Thanks to volunteer Phil for his entertaining report on his 'Hides & Trails' duties...

Birdwatching en francais

In these Brexit benighted times it was great on a recent Hides and Trails session to be able to welcome 4 international visitors from Europe to Pulborough Brooks.

I was sitting in Little Hanger Hide enjoying a quiet lunch and watching a pair of whitethroats going in an out of the bramble bush at the bottom of the slope, when 2 gentlemen and 2 ladies came in and sat on the bench next to me.  Something about the “jizz” of one of the ladies – her hat I think – said French to me and sure enough they started speaking French to each other. 

I am the proud possessor of a Grade 3 French O Level from several decades ago and have had several visits to France, but it quickly became clear that my vocabulary doesn’t run to being able to name different species of bird in French.  The typical vocabulary taught at school not surprisingly revolves around all the sort of things you might need to know as a typical tourist such as food, shopping, travel and accommodation and my only knowledge was French for bird, ie “oiseau”.

So when the lady with the hat turned to me and asked in very halting English if I could identify a bird way out on the North Brooks I thought it would be very good to converse with her in French but was completely stumped on how to discuss where her target bird was.  In such a large area it can be difficult enough in English.

However, she pointed to one of the pictures in the hide just below the window showing a greylag, and sure enough I could see a distant greylag out on the Brooks.  The lady also had a bird book, which looked suspiciously like a French version of the Collins Bird Guide with no obvious mention of “Collins”, so I thumbed through this to find a greylag, discovering that in French it is called “oie cendree”, “oie” being the French for goose.

I then put my scope on this bird and the French lady took a look, but shook her head and pointed to a bird in the book on the same page,  This clearly looked like an Egyptian Goose, unsurprisingly called “oie egyptienne”, and sure enough there were 2 of these close to the greylag.

A few minutes later she turned to me and pointed to a picture of a shelduck below the window and I agreed that there was a shelduck on one of the North Brooks pools.  Once again we looked this up in the book and discovered that it is called “tadorne de Belon”.  Later I discovered that tadorna is the Latin name for the shelduck genus which covers several different species across the world.  Belon is a river in France famous for its oysters which made me wonder about the derivation of our English word “shelduck”.  Sure enough I have now discovered that small shellfish are part of their diet, and doubtless the reason why they can often be seen on estuaries.

Sadly, my non-existent birdwatching French didn’t run to describing 2 little brown jobs coming in and out of a bramble bush, so the whitethroats may have gone unnoticed by our French visitors. 

A little Internet research suggests that this species is called “fauvette grisette” and that “fauvette” is the French word for warbler. I already knew that “gris” means grey and that “…ette” is often added to words to mean small, so I suspect this translates literally as a warbler which is a little grey. I have also discovered that the French for bramble is “ronce”.  So maybe our visitors might have understood “il y a deux fauvettes grisette dans la ronce”

Finally, the lady pointed to another bird in the book called a “vanneau” which was immediately recognisable to me as a lapwing of which several were visible. After this the whole group bid me goodbye and thankyou in recognisable English.  I replied “au revoir” but I realised too late that I could have wished them “bonne vacances”, ie have a good holiday.

And now the all important question.  Qu’est-ce que c’est “birdwatching” en francais?   C’est ornithologie.  Not altogether surprising!

On reflection this is my most unusual Hides and Trails visitor encounter but as so often I have learned something.

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