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SOUTHERN FRANCE - THE CAMARGUE IN WINTER -
Saturday 15th - Tuesday 18th February 2014

Saturday 15th
We met at Gatwick during the morning for our flight down to Montpellier. Due to recent bad weather in the UK and storms the previous day, our flight was delayed for over an hour as planes made an attempt to catch up on their schedules.

Eventually we were on our way after a wobbly take off due to the wind and an hour and a half later we touched down to reasonably warm conditions, an improvement on the weather we had left behind us.

We picked up our van and headed eastwards to the Petit Camargue noting our first GREATER FLAMINGOS and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS of the tour. During our 45 minute journey we also saw GREAT WHITE EGRET, SHELDUCK, GREY HERON and LITTLE EGRETS and our first raptors were COMMON BUZZARDS.

As we drove along a minor road through the area, Yvonne spotted a group of four COMMON CRANES feeding in a recently cut rice field. We stopped to see these elegant birds as they fed, completely unconcerned by our presence. A pale morph BOOTED EAGLE was seen circling with a MARSH HARRIER for company, whilst a COMMON KESTREL was seen perched on mud mounds in the field.

Our raptor fest continued with female HEN HARRIER followed by male HEN HARRIER and then a female PEREGRINE which sat in a field. CETTI'S WARBLERS were incredibly vocal in the reed-beds and we managed to see several REED BUNTINGS and a mixed flock of TREE and HOUSE SPARROWS.

Getting back in the van we were about to leave when a flock of GLOSSY IBIS were spotted in the distance coming in, but unfortunately they turned around and headed away again. Several watch-points further along proved fruitful with another male HEN HARRIER, this time being mobbed by a MERLIN and a flock of flyover RED-CRESTED POCHARD.

With light going and time getting on, we headed to the hotel and after checking in, had some time to get ready before dinner where we received complimentary cocktails. Our evening meal was a delight and we certainly didn't go hungry.

We then retired for the night very much looking forward to what the next day would bring.

Sunday 16th
We met for breakfast and whilst enjoying our French delights, a flock of COMMON CRANES flew past. After loading up the van with our lunches and gear we drove out of the village noting BLACK REDSTART and SONG THRUSH before heading south towards Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer although we hadn't got far when it started to rain quite heavily. Despite this we continued along the seafront where a pair of RED-BREASTED MERGANSER were seen offshore, along with a small party of GREAT CRESTED GREBE and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS. GREATER FLAMINGOS were seen in good numbers as they flew to and fro from the lagoons.

With rain still falling, we left the beach and drove through town again finding BLACK REDSTARTS with the added bonus of TREE SPARROWS. Further along the road we stopped in a lay-by to admire some GREATER FLAMINGOS and got wonderfully sidetracked by some really showy FAN-TAILED WARBLERS, CRESTED LARKS, STONECHATS and a pair of DARTFORD WARBLERS as they fed in an area of Glasswort along the edge of a ditch.

On the opposite side of the road was a patch of GIANT ORCHIDS, a few of which were coming into flower, giving us the opportunity for a few photographs. We then drove a little further north to the edge of a lagoon and briefly saw five SLENDER-BILLED GULLS flying by as well as the usual GREATER FLAMINGOS, GREAT EGRETS, LITTLE EGRETS and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS.

A scan of ducks found us another pair of RED-BREASTED MERGANSER amongst a large flock of GADWALL, SHOVELER and MALLARDS. In nearby scrub we were treated to great views of SARDINIAN WARBLER as it sang and flitted from bush to bush before coming up to sit up on top. Whilst here, we got chatting to a Swiss couple who had just come back from a walk where they came across some waders.

We wandered to the area to find that they were GOLDEN PLOVER which soon all took to the air after being flushed by a MARSH HARRIER. Whilst scanning the horizon, we came across a couple of WHITE STORK on a distant nest and then we located a pale-phase BOOTED EAGLE drifting over. Diana then found a distant raptor, which after scoping we could see was a SPOTTED EAGLE, a good bird for the Camargue and one that was very sought after indeed. Eventually it came closer and we managed to see all its identifying features.

We left the area and drove round the northern edge of the Étang de Vaccarès, where we ground to a halt when a BITTERN was spotted sitting by the side of the road, before it slipped into the reeds. With lunchtime fast approaching, we stopped to note several CATTLE EGRETS in a field with Camargue Black Bulls before we arrived at La Capelière Visitor Centre and here we tucked into our delicious four course packed lunches!

Afterwards we checked out the buildings, as reptiles often come out to bask in the warm sunshine. We were in luck with several COMMON WALL LIZARDS eyeing up a stunning VIOLET CARPENTER BEE. We then made a quick check of a lagoon where Stephen found a winter plumage SPOTTED REDSHANK that gave good views.

A quick visit to the toilets by the Visitor Centre yielded a EUROPEAN TREE FROG found by Kathy in the corner which was quite photogenic. Stopping further along the road we found around 10 RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS, 10 BLACK-NECKED GREBES, CORMORANTS and a small flock of WIGEON which were flying north. With the skies starting to look rather menacing we opted to visit an area of salt pans in the hope of finding some more exciting species.

During our journey we came across around 250 COMMON CRANES feeding on recently cut rice fields and they were a delight to see! A female HEN HARRIER was seen briefly before we carried on our journey.

At the saltpans it seemed at first glance that they were devoid of life but with perseverance we managed to spot a small flock of LITTLE STINT, DUNLIN and around five KENTISH PLOVER. AVOCETS were reasonably numerous as were SHELDUCK. Moving onwards and upwards, another stop was made to see a BLACK SWAN and a few minutes later a female LONG-TAILED DUCK flew past! This is a very scarce bird on the Mediterranean and one we had not expected to see at all.

Down by the sea we came across yet another BITTERN, this time he showed really well before disappearing into vegetation. The usual FLAMINGOS were seen but with water levels very high there were very few other birds around.

The day rounded off with a visit to another area of saltpans where we found CURLEW, GREY PLOVER and DUNLIN. On our way back to the hotel we noted KINGFISHER, COYPU, CORN BUNTING and a dead WILD BOAR floating in water on its back.

On reaching the hotel, a hot shower was very welcome indeed before we tucked into another superb meal, which left us absolutely full!

Monday 17th
The day dawned bright and sunny and after breakfast we headed north to visit the area known as Les Alpilles. After parking at Les Baux, we strolled along a track and spent time checking out the cliff faces. A YELLOWHAMMER was seen perched in a dead tree and small parties of SERIN flitted overhead. It didn't take long before we clapped our eyes on a stunning male BLUE ROCK THRUSH that showed well in the morning sunlight. BLACK REDSTARTS were incredibly numerous as they flicked from boulder to boulder and a few ALPINE ACCENTORS were seen on the ledges below the castle.

Despite a thorough search, we failed to find Wallcreeper, but we did have good views of a CRAG MARTIN flying along the cliff face and in the trees below were a couple of CIRL BUNTINGS singing.

A walk was taken up through the village to visit the castle which produced good numbers of SERIN, SARDINIAN WARBLER and BLACK REDSTART and also gave us the chance to admire this magnificent structure.

A short while later we arrived at Etang des Aulnes where we had another magnificent lunch! An adult LITTLE GULL hawked over the surface of the lake along with good numbers of BLACK-HEADED GULL. Both GREAT CRESTED and LITTLE GREBES were seen but no sign of the recently present Pied-billed Grebe, as the heat haze and sun made viewing difficult.

At nearby La Crau Reserve we managed to find a RED KITE which was new for the tour and with the haze still causing us a few problems, we visited another area hoping it would be more fruitful.

Large puddles stopped us parking in our favoured spot, so we walked along the track scanning the vast area. Yvonne spotted some distant heads that turned out to be a superb group of eight LITTLE BUSTARDS and then Diana and Martin both found an IBERIAN GREY SHRIKE perched on top of a bramble bush. CORN BUNTINGS were incredibly numerous as were SKYLARK, MEADOW PIPIT and STONECHAT.

A walk in the opposite direction found us a small flock of STOCK DOVE as well as RED KITES and a very distant flock of around 200 LITTLE BUSTARDS. A wet field was a haven for LAPWING and STARLING and also quite a few LARKS that included SKY and CRESTED.

The day concluded close to Les Baux where we hoped to find Eagle Owl. The weather conditions were ideal but apart from the brief call of a male, they didn't show. We did however see male SPARROWHAWK, 68 GREYLAG GEESE flying purposefully north and we heard FIRECREST and CIRL BUNTINGS.

We arrived back at the hotel slightly later than planned and managed to postpone dinner for 15 minutes, enough time for a shower etc. Our dinner was once again exceptional and we all went off to bed suitably full to the brim!

Tuesday 18th
Due to lunchtime flights we had a short time birding so once we had enjoyed our last breakfast, we loaded up the vans with the luggage and made our way back to the Petit Camargue with a visit to a reserve on the northern side.

The journey there produced good numbers of COMMON BUZZARD interspersed at regular distances on telegraph poles or bushes and a small number of COMMON CRANES that were seen feeding in harvested rice fields. CATTLE EGRETS kept a group of horses company and could often be seen hitching a ride on their backs!

Once in the reserve we took a stroll along a boardwalk where a pair of WHITE STORKS were perched on a nest and in the reed-bed we could hear PENDULINE TITS calling, but unfortunately they remained hidden from view. CETTI'S WARBLERS were numerous and we had good views of a pair chasing each other around the paths.

COYPU were common, high water levels had pushed them closer to the paths and we watched some only a couple of feet away. On the more open pools we located small parties of TEAL and the more common MALLARDS and from the hide were TUFTED DUCK and GADWALL.

A group of Tamarisks close to the hide provided shelter for a CHIFFCHAFF and Martin managed to get good views of a CETTI'S WARBLER as it walked along a branch. REED BUNTINGS flitted about on the water’s edge and both CORMORANTS and GREY HERONS took the opportunity to feed on the many fish in the deep water.

A WATER RAIL was seen briefly as it swam along a reed-fringed cut and was heard calling from the same area as we walked past. It was then time to head back to Montpellier Airport and the journey produced plenty of GREATER FLAMINGO, LITTLE EGRET, KESTRELS, SHELDUCK and GREAT WHITE EGRETS.

After getting fuel, we dropped off the vehicle and said goodbye to Martin who was heading off to visit a friend for a few days, whilst the rest of the group went to check in.

Our flight took off on time and one hour 20 minutes later we arrived at a wet Gatwick Airport. We endured a delay in waiting for our bags but eventually they came through and we said farewell to the group after a great weekend, with good weather, good food, good company and some fantastic birding!