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May 11 at the Biggest Week

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Registration opens in February.

See you there!

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Catalonia in January II

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We decided to go not quite so far afield the next day, and settled on the stunning mountain of Montserrat as our destination.

Rick at Montserrat

Getting there was half the fun indeed. The drive was easy and fast, and we transferred to the mountain train to take us up to the monastery complex.


The cliffs are high enough and massive enough to create their own weather: it had been warm and bright down below, but much of the morning was damp and chilly — never rainy, never cold — as we wandered the streets and admired the buildings raised over the centuries.

There are a few medieval remnants, such as this fragment of the Gothic cloister

Montserrat cloister fragment

and this strikingly flamboyant door:

Montserrat cloister fragment

The basilica itself was rebuilt at the end of the nineteenth century, incorporating some Gothic elements and a few Romanesque remains, most of the latter pretty badly weathered.

Montserrat Romanesque fragments capitals

Long an important station on the route to Compostela, Montserrat still draws large numbers of pilgrims eager to see the Romanesque “black” Virgin and Christ Child, which perches high in a gallery above the choir. The line was long, but it was worth getting to see what is essentially the national statue of Catalonia.

We had lunch, then, as skies turned blue, got on the funicular to be dragged farther up the steep mountainside.


It was pretty breathtaking up there, the sparsely vegetated rocks and cliffs perfect for all sorts of alpine birds come spring.


An early January day didn’t have much appeal for the birds, unfortunately, though there were plenty of robins and black redstarts, as partout. We’d meant to check out the little cemetery behind the train station on our way back down, but I decided it might be more fun to spend the last couple of hours of daylight back in sunny Barcelona. We wound up taking a nice walk atop Montjuic, looking down on the city as the light turned soft and dim.

National Museum of Catalan Art

The next morning, refreshed and well breakfasted, we decided to drive west. It was a pretty morning in Barcelona, but not far out of town we ran into fog, then freezing temperatures, then a bit of mist, and more fog. We pushed on anyway, hoping the weather would clear.

It didn’t.

Lleida drylands

We left the highway before Lleida to explore some promising-looking agricultural areas. Once we were out of the traffic and driving dirt roads through the countryside, the weather seemed suddenly less grim: it was no different, but without trucks bearing down on us from both sides, we could enjoy the soft light and the wide-open views. There were even a few birds. Little gangs of red-legged partridges emerged from the fog here and there, and impressive flocks of chaffinches and linnets swept from hedgerow to field and back.

It was cold enough that we spent most of the morning in the car, stepping out now and again to confirm that the wind was still biting and the air still damp. Our plans to walk around the lake at Ivars were abruptly canceled when I found that I could hardly stand without shivering. I got no sympathy when I e-mailed home that night to poor Alison in New Jersey’s 8 degrees.

A hot lunch sounded like the better part of discretion, after which we headed back to Barcelona. Fog, freezing temperatures, a bit of mist, and more fog — and then we emerged from it all into another warm, bright, still afternoon, just perfect for a little sightseeing in town.

Sagrada Familia

We hadn’t been to the Sagrada Familia yet, so zipped over there and stood in line for a few minutes to get in. I’d expected irony, preciosity, even a little bit of kitsch, and was bowled over to find the place in fact beautiful and moving.

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia


It wasn’t hard to hear the echo of Santa Maria del Mar in the treatment of the vaults, and I understood, as no photograph could make me understand, how well this church — still a-building thirteen decades after it was begun — fits into the architectural and spiritual history of the city. Even full of tourists (and this in early January), it is a quiet, reflective, inspiring place. See it if you can.

Culturally sated, it was time for dinner.

Barceloneta beach at night

We met Malte in Barceloneta for an evening stroll and a good meal, then back to the hotel to watch the day’s events replay behind our eyelids.

Lizzie, Josh, Malte, Rick at Salamanca restaurant in Barceloneta

The drive through the fog had put me off motoring for a while, so the kids and I spent the next day wandering through Barcelona on foot. It’s a big city indeed, but if not for our overpowering need to get out of it to see birds, it would be easy to stay two or three weeks without ever using any mode of transportation but shoe leather.

We started off on the beach in Barceloneta, watching the sun rise and the black-headed gulls wake up.

Barceloneta beach in morning

Then it was on to Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter and, eventually, the city’s fourteenth-century cathedral.


That west front is a bit over the top.

Barcelona Cathedral

The interior, too, seemed less successful than Santa Maria del Mar, stumpier, less well articulated, more ponderous. There are some pretty capitals outside, though:

Romanesque capital at Barcelona Cathedral

Romanesque capital at Barcelona Cathedral

And the little cloister was a lot of fun, with palm trees, a large Nativity scene, and a dozen white graylags paddling noisily around on a cistern.

cloister of Barcelona cathedral

We ended the day up on the Montjuic again, this time, though, with plans for an all-out assault on the National Museum of Catalan Art.

National Museum of Catalan Art

Two hours later, I had to admit that the very first hall — Romanesque wall paintings and (a very little) sculpture — had vanquished me. We’d been warned that it was a big collection and that one really couldn’t just glance, nod, and walk to the next object; sure, sure, I thought.

Well, really.

Museu nacional art catalan

Museu nacional art catalan

Museu nacional art catalan

Museu nacional art catalan

Museum of Catalan Art

Museum of Catalan Art

Museum of Catalan Art

You begin to get the idea. This is a museum that demands repeated visits (the ticket office knows it, too: one ticket gives you two admissions). I’m going back as soon as I can, armed this time with lunch.

Museum of Catalan Art

I was exhausted, but not so much as not to enjoy another good dinner, this time on one of the smaller ramblas in the Gothic Quarter. I don’t think I could ever intentionally find the restaurant again — but much of the pleasure of Barcelona, we were discovering, was coming across the things you didn’t know you should be looking for.

It’s unclear how it happened, but the next day was already our last together in Catalonia. Malte met us at the hotel and we headed north as the sun rose to our right; by the time we arrived in Bagà, on the edge of Cadí-Moixeró Natural Park, the bright skies and warm temperatures had, too, and as soon as we left the very helpful visitor center, we’d all begun to shed layers.

Chatel at Cadi-Moixero

The few miles up to the pass of Pal were beautiful, and the weather and the landscape drew us out of the vehicle every few hundred yards to check out a trail or path.

Birding Cadi Moixero

The kind staff at the visitor center had reminded us that the near-absence of snow would mean few birds, but we did run across a single little band of alpine accentors on the roadside near one of the ski shelters, a glimpse of what the road could be like on a more wintry day.

The pass was stunning.


I don’t remember seeing or hearing a single bird up there, but the rocky tundra must be alive in the springtime with wheatears and pipits and who knows what else. On our visit, the little patches of snow had drawn bipeds of another kind, with sleds.

Alpine at Cadi Moixero

Tempting as it was to join them, we went back downhill a bit to look for birds of prey against the rapidly warming sky.

Cadi Moixero

Our reward was lots of griffon vultures, some of them floating past just beneath us as we sat and soaked up the sunshine. Malte and Sara had seen a lammergeier on their last visit, but we weren’t that lucky; next time!

Cadi Moixero trails

We continued downhill to Bagà, where we’d been recommended a couple of woodland sites. One of them concealed this lovely little Romanesque chapel:

Romanesque chapel near Baga, CAtalonia

The surrounding woodlands had singing coal and great tits, and we were surprised to see this pretty flower — the unpleasantly named fetid hellebore — blooming beneath the pines.

Pyrenees flower

Romanesque church in Cadi Moixero

The shadows were lengthening, and we had an early morning coming up, so it was back to Barcelona, sorry not to have seen black woodpeckers and lammergeiers this time around but full all the same of what we had experienced on such a fine day.

We hadn’t been having any trouble getting up all week, but when you know that your destination is an outbound flight, it’s doubly tempting to spend some more time with the pillow. But we were up and out right on time, listening to the black redstarts sing in the dark as we walked to pick up the car. No traffic at all meant that we had the vehicle returned and ourselves checked in and securificationalized with plenty of time for one last quick breakfast together. Then Josh and Lizzie were off straight to Newark, me by way of Lisbon. Alison scooped us up as our various flights straggled in, and suddenly our vacation was over.

Good to be home, as always, and looking forward to the next visit to Catalonia. Thanks to Lizzie and Josh and Malte for a great week!

Palau Musica Catalana

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Catalonia in January

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lightposts, Gaudi, Ciutadella Park, Barcelona

I could not have been more delighted when Josh and Lizzie agreed to accompany their uncle on a winter trip to Catalonia. It was the first European visit for both of them, and a great opportunity for me to escape the cold and do a little sniffing around in preparation for April’s Birds and Art tour. I can only hope the kids had half as much fun as I did!

Josh and Lizzie in Sant Pere Pescador

Our flight to Barcelona, by way of Vienna, was uneventful — the very best one can hope when flying from Newark. I picked up the rental car, unfolded the maps, and spoke sternly to the GPS, and we were off.

Barcelon, Delta del Llobregat

It was an easy drive, and Josh and Lizzie’s first introduction to a land of multi-lane traffic circles and death-defying mopedists, two phenomena we would have with us always for the next week.

Barcelona circle

It was still daylight when we checked in to our hotel (beautifully situated, tidy and clean, with a very helpful staff), so we went out into the soft, warm afternoon air for a walk through the Ciutadella Park.

Ciutadella Park, Barcelona

After a miserably wet, cold visit to New York the day before, the sunshine and warmth were a tonic to the soul. Where everyone we’d run into in a chilly, snowy Central Park had been huddled and hurried, here we found barefoot strollers, sunbathers, people just out to soak up a little afternoon sun. Just like us.

Ciutadella Park

Naturally, inevitably, we kept an eye out for wilder creatures. Black redstarts, blackcaps, house sparrows, and European robins were among the commonest birds in the bushes and trees, but they were far less conspicuous than certain pushy, noisy immigrants.

Monk parakeet Barceloneta

Monk parakeets and their huge stick nests were everywhere; here and elsewhere through the week, we also saw a few larger, longer-tailed birds fly over with clearer tooting calls, presumably rose-ringed parakeets. The authorities seem to be aware of the problem, if problem it be, but the well-intentioned signs posted here and there in the Ciutadella had obviously come way too late.

Do not release birds, Ciutadella Park, Barcelona

It got cooler as the sun set, so we slipped into the gathering stream of pedestrians flowing towards the launching point for the parade that would bring the three Wise Men to Barcelona. We smiled at all those carrying stepladders, but appreciated their wisdom by the time we reached the crowded sidewalks ourselves.

flying squids in Barcelona's Three Kings parade

Fortunately, many of the floats and balloons were high enough that even we could see them; the only figures at street level seemed to be the helpers of the Magi, collecting the childrens’ letters in elaborate baskets.

After dinner, Josh and Lizzie retired, and I met up with Malte, whom I hadn’t seen since his visit to us in Princeton fifteen years ago (!), and he showed me around. Our first stop was a revelation, Santa Maria del Mar.

Santa Maria del Mar

Obviously I’d seen photographs, lots of photographs, and I knew that the Catalan Gothic was of an entirely different flavor; what I didn’t expect was how moving the confrontation of massiveness and height, colored glass and somber corners would be. A remarkable, beautiful surprise.

We had tapas at Santa Caterina, then I began to wilt and headed for my pillow. But I’d managed to stay up until 11:00, which is always my rule when traveling east: if I can make it that long, jet lag simply stays away, presumably in awe of my fortitude.

And sure enough, it was easy to get up the next morning. The skies were beautiful and blue again, and warmth was obviously on its way. We decided to head north along the coast for a walk at Aiguamolls, one of Spain’s most important wetlands and a beautiful place for a stroll, birds or not.


There were birds. Northern lapwings, common snipe, and meadow pipits covered the wet fields, and we were never out of hearing of the slightly raspy courtship whistles of the teal (or common teal, or Eurasian teal, or green-winged teal, or whatever they’re called nowadays).

The ducks weren’t alone in vocalizing on a fine morning. Just about all of the resident passerines were singing on and off, including Cetti’s warblers, their explosive chants even more startling than usual for its being early January. I didn’t even try to show one to my companions: I didn’t even need to, as one fed on the ground at our feet before climbing up into the bare twigs of a tree and gleaning invisible prey from the bark, behavior that reminded me of a Bewick’s wren in a wintertime mesquite bosque.

Cetti's Warbler

The noise of the morning, though, was the clattering of stork bills. Malte had told me there would be a lot of white storks, but we were unprepared for the spectacle. Storks everywhere, overhead and on the meadows and perched in trees and on their bulky nests.

White Stork, Aiguamolls

We were walking at a good birderly pace, something like a quarter of a mile an hour, but as mid-day approached, pushed on to the end of the path, on the beach of the Mediterranean Sea.

Lizzie and Josh, Aiguamolls

The water was as blue as the sky (but colder, as Lizzie discovered when a wave lapped her feet).

Aiguamolls, Arctic Loons

A great crested grebe flew by, and a few black dots resolved themselves nicely into Arctic loons, a “life bird” for me, the only one of the trip.

After lunch it was on to Empuriès, site of one of the largest and earliest Greek settlements in Iberia. The ruins are massive — but dwarfed by the remains of the Roman city just up the hill.


It looks like a perfect place come spring for blue rock thrushes and fancy wheatears, but we contented ourselves with the warm air and the view of the sea — those Ancients had a good eye for landscapes.

GironaA brief pause in Girona, then it was back to Barcelona for a good meal with Malte.


I didn’t tell the kids what “pulperia” meant until we’d sat down.

We decided to go not quite so far afield the next day, and settled on the stunning mountain of Montserrat as our destination.

Rick at Montserrat

Getting there was half the fun indeed. The drive was easy and fast, and we transferred to the mountain train to take us up to the monastery complex.



The cliffs are high enough and massive enough to create their own weather: it had been warm and bright down below, but much of the morning was damp and chilly — never rainy, never cold — as we wandered the streets and admired the buildings raised over the centuries.


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Calendar Bird: January 2015

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Valerie and David sent me a beautiful Italian calendar for Christmas this year, with large-format, fine-quality reproductions of colored plates from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bird books.

Not a single one of them identified.

Frustrating? Not in the least. It’s a monthly opportunity to hone our bibliographic detective skills, and learn a bit about bird identification and the history of bird identification at the same time. Absolutely up my alley.

Albin, Aratinga solstitialis

This first image is easily recognized as the work of Eleazar Albin, the Anglo-German painter whose style is as distinctive as his failure to identify his birds. “Failure” is the wrong word: working in the 1730s, often from specimens — living or dead — of uncertain provenance and marked tattiness, Albin simply came too early to take advantage of any of the nomenclatural and identification tools available to the generations that would follow him.

Thus, the label on this plate, reproduced from a painting completed on July 30, 1735, was about as good as Albin or anyone could have done:

A Parroqueet from Angola.

It was a matter of seconds to identify the plate as Number 13 in the third volume of Albin’s Natural History of the Birds – though I haven’t yet figured out which of the several editions, authorized and pirated, was reproduced for the calendar.

But what is this colorful bird?

“Angola,” of course, is a red herring. Though Albin’s model

was brought from Angola, on the Coast of Guinea, and was in the Possession of a Gentleman near the Custom-House, who was pleased to let me draw its Picture,

there is no reason for us to then assume, as Albin did, that this was an African native at all. Indeed, there is no Old World parrot that looks remotely like this one.

Instead, it pays to remember that Angola was in the possession of Portugal in the mid-eighteenth century (and for a long, long time thereafter). Albin’s acquaintance probably did bring the bird to London from Angola — but Angola was no doubt just one stage in its journey to England from, say, the Portugese holdings in South America.

Aha. It all falls into place. This may not be the most accurate of images, but once we turn our attention to the Neotropics, it is readily identifiable as the portrait of a sun parakeet.

Indeed, Albin’s plate (which Brisson would later sniff was “mal coloriée“) served Linnaeus as the “type” of the species he named Psittacus solstitialis,

a long-tailed yellow parrot with green wing coverts and a forked tail.

The Linnaean type locality came from Albin, too: “Habitat in Guinea,” a designation not definitively corrected until 1906 (!), when Hellmayr substituted “Cayenne.”

What will February bring?







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Cold Owls

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Fuertes eastern screech-owl

It’s a mild Christmas weekend here in north Jersey, but it isn’t always that way. On December 28, 1922, our area was hit by a severe ice storm, coating “every tree, wire and shrub.” The next morning, Louis S. Kohler checked on his local eastern screech-owl: the entrance to its roost hole in a dead chestnut was

sealed over with a sheet of ice about an inch thick…. sure enough the owl was within, but so nearly dead from want of fresh air that I carried him into the house to warm him.

Unfortunately, the bird did not survive. Kohler had it mounted:

It is sad indeed to lose his services as a mouse-trap, but I am compensated by having him with me for all time in the cabinet.

Let’s hope the rest of this winter is easier on our little neighborhood owls.

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