TO MARSEILLE & ARLES
Our winter birdwatching tour to the south of France begins with a British Airways morning flight from London Heathrow to Marseille. From here, an easy 50-minute drive brings us to our hotel a few miles southeast of historic Arles, a fine medieval town set beside the River Rhône, where we stay for all six nights of our tour.
We should arrive at our hotel in time to enjoy a light lunch there - and afterwards our first taste of winter birding in Provence. Night near Arles
DAYS 2 - 6
CAMARGUE, CRAU & LES ALPILLES
With roads radiating out to the north, south, east and west, Arles gives easy access to the region's key birding sites, including the limestone hills of Les Alpilles, the unique Crau, the remarkable Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, Mont Ventoux - and of course, the famous Camargue.
Few of Europe's wetland sites rival the Camargue for birds. While much of the northern part of the immense Rhône delta has now been converted to rice fields, further south there are still wide expanses of reedmarsh, lakes, salt pans and Mediterranean steppe. During a typical Provençal winter (when there is no snow or ice), the whole area remains rich in birds and spring comes early. Our March visit is designed to catch the best of the Camargue’s winter birds before they disperse, as well as offering good chances of seeing early returning migrants such as White Stork, Stone-curlew and Hoopoe.
In winter, clusters of Black-necked Grebes, Cormorants, Red-crested Pochard and other waterfowl gather on the vast Etang de Vaccares, which lies at the heart of the reserve. About a quarter of the Camargue’s 20,000 Greater Flamingos remain year-round, affording excellent views from the roads that skirt the reserve. Winter waders can include Avocet, Kentish Plover, Spotted Redshank and Little Stint. We should also find Sandwich Terns along the shore and will check carefully through the flocks of loafing Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls for the scarce Mediterranean Gull and an early Slender-billed Gull or two.
In the reedbeds and fringing scrub we’ll listen for the spring songs of Cetti’s Warblers and Chiffchaffs, 'zitting' Fan-tailed Warblers and booming Bitterns; all four of these species are resident in the Camargue and can be heard on bright sunny days from late February onwards.
Water Rail, Water Pipit and Bearded Tit also frequent the winter marshes and one or two Whiskered Terns are sometimes about - as is the diminutive Penduline Tit, though the latter is generally easier to hear than to see! Little and Cattle Egrets lend a definite ‘Mediterranean’ flavour - and winter brings increasing numbers of stately Great Egrets, too - as we keep a keen eye open for the first Garganey and Swallows of spring. We may see flocks of Common Cranes passing overhead, and the incredible sight of at least 90 Western Swamphens feeding in an area of cut reed was a highlight on our 2019 tour!
The Camargue is an excellent spot for birds of prey in winter. Marsh Harriers are plentiful here and, come March, we may add the odd Merlin, Hen Harrier, Black Kite and Booted Eagle, too. Our March 2019 group enjoyed all of these - plus cracking views of a wintering Spotted Eagle!
Northeast of Arles, the wooded limestone cliffs and canyons of Les Alpilles are prime breeding habitat for Eagle Owl. These enormous birds are typically at their most vocal in late winter, making this the optimum time to try for them. No guarantees, of course - but the sight of one glaring back at us with fiery orange eyes would be something never to be forgotten!
In March, we also have an excellent chance of finding Wallcreeper and Alpine Accentor here, two high alpine specialities that come down from Europe's highest mountains to spend the winter months in the lower and rather warmer limestone hills of Provence. Once found, both species can be very confiding.
With luck, we might spot a Bonelli's Eagle soaring over the bare limestone crags and bluffs of Les Alpilles, while the scrub-covered hillsides below conceal skulking Sardinian and Dartford Warblers. We’ll check the pine-clad lower slopes for Woodlark, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper and Cirl Bunting, and keep an eye out for Raven, Crag Martin and Blue Rock Thrush, which also frequent these picturesque hills in winter.
Covering an area of 600 sq. km, the Crau is an arid, stony, steppe-like plain characterised by low growing herbs such as Rosemary and Thyme. This unique habitat holds some specialist birds, including Little Bustard, Calandra Lark and an isolated - and elusive - population of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Red Kites roam the Crau in winter and the scattered trees and bushes make perfect lookouts for the scarce Southern Grey Shrike.
In recent winters, small numbers of chunky Richard’s Pipits have been found wintering in farmland fringing the Crau and we'll check a couple of 'traditional' haunts that we know. This is a bird which breeds in Siberia and normally winters in Southeast Asia, so it's quite a surprise (not to mention a challenge) to find them here!
Further north, Mont Ventoux rises to 1912m (6273ft). Well known to devotees of the Tour de France, its more sheltered southern slopes are clothed in forests of beech and pine, where Black Woodpecker, Crested Tit and Crossbill can often be found. In March, we have further chances to see Alpine Accentor here and may again be lucky to find the elusive Citril Finch.
Our route back from Mont Ventoux may take us via the stunning Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard. Built in the first century AD, this fantastic bridge has three tiers of arches and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is not just the culture we are after here, for the bridge is also a regular winter roost site for the oft difficult-to-find Rock Sparrow. In the late afternoon, small parties arrive to pass the night tucked safely within the small nooks and crannies within the bridge. As a bonus, the Pont du Gard is also a reliable spot to see Crag Martins in March - and we’ve often seen Alpine Swift and Wallcreeper here, too.
If the sun comes out to warm the day, early spring butterflies in the Camargue can include Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Clouded Yellow, Bath White, Western Dappled White and Green Hairstreak. Giant Orchid is an early flowering species and some years there can be impressive stands to enjoy. Five further nights near Arles
RETURN TO MARSEILLE, FLY LONDON
We make our way back to Marseille this morning and catch our British Airways return flight to London, where our tour concludes.