I returned several times during the week to Camargue but my days were quite unsuccessful. The Flamingos are still scattered in small groups and lounging on fairly inaccessible ponds and marshes. Unless I have a really good telephoto lens, I am not going to see much. But I don’t have the immediate opportunity to acquire one so I have to find another way to approach them. The Pont de Gau ornithological park located near the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a private reserve and care center apparently sheltering many flamingos. I decide to go there.
Indeed, I barely enter the reserve that I come face to face with a group of about fifty flamingos gossiping happily. The small ponds behind are also covered with pink waders taking care of their business. Small paths wind through the ponds and I can watch the birds just a few meters away! Some seem to doze, their long neck forming a loop on their chest and their head resting backwards on their back. With their head hidden between the feathers, the only thing I see is a funny body on long, thin legs. Some birds are only on one leg, the other folded or suspended in the air forming an almost perfect 90° angle.
Other birds rummage through the mud looking for small shellfish. They dive their long beaks into the water for a while and seem to circle inward, making curious movements with their legs. By observing them I understand that they pat the ground with their webbed feet while making a circle on themselves. They have the knee joints reversed compared to those of humans and their legs movement reminds me of pedaling backwards. Other birds swim in the water like swans only diving their heads below the surface. In some places, the water seems shallower and the birds come out with their heads covered in liquid black mud, which gives them a funny, somewhat monstrous appearance. But the mud does not stay long hung on their feathers. Barely a few seconds later, they are all pink again, all clean.
A large number of flamingos are busy cleaning themselves. They smooth their feathers, spray water, use their mobile neck at almost 360° to reach the most distant feathers. As they spread their wings, I distinguish long, beautiful red rose feathers (wing coverts) ending in black feathers (primary and secondary flight feathers). Some individuals have damaged flight feathers, this must prevent them from flying properly. When they have their wings folded, I can only see the tip of the wing coverts. Some gusts of wind sometimes raise their back feathers and it makes me think of the dress of Marilyn Monroe. The flamingos are funny birds with a very large and massive body and yet they look so elegant!
The bird’s beak is impressive. Pink with the end black and curved in the center, it seems to open only very slightly. By looking more closely through the zoom of my camera I can see what looks like a very fine baleen, like those of whales (thin strips of keratin). This is what the bird needs to filter the water. I can see something moving inside the beak according to their movements and I deduce that the bird must have a fairly large tongue. Their legs are also completely pink. They are so fine and seem so fragile that I wonder how they manage to remain motionless for hours on one leg. Their eyes are yellow with a small black pupil. One eye on each side of the head. I wonder how they see the world. Birds generally have a very good vision but how do they do to see the world with depth?
Some birds have gray and white plumage and I deduce that these are young, still immature. Even their beaks and legs are still gray. Some, a little larger, have a light pink color at the tips of the feathers. The pink color is therefore acquired with age. I have no idea how to distinguish males from females. No difference jumps out at me. I will learn later that only a slight difference in size (the females being smaller) can distinguish them.
All this is done in a fairly strong general gossip. The call of the Flamingos resembles that of the geese. For me, who is a human with rather poor hearing, I don’t hear much different in their gossip. The only really different sound I hear sounds like what for humans could be called a “throat sigh”. Difficult to put words on this slightly strange sound but on hearing it I said to myself that it sounded a bit like a human sound. In any case it was different from the general clamor. I do not know on what occasion this sound is emitted. In the middle of the day, the vast majority of the colony gathered here seem to be sleeping. The activity does not really resume until the end of the afternoon.
I also go around the reserve strolling in the middle of the marshes, amazed by the presence of many grey herons, egrets and cattle egrets. There are even some storks! And then there are coypu (or nutria). In large numbers. It is the first time I see them so close. Not to be confused with a beaver, coypu has a long thin tail and orange incisors. I see adults with cubs swimming in the water. As I walk away from the ponds where the Flamingos are gathered, I hear strange sounds like baby babbles and moans. I wonder what it can be. On a small island in the middle of the water I see two coypus that I first take for beavers (but no, they have fine tails) in a great grazing session. I spend a long time watching them until they finally return to the water. A groan is heard and one of the two swimming coypu utters a similar sound. I then realize that all the strange cries that I have heard while walking around are actually coypu cries! The end of the day is near and I go back home, amazed by the observation of the Flamingos and all of these interesting animals.