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At 48 km2, the Lac du Der in the Grand Est region of France is Europe’s largest artificial lake. It was built in 1974 to regulate the flow of the river Marne and help protect Paris from flooding. Since its construction the lake has become a paradise for birds and is a main stopping point for Common Cranes during their migration from north to south in late autumn and from south to north from mid winter. At dawn each morning, having rested overnight, the birds fly off in groups in search of food in the nearby fields, with hundreds, sometimes thousands of individuals calling out.

I had wanted to visit the lake since reading about it a couple of years ago but had never found the right moment to go. It is a popular destination for bird watchers and the hides located at various points around the lake can become busy. Most people visit during the north to south migration in autumn. As I wanted to avoid the crowds I decided to visit in winter, when I hoped it would be much calmer.

It was 4h30 am on a cold January morning when I left Paris and drove two and a half hours east. The roads were calm and despite some patches of freezing fog, I arrived safely about an hour before sunrise. I had spent many months planning my visit and had been advised that the Presqu’île de Larzicourt on the northern edge of the lake was a quiet location that should be suitable for recording. Using Google maps I found an area close to the lake where I could park my car and this was easy to locate. I made the final adjustments to my equipment in the warm car before heading down to the shores of the lake. Before turning on my recorder and listening through the headphones I stood still and listened.

Conditions were perfect, it was completely silent with no wind. The temperature was -5 degrees C and the ground beneath my feet was frozen. With only a slight crescent moon I relied on my headlamp to guide my way as I slowly moved towards the lake shoreline. Once again I stayed still and listened. After about a minute or so, I heard some cranes call out off in the distance. My heart began racing and I felt a sense of relief knowing that my trip here had not been for nothing. I estimated the cranes were between 500-1000 metres away so carefully began walking along the frozen ground next to the shoreline heading towards the cranes.

I found a location where I could see a few different groups of cranes on the water. I carefully set up my microphones (ORTF setup) and stood still waiting, and hoping, for them to begin calling out. The horizon had turned a gorgeous shade of pink and orange, then as if an internal alarm had been triggered, the cranes all began to call out to one another before flying up into the air. Before long, groups of around fifty birds filled the skies above me and flew past as they headed off to the fields behind me to search for food.

It was a truly magical moment. I was alone in a beautiful environment, witnessing one of nature’s many impressive spectacles. Despite the freezing temperatures making my fingers turn numb, I was captivated by what I was seeing and hearing. The open lake and freezing temperatures made for a wonderful natural reverberation that added another interesting element to the soundscape.

This species had long been one I hoped to record and I’m happy with the results. I do intend to return to the Lac du Der in the future, this time to capture the Common Cranes in Autumn when the numbers can be in the hundreds of thousands. But for now I am content with having experienced this unforgettable moment.