There are many places in France where one can watch migration in action, and some are already well known Organbidexka, the Pointe de Grave, the Baie de Aiguillon and Cap Leucate, for instance. More recently, and following several years of prospecting by local enthusiasts, a new site in Provence has started to produce some excellent results. This is the Fort de la Revère, close to the pretty village of Eze, between Nice and Monaco, where in 2002 watchers were on site all day from 30 August through to 12 November, counting the migrants as they headed along the Mediterranean coast of France towards their winter quarters in Spain and Africa. The first fortnight of September was marked by the departure of the Bee-eaters, 2444 being counted in all, indicating that this must be one of the best sites in France to see this beautiful bird on passage. From 7 September the birds of prey started to appear, and during the season 2172 individuals of 20 species were recorded, 815 Honey Buzzards being the most numerous, but with over 200 each of Marsh Harrier, Sparrowhawk and Short-toed Eagle also forming a significant part of the passage. Among small birds, the hirundines included good numbers of Crag Martins, as well as plenty of Swallows and House Martins. Over 500 each of Pallid and Alpine Swifts would certainly be an attraction for many British birders. Later in the season, a wide range of finches (headed by 12,767 Chaffinches) formed the bulk of the smaller birds, though for sheer weight, 122,384 Woodpigeons outdid all the other species, and were one of the more surprising results of the season's efforts. This much-hunted bird is normally associated as a migrant with the Pyrenean passes and, although it is 'unfashionable' with the average birdwatcher, the tight swirling flocks, often more than a thousand individuals at a time, are an impressive sight, especially over the coast or mountains. Of course, as well as counting the birds, the volunteers were also there to entertain and inform the many visitors who were curious to know what was going on, and who responded with enthusiasm and interest to the spectacle on show. For more details, see an article in issue number 71 (2003) of L'Oiseau magazine, of which this is just a brief résumé.
Under the rubric 'Portrait' appears one of the regular sections of L'Oiseau magazine which set the publication apart from the crowd, providing thumbnail sketches of painters, writers philosophers, even whose work is associated with birds and natural history. The issue 71 referred to above also contains a couple of pages featuring the Breton artist, Rozenn Joyeux, whose work in tempera and crayon draws its inspiration from the landscapes and wildlife of her native region. She has recently had a exhibition at the LPO seabird reserve of Ile-Grande, on the Brittany coast, and is now using images from that area in philatelic work for the French post office. The influence of the Pont-Aven school of painting is evident in her use of colour, and the whole feeling of her work is summed up in her surname! For more on her work, see the website http://www.rozenn-joyeux.com. Other articles in the same issue cover the prospects for the future for the Poitevin marshes, where the LPO has invested much time and money in sustainable agro-environmental schemes to conserve this unique wetland area, and on the birds of La Crau and the Marais du Vigueirat. Once again, a bumper issue, well worth reading.
As in Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, the Bittern has suffered drastic reductions in France, linked to the loss of its primary habitat reedbeds. In the UK, the RSPB has given high priority to reedbed restoration and recreation, building on experience gained at its existing reserves at places like Minsmere and Leighton Moss to create reedbeds 'from scratch' at, for instance, Ham Wall on the Somerset Levels. Back in the 1970s, there were as many as 500 'booming' males to be heard across France, but in recent years numbers have declined to the extent that a survey in 2000 could locate no more than 300 such birds. So this year the LPO has initiated a special appeal for funds to try not only to conserve the existing populations of the Bittern in France, but also to improve the habitat in former breeding and wintering sites in order that the species can extend and consolidate its range. Initially, efforts are being concentrated on six main sites: the Etang de Vendres in Languedoc-Roussillon, the Charnier/Scamandre and Marais du Vigueirat reedbeds in the Camargue area, the Marais de Rochefort, the Etangs de Brenne and the Baie de Seine. In each case, local people fishermen, farmers, the tourism industry, wildfowlers, etc. are all being involved, as such extensive habitat modification cannot successfully be carried out unless everyone in the area concerned can understand the reasons and share in the benefits. A certain portion of the funding is going towards a scientific study of the biology of the Bittern, under the auspices of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS); in addition there is an educational aspect involving schools and colleges, particularly those close to the six main sites. The programme is being supported by both the European Union under its LIFE funding system and the French Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, as well as the LPO, but all donations from elsewhere are welcome. In the first instance, these should be sent to the LPO.
The winter 2002/2003 was a black one literally for seabirds along the western coasts of France, Spain and Portugal, with oil from the Tricolor (in the English Channel) and the Prestige (off Spain) killing thousands of seabirds. And, remember, this was not long after the Erika went down off the coast of Brittany, accounting for thousands more. In response to disasters such as these, the LPO has brought a mobile care unit (Unité Mobile de Soins UMS) into service this year. The UMS is a large articulated vehicle, fully equipped to receive and treat oiled seabirds, and is based in Rochefort. In case of emergency, it can be on the road and fully functional within six hours, and is designed to be the initial point of contact for birds that will then be transferred to the various large permanent rehabilitation centres that already exist in various parts of the country. At other times it will function as an educational and training centre for volunteers, local community officials and the wider public in general. Let's hope that it does not need to be 'activated' in the near future, but it's good to know that it is available if and when the need arises.
It seems that this species, once widespread as a breeding species in France, is in imminent danger of becoming just a rare migrant or even a vagrant, as it already is in Britain. There are currently just a couple of small populations, both in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, and this year a special effort was made to survey one of them, the group in the lower valley of the Aude near Beziers. The area has been one where conservationists having been working closely with the vineyard owners, as the bird's preferred habitat is usually close to or among the vines. There is a special nature trail through one of the areas (the sentier Pie-grièche à poitrine rose) and one of the local wines bears an attractive label featuring the bird, with a proportion of the sales income being donated to its conservation. I visited the area in 2002, and can vouch for the fact that both the wine and the trail are well worth sampling, and was lucky enough to see a pair of the shrikes with young. For how much longer this will be possible is in doubt, because despite all this effort, the population has continued to decline from 25 pairs in 1999, 19 in 2001 to 14 in 2002, with only 9 being located this year. The main populations breed further east in Europe, France being right at the edge of its range, and it may be that the causes for its decline lie as much in its winter quarters or along its migration route, as on its breeding grounds. Certainly the pairs that do breed in France seem to produce a reasonable number of young. From he same region, more encouraging news comes from the upper Aude valley, in the Pyrenees, where three pairs of Egyptian Vultures were discovered this year, there having been none at all only three or four years ago. In addition, initial results from a survey of Ortolans breeding in the Aude département have indicated a reasonably healthy population of this attractive bunting which, elsewhere, is in serious decline across much of western Europe.
It seems a long time since I've updated this page, but it's been a busy summer, and one of my excuses is that I organised and led a trip to La Brenne in early June for the Bristol Ornithological Club, of which I am a long-standing member. The LPO is very much involved in conservation in this wonderful area, which I can highly recommend visiting. It is easily accessible these days, but we found it uncrowded and peaceful, and there certainly were plenty of birds to see. The visitor facilities are improving all the time, and we found the local people, including the LPO representative, Tony Williams, very helpful indeed. I wrote a report for the group which is available at http://www.kjhall.org.uk/brenne2003.htm. No doubt it will mean more to the participants, but may be of help if you are planning a visit to the area in the future.
Not everyone who is a subscriber to L'Oiseau magazine realises that each year a supplement entitled 'Rapaces de France' is published, for an additional 4.50, and if you are particularly interested in birds of prey this is well worth reading The latest edition, published during the summer, contains summaries of the latest news from around the various regions of France, reports on sites where raptor migration is undertaken, articles on each of the species that breeds in France, and reports covering 2002 from the specialist groups which focus on each species or species group.
Also in the pile of magazines on my desk are the two latest editions of Volume 10 of Ornithos, the more specialised of the two magazines published by the LPO. Number 3 contains articles of the remarkable influx of Red-footed Falcons into France in the spring of 2002. Red-footed Falcons are annual migrants to southern France, being particularly associated with La Crau, but in May 2002 the numbers involved were exceptional at least 682 birds being involved. There is also a paper on sexing and aging this species, well illustrated with a range of photos of the changing plumages of this attractive bird from juvenile to adult. Another equally beautiful bird of prey is the subject of the following article, which summarises the occurrences of Black-shouldered Kites in France, away from their tiny breeding area in the south-west, where around four pairs are currently nesting. The main European population is, of course, in Spain and Portugal, and it is no doubt birds from here that account for the bulk of the sightings in France. Prior to 1990 there were very few records, but in the decade or so since then there has been a distinct increase in sightings, and even one nesting attempt in the Cevennes area. Quite a few of the records have been along the Atlantic coast of France, as well as in the south and east. Black-shouldered Kites have never been recorded in the UK as yet, but with increasing records well north in France, as well as some records from Belgium and The Netherlands, it must be a real candidate for the future. The peak months seem to be April and May, so that's the time to be especially vigilant though I hate to think about the crowds that would assemble if one did appear in Britain!
The following issue (Number 4) contains a major paper on the systematics of the Herring/Lesser Blacked/Yellow-legged Gull complex, an area where French ornithologists have made many important contributions, but there is still room for news and photographs of recent sighting of unusual birds in France, and of the formation of a committee to collate records of scarce but regular migrants, complementary to the existing body that checks records of the true rarities.
The Pyrenean passes are well known as migration hot-spots for birds of prey, but the No. 42 bulletin of Organbidexka Col Libre (OCL) contains a timely reminder that plenty of other species can be seen here, with an article summarising the records of White Storks recorded at the main watchpoints: Organbidexka, Lindux, Lizarrieta and Eyne. This is one species where the largest numbers cross at the eastern end of the chain, with probably birds from Germany and Switzerland using this route, though part of those populations also cross the Mediterranean further east (e.g. via Italy, Turkey). There are nevertheless significant numbers using the western passes, with birds from the growing population in western France using this route. For once it is good to report that the numbers involved are growing year-on-year, although there can be big fluctuations, probably related to the weather conditions during the migration period. The bulk of the migrants pass between mid August and mid September, with a few stragglers still on the move to early October.
For the time being at least, Red Kites are flourishing in the UK, with both the native Welsh population and the introduced birds of England and Scotland increasing steadily year on year. It is easy to forget that, unfortunately, in Europe as a whole and remember that the Red Kite is virtually confined to Europe as a species this is the exception rather than the rule. True, during the 1970s and 80s, with legal protection of birds of prey in France, kites seemed to be doing OK, expanding their range even. But since the beginning of the 1990s their numbers have dropped steadily, with signs that the decrease has been accelerating of late. Their current range in France is a long strip running from the western Pyrenees, then discontinuously via the Massif Central up into the north-east of the country. It is here in the north-east that the decline has been most marked, the bird having disappeared completely from the Nord, Oise and Aisne departements, and numbers being down by 5080% in Lorraine, Champagne-Ardenne and Alsace. There may be no more than 300 pairs remaining in this whole area, once a stronghold for the species. There still appear to be good numbers in Franche-Comté and Bourgogne (maybe 1000 pairs), with similar numbers in the Massif Central. Only in the Pyrenees does the population appear to be stable, while the 150250 pairs of Corsica actually seem to be increasing, along with the rabbits that are a major part of their diet. However, there are many uncertainties over these figures and a prime task for the immediate future is to undertake surveys to come up with a more precise estimate of the current state of the population. This is part of a plan for the restoration of the fortunes of the Red Kite in France supported by the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, the prime mover in this task being the LPO, and in particular its Champagne-Ardenne group and its Mission Rapaces. Over the next five years some of the the measures to be undertaken, in addition to the population surveys, will be to examine the conservation status of sample populations in detail, to locate the precise wintering grounds of the birds that breed in France, to establish trial feeding stations, to limit the adverse effects of electricity cables and of rodenticides (e.g. bromadiolone, which has decimated the Red Kite population in some areas), and to work with the forestry authorities to minimise disturbance to birds during the nesting season. Although many Red Kites migrate to Spain for the winter, a significant number remain north of the Pyrenees, and their feeding requirements are another study target. Finally, extensive collaboration with other European countries is also envisaged, essential for such a mobile species. Let's hope that the fortunes of this beautiful bird can be revived, so that future generations are not deprived of the sight of kites wheeling over the hills and valleys of France.
The latest of the annual reports on rare breeding birds in France is published in Ornithos 9 (6), covering the year 2000. It's good to be able to report that White Storks continue to do well, with 645654 pairs raising about 1201 young. About 266 pairs are in Alsace, the older north-eastern population, the majority of the rest being along the Atlantic and Channel coastal areas, though small numbers are well-scattered elsewhere. Spoonbills also continue to increase slowly, the majority of the 108115 pairs being in Loire-Atlantique. This being the first breeding season after the disastrous oil-spills from the Erika, off the Brittany coast, the fragile populations of auks in that part of France were of particular interest, but happily all three species Guillemot (which bore the brunt of the oiling), Razorbill and Puffin maintained their numbers at about the same level as the previous years. It is likely, however, that it was immature birds that comprised the majority of the victims, so it will take several years before the true effects become apparent. Another species where the LPO is particularly involved is the Lesser Kestrel, and there was a significant increase in the number of pairs located, with 60 attempting to nest. The bulk of these are on La Crau. Breeding success was rather poor, however, primarily due to predation by polecats and snakes, and steps are being taken to provide the kestrels with nestsites in less vulnerable places. Among small birds, the Lesser Grey Shrike maintains its toehold in a couple of places in Languedoc-Roussillon, but the Scarlet Rosefinches, which started nesting in the early 1990s now seem to be declining away again, with just nine pairs located in 2000. The same phenomenon has occurred with this species in Holland and the UK, and is probably to be expected with a bird right on the edge of its range. The same issue of Ornithos contains a fascinating paper on the status of the Bluethroat in France. It is not that uncommon (although always tricky to see!), and currently both breeding races (both 'white-spotted') are increasing. The same paper covers the wintering status of bluethroats as a whole, including the 'red-spotted' race from Scandinavia which occurs on passage in France.
Once again the LPO is organising a series of guided visits to watch the spectacular flocks of Cranes that now winter in Les Landes, south-west of Bordeaux. Six visits are planned this year: on 12 and 26 January, and 2, 9, 16 and 19 February. The trips last three hours, and you are taken by bus to places where the Cranes feed, and also close to where they roost the sight of thousands of these huge birds birds heading to the protected areas where they spend the night is one of the most memorable natural history spectacles of Europe. The visits are accompanied by ornithologists from either the LPO or the Parc naturel régional des Landes de Gascogne. Please contact the LPO for more details of the trips and accommodation in the area.
The Pointe de Grave, at the mouth of the Gironde north-west of Bordeaux, has long been known as an outstanding spring migration spot (see also 'Spring shooting of Turtle Doves', below). The peninsula of Cap-Ferret, pointing south at the entrance to the Bassin d'Arcachon, has long been suspected of creating a similar concentration of migrants in the autumn, and last autumn the LPO organised a daily count to ascertain just what could be seen during a systematic watch. Two LPO volunteers spent every morning, from dawn to midday, at the point from 1 September to 31 October, joined at weekends by other enthusiasts. The results were gratifying indeed: among the more significant counts made during this two-month period were 196,000 Chaffinches, 12,200 Goldfinches, 18,600 Siskins, 20,600 Linnets, 7800 White Wagtails (no doubt some Pieds among them) and 5300 Blue-headed/Yellow Wagtails. Other high counts included 22,500 Meadow Pipits, 8200 Swallows, 22,500 Skylarks and 42,000 Woodpigeons. Raptors included 107 Hen Harriers, 68 Sparrowhawks, 55 Merlins, 39 Short-eared Owls and a single White-tailed Eagle. On 5 and 6 October a special exhibition was mounted on site to present to the public the importance of the peninsula, and more than 500 people visited the display on just those days. During the whole period of the watch the volunteers were able to promote the conservation message concerning the site's importance for migrant birds and also for the seabirds and waterfowl that use the surrounding areas throughout the year. Plans are already being laid to repeat the survey in the coming autumn.
Just to confirm what most people know, pollution is no respecter of national boundaries. Since the Prestige tanker sank off the north-west coast of Spain last November, it has already caused enormous damage to the coast, fisheries and wildlife of north-west Spain, and the oil has been steadily spreading, enveloping the seabirds that winter in that part of the Atlantic. By the end of the year it has been estimated that over 10,000 seabirds had been affected in Spanish waters, Razorbills, Puffins and Gannets especially. The LPO has feared from the beginning that the French coast would also be directly affected at some point, and on 31 December the first seabirds coated with oil from the ship started to come ashore in the southern part of the Bay of Biscay. Already 80 birds have been picked up, among them Guillemots, Gannets, Puffins, Kittiwakes and Great Skuas. The LPO, unhappily, has much bitter experience of dealing with oiling catastrophes, of which the Erika was only the most recent, and is working closely with other conservation organisations to try to clean up oiled seabirds as soon as they are found, as well, of course, continuing to press for legislation to rid the seas of 'floating dustbins' such as the Prestige.
I rather liked the following story from the LPO-Yonne newsletter, recounted by Mme Dominique Jaeggi. Following a violent storm, she and her husband found two rather weak-looking baby Tawny Owls at the foot of a hundred-year-old chestnut tree in their garden. As the garden was where their four dogs spent much of the day, and was also the happy nocturnal hunting ground of the neighbours' cats, they were rather concerned as to the chances of survival of the two 'orphans'. So they took them to the local vet, who administered some antibiotics to clear up an incipient eye infection that the birds had contracted, and recommended that they be fed on strips of raw beef. That evening, Mme Jaeggi went into the garden to see if the adults were still around, and noticed one of them land in the chestnut tree where she had found the young. She decided to put the baby owls in an open cardboard box on some stones under the tree, and leave them there for the night, hoping against hope that no cat would discover them. The next morning she went outside and was relieved to find that the two young were still there. Not only that, next to the box were two dead mice, left by the adult. As the baby owls were too small to swallow these offerings whole, Mme Jaeggi stoutly chopped the mice into quarters and fed them to the (apparently) appreciative young. The next evening, alerted by the adult's calls, they once again left the baby owls under the chestnut tree in their cardboard box for the night. The next morning, next to the box were one mouse, a small bird (minus its head) and a young bat. Over the next eight days, the same routine was followed, the Jaeggis feeding the owls on raw beef during the day, supplemented by the nocturnal offerings of the adults, while at the same time administering the antibiotics to the young owls' eyes. At dusk on the eighth day, the baby owls actually emerged from the box when the adult landed close by, and the Jaeggis went indoors with fingers crossed. The next morning all that remained was the empty box, the young presumably having flown off with their parents during the night. M. and Mme Jaeggi were left to reflect on a job well done and, for once, a happy ending. In Mme Jaeggi's words Voilà l'aventure!