languedoc and we had a horribly early start, meeting at 8am by the small airfield at Lezignan Corbieres, not far from Narbonne. The habitat is wild open grassy areas punctuated with vines and sparse trees and shrubs. There were only six of us in total including Karline, who is the bird expert, and Philippa who runs Birding Languedoc and is very good with bird and plant ID herself.
One of the target birds around here was the Little Bustard, which luckily we saw, three of them flying around quite clearly. Lifer no. 1 of 6 for Keith and me. Our guide has an amazing ear for birdsong and was IDing birds left right and centre from song she could hear, though most of us couldn't hear what she heard at all! One song we could clearly hear at the start of the day were Skylarks. There were also other larks, mostly heard rather than seen, though we didn't see another target species which was the Lesser Short Toed Lark. However there were plenty of other birds, including a number of Tawny Pipits (another target species for this habitat and lifer no. 2) including one which perched in a tree close enough for me to get a photo. We also saw a few Woodchat Shrikes.
Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris) looking puffed up.
There were a number of raptors seen in this area of flat land too, a Short-toed Eagle is good enough, but we also had Montagu's Harrier (lifer no. 3) and Eleonora's Falcon (lifer no. 4) overhead! I leave birds in flight to others to photograph and wander off to check out wildflowers and butterflies after a quick look through my binocs 😀. I have to admit that I know very little about raptors and find them next to impossible to ID other than a Buzzard sitting on a fence post by the side of the road or a Kestrel hovering overhead.
Little Bustards (Tetrax tetrax) - photo credit: Keith Allen
By 9am the sun had come out and our chilly early start started warming up a little. Butterflies started appearing and over the course of the day we had quite a nice selection spotted. I was the butterfly 'expert' of the day, with the others asking me "What's this?" or "What's that blue butterfly?". Thankfully I was able to ID them as a couple of the blue butterflies we saw in the afternoon up on the garrigue just happened to be the Green Underside Blue and the Black-eyed Blue which I had recently encountered close to home! We also saw a Spanish Gatekeeper but because others were trying to take photos and I was chatting with people, I didn't get a photo of it. We were fortunate also that Gill, the plant expert who lead the wildflower day out that we went on recently, was also on this trip, so we had a varied day looking at plants as well as birds and butterflies. Other butterflies seen were a Small or Essex Skipper, a Clouded Yellow, a Brown Argus, several Painted Ladies and lots of Marbled Whites.
Knapweed Fritillary (Melitaea phoebe)
We also saw mammals and reptiles. First up we spotted a vixen with a cub (and later spotted another cub) at the far end of a row of vines, and spent a good 15 minutes watching them - a fantastic experience. Strangely a rabbit kept bobbing up behind them, maybe trying to figure out how to get past them in an open area like a vineyard! What a funny sight to see. In another place we saw a hare between rows of vines as well. It really makes a difference to be walking around the vines rather than driving past, as you see so much more (obviously!).
You see quite a few wildflower meadows full of poppies at this time of year around this area - an absolutely gorgeous sight.
A number of small planes flew overhead and deposited parachutists. I found them a lot easier to photograph than birds in flight 😁 so I was able to see that in all my photos there were two people parachuting together. I guess this is the really beginner course or maybe they were skydiving before we saw them, I don't know.
The largest lizard in Europe is the Ocellated Lizard (Timon lepidus) and it lives in this area of France, in habitat such as olive groves and rocky scrub. It can reach up to 90cm in length, of which two-thirds is the tail. More information about them here on Planete Passion. We were particularly lucky that we saw them before they saw us, so we were able to creep up slowly and get reasonable photos. The first two photos are the female and the third is the male, who has a wider head than she does.
After lunch we went up into the garrigue hills of the Massif de Fontfroide where we saw a number of these Burnet moths, which don't have an English name as they aren't found in the UK. The Latin name is Zygaena lavandulae, and in French Zygène de la Lavande, so the translation of both would be Lavender Burnet moth. Although at first glance you might think it was a 5-spot Burnet, it's actually quite different if you look at a picture of the 5-spot. This photo doesn't show the main difference in wing colour but you can see the white collar, which makes for easy ID.
Also seen flying overhead whilst having our picnic were Griffon Vultures and Bee-eaters, who had a nest close by.
There were yet more lovely wildflowers, including this Bee Orchid, (Ophrys apifera).
This is another orchid, the Small-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis microphylla), but it wasn't flowering yet. I had to hold it as the wind was blowing so hard up here on the garrigue hills that I couldn't get a shot in focus otherwise!
It had turned cold, windy and overcast, and after searching in vain for another target species, the Common Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis), we headed back down to the cars. However, upon searching a little more by the cars, Philippa finally spotted one! They are beautiful birds (and so is the Blue Rock Thrush, which we have seen a few times). However our only image which K took is of a very small orange blob, as it was so far away! Thankfully with spotting scopes we were able to see it fairly well.
We were then blessed to have a special bird fly around and right over us, allowing for easier photography! It was a Eurasian Black Vulture (also known as the Monk Vulture or Cinereous Vulture) (Aegypius monachus). There is a reintroduced population in the south of France but they obviously aren't seen very often as it was a lifer for even our birding guide, Karline! This was a very tatty specimen though.
Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus) - photo credit: Keith Allen
Ending up the day with two more fantastic lifers really made our day and worth the very early start!