BIRDING TRIP REPORT:
- Camargue, Les Alpilles, La Crau
February - 3 March 2009
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.
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.
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.
There are plenty of trip reports on the web for this
region. Helpfully the great majority are for winter.
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
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
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
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)
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)
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
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
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
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
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)
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
White Stork, Pioch Badet,
Camargue (click to enlarge)
La Crau Sites
Not very successful this
Ch. Vergieres/Peau de
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).
Western Aurelia, Maussane
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.
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.