Viewing wildlife has not been much of a focus for us this trip. It is not like Europe can offer any kind of a safari experience. Domesticated animals are what have caught our interest. Sheep in the Cotswolds. The Percheron draft horse in Perche. Geese in the Dordogne. Catching sight of moose in Sweden and Norway and cradling a hedgehog found rolled up in the middle of a road outside Stockholm has pretty much summed up our interesting wildlife encounters…until now.
In reading up on Provence, I discovered that the Camargue region had flamingos that stay year around. The Camargue is the Rhone delta area west of Marseille and south of Arles. There is a bird sanctuary called Park Ornithologique de Pont de Gau on the road to Saintes Maries de la Mer, only a 30 minute drive from Arles. Further research on the web said that 10,000 flamingo pairs breed in January and February here. And, every day at sunset they lift in a mass and fly off. How exotic! I had to see this. When I told the family about this, only Justin was firmly in favor. Anything to do with animals has Justin’s attention. Apparently when we get home we will be getting chickens, bunnies, and a few more dogs.
First, we drove past the Parc Ornithologique to the town of Stes Maries and found it quite dead. It has a bullring and a boat harbor. The Camargue is famous for black bulls, and the type of bull ‘fighting’ here is not a blood sport, the man has to grab a ribbon tied between a bull’s horns. Stes Maries is the legendary place where Jesus’ mother, aunt and ‘girlfriend’ – if you like the Da Vinci Code – (all named Mary) sailed to after Jesus was crucified. We took a ride around town and left. On the way out, I spotted a group of flamingos in the water. Score! Flamingo sighting…I was not going to be skunked. I say this because I really wasn’t sure if we were going to find flamingos at the Parc. I avoid talking on the phone in French, and therefore had not checked with the Parc people about the flamingos.
We got to the Parc about 3:00, a good 2 hours before sunset. There were maybe 10 other people in this 50 hectare park besides us. The Parc is like any wetlands area you would find in the Bay Area, very scenic in its own way with paths winding through waterways, the tall rushes were all dried and brown. We were initially met with the sight of about 50 flamingos in the water right next to a picnic area with a wooden deck. There were also snowy egrets in the tree branches, blue heron, and several types of duck. This was cool and almost looked staged there was such a concentration of birds right next to the entrance of the Parc, but the real show was a short walk away. Two separate lagoons each held hundreds and hundreds of flamingos. We spent the next two and a half hours wandering and watching these birds. It was sunny and the Mistral wind was not blowing this day, so we were not wearing our heavy jackets and gloves for the first time in 4 days.
We found one knot of particularly entertaining flamingos. They held their heads high up in the air, and some of them looked to be taller than 6 feet. They kept going through a cycle of whipping their heads back and forth, getting really noisy with geese-like calls, then snapping their wings open wide to reveal deep red and black feathers on their wings, then get quiet again, only to repeat this in about 3 to 5 minutes. We were wondering if these were the randiest of the birds getting into the mating rituals early.
We waited past sunset and were treated to pink hues in the sky and water to compliment the flamingos. Finally, about half the flamingos in the lagoon we had staked out lifted and flew right past us and banked away towards the more open water. It only lasted a minute, but it was a beautiful and exciting display of nature.