31 August 2011

le phoque

ile168today’s assignment is inventaire papillion. armed with a net, a guidebook, a sidekick, and some running legs, you will be chasing butterflies to note what species are currently around and if there are any migrating ones that have stopped by.

ile169but first, someone’s brought in another injured bird and everybody huddles around it to have a peek. it’s a bird of prey, but as for the species, you can’t remember what they said.

for injured birds, the key is eating. if they aren’t moving, that is fine as that will heal. but sick birds who refuse to eat are the ones that there is little hope for. thankfully this little fellow was happily eating, so you know he’s probably fully recovered.

ile170off to chasing butterflies! you and your partner have already caught and identified three.

it’s hot.

real hot.


ile171you are right next to the ocean.

ile172neither of you can resist temptation. the shoes come off. the net and guidebook are flung onto the sand.

inventairpapillonavecbenjaminhonestly. can you say no to a dip in this? butterfly chasing is tough work and one deserves a break.

ile175after lunch, after afternoon duties, you find yourself again in front of the ocean. but for a different reason.

ile184there is a certain pattern that never fails over at the MDF.

as long as it is sunny and hot, whoever is working the front desk will always receive a frantic phone call from the caring public.

bonjour, vous-êtes le LPO? je vous appelle pour vous dire qu’il y a un phoque blessé à la phare de baleines. il ne bouge pas et j’ai peur qu’il meure.

the first time… people are worried. but by the fifteenth call.. everyone’s got the response down perfectly.

bonjour, merci pour nous informer, mais en fait ne vous inquiétez pas parce qu’on connaît bien ce phoque. chaque fois qu’il fait beau et chaud, il se trouve toujours à la phare des baleines pour profiter du soleil. donc il n’est pas blessé, il est juste en train de se reposer et s'amuser pour vous!”

and so everybody at the MDF has heard of this legendary seal.

but nobody has actually seen it.

so it starts with, “qui veut essayer de voir le phoque!? on vient de recevoir un appel il y a 30 minutes, donc il y a un chance qu’il est toujours là! on y va on y va on y va c’est partie!”

and so, everybody on their bikes – to the lighthouse!

[hello, is this the LPO? i’m calling you to tell you that there is an injured seal at la phare des baleines. he isn’t moving and i’m afraid he’ll die.]

[hello, thank you for informing us, but in fact you needn’t worry as we know this seal very well. each time that it is nice and hot outside, he finds himself there to enjoy the sun. so he is not injured, just resting and having fun for you!]

[who wants to try and see the seal!? we just got a call thirty minutes ago, so there is a chance he is still there! let’s go let’s let’s go!”]

ile185everybody, with their binoculars, begins the search.

ile186there is no seal to be seen. instead, everybody spots three lost volunteers down below who have taken the wrong path.

ile189from up above, everybody teases them. “mais vous étiez oùùùùù!? vous êtes en retard et vous avez loupé le phoque! il a même fait un grand spectacle pour nous!”

the LPO team can be a cruel bunch at times. yourself included.

[but wheeeeeeere were you guys!? you guys are late and you’ve missed the seal! he even put on a grand show for us!”]

ile187then, some impromptu slightly illegal climbing happens. the LPO team is reunited!

ile188then. “LÀ! LÀ! LÀ! je le VOIS! LÀ! LÀ!  à cote de la barrière, il est là!” exclaims someone.

everybody swings their binoculars right.

and indeed, the phoque has been sighted. in the waters, far away, and only his head surfacing every now and then, but still, it’s better than nothing, right?

so – if you find yourself at île de ré one day when it is sunny and hot, pay a little visit to la phare des baleines and you just might see the sunbathing seal.

[there! there! there! i see him! there! there! next to the barrier, he’s there!]

30 August 2011

un hibou, la crépuscule, la forêt, et les dunes

ile153this day, like any day on the island, starts with butter. salted butter.

ile154confiture tomates-vertes. green tomato jam. this time, thanks to a friend of the volunteer who sent him off with jars of jam.

ile155today is part of la fête de la nature, a yearly event all across france that celebrates nature with free activities. and you will be busy busy busy helping, so the camera won’t be coming out too much.

ile156someone’s brought in an injured hibou. owl. a moyen duc. a long-eared owl.

ile157the maison du fier has just opened.

ile158 people file in. then file out as they leave for their respective field trips.

ile160then, as things wind down and dusk settles in… the astronomy club arrives. with their telescopes.

ile161you impatiently wait for the sun to set behind the MDF so you can start gazing upwards.

you consider yourself lucky, as usual, because the astronomy club of the charente-maritime region is made up of some of the nicest people. it all begins with a far breton being offered to you as everybody waits for the night.

ile162then they enthusiastically answer all your questions about the stars, the sky, the sun – everything. even the stupidest questions, they answered without making you feel awkward. what interests you most is the discussion about la crépuscule [twilight] and all the angles that are important to sunset watchers.

you see saturn, m55, the milky way, plenty of constellations, the north star… in a pocketable size. it makes you rethink the idea of size, as you can’t quite get over the fact that you just saw an entire galaxy live – not a photo, not a video, not a movie, but the real thing no bigger than perhaps a large coin.

you hang out with the astronomy club until about 2h00. you wanted to stay until 3h30, but your body needed sleep.

three hours and thirty minutes later, at 7h00, you’re up and ready.

ile163a sortie ONF is about to happen, and you’re on the schedule. l’office national des forêts. the national forests office, who is in charge of the forests and the dunes at île de ré.

you might be beyond tired but you find everything that is said fascinating.

ile164for example, the forests were not here originally. they were planted here in hopes of stabilizing the dunes and keeping the ocean from taking back land.

also, you’d think that the ONF would have national park status, or something similar… but no. in fact, all their forests are considered private property. and in a land known for it’s administration fun, it is a headache as there are then plenty of loopholes for people to steal land which the ONF must constantly keep an eye out for.

ile165dunes. your favorite. the protector of the island from the ocean. however, they sadly need protection from humans (thus, fences) as walking and playing on them only makes them more fragile and less effective against the ocean. you think it’s a bit sad how something that protects humans needs protection from humans as well.

here is really the moment where you begin to truly like la plage sauvage. a wild beach. a beach that is far from the pristine spotlessness that most of the world has decided is ideal. a beach full of plants that prick – but also keep the dunes in place – is what you now you prefer. the more you understand it, the more you prefer it.

ile167then, your usual formula. sunset, dinner, and sleep. preceded by other activities and a long afternoon nap.

29 August 2011

pâté, sortie crustacé, bouc, aigrette, poubelle

ile142lunch is quick today. after a morning shift at the MDF, you’ve got just thirty minutes to eat before a sortie crustacé [crustacean outing] at la phare de baleines. [whales’ lighthouse]

you are told to be ready at 13h00 (it is now 12h30) and to make sure to have your bottes with you. [boots]

ile1342the three second sandwich consists of bread, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and the most important, homemade pâté from one of the volunteers. you are grateful for all the french grandmothers who make sure no grandchild is unprepared for weeks of camping.

ile141as you put the pâté back in the fridge, you can’t help but do a double take and giggle immaturely at what is taped to the door.

IMG_1405it’s a bright day at at la phare de baleines. you have mal aux yeux as a guide shouldn’t wear sunglasses out on a sortie because it’s considered impolite. [painful eyes]

ile145it’s also marée basse . and while it may look tranquil and calm…

ile144you’ve got twenty-give young french students with you. excited ones. screaming ones. running ones. you’re here as an assistant.

ile143but in reality you also transform into a five year old child as you marvel and gasp at all the things that are being shown and explained to you.

ile282[2]it is also good to know that a male goat is called a bouc. it will come in handy because…

ile1362…if you pay attention to your surroundings at île de ré, you just might spot some wild orchidée bouc. [lizard orchid] called bouc because of how it resembles a goat’s beard. go ahead and smell it – apparently it smells also as bad as the real thing, but you won’t confirm that.

ile147sunset time.

ile146ooooo. you stop as silently as you can. the aigrette garzette is busy looking for dinner and isn’t paying attention to you. the little egret is the cousin to the heron. a white body, black legs, yellow feet, a neck folded into an S shape when flying, and a beak that can stab like no other.

the aigrette is also the feather on the back of its head –hence why it is called the aigrette. a bird pushed almost to extinction thanks to fashion because ladies liked their feathers in their hat. thankfully it’s no longer la mode to wear a hat like that. [fashionable]

the aigrette will actively hunt for its food, unlike the heron. maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a heron later on.

ile148your tummy is hungry. time to abandon the sunset, head back to the campsite, and help with dinner.

ile137slate night shopping fills up the fridge. “on mange la poubelle, mais c’est la meilleure poubelle du monde,” says a wise cook.

ile149tonight it’s barbeque. very, very well-cooked barbeque. nobody wants to take chances with la meilleure poubelle du monde.

ile152you eat well. and rest well. because for the next two days you need all your energy for la fête de la nature.

28 August 2011

b’s of île de ré: boats, birds, babies, bague

ile130île de ré. full of boats. les bateaux. also full of something else that starts with the letter b.


ile119les goélands. seagulls. the word sends chills down the spines of all volunteers. there are four types that live at île de ré and all of them love eating the babies of other protected species on the island. they stay here all year round, and in total there are about 1,800 couples at île de ré (in 2001).

while les goélands are themselves a dwindling and protected bird, they’re the bad guys at île de ré because they heavily outnumber other dwindling and protected birds. and they are always hungry.

the bénévoles [volunteers] refer to them as les gogos.

ile117les échasses blanches. the black-winged stilts. you can’t miss their magnificent long pink legs. a favorite for all visitors, especially when in air. they spend winter in africa, then migrate to île de ré in the spring and summer to reproduce. depending on the year, there can be between 30-100 couples at île de ré.

ile126let’s back up. why is île de ré so attractive for birds? you think it’s because of le soleil. the sun. the warmth. wrong. birds can take cold weather. what they can’t take, however, is frozen food.

ile129at île de ré– with its marshes plus the tide that comes in twice a day, it is a feeding haven for these birds. crustaceans, insects, larvae, small fish – when things are frozen in siberia, île de ré is not a bad choice since it rarely snows and not much freezes over.

Back Camera the second reason would be location. île de ré is at the halfway point on a major migration path between africa and the arctic. for either a few hours or a few days, millions of birds come here to replenish their fat reserves before heading out to their final destination.

ile118la mouette rieuse. the black-headed gull. notice something? the language lover within you does. in french, les mouettes and les goélands are not the same. but in english (and german), they are all grouped together as the gulls. a common question is, “how do you tell them apart?” you cannot go by size as there exists small goélands and big mouettes.


1. this only works in summer and spring: les mouettes will have a black head. it’s reproduction season, and it’s for attracting a female. the goélands always keep their head white.

2. les goélands always have a yellow beak. les mouettes will have a red beak. and plus, the goelands will sometime have a red spot on the beak. the mouettes will never have this red spot.

there are about 50 couples at île de ré, and they pretty much stay here all year round.

ile116l'avocette élégante. the avocet. easily your favorite. blue legs and a beak that curves toward the sky are its distinguishing features. especially the beak – a joy to watch while eating, because it sways its beak side to side as it scythes for food. and like the echasse blanche, the avocet likes to nest on mini islands in the marshlands as it provides protection against ground predators.

ile127squint really hard, and you might be able to spot the nesting goéland in the photo on the left.

ile128la tadorne de belon. the common shelduck. the largest duck in europe. males and females look the same, except for a bump on the male’s beak which is called the caroncule.

Back Cameraimagine yourself as a rapace. a bird of prey. or even a fox. you’re hungry for baby ducks. will you go for the camouflaged brown female mallard, or the giant white ball of feathers with a bright red beak that you can’t miss that screams “attack me! attack me! eat me!” ?

the female tadorne is not so stupid to be a living target. she will peacefully niche [nest] in abandoned terriers. [rabbit holes] and there nobody can see her and her 9-12 eggs.

mdfso when riding your  bike around île de ré, don’t be too surprised when a lapin will quickly scramble across your path. [rabbit]

ile132also please keep your distance from the birds. especially now, in may. they are extra skitterish. get too close, and they will fly and crie [scream] nervously and angrily in hope of making you back away.

ile133you’ve backed away now. les échasses et les avocettes are much calmer now.


ile131les poussains! [chicks] just a few days old and unable to fly, the parents won’t take any chances of strangers coming near their chicks.

it’s temping to awww and edge closer, but really, the birds should be left in peace. this is why jumelles are essential here. [binoculars]

ile135all these birds live happily at the réserve naturelle. or so you think. in reality, the goélands have taken over and it is referred between volunteers as la domaine des goélands as the seagull is the undisputed king here.

resand while we’re on the topic of the reserve… it’s necessary to know that the LPO (ligue pour la protection des oiseaux) is not the reserve. And the reserve is not the LPO.

In fact, the reserve is recognized and protected by the french government. there are local reserves, regional reserves, and the highest of them all, national reserves. you can guess which category île de ré falls into.

goals  the reserve has three main goals: protection, management, and increasing awareness.

the reserve takes care of the first two goals. protection and management. not just birds, but everything. the flowers. the insects. the bats. the water. the trees. the plants. the habitats. when you say everything, you really do mean everything.

as for the last goal of increasing awareness, that is where the LPO steps in. so you’ve got two completely different organizations here. one by the government, and one by a non-profit. different budgets, different staff, but lots of overlap.

LPO logothe LPO deals heavily with the public. guided tours. museums. events. children’s activities. bookwriting. pamphlets. observation points. school visits. connecting with visitors is the goal here.

mdf2most things take place at the maison du fier – upstairs are the offices for the reserve, but the rest is for the public and for the LPO.

Back Cameraso whether you’re out with the LPO with fifty children,

Back Cameraor tagging along with the reserve when they do baguage goéland [putting identifying rings on seagull legs],

gensLPO…you can’t help but think how lucky you are to be part of such a great équipe. team. all these people: reserve staff, LPO staff, volunteers, interns, public service staff – all driven by the same passion for nature.