South-Central France 20-30 May 2004 - Birding & orchids
trip report in www.jvanderw.nl - John van der Woude
with separate photo sections:
GitePinet.html
AllierChaudefour.html
Orchids.html
CaussesTarn.html
We had a week in a cottage in the Causses region near Millau in southern France, mainly for general nature including birding but also a lot of orchid hunting. On the way south to this region we included stops at the famous Allier river valley and at a small mountain valley inside the volcanic region. On the way back north we visited the gardens of the Versailles palace.

The cottage was a Gîte de France, rented through
www.gites-de-france.fr. It appeared to have a great location for birds and orchids in the immediate vicinity. It is an old farm house at the end of a small hamlet and it is surrounded by nature on three sides. It was renovated in 2000 and was good value for money (E 280). The hamlet is Pinet, belonging to the village La Cresse, on the quiet side of the river Tarn. It is about 8 km downstream of both the Tarn and the Jonte gorges, and 10 km upstream from Millau. Photos of the cottage are at GitePinet.html.
The best house species for this cottage (seen or heard from the terrace) were Griffon Vulture (5 roosting nearby), Short-toed Eagle, Wood Lark, Nightingale, Black Redstart, Melodious Warbler, Bonelli’s Warbler, Serin, Goldfinch, Oriole, Grey Wagtail, Green and Black Woodpecker (both heard only), Red-billed Chough, Red-legged Partridge, Rock Martin, Cirl Bunting.
In the small pasture belonging to the cottage we had four orchid species.

To get to Millau from north of Paris, it is best to cross Paris along the motorway system in the Eastern suburbs. This can be done by following the direction signs for Bordeaux all the time, until you are on the motorway to Orléans. From Orléans (where we slept in a fine and cheap Etap motel, reserved through
www.etaphotels.fr) you take the direction of Clermont-Ferrand. Just before this town (at exit 14) we left the motorway and headed east for the Allier river, which has old riverine woods and in general has a very natural appearance. The best part was between Les Martres and Maringues, especially near the small village of Tissonières. Take the northern entrance to this village along the D1093, and after a right angle to the right again, take the first small road to the left, down to the river. Also the area just NE of Les Martres was good, esp. for the fields further away from the river. As this part of the Allier river valley is only 10 km from the motorway, we think that this a nice break for birders driving this motorway to the South (e.g. to NE Spain). See two photos at AllierChaudefour.html.
Some of the better bird species we saw during this 4-hour midday visit to the Allier included Black Kite, Montagu’s Harrier, Oriole, Corn Bunting.

We then drove on to the volcanic region SW of Clermont-Ferrand. Here we had drizzle and fog but after our night at Besse-en-Chandesse (hotel Les Mouflons; good quiet room 32 and good food) we had a bit more luck in the early morning. We visited the Vallée de Chaudefour, a nice nature reserve, a half-wooded valley between the high volcanoes. The best birds here were Dipper and Grey Wagtail. Park your car at the visitor centre (at the entrance of the valley, halfway between Besse and Mont-Dore along the D36). From there you walk up and down (the same way) along a clear broad track well into the large natural open area amidst the woods. This spot is about 50 minutes from the entrance. Halfway you cross a bridge (from where we had Dipper), and you better also visit the streams at the far end of the natural open area (where we also had Dipper). See photos of this valley and of Besse at
AllierChaudefour.html

The Causses near Millau are high calcareous plateaus dissected by the rivers which are famous for their steep cliffs. The Causses all differ a bit, some are more wooded and others more open and stony. Bird life is seemingly not always very abundant on the causses, but interesting enough. It is a heaven for orchid lovers, and even the most hardened birder will temporarily turn into an orchid hunter (but only take photographs!). The orchids we saw are reported separately, at the photo page
Orchids.html.

The sites we visited in this Causses region were: (see some photos at
CaussesTarn.html)
- Tarn valley sides near our cottage: half-open fields, orchards, old villages and pine woods.
- Causse Noir (partly wooded), including the park with strange rock formations called Montpellier-le-Vieux (which had less birds than expected; possibly too many visitors per year). Many orchids on this causse, e.g. at the junction of D110 and D29.
- Gorges of the rivers Tarn and Jonte. Incredible steep cliffs, especially halfway the Gorges du Tarn.
- Mont Aigoual, a non-calcareous broad mountain rising to 1558 m. Different orchids, but not many birds.
- Causse du Larzac (more open and stony). Good for birds and orchids (esp. Ophrys, like Bee Orchid).
- Causse Méjean. We only crossed this causse once and we saw little, but from a Frenchman I learned that it can be very good. Even in high summer he had many raptors, both rock thrushes, shrikes, buntings, etc.
- Causse de Sauveterre. Crossed this on the way back, for a short visit to the Point Sublime (giving good views into the Tarn gorges, with Chough around your head). Much more cultivated than e.g. the Larzac causse.

All these sites can easily be reached from Millau.
Most of the best birds of this whole Millau region are also on the house list for the cottage, see above. Common on the Causses were: Tree Pipit, Skylark, Stonechat, Bonelli’s Warbler, Firecrest, Serin (near villages), Yellowhammer, Cirl Bunting. Others of note were: Black Woodpecker (two seen in the Jonte gorge), Red-backed Shrike (seen only twice), Corn Bunting (not many).

Millau has large shops and several restaurants. We think the best supermarket is the Géant. At the northern roundabout of Millau (along the N9) turn west towards Rodez. After 1 km or so the Géant is well visible in a large service area. If you are going there not only for their bread and cheese but also for wines: the bottles labeled “Club des Sommeliers” are good value for money.

On the way back home we visited Versailles. We stayed at the Ibis hotel very near the palace. We think this hotel is good value for money. Bullfinch was present in the palace garden.