A winter visit to the Camargue.

Flamingos, the Camargue
Flamingos, the Camargue

Mid-winter might not seem to be the obvious time of year for the bird photographer to visit the Camargue – well known for its nesting herons, other brightly coloured summer visitors and phenomenal spring and autumn passage migration. But I wanted to have a crack at some of the reedbed specialities which are so difficult to find here in the UK. And small numbers of several species of eagle are known to winter there, although I knew I would be lucky to even see them. As it turned out the bitterns and the bearded tits were just as elusive there as they are in the UK. I may also have seen a distant glimpse of a booted eagle as it flew away in the rain.

As far as the practicalities are concerned I will summarise them first. Travel down to Nimes was by train to minimise my carbon footprint. Some nature photographers must believe their carbon emissions do not count, but that seems an irresponsible attitude in my opinion. It is quite feasible to do the journey in a day by train, even from Aberystwyth, although it seemed sensible to book a  room in Nimes in advance to avoid the risk of spending my first night on a park bench. Train fares are quite reasonable especially if they are booked in advance; London to Nimes was £110 return. I picked up a hire car at Nimes train station on my first morning and spent five of the next six nights at Salin de Badon, a “gite” right in the heart of the Camargue, owned and operated by the Societe National pour la Protection de la Nature.

Previously a hunting lodge, this old stone house is correctly described as “rustique” by its owners, although characterful would be another way of putting it! Accommodation is self-catering, there is no drinking water, and rooms are shared. But on the positive side, it has hot and cold running water and central heating, and access to three nearby hides is included. For me another big positive was getting to meet other French visitors with interests in common, and to practice my French on them! In particular I met two bird photographers there. Having asked if they could help me with French bird names, I was so knocked out by the quality of the images one showed me on his phone that the bird names largely passed me by. I can’t imagine any meeting of minds at the quite characterless hotel by the motorway outside Arles, where I spent my sixth night. You can find Salin de Badon on the internet or contact me for further information.

Great white egrets, the Camargue
Great white egrets, the Camargue

As far as birds were concerned, on my first morning I discovered some large congregations of great white egrets, grey herons and cormorants on agricultural land outside the protected area. The egrets, in particular, were staring intently into a ditch, although what there was to see I have no idea. Another egret gathering nearby contained 73 of these spectacular birds (with about 50 others in nearby fields), I was able to photograph some of these using the car as a hide. I was surprised at the number of this species wintering in the Camargue – as well as this group, individuals birds could be widely seen.

Another species which has increased rapidly in recent years is the common crane. About ten years ago I felt lucky to see a flock of ten wintering birds, but now they have reached an incredible four thousand. Apparently they have discovered a new food source in spilt grain on the agricultural land surrounding the Camargue wetlands – ironic really as so much natural habitat was lost in land reclamation for rice growing. Who says nature is not adaptable? The birds roost in the reserve and commute between it and their feeding areas at sunrise and sunset. During the day, with some good fortune, they can be photographed from local roads from your car.

The flamingo is another conspicuous bird with which I spent some time. It seems an impossibly exotic species to be seen anywhere in Europe, but they are fairly widespread around the western Mediterranean in winter; their only French breeding site is in the Camargue. I managed some images of them on lagoons close to the sea, against a backdrop of the heavy industry at Fos-sur-mer, across the river Rhone. On  a more tranquil afternoon I photographed them and their reflections in still water at the same location. Despite a rather limited range of species, then, and some distinctly changeable weather, it proved a fairly profitable visit, and I’m thinking of going back in May.

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