France: Birds & Art in Provence May 02—10, 2017
Posted by Rick Wright
It looked for all the world like a grotesquely huge domestic mallard standing out in the field, a buff Orpington or some similar barnyard monster, but German glass resolved the early morning lump into something much more exciting: a nearly adult Egyptian Vulture, a first for this tour.
The great white vulture—now quite rare anywhere near Arles—was only one of the avian surprises our 2017 group, quick-eyed and congenial, would encounter. A beautiful Red-backed Shrike, the soft powder-blue of the head offsetting the sinister impression made by his neat black mask, was somewhat late on the windy plains of La Crau, where he competed for grasshoppers and other tasty invertebrates with the Lesser Kestrels already occupying their nest box. No fewer than three Great Spotted Cuckoos graced us with their fleeting presence out in the marshes of the Camargue; more easily seen in late winter than late spring, this dramatic species only rarely makes it onto our trip lists. The same was true of the Little Ringed Plover hunting the gravel bars beneath the Pont du Gard; this demure little shorebird surely breeds every year within sight of the imposing Roman aqueduct, but only occasionally do keen eyes and good luck intersect to let us actually see it. Two Short-toed Snake Eagles and a Honey Buzzard were at the same site.
The 2,000-year-old Pont proved reliable once again for such relatively common specialties as Crag Martin and Alpine Swift, but an even more impressive backdrop was provided by the ruins of Les Baux. A medieval fortress notorious for the violent deeds of its self-styled “lords,” Les Baux is famous among birders, too, for its swifts, martins, and Blue Rock-Thrushes. To increase our chances at that last, so shy species, we made sure to be first in line when the castle opened to tourists for the day; our punctuality paid off, with good if brief views of a fine bluish male before the human crowds—many of them not even birders, mirabile dictu—appeared. Sardinian Warblers, often elusive, fed a big fledgling in the cemetery, and Common and Black redstarts and fancy little yellow male Serins sang from the rocks and the stunted trees. And then a splotch of color, where no color should have been, alerted us to the presence of what for most of us was certainly the bird of the tour: a male Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, a red and blue wonder not known to breed anywhere near Les Baux and recorded there only a couple of times in history. Characteristically, the bird was nervous and flighty, more so as the bustle of school visits increased, but we all had excellent and repeated views of what just may have been the most unexpected bird encountered thus far on this tour.
What made these surprises and others all the more special was the range of historical and cultural landscapes in which we saw so many of our birds. Our first morning, spent watching Red-crested Pochards, Hoopoes, bee-eaters, and Red-legged Partridges in the Little Camargue west of the Petit Rhone, took us into fields and wetlands that centuries ago were controlled by the abbey of St-Gilles—whose church in the nearby town of the same name was our destination for the afternoon. The world-famous west front was nearly completely shrouded for cleaning and restoration, but we visited the stern interior and huge crypt, where the body of St. Egidius remains an object of veneration for pilgrims from around the world; outside, we stood on the spot where a band of local heretics were burned almost 900 years ago.
On the rocky (and incredibly windy) steppe of La Crau, where Stone Curlews paced the grass and Lesser Kestrels dropped onto bugs too small for our eyes, we admired the signatures of generations of shepherds inscribed in the stone of a historic barn, even as today’s shepherd worked his dogs and cared for the ewes lambing on the ancient pastures. Our quiet stroll through the early Christian cemetery of the Alyscamps, one of the most atmospheric localities in all of France, was enlivened for us by Chaffinches, Great Tits, and Blackcaps; in the cemetery church of St-Honorat, we thought again of our shepherd on visiting a chapel refurbished in the seventeenth century by his spiritual forebears, who commemorated their gift with a marble plaque showing three lambs and three sets of shears just waiting to be put to use.
One of the most perfect combinations of birds and culture is to be found just south of St-Rémy, where the remnants of the Roman colonial town of Glanum include a well-preserved triumphal arch and a towering (and slightly bombastic) cenotaph erected by a family of local dignitaries. Across the street from these monuments, tucked into a small woodland and serenaded by Eurasian Blackbirds and European Robins, stands the hospital of St-Paul de Mausole, where van Gogh watched the ancestors of those very birds and immortalized the olive groves, iris beds, and stony cliffs of the area before moving to the suburb of Paris and ending his tragically short life.
Even our memories of St-Trophime, the cathedral church of Arles with its stunning sculptural program and remarkable collection of re-purposed late antique sarcophaguses, will be filled with birds. Only in Provence can a discussion of the iconography of one of the greatest Romanesque churches ever built be interrupted by the Jackdaws and Common Swifts coughing and screaming as they swept into their nest sites in the crossing tower, and the hordes of Yellow-legged Gulls overhead on their way to nighttime roost.
It was the flamingo-filled Camargue that drew us back again and again, dominated by the massive fortified church of Les-Saintes-Maries. Glistening as it has not glistened for centuries, the newly cleaned church looms over the city and the sea. Roma beggars still haunt the square in front, and the deep blue of the Mediterranean still dazzles the eye and the imagination. This area continued to produce new additions to our bird list up to the very last day, with a handsome quartet of Common Pochards on a roadside pond and, finally, a Common Nightingale willing to break with tradition and sing long and loud from an entirely exposed branch; he will no doubt face disciplinary action from his guild of thicket-dwellers.
Through it all, our congenial group found almost equal pleasure in the food and wine of this captivating region (and on some days, it felt as if we’d spent equal time at the table and in the field). And one of your leaders will probably never again forget how to say “squid” in Provençal. Test me sometime on another visit to one of the loveliest landscapes in Europe.