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

Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

Some 70,000 water birds spend their winter on the Tejo estuary near Lisbon in Portugal. That can mean some serious birdwatching there.

The Lauwersmeer 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.

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