Top tips for seeing birds in the Camargue region of Southern France!
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Home to thousands of flamingos and other wading birds, the Camargue is an incredible wonder in the birding world.
The Camargue region is made up of agricultural fields and marshy waterways ideal for wading birds to thrive during the breeding season and as a stopover site during migration or winter.
Greater Flamingos, the bird that attracts the most attention to visitors of the area, flock back to the area in force in springtime in preparation for breeding, and heron and egret rookeries begin to fill with the sounds of territorial mates. You may even see displaced spectacles, such as the Sacred Ibis, which usually breeds in Africa, however, a population was introduced to France in the 1970s.
>>Check out our video of the Camargue landscape and Greater Flamingos!
Greater Flamingos gather in the evening at the Ornithological Park in preparation for roosting. Photo by Nathan Rolls
Best Birding Site in the Camargue
For a birder, the whole of the Camargue Natural Park is a stunning experience, where marsh birds, grassland birds, edge birds, and water birds all converge. To get up close to the birds in a controlled environment, The Ornithological Park Pont de Gau allows visitors to experience the marshes and bird life while walking along their designated pathways.
The Park was founded with the concept of bringing nature closer to those who visit the region. As you walk the pathways that loop around the Park, you'll note various marsh habitats and different kinds of wildlife and plant life, and indicators mark the way to educate visitors on everything they're seeing and experiencing. The founders of the Park have said that allowing people to get closer to nature and learn more about what the Camargue has to offer will encourage them to better protect the environment as a whole.
There is no where else in the Camargue where you will see Greater Flamingos as close as you will at the Park. The birds thrive here because of the optimal environment, but also because feed supplements are thrown out into the marshes multiple times a day. The Flamingos will roost overnight in the main wading area, so evening is a spectacular time to visit, as flamingos float down from the skies amid a sunset background, coming from elsewhere in the Camargue.
Since these birds are fed by caretakers in the Park, they are more comfortable with their presence and are not bothered by the visitors walking along the boardwalk trails. As soon as you begin hiking outside the Park into the open marshes of the region, you'll find birds will be skittish and they'll generally want to steer clear of you. Still, few sights beat watching flocks of pale pink flamingos in the marshes of this visually stunning region. Please do not feed the flamingos and leave that to the professionals!
One of our favorite parts of this Park? You can stay inside the Park until sunset, even if the front gate closes hours earlier. A revolving metal door allows visitors to leave as they please, which means we were able to spend our evenings watching flamingos fly in to get some sleep and the sun set over the marshes.
The sun sets over the marshes of the Camargue. Photo by Christa Rolls
Best Season to Visit the Camargue
While there are great birds to see year-round in this region, late spring, once birds have settled where they will nest, is an incredible time to visit the area. The flamingos are back in force--in the thousands--and the other wading birds have begun to form their rookeries.
April to May is not yet too hot in the southern Mediterranean and the hordes of tourists have not yet arrived. Nearby Saintes-Maries de-la-Mer also already has shops and restaurants open for the season.
Keep in mind that the Gitan Pilgrimage takes place around the 24th to the 26th of May every year, so you will be sharing the town with thousands of others from all over if your trip overlaps with these dates. This culturally significant event makes for a unique and incredible experience, however, so if you're up to the crowds we still encourage you to visit!
Many wading birds and shore birds can be found throughout the Camargue. Here, a Black-Winged Stilt forages for food in the marshes. Photo by Christa Rolls
Best Place to Stay in the Camargue
When looking into places to stay, we admit that we're open to forfeiting comfort in exchange with being close to the best areas to see wildlife and nature overall. Luckily, in the Camargue, we got the best of both worlds.
The Hostellerie du Pont de Gau is the perfect place for those visiting the region to spend their time bird watching, as the front door is quite literally about 50 steps from the Ornithological Park entrance. The location is a definite perk, and the Hostellerie's welcoming staff, clean and spacious rooms (with air conditioning!), free parking, and relaxing bar make this accommodation one of the top places we've stayed.
Don't let the word "hostellerie" deter you - while this is a budget-friendly accommodation, "hostellerie" is just another word for "hotellerie," or hotel business.
If ever we had questions or needed anything, the staff were able to help us out, even with obtaining bug spray, and they were a joy to speak with about the region (everyone we met spoke a little English, but they're very patient with you if you decide to practice some French!).
The attached restaurant serves local specialties and a delicious, extensive breakfast, and the adjoining bar was a great place to take a siesta with a local, refreshing Camargue rice beer while staying out of the heat of the day. Even if you're staying elsewhere, pop over for a refreshment after exploring around the Park.
Best Bakery in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
When you visit France, you generally expect to get tasty, flaky pastries or bakery items to satiate that hunger... and you won't be disappointed.
As you enter Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer from the north, you'll see a gas station and a fishing supplies store on your left. Nestled right in between the two is Le Forurnil Santois, a button of a bakery with delicious pastries and coffee. They open early, so if you want to get an early start to the day bird watching, this is the place to come.
Best Restaurant in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
The Camargue sits just off of the Mediterranean Sea, so the fish and seafood is about as fresh as it comes.
Head into downtown Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on foot to La Casita, an exquisitely delicious seafood restaurant serving up fresh specialties from the ocean and regional Camargue rice. The restaurant looks unassuming from the outside, but the food and service will not disappoint. Sit out in the open air patio to sip some local beer or wine and to watch pedestrians stroll by on the cobblestone streets.
Recommended Gear for Bird Watching in the Camargue
The weather in Southern France most of the year is hot and sunny; even the wintertime can yield sunny, yet chilly, days where you can get a little wind and sun burned. Because of this, gear consideration number one is a good sun hat to protect your face and ears. There is little to no cover elsewhere on the marshes as you search for birds, so you'll be grateful for the reprieve of your hat after a couple of hours outside.
Our absolute, must-have gear consideration for this region, however, is bug repellent! Because of the marshy environment in the region, there are tons of mosquitoes nearly year-round, and they are ready to bite as soon as you step outside. Wearing long pants and a long shirt can keep them away, but be sure to bring bug spray as well. Bug nets for your head are also recommended if you are outside in the evening or early morning, when the sun no longer dissuades the biting bugs from being out and about. We spotted a particularly clever individual with leather, fingerless gloves for the evening-time, specifically to keep the mosquitoes from biting while he took photos!
Christa stands on one of the many viewing platforms within the Ornithological Park of Pont de Gau. Note the flocking behavior of the Greater Flamingos in the background! Photo by Nathan Rolls
Getting to the Camargue
Because of its placement along the marshy waterways and its designation as a protected area, trains do not run into the Camargue south of Arles. The best way to get around the area is by car, to give yourself the flexibility to explore the landscape and many hidden spots without worrying about bus schedules. Otherwise, a bus runs to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer from downtown Arles, stopping multiple times along the way. The A50 bus is run by Envia Bus Systems - you'll be able to catch the bus south 7 days a week, with running times approximately five times per day. It's also possible to take the bus to Aigues-Mortes, and hop on a boat tour of the region from there.
You can find more information on the region here: http://www.saintesmaries.com/. If you have further questions not found on their webpage, the team at the Visitor's Center is incredibly helpful and responds to inquiries quickly. You can also contact the Ornithological Park directly and they can give you more information not offered on their webpage.
Christa and Nathan
P.S., Interested in a more comprehensive look at the Camargue, including a multi-day itinerary and species list? Purchase our guide and 3-day itinerary to bird watching in the Camargue!