This is a brief introduction to birding in Brittany!
BIRDING BREAKS IN BRITTANY Bertram.E.B. Brée
A short ferry trip from UK ferry ports, including both Plymouth and Poole, will allow you to enjoy some of the best birding in Europe, based on the northwestern tip of France, just south of the UK, in the beautiful and fascinating peninsula of Brittany.
The land of unspoilt salmon rivers, scrubland, heathland and forest is surrounded by warm emerald coloured oceanic waters foaming with Atlantic breakers on the safe golden sandy coastline. As for the rugged coastal land, it peaks majestically at the 384 metre high Roc'h Trévezel, offering a pleasant panorama of the bird filled Mont d’Arrée to the west, and Montagnes Noires to the east. The surrounding area forms the wildlife rich Regional Natural Parc of Armorique, which is accessed west of the haunting town of Huelgoat some thirty kilometres south of Morlaix, also located to the east of the military nerve centre of Brest. Brittany beckons!
Armorique - the old Breton name for Brittany, meaning the ‘Land of the Sea’ - covers some 27,000 square kilometres of the French Continental land area and it is noted by naturalists across Europe as a prime haven – if not the prime haven - for wildlife in France. Brittany consists of five Départements : Ile-et-Vilaine, Loire-Atlantique, Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère and Morbihan. These key administrative areas are rather similar to the forty or so UK Counties. Brittany could be compared to France in a similar way that England is compared to the UK. However England is more densely populated than Brittany, having double the population per square kilometer to Brittany. Only 110 people per square km on average live in Brittany, (Brittany having a total population of somewhat surprisingly some 3 million residents), compared to 250 people per square km in England with a population of about 60 million residents! Of course England covers a much larger landmass than Brittany of roughly 243,000 square km, having likewise key conurbations near the coast like Brittany. Brittany’s capital city, however, at Rennes is straddled right in the middle of the Brittany hinterland, in fact it is over 50 km from the nearest coastline. The nearest coast to Rennes being the bird-filled Bay of the Arc-Angel St Michel, known as the Bay of Mont-St Michel. This important inter-tidal area is a RAMSAR reserve and is classed by many as one of the most impressive ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ for its beauty including the majesty of its ancient Abbey, resultingly it is rightly classed as a World Heritage Site.
Brittany’s charming countryside is littered with quaint and inviting fishing ports, well preserved prehistoric settlements, attractive Abbeys, charming Châteaux, magnificent manor houses, and walled towns for those who just want to amble, ramble and tour. As for birders, we are all offered gems for those of us interested in all forms of nature, the opportunity to mingle with the abundant wildlife surrounding a population of just three millions residents, relative to the relatively large expanse of land mass for this limited population. The Bretons are justly proud of their amazingly distinguished ancestors. Bretons of old helped place William Duke of Normandy on the throne of England in 1066. Later in their history they aided the first of the Tudors to rule over England, King Henry VII of England, who seized the throne of England and Lordship of Ireland, with a substantial amount of French help, in 1485, having spent much of his youth in Brittany, largely at the lovely Forteresse du Largouët. This historical site is worth a visit to experience its ancient well preserved charms. Dukes of Brittany were remarkably powerful potentates, and only lost much of their independence through the marriage of their really influential ruler the Duchesse Anne of Brittany, when she became betrothed to King Charles VIII of France in 1491. The Breton people are arguably easily more closely linked to the Celtic people of the British Isles, [through bloodlines, history and the ancient Breton language], than to the French!
Indeed, Brittany is home to an impressive number of species of wildlife that are now rare or extinct in the UK. For example, whereas half the total number of European insect species [thus some 40,000 species] are found in France itself; Brittany, in particular, offers some of the best sites in the whole of France to see an array of the 270 species of French butterfly and 85 species of Dragonfly - including a dozen species of butterfly which are rare or extinct in the UK. Yet, these can still often be found here in Brittany. This vital corridor, leading [from the sun of southern Europe] to the UK, for rare Continental migrants - largely due to its mild climate and strategic location - is a place that is, without a doubt, for any birder, a ‘must see’ destination.
Over a hundred pairs of Roseate Terns nest around Brittany. Mainly, these can be found nesting on Ile de la Colombière, in the Rance estuary near the ferry terminal at St Mälo, [which is a town filled with inhabitants who are fiercely independence loving]. These birds can also sometimes be found in greater numbers on Ile aux Dames, near Roscoff, in the Baie de Morlaix, that is, when predators like Peregrine Falcons are not present! In Autumn, these beautiful Terns are a must to observe, normally along with some British ringed Roseates, at Ile de Berder Oyster Farm in the feeding area near Pen-en-Toul bird reserve, situated in the Golfe de Morbihan near Vannes. This is easily accessible by travelling south-west from Vannes along the D101 for a few kilometres.
Seabirds have impressive colonies in Brittany, with around 19,000 pairs of Gannet alone, which breed on Ile de Rouzic. Large numbers of other species of seabirds breed around this island. Near Roscoff, the Sept Iles bird reserve is therefore recommended for a visit. Boat trips around the islands are organized and run by the Ligue pour la Protection d’Oiseaux [the ‘LPO’ or ‘League for the Protection of Birds’], which is Bird Life International’s partner in France.
The Isle of Ouessant [Ushant in English] south of the Scilly Isles is a magnet for up to 500 species of stray migrant birds. These range from as far away as: Siberia, Africa and the Americas (such as Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Moussier’s Redstart, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, regular Little Shearwaters and the Southern Giant Petrel). Resident Red-billed Chough, Puffin and Dartford Warblers offer variety if the rare migrants are not as obvious here as they become in the month of October. The first French bird observatory, one of the first inaugurated in the world, was founded on Ushant near what is reputed to be the most powerful lighthouse in Europe at Creac’h, its thirteen pencil beams being visible at night over a hundred miles away!
In the Baie d’Audierne, on the south-western tip of Brittany is a bird reserve which invariably hosts an exceptionally brightly coloured colony of European Bee-Eaters, usually numbering around fifty birds, which can be observed in the undulating dunes near Pointe de la Torche. The colony is also near the reserve of Trunvel Marshes, where many Aquatic Warblers are annually trapped by ringers. Also found here are many Continental breeding species which do not often breed in the UK [like Hoopoe, Bluethroat, Garganey, Savi’s Warbler, Kentish Plover and Black-winged Stilt]. A Least Sandpiper has recently been seen here, which is an excellent example of the many rarities recorded in this beautiful haven for nature of the Baie d’Audierne.
In the Reserve de Séné bird reserve [near the ancient pre-Christian town of Vannes, in the Département de Morbihan, in the south-eastern part of Brittany] is a key strategic bird reserve where in August the following birds can be seen: Marsh Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Fan-tailed Warbler, Spoonbill, Osprey, Bluethroat, Glossy Ibis, Sacred Ibis, Hobby, Cirl Bunting, Kentish Plover, plus regular rare waders like the Lesser Yellowlegs and White-rumped Sandpiper.
The Société pour l’Etude et Protection de la Nature en Bretagne [‘SEPNB’ or ‘The Society for the Study and Protection of Nature in Brittany’] runs 99 nature reserves in Brittany. The Society has thousands of members who are eager to help tourists enjoy the natural history of the area. Many of the members provide invaluable information to visitors on a non-payment basis and are always willing to help. Accommodation can be organized by the SEPNB [having its headquarters based in Brest] including at Bois-Joubert Gîte at the south-east of the Brière reserve, just north-west of Montoir-de-Bretagne. It costs a mere twelve Euros a night for a single room which includes the use of hot showers and the large well-equipped kitchens. [This can be booked direct by telephoning Tel:00 33 2 40 45 53 92].
Across the Brière there are guided tours offered in punts where you are likely to enjoy seeing: Otters, Water Voles, Water Shrews, and many rare bird and flower species. Also you are likely to be enthralled by the sight of some 3,000 thatched cottages, many of which can be hired for your specific holiday requirements. The flora of Brittany includes some rare orchids not found naturally in the UK, like Summer Ladies Tresses, and the Loose-flowered Orchids, besides other rare flora like the endemic sub-species of Daffodil found only on the offshore islets at les Iles Glénans, off Concarneau.
The bird reserve of the Brière Marshes offers some six bird hides at Rozé. At least 100 pairs of Spoonbill and 200 pairs of Black Tern can be enjoyed here in the breeding season. [It is to be noted that the local cuisine is here at its best!] [The Ile de Fédrun area offers excellent regional gastronomic delights, in particular at la Mare aux Oiseaux, where the Parisian chef Eric Guérin shows the diners his expertise in ‘Cordon Bleu’ style cooking]. It is well worth the effort visiting the Ile de Fédrun for the delicacies dreamt up by the local chefs, at the same time as seeing the Natural Parc of the Brière Information Centre. This is located opposite the choice restaurants surrounded in spring by ‘The Song of the Moon’ as celebrated by the renowned poet Alfred Lord Tennison from England who rather eerily referred to the Nightingale’s song with this quirky phrase. Quivering Nightingales hiding in bushes nearby the smallholding burst forth with vibrant song, filling the hamlet’s vibrating airwaves with the most musical melody creating a distinct atmosphere of romance, an ideal accompaniment perhaps for a cosy candlelit supper for two!
Brittany offers excellent forests [which originally covered virtually the whole territory] including, for example, la Forêt du Gavre, near Nantes (which was the former capital city of the Duchy of Brittany). Nantes boasts a welcoming walled city and Château, not far from the Château de Goulaine which is also located in a prime birding area, being home to: Red-backed Shrikes, Golden Orioles, Corncrakes and wetland birds. Le Gâvre is a fine forest area to explore for its birding. Le Gâvre Forest has breeding: Black, Middle Spotted, Great Spotted, Lesser Spotted, and Green Woodpeckers, besides Wryneck, [a rare Woodpecker species breeding here in small numbers], also many Bonelli’s Warblers, Short-toed Treecreepers, Nightjars and Hobbys. Northern Goshawk and Honey Buzzard regularly breed here and Short-toed Eagle are regular also in the area in summer. Le Gâvre has a very informative Interpretation Centre, which is worthy of a visit. It is proud to offer its well-organized birding walks, based at La Maison Benoit.
Some 10 kilometres south of Nantes, former capital of Brittany, is the Lac de Grand Lieu SNPN [Société Nationale de Protection de la Nature], [National Society for the Protection of Nature], Nature Reserve. The [some 150 year old] SNPN also run the Camargue reserve on the Mediterranean coast of France and have a good web site for birders and naturalists at:- http://www.snpn.com.
The lake of Grand Lieu, France’s largest and oldest natural plain lake, is home to all the nine European Heron and Egret species. Stunning sights like the 150 pairs of Great White Egret, 300 pairs of Cattle Egret, the same number of Little Egret, plus numerous Spoonbills and occasionally a pair of African Spoonbill, or even occasional breeding White Pelican, seem to remind many birders of an apparition of angels, which couldn’t possibly be more surreal. They are sometimes accompanied by a pair of, the all-dark and relatively rare, Glossy Ibis, many feral Sacred Ibis, 150 pairs of Night Heron, around 200 pairs of Purple Heron, and up to 1,000 pairs of Grey Heron forming one of the finest heronries in the world! The reserve has over a thousand pairs of Whiskered Tern, being perhaps the biggest colony in France, breeding alongside hundreds of Black Terns. In Spring, often amongst the Black Tern are White-winged Black Tern, hanging like marionettes above the significant species of rare water birds, wildfowl and waders, which are notably present here in vast numbers. It is perhaps the best spot in France for birding, vying for first place with the Camargue in the Rhône delta, and which likewise hosts many rare migrants.
The SNPN centre at 15, Rue de la Châtaigneraie, 44830, Bouaye near l’Etier, at the north-west of the ‘Lac’ is a must to visit, for the latest news and to organize birding outings with the professional wardens, who are only too keen to assist birders in return for sharing their field records. ‘La Maison Guerlain’ the former residence of the perfume magnate benefactor who founded the reserve, of Guerlain Perfume fame, is soon to be opened as a new reserve centre, which will become one of the best and newest reserve centers in Europe for wetlands, when it is officially opened!
A hide is available at St Aignan during migration, and birding is also excellent from the end of tracks at St Lumine-de-Coutais and at St Mars-de-Coutais. In winter, White-tailed Sea Eagles, huge numbers of waterbirds and a roost of 6 million Starlings fill the skies. It is a supremely stunning sight, as Starling after Starling swirl in legions, particularly when the observer’s feast is contrasted by a fierce grey cloudy backdrop over the silvery waters of the Loire - the longest river in France.
Wherever you may choose to travel seeking the splendours of the environment of Brittany, you will be impressed by the variety of countryside, from golden fields of sunflowers to the green sloping vineyards. This fertile patchwork of somewhat rustic pockets of cultivation are contrasted again with the dazzling waters of the circuitous canals that criss-cross the countryside of Brittany. These canal routes offer great observing potential along the arteries of canal paths that transfuse with life that countryside of Brittany. It is easily possible to record over a hundred species of birds in a day, including many species common in Brittany but rare or absent in the UK.
In the Vendée, situated to the south of Nantes, is the Marais Breton, and in particular a visit to Le Daviaud Ecomusée is a must; for breeding Hoopoe, Montagu’s Harriers, Avocets, Stilts, Ruff, Short-eared Owls and Bluethroats, which can be seen after a trip to the bird hide there. Ile d’Yeu and Noirmoutier islands to the south are also a must to visit for migrants if you are in the area, as well as seabirds and Dolphins plus other rarer cetaceans in the waters around the ‘islands’ of the Bay of Biscay, which can often be observed by ferry trips from Les Sables d’Olonne to Ile d’Yeu.
The area is a superb destination for any UK birder, either on a short or on a long break. It is a venue easily accessible to both avid and amateur birders alike – those who will both greatly enjoy the ancient land of the fabled Asterix, Merlin and their fellow renowned sorcerers and wizards who are associated with Armorique – to those who need a new boost to their run down energy reserves - sure to leave anyone enchanted and refreshed with its carefree charms forever!
Copyright © Bertram.E.B.Brée All Rights Reserved. MMVII