Archive for Birds and Art Tours

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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Jan
03

The 2018 ABA Bird of the Year Stinks

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Merrem Iiwi

The stunningly scarlet and black iiwi was the first endemic Hawaiian landbird known to European science: it was the first to be drawn by a European — in 1778, by John Webber aboard Captain Cook’s Resolution — and the first to be formally described — two years later, by Georg Forster.

Forster, who had accompanied his father on Cook’s second voyage, was professor of natural history at Kassel when the German sailor Barthold Lohmann brought him the type specimen — now lost — of what Forster named the “carmine treecreeper.” A testimony to the considerable excitement with which discoveries from the South Seas were welcomed, Forster’s description appeared in print a scant three months after Cook’s ships arrived, without the late Cook himself, in London.

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Most of the bird skins from the voyage remained in Britain, but as early as December 1780, Forster had seen no fewer than three specimens of his Certhia coccinea, well justifying his claim that the bird was “decidedly common” in its native range. Indeed, the expedition’s surgeon, William Anderson, recorded “great numbers of skins” of this species offered up for sale by the Hawaiian natives,

often tied up in bunches of 20 or more, or [with] a small wooden skewer run through their nostrils.

Forster’s type was apparently one of those that had been tied rather than skewered, as he describes in detail the characteristic operculum covering the nostrils.

The Hawaiians, it turns out, had not collected all those iiwis just to please their European guests.

Blumenbach Iiwi

In Forster’s words, the natives of Hawaii

make ornaments and various articles of clothing using the feathers of this bird, which must be extraordinarily abundant there given that such items are not at all rare. Mostly, capes are thoroughly covered with feathers, but the young women also wear necklaces, as thick as a thumb, made entirely of such feathers. For ceremonial dances, they weave as many of seven of these bands around their heads…. Barthold Lohmann … has donated one of these necklaces to the royal museum here [in Kassel].

But what exactly were, in the systematic sense, these birds that gave their brightly colored feathers and their lives to the lush beauty of Hawaiian featherwork? Forster in his original description

had no hesitation in assigning this new species [Gattung] of bird to a place among the treecreepers….

He considered and rejected the possibility of affiliating his new bird to a more exotic group:

Only its bill shape suggests any connection to the birds of paradise, in that it is bent like a scimitar, but shows not a sharp culmen, as in the other treecreepers, but a convex culmen. Incidentally, in the collections of the Landgrave of Hessen’s natural history museum, I have had the opportunity to discover that there are both curve-billed and straight-billed species [Gattungen] in the family [Geschlecht] of birds of paradise…. Already on my trip around the world I noted similar variation among other species [Gattungen], without feeling myself justified in increasing the number of families [Geschlechter]. A treecreeper from Tongatapu has fleshy wattles or beards… and two further species from New Zealand… are distinctive for their stronger, longer feet, just like the one [namely, the iiwi] lying before me.

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John Latham was of the same opinion, retaining the species in the genus Certhia in his 1790 account; inexplicably, Latham took it upon himself to replace Forster’s perfectly good epithet coccinea with vestiaria (“of clothing”), an invalid alteration that would nevertheless give rise to a widely used genus name for the iiwi. Even as late as 1820, Louis-Pierre Vieillot agreed that the “eee-eve” (another example of the great French ornithologist’s struggles with written English) was simply the representative of “a different tribe” of treecreepers found in the South Pacific.

There were competing taxonomic assessments, though. Blasius Merrem reported finding a specimen in the museum at Göttingen (kept there with a fine example of featherwork) labeled with the name “Red Humming-Bird.” Merrem moved the erstwhile treecreeper into the genus Mellisuga, erected in 1760 by Mathurin Brisson for the vervain hummingbird; in 1783, Joseph Märter shifted it into another Brissonian hummingbird genus, Polytmus. 

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The most influential early recognition that the iiwi was not a close Certhia relative (and indeed not a hummingbird, either) came in 1820, when Coenraad Jacob Temminck described the genus Drepanis on the basis of the now extinct Hawaii mamo; his new genus also included the iiwi.

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Today, following a suggestion first offered by R.C.L. Perkins in 1893, the iiwi and its finch-like Hawaiian relatives are recognized as a close assemblage within the “winter finch” subfamily Carduelinae. Support for grouping them together is provided by a range of shared features, including similarities in plumage, musculature, tongue structure, nostril structure, and vocalizations.

And smell. Odor. Scent. Aroma. Fragrance. Stench.

Shaw and NOdder Iiwi 1791

Perkins was the first western scientist

to notice the scent emitted by so many and so different species of Hawaiian birds. I cannot liken this scent to any other that I know; but I should certainly call it disagreeable.

It was in fact “the peculiar odour” like that of mildewed canvas that first led Perkins to conclude that the thin-billed and the thick-billed Hawaiian honeycreepers belonged to one and the same family. The smell, apparently produced by the uropygial gland, is said to be so strong that it contaminates the feathers of birds placed in the same museum drawer with honeycreepers, and traces of the odor can be transferred from specimen to specimen by the hands of researchers.

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Which raises a question, I think. Heinrich Zimmermann, Cook’s coxswain on the third voyage, noted that one only rarely saw the red feathered cloaks and capes worn, which led him to believe that their use must be largely restricted to religious ritual. I wonder, though, if perhaps, for all their visual splendor, they weren’t just too smelly.

The iiwi is the 2018 Bird of the Year of the American Birding Association

 

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May
12

Birds — and Art

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Fontenay

If you’re curious about the ways nature, history, and art come together on our tours, have a look at my note about the goldfinches of Fontenay over at the VENT blog today.

See you in the field — if not in Burgundy, then at another of my 2016 destinations!

Fontenay

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