Archive for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours

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

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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Mar
13

VENT Nebraska: Day Four

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birders birding mullen

What a day, full of birds and beautiful landscapes. We started at Fort Kearny, where the numbers of sandhill cranes and snow geese were once again beyond belief, vast clouds rising from the water and the fields every time a bald eagle looked cross-eyed at the flocks. We could have stayed all day, entranced by the sound and the sight of sheer abundance.

But it was time to leave Platte Valley for the Nebraska Sandhills.

Sandhills

Rough-legged and Harlan hawks, horned larks, and trumpeter swans welcomed us to this twenty thousand square miles of dunes and grass. The birding was most exciting, though, once we were in Mullen with time to take a late afternoon walk around town.

red-bellied woodpecker, Mullen

A Harris sparrow and a red-bellied woodpecker were both mild surprises in this part of the state, and red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins joined the cedar waxwings and robins bathing vigorously in the melt puddles on the roadsides. I’ll have to look, but I seem to remember having seen the nuthatch only once before on this tour — and the siskin might even be a new species to the cumulative list.

pine siskin Mullen

Tomorrow: sharp-tailed grouse and the big marshes of the Sandhills.

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Mar
12

VENT Nebraska: Day Three

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sandhill crane sounds

It was cold when we left the hotel this morning, just 17 degrees, but as soon as we arrived at Gibbon Bridge, the excitement of the cranes kept us from even noticing. A good-sized roost had formed quite close to the bridge; we appreciated its nearly topographical extent, stretching from bank to bank, as the sun rose to cast the birds in gold.

sandhill crane roost

These birds were still in the water even an hour after other roosts had noisily broken up. We could happily have stayed and watched them all morning, but breakfast and the anticipation of new sites and new sights called.

Successful as we had been yesterday in getting to see a whooping crane, we decided to move south today to Harlan County Lake, a reliable locality for early-arriving American white pelicans (and if I remember right, now a regular wintering ground for small numbers of the massive creatures). Sure enough, a soaring flock of 35 was visible from a couple of miles north of the lake, and we had good if slightly distant views of another dozen or so on the water.

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The real treat here, though, was the number and variety of ducks feeding and loafing on the lake. We had outstandingly good views of redheads and canvasbacks together, and there was a massive drift of northern pintail and green-winged teal along the north bank. I’d been hoping for a rare gull or two, but we had to content ourselves with a single Franklin gull, which flew dove-like over our heads a dozen times as if eager to show us every last detail of plumage and structure.

Franklin gull

Passerines were significantly less diverse, or at least less conspicuous. We did run into three Gambel sparrows, the first the group had seen this week and a “kind” of white-crowned sparrow rare to nonexistent on most of our local patches.

A quick recalculation of our schedule revealed that we just might have time to check a couple of the Rainwater Basins, so we hastened over to Funk Lagoon. We saw a few ducks on the little water that was there, and were grateful for a tip about a great horned owl nest in a shelterbelt just up the road. Prairie Dog Lagoon was similarly unbirdful, but the eponymous squirrels were out and about, as they had been at the Harlan County dam; no long-legged owls in sight, but it is barely mid-March.

Dinner in Kearney was relaxed and good, though I took as a sign of anxious restaurateurial over-trying that many of us needed to ask the waiter to bring our food without one or another of the advertised ingredients. Does anyone really want a red wine infusion atop a blue cheese hamburger? And do mashed potatoes really need to be slathered in melted butter with truffle flakes? The food was good, but a little more simplicity — perhaps a little more modesty — would have made it even better.

Platte River evening at Fort Kearny

Not all of us went back out after dinner, but I wouldn’t have missed this evening’s flight for anything. Mass after mass of cranes, with long snaking lines of snow and Ross geese, flew in low over the Fort Kearny bridge on the way to roost, only to be startled into raucous flight by one of the dozen or more bald eagles working that stretch of the river. The walk out beneath the first stars of a cool, calm night and the shouts and rattles of cranes and geese may turn out to be the most memorable part of what is already a memorable tour.

But my bet is that the next couple of days will produce sights and sounds and experiences to rival even this, the most spectacular wildlife phenomenon in North America. Stay tuned.

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