THE CAMARGUE IN WINTER

in search of Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor and Greater Spotted Eagle

 

 

 

Southern France has long been a magnet for British birdwatchers, holding many attractions at all times of the year. Spring has its warblers and herons and autumn its passage waders. The winter has been largely neglected and yet there are good concentrations of grebes, ducks and waders, whilst birds of prey are also well represented. There is a particularly special treat in the form of Wallcreeper which winters in the surrounding limestone hills.

 

We shall visit most of the sites which we have come to know and love over the years, such as the Etang de Vaccarès, Mas d'Agon, Tour du Valat, La Crau and Les Alpilles. Each has its special birds to offer at this time of year and we can expect a very rewarding holiday.

 

The more we visit this part of Provence the more we realise what a special area it is for overwintering birds. Where else in Western Europe can you find Greater Spotted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzards, Richard’s Pipits, Wallcreepers, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Eagle Owls in close proximity?

 

There will be time to explore the historic town of Arles itself, Avignon, and the walled fortress of Les Baux de Provence, at a time when the summer crowds have dwindled away.

 

ITINERARY

 

THE CAMARGUE

Large numbers of wildfowl move down through Europe to spend the winter in the Camargue. The most numerous is the Teal, but we can also expect good numbers of Shelduck, Wigeon, Gadwall, Pintail, Shoveler, Pochard and Tufted Duck. Of the larger species of wildfowl we may find Bewick's Swan, White-fronted Goose or Bean Goose. We will check the duck flocks for the distinctive Red-crested Pochard and the unobtrusive Ferruginous Duck. As well as holding good numbers of ducks the lagoons also attract concentrations of Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes.

 

Little Egrets are still common, alongside smaller numbers of Great White Egrets. Bitterns occasionally show themselves and will boom during mild weather. The Camargue's most famous bird, the Greater Flamingo, is present in huge numbers, and flights of these distinctive birds will be a regular sight.

 

Overhead, raptors will include large numbers of Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards, with smaller numbers of Peregrine, Merlin, Sparrowhawk and Hen Harrier. Both Barn Owl and Short-eared Owl can occasionally be seen hunting in the evening. Even the rare Greater Spotted Eagle appears here every winter to hunt over the marshes. Remarkably, Long-legged Buzzard has also become a regular winter visitor.

 

On the margins we have a good chance of spotting a skulking Water Rail, while the large numbers of waders wintering here will include Golden, Grey and Ringed Plovers, Lapwing, Sanderling, Dunlin, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Snipe. A few White Storks have overwintered here too.

 

In the reedbeds there are Bearded and Penduline Tits, both revealing their presence with distinctive calls. Although most warblers have moved south there are still Chiffchaff, Fan-tailed Warbler, Cetti's Warbler and Moustached Warbler. Indeed, the latter is one of the few birds to sing from the reedbeds in the winter, making it considerably easier to locate at this time of year. Other resident and winter visitors which we can hope to see include Kingfisher, Water Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Fieldfare, Redwing, Brambling, Serin and Reed Bunting.

 

We will also have time during the trip to visit the delta of the Petit Rhone, the Petit Camargue. Here we saw two wintering Pine Buntings on one visit.

 

LES ALPILLES

The highlight of this winter break, if we are lucky enough to come across one, is the beautiful Wallcreeper. A bird of high altitude rocky precipices and ravines in the summer, it moves down from the high Alps to winter here. They can often be found on old buildings, ruins and limestone rock faces and we shall spend some time checking suitable sites, including Les Baux and La Caume. Nothing is guaranteed in the world of the Wallcreeper. However, this area offers one of the best chances in Europe to see this bird. The fact that they are at a low altitude also avoids the usual effort involved in reaching their mountainous domain. We saw four on our last visit, as well as lots of tame Alpine Accentors.

 

Also present in Les Alpilles is a good population of Eagle Owls. Over the years we have found several reliable sites for ‘Le Grand Duc’, including one just fifteen minutes from our hotel. If we are fortunate we may see one at a daytime roost. They are particularly active at this time of year, re-establishing their territories prior to breeding.

 

Other birds in the area include Bonelli's Eagle, Black Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, Dartford Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Cirl Bunting and Rock Bunting. In nearby woodland we can hope for Sparrowhawk, Firecrest, Crested Tit, Jay, and Nuthatch.

 

LA CRAU

The stony desert-like plain of La Crau is always a popular site. Many species are resident here, including both Little Bustard and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. The former occur in large flocks in the winter and can be very spectacular, while the latter are quite vocal. We can expect sightings of Little Owl, Green Woodpecker, Stonechat and Southern Grey Shrike. In some years small numbers of Stone Curlews winter, while at Entressen there are a few Red Kites. Both Hen Harriers and Merlin hunt over the whole area.

 

MONT VENTOUX

Mont Ventoux is the highest mountain in the region. At 1909 metres the summit is a very inhospitable place in the winter and it is impossible to drive to it. However, at lower elevations there is an interesting selection of birds complemented by breathtaking alpine scenery.

 

The main prizes here are the Snow Finch and Citril Finch. Both occur in reasonable numbers at this time and are more accessible, having moved down from the high Alps. In the woodland we can hope for Jay, Crested Tit, Nuthatch, Siskin and Crossbill. Even the enigmatic Black Woodpecker has been seen here regularly by our previous groups. Overhead there is a chance of Raven, Chough, Goshawk and perhaps Golden Eagle. On a sheer rock face there is even another chance of seeing the most highly prized bird of all, the Wallcreeper.

 

PACE

Breakfast will be taken at about 8am most mornings. Basic fitness is all that is required. Full days will be spent in the field and short/medium length walks will be undertaken regularly. The nature of the birdwatching, plus relatively short days, will ensure that this is an easy paced holiday.

 

ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD

Full-board accommodation is provided in the Hotel des Granges, on the outskirts of Arles. This hotel has proved most popular over the years, with excellent French food and wine complementing the superb birdwatching. All rooms have en suite bathrooms. Arles is a town just north of the Camargue, ideally situated for exploration of the area. Picnic lunches will be taken every day. However, if the weather is cold we can return to the hotel to eat our lunch.

 

PRICE INCLUDES …..

All birdwatching excursions with expert leader, full-board accommodation (starting with dinner on 15th, ending with lunch on 22nd), soft drinks at meal times, local transport by mini-bus, return flights to Nice and airport taxes.

 

WHAT IS NOT INCLUDED

Travel insurance. Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry.

 

INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS

Return flight from London Gatwick to Marseilles using the scheduled services of British Airways. Outbound flight departs mid-afternoon, return flight arrives back early evening. Domestic flights from Manchester and other UK airports are avaiable on this tour. See booking form for details.

 

 

7 nights:

 

Principal leader:

 

Cost with discount

(if you book before

2nd October 2011):

 

Full Cost:

 

Single supplement:

 

Deposit:

 

15th to 22nd January 2012

 

John McLoughlin

 

 

 

£1390 per person sharing

 

£1490 per person sharing

 

£150

 

£300

 

 


 

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