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crossbill guides

Loire Valley loire , brenne and sologne

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france


Crossbill Guides: Loire Valley - Loire, Brenne and Sologne Text and research: Dirk Hilbers, Tony Williams Additional research and information: Alain Beignet, Kim Lotterman, Albert Vliegenthart Editing: John Cantelo, Brian Clews, Cees Hilbers, Riet Hilbers, Kim Lotterman, Alain Beignet, Guillaume Amirault, Guillaume Delauny Illustrations: Horst Wolter Maps: Dirk Hilbers, Hienke Sminia, Horst Wolter Type and image setting: Oscar Lourens Print: GVO / Ponsen en Looijen, Ede ISBN 978 90 5011 3540 This book is printed on paper of FSC certified sources.

CU-COC-805712 D-02

Š 2011 Crossbill Guides Foundation, Arnhem, The Netherlands All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by print, photocopy, microfilm or any other means without the written permission of the Crossbill Guides Foundation. This book is published in association with the Loire Valley Tourist Board, WILDGuides, KNNV Publishing and the Saxifraga Foundation. This book is created with the financial support of the Loire Valley Tourist Board. www.crossbillguides.org www.loirevalleytourism.com www.wildguides.co.uk www.knnvpublishing.nl www.saxifraga.nl

SAXIFRAGA foundation


crossbill guides foundation This guidebook is a product of the non-profit foundation Crossbill Guides. By publishing these books we want to introduce more people to the joys of Europe’s beautiful natural heritage and to increase the understanding of the ecological values that underlie conservation efforts. Most of this heritage is protected for ecological reasons and we want to provide insight into these reasons to the public at large. By doing so we hope that more people support the ideas behind nature conservation. For more information about us and our guides you can visit our website at: www.crossbillguides.org


highlights of the loire valley

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Highlights of the Loire Valley

1

Go birdwatching in the Brenne or Sologne and experience the stunning diversity of birds.

Bee-eater

2

Hire a bicycle and explore the many quiet roads and cycle tracks. This area is made to be discovered by bicycle.

Cycle path near Candes St. Martin

3 Canoeing on the Allier River

Paddle down one of the many gentle rivers in a canoe and explore the sand banks, rafts of Water-Crowfoot and thick riparian forests.

4

Go to the Forêt d’Orléans and observe the Ospreys, eagles and other raptors.

Goshawk


highlights of the loire valley

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5

Admire the many orchids and other wildflowers that simply grow in the side of the road.

Monkey Orchid

6

Comb the river banks and search the fishponds for the many rare species of dragonflies. This region is among France’s finest for this group of insects.

Western Spectre

7

Combine your nature ventures with a visit to one of France’s most impressive castles or enjoy the best wines.

Chambord Castle

8

Search for European Pond Terrapins and other southern reptiles which occur in large numbers in the Brenne.

European Pond Terrapin


about this guide

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About this guide This guide is meant for all those who enjoy being in and learning about nature, whether you already know all about it or not. It is set up a little differently from most guides. We focus on explaining the natural and ecological features of an area rather than merely describing the site. We choose this approach because the nature of an area is more interesting, enjoyable and valuable when seen in the context of its complex relationships. The interplay of different species with each other and with their environment is astonishing. The clever tricks and gimmicks that are put to use to beat life’s challenges are as fascinating as they are countless. Take our namesake the Crossbill: at first glance it’s just a big finch with an awkward bill. But there is more to the Crossbill than meets the eye. This bill is beautifully adapted for life in coniferous forests. It is used like scissors to cut open pinecones and eat the seeds that are unobtainable for other birds. In the Scandinavian countries where Pine and Spruce take up the greater part of the forests, several Crossbill species have each managed to answer two of life’s most pressing questions: how to get food and avoid direct competition. By evolving crossed bills, each differing subtly, they have secured a monopoly of the seeds produced by cones of varying sizes. So complex is this relationship that scientists are still debating exactly how many different species of Crossbill actually exist. Now this should heighten the appreciation of what at first glance was merely a plumb red bird with a beak that doesn’t close properly. Once its interrelationships are seen, nature comes alive, wherever you are. To some, impressed by the “virtual” familiarity that television has granted to the wilderness of the Amazon, the vastness of the Serengeti or the sublimity of Yellowstone, European nature may seem a puny surrogate, good merely for the casual stroll. In short, the argument seems to be that if you haven’t seen a Jaguar, Lion or Grizzly Bear, then you haven’t seen the “real thing”. Nonsense, of course. But where to go? And how? What is there to see? That is where this guide comes in. We describe the how, the why, the when, the where and the how come of Europe’s most beautiful areas. In clear and accessible language, we explain the nature of the Loie Valley and refer extensively to routes where the area’s features can be observed best. We try to make the Loire Valley come alive, including those magnificent areas of the Sologne, the Brenne and Forêt d’Orléans. We hope that we succeed.


how to use this guide

How to use this guide This guidebook contains a descriptive and a practical section.The descriptive part comes first and gives you insight into the most striking and interesting natural features of the area. It provides an understanding of what you will see when you go out exploring. The descriptive part consists of a landscape section (marked with a red bar), describing the habitats, the history and the landscape in general, and of a flora and fauna section (marked with a green bar), which discusses the plants and animals that occur in the region. The second part offers the practical information (marked with a purple bar). A series of routes (walks and car drives) are carefully selected to give you a good flavour of all the habitats, flora and fauna that the Loire region has to offer. At the start of each route description, a number of icons give a quick overview of the characteristics of each route. These icons are explained in the margin of this page. The final part of the book (marked with blue squares) provides some basic tourist information and some tips on finding plants, birds and other animals. There is no need to read the book from cover to cover. Instead, each small chapter stands on its own and refers to the routes most suitable for viewing the particular features described in it. Conversely, descriptions of each route refer to the chapters that explain more in depth the most typical features that can be seen along the way. We have tried to keep the number of technical terms to a minimum. If using one is unavoidable, we explain it in the glossary at the end of the guide. There we have also included a list of all the mentioned plant and animal species, with their scientific names and translations into German and Dutch. Some species names have an asterix (*) following them. This indicates that there is no official English name for this species and that we have taken the liberty of coining one. We realise this will meet with some reservations by those who are familiar with scientific names. For the sake of readability however, we have decided to translate the scientific name, or, when this made no sense, we gave a name that best describes the species’ appearance or distribution. Please note that we do not want to claim these as the official names. We merely want to make the text easier to follow for those not familiar with scientific names. An overview of the area described in this book is given on the map on page 14. For your convenience we have also turned the inner side of the back flap into a map of the area indicating all the described routes. Descriptions in the explanatory text refer to these routes.

7 car route

bicycle route

walking route

beautiful scenery interesting flora interesting invertebrate life interesting reptile and amphibian life interesting birdlife visualising the ecological contexts described in this guide


table of contents

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Table of contents Landscape Geographical overview Geology Habitats The étangs Forests Landes and brandes – the French heathlands Riverine habitats Cultivations, fields and calcareous grasslands History Nature Conservation

11 12 14 17 18 25 29 31 38 41 50

Flora and Fauna Flora Mammals Birds Reptiles and amphibians Insects and other invertebrates

55 58 75 78 90 95

Practical Part Exploring Forêt d’Orléans Route 1 The Osprey route Route 2 The raptors of the Forêt d’Orléans Exploring the Sologne Route 3 Sologne’s lakeland Route 4 rivers wood and heaths of the eastern Sologne Route 5 Étang de Levrys - an acidic lake Route 6 The orchids of the western Sologne Exploring the Loire valley Route 7 The confluence of Vienne and Loire Route 8 The Loire at Souzay-Champigny Route 9 The forest of Cunault Route 10 The drylands of Meron Route 11 The Val de Loire Nature Reserve Additional sites in the Loire Valley Exploring the Brenne Route 12 Bicycle trip through the southern Brenne Route 13 Bicycle through the northern Brenne

103 104 106 109 112 115 120 125 128 132 134 138 140 142 144 147 150 153 157


table of contents

Route 14 ChĂŠrine Nature Reserve Route 15 Along lake Blizon Route 16 The meadows, woods and heathlands of Rosnay Route 17 Orchids of the Anglin Other sites in the Brenne Other sites in the region

Tourist information and observation tips Birdwatching list Glossary Acknowledgements Picture and illustration credits Species list and translation List of text boxes The whole, the sum and the parts Tarte Tatin Four botanical masterpieces Orchid list Coypu The Ospreys of the OrlĂŠans forest The European Pond Terrapin Gomphids galore

161 165 169 171 174 175 177 183 187 188 189 190

22 47 60 74 77 83 93 99

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the étangs

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The Étangs The most beautiful lakes are found on routes 3, 5, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

The most striking landscape feature of the Brenne and Sologne is the presence of over 8000 lakes, called Étangs in French. Most of these lakes are alive with birds and home to a large variety of reptiles, dragonflies and aquatic flora, making them the prime attraction for naturalists and birdwatchers. Interestingly, this ‘nature destination’ is, in origin, completely artificial. Every single lake was dug out by man in order to drain the vast swamplands that once covered the lake regions of the Brenne and Sologne (see history section). On the birdlife that inhabited these marshes, one can only speculate (see box on page 22).

Sologne from the air – a patchwork landscape dotted with lakes.

A typical lake

The étangs were not created solely to drain the surrounding land. They are themselves of economic value, namely for the production of fish. Furthermore, they attract waterfowl, and therefore are of great value for hunters, of which there are many in this region. From a naturalist’s point of view, a well-developed fishpond is much more than a water body amidst a forest or farmland. Rather, it is a collection of

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the ĂŠtangs

habitats, each with its own flora and fauna, in a gradual succession from deep water to reedy shore with willow scrub. The deepest point of the pond usually does not lie in the centre, but close to the margin with the dam and the bond sluice that controls the water level. This is, typically, also the part where the track or road flanks the lake. The water that fills the lake enters on the opposite side, which is where the thickest reedbeds are.

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reed beds and fen meadows

well-vegetated lakes

lake dam with sluice

oak and carr woods

The deepest part of the pond is often too deep for floating water plants to root and, therefore, is free of vegetation. Towards the shallower edges, there is a lush vegetation of White and Yellow Water-lilies. In some ponds this is the zone of botanical rarities, such as Parnassus-leaved Water-plantain (see page 60). The shoreline itself is lined with sedges, Clubrush, Bulrush, Yellow Iris and Reeds. Often there is a zone of scattered willow bushes before terra firma is reached. In the acidic lakes of the Sologne, a similar succession is found, only the reedbeds are replaced by the tussocks of Purple Moor-grass, whereas Marsh St.-John’s Wort grows in the water. This well-developed zonation is key to the richness of the Brenne and

landscape

A lake in the Brenne or Sologne with fully developed vegetation has a range of different micro-habitats.


the étangs

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Sologne as wetlands. The birdlife, in particular, thrives in these lakes. Great-crested Grebes, Cormorants and diving ducks hunt for fish and invertebrates in the deepest parts. The dabbling ducks, swans, Blacknecked and Little Grebes nest between the emergent vegetation, while the Whiskered Terns breed on the lilypads. In the reedy shores and willow bushes, a variety of herons and songbirds is present. All these birds need food, which they find either in the fish that are reared, or is provided in the habitats that thrive in and around the fishponds. Indeed, at first glance, the marriage between fish breeding and nature conservation seems to be a happy one. Unfortunately, when you take a closer look, you’ll find that reality bites.

Purple Herons thrive in the reedy lake margins.

A thousand lakes, a single wetland

The collective ponds of both the Brenne and the Sologne rank among France’s most important wetlands, placing them among bird hotspots like the Camargue, Briere and Baie de Somme. But the Brenne and Sologne differ from the other wetlands because they are not unified areas, but a collection of apparently isolated lakes. However, the lakes are so close to one another, that birds move between them in search of food. The breeding colonies of herons, gulls and terns are confined to a limited number of lakes, but the birds fan out to feed in other areas (see box on page 22). The Pond Terrapins, snakes, frogs and newts are less mobile, but at least during the “breeding” season, they migrate to other places to mate and deposit their eggs. It is fortunate that they do so, as each pond is emptied every year in autumn or winter in order to harvest the fish. Nowadays this is also the moment to eliminate undesired exotic species such as Catfish, Sun-perch, American Crayfish or Water Primrose. Once fished, the sluice gate is closed and the lake fills with water emptied from higher lakes or rain-water draining from surrounding land. The drained lakes are a

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the étangs

magnet for migrating waders, which probe the mud in search of food. Once every ten years or so a pond is left dry for a whole year in order to make repairs to the dyke or sluice, to clear excessive mud, or in an attempt to eradicate the Catfish. After a year without water, the lake is refilled and often important for breeding birds, until nutrient levels build up again as a result of fish-farming. Gradually the lake loses its attraction to wildlife until it is drained again and the cycle is completed. The managerial cycle can be longer or shorter, depending on local conditions and, of course, the inclination of the owner. Each year there are bound to be some lakes dry, but it is hard to predict which ones they will be. This you will discover soon enough when you explore the routes described in this book. Some ponds will be described as very rich, but may be empty and devoid of birds, whereas others may be much more interesting than could be expected judging by the description. This is not to say that it is unpredictable which pond will be interesting and which not. Apart from the managerial cycle described above, the specific characteristics of each individual lake mean that some have a higher potential than others. Besides, the purpose of the owner’s management regime and his attitude towards nature conservation makes a world of difference. The importance of the latter is clear when you visit the few sites that are owned by conservation organisations such as the LPO and Conservatoire, such as the Chérine reserve (route 14) and Foucault lakes (route 12) in the Brenne and the Étang Beaumont (Route 3) and Étang de Levrys (route 5) in the Sologne. Each year these sites head the list of the most nature-rich ponds in the whole area.

It is all about the vegetation

The emergent vegetation – those plants that root underneath the water and have floating leaves or flowers on the surface – is vital for a rich bird and insect life. Apart from being beautiful in themselves, these plants offer breeding sites to the two birds that epitomize the avifauna of the

landscape

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Floating vegetation of Waterlilies and Yellow Water-lilies are key to a species-rich pond ecosystem.


the étangs

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The whole, the sum and the parts Both Brenne and Sologne are wetlands, but of a different kind than the Camargue, Coto Doñana, the Oostvaardersplassen or most of Europe’s other major wetlands. Instead of being a single, vast expanse of wilderness, they are collections of relatively small wet areas, like a shattered mirror (a fitting analogy when you fly over these areas on a clear day). Would it be better, from nature’s perspective, if this mirror was intact? Would the birdlife or the flora be richer? This has always been a major question for ecologists. Since we don’t know anything about the flora and fauna prior to the creation of the lakes, when Brenne and Sologne were still vast swamps (see history section), it is difficult to give an answer. Of course, the impenetrable Alder carr woods, the large reedbeds, peatlands and areas of shallow open water that most likely dominated the pre-medieval Brenne and Sologne, must have been a much wilder and more exotic place (not to mention a much more hostile and mosquito-infested one). But setting aside the wilderness romance, would these areas have sustained larger and more interesting populations of birds and plants? At first one would think so. Large areas house large populations of individual species. Given the fact that the size of any population is in constant fluctuation, large populations are always more stable in the long term. A small population of any organism is less able to withstand even modest annual fluctuations than a large one. More evidence in favour of large areas comes – unfortunately – from our day to day experience. Fragmentation of once large interconnected habitats is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity at the present time. In fact, Europe’s largest co-operative conservation effort, the Natura 2000 network, is all about reconnecting isolated natural areas, building corridors, and working on the landscape scale. New infrastructures crossing natural areas do much more harm than just consuming the space they actually cover. Disturbance of

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soil, water, air, noise and movement penetrates far into the “untouched” area, whereas movements between the remaining unspoilt areas will have become a perilous, if not impossible, undertaking for many animal species. But if this is all that there is to it, the Brenne and Sologne could never be as rich in plants and animals as they are. Ecologists have pondered the question why sometimes small areas can be unexpectedly rich in species whereas other areas, that seem just as suitable, lack this diversity. The answer is in the theory of meta-populations, a term coined by Richard Levins in 1970. The basic idea is that when areas of suitable habitat (such as lakes) are situated close to each other, there is an exchange between populations in those separate areas. For example, there may be two lakes, each with a population of Pond Terrapins, but frequent exchange between them puts them into one ‘metapopulation’. Or in Levin’s words: ‘there is a population of populations’. Because this exchange is possible, the chance of extinction is far less because there is a high chance of movement from a thriving population into a dwindling population. Or in jargon, there is a high rescue effect. Indeed the two lakes together may sustain a thriving meta-population of Terrapins, but in isolation from each other, both populations might well be doomed to extinction. The meta-population theory is vital in understanding the richness of the Sologne and Brenne’s lakelands. It is the ‘web’ of exchanging populations within these lakes that upholds the meta-populations of many species. Probably none of the populations of the avian specialities (e.g. Whiskered Terns, Purple Herons, Black-necked Grebes…) would be viable if their breeding lakes existed in isolation of the other lakes. The meta-population survives, even when individual populations may disappear. And they will, because in the case of Sologne and the Brenne, extinction of populations is not a matter of chance, but an inevitable moment in the cycle of drainage and refilling of the lakes. With the functioning of meta-populations in mind, it is also of vital importance that lakes are being bought and managed as nature reserves, as the LPO (French Birdlife), Conservatoire and Chérine national nature reserve are doing. These and other organisations state that by buying reserves, they safeguard existing populations of rare species, but in fact they are doing much more: they are safeguarding donor populations for the whole region. And with the decline of marshland habitat in many lakes, the chance of extinction of species is immanent without donor populations. Indeed, the whole of the meta-population is much more than the sum of its isolated parts.

landscape

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The larger and closer together lakes are, the better the migration between them is. When a lake is left dry, the surrounding lakes keep up the general population. This way, the complex of lakes in the Brenne and Sologne can sustain rich populations of waterfowl.


the étangs

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Yellow Iris is a common plant of lake margins.

Brenne and Sologne – the Whiskered Tern and the Black-necked Grebe. You will find them amidst the water-lilies, allowing picture-perfect sightings that will stay with you long after you have finished your trip. The sub-surface parts of the plants create important spawning grounds for fish and dragonflies in the shallow parts of the lake. These include some rare dragonflies like like European Basket-tail and Lilypad Whiteface (see page 98). Whether a lake supports these birds and dragonflies all depends on the presence of such vegetation. Of similar importance is the helophyte vegetation – reed and reed-like plants like Clubrush, Bulrush, Branched Bur-reed, Greater Tussock-sedge and Yellow Iris on the lake’s edge. This vegetation zone offers breeding sites to several other emblematic birds, such as Purple Heron, Little and Great Bittern and Great Reed and Savi’s Warblers. Unfortunately, it is precisely this vegetation that is under pressure in the fishpond ecosystem. For a long time, these water plants were ‘public enemy number one’ to fishpond owners. They choked the ponds, clogged the sluices and were almost impossible to get rid of. The Greater Tussocksedge (La Motte in local dialect), in particular, was a dreaded opponent. Its tight web of root runners formed a solid network, which was impossible to tear up and, being submerged, difficult to cut with the scythe. But since the late 1950s, new mowing equipment has made it much easier to keep the ponds open. At the same time economic pressure to increase production led, as it still does, to the use of fish farming methods that are not so easily combined with nature conservation. It takes a very conscientious fish farmer to manage his ponds in such a way that it isn’t harmful to the lake’s natural world. Currently, only few lakes could be said to be in unscathed state and they are owned by nature conservation organisations.

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forests

Forests

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Oak woods are a feature on routes 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 12 and 13, with the oldest stands on routes 3 and 4. Flower-rich Downy Oak forests dominate parts of route 17. To explore the pine woods, try routes 4 and 5. Carr forests with Alder, Ash and Birch are present, patchily, along routes 3, 4 and 15. Species-rich flood forests are especially good along routes 7, 8 and 11.

Lush, shady and beautiful - the forests form an attractive element of the Loire landscape. They are both a wonderful backdrop for recreation as well as home to a rich flora and fauna. There are several types of forest in the region and each has its own distinct character. Most forests are made up of broad-leaved trees, particularly oak. In places where the groundwater level is permanently high, Alder, Ash and Birch are frequent. A very special and rich type is the riverine forest, which is described on page 35. Coniferous and mixed woodlands are mostly found in the Sologne.

Oak forests

Forest rides slice through the state forests of lowland France like a knife, offering wonderful opportunities for long walks. The Common or Pedunculate Oak is the ‘default’ tree in these forests. Although deliberately planted for their wood, the oaks are the natural forest trees in this part of France – a nice change from all the alien species that are usually chosen for timber production. On acidic soils, Sessile Oak takes the place of Common Oak, while on clay and limestone soils in the south, it is Downy Oak that shapes the forest. Occasionally, isolated specimens of Pyrenean, Turkey and Holm Oaks occur, but mostly as shrubs on grasslands and heaths rather than as forest trees. In well-developed forests, Hornbeam, Silver Birch, Poplar, Sycamore, Rowan and Field Maple mix in with the oak.

landscape

The oak forest is the most frequent type of forest in the region.


flora and fauna

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At the mention of the Loire or the Brenne, most birdwatchers will erupt with enthusiasm. This region, with La Brenne leading the charts, is first and foremost known as a birdwatching destination. Its large number of Mediterranean species and rich population of aquatic birds, combined with the easy access and short distance from the UK, Belgium and The Netherlands, makes it perfect for a short (or longer) vacation. The fame of La Brenne is deserved, but also a little one-sided. For one thing, the other sites in the Loire valley also offer excellent birding. But more importantly, they all have much more to offer than just birds. There is a range of beautiful wildflowers, which include masses of orchids. The rivers and ponds are very rich in dragonflies, while the dry grasslands are home to a whole array of grasshoppers, butterflies and other insects that you won’t find further north. Beavers inhabit the rivers and some 30 species of reptiles and amphibians occur. In short, there is a world to discover for every type of naturalist. The flora and fauna of the Loire is dominated by species typical of temperate Europe, but it is defined by the many Mediterranean and Atlantic plants and animals that also occur. These are the ones that make the region so attractive. Just two hours from Paris and you find yourself amidst Mediterranean delights such as Tongue Orchid, Southern Skimmer, Squacco Heron, Booted Eagle, Whiskered Tern, etc. These southern species survive because of warm summers and the mild Atlantic winters. Since summers are not nearly as dry and hot as in the Mediterranean proper, many species with an Atlantic distribution can be found as well. Particularly the flora, sensitive as it is to drought, contains many species that occur only on the mild western edge of Europe. Examples are Kerry Lily, English Thistle, Heath Lobelia, Purple Toothwort, Pale Butterwort, Cross-leaved Heath and Bell Heather (the latter being actually very well adapted to drought). Most of these species are rare or absent further east. Western France’s gentle topography doesn’t provide strict boundaries to

There is more than birds that meets the eye in the Loire Valley region. This Tree Frog is one of the magnificent creatures you may encounter.

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The Kerry Lily is an example of an Atlantic plant species. It occurs in a narrow band from Portugal to southern Ireland.

species. Northern species gradually peter out as one proceeds further south, whilst southern species become increasingly scarce towards the northern part of the Loire region. A good example of a northern species is the Wood Warbler, which is frequent in the Sologne and further north, but less so in the Brenne. Its southern counterpart is the Bonelli’s Warbler, which is common throughout and often occurs alongside the Wood Warbler. The populations of Cetti’s, Fan-tailed and Dartford Warblers – all southern species – are another testimony to the region being ‘on the northern edge of the south’. The occasional cold winter decimates the populations of these resident birds, just as a succession of mild winters allows them to spread further north. A perhaps unexpected and interesting aspect of the flora and fauna of the Loire Valley is the occurrence of continental and eastern species. In particular, there are a number of insects that are more associated with Poland or Hungary, but can be seen well to the west in the Loire Valley. Examples are the dragonflies European Baskettail, Green Snaketail and Lilypad Whiteface and the butterflies Large Copper and Scarce Large Blue. The Grey-headed Woodpecker too, reaches its western limit here, roughly in the centre of France. The northern and mountain elements complete the spectrum of geographical influences. Their share of the flora – most northern elements are plants – should not be exaggerated, but is of interest nonetheless. Most species are confined to the one northern habitat type that is right on the limit of its European distribution here: the peatlands. The two species of sundew here are typical northern elements. From the mountains of the Massif Central, a few plant species reach the Loire lowlands, such as Small Yellow Foxglove and Small Yellow Woundwort. It is thought that these were brought here by the rivers that spring in the Massif Central. All this adds up to an exciting mixture of species. Even on seemingly ordinary ten-a-penny tracks, you may encounter unexpected or even unfamiliar plants and animals. This element of surprise, this not knowing what the stretch beyond the next bend may bring, is one of the great attractions of the Loire region.

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introduction

At la

nt ic

re gi

on

Atlantic region Meadow Thistle Cirsium anglicum Wet fen meadows

Continental region European Baskettail Epitheca bimaculata Vegetated lakes

Loire Valley

Continental region

Alpine-boreal region

Mediterranean region Mediterranean region Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus Woodlands and fields

Alpine-boreal region Oblong-leaved Sundew Drosera intermedia Peatlands

flora and fauna

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birds

78

Birds The best sites for aquatic birds are route 3 (Sologne), 7 (Loire valley) and routes 12, 13 and 14 (Brenne). For raptors go to the Orléans forest (routes 1 and 2) and Sologne (3 and 4). Forest birds, including woodpeckers, are best on routes 3 and 4 (Sologne) and Lancosme forest (page 174). Route 10 offers the best birding of dry agricultural land, including chances of finding Little Bustard. Montsoreau (page 148) offers the best views of terns, gulls and waders. The entire Brenne (routes 12-16) offers excellent birding of small scale agriculture land. See page 183 for an exact listing of sites for each species.

Little Grebe (top), Tufted Duck (bottom) and Common Pochard (facing page) are frequent breeding birds of the wellvegetated lakes of the Brenne and Sologne.

A well-known British conservationist once stated that “coming from northern Europe and planning your first birdwatching trip abroad, you need to look no further than the Brenne”. And he was right. The presence of some excellent bird habitat just within range of many Mediterranean species means that this region supports a rich cast of southern species within reasonable distance of the ‘north’. The interesting birdlife concentrates on the unspoilt areas with low intensity, traditional land use, such as the Brenne, Sologne, and Loire Valley. All these areas are on the list of internationally important bird areas (IBA). There is a reasonable amount of overlap in the species that occur in these three areas, with the famous Brenne supporting the largest diversity and number of birds. However, the Loire, Sologne and Forêt d’Orléans (which together form a large belt north of the Brenne) support a fair number of birds that you won’t find in the Brenne (e.g. Osprey, Booted Eagle, Mediterranean Gull, Little Bustard, Rock Sparrow). So our advice is not to simply blast through them on your way down to the Brenne, but to spend time in these other regions as well.

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birds

List of interesting bird species (r) = rare

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Resident species Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Great White Egret, Bittern (r), Red-crested Pochard (r), Marsh Harrier, Goshawk, Hen Harrier, Water Rail (r), Curlew, Yellow-legged Gull, Barn Owl, Long-eared Owl, Little Owl, Black Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker (r), Great Spotted Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Kingfisher, Crested Lark (r), Woodlark, Dipper (r), Dartford Warbler (r), Cetti’s Warbler, Fan-tailed Warbler, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, Hawfinch, Rock Sparrow (r), Cirl Bunting, Corn Bunting Summer visitors Black-necked Grebe, Night Heron, Purple Heron, Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Garganey, Osprey, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Montagu’s Harrier (r), Hobby, Quail, Corn Crake (r), Little Bustard (r), Stone Curlew, Blackwinged Stilt (r), Mediterranean Gull, Little Tern, Whiskered Tern, Black Tern (r), Turtle Dove, Nightjar, Hoopoe, Bee-eater, Wryneck (r), Nightingale, Black Redstart, Redstart, Tawny Pipit (r), Great Reed Warbler (r), Marsh Warbler (r), Melodious Warbler, Bonelli’s Warbler, Wood Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Savi’s Warbler, Redbacked Shrike, Woodchat Shrike (r), Golden Oriole, Serin Migrant species Black Stork (r), Ferruginous Duck (r), Osprey, Spotted Crake, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Ruff, Little Stint (r), Curlew Sandpiper (r), Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Black Tern, Pied Flycatcher Wintering species Great White Egret, Goldeneye, Smew (r), White-tailed Eagle (r), Peregrine, Merlin, Common Crane, Jack Snipe (r), Kingfisher, Water Pipit, Great Grey Shrike (r), Siskin

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Roughly a third of the Whiskered Terns of France breed on the lakes of the Sologne and Brenne.

Aquatic birds

The biggest draw for the birds (and thus birdwatchers) are the manmade lakes, and their attendant vegetation, of the Sologne and the Brenne. Together with the rivers and oxbow lakes (which generally support fewer species than the lakes) they are home to an impressive aquatic birdlife. For example, all nine European species of heron are present, although not all of them are common. Within the region, the Squacco Heron, Bittern and Little Bittern, are restricted to the Brenne. The Squacco Heron, a summer visitor, is a newcomer, breeding only since the late 199os. The single colony is in the restricted military area near Rosnay, but it can frequently be seen in the surrounding ponds and the pond besides the Rosnay campsite. The secretive Little Bittern usually hides in the reeds. It is a rare species in the Brenne, but its numbers are increasing. The Bittern is the only heron that is decreasing in the region. This bird, as discrete in habits and using a similar habitat to Little Bittern, was once common, but, sadly, has now nearly disappeared. It has ceased breeding in Sologne and just a few remain in the Brenne. The Night Heron is most easily seen in the Brenne, but also breeds on various spots along the Loire and in the Sologne (e.g. route 3). The Cattle Egret started breeding in the region in Brenne in 1992 and since then numbers have been on the increase. It is now fairly easily seen in meadows with cattle in the Brenne and along the Loire. Its distribution in the region is similar to that of the Night Heron, except that it is (still) absent from the Sologne. Little Egrets started breeding at the same time as the Cattle Egrets and are now common residents throughout the region, wherever there is water. The third white species, the Great White Egret first arrived in the 1980s. It is present throughout the year but, as yet at least, does not breed and is much more numerous outside the breeding season. Finally, the Purple Heron is a fairly common heron in reedy lakes of the Brenne and Sologne. It is particularly well-represented in the Brenne, where this usually shy bird is

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fairly easy to photograph from the many hides. Perhaps the two most typical birds of the lakes are the Black-necked Grebe and Whiskered Tern. Both are summer visitors and breed in large numbers in the Brenne and Sologne. They do not occur on every lake, but where present they are not at all difficult to see. The other “marsh” tern, the Black Tern, unfortunately has nearly disappeared as a breeding bird. On passage it still occurs frequently, often following the Loire, where it hunts with the other terns. Ducks are numerous in the Brenne and Sologne, and to a lesser extent along the Loire and on other more isolated water bodies. Mallard, Gadwall, Pochard and Tufted Duck are all fairly common breeding species. Teal, Garganey and Shoveler breed in smaller numbers, whilst Red-crested Pochard is found very locally in the Brenne. In winter, both numbers and variety are higher (see page 88). Other species associated with the lakes include Fan-tailed and Cetti’s Warblers. These year-round residents are fairly common, except after harsh winters, which decimate their populations. Look for Fan-tailed Warbler in damp meadows (listening for the typical zitting during the song flight, which sounds as a pulse through an electricity wire). The Cetti’s Warbler’s explosive song usually comes from the dark depths of some leafy, damp vegetation. Summer visitors to the reedbeds include Reed and Sedge Warblers, which

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Cattle Egrets feed, as the name implies, among cattle, where they catch insects in sometimes precarious places.

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Spectacular flight of two Montagu’s Harriers. The young (lower) bird catches a prey that the mother (top) passes on in mid air.

are both widespread and common, and the much rarer Savi’s, Great Reed and Marsh Warblers, which are all quite difficult to find. Savi’s and Great Reed Warbler are again confined to the Brenne. Many of the lakes in the Sologne and Brenne are emptied in late autumn to harvest the fish at which time the exposed mud can be very attractive to a host of waders.

Birds of Prey

Next to the aquatic birds, the 13 species of breeding raptors form the second great avian attraction of the region. In this case, the Forêt d’Orléans and Sologne are the best areas to visit. Orléans forest is right at the northern limit of the range of both Short-toed and Booted Eagles. The first counts more than 10 pairs and the second more than 20 in the Forêt, which means that both can be found in spring and summer with only a little searching. The Short-toed Eagle breeds throughout the region, but the Booted Eagle is more or less confined to the Forêt d’Orléans. The Forêt is also the stronghold in mainland France of breeding Ospreys; in 2010 there were over 30 pairs (see box). The Honey Buzzard is quite common wherever expanses of meadows with stands of trees are found. It is particularly common in the Sologne, where an estimated 200 pairs breed. Black Kites do well in the region, particularly in the Brenne and along the Loire. Marsh, Hen and Montagu’s Harriers all breed in the area, although the latter has become very rare in recent years. It breeds in small numbers in suitable areas, particularly around the Brenne.

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The Ospreys of the Orléans forest Were you asked to picture an Osprey in its ‘favourite’ habitat, what would it look like? The odds are that you will conjure up an image of the bird over a large lake, set in northern coniferous forests often surrounded by hills. And it’s true that most of Euope’s Ospreys now breed in such habitats in Sweden and Finland and to a lesser extent in the UK, Norway, Germany, Poland and the Baltic States. But gradually, Ospreys are expanding their range into ‘new’ areas and one of them is right here along the Loire. Situated hundreds of kilometres from any other breeding population, central France’s thriving Osprey population is a great treasure. There are over 30 pairs which breed mostly in the Forêt d’Orléans and with several more in the Sologne. It is France’s only mainland population – the only other French population occurs on Corsica, again with about 30 pairs. It was in 1984 that the first Osprey nest was discovered in the Forêt d’Orléans (route 1 and 2). The excitement over this find was temporarily curbed when the couple failed to produce offspring. But in the subsequent year, they were successful. It was the beginning of a steadily growing number of birds in the forest. Around 1990, the Osprey began to spread and pairs began to nest in all corners of the forest. With the gradually growing population, it was not surprising that the Ospreys also discovered that large woodland on the other side of the Loire – the Sologne. The first pair bred here in 1997. And not just the Sologne, but more precisely the forest around Chambord – the most royal of all the locations it could choose. How is it possible that a population of Ospreys suddenly establishes itself in a location that is so far away from its main breeding range? Such questions are never easy to answer, but several reasons can be given that explain, at least partly, this seemingly unlikely trend.

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The Osprey made an impressive comeback in 1984.


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An Osprey returns with a fish from the Loire.

One of them is the Loire itself. The river is rich in fish to hunt and solitary trees and sand banks to rest on. It forms the main hunting site for the birds in the Forêt d’Orléans (the fishponds of the Sologne seem to provide food for the Sologne population). The Loire has always been an important migration route for Ospreys on their way to and from the north. In autumn, birds tend to stay several days on the river to feed (in fact, it is not impossible to see over ten birds on a single day in late August or early September). The region is therefore not as far out of the way as it at first seems. Furthermore, both the Forêt d’Orléans and the Sologne are large, quiet expanses of forests, in which high, isolated trees (and powerline towers) stick out over the rest of the canopy. Such sites are vital for the birds to nest upon. Ospreys in other parts of Europe have done well over the last decades. A reduction in persecution, reflecting changed public attitudes towards birds of prey in Europe, has played a major part. For example, the arrival of Ospreys at Loch Garten, site of the original re-colonisation of Scotland still regularly features on the national TV news in the UK. The increase in numbers has meant that many young adults needed to search new breeding grounds and since they pass through the Loire valley anyway, they may simply have lingered and tried their luck here. And finally, that image of the Osprey being a northern bird was never truly correct anyway. Up until the end of the 19th century, Ospreys bred far more widely in Europe. It was persecution that made it go extinct, except in the unpopulated north – hence our mistaken perception of their ‘typical’ habitat. Now that attitudes towards Ospreys have changed, and egg collectors are kept at bay, they can re-colonise their former territory – starting with the best areas, such as the Loire.

Woodpeckers and other forest birds

The next bird habitat to explore is the forest. Apart from some of the aforementioned birds of prey, woodpeckers are, for many, the most interesting group here. All well-wooded areas with mature oak stands, whether they are big or small, are home to healthy populations of woodpeckers. As long as there are old trees with sufficient dead branches, Black, Green, Great

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Spotted, Middle Spotted and Lesser Spotted are present. Grey-headed Woodpeckers also breed in the region but their numbers have declined so that it has now become a rare species. Other interesting forest residents include Tawny Owl, Wood Warbler, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch, Firecrest, Goldcrest and Golden Oriole. In mixed and coniferous forests, you can easily add Crested Tit, Bonelli’s Warbler and Tree Pipit to the list.

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Farmland

From a bird’s perspective there are two different types of farmland in the region. First there is the lovely, small scale arable land, with its hedgerows, small meadows, bushes, isolated trees, park-like gardens, orchards and vineyards. This “landscape of the past”, as it is often referred to by the more romantic souls, is still present on a wide scale in the Brenne and more locally in and around the Sologne and along the Loire. A stroll in the countryside around the villages here is likely to produce Hoopoe, Black Redstart (often on houses), and Serin (pretty much everywhere). Cirl Bunting, Redstart and Woodlark are present in areas with isolated trees. In woodland edges and large hedgerows you may encounter Nightingale, Whitethroat, Melodious Warbler, Yellowhammer, Cirl Bunting, Blackcap and Red-backed Shrike. The Woodchat Shrike only breeds in the very south of the region, look for it on an isolated large tree in areas of meadow. Barn Owl breeds near farms and can be quite common in some of the less-intensively farmed areas. Long-eared Owls are found a little further afield, in extensive areas of meadows with large hedgerows. Meadows along the large rivers, which are prone to flooding, support Skylarks, Whinchats and Curlews.

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Hoopoes are frequent in the small-scale agricultural land of the Brenne and Loire.


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The odd-looking Stone Curlew declined during the agricultural reform of the 20th century. It is still a widespread bird, but numbers are low. Around Azay in the Brenne, there are still quite a few.

The second type of farmland is the extensive open arable land – the realm of Montagu’s Harrier and Little Bustard. Unfortunately, this habitat has all but completely disappeared, due to increasing agricultural intensification, which damages the habitat of the birds. Little Bustard, a summer visitor, was once common on suitable land throughout much of the region. Small populations still hang on in two separate areas – one near Chabris to the south of the Sologne, the other in a reserve in the LoireAnjou-Touraine Regional Park (route 10). It is best looked for in the early morning or evening when the male’s distinctive, and comic, ‘raspberry blowing’ call may reveal its presence. The Stone Curlew occurs more widely in some open arable fields throughout the area, even though numbers have declined dramatically over the last few decades. A similar story can be told about Grey Partridge, Quail and Montagu’s Harrier. They have disappeared from many areas and now mostly occur in reserves. The species to occur most regularly in the dry extensive arable fields are Skylark, Corn Bunting, Yellow Wagtail, Kestrel and Buzzard. The Crested Lark is very much associated with built-up areas. It can be very discreet, but occurs on many extensive railway sidings and commercial centre car parks. It is best looked for outside busy times when the car parks are empty.

Heathlands

Heathlands and open forests with conifers, particularly in the Sologne or the Brenne, attract Nightjars. The best way to find them is to search suitable looking places at dusk on warm May or June evenings and listen for the males’ “churring” song; beware a nearby Natterjack Toad can be taken for a distant Nightjar. Nightjars may be quite common and watching them on a warm and quiet June evening is a delightful experience. Heathlands and brandes (dense scrubland) are also the sites for Melodious Warbler, Tree Pipit, Willow Warbler (an interesting habitat choice here

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on the southern fringe of its distribution range), Woodlark, Skylark and Dartford Warbler. The latter have a particular liking for gorse bushes and, where found, are conspicuous and chatty in early spring. From mid-May they become quiet as they tend their eggs and young.

Rivers

The rivers, with their odd mixture of grassland, woodland and aquatic habitats (see page 31), share many species with the aforementioned areas. But the river course supports a number of specific species. The sandy islands in the Loire in particular, are of interest. During the breeding season, Common and Little Tern occupy the Loire’s sand banks, sometimes in large numbers. They share their nesting sites with Yellow-legged and Mediterranean Gulls that breed in mixed colonies with Black-headed Gulls. Little Ringed Plover is a common breeding species, and locally, even Stone Curlew may be found. Tern colonies are restricted to only few islands. Since terns and gulls nest on the ground it is important that during the breeding season, the water level doesn’t drop so low that predators like Foxes can cross and eat the chicks. Given the capricious nature of the river, only a handful of islands lie far enough from the shore to be safe. One such is the island at Montsoreau (see page 148). During the migration period, a wide variety of waders can be seen on any of the sand banks. Ruff, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Greenshank and Spotted Redshank make regular appearance as does the Osprey. Another typical river-associated nest site are the small sandy cliffs, resulting from the eroding force of the water. Sand Martins and Kingfishers are regular breeders. In the region, the Bee-eater is also associated with the rivers, as nest sites are easy to find and dragonflies are an important source of food for it. Its numbers have increased over the last few years. It breeds mostly in the south and east of the region (e.g. route 11), in small colonies along the Creuse, Anglin, Gartempe, Loire and Allier Rivers.

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During the day, Nightjars rest on the ground. On warm spring evenings you can see them hunting over the heathlands and brandes.


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Listening for the distinctive rippling, bubbling calls of a flock of Beeeaters is the best way of locating a colony. The riparian forest offers good birding as well, with Nightingale, Black Kite, Golden Oriole, Hobby, Green Woodpecker and Short-toed Treecreeper being frequent.

Bee-eaters are perhaps the most colourful birds of the region. They mostly breed along smaller rivers in the south (e.g. route 11).

Wintering birds

With its fertile wetlands, nutrient-rich fields and mild winter climate, the Loire region forms an important wintering ground for birds of northern and eastern Europe that flee the cold of their breeding grounds. Tens of thousands of Lapwings, Golden Plovers, Mistle and Song Thrushes, Redwings, Fieldfares, Chaffinches, pipits and larks, Stock Doves and Wood Pigeons flock in each year to wait out the cold season. Kingfishers too, become much more frequent as the eastern European rivers freeze and the search for open water pushes them westwards. From November onwards, the lakes attract large numbers of waterfowl. Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler, Pochard and Tufted Duck are most

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numerous, while Pintail and Wigeon are less frequent. Rarer species occur frequently and so it’s worth looking closely at large flocks of duck. Among the more regular are Smew and Goldeneye, which occur in small numbers every year. The rare Ferruginous Duck often associates with flocks of Pochard. On the ponds’ edges, Great White Egrets are a familiar sight. The area lies on the migration route of the Common Crane which means that most of the western European population passes through in late October and November and then again in March. The vast V-formations of Cranes fill the skies with their oddly evocative, somewhat melancholic calls – a beautiful and impressive experience. Over the last ten years or so, with a growing European Crane population and increasing food availability in the form of maize spill, birds have started overwintering in the Brenne (route 12) and near La Charité along the Loire (route 11). Now, all through winter, it is possible to see thousands of birds on their twice-daily movements between feeding stations (often harvested maize fields) and the roosting site at dawn and dusk.

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Cranes have always passed through the region on migration. In the last decade or so, they also started to spend the winter.

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Exploring the Sologne The Sologne is a large (500.000 ha) and scenic region of dense forests mixed with heathlands, meadows, small woodland streams, fens, peatlands and hundreds of lakes. The Sologne is often compared with its more famous cousin, the Brenne, and it sometimes orléans seems as if there is a bit of a rivalry between the two e ir Lo A71 as to which is the more sully A10 beautiful. But despite a S o l o g n e similar genesis (see hischaon blois tory section) and the obneung-surbeuvron 4 vious fact that both areas n 5 o r v Beu have many bird-rich lakes, 3 they are actually quite different. romorantinlanthenay 6 Thick forests are the cenA85 sellestral theme of the Sologne sur-cher Che vierzon r (best on routes 3 and 4). Large areas are privately owned and, as commercial forestry is not their raison d’être, the woodlands are mature, with much dead wood and impressive trees – a feast for the eye. The large size and greater age of the woodlands is reflected in the birdlife. Although unsupported by comparative counts (a downside of the extent of private estates), the Sologne appears to enjoy higher densities of forest birds than any other site described in this book. The flora, in contrast, is limited, due to the poor diversity of soils – mostly clay and sand. The species that are present, are certainly interesting though. The Sologne consists of three parts. The east, roughly east of the A71 motorway, is densely forested with small streams draining the headlands. This is the area with the best developed heathlands and peatlands with their typical flora and fauna (routes 4 and 5). Sologne is deservedly famous for these habitats and sports the richest and most developed examples in the region covered in this guide. Peatlands and acidic lakes (routes 4 and 5) are one of the Sologne’s prides. Although small in area, this northern ecosystem reaches its southern limit roughly in the Sologne and is therefore a much valued oddity in this part of France. It must be said, though, that because of this position on the limit of the range of peatlands, these peatlands are not as species-rich as elsewhere.

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exploring the sologne

The central part of the Sologne, roughly near St. Viâtre, is the Sologne’s Lakeland (route 3). Hundreds of lakes are dotted amongst the forest. This is an important breeding area for birds, with many egrets and herons, Whiskered Terns, Black-necked Grebes and a variety of ducks present. The aquatic birdlife doesn’t reach the densities of the Brenne, but it is complemented by a rich population of raptors, including Osprey, Booted Eagle and about 30 pairs of Short-toed Eagle and 200 pairs of Honey Buzzards! Black Stork are now annual in the breeding season suggesting that there may well be a small breeding population of this magnificent bird here. Sologne’s Western end is yet again different. The forests are smaller and younger and there is more agriculture, and a few interesting ponds. The soil is more mixed here, and there are some excellent calcareous grasslands and woodlands, which are the subject of route 6. Historically, the Sologne is an odd region. On the one hand, it is an area of marginal agriculture and sheep rearing. Poor shepherd families often resorted to poaching, as told in the museum on this topic, see page 178. Villages are closely packed, with small stone built houses in the typical local style. On the other hand, there is also a distinctly aristocratic context. The Sologne lies close to the castle region of the Loire. In fact, one of the most monumental ‘Loire Castles’, Chambord, lies in the Sologne.

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Étang de Levrys (route 5) is just one of the many beautiful forest lakes of Sologne.


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Together with forests and lakes, heathlands (bottom) and little villages (top) create a special Solognot atmosphere. This is the church of Souvigny in the typical architecture of the region.

Because of this proximity, Sologne’s forests and marshes have always been one of the most important and exclusive hunting grounds for the kings and the nobility. Extravagant mansions and hunting castles are tucked away in the verdure. This very affluent dimension is still very much a part of the region today. Thousands of hunting parties, both of the vieux and nouveau riches, visit the Sologne each year causing some conflict (see tarte tatin box on page 47), with nature conservationists. Hunting takes place on large, private estates, which are mostly managed to keep a high population of wildfowl and game. Even some of the fields are ploughed and sown to provide food for the game and wildfowl during the winter. To the visitor, the aristocratic side of the Sologne is not always easy to appreciate. Sometimes it feels like the High Street after the shops have all shut: the many alluring goods remain tantalisingly close, but still firmly out of reach! Nevertheless, there are hundreds of kilometres of public tracks and back roads from which much of the area can be satisfactorily explored and recently an increasing number of public tracks are clearly signposted, making field trips much easier. Because the Sologne is not so frequently visited by naturalists it is quite possible to make new discoveries here. In 2010 for example, Parnassus-leaved Water-plantain was rediscovered (see page 60). Such finds are testimony to the Sologne’s excellence as an area for the adventurous naturalist. The routes presented in this book enable you to discover much of what the Sologne has to offer. We recommend to set aside four days for a thorough exploration. There are plenty of Bed and Breakfasts, hotels in the Sologne, and various campsites, of which the ones in Neung-sur-Beuvron, Nouan-le-Fuzelier and Domaine de Ciran are particularly well located.

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route 3: sologne’s lakeland

Route 3: Sologne’s lakeland

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5-6 hours 41 km Tranquil minor roads through beautiful woodland and along idyllic lakes. The best birdwatching in the Sologne. Habitats: Oak forests, fields, lakes Selected species: Bluebell, Osprey, Whiskered Tern, Black-necked Grebe, Night Heron, Garganey, Grey-headed Woodpecker

This route takes you into the heartland of the Sologne; a tapestry of ancient forests, meadows, and scrubby fields, dotted with many reed-fringed lakes. The lakes and their birdlife are the prime attraction of this route, but the beautiful landscape, typical Sologne architecture and laid-back atmosphere makes it of interest to everyone, not just birdwatchers.

Departure point Neung-sur-Beuvron Take the D 923 towards Bracieux. Just outside the village, turn right to Étang Beaumont (signposted). Follow the signs through a varied landscape of fields, lakes and typical Sologne brick farms until, after 2.5 km, you arrive at a small car park on your right

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The Étang de Beaumont is owned and managed by the Conservatoire and has a hide overlooking the reed-fringed lake. Ducks, grebes and Whiskered Terns are frequent and Marsh Harrier often quarter the reeds. Meadow Thistles grow in the grassland just before the hide and Marsh St.-John’s-wort and Lesser Water-plantain grow in the water in front of it.

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Purple Heron breeds in the central part of the Sologne.


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1 1 la ferté-beauharnais

D923 bracieux

6 neung-surbeuvron

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2 5 3 Map on p. 118 D49 D121 D922

4 millançay

marcilly-en-gault

Forêt de Bruadant

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3 km

romorantin

Return and follow the signs Sologne a Vélo back to Neung-sur-Beuvron. Pass through the village, cross the Beuvron river and turn left to La FertéBeauharnais. After the first few houses of this village, a small road turns off to the right, signposted Marcilly-en-Gault (look carefully – this road is easy to miss since the signpost assumes you are arriving from the opposite direction). After 2 km through wonderful woodland, you arrive at a lake on your right.

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At the time of writing this Étang des Marguilliers was one of the best areas of the Sologne. Purple, Grey and Night Herons frequent the reeds at the back and to the left end of the pond. Whiskered Terns, Little and Black-necked Grebes are common, and various ducks may occur, including Pochard, Teal and Garganey. Further on, you cross a road and continue through a well forested area with lots of lakes.

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The lake immediately after the junction on your left (Étang de Marcilly) is good for Purple Heron, Pochard, Black-necked Grebe, Whiskered Tern and warblers in the reeds. In the forests here keep eyes and ears open for woodpeckers (including Middle Spotted and Black), Golden Oriole and Bonelli’s Warbler. This lake is as good as any in central Sologne to spot Osprey, which occasionally comes in to hunt.

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Ahead, the road follows a narrow strip of land between two lakes. On the right lies Étang de Bièvre, an ancient French name meaning ‘Beaver Lake’. Beavers are still frequent along the rivers of Sologne. In the woodlands here in May you can find a good population of Bluebells. At the far end of the lake on your left is a Cormorant colony, with a few breeding Little Egrets and Night Herons too. This stretch is sheer beauty!

Old oak forest with many dead, lateral branches (left) are the prime habitat for the Middle Spotted Woodpecker (top).

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The road ends at the busier D121. Turn left to Marcilly-en-Gault (again an old, local name, meaning ‘marsh in the forest’). In Marcilly, turn right towards Millançay. Some 500 m after the soccer field there is a public path to the left. Follow it on foot.

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The track bends to the right and enters the Forêt de Bruadant, which is the oldest forest of the Sologne. There are beautiful old oaks here. Middle Spotted and Black Woodpeckers are frequent and this forest is one of the few areas where Grey-headed Woodpecker is sure to breed. The forest is also home to Woodcock and many songbirds of the forest. Deer and Wild Boar are present in good numbers as well. Historically interesting is the fact that in the 16th century King Francis 1st used it to hunt Wolves in the Bruadant forest. After 1 km the track passes between two lakes. This is a good spot for birds and wildflowers. Return to Marcilly and take the D49 to St.-Viâtre.

5

The lakes before the village of Saint Viâtre are again interesting for birdwatchers. Little, Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes are present, as is Whiskered Tern. Osprey frequently visit to hunt. There are 3 sites of interest here (see map). The st. viâtre first is a lake on the left. Park on the hillock in the bend of the road and follow the track to the left. The second is a lake on the side of the road to the 3 right. When trees and bushes block the view, it may pay to take the first D73 road to the right in the village onto 2 the D73, which passes on the other 1 0 500 m side and offers better views. The third site can be reached when turning a

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Hornbeam-Bluebell forests are rare in Sologne, but there are some along this route.

sharp left in the village (after passing a little park). Follow the road up to a farm next to a lake and scan the third lake from there. In St. Viâtre, pay a visit to the Maison des Étangs, the house of the lakes, which has a fine exhibition on the nature and history of central Sologne. In St. Viâtre, turn left on the D93 to La Ferté-Beauharnais.

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This stretch leads through rural land with fields, meadows and bushy terrain. In spring, this area is full of Nightingales, Whitethroats, Turtle Doves and other countryside birds. White Admirals are frequent here in June, as on many forest rides in the Sologne. In Ferté, turn right and immediately thereafter, left, direction La Ferté Saint-Abin. Cross the Beuvron River, and turn left in the bend of the road on a small road that runs parallel to the stream, indicated by a Sologne en Vélo sign. Follow this road (later becoming a track), back to Neung-surBeuvron. This section passes some patches of mature woodland.

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Boat trips

orléans

In many places you 5 can book yourself a seat on a tradi4 tional flat-bottomed oire angers L 2 boat over the Loire tours 3 and let yourself be sailed along the 1 Royal River. This is hardly the way to view much wildlife, but what a leisurely way it is to spend the afternoon! Terns and Sand Martins fly by as you gently drift past the Little Egrets. Trips are sometimes accompanied by fine wine and a talk (in French) about the history of the region. For booking, check the following addresses: 1. Candes St.-Martin info@bateauamarante.com / T +33 (0)2 47 95 80 85 2. Chaumont and Amboise m.raboton@wanadoo.fr / T +33 (0)6 88 76 57 14 3. Chenonceaux labelandre@wanadoo.fr / T +33 (0)2 47 23 98 64 4. Blois info@bloispaysdechambord.com / T +33 (0)2 54 90 41 41 5. Sigloy passeursdeloire@yahoo.fr / T +33 (0)6 74 54 36 61

Recommended reading

Apart from the usual guidebooks and field guides, we recommend the following books and websites. General To get acquainted with the various areas, visit www.parc-loire-anjou-touraine.fr (French, English and German), www.parc-naturel-brenne.fr (French only) and www.sologne-nature.org (French only). Landscape and ecology There is a score of small booklets for sale at the various visitors’ centres with a description of the ecology of the Loire and the Sologne. They all look attractive and offer fairly good information on the area they cover. Unfortunately, they are all in French. Flora The botanically interested will, as often, have to make do with a combination of wildflower books to tackle the region’s flora. A good UK flora (including the Channel Islands!) will cover many species, including a fair deal of AtlanticMediterranean species. A Swiss or Belgian flora will leave out many of this latter group but has the advantage of covering the more continental species. In both cases, a Mediterranean flora will prove to be an important addition. Try Wildflowers of the Mediterranean by Blamey and Grey-Wilson (in English and Dutch) or Kosmos Mittelmeerflora by I. and P. Schönfelder (in German). Naturally, if you read French, there are more books to be recommended. Available locally is the Flore remarquable du Parc Naturel regional de la Brenne by François

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Pinet. Unfortunately, this book limits itself to the rare species of the Brenne (most of which are present in the Sologne and Loire Valley as well), but it does so in a wellorganised and thorough way. On the web, www.tela-botanica.org is a great source of information, as is www.parcnaturel-brenne.fr/nature/inventaires/, where you will find distribution maps of all important wildflowers in the Brenne. For orchids, try to get your hands on Les Orchidées de France, Belgique et Luxembourg by Bournérias and Prat (in French). This book, following recent taxonomy, whilst not exactly a field guide, should cover all you need to know about orchids. Fauna There are several books on the local fauna, all of which are in French. Good guides of the local fauna (e.g. a reptile and amphibians atlas, Crane migration) of the Indre region are published by Indre Nature and for sale at the Maison du Parc. For an overview, check www.indrenature.net/assoc/publicat. In Sologne, a similar range is found on www.sologne-nature.org under the header boutique. On www.parcnaturel-brenne.fr/nature/inventaires, you will find distribution maps for most of the Brenne’s fauna. Walking For more nature walks in the Brenne region, buy Les plus belles ballades du Parc naturel régional de la Brenne (Dakota editions; in French). This little book describes 20 routes, most of which are worth walking and a few of them are similar to the ones described in this book. From Indre Nature, you can buy leaflets with botanical walks (including map) in the Brenne. In French and without scientific names, these leaflets are not easy to read, but worth purchasing because they lead to some of the very best publicly accessible wildflower sites. There is also a map of the entire region, with the location of interesting plant species in roadsides indicated. From Sologne Nature, a similar set of nature walks (in French) is for sale for e 0,50 per brochure. Check the abovementioned websites for these leaflets.

Annoyances and Hazards

In the more touristy sites, be careful not to leave valuables behind in your car. The only venomous snake in the area is the small Asp Viper (p. 94). This animal is shy and hard to find, so the chance of being bitten is low. If you do get bitten by an unfamiliar snake, seek medical help immediately. Asp Viper venom is a little more potent than that of the Adder.

Responsible tourism

‘Take nothing but your photo, leave nothing but your footprint’, is the well-known phrase that summarises the idea of responsible tourism. It goes without saying that, as a visitor to a natural area, you have a responsibility to leave your surroundings and everything in it undisturbed. Buying local produce is a good way to support conser-

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vation. Not only does it decrease your carbon-footprint (since your food didn’t travel long distances), but also helps the local economy. The more nature tourism supports local economy, the quicker the local people will see the value of preserving their natural heritage. For this reason, as well as simple security, it can help to advertise your interest by keeping your binoculars slung round your neck or over a shoulder when visiting shops or restaurants.

Private property issues

Such a promising little wetland, and only a hundred metres away! But it could just as well be a 1000 km, because of that damned little sign ‘Properieté privé, defense d’entrer’. Private property, or more precisely, the fuss that many land owners make about it, is a big frustration for travellers in France. Many excellent sites remain out of reach because they are either on private estates, or the entrance to public sites is blocked by private terrain. How to deal with this? We have met birdwatchers who proclaim that they enter such sites anyway, because “no one owns nature”. Such an attitude is the most effective way to kill any progress the local nature conservation movement has made in these regions. To some land owners, visiting birdwatchers and naturalists are identified with what they see as an alien and interfering ‘green movement’. Any trouble with foreign visitors is therefore a reason to oppose current and further conservation measures. In the mind of some land owners, nature conservation is a restraint to their liberty. Consequently, the way to achieve something for nature conservation is to get land owners to share the ideals of nature conservationists. Foreigners violating their property rights do not, to put it mildly, help the cause. A better way is to walk up the lane to the owner and ask him or her politely whether he / she would allow you to visit the place of interest (Pardon Madame / Monsieur, je voudrais voir ce beau site. Me permettez-vous d’entrer un instant?). Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. The better your French, the more likely you’ll receive a positive answer. Bear in mind that whatever you do or say, some land owners will refuse in no uncertain terms. To them, just your presence is already a sign of a development they find threatening. Your only option is to prove them wrong by staying polite and leaving the premises. This being said, the whole area has many small roads and public footpaths, there are reserves and hides, so that much of what the area has to offer can easily be seen without going onto private land.

Nearby destinations worth a visit

The Loire region lies in lowland France. There are several sites nearby with broadly similar landscape, flora and fauna. To the north, for example, lies the Perche, described

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on page 175. Travelling east, near the provincial town of Moulins, lies the Allier River, which is a miniature version of the Loire, with excellent gravel banks, dry river grasslands and flood forests, lying amidst the lovely, rolling hedgerow landscape of the Lower Bourgogne. Just west of the Brenne, lies the Pinail nature reserve (see again page 175). Further south, the surroundings of Limoges retain the characteristics of the Región Centre, with streams, fields and woodlands. This gradually changes as one arrives, near Sarlat, in the Dordogne. Limestone soils with lots of orchids, extensive Downy Oak woodlands and lively rivers make this another superb region to visit. Alternatively, one could follow the Loire west to the ocean, where a number of reserves close to the coast form a fine continuation of your nature trip. Highlights here are the marshes of the Brière Regional Nature Park (just north of the mouth of the Loire) and the tidal mudflats in the bay near Noirmoutier (just south of the mouth of the Loire). Further south, near Niort and La Rochelle lies another hotspot. The Marais d’Yves and the Marais Poitevin are two marshlands worth visiting, whilst the agricultural plains southeast of Niort form one of the last strongholds of Little Bustard in France. Heading in the opposite direction, to the southeast of the Loire region, the land gradually becomes more hilly and you enter, near Clermont-Ferrand, the Auvergne. The fauna and flora is different here, with many interesting species that don’t occur farther north.

Birdwatching list

The numbers within brackets () refer to the routes on page 103 onwards: Grebes Great Crested Grebe occurs on all larger lakes (1, 3, 5, 6, 13, 14, 15, 16), whilst Little Grebe is a more discrete bird of well vegetated lakes (3, 12, 13, 14). Blacknecked Grebe is a locally common breeding bird of lakes in Sologne and the Brenne (3, 5, 6, 12, 13, 14). A very small number overwinter in the Brenne. Herons and Spoonbill Great White Egret is now a common visitor (July to March). Grey Heron is a common resident to any suitable site. Purple Heron breeds in small numbers in the Sologne, with more in the Brenne (3, 13, 14, 15). Night Heron is fairly common in the Brenne but scarce elsewhere (3, 7, 14, 15, 16). Little Egrets are relatively common residents. Cattle Egret is locally common (7, 13, 14, 15, 16). A few pairs of Squacco Heron breed in Brenne each year (best chance 12, 16). Bittern is now very rare (13) and Little Bittern virtually restricted to Chérine (14). Storks and Cormorants Both storks occur on migration. Black Stork is suspected to breed in the Sologne. Cormorants are common on large bodies of water and breed in small numbers in Brenne and Sologne. Ducks Mallard, Pochard and Tufted Duck all breed commonly throughout the area. Gadwall is rarer, whilst Teal, Garganey and Shoveler breed only in small numbers on the Étangs of the Sologne and the Brenne (best 3, 12, 14, 16). Red-crested Pochard is restricted to the Brenne, where it breeds in small numbers (14). All these

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species (with the exception of Garganey) overwinter in varying numbers along with a few Pintail and Wigeon. Ferruginous Duck is quite regular in flocks of Pochard in winter and early spring, Smew turn up every winter in small numbers. Geese and Swans Mute Swan is common on all larger lakes. Greylag is the only species of goose to occur regularly on migration and in winter; some of the other species occur occasionally in small numbers. Eagles Both Short-toed (1, 2, 4, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16) and Booted Eagles (1, 2) breed and are most common in the Fôret d’Orléans. One or two White-tailed Eagles occur every winter in the Brenne (12, 13). Harriers Marsh (13, 10, 12 - 16), Hen (2, 10, around Azay-le-Ferron) and Montagu’s Harriers (10, around Azay-le-Ferron) all breed in the region. Marsh and particularly Hen roam more widely in winter. Buzzards and other raptors The Buzzard is common throughout. Honey Buzzard (1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 12, 15, 16, 17) breeds in wooded areas, being particularly common in the Sologne. Black Kite breeds in quite good numbers in the Brenne with lower numbers along the Loire (1, 7, 8, 15 and other areas in the Brenne). Red Kite is a scarce migrant. Sparrowhawk is common and widespread and Goshawk local and unobtrusive in some of the larger expanses of wooded areas. Osprey The Osprey breeds in the Forêt d’Orléans area in gradually increasing numbers (30 pairs) and in Sologne (roughly 10 pairs). It is fairly easy to see on route 1 and 2 and frequent on 3 and 4). On passage, it is common along the Loire (particularly Montsoreau bridge, page 148) Falcons Kestrel is a common widespread resident. Hobby is an uncommon breeding bird. Peregrine occurs in winter and breeds in very small but increasing numbers. A few Merlins are present during the winter. Partridges The Quail occurs in small, variable numbers in arable areas or hay meadows (6, 7, 10, 12). Red-legged Partridges are fairly common in cultivated areas, Grey Partridges are now rare (10, around Azay-le-Ferron). Rails Coot and Moorhen are abundant residents wherever there is water. Water Rail is quite common in the larger wetlands (3, 12, 13, 14). Spotted Crake regularly occurs on migration in the Brenne, where it sometimes nests (14). Cranes and Bustards Tens of thousands of Cranes pass through every year in October/ November and return in February/March, with several thousands overwintering (11, 12). Little Bustard is now very rare, but can be seen on route 10. Plovers and Stone Curlew Lapwing breed in small numbers and occur in large flocks over much of the area in winter. Little Ringed Plover breeds commonly along the Loire with a few pairs at other wetland sites (1, 7, 8, Montsoreau, page 148). Golden Plover occurs in fairly small numbers on passage and during the winter. Stone Curlew is a rare bird of dry cultivated areas and sand banks in the Loire (best 10, Azay-le-Ferron).

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Waders Curlew breeds in small numbers in the Brenne, Sologne, along the Loire and other rivers (6, 10, 12). Black-winged Stilts breed every year in Brenne in increasing numbers (12, 14). Common Sandpiper is a fairly common breeding bird of the rivers. Woodcock is a rare resident of wet woodlands and is most common in winter. During passage, the Loire and emptied lakes attract good numbers of Wood and Green Sandpipers, Spotted and Common Redshanks, Greenshank, Little Stint, Dunlin, Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff and occasionally other species. Gulls and Terns Black-headed Gull is common throughout. Mediterranean Gull breeds locally in good numbers on the Loire (1, 7, Montsoreau bridge, page 148). A few pairs of Yellow-legged Gulls breed, particularly along the Loire (7, Montsoreau bridge, page 148). Many Common and Little Terns breed on gravel bars along the Loire (1, 7, 8, Montsoreau bridge). Whiskered Tern is a lakeland speciality, breeding in colonies in Sologne and the Brenne (3, 5, 6, 12, 13, 14, 15). Black Tern is nowadays a very rare breeding bird in the Brenne, but relatively common on passage, also on the Loire (e.g 7, Montsoreau bridge). Pigeons and Cuckoo Wood Pigeon, Collared and Turtle Doves are common in their preferred habitat. Stock Dove is an uncommon breeding bird. Cuckoo is a common summer visitor. Owls Barn, Tawny and, to a lesser extent, Long-eared Owls are frequent in suitable areas with less intensive farming. Little Owl is an uncommon and declining resident in many parts. During winter Short-eared Owls turn up in suitable habitat in invasion years when a few may linger on to breed. Scops Owl occasionally breeds in the far south of the region. Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Kingfisher Bee-eater (11) is a relatively new arrival. Many pairs now breed each summer in well separated colonies along the southern rivers (Creuse, Anglin, Gartempe). Colony sites change, ask at the Maison de la Nature for sites. The early arriving Hoopoe is locally fairly common (6, 7, 10, throughout the Brenne). Kingfisher is a common enough resident on all major water courses and many of the lakes (faithfully breeds at LĂŠvrys, 5, and Val de Loire, 11). Woodpeckers Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers are common throughout. Black, Lesser Spotted and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers are less common but not infrequent in forests with large, ancient, deciduous trees (particularly oaks) with rotten branches (good routes: 2, 3, 4, 9, 13, Lancosme forest, page 174). Greyheaded Woodpecker is rare nowadays, but in Sologne there are still some good areas for this species (3, 4). These species are most easily found in early spring when they are most vocal and the trees are still bare. Wryneck, a summer visitor, breeds in small numbers in locations with small, well-spaced old trees. Larks Skylarks are abundant in most open areas, Woodlark is fairly common in well wooded areas of meadow and heath. Crested Lark is far more difficult to find,

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breeding in small numbers around extensive commercial centres and car parks around some of the larger towns. Swift, Swallows and Martins Common Swift, Barn Swallow, House and Sand Martins are all common throughout. Pipits and Wagtails Tree Pipit breeds commonly in wooded areas. Water Pipit occurs in numbers during winter, particularly on half-empty lakes in the Sologne and Brenne. Yellow Wagtail (blue-headed race) breeds along the Loire in meadows (e.g. 7, sites around Angers, page 148). Robin, Wren and Dunnock are all common in their preferred habitat. Thrushes and allies Nightingale, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and Blackbird are all common in their preferred habitats. Redwing and Fieldfare are present on the fields in winter. Black Redstart is a common breeding bird of villages and farmsteads. Redstart is an uncommon bird of park-like woodlands. We found it mostly in the Sologne, and often on campsites. Stonechat is a common bird of bushy and dry vegetations. Whinchat is restricted to the Lower Loire region (7, but more around Angers, p. 148). Warblers Cetti’s (12, 13, 14, 15), Fan-tailed (12, 14) and Dartford Warblers (2) are all residents, whose populations may be decimated in hard winters. Melodious Warbler is a common species of hedgerows throughout. Bonelli’s Warbler is common, mostly in coniferous and mixed woods. Wood Warbler is fairly rare and restricted to the northern deciduous woodlands (1, 2, 3, 4, 9). Savi’s and Great Reed Warblers are rare breeders almost restricted to the Brenne nowadays (13, 14), but Reed Warbler is far more widespread. Whitethroat, Blackcap and Chiffchaff are all common, as is Willow Warbler, although the latter seems to have an odd preference for heathlands and bushy, dry areas. Tits, Nuthatches, Treecreepers and Flycatchers All the common tits are present. Crested and Coal Tits are common in pine forests (e.g. 4, 5, 9). Nuthatch and Short-toed Treecreeper are common throughout the region. Spotted Flycatcher is an uncommon breeding bird of park-like woodlands. Pied Flycatcher can be common on migration. Shrikes Red-backed Shrike is relatively common in less intensively cultivated areas (1, 3, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16). Woodchat Shrike is a very rare breeding bird in the very south of the region. Crows and Starlings All the usual Crows and Starling are common throughout the area. Golden Orioles are quite common in areas with moist woods. Sparrows House Sparrow is common across the region. Tree sparrow is uncommon. An isolated population of Rock Sparrow occurs at Fontevraud (page 148). Finches All the commoner finch species (Linnet, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch) are present. Hawfinch is relatively common and widespread in wooded areas. Buntings Reed Bunting nests locally and is common during winter and on migration, Corn Bunting is locally common in agricultural land (10, Azay-le-Ferron), Cirl Bunting and, in the north, Yellowhammer are common and often found in large gardens and parks (1, 6, 7, 11 to 17).

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Glossary

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Brande French name for a type of scrubland, consisting of Besom Heath, broom, bramble and gorse. The vegetation is roughly two metres high and, partly due to the spiny gorses, impenetrable. Button Low hill typical of the Brenne, made up of resistant sandstone. The different soil type renders the buttons a different flora than the surrounding region, with a high number of rarities (see page 63). Étang French for pond, a man-made lake. Lande French for heathland. Loire (Valley) Region Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the Loire Valley or Loire Region, but in this book it is used to indicate the lands surrounding the central part of the Loire, including the Sologne, Brenne and Forêt d’Orléans, in other words the region covered in this book. The Loire Region roughly coincides with the administrative Région Centre and is not to be confused with the Pays de Loire which is the administrative region west of the Région Centre. Oxbow (Lake) Natural lake that was formed when the river changed its course, leaving the old channel as an elongated (crescent-shaped) lake behind. Oxbow lakes are important spawning grounds for fish and dragonflies. Some oxbows regain their connection with the river when the water level is high. Tourbière French for peatland.

glossary


crossbill guides foundation The Loire Valley region in central France includes three large natural areas – the Brenne, the Sologne and the ribbon of nature reserves along the Loire River. These areas form a prime destination for wildlife enthusiasts. loire region The best-known features of the region are the thousands of reed-fringed lakes with their wealth of birds. The mosaic of flowery meadows, hedgerows, heathlands and old oak woodlands supports an incredible flora and fauna. Only a two hours drive from Paris, this region is one of the finest nature destinations in France.

The guide that covers the wildflowers, birds and all other wildlife Routes, where-to-watch-birds information and other observation tips Insightful information on landscape and ecology

www . crossbillguides . org

ISBN 9789050113540

9

789050 113540

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The Loire Valley region in central France includes three large natural areas – the Brenne, the Sologne and the ribbon of nature reserves alo...

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