Archive for WINGS Tours
The most striking thing about Provence is the ubiquity of the past. Here an ancient farmhouse, there a medieval castle, and everywhere the remnants of imperial Rome, from great arenas and amphitheaters to equally imposing aqueducts and monuments.
The most impressive of them all are the structures known as Les Antiques, a first-century BC mausoleum and a first-century AD triumphal arch that marked the northern entrance to the fortified provincial city of Glanum.
Every itinerary through southern France includes this famous site, but birders like us experience it differently—better—than other tourists. On our most recent visit, a short-toed treecreeper sang and crept on truncated digits through the surrounding woods, while Eurasian blackbirds and common nightingales serenaded us from nearby. But the ultimate interruption to our discussion of life in a Roman oppidum was provided by a European roller, flashing past the 2000-year-old structures like an even bluer piece of the Provençal sky.
And so it was everywhere on our latest tour of Mediterranean France: European robins and crested tits on the grounds of the hospital that housed van Gogh, pallid swifts over the Romanesque tower of St-Trophime, blue rock thrushes and alpine swifts on the starkly romantic ruins of medieval Les Baux. This truly is a landscape where nature and culture, birds and history and art and architecture, are inseparable.
On our first full day together, we took full advantage of that rich mix, exploring the marshes and reedbeds of the Petite Camargue before visiting one of the most famous churches in France in nearby St-Gilles.
The road to the Camargue was lined with newly arrived hoopoes, and a wide range of herons and other waders—including the no-longer-quite-so-scarce glossy ibis—were conspicuous in the marshes.
Our first greater flamingos and Eurasian spoonbills competed for our attention with whiskered terns and pied avocets, and the first common kingfisher of the tour was good for a few oohs and aahs.
For most of our time together, the weather was classically Mediterranean: warm, bright, and dry, with just a hint of the notorious and exhilarating winds of springtime Provence. On our second morning, however, we woke to drizzle and clouds, and decided to flip our itinerary to concentrate, appropriately enough, on waterbirds.
First, though, we birded the grounds of the Museum of Classical Arles, where unseen nightingales taunted us and migrant pied flycatchers played in the trees. The skies brightened quickly, and a short-toed eagle overhead was just the first of that dramatic species we would see; common redstart, chiffchaff, and white wagtail joined our passerine list.
The road to Les Stes-Maries de la Mer was as birdy as ever, with waterfowl, herons, and shorebirds at every stop; little stints gave good studies, but the stars of the wader show were undoubtedly the Kentish plovers, common but captivating out on the salicornia flats.
After lunch in Stes-Maries, we walked (carefully!) across the pétanque fields to the massive church.
Centuries of votive offerings left for the city’s eponymous saints paint (literally, in many cases) a history of superstition and spirituality in the upper church,
while the crypt was as always ablaze with candles lit for the apocryphal St. Sarah, patroness of the Roma who gather in Stes-Maries each May.
The weather was back to its usual beautiful self next morning, and we set off for the breathtaking ruins of Les Baux, set high in the rugged Alpilles north of Arles.
Blue rock thrush, sometimes tough to find among the countless crevices where they hide, gave good views, and alpine swifts and crag martins flashed past us, above us, often below us, on the way to and from their nest sites in the cliffs. The martins, sturdy brown swallows attractive in their very plainness, were still building, and several paused to collect mud and straw from the rocks right at our feet—while just a few yards away, schoolchildren squealed in delight over the demonstrations of medieval siege engines.
We had lunch at the Porte Mages in Les Baux, then returned to Arles for some time off on a beautiful afternoon.
A few hours later, we assembled to walk the few blocks to the Alyscamps, the late antique and early Christian cemetery that is still, more than 2000 years after its founding, one of the most atmospheric sites in Arles. We wandered past the long rows of sarcophagi—memorably painted by van Gogh—to the ruins of St-Honorat, the largest and best-preserved of the numerous churches built there in the Middle Ages; most famous for its squat Romanesque tower, St-Honorat is a veritable anthology of architectural styles, with chapels added in the Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque periods, several of them ornamented with particularly well-carved sarcophagi from the necropolis outside.
With two vehicles at our disposal this year, we decided to bird the desert-like steppes of La Crau in two shifts.
One group started at 5:30 the next morning, early enough to have great views of such specialties as little bustard, stone-curlew, golden oriole, and whinchat; the rest enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in Arles, then joined up with the earlier risers to walk out to the lesser kestrel apartments in the old stone well of Peau de Meau, where a good fifteen birds could be watched at close range as they fed on the ground and low in the air.
We followed our traditional lunch in St-Martin with an exploration of the cloister of St-Trophime, whose Romanesque capitals rank among the very finest examples of medieval sculpture in the world. Years of careful restoration have left many of these famous carvings in better condition than they have been in centuries.
Nothing is more typically Provençal than contrast, and it was a contrast indeed to bird the next morning in the high-elevation pine forests of La Caume.
Common chaffinches, European goldfinches, and a typically sneaky subalpine warbler sang at us through the foggy morning before we continued down the other side of the Alpilles towards St-Rémy.
Les Antiques—the mausoleum and arch at Glanum—were good birding and good architecture, and then we crossed the road to St-Paul, the mental hospital (itself built around a handsome twelfth-century church) that housed Vincent van Gogh for a year before his early death.
Even here, amid the sober reminders of sad history and glorious and difficult art, we found birds.
A European robin trilled and burped on the heavily shaded entry walk, and our primary target was attained when we discovered an adult crested tit in attendance on a freshly fledged and very noisy juvenile.
After lunch in the charming little town of St-Rémy, we explored the Renaissance square and returned to Arles.
The sea and the shore called again the next morning, but not before we had paid a leisurely visit to the riot of colors and smells and tastes that is the Saturday market in Arles.
With our picnic basket well packed, we set off on a dazzlingly bright morning to the eastern Camargue. A perched hobby and a visible (at long last!) common cuckoo were among the highlights; one especially productive stop turned up a woodchat shrike and a flock of newly arrived bee-eaters.
We didn’t indulge in bees, but our own lunch featured excellent cheeses, ham and sausages, strawberries and mandarins, fresh bread, wine and juice, and the best cookies in France—along with a pair of common nightingales going about their business in plain sight.
A quick post-prandial stroll at La Capelière turned up collared pratincole, black-crowned night-heron, and a bright green tree frog so small as to be almost non-existent.
We celebrated with another fine dinner at Le Jardin de Manon, a quick walk from our hotel and voted by acclamation our favorite restaurant in Arles. But the tour wasn’t over yet. The next morning found us on the road to the Pont du Gard, the highest Roman bridge and aqueduct ever built and one of the marvels of architecture and engineering from any period.
The Pont also happens to be one of southern France’s best birding sites, and it more than lived up to its reputation on this visit. Crag martins and alpine swifts swept past us in the search for insects, and a brilliantly blue common kingfisher hunted the river’s rocky shallows.
A distant red-rumped swallow was the only individual of that scarce species we saw on our tour. But the best bird, as so often, was the last bird: as we reluctantly returned to the parking lot, a great shadow appeared on the ground, cast by no less a bird than a Eurasian griffon vulture, which passed low over our heads on its way to some unknown destination.
Our own destination was Beaucaire, where we enjoyed a final lunch on the banks of the glistening river before returning to Arles and our packing.
Dinner that evening was festive and the conversation genial, with happy memories already firming up in our minds even as we faced the end of what was a wonderful edition of one of my favorite tours.
Yesterday morning’s visit to the Pont du Gard was a good one: we missed the one “easy” target we’ve always got before — the charming little yellow-patched Rock Sparrow — but we made up for it.
White Wagtails danced in the shallows, while the air was full of Crag Martins, House Martins, and Alpine Swifts so low overhead we could hear the wind through those arcuate wings. Careful scanning of the big flocks produced the only Red-rumped Swallow of the tour, one of just a handful I’ve ever seen in southern France and a life bird for several members of our delightful group.
It also pays to watch the rocks in the water, habitual perches for everything from Black Redstarts to Little Egrets.
The blue flash of the Common Kingfisher is a frequent sight here, too, but it is usually little more than that, an electric streak tracing the course of the river below us. This time, though, one decided that the waters directly in front of us must harbor the finest fish in France, and she hovered and dived for minutes at a time in plain view, coming up over and over with tiny silvery snacks. Yes, it’s a common bird, and no, we never miss it, but this may have been my favorite kingfisher experience ever.
The clock reminded me that we needed to get to lunch in Beaucaire, and so I reluctantly sounded the retreat, Rock Sparrows or no. As we neared the parking lot, a great shadow passed over — and we looked up to find it cast by a Griffon Vulture. The great fulvous bird soared above us for several minutes before passing to the west, leaving us to wonder whether it was a bird from the Alps, the Pyrenees, or the central French massifs driven out into the lowlands of the Gard by hunger or curiosity.
Back when this species could still be spoken of as common, Crespon recounted the “manière particulière” with which the residents of the Cevennes hunted the great vultures:
It is a matter simply of constructing a square enclosure with sticks; they throw a piece of carrion into the middle of it, and in no time the vile odor that it gives off attracts the vultures, which drop out of the sky to feed. But once they have landed inside the enclosure, it is impossible for them to take flight again within the confines of the enclosure (their wings are so long that they need space to jump several times before being able to take off). And so it is easy to take them alive.
Just what the bold hunters wanted with these birds is unclear. Buffon notes that they — the vultures, that is —
are disgusting, thanks to the constant streaming of fluid from their nostrils, along with saliva that pours from two holes in the bill.
Not overly appealing, but it’s a great bird to see.
They’re irresistibly photogenic, and this time around, last week in Nebraska, I happened to recall that my little point-and-shoot camera-for-dummies takes video, too.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Greater Prairie-Chicken:
Just click to watch a couple of birds display. And turn up the volume on your computer, too; nothing says spring on the Great Plains like that moaning and howling and cackling.
If variety is the spice of life, then the Great Plains in spring is the habanero chili of birding. In the short week my congenial WINGS group spent in Nebraska, we watched Tufted Titmice and Ferruginous Hawks, Blue Jays and Baird’s Sandpipers, Great-tailed Grackles and Pileated Woodpeckers—a mix of species tough to duplicate anywhere else.
As we’ve come to expect on this tour, the mammals were similarly diverse. The abundant white-tailed deer of eastern Nebraska were replaced in the Sandhills by a roadside herd of mule deer, and the eastern gray squirrels of Fontenelle Forest—their population increasing every year—contrasted neatly with the prairie dog towns of North Platte.
The weather, too, kept us guessing in the best prairie tradition. The week was cool to chilly on the whole, but the threatened snow never materialized, and it was dry up until the very last minute of the tour, when a light mist finally broke out into a much-needed rain. The notorious Midwestern winds held off, too, with the notable exception of our last afternoon together, when the drive back to the woodlands and wetlands of the Missouri River was made almost more adventurous than hoped by a fresh gale and poor visibility. But good company, good spirits, and good birds made even that inconvenience into nothing more than a trifle.
Our first nights’ lodging in Carter Lake is well situated indeed, and we started the tour with some first-rate waterfowl watching just five minutes from our motel. The eighteen species of ducks and geese on Carter Lake gave excellent views—to us and to a birdwatcher of another kind, a fine female Merlin, the first “good” bird of the tour.
A quick stop at Gun Club Marsh, south of Bellevue, produced the week’s rarest birds, an apparent hybrid drake Mallard x American Black Duck and his visually “pure” American Black Duck consort. The drake showed a bit of green on the forecrown and noticeably pale outer rectrices; as rare as black ducks are in the state in recent decades, obvious hybrids seem to be even scarcer.
We deserved a good meal after that, and La Mesa, one of the area’s best Mexican restaurants provided exactly that. Unfortunately, while we relished our supper, the evening breeze strengthened, and our old faithful American Woodcocks at Lake Manawa stubbornly refused to display during the half hour we listened to them buzz. No matter: we would have another chance the next evening, when the performance more than made up for our first attempt’s disappointment, four or five birds landing in front of us and dancing in the sky above our heads.
Sunrise the next morning found us in one of eastern Nebraska’s premier birding localities, the lowland forests and marshes of Fontenelle Forest.
The woodpecker show was especially good, with double-digit counts of Red-headeds and no fewer than three Pileated Woodpeckers, that latter species one of the great success stories after its total absence from the state for most of the last century.
A Barred Owl greeted us with its questioning “Whoo,” then sat at close range to let us admire it just off the trail; more surprising was a Great Horned Owl a bit farther on, perching nearby at the top of a tall cottonwood, then, when we had moved a short distance down the trail, flying into a cavity that almost certainly sheltered its eggs or young.
Among the Red-tailed Hawks was a stunning Krider’s Hawk, bright white beneath with clear wing linings and a white head marked only with chocolate lateral throat stripes; this is a locally common wintering bird in the state, but most are long gone by the end of March.
Our first runza lunch met with enthusiastic approval, and we were in good spirits as we head south and into Cass County. The familiar waterfowl spots harbored large numbers of ducks, and Eastern Bluebirds outblued the clear sky along the country roads. Our best stop by far was Platte River State Park, where a pair of Barred Owls duetted across the creek while an invisible Carolina Wren provided the obbligato.
American Robins and Cedar Waxwings bathed in the fast-flowing water; nearby were a Myrtle Warbler and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, both rare winterers or, just possibly, early arrivals.
Schramm State Park, back on the north side of the river, was the site of our first Oregon Juncos and Harris’s Sparrows, feeding beneath the windows at the visitor center. Red-tailed Hawks were common and conspicuous all day, and a beautiful “intermediate” morph bird perched just above the van drew more oohs and more aahs than just about anything else all day—and rightly so.
The evening was clear and warm, and the wind died as we dined; our decision to return to Lake Manawa to give the American Woodcocks a second chance paid off well, with much dancing in the sky.
Temperatures rose through the night, and it was nearly up to freezing when we set off the next morning. We drove an hour west to the saline marshes of the Ceresco Flats, where Ring-necked Pheasants honked and a large flock of Snow Geese cackled and barked. Song and American Tree Sparrows lined the deserted roads, joined by more Harris’s Sparrows and a scarce Swamp Sparrow. A distant singing Eastern Meadowlark was the only one we tallied all week; Western Meadowlarks were already arriving by the hundreds, but Easterns are typically more hesitant, waiting to occupy their restricted Nebraska breeding grounds until spring has well and truly sprung.
The first Sandhill Cranes welcomed us to Grand Island, where we had time before lunch to scan the flocks at Mormon Island and to give serious study to the couple of hundred Richardson’s Cackling Geese on the moat of the Stuhr Museum. After a brief stop at the Crane Meadows feeders to admire the Oregon, Cassiar, and Slate-colored Juncos, we slowly made our way west to Kearney past fields packed with Sandhill Cranes in their untold thousands. We checked in to our hotel, enjoyed a steak dinner, and repaired to the Gibbon Bridge for the evening show.
It doesn’t matter how often you’ve seen the cranes come to roost: the experience is always uniquely moving, beautiful and wild and noisy like nothing else on the continent. Tens of thousands of birds eventually settled into the river’s shallows, and I suspect that I was not alone in hearing the echoes of their roar long after my head had hit the pillow for the night.
If anything, the morning flight was even more spectacular this time. The rattling of the flock was audible as we stepped out of the car, but it became deafening when, just before sunrise, a Bald Eagle flew low over the river, setting off a noisy panic that lasted for several minutes as flocks rose and swirled and shouted over the deck where we stood in wonder. Three quarters of an amazing hour later, most of the birds had left their river roost for the fields, and it was time for our breakfast, too.
An hour after leaving Kearney, we were in the Sandhills, one of the most beautiful and least densely populated landscapes in the country. Rough-legged Hawks joined the abundant red-tails to hunt the roadsides, and yuccas replaced the red cedars of the tallgrass prairie. We arrived in Broken Bow, the largest city in the hills, in good time, and wended our way to the sewage ponds for a little pre-lunchtime birding.
So productive in some years, the ponds and neighboring creekbed were almost disappointing this time. Only almost, though, as on our way out we spotted two brown spots on the icy rim: Baird’s Sandpipers, the first of the huge numbers of that neotropical migrant that will move through the central Great Plains in April and May. Docile by nature, or maybe just exhausted by the long flight from the Andes, these two let us approach to within just a few dozen yards for lingering scope views of their long wings, spangled golden upperparts, and odd slender bills.
Lunch at the Tumbleweed Café was as good as ever, the high quality of the food rivaled by the friendly good nature of our fellow diners. We were a content group of birders as we drove the last hundred miles to Mullen, in the very heart of the Sandhills.
We took advantage of the time change to put our feet up for a little while, then met Mitch for the twenty-five-minute ride out to the lek of the Greater Prairie-chickens. While we waited for the main event, Rough-legged and two Ferruginous Hawks—one of the latter a dramatic dark bird—patrolled the hills outside our blind, and two coyotes sniffed their way along the distance fence line in search of whom they might devour.
Two prairie-chickens arrived soon after we did, but uncharacteristically, the bulk of the flock waited until less than an hour before sunset to fly in and start to display. Eventually we had twenty males on the lek in front of us, at times no more than fifteen yards away, booming and strutting and stamping their feet at each other. The late afternoon light turned golden, then pink, and still the birds danced. We were a silent lot when we turned to drive back to town, impressed and honored to have witnessed a ritual that dates back beyond human memory.
Dinner in Mullen restored us nicely, and we were all bright and chipper when 5:30 rolled around the next morning and it was time to visit the other grassland grouse on their own dancing ground.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse were more punctual than their cousins of the evening before, and five males were whirring and cackling on the pasture in front of us by the time the sun rose over the Sandhills. No hens arrived to admire the males’ manic exertions, so they paused in their display at 8:00, giving us a chance to slip unseen back into our shuttle and return to Mullen for a lavish breakfast of pancakes, waffles, eggs, and cup after cup of good hot coffee.
We returned to the motel to clean up, pack, and bid farewell to our hosts, then drove straight south through the hills to North Platte. We paused on the way to move the carcass of a white-tailed jackrabbit from the road—in hopes that the Ferruginous Hawk we’d flushed from it would not wind up in the same sad state.
It was delightfully warm and bright when we arrived at North Platte’s Cody Park.
As usual in the early spring, a large flock of waterfowl—some injured, most simply spoiled by the park-goers’ generosity with corn and birdseed—lingered on the pond, and we took full advantage of the chance to watch five species of geese at arm’s length. Richardson’s Cackling Geese were the most common, but the tiny Ross’s Goose was everyone’s favorite.
Soon, though, runzas called, and we enjoyed a leisurely lunch before striking out on the four-hour drive east to Omaha.
It should have been four hours, but the south wind, so welcome just a couple of hours before, increased rapidly, violently, such that great clouds of dust and debris obscured vision and slowed traffic; higher-profile vehicles than ours were in the ditches, and even our van required more concentration than usual. With the entire afternoon ahead of us, we took our time, stopping to bird and to refuel more frequently than usual and pulling in, safe and sound, to our hotel on the banks of Carter Lake with plenty of time to enjoy a final festive dinner together.
Next morning we found that the wind had brought warm temperatures, a light mist, and. most importantly, some migrants. A brief walk along Bellevue’s Trader’s Trail turned up a Red Fox Sparrow, and Turkey Vultures floated low in the dim skies as we drove across the Missouri to Lake Manawa. Ducks and gulls were abundant on the lake, and a distant drift of white on the far shore resolved itself into the spring’s first flock of American White Pelicans, 75 huge birds tucked into the shallows after their flight from the south. As we made our way towards the airport and the end of the tour, a dark blob in a cottonwood above the road turned into a Merlin, a fitting bookend to a week that had started with that species and included so many more—many more birds, yes, but many more experiences, too, and many happy moments in congenial company.
Want to join us next year? Drop in at the WINGS website and sign up!