Every year, 200,000 Brits pass through Bergerac airport in the Dordogne, drawn in by the scenery, the cuisine and the long, warm summers (not to mention mild winters). But an increasingly large percentage of visitors are also starting to take notice of the incredible birdlife in the region.
Perhaps surprisingly, Dordogne has more to offer in this respect than many French rural areas. This is due to the diversity of habitats found here, despite being a landlocked region. For example, special birds include Common Crane, Eagle Owl, Little Bustard, Short-toed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Dartford Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, Alpine Swift, Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Tawny Pipit, Subalpine Warbler and Ortolan Bunting. With a bit of local knowledge, timing and luck, a good range of species can be found, including some of the more sought-after ones.
The region is predominantly limestone countryside with mixed forest and farmland habitats above the main river valleys and dramatic cliffs lining the rivers in places. However in the west of the region lie additional interesting habitats: pine forest with mixed woodland on sands with areas of heathland in the central west and secondly arable plains in the south-west and north-west of the region. Driving is a pleasure, with so few cars on the road and the landscape beautiful with low hills, pretty little hamlets and villages of honey-coloured stone houses and scattered traditional farms.
For birding, the best time to visit is between April and June. In and around most villages you can find Hoopoe, Serin, Cirl Bunting, Tree Sparrow and Black Redstart. Hoopoe usually inhabit the edge of villages where there are lawns for feeding and old trees and outhouses for nesting.
Their persistent hollow ‘hoo-hoo-hoo’ call can be heard from mid March. Serins like fir trees and telephone wires in similar areas, from where their fast scratchy/jingly song is often delivered – or in a song flight. Tree Sparrows can be found among the House Sparrows in village centres whilst Black Redstarts choose rooftops from which to sing their strange crackly-ending song. In the fields surrounding villages and towns Cirl Buntings are common, the yellow and black-faced males sitting on top of bushes in spring delivering their rattling song.
The classic Dordogne habitat is the forest and field complex which covers much of the area. Commoner species in these habitats include Nightjar, Woodlark, Tree Pipit, Stonechat, Cuckoo, Golden Oriole, Melodious Warbler, Whitethroat, Nightingale and Cirl Bunting. Golden Oriole are easier heard than seen! They usually arrive in late April after the leaves open and the tree canopy closes. Listen out for a tropical sounding fluty four-note whistle. Red-backed Shrike can be found in scrubby patches amongst the rough grassland.
Short-toed Treecreepers sing constantly in spring and Firecrest are also common, though their high-pitched rattle may be hard to hear. Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Bonelli’s Warbler are the common warblers – the latter arrives in early April and is easily located with its short trill. It replaces the Willow Warbler this far south.
Woodpeckers are well-represented with Green and Great-spotted very common. Black Woodpeckers have recently colonised Dordogne and are best searched for (like all woodpeckers) in early spring when they are most vocal and territorial. Middle Spotted are thinly scattered in older woods and parkland throughout the area, listen out for their constant, quickly repeated ‘kuk kuk kuk’ call. Lesser Spotted occur along the river valleys but are never common. In 2000 I was lucky enough to find a Grey-headed Woodpecker in the south of the area – a very rare bird. Wrynecks also nest across the region though they are perhaps more frequent on passage. Buzzards and Sparrowhawks are common but Honey Buzzards are also present though inconspicuous. Their plaintive wader-like two-note whistle ‘pee-loo’ is most likely to draw attention to them.
Dropping down into the river valleys of the Dordogne and Vézère is another interesting bird community. All along the valleys are Black Kites nesting in loose colonies in riverside woods. One of the best ways to see them is on the ‘gabarre’ boat trip from Bergerac old town.
Crag Martins are common and even nest on the church in Lalinde and on Perigueux cathedral. A few pairs of Alpine Swift nest in Beynac and Roque Gageac but they are not easy to pick out amongst the other hirundines. In sunny warm weather they can be flying very high! Surprisingly, Dippers nest on some side streams upriver from Bergerac. Great White Egrets are regular from late summer until spring. On the stony islands at Mauzac, Little Ringed Plovers nest – as do Cetti’s Warblers in the adjacent marsh, which is also a nature reserve.
Eagle Owls are perhaps the most spectacular species nesting in this area. In 2009, six pairs were believed to be nesting, having gradually re-colonized the region since 2000. The best time to find them is early in the year when they commence nesting and the males are territorial and booming out their very deep resonant ‘oo-oo’ at dusk. Also in the winter months small numbers of Wallcreeper inhabit the cliffs and large stone buildings around Les Eyzies. By early April any remaining males look resplendent in their breeding plumage.
Less well-known are the arable plains in the south-west and north-west of the area and across into the Lot and Lot et Garonne départements. These areas are dotted with small areas of woodland, rough grassland and scrub, together with hay meadows. They harbour an interesting bird community including harriers and species such as Tawny Pipit. On a sunny afternoon in summer the temperature can be almost unbearable and birds non-existent. But return early or late in the day and it can be very productive. Quails call from the fields ‘whit whit whit’ whilst a curlew-like call will be a Stone Curlew; small numbers breed here. There are still a few pairs of Tawny Pipits on short dry grasslands, pale wagtail-like pipits with a wagtail-like call. Small hamlets or isolated buildings with stone walls sometimes harbour Rock Sparrows.
In the extreme south-east of our region a few pairs of Ortolan Bunting hang on. Listen out for the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth to locate one!
Short-toed Eagle nest in small numbers across the Dordogne, normally on high ground in dense forest, adjacent to open hunting grounds.
At migration times a whole range of other species pass through the region. Osprey, Red Kite, Honey Buzzard and Crane can be common but other raptors like Booted Eagle and Marsh Harrier and smaller birds like Bee-eater and Crossbill are also possible. Pied Flycatchers are often very common in late summer. A visit to one of the reservoirs, mainly located in the south-west of the region, can be rewarding for waders and other wetland species.