île de ré. full of boats. les bateaux. also full of something else that starts with the letter b.
les 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.
les 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.
let’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.
at 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.
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.
la 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.
l'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.
squint really hard, and you might be able to spot the nesting goéland in the photo on the left.
la 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.
imagine 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.
so when riding your bike around île de ré, don’t be too surprised when a lapin will quickly scramble across your path. [rabbit]
also 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.
you’ve backed away now. les échasses et les avocettes are much calmer now.
les 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]
all 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.
and 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.
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.
the 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.
most 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.
so whether you’re out with the LPO with fifty children,
or tagging along with the reserve when they do baguage goéland [putting identifying rings on seagull legs],
…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.