boite à outils

The Birds of Morlaix Bay in winter

It’s all too easy to spend days wandering the beaches of Carantec and along the coastal paths of Brittany, without taking the time to notice that as well as the ever-present seagulls, there’s a multitude of other birds.

To change how you see this unknown world above, it’s wonderfully simple : a pair of binoculars and away you go ! Spot a silhouette in the distance, follow it with your eyes, and a pair of bright red feet appear, a long, straight beak… once you have the clues you need to identify one bird from another, all that remains is to find the ideal look-out post.

Morlaix Bay, the very heart of this Bird Reserve

As if we needed to be reminded, Brittany, with its tiny islands, granite cliffs and coastal marshlands, has a wonderfully diverse landscape that helps to cultivate a rich flora and fauna.

Morlaix Bay is no exception, and in winter, when the migrating birds come to warm up on our coasts, the spectacle is even better than even – if you know where to look !

To help you get a taste for it, we headed to Morlaix River, all along the coastal road known as ‘Route de la Corniche’ that runs between Locquénolé and Carantec. Here, we followed Roger Uguen, a passionate ornithologist and volunteer for the Association Bretagne Vivante that manages the Bird Reserve of Morlaix Bay.

Oiseaux de la Baie de Morlaix, ornithologie, Bretagne, Finistère

All the same ?

Armed with his telescope, he sets his sights and we observe twenty or more different species, those you’re most likely to see at this time of year. To help you to recognise them, we’ll describe them for you.

One little tip before we begin : to avoid making the birds fly off, the simplest way to watch them is to do so from the car, with the engine still running. Birds are strangely accustomed to the sound of car engines – more so than to the sound of our footsteps !

The one that shouts the loudest…

The Euraisan Curlew belongs to the Limicoles, a name that encompasses all species that eat the small invertebrates living in the silt. They all share the common feature of a long beak that enables them to reach their food from the sludge and mud. The Curlew is easily identified thanks to a very long beak and a particular call.

The one that makes the most noise…

Also part of the Limicole family, the Redshank has a long, straight beak that is red at the base. At this time of year, you can see between 100 and 150 of these in the Bay, between le Dourduff on the Trégor side and Le Brûly at Locquénolé, on the Léon side.

This bird is known for being very noisy indeed, and can be something of a look-out for the other species. Rather like an ornithological ‘neighbourhood watch’ !
Oiseaux de la Baie de Morlaix, ornithologie, Bretagne, Finistère

The most sociable

The Dunlin is a little Limicole that only moves about in groups ; it’s not unusual to see up to 1500 of these at low tide on the mudflats and they are only here in winter on silty coasts like that along the Morlaix River. You can also easily see its cousin the Sanderling, who loves the long, sandy beaches.

The Limicole that has learned a few tricks

The Black-bellied Plover is also part of the Limicole family but unlike most of its relatives, it has a small beak. He has learned to stay still even while he’s chasing food. He uses his eyes to watch for tiny bubbles coming up to the surface – then, he picks out his prey with minimal effort.

A master of disguise ?

If you spotted the Bar-tailed Godwit in winter, you might not recognise it later in the year. It has a greyish plumage during the winter here on our coasts, but when breeding, its neck, breast and belly are brick-red. Indeed the French name is barge rousse – the Red Godwit !

Oiseaux de la Baie de Morlaix, ornithologie, Bretagne, Finistère

Three Cousins

The Black-necked Grebe, Great Crested Grebe (the biggest) and the Little Grebe can all be seen in Morlaix Bay. You’re more likely to see the Little Grebe, who prefers fresh water, closest to the Dourduff River.f River.

The most nervous

The Ringed Plover carefully makes its way through the mudflats alternating between rapid steps and short pauses. Often close to the banks, groups of Plovers typically follow the in-and-out movement of the water so they can unearth the invertebrates in the foreshore.

The magpie of the sea

The Oystercatcher is known in French as an Oyster magpie (huîtrier-pie) and it’s easy to see why ; it has black and white plumage, plus a long, straight beak that is orange. Easy to recognise, you can see plenty of Oystercatchers in the Bay during winter months. There are also a few breeding pairs on the tiny islands that stay all year long.

The closest to the banks

The Ruddy Turnstone has a particular fondness for the rocky banks along the coast and you can clearly see them on the pebbles at Le Frout, as you come into Carantec. Its star turn is to lift and flip over stones or pieces of seaweed to find food – hence its name.
Oiseaux de la Baie de Morlaix, ornithologie, Bretagne, Finistère

The most protected of all ducks

The Common Shelduck is the only duck safe from hunters, as it is a protected species. It is brown, white and black. They nest along Morlaix River, where they can be found all year long except from late July to mid-October, when the adults head to the coasts of Germany or Holland to moult their plumage. At this time they are unable to fly and so are very vulnerable. Given that there’s safety in numbers, they all gather together to help protect themselves from any predators.

The musician

The Wigeon – known as a ‘whistling duck’ in French (canard siffleur) – has a very recognisable call that sounds like a toy, consisting of short syllables followed by a low note. You can also identify them easily by sight, thanks to their brown head with a yellow stripe down the middle. There are up to a hundred of them in Locquénolé.

The most famous

Master of the duck world, it has to be the Mallard. A regular visitor to our lakes and ponds, the Mallard is a familiar sight. What few people know, however, is that during the moulting season, only an expert would be able to tell a female from a male.

The bravest

You can identify a Dark-bellied Brent Goose thanks to its white hindquarters, black head and grey-brown body. They are on our coasts from September to the end of winter. The biggest groups are seen in January and February with nearly 1000 birds present.

This goose, that nests in Greenland or Siberia, is closely monitored and is counted every month from mid-October along the French coast. During the winter, France is now home to around 50% of all remaining Dark-bellied Brent Geese.
Oiseaux de la Baie de Morlaix, ornithologie, Bretagne, Finistère

The most poetic

‘Are these the Cormorants diving one after the other,
Slicing the water, that rolls in pearls form their wings ?’

It’s not unusual to see a Cormorant – like those who inspired Victor Hugo – happily diving into the water along our shores.

The most majestic

The Grey Heron is mostly at home here in winter. They nest in south Finistère and are fond of trees and islands. They have a particular approach to hunting, strolling very gently in shallow waters, making no sound, with their powerful pointed beaks towards the ground, ready to strike the fatal blow to any prey that comes within reach.

The most original

The Spoonbill has a long beak that is wide and flat, hence its intriguing name. There are 17 Spoonbills in Morlaix Bay at the moment. The species likes to nest mostly in the Baie de Somme and the area around Nantes and has not always been on our coasts here. You can also see a group of them nesting opposite Île Callot.

The most exotic

The Little Egret wasn’t in Brittany fifty years ago. Having migrated from Africa, they are only here now because of global warming. Some of them now nest in the islands within the Bay.

Similarly, the Cattle Egret comes from the same continent. In its African environment, this bird accompanies the cattle in the fields and takes charge of getting rid of all the parasitic insects that annoy the cattle. Having arrived in Brittany ten years ago, these birds are just as happy in the fields as they are on the shore.

Oiseaux de la Baie de Morlaix, ornithologie, Bretagne, Finistère

Photo Credits and illustrations  : Eurasian Curlew : © Johann Friedrich Naumann, Redshank : © John Gould, Dunlin : © John Gould, Black-bellied Plover : © John Gould, Bar-tailed Godwit : © Johann Friedrich Naumann, Black-necked Grebe : © John Gould, Ringed Plovers : © Jill Adams, Oystercatcher : © Aurélien Audevard, Ruddy Turnstone : © Barry Kent Mackay, Common Shelduck : © Yvon Toupin, Wigeon : © Archibald Thorburn, Mallard : © Barry Kent Mackay, Dark-bellied Brent Goose : © John Gould, Cormorant : © John Gould, Grey Heron : © Pierrick Legobien, Spoonbill : © John Gould, Little Egret : © Yvonnik Lhomer, Cattle Egret : © Florence Dellerie.