Sunday 22 to 26 February – France – Lac du Der, Champagne Region.
Thirteen of us drove to Saint-Dizier in the Champagne Region of north-east France to visit the Lac du Der, noted for its large number of migratory Cranes. The lake is a flood defence and the water level can vary considerably but it was very full after recent rains. The countryside to the west is flat, chalky, intensively cultivated and not much good for wildlife but the lake is very extensive, surrounded by mixed,mainly deciduous, woodland. The woods are worked for firewood and timber, with only a few ancient trees, but it creates a varied habitat. We self-catered in the daytime with supplies from the supermarket and ate in a local restaurant in the evening. Between meals we managed a bit of birding.The Cranes didn’t disappoint. We could see small groups feeding in the fields, all around the lake and flying in larger groups overhead. Towards late afternoon/early evening thousands fly in to roost on low islands in the lake. The sight of the incoming birds is reminiscent of the winter Starling roost on the levels! During the few days of our stay large groups of Cranes, sometimes circling to gain height, were seen in flight moving further north and east with one group of about 100 birds in a perfect V-formation. Great White Egrets, a rarity here not many years ago, were very common in the fields and around the lake. Grey Herons were numerous, Little Egret almost absent – just three were seen. A lone Spoonbill was feeding in a creek, dwarfed by a nearby Great White Egret. We saw two unexpected White Storks by a small pond in a field on the way back to the hotel and the following day we saw one on a nest in nearby Eclaron. The owner of the biggest house in the village had built a nesting platform for them on the roof but the birds had ignored this and chosen to build a 1.5m stack of sticks on the adjacent chimneys. The stork was soon joined by its mate carrying nesting material and they engaged in the activities that birds do when they really love each other. The lady whose house we obstructed to look at the birds told us they are year-round residents, not migrants. Other water birds: vast numbers of Coots, Great Crested Grebes and Pochard, with a few Red-crested Pochard among the flocks. Good numbers of Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Teal, Pintail, Goosander, Shoveler, Mallard, Mute and Bewick’s Swans. Geese: Greylag, White-fronted and one Bean. Two or three Black-necked and Little Grebes were tracked down, plus some Wigeon and Shelduck. Smew should have been more numerous but we did eventually locate nine birds in one small lagoon, including some attractive white males. Waders included Curlew, Golden Plover, Lapwing and Ruff with some small, distant birds that could have been Dunlin or Little Stint, a few Snipe and a Common Sandpiper. Gulls: Yellow-legged, Common, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed. Also by the lake, we found plenty of Water Pipits with some good views of obliging specimens, Kingfishers and a couple of Reed Buntings. Raptors: White-tailed Eagle (three or four), several migrating Red Kites, Common Buzzards, Peregrine (at least three), one Marsh Harrier, and a Sparrowhawk above the park in Saint-Dizier. Marsh Harriers used to breed here but were lost when agriculture intensified, and they are a rare winter visitor.The woods were full of woodpeckers: Great Spotted, Middle Spotted, Green and Black. Great and Middle Spotted are hard to distinguish by sight (I find) as the views are often fleeting. Their calls, however, are distinctive, even to the novice. Tip: take an expert with you and they will tell you what you are looking at. We heard Black Woodpeckers in several places but they were hard to see until on the last day we returned to a woodland patch for one more look and found one high up on a bare branch. It sat there long enough for us to pile out of the van to see it, hear it and take photos. Other notable woodland birds were Short-toed Treecreeper (distinguishable by its call), Hawfinch (seen but mainly heard), Marsh and Willow Tits, Nuthatch, Firecrest, Goldcrest, Bullfinch, a couple of Siskins and the expected common woodland species. The final addition for the trip was Grey Partridge in the fields by a French service station on the way back. The species tally was 92 during three and a bit days. Thanks to everyone who attended for good company and expert advice. A particular thanks to Ken and Lys for organising the trip and for their extensive recce beforehand. Alastair Fraser