Within three hours of landing in Nîmes, we take off for Les Baux-de-Provence, a medieval fortress village perched precariously on a precipitous pinnacle of limestone in the spectacular Chaîne des Alpilles. Our target is the unique and highly prized Wallcreeper. Scouring the extensive rock faces below the village, it seems a near impossible task to pin down such a small bird, but eventually there it is, a superb black-throated male, probing the crevices with its fine curved beak, and flashing red and white wings as it flutters erratically across the rocks just below the ramparts of the Saracen Tower. Constantly clinging to its vertical world, it is surely the most aptly named of all birds. En route back to ‘base’, a stop at a site for Eagle Owl produces Crested Tit, and as dusk approaches, we faintly hear the deep booming ‘song’ of ‘Le Grand-duc’ but he declines to show ce soir.
Day two and we make another sortie into Les Alpilles, hoping to rendezvous with Bonelli’s Eagle. On the ascent to La Caume, at the first vista, a large raptor glides along the skyline, and once the eagle has landed, we focus the scopes on its white front and confirm it to be the rare Bonelli’s Eagle. After a while it takes off and disappears behind the ridge, but shortly after, it reappears to put on an exhilarating air display by repeatedly folding its wings to plummet like a dart before pulling out of the dive to regain height. Its next trick is to soar up and down the length of the valley below us, as if wanting to be seen as it surveys its realm, allowing us to look down on the majestic raptor and enjoy unbeatable views from every angle, including the white mantle as it twists and turns.
Once at the summit, the scrub resounds with the songs of numerous Woodlarks and we also get plum views of male Dartford and Sardinian Warblers. As we watch an ascending Woodlark in full song, two eagles come into view, quickly followed by the slimline form of an Alpine Swift. As the eagles go by, the dark head and breast of the leader shows it to be a Short-toed Eagle, while its follower is Bonelli’s again. Several times on our way down, the Bonelli’s Eagle reappears for more entertainment as if to emphasise his rule of this rocky kingdom.
After our picnic lunch, we revisit Les Baux and find the male Wallcreeper again, this time on the inside of the Saracen Tower, with Crag Martinsand Alpine Swifts riding the breeze above. Looking down from the ramparts, we get excellent views of a lovely male Blue Rock Thrush, posing on a rock, in full navy uniform and powder blue cap. Inside the fort compound we are treated to super views of handsome male Black Redstarts and a singing male Serin, as yellow as a lemon, but thanks to a swarm of school kids we dip on Alpine Accentor.
On our way ‘home’ for more exquisite cuisine, we revisit the domain of ‘Le Grand-duc’ and at 6.35pm he starts calling. This time our luck is in and we have him in our scopes, calling from the rocks above, but better still, he glides towards us and lands on a closer perch. Standing upright on his rocky pedestal with long ear tufts, deep orange eyes staring straight into our scopes and a bulging fluffy throat each time he booms, he resembles a magnificent sculpture and makes a perfect end to a memorable day, with three ‘megaticks’, namely Bonelli’s Eagle, Wallcreeper and Eagle Owl, seen really well.
During the next two days in the Camargue, we begin with our only Black-necked Grebe of the trip, with amazingly bright red eyes, followed by a roadside stop for a photo shoot with a Coypu. As we creep up on the giant rodent to within just a few feet, it completely ignores us and continues pulling fresh green shots out of the ground between its paws, to nibble with deep orange incisors. At Salin du Badon, the usual suspects include Little and Great White Egrets, Mr. and Mrs. Marsh Harrier, several Spotted Redshanks and Yellow-legged Gulls, the vociferous but elusive Cetti’s Warbler, and the ubiquitous Greater Flamingoes, which look a stunning pink in the bright sunshine, while a ‘blackbird’ by the old farmhouse turns out to be a very unexpected Ring Ouzel, showing beautifully as it forages on the dry ground for grubs. At La Capellière, White Storks are in fine fettle with incredibly bright red beaks and legs and busy bill clapping on their nest, while a hen Hen Harrier makes several low sweeps of the reedbeds, sending quarry like Black-winged Stilt into a mad panic. Nearby, an apparently grey-headed raptor perched in a tree, confirms our suspicions of a Honey Buzzard when it stares into the scope with yellow eyes. Near Plage d’Arles, the lagoons yield Slender-billed Gull, Kentish Plover and tiny Little Stints alongside larger and longer billed Dunlin, while offshore of la plage, a Black-throated Diver is a very big surprise. At Le Domaine de la Palisade, there is a fall of Black Redstarts and Chiffchaffs, which are literally everywhere, as well as a flock of Avocets, a stunning Hoopoe and a dazzling Firecrest at five paces!
On our first breezy day in this notoriously windy region we have a guided tour of Les Marais du Vigueirat, where the first observatoire looks out onto a veritable feast of waders at such close range we need to whisper in the hide. The show includes Little Ringed Plovers, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Ruff developing white collars, rusty red Black-tailed Godwits and the biggest congregation of Snipe I can ever remember seeing. Other good birds seen on this fabulous reserve include Glossy Ibis, Water Pipit, a large raft of smartly coiffured Red-crested Pochard and the first Garganey of the year, with Bearded Tit and Moustached Warblers flitting within the reeds.
To round off the ‘golden triangle’ we head east to La Crau, a dry stony plain, on the look out for the camouflage specialists of the bird world. At the Aérodrome de Salon-Eyguières, we arrive just in time to catch the frustrating sight of a flock of fifty plus Little Bustards, taking off for an unknown destination, while the morning sunshine highlights the light and dark plumages of Red and Black Kites in a twisting turning air show. A diligent search of the airfield produces distant views of three more Little Bustards skulking in the scrub, as well as a perched Southern Grey Shrike. Unlike the flipping Little Bustards, the calling Stone Curlews are far more obliging and we carefully stalk a pair to within 50 yards for brilliant views of their large yellow eyes, bright yellow legs and desert style camouflage jackets. Another top quality sighting to compliment the many others enjoyed during this wonderful tour of France’s ‘golden triangle’.