Connections to Catalonia, by Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright gives us another intriguing preview of one of the five “Birds & Art” tours he will lead for VENT in 2016: Spain: Birds & Art in Catalonia, April 14-22, 2016.

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The monastery of Montserrat perches high on a saw-toothed mountain just north of Barcelona, beneath an eerie moonscape of eroded peaks dotted with chapels and ancient hermitages.

birding Montserrat

The flanks of the mountain are more densely vegetated, covered with maquis-like scrub that offers breeding sites to colorful and noisy Cirl Buntings and Subalpine Warblers.

maquis montserrat

One of the best places to bird here is the trailhead at the Camí de les Batalles, named for its role as a mustering place for the Catalan troops during the war of Spanish Liberation.

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In the summer of 1808, Napoleon’s soldiers were twice rebuffed here, events claimed by the locals to be a turning point in the effort to expel the French. The whole thing is the stuff of patriotic legend: the story goes that when the patriots were badly outnumbered, a local drummer boy hit upon the idea of playing his drum from a deep cleft in the mountainside, the echoes of which convinced the wicked Frenchmen that they were surrounded by a vastly superior force—and like cowards they ran, all the way back to Paris.

drummer

Be that as it may or may not have been, the battle at El Bruc was a turning point in another story, the story of American ornithology.

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Had the French occupiers prevailed, the usurper King Joseph would not have been forced to abdicate, and he would never have left Spain for England and then, eventually, for America, where his nephew and son-in-law Charles would come to live as well—on the banks of the Delaware River, in central New Jersey, where Charles collected the first Cooper’s Hawk known to science, where he figured out the color morphs of the Eastern Screech-Owl, and where he earned the respect and admiration of naturalist historians who would, for example, name a gull for him, Charles Bonaparte. The centuries and the miles fade away when you’re birding the landscapes of Catalonia.

Bonaparte's gullAll photos by Rick Wright.

In van Gogh’s Footsteps, by Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright gives us another Birds & Art tour preview of France: Birds & Art in Provence, April 24-May 2, 2016. In 2016, Rick will also lead Birds & Art tours to Burgundy, Catalonia, Berlin & Brandenburg, and Venice & the Po Delta.

A Nebraska native, Rick will also lead VENT’s Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes & Prairie Grouse tour, March 19-26, 2016.

Whole landscape birding can be practiced anywhere, even, or perhaps especially, where the birds reliably include no rarities or special target species. Take, for example, a little spot on the road between Arles and St-Rémy, in the Alpille hills of southern Provence.

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The pine forests here are full of crossbills, and subalpine warblers chatter from the roadside pullouts.

Alpilles rocky landscape

At the bottom of the hills, the road widens, and the sharp-eyed spot a parking lot, from which it is a comfortable 90-second walk to the monumental entrance to the Roman city of Glanum.

Glanum r

While we perch on the stones of the old city wall, our conversations are interrupted again and again by, say, a Common Redstart or a European Roller. Tempting as it is to linger, we stand up and cross the road for a visit to the grounds of the hospital of St-Paul.

Van Gogh images St-Paul

St-Paul, of course, is most famous as the institution Vincent van Gogh checked in to after that unfortunate episode with his ear in Arles. At its center, though, is one of the finest little Romanesque cloisters in France, where Black Redstarts and European Robins dart from stone to stone as we admire the carved capitals.

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Upstairs, the view from van Gogh’s room ravishes the eye with sights familiar from his paintings: irises, sunflowers, olive groves stretching to the rugged forests of the Alpilles.

barred window, van Gogh's room

Cuckoos sing, martins and swifts swoop and soar overhead, and Crested Tits, the cutest of the whole enchanting lot, feed and fuss beneath the eaves of the ancient buildings.

St-Paul has it all. But without the birds and the art and the archaeology, all taken in at once, it would be just another dutiful stop on the tourist pilgrimage. For open-eyed, open-minded birders, though, it is one of the most special places in the world.

group at arch

All photos by Rick Wright.