Archive for France 2010: WINGS Tour
To our delight, my beloved Jardin de Manon was open for dinner last evening, and our hours with good food, good wine, a beautiful moth, and an acrobatic gecko in the hortus conclusus of one of Arles’s best restaurants were some of the most enjoyable of the entire tour—rivaled closely, though, by today’s visit to the Pont du Gard.
This Roman aqueduct carried water some 30 miles from the forested hills down to the municipal cisterns of Nîmes; one of the most beautiful utilitarian structures ever built, the graceful arcades over the wild river Gard attract tourists from around the world—and birds.
I’ve learned over the years to plan on an hour or more to get from the parking lot to the sidewalk leading to the pont; it was no different this time. European Serins, European Greenfinches, and European Goldfinches sang conspicuously from the trees while a Rock Sparrow, the principle target of birding visitors, fed on the newly cropped grass. Every time I visit I get the “best view ever” of that charming passerid, but this year’s sighting was really something else, bouncing around on the overflow parking lot to show off its clunky head pattern and finely spotted throat with the elusive yellow patch.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker low on the young trees surrounding the lot was the first picid of the tour for the group, and as the sky warmed, Alpine Swifts emerged to make up for having stood us up at Les Baux a few days ago.
An astonishing number of kayakers in bright green and yellow boats—hundreds of them—were a true spectacle as they passed beneath the ancient bridge.
They took downstream with them our hopes for some of the specialties of this site, but we did discover a Little Ringed Plover in flight over a promising gravel bar, while at least one pair of Eurasian Crag Martins (another holdout at Les Baux) swooped in and out of the great arches among the Common and Alpine Swifts. A European Roller, the first I’d ever seen right at the bridge, out-blued even the blue Mediterranean sky as it flew circles high, startlingly high, overhead, but not even that fine bird (one of two individuals we’d see while we were out) could match the experience of watching a European Jay vigorously anting on the edge of the parking lot when we returned to the car.
Common as it is, this is a shy bird, far more often heard than seen, and usually seen only as a flash of blue and a collection of glaring white patches as it passes between the trees. This individual landed on an anthill, where it spread its tail and brilliant wings in the classic “passive” anting posture.
The bird also frequently interrupted its extravagant contortions to apply ants to its plumage, picking them up in its bill and wiping them beneath the wings–a behavior apparently very uncommon in this well-known species. (Distant video here.)
It turned out that that itchy beauty was the last bird to be added to our trip list, but there was more to see. We ate lunch in Beaucaire, in the shadow of yet another medieval castle proleptically destroyed by Richelieu and now occupied mostly by Western Jackdaws and Black Redstarts. We returned to Arles just as rain began to fall, then returned to Arles just as rain began to fall—for the first time since we gathered here in the heart of Provence nine days ago, for what has turned out to be one of the most enjoyable editions of one of my most enjoyable tours.
Tomorrow to the train station with the group, then to Marseille and on to Vancouver. And soon, next year, back to the most beautiful places on earth.
Twice a week Arles is transformed: it’s market day.
Olives, fish and whelks, fruit, vegetables, cloth, old books, cheese, sausage, bread, wine, even live poultry–if you need it, want it, like it, or hope that somebody else might need or want or like it, it’s there in the stalls lining the Boulevard des Lices.
I set out early to see the sights and to lay in supplies for our picnic, then met the group for breakfast in the hotel. And then, the sun rising higher, the air warmer, and the wind–the wind? No wind, the perfect day to spend out in the marshes of the Grande Camargue.
We wended our way to the big ponds of the Mas d’Agon, where Squacco and Purple Herons flapped over the reedbeds and a Great Bittern–unseen, alas–roared from the dense vegetation. It’s a measure of how common Great Egret has become in the past few years here that not even the Foto Safari truck–one of half a dozen vehicles all morning to roll past us–bothered to stop for one primping and preening in the ditch.
Whiskered Tern was one of our targets here, and we had great views of flying birds right on the roadside. But it was the little birds that put on the best show. Great Reed Warblers shouted and yowled from the tops of the reeds, and somehow–don’t tell anybody, but it was just luck–somehow we’d set up the scopes right where the territory of a pair of European Reed Warblers extended onto the road. This species is less shy than unobtrusive, but it can still be hard to see sometimes; not this pair, though, which fly around, perched in the open, and carried bits of reed and grass into a dark spot where they must have been building a nest.
We stopped at the visitor center of La Capelière for what was to have been a brief restroom break: but when there are White Storks on the nest and Cetti’s and Sardinian Warblers singing in plain sight in the parking lot, things take a little longer. The salt pans across the road were full of Greater Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts, and Great Crested Grebes–three species that, seen in flight, all look as if they were progressing backwards.
The Salin de Badon, just a couple of miles down the road, impressed us more for its peacefulness than for its birds, though we did have excitingly close views of Yellow Wagtails, a species always seen well, and somehow always photographed badly, here.
Our picnic lunch profited from the early expedition to the market; the shade felt good on a day that had become almost more than warm, but perversely, we found ourselves wishing for a just a little bit of the breeze we’d cursed earlier in the week: for the first time on the tour, mosquitoes found us, and I think every one of us took away at least one bite. But the continuous songs of Common Nightingales and Cetti’s Warblers offered some consolation, and when a nightingale bounced out to feed from the path just a few yards away from our table, we forgot the buzz and whine completely. Common Cuckoo was another loud singer that finally blew its cover to give us good looks: first with a close flyby during lunch, then scope views of a perched bird on our drive back to Arles.
And now tomorrow is our swan song already. It’s been a great tour, and I hate to see it end.
There was a strange sound in Provence today: silence. The crazy wind that had vexed us the past days is gone, replaced with a calm as beautiful as the blue skies and morning warmth. We started out this morning at Les Antiques, the sublime monuments marking the entry to Roman Glanum. The triumphal arch commemorates Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.
More mysterious is the mausoleum, a strange tower whose parts–to my unpracticed eye–have never seemed to fit together.
The battle scenes of the lowest story, though, are spectacularly vivid, even two thousand years later, and they’d be worth seeing even in a museum–and so much the more impressive in situ.
Right across the road is the hospital of St-Paul de Mausole, built around a twelfth-century church and cloister.
Van Gogh lived and painted here near the end of his life, and thanks to him, the views of fields, olive groves, and limestone hills are startlingly familiar at every turn.
The church is an example of the Romanesque at its plainest and loveliest; next time I need to go away “for a rest,” I hope they’ll send me here, too.
The cloister is a jewel: tiny, beautifully cared for, with elegantly carved arcades.
Most of the capitals are simply foliate; a few include figures, among them a centaur (a beast we’ve already encountered at St-Gilles and at St-Trophime).
We didn’t forget, of course that, this is a birds and art tour. Common Chaffinches and a Common Redstart were singing noisily from the trees, and we had our first looks at Crested Tits feeding from the gutters of the hospital buildings. We saw more Crested Tits at the Barrage des Peiroou, as pretty as it is unspellable.
European Robins added their voices to the mix here, with Western Jackdaws providing the diapason. One of the local Common Ravens gave us a quick look; Short-toed Treecreeper remained, unfortunately, just a lisping song in the trees. Our best sighting was not feathered but scaled, a largish Grass Snake on the road on our way out, the first snake of the tour and one of just a few I’d ever seen in France.
Lunch was in St-Rémy, hardly a mile north of the reservoir.
This is a beautiful town, still relatively free of tourists and noise (we’re tourists, but we’re quiet!). My favorite corner–everyone’s favorite corner–is dominated by the city palaces built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the local aristocracy, among them the family Sade.
And even here there are birds: Great Tits, Common Swifts, and that scratchy-voiced ornament of the rooftops, Black Redstart.
I owe you a better photo of the Red Sea sarcophagus in St-Trophime.
Produced in the late fourth century, the sarcophagus now serves as the base of a baroque altar.
The rising sun found us at La Crau, that otherworldly steppe between the marshes of the Camargue and the limestone cliffs of the Alpilles.
We started off well with a Stone Curlew flying in and landing in the open as we got out of the car; we had better views of several individuals in the course of the morning, but there’s nothing like being greeted by a sign.
Our walk out to the 150-year-old sheep barn was (get this) windy, but we still managed to run into some very nice birds, including several singing Corn Buntings.
Every day with emberizids is a good one–and it’s a great one when they’re honest-to-goodness Emberiza.
A European Roller, a couple of European Turtle Doves, and a quick pop-up by a Melodious Warbler were also happy distractions; but the most amazing sight was a flock of nearly 50 European Bee-eaters hunting from a single tree, burping and buzzing as they flew out to scoop the ill-fated from the sky.
As the sun rose higher, at least three Lesser Kestrels started working the area south of the sheep barn; this is a rare bird in France, reliably (or semi-reliably) found only here. Greater Short-toed Larks joined the abundant Sky and Crested Larks in song, and soon it was warm enough that we decided to return to Arles for breakfast.
Bodies refreshed, we walked across to St-Trophime for spiritual sustenance.
I’m usually there too late in the day to visit the interior of the church, but the early start we’d made to the Crau gave us time for a change to admire the way the tall austerity of the Romanesque naves gives way to the brightness of the Gothic choir and transepts–a combination more famously repeated in the capitals of the cloister arcades.
The church contains some important early Christian art, including several spectacular sarcophagi; the most famous is the fourth-century Crossing of the Red Sea, a work that makes me gasp no matter how often I see it.
Eight centuries later the sculptors responsible for the west and north galleris of the cloister were working their own miracles. Here is one of the best, and certainly one of the most famous, of the capitals, the Dream of the Three Kings.
Here’s another dream, this time Joseph’s, the beginning of the Flight into Egypt:
The (latest) restoration of the cloister and its sculpture is set to be finished this month, and I can’t wait to see what it all looks like next year; fortunately, only a corner was still under cover when we visited this morning.
Tomorrow: more Romanesque and a lot of Van Gogh in St-Rémy. Plus some birds, of course!