As if there weren’t already reason enough to bird Les Baux, the romantic ruined fortress is one of those magical places where you can get spectacularly close looks at mountain birds without going up into the mountains. On our visit yesterday, we admired Blue Rock Thrushes, Eurasian Crag Martins, and my favorites, the dashing Alpine Swifts skimming through the air just a few feet away from where we stood, breath held.
As it turns out, visiting birders aren’t the only ones to have noticed the speed and strength and skill of this largest of the Old World swifts. Crespon tells us that the “martinet à ventre blanc” (a dull name if ever there was one!) is known locally in Provence as the “grand balustrié.” Azaïs explains in his Dictionnaire des idiomes romans du midi de la France:
One gives this name to the Alpine swift because of the shape of its spread wings, which resemble an archer’s bow.
It’s a lovely metaphor, not least because the swift gets to play two roles simultaneously: it is both the bow drawn back and the arrow released, flying faster than any man-made dart ever could.
Famously, the Glossy Ibis (here represented by the photo of a bird on Tobago last fall) is spreading like wildfire in Mediterranean France; our counts these past few days have fallen, conservatively, between 60 and 100 each day, a far cry from the times — not that long ago — when a single individual would make the list of an excursion’s “good birds.” By 2012, the breeding population of the Camargue exceeded 350 pairs, and the bird, dramatic and beautiful, no longer strikes anyone as especially noteworthy here in southern Provence.
Though this species was a rarity through much of the twentieth century, Crespon, a hundred seventy-five years ago, knew it as a regular spring migrant in the Camargue:
This charming bird only migrates through those of our marshy landscapes that are closest to the Mediterranean; in the early days of May, it arrives in more or less large flocks.
It’s tempting to think of those nineteenth-century passage birds as would-be pioneers, and equally tempting to find a hint at the reasons for their failure in Crespon’s words:
Their flesh is hard and leathery, and tastes extremely bad; it has an odor of sardines.
Nobody’s eating them today, and these exotic beauties are free now to continue their conquest of the world, one marsh and one rice paddy at a time.
The authors of this new book on bird names graciously confess (p. 15) that
it may not be strictly entomologically accurate.
Res ipsa ladybug.
Who brings the White Storks their babies?
In between birds, Marco and I have been talking words.
Yesterday evening, as we watched the sun set on thousands of Greater Flamingos and assorted waterfowl, Marco asked why the big, colorful ducks with the red bills feeding in the shallows were called “Shelducks.” My answer: I dunno.
Our friends at the OED find the name “sheldrake” attested as early as the fourteenth century, an unsurprising date for so conspicuously colored and common a bird (and edible, too, though no doubt a bit fishy).
Not until the seventeenth century, though, does an explicit etymology appear. In 1678, John Ray in his Ornithology of Francis Willughby lists
The Sheldrake, or Borough-Duck… [so] called … from its being particoloured, Sheld signifying dappled or spotted with white.
Now I know.
Who can figure out the odd name “Borough-Duck”? Say it out loud if it isn’t immediately obvious….