France: Birds & Art in Provence Apr 24—May 02, 2016

Posted by Rick Wright

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright, a native of southeast Nebraska, studied French, German, philosophy, and life sciences at the University of Nebraska, where he worked in the bird collections of...

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There aren’t many rules in birding, but those there are must be obeyed without question. Walk slowly. Scan constantly. Listen carefully. And never, never ever, offer any guarantees.

I’d violated that last one a couple of years ago when I guaranteed to Ann and Leslie that if they joined us in Provence, they would see hoopoes. Gently reminded of my rashness over our first group dinner, I worried all that night that I had backed myself into a birding corner. 

No problem. Less than an hour into our first morning’s birding, a hoopoe flashed across the road in front of us, only to join another atop a pole in full and glorious view. We would see three or four more that first day, and we added to our tally each day when we were in the lowlands of the Camargue. 

Another of the most desired species on this tour also gave me a few anxious hours. The afternoon before we first met, I’d found a new site—new to me, at least—for the flashy European Roller, but when we checked on the pair a scant 24 hours later, they were a decided no-show. But, again, no problem. Soon enough, the early birders on our visit to the steppes of La Crau had spectacular looks at half-a-dozen of these extravagantly plumed beauties, and the rest of us enjoyed fine views a couple of days later as we approached the Pont du Gard.

Those and so many other sightings of the finest birds southern France can offer were made against a uniquely rich cultural landscape, where Blue Rock-Thrushes and Crag Martins haunt the ruins of a medieval castle and Common Redstarts and Cirl Buntings bounce around the flowery gardens of the asylum where Van Gogh lived out the penultimate year of his short life. Jackdaws and Common Swifts liven up the tower of Arles’s world-famous St-Trophime, and blackcaps and furtive Eurasian Red Squirrels dart in and out of the evocative shadows of the Roman and early Christian burial ground known as the Alyscamps. The experience of Les Antiques de Glanum, a funerary monument and a triumphal arch, was made all the richer for us by the Great Tits and serins that sang for us just as they must have sung for the Roman colonists of Caesar’s Gaul more than two millennia ago. 

Culture, of course, includes food and drink, nowhere more so than in France, where the only thing nearly as good as the birding is the conversation about birding over leisurely meals of fresh local ingredients and a glass or two from the banks of the Rhône. We ate at several of the very best restaurants in Arles, each vying to outdo the others in quality and imagination, and took the opportunity, too, to explore some new ones, most of which made it onto The List of places worth going back to. My own favorite discovery this time around was near the Pont du Gard, in St-Bonnet, a tiny family-run place approached through an exquisite iris-filled garden with flocks of bee-eaters overhead—and some of the best, most authentically Provençal food I’ve ever enjoyed. We’ll be back.

And we’ll be back for the birds, too, of course. Happy as we were to have seen some uncommon species—a flock of 40 pink-tinged Slender-billed Gulls, scattered individuals of the rapidly declining European Turtle-Dove, a fair percentage of France’s total population of Lesser Kestrels—I suspect that some of our most lasting memories will be of more common birds. The explosive chants of Cetti’s Warblers and the homely, cheerful zits of cisticolas quickly burned their way into our ears and into our hearts, and the spectacle of scarlet-winged flamingos commuting to and from the breeding colony near La Gacholle can be described only as unforgettable. The Kentish Plovers scattered pair by pair out on the salicornia flats of the Camargue were as cute as the Eurasian Thick-knees of Peau de Meau were memorably weird. I will never forget the happy family of Long-tailed Tits at Scamandre, the short-tailed fledglings squat and dumpy as their parents filled them full with insects just off the trail. 

Provence has something for everyone: birds, art, culture, history, and a landscape to capture the heart and the memory. I hope that you enjoyed this tour as much as I did, and that we get to explore another rich landscape together again soon—or return to this one, one of my favorites in the world.