Beauty of Nature in southern France

There are locations in Europe where a nature observer can be almost overwhelmed by the diversity of the natural world. Where one fascinating creature after another appears and you can’t resist lifting your binoculars to identify it, to admire it, and to understand its behaviour. The Languedoc of southern France is one such place.

The variety of habitats there is huge, from the Haut Languedoc with its acidic soils and typical flora, to the vastly different, garrigue-covered limestone causses further south, where the smaller rivers can dry up or at least flow underground in the summer, and where larger mature rivers like the Herault, Orb and Aude flow to the sea.

Naturally this has created a birder’s paradise with such iconic species as Bee-eater, Roller, Lesser Kestrel, Short-toed Eagle, Alpine Swift, Red-rumped Swallow Blue Rock Thrush and many others. But diversity means just that: there is far more than just birds to enjoy through your binoculars.

Adding even more variety there are also coastal lagoons and cliffs, flooded gravel pits and other inland wetlands. Near any stretch of water you will encounter dragonflies and damselflies. Superb flyers, they range from common species such as both Emperors (Anax imperator and Anax parthenope) to rarities such as the Splendid Cruiser Macromia splendens which, as its name suggests, cruises magnificently over rivers.

Walking near any water-bodies on a summer’s day in the Languedoc you have an excellent chance of seeing a Viperine Snake, Natrix maura. These are not vipers but look like one, as they have a zig-zag pattern on their back, and no doubt this makes predators have second thoughts about trying to catch them. If you find one, stay back and use your binos to observe its behaviour. They are fascinating and handsome creatures and if you are lucky you might see it catch a fish.

In fact you should watch out for fish too. The rivers abound with Chubb and other species and as you watch them through your binoculars, you enter a different world. Fish can display many kinds of behaviour including some that are similar to birds. For example there are species in which the male defends a territory he thinks is great for egg laying and will try to entice passing females to come and have a look, and hopefully be impressed enough to mate with him. This sort of behaviour isn’t confined to freshwater.

As you walk along river banks through vegetation of different heights you will notice a variety of grasshoppers but if you sit down for a drink or picnic and there are bushes or tangles of vegetation in the vicinity, keep watching for grasshoppers’ larger cousins, the bush crickets. These can recognised by their larger size and above all their extremely long antennae.

While gazing in amazement through our binoculars at a sea bed covered in sea urchins we saw a bright red fish with a black head repeatedly emerge from a hiding place, swim around in a showy way and then dart back into hiding. This repetitive sequence was definitely suggestive of a display and thanks to our binos, we were able to observe and enjoy it.

There are many species and if you are really lucky you might see a Saddleback Bush-cricket Ephippiger ephippiger, that strides across paths and clambers amongst vegetation with an ease that seems impossible given that they have six hugely-long legs to control. Walking over stone bridges or along the sides of the many gorges cut through the limestone causses you may catch sight of the common Wall Lizard Podarcis muralis. They can be timid although they occasionally tolerate your presence.

To be sure you get a chance to obtain a close look, stay back and use your binoculars. These lizards can look unimpressive at a glance but through binoculars you can see they have complex and beautiful markings. Almost anywhere within the Languedoc, likely there will be butterflies and day-flying moths such as burnets and the commonly encountered Hummingbird Hawkmoth. This latter species is a most attractive moth with a body that looks almost furry and yes, it hovers while it feeds on nectar, just like a Hummingbird. Catch it with your binoculars while it hovers, it is just so adorable.

I hope you now understand a little of the wonderful diversity of the Languedoc’s natural treasures, but wherever you go with your binoculars there will be fascinating subjects to study or simply to enjoy. The only thing you need to remember is that binos are for looking at everything, not only birds.

Lee Thickett

Nature observer and otter enthusiast.