A Birdwatching circuit in the Southern Vienne

birding circuit Saulge 1
 

birding circuit Saulge 2
 

P = parking, H = hide, V = viewpoint. A black bar across the route indicates = no access to vehicles

LOCATION, MAPPING, HAZARDS

The circuit is on the main Montmorillon to Moulismes road, D729. It can be walked entirely, mostly driven, or a mixture of the two, which is probably best. Length roughly 10kms.

IGN Carte de randonnee 1928O (Serie bleue)

Hunting from the start of September until the end of March. Avoid temptation to investigate paths off this route other than in the Bois de l'Hospice (publicly owned); all other land is privately owned and mainly used for hunting. Traffic on the D729 is light but often very fast!

WEBSITES

The circuit is on a Natura 2000 site so there is at least some protection against possible development. Beaufour Natura 2000 site

Part of the circuit lies on the local footpath network Les Brandes de Fontenelles - listed under Vallée de la Gartempe

Commune de Saulge

Le Montmorillonais

The circuit covers the typical habitats one might encounter in the southern Vienne. Since January 2006 I have recorded at least 90% of the birds listed on the 'Birds and Birding' page, main list, here. Although this includes several Vienne rarities, it also represents many hours spent 'in the field'. So it follows that many visits would be required to achieve anything approaching the number of species on the list. With the possible exception of the Etang de Beaufour, this is not, as far as I'm aware, an specially good area for rarities, so none should be expected. However, it should give a broad range of birds at any given season. One zone in particular often disappoints – the Bois de l'Hospice, but then woodlands often do. In winter, for example, one can really struggle to find birds here, but then stumble upon that elusive winter flock with 10 to 15 species, including Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Siskin and Crested Tit...

THE ROUTE

Starting at 1, parking on the verge for 2-3 cars, junction D729/D116. Please leave room for the farmer to access fields.

Drive or walk west along the D116 for 2.2 kms, to a minor road off left signposted 'Les Forets'. Along the D116, scan cereal fields to the north for common farmland birds and migrant passerines in season, including Whinchat and Wheatear. Stone Curlews sometimes gather here on autumn return migration. The fields to the south are mostly pasture, sometimes holding Common Cranes if wintering or on passage. Hen Harriers are often quartering, occasionally Short-eared Owls (rare) in winter, when some sizable flocks of what used to be common farmland birds in UK can be seen, eg Skylark, Woodlark (small numbers), Meadow Pipit, finches (including Bramblings), Linnets and three bunting species. Montagu's Harrier and Red-backed Shrike can frequently be seen here in summer, and the occasional Merlin in winter.

Continue through the farm yard at Les Foret without lingering. This is a working farm with a right of way through the yard. If driving, park at 2, where there is room on the verge of the track for 2-3 cars. Again, the farmer needs access along the track leading to the etang, and south towards the Bois de l'Hospice. Walk the 150 metres to the hide on the north bank of the Etang de Beaufour.

Saulge, Etang de Beaufour

The Etang de Beaufour from the hide

This etang is one of the largest in the southern Vienne, and therefore of considerable importance to birds. Many rarities have been found here, probably due to it's isolation in a region where large bodies of water are virtually non-existent. Unfortunately very few linger for more than a few hours, sometimes a day or two.
The heronry opposite the hide usually has about 50 nests, and occasionally one or two pairs of Cattle Egret and Little Egret. Most years Purple Herons nest in the reedbed. Wildfowl numbers, although never huge, build towards the end of March, with Mallard, Pochard and Teal common, Gadwall and Tufted Dusk less so, and Wigeon and Pintail scarce. Garganey are rare summer visitors that possibly breed. Black Kite breed and Short-toed Eagle have attempted breeding; Goshawk is very rare. Marsh Harriers visit in spring (and autumn) but the reedbed is probably too small to hold a breeding pair. Osprey is a regular spring/autumn visitor, usually only staying a matter of hours, if that.
In autumn the etang is emptied (the vidange) to harvest the fish. This produces one of the few chances of finding waders here, with large numbers of herons, Black-headed Gulls, Teal, Water Rail, and Water Pipit.
Of the terns, only Black and Whiskered are regular but scarce on migration. Of the warblers, Cetti's, Chiffchaff and Firecrest (all year) and Sedge and Reed (summer) are normally present, Melodious can be seen along any of the hedgerows on the route in summer.
Rarities – See list(s), 'Birds and Birding' page.

There are two options at 2. Either continue on foot south towards the Bois de l'Hospice, or return by car through Les Forets and complete the circuit clockwise, ending with a walk in the woods. The route south from here is not drivable.
Taking the drivable option, head back through the farm Les Forets to the junction with the D116, back east towards point 1. There is an obvious farm track on the right leading south towards the farm at Le Leche. This track is usually drivable in summer only – in any case, it makes a very pleasant walk. If driving beware farm traffic. There is limited parking at the junction for one car, alternatively return to 1, park there and walk the short distance back along the D116. Point 3 can also be reached by driving back to 1, turning right along the D729, and then right again at the other end of this farm track; from here it is about 100 metres to the viewpoint at 3.
Either side of the farm track is rough pasture, with Great Egrets and sometimes Cattle Egrets amongst the sheep, and, rarely, a wintering Great Grey Shrike. Wintering thrushes and lapwings, and warblers and a few flycatchers occur along here in summer. Tree Pipits can be seen in summer, almost anywhere on the circuit.

The viewpoint at 3 gives pleasant panoramic views across the Etang de Leche and the Bois de l'Hospice beyond. A scope is essential here to search for those specialties this area sometimes produces. The etang itself has held a disproportionate number of rarities for it's size. In winter look for Lapwings, Golden Plover, Common Crane, thrushes and raptors. If the water level is high, this can be a good spot for 'winter' ducks like Wigeon, and occasional geese, almost always Greylags but all geese here are worth checking. The Greylags will be genuine migrating birds, although the main migration route is usually slightly to the north of the Vienne.

The route from 3 to 4 includes a section of the D729 which is best driven as it is fairly uninteresting and the traffic that there is doesn't often slow down for pedestrians! The junction off to right is signposted 'La Vacheresse', parking is possible near this junction on the wide verge of this minor road. Walking the next section to the Bois de l'Hospice can be rewarding, especially for passerines along the roadside.

At point 4 there is proper parking for several vehicles and a barrier across the track leading into the woods. The Bois de l'Hospice is open to the public (and publicly owned), but as ever in France is quite heavily used by the hunting community, both en masse if hunting sanglier (Wild Boar) or deer, or by individuals. Although containing much more coniferous plantation than deciduous woodland, there are some good stands of ancient oak woods here, and the plantation sectors are largely mature trees including some Scots Pine. Black Poplar dominates the northern area near the Etang de Beaufour.

The carpark and first section towards the Etang Neuf can be good for woodland birds in general.

Saulge, Bois de l'Hospice

The Etang Neuf, Bois de l'Hospice

The Etang Neuf is a very pleasant spot, with a suitably sited bench seat overlooking the etang, which, with the backdrop of mature coniferous woods has a Scandinavian feel. Behind (north of the path) is good, ancient deciduous woods, so the mixture can produce the full range of woodland species available here, including Nightingale, Firecrest, Spotted Flycatcher, Marsh Tit, Crested Tit, Coal Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper, Golden Oriole, Siskin and Hawfinch, depending on the season. Rarer passerines include Goldcrest, Crossbill and, very rarely, Bullfinch.

Shortly after the etang, a track off to the right (north) passes a hide now largely redundant as the view is obscured by vegetation.

The wide gravel track continues north with various options for detours and loops off the main track (beware in hunting season). This section is good for Firecrest, Crested Tit, Coal Tit and Hawfinch. Black Woodpecker and Golden Oriole (summer) may often be heard but seldom seen.
At the end of the wide gravel track, a path signposted 'Ambiance forestiere' leads off left (north-westerly) into the woods, here a mixture of Scots Pine and Black Poplar. This area used to be good for breeding Wood Warbler, and breeding Bonelli's are normally present. Another path carries straight on (north) but is not signposted and harder to follow.
The signposted path emerges from the woods at a wider track running north-south – turn right, with the high deer fencing in front of you. This is 'The Zoo', a private hunting compound containing several pairs of Bonelli's Warblers and many sangliers – often with young in late summer.
Eventually one passes the northern limit of the Bois de l'Hospice on the right, with rough pasture on both sides of the track. This track ends at 2, the parking area for the Etang de Beaufour.

La vidange à Beaufour 31/10/11

Vidange at the Etang de Beaufour. Once yearly in autumn the etang is drained to harvest the fish, with carp being the most sought after species.