Trip Report: France, May 28 - June 11, 1998

Mark C. and Sandra J. Dennis, Carlton, Nottingham, UK;

The trip utilised the Canvas Holidays network of tents and was comparatively cheap. The company offers cheap, family tent type accommodation at a number of well placed sites some of which have wildlife reps. With good old hindsight, our trip could have been cheaper as we had booked four nights in hotels when we really could have got away with one. A saving of £95.00!. Canvas Holidays: 12 Abbey Park Place, Dunfermline, Fife, KY12 7PD. 01383 644000

Original Itinerary

Ferry to Caen from Portsmouth - hotel in Tours - four nights at Biron near Bergerac - four nights at Luz St Sauveur in the Pyrenees - hotel at Limoges - three nights at Pierrefitte near Vierzon - hotel in Caen - ferry to Portsmouth. We ended up dropping one night at Biron in favour of an extra Pyrenees night. We also scrubbed the Limoges night and pressed on to Pierrefitte for an extra night there, a sound decision. If anyone was to plan a trip from this report I would suggest the first three nights at Pierrefitte, four at Argeles Pyrenees (easy access to Spanish steppes and Bay of Roses), four at Luz and then two or three in Britanny.


The Canvas costs were £473.00 for two people including ferry, insurance and breakage waiver. This price included all accommodation except at Portsmouth (hotel Ibis, £37.00). Fuel came out at £166.17 (@ ff9.6 to £1.00. We covered 2557 miles (4330km) and used 55.37 gallons of petrol (251.75l) @ 40.76mpg. Spending money was £300.00 with c£15.00 left over. so total cost £976.00 all in. Better planning would have meant less miles, only one hotel and better birding sites (see site summary).

Campsite Summary

Biron: Nice site, poor birding choice. Nothing here that was not at better sites except for frequent gun shots and extremely nervous and hard to see birds. Luz St Sauveur: Excellent, well placed for all the sites with Gavarnie only 12 miles away and the option of a jaunt into Spain. Raptor watching from the campsite was very good with ten species seen. Pierrefitte: Excellent, good local birding (especially for woodpeckers) and handily placed for the Brenne, only 200 miles from Caen.

Site Details

Pyrenean sites are well covered in most guides. We birded Gavarnie daily and enjoyed it thoroughly. Sites to pay attention at Gavarnie include the rather obscure rubbish tip which has Rock Bunting frequently. To find it take the road from Gavarnie (a right turn as soon as you enter the village) and continue past the ski resort turn. The road crosses a stream and then climbs .75Km before you begin to drive down the Vallee d'Oussoue; there is a short track to the left of the road, that is the rubbish tip!. The road to the ski lodge from Gavarnie was marked closed when we were there but we ignored this, à la locals, and had good birding to the snow line. Alpine Chough were here each time. Alpine Accentor had moved up to the highest possible point, and a scope was needed to obtain poor views. Snow Finch were also absent but we did find some at the highest drivable point in the area. Take the Col du Tourmalet road until you reach the kiosk selling drinks etc. We scanned the remaining snow patches here and found several Snow Finch.

Pierrefitte is in the Solonge region (just south of Orleans) and a good base for at least a week. Our campsite was near Salibris which is north of Vierzon off the A71 - E9. The nearby canal (Canal de la Sauldre) was very good for Middle Spotted, Black and especially Grey-headed Woodpecker. The best section was just west of Brinon sur Sauldre. Leave Brinon sur Saldre on the D923 and take the first right turn which crosses the canal. Walk west on the northern towpath. This area was also good for butterflies. To the west of the campsite were many lakes with Whiskered Tern particularly plentiful, breeding on every lilypad. Further still (about 1.5 hours) was The Brenne where we spent one day and saw lots of birds. it seemed a good place for a family holiday with lots for kids to do on the campsite and good local birding. A good map of the whole Sologne are is published by the Institut Géographique National (3615 IGN) and available from the campsite at Pierrefitte.

Driving and Other Bits

Easy, especially on motorways (fee paying); most roads are good. The French try to overtake every English car they see, wherever you are. After two days driving you are ready to fight back. Speed limits seem irrelevant although we did see several spot checks. Toilets are few on the roads. No need to guess wind direction, just look to see which way French motorists are peeing. Even they don't pee upwind. Pre-trip we utilised reports from the foreign trip report service run by Steve Whitehouse. We also tried to use the Where to Watch in France guide but it really is awful and not at all recommended.


Apart from Biron, everywhere we stayed at was good for birds, and we ended up with 158 species for the trip. Raptors in the Pyrenees where excellent with watching from the campsite productive. Lammergeier were seen daily. The only disappointment was not finding Wallcreeper at Gavarnie, they are difficult. A friend of mine knows someone who lives near Tarbes who has had them in their garden in winter so maybe they are easier then. The list gives all the species with summaries for the 'better' birds (from a UK perspective). Finally, as far as I'm concerned the ticking starts at the French coast as we land.

Systematic List

  1. Little Grebe
  2. Great Crested Grebe
  3. Black-necked Grebe: Common around the Brenne and near Pierrefitte.
  4. Fulmar
  5. Northern Gannet
  6. Cormorant
  7. Little Bittern: A male from the public hides in the Brenne
  8. Night Heron: Two/three in the Brenne
  9. Little Egret: Five or so around the Brenne
  10. Grey Heron
  11. Purple Heron: Common in the Brenne also around Pierrefitte area.
  12. Sacred Ibis: One flew over the car near Arles, presumed feral.
  13. White Stork: One near Caen.
  14. Mute Swan
  15. Gadwall
  16. Mallard
  17. Garganey: Present in the Brenne.
  18. Pochard
  19. Tufted Duck
  20. Honey Buzzard: Seen all over France.
  21. Black Kite: Odd ones from the Brenne and south, abundant between Tarbes and Lourdes.
  22. Red Kite: Seen daily in Pyrenees and a few between Tarbes and Lourdes.
  23. Lammergeier: Up to five individuals seen.s.
  24. Egyptian Vulture: One near Gavarnie.
  25. Griffon Vulture: Seen daily in Pyrenees.
  26. Short-toed Eagle: Odd ones seen throughout Frances, frequent around Pyrenees.
  27. Marsh Harrier: A few around Brenne and common near Caen on coastal marshes
  28. Hen Harrier: One at Biron.
  29. Montagu's Harrier: A male near Pierrefitte.
  30. Goshawk: One at Pierrefitte.
  31. Sparrowhawk
  32. Common Buzzard
  33. Golden Eagle: Frequent in Pyrenees.
  34. Booted Eagle: Two at Luz.
  35. Bonelli's Eagle: Two at Luz.
  36. Kestrel
  37. Hobby
  38. Red-legged Partridge
  39. Pheasant
  40. Water Rail
  41. Moorhen
  42. Coot
  43. Oystercatcher
  44. Little Ringed Plover
  45. Lapwing
  46. Dunlin
  47. Woodcock
  48. Curlew
  49. Redshank
  50. Greenshank
  51. Arctic Skua: Two off Caen attending trawler.
  52. Mediterranean Gull: Two first summers near Caen.
  53. Black-headed Gull
  54. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  55. Mediterranean Yellow-legged Gull: Adult at Caen.
  56. Herring Gull
  57. Great Black-backed Gull
  58. Kittiwake
  59. Sandwich Tern
  60. Common Tern
  61. Little Tern
  62. Whiskered Tern: Hundreds in Brenne and near Pierrefitte, all breeding on lily pads.
  63. Black Tern: A few around the Brenne
  64. Razorbill
  65. Rock Dove
  66. Woodpigeon
  67. Collared Dove
  68. Turtle Dove
  69. Cuckoo
  70. Tawny Owl
  71. Nightjar
  72. Swift
  73. Kingfisher
  74. Hoopoe: Seen and heard at several sites.
  75. Grey-headed Woodpecker: Nest site a Pierrefitte guaranteed good views to order. Other birds frequently heard while birding the Pierrefitte area.
  76. Green Woodpecker
  77. Black Woodpecker: Heard at Biron. Common but elusive around Pierrefitte. Early May is much easier although I saw two birds very well one early morning.
  78. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  79. Middle Spotted Woodpecker: Common around Pierrefitte.
  80. Crested Lark: Fairly common in the north.
  81. Woodlark: At most heathy sites.
  82. Skylark
  83. Sand Martin
  84. Crag Martin: Common in Pyrenees.
  85. Barn Swallow
  86. House Martin
  87. Tree Pipit
  88. Meadow Pipit
  89. Water Pipit: Abundant in the Pyrenees.
  90. Blue-headed Wagtail
  91. Grey Wagtail
  92. White Wagtail
  93. Black-bellied Dipper: At several sites in the Pyrenees.
  94. Wren
  95. Dunnock
  96. Alpine Accentor: Awkward in the Pyrenees, often high on scree and scope only views had. Apparently easier when the tracks/roads fully open.
  97. Robin
  98. Nightingale
  99. Black Redstart: Abundant in the south.
  100. Whinchat
  101. Stonechat
  102. Northern Wheatear
  103. Rock Thrush: A male near Luz.
  104. Blackbird
  105. Song Thrush
  106. Mistle Thrush
  107. Cetti's Warbler: Seen in the Brenne.
  108. Fan-tailed Warbler: One at a rest stop near Agen with a probable from the car near Caen.
  109. Sedge Warbler
  110. Reed Warbler
  111. Great Reed Warbler: Two or three in the Brenne.
  112. Melodious Warbler: Common, especially around Biron but none in the Pyrenees.
  113. Dartford Warbler: One at Pierrefitte
  114. Whitethroat
  115. Garden Warbler
  116. Blackcap
  117. Western Bonneli's Warbler: Seen at Biron and heard near Luz.
  118. Wood Warbler: Common around Pierrefitte.
  119. (Iberian Chiffchaff) : One singing at Biron sounded very like this species.
  120. Northern Chiffchaff
  121. Goldcrest
  122. Firecrest: Common.
  123. Spotted Flycatcher
  124. Long-tailed Tit
  125. Marsh Tit
  126. Crested Tit: Present around Pierrefitte.
  127. Coal Tit
  128. Blue Tit
  129. Great Tit
  130. Wood Nuthatch
  131. Common Treecreeper: Seen and heard at Pierrefitte.
  132. Short-toed Treecreeper: Common.
  133. Golden Oriole: Mainly heard at Biron and Pierrefitte.
  134. Red-backed Shrike: Common in Pyrenees, also seen in the Brenne
  135. Jay
  136. Magpie
  137. Alpine Chough: Common in Pyrenees.
  138. Red-billed Chough: Common in Pyrenees.
  139. Jackdaw
  140. Rook
  141. Carrion Crow
  142. Raven
  143. Starling
  144. House Sparrow
  145. Tree Sparrow
  146. Snow Finch: Devils to find, eventually located at the Col du Tourmalet.
  147. Chaffinch
  148. Serin: Very common.
  149. Citril Finch: Seen at the Cirque du Gavarnie behind the old hotel.
  150. Greenfinch
  151. Linnet
  152. Bullfinch
  153. Yellowhammer
  154. Cirl Bunting: Common.
  155. Rock Bunting: Seen at Gavarnie in the Vallee d'Ossoue
  156. Ortolan Bunting: Seen at a rest stop near Caen!
  157. Reed Bunting
  158. Corn Bunting

We clearly missed a few species although it seems that large parts of France are completely birdless. We did pass one 'grey' shrike which was probably Northern Grey but we saw no Woodchats. We tried for Eagle Owl with no success, and we could not find any Scops although there were supposed to be some at Pierrefitte.

Butterflies - not in order

Small Heath - Speckled Wood - Spotted Fritillary - Lge White - Sm White - Brimstone - Orange-tip - Bath White - Black-veined White - Green-veined White - Red Admiral - Painted Lady - Small Tortoiseshell - Meadow Brown - Common Blue - Small Blue - Small Copper - Swallowtail - Wood White - Green Hairstreak - Wall - Large Wall - Olive Skipper - Red-underwing Skipper - Lge Skipper - Mallow Skipper - Grizzled Skipper - Chequered Skipper - Clouded Yellow - Mountain Brown Argus - Duke of Burgundy - Oburthur's Grizzled Skipper - Grayling - White Admiral - Marbled Fritillary - Provencal Fritillary - Heath Fritillary - Provencal Short-tailed Blue - Silver-studded Blue

Dragonflies - not in order

Four-spotted Chaser - Broad-bodied Chaser - Black-tailed Skimmer - White-tailed Skimmer - Keeled Skimmer - Emperor - Lesser Emperor - Club-tailed Dragonfly - Yellow Club-tailed Dragonfly - Brilliant Emerald - Downy Emerald - White-legged Damselfly - Common Darter - Beautiful Demoiselle - Banded Demoiselle - Scarlet Darter - Scarce Chaser - Sympecma fusca - Common Blue Damselfly - Azure Damselfly - Goblet-marked Damselfly - Southern Damselfly - Red-eyed Damselfly - Blue-tailed Damselfly

Animals/Reptiles etc

Red Deer - Otter - Coypu - Wild Boar (heard) - Noctule Bat - Long-eared Bat - Water Vole - Alpine Marmot - Hare - Rabbit - Grass Snake - Common Toad - Common Frog - Marsh Frog - European Pond Tortoise - Sand Lizard - Green Lizard - Common Wall Lizard - Ocellated Lizard

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; April 9, 1999