I spent three days in late April 2023 exploring and birding northern France. I did venture an hour and a half south of Calais to Crécy Forest in search of Black woodpecker as well as some brief explorations of marshland around the Pont-le-Dien and Sailly Bray, Hable d’Ault and the Marquenterre bird reserve.
I didn’t see Black Woodpecker though it always felt like looking for a needle in a haystack, in fact I was surprised how thin on the ground woodpeckers seemed to be with only a little evidence of Green and Great spotted here. Crécy Forest did have easy Hawfinch, Tawny owl and singing Golden oriole as well as Short-toed treecreeper and Tree pipit but nothing to keep me in the area for more than an evening and morning.
The Marquenterre bird reserve was very crowded and I skipped it, however Crested tit and Short-toed treecreeper were easy in the car park as well as Green hairstreak butterfly.
Crested Tit below and Green hairstreak butterfly above
The track west of Salley bray gives views over marshland towards Le Dien river and produced the only White stork of the trip. Cattle, Little and Great white egret were easily seen here as was Marsh harrier throughout.
White stork – which was ringed as it turns out in 2019 not all that far away.
The above aside I was surprised to find I spent much of my time in the nature reserve and dunes areas to the east of Calais and west of Dunkirk. The National Nature Reserve Platier Oye and the dunes, lagoons and beaches here were all simple to explore, easy to access and vast, various well positioned hides around the area helped greatly and it really had a feel that you could devote several days to the area and still turn up new birds. The sheer number of birds around gave it a great feel.
Everything I write is from the perspective of a birder of southern England and mostly Hampshire. So, to me birds like Nightingale, Lesser whitethroat, and Yellow wagtail are notable, here these quickly became background birds that are everywhere.
Similarly, the lagoons and scrapes held tens of Ruff and the skies were filled with Hirundines. The trees near the carpark had a singing Short-toed treecreeper. Birds aside I also saw Hare, Natterjack toad and the forever croaking calls of Marsh frog.
Other birds that may get a British birders pulse racing at least a little, such as Black-winged stilt quickly became background birds also. There were tens of them across the various pools and many were nest building and mating. Avocet were far less common with just a handful seen.
A courting pair of Black-winged stilts
A quick look at the beach in the hope of Kentish plover didn’t disappoint where there were also Wheatear and Ringed plover.
male Kentish plover
The lagoons held at least three Garganey and other waders included Whimbrel, Black tailed godwit, Turnstone, many many Ruff, Dunlin, Redshank, Greenshank, Common sandpiper, Oystercatcher and so on. Mediterranean gulls were frequent and there is a large colony of breeding Sandwich tern. I picked out a Little Gull among the BHGs and another treat from a southern UK birders perspective was at least four summer plumaged Black-necked grebe.
Black necked grebe above and
Black-winged stilts with background male Garganey below
The vast area of dunes and impenetrable scrub must attract far more birds than get seen here but it was alive with singing warblers including Whitethroat and Lesser whitethroat, Willow warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap. Add to the list reeling Savi’s warbler a minimum two Wryneck at least two Zitting Cisticola and all this to a backdrop of Nightingale song and it felt a long way from Hampshire, but I was less than three hours away, shuttle crossings all being well.
Gallery below of just some of the species photographed on this three day trip. Please click and scroll through them.
Richard Ford – Digitalwildlife.co.uk