EUROBIRDNET ITALIA

ITALIAN BIRDERS ABROAD


BRITTANY

(8 - 18 October 1998)
by Roberto Garavaglia & Matteo Lausetti

General

Brittany is the north-westernmost tip of France, protruding into the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. Due to this favourable geographical position, it is a prime site for watching autumn migration of seabirds, shorebirds and land birds.

Click here for a map of Brittany.

Brittany's outermost corner is aptly called Finisterre (land's end) and, over the years, it has recorded an impressive list of scarce birds and genuine rarities, arriving both from North America and Siberia.
We arranged this trip by flying from Milano (Italy) to the French city of Rennes, and then hiring a car. Brittany is a relatively small country, and the driving distances from Rennes to any of the birding hot-spots never exceeds 200 km. The main roads (highways) are excellent and there is almost no traffic.
During the summer, the area is a favourite tourist destination, thus there is plenty of nice hotels, bed-and-breakfast, and restaurants. The average cost for a double room is 200 FF, usually not including breakfast (30 FF per person). A simple dinner goes from 80 to 130 FF, including drinks (not wine!). For the gourmets there are so many typical foods, ranging from oysters to patée, crepes and delicious desserts, to make up for a dedicated trip, let alone birding. October is definitely low-season and some hotels and restaurants were closed, but there were still many to choose from. At every village, a tourist office is always at hand for solving any accommodation problem.
Ouessant is the French equivalent of the Scilly Islands: laying well into the sea were the English Channel joins the Atlantic, Ouessant acts as a migrants trap. It is best reached by ferry from Le Conquet on the mainland; the ferry crossing takes some two hours and costs 152 FF (return fare). Departure time is at 0945 a. m., so that an overnight stay in Le Conquet is most often inevitable: we strongly recommend "Le Relais du Vieux Port" a very typical guest-house with adjoining creperie (= pancakes restaurant). Visitors' cars are not allowed on the island, thus the most widespread transportation are rented bycicles. The maximum distance between the furthermost spots is less than 10 km, and it is still manageable even by the not-so-fit birdwatcher. This, together with the thriving autumn population of keen and friendly birders, makes birding Ouessant a unique experience with a distinctive relaxed feeling. The bird observatory provides cheap but still comfortable accommodation in four-bedded, self-catering rooms with common kitchen facilities and it adds a touch of camaraderie with all other fellow birdwatchers, specially so at the evening log-call. The observatory is managed by:

    Centre díEtude du Milieu (C.E.M.O.)
    29242 Ile d'Ouessant
    France
    tel. +33 - 2 - 98488265
    fax +33 - 2 - 98488739
to which reservations should be applied for.

During our trip the weather was obviously rainy as the season requires and sometimes windy. Nevertheless, it was rather mild and we never experienced cold temperatures (even by Italian standards!).

The guide for the area is "Où voir les oiseaux in France" by the L.P.O. (French Society for the Protection of the Birds), translated in English by Helm as "Where to watch birds in France" to which weíll refer.

Our trip-list scored a total of 133 species, including a few lifers and one mega-rarity.

Itinerary

The day before our departure, Philippe Dubois circulated on EuroBirdNet the new of a Short-billed Dowitcher in the Falguérec reserve, located few km south of Vannes. The area was one of our tripís targets, so immediately after landing we headed for that spot and ... it was there!! A new European thick at the very beginning of the trip, not that bad. Thank you Philippe, well done!

The bay of Morbihan, south of Vannes is a vast (4,000 hectares) tidal lagoon, connected to the sea by a narrow inlet. The tide is significant and large expanses of mud are exposed at low tide, making it an extremely important area for waterfowls and shorebirds, both migrating and wintering. A bird reserve has been set in its eastern shores, centred on the village of Sarzeau. From St. Armel to Benance, the area hosted thousands Wigeons and Black-bellied Brent Geese, either roosting or feeding depending on the tide, a variety of gulls (including both graellsii and intermedius Lesser Black-backed), five Spoonbills, and comparatively few waders (mainly Lapwing, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, and Spotted Redshank). A good vantage point from where to scan the tidal flat may be found on driving S along the D780 and turning right just 200 metres past St. Colombier, following for a further couple hundred metres until a small parking place, were an explanatory panel and some seats are provided. The adjoining reserve of the Marais du Duer has two hides that were not of special interest: only Teals were roosting inside the reserve; most probably, at extremely high tide, the birds are forced to enter the sheltered basins of the reserve. The Trohannec headland (site # 3 in the L.P.O. guide) is as good has any other part of the shore for watching the bay, while the bushy terrain before the head teemed with migrating passerines: Dunnock, Robin, Tree Pipit, Stonechat, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Reed Bunting, Goldfinch, Linnet, Yellowhammer, Bullfinch; we also found the corpse of a dead Wryneck. As for resident birds, Cettiís Warbler was very noisy, but the real surprise was one Fan-tailed Warbler, very unexpected so far north.
The Punte de Penvin is located on the south side of the Rhuys peninsula, facing the open sea. It is easily reached from Sarzeau following the many signs. This scenic location provided us a first-winter Ring-billed Gull, intermixed with the more common species, and a good selection of waders: Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Ringed Plover, Turnstone. Plentiful Rock Pipits and Northern Wheatears were feeding on the exposed seaweed, as were Meadow Pipits and Skylarks in the grassland. At sea, Gannets and Sandwich Terns were passing by and fishing.
The Vilaine river estuary lies less than 30 km south of the Morbihan bay; it offered much the same species: Black-bellied Brent Geese, Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot, several other waders. The best spot is the high tide roost at Bronzais, listed as site # 1 in the L.P.O.ís guide; where we also managed to find an adult Ring-billed Gull. Seawatching from Mine-d'Or was rather poor, we only had Common Scoters and the odd Arctic Skua. On the northern side of the estuary, the thick bushes at Les Granges hosted Dartford Warbler.
The strangest bird in the Morbihan area was Sacred Ibis: we observed several at different location. The specie is of captive origin and we were told by local ornithologist it has by now has established a stronghold here, with about 60 individuals breeding in the wild.

The day we moved north from the Morbihan area, the weather turned rainy and much hindered the planned birdwatching along the way. The Reserve de Trunvel and the Etang the Nérizelec were just impossible to work out in the pouring rain, as was seawatching from Cape Raz due to the thick fog. The only remarkable sightings that day were (sadly) two road-victim Barn Owls killed together just south of Vannes and one colour-ringed Cormorant at Trunvel; as it turned out later, this individual belongs to the breeding colony on St. Margaret Island, Wales.

We then boarded to Ouessant. Most of the five days we spent there were plagued by rainy weather, virtually halting any migratory movement. All the many goodies recorded just a few days earlier had already departed, .... but one. At first, the report of a Pallasís Grasshopper Warbler has been taken a bit sceptically ("it must have been a Sedge Warbler" said the first one who told us about it), but the more the observers going to watch the bird, the more the evidence collected: all field-marks pointed to the identification of Locustella certhiola. If accepted, it will be the second for France (the first one was also recorded on Ouessant). It remained anyway an extremely difficult bird to watch: after a whole day deep inside that willow bush (and under the rain, too), it could easily be possible to catch not more than an one-second glimpse of it. We were a bit lucky and had good views in a couple occasions; nevertheless it took us a total of 8 hours.
Apart from that rarity, everything was much quiet and there was very little to watch, only one Melodious and one Icterine Warbler were of some local interest. Also seawatching was much less rewarding than usual, due to wrong winds. We still managed to find several Sooty and a few Balearic Shaerwaters, Arctic and Great Skuas, Kittiwake, Guillemot, and plentiful Gannets; as for gulls, Great Black-backed Gull outnumbered all other species.
The day before our departure the weather pattern changed and we had a fall of thrushes: Song Thrush and Ring Ouzel were almost everywhere. Also the number of Meadow, Tree, and Water Pipits and Firecrest had much increased from the previous days. Much more was still to come, as we learned from later reports, but we had to leave.

The last couple of days of our trip we spent birding the north coast of Brittany. The Anse de Goulven, located 35 km NE from Brest, is worth special mentioning. The impressive high tide roosts at Tréguellier (site # 4 in the L.P.O. guide) and just north-west of Plonéour Trez, at the site named le Reun, sported several hundreds Ringed, Golden and Grey Plovers, Sanderling and Bar-tailed Godwit, together with Oystercatcher, Kentish Plover, Turnstone, Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, and singles Mediterranean Gull, Merlin and Peregrine. At rising tide, the Plage (Beach) de Kerusus displayed the very same birds, though at longer distance; with low tide many were feeding at site # 1, named Plage de Lividic.
The very last morning, before getting back to the Rennes' airport, we tried the western part of the Mont-Saint-Michel bay. Unfortunately it was decidedly low tide, and birds were scattered far out in the mudflat; moreover in the nearby fields hunters and hunting dogs were doing their best to flush every bird. The trail suggested in our guide resulted more interesting in the area close to Chapelle Sainte-Anne (site # 2), where it is tree-lined: a huge flock of passerines, mainly Song Thrushes, Yellowhammer and Chaffinch, and several Firecrests were present. Along the sea-wall, amongst the more familiar Tree and Meadow Pipits, Reed Bunting and Wheatear we spotted a lone Red-throated Pipit, not an usual bird for us Italian birdwatcher.


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