Catalonia in January

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lightposts, Gaudi, Ciutadella Park, Barcelona

I could not have been more delighted when Josh and Lizzie agreed to accompany their uncle on a winter trip to Catalonia. It was the first European visit for both of them, and a great opportunity for me to escape the cold and do a little sniffing around in preparation for April’s Birds and Art tour. I can only hope the kids had half as much fun as I did!

Josh and Lizzie in Sant Pere Pescador

Our flight to Barcelona, by way of Vienna, was uneventful — the very best one can hope when flying from Newark. I picked up the rental car, unfolded the maps, and spoke sternly to the GPS, and we were off.

Barcelon, Delta del Llobregat

It was an easy drive, and Josh and Lizzie’s first introduction to a land of multi-lane traffic circles and death-defying mopedists, two phenomena we would have with us always for the next week.

Barcelona circle

It was still daylight when we checked in to our hotel (beautifully situated, tidy and clean, with a very helpful staff), so we went out into the soft, warm afternoon air for a walk through the Ciutadella Park.

Ciutadella Park, Barcelona

After a miserably wet, cold visit to New York the day before, the sunshine and warmth were a tonic to the soul. Where everyone we’d run into in a chilly, snowy Central Park had been huddled and hurried, here we found barefoot strollers, sunbathers, people just out to soak up a little afternoon sun. Just like us.

Ciutadella Park

Naturally, inevitably, we kept an eye out for wilder creatures. Black redstarts, blackcaps, house sparrows, and European robins were among the commonest birds in the bushes and trees, but they were far less conspicuous than certain pushy, noisy immigrants.

Monk parakeet Barceloneta

Monk parakeets and their huge stick nests were everywhere; here and elsewhere through the week, we also saw a few larger, longer-tailed birds fly over with clearer tooting calls, presumably rose-ringed parakeets. The authorities seem to be aware of the problem, if problem it be, but the well-intentioned signs posted here and there in the Ciutadella had obviously come way too late.

Do not release birds, Ciutadella Park, Barcelona

It got cooler as the sun set, so we slipped into the gathering stream of pedestrians flowing towards the launching point for the parade that would bring the three Wise Men to Barcelona. We smiled at all those carrying stepladders, but appreciated their wisdom by the time we reached the crowded sidewalks ourselves.

flying squids in Barcelona's Three Kings parade

Fortunately, many of the floats and balloons were high enough that even we could see them; the only figures at street level seemed to be the helpers of the Magi, collecting the childrens’ letters in elaborate baskets.

After dinner, Josh and Lizzie retired, and I met up with Malte, whom I hadn’t seen since his visit to us in Princeton fifteen years ago (!), and he showed me around. Our first stop was a revelation, Santa Maria del Mar.

Santa Maria del Mar

Obviously I’d seen photographs, lots of photographs, and I knew that the Catalan Gothic was of an entirely different flavor; what I didn’t expect was how moving the confrontation of massiveness and height, colored glass and somber corners would be. A remarkable, beautiful surprise.

We had tapas at Santa Caterina, then I began to wilt and headed for my pillow. But I’d managed to stay up until 11:00, which is always my rule when traveling east: if I can make it that long, jet lag simply stays away, presumably in awe of my fortitude.

And sure enough, it was easy to get up the next morning. The skies were beautiful and blue again, and warmth was obviously on its way. We decided to head north along the coast for a walk at Aiguamolls, one of Spain’s most important wetlands and a beautiful place for a stroll, birds or not.


There were birds. Northern lapwings, common snipe, and meadow pipits covered the wet fields, and we were never out of hearing of the slightly raspy courtship whistles of the teal (or common teal, or Eurasian teal, or green-winged teal, or whatever they’re called nowadays).

The ducks weren’t alone in vocalizing on a fine morning. Just about all of the resident passerines were singing on and off, including Cetti’s warblers, their explosive chants even more startling than usual for its being early January. I didn’t even try to show one to my companions: I didn’t even need to, as one fed on the ground at our feet before climbing up into the bare twigs of a tree and gleaning invisible prey from the bark, behavior that reminded me of a Bewick’s wren in a wintertime mesquite bosque.

Cetti's Warbler

The noise of the morning, though, was the clattering of stork bills. Malte had told me there would be a lot of white storks, but we were unprepared for the spectacle. Storks everywhere, overhead and on the meadows and perched in trees and on their bulky nests.

White Stork, Aiguamolls

We were walking at a good birderly pace, something like a quarter of a mile an hour, but as mid-day approached, pushed on to the end of the path, on the beach of the Mediterranean Sea.

Lizzie and Josh, Aiguamolls

The water was as blue as the sky (but colder, as Lizzie discovered when a wave lapped her feet).

Aiguamolls, Arctic Loons

A great crested grebe flew by, and a few black dots resolved themselves nicely into Arctic loons, a “life bird” for me, the only one of the trip.

After lunch it was on to Empuriès, site of one of the largest and earliest Greek settlements in Iberia. The ruins are massive — but dwarfed by the remains of the Roman city just up the hill.


It looks like a perfect place come spring for blue rock thrushes and fancy wheatears, but we contented ourselves with the warm air and the view of the sea — those Ancients had a good eye for landscapes.

GironaA brief pause in Girona, then it was back to Barcelona for a good meal with Malte.


I didn’t tell the kids what “pulperia” meant until we’d sat down.

We decided to go not quite so far afield the next day, and settled on the stunning mountain of Montserrat as our destination.

Rick at Montserrat

Getting there was half the fun indeed. The drive was easy and fast, and we transferred to the mountain train to take us up to the monastery complex.



The cliffs are high enough and massive enough to create their own weather: it had been warm and bright down below, but much of the morning was damp and chilly — never rainy, never cold — as we wandered the streets and admired the buildings raised over the centuries.


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Two Kingfishers

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Or is it three?

Screenshot 2015-01-15 14.56.32

Number 93 in the Parade of Plumage was this plate, a colorful one clearly revealing the contributions of two different artists, one far better than the other.

But what are the birds?

Screenshot 2015-01-15 15.04.29

Figures 2 and 3 should be easy: after all, there are only half a dozen kingfishers to choose from in northeastern South America. The Linnaean name given in Boddaert, Alcedo superciliosa, is a synonym of Chloroceryle aenea, the American pygmy kingfisher; that identification is well confirmed by Buffon’s text, which says in its introduction to the bird that

There is only one species of kingfisher in America that can be called truly small… not even five inches long,

or barely half the length of the otherwise remarkably similar green-and-rufous kingfisher. One might be misled — as was I, to my eternal shame — by the white speckling of the wings, but that character is in fact shared by young American pygmy kingfishers. Buffon’s description, the pale bill, and the pattern of the underparts fit only the American pygmy.

The other bird is harder. Not only is it much the less successful painting, but it is an Old World kingfisher, of which there are somewhere between many and lots.

Martinet labels the bird as originating “de l’Isle de Luçon,” and Buffon’s text confirms that that it is found in the Philippines, where it is known as the “vintsi.”

The upper surfaces of the wings and tail are sky-blue; the head is furnished with small long feathers, prettily stippled with black and greenish dots and raised into a crest; the throat is white; there is a reddish-rust spot on the side of the neck; all of the underparts is of this color, and the whole bird is not quite five inches long.

Manila, we have a problem.

No Philippine kingfisher matches either the plate or the description; this is obviously one of those cases where a specimen and its label had gone their separate ways by the time they reached Buffon’s desk.

Boddaert provides the first step to solve the puzzle: Buffon’s “vintsi” and Martinet’s “petit martin pêcheur hupé” are identical to John Latham’s crested kingfisher, and Latham gives us a binomial, Alcedo cristata. That name, coined by Pallas in 1764 but unknown to Buffon, is still valid today, designating the widespread African bird known in English as the malachite kingfisher.

(Next time you throw a party, you can dazzle your guests with this bit of knowledge: Buffon’s “Philippine” lives on in the subspecific name given the Madagascar race of the malachite kingfisher, vintsioides.)

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Screenshot 2015-01-15 08.56.58

The 56th plate in the Parade of Plumage was this one, of interest above all for being one of rather few in the Planches enluminées signed by Martinet as both painter and engraver.

Identification to genus is as straightforward as can be: these big, sloppy-tailed cuckoos with their huge arched bills can only be anis.

But which ones?

The larger one is obviously a greater ani, the erroneous eye color forgivable in an image prepared from a stuffed (and probably mounted) specimen. Indeed, the AOU tells us that the bird on this plate, like so many others in the Planches, served “in part” as Gmelin’s type when he named the species.

Screenshot 2015-01-15 09.07.57

There are two possibilities for the smaller bird here, but Boddaert helps us out with a Linnaean name, Crotophaga Ambulatoria. Ridgway is uncertain just which species that name, from the 12th edition of the Systema, refers to; in 1816, Vieillot declared the nomen essentially nudum:

Two other claimed species deserve no attention at all, because they owe their existence only to imperfect descriptions…. the second is the “walking ani” (Crotophaga ambulatoria, Latham). In fact, that bird has three toes pointing forward and one pointing back, and certainly cannot be an ani [or any other cuckoo, all of which have feet zygodactyl].

Göttingen’s Animalbase agrees. So we have to go, once again, ad fontes, to Buffon’s text itself. Unfortunately, our good Count says nothing about the upper mandible of the bird; that may suggest that this was not a groove-billed ani, but the argument from silence is a difficult one. So let’s look at the synonymies he gives in the footnotes.

Buffon says that his “ani des savanes,” called “petit bout de petun” in the Planches, is identical to the bird depicted or described in no fewer than 15 works earlier than his own. All the usual suspects are there, from Marcgrave to Brisson. Surely one or the other of those will let us identify this pesky cuckoo.

Indeed they do. Buffon praises Mark Catesby’s painting of the bird as a “bonne figure,” so let’s begin there.

Catesby, Smooth-billed ani

Not only does the English naturalist show –much better than Martinet — the distinctively high-ridged bill of a smooth-billed ani, but he describes it in detail in the accompanying text, where he names it “the Razor-billed Black-bird of Jamaica“:

The singular make of the bill resembles that of the Razor-bill… the upper mandible being remarkably prominent, rising arch-wise, with an high and very thin edge.

Klein, too (citing Catesby), says that the bird is “rostro novaculaeformi,” having a “knife-like” bill. Sloane writes that the upper mandible is

of a singular Make, distinguishing it from other Birds, for it was arch’d, or round, rais’d high, flat and thin on the upper round Edge.

Browne tells us that

the upper part of the bill, is flatted on the sides, arched and sharp above.

What clinches the deal is that these authors, all describing a bird that Buffon identifies as that of Planche 102, describe it from Jamaica.

Jamaica. Where the only ani is the smooth-billed ani.

Smooth-billed Ani

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Screenshot 2015-01-14 18.36.23

This one, number 35 at the Parade of Plumage, is a little easier than the last. With that dark plumage and decurved bill, it’s obviously an ibis, but the plate is not detailed enough or, perhaps, accurate enough to let us just eyeball it for an identification. So let’s look at what the text has to say:

This bird, which the colonists of Cayenne have called “the flamingo of the woods,” does in fact live in forests along streams and rivers, and it stays far from the sea coasts, which the other “courlis” hardly ever leave; it also has different habits and does not go around in flocks, but only in pairs; to fish, it perches on logs flotting in the water…. All its plumage has a tinge of very deep green on a background of dark brown, which looks black from a distance, but up close gives off rich reflections of bluish or greenish….

A green-glistening curlew-like bird living in the woods of northeastern South America? There’s really only one possibility, but let’s see if we can’t find some corroboration.

Gmelin, in his edition of the Systema naturae, cites our plate as showing a specimen of the bird he names, logically enough, Tantalus cayennensis.

Screenshot 2015-01-14 18.54.06

Avibase tells us that that is the protonym for what we now know as Mesimbrinibis cayennensis, the bird we call in English the green ibis.

A nice and unexpected confirmation came my way when I looked up “Mesimbrinibis” (it turns out to mean “southern ibis”): Jobling actually identifies the Martinet plate as representing that monotypic genus.

It’s nice to have an easy one to deal with once in a while.

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Come on, couldn’t they please start with an easy one?

Western Plaintain-eater, Pl enl 478

Like most of the participants in the recent Parade of Plumage contest, I cringed when I saw the very first image up for identification: What on earth could that be, and how on earth would I figure it out?

Boddaert to the rescue:

Screenshot 2015-01-14 16.56.21

At least now — no thanks to the typo in the page number, which should in fact be 275 — we can see what Buffon had to say about the plate prepared for him by Martinet:

The bird called “tanas” by the inhabitants of Senegal, presented to us by Mr. Adanson under the name “fishing hawk” (see number 478 of the Planches enluminées), resembles our [peregrine] falcon almost entirely in the colors of its plumage: but it is slightly smaller, and on its head it has long protruding feathers, which fall back to form a sort of crest, thanks to which this bird can always be distinguished from others of the same kind: it also has a yellow bill, less curved and thicker than that of the falcon; it differs further in the very clear notches of both mandibles, and its habits are also different, fishing rather than hunting….

Not overly helpful. But Boddaert also gives us a binomial name, Falco Piscator, and a quick look at the Richmond Index gets us started.

Screenshot 2015-01-14 17.12.19

The trail grows warmer with a simple google search. In the Novitates zoologicae for 1924, no less an authority than Ernst Hartert rehearses the taxonomic history of the bird in the Martinet plate:

Falco piscator Boddaert, Tabl. Pl. Enl., p. 28, is a name bestowed on Daubenton’s pl. 478, on which is represented a bird from Senegambia, obviously meant for our old Chizaerhis africana. I was at first inclined to reject this plate, because the tail is much too short, but as Mr. Sclater pointed out to me the peculiar bill is quite characteristic, the colour on the whole agrees well, and the tail is much foreshortened; the bill and the long occipital crest are well described by Buffon, and we must therefore overlook the much too rufous colour of the head, the shortness and the colour of the tail, and the descriptions of the habits, which were really meant for a bird of prey, but carelessly applied to this plaintain-eater.

Hartert follows Bannerman in assigning the bird on plate 478 the name Crinifer piscator (Bodd.); the genus name Crinifer, “crest wearer,” coined in 1821 by F.P. Jarocki, has priority over what Hartert calls “our old friend Chizaerhis” and, obviously, is to be preferred over Boddaert’s Falco.

Screenshot 2015-01-14 17.32.08

Avibase then confirms that Crinifer piscator is still, 90 years later and over Peters’s objection, the bird’s correct name; it is known in English as the western plaintain-eater. Absent a physical specimen, the plate from the Planches enluminées serves as the formal type.

Happily, number two in the contest was easier.

Congratulations to Susie Haberfled for taking first place in the Parade!


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