News, Trip Reports, etc

'A Year in the Vienne'

Article for Essex Birding magazine February 2007

We moved to Moulismes on 6th Jan 2006. Moulismes [pronounced Moo-leem] is in the department Vienne, region Poitou Charentes, central-west France, about 8 hours drive south from Boulogne. The nearest city is Poitiers, an hours drive due north, the nearest coastal city La Rochelle, two-and-a-half hours drive due west, and the nearest large town is Montmorillon, 10 kilometres away.
The countryside here is gently rolling, with some steeper river valleys, in fact 3-4 kms of white-water rafting 15 minutes from the village. Farming around Moulismes is mostly non-corporate, small-scale family owned farms. Sheep, cattle [mainly the dark brown Limousin], maize, and sunflowers being the main sources of income, with some cereal production and vegetables. There is lots of woodland, many etangs [lakes], and plenty of marginal land and unimproved pasture.
Since arriving we have spent most of the time renovating our house, and making some unscheduled trips back to UK, so birding hasn’t been top priority. However, establishing a ‘local patch’ early on kind of pushed the project back slightly…. I decided the only way I’d get away with skiving off would be to bird locally – little and often, around the village, down the road, or on the ‘patch’, about 3 kilometres away. As this proved productive, ‘little and often’ became 2 hours and often, so we still haven’t finished the house over a year later.

Local habitats and birding areas.

Originally I thought I’d be birding mostly in the Brenne, about 40 minutes away to the east. In fact, apart from spring trips looking for orchids, I’ve been there infrequently, finding most species there also occur here, locally, with patience.
The Patch consists of a large reed-fringed etang with hide, a big area of woodland with mostly public access, an area of maize prairie, and a mixture of pasture and arable farmland with other smaller etangs dotted about. Etangs, both here and in the Brenne, are man-made, mostly too small, with no cover and steep banks they’re of little wildlife interest; they’re purpose built fisheries. Well-established ones like this one are at a premium here, and are the prime habitat of the Brenne. The woodland is about 75% mature conifer, unfortunately, but the deciduous blocks have many mature oaks. The maize prairie provides excellent late winter habitat for Cranes and finches, as the stubble is left until spring. The remaining farmland has much fallow land, especially good in autumn and winter.
Our street, Rue de la Maison Rouge, also provides good habitat as it becomes a public footpath about 300 meters south of our house, with small unimproved meadows, secondary woodland and a stream. Most butterfly species have been found here. The garden, mostly grass and fruit trees, has also been very productive.
For waders, last year I watched a local etang with consistently low water levels and one gently sloping side; it proved to be good with 14 species seen [that’s good here!!]
The etang ‘regime’ can provide improved birdwatching. Made for both commercial and coarse fishing, they are often partially emptied between October and March. The remaining water is the deepest section near the sluice; the fish are collected from here using large nets. Carp species are the most commonly harvested; the etangs are interconnected and emptied in series. Although not at an ideal time, this gives some limited wader-watching, also concentrates wildfowl, herons and egrets; water pipits appear and even the odd gull [no gull species are common in the southern Vienne].

THE BIRDS

January and February saw Hawfinchs, max. 7, and occasional Short-toed Treecreeper in the garden. Good period for Great Egret, Hen Harrier and Goshawk, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Firecrest, occasional Cattle Egret flock, winter finches especially Brambling [flocks of 100+] on the maize. First sightings of Black Woodpeckers, at least one pair breed on the patch. Many Woodlarks and Cirl Buntings on stubble. Wildfowl 8 sp. on the etangs. Mid-Feb saw the first returning Common Cranes on maize stubble. This area is a major migration stop-off for the Cranes, with a few wintering. It can be spectacular in the right conditions; in 1.5 hours I counted 4560 over north-east one afternoon in early March; they just kept coming in V-shaped flocks, from a few birds to one group of 430.
March saw Crane numbers peak on the stubble at 600+ mid-month, at the same time as the first returning Black Kites and Short-toed Eagles. S-t Eagles breed in the Vienne [10-15 pairs] with a pair 10kms away producing one juvenile this year. A pair of Black Kites bred on the patch. First Hoopoes end of month.
April and Purple Herons return to the etang, where they breed. Blue-headed Wagtails and Tree Pipits also on the patch and Serins return to the garden. Hen Harriers joined by first Montagu’s Harriers. Whiskered Terns are a scarce visitor to the etang. In the woods Wood Warblers are back on territory, as are Bonelli’s Warblers, Firecrests and Golden Orioles. Melodious Warblers and Red-backed Shrikes [c6 pairs] breed on the patch also. Early Purple and Green-winged Orchids abundant, and first Hummingbird Hawk-moths. Garganey, a pair, on the etang. Burnt Orchids on the Brenne and Tongue Orchids there and locally.
May sees the start of Fritillary season here, 10 species seen in total, 8 locally.
Bee-eaters and, with luck, Woodchat Shrike back on the Brenne. Late May, the first brood of young Black Redstarts and Serins are in the garden. As in UK, May and June is also peak orchid season.
June bought the first sightings of Honey Buzzards and Quail on the patch. Occasional Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in garden.
July, first juvenile Purple Herons seen, 7, and one and only sighting of a stray Middle Spotted Woodpecker. First juveniles of Stone Curlew, also 2 wing-tagged [French] Monty’s Harriers. A good month for raptors, up to 9 species on the patch.
August, juvenile Spotted Flycatchers in the woods, and this is the month when both Stork species start to come through, also Black Terns and Pied Flycatchers. Only sighting of Crested Tit, a rare bird locally.
September had 2 Black Storks roosting overnight in local woods for three days, and sporadic White Stork sightings including 2 ringed birds from Germany and Belgium. A single Wryneck on the patch and numerous Pied and Spot Flys in the garden. Watched a Pied catch a Hummingbird Hawk-moth and spit it out – the Hawk-moth just carried on feeding! The volume of passage through here in autumn is surprising, with the patch resembling The Naze on a [very] good day, for flycatchers, Redstarts, Whinchats and other passerines; also Marsh Harriers. The best month for waders.
October started well with 2 male Cirls in the garden for a week, and continued to be excellent for raptors, the only Red Kites of the year seen this month. Two days after last White Stork sighting, the first Cranes appeared again, mid-month.
November things slowed right up, as in UK. A 22-strong post-nuptial Stone Curlew gathering and 8 Water Pipits on the etang were pick of the month.
December’s only good birds were two large flocks of migrating Greylags.

A nice thing about the Vienne is it has virtually no feral ducks or geese because few people have ever kept them – there aren’t many past records of dodgy wildfowl here, and even in the Brenne there is only one known feral flock of about 30 Canadas. The two main rivers have some feral ‘town’ ducks that seem to stay there, and the ‘foie-grass’ farm geese all end up on the plate! Pheasant and both partridges are probably subject to additional introduction, otherwise it’s ‘pure’ birding. On the down side, most years I used to log over 200 BOU species in Essex; that’s the difference the coast makes.

Having barely mastered English , the French language is, erm, challenging!! French bird names are long, I’m sure French birders abbreviate them, but some have great charm, for instance Circaete Jean-le-Blanc [Short-toed Eagle] and Alouette lulu [Woodlark, after the song]. Imagine shouting ‘Gravelot a collier interompu…’ [KP, Kentish Plover] at a twitch…the damn thing would have gone by then!

I’ve no idea whether that was a good, bad or indifferent year; only time will tell.

148 species seen around Moulismes in 2006, including 16 raptor species. 78 species seen in/over the garden, 10 raptor species.

ORCHIDS

The Brenne Orchid is probably the rarest orchid I’ve seen, and only grows along a 500-metre stretch of minor road as far as I’m aware. Others of interest [aren’t they all?] include both Butterfly Orchid species, Loose-flowered, Burnt, Monkey, Lady, Man, Fly, Bird’s Nest, Lizard and Tongue Orchids, Red and Sword-leaved Helleborines and Violet Limodore.

23 species seen within an hours drive.

7 species seen around the village and garden, including Tongue. Along our road, 3-400 Bee Orchids.

2 species growing in our garden; Green-winged 3 plants and Autumn Lady’s Tresses 14 plants.

I hope to find more local species this year. The Brenne offers limestone habitats that I’ve not found locally but may exist.
An interesting thing here is that every mid-May they meticulously cut the verges and it makes no difference whatsoever. We’ve been coming to the area for over 3 years now, and the orchids most affected locally, Green-winged and a late flowering robust form of Early Purple, just grow back in the same place the next year.

BUTTERFLYS AND DAY-FLYING MOTHS.

Only December and January were without butterflys, with the first Large Tortoiseshells being seen in the garden in February. Interesting species not or rarely seen in UK include Southern White Admiral, Camberwell Beauty, Large Tortoiseshell, 10 fritillary species, Woodland and Great Banded Graylings, 7 blues including Provencal Short-tailed and Long-tailed Blue. The fritillaries are all common at some time, especially Silver-washed, Queen of Spain, Marbled, Knapweed and Spotted.

55 species seen, 7 of those seen only in the Brenne, the rest in the garden or along the road.

Of the day-flying moths, regular garden visitors Broad-bordered Bee Hawk-moth and many Jersey Tigers were personal favorites.

DRAGONS AND DAMSELS

Most etangs aren’t suitable, but the more established ones and the streams and damp meadows are pretty good.

Sightings included Small Red, Goblet-marked, Common Winter, Southern Emerald and Willow Emerald Damsels.
Southern and Southern Migrant Hawkers.
Western Club-tailed amongst the three club-tailed dragonfly species.

27 species seen, almost all locally.

INSECTS & OTHER FAUNA.

Stag Beetles breed in abundance on the patch, as does one conehead sp.
Praying Mantis is common in both colour forms, and the first Great Green Bush-cricket I saw was in the bathroom! Speckled Bush-cricket and Wasp Spiders are also fairly common.
Wild Boar, sangliers, are best watched in summer after breeding, although being largely nocturnal can still be difficult to observe. Roe Deer are very common, as are Coypu, and Beech Martin judging by the number of road kills. Green Lizards just refuse to be photographed, but are quite common.

A word about La Chasse; hunting. Without going into the ethics of it, these are purely local observations. The main quarry by far is the much-cherished sanglier; red and roe deer are the other large game, the hunting season for these is 1st October to 31st March. Small game, rabbits, hares and the gamebird species are shot from 1st October to January 1st, ducks from mid August to the end of February. Around here it’s basically sanglier, deer or partridge; I’ve yet to see duck being shot locally. The sangliers are hunted mainly on foot using dogs, and are shot as they flush towards the edge of the wood.
At worst, it’s a nuisance to a birder because of the disturbance; the 1st October is not a good birding day! Occasionally, woods are closed to the public for shooting; the ‘patch’ wood maybe three times last year. Things are organised and marshalled; one would be unlikely to wander into an area being used, although it does happen. Meetings are nearly always Sundays or sometimes Saturday or a bank holiday. Whatever one’s views, I’ve no doubt the habitat would change if hunting ceased. Sangliers breed in woods, and on summer evenings are nearly always viewed on marginal, unproductive land around woods; Grey Partridge thrive there also, and Roe Deer graze the unimproved grassland. No surprise that France has so much woodland, many rural Frenchmen embrace La Chasse to such a degree that all woodland is now strongly protected by law. These laws were passed partly because English and Dutch were buying farms here and chopping down woodland to graze horses!
It’s all a long way from the mindless slaughter of migrants I’ve witnessed on the coast; here it’s strictly ‘for the pot’. A farmer on the patch was delighted when I told him one of the four White Storks we’d both watched on his farm was born and ringed in Belgium as he’s half Belgian himself – and he hunts.
Unfortunately, they rarely shoot Coypu because apparently they taste horrible – although they do trap them.

THE BRENNE AND THE COAST.

Some will be familiar with the Brenne, well known, dead flat and lots of water. Some years, late March to June, it attracts epidemic proportions of cyclists, from tourists on mountain bikes to professional teams and speed trials; occasionally roads are closed for important races, usually on Sundays. Often better to park and bird on foot, there are many excellent walking trails. The winter can be good, with few people there, and although many private etangs are heavily shot over for duck, this does concentrate them where they are protected and can be watched. 150+ Cranes winter here, but can be difficult to find. In summer, Bee-eaters [30+ pairs] nest at a well known site, Whiskered Terns [918 pairs] and Black-necked Grebes [150+ pairs] nest also, as do Cattle Egret, Night Heron, Black-winged Stilt, and a few pairs of Short-toed Eagle. Little Bustards are unfortunately a thing of the past here, but small numbers breed in the northern Vienne. At least 98 butterfly species and 60+ odonata species have been recorded here. Orchid species number over 40. There are two very good visitor centres. The biggest problem with the Brenne is that most etangs are private and have no public access.

The coast has been good on our few visits. In winter, species are much as seen on the Blackwater estuary, but with interesting additions. White Storks return to nesting platforms in February, Cattle Egrets and Sacred Ibis are here most of the year, Spoonbills regular migrants and good numbers of Purple Sandpipers winter, as do large numbers of Med Gulls - I’ve seen 200+ on the beach. By April nesting Bluethroats are easily found. Zitting Cisticolas are resident and even ‘ping’ in winter, Penduline Tit I’ve yet to find [Rainham’s better!]. A day visit is ok with an early start, but we stay overnight on, for example, Ile de Re. There are two islands, both good, Ile de Re and Ile d’Oleron, as is the mainland bit in between around Rochefort up to just north of La Rochelle. The islands for wader roosts and seabirds, the mainland for wildfowl, raptors and migrant passerines.

Hopefully this gives a flavour of what can be seen here locally and a little further afield.
The Vienne isn’t a twitchers’ place, the Brenne is better for that, but mostly the same species can be found. Incidentally, no French twitching scene? Wrong! The news section of Ornithomedia makes the UK look ‘quiet’ most of the time.
Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux [LPO] are the French RSPB. LPO Vienne does the job of the RSPB, BTO and EBS all put together, just about everything ornithologically speaking, including collating records and maintaining the bird database. I do 2 squares for their breeding bird atlas, a 5-year project. One square is 70 square kilometers! I said 'that's a lot..', the guy said 'not if you're an active birder.....!' That’s a very French way of saying just get on with it!

Regrets? I’ve had but few! ‘Misses’? Of course, namely Indian food and proper English beer. Oh, and crunchy peanut butter, and Witham Wetherspoons. The single biggest thing I miss is the coast. The benefits? Nature watching in an area less intensively farmed, with no reserves but lots of good habitat; with fewer people and hardly any traffic. And having to find all my own birds. Overall, a better quality of life. If only Old Hall was a little bit closer….


Nick Ransdale
Rue de la Maison Rouge
86500 MOULISMES
France.
February 2007.

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Common Blue Damselflies, Moulismes