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A Report from

France - May 2000,

Mike King

Saturday 27th May 2000 Quedgeley, England to Locquinghen, France
Weather : Warm and sunny but with a strong breeze and showers later

We left home early and travelled south-east to Folkestone in Kent to catch the early afternoon train through the Channel Tunnel to Calais. With the wind becoming worse and ferries cancelling and Sea France on strike, it seemed to be a very wise decision to have pre-booked, especially on a Bank Holiday weekend.

We were in France within 35 minutes of leaving England, very impressive, and without too much trouble found our gite at Locquinghen. However we did manage to lose my sister and family along the way but they found us eventually.

There were only common birds seen on the journey. My first species in France were Swifts in the darkening skies over Calais.

Sunday 28th May 2000 Locquinghen, Boulogne and Ambleteuse, France
Weather : Heavy showers, near gale force winds but brighter by early pm with sunshine and the wind dropping

I awoke to a truly horrendous morning but as with all first mornings of a holiday I was determined to explore the immediate area. I saw only a few common birds around the village, heard the song of a Lesser Whitethroatand watched a Grey Heron gallantly trying to fly across a field. The rain was heavy at one stage and returning to the house I got blown over in the village. Great holiday weather! Not!

Realising that it was going to be an indoors day we headed for Boulogne and Nausicaa, its famous sealife centre. Approaching Boulogne we could look down on the harbour and see huge waves breaking high into the sky over the seawall. Nausicaa was amazing and we soon forgot about the weather especially when we came to the warmth and wonders of the tropical reef. It was posssible to have eyeball to eyeball encounters with fish and even to stroke the tame rays. The sharks and sealions were also memorable. When we emerged from Nausicaa the winds, although still strong, were dropping and the sun was shining but the park was littered with branches that had been wrenched off earlier.

I walked down the beach with the children to where a large flock of common gull species huddled. They were mainly young Herring Gulls together with a few Common Gulls and a couple of Black-headed Gulls. I looked carefully for Med Gulls but none were to be seen. A Common Tern manfully flew past into the wind a close range.

I persuaded everyone to go home via Ambleteuse where I hoped to see Bee-eaters (however this was never to happen). There were three Cuckoos here and a pair of Turtle Doves, my first of the year.

A White Wagtail at Locquinghen on the way home was my first real French bird.

Monday 29th May 2000 Ambleteuse, Dunes de la Slack, Wissant and Calais, France
Weather : Bright and sunny with a strong breeze at the coast

I got up early to a much better day with bright sunshine although still breezy. I went to Ambleteuse again. The Turtle Doves were sat on the wires almost as if they hadn't moved overnight. I could immediately hear a familiar song which I had thought I had caught a hint of yesterday above the high winds. It was a Marsh Warbler, it was singing in full view no more than two metres from the lane. There was a pair here and I got the best views that I have ever had. The Worcester birds were never as close of this because of the river which separated them from me.

There were also at least four Cuckoos here; a Nightingale that sang unseen from deep cover and just before I left a female Hen Harrier flew along the ridge.

I drove the short distance to the huge dune system, Dunes de la Slack, where the wind was brisker and the sea was still alive with whitecaps. A male White Wagtail was in the carpark and a rather bedraggled male Wheatear was on the short turf near the beach. Linnets abounded throughout the dunes as did Whitethroats which seemed to be song flighting from every bush. A Nightingale sang from the top of a stunted elder looking rather out of place amongst all the sand.

I checked back in at Ambleteuse on the way home for breakfast where I met an English birdwatching tour. The leader told me my hopes for Bee-eaters were faint as they had not returned last year (he'd checked seven times) and they were not here this year either. Also there were no longer any Rosefinches at Cap Blanc Nez. Cheered by this happy news I went home.

We all went back to the dunes for a picnic lunch and the children and grown-ups played on the beach and beach-combed for a few hours. Then we went our separate ways driving north towards Calais before heading back home. At Wissant a male Black Redstart sang from the roof of the house favoured by Charles de Gaulle and his family for a summer retreat. A check at Calais Hoverport revealed no Crested Larks only Skylarks. Just south of Calais a male Marsh Harrier hunted over a marshy field.

In the evening a Tawny Owl was calling near the garden and a Pipistrelle flitted around the porch, where a Wren had a nest no more than a few inches from the doorframe at head height.

Tuesday 30th May 2000 Bois de Guines and Calais, France and De Panne, Belgium
Weather : Cloudy and mild becoming sunny later, wind now negligible a few light showers early evening

This morning I decided to drive to Bois de Guines, just a few kilometres from Locquinghen. I saw a pair of Grey Partridges on the way near Boeucres this is a species much easier to see in France than at home, I saw another pair later at Calais.

It was a mild morning and the woodland was busy with the songs of many common species. In fact the animals were proving easier to see than the birds with Brown Hares and Rabbits at the edges and in the surrounding fields, a Hedgehog deep in the wood and a super Roebuck near the car park. A pair of Stonechats showed well by the railway but the best bird was in the carpark when I returned. Together with several Nuthatches I found a Short-toed Treecreeper, which apart from being the creeper of the region easily gave itself away with its chaffinch-like 'chink' and buff flanks.

As I left I stopped to look at a fluorescent male Yellow Wagtail on a ploughed field. I also saw a Turtle Dove at Boeucres and at Locquinghen.

After breakfast we headed for a theme park called Bagatelle off J25 of the A16, however we went North towards Calais where we got off at J25 but we found we should have been at J25 South of Boulogne. Undeterred as we were on the Belgian border, my sister, who had never been to Belgium thought we should do just that. We drove to De Panne in Belgium where we found a delightfully named theme park called Plopsaland. As it was a school day the park was fairly empty with few queues so we spent an enjoyable day there.

On the way home we stopped again at Calais Hoverport where two Grey Herons fished in a small pool beside the road. Again there were no birds on the grassy areas, however in an inspired move Bridgette suggested we should try under a bridge just south of the Hoverport which led to a huge lorry park. The first bird we saw was a Crested Lark which I had good close views of in the rough grassy area beside the road. It flew across the road and joined two others that I hadn't spotted previously. We watched them for a little while longer before the shower of rain that had started became too heavy for comfort. They were quite unmistakable birds and only superficially like Skylarks. They had an always erect pointed crest more like Thekla Lark, buff outer tail feathers and when they flew they could been seen to be large pale sandy coloured birds. I was very pleased to have finally gained this lifer. Also here was a lone Wheatear and six Linnets.

Wednesday 31st May 2000 Le Marais des Guines, Hardelot Plage and Locquinghen, France
Weather : Very warm and sunny with a slight breeze

This morning I made a very early start and set out to find Le Marais des Guines, a small reserve which was quite difficult to find, but well worth the trouble. I walked down the track to the reserve and was quite surprised to see a pair of Shelduck overhead, which came in to land on one of the pools.

This reserve was Warbler Central, almost all the common ones were singing, and it didn't take me too long to locate three uncommon ones as well. There were nine species of warbler in all. The first of the less common species was Cetti's Warbler which I heard loud and at close range several times before I saw the bird. Then I thought I heard a Savi's Warbler which was reeling quietly, it became louder as it got closer, but I couldn't see it. I was beginning to think maybe it was just a cricket (although I had heard Savi's in France before) when it climbed to the top of a clump of rough grass and reeled for a long time in full view. This was a life tick for me even though it was not my first, I had two reeling in France in 1998. It looked similar to a Reed Warbler with a pale throat, pinkish legs and it reeled with a wide gape. It was very difficult to see colours accurately because of the rising sun behind the bird but very aesthetic nevertheless.

The other uncommon warbler (at least in Brtitain) was Marsh Warbler which gave excellent close views whilst it sang its mimetic song.

Just after this I watched a female Marsh Harrier hunting over arable farmland just beyond the reserve boundary. I later saw a male hunting over grassland near to where I had parked the car. As I watched the female harrier I heard an unfamiliar song. It took me a moment for me to trace it to its owner. It was a stunning male Bluethroat gleaming like an avian jewel in the morning sunlight. I watched absorbed as it sang its rattly song and watched it frequently cocking its tail. This was my favourite bird of the holiday as you never see bluethroats in all their glory like this back home.

As I was making my way back to the car a brown cat-sized rodent with a longish tail came crashing through the reeds towards me and then dived into a ditch disappearing underwater. I saw another briefly sat beside a ditch near my car, this too immediately dived into the water at my approach. I cannot be sure, but after mentally eliminating otter, mink and coypu, I decided that they were probably Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) a European introduced species apparently becoming a pest in some areas.

There was also a pair of Grey Partridges sat by my car.

As it was a lovely sunny day and very warm we decided to spend the day at the beach so we loaded up the car and headed south to the beautiful town of Hardelot Plage. The beach was great and we had almost to ourselves until after lunch. Bridgette and I walked around the town and I was pleased to find a singing male Black Redstart atop the buildings in the main street and later on the church. The first Serin of the holiday was here and others were heard singing as we drove home. 

In the evening as we had a barbecue in the garden I could hear a male Cirl Bunting singing from the field adjacent to our gite. By peering through a hole in the near impenetrable surrounding hedgerow I managed to catch a glimpse of it briefly.

Thursday 1st June 2000 Marquenterre and surrounding area, France
Weather : Overcast in the morning but hot and sunny pm

In the morning Michael who had had a bad reaction to sunburn on his feet from the previous day needed a doctors visit for some medication. He had suncream just about everywhere else but you don't expect feet to burn. In the event the poor lad could hardly walk as his feet had swollen and he had to wear his uncle's slippers. I suggested we took a ride to the bird reserve at Marquenterre as it was better than sitting around the house all day.

So we packed a picnic and headed south. At La Canche three Little Egrets were in a roadside pond. I also saw two Roe Deer in a field near Boulogne and a Brown Hare at Valloires.

On arriving in the Marquenterre area we first took a small road down towards the beach where we had our picnic. I walked alone down a track for about half a mile where I could see into the reserve. A Nightingale sang loudly here although I didn't see it but I did see one later from the reserve carpark. The view was excellent and in a flash a couple of fields away was an Avocet amongst commoner gulls and wildfowl. I could see two purpose built stork platforms, one in the reserve and one distant outside of its boundary. As far as I could see there were two well-grown juvenile White Storks in the one nest and three in the other. Then a Great White Egret flew through dropping down behind the pines before I could watch it for long. Two Common Buzzards soared overhead in the bright blue sky and three pairs of White Storks flew over in quick succession, one of them bill clacking. They began to soar on the thermals with the buzzards.

We drove on round to the carpark of the reserve and as it was a French Bank Holiday it was packed, rather like Titchwell gets, only with a bigger carpark. We decided not to go in because of Michael's difficulty in walking and because of the football-sized crowd of people. Anyway most of the special birds could be seen without actually going in. So we stopped up one of the exit tracks where the Marsh Frog chorus emanating from two ponds was deafening. Whilst we were here another, or the same Great White Egret flew over as did another three White Storks. Back on the main road a Serin sang from telegraph wires and another could be heard beyond it.

We headed for Le Crotoy stopping first at La Bassée a wonderful piece of flooded meadow besides the road. Here a White Stork caught frogs unconcernedly just a few yards from the busy pavement, which was thronged with walkers, birdwatchers, skaters and cyclists. The storks in this area were originally re-introduced a few years ago (rather like the kites in Britain) and regardless of their tickability they were a joy to watch. Even Bridgette and Michael were enjoying this kind of birdwatching. They were obviously doing well and had spread well beyond the bounds of the reserve. Next best here were two beautiful adult Cattle Egrets in breeding plumage, which were feeding appropriately amongst the cattle. Also here was a fine male Yellow Wagtail.

We drove on to Le Crotoy and had a look at the beach. Unbelievably a Great White Egret was feeding in a pool surrounded by Bank Holiday sun seekers. We had excellent views of it feeding. A small flock of waders was quite distant on the beach but were too distant to pick out species. I suspect most were Dunlin.

We stopped again at La Bassée on the way out. There was a colony of Black-headed Gulls nesting right next to the main road. They were busy and very noisy and I could see eggs in almost every nest. There must have been at least 100 pairs.  Another Great White Egret was here, even closer than the last, and as I watched it my pager (which had stayed on-line) announced Great White Egret at Ashleworth Ham. I managed to catch up with that one too on the Saturday we returned home. The only Black-winged Stilt of the week was feeding near the egret. A family party of White Wagtails was here, two adults and four juveniles. Completing the picture a pair of Pintails for which the area is well known and it is the Pintail, which is the reserve emblem. A pair of Grey Partridges were near Crecy on the way home.

All in all a successful day and Michael's feet were rapidly responding to the medication which was good news. In the evening the Cirl Bunting sang again but out of view.

Friday 2nd June. 2000 Ambleteuse, Cap Gris Nez, Cap Blanc Nez, Azincourt and Dennebroucq, France
Weather : Bright and sunny and very warm after a cool start

This being the last whole day of the holiday I decided to have a tour round the coast in the hope of finding some late migrants or seabirds. I set out early and headed for Ambleteuse. On the way I saw a Grey Partridge at Rinxent and two pairs at Marquise. There was also a male White Wagtail at Marquise.

Arriving at Ambleteuse I still harboured a faint hope of getting a Bee-eater but had to settle for less yet again. A Grasshopper Warbler was reeling by where I parked up and a Nightingale was singing though neither was visible. The only notable birds seen were a White Wagtail, a male Stonechat, a male Yellowhammer, two Cuckoos and a Turtle Dove. I pushed towards the two Caps stopping briefly to watch a female Marsh Harrier at Audresselles.

Cap Gris Nez had a large movement of Swifts going past but oddly most seemed to be southbound. At the base of the cliffs on rocks below the old wartime defences there was a party of Eiders. There were fifteen in all including four definite males.  Also here were two Oystercatchers. A short seawatch revealed only a Fulmar, a juvenile Gannet and four Sandwich Terns apart from the usual gulls. There was only a handful of migrant species the best of which was a male Yellow Wagtail.

A stop at Tardinghen revealed that all the wildfowl on the pools here were in fact decoy ducks, the only wild birds being a solitary Mute Swan and a pair of Stonechats. At Wissant a Green Woodpecker flew across the road.

Cap Blanc Nez was even quieter with five Stonechats (two males, a female and two juveniles) although it was apparent a heavy Swift passage was underway. I returned home to breakfast after a quiet couple of hours birding.

Today we had decided to visit Azincourt (Agincourt) and Dennebroucq, the former being the site of that famous French rout and the latter having a fun park where we could spend most of the day enjoying ourselves.

The only birds to report were two Marsh Harriers in aerial battle near Boulogne. Three Common Buzzards and a Jay were at Azincourt and another Jay was at Fruges. Dennebroucq meanwhile had a Grey Wagtail by its old water mill and a pair of White Wagtails nesting behind the Heineken sign above the bar.

Saturday 3rd June. 2000 Locquinghen, France to Quedgeley, England
Weather : Bright and sunny and warm after a dull but mild start

Whilst I was loading the car to go home a Golden Oriole sang from the poplar plantation at the end of the garden, as did a Nightingale, but both frustratingly remained invisible.

We had an excellent run home, managing to get on an earlier shuttle so I had time to see the Ashleworth Ham Great White Egret in the evening, a welcome County tick. Another brilliant French vacation.

© Mike King 2000

The Gloster Birder


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