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Phare de Gatteville - Gatteville-le-Phare, Manche (50)
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This is a translation from the book La France à tire-d'aile (2005) written by Philippe J. Dubois and Elise Rousseau, published by Delachaux & Niestlé, reproduced here with the kind authorization of the publisher and the authors.  

The watchpoint 

The Gatteville lighthouse is a seawatch site located at 20 km from Cherbourg, in the Manche département in the northwestern corner of the Cotentin Peninsula. Autumn migration is better known than spring migration. The location of the watchpoint, facing to the east, is not favorable for spring migration. The latter is more obvious along the English South Coast.

In autumn, seabirds are most likely of mixed origin. Firstly, there is a classic flow of seabirds coming from the North Sea and migrating through the Channel towards the Atlantic Ocean. Secondly, low pressure areas over the Atlantic and strong southern and southwestern winds push seabirds from the ocean and the western Channel into the eastern Channel.  When the weather calms down, seabirds return towards the ocean along the eastside of the Cherbourg Peninsula, blown in by strong northwesterly winds. The latter  seems to be the main flow at Gatteville and the watchpoint is interesting to study this movement.

The birds

It is difficult to define to which flow the migrating seabirds pertain. The numbers of Great Skuas and shearwaters at Gatteville, however, are more important than those in the North Sea, indicating an Atlantic origin. Some seabirds of atlantic affinities, such as Sabine’s Gull, may also come from the west. Tern and smaller skua migration, on the other hand, in lower numbers than in the North Sea, may be north-south migrants, passing over a wider front along the Normandy coast than in the Straits of Dover.

The seabird species at the watchpoint are similar to those in the eastern Channel and the North Sea. During some autumn (or even winter) days, many Gannets, Kittewakes, Little Gulls and alcids (Guillemots and Razorbills) fly past. Rare species, such as Little Shearwater have been observed and Long-tailed Skuas are regular. The site is uninteresting for duck migration.

Bushes and scrubby fields near the coastal path are interesting for passerines. Pied Flycatchers and Common Redstarts appear at the end of August. Phylloscopus warblers and goldcrests are seen in September. Wryneck is observed annually. Scarce migrants such as Richard’s Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Yellow-browed and Pallas’s Warbler have been found in October. 

Weather

Seabird observation depends on the wind. Although this is an important factor for most seabird sites, it is particularly striking for Gatteville. Unfortunately, the wind limits the number of days with good migration conditions. The ideal conditions often follow strong southern and southwestern winds linked to a distant area of low pressure over the Atlantic Ocean. The following days, the wind turns west and northwest. The ideal time frame is the short period with nortwesterly winds. Western winds are not interesting at Gatteville. Good conditions may linger on when the wind turns north. The distance between the English and the French Coast is 130 km. This explains why seabirds are usually well offshore from the Normandy coast with westerly winds.

Visitors

There is no permanency at the watchpoint. Seawatchers turn up whenever the conditions seem favorable.

How to get there ?

As you leave Gatteville village, the lighthouse can be reached by a winding and narrow road that runs along the coast. There is a car park nearby. The site can be easily reached by disabled people. Seawatchers are usually on the eastside of the lighthouse, providing shelter from western and northwestern winds. Looking to the east, seabirds are often easily observed at close range. Some seabirds cross the jetty towards the lighthouse. The lighthouse can be visited (365 steps) : it offers a nice view but is not interesting for seawatching.

Where to stay and where to eat ?

It is not possible to stay in the village, but there are small hotels and guesthouses nearby, at Barfleur and more to the south at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. The latter village is particularly interesting for wintering birds.

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