Suddenly, less than five meters from us, a flamingo spreads its pink wings edged in black and takes flight. In the distance, about forty of these waders fly over the pond towards the sea, then return north, drawing a curved line before returning south for good. The sun tries a last appearance, iridescent the pond then disappears behind thick gray clouds. The joyful racket of birds of all species – herons, egrets, ibises, storks… – does not cease with the end of the day. It is almost 7 p.m. at the ornithological park of Pont-de-Gau, in the vast town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Bouches-du-Rhône), in the heart of the Camargue.
The ornithological reserve is one of the best places to observe flamingos. This area of the park, half-wild, offers a seven-kilometre landscaped walk, dotted with observation points. “It’s the first time we’ve seen them so close,” enthuses Marie, 37, who lives in the Paris region with her husband, Christophe, and their 2-year-old boy. For her, the bird is synonymous with “freedom”. Manuella, 55, who came from Romania with her daughter, Yoanna, also marvels: “We don’t have this animal at home. He is so delicate, elegant!”
Very sensitive to disturbance
The ornithologist studies the birds on the whole coast, from Fréjus to Perpignan: the Mediterranean is the zone in the world which concentrates the greatest number of flamingos, distributed between its European, African and Eastern shores. His reference tool? The plastic ring, installed on one of the two legs, shortly after birth. “KPXS! he says behind his telescope. It is therefore a Camargue bird born in the 2010s.”
This year, the two flamingo counting operations, in January and May, have identified 30,000 birds in the Rhône delta, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 last year. “We have been in the same waters for twenty years, notes Frédéric Lamouroux, director of the ornithological park. The species is doing well.” It has not always been so. In addition to the onslaught of wildlife – yellow-legged gulls, eagle owls, foxes… – the pink flamingo had to face a widespread predator: human beings. “The wader is very sensitive to disturbance, explains Antoine Arnaud. A person who gets too close, a passing plane… and it’s the total abandonment of the colony, the chicks find themselves alone.” Before the adoption of protective laws, tourists could freely walk among the nests…
The species owes its preservation to a British ornithologist, Alan Johnson. Falling in love with the Camargue, in the 1960s he encouraged the creation of closed areas such as the Fangassier pond – in the town of Arles – where an artificial islet was designed to resist the erosion of the natural environment. But the flamingos still did not come to nest there. So, Alan Johnson created a hundred fake nests, topped with broken eggshells. And as if by a miracle, the waders came to settle on the islet the following spring!
A coveted symbol
In this interlacing of land and sea that constitutes the Camargue, extending between Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to the south, Aigues-Mortes to the west and Arles to the east, the pink flamingo has become a coveted tourist symbol, to the point of sparking political quarrels. Because the region straddles two departments, Bouches-du-Rhône and Gard. When the Fangassier pond was renaturalized and the water levels were no longer artificially regulated by pumping, the flamingos preferred to nest in Aigues-Mortes in the spring. Another department, another administrative region… Many local elected officials, who manage parks and natural sites, then felt dispossessed of their favorite animal. But what meaning do these borders have for a bird?
And while many covet the flamingo, rice farmers despair of its presence. Because the birds trample the seeds in the spring when they search the marshes for food. Farmers therefore carry out so-called “scaring” campaigns to repel them with gas cannons and whistling rockets. Not to mention the issues around pumping water, necessary at different times of the year depending on whether you are a naturalist, breeder, rice farmer or hunter. All is not rosy in the Camargue, the delta must learn to manage its contradictions.
To enter this territory magnified by Tony Gatlif in his latest film, Tom Medina (2021), Arles is an ideal gateway. A true little Rome, the ancient city is full of architectural splendours. Its arenas, by their state of conservation, rival in beauty with the Colosseum and while strolling in the baths of Constantine, the visitor thinks of those of Caracalla. The city still dazzles with its museum of ancient Arles housing here a colossal statue of the Emperor Augustus, there a barge, a vast wooden boat brought out of the bottom of the Rhône and restored in 2011. And it is in the arenas that s t took place on July 3 the famous annual Golden Cockade, the most famous of the bullfights.
water, salt, heat
Further west, outside the delta, in the Gard Camargue, Aigues-Mortes impresses with its checkerboard plan and its medieval ramparts within which more than 2,500 people live. The course of the coast has receded over the centuries, to the point that the visitor no longer realizes that this is the port from which Saint Louis left for the Crusades; the last taking him to Carthage where he died in 1270. The city was alternately a place of Protestant safety during the Wars of Religion and a prison for the reformed, locked up in the tower of Constance, on the oldest part of the ramparts.
In the nearby saltworks, white gold has long been sold as de-icing salt. An outlet that has become less buoyant. The fleur de sel is used today for creams treating skin diseases. And the site has been laid out with a view to introducing flamingos. The astonishing pink color of the marshes is due to the presence of micro-organisms loaded with beta-carotene. Water, salt, heat… An ideal ecosystem for the pink flamingo, a special guest in the mysterious Camargue.
Ask about :
To visit :
- Les tellines à la saintoise: little known shellfish typical of the Rhône delta, they melt in the mouth with a sauce based on fresh cream and aioli.
- The bull gardianne: along with sausage and chorizo, this is the most frequent culinary outlet for the region’s emblematic horned beast. It is often served with vegetables and Camargue rice. Fine and invigorating at the same time.
- Fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes: brioche dough to which we add sugar, orange blossom… and a few calories! A treat for the taste buds.