Eclipse birding trip to N France August 1999

John van der Woude  -  

Convinced that a 100% sun eclipse is much and much more than the 97% that would be possible in our home country Holland, we made a trip of a few days to Northern France for the total eclipse. We were curious not only to see this outstanding physical phenomenon on that 11th of August, but also to watch the reactions of the birds.

We first set off, on Monday 9 August, for the SW corner of Holland, in order to do some birding in that estuarine region, and to visit friends there. The first site where we stopped was at Ooltgensplaat, 20 km S of Rotterdam. This is a new marsh area, created by damming part of this estuary. The first bird we saw was a Peregrine flying towards a nearby electricity pole. Another striking species was the Barnacle, about 300 of them, this bird has become a breeding bird in Holland. Among the other species were Marsh Harrier, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Gadwall. We also noted a Swift, probably one of the last ones to migrate to Africa. On the second site, the Grevelingendam (another barrier in this complicated estuarine system) we were surprised by an early Rock Pipit. Branching off from this dam is the Philipsdam, which is attracting more and more birders, as a new marsh area has been created on one side and a good tidal flat is still present at the other side. Again we had some luck - a Caspian Tern flew around us for a while. A group of 20 Spoonbills stood motionless in the water while a light rain came down from the all-clouded sky.

This was not very promising weather for our eclipse watching, but that was two days ahead we said to ourselves. We were happy to see two Skylarks, which are so rapidly declining now in Holland. Futher down along the Grevelingendam, towards Zierikzee, there is a good tidal mudflat close to the road, where we observed several groups of Greenshank. Behind the ferry from Vlissingen (Flushing) to Breskens, across the most Southern branch of the estuary, a large group of Common Tern (30 or 40) was feeding. At the Zwin nature reserve, a tidal inlet on the border with Belgium, we added some more waders like Knot, Kentish Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit to our trip list, totalling now 75. But there were still many clouds.

On Tuesday 10 August we drove towards our eclipse destination area in N France, NW of Reims, W of Laon, in only 2.5 hours. This is a region of forests and extensive arable fields. In this undulating landscape we went first looking for a suitable spot to watch the eclipse the next day. That should preferably be on top of a hill with a farm and/or trees East of us, to see as well the moon shadow rolling towards us from the West, as watch the reactions of the birds on the other side. Driving around, we added Yellow Wagtail, Yellow Bunting and Spotted Flycatcher to the list, and were delighted to see and hear so many Skylarks, and to find Green Woodpecker to be common. We choose our eclipse watching spot at about 20 km NW of Soissons, along the quiet D56, near the large farm Ferme de Loire, which is a wooded oasis between the enormous arable fields.

After a rainy night of camping in the wild - all hotels being fully booked - , we came back to this elevated spot and saw a continuous cloud cover all around us. Up to the far horizon we saw cars parked here and there in this otherwise empty landscape. More and more people also came to 'our' spot, and as it became apparent that the clouds would not permit a view of the approaching moon shadow, we moved a bit down towards that big farm. There we enjoyed the birdlife, still active now well before the start of the eclipse: a family of Spotted Flycatcher, busily feeding, a similar family of great Tit (seemingly following the shifting flycatcher family all the time), Yellow Wagtail and Skylark in the arable field, Green Woodpecker and Chiffchaff in the orchard, House Sparrows audible all the time, Stock Dove and Wood Pigeon calling now and then from the high acacias, and a budgerigar chatting at one of the three small houses outside the main farm.

By 11.30 a.m. we knew that the eclipse show should have started gradually, but only ten minutes later we got a first glimpse of the 'sun with a bite'. Now and then we got another chance, but from about 10 minutes before the total eclipse we had more and more small openings in the cloud cover, and we could not believe our luck that, right where we were, a large gap in the clouds shifted gradually towards us. It became colder and darker around us, while the sun diminished to a narrow sickle, which was projected manyfold on the ground beneath a nearby tree. A group of Barn Swallow flew in a straight line across the fields nearby, in stead of their normal criss-cross flight when feeding, so probably they were heading for their night roost. A cat saw its chance and disturbed a couple of Grey Partridge, that probably still had young around because they did not fly away. In these last percentages of sun, the light became a strange sort of bluish dark, with very dark shadows, like when a full moon shines through a very clear sky. All the birds - the flycatchers, the sparrows, the tits, the pigeons - became silent now, and a dog started barking.

Then the great moment was there, or actually two moments. First we saw the 'pearls of Bailey', the last sunrays piercing between the elevations of the moon surface. Then 'the light was switched off' and the corona, the ring of light around the moon, stood watching us in the dark and cold sky. Emotional shouts sounded from far around us, and we were deeply moved ourselves too. Through the 60x scope we clearly saw the protuberances, the eruptions from the sun's surface, one of them detached. Also did we, unexpectedly, see the magnetic lines in the corona. The silence around us was complete, apart from that dog. But alas this ecstacy lasted only very short, two minutes, but it seemed much shorter because of all the things to see and feel, and then it was over. Light and life came back soon, the sparrows hesitatingly started chatting again, the flycatchers and swallows looking for their feeding places again, and two Great Spotted Woodpeckers were chasing each other as if in early morning. Also did we hear now for the first time a Nuthatch, another early bird. Soon the clouds covered the sky again and more and more we realised how extremely lucky we had been on this spot. We left, and after shopping for typical French products (guess what .) in a huge supermarket near Chauny, we drove home along the French toll roads amidst a vast majority of British, Belgian and Dutch cars.

Future eclipses: see