Circling lazily in a clear blue sky…

Those of you who know me well might recall that we always spend a few weeks every summer in southern France, specifically in Drôme, in the south-east of the country. We have been coming to this part of France for the past thirty years, initially with the children, but these days of course à deux. This year we have so far been here six days – a few weeks later than usual for various reasons – for what is now a five-week sojourn in “our” gîte. Those of you who also know my OH, or have read past posts of mine, may recall also that he is both enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about birds (the feathered kind). I share his enthusiasm, if not (by any means) his knowledge, and a day like today reinforces that enthusiasm for both of us.

(All photos here, except for the nightingale, a bird whose secretive habits makes it very hard to photograph, are © David Hughes, taken in and around the gîte.)

This gîte is most definitely a “gîte rural”, set amidst broad meadows and fields, with the mountains of the Vercors on the near horizon. It is utterly peaceful, the everyday sounds only of (very occasional) agriculture, and crickets and birds… And there are birds all around us here, even more so than at home in Hampshire, where we feed them assiduously…And some are ones we never see in our English garden…

Nesting within the grounds of the gîte are both bee-eaters and kestrels, and they have been doing so ever since we’ve been coming to this gîte – this is our sixth year…

We don’t generally see bee-eaters in Britain but they are the most delightful little birds, quite exotic in appearance, with their stunningly colourful plumage.. Here at the gîte, they nest in holes in a sort of natural sandstone “cliff” in the garden. They return here most years from over-wintering in Africa.


One of the rather charming aspects of their behaviour is their habit of posting sentinels on the lookout, one presumes, for danger, here perched on the garden fence but also often on the power cable that overhangs the drive.

Guepier 01

The kestrels are quite possibly the same pair that we have been watching for each of the past few years. This year they have a brood of three, and earlier this evening we heard them talking to each other, before at length they all emerged from the stand of trees that is their home and soared aloft for their evening training session. For a lesson is what it seemed to be. One could imagine Dad saying to his young ones, “Now watch me closely, you lot. This is ‘hovering’…” He demonstrated. Then the youngsters did it too. They didn’t follow up the hover with the characteristic dive that indicates they are hunting creatures on the ground. They just hung there, sometimes with their wings not even quivering, high up in the sky. “Look, Dad!” they might be saying, “How’s this?” Then, in the fading light, they practised swooping and swerving, the five of them circling, calling to each other, perhaps catching insects as they flew, in what was for them too, surely, an exhilarating exhibition of their skill. It was a glorious sight!

67aDrome 2014

But then one bird flew back to the trees. She (?) perched on a topmost branch and called. Was she telling them it was time now to come home? A couple – maybe two of the youngsters – continued to circle higher but then, all of a sudden, they had left the sky, responding to the parent’s call… Of course it’s all too easy to anthropomorphise what was happening, but we often feel with the birds we observe, and especially with raptors, that they are hugely enjoying their ability simply to soar high above us ground-dwelling creatures…

As we also saw earlier today, in a similar display put on by a family – or was it two families, or perhaps a group of friends?? – of seven black kites, flying high right above the gîte, circling lazily in an azure sky, in the heat of the afternoon, perhaps just relishing their mastery of riding the thermals…

Drome 16 2113 Black Kite cropped

But not all our birds fly quite so high or quite so lazily… Some dart back and forth, screeching, others flit more daintily, then sit awhile to sing. As we enjoy our evening meal en plein air, birds seem almost to vie for attention in their calling.

The bee-eaters make a sort of chortling sound as they whizz about in joyous groups, presumably snatching bees and other insects from the air. A chaffinch has in fact kept up its singing more or less all day from a tree just a few yards from our terrace. We’re not quite sure whether or not it was a party of serins – but something very similar – that swooped suddenly onto the small plane tree that shelters the terrace from the fierceness of the sun, then serenaded us from the branches as we ate. Whatever they were, it was delightfully melodious and very loud! The kestrels, as they hover and swoop together in the same patch of sky seem to chatter amongst themselves. Then, later, just after the kestrels return to roost, and the light begins to fade, their calls gave way to the song of a nightingale, which we know nests a little beyond the kestrels’ trees. A nightingale is small but, my goodness, how its song carries on the still evening air.


By Noel Reynolds – Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), via

We have four more weeks here, and many more evenings to observe and listen to “our” birds. The kestrel young will probably leave the nest soon and the parents can get back to the business of just feeding themselves. The chaffinch on the other hand seems to be thinking he might be able to fit in another brood this summer, given how lustily he continues to sing out from his tree. I wonder if there’s any female chaffinch out there listening who’s still up for it! We’ll have to wait and see…


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