Friday, December 21, 2012

November on Bardsey proved to be a massive disappointment bird wise. We decided that a holiday was the only medicine and that the oft suggested winter trip to the South of France, specifically Les Baux and the Camargue, should become a reality. So we teamed up with birding legend Dave Boyle of Skomer Island, our future neighbour, and went Easy Jet for a week birding. Recent trip reports were not particularly recent, most coming from the 89p a flight era of nearly a decade ago. But we figured that not too much would have changed and targeted sites previously good for our most wanted species. What follows is a brief account of events between the 11th and 18th December 2012.

Day two:
Where’s day one you ask? Well it was an afternoon of travel and, as we left Marseilles in our five-door Renault, darkness was already descending. Naively stumbling upon a toll road, Dave Boyle was not flustered, and four euros later we vowed never to find ourselves on it again. We stayed in the Hotel Lemon on the outskirts of Tarascon, a 29euro per night motel popular with passing workmen. Trip Advisor would perhaps put you off staying here. But the 29euros is for the room, which will sleep up to three. So it’s very cheap, clean and perfectly positioned. You couldn’t want more if all you’re doing there is sleeping. We were particularly pleased that we opted out of the 3.90euros petite-dejeuner which on the poster was an array of sausages, hash browns and grilled tomatoes. In reality it was a loaf of bread and a couple of sachets of Marmite. The Lemon is about 20 minutes from the amazing Les Baux, a rocky outcrop on the end of the Alpilles Mountains topped by a Chateau carved into the Limestone crags. The scenery is amazing, but more importantly the cliffs provide classic winter habitat for the remarkable Wallcreeper and the Chateau traditionally harbours Alpine Accentors. As the sun rose on our first morning one thing was clear – it was knobbing freezing. But not to be deterred we set out to look for our number one target bird, the majestic, crimson-winged Wallcreeper. The trip reports suggested we find a sign marked ‘the village’ before hanging a right past a statue of the Virgin Mary. The sign has been removed and replaced with a post that looks capable of supporting a sign in the future. The path is at the end of the pay and display parking area when heading down hill on the D78F. The Virgin Mary is still there and marks the start of the path which leads anticlockwise around the base of the cliffs. We headed to the sunny east face and soon found an Alpine Accentor high on the cliffs. Conveniently enough, this bird hopped its way towards a Wallcreeper. It was mega. Two hours into our first morning and we’d already nailed two stunning alpine specialists.

The Wallcreeper. So mental that it gets a Family to itself. It’s nearly a Nuthatch, but not quite. Its long toes and claws are perfectly evolved for clinging to the rocks and its disproportionately large wings allow it to gain height in updraughts with minimum energy expenditure. They show wintering site fidelity and clearly Les Baux is to their liking. © Richard Brown

Rich scanning the cliffs opposite Les Baux and the faces to the South of the Chateau where the Wallcreeper favoured. There is a depiction in the Chateau of an invader getting thrown off the cliffs; there is a reasonable chance of Wallcreeper on the way down. © Giselle Eagle

The calls of Jackdaws echoed around the cliffside and Black Redstarts and Sardinian Warblers flitted around the scrub either side of the path. The Wallcreeper, although high, gave excellent scope views as it fed on the cliffs, constantly flicking its wings. We headed back to the Mary statue and then on up to the Chateau itself. Entry is now 8euros per person but it is well worth it. The castle is an amazing feat of engineering, partly carved into the cliffs, partly built up into massive towers. The green areas around the grounds held plenty of Blackcaps, Sardinian Warblers and Serins. The Westerly field, home to France’s largest trebuchet and several other machines of war, held 11 Alpine Accentors which moved between here, the graveyard and an area which must be home to archery in the tourist season. We had the birds to ourselves and they performed ridiculously well.

They generally hang out above 2000m so Les Baux, at around 310m, is a rather handy place to catch up with these monster accentors. There are 34 British records, the most recent from Norfolk in 2004. If we find one on Skokholm it will only be the third for Wales following birds in 1870 and 1997. © Richard Brown

The Alpine Accentors are very confiding. Rich was not run over by the JCB. © Giselle Eagle

After a warming pizza in the village we returned to the bottom path. The Wallcreeper was nowhere to be found but a male Blue Rock Thrush showed well and flocks of Crested Tits and Firecrests were feeding in the path side vegetation. Les Baux had totally impressed and was clearly still as good as previously reported. So would L’Hotel Mas d’Oulivie still be as good for Eagle Owls as it was at the time of previous reports. The hotel, not far out of Les Baux on the D78F, is skirted to the south by a track which leads to a red fire hydrant and the previously recommended view point. The trees have probably grown up a bit since these reports, but we found that a quick walk along the track, forking right, comes to a nice little Olive Grove which allows close views of the crags. It was still icy cold but a friendly dog-walking lady assured us that ‘le Grand-duc’ could be seen on the cliffs from which Jays were noisily departing. Luckily Boyle had gend up on the French name for this monstrous owl and we were able to nod and say 'oui' at the right moments in the conversation. We felt that a sweeping flyby was imminent. Not on day two however.

Day three:
We knew in advance that the weather on day three would be wet. But we were prepared for this and figured that the Camargue would be our best bet; not only could we bird from the car and hides but perhaps the wet would be good for seeing Stripeless Tree Frog. Incidentally, the weather forecast we printed out before leaving was correct for the entire trip. We arrived at La Capeliere on the Eastern fringe of Etang de Vaccares for dawn. A minimum of 90 Black-necked Grebes were close in to the road and the first two Slender-billed Gulls of the holiday went over. Greater Flamingos were in several bays and ponds and several Buzzards and occasional Hen and Marsh Harriers were along the road which also rang with the calls of Green Sandpipers. The reserves at La Capeliere and Salin-de-Badon failed to produce either Moustached Warbler or the tree frog. We did however have good views of a White StorkDartford Warbler and the walks were to an accompaniment of calling Water Rails and Cetti’s Warblers. We headed around the north fringe of Etang de Vaccares in worsening rain. It wasn’t going to be a day for the large raptors we hoped might be wintering in the area but we headed on down to Mas de Cacharel by Etang de l’Imperial where a flock of Red-crested Pochards headed over northwards. The expected wildfowl and commoner waders and gulls lined several roadside pools but the rain was definitely hampering our birding. But even when so soggy, it was clear that the Camargue had the potential to be pretty special and the ever present Greater Flamingos were fantastic. We would return in more clement weather. Our decision to depart had nothing to do with stumbling across several large Frenchmen with several large guns (there is still a lot of hunting in this area). 

Several of the flamingos were ringed, not a massive surprise as roughly 800 chicks are ringed every year to help to understand these fantastic birds which are vulnerable to many factors such as land drainage, pollution and predation. Although they wont do quite so well in the wild, a Greater Flamingo in Adelaide Zoo is at least 77 years old. © Richard Brown

Day four:
Today was to focus on the dry stony plains of the Crau. However, dawn saw us arrive at Entressen landfill where traditionally masses of gulls and raptors came to scavenge. None of us are French speakers, but the signs seemed to suggest that the tip was capped in 2005. Either that or the fine for trespassing was 2005euros. It’s now a big green hill no doubt easily visible from space. We headed for the Crau and accessed the plains through the village of Vergieres before slowly driving the dirt tracks. Two Common Cranes were feeding in a roadside field before the vegetation gave way to an amazing rocky landscape which has been used as pasture since Roman times. We failed to locate Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and found the plains to be rather bird-free, no doubt due in part to the wind which must have kept a lot of birds tucked in. A few Lapwings and Golden Plovers would take flight from time to time and Skylarks and an occasional Crested Lark also got up. We also had decent scoped views of three Southern Grey Shrikes. We headed for the more sheltered Mas-Thibert on the banks of the Rhone where we again failed to find Moustached Warbler. However two Penduline Tits were feeding in one of the reed beds and Hen and Marsh Harriers again gave good views. It was here that we had our first views of Coypu. As on day three, the calls of Kingfishers, Green Sandpipers, Curlews, Snipe and Water Pipits were regular around the ponds and most pools held Little and Great Egrets. We scanned the Bramble intensively for the illusive Stripeless Tree Frog, but again to no avail. 

One of two Penduline Tits at Mas-Thibert. Male Penduline Tits are not the most faithful of partners. If they see an egg in their nest they will head off to impress another female. But the females aren't daft, and they're also quite keen to leave the male as the only parent and head off themselves to re-pair. But how to keep the male around? The female hides the eggs whenever she leaves the nest and will try to prevent males entering nests where the eggs have been uncovered. © Richard Brown

Great Egrets are everywhere around the Camargue, as are Little and Cattle Egrets. Great Egrets bred in England for the first time this year, so perhaps it wont be too long before they are just as common as in the Camargue. © Richard Brown

We next searched the area around Le Vallon to the north of Entressen. Two Rock Buntings were on the roadside and a group of at least thirty Little Bustards were feeding and occasionally displaying on a scrubby area of Crau. Two Red-legged Partridge were also in the area. It was still cold and overcast but we again tried for Eagle Owl, this time at the dirt bike track near Le Destet where they were regular several years previously. The habitat looked great, but we again failed to find one of these monster owls.

Day five:
We had enjoyed Les Baux so much that we decided to start day five back on the track below the Chateau. A thick fog was below us as the sun rose in an amazing spectacle which turned the cliffs a golden orange. The Wallcreeper was obviously admiring the spectacle form elsewhere but two Blue Rock Thrushes were on the cliffs along with nearly 20 Black Redstarts. A pair of Cirl Buntings were in the bushes above the crags and, as the air warmed, Cirl Bunting song mixed with that of the Serins. Following the nearly freezing conditions of the past three days we found ourselves overdressed as the temperature rose to 16 degrees. We didn't dare complain though.

Giselle enjoying the fantastic birding at Les Baux and the view looking up towards the Chateau from the Southern path. The folks that lived up in the castle were part of an unsuccessful revolt against the Crown, events which led to Cardinal Richelieu of Three Musketeers fame to order its destruction. © Richard Brown

Suddenly soaring raptors and lizards were on the agenda so we headed for La Caume, a 4km walk on a paved road to a large TV antenna from which Bonelli’s Eagles used to be regular. Perhaps they still are, but not on day five. We did however find Common Wall Lizard on the way up, along with Hummingbird Hawkmoths and a Clouded Yellow. The walk up was surrounded by Crossbills, Crested Tits and Firecrests. On the scrubby plateau we again had Dartford Warbler and a Spanish Psammadromus was found lurking. We have always been taught to be wary of lurking Spanish Psammadromus. The lurkier ones are thought to signify an upcoming apocalypse. When this particular creature was viewed in a certain light, its long, slender, tail spelled out 21/12/12.

A Spanish Psammodromus or Sand Racer (upper) and Common Wall Lizard (lower), showed well as soon as it warmed up a bit. The Sand Racer has a rather sneaky and successful anti-predator strategy. When threatened it will quickly accelerate, fleeing to the bases of thick bushes and stopping abruptly when cover is reached. It is then difficult to locate due to its cryptic colouration. However, not content with this, the Racer will then nip to a neighbouring bush when the predator is busy searching bush the first. Then the same for bush the second, sometimes even returning to bush the first. Basically they're not keen on going down holes. © Richard Brown

Giselle failing to find Bonelli's Eagle. But then it is France's scarcest breeder with only 29 pairs in 2009. It's a fantastic view and there's plenty other stuff about when the eagles aren't showing. The abundant Rosemary bushes gave proceedings a rather Mediterranean smell. © Richard Brown

After our descent we returned to Les Baux to find that a Wallcreeper was back, obviously undeterred by the impending end of the world. We had great views and it passed overhead twice as it moved to a lower bluff below the path. Stunning. We were on a role and returned to L’Hotel Mas d’Oulivie in beautiful warm evening sunshine. As the last of the evening light left the cliffs a steroidal Eagle Owl flew into view and perched silhouetted on the crags to the left of the valley above the Olive Grove. It later swept along the cliffs and began calling from a tree, and then a boulder, further to the west.

The photo at 1/30 second doesn't do the views we had justice. It was fantastic. This bird is actually capable of skinning Hedgehogs which are apparently a favoured prey item. They can also take fully grown foxes and common avian prey includes crows, grouse, woodpeckers, herons, ducks, seabirds and geese. They have even been recorded munching on Goshawks, Peregrines, Buzzards and an Egyptian Vulture. Such acts are often referred to as Superpredation - double hard. © Richard Brown

The Olive Grove at L’Hotel Mas d’Oulivie. The Eagle Owl sweeps through the valley to the right and sits up somewhere on these crags. Or it did for us anyway. © Giselle Eagle

Day six:
Today was to be the longest drive, but it turned out that Mont Ventoux was only about 90 minutes away. We ascended the legendary Tour de France road towards Le Chalet Reynard but briefly stopped on a forest track where we had a Hawfinch overhead, Redwings calling and the ubiquitous Crested Tits. The area around Chalet Reynard was birdless, but it was rather early, so we headed west towards the James Bondian Observatory on the summit but were brought up short by the snow gates. The area next to the gates held a small flock of Fieldfares and two Alpine Accentors fed close to the road. We headed out into the snow, working uphill towards a rather purple grey sky which promised more snow. We were perhaps 200m above the road when we first caught a glimpse of a Snow Finch. The flock was rather mobile and as the snow began we thought we might be beaten by the weather. However, we turned our backs to the blizzard and, after a few distant flybys, we eventually secured decent views of two groups, totaling 21 individuals, as they fed in the moraine between the snow drifts. They were absolutely fantastic. We were on a high after securing great views of this mega-hard, element-enduring Finch. We dropped back into Chalet Reynard and had a walk around the chalets. Crossbills and Crested Tits were all along the trails and a mixed tit flock coming in to a bag of seed held five tit species including Crested and Marsh along with Nuthatches. We failed to find any Citril Finch which so many people had seen at this site previously. We called at several picnic sites as we headed back down the mountain but also dipped on Black Woodpecker. We did however have two Golden Eagles soaring together in the sunshine which had moved in after the morning snow. 

Ernst Stavro Blofeld's gaff at the top of Mont Ventoux. A keen birder, all the supervillain wanted was Snow Finches in his garden. Number 1 knew where the Citril Finches were, but he wanted one million dollars for the gen. © Richard Brown

We had read that peckish Snow Finch and Citril Finch descend into the carpark at Chalet Reynard to enjoy the leftovers from skiers picnics. So Rich promptly ripped up the leftovers of yesterday's baguette and merrily cast them about the carpark for the hungry birds. The conditions got worse, the bread got soggy, the birds did not appear. Skiers and therefore alpine finches must have more expensive tastes in bread than we do. Happily we located the Snow Finches higher up the mountain. © Richard Brown

Searching for Snow Finch on Mont Ventoux. Ventoux means windy in French and speeds of up to 200 miles an hour have been recorded. On average the wind blows at a minimum of 56 miles an hour on 240 days of the year. © Richard Brown

Two sub-adult Golden Eagles over the approach to Chalet Reynard. There are approximately 450 breeding pairs in France and 240 in the French Alps. © Richard Brown

The ubiquitous Crested Tit. Although vocal at nearly every site we visited, there was just too much stuff going on to devote any time to photography. © Richard Brown

We next headed to Pont du Gard, an impressive 1st century, three tier, Roman aqueduct bridge and UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also a traditional roost site for Rock Sparrows and the place of an outrageous 18euro carpark charge. A December evening visit saw us arriving as most tourists left and we could park for free in front of a locked campsite. The Rock Sparrows were dropping in as we arrived and we counted at least 30 sat on various levels of the aqueduct before they dropped into holes on the bridge. Kingfishers were active on the Gardon River and 20 Crag Martins fed low over the bridge. Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers were along the banks.


Digiscoped Rock Sparrows. The views are distant but plenty good enough with a scope. Research in the French Alps showed that males whose mates have departed to be with another bird sing louder than males with faithful partners, perhaps to try and win back the lost female. This suggests that females use other cues, perhaps physical appearance, when picking a mate. © Richard Brown

Crag Martins above the Pont du Gard. Despite the many arches of the bridge, it seemed as though its face was creating a standing wave in the airflow, concentrating insects, and the martins, above the vertical face of the bridge. Several previous birders had picked up Crag Martin at Les Baux and other sites, however we only saw them here. © Richard Brown

The impressive Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard. The Rock Sparrows sat on the uppermost section before dropping into crevices lower down on the bridge. The protruding blocks are thought to have supported the scaffolding used to build the aqueduct. © Giselle Eagle

Day seven:
We were now enjoying a period of warm, dry weather so we returned to the Camargue where poor weather had previously hampered us. As dawn broke over Etang de Consecaniere we enjoyed the amazing spectacle of over 950 Common Cranes heading north. Large groups of Greater Flamingos were also heading over on their way to feeding grounds. We worked the back road from Mas de Cacharel to Mejanes along the edge of Etang de Vaccares. Highlights included two Fan-tailed Warblers, surprisingly the only ones we saw in France, 142 Slender-billed Gulls feeding close inshore, at least 15 Water Pipits feeding in a muddy field, over 100 Red-crested Pochards in a large flock of common wildfowl and four Crested Larks. The scarcest bird we saw though, in Camargue terms, was a Snow Bunting. We’re not sure how regular these are in the Camargue. We again dipped on the large raptors which traditionally overwinter in the area, but many Buzzards, multiple Marsh Harriers and three Hen Harriers were along the track. 

One of several flocks of Common Cranes that passed over, totaling nearly 1000 birds. Greater Flamingos, pretty ridiculous looking in flight, were also heading out to their morning feeding areas. © Richard Brown

We're still not sure how rare Snow Buntings are in this part of France, with Collins suggesting that they don't get much further South than the North Coast. A local birder seemed surprised that we were more interested in the Water Pipits. © Richard Brown

Part of a flock of 142 Slender-billed Gulls. In 2000 there were approximately 850 breeding pairs in France but this may have declined in recent years. © Richard Brown

The Coypu or Nutria was introduced to Europe from South America, primarily for its fur. The females have unusually placed nipples; by having their nipples high on their flanks females can suckle their young whilst remaining in the water. © Richard Brown

We headed back around to La Capeliere, but again failed with Moustached Warbler. However, the warmer weather had brought four Stripeless Tree Frogs out into the open, a great reward for all the time we had spent looking into Bramble patches. We looped round into La Crau but again failed to find Pin-tailed Sandgrouse among the vast planes of arid, rocky scrub. Calling Woodlarks were the only birds of note. We returned to Tarascon via L’Hotel Mas d’Oulivie and were treated to even better views of Eagle Owl. The bird flew in to the left hand bluff earlier than on our previous visit and immediately began to call. Scope views showed all the plumage detail, the piercing eyes and the white throat fluffing out with each bellowing call. Awesome.

Larger than the Common Tree Frog, the Stripless Tree Frog has longer hind legs and a flank stripe which only reaches the front legs. We spent a long time peering into Brambles to find these fellas, but as soon as the temperature increased we found that they stood out a mile. © Richard Brown

Day eight:
Our return flight was not until four in the afternoon so we had most of the day to play with. We returned to Les Baux but failed to find the Wallcreeper. So we connected on two out of four visits. The path is a fantastic place to bird, with singing Blue Rock thrush, Serins and Sardinian Warblers. We next headed to Eyguieres Airfield but only managed to locate a single, very distant Little Bustard. The airfield also held a flock of 80 Skylarks, Crested Lark, 40 Corn Buntings, Black Redstarts and Stonechats. We were not here for long but failed to find Rock Bunting. We returned to our previous Little Bustard site and again found a minimum of 32 birds. We also had Woodlark, eight Red-legged Partridge and Serins were singing as we walked. Each site we visited on day eight had Red Kites overhead, a species we had not yet bumped into. Our final destination was the airfield south of La Fare-les-Oliviers on our return to Marseilles. Previous trip reports do not mention this site but it has been regularly featured on www.ornithomedia.com, a kind of French Birdguides. Up to 220 Little Bustards had been seen prior to our trip and we had a minimum of 115 although more were probably in the long grass. The views were close, the best we had of Little Bustard, and a great end to the trip. 

Despite the fact that the male birds lack their dramatic black and white neck feathers at this time of year, they were performing dramatic leaps from time to time, flashing their black and white wings and stomping their feet as if in courtship. © Richard Brown

And a final word about getting around. Although driving on the 'wrong' side of the road took a bit of getting used to, Dave did an amazing job. The other road users were generally keen on travelling faster than us and roundabouts and crossroads were occasionally a bit of a free-for-all. Still, the majority of other drivers were very good. © Richard Brown

7 comments:

  1. It sounds like yous had an amazing time, I enjoyed the photos and I'm very jealous.
    Sending love and hugs! Miss you!
    Becca x

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    1. Hey Becca! Has your email address changed? Send me an email!xxx

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  2. Superb! I'm hoping to do a similar trip in February but from the spanish side. Great list totals.

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  3. Fantastic memories. Took a bird group out here a few years ago, almost mirrored where you went. Saw much the same, also didn't find the Sandgrouse but did see Citril Finch in the car park before we ventured up Mont Ventoux! Wish I'd known about the Tree Frogs which look rather gripping. Wallcreeper unquestionably one of the best birds on the planet. Cheers

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  4. Great trip report with some amazing photos. Makes me feel like going!

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  5. I'd really recommend it for a cheap trip with great birds.

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  6. All the views and photos are outstanding and amazing. I really like it. Thanks for a very interesting and adventures sharing.

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