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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
CROSS CHANNEL BIRDING,
The Calais/Boulogne area harbours some very interesting species and has superb birding sites (despite many areas being heavily shot over). For birders based in south-east England the area makes a very good day trip, but a long weekend is really needed to explore all the sites mentioned. Visiting two or three sites in one day is usually quite enough. This account has been compiled largely from my own visits, but I am grateful for the input from those who've given me lifts and others who have kindly supplied information. Those sites I don't know, and hence I may have garbled and/or misunderstood the information, I've marked with an asterisk. These details are largely based on trips made in May/June and so I have little information on winter or autumn birding (information on birding in these seasons would be most welcome). Autumn birding has great untapped potential. (In 1996, a year when there were 12+ Pallas's Warbler in Kent, only one was reported in the region and that was only the area's 4th record). A number of species rare or scarce in across the Channel are tolerably easy to find in the Pas de Calais (e.g. Honey Buzzard, Kentish Plover, Little Egret, Spoonbill, Golden Oriole, Crested Lark, Bluethroat, Melodious Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Crested Tit and Serin) and other good species are possible with luck or effort (e.g. Great Reed Warbler, Bee-eater, Common Rosefinch and Black-winged Stilt).
NOTE : Hunting remains a popular pastime in this area and is probably the reason why many marshy areas still exist. Frankly, whatever your views, it is best to avoid confrontations.
Depending on your route and timing, using the tunnel can add up to 2 hours on your birding time in France and you don't have to book, but you miss out on the sea-watching en route and it is generally more expensive (but check with le Shuttle - tel 0990 353535 - for special offers). Birding the area is obviously easier by car, but birding on foot/cycle from the Calais ferry terminal can be rewarding and, unlike motorists, foot/cycle passengers generally needn't book onto the ferries in advance. Several operators sail to Calais via Dover (P&O - tel. 0990-980 980, Stena Line - tel. 0990-707070, Hoverspeed - tel. 0990 240241 & Seafrance - tel. 01304 212696). Boulogne can be reached via the Seacat service (tel. as Hoverspeed). Sally Lines (tel. 0990 595522) now only sails the Ramsgate-Ostend route and so is of limited use for exploring this area. Stagecoach (tel. 01227-472082) currently operates a regular Canterbury -Folkestone- Boulogne coach service via the tunnel (allowing c6 hours in Boulogne). Connex South Eastern also runs a coach service through the tunnel from Ashford (tel. 0870-6030405)
ACCOMMODATION & TRAVEL IN FRANCE:
Note that the maps are intended as a general guide only and that it is advisable to use a good up-to-date road atlas or local maps. Note also that since I last explored some of the more southerly sites the A16/E402 has been completed to Abbeville and beyond. This makes travel to these sites much quicker and the area more accessible on a day trip , but, as I haven't used this road beyond Boulogne (and details are yet to appear on many maps) beyond Boulogne, I WOULD APPRECIATE UPDATED DIRECTIONS USING THIS ROAD.
If planning a weekend trip and you don't mind clean, but basic, accommodation try the Hotel Formule 1 chain (Abbeville, Boulogne & Calais). Abbeville would make a fine base for exploring the south; Boulogne or Calais for the Cap Gris Nez/Platier d'Oye areas. St Omer is also a pleasant base and, lacking the huge numbers of British tourists, has more of a French feel.
1.DUNKERQUE and LE CLIPON*
The eastern of the two breakwaters that extends out to sea from le Clipon (north of Loon-plage) is reputed to be far better than Cap Gris Nez for seabirds (inc all three Skuas, shearwaters, petrels etc). NW or NE winds are best. Following the example of Felixstowe and Zebrugge the well-lit docks ought to be a draw for migrants . The harbour can be good for divers, grebes and seaduck in winter. Crested Lark are present at the old 'Sally Line' car park and in other suitable habitat in the town. (There is also a newish heath land reserve on the French/Belgian border where Dartford Warblers have been seen and looks good for migrants).
Directions: Follow main coastal road east from Calais to Loon-plage (c 30 km) then follow minor roads north to le Clipon and the harbour. The western side of the harbour may presumably be explored by minor roads north-east of Gravelines. [See Map 6]
2. PLATIER D'OYE
Apart from an ultra private site near Les Attaques, this is by far the best site near Calais for waders. A large hide, near the car park, overlooks a large 'scrape' which can hold good concentrations of Kentish Plover, Little Ringed Plover and Avocet plus all the usual migratory waders. Temminck's Stints are regular and rarities have included Lesser Yellowlegs, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper and Red-necked Stint. About ½ mile further east there is a large shallow lagoon (with several hides around its perimeter) which is excellent for waders (Black-winged Stilt has bred), gulls (inc. Med. Gull), terns (Whiskered Tern has been recorded in May) and Spoonbill. I have also seen Garganey and Black-necked Grebe here in spring. The coastal scrub holds masses of Nightingale and should be good for migrants. Snow Bunting, Lapland Bunting and Shore Lark winter (look on beach towards Grand Fort Philippe - c130 Shore Lark & 100+ Snow Bunting in 97/98). The area also has Natterjack Toad. [Note: The surrounding area is heavily, and sometimes indiscriminately, shot over. A number of illegal shooting blinds remain on the reserve and are the subject of continuing acrimonious dispute - so exercise sensible caution!]
Directions: Follow either the D119 or N1 east from Calais to Oye-Plage (c16 km) and then head towards les Dunes d'Oye and then head towards the coast following the reserve signs. Park in the large gravelled car park (with toilet block!) near first hide. Paths from here allow exploration of the scrub. Either walks or drive east to explore the lagoon. [See Map 1]
The newly grassed area near the Hoverport has Crested Lark.. The beach can hold Kentish Plover. The Tioxide factory (off the first roundabout from the ferry terminal) holds Black Redstart. Behind the factory and near a football pitch is an area of woodland and scrub which has Icterine Warbler, Short-toed Treecreeper and Golden Oriole. It should be excellent for migrants. Walk east along the dunes towards les Hemmes de Marck and you reach an area with bushes that also look excellent for migrants (BUT the pools in the dunes are shot over and it is all too easy to wander into such an area without realising it with consequent potential for accidents/confrontations, so take care). For the energetic the coastal track here allows you to walk or cycle to Platier d'Oye. Two pairs of Fan-tailed Warbler bred near Marck (just east of Calais) in 1997 - take the wide gravel beach north to the beach they're around the small pools just east of the main road out of Calais.
Directions: Simply explore the area east of the ferry terminal and behind the smoking chimneys of the Tioxide factory. This can easily be done on foot or cycle from the ferry terminal.
4. MARAIS DE GUINES*
This reserve consists of marshy scrub, a couple of lakes, a single hide and a '9' shaped path round it. It holds Golden Oriole, Bluethroat and Acrocephalus warblers. Little visited, this site would probably repay further investigation.
Directions: Marais de Guines is c10 km south of Calais east of the D127. Turn south-east just short of Guines along the D248E. A path enters the reserve via a small, easily missed gate, just west of St. Joseph's Hospice.
5. ROMELAERE (St Omer)
A pleasant wetland reserve north-east of St Omer that has Marsh Warbler, possibly Great Reed Warbler (I've never found them), Bluethroats (which favour the grassy dyke crossed area in the middle of the reserve), Golden Oriole, Honey Buzzard (esp. in surrounding woods) and, rarely, Little Bittern (exceptionally, 3 pairs in 1995). Serin and Black Redstart can be found in St Omer (the former in the large municipal parks).
Directions: Take the A26 and then the N42 to St Omer (c 40 km from Calais). Skirt the north of the town on the D928 and turn right just after you pass under the railway line onto the D209. Continue to Clairmarais - the reserve centre is 400m past St Bernard's church.
6. ESCALLES and CAP BLANC NEZ
Common Rosefinch are best looked for early in the morning in late May/early June. They are best located in song as they perch on isolated clumps of bushes along the road to the monument on the cap, but remember to exercise restraint as they remain rare breeders in France. Rosefinch can be seen elsewhere along this coast, but Blanc Nez is the most reliable site. You can try sea watching from here, but Cap Gris Nez or le Clipon are better. The whole area looks excellent for migrants (e.g. Ring Ousels, Grasshopper Warbler). In autumn the hilltop with a radio tower and overlooking a reservoir (across from the monument) is particularly good for migrating raptors (esp. Marsh Harrier & Buzzard) which turn inland along the valley.
Directions: Escalles and Blanc Nez are c11 km south of Calais along the D940
7. WISSANT MARSH*
Wissant marsh has Marsh, Savi's and Cetti's s Warblers (plus Marsh Harriers and Bluethroat) and is very well placed to attract migrants. The northern half is shot over, but the southern half is now a reserve.
Directions: Follow the D940 along the coast. The marsh is midway between the two Caps (c 20 km south-east of Calais). Just off the road at the northern end there is a good, if distant, view point over the area. Continue down the main road and turn right along a track at the southern end to reach the reserve.
8. CAP GRIS NEZ
Gris Nez is a well-known migration hot-spot and sea watching site (esp. NE or NW wind) - numbers of skuas, shearwaters (inc Sooty) and petrels higher than in across the Channel. An excellent site for visible migration, but there is little cover on the Cap to hold birds. Friends have had Snowy Owl, Rustic Bunting Corncrake and Long-tailed Skua here, but I've never been lucky. Common Rosefinch occur, but Blanc Nez is better.
Directions: Cap Gris Nez is well signposted from the D940 and N1 (c 30 km South-east of Calais) and is very handy for the Channel Tunnel.
Bee-eaters have bred here since 1996 and are easy to see in reasonable weather. It is also a good area for Grasshopper Warblers and various migrants. As with Rosefinch, remember that Bee-eaters are rare in this part of France and behave accordingly. (NB - a larger, wardened, Bee-eater colony is rumoured to exist nearer Calais, but I have no details).
Directions: Just north of Ambelteuse (c 40 km South-east of Calais), turn down a narrow lane heading away from the coast (just beyond a small World War II museum - not to be confused with the museum at Audinghen). Park near the old rubbish tip (c150 m) and view along the small stream.
10. BOULOGNE and LE PORTEL
This is the area for gulls - esp. Mediterranean Gulls and has turned up some rare/scarce species (e.g. Ring-billed Gull, Yellow-legged and 'white-winged' gulls). Don't ignore the rest of Boulogne - the inner waterways can hold Mediterranean Gull (and has played host to an Audouin's Gull). In July 1997 I had a Saker Falcon fly over the old town!
Directions: Follow directions to le Portel which is a suburb on the south side of Boulogne (c 35 km from Calais).
11. HARDELOT and MONT ST FRIEUX
Hardelot, esp. the area around the golf clubhouse and the swish houses nearby, is excellent for Redstart, Serins and Crested Tit. The Dunes de Mont St Frieux*, between the D119/D940 and the coast, a few km further south towards Dammes also has Crested Tit and Goshawk plus, it is said, a pair or two of Black Woodpecker.
Directions: Follow directions off the D940 Boulogne - Le Touquet road for Hardelot (c 50 km from Calais) and thereafter for the golf club. For Mont St Frieux look for tracks off the coastal road south from Hardelot.
The Dunes Nature Reserve on the Canche estuary has three hides and a viewing platform. These overlook pools, scrub and marshy areas. As the Canche is shot over, this reserve should be a haven for waders and marsh birds, but I have no details. More information please!
Directions: Take the D940 south from Hardelot as it skirts Camiers (c 55 km from Calais) take a narrow track about 300m north of the British cemetery and park just before the railway bridge. Follow track under bridge to reserve and hides.
A poplar plantation on the N1 near Montreuil is worth a brief pause for Golden Oriole.
Directions: If you don't notice the plantation on the N1 (c 70 km from Calais), I suggest you take up another hobby!
14. CRECY FOREST
Crecy Forest, a magical woodland of mature beech, oak and conifer, is easily explored via the network of tracks and roads that criss-cross the area. The mature woodlands hold Golden Oriole, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit (esp. in conifers) and Hawfinch. The forest now has a few pairs of Black Woodpecker and I have twice heard them in May, but an early spring visit is recommended. Birds of prey here include Hobby, Buzzard, Honey Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and, reputedly, Goshawk. I have once had a Red Kite here, but they are rare. The open areas of mixed scrub with plenty of broom within the wood are favoured by Melodious Warbler, but note that Icterine Warbler are sometimes seen. Map Butterfly present.
Directions: The forest is some 90 km south of Calais. Take the A16/E402 south leaving at Exit 24 to connect with the southward bound N1. Turn left to cross a bridge over the A16/E402 at the junction of the D32 & N1 (as the exit road swings north, this bridge is just south of the exit you've just used). This road enters the forest at Forest-Montiers. [Note this road was completed since my last visit so please check directions!] If coming from Sailly Bray enter from the D111 south of Novion (before the junction of the D32).
15. SAILLY BRAY
A superb site best visited early AM. Combines well with a later visit trip to Crecy and/or Marquenterre. It has Blue-headed (and Yellow) Wagtails, Golden Oriole, Grasshopper, Savi's, Cetti's and Marsh Warblers, but the star of the show is Bluethroat (c14 pairs in 1997). These are best seen in the marshy area near the Pont-le-Dien picnic site. Spotted Crake, Garganey and Bittern occur. Marsh, Montagu's and Hen Harriers have all been seen in spring. A reasonable track, running along the southern edge of the marsh, links Pont-le-Dien with Sailly Bray, allows good views of the marsh. The track on the northern side of the marsh, to Bonnelle, is not suitable for cars throughout its length. Apparently there are Bluthroat and Savi's Warbler near Bonelle, but I've not seen them personally. Wild Boar also occur. [Please keep to the roads and respect the rights of local landowners - a locally based British birder has permission to watch this area and it would be a shame to prejudice this].
Directions: Take Exit 24 from the A16/E402 and then the N1 south to Nouvion (c100 km south of Calais), then the D111 to Nolette where you turn right for Ponthoile and park after c1 km at the Pont-le-Dien picnic site.
The area gets crowded with day trippers, but most head straight to the beach. A path loops round the muddy lagoons passing through oddly designed hides. This reserve has Little, Great and even a few Cattle Egrets and an introduced population of White Stork. The 'scrapes' hold a variety of waders including Kentish Plover and Avocet. It is a regular stopping off point for Spoonbill. It is also a good site for vagrant waders (including, in recent years, Terek Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper). Crested Tit and Serin can usually be seen in the woods on the edge of the reserve and Black Woodpeckers seem to be colonising the area. People tend either to love or hate this reserve - I've never bothered to go in since most species can be seen from outside the reserve. However, the site has a good reputation for attracting rarities (e.g. Terek Sandpiper). To the south of the reserve the Somme estuary can be scanned for waders from le Crotoy. The estuary itself is heavily shot over.
Directions: Take exit 24 off the A16/E402 for Rue then follow the D 32 to the west of Rue (c90 km south of Calais). Then take the road signposted to the reserve; various tracks off this lane may allow access to the beach and along one, sign posted 'To the Bay' (only in French!), we had several White Stork. Entrance to the reserve is about 45F (c£4.50) and is open from 9:30 - 19:00 April-September and 10:00 - 17:00 in the winter, but it would be wise to check details with the reserve in advance.
17. HAUBLE D'AULT
A series of pools along the coast between Cayeux-sur-Mer and Ault attracts a variety of species - a reed fringed pool with Mute Swan has a few pairs of Great Reed Warbler. This pool is nearer Cayeux than Hautebut. It is also a good area for migrants - Whiskered Tern apparently regularly in spring. Pools nearest Ault have Natterjack Toad.
Directions: After crossing the Somme and passing St. Valery-sur-Somme either continue into Cayeux along the D204 or turn south towards Ault along the D940 (c8 km) to Hautebut. Pick up the dirt track at Hautebut that runs along the dunes and past the pools between the front to the sea front at Cayeux. (Reverse directions if coming from Cayeux). Being 120 km south of Calais including this in your itinerary makes for a long day.
If you venture across the Channel for some birding, particularly if you visit sites not listed here, please let me know what you see so that I can update my database. Feel free to photocopy/fax/email these sheets and pass them on to other interested parties.
Should you have a spare place in your car, I would be happy to act as your guide if you wish. If you just want to chat about birding in France, check on details, tell me what you've had, etc. then please phone [or write/fax/email] me.
Good birding, John Cantelo, 17 Clyde Street, Canterbury, CT1 1NA. Tel/Fax. O1227-762316 Email - email@example.com
SOME KEY SPECIES
The population figures that appear in these accounts have been culled from the excellent regional bird atlas ('Les Oiseaux de la Region Nord - Pas-de-Calais' - 1985-1995) and refer to a 'core area' (i.e. the coastal strip c50km deep running from the Belgian border to the River Authie). Unfortunately this omits the excellent areas of marsh (e.g. Sailly Bray) and woodland (e.g. Crecy Forest) between the Authie and the Somme. Where I have indicated population shifts this is always between 1976 & 1995 and , unless stated otherwise, refers tp the whole region covered by the atlas (i.e. Nord-Pas-de-Calais) as detailed breakdowns are not given in the atlas.
Seawatching - strong onshore winds bring in gannets, skuas, shearwaters, petrels; in spring strong westerlies can produced good movements off Cap Gris Nez; in autumn strong NW or NE bring birds past Clipon and Gris Nez.