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Common Cranes over Lac du Der (March 2009) [Photo by Frank Van de Velde under CCSA]

Wildlife & Wild Places, Champagne Lakes & Forests

With vast areas of forest and inland water, the region offers fantastic opportunities to see spectacular wildlife in their natural habitat.

 

Landscape & habitats

With an area of 987 square miles (2558 sq km), the Champagne Lakes is the largest French wetland designated under the Ramsar Convention for their conservation and sustainability, stretching from Sainte-Menehould on the Marne-Meuse border south to Troyes.

Sitting in a depression within the Paris Basin geological formation of sedimentary rocks, the underlying lower cretaceous clays and sands have a poor permeability, creating the damp conditions that have given rise to the many ponds, numerous lakes and wet meadow that the 'Champagne Humide' (wet Champagne) is known for.

In addition to those that naturally occur, a series of reservoirs have been created to regulate river flow: Lac du Der-Chantecoq - the largest artificial lake in Europe - was created in 1974 near Saint-Dizier to hold the water of the River Marne and prevent flooding of the Seine in Paris, whilst three other reservoirs - Les Grands Lacs - were constructed between 1966 and 1989 near Troyes, in what is now the Foret d'Orient Regional Nature Park, to regulate the Seine and Aube rivers and to provide drinking water.

Here, also, on the south-east side of the depression, the countryside surrounding the wetlands is a mixture of wheat fields, orchards and pasture, broken up by vast belts of mature oak forest, with beech, hornbeam and hazel also common components and maple, ash and alder in the damper areas.

 

Wildlife

The Champagne Lakes and Forests is home to a diverse flora and fauna, with spectacular sights at all times of the year. Here we give an overview of what you can find across the region; there are subtle differences between Foret d'Orient and Lac du Der, with more specific details for each in the Foret d'Orient and Lac du Der-Chantecoq area sections.

 

Birds

Lakes

Most famous as a migration stop - and increasingly as a wintering ground - for Common Cranes on their way to and from their breeding grounds in Scandanavia, the Champagne Lakes offer the best winter birding in Northern France.

Common Cranes [Photo by Lip Kee Yap under CCSA]

Common Cranes, among Europe's largest birds, arrive in very small groups as early as August but numbers are generally at their highest in November when up to fifty thousand can be present. They spend their days feeding on the surrounding farmland before returning to the lakes each night to roost - most at Lac du Der - in parties of several dozen but with hundreds filling the sky at once in a spectacular scene, their trumpeting calls carrying evocatively for a considerable distance [link to YouTube video]. A few thousand spend the entire winter in Champagne, but most pass through to Spain. The return migration starts in February and is much faster, with the birds eager to return to their breeding sites, but with stops at the same places so numbers increase again in March. The sight at dawn of thousands of cranes taking to the skies to continue their journey is a magical experience. More information

But the winter lakes offer much more than the cranes. A small number of White-tailed Eagles over-winter and there is a highly impressive assemblage of waterfowl in terms of range and numbers, including divers, grebes, ducks, geese and swans, including regular small numbers of rarer birds. Great White Egrets, Little Egret and Grey Herons stalk the water's edge whilst other birds of prey include Peregrine, Red Kite and Rough-legged Buzzard.

Spring sees Osprey, terns, gulls, waders and pipits passing through. In summer, the waters are quiet besides the breeding ducks, Mute Swans and Great-Crested Grebes, but the fringes of the lakes can hold a few Bittern, Little Bittern, Purple Herons and Marsh Harriers, plus passerines such as Great Reed Warbler and Nightingale.

White-tailed Eagle [photo by Hilary Chambers under CCSA]

Forests

The Champagne region's magnifient oak forests are home to six woodpecker species, adding Black, Middle Spotted and Grey-headed to the three species found in the UK (Great Spotted, Lesser Spotted and Green). Present year-round, they are easiest to track down in late winter and early spring, when the drumming and breeding calls are underway but before the pesky leaves make them extremely difficult to see! Black and Middle-spotted are relatively easy to find if you know the right places, but Grey-headed is very elusive.

There are also fantastic birds of prey to see, with Goshawk, Sparrowhawk and Red Kite all year round and Black Kite and Honey Buzzard in summer.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker [photo by Ómar Runólfsson under CCSA]

 

 

In winter the trees are alive with flocks of mixed tits and finches, Nuthatches, Eurasian and Short-toed Treecreepers, Goldcrests and Firecrests, Redpolls and Siskins, and flocks of thrushes. Bullfinch and Hawfinch are both present. Migrant warblers arrive from March onwards to breed alongside many of the wintering species.

Much more detail on birds can be found in the site-specific pages for Lac du Der and Forest d'Orient.

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Terrestrial

Whilst the birds are perhaps the star attraction, the region is also a fabulous place to see the mammals of western Europe. Red Deer and Roe Deer can be found in woodland and on the surrouding farmland. Wild Boar are also found here and, though shy, they can be surprised if you are quiet whilst out walking, especially in the deeper forest; occasionally on an evening, they can also be seen on the lake shores, feeding.

Red Squirrels and Pine Martens are also at home in the woodlands, although relatively hard to find due to the size of the forest. Foxes are commonly seen in the countryside and Badger, Weasel and Stoat are present.

Smooth snakes and Grass snakes are both found in the region but European Adders are not. However, the related European Asp Viper is found here, with a bite that is more severe than the Adder. The Western Whip Snake, which grows up to 1.5m, is located here on the edge of its range. Slow worms and Common Lizards are present and Western Green Lizard may be as well.

Red Deer [photo by Dineshraj Goomany under CCSA]

 

Aquatic

France has a much wider range of amphibians than the UK and 13 species can be found in the region. Most striking is the Fire Salamander which usually breeds in stagnant water in forests. There are four newts - Alpine Newt, Palmate Newt, Smooth Newt and Great Crested Newt. There are also four frogs - Common Frog, Agile frog, Edible Frog and Parsley Frog - and four toads - Common Toad, Yellow-bellied Toad, Midwife Toad and Natterjack Toad.

Fire Salamander, France (April 2012) [Photo by William Warby under CCSA]

The Otter is very rare is this part of France but may be increasing as it slowly recolonises France after habitat destruction and being heavily trapped in the 20th century [more information in IUCN's 2011 report]. The introduced American Mink is unfortunately common in the region, damaging aquatic ecosystems; they can be confused with otters, but Mink are more short, slim and sleek in body, more scurrying on land and more direct swimmers in the water. Another non-native is the Coypu which looks like a small beaver with a round tail, although is a pest that damages riverbanks through burrowing and eats aquatic vegetation.

The region's lakes are home to Pike, Trout, Perch, Tench and Roach amongst others, and anglers enjoy game fishing for the large carp, especially at night.

 

Flora, fungi and invertebrates

Whilst the region is not particularly distinctive in these elements, there is plenty to see.

The hedgebanks and grasslands are dotted with wild flowers such as bugle, speedwells and buttercups, whilst in the woodlands look for herb-robert, wood sorrel and wild garlic. The wet meadows near brooks or the lakes are the most spectacular, with cuckooflower and orchids.

There is a good range of butterflies and dragonflies. In the woodlands, watch out for dor and oil beetles and the big red slugs!

The region has interest for fungi, with nearly 800 being identified in the Foret d'Orient Regional Nature Park.

Orange Tip butterfly on Cuckooflower [Photo © Steve Marshall/Wild Future Photo]

 

Wildlife Sites

Some of the best areas for wildlife in the region are:

Foret d'Orient Regional Nature Park

Lac d'Orient • Wintering ducks and geese, autumn migrants, terns and warblers in summer

Foret du Temple • Beautiful woodland bordering a lake, good for woodpeckers in spring

Lac Amance • Reed-fringed lake and wet grassland, makes a good visit all year round

 

 

 

Lac du Der-Chantecoq

Route de Digue • Fantastic waterside viewpoint for waterfowl, eagle and cranes

Presqu'ile de Champaubert • Delightful peninsula of quiet bays, wet meadows and superb views

Cornee du Der • Wooded lake peninsula, good for woodpeckers in spring and walking all year

Port de Nuisement • Great views of the northern lake, winter duck and roosting cranes

Der side lakes • Lovely walks amongst these reed-fringed lakes, meadows and woodland

 

Wildlife & Wild Places, Foret d'Orient

Wildlife & Wild Places, Lac du Der

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