Archive for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours


Tiny Cormorants, Tinier Kingfishers

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Am I the only one who wakes up on the plane at the end of a transoceanic flight completely, entirely, thoroughly, almost irretrievably discombobulated?

I stumbled out of the Venice airport this morning fully disoriented. Happily, the time it took me to walk the ever-widening circles required to find the car rental area was also the opportunity for the first of the day’s many score pygmy cormorants to fly over — and with that I was on my ornitho-feet again, reminded that I hadn’t landed just anywhere in Old Europe, but was on, indeed in, the Adriatic Sea.


I spent the day re-familiarizing myself with the area and the birds, and even got to witness two common kingfisher behaviors I never had before. I suspect that neither is rare, but it’s unusual that I get to linger over this bird, so often just an electric-blue flash and a nails-on-the-chalkboard squeak as it darts past on its way to one end or the other of its necessarily linear territory.

Today, though, I watched two different individuals hunting the “lagoon” at Lio Piccolo, a tiny insular peninsula or peninsular island with a single road so narrow that I could swear a time or two I was propelled merely by the rotation of the axles.


In any event, my slow progress was a chance to watch one kingfisher actually hovering over the water for a couple of seconds; it was less skilled than so many of the larger aquatic alcedinids are, but I was still impressed, especially since this was the first time I think I’d ever seen the species treading air at all.


Not long thereafter, I was more surprised to see a blue dot on a distant telephone wire: a common kingfisher, hunting from a perch far higher and far more exposed than I would ever have expected. Twice the little blue dart flicked its way down to the water, but twice it came up empty, no doubt to the amusement of the great cormorants hulking on the wires and poles around it.

A nice start to what is sure to be an exciting tour!


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Birds — and Art

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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!


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Photo Quiz

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Well, it wasn’t meant to be a quiz photograph, but this bird in Berlin‘s Tiergarten last week was just a little bit too fast for me.

What is it, and how do you know?

great spotted woodpecker


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.


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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Kite Tails

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One of the great things about eastern Germany has always been the red kites, huge, floppy, swallow-tailed raptors seen in just about any open area of the countryside.

red kite

These carrion-eaters don’t need to be quite as nimble as some of their smaller, more ambitious relatives, but they are still impressively maneuverable in the air, twisting and turning as they pass by at often remarkably close range.

red kite

As this bird revealed the other day, it’s all in how they use that long, deep-forked tail.

red kite

No promises, no guarantees, but I don’t see how we could miss this species next fall. Join me in Brandenburg and Berlin

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