Archive for Birding France
The world changed forever 100 years ago today, and not for the better.
How to trace the cataclysmic fall of western culture without trivializing the deaths of so many?
Let’s try looking at the wartime career of a birder, namely, the jurist and amateur ornithologist Walther Bacmeister. Bacmeister was sent to the field at the age of 40, and served in the German army on both eastern and western fronts. In October 1916, he sent a poetic greeting, entitled “Draussen und Drinnen,” to his colleagues attending the annual meeting of the German Ornithologist’s Association:
For two full years, long ones and difficult / Our iron-hard defenses have stood armed out here. / They are defending our dear fatherland, / surrounding it with a bronze cord. / Two years, and if it lasts that many years again, / All you enemies will still not attain your goal! / We stand firm in the howling of the storms, / We out here.
As the months come and go, / you at home have not been idle, / You have served, hardy, in silent strength / German science. / Keep building that proud firm structure, / Let it rise high into the blue of heaven, / And crown its cornices in spite of our enemies, / You in there!
After the poem was read to the assembled guests, Anton Reichenow led the cheer for “our ornithologists dressed in campaign gray.”
Reichenow and Bacmeister and most of their colleagues were on the wrong side in a war that didn’t have many right ones. As an officer, Bacmeister had a modicum of leisure to pursue his own interests, as when he was stationed in Strasbourg in spring 1917:
Whenever possible, my time off duty was used for ornithological observation…. When in the early morning of April 27, 1914, I rode through the lavish brush of the Rhine woodlands on the northeastern edge of Strasbourg, I thought to myself that this was a real willow tit landscape. Hardly had I had the thought when I heard the familiar and characteristic “däh-däh,” which I had heard many hundreds of times before in Poland and in northeastern France — in the Argonne, the area of Verdun, and Champagne.
Infamous names in the history of European slaughter, rendered harmless by the presence of a gray parid.
Otto Kleinschmidt, the best known today of Bacmeister’s ornithological friends, provided the best account — nearly in “real time” — of Bacmeister’s collecting activities in the field. In an essay entitled “Miscellany on the Birds of the Enemy Territories Occupied by Us,” Kleinschmidt reported that
The first war souvenirs for my collection were two strikingly gray crested larks from the District of Warsaw. They were followed by both willow and marsh tits, collected on the triumphant march from the Beskids to Brest-Litovsk. The kind donor was Bacmeister…. On January 20 I received my first French willow tit, again from Captain Bacmeister, who had meanwhile returned to the western front after the conclusion of the Serbian campaign. Now shipment after shipment came in from east and west alike. None went missing — this must be emphasized, to the honor of our field post offices — and no bird arrived in unusable condition…. A magnificent series of “war birds” was assembled…. Collecting proceeded according to a system, namely, the focus on material that would be most important for the comparison of the Russian and the French avifaunas.
In the course of a rare leave from the front, Bacmeister was also able to hand over to Kleinschmidt specimens he had collected earlier — meaning, I think, before the war — in France and Poland.
Two males and one female are much more heavily marked than German, English, or north African specimens, such that this is the darkest European form…. I name these pretty birds Picus minor bacmeisteri.
Kleinschmidt and Bacmeister together described another new taxon from birds collected in the Ardennes and Argonne.
Some of the long-tailed tits of eastern France have reddish upper eyelids in spring. Most are smaller than the subspecies europaea….
They named those birds Aegithalos caudatus expugnatus, “captured in battle.”
In his published writings, at least, Bacmeister appears to have thoroughly enjoyed his war. In a summary of ornithological observations made in eastern Poland, he recalls that
after the happy conclusion of the Easter battle in the Laborez valley in spring 1915, my division and I crossed the ridge of the eastern Beskids…. We passed through all of Galicia from south to north. Unforgettable days! We and our Austro-Hungarian allies had taken back Przemysl and Lwów. As if enchanted, we wandered after many months of spare living through the streets of Lwów, which were thronged by happy, festively dressed people. A joyous welcome was prepared for us.
Bacmeister found his time in the “magnificent city” far too short, but
still it was enough time to pay a thoroughly enjoyable visit to the splendid collections of Count Dzieduszycki, none of which — this must be emphasized — had been damaged by the Russians. It was a great pleasure for me to write my name into the guestbook directly below the names of the Russian visitors. Times change!
Only rarely and incidentally do grim realities intrude:
I encountered considerable numbers of barn swallows in virtually every village and town. In many places their nesting locations had been destroyed by the war. We learned that the Cossacks had sent special troops to burn down the villages that they had occupied and then been forced out of; those troops went from house to house and set the thatched roofs on fire with torches. The fires spread quickly to the entire house and left not much more than the chimney standing. From September 8 to September 21 I encountered migrating house martins.
Unlike so many millions, Bacmeister survived the Great War and returned to a prosperous and busy life in Germany. His family was not so fortunate the next time around, however.
On October 13, 1949, Bacmeister — by then a retired state’s attorney in Stuttgart — wrote to the president of the German Republic, Theodor Heuss, with “a request that is not my request alone, but shared by many who share my same grief.”
Our only son, Arnold Bacmeister, married and 42 years old, a lawyer, has been a prisoner of war since May 1945. He was a paramilitary soldier in Berlin. For three long, long years we knew nothing of his whereabouts or even whether he was still alive. Then, in August 1948, we learned from three separate returning prisoners that he was still living: He was a prisoner in the Buchenwald concentration camp [which had been transformed into a prisoner of war camp by the Soviets after its liberation by the Americans], where he most likely still is, if he hasn’t been sent somewhere else. He knows nothing of our condition or that of his wife, and cannot write; neither can we. This is psychic torture, for him and for us, and we can hardly bear the agony any longer.
Heuss replied, five days later.
Obviously, as you know, the power of the president is limited, and many Germans still live in the belief that all the head of the federal state needs to do is give a directive; they do not understand his authority and its complications. That dreadful fate that finds Germans still captive in the concentration camps of the eastern zone is well known to me from a long series of cases. The delicate position of the German Federal Republic with respect to the reconstruction of eastern and central Germany makes any concrete confrontation politically very tricky. Protest against this situation has, of course, already been registered by all parties. But I will be glad to take your letter as the occasion to raise this matter with Minister [Jakob] Kaiser.
The editors of Heuss’s official correspondence fill in the rest of the story: Bacmeister wrote to the president again in July 1950, after learning that his son had been sentenced to 18 years of prison. Arnold Bacmeister was released sometime between 1955 and 1957; he would publish an autobiography two years before his death in 1994.
Even through those excruciating years, the elder Bacmeister continued to write about birds and birders, ornithology and ornithologists. The family history mentions more than 240 (!) publications, most of them on natural history. He published biographical sketches on Theodor Heuglin (of gull fame) and the great Chilean explorer Christian Luis Landbeck. Of greatest use to the researcher is his bibliography of ornithology in Württemberg through the year 1943,
What are we to think, almost 50 years after his death, of the life and career of Walther Bacmeister? He was a loving father and a member of the Nazi party. He was an ornithological historian and an officer in the armies that devastated northern France.
Nothing’s ever simple, is it?
- Wikimedia Commons
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After lunch in Stes-Maries, we walked (carefully!) across the pétanque fields to the massive 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,
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.
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.
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.
We had lunch at the Porte Mages in Les Baux, then returned to Arles for some time off on a beautiful afternoon.
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.
With two vehicles at our disposal this year, we decided to bird the desert-like steppes of La Crau in two shifts.
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.
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.
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.
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—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.
Even here, amid the sober reminders of sad history and glorious and difficult art, we found birds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.