Ile D'Ouessant, Brittany, 30th Sept - 6th Oct 2007

Published by Mark Lewis (lewis_sparky AT

Participants: Mark Lewis


Ouessant, situated off the coast of Brittany, has long been known as the premiere French site for rarities, which is not too surprising as it sits on the other side of the mouth of the English channel to the Scillies. It has one great advantage over the Scillies in that in comparison, very few birders visit it. This makes it ideal for combining a birding trip with a family holiday so we met up with my girlfriends parents in Brest and they joined us for a week on the island. Aside from birding there’s not an awful lot to do, apart from sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the scenery, cider and crepes, but they seemed to have a very nice time. Being a family holiday, I had to curtail my birding somewhat, which was occasionally frustrating. Had I been a little more hardcore I’d certainly have seen a few more birds, and perhaps stopped for cider at nice little cafes a little less as well. Having said that, I still had a very enjoyable stay and will be returning this October (this time without the inlaws!).

Getting there

We flew from Aberdeen to Brest via Paris (involving a change of airports in Paris), at a cost of about £200 per person return, with Air France, who, surprisingly, managed not to loose any of our luggage. We spent the night in a hotel on the harbour front in Brest that evening, before catching the first ferry out to the island the following morning, at a cost that roughly translated to about £20 per person. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants around the harbour in Brest, and then its an easy walk to the ferry from there. We found the area very quiet, so it’s probably not necessary to book anywhere in advance (in fact the area was so quiet that on the evening of our return we watched France pulling off their shock win over the Kiwis in an empty pub!). There are a few adequate restaurant round here too, so there’s really no need to venture into the town itself. Unless you want to, of course.

We found that accommodation was easy to find on the internet. It seems the island is very popular with tourists over the summer months, and several people have summer homes there too. Consequently, come autumn, there’s a lot of rooms to fill and holiday homes to rent. Our week in the house at Stiff cost 350 euros for the week (so something not too far beyond £200), which between the four of us was very reasonable. It was a little basic, but everything was in working order and the location was great. Somewhere in or near Lampaul, the main town on the island, would be a more central location and would be handier for eating out and pubbing in the evening, and getting to the shops. It would also be more convenient for joining the nightly log call at the ornithological centre. One slight word of warning….despite being very popular with French tourists, they don’t get many visiting brits over there so having a command of basic French would be very useful.

Birding Ouessant

Ouessant is a small island, with quite a good road system, and very few cars. All tourists get around on bikes that can be hired either by the ferry terminal or in Lampaul, for the princely sum of around 50 euros per week. It’s pretty flat, apart for one or two steep pinches, so even someone as out of shape as me can get around the island with few problems. The birding hotspots seem to be scattered throughout the island. One thing that immediately hit me on arriving was the amount of cover….there is suitable migrant habitat everywhere, and much of it is thick, bushy vegetation which is often very wet underfoot. Wellies are not essential, but would definitely come in handy.

There is an “Ornithological centre” in the west of the island. Here, they do a log of sightings every evening, and there may also be a sightings board on the go in the daytime too. It’s well worth visiting the centre at least once, if only to pick up one of the maps they produce. Tourist maps can be picked up all over the island, but the birders have a lot of specific names for specific places, and these only marked on the maps produced by the ornithological centre. They offer basic accommodation here too. I picked up a French field guide on a previous trip to France, which came in handy for bird names.

For reasonably up to date gen about what’s been seen on the island, look no further than which very handily has all bird names in English as well as French.

Despite its popularity with French and other European birders, it still remains quiet even at peak migrant time.


Day one – Brest to Ouessant (via Ile de Molene and le Conquet)

Caught the early morning ferry out of Brest, picking up little egret and a few mediterranean gulls in the harbour along with the usual dross. Between Brest and le Conquet, not much was seen apart from gulls, gannets and cormorants, and at le Conquet itself there were a few more med gulls and a nice female marsh harrier, along with good numbers of terns. From le Conquet the ferry headed out to sea towards Ile de Molene. Under different conditions there is clear potential for some decent seawatching from this boat, but I had to make do with 4 balearic shearwaters, albeit with cracking views of three of them (others had grey phalarope and leach’s petrel from the crossing during our stay). There was a lot of activity around Molene, with groups of waders flying round all over the place, no doubt spooked by the male marsh harrier and peregrine that were doing the rounds over the island. Molene doesn’t see nearly as much coverage as Ouessant, but must cash in on whatever brings goodies there. Its also a smaller and easier to work island by the look of things, so there’s probably more scope to find your own birds here than on Ouessant. The last stage of the crossing, towards Ouessant, was uneventful apart from a bottle nosed dolphin that kept pace with the ferry and gave some stunning views down to about 10 feet.

On arrival at Ouessant, the first task was to find our accommodation at Le Stiff, and then to get us some bikes hired. It was clear that there were migrants on the island, as the short walk up to the house produced ring ouzel, chiffchaff, blackcap and oodles of robins and blackbirds. The day was spent getting our bearings, getting some provisions and having a look around for a few birds. Stang a Stiff, a largish area of dense cover next to the house had in excess of 15 firecrest as well as small numbers of other migrants including whitethroat, redstart and pied flycatcher. The rest of the day was to produce a smattering of other common migrants, with merlin, stock dove, yellow wagtail, tree pipit and a few warblers, chats and flycatchers. A brief chat with a few French birders later in the day revealed that there were also hobby and short eared owl present. Pick of the day went to a female/juv hen harrier that drifted over in the evening.

Day two

An early morning wander around Stang a Stiff was made difficult by the extremely heavy fog that had settled in (and would linger for the next few days). Despite the fog, it was also clear that there had been an exodus of migrants, although there seemed to be a few more chiffchaffs around than the day before. This was to be the same for the rest of the island throughout the day, but there were still enough firecrests, pied flys, and other common migrants around to keep things interesting. A late morning visit to the reservoirs located right in the centre of the island yielded yet more common migs, as well as water rail and kingfisher. There’s a lot of good habitat round the reservoirs, but access to the water itself is restricted and therefore there are a few nooks and crannies that are difficult to get a view of. Still, well worth a visit. Due to the lack of large numbers of migrants, I decided to spend a little while trying to get to grips with some of the islands more interesting resident birds. Chough was easy enough to see (and I’d heard them the previous day, but was too busy crouching in a swamp looking for rarities to pay them any attention), but Dartford warbler was proving a little more elusive, and apart from hearing them a few times it wasn’t till later in the week that I actually caught up with them properly

Day three

Another morning of very thick fog and few migrants, although by the afternoon it had begun to clear and one or two things had begun to turn up. This was possibly because there were a few more birders on the island from today, but there did seem to be an increase in birds not long after the fog had lifted. Around the island at various locations I picked up stock dove (not too numerous a migrant, apparently), tree pipit, redwing, among the chiffchaffs and the robins and other commoner stuff, and at one point a female type merlin rocketed past . In the late afternoon I received a text from a friendly Belgian birder with news of a red-breasted flycatcher just 10 minutes from the house. Having a bit of a soft spot for RBFlys, I sped off down the road and was soon enjoying cracking views of this first year bird as it snapped and prrrted above my head.

Day four

Yet more thick fog overnight that lingered well into the morning, but there were one or two birds kicking around on my dawn recce of Stang a Stiff. Firecrest and goldcrest numbers had risen from the previous day, and there were plenty of chiffchaffs and a few blackcaps around. Excitement was driven to an all time high for the week when after a great deal of patience I started to get some brief views of a very skulking unstreaked acro. Despite my best efforts however, I was unable to make it into anything other than a reed warbler, which was a little disappointing considering the number of Blyths reeds that were turning up in the UK around the same time. Still, it’s a bird we don’t get to see a lot of on the Aberdeenshire coast, and the challenge of making a correct ID was quite enjoyable even if the outcome wasn’t the one hoped for!

The afternoon was spent looking around the Penn Arland area in the south east of the island. Again there were decent numbers of migrants, with ring ouzel and great spotted woodpecker the pick of the bunch. It wasn’t until I’d heard the woodpecker a few times and cycled past it that I remembered an article from an old issue of Birding world where it was described as an island rarity! It certainly attracted a few admirers over the few days it was around, but perhaps this is more a reflection on the lack of genuine rares available for that week. Another group of birders who were enjoying the woodpecker had had poor views of a phyllosc, which they said was giving a rather bullfinch like call. I didn’t see the bird, but I reckon wood warbler would be a likely candidate, which would also be another good bird for the island.

East of Penn Arland on a headland covered in low gorse and bracken, was where I finally caught up with a couple of groups of Dartford warbler, which were surprisingly bold and approachable.

Day five

A beautiful sunny start to today, and a nice day to explore the south west of the island in more depth. The first stop was at the area where the buff-bellied pipit had been seen on and off. Unsurprisingly, there were only meadow pipits on show today, along with a few firecrests around the rocks. Heading on to the headland of Fuenten velen, waders were to prove the order of the day, with bar-tailed godwit and golden plover among the redshanks, turnstones and ringed plovers. The clear skies meant that a lot of migs were passing over the island rather than touching down, and there was a steady overhead passage of skylarks, thrushes and finches that had not occurred over the previous few days. On the journey back over to the house, a raptor shaped dot in the sky raised the pulse for a couple of seconds, until I got the bins on it and it turned out to be a common buzzard.

Day six

Today was a day for doing family stuff, so there weren’t many opportunities to stop and look at birds. The best I could manage were firecrests and a redstart around Stang a Stiff at dawn, and a Dartford warbler in scrub near the house.

Day seven - Ouessant to Brest

The final day on the island, and it seemed I was leaving just as things were starting to hot up. As soon as I set out on my dawn walk around Stang a Stiff, it was clear there had been a fall of sorts. There was a steady passage of thrushes, chaffinchs, skylarks and siskins overhead. Three birders were hanging around at the stiff, including the friendly texting Belgian, complete with ringing kit, so I went over to have a natter. It seems that one of them had seen a possible Blyths reed there the evening before, managed to take a few inconclusive photos, and were desperately trying to catch the birds before they had to catch the ferry off the island later that morning. I had a look at the photos, and agreed that they were inconclusive! We worked the Stang a few times, succeeding in driving blackcap, chiffchaff, pied fly and redwing into the nets, but no acro. All this time I was suffering a real crisis of confidence, as the photographer was reasonably convinced that his bird was a BRW…..had I misidentified my unstreaked acro from a few days before? It wasn’t until the third and final drive that I finally heard and eventually saw an undeniable reed warbler, which put my mind at rest a little. Still, it’s quite possible that two birds were present, but I can fairly confidently say that I didn’t see a blyths reed warbler. Which is a shame. While all this was going on there were one or two other bits and pieces knocking around, including a flyby lesser whitethroat, that rather surprisingly had the Ouessant regulars reaching for their phones to text the news out.

And that was that as far as birding the island went. The ferry journey back to Brest was quiet, with similar birds around Molene and le Conquet, the only sighting of note being a dark bellied brent goose near the mainland coast.

I was reasonably unlucky in the timing of the trip, as the impression I got from the regulars was that it was a fairly quiet week. Even so, during my time there, there were buff-bellied pipit, rb-fly, yellow-browed warbler, richards pipit, dotterel and wryneck seen, so it’s obviously got oodles of potential if you manage to time it right.

Mark Lewis