Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Eurasian Stone-Curlew and Lesser Kestrel, La Crau, May 29th

Open steppes near Vergieres, Plaine de la Crau, May 29th.
Open steppes near Vergieres, Plaine de la Crau, May 29th.

This location in southern France is one of my most nostalgic of birding spots. Constituting the old delta of the river Durance, La Crau is a vast stony plain that has been used as pastureland since Roman times. It’s a unique habitat in France, and supports the country’s only remaining populations of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Lesser Kestrel, both of which are fairly easy to find with a little time and patience.

It was a day trip here and to the nearby Camargue in August 1992 that really cemented my growing interest in birds. Species such as European Roller, European Bee-eater and Southern Grey Shrike seemed impossibly exotic in those days. It was a memorable day yielding many lifers, and despite having seen all the special birds here on numerous occasions since, I still get the same feeling of excitement whenever I make a return visit.

This site is always at its best during the first few hours of daylight, before the hot sun stifles bird activity and heat haze makes viewing difficult. I decided to concentrate on the area around Vergieres, which these days is now a protected reserve complete with signboards and a hide. Despite the inevitable changes to the surrounding areas, thankfully the birds here are more or less the same as they were on that first visit 23 years ago.

Today I spent around three hours slowly walking a clockwise circuit of the Vergieres steppe. One of the first birds I saw, close to the parking area, was a Eurasian Stone-Curlew. I went on to see a couple more of these enigmatic birds during my visit. Greater Short-toed Larks are very numerous here, regularly seen song-flighting overhead, but far harder to get close to on the ground. A couple of Crested Larks and two Tawny Pipits were also typical birds for this area.

One of the key target species, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, proved fairly easy to find, with several pairs and groups of birds seen. I didn’t manage to locate any on the ground, but enjoyed some excellent and close flight views. From the “hide” in the top of an old barn, several flocks of Lesser Kestrels hunted or perched on the stone mounds. I didn’t have a telescope, which would have been useful to scan for Little Bustard, so unfortunately I didn’t see one today although an extremely distant Common Shelduck standing in the desert briefly gave me cause for a double take (what was it doing there?).

Other notable birds seen during my most enjoyable walk included an adult female Hen Harrier, several Red-legged Partridges and a Hoopoe.

2015 Year Ticks: Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Lesser Kestrel, Eurasian Stone-Curlew, Tawny Pipit, Greater Short-toed Lark (total 725).

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2 thoughts on “Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Eurasian Stone-Curlew and Lesser Kestrel, La Crau, May 29th

  1. Great report, as always ! How different are Lesser Kestrel from Eurasian Kestrel in appearance? Is it quite obvious? I think many folks are always hoping a Lesser makes its way to the ROK.

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    1. The plumage of the male is quite distinct, providing you get good views. Females and young birds are much more difficult to tell apart – plumage is more or less identical to Eurasian, I believe (although I think Lesser has pale claws, but I’m not sure how useful a field mark this would be!). Lesser Kestrel is slightly smaller and shorter-tailed, to me they look daintier. A vagrant lone female or juvenile would be a difficult bird to clinch for sure. Of course it’s simpler in their breeding areas where Lesser Kestrel is almost always seen in small groups or flocks, unlike the solitary Eurasian Kestrel. Hopefully the first Lesser Kestrel for the ROK will be a nice easy adult male! 🙂

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