FOREWOOD

Lac du Der

This page describes my favourite part of North-Eastern France, the area between Troyes and St Dizier

I have made a number of visits to the lakes, either whilst passing through to somewhere else, or specifically to enjoy the excellent birding this area has to offer. Increasingly, the birding possibilities away from the lakes themselves have been explored, and it can be said that every trip has discovered something or somewhere new. These notes relate to the highlights of previous trips, and should give the prospective visitor plenty of ideas. In spite of what it says in these notes, it doesn't always rain!

Click to see the Species List for this area

General description

Just 3 hours from Calais , the Lac du Der - Forêt d'Orient area in the Champagne - Ardenne region of France is a superb destination for a weekend birding break, or longer. Situated in an area between Troyes and St. Dizier , about 100 miles East of Paris , the area comprises the Parc Naturel Régional de la Forêt D'Orient, and the Lac du Der Chantecoq, including the Forêt du Der and Forêt de Trois-Fontaines around St Dizier.

There are four large lakes formed since the 1960's to store water to maintain flows for navigation in the rivers Seine , Marne and Aube . They are, from North to South, the Lac du Der Chantecoq,  the Lac Amance, Lac du Temple and Lac d'Orient. Of these, the Lac du Der is perhaps the easiest to observe, as it is less wooded than the others, but all of them repay exploration. In the countryside between them is some rolling open farmland and plenty of woodland, most of which is difficult to access because of hunting

My favourite sites in the area, from North to South, are these

The woodland around Trois Fontaines , North of St Dizier , especially on the D16 to the immediate North of this beautiful village - any of the logging roads give good walking access

 

The parkland beside the church at Champaubert (the former village is now submerged), accessible through Braucourt on the D384, gives superb panoramic views over the lake, and the park itself is well worth exploring

 

Anywhere on the huge West and South banks (digues) of the Lac du Der, especially by the Bois de l'Argentolle , where this photo was taken. There is a service road, easy parking, and a grandstand view of all the bird specialities of this area, especially when the Cranes fly in of a winter dusk

 

Either of the two dammed up waterfowl "lakes"  at Champaubert Church , and near to Larzicourt in the North-West corner of the lake. They remain full, and isolated in the mud, when water levels fall, and attract large concentrations of waterfowl

The Etang de la Horre South-West of the village of Droyes

Anywhere to the South of the village of Chantemerle , especially from the bridge on the Route Forêstière where it crosses the canal linking the lakes Amance and Temple , and the woodland just South of there. A little further South a track off to the West, accessible by car, leads to the Lac du Temple through some more productive woodland

The woodland around the Maison du Parc at the North-East corner of the Lac d'Orient, and the woodland and observation hide on the D79 about 2 miles West of here

The view over the Lac d'Orient from the carpark and "port" near Mesnil St Père , and also from the slipway area on the opposite bank off the D 43

There are good hotels in Eclaron (Hotel du Moulin), Giffaumont (Le Cheval Blanc), Montier en Der , St Dizier and Troyes , and English is spoken and understood in all the ones I've used

 

Almost all the visits I've made to this area have been in the winter or early spring. Judging by conversations I have had there with local birders, and the LPO website for the area, there are some very interesting breeding species, too, and a May or June visit, taking in some of the smaller ponds and lakes in the area, should prove very rewarding

 

10 - 13 February 1992

Our destination, the Lac du Der, was reached about 3.30. Before going to the hotel we drove up onto the bank (digue) for a preliminary drool. Hundreds of Goosander, occasional Crane, lots of teal, Wigeon and so on

 

At the hotel, a few minutes at the window produced Red Kite, Sparrowhawk, and Grey Heron. We walked up to the lake and for a mile or so along the bank, not adding any more species, but enjoying, in particular, the incoming flights of Cranes - superb. Later, driving out for a meal, we found two Tawny Owls - one right in the village

Next day dawned wet and dark. Undaunted we spent the morning around the lake. The White-Tailed-Eagle, we found, spends most of it's time in a large dead tree about a mile from the bank

 

Sat and watched it for half-an-hour to see if it would fly, which it did whilst our attention was elsewhere. We did see Hen Harrier, White Wagtail, and so on, but in the misty rain it was pretty miserable

By lunchtime there seemed to be a lightening in the sky, so off we went to the Lac D'Orient to try our luck there. Much more wooded, this one, with an observation hide which overlooked mostly mud dotted with dead tree stumps. Windy, wet and foggy by now, so the Pintail, Bean Geese and Tufted Duck were all hard-earned. With no sign of any let-up in the weather we hit the road again. In woodland, driving slowly, we found a tit flock and piled out for a look. In return for a soaking, we identified Firecrest, Crested Tit and Short-Toed Treecreeper, among others, and cheered up accordingly

Even better, a little further on near Gèraudot, we found that a pig-field had attracted Tree Sparrow,  Hawfinch, Fieldfare and Redwing to add to our list. Also, distant views of the lake showed us 1 male and 5 female Smew, which flew rapidly off

Back at the Lac du Der, we had a long walk along the digue, getting very wet again, hoping to see the Eagle, or even a Shrike - no luck

By contrast, next day dawned dark and wet! We soon found the Eagle, which obliged by flying - just to prove it could - wingspan was enormous. We also found 7 distant Swans, which bothered us all day (and into the next, when they came close enough to be identified as Whooper's)

We saw some Jays, and a Red Kite again before going, in desperation, into woodland North of St Dizier. Although apparently near an air base and consequently very noisy, we found Siskin, mixed tit and finch flocks, Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker, and Greenfinch. By now it was raining harder than ever, so we returned to the Lac du Der in bright clear sunshine, and we decided to camp on the digue until evening. This was the best birding of the visit - the Eagle obliged again, Reed Bunting and lots of other passerines appeared, and it all looked quite busy and hopeful

Suddenly, Crows nearby at the lake edge made a fuss and started mobbing a large raptor which soared and turned about 50' from us - a female Goshawk which shied at the Crows and then flew straight off out of sight. Very large, rounded wings, grey barring underneath, plainer grey above, no real facial markings seen except for a "paler" eyestripe. Then, as the Cranes began to come drifting in, a whole skein of them faltered and jinked as a small flock of Starling dashed up from the wood in front of them, chased by a Peregrine. We watched it snatch a Starling and fly out onto a mud bank to eat it.

29 - 30 September 1992

This brief visit was to the Lac du Der to check out the Cheval Blanc in advance of the RSPB Group trip in January. Plodded around woodland near Trois Fontaines accompanied by a Collie - type dog which seemed content to amble along as though it owned us. Smashing farmland, scrub and coppice-with-standards. Came across some deep unguarded pothole openings in the wood, completely unmarked. During the walk we found Middle-Spotted Woodpecker, Short-Toed Treecreeper, and White Wagtail as the only non-UK birds among typical species in spite of the heavy rain

It cleared up in the afternoon for our visit to the Lac du Der where there was a superb immature Purple Heron and a Little Egret. In the "Eagle" tree at one stage were 3 Osprey, before the roosting Cormorants displaced them. Superb views of a Kingfisher and some very distant (presumably) Bean Geese. Spent until dusk enjoying the birds and a lovely still evening before retiring to the Hotellerie du Moulin at Eclaron for a superb meal

15 - 17 January 1993

This was a trip with the South-East Kent RSPB Group, and was blessed with fine weather throughout

As we sailed into Calais at first light, there were a half-dozen Common Scoter by the pier head, and plenty of Buzzards to see on the way down. Approaching the Lac du Der through Frignicourt we found the first Cranes feeding on Maize stubble close beside the road, and then drove up onto the digues to scan over the water. The cold spell over the New Year seemed to have thinned out the birds, as numbers of everything seemed low. We found a dozen or more Bean Geese, Hen Harrier, Goosander, and some lovely Brambling. There were large numbers of Great Crested Grebe, too

After checking in to the Hotel Cheval Blanc, a walk up the street to the lake produced Kingfisher and Little Grebe,  and a Sparrowhawk over the fields

Next day started up on the digue again, then across country to the Lac d'Orient. A minor blunder by me, as I had forgotten it was a Saturday, and woodland was consequently difficult to access as all the hunters were out. The hide near to the Maison de Forêt again overlooked mud and tree stumps, but there were plenty of birds in the woodland here to compensate

Back at the Lac Amance, there were tens of Pintail, Dunlin, Gadwall, Curlew and Redshank, and hundreds of Wigeon to admire before we walked into the nearby woods for Nuthatch, Crested Tit and Firecrest. Back at the Lac du Der for a spectacular end to the day as an adult White-Tailed Eagle showed very well, and the group were able to enjoy the Cranes flying in to roost. It was so calm and quiet we could clearly hear the juveniles cheeping as they flew overhead. Finally, a Peregrine appeared and chased some Lapwings before flying away, right over our heads, and into the dusk

Next morning there was time for a 2 - hour visit to Trois Fontaines and the woods nearby where I was delighted to find Middle Spotted Woodpeckers for the group, and we spent the time falling over Short-Toed Treecreepers and enjoying textbook views of Willow Tits before setting off for home, and more roadside Buzzards

15 - 17 January 1996

Arriving in the middle of the day, there were few birds to see on the way down, although a rest area on the A26 near Laon produced some Brambling among the Chaffinches. The Lac du Der relatively dry, with large tracts of mud upon which the first Cranes could be seen. Waited until dark watching the Cranes fly in, and checking off the ducks and passerines, but there were no Eagle sightings for us

Next morning, a quick look at the lake produced hundreds of Cranes again, even more Great Crested Grebe, and tens of Goosander, too. I spoke to two lady birders and learned that 3 Eagles were about, and that Crane numbers were around 8000, before leaving to make our way down to the Lac du Temple. Here, at the car-park and slipway off the Route Forêstière South of Chantemerle our attention was taken by a flock of Grey Herons high in the sky above the lake. Among them were some white birds we thought at first were gulls. Closer examination revealed them to be Great White Egrets, and we counted 20 in all, a remarkable sighting. The Peregrine we found sat out on the mud shortly afterwards was almost an anti-climax

The Lac d'Orient was again disappointing, although the woodland around the hide once again produced Crested Tit, Tree Sparrow, Green Woodpecker, Short-Toed Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Long-Tailed Tit. Round at the main slipway and car park on the East bank of the lake, whilst I produced tea and soup, the grandstand view of the main body of water produced distant diver (Red-throated?) and grebes, and a fine Little Gull, too. Then it was back through the woods (Hawfinch, Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker) to the Lac du Der to watch the evening flight of Cranes. Here too were 8 Whooper Swans, a Firecrest, and a brief Goshawk sighting

The following morning, a last despondent look at the Lac du Der filed to discover any Eagles, but as I made to leave, a juvenile White-Tailed eagle appeared, and caused a panic-stricken exit from the car We had excellent views as it turned and then flew steadily past about 100 yards from us, and away over the wood. A quick look at the Trois Fontaines woods produced Siskin, Bullfinch, Hawfinch, Woodcock, and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Some of the party claimed to hear a Black Woodpecker drumming, a distinct possibility, but my impaired hearing didn't pick it up,  unfortunately

15 - 17 March 1997

5:45 ferry to France and off to Champaubert & the Cheval Blanc. Not a bad journey down after a quiet crossing, with mist, then fog, then it cleared up and rained! Enjoyed a ham omelette for lunch in a bar in Vitry le François, and had a poke around the market there. Driving out of town afterwards I found a Crested Lark, and a Kingfisher as I crossed the Marne at Frignicourt

At the Lac du Der, I learned that the Eagles (3) had departed 2 weeks ago, with a fourth through on passage a few days ago. I was told that I could look forward to 30,000 Cranes, and a Great White Egret. On the "Eagle" tree there were two Peregrines, and a flock of 50 or so Tree Sparrows by the lake. Went for a look at the Etang de la Horre, and on the way there, saw a strange Wheatear in a tree near to Outines. After struggling to get the tripod and scope together, I found it to be a Great Grey Shrike with it's tail feathers missing!

Back at the lake, I watched very spectacular numbers of Cranes fly in, a sight which remains with me still. Whilst this was going on, a Short-Eared Owl came hunting along the lake edge and out over the water. Arrived at the hotel in the dark to see a Barn Owl in the street lighting, hunting beside the church

Next day I went exploring, ending up among the champagne vineyards down Bar-sur-Seine way, and seeing both Red and Black Kites among the many Buzzard sightings. On the Seine itself, there were Black-Bellied Dipper to admire, and some early Serins, too. On the way back I took in the lakes at Forêt d'Orient, Amance and Temple, now all very full, and getting an impressive list of wildfowl. No sign yet of any Egrets, though, but in woodland near to Droyes there was Middle Spotted Woodpecker (the first I'd seen away from the woods North of St Dizier) a small flock of Hawfinches, and a Firecrest

Back at the Lac du Der, lots of people taking the afternoon air on the digue, many of whom showed genuine interest in the birds, and seemed surprised I had come "all the way" from England to see them. There was also a pleasant French birder who found me a Mediterranean Gull, and we sat together and watched the Cranes fly in again

I woke feeling fine next morning, and walked up to the lake to stretch my legs before driving home. 5 Black Redstart males behaving territorially, and a male Blackcap singing lustily were apparently all too much for me, as I developed a migraine, and had to rest in the car before driving more or less straight home, thus bringing the trip to a premature end

13 April 2001

On the way back up from a visit to the Camargue, we took in the Lac du Der, where we found an Osprey which gave superb close views. From the digue near to Giffaumont, there was a grandstand view of a pair of Purple Heron busily nest-building before we moved into the woods near Trois Fontaines to find Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch and Marsh Tit. Lots of expected species not found, though, indicating that for spring and summer birds a different strategy and itinerary is required

17 - 20 January 2003

Arrived about mid-day, and spent until dark around the Lac du Der. Water level really low, and what was left was three parts frozen although the snow had mostly gone. A fine male Hen Harrier and the first Cranes got things off to a good start, but most interest was in fields away from the lake with 150 Curlew, 17 Great White Egret, and a Black Redstart at the water tower near Champaubert. This has been opened up to the public, and from the top there is a spectacular panorama across the lake and surrounding countryside

As evening came on I made my way round to the old church at Giffaumont. Here, a large female Hen Harrier came hunting along the lane edge just 10 feet from the car, giving fabulous views as it drifted past. In front of the church I set up my scope and found one, then two, juvenile White-Tailed eagles. Their tails were a pale fawn rather than white, so I judge they were 2nd winter birds. They were trying to take a female Smew from the lake, but it dived to avoid each attempt. This went on for more than 5 minutes - one eagle would stoop at the Smew, which dived. The second eagle then commenced a low run-in to try and snatch the Smew as it surfaced, and I formed the strong opinion that this was a co-operative effort. Abruptly, the eagles gave up the hunt, and stooged off separately, one being - unwisely, I thought - mobbed by a crow. I was left open-mouthed, and the Smew celebrated it's freedom by having a prolonged and thorough preen

Presumably on account of the freezing cold, there was no evening flight of Cranes, and numbers were well down, with perhaps only a few hundred present throughout this visit

Next morning I took a walk out into the woods and fields behind Eclaron, disturbing feeding parties of Cranes on the small patches of Maize stubble, from which they  were constantly calling to one another from field to field, a very pleasant sound in the still, bright but bitterly cold morning. Jays in number were about, and I found a party of Willow Tits beside a small stream, along which I walked quietly. Some sort of old mill-leat opened out on my right, and I flushed a dark bellied Dipper from here, and a Grey Wagtail off the old weir on the stream

Later, lifting my scope out of the car at the Lac Amance, I sneezed and hurt my back, which caused some discomfort for the rest of the visit. Wildfowl by the hundred were out in the unfrozen centre of the lake, together with a black mass of Coot, and around the reedy edges, 3 ringtail Harriers could be seen methodically hunting

From the hide on the Lac d'Orient I found a juvenile peregrine sat on an old tree stump, with few other birds in sight - until it flew, then hundreds of wildfowl and waders took to the air in panic. Wigeon, Golden Plover and Teal were most numerous, but there were Pintail, Shoveler, Dunlin and Green Sandpiper, too. In the trees, as usual, Firecrest and Crested Tit were busily feeding

Little birding done the following morning until I left the car at Trois Fontaines for a walk in the woodland. This seemed to ease my back, and I was able to appreciate the huge Fieldfare flocks, small groups of Hawfinch, Bullfinch and Nuthatch, and a Middle Spotted Woodpecker which obligingly gave excellent close views. I felt a little uncomfortable here, for a gathering of hunters - rifles, dogs and all, came driving out of the wood, slowing to stare aggressively at me and my bins before driving away in showers of gravel and mud

After resting again back at the hotel, a gentle walk out the back again discovered 2 Kingfisher, more Bullfinches, and 20 or so Goldcrest

Set off straight home in the morning in gales and driving rain which made any pre-departure birding impossible, and whilst bumping and lurching across the channel, great flocks of auks and Gannet to admire

Click to see the Species List for the Lac du Der

Map - IGN Green Series 1:100,000 sheet 22 - Institut Geographique Francais

 

 

 

 

 

 

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