photo of a puffin in flight

Skomer Seabird Spectacular cruise

Landing on Skomer for the day (or longer) is only half the story. Yes, you get close to puffins, and you can spend all day watching them. But there is so much more to see and learn.

Several times a week, from May to July, an evening boat trip takes you to see the island, and its birds. More importantly, it takes you to see the Manx Shearwater, the most numerous bird breeding on Skomer and the one you don’t see when visiting Skomer during the day.

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The Dale Princess leaves Martin’s Haven at 7pm, with up to 30 passengers, a guide, and two crew.   A crew member gives a safety briefing as we leave the jetty – ending with ‘your emergency exits are  . . . . . ‘ as he points in all directions except down.  We pass Marloes Deer Park – a promontory walled off in the 18th century in anticipation of keeping deer there, but the deer never arrived.  The National Trust look after it now, managing the grazing to provide short turf for chough to probe into for leather-jackets and other mini-beasts.

photo of an island
Jack Sound and Skomer Island from Marloes Deer Park.

Beyond the Deer Park, the water opens out.  To the south is Jack Sound, a fast-flowing channel of water with rocks sticking out at low tide.  Many a boat has foundered here in the past.  A ridge of rock underwater causes quite a lot of rough water when the tide is running. 

Photo of a shag and a cormorant
Shag and cormorant in breeding plumage (the size difference is exaggerated in this photo)

Cormorants sit on the rocks, and ‘holding their wings out to dry’ – not so much their wings as their body feathers which aren’t very waterproof, and need to dry between fishing trips just to keep the birds warm.  If having non-waterproof feathers seems odd for a waterbird, it actually means they don’t keep so much air in their feathers when they dive, they aren’t so buoyant, so making it easier stay underwater to chase fish. The disadvantage is that they get waterlogged and cold after about 15 minutes.  Someone asks about the difference between cormorants and shags – shags are smaller, sleeker, blacker, narrower bill, and no pale patch on the throat (though young birds are paler on the underside, and a bit more difficult to separate without a good view).

Razorbills and a guillemot

Now we are seeing auks as well.  Puffins, razorbills and guillemots sit on the water or fly past, often coming in low and close.  The differences are obvious in close-up – puffins with their multi-coloured bill and orange feet, razorbills are black and white with a large beak the shape of an old-fashioned cut-throat razor, while guillemots are brown and white with pointed bills.  Questions come non-stop from the passengers, and they learn that seabirds are long-lived – thirty or forty years or more, don’t breed until they are several years old, mate for life, and only have one egg per year.  But they might get divorced!  If they have a couple of failed breeding seasons, perhaps it’s better to try with a new partner next time.  Puffins breed in burrows, razorbills nest on small ledges and in rock crevices, while guillemots believe in safety in numbers, choosing ledges where they can mass in their hundreds. 

Kittiwakes on the water below a small cliff where they nest

We chug along the ‘Neck’, the bit of Skomer Island with no human interference, look through the Lantern – a cave that runs underneath the island and out the other side, then the boat slows so we can hear the kittiwakes calling – kitti-wa-ake – at a small colony low on the cliffs.  These small and pretty gulls are hanging on here, despite having virtually disappeared from the Pembrokeshire mainland, and from other colonies further north.

Sometimes this journey throws up a real gem, and back in 1996  the skipper saw a couple of fins in the water just about here.  We went to investigate, and realised it was a fifteen-foot basking shark – just a young one really – and we were looking at the back fin and tail fin, and the shadow of its body under the water.  The boat got quite close before the shark dived.  It came up again a few yards away, but soon went under again and disappeared.    Basking sharks often come up through the Irish Sea, but mostly they are on the Irish side.  Probably less than one a year is seen on the Welsh side, and this is the only one I saw in twenty years of guiding these trips.

Guillemots on the cliffs in North Haven

The Princess moves into North Haven and the skipper cuts the engine.  The silence is wonderful!  The steep grassy slopes are seabird cities.  Rock ledges crammed with guillemots. Thousands of burrows, each with a puffin standing outside.  Yet there are still enough puffins to form a flying wheel – they fly circuits, apparently each bird more or less level with its burrow, and all the time birds are joining the wheel while others drop out and head for their burrows.  Then you begin to realise it isn’t really silent.  Apart from the whirr of countless wings (beating up to ten times per second), there are growls of puffins, gargles from guillemots and razorbills, the raucous cries of gulls, and even the songs of wrens nesting in scrub on the cliffs. 

photo of a puffin carrying fish
Puffin carrying sand-eels back to the nest

The relative quiet makes it easier to talk about the history of this island, 2-5000 years of human occupation, and farming that continued until the early 20th century.  It has been a nature reserve since 1960, owned by the Natural Resources Wales (successor to the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Council for Wales), is managed by a committee that includes various local organisations, and is administered by the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales.

Grey seals jostle for position on a rock exposed at low tide

The boat engines start up again, and the journey continues along the north coast of the island, stopping at the Garland Stone so we can appreciate the grey seals – come August, they will start dropping their pups on the beaches here and about 250 will be born by the end of the year.  

Porpoises are relatively small and unobtrusive

If the seabirds haven’t been spectacular enough so far, the real adventure is about to begin.  The skipper steers away from Skomer, and out into the open sea of St Bride’s Bay.  We aren’t going far out – keeping well within sight of land.  But now is time to keep our eyes peeled.  There is a good chance of porpoises – small dolphins that don’t really show much of themselves except a fin as they surface to breathe.  And just maybe there will be a pod of common dolphins – more rarely something really special such as a bottlenose dolphin or even a Risso’s dolphin.  But what we are really here to see are the Manx shearwaters.

Manx shearwaters tend to fly low over the water surface

Manx shearwaters are medium-sized relatives of albatrosses, and the Pembrokeshire Islands (Skomer, Skokholm and Ramsey) are home to about 400,000 pairs, or about half of the known world population.  They are the most numerous bird species breeding on Skomer, but the chances of seeing one alive during the day are slim.  They are very clumsy on land, and in order to evade predators (large gulls mostly) they nest in burrows and come to land only at night when the gulls are asleep.  On most nights, a few birds get caught out at dusk or dawn, or by moonlight, and the island is littered with corpses, testimony to the success of the gulls.  The numbers killed are, however, a minute proportion of the total population.  So the best way to see them is on a boat trip like this in the evening when the birds come back from the feeding grounds and form vast ‘rafts’ floating on the water, waiting for it to get dark.  The Manx part of their name is because the first ones to be described scientifically were taken from the Calf of Man – a small seabird island on the southern tip of the Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea.  Few live there now, because that island became overrun with rats, which predate ground- and burrow-nesting birds.

Anyway, we start to see small parties of shearwaters on the water and the skipper steers towards them.  They are flighty at first, especially if the numbers are small.  On some trips we see only a few dozen, but on a good night, usually in June and July, there can be thousands, even tens of thousands.  One parent will be out on an extended fishing trip – perhaps for three or four days – before returning to the nest with food for the chick.  The other parent will be with the egg or the chick (at least for a few days after it hatches) and then will go on short fishing trips.  So on any night, up to a fifth of the population could be waiting to come ashore.

Manx shearwaters coming gathering just offshore, waiting for it to get dark

Although they are black and white, like many other seabirds, they are quite distinctive with their long straight wings, gliding over the water surface, taking lift from the slightest breeze and from air currents over the waves.  A flock seems to move as one all showing their black uppersides, then turning to show their white undersides, then back again.  They fly so low that their wing tips seem to touch (shear) the water surface. They flap only when they have to, and this energetically economical form of flying means they can cover vast distances quite rapidly with very little effort.

As the numbers build up, the birds fly close to the boat, even those on the sea may allow the boat to drift in closer.  Care is taken to avoid extra disturbance – this is an internationally important population of this species.  Having heard about the habits of these birds, the passengers start firing more questions -how long do they live (the oldest known individual was at least 55 when last seen), how far do they travel (down to the coast of Argentina), where else do they live (the Calf of Man, Rhum in the Scottish Hebrides, on some of the islands around the coast of Ireland, Iceland, and a few are even in the mountains on Madeira – see here for a full map. )  What do they eat (small fish, squid, other small sea creatures that they catch underwater having dived from the surface.)

How do they find their burrows in the dark?  Come to that, how do they find their island homes when out in the middle of the ocean?  Like any migrating birds, they seem to have a built-in compass, but also an acute sense of smell that picks up the scents on the air currents helping them home in on the colony.

During the day, the birds are pretty silent – we rarely hear anything from the boat – but as it gets dark, and they fly to their burrows, it gets very noisy.  They have a very raucous call (listen here), with a rhythm a bit like ‘a cup of caawwfeee’, which is individual to each bird.  We can tell the difference between male and female calls, but they can tell the difference between individuals.  So as they get closer to their burrows they are listening out for answering calls from their mates or chicks.  The noise is so incredible that the Vikings refused to land on some islands because they thought they must be haunted.

Are they affected by oil spills?  Now there is a question!  The last big oil spill here was the Sea Empress in 1996.  Fortunately for our seabirds, this spill happened in February, before the birds returned to islands to breed.  Otherwise, they would have been sitting ducks – floating on the surfaces amid the oil, diving down and coming up through it, feeding on fish that may have been affected – the oil would have destroyed the air-trapping features of the feathers, so the birds would have got cold and waterlogged and died – as nearly 5000 others did, birds (mainly common scoter) that were wintering in the area.

There are more general questions about the area, the island, and the seabirds.  Then one young lad put his hand up. When are we going back? There was a shocked silence at his temerity.  Fortunately, he could be reassured that we were already heading back to Martin’s Haven – the evening was getting decidedly chilly.  I welcome the short but steep walk back to the car park – a chance to get the body moving and warmed up after two hours of sitting still on the boat.

The Seabird Spectacular cruises can be booked on-line through Dale Sailing, and run several times a week (depending on suitable weather) from May to July. By the end of July, most of the puffins, razorbills and guillemots have gone out to sea for the winter.

In August and September, Dale Sailing run a different Pembrokeshire Islands Safari on a fast boat (protective clothing provided) that includes Grassholm Island where there are nearly 40,000 gannets nesting.

If you are staying in the St Davids area of Pembrokeshire, Thousand Islands also run similar seabird trips, though I have no experience of them.

The Dale Princess

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A must-have book if you are looking at sea-birds in general
Fascinating book, but a lot of research has been done since it was published
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I think I need to add this to my collection
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There is just SO MUCH information here, gathered by a former warden of the island.
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Life as a seasonal volunteer on the island.

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More ideas for nature-watching in Wales

Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.

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Brazo del Este Natural Area

The Brazo del Este is located 20 km south of Seville in the Guadalquivir river estuary.

This former branch (brazo) of the Guadalquivir lies to the east of the main river and is surrounded by rice plains and intensive farmland.

It is quite possible to see over 100 species during a one-day visit here.

I first came across the Brazo del Este by happy accident, trying to drive from Seville to San Lucar de Barrameda on the back roads, keeping close to the Guadalquivir and hoping the often unpaved roads wouldn’t come to a dead end. The intensively cultivated landscape changed suddenly to something more wild – reedbeds alongside a river that didn’t go in a straight line. And then a volume of birdsong that had been missing since we left the Doñana Natural Park early that morning. Not forgetting the occasional wide verge full of flowers and insects.


About the Brazo del Este

The Brazo del Este Natural Park starts 17km south of Seville, where there is a fork in the main channel of the Guadalquivir. The brazo twists and turns along 39km of meanders, rejoining the main channel some 16km further down. Somehow, this channel has survived the 100 years or so of human intervention, and become an exceptionally important wetland for birds.

It is at least as important as the Doñana National Park Natural Park on the other side of the Guadalquivir – indeed, it has the advantage that it does not dry out in summer, and so provides a refuge for birds trying to escape the summer drought. The abundance of ducks (pintail, mallard, shoveler, teal), birds of prey, various herons, egrets, a colony of white storks, as well as a variety of other birds has meant that it has been declared a Special Protection Area (SPA or ZEPA in Spanish).

The wetland vegetation is mainly made up of marsh-loving plants, with reedmace and giant reed Arundo donax lining the channels. Tamarisk is abundant in drier areas. There are few trees, with some isolated specimens of ash and white poplar in the last stretch of the channel. However, it is not all natural. Red eucalyptus was introduced from Australia as an ornamental garden species, it escaped and here it now grows in abundance along paths and several sections of the river – an invasive species that may be creating problems.


Best places for seeing . . . . .

It’s hard to mention best places – we drove around and there seemed to be something new around every corner. This was the end of March:

After some kilometres (from Seville) we came to an area of olive scrub on slightly elevated ground.   The rain stopped (more or less) and we stopped too, exchanging the sound of the engine for that of birdsong.  It took us a while to work out what was singing.  So many birds were singing that distinguishing a single song from all the others was difficult, but we eventually realised that they were mostly blackcaps.  Scores of them.  A few birds showed themselves, some looking decidedly wet and bedrag­gled while others were smart and dry. Serins, house sparrows and blackbirds tried to make them­selves heard above the blackcaps’ din.

photo of blackcap
Blackcap singing

Jim saw a cape hare on his side of the van, and a few minutes later there was one on my side too.  It looked us up and down, then disappeared into the scrub again.

Egrets flew over the road, along with white storks, black kites, and hoopoes.  There was a strong passage of hirundines and swifts.  Along the road were gold- and greenfinches, great tits, chiffchaffs and Sardinian warblers.  After lunch we heard our first cuckoo of the year, and a little owl crooned from somewhere close by.

In places, the roadside verge was a ten-metre wide carpet of wild-flowers: asphodel, French lavender, broom, yellow crucifers, masses of pink Mediterranean catchfly, poppy, ramping fumitory, purple viper’s bugloss, bugle, weasel’s snout, Barbary nut and chives, to name but a few. Here and there I found small patches of ‘insect’ orchids; they did not correspond exactly with anything in the book, though the nearest seemed to be the early spider orchid.

A blue butterfly rested on a lavender stem, sheltering from the weather.  It walked onto my finger ‑ presumably attracted by the warmth.  We compared it closely with the diagrams in the butterfly book.  The blue-grey underwings, with black spots rimmed with white. Then it opened the wings to show brilliant blue colouring with prominent white veins on the forewing and a black margin.  The body was also blue and hairy.  Having warmed itself suffic­iently the butterfly flew off along the road.  It was a black‑eyed blue, which should not have been on the wing until April.

There were more stunning invertebrates to come, firstly a huge brown slug clambering along thistle leaves – slugs might not appeal to everyone, but this one’s size was impressive. I have no idea what kind it is, though.

Then an oil (blister) beetle with a massive body about 50mm long ‑ all black but with red between the abdominal segments ‑ and small wing‑buds (they are flightless).  The insect book did not show enough examples to identify the species so ID had to wait – in fact it had to wait several years, but this has now been identified as the red-striped oil beetleBerberomeloe majalis. The female oil beetle needs this large abdomen to produce vast numbers – up to 10,000 – eggs, and it is a wonder that any larvae ever get to adulthood as most of them fail to reach maturity either for lack of food or through predation. The larvae are only about 3mm long, and their development proceeds through hypermetamorphosis – a process in which the larval stages are of different forms. Unlike the larvae of oil beetles of the genus Meloe that we have in Britain, the first stage larva has to actively seek out a suitable solitary bee host. Once the larva has consumed the egg and then the stored nectar and pollen from a bee’s nest, they leave it. They then moult again, and emerge with their back legs formed. From this stage they pupate, and emerge from the chrysalis as adults. If a larva accidentally selects the wrong type of bee as host, it will die.

But it was the water birds that dominated.

Purple Heron

The road continued through the Isla Menor agricultural desert.  The marshes shown on the map had been turned into arable fields with only a handful of small wet areas remaining.  Neverthe­less they did contain coot, moorhen, little grebes, grey, purple and squacco herons, marsh harriers, black kites, mallard, cattle and little egrets, snipe, Savi’s and fan‑tailed warblers, and red-crested pochard.  Purple gallinules honked from the reeds.

photo of bird on water
Little Grebe in breeding plumage

In May, the migrants have arrived mostly settled down, and you can expect to add collared pratincole, black, whiskered, gull-billed and Capsian terns, as well as a variety of ducks, waders, little bitterns, spoonbills, booted eagles, hoopoes, and more warblers.

Summer and autumn brings a greater variety as birds breeding in the Arctic begin to migrate south again – those that failed at nesting will be the first to arrive. In winter add greylag goose and marbled duck, little crake, bluethroats and a whole lot more.


So there you have it

If you’re staying anywhere between Malaga and Gibraltar, and don’t have time to visit the Doñana National Park, then this is the next best thing. Take a GPS/SatNav – they didn’t exist when I first visited, so we had to hope that we were actually using the roads that we thought we were.

The heronries – I missed the heron roosts because I didn’t know they were there, never mind exactly where they were. Where to Watch Birds in Southern and Western Spain has the details.

Other species to look out for include purple and squacco herons, black stork, glossy ibis, marbled teal, purple swamphen, penduline tit, bluethroat, Spanish sparrow

The butterflies and flowers change too, with the seasons, so there is always something of interest.


Resources

Websites

Andalucia tourism website

Andalucia.com – tourism site, links to accommodation

Discovering Donana website – for information, local guides, etc.

Videos

Views of the area and its birds
Good views of the habitats. People talking in Spanish about the area.
The birds speak for themselves – with music.

Getting there

Public transport – not easy. There is a bus service between Seville and Cadiz, with the nearest towns en route being Los Palacios y Villafranca and Las Cabezas de San Juan from where it is a long hike, or a taxi ride.

According to the Discovering Donana websiteThe main dirt road that cuts the Brazo and the old Carretera del Práctico (Coast Pilot Road), which runs along the Guadalquivir River, are the main access points, but to these must be added an intricate network of secondary roads and channels that make navigation difficult in the area, hence the usefulness of a local guide – and, obviously, they would prefer you to use one of theirs.


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More nature-watching in Andalucia

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Las Marismas del Odiel

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.

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Resources for the naturalist visiting Iceland

We had a plan to go to Iceland a few years back. But health problems got in the way, then there was Covid, and still we’re not travelling yet. Iceland remains on the list . . . . and we will get there one day.

Preparation for any trip includes finding the appropriate books, websites, and other sources of information. I was well into searching for books before we had to cancel. The growing popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination has spawned a lot of general travel books.  Not quite so much for nature-watchers, but here is what I’ve found.  I haven’t actually bought any of them yet, so the information is from the publishers’ notes.


Note – click on any cover or link for more information. Buying through these links brings a small commission (at no extra cost to the the buyer) that helps with the maintenance of this website.

Crossbill Guides – Iceland

Picture of book cover - Crossbill guide to Iceland

Iceland is famous for its stunning landscapes, unique geology, and rich birdlife. There are few places on Earth where volcanism has resulted in such a multitude of different landscapes, and where such vast numbers of birds are easy to watch and photograph. The Crossbill Guide: Iceland shows everything Iceland’s nature has to offer, and contains 16 detailed itineraries for the best places to go. The guide also describes close to 50 sites with tips for visitors interested in geology, birds, marine mammals, flora, and history of the landscape.


Geology of Iceland

This is the first book describing the glorious geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle and four additional excursions:(1) the beautiful valleys and mountains of the fjord of Hvalfjörđur, (2) the unique landscape and geothermal fields of the Hengill Volcano, (3) the explosion craters, volcanic fissures, and lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and (4) the volcanoes (Hekla, Eyjafjallajökull, Katla), waterfalls, sandur plains, and rock columns of South Iceland. The Golden Circle offers a unique opportunity to observe and understand many of our planet’s forces in action. These forces move the Earth’s tectonic plates, rupture the crust, and generate earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, channels for rivers and waterfalls, and heat sources for hot springs and geysers.

The Golden Circle includes the famous rifting and earthquake fracture sites at þingvellir, the hot springs of the Geysir area, the waterfall of Gullfoss, and the Kerid volcanic crater. As The Glorious Geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle is primarily intended for people with no background in geosciences, no geological knowledge is assumed and technical terms are avoided as far as possible (those used are explained in a glossary). With more than 240 illustrations – mostly photographs – explaining geological structures and processes, it is also a useful resource for geoscientists.

Book cover - the Glorious Geology of Iceland's Golden Circle

Hiking in Iceland

Book cover - Cicerone guide to Iceland

This walking and trekking guidebook offers a total of 49 day-walks and 10 multi-stage treks set right across the magnificent country of Iceland.  It includes popular routes, such as the classic Laugavegur Trail from Landmannalaugar to Porsmork, as well as lesser-known trails.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland is split into 12 sections that cover all the best walking and trekking to be had in and around Iceland’s amazing and awe-inspiring volcanic, glacial landscapes. The routes range in difficulty from easy walks to challenging treks and give readers all the information they need to experience this wonderfully unique destination on foot. Venture inland to the remote interior and captivating ice caps, cross glaciers, lakes and see coastlines and geothermal areas.  Paddy Dillon’s guide to this ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ encourages visitors to explore all that Iceland has to offer, and will inspire lovers of the great outdoors to return time and time again.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland gives lots of tips for travellers on a budget as well as details on public transport and accommodation.


Birds in Iceland

This second edition of the popular Icelandic Bird Guide has been completely revised and expanded. It covers all Icelandic breeding birds and regular visitors in detail and also describes numerous annual vagrants – more than 160 species in total.

Icelandic Bird Guide is an ideal identification guide when travelling around Iceland for experienced birdwatchers and beginners alike. The clear and concise text describes the birds’ appearance and behaviour, as well their diet and habitat. Maps and diagrams clearly show distribution, movements and population sizes. It also includes photographs of eggs shown in actual size.

Book cover - Icelandic Bird Guide

Birdwatching map

Cover - Birdwatchers map of Iceland

A simple and accessible guide to Iceland`s birdlife, covering 70 species of breeding bird and 37 migrants, winter visitors and vagrants. Breeding birds are pictured together with maps showing their distribution and illustrations indicating the size and appearance of their eggs. The water-colour illustrations are by Jon Baldur Hlidberg. The Birdwatcher’s Map of Iceland is an essential companion for all nature lovers woh want to learn more about Iceland`s birdlife on their travels around the country.

There is a similar Geological Map of Iceland which shows the main features of the bedrock geology. Formations are classified by age, type and composition. The map also clearly shows the island’s volcanic zones and the distribution of the recent eruption sites. Lava fields of the Holocene are shown as pre-historic or historic. This is the second, revised, edition of the map.


Plants in Iceland

This illustrated field guide contains details of 465 Icelandic plant species arranged by flower colour, complete with photo keys and distribution maps. The unique features of each plant are briefly described, together with information about its habitat, distribution, flowering time and size. The latest edition of the Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland has been fully updated with many additional entries.

Cover Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland

Useful websites

Sustainable tourism in Iceland

Guide to Iceland – general tourism site – marketplace for activities, adventures, places to go, tours, accommodation, etc.

HeyIceland – Icelandic travel agency, seems to have some interesting self-guided tours of various lengths – accommodation, GPS and hire car included.

All links to the Iceland Nature Conservation Association seem to be unavailable.


The following blogs are not nature-specific, but do contain a lot of information about travelling around Iceland by people who have travelled there independently:

SueWhereWhyWhatWhat is Iceland facous for? 25 reasons to fall in love with Iceland

MyFabFiftiesLife – travelling the ring road in a camper

Meandering Wild – everything the author learnt from her time in Iceland


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Resources for other countries


Photo of spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

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Why visit . . .

The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain.

One third of Europe’s spoonbills breed here.

The marshes lie on silt deposited by the rivers Odiel and Tinto, and provide a paradise for birds.

The protected area also includes salt-pans, lakes, forest, sandbank, tidal channels and rivers.

There is fairly easy access to the reserva from the town of Huelva.


About the Odiel Marshes

The estuary at Huelva has long been considered good for birds, but when a breeding colony of European spoonbills was discovered there in 1977, extra effort went into protecting the site. It was declared a Biophere reserve by UNESCO in 1983 because of its importance for wildlife, migratory birds in particular. It has also been recognised as a Ramsar Site (International Wetlands Convention), and a Special Area for Protection of Birds (Zonas de Especial Protección para las Aves) and Site of Community Importance by the European Union.

The main part of the 6750ha site lies at the confluence of the rivers Odiel and Tinto, with marshes forming behind the sandbar deposited along the coast by the sea. The variety of habitats include salt-pans, lakes, forest, sandbank, tidal channels and rivers. Small wonder that it has been described as a paradise for birds, despite being surrounded by the town of Huelva, the industrial activities based on the mining areas upstream, intensive agriculture (largely grown under plastic tunnels) and human recreation such as the the beach resorts at Playa de los Enebrales.


Best places to go

The best time to visit is in spring during the breeding season and in winter when there are lots of waterfowl. The Easter and summer periods bring lots of tourists.

La Calatilla Visitors’ Centre – Anastasio Senra

I’d always recommend starting with at least a quick visit to the visitor centre of any nature reserve or other protected area. If there are access issues (eg areas to avoid because of breeding birds, or damaged roads, etc) or something more exciting like what birds have been seen recently. It will also give information on any permit requirements, guided tours, etc.

The ‘Centro de Recepción La Calatilla – Anastasio Senra‘ visitor Centre was opened in 1994. It offers basic information on the different aspects of this natural area, via a very interesting exhibition with information boards, tools, samples of vegetation and animal life, archaeological remains and audiovisual information on the salt marshes. Although opening hours are limited, it proved a useful and interesting place to hide from the heavy showers on the day I visited. The Centre is also home to the offices that take care of the area and its natural habitat. There is a large car park and this makes a good starting point for some of the signed footpaths. It is located on the Dique San Juan Carlos I, and overlooks the River Odiel.

Usefully, there is a popular restaurant located next door!

Isla de Bacuta

From the visitor centre you can walk or cycle around this island of salt pans, and overlook creeks and marshes. At one point there is a covered look-out area – the Observatorio de Aves – with views across to the Isla Enmedio. There is usually a good range of waterbirds along here, and small birds in the scrub.

Photo of Flamingos
Greater Flamingos

El Dique San Juan Carlos I

The visitor centre sits beside the Dique San Juan Carlos I, a road that branches off the main A-497 just west of the two road bridges across the Odiel. The road carries on another 20km or so towards a lighthouse, passing through the centre of the saltmarshes. If there is little other traffic, it is easy to use the car as a hide, stopping at intervals along the road (note, this situation may have changed recently and at least in busy periods you may be able to park only in designated car parking areas). This is the best on a rising tide that is likely to bring birds closer to the road. It’s also quite an exposed road, and in winter the car provides welcome shelter from the wind and rain. The far end can be good for sea-watching, and there is a chance of dolphins here.

Photo of Sandwich Tern
The morning’s wind had died down and it was now calm and dry with good visibility. We saw four red-breasted mergansers, twenty‑five Balearic shearwaters, four common scoters, ten puffins, four razorbills, two great-crested grebes, thirty sandwich terns and thirteen gannets. And of course, lots of gulls, a huge flock that took to the air from time to time, perhaps being moved on by the tide. No dolphins this time

Photo of sage-leaved cistus
There were a number of plants in bloom along the tracks including blue lupins, and gum‑leaved and sage‑leaved cistus (above). Closer to the water’s edge were typical salt-tolerant plants such as Salicornia, Suaeda and Arthroc­nemum.

Punta Umbria

Punta Umbria lies at the end of another spit, which runs parallel to the salt-marshes. To get to it, follow signs on the west side of the Odiel to the Playas (beaches). However, if you use the older, smaller roads, you can access the surrounding scrub where small birds such as Dartford warblers can be found. This area is part of the Paraje Natural de Los Enebrales de Punta Umbria. There are also dirt tracks leading to the saltmarshes, etc. The pinewoods around Camping la Boca and eastwards to Punta Umbria are good for Iberian (Azure-winged) magpies, and during migration periods especially, for all sorts of birds. Punta Umbria was a fishing village, now more of a tourist resort (so food and drink easily available) with a long beach facing the Atlantic. Roads on the north side of the town do allow some views across the saltmarshes, and access to dirt roads and footpaths such as the Sendero Caño de Melilla Honda.

Photo of a pair of Kentish Plovers
About fifty kentish plover were loafing and feeding on the beach, some of them clearly paired up. We noticed the male apparently making a scrape. When that was done, he started opening and closing his bill and moving his head to and fro at the same time. Then a female circled him twice, stopped with her back to him and, with an exaggerated movement, bent forward and thrust her tail up. The male ran forward and jumped on top of her, seeming to make cloacal contact immediately. They stayed in this position for about two minutes with the male softly treading the female’s back. Then the female moved, causing the male to step off. After standing together for about a minute, they resumed feeding

Huelva City Waterfront

On the eastern side of the estuary, you can look across the water (and saltmarshes north of the city) from the coast road. It’s best in the morning with the sun behind you, but not in the brisk westerly that dominated the weather when I was there.

Following the road south-eastwards (towards the Doñana Natural Park), you come to the point where Christopher Columbus set sail to discover the Americas. Crossing the Rio Tinto gets you to La Rabida where various roads give views across the saltmarshes and saltpans – the jetty at Muela de Reina is recommended as large flocks of gulls often gather there. The creek between the road and La Rabida attracts herons, spoonbills and other waterfowl.

Photo of Audouin's Gull
Audouin’s Gull

La Rabida is full of historical monuments, and a new (1991) amphitheatre – the Foro Iberamericano. The Parque Botánico José Celestino Mutis is devoted to plants, especially trees, from South America. However, if you continue another 8km along the coast road you come to Jardín Botánico Dunas del Odiel another Botanical Garden, this one run by the local government and displaying plants of the Atlantic Coast.


So there you have it

The February weather wasn’t brilliant during my visit, but it’s on my list for another time – perhaps March or April when there will be more flowers out, with attendant butterflies.

There is plenty to see there, so not a place to rush through. However, if time is limited and you are on your way between the Algarve and the Natural Park of Doñana, it makes a worthwhile break in the journey.

Photo of white broom Retama monosperma
White broom – Retama monosperma – was abundant along the roadsides in February.

Getting there

Huelva is accessible by train, several parts of the reserve are accessible on foot or by bicycle. However, to make the most of the site, a car is recommended.

It is easily accessible from the Natural Park of Doñana, or the Algarve, though if you are hiring a car at Faro Airport, make sure you are allowed to take it into Spain (shouldn’t be a problem with reputable companies).


Resources

Useful Websites

UNESCO – about the biosphere reserve of the Marismas del Odiel

Andalucia department of the environment

Huelva tourist board – information about other things to do in Huelva, accommodation, etc.

Wildside Holidays – information about the site, accommodation, guides, and about wildlife in the rest of Spain

Local tour guides

Many nature tour companies include a visit to the Odiel Marshes within a trip to Andalucia, but the following locally based guides are able to give a more focussed tour of this site.

Wild Doñana is based in Huelva, and offers tours of several local wildlife hotspots

Living Doñana organises guided Andalucía bird watching and wildlife tours from 1-day trips, tours of up to several days and tailor-made trips seeking the best wildlife Andalusia has to offer.

Videos

No commentary on this one, but excellent videography to show off the area and its wildlife:


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information

Buying through these links earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


Other places for winter birds

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Photo of a lake in the forests of Lapland

Urho Kekkonen National Park

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The Urho Kekkonen National Park covers a huge area: 2,550 sq km (980 sq miles)

It is the second-largest protected natural area in Finland

It is the second oldest National Park in Finland – founded in 1983

It is home to rare wildlife such as bears, wolverines, eagles, and plants that need tundra conditions.

Urho Kekkonen background

The Urho Kekkonen National Park, extending from Saariselkä all the way to the Russian border, is by far the most popular trekking region in Finland. It is essentially a network of excellent wilderness huts, with a varied landscape between them, so there is no single trekking path to follow. If you have walking in mind, come in the summer.

The National Park was established in 1983 with the purpose of protecting the original forest, mire and fell nature of north-eastern Finland. It is the second-largest nature protection area in Finland, and offers the most majestic views of forested Lapland. The round summits of the gently sloping fells are barren and treeless. Between the fells, valleys and gorges grow sparse Scots pine and lots of lichens. The rivers south of Saariselkä run through wet bogs and thick willow bushes between low hills of spruce. In the south-eastern valley of the Nurttijoki (joki = river), the vegetation can be downright lush in places.

Photo of a small group of young reindeer
Young reindeer moulting out their winter coats

Traditionally the area was used by the Lapp villages of the Forest Sami people. Pit-trapping of deer was the usual hunting method. When the Finnish settlers spread to the area, the wild deer disappeared. In the 1870s the Fell Sami people arrived with their large reindeer herds. Gold panning, pearl hunting and forestry have all left their marks on the area, but today the most important uses of the park are reindeer husbandry and recreation. More than 20,000 reindeer live in the park, which offers excellent winter grazing. Hikers must avoid disturbing and chasing reindeer at any time, especially during the calving period in April and May. Other than the reindeer, it is estimated that about 20 bears and half a dozen wolverines inhabit the park. Wolves are regular visitors, especially near the eastern border. There are also otters, eagles, owls, and a host of other interesting things. So, plenty of reasons to visit.

Saariselkä

Saariselkä is basically a ski resort. According to the Lonely Planet Guide – the village is now one of the busiest yuppie resorts in the whole of Lapland. Real estate prices here are second only to those in Helsinki, big companies have luxurious log houses in the village and hotels are expensive. Fortunately, this was mid-June – the end of the offseason, so there were few facilities and even fewer people to be found here. This suited us and we were able to enjoy a week of solitude and nature watching.  Apparently by mid-summer’s day, that would all change.

Photo of the grey buildings of the Saariselka resort

For the first couple of days, the temperature was only a few degrees above freezing and the sky remained cloudy. The mostly grey buildings of the village seemed dismal and uninviting. The Scots pine logs traditionally used for building turn grey with age, and that seemed to be an excuse to paint all other buildings grey too. We had a pretty luxurious cabin, with two double-bedrooms, and four more single beds in the loft. It was all triple/quadruple glazing, and the heating was permanently on – Finnish buildings are always kept warm! As well as more mod-cons than we could wish for, we had our own private sauna.

Just outside the cabin we saw a mountain hare and a reindeer – perhaps a good omen. Then there were Siberian tits, chaffinches, bramblings – the first time I had seen them in breeding plumage, fieldfares, redpolls, siskins, willow warblers, pied flycatchers, hooded crows, ravens, little ringed plovers and wood sandpipers by a small lake, and the ubiquitous house sparrow.

Photo of a mountain hare

Highlights of a week there in mid-June

During the next week, we explored the area on foot, sometimes along waymarked routes, sometimes just following roads or animal tracks.  The going was easy – no big hills or deep valleys – so long as you avoided the boggy areas.  Daylight seemed to go on forever – it was mid-June in the land of the midnight sun.  The variety of birds taking advantage of the short nesting season included some species we hadn’t seen before, and others we had seen only in winter plumage in the UK. 

We followed signs for ‘Luontopulka’ (nature trail) through the forest and out into an open area on the fell at Iisakkipaa. The size and numbers of pine trees dwindled, and there were dwarf birch trees with hardly a leaf bud showing. Ground cover was heather, crowberry and lichens. Meadow pipits, redwings, and many other birds were singing. A male bluethroat did the rounds of song perches in his territory, stopping whenever he got near his prospective mate to woo her by fanning his tail in front of her nose (sorry, beak).

Photo of droppings from a game bird

Every so often we came across piles of droppings that looked like cylindrical wads of tobacco, typical signs of game birds. The larger ones with pine needles were probably y certainly belonged to game birds, these were from a hazel-hen.

A shallow valley with snow in the bottom offered some shelter from the cold breeze. Then there was a golden plover in song flight – a wonderfully haunting sound in this wilderness; a whimbrel vigorously and noisily chasing a raven from its territory; a pair of ptarmigan sitting on rocks near a snow patch – we could easily have missed them if they hadn’t called; arctic redpolls flitting about amongst the heather and dwarf birch, calling loudly but eluding our binoculars until one pair eventually obliged by sitting out in the open for a few minutes; more bluethroats, and a male northern wheatear perhaps still on migration.

We met a Finnish family with three noisy kids. This was the start of the school vacation (they go back in mid-August) and they had just come from Helsinki. They had been here before, but only in winter to ski.

Photo of Scots pine forest in Lapland

Most of Finland’s forests have been felled and replanted over the years, so there are few old trees – and few old growth forests. Here in the national park there were a few larger pines, snags and dead wood, but it would need another century or two of being left to develop by itself to become old-growth forest again.

This is Scot’s Pine Pinus sylvestris forest left to nature.

Arctic terns hunted over the lakes. Whimbrels, snipe, and other shorebirds perched on top of small trees (looks an uncomfortable place for a shorebird) between song-flights in the boggy areas.  Bob found some fresh frog spawn – something we would have seen in February back home. And here, instead of the tadpoles turning into frogs in their first summer, it could take two or three seasons, and even longer for frogs to reach breeding age/size.

Photo of a red squirrel eating bread on a picnic table

One morning I crumbled a slice of bread onto the table on the deck to see what would happen. As we finished our breakfast a red squirrel suddenly appeared, jumping confidently onto the table then skidding on the plastic. It took a lump of bread and chewed it up, then another. I got my camera ready and took a few pictures through the triple glazing. Then I opened the inner part of the patio door, the squirrel took no notice. I tapped on the window, the squirrel ignored me. I opened the outer door, still the squirrel kept eating. As I set up the tripod, the squirrel jumped off the table and came over for a closer look. In fact, it came in the door and sniffed at the tripod, and at my hand. Not wanting him to come inside, I tapped him on the nose, and he went back up onto the picnic table! This must be a dream . . . . .

Then there were Siberian tits, bramblings, fieldfares, redstarts, a female pied flycatcher who was being rather aggressive towards two great tits, a house sparrow and a willow warbler trying to land in her tree, and a mountain hare crossing the ski trail not far away.

Amongst the other sounds were the thin whistle of the hazel grouse – the kind of sound that is almost impossible to locate, the go-bak go-bak call of the willow grouse, and another call that Bob said was a black grouse.

One day we took the bus to Ivalo, the regional capital.  It was a tiny place, even the Lonely Planet Guide referred to it as a village – population 3,500. It had a couple of supermarkets, banks, a post office, several tourist shops, and some restaurants/hotels. This was the second day of sunshine and we could almost see the leaves bursting on the birch trees.

Tankavaara and Sompio

About 25km south of Saariselkä is the village of Tankavaara, with a visitor centre and access to the Sompio Strict Nature Reserve.  And, like Saariselkä, it is conveniently on the bus route between Ivalo and Rovaniemi.   

Three nature trails started at the information centre, and we elected to take the longest (5km) one. It took us through spruce forest, as opposed to the pine forests we had been in previously. There were two kinds of spruce here, the ordinary Norwegian Spruce and the Siberian Spruce. The latter is taller and thinner, and is also known as candle spruce. Apparently it is a further adaptation to heavy snowfall – all the snow slides straight off the slim shape – in theory anyway, though some trees had broken crowns from snowfall that was just too heavy.

Photo of a Siberian Jay

The route we took was designated the Siberian Jay trail. Our information had suggested that Siberian Jays were common, and were very tolerant of people – they are a sign of good fortune and it is bad luck to harm one. The woman in the centre was surprised when I asked if we would see one, yes, of course, she said as if they were everywhere. After a while Bob caught a glimpse of one flying from one treetop to another, but it was another hour or more before we got a good look at one. In fact, it lived up to its reputation, and even came over to investigate us! It is a very attractive bird, a smallish jay with a russet red tail and orange shoulder patches. We only saw the two.

The trail went slowly uphill, above the spruce forest into birch scrub, and to an observation platform on the top of the Tankavaara Fell. From here the view stretched into the distance across the forest and lakes to other fells, and to the Russian border. Several times along the trail there were signs of battlements – trenches etc – left over from the German and Russian occupation during WW2. Two golden plovers called as they flew in, landing close to the platform, but immediately disappearing against the background of heather and lichens. Also up here were found droppings of grouse, capercaillie, reindeer, weasel and fox, and perhaps pine marten too.

Instead of going straight back to the information centre, we turned onto a ski track that would take us to the Sompio strict nature reserve. A strict nature reserve is an area where nature can do its own thing with no human interference. This one was established in 1956.  (When we visited, we were told that it was the part of the national park with the highest density of breeding birds, but from the website it is not clear if the strict nature is actually within the park boundary).

photo of a boardwalk trail

Access was limited to this one track, which you are supposed to keep to. Elsewhere in the national park you can wander off the tracks, though it is easy to get lost or stuck in a bog if you leave the marked routes. Anyway, by the time we stopped for lunch, I was feeling the beginnings of blisters on both feet. Since our time was limited (we had to get back for the last bus) we had decided to walk until 3pm, then turn back regardless.

We had not gone very far back, when I heard something crashing through the forest, and just caught sight of a capercaillie hightailing it across an open area and disappearing into another patch of trees. At least, I assume something large and black, with wings, is a capercaillie. Bob went off in pursuit, I found capercaillie droppings under a small pine tree, and took some photographs of the landscape while waiting for Bob to return. He had caught another glimpse of capercaillie, and reckoned there were also several hundred reindeer hiding amongst the trees.

Photo of a bear track

The map suggested that the track would eventually come out on the main road, so we decided to continue along it rather than go back to the information centre. Halfway there, I noticed some large tracks in the mud – the only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.

We got back to the bus stop with time to spare!

Here is how to watch bears in Europe


Resources

The Finnish National Parks website provides a lot of useful information. Particular note should be taken of the Instructions and Rules in Urho Kekkonen National Park.

The Inari region tourist board website has a lot more information about the area in general, including places to stay, other national parks, other things to do, etc.


Luontoporti – Naturegate – a useful ID and info resource

NatureGate enables you to find fascinating information about hundreds of wild species together with thousands of superb images captured by top photographers. You can view and search for species in various ways – for instance using their English names, their scientific names, or by genus or family. Our unique identification tools also help you to get to know new species. They make the task of discovering new species easy, fast and fun. Try one of these tools right right now!

Comprehensive information on nature in many languages

NatureGate mainly works in eight languages. Many of our featured species can be found right around the world. Our multilingual web services can benefit millions of people interested in nature, wherever they happen to be.

We also publish a free Finnish-language web magazine, featuring the latest news on the natural scene, longer articles and interviews, and news about our own work and events. Readers can also send questions about nature to the magazine section experts’ answers.

The NatureGate team welcome you to enjoy investigating the species featured on our site. We hope you will find our services both enjoyable and useful. Exploring our website should also give you a lot of good reasons to get outdoors and explore the natural environment!


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information.

Many books on the nature of Lapland, or even Finland as a whole, seem to be out of print. So you have to use whatever you can find on north-west Europe.

Note that buying books via these links earns me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that helps with the maintenance of this website.


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Watching Wolves in Europe

A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.

Bear-watching

A round-up of opportunities for watching and photographing bears in Europe

Winter birds on the Gulf of Morbihan

The ‘Mor-Bihan’ – which means ‘little sea’ in Breton – lies on the southern coast of Brittany.

The ‘Golfe du Morbihan’ comprises 12,000 hectares of the Atlantic enclosed by land except for a 1km wide bottleneck, through which the tide comes and goes. 

Due to its location along the Atlantic coast flyway, and its high diversity of wetlands, the Gulf of Morbihan is one of 20 major sites for waterbirds in France

About the Gulf

The term ‘gulf’ was traditionally used for large highly-indented navigable bodies of saltwater that are enclosed by the coastline. So basically, a gulf is a large inlet from the ocean into a landmass, typically with a narrow opening to the sea – which is what the Morbihan is. However, the name Morbihan is given to the département, and so the embayment is referred to as the Golfe du Morbihan.

The Mor-Bihan was filled by Atlantic waters several thousand years ago, when the rising sea-levels (after the last Ice Age) flooded the existing river valleys. The result was a huge shallow pan of water, with some 500km of coastline and around 60 islands which vary in size from rocky islets to large enough to support whole villages. 

Over time, the Gulf developed a range of natural habitats and rich biodiversity. It is a designated Natura 2000 area and is also protected by various international and national regulations including Ramsar (for the protection of wetlands), decrees on biotope protection, and its designated statuses as a natural reserve, protected area and national heritage site. Processes are now underway to declare the area a Regional Natural Park. 

The area around the Gulf of Morbihan is densely inhabited with 230 inhabitants per km² which is twice the national average. Yet the natural beauty and tranquillity of the Gulf attract two million visitors each year, making tourism is the main economic activity. Other major economic activities include oyster farming (with 1,600 hectares given over to this activity) fishing, and agriculture (in decline). The area around the gulf is home to an extraordinary range of megalithic monuments. The best-known is Carnac, where the remains of a dozen rows of huge standing stones can be followed for over 10km. The passage tomb of Gavrinis, on a small island, is one of the most important such sites in Europe. There is more information on the tourist website for the area

In the Gulf itself, Huge areas of mudflats are exposed at low tide and there are saltmarshes and numerous islands, channels and lagoons as well as arable farmland, shingle beaches and rocky shores nearby. This makes it an extremely important stopover and wintering area for waders and waterfowl, with tens of thousands of birds present from Autumn to spring.

Winter Birds

Morbihan is the principal French haunt of dark-bellied brent geese from Siberia – some 20,000 over-winter here. 

From October to March, it also supports high numbers of Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Common Teal as well as Common Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye. 

Waders include most of the regular species of north-western Europe and other species found here in winter include Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe and around 1000 Black-necked Grebe. 

By summer, most birds have left for their northern breeding grounds, but a few remain to breed. These include Little Egret, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet and Marsh Harrier while Eurasian Spoonbill occurs regularly in some numbers during both passage periods. A passerine speciality of Morbihan is Bluethroat which breeds at the Reserve Naturelle de Sene near Vannes and can also be found at the Marais de Suscinio to the south of Sarzeau. 

The land surrounding the Golfe has extensive pinewoods with a good range of bird species including Black Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and various warblers. 

The site regularly exceeds the threshold of 20,000 birds counted simultaneously during the winter (October to February). This makes it of International Importance for its bird populations. However, the total number of migratory and wintering birds (waterfowl and shorebirds) is between 50,000 and 100,000 individuals

Dunlin

Maximum counts for winter 2011-12 (the most recent figures I can find on-line)

  • Pintail 1285
  • Brent Goose 16,594 (20-yr average 20,000)
  • Shelduck 4249
  • Shoveler 669
  • Wigeon 5395
  • Merganser 1231
  • Pochard 53 (20-yr average 664)
  • Black-necked grebe 938
  • Spoonbill 50 passage
  • Avocet 1400
  • Lapwing 5441
  • Ringed Plover 839
  • Grey plover 1784
  • Black-tailed godwit 3660
  • Curlew 710
  • Spotted redshank 104
  • Redshank 1500 passage 463 winter
  • Dunlin 20305
  • Turnstone 238 (20yr average 91) 

Morbihan is also important for its breeding birds: 

  • Lesser black-back gull 400 pairs
  • Common tern 100 pairs
  • Avocet 150 pairs
  • Marsh harrier 6 pairs
  • Oystercatcher 50 pairs
  • Little Egret 100 pairs
Redshank

Bird-watching places around the Morbihan

We camped overnight at Kerhillion Plage, and did some early morning sea-watching, then wandered around the area for a while before moving east to the Morbihan itself.

The place is huge, by the time you’ve added the marshes, sand dunes, salt pans and islands to the sea area, you are talking about some 23 square kilometres (8 square miles). Then the indentations of the coastline plus the narrow roads mean that you can’t really race around it in a day. If, like us, you enjoy watching birds, rather than just ticking them off a list, then you need several days. And if it is sunny, then you have to take that into account, as the low winter sun bouncing off the water isn’t pleasant. Oh, and don’t forget the tide. When it is out, there isn’t much to see on the mudflats unless you have a telescope

Toulvern: a wooded peninsula in the north-west corner of the Morbihan, with the Etang de Toulveryn on one side, and more tidal flats on the other. Lots of access points and a seafood restaurant at the end. Coots, teal, shoveler, mallard, shelduck, grebes, and spoonbills can all be seen here – and a telescope is useful. 

Le Marais de Pen in Toul: a mix of salt- and freshwater habitats, this is the largest marsh in the west of the Morbihan. It has been protected since the late 1990s. There is a useful viewing platform located on a water tower, overlooking the marshes, and a walking route of about 3.5km. The area is freely accessible all year round. 

Ile de Berder: from a small parking area close to the island, it is possible to observe Roseate Terns, especially in September and October – but they were long gone by our visit in late November. The terns often land on the oyster barges that are in the cove. Also good for goldeneye and red-breasted merganser who regularly feed on the plentiful oyster beds here.  You can cross to the island, but the road is submerged at high tide (so we gave it a miss because of not knowing the tide times).

Pond Pump: at Le Moustoir along the D316 which connects Larmor-Baden in Arradon. Gulls and plovers especially gather on the edge of this private pond – but be aware of the heavy and fast road traffic (we didn’t stay there for long) – though there is now a cafe – La Chaumière de Pomper – nearby that might provide a parking place if you eat there, and also the old mill – Le Moulin de Pomper that has been turned into an antiques shop. 

The banks of Vincin: sandwiched between the suburbs of Vannes and the muddy shores of the Riviere duVincin this is easily accessible by coast path (wheelchair-friendly) from the town, or from the le Conleau campsite, or the best Western hotel on the Lily de Conleau. Going east from any of these takes you past the golf course to the Pointe des Emigres. It can be disappointing when the tide is out, but it is home to large numbers of ducks, such as mallard, teal and shelduck.

Shelduck feeding as the tide rises

Séné Marshes

From Vannes, go south on the D199 to the village of Séné. From there, the reserve is signposted. The entrance fee is about €5 and that gives access to the visitor centre, two footpaths, five hides, information from ornithological guides, and the chance to watch a film about the reserve.  However, the reserve centre is closed from mid-September to the end of January so during this time you’re limited to a free access trail in one part of the reserve.

The reserve covers 410 hectares, and is located on the river Noyalo. It was declared by Ministerial Decree of 23 August 1996. It comprises a section of the estuary with mudflats bordered by vast salt marshes, tidal creeks, channels and ponds. These marshes are in fairly good condition, some being replaced by areas of wet meadows, hedgerows and fallow land. 

Some 220 species of birds have been observed on this reserve, including the 76 that nest there regularly. It is a migratory stop-over used by almost all shorebird and wildfowl species regularly seen in Western Europe. It is also a haven for amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies, butterflies and a quarter of the plant species found in Brittany have been recorded here.

The reserve website (in French, but google did a reasonable translation to English) includes a library of videos about the marshes

Wigeon and other winter waterbirds

Noyalo bridge: On the opposite of the Chanel de Saint-Leonard is the village of Noyalo. There are a few places where you can stop along the D780, and the bridge at Noyalo proved interesting even though the tide was still low – shelduck, avocets and curlews, various gulls, several marsh harriers, egrets, etc.

At le Hézo people seemed keen to point us in the right direction to see birds, although it wasn’t until the tide was coming in that we fully appreciated the place. The road runs alongside the mudflats near the old mill – the Moulin à marées du Hézo – and there is a footpath from the parking area there, and another along the old saltpans just to the south. We watched waders pushed along in front of the rising tide, looking like a necklace along the water-line at dusk. As with many of the large semi-enclosed embayments, the high tide seems to last a long time. The next morning (obviously it had been out again during the night) we had to wait for it to go down a bit before we could walk the shore behind the houses. Here we found large numbers of the Brent Geese that the area is known for, and amongst them was a black brant – the Canadian sub-species rarely seen in Europe.

Lasné Marsh is just south of le Hezo, and can be partially circumnavigated by following the coastal path. Part of it is a quiet zone, closed to the public. Avocets and terns are very easy to observe during the breeding season at Saint-Armel. In addition, the coastal path opens directly onto the mudflat east of Tascon, which hosts one of the largest concentrations of birds wintering in the Gulf of Morbihan. Then there is another marshy area between Lasne and Saint-Colombier

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The Reserve of the Pointe du Duer is just south of Saint-Colombier.  Old salt pans dating from the 15th century and in use until the 1950s are now managed to provide safe roosting places for wading birds in winter and on migration. In spring and summer black-winged stilt, common tern and shelduck breed here. Two hides and a small pine plantation provide shelter, and various pathways leading to them. The footpaths are laid out to allow access without disturbing the birds. Again, large numbers of birds can be seen from the tower hide, especially at high tide.  Some 160 species have been recorded here, including resident black woodpeckers and crested tits.

If you continue along the southern edge of the Morbihan, you find more places to watch birds on the mudflats – for example the Rue du Pont du Lindin is recommended for a variety of waders including grey plover, and from the Port du Logeo you can see groups of red-breasted mergansers and black-necked grebe (especially in January and February) – though a telescope is recommended. 

The marshes of the Château de Suscinio are near Sarzeau on the south side. Just follow signs towards the castle. Once there, turn right towards the sea and park your vehicle in the car park. The marshes spread along several hundred meters in both directions and are very attractive to birds which can be observed from close-by, especially in the morning. 


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Other places to go bird-watching in winter

The Lauwersmeer in winter

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.

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

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.


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Nature along the Dorset Coast

Why the Dorset coast

Spectacular Jurassic limestone scenery

Lots of large nature reserves

Plenty to see at any time of year

Best place for Lulworth Skipper, great raft spiders, smooth snakes and others

The section of coast between Poole Harbour and Exeter is popularly known as the Jurassic Coast, for its abundance and variety of fossils laid down in the Jurassic period – 200-145 million years ago. However, the geological time period of the rocks also covers the Triassic (250 – 200 million years) and the Cretaceous (145 – 60 million years ago). The Jurassic Coast website gives plenty of information for visitors interested in the prehistory of the area.

There is, however, much more to this section of coast than just the geological spectacle. The South-West Coast path provides a walking route from end to end – and beyond. It offers the hiker stunning views of many coastal features, from the sheer cliffs and limestone formations such as Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door (top photo) to a great range of birds, flowers and butterflies including the rare Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon (well, rare in Britain as it is only found in this area, although widespread and even common in parts of central and southern Europe).

The Lulworth Skipper is like a large skipper (with the orange patches on the wings) but is much smaller.
The Essex skipper is like a small skipper but has black-tipped antennae

Poole Harbour

Just inland from the sea is a series of nature reserves. Many of these are associated with Poole Harbour, providing refuge for a variety of birds during winter. The harbour itself is a huge shallow bowl with a relatively small outlet to the sea. It has double tides, which means lots of shallow water over mudflats, and lots of food for waders and wildfowl. On the west side, there are several heathland nature reserves which include the shoreline eg Studland Heath and Arne.

Dark -bellied Brent Geese at Poole Park in January

On the east side is the town of Poole – an extensively built-up area with considerable boating and recreational activity on the water. Nevertheless, Poole Park, an area of municipal parkland between the harbour wall and the town is excellent for birdwatching – with a large flock of dark-bellied Brent geese Branta bernicla among the other wintering wildfowl and gulls.

Brownsea Island, within the harbour is important for its red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris population. The island is owned by the National Trust, with managed forestry and heathland areas, as well as parkland.

Avocets in the lagoon at Brownsea Island in January

The northern part, however, is leased to the Dorset Naturalists Trust. Here there is a large lagoon surrounded on the outside by a high sea wall, areas of alder carr and other wet woodland, and generally much more natural habitats. The lagoon is frequented by waterbirds, especially herons, egrets and spoonbills Platalea leucorodia, and holds Britain’s largest single wintering flocks of avocets Recurvirostra avosetta and black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa – over 1000 birds of each species at times. Within the harbour are a number of small gravel islands, used by terns and gulls for nesting.

The RSPB reserve at Arne has been in existence since 1965. Like the nearby Studland Heath National Nature Reserve, it is important as one of the main sites to see all six species of British reptiles – adder Viperus berus, grass snake Natrix natrix, smooth snake Coronella austriaca, slow-worm Anguilis fragilis, common lizard Zootoca vivipara, and sand lizard Lacerta agilis.

Rare plants on the site include Dorset Heath Erica ciliaris (left), while the freshwater pond is one of only three sites for the great raft spider Dolometes plantarius in Britain. The wasp spider Argiope bruennichi is also found here (below – photographed in July).

The heathland provides a breeding stronghold for the secretive Dartford warbler Sylvia undata, as well as European nightjar Caprimulgus europeaus, woodlark Lullula arborea, and stonechat Saxicola rubicola. Waterbirds commute between the shore here, and Brownsea Island lagoon.

Weymouth area

Some 35km (22 miles) to the west of Poole Harbour is the town of Weymouth, and another set of nature reserves. Within the town itself is the RSPB reserve of Radipole Lake – a long finger of open water and reedbeds. The southern end, with a small RSPB information centre, is next to the railway station, is very popular with families wanting to feed the ducks and swans, so the birds here tend to be quite tame and tolerant. Following the footpath to the north hide takes you to more secluded areas, often quiet in winter except for the explosive calls of Cetti’s warblers Cettia cetti. It is also a good place for bearded reedlings Panurus biarmicus again a species more often heard – pinging calls as they move through the reedbed – than seen.

It is also a good place for a variety of plants, dragonflies and butterflies in the appropriate seasons.

On the eastern side of Weymouth, is the RSPB reserve of Lodmor. This is an area of open water, saltmarsh, wet grassland and scrub, separated from the sea by a shingle embankment and road, and with the ever-increasing housing development of Preston on the north side (view from south side below).

Birds move between here and Radipole, so the species seen are similar. However, it does have one of the largest common tern Sterna hirundo colonies in south-west Britain, and autumn migration can be spectacular. On a rather blustery late August day, we saw more than 50 species easily from the footpath (wheel-chair and push-chair friendly). The last few common tern chicks were being fed by their parents, while large numbers of swifts Apus apus gathered with the swallows and martins preparing for migration south.

Sunburst over Portland Bill

Portland Bird Observatory

A programme of bird ringing (bird banding) has been carried out since the earliest days of ornithological exploration at Portland in the 1950s. Bird Observatory staff and suitably qualified helpers use ringing as a tool to assist research into the migration patterns, population changes, biometrics and longevity of birds. The majority of ringing is carried out within the grounds of the Bird Observatory, where over 225,000 birds of 200 species have been trapped and ringed to date. There have been subsequent recoveries of birds marked at Portland from as far north as Finland, as far south as Ghana and as far east as the Republic of Georgia in the former USSR. (from the PBO website)

Portland Bill is a narrow promontory at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland which is connected to the mainland by a shingle spit, the eastern end of Chesil Beach. Jutting out some 8km (5 miles) into the sea, it makes a convenient departure and arrival point for birds on migration, and also catches birds moving along the coast.

The Portland Bird Observatory occupies the Old Lower Lighthouse just before the Bill (tip) itself. The observatory is open all year round.

Back in around 1982, I visited Portland Bill in migration season, just because it was said to be good for birds. The first afternoon was pleasant enough, and somebody mentioned that a hoopoe had been seen. OK, so we kept a look out for it, but weren’t too bothered if we saw it or not – our philosophy was to enjoy the place, and the birds would be the icing on the cake. In the evening we pitched our small tent in a seemingly out-of-the-way place. The next morning we opened the tent only to find a dozen birdwatchers about 50m away, all looking through binoculars and telescopes at the hoopoe feeding right in front of the tent!

Chesil Beach

There are other places to watch birds, or just to enjoy the coastal scenery and plants, on Portland Island. Then just to the west is Chesil Beach – 30km (19 miles) of pebble beach, separated from the mainland by the Fleet Lagoon for most of its length. At the western end is the Abbotsbury Swannery which is the only managed colony of nesting mute swans Cygnus colour (above) in the world.


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Obviously, it is about bird-watching sites, but most sites will have other nature interest as well.

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Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

The Rio Tejo (Spanish Rio Tagus) rises at the Fuente de Garcia in Teruel province, Aragon, Spain, flows 1038km (645 miles) across the Iberian peninsula to reach the Atlantic at Lisbon, Portugal. Its course has been dammed in several places for irrigation and water supplies. Just above Lisbon are the plains of Leziria, where the estuary itself has been drained, irrigated and planted on a huge scale.

To get to the estuary from the north, you drive along a broad dirt track. It seems unnecessarily wide, until you meet a tractor the size of a house trundling along it. The intensively cultivated fields eventually give way to pasture, grazed by the famous bulls used in bullfights. And at last, you reach the muddy creeks and channels of what is left of the estuary.

But the journey is worth the effort. This is the largest estuary in Western Europe, holding 54% of Portugal’s wintering waders, 30% of its wintering waterfowl, and 4% of its wintering herons. There are regularly over 50,000 birds in winter, and double that during the migration seasons.

About the Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve

Despite the 20,000ha of reclaimed land, the estuary upstream of Lisbon is still a vast intertidal zone of mudflats, bordered by 2,800 ha of saltmarsh (the largest in Portugal), saline marshlands, mudflats, shallow lagoons. Beyond this is a hinterland of dry grassland, cornfields, rice fields, stone pine and cork oak woodland. To the east some of this polder landscape has been somewhat modified by industrial and military installations which pose a serious threat of pollution, but the estuary is still frequented in winter and migration time by over 70,000 waders including 15% of western Europe’s wintering avocet, plus dunlin and curlew and several thousand duck.

Some 22,850 ha of the saltmarsh, mudflats and islands are included in a Reserva Natural, which was established in 1976 and covers an area of over 14,000 ha. Shooting and other forms of exploitation, except fishing, are forbidden. Access to the reserve for visitors is by road to perimeter then by footpath to points of interest, however, there is no entry to three strict nature reserves Reserva Integral areas that are left for nature to get on with its own business and even scientists are allowed in only to monitor the situation.

The protected area extends from 10m below sea level to 11m above, and is important for marine life such as fish, molluscs, crustaceans, etc, as well as birds.

Fortunately, the powers that be have recognised the value of the estuary:

  • 1976 – creation of the Natural Reserve of the Tagus Estuary
  • 1980 – declared a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention
  • 1994 – established as a Special Protection Area for Wild Birds, under EEC directive 79/409
Young bulls, reared for bullfighting, graze the pastures.

Through the farmland

There were larks, finches and linnets in good-sized flocks, plenty of house sparrows and thousands of common starlings. Snowstorms of gulls followed tractors in the distance. Half a dozen little egrets flew out of a ditch as we approached and joined others in the fields together with lapwing, golden plover and godwit. Three cattle egrets stalked through another field, occasionally one stopped to stir up invertebrates with its foot, the way little egrets do in water. These birds have a peculiar rolling, goose like gait which distinguishes them from little egrets even at some distance.

A great grey shrike (below) hunted from the tops of weed stalks in a dry pasture, and a crested lark called.

January 5th, 1989

It was in the middle of nowhere with not a soul in sight. At about six-thirty yesterday evening a police vehicle pulled up; no questions asked but we could stay there for one night only. No problem.

At some time in the small hours, there was a banging on the camper door. It was the police again, the night shift wanted to know what we were doing. The guy with the torch asked if we spoke French, and his face fell when I said no (not at that time of night anyway!). We showed him our passports and the bird book, saying that we were looking for ‘aves’.

This morning I checked in the phrasebook that I had the right word for birds, only to find that birds are ‘pajaros’ and ‘aves’ are chickens. The police must have had a good laugh at us, looking for chickens out here. But we were told later that aves is the scientific term for birds, so perhaps we impressed them instead.

There was a drug-smuggling problem around Lisbon, and our stopping place for the night was at the end of the Tagus Estuary where a small boat could have brought in contraband. Thus the police probably made a point of checking the area regularly.

Some of the birds

Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta

An elegant wader found in the intertidal areas and salt pans. It is most active at dawn and dusk, and also feeds by moonlight on insects and small crustaceans. It sweeps its up-curved bill through the water and mud, finding prey by touch. Seen mostly on migration and during winter, but also occasionally nests on the reserve. Wintering birds come from the Waddenzee area, and the Tejo estuary holds about 15% of the population that winters on the western European coast.

Black-Winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus

Found in saline lagoons and other wetlands, where its long legs enable it to feed in deeper water than other waders. It preys on floating or underwater animals such as tadpoles, water bugs, beetles and fly larvae. It is a common nesting species here, with some individuals staying over winter, however, most spend the winter in Africa.

Cattle Egret  Bubulcus ibis

In one field there were some cows with very young calves, and also a number of cattle egrets hunched up against early morning mist. The egrets have a heavy-jowled, grouchy appearance that is matched by their complaining voice and reluctance to ‘get out of bed’ at a decent hour. One calf, only a day or so old and not quite sure how far its nose was in front of its eyes, found itself surrounded by egrets.

The calf tentatively tried to find its way out of the circle but always found its way blocked. It approached one egret, which shuffled off and made the calf jump. It approached another, which waved its beak threateningly and again the calf backed off. After several minutes, in sheer desperation (and probably with its eyes closed) it charged back to mum, scattering the egrets faster than they wanted to go.

Another calf, a day or two older and by now an old hand, charged around threatening a few birds which shuffled out of the way in disgust at the disturbance.

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Found mainly in intertidal areas where it feeds on invertebrates on the mud near the mud surface as the tide recedes. At high tide it roosts in salt pans or marsh-side banks. Common passage migrant, and winter visitor with over 1% of the western European population in some winters.

Redshank Tringa totanus

Found in intertidal zones with thin sediments, salt pans and waterlogged agricultural land. Also known as the sentinel of the marshes, this species is always on the lookout for danger, and noisily proclaims it. Usually feeds in loose flocks. Common winter visitor, with about 2% of the European wintering population on the estuary. Also seen on migration, and has nested occasionally.

Wigeon Anas Penelope

Found in intertidal areas, in the shallow waters of the Estuary and in Saragoça salt pan. Flocks lift off almost vertically and land again as one. Feeds on vegetation, both submerged and on the surface. Common winter visitor with about 1% of the European population recorded here.

Shoveler Anas clypeata

It is very active at night, sifting the upper layers of water and mud for freshwater fleas, mosquito larvae, and other invertebrates through the beak. Common winter visitor, with about 2.3% of the European population recorded here.

Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus

Male marsh harrier

Hunts over shallow, fresh or brackish waters, where there is emergent aquatic vegetation, and also over dense marshes. Spends the night on the ground or in marshes. Individuals spend the night in regularly-used roosts, which are located in marshes and reed beds. Nesting resident. Not common, but the reserve seems to support 40 to 50% of the national breeding population.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed godwits winter here in their thousands. Most of the birds breed in Iceland. They like to feed on invertebrates living in soft mud. So as well as the estuarine mudflats, you can find them on the rice fields. Their distribution depends on the timing of rice cropping, which in turn depends on the rainfall.

The Giganta rice paddies , located about 4 km southwest of Porto Alto, extend for several kilometres and are an excellent place to see birds at all times of the year;  In autumn and winter, when the area is covered with stubble flooded, the land is frequented by flocks of lapwing and, snipe as well as the black-tailed godwits. Occasionally flocks of flamingos appear here too.

EVOA

Espaço de Visitação e Observação de Aves (Bird Observation and Visitation Space)

These days, there is a delight at the end of the long road. The Tagus Estuary Bird-watching and Conservation Area provides a facility to attract birds to lagoons and scrapes in front of a visitor centre and a series of hides. There are a shop, café, exhibition centre, classroom, guided tours, and other activities on site.

The site opened in 2012, after my last visit to the area. Most reviews of the place are good.  Experienced birdwatchers have told me the birds are wonderful, but the guided tours etc are a disappointment.  But, as with most places trying to attract customers, the tours etc are designed for the general public and for educational needs, so that needs to be borne in mind.

The EVOA website is being updated and expanded, but offers plenty of information about the tours etc. in Portuguese, English and French, and also a calendar of what birds you are likely to see in each month. Make sure you choose the language from the menu bar, or you get some very strange google translations of bird names.

Visitor centre and lagoons at EVOA (c) EVOA

Getting there

If have a car, access is from the N10, across the river from Vila Franco de Zira. EVOA is signposted. Some of the dirt roads are accessible if your vehicle has reasonably good ground clearance. Other areas are gated off, but you can buy a pass that allows access. There is more information about access and a map on the Portuguese Birdwatching site If you have a car, you can take your time, drive slowly and stop almost anywhere to look at birds. But don’t forget those huge tractors and whatever huge farm machinery they may be pulling.

If you are staying in Lisbon, you can get to Vila Franco de Zira by train, but will need a taxi from there. Probably the best way to see the area is by using a local bird-guide – several are listed on Birding Pals.

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More nature-watching in Portugal

Parque Natural do Alvão

The Parque Natural do Alvão in the north-east of Portugal has Medieval villages, traditional farming, and a wealth of nature. Even through the mist, there was plenty of interest for a day out.

Kopački Rit

I wouldn’t normally recommend visiting anywhere in August for birdwatching – things are usually quiet as young birds are keeping out of the way while they begin to discover independent life, and their parents are keeping out of sight while they moult and feed up to recover from the breeding season.  Also, it can be hot, especially in a continental climate. 

However, we were on our way to Greece in a campervan, and that meant travelling through the old Yugoslavia in the heat.  We stopped at a few places en route.  And some of them turned out to be real gems.

So, this piece is about my memories from then, followed by a description of the place now.  And it seems that the Kopački Rit Nature Reserve is good at any time of year.

August 1989

As we descended into the valley of the Drava, the floodplain appeared to be covered with reedbeds.  My heart sank as we got closer and I realised it was actually huge fields of maize.  Did the Kopački Rit still exist?  Had it been swallowed by intensive agriculture?

We stopped in Osijeck for groceries and information – not that there was much to be had back then.  At least we now knew we were on the right road.  We continued through another 10km or so of farmland, though it didn’t seem quite so intensive here.  And then suddenly we were in the wetland.

This was the edge of the park with fishponds – open water fringed with reeds – on one side of the road, and vast areas of rushes with clumps of willow on the other. On the water were hundreds of coot with a few each of moorhen, little and great-crested grebe and a few ducks. Moustached, reed and great reed warblers hunted in the vegetation.

Within a few minutes, an osprey flew in and circled the fishpond. It dived twice without success and eventually disappeared into the distance, mobbed continuously by common and whiskered terns, and black-headed gulls. A cuckoo flew past mobbed by a dozen hirundines.

A rush of coot and other birds over the water surface announced the arrival of a boat. The people on board were shovelling maize meal into the water – fish food that the birds weren’t interested in.

Purple Heron

There was a continual coming and going of waterbirds – purple and grey herons, cormorants, buzzards and marsh harriers, and sometimes a white stork too.

The road followed the edge of the fishpond then went straight north through farmland again. The drainage ditches were choked with yellow and white water lilies, and fringed with purple loosestrife, goldenrod etc; a few moorhen and mallard were in residence.

Dry-looking arable fields extended way beyond the channels. A black stork circled low over one field, working its way slowly along one edge, then it drifted back before going to rest in a dead tree at the edge of a wood.  In the sweltering midday heat, shade was hard to come by – the trees were too far from the road to be of much use. It was quiet except for the raucous calls of jays.

Back at the fishponds, we stopped on a track that leads into the park but has an “entry forbidden” on it. Sitting in the shade of the campervan’s tailgate, we watched birds coming and going for the rest of the day. To our right were the wooded rushes and willows, to the left was a fishpond with small fish – a tern paradise, and behind us the pond of bigger fish where we had stopped earlier.

Eight squacco herons were lined up along the edge of reeds; a little bittern flew in low, showing off its pale wing patches and landing clumsily on a reed; something disturbed a roost of night herons and scores of them emerged from some low trees; occasionally a little egret flew over.

White-tailed eagle – the emblem of the Kopački Rit Nature Park

We stayed put for the next four days.  Early in the morning, we would walk along the path on the top of a dyke, then back to the van before it got too hot – or sometimes when it was too hot as we got distracted by birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  The shade of the tailgate provided some relief for the main part of the day, allowing us to watch the comings and goings of over 70 species of birds – including regular visits from white-tailed eagles as they picked up a free meal from the fishpond.  Then, in the evening, we’d take another stroll along the dyke.

The track was out of bounds to all except authorised vehicles and we saw only two cars during the morning. The driver of the second vehicle wanted to know what we were doing there and said something about it being a forbidden place. However, he seemed satisfied when I said the general tourist office in Osijek said we could walk here, so long as we didn’t leave the path.

One morning we watched as a couple of red deer came out of the vegetation, ran along the edge and plunged out of sight again. There were only tree sparrows occupying the top of a dead tree, but a movement lower down caught my eye. It looked at first like a squirrel but as the whole animal came into view its heavy build immediately distinguished it as a marten, then it disappeared into the foliage of a small tree below. Time to stop and watch!

After about five minutes the marten reappeared in another tree, moving slowly and deliberately from branch to branch, using its tail for balance; sometimes it leapt across a gap but always seem to stop to balance before moving on again. Its dark red-brown body and tail, contrasting with a yellow-cream throat, identified it as a pine marten. It showed itself four times for a few minutes each during a half-hour period as it explored the clump of trees thoroughly. Then it either went to sleep or moved to trees further away for we saw no more of it.

People were generally few and far between.  There was a Dutch couple who were pleased to see the sea eagle which was mobbed first by buzzards and later by marsh harriers as it soared over the marshes. Then an osprey arrived and caught a fish at the first attempt; it was mobbed by a black-headed gull which it easily outflew before flying in circles looking lost – perhaps it couldn’t see a suitable dining table. It was then chased by a marsh harrier which couldn’t keep up with it and was last seen being mobbed by buzzards as it disappeared into the distance.

Osprey

Our second visitor was a Frenchman called Dominic who had a long-term association with Kopacki Rit and permission to go into the reserve for bird photography. He is currently working on a book about the area. From him, we got some background information, for example the relative importance of the hunting reserve and its ability to bring in foreign currency while the bird reserve was left to its own devices apart from keeping people out. The fish ponds are managed in order to keep areas of open water but this does mean that many waterbird nests are destroyed when the reeds are cut.

Then there was Stefan, an over-enthusiastic photographer who admitted he was no ornithologist. He took pictures of the larger birds and game to sell to tourists. This was the third time we had seen him and he had brought some prints to show us. Dominic stopped by again and there was some bantering between the two photographers with the Frenchman repeatedly telling the Yugoslav that he has to approach things slowly, that he has to let the creatures know he loved them, and so on. Stefan gave the impression that he would just photograph purple herons one day, kingfishers the next, etc

You can read all of my notes from the five days here

European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis)

Kopački Rit today

Looking at Google maps now, I can’t quite make out exactly where we stopped back in 1989. My notes say we were 10km from Osijek, which would put us at the north end of the reserve. However, it is possible that we were actually at the end of the road in the photo below. That road leads to the dyke – which now appears to be more accessible.

What is clear, though, is that this part of the reserve has received considerable development for visitor access and appreciation. The park website shows an extensive system of boardwalks and a visitor centre. There are exhibitions and educational/interpretive materials, guided tours, and a proper campsite nearby.

View of the boardwalks (image from the Kopački Rit website)

The Kopački Rit website provide a lot of useful background information, including the following facts:

  • The Nature Park encompasses a total of 231 km2, including a 71 km2 Special Zoological Reserve.
  • Nature Park Kopački Rit is one of the best-preserved large river floodplains in Europe.
  • Due to the abundance of fauna found in the southern part of the Park in particular, this area has been declared a Special Zoological Reserve.
  •  In 1986 it was included in the Important Bird Areas in Europe list. Its international significance was further confirmed in 1993, when it was included in the List of Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Kopački Rit is home to:

  • Some 300 bird species, of which 140 are breeding in the park
  • twelve species of amphibian
  • ten species of reptile
  • 50 species of freshwater fish
  • 48 species of dragonfly
  • 64 species of butterfly
  • More than 500 species of plant

Kopački Rit is also an important part of the Croatian-Hungarian Transboundary Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube established by UNESCO in 2012.

White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba)

Other seasons

The floods start at the end of February or the beginning of March and last to the end of July or the beginning of August. The dry season lasts from August to February the following year, when most of the birds stay in the fishponds or rivers. The largest number of birds can be seen during the Spring and Autumn migrations, later during Summer.

Although the number of birds in Winter is less than in other seasons, thousands of wild geese and ducks arriving from West Siberia can be observed in the wider area of the Park.

Birding in Eastern Europe suggests that it is worth a visit at any time of year, though May is absolutely the best month.

The author also makes a safety warning: The surrounding area may not have been entirely cleared of mines from the 1990s conflict with Serbia, so do not leave the main roads or marked trails, or ignore warning signs.

Getting there

While travelling by car (or campervan as I did) is relatively easy, it is also possible to get there by public transport. Aim for Osijek – which has a railway station, then you’ll probably need a taxi for the last few kilometres.

If you use the Rome2Rio website for travel planning, be aware that one of their Kopacki Rit options takes you to the far side of the Danube (an expensive taxi journey from Osijek) and the other options take you beyond the visitor centre.

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The naturalist in France in winter

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.

Common Cranes

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

Wigeon

La Brenne

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

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

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

Knot

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.

Greater Flamingo in winter

Camargue

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

Click here for a flavour of the area from Luca Boscain

Eagle owl

Les Alpilles

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

Mountains

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.

Alpine Ibex

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


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