Going to the birds
I never paid much attention to birds until we moved to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. There, living in a smaller town surrounded by nature, I fell in love with the amazing breadth of avian life, and a pair of binoculars had a permanent home in the kitchen window. When I sold the house, I wrote up several pages of notes about it for the new owners; at least half was about the birds.
Moving to another country on another continent has plenty of challenges, and it took me a while to realize the effect of not knowing the local birds. I’ve struggled to put this feeling into words. Suffice it to say that I’ve been walking around here for nearly four years with a vague sense of unease, of not fully belonging, in part because I don’t know who the birds are.
I’ll be fixing that soon by investing in binoculars and participating in some bird-watching events. Meanwhile, I’ve learned a few birds, to my great pleasure.
This past winter, I was snuggled up indoors, watching a movie after dinner. I heard a sound that I hadn’t heard before; I thought at first it was one of the many hunting dogs living around here. I heard it again, stopped the movie, and quietly opened the front door. Alas, I tripped the motion-detector light, but it didn’t seem to disturb whoever was calling. By now I knew it was a bird, surely a large one. The soft call pierced the quiet night. I thought I’d step back inside to get my phone, to record the call, but that damn light went on again, and the bird flew off silently. I never saw it.
Back inside, I followed a hunch and looked up the bird I thought it might be, and sure enough, my wintry visitor was a Eurasian eagle owl, the largest owl in the world. I once had the great pleasure—and tingling spine—of standing right in front of one of these magnificent birds. Below left is my photograph of her, and below right is another photographer’s terrific shot of an eagle owl flying straight at the camera.
Some time this winter, I realized that a small bird was roosting on my roofed terrace. There’s a place where a short section of wall hangs from the roof, and an electrical conduit runs across that wall, about five inches below the roof. The bird arrived every evening at dusk to sleep while perched on that tiny conduit. It’s certainly safe from the neighborhood’s plentiful cats, but it also seems lonely and a little precarious. I’m here to report that several months later, he’s still a nightly guest, and I finally know what he is: a male black redstart, and most evenings I step outside to thank him for visiting my house.
I find myself wondering what would happen if a black redstart met a red-winged blackbird. Just a thought.
As I write this, there is a chorus of birdsong outside, including the lovely soft call of a hoopoe, one of the myriad birds I’d never heard of before coming here. They’re shy, but I have managed to see them a few times.
Interestingly, hoopoes have a call that isn’t so different from that of mourning doves and cuckoos, which we hear on our hikes. On my computer, I opened three windows to YouTube, and each window had an audio recording of one of the birds. What I ended up with was a delightful counterpoint harmony (if that’s the correct musical term) that I keep returning to because it gives me the biggest smile.
Speaking of songs that give me a smile, I also get a big kick out of the very loud nightly chorus of frogs, little critters with big voices.
On a hike a few weeks ago, Claude stopped near a tree to listen to a lovely bird call. It turned out to be a nightingale, another bird I was unfamiliar with before coming here. Its song is so sweet and remarkably varied, and now that I know what it is, I’m hearing it everywhere. Its song reminds me of the western meadowlark that we had in Colorado.
My last bird story comes from a recent walk at the Étang de Capestang. What the heck is that?, you may wonder. An étang is a shallow saline lake, or sometimes a network of large ponds. There are lots of them closer to the coast, a half-hour south of here, and they have a long history of being a source of wealth for the region through the harvesting of salt, fish and game birds. Capestang is a nearby town whose name comes from the French “Cap de l’Étang,” which in turn came from the Latin caput stagnum, referring to the town’s position at the top of the étang. The Romans had a bridge across this étang, part of the Via Domitia.
We enjoyed a fine walk along the edges of the ponds, hearing the frequent splash of coypu, an imported and over-populated member of the rodent family from South America. It swims like an otter. We also saw a splendid variety of birds: flamingos, glossy ibis, herons, egrets, and more.
With the heat of summer approaching, swallows and swifts have returned to eat mosquitoes—yay—and entertain us with their acrobatic swoops through the air. And there are plenty of other birds; today’s story reflects just a few.
The arrival of summer means that we will soon have our annual cicadas, who come out when the temperature is consistently above about 77 degrees (25 c.) And one of my favorites, dragonflies and damselflies of different sizes and colors are darting about, too. A bounty of delightful gifts from Mother Nature!
Bird : oiseau
Owl : hibou; chouette
Eurasian eagle owl : grand duc
Black redstart : rouge-queue noir
Red-winged blackbird : carouge à épaulettes
Hoopoe : huppe
Mourning dove : tourterelle triste
Cuckoo : coucou
Nightingale : rossignol philomèle
Western meadowlark : sturnelle de l’ouest
Flamingo : flamant rose
Glossy ibis : ibis falcinelle
Heron : héron
Egret : aigrette
Swallow : hirondelle
Swift : martinet noir
Frog : grenouille
Coypu : ragondin
Shrimp : crevette
Mosquitoes : moustiques
Cicada : cigale
Dragonfly : libellule
Damselfly : demoiselle
I was pleased to read recently that the French government is now requiring that all cleaning supplies include labeling information about any ingredients that are endocrine disruptors. It will take effect in 2022. Of the chemicals that humans come into contact with on a regular basis, endocrine disruptors are among the most toxic and damaging. They are found nearly everywhere: in personal care products like shampoo and cosmetics, scented candles, toys, clothing, furniture, and cleaning supplies. So here’s a big shout-out to the French government for taking one small but significant step to helping people understand the dangers of environmental toxins that are very close to home.
Oof, that sounds unpleasant.
And yes, before everyone writes to school me on what a ball trap is, I do know; it’s just that it was a surprise to see it written in English on a directional sign for a tiny French town.