Sometimes, for a happy family life, you have to make concessions. If you don’t make the dinner, you do the washing-up. If you go to the football, it’s your turn to pick up your child from the school disco. If you spend the whole weekend birding... Well, let’s not go there. But it can work both ways – if your other half wants a quiet family holiday, you can earn brownie points by agreeing, while still allowing yourself a great birding break. Everyone’s a winner.
One ideal place to mix a great family holiday with some easy casual birding is the French Pyrenees. Not only are there birds almost everywhere you look, but many of them are species you’d be exceptionally lucky to see on your average local patch here. I flew, with my wife, Sam, and six-year-old daughter Emily, to Pau-Pyrenees airport, which is within three hours’ drive of Bordeaux and Carcassonne, two hours from Toulouse and under an hour’s drive from the tourist hotspot of Lourdes.
Our destination was Puydarrieux, a village an hour and a quarter from the airport and a short walk from the large Lake Puydarrieux, which has seen more than 200 bird species recorded since it was created in 1987. The star birding attraction around here comes every winter, when close to 1,000 Cranes fill the surrounding fields – a sight which even the local non-birders just have to sit back and watch in awe.
We visited in early May, when the Cranes would have been on their breeding grounds in Northern Europe, replaced at the lake by trees full of singing warblers. Just down the road from the lake and its surrounding woodland is Tresbos farmhouse, where we stayed. This fantastic house has four double bedrooms, two large bathrooms, a modern kitchen, outdoor eating area, heated swimming pool, huge garden, bicycles and dozens of toys and games for kids.
The garden boasts a view of the lake to the east and the snow-capped Pyrenees to the south – and is also the place where we saw three of our trip’s most memorable birds. But more of that later. The first thing that strikes you as you drive from the airport is that Black Kites and Buzzards are as common a sight as Carrion Crows or Rooks back home. It really is quite something to park up at a hypermarche and watch a Black Kite soaring low over your head. You have to keep reminding yourself you’re only a short distance from home.
As you head onto quieter, more rural roads, the birding changes. The kites and Buzzards remain, but they are joined by countless Stonechats, which fly up from the verges as you pass, perching on overhead cables to form a mini guard of honour. On the ground, hares dash across fields and, if you’re lucky, you may see a Wild Boar or two in the woodland fringes.
So, back to those garden birds at the farmhouse... The most common birds in the garden were White Wagtails and Goldfinches, but one regular visitor was a striking male Black Redstart, joined later in the week by its mate. We saw one or both of these birds each day, as they flitted between posts, walls and trees within the grounds. In fact it was while attempting to digiscope one of the flitty, flicky Black Redstarts that I saw the second of those three gorgeous garden visitors. Just behind a branch recently vacated by the redstart was a bigger, plumper, peachy-looking bird. It took only a glance through my bins to recognise my first ever Red-backed Shrike. I grabbed as many phone-digiscoped shots as I could, standing in the rain, sans jacket, to make sure I absorbed every moment of this chance encounter. I didn’t realise this masked character would reappear in our garden three or four more times during our stay.
Down at the lake, the sightings board revealed recent visits by Booted Eagle, Snipe, Purple Heron, Night Heron and Marsh Harrier. I saw plenty of Black Kites, a handful of Red Kites, bundles of Buzzards and a single, soaring Honey Buzzard – confirmed by the friendly reserve warden. The lake is exceptionally serene. To protect the wildlife, there’s no access to much of the shore, and there are no hides, just an information board and a hut where the warden makes coffee and records the birds.
The trees and scrub around the lake bristle with birdsong. Chiffchaff and Whitethroat were the most vocal and identifiable, while from somewhere deep in the woods a Cuckoo rang out its familiar call. Closer to the lake was a bird I found harder to ID. But a listen to the calls on my mp3 player and a flick through my Collins Guide revealed it to be a Melodious Warbler. Another lifer. The ease with which such birds could be seen in roadside trees and fields meant that trips to Lannemezan, Auch and Trie-sur-Baïse – each with its own fantastic market – became birding trips in their own right.
The owners of Tresbos, Andy and Vicki Coleman, provide a folder full of useful information and suggestions – one of which is a daytrip for tapas in Spain. An hour and a half away is the town of Bossost, essentially set up as a tourist trap for people looking to add another country to their list. There’s a selection of shops selling Flamenco dolls, bull keyrings and castanets, and a few bars offering tasty tapas.
But, for the birder, the main attraction is a fast-flowing, rocky river. While Emily explored a nearby playground, I took a few minutes to just sit and watch Swallows skim the surface of the river and Grey Wagtails hop from rock to rock. Fast-flowing, crystal-clear water, altitude, rocks... it seemed like perfect Dipper country – and right on cue, a chestnut brown dart flew past, landing on a rock just the other side of the river, before plunging beneath the white-rippled water. It was pretty close to being the birding highlight of the trip but, wait, I’ve only told you about two of our garden visitors.
The third of the garden trio was the bird I had hoped to see, and one I had to call Sam and Emily to see, too. No-one should miss out on a Hoopoe feeding on the lawn, just 20 metres away. Magic.