Lac du Der - the Crane heaven

John van der Woude   -   -   Feb. 2002


The weather would be good in the weekend, and over then thousand Cranes had been reported already, so we decided to go despite the fact that it was only the 1st of February. The destination was the Der region in northern France, a six hour drive from home. The Der is a migration and wintering hotspot of Cranes thanks to the Lac du Der, a big artificial overflow lake of the Marne river. In the lake several islands serve as night roosts for the Cranes, which feed at daytime on the arable fields in the wide surroundings. The evening arrival of the Cranes at their roosts is spectacular - groups of all sizes arriving during the last hour of daylight. Finding them on the arable fields in the pleasant Der landscape is also attractive, as is the other birding, e.g. in some state forests. Besides, France always has some non-birding bonuses in the sphere of food and wine, to consume locally as well as to bring home. All in all, reasons enough for a Der weekend in February or early March. And, as said, this time we had a very early weekend, from Friday 1 to Sunday 3 February (2002).
The weather was as good as predicted, or even better. In fact it was exceptionally warm, especially on Saturday, our full day in the field. Under a cloudless sky we went along the sites where we had been in previous years, and we were happy to see that the Great Grey Shrike was there again, as were the many small groups of Cranes on the undulating fields. In the early afternoon we went into a typical state forest with tall oak trees, well spaced and hence letting pass ample sunlight. It was so hot by now that we had to take off our jackets, and this in midwinter... It really felt like a day in spring, even late spring. So, full of anticipation about the bird life we started our walk down the forest road. In other years, mostly in late February or early March, we had had many birds around here, all very active vocally, like Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Hawfinch, and many common species. However, to our great surprise we heard nor saw hardly any bird. This was a very strange experience. Normally, in this brilliant and warm spring weather bird song fills the air. But now there was nothing. OK, we heard one Middle Spotted Woodpecker calling shortly, and as a compensation we had our first live mart
en. But for the rest it was so dead quiet that we thought that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring would be like this -  a brilliant spring day in a lifeless forest. Apparently the birds could not react so soon to this sudden change in temperature, and stayed in their winter mood. 

Meanwhile, five weeks earlier than normal, many Cranes were departing already to the North, after having eaten well on the arable fields (for which the farmers are compensated by the government). We too left the area well nourished by the French cuisine, but still in amazement about this silent spring with a difference...

Great Crested Grebe
Great White Egret
Grey Heron
Spoonbill - 1 apparently feeling rather lost at the border of Lac du Der
Mute Swan
Greylag Goose
Hen Harrier
Merlin - 1 flying across the arable fields West of Vitry
Partridge - a few pairs further West in the Champagne region
Crane - probably less than 10.000, so lots had departed already to the North (13 Jan: 20.000)
Black-headed Gull
Common Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Dove
Wood Pigeon
Collared Dove
Green Woodpecker
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Sky Lark - many singing on the arable fields West of Vitry
Meadow Pipit
White Wagtail
Mistle Thrush
Blue Tit
Great Tit
(Short-toed) Treecreeper
Great Grey Shrike - 1 at the usual spot (see map, at 1)
Carrion Crow
House Sparrow
Tree Sparrow

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