In Brief: “At least the mosquitoes won’t be too bad.” That was the most positive of my thoughts as we started the 2010 tour in a howling gale. The reeds and the waters were in constant and chaotic motion, and there was no way, I thought, that we were going to see anything but the Yellow-legged Gulls and Common Swifts being blasted through the air. But persistence and good luck eventually gave us nice looks at some of the species we’d really been hoping to see, among them all five of the “French fancies”: Common Cuckoo, Eurasian Hoopoe, European Bee-eater, European Roller, and Common Kingfisher, with multiple individuals of all but the last. Most of the herons were presumably huddled in shelter, but ultimately we tallied nearly all the regular long-legs, including Glossy Ibis (a recent immigrant to the region) and a beautiful male Little Bittern. That species, and a couple of Mediterranean Gulls and a singing Corn Bunting, provided the first lifers of the tour. And we were only a day in.
In Detail: The infamous mistral winds dominated the first two days of this year’s tour, making wildflowers dance a colorful tarantella on the marshes, fields, and slopes of the Camargue and Les Alpilles. Like the birds, we found ourselves seeking shelter in such refuges as the Alyscamps of Arles, a five-minute walk from our tour hotel. The long rows of sarcophagi and scattered ruins of medieval churches in this early Christian necropolis and chapels give it an evocative charm that has been recognized for centuries. We found birds here, but our favorite vertebrates weren’t feathered at all: two European Squirrels, bright red and boldly tufted, played among the ancient tombs.
The wind showed welcome signs of diminishing as we set out the next morning for Les Stes-Maries; by the time we reached the coast a few bird-filled hours later, Greater Flamingos in their hundreds dominated the views out over the marshes, where iberiae Yellow Wagtails and Crested Larks sang and Slender-billed Gulls loafed. From the beach and its tern show, we went to the city’s somewhat forbidding Romanesque church—retracing the route of its saintly namesakes. The marble “pillow” said to have been found beneath the Saints Marys’ skulls when they were translated in 1448 is only the strangest of the church’s motley collection of relics; there is a rich social history of religion and superstition in the Mediterranean to be read in the hundreds of votive plaques and photographs that cover the walls.
We pride ourselves during this tour on our relaxed approach to morning rising. By acclamation, though, we decided this year to visit La Crau at sunrise. Our mammal list on the way out to this otherworldly steppe was the best of the tour, with European rabbits and brown hares taking a distant second place to a fuzzy red fox pup. As we got out of the car, a European Stone-curlew flew in to stalk big-eyed through the grass among Red-legged Partridges. Our walk out to the 150-year-old sheep barn was accompanied by the buzzing jumbled songs of Corn Buntings, and European Roller, European Turtle Dove, and Melodious Warbler also provided ornitho-distraction; but the most amazing sight was a flock of 50 European Bee-eaters hunting from a single tree, burping and buzzing as they flew out to scoop ill-fated invertebrates from the sky. At least three Lesser Kestrels were working the area, and Greater Short-toed Larks had joined the abundant Skylarks and Crested Larks in song by the time we returned to Arles for breakfast.
The early start to our day gave us some extra time to admire the interior of Arles’s St-Trophime, where the tall austerity of Romanesque naves gives way to the brightness of the Gothic choir and transepts. The church contains some important Roman and early Christian art, including several spectacular sarcophagi. Eight centuries later, the sculptors responsible for the west and north galleries of the cloister were working their own miracles in the Romanesque capitals of the arcades. Restoration is nearly complete, and we had access to all but a few of these twelfth-century masterpieces.
The next morning we found the air calm, the morning warm, and the sky a blue that would have captivated Van Gogh. And so we headed north to the hospital of St-Paul de Mausole. Vincent van Gogh lived and painted in this institution in the final years of his life, and thanks to him, our views of fields, olive groves, and limestone hills were startlingly familiar at every turn. The medieval church at the center of the hospital complex is a jewel, beautifully cared for, with elegantly carved capitals in the tiny cloister. Even here, we didn’t forget the birds. Common Chaffinches and a Common Redstart were singing noisily, and we had our first Crested Tits feeding from the gutters. We saw more Crested Tits at the Barrage des Peiroou, a small reservoir between the steep cliffs of Les Alpilles. European Robins joined the chorus, but our best sighting was not feathered but scaled, a Grass Snake on the road on our way out.
A scant mile north of the lake is the beautiful village of St-Rémy, still free of tourists and noise. There were birds to be seen during our post-prandial walk among the palaces of the local aristocracy: Great Tits chanted, Common Swifts screamed, and Black Redstarts scratched from rooftops and television antennas.
Saturday finds Arles transformed into one great market, colorful stalls lining the boulevard just a block from our hotel. Olives, fish, whelks, fruit, vegetables, cloth, old books, cheese, sausage, bread, wine, even live poultry are available in bewildering abundance and variety. We laid in our picnic supplies, then met for our usual hearty breakfast in the hotel before wending our way to the wetlands of the Camargue. Red-crested Pochards exploded from the ponds, Squacco and Purple Herons flapped over the reed beds, and a Great Bittern bellowed unseen from the dense vegetation. Whiskered Tern was another of our targets here, and we had great views of flying birds right on the roadside. But it was the little birds that put on the best show. Great Reed Warblers shouted and yowled, and a pair of European Reed Warblers flew around, perched in the open, and carried bits of reed and grass into a dim corner where they must have been building a nest.
Our stop at the visitor center of La Capelière was to have been a brief restroom break—but when there are White Storks on the nest and Cetti’s and Sardinian Warblers singing in plain sight, things take a little longer. The salt pans across the road were full of Greater Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts, and Great Crested Grebes. Our picnic lunch, supplied by our early expedition to the market, combined good sausage, tomatoes, apricots, and cheeses with the bread and wine of the Camargue. The shade felt good on a day that had become almost more than warm, and when a Common Nightingale bounced out to feed on the path just a few yards from our table, we decided we’d made a good choice indeed.
That evening we shared the peaceful hortus conclusus of one of Arles’s best restaurants with an ornate moth and an acrobatic gecko, the perfect entertainment to accompany the classically wonderful food. The next day, still relishing the memories of our meal, we visited the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct that brought water some 30 miles to the municipal cisterns of Nîmes; one of the most beautiful utilitarian structures ever built, these graceful arcades over the wild river Gard attract tourists from around the world—and birds. We’ve learned over the years to plan on an hour or more to get from the parking lot to the sidewalk leading to the pont; it was no different this time. Serins, Greenfinches, and Goldfinches sang conspicuously from the trees, while a Rock Sparrow, the principle target of birding visitors, fed on the newly cropped grass. As the sky warmed, Alpine Swifts emerged to make up for having stood us up at the dramatic ruins of Les Baux a few days earlier. At least one pair of Eurasian Crag Martins swooped in and out of the great arches among the Common and Alpine Swifts. A European Roller out-blued the blue Mediterranean sky as it flew circles overhead, but not even that fine bird (one of two individuals we’d see that day) could match the experience of watching a European Jay vigorously anting on the edge of the parking lot when we returned to the car. Common as it is, this is a shy bird, far more often heard than seen, and usually seen only as a flash of blue and a collection of square white patches as it passes between the trees. This individual landed on an anthill, where it spread its tail and brilliant wings in the classic “passive” anting posture; it also appeared to be gathering ants and applying them actively to its plumage, a behavior apparently very uncommon in this well-known species.
That beauty was the last bird to be added to our trip list, but there was more to see. We ate lunch in Beaucaire, in the shadow of a medieval castle proleptically destroyed by Richelieu, then returned to Arles just as rain began to fall—for the first time since we’d gathered nine days earlier in Arles, for what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable editions of one of our most enjoyable tours.
Updated: June 2010