Calais area of northern France, 1-4 July 2006

by Ken Hall

Participants

Fourteen members of the Bristol Ornithological Club: Ken Hall (leader), Angela Allen, Nick Ayers, Roy Curber, Geoff Harris, Clive Holman, Sue Sayers, Margaret Searle, Charles Stapleton, Sandra Stead, Margaret Swatton, Denise Whittle, David Wilson and Gordon Youdale. [Click on images to see at full size.]

BOC group © Denise Whittle

Itinerary

We left Bristol by minibus at 08.50 on 1 July 2005 for the M25 and the Channel Tunnel. Caught the 13.44 train, arriving in Calais at 15.45 local time, then drove to the Hotel 3 Fontaines at Hesdin, where we stayed for three nights. The main sites visited were Marquenterre, Forêt de Crécy and Romelaëre. We returned to the Channel Tunnel in the afternoon of 4 July, and were back in Bristol by 21.00.

Highlights

"And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here."

Thus Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt, just a few kilometres up the road from Hesdin, our base for a few days birding in northern France. Well, I don't know about the rest of the Club, but the fourteen of us were certainly pleased not to have missed out on this particular trip. It was a long drive from Bristol to the Channel Tunnel (a tick for some), with not too many hold-ups on the M25, and the hour or so it took to get from Calais to our hotel soon got the list under way with Turtle Dove and White Wagtail seen from the van. There was enough time for a brief late-afternoon visit to the nearby Forêt d'Hesdin, where a Melodious Warbler in song was good to see, here at the very edge of its range, and Tree Pipit and Garden Warbler were also noted. By text message we received blow-by-blow accounts of the World Cup as it unfolded that evening – France won and England lost, unlike the battle 600 years earlier.

The next morning saw us in the forest again, where a Crested Tit gave typically brief views and the Short-toed Treecreepers remained heard but not seen. But our main target today was the Marquenterre reserve on the coast to the west, at the mouth of the River Somme. We spent all day here, and the entrance fee (with a reduction for RSPB members) was definitely money well spent. The walk through the reserve takes in thirteen hides, past a series of lagoons, meadows, reedbeds and bushes, culminating in a grandstand view of the main heronry, with Spoonbill, White Stork, Grey Heron and Little and Cattle Egrets all actively feeding young, and seen flying back and forth overhead most of the day. The hides themselves have a reputation for eccentricity, and certainly the viewing slots were often rather bizarre shapes, but nevertheless they did not stop us getting some wonderful close-range views. Among the highlights were the Spoonbills (ca. 70, with 27 pairs now breeding here), the noisy colonies of Sandwich Terns (another recent arrival), Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls – it's always good to see these in full summer plumage – Black-necked Grebes on the nest, and a Hobby feeding over the adjacent woodland. The tide was well out in the nearby Somme (just like at Weston-super-Mare), so the waders that gather in the reserve at high water were mostly not on show, but we still saw Avocet, Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers, Oystercatcher, Little Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, several Ruffs and, perhaps best of all, a superb Spotted Redshank in immaculate breeding plumage. There are a few tame and injured birds here, so not everything was tickable (e.g. Whooper Swan, Red-crested Pochard), but the Garganey were wild enough, one male still showing a clear supercilium. This really is a very fine reserve, with clearly something to see at all times of the year.

View over Marquenterre reserve Looking back to the viewpoint Mediterranean Gull at nest Spoonbill at Marquenterre White Storks at nest

On the Monday, we headed west again, this time to the Forêt de Crécy where, even if birds were a bit elusive, the shade was very welcome – the weather for the whole time we were in France can only be described as blisteringly hot! Again Garden Warblers were more obvious than Blackcaps, and at least some of the group managed to set eyes on both Short-toed Treecreeper and Crested Tit. It was good to see Turtle Doves well, now such a rare bird at home, but, not surprisingly, woodpeckers were elusive, just Great Spotted heard. White Admirals and Silver-washed Fritillary gave good views, and a Purple Emperor in the hand even better ones – unfortunately its days were likely to be numbered, having been stunned by a passing vehicle.

Purple Emperor

We took lunch under the poplars near the Sailly-Bray wetland, digestion not being aided by having to leap up to look at passing Hobby and White Stork. A post-prandial stroll next to the marsh produced good views of Marsh Harrier and Buzzard, plus a brief sighting of a ring-tail Hen Harrier (the early risers had already seen a male virtually over the hotel on a pre-breakfast walk!). It was interesting to see both Yellow and Blue-headed Wagtails here (they both breed in this part of France), and a Cuckoo was a surprise this late in the year. We continued to the saltmarshes at the head of the Somme estuary, but encounters with the speciality passerines were limited to a Bearded Tit glimpsed by one person, and a strange song which might possibly have come from a Bluethroat. As by now the temperatures were up in the 30's we joined the hordes at the seaside for a welcome cold drink, but also added Black Redstart to the list without being arrested for using binoculars at a site full of scantily-clad ladies.

On the 4th it was time to leave the Hôtel Les 3 Fontaines, which had fed and watered (well, 'wine/beer'd') us extremely well, and provided our daily picnics. The surrounding town gardens had produced a nice selection of common passerines for those who rose early, including Serin, Spotted Flycatcher and Grey Wagtail among others. Today we headed north to St-Omer, and the wetland reserve of Romelaëre, a series of marshy lagoons and reedbeds resulting from abandoned peat diggings (reminiscent of Shapwick Heath on the Somerset Levels). We arrived at the same time as a coach-load of noisy French teenagers, but they rapidly passed through, not a binocular in sight and all dressed to impress the opposite sex rather than camouflaged for birding. We then had the whole place to ourselves, winding our way along a boardwalk through the reeds and willows to reach a hide overlooking a large Cormorant colony.

Romelaere Romelaere boardwalk Cormorant colony

If anything it was even hotter today, so encounters with the reedbed warblers, which include Marsh and Savi's, as well as Reed and Sedge, were limited to a few brief sightings and snatches of song. We really needed to have come a bit earlier in the year, but then one can't be everywhere in May and June. Once again Hobby and Marsh Harrier were seen, and we had good views of both Turtle and Stock Doves, but the star bird was the Little Bittern that gave several flight views to more than half the group ("we happy few" – though not including the leader!). Only a pair or two nest here, so it was quite a bonus to catch up with such a skulking species. The circuit involved a rather perilous self-propelled river-crossing in a large iron bucket, a relic of the area's peat-digging days, but which we all completed with much hilarity.

The bucket Romelaere

After another picnic lunch it was time to head for the Tunnel, but not before navigating the industrial outskirts of Calais to the car storage depot at the docks (twinned with Portbury?) where I kept the security guard occupied long enough for everyone to get good views of a Crested Lark that obligingly perched on the perimeter fence with a beak-full of food for hidden young nearby. A slight delay at the Tunnel, but then an easy if long drive back to Bristol. This was the Club's fifth venture to France in recent years, and another is on the horizon, so, to quote Henry V yet again, it will be "Once more into the breach, dear friends". The bird-list came to 107 species or thereabouts – no doubt a visit earlier in the spring would have produced more of the specialities, but I don't think I heard many complaints.