Sunday, October 2, 2016

Birding in France, Part 1 - Paris and First Days in the South

It still seems a bit surreal to me, but a month ago we took our big summer vacation to France! It wasn’t the first time for either Nick or me, but it was our first time together, and we had some different targets in mind than from our previous trips, which were BB – Before Birding. 

View of the Eifel Tower from the Pantheon

Walking through the Tuileries Gardens in Paris

"Les Dindons" (Turkeys) by Claude Monet, 1876 (in the Musée d’Orsay)

I have the privilege of having family in France, which gave us even more reason to head over there, although there really aren’t many reasons I could find not to go – the food, culture, artwork, museums, history, etc. Having family in Paris and in southern France eased the language barrier and the wallet, so it was really a no brainer. All my aunt (in southern France) had to say is, “the Pyrenees are nearby us and we’ve seen a Hoopoe in our yard!” Sold. 

The Pantheon

Nerd Alert - The tombs of Marie and Pierre Curie!!! (In the Pantheon)

"Grand Duc" (Grand Duke) owl sculpture by François Pompon, 1927-1930 (in the Musée d’Orsay)

We spent our first and last day of our 10-day trip in Paris, and the rest of our time in southern France in the Midi-Pyrenees. This trip was like our other vacations in terms of not relaxing and constantly being on the go. I am still amazed about how much we were able to pack in. Our first day, after waiting 3 hours in the customs line in the airport and almost losing our camera bag (!), we arrived in Paris and managed to hit a number of sights and museums and enjoy some of the urban birds and bird art. 

Luxembourg Palace

Luxembourg Gardens

As we sat down to eat lunch in Luxembourg Gardens, we got one of our first lifers, the Wood Pigeon. These guys were hanging around the garden grounds along with your standard Rock Pigeon, but you could definitely see the difference in size – the Wood Pigeon being significantly larger. They had really lovely plumage with their blush breasts and prominent white patch on their neck with a bit of iridescent green. And in flight, you could see large white bands on their wings. I’d also like to note that when you see “pigeon” on a French menu, it is most likely these guys. My cousins probably thought it was odd that we were so engrossed in looking at these “trash birds,” but as they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Wood Pigeon

Wood Pigeon on a nest within a palm tree

We picked up a few more trash/treasure birds walking around Paris. The fountains produced a Herring Gull, which the Collins Bird Guide to European Birds distinguishes between the American and European Herring Gulls, but the AOU hasn't (yet?) split them. So this perhaps could be an “armchair tick” for us down the road. And walking around, we could hear the distinct sound of crows, although different-sounding than our American or Fish Crows we have in the US. These were Carrion Crows and looked very much like our stateside crows and similar in size. I think that maybe some of the ones we saw were juvenile as they had some lighter-colored feathers. 

Herring Gull

Carrion Crow
Likely a juvenile Carrion Crow carrying on

These fountains in the Tuileries Garden and the grassy grounds around Les Invalides (the military history museum and resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte) were loaded with not Bonaparte’s Gulls, but the closely related Black-Headed Gulls. It was funny to see so many when we were once praised and glorified for finding the fourth state record of one for Georgia back in 2012.

Black-Headed Gull

A better look at the ear spot of the Black-Headed Gull

All the Black-Headed Gulls at Les Invalides

The garden ponds also had Common Moorhens swimming about, as well as a graceful Grey Heron, who looks a lot like our Great Blue Heron. We hadn’t seen these species since our trip to the Seychelles back in 2009 (which we posted about in 2012 after we started blogging). And oddly enough, there were quite a number of little rabbits hopping about and running in and out of the topiaries at Les Invalides. It was a strange but adorable sight. 

Grey Heron
Rabbits in the grasses of Les Invalides


This guy has so far escaped the escargot plate

After a day in Paris, we took a train down south to Toulouse, where we’d spend the afternoon before heading to the tiny village of Boudrac. In Toulouse, we visited the lovely Basilica of St. Sernin where we had our first look at a Blackbird. Unlike our blackbirds in the states, this one is actually related to our thrushes. 

Basilica of St. Sernin


In fact, lots of bird families seemed upside down from how we label them in the US. When we arrived in Boudrac, we saw “old world flycatchers” which are not in the same family as our flycatchers, and in fact are not closely related at all. We got our first Spotted Flycatcher, which oddly is more streaked than spotty. And as it was migration time, we saw a LOT of Pied Flycatchers throughout our trip. These would be the first of many that we would see. And we learned that they have a funny little behavior. Not only do they bob their tail a bit, but they’ll flick their wings, one at a time – as shown below. 

Spotted Flycatcher

Female Pied Flycatcher doing her little wing flips

Another old world flycatcher that we saw whose name would seem like it’s something else completely is the Black Redstart. This was no warbler as you may think. We also saw lots of these guys around during our trip. If it wasn’t a Pied Flycatcher, it was almost always a Black Redstart. But we did see our first warbler in Boudrac, although an old world warbler – the Chiffchaff. He looks like what pretty much most of the warblers look like in Europe, so you could just imagine my excitement when studying these guys before the trip <sarcasm>. But, honestly, this trip was so amazing, and we were just getting started. There are lots more great sightings to come!

Esperos, France
Male Black Redstart


Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Mini-Pelagic out of Mini-Depoe Bay

Head-fake! Just when you think we're gonna start posting dispatches from our France trip, we hit you with a mini-pelagic instead. Thanks to Stephanie Hazen, who organized the outing, we were able to join a group of fellow Salem Auduboners heading out of Depoe Bay on zodiacs to get up close and personal with seabirds and Gray Whales.

Collectively, we were led by marine biologist Carrie Newell, owner of the Whale, Sea Life and Shark Museum, who studies Gray Whales and who's made important discoveries about their local feeding habits. Her dog joins her on the boat and barks whenever he smells a whale nearby. It's awesome. Our zodiac was captained by Captain Joe, who led us farther out to sea than the other boats, which allowed us to pick up some really excellent birds that the others didn't get to see.

These are our marina buddies. We spotted this Harbor Seal on our way out of the harbor.

And this Pelagic Cormorant came right up to the boat as we were docking on our way back in. It was easily just an arm's length away outside the zodiac.

The bay is the world's smallest navigable harbor (or so the claim goes). You would know it as the scene of the fishing trip in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On the way out of (and back into) the harbor we passed dozens of Surfbirds and Black Turnstones, mostly looking drowsy.

Surfbirds and Black Turnstones

It wasn't long after we hit the open sea that the whales started popping up. One of the other zodiacs radioed in so we could zero in on the location, and in the process of getting the boat oriented we came alongside a Lion's Mane Jellyfish, which is among the largest jellyfish species, if not the largest altogether. As someone who's read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon more than once, I'm starstruck having now met the antagonist of "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane". (Sorry about the spoiler).

Lion's Mane Jellyfish

When we managed to get on a whale, the experience was a lot more intense than past sightings. For one thing, the zodiac brings you a lot closer to the level of the water than when you see them from a fishing boat. The boats are prohibited from approaching within less than 100 or 150 yards, but with an animal this large we certainly didn't feel like we were out in the nosebleed section.

Gray Whale

It was perfectly thrilling being as close as we were, and getting to see the entire tail fluke rise out of the water was the absolute best. Even the spray from the blowhole put on a show for us, turning into a rainbow for one spectacular moment.

Steller's Sea Lions were the only other mammals out there, hanging out on a buoy. Steller's Sea Lions tend to hang out farther from shore, so pelagic trips are the only time we really get to see them.

Steller's Sea Lions

Clusters of half a dozen or so Common Murres consisted of dads and their young, the fathers spending this time feeding the chicks out on the water, instead of back at the nest. Very occasionally, we chanced upon Marbled Murrelets, adorably tiny, and whose constant diving made it difficult to watch for any length of time.

Common Murre

Marbled Murrelet

The auklets were the particular specialty the zodiac we rode on. At first we started getting looks at Rhinoceros Auklets. A bit later, a Cassin's Auklet took off before we got a proper look. We weren't content to count it, as a would-be lifer, but fortunately, we were able to find another not long after.

Rhinoceros Auklet

So long, Cassin's Auklet

Our most numerous seabirds were the Sooty Shearwaters. From several places along the coast you can watch them migrate in tremendous numbers, but this was our first time getting out among them. I'd conservatively estimate we saw at least 50. You can see seven just in the photo below. Several of them came close to the boat, but none settled on the water.

Sooty Shearwaters

When we arrived at the museum before the trip out, we heard a Wrentit calling from some low trees up against the bridge. It came right out in the sun, and was way more cooperative than any Wrentits we've seen. Unfortunately, our cameras weren't ready, and we thought we'd blown our chance. Fortunately, it just happens to be a really friendly Wrentit, and there it was still singing to welcome us back to shore.

A sinister-looking Wrentit

From the harbor we traveled down to Hatfield Marine Science Center, but it was uncharacteristically slow. Aside from hundreds of Mew Gulls, about the only thing it had going for it were the Least and Western Sandpipers along the shore.

Least Sandpipers

Western Sandpipers

This happened to be the same day that Dave Irons discovered Oregon's fourth Yellow-throated Vireo, just a few miles up Hwy 101. The sighting was a few hours old by the time we got there, and we ran into a few folks who had been hanging around without any luck. We gave it a go, but apparently weren't patient enough -- it was seen later that day, and everyday since. C'est la vie (that's a teaser for the next post).