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Ideal time to watch migrating birds in France

October is an ideal month for birdwatching as many migratory species choose now to fly over France.

Events are organised by the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) as part of the continent-wide Euro Birdwatch on October 5 and 6.

They include birdwatching expeditions, conferences and exhibitions. Find ones near you on

The most common birds seen in France are greylag geese, which migrate in October, as well as swallows, house martins and pied avocets, which started heading south in September.

Chaffinches and blackbirds can be seen all year round in parts of the country.

The common crane migrates in a 200km-wide corridor which crosses the country on a diagonal path from north east to south west and, for many people, their sighting is a sure sign that winter is on the way.

The osprey leaves Centre-Val-de-Loire and Nouvelle-Aquitaine from August to November and the black-tailed godwit will leave the Atlantic coast from Brittany to Bordeaux in October.

Birds migrate either to escape the cold or in search of food.

In Northern Europe, ducks and geese escape frozen marshlands and snow, and insectivores such as swallows leave because their food resources disappear. Some birds fly more than 10,000km from Europe to Africa.

Passerines – passereaux in French – which make up more than half of all bird species and include many common smaller birds, must beat their wings to fly and so have to build up energy reserves before they leave. They usually fly at night.

The “V” shape for migrating ducks, geese and cranes helps the birds conserve energy by reducing wind resistance.

France is one of the best places to “twitch” in Europe, due to its geography and climate and more than 400 species to spot.

Birds vary from colourful Mediterranean species, such as the bee-eater or black-winged kite, to secretive birds including the three-toed woodpecker.

A new guidebook to France gives practical information, whether you are a casual birdwatcher or hoping for a once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a rare species.

It was first published in English and then in French because there are more amateur birdwatchers in Anglo-Saxon countries.

Jean-Yves Barnagaud, one of the guide’s three authors, with Nidal Issa and Sébastien Dalloyau, told Connexion this was for cultural reasons.

He said: “The French have traditionally regarded birdwatching as an academic study rather than a hobby open to everyone, unlike the UK, northern European countries and North America.

“We wrote the book because we regularly go abroad to birdwatch, and realised the type of book we find useful when we travel did not exist in France.”

The book is divided into 14 regions, in which the authors highlight 312 sites chosen for their bird species and access. 

These are not necessarily in nature reserves or national parks, but places where it is known there will be bird-watching opportunities.

The species and best period for visiting are described and there are suggested two to three-day itineraries.

All the sites are geolocated in a file that can be downloaded from the publisher’s website and loaded on to any GPS device.

The authors have visited each site at least once, and then had the information verified by local birdwatchers to be as accurate as possible.

He said: “If you were on holiday in the Dordogne and wanted to know where you could look for birds with your family for a day, you could find that information.

If you want to go on a specific trip to see birds in Aquitaine, you could plan using the guide.

“If you wanted to search out rare birds, we also cater for that. We include a list of 50 birds a British expert told us Anglophones most want to find, with places and periods to search in. We do not give exact locations, to protect the birds, and rely on birdwatchers’ own expertise to get sightings.”

He said there are opportunities all over France, with peak periods in mid-April to mid-May, and mid-September to mid-October.

In winter, the best places are wetlands and in spring and summer the mountains for nesting birds.

The Mediterranean is best in the spring and the Brittany coastline in autumn. Though non-urban areas are best, he said there are still several sites close to Paris, for example.

The Massif Central is good with its low population, and mixture of mountain, forest and plain.

What and when to feed birds

Feed from mid-November to the end of March. Studies show extra food in the reproductive season makes birds lay eggs too early for the easy survival of the young.

Black sunflower seeds, fresh peanuts and ground maize (concassé) are best for small garden birds, which eat seeds and grain in winter. Avoid bread due to salt, gluten and digestion difficulties.

Natural food is best so grow diverse flowers and plants without pesticides/chemicals to increase seeds and insects.

Don’t prune your hedge from March to August.

Put out water and change it regularly – and don’t cut your lawn too short.

Advice given by the LPO


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