A New Year’s Eve Big DayBy
Many of us are watching the clock and the calendar today, eager to begin next year’s year list with a midnight owl or the first junco at the snowy feeder.
In 1918, Ludlow Griscom couldn’t wait. With a week’s leave from his unit at Christmastime, he set off for the Camargue, arriving in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on December 29.
Lieutenant Griscom spent three full days in the field, and it was the third — December 31, 1918 — that turned out to be “one of the most eventful ornithologically” he had ever experienced. Writing in the Ibis on his return home, Griscom says that he was out that day from just after dawn to nearly midnight, the last three and a half hours on a horse that
seemed to feel the loneliness [of the Camargue, at night, in winter!], as it would occasionally stop, look around, and would not go on until I had spoken to it or patted it. The going was slow, as there were constant detours to avoid marshes or ponds, but at 11.30 P.M. sharp that horse halted before the door of its stable in the village [les Saintes-Maries].
The long hours and the unsteady transportation were a small price to pay for Griscom’s count, which included 53 species and more individual birds than he had ever observed on a single day in Europe or the Americas. He speaks of “unbelievable” numbers of wintering ducks, including noisy thousands of Mallards and Eurasian Wigeon, the vast Étang de Vaccarès “black with waterfowl in every direction.”
Among the raptors was a single Greater Spotted Eagle, still a scarce winterer in the area. The sight of five (five!) Slender-billed Curlews, in contrast, will never be duplicated; that flock (“a delightful surprise”) would outnumber by exactly five that species’ entire world population today.
The Aquatic Warbler is hardly more common nowadays, but Griscom saw (and offered good descriptions of) three on his big day, getting particularly good views of one out in the “tussock marsh”:
on one occasion a bird mounted to the summit of a tussock and sat quietly for several minutes, while I was sitting perfectly still about twenty-five feet away.
There are some mysteries on Griscom’s list, too. The report of a “good-sized flock” of ten Tree Pipits seems odd, as does that of a half dozen Willow Warblers in the tamarisks near Saintes-Maries. Griscom did no collecting on his trip to the Camargue — “the writer’s military duties strictly precluded it” — and he defends his records by noting, for the benefit of “those who are a little shy of sight identifications … that he is about as familiar with the birds of western Europe as he is with those of his own country.”
And perhaps even more familiar with some, it seems. The day before his New Year’s Eve expedition, Griscom flushed two Spotted Crakes
in a little marsh north of Les Saintes Maries, and one was shot by a local nimrod who had joined me, a feat of which he seemed very proud. It is much more interesting alive than dead. This same bird was served to me that evening by my landlady, beaming with pride, and was by all odds the worst morsel of bird flesh my jaws ever worked on.
I love the birds and I love the food of Provence, but like Griscom, I prefer them to be two different things. Still, I envy his day out in the marshes and on the flats of the Camargue, and can’t wait for my own next visit.