Thinking about birdwatching in France? Enjoy nature and seeing our feathered friends in their natural habitat? Or even if you’re looking for an educational but fun day out with the family. This amazing country has so much to offer with some wonderful nature reserves and wetlands which attract hundreds of species.
Why you must go birdwatching in France
France has a great deal to offer to the travelling birder. Its position means there’s a variety of incredible natural habitats attractive to birds. From the headily-scented wildish scrubland of the garrigue, to the maquis of the Mediterranean coast. Throw in mountain habitats, mature oak forests and plentiful coastal areas and you have a birders paradise.
But and it is a big ‘but’, France is roughly five times the size of Britain. So, you need to focus on one area to make the best use of your time.
Go to the Pyrenees for vultures, the Alps, for, well, Alpine stuff, and into that lovely regional park known as Brière for purple heron, spoonbill and red-spotted bluethroats. Overall there are more than 460 species of bird in France.
Between September and March, however, you will encounter the ‘Chasseurs’ (Hunters). They are numerous, noisy and in some areas irritated by what they call ‘Les Ecologistes’, i.e. anyone with an interest in nature, ecology or conservation.
But the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux does what it can to counter the influence of this large minority. Many of whom are just not as adept with a rifle as they like to think they are!
The casual ornithologist will see many different birds without having to travel to one of the popular reserves.
I’ve seen Black Redstart, Serin, and Cirl Bunting in many places across the whole of France. Great Grey and Red Back shrikes will be present almost anywhere. And a dense poplar plantation may well have several Golden Orioles. Birds of prey are common, especially along the autoroutes, so keep your binoculars handy.
But for the serious birder here’s our top seven places for birdwatching in France.
The Camargue wetlands
Probably the most well-known place for birdwatching in France. You’ll see herons, egrets and many hundreds of migrating birds.
The Camargue wetlands covers a huge area of over 900 sq. km. Much of which is marshland. And because the River Rhône dumps deposits of mud the wetlands are constantly shifting. It’s this astonishing natural habitat which has seen the Camargue wetlands become such an important place for wild birds.
You’ll see hundreds of birds here. And the Camargue wetlands are one of the few areas in Europe where birders can see greater flamingos. Thousands of migratory birds pass through the wetlands every spring and autumn. Which is why the place is such a magnet for birders.
Baie de Somme wetlands
One of the most popular spots for birdwatching in France. Head for the Marquenterre Park nature reserve. The 200-hectare site is a stopping point on the migration route for birds journeying between Scandinavia and Mauritania.
But whatever the season you’re sure to see species you rarely encounter. On the Baie de Somme wetlands you can see over 300 species of birds. These include birds of prey, shorebirds, swans and waders.
There are a dozen observation points in the reserve. Knowledgeable guides man each post. And they’re happy to share their expertise. This makes the Baie de Somme wetlands ideal for experienced or newbie birders.
Marquenterre Park has three circuits for birdwatchers to enjoy lasting from 45 minutes to a couple of hours. Planning to go birdwatching in France? The Baie de Somme wetlands are a must-see destination.
Lake Der-Chantecoq, nr Champagne
The Lake Der-Chantecoq is an amazing place. It’s the largest artificial lake in Western Europe. Which is quite a thing. It covers 19 square miles so you’ll understand how impressive the lake is.
The lake was man-mad in the 1970s as part of a plan to stop flooding in Paris. Which is a laudable aim though the inhabitants of the three villages bulldozed to make way for the lake may disagree.
Nevertheless, the plan worked and the lake has become something of a water sports centre. But it’s also one of the best places for birdwatching in France. Especially if you enjoy the sight of birds massing. Thousands of cranes stop at the lake during their spring and autumn migrations. But you may also see the great egret, loons and even a white-tailed eagle.
Lac de Grandlieu Nature Reserve, nr Nantes
With one of the largest lakes in Europe the Lac de Grandlieu Nature Reserve is second only to the Camargue. At least in terms of numbers of species that birders will see. There’s only limited access to the lake. And it isn’t the easiest place in the world to get to either. But if you do visit, you’ll be well rewarded.
You’ll see storks, greylag geese and herons. But locals estimate almost 300 species visit the lake. One feature birders will especially enjoy is the mobile observatory. It’s the perfect platform to view the wildlife around the Lac de Grandlieu.
The Tarn Gorge
The Tarn Gorge (Gorges du Tarn) is a spectacular valley in the south of France. It’s one of the deepest gorges in Europe and was one of the very first tourist routes in France. It enjoyed a boost in popularity in 2015 when the Tour de France raced its entire length. Millions of TV viewers enjoyed panoramic views of the Tarn Gorge thanks to the helicopters following the race.
But it’s the stunning variety of birds of prey which attracts birders to the Tarn Gorge. Cast your eyes upwards and you’ll see vultures and eagles sweeping along on the thermals. Golden eagles, owls and ravens call the Tarn Gorge their home. As do a large population of griffon vultures.
Briere Regional Park
Inland, to the north of St Nazaire, lies the Parc Naturel Régional Brière (La Grande Brière), a 20,000-hectare area of peatland, reed beds, floodplains, canals, lagoons and watercourses second in importance only to the Camargue.
This is an incredible place. One of France’s national parks, Briere is a huge area with hundreds of small lakes and ponds which creates a natural habitat for an abundance of wildlife. Around 150 breeding species of birds call the park their home. Seeing them in their natural habitat is easy.
There are several discovery trails throughout the park. There are also plenty of observatories at Chérine, Foucault and other areas of the park. Briere Regional Park covers over 160 square miles and is a paradise for all nature lovers not just birdwatchers.
These marshes (marais in French), through which near-silent trips in flat-bottomed boats are organised, are a delight for bird watchers, with more than 200 species recorded annually including such delights as nightingale, purple heron, egret, spoonbill, bluethroat and numerous warblers.
In the past, this whole area was afforested, and inhabited by Neolithic man. But he was forced out when the sea level rose.
This in turn allowed the marshes to form, as a result of which many of the trees died and the vegetation decomposed to form peat. Still used for cattle grazing and peat extraction during the late summer when much of the water has gone.
Large areas have, however, been progressively abandoned by man, and this has led to colonisation by reeds, willows and elms. From time to time large chunks of fossilised tree emerge, more than 5,000 years old, known as mortas and somewhere in constitution between petrified wood and rock.
Today, the reeds are a ready supply of roofing material, as evidenced by the thousands of thatched cottages found in the many small villages and hamlets that dot the reserve area.
There is a great peace among the reed beds, especially when you are being punted along by the broad shoulders of a guide.
But out in the middle of the marsh, where one clump of reeds looks very much like another, you become acutely conscious of how reliant you are on the man heaving the boat along to get you back to dry land.
Alas, fresh-water crayfish are doing a good deal of damage to the vegetation; they are voracious and virtually unstoppable.
So, given the chance to eat crayfish (écrevisses) on a menu, tuck in heartily, in fact, have a second dish of them; it’s a conservation issue – actually they are rather delicious, served poêlée with garlic butter.
A very tasty interlude from your French birdwatching holiday.
Briere is one of our top ten places to visit in France.
Teich Bird Reserve
If you’re near Bordeaux the Teich Bird Reserve is well worth the visit. At just over 100 hectares it isn’t huge but it’s a place all the family will enjoy. Woods, waterways and saltmarsh make up the reserve. It’s a habitat that encourages wildlife. You’ll see over 300 species of birds along with nearly 100 breeding residents.
A 3.7-mile (6km) path circles the reserve. The path is in very good condition and almost pan flat. You’ll have no trouble walking round. If you do have limited mobility there is a shorter path which avoids all rises and steps.
On the trail there’s 20 or so strategically placed hides for birders and nature lovers to observe from. Along the birds you can expect to see are many varieties of ducks and geese along with more exotic species such as the white stork.
If you’re birdwatching in France the Teich Bird Reserve should definitely be on your list of sites to visit.
Rocamadour – Rocher des Aigles
It is always tempting to think that when you’ve seen one flying display, you’ve seen them all. Think again! The magnificent Rocher des Aigles, not far from the majesty of Rocamadour, is an altogether different experience.
Created in 1977, Le Rocher des Aigles now boasts more than 400 birds over 60 different species, and put on a fast-moving and informative display whether it’s by fast-flying barn owls and African Grey parrots or the huge and cumbersome condors, Imperial eagles and European vultures.
This is not a place where you might see two or three birds flying; here it seems that they all do, and often fly free over the adjacent countryside, but rarely not returning – this is, after all, where many of them were born. You can even watch an Egyptian vulture attempting to crack an egg.