Monday, April 09, 2007

France Holiday - Day 4

On the penultimate day of our short trip to France we headed to the Camargue, which is described as the 'most important birdwatching location in Europe', which is quite a billing. This was the main birding focus of our holiday and we wanted to check if it is as good as 'they say' and therefore to head back and spend some serious time there.

It's a near three hour drive from Port Grimaud to the Camargue. We headed for the bird hospital at the Pont du Gar, which is on the road to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. A very reasonable 6.50 Euros per adult gets you access to a facility not unlike a WWT location in the UK. There is a main facility which is part hospital, part zoo (they have a collection of raptors including Owls, Kites, etc) but the rest of the site is an open reserve. They do provide food for Herons in the form of (very smelly) fish meal in one area but the birds roam around within and without the reserve with no restraint. There were significant numbers of Little Egrets (which are remarkably common throughout the Camargue) and there were also a few Cattle Egrets, including this one:














(Click on the picture for an enlarged image and to see the distinctively coloured plumage)

The hospital has a number of purpose built platforms for Storks to nest on, some of which have active nests. There must have been ten White Storks around, including this one:
















In the ponds within the reserve we spotted this Red Crested Pochard drake, his mate was in the reeds behind and obscured:















In the Camargue there are Flamingos everywhere, my wife commented that they are like the Canadian Geese in the UK, that is they are very common around large bodies of water, fly together in similar formations and even have very similar calls. I caught this Greater Flamingo as it prepared to take-off:

















and again as it flew around to the side of us:














We completed the circuit of the smaller ponds by heading behind the Heron feeding area. This bird was quite hard to spot at first but well worth the effort - a truly beautiful Night Heron:





















The plumage is very distinctive.

We popped out of the reserve and headed in to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for lunch (the hotel next door to the reserve is lavishly expensive) before heading back to walk around the much larger ponds. As we walked around we spotted a large storm on the horizon replete with thunder and lightening, which sped up the overall pace of the walk.

The first bird of note we spotted after lunch was this solitary Common Sandpiper:
















Further along there were more Black-winged Stilts, including this chap wading close to the edge of the water:



















The Camargue is famous for its birdlife, also the bulls bred for fighting in France and Spain - a barbaric form of 'Killing for Pleasure' - it's hard to watch these beasts at peace in the fields knowing what awaits the majority of them, a slow painful death in front of a baying crowd. Anyway the other reason the Camargue is famous is the native wild horses. The bird hospital also accommodates a small herd of these wild horses (better collective noun anyone?):














As the storm approached (rapidly) the light became quite spectacular, with the strong light set-off against the approaching cloud and rain. This photograph illustrates the strength of the colour on the Flamingos visible in this light:




















As the storm did its worst, we headed to Aigues-Mortes for the night, where our hosts had arranged some cheap local accommodation (30 Euros!) and where we had an excellent meal, although as ever in France the vegetarian options were almost non-existent. Aigues-Mortes is a very interesting town as the majority of it lies within heavily fortified walls, dating from the tenth century, also it has a look and feel of Spain about it, more than France:


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