Bird watcher’s diary in France: Migration


“Spooky action from afar.”

The above is an alleged comment made by Albert Einstein when he was confronted with a mysterious quirk in quantum mechanics known as “quantum entanglement”.

The phenomenon that has puzzled scientists for over 75 years is a very strange idea that suggests that two particles created at the same moment remain “tangled” with each other so that regardless of distance, what affects one immediately the other.

What, you might ask, has this to do with birds? Well, studying migration and how birds know where they are on these extraordinary journeys has led to the idea that they could visualize the Earth’s magnetic field through some form of quantum entanglement.

It could be – this is just a theory – that certain molecular reactions in a bird’s eye create a map of the Earth’s magnetic field through which it moves. It is, of course, not the only ability birds use for orientation; remembered visual cues in the landscape (so that adult birds guide cubs on their first year travels), navigation by stars, including our own sun, probably certain scents in the air when they finally reach their nesting sites; all of these and other skills play a role.

However, this quantum theory is just one of the amazing phenomena contained in this (almost) hidden world of long-distance bird migration.

To learn more about these strangest ideas, it is worth reading a wonderful book by one of the leading migration authors, “A World on the Wing” by Scott Weidensaul. Only now, with the advances in technology made possible by microtechnology that allow us to follow these journeys, is it possible to explore this world.

I was fortunate enough to visit the Netherlands in early September, whose coastal areas are a hotspot for annual migration.

I have seen countless birds that testify to dreams and legends of bygone eras.

Many of the birds I have seen are seen here in France, but not in the numbers that have been seen there. To give just one example, I saw about 3000 curlews (courlis cendré in French) after their journey from further north, the breeding areas in Scandinavia fly ashore.

Curlew Image: Jonathan Kemp

The curlew’s call is such a peculiar cry that, once heard, it haunts your memory like a mystery. It can usually be heard in coastal areas, but also inland on swampy moors.

Sometimes howling, sometimes bubbling, sometimes trilling, it’s a sound that Wuthering Heights conjures up to me, probably because I first heard it from the mists of the North Yorkshire moors.

This extraordinary, downward-curved beak – up to six inches long in females and feeds slightly differently than males, which have shorter beaks – is used to dig deep into mud flats, moist soil, rock pools, or algae to find the living invertebrates to seek their burrowing life hidden in the dark, lugworms, crabs, shellfish.

With a wingspan of up to one meter, it is the largest European wader.

Another wader with a curved beak Рbut a graceful upward curve this time Рthat I luckily could see in large numbers was the pied beak (Avocado ̩l̩gante). They have showy black and white markings and a beautiful, unique beak.

A pied avocet Image: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock

Avocets had almost completely disappeared from the British shores, but the hope they brought with their repopulation from the Netherlands to the country’s flooded eastern coastal marshes – marine protection against invasions during World War II – led the RSPB to choose the bird as its logo .

They sweep their beaks back and forth in the shallow lagoons where they feed. I was fortunate to see the archangel wings raised vertically, usually seen after mating, when the male mounted the female while an avocet was stretching forward.

Swarms of spoonbills (Blanch spatula) also marched around the coastal wetlands. Here, too, large impressive birds, which, however, are more likely to be assigned to the herons, storks and herons than the waders. They are also gifted with a remarkable beak for fishing for small fish and tadpoles.

When I was there, the youngsters were still scurrying after their clumsy parents, begging, rather irritating, I thought. Mom or Dad looked like they were doing their best to get away.

A spoonbill moves away from its offspring Image: Jonathan Kemp

Beaks can be used for a variety of purposes, and the activity shown in the picture below – known as allopreening in English – illustrates this well.

Cleaning spoonbills Image: Jonathan Kemp

Providing the necessary care for the important feathers in places that a single bird cannot reach – these beaks again – can be a way of strengthening the pair bond in bird pairs and their offspring.

Maintain feathers, make them waterproof in waterfowl with special oil glands, comb them back into perfect shape so that the feathers are ready for flight, remove parasites and unwanted dirt, prepare for the showing off in the mating season that announces potential mates; all of this plays a significant role in a bird’s everyday life.

It’s a miserable time in a bird’s life when it molts, and to the left of the spoonbills above is a rather unkempt lapwing (vanneau huppé) certainly doesn’t look at its best. But they were there in great numbers and it was a pleasure to see them.

A very good place for those of us who live in the south of France, not far away, is the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l’Empordà just across the Spanish border.

Established in the 1970s, it is a well laid out reserve well worth visiting even in winter and known for its nesting colonies of white storks (cigogne blanche), which are present all year round.

Well-kept hiding spots with a view of the shallow lakes and reed belts bring you many species of waders and ducks and, if you’re lucky, rare species like bitterns (butor étoile).

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