The birds of Southwest France say it’s spring

These cowslips have been around for several weeks, which is early. But it seems too early to call it spring…

Today marks the spring equinox. The birds think it’s spring, although this week we have been pitched back into winter. The weather has been damp and chilly, quite unlike the temperatures a fortnight ago, when we worked in the garden in shirtsleeves. Today, at least it’s sunny but bitterly cold in the wind. The birds go by the light rather than by the temperature, and activity has been increasing over the past month. The dawn chorus is tuning up.

A sparrow, one of many that nest in our house walls.

Whatever the weather, a blackbird has been singing from the top of a tree, morning and evening. Even when gales bend the branches, it hangs on, swaying about precariously while the need to lay claim to its territory compels it to sing. Another one, further away, answers it, equally determined to protect its domain.

Repelling invaders

It’s not just the males who are in the mood to repel invaders. A female has taken to tapping on our half-glazed kitchen door from first light. Presumably, she thinks the bird in the glass is an interloper. It’s obviously a violent contest, since she attacks the window pane with beak and claw, making quite a mess. She is very wary, but I just managed to get a fuzzy shot of her as she hopped away over the terrace.

The female blackbird is not the only one to do this. A blue tit has taken to attaching itself to our windows and tapping gently at its reflection. The “intruder” clearly doesn’t offend it as much as the blackbird’s does. As the light changes during the day, the blue tit moves between windows around the house.

In previous years, we have had a manic wagtail, which was seriously dischuffed by its reflection in our car wing mirror. And made plenty of mess on the bodywork in the process. It, too, was outraged by its reflection in an upstairs window.

A rare sighting

The woodpeckers have been active, too. The largest of them, the green woodpecker, has been making what I call its laughing jackass cry for several weeks now. I have yet to hear it drilling rapidly on wood, which is apparently a mating call.

The next one down in size, the greater spotted woodpecker gives itself away by its demented staccato call. We’ve seen one clinging to the bird feeder. That was a male, like the one in the picture. You can tell from the red spot on the back of its head. Both males and females have the red under-feathers.

Best of all, though, is a sighting of a rare lesser spotted woodpecker. I have never seen one at all, let alone here. From my desk, the bare branches of a walnut tree are visible. The other day, a small-ish bird, about the size of a sparrow, was scrambling about gymnastically on the outer twigs.

At first, I thought it was a goldfinch because of the red patch on its head, and the size. As I watched, I realised I was wrong. The bird didn’t have the other features, and it tapped at the branches like a woodpecker. It had barred white stripes on a black back and a dirty grey front. The bird looked a bit dishevelled, as if it had just got out of bed. Impossible to get a shot of it, since it was moving around too much.

Further research showed it was definitely a lesser spotted woodpecker, a pic épeichette in French. In England and Wales, there are estimated only to be 1,500 breeding pairs. I couldn’t find comparable figures for France. All I could discover was that the population in Northern Europe fluctuates considerably, year on year, and that they are more common in Northern France than further south.

The one I saw was a male, since only the males have the red patch on the head. For a photo, I have had to resort to Wikimedia Commons. The one below shows both a male (left of the trunk) and some females. Photoshopped, I suspect, since you’d be extremely lucky to get a shot like this, but it illustrates how they look.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers. Richard Crossley, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Although usually solitary birds, lesser spotted woodpeckers sometimes band up with flocks of other small birds, such as long-tailed tits, to forage for insects. Their beaks are less strong and rigid than those of other woodpeckers, so they make nests in existing holes in dead trees. We have plenty of those around here, so I do hope he will find a mate and breed.

Birds in decline

It’s good to see all of these birds, since we have been concerned for some time about the decline in some species of small bird. Most of the land around us is either pasture or woodland. I don’t use pesticides or chemicals in the garden, and we have deliberately left part of our woodland wild. I hope that the decline may be starting to reverse here.

When we were in lockdown last year, we took pleasure in these small things as winter turned to spring in its usual erratic way. While the situation continues, and the opportunities to travel anywhere are severely limited, we have come to realise how important it is to appreciate what you have around you. And we are so lucky to live where we do.

In other news, in a week that marked the first anniversary of lockdown no. 1, about a third of the French population is back in lockdown no. 3. For the moment, this doesn’t include our region. The French vaccination programme, already behind schedule, took a further knock when the AstraZeneca vaccine was temporarily withdrawn over fears about blood clotting. It has now been reinstated. Let’s hope this starts to dent the infection figures, which have been spiralling again in France this week.

Stay safe.

You might also like:

Where have all the small birds gone?

Golden bird with a golden song

Nightingales in Southwest France

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2021. All rights reserved.       


  1. Here we are on the first day of spring and we still have snowflakes! Happily that hasn’t stopped the birds but they are less visible than in your parts. Love hearing about the woodpeckers — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one before. Also glad to hear Astra Zeneca is back on track with the other jabs in France. Hopefully it won’t be long before we’ll be able to join the birds in migrating freely and even singing again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is unusually chilly. We had minus two this morning, and the wind was coming straight from the North. The birds don’t seem to bother, though! I hope they can ramp up the vaccination rate here in France soon. The intensive care services in some regions are creaking at the seams. Take care.


  2. Despite the Arctic temperatures this week, I am also enjoying the twittering, singing birds. Lovely to have a Spotted Woodpecker feeding in your garden!

    My recent wonderful bird sighting was in the warm sunny days, before this chill. I was sitting waiting for my husband to come up with the coffee and I was looking up at my favourite tree, an enormous Tilleul. I was looking hard into it, when I saw that an enormous plank-sized bird was flying in and out of the Tilleul … it flew just above me and the sun lit the golden feathers on his underside. It then spiralled high up on a thermal and still looked huge, then glided down and made his elegant exit. I rushed into the house to check and it WAS a Golden Eagle!

    We can see the Auvergne volcanoes from here in far the distance, but as the Eagle flies it’s probably just a few flaps of the wings to get here!:) This last year has taught me a great deal … we were always whizzing off to see other parts of the countryside and yet everything is here!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The birds don’t seem to bother about the chilly weather. The need to reproduce overcomes all that!

      How wonderful to see a golden eagle! I wonder what it was doing in your tree? That’s not their usual type of nesting spot, but it would be amazing if it did nest there. You’d have to stay indoors all the time!

      A vol d’oiseau, you probably aren’t all that far from the Monts du Cantal, so it could have wafted down from there. They’ve had a lot of snow up there this winter, so maybe it has had to forage further afield. You’re so right that we have such wonderful things under our noses.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I had the feeling that the Eagle was just having fun and since it was one of those wonderful warm sunny days (hard to remember in this present chill!) and lunchtime, the thermal activity was perfect for some fun! I watched him rise, spiralling round (no wing flapping … so very graceful) above the Tilleul, higher and higher until he was amazingly high in the sky. He slipped gracefully out of it, to then glide off towards the woods and the direction of the Cantal … so I think you’re right!:)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I love to watch the buzzards enjoy the thermals. Sometimes you see twenty or so wheeling around, so it must be marvellous to see an eagle do it! I hope she/he comes back.


  3. Vanessa,do you get visited by the spectacular Hoopoe? When I was lucky enough to visit France,we stayed with friends who said they were commonplace but I have only seen one in the Mayenne.
    Perhaps my visits co-incided with the wrong time of year?
    Like you I am concerned with the obvious reduction in garden birds,when I first moved to my present house in England,we used to get huge numbers of greenfinches,haven’t seen one in years.
    Keep well and safe
    Best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Stuart. It’s good to hear from you. Yes, the hoopoe is a visitor here, normally arriving in late March/early April and leaving by September. They are so exotic with their crest of feathers. Once, we were treated to the sight of a pair feeding a fledgling on our front lawn. We had to laugh as the young one pursued its parents around the lawn, demanding food. I’m sure they were glad to see it go when it could fend for itself. Their numbers, too, seem to have declined in recent years. Stay safe. Vanessa.


    • Vanessa,perhaps one of the few positives of the pandemic is that you don’t take so many things for granted.I have really missed going up and walking along the North Norfolk coast this winter and enjoying watching all the different wading birds.
      One bird that does seem to be on the up in the UK is the Red Kite,I remember when I was in the Auvergne seeing huge numbers of both Red and Black Kites.
      When things do eventually settle down,I am really hoping that I will appreciate more some of the simpler pleasures of life,such as the company of family,friends,wildlife and our surroundings and be a better person for it.
      Have you uncovered any more stories from WW2?,you know how much I enjoy reading those.
      Best wishes

      Liked by 1 person

      • One never appreciates anything so much as when it is taken away! I’ve never been to that part of Norfolk, but I’m sure it’s a wonderful place to see many species of water bird. We also have red kites, but I don’t think I’ve seen a black kite here. Liz, who lives about 50 km from us, reports in her comment that she saw a golden eagle!

        Actually, I have recently discovered a WW2 story centred on a convent in a village not far from us. I need to do some more research before I can write about it, but it might be a good basis for fiction, too. I know you like the WW2 stories!

        All good wishes, Vanessa


  4. How lucky are you to see your woodpeckers. Ours have been drumming the woods around us and I was curious to see if it was related to mating.. and it is! Less hectic now do maybe relationships have been formed. It is the big green ones we see flying across the garden. There was a magpie in our trees the other day, a very rare visitor. For us the first day of spring was marked by the unexpected arrival of our cartes de sejour permanente. We thought we would be called to the prefecture first but, clearly, they dug out our photos from our march 2019 rendezvous. We are so chuffed and relieved…. And the sunshine has been glorious today but with a bitter east wind that battered me when I collected the bread on my bike! Stay safe..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do love to see the woodpeckers, and it was especially good to see a lesser spotted one, which are now quite rare. I believe that all varieties make the drumming noise, which is a mating call. We have more magpies than when we first moved here. I don’t care for them, since they will take the smaller birds.

      Congrats on getting your CdS. Mine is applied for, but I haven’t yet had the call. No doubt our préfecture will make me do the fingerprints again, despite the fact that I did that in 2016.

      Yes, chilly in the wind today, as we found when we went for a walk this afternoon! Forecast to be much warmer by the end of next week.


  5. As much as I love these mountains, there is a definite lack of songbirds here! I’ve heard the crows arguing, magpies chattering, and a mourning dove calling. That’s about it for birds so far this spring. So your lovely post on the birds in your garden is a spirit-lifter for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We certainly live in a good place for birdlife, being fairly heavily wooded around here. There’s also quite a variety of terrain and habitats in the area, which helps. I’ve seen the pictures of your mountains, and they are beautiful, but maybe they lack trees and possibly the kind of food the smaller birds need (insects, etc). It was pretty quiet here until a few weeks ago. Then they started waking up!


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