“You’ll never find birds in Paris.”
It was a common response when I told fellow birdwatchers that my wife and I were moving to Paris – after, of course, bubbling adoration for French sweets, sites, and Sancerre. Indeed, a quick scan of a Paris map will furrow a birder’s brow: a sea of brown with only periodic green splotches of varying sizes. As a mentor warned, unlike green-spaces in Seattle, those pinpoint parks have been cultivated for hundreds of years and have the ecological value of a topiary bush on a putting green.
But look back at the map. Assuming it goes beyond the peripherique – the roughly square-shaped highway that encircles and defines the borders of Paris – you’ll see two large green lobes clinging to either side: Bois de Vincennes to the east and Bois de Boulogne to the west.
Fortunately, our apartment lies just 1.1 miles from the latter–only a twenty minute walk with binoculars in tow.
Bois de Boulogne (bwah de boo-low-nyuh – Forest of Boulogne) is over two thousand acres, more than double the size of Central Park. A variety of activities draw people to the park: Roland Garros (home of the French Open) is found on the periphery of the park; two large manicured lakes along the parks eastern edge host remote-controlled sailboat races; horse admirers are served by a long horse-only trail that goes up the spine of the park, as well as two full-sized horse racetracks; and joggers and cyclists can be found throughout the park on a maze of cement and dirt trails.
But so far I’ve been the only one with binoculars. This is surprising because Bois de Boulogne is replete with a diversity of deciduous and coniferous trees, a thick understory, and even snags! Over several weekday morning wanderings, I have been rewarded with 40 species of birds: families of Mute Swans, Eurasian Coots and Moorhens gliding over the calm surface of the lakes, over which Common House-Martins swoop for insects; seven species of tits (Marsh, Willow, Coal, Crested, Great, Eurasian Blue, and Long-tailed), the European equivalent of chickadees, are never far away; and trees burst with the chorus of Eurasian Wren, Willow Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Blackcap, European Robin, Eurasian Blackbird, Song Thrush, and Common Chaffinch.
One morning yielded a cripplingly beautiful pair of Eurasian Bullfinches quietly foraging in the grass along the fringe of a stand of conifers; the next brought a trailside Tawny Owl stayed long enough for me to point out to a passing jogger.
But it was my experience with a woodpecker – one of three species I have seen – that threw me unwittingly into the infamous side of “the Bois.”
It was a sunny morning, and I was on my first of many jogs criss-crossing the park. I am often tuned to bird song while running, but very few birds are actually seen in the dense understory. Therefore I was startled when a medium-sized bird flushed from the side of the trail.
A streak of green with a spot of red: a Green Woodpecker!
It was a tantalizing glimpse of a new species for me. Without a second thought, I charged off the trail, carefully threading between to dense thickets of stinging nettles, before coming to the small stand of deciduous trees into which my feathered quarry had disappeared. The ground was clear of brush so I was able to walk around quite easily to look up into the trees: nothing. After a minute or two of fruitless searching, I turned around to return to the jogging trail and froze.
I counted at least 80 condom wrappers – and some used contents – strewn across the ground around me. Never have I been more thankful to not be a barefoot runner.
Standing in the leaf “litter,” I thought of the woman I ran past earlier that morning. She was waiting on the side of the street, no bus stop in sight. Now this no longer seemed unusual. Amongst the treecreepers, tits, and woodpeckers dwells a couple other, more crepuscular, species that seek shelter in the Bois: hookers and their clients.
Bois de Boulogne is a well-known location for prostitution: my wife’s coworkers warned her not to travel there at night. After exploring much of the park, it seems as if few bare patches of dirt escape the detritus of sexual depravity.
Large panel vans—windows covered with towels and dashboards draped in dayglo animal prints—are parked along the side of several main arterials that bisect the park.
An American expat I befriended in Paris said his wife saw 150 loitering women while strolling through Bois de Boulogne on a warm evening.
Birdwatching is better in the morning so, mixed with unseasonably heavy rainfalls at night, most of my walks through the park have been hooker-free. But I have had a few run-ins.
One weekday, I spent most of the morning birdwatching until the chorus waned as the park warmed under the bright sun. I emerged from a side trail to follow a small street out of the park. After a morning of being surrounded by green, I was startled to round a bend and see a woman dressed scantily in a red corset that (ahem) did not hide her ample figure. She looked right at me from about ten feet away. I quickly turned away and sheepishly displayed my binoculars to communicate the real reason I was creeping around in the bushes. Her eyes shifted to a passing cyclist: situation averted, or so I thought.
I walked briskly down the street. About 20 feet down, I casually looked down a trail that extended back into the thick forest. It was dark but I could make out a person standing directly in the middle of the trail. As my eyes adjusted, I could see that it was a woman of similar proportions, spilling out of what appeared to be a very small amount of clothing—hard to tell in the patchy darkness. My eyes adjusted enough to see her face; leering directly at me, she cocked her hip to once side to reveal a side profile nearly identical to her front. The display concluded with her cupping her breast, shaking it twice, and licking the air between us.
My blood pressure shot through the roof. Averting my eyes, I quickened my pace down the road to get out of sight. Did that just happen? Is she chasing me? Does that actually work? I had seen the remnants of prostitution but this was my first direct confrontation with it and, based on my physiological response, it scared the shit out of me.
I thought of this blog post as I reached for my point and shoot camera but I wisely put it back in my pocket. I wouldn’t likely survive another encounter like that. I did however muster the gumption to take a photo of her friend from 100 yards away, plus a couple photos of a crudely made privacy room made of branches and shoelaces located about 15 feet off the road.
A walk through the Bois on a warm morning will usually yield one or two encounters, mostly benign. They’ll emerge from the forest, note that I am only interested in the feathered occupants of the park, and blend back into the trees as quickly as they appeared.
I keep my eyes and ears upward and the Bois provides.