Provence is fast becoming a favourite winter-break destination for British birdwatchers, because of the presence of certain specialist species, Greater Spotted Eagle, Long-Legged Buzzard, Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor
and now Pine Bunting
, which are either difficult to see in their breeding areas or require longer distance travel. I concentrated mainly upon the first three species which were all new birds for me. Added to this there are other potential "goodies" such as Bonelli's Eagle, Golden Eagle, White-Tailed Eagle, Red Kite, Eagle Owl, Little Bustard, Black
and White Storks, Pin-Tailed Sandgrouse, Purple Gallinule, Slender-Billed Gull, Blue Rock Thrush, Richard's Pipit, Moustached, Sardinian
and Fan-Tailed Warblers, Crag Martin
with an outside chance of Imperial Eagle
and Black-Shouldered Kite
. Other species such as Greater Flamingo, Great, Cattle
and Little Egret, Marsh
and Hen Harrier
are all relatively abundant. However, not all of these birds are easy to find, and in January certainly during the week you can feel that you are the only birdwatcher in Provence!
I stayed at Mas d'Auphan in the Camargue near to Le Sambuc. The property is owned by Pat Rogers, a wildlife biologist, and Poppit Rogers; included in their many postings around the world was a spell working at the Tour du Valat in the Camargue. The location has the unique selling point in being a self-catering facility in the heart of the Camargue, and readily accessible for the Alpilles and Le Crau, both of which are about 30 to 40 minutes drive going via the Bac de Barcarin, a car ferry which crosses the Rhône at Salin de Giraud. Details can be found by accessing their website on http://monsite.wanadoo.fr/Masdauphan
or by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
; they also frequently advertise in the British birding press.
I went by train from London to Aix-en-Provence leaving London Waterloo at 0839 and arriving at the new TGV station in Aix at 1630 with just one change in Lille. A car rental was arranged with Hertz who have offices at the rail terminal, as do most of the other car rental companies. The Fiat Punto provided was excellent and coped admirably with all the road conditions, although I did not take it along any of the really bumpy tracks in the Camargue, preferring to walk instead and soak up those wonderful wide horizons and sunsets.
Information about winter birding in the area came from two excellent trip reports which appeared last year from Chris Batty http://www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/france/s-france/s-france-feb-o3.htm
and Rupert Higgins and Dawn Lawrence /mb/trips/france-rh-0303.html
. There is also an excellent French website Oiseaux de Provence http://oiseauxprovence.free.fr/glareola.html
that covers the region, and which has details of the latest sightings, a guide to the best birding areas, and much more. Their webmaster Eric Durand was also very helpful in respect of specific information about Greater Spotted Eagles
- don't forget to e-mail them details of any interesting sightings. Places like La Bonborinette, L'Amphise etc. are not marked on the Michelin map, therefore, in order to discover exactly where the birds are you will need to purchase the Institut Gégraphique National 1:50,000 map of the Camargue (Map no IGN 3615); these are available in local shops and visitor centres such as La Capelière. I also used the Gosney guide to Southern France, which was very useful.
The weather is very changeable. Most days were overcast with some light rain; a couple of days were bright and sunny with temperatures almost into the 60's. For the last four days the wind - a dirty mistral blowing all the rubbish from the mountains was how my hosts described it - blew and howled making birdwatching a somewhat arduous affair. It reminded me of the Bob Dylan song from Blood on the Tracks which has the line... and wind was outrageous.
Camargue - La Capelière and Salin de Badon
I concentrated most of my birding around the eastern part of the Camargue and the northern shores of the Étang de Vaccarés where the rarer raptors had been seen. La Capelière is a visitor centre with a nature trail, hides and viewing platforms and is a good place from which to start as it has a log book detailing recent sightings. The only sightings of note here were Penduline Tit, Cetti's Warbler, Marsh Harrier
, and Little Egret
, together with good numbers of Tufted Duck, Pochard, Snipe
, and Greater Flamingo
. There were also regular sightings of a Purple Gallinule
from the first hide and from the edge of the reedbeds of the Étang de Vaccarés just north of the centre. An immature White-Tailed Eagle
had also been seen hunting to the north of La Capelière on a couple of days. The reserve and the reeds on the other side of the road opposite are supposed to be good for Moustached Warbler,
but they were being typically elusive during my visit. You can also buy permits for Salin de Badon which is another reserve a few kilometres south along the C134 road, although it was almost impossible to walk around due to the footpaths being flooded. Permits for each reserve cost euro 3. Normally, you are only permitted to enter Salon de Badon before 1000 after 1600 but my permit was stamped "umlimited access". The hides gave good views over the marshes, the main species of note being, Greater Flamingo
, large numbers of wildfowl including, Pintail, Shoveler
and Greylag Geese
, as well as, Great White
and Little Egrets
, together with the ever present Marsh
and Hen Harriers
. A group of British birders that I met also had a Greater Spotted Eagle
flying into its roost from one of the hides. One slight downside was that it was impossible to get a telescope with an 80mm object lens through the narrow slats in any of the hides at both La Capelière and Salin de Badon. Driving north from the visitor centre there were several pull-in places and viewing platforms that allowed you to look over marshes to the east and the Étang de Vaccarés to the west. There were large numbers of Coot, Great Crested
and Black-necked Grebe
sheltering in the bays as well as Mallard, Tufted Duck
together with Great White
and Little Egrets
. There was also a Ruddy Duck
reported in this flock - it's ironic that this species is probably safer from the guns in France than it is now in Britain!
La Bonborinette/Bois de Ville/Étang de Redon
Further down the C134 you come to an area of wet meadows and a line of trees in the distance which is referred to as La Bonborinette, Bois de Ville and Étang de Redon. These areas are, in fact part, of the Tour du Valat http://www.tourduvalat.org/
which is a private scientific research station which does not cater for visiting birdwatchers. They do have an annual open day for the local community which is in January. Looking through gaps in the hedge and through a gate a little further south, I saw both a first winter and an adult Great Spotted Eagle
on three occasions roosting in the trees in the distance, and on one occasion in flight. The same area also produced, Great White
and Little Egrets, Wigeon, Teal, Peregrine, Marsh
& Hen Harrier, Common Buzzard, Golden Plover, Shelduck, Cetti's Warbler, Water Rail, Curlew
and good numbers of Greylag Geese
going to roost most evenings. We also came face to face with a family group of Wild Boar, one of which ran up the middle of the road! Some French birders had also claimed an Imperial Eagle
from this location which I understand has now been accepted by the French rarities committee, the eagle having been seen a number of times at different locations throughout the Camargue. There were earlier records of Golden Eagle, Bonellis Eagle
and Black-Shouldered Kite
from the same area. Certainly, this year the Greater Spotted were far from guaranteed at this site, although there were up to 4 wintering birds in the Camargue. In the last few days, perhaps due to the wind, I failed to see them from here. A little local knowledge as to their hunting and roosting habits wouldn't go amiss. This location is where you are most likely to meet other birdwatchers especially at the weekends. The French birdwatchers whom I met were extremely friendly and willing to share information. They were also very excited about a flock of a hundred or so Stock Doves
which frequented the area. A couple of hunters even stopped and asked to look through my telescope!
Observatoire de Rousty/Mas Neuf
An old pumping station has been converted to a viewing platform and is located by the side of the D37 road. The main attraction here was a wintering adult Long-Legged Buzzard
which gave excellent views as it regularly perched on small trees very close top the viewing platform, or flew from one side of the road to another. The area produced Great, Cattle and Little Egrets, both Harriers, Cetti's and Fan-tailed Warblers.
From the C134 if you take the road that leads towards the coast and the lighthouse at La Gacholle you come to some grazing pastures on the right. The area to the west of the road is known as L'Amphise which is reputedly a good spot for eagles. I failed to see any eagle species here the best birds being a group of 41 Common Cranes
, good numbers of Golden Plover as well as the usual Harriers and Egrets. Black Storks
had also been seen occasionally in this area.
Phare de La Gacholle/Beauduc/ Étang de Fangassier
Continuing past L'Amphise the metalled road ends and becomes a rough track that is drivable to the lighthouse at la Gacholle. I parked along the track and walked between the Étangs de Galabert and Fangassier on one occasion, and on another took a track that led south towards Beauduc. The best birds that I had here were hundreds of Greater Flamingos
, and Black-headed
and Yellow-legged Gulls
together with a flock of Avocets
and some Ringed Plover
. There were a few Chiffchaff, Sardinian and Dartford Warblers in the scrub as well as Meadow Pipits, but apart from being a beautiful walk, much of the area was birdless. I searched in vain all around these saline lagoons for Slender-billed Gull. Beauduc is supposedly good for SB Gulls as well as seabirds such as Divers and Sawbills.
Plage de Piémanson/Arles/Baisses de Cent Francs
The road through Salin de Giraud eventually leads to the beach with lagoons on both side so the road. The lagoons immediately before the emergency post where the road ends supposedly one of the best places for Slender-billed Gull, but I failed to find this species here in four visits. Other birds seen included: Greater Flamingo, Red-necked Grebe, Sandwich Tern
, Yellow-legged and Common Gulls, Redshank, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover and White Wagtail
. Of note also was an albinistic Black-Headed Gull. Storms had wreaked devastation along the beach with trees lining the beach and wrecked holiday caravans in the dunes. Southerly winds evidently produce good seawatching conditions from this point.
Marais de Vigueirat
I did not visit this area which is on the eastern side of the Rhône. Although there are hides and trails here, you can only enter in a group by obtaining a permit, details being obtainable from the tourist office in Arles. A Greater Spotted Eagle had, however, been reported from the area.
Mas Lauricet and Mas Augèry des Sansouires
Mas Lauricet near to Albaron has held both Pine
and Little Bunting
in past years, they have evidently been seen late afternoon going to roost with Yellowhammers.. I did visit the site one afternoon but the best bird that I saw was Corn Bunting
. The pine trees outside the entrance to the farm have also held Long-eared Owls
in the past, but there was no sign when I checked. Nobody to whom I spoke had any information relating to this site for the winter period.
Mas Augèry des Sansouires is on the D36 just north of Le Sambuc and has held up to three Pine Buntings this winter in the hedgerows outside the farm. There were huge flocks of Corn Bunting, Reed Bunting, House
and Tree Sparrows
but I did not see any Yellowhammers with which the Pine Buntings were reported to have been associating, during the four visits that I made. Again a little local knowledge about when and where would be an advantage in pinning down these rare buntings. One noticeable factor in the Camargue were the huge flocks of common farmland birds which were everywhere: oh to see this again in Britain!
Saintes-Marie-de La-Mer and the Petite Camargue
I drove one windy Sunday along the western shore of the Étang de Vaccarés stopping at various spots en route to scan but all I saw were the omnipresent egrets, gulls, flamingos and harriers together with a few Redshanks. There was a good track just south of Cacharel which lead back north and skirted the western shore of the Étang de Vaccarés. The most unusual bird was an immature Eider Duck
close inshore where the Digue de Le Mer starts on the eastern side of Saintes Marie. I then drove northwards towards the Étangs du Charnier and Scamandre, known as the Petite Camargue, where numerous Marsh Harriers hunted over the huge reedbeds. It was too windy to have much chance of any reedbed skulkers, but Moustached Warbler is said to occur here. A flooded field near to Mas Marignan produced a few hundred Lapwing and Golden Plover.
The Mas on which I stayed had its own resident Barn
and Tawny Owls
as well as a furtive Black Redstart
Le Crau/Peau de Meau/La Jasse/ Eyguières airfield/Entressen/Étang des Aulnes
Winter is probably not the best time to visit this area, most of which is very inaccessible. The best site is the reserve at Peau de Meau. A permit to visit this site costing euro 3 is required and is obtainable from the Ecomusée in the main street in St
Martin de Crau, where there is a log book detailing recent sightings. On the way to the reserve you pass the Étang des Aulnes which has held Red-crested Pochard
; the best that I managed in a cursory glance was a few Coots, and Great Crested Grebe. At Peau de Meau I saw a Red Kite
and four White Storks
which flew over the car park. There is a walk of several kilometres to sheep-barn which serves as a hide from which you can scan the Coussous (stony plains). However, apart from a few Skylarks,
Carrion Crows, the odd Stonechat
, and a Red-legged Partridge
the area seemed deserted. The staff at the Ecomusée told me that there were a few Little Bustard in the area, but that a number of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were in an area of military land outside the reserve. The number of the latter species has evidently declined drastically and there are now just over a hundred pairs left in France.
Eyguières airfield is reached by turning off the D569 by taking a track signposted to a go-karting track. From here I saw three Little Bustard
and a male Merlin
hunting; there were probably more Bustards in the area, but the wind here was a problem. La Jasse is a private estate that is signposted off the main N113 road, although shown as a through route on the Michelin map, the road becomes a private track after a couple of kilometres. From here you can scan a good area of Coussous from an earth mound. I managed to fluke four Crested Larks
which were feeding nearby and they flew of giving their characteristic fluty call. Others have seen Rock Bunting
and Great Grey Shrike
from these last two sites.
The main attractions at Entressen include the renowned rubbish dump. I had never seen so many plastic bags which had been blown by the wind into the surrounding vegetation, surely contrary to EU Environmental legislation! Birdwise however, I saw more than twenty Red Kites
, several Common Buzzards
, and thousands of Yellow-legged, Black-headed and even a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The nearby étang was also covered in gulls with a few Great-crested Grebes. There is a nearby site at Mas Chauvet which has held several wintering Richard's Pipits
, although I did not visit, not having precise directions. The "Crau" looks like an increasingly difficult area to work as most of the good areas of Coussous are on private estates or on military land. I couldn't find the track by the green building from the N113 described by the Gosney and other guide books. There were, however, no military signs around the Piste de Vallon area, but it appeared birdless when I stopped for a short scan from the car.
Les Baux de Provence
This is a famous old walled town and tourist attraction. In birding terms it is a well known wintering site for Wallcreeper
and Alpine Accentor
. In January, however, the place was almost empty, although there is still a charge of euro 4 for the top car park. To avoid this charge I parked on the roadside beside the D27, the parking meters being non-operational outside the tourist season. From here I followed the directions from Chris Batty's report past the bottom most sign for "Le Village", past the "Vierge Noire" and then uphill until I was on the northern side of the rock face. I stopped and scanned the cliff by another sign saying "Stèle de Gaès". Almost immediately a Wallcreeper
, looking like a small Hoopoe in flight silhouette, flew over my head and onto some rocks behind me. I managed to follow it to where it had landed and obtained very close views of it preening, after which it flew out of sight. Shortly after returning to scan the original rock face, I watched this or another bird feeding on the rock face for some forty minutes before it flew off toward the town.
There were evidently up to four birds wintering around Les Baux this winter. This site also produced a pair of Blue Rock Thrush
, a small flock of Crag Martin, Dartford
and Sardinian Warblers, Song Thrush, Serin
. I then paid euro 7 to enter into the castle grounds where I obtained brilliant views of approximately fifteen Alpine Accentors
, which fed around the ruins, mainly in the grassy sections. The same area also yielded a pair of Black Redstart
and a Sardinian Warbler
. Walking back through the town I came upon another Blue Rock Thrush
, and an Alpine Accentor
feeding in a small square.
This is a fairly long but pleasant uphill walk on a metalled road to a radio mast which overlooks the Alpilles, and best known to birdwatchers as a site for Bonelli's Eagle
. It is reached by taking the D5 north from Les Baux towards St Rémy, there being ample parking at la Caume. On the way up the pine woods produced Crested Tit, Firecrest, Serin
, and Coal Tit
. Further up I came across a single Alpine Accentor
feeding by the roadside, with a few Dartford
and Sardinian Warblers
in the scrub, and a couple of Ravens
"cronking" overhead.. I paid two visits to the site during my stay and on the first occasion saw a pair of Bonelli's Eagles
displaying over the ridge to the south east of the radio mast. On the second visit I had extremely close views of a single bird in a crag on the eastern side of the summit. All the eagles seen were adults. This site is reputedly good for Eagle Owl at dusk.
I tried at the site near to the motocross track at dusk one evening for Eagle Owl, but was defeated by the wind. In fact, the wind was so strong and making so much noise in the trees that had there been a choir of Eagle Owls singing a chorus from a Verdi opera, I doubt whether I would have heard them! I was unable to find the track with the wine barrel north of the village described in the Gosney and other guide books to the area. There was a track leading to an olive oil producing concern which looked private. However, another group that I met had seen an Eagle Owl
perched on top of a bush on the ridge on the opposite side of the road from the motocross track.
Pont du Gard
I did not make the trip to this site but other birders to whom I spoke had a Wallcreeper
and about thirty Rock Sparrows
roosting on the aqueduct.
Again I did not visit this area mainly because of the weather. The mountain is visible from La Caume and was covered in snow and mist for much of my stay. Some British birders whom I met said that the road was closed beyond Chalet Reynard and that they were hampered by low cloud during their visit, the best birds they had being Crested Tit and a couple of Alpine Accentors. If you knew exactly where to look the area could be excellent in the right conditions as there are reports of Snowfinch around the cafés. In addition, the woods hold Hazel Grouse
, and in the winter at least, Nutcracker