The naturalist travelling through France in winter can expect bleak weather with little sunshine and drizzly, icy rain.
Paris, for example, sees an average of 37°F (3°C) and two inches of rain in January. You’ll find colder, snowier temperatures in the northeast of 37-43°F (3-6°C), and in the mountain regions of the south. However, it is milder along the coasts, 43-46°F (6-8°C) on the Atlantic (west coast) and 48-55°F (9-13°C) in southern France (Mediterranean coast).
As with most of northern and central Europe, the most obvious winter features are the birds. Large areas of water both inland and along the coast attract vast numbers of wintering wildfowl. However, a few mammals can be seen, especially in the mountains.
Lac du Der-Chantecoq
Lac du Der Chantecoq is the second-largest artificial lake in Europe. It was dammed in 1974 as part of the plan to reduce the flooding further downstream in Paris. Der is from the Celtic word for Oak, and Chantecoq was the name of one of the villages now submerged. It is now an internationally recognised place for wintering wildfowl, as well as for the thousands of common cranes (above) that stop by on migration.
Information for visitors
La Brenne is an area dominated by some 3,000 lakes (actually Medieval fishponds) to the south-west of Paris. In winter, it is home to vast numbers of wintering ducks. Gadwall, shoveler, wigeon and teal mingle with scarcer species such as smew, red-crested pochard and ferruginous ducks. Up to 4,000 cranes also spend winter in this area. Information for visitors Downloadable leaflet in English
The north and west coasts of France in winter
The Atlantic coast of Europe is part of a major flyway for birds moving from eastern north America, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and Russia to wintering areas further south. The mudflats in the wide shallow estuaries, and lagoons formed by sandbars, provide stopping-off places for these migrants to rest and refuel. Some are also major wintering sites for thousands of waders (shorebirds), wildfowl and other water-birds. Where you have waterbirds, you have predators, and there seems to be an abundance of marsh harriers at most of these sites. The best wintering sites along the French coast include:
Baie de Somme – the largest natural estuary in northern France. Its vast sand, mudflats and grassy areas provide refuge during cold weather events, especially for waders and ducks. During the average winter, the Baie de Somme is internationally important as it holds over 1% of the individuals of the biogeographic populations of pintail, shoveler and common shelduck. Information for visitors
Baie du Mont Saint-Michel – has the fifth largest tidal range in the world, and includes sand/gravel beds supporting large bivalve (shellfish) populations. Up to 100,000 waders winter at the bay, including over 1% of the populations of oystercatcher, knot, and dunlin. Marine mammals such as bottle-nosed dolphins and common seals also visit the site. Information for visitors
Golfe du Morbihan – A large, almost enclosed, estuarine embayment and saltmarsh complex at the mouths of three rivers. Vast mudflats support large areas of eelgrass (Zostera species) and an extremely high density of invertebrates. Up to 100,000 waterbirds winter annually at the site, and numerous species of migratory waterbirds stop by in spring and autumn, and nest in the area. See this post for more detail. Information for visitors
Baie de Bourgneuf, Ile de Noirmoutier et Foret de Monts – a complex site of sands, mudflats, saltpans, marshes, reedbeds, oyster basins, saltmarsh, dunes, etc. More than 60,000 waterbirds use the site in winter. Information for visitors
Marais du Fier d’Ars – Another coastal complex with more than 31,000 waterbirds using the site in winter. Of particular importance for dark-bellied brent geese, avocets, dunlin and black-tailed godwit.
The Camargue, the Rhône River delta, is the premier wetland of France. It comprises vast expanses of permanent and seasonal lagoons, lakes and ponds interspersed with extensive Salicornia flats, freshwater marshes, and a dune complex. It is of international importance for nesting, migrating and wintering waterbirds. Tens of thousands of ducks, geese, swans and other water birds, including greater flamingo, occur in winter. Other birds present include great spotted and white-tailed eagles, and penduline tit and moustached warbler – the latter apparently easier to see at this time of year.
Information for visitors
Les Alpilles (the Little Alps) are easy to access – and not often snowy! This limestone ridge provides good flying conditions for raptors at any time of year, so eagles can be seen. But more importantly, the village of les Baux attracts wallcreepers, blue rock thrush and eagle owl (try behind the Hotel Mas de L’Oulivie) and citril and snow finches can also be found. Wallcreepers head back into the high Alps for the summer so their time in the lowlands is limited. Tourist information
High mountains are often not the most exciting places for wildlife in winter. The sub-zero temperatures limit plant growth and insect activity. Birds often migrate to the lowlands or to warmer climates. On the other hand, there is likely to be a concentration of food around human habitation, and ski resorts can provide interesting bird-watching. Alpine choughs, alpine accentors and snowfinches, for example, forage around ski resorts, and can be observed at close quarters.
Mammals often move to the lower slopes or seek shelter in woodlands. However, mammals may also be easier to find as their tracks are more obvious in the snow, or in muddy areas. And it’s often easier to see into the distance when vegetation isn’t in the way. This Alpine wolf-tracking holiday in France is an example of the specialist trips available.
Chamois inhabit both the Alps and the Pyrenees. They spend summer above the tree-line, but descend to around 800m to live in pine forests during the winter. In the Alps, Ibex are also found high in the mountains, Females spend the winter mostly on slopes that are too steep for snow to accumulate. However, males sometimes come down to valleys during the late winter and spring.
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More places to go nature-watching in winter
A December road trip into the Cordillera Cantabrica in northern Spain.
Europe can be as fascinating for wildlife in winter as it is in the warmer months. Here are some ideas on the best places to go in February
The Laguna Gallocanta near Zaragoza in north-eastern Spain provides an incredible spectacle in late February as thousands of cranes stop by on the way to northern European breeding grounds.
How to get the most out of a visit to the Doñana National Park. My recommendations after several visits.
The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain. Here’s how to make the best of a visit.
A round-up of the best places to go nature-watching in Spain in January.
The Golfe du Morbihan provides a huge feast for wintering waders and wildfowl. Here are a few suggestions for places to watch them.
Some 70,000 water birds spend their winter on the Tejo estuary near Lisbon in Portugal. That can mean some serious birdwatching there.
The Lauwersmeer National Park, in the northern part of the Netherlands, provides a fantastic winter feeding ground for geese and other birds that breed further north.
The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.
How to get the most out of bird-watching in the Algarve using the railway service.
The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. Tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here, where the Black Sea keeps the climate is a few degrees warmer than further inland. Here are some suggestions for the best places to visit.