10:34 a.m. The alert is given on Telegram, an instant messaging application. On both sides of the small Breton island of Ouessant, dozens of pockets resound to signal the message: “A large pipit supposedly pale posed in a field in Parluchen.” A Godlewski’s pipit, a passerine bird from Siberia, was reportedly spotted. Time is counted. Most bird watchers stop dead in their tracks, get on their bikes and rush to the given meeting point.
On the spot, 80 people, in camouflage-colored clothes, rubber boots on their feet, telescopes and telephoto lenses around their necks, are doing the crane foot. The majority saw nothing but with their recorder, some managed to hear the bird’s cry, and small groups discuss while listening to the soundtrack to find out if it is indeed a Godlewski pipit, considered in Ouessant as a rarity.
We are at the end of October, at the end of Finistère. Ouessant, 15 km2, a pebble flat like a square, thrown into the sea. Every year, an astonishing game of migration takes place there: that of the birds, regular migrants or lost several thousand kilometers from their route, and that of the ornithologists come to observe them.
Between sky and sea, constantly bathed in spray, the small island is a Mecca for French ornithology. From the 1960s, it hosted the first banding camps in the country, this technique which consists of passing a ring around the leg of the animal to identify it and know its habits. For if Ouessant is home to its share of resident nesters – such as the ubiquitous winter wren or the rare spotted warbler – it is also, due to its position, a privileged stopover for many migrants.
Oasis for birds
In charge of “migrations” research at the League for the Protection of Birds, the LPO, Louis Sallé is currently writing an atlas of migratory birds crossing France. He is a regular at Ouessant, where he has been going for sixteen years. To explain the phenomenon, he speaks of “joint effects”. “Ouessant reminds me of an oasis, a refuge with food and light.” The westernmost land of the French metropolis, it is particularly well placed: a valuable base for birds crossing the Atlantic, as well as for those coming from the north and following the coast to reach southern Europe or the Africa.
Thus at the crossroads of migratory routes, birds can come from everywhere. Attracted by the light of Créac’h, the most powerful lighthouse in Europe, as ships entering the English Channel were before, they find shelter in the thick bushes of gorse and brambles that have colonized the island and the protect from predators. A godsend even if some, lost at sea, will never find their way back. Finally, the last argument to explain the Ouessant phenomenon: the high number of ornithologists present also makes it possible to detect more species.
“When you start in the tick, very quickly, you want to see as many birds as possible and the list is never stopped”
Because in ornithology, these “cocheurs” who come to Ouessant form a separate category. They are collectors. They’re looking for the “rare beak,” the bird that doesn’t belong there, to add to their list. In 2013, Antoine Rougeron created Cocheurs.fr, where everyone can list their observations. On the website with 1500 subscribers, a ranking of the most zealous members exists. The grail is the “self-found”, or the discovery of a species never observed on the territory before. A few years later, a Telegram thread followed to warn of the live finds. Aged 35, Antoine testifies: “When you start in the coach, very quickly, you want to see as many birds as possible and the list is never stopped. Some are only visible in a region or at a particular time and each year new things are seen.
In this very masculine environment, young – around their thirties – and rather educated, most of the participants work in the environment, as researchers, in an association or in a design office – the emulation is very strong. And in recent years, with the democratization of photo equipment and lenses, the discipline has been attracting more and more people.
Jean-Philippe Siblet was one of the first to come, thirty-seven years ago. He has since founded the Naturalist Association of Ouessant, ANO, and returns every year. Walking through the bushes of the Kun, to the west of the island, he remembers, with nostalgia: “At the start, there were four or five of us to drive here. We met at the break to write down our observations on a blackboard, it was declarative. Today, it can go up to 200 people! With social networks, ornithologists rush. Some recognize that they can cover a thousand kilometers on a whim for a warbler or a rare duck. “They are also over-equipped, have lenses that cost thousands of euros and have become much more demanding.”
But even if it has its excesses, this exaltation is rather good news for scientists. As evidenced by Louis Sallé, himself a wedge and user of the data collected in his research. “We have every interest in ensuring that the level is good because it helps us later to study the species and their habits.” A fine example of citizen science, like a treasure hunt.