Mar
29

The Rosy Starlings of Villafranca

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n50_w1150

Birders all across western Europe — and yes, some die-hards in North America, too — are always on the lookout for this fancy bird, which occasionally moves west, far west, of its Asian and east European range. My VENT group in Catalonia last year was fortunate enough to discover an adult near Barcelona, but we can’t really hope for pink lightning to strike twice.

It’s not impossible, though, as the astonishing Italian incursion of June 1875 shows. The gentleman-naturalist Edoardo de Betta wrote:

The rosy starling arrived in Villafranca on June 3. Around 4:00 pm on that day a small flock of 18 to 20 of these birds perched on the high, crumbling interior walls of the fortress, and was followed half an hour later by a second flock of about 100 individuals; their constant vocalizing drew the attention of everyone living inside the fortress bounds…. Towards evening, still more, thousands and thousands, of these starlings appeared, and joining those that had preceded them, remained until dark, at which point they all flew out and scattered through the open countryside in very many flocks.

The gathering human crowd was unhappy that these “strange and beautiful birds, which they had now seen for the first time in their lives,” should disappear so promptly.

But around 3:00 the next morning, the residents of Villafranca were unexpectedly awakened by the deafening calls of twelve to fourteen thousand rosy starlings that had arrived to take definitive possession of the fortress….

 

Scaliger Castle
Wikipedia, by Ugo Franchini 

Five days later, the starlings commenced their breeding activities, to the delight of the human residents:

Copulation was undertaken with unbelievable ardor, atop the fortress walls and the roofs of the houses; these birds proved so concupiscent that they lingered in their embrace even if they accidentally fell from their high perches, with the result that it was easy for all the people to obtain some as the birds fell in pairs to the street below.

Some “speculators” made hundreds of lire by selling those birds on what seems to have been a very lively black market centered on the Villafranca train stataion.

The surviving pairs went about their business, and by July 10 all the nestlings were entirely feathered. Four days later, the adults and their newly fledged young all left Villafranca for sites to the south. But de Betta reports that they left behind them a three-fold legacy:

The birds carried out an immense massacre of the locusts in the agricultural fields; they were a source of great fortune for a few clever entrepreneurs; and finally, what matters most to us, they added an entirely new chapter of the greatest significance to the history of Italian birds.

I would like to have seen that.

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Mar
13

Nebraska with VENT: Day Three

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Nebraska

It was cold and windy and spitting snow when we arrived at Fort Kearny this morning to watch the moon set and the sandhill cranes rise. It’s still, 40 years on, one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in the outdoor world — rivaled only by the evening flight, which we witnessed tonight a half dozen miles downstream, tens of thousands of birds pouring in over our heads, shouting and gurgling and rattling and laughing.

In between we birded south of the Platte, from Kearney to almost Grand Island, marveling at cranes and arriving flocks of western meadowlarks out on the windy fields. Perhaps the most surprising bird of the day was hunkered down out of the elements on one of those fields, a gray blob that had me making one of those simultaneous screech-to-a-halt-and-make-a-U-turn maneuvers that mark us, sure as our binoculars, as birders.

Nebraska

I don’t know offhand how many migrant peregrine falcons I’ve ever seen in this state, but I’m guessing that a quick digital tally would likely involve neither of my feet.

Tomorrow: the cranes again, of course, and then a day of northing and westering into the most heartbreakingly beautiful landscape on the continent.

Stay tuned, and come with us next year.

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Mar
11

Nebraska With VENT: Day Two

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sandhill crane

The first full day of our tour ended with an hour and a half of the bird in the photo: this is the second year in a row that we’ve lucked into an early whooping crane, and only the fourth or fifth time, if rightly I remember, that we’ve managed to score this rare bird at all on this trip. Peak migration for the species on the Platte River in spring falls a good month from now, in the second week of April or so, and I assume that this individual — which we watched somewhere in Kearney County for a good hour and a half in the early evening — wintered inland in north Texas or somewhere nearby, where it fell in with a group of sandhill cranes and has adopted, I hope only temporarily, their seasonal rhythm.

sandhill crane

The afternoon belonged to cranes, as it inevitably does on the central Platte in March. The “official” tally from a few days ago is 406,000 on this stretch of the river, and we found it easy to believe. Sandhill cranes were never out of sight or glorious, glorious sound once we reached easternmost Hall County, and though scanning the flocks on the ground and the air failed to produce a third gruid species, we did come across no fewer than three “cinnamon” sandhills, juveniles that for some reason skipped their molt in late summer of 2016 and retained their first plumage, stained brown with the mud of the tundra and now ragged and worn. I rarely see three such birds over the course of a season, and that many in a single day was a treat.

We started the day on the floodplain of the Missouri River, where a pair of pileated woodpeckers called and drummed and were all in all impressively incongruous. The skies were dull and the air cold, but red fox sparrows were in full song. The barred owl flying down the bottom of the bluffs landed out of sight to become a “leader-only” species, but maybe we’ll fix that on our return end of the week. Meanwhile, cranes!

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Mar
11

Nebraska with VENT

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Franklin's gull

We’re off to a fine start on this 2017 Victor Emanuel tour to Nebraska, with an afternoon of good birding and great company behind us.

The pretty little Franklin gull in the photo was a good find. The big flocks won’t be appearing for another three weeks or so, and I’d suspect that this bird was one of those that for whatever reason linger all season far north of the usual South American wintering grounds.

Lake Manawa produced a smattering of waterfowl, including half a dozen hooded mergansers and a nice gang of 35 or so canvasback among the couple of hundred lesser scaup. That we weren’t the only ones watching ducks this afternoon was made clear by the roost flight of bald eagles: at least 30 came out of the trees around the lake to seek safer perches on the Nebraska side of the river.

This tour is often very nice for mammals, and I hope we didn’t use up all our luck today. We started off with excellent looks at a black-morph eastern fox squirrel, one of the handsomest of the squirrels. Then at Lake Manawa we were serenaded in the late afternoon by a pack of coyotes, beautiful noise that never fails to send a shiver up the spine.

If there was a disappointment today, and I don’t think there really was, it was the woodcock show. The first started to buzz at 6:40 pm, but we had only fleeting views of three birds flying in early to display, and not a single good look at any of the birds up in the sky. It was getting chilly and the wind came up, so we kicked it in half an hour later. We’ll try again at the end of the tour — tomorrow it’s west to look for cranes, gray ones and white ones and maybe, fingers fervently crossed, one with a black and white neck….

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Feb
14

Lovebirds to the Very End

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and those little Agapornis parrots are showing up on cards and computer screens around the world.

rosy-faced Lovebird

But lovebirds aren’t the only lovebirds.

Buffon writes of The Amorous Titmouse that

we owe our knowledge of this species to the Abbot Gallois, who brought it back from the Far East and showed it to Mr. Commerson in 1769…. The epithet “amorous” given to this species indicates quite well the dominant quality of its temperament: In fact, the male and female caress each other endlessly; at least when caged, that is their sole occupation.

They give themselves over to love, we are told, to the point of exhaustion, and in this way they not only mitigate the annoyances of captivity with pleasure but curtail them; for it is obvious that such a practice means that they cannot live for very long, in accordance with the general principle that the intensity of existence diminishes its duration.

If that is their goal — if in fact they are striving only to end their captivity quickly — one must confess that in their despair they choose a very sweet way to do it.

Mr. Commerson does not tell us whether these birds perform with equal ardor the other functions required to perpetuate their species, such as the building of a nest, incubation, and parental care.

We know nothing more of this species, alas, than its affectionate habits, and it may well be extinct. But, as they say, what a way to go.

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