Marais Breton, December 2017

A Christmas trip down to the Marais Breton and along the coast which produced, as expected, a lovely Short-eared Owl. Happy hunting close to the road and indifferent to the occasional car passing nearby we were able to watch it comfortably from a distance through the ‘scope. Later on we went to Port du Brochets where a very smart male Black Redstart was on show on the breakwater though it was impossible to get close to it.

  Short-eared Owl (Asio flammea)

  Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)


Along with the influx of Hawfinches during the autumn the other notable avian phenomenen was the number of Redpolls recorded in western France. They really are quite scarce here generally and I’ve only come across them once in 10 years but this winter many sites held small groups of birds of two subspecies: Lesser (cabaret) and Common (Mealy) Redpoll. The lakes in the north of the departement were a favoured spot and so in mid-December I met up with some fellow birders at Etang de Gruellau near Treffieux where we had some difficulty in initially tracking down the birds and then getting reasonable views of them as the fed in the alder and birch trees. Some rather poor photos below along with a charming Red squirrel which was nearby.

Redpolls, lower photo of presumed Common (Mealy) Redpoll (Acanthis flammea flammea)


It’s been a record year, certainly a record autumn, for Hawfinchs with birds recorded just about everywhere in the region. Sites which had previously seemed out of the question for the species now have birds on a regular basis. Initially I, like many others I presume, had taken this influx to be an autumn movement but it now looks like these birds have installed themselves in new areas so it will be interesting to see how this pans out in 2018 and whether the number of breeding birds has increased dramatically. While most encounters with the species involve birds flying over and calling I have come across a few individuals here and there which have allowed decent views though invariably I haven’t had the camera to hand !

Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes). The lower two photos taken on my local patch at La Jallais, definitely not classic Hawfinch habitat !

Autumn garden birds

Between one thing and another I haven’t been able to get out in the field as much as I would have liked so here’s a selection of photos of birds from my garden in late autumn. Enjoy.

Blue Tits and House Sparrow (Cyanistes caeruleus & Passer domesticus)

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

Great Tit (Parus major)

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)


Ouessant, 14-20 October 2017

Time for the annual LATT trip to somewhere in the north-west and Ouessant was the destination of choice again this year. Things had been looking good with a decent selection of birds seen there in the preceeding week but, as ever with birding, nothing is guaranteed. We arrived and while organising access to our rented house the first good bird turned up: a gentle, bubbling “bruuuup, bruuup, bruuup” indicated a Bee-eater somewhere overhead but try as I might I couldn’t pick it up. Throughout the day this bird toured the island while calling constantly and was recorded by most of the birders present but actually only seen by a handful.

As usual I did my own thing over the following days but it soon became clear that most of the good birds from the previous week had departed. A group of Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) were an interesting sight having apparently arrived last week in an exhausted state (presumably from Iceland ?). One of the juveniles had succumbed to the rigours of migration within a day and the rest of the family party installed themselves in the marsh below the Creac’h lighthouse where they showed pretty well most days.

Most of the rest of the week was a little disappointing though still enjoyable. The weather wasn’t particularly favourable for bringing migrants to the island being rather windy from the north-west and showery at times. However, the lure of seawatching in these conditions meant that most of the birders on the island were up at the Creac’h lighthouse on 19th where a minimum of 29 Cory‘s (Calonectris borealis) and 16 Great Shearwaters (Puffinus gravis) were noted, the latter a French tick too. The weather continued to deteriorate to such an extent that we decided to leave the island a day early as there was some risk that the ferry would not operat on the Saturday due to the conditions. All in all not a bad week but next year I think we’ll go there earlier in October !

Spot that !

22 September, right time, right place, nice conditions. A visit to the ringing station at Donges Est in the morning in calm sunny weather produced the usual birds in the nets but as the team weren’t overburdened with birds I decided to have a wander around. The obvious spot were the recently created pools along the embankment which I approached with the sun behind me. While still about 75 m away I set up the scope for a quick look at the pools and lo and behold, a Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana) was feeding at the edge of the reeds. The bird was moving in and out of the edge of vegetation so I fired off a couple of shots, none of which unfortunately show the bird in the open. A couple of seconds later it disappeared and despite watching the area for the following hour it didn’t show again.

It’s in there somewhere !

Yes, that dark blob at the edge of the reeds really is a Spotted Crake !

Red-necked Phalarope, 13 September 2017

The past few days have proved interesting for seabirds around here and, along with a few friends, I’d planned on going to Le Croisic in the hope of catching up with some skuas and maybe even a Wilson’s Petrel. Then I received an e-mail from a collegue asking me to confirm that he’d indeed photographed both a Grey and a Red-necked Phalarope in the same spot near Port du Collet and just over the départemental border in north Vendée. And indeed he had, super photos of both species and quite close too. Looking at the weather forecast again it seemed a good seawatch was perhaps doubtful so I made a plan with Anthony to try for the phalaropes. Early on the Tuesday morning Anthony sent me a message to say both birds were still there so I finished preparing my gear and headed off south ASAP.

When I arrived I noticed Anthony was looking down into the canal where the bird was seen and yes, there not 5 metres away was a stunning first-winter Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus). It was happily feeding away, oblivious to our presence, and even when we got down to water level the bird would approach to within 2 metres of it’s own accord. We spent several hours there in total just soaking up the views, often without the use of bins’, and making the most of the opportunity. Given that I’d only seen one Red-necked Phalarope previously I was certainly in no hurry to leave but eventually we wandered up to the port in search of the Grey Phalarope, which had flown off in that direction just before I arrived. Anthony eventually refound it in the main channel but again it flew off before I reached the spot. A beautiful juvenile Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini) feeding along the channel provided adequate compensation, without doubt the best views I’ve ever had of the species.

We then headed inland checking out a few waders spots, to no avail I might add, then back to the coast via Bouin where a fly-over Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) was a nice year-tick. On our return the phalarope was still present so another hour was spent in it’s company. A truly delightful bird, not the most colourful, nor the rarest but for sheer charisma it’s hard to beat. Failing something else later in the autumn this is quite likely to be my bird-of-the-year !


Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)

Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini). Photo: Anthony Oates


Ringing, 29th August 2017

Ringing again at Donges East today with the team from ACROLA  in excellent conditions. On my arrival there were already dozens of birds waiting to be processed so I took over doing the rounds of the terrestrial nets. There were lots of Willow Warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus) among all the usual suspects during the morning plus a few Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra), Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin), a total of 6 Wrynecks (Jynx torquilla), out of a site record of 10 that day,  but the real star of the morning was a first-winter Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator) which proved to be quite a brute ! Not only was it slightly larger in the hand than I had imagined but it wasn’t averse to trying to take a chunk out of any fingers that came within reach ! While being processed the ringers remarked that the body plumage seemed extremely fresh (although the tail was a bit worn) and there was some speculation that the bird hadn’t been raised too far away from here. It is undoubtedly the individual seen in the area the previous week by another observer not associated with the ringing station and is the first record for the site and a decent rarity for the Loire-Atlantique département overall.

Woodchat Shrike . . . ouch !

Pelagic, 26th August 2017

For the last few years the local LPO group have organised a number of pelagic trips into the waters off the Loire estuary in late summer, usually departing La Turballe with a stop-over of several hours on the small island of Hoedic before the return trip. This year Anthony and I were aboard for the first time and hopes were high as recent weeks have seen an unprecedented number of Wilson’s Petrels (Oceanites oceanicus) and Great Shearwaters (Puffinus gravis) in the area. The usual tally from these trips includes a few skuas and Sabine’s Gulls (Xema sabini) plus the ubiquitous Balearic Shearwaters (Puffinus mauretanicus). Setting off around 8.30 am we slowly headed west and picked up several Balearics, 3 Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus grisea) then 2 Sabine’s Gulls and later 2 Arctic Skuas (Stercorarius parasiticus). There were decent numbers of Storm Petrels (Hydrobates pelagicus) further out but no other large shearwaters and, worst of all, no Wilson’s.

On Hoedic we scoured the migrant spots but only turned up a couple of Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca), some Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe), Garden Warblers (Sylvia borin) and a couple of resident Dartford Warblers (Sylvia undata).

Back on the boat we had pretty much the same as before: 2 Sabine’s Gulls, lots more Storm Petrels, a Sooty Shearwater again and several hundred Balearics right up to the coastline back at La Turballe. Not a bad day really but a pity we didn’t connect with the goodies that were surely still out there.

Some photos below courtesy of Anthony Oates.

Sooty Shearwater

Balearic Shearwater


Garden List gets an addition

24th August, nice weather conducive to migrants, time to check out La Jallais. On arrival it’s clear that some birds are on the move as there were Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra) perched on bushes and fence wires here and there along the main track, a couple of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava), but no warblers, and I mean none. I spent an hour scouring the reedy ditch along the embankment fully expecting an Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola) or at least a few Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenaebanus) but nothing . . . zero. Around midday I gave up and returned home, made a coffee and sat down at my desk. There were a few birds in the garden including the usual House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and and a couple of Great Tits (Parus major) which have been making the most of the seeds in the ripened sunflower plants. Then I half noticed a bird on the path in the garden and fully expecting to see one of the House Sparrow I was VERY pleasantly surprised to see it was a Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) ! With it’s quivering tail it hopped about feeding on the ground then moved to the clothes line and the apple tree where it remained for another minute or so before disappearing. It returned later in the afternoon for another brief visit then, I presume, continued on it’s journey heading south. Great bird to see and it brings the garden list up to 64.

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra), La Jallais, Donges.

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)