BIRDING TRIP REPORT:
- Camargue, Les Alpilles, La Crau
4 - 10
Stephen Burch, England
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
Red-footed Falcon, Mas d'Agon
(click to enlarge)
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,
White winged Black Tern, Mas d'Agon
Black Tern, Mas d'Agon
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
White Stork, La Capeliere
Little Egret, La Capeliere
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 (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 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.
Another Greater Flamingo
Slender-billed Gulls in the
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 (click to enlarge)
Common Tern, Etang du Charnier
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.
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.
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
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
The summit of La Caume
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
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.
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
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
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
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
We were not
attempting a big list, but to see the 92 species seen or
heard, click here.
|Hotel Acacias, Arles
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 lOuliviť, near
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
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.