Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Monday, 27 November 2017

24th-26th November - southern France

I decided to take a long weekend in southern France, with the main aim of connecting with two of western Europe’s most graceful and hard-to-see residents – Eagle Owl and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. I’ve dipped both species before, and ultimately and frustratingly the same happened on this trip. Indeed, the birding was more steady than spectacular, but I still saw some decent stuff among the 95 species recorded. This post is part-blog, part-reference material for anyone visiting the below sites, most of which feature on a southern French itinerary. As such, it’s not a report format, but should still contain relevant information.
Greater Flamingoes, Camargue, 25/11/2017

Based in Saint-Martin-de-Crau, situated nicely between the Provence ‘big-three’ of the Camargue, La Crau and Les Alpilles, I was well placed to try for the aforementioned target species. To fit with work and getting to/from Nice airport, I had from Friday night until Sunday afternoon for birding. A morning on the east side of the Camargue was also pencilled in, as I’d never been before, and I kept the Category C Indian Silverbills of Nice in mind, though I ran out of time for them in the end.

A quick word on the available literature – for such a popular destination, there's very little available. Crozier is nearly two decades old now, and whilst in-depth, isn’t ideal for specificities or firm directions. For the first time, Gosney disappointed. It just seemed a little rushed, and the information was only based on one trip he made in mid-summer (an odd time of year to base such a book on), and trip reports from the internet.

Below is a breakdown of the main sites I visited.

La Crau

This area, one I’ve wanted to visit for many years, was sadly a touch disappointing. Given the time of year I had low expectations, but it was slow going, and the clear encroachment of man was in fact rather depressing. Whether it was plumes of factory smoke on the horizon, new farms and plantations being erected or hunters shooting passerines, it was all a bit grim.

La Crau at dawn, 26/11/2017
As for the flocks of Little Bustards (apparently 1000+ winter here) and Sandgrouse, there wasn’t even a sniff, despite two hefty dawn sessions and various other spells of scanning. The east side, with entry south of Entressen, was certainly more productive than the Peau de Meau on the west. Here, I at least enjoyed Richard’s Pipits and Crested Larks on both days, as well as large flocks of Buntings that included Cirl and Rock.

Otherwise it was pretty bleak – in an hour around the Peau de Meau trails I recorded just 6 species, though one of them was a male Hen Harrier. The plains to the north (to the south and west of the Eyguières aerodrome) are said to be the best bet for Little Bustards - one of my favourite species - but I found none here either. I’m sure it’s a different experience altogether in the spring, and I’m well aware how elusive these species can be, so I took it on the chin.

Les Alpilles

This large natural park of prominent Mediterranean limestone cliffs is well-known as one of the best, or certainly easiest, sites in Europe to see Eagle Owl. There seem to be two regular sites birders and tours use, only around 12km from one another, both of which require an arrival not long before dusk and plenty of cliff scanning. Based on various reports I found, the site with the famous red gas hydrant just beyond the Hotel Mas de l’Oulivie (south of Les Baux-des-Provence), seemed the best bet.

female/1st-winter male Black Redstart, Nice, 24/11/2017
The first night was overcast and windy, and following a day of rain I wasn’t too surprised that I drew a blank. More Rock and Cirl Buntings were here, as well as some Hawfinches. On the second night, with much better conditions, there was again no site or sound. A big disappointment – the Sandgrouse I wasn’t banking on, but I was hoping to connect with the Owl at these apparent regular areas. Perhaps I should have spread my bets, and visited the site near Les Destet. Sadly, with limited time, I couldn’t have a third stab, and I’ve now dipped Eagle Owl on 3 trips!

On the final day, on the way back to the airport, I checked out a Bonelli’s Eagle site just south of Orgon. Here I enjoyed my most prolonged views of this species, as an adult tracked a ridge in the fine conditions, at times mobbed by two Ravens.

The site best accessed from the car park of the Hôtel/Restaurant Le Relais Des Fumades, on the D7N. Parking at 43.776114, 5.053178, we scanned the large cliff faces of the ridge opposite, and it wasn’t long before a Bonelli’s Eagle appeared. Another option would be to walk a few feet west, up the bank, and position yourself somewhere along the footpath that runs along the canal. Many thanks to Sean F for the gen here.

adult Slender-billed Gull, Camargue, 25/11/2017

The Camargue (east side)

I really don’t want to sound like a misery – again, I know the time of year was far from the best, and indeed the east is known as the less productive side - but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the Camargue! Of course, you can’t judge it on one bleak and wet November morning, especially when you only visit a few sites. Furthermore, it’s clearly been (another) dry year in southern Europe, and so much of the area was bone dry and, thus, birdless.

The saltpans from Le Sambuc down to the sea were desperately low on water, and numbers of Greater Flamingoes and herons and egrets weren't high. Meadow Pipits and Yellow-legged Gulls were the most prominent species, and a couple of Black-necked Grebes were noteworthy. Plage de Piemanson and the lagoon adjacent to it are known as the best places for Slender-billed Gulls in the Camargue, but I found none. The saltwater pools did however hold the only Sanderlings, Kentish, Grey and Ringed Plovers of the trip. The much-vaunted areas west of Salin de Giraud were also desperately dry, and low on bird numbers.

However, further north, the Etang de Vaccares was full, and it was here where I managed some great birding. Pick of the bunch was 30+ Slender-billed Gulls, my first for years, and they showed very nicely next to the road. Also present were 11 Curlews, 231 Shelducks, 3 Red-breasted Mergansers, the 3 egret species (mostly Great), a female/juvenile Marsh Harrier, 2 Fan-tailed Warblers, 200+ Flamingoes and a Common Sandpiper, among others. Numbers and diversity – finally, a glimpse into the Camargue at its finest!
Etang du Vaccares, Camargue, 25/11/2017

Summary

Given the trip was based on two targets, both of which were dipped, there’s no denying an element of disappointment. The consolation cast was OK (Bonelli’s Eagle standout), but probably not enough to mask the dips entirely. I definitely need to visit the Camargue properly, in spring, and indeed the Crau should be given another go. However, on this occasion things didn't work out - maybe I should've stayed in Nice the whole time and picked up Indian Silverbill!