La Baie du Mont St Michel
We visited this is a part of France in September 2002. It is apparently not often visited by English birders, but there is evidence that there is a strong French birdwatching and natural history community in the area. Even the farmers seem to have an appreciation of their environment!
The bay itself is of international importance for a number of migrant or wintering wildfowl and waders. The traditional local fisheries are highly valued, and so is the pasturing of sheep on the saltings, or "herbus", both of which are reflected in excellent local restaurants
The bay itself is magical, and the birdwatching there is excellent. In particular, there are two superb visitor centres towards the south-east of the bay. One is an excellent interpretive centre at an old farm at Genêts which concentrates on the local natural history and environment. The second is a more general information centre a little further North at Courtils in an old chapel looking out over the saltings to the Mont St Michel (An ideal picnic place for a flask of tea and a wad - or coffee and a baguette if you prefer)
Inland there is some lovely countryside which is ideal for walking or cycling and taking in the natural history of a very pleasant part of France indeed. We stayed in a splendidly isolated and well-appointed gîte at La Baleine, near to Hambye
We crossed by Seacat from Dover to head for Normandy and the Baie du Mont St Michel, which turned out to be a superb place, with two particularly fine interpretation centres. We had good views of a pale phase Arctic Skua on the crossing, and after an easy ride South, had a stop for lunch near to Yvetot . In some roadside woods just off the autoroute there were Nuthatch, Chiffchaff, and Great Spotted Woodpecker to admire.
The highlight of this journey was to have been the ride over the spectacular Pont de Normandie, but it was shrouded in fog and we saw very little of the Seine. After shopping for the groceries and wine, we arrived at La Baleine at dusk, and were treated to Tawny and Little Owls calling from the wood across the stream
A feature of the area is the network of green lanes with high wooded banks through which we walked and cycled for miles without having to share with traffic at all. Being September, the hedges were dripping with blackberries, and alight with colour, and as we were blessed with fine bright weather, the whole experience was superb.
The nearest large town was Villedieu les Poêles, where there is a good choice of restaurants within a short drive of the Gîte. We were treated to a fine display one evening of the local retained fire brigade turning out from their station next door to the restaurant!
We made three trips to the Baie du Mont St Michel, some 30 miles distant. These visits took in Granville, where we visited the headland at Pointe du Roc on a bright and very breezy day, and the cliffs south of Carolles.
From Carolles the substantial banks of tube worm colonies known as Les Hermelles can be scanned. This very special feature of the Bay is an important feeding area for the likes of Oystercatcher, Godwit species, Curlew etc at low tide, and both species of Scoter when it is covered by the tide
We also visited the Bec d'Andaine and the nearby hamlet of Courtils, where there is a visitor centre which overlooks the "Herbus" and the bay beyond. Situated in an old school or chapel, it was packed with information, and the staff were both helpful and knowledgeable. A little further South, at Genêts was a larger and more sophisticated interpretive centre, from where a walk along the back of the "Herbus" proved very rewarding
The most interesting vantage point we found was at the Pointe du Grouin Sud, at the mouth of the inlet leading to Avranches, where a headland overlooks the Mont and inner bay. From here we had grandstand views of a fisherman netting a channel in the sand at low tide, capturing enormous Grey Mullet in impressive numbers
From every one of these places there were birds, butterflies and dragonflies to be seen, and a bird species list of 71 does not do justice to the area, but as the birding was casual and part of a general holiday, it does reflect the attractiveness of the area as a birding destination
Of the species seen, the highlights were
22 September - The headland by the lighthouse and citadel at Granville
Common Redstart , Goldcrest, Chiffchaff, Marsh Tit, and Wheatear in bushes and scrub, and a steady movement South of Yellow Wagtail, House Martin and Swallow, together with 2 Grey Wagtails. Offshore there were Common and Sandwich Tern, Shag, Cormorant, and a Little Egret feeding among the rocks
About 50 Common Scoter feeding on the tubeworm colonies at high tide, with both Black-Tailed and Bar-Tailed Godwit, Curlew and Oystercatcher
At Genêts there was a Marsh Harrier out on the Herbus, 2 Hobbies hunting over the fields just inland of the visitor centre, and a Melodious Warbler in the trackside vegetation
24 September - Pointe du Grouin Sud
Apart from the fascination of seeing the fisherman removing tens of large fat Grey Mullet from his fixed net traps in the gulley close under the bluff at low tide, there were about 30 Pintail out on the sand, together with Grey Heron, Little Egret, Curlew, Bar-Tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher, Common Scoter, and Great Crested Grebe out on the sands, all moving closer as the tide came in. The bushes and scrub above the estuary, where the car park is, contained Blackcap and Chiffchaff, and Whinchat, Meadow Pipit, Hobby and Skylark were seen over the adjacent fields
27 September - La Baleine
From the garden of the Gîte, whilst lazing in the late summer sun, a strange call, then a movement down by the river. A quick grab for the binoculars, and there was a Black Woodpecker at less than 100metres range. I even had time to set up the telescope and we both had excellent close views of this enigmatic and special bird. This was without doubt the bird of the holiday!
We relied on Helm's "Where to Watch Birds in France ", which mentioned and guided us to the main sites. It quite rightly pointed out that the size of the bay means that it is often difficult to get near to the birds, and that the vast areas of low tide sand can be very dangerous indeed. Once there however we felt it understated the birdwatching potential. We therefore relied heavily on a local guide bought in the visitor centre at Courtils - "Découvrir la Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel", published by Éditions Ouest-France (ISBN 2-7373-2011-9), and a superb volume in the series Carnetz du Littoral - "La Baie du Mont St Michel" by Alan Johnson published by Gallimard (ISBN 2-07-059553-6). This last is not so much a birdwatching guide as a celebration of the whole experience. (I can also recommend others in the series for the Baie de Somme, Côte D'Opale, and Le Marquenterre). IGN 1:100000 top series map 16 completed our exploration
Gite - Chez Nous
Maps - IGN Green Series Top100 - 16 - Institut Geographique Francais