The Fabulous Flamingos of the Camargue’s Pont du Gau Park

 
The Fabulous Flamingos of the Camargue’s Pont du Gau Park

The Camargue may be famous for its bulls and horses, but it’s also one of the best places in the south of France for observing flamingos.  

If you want to see huge flocks of them (the collective noun is a ‘flamboyance’) close up rather than through binoculars, though, head to the wonderful Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau. Here, you can practically reach out and touch them — partly because they’re fairly tame, and partly because they’re so preoccupied with feeding or mating! 

Located to the west of the parc naturel régional de Camargue, at the heart of the Rhône Delta, the site was created by local nature lover, André Lamouroux, in 1949. But it really took shape with his son, René, who assumed control in 1974 and began to transform the environment with thousands of trees and shrubs, as well as a network of trails and multiple observation posts. Today, the park is a magnet for bird spotters and photographers from all over the world. But it’s also the kind of place that appeals to enthusiasts and amateurs alike, as well as to all ages. 

Watching the flamingos feed as you stroll around the trails, is fascinating. Standing in the shallow, salty waters of the marshes, they suck up algae with their hook-shaped bills. But the birds are not naturally pink, they turn this eye-catching colour as they metabolise the blue-green algae into beta-carotene. Whilst the flamingos (flamants roses in French) are certainly the stars of the show — they’re also fun to watch as they balance perfectly on one leg for a nap — there are more than 200 bird species to enjoy at the 60 hectares park, including ibis, storks, and brightly coloured bee-eaters. No wonder British ‘twitcher’, Alan Johnson, was so drawn to the area that he moved here in the 1960s and dedicated the rest of his life to the protection of its birds. Thanks to him and many others, the flamingo population in the park has grown considerably to over 800 — a great conservation success story.

But the park is not just a place to enjoy wild birds, it also has a strong focus on environmental education. In line with its commitment to the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism, it has provided information panels for visitors throughout the site explaining how the birds fit into the wider ecosystem of the Camargue — the largest wetland in France — and how important it is to protect them. It also has a care centre for injured birds so they can be released back into the wild. Whether you’re able to visit the park or not, you might consider supporting the wonderful work it does here via the website. 

The flamingos are ever-present at the park but winter (mid-December-February) is the best time to observe them because this is their mating season when the males do a courtship display, or parade amoureuse/nuptiale, in their finest plumage to attract the females. In fact, the Camargue is the only area in the south where these ‘greater’ flamingos, with their distinctive black markings, nest. But strictly speaking, they are not ‘sedentary’, they move around the Mediterranean basin in search of food — eating microscopic brine shrimp too, which also turns them pink. 

Don’t worry about when to take your trip, though, the park is open every day all year round and there’s no need to book. Plus, the trails in the southern part are entirely accessible to people with reduced mobility. There’s also a refreshment area which is open from April to October, and you can leave when you want. 

You’ll find plenty more attractions in the area too, including the historical city of Arles made famous by Van Gogh, and the vibrant resort/former fishing village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer just a stone’s throw away on the coast. You can also take a 4×4 safari to enjoy more of the rich wildlife in this unique part of France. 

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