Alpine Accentor, Wallcreeper and Euro Eagle Owl at Les Baux de Provence + Spotted Eagle – 22nd & 23rd Jan

No trip to Provence would be complete without visiting the cliff-top fortress village of Les Baux. Here in winter it is reported that confiding Alpine Accentor may be encountered in the streets, while the south facing inland cliff on which the seriously spectacular heritage site sits is a reliable place to view Wallcreeper. I had been here on both of my previous Provence trips but not found either bird in March 2013.

Having had such a good experience of Wallcreeper a day earlier, I focussed on the Alpine Accentors this time. Arriving at around 11am I walked the narrow cobbled streets for a while but decided the most likely place to find them would be within the castle (pictured below). I hadn’t been inside here before for fear of either the crowds or the Mistral, but now in January with few visitors the superbly landscaped tourist attraction impressed me. The entry fee is 8 euros. I met an English birding couple who had seen an AA and a few Cirl Bunting mixed in with a Serin flock 45 minutes earlier before the whole lot were flushed over the edge of the cliff.

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Medieval castle of Les Baux

Searching around the place and concentrating on the more open areas, there were only Black Redstarts, Sardinian Warblers and a Crested Tit. After two hours I started to feel despondent, deciding I might as well do the history and explore the castle ruins. Then around the foot of a stairway up to the highest tower, la Tour Sarrasine a first Alpine Accentor appeared, buzzing about around me and perching on various walls and ledges. I kept still and this bird came lower and lower as my camera went into overdrive. Before long it was joined by two others and I observed all three birds down to five metres at times.

These birds seemed to have no fear of my presence, flitting from perch to perch in between feeding busily on the ground. Eventually they seemed to have gone and I climbed up to the top of the tallest castle tower from where the vistas in all directions were stunning. When I came down again the AA experience got even better. There were now five birds feeding on the ground and totally unconcerned by my interest in them. I started to see just how close I could get, walking amongst them and getting better if not sharper pictures than I could have dreamed of. Excuse me if I indulge this a little.

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Five Alpine Accentor seen down to 5 metres

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Occasionally other visitors would approach and as quickly go on their way, totally unaware of these treasures in their midst. I left at around 3pm, stopping to tell the belle mademoiselle in the entrance hall that I had found the birds I told her about earlier. She took an interest so I explained that some people do come to the castle just to see the Alpine Accentors.

Time still remained for a quick walk along the path below the southern cliff face to try to spot a Wallcreeper. In the event this proved to be easy but then I am on a roll this week. A short distance along the path I picked up the now familiar pink and grey shape below the tallest tower. In 2013 I had sat and scanned the rock faces here with my scope for a long time while sheltering from the Mistral. Now I could see this bird with the naked eye. A young French couple stopped to ask what was there and were delighted by the bird too.

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The Alpine Accentors were most active around the flat area with the stocks

It was very satisfying to have located a Wallcreeper at this classic site. After all, some English birders come down to Les Baux especially to see them. It now remained to try for the locality’s famous pair of European Eagle Owl and I moved on to the site 3km to the south west of Les Baux behind the Hotel Mas de l’Oulivie, that is visited by all the birding tour companies. Setting up here an hour before dusk I was joined by the English couple from the castle, and so we watched, chatted and waited.

I have seen this species once before, in Portugal with a professional guide, and so knew what to listen for. At 5:45pm a male began to call behind one of the two cliff faces that these Owls favour. Soon the quieter call of the female could also be heard but these sounds seemed to be coming from some way off. Then my day’s birding colleague spotted the female sitting on a boulder atop the right hand cliff face. There she stayed for some minutes, ears pricked in the failing light and turning her head from side to side. She was facing away from us, presumably in the direction of the male, then she dropped down over the far side of the cliff and out of sight.

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It would have been pointless trying to photograph the Eagle Owl at that distance in the gloom. But to prove I was there here’s a picture of the red hydrant of internet fame that marks the viewing place. To it’s right is a clump of orchids that my companion said were probably Giant Orchid. This is a very early flowering species but he had not seen them before in January.

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On my last day in Provence (23rd) I returned to the track north of Cacharel in la Camargue to seek the final trip target and third lifer, Spotted Eagle. Around midday I came across two French birders, one of whom confirmed this was the right location. For the next hour I sat in my hire car scanning to the horizon to the west of the track while keeping an eye on my companions’ body language. Then I engaged with the English speaker of the two to find out more about what I was looking for.

He said up to three Spotted Eagle or possibly greater / lesser hybrids are present here, as they were last winter too and that early afternoon is the best time to see them. While we talked the other birder was watching something intently in his scope that he then showed his colleague. When I too picked up these two distant raptors I was assured they were Spotted Eagle. Though usually reluctant to accept far off sightings on other birders’ assurance, in these circumstances it seemed rude not to. Being thus polite of course also meant a 100 per cent success rate with my trip targets. So that was everything!

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Yes I’ve been to the Camargue and seen the Flamingos

Goldcar eventually charged me 60 euros to clean up the Renault Captur. But it would have cost a lot more to have hired a 4X4 for the four days. As an extra cost of adding Provence’s difficult Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Spotted Eagle to my life list it seems worth it though still irritating. This car was no dirtier than any other I’ve returned after a birding trip.

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