TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
25 - 30 January 2002
Friday 25 January
A Greater Flamingo seen on the trip from Marseilles Provence Airport to the Hotel Robinson gave us a taste of what was to come on this exciting winter visit to the Camargue area. So too did snow on the distant mountains - it had forced alpine birds down into the more accessible valleys and later in the afternoon we were admiring a flock of 11 Alpine Accentors in the beautiful hilltop quarry town of Les Baux de Provence.
As an 'extra' day, it was excellent. Those of us from Guernsey had chosen to stay in Gatwick overnight and catch the early flight to Marseilles. It was uneventful until the final five minutes when the British Airways 737 swept out over the Mediterranean, turned and gave us a superb view of Marseilles before landing.
We drove to the hotel gaining a few 'minibus ticks', including the Flamingo, on the way. After a sandwich we drove the short distance to Les Baux where a search for Wallcreeper was started but not finished. Compensation came in the form of a flock (yes, flock) of Alpine Accentors which were charging around the village and its car parks, seemingly looking for us.
Other birds were a delight to: Black Redstarts, Common Buzzards and several Blue Rock-thrushes provided the supporting cast.
The finale was a superb meal which left us gasping both for space inside and in anticipation of the famous picnics which the hotel is reputed to provide.
Saturday 26 January
An early start was called for as we returned to Les Baux to continue the search started yesterday. The minibus was groaning under the weight of containers holding the picnic and even after a good breakfast we were anticipating lunch.
We staked out two likely looking cliff faces and soon a cry went up from Judy: she had found a Wallcreeper. Telescopes were swivelled onto the spot and soon everyone had enjoyed great views of the bird - one of Europe's more difficult species to see - as it flicked and flitted from crack to crevice on the cliff face. We continued the search long after this individual had gone and while some looked, others enjoyed the other bird life around.
The Mediterranean is a major wintering site for Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps, both of which were seen in numbers. A Cirl Bunting sang for a while from a leafless tree giving most a good view, while two Crested Tits found by Mary were a real and unexpected bonus. Jackdaws flew out from nest holes while Blue Rock-thrushes and Alpine Accentors put in an occasional appearance. Our first Serins were seen and heard while Chaffinches and Goldfinches remained common.
We explored the village for a while, buying postcards, lavender and local herbs as presents, before setting off for the steppes at Les Jesse near Salon where we hoped to find wintering Little Bustards. Passing a rubbish tip on the way there we were suddenly circled by about 15 Red Kites some of which came close to the minibus which we had parked and jumped out of to use the telescopes. The views were terrific but the situation, parked next to a main road with a motorway a few metres away, was not good and we set off again on our bustard hunt.
Amazingly, as we laid out our first and extensive picnic lunch, Tim walked to a mound and spotted a flock of about 35 birds feeding in the grass no more than 100 metres away. We watched them closely as they picked and scratched for seeds and insects.
Food called, however, and we eventually broke off to enjoy the vast range of fare provided by the hotel.
A walk along a poplar hedge bordering the steppe proved a real find. Within minutes we were watching a pair of Stonechats when a Dartford Warbler popped up with them, exactly as some field-guides describe. It was clearly a well-read bird. Southern Grey Shrikes were quite common and we all had good views but a pair of Rock Buntings was unexpected and welcomed by all.
A flock of about 10 larks was flitting ahead of us nervously but would not settle long enough to allow good views for identification. Eventually they decided to return to the spot we had first seen them close to the bus and gave a fluting call as they slipped past. They were wintering Woodlarks. Our first Red-legged Partridge gave exceptional views as it posed on a pile of rocks while we set up telescopes and gave it the once-over.
A simple question led to one of the most amazing sights of the trip: 'What are those white birds flying against the hills?' They were 120 Little Bustards which flew off to our left, circled and went down into fields at least three kilometres away. This was a truly exceptional sight with serious implications - if they were not the flock we had seen originally the steppe at Les Jesse had more than 150 birds wintering on it.
The walk was accompanied by the occasional calls of a Green Woodpecker on the other side of the hedge where there were fields of Almond trees, each bordered by a Cupressus hedge. We walked down the end of these fields and were amazed to find large flocks of wintering Chaffinches with lots of other birds thrown in for good measure. A Brambling was found and most of us obtained good views before the flock was flushed. Chiffchaffs were flitting between the hedge and paths which bordered it, accompanied by Robins and the occasional Black Redstart. Tim and David had views of the Green Woodpecker but nobody except the leader got onto a Fieldfare which flashed through his telescope view.
Our return to the bus was towards the end of the day in exceptionally soft light. We decided not to race off in search of the large flock of bustards but to see out the day there. Within minutes we had located the original flock confirming our hopes that this was a major wintering site. Imagine our amazement when we relocated them, confirming the figure of 150 or more birds. Imagine too the extraordinary looks as another flock of about 150 birds, including ours, took flight 30 minutes later. We decided to enter a figure of between 150 and 300 Little Bustards for the day.
The final bird of the day was a Little Owl which, typically, appeared from nowhere to sit blinking on a pile of stones. The sunset was beautiful, we were tired, but the day had been close to perfect.
Sunday 27 January
A 6.30am walk to listen for a Tawny Owl which had been heard in the hotel grounds got the day off to a great start. Not only was the hotel bird heard but a competitor some distance away also replied. Our first Cetti's Warbler was heard singing in the dark pre-dawn.
A walk around the hotel after breakfast allowed the staff to prepare another brilliant picnic while we watched Cirl Bunting, Sardinian Warbler and a flock of distinctly agitated tits. One of two Red Squirrels was seen by everyone adding this enchanting animal to our mammal list.
Our first encounter with the Camargue marshes at Gallician was so exciting that we stopped by the side of the road after 200 metres and gazed in wonder for more than an hour. Great and Little egrets, Marsh Harriers, Reed Buntings, White Wagtails, Water Pipits, Cetti's Warblers, Grey Herons, Buzzards, and Yellow-legged Gulls were all plentiful. Three Kingfishers were seen, at least one giving John the best views of the bird he has ever had. One Marsh Harrier, perched on the ground close to the road, showed features of partial albinism.
The road was busy and we moved on towards our goal of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and the Parc Ornithologique, stopping to look at the Camargue bulls and horses. It was on one such stop that we found a field of small bulls, which had Sky Larks, Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Cirl Bunting and Yellowhammers for company. A detour to catch a ferry across Le Petit Rhone took us to a ramp with no boat; it was being repaired and would not be in service until 1 February we were told. This was too long to wait (although tempting in the wonderful circumstances) and we retraced our route.
The Parc was terrific. In fact it was the birds which were terrific. A huge panoramic window in the interpretation centre gave views across a pond which seemed lined with Greater Flamingos. Inspection showed that they were not alone. Hundreds of Mallards and Teal were on the pond with a few Northern Shovelers for good measure. More than 50 Coots were feeding earnestly close to the Flamingos.
We had lunch at a picnic spot with Cetti's Warblers, Reed Buntings and a young, fearless Coypu (Nutria) for company. On a post lunch walk saw few new birds except a pair of Mute Swans and a Herring Gull sitting on a post next to a Yellow-legged Gull for comparison.
Our day ended with a drive in search of waders and Slender-billed Gulls at the Étang de Malagroy reserve. None was found, but we did discover thousands of Greater Flamingos - so many that the horizon was pink with birds feeding in the shallow waters - plus hundreds of (Pied) Avocets. Tim saw a couple of Curlews but both dropped behind banks before they could be pointed out to the group. A few Common (Mew) Gulls were seen too.
Monday 29 January
Owls are a universal favourite and our plan to find the largest in Europe - Eagle Owl - met with approval. Working on detailed instructions from another Travelling Naturalist leader, Mike Read, we were able to find a roosting bird on a cliff face near Lauris. It was a thrilling experience as we studied the bird quietly, gazing through telescopes as it blinked its bright yellow eyes occasionally. Challenged by a man in a van (who turned out to be the Mayor of the local community) we were able to show him the bird plus a mixed flock of Greater Short-toed Larks and Chaffinches in the fields behind while Marylee and John went off to try for pictures of a Winter Wren. Was it coincidence that, as we were celebrating our wonderful find, the French air display team went past in nine jets?
After coffee we went down to a bird hide which overlooked a lake near Merindol. A pair of pale-headed Long-tailed Tits gave us a good views before we entered the hide to struggle against the bright sunlight reflecting off the water. A flock of feeding Common Pochard, lots of Little Grebes, Cormorants and Mallards were immediately noticeable and it fell to Judy to dig out the goodie, a Black-necked (Eared) Grebe. An information board showed Eurasian Beaver as present and we wondered if a huge pile of sticks at one end of the lake could be a lodge. A Red Squirrel was the only certain mammal, however.
Lunch was taken in a wonderful spot high in the Massif des Cedres with views out over the village of Bonnieux. Wild Thyme and other herbs scented our picnic spot and in hot sunshine we ate one of the best meals of the trip. It was also one of the funniest. As we were finishing, a flock of 500 sheep (controlled by one shepherd and three dogs) walked through our picnic site offering to finish anything we were eating. Marylee's pear received several offers as the sheep isolated her from the rest of us.
Our final stop of the day was at Pont du Gard near Remoulins where we arrived in time to see a flock of 40 Rock Sparrows descend on the 2,000-year Roman aqueduct where they popped into holes to roost for the night. Rock Sparrows have probably been roosting there since it was built. A full moon rose between the arches and as stars started to twinkle we were able study Jupiter and its moons, even seeing the planet's belts in the clear air. Bats, including Common Pipistrelles, flitted around while the distant calls of a Tawny Owl were copied by Tim. The bird came closer but would not show itself.
Tuesday 29 January
A lake full of ducks and a flock of waders completed our Camargue birding experience today. We returned to the marshes full of expectation for the day ahead and immediately set off on a longish walk from the Musée Camarguais where we found our first Tree Sparrows and Goldcrests, plus excellent views of Buzzards, Black Redstarts, lots of Reed Buntings and the biggest flock of Meadow Pipits of the trip. Another Brambling was found feeding with the by now ubiquitous Chaffinches, but it was difficult to see among clods of earth on the field in which they had congregated. Part of the walk went down a reedy alley where were heard Water Rails calling their pig-like squeals, perhaps out of sympathy for the dead Wild Boar Tim found in a canal.
The hide was a disappointment. It was so badly designed that few of us could use the observation slits and there was little to see on the pool it overlooked. A few Little and one Great Egret, a lone Buzzard and a few Marsh Harriers in the far distance. To cap the anticlimax, one of the party, who will remain nameless (his initials are TE), left a back-pack in the hide and had to walk back to retrieve it while everyone else tucked into yet another fantastic picnic. While fetching the bag, Tim did see a party of Penduline Tits we had heard but could not find on the main walk.
Exploring the marsh in the bus, we were able to take some small back-roads leading to the Étang de Vaccares. More tree Sparrows were found with lots of Corn Buntings and mixed flocks of Sky Larks and Greater Short-toed Larks were also seen.
The étang was amazing with lots of Greater Flamingos and vast flocks of Eurasian Coots, by far the biggest any of us had seen. At one point we could hear the sound of waves splashing on the shore which was strange as there was no wind until we realised that it was the sound of hundreds of Coots pattering across the surface as a Yellow-legged Gull harried them. Another stop to look at road-side birds produced the first three Crested Larks of the trip and gave us the chance to study a number of Greater Short-toed Larks.
An observatory at La Capellière was closed but we entered the reserve next to it and were thrilled to find a lake full of ducks. These included Tufted Duck, three pairs of beautiful Red-crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Northern Shoveler, Common Snipe feeding around the edge, Great Crested Grebes and still more Coots. We were told that there were Ferruginous Ducks on the lake but could not find them, despite a search from hides dotted around the area. The walk did produce another Kingfisher for some plus a flock of Long-tailed Tits, these with the more normal dark heads.
As the sun set on our last full day we reached the Étang du Fangassier where a roost of gulls was studied - none but Yellow-legged was found - and a flock of about 30 Little Stints was joined by eight larger Dunlin.
Reluctantly, we turned back towards the hotel and left the Camargue marshes for the next group to visit and enjoy. Our trip had been most successful and the celebratory final dinner was most appropriate.
Wednesday 30 January
A pre-departure walk around the hotel produced calls and songs but little in the way of birds seen. Mary had started the trend by listening to the Tawny Owl at 4am, and we followed with singing Cirl Buntings, Sardinian Warblers and Wrens.
Little was seen on the quiet trip to the Airport which included stops to drop Elaine at a railway station while John and Marylee got out at an Avis centre to hire a car so that they could continue their holiday in the Camargue area.
Footnote: Comment must be made about the Hotel Robinson whose staff were exemplary in their service to us while being friendly and fun too. The food was terrific, generous portions without over facing us, varied and yet typical of the area. The picnics were at least up to the standard other groups have reported but stood out due to the ambience of the areas in which we ate them or the birds seen while scoffing. Wine was included with dinner and the picnics, often resulting in a few zzzz noises coming from the back of the bus.
We are all also extremely grateful to David Mitcheson who acted as navigator and map-reader. David's forethought in bringing a compass was typical of the care and attention he put into the job.
Annotated list of species
GREBES Podicipediformes Podicipedidae
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Black-necked (Eared) Grebe Podiceps nigricollis
CORMORANTS Pelecaniformes Phalacrocoracidae
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
HERONS, EGRETS & BITTERNS Ciconiiformes Ardeidae
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Great Egret Ardea alba
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Great Bittern Botaurus stellaris
FLAMINGOS Phoenicopteriformes Phoenicopterid
Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber
SWANS, GEESE & DUCKS Anseriformes Anatidae
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
Gadwall Anas strepera
Common Teal Anas crecca
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina
Common Pochard Aythya ferina
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
HAWKS, EAGLES & KITES Falconiformes Accipitridae
Red Kite Milvus milvus
Western Marsh-harrier Circus aeruginosus
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
Eurasian Buzzard Buteo buteo
FALCONS Falconiformes Falconidae
Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
PHEASANTS & PARTRIDGES Galliformes Phasianidae
Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa
RAILS, GALLINULES & COOTS Gruiformes Rallidae
Water Rail Rallus aquaticus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
BUSTARDS Gruiformes Otididae
Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax
AVOCETS Charadriiformes Recurvirostridae
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
LAPWINGS Charadriiformes Charadriidae
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
SANDPIPERS Charadriiformes Scolopacidae
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata
Little Stint Calidris minuta
Dunlin Calidris alpina
GULLS Charadriiformes Laridae
Common (Mew) Gull Larus canus
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Yellow-legged Gull Larus cachinnans
Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus
PIGEONS & DOVES Columbiformes Columbidae
Rock Dove Columba livia
Common Wood-pigeon Columba palumbus
Eurasian Collared-dove Streptopelia decaocto
OWLS Strigiformes Strigidae
Eurasian Eagle-owl Bubo bubo
Tawny Owl Strix aluco
One holding territory heard hooting nightly at the hotel, answered by another, single answered by Tim at the Pont du Gard on 28th
Little Owl Athene noctua
KINGFISHERS Coraciiformes Alcedinidae
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
WOODPECKERS Piciformes Picidae
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major
Green Woodpecker Picus viridis
LARKS Passeriformes Alaudidae
Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla
Crested Lark Galerida cristata
Wood Lark Lullula arborea
Sky Lark Alauda arvensis
WAGTAILS & PIPITS Passeriformes Motacillidae
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta
KINGLETS Passeriformes Regulidae
Goldcrest Regulus regulus
WRENS Passeriformes Troglodytidae
Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
ACCENTORS Passeriformes Prunellidae
Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris
Dunnock Prunella modularis
THRUSHES Passeriformes Turdidae
Blue Rock-thrush Monticola solitarius
Eurasian Blackbird Turdus merula
Fieldfare Turdus pilaris
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
OLD WORLD WARBLERS Passeriformes Sylviidae
Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybeta
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala
Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata
OLD WORLD FLYCATCHERS Passeriformes Muscicapidae
European Robin Erithacus rubecula
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
Common Stonechat Saxicola torquata
LONG-TAILED TITS Passeriformes Aegithalidae
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
CHICKADEES & TITS Passeriformes Paridae
Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus
Great Tit Parus major
Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus
WALLCREEPER Passeriformes Tichidromidae
Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria
CREEPERS Passeriformes Certhiidae
Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla
PENDULINE TITS Passeriformes Remizidae
Eurasian Penduline-tit Remiz pendulinus
SHRIKES Passeriformes Laniidae
Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis
CROWS & JAYS Passeriformes Corvidae
Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius
Common Magpie Pica pica
Eurasian Jackdaw Corvus monedula
Carrion Crow Corvus corone
STARLINGS Passeriformes Sturnidae
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
OLD WORLD SPARROWS Passeriformes Passeridae
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Rock Petronia (Sparrow) Petronia petronia
FINCHES Passeriformes Fringillidae
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Eurasian Linnet Carduelis cannabina
European Serin Serinus serinus
BUNTINGS Passeriformes Emberizidae
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia
Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus
Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra
RABBITS & HARES Lagomorpha Leporidae
European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus
Hotel Robinson (1 on 27th, seen daily, max. 3 on 29th)
SQUIRRELS Rodentia Scuridae
Eurasian red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris
Seen most days, max. 3 on 27th
SPINY-RATS Rodentia Echimyidae
Nutria (Coypu) Myocastor coypus
Road kills abundant on the marshes, a few seen alive daily, max. 8 on 29th.
DOGS & FOXES Carnivora Canidae
Red fox Vulpes vulpes
Two road kills on 25th.
MOLES Lipotyphla Talpidae
European mole Talpa europaea
Hills seen daily.
SHREWS Lipotyphla Soricidae
Common shrew Sorex araneus
One at Musée de Camargue on 29th.
Several large bats seen at the Pont du Gard on 29th.
VESPER BATS Chiroptera Vespertilionidae
Common Pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus
Pont du Gard (3+ on 29th)
APES Primates Hominidae
Human Homo sapiens
PIGS Artiodactyla Suidae
Wild boar (Feral pig) Sus scrofa
Musée de Camargue (1 dead in canal)
Camargue horses and bulls
Herds seen on the marshes.
Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta
Singles seen at Les Baux de Provence (26th), and Les Jesse steppes on 27th.
Full moon rising between the arches of the Pont du Gard (1 on 29th)
The four moons and Jupiter's bands seen clearly on 27th.