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(24 May - 7 June 1997)

Stephen Burch

This is an account of a two week family holiday, based on a villa in the foothills of the French eastern Pyrenees, within easy reach of the Languedoc coast.

For ease of travelling with two small children, and an aversion to long distance driving, we took the easy route to the south of France: the scheduled BA flight from Gatwick to Montpellier (incidentally this would also give very convenient access to the Camargue). The flight took under 2 hours, and I was able to start the trip list off in style with a flock of flamingos seen from the plane, as it was taxiing to the terminal building! Collecting a pre-booked hire car at the airport, we arrived at the villa near Le Boulou in the mid afternoon.

In general, the area provided a good range of typical Mediterranean birds, with the proximity to the lower eastern Pyrenees adding a few bonuses in terms of upland species. I expect that dedicated birders would be justified in giving this area a miss, concentrating instead on the nearby Camargue or the high Pyrenees. However, as an alternative for those with family responsibilities, it is quite attractive with a good selection of birds, as well as beaches, "nice" villages etc. for the remainder of the party.

The weather was somewhat variable, with the first week generally hot and sunny (allowing full use of the villa pool), but the second week was much cloudier, with some rain from time to time, and warm rather than hot.

We were based for the whole time in a villa situated close to Le Boulou (selected from the Chez Nous brochure), in a small collection of villas on a hillside known as Les Chartreuses de Boulou. The following itinerary lists the day trips made during our holiday:

May 25 Walk from top of loop road running through Les Chartreuses de Boulou
May 26 Argeles Plage
May 27 Walk from Riunogues, above Maureilles
May 28 Collioure
May 29 Tour du Madeloc, near Collioure and reservoir at Villeneuve de-la-Raho
May 30 Drive up the Tech valley, as far as Spanish border
May 31 Birding on my own - Gruissan and Leucate
June 1 Banyuls sur Mer
June 2 Etang de Canet
June 3 Chateau Peyrepertuse
June 4 Stroll from Col de l’Ouillet to Puig d’Aurielle - in Pyrenees near to Perthus
June 5 Walk up ridge above Gorge de Lavall (east of Boulou)
June 6 Boat trip from Collioure

The main source of birding information was provided by Where to Watch Birds in France (La Ligue Francaise pour la Protection des Oiseaux, Helm 1992), referred to subsequently as WWBF. Also the FBRIS trip report by Walding & Jones (France: early summer 1995) has brief notes on two sites within the area.

The IGN 1:100,000 map number 72 covers the whole area. Those with an interest in walking in the Pyrenees would benefit from the various IGN 1:25,000 maps (TOP25 series) - numbers 2549 OT, 2448 OT etc.


Gruissan/L’lle St Martin
This is an interesting area, well described in WWBF, with a variety of habitats including salt pans, coastal lagoons and dry scrub (garrigue). In a brief (c. 2 hour) visit, I managed a number of typical Mediterranean species, as well as distant views of a Pelican sp. (unfortunately identification uncertain due to distance). Thanks(?) to Julian Smith from Cumbria for pointing out (in February 2009 - almost 12 years after this siting), that this bird was probably not a wild vagrant at all, but a free flying Pink-backed Pelican from a nearby
African Zoo!

The L’lle St Martin is accessed from the village of Gruissan, with a little difficulty (no signs in this busy tourist village - keeping to straight-on/right direction in centre of village leads to bridge over the canal). Once over the canal, turning left at the T junction, and then right brings one onto the road which runs along the side of the salt pans.

A few stops along here (no access to pans), produced B W Stilt, Crested Lark and Little Tern apparently nesting. Further on the road ends at some fisherman’s huts on the shore of the Etang de L’Ayrolle - not a productive spot. However, retracing one’s steps past the rubbish dump (plenty of Yellow legged Gulls), leads to a left turn which runs parallel to the Etang, but a little inland past some shallow pools. This was a productive area, with several Bee Eaters on wires, and Kentish Plovers on the pool margins. The rough road finally ends at a little parking area, just short of a wine producing Chateau. From here a number of tracks can be explored running in various directions. The coastal track (to the left) had 2 Tawny Pipits, Woodchat Shrike and numerous Crested Lark. A brief exploration of the inland tracks produced nothing very notable.

My route then took me north on the narrow inland road, reaching the D32 west of Gruissan. From here, I drove west along the D32, coming to a very attractive looking marshy area, north of the Etang de Campignol. Here, a convenient hump-backed bridge over the river gives good views over the marshes, with Flamingos, Yellow Wagtail, Marsh Harrier and Fan-tailed Warbler. It was also from this spot that I had distant flight views of the Pelican sp (see above).

Cap Leucate
Cap Leucate is described briefly in WWBF, with a promising list of species. It is a raised limestone area, apparently most notable as a migration watch point. It is accessed by following signs to the lighthouse (phare) from Leucate Plage (follow small road back towards Leucate village, and then take a right turn on the edge of Leucate Plage). This road takes one up onto the plateau - park by buildings at end of tarmaced road (although the French drive along this cliff top track).

When I arrived, it was a warm Saturday afternoon, and the prospects for productive birding seemed remote, with hordes of French both driving and walking along the coastal track. So, the best policy seemed to be to head inland, away from the busy track. This was immediately productive, with a splendid male Ortolan Bunting and a pair of Spectacled Warblers just a few metres from the main track (near to some square concrete buildings).

I then wandered around the maze of small, rocky enclosures/fields and paths inland from the coastal track - a very promising area, vaguely reminiscent of a (very rocky) Portland Bill! However, despite a considerable amount of searching there was no sign of Great Spotted Cuckoo (mentioned here in WWBF), but there were a few Black Eared Wheatears as some compensation. Also 2+ more Spectacled Warblers.

I am sure this site would produce further rewards, during longer visits, especially earlier in the season.

Etang de Canet
Again this site is described in WWBF. During a short visit, with children in tow, I concentrated on the Reart Rau area, which is accessed from St Nazaire. Leave this village on the D11 towards Alenya, turn left just after the petrol station on outskirts of St Nazaire - this minor road leads to a path (see WWBF), with a wooden pole across its entrance. The path initially goes through a very pleasant meadow area, which produced several Bee Eaters, a Roller (in trees to left of path) and a Little Owl.

After about a mile, the path reaches the scrub-filled environs of the Etang, with views over extensive reed beds and damp areas. Fan tailed Warblers were incredibly numerous here, with plenty of (invisible) Cetti’s as well. The path ends in dense undergrowth at the river (Reart) which flows into the Etang. The banks are slightly raised which gave good views over a marshy area, and distant views of open water. Notable species seen here were Purple and Grey Herons (in flight) and skulking Great Reed Warblers on the banks of the river. Also, there were several Marsh Harriers over the reeds. Altogether a very pleasant stroll, with the Roller a definite bonus.

After this, we drove north to Canet Plage, and then south down the coast road, but without stopping - distant views of Flamingos on the east shore of the Etang were the only species of note. At St-Cyprien Plage, a brief sea watch produced some remarkably black & white Shearwaters which should have been Mediterranean, but looked very like our Manx.

Reservoir at Villeneuve de la Raho
Also a WWBF site. Access to the south west corner was as described in WWBF, but there was no sign of the muddy areas mentioned therein. In fact, there were few birds of note, with only a couple of Fan Tailed Warblers, a Cetti’s Warbler and a Common Sandpiper worthy of mention. Also Tree Sparrows in the trees by the side of the path near the car.

Perhaps a better site during migration periods.

Les Chartreuses de Boulou
This somewhat exclusive collection of well separated villas, including ours, was spread-out on the foothills of the Pyrenees, about 2 km to the east of Le Boulou. Access to the loop road through the area is from the Boulou to Argeles road (from Boulou turn right just before a campsite, opposite a fruit stall). The road winds up through the villas, reaching c. 300 m at the top, before descending to the same start point.

Much of the area is clearly private, but walking along the road above our villa (which was one of the lower properties, near to a small hotel) produced singing Bonelli’s Warbler (needed patience to locate), Jay, Sardinian Warbler and brief flight views of Golden Oriole. At the top, the roadside scrub had, at dusk (good sunsets), a very obliging Subalpine Warbler singing on the top of bushes (singing but invisible earlier in the day). Drives at dusk also produced Turtle Dove.

The garden of our villa was also good, with somewhat distant views, mainly in the morning, of Golden Oriole, singing on the other side of a little, wooded valley (no access). Pool-side birding also produced Serin, Bonelli’s Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Buzzard, and Firecrest!

Chateau de Peyrepertuse
This remarkable and imposing old fort is situated on the top of a hill, near to St-Paul de Fenouillet in the limestone area to the north and west of Le Boulou - at least 1 hours drive away.

In the scrub around the large car park to the right of the road before it starts to climb up to the Chateau were several Rock Buntings. At the top of the road, a narrow path leads up to the Chateau itself, with excellent views over the surrounding mountains - well worth the scramble and entrance fee. At the very top of the Chateau were a few Alpine Swifts in with the Swifts, and lower down the ruined walls had Black Redstart.

Prats de Mollo and Col d’Ares
A longish drive along the Tech valley from Le Boulou was enlivened by Crag Martins which began to appear at Le Tech, where there were also Grey Wagtails on the river. The village of Prats de Mollo was a pleasant tourist "trap", with old walls to walk around etc. A convenient place to see Crag Martins (bridge over river) and Black Redstart - around the old village walls.

The Col d’Ares at the head of the valley, on the Spanish border, was fairly birdless - a short stroll along the ridge produced only Tree Pipit.

Much the most pleasant of the coastal towns on the "Vermillion Coast". Also the starting point for a worthwhile 1 hour tourist boat trip to Port Vendres and the Cap Bear. This gave good views of both Cory’s and Mediterranean Shearwaters, near to the Cap.

This is a tiny village, south of Maureillas-las-lllas, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. From here it is possible to do a c. 5 mile circular walk, taking in a section of the GR10 footpath which runs along the ridge of the Pyrenees close to the Spanish border. The hills are very wooded in this area, and birdlife in the middle of a warm day was limited to singing Bonelli's Warblers and commoner species. The walk was, however, more notable for its butterflies, including the impressive Scarce Swallowtail and Two-tailed Pasha.

The list below gives details of all 90 species of bird seen or heard during the holiday. In the first week, the birds were singing well, but this seemed to decline during the second week, perhaps due to a combination of the poorer weather and the later season.

Great Crested Grebe Seen only at Villeneuve De La Raho and Etang de Canet
Mediterranean Shearwater Seen from beach at St Cyprien (looked remarkably black and white) and during boat trip from Collioure
Cory’s Shearwater Seen during boat trip from Collioure
Pelican sp. Gruissan on 31 May - probably only a free flying bird from the local African Zoo.
Little Egret Widespread on coastal wetlands
Grey Heron At Etang de Canet only
Purple Heron One at Etang de Canet
Greater Flamingo Widespread on coastal lagoons. First seen from plane at Montpellier airport! Also at Gruissan (Etang de Campignol), Etang de Leucate (from Autoroute) and Etang de Canet (coast road).
Shelduck One flying along shore of Etang de Leucate
Marsh Harrier At Gruissan (Etang de Campignol), and Etang de Canet
Buzzard Various locations, mainly in the foothills of the Pyrenees
Sparrowhawk Only seen from Villa in Les Chartreuses de Boulou
Kestrel Widespread
Red-legged Partridge  
Coot Plenty at Etang de Canet
Black-winged Stilt 1-2 at Gruissan salt pans
Kentish Plover Various coastal localities, including Gruissan
Common Sandpiper 1 in flight at Villeneuve De La Raho
Black headed Gull Gruissan
Yellow legged Gull Very widespread along coast.
Common Tern At Gruissan and other coastal spots
Little Tern Appeared to be breeding at Gruissan salt pans
Collared Dove  
Turtle Dove Churring heard many locations. Only seen at dusk from road above villa at Les Chartreuses de Boulou
Little Owl 1 on meadows at Etang de Canet
Swift Numerous
Alpine Swift A few seen at Tour du Madeloc (nr. Collioure) and Ch. Peyrepertuse
Bee eater A few on wires at Gruissan, and several around meadows at Etang de Canet
Roller 1 seen from Autoroute, between Montpellier and Boulou on first day(!), also 1 in meadows at Etang de Canet
Hoopoe Widespread, usually seen on roadside when returning to villa, in late afternoon
Green Woodpecker 1-2 at Etang de Canet meadows
Great Spotted Woodpecker 1 Puig d’Aurille (in Pyrenees).
Crested Lark Several seen, in suitable coastal habitats, e.g. Leucate and Gruissan
Sand Martin  
Crag Martin Seen in various locations in Pyrenees, particularly Prats de Mollo.
House Martin  
Tawny Pipit 2 on coastal track at Gruissan
Tree Pipit Several singing well at Col d’Ares (Pyrenees)
Yellow Wagtail A few on marsh at Gruissan
Grey Wagtail Seen by river in upper Tech valley
White Wagtail  
Nightingale Widespread in suitable lowland habitat. Song seemed to decrease in second week. Only seen in Les Chartreuses de Boulou at dusk.
Black Redstart Seen in Prats de Mollo and the Ch. Peyrepertuse
Stonechat Several in lowland areas
Black-eared Wheatear Several at Leucate
Blackbird Very common
Song Thrush Surprisingly unobtrusive
Mistle Thrush In upper Tech valley only
Cetti’s Warbler Numerous at Etang de Canet
Fan tailed Warbler A few at Villeneuve De La Raho and very abundant at Etang de Canet
Reed Warbler At Etang de Canet only
Great Reed Warbler A few by the Reart at the end of the path at Etang de Canet
Spectacled Warbler Two pairs seen at Leucate
Subalpine Warbler Well seen singing on top of bushes at dusk, at top of road at Les Chartreuses de Boulou
Sardinian Warbler Widespread
Blackcap Numerous
Bonelli’s Warbler Singing well and apparently common in wooded slopes of Pyrenees, including even the villa garden (Les Chartreuses de Boulou), and above Riunogues (which is up the valley from Maureillas). Difficult to actually see.
Chiffchaff In higher areas of Pyrenees
Spotted Flycatcher  
Long tailed Tit  
Crested Tit Seen in pines in the middle of Argeles Plage, while having a restaurant lunch!
Blue Tit  
Great Tit  
Nuthatch Wooded hill slopes
Golden Oriole The star bird of the villa garden - heard singing every day, and seen at a distance on tops of trees across a small valley. Also seen in flight from villa garden, and road around Les Chartreuses de Boulou
Red-backed Shrike One perched on wires in meadow area to west of Ch. Peyrepertuse
Woodchat Shrike 2 at Gruissan. A few elsewhere
Jay Common in Les Chartreuses de Boulou
Carrion Crow  
House Sparrow  
Tree Sparrow Only seen at Villeneuve De La Raho
Serin Common, even singing in villa garden
Cirl Bunting Widespread. Easily seen in and around Les Chartreuses de Boulou
Rock Bunting Seen only in car park at bottom of hill, below Ch Peyrepertuse.
Ortolan Bunting A very obliging male close to coastal path at Leucate
Corn Bunting Many in meadow area by Etang de Canet

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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