14. La belle France… a dodgy, birdy day! Labenne to St. Emilion

Monday September 14th

A dodgy day indeed, but in the sense of dodging things! I am ashamed to say that the first thing we dodged was the fee for the aire we stayed on last night at Labenne.  It was a large area under trees and nice and quiet, but all the listed facilities were shut and locked. Apparently a man comes round between 8am and 12am to collect your 9 euros , so we missed him because we left at 7.30 to go to the bird reserve! We thought 9 euros was rather pricey compared with the many free or 3 euro ones we have used.

On to Marais d’Orx reserve. A large lake with a small road across the middle and an interesting history. It was a huge area of marshland, and centuries ago local people tried to make a living here, but were plagued by mosquitoes and disease. Napoleon III was very concerned for the welfare of his rural population, and he had dykes built, and pumps installed to drain the land, so it could be farmed. These are still there today. However the sandy soil meant that it was still a constant battle, and when, in 1984, the dykes were breached, they finally gave up. The land was abandoned for farming and gradually the space filled up as a lake. The natural vegetation returned…and so did birds! Hundreds of them using this as a stop off on their migrations north or south. The LPO, France ‘s equivalent of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), took it over and it is now protected. Their biggest spectacle is from November to March when hundreds of Crane stop here to overwinter before flying back north.

We had to dodge some violent showers

Moody picture of violent shower!
Moody picture of violent shower!

by timing our walks between the hides, but had a good walk and were rewarded with seeing an adult booted eagle training a young one to swoop and dive, as well as Spoonbill, sooty tern and one of my favourites, Snipe. There was also a hide set out on a boardwalk into the lake area which gave great views of a good variety of wading birds.

We then set off on the long and rather boring flat road North, with more rain forecast. We were heading for the Arcachon basin and another reserve we had seen advertised. Reserve Ornithologique La Teich.

It was a pretty area on the river estuary, and as we went into the reserve we noticed signs everywhere saying “Gates shut at 19.00 hours”. It was only 15.30, so no worries there.

We received a reduction on the admission charge because we are RSPB members!

Well, what a reserve it is. A brilliantly maintained, raised path winds for over 4 miles between lakes and tidal flats, and visits 20… yes 20 hides. All the hides were large with plenty of seats, and windows at different levels.

And the birds. It was without doubt the most amazing bird reserve we have ever visited anywhere. Every hide seemed to reveal a new astounding  vista. In one location over 200 curlew were roosting, another had 40 + cormorants all on posts. 20150914_170129We saw Kingfishers, Spoonbills,  Avocets,  and every wading bird you could wish for. Not 1 or 2 but in large flocks, close to the hides, and very relaxed despite nearby gunshots and low flying aircraft.

We met a french couple who were obviously new to birding, and at each hide I pointed out one new bird and told them a bit about it. I was rather proud that my french was still up to the job, and we ended with me explaining how all the waders have different lengths and shapes of bill, so each feeds on different organisms in a slightly different layer of the mud and water so they can all feed together, which led to a discussion on biodiversity!

It was a super place. 2 heavy showers came while we were in the hides, so again we dodged the rain.

So…. guess who only just made it back to the exit by 7pm? Yes, us and a lot of other people! It was nearly a sprint! Great to see so many french people there enjoying the birds.

We were later than we had planned but decided to press on with our plan to drive round Bordeaux to an aire at Chateau Gerbaud in St Emillion, a very famous wine producing area. Guess what we will be doing tomorrow!

We drove through a torrential downpour and seemingly under the arch of a rainbow, and arrived at dusk to find a ring of campers arranged in a circle reminiscent of wagons in an old Cowboy film! They were Dutch campers, and the owners were sat in the middle of the circle having a grand singalong. We interlopers parked around the edge with the Polish, French and Slovakian campers and got on with cooking a rather late dinner. All was silent by 10pm and we slept soundly, literally surrounded by vineyards!

Aire near St Emilion
Aire near St Emilion

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