France, Provence and the Camargue, August 5th - 10th 2001

Published by Martin Birch (martinandtiffany AT


by Martin Birch


Although this was not a pure birding holiday - there are just too many other delights in Provence to look only for birds - if born a birder then always a birder.... and in Provence even a short stay can produce some memorable birding moments.

Therefore, this report will hopefully give the first time birder to Provence, or those with a partner with differing interests, a sense of what you can find with a little bit of time. Of course, birding in Provence will be dominated by the awesome splendour of the Camargue National Park - and even non-birders will want to see the flamingos and the famous Camargue white horse.

We carried with us a trip report by Ulli Hoger, found at Urs Geisers website. This was very useful and we seemed to see much the same species on this short trip.

With RyanAir now flying daily from London to Nimes, the Camargue is as accesible as ever - for British Birders it could cost little more than a land dash to Cornwall ! We hired a car for the whole of the 6 day stay through the UK office of EuropCar - this was pretty good value, but more importantly an absolute neccesity to effectively bird the various sites in and around the Camargue.

We had some great birding moments including a Little Bustard with young in the Crau and flocks of Whiskered Terns feeding over the rice fields of the Camargue - we dipped badly on shrikes and the reedbeds were unsurprisingly quiet (being August) on the warbler front. But this hardly seemed to matter - there was almost always something to interest a Brit birder and what with all the other non-birding Provencal delights, if you haven't yet birded the Camargue, then do make it a priority.

We picked up a 1:50,000 map of the Camargue in one of the local news kiosks - this is, again, pretty much a neccesity to work your way around the maze of narrow lanes and tracks that criss-cross the Camargue. The weather was typically fine throughout our stay, with bright blue skies and temperatures approaching 30 degrees celsius.


Saturday August 4th 2001:

We boarded a late evening flight with RyanAir from London Stanstead to Nimes and stayed at Cassaigues, just outside Nimes. A car alarm triggered a Scops Owl to respond in the dead of night - we were off to a great start !

Sunday August 5th 2001

A morning search for the Scops Owl proved fruitless, but a pair of Bonelli's Warblers showed well at the back of the farmhouse along with a very 'showy' juvenile Nightingale. The characteristic 'plit plit' of a Fan-tailed Warbler soon broke the morning stillness - this, along with the cicadas, was to be the characteristic sound of Provence for the next six days. Large numbers of Tree Sparrows had chosen to nest in the walls of the outbuildings - something the local Sparrowhawk had already detected, as he made several passes and grabs at birds at their entrance holes.

After breakfast we travelled the short distance to Aigues-Mortes, on the western edge of the Camargue - once a medieval port but now some 20 kilometres from the sea. The first of two Hoopoes today flopped across the road. From the fort, you could see for miles around providing stunning views of the surrounding farmland and the Salin de la Marette where good numbers of Flamingos and other wetland species were feeding.

bird photo - Greater Flamingos

From Aigues-Mortes, after a brief stop for lunch at the Salin de la Marette, we travelled down the western edge of the Camargue National Park, stopping at the Parc Ornithologique and then at various points adjacent to the lagoons along the D85a. This road runs north from Saintes-Maries de la Mer. We had our only White Stork of the trip, along with a free-flying Sacred Ibis (origin ?) and our first Short-toed Eagle (with Hobby), a family of Avocets, plus of course many hundreds of Flamingos.

In the evening we headed to the Crau, an area of steppe-like plateau that lies to the east of the Camargue National Park and is accessible via the N568 east of Arles. Raptors were everywhere, with a ring-tail Montagu's Harrier bringing the car to a speedy halt as it hunted a ditch along the roadside. In fact from here we didn't move for the rest of the evening as a succession of Lesser Kestrels, a Peregrine, Black Kite and another Short-toed Eagle all hunted and hawked the Crau.....But of course the evening will be best remembered for the female Little Bustard, with its single young, as they crept through the dry grasses of the Crau, at times able to all but disappear in the little vegetation. This had been a target species for us, but finding one within minutes of pulling the car up had to be a huge stroke of luck.

South of the Etang des Aulnes a group of a dozen or so Bee-eaters seemed to be settling down to roost in the entrance to a private estate. We didn't get to explore the Crau further (next time definitely). Perhaps an early morning visit with some birding away from the road might have produced the shrikes and larks that we were not seeing.

Monday August 6th 2001:

Not much birding today, other than a skulking Marsh Warbler first thing in the campsite at Arles, along with a family of Nightingales and a pair of 'exhibitionist' Fan-tailed Warblers. By late afternoon we had travelled through Salon de Provence and Aix-en-Provence enjoying a bit of culture and excellent French cuisine before stopping at the Verdon Gorge and a campsite at Moustiers with a nice party of Crag Martins overhead.

Tuesday August 7th 2001:

The small lake around the campsite produced a fleeting glimpse of a Melodious Warbler,a typically elusive Cetti's Warbler and good numbers of Swifts moving through. An accipiter lifted off from the forest with heavy wingbeats but was almost immediately lost between the trees - it looked good for Goshawk.

The drive through the Gorge du Verdon is beautifully scenic and at various watchpoints Alpine Swifts and Crag Martins were much in evidence. Passerines were hard to come by with just a single Black Redstart. But where were all the raptors ? By the evening we had moved on to the Luberon Mountains camping outside St.Martin de Castallon.

Wednesday August 8th 2001:

The campsite produced our first Serins of the trip - very different from May or June when the air is full of the jingle of Serins as soon as you touch down in southern Europe - this was day four and we were to see just 2 more birds during this holiday. At Oppede-le-vieux, just south of Gordes, an area of rough ground near the entrance to the village produced breeding Cirl Bunting and a pair of Subalpine Warblers feeding in a spruce.

The afternoon was spent 'rock-watching' at Les Baux, a stunning village built into the hillside overlooking the Alpilles and the plains to the south and potentially a good site for Wallcreeper and Bonelli's Eagle. But we only managed a Blue Rock Thrush, a further pair of Subalpine Warblers and more Crag Martins.

Thursday August 9th 2001:

Up early and back into the Camargue National Park, this time along the eastern boundary travelling down the famous D36b to the Etang du Fangassier.

bird photo - Greater Flamingos

The small lagoon at La Capelliere was teeming with herons and egrets at first light, with our first Great White Egrets (3 together) amongst the hundreds of Little Egrets, Flamingos, Purple and Grey Herons. A single Spoonbill dropped in. A few Spotted Redshank fed along the margins alongside Black-winged Stilts. On the opposite side of the road a watchpoint overlooking more pools yielded half a dozen Wood Sandpipers, plus a single Green and two Common Sandpipers.

Further down the D36b the pool at Salin de Badon held a good sized flock of Avocet and over 20 Gull-billed Terns. By the roadside at Etang Redon our first and only Tawny Pipits fed in the short grass and then perched obligingly on a barbed wire fence whilst a scruffy Spectacled Warbler fed amongst the broken heather.

We then drove on to the Etang du Fangassier where the Flamingo breeding colony is based. At this time of year large numbers of waders are also moving through. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Little Stints, with smaller numbers of Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlin a single Whimbrel and as many as 50 Kentish Plover, far outnumbering the occasional Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, fed busily along the Etang's margins.

At least four Slender-billed Gulls, another of our target species, loafed around on the saline pools at the far end of the Etang.

bird photo - Slender-billed Gull

After a late breakfast we headed for the rice fields of Mas D'Agon. These are situated along a small track that runs north from the D37. The pools are about a kilometre north of some agricultural barns clearly marked on any good map. Huge numbers of Whiskered Terns , with the odd Black Tern amongst them, sallied back and forth hawking for insects over the fields. In the ditches, good numbers of Squacco Herons remained motionless patiently stalking their prey. Egrets and herons abounded. The rice beds are definitely one of the best spots in the Camargue.

Back on the D36b travelling north to Arles (just outside Villeneuve) we found another one of our target species - a splendid Roller atop a bush - whilst the 'schrrruk schrrruk' gave away another party of Bee-eaters overhead. A 'late to bed' Night Heron drifted over.

In the early afternoon, with the heat reducing bird activity, we walked out to the lighthouse at Phare de la Gacholle where two Melodious Warblers, a single Bonelli's Warbler and a Willow Warbler flitted through the sallows whilst a Spectacled Warbler danced through the maquis. But other than these warblers there was little else - no pipits or larks although the habitat looked perfect.

By late afternoon we had left the park and, it being our last evening, we splashed out by staying in a typically provencal farmhouse just outside Fontaine de Vaucluse, where more Crag Martins and Alpine Swifts screamed overhead and yet another Short-toed Eagle patrolled the escarpment. A fleeting glimpse of a probable Wallcreeper flitting between crevices in the rock-face hundreds of feet above us would be just that - a fleeting glimpse.

Friday August 10th 2001:

We travelled via Carpentras and the Pont du Gard back to Nimes for our flight home. The Pont du Gard yielded yet more Alpine Swifts but no Rock Sparrows !

For a hastily arranged first visit to the Camargue we were pleased with our tally - others will undoubtedly see more - if this short report in some way helps in that then its been worth putting pen to paper. Enjoy the Camargue - we did and we will be back.

bird photo - Greater Flamingos

Species seen:

Great crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) half a dozen at Salin de la Marette, scattered birds elsewhere.
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) over 50 birds at Salin de la Marette, thereafter didn't bother to record numbers.
Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) most Etangs held anything between one and a dozen birds.
Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) single bird drifted across the D36b just north of La Capelliere on the 9th August.
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) seen throughout the week where suitable pasture and cattle - numbers at various watchpoints in the Camargue were in the hundreds.
Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) six birds at Mas d'Agon on the 9th August and a single bird at the most northerly point of the D36b.
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) seen throughout the week wherever there was water.
Great White Egret (Egretta alba) three birds together on the pools at La Capelliere on the 9th August
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) one or two seen most days, although in the Camargue outnumbered by Purple Herons.
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) 2 birds seen in the Camargue on the 5th August, one at the Parc Ornithologique and one from the D570 near Alberon. Half a dozen birds seen in the Camargue on the 9th August with three together at La Capelliere and two at Mas d'Agon.
White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) a single bird on the 5th August near the Parc Ornithologique.
Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) a single bird dropped into the lagoon at La Capelliere early morning of the 9th August.
Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) five hundred plus at the Etang du Fangassier, with dozens on most of the other lagoons.
Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) half a dozen at the Etang du Fangassier on the 9th August.
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) - the commonest duck in the Camargue - to be honest didn't bother to check the ducks after the first few were all Mallard.
Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) a single bird at the campsite near Moustiers.
Black Kite (Milvus migrans) single birds seen on the 5th August from the D570 and along the N568 (Le Crau). Further bird watched well in the Camargue on the 9th August
Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus) single ring-tail observed hunting along the roadside (N568) in the Crau on the evening of the 5th August.
Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) seen in the Camargue on the 5th and 9th August - 3/4 seen both days quartering low over the reedbeds - and also one soaring high above fields along the D83 east of Arles.
Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) single birds seen at Cassaigues and Fontain de Vaucluse.
Buzzard (Buteo buteo) two birds on telegraph poles from the D36b in the Camargue on the 9th August
Short- toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) single bird soaring overhead with Hobby near the Parc Ornithologique on the 5th August. Second bird in the Crau but at distance on the evening of the 5th August. Finally, a bird observed patrolling the escarpment at Fontain de Vauclusse on the 9th August.
Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) fairly common throughout Provence with birds seen daily.
Hobby (Falco subbuteo) single bird observed hunting over Parc Ornithologique, Camargue.
Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni) as many as four birds were hunting along the N568 in the Crau on the evening of the 5th August, although separation of other birds from Kestrel was not conclusive.
Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) a single bird sitting on a boulder from the N568 (Crau) on the evening of the 5th August.
Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) common wherever there was reed and water
Coot (Fulica atra) common on the larger Etangs in the Camargue
Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) - the highlight of the holiday - a female with single young watched at length from the N568 in the Crau on the evening of the 5th August.
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) common in the Camargue wherever there were flooded fields or small pools.
Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) family of four observed just north of Saintes-Maries de la Mer, Camargue on the 5th August and a group of 40 appeared to have roosted at Salin de Badon, Camargue on the 9th August.
Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) couple of birds on the Etang du Fangassier on the morning of the 9th August.
Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) at least one bird observed on the Etang du Fangassier on the morning of the 9th August.
Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) a good sized tightly grouped flock of 50 birds were busy feeding along the western edge of the Etang du Fangassier on the morning of the 9th August.
Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) about 20 birds in total were dispersed in groups of four or five amongst the much larger flocks of Little Stints at the Etang du Fangassier on the morning of the 9th August.
Dunlin (Calidris alpina) up to 50 birds had roosted on the Etang du Fangassier on the 9th August.
Little Stint (Calidris minuta) literally hundreds were 'scuttling like crabs' over the muddy edges of the Etang du Fangassier with many just feet away from the car on the morning of the 9th August.
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) a single bird around mid-day just west of the Etang du Fangassier
Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus) five birds were on the pools at La Capelliere, Camargue on the morning of the 9th August.
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) six birds were observed from the raised platform overlooking the pools at the information centre near La Capelliere on the 9th August.
Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) common around most lakes and in the Camargue.
Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) two birds observed in the Camargue, one with Wood Sandpipers near La Capelliere on the 9th August and one just north of the Etang du Fangassier.
Slender-billed Gull (Larus genei) up to 4 birds were in and around the western edge of the Etang du Fangassier and the lagoons west to the Phare de la Gacholle on the 9th August.
Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus) the commonest and most abundant gull in the area with hundreds in the Camargue.
Yellow-legged Gull (Larus cachinnans) common in small numbers throughout the region.
Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) 2 birds seen near the Parc Ornithologique, Camargue on the 5th August and up to 20 resting on the Salin de Badon on the morning of the 9th August.
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) single bird seen with two Gull-billed Terns at the Parc Ornithologique on the 5th August
Little Tern (Sterna albifrons) as many as a dozen birds at the Salin de la Marette on the 5th August and a pair at the Etang du Fangassier on the 9th August
Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) perhaps as many as five birds mixed in with the flocks of Whiskered Terns at the rice fields of Mas d'Agon, Camargue on the 9th August.
Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybridus) didn't remember to count them - too enjoyable just watching them - perhaps as many as 100 birds were feeding in and around Mas d'Agon on the 9th August.
Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) 2 pairs seen on separate occasions from the car whilst driving around the Camargue
Scops Owl (Otus scops) - single bird started calling, triggered by a car-alarm at Cassaigues on the night of the 4th August.
Alpine Swift (Apus melba) - good numbers seen in the Gorge de Verdon on the 7th August, Fontaine de Vaucluse on the 9th August and 4 birds seen at the Pont du Gard on the 10th August.
Swift (Apus apus) small numbers moving through at a variety of locations, but all definitely Common Swifts.
Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) two birds seen in the Camargue on the 5th and 9th August
Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) three separate flocks found, the first in the Crau south of Etang des Aulnes (apporximately a dozen birds) on the 5th August, the second (four birds) over the D36b on the morning of the 9th August and the third (6 birds) near the entrance to the Etang du Fangassier on the same date.
Roller (Coracias garrulus) a single bird north of Villeneuve from the D36b, Camargue on the 9th August.
Hoopoe (Upupa epops) two birds in and around Aigues-Mortes on the 5th August and a single bird in the Luberon mountains on the 8th August.
Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) single bird at Cassaigues on the 5th August - thereafter didn't bother to record others.
Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) common over the mountain villages at Moustiers, Les Baux and Fontain de Vaucluse. Four birds briefly at Pont du Gard on the 10th August.
Sand Martin (Riparia riparia) Huge numbers (500+) roosting (presumably) in the reedbeds at Mas d'Agon, Camargue on the 9th August.
Swallow (Hirundo rustica) common in all localities
House Martin (Delichon urbica) common
Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris) two birds watched well at Etang Redon on the morning of the 9th August.
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) single birds seen throughout the region
Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) group of 8 birds, including 3 'stripey' juveniles at the Etang du Fangassier on the 9th August.
Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) juvenile seen at Cassaigues on the 5th August and a family of three watched at the campsite in Arles on the 6th August.
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) one bird along the entrance to the Verdon Gorge on the 7th August and a second bird in the campsite near St.Martin de Castallon on the 8th August.
Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) one bird in the Camargue just north of the Etang Du Fangassier from the D36b on the 9th August.
Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius) one watched well amongst the rocks to the east of Les Baux on the 8th August
Fan-tailed Warbler (Cisticola juncidis) the 'plik plik' call of Fan-tailed Warbler rung out throughout Provence. The first bird was watched along a ditch surrounding arable land at Cassaigues on the 5th August and a particularly confiding pair were very showy at the campsite in Arles on the 6th August. Thereafter birders were heard and seen in most suitable habitats.
Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti) a single bird was eventually pinned down around the lake at Moustierre on the 7th August and another bird was heard near La Capelliere, Camargue on the 9th August.
Marsh Warbler (Acrocephalus palustris) a single bird positively identified around the campsite at Arles.
Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) just a fleeting glimpse of one bird flitting over the reeds at La Capelliere, Camargue on the 9th August.
Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta) one bird at the lake at Moustiers on the 7th August and two birds at Phare de la Gacholle, Camargue on the 9th August.
Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans) pair observed at Obbede-le-Vieux and a second pair at Lex Baux both on the 8th August.
Spectacled Warbler (Sylvia conspicillata) two individuals identified in the Camargue on the 9th August, the first with two Tawny Pipits at Etang Redon, the second towards the Phare de la Gacholle.
Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) the commonest warbler in the area with sightings most days
Bonelli's Warbler (Phylloscopus bonelli) three birds; two together on the 5th August at Cassaigues, the third with a Melodious Warbler and a Willow Warbler in sallows at the Phare de la Gacholle on the 9th August.
Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) one at Moustiers on the 7th August and one at Phare de la Gacholle on the 9th August.
Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) single bird at the campsite at Moustiers on the 7th August - other birds went unrecorded.
Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus) two birds over the reedbed at La Capelliere
Jay (Garrulus glandarius) birds at Moustiers and Verdon Gorge.
Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) Large breeding colony of 40+ birds at the farmhouse in Cassaigues.
Serin (Serinus serinus) two birds at the campsite in the Luberon Mountains and two more at Oppede-le-Vieux on the 8th August
Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus) a pair breeding just outside Oppede-le-Vieux on the 8th August.
Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) single bird over the reedbed at Mas d'Agon, Camargue on the 9th August

plus all the usual doves, tits, crows and finches and a slightly unusual free-flying Budgerigar at Aigues-Mortes and a Sacred Ibis at the Parc Ornithologique, Camargue.