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Beaucoup de Herons and Funny Pheasants,Bassoles-Aulers & Maresquel- August 2001
Our family holiday this summer was a two-centre holiday in Northern France. Although not essentially a birding trip I planned to do what I could. As it turned out I amassed a list of over 100 species, plus some new butterflies and a few mammals. The first week we were based in Bassoles-Aulers in Aisne province and the second week was based at Maresquel in Pas-de-Calais province.
DAY 1 Sat 4th August
Quedgeley, Glos to Bassoles-Aulers, Aisne, France
Weather: Sunny and warm with showers in the afternoon
We set off in warm sunshine for Dover at around 6:30am to catch the 10:45am ferry from Dover to Calais. The journey to Dover went smoothly and the only birds of note was a Buzzard on the M5 at J12 and a Common Tern as we passed by the Water Park and another at Theale G.P.s. We arrived at Dover in good time and set sail with Stena Line on time. Employing the important tactic of getting to the restaurant before we set sail we had had a full English breakfast before the ship had gone far past the harbour walls and beaten the mass rush that follows sailing. This enabled me to get on deck and sea-watch all the way. I have always found this crossing to be particularly poor at any time of year. Nevertheless I did see a few birds. On the Dover side I recorded an adult Kittiwake, an adult and a juvenile Gannet and a Great Skua, which was a welcome year tick. Approaching Calais I saw twenty or more Kittiwakes and a Fulmar.
Bridgette took over the driving when we reached France, because there is nothing more dangerous than a birder driving when there is the possibility of something good being seen. In the event there were only common species but a single and a pair of Turtle Doves near St Quentin were my first of the year. There was also a flock of twenty Lapwings here.
When we arrived at our destination it was raining. Our base for the first week was to be a converted schoolhouse in Bassoles-Aulers. Once we had settled in the boys went off to explore and I had a local stroll around the village. I was pleased to find that our garden had its own family of Black Redstarts, two adults and two juveniles. It also had a huge Weeping Willow tree, which through the week hid an enormous number of small birds. The garden also had a visiting pair of White Wagtails, which came to gather food for their young, which were in a nest near the village pond. The garden backed onto a thin belt of deciduous woodland in which I saw Great Spotted Woodpecker and Green Woodpeckers, the latter being very vocal all week. Three Turtle Doves flew over doubling my years total. A Grey Heron also flew past; this was a regular occurrence, I soon discovered why when I discovered some trout fishing lakes on the edge of the village.
DAY 2 Sun 5th August
Bassoles-Aulers, ForÍt de Coucy-Basse and Chateau de Coucy
Weather: Overcast and mild with showers becoming sunny and warm later
I got up early and set off on foot to explore the immediate surroundings of the village. It was muggy with showers. The first notable bird I saw was the male of my Black Redstart family, quickly followed by a White Wagtail. When I reached the main road I could hear a Turtle Dove purring and a Buzzard calling from the depths of the wood, but I saw neither. A male Yellowhammer provided a bright splash of colour in the hedgerow on my return.
Along the lane by the fishing lake a buzzing call alerted me to a Willow Tit, which was my first of the year. All my regular spots for this species at home had been off-limits due to the Foot and Mouth crisis. From the garden whilst having breakfast I saw both woodpeckers again. Our Willow had a Short-toed Treecreeper feeding along one of its mossy branches. Occasionally it called with its chaffinch-like 'chink'.
One of the most notable things throughout the holiday was the large numbers of House Sparrows that seemed to be in every town and village. This was apparent when we drove out to the ForÍt de Coucy-Basse, as we passed through Sinceny a flock of a hundred or more flew across the road and descended into a crop field.
The ForÍt de Coucy-Basse proved to be an excellent choice because as we reached the first clearing a pair of Honey Buzzards circled low over our heads, giving stunning close views. They were my first since the mass invasion of September 2000.
A Green Woodpecker also gave me a start as it flew up from the lawn of the Warden's cottage.
The forest was excellent for butterflies too. In recent months with new birds becoming more difficult to find I have been diversifying into other fields and have been taking a particular interest in butterflies. I managed no less than three lifers during the morning in the woods. They were the delicate Wood White, a White Admiral and a beautifully coloured Map butterfly. I also recorded Red Admiral, Ringlet, Meadow Brown and a Brimstone. Unfortunately those other invertebrate denizens of the forest took a shine to us, Les Moustiques, mosquitoes; they were evil little devils so we beat a hasty retreat.
After lunch with the weather much improved we visited the ruins of the Chateau de Coucy, much of it still intact, with parts dating back to the 13th Century. I added another three butterfly species to my holiday list, Large White, Wall butterfly and a cracking Swallowtail.
In the late afternoon back at Bassoles-Aulers a Honey Buzzard flew over the garden in a clear blue sky giving all of us excellent views. Jays and Green Woodpeckers flew back and forth noisily. The Short-toed Treecreeper returned to our tree. At dusk four Swifts flew South following on one in the morning and one at lunchtime. We finished the day with some nice wine watching a pair of Pipistrelles, which appeared to be residents of our eaves.
DAY 3 Mon 6th August
Bassoles-Aulers, Parque de L'Ailette and Sissonne Military Camp
Weather: Overcast and mild with showers becoming sunny later
Once again I set off on foot around the village before breakfast. Both White Wagtail and a male Black Redstart were around the schoolhouse. A Great Spotted Woodpecker showed well. I re-discovered the Willow Tit and also a Marsh Tit for comparison. Near the Trout Lake a male Serin sang from the top of a fir tree, and was surprisingly my only Serin of the holiday.
After breakfast we set off for Parque de L'Ailette where we spent a good part of the day on the imported white sand beach and taking part in some of the activities there. I did see a Nuthatch and an unseasonal drake Pochard although I was not looking especially for birds.
I persuaded the family that we should encircle Sissonne Military Camp on the way home as it was listed in Where to Watch Birds in Northern France etc as being an excellent site. The road across the camp was given as a left turn in the book but it was actually on the right. Along the bottom edge of the camp were a couple of Kestrels hunting and a fairly distant Buzzard. As we turned along the top of the camp at Nizy-le-Comte we struck lucky with a cracking Black Kite (only my second ever) quartering an oilseed field. We got decent views although it was always going away from us. We stopped on the road across the camp but there was no sign of hoped-for bee-eaters or shrikes even though the sun now shone. However there were masses of Swallows and House Martins around, plus a nice Yellow Wagtail, a Turtle Dove and an extremely raggedy Honey Buzzard.
A Fox was at Pinon on the way home and the Pipistrelles entertained us again at dusk. A Brimstone Moth overnighted in the bathroom.
DAY 4 Tues 7th August
Bassoles-Aulers, Laon, ForÍt de St Gobain and Hermit's Rocks
Weather: Light showers becoming heavy later in the day
I awoke to a grey day with light showers and the forecast suggested that the weather would worsen later. I saw a Black Redstart on the garden fence together with a Spotted Flycatcher. We set off for the hilltop town of Laon. It was an ancient city with an impressive Cathedral where we were glad of the respite from the rain. We had lunch in a nice bistro before going home. A pair of Black Redstarts were on the city wall.
After lunch the rain had eased so we went for a walk in the ForÍt de St Gobain. Apart from a male Blackcap and a pair of Marsh Tits I saw little of note. The boys wanted to walk somewhere a little more adventurous so we went to nearby Hermit's Rocks. They were able to clamber on the rocks and explore the cave. The rocks were encrusted with myriads of shellfish fossils, which indicated that this was once on the seabed. We decided to walk to the lake as the sun was out. We saw Nuthatches in the car park and I found another new butterfly for me, a Large Skipper. As soon as we reached the lake it started to rain heavily again and we all got soaked on the return to the car.
DAY 5 Wed 8th August
Bassoles-Aulers and Parc Asterix
Weather: Mostly warm and sunny with a few showers
Today was to be a Theme Park day so birding wasn't on the agenda. I saw a White Wagtail in the garden just before we left. I also noted a Buzzard on the journey down to Parc Asterix on the outskirts of Paris.
Even in the midst of a noisy and very busy Theme Park birds were still evident. House Martins had built a colony of nests on the artificial rock, which a huge model of Asterix was atop. Swallows also had nests in some of the Asterix village buildings. A Black Redstart was on the wooden station of the toboggan ride. Canada Geese on the lake had had a successful season. The many flowers and shrubs attracted lots of butterflies including a fine Swallowtail and a Brimstone.
DAY 6 Thur 9th August
Bassoles-Aulers and Parque de L'Ailette
Weather: Cloudy but warm and sunny
Today I got up early to a warm morning and took a long walk around the village and its surroundings. A juvenile Black Redstart greeted me from the garden fence as I left the house. I soon arrived at the junction on the edge of the village. In a selection of fruit trees and elders there was a good assortment of species including Blackcaps, a Marsh Tit and a Spotted Flycatcher along with lots of commoner species. As the lane passed the woodland edge I saw a Short-toed Treecreeper and a Nuthatch in the same tree. I also saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a Buzzard and another Spotted Flycatcher. Throughout the week Green Woodpeckers had called noisily in the village, more often heard than seen, and this morning was not an exception with several heard. Beyond the woodland a scrubby area was also full of birds, notably Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, a Garden Warbler and three Yellowhammers, two of which were bright yellow males. When I returned to the garden the pair of White Wagtails were there and I also found a Goldcrest.
After breakfast we set off for Parque de L'Ailette again where we spent the rest of the day swimming, playing beach rugby and cricket and the boys did the treetop rope course. Whilst we were all aboard a pedalo I saw a selection of common water birds and four Sand Martins were the first of the holiday.
In the evening on a walk around the village we admired a fine Roebuck on the edge of the woods. Two Pipistrelles showed well around the veranda at dusk.
DAY 7 Fri 10th August
Weather: Warm and sunny
The whole day today was spent visiting Paris. Even in the heart of this busy city I still saw a few bird species. Best of all and also most surprising was a male Black Redstart on the Champs Elysees, in the shadow of a statue of Clemenceau.
I also noted a Buzzard on the journey to Paris and a flock of forty Lapwings on the way home.
DAY 8 Sat 11th August
Bassoles-Aulers to Maresquel
Weather: Warm and sunny
Today was transfer day when we moved from our gite in Bassoles-Aulers to another in Maresquel, which was about ten miles inland from the north coast in Pas-de-Calais. The journey was very hot with raptors the most visible species en route. I saw a male and a female Sparrowhawk, four Kestrels and two Buzzards. I also saw a flock of fifty Lapwings. As we were not allowed to check-in until 4pm we first went to Berck-sur-Mer and walked along the beach and through the dunes. As it was the hottest part of the day it was very quiet although I did see a White Wagtail, a Stonechat and several Grayling butterflies as well as a few unidentified dragonflies.
Our new gite proved to be very different from the last, more in the style of a traditional French cottage with its own wood, ponds, a section of river and a fine collection of mosquitoes.
DAY 9 Sun 12th August
Boulogne and Ambleteuse
Weather: Cloudy, mild and very breezy
As today's forecast appeared to be a bit iffy we decided to go to Nausicaa, which is one of the finest sea life centres we have ever been to. When we parked by the quay in Boulogne I could see that there were lots of gulls on the dock buildings opposite. Closer inspection revealed that it was a colony of nesting Kittiwakes, with dozens of nests strung out along the ledges of the buildings. Several Cormorants and commoner gull species inhabited the dockside. After our visit to Nausicaa, which was as impressive as ever we went down onto the beach outside. Whilst the boys played I was pleased to find several Mediterranean Gulls in residence. There were four adults and a second-summer bird. I even managed to read a couple of the colour rings on their legs (Green P19 and White 74T). They were no doubt part of the ongoing ringing project here.
Afterwards we drove up the coast to Ambleteuse where I had seen several good birds last year. However that was May and birds were singing which wasn't the case today. Whilst Bridgette and the boys picked blackberries I looked for birds. At the small sewage treatment plant there were six White Wagtails and a Yellow Wagtail. I also saw a pair of Turtle Doves, a female Blackcap and a few Goldfinches and Linnets.
DAY 10 Mon 13th August
Maresquel, Le Crotoy and Marquenterre
Weather: Hot and sunny
Today was to be my day, I had been to theme parks, castles and shops mostly uncomplainingly, and so today birding was the main item on the agenda.
I awoke early and took the opportunity to explore the village and the poplar woods the other side of the river. I'm sure that during the spring these woodlands would be home to lots of Golden Orioles, but not in August. A flight of eight Cormorants went over early probably heading for one of the many fishing lakes in the area. Other notable birds in the surrounding woods and fields included a White Wagtail, a pair of Grey Wagtails, a Marsh Tit, three Spotted Flycatchers, two adults and a juvenile, and four Grey Herons. I also saw three mammals, a Water Vole on the riverbank, a Brown Hare in the fields and a Weasel, which ran across the towpath.
The plan today was to go to the bird reserve at Marquenterre via Le Crotoy, which had proved very productive last May. We left after breakfast and arrived at Le Crotoy in beautiful sunshine. The area alongside the road was drier than I had previously seen it and the breeding gulls had gone but there was still plenty to see. Herons were the most prominent species with three Little Egrets, four Cattle Egrets and two Grey Herons. Waders were represented by a small flock of eight Common Sandpipers, probably the most I have seen together, and two Ringed Plovers. White Wagtails were everywhere with at least ten snapping at midges and flies. A single Common Tern fished over the only permanent pool, which was alive with small fish.
Arriving at Marquenterre we decided to eat first at the restaurant. A Sparrowhawk flew over while we ate. Once the boys were fed and watered they were in a much better mood and found much to interest them when we entered the reserve. Marquenterre is very like Slimbridge in that you passed through a collection of rather common ducks, plus the re-introduced storks and a crane, before you arrive at the hides and the wild birds. I tried to converse with a Warden in my limited French as to what was on the reserve. We were getting nowhere fast until we discovered the common ground of Latin names. I then knew quickly what was about. He was particularly pleased to tell me about the Black-winged Stilts, there were five on the reserve. From this vantage point I could see a distant flock of twenty Spoonbills, just part of the 54 that had been reported.
When we got to the hides there was a good selection of waders including twenty Greenshanks, ten Redshanks, a Spotted Redshank, a juvenile Black-winged Stilt, five Common Sandpipers, ten Black-tailed Godwits and six Avocets including two juveniles. Herons were again well represented from the hides with at least ten Little Egrets, a flock of twenty-two Cattle Egrets (actually attending horses), three Spoonbills, four Grey Herons and best of all a Great White Egret, seen at close range. The heronry itself was worth the admission fee on its own as there were still at least twenty Little Egrets in residence and they were very aggressive to each other. A few of the nests still had large chicks yet to leave. Another wild Cattle Egret perched atop the aviary of captive Cattle Egrets and Night Herons.
I also saw another six White Wagtails, a few wild Pintails (a speciality of the area) and fifty plus Cormorants. In a small pool on the return to the visitor centre I was pleased to find two Wood Sandpipers. As we were leaving four White Storks flew overhead in formation against a cloudless blue sky and Crested Tits called unseen from the depths of the pine forest.
DAY 11 Tues 14th August
Maresquel and Dunes de Mt Frieux
Weather: Hot and sunny
An early woodland walk was rewarded with a Short-toed Treecreeper, ten Long-tailed Tits, a Marsh Tit, Chiffchaffs, Great Tits and a Goldcrest all in the same flock. A Grey Wagtail was beside a fast-flowing stretch of river, three Jays were raucous overhead and my only Sedge Warbler of the holiday was oddly placed in the middle of a poplar wood.
The boys wanted a beach day so we set off for the coast. Arriving around midday it was far to hot to go to the beach yet so we had a walk around the slightly cooler pine forests of the Dunes de Mt Frieux. After an hour Bridgette and the boys headed for the beach and I continued on a longer marked trail, having arranged to meet them later. The heat of the day produced a heady aroma from the pines and cones crackled open in the heat. As is always the problem in such conditions birds were difficult to find but I did manage to see a few species. I saw four of the wonderfully punky Crested Tits with there spiky crests and diagnostic trills. Also with them were a few Long-tailed Tits and a Nuthatch. An open area held quite a few warblers including two each of Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat. A purpose built watch-point overlooked a couple of ponds and the sea in the distance as well as the skyline over the pines. A strange call kept me puzzled for a while, as the only bird in view was a cock Pheasant. I eventually twigged that the culprit was a frog in one of the ponds. This isn't the first time this has happened to me so I should have sussed it quicker. Just as I was thinking that these conditions were near perfect for raptor watching a large Goshawk appeared moving along the top pines in the near distance. As I focussed on it I also picked up a late Swift flying in the opposite direction. There was lots of evidence of woodpeckers in these woods and although I only saw Great Spotted Woodpecker, I heard Green and it is supposedly also home to Black.
The walk to the beach was horrendous, although it was only just over a mile, it was fiercely hot and I had no drink with me. I was glad to find Bridgette on the beach where I was very glad of a bottle of warm pop. A gull roost was forming further along the beach from where we were sat and I decided to investigate it. Walking towards it, paddling through the waves I saw dozens of small fish in the shallows. A super adult Mediterranean Gull flew over my head as I approached. The roost held all five common species of gull as well as four Sandwich Terns and two Common Terns.
On the way home we stopped to enjoy excellent views of a Black Kite over a crop field at Brimeux near to our gite. Tawny Owls called from the garden during the evening.
DAY 12 Wed 15th August
Weather: Hot and sunny
Today was another Theme Park day this time at Bagatelle. This park also had a small zoo so a few birds were in evidence. A small flock of Chaffinches were keeping the Yaks company. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew over the log flume. Brimstone and Speckled Wood butterflies enjoyed the flowers. On the way home I saw a flock of 200 Lapwings and a Buzzard.
DAY 13 Thur 16th August
ForÍt de Hesdin
Weather: Heavy showers overnight, cloudy but warm and sunny
This morning I awoke early and headed for the ForÍt de Hesdin, which was only a few kilometres away. As I turned into the forest I could see that there were pheasants all over the road. On closer inspection after stopping I could see that they were all Reeve's Pheasants, an introduced species. These were, I suppose a life tick for me, on a par with Goldies and Lady A's in England. There were three adult males and 18 females or juveniles. The males were beautifully marked with iridescent gold plumage and black and white heads with dramatic long tails. I had not even considered seeing this species and although I knew that they were breeding in France I knew little of their status.
I parked at the barrier across the road through the wood and went walkabout. By the nearby picnic place I found yet more Reeve's Pheasants, nine adult males and five females. Not bad, 35 scarce pheasants in ten minutes. I also found a female Roe Deer with two fawns, a Marsh Tit and a Nuthatch. A Grey Partridge was in a crop field near Maresquel as I returned home for breakfast.
The rest of the day was spent at the small amusement park at Dennebroucq. We stopped and watched a distant raptor near Wamin on the way, but when it got close it was just a Buzzard. On the way home Michael and I had very close views of a pair of Goldfinches feeding on thistle heads, whilst we waited in the car at a Hypermarket. We also called in at the ForÍt de Hesdin where we could not find a single pheasant.
DAY 14 Fri 17th August
ForÍt de Hesdin and Hardelot
Weather: Hot and sunny
This morning I awoke early and returned to the ForÍt de Hesdin. Today there was no sign of any pheasants on the road. I parked by the barrier again and walked down one of the side trails. I immediately began to see lots of Reeve's Pheasants. There were twelve adult males, five females and eleven juveniles. I managed to take a couple of photos.
I also saw a Marsh Tit, a Nuthatch, a pair of Short-toed Treecreepers and a Roebuck. I saw a fine male Yellowhammer on the way home. As nobody was up I walked around the woods at the bottom of the garden where I witnessed some remarkable behaviour. A loud crashing made me look up into the canopy of Sycamore tree. I was expecting to see a squirrel but it was actually a Great Spotted Woodpecker. It was indulging in what I can only describe as 'treetop bathing'. I watched it splash noisily into a thick clump of dew-soaked leaves with its wings open. Then it would alight on a branch and preen vigorously before repeating the performance. It did this at least half a dozen times in the space of fifteen minutes before finally flying away.
Today was the last day of the holiday and also Marlon's birthday and as it was a glorious day he decided it should be a beach day, so we went to Hardelot. We had our picnic on the beach, played boules, swam in the sea and generally had a good time. Eventually I begged permission to wander in the dunes for an hour. In truth I saw very little of an avian nature although I'm sure at the right time of year in less heat they would have been full of birds. Most visible were Jays, which screeched noisily. A few warblers went unidentified as WillowChiffs and a Reed Warbler seemed a little out of place although there were a few small patches of reeds by a drying stream. There were plenty of butterflies including Peacock, Common Blue and Grayling. Two cricket species which I have yet to identify were unusual, the first a large ash grey female cricket being mated by a smaller dark red male and the second were a two-tone black and white cricket that seemed abundant.
When I returned we had a very nice meal in the town. On the way back to the town a plaintive call from a now near-deserted beach revealed a pair of Crested Larks clearing up picnic scraps.
Tawny Owls called from the garden wood throughout the evening but I couldn't see them.
DAY 15 Sat 18th August
Maresquel, France to Quedgeley, England
Weather: Warm and sunny but in England heavy rain
Today we were returning home so I had a final walk around the poplar wood across the river and through the village. By the riding stables beyond the wood there was a mixed flock of about fifty finches made up of Goldfinches, Linnets and Greenfinches and a single Bullfinch. In the village a garden conifer had both Goldcrests and a Crested Tit which was nice to see. The White Wagtail was on its usual roof.
We packed up the car said our goodbyes to the French family in the other gite and headed for Calais stopping at Cite Europe on the way. We saw Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Kestrel on the way. We found that our ferry had been cancelled and that we would have an hour to wait. We could not see England and a sea fog lingered a short way offshore even though it was sunny on the land.
The crossing soon passed with just four adult and four juvenile Gannets, a Fulmar and a Great Black-backed Gull seen. The reason for the fog was apparent as we neared England, the weather was horrible with heavy rain which continued all the way home. Oh, to be in England..
© Mike King 2001
The Gloster Birder www.birder.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk