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Leucate - Leucate, Aude (11)
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Site descriptions


Leucate, perhaps the premier spring migration watchpoint in France, unfairly fell into oblivion. Will it ever rise from its ashes? The text below is a translation from La France à tire-d'aile (2005) from Philippe J. Dubois & Elise Rousseau, published by Delachaux & Niestlé and reproduced here with the kind authorization of the publisher and the authors.  

Natural surroundings of the watchpoint

The département of the Aude is located along a major flyway from Western Europe to Africa and vice versa. Birds on the move flock along its coastline. Local topography, wind force and direction all have a bearing on the intensity of the migratory flow. The Leucate cliffs, between Narbonne and Perpignan are an outstanding spring migration trap for many birds that braved the eastern Pyrenees. The watchpoint lies on a limestone plateau rising some 50 m (164 ft) above the sea. Covered by vineyards, almond trees, dry grassland and garrigue it has a good selection of Mediterranean breeding birds and is a pit-stop for nocturnal migrants. The vantage point on the sea front, with a view over the coastal plains, is ideally located to watch bird migration.

History of the survey and environmental interests

Leucate was one of the most intensively surveyed watchpoints between 1981 and 1989. Since then, it has only been visited irregularly. The survey period extended from mid February to mid June with peak species diversity between 15 April and 15 May. The best time to see a good variety of raptor species is the first decade of May. For whatever its destiny may be, Leucate will remain in the annals as arguably the best migration watchpoint in France. The spring migration survey began as an operation against Honey Buzzard- poaching. This migratory raptor, wintering in the forests of tropical Africa, feeds almost exclusively on hymenoptera (bees, bumble-bees and wasps). In early May, many Honey Buzzards were shot by local hunters for food and used to make a local dish, known as  « soupe aux buses » (buzzard soup). The “heavenly manna” was used as a strategy to manage limited food resources.  A survey of the species, an awareness-raising campaign and last but not least the stubborn willingness to stop this illegal activity, have finally paid off. The illegal shooting of Honey Buzzards eventually stopped in 1983, after a joint campaign with the game wardens of the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage (ONCFS).

Migration calendar and emblematic species

During spring, birds are everywhere. Storks and raptors can be seen at Leucate, but some of them shun the coast for the Corbières foothills (parishes of Fitou and Treilles), particularly in response to a moderate northwesterly wind. The surrounding plateaux are also favorable for raptor migration and may hold impressive numbers of resting and feeding songbirds. Thekla Lark, a rare breeding bird in France, occurs also in the area together with many Mediterranean species. Wildflowers can be stunning at this time of the year and include many species of orchid. Additionally, spring migration of soaring birds can also be watched at Gruissan, at the coastal lagoons of Campignol or l’Ayrolle. Leucate offers birders an opportunity to view a wide array of species, e.g. raptors, storks, seabirds, gulls, waterfowl, passerines, Bee-eaters and swifts … The site is particularly interesting, however, for passerine migration. Mornings with tens of thousands of birds are no exception. During spring, raptor migration is one of the highlights. A staggering 30 000 of them are counted in good years and Honey Buzzard is the predominant species. Sometimes, there is a remarkable Honey Buzzard rush, usually around 10 May (6500 inds on 9 May 1988, close to 11 000 on 7 May 1991!). Many Black Kites migrate between mid March and mid April, with 5000 inds in peak years. Marsh Harrier is another common raptor, reaching a maximum of 1000 birds mainly in March-April . Although Red-footed Falcons are much rarer, they can be seen regularly here, with e.g. more than 30 inds in 1989. Short-toed Eagles tend to avoid the coastline and migrate mostly over the eastern Corbières, with sometimes up to 800 birds in spring (mainly around mid March). Storks – mostly White Storks - soar regularly over the Leucate cliffs. Up to 500 have been counted in spring.  Leucate is also famous for its migration of songbirds and other small birds. Swifts can be seen in considerable numbers (maximum of 100 000 birds in spring). Common Swift is abundant, Alpine Swifts are common and Pallid Swifts are regularly seen. The latter breed nearby. Bee-eaters also migrate in numbers, with a maximum of 6000 birds, mainly between mid April and 20 May. Among passerines, finches, swallows and martins predominate. Some 100 000 swallows and martins are counted each spring: in descending order there are between 40 000 and 70 000 Barn Swallows, 10 000 to 26 000 House Martins, 500 to 1250 Sand Martins and 400 to 1000 Rock Martins. Red-rumped Swallows are also regular at Leucate (with up to 80 inds in spring) and this is undoubtedly one of the very best sites in France to pick up the species among migrating Barn Swallows. Flocks of finches abound. Chaffinch is very evident, with fluctuating numbers from year to year, but sometimes exceeding 100 000 inds. At Leucate, excellent numbers of Serin can be seen (20 000 to 30 000 birds) but you will also be distracted by many Linnets and Goldfinches. Large numbers of Yellow Wagtails occur (up to 15 000 birds per spring). Red-throated Pipits are also found regularly here. With a strong sea wind, seawatching is the better option. For seabird migration, the piers of the harbours of Gruissan and Port-la-Nouvelle, as well as the Leucate cliffs are very good sites. In spring (and particularly in April) seabird migration may yield some surprises: Black-throated and Great Northern Divers (in breeding plumage!), Yelkouan Shearwaters, Gannets, Red-breasted Mergansers, Arctic and Pomarine Skuas, Great Skuas, Mediterranean Gulls, Little Gulls and even Kittiwakes (sometimes in good numbers), Sandwich Terns, Common Terns, en sometimes (in May) Long-tailed Skuas and Storm Petrels. These are also right conditions to watch water birds and passerines on stop-over sites in the various coastal wetlands.  The nearby garrigue is interesting for Mediterranean birds such as the Great Spotted Cuckoo, Black-eared Wheatear, Spectacled Warbler and Woodchat Shrike. Spotless Starlings can be seen on the roofs of Leucate-Plage. The village gardens and the surroundings of the camp site, slightly further south, are good sites to watch foraging passerines (Common Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers and sometimes even Collared Flycatchers).

Weather conditions

After the crossing of the eastern Pyrenees, migratory birds often face a strong northwesterly wind (locally known as « tramontane ») that pushes them towards the coast and forces them to fly lower. As the birds will avoid flying over the sea, the migratory flow will concentrate over the narrow coastal plains, bordered by the Corbières foothills. With a usually less strong sea wind (east to south-east) on the other hand, most birds will disperse inland and fly higher. These conditions are less interesting for birding. When the tramontane blows, more birds can be seen. With a strong easterly or southeasterly wind, however, seawatching is recommended.


Take the exit « Leucate » on the A9 motorway between Narbonne and Perpignan. The access to the cliffs is located between Leucate-Village and Leucate-Plage (either cross Leucate-Village towards Leucate-Plage or vice versa). Take a small road between the two (signposted « phare de Leucate »), to the left when driving from Leucate-Village to Leucate-Plage. Once on the cliff top, park near the first conifer bush or near the lighthouse. The best watchpoint is in the southernmost part: walk along the holiday camp to an isolated villa on the cliff edge. Follow the path between the villa and the holiday camp (along the fence) until you reach a small headland with a view over the coastal plains to the south. It is also possible to watch near the lighthouse, but the viewing conditions are less interesting as a part of the migratory flow is out of view. The plateau behind the lighthouse holds a good selection of Mediterranean species. It is possible to walk to cap Leucate (towards the north) and to walk down towards Franqui (near les Coussoules, a birding hotspot).

Where to stay?

Some camp sites at Leucate-Plage are still closed on Easter holidays. There are several hotels as well as holiday cottages (e.g. at Leucate-Plage).

You can contact the Tourist Office of Port-Leucate (Phone : 04 68 40 91 31) or consult the website of the municipality of Leucate:


There is no permanency at Leucate. The monitoring is now done by Med Migration. Do not hesitate to contact us at or via the facebook page

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