Wednesday, 29 July 2015

France - Dragonflies & Birds of the Camargue

France - Dragonflies & Birds of the Camargue: 8th-15th July, 2015

Weather: Scorchio & Humidio every day. Clear blue skies. Strong winds at times.

Odonata: 32 species seen, including 20 dragons and 12 damsels.
Birds: Over 110 species seen.
Plus: Brown Hare; Common Wall Lizard; Coypu; European Pond Terrapin; Green Lizard; Moorish Gecko; Perez's Frog; Tree Frog.
Plus: Bath White, Brown Argus, Clouded Yellow, Comma, Common Blue, Eastern Wood White, Glanville Fritillary, Great Banded Grayling, Holly Blue, Large White, Knapweed Fritillary, Marbled White, Meadow Brown, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Scarce Swallowtail, Short-tailed Blue, Small Copper, Small Heath, Small White, Southern Gatekeeper, Speckled Wood, Spotted Fritillary, Swallowtail, Wall Brown butterflies. Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Spurge Hawkmoth, Jersey Tiger Moth.
Plus: Antlion; Blue-ringed Grasshopper; Carpenter Bee; Chequered Beetle; Cicada; Common Sexton Beetle; Crab Spider; Egyptian Grasshopper; Fire Bug; Goldenrod Crab Spider; Horse Fly; Large Conehead; Longhorn Beetle; Midge; Minstrel Bug; Mosquito; Lobed Spider; Orb Web Spider; Preying Mantis; Red-ringed Grasshopper; Red Shield Bug; Saddle-backed Bush Cricket; Saga Pedo; Stick Insect; Wart Biter; Wasp Spider.

'I saw my first dragonfly today and tried to catch him in my cap, but he evaded me.'
David Christie Murray

'Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragonfly hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky.'
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

'Bonnet de douche, Rodney!' Derek Trotter

'French people give me the crepes.'

The Englishman's love affair with birding is well-known in France.
Their love affairs with women? Not so much.
An Englishman is on a wildlife reserve, looking at some birds through his binoculars. Suddenly, a funeral procession passes nearby. The Englishman raises his hat as the cortege passes as if in deep reflection. 'I never knew a man such as yourself was such a gentleman!' exclaimed his French friend, to which the Englishman responds 'Well, we WERE married for 40 years!'

The wild and beautiful marshes of the Camargue cover a huge area of the Rhône delta and is Western Europe’s largest river delta. It is a vast plain comprising large brine lagoons or étangs, cut off from the sea by sandbars and encircled by reed-covered marshes, which are in turn surrounded by a large cultivated area.

The marshes are also a prime habitat for many species of insects, notably (and notoriously) some of the most ferocious mosquitoes to be found anywhere in France. Despite pressure from tourism, the marshes are still of international importance for their wildlife, all set against a mosaic of botanically rich and intriguing wetland habitats.

It is France’s (perhaps even Europe’s) premier Odonata site and is also home to more than 400 species of birds. East of the Camargue lies the stony 'desert' of La Crau, originally a former flood-plain of the Durance River. Farmland to the north gives way to the limestone chain of hills, Les Alpilles. To the west of the Camargue proper lies the Petite Camargue. 

The primary purpose of this trip was to see as many dragon and damsel species as possible and to try and photograph them. The group spotted 33 species, 31 of which I saw. I managed to photograph 30 of them, so I was quite pleased. That was the good news. The bad news was the good weather. Now, that shouldn't have been a problem. But, for me, it was way too hot. Late thirties, early forties, with nearly 100 percent humidity. Which caused me a few problems. Hey, I was on an overseas holiday, remember I'm only ill in all the best places!

It was an uneventful journey out, thankfully, as I had risen early at 4am. But at least, this time, I managed to get a few hours sleep before travelling. Taxi; Coach; Plane and Mini-bus got me to my accommodation, the 'Hotel des Granges', a lovely little place located in a tree-lined park, 5km from the center of Arles. The meals here were outstanding, typical provincial cuisine, including my favourite - french bread! Our Hosts, Bruno and his wife Marie-Jo, both made us feel very welcome and were very friendly and helpful. There were 10 of us in total from all corners of the UK, including my good friend, Tony, plus 2 Tour Guides, Dave and Ian, who were both brilliant, not only with their fantastic, encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Odonata, but who both did all the driving, as well as prepare all the lunches.

The weather when we arrived almost knocked me off my feet. It was already in the mid-thirties, while the humidity took your breath away. I had brought my fleece with me, but it stayed in my bag for the whole trip. Thankfully, our hotel rooms were fully air-conditioned.

We arrived at the hotel around 4pm. After checking-in and dumping our bags, Tony and I immediately went into Odonata-mode in the gardens outside. We quickly spotted a few Red-veined Darters and then a lone Hummingbird Hawk Moth. Actually, the Darters were by far the most plentiful out here, of all the Odonata species and it wasn't long before we started to take them for granted.

Not long after, we took a local walk down a nearby lane, seeing female Black-tailed Skimmer; more Red-veined Darters; Scarlet Darter; White Featherleg damselfly and another Hummingbird Hawk Moth. There followed a delicious dinner in the evening, the first of many. It was early to bed this evening, as most of us were exhausted from our travels. I fell asleep to the sounds of millions of synchronised Cicadas buzzing away, outside my room.

The next morning we were up and enjoying a typical continental-style breakfast. All the breakfasts were at the very reasonable time of 7.30, as were the dinners in the evening. But before today's breakfast we were talked in to rising early to enjoy another local walk, unfortunately not seeing a great deal other than quite a good display of Kestrels over the adjacent fields. It was very windy, almost blowing a gale. I wondered if this was the famous 'Mistral', the 'Winds of Provence' I had heard about.

But this was followed by quite a good day, at a couple of places. First up was a walk around an old Roman aqueduct which afforded us a tremendous view over the valley. During the day we saw Banded and Copper Demoiselles, as well as Yellow Clubtail and Orange-spotted Emerald. On the insect front we spotted Antlion; Saddle-backed Bush Cricket and 2 species of Shield Bug, Red and Minstrel. We also spotted a very large, ominous looking insect called a Saga Pedo, which was as long as your hand. With sightings, on other days, of Wart BiterPreying Mantis and Stick Insect, I thought we did pretty well on the insect front.

After lunch, back at the hotel, we were due to visit Les Alpilles, a very picturesque pine forest, for a woodland walk but unfortunately the local Fire Brigade had other ideas and had closed the area because of possible fire hazards. Plan B was put into action, moving on a little further, seeing some really good stuff along some irrigation channels, including Large Pincertails and Southern Skimmer.


There were more good insects around this area too, including Chequered and Longhorn Beetles and a Fire Bug. Butterflies seen today included both Swallowtail and Scarce Swallowtail, Great Banded Grayling and Glanville Fritillary. On the birding front we spotted Squacco Heron; Alpine Swift and Serin.

We finished up in the evening at Les Baux, overlooking a large gorge where we watched Crag Martins and a Black Redstart before moving on to an area to look for Eagle Owls, which unfortunately failed to appear. We'd already had an evening picnic earlier, before heading for home around 10.30.

Lunches on the trip were a simple affair, again being ploughman's-style. A treat for me, as the local french bread was the main item on the menu. I couldn't get enough of it. It was all topped off with a choice of red or white wine. Well, what else would you drink in France?

Our good fortune continued the following day, with a visit to the Marais du Vigueirat, a protected NNR site of around 1200hs. The heat and humidity never let up, forcing me not only to take hay fever tablets but to liberally splash on the factor50, plus anti-mozzie spray. We managed to spot and photograph some very good species again today, including Willow Spreadwing, Scarce Bluetail, Lesser Emperor, White-tailed Skimmer and Broad Scarlet.

We covered part of the area by ourselves in the morning, which was open to the general public, before meeting up with a local guide in the afternoon, who took us around the private part of the Reserve. We managed to see Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo, Montagu's Harrier, Short-toed Eagle, Black-winged Stilt, Wood Sandpiper and Little Tern. But one of the stars of the day was a Coypu, which we witnessed enjoying a nice, cool soak in a nearby lagoon. It was so hot and humid, I was nearly tempted to jump in and join him.

Copper Demoiselle
That evening, whilst having a beer outside, in the still very warm and humid air before dinner, I got bitten a couple of times. I had showered off the mozzie spray! While we sat and talked and drank our cold beers, we were entertained by the resident flock of House Sparrows, all chirruping away and flying back and forth, all caught up in their own private little world. There was even a local Moorish Gecko, creeping around the walls above us, which we nicknamed Gordon, spying down on us every now and then. I was very impressed at dinner later, that somehow the Proprietors knew I wasn't too keen on fish and so I was served a very tasty beef dish.

Wasp Spider with prey
I woke up the next morning feeling quite refreshed, having had a good night's sleep.  But the humidity was still quite oppressive and I was already starting to struggle. At breakfast I suddenly came over a little queasy and so had to dash back upstairs, to my room. Just before we left I had an attack of stomach cramps and felt really bad for a couple of hours in the morning. I popped a couple of tablets down me, just in case. But, thankfully, just before we arrived back at the hotel for lunch I was feeling much better. 

It was a birdy morning, before concentrating on Odonata in the afternoon. Today we headed north, driving to Gimeaux, before moving on to Mas d’Agon and thence to the Vallee des Baux. Although it was a quiet day on the birding front, we had some really good sightings of quality Odonata with Blue Chaser, Small Red Eye and a tantalising glimpse of a very lost Violet Dropwing, which even Dave hadn't seen before. We walked happily up and down a couple of streams, searching for more odonata, my stomach cramps a dim and distant memory. In the evening I was even feeling ok enough to have dinner. But it was REALLY hot and humid, with only the hotel's air conditioning giving us some relief. And I had received some more mozzie bites earlier in the day, whilst tramping through the flora.

Common Wall Lizard
The next day I woke up feeling a little queasy again. But I wasn't as bad as yesterday and felt better after about an hour. I made the decision to avoid brekkers, though. I had noticed as soon as I had arrived that there was a terrible smell in the room, a bit like rotten cabbage, more noticeable when I returned from days out. I think it might be something to do with the air conditioning. And I had been bitten again overnight and the culprit was still in bed with me the next morning.

Today we paid a visit to the stony semi-desert of La Crau. The morning visit was to a place called the Peau de Meau Wildlife Reserve, renowned for some excellent birding, while the afternoon visit was to the Brunes d'Arles. It was another birding day in the morning, which wasn't a total success, probably due to the time of year, so we spent more time looking for dragonflies. We found a nice little spot called the Canal de Vergière, walking up and down a little stream, where we had excellent views of Green-eyed Hawker, Blue Emperor, Yellow Clubtail and Small Pincertail. Also seen were a lovely Spotted Fritillary and an equally gorgeous Glanville Fritillary.

After lunch, which was at a picnic site near Etang des Aulnes, we found ourselves in a lovely little area, which was set in a wide avenue, lined with oleanders and pine trees, leading to a park by a lake. There was even more excellent odonata action again here, while we ate our delicious lunch, spotting Common Goldenring and Western Spectre.

Good birding today too, with my closest ever view of a Stone Curlew, which was on eggs. That was even later on in the afternoon, when the heat and humidity was at its' peak. But it seemed a bit bleak around here and, other than the Stone Curlew, didn't yield very much apart from Lesser Kestrels, a few Tawny Pipits and a solitary Montagu's Harrier.

European Pond Terrapin
Earlier in the day, it was politely pointed out to me, by my fellow enthusiasts, that my trousers had torn, at the back, whilst trampling about in the undergrowth! Fortunately, my undergrowth wasn't showing too much. I had also managed to tear my shirt, at the elbow. The things I do for a photograph! A very welcome cold bottle of beer was had before Dinner again, before falling into bed.

Greater Flamingo
The next morning saw another day in paradise, but it was yet another very hot and humid day. Not quite as bad as yesterday though. I again woke up feeling a little queasy. I wasn't sure what the hell was up with me, but I guessed that it was probably heat exhaustion with the added ingredients of too much food and not enough water. So I decided to miss breakfast again. I had to sew up my trousers anyway, taking nearly 20 minutes to thread the needle. Hey, I'm a bloke, what do I know about such things?

It was a fairly quiet morning, spent visiting the eastern side of Étang de Vaccares, a lake, or rather a salt water lagoon, within in the wetlands. But first we went looking for Collared Pratincoles, which we didn't find. It was yet another very hot day and I had finished off another 2-litre bottle of water before lunch. I was told that it was around 10 degrees hotter than this time last year. Which didn't help.

Lunch in served!
Lunch was light. I could have really done with going back to bed, I was that exhausted. I wasn't sure I would make it through the day, let alone the rest of the trip. I had decided to forego dinner at that point and go straight to bed when we arrived back at the hotel.

But things looked up again after lunch, finding a female Lesser Emperor and a female Migrant Hawker. I had just discovered that the best cure for exhaustion was a surge of adrenalin. We then drove down to the salt-pans and beaches at Piemanson, a good area for waders.

Down here we found plenty of them, including AvocetCurlew Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, Slender-billed Gull and a Redshank. Plus a couple of thousand Greater Flamingos, an amazing sight. We then found ourselves down by the seaside, with Dave buying the ice-creams at a little shack called 'Big Kath's'! So it turned out to be a pretty good day, after all. I had even recovered sufficiently enough to have dinner. Very strange how I am feeling unwell early in the day, then better later on. I decided that it was definitely something to do with the heat and humidity. I guess I'm too used to the miserable British weather.

And so to our last full day, where we were to concentrate on odonata. I woke up feeling ok, but decided to avoid breakfast, just in case. We soon found ourselves near a place called Mas d’Espinaud, where we walked up and down a fairly busy road. Quite a good morning, seeing our target species, the Banded Darter, plus Green-eyed Hawker and Spotted Darter. I only went on the morning trip, as it was really hot and humid again by midday and I was totally exhausted. Maybe it was because of the delicious lunch. Or maybe because I ate too much again. Or it could have been the wine.

Keeled Skimmer
We had returned to the hotel for lunch and, while the others went off birding, I spent a quiet afternoon sorting through my photos. Dinner was again at 7.30, with the requisite cold beer beforehand. One of the women on the trip had a French friend turn up and she joined us for dinner. We also had a celebratory liqueur from our hosts to celebrate Bastille Day. After another lovely dinner we were advised to pay the bar bill before retiring to bed, so as to avoid the rush in the morning. I'm afraid I was well down the list, failing to secure any medals. I obviously didn't drink enough.

Travel day. I packed my gear and then went down to have a very light breakfast. After saying our farewells to our wonderful hosts, we headed off towards the airport. It was still really hot and humid and I was quite glad to be going home as the humidity had exhausted me. But I was cautiously optimistic that I had managed to get a few decent photos, so it looked like another successful mission.

Before arriving at the airport we made a few stop-offs, seeing more birds and odonata, including finally seeing some Collared Pratincoles. There were more of the ubiquitous Red-veined Darters around to wave us goodbye. We also found a few juvenile birds by a little river, Red-crested Pochard and Great Crested Grebe. There was also a minor discussion about some odd looking Gadwall that we had also found here. But by now I was looking forward to seeing some good old British clouds when I got back. I was getting a little fed up wiping off the excess suncream from my spectacles.

After a fairly painless hour checking in, we arrived back at Gatwick, which was reassuringly cloudy, retrieved our luggage and said our farewells. My coach wasn't due to depart for nearly 2 hours, so I sought out the local bar and had a couple of decent pints of beer, albeit very expensive ones. I have to be honest here and say that when I received my change from the Barman I gave him a curt, 'Merci!' I got an odd look in return. The coach was early for once, getting me back to Stansted early enough to avoid the predictable problems on the trains. I put my key in the door just after 9, dumped the bags and went straight to bed.

Just time for a quick dip before going home!
A really excellent and successful trip, seeing and photographing nearly all the Odonata I could find. If I hadn't of been in complete Odonata mode I would have been fairly disappointed with the birding. But then, it was July and birds do disappear for a few weeks around this time. But the quality of the dragons and damsels more than made up for that, the heat and humidity and, of course, my usual poor health.

NB: There are probably a few mistakes, so this will quite possibly be changed and updated in the near future.

'An American arrives in Paris and hails a taxi. When they pass the Arc de Triomphe, the American asks: ‘What’s that?’ ‘The Arc de Triomphe,’ replies the driver. ‘How long did it take to build that?’ ‘Five years.' ‘Back home that would take three days.’ They drove to the Eiffel Tower. ‘What’s that?’ asks the American, to which the now, bristling driver replies: ‘I don't know, it wasn't there this morning!'

For more of my photos please visit my Flickr site.
For more photos of this particular trip please visit my Photobox site.