I led a tour for Naturetrek in the south-east of France, in the region known as Provence, between the end of December and the beginning of January, enjoying the superb wildlife of Camargue and the beauty of hilly landscapes of Les Alpilles and Mont Ventoux. Impressive numbers of cranes, swans, storks and flamingoes, but also unexpected sightings of Wallcreepers, Mealy Redpolls and Spotted Eagle, made the week unforgetable!
As usual, when I’m leading a group, I decided to not carry my Canon 7d mark II, but to be light having only my Canon Powershot SX50 hs. That’s why you will find my photos with a lower quality than most of the others posted in the blog.
The Camargue, together with Coto Doñana and the Danube delta, is probably the best known birding wetland of Europe. It includes the two main branches of Rhone river and all the annexe areas of marshes, saltpans, ponds, reedbeds, woodlands and coltivated fields that constitute the delta of Rhone.
The first marsh we visited was Mas d’Agon: it’s a freshwater pond surrounded by wide reedbeds. Here we observed big flocks of Glossy Ibises (maybe more than 150)…
…some tens of Cranes, 2-3 Red Kites, 3-5 Marsh Harriers and I heard the calls of few Penduline Tits.
So we followed the lakeside of the huge pond Étang de Vaccarès. We dind’t see too much in the water of the basin (Black-becked Grebe, Great Flamingo, Spotted Redshank), but in 3 different days along its edges, we had very nice observations of 1 Hen Harrier, tens of White Storks, 2 Black Storks, hundreds of Skylarks and small flocks of Cranes.
One of the richest spots was the Marais de Romieu, where we observed 1 Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga)…
…few White Storks and Avocets and tens of Gadwalls, Shovelers and Common Pochards. But the best moment has been when a total of 60 Bewick’s Swans (Cygnus columbianus bewickii), divided in smaller flocks, overflied us in a concert of calls!
Around Salin de Giraud, had been spotted a male of Pallid Harrier in the days before, but we couldn’t observe that bird. The best sighting in the area has been the observation of a huge flock of maybe 900 Cranes, all together on the same field!
When we arrived at the Plage de Piémanson, a very strong western wind was blowing, hindering the observation. However, we managed to spot 4-5 Gannets and 4 Sanderlings among an hundred of Dunlins.
We visited for all a day also the vast steppe area of La Crau, but we were very unluky there, observing really few birds: Woodlark, Fieldfare, Dartford Warbler, Cirl and Rock Bunting were the most remarcable ones.
In the Étang des Aulnes, among the Common Pochards, I spotted at least 32 Red-crested Pochards (Netta rufina), while in the Marais de Beauchamp, I was surprised in finding a couple of Pallas’s Squirrels (Callosciurus erythraeus).
The western part of Camargue was richer in wildlife: we visited the famous reserve Pont de Gau that is probably the best place where photograph from a very close distance the Great Flamingos.
Very interesting was the Étang de l’Impérial, near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer: it’s a wide brackish water lagoon with extended mud flats and shallow waters. Hundreds of Dunlins were around, together with Grey Plovers, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers, Redshanks, Kentish Plovers and Curlews. Among Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls I spotted 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a couple of Sandwich Terns.
On the way back to Arles, near Pointe de Cacharel, when it was almost dusk, I spotted 2 beautiful Mealy Redpolls (Carduelis (flammea) flammea) on a tamarisk. The only photo I managed to take, is off course not a good one, but shows well the white rump, the white wingbars and the contrast between the brown shoulders and the head typical of this rare (sub)species that during this winter occured rather widely in central Europe.
Inland we visited first the Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles. I was very surprized in finding hunters looking for pheasants in the heart of the park: probably because of shooting, we din’t see too much (Sparrowhawk, Crested Tit, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crossbill, Rock Bunting), but landscapes were superb!
Better luck we had in the pretty medioeval town of Les Baux-de-Provence…
…where we managed to spot one lovely Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria) and a couple of Blue Rock-thrushes, together with 1 Crag Martin and many Black Redstarts.
Rather empty and lashed by the wind was the Mont Ventoux…
…where we found only the holes of Black Woodpecker and few Crested Tits, Marsh Tits, Nuthatches and Crossbills were the only birds observed.
We finished in Pont du Gard, where a wonderful Roman aqueduct still cross the river that flows through a deep valley.
From the parking the birdwatching was productive, with Hawfinch, Cirl Bunting, Sardinian Warbler, Firecrest, Black Redstart…
but was precisely on the “bridge”, where we spotted the best birds: about 15 Rock Sparrows, 100 Crag Martins and 2 more Wallcreepers!
A fantastic happy end of our trip in Provence.