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