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France - Camargue, Les Alpilles, La Crau

28 February - 3 March 2009

By Stephen Burch, England

This is a report on a short, 3 day visit to the Camargue area of France in Feb/March 2009. Its main aim was to try to connect with some of the lifers that we missed on a trip to the same area last year in May. All in all, this was my fourth visit to this region, but the first in winter, and I was keen to try for birds like Wallcreeper, which have eluded me to date.

In the event we connected with 4 out of 6 target species, which was a quite reasonable total for such a brief trip, and compared well with last year when the tally was 0/4! It seems that many of the residents are easier to connect with in winter than spring.

Flights and car hire
To maximise our time in France over this long weekend, we flew out on the earlier EasyJet flight from Gatwick to Marseille and returned on the later BA flight. Both flights were bang on-time. Holiday Autos provided our trouble-free hire car - outside the terminal.

The 1:160,000 green Michelin map called Provence/Camargue bought last year at Marseille airport was quite adequate.

Birding information
There are plenty of trip reports on the web for this region. Helpfully the great majority are for winter.

Despite the forecast, the weather was reasonably good, with temperatures peaking around 17°C. There was heavy overnight rain once but the days were largely rain free, with a mixture of cloud and sun. The wind was generally light.

All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 40D with EF400mm/f4 DO lens, usually mounted on a tripod - apart from the Wallcreeper shots. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

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 seen in winter given our experiences detailed below and last year.

Hotel Mas de l’Oulivié
This is a well known site for Eagle Owl. It is by the D78 a few miles south west of Les Baux, on the right going towards Arles. 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 the first red water hydrant to the right of the path, with good views of two large, separate rock outcrops, one in the direction of the continuation of the track and the other to the right. There is a second hydrant further on, to the left of the path. This gives closer views of the left hand outcrop, but not the right hand outcrop, so is not recommended.

We visited here on two nights, from about 18:00 to 18:45, and had success both times, unlike last year! The bird seems to come from behind the outcrops, through the gap between them. On the second night it flew in around 18:00 and landed on a tree at the left hand edge of the right outcrop, from where it could be distantly made out in the scope, calling from time to time. Later it moved further right, and ended up on a prominent rock on the extreme right hand end of the right outcrop. From here it gave distant but dramatic views through the 'scope, silhouetted against the darkening sky. It flew off around 18:45.

On the first night, it was heard in the extreme distance on arrival from about 18:00 (only my wife could hear it!). At around 18:30, the calls suddenly became louder and the bird was picked up in flight against the left hand outcrop. It then landed briefly in an open position on a rock allowing a few very distant DSLR pics to be taken (exposure time around 1/6 sec!) - see below for the ultimate record shot! After a few minutes it flew off further left.

So very different behaviours on the two nights, but reasonable views were obtained both times of this magnificent bird, which I have been after for about 25 years! In May last year, we had no sight nor did we hear it.

Full frame record shot of Eagle Owl!

Enlarged image - the ear tufts can just be seen.

View of left hand rock outcrop, with fire hydrant in foreground

View of right hand rock outcrop, with fire hydrant in foreground
(taken in May 08)

Les Baux
In winter, the tourist village of Les Baux is a renowned site for Wallcreeper - another long sought after species, and again we were not disappointed! The most convenient access is obtained by parking at the end of the parking meter bays, going downhill towards Arles on the D78. Here there is a broad paved track signed 'Le Village'. Follow this for a few metres, and then turn right up a very narrow path that goes past a statue of the Virgin Mary or similar. This goes around the base of the cliffs. After about 10mins, a Wallcreeper was picked up on the south western side of the cliffs, but it was disappointingly distant from the DSLR point of view, so I attempted to get nearer. This was a real struggle through thick shrub going steeply uphill. I just managed to get the hand-held record shot shown below before the bird moved further away. Afterwards, we saw more birds, including two together, at the southern end, and again round the eastern side. They were however even more distant than the one seen first.

The next day, we visited the village of Les Baux, paying first 4€ to park in the top car park, and then a hefty 7.7€ each to escape onto the open area above the village itself, which gives splendid views over the plain to the south. After a bit of searching, I found some Alpine Accentors at the back, below and on the ruins of the castle. These were remakably tame, but frustratingly mobile and elusive at times. At one point about 8 birds were feeding on the grass within a few metres of me, but they soon flew off and did not reappear. Neverthess in the brief time available, I managed some photos - see below.

Also here were many much more wary Black Redstarts and the odd glimpse of Sardinian Warbler.

Distant Wallcreeper, and much nearer Alpine Accentor, Les Baux

Even nearer Alpine Accentors, Les Baux (click either to enlarge)

La Caume
Access to this mountain is from the D37 north from Maussane. At the crest of the ridge, there is a large car park on the right, from whence a pleasant track ascends gently to the summit, where there is a telecoms station. The walk takes around 45 mins. We visited in good weather, with little wind. The walk up was very quiet.

As suggested by another useful trip report, just short of the radar station, we looked down into a steep valley to the left of the track, and on the east side of the Radar Station. We had tantalising views of a large raptor flying away round the mountain side to the right, immediately on arrival. Everything fitted with Bonelli's Eagle but there was no way I could tick on the basis of this brief view! So we waited another hour for the bird to reappear. It didn't. We then walked further on in an eastery direction along the track that goes over the summit, and then headed right along the edge of the summit to look down over the same valley, but with a wider overall view. We waited another hour, enjoying Wood Lark song and good views, but of the eagle, there was still no sign! So we retraced our steps, and in one last attempt, looked down into the original valley by the telecoms station. Eureka! - there was the Bonnell's Eagle, just below us, again giving a brief flight view before disappearing again, quite low down round the mountain side to the left! This time the views were good enough to clinch the identification. Given this behaviour, we suspected that maybe the bird was resting somewhere on the side of the valley, and we disturbed it both times when we appeared on the skyline.

The walk back down was as quiet as the way up.

Bonelli's Eagle valley, to the east of the summit of La Caume

Camargue Sites

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 (1-2pm), but you could probably start the trail then without paying (it is through a gate just to the right of the building). On arrival just after 2pm, we saw a White Stork on its nest, from the car park.

On this visit, water levels were high and the first two hides had nothing but a few Teal. However, our main quarry was further on in the reeds, near to the two observation platforms, by the road. Sure enough nearing the second platform we first heard a calling Penduline Tit and then started to get views of it through the reeds. It came reasonably close but it was always on the move, and was rarely out in the open, making photography difficult. There seemed to be only one, possibly two birds, associating briefly with Chiffchaffs and other small birds on the edge of the path. It seems we were probably fortunate that this bird approached the edge of the reeds closely enough for us to see it.

Penduline Tit, La Capeliere

Cacharel, Etang du Consecaniere and other Camargue sites
Where the D85 bends to the west, north of Saintes Maries de la Mer, there is a track that leads north east along side the Etang de Consecarniere. Some distance along here (probably around 2 miles, in the vicinity of a pumping station) is a reputed site for wintering Spotted Eagle. We paid two visits here, but saw no sign. The first time we walked along the track, which was reasonable for photography, with Great White and Little Egrets quite close by. Also plenty of usually more distant Flamingo. There were also flocks of pipits and Reed Bunting, with the odd Chiffchaff as well.

On the second visit, we simply drove along the track, which is what other (non birders) were doing. A lot easier and quicker, but still no Spotted Eagle. From the pumping station, there were plenty of distant Buzzard and Marsh Harriers, but nothing larger in the generally calm sunny conditions. Also a couple of fly over Greylag Geese and a flock of Goldern Plover. Duck on the etang included flocks of Wigeon and some Red crested Pochard.

Obliging Great White Egret, Tour du Valat, Camargue (click to enlarge) Little Egret, Cacharel, Camargue (click to enlarge)

Obliging Great White Egret, Tour du Valat, Camargue (click to enlarge)

Little Egret, Cacharel, Camargue (click to enlarge)

Also in this part of the Camargue, at Pioch Badet, just north of the D85/D570 junction, we found an obliging pair of White Stork on an artificial nest platform in a layby on the west side of the D570.

Elsewhere we generally found that the Camargue in winter was much quieter than in spring, with far fewer species.

Flamingo, Cacharel, Camargue (click to enlarge) White Stork, Pioch Badet, Camargue (click to enlarge)

Flamingo, Cacharel, Camargue (click to enlarge)

White Stork, Pioch Badet, Camargue (click to enlarge)

La Crau Sites

Not very successful this time here...

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. We first tried 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 reasonable wait here, and even a walk out onto the plain failed to come up with anything other than a couple of distant Southern Grey Shrikes.

At the Peau de Meau reserve (at the end of the road), we walked around the approximately square trail, which took around 1hr. There was nothing for our efforts other than another distant Southern Grey Shrike and masses of sheep!

So no sign of Sandgrouse or Little Bustard for that matter (seen in flight at the old railway wagon site last May).

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Best Western Aurelia, Maussane Well priced hotel conveniently placed for Les Baux and La Caume. Comfortable, reasonable sized clean room. Recommended. However, when we booked we thought the internet price included breakfast, but were told on check-out it didn't. By complaining vigorously they took the extra 22€ off! On return, the website now clearly states the breakfast is an additional 11€ each! If so, it's a rip off for a continental breakfast! Try phoning -we got a rate that included breakfast for our second, un-booked night.
Ibis Hotel, Arles Smaller room than the Aurelia, in an unappealing part of Arles, and more expensive. Convenient access to a local supermarket and the N113 for La Crau and the Camargue. OK.

© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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