Thursday, January 16, 2014

Flamingoes highlight of day in the Camargue

Sunday morning we drove past fields of white Camargue horses and the black bulls of the region, ending up at the Pont de Gau bird park. As soon as we entered the park we heard lots of bird banter but not just any birds. The flamingoes were providing the music for their mating dance.

Almost as soon as you enter the park you encounter the first pond, which was full of flamingoes going through their mating ritual. We could stand or sit all around the pond almost right next to the birds, who would all move their heads in the same direction at one time, first to the left, then to the right. It was beautifully choreographed as they would stretch their necks to the full length. Then their squawking became even louder, as they ran back and forth, some of them displaying their beautiful black and vivid pink wings. There was some beak kissing going on as heads moved up and down. Things would get a little quieter almost as if the group was resting and then it would start all over again. If one of the birds didn't keep up, they were boofed right out of the way. What fun watching them! The mallards, the green headed shovelers and coots had to be careful where they swam.

We continued on to the next ponds to see the same display by the flamingoes. Overlooking one pond was a huge tree with grey and purple heron nesting as well as great and little egrets. It was very busy with birds coming and going to the tree and flamingoes flying overhead coming in for landings.

We passed more ponds and reed beds with more frenetic flamingoes as well as others just dozing or foraging in the water for food. The park has meadowlands, salt plains and irrigation channels. Much has been done to facilitate the observation of all the birds. We did see a few storks and many raptors.

There are several display cages near the entrance to the park. One had four majestic big horned owls and another some grey kites. The oddest bird was the white Egyptian vulture that summers in the area.

Just as we were leaving the park, we spotted a Eurasian beaver munching away on some grass. It seemed almost tame as we got quite close to it. We passed two more nearer the exit. They totally ignored everyone watching them.

The visit to the bird park was truly enjoyable. In the spring tens of thousands of flamingoes come to the area to mate. It must be quite something to see so many flamingoes. Today we may have seen a few hundred.

We drove to Saintes Maries de la Mer for lunch. It is a typical seaside town. Perhaps it is most famous for a weekend in May, when gypsies come from all over Europe for the Gitan pilgrimage. Black Sara, the patron saint of the gypsies is taken from the church where she resides by gypsies mounted on white stallions, and she is held high as they ride into the sea. Black Sara is then returned to her crypt and celebrations get under way: alongside Catalan flamenco musicians and Parisian Gypsy jazz duos there are now Balkan brass bands and Hungarian string musicians. Observing the gathering of these musicians from Europe's frayed edges, the listener must get a sense of how Gypsy music reinvents itself.

Quite a few gypsies live in the area. One of us is a gypsy magnet. Sure enough as we were walking towards the beach a gypsy lady accosted Seamus and tried to pin something that looked like an earring on him. Meanwhile Seamus gestured for this woman to get out of the way, while I had my eyes glued to Seamus' camera bag. She eventually got the message and moved off.

Calmness now restored, we walked along the beach and found an outdoor restaurant called Pica Pica filled with locals. It was one of those special finds with several fresh items on the menu served on plastic with plastic utensils. The food was excellent. I had shrimps and Seamus swordfish, both with zucchini and peppers with a hint of herbs. Even the pale pink wine that the French call "Gris" was served in plastic but my it was good. What a great meal!

The rest of our day was spent touring around the Camargue admiring more flamingoes, raptors, bulls and horses. We even saw another beaver eating grass at the side of the road. The area is vast and you could spend days following nature trails around the region. This will be a reason to return.

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