Imagine my surprise when I was out on my bike somewhere between Lacanau and Carcans-Maubuisson, on a stretch of cycle path which is among th...

Étang de Cousseau nature reserve: towers, telescopes and one of la Gironde's finest views

Imagine my surprise when I was out on my bike somewhere between Lacanau and Carcans-Maubuisson, on a stretch of cycle path which is among the prettiest there is in Gironde, and I saw signposts to “la Réserve naturelle nationale de l’étang de Cousseau”. I decided to investigate – what would I find?


I veered off the main cycling route and off down a lane, which stretched on for a kilometre or so, until I was met with the sight of a row of wooden bicycle racks ahead of a gate. I locked up my bike and continued on foot, all the while heading downhill, following a narrow and twisty footpath. It all felt very wild and then, to the left, the idyllic sight of a large expanse of water filtered through the trees, and that was soon followed by a wooden viewing platform. I had very much arrived and the sight to behold was as splendid and as spectacular as you’ll get to see anywhere, period.

The nature reserve – in essence a lake along with an extensive area of marshland – covers a surface of 882 hectares (the lake alone accounts for 50 hectares) and has been open to visitors since 1976. In a way, the reserve gives an idea of the way things were way back, the way back in question being prior to the 19th century when humans re-moulded the Landes landscape and ocean coastline.

Information panels welcoming visitors.

From what I can make out (and it may turn out that this paragraph will have to be rewritten when somebody tells me otherwise), along the Atlantic coast, sand dunes would develop, rising and falling, preventing the inland waters from reaching the sea, forming the great freshwater lakes of Lacanau and Hourtin. Elsewhere, the land was stabilized through the plantation of maritime pines, and the surrounding land was irrigated to make it more habitable. However, in this hillier part of the region it was more difficult to plant maritime pines, and so the wild marshlands have prevailed, providing a home to a rich and ever-developing ecosystem of plants, trees, birds, mammals, and insects.    

Among the wildlife present on site, the national nature reserves website notes various species of toads, frogs, newts, roe deer, wild boar, badgers, otters; more than 200 species of birds including osprey, greylag geese, white spoonbills, black-headed gulls, cranes and ducks; while around 70 species of birds come here to breed, including white-winged goshawk, hobby falcon, marsh harrier, buzzard and black kite. Oh, and let’s not forget Cousseau’s miscellaneous reptiles, amphibians, dragonflies (39 species) and butterflies (50 species). I suppose we could go on but if we do we could be here for some time…

Happily, all these constantly evolving facts and figures are permanently monitored by an organisation called SEPANSO (Société pour l'Étude et l'Aménagement de la Nature dans le Sud-Ouest), who manage the reserve. They also oversee the Banc d’Arguin at the mouth of Arcachon Bay, and the Réserve naturelle nationale des Marais de Bruges – the latter of which has long since deserved its own Invisible Bordeaux report.  

At Cousseau, to my surprise, a SEPANSO representative was present on the main viewing platform to answer questions, provide guidance and lend out two telescopes to partake in some serious birdwatching. He did point out though that a hot mid-afternoon in June was not optimal in terms of observing anything more interesting than the siege of herons huddling in a tree some way in the distance. Will plan things properly next time!


From there I climbed the steps of one of the reserve’s two tall observation towers, la Tour de Lesperon. In places, poetic notes written on fabric added a little mystique to the proceedings.

La Tour de Lesperon. A poem was written on the white fabric rectangle which moved with the wind.

From the top I felt ever so slightly like I was the king of Cousseau, and to properly crown the occasion I spotted a magnificent cow in the distance. Or was it a bull? A bison? A buffalo? It turns out it was actually a "vache marine" Whatever, this was now a bit like being on safari.

From that vantage point, along with the impressive natural beauty, what was most striking was how peaceful the place was, the silence disturbed only by the buzzing of insects. When I was there, there were just three other visitors, I bumped into two other people on my way out – it was certainly difficult to believe that the reserve reportedly draws between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors per year… The crowds certainly weren’t around on a Sunday afternoon in June.

Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, I will most definitely be paying a return visit before too long to be able to experience the reserve to the full. There is another observation tower to climb, and a full walking circuit to take in. In a way, this first, unplanned venture feels like it was little more than a rushed trailer ahead of the full feature unfolding.

So, dear Réserve naturelle nationale de l’étang de Cousseau, Invisible Bordeaux is very much looking forward to exploring your delights further sometime in the future… and preferably on a day when there are more birds to be seen! 

Update: I did make it back shortly afterwards and got to take in the fine view from the top of the second observation tower, Tour Galip. Hurrah!

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Réserve naturelle nationale de l’étang de Cousseau, Lacanau. Cycling is the recommended means of reaching the reserve, but there is also a car park located more or less in the vicinity (codenamed 'Marmande" on the D6E1 départementale road to the north of Lacanau), but note that it's a fair old walk from there to the reserve proper.

> Réserves Naturelles de France website page

> SEPANSO website page 

> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !

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