Camargue Quick Visit – Birding in France

Greater-flamingo

When I realized I would be visiting Southern France as part of a non-birding holiday I immediately realized that I should make some time, even if limited, to visit the Camargue and nearby Crau Plains both of which potentially would give me some exciting birding. Staying in the nearby town of Arles, where we visited the Roman Ampitheatre, the nearby town of Avignon and Roman Aqueduct of Pont Du Gard, I found that I had a couple of early mornings free before the sight-seeing began in earnest. Of course I used this time to drive into the Eastern side of the Camargue one day and to search for Little Bustard in the stony Crau region on the other morning.

Hopefully the following will be of some use to other birders visiting the region as part of non-birding trips and show them that some really good birds can be seen in a very limited time; my highlights were Little Bittern, Little Bustard, European Roller, Short-toed Eagle, European Bee-eater, Montagu’s Harrier and Tawny Pipit.

The map below shows the different locations that I made birding stops at during my two mornings in the Camargue and Crau.

On both of my mornings I got up early and left Arles while it was still dark; getting to the first birding sites in the Camargue and Crau took about 30 minutes although the furthest spot I got to in the Camargue was about an hour away from the town. The first spot I reached was very close to the main lake although I could only see it from a very few spots and most of the habitat I could see into consisted of fields, reedy ditches and patches of freshwater wetland. Eating my breakfast as the sun rose gave me a nice start to the day with a White Stork feeding in a recently cut hay field, numerous Great Reed Warblers singing from the reeds, a Eurasian Cuckoo, a purring Turtle Dove and best of all, stunning views of a male Little Bittern as it crept around in some nearby reeds.

As the sun began to climb I moved south along the Eastern side of the main lake making several short stops where I came across plenty of Yellow-legged Gulls, a perched Squacco Heron, several Purple Herons, 3 flyover Great Egrets, several Nightingales feeding recently fledged young, Black-winged Stilts, Gull-billed Terns, Common Sandpiper and a couple of Western Bonelli’s Warblers in a small group of trees in a ditch. Of course the most famous bird at the Camargue is Greater Flamingo and I saw my first group of over a thousand birds in the distance in the main lake although better views would come later.

One of the nicest stops was in an area of farmland where lots of beautiful European Bee-eaters were swooping around and a large flock of Corn Buntings were feeding. European Skylark, Common Kestrel and European Reed Warbler were all in the same area but then I heard a sound which I recognized as a Roller and within seconds a stunning European Roller flew into view and landed on a bush giving me the opportunity to get wonderful ‘scope views. A second Roller also arrived and the pair of them mobbed a Kestrel until it flew away. A couple of flyover Glossy Ibises put in an appearance, a singing Blackcap, another Cuckoo and a few more Turtle Doves put in an appearance along the way before I ended up in an area of salt pans with an abundance of birds such as Black-headed Gull, Pied Avocet, Eurasian Curlew, 8 Eurasian Spoonbills and, of course, spectacular views of over 150 Greater Flamingos.

Greater-flamingo

Flamingos

Large numbers of Black-headed Gulls were feeding among the flamingos and after a lot of scanning I gave up on finding any Slender-billed Gulls but as I was getting into the car an unusual looking gull flew past me and a look through the binoculars proved that it was a Slender-billed Gull!

I decided to drive further towards the coast, which ended up taking far longer than expected but along the way I saw a superb male Montagu’s Harrier, shortly followed by a female. A group of 7 soaring White Storks, another Glossy Ibis, a Pheasant and more Bee-eaters were in the freshwater areas along the way but as I got to salt pans adjacent to the coast I found a number of Sandwich Terns, a couple of Common Terns, more Greater Flamingos as well as a few waders – Common Ringed Plover and Kentish Plover. In a nearby pool a large number of Mute Swans had a single Black Swan for company but then it was time for me to head back to Arles.

On my second morning I wanted to look for the birds of the stony plains of the Crau. I foolishly forgot to do any real research and did not really know the exact location to go to, however my first stop. near the village of Entressen, turned up a few nice species including at least half a dozen Golden Oriole in the trees surrounding a pool, several Nightingales and a female Yellow Bittern stalking along the pool’s edge accompanied by Black-crowned Night Herons. I drove quite a long way and eventually came across some stony grassland habitat which was heavily disturbed and fragmented and it was only later that I realized I had stopped in one of the more seldom visited fragments of habitat. However, a distant lark prompted me to drive along a stony track to see that it was indeed a Skylark but suddenly I saw a large bird on the track in front of me – a Little Bustard. Great views as this bird turned into three individuals running through the grassland and I managed to get a few record shots off but unfortunately none of the photos were very good.

Little-bustard

Having read a number of trip reports from people who had been to the area and not seen Little Bustard I was very pleasantly surprised to see 3 of these birds so easily. I also later say an adult male in flight in the same area with other species of interest including 3 Eurasian Hoopoes, numerous Tawny Pipits singing from posts and rock piles and lots of Kestrels which I unsuccessfully tried to turn into Lesser Kestrels!

On the way back to Arles I passed through the Camargue again getting some excellent views of Short-toed Eagle, a flypast Squacco Heron and a single Mediterranean Gull in a huge flock of Black-headed Gulls feeding in a recently cut hay field. Although I could undoubtedly have found more good birds given more time I was quite pleased how many interesting species I saw in two brief visits and I hope this encourages other birders traveling in the area with non-birding partners to visit if even for a short morning.

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