Dr Duncan James > Nature Travel Guide > Where > Planet Earth > Europe > France > Carmargue

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Nature Travel Guide

Location 4: Carmargue (France)

"Flamingoes, dragonflies, marshes, lakes and long beaches. Waders on the mudflats, warblers in the reeds."

I recommend the Wetland Explorer (premium link) activity.

My favourite part of the Carmargue is the area of reedbed, saltmarsh, lakes and wide views at La Capeliere (premium link) and Phare de la Gacholle (premium link) (although there can be less to see in the heat of the summer). I also enjoy the sandy beach and mudflats on the Eastern Seafront (premium link).

The Carmargue is in the south of France on the Mediterranean coast. It is a vast area of wetland formed by the estuary/delta of the Rhone River as it enters the sea. Two of the most famous things to see are the white horses and pink flamingoes. The white horses are said to have lived here for hundreds of years, to be particularly hardy to survive the tough winters and to be semi-wild. The flamingoes nest in the summer and many stay during the winter.

The wide, open scenery is made up of fields, lakes, reedbeds and sand dunes. For birdwatchers there are many species of wetland birds and also many of the colourful, southern-European species.

  • The Road South of Arles (site 1) (premium link) is a great way to head into the Carmargue if you are aiming for the eastern side. It offers views over the river and fields and is a relatively easy drive. (GPS coords 43.5322N 04.6997E)
  • The Eastern Seafront (site 2) (premium link) is a popular site with birdwatchers and also with general holidaymakers. You can drive right to the beach and there are wide views over the wetlands. (GPS coords 43.3505N 04.7837E)
  • La Capeliere (site 3) (premium link) is the main visitor centre for nature conservation in the Carmargue. It also has trails and I have enjoyed good birdwatching along the roads nearby. (GPS coords 43.5353N 04.6441E)
  • The Phare de la Gacholle (site 4) (premium link) (a lighthouse) is at the end of a rough track that you are allowed to drive most of the way along. There are wide views over the marshland and lakes. This is one of many good places to see flamingoes. (GPS coords 43.4542N 04.5843E)
  • Parc Ornithologique (site 5) is a paid attraction on the main road north of Saintes Maries de la Mer. It is a nature reserve with good views of many local birds. One of the selling points is that it gives close-up views of the flamingoes but I would recommend site 6 instead for flamingoes. Other birdwatchers have reported that visiting in the winter is a good way of adding extra species of duck and wader (waders are known as shorebirds in American English) to your list. (GPS coords 43.4975N 04.4044E)
  • Saintes Maries de la Mer (site 6) (premium link) is a seaside town with some seabirds visible from the seafront. There is a footpath that leads all the way to the Phare de la Gacholle with good birdwatching all the way along. I have had my best views of flamingoes here. (GPS coords 43.4566N 04.4454E)
  • The Layby and Bridge (site 7) to the north gives good views over wet fields. Close views of the birds are possible. In my experience a visit early in the morning is best. (GPS coords 43.5724N 04.5287E)
  • Mas d'Agon (site 8) is an official viewing platform. Possibly local farming changes have made this not so good: On the summer here I saw nothing and on a winter visit I saw only a few birds feeding on the stubble and flying overhead. (GPS coords 43.5717N 04.5418E)
  • I saw 50 species of bird during 2 days in the Carmargue in summer (premium link) including mainly wetland birds and some Mediterranean species such as warblers.
  • I saw a total of 63 species of bird during 7 days in the Carmargue in winter (premium link) with fewer warblers but more wetland species.

As parts of the estuary dry up in the summer white areas of salt are left behind after the seawater has evaporated.

The Wetlands of the Carmargue

The Carmargue is east of Montpellier. A large area of wetland forms a triangle with the base of the triangle along the coast between Saintes Maries de la Mer in the west and Salin de Giraud in the east. The top of the triangle is Arles, a large town that has public transport going to Saintes Maries de la Mer and Salin de Giraud. If you are arriving by public transport then Arles is an excellent place to aim for.

There is a footpath along the coast but otherwise, even if you have a car, you cannot travel across the centre of the Carmargue. If you are driving then there are good roads between the main towns and minor roads that let you explore.

In the winter there are wetland habitats, such as marshes and lakes, that appear everywhere. In the summer some sites will dry up meaning the wildlife is more concentrated on the few remaining areas of wetland.

The Petite Carmargue is to the west just along the coast. I have tried various places here and not had much luck. Others have described the D979 between Aiges Mortes and Le Grau-du-Roi as being good but I only saw a small number of flamingoes and a scattering of other birds when I tried it. The commitment to conservation in the Carmargue is excellent and maybe that continues to make it better for wildlife than the Petite Carmargue.

The Black-winged Stilt is a large wader/shorebird that I have seen all over the Carmargue.

Birds of the Carmargue

The Carmargue is a popular destination with birdwatchers, those keen on wildlife and also with general tourists. The birdwatching in particular is excellent with the Carmargue visited by independent birdwatchers and used by many wildlife holiday companies for organised tours. A combination of factors are behind this including the wide variety of habitats, southern-European species at an easily-accessible location and the fact that wetland habitats often have more spectacle and easier views of the birds compared to other types of habitat. The large numbers of flamingoes can make it a good place to visit if you have a group that includes more casual birdwatchers.

The birds I most commonly saw during a 2 day trip in the summer were:- (The total was 50 species with an average of 32 per day.) Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) 18x7 (m70), Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) 16x30 (m200), Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 11x3 (m6), Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) 9x261 (m1200), Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis) 8x5 (m20), Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) 7x3 (m10), House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 7x2 (m3), Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) 6x2 (m2), Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) 5x2 (m4), Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) 4x8 (m16), Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) 4x27 (m100), Swift (Apus apus) 4x3 (m5), Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) 4x3 (m6), Sandwich Tern (Sternula sandvicensis) 3x2 (m3), Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus) 3x2 (m3), Sand Martin (Riparia riparia) 3x2 (m3).

Glossy Ibis can look black/purple from a distance with the glossy sheen becoming more obvious as you get closer. I have often seen these on fields, for example at Mas d'Agon.

The birds I most commonly saw during a 7 day trip in the winter were:- (The total was 64 species with an average of 23 per day.) Common Buzzard/Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo) 30x2 (m2), Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) 26x6 (m50), Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) 19x60 (m500), Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis) 19x5 (m30), Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) 17x3 (m12), Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) 12x10 (m53), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) 10x3 (m15), Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) 8x13 (m54), Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 8x12 (m50), Great Egret (Casmerodius albus) 8x3 (m7), Magpie (Pica pica) 8x2 (m4), Meadow Pipit/Tree Pipit (Anthus pratensis/Arthus trivialis) 7x3 (m9), White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) 6x2 (m4), Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) 6x1 (m1), Coot (Fulica atra) 6x27 (m125), Curlew (Numenius arquata) 6x3 (m12), Shoveler (Anas clypeata) 5x12 (m40), Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) 5x1 (m1), House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 5x4 (m9), Reed Bunting (Emeriza schoeniclus) 5x2 (m2), Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) 4x4 (m8), Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) 4x1 (m1), Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) 4x27 (m50).

Flamingoes have extra colours that are revealed as they open their wings and start to fly.

Large flocks of flamingoes can be seen all over the Carmargue almost anywhere that there is standing water. A flock of flamingoes can also be called a "flamboyance of flamingoes". In the winter the Carmargue has large numbers of ducks with, for example, approximately 15,000 Teal recorded by surveys in the peak months of October-December. Waders/shorebirds are also common. In the winter Cranes can be seen in small numbers feeding on the fields.

In the summer flamingoes nest and so their numbers will be boosted by the younger, white flamingoes as the summer progresses. Gulls and terns can be seen in the summer and they nest in May/June. Identifying the gulls and terns can be difficult so you can either enjoy the acrobatics of the terns as they dive for fish and/or watch them carefully to see the colour of their bills, the colours on their heads and other features such as how deeply forked their tails are. Also missing from my bird lists are the large numbers of warblers/pipits that went unidentified and the many swallows/martins that flew overhead hunting for insects that were generally not identified.

Mammals that can be readily seen include the Carmargue horses and Carmargue bulls and Coypu (introduced).

The Carmargue offers lots of marshy areas for dragonflies to live.

The goosefoot plant family is fairly uncommon. Seablite (a type of goosefoot) has special adaptations to the coastal environment that makes it common in the Carmargue. I enjoy seeing different families of plant so seablite is exciting for me!

Tamarisk is a tree that is also well adapted to coastal environments and common in the Carmargue.

This member of the daisy family is also found in the Carmargue. I am not sure of the exact species name. It has toughened leaves that will help prevent it from being eaten in a place where it takes longer to grow. The toughened leaves are also protection against the salt.

I think sunset can be particularly dramatic over the marshes of the Carmargue.

This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on October 19th 2018.

Larger-scale information relating to this page include the Planet Earth, Europe and France articles.

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