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BIRDING TRIP REPORT:

France - Camargue, Les Alpilles, La Crau

4 - 10 May 2008

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction
This is a report on a visit to the Camargue area of France in early May 2008. Unlike some other recent birding add-ons to business trips, for this holiday I was accompanied by my semi-birder wife. Hence this was by no means a 100% full-on birding trip. Nevertheless, a fair amount of birding was done, including one early morning start to La Crau.

This was a region we had last visited 25 years ago, and as this trip was a special occasion, we treated ourselves to somewhat more expensive accommodation than usual (see details at end).

It was good to find even after 25 years that the area is still rich in typical Mediterranean birds, although the amount of rice growing seemed to have increased substantially. Many of the places we had visited so long ago still seemed productive, with the one exception of the Tour du Valat area on the east side of the Camargue. In 1983, this was an excellent marsh, but in 2008 it had changed to dusty, dried up mud, with no real birding interest.

Having done a fair bit of birding since our last visit, the number of lifers possible for me was quite small - around 3 or 4 was as many as I could hope for. In the event, unfortunately my total of lifers was a very round zero, but we still saw some reasonable birds. With hindsight, I suspect that winter would have been more productive on the lifer front, and next year (2009) we gave the area another (more successful) try in February/March.

General
Flights and car hire
We flew BA from Gatwick to Marseille return. Both flights were bang on-time. Holiday Autos provided our trouble-free hire car - outside the terminal. Our Citroen C5 had in-built Sat Nav which was also useful at times for the small roads in towns.

Maps
We bought an up to date 1:160,000 green Michelin map called Provence/Camargue at Marseille airport, which was adequate. A 25-year old 1:100,000 IGN map was a little dated in terms of the roads around Arles, but otherwise useful.

Birding information
There are plenty of trip reports on the web for this region. Crucially however the great majority are for winter, with far fewer for this spring period. It seems that some of the residents are less easy in spring than winter, or we maybe we were just unlucky or didn't try hard enough!

Weather
The weather was reasonably good, with temperatures peaking around the mid 20's. Heavy rain one evening and some drizzle the following morning, otherwise dry and not too windy. No sign of the dreaded Mistral.

Photos
All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 350D with EF400mm/f5.6 lens, usually mounted on a tripod - apart from the flight shots. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 3.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

Camargue Sites

Mas d'Agon
These marshes are on either side of the minor road north from the D37, and were probably the best we found in the Camargue. In two brief visits we had a good selection of birds here and in the surrounding area.

Indeed, the trip got off to a brilliant start with this obliging Red-footed Falcon on wires by buildings north of the marshes by the minor road. Further south on this road, but before reaching the marsh, we stopped at a bare dry area on seeing a birder with a scope. This produced Stone Curlew and Bee Eater (heard only)

Red-footed Falcon, Mas d'Agon

Red-footed Falcon, Mas d'Agon (click to enlarge)

The marshes themselves had plenty of Egrets and Herons, with Purple Heron and Great White Egret the most notable. Viewing is a bit restricted due to the tall reeds on both sides of the road. The first visit also produced flight views of a Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Red-crested Pochard. There were also marsh terns, in the form of Black, Whiskered and best of all a couple of White-winged Black Terns on our second visit. Smaller birds included Great Reed Warbler. No sign of Pratincole, though.

White winged Black Tern, Mas d'Agon

Black Tern, Mas d'Agon

La Capeliere
This is a reserve on the east side of the Camargue, by the D36. There is an entry charge of 3€ which gives access to a trail with 4 hides and some raised viewing platforms. For a small additional charge, a permit can also be obtained for a separate reserve near Salin de Badon, but we didn't try that. The visitor centre is closed around lunchtime (c. 1-2pm?), but you could probably start the trail then without paying (it is through a gate just to the right of the building).

Because of its hides, this reserve is reasonable for photography, with the first two and last (back near the visitor centre) best. The first two had White Stork (nesting near the visitor centre), Little Egret, Black-winged Stilt, Cetti's Warbler and Water Rail. The last hide was better for waders, with Wood Sandpiper, Avocet, and the ever present Flamingos (but into the light). The trails had masses of Nightingale song - in fact so did large areas of the rest of the Camargue, but we didn't get any clear views. No sign though of the hoped for Penduline Tit (maybe only present in winter here?).

Cetti's Warbler, La Capeliere Flamingo, La Capeliere

Cetti's Warbler, La Capeliere

Flamingo, La Capeliere

White Stork, La Capeliere Little Egret, La Capeliere

White Stork, La Capeliere

Little Egret, La Capeliere

Saintes Maries de la Mer
The Digue a la Mer is a coastal track which leads east out of this town. When we visited, there were masses of RV's (associated with some large gypsy festival we learned later), so we drove as far as possible parallel with the track to get beyond as many of them as possible. We then started walking east along the track, but had gone only a little way before spotting large numbers of waders on the lagoons on the inland side. Heading closer to get a better view, I soon latched on to what was probably the find of the trip - a Terek Sandpiper - a French national rarity! We spent some time trying to get within DSLR photo range, but the bird was flighty and the record shot below was the best I could manage.

Terek Sandpiper, Saintes Maries de la Mar Spotted Flycatcher, Saintes Maries de la Mar

Terek Sandpiper (left) and Dunlin, Saintes Maries de la Mar

Spotted Flycatcher, Saintes Maries de la Mar

Other waders here included masses of Dunlin, the odd Curlew Sandpiper and some Grey Plover - all in their smart summer plumages. On the seaward side was a mixed flock of tern, with Sandwich, Common and Little. By the track there was a Spotted Flycatcher, female Redstart and a glimpse of a probable Spectacled Warbler.

Etang de Galabert/Fangassier
Turning left off the D36 by le Paradis takes you along a minor road which leads past these two saline lakes. The road ends at a point where a track leads along the coast towards the lighthouse - Phare de la Gacholle. These lakes were good for waders, with plenty of Little Stint, Sanderling & Kentish Plover. This is the place for flight shots of Greater Flamingos as they go directly over the road in places. The trick is to get positioned in line with their flightpaths. Some time is needed to get close approaches!

Greater Flamingo (click to enlarge) Greater Flamingo

Greater Flamingos over the Camargue (click left one to enlarge)

D360 south of Salin de Giraud
The D360 south of Salin de Girauld goes past various lagoons, and eventually ends at the coast by a large beach car park. The lagoons were again good for waders, with plenty of summer plumage Little Stint and Curlew Sandpipers the highlight. There were also several Flamingos close to the road waiting to be photoed. At the end, just before the beach car park area, to the east of road, was an excellent lagoon which held 2 Slender-billed Gulls, Black Ten, Little Tern and various distant waders, including Knot.

Greater Flamingo Slender-billed Gulls

Another Greater Flamingo

Slender-billed Gulls in the late afternoon

Etang du Charnier
This marsh is in the western Camargue, near Aigues-Mortes. The D779 runs conviently past it. The highlight of a brief windy visit was a Purple Heron right by the road, completely out of cover. We drove within about 1m of it, before turning round to try photography. It then flew off, but only to the other side of a ditch.

Purple Heron, Etang du Charnier

Purple Heron, Etang du Charnier (click to enlarge)

Common Tern, Etang du Charnier

Other notable birds here included plenty of Red-crested Pochard, Black & Whiskered Tern. A longer visit earlier in the day in better conditions could well have produced much more.

Aigues-Mortes
Walking round the ramparts is a good way of getting close to Swifts, which are always a difficult photographic subject. Probably my best Swift shot to date is shown below. Also there was a singing Black Redstart. The minor road north of the town, on the opposite side of the canal from the main road was quite good, with Cattle Egret, our only Hoopoe of the trip, and several Bee Eaters on wires late one afternoon.

Swift

Swift, Aigues-Mortes

Les Alpilles Sites

Les Alpilles is a pleasant small range of limestone hills/mountains north of Arles, which contains a number of specialities, perhaps more easily seem in winter given our experiences detailed below.

La Caume
Access to this mountain is from the D37 north from Maussane. At the crest of the ridge, there is car park on the right, from whence a pleasant track ascends gently. Initially you go through pine woods, which had Crested Tit. Further on, the view opens out, and the track goes up a bit steeper. Apparently, the area to the left and the summit are sites for the rare Bonelli's Eagle but unfortunately there was no sign at all when we visited. Only a few distant Alpine Swifts down below. It was however a pleasant walk, with various butterflies including Scarce Swallowtail, Southern White Admiral and Morocco Orange Tip. Also plenty of invisible warbler song from the scrub - probably mostly Sardinian. At the summit there is a flat area, with a good view north. We had our lunch here and waited in vain for a Bonelli's Eagle to show. A Booted Eagle was some consolation, as was the melodious song of probable Wood Lark (not seen).

Southern White Admiral

Southern White Admiral

The summit of La Caume

Les Baux
Les Baux is a tourist thronged village with narrow streets. In winter it has Alpine Accentors and Wallcreeper, but we assumed they were long gone by early May. We were dismayed that you now have to pay a considerable sum to access the "chateau" at the top of the village, and look out over the cliffs. Despite the crowds watching a display of ancient catapulting, here were Crag Martins, Alpine Swifts and the odd Black Redstart (back in the village). No sign however of Egyptian Vulture here or anywhere else in the Alpilles, which we saw 25 years ago with some ease.

Black Redstart, Les Baux Alpine Swift, Les Baux

Black Redstart, Les Baux

Alpine Swift, Les Baux

The D27 emerges north out of Les Baux, and quick climbs up to the Alpilles ridge. From here, taking a turn right leads to a viewpoint. We went for a short walk along the GR 6 from here, which follows the crest of the ridge. At the far point of our walk, below a watchtower, a promising raptor appeared, with a gleaming white belly. However this was not a Bonelli's but the much commoner Short-toed Eagle. Also there were more Alpine Swifts around here and plenty of warbler song.

Les Opies
The mountain of Les Opies is to the east of Les Baux and is reputed to be another Bonelli's Eagle site. Taking the minor road north off the D17 just west of Eyguieres leads after a few miles to a good viewpoint for watching for raptors. But when we were there, Kestrel and masses of Swift were the only birds visible over the mountain. But is was a pleasant spot with Serin much in evidence. Further on the road deteriorated into an unsurfaced track for a few miles before reaching the D25. A highlight near the D25/D569 junction was a Roller briefly on roadside wires.

We then headed west along the D25 to try to find places where rocks on the northern slopes of Les Opies can be viewed, where again Bonelli's Eagle are supposed to be visible. But there were a lot of places from where rocks could be seen, and none seemd to have eagles on them! Further on, turning south down the D 25 towards Aureille there is a good viewpoint east towards the mountain, but by then we had had enough and didn't stop.

Hotel Mas de l’Ouliviť
This is a well known site for Eagle Owl. It is by the D78 a few miles south west of Les Baux. There is a track which starts adjacent to the southern side of the hotel grounds. We followed this for a few hundred metres, whereupon we reached a red water hydrant, with good views of two cliffy areas. We presumed this was the right spot, but directions on other trip reports are not very precise about this. Waiting until well after sunset (not until c. 9 pm at this time of year), did not however produce any evidence of the target species. A briefly churring distant Nightjar and hooting Tawny Owl were not much compensation for the biggest disappointment of the trip. Maybe we were unlucky, in the wrong place, or again perhaps this is only a reliable site earlier in the year.

Incidently, trying to get an early meal before this excursion did not prove to be easy in this part of France! None of the places in Les Baux started serving until 7pm or later, and nor did any of the restaurants in the local villages (many were closed mid week anyway!). So we ended up with take away pizza, purchased from a handy shop in nearby Maussane!

La Crau Sites

Ch. Vergieres/Peau de Meau reserve
Taking the D24 south west from St Martin de Crau, there is a turn after a few miles signed Etang des Aulnes and Ch. Vergieres. This long straight minor road goes into the heart of La Crau. On my first visit I concentrated on a possible Pin-tailed Sandgrouse site, which is on the left by an old railway wagon, just after the road turns left, with Ch Vergieres straight-on. To the north east, there is an old military installation visible in the distance. A wait of at least an hour with constant scanning produced a glimpse of two very distant birds which might have been Sandgrouse, but nothing tickable. A Little Bustard did fly over, though. Also plenty of Black Kites in the area.

My second visit was in the early morning, and I was delighted to come across this Roller, just by the road near to the Etang, seemingly half asleep in the early morning light. Further on, there was a similarly obliging Black Kite. But again no Sandgrouse.

At the Peau de Meau reserve (at the end of the road), in the absence of a permit (obtainable apparently from the Eco Museum in St Martin de Crau), I stayed in or near the car. Nevertheless, there were some good birds visible. Plenty of wary Bee Eaters, and a couple of Southern Grey Shrikes were the highlights. This is also a site for Lesser Kestrel, which are best looked for by walking some 20mins to a viewpoint, but I didn't try that (Lesser Kestrel isn't a lifer!).

Roller, La Crau Black Kite, La Crau (click to enlarge)

Roller, La Crau

Black Kite, La Crau (click to enlarge)

Systematic list
We were not attempting a big list, but to see the 92 species seen or heard, click here.

Accommodation Details

Place Web Comment
Hotel Acacias, Arles Hotel website A reasonable budget hotel in central Arles, well situated just inside the walled section within easy walking distance of the arena. Recommended on Trip Advisor. Our room was compact, but the staff friendly. Lift. Nearby roadside parking (metered during the day).
Hotel Mas de l’Ouliviť, near Les Baux Hotel website This is the hotel 'famous' for the nearby supposed Eagle Owl site. Indeed, the site itself may even be viewable from the swimming pool area! This hotel rates quite highly on Trip Advisor, but it was grossly over-priced in my opinion. Our cat C room was dark, reasonably spacious but nothing special for the money. The service was distinctly off. Also birders beware - this place is like Fort Knox at night, and I had trouble getting out for my early morning visit to La Crau (no night porter in evidence, despite checking about early exits the night before). Also there was no sight nor sound of the Eagle Owls!
Hotel Villa Mazarin, Aigues-Mortes Hotel website This was the best hotel we stayed in. A stylish place, with a huge room and bathroom. Good and friendly service. Situated within the walled area, it also had its own secure car park (pretty much essential). Recommend checking with them carefully in advance about getting your car into the town - not straightforward. Less expensive than the one above, but not cheap! No lift. Good restaurant just up the road.

© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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