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Gruissan-Narbonne - Gruissan, Aude (11)
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Gruissan – Narbonne : Le roc de Conilhac, Narbonne

Surroundings and natural setting of the watchpoint 
 
The autumn migration watchpoint of Gruissan/Narbonne (le roc de Conilhac) is situated in the Aude littoral zone, 5 km from the seashore as the crow flies. The watchpoint is a 20 m high limestone hillock with a view over the Narbonne marshes. Wetlands surround the rock: the coastal lagoons of Campignol, l'Ayrolle and Bages-Sigean, “sansouires” (Salicornia steppe), paddy fields, bull pastures and saline steppe. Nearby, several limestone ranges (with garrigue, dry meadows and pine trees) form a mountain belt around the plains: massif de La Clape to the north, île Saint-Martin to the east and the Corbières foothills to the west.
 
Roc de Conilhac is ideally situated to funnel the autumn flow of migratory birds, mainly descending through the Rhône valley and continuing along the western flyway to Spain and beyond. The slightly higher vantage point offers a 360° panoramic view on the plains of Narbonne. Massive migration can be enjoyed here with a northwesterly wind, locally known as “le cers”, blowing regularly and often quite strongly from Narbonne towards the Languedoc coast. In the area, a northwesterly is a major constraint for migratory birds in autumn. As the birds are predominantly flying from northeast to southwest, the wind pushes them towards to coast. Many migrants will avoid a sea crossing and are caught in a migration bottleneck, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Corbières foothills.
 
Most of the birds cross the limestone range of La Clape and either benefit from thermals or shelter from heavy winds. In strong wind, birds will often fly lower. Roc de Conilhac is situated at the crossroads of migration, just south of the mountain range. The watchpoint also allows to survey wide-front migration. When there is no wind or a southeasterly wind, the flight is spread over a wider front and birds tend to gain height (sometimes disappearing out of view). In these conditions they usually migrate inland, over the mountain ranges.
 
Wind force and direction strongly affect the stream of migrants and this may be regarded as a typical feature of the watchpoint. The wind determines major interannual differences between counts, varying from simple to triple.
 
For various reasons (topography, position of the mountain ranges, shape of the Gulf of Lion coastline, wind corridors) the coast of Gruissan and Narbonne is an important migrant trap. Counts at nearby sites have systematically revealed lower figures.
History of the survey
Gruissan/Narbonne is one of the pioneer migration watchpoints in France, in the footsteps of surveys in the Basque Country (e.g. Organbidexka). The survey started in 1983 through the impetus given by Jean Sériot and continued for ten years (until 1992). LPO, FIR and GRIVE coordinated these counts initially, with a support by GRIVE from 1986 onward and ARONDE from 1988. Next, until the mid 2000s no more complete annual surveys took place, with only irregular counts or for shorter periods. In 2007, LPO Aude coordinated an extensive survey until November, renewed in 2008.
The watchpoint is among the 3 or 4 very best sites in Europe to observe raptors, storks and several other species. In this respect, regular annual surveys would allow to gather valuable information on the population dynamics of certain bird populations at a European level. The first comparisons between the ten-year series (1983-1992) and recent results (2007-2008) look very promising indeed!
Ornithological interest, emblematic species
The autumn migration period ranges from mid July to mid November. For a number of species, important cold migration periods can be noticed until the end of November or early December. During top years, 20 000 - 25 000 raptors and 2 500 - 3 000 storks (mainly White Storks) have been counted. Perhaps uniquely in France, 30 raptor species have been seen from roc de Conilhac during autumn migration (with up to 25 species in a single season, e.g. in 2007 and 2008). It is beyond any doubt the prime site for Eleonora’s Falcon in France (with 20 – 30 observations a season). This species is staging regularly nearby the watchpoint, mainly until early September.
Raptor numbers include up to 12 000 Honey Buzzards, 5 000 Black Kites, 5 000 Sparrowhawks, 2 000 Buzzards, 1 500 Kestrels, 1 500 Marsh Harriers and 350 Hobbies…
The interest of the watchpoint, however, goes far beyond raptors and storks. The site has a high species diversity (with 160 migratory species so far).
Passerine numbers are more difficult to quantify and are not a priority of the survey. Some figures, however, illustrate the importance of passerine migration: up to 300 000 swifts (including regularly observed Pallid Swifts), between 50 000 and 100 000 swallows and martins (including Red-rumped Swallow), over 50 000 Chaffinches, etc ... Bee-eater is also a local specialty, with 2 to 3 000 individuals a season. Some hundred Rollers were counted in 2007. On the other hand, the site is not of national importance for Woodpigeons or Cranes.
 
There is no top season for migration. Each time of the year has its own species:
  • from mid July to mid August : mainly swifts and Black Kite
  • from mid August to early September : Honey Buzzard, Bee-eater...
  • September : highest species diversity, Sparrowhawk, Marsh Harrier, falcons, swallows and martins…
  • October : Sparrowhawk, falcons, finches ...
  • November : Buzzard, finches ...
 
If Gruissan/Narbonne draws important numbers of birders every year, this is mainly thanks to migration. The general area, however, with a wide variety of habitats and the nearby Mediterranean Sea, has much more to offer. The wetlands show a wide range of passerines, waders and other water birds. The Gruissan saltpans and lagoon de l'Ayrolle attract important numbers of waders, gulls and terns. Seawatching may also be interesting (skuas, shearwaters, alcids, gulls …), whereas the garrigue in the nearby mountains has Mediterranean passerines. Among the species sought after by visiting birders are Purple Gallinule, Glossy Ibis, White-winged Black Tern, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gull, Black-eared Wheatear, Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit…
 
If you don’t mind a 45 minute drive south, you may observe Mediterranean birds in the Corbières. Typical species include: Golden Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, the Mediterranean Sylvia warblers, Thekla Lark, Spotless Starling, Black-eared Wheatear, Blue and Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush, etc…
 
How to get there?
 
From Narbonne, drive towards Gruissan (from the motorway, take exit “Narbonne Est”). Follow at the entrance of Gruissan (first roundabout) the signs « Gruissan centre », and then « Gruissan-Village ». Follow at the next roundabout (beyond the bridge) « Gruissan-Village ». To avoid the village centre, take towards “Salin du midi” (via the north along Gruissan lagoon), and always follow « salin ». Across the bridge over the canal between the lagoon and the sea, take right towards « Narbonne ». 3 km further, across a humpback bridge, you will notice the Observatory of LPO Aude (shortly before a bridge over a canal). There is a car park beyond the bridge and the migration watchpoint is situated on the hillock to the north.
 
A map is available on the website of LPO Aude :
 
Where to eat and where to stay?
 
The watchpoint is on the boundary between Gruissan and Narbonne. Both are touristy places and there is a wide choice of accommodation and restaurants nearby.
 
Under certain conditions, LPO Aude may offer free accommodation to volunteers actively participating in migration counts. You should contact us in advance for details.
 
Contact
 
LPO Aude
Ecluse de Mandirac, 11100 NARBONNE
Tel. : 04.68.49.12.12. / Email : aude@lpo.fr
Internet page on migration :http://aude.lpo.fr/Migration.html
 
Results are also available on :
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