Chiara Talia

Exploring northern France bird hot-spots: Parc du Marquenterre and Cap Blanc Nez

Back in July, I decided to organize a weekend bird-related trip. As I departed from the northern part of Belgium but at the same time I didn’t want to drive for too long, my choice fell onto northern France. I had no previous knowledge of the area – I did some quick research on Google to identify possible interesting locations and started driving. I had no idea of what to expect, but nevertheless I was excited about this new adventure. So I started driving south and by mid day I reached my first destination.

Parc du Marquenterre

There are no many words to describe this place – except for… bird paradise! A place between land and sea, these 200 ha of marshes, dunes and reed beds represent a real bird hot-spot. The park is situated at the heart of the Natural Reserve of the Somme Bay (Réserve Naturelle de la Baie de la Somme). This is a closed ornithological park, open everyday (from 10 to 19 in spring and summer, closing earlier in autumn and winter) and the entrance ticket is 10.50 euro for adults.

The park has an interesting story: in 1950, the owner looking for expanding his agricultural lands, decided to build a “polder” (dutch term indicating a low-lying tract of land obtained from the water), with the idea of growing tulips and other flowers. However, tulips from the Netherlands were much stronger on the market, therefore he changed his mind. Having noticed his polders were full of birds, he decided to turn that same space in a bird heaven. Open since 1973, more than 300 species have been recorded here – which makes it a true bird hot- spot for Europe!

This park situated along many birds’ migration routes – therefore birds will stop over for a few days to recharge their batteries during their migration to reach their breeding grounds in the north or to go back to their wintering areas in southern countries. Outside of the migration period, the park is still full of birds that overwinter or breed here (~100 breeding species are recorded). Having visited in late July, nesting was completed, and the park was full of juveniles and young birds exploring around.

Inside the park, there is 1 course, roughly 6 km long – with the possibility of a few short-cuts. Along the route, you will find 13 observation posts that allow you to easily observe birds. The posts are classical wooden bird huts, with many openings and benches to enjoy the view, without disturbing the birds. Many of them have also informative panels, with bird illustrations and useful information. n almost all observations posts, nature guides are present with binoculars and spotting scopes. They always welcome questions and help people identifying birds. Just as a side note, these hides are built with birding as first purpose, so photographers may find the size of the windows a bit too narrow to use our usual lenses.

Despite the trail was only 6 km, I spent in the park 3 hours, taking advantage of every single observation hide to enjoy the birds. Among the others, I got beautiful views on species such as Pied avocet, Little ringed plover, Eurasian oystercatcher, Eurasian spoonbill, Black-winged stilt, Black-tailed godwit, Common sandpiper, Great cormorant, White stork, Little egret, Cattle egret, Northern lapwing. You can see a small selection in the gallery below:

Pied avocets defending territory against a common shelduck

Juvenile pied avocet

Pied avocet

Little ringed plover

Black-winged stilt

White storks on the nest

At the end, after a stop at the nice park shop (where I got bird-themed souvenirs of course), I enjoyed delicious crêpes at the local café. 

USEFUL INFO AND LINKS:

Address: 25bis Chem. des Garennes, 80120 Saint-Quentin-en-Tourmont, France
Parking: large free parking available at the entrance
Useful links:  tickets – Park website – Park map 

Evening shooting at the beach – Plage d’Hardelot

After a very productive afternoon at the park, I started driving north to reach my accommodation – in a small village on the coast close to Boulogne-sur-Mer. After dinner, I enjoyed an evening walk on the beach. Even if photography wasn’t in the plan, the wonderful sunset convinced me to get dirty on the sand to get some photos of the gulls!

Cap Griz Nez and Cap Blanc Nez

The second day I explored the two most famous capes of the Côte d’Opale, which includes the closest point of France to England (only 34 km to the famous Dover cliffs).

Cap Griz Nez was my first stop. This is also a birding hotspot during migration – with it being an important point of passage for many species. Having visited outside the migratory window, there was actually not much going on there. In addition, despite the sunny day, there was some mist– so I couldn’t see the Dover cliffs on the other side (which is what makes this place quite attractive also for many tourists – definitely not just birders). About 3 viewpoints are quite close to the parking – so after checking them out I decided to move to the other cape, which I expected to be more productive birding-wise.

About 30 minutes north of Cap Griz Nez, I reached my second destination: Cap Blanc Nez. This is France’s most northerly cliff and it reaches 134 m height. The cliffs of chalk are very similar to the white cliffs of Dover on the other side of the channel of England. There are two possible parking option: one parking is on top of the hill, the other parking is down at the village of Escalle.Not being familiar with the place, I firstly went to the parking on top of the cliff. The place was absolutely packed with tourists (which is to be expected during the summer!).

The parking lot was almost full – but I think it was still ok to find a place since people come and go all the time. From there, I accessed some viewpoints nearby the war memorial and had a look at the possible trails. It is possible to reach the beach from there – however the trail is quite steep and considering it was already mid morning, with bright sun and high temperatures (almost 30’C), I decided to skip the walk and to get back down to the village by car.

From the parking at the village, it is possible to reach the beach in less than 10 minutes. The wide sandy beach was incredible. When visiting the beaches in the area, please be mindful of the tides! Tide tables are available on many websites. I wanted to visit this place because I knew it was home to the biggest black-legged kittiwake breeding colony in France (and I do love seabirds!). Once entering the beach, it wasn’t difficult to locate the colony – since kittiwakes are very noisy. After less than 10 minutes walk on the beach I was right below the birds.

Kittiwakes are gentle-looking gulls, mainly feeding on fish. They form large and noisy colonies during the summer reproductive period, often sharing habitat with other seabirds. They nest almost exclusively on cliffs. The nest (build by both the male and female) is made out of mud, grass and seaweed.

This was a completely different view on a kittiwake colony. Previously I had seen kittiwakes breeding in Scotland and on the island of Helgoland (Germany). In both these places the path was on top of the cliff, meaning the view on the kittiwakes was top-down and actually it was quite difficult to really have a good look at the birds. For the first time here I was walking below the colony. The cliffs were quite high, but some birds were nesting at a low level, meaning that stepping away from the cliff it was possible to have a very decent frontal look on it. More than 1000 breeding pairs use this site every year for nesting – so there was lots going on all the time. In addition, I also got the possibility to observe the kittiwakes on the ground. They occasionally came on the beach to take baths in some small pools. 

Despite visiting at the end of the reproductive season, I was still lucky enough to see many kinds of interesting behaviour. Kittiwakes when returning at the nest would greet each other with nodding, head-bobbing, and crossed necks. I also captured the feeding of a young (and I photographed the exact moment of the regurgitation). You can have a look at a selection of photos taken in the gallery below:

Kittiwake on the beach

Juvenile kittiwake on the beach

Kittiwake transporting seaweed

Adult and juvenile kittiwake on the nest

Kittiwake feeding on the nest

Pair greeting on the nest

Pair greeting on the nest

Kittiwakes in flight

Other species were present, namely black-headed and herring gulls. Northern fulmars are also reported to breed there, but in very low numbers – so I actually didn’t see them.

Being such a touristic place in high seasons, of course I was not alone. Also the very good weather and the time meant that the beach was full of people. I have to say that most of the people decided to walk on the opposite side of where the colony is. But still, many came on that direction as well (most likely to collect fossils – because yes this place is famous also for fossil hunting!). Not surprisingly, but always hard to see, I saw some very disrespectful behaviours. First of all, some people were walking right below the cliff – despite the beach was very wide. This of course can create lots of stress in the birds. In addition, when the kittiwakes (and other gulls) were on the beach, of course people decided to walk just towards them making them escape (in many cases on purpose). I will not mention the dog without leash that was free to run loose… Anyway, the overall experience was still great. After spending 3 hours with the kittiwakes, it was time to go.

I really enjoyed this short adventure, I did see lots of birds and had an amazing time. Now I just have to come back to the same locations during migration 😉

In the meantime you can see other photos taken during this trip in my Portfolio section. And don’t forget to check my instagram, where you can find other exclusive content from the trip with videos and behind the scenes.

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