FRANCE Spring 2001
This was a short holiday to the Atlantic coast of France from 4th-12th May 2001. It was not a birding holiday as I was with my (non-birding) partner Laura, but nonetheless I did spend most early mornings out locally and we did drop in at other sites during the day. The area we stayed was near Les Matthes, about 20 minutes drive from Royan to the east. We stayed in a mobile home in a Haven Holidays park, which, because we visited outside the main holiday periods, was very cheap and very quiet. This would not be the case during the school holidays!!
The journey from Chelmsford involved driving about 600 miles, with a stopover on the way down at Evreux, but completed in one go on the return journey. I tried to complete most of the journey on the local roads in order to see more of the countryside (and to avoid the motorway tolls!). Most of the countryside on the way down is uninspiring, but the routes through some of the river valleys (such as The Loire) are very picturesque and there are some extensive areas of woodland, which would warrant further investigation (e.g. for woodpeckers) if time permitted.
The weather on our trip was variable, with several very warm sunny days, several generally cloudy days, some early morning fog and mist and a couple of very wet days. The average temperature was about 15° C, slightly below expected levels for the time of year.
Daylight hours in early May are from about 7am to about 10pm, taking in to account the one hour time differential.
Maps used were all French 1:25,000 IGN series (equivalent to our OS maps), in particular IGN 1430 OT Rochefort/Marennes and IGN 1332 ET Royan/Foret de la Coubre.
Day One 4th May. Journey from Witham to Evreux.
An early start today, leaving from Witham at 6.40am for the drive down to Dover. The journey was relatively bird less, but a Hobby was soaring over the fields near to the West Hanningfield junction of the A130. A fairly calm Channel crossing by P&O ferry to Calais followed, the only notable birds being a few Gannets, Fulmars and Kittiwakes, there being no sign of the Black-browed Albatross which had lingered off Dungeness earlier in the morning (it had drifted off west, not east!!). The weather gradually got wetter when we started the journey in France, but a few birds were noted, the best being a male Hen Harrier, which drifted over the road not far south of Boulogne. Otherwise, a female Marsh Harrier, lots of Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk continued the raptor theme and, approaching Evreux, there were numerous hirundines and Swifts over the rivers and pools. Flocks of the latter were also present over Evreux as the evening came to a close and at least two Hobbies came to investigate!
Day Two 5th May. Journey from Evreux to Les Matthes.
The morning dawned bright and breezy, in contrast to yesterday, but the weather did deteriorate during the 300-mile journey to Les Matthes, so much so that it was pelting with rain by the time we arrived at the campsite. Bird watching was not uppermost in my thoughts, getting to the campsite was the priority – not getting lost on the way was also a consideration and we only managed a couple of slight diversions…..after a Hobby in Evreux, raptors again dominated the journey, with lots of Kestrels, at least one more Hobby, 4-5 Common Buzzards and several other unidentified large raptors scattered along the route. Crossing the Seudre River close to our destination, 3 Little Egrets passed by and a little further on the first Hoopoe of the holiday flopped round a building in one of the villages.
We arrived at Les Charmettes at about 6pm, quickly checked in and collected keys. Any thoughts of a quick wander round the site were dampened, literally, by the constant, heavy rain so we contented ourselves with a hot coffee and a spot of unpacking. Nevertheless my eyes were on the lookout for birds and the few seen included another flyby Hoopoe and numerous Chaffinches, Swifts and Swallows. A quick look out of the bedroom window revealed a superb Wryneck hopping around in the base of the tree right next to the home and continued looking at this and several other trees nearby uncovered a pair of Serins and a pair of Short-toed Treecreepers. Notwithstanding the weather, it hadn’t been a bad start .
Day Three 6th May. Walk round campsite and Riviere de Cravans. Drive round the ‘Foret’, St Augustin and Royan area.
I was awake early today, probably at about 4am and probably expecting to be able to get a bit of birding done. However, it was pitch black and silent outside, so things were delayed until nearly 7am before I was out in the field around the campsite and surrounding marshes. My route took me through a small area of deciduous woodland out in to the fields, scrub and marshes of Rivieres de Cravans, an area I had visited previously way back in 1982! Immediately, I was struck by the almost constant sound of singing Nightingales, they were literally everywhere I went! The woods were very lively, albeit mainly with familiar species such as Wrens, Robins, Dunnocks, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Jays, Spotted Flycatcher, Nuthatch, Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers. More exciting were at least four singing Firecrests, including one seen very well on the edge of the campsite, several Short-toed Treecreepers, at least three singing Melodious Warblers, two of which were seen very well, and three Golden Orioles, seen briefly in flight but heard almost constantly. A singing male Cirl Bunting was close to the campsite and I bumped in to a family party of these a bit further on in to the fields. The very wet area in the Rivieres was virtually impassable in some places and was actually rather quiet bird wise – just a few Mallards, Moorhens, Coots, Grey Herons and a Cormorant around the pools, but by this time I had picked up a few raptors, most notably a Hobby, a Sparrowhawk, a male Marsh Harrier and two Black Kites. I was by now beginning to work out which species were common round here and had no difficulty in also picking up Cuckoo, Reed Warbler, Stonechats, 7-8 Serins, Common Whitethroat (no Lesser's in this area of France), White Wagtails, Turtle Doves and Cetti’s Warbler.
I was grateful that the rain had finally stopped overnight, but I returned to the mobile home very damp round the feet, a good job I had brought my walking boots. Most of the rest of the day was spent driving round the forest, the St Augustin Marshes and the outskirts of Royan. The weather was not fantastic, being overcast and very cool until about 1.30pm, after which the sun did appear between some very heavy storm clouds. Fortunately, there was no rain today! Birding-wise, little was seen until I diverted to Marais de Poisseau, highlights being regular Black Kites, a few Little Egrets, Marsh Harriers, Fan-tailed Warblers, Grey Herons and Blue-headed Wagtails on St. Augustin marshes and numerous Black Kites and Little Egrets as we passed over the marshes close to the Seudre river – several of the kites were seen extremely close to the car – shame the camera was in the boot!!
The final stop today was at Marais de Poisseau, an area I did not know of and only stumbled upon by driving round Royan and parking up in a hypermarket car park on the hillside overlooking it!! Thankfully, having the IGN map with us was a blessing as I was able to plot a route to a likely looking viewing area closer to the marsh, indeed on arriving there the profusion of fishermen meant that numerous parking spaces had been created along the roadside. The thundery weather had brought down literally thousands of Swifts and Swallows, whilst the nearby rubbish tip attracted good numbers of Black Kites. Apart from numerous Grey Herons and Little Egrets, the flooded grassland also held good numbers of waders, some close to the road. The commonest wader was Redshank (15+), but there were also at least six Greenshanks, two Grey Plovers, several Dunlins and Lapwings, a pair of Black-winged Stilts and, perhaps most surprising, two adult Knot. There were hundreds of Black-headed Gulls over the marsh and amongst these there was a single Common Gull. However, perhaps most impressive was a highly active and noisy loose flock of 7-8 Whiskered Terns wheeling around over the pools, a species that I was not expecting to see, despite the proximity of several breeding sites up the Atlantic coast.
The visit to the marsh at Royan had certainly made the birding day worthwhile and the only other notable sighting was of a smart male Black Redstart hopping around in the road back in Les Matthes.
Day Four 7th May. Walk in ‘Foret’, round the Phare and near Les Matthes. Trip to Brouage, Hiers and surrounding area, including the Moeze Reserve.
The day started very promisingly with bright sunshine at 7.30am when I ventured out in to the forest. However, by 10am cloud had started rolling in and by lunchtime it was a dreary, misty day, albeit not cold or windy. My walk round the forest centred on two areas, firstly the lighthouse area (‘Phare de la Coubre’) and then a clearing overrun with gorse in the main forest area. Arriving at the ‘Phare’, the first sound that I heard was an unfamiliar trilling song in the conifers – by waiting and edging very slowly closer, I eventually located the culprit, a rather tatty singing Bonelli’s Warbler moving around in the lower branches of some of the pines. Out on the edge of the beach and dunes a Wheatear appeared briefly in a dead bush and chats were also represented by a singing male Black Redstart on top of the concrete structures on the beach. Looking south out to the point, the sandy beach on the seaward side of the point held a large flock of Sanderling, a few Turnstones and a nice pair of Kentish Plovers, whilst the muddy margins east of the point held more estuarine waders, including good numbers of Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlins, Knot, Grey Plover and 12 Avocets, as well as 7-8 Little Egrets.
My next stop was in the main forest area in a clearing right next to the main road. With several years of growth, the area was very bushy and colourful. I was immediately struck by the fact that Common Whitethroats were singing from virtually every bush, but eventually I was also rewarded with a couple of singing Tree Pipits, at least two singing male Dartford Warblers and two singing Melodious Warblers. With little prospect of much else here (the clouds were beginning to roll in), I quickly dropped in at the marshes near Les Matthes where the only notable sightings were lots of Reed Warblers, a single singing Sedge Warbler and a Reed Bunting.
For the rest of the day, Laura and I headed north to Hiers and Brouage, two villages amidst the extensive reclaimed marshes and working oyster beds north of the Seudre River. Most of out time was spent wandering the fortified village of Brouage, where extensive views over the marshes can be obtained from the village walls. In the village itself, apart from a few Black Redstarts, the most notable birds were several Tree Sparrows, but from the walls I was able to catch up with three Spoonbills heading towards the coast, several Yellow-legged Gulls, a constant presence of Marsh Harriers, lots of Mute and (amazingly) four Black Swans, Little Egrets, Grey Herons and a pair of White Storks with two young on a nesting platform right next to the road.
We headed out towards the Moeze reserve for a late lunch, but the area was slightly disappointing and the road was no more than a rough, dirt track suitable only for an all terrain vehicle (Ford Fiesta’s don’t count!). Apart from good numbers of Black Kites, a single distant Purple Heron prowling around an old creek was the best sighting. The rest of the afternoon was spent driving very slowly round the Brouage and Hiers marshes, stopping from time to time to scan the area. The weather was unfortunately very dark and dingy, which did not help viewing, but nevertheless it did prove fruitful for birding. Close to the road I was able to find at least 25 Cattle Egrets, a species I was not really expecting to see here but which was quite common throughout (where there were Cattle!). In addition to that there were several much closer Purple Herons, stacks of Little Egrets and Grey Herons, loads of Marsh Harriers and Black Kites, dozens of Kestrels, a Hobby, 2-3 Common Buzzards, several pairs of Black-winged Stilts, Blue-headed Wagtails everywhere and more White Storks. Not a bad tally for a drive of about eight miles!
And so ended day four of the holiday, 95 species ‘in the bag’ but so far very grim weather.
Day Five 8th May. Walk in ‘Foret’ and brief visit to St Augustin marshes. Drive along the coast east along the Gironde to Talmont and Mortagne-sur-Mer, back via Marais de Poisseau.
I awoke today to find that the weather was still no better, it was dull, cool and very cloudy, but at least it was relatively calm. I believe the Sun was not seen at all today! But I was still out early, reaching my chosen clearing in the forest at about 7am. The area was a very recently cleared area, with only a few standards, about 500 metres from the main road. The clearing itself was a little disappointing, the main birds seen being just a few Stonechats, 4-5 Tree Pipits, a singing male Cirl Bunting and a singing Bonelli’s Warbler in the adjacent pines. Back at the car, which was parked in the picnic area next to the main road, I had picked up a singing Woodlark when I arrived, also seen briefly as it dropped in to the car park and I was not surprised to find another one out amongst the dead wood in the middle of the clearing.
I still had a fair bit of time, so drove round to St Augustin Marshes for a quick look there. Eleven Little Egrets were present in one field as I came on to the marshes and 6-7 more of these flew over amongst a large group of 27 Spoonbills, which were heading north. Three more Spoonbills followed a little later. Apart from 5-6 early rising Black Kites and a singing Fan-tailed Warbler, little else was seen.
The trip out with Laura in the afternoon was to Talmont, then Mortagne-sur-Mer. Talmont was about 15 miles east of out campsite and was a very pleasant coastal village renowned for it’s flower displays a bit later in the year – nevertheless it was relaxing walk round the village even in early May. Bird wise, after a Hobby on route, the surrounding mudflats held good numbers of waders, mainly Ringed and Grey Plovers, Whimbrels and a few Knot. In the village there seemed to be Black Redstarts singing from every building and I did catch brief glimpses of a few young birds nearby.
The plan was to then head for Mortagne-sur-Mer further east, but first we decided to have lunch next to an archaeological site in the hills above the coast road. This was in an area of lightly rolling agricultural land, which seemed to be teaming with bird life (unlike much of Essex nowadays). Corn Buntings were all over the place and drowned virtually all other birdsong as we ate, but I did also manage to locate a male Cirl Bunting, a male Black Redstart, several Blue-headed Wagtails and, over the nearby cereal crops, a pair of Marsh Harriers. The route to Mortagne was enlivened by a couple of interesting species, firstly a female Pheasant (!) strutting along the road and latterly by a superb male Red-backed Shrike hunting from a tall hedgerow in a small valley next to the road. Amazingly, this was my only shrike of the trip. Mortagne itself was a very busy but interesting place – here we spent some time walking round a monastery carved out of the cliffs just east of the village. There were a few birds here, especially around the monastery area, but nothing better than the two Hoopoes, which flew over us in the centre of the village.
And so to the last bird site of the day, a return visit to Marais de Poisseau near Royan. I was not to be disappointed as the marsh today held even more birds than last time and was teaming with passage waders. The commonest species was Ringed Plover, with 30+ present, but there were also at least 15 Greenshank, 15 Grey Plovers, 10+ Dunlin, 7-8 Black-winged Stilts, 2-3 Ruff, 2 Bar-tailed Godwits, 2 Spotted Redshanks and a Common Sandpiper. Amongst the Dunlin, I also managed to locate a very bright summer plumaged Little Stint and a moulting adult Curlew Sandpiper, whilst dotted amongst the vegetation on the near side of the pools were at least four very vocal Wood Sandpipers. The Whiskered Terns were also still present, with at least 12 today, and other birds included a pair of Shoveler, a fine drake Garganey, Little Egrets, a White Stork, Black Kites, loads of Swallows, Swifts and 1-2 Sand Martins, Black-headed Gulls and Blue-headed Wagtails. It had been a very good end to the day!!
Day Six 9th May. Trip to Rochefort then Fourat. Evening visit to ‘Foret’.
Too tired this morning, I did not rise early to go out birding, so it was a little frustrating that when I did manage to look outside, it was a bright, sunny, calm day. Indeed, by the time I wandered outside at about 10am, it was warm enough for raptors to be on the move, firstly a Black Kite heading north, then a Honey Buzzard moving quickly over the trees next to the campsite. Today was spent mainly around Rochefort, to the north of the Charente River, and then Fouras, a seaside resort overlooking a ‘network’ of offshore forts, including Fort Boyade now well known for a British ‘challenge-style’ TV show. Today was more about seeing some of the local life rather than birding and so, until the evening at least, birding was more backseat. Rochefort is actually home for a large part of the French equivalent of the RSPB, but unfortunately I did not realise this until we returned home later having walked past the buildings that house the offices – never mind. Rochefort itself is a very pleasant medium-sized French town and the streets and roofs were teeming with Swifts, probably the only notable bird in the town. We spent lunch in a very quiet lay by off the main road to Fouras and, here at least. I managed a few birds, albeit only a few Stonechats, Black Kites, Fan-tailed Warblers, a singing Melodious Warbler and a flyover Purple Heron. Fouras itself was quite impressive (for the French equivalent of Frinton-on Sea!), perhaps enhanced by the now gorgeous weather, and even a few birds came out to play, including at least four Black Redstarts and two Wheatears. Nonetheless, that was pretty much it for the birding until the late evening, when I persuaded Laura that we should go Nightjar hunting in the forest, more or less at the site I visited yesterday morning.
On reflection, we went out too early in the evening and it was still actually just about light as we walked back from the clearing having been found by, swarmed round and eventually bitten by the thousands of mosquitoes in the area. Was it worth all that effort for a Short-toed Treecreeper, at least five Tree Pipits, a Bonelli’s Warbler, a Common Buzzard, a Cuckoo and loads of Nightingales? Eventually, having driven up and down the roads for a while, I pulled up back at the clearing again and there were a couple of Nightjars churring, calling and wing-clapping quite close to the road, albeit they went unseen.
Day Seven 10th May. Trip to Yves Marshes, La Rochelle, Rochefort Sewage Works.
Another lay in, but I wasn’t quite so bothered about missing my early morning birding as the weather was pretty lousy again today, with rain, cloud and a moderate breeze. The trip today took us even further then yesterday, ending up in La Rochelle, about 50 miles to the north. There was plenty of Serin activity on the campsite this morning, as well as another flyover Hoopoe and a singing male Cirl Bunting, whilst another Hoopoe flew over the road in Diree, a few miles up the road from Les Matthes. On the way to La Rochelle I decided to stop at Yves Marshes nature reserve but the directions in the guidebook were just a little out of date because of changes to the road layout and so we eventually arrived there by a slightly fortuitous route. Nevertheless, the diversion did provide me with new birds for the holiday, firstly a Crested Lark running around in the rough ground by the Les Trois Canons turning and secondly a Montagu’s Harrier being chased by a Black Kite next to the main road in the same area. The nature reserve centre appeared to be closed (despite us arriving within the supposed opening times) and, it has to be said, also appeared to be very run down, being sited as it is alongside a very busy pull-off for lorries! The only notable bird sighting here was a flock of 13 Mediterranean Gulls heading for the mudflats beyond the reserve. Lunch was spent at the roadside by some pools round the back of Yves Marshes close to Les Trois Canons and was enlivened by a Little Grebe on one of the pools, a flyover Purple Heron and the usual Marsh Harriers and Cetti’s Warblers. Back at the main road junction, complete with Crested Lark again, another Montagu’s Harrier, a ringtail, was moving slowly across the fields.
La Rochelle was next on the agenda and, quite frankly, it was a big disappointment- signs to the centre of the town were virtually non-existent and we promptly got very lost, also hitting town at lunchtime rush. Being a busy, large town it did not seem to have the character written about in many of the guidebooks and was really no different to any other similarly sized place.
The journey back home took me through Rochefort and here I opted for a walk out to the Rochefort sewage treatment works, apparently a good birding site right next to the main motorway. The walk to the very impressive viewing area was through a low-lying marshy area full of frogs, Fan-tailed Warblers and Blue-headed Wagtails. The area overlooked by the viewing area was several large rectangular concreted reservoirs, really quite disappointing. Being very low-lying, the viewing area was also less than panoramic, the only pool with any birds on it being right over the back and virtually out of view. I did hang around for 20 minutes or so and could console myself with a few good birds in the end – a family of Black Swans (!!!), a Common Sandpiper, a Black Tern and an adult and an immature Little Gull. After this we did have a quick drive round Rochefort and later Hiers – in these areas nothing new was seen, but there were more sightings of Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets, Black Kites, Black-winged Stilts etc, as well as a party of six Spoonbills flying slowly west near Hiers.
Day Eight 11th May. Walk round Phare de la Coubre and Pointe Espagniole. Trip to Saintes and Marais de Poisseau.
Today was a beautiful, bright, cloudless, hot day! I decided to have an early start, it being our last full day in France and so headed out for a tour of some of my previously visited sites in the forest. First on the agenda was the Phare de la Coubre. Here, as before, I scanned the waders out in the bay and along the beach for some time, clocking up a Whimbrel, 30 or more Knot, lots of Grey Plovers, Redshanks and Dunlins in the bay and the same pair of Kentish Plovers as previously along the beach. Round the edge of the dunes I managed to locate a singing male Tawny Pipit, a bird I was hoping to see here but which had so far eluded – I picked it up on the song, not by recognising it but by following a song that I had never heard before until the bird itself showed!
A quick stop in the forest at a previously visited clearing revealed more Tree Pipits, Common Whitethroats, a Dartford Warbler and a Melodious Warbler, whilst the ‘nightjarred’ picnic site held a pair of Wheatears. As time was still available I decided to drive down to Pointe Espagniole, a sandy beach at the northern end of the forested peninsular. Here, after stopping to look at a few Tree Pipits and Cirl Buntings on the road down, I scanned the Atlantic for a while and was amazed to find a mobile flock of 37 Common Scoter on the sea. A few Sandwich Terns were also patrolling the beach and y second Tawny Pipit of the day put in an appearance.
The rest of the day Laura and I spent in Saintes, a medium-sized town to the east of Les Matthes (about 50 miles away). The journey, through rolling agricultural land, was actually quite good for birds, especially raptors (but there were also Corn Buntings everywhere). Apart from numerous Black Kites, I also stumbled upon two separate male Hen Harriers and a particularly well-marked Honey Buzzard soaring over a nearby wood. Saintes itself was a great improvement on La Rochelle and we spent quite a few hours wandering, the most impressive sight being a Roman amphitheatre just out of the town centre. We had lunch overlooking the Charente, which was still in flood over the local grasslands and this area held an impressive 23 Common Sandpipers and a single Little Ringed Plover. The town itself seemed to be alive with both Serins and Black Redstarts, certainly more so than anywhere else we had been and our wanderings also meant bumping in to a couple of singing Common Redstarts (for a change!).
Saintes finished with, I was keen to drop in for the last time at Marais de Poisseau and this I was able to do. No Whiskered Terns today but still a reasonable selection of waders, including 40 or more Dunlin, 15 Greenshank, lots of Redshanks, three Turnstones, two Ruff and an adult summer Curlew Sandpiper (a different one to the adult a couple of days previously). At least nine Black Kites were swooping low over the marsh today and just beyond, over the fields, a male Montagu’s Harrier was hunting, with another over a cornfield a bit further up the road. Back at the campsite more Black Kites were still active, as well as at least one Cuckoo and several singing Firecrests.
Day Nine 12th May. Journey home to Witham.
The last day was spent at the wheel of my car, literally from 9am until our arrival home at about midnight!!! Birding was therefore very limited, with just a few Serins, a Cuckoo and a Wheatear on the site and a few Black Kites and Common Buzzards on route. The only holiday tick of the day was a male Yellowhammer in a service area north of Rouen (holiday tick number 128) and it was left to Calais to provide the only other notables – a Crested Lark in the middle of the busy road out to the hypermarkets and a Hobby which flashed by outside McDonalds! Next morning, it was back to reality with a singing male Lesser Whitethroat in our back garden and the news that I had missed nothing of any significance in sunny Essex (thank god for that!)
Little Ringed Plover
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Total: 128 species.
The area is definitely well worth a trip, probably at any time of the year and whether you are birding seriously or just casually. I did not really do much birding at all and the area is potentially very good for ‘finding your own stuff’ (actually that’s probably the only way to do it!). I did miss out on some species relatively common in the area, such as Great Reed and Savi’s Warbler, Bluethroat and Crested Tit, as well as some present in very small numbers, such as Short-toed Lark and Short-toed Eagle. Not far away, there are summering Little Bustards and Stone Curlews, whilst in recent years rarities have been turning up in spring and autumn (mainly waders, but I am absolutely sure autumn passerine migration could be very good). Although not prominent in spring, late summer and autumn sees some very impressive seabird movements along this coast and Sabine’s Gulls can be very common in favourable conditions. I hope to return at some point in the future, hopefully not after another gap of 19 years!
Daryl Rhymes June 2001