Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Morning on the Coussouls

Though the Camargue area is famous for its wetlands, one of its most fascinating habitats is anything but - the dry, stony plains (or Peau de Meau) of the Coussouls de Crau, famous among birders as the only place in France where the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a desert bird if ever there was one, breeds. It was the sandgrouse that drew me to abandon my wife and parents on our European tour for a morning run to the reserve, and of course (it being August 30, well past the breeding season) I didn't see any.

I didn't know it at the time, but perhaps one of the reasons that I missed the sandgrouse was that only a few weeks earlier, the reserve had been devastated by a massive oil spill from a ruptured pipeline. According to the news story, some 4,000 cubic metres of crude oil spilled over five acres of ground - only a fraction of the 18,278-acre (7,400-ha) reserve, but enough to raise fears for the survival of both the sandgrouse and another specialty of the area I failed to find, the endemic Crau Grasshopper (Prionotropis hystrix rhodanica).

The reserve technically requires a permit from the nearby Ecological Museum to enter; the Museum was closed when I arrived the previous day. Anywayy, when I arrived the next morning there was no one in sight to check my permit (had I obtained one). The site was well provided with informative signs, and showed, thank heavens, no trace of oil.

On the way into the reserve, I came a cross a group of the famous Camargue wild horses, which are not really wild or even particularly feral (the gardians round them up at least once a year), but are certainly beautiful, and of very ancient lineage (though no one seems quite sure just how ancient).

The Coussouls are. technically, dry steppe, the only surviving remnant of this habitat in western Europe - arid, stony, treeless and perhaps a bit forbidding (though I found the place quite beautiful). The legal protection the Coussouls now enjoy is highly necessary; between 1983, when the reserve was first proposed, and its creation in 1990, 20% of the steppe habitat disappeared (Buisson and Dutoit 2006).

By late August, I imagine, most of the plants on the steppe are but dry remnants of their former selves; but some, like these globe thistles (Echinops sp?), are impressive even when dry.

This old farmhouse has been partially converted into a hide for watching the local birdlife (assuming, of course, that the local birdlife deigns to show up).

The hide did provide me with a view of this dragonfly, probably a female Keeled Skimmer (Orthetrum coerulescens), a common species identifiable by its yellow pterostigma (that's the little coloured bit out by the tip of the wing).

This drainage canal running along the edge of the reserve is a paradise for dragonflies and a well-known hotspot for odonate diversity. I ran into a pair of dragonfly-watchers near the end of my visit (and a good thing, too, as I am pretty much a beginner with this group, still feeling my way through the guidebooks).

Particularly common and obvious here is a beautiful damselfly, the Copper Demoiselle (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis). It sems more like a creature of the rainforest than an inhabitant of a ditch beside a near-desert, though the genus itself is largely found in Europe and North America, where males defend territories along flowing waters and lure females with elaborate midair courtship dances.

Brambles (Rubus sanctus) add another splash of colour along the canal - besides being very tasty!

I'm being a little harsh on the birds; a few wonderful species did turn up, including two of Europe's most exotic: about half a dozen European Rollers (Coracias garrulus), and, on the way out, a (dead) treeful of European Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster), about forty of them, presumably getting ready to head off for Africa (this one hung around long enough for a photo).

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