TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Camargue in Winter

25 - 30 January 2003


Leaders:
Tim Earl




Trip Report


Highlights:
  • Huge flocks of Brambling, Citril Finch, Siskin and Chaffinch on Mt Ventoux with Common Raven circling overhead.
  • Two White Stork overwintering on the Camargue marshes.
  • Bearded Tits finding us in the Gallician marshes.
  • Male Marsh Harrier in courtship display to the female.
  • Flocks of gulls turned pink by the setting sun.
  • Eagle Owl looking down on us from its cliff-top roost site
  • Rock Sparrows dropping in to sleep in crevices as their ancestors have done since the Romans built the Pont du Gard.

DIARY


Saturday 25 January
Marseilles glistened in bright sunshine beneath us as our British Airways 737 swept out across the Mediterranean, looped around high over the marina on Ile Ratonneau and came in to land above the terracotta roofs of the city. It was an impressive sight.
All that glistens is not gold, however, and the near gale-force Mistral which greeted us was unpleasant. Trees were swaying, limbs had broken off and the bus was buffeted as we drove straight to the hotel.
However, we gained a few ‘minibus ticks’ including several Common Buzzards, ate a welcome sandwich and drove the short distance to Les Baux where a search for Wallcreeper was started.
It was a rather hopeless task and we left the town, having managed to tease out a couple of Black Redstarts.
We tried a site for Eagle Owl but were rewarded only by a huge flock of mostly male Chaffinch passing up the valley to roost. We returned to the Hotel Robinson which, happily, lived up to its reputation for warmth, hospitality and food.

Sunday 26 January
It was a great relief to find that the wind had dropped considerably overnight. After a fine early breakfast we explored the area around the hotel, getting our day list off to a good start as we walked a former railway line which has been converted into an attractive path.
Cetti’s Warblers, shouted at us and one gave good views before remembering what the field-guides say and skulking off into deep undergrowth.
A mixed flock of Siskins and Serins flitted around a quarry and we were delighted to hear the song of a Blackcap that posed in trees opposite. These also produced good views of Short-toed Treecreeper, a rather dirty looking bird when compared with Common Treecreeper back home.
A Red Squirrel came racing down the track towards us before realising that the tree it could see was the leader, its enticing branches the spread legs of his telescope. Doing a complete u-turn it ran back along the path and disappeared.
Coal Tits and Goldcrest were seen by some but we all heard the distinctive yaffle of a Green Woodpecker and the drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker from a copse between us and the River Rhone.
Jays were screeching at Magpies when we returned to the hotel to pick up the picnic and have a quick comfort stop.
Much relieved that birds had decided not to imitate moles and go to ground, we set off for Mt Ventoux, singing happily as we crossed the Pont d’Avignon. The mountain proved a good choice of venue getting us away from the busy marshes and into the only mountain this side of the Pyrenees.
Birds were not immediately visible but we had high hopes as a refreshing coffee or hot chocolate was drunk above the snow-line at the Chateaux Reynard café.
Your author burst out of the loos exclaiming ‘Crossbill,’ grabbed his telescope and within seconds the more agile were watching a stunning red male on top of a pine, apparently just over a gendarme’s head.
The excitement was unnecessary. There were scores, if not hundreds, of them in the snow-covered woods around the café and everyone had excellent ‘scope-views of males, females and immature males in their green and red plumage.
“Not another Crossbill,” was even muttered by someone as we searched the mixed beech and conifer woods.
It was exciting to be walking on firm snow watching vast flocks of white-rumped Brambling, trying to get good views of the many Citril Finch, Chaffinch and Siskin which were whizzing around. We added Hawfinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch to the list, saw Marsh, Crested and more Coal Tits, before returning to the café for one last crack at Snowfinch, which failed to put in an appearance.
A pair of Ravens did contemplate scouring the car park for scraps but decided not to after giving us perfect views of the characteristics which separate them from Carrion Crows, and Jackdaws which had been seen earlier.
We were quite late returning to the hotel but stunning vistas from the mountain, the sight of so many finch flocks and challenge, met well in most cases, of getting good views of individual species, made the day well worth while.

Monday 27 January
The wind returned in force, but thankfully from a slightly warmer direction than Saturday. It still made birding difficult, especially at Les Baux where we returned after a post-breakfast walk for another unsuccessful crack at Wallcreeper.
A post-breakfast walk had been little better with glimpses of Chiffchaff and Goldcrest plus rear views of Dunnock, Blackbird and Song Thrush as they dived into bushes. Sardinian warbler was seen by some but seemed to be tantalising us.
Les Baux’s cliff-top aspect seemed to produce a circular wind and shelter was difficult to find. The town was void of birds and extremely draughty but two pairs of Blue Rock-thrush on the cliffs were most obliging and a few Black Redstarts and Blackcaps were seen, the latter heard singing too.
We set off late for lunch at La Jesse on La Crau which we found after a double circuit of St Martin du Crau and a stop for two Common Buzzards and a splendid Red Kite. Your author did his usual trick of climbing a shingle bank and spotting a flock of Little Bustards flying across the area. Following his shouted instructions was successful for some.
The wind and a ditch-flaying tractor made birding difficult but we were pleased to see a Red-legged Partridge running off giving good ‘scope views, and a few Fieldfare spotted by Mike.
Another flock of Little Bustards, or perhaps the first returning, was seen on the walk back to the bus but proved impossible to find in the strange rock-and-herb habitat of La Crau. A few Linnets and a lone Meadow Pipit were found, however.
The journey to our first Camargue marshes was quite quick as we entered the area at Aberon, south of St Gilles, to do a loop of the Etang du Gines via Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. A stop at the Parc Ornithologique proved frustrating for those who wanted use of the facilities but great for birders with hundreds of Teal, plus lots of Mute Swan, Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard and our first Greater Flamingo – a cut out decoy lying on its side.
A bird quartering the reeds which gave the duck flocks a fright proved to be Rough-legged Buzzard and the decoy worked with several anorexic-looking Greater Flamingo flying over.
Two wintering White Storks – a rare bird in the south of France at this time of yearwere found feeding with Cattle Egret in a pond over the main road and as they flew to a nest-site on a pole, a couple of Snipe were flushed.
Stopping to learn that a group of Greater and Lesser Flamingos was captive, we were rewarded with super views of the ‘Camargue ghost’ a male Hen Harrier drifting over the reed beds.
Our last stop was at the Reserve des Imperiaux where the vista was dotted with hundreds of Flamingos and small flocks of Black-headed Gulls which had turned pink in the setting sun. A few Great Crested Grebes were feeding hard, staying down much longer than they popped up.
As were drove back to the hotel, tired but satisfied with a good day’s birding, we passed herds of the famous black Camargue bulls and white horses of this extraordinary area.

Tuesday 28 January
Our second full day on the Camargue marshes was started at Gallician where a tractor was cutting the reed beds we had come to watch. Rather than ruin the exercise, however, it attracted hosts of birds which followed the machinery collecting rodents and insects disturbed by the exercise.
Flocks of Little Egrets, Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws and Starlings, were particularly keen to scrum down, while Marsh Harriers, Buzzards, Great (White) Egrets and Grey Herons were a little more cautious.
None of that affected the birds close to our road-side walk. Chiffchaffs were singing and flitting through the Tamarisk bushes in numbers, while a small flock of Bearded Tits charged up to us, posed for a couple of minutes and shot off behind a canal and hedge.
Water Rail were squealing in the reeds and a few Snipe flew off as we passed. Reed Buntings, settled on the tops of nearby reeds to give us excellent views. A couple of Hen Harriers came onto the marsh while a scan with binoculars showed Buzzards and Marsh Harriers in profusion.
A comfort stop at a private education centre gave an excellent opportunity to study a live young Nutria, or Coypu, plus White and Grey Wagtails.
The Musée Camarguais closes on Tuesdays, we discovered on pulling up at the gates. A stop nearby to plan the afternoon produced several of more than 50 Buzzards seen in the day.
Lunch was taken beyond the salt farms at Salin de Giraud but little of note was seen and we made our way along the side of Etang de Vaccarés to La Capelière Nature Reserve. The centre was also closed on Tuesdays but we were able to buy tickets and walk around the reserve, stopping at each of the several hides.
Tufted Duck were on the main lake in huge numbers, closely followed by Pochard and Coot, with Shoveler, Mallard and Teal present in smaller numbers. A diligent search produced no Red-crested Pochard or Black-necked Grebe.
The second hide overlooks a smaller pond which had a few Coot and Greater Flamingo. A pair of Red-crested Pochard was also present, to your author’s relief.
Continuing our walk around the reserve, we came across a perched Buzzard which was passed by a Hen Harrier (ring-tailed). Baby spiders’ gossamer dispersal threads were streaming from a blackthorn hedge.
Entering the last hide, we were greeted by a stunning pair of Marsh Harriers which were weaving in front of us, clearly interested in each other as the male mewed quietly to his mate before they dropped into the reeds.
Platforms overlooking the pond and the Etang de Vaccarés gave us excellent views of Great (White) Egret on the reserve and Little Grebe in the lake. Roosting Grey Herons were in full breeding attire, complete with bright yellow bills.
Our last stop of the day was a just down the road at a bay of the Etang, to study a flock of gulls on the water. This proved fruitless – they were all Black-headed Gull – but revealed first a Black-necked Grebe, then a small raft of Great Crested Grebe (almost on request for John), 10 Red-Crested Pochard and finally a group of about nine more Black-necked Grebe.
We returned to the hotel for yet another excellent supper.

Wednesday 29 January
Opinion was split about what to do today. Some wanted to return to the marsh but we finally settled on a crack at Eagle Owl.
The plan worked and we were soon watching a bird tucked into a small cave at the top of a cliff near Merindol.
In truth, it was not quite that easy. There was no sign of a bird, except that a grey lump of stone your leader had seen early in the search disappeared.
We went off for a walk to rest eyes and investigate a small flock of Greater Short-toed Larks feeding with House Sparrows, Chaffinches and Skylarks in a nearby field.
A small flock of Cirl Buntings, including a singing male, was seen as we arrived at the site, but the soloist had its back to us and gave poor views. We saw more on the walk but again views were not the best.
Finally we returned to the cliff, determined to investigate the missing lump. It turned out to be an owl tucked into the corner of a small cave and we soon had telescopes trained on it. Movement along the bank on which we were standing occasionally prompted the bird to blink at us in disbelief… the Travelling Naturalists here again?
Geoff commented that we had seen some good birds during the morning, prompting your leader to say: ‘There’s another.’
Sure enough, in the middle of the lark field was a juvenile Peregrine tearing at something between its talons. It had been a good morning.
After a coffee and comfort stop we headed for the Merindol Ornithological Centre where one of the few European Beaver colonies in France could be found. A Red Squirrel was the only mammal seen, however, and it was left to Great Crested and Little Grebes to provide interest on the water. A walk around the area led to a small flock of wintering Blackcap seen hawking insects, a small group of Song Thrush probably pushed down by the cold snowy weather further north, and four noisy Jays, flushed from the woodland. A Great (White) Egret flew past while we had lunch nearby.
Our final call of the day (and the trip) was at Pont du Gare where we waited in bright sunshine for birds to appear on the Roman bridge. A male Sparrowhawk flew past and the sky was full of Jackdaws on occasion, looking like leaves blowing in the cold wind. A Black Redstart flitted around the archways and a few Starlings came along to investigate holes in the masonry.
Suddenly a flock of sparrow-sized birds whirled over the parapet. Was this our quarry? It was. Six Rock Sparrows, the first of about 14 to arrive, settled on the top of the bridge giving us excellent views. We could see their streaky sides, eye-stripes and broad crown stripes.
We left a few hardy Pipistrelle bats hawking the mozzies and returned to the hotel.
A Tawny Owl was hooting as we unloaded the bus and continued to do so at least until after dinner.

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 up to at least 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 nodding heads in the back of the bus.


Annotated list of species

BIRDS


GREBES Podicipediformes Podicipedidae

1 Little grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Etang de Vaccarés, three on 28th; Merindol Bird Observatory, three on 29th.
2 Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus
St-Maries-de-la-Mare, three on 27th; Etang de Vaccarés, 30 on 28th; Merindol Bird Observatory, eight on 29th.
3 Black-necked grebe Podiceps nigricollis
Etang de Vaccarés, 10 on 28th.
CORMORANTS Pelecaniformes Phalacrocoracidae
4 Great cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Common daily.
HERONS, EGRETS & BITTERNS Ciconiiformes Ardeidae
5 Grey heron Ardea cinerea
Common daily.
6 Great egret Ardea alba
La Crau, one next to a gull roost on 27th; Gallician marshes, three following a reed-cutter, La Capelière Nature Reserve one on 28th; near Merindol Bird Observatory, one on 29th.
7 Little egret Egretta garzetta
Avigon area, one on 26th; Camargue marshes, maximum 100 on 28th.
8 Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis
Various sites, three on 27th; Merindol Bird Observatory, three on 29th.
STORKS Ciconiiformes Ciconiidae
9 White stork Ciconia ciconia
Parc Ornithologique, two on 27th.
FLAMINGOS Phoenicopteriformes Phoenicopterid
10 Greater flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber
Parc Ornithologique, 20 on 27th; St-Maries-de-la-Mare, 200 on 27th; La Capelière Nature Reserve 40 on 28th.
SWANS, GEESE & DUCKS Anseriformes Anatidae
11 Mute swan Cygnus olor
Parc Ornithologique, 20 on 27th; various sites on the Camargue, 40 on 28th.
12 Common shelduck Tadorna tadorna
St-Maries-de-la-Mare, 30 on 27th.
13 Gadwall Anas strepera
Parc Ornithologique, 30 on 27th.
14 Common teal Anas crecca
Parc Ornithologique, 100 on 27th; La Capelière Nature Reserve 60 on 28th.
15 Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Parc Ornithologique, 30 on 27th; La Capelière Nature Reserve 30 on 28th.
16 Northern shoveler Anas clypeata
Parc Ornithologique, 20 on 27th; La Capelière Nature Reserve 30 on 28th.
17 Red-crested pochard Netta rufina
La Capelière Nature Reserve a pair, on 28th.
18 Common pochard Aythya ferina
La Capelière Nature Reserve 50 on 28th.
19 Tufted duck Aythya fuligula
La Capelière Nature Reserve 200 on 28th.
HAWKS, EAGLES & KITES Falconiformes Accipitridae
20 Red kite Milvus milvus
La Crau, one on 27th.
21 Western marsh-harrier Circus aeruginosus
Common most days; scores on the Gallician marshes, La Capelière Nature Reserve a displaying pair on 28th.
22 Northern harrier Circus cyaneus
Parc Ornithologique, two on 27th; Gallician marshes, two on 28th; La Capelière Nature Reserve one on 28th.
23 Eurasian sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
Pont du Gare, male on 29th.
24 Eurasian buzzard Buteo buteo
Common most days; Camargue, more than 50 on 28th.
25 Rough-legged buzzard Buteo lagopus
Parc Ornithologique, one on 27th.
FALCONS Falconiformes Falconidae
26 Eurasian kestrel Falco tinnunculus
A few daily.
27 Merlin Falco columbarius
Singles on the Gallician marshes and near the Musée Camarguais on 28th.
28 Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus
Cliff close to Merindol, one eating prey on 29th.
PARTRIDGES Galliformes Phasianidae
29 Red-legged partridge Alectoris rufa
La Crau, one on 27th.
RAILS, GALLINULES & Gruiformes Rallidae
COOTS
30 Water rail Rallus aquaticus
Gallician marshes, several heard, one seen, on 28th.
31 Common moorhen Gallinula chloropus
A few daily.
32 Eurasian coot Fulica atra
Parc Ornithologique, 100 on 27th; La Capelière Nature Reserve 150 on 28th.
BUSTARDS Gruiformes Otididae
33 Little bustard Tetrax tetrax
La Crau, 60 on 27th.
PLOVERS & LAPWINGS Charadriiformes Charadriidae
34 Northern lapwing Vanellus vanellus
La Crau, 100 on 27th; Gallician marshes, several flocks, La Capelière Nature Reserve a large flock, on 28th.
SANDPIPERS Charadriiformes Scolopacidae
35 Common snipe Gallinago gallinago
Parc Ornithologique, two on 27th; Gallician marshes, three on 28th.
GULLS Charadriiformes Laridae
36 Yellow-legged gull Larus cachinnans
Common daily.
37 Black-headed gull Larus ridibundus
Common daily.
PIGEONS & DOVES Columbiformes Columbidae
38 Rock dove Columba livia
Common daily.

39 Wood-pigeon Columba palumbus
A few daily.
40 Eurasian collared-dove Streptopelia decaocto
A village, one on 27th; road to Merindol, three on 29th.
OWLS Strigiformes Strigidae
41 Eurasian eagle-owl Bubo bubo
Cliff close to Merindol, one roosting on 29th.
42 Tawny owl Strix aluco
Hotel Robinson, one calling 4am on 27th.
WOODPECKERS Piciformes Picidae
43 Great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos major
Hotel Robinson, one heard on 26th.
44 Green woodpecker Picus viridis
Hotel Robinson, one heard on 26th; Gallician marshes, one heard on 28th; Pont du Gard, one seen on 29th.
LARKS Passeriformes Alaudidae
45 Greater short-toed lark Calandrella brachydactyla
Cliff close to Merindol, 50 in fields on 29th.
46 Sky lark Alauda arvensis
Near the Musée Camarguais 60 on 28th.
WAGTAILS & PIPITS Passeriformes Motacillidae
47 White wagtail Motacilla alba
A few most days.
48 Grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea
Gallician marshes, one on 28th.
49 Meadow pipit Anthus pratensis
La Crau, two on 27th; near the Musée Camarguais 20 on 28th; near Merindol Bird Observatory, small flock on 29th.
KINGLETS Passeriformes Regulidae
50 Goldcrest Regulus regulus
Hotel Robinson, one on 26th another seen badly on 27th; Merindol Bird Observatory, one on 29th.
WRENS Passeriformes Troglodytidae
51 Winter wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Hotel Robinson, two on 26th; one on 27th.
ACCENTORS Passeriformes Prunellidae
52 Dunnock Prunella modularis
Hotel Robinson, four on 27th.
THRUSHES Passeriformes Turdidae
53 Blue rock-thrush Monticola solitarius
Les Baux, four on 27th; Cliff close to Merindol, one on 29th.
54 Eurasian blackbird Turdus merula
Hotel Robinson, one on 26th two on 27th; Mt Ventoux, two on 26th; various sites, three on 28th; Pont du Gard, several on 29th.
55 Fieldfare Turdus pilaris
La Crau, three on 27th.
56 Song thrush Turdus philomelos
A few roosting on 25th; Hotel Robinson, one on 27th; Merindol Bird Observatory, seven on 29th.
OLD WORLD WARBLERS Passeriformes Sylviidae
57 Cetti's warbler Cettia cetti
Hotel Robinson, one seen well, several heard on 26th; common on the Camargue marshes.
58 Common chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybeta
Hotel Robinson, three on 27th; Camargue marshes, 20 seen, many singing on 28th.
59 Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Hotel Robinson, two seen, one singing, on 26th; Les Baux, seven on 27th; Merindol Bird Observatory, five on 29th; Pont du Gard, several ticking on 29th.
60 Sardinian warbler Sylvia melanocephala
Common daily but hard to see, as usual.
OLD WORLD FLYCATCHERS Passeriformes Muscicapidae
61 European robin Erithacus rubecula
Hotel Robinson, one heard during most nights; several seen on 26th, singles on 27th and 28th; Pont du Gard, one roosting on 29th.

62 Black redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
Minimum two at Le Baux on 25th, four on 27th; Hotel Robinson, one stunning male on 26th; Pont du Gard, one on 29th.
63 Common stonechat Saxicola torquata
Near the Musée Camarguais a pair on 28th.
PARROTBILLS Passeriformes Paradoxornithidae
64 Bearded reedling Panurus biarmicus
Gallician marsh, six on 28th.
CHICKADEES & TITS Passeriformes Paridae
65 Marsh tit Poecile palustris
Mt Ventoux, six or more on 26th.
66 Coal tit Periparus ater
Hotel Robinson, two on 26th; Mt Ventoux, lots on 26th.
67 Crested tit Lophophanes cristatus
Mt Ventoux, several on 26th.
68 Great tit Parus major
Common daily.
69 Blue tit Cyanistes caeruleus
Hotel Robinson, eight on 26th, two on 27th.
NUTHATCHES Passeriformes Sittidae
70 Eurasian nuthatch Sitta europaea
Mt Ventoux, two on 26th.
CREEPERS Passeriformes Certhiidae
71 Short-toed treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla
Hotel Robinson, one seen, several heard on 26th; Pont du Gard, several heard on 29th.
CROWS & JAYS Passeriformes Corvidae
72 Eurasian jay Garrulus glandarius
Hotel Robinson, two seen, more heard on 26th; Merindol Bird Observatory, four on 29th.
73 Common magpie Pica pica
Abundant daily.
74 Eurasian jackdaw Corvus monedula
Common daily.
75 Carrion crow Corvus corone
Common daily.
76 Common raven Corvus corax
Mt Ventoux, two, possibly three, on 26th.
STARLINGS Passeriformes Sturnidae
77 European starling Sturnus vulgaris
Common daily.
OLD WORLD SPARROWS Passeriformes Passeridae
78 House sparrow Passer domesticus
Common daily.
79 Eurasian tree sparrow Passer montanus
Near the Musée Camarguais six on 28th.
80 Rock sparrow Petronia petronia
Pont du Gard, 14 roosting on 29th.
FINCHES Passeriformes Fringillidae
81 Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Common daily; big roost near Les Baux on 25th.
82 Brambling Fringilla montifringilla
Mt Ventoux, flocks of thousands on 26th.
83 Red crossbill Loxia curvirostra
Mt Ventoux, hundreds on 26th.
84 European greenfinch Carduelis chloris
Mt Ventoux, two on 26th; La Crau, two on 27th.
85 Eurasian siskin Carduelis spinus
Hotel Robinson, 20 on 26th.
86 European goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Mt Ventoux, a few on 26th.
87 Eurasian linnet Carduelis cannabina
La Crau, three on 27th.

88 European serin Serinus serinus
Hotel Robinson, 20 heard on 26th; near Merindol Bird Observatory, one on 29th.
89 Citril finch Serinus citrinella
Mt Ventoux, hundreds in with Brambling on 26th.
90 Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Mt Ventoux, one, possibly two, on 26th.
TRUE BUNTINGS Passeriformes Emberizidae
91 Cirl bunting Emberiza cirlus
Cliff close to Merindol, six seen, one singing, on 29th.
92 Reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus
Gallician marshes, 10 on 28th.

MAMMALS


RABBITS & HARES Lagomorpha Leporidae
1 European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus
Near Arles, one on 27th.
SQUIRRELS Rodentia Scuridae
2 Eurasian red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris
Hotel Robinson, three on 26th; Merindol Bird Observatory, one on 29th.
SPINY-RATS Rodentia Echimyidae
3 Nutria (Coypu) Myocastor coypus
Camargue Marshes, many of the roads were like death alley for these unfortunate Spiny-Rats.
APES Primates Hominidae
4 Human Homo sapiens
Plentiful daily.
PIGS Artiodactyla Suidae
5 Wild boar (Feral pig) Sus scrofa
Mt Ventoux, extensive rootings on 26th.


INSECTS


BUTTERFLIES
1 Peacock Inachis io
Gallician marshes, interpretation centre, one on 28th.



© The Travelling Naturalist 2003