Monday, 11 July 2011

A night in Provence

What was a pan-tropical booby doing in Provence? And would it stay just a little longer?
This trip started out as an idea to twitch vagrant seaduck in Aberdeenshire, but somehow got lost in translation. Five species of scoter on the same stretch of Scottish coast had become three by the time I was able to go, and then a rival attraction appeared on the scene – about the same flying time from London, but in the opposite direction.

News of a Red-footed Booby on an inland lake in southern France broke early last week, and it surely constituted one of the most bizarre records of vagrant seabirds in the Western Palearctic. I don't think anyone expected this lost soul to stay, but it did, and by Friday I’d decided to break for the border, mainly courtesy of some British Airways air miles. Nothing ventured …

The spectacular Gorges du Verdon, looking south-west across the vast expanse of the Lac de Sainte Croix.
On Saturday afternoon I swapped cloudy Gatwick for sweltering Marseilles, jumped in what appeared to be the last rental car available at the airport, pointed it in the direction of Alpes-de-Haute Provence and floored the accelerator (which is the only way to get enough revs out of a Fiat 500 to climb up into the foothills). Amazingly, I got there without getting lost – no mean feat given the curious French habit of giving one road several different numbers on the map, and then another number altogether on the road signs.

By this time it was 7 pm, but beautiful Lac de Sainte Croix seemed essentially birdless. My spirits started to fall until, about an hour later, i saw another birder approaching from the bay to the south. It was Lee Gregory, bearing the happy news that the bird had just appeared a short distance away – result! Within minutes we’d joined a small but appreciative crowd watching and photographing the booby just metres away. Confiding is not the word, but apparently it's not an unusual character trait for the species. The bird has been caught and ringed since its arrival and feathers taken for isotope analysis, so it will be interesting to see what can be ascertained about its origin. For now at least it seems like a good record.

The nearest breeding population of Red-footed Booby is in the Caribbean, where there are some 14,000 pairs.
Extralimital Red-footed Boobies in Spain and the UAE proved very tame, a trait also showed by the French bird.
By 9 pm it was time to head off, so with some more ‘gen’ gratefully acquired on assorted Category C species in Provence, I departed for a late dinner. A singing Western Bonelli’s Warbler and, after dark, two Wild Boar right in front of the car were further bonuses, while at night in a nearby village I drifted off to the metronomic duetting of two Eurasian Scops Owls.

Next morning, still on a high, I decided to forego the long mileage that twitching Fischer’s Lovebird entailed. Here I was, marvelling at dawn breaking over the spectacular Gorges du Verdon – how could a cage-hopping psittacid compete? Instead, I made the most of local resources, with Black Kite, Alpine Swift, Crag Martin, Tawny Pipit, more singing Western Bonelli’s, Red-backed Shrike, Cirl Bunting and a group of Alpine Chamois among the numerous highlights.

This female Alpine Chamois was one of a herd of 16, all females or young animals.

Glanville Fritillary? I've only seen the species once previously, over 20 years ago, but it seems to fit this butterfly, which I photographed at Vinon-sur-Verdon - comments or other suggestions welcome.
I was back in London by early evening to enjoy dinner with the family. Door to door it had taken 34 hours, two buses, six trains, two planes and 371 kms by road. Worth it? Definitely! Many thanks to Pierre-André Crochet, Amine Flitti, Rich Bonser and Ernie Davis for pre-trip updates, directions and other information, and to the other birders on site for help in various ways.


  1. The perfect trip! Fantastic stuff, Dominic.

  2. Certainly beats a trip to Daventry...

  3. Oh dear - sorry to hear that if you went for the 'Greater Yellowlegs' ... I heard that the bird took in one well-known birder at least, until its true identity as a Greenshank was revealed.

  4. Thankfully, I didn't go. 'He who hesitates' was a bonus on this occasion. When it involves mega birds, I think it's best to wait for confirmation!

  5. Worth the effort, I'd say !

  6. Well worth the carbon.



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