Gayle Smith Padgett

The Northern Mockingbird started the birding ball rolling—for an American guy named Ralph who became my husband. Several years before we met in the Washington, D.C. area, this brash bird had landed on Ralph’s balcony railing. His curiosity was piqued and his fascination with birds soared. He loved tromping around outdoors enjoying the thrill of discovery while being intellectually challenged. Birding was fun! Soon he’d be driving four hours to Assateague Island to bird till dusk, returning the same day. After all, the zone is home to over 300 nesting and migratory species.

Soon after my passionate birdman and this non-birder (!) were married in the early 90s, work took us to Heidelberg, Germany. For our delayed honeymoon, we chose Provence. I adored French culture and Ralph was wildly excited about roaming the vast wetland of the Camargue. During our brief holiday, he spotted Greater Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts, Eurasian Spoonbills, Pied Avocets, and a variety of egrets and herons—birding paradise. I flipped for the hilltop villages, outdoor markets, and l’art de vivre mindset, and we both eagerly indulged in the divine cuisine, the warm soleil and chilled rosé. We returned to Germany, both completely and totally smitten with the region.

Fast forward through countless trips to France over the next couple of decades and on to early retirement. In 2011, we made France home. Our town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, one hour from the Camargue, is snuggled into the Alpilles (the Little Alps). Climbing to higher elevations—and depending Lady Luck—the Eurasian Eagle Owl, Egyptian Vulture, and Wallcreeper and even Bonelli’s Eagle may fly by. In season, and only a short walk from our house, Hoopoe, European Roller, and European Bee-eater often appear.

By October 2018, Ralph was primed to spread his wings and proposed that we have a big year, with the goal of spotting (or hearing) at least 200 bird species in France in one calendar year. That number may not impress an experienced birder, but Ralph imposed several constraints, such as no planes and no pelagic excursions.

But the biggest obstacle was me. I was fine acting as the scope-toter, documentarian, and logistician, but since the eat-preen-love lifestyle of birds did not fascinate me, I was apprehensive. However, I jumped on the birding bandwagon because I owed Ralph—he’d supported me enormously while I was working on my first book, Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie (2017). Plus, an off the beaten track adventure had great appeal. And, Ralph promised not to become quest-obsessive but go slow and savor the experience. Off we went.

Throughout 2019 we crisscrossed France from the Mediterranean to the English Channel, the Pyrenees to the Alps. Bird highlights were the Eurasian Eagle Owl in the Alpilles, Guillemot at Cap Frèhel (Brittany), Eurasian Griffon Vulture (near Barcelonnette, Italian border), Great White Pelican (Salin-de-Giraud, Camargue) and Western Swamphen (Pont de Tourrandons, Camargue Gardoise, west of the Rhône).

The quest ended January 1, 2020 on the beach in Saintes-Maries-de-Mer, followed by our official celebration on Global Wetlands Day, February 2, 2020. Next came eighteen months of wrangling with my big year notes, resulting in The Birdwatcher’s Wife (2021).

Our year-long quest plus writing a book about it had a huge impact on me. One wowzer moment occurred along Vaccarès Lake while Ralph searched for Common Snipe and other waders. I absent mindedly glanced at the water’s edge and squealed, “Kingfisher!” Clearly, something crazy was happening.

Now my binoculars rest at the ready. Birding brings me an enhanced sense of serenity and never fails to boost my bliss.

Gayle- Smith Padgett in the Camargue

Gayle Smith Padgett
22 August 2022

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