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A Report from

FRANCE (Western Loire) MAY 1999,

Mike King

Saturday 29th May 1999 Quedgeley, England to La Riviére, Chateau Gontiers, France

Weather : Warm and sunny but cloudy and breezy at sea

We left home at 8am and traveled south to catch the 12:30pm ferry from Poole in Dorset where we would meet the rest of the family. Eight of us were headed by road and sea to the Western Loire region of France for a family holiday where I hoped to get some good birding time.

The journey to Poole was uneventful, if a little tortuous, and the only birds of note were six Common Buzzards, two Sparrowhawks and a pair of Kestrels.

We sailed out of Poole on time and immediately saw Brownsea Island on our right. There were good numbers of birds in the lagoon including 15 Cormorants, 100 Oystercatchers, three Common Terns and six Sandwich Terns. The remainder of the four hour journey was very quiet and despite spending much of the time on deck in the sunshine there were only five Gannets, two Fulmars and a single Manx Shearwater worthy of note.

Disembarking at Cherbourg at 6pm, now an hour ahead of UK time, we started off on the three and a half hours journey south to La Riviére. I started to compile my French holiday list and to be honest it was not a great one, until we reached Laval.

The best birds were, in order of appearance, a Jay at Torigni, a Grey Wagtail at Le Poteau, single Common Buzzards at Vire and Lonlay D'Abbaye, a White Wagtail at Domfront and a Red-legged Partridge at Laval. At Laval however came the first hint of better things to come when a male Golden Oriole flew in front of the cars.

We were glad when we had arrived at the farmhouse, which was to be our home for a week. The place was huge and offered all home comforts and was owned by the farming family who lived in the house immediately next door. They were lovely people from Yorkshire, so we had no immediate language problems.

Sunday 30th May 1999 La Riviére, Chateau Gontiers, France

Weather : Heavy showers early on then warm and sunny

I awoke early and went out to explore the local area on foot. It was warm but raining lightly at first but it soon became heavier. I walked up to the railway line above the farm. Here I could hear an unfamiliar birdsong but I could not see the bird. After waiting for a few minutes I saw a bird plunging from the depths of one bush into the next. I could see that it was a warbler. I suspected that it was Melodious Warbler as there were not many to choose from that I didn't know the song of, but that were possible here. Eventually it sang from the outer edge of an elder bush and I knew that I was right. It was a large warbler with pale green upperparts and pale yellow underparts and a large prominent bill. It sang with a wide gape and was reminiscent of Marsh Warbler's song in some ways. Later on my walk I saw two others singing from telegraph wires at Eclevon, I was pleased to see them because I had only seen one other as an autumn migrant at Nanquidno in Cornwall.

I walked the lanes through a couple of settlements to the next village where I bought fresh bread for breakfast. I saw a good selection of species in the hedgerows, something we lack in England. The best of these was a male Cirl Bunting at Le petit Champ Grenu.

Other notable species during my walk included a male and a juvenile White Wagtail, a pair of Turtle Doves at La Riviére and another pair at La Bellangerie, three Nightingales singing, one of which I saw well and five Common Buzzards. A pair of Red-legged Partridges was at La Riviére and two pairs at Le petit Champ Grenu. A male Stonechat was at the latter site and a pair at La Riviére. The first spring Spotted Flycatcher was at Eclevon with another at La Riviére.

Also at La Riviére was a Cuckoo and a Green Woodpecker. There were lots of Wall Lizards in the garden.

Monday 31st May 1999 La Riviére and Nyoiseau, France

Weather : Hot and sunny

I got up before everybody else and went for a walk around the lanes. Although still early the air was warm and blue skies promised a very hot day. I walked towards Eclevon and soon I was seeing lots of birds. Many were common species but all seemed to be doing very well.

On the lane through La Riviére I saw a White Wagtail, three Red-legged Partridges and two male Stonechats. Another White Wagtail was at Ciscoignard and another pair of Red-legged Partridges was at La Haute Forge.

Eclevon was buzzing with birds in the mature hedgerows and set-aside type fields. There were four singing Melodious Warblers here, with another just a little further up the road at La Grande Renaze. From the depths of the hedgerow four different Nightingales were singing, one of which gave good views. Also here were three Turtle Doves, there was another at La Grande Renaze and one at Ciscoignard. Cuckoos were at Eclevon and La Guyonnière.

As I returned for breakfast a Common Buzzard flew over the road at La Riviére.

After breakfast we headed in convoy to Nyoiseau where there was a Farm park/Museum for the days entertainment. We also screeched to a halt in convoy when I spotted a female Hen Harrier hunting over fields at Gruge l'hopital. Everyone was duly impressed, also here was two Common Buzzards, a Kestrel and a Turtle Dove. Turtle Doves certainly seemed to be easier to find than they are in England these days.

The Farm Park at Nyoiseau was not only an excellent family day out but it was great for birding too. The donkey paddock held my favourite bird, a Hoopoe, feeding at quite close range giving wonderful views. This was a really unexpected bonus. Whilst I walked round the perimeter of the paddock following the Hoopoe I heard an unfamiliar song coming from a shed in the corner. It was a singing male Black Redstart.

Then as I rounded the next bend I could see a large raptor soaring on thermals above the adjacent wood. It was a Honey Buzzard. I was well pleased to have three scarce species in the space of fifteen minutes.

At home in the evening whilst we were polishing off some red wine in the sunset a Hummingbird Hawk Moth flitted amongst the flowers in the garden. A super way to end the day.

Tuesday 1st June 1999 La Riviére and Angers, France

Weather : Cloudy but warm becoming very warm and sunny later

A non-birding day with a visit to Angers to see the castle and city and enjoy a bit of culture. However there were still one or two notable birds during the day.

A Serin was singing from telegraph wires as we drove out through Chateau Gontiers to Angers. Common Buzzards were at La Riviére and La Membrolle.

Angers was a beautiful city with wonderful panoramic views from the top of the castle. We were up at eye level with the many Swifts that screeched around the walls in packs. The walls were also home to several Wall Lizards. This seemed a like a wildlife oasis in the middle of the city. A Sparrowhawk whizzed through on broad wings determinedly pursuing its next meal.

When we left Angers we tried to find some nearby meadows which were supposedly a haven for Corncrakes, however in the absence of proper directions we just got hopelessly lost and gave up.

In the evening I was delighted to find a Hoopoe in the field outside the garden at La Riviére. After walking out to obtain closer views I was able to sit in the shade with a glass of red wine and watch it whilst it fed throughout the evening. Also in the hedgerow was a singing male Yellowhammer and a pair of Linnets.

Wednesday 2nd June 1999 La Riviére and Chateau Gontiers, France

Weather : Strong breeze with light showers becoming warm and sunny later

Another day spent locally shopping so not a lot of birds to mention. However the Hoopoe was in the field on and off throughout the day and enjoyed by all the family. Common Buzzards were at La Riviére (a pair) and Coudray. La Riviére also had a pair of Red-legged Partridges and a pair of Turtle Doves. There were also pairs of the latter species at La Jaille and Daon.

Thursday 3rd June 1999 Forêt de Bellebranche and La Fleche Zoo, France

Weather : A bright start but then heavy showers becoming sunny and dry in the afternoon and more showers late pm

Two pairs of Turtle Doves were at La Riviére when I set out early in fine weather to the area around Vion, which was supposedly good for birds, according to one of the books I had. However all I saw was a White Wagtail here.

I found the Forêt de Bellebranche by accident as I drove round searching for a site to bird at. Following a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers through the wood, in the hope of them being something rarer, I came to a clearing. Immediately I saw a cracking male Hen Harrier out hunting. I enjoyed seeing this silver ghost for a quarter of an hour until it disappeared from view. It had just start to rain so I decided to go home for breakfast. I also saw a Tree Pipit and a Nuthatch here.

After a morning of torrential rain the sun came out and the roads dried quickly so we all decided to go to La Fleche Zoo for the afternoon. A Hobby flew across the road at Crosmières on the way.

The zoo was excellent, especially for its spacious enclosures, interactive animal sessions, free-ranging lemurs and a wonderful Polar Bear enclosure with some of the biggest bears we had ever seen. It even had a few notable wild birds - there were three singing male Serins, a Common Buzzard, White Wagtail and a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Friday 4th June 1999 Forêt de Bellebranche, France

Weather : Cloudy and mild with some showers later

Having already suspected that the Forêt de Bellebranche had the potential to produce good birds I returned today at 7am. As I got out of the car a male Hen Harrier was flying around the clearing opposite. I decided to walk around the clearing, which was flanked, to the right by a small lake and on the other three sides by mixed woodland. I heard three Golden Orioles singing in the treetops and I managed to see one of them very well (much easier than Lakenheath). There were three parachuting Tree Pipits in this large clearing. A male Cirl Bunting sang from the edge. The lake held mainly common water birds but a male Pochard was notable. Six Nuthatches were in the woods and I spent a lot of time trying to identify a high up and mainly out of sight woodpecker. Its call was very unusual but my excitement was lessened when it finally revealed itself to be a juvenile Green Woodpecker. Two Common Buzzards soared above the clearing, occasionally with the Hen Harrier.

A Spotted Flycatcher hawked for insects near the car. Also of note was a beautiful Red Squirrel and a Roe Deer.

Saturday 5th June 1999 La Riviére, Chateau Gontiers, France to Quedgeley, England

Weather : Warm and sunny

The last day, having packed the night before I got up early for a final walk around the area. Four Grey Herons were on the fishing lake before the farmer shooed them off. I saw all the usual birds, a list of which included a male Yellowhammer, a pair of Red-legged Partridges, a Common Buzzard, a pair of Stonechats, a Melodious Warbler, a pair of White Wagtails and a Turtle Dove. I also heard a Nightingale and a Cuckoo. A female Wood Duck on the stream at Eclevon was almost certainly feral. I don't know what their status is in France.

After breakfast we loaded the cars and headed for Cherbourg. The journey was uneventful and only notable for thirteen Kestrels and nine Common Buzzards.

We spent a couple of hours at Omaha Beach, on the anniversary of D-Day, with plenty to see and do before catching an early evening ferry back to Poole. The crossing was quiet and the only notable seabirds seen were six Gannets and an adult Kittiwake.

An excellent family holiday with enough good birds thrown in to keep me interested.

© Mike King 2000

The Gloster Birder


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