Archive for Birds and Art in Provence

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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May
08

Di Provenza, il mar, il suol: and the Uccelli, too

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The most striking thing about Provence is the ubiquity of the past. Here an ancient farmhouse, there a medieval castle, and everywhere the remnants of imperial Rome, from great arenas and amphitheaters to equally imposing aqueducts and monuments.

Arles, Les are?nes

The most impressive of them all are the structures known as Les Antiques, a first-century BC mausoleum and a first-century AD triumphal arch that marked the northern entrance to the fortified provincial city of Glanum.

Les Antiques

Every itinerary through southern France includes this famous site, but birders like us experience it differently—better—than other tourists. On our most recent visit, a short-toed treecreeper sang and crept on truncated digits through the surrounding woods, while Eurasian blackbirds and common nightingales serenaded us from nearby. But the ultimate interruption to our discussion of life in a Roman oppidum was provided by a European roller, flashing past the 2000-year-old structures like an even bluer piece of the Provençal sky.

European roller

And so it was everywhere on our latest tour of Mediterranean France: European robins and crested tits on the grounds of the hospital that housed van Gogh, pallid swifts over the Romanesque tower of St-Trophime, blue rock thrushes and alpine swifts on the starkly romantic ruins of medieval Les Baux. This truly is a landscape where nature and culture, birds and history and art and architecture, are inseparable.

alyscamps

On our first full day together, we took full advantage of that rich mix, exploring the marshes and reedbeds of the Petite Camargue before visiting one of the most famous churches in France in nearby St-Gilles.

St-Gilles

The road to the Camargue was lined with newly arrived hoopoes, and a wide range of herons and other waders—including the no-longer-quite-so-scarce glossy ibis—were conspicuous in the marshes.

glossy ibis

Our first greater flamingos and Eurasian spoonbills competed for our attention with whiskered terns and pied avocets, and the first common kingfisher of the tour was good for a few oohs and aahs.

whiskered tern

For most of our time together, the weather was classically Mediterranean: warm, bright, and dry, with just a hint of the notorious and exhilarating winds of springtime Provence. On our second morning, however, we woke to drizzle and clouds, and decided to flip our itinerary to concentrate, appropriately enough, on waterbirds.

Birders birding Arles

First, though, we birded the grounds of the Museum of Classical Arles, where unseen nightingales taunted us and migrant pied flycatchers played in the trees. The skies brightened quickly, and a short-toed eagle overhead was just the first of that dramatic species we would see; common redstart, chiffchaff, and white wagtail joined our passerine list.

Common Redstart

The road to Les Stes-Maries de la Mer was as birdy as ever, with waterfowl, herons, and shorebirds at every stop; little stints gave good studies, but the stars of the wader show were undoubtedly the Kentish plovers, common but captivating out on the salicornia flats.

Kentish Plover

After lunch in Stes-Maries, we walked (carefully!) across the pétanque fields to the massive church.

Les Stes-Maries de la mer, church

Centuries of votive offerings left for the city’s eponymous saints paint (literally, in many cases) a history of superstition and spirituality in the upper church,

Les Stes-Maries de la mer, church

while the crypt was as always ablaze with candles lit for the apocryphal St. Sarah, patroness of the Roma who gather in Stes-Maries each May.

Les Stes-Maries de la mer, church

The weather was back to its usual beautiful self next morning, and we set off for the breathtaking ruins of Les Baux, set high in the rugged Alpilles north of Arles.

Les Baux

Blue rock thrush, sometimes tough to find among the countless crevices where they hide, gave good views, and alpine swifts and crag martins flashed past us, above us, often below us, on the way to and from their nest sites in the cliffs. The martins, sturdy brown swallows attractive in their very plainness, were still building, and several paused to collect mud and straw from the rocks right at our feet—while just a few yards away, schoolchildren squealed in delight over the demonstrations of medieval siege engines.

Les Baux, birders birding

We had lunch at the Porte Mages in Les Baux, then returned to Arles for some time off on a beautiful afternoon.

Arles, Alyscamps 3

A few hours later, we assembled to walk the few blocks to the Alyscamps, the late antique and early Christian cemetery that is still, more than 2000 years after its founding, one of the most atmospheric sites in Arles. We wandered past the long rows of sarcophagi—memorably painted by van Gogh—to the ruins of St-Honorat, the largest and best-preserved of the numerous churches built there in the Middle Ages; most famous for its squat Romanesque tower, St-Honorat is a veritable anthology of architectural styles, with chapels added in the Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque periods, several of them ornamented with particularly well-carved sarcophagi from the necropolis outside.

Arles, Alyscamps 3

With two vehicles at our disposal this year, we decided to bird the desert-like steppes of La Crau in two shifts.

Peau de Meau sheep barn

One group started at 5:30 the next morning, early enough to have great views of such specialties as little bustard, stone-curlew, golden oriole, and whinchat; the rest enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in Arles, then joined up with the earlier risers to walk out to the lesser kestrel apartments in the old stone well of Peau de Meau, where a good fifteen birds could be watched at close range as they fed on the ground and low in the air.

Little Bustard

We followed our traditional lunch in St-Martin with an exploration of the cloister of St-Trophime, whose Romanesque capitals rank among the very finest examples of medieval sculpture in the world. Years of careful restoration have left many of these famous carvings in better condition than they have been in centuries.

St-Trophime

Nothing is more typically Provençal than contrast, and it was a contrast indeed to bird the next morning in the high-elevation pine forests of La Caume.

La Caume birders birding

Common chaffinches, European goldfinches, and a typically sneaky subalpine warbler sang at us through the foggy morning before we continued down the other side of the Alpilles towards St-Rémy.

Les Antiques de Provence

Les Antiques—the mausoleum and arch at Glanum—were good birding and good architecture, and then we crossed the road to St-Paul, the mental hospital (itself built around a handsome twelfth-century church) that housed Vincent van Gogh for a year before his early death.

St-Paul de Mausole

Even here, amid the sober reminders of sad history and glorious and difficult art, we found birds.

European Robin

A European robin trilled and burped on the heavily shaded entry walk, and our primary target was attained when we discovered an adult crested tit in attendance on a freshly fledged and very noisy juvenile.

St-Remy

After lunch in the charming little town of St-Rémy, we explored the Renaissance square and returned to Arles.

The sea and the shore called again the next morning, but not before we had paid a leisurely visit to the riot of colors and smells and tastes that is the Saturday market in Arles.

Arles Market

With our picnic basket well packed, we set off on a dazzlingly bright morning to the eastern Camargue. A perched hobby and a visible (at long last!) common cuckoo were among the highlights; one especially productive stop turned up a woodchat shrike and a flock of newly arrived bee-eaters.

European Bee-eater

We didn’t indulge in bees, but our own lunch featured excellent cheeses, ham and sausages, strawberries and mandarins, fresh bread, wine and juice, and the best cookies in France—along with a pair of common nightingales going about their business in plain sight.

Picnic in the Camargue

A quick post-prandial stroll at La Capelière turned up collared pratincole, black-crowned night-heron, and a bright green tree frog so small as to be almost non-existent.

Tree frog, Camargue

We celebrated with another fine dinner at Le Jardin de Manon, a quick walk from our hotel and voted by acclamation our favorite restaurant in Arles. But the tour wasn’t over yet. The next morning found us on the road to the Pont du Gard, the highest Roman bridge and aqueduct ever built and one of the marvels of architecture and engineering from any period.

Pont du Gard

The Pont also happens to be one of southern France’s best birding sites, and it more than lived up to its reputation on this visit. Crag martins and alpine swifts swept past us in the search for insects, and a brilliantly blue common kingfisher hunted the river’s rocky shallows.

Birders birding Pont du Gard landscapes

A distant red-rumped swallow was the only individual of that scarce species we saw on our tour. But the best bird, as so often, was the last bird: as we reluctantly returned to the parking lot, a great shadow appeared on the ground, cast by no less a bird than a Eurasian griffon vulture, which passed low over our heads on its way to some unknown destination.

Our own destination was Beaucaire, where we enjoyed a final lunch on the banks of the glistening river before returning to Arles and our packing.

Beaucaire

Dinner that evening was festive and the conversation genial, with happy memories already firming up in our minds even as we faced the end of what was a wonderful edition of one of my favorite tours.

France 2014 group photo

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Apr
28

A Griffon in France

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Yesterday morning’s visit to the Pont du Gard was a good one: we missed the one “easy” target we’ve always got before — the charming little yellow-patched Rock Sparrow — but we made up for it.

Pont du Gard

White Wagtails danced in the shallows, while the air was full of Crag Martins, House Martins, and Alpine Swifts so low overhead we could hear the wind through those arcuate wings. Careful scanning of the big flocks produced the only Red-rumped Swallow of the tour, one of just a handful I’ve ever seen in southern France and a life bird for several members of our delightful group.

It also pays to watch the rocks in the water, habitual perches for everything from Black Redstarts to Little Egrets

Little Egret

The blue flash of the Common Kingfisher is a frequent sight here, too, but it is usually little more than that, an electric streak tracing the course of the river below us. This time, though, one decided that the waters directly in front of us must harbor the finest fish in France, and she hovered and dived for minutes at a time in plain view, coming up over and over with tiny silvery snacks. Yes, it’s a common bird, and no, we never miss it, but this may have been my favorite kingfisher experience ever.

The clock reminded me that we needed to get to lunch in Beaucaire, and so I reluctantly sounded the retreat, Rock Sparrows or no. As we neared the parking lot, a great shadow passed over — and we looked up to find it cast by a Griffon Vulture. The great fulvous bird soared above us for several minutes before passing to the west, leaving us to wonder whether it was a bird from the Alps, the Pyrenees, or the central French massifs driven out into the lowlands of the Gard by hunger or curiosity.

Back when this species could still be spoken of as common, Crespon recounted the “manière particulière” with which the residents of the Cevennes hunted the great vultures:

It is a matter simply of constructing a square enclosure with sticks; they throw a piece of carrion into the middle of it, and in no time the vile odor that it gives off attracts the vultures, which drop out of the sky to feed. But once they have landed inside the enclosure, it is impossible for them to take flight again within the confines of the enclosure (their wings are so long that they need space to jump several times before being able to take off). And so it is easy to take them alive.

Just what the bold hunters wanted with these birds is unclear. Buffon notes that they — the vultures, that is —

are disgusting, thanks to the constant streaming of fluid from their nostrils, along with saliva that pours from two holes in the bill.

Not overly appealing, but it’s a great bird to see.

 

 

 

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