Camargue


The world-renowned Camargue is an enormous wetland and U.N. World Biosphere Reserve covering some 566 square miles (1,467 km2) of the Rhone River delta on the Mediterranean coast.

This unique mix of fresh and salt waters flowing through intricate interwoven habitats in mild Mediterranean climate attracts some 10,000 pairs of highstepping crimson greater flamingos and millions of other water-oriented birds. Some are permanently at home, others stop seasonally from as far as northern Europe and Siberia.

Hardy white horses of ancient lineage gallop through shallow lagoons, thriving on saline pastures, as do famous black bulls watched over and periodically rounded up by the region’s traditional cowboys or gardians.

Marsh harriers, black kites and shorttoed snake-eagles wheel overhead.

Each species seeks its own niche. Dense marsh reed beds offer rich foraging grounds and nest supports for bearded reedlings, reed buntings, and purple herons. Great bitterns stand like striped feathered statues, indistinguishable from the reeds. Buffy-brown tern-like collared pratincoles breed on sun-baked mudflats here as gregariously as their rare status permits—they are nowhere else in France. Stone curlews are in open, stony, or short grass areas.
 

Kentish plovers incubate eggs in nest scrapes on beaches. Tawny pipits and short-toed larks find seeds among waving dune grasses and bright wildflowers. Surrounding higher vegetation attracts spectacled warblers, crested larks, great gray shrikes, and brilliant multihued beeeaters.In nearby woodlands, melodious warblers and golden orioles appear. Drainage ditches to the north are home to penduline tits and fan-tailed warblers.

Greater flamingos find succulent brine shrimp and perform stylish mating dances (like theSpanish flamenco dance named after them) in heavily saline southern lagoons first cultivated for salt extraction by ancient Greeks and Romans. Less saline ponds to the north are key breeding and nesting sites for elegant, graceful avocets with delicate tip-tilted bills, rare slender-billed gulls, and a variety of terns, including gull-billed, little, and sandwich. Long-legged herons and egrets stalk small prey in lagoons and fly to riverine forests to roost and breed. Ducks rest during the day in sansouires (areas of succulent, salt-tolerant vegetation) and move to nearby marshes to feed in early morning and evening.

The wealth of species here is second in Europe only to Spain’s Doñana National Park (see p .416)—over 350 kinds of birds alone.

The region known as the Camargue today is a patchwork of private holdings and public reserves.The 328-square-mile (850-km2) Parc Naturel Regional de Camargue includes the Étang de Vaccares, 51 square miles (131 km2), state-owned but managed by the private National Society for Nature Protection; Étang des Imperiaux, a 6,860-acre (2,777-ha) reserve owned by the community of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer; and the Tour du Valat, a private reserve managed by the public Sansouire Foundation.

Pont de Gau Ornithological Park has paths where most bird species found in the Camargueand mammals such as foxes, wild boars, badgers—can be seen, with a fine visitor center, guides,and explanatory literature. Mention should be made also of the Petite Camargue to the west, stony La Crau to the east, Les Baux to the northeast, and Pont du Gard to the north.

Regarded by many as the Camargue’s heart, however, is croissant-shaped Étang de Vaccares, much of which can be viewed from small roads along west, north, and eastern shores, and from the road between Arles and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

The region is interesting all year, best starting in April and peaking in September, but it’s also an important wintering site for large numbers of ducks, geese, swans, and other waterbirds.

Helpful area maps or Cartes Touristiques are published by IGN, also Michelin, available in bookstores and visitor centers. Much can be seen from public highways and dike roads.

International travelers can fly into Paris or, better, directly to Marseille, where rental cars are available. Hotels throughout the region can help arrange guided trips, also individual trips by walking, rental bike, or horseback.

Threats are several, including the Camargue’s patchwork nature. Ducks’ roosting places are protected but many marshes where they feed are not and hunters shoot them as they move. This has reduced wintering waterfowl here by an estimated 40 percent in recent years, including annual kill of up to 150,000 ducks and poisoning of other aquatic birds which ingest lead shot. Rice farming and enlargement of salt extraction beds reduces habitat and alters wetland water levels.

The Camargue, like many Natural Regional Parks, allows what conservationists feel is excessive consumptive uses, ranging from hunting to thatch-cutting. In some places the semi-wild Camargue horses are tamed by gardians and made available for riding, and bulls are sold for bullfights. Local bullfights are often bloodless—challenge for white-clad Camarguaise razeteurs is to pluck ribbons from a bull’s horns with small hooks held between fingers—but other animals go to Spain and a different fate.

The region’s fragility was shown when the Rhône burst its banks and flooded some 47 square miles (121 km2) of the delta in 1993 sending over 4.6 billion cubic feet (129 million cubic m) offresh water into the saline system. Over 5,000 horses and others were rescued but many birds and mammals died, and concern remains about possible long-term ecosystem damage.

France has 18 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention. A list is available from Ramsar, Rue Mauverny 28, CH-1196, Gland, Switzerland, Tel: (+41) 22- 999-0170, Fax: (+41) 22-999-0169, E-mail: ramsar@ramsar.org.


ALSO OF INTEREST

Several other areas are of special note:

Grand Briere, Pays de la Loire, 78 square miles (202 km2) of floodplain, peatland, and vast alluvial marshes, important for otters and numerous wintering and nesting waterbirds.

La Brenne, Centre, 540 square miles (1,400 km2) of plateau with 1,500 lakes and ponds, important for passerines, waterbirds, 50 dragonfly and 1,000 floral species.

Baie de Somme, Picardy, a vast sandy, mud and grassy area of 66 square miles (170 km2) in the largest estuary in northern France, supports over 120 nesting bird species, many of them rare and threatened. On several important flyways, it is one of the most important European resting and feeding areas for migrating waterbirds—321 species, or over 65 percent of European avifauna have been identified here, also rare plants.

Étangs de la Champagne Humide, Champagne-Ardenne, a vast (522 square mile/1,350 km2) lowland complex of rivers, lakes, canals, reedbeds, wet meadows, and alluvial forests, important for wintering and migrant waterbirds, especially ducks, geese, and cranes, also nesters such as purple herons. It is only French wintering site for globally threatened white-tailed sea eagles.

Étangs du Lindre, forêt du Romersberg et zones voisines, Lorraine, is a complex of rivers, marshes, and riverine forest and salt grasslands with many rare plant species and an important European wildcat population, also essential breeding, resting, wintering area for many waterbirds.

Golfe du Morbihan (89 square miles/230 km2) of almost enclosed estuarine embayment and salt marsh complex with vast, rich mudflats at the mouths of three rivers, with up to 130,000 wintering waterbirds as well as many nesters and migratory visitors.

Pyrénées National Park (177 square miles/460 km2) with 77 of 107 mammals to be found in France, including highly endangered bears, recovering isard or Pyrenean chamois, desman, and pine martens. Birds are equally notable, including black woodpeckers, capercaillies, ptarmigan, and lammergeiers (aka bone-breakers), along with nesting Egyptian vultures.

 Gannets, large, brilliantly white cigar-shaped seabirds with buff-cream heads nest in great crowded colonies on high cliffs on both sides of the North Atlantic, supplying fuzzy white nestlings with fish gathered in prodigious dives. Flying up to 130 feet (40 m) high, they soar, circle, then plunge headlong in steep diagonals, retracting pointed six-foot (1.8-m) wings just before striking the water’s surface, protected from impact by hard skull structure and cellular tissue cushions just under neck and breast skin which automatically fill with air in descent.

Gannets, large, brilliantly white cigar-shaped seabirds with buff-cream heads nest in great crowded colonies on high cliffs on both sides of the North Atlantic, supplying fuzzy white nestlings with fish gathered in prodigious dives. Flying up to 130 feet (40 m) high, they soar, circle, then plunge headlong in steep diagonals, retracting pointed six-foot (1.8-m) wings just before striking the water’s surface, protected from impact by hard skull structure and cellular tissue cushions just under neck and breast skin which automatically fill with air in descent.

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CAMARGUE as well as...

Grand Briere

La Brenne

Baie de Somme

Étangs de la Champagne Humide

Étangs du Lindre

Golfe du Morbihan

Pyrénées National Park

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