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A French Odyssey; October 2022 (1 Viewer)


Bah humbug
Or maybe not. Finally made it down to France to see the parents after 2 and a half years of no travel during the pandemic. I could probably have made it down earlier but there you go. Since they aren`t that well wasn`t going to rush down at the first opportunity. Which probably meant should have rushed down earlier, oh well.

Anyway, so probably not an odyssey, but feels like it. Mostly going to be garden birding at a guess!

Location: Vianne, small village in SW France, nearest major town Agen. About 75 miles inland from the coast near Bordeaux, and about the same distance north of the foothills of the Pyrenees - parents place on the north side of the village, about 50m asl, in a small river valley which acts as a minor migrant funnel in my wishful thinking.

Timing: 30th September - 15th October 2022. Booked about a week before coming down after putting it off a while. Flights with Easyjet were still ok price wise, c£35 and £25 respectively, but all the extra travel legs added a lot more on to the cost.

Expectations, bird wise: Hopefully some nice resident french garden birds and the start of autumn migration.

Anyway ...

Day 1 - 30th September - travel day.
Left the house in Mabe Burnthouse at 7:10 am to catch the train from Penryn to Plymouth. Then Megabus to Bristol Airport, getting in half an hour late at 13:40 for the flight at 16:10. This saved me thirty quid on the train fare, but entailed a ten minute walk in Plymouth and slightly more stress. No train or airline strikes, all good and arrived in France a little late but that didn`t matter as I`d earlier discovered that as part of my hasty travel arrangements I wasn`t going to be able to complete my journey in one day - the last train from Toulouse would be too late for me to be picked up from. It would have been possible if Dad hadn`t come down with covid the week before and not feeling up to the rigours of a half hour drive to pick me up at 10:30 at night. The irony of catching covid too at that late stage! So Formule Une budget motel in Toulouse it was. Unfortunately, although I had managed to get Suzi to help me out and book a room in advance whilst I was in Bristol I hadn`t planned for finding my way around - I knew it wasn`t far from the airport, but wandering around and then having to hunt the McDonalds down for something to eat took up the next few hours. Bird list on about Starling at this stage, and mammal list on Rabbit, but that was a pleasant surprise - animals hopping about at close range in the industrial estates, probably employed to keep the turf short between the tram tracks. Perhaps ... ;-) As part of finding the McDonalds a guy I asked for directions kindly gave me a lift to it, which was nice and helpful. Proper birding of some sort or another tomorrow hopefully ...
Day 2 1st October

Awoke and had breakfast. Continental, but not even any croissants, just that sweet doughy bread, but not bad, 4 Euros 90, rubbishy cereal, yoghurt etc. Food. Incidentally, getting into France the previous day no issues at all - Bristol Airport 20 mins from arrival to be being the other side of all that smelly perfume stuff and looking up at the flight departure screens, then on the french side the same very brief queue and no difference seemingly to getting in BUT DID GET A STAMP in the passport - first one in my shiny black passport. Got on the tram at Nadot, got off at Palais de Justice, onto the subway, thought I didn`t have a ticket, nearly got fined 70 euros or made to buy a ticket but fortunately realised I did have a ticket (from the tram, doh) so just a bit extra stress, got to Toulouse Matabaiu train station, bit more stress as none of the ticket machines were working but finally got in a train leaving for Port St Marie nearest stop to the parents ...

So managed to do some birding. Not very exciting the most part - Woodpigeons and Kestrels, but did manage a flock of 50 or so Cattle Egrets following a tractor, and a public transport tick - a Black-winged Kite!!!! Briefly flew over, at least that`s what I thought it had to be. Black wing tips, pale overall and peculiar boat shaped wings ... Also a more distant harrier sp., and some Yellow-legged Gulls, but a bit slim on the smaller species.

And so to home for the next few weeks ... Vianne. Unfortunately Mum was staying in a residential place whilst Dad had been away, and although we were meant to be picking her up that would have to wait whilst Dad was still positive ... but garden birding stops for no-one regardless and so the welcoming committee was still welcoming but a little different than expected/hoped for perhaps.

Just about the first bird seen in the garden was a Pied Flycatcher nonchalantly flycatching from one of the silver birches in the garden. Wasn`t expecting that in October! Think I`ve only recorded Pied Fly once before down here, although the parents have seen them at other times. This was about 2 in the afternoon, so a good half days garden birding would ensue...

Green Woodpeckers were calling, or at least I assumed they mostly were (more on that later perhaps), Swallows and House Martins hunted overhead, and the place seemed to be dripping with Blackcaps - I assume good double figures but didn`t attempt a count - feeding in the fig trees in our and neigbouring gardens and other bushes, with a surprise flock of 6 also flying in and landing in one of the conifers before dispersing to the fig tree! A Kestrel was perched up and hunting the long grass in the abandoned building plot just on the roadside, and a total of 5 Red Kites drifted south over the treetops in singletons. The best bird however was a garden tick late afternoon - the hirundines were moving low and south against the trees, but there was a larger pale bird also flying in the same direction - another Black-winged Kite! Excellent - a bird I`d been hoping for as an addition to the garden list after having seen one locally, 5 or so miles away 6 or so years earlier. They have certainly been expanding in France, seem to recall there were just once a dozen or so pairs just spilling out of Spain and into France over the Pyrenees in the extreme south west of France, and getting pretty excited about seeing them on birding trips to Morocco and Tunisia in bygone decades!

Black Redstart (rubbish views) was picked up briefly whilst watching the Pied Fly re-orientating to a nearby pine, and another good raptor was enjoyed, this one shared with Dad whilst we sat outside at the picnic bench having tea (wouldn`t do that back in Cornwall at this time of year) - a late Short-toed Eagle, third unexpected bird of the day. Maybe local or passing through, don`t know. Anyway, nice to see it hovering and with its distinctive wing shape and alula showing for me at least.

The day ended with a sizeable flock of c100 Cattle Egret going north, hundreds of hirundines wheeling before also heading north and a single Great White Egret over too. 26 species for the garden list, including 6 raptors. Pretty sure only 1 extra (YL Gull) for total trip list.

Extras - Wall Lizards about and Edible Frogs (I think) by the pond. Hummingbird Hawk Moth.
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Day 3 2nd October

Another interesting day, started off in the garden a bit later than ideal, waking up sans* alarm at around 8:45. The mornings birding started with the usual suspects such as the local Collared Doves and Starlings and a wide range of woodpecker noises, but also distantly joined by some space invader Nuthatch calls from the trees across the road. Two Great White Egret flew north following the river and a good flock of Cattle Egret south this time. I`d like to think there was a smattering of passerine passage, with a couple of flocks of finches moving south - suspected of being Chaffinch, and indeed one small flock was close enough to confirm. Maybe 50 birds in the day overall. Bird of the morning however was an unexpected bird perched on the dead branches of the wooded valley on the western side - the strangely contorted silhouette of a Wryneck. Very nice! And perhaps surprisingly a first sight record - we heard one the last summer we were down (which Dad subsequently saw). More expected continental additions to the trip list were 3 Serins and some White Wagtails over.

The constant chorus of bird noises included a couple of brief Jay screechings, 2 Jackdaw flew over south, heading towards the village centre perhaps and a passing Long-tailed Tit flock included 2 vocal Chiffchaff. A crest was heard briefly but didn`t confidently pin it down to species - hopefully that would be rectified going forward. Greenfinch was heard briefly overhead somewhere and Green Woodpecker was upgraded to a sight record with a very brief view against the same woods the Wryneck had been seen in.

A Yellow-legged Gull winging north up the valley was nice as not always a guaranteed tick on my garden visits over the years. Goldfinches in the Silver Birch briefly and 2 distant Linnets also wound their way onto the list. (By days end this had reached 41 for the garden with 15 new additions)

The Pied Flycatcher was also still present but by the afternoon suspicions that there was more than one were realised when there were actually 3! All seen simultaneously in and around the garden at the same time.

I was also treated to cracking views of a Black-winged Kite again - this time it flew directly over the house and immediately started circling close over the garden before gaining height and eventually drifting out of view. Unfortunately Dad missed this one too, having just returned to the house after lunch.

The day ended on a continuing high note as the garden was treated to a mass hirundine spectacle overhead towards dusk, and an extra raptor bonus. Throughout the day it had been impossible to calculate how many hirundines were moving south as the valley and village seemed to be part of a feeding circuit, with hundreds moving south, semi purposefully, only for hundreds to later be seen moving north. Around dusk however the sky was filled with many hundreds (600 hundred+ at a glance) which then took off north presumably to a better and predetermined overnight roost site. The tail end however was followed by a single Hobby, and shortly after in the diminishing light a Merlin also winged across the valley. In addition to single Red Kite, Sparrowhawk, Kestrels and Buzzards another good raptor day, and good day overall!

*(Hopefully the last time I`ll throw in a random french word semi-inappropriately or otherwise, but we`ll see ... )
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Day 4 - Monday 3rd Oct

Managed to get up and out earlier this morning, day 4 of the French Garden Birding Odyssey. Another foggy start to the day which included more finch (presumed and actual Chaffinch) flocks overhead, a compact flock of 20 or so apparent thrushes straight over the garden which left me stumped unfortunately, not really getting to grips with them in the poor light, Song Thrush being my best guess, but 2 larger birds flying south over the river materialised reassuringly into 2 Grey Heron moving ponderously* south.

The fog was clearing slowly by 9:30 or so, and was able to enjoy another good mornings birding. It tends to get a lot quieter in the afternoon (normal birding fact I guess) and fortunately I was able to enjoy this prime time pretty well. One Pied Flycatcher was still showing well, suspect the original one as it was fairly confiding, and Cirl Bunting was finally added to the trip list- some poor quality wheezing singing alerting me to a brief individual. Much better views of Black Redstart too though, with a nice male singing from the roof completed what I consider the quintessential French garden triumvirate - the 3 resident pillars of Serin, Cirl Bunting and Black Redstart - summing up the difference between English and French birding. I mean, there are those exotic things like Hoopoe and other bright things, but only in summer, and some like Robin etc, which occur in both, but these are the 3 main guys I hope for and expect when down visiting at any time of year ...

Whether that makes sense or no, moving on, a Cormorant winging north was good for the list, bright white throat patch feathers glistening in the sun, and scanning the woods on that side again brought up the goods, with a Mistle Thrush briefly seen in flight similarly exposing its bright white underwing to the sun and my eager bins - handy for split second id confirmation in this case. Greenfinch and Jay were both upgraded to seen, albeit with similarly brief views, and a Song Thrush was seen distantly to the north circling around worriedly before dropping down to someones garden or wherever. Almost to be expected, a (the?) large flock of Cattle Egret passed by distantly, but the best birds of the day were to be seen in the garden itself.

To add to the Green Woodpecker heard and seen and the heard and seen Great Spotted Woodpeckers (mostly heard in all instances, to be honest) best views of woodpecker so far of the trip were to be provided by their diminutive cousin the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I was just standing by the pond when one flew over my head and into the top of the dead Silver birch about 30 feet away. Excellent! Excepting that it was one of the grubbiest looking woodpeckers I`ve seen to be honest - perhaps a young bird that had just taken a bath in muddy water or straight out of a woody nest hole, it was the first I've seen in quite some years, so never mind, it was still pretty cutesy and very nice to see. Would make a great plushie perhaps. Or not. Slightly oddly, about 3 minutes after it had flown a much smarter and more pristine adult with red crown flew into one of the fig trees in the neighbours garden from a completely different direction! Nice!

There were still further surprises in store for the day however ... One nice one was a female type Marsh Harrier flying purposefully south over the river at around 12:30. The other was perhaps a more technical birdy one - I was sitting in the plastic deckchair near-ish the pond (Plastic deckchair = main birding chair) when I noticed a movement in the lilies? and Jerusalem Artichoke/tangled mess** that is purporting to be a flowerbed - interesting passerine alert! I was alert by this point too, and hence followed it is it worked it's way a bit further. A potentially interesting dark brown lbj thing and it was, as it briefly posed half hidden in the bottom of a shrub - a bit of a supercilium, on the bit of the front half I could see and an upcocked broad graduated tail - perhaps typical views of that sometimes consummate skulker the Cetti`s Warbler! Excellent - not quite a garden tick as I've heard them distantly from the garden singing in the early hours from the river in previous summers, but definitely an upgrade to get in the garden itself! Unexpected by my reckoning (although thinking about it, commoner in non-riparian habitat etc in Europe generally, even more further east I guess). It gave a few disapproving tutting alarm calls before flying low and out to one of the cut laurel hedges. Didn`t see it again of course ...

The afternoon saw me taking the car, first time driving a hybrid, and pretty sure first time driving a left hand drive in France (parents vehicles had previously been imported UK cars, or on earlier trips when driven down, my own car, so working out road position was interesting to start with. I was still feeling marginally spaced out/it was hot, but all went well fortunately) up to Coulx to see Mum. Dad was unfortunately still testing positive for the dreaded covid, and whilst I had just had a booster the week before leaving by chance, we were trying to be careful and there was no way Mum could sensibly come back to an infected household etc. A laundry run was part of the mission, but there was also a potential positive side in saying hello personally after 2 and a half years or so in person, without proper human contact and all that ... so that was nice ;-)

Birds seen en route = approximately zero. Kestrel and Black Redstart whilst I was there. Heat of the day didn't help. Probably not worth reporting, but being true to the ethos of the odyssey being multi-locational and a true reflection I guess.

Later that evening ...

Stayed out well past sundown - treated to a couple of close Pipistrelle Bat types near the pond and some earlier larger bat species high above the woods. It was now quite gloomy and light was failing but heard a strange croaky 'jar' call off to one side. Thought it was a frog or something, but then it called again further away ... ?!?§ - I quickly moved to try and get a vantage point but couldn't see whatever it was moving down the valley. Dah! Sounded interesting, one of the herons or such presumably. Whilst checking however a few minutes later did see 2 Mallard flying above the river, barely distinguishable into their relevant sexes, but they were a pair indeed. By cupping my ears I ws also able to pick up some faint and distant Tawny Owl vocalisations. At least 2 trip ticks ... cue going back inside and xeno canto on the laptop ... interesting - sounds good for Night Heron ... One that got away or not ... ? Of course, like the previous night I had my window open (almost a heat wave in the day, don't think I mentioned that yet, but I like it cool at night and you can hear stuff sometimes ... in this case I did, hearing the same (presumed) Night Heron doing circuits of the village or valley half. Dont know if there are many other ponds than in our garden, but there are ditches and an actual river of course. Not a garden tick, as have seen an actual one flying over on a previous visit, but a pretty good one nonetheless, especially considering the lateness? Wasn't really expecting any 'summer' visitors this trip at all to be honest (barring the swallows and house martins!)

*(Or should that be riverously? No ... probably not)

**(Nothing wrong with a tangled mess flower bed - the less regimented the better imo. In this case the artichokes which were meant to be ten feet tall had stem issues which meant they were about 7 feet horizontal, and only 3 feet tall vertically. Which meant much better for butterfly watching etc ... )
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Extras for the evening - The Milky Way (albeit a bit faint), a shooting star, and a cicada starting up in the evening over yonder.
Great stuff Dan, well done on the Lesser ‘pecker, I haven’t seen one in our part of France this year so a bit jealous and as for having a pond in the garden, very nice! What’s plushie by the way?
I'm not a grandparent either (or a parent even), and not a word I've ever used before ;-) Guessing it's an Americanism. To me especially conjures up those collectible beanie soft toy types with big eyes and meant to be a bit cute (they are made from plush material after all?). The RSPB also made/sold some soft toy animals/birds recently-ish I believe - Lesser Spotted Woodies would need very little 'cutesifying' to fit the bill imo ...
Day 5 - Monday 4th October

Another reasonable and early start, and again a foggy, misty beginning to the day. However, new additions to the list kept on coming ... The main excitement was a productive vizmigging session for half the morning. Not long after sun up flocks of finches, again presumably Chaffinch could be seen flying south in undulating straggly swathes of up to 40 or 50 birds at a time. Whenever they were close enough or on the side lit by the sun as they flew down they valley they would invariably turn out to be Chaffinches, the distinctive white wing panel of the males particularly noticeable. One group of 6 or so were however noticeably more contrastingly different - black tailed and whiter underbelly/underwings - Bramblings, excellent. Other new birds, all fairly distant unfortunately too were 3 Woodlark and two groups of 3 Skylark. Any potentially interesting birds on the sun side unfortunately remained un-idable silhouettes on the whole. A few Song Thrush over too, a flock of 4 Woodpigeon south possibly the first southbound migrants seen, Goldfinches and a couple of Red Kites again, with a smart group of 7 Cormorant north and 2 south ... Swallows and House Martins also fairly poured through. Movement tailed off by mid-morning though, as usual.

Many of the usual suspects were about or heard too, including the Pied Flycatcher, reassuringly, and all 3 Woodpeckers were seen in the dead/dying Acacia behind the house - first decent views of the trip of Green Woodpecker at the same time as a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker shortly after!

Two Firecrest were being particularly noisy whilst we were having lunch in the Corkscrew Willow/Conifer combo out front, but overshadowed when noticed a movement amongst the reeds in the pond. Not a Chiffchaff, but a warbler - a larger and browner animal - Reed Warbler? Indeed it was, although I was a bit worried as couldn't really find any warm rufous tones to its back and rump, and the bill didn't seem too long. However presumably just a cold and late individual (a bit Eastern? ;-) ?!?!) It didn't always like me looking at it in the 6 square metres or so of reedage it had at its disposal, and perhaps it could only work the bed for stray inverts so many times, but happily it took to an alternative Ivy bush in the hedge too, looking especially rare and interesting there as well ... Only the second I've seen in the garden (the other was in the laurel hedge, think the reeds were less prevalent back then), so an excellent garden bird overall.


Despite this excellent garden bird, the afternoon entered the usual afternoon doldrums stage, with generally seemingly very little flight around and no new birds compared to the mornings, so I carried out my plan to walk up north out of the village to the adjoining farmland and hopefully some wilder habitat. I set out around half four, thinking I might be a few hours, but in the end was only gone an hour and a half. It was hot and for the most part not that birdy. Or maybe I was spoiled by the wonders of garden birding. I was aware I should probably explore other habitats in the fresher morning, but didn't want to miss out on any potential garden ticks! As it was I did get a few trip ticks with half a dozen Corn Bunting feeding on the edge of a large sunflower field and a Stonechat along the same field/ditch edge. Kestrels and Buzzards of course, but also another Black-winged Kite in the middle of one of the largest fields in the area which has previously held both Stone Curlew and Bluethroat! (At different times). The Kite was hovering and flying around a bit before landing on a distant telephone pole, its bright yellow feet an interesting belisha beacon yellow at range. Chaffinches and a flock of 15 or so Linnets were nice, but otherwise it was mostly quiet, although did see the resident 'very white buzzard' that occasionally entertains and merits a second glance.


Back in the garden after tea (actually for tea as well), and enjoyed the northbound spectacle of hirundines nearing dusk again, although this time a Black-winged Kite went north with them, presumably a different individual to that seen a hour or two earlier. The Reed Warbler continued to entertain, and an egret or two were seen ... another cracking day.
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Day 6 - Tuesday October 5th

(Because I generally haven't been making proper notes of my days birding*, only listing new species on a random scrap of paper most days and relying on my memory today's report will be a little briefer perhaps. Maybe. (Also there's generally less new stuff; but still stuff happening ...))

I was in place before 8 and the sun still a promise below the horizon and ready for hopefully another reasonable vizmig. And it was, with both finch and Chaffinch flocks through in fair numbers. I did purchase the excellent and appropriately named 'Flight Identification of European Passerines and Select Landbirds: An Illustrated and Photographic Guide' some while back, but haven't read it through properly at all yet or used it in anger, and in any case its back in blighty (completely forgot I had it until earlier today. Might have to try and remember a few things to refer to in it when I get back). I'm assuming the smaller finches are Goldfinches or Serins depending on how compact the flocks are (??), but Siskins will be coming through too, and even Great Tits migrate in flocks. Aaaghhhh!!!! ... Anyway ...

Hirundines moved through in good numbers, and the first flock of Stock Dove of the trip - a nice round 10, and reassuring after attempting to string the odd Feral Pigeon into one or more the past few days. Southbound groups of 4 and 9 followed, so 25 in total for the day. The first Redwing of the autumn too, with 2 through not too high over the garden. But no Pied Flycatcher for the day! :-( Gutting.

At around 9:30 another raptor addition to the trip list - shame that I didn't pick it up quite as early as I could have, but a large raptor in direct and purposeful flight generally means one thing - it might be interesting! Long wings the first clue with a slight kink at the carpal joint and long fingers, but white underparts and a variegated head pattern - the first Osprey of the trip. Cool! Not as frequent in Autumn as Spring here in my experience, despite the boost in numbers from breeding. Maybe that's partly to do with my visit timing, or they take a more leisurely coastal route or something ...

The final addition to the day list was one I had suspected from day one, for various reasons, but was kinda hoping for good sight views. Well, I didn't really get good sight views, but did at least get something. Sitting in my usual spot in the garden one particular call over towards the river grabbed my attention ... Particularly echo-ey with a more hollow timbre ... I was able to quickly reposition myself nearer the front of the property and start scanning the trees, and I got lucky, as Efron Reyes would say perhaps - the Poplars on this side of the valley behind the neighbours houses were still pretty much in full leaf unfortunately, but a large dark shape could be seen halfway up one of the trunks. In fact, it was more than dark - it was pitch black, really black. If there was such a thing as luminescent black that would be it. (Jet black?)** Anyway, it was black, large, and a woodpecker - a Black Woodpecker! It moved around a bit (clambered), turning around the trunk into a few semi-visible positions before suddenly swooping down, off, and away out of sight.

Not the greatest of views it has to be said, but not a garden tick, so not really mattering - it had all the ethos, essence and 'je ne sais quoi' of what it was - a woodpecker that wants to be a bit elusive and magical.

*(It was only after about three or four days in that I thought I'd write stuff up to share with Mum as I'd probably forget to tell her otherwise, then thought I'd post on here to help keep motivated and then ... blah! Full blown 'trip report'!!! Glad people are enjoying reading, it's kinda fun and enjoyable writing it down, but crumbs, fairly hard work (probably because I'm making it hard work lol as much as anything).

**(If I could be bothered I'd look up even more types of black, such as coal black or synonyms for blacky type things, but I won't. My point is it was BLACK, not some kind of 'dark silhouette' and I hadn't fully ruled out a Green Woodpecker in bad light.)
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Nice birding

The Black Winged Kite has expanded so much in this area of France that they are no longer 'monitored'. They hit 350 pairs about 4/5 years ago. Osprey has broken autumn records over the 'cols' here in the last couple of days - with usual 'peaks' a little later in the month...
Nice birding

The Black Winged Kite has expanded so much in this area of France that they are no longer 'monitored'. They hit 350 pairs about 4/5 years ago. Osprey has broken autumn records over the 'cols' here in the last couple of days - with usual 'peaks' a little later in the month...
Excellent news. When will one cross the channel I wonder? ;-) Seem to recall more sightings of Osprey into October in recent years too in Cornwall - and perhaps good weather means more and more staying later? (or better breeding?).

Do you have any website info on migration numbers. Asking the question has made me remember this - Les 3 derniers jours - www.faune-aquitaine.org

which I have used in previous years as a resource (and also sometimes to report). Be interested to know what the score is with migrating Honey Buzzard/Common Buzzard at this time of year too ...
Excellent news. When will one cross the channel I wonder? ;-) Seem to recall more sightings of Osprey into October in recent years too in Cornwall - and perhaps good weather means more and more staying later? (or better breeding?).

Do you have any website info on migration numbers. Asking the question has made me remember this - Les 3 derniers jours - www.faune-aquitaine.org

which I have used in previous years as a resource (and also sometimes to report). Be interested to know what the score is with migrating Honey Buzzard/Common Buzzard at this time of year too ...
Most of the migration watch points post their results on Trektellen.org Dan.
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