This holiday is timed to provide a very special ornithological experience amid the gentle rural setting of northern France’s Champagne country. Firstly we visit two very large lakes (Lac du Temple and Lac d’Orient) within the Parc Naturel Régional de la Forêt d’Orient, a little more than 190 kilometres to the south-east of Paris. As well as a detailed look at the lakes, we will also explore this immense forest where several reserves that have seen little or no human intervention for decades have become a paradise for many species of woodland plants and animals. For the middle two nights of the holiday, we drive to the northeast of the region and the Lac du Der — the largest artificial lake in France, built on the River Marne to hold back water in the spring and thus assist in preventing flooding in Paris. We finish in historic Troyes.
After travelling on the excellent Eurostar service direct from London St. Pancras to Paris (or, alternatively, flying if you prefer), we will transfer by minibus to a comfortable hotel in Mesnil St-Père, our base for the first two nights of the tour. From here we will make the most of our time spent around the vast woodland area of the Forêt d’Orient; several areas within this forest have been set aside as reserves. Six species of woodpecker are resident and this is an ideal time to find them as the deciduous trees will not yet be in leaf. The birds are therefore at their most conspicuous as they proclaim territories by bursts of ‘drumming’ and indulge in courtship displays. During our time in the forest we will hope to find the impressive Black Woodpecker, plus Middle Spotted Woodpecker, its smaller cousin, and a variety of other bird species including Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, Firecrest and Woodlark.
Moving on, we next spend two nights in Giffaumont from where we will explore the Lac du Der, looking in particular for Common Cranes. Twice every year more than 60,000 Common Cranes pass through the area on their journeys between breeding grounds in northern Europe and wintering sites in Spain. In mid-March, vast numbers arrive at much the same time and pause here to rest and feed before continuing their journey. We should observe many hundreds feeding in the nearby fields during the day, and thousands coming to roost in the late afternoon, filling the air with their evocative trumpeting calls. As many as 25,000 Cranes have been estimated at the roost, making this one of Western Europe’s most spectacular assemblages of birds.
The lakes and meadows attract a wide variety of other species. Birds of prey are varied and plentiful, the most interesting being White-tailed Eagle. This is their only regular wintering site in France, attracting a minimum of two or three birds every year. Other regularly recorded raptors include Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, and both Marsh and Hen Harrier. Waterfowl are plentiful on the lakes and of particular interest will be parties of Smew bobbing on the open water and flocks of Tundra Bean Geese grazing in waterside fields.
Conveniently located between these two key bird areas, we will keenly anticipate a visit to Champagne Drappier, a friendly, family-run champagne producer located in the Côte des Bar. Renowned for organic and natural methods of cultivation and production, the Drappier champagnes have rich, coppery-gold hues, expansive aromas and a fine, subtle effervescence. Oozing with charm and good humour, proprietor Michel Drappier takes great care and pride in welcoming visitors to his domain. The visit starts in the magnificent 12th century vaulted cellars, originally built by Cistercian monks. We then continue to the winery where we will see the grape press, huge fermentation vats and the wooden ageing barrels as well as the disgorging and labelling lines. The visit will be rounded off with a tasting of several of the Drappier cuvées.
We complete our holiday with a 2-night stay in exquisite Troyes, with its historic centre of half-timbered houses and beautiful squares. Situated on the River Seine, the city was the capital of the ancient Province of Champagne in the 12th and 13th centuries and great trading fairs took place here. The prosperity of the city has left a very rich heritage, including 10 churches with exceptional stained glass windows, fine Renaissance statuary and some notable museums. A guided tour will provide a fascinating insight.
As we leave France after this memorable taste of two very contrasting bird habitats deep within Champagne country, we may choose to toast the thousands of roosting Cranes as they bid us adieu from the fields of winter stubble.