France 2011, Autumn – La Crau

IMG_1574_Millau_viaduct After four nights in La Brenne, we made a longish run south to Millau to go “ooh, ah” at its justly famous viaduct. Whenever I look at it I can’t help but think, “how on earth did they build that” which is silly because I’ve seen a TV programme about its being built. Quite simply stunning! We spent another four nights of mildly indifferent weather, though not at all bad, and watched the local wildlife which consisted almost entirely of birds. We were camped beside the river Dourbie which provided Dippers (Cinclus cinclus), Grey Wagtails (Motacilla cinerea) and the vivid blue flash of a Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) while overhead the enormous shapes of the very successfully re-introduced Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus) soared.

Then it was time to head for what I’d been thinking of as the main event, Les Alpilles. Les Alpilles are an attractive set of modest hills just north-east of the Camargue (the Rhone delta) and directly north of an area called La Plaine de la Crau. Here, reputedly, were a few quite well known (to naturalists) Odonata spotting spots. We’d stayed here a couple of years previously when I was beginning to develop my interest in dragonflies but, alas, I didn’t know we were near one of the Meccas for Odo-watching. Wildlife holidays are run to this place. Since our previously used campsite had decided to close early, we stayed at Camping Municipal des Romarins in Maussane-les-Alpilles. Some pitches are a little tight and it is a little urban for our usual tastes but quite adequate and conveniently located. The “free” (inclusive?) wi-fi made up for any shortcomings, too. 😉

IMG_1768_Spotted_Darter IMG_1621_Spotted_Darter We began with the initially unassuming Canal de la Vallée des Baux. The habitat looked promising with quite a bit of floating greenery and plant-lined banks. The only slight downside was that access to the water’s edge wasn’t good. There is a footpath running along the north side of the canal but it was quite high with respect to the water and the banks were mostly overgrown and steep. Nonetheless, it proved a good little hunting ground. Enter new species #4: Spotted Darters (Sympetrum depressiusculum) which are entrants in the “dragonfly with the most difficult to pronounce scientific species name” award. Nice of them to have both sexes present, too – the red one is the male and the yellow, the female. As usual, I didn’t know what I was snapping away at until I studied the pictures back at base camp.

IMG_1816_White_Featherlegs_in_cop I snapped away at pretty much everything I saw, just to enable the compiling of a reasonably comprehensive list, and it’s a good job I did. There were some “Featherlegs” damselflies (Platycnemis) around and I was initially guilty of assuming that they were my usual White-legged Damselflies/Blue Featherlegs (P. pennipes). I deleted several shots back at Billy ‘cos I’ve got loads already. I had been very much mistaken. These were new species #5: White Featherlegs (Platycnemis latipes). Fortunately I managed to snag a very obliging couple in-cop after I had realized my grievous mistake.

Probably the main wildlife attraction in the area is the Peau de Meau or Coussouls de Meau. To visit this, you should first call in to the Ecomussee de la Crau in the nearby town of St-Martin-de-Crau and purchase a permit for a mere €3 (at the time of writing). Keep it all legal and support such wildlife habitat protection. We did so and set off to discover what all the fuss was about.

p1010534_peau_de_meau As one of Europe’s premier Odonata sites, I don’t know what I was really expecting but, whatever it was, this wasn’t it. I honestly thought we had come to the wrong place but would my Navigation Officer let me down? No, of course not. The place looks more like a desert than anything else, very flat and very stony. It’s basically a flood plain and the Coussouls name has something to do with it’s being used for grazing sheep. A very stiff breeze was blowing. We did begin to see a few darter dragonflies on the flat, stony plain but they were trouble flying. In fact, they were having trouble holding on to any perches.

IMG_1775_Copper_Demoiselle_male IMG_1675_Copper_Demoiselle_female We soon realized that the main attraction when it comes to Odos is a quite fat stream that flows past the main entrance, such as it is. In places, this stream is afforded some shelter from the wind by a hedgerow. The first characters we saw here were stunningly beautiful, utterly drop-dead gorgeous Copper Demoiselles (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis), new species #5 and one that must be a contender in the “most difficult scientific name to spell” competition. Fortunately, I was wearing my specialist Salomon Aqua-tech shoes and could wade about in the stream trying to get better shots of them. With the metallic purple sheen of the males, these creatures are so captivating, it really was difficult to drag myself away to investigate further afield.

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