Gorges du Verdon's Wild, Wildlife

The Gorges du Verdon is a treasure trove for wildlife, anyone passing through by car or on foot is very likely to see a natural wonder. Aside from the Gorge itself, you could see anything from orchids to butterflies, from griffon vultures to hoopoes and chamois to wolves. The gorge has plenty of offer for the nature lover. In my blog I would like to talk about just a few species that have captured the people’s imagination and add to the mysterious beauty of the Gorges du Verdon.

‘Ici, c’est plus que loin, c’est ailleurs’, or in English, ‘This is more than faraway, it’s another world’, said Jean Giono, a noted Provencal author, about the Grand Canyon of Provence, The Gorges du Verdon.

For me, this poetic, short description, perfectly and concisely, sums up the gorge. ‘Another World’ or in a different translation, ‘Elsewhere’. I spend a lot of time in the gorge and I certainly get this sense when I am in it and surrounded by it. I have often said to my wife, Anna, that it feels magical and that it seems to exude a positive energy that is hard to describe.

Driving to the Gorges du Verdon, from Moustiers-Sainte Marie, you wind up to the entrance of the Gorge, and for a few minutes you drive along the bottom of the gateway, towards it’s opening, with stunning views over Lake Sainte Croix, and you are thinking ‘Wow, this is amazing’, a 12km long view over a mass of sparkling, beautiful clean water, with the Plateau de Valensole to the west (such a jumble of landscapes in close proximity, a lake, a plateau, a gorge and mountains, all meeting within a 25km radius) and then you road suddenly veers off to the left and into the Gorge. You are ushered in by a natural, pointed 5-metre-high lump of limestone on the right-hand side of the road and you get the sensation that you have just passed into ‘another world’.

Once in, you are confronted with a slow winding, turquoise river that feeds the mighty Lake Sainte. Croix, now behind you. The river sits in a woodland nest, with steep wooded, rocky sides, that rise above the river. You feel wrapped up in the Gorge’s huge walls and its dramatic landscape with only the sky above.

Inside the gorge your senses experience sensory overload as you are bombarded with mountainous, rocky, craggy landscapes, coupled with pastures and meadows on the flatter parts of the Col d’Ayen. An element that adds to the magic of this geological gem is the wildlife it harbours. The creatures that call the gorge their home.

Travelling on the right bank of the Gorges, on the Moustiers Sainte-Marie to Castellane road, as you near the village of La Palud sur Verdon, you will begin to see an increasing number of gliding and circling birds high up in the blue sky. These birds are one of the main attractions of the gorge, the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) or vautour fauve as it is known in French. Fauve means tanned or tawny in English which refers to the bird’s body colouring. It’s flight and tail feathers in stark contrast are very dark, nearly black and the head is a creamy-white, giving the griffon a ‘chocolate’ appearance, white, milk and dark chocolate.

The griffon vulture is best observed at the Route des Crete, a 23km circuit, that sits in the heart of the Gorges du Verdon. This road takes you from La Palud sur Verdon, away from the main road and scales up to the edges of Sampson’s Corridor, where the gorge walls are at its highest, 700m in some places. The Route des Crete has many viewing points in to the canyon and its river and it is easy to imagine, whilst looking down on to the river from the balconies, hundreds of metres up, that the river below has slowly carved the canyon out over millions of years. You can hear the shallow river below rushing along over rocks and boulders, that have fallen from the vertical walls above, and as you gaze across to the opposite wall of the canyon you will surely see a griffon vulture gliding on thermals passing through Samson’s Corridor, sometimes, below you, circling for carrion in the lower parts of the canyon, or high above you, singularly, or in pairs or groups.

The biggest treat is when they pass at eye level, and it is then you truly get to see their full splendour. You see every tiny detail, from their feathers to their beady eye staring at you. They enjoy posing for the cameras that click furiously like machine guns as they pass. You hear the wind rushing through their feathers like a kite makes when it is high in the sky, flapping in the wind.

A back story to the griffon, worth knowing, is that they were reintroduced to the Gorges du Verdon after being persecuted by farmers and hunters until they finally disappeared. 12 pairs were released into the Gorge, after nearly a century of absence, in 1999, in the nearby village of Rougon, a village perched high in the Gorge, 930m, which looks right into Samson’s Corridor, a section of the canyon that has the highest walls. This program has been a huge success for the Parc du Verdon and the LPO (Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux) Provence, with other various partners involved, and now the number of vultures in the Verdon area equals to around 315, according to a report by the LPO in 2015. The Griffon Vulture has since become a symbol for the Gorges du Verdon and they are now one of its major tourist attractions.

There are two other species of vulture that you may see here. The black vulture (Aegypius monachus) which is a marginally bigger bird than the griffon vulture, nearly 3 metre wingspan, and is the biggest raptor in Europe. These birds were also part of a reintroduction program and in 2005, 2 birds were released into the Gorge, and as of 2010, again according to the LPO, the black vulture numbered 16. Therefore, it is quite a rare sight to see this enormous raptor in comparison with the griffon vulture which easily outnumbers it.

The other vulture is the Egyptian vulture, (Neophon percnopterus) the smallest vulture in Europe with a wingspan of just 1m60cm. This scruffy looking punk, is not a full-time resident of the Gorges, and will migrate south, to the Sahara, for the winter period. These birds are harder to spot than the Black Vulture, due to very low numbers observed, as little as 4 birds in 2010.

If you’re very lucky, you may get to see the golden eagle, (Aquila chrysaetos) known for their spectacular courtship in mid-air during autumn, where the male pretends to attack his intended lover and together, Bolero style, they tumble and spin, as they hurtle towards the earth. The Gorges du Verdon in autumn is such a colourful background to witness this natural event.

Other birds of prey to view are the eagle owl, (Bupo bupo) the biggest nocturnal raptor in Europe and a bird that stays with the same partner for life. You can hear the eagle owl calling in the winter time in the cliffs of the canyon walls during its courtship.

The short-toed snake eagle, (Circaetus gallicus) affectionately known as Circaete Jean-le-blanc in French, can be seen soaring above the sunny plains and pastures of the Gorges du Verdon, hunting for its reptilian prey. Due to the lack of reptiles in the winter months this bird will migrate south across the Mediterranean to Africa.

One of my favourite birds to spot in the gorge is the hoopoe (Upupa epops). A collared dove sized bird with an orangey-brown head and shoulders with a black and white striped lower body and wings. What makes this tropical looking bird standout is its royal crest of orange with black tipped feathers on its head, which it can raise or fold back at will. I have seen this bird in the park behind the chateau in La Palud sur Verdon. It marches across the grassy play area, sticking it’s long, tapered narrow beak into the soil; holds it there for a while, as if he is taking the soil temperature, withdraws his beak and reveals an insect or wriggly worm in between. You more than often hear them before you see them. In spring, you can hear their distinctive call of opp-oop-oop, which gives the hoopoe its name. They do not stay in the Gorges all year and will disappear for the winter for warmer climate.

Other birds that are a joy to see at these viewing points along the Route des Crete in the very heart of the Gorges are Alpine Swifts, Choughs, Ravens, Northern Wheatears and Crag Martins.

Moving away from birds to mammals, an even toed ungulate, that always causes me to stop the car or halt me in my tracks when I am trekking high up in the gorge, and watch it and see what it does, is the chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra). This member of the Bovidae family, the same as goats and antelopes, can be seen in small groups from the road in rough pastures on the way to La Palud sur Verdon in the Col d’Ayens, which is a small valley between peaks in the gorge. The chamois numbers have grown since it’s natural reintroduction to the Verdon area in the 1920’s. A beautiful white face with a black stripe that runs on both sides of its head from the ear, passing under the eye and to the muzzle. The chamois has horns that are straight but are slightly hooked backwards, on a relatively small head in comparison to its body. A small bovid, with a light brown, red coat in the summer becoming thicker and darker in colour for the winter.

Another mammal, which has caused plenty of controversy since making a spontaneous and perhaps an unwanted comeback, is the grey wolf (Canis Lupus). This kingly animal’s return has divided communities in the Verdon area since it started to colonise and spread through the mountains from behind Nice and via the Italian Alps. Headlines in the local paper decry ‘Une Nouvelle Attaque du Loup’, referring to a sheep or goat kill by the wolf. Compensation is little from the government for the shepherd’s and farmers for any of their animals that are killed by the wolf, so some of farmers and shepherds have taken the ‘problem’ into their own hands and formed wolf hunting groups. As the Wolf is protected in France, there are a limited number of wolves allowed to be killed each year. The number for 2016 was 33. The permitted recorded limit was reached. It would be interesting to know what the actual number of wolves killed in 2016 was, recorded and unrecorded.

Although I have never seen the wolf in the Gorge du Verdon, I have seen evidence of it. During a supported wildlife photography holiday in April 2016, with Go Provence, of which I am a director, Chris Sperring MBE, who was leading the holiday makers up to the Pavillon, a 1630m rounded mountain that sits just on the perimeter of the Gorges du Verdon, found wolf tracks in the snow at the peak. At the base of the Pavillon, situated just behind Moustiers Sainte-Marie, Chris also found the remains of a lower leg belonging to a deer/chamois.

Talking to the locals about the wolf and you will hear stories of sightings and attacks on local flocks of domestic goats and sheep. One story that stands out in my mind is from Patrice of Verdon Passion, who provides Go Provence with a tandem paragliding activity up near the Pavillon
He once told me that a nearby farmer put a trailcam (an automatic camera that takes pictures when it’s beam is broken. This usually happen when something passes in front of the camera) on one of the pathways near the summit of the Pavillon to try to capture an image of a wolf that he suspected of killing up to 150 of his sheep and goats over a 4-year period. The images that he got back from his special camera confirmed what he expected, a wolf was indeed nearby.

An interesting part of this story is that the wolf passed the camera once a day at the same time, just before midnight. The farmer decided to return to the point where he had placed his camera and patiently wait for the wolf to pass where he would be waiting with his rifle. The rest you can imagine but this time there was a happy ending for the wolf. The wolf didn’t show up, so the farmer returned down the hill without any blood on his hands. Yet the following night when he received his images from the camera, the wolf had triggered the camera into action and took its photo at 11.50pm. You can imagine that in the photo that the farmer received, the wolf was probably flicking the V’s down the camera lens or pulling a moony in defiance.

How come the wolf evaded the hunters shiny rifle the night before? After talking with a British wolf tracker, Troy Bennett, who used to be a goat shepherd in the Mercantor region in the hills behind Nice, he told me that the wolf would have smelt the farmer literally a mile away and would have taken an alternative route as to avoid the farmer. When Troy is wolf tracking, he doesn’t wash for three weeks and leaves his clothes in a goat barn for the same amount of time to get rid of those men, chemically smells that we find in our soaps, shampoos, shower gels and other washing products.

There are methods that farmers can use, with the unwanted arrival of the wolf, in the Verdon area. Talking with Julie and Ben, a young couple, at an organic goat farm in Moustiers Sainte-Marie, le Ferme des Fabrigoules, situated at the doors of the Gorges du Verdon. They have seen a wolf on their farm and they tell me they have erected high fences around their farm that the wolf cannot jump or bury under. They accept that the wolf is back on the radar and have put measures in place to protect their flocks.

To my surprise, I thought that the Parc du Verdon would have been welcoming to the wolf, considering their positive conservation approach to the vultures for example, but I was to learn otherwise. I have put together a wolf tracking supported holiday for our holiday makers for March 2017, which will be led by Troy, mentioned above. When putting the program together for this holiday I spoke with someone suggesting the Parc du Verdon could work with Go Provence on this project. The person told me that this was a bad idea as one of the presidents of the park is also a mayor of a nearby village that is within the park’s boundaries. If the park was seen to be sympathetic in any way to the wolf this could actually affect this persons position in his village where he is mayor and he may lose votes, as a lot of his voters are farmers. It is a shame that the wolf, and the education on issues concerning the wolf to the local people of the Verdon, have to suffer, because somebody working for the park has a power agenda which compromises the integrity of the Park, as well as compromising the ecosystem of the Verdon area.

The Gorges du Verdon is a great habitat for much flora and fauna. If you would like to find out more about what you can see in the Gorges du Verdon, there are two books I would highly recommend.
Both books are in French and have yet to be translated into English.

One is a hiking book made specifically for the Gorges du Verdon. In it there are 15 walks, and each walk has dedicated text and photos to what kind of nature you may see during your walk. It is called ‘Balades nature dans le parc naturel régional du verdon’ (Nature Walks in the National Verdon Park) published by Dakota Editions.

The other is a beautiful photography book by David Allemand. The book feature many fine art photographs of the gorge and it’s wildlife. The book is called ‘Verdon autre Visages’ (The Verdon’s other Faces). This book is available on David’s website.

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