The latest issue of Ornithos (8 (5): 176-183) has a fascinating article by Philippe Dubois on the history of bird study on this island off the Brittany coast very much France's 'Isles of Scilly' as far as vagrants are concerned. The first ornithologist to note that the island held a strategic position was the Englishman, W. Eagle Clarke in 1899, and he was followed by C. Ingram who published a paper in Ibis about the island in 1926. It was not until after World War 2 that French ornithologists started to cover the island seriously, most notably Michel-Hervé Julien who started the first ringing activities on the island in 1955. However, in these early years, observations tended to end during September. It was only from the 1980s that birders started coming in October, to see if the 'Scilly effect' could be repeated in France which of course it could! The French list started to grow with the addition of a string of Siberian and American vagrants, just as was happening in south-west Britain. One curiosity, however, is that with the steady abandonment of the mixed farming that had characterised the island up until the 1950s, the habitat has become much more uniform, and in many ways less attractive to birds. Many of the former breeding species such as Skylark, Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer have all but disappeared as the brambles and rough grass has replaced the patchwork of small fields with sheep, cattle and arable crops. Equally, vagrants such as Little Buntings find little suitable habitat to tempt them to stay very long. However, it still seems to pull the birds, at least for the time being. For instance, this autumn, Pallid Harrier, Arctic and Yellow-browed Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo and Common Rosefinch have graced the island. There have even been several Little Buntings!
The Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage has recently published an informative booklet (in French) covering everything one might want to know about the organisation of hunting in all its forms wildfowling, deer shooting, wild boar hunts, etc. in France. From a theoretical point of view, everything looks fairly reasonable (although the season is still too long!), but we know that theory and practice are not always synonymous. However, it is important to know what the law states, and how things should be ordered. Anyone who would like a copy of this booklet should contact the LPO who will be happy to supply one.
Bird-brain. This term must have seemed particularly appropriate in 2001 to the volunteers of LPO-Aude, when they discovered that Little Terns had decided to set up a nesting colony on one of the most popular Mediterranean bathing beaches of their area. Not only that, but the birds had picked the precise spot which was the only area set aside for dog-walkers! From seven pairs in mid May, the colony rapidly grew to 60 pairs a week or two later. As the total breeding population in France is only around 1500 pairs, this was becoming quite a significant colony, so the local mairie was approached to see what could be done. Permission was quickly granted to fence off that part of the beach, and put up signs explaining what was going on. Encouraged by this, more terns moved in, reaching a total of 122 pairs in early June. Ten pairs of Kentish Plover also took advantage of the protection. The site was guarded and watched by local LPO members, and by the end of the season more than 200 young terns had fledged. Quite a success story. The only problem is what to do next year fence off the same area, or try to persuade the terns to move to a more suitable spot? Only time will tell.
The attractive area near Poitiers attracts birdwatchers each year to look for its woodpeckers, Dartford Warblers and breeding harriers. The annual survey for 2001 indicated that the Montagu's Harriers had a poor breeding season, primarily because of cold weather during the spring (the same was noted elsewhere in France). Only 26 young were raised from just 12 nests; the equivalent figure in 2000 was 50 young from 20 nests. Activists of LPO-Vienne are hoping for better results next year, but at least can take comfort from the fact that at least one female harrier, ringed in 1989, was noted nesting here for the eighth consecutive year running. Obviously a site worth returning to.
In August this year, the réserve naturelle du marais d'Yves celebrated its 20th birthday. As it is close to the main road from La Rochelle to Rochefort it attracts more visitors than most reserves, between 17 to 20,000 each year, and thus is a significant player in the local tourist economy. It employs four permanent conservation staff, plus over 50 students annually who come as part of their environmental studies, and thus is also an important local employer, especially of young people, many of whom go on to work in conservation elsewhere in France. As to the birds over the past 20 years, wintering Dunlin numbers have risen from 3000 to more than 20,000, Greylag Geese have risen from zero to 350, and it has become an important breeding site for White Stork. In addition there are nearly 530 species of flowering plants, 120 species of spider, plus many amphibians, insects, bats, ... Over the past year or two it has suffered from hurricanes and vandalism, but each time has overcome these setbacks to flourish anew. Here's looking forward to the next 20 years.
The current population of Griffon Vultures in France is estimated to be about 450 pairs, including both those in the Pyrenees, and those of the reintroduced populations in the Cévennes and the Alps. With the increasing populations, a new and fascinating phenomenon has arisen that the vultures have started wandering ever more widely in Europe, not just southward, which is a well-known feature associated with their migrations, but also towards the north. Of course, as part of their normal feeding activities, vultures will often travel 50 km or more from their nest sites, but recently birds from the French breeding colonies have been seen in Alsace, Loire-Atlantique and Picardy, well beyond this distance. But national boundaries mean nothing to the birds, and there have been other sightings from Belgium, The Netherlands and Poland. The furthest so far concerns a bird born in the Jonte gorges in May 1998, seen in Lithuania and Finland in July and August 2000. Various hypotheses have been put forward to account for this new behaviour, but nothing concrete has yet emerged. About half of the sightings have been between April and June, when southerly airflows are more frequent, so this may be pushing the birds north. Vultures take several years to achieve maturity, and whilst the adults will be breeding at this time of year, sub-adults are more free to roam, and it appears that immature birds account for most of the sightings in the north of Europe. Another interesting fact is that the birds seem to like to wander in groups, rather than singly: 13 in the Ardennes in May-June 1997, 12 in Saône-et-Loire in June 1998, 22 in May 2001 in Haute-Savoie, and 18 in The Netherlands in July 2001. This latter group attracted a lot of interest in the UK, as there were signs that they might have headed west across the North Sea, but in the end did not. One of these birds had been ringed in a colony in the Rioja region of northern Spain, showing just how far these birds are capable of travelling. With the current healthy state of the Griffon Vulture population in France and Spain, we are likely to see more of this new and interesting behaviour in the near future.
Slowly but surely the breeding population of Ospreys in France is increasing. There are two main centres: the coastal cliffs of Corsica, and Centre region of the mainland. The widespread damage to the forests of France by the gales at the end of 1999 had two opposing consequences as far as the birds were concerned. On the one hand, many traditional nest sites were blown down and destroyed, so that Ospreys returning in the spring had to find new trees, and rebuild their nests from scratch. On the other hand, many new clearings were opened up in previously solid forest, and this sort of broken forest is what the birds tend to prefer. The Ministry of the Environment is supporting efforts to assist Ospreys in their recolonisation of France, and the LPO is very much involved in this work. Results from the 2001 breeding season indicates that productivity was high this year, despite floods along the River Loire which made for difficult fishing conditions for the adults. Eleven pairs laid eggs in the Loiret département, three failing at or before the hatching stage, but the remaining eight pairs produced 20 young, at least some of which were flying in early July. Quite a few of the birds in this area have been ringed, and it is interesting to note that although seven were ringed locally, five had originated from Germany. Other birds from this population have been seen on migration in the Basque Country of northern Spain, and wintering in Andalusia (see Ornithos 8 (3): 9699 for more details of colour-ringing results).
A paper in Ornithos 8 (3): 89-95) by Christophe Jolivet summarises the status of the Little Bustard in France at the end of the 20th century, and it makes for disquieting reading. Surveys undertaken in Languedoc in 1998, La Crau in 1998/99 and in the agricultural plains of west-central France in 2000 indicated a population of almost 1300 territorial males. Although this was slightly higher than the number found in 1996, it is only because the survey was more thorough. The most important population 500 males is on La Crau, and here they seem reasonably secure, at least in the short term. However, the decline in the most threatened population in the cereal fields of central France may be as high as 20% since 1996. Although management agreements are in place with farmers in many places, only a small proportion of the total area is concerned, and it is important that 'bustard-friendly' farming techniques are applied more widely here as quickly as possible.
Volume 8, No. 4, 2001 contains the latest summary of the status of rare breeding birds in France, covering the year 1999. The same issue contains a paper on the status of the Black-headed Gull as breeding bird in France. There are shorter items on a possible hybrid Teal/Green-winged Teal in the Camargue, the 2001 influx of Rose-coloured Starlings, the first proof of wintering by Whiskered Terns in la Dombes, and the first record of Cliff Swallow for France (September 2000, Hoëdic island, Brittany).
If you are visiting the Ile de Ré, off the west coast of France, this year, it is well worth popping into the Maison du Fier, the centre for the Réserve Naturelle de Lilleau des Niges. The building is a recently restored barn which was associated with the long-established salt-extraction industry on the island and, as well as being an interesting building in its own right, now hosts a permanent exhibition on the history and natural history of the island, with temporary exhibitions of work by local artists. Over 300 species have birds have been seen on the reserve to date, and it is worth visiting whatever the season. Breeding species include Bluethroats and Black-winged Stilts, while autumn and winter bring huge numbers of waders and geese, particularly Brent Geese. From 20 June to 16 September the Maison du Fier is open every day from 10.00-12.30 and 15.00 to 19.00. From 17th September it opens on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 15.00 to 18.00. The Réserve Naturelle de Lilleau des Niges is near Portes-en-Ré on the northern part of the island. For more details phone on 0033 5 46 29 50 74 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (postal address: LPO-Maison du Fier, Vieux Port, 17880 Les Portes, France).
After much hard work by local volunteers, the reserve centre at Yves is now open again for visitors. I passed there in April, and it was good to see White Storks up on one of their nesting platforms at the reserve especially after a whole series of artifical nesting platforms in the region had been sawn down this spring, by petty-minded vandals as yet unknown, a few days after the attack on the reserve at Yves. Most, if not all, of the platforms have already been replaced, again by local volunteers, with financial support from local government and many individuals, and wooden poles supplied by France Télécom. The local media covered both events in detail, and the vandals' action has been widely condemned. There are over 100 artificial platforms in the Charente-Maritime département, and of these 72 are occupied by breeding pairs of White Storks.
Conservation in France still raises extreme passions, both for and against. A little after midnight on 14/15 February, the reserve centre at the Marais d'Yves, close to the LPO headquarters in Rochefort, was broken into and seriously vandalised, with displays, computers, telescopes all destroyed. The perpetrators then poured diesel around the building and tried to set fire to it. Although the building is still standing, damage is estimated at 400,000 francs, and the centre will be out of commission for some time. The culprits have not as yet been apprehended. A large demonstration of hunters took place in Rochefort a few days earlier a coincidence?
The February newsletter from Organbidexka Col Libre (OCL), has a summary of autumn migration at this pass in the western Pyrenees. If you had been there the whole time, from July to November, 11,197 Black Kites and 10,676 Honey Buzzards would have passed over your head. At least, as that's what was counted. Accompanying them were 3107 Red Kites, 270 Marsh Harriers, 250 Sparrowhawks and a variety of other birds of prey down to, last but not least, a single Eleonora's Falcon. Plus non-raptors such as Black Stork (374), White Stork (297) and 1102 Cormorants. Crane numbers were fairly low this year, probably because mild weather meant that their migration to Spain took place after the watch period (see below). The same newsletter has an interesting summary of the migration patterns of Hobbies over the Pyrenees, stretching back to 1980. It is encouraging to see that, although numbers from year to year fluctuate wildly (maximum of 90 birds per year), the overall tendency over the past 20 years has been upwards, in line with population trends in Britain and other parts of western Europe. The migration period is an extended one, from mid July to the end of October, peaking around the 24 September. This falls nicely between the peak dates at Falsterbo in Sweden (13 September) and at Gibraltar (11 October). For more details of the work of OCL, contact email@example.com.
Another impressive centre (see also L'Espace Nature du val d'Allier below) , well worth visiting if you are in the département of Loire this summer. As well as containing an interpretation centre, it organises regular excursions into the surrounding countryside throughout the spring and summer, For more more details of what is on offer, see http://www.frapna.org. Migratory birds, reintroduced beavers, dragonflies and the rich and varied flora are all featured in this year's programme.
Although the LPO has its headquarters in Rochefort, many of its activities are very much based on its network of groups spread across the rest of the country. They produce regular newsletters, reporting local activities and events, invariably fascinating for an 'outsider'. Just to give a flavour of what is being reported, here are a few items that caught my eye from some recent newsletters.
With more than 20,000 pairs at the Étang du Fangassier, last year was a record one for this spectacular species, 14,500 young being raised. That they are doing so well is in no small part due to the protection they are receiving from LPO-PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) in conjunction with the Parc naturel régional de Camargue, the WWF and the Companie des Salins du Midi. Volunteers are always needed to help man the watch-point and provide the public with information about the birds and their conservation. French-speaking birdwatchers who wish to help should contact Laurent Zimmermann on (0033) (0)4 90 97 08 43.