A Truly Scary Bird

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

And you thought skimming the occasional milk pail was bad.

Halloween seems a good time to recall that nightjars, those mysterious nocturnal flutterers, have been rumored to engage in behavior far more treacherous than merely suckling at the udders of defenseless livestock.

In 1750, the Pomeranian ornithologist Jacob Theodor Klein listed as names for the European nightjar “witch,” “night harmer,” and something that seems to mean “child smotherer.”

Klein prodromus facing page 81

Some of us may have our doubts, but the terrifying engraving that accompanies Klein’s account convinces me. Myself, I’m keeping the windows closed until Halloween is over.

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Bonelli and the King

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Bonelli's Eagle. Photo by Paco Gomez.

Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo by Paco Gomez.

Franco Andrea Bonelli—of warbler and eagle fame—had the great good luck and the singular misfortune to live in what one might call interesting times.

Portrait of Franco Bonelli by G. B. Biscarra.

Portrait of Franco Bonelli by G. B. Biscarra.

Bonelli was born in the Italian Piedmont in 1784. When he was a boy of 14, Napoleon’s troops moved into northern Italy, occupying the Piedmont and driving the royal family into exile on Sardinia.

National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Photo by Roi Boshi.

National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Photo by Roi Boshi.

The French occupation, which would last fifteen years, was a great setback for the burgeoning movement for Italian unity and independence, but it also presented new opportunities to young and ambitious Piedmontese—among them Bonelli, who, with Georges Cuvier’s sponsorship, was able to spend a year studying at the National Museum in Paris, from which he returned in 1811 to take up a position as professor of zoology in Turin.

Regional Museum of Natural History, Turin. Photo by Barbara Addario/TorinoFree.

Regional Museum of Natural History, Turin. Photo by Barbara Addario/TorinoFree.

Among the young professor’s tasks was seeing to it that the city’s museum become a resource for university instruction in natural history. In his tenure, Bonelli did far more: he made Turin the finest museum in Italy, the repository of collections that would be visited by nearly every famous natural historian of his day.

But there was trouble ahead. On Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, the Italian royal family returned from Sardinia. The deeply conservative views of the king came together with his resentment of the French to produce a decidedly radical restoration: as one skeptical court insider reported, the Italians had come back from exile with only one thing in mind, to return everything to the status quo of 1798.

Vittorio Emanuele I in 1801, artist unknown.

Vittorio Emanuele I in 1801, artist unknown.

That meant, of course, destroying every single institution that had been created or promoted by the hated occupiers—including the ornithological collections Bonelli had amassed with the support of Paris. “All of these innovations are the work of Satan,” the king is rumored to have said, “we didn’t have museums in ’98 and we were none the worse for it. Why should we want to be more clever than our forebears?”

Birds to please a king. Photo by Torino Regional Museum of Natural Sciences.

Birds to please a king. Photo by Torino Regional Museum of Natural Sciences.

Someone—presumably but not certainly Bonelli himself—reminded the king of the delight he had recently had in visiting the museum’s birds. Once his tantrum had subsided, the king agreed to make an exception for the birds: he liked the birds, and he hoped that the museum staff would continue to take good care of them.

The next regent, Charles Felix, was more indulgent. He gave Bonelli permission to construct a specially designed hall of zoology in the museum, which was completed in the spring of 1830. Unbeknownst to Bonelli, however, a university colleague had been scheming behind the scenes to have the new space instead given to him for anatomy demonstrations. When Bonelli learned of the betrayal, he suffered a stroke, and died six months later, at the age of 45.

Bonelli's Warbler. Photo by Pierre Dalous.

Bonelli’s Warbler. Photo by Pierre Dalous.

Birding with the Ostrogoths

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright and Marco Valtriani will co-lead VENT’s Italy: Birds & Art in Venice & the Po Delta tour, October 24-November 1, 2016. Join us!

Boethius imprisoned, Consolation of Philosophy. Photo by Bkwillwm, Wikimedia Commons.

Boethius imprisoned, Consolation of Philosophy. Photo by Bkwillwm, Wikimedia Commons.

None of the documents that survive from the Ostrogothic Kingdom of northern Italy suggest that birding was an especially popular hobby.

Meister von san Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo byThe Yorcke Project, Wikimedia Commons.

Meister von san Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo by The Yorcke Project, Wikimedia Commons.

But the rich artworks preserved in Ravenna, the capital of Theoderic’s realm, tell a different story.

Consecrated in the late fifth century, the city’s Archepiscopal Chapel is the oldest surviving Christian oratory anywhere. Its marble walls are paved with some of the finest and most famous mosaics in Italy, studded with 1500-year-old images of some 99 species of birds.

Cappella arcivescovile, Ravenna. Photo by Incola, Wikimedia Commons.

Cappella arcivescovile, Ravenna. Photo by Incola, Wikimedia Commons.

Some are purely whimsical, but many of the birds are identifiable as of the very same species that still abound today around the ancient churches and tombs.

Long-tailed Tit on a washing line. Photo by Dave Croker, Wikimedia Commons.

Long-tailed Tit on a washing line. Photo by Dave Croker, Wikimedia Commons.

Others recall the great numbers and variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors that winter around the nearby delta of the mighty Po River.

Smew. Photo by Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons.

Smew. Photo by Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons.

From Venice to Ravenna, we retrace the steps of the Ostrogoths as they slowly absorbed much of the western Roman Empire. And we retrace the steps of the anonymous artists who, 1500 years ago, recognized that there was a lot to see outdoors in Italy, too.

Birding in the Garden of the Beasts: Berlin and Brandenburg

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright will lead VENT’s Germany: Birds & Art in Berlin & Brandenburg tour, September 30-October 8, 2016.

Join us!

Tiergarten, Iron Eagle

Tiergarten, Iron Eagle

Berlin’s largest urban green space dates to the early sixteenth century, when a royal hunting preserve was gradually transformed into a public park. By the nineteenth century, the Tiergarten district, centered on the forested square mile of this “garden of beasts,” had become the city’s most desirable neighborhood, home to the Prussian nobility, newly wealthy industrialists, and even the odd scholar or two.

The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm

Some of the finest villas are now occupied by government buildings and embassies, as they were in the days leading up to the second World War. Laid waste, like most of Berlin, in the closing days of the war, the Tiergarten is once again a refuge at the very heart of central Europe’s most exciting city—

Berlin - traffic at Tiergarten

Berlin – traffic at Tiergarten

—a refuge for human residents and birds alike.

Tufted Duck

Tufted Duck

The peaceful stroll from the Charlottenburg Gate leads through deep forest and along placid waterways inhabited by all the common birds of those habitats, from noisy Song Thrushes to secretive Northern Goshawks—yes, goshawks, breeding and wintering in the middle of the capital of Germany.

Song Thrush

Song Thrush

On my most recent visit to Berlin, I rose early almost every day to head out into the wild marshlands and woods of nearby Brandenburg.

Common Cranes

Common Cranes

As wonderful as those days were, the best mornings were those when I lingered abed just a little longer, then crossed the street to the Tiergarten. Those urban goshawks were, as so often, elusive, but my walk, past the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate to the Philharmonic and Potsdamer Platz, was lavish in the sight and sound of birds. Chaffinches and Green Woodpeckers bounced across the lawns, while Hawfinches and Wood Warblers ticked and trilled from the trees. It was like Central Park or Garret Mountain or Mount Auburn in May—but with different birds and no crowds.

Tiergarten and Siegessaule

Tiergarten and Siegessaule

And at the end of my walk through the garden of the beasts, there was coffee and cake and a world-class museum or six. You really can have it all in Berlin. Especially if you’re a birder.

Ishtar Gates

Ishtar Gates

All photos by Rick Wright.

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.

Bonaparte_Charles_Lucien_1803-1857

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.

cloister

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.

capitals

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.

Birds & Art: The Monastery of Fontenay, by Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

In 2016, Rick Wright will lead five “Birds & Art” tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Here, he gives us a preview of “France: Birds & Art in Burgundy,” May 29-June 4, 2016.

Rick will also lead Birds & Art tours to Provence, Catalonia, Berlin & Brandenburg, and Venice & the Po Delta.

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The monastery of Fontenay, in northern Burgundy, owes its fame to the reforming zeal of its twelfth-century founder, Saint Bernard, and to the sublime starkness of the abbey church’s Romanesque architecture.

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What few visitors notice, though, is how the medieval monks’ landscaping efforts contribute to the birdiness of the place today.

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The forests the monks so carefully maintained to provide fuel for their forge, and the canals and reedy ponds they dug to supply the kitchens with fish, are home to a full suite of central France’s migrant and breeding songbirds.

Hawfinch by AlekseyKarpenko-shutterstock 257236675

But the birds aren’t just outside. One of the few ornamental elements of the church is a thirteenth-century statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, of the type known – fittingly enough in this case – as “beautiful Madonnas.”

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Some visitors might walk right past it, pausing perhaps to admire the sweetness of the Virgin’s girlish face and the elegant curve of her torso, but a closer look reveals that the Christ Child in her arms holds a live bird.

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Stylized in form, and with no colorful plumage visible, the little bird is nevertheless identifiable: the Child’s pet can only be a European Goldfinch. As the Smithsonian ornithologist Herbert Friedmann showed, that species served artists throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a symbol of suffering and death to come.

Raphael, Goldfinch r

The stone goldfinch is just like the feathered ones the twelfth-century monks would have seen flitting around the borders of the cloister garden, and it is just like the goldfinches we can watch today on the woodland edges and flower-strewn lawns of Fontenay.

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Here in Burgundy, and in so many other ancient places around the world, birds, art, and history come together to form a landscape that is far more than the sum of its separate parts. All it takes is the eye to see it.

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Photos: Hawfinch by AlekseyKarpenko/shutterstock. All other photos by Rick Wright.