Cranes in Champagne

November can be a difficult month so this year we decided that, rather than simply enduring it, we would celebrate it instead by going to France to witness a wildlife spectacle that happens there at this time of year. Lac du Der is in the Champagne region of France and, in November, thousands of common cranes gather at the lake before continuing their migration onwards towards Spain.

Ferries manoeuvring in the Port of Dover as we left for France, the day after Storm Ciaran had raged through

The weather forecast for the week was pretty awful so we packed all our waterproofs and warm clothes and got onto a ferry heading across The Channel. We were joining a Naturetrek holiday and the cranes were to be the grand finale of the week. The first part of the holiday was spent exploring the area around the Forêt d’Orient.

The Forêt D’Orient is situated just to the east of Troyes and Lac du Der is at the top right of the map. This southern section of the Champagne region is roughly a four hour drive south of Calais

We arrived a day before the rest of the group and spent time exploring the region, including visiting Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where Charles de Gaulle lived and is buried. There is now a fantastic museum and a memorial to him there.

Next to the museum, the Cross of Lorraine, a symbol of Free France during the Second World War, proudly stands over the Champagne countryside. Charles de Gaulle escaped to Britain in 1940 and broadcast the Appeal of 18th June from London which was a call to arms for the French Resistance and remains one of the most important speeches in French history
A contemplative bench with a beautiful view in the Charles de Gaulle museum

This sign propped up by the side of the road reminded us that hunting (la chasse) in France starts in September and goes on until the end of February and that we needed to take great care when walking in woodland.

Over the course of the week we did see several men wandering about the countryside dressed in camouflage and carrying rifles or shotguns

A striking feature of this part of France is the amount of mistletoe growing on the trees:

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite – although its evergreen leaves do photosynthesise, its specialised roots grow through the bark of the tree to plunder nutrients and water as well
Its white berries are sticky and are eaten by mistle thrushes and blackcaps especially. Some of the seeds get stuck to their beaks and are then transferred across to other trees

Once we had joined up with the Naturetrek group, who had travelled to Paris on Eurostar and then been picked up in minibuses, the fifteen of us spent several days exploring the woodlands and lakes of the Forêt D’Orient along with our two guides.

By the end of the week, the group had seen around a hundred species of birds, some of them absolute corkers. Sadly, though, we did not see or hear the enormous black woodpecker although we did have several sightings of a middle-spotted woodpecker, a new species for us.

We also saw a lot of water pipit, another first:

Water pipits are rare winter visitors to the UK but seemed fairly common in Champagne

It is always a delight to see little owls and a pair were spotted on a walk around one of the villages:

We saw three white-tailed sea eagles, although all at a great distance. This juvenile bird is next to a corvid to give it scale:

It takes seven years for the eagle to reach adulthood and only then does it get its white tail:

An adult white-tailed sea eagle

There were a very large number of great white egrets and grey herons living in and around the lakes:

There were also cattle egrets:

I found this next scene quite frankly amazing and stood mesmerised by it for ages:

Great white egrets standing on the edge, cormorants in the water and seagulls hovering above. So many birds in one place

The lakes are actually man-made reservoirs supplying water to Paris and are at their lowest levels at this time of year. I assume that a shoal of fish had become stranded in this little inlet causing this bird mayhem.

This dense black slick in the water was discovered to be hundreds and hundreds of coots and they stayed all together like this for the entire time we were watching them. This was very odd and I have no idea what was going on:

November is a great time to see fungal fruiting bodies and there were many of these to be seen in the forest. I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing when I found a small group of scarlet octopuses amongst the leaf litter:

This is the Devil’s fingers fungus, or octopus stinkhorn. Originally from the Southern Hemisphere, this startling fungus is also occasionally found in Britain
The magpie inkcap is another distinctive fungus. This is found in southern Britain too, although is not common

One area of the forest is known for fire salamanders. The larval stage of these salamanders lives in water but the adults are to be found under logs by day, emerging at night to hunt for their invertebrate prey. We walked around the woodland, carefully turned over logs to see if we could find one of these salamanders:

At first we only found frogs under the logs. Although these look very much like our British common frogs, they are in fact a different species – they are agile frogs. These frogs can jump up to two metres in a single leap when escaping from predators

Jersey is the only place in the British Isles where agile frogs are native

Eventually we got lucky and found a small fire salamander under a log:

This salamander will have hatched this year but adult fire salamanders can grow to twenty-five centimetres and are in fact Europe’s largest salamanders. The yellow and black patterning is variable between individuals

Over the course of the week, we saw several Asian hornets flying around. We also spotted an abandoned Asian hornet nest five metres up a tree:

The week’s weather was very much better than had been forecast and we managed to spend a series of long days out in the field. Our picnic lunches were prepared by our two fantastic guides, Jason and Emilie Mitchell:

Lunch prepared in a village square with our two minibuses and our two guides. Note that lunch always included wine!

One afternoon we were shown round the medieval centre of Troyes by a city guide.

The building below was used as a local headquarters by the German army when they occupied the city during the war:

When the American Army arrived to liberate the city in 1944, the building was heavily machine-gunned and, spine chillingly, still bears those scars today:

On another afternoon, we had a tour of the cellars and bottling plant of the Drappier champagne house:

Drappier champagne is available in many sizes….

…including their largest bottle of all – a thirty litre melchisedech bottle. This bottle costs around six thousand euros and is very difficult to lift and pour but they do still sell several a year:

Jason and a melchisedech. We didn’t stretch to one of these but we did buy a magnum to take back for Christmas

The tour ended with a champagne tasting. The champagne was very enjoyable – including the ‘nature’ type, where they add no sugar so that the champagne taste is pure and not masked by the extra sweetness. We bought a bottle of that as well. But the whole experience was made all the more memorable because we were joined by old Monsieur Drappier himself – now ninety-seven, he was the person who first started making champagne rather then red wine there back in 1947. He has now safely seen in seventy-seven harvests.

Monsieur Drappier and our guide Emilie

But now to finish with the cranes. Lac du Der is also a reservoir supplying Paris and the water levels are really low in November, exposing many islands and promontories for the cranes to safely roost on.

Three villages were drowned when the valley was dammed in 1974:

Common cranes breed in Russia and surrounding countries and then migrate along a straight line south-west to spend the winter in Spain. Lac du Der has become an important stop-over point along this route where they roost in the lake basin by night and fuel up on missed potatoes lying in the nearby fields by day. The number of cranes here is variable but on 3rd November 2019 there were a record 268,120 of them there. The global population of common crane is now 700,000 birds – this is gradually increasing as a result of changes in farming practices which now supplies them with an abundance of food during the winter and along their migration routes. I do so love a good news story.

Some of our group watching the cranes fly back to the lake basin at sunset

The bird count a few days before we arrived at Lac du Der was 23,000 which was well short of the record, but there were still just so many cranes coming in to roost before dusk:

Cranes coming in

They are loud and vocal birds as they fly and the soundscape was all encompassing. We stood and watched in awe as group after group arrived and landed:

Starting to gather by the lake
One of the adults is colour-ringed here and I was able to report this sighting to iCora, the body administrating the crane ringing scheme

The juveniles, with brown rather than black, white and red heads, travel with their parents to be shown the way:

A skirmish between juveniles
The welcome sight of a group of cranes out and about in the fields during the day

Although we had thought it a good idea when we booked this holiday months ago, as the time drew near and the weather and forecast were terrible, we were not looking forward to it at all. But in fact we had a wonderful week, surrounded by Frenchness, in a lovely group of people and seeing lots of things that we had never experienced before.

Now we need to have a think about what to do next November..

4 thoughts on “Cranes in Champagne

  1. How wonderful to see another countries wildlife. France is not so very far away, but the wildlife seems so much more exotic. Great photos.

    1. Yes, they seem to have a lot more of everything. As I understand it, our native wildlife is what managed to make it up to us before the Channel flooded with sea water after the last ice age – a lot of France’s native wildlife hadn’t had sufficient time to get up to us. I do love going to France and am going to try to do so more often now that Brexit and Covid look to have settled down x

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