Thursday, September 29, 2011

Europe 2011, Part Two- La Costa Verde

An horrio, or grain storage shed, a common sight in Asturias

Ok, I finally have the time to write this, part 2 of my European trip. When I left off, I was leaving Paris to head to Asturias, in Northern Spain, sometimes referred to as the Costa Verde (green coast), because of its lush vegetation and rainy climate. Our plane was supposed to leave Paris at 10:30 and, after a brief stop in Madrid, arrive in Oviedo (the capital of Asturias) by 2:30. I am not going to relate all of the gory details, but suffice to say that we were all exhausted by the time we finally arrived at our hotel, at around midnight. So much for our first day of Spain-- this would prove to be the only day all trip that I did not see a new bird. On the plus side, the owner of the hotel, Corte de Lugas, was very friendly, immediately going outside to fly the American flag to herald our arrival.

Day 1, Friday (8/26)- I wake up to the sound of birdsong. Internal monologue- "Huh, where am I? Spain, right? Definitely Spain. Birds. Birds!!" And I jumped out of bed and rushed to the window to view a spectacle of avifauna. There was a large cloud of swallows twittering overhead- all Barn Swallow and House Martins, as far as I could tell. Then a large, dark bird of prey flew by, harassed by swallows-- a Common Buzzard. A small flock of songbirds alighted in a tree long enough for me to identify them as European Goldfinches. A Common Magpie made a brief appearance, striking in black, white and blue. In the same tree as the goldfinches, two birds- one rather drab yellowish, with a supercillium and a nervous tail-twitch (Iberian Chiffchaff) and the other black and rufous with a silvery brow (Common Redstart). Additionally, there were Carrion Crows, Chaffinches, Robins, Blackcaps, and White Wagtails. That made 5 life birds without even leaving the hotel! Not a bad start at all.

After a very good breakfast at the hotel, our friend Jesus arrived, and we began our first day of sightseeing. Jesus lives in Asturias, and was a very good "tour guide" in showing us around the province. Our first stop was Rodilles Beach, which is at the mouth of the Rio Villaviciosa. At the beach, I spotted a Northern Wheatear hopping around in the dune grass. The really good birding came in the river, however, where there is a tidal estuary that creates excellent mudflats. It's a nature preserve, and apparently quite a good shorebirding spot, a fact that my experience strongly supports. We were going over a shore bridge that overlooks some flats, when I spotted a large group of shorebirds. We stopped, I got out of the car, and quickly spotted 4 life birds- Common Redshanks in abundance, a few Common Greenshanks, a Little Egret, and best of all, a couple of cool Eurasian Curlews.
Rodilles Beach
The game plan was to sight-see along the spectacularly scenic Asturian coast for the day. The next stop was at "bufones" region, where waves crashing on high rocky cliffs have carved out passages in the rock. This results in blowholes at the top of the cliffs, which make a roaring sound and spew spray. We also went to a couple of beautiful beaches, where we swam, and a few scenic seaside towns. In Llanes we got churros y chocolate, the delicious fried dough and melted chocolate snack that is a Spanish specialty. Along the way I picked up a few new birds, including Yellow-legged Gull and Stonechat, as well as a Gannet out over the ocean.

In typical Asturian fashion, we ate at close to 10 o'clock, at a sideria, or ciderhouse. Asturias takes its  (hard) cider seriously-- instead of bars, there are siderias, which sell mostly tapas and the drink, which is served in a rather ritualized fashion. A small amount of cider is poured from above your head into a glass at your hip, and then drunk immediately, so as not to lose any of the fizz. It's actually rather good, and so are a lot of the other typical Asturian foods- Chorizos (sausages) in cider sauce, shrimp, and many varieties of fish are among the best. On the other hand, the famous Asturian blue cheese was a bit too strong for my taste, to put it lightly.
 Day 2, Saturday (8/27)- This was our mountain day, where we set off on an expedition to the top of the Picos de Europa, a large (8,000+ peaks) mountain range that divides the Northern coast from the rest of the country. This was my most anticipated birding day, because some of my targets were cool high elevation birds that I could not see at any other time, and also because I was getting very close to life bird #500, which I was expecting to see in the mountains somewhere. I made the first step towards that milestone looking out the window of my hotel room, when a pair of European Serins landed in a nearby tree.

Our first stop was at the so-called "Roman Bridge,"  actually medieval, in the town of Cangas de Onis. I quickly turned my attention to the stream that the bridge crosses, however, with one bird foremost in my mind. Grey Wagtails were a nice bird, with their tails even longer than the comically long tails of their more common relative, the White Wagtail, which were also present. Then I spotted my real target, and one of the avian highlights of the trip- a White-throated Dipper splashing around in the water almost directly below me. Dippers are among the coolest of birds, songbirds that are undaunted by water and have evolved to the point where they can swim and dive to feed on aquatic invertebrates. And out of the 7 species worldwide, the White-throated is one of the best looking, with a sharp white bib contrasting with its overall black and chocolate brown plumage. A Willow Warbler was also flitting around in the trees overhanging the river, and I was only 5 life birds away from 500, with one of my biggest targets already found.

We drove on to Covadonga, site of a 6th century battle between Moors and the residents of Asturias, who were led by Pelayo (who would become the first king of Asturias). The outnumbered Asturians won, marking the end of Moorish advances and beginning the reconquista. The Asturians attributed their victory to divine intervention, and set up a shrine at the site. Many centuries later, a basilica was also built in Covadonga, nestled amount the mountains. The location was great for birds as well, with more than a dozen gigantic Griffon Vultures circling overhead (another of my target birds), and some Crag Martins, with their distinctive white tail patches, darting around, and presumably nesting on the walls of the basilica. As well as having two of the best bird names in Europe, they were my 496th and 497th birds, respectively.

The road to the lakes
We intended to drive up to the Lakes of Covadonga, two scenic high-elevation lakes that can be reached from the basilica, but learned that the only way up during the high season is by bus, so we took that option. The bus ride was impressive, up a very narrow, winding, steep mountain road, with spectacular view on all sides and only a couple of inches between us and buses going the other direction. Seemingly against the odds, we made it to the lakes intact, and were treated to some really beautiful mountain scenery, as well as some nice mountain birds. In addition to the now-ubiquitous Griffon Vultures, there were Water Pipits, Stonechats, Great Tits, Chaffinches, a Common Raven, some Eurasian Coots, and lots of Red-billed Choughs. The pipit and choughs (another hoped-for high-elevation species) were life birds, bringing me to within a bird of 500. Then, at the overlook between the two lakes, I spotted a distant bird of prey: smaller than a Griffon Vulture, and a different shape. As it turned, I saw that is was mostly white-- an Egyptian Vulture, and my 500th life bird!

Lago Ercina
Lago Enol
Also Lago Enol
We completed the loop trail and headed back down to Covadonga, quite a bit behind schedule but still psyched about the milestone bird, and drove onward towards our last, and highest stop, the cable car at Fuente De. The drive there was through a deep gorge, with high crags surrounding a river and the road that went alongside it. At one point a Griffon Vulture flew low over the car before landing on a rocky outcropping, giving us a new sense of how huge (9 foot wingspan) those birds were-- they seem to have more in common with the mythical Griffon (or Gryphon) than "normal" vultures.

I spotted my life Grey Heron perched in a tree next to the river, and at a quick stop to take a photo, I found 4 birds of prey: Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Common Buzzard, and a life bird, a neat pale-morph Booted Eagle. Then we out of the gorge and on the other side of the mountains, in Cantabria. As we arrived at the cable car, I spotted a Red-backed Shrike perched on a wire, and a Coal Tit (as well as some Great Tits, Nuthatches, Chaffinches, and Robins) in a pine grove at the base of the cable car station.

The cable car, or teleferico in Spanish, at Fuente De is the easiest way to get to some real alpine habitat in the Picos, and is a good spot for some alpine birds, including my main target, the Wallcreeper. After a somewhat scary ride to the top, we disembarked into an otherworldly landscape of rocky scree, crags, and sheer cliffs, far above the valley. 

Fear of heights, anyone?

 Immediately obvious as soon as we got outside were the Alpine Choughs, small corvids with bright yellow bills, no fear of humans, and a tendency to never go below 5,000 or so feet above sea level. So while they were abundant up there, "up there" is the only place to see them, and I really enjoyed it-- they are very fun birds. We began hiking to the spot where I had heard Wallcreepers were most likely to be, along the way stopping to look at every smaller bird that we saw, in the hopes of something unusual. Mostly they were Water Pipits, Northern Wheatears, and especially often Black Redstarts, but I did quickly spot something out of the ordinary: an Alpine Accentor. The rotund songbird, colored in reddish and gray, is a member of a small and generally mountain-bound family of birds, and another species that it would be impossible to see elsewhere on the trip. 

Find the accentor!

I think this pretty butterfly is a Silver-studded Blue
 Unfortunately, we soon reached the "wallcreeper spot" and realized the difficulty of the task. There are hundreds of feet of cliffs, and a lot of area for a non-vocal, small, elusive gray bird to hide. After some searching, we had to give up and head back, leaving my life Wallcreeper for another time. We descended and headed back to Villaviciosa, where we met up with Jesus and my uncle Tim, and had dinner at our hotel.

Day 3, Sunday (8/28)- Before breakfast, I birding the area around the hotel, and, as well as the most common Asturian birds, such as Goldfinch, Chaffinch, White Wagtail, Blackcap, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Magpie, Buzzard, Carrion Crow, Iberian Chaffinch, White Wagtail, Robin, Blackbird, House Martin, and Barn Swallow, spotted two lifers, both green: Greenfinch and Green Woodpecker, the latter seemingly the emerald European alternative to our Northern Flicker. 

My family, Tim, and Jesus headed to Rodilles Beach. On the way, asked to be dropped off along the Rio Villaviciosa, and had a very productive half-hour of birding before rejoining them at the beach. In addition to the Greenshanks, Redshanks, and Curlews that I had seen earlier, I added Common Sandpiper, Little Stint, and Common Ringed Plover as shorebird lifers. Other nice birds included Gray Heron, Little Egret, Common Moorhen, Linnet, and Whinchat, the latter two also lifers. 
Birding Rio Villaviciosa
After swimming, we again headed up into the mountains, this time to a lower coastal ridge called Sierra Sueve, where there was a hiking trail that Tim was very enthusiastic about. It was a very nice hike, with views of high peaks to one side, and down to the ocean on the other.
Looking North
Looking South. Note that what appears to be a high band
of dark clouds is actually the tops of mountains
Birding-wise, Griffon Vultures were absolutely everywhere, often quite low. Rounding out the raptors were plenty of Buzzards, and a single Booted Eagle. The common songbirds were present, and were joined by a few sharply patterned Pied Flycatchers. There were also cows (and sheep, goats, and horses).

After heading back to sea level, we found a sideria in La Isla, a picturesque seaside town. I also found some more shorebirds, though all of them familiar North American ones-- Sanderlings, Dunlins, and Ruddy Turnstones.

 We had dinner in Gijon, the largest city in Asturias, a port city with a promenade alongside a nice beach, right in the middle of the city. More of the same excellent food and cider, with one addition- a dish that is essentially two slices of beef, with ham and cheese inside, all breaded and fried. It was really good, if not exactly a health food. 

Day 4, Monday (8/30)- Our last day in Asturias. We spent the morning in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, known for its very old churches and its university.

After dropping Tim off at the airport for his flight home to London, we headed west to Cabo Penas, a series of cliffs at the tip of a peninsula that juts out into the Bay of Biscay/Mar de Cantabria. The cliffs are nearly 300 straight down, and unlike in the states, where there would be extensive signs and fences to keep people from falling, here there is, at most, a low wood fence and a sign telling you not to fall off.

Bird-wise, there were Yellow-legged Gulls everywhere, lots of Common Buzzards and Kestrels, Black Redstarts, and Northern Wheatears. Because of the location, I was hoping for some pelagics, and while I did spot a very distant shearwater (perhaps Manx or Balearic), I was unable to identify it. I did suddenly spot two  black birds standing on a rock below, and a look through my binoculars confirmed my suspicions-- they were European Shags, which would turn out to be the penultimate lifer of the trip.
A nice Black Redstart.
Yellow-legged Gull on a precipice.
Northern Wheatear
Those black specks are the Shags.
Black Redstart
On the way back from the cliffs, we drove through Gijon, in daylight this time, to get a good look at the waterfront there. Because we had to leave at 5:00 the next morning, we wanted to eat dinner at a normal, American time, around 7 o'clock. Jesus pointed out that no restaurants in any of the cities would serve food before 9, so we went into the country and stopped at a Merendera, essential a rural ciderhouse, for dinner of more cider and seafood. We sat outside, so I got to try my hand at pouring the cider, with mixed results. In the parking lot, I saw a hawk reflected in the window of our car, and quickly realized that it was a Sparrowhawk. I looked up and, for a second, couldn't find it, leading me to ponder whether the reflection of a life bird is countable. The point became moot, however, as I spotted the bird, my 60th and last lifer of the trip, with a flock of European Starlings. The next day we left before dawn, and flew home to New York.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Europe 2011, Part One- Birding in the City of Light

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently spent a 10-day family vacation in Paris and Asturias (a province in Northern Spain). Besides the more obvious attractions of these locations- art, history, culture, and food in Paris, stunning natural beauty, beaches, and more food in Spain, there were quite a lot of birds, particularly since I had never birded the continent before. I already gave you in an overview with last weeks post, so I'll jump right into the narrative.

We left New York on Friday night, August 19th. Because of the time difference, we arrived in Paris on Saturday at 2:30 or so, and began sight-seeing immediately. I saw a few birds on the way from the airport to the apartment we were staying at, but they were all ones I had seen before- House Sparrow, Rock Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, Starling. We were renting an apartment in the 6th , so we headed to Notre Dame first, because of its proximity. But first, as we crossed a bridge over the Seine, I stopped for my first life bird- a Black-headed Gull.
Black-headed Gull along the Seine
The cathedral itself was breathtaking, and as a bonus I saw my second lifer of the trip from inside, a pair of Carrion Crows flying by.
Carrion Crow
Day 2 (8/21)- Not really a birding day- more of a sightseeing one. We spent the morning at the Musee d'Orsay, a great collection of impressionist artwork housed in what used to be a huge train station, with some excellent paintings by Monet, Van Gough, Renoir, Manet, and many others. Lunch at the Jardins de Tuileries netted most of the same birds, but I did get a good look at a European Common Moorhen, the first time I had seen one since they were split from the American Common Gallinule. For comparison, here are a shot of a Moorhen in Paris and a Gallinule from earlier this year, near Orlando:

Common Moorhen- Note the relatively small red shield on the forehead.
Common Gallinule in Orlando- Note the comparatively larger frontal shield.
Later, we went on a boat ride down the Seine, where I spotted a White Wagtail along the quay for my only life bird of the day. That night, we had dinner with a friend of my parents, and then went to the top of the Eiffel tower for a great view of the city of light, all lit up.
Day 3 (8/22)- In the morning we went to the Louvre, seeing a lot of artwork, including the "big three"- the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory, as well as some slightly lesser-known but perhaps even better pieces of artwork, such as two paintings by Vermeer (the Lacemaker, and my personal favorite, the Astronomer), and Renaissance works by Botticelli, Titian, Rafael, and many others. While looking at the Venus de Milo, I glanced out the window and was suprised to see a Black Redstart, another life bird.
From top left: Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, The Astronomer, and a Black Redstart

An afternoon stroll in the Marais, where my sister and mom went shopping, had a consolation- a Blackbird in a small park across the street from the boutique in which they were poking and browsing.

This, rather than any of the (unrelated) new world blackbirds, is the bird
referred to in some nursery rhymes and the Beatles song.
 Additionally, I got my first taste of real birding in Paris (as opposed to incidental sightings) when I walking in the Luxembourg Gardens in the evening. I quickly found 3 life birds- a flyby European Hobby (a kind of falcon), a Eurasian Wren, and a Great Tit, the common European counterpart to our chickadees. Also abundant in the Luxembourg Gardens were Wood Pigeons, the jumbo-sized versions of their more cosmopolitan cousins. A young Ernest Hemingway, living in poverty in Paris, allegedly caught pigeons in the garden, stuffing them in a baby carriage and bringing them home for dinner. The Wood Pigeons were so tame and large here that I have no doubt that he got a good meal out of them.
Were you a great novelist with no money, this could make a rather filling dinner!
Day 4 (8/23)- I had the plan all worked out- I would get up early, bird the Luxembourg Gardens intensely, then meet my family for a baguette and some croussants in the park, and later embark on a sight-seeing marathon around the city. I got to the park, and it began to rain. Sheltering under a chestnut tree, I was worried that the rain could sink our grand scheme. I still had time, between dodging falling chestnuts (and imagining my Monty Python-esque obituary were one to nail me), to notice the cotton-ball-on-a-stick silhouette of my lifer Long-tailed Tits. Those adorable and comically active birds were one of the highlights of the morning. Fortunately, they were not the only highlight, as the rain ceased and I began to find new birds. First a Common Chaffinch on a lawn, then a Blue Tit mixed into an active flock of finches and tits. Soon, there were a bunch of new birds- Eurasian Jay high in a tree, Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming away, Blackcap foraging with the mixed flock, a Dunnock in a hedge (demonstrating the logic behind its alternative name, the Hedge Sparrow), and a nice Eurasian Nuthatch foraging. Over breakfast, a flyby Common Swift brought the lifer count for the morning up to 10.

The Palais de Luxembourg, in the Gardens
For the rest of the day, we went to all of the tourist spots that we had missed the previous few days, as this was our last full day in Paris. First we headed to Sainte-Chapelle, with its stunning array of stained glass windows.
A small portion of the stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle
Next we returned to Notre-Dame to go to the top of the towers. We had to wait an hour and a half, which I spent eating Crepes and watching gulls on the Seine- the abundant Black-headed, and a few Herring and Lesser Black-backed as well. Eventually we got up to the top, where we admired the view and the impressive variety of gargoyles.
We moved onward to the Arc de Triomphe, climbing the stairs to the top of Napoleon's impressive monument to himself for another great view of the city. From there we began a shopping expedition down the Champs de Elysee, which I reluctantly participated in.
We concluded the day at Sacre-Coeur, in the famous neighborhood of Montmartre, with more stairs (a theme of the day, we climbed hundreds up Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, and 176 simply to get out of the subway station in Montmartre) and killer views, as well as a nice fly-by Jay.
Day 5 (8/24)- This was our Versailles day. We took the train out to the opulent chateau (I spotted a Eurasian Collared Dove, my first of the trip, along the way). At the building itself, I noticed many Common House Martins circling, and realized they had build their mud nests on the side of the building, wedged inside and between the many stone decorations.
A House Martin nest in a carved helmet decoration
 After taking the tour of the chateau, including walking through the king and queens bedrooms, the multitude of state rooms (each dedicated to a Roman god or goddess) and the hall of mirrors, we headed outside to the gardens. We had the idea of biking around the gardens, which got me some good opportunities to look for birds.
A decent likeness of a Eurasian Jay in Louis XIV's Bedroom
In addition to the usual Blue Tits, Great Tits, and Chaffinches, I found a flock that contained a Short-toed Treecreeper, which I got excellent looks at. Another nice bird was a sharp adult European Robin, another lifer and a very cool bird. Apparently new data suggests that it is more likely an old world flycatcher, not a thrush as was previously suspected. Another highlight came when I spotted a Common Kestrel hunting over a grassy field on the far edge of the garden. Quite a cool bird.
There is a reason they called Louis XIV the Sun King. Nice place, huh?
Heading back into the city, I made a final swing by the Luxembourg Gardens, where there were few birds but one new one- a Song Thrush foraging in the undergrowth.
Unfortunately, as we were leaving early the next morning, we then had to pack up and prepare to say au revoir to Paris. The remaining half of our trip was spent not among the urban beauty of Paris but the natural beauty of Northern Spain.