Friday 11th May 2018
SPRING DELIGHTS OF THE CAMARGUE, FRANCE
Friday 11th – Monday 14th May 2018
Our group met at London Gatwick for a lunchtime flight which was slightly delayed, but just ninety minutes later banked round over Montpellier and some of us had our first glimpses of around 100 GREATER FLAMINGO on the coastal lagoons bordering the airport.
Baggage swiftly came through and after sorting out the vehicle we headed off along the coast road where LITTLE EGRETS and GREATER FLAMINGO were seen and once off the main road, we had a slow drive through an area of vineyards where a single SHORT-TOED SNAKE EAGLE was being harassed by local corvids. BLACK KITES were numerous as we motored along reed-fringed ditches with the sound of COMMON NIGHTINGALES reverberating from the scrub.
A brief look at an area of wetland yielded a male RED-CRESTED POCHARD and a couple of GULL-BILLED TERNS zipped overhead. We tried an area new to us and it was alive with birds.
MEDITERRANEAN GULLS called overhead and GLOSSY IBIS flew to and fro from their breeding colony a few kilometres away. COMMON, LITTLE and WHISKERED TERNS fed over open water and whilst standing on a raised bank we watched a few EUROPEAN BEE-EATERS fly through.
Unfortunately due to flight timings, we didn’t have long to explore the area but it gave us the chance to see some of the Camargue’s special birds.
We made a quick stop to pick up water, only to find that the supermarket had a supply problem and didn’t have any!
A short while later, just as we entered the village we saw good numbers of GLOSSY IBIS feeding in roadside fields plus the odd BLACK-WINGED STILT thrown in for good measure.
After checking in we met for a pre-dinner drink in the sunshine which went down quite well indeed.
Our evening meal was fantastic with a good selection of local dishes which were enjoyed to their full.
We retired for the evening and looked forward to birding the area during the following days.
Saturday 12th May 2018
We awoke to the song of BLACK REDSTART on nearby rooftops and a COMMON CUCKOO called in the distance. Some of the group met for a pre-breakfast walk in the village which produced views of both HOUSE SPARROWS and EURASIAN TREE SPARROWS in nearby gardens. On the banks of the Petit Rhône we watched a singing male MELODIOUS WARBLER perched up in a poplar and showing well.
A few MEDITERRANEAN GULLS flew over plus two GULL-BILLED TERNS and small numbers of YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS. COMMON NIGHTINGALES were constantly singing as we made our way back to the hotel for breakfast.
Once pleasantly full we headed northwards and bypassed the town of Arles where impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh lived from 1888 to 1889. In St. Martin de Crau, we visited the Ecomusee to get our permits for the Nature Reserve on La Crau.
A short drive later we were on quiet country roads where a pair of EUROPEAN ROLLERS were seen on bushes and roadside wires. Whilst watching one particular bird, a female EURASIAN GOLDEN ORIOLE landed just six feet above it!
We parked up and spent the next three hours exploring the rocky, steppe-like habitat where singing larks included CRESTED, GREATER SHORT-TOED, EURASIAN SKYLARK and CALANDRA LARKS. Several pairs of TAWNY PIPIT were seen in bushes and on the tracks but they didn’t allow close approach, so we had to be content with scope views. A few PALLID SWIFTS flew low through the area alongside COMMON SWIFTS allowing for good comparison of the species.
One species which did show well were BLACK KITES of which there were many, some of which flew low overhead as they searched for food in the open expanses around us. WHITE STORKS glided over the treetops and WESTERN CATTLE EGRETS followed the herds of sheep.
We eventually reached a barn that had been converted into a hide and with some patience, we managed to see a couple of LESSER KESTRELS that frequent the area during the summer.
There were many WESTERN MARBLED WHITES flitting over the vegetation although the strong breeze made them quite skittish, but with patience we all had good views.
The Canal de Vergiers bordering the northern side of the reserve is said to be the best dragonfly site in the whole of France and although breezy, we did record three demoiselles including COPPER, BANDED and BEAUTIFUL.
A VIPERINE SNAKE made its way downstream and we managed to get a few photos to help aid ID before it vanished.
It was great to get back to the van for a drink and a rest before we headed up to our lunch stop in the limestone hills of Les Alpilles.
We managed to get a picnic table in the shade to eat our amazing four course picnic lunches and whilst tucking in we watched several CLEOPATRA BUTTERFLIES flitting about in the bright sunshine.
After the mammoth lunch we took a walk along the trails looking for insects, plants and of course birds. Bird-wise it was rather quiet but the insects and flowers more than made up for it with SCARCE SWALLOWTAIL, WALL BROWN, SOUTHERN SPECKLED WOOD and the delightful sulphur-yellow Owlfly Libelloides coccajus.
We reached a viewpoint over the cliffs and here we watched several ALPINE SWIFTS plus EURASIAN HOBBY, two SHORT-TOED SNAKE EAGLES and lots of WESTERN JACKDAWS.
Retracing our steps we tried a couple of areas that looked suitable for European Crested Tit but there was only a very distant calling bird. But when we got back to the carpark where we had lunch there were a pair of fantastic EUROPEAN CRESTED TITS that gave good views above our heads!
With time getting on we headed to a local supermarket where we actually managed to get some water before visiting a site in the northern Camargue. As soon as we arrived we had great views of a COYPU in a roadside ditch plus the now murky weather had dropped lots of SAND MARTINS, BARN SWALLOWS and COMMON HOUSE MARTINS low over the water.
WHISKERED TERNS hawked over the surface of the lagoons and we found GLOSSY IBIS, PURPLE HERON, LITTLE EGRET, GREAT CRESTED GREBE and yet more COYPUS.
GREAT REED and EURASIAN REED WARBLERS sang from the reed-fringed lagoon and a single CETTI’S WARBLER showed briefly.
With time running out we headed back to base noting a EUROPEAN GREEN WOODPECKER along the way before arriving back for a hot shower.
The hotel restaurant was packed so we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink and completed the bird-list before enjoying a fantastic meal where the group enjoyed Oysters, mussels and local pate followed by a selection of dishes including steak and fish. Of course there was a little room for dessert which slightly took us over the edge!
We headed off to bed after what had been a great day in the field and we looked forward to the following day.
Sunday 13th May 2018
The weather was quite different to the previous day with grey skies, rain and gusty winds. After a hearty breakfast we headed to the eastern side of the Camargue where we spent the morning birding from the van. On the Etang de Vaccares we found a couple of summer plumaged BLACK-NECKED GREBES bobbing about on the very choppy waters and in the sheltered spots bordering the lake were a few GREATER FLAMINGO.
YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS were very common and obviously didn’t mind the poor weather conditions. We reached an area of salt pans and saw a few waders including COMMON REDSHANK, PIED AVOCET, COMMON RINGED PLOVER and a few KENTISH PLOVER.
We took our time slowly driving along the road and saw quite a lot despite the weather. A small flock of DUNLIN held a few breeding plumaged LITTLE STINTS amongst them as they hunkered down behind the raised edges of the salt pans.
Further along the road were a large flock of SANDWICH TERNS plus a few LITTLE TERNS and COMMON TERNS. Also feeding along the edge of the road were some fine summer plumaged SLENDER-BILLED GULLS plus around eight dip-feeding LITTLE GULLS.
SANDERLING were good to see in a mixture of summer and winter plumages as they scampered along the sandy beaches close to the sea. The Mediterranean was pretty choppy to say the least and we got out of the van to check out the area but soon got in again!
Trying to find shelter was going to be the order of the day so we drove to another area of lagoons where it was reasonably sheltered from the wind, but the rain was falling heavily so we had to once again use the van as a hide.
Around 100 DUNLIN fed in the shallows and amongst them were some CURLEW SANDPIPERS in varying degrees of plumage from brick red to pale grey. Some smart looking GREY PLOVER were also on the marsh but unfortunately they were rather skittish due to the windy conditions.
BLACK-WINGED STILTS were much more accommodating and we had really good views of nesting birds alongside the road as we made our way to our lunch stop. Lunch was once again a huge affair which we thoroughly enjoyed in the van.
COMMON SANDPIPER and WESTERN YELLOW WAGTAILS of the race cinereocapilla were found sheltering in the sueda bushes surrounding the lagoon, along with a few CRESTED LARKS and TAWNY PIPITS.
We made our way along the bumpy track but decided to move to another site where there were at least some hides, so we could go for a walk.
A short while later we arrived at a small nature reserve and after getting permits, we visited three hides. The first was rather productive with some lovely BLACK-WINGED STILTS feeding in the marshy pools plus plenty of MALLARDS. A COYPU appeared in front of the vegetation and spent time feeding around a large Tamarisk at the rear of the marsh. Then a scan along the sheltered side of the marsh produced a single SPOTTED FLYCATCHER, plus a lovely female RED-BACKED SHRIKE that sat on a fence, occasionally flying down to pick up prey from the ground.
The next hide was rather wet as it faced into the oncoming rain, so we headed to the main hide where up to 25 RED-CRESTED POCHARDS were seen including some stunning males. Also another COYPU, COMMON SANDPIPER, BLACK-WINGED STILTS, WHITE STORK, LITTLE EGRET, GADWALL and the usual MALLARDS.
With rain still falling and damp conditions continuing we slowly drove back to base where a hot shower was the order of the day. We met for the usual pre-dinner drink before a superb evening meal on our last night in the Camargue.
Monday 14th May 2018
The weather was still pretty grotty when we met for a slightly later breakfast as we had a late flight back to the UK. A couple of the group braved the rain and were rewarded with views of a EUROPEAN PIED FLYCATCHER and SQUACCO HERON, the latter our only record of this normally common species.
We left our luggage behind and drove back to a wetland site in the north of the Camargue where the COYPU was still present in the same spot as on Saturday afternoon. Good numbers of hirundines flew low over the water and not surprisingly, they attracted the attentions of two hunting HOBBY.
WHISKERED TERN, PURPLE HERON, GREAT CRESTED GREBE and a couple of WESTERN MARSH HARRIERS were noted before we took a slow drive along the road. A RED FOX looked rather bedraggled and a few WESTERN YELLOW WAGTAILS of the ashy-headed race cinereocapilla perched on the sedges in the damp fields.
With rain still falling, we visited the Parc du Ornithologique where the various lakes and pools provided us with excellent opportunities to photograph hundreds of GREATER FLAMINGO at close quarters, along with egrets and herons that were nesting on the wooded islands.
We had close views of BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON, SACRED IBIS, GREY HERON plus LITTLE and WESTERN CATTLE EGRETS perched on and around the lagoons and it was good to watch them as we were under a canopy which kept off the rain.
A walk was taken to the hides but little was seen apart from a single PURPLE HERON, PIED AVOCETS, COMMON TERNS and three roosting GULL-BILLED TERNS. The hides were diabolically constructed and it was wetter inside than outside as rain came through the roof and windows!
What was needed was a hot coffee so we headed into a nearby bar where a drink was very welcome and it gave us the chance to warm up and get our wet gear off as it was only eight degrees.
Afterwards we drove back to the hotel where miraculously, the rain began to ease off and we could see blue sky on the horizon. Whilst having lunch in the courtyard a COLLARED PRATINCOLE flew over and towards the river, so once we had enjoyed our final four-course packed lunch, a walk was taken in that direction.
Small numbers of EUROPEAN BEE-EATERS perched on a small fence near the hotel as we moved nearer the river. It was good to see that the warmer weather had encouraged raptors out with at least two delightful EUROPEAN HONEY BUZZARDS, SHORT-TOED EAGLE and BLACK KITES making the most of the warmth after nearly 36 hours of rain!
The MELODIOUS WARBLER sang from riverside scrub and both CETTI’S WARBLERS and COMMON NIGHTINGALES drowned out most other birdsong.
Time had slowly slipped away so it was back to the hotel where we completed some final packing before making the drive to Montpellier Airport.
We relaxed in the terminal before getting our late flight back to the UK which arrived on time. Once we had claimed our baggage we said our goodbyes after a great tour in challenging conditions. Despite these the group were a joy to be with and we all enjoyed many laughs and had great fun!