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Southern France in winter:

Alpilles, Camargue, Crau and Nice

by Chris Batty

I visited southern France for five days in mid February 2003, flying to Nice from Liverpool with Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) for around £70 including tax. I hired a Peugeot 206 from Europcar paying via their website (www.europcar.com) prior to leaving the UK but was stung on arrival at Nice Airport for being under twenty five years old and forced to pay a supplement.

Whilst in Arles we stayed in an Etap Hotel (www.etaphotel.com) by the River Rhone for 30 Euros per room per night, with a supplement of 3 Euros for each additional person. Similarly whilst in Nice we stayed in an Etap Hotel for 36 Euros per room plus a 3 Euros supplement per person.

The trip potentially presented me with five new Western Palearctic birds: Wallcreeper, Greater Spotted Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Yelkouan Shearwater and Indian Silverbill. All these were seen along with some other excellent birds. I was accompanied by my tolerant non-birding girlfriend, a committed crew would probably have seen much more following a similar itinerary.

I have merged my experiences with the information I gathered before, during and after the trip.

I should like to thank the following people who assisted me in my preparation: Dave Braddock, Mary Braddock, Laurent Chevallier, Michelle Corsagne, Olivier Debre, Serge Detalle, Frank Dhermain, Fabrice Ducordeau, E. Durand, Tim Earl, Didier Godreau, Francois Guerquin, Gerad Joannes, Christopher Knibbs, Ken Hall, Georges Olioso, Nicolas Sadoul. The website www.oiseauxprovence.fr.st provided recent sightings and site guides for Provence.

Alpilles - les Baux-de-Provence

Wallcreeper: I saw my first, distantly, early morning on the cliffs looking north from two bends north of the (barriered 4 Euro) car park at the top of the pass. However from what I can gather the best location to search can be found as follows: park on the roadside of the D27a as it leaves les Baux southwest towards Arles and follow the footpath signed 'le village'. After a short way the path splits and you should follow the narrow path off to the right past a statue signed "La vierge noire". After following this path around the base of the cliff for c500 yards you will have rounded the ancient city and be looking up at the north side of the ancient city. Scan the cliffs from near the Stele des Gaie sign. I obtained good views of a Wallcreeper here mid afternoon.

Wallcreeper


Alpine Accentor: I saw at least 13 (probably 15) and they gave incredible views. They kept mainly in a tight flock favouring the short grass around the catapult and battering ram at the summit of the ancient city. To enter this area you must pay c6.50 Euros at the museum entrance, from memory the museum is open from c10am to c5.30pm. Other information stated that the Alpine Accentors visit the narrow cobbled streets of the town.

Alpine Accentor


Blue Rock Thrush: I saw several on the rocky crags all around the area.
Crag Martin: 1+ flying around the summit
Sardinian Warbler: a pair on the summit, also several Serins and Black Redstarts.
Eagle Owl: I failed to see or hear them at a site that has previously been productive. From les Baux, take minor D78f southwest for about 3km. On your right, just before the D78a junction to Maussane is a hotel called something like Mas de l'oulivie. Immediately after passing it is a narrow road on the right. Go down this road and park before the chain across the road where the tarmac ends. Scan the cliffs and ledges, especially any caves or holes. They have been heard singing and as many as five birds have been seen here.

An alternative site is found by coming out of les Baux towards Baucaire the road turns right. After 500 yards there is another right turn which leads you up to a limestone cliff on the left (hard to see on the way out but clear if you go too far and come back when it is on the right).

la Caume: Bonelli's Eagle: From Arles take the D17 east to Maussane-les-Alpilles. Turn left at Maussane on the D5 towards Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. After about 10-15 minutes you will come to a car park and picnic area on the right hand side, from which you should follow a tarmac road to la Caume radar station. It is quite a long, but easy, walk. I saw a pair of Bonelli's Eagles displaying over the valley east of the radar station and viewable left of the road about 200 yards before the perimeter fence. The site is also reported to hold Wallcreeper, Crag Martin, Citril Finch and Eagle Owl in the gully northeast of the radar station at dusk. I saw several Firecrests and Crested Tits whilst walking along the road from the car park to the radar station.

le Destet: Eagle Owl: I was told that from Mouriès turn left towards le Destet. Just before reaching the village of le Destet you will see a motocross on the right hand side, turn right onto the motocross and follow the dirt track (it was suggested by foot) of the motocross, always keeping the range of hills on your left. Eagle Owl can be heard and seen at dusk. I arrived at the site very late and only heard an Eagle Owl singing distantly from west of the road.

Tour les Opies (south side of the Alpilles): I did not visit but others have seen 2 Bonelli's Eagles from the D17, flying high from the crags.

Montagne des Cordes (near Abbe de Montmajour): I did not visit but it is another Eagle Owl site

Camargue - la Capelliere: Penduline Tit: I saw at least 2 in reeds and bushes by the road just south of the entrance track to the visitor centre. When walking to the hide look in the reeds growing in the ditches close to the path. The visitor centre is closed Tuesdays. Scaup and Red-crested Pochards could be seen from the viewing platforms

Penduline Tit


Moustached Warbler: I failed but was told they are present in the reeds here and at "Le Pont Noir"

Salin-de-Badon: Greater Spotted Eagle and White-tailed Eagle: There is access to hides overlooking Etang du Fournelet from which both Greater Spotted Eagle and White-tailed Eagle were seen hunting. It is closed on Tuesdays but I did see a juvenile White-tailed Eagle fly north towards Tour-du-Valat.

Greater Flamingo


la Bonborinette: Greater Spotted Eagle: Follow the D36b south from la Capelliere past Salin-de-Badon and after c1km park on the roadside and look east through the hedge across an open area of pools and scrub to the line of large trees in the distance. I saw one, probably 3rd calendar year, bird roosting here after c5.20pm one evening. It is thought that each day it hunts around Etang de Vaccares and then roosts in these large trees each evening, but sometimes out of view from the road. The time it arrives varies, anything from mid afternoon to dark. Several Hen Harriers hunt the area.

Long-legged Buzzard: a single is wintering here; I saw it perched atop trees and on the ground.

Plage de Piemanson (south of Salin-de-Giraud): Caspian Gull: a 1st-winter with Yellow-legged Gulls on the pools east of the road just before it reaches the beach was, I believe, only the second for the Camargue. Also 3 adult Mediterranean Gulls, several Black-necked Grebes and many Greater Flamingo. Others searched for Slender-billed Gulls here. I was told that in strong southerlies the beach here is as good a bet as anywhere in la Camargue for Yelkouan Shearwater.

Caspian Gull


le Sambuc: Black Stork: 5 wintering birds were here and I saw them roosting just northwest of the village on the southern of two large tanks viewable west from the D36. Also 26+ Great White Egrets and others had seen Spoonbill. Nearby others have seen Penduline Tits from the road near Tour-du-Valat.

Mas Neuf: Long-legged Buzzard: I didn't try for it but a single had been seen here recently, I believe Mas Neuf is southeast of le Sambuc.

Marais de Vigueirat: Black-shouldered Kite: a single vagrant is wintering at this private site. However distant views can apparently be obtained by following the rough track south only the west bank of the canal Port de Fos-sur-Mer from by the bridge at Mas Thibert. After c2 km it is best to park and walk a further c1km to view east across the canal. From the kink in the track where you would park a White Stork nest is visible across the canal. The private reserve is apparently a good site for Moustached Warbler.

Mas d'Agon: Long-legged Buzzard: a single is wintering on the north shore of Vaccares Lake at Rousty and regularly perches on top of the bushes and trees surrounding the marsh south of the D37 and is easily viewable from the small white observation tower. From Arles, take the D570 signed to Sainte Maries de la Mer. At Albaron, turn left on to the D37 signed Etang de Vaccarès until you reach the white tower on the right hand side.

Penduline Tit: I saw a flock of a least nine in the reeds around the junction of the D37 and the minor road to Mas d'Agon. Also several Water Pipits were flying around here. Moustached Warbler and Greater Spotted Eagle are both reported as possible here.

Mas de Lauricet: Pine Bunting: I dipped but I didn't really give the site enough time. From l'Albaron take D37 northwest signed St Gilles for a short way before turning left and following the minor road around several bends. As you approach a farm/houses on the left there is a large area of scrub on the right. I believe this scrubby area is on an old dune system and it is used as a roost site by Tree Sparrows, finches and buntings. In January 2003 4 Pine Buntings had been seen late afternoon, but also sometimes at other times during the day. The area is strictly private and you must keep to the road at this site. I was told that if you drive north from the scrubby area and drive past the entrance to the farm/houses there is a group of tall conifers that hold Long-eared Owls.

Parc Orntihologique Pont de Gau: I did not visit although it is reported to be a site for Greater Spotted Eagle and Moustached Warbler.

Marais du Grenouillet: Long-legged Buzzard

Étang de Malagroy: Slender-billed Gull

Bois de la Ville: Bonelli's Eagle: an adult had been reported just prior to my visit

Sainte Maries-de-la-Mer: Black-necked Grebes on the sea and several Yellow-legged Gulls

Crau - Eyguieres Airfield: Little Bustard: 250 had been reported here shortly before my visit but I failed to find any in a morning visit, however a late afternoon visit produced a flock of 21 flying in from the west then feeding near the runways. As you drive north along the D569 towards Eyguieres there is a track which runs west along the south side of the airfield towards a go-karting stadium. You can scan the airfield from this track. I saw several Rock Buntings along the track and perched on the bushes in the airfield and a single Dartford Warbler. Alternatively continue north from the go-kart track along the D569 and take the next left which will lead you towards the hangars. However keep right on the track and follow it as it curls around the back of the airfield and heads off west. It was from this track that I saw the Little Bustards. Dusk does appear to be the best time. Alongside the D569 north of the airfield the stony fields before Eyguieres village may well be worth a look.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse: 11 have been regular here this winter but I failed to find them. Calandra Lark: reported to occur here.

la Jesse: Is immediately west of Eyguieres airfield and is best accessed from a signed track north from the N113. I failed to find a way into the site from the north. In the recent past this site has seen 300 Little Bustards on the steppes viewable from a mound along with 3+ Southern Grey Shrikes and Rock Bunting.

Entressen: The enormous rubbish tip attracts 10+ Red Kites. During January/February 2002 Bonaparte's Gull, Ring-billed Gull and Glaucous Gull had been commuting between Etang d'Entressen and the tip. If you follow the road west past Etang d'Entressen, under the railway and then bear right until you arrive at the rubbish tip from where you can see the Red Kites. I saw 4 Crested Larks in the field immediately left of the rubbish tip and on the covered areas of the tip itself. Others have seen Southern Grey Shrike and Woodlark in this area. Little Bustard has been seen in a military field north of Entressen.

le Mas-Chauvet : Richard's Pipit: south of Entressen this is a wintering site for Richard's Pipit, I was told they occur in the steppe part but did not visit. I suspect you would need more precise directions to stand much chance of success.

Peau de Meau: Little Bustard: I saw a flock of seven flying northwest over the car park. Southwest of St Martin-de-Crau at la Dynamite follow the road signed Etang des Aulnes for several kilometres and turn left just before Chateau de Vergieres. Cross the Canal de Vergieres to reach the car park. Peau de Meau is a nature reserve and you should purchase your two-day permit (3 Euros) from Ecomusée de la Crau in Saint Martin-de-Crau. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Calandra Lark are reported to be present here.

le Ventillon : This site near Fos-sur-Mer is reported to hold Little Bustard, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Calandra Lark.

Piste de Vallon: I did not visit but to find Piste de Vallon drive east along the N113 from Arles to Salon-de-Provence and turn left down the D5 to Istres. Immediately on the left is a barren-looking area of small rocks and short grasses. Here Little Bustard, Crested Larks and Short-toed Larks can apparently be found.

Nice - River Var mouth: Crag Martins: Just west of Nice Cote-d'Azur Airport the River Var is an excellent spot for Crag Martins. They can be viewed from either side of the river. To view the mouth of the river you must cross the bridge to Saint Laurent-du-Var and park in the large car park by the Cap 3000 shopping complex. From here follow the footpath along the riverbank south for a short way to reach a couple of viewing platforms. I saw 2 Indian Silverbills in flight as well as many Mediterranean Gulls with the roosting Continental Cormorants, Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls.

Jardin botanique de la Corniche fleurie : Indian Silverbill: I saw at least 10 very easily, including apparently recently fledged juveniles. If you follow the roads north from Nice Cot-d'Azur Airport parallel with the River Var and pass an Etap Hotel. Turn right shortly after this and follow the roads that zigzag up the slope. The jardin is signposted and has a car park. Beware of confusion with some similarly named housing estates, although one of these did hold several Firecrests.

Cros de-Cagnes: Yelkouan Shearwater: 2+ seen easily close inshore off McDonald's Restaurant

Cap d'Antibes - Cap Gros: Yelkouan Shearwater: 4+ feeding distantly off Cap Gros also 6 Mediterranean Gulls flew north

Other sites

les Calanques de Marseille: Wallcreeper occurs, usually in sheltered areas

les gorges de l'Ardeche: Alpine Accentor

Pont du Gard: Rock Sparrows - I did not visit this Roman aqueduct over the Gard ou Gardon, east of the town of Roumoulins (follow D19/D981). Rock Sparrows can apparently be found in the car park or up to 40 roosting late afternoon in holes on the aqueduct.

Mont Ventoux: I did not visit but others have parked near the junction of the D974 and the D164 at the base of a ski-lift. Citril Finches on the wires of the ski-lift, Rock Bunting. Snow Finch has been seen at the cafe/restaurant 'halfway up. Black Woodpecker can be found in the woods. Nutcracker was reported here shortly before my visit.

List of birds recorded during 9th-13th February

Black-necked Grebe, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Yelkouan Shearwater, Continental Cormorant, Cattle Egret, Great White Egret, Little Egret, Grey Heron, White Stork, Black Stork, Greater Flamingo, Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Shelduck, Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Teal, Red-crested Pochard,White-tailed Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Bonelli's Eagle, Red Kite, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard, Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Red-legged Partridge, Pheasant, Water Rail, Moorhen, Coot, Little Bustard, Lapwing, Dunlin, Green Sandpiper, Curlew, Snipe, Mediterranean Gull, Black-headed Gull, Caspian Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Feral Pigeon, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Eagle Owl, Little Owl, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Skylark, Crested Lark, Cra g Martin, Water Pipit, Meadow Pipit, White Wagtail, Alpine Accentor, Robin, Black Redstart, Stonechat, Blue Rock Thrush, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Blackcap, Sardinian Warbler, Dartford Warbler, Cetti's Warbler, Chiffchaff, Firecrest, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Crested Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Penduline Tit, Wallcreeper, Magpie, Jay, Jackdaw, Rook, Carrion Crow, Hooded Crow, Raven, Starling, House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Brambling, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Siskin, Serin, Reed Bunting, Corn Bunting, Rock Bunting, Indian Silverbill