May 4th – 7th 2015 – The Alps trip part 2 – The South of France   Leave a comment

As I outlined in the last post, bad weather in the Alps caused us to retreat southwards. We left the rain behind once we were south of the congested town of Gap and then continued on our long drive to St Martin de Crau near Arles, where we booked into a nice hotel for three nights. We were heading for the huge wetland of the Camargue, the delta of the mighty River Rhône, but I was particularly interested in birding the stony plain known as La Crau. Once this was the delta of the River Durance until the river changed course and flowed north to meet the Rhône at what is now Avignon, the abundant stones on the plain were washed down from the Alps by the river in ancient times.

I visited the Camargue for several days in 1980 but the time spent on La Crau was rather short so I wished to explore the area again. In particular I wanted to see Little Bustard, a bird I have only seen on the 1980 trip, the famous Christchurch bird on New Years Day 1987 and once in Morocco in 1990. After 25 years I thought it was time I saw some more.

IMG_7043 La Crau

We had enough time on our first evening to visit the reserve at the northern end of the plain near Etang des Aulines.

IMG_6908 White Stork & YLG

An adjacent field held this White Stork ….

IMG_6914 Stone Curlew

…. and on the reserve were several very vocal Stone Curlew, but there was no sign of our main targets, Little Bustard and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.

IMG_6974 La Crau

Checking the map showed that there were a number of tracks at the south end of the plain but this was adjacent to the industrial area of Fos-sur-Mer and the nearby port, but they looked promising so we made the effort to arrive there soon after dawn. There was a military airfield nearby and when the fighter jets took off, the sound was deafening but at least all was quiet for the first couple of hours.

IMG_6937 Bee-eater

In spite of these drawbacks we had a great mornings birding with wonderful views of up to 50 Bee-eaters

IMG_6943 Hoopoe

…. several Hoopoe ….

IMG_6926 Little Bustard

…. but the highlight of the morning undoubtedly was getting reasonable views of this male Little Bustard displaying ….

IMG_6967 Little Bustards

…. and later we saw several pairs in flight.

IMG_6999 Les Baux

In the late morning we headed north to a range known as Les Alpilles and the hill-top town of Les Baux de Provence. The aluminium ore bauxite was discovered in these hills and was named after Les Baux. For the first time on our trip we saw the sun!

IMG_6979 Les Baux

Once a defensive fortress, Les Baux is now wholly given over to the tourist trade.

IMG_6995 Black Redstart

Black Redstarts were common and this singing male gave great views.

IMG_6982 Les Baux

It was a bit of a climb to the top of Les Baux, we stopped at the top for a cuppa before returning to the hotel for a siesta, as we had started so early. When we went out again about 1615 I realised I hadn’t got my camera – I must have left it in the cafe. We rushed back to Les Baux hoping we would get there before closing time. We arrived at the cafe at 1650, but it was too late, they were already closed.

IMG_6037 Etange de Vaccarès

On the 6th we spent the morning in the Camargue. First we visited some freshwater marshes near Mas d’Agon, before driving down the east side of the massive Etang de Vaccares. The big lake itself was almost devoid of birds but we saw lots in the adjacent marshes, but of course I only had my pocket camera.

IMG_6038 The Camargue salt lagoons

Eventually we arrived at the southern end near Le Paradis. Here were a number of saline lagoons with Stilts, Avocets, Kentish Plover and Little Stints.

IMG_6044 Camargue La Digue

We initially drove and then walked along the track called Digue à la Mer as far as the lighthouse, Phare de la Gacholle. We saw many interesting gulls, terns and waders plus of course many of the Greater Flamingos for which the Camargue is famous.

IMG_6722 Great egret

Without my camera I can’t post any photos of the birds we saw, which is a shame as it was the most photogenic part of the trip as far as birds are concerned. However I’ve included photos of two species that I have taken elsewhere, both notable because they were not found in the Camargue on my last visit 35 years ago and are relatively recent colonists. Firstly Great White Egret (photo taken in Ethiopia in 2011) ….

…. and Glossy Ibis (photo of a vagrant individual taken near Wareham, Dorset in 2012).

IMG_7030 Cafe people

By early afternoon we had to cut short our visit to this outstanding area and drive back to Les Baux in the hope of rescuing the camera. To my relief the people at the café still had it and to my amusement they had been using it to take silly photos of themselves!

IMG_7039 La Caume

After Les Baux we spent a while at the nearby lookout of La Caume. This is said to be a stake out for the scarce Bonelli’s Eagle but we had no luck, although we did see a distant Egyptian Vulture.

IMG_6047 R Rhone Arles

We continued on to the town of Arles which is situated on the banks of the mighty Rhône.

IMG_6054 Arles

After failing to find Bonelli’s Eagle this afternoon you can imagine my surprise when an immature Bonelli’s flew over this square in the evening. I got a reasonable view, but of course didn’t have time to get a photo. I would imagine it had been hunting over the Camargue and was returning to Les Alpilles, a short distance to the north, to roost.

IMG_7047 PT Sandgrouse

We spent the first couple of hours of the 7th back in the Etange de Aulnes area of La Crau. To our delight a flock of 12 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse flew over, nine of which are in this photo, but they flew directly into the sun and all I saw was a silhouette (however the ‘pin tail’ is just visible on some of the birds).

IMG_7058 St Maxime

Before we left the south of France we thought it would be a good idea to visit some of the resorts that have made this area so famous, and none is more famous than St Tropez. However as we entered the nearby town of St Maxime we hit a huge traffic jam. Rather than waste an hour trying to get to St Tropez on the far side of the bay, we called into the beach at St Maxime for lunch, which was just like any other beach resort in the Med.

IMG_7063 Monaco

The next stop was at Monte Carlo in Monaco. The only reason for calling in here was to add it to my country list (number 107). All we saw was loads of expensive apartment blocks and hotels plus masses of traffic. A sea mist had rolled in making it all look rather gloomy and we were quite glad to move on.

IMG_7065 into Italy

The rest of that day’s drive was quite demanding. We followed the A8 motorway east into Italy. It is an amazing piece of engineering; tunnel after tunnel joined by viaduct after viaduct with quite a lot of sharp bends. A challenging drive in itself, but made worse by big lorries taking up the narrow inside lane and a succession of BMW and Audi drivers following ridiculously close behind me, unhappy that I was driving at a mere 130 kph. Note that the moment we drove into Italy the houses all had the familiar red-tiled roofs unlike those in France. From here we headed north towards Piedmont and the Italian Alps (the subject of the next post).

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