flamingos camargueWhether you're just looking for a flock of pretty pink flamingos or are an expert ornithologist, these are the best places and best times to spot birds in the Camargue.

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camargue bird map smallActually the best place to see birds is pretty much everywhere in the Camargue and the best time is all the year round!

However your bird-watching experience will vary depending on the microclimate, the terrain and the set-up for visitors at the various sites. We explain the pros and cons of each and which one is right for you.

Most places listed here remain open throughout the year (though some of them do close for a couple of months in winter or just over Christmas and New Year). Click on the map to enlarge the image.

Whatever the season, you're likely to see more wildlife in the early morning or late afternoon than in the middle of the day.

Bring binoculars and bottled water and (in summer) a hat, sun screen and mosquito repellent. For obvious reasons, dogs are not allowed on most of the bird reserves and protected sites.

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Bird-spotting: The Main Sites

The famous flamingos are one of the Camargue's most recognisable symbols and most tourists will be hoping to spot them.

flamingos bird park camargueThey are not hard to see from the road, but all too often remain distant pink flecks on the horizon.

However there are two sites guaranteed to give you a really good close-up view of these striking birds.

And they also both have the resources to help you discover some of the Camargue's other 400-odd bird species, with enough information for even amateurs to enjoy and recognise them.

The first and more accessible is the Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau, pictured, a fantastically well populated wild bird reserve just outside Saintes Maries de la Mer.

Up to 240 species pass through at different times, and flamingos are here all year round. You'll find butterflies and mammals too, such as coypus, weasels, foxes and badgers.

The park is packed with viewing platforms and cleverly positioned hides that allow you to get very near to them indeed. Even its little open-air snack bar is lined with nesting boxes and overlooks a lake and heronry.

This is an ideal destination if you're after superb wildlife shots and, during our visit, we saw plenty of people training enormous zoom lenses on the birds.

It attracts up to 110,000 visitors a year from all over the world, but is more than big enough (60 hectares / 148 acres) for you to get away from the crowd. Allow at least 90 minutes if you plan to visit, longer if you have your camera with you or have brought a picnic. You can rent or even buy binoculars at the park too.

frederic lamouroux pont de gauThe Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau was founded in 1949 by André Lamouroux. At the beginning the birds were conventionally exhibited in cages but André's son, René, had the idea of releasing them. At first most of the birds promptly flew away.

But René and his wife embarked on a huge project to create a variety of specially designed habitats (marsh, lakes, grassland, hedges, woods, etc.) on the site to attract and keep different species there. Although the park looks at first glance wild and natural, its entire landscape is man-made.

Today the park remains a family affair, run by René's three sons. Pictured, Frédéric looks after public relations.

reed bed bird park saintes maries camargueThere's still an aviary for injured and sick birds (it gets especially busy in spring when the fledglings keep falling out of their nests). But most of the birds come and go freely, depending on the season.

The site is very child-friendly and easy to walk around, with clearly marked trails and maps at regular intervals. Much of it is accessible for wheel-and push-chairs / strollers.

The only real downside: the detailed and informative illustrated panels dotted around the park are currently in French only (the Lamouroux family plans to have them translated eventually for a smartphone app).

The most popular months are May, June and September (in midsummer most tourists remain glued to the glorious nearby beaches), but there's a steady stream of winter visitors too: see below to find out why. The park stays open till sunset and, evenings are the best time for photography. Credit cards are not accepted, so bring cash.

The Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau is on the D570 north out of Saintes Maries towards Arles, about 5 km / 3 miles from the town. Tel: (+33) 4 90 97 82 62. Website for the Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau

There's (rather limited) parking at the entrance. A bus (no.20 between Arles and Saintes Maries de la Mer) stops here too.

The other best place to view birds in the Camargue is the Étang de Fangassier, a lake between Salin de Girad and Saintes Maries de la Mer. A flamingo colony and nesting ground - the only one in France - has been established here on an artificial island.

viewing platform etang de fangassier camargueThere's a viewing platform. But, as you can see from the picture, while there's a wild, solitary beauty to the location, the birds keep well away from the lake shore!

However, you can take a walking tour in a small group of up to 20 people that will give you privileged access.

You organise it ahead with the Bureau des Guides Naturalistes, which is run by a small team of local enthusiasts - and the good news is that one of them studied zoology in Bristol, UK, and offers tours in English.

They're on foot (you drive to the location first, either in your own car or in the Bureau's mini-van) and we're told that some walks are accessible to people with reduced mobility.

They run all year round (with a reduced programme in winter) and there's a choice of sites, times and duration: the shortest is two and a half hours and the longest three days. Some tours are designed for specialist interests or to see particular bird species.

But most people will have flamingos on their mind and in spring 2016 there were over 10,000 pairs and 7500 chicks in the colony at Fangassier.

Then, disaster: on 10 May 2016, all the breeding flamingos suddenly moved out. That main colony is now based at the Étang du Roi, at the salt flats of Aigues Mortes.

No-one quite knew what happened. They may have been disturbed, by a drone, an animal predator (probably a red fox or a great horned owl) or a rogue photographer. Another theory was that salt water is no longer being pumped in to the site, thus reducing the flamingos' food supply.

But some flamingos remain on the island and a new artificial island has been created on the lake that, it's hoped, will give the birds greater protection. So the Bureau is still offering guided tours - but do phone ahead of your visit to check the latest score. Website for the Bureau des Guides Naturalistes

funfactFlamingos can live for up to 60 years.

These are the two best general interest birding locations in the Camargue. But there is a number of other reserves, parks and sites, many of which offer admission for free or just a nominal charge.

viewing platform musee de la camargueRight up in the north on the D570 out of Arles, the Mas du Pont de Rousty is a marked trail through the rice paddies and reed beds of this part of the Camargue.

It's attached to the excellent Musée de la Camargue, a mine of information about the ecology and history of the region.

It's free to walk the trail, which is open all year round. Another bonus: there are wildlife viewing platforms all over the Camargue, but the one here, pictured, is the best ever.

It's a giant "ship" designed by the conceptual artist Tadashi Kawamata in 2013 for the Marseille-Provence European Capital of Culture year. It, and the entire site, is wheelchair accessible and there's plenty of free parking.

The Marais du Vigueirat is a marshy, 1,200 hectare / 2,965 acre bird reserve on the eastern edge of the Camargue near the village of Mas Thibert (it's the only birding site on the eastern bank of the Grand Rhône river).

Access to its marked circuits is free, and for a small fee you can buy an explanatory booklet. Viguerat also offers paid-for guided tours, on foot (these are led by a member of the Bureau des Guides Naturalistes), as well as on horseback or in a horse-drawn buggy.

It has free parking and picnic areas and a snack bar serving produce from the park's own market garden. It's open till sunset and closes down for the winter. Website for the Marais du Vigueirat

Across from it, on the western side of the Grand Rhône river near the village of Le Sambuc, the Marais du Verdier is a marshy,120 hectare / 296 acre reserve particularly rich in water fowl. Pictured: a bubulcus ibis or cattle egret.

bubulcus ibis camargueThe Marais has a free marked trail and the possibility of guided tours, again led by the Bureau des Guides Naturalistes. It also offers other activities such as fishing, hunting and beekeeping.

The site belongs to the Tour de Valat, a major conservation research centre that's normally closed to the public, but does organise occasional interesting events.

You can park for free on the square in Le Sambuc and the Marais du Verdier is just outside the village. It's open all year round. Website for the Marais du Verdier.

In the south-east of the Camargue on the D36D out of Salin de Giran, the Domaine de la Palissade is an 18th century country house set in 702 hectares / 1,735 acres of grounds rich in flora and fauna. Three easy trails wind through the property and you can follow them on your own or accompanied by a guide.

etang de vaccaresAn ornithologist comes here each morning to record what birds are currently on site and educational activities are available. There's a small charge. Free parking and a shady picnic area. Closed December-January. Website for the Domaine de la Palissade

If you want to explore the ecology of the Camargue in depth, La Capelière is the place to go. It's the administrative centre of the Réserve naturelle nationale dela Camargue(Camargue Natural National Reserve).

And it also happens to be at the heart of one of the loveliest parts of the region, on the D36D road on the eastern shore of the Étang de Vaccarès lake, pictured.

La Capelière has an information centre, permanent exhibition, a shop and a nature trail with viewing platforms, and is open all year round. There's a small admission fee. Website for La Capelière

 

When to go bird-watching in the Camargue

The Camargue is on the migration path for many birds, and so spring and early autumn are a good time to see a wide range of species. Some stay to nest here in spring while others "tank up" on food before continuing their journey.

When flying north for the breeding season the birds tend to be in a hurry to reach their final destination and find the best nesting spot and the best mate.

Flying south in the autumn, they take more time and might stay in the Camargue for several weeks.

August and September are the peak months in terms of variety and numbers. On the minus side, the birds are about to moult at this time of year, so their plumage is not at its best.

Some species also come to or remain in the region in winter, attracted by its plentiful food supply. These include kingfishers, a variety of ducks, eagles and tits and the goldcrest (the smallest bird in Europe). Some flamingos head south to North Africa, but a sizable number remain in the Camargue over winter.

camargue flamingos mating danceFrédéric Lamouroux recommends the period between December and March as the best time to see their elaborate mating dance and new plumage, pictured, which is a much deeper pink than in summer.

In fact he reckons there are actually more flamingos at the Parc Ornithologique at this time of year.

Alternatively you might consider timing your trip for the Festival de la Camargue in late May / early June. In some years it has a Village de l'Oiseau (Bird Village), with photos, presentations and workshops, in Port Saint Louis du Rhône.

Insider tip for bird watching in the CamargueIf you speak good French and are in the Camargue in late July / early August, you might like to volunteer for the annual tagging of flamingo chicks. These are rounded up from the "nurseries" where the bird colonies gather to raise their young, then weighed and tagged.

Several hundred people come forward to take part in this tricky but fun exercise each year. Enquire at the Tour du Valat research centre for more information.

Useful to know: The hunting season in the Camargue (for game and water birds) runs from the second Sunday in September to the last day of February. Wear high visibility clothing during this period.

Photo credits (from top): © Alfred Brumm for Flickr, RWS for Marvellous Provence, SJ for Marvellous Provence (five images), Snowmanradio for Wikimedia Commons, SJ for Marvellous Provence, Ddeveze for Wikimedia Commons

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