Nature and Wildlife of Camargue and Crau – by Crossbill Guides

A warm welcome to this page about the nature and wildlife of the Camargue, Crau and Alpilles, France. This website accompanies the Crossbill nature travel guide to Provence and the Camargue. This is an online Crossbill Guide ‘lite’ for the armchair traveller. It offers some general insights and images as a rehearsal for a visit, plus some practical information, sites and a free route from the Crossbill Guide. For an online guide to the Provence, click here. Enjoy!

The Camargue, La Crau and Les Alpilles are three very different areas which lie so closely together that for the visitor, they form a single destination. The entire area is just over 50 kms from north to south and barely 70 kms across. Right at the nexus of where these regions meet lies the Roman city of Arles and just north, the equally beautiful and famous city Avignon.

The Camargue

The Camargue is not only France’s most significant wetland for birds, but also one of the top birdwatching sites in Europe. It is the delta of the Rhône, France’s second largest river, which forks just north of Arles into a wide eastern branch (Grand Rhône) and a narrower western one (Petit Rhône). Between those two river channels lies the Camargue, with the huge Étang de Vaccarès lagoon at its core. North of the lagoon and along the river channels, the Camargue has extensive freshwater marshes (reedbeds, damp meadows, rice paddies and riparian forest).  To the south, east and west of the Étang are extensive brackish and saline habitats, with briny lagoons, saltmarsh, glasswort steppes and brackish grasslands. Beyond the western Rhône branch lies the Petit Camargue, which is smaller and wilder, but unfortunately for visitors inaccessible.

La Crau

The plain of La Crau lies just east of the Grand Rhône, the eastern branch of the delta. Although much smaller than the Camargue, La Crau is France’s largest and most important area of steppe. Interestingly, La Crau is a river delta too, but one that was formed much earlier than the Camargue. Moreover, it was not the Rhône that created it, but the Durance. The Durance changed its course 18,000 years ago, and now flows into the Rhône at the city of Avignon. What remains of the old delta are large areas of sediment that glued together to form a for water and plant roots impenetrable layer that dries out quickly in spring and effectively creates a desert-like environment in the warmer months of the year. La Crau has a rich flora and insect life, as well as the most significant population of steppe birds in France.

Les Alpilles

The low but very rocky limestone mountain range of Les Alpilles (meaning Little Alps) separate La Crau from the current valley of the Durance. Although barely exceeding 400 metres in altitude, the rocky, maquis-covered slopes and wild canyons form a radical contrast with the other two areas. The east-west orientation of the range leaves the southern slopes baking in the sun. These dry limestone flanks are among the hottest spots in France during the summer and one of the mildest in winter. The wildlife is distinctly Mediterranean, with, once again, several species that are rare elsewhere in the country.

Landscape of the Camargue, Crau and Alpilles

The dunes and coastal lagoons

Along the Camargue’s coastline lies a broken strip of beaches and rows of low dunes, behind which there are large, mostly sandy lagoons. This is an amphibious terrain, with large areas of shallow water and wet sand banks on the landward side, and a shallow bay on the seaward side. The nutrient rich sediments from the river silted up the sea floor and making this coastline attractive feeding grounds for terns, gulls and, in winter, Gannets.
The Rhône is an important migratory flyway, and the lagoons at the bottom end of it are full with shore birds during migration.

Saltwater marshes and saltpans

This is perhaps the most important habitat of the Camargue. It is in any case the prime habitat of the region’s most iconic bird, the Greater Flamingo, as well as many other coastal birds. The briny, warm and nutrient-rich mud is extremely productive and brings forth huge quantities of algae and small invertebrates, such as shrimps. These form the firm basis of a food chain that sustains many thousands of birds.
Whereas the Flamingos spread out over an immense area to feed, breeding is very concentrated in huge colonies on specific islands and peninsulas. Their location is in part driven by land predators, such as foxes as the colonies are found there where the foxes cannot reach.

Meadows

Meadows come in many forms, from brackish meadows with large rushes and dotted with tamarisks, to flowery grasslands, both wet and dry. Those on not too saline soils in particular support many wildflowers and insects.

Freshwater marshes and rice paddies

Reeds, tamarisks and locally willows and riparian forest dominate the freshwater zone of the Camargue. This vegetation alternates with shallow pools with water lilies and other aquatic plants. These marshes once covered all of the northern Camargue.
Today, there are still large marshlands left, especially in some of the private reserves like Étang du Scamandre, Marais du Vigueirat and La Capalière. There are smaller fresh and brackish water marshes throughout the main reserve of the Camargue. The main swamp forests are found right along the two river arms.
Combined, these freshwater marshes sport a superb wildlife, with many birds, but also snakes, tree frogs, Beavers and Coypu (introduced).
Large sections of the freshwater zone in the northern Camargue have been transformed into rice paddies. Although there are serious issues here with pesticides, they still form an important habitat where birds find their food. Since the paddies are easily overlooked, they make excellent places to watch birds.

Coussouls – the stony steppes

South and east of Saint-Martin-de-Crau lies the stony plateau of La Crau. This thin grassland is locally known as Coussoul(s), and harbours, for France, a unique wildlife. Ecologically, the coussouls are closer to north-African ecosystems than to French ones. Scenically, these plains are not as wild as those on the other side of the Mediterranean though. Roads, plantations and industrial or military buildings always intrude upon the view.

Cliffs, maquis and forest – les Alpilles

Les Alpilles form a mixture of bare limestone, dry maquis and forest, the one merging into the other without clear boundaries. Kermes Oak, a low shrub with tiny, leathery leaves, is a common plant, as is Grey-leaved Cistus, Juniper and Rosemary. Holm Oak, Pine and Cedar trees form the tree layer. In spring, there are masses of wildflowers in the maquis, attended by numerous insects. A limited set of very interesting Mediterranean birds inhabit these scenic hills, such as Blue Rock Thrush and Black-eared Wheatear.

A striking aspect of of the Alpilles is the way these rocky ridges are nested in a flat ‘sea’ of sediments where agriculture dominates. The transition from limestone to sandy plain is very abrupt. The Alpilles are like the peaks of an Alpine chain in which the valleys silted up and only the bare summits stick out. And this is precisely what happened: the Durance and Rhône filled up the valleys of the Alpilles with sediment.
South of the actual Alpilles, there are several smaller limestone plateaux that also stand out from the fertile soil. These too are sudden dry and rocky places, covered in maquis – great for orchids in spring. Several small rivers and canals run through the agricultural land between the limestone, where you can find a rich dragonfly fauna and birdlife.

The naturalist top 10

Ten highlights of your visit to exploring the Camargue, Crau and Alpilles.

Rice paddies and fields, with many herons, Glossy Ibis an Mediterranean Gull, place to chance upon rare birds like Collared Pratincole or Great Spotted Cuckoo.

This full day’s walk is best enjoyed in spring and autumn, when bushes are full of migrant birds and the salt marshes are great for observing waders.

Easy birding and photography at the bird recovery station and bird park of Pont de Gau.

Rise early and explore La Crau at sunset for its Little Bustards and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.

Les Baux is a beautiful village on the edge of the Alpilles. Touristy in summer, but quiet in winter, with Wallcreepers and Alpine Accentors.

Visit Étang du Scamandre, the best reedbed of the delta, with large heron and ibis colonies, Red-crested Pochard and France’s only breeding site of Purple Gallinule.

The northern Crau is full of interesting insects. There is a channel here that is considered among the very best in France for dragonflies, there are ant-lions, predatory bush-crickets and wolf spiders, plus the endemic Crau Grasshopper, exclusively for here.

This private reserve (run by an NGO) has a wild landscape of river forests and reedbeds, with excellent hides and organised excursions.

Easily the most beautiful walk in Les Alpilles, following the road to the old radio mast. This is also the best site for the birds of les Alpilles.

From the dam on the edge of Étang de Fangassier, where there’s the Flamingo colony, you have beautiful sunset views mirrored by large numbers of Flamingos gathering in the lake.

Birds, dragonflies and wildflowers  – The flora and fauna of the Camargue, Crau and Alpilles

Whilst the Camargue is above all a birdwatching area, there is a rich flora and wildlife in both other regions.

Flora

From late winter to early summer, the Alpilles have a rich flora. Between the evergreen shrubs of oak and cistus, there are many wildflowers. In late winter, the blue flower heads of the globeflower Globularia alypum are common, and a little later the first orchids flower: the spider orchid Ophrys exaltata, Giant Orchid (Himantoglossum robertianum), Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax) and Violet Limodore (Limodorum abortivum).
There are also orchids in the roadsides of the freshwater zone in the Crau and Camargue. The commoner species here are Loose-flowered (Anacamptis laxiflora) and Giant Orchids.
La Crau has many rare weeds of steppe-like areas – Segueir’s Spurge (Euphorbia seguieriana), various germanders (Teucrium ssp.), Hollow-stemmed Asphodel (Asphodelus fistulosus), Italian Viper’s-bugloss (Echium italicum) and the steppe thistle Onopordum illyricum. The dunes in the Camargue also sport a rich flora, with well-known coastal plants like Sea Bindweed (Convolvulus soldanella) mixed with Mediterranean ones like Sea Medick (Lotus maritimus) and Coris (Coris monspessulanus).

Birds

This region ranks high on the list of most diverse bird areas in Europe. The saline marshes have large numbers of passage waders plus breeding Kentish Plover, Avocet and Black-winged Stilt. Shelduck and Little Egrets are common, as are Little Terns and Slender-billed Gulls. The Camargue’s icon, the Greater Flamingo, can be seen everywhere in the saline zone.
In the fresh and brackish marshes, there are numerous herons (Great White and Little Egrets, Grey, Purple, Night and Squacco Herons and Great and Little Bitterns). There are also a few colonies of Glossy Ibis and Spoonbill. The reedbeds hold good numbers of ducks during migration and in winter, plus lower numbers of breeding waterfowl. Red-crested Pochard breeds, as does Purple Gallinule.

In the meadows and plains, there are Bee-eaters, White Storks (not a common bird in most of France) and low numbers of Roller, Great Spotted Cuckoo and Collared Pratincole.

This last group of birds spills over in the plains of La Crau. In the dry steppes of La Crau, the bird attraction lies in the good number of Stone Curlews, Little Bustards, Red-legged Partridge and Little Owl, plus lower numbers of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Lesser Kestrel, Calandra and Short-toed Larks. Viewing options in La Crau are limited though, so seeing these birds takes some effort.

The Alpilles has many Mediterranean songbirds, such as Subalpine and Sardinian Warblers, Cirl Buntings, plus lower numbers of rock-dwelling birds like Black-eared Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush with Alpine Swift and Crag Martin slicing through the air above the crags. Eagle Owl is common, but there are only one or two pairs of Bonelli’s Eagle and Egyptian Vultures.

Reptiles and amphibians

Among the reptiles and amphibians, Stripeless Tree Frog, Green and Wall Lizard are easy to find. On warm evenings, the villages in Les Alpilles are good places to look for Moorish Gecko.
But the region has many more species, including several rarities. Ocellated Lizard, Europe’s largest Lizard, has one of its largest populations of France in La Crau. European Pond Terrapin are found in the lagoons along both river arms of the Rhône.

 Dragonflies and butterflies

This region is not very rich in butterflies (unlike neighbouring Provence) but has a varied dragonfly fauna. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not so much the Camargue with its many lagoons that stand out, but rather the smaller streams and channels between the Alpilles chain and the dry plains of La Crau.

Top 10 species

Ten superb plant and animal species of the Camargue, Crau and Alpilles.

The iconic and easily seen bird of the Camargue. Europe has only a few flamingo colonies, and Camargue has in most years, the continent’s largest population. Between 8,000 and 13,000 pairs, breed here.

The Glossy Ibis is a success story. At the end of the 20th century, there was only a single colony left in southern Spain and the bird was a rarity in the Camargue. Now there are hundreds in the rice paddies.

The story of the Purple Gallinule is similar to that of the Glossy Ibis, but less extreme. It expanded its range from Spain and now breeds at Scamandre in the Camargue.

This tiny frog that climbs in reeds and bushes is extremely common in the freshwater zone of the Camargue. It is very loud at night and you can see them easily in warm damp weather.

These large introduced herbivorous rodents are everywhere in the channels and pools of the region, except in the saline ones.

There are a fair number of orchids, especially in the wet meadows and not-too-dry limestone hills. The Giant Orchid is the very common one, albeit one that flowers very early (Feb-April).

In winter, Wallcreepers are not too difficult to find on the cliffs of the Alpilles and on the walls of the village of Les Baux.

This beautiful bird of semi-deserts is only found in France on the dry plains of La Crau. Beyond France, this is a bird of Spain, Turkey and North-Africa.

France’s largest population of the threatened Little Bustard is in La Crau.

There are three large populations of the European Pond Terrapin in France one of which is found in the Camargue.

Routes and practicalities

There are enough routes and activities in the Camargue, La Crau and Les Alpilles to keep you busy for a week.
When travelling in this area you should realise that the terrain is a patchwork belonging to a variety of owners. The actual Camargue Reserve is only a small part of the delta, and there are numerous smaller private reserves around it, some with good infrastructure for walking and birdwatching. Other parts are private and not accessible to visitors. In the map above and in the list below are a number of addresses and websites of these reserves.
La Crau is a National Reserve under great pressure from agriculture, industry and tourism. The best option is to visit La Crau on a guided excursion (see visitors’ centre website below). You can buy a permit to visit the part of the reserve that is open to the public at the centre.
By contrast, the Alpilles are easy to visit. There are many public tracks and trails. However, these are mostly closed in the summer months (July and August) because of the risk of forest fires.

The best routes, both car and walking routes, are described in our Crossbill guidebook on the Provence and Camargue.

Sustainable tourism

Tourism plays a major role in the economy of this part of France. Although this puts some pressure on the wildlife of the area, it is generally quite easy to minimise your impact on the environment, and also not too difficult to make your stay a contribution to nature conservation.

  • Buy tickets to access local reserves.
    Many (but not all) local reserves are run by (small) NGO’s who have to stand their ground in a society where quite a few harbour anti-conservation sentiments. By booking excursions and buying books and entry tickets, you give them the means to keep preserving their sites, but also strengthen them as stakeholders in regional conservation issues.
  • Keep a low profile
    Some areas (e.g. La Crau) have problems with birdwatchers, photographers and other tourists who disturb the wildlife. Some species, especially birds, have only a limited area of suitable habitat, and that is under pressure from all sorts of activities. By staying on the public trails and keeping a low profile there, you help preserve the birds.
  • Respect private property
    For many non-French visitors, the strictness with which private property is defended in southern France is difficult to understand. Even if it seems petty, don’t throw oil on the fire by trespassing private land. The combination of a pair of binoculars, a foreign accent and straying from legitimate paths onto a private domain feeds the tension between nature conservationists and land owners in this generally conservative countryside.
  • Go bio
    In contrast with the previous point, there is a growing group of farmers and land owners who are changing course and have started to produce organic crops. Many welcome visitors and sell their produce directly to you. This is an excellent way to support the transition to an ecofriendly agriculture, and convenient way in which to taste some fine local products. Look for the AB labels (Agriculture biologique).
  • Careful with fire
    Forest fires are an increasing problem in the Mediterranean, and this part of France is no exception. Especially in les Alpilles, be very careful with fire in the dry summers.

The book

The Crossbill Guides are the most comprehensive nature travel guides available. Each Crossbill Guide covers in depth descriptions of the landscape, habitats, geology of an area and all the species groups found there plus routes where this can be seen.

These routes are typically a mixture of walking trails and car routes with stops and short walks. Combined, these routes cover all the best sites for birdwatching, butterflies, dragonflies, plants, mammals and reptiles. They also give you the finest examples of the ecosystems and geological features. In short, everything for nature lovers.

The volume that covers The Camargue, La Crau and Les Alpilles is called Provence and Camargue. It contains:

  • 256 pages
  • 24 detailed routes (of which 7 in the Camargue, 2 in La Crau and 1 in Les Alpilles. The other 14 are situated in the Provence).
  • 19 site descriptions (of which 1 in Camargue, 2 in La Crau and 2 in Les Alpilles).

The authors

Dirk Hilbers (NL, 1976), set up the Crossbill Guides Foundation and travels Europe to research the guidebooks. This is the 17th guide he worked on. As a biologist, when not in the field, Dirk Hilbers is a free-lance writer and lecturer in the field of nature education and environmental ethics.

Constant Swinkels (NL, 1995) has been a naturalist from the moment he was able to hold a pair of binoculars. His interests are broad – from birds to wildflowers and from butterflies to reptiles. As a scientist, Constant specialises in insect-vegetation interactions.

Albert Vlienethart (NL, 1975) works at ‘De Vlinderstichting’ – the Dutch butterfly conservancy. He is a butterfly and dragonfly specialist as well as a keen birdwatcher.