Mediterranean specialities in the scorching hot Camargue

After the very productive morning in the Alpilles we headed south towards the western part of the Camargue National Park. It is the largest river delta ecosystem in Europe with vast salt lagoons, marshes and network of canals agriculture long the borderline. It’s special position along the River Rhône contributed to the development of its unique wildlife. This Important Bird Area is under pressure by heavy tourism but it seemed to be well regulated and under control. Large part of the delta is used for salt works.

Preening Western Cattle Egrets at one of the rice-fields. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Daniel Szimuly

From Arles we took the road D572N which runs through large flooded rice-fields. These fields attracted a lot of birds including Western Cattle Egrets, Glossy Ibises, Black-winged Stilts and Wood Sandpipers. We heard our first Zitting Cisticolas here but couldn’t manage to see one.

Combined list of multiple stops provided the following bird list along the rice-fields:

Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) 1
Great Egret (Eurasian) (Ardea alba) 1
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) 6
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) 29
Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) 33
Black Kite (Milvus migrans) 1
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) 1
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) 9
Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) 1
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) 24
Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis) 2
European Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia turtur) 1
Common Swift (Apus apus) 20
Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica) 1
Barn Swallow (White-bellied) (Hirundo rustica rustica) 18
Great Reed-Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) 2
Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) 2
Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) 2
Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) 2
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 3

Massive and probably quite old White Sork nest on this little roadside tower. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

White Stork landed on its nest for our pleasure. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Along the road D179 we had nice views on White Storks, European Roller and European Bee-eaters and multiple Black Kites. At a little pond (43.6138,4.4079) we saw the following birds:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) 1
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) 2
Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) 1
Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) 6
Black Kite (Milvus migrans) 2
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) 2
Common Swift (Apus apus) 15
European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) 8
Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) 1
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 17
Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti) 2
Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta) 4
Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) 2
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 2
Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) 1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 3

Glossy Ibises were feeding in the rather eutrophic pond. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

The view on the stunning Glossy Ibises through the Viking ED Pro spotting scope, kindly provided by Viking Optical, was amazing. Details on the iridescent feathers were cracking. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Squacco Heron was feeding just meters away from the road allowing comfortable photography from our car. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Daniel Szimuly

We saw both heavily worn adults and juvenile Western Swamphens. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Western Swamphen feeding along the muddy shore. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Black-winged Stilts favoured this small pond even for breeding. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

After turning northwards on the road D779 we stopped for a good half an hour at a small pond on the left. This was the Western Swamphen site, which is just a small part of the massive Étang du Charnier marsh. This shallow, drying out marsh was full of Black-winged Stilts, Little Egrets, some Glossy Ibises and Little Ringed Plovers. Along the northern part of the pond we found Western Swamphens feeding at the edge of the reedbed. They were in rather washed out colours and but Dani was happy to see another life bird. Several pairs of Black-winged Stilts had downy chicks. Black-crowned Night-Herons, Squacco Herons and Yellow-legged Gulls were flying over the area.

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) 4
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) 6
Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) 9
Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) 2
Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) 6
Black Kite (Milvus migrans) 3
Western Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) 5
Eurasian Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) 8
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) 88
Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) 9
Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) 1
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) 1
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) 6
Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis) 4
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) 1
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) 1
European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) 1
Barn Swallow (White-bellied) (Hirundo rustica) 6
Common House-Martin (Delichon urbicum) 1
Eurasian Reed-Warbler (Eurasian) (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) 3
Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) 1

Very pleasant swimming in the Mediterranean Sea was a complete refreshment after the first rather hot birding day. iPhone 7Plus © Gyorgy Szimuly

Feeding group of Little Egrets in the drained Trabas de Jusiou. iPhone 7Plus © Gyorgy Szimuly

Despite their beauty, Little Egrets are quite aggressve hunters when it comes to occupying the best feeding spots. iPhone 7Plus © Gyorgy Szimuly

We decided to camp on the eastern beach of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Plage Est) which cost us €5 including overnight. Needless to say that sitting at the beach for watching shearwaters wasn’t the first thing we did, but rather enjoyed the much needed swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. Birding during fun times provided multiple Sandwich Terns, Yellow-legged Gulls and a Eurasian Oystercatcher. After swimming Dani pulled another life bird. On the nearby eBird hotspot, the Trabas de Jusiou we had cracking views on roosting Slender-billed Gulls and hunting Little Egrets. Several Slender-billed Gulls were colour ringed with green rings. Surprisingly not many shorebirds were present on this muddy lake but a Whimbrel was actively feeding in the middle of the lake. From the sea, low flying Sandwich Terns carried food and one of them was flying with an adult Gull-billed Tern.

Seawatching through the excellent Viking ED Pro spotting scope. iPhone 7Plus © Gyorgy Szimuly

Peaceful waters resulted no seabird specialities. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Unfortunately, seawatching resulted neither shearwaters nor storm-petrels, despite I could identify hunting Sandwich Terns from quite a distance.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) 12
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) 4
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) 77
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 1
Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) 1
Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei) 46
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) 230
Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis) 11
Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) 1
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) 6
Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) 4
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 40
Common House-Martin (Delichon urbicum) 30
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 16

Wonderfully refreshing rosé from Provence. iPhone 7Plus © Gyorgy Szimuly

A lovely dinner, a cold rosé in the Bambou Palm Beach Restaurant and the swimming naked French girls only a stone’s throw away, made the night pretty cool…

This trip was supported by Viking Optical.

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Bonelli’s Eagle chase at the Massif des Alpilles

It’s been more than a year I had a holiday so it was about time to organise another one. This time southern France became the birdwatching holiday destination and after a month of preparation my son and me landed on Marseille for a bit of tropical European feeling.

Moments before landing in Marseille we had stunning views to the Camargue and the Réserve Naturelle des Coussouls de Crau steppes. © Gyorgy Szimuly

We flew by EasyJet from Gatwick Airport in London and a little more than one and the half hours later we landed in Marseille. Europecar served us a budget car through HolidayAutos, what proved to be a great support during our whole journey as the car was supplied with Apple CarPlay. It made navigation from my iPhone so easy. Our biggest problem was to find a supermarket for some food. Unfortunately, shops were closed so the only option was to get something for breakfast is to go to a nearby McDonald’s. A lovely young staff member with sexy french accent offered help to find a non-stop shop. That wasn’t the most healthy food we have ever bought but we survivied till we made a full shopping in the E’Leclerc in Arles. After this hassle we soon hit the roads to the Chaînes des Alpilles.

Dani didn’t have to wait long for the first lifer. At random stops we heard European Scops Owls and one of them was close enough to go for it. It took less than ten minutes to locate one in the complete darkness and enjoying a perfect views of this calling bird. It’s been more than 20 years I’ve seen this bird in Hungary. On the way up we heard a several other birds at the foothills of the Alpilles.

Alpine Swifts were hunting around the tower and the cliffs. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Spectacular sunrise over the Alpilles. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Huge limestone cliffs are emerging on the northern side of the Massif des Alpilles. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Panoramic view from the watchpoint where Bonelli’s Eagles were seen. © Gyorgy Szimuly

We had a beautiful view to the Alpilles and the distant lowlands of Provance. © Gyorgy Szimuly

We woke up with twilight and headed up to the Massif des Alpilles on foot. A few miles walking to the summit provided nice birding opportunities and gave us a hint of the difficulties having proper views on the Mediterranean Sylvid warblers. Patience payed out but we also had to focus on our primary target bird, the Bonelli’s Eagle. Since my first foreign birding trip to Turkey I have been chasing this bird. On my previous trip to southern France I failed to find one, although that wasn’t entirely a birding trip. Before sunrise at least one European Nightjar was heard calling. The Sun was high up when we got to the tv or radio tower (not sure what is that for). That was the time for the Viking Optical’s ED Pro spotting scope to shine and support our quest to find this majestic eagle. It did a GREAT job! I’ll put up some thoughts on this optics later. Alpine Swifts with Common Swifts were flying low around the tower and Western Subalpine Warblers were carrying food around our spot. Technically this warbler is a life bird for me but as IOC hasn’t been accepted this split so I cannot list it as a lifer. Another life bird was the Spectacled Warbler. Walking on the summit towards northeast, multiple Dartford Warblers crossed the path. Amazing number of butterflies were all around and I just wished I could identify a single one.

It’s hard to call this a bird photo but there is an Egyptian Vulture in the frame. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

An adult Egyptian Vulture was soaring over us for a few minutes before disappearing behind the east slope. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Back from the short walk on the summit, we soon had our first excitement with a close encounter of an Egyptian Vulture. It must have spent the night in one of the nearby cliffs. After a few circles it glided down to the valley and disappeared temporarily. Later when wind picked up it was soaring just above us. Temperature rose rapidly and as drinking water supply decreased dramatically we were close to leave the summit. When I walked towards the deep walley to find the singing Cirl Bunting a large soaring raptor appeared on the west horizont. It glided towards to foothills and slowly emerged higher and higher. Soon after a second, a third and a fourth bird joined to this soaring bird. There was obvious size difference between the birds. Two with same size were Bonelli’s Eagles and two smaller ones were dark phase Booted Eagles. One of the Bonelli’s was flying towards us providing great views. A distant flying Black Terns distracted the view and I lost the bird forever. Later we learned that Booted Eagles are rather uncommon here this time of the year but their breeding grounds is relatively close to this place.

If time allows there are a lot to explore in this fascinating natural park. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Birds counted from the car park near the road D5 to the tower on the summit:

Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) 1
Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus) 2
Bonelli’s Eagle (Aquila fasciata) 2
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) 1
Common Wood-Pigeon (Columba palumbus) 2
Eurasian Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) 1 heard only
Alpine Swift (Apus melba) 16
Common Swift (Apus apus) 50
Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) 1
Eurasian Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) 3
Eurasian Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) 2
Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) 10
Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca) 1
Western‘ Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans cantillans) 5
Spectacled Warbler (Sylvia conspicillata) 4
Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata) 5
European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) 2
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros gibraltariensis) 4
Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) 1
Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula) 3
Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus) 3
Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) 12

It wasn’t a bad start of the trip. Dani ended the day with 6 life birds for his happiness.

This trip was Supported by Viking Optical.