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7 May 2010

Birds in spring

On a cold, but bright, afternoon in April, we were walking along the promenade at the beach at St Martin de BrĂ©hal. There were very few other people about, and the wind blowing off the sea was fairly vicious. The tide was incoming, nearly high, but with a low coefficient, so a lot of sand was still exposed. In the distance, it looked as if there was a cloud of pale smoke drifting along the beach. As we got closer, it was clear that it was a large group of something running about on the sand. A bit like an enormous number of very large spiders. Closer still, and it resolved into about a hundred and fifty sanderlings chasing almost in unison along the beach. 
Sanderlings on the beach at St Martin de Brehal, Manche

Normally these waders run along the shore, following each wave as it recedes, and then scampering back as the next one arrives. Because the wind was whipping up fairly large waves, and there was very little exposed sand in between one receding and the next arriving, the birds were mostly looking for sand hoppers and other things ahead of the tide. There is another photo of sanderlings on the beach at Jullouville, in a more usual behaviour pattern, below.

Granville, a couple of miles down the coast from St Martin is on  a very distinct promontory, and is used as a navigation point by planes. It used to be that Concorde flew over the town, very high, at about 10.00 every night, accelerating past the sound barrier once it was well over the ocean. In theory. In practice, the sonic boom happened nearer to the land; we would hear it inland about 30k from the sea. Ordinary jet planes are usually well over 30,000 feet high, and not normally audible. Migrating birds also use it for navigation, and at Carolles, four or five miles further south, there is a thriving ornithological society which holds bird watching events spring and autumn to see the migrations. In fact, most of the west coast of the Cotentin, and especially the Baie de Mont St Michel, is a key annual migration site, as well as being full of seabirds, waders and others all through the year.

A couple of weeks after our walk at St Martin, we stopped off for a coffee in St Jean le Thomas, another of the coastal villages overlooking Mont St Michel, and as it was the first really hot day after the cold, we walked along the beach. The tide was way out, so to speak, with a high coefficient, and the edge of the sea was the other side of a couple of hundred yards of sand, and another three hundred of mud. At the water's edge we could see several hundred, maybe 1,000, largish birds. They were silhouetted against the sun, and imp;ossible to identify, but with the wind off the sea we could clearly hear that the larest were curlews, and some of the slightly smaller ones were whimbrels, confirmed when some of them flew inland over our heads, calling as they did so. We didn't identify any of the others. But a final surprise was that there were several shrikes hopping about on the large rocks dumped to protect the dunes. Had never seen the species before.
Sanderlings on the beach at Jullouville, Manche

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