Into the Camargue

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.


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.


Il mar, il suol

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.


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.


VENT Nebraska: Day Four

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.


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.


VENT Nebraska: Day Three

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.


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.


VENT Nebraska: Day Two

Sandhill crane snow goose

We woke up to wind, light snow, and icy sidewalks, all made more annoying (for me at least) by the disorientation of having reset the clocks. Rather than go out and stand in it, I decided that we should use the first hour of the day to drive west to Wahoo, where I knew we could bird from the van if it was necessary.

I’d underestimated the doughtiness of this group. When we pulled in to Lake Wanahoo and saw birds on the water, no one hesitated to jump right out and into the wind. It paid off nicely, with a mid-sized flock of snow geese (with good looks at scattered Ross geese, too) on the lake and small flocks milling in the air to find just the right angle to land against the gale. The day’s –and the tour’s– first northern pintails and ring-necked ducks were fun, but even those handsome fowl were outdone by the song of a western meadowlark with its promise of spring.

A quick break and we were ready for the next stop, the saline marshes of Ceresco Flats. It was raw out, the temperature just below freezing and the north wind stronger by the minute. I’d hoped to walk the sparrow road with the group (the closed portion of Ashland Road, at the east end of the WMA), but there was just no point in exposing ourselves to the elements in return for quick glimpses of panicked little birds. Instead, we found a great spot where the wind was blocked by a couple of big red cedars, and enjoyed fine views of slate-colored juncos, American tree sparrows, Harris sparrows, and eastern bluebirds. A suspicious-looking distant raptor vanished below the horizon too quickly for us to get a glass on it, but reappeared several minute later to confirm out tentative identification: a dark-morph rough-legged hawk, much less common out here than the equally dashing light birds.

We weren’t quite ready for lunch, and so, after a quick visit to the great-tailed grackle flock at Havelock,  pushed on to Grand Island, where I was glad to have a break from trying to keep the van on the road. Lunchtime entertainment was offered by nearly 300 great-tailed grackles, double the size of the flock I’d been so careful to have us check off on our way west. And a dessert of anticipation was provided by a couple who kindly stopped on their way out to tell us they’d seen a whooping crane just south of the interstate.

Sandhill crane

I tend, unjustly, to be skeptical when non-birders tell me they’ve seen something fancy, and I seemed to be right when the first two big flocks of sandhill cranes we checked each included an oddly marked white sandhill — the first white-bodied with a gray neck and head, the second nearly all white with gray flecking and splotching on the back. Surely our truck stop friends had seen one of these birds in passing and leapt to an understandable conclusion.

But then Danny found a third white bird, and this one was truly white. And big. And a whooping crane.

whooping crane

This was a life bird for a couple of us, and we stayed with it for the better part of an hour as it moved through the flock, feeding almost constantly. The only thing to distract us was a small flock of Lapland longspurs that landed momentarily on the edge of the sheetwater next to the road. We’d seen hundreds, probably thousands, in big disorganized flocks as we drove around, but this time one stayed behind to let us admire it on the ground.

Lapland longspur

We were simultaneously watching one of the rarest birds in the world and one of the most abundant in the northern hemisphere.

We zipped back to Kearney for an early supper (we’ll eat better tomorrow), then took to the road again to watch the evening flight. I am not sure that I had ever seen snow goose flocks as massive as those at Gibbon; miles of sky were traced with endless drypoint lines and curls of birds. It is impossible to guess how many birds we say: if you told me a hundred thousand, if you told me a million, I would have no response but to nod, numbed by the sheer abundance.

The cranes themselves kept us waiting, no doubt unnerved by the bald eagles sitting on the sandbars next to the usual roosting waters. Not quite half an hour after sunset, though, the show began in earnest, with tens of thousands of sandhill cranes coming in to mill about over the water, finally settling down into flocks that more and more resembled small continents.

It was awesome, if I may take one small step towards restoring that word’s meaning. And we have another whole day tomorrow with the cranes and the waterfowl and whatever else this spectacular season brings us.