Archive for VENT Birds and Art in Provence 2018

Jun
30

Home Pest Control

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woodchat shrike

I’ll happily confess that I’m not really one for pet birds: they’re noisy, they’re smelly, and some of them, I hear, have the disconcerting habit of outliving their human owners.

Loggerhead shrike, Arizona

Even if cagebirds didn’t give me the slight willies, I gravely doubt that my first choice for a domestic companion of the feathered sort would be … a shrike.

Red-backed Shrike Tuscany

I love shrikes, and have since I saw my first loggerheads in eastern Nebraska more than 40 years ago. Whatever the rest of the day afield has held, it is often the shrikes — common ones or rare, big ones or little — that press themselves most deeply into memory: a northern shrike chasing tree sparrows through the thickets, a great gray hounding innocent jays and magpies, red-backeds lighting up a brushy pasture, a southern gray singing from a Spanish fenceline.

great gray shrike

In the house, though? Never. Of all things.

But as so often, and always so surprisingly, I find that my tastes are not universally shared.

Lesser Gray Shrike

In 1795, Johann Matthäus Bechstein, uncle of the poet and philologist and father of German ornithology, dedicated a lengthy chapter of his Stubenthiere to these “bold predatory birds” and their place in the fashionable bourgeois living room.

Southern gray shrike

Like the European jay, the great gray shrike imitates many sounds. It does not quite succeed in replicating the songs of other birds, but its own flute-like note is that much more beautiful, quite similar to that of the gray parrot; it puffs out its throat like a frog…. Perhaps one might be able to teach it to speak, as it has some notes that are very like the human voice.

There is one thing to be very sure of, though, as Bechstein reminds us in his account of the lesser gray shrike.

Northern Shrike

Letting any shrike fly around in a room with other birds in it is not appropriate, because it is likely to want to kill its comrades — if not out of hunger, then out of jealousy or bad temper, or just to prove that it can.

Bloodlust notwithstanding, the male lesser gray is among the most desirable of cagebirds, “with a wondrous capacity to learn … the entire songs of other bird, among them the nightingale, the skylark … and the quail.” The woodchat, on the other hand, though its handsome plumage commends it, always mixes “its own screeching and squawking” into its imitations.

Then as now the commonest laniid in central and western Europe, the red-backed shrike was the birdkeeper’s favorite, readily captured, handsomely plumed, and easily fed. The song of the beautiful male

is a combination of the songs of the goldfinch, various warblers, nightingale, thrush nightingale, robin, wren, skylark, and woodlark, mixed with only a few of the shrike’s own coarse strophes.

Red-backed Shrike

Best of all, though,

if you place the shrike in a room infested with flies, he will quickly clear them out. He catches them most easily in flight; if you then stick a few pins into a twig, he impales the flies with an odd movement.

I’m still not convinced.

Southern gray shrike

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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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