South-east Brittany/North-west Loire Atlantique, 22nd May - 4th June 2004

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Main areas visited - Le Gavre forest, La Briere marshes, Guerande saltpans

By Geoff Dicker

May this year saw me in France again for another family holiday. We stayed in a rented house in the village of Conquereuil near to Redon. As it was relatively near to le Gâvre forest I made about four early morning trips to this location. I also had a day and a half exploring the Brière marshes and Guèrande saltpans. I have visited this area several times before and am, therefore, relatively familiar with access arrangements and the likely species to be seen. The area offers a good range of species that are absent or rare in the UK, which can be seen without too much difficulty. In a relatively short time in the field I managed to see 109 species including such "goodies " as Purple and Night Herons, Sacred Ibis, White Stork, Whiskered & Black Terns, Black-Winged Stilt, Avocet, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Goshawk, Hen Harrier, Black, Middle & Lesser-Spotted Woodpeckers, Bluethroat, Golden Oriole, Hoopoe, Black Redstart, Crested Tit, Short-Toed Treecreeper, Firecrest, Melodious Warbler, and Cirl Bunting.

Le Gâvre forest

A large area of beech, oak, hornbeam and coniferous plantations with some cleared areas; it is located some 40 kms north of Nantes, and about 10 kms from Conquereuil where we were staying. There are ten forest roads which lead out from a central roundabout referred to as the "Rond Point de La Belle Étoile. " It is an area that is easy to access but harder to cover, given its size. I 've never met anybody birdwatching here until I came upon a couple from Norfolk who were watching soaring raptors (Black Kite and Honey Buzzard). Apart from the raptors, the main attractions are woodpeckers, which are best searched for in mature clearings. There are reputedly six species of woodpecker here, although I 've never managed to see or even hear Grey-Headed, suggesting that they have either died out here or are down to a very few pairs. I have spoken to a birder in the UK who saw one here in the mid-nineties, so any up to date information regarding this species in this forest would be appreciated. Bonelli's Warbler is another species said to occur here in the Helm guide, but it is now either absent or extremely rare. There is virtually no guidance in English about Gâvre forest. It is referred to in terms of notable species in the "Where to Watch Birds in France, " book by Helm but no specific site details are given; Stephanie Coghlan 's book "A Birdwatching guide to Brittany, " in the Arlequin series gives the forest a mention and a one star rating (I 'd give it two), but gives no details of good areas nor species. Last time I was in this area I picked up a book entitled "Chemins de nature en Loire-Atlantique, " published by "Editions Ouest France, " ISBN 2-7373-2549-8, in a hypermarket, which gives details of walking routes through the forest together with some of the bird and animal species that you are likely to encounter.

The following is a breakdown of the best areas that I have visited since the mid-nineties -:

Rond Point de La Belle Étoile

In the woods on the south side of this roundabout I 've had Middle-Spotted Woodpecker, Short-Toed Treecreeper and Hawfinch, although the latter not during this visit.

Rond Point de La Hubiais

Drive from the central roundabout along the Route Forestière de La Hubiais until you come to a turning space with a small wooden shelter on your left called Rond Point de La Hubiais, and park here.

On the north side of the road a footpath leads to a clearing where I 've had Black Woodpecker in the past, but on this visit the trees had been felled. The best birds I saw this time were a Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker at its nest hole in a dead tree next to the parking area, as well as Middle-Spotted Woodpecker, together with a few Tree Pipits, Firecrests, and a pair of Marsh Tits. There are some excellent looking clearings on the opposite side of the road, which produced Great and Middle-Spotted Woodpeckers, the latter being still very vocal at this time of year.

Rond Point des Menardières/Allée Forestière de La Robardais

From the central point take the road called Route Forestière Épines de Haies.. Drive along here for about 2 miles, and turn right up a drivable track called Allée Forestière de La Robardais (there is another sign here saying Rond Point des Menardières), and park after about 250 yards. The clearings to the right of this track produced a noisy pair of Black Woodpecker, as well as Great & Middle Spotted and Green Woodpeckers, and a pair of Hobby. I also heard Golden Oriole calling here, and there were several trilling Wood Warblers as well as Spotted Flycatcher in the vicinity. An open area of scrub produced both Melodious Warbler and Blackcap. Driving along this road there are other clearings worth exploring, I stopped briefly at one but the best bird I could muster was a Great-Spotted Woodpecker.. At the end of this road - Route Forestière Épines de Haies - there is a clearing on the right, where I met an English couple from Norfolk, this area seemed to attract soaring raptors and I noted up to three Honey Buzzards, a Black Kite, a Goshawk and many Common Buzzards during this visit. Taking the road signposted to Conquereuil, you pass through more of the forest; the most notable sighting here being of a male Hen Harrier soaring over some woods one morning.

Allée Forestière des Vieilles Bauches off the D35 to Plessé

There are some excellent clearings on both sides of the road here only a short distance from the

Rond Point de La Belle Étoile, with plenty of places to park. In the past I 've had good views of Golden Oriole on this area; this time taking the path named above, I saw Green, Great and Middle-Spotted Woodpeckers, Cuckoo, Short-Toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, Melodious Warbler, Marsh Tit, Firecrest, Spotted Flycatcher and Redstart.

All of the roads running off the central point are worth exploring, there was another running south-east towards the D164 and Blain, which had some areas worthy of exploration; I 've seen common woodpeckers, as well as Dartford & Melodious Warbler along this road in the past.

The Conquereuil area

The lanes and farmland around the village in which we stayed were also, ornithologically speaking, quite rich when compared to the UK. The garden and horse paddocks of the rented house produced Hoopoe, a family of Black Redstarts, White Wagtail, and Cirl Bunting, as well as commoner birds such as Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch. Walking around the lanes I reckon that there were at least two pairs of Hoopoe in the area; the two males often competing to see who could "po,po,po, " the loudest and longest from opposing fields. The other surprising bird was a singing Woodlark that I heard on one occasion. Turtle Doves were also numerous in this area as well as Common Buzzard.

The Brière marshes

After the Camargue this is the second largest wetland in France, but which receives seemingly little attention from the birding world. Apart from hiring a boat with or without a guide, the best access points on foot are Bréca and la Chaussée Neuve on the west side, and Ile de Fedrun and the Parc Animalier at Rozé or Rosé on the eastern side. There is now a viewpoint just along the footpath at la Chaussée Neuve which overlooks a large colony of Whiskered Terns, which is a fairly recent colonist. It gives good but distant views of the Heron and Ibis colonies as well as the numerous birds of prey. From here you can follow the GR (Grande Randonnée) route in a south westerly direction, which skirts the marshes. On a previous visit I followed this route and managed to find a path that went right through the marshes, but this has now been cut off. Birds on view here included: the ubiquitous Sacred Ibis, witches in a wedding dress is how I can best describe them; Night Heron, one in flight early morning; Purple Heron one in flight being mobbed by Terns; Spoonbill, again a recent coloniser; Little Egret; Whiskered Terns; Marsh Harriers which were very numerous, and Black Kite; the only wader that I saw here were some Redshank which presumably breed. Water Rails also squealed from the depths of the reedbed. Small birds of note included: Blue-Headed Wagtail; Cettis Warbler; Fan-Tailed Warbler, and commoner birds such as Reed & Sedge Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Reed Bunting. The marshes are also said to hold Bittern, Spotted Crake, but you 'd need a lot of luck with these species in the huge reedbeds. Savis Warbler and Bearded Tit also breed here in good numbers, but none were singing nor calling during my visit; a trip out in a boat or punt might get you nearer to the reedbeds where these species breed.

On the other side of the marshes there is a reserve at Rozé or Rosé - follow signs to the Parc Animalier and park by the Café des Ponts - which requires you to pay a euro 6 entrance fee. Unusually for France the reserve is open everyday, and not seemingly every alternate Thursday when the Dog Star is in ascendancy, as with other reserves elsewhere in this country! Following the trail brings you to several hides, some of which just overlook some pools that weren 't very productive, apart from a flock of Black-Tailed Godwit. However, the furthest two look out onto colonies of both Black & Whiskered Tern; here you can also watch the comings and goings of the Heron and Ibis colonies and count the birds of prey. One of the adjoining fields also held half a dozen White Stork, which I presume were wild! Small birds of note included a pair of White-Spotted Bluethroats, which were obviously feeding young: I watched the parents going in and out of a scrubby area, often perching on a wooden bridge and on the path to catch insects. Bluethroats are relatively easy to see when they are singing and displaying, but become very elusive once they have nested. Blue-Headed Wagtails were also very numerous here.

Guèrande saltpans

The ideal time to drive around this area is early morning rather than the Bank Holiday Sunday that I chose! The saline lagoons hold good numbers of Black-Winged Stilt and Avocet - the pool next to the "Marais Salants " visitor centre held both these species. I was somewhat horrified to see the birds, which had chicks, disturbed by, in all fairness, innocent French Sunday day-trippers who walked and sat right alongside the nesting lagoons - a cultural difference if ever there was one! Other birds of note included: Common Tern, Shelduck and Little Egret. The scrubby areas between the saline lagoons are also good for Bluethroat, but I didn 't venture along any this time as it was very windy and there were too many people about. Good areas are the road to Sissible, which you cannot drive along now, a translation of the notice says "access only those having professional interest. " This presumably refers to those who make their living gathering the salt. Strangely, enough a Whiskered Tern flew over one of the narrow roads here, quite what a marsh tern was doing in an area of such salinity I do not know! Driving on towards the hospital at Pen-Bron, I stopped and scanned over the estuary where there were some waders feeding: Bar-tailed Godwit; Turnstone; Knot; Dunlin and Curlew. Both Yellow-Legged and Herring Gulls occur or rather overlap along this coast giving interesting comparisons if you 're an ardent "Larid" fan.

There are many other areas of exploration in this area, for example the Marais de Suscinio Séné/Falguerec and the Golfe du Morbihan, which hold breeding Kentish Plover, Roseate Tern and a Bee-eater colony nearby. There are also several other inland forests worthy of exploration such as the Forêts de Lorge, Lanouée, Quenecan, Loudéac, Rennes and Paimpont, which will produce similar species to le Gâvre.