Alpilles, Crau, Camargue

18 April 2019 – 22 April 2019

Sylvain Eichhorn, Valentin Moser and Stefan Häring

Participants: Leo Amrein, Dominic Eichhorn, Sylvain Eichhorn, Stefan Häring, Valentin Moser

We are all members of the Basel based birding group "Bebbi Babbler". The prolonged weekend around Easter seemed to be the ideal opportunity to leave Switzerland for a little break. We designed this short trip to Southern France. At this time of the year, this region possibly provides the best birding opportunities with respect to its easy accessibility from Switzerland without the use of an airplane. This is due to the extremely varied habitats that lie literally next to each other. In the north, the calcareous and beautiful mountain chain of the Alpilles, with the vast and almost desertic flat plain of the Crau lying to its feet, provides incredible views that allow you to see one of the most important European wetlands, the Camargue, bordering the Mediterranean sea.

Visited Sites

General Travelling Information

We traveled by car in order to access many sites in this limited amount of time. Access to the sites is easy in general. The road to Beauduc was the worst but still feasible with a usual two-wheel drive car.

You could, however, cover this region very well by bike if you have some more days and do not fear some effort. In this case, the best option to travel from the Crau to the Camargue would probably be the ferry over the river Rhone at Salin de Giraud as you will avoid a major detour to get to the first bridge. From Salin de Giraud it is possible to drive directly through nice scenery to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer via the Gacharolle lighthouse (not possible by car). Do not be surprised if you encounter windy conditions, especially if you would go in fall (le Mistral)! Another option is to do the reverse via Mas'Agon and Safari Street (Cacharel Road), and then cross the Camargue on the dam from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to Piémanson. Attention, there can be some sand close to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, but the rest was fine (August 2020).

The weather was enjoyable during our stay, but expect higher temperatures in summer, especially in the stony, shadeless Crau!

Apparently, some Whatsapp groups exist to share rare bird observations (e.g. in spring). Contact local people or ask us, maybe we could help.

During the whole trip, we did not encounter any safety issues and traveling was in general extremely easy!

Recommended Literature

There is a leaflet in French about some of the ornithological sites.
Currently, it is found here.
If the link is broken try to google the title (livret visites ornithologiques Camargue) or contact us.

faune-paca.org is the local reporting platform for birds and other wildlife and provides good information on current observations of common and rare species.

Acknowledgements

We want to thank the person who entrusted us with his car for this trip.

Plateau de la Caume

Elevated plain at approximately 400 meters above sea level with dry open Mediterranean shrub vegetation and calcareous rock formations.

This area is a reliable spot for Bonelli's eagle, Dartford Warbler, Western Subalpine Warbler, Iberian Grey Shrike, Woodlark. With luck, one may even see the rare Egyptian Vulture. 

Target species

  • Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus

    rare

  • Bonelli's Eagle Aquila fasciata

    reliable

  • Iberian Gray Shrike Lanius meridionalis

  • Wood Lark Lullula arborea

  • Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans

    common

  • Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata

    common

How to get there

The parking lot is at 43.756572, 4.834120. Follow the road "Cours du Relais de Télévision" up to the television antenna and then bird on the flat plateau. 

Facilities & accommodation

The parking is a popular overnight spot. No toilets / no water. 

Other wildlife observed

High diversity of special arthropod and plant species.

RN des Coussouls de Crau

The Crau is a large steppe-like plain, the former riverbed of the river Durance. It hosts many species otherwise mostly restricted to the Iberian Peninsula or Northern Africa. Much of the Crau was degraded due to airports, military areas, agriculture and large buildings. However, there are still large areas with extensive sheep pasture. 

Peau de Meau is the best spot for most of the target species, including the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. There is an inbuilt observatory in the Bergerie at 43.560448, 4.829402 (CURRENTLY CLOSED, last update August 2020). Morning or evening is the most rewarding daytime as temperatures can be high during midday and scanning therefore difficult.

Mas Chauvet (The Coussouls area with walkable tracks around 43.571836, 4.881047) is the place to visit for Calandra Lark. It also hosts most of the other typical Crau species although Pin-tailed Sandgrouse is more difficult here (never seen by the authors of this trip report here). In winter Richard's Pipit is a regular species.

One may also consider visiting the Etang des Aulnes (43.591786, 4.789568) which hosts some waterfowl and may be rewarding especially during the migration season. However, do not expect too much.

You should buy a permission (few Euros) for visiting the Peau de Meau area at the visitor centre, 2 Place Léon Michaud, 13310 Saint-Martin-de-Crau, France (parking lot at 43.636994, 4.805793). This ticket allows you to visit the reserve for two days (can be chosen freely, don't have to be consecutive days). 

Target species

  • Pin-tailed Sandgrouse Pterocles alchata

    Only spot in France for this species. Difficult, but listen for the characteristic calls in the morning or evening. The best area known to us is around the Bergerie Peau de Meau at 43.560448, 4.829402. You may also find them with a scope from the observatory in the Bergerie.

  • Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax

    Especially in spring. Uncommon, scanning distantly with the binoculars to flying birds is probably the easiest way to find this species. With luck, one can find an individual on the ground. Peau de Meau area and Mas Chauvet area are both good.

  • Eurasian Thick-knee Burhinus oedicnemus

    Easy to hear at dusk/dawn. Scan for resting birds with scope.

  • Eurasian Dotterel Charadrius morinellus

    Regular in fall (August-September), more scarce in spring. Check for recent observations on faune-paca.org.

  • Little Owl Athene noctua

    Sometimes here: 43.570129, 4.841650

  • European Roller Coracias garrulus

  • Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni

    Often distant but easy. Peau de Meau / Mas Chauvet area.

  • Calandra Lark Melanocorypha calandra

    Population along the two parallel "tracks" around 43.565655, 4.881447 at Mas Chauvet area.

  • Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla

    Pay attention to song.

  • Richard's Pipit Anthus richardi

    Regular at Mas Chauvet in winter.

How to get there

Peau de Meau and Etang des Aulnes

Take the turn to "Etang des Aulnes" at 43.602218, 4.788574. The parking lot for Etang des Aulnes is at 43.600636, 4.790547. To visit the Peau de Meau area follow the road to the parking lot at 43.571560, 4.831904. Accessible for any type of car or bicycle. 

Mas Chauvet area

Parking lot at 43.574068, 4.885781. Accessible for any type of car or bicycle. Walk the tracks that lead into the Coussouls from here.

Note: You are not allowed to drive your car within the Nature reserve Reserve Naturelle des Coussouls de Crau.

Facilities & accommodation

Accommodations / Camping at Saint-Martin de Crau.

Route du Mas d'Agon

This road passes through agricultural land, with partially flooded fields, reed beds and a small waterbody.

Scan the flooded fields for waders, Glossy Ibis and Gull-billed Tern. Plan a stop where the road passes a small lake (43.594049, 4.543622) to watch out for terns, herons and reed species. Also watch out for flying Collared Pratincole, which occur here some years. The southernmost two-thirds is the most productive area.

Target species

  • Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandarius

    Apparently a good area, scan fences and potential waits. Not seen by us here.

  • Collared Pratincole Glareola pratincola

    Rare, seen back in 2014 by some members of the group.

  • Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica

    Regularly seen hunting over flooded fields.

How to get there

Road between junctions at 43.572285, 4.545299 and 43.644167, 4.568167. Motorized traffic allowed on full lenght.

Marais du Verdier

Marais du Verdier consists of extended reedbeds with some bodies of water. A path surrounds the area (Chemin du Carnage). Reed often impede free sight. Hides at 43.522726, 4.693946 and 43.531551, 4.700020.

We did not bird this area for a long time and did not visit it at the right time of the day. Only few birds were encountered and good viewpoints or promising spots were limited. A single Great spotted cuckoo was the undoubted highlight. If one passes by and has some spare time, this site may therefore still be worth checking.

Target species

  • Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandarius

    One seen here 43.522992, 4.695704.

How to get there

Parking lot at 43.523796, 4.706216 and 43.532141, 4.699714. Continue by foot. If you park at the first lot (in Le Sambuc) try to access the path (Chemin du Carnage) by crossing a small bridge at 43.525638, 4.703923. Otherwise one might not be able to access the path because of a water filled channel.

Piémanson area

The Plage de Piémanson is a beach just west of the river mouth of the Rhône. Here we had a highlight with two Orioles coming straight in from the sea, probably starting from the Balearic islands or even Africa the night before.

The access road is the main birding attraction, as it passes through vast salt pans and wetlands. It is a great spot for wading birds and flamingos. Many species of terns and gulls are present in good numbers. A scope is helpful, especially to find specialties such as Slender-billed Gull. Some (semi)-rarities among the large flocks of waders or tern can be found most of the years, so watch out. We had a Red-necked Phalarope.

Surely one of the best spots in the Camargue, especially during spring and autumn.

Target species

  • Slender-billed Gull Chroicocephalus genei

How to get there

Take the road from Salin-de-Giraud to the beach, road condition is good.

Other wildlife observed

In the dunes there are Edwards' Psammodromus (Psammodromus edwarsianus)

Beauduc area

Beaduc is a little hippie village. In the village and on the Dunes are many opportunities for tired migrants to rest and one could spend a whole day here checking bushes during migration times.

Moltoni's Warbler is an example of an interesting migrant species that can be found here during the right time of the year, we had more than one. Badius Woodchat shrike is another (sub)-species to watch out for, as well as Mediterranean flycatcher, which we missed.

Birding here was particularly exciting and we strongly recommend checking the area if conditions for migrationg passerines are good in spring!

Target species

  • Moltoni's Warbler Sylvia subalpina

    Example of an interesting migrant species that can be found here during the right time of the year, we had more than one

How to get there

Parking lot at 43.407668, 4.597878. Coming from Piémanson best drive to intersection at 43.428807, 4.693931 and turn left and follow the way to Beauduc. The road starts to get bad from 43.412561, 4.693028 until you arrive at the parking, but was still well manageable with careful driving with our normal car.

Facilities & accommodation

Many people rested at night on the parking during our stay.

Domaine de Méjanes – Cacharel road

This road, also called Safari street, goes through typical Camargue habitat. It is popular also with the commercial “safari” operators. Prepare for nice landscape with horses and bulls. We got out whenever it looked or sounded interesting, a bit like Mas d'Agon, but less open habitat and more reeds.

Reed bed at 43.494673, 4.449192 particularly good. Listen for Moustached Warbler and Purple Swamphen.

Target species

  • Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandarius

  • Moustached Warbler Acrocephalus melanopogon

  • Spectacled Warbler Sylvia conspicillata

  • Western Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio

How to get there

Road between 43.580475, 4.503855 and 43.485284, 4.445273. All the way driveable with normal car.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer area

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a tourist town at the sea. If you want to do birding in peace, here your loved ones can do as much horse riding as they want!

Along the access road is the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau (43.488791, 4.404039), a very popular attraction as well. The place can be crowded with people, If you don’t mind, have a look at some (too) close flamingos on the short track and then take the more bird-rich long track around the big lake. Quite a diversity of shorebirds can be present. Attention, taking the broken glass as an indication, many car break-ins here. 

For a more pure birding experience you can follow the dam to the Phare de la Gacherolle and further to de Étang du Fangassier all the way to the other end of the Camargue. In any case the stretch between the parking lot at 43.463603, 4.474986 and the parking lot at 43.456261, 4.444016 provide by far enough opportunities for quite some hours of birding. Also perfectly suited for a morning session before coffee and croissant. Again, there are many tamarisks full of migrants along the dam or for example here around 43.462544, 4.460348. It is probably best to explore with a bike, as at some point the dam is not drivable anymore. The bushes have hold quite some rarities in the past and is in general a very good spot with a combination of good habitat for migrant passerines and good numbers of shorebirds (e.g. waders, Slender-billed Gull) on top. In the salt meadows Spectacled Warblers are common. It is an area clearly worth exploring!

Target species

  • Spectacled Warbler Sylvia conspicillata

    along the dam a lot of suitable habitat

How to get there

One can drive by car as far as the parking lot at 43.463603, 4.474986. Other parking option at 43.456261, 4.444016 and continue birding on foot or bike.

Facilities & accommodation

many opportunities in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Vallon des Opies

The Vallons des Opies is a small and pitoresque valley covered in mediterranean shrubs and flanked by some impressive rock faces. It is surely one of the best spot for combined birding and hiking in the Alpilles.

Motivated hikers may go all the way up to the Tour des Opies which gives astonishing views over the Alpilles, the vast plain of La Crau and the Camargue with its Étang de Vaccarès and leads you all the way up through the beautiful Vallon. If you prefer it more relaxed or you are just short in time, a scan from the parking lot at 43.719106, 4.949937 may already provide the most interesting raptors (altough may be a little more distant) and some passerines. At dusk also Eagle owl and Scops owl.

Target species

  • Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo

    Seen at dusk from parking sitting on top of rock face.

  • Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus

    Not seen by us. Should be possible with some luck.

  • Bonelli's Eagle Aquila fasciata

    Easy

  • Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans

    Common in the very valley.

  • Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata

    Common in the very valley.

  • Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush Monticola saxatilis

    Seen from the parking lot in rocks.

  • Blue Rock-Thrush Monticola solitarius

  • Black-eared Wheatear Oenanthe hispanica

    Present in low densitiy in the Alpilles. Not seen by us and on former trips. The small Alpilles chains south of the Vallon des Opies might be worth checking.

How to get there

Parking at 43.719077, 4.949938

Diary

18 April 2019: Plateau de la Caume and Peau de Meau

We drove through the night from Basel and slept for a few hours at the parking lot for Plateau de la Caume. In the night, we heard Wood Lark and Common Nightingale singing. In the moring we walked up to the Plateau, meanwhile Alpine Swifts were circling above our heads. The Garrigue here was in full bloom and birds were rather active, so we quickly encountered Subalpine, Dartford and Sardinian Warblers and Iberian Grey Shrike. Eventually looking into the sky paid out and we could appreciate a smart Bonelli's eagle. This being the main target we decided to return to the car and move on to the Peau de Meau area. On the way we got the permits at the Ecomusée in Saint-Martin-de-Crau for a few Euros. This allows you to access the Peau de Meau on two days (freely choosable dates). We made a quick stop at Étang des Aulnes, which lies on the way. The area could be good for migrants or waterfowl but did not produce any notable species today. From Peau de Meau parking we started an extended walk, following the track leading directly into the Coussouls (the 'original' steppe-like habitat). We walked straight on this track (43.570857, 4.833287) for approximately 1.5 - 2 km. Birding produced Greater Short-toed Lark, Little Bustards, Lesser Kestrel and eventually distant calls alarmed us: A flock of Pin-tailed Sandgrouses was discovered in flight and then landing distantly. Later a group was again seen in flight, which then landed close to the Bergerie (43.560392, 4.829395) approximately here 43.564271, 4.832013. We then followed the official path ('didactic trail') to the Bergerie and could locate the birds on the ground, allowing decent views. As light was starting to fade we returned to the car by attaching a birdwise unproductive night walk. Stone Curlew was heard during the evening and night.

19 April 2019: Mas Chauvet, Mas d'Agon, Marais du Verdier and Piémanson

We woke up early on the parking lot and decided to directly move to the Mas Chauvet area as we had already seen the important target species last afternoon at Peau de Meau. Mas Chauvet is the place to go for Calandra Lark. We easily found this species along the two parallel tracks around here 43.564811, 4.881473 (approximate location, just follow the parallel tracks and you should find the lark). We enjoyed nice views of a Little Bustard on the ground, while the sparrow-like call of Tawny Pipits was omnipresent. We then visited the small wet area of "Urpar" adjacent to the dry Coussouls close to the now closed Entressen dump, where a Citrine Wagtail had been reported previously (Urpar 43.591624, 4.877301). We found some Black-crowned Night Herons and dozens of Common Nightingales but there was no sign of the wagtail, although we followed all the water stream. We continued to the Camargue area starting with the Mas d'Agon road (starting point at 43.644126, 4.568204). The first part is somewhat monotonous but eventually, we found some flooded fields with Gull-billed Terns and Glossy Ibis. We stop and go birded the rest of the road and especially checked out the wetland area at 43.596709, 4.546714 which produced Whiskered Terns among other wetland species. Short and rather calm picnic on the observatory at 43.571680, 4.541920. Drove to Le Sambuc where we gave the Marais du Verdier a try. The activity was low at midday and this site mostly consisted of extended reed beds with only few interesting viewing points. We followed the path on the south of the reed beds to the observatory at 43.522725, 4.693933. The surprise was a Great Spotted Cuckoo flying by. Otherwise few birds. We went to Salin de Giraud with a quick stop on the well-known Salt pan viewpoint at 43.401229, 4.752100. We then followed the road to the Plage de Piémanson stopping everywhere looking promising (interesting road section from 43.386253, 4.791647 to the beach). This area is a real hotspot and one of the best sites in the Camargue for terns, waders and gulls, so plan enough time! Slender-billed Gulls showed very nicely and the large flocks of stints and sandpipers were impressive. Other goodies were Spectacled warbler and Osprey.

20 April 2019: Piémanson, Salin de Giraud - Le Sambuc - Beauduc

We started again at Piémanson and enjoyed similar birds as yesterday in the morning sun. We decided to take a particularly close look at the many waders as this site has yielded some rarities in past years. While wiping through a huge flock of Dunlins with the scope a bird with a strikingly red neck fell into the eye. After a few seconds of excitement, it was clear that it was a Red-necked Phalarope! Unfortunately it was only seen by one observer as the flock decided to take off at the worst moment. Some efforts to relocate the bird proved fruitless, as the flock had seemingly been swallowed up in the endless salt pans. Probably the same bird was seen again on consecutive days by other observers. A small seawatching session did not produce any shearwaters but two Golden Orioles flying straight out of the sea over our head! A very impressive observation, especially for us inland birders. In general, the night with favorable southerly winds seemed to have resulted in an unusually large arrival of migrant passerines.

Today we had our only restaurant meal in Salin de Giraud in order to properly celebrate the 18th birthday of one of our team members! After some good food we continued with the good species and could watch a party of Collared Pratincole some kilometers south of Le Sambuc on the road from Salin de Giraud in a field beside the road. Collared Pratincole breeds every year in the area but changes exact location. We saw them in a rather dry field with a Stone Curlew, often actively foraging also flying directly above the road. We then took the "Route de Fielouse à Sambuc" with a quick stop on the observatory at 43.513876, 4.657692. No particular species was seen. We drove in direction of Beauduc and birded the bushes around 43.411741, 4.677165. Many migrant passerines like Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher and Subalpine Warbler were seen and while the light was fading we got a tease of what the next morning in Beauduc would be like. We went for an unsuccessful owling session on the road between Salin de Giraud and Salin de Badon. After preparing some soup on our small gas cooker we drove the bad road to the parking of Beauduc.

21 April 2019: Beauduc, 'Safari road' from Domaine de Méjanes to Cacharel and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

We woke up at first light. The sight of the vast extends of the sandy area covered with tamarisk bush complexes caused excitement among us. In fact all the area south of the parking at 43.407965, 4.598691 seems to act as a magnet for migrant passerines! Our expectations were exceeded as we realized that virtually all bushes held migrant species. The wind conditions had caused a major passerines fallout and we had an outstanding half-day of quality birding in the area. Good numbers of Wood Warblers were amongst the most common species, with large numbers of Pied Flycatchers. Other groups had also found Collared Flycatcher the day before. A particular phenomenon was the presence of 'overshoot' Moltoni's Warblers and badius Woodchat Shrike! But the sheer number of individuals was clearly the main attraction. We encountered Great Reed Warbler, Hoopoe and the uncommon Red-rumped Swallow and a crazy looking Mantid (Empusa pennata). One could easily have spent the whole day (or more) in the area! Expect everything as already major rarities have been found at this season in the Camargue tamarisks!

We then drove all around the Étang de Vaccarès to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. On the way we made a stop around 43.539033, 4.638823 where one has free sight on some waterbodies holding waders, Glossy Ibis and Water rail. Do quick birding stops on this attractive small stretch of road whenever it looks good. Check for example the lake at la Capelière at 43.534720, 4.641253 or the Étang de Vaccarès for Ducks and Black-necked Grebe (small platform e.g. also at 43.545430, 4.630886). We also decided to drive the road from the Domaine de Méjanes to Cacharel instead of all the D570. This 'Safari road' provides interesting birding opportunities. Coming from Salin de Giraud turn left at 43.580501, 4.504905 and bird your way to 43.485291, 4.445296. From here only a few minutes remain to Saintes-Maries. Highlight on this road was a Great Spotted Cuckoo, activity was otherwise low, due to the time of the day. We finally attached a quick visit to the Ornithological Park of Pont de Gau in order to try for Lesser Flamingo which turned up regularly here (although of doubtful origin)! We did not find the flamingo but many many people. The ambiance is more zoo-like but if you want to see Greater Flamingo at a few meters this is your place. Also the northern area is somehow more natural and has nice observatories with quite a few species of waders. 

After finally arriving at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer we birded the area at the start of the dam to the Gacherolle lighthouse. We spent some time around 43.456603, 4.444813. The rivermouth stone moles and in general the moles at the beaches of Saintes-Maries often hold Turnstones, while Little Terns can sometimes be seen hunting at the rivermouth. On the opposite site, Trabas de Jusiou (43.459474, 4.443540) holds many waders. In the evening Temminck's Stint flew over our heads. One can drive by car all the way to 43.463503, 4.475310. In the salt meadows on the sea averted side of the moles we easily found many Spectacled warblers.

22 April 2019: Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 'Safari road', Urpar and Vallon des Opies

On our last morning we again checked the many bushes along the dam and at the ponds at 43.460307, 4.455368. Once again we found Moltoni's Warblers (e.g. in a good area at 43.462906, 4.460124) among the many other migratory passerines. The area is similarly suited for arriving passerines as Beauduc and it is here that Rüppell's Warbler and Semi-collared Flycatcher has already been observed.

As the Urpar Citrine Wagtail had again been reported we decided to drive our way back to this site by once again taking the 'Safari road'. The road was very productive and a Moustached Warbler put on a fine show in the reed beds at 43.493068, 4.450250. Also Purple Swamphen was found in close proximity. A distant Great Spotted Cuckoo was found further north as was a Spectacled Warbler and a group of Bee-eaters.

In Urpar things went different this time and soon we had spotted the Wagtail, calmly catching insects a few meters from us! A truly formidable sighting. On the way another Swiss birding group lead by Lionel Maumary advised us they had found a Yellow-browed Warbler at the start of Vallon des Opies in the Alpilles. As this was anyway on our way home we decided to give it a try. We parked at 43.719088, 4.949899 and walked up the valley till 43.715463, 4.969943. Despite some effort, the YBW was unfindable. Instead we had excellent views of flying and resting Bonelli's eagle in the valley and located a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush in rocks visible from the parking lot. After having packed our material in the car and ready for departure, the fluty notes of an Eurasian Scops Owl sounded close by. While we approached it, a large silhouette appeared on a high rock face. The Scop's owl large cousin had appeared and its feater ears were visible through the scope! After a while we also manage to get close up views of the Scops Owl. This nocturnal duo was a noble closing of our short but intense trip to southern France. As the sky darkened it was our time to start the long journey home.

Species List

Order: systematic | alphabetic | highlights first
Published: 04 December 2020
Last updated: 04 December 2020
Orniverse: Alpilles, Crau, Camargue (18 April 2019 – 22 April 2019)