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The Southern Coast
JM picked us up - me and my 8 year old son Patrick - at Toulon station, which is 4 hours on the TGV from Paris. We headed straight out to try to mist net some bats at the Vallee de Sauvebonne near Toulon.
The 2008/09 winter was unusually wet and perhaps that was why there was very little flying around this usually reliable spot for bats. In a couple of hours we trapped 2 Daubenton's and a Pygmy Pipistrelle.
The next day JM took us to a few roosting sites for some of the species I was after. He'd discovered a small roost of European Free-tailed Bats behind the shutters of a deserted house at La Billette and they were still in residence. Europe's largest bat with an impressive set of teeth, and one for which few roost sites are known.
There was also a smaller bat - possibly a Savi's Pipistrelle - in the same house but it flew off when we tried to catch it.
Nearby, in a small holiday complex called Sigaloux, we visited a storage cellar to see if there were any Lesser Mouse-Eared Bats in residence. They are occasionally present but not that morning. All was not lost however, because that afternoon we visited a more reliable spot: a cave called Grotte de Truebis, 2 km north of Sollies Toucas, on the right hand side of the road as you are heading north. Jean-Michel found us a few Lesser Mouse-eared Bats inside. The cave is soon to be gated to protect the bats from the locals who like partying at the entrance and then throwing mud at the bats.
That night we headed to another usually reliable spot to mist net. The Maison Forestiere des Caunes is a ranger station in the Foret des Maures. A beautiful spot. But despite sticking up three nets in a good location we didn't catch a thing. Other battoes in the region were also trapping that night in other places and didn't catch anything either, so something strange was going on. I did see an Edible Dormouse though for a couple of seconds. There are some nice small mammals in the forest including Algerian Mice (Mus spretus) and Etruscan Shrews (Suncus etruscus). We set traps the following night to try to catch them, but for only a few hours so it wasn't altogether surprising that we couldn't catch any.
On Saturday JM tried to find me some Grey Long-eared Bats. A cliff top trail near the mine museum at Le Pradet (the Mine de la Garonne) runs past a signpost to a gated cave that's just 300m from the car park. The cave is sometimes home to Grey Long-eareds .... but not when we were there. So we went on to visit an old mine called Mine de Valcros, at La Londe des Maure. After giving up because it was empty save for one Lesser Horseshoe, JM spotted a Grey Long-eared Bat on the way out. Phew! I think JM was more relieved than me.
That evening we returned to the La Foret des Maures. Dominique Guicheteau, who is in charge of the park, set up a mist net while we waited for Kuhl's Pipistrelles to emerge from their roost under his garage roof. The bats emerged before 10 and a couple of blurred pictures were good enough to show the white line on the edge of the wing membrane confirming they were this species. Dominique caught a Common Pipistrelle but nothing else so we left at about 11.
There was a Wild Boar on the drive out of the park. Thirty minutes later, and just as we were approaching JM's house, Dominique phoned. He'd caught a Savi's Pipistrelle, which was a lifer for me . Did I want to go and see it? Jean-Michel asked. Knowing full well the polite answer would have been "no" I gritted my teeth and admitted "Maybe....". So Jean-Michel turned the car around and back we went. Sure enough Dominic had caught a Savi's Pipistrelle as well as a Leisler's Bat, my first view of this species in the hand. The bats were great and Jean-Michel's willingness to stay up for another 2 hours confirmed beyond doubt he is a star.
On Sunday morning we were up early to head to the La Chapelle de Saint Pons near the village of Gemenos, about 50km from Toulon in the Bouches du Rhone departement. A colony of 20 or so Bechstein's Bats roost in the 13th century church. Though the gate is locked, the chapel is tiny and you can see the bats from outside. We met up with Laetitia Bantwell who had the key for the church and counted the bats once a week. Bechstein's are rare in France and particularly hard to see. They usually roost in old trees, with only 7 known roosts in buildings.
So a fabulous three days. We saw 14 species of mammals, and 6 lifers for me (all bats) which was about double what I had expected. Jean-Michel was immensely generous with his time and expertise and I'm very grateful to him and Mary for their kind hospitality. I'm looking forward to returning as soon as I can.
And back I went in January 2010 for a weekend to accompany Jean-Michel and 20 others on their annual survey of a Myotis capaccinii hibernacula on the last Sunday in January. But on Friday night Jean-Michel set a few traps near his place and caught me my first Algerian Field Mouse (Mus spretus) an hour after my train arrived on Saturday. Slightly smaller, cuter and less smelly than a House Mouse, the clear delineation between the venter and the flanks was a distinguishing feature as was the shortish tail.
JM had also set some traps for a Pine Vole, a species he had caught at the same site in the first trap he had ever set, but had not seen since. We didn't find any.
We spent a very very cold Sunday surveying the tunnels along the the old Canal du Verdon (a disused canal for carrying water), which runs along the southern side of the Gorge du Verdon, a pretty speccy gorge about an hour and a half from Toulon (or 1hour and 10 minutes on the way back when I was late for my train and Jean-Michel proved he could have had a career as a rally driver if he hadn't become a doctor). The first couple of kilometres of tunnel are along a footpath that leads from the bridge just south of the village of Quinson and are open to the public. The rest of the tunnels are gated to protect the bats. In 24 tunnels, running over 3kms we counted about 80 Long-fingered Bats, 20 or so Common Pipistrelles and a lone Serotine. Other species, including Bentwings (in October and November) plus Leser and Greater Horseshoes and Grey Long-eared Bats also winter here, but we didn't see them.
For more information on the bats of Provence visit the site Le Groupe Chiroptères de Provence (in French).
In October 2010 I was back in the south for a weekend. Forty-eight hours of torrential rain put paid to any prospects of mammal catching, though I still set traps around Greolieres-Les-Neiges, a ski station half an hour north of Grasse both nights. The stony ground around here is good for Snow Voles (they like areas with poor soil, lots of stones and few trees). But they do not, I suspect, like the rain so much. My other target though, Southern Water Vole (Arvicola sapidus) was easy to see at the spot JM Bompar recommended: opposite the zoological parc in nearby Thorenc. The park is on the D2 road, a few kms east of Thorenc. On the other side of the D2, immediately opposite the car park, is a meadow with several streams running through it. The place is full of Water Voles, given the number of tunnels and burrows we saw. We saw an animal at dusk after all of 3 minutes searching.
I was back again to stay with my kids at the Jean-Michel Hilton in Easter 2011. The weather wasn't great again and we tried to catch Pine Voles (and caught a lot of traps full of soil but no animals), Water Shrews and Snow Voles (but again none of each). We were more successful with the bats though, catching my target - an Alpine Long-eared Bat (Plecotus macrobullaris) - near Andon. We also caught a couple of Daubenton's bats, saw a lot of Roe Deer around Andon and in the Camp Militaire de Canjuers as well as what appeared to be a Polecat late at night (though they are apparently very rare in the area so it the fleeting glimpse could have been of something else). The military camp, about 30km west of Grasse, is an interesting area. It has been protected for about 50 years and no people live within the area so it is now very rich in wildlife. Wolves are resident and Lynxes are reported every year (mainly by jogging soldiers). The D25 runs through the camp but if you leave the road you run the risk of being arrested or flattened by a shell.
The mammal list is an impressive 59 species: Polecats, Pine and Beech Martens and Garden Dormice are some of the nicer species that are apparently common (the former near water, the latter in roofs of old buildings). Many of France's small mammals have been recorded including 6 shrew species, and as many voles, including Southern Water Voles (I tried looking for these in several places but, though they are widespread, I haven't found them yet). The 17 species of bats include Barbestelles, all France's Pipistrelles, Bechsteins and Grey Long-eareds with Greater Mouse-eared Bats apparently common. Wild Cats and Genets are around, but rare, and there's a chance that European Mink still survive in the area, though none has been seen since the 1980s. (A full mammal list is here). It is an extraordinarily good place for bats: in July 2006 Jean-Emmanuel Frontera caught 60 animals from 10 species in one evening! That would be a bloody good haul for the tropics, let alone Europe.
Exotic Musk Rats and Coypus are common. Coypus (or Ragondin in French) are an pest, but an impressive animal nonetheless and I saw a couple while I was spotlighting along the Etang de Beauregard Nature Walk, south of St Michel-en-Brenne : two were in the far end of the lake at the end of the trail. There were heaps of Soprano Pipistrelles and Daubentons feeding along the trail and over the lake in April 2006, with Rabbits common on the road. I also caught a Greater White-toothed Shrew in the garden of the old farm in which I was staying.
I spent a morning with Jean-Emmanuel Frontera, the region's bat expert, and the guy who runs the local bat association. He was good enough to spend a couple of hours showing me some animals (proof again that those who work with bats are perhaps the friendliest of all mammalogists). We visited an impressive network of catacombs near a chateau at Palluau-sur-Indre. Originally cut for stone when the chateau was being built, the caves/mineshafts were used as a mushroom farm until the mid 1990s when they were brought to help protect the bats. The entrance is now gated. Emmanuel said he's recorded 13 species there in winter, including Bechsteins, Brown and Grey long-eareds and Barbastelles. We saw a stack of Geoffroy's Bats, a dozen or so Greater Horsehoes and a possible Daubenton's, which flew when the light hits it. We also saw half a dozen Lesser Horseshoes, a handful of Whiskered Bats and a lone Mediterranean Horseshoe (the latter three species all new for me).
We then went to the village of Arpheuilles, where we visited an occasional Barbastelle roost (between two pieces of timber on the top of a doorway) - they weren't there. Unfortunately the door to the belfry was locked to so we couldn't see the Greater Mouse-eared Bat colony.
I went back in July. The Arpheuilles roost had been abandoned - possibly because an owl appeared to have taken up residence in the Belfry (there were lots of pellets). So Jean-Emmanuel took me to the church at Meobecq, where he found a couple of Greater Mouse-eareds roosting between cracks running up pillars. He was then good enough to take me on a Barbastelle hunt. Several roosts were bat-less but we eventually found 8 animals roosting between the cracks at the apex of a stone arch window frame (without glass) in a farmhouse that was at least 200 years old, somewhere near Rosnay. Barbastelles have a penchant for roosting in the cracks above doorways and windows apparently. There was a single Geoffroy's bat roosting under the eaves outside the Maison du Park visitor centre.
I was based near the village of Arrens-Marsous (south of Lourdes) and handy for the central area of the national park. The village and immediate area was nice, but I was less impressed with that bit of the park: there were heaps of people around, including an alarming number of born again pilgrims, who traveled en masse, by coach and in matching tee shirts,. And there was quite a lot of tourist development so it was rather more urbanised than I'd expected. The scenery was pretty speccy though.
Isards, the Pyrenean species of Chamois (a separate species to those in the Alps) are easy to find. I saw animals near Lac D'Estaing (20 minutes along the trail that leaves from the parking area at the western end of the lake); and others closer from the trail running from the end of the D105 (the road that runs from Arrens-Marsous past the Lac Du Teche). Isards were 15 minutes along the trail and soon after you leave the pine forest on the way to the Balaitous Massif. There were more around Pont D'Espagne which seems to be a particularly well known spot for them.
Alpine Marmots, were just coming out of hibernation when I was there and probably much easier to spot in summer. They are reputedly common around Lac Du Teche, though the only animals I saw were near the Pont D'Espagne. They were on the south facing side of the valley about 15 minutes walk past the Chateau du Clot: just past the chateau you cross the meadow to the right and head along the right hand bank of the river -there were marmots on the steep grassy slopes between the scree slopes.
The guest house cat was more adept at finding small mammals than me. He caught a couple of Millet's Shrews, a Pygmy Shrew and some field mice species (both Wood and Yellow-necked Mice) in the garden - some of which were left alive. The Yellow-necked Mice didn't have as much yellow on the neck as those illustrated in the field guide, but the book noted that animals in the south of the range had less yellow. I also saw a Hedgehog, Red Squirrel and Soprano Pipistrelle in the garden (id'd through hearing its call on a bat detector) and a Brown Hare nearby.
The most interesting animal I came across was a Geoffroy's Bat that was roosting in a weep hole in a disused tunnel along the D918 (the road that heads west out of Arrens-Marsous). The tunnel was about 10-15km after the Col de Souloir, and immediately after a small restaurant with a water wheel in its garden (on the left hand side of the road as you head west). It took me a while to convince myself of the ID of this bat but its notched ear, straight and slender tragus, medium size and absence of any noticeable hairs on the tail membrane keyed it out as one of these quite rare bats.
I didn't get a lot of time to look for the endemic Pyrenean Desman - a bizarre beast ... just think about an aquatic Elephant Shrew , which you can see stuffed in the visitor centre at Arrens-Marsous. Nor was I able to get much information on places to look. They are thought to be declining and threatened from disturbance including hydro electric power developments that disturb river flow, as well as pollution from the road (such a salt in winter). Although their presence can be marked by their shit on exposed rocks in rivers its hard stuff to spot: studies have found that animals were often living in rivers where no poo was to be seen. I asked a few people about them and was told that Les Desmans were impossible to see. A local expert said that occasionally anglers seem them in the daytime (Desmans are mainly nocturnal but they are also active during the day and can emerge at midday to refresh themselves). If I could have found a clear, shallow stretch of stream where I know the animals are present I reckon they'd be quite spotlightable with a bit of effort, given they have to be somewhere in the stream and have a shortish home range. Something to try for another time.
The Vercors borders the Alps. Its scenically stunning, quite sparsely populated (by European standards) and a pretty good for mammal watching (especially ungulates). The best time of year to visit from a mammal spotting point of view is probably October, when alpine species like Ibex and Chamois are fairly easy to see, but before the temperature gets too cold. I was there in late November. The first snow was falling, and the higher parts of the park were carpeted in a blanket of ice. But there were plenty of mammals.
I stayed at a fabulous little hotel called Auberge du Pionnier. Cheap, friendly, the food is excellent and slap bang in the middle of the forest. The owners are very interested in wildlife and can arrange for a guide to take you into the mountains for a day. I went out with a bloke called Philippe Lloret who was good company and worked hard to find me Moufflon and other mammals, plus he knew his stuff. Another local guide, who is knowledgeable about the mammals is Gilles Trochard. He runs wildlife trips around the world, and gave me stacks of information over dinner one night.
The mammal watching there is pretty good. Chamois seem pretty easy to find on many of the mountain summits - we saw dozens during a day's walking. Moufflon, introduced in the 1950s, were more difficult but I got distant views through the scope of two groups. Ibex, a reintroduced population are around too (the Cirque d'Archiane) is the place to look.
I went spotlighting in the car both nights I was there. Freezing cold (about -10 and my fingers were numb after 5 minutes of holding the spotlight out of a moving car), but reasonably productive.
Red Deer were common as were Red Foxes and Brown Hares. Roe Deer are around (I saw a couple) as are Wild Boar (but I didn't see any). Interestingly there were a lot of mice running around, which was a seasonal thing. These were either Wood Mice or Yellow-necked Mice, probably the latter given the altitude.
Badgers, Beech and Pine Martens, Stoats and Weasels all feature on the park list, though are not seen all that often by the sounds of things. Over the past few years a few Wolves have begun to recolonise the area, and they arrived unaided from Italy. This, as always, is causing some local angst among the farmers. Angst, coupled with the French love of shooting things means one Wolf has already been shot, or so I was told, with the killing was sanctioned by the Government.
Although there are Ibex are in the Vercors, they are reintroduced, so purists might prefer to see an original population nearby. On the advice of Gilles I left the Vercors and drove the 3 hours or so to the little village of St Martin de la Porte, a few km south east of St Jean de Maurienne (about 60km east north east of Grenoble). Scan the scree slopes to the east of town to find the Ibex.
THere are also plenty of Marmots which should be visible between April through October. Garden Dormice are also reputedly common in the warmer months: Phillipe said they lived in most of the hiking shelters/refuges in the park.
Other People's Trip Reports
France and Italy 2008: Mark Hows, 8 days and a few mammals including feral Pallas's and Finlyason's Squirrels.