The Natural History Museum in Paris has calculated that, in the 13 years since 1989, the numbers of common birds in France has declined by 10%. This estimate is based on the results of constant-effort site ringing schemes together with standardised point-counts across various regions of France. For the 89 species defined as 'common', 27 have shown a statistically significant decline, 14 more have also declined, but not at the same level of significance, 40 are stable in numbers, and just 8 have shown an increase. In general terms it is clear that 'specialists' in habitat terms have fared rather worse than 'generalists'. Among woodland birds, Wood Warbler (-73%), Willow Warbler (-56%), Bonelli's Warbler (-52%) and Marsh Tit (-59%) have shown some of the largest declines. Many farmland birds are also doing badly: Linnet (-62%), Yellowhammer (-29%) and Corn Bunting (-17%) are among species that, as in the UK, are declining steadily. The bird showing the most alarming decline over the period is the House Martin, with an 84% decline in numbers, one of the reasons this year was chosen as the 'année de l'hirondelle' in France. A significant number of nests of this species are destroyed deliberately, because of the 'mess' below the nests, and the LPO has spent much of this year in particular publicising the simple methods (like shelves under the nests) that can be used to minimise this 'problem'. There is some suggesting that global warming may be involved, in that on average the declines are more marked in the northern half of France than in the south, though sorting out the exact reasons for population changes is always difficult. There is not much argument about the overall picture, though, as it is reflected equally in the UK and Dutch experiences of recent years.
A Herring Gull taken into care in July by the LPO at the Ile Grande in Brittany, was found to have been ringed 24 years ago as a chick in Brest, also in Brittany, the oldest individual of this species yet recorded in France. On average, Herring Gulls live for 1015 years, the European longevity record being 32 years for a Finnish bird.
Ten years after the opening of this visitor centre in the French Pyrenees, the LPO has recently entered into a formal partnership with the local people who run the site, to further develop its conservation and educational facilities. The site was set up initially to protect the Griffon Vultures which have their main colony there, on cliffs in the Ossau valley (south of Pau), now numbering over 100 pairs, but also protects the small numbers of Egyptian Vultures that also nest in the area. With Lammergeiers breeding not far away, and frequent visitors to the area, one of the plans is to create a special exhibit devoted to this spectacular bird. Local people have been very much involved in the project right from its inception, and the 'falaise aux vautures' can be cited as a textbook example of ecotourism in action.
With its myriad lagoons, the Dombes is one of the major wetland sites of western Europe, attracting both birds and birdwatchers from far and wide. Among the most significant breeding species are Purple Heron (450 pairs) and Whiskered Tern (at least 800 pairs), whilst winter counts of ducks have reached 35,000 birds in recent years. However, these numbers may soon be a thing of the past if habitat deterioration continues at its present rate. Since the 1970s, 80% of the meadows surrounding the pools have been drained and converted into cereal fields, primarily maize. Through direct loss of habitat, breeding birds like Black-tailed Godwits have disappeared altogether, while Lapwings have suffered a fall in numbers from over 2000 pairs to around 200 currently. But agricultural run-off (nitrates, pesticides, etc.) is changing the ecological balance of the lagoons themselves, and the whole area is in severe danger of losing its special character entirely. An appeal and petition is being raised to prod the authorities into some positive action (www.frapna.org).
The constant battle between conservationists and the more extreme parts of the hunting lobby shows no sign of abating. The new government in France has apparently given in to pressure to re-extend the shooting season for migrants, wildfowl and waders, pushing the start out to the first Saturday in August and extending the end of the season to the 20th February for some species. The 'target' as far as conservationists are concerned is to restrict the season to 1st September to 31st January maximum. To explain the labyrinthine details of the arguments and counter-arguments would take pages, but the current situation, after fierce lobbying on both sides, seems to involve an early August start for waders and geese, the end of August for most ducks, and the end of August for migrants such as Quail, Turtle Doves, Skylarks and thrushes. The whole argument is riddled with inconsistencies. For instance, the only geese present in France in August are the small numbers (maybe 60 pairs) of Greylags that breed there. The 'concession' for ducks is based on the fact that their breeding season extends into August, with many unfledged young still around in that month. But the habitats where the shooters will be going to shoot waders will almost certainly include many of the breeding sites for those ducks, with all the consequent disturbance involved, even if the quarry is targeted correctly. Equally, in late February, where the target is ostensibly Woodcock, disturbance, if nothing worse, will affect other species already into the first stages of the breeding season. Affaire à suivre, as they say.
Over the years there have been some spectacular confrontations between shooters and conservationists in the Médoc, north of Bordeaux, where Turtle Doves on spring migration have been shot in large numbers in May, despite this practice having been illegal for many years. Bearing in mind that the 'traditional' date for these confrontations, 1st May, fell in the middle of both presidential and parliamentary elections, the LPO decided not to send anyone there this year, and see if the police would enforce the law without prompting. In the event, things passed off fairly quietly, and even when the LPO president, Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, did go a week later, he was accompanied by more journalists than hunters, and although the usual insults were hurled, physical violence was minimal. It is encouraging to note that the number of communes where this 'traditional' shooting is carried out has declined from 43 to 8 in ten years, and the number of shooting platforms has fallen (literally in many cases) from 3000 to 226. It is to be hoped that we may at last be seeing the last of this outdated and outmoded form of activity, especially where the species concerned is in such serious decline.
A glance through the contents of the most recent issues of Ornithos shows just how varied this bi-monthly journal has become. Issue 9-3 starts with the annual summary of the numbers of wildfowl wintering in France, based on coordinated counts in mid-January, in this case 2001. The winter was particularly significant for the numbers of Shoveler, with over 45,000 birds present, perhaps 80% of the west European wintering population. The lac de Grand-Lieu (12,950) and the Camargue (12,080) were the two sites with the highest numbers of this species. Both sites were among eleven places that held over 25,000 waterfowl each, and obviously of tremendous conservation significance. The issue continues with an account of a pair of Sardinian Warblers which bred for the first time in Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy, nearly 200 km north of the species' normal Mediterranean range. There have been a number of recent records Sardinian Warblers breeding further north in France (and elsewhere in Europe), perhaps linked to climate change. In the UK, of course, we are very aware of how much the closely related Dartford Warbler has expanded its range northwards after a run of mild winters here. There follow papers on recent sightings of Pacific Golden Plovers in France, the extent to which Blackcaps can mimic other species (including Garden Warblers!), and a note on the first record for France of the recently-split Eastern Bonelli's Warbler.
Issue 9-4 starts with the results of the 2001 Constant Effort Site ringing scheme. Nine species show significant declines in number, including birds such as Willow Warbler, Marsh and Willow Tits, Linnet and Yellowhammer, which are also known to be declining in the UK. There follows a fascinating and detailed paper on the migration of Dotterels through France, where they are fairly widespread in autumn, but primarily seen in the north-west in spring. Passage is rapid, however, with most birds staying no more than a day or so at any one spot, and many must overfly the country completely on their way to and from their wintering grounds, primarily in North Africa. They tend to prefer open habitat similar to their stony breeding grounds as stop-off places, but may well be being overlooked in open agricultural land rarely visited by birdwatchers. The upper valley of the Durance in the Provence region is the latest in a series of 'hot-spots' to be described in detail, and will be of particular interest to the travelling birder. Another regular feature is 'Oiseau de France', where an individual species is featured in text and photos this time it is the turn of the Great Spotted Cuckoo. There are notes on melanistic Yellow-legged Gulls, a breeding record of Red-footed Falcon in eastern France, and welcome news of the discovery of a new breeding colony (nine pairs) of Lesser Kestrels in the Hérault département.
Both issues contact a variety of book reviews, photos of some recent rarities and short news items from France and around the world. The circulation is steadily increasing, and it is easy to see why!
The bulk of the European population of this close relative of the more widespread Crested Lark is found in Spain, but a fragment of its range crosses the border at the eastern end of the Pyrenees. To find out exactly how many there are, and what their habitat requirements are, the LPO-Aude group has initiated a study of this species, and the results from this first year's survey are just in, and so far are reasonably encouraging. A total of 8393 pairs/singing males was located in Pyrénées-Orientales, the département closest to the Spanish border, whilst the adjacent Aude département held 6783, making a grand total of 150176 pairs/singing males in all. As this is only the start of the survey, and several areas containing potential habitat were not covered, the organisers are hopeful that the final total will be higher. Several young were ringed in the nest, in an effort to study longevity and movements. Three sites where windfarms are in place or planned in Thekla Lark habitat are being studied particularly carefully, to see what effects this development might have on the birds.
Some encouraging news also from the Aude is of two pairs of Egyptian Vultures with young in the nest this year, the first to be hatched in this département since 1931! This is particularly significant as the LPO is in the first stages of a five-year plan to try to increase the French population of this smallest of European vultures, and to extend its range. A 2001 survey indicated 62 pairs in the Pyrenees, primarily in the western half of the range, plus 13 pairs in south-east France (Provence to the Cévennes). These pairs, not all of which attempted to breed, raised around 50 young to flying stage. Birds ringed or fitted with satellite trackers have already been seen elsewhere in southern France, and on migration through Spain. Not only will it be essential to protect these birds on their breeding grounds, but also on their long migrations to and from wintering areas in Africa. Projects to restore the French populations of Griffon and Black Vultures have been running for several years, and currently both of these species are steadily increasing in numbers and range. Let's hope that the population of Egyptian Vultures will follow this upward path, and that the long-term plan to ensure that the two centres of population in France expand and join up comes to fruition.
The 18th in this annual series of festivals devoted to natural history films, birds especially, takes place this year from 29 October to 3 November. The venue, as ever, is Ménigoute, in the département of Deux-Sèvres, west of Poitiers. For more details see their website on www.menigoute-festival.org.
Those particularly interested in owls might like to note that the 5th 'Nuit de la Chouette' will take place on 22 March 2003.
Our towns, villages and houses are in many ways as important habitats for birds as is the countryside. But modern building techniques can often leave less and less space for birds to live and nest, and with this in mind the LPO-Vienne group has produced a booklet entitled 'Oiseaux et patrimoine bâti'. This is very much aimed at builders, architects and developers, both the planners and the workmen who actually effect new projects and renovations to old buildings. It describes the various species particularly associated with the built environment swifts, swallows, martins, tits, sparrows, redstarts, etc. and their needs for nesting, feeding and roosting sites. Many of these species require holes to be left, and the booklet shows how these can be retained or created, without adversely affecting the structure of the building in any way. It was launched at a half-day seminar in Poitiers in June, and deserves to be read widely throughout France.
If you have a particular interest in the Lammergeier/Bearded Vulture, you may wish to attend a meeting taking place at Tende, in the Mercantour National Park, France, from 2022 June 2002. There is a full programme of talks and discussions on the conservation of this endangered species, plus a field trip into the nearby Maritime Alps to see some of the reintroduction scheme in that area at first hand. For more details, contact LPO Mission FIR, 136 rue Falguière, BP 944, 75519 Paris cedex 15, France (Tel: 0033 1 53 58 58 38; Fax: 0033 1 53 58 58 39; e-mail: email@example.com).
It being l'année de l'hirondelle this year, it is entirely appropriate that a paper summarising the breeding status of Red-rumped Swallows in France should appear in a recent issue of Ornithos (Vol. 9, No. 2, 2002). The attractive species, although a scarce migrant, only started nesting in France in 1962, on the island of Corsica, with the first nest on the mainland found in 1965. Not surprisingly, the breeding range is restricted to the fringes of the Mediterranean, with the bulk of the population, perhaps as many as 100 pairs, being found in the three départements of Pyrénées-Orientales, Hérault and Var. Special surveys are being carried out this year and next to ascertain the current position more accurately.
Although rightly popular with tourists the world over, and famed for its chateaux and its wines, it is not always realised that the River Loire is in fact extremely important as a wildlife site, all the way from its source in the Massif Central to its estuary on the Atlantic coast. For 20 years various conservation organisations have been fighting to protect 'the last great untamed river of Europe' from the many and various threats which have assailed it, especially the projected dams in the upper reaches. Since 1993 an ambitious European programme (LIFE Loire Nature) has been coordinating the purchase and management of wildlife sites along both the Loire and the Allier, and the LPO has been very much involved in this. Projects where birds are the prime interest have included the protection of the breeding grounds of terns (along the Allier especially) and Corncrakes (notably in the Basses Vallées Angevines), the building of nesting platforms for Ospreys, the reinstatement of hedgerows, and events to show the riches of the river to the public. In 2002 the second phase of this project takes off, with the restoration of habitats being given a high priority. No fewer than six LPO delegations are involved in this vital work (Anjou, Auvergne, Loire, Loire-Atlantique, Touraine and Vienne), which is scheduled to continue until 2006.
Since 1979 the Association Organbidexka Col Libre (OCL) has been organising an annual programme for the study of postnuptial bird migration across the Pyrenees. The goal of this operation is three-fold: to study bird movements in order to detect changes in populations, to study the impact of pigeon shooting on these species, and to inform the public about the extraordinary phenomenon of migration and the threats posed by modern hunting techniques. Each period has its own special bird species. While the numbers of Black Kites in mid August and of Honey Buzzards in late August are especially spectacular, other periods can be equally fulfilling. On some days it is possible to observe up to 20 species of birds of prey, as well as storks (both White and Black), Cranes, and thousands of finches, larks and hirundines, while local residents include Lammergeier and White-backed Woodpecker. There is no need to be a professional ornithologist to take part, as local volunteers will be on hand to show you the ropes. The Transpyr programme takes place at three principal sites at the western end of the Pyrenees. The season at the primary one, Organbidexka, is from 15 July to 15 November. The other two sites, Lindux and Lizarrieta, are less intensely watched, from 15 September to 15 November. Volunteers are always welcome, but as accommodation is limited you need to register in good time with OCL, 11 Rue Bourgneuf, 64100 Bayonne, France (Tel 0033 5 59 62 03, Fax 0033 5 59 62 06, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.organbidexka.org).
L'Oiseau magazine, No. 64, contains a fascinating article about a bird, now extinct, but of which we seem to have a portrait, thanks to the post-Impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin. The story starts when David W. Steadman of the New York State Museum discovered the bones of an unknown species of flightless rail on Hiva-Oa, one of the Pacific Marquesas Islands. He named the new species Porphyrio paepae, a member of the swamphen/gallinule family, its closest living relation being the very rare Takahe Porphyrio mantelli of New Zealand, 3200 km to the west. The bones were about 700 to 1000 years old, but there were tantalising suggestions that the species had survived until much more recently, the explorer Thor Heyerdahl describing a sighting he had of a flightless bird on Hiva-Oa in 1937 as possibly this species, while the French explorer Francis Mazière relates in 1957 that when he showed a picture of a Takahe to some natives of the island, they said that it was the same as the bird they used to know as the koau, but which had now disappeared due to over-hunting. The artist Paul Gauguin moved to the South Pacific in the 1890s, and many of his best known paintings date from that period; in fact he spent the last two years of his life, until his death on 8 May 1903, on Hiva-Oa. In 1902, he painted 'Le sorcier d'Hiva-Oa', now in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Liège, Belgium. A detail of this work clearly shows a Purple Gallinule type bird, with large red bill, purplish underparts and greenish back, caught in the jaws of a dog. The authors of this article Michel Raynal, Jean-Jacques Barloy and Françoise Dumont advance the hypothesis that Gauguin probably drew this scene from a real-life event in which he had participated, and that the species certainly survived until quite recently. The authors note that the early specimens of Takahe were all brought in by dogs, and that in southern Spain, labradors were specially trained to catch the Purple Gallinules that still live in that area.
A trawl through the archives by Jean-Marc Cugnasse came up with the following curious tale (see Ornithos 8 (6): 232-233). Back in 1902, H. Miéjemarque reported a case of a Short-toed Eagle that had been discovered in the Grésigne forest (Tarn), wrapped in the coils of a huge snake. The eagle had been choked to death by the snake, but at the same time its talons were so firmly embedded that the reptile itself had also been killed. After this length of time it is not possible to be absolutely certain what it was, but the most likely species is the Montpellier Snake. This is a large and powerful beast the record length recorded in France was one 2.2 metres long which weighed nearly 3 kg and which had to be killed by its finder when it wrapped itself round his leg and started squeezing extremely hard. It is a back-fanged snake so its venom is not normally a problem for human beings (unless one pokes one's finger down its throat!), but clearly needs to be approached with some caution. The eagle obviously bit off more than it could chew and it appears that they are not quite as eagle-eyed as often supposed, as there is another record cited in the same article of one attacking a hose-pipe! Short-toed Eagles still occur commonly in this region, but there are no recent records of Montpellier Snake. However, it is possible that their presence has been overlooked, as their known range is not so very distant.
The needs of wildlife and the demands of modern agriculture are all too often opposed, so it always nice to report cases where the two can co-exist happily. The basses vallées angevines and the adjacent Loire valley near Angers still host one of the most important populations of Corncrakes in western Europe, and the LPO has been very closely involved in their conservation. This has meant working with the local farmers to ensure that the rich hay meadows are cropped in such a way that the birds' nests and young are not destroyed at harvest time. As one can imagine, this has not always been a smooth path to follow, but gradually the idea of a more sustainable form of agriculture in these unique habitats has met with more and more support. So much so that the local beef is now marketed under the brand name 'L'éleveur & l'oiseau: le boeuf des vallées', the bird in question, prominently featured on the label, being the Corncrake. Elsewhere in France, at Dicy (Yonne), organic farmers M. and Mme Gois produce apples and pears, fruit juices and ciders from their traditionally managed orchards. Much of their farm is a Refuge LPO, where birdlife is protected and encouraged with the provision of nestboxes, etc. Their produce is marketed under the name Clos de Rochy and one item in particular, their apple juice, carries a label 'cuvée chevêche, LPO Yonne', to help promote the chouette chevêche (Little Owl). This has declined alarmingly across France (and elsewhere) as old orchards and hedgerow trees are removed, thus depriving them of the nesting holes that they require, as well as reducing the available prey. So if you are in France, these are just a couple of products to look out for. Whether at home or abroad, the more we can do to support sustainable agriculture and reduce the use of pesticides the better.
Each year the LPO tries to focus on a particular theme of conservation concern, and this year it is the hirundines, in particular the familiar Swallows and House Martins of our towns and villages. Across France, ordinary people are being encouraged to look out for these species, and do what they can to help them surmount the various threats they face. For once, useful conservation activities can be taken right on one's doorstep, almost literally, not just in some exotic far-flung spot. Swallows have lost nesting sites as farm buildings are modernised, and pesticides remove some of their potential prey. It is often very simple to leave access for Swallows to an outbuilding or shed where they can come and go without affecting normal activities. Artificial nests are readily available for House Martins, and the 'mess' problems have been solved in many places by fixing shelves a short distance below the nests to collect the droppings. All the swallow family (including Red-rumped Swallow, Sand Martin and even Crag Martin) are very much associated with man-made sites for nesting, and the same goes for that other group of aerial feeders, the swifts, which are being treated as 'honorary hirundines' for the purposes of this campaign.
Although possibly less well known than the sites in Champagne-Ardenne, the Landes de Gascogne also host impressive numbers of Cranes on migration and, increasingly, in winter. At Christmas I was lucky enough to see several thousand of these spectacular birds feeding in the fields that have been opened up in the pine forests of the area south of Bordeaux, along with good numbers of Hen Harriers hunting through the flocks of finches, larks and buntings that are attracted to the maize stubbles of the region. The LPO Aquitaine group are organising a series of guided visits to the area throughout the winter period, and also can provide details of accommodation (chambres d'hôtes/B&B, gîtes ruraux, etc.) with hosts who are particularly interested in building up this kind of rural tourism. A leaflet with full details is available from the LPO.
For the eighth year running, the LPO has organised an extensive range of activities, many aimed at young people, whereby people can take and active part in conservation activities in France. These range from studying bird migration in the Aude, the Vendée and the Auvergne, to acting as guides at various LPO reserves in Charente-Maritime. There are also weekends and training courses on various aspects of bird behaviour and habitat conservation. A leaflet summarising the activities of offer is available from the LPO.
The largest population of Ospreys in France is on the island of Corsica. Counts for the 2001 breeding season show a small increase in the population, with 24 pairs in all, of which 16 successfully raised 31 young. The mean fledging date was the first week of July. The réserve naturelle de Scandola, on the west coast, is one of the easiest places to see these birds (4 pairs), as boat trips are regularly taken past the breeding sites. Too close, sometimes, as some of the boatmen have been guilty of trying to flush the birds to make more of a spectacle for tourists. The companies organising the trips are being urged to stop this practice, as the birds need to be left alone to nest successfully, and most people will consider the sight of even a perched Osprey well worth the fare.
In addition to surveying breeding harriers, volunteers from the LPO also carried out an exhaustive survey of the Dartford Warbler population of this area near Poitiers. The results were enlightening. In the reserve area, the population has stayed reasonably stable (51 pairs in 1995, 82 in 1998, 82 again in 2001), but in the rest of the Pinail area the population has fallen from 73 pairs in 1995 to only 31 in 2001. The reason seems to be linked to the growth of maritime pines that were planted in the period 1971 to 1992, which are now overshadowing the natural heathland. Following these results, the Office National des Fôrets, which manages the overall area, has agreed to open up clearings in the pines to enable the heather to re-establish itself.