Archive for France

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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Dec
15

The Deserving Aglaé

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John Cassin was famously no friend of the practice of naming birds for people. Squabbling gently with his friend and colleague Spencer Baird over the naming of a new vireo, he wrote that

this kind of thing is bad enough at the best, but to name a bird after a person utterly unknown is worse.

There are plenty who agree with him today, and there were plenty who agreed with him in the mid-nineteenth century, when the rage for birdy patronyms was at its height. In 1839, for example, the baron de La Fresnaye expressed his own displeasure at the practice — even as he indulged in it himself. In naming a new American bird for the wife of a Bordeaux collector, La Fresnaye protested that

our sole intention in dedicating this species to Mme Brelay has been to pay tribute to the very special enthusiasm with which she herself has engaged in ornithology and collaborated with M. Brelay in forming his collection, which already includes many thousand individual birds.

But the lady ornithologist was an exception.

We by no means approve of the custom of giving new birds the names of women who are often enough entirely without any interest or expertise in ornithology; though the author of the name may be bound to them in friendship or family relations, these women can be of no interest to the larger circle of naturalists. We believe that the application of a proper name to a bird is in fact acceptable only when it commemorates that of some naturalist, author, explorer, painter, or zealous collector who has already rendered or is in the course of rendering some service to science.

La Fresnaye’s few flattering words are essentially all we know about the Brelays’ ornithological pursuits. Some of their specimens are still preserved in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the family historians are at least able to provide Mme Brelay’s dates of birth and death, but I fear that the bigger story was lost while the collections passed from the Brelays to La Fresnaye to the Verreaux brothers to the Boston Society of Natural History to, finally, Harvard.

Oh: the bird. Mme Brelay was immortalized 175 years ago in the species epithet of the rose-throated becard. Not a bad bird to lend one’s name to, not at all.

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Aug
13

Malherbe’s Woodpeckers

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Alfred Malherbe.JPG

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Alfred Malherbe, one of those great French amateurs to whom we owe so many collections — and so many pretty books.

Malherbe was born on Mauritius on Bastille Day 1804, but returned with his family to their native Metz, where he was appointed to the bench at the age of 28. His real passion, though, was natural history, and over the last two decades of his life he served as director of the Metz museum and president of the Société d’Histoire naturelle de la Moselle, the eventual heritor of his own extensive collections.

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Malherbe is most famous today — if he is famous at all — for his Monographie des picidées, published in four volumes between 1861 and 1863.

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More than 15 years in the making, the work was greatly lauded on its appearance. Félix Guérin-Méneville greeted the first livraison in the pages of the Revue et magasin de zoologie:

One can find nothing more beautiful than this work by M. Malherbe, and one can confidently state that in the perfection of its execution it exceeds anything that has been produced up to now in France or abroad.

The plates, prepared from paintings by Luc-Joseph Delahaye and others, Guérin-Méneville called “magnificent … of an accuracy and truthfulness in color and form such as one rarely finds in the most luxurious of works.” All of the considerable number of new species described by Malherbe are depicted the size of life.

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Charmingly, and invaluably, Malherbe begins his text volumes with two chapters treating of woodpeckers and people — a subject worthy of an entire book in itself. We learn about Picus and Canente, Picumnus and Pilumnus, and the powerful love philtre known as jynx. Malherbe collects stories of superstition from the Romans to his own nineteenth-century day, accounts of the medical and venatorial use of woodpeckers and their parts, and, naturally, tales of rustic feasts built around the flesh of picids,

which they even claim is delicious…. But having been so curious ourselves as to taste the flesh of French great spotted and green woodpeckers, we share the judgment of Audubon … who affirms that the flesh is detestable, that it tastes strongly of formic acid and is extraordinarily disagreeable….

They may not be tasty, but Malherbe takes a firm stance on woodpecker conservation.

If one considers the terrible ravages committed in orchards, forests, and farms by the innumerable myriads of insects in their terrible swarms, one can ask whether on balance the woodpeckers, far from being harmful, are not rather extremely useful to the owners of forest and field by devouring an immense quantity of larvae, caterpillars, and insects of all kinds every day, particularly when they are feeding young…. Count up the number of fruit trees, especially peaches, that perish from [insect damage], and you will become indulgent of these birds that are the principal destroyers of such insects.

Gone, happily, are the days when there were bounties on the heads of sapsuckers and other woodpeckers — in part, perhaps, thanks to the beautiful work prepared by Alfred Malherbe.

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