Hunting Godwits and Oystercatchers

Rental car perched on the drivable breakwater at Dunkerque, France.

I am not sure if the seas were angry, but they certainly weren’t pleased about me setting up my spotting scope. My optics were pleading not to be led from the warm rental car to the fierce winds and sputters of driving rain outside.

I was in my last hours of my much-anticipated day of bird-watching in northern France. I had awoken in Paris before dawn to drive my rental Fiat 500 two hours north to the famous Parc Marquenterre, where flocks of migrating shorebirds awaited.

After careful research, I’d decided to spend the rest of the day looking out over the ocean towards the British Isles in hopes of spotting a passing murre, eider, or shearwater. My original plan was to check out several locations along the coast before pointing the car inland to Lille—on the Belgian borer—where I would rendezvous with Kristi to spend the weekend.

I glanced at my watch. As always, my original plan was ambitious. I really only had time for one stop. I decided to head straight for coastal city of Dunkerque, tempted by the pair of drivable breakwaters that jet out into the water I’d seen on Google Maps.

Without GPS, I was forced to use a less-detailed paper map and the position of the sun, which was fortunately prominent in the sky. After a few missed turns and multiple trips to the same roundabout, I found the jetty and unfortunately a seawatchers worst adversary: wind. While not as bad as its nefarious cousin, heavy rainfall, hard wind makes it difficult to hold a spotting scope steady, rendering impossible the already difficult task of identifying dark winged dots on the horizon.

I scanned the beach and the turbulent waters beyond from the comfort of the rental car. Fortunately, positioning the car was easy: the cement jetty was almost entirely drivable, save the last precipitous pitch as it met the beach.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much. I drove down to several more locations on the jetty: nothing.

As I approached a small group of empty cars, I was startled to see a man, perched on top of coastal boulders with a shotgun resting on his shoulder. Quite different from the beach tools I am used to seeing, the most insidious being a shovel or clam rake.

Shorebird hunter perched on a pile of cement slabs. Dunkerque, France.

There’s no way he could get a decent shot at a seaduck. Was it target practice? His similarly-armed friend approached with a limp gray body dangling from his left hand. Still at a distance, I had to use my binoculars to identify their quarry: Black-tailed Godwit, a large sandpiper.

I was shocked. Certainly they can’t hunt shorebirds in France, can they? It did explain the lack of birds on this beach. Seeing similar clusters of cars down the jetty confirmed that the sport was at least popular, if not also legal.

I drove further down the jetty and stopped just short of vividly patterned flock of black and white Eurasian Oystercatchers. I quickly brought my binoculars to my eyes, excited to study a species I hadn’t ever seen before that morning. Hmph. Hunting decoys. A man paced the waterline near the decoys, shotgun on one side, dog on the other.

Hunter and hunting dog with oystercatcher decoys.

Tactically, the location was perfect. This wide amalgam of sand, cement, and rocks was the first land migrating shorebirds would see after leaving the tip of Scandinavia 500 miles to the north.

In the United States, we are used to hunting waterfowl and gamebirds like quail and pheasant; all other species are protected by the International Migratory Bird Treaty. It was a surprise to see some of the longest distance avian migrants in the crosshairs.

Hunters waiting near their decoys: Eurasian Oystercatchers on the left and Black-tailed Godwits on the right.

Despite a more generous target list, hunting is tightly regulated in France. Every hunter must have a valid license. Applicants must pass a written exam to test their knowledge of wildlife, hunting, hunting regulations, arms and munitions, and firearm safety. After passing, the applicant must take a practical exam which involves simulated hunting (with blanks) as well as live target practice with black targets representing legally hunted wildlife and red targets representing protected species. In addition to failing the above tests, applicants can be denied for medical reasons, or by having a criminal record within the past five years.

Once they pass, they can join the hunting community in France, which is well over a million strong. Following hunting seasons set by local prefectures, people can hunt any of the 62 bird species below.

Greater White-fronted Goose
Graylag Goose
Canada Goose
Eurasian Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Red-crested Pochard
Common Pochard
Tufted Duck
Greater Scaup
Common Eider
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Common Goldeneye
Gallinaceous (“Chicken-like”) Birds
California Quail
Northern Bobwhite
Rock Partridge
Red-legged Partridge
Gray Partridge
Common Quail
Silver Pheasant
Reeves’s Pheasant
Ring-necked Pheasant
Eurasian Capercaillie
Black Grouse
Hazel Grouse
Willow Ptarmigan
Rock Ptarmigan
Water Rail
Eurasian Moorhen
Eurasian Coot
Northern Lapwing
Black-bellied Plover
European Golden-Plover
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Spotted Redshank
Common Greenshank
Common Redshank
Eurasian Curlew
Black-tailed Godwit
Bar-tailed Godwit
Red Knot
Jack Snipe
Common Snipe
Eurasian Woodcock
Rock Pigeon
Stock Dove
Common Wood-Pigeon
European Turtle-Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Eurasian Jay
Eurasian Magpie
Eurasian Jackdaw
Carrion Crow
Sky Lark
Eurasian Blackbird
Mistle Thrush
European Starling




3 Replies to “Hunting Godwits and Oystercatchers”

    1. Don’t get me started…I came across a hunter yesterday with 10 Dunlin and 2 GRYE dangling from his belt. He told me they were “Snipe”.

  1. Good heavens!! That sounds like the 1900s, not 2012. Please tell me they are using lead free shot,though I imagine they are polluting, poisoning AND killing.

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