Archive for VENT tour: Birds and Art in Burgundy

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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May
12

Birds — and Art

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Fontenay

If you’re curious about the ways nature, history, and art come together on our tours, have a look at my note about the goldfinches of Fontenay over at the VENT blog today.

See you in the field — if not in Burgundy, then at another of my 2016 destinations!

Fontenay

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May
10

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Fontenay Nativity

This lovely fragment, probably from the main altar at Fontenay, depicts the Nativity in a remarkably different way.

Ox and ass watch over the Child as a typically aged, infirm Joseph dozes on his crutch. But look at this Mary. Bégule describes her as

reposing on a bed, her right arm gracefully folded beneath her head.

Well, she’s on a bed all right. But there’s nothing “gracieuse” about her posture.

Fontenay Nativity

That’s not repose. That’s exhaustion.

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May
09

La Dombes

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La Dombes route des étangs

The best strategy for birding some areas is just to go out and get lost. La Dombes is a vast, diffuse tract of pasture, woodland, and wetlands just off the main road from Lyon to Burgundy — and one of the best places I know to just wander, letting the quiet roads and the abundant birds lead from one placid lake to the next.

La Dombes

In truth, it isn’t as confusing as it used to be: nowadays there’s even a telephone “app” that promises to take you from one pond to the next. Even so, there are more than a thousand lakes dotting the quiet countryside (take that, Minnesota!), and because many are still used by commercial fisheries, the amount of water, fish, and of course birds in each varies from year to year.

La Dombes

It’s a quiet, sparsely populated landscape, though, and nobody minds if you simply wander from one to the next, stopping at a wide spot to listen and scan. On my latest visit, I found the ponds of the Dombes as lively as ever, and their wooded edges as noisy.

blackcap

Blackcaps and nightingales were shouting from every thicket, as if in competition (the winner? blackcaps, hands down). Golden orioles were back in force, singing their gulping whistles in the poplar canopy and flashing back and forth across the roads; once again I was reminded of how much that species looks and sounds like an oropendola.

And everywhere, everywhere, the exuberant trills of the Eurasian wren.

Eurasian wren song

Click to listen

Out on the water, often feeding just a few feet from the road, were all the expected herons, including somber black-crowned night herons and snaky purple herons, and a few shorebirds haunted the muddy edges. Common greenshanks and wood sandpipers were the most abundant, but there were also ruffsgreen sandpipers, a surprising whimbrel, spotted redshanks, and a few brash and beautiful common redshanks.

common redshank

Ducks were scarcer, many of the hens probably already on eggs, the drakes with better things to do than be gawked at; but still there were good numbers of red-crested pochards and garganeys. 

Garganey, la Dombes

As the morning warmed, the aerial insectivores came out to play: plenty of barn swallows, house martins, and sand martins, with a few arriving common swifts. Bee-eaters, also most likely just coming in, announced themselves with their uncouth buzzes, and whiskered terns, a true Dombes specialty, we had with us always.

As always, it was hard to tear myself away. But Burgundy awaited, land of stone curlews and ancient monasteries, medieval palaces and woodchat shrikes. Onward!

La Dombes

Want to bird La Dombes next spring? Have a look!

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Apr
28

Grateful

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Autun

It’s a bit odd to say that St-Lazare in Autun is one of my favorite churches: it’s kind of like claiming to like to breathe air — true, but hardly original.

After a wonderful morning of birding the Doubs, I spent the afternoon in the hilltop cathedral, admiring the Romanesque spaces hidden so well inside a Gothic exterior. And of course I paid my lingering respects to Gislebertus and the west portal.

DSC04863

As I stood there beneath the porch thankful for the chance to see these dazzling sculptures again, I noticed that gratitude was thematized above me, too.

Autun, stork and wolf

Here’s the stork of fable ridding the wolf of a badly swallowed bone — in case you don’t remember, the stork’s request for a tip was met with a snarl:

Count yourself lucky I didn’t bite your head off when it was between my teeth!

On the other side of the portal we find a positive exemplum of gratitude:

Autun, Jerome and the lion

This distressed lion remains faithful to Jerome after he has plucked the offending thorn from his paw. (There’s also a fable in the Romulus tradition, De pastore et leone, but I doubt that any old shepherd would be dressed this well).

After a day like this, I’m counting myself among the lions, not the ingrate wolves.

DSC04861

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