Let’s visit a bird park. It’s just not sexy sounding is it?
It conjures up visions of sitting around waiting for a spotty-legged something or other to poke his beak around a bush for a millisecond before he disappears again.
However, in Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue, ask anyone for suggestions about what to do in this intriguing area of France and the chances are they’ll reply ‘visit the Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau’.
The last time I went ‘bird-watching’ it turned out the ‘birds’ in question were ravenous vultures tearing great chunks out of carrion. Subsequently I know that ‘bird-watching’ can mean all sorts of things. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for just how much I’d be wowed by the Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau.
Where is Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau?
Lying about 4 kilometres outside of Saintes Maries de la Mer on the Arles road, the entrance to the park is humble to the point of being easy to miss. There is a parking area but it looks more like a big lay-by.
It’s one of the things we liked about Pont de Gau; it’s not fussy. Just a couple of buildings set up around 60 hectares of finest Camargue marshlands.
There are a couple of conventional bird cages near the entrance that aren’t really necessary. But after that it’s you, the Camargue and the wildlife. The birds are free to come and go as they please.
First surge of excitement came at the park’s little café overlooking a small lake. The resident egrets put on a show of preening themselves whilst a snooty heron stood stoically at their side, pretending to have nothing to do with the fussing white birds.
From the café, a network of paths meander through the marshlands. This is one of the strengths of the park; you don’t feel as though you’re in a bird park. It feels more like you’re following a trail through the Camargue that just happens to guarantee encounters with lots of the local feathered and furry residents.
There are two routes through the park. The first covers 2.6 kilometres whilst the longer route is 4.3 kilometres. Within minutes of strolling between pools and lakes, peering through reeds to try establish the source of exotically strange bird calls, we’d already decided we were doing the full 7 kilometres.
The Birds and Animals of Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau
Info boards at the entrance give an idea of the birds and animals that you’re likely to spot. But, apart from the serious birdwatchers, most people are really there to see one particular specimen – the flamingos. There are flocks galore of these odd looking but beautiful creations with their snaky necks, curved beaks and long spindly legs. You wouldn’t think a creature could look both elegant and awkward at the same time, yet the flamingo manages it.
The paths take you much closer to the birds than we had expected; a real dream for photography. You don’t even need a zoom lens to capture detailed ‘up close’ shots of the big pink birds.
It was a real thrill to see so many of them in the one place and at such close quarters. I felt a bit sorry for the other birds. Water fowl, mallard ducks, egrets and even storks were pretty much ignored as most people clambered to get just one more ‘flamingo in flight’ shot.
But it’s not all about flamingos.
As we crossed over the bridge linking the two routes, Andy pointed to a dark blob heading ‘up river’ with purpose.
“It’s a beaver.”
That sighting was nearly as exciting as our first glimpse of the flamingos. It was almost immediately followed by the arrival of two of the famous Camargue white horses, one of whom was giving a lift to an egret.
Many visitors seem to stick to the shorter route around the park, subsequently the longer route is generally crowd free and has more of a wilder character to it. There are lots of hides overlooking the marshlands and the bird-life is more varied. It’s also coypu country; we saw plenty as we followed the paths around the lakes and water channels (the narrower channels especially are favourites with coypus and beavers).
There are also insects; the neon coloured dragonflies add a bit of glamour whereas the mosquitoes there will drink you dry. A board at the entrance warns about the appetite of the Camargue’s mossies and it doesn’t exaggerate, a few sunk their teeth into my back through a thick t-shirt, so splash on plenty of repellent before venturing in.
Vampire insects aside, Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau was a completely enchanting experience and I lost count of the number of times one of us commented ‘how good is this’.
In a way Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau is a bird park for people who aren’t bird watchers. It’s really a taster of the world of the Camargue in one nicely put together and natural little package.
Parc Ornithologique Pont de Gau is open from 9am to sunset between 1 April and 30 September, 10am to sunset between 1 October and 31 March; entrance is €7.50 for adults and €4 for children aged between 4 and 10.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+