Apr
24

Crossing the Gard

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birders birding Pont du Gard

It’s not an hour’s drive to the Pont du Gard, one of the most famous Roman structures in the world, but the rocky banks and garrigue of the river Gardon are a world apart from the marshy lowlands of the Camargue.

We spent a bright, warm morning here admiring both the acumen of the Roman architects and engineers and some pretty exciting birds. As usual, getting out of the parking lot proved our greatest challenge. A pair of black kites was busy building a nest in one of the big poplars, and the first of the day’s several common redstarts hunted the fenceline. The distant song of a golden oriole was simultaneously encouraging — they’re back! — and tantalizing — way back over that way! — but soon enough the bird, or a bird, flashed across the clearing to land in the bare branches of the kites’ home tree: great views of a bird that so often goes barely glimpsed even where, as here, the species is so hearteningly common.

Gardon River from Pont du Gard

The water was notably high this time. Several of the old familiar gravel bars were nearly submerged, to the disappointment of a pair of little ringed plover flying ceaselessly just above the surface of the river. My guess is that they had lost their nest, or at least their anticipated nesting site, to the flood. One or two more were on the rocks on the far bank, but unless water levels fall, there may be no breeding here this year.

reat cormorants, white wagtails, little egrets, and gray herons looked happier. If they were content, the alpine swifts and crag martins were exuberant, flashing above and around and through the arches of the aqueduct. We saw several martins at their nest crannies, while one pair returned persistently to a damp spot on the steep bank, whether to bathe or drink or gather a little mud for the nest we couldn’t tell.

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We had just time for a quick glance into the woods, then it was time for a good lunch at the Terrasses. House sparrows and western jackdaws were our companions, and a blue tit working the edge of the terrace was a “lifer” for some of us.

We were back at the hotel in time to take an hour’s break, then most of us set out to have a look around town. St-Trophime seduced much of our attention. It is impossible not to linger at the Roman sarcophaguses repurposed as altars, especially what may be the most famous example in France, the Sarcophagus of the Red Sea.

Red Sea

From here it was up to the arena, then some were off to gape at Frank Gehry’s new Luma. I decided to work up an appetite for dinner by putting my feet up and listening to the black redstarts, common greenfinchs, and Eurasian collared doves out the window of our hotel room.

This is the life.

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Apr
24

Into the Camargue

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European turtle dove

This turtle dove — one of several we were lucky enough to run across today — was tired after the long Mediterranean crossing, but our little group was full of energy and eager for our first excursion into the Rhône delta. We left Arles in a dense overcast, which gave way to warm sunshine as the morning went on, even heat in the late afternoon.

It was stop and go, in the van and out of the van for roadside birds, until we got to the shores of the Etang de Vaccarès at La Capelière, where it seemed as if every step was interrupted by something new: white storks on nests, gangs of greater flamingos honking on the ponds, a flyover by the first European bee-eaters of the trip. It would have been almost too much, if there were possibly such a thing as “too much” for birders.

The wide-open flats of the Fangasser, just to the south, were every bit as good as we’d hoped they would be. Kentish, little ringed, and black-bellied plovers gave beautiful looks, though we could only imagine what nifty rarities must have been mixed in with the clouds of dunlin overhead. Common greenshanks were scattered everywhere, while dense flocks of pied avocets were wading and swimming through the deeper water.

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Of all the fine birds of a very fine place, I still think of the slender-billed gull as the Camargue specialty. These dark-billed beauties are, happily, much more common than they were even twenty years ago when I first birded their out-of-the-way haunts, but it is every bit as exciting today to see “snouties” as it was back when they were a mild rarity.

slender-billed gull

It was already time for lunch, so off to Salin de Giraud just down the road, with a pause along the way for a nice close look at a short-toed snake eagle.

Of the dozen birding spots between there and Arles, we chose the Verdier marshes at Le Sambuc to walk off yet another good meal. It was hot, well into the 80s F, and not much was stirring. Our first purple heron was in the ditch, and common cuckoos, common nightingales, and Cetti’s warblers — nearly all of them characteristically invisible — provided a classic Mediterranean soundtrack.

Tomorrow: the cliffs of the Alpilles.

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Apr
22

Il mar, il suol

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Alison in Arles

A long day but an easy trip from Newark to Arles, by way of Paris and Marseille. We were especially happy this time that we could offer a couple of our new birding friends a ride from the airport, sparing them the train ride and giving us some greatly appreciated company on the hour’s drive.

As waited for our room keys, a bit of sleepitude overcame one of us.

Alison arrives in Arles

Not me, though. Once the vehicles were parked, our suitcases in the room, and the optics unpacked, it was time to make some preparations. I took it as a good sign that a Eurasian tree sparrow was hanging out around the corner from our hotel; I can’t remember ever having seen that so attractive species right here in the city.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

(This one was on the edge of town a couple of springs ago.)

Heartened, we made reservations for our first dinner together as a group — La Paillotte, one of our old favorites — and took a quick walk to confirm the opening hours and days of the other restaurants we’re so much looking forward to eating at.

Birding spots, too, change from year to year, so we set forth to check the conditions at a couple of nearby sites in the Camargue. Not only do water levels vary, but in some years the vegetation is short, in others high enough to make it impractical, even impossible, to look into certain of the marshes with a group.

Looks good this year, though, even if one of the abundant nutrias decided that dry and newly disked might be worth a look.

nutria

We concentrated on more productive habitats, enjoying the usual stonechats, Iberian wagtails, Cetti’s warblers, zitting cisticolas, purple herons, glossy ibis…. The list went on and on. On the water we were happy to see a couple of garganey, and one of the big reed beds offered up a glimpse of a bearded tit — neither species a “gimme” on this tour by any means. Black-headed and Mediterranean gulls were almost continuously in view, and the newly arrived common terns were joined by a gull-billed tern or two, that last species sometimes tricky to find on demand.

short-toed eagle April 2018

It’s a good season for raptors in the Camargue, and though we didn’t see many individuals this afternoon, it was fun to get to watch marsh harriers and a couple of short-toed snake eagles, including this perched bird being harassed by barn swallows, European starlings, and a very persistent common kestrel. (Not sure why my photos didn’t work out; the bird wasn’t nearly as far away as this image suggests.)

Sleepiness seems to be followed invariably by hunger. We’d meant to come back to Arles for an early supper, but the beach traffic was daunting, so we dropped in at the domaine Ricard in Méjanes, where common nightingales and flamingos serenaded us — one species slightly more tuneful than the other — while we ate on the patio.

Alison's supper Me?janes

Hard to beat spring in Provence.

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Apr
14

Red Warblers and White-eared Titmice

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I don’t care that it looks like the cloud of suspicion hanging over that Arizona red warbler is about to break out into a downpour of doubt. I’m still enormously jealous; whether it turns out that the tropical beauty flew from southern Mexico or it crossed the border in the backseat of an Altima, I will forever regret not having seen that flash of red in the ponderosa pines of Rose Canyon.

If the bird is eventually adjudged a plausibly “natural” vagrant, it will represent the first generally accepted record of the species north of Mexico — a very carefully qualified formulation that reminds us that the red warbler had a firm place on official lists of the birds of the United States for nearly sixty years before it was definitively removed in 1910.

Like so many Mexican birds, the red warbler was introduced to western science by the William Bullocks, father and son, as part of their London exhibitions of zoological and anthropological curiosities. Wildly successful for a while, the show eventually, inevitably, lost its appeal, and Bullock, Sr., sold the collection in a famous series of auctions.

Before the birds went on the block, however, he made at least some of the specimens available to William Swainson, who formally described and named the new ones in the Philosophical Magazine for 1827. Swainson gave Setophaga rubra a clear and straightforward diagnosis: the new Mexican warbler, collected in Michoacán, was “entirely red,” its “ear feathers of a silky whiteness.” No mistaking this for any other bird.

That original description was translated into German in the Isisand Swainson himself repeated it in his 1838 Animals in Menageries, this time based on a specimen in his own collection from Toluca.

colored plate of the bird, based on an uncharacteristically clunky painting by Jean-Gabriel Prêtre, was published in 1836, accompanying Frédéric de Lafresnaye’s description of what he thought was a new species, the vermilion warbler, brought back from Xalapa by “Mme Salé” (presumably Cathérine Caillard Sallé, mother of the natural historian Auguste Sallé).  Charles Bonaparte corrected Lafresnaye’s error a year later, pointing out that the Xalapa bird was in fact identical to Swainson’s — but committing a lapse of his own in including Guatemala in the species’ range.

And it wasn’t over yet. More than a decade after William Swainson brought the red warbler to the notice of the scientific world, the New York collector Jacob P. Giraud received a shipment of bird skins from Texas, fully sixteen of which represented what Giraud thought were new species. Among them were a striking little creature that Giraud named the white-cheeked titmouse, Parus leucotis. The accompanying plate (at the top of this blog ‘post’) was by A. Halsey, an illustrator far less famous than the engraver, Nathaniel Currier.

The mistaken identity was quickly rectified. A few scant months after Giraud’s publication, George Clinton Leib noted, clearly and convincingly, that he had determined

Parus leucotis of Giraud to be identical with the Setophaga rubra of Swainson,

an observation affirmed “without doubt” by Philip Lutley Sclater a dozen years later.

The truly spectacular aspect of Giraud’s specimen, though, was not the bird’s identity but its origin. Giraud did not secure his type himself, but is quite clear that he acquired it from someone else, most likely his usual New York dealer, John Graham Bell, who was also the collector’s taxidermist of choice.

Giraud took Bell at his word as to the provenance of the Texas shipment, thus inspiring a poorly documented but nevertheless obviously vehement argument about those sixteen “new species” that would go on for a full forty years after Giraud’s death in July 1870.

Spencer Fullerton Baird, the most influential American natural historian of his day, listed the Texas red warbler specimens — Baird, too, owned one, also purchased from Bell — without comment in the list of United States birds he published in 1852. Just six years later, though, Baird bethought himself:

The propriety of introducing this species into the fauna of the United States is questionable. No specimens have as yet been found even as far north as northern Tamaulipas, in Mexico. As one of the birds described in Mr. Giraud’s work, however, it is entitled to a notice.

Baird made it clear just how much “notice” he thought it deserved by changing the locality of the skin in his own possession, USNM no. 561, from Texas to “Northern Mexico,” which he further altered in 1865 to “northeastern Mexico.” The Smithsonian now lists the location where the bird was collected simply as “unknown.”

Others had greater confidence in Bell and Giraud’s assignment of the red warbler to Texas. John Cassin in Philadelphia regretted that “no one of the several American naturalists who have visited Texas” since 1841 had seen the bird, but had no doubt that the Giraud specimen had come from there. Robert Ridgway, Baird’s protégé and eventual successor in the Smithsonian’s bird room, listed the species without comment in his 1881 Nomenclature, though six years later, in the Manual, he queried its assignment to southern Texas. In 1882, Elliott Coues denied the species a place in the main body of his Check List, but in the introduction expressed his belief that it had “doubtless” occurred north of the Rio Grande and could be expected to do so again — a notably more positive assessment than he had given the Giraud record in 1878.

Perhaps the most remarkable document to have come down to us in the matter is a paper published in the Ornithologist and Oologist for 1885 by Wells Cooke, in which Cooke argues vigorously for Giraud’s bona fides.

Considerable doubt has been expressed by ornithologists … but the recent great extension of our knowledge of the avifauna of the Southwestern United States is tending to inspire confidence in Giraud’s record.

Of the sixteen novelties Giraud described in 1841, Cooke reports that nine had meanwhile been encountered again in the United States, some of them turning out to be virtually common. Cooke finds the strongest support for Giraud’s credibility in a horned lark specimen acquired from Bell with the others; that bird, he says,

Mr. Henshaw has at last determined … is a tenable variety found only in Texas. Here we have a very strong argument in favor of Giraud’s good faith.

If he had still been walking this earth, Giraud would have been grateful. He himself “stoutly maintained to the day of his death that they [the specimens he had from Bell, including the red warbler] were taken from Texas.”

The moment of truth came with the publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s Check-List in 1886. This first edition comprised not only the species list but also the AOU’s Code of Nomenclature, a long and legalistic summary of the principles governing the naming of birds in that pre-ICZN day. Appropriately, most of those principles are very general in their formulation, taking in as many cases with as much flexibility as possible. It is jarring, then, to come across this decree, directed with painful specificity to a small set of records published by one man 45 years before:

That Giraud’s at present unconfirmed species of Texan birds be included in the List on Giraud’s authority.

This, of course, included the red warbler, assigned AOU number 691 and its habitat given as Mexico and Texas. The committee responsible for the second edition of the Check-list, published in 1895, expressly reasserted the appropriateness of including Giraud’s Texas species, and our warbler is right there in the same place it had occupied a decade earlier.

By 1908, however, as the AOU was preparing to issue the Check-list in a third edition, minds had been changed. In that year’s Supplement, the committee announced unequivocally and with a pair of gratuitous quotation marks that no. 691, the red warbler, was

to be expunged from the List, as based exclusively upon Giraud’s unconfirmed “Texas” records.

When the 1910 Check-list appeared, the introduction’s list of “the principal changes in the production of the new edition” was headed by “the elimination of all species included in former editions exclusively on the authority of Giraud as found in ‘Texas’.”

The AOU’s striking of the red warbler was greeted with general relief. Writing two years after the publication of the third edition of the Check-list, John Kern Strecker noted with snide satisfaction the discrediting of “Giraud’s ‘Texas’ species which should have long ago been excluded from the A.O.U. Check-list,” among them the red warbler. More recent works on the birds of Texas are unanimous in rejecting the species as a genuine member of the state’s wild avifauna: Oberholser calls its occurrence north of the Rio Grande “exceedingly questionable,” and neither edition of the T.O.S. Handbook so much as mentions the bird.

The red warbler is gone, off the table, vanished from Texas birding. But the indisputed occurrence — whatever its circumstances — of the bird in Arizona last week reminds us that it once loomed more prominent on the horizon of American ornithology’s expectations. Who knows? It might someday again.

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Apr
07

Vancouver Day Five: Steveston – Richmond Nature Park – Jericho Beach

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harbor seal

Perfect weather for harbor seals today here in Vancouver. For us, the rain was a welcome excuse for a late start — it was 9:30 by the time I picked Soheil up.

We started in Steveston, where mew gulls streamed over on their way, I suppose, to feast on earthworms in the wet fields. There was a small selection of ducks on the river, including red-breasted mergansers, and we enjoyed lingering close views of glaucous-winged and Olympic gulls loafing in the drizzle.

Olympic gull glaucous-winged

Soon it was too damp for us, so we headed to a place I’d never visited, Richmond Nature Park.

Richmond Nature Park in the rain

fox sparrow

We found comfortably dry seats beneath one of the picnic shelters, and watched as rufous and Anna hummingbirds darted between rain drops and fox and song sparrows scratched up the seed knocked from the feeders by the spotted towhees and purple finches.

purple finch

Among the many Oregon juncos was an especially pretty bird with symmetrical facial crescents, as if it were wearing a Prevost ground sparrow mask.

Oregon junco

To our surprise, at one point the sun came out, and the birds celebrated — with a bath, of course.

fox sparrow

sooty fox sparrow, Richmond, BC

We took advantage of the sudden change in the weather for a quick walk in what looks like a very birdy area indeed, then hopped back into the car for the drive to Jericho Beach.

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Just a short walk from our apartment in Kitsilano, Jericho was my neighborhood “patch” when we lived in Vancouver, and I was excited to see it again — even if the rain did set in again just as we arrived (and even if they still seem to have done nothing, absolutely nothing, about the off-leash dog problem).

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Though it wasn’t overly birdy, it was great to be walking a portion of my familiar route, watching pelagic cormorants and common goldeneye in the water of English Bay and bushtits in the blossoming trees. We were surprised to see only American wigeon on a first scan of the small flock, but eventually we found a single Eurasian wigeon on the edge of the pond; I remember excitedly reporting one here on our very first day in Vancouver, only to learn with some dispatch that the species is more common in this area than just about anywhere else in North America.

The rain grew steadier.

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Of all the places to seek shelter in the city, the UBC Museum of Anthropology may still be my favorite.

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There is vastly too much to look at in a single visit, and I long ago gave up trying, adopting the strategy instead of just looking at one object or two in the knowledge that I’ll be back. After all, it had been only seven years between this visit and the one before….

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Yes, tempus fugit, and this week fugit faster than most.

Birds

Canada Goose, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser

elagic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant

Common Loon

 

Great Blue Heron

Northern Harrier, Cooper Hawk, Bald Eagle

 

Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull

Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove

Anna’s Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird

Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker

Peregrine Falcon

Northwestern Crow, Common Raven

Violet-green Swallow, Purple Martin

Black-capped Chickadee

Bushtit

Pacific Wren, Bewick Wren

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

American Robin

European Starling

 

Oregon Towhee, Song Sparrow, Sooty Fox Sparrow, Oregon Junco, White-crowned Sparrow

Western Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird

House Finch, Purple Finch

Mammals

Eastern Gray Squirrel

European Rabbit

Harbor Seal

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