Trip reports

Mini-bus Trip to Northern France

Mini-bus Trip to Northern France
The Group at Trois Fontaines (Photo: Godfrey Eden)

Saturday, 13 February 2010

The drive down the M40 went smoothly with views of more than 52 Red Kites, and on the M25 a real bonus of Ring necked Parakeets, for those on the front row.

Dover approached rapidly and the four "walk ons" prepared for the embarkation process. It was painless and they were first on board staking a claim to chairs and tables in pole position for panoramic sea watching. We had great views of Kittiwakes, Gannets, Red Throated Diver, Great Skua, Guillemots and many Gulls.
Suddenly passengers were being called to return to their vehicles - we were arriving in France ! The "walk ons" cast out into the maze of traffic and feeder roads that make up the port of Calais were delighted when the minibus homed in for the pick up and all aboard, we set off for Oye Plage a local reserve naturelle.

The sun was shining, the light really good, the ducks and geese including a White Front were showing at their best but it was the Fieldfare that outshone them all - they were everywhere. We had seen a small "patchfull" on the grass by the roadside, but the bushes at the back of the main pool on the reserve were literally bedecked with birds strong and smart in full breeding colours. It was a tremendous start to the trip but it was time to move on. Temperatures were dropping rapidly and ahead was a long journey across northern France - some 375kms to St Dizier. However toll roads were straight, smooth and generally traffic was light. We sped across country arriving at 8.30 pm to an enthusiastically French greeting. Warmed up and with rooms sorted were able to have drinks and nibbles before dinner.

It was a more leisurely start to the Sunday morning and after an excellent continental breakfast we were out to explore the wooded area around the village of Trois Fontaines Abbeye. There were some beautiful local stone buildings - many were old with thick wooden shutters and traditional architectural features. It was a cold bright morning, crisp snow lay underfoot and we entered the forest along a well defined track. It wasn't very long before small birds including a Firecrest began to show, but early attempts to call in the French woodpeckers were unsuccessful - it must have been the English recordings .. they obviously had the wrong accent! It was only later, close to the charcoal burning area, that some of the group heard the call of the Black Headed Woodpecker and had fleeting views of it. But, it was a splendid walk and on several occasions flights of Cranes flew overhead calling in the cold wintry air - a wonderful sight that was going to become a defining feature of the visit.

Decisions had to be made about lunch. The usual picnic was aborted as all shops were shut - the French have not yet adopted Sunday opening - but fortunately we seemed to have enough between us to graze on and there were excellent cakes for dessert .. a special treat from Pam and Jill.

We travelled on to Lac du Der Chantecoq en route having great views of a male Hen Harrier. Local knowledge of the area acquired by Liz from previous trips proved invaluable. We were able to go straight to a small promontory with a church Presqu'ile du Champaubert, that gave clear views out across the water. There were Goosander, Whooper Swans and a huge flock of Cormorants, obviously clustered above a shoal of fish. Over the island toward the centre of the lake a White Tailed Sea Eagle was circling. It landed on a bare tree and was quickly joined by a second - this prompted the first Eagle to fly up and head toward us .. we had spectacular views. It was a huge adult bird with a massive wing span, strong thick neck, a hefty bill and white tail feathers that showed clearly. It swooped effortlessly low over the scattering Cormorants and almost casually plucked a fish seemingly from the waters surface. Rising up again with its catch it was harried by several Yellow Legged Gulls - they were treated with disdain and appeared to be mere irritants that the Eagle could ignore.

We were at the right place at the right time. What amazing planning! What timing! What luck! This bird was a first for many people and you could not have wished for better views.

We moved on round to another arm of the lake and set up scopes. There were many geese mostly Greylag, a smattering of duck, a gathering of Great White Egrets (there were eight in one field of view) and several Cranes one pair of which attracted particular attention. They weren't going for the full on mating dance ritual but were certainly indulging in a warm up with sensuous fluttering and flirty leaps. It was delightful to watch. One or two female group members thought they'd try out their dancing skills .. but "the blokes" remained totally unimpressed!!

The afternoon had sped by and we needed to get to a good place from which to watch the Crane roost. Not knowing exactly when the birds would arrive we were there in plenty of time. Scopes were set up and we scanned the water. There were a quite a few duck, Curlew, Rock and Meadow Pipits and two beautiful male Smew with two females .. one of which disguised itself for some time as a Red Necked Grebe! We waited .. it was getting very chilly indeed and various walking, jumping and clapping strategies were employed to keep the blood flowing.

And then they came .. line after line after line after line, Cranes in their thousands heading toward us from the far side of the lake calling loudly and tilting their wings from side to side as they descended spilling the air from their backs. What a spectacle! Was there going to be room for them all on what seemed to be very small mud islands ?

This was not the best place find out and after a while we went back to the minibus driving round to explore different viewpoints and weigh up the best place to go for the roost the following evening. It had been a wonderful day with varied habitats and some stunning birds - now it was nearly dark and we headed back to St Dizier for drinks and dinner.

Monday morning brought grey cloud and some flurries of snow. Pete & Jim went early to the supermarket to ensure supplies for the picnic lunch then we boarded the minibus this time for the Foret de L'Orient. This was to be a woodpecker morning with Lesser, Middle and Greater Spotted plus hopefully Black and even Grey Headed.
Compacted snow covered the roads within the forest making them pretty icy - there had been no gritting and little traffic - driving was hazardous and Pete kept a steady 10 -15 mph. We made for the main information centre that looked to be a well set up building with picnic tables around. Sadly it was closed .. but even more unfortunately so was the forested area around .. closed to the public until mid march!!

What to do? We parked and decided to walk along the obvious access route - the road. Woodpeckers were definitely not in abundance and a short detour down through the wood to the lakeside showed much of the water to be frozen hard with very little bird life. However there was lots of evidence to show that Wild Boar were very much around - deep tracts of earth along the roadside and by the lake had been churned up as they rooted about for food.

We continued to search, walking as quietly as possible on the scrunchy snow .. sixteen pairs of eyes strung out along the road slowly scanned every branch! A Greater Spot flew across and then further down the road a Lesser Spot was seen - it disappeared quickly before many had a chance to get there .. but, perseverance was rewarded when a Middle Spot stayed in the same tree long enough for everyone to get a good view.

We gathered back at the bus - lunchtime came like a reward for all our efforts - everyone was hungry and the baguettes, cheeses, cold meats, purple crisps, fruit, wine and cake was a cheerful al fresco feast in the snow.

On the road again we made a brief stop at a hide overlooking the bottom end of the lake. There was a rather bedraggled Sea Eagle slumped out on one of the mud islands but not a lot of other birds on the water. By far the most entertaining were some very photogenic Marsh Tits that visited the hide every minute or so, obviously well used to the visitors.

It was a speedy journey back for the roost at le Lac du Der Chantecoq - this time to the sailing club area in the hope that the Cranes would fly in overhead. Winter sunsets have a quality all their own. The coldness and mist in the air softens the bright tones of yellow, red, orange and purple so that the fierce harshness of the evening sky is muted.

We were lucky enough to have beautiful sunsets on both evenings and on this particular occasion the sky above us was clear. We had barely arrived before a line of Cranes flew in, silhouetted against the light. It was a photographers' dream shot. Line followed line flying in with slow measured wing beats, calling to each other as they approached the lake. Some came right over our heads - masters of the air drifting from side to side as they spilt the air and swept down toward the water.

It was magical .. we were spellbound searching the sky for the next approaching wave .. and they continued to come in line after line until the sky, no longer directly lit by the sun, had become a wonderful deep indigo blue.
Looking at the roost through the scope, Cranes were clustered on the mud islands with barely a breath between them - but they were settled .. indeed it was noticeable that once they had landed there was no more calling, they all seemed quietly at ease with each other.

It was time to take our leave .. yet even as we wandered back to the bus more were flying in. The estimated number of Cranes in the area was between 14 - 15,000. It was a highlight of the trip .. a stunning wildlife experience that no one will forget.

Everyone enjoyed evening drinks and dinner and then it was speedy packing for an early start the following morning. Breakfast was at 6.30 and we were out for a last woodpecker foray by 7.30am.

We went first to the charcoal burners area but not with a deal of success. Marsh and Long tailed Tits performed well and one or two had Hawfinch fly over .. there was certainly drumming until the forest chain saws started .. then we decided to move. A cross roads in more mature woodland looked promising and indeed there was quite a lot of activity. Greater and Middle Spots were seen and heard with some being deceived by expert tree tapping!! We gave the Black and the Grey headed every opportunity to show themselves .. even the wild boar were seen by some trotting across the road .. but not the woodpeckers, perhaps it's just the excuse needed to come back again.

We returned to the hotel, picked up the luggage collected the shoppers from the supermarket and said our farewells. Once again it was a very smooth but long journey with a "lay by" stop for the picnic lunch where we were joined by very chilly Sparrows and a rather lost Moorhen.

In good time for the ferry at Calais we were delayed by the boat being nearly an hour late, but once on board the journey passed quickly enough - too dark for seabirds some watched Tom 'n Jerry whilst others had an evening meal.

Back in Dover "walk ons" were retrieved from the night, we set off on the final trek back to Coventry. It had been very cold in France but dry and often sunny - now as if to make a point the weather became " British". Heavy rain and low cloud caused the motorways south of London to become a spray bath making driving difficult however by the time we reached the M40 it had cleared and the final leg of the journey was easier.

What a successful expedition .. within four days we had covered more than 900 miles plus all the local mileage in the St Dizier area. We had seen over 95 different types of bird, several mammals including red squirrel and for some a brief view of wild boar. We had watched the powerful flight of the White Tailed Sea Eagle, been delighted by graceful "bird dancing", Great White Egrets had become two a penny and above all we had been privileged to witness the Crane roost. What a joy it had been to be a part of that spectacle ..

I am sure that I speak for everyone in saying a huge thank you to Pete for a wonderful birding weekend. It was an enormous undertaking and the planning, driving, organisation and the sharing of his birding skills and knowledge have, as ever, been much appreciated.

If this is to be the last weekend trip it has been a truly memorable one !

Janet Matthews

The Group at Trois Fontaines (Photo: Godfrey Eden)