Some notes from 3 weeks in Europe

Subject: Some notes from 3 weeks in Europe
From: (Dr Richard Nowotny) (by way of (Dr Richard Nowotny))
Date: Fri, 10 Jul 1998 15:30:29 +1000
A 4-day working conference in Dublin in mid-June was the specific reason for
visiting Europe in early summer.  A couple of weeks of opportunistic birding
was a very attractive add-on - Ireland, Spain (Catalonia) and south-east
France.  These are some more or less random notes on selected aspects of my
trip which may be of interest to some readers.  (I would be happy to provide
any further information to anyone who wishes to contact me direct.)

1.      The value of Birding-aus:       In the planning phase I used
Birding-aus to make contact with a member of the list who was also on
UKBirdNet, who kindly forwarded a request for advice/assistance onto that
chat-line - with the result that I entered into email contact with Eric
Dempsey from Dublin.

2.      Ireland:        Eric, one of Ireland's best birders, author of "The
Complete Guide to Ireland's Birds", a proud Dubliner and Irishman and a
genuinely nice guy, had me out and about in search of specialities the day
after flying in from Melbourne.  The target birds were Corncrake, Hen
Harrier and Red Grouse.  A full day in lovely weather produced 2 calling
Corncrakes (which Eric could not entice into view, to his complete chagrin -
the first time he has failed to produce them on demand he assured me), a
distant but marvellous male Hen Harrier quartering over the heather-covered
hill-sides and 2 Red Grouse flushed from the upland bog (through which I
stumbled and struggled at Eric's insistence - and rightly so of course).
        Subsequent outings with Eric and his wife Esther (Ireland's top
woman birder) and with my wife, Diana Bryant, produced such goodies as
roding Woodcock, cliff-dwelling Razorbills, Guillemots and Black Guillemots,
a rich selection of gulls and terns, Grey Wagtail and many of the more
common European species - all during wonderfully long days in a most
attractive country with a strong and appealing culture.
        An impromptu (for us) day trip across the Irish Sea to Wales with a
group of about 50 local Irish birders produced Manx Shearwater, Great
Spotted Woodpecker, Redstart, Blackcap, Wood Warbler and Nuthatch among more
common species.
        While a total of 93 species in nearly 5 days of birding isn't
sensational riches by Australian standards, Ireland was a special birding
experience, with much to commend it to travelling birders.  (With special
thanks to Eric and Esther.)

3.      Catalonia, Spain:       South of Barcelona is a marvellous birding
locale - the Ebro Delta (reported to be one of Europe's best areas - an
assessment with which we would not find fault).  Comparable with the much
better-known Camargue (the Rhone delta west of Marseille) it was in many
ways more appealing and produced such quality finds as Collared Pratincole,
Cuckoo, Great Reed Warbler, Greater Flamingo, Hoopoe, Kentish Plover, Little
Bittern, Pallid Swift, Red-crested Pochard, Slender-billed Gull, Spotless
Starling, Squacco Heron and Water Rail.
        Using the relatively recently published and excellent Lynx Edicions
(of "Handbook of the Birds of the World" fame)/BirdLife
International/Sociedad Espanola de Ornitologia "Where to Watch Birds in
Spain" we were then directed to a very special "dry farming" area near the
large provincial city of Lleida where we found European Bee-eater (quaintly
called simply the Bee-eater by the British - like the Cuckoo, the Knot, the
Swift, etc), Black-eared Wheatear, Calandra, Crested, Short-toed and Lesser
Short-toed Larks, Great Grey, Lesser Grey and Woodchat Shrikes, Hoopoe
(again), Little Owl, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Red-legged Partridge, Roller,
Sardinian Warbler, Stone Curlew and White Stork (amongst other more common

4.      Andorra:        This alpine principality of considerable charm (once
out of the intensely built-up city areas with their duty-free mega-markets)
was a great joy to walk and drive through, with species such as Black
Redstart, Citril Finch, Crag Martin, Golden Eagle, Raven, Red-backed Shrike,
Rock Bunting and Whinchat to provide sufficient distraction from the
wonderful scenery.

5.      France:         Using Dave Gosney's booklet "Finding Birds in
Southern France" we visited a number of the sites recommended.  (This was a
very helpful document, although snippets such as the following also provided
some unintended entertainment:  "In July 1986, Simon Smethurst et al
traversed a fence and followed a track along the northern perimeter of the
park to the reedbeds and beyond.  There they had......, etc."  We longed to
traverse a fence or two and follow in the footsteps of the legendary Simon
S. et al.  In another area the self-same Simon S. "found some orchards to be
particularly productive" in both 1984 and 1986!  The booklet is in fact a
good 1994 update on these earlier ornithological discoveries.)
        The Gorge of the River Tarn in the Lozere region of south-eastern
France was historically rich with vultures.  A highly successful
reintroduction program now has Griffon, Egyptian and Black Vultures all
thriving in this spectacular setting of sheer cliffs.  We saw the first two
(Griffon Vultures being quite prevalent, both perched and on the wing, in
certain areas), along with Alpine Swift, Black Kite, Blue Rock Thrush,
Chough, Cirl Bunting, more Crag Martins, Dipper (on the river - seen from
the canoe we piloted down the most spectacular section of the gorge),
Long-tailed Tit, Tree Pipit and a number of the previously seen species.
         An area of "coussous" (uncultivated stony fields of grasses and
other low ground cover) east of Arles known as La Crau (to the north-east of
the Camargue) provided wonderful views of Little Bustard, more Pin-tailed
Sandgrouse and Stone Curlew and tawny Pipit.
        However, the Camargue itself, in spite of its excellent reputation
and quite a reasonable bird-list (49 species in the end), proved to be
somewhat of a disappointment.  Probably a combination of unfair
expectations, life-species already seen previously elsewhere, too many
people and a rather hot spell contributed to this impression.  No new
species identified (the difficulties of confirming the several Acrocephalus,
Locustella and Hippolais warblers of which we were getting glimpses in the
reed-beds and snatches of whose songs we were hearing but were unable to
recognise proved surprisingly frustrating), although large numbers of Yellow
Wagtails near the beach (to complement the widespread Pied and much less
common Grey) were a pleasing find.
        Finally, a long drive (via Menerbes and Bonnieux in the Luberon of
"A Year in Provence" fame) up into the lavender fields north of the Vaucluse
took us to Mont Ventoux where we found only half a dozen species, but among
them Crossbill, Crested Tit and Jay.
        And then to Nice, London, Melbourne and winter.

6.      The spoils:     Spain and France produced 126 identified species,
with perhaps up to another 10 unable to be named with the degree of
certainty required for a life-bird.

7.      The problems:   The desperately pathetic Australian dollar.  What a
time to be overseas spending hard-earned dollars!
                                        The at times overwhelming pollen
counts in the fields, grasslands and meadows of Europe in late spring /
early summer.  Is it cross-sensitivity with Australian grasses or is it
because, like sparrows and starlings, our hay fever in Australia is at least
in part due to introduced European species (of grass)?
                                        The well-nigh impossibility of
finding any accommodation in France and Spain which provides a refrigerator
(a highly desirable travelling companion in mid-summer - if only to save one
from spending those same hard-earned dollars on drinks, breakfasts and
lunches from the many charming but expensive bars and restaurants which
pepper towns of all sizes).
                                        The aforementioned difficulties with
identification of warblers and even some larks and pipits.  They are nothing
if not a challenge!

8.      The joys (apart from the considerable pleasures of all three
countries, of the birds and the sheer joy of travelling - and therefore not
working:   The absolutely new Renault, leased for a month, used for 2 weeks
and still less expensive than renting (with the Barcelona pick-up and Nice
drop-off factored in); the warmth and sunshine of southern Europe at this
time of year (it's intermittently hailing in Melbourne as I type this series
of impressions); the laid-back, easy-going style of the Irish, so
comfortable to Australians; and the generosity and good company of Eric and
Esther in Dublin.

Richard Nowotny

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