Common crane ballet
Tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the Champagne - Ardenne region, the Lac du Der is an ideal location to enjoy a range of water sports and observe hundreds of different bird species. In autumn, tens of thousands of migrating common cranes take a well-earned stopover at the lake.
Picture the scene as thousands and thousands of cranes arrow through the sky overhead, flying in a V or W formation to shield one other from the buffeting wind. This breathtaking show takes place every year around Europe’s largest artificial lake, the Lac du Der that spans the departments of Marne and Haute-Marne, near Saint-Dizier and Vitry-le-François.
[ Practical ]
- By road
210 km from Paris on autoroute A5 till the exit La Francilienne direction Nancy par RN, then exit 17 and N4 till Vitry-le-François and D13 till Giffaumont Champaubert.
- By train
TER train from Paris Est to Vitry-le-François. The journey takes about 2 hours. Then taxi or rental car till Giffaumont Champaubert à 28 km.
TER train from Paris Est to Saint Dizier. Duration of the journey : about 2 hours 20 minutes. Then taxi or rental car till Giffaumont Champaubert à 24 km
Hôtellerie du Moulin in Eclaron
Le Cheval Blanc in Giffaumont Champaubert
Hôtel de l’Isle in Montier-en-Der
- Chambres d’hôtes
Le Gros Chêne in Frampas
L’Escale Dorée in Giffaumont Champaubert
La Roselière in Giffaumont Champaubert
La Maison de Marie in Droyes
Le Relais du Blaiseron in Louvemont.
Hôtellerie du Moulin in Eclaron
Le Cheval Blanc in Giffaumont Champaubert
La Grange aux Abeilles in Gaiffaumont Champaubert
L’auberge de Chantecoq in Gaiffaumont Champaubert
Auberge de Puisie in Montier en Der
Hôtel de l’Isle in Montier en Der
Auberge du Gros Chêne in Frampas
Auberge du Pot Moret in Châtillon sur Broué
It is more convenient to have a car.
- Nature de Der
Tel : 0326739743
- LPO Champagne-Ardenne
Tel : 0326725447
Musée du Pays du Der
Tel : 0326410102
2016 edition from October 22nd to 30th
- CDT de Haute-Marne
Tel : 0325303900
- Office du Tourisme du Lac de Der
Tel : 0326726280
Dug in the 1970s to regulate the flow of the Marne and Seine rivers and prevent devastating floods, it covers 4,800 ha and its 77km shoreline boasts beaches as well as boat clubs.
A haven for bird lovers
During the summer season, eager holidaymakers “flock” to the lake to swim, fish, sail, windsurf, canoe, row, boat and jet ski. For all that, this large expanse of water is first and foremost a haven for ornithologists. Around 270 birds species nest there either on a permanent basis or temporarily as part of their seasonal migration. Harvest goose, barnacle goose, Eurasian bittern, marsh harrier, black kite, white-tailed eagle, great egret, cormorant, osprey, purple heron, Bewick’s swan, grebe, coot and whistler, to name but a few, all make their home at the lake that has been classified as a “Natural Reserve”. Observation posts and platforms, telescopes installed on the dykes and hiking paths allow enthusiasts to approach the birds, watch them and photograph them in excellent conditions. It is also possible to observe many other types of wildlife. The ecosystem boasts 45 varieties of dragonfly, 20 kinds of batrachians and 40 mammal species including foxes, wild cats and deer.
The Lac du Der’s star and main attraction is, of course, the common crane, Europe’s largest wading bird and one of the world’s most majestic creatures. Adults of the species have a wingspan of 2 to 2.40 m, a height of 1.15 to 1.40m and weigh in at between 4 and 5 kilograms.
Each year in October and November, nearly 200,000 individuals stop over at the lake for a few days or weeks during their annual migration from Scandinavia to the south of France, Spain and Morocco. Last year, 30,000 spent a full month at the site and some even stay for the whole winter when the weather is not too harsh. In March–April, on their way back to Northern Europe, they once again stop off for a break but in lower numbers and their stay is confined to a two-week period.
As a result, the autumn is the best time to come and watch them. The first cranes arrive in October and their arrival date depends on the weather in Scandinavia - they don’t begin their migration until the weather becomes too cold.
84,000 on a single day
The population of cranes at the lake reaches its peak in November. At this time, one can expect to see anywhere between 30,000 and 60,000 cranes nesting on emerged islets and ridges located in the middle of the lake as the water level is very low during this season. On one famous occasion, members of the League for the Protection of Birds counted 84,000 individuals on a single day. That record still stands to this day.
To get an idea of sheer scale of the flocks, the best time to visit the lake is the early morning or late afternoon when the birds leave or come home to roost. During the day, those that have not resumed their southern migration forage for food in the surrounding fields within a 30km radius. In the past, this created problems for local farmers. Today however, more than 1,000 ha are deliberately left with harvest leftovers so the cranes can search for food in peace. Here, as on the lake, it is very difficult to get closer than 300m to the flocks, even on a tour led by one of the guides who take groups on 8-25 km bird-watching hikes.
Back home to the lake
Getting a closer look at these fearful birds is best achieved with a good pair of binoculars. New this year, on some days you can also take an early morning hot air balloon ride and get a sky –high view of the crane ballet.
At the end of the afternoon, they head back to the lake to spend the night. On this homeward journey, they encounter the birds that have just arrived from Northern Europe. A continuous ballet ensues for an hour and a half as larger and larger flocks of crane assemble on the lake. But if you can stand the cold autumn mornings in Champagne and are willing to rise and shine at 6.30am, the show is even more magical at dawn. When you arrive at the shores of the lake, you’ll actually hear the cranes before you see them. This fragmented chorus grows to a cacophony as the sun rises and daylight reveals the birds standing on one leg, their night-time sleeping position. Soon, groups of cranes fly off in succession for a journey that will see them travel at 30-80km per hour for up to 30 hours. Around 9 am – 9.30am, they have all disappeared and the lake is calm once more.
Pays du Der museum © T.Joly
For those wishing to combine ornithology with a taste of local heritage, the Musée du Pays du Der is home to a collection of timber-frame and cob buildings that were once part of the three villages that disappeared under water when the lake was created. It includes a rare 16th – 17th century church. The village of Montier-en-der is also worth a detour for two monuments: a beautiful abbey-church comprising a large Romanesque nave and gothic choir, and a 19th century national stud-farm founded by Napoleon I where thoroughbred and carthorse stallions are bred. In addition, it plays host to a renowned annual wildlife photography festival. This is the first of two important events linked to nature organized in the region. The second is the Crane Festival (Fête de la Grue) held almost every year at the end of October and featuring nature walks, workshops for kids, photographic exhibitions and conferences all around the theme of the common crane.
September 20, 2016