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.


  1. Wow! Seems like a great start, and in an Urban City! Can't wait to here more!


  2. I love the pictures you took, especially the one of the Eiffel Tower!

  3. Thanks guys! There will be more, as soon as I get some time to write another post.