Camargue is the region defined by the delta of the Rhône river, in southern France. It’s a region of wetlands and fields, where nature and human activty often meld; specific breeds of bulls and horses are raised there, in partial liberty. I saw a few cows, but no horse. Anyway, cattle was not what had allured me there.
My first birding trip, with the LPO (the French bird protection society), had led me there. That was in 2004, and I had never returned before this winter.
From Grenoble, it’s a 3-hour drive to Le Sambuc, a quiet but windswept village in the Natural Regional Park. I had not left early, so I arrived in Camargue only a couple of hours before sunset.
I started to walk on dry tracks, along just-as-dry ponds. In some places, where some water remained, large groups of herons gathered, including many Little egrets (Egretta garzetta), a bird I cannot see in Finland. I also flushed large groups of European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis), and managed to see an elusive Cetti’s warbler (Cettia cetti). The wind was blowing, but in the evening sun, the temperature remained pleasant… A dry, sunny, almost warm atmosphere… what a contrast with the Finnish autumn and winter!
The lack of water was not good for birdwatching, but luckily cranes (Grus grus) saved me. They arrived from the east, where they had most likely fed during the day, drifting in large and noisy groups towards fields that suddenly simmered with life and energy.
Now, to continue the comparison with Finland, cranes are quite common up there… but, as a breeding bird, they do not congregate in such huge flocks. There you see a pair striding in the fields along the road, sometimes followed by a youngling or two. This display was impressive.
I didn’t stay until the last light of day, for I wanted to see it from the shore of the Vaccarès pond. In Le Sambuc, I was sheltered, but when I reached the waterfront, I finally grasped what was at work. The wind was not mistral blowing from the north, but it was still bitterly cold. I was traveling by car, so I quickly clicked my pics and then came inside to warm up.
After sundown, I drove north. I had booked a hostel in the center of Arles, a lovely town with a long history; the Roman buildings that remained upright were listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1981. It was quite dramatic to walk these streets, virtually alone in the wind, facing ancient stones.
The hostel was almost empty, and that suited me well, for I wanted to go to bed early and wake up early as well; I counted on 1 hour of driving to my morning spot, and I wanted to be there one hour before sunrise: I set the alarm at 5.
The hostel was adjacent to a hotel, barely 20 meters from the Amphitheater. It was clean and tidy, but clearly more a place to sleep than a place to spend some quality time with friends or family. Anyway, the good thing was that a (simple) breakfast was included, with fresh bread that I missed given my early departure time. There was jam, something I had forgotten to take with me from home, so it was not completely wasted! I left in the dark, belly full and spirits high.
I got lost a few times, and had to slow down when the road turned into a dirt track. That was expected, and not the reason why I didn’t reached my original destination. A simple sign stating that no traffic was allowed past it stopped me in my tracks. I pondered: my instructions seemed to imply the the Beauduc beach was reachable by car, and it was very early, noone would bother me… right? In the end I didn’t dare continue by car. I considered walking, but I was way too far from the sea to reach it before sunrise. I decided to drive back and then north, and reached the dyke between the Galabert and Fangassier ponds. There I parked the car, and set off.
I wanted to make pictures of waders.
The few places I know I can see them, in Helsinki (Laajalahti and Viikki), are not very favourable for pictures. They are both nature reserves, and as such, one can’t get close to the birds. I have always dreamt of those large, flat beaches where one can lie down and really be at eye-level with the birds. That’s what I hoped to find in Camargue.
Well I was a bit disappointed. I recognize this was not the best season for birds; most strands of sand were empty, where I found waders were often small beaches going down to the pond, making it difficult for me to be at eye-level, and therefore not offering a very pretty background. With the sun rising, I had no time to find another place, so I stayed there.
The first species I met was the Dunlin (Caldiris alpina). One individual foraged at the water’s edge, soon to be joined by two comrades. Those creatures are swift and never stay in one place, so it’s a challenge to make good quality photographs. One clearly was the king of this cove, and it chased the others more often than not; when they left it alone, so did I, to try my chance I look for another favourable spot.
This first series was made in the shadows, and I had to sport high ISO settings to freeze the action. Luckily, the foam created this dreamy environment, and noise, which is more visible in dark areas than in light ones, remained at an acceptable level.
When I emerged from my sandy spot onto the elevated path, I saw the sun had risen. I walked a couple hundred meters further, and found another strand with birds. There I found my two last targets, Sanderling (Calidris alba) and Little stint (Calidris minuta). The former is slightly bigger than the Dunlin, the latter is smaller, and both have straight bills. I often struggle with wader identification, because the birds are small and usually far away, and ID keys can be a bit tricky under these circumstances. There, I was very close, and I could admire all the details.
These birds only had winter plumage, but they were beautiful anyway.
When I lay in the sand in my second approach, I was in the shadow again, but as time passed, rays of sun emerged and lit the birds that ran in the water. I battled to isolate birds from each other, and also I battled the sun, which cast a shadow over my waders’ eyes. In the end, I was still very happy to spend a few hours in the sand, and the result was quite good for a first time with those birds.
I mentioned the day before was very windy, and this Thursday was just the same. On both my photo sessions, the wind was blowing straight to my face, freezing my fingers even though they were hidden in my gloves. It was pleasant to walk and then seek refuge in the car afterwards. I drove out, first slowly on the lumpy road, then fast once back on the asphalt. Just as I accelerated, I spotted a Common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) perched on a tree. Half a second of thinking, and I was hitting the brakes. I looked back, the bird was still there. That’s the perk of roaming on little traveled roads in the countryside: you can allow yourself some crazy moves on the road (while still being cautious of course). I started to go backwards, but I stopped and decided to do it smartly. I prepared my camera, put it on my thighs, and drove back. I stopped just in front of a gorgeous female-like (brown head with no grey) bird, which still didn’t move. I snapped a few pictures, and then it flew away. Good boy 😉
When you’re driving on empty roads, you can stop very often, almost anywhere. The problem is not to stop too often, for if you brake for every bird you see, you’re not going anywhere. In that case, I made a quick break for a few Common moorhens (Gallinula chloropus), but apart from that I hit the road. I was meeting with Jérome a bit later, at the Scamandre discovery center. Jérome is a blogger I’ve followed since the beginning of Eiwawar; he writes in French, but if that doesn’t frighten you, please pay him a visit, you won’t be disappointed! He’s currently telling of his adventures in Guyane, and it’s a delight to read!
So we met for the first time (an honor!), and had a good time watching birds. In the reserve, we flushed away a stunning Booted eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus), were overflown by Glossy ibises (Plegadis falcinellus) and were surprised by a swift Water rail (Rallus aquaticus) crossing the duckboard we were strolling on.
Afterwards, Jérome took me to some of the spots he likes, and I finally managed a few pictures of Greater flamingoes (Phoenicopterus roseus). Sorry, those are younglings, they are not pink!
After this wonderful weekend-inside-the-week, I aimed north again, watching the sunset in the rear view mirror. It was good.
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