It’s been a few years since I’d gone out to tally as many bird species as possible in twenty-four hours—not since I left my position at Seattle Audubon to move to Paris with Kristi. After our fill of croissants and chapels, we are back in Seattle and I’m now on the Seattle Audubon Board. And I have to admit: I was excited to dust off the old bird checklist and binoculars to raise some money for the oldest environmental organization in the Pacific Northwest.
But I don’t think Kristi shared the same enthusiasm when my alarm went off at 4:00AM Saturday morning. In fact, our conversation, albeit brief, was long enough to confirm that very fact. Having just returned the previous day from a couple weeks in China, my body woke up pretty quickly; it was just a matter of when it would crash. But, with the skill of an anesthesiologist, I introduced caffeine to my system in small doses to maintain an even level of alertness throughout the day. I am not used to caffeine but I checked: my hands were steady enough to hold binoculars.
As I was walking to my car at 4:45AM, the “First Bird” was a Dark-eyed Junco singing in the thin light, stripping the title from the notoriously boisterous and early-rising American Robin (which was a close #2). I had a bit of time to kill before I met the other board members at the Montlake Fill at 6:15, so I headed to Golden Gardens on the shores of Puget Sound—today’s only opportunity to see saltwater species. I tallied some common species (Glaucous-winged Gull, American Crow, White-crowned Sparrow, etc.) pretty quickly while I walked out to the edge of the shore and set up my scope.
Wow, the water was still and contained absolutely no birds.
I only had ten minutes to spare but, thankfully, a few of the species specific to this habitat started to show themselves: a nearby Pigeon Guillemot, a pair of flying Rhinoceros Auklets, and a distant Black Brant. Some late wintering Western Grebes represented a species I wouldn’t see again all day.
With 21 species at 5:50AM, I packed my scope in the car and headed inland to Montlake Fill, a locally famous wetland and birding area (and former garbage dump) in the shadow of Husky Stadium. Our small group of board members quickly found Vaux’s Swift, Spotted Towhee, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Savannah Sparrow. Bewick’s Wren and Bushtits were clutch additions to our checklist we’d have a tough time finding as we later moved further east. The cripplingly beautiful male Wood Duck and Cinnamon Teal were crowd favorites. After an hour of birding, it was time to head over Lake Washington towards the Cascades Mountains.
After a quick stop in Issaquah to combine forces with the eastside contingent, we got back on I-90 and didn’t get off until the top of the Snoqualmie Pass, where feeders provide fuel for migrating Rufous Hummingbirds.
A stop at Stampede Pass provided singing Varied Thrushes and Golden-crowned Kinglets as well as Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers. A foraging American Dipper – an aquatic songbird – and a small flock of treetop Red Crossbills provided great scope views.
Red-tailed Hawk and Turkey Vulture flew over I-90 as we continued east to Cle Elum. The Cle Elum Railroad Ponds provided some real dandies: the brilliantly orange Bullock’s Oriole, dazzlingly yellow Nashville Warbler, and the boldly colored Evening Grosbeak. Additional birds like Northern Rough-winged Swallow, House Wren, Western Bluebird, and Pygmy Nuthatch were much appreciated additions. The group decided it was time for a coffee and donut stop in Cle Elum, where long-awaited House Sparrow and House Finch brought my list up to 78 species.
The caravan snaked our way up the Teanaway, where we nestled for lunch underneath some roadside Ponderosa Pines overlooking the Swauk Prairie. We added Chipping Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch, Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, and Mountain Chickadee.
After lunch, we made a quick stop at a reliable quarry for Rock Wren and then added Mountain Bluebird before getting on the road to head down to Ellensburg. Unfortunately, high winds caused birds to hunker down in otherwise productive areas, like the riparian habitat at Reecer Creek and the sagebrush of the Quilcene. Thankfully Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher graced us with their song in the midday sun.
A Great Horned Owl, #93, was nearly a sure thing in some cliffs down Vantage Highway.
The Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Center gave us an additional six species, including Common Loon and Horned Grebe in breeding plumage. The Columbia River was shallower than I’ve ever seen it, courtesy of a cracked dam downriver.
Frenchmen Coulee near George provided Yellow-headed Blackbird, Virginia Rail, Cedar Waxwing, and White-throated Swift.
We continued east, following the string of small wetlands that follow I-90 through the arid agricultural land. We quickly tallied ducks like Canvasback and Redhead, sandpipers like Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and Long-billed Curlew, in addition to Eastern Washington specialties like Swainson’s Hawk, Bank Swallow, and Black-capped Night-Heron.
It was now 6:30pm and our energy was waning with the setting sun. But our last stop—a pair of square retention ponds near a rest stop—produced our best bird of the day: a RUDDY TURNSTONE. Mixed in with Least and Spotted Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher and Dunlin, this sandpiper represents a species that is widely distributed throughout the world (I actually just saw them in China) but they are very rarely encountered away from the saltwater shoreline. It is a “Code 5” rarity (fewer than five records) for the county.
And it was #119. The group, which had tapered to six individuals, decided to head back to Seattle where we watched the sun drift behind the Olympic Mountains.
Birders will certainly exclaim, “what, no owling?” Nope. I was exhausted.
It’s tradition for birders to dwell on the “biggest misses” of their Big Day. For us, there were a few considering it was a relatively casual attempt: American Wigeon; Ring-necked Pheasant; Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks; Band-tailed Pigeon; Downy, Hairy, or Pileated Woodpecker; Peregrine Falcon; Dusky Flycatcher; Brown Creeper; Vesper Sparrow; Purple Finch; and Pine Siskin.
But all that is just bird-geekery. Most importantly, thanks to my supporters, I’ve raised nearly $4,000 for Seattle Audubon—a personal record. I really appreciate the support.
Next year? Maybe. But I’ll probably have to preemptively sleep on the couch.
Full Species List:
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
N. Rough-winged Swallow
“What’s your favorite bird?”
It’s a frequent question posed to birdwatchers and I stumble for an example that people can relate to in North America: American Dipper, Marbled Murrelet, and Harlequin Duck are all a part of my regular rotation.
But as for international birds, the answer is easy: Spoon-billed Sandpiper. And I was looking at one now.
It was the third afternoon of Cornell’s expedition to the Yellow Sea to find this critically endangered species, and only the first hour at our second location: Yubu Island, on the west coast of South Korea about a hundred miles south of Seoul.
The first two days at Nakdong Estuary in the southeast corner of the country yielded only brief, and distant, views of our valuable quarry. This was the first of two locations our partners at Birds Korea had identified as the best opportunities to find migrating Spoon-billed Sandpipers but, as any birder knows, nothing is guaranteed—especially when the total population barely clears three digits.
After participating in a seminar about Spoon-billed Sandpipers at Chonnam University that morning, we drove for over an hour to an improvised boat dock at 2:30pm. Once there, we were met with troubling news: eighteen photographers were already in place on the beach where we were planning to set up.
Birdwatching isn’t popular in South Korea, but bird photography is. Birdwatchers and bird photographers have a contentious history around the world, and while both are equally capable of being irresponsible, bird photography is, generally, more likely to cause disturbance because it requires closer proximity to the subject. A 500mm lens magnifies about as effectively as standard-sized ten power binoculars; a 800mm lens—costing north of $12,000—magnifies sixteen times. The spotting scopes of better equipped birders usually start at twenty and can go as high as seventy-five. Greater magnification allows the viewer to be further away from the subject, plus birders can get satisfying views of birds that are less than the “full frame” images many photographers seek. (To be fair, camouflaged blinds, which serious photographers often utilize, are rarely in a birdwatcher’s field kit).
Let me be clear: I love bird photos, and I have good friends who are bird photographers. The advent of digital photography has fueled an explosion of high quality images from talented hobbyists, many of whom generously donate their art to non-profit organizations like Cornell and Audubon. But areas or species highly impacted by photographers create a conundrum for bird conservationists; compelling images and video are imperative to inspiring people to protect birds and the habitats on which they rely. This internal conflict is further inflamed when the species is at risk of going extinct: the parallel needs to address negative impacts to a species and raise awareness for their plight both become more urgent.
As we departed from the industrial shoreline, several large flocks of curlew—some of the largest shorebirds in the world—flew over our boat. We all silently hoped they hadn’t been startled up from the beach where the Spoon-billed Sandpipers had been reported. They were flying from that direction and surely would have flushed any smaller shorebirds.
As soon as we landed, feeling the pressure of setting up on a narrow beach with a line of other photographers, I grabbed a lens bag, my scope, my personal backpack, and a tripod and walked briskly after Gerrit, trying to keep up with his broad stride in the rising heat and humidity. Within minutes, I could already feel hotspots forming where my feet were rubbing against the sides of my poorly fitted rubber boots.
After fifteen minutes, we received a call on the radio. Dr. Nial Moores, director of Birds Korea, who had opted to wait near the boat dock to scan a flock of roosting shorebirds, had at least three Spoon-billed Sandpipers in his scope.
Approaching sleeping birds is much trickier than setting up a blind and letting the tide push them towards you, but there was no guarantee the rising tide would produce such a rare bird either. We had to go for the sure thing: we walked back.
We slowly approached Dr. Moores. As Gerrit pulled out his camera and sliding dish tripod, Dr. Moores gave us directions to one of the “spoonies.”
“See that black board next to the sleeping Mongolia Plover? It’s the third bird on the left. It’s sleeping.”
Once again, the beach was smothered in plastic detritus from the ocean: disposable water bottles, wrappers, even a laundry basket.
As Gerrit approached in a crouch, then on his hands and knees, then on his stomach, I quietly extended the legs on my tripod next to Dr. Moores and focused my scope on the black board. The heat haze was thick, and my eyesight shaken by a heart palpitating with excitement, but I found the bird.
It was sleeping with its head facing backward and its bill tucked underneath a wing—anticlimactic for species that is named after such a unique attribute.
For the past three days, I had been studying similar birds in similar positions with great anticipation, only to be crushed once the bird woke up to reveal the pedestrian proboscis of an everyday sandpiper, like a Red-necked Stint and Sanderling.
But I could tell this bird was promising: a pale forehead, subtly streaked crown, slimmer build, smaller size, and darker auricular hinted at something different.
Then the flock stirred and the bird awoke. BAM! There it was: the sensuous curves that tens of thousands of birders would (and frequently do) travel around the world to see.
The bill doesn’t necessarily resemble a spoon. From its base, the bill dwindles gradually before flaring dramatically to create a flat spatula more than double the bills width. The bill then tapers to a tip to create an almost lobed appearance, like a gingko leaf, or the smoothly webbed foot of a duck. From the side, the “spoon” almost disappears to a subtle spear-shape.
In the gray plumage of wintering adult—not the comparatively crisp and colorful plumage of a juvenile with freshly molted feathers—this species is truly “a birder’s bird,” as Dr. Moores succinctly stated.
Sure. But damn it’s cool.
We watched intently as the mixed flock of several hundred birds—mostly Kentish Plovers, Red-necked Stints, and Sanderlings—began to grow restless with Gerrit’s approach. I was lucky to find another sleeping Spoon-billed Sandpiper and watched in delight as a third “spoonie” saddled up next to it. The two rested with their bills behind their wings and one eye open, pivoting quickly from side to side like weathervanes in a mercurial breeze.
These two birds had found each other in a large flock, not surprising for such a gregarious family of birds. But, as the world’s population continues to crash, this behavior, as well as our ability to enjoy this spectacle, will become increasingly less likely.
We found four birds in this small flock and reports back from the other beach were of at least three, maybe four, additional birds. The “spoonies” had settled with another large flock at high tide but, unfortunately, the photographers had flushed them as they loudly packed up their gear.
The sun was setting but fortunately we still had three full days on Yubu Island.
There you are: jet-lagged and in a park near your hotel, before dawn, binoculars in hand. It’s the beginning of your European vacation and your family is still passed out upstairs.
How nice of you to let them sleep.
As the morning begins to brighten in Paris (or maybe London, or Berlin) an unfamiliar dawn chorus begins to emerge from the greenery around you.
Maybe you studied your European field guide a little on the flight over but, as you know, every bird in the world has an unique vocalization and knowing that Common Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler are differentiated by leg color is of little use to you now, in this dim light.
Are you new to “birding by ear”? No worries, it’s never been easier.
Using reference CD’s and MP3’s from websites like Xeno-canto.org, create a playlist of the most common birds in your area. Play it on your commute to work, at your computer, or at the gym, until the songs become familiar to your ears. Now, when you next encounter the dawn chorus in full force, you can mentally sort the sounds you recognize, and focus on the ones you don’t. Chase down a couple new sounds and, once you visually identify the species, add them to your playlist.
You are now developing a mental reference library for bird sounds, and you might be surprised at how quickly new sounds will “catch.” You’ll remember new sounds by comparing them against the catalog you’re building. For example, you’ll note that the song of Purple Finch has the same liquid-like quality of a House Finch but it sings shorter, distinct phrases and lacks the upslurred end that House Finches often broadcast.
“Well, that’s helpful and all,” you interrupt, “but I’m still in Europe and I have no idea what I’m hearing.”
Don’t worry—this technique can still help elsewhere in the world. I’ve compiled a short reference of most common urban birds in Europe to help you prepare for your European vacation. Have a listen: some may sound quite similar to common birds back home.
May remind you of: American Robin
Blackbirds don’t have “yellow heads” or “red wings” in Europe, in fact this plain black bird with a yellow bill is in the same genus as the American Robin: Turdus. Appropriately, most of its vocalizations, from song to alarm call, are reminiscent of the vociferous songster you likely have in your backyard, albeit a bit more languorous, inebriated even.
© Andreas Trepte
May remind you of: Northern Mockingbird
Another member of the turdus genus, the Song Thrush more closely resembles our own Swainson’s or Hermit Thrush. But once it opens its beak, expect a song similar to a Northern Mockingbird: short, distinct, discordant phrases repeated in two’s and three’s.
© Andreas Trepte
May remind you of: Winter/Pacific Wren
Hear a sweet, frantic song similar to your Winter Wrens back home? Well, up until 2010, it was the same species. But the wren you hear now—the Eurasian Wren—is its own species, and the only wren found outside the Americas.
© Andreas Trepte
May remind you of: House Finch
This boisterous singer can be heard in green-spaces throughout urban Europe. The song is crisp, “chippy”, and descends in pitch, but not in strength. When I first arrived in Paris, I likened it to the song of a House Finch, a common urban vocalist in North America. Their call—a “pink-pink”—is also quite distinctive (the recording below features the song in the foreground, with the call in the background).
© Ian Cleland
May remind you of: Golden-crowned Kinglet
It sure looks like a Golden-crowned Kinglet (it’s in the same genus) and yup, it sounds like one, too. If you are near conifers and hear some small twittering coming from the canopy, you can bet it’ll be a flock of Goldcrests, a.k.a. the kinglets with goggles.
May remind you of: Pine Siskin
Hearing the slurred end notes that remind you of a Pine Siskin? Well, Pine Siskins go ↑UP↑ and the European Greenfinch goes ↓down↓. The song of the greenfinch is a bit “goldfinch-like” but they are often in large flocks so the down-slurred notes are easy to point out.
© Andreas Trepte
Great Spotted Woodpecker
May remind you of: Downy Woodpecker
This common urban woodpecker has a call similar to the “pik” of a Downy Woodpecker, although much louder and more resonant. The Great Spotted Woodpecker, however, is closer in size to a Hairy. Green Woodpeckers—the second most commonly occurring urban “pecker”—has a boisterous, laughing call, so if you hear something that sounds like a woodpecker back home, it’s most likely a Great Spotted. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is possible, but much less common: listen for a soft, descending whinny similar to a Downy.
© Darrel Birkett
May remind you of: Brown Creeper
The “creepers” of Europe maintain the same soft, fluting, liquid-like songs of the Brown Creeper back home. Are you in the U.K.? You’re hearing the long, descending song of a Eurasian Treecreeper. On mainland Europe, you can be hearing Eurasian or the more upbeat, ascending song of a Short-toed Treecreeper.
Short-toed Treecreeper © Jimfbleak
Other Common European Birds
This widespread phylloscopus warbler has one of the most distinctive songs in Europe: a continuous string of single notes that quickly jump up and down the octave scale. If you watch any European programming that requires the use of bird sounds, you might find him there, too. A few of the audio samples highlighted on this page have Common Chiffchaff somewhere in the background as well.
© Hans Hillewaert
While a plain warbler in appearance, the Blackcap is anything but once it open its beak. Its beautiful song has the length and intricacy of a Winter Wren, the vocal variety of a European Starling, and the boldness of a Northern Mockingbird. Fortunately for visiting birders, they are vocal and widespread in spring and summer, and respond quickly to pishing.
© Jakub Stančo
The song of the European Robin is high and melodious one second, and wheezy the next. To me, it sounds like the male is struggling to get his song out as he inhales and exhales laboriously.
© Pierre-Selim Huard
This urban canary—literally, it’s in the same genus as the wild ancestor to the popular cage bird—doesn’t have the lyrical chops of its fellow Serinus. To me, its song is continuous, metallic chatter, similar in quality to an Anna’s Hummingbird. They are boisterous singers, though, which makes them easy to find. Don’t expect to find them in London, however, as this species is absent on the British Isles.
© Armin März
The song of this handsome dandy is a continuous, and often quiet, string of trills and chatter, similar to that of the American Goldfinch. Also like its American counterpart, it’s most easily identified by its call, which it freely interjects into its song: an upslurred “te-LITT.”
© Pierre Dalous
The only audible similarity that this nuthatch shares with the Red-breasted in the States is how unique its call is in its respective habitat. To my ears, it sounds like a scolding water drop. And when it decides to call, it will do so quite adamantly, thus making them easy to locate.
© Luc Viatour
The Tits (A few of them at least)
The Great Tit has one of the richest vocabularies of any European bird—nearly 40 different call types at last tally—but considering it’s also one of the common urban species, if you hear a bird that you don’t recognize during your outing, chances are good that it’s a Great Tit. Song is usually a see-sawying, ringing, two syllable little diddy.
© Luc Viatour
Eurasian Blue Tit
The second most common tit, if not the second most common species, the Eurasian Blue Tit has a four part song: “DEE-DEE-d-d-d-d-d-DEE-DEE-d-d-d.” The quality is higher and more piercing than that of the Great Tit. Start pishing at any urban green space and you’ll have the chance to hear its scolding call in person, after the Great Tits have come to investigate, of course.
© Maximilian Dorsch
Similar in proportion to Bushtits, though larger and more boldly colored, the Long-tailed Tit is readily identifiable by voice. Listen for the very quick, descending, scolding call and wait for the flock to pass through.
© Jos Dielis
The Marsh Tit will most closely resemble North American chickadees of the tits mentioned here and I find, personally, that its call is one of the most distinct: a quick, ascending two-note “pi-CHAY.”
© Sławomir Staszczuk
Already mastered these species or have a specific target bird you are looking for? Use Xeno-canto.org to find crowd-sourced recordings that you can download to your computer.
Yeah, it’s cliché, and I am certainly not the first birdwatcher to use, or perhaps abuse, this phrase. But when one travels to The Netherlands in winter to look for geese—totaling nine commonly occurring species—“Wild Goose Chase” suddenly seems awfully appropriate.
I’d learned of the bounty of Branta when my wife and I relocated to Paris in 2012 and I began to research what European birds were found where, and when. The Netherlands in winter quickly fell on my radar because several goose species that show up rarely in North America, like Pink-footed, Barnacle, Graylag, and Tundra Bean, occur commonly in this low lying country, sometimes in flocks of 10’s of thousands. Greater White-fronted Geese are found on both continents, but it’s diminutive cousin, the cleverly named Lesser White-fronted, is much more scarce and found few other places on earth. Brant occur on both continents as well, but Dutch population is the bernicla subspecies that breeds in Russia. The widely distributed Canada Goose and Egyptian Goose, both established species from exotic origins, round out the nine commonly occurring species. Throw in a rare species like Red-breasted, Taiga Bean, Ross’s, or Snow and you have the potential of a double-digit goose count in a single day.
Of course, you have to care about geese, and Steven, a Dutch gentleman I met through BirdingPal, was a bit surprised about my obsession. Nevertheless, he was excited to help an American birdwatcher find some new birds and we scheduled a full day of goose chasing on March 8 to coincide with Kristi’s work trip to Amsterdam.
For several weeks prior to this trip, I checked the Dutch reporting website, www.waarneming.nl (Dutch version of eBird.org) routinely for updates on rarities. Rare birds in the Netherlands can stray from North America, Africa, or Siberia but if they do stray, you can almost guarantee they’ll be found, and then subsequently seen by hundreds of Dutch birders within hours. Steven estimated that there are 400-500 expert birders in the Netherlands, i.e. people who can readily identify any bird that occurs in Europe—no matter the age or sex—by sight or sound. Another 10,000-15,000 people care enough about birding to contribute data to waarneming.nl (waarneming means “sighting”). Considering that The Netherlands is the same size as Greater Los Angeles, you can safely assume that every bird that penetrates Dutch borders will be scrutinized by this cadre of birdwatchers, and likely on a daily basis.
In the weeks leading up to my trip, I checked this site routinely. A couple Red-breasted Geese, a flamboyantly colored diminutive goose that breeds in northern Russia and winters near Turkey, were seen in flocks of Barnacle Goose. This is a bird that frequents waterfowl collections in North America, and one I had wanted to see since childhood.
But then something awful occurred during the week leading up to my trip: the weather began to improve.
Bright sun and clear skies clearly signaled that winter was coming to a close. There was jubilance across Paris as warm temps improved spirits, but I was nervous; I feared that the geese may be getting itchy to start their northward migration.
A couple days before my trip, an email from Steven confirmed my fears: the Pink-footed Geese were already gone and the Tundra Bean Geese were beginning to follow suit.
Crap. “The Lesser White-fronts are still around,” Steven wrote, sensing that my mood would need to be lightened. As scarce as they are—and declining—it would indeed be a highlight of my trip. “At the very least, we can just go birding.”
At 7:00AM on the 8th, he pulled up in front of our hotel in Amsterdam. I shook his hand, gave him a coffee, and we were on the road, heading north.
For 20 minutes, we drove around the nearby town of Heiloo (“HIGH-low”) to look for a second winter Iceland Gull that was spending the winter in a small canal in the middle of a suburban cul-de-sac. Unfortunately, the man who had been feeding the gulls hadn’t yet put any bread out and only a handful of Black-headed and Herring Gulls were frequenting the neighborhood. I hadn’t seen a single goose yet, so I was getting anxious.
Our next stop was further north to Camperduin (“CAN-per-dine”) to drive the narrow roads through agricultural fields interspersed with small homesteads and iconic windmills. Within minutes, we rolled past a small flock of Graylag Geese (#1) that cradled a pair of Greater White-fronted Geese (#2). We continued a couple hundred meters and found a much larger flock of Greater White-fronts. After scanning with binoculars, we realized that the flock was intermixed with some smaller geese. We quietly got out of the car and set up our spotting scopes to find the shorter bills, steeper foreheads, and distinct eye-rings of Lesser White-fronted Geese (#3). In the immediate area, we tallied 38 of this vulnerable species which has a global population of about 30,000. They had thankfully waited for me, or at least had avoided taking off in the thick clouds that hung low in the sky. While only numbering a few hundred birds, this flock also produced a small number of Barnacle Geese (#4), a few Brant (#5), and a distant pair of Egyptian Geese (#6). Meadow Pipits were doing their flight displays despite the subzero wind, which drove Steven and I back into the car.
We continued to explore this expanse of flat agricultural fields where we found several large flocks of Barnacle Geese, a favorite hiding place for Red-breasted Goose. We scanned each flock for the black back and distinctively colored head and neck of this rare visitor, but we came up empty. Out of 100,000 Barnacle Geese, 1 or maybe two Red-breasted Geese will be found: odds certainly not in our favor.
“Have you seen ‘Pied Wagtail’?” Steven asked me, referring to a black-backed form of the normally gray-backed White Wagtail which breeds in Great Britain but migrates through mainland Europe. Some authorities consider it a separate species.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Within minutes, we were driving a small country road next to a wetland in Abbestede (“A-buh-stay-duh”). As if on cue, three wagtails fell from the sky, including two adults: one with a gray back, the other black. Check.
Back on the road, I confided that I had never seen a Common Eider, an Arctic seaduck composed of white, diffused pastels, and long-sloping forehead. “Easy, we’ll be driving by a beach where a couple were recently reported,” Steve responded, checking his phone.
We were soon pulling in to the parking lot of Falga (“Fall-Hah”) surrounding by coastal conifer trees. We walked over sweeping coastal dunes for ten minutes before arriving at the beachside restaurant and expansive sandy beaches; the boarded up windows and sand drifts hinted that this was the off-season. Two beautiful male Common Eiders were easily found just beyond the surf, providing easy scope studies of a bird I’d only seen in pictures since childhood. They are even more colorful in person; Steven laughed in disbelief every time I excitedly pointed out whenever one flew by. The rough surf also hosted several Razorbills—a relative of puffins that I’d never seen before—in both breeding and winter plumages, as well as Slavonian Grebe and Red-throated Diver (Horned Grebe and Red-throated Loon to North American birders), both of which were additions to my European list.
Our next stop was along a fortified shoreline a little further north on Den Helder Boulevard to look for Purple Sandpiper. A handful of Ruddy Turnstones, Red Knots, and Dunlin greeted us, but the real action was offshore where spring migration was just ramping up: flocks or European Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Red-throated Loons, and various shorebirds, all flying north. I soon picked out my lifer Common Scoters (a species recently split from the Black Scoter in North America) and several Northern Gannets, a relative of boobies and another addition to my European list.
It was a short drive to Hippolytushoef (“HI-poh-li-tus-hoof”) to case the agricultural fields for a large wintering flock of Brant. We quickly found them, and the large roadside flock of sheep neighboring them quickly found us: the cacophonous greeting is not one I’ll soon forget.
Seeing such a large flock of brant—we counted over a thousand—was a new experience for me. The fact that they were foraging on grass was also new; Seattle birders are not used to seeing our local “Black” Brant far from beaches in Puget Sound where they are especially fond of eel grass, a type of seaweed. Steven and I sifted through the foraging flock of brant—the “Dark-bellied” bernicla subspecies that breeds in Russia—looking for the “Pale-bellies” of the hrota subspecies from Greenland. The first two were paired together and we soon picked out another six before we put the scopes back in the car.
My goose count stood at six, respectable in North America but lower than the total I’d expected today. We needed to continue our search.
Thankfully Steve saw a distant, but promising, flock of Graylags. We drove slowly up to the piles of dirt and rotting carrots and Steve found the dark chocolate heads of #7: Tundra Bean-Goose. I fumbled to get a couple photos of this confiding lifer before we were on the highway south to Amsterdam.
Surely my number would still climb once we found a Canada Goose.
“What?” Steven replied, incredulous as to why I wanted to take valuable time to find a nuisance species. Although from exotic origins, like the Egyptian, it’s established in The Netherlands and “countable” in birder parlance.
Seconds later, we zoom past another flock of geese feeding on the side of the highway. Brown bodies, black necks, white cheek patch: Canada Geese. #8.
And we didn’t even need to slow down.
We chased the waning daylight to Waterland (“VA-ter-lund”), another vast agricultural area just east of Amsterdam. We stopped to scan the first flock of Barnacle Geese we found, numbering 20,000, hoping to find one Red-breasted. A resident stopped to talk to us, explaining that the government compensates farmers for any crop damage inflicted by the wintering hordes of roaming lawn-mowers.
After scanning five different flocks, I was feeling as if the tally would remain at eight. As twilight swallowed the day, we perched up on a dyke to scan a small, vegetated bay at the last flock of Barnacle Geese. Slowly, this evening roost of vociferous waterfowl continued to grow as V’s of geese returned from the fields behind us. Within 30 minutes, the chatter grew to a roar as the flock swelled to 50,000 birds. My search became futile. Finally, the light got too flat for me to tell the difference between white and red, so I had to give up my quest for a Red-breasted Goose.
Steven pointed out the elongated profiles and slender bills of two Caspian Gulls. Another lifer: a nice consolation.
You always have to save something for next time.
When my eyes met binoculars in 2012, they were likely in pursuit of the feathered occupants of Paris, from tits to creepers. My wife and I moved to the capital of France in early June and I averaged about one morning of birding every week until late November, when we traveled back home to Seattle by way of Eastern Europe for a month. I mostly birded in green-spaces near our flat just southwest of Paris (in the city of Boulogne-Billancourt) with periodic trips further afield.
With moderate effort, I tallied 72 species in the City of Light.
There aren’t many birders in Paris. I met four of them and while I learned quite a bit, I almost always birded solo (during the week). Consequently, my ears failed to find the less common songs/calls and I am sure my eyes missed a few of the expected fall migrants in all their dull greatness (i.e. phylloscopus warblers). I also missed spring migration entirely.
Highlights include a Lesser Redpoll working an alder with two European Goldfinches on November 8th, a European Honey-buzzard migrating over Parc des Beaumonts in mid-August, separate sightings of Tawny Owls in two different parks southwest of the city in the summer, two sightings of Black Woodpecker in the Bois de Boulogne, a pair of Hawfinches in early November, and several sightings of Eurasian Bullfinches throughout the year—the handsomest of the European line-up.
Biggest miss: Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I’ve heard a couple but so far these small trunk-climbers have eluded me.
I’ve included a full species list below, with codes denoting where I saw them. Most locations are slightly outside Paris proper but all are easily accessible by the Paris metro system. Each code links to a full description (and MAP) in my blog post, “Birdwatching in Paris.”
- Bois de Boulogne (BdB)
- Parc de l’Ile St Germain (PiSG)
- Ile de Seguin (IdS)
- Parc du Beaumonts (PdB)
- Jardin des Plantes (JdP)
- Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise (CdPLC)
- Bois de Vincennes (BdV)
Canada Goose (BdV) — Flock on Lac Daumesnil, Bois de Vincennes.
Common Pochard (BdV) — Wintering flock found in Lac de Minimes, in east Bois de Vincennes.
Ring-necked Pheasant (BdB) — Seen a couple times in the deeper recesses of Bois de Boulogne.
Great Crested Grebe (BdV) — Found in winter on Lac de Minimes, Bois de Vincennes.
European Honey-buzzard (PdB) — Uncommon migrant through Paris. I joined expat birder David Thorns at his beloved Parc du Beaumonts on an afternoon in mid August and this was the first, and closest, raptor to pass us during the two hour skywatch.
Little Ringed Plover (IdS) — A pair were spotted in the dirt construction areas of Ile de Seguin in July.
Common Tern (IdS) — Seen during migration on the Seine on Ile de Seguin.
Common Wood-Pigeon (BdB–PiSG–IdS–PdB–JdP–CdPLC–BdV) — Widespread; one of the most abundant species in Paris. You can’t scan the skies without seeing several of these guys. Their silhouette is frustratingly similar to a raptor in flight to North American eyes.
Tawny Owl (BdB) — The alarm calls of Eurasian Blackbirds alerted me to my first Tawny Owl in Domaine Saint-Cloud (across the river from Boulogne-Billancourt). My second was seen the following week after hearing the startled call of a Green Woodpecker on a run through the Bois de Boulogne.
Common Kingfisher (BdV) — A single bird fishing a small stream in Bois de Vincennes.
Black Woodpecker (BdB) — Chasing down the sounds of a foraging woodpecker yielded fantastic views of my first Black Woodpecker in Bois de Boulogne in August. I found a second, more vocal bird in November.
Eurasian Hobby (CdPLC) — One quick fly-by in Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise in mid October.
Rook (BdB) — Three flew over Bois de Boulogne in early November.
Barn Swallow (PdB) — Two flew past skywatch hill at Parc des Beaumonts in August.
Common House-Martin (BdB) — Common at north end of Lac Inferieur in Bois de Boulogne in summer.
Greater Whitethroat (PiSG) — I spotted my first during fall migration in Parc de l’Ile St Germaine.
European Pied Flycatcher (BdB–PiSG–CdPLC) — Uncommon migrant. Found my first in Bois de Boulogne, my second in Parc de l’Ile Saint Germain and my third during a small migratory fallout in Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise.
Black Redstart (Domaine de Saint-Cloud) — There was a reliable pair across the river from Boulogne in Parc de Saint-Cloud.
Fieldfare (PiSG) — A thrush that winters in Paris. I found my first in November.
Redwing (BdB) — Another wintering thrush. I found my first in Bois de Boulogne in November with a flock of Eurasian Blackbirds visiting a fruiting conifer tree.
Western Yellow Wagtail (IdS) — Seen along the fortified banks of the Seine, across from Ile de Seguin.
Gray Wagtail (BdB) — Seen near water in Bois de Boulogne.
Eurasian Bullfinch (BdB–PiSG) — In my opinion, the most attractive of Europe’s urban birds. I chased down some soft call notes in June to find a pair foraging quietly in the grass (beneath a stand of conifers) just north of the Reserve Ornithologique in Bois de Boulogne. I didn’t see any others until I found a small (but reliable) flock visiting some fruiting shrubs in Parc de l’Ile Saint Germain. Handsome devils.
Lesser Redpoll (PiSG) — Probably the most unexpected bird I found in Paris. While birding in early November in Parc de l’Ile Saint Germain, I was attracted to a small flock of European Goldfinches flying amongst a small patch of alders. I noticed that one was particularly tan. Once I noticed the subtle reddish cap and black mask, I knew I had a redpoll but I had never seen one so awash in brown. I studied the bird as it foraged for several minutes. My Princeton Birds of Europe guide was printed in 1999 and only had Common and Arctic (Hoary) Redpoll. Once I returned home, I learned that the cabaret subspecies that best matched this bird (as depicted in my book) was split in to a new species: Lesser Redpoll. I returned to this patch of alders several more times and never saw any other redpolls.
Eurasian Siskin (PiSG) — I finally found my first siskins near the patch of alders that hosted the Lesser Redpoll above. After several attempts, I found four that were visiting a small pond as I was leaving the park via the western entrance.
European Goldfinch (BdB–PiSG–IdS–BdV) — This was one of the first birds I saw on my first morning of birding in Paris (in Parc de Saint-Cloud). It was a full month before I found another five working some thistle on Ile de Seguin. They became more common, and formed larger flocks, in early November, when I found them at several different locations.
European Serin (PiSG–IdS) — In summer, Ile de Seguin was the most reliable spot for this species, where they were the most boisterous songster. A small flock joined the finch fest that had formed in early November in Parc de l’Ile Saint Germain.
Hawfinch (BdB) — Early November brought a pair of Hawfinches to the parcours sportif, a fitness trail that is my favorite place to bird in Bois de Boulogne.
Carved in stone or forged in metal, statues are designed to make generation of people stop, gaze upward in awe, and reflect on someone who liberated/reigned/invented/ruled/fought/decreed/conquered themselves in to a pivotal moment in the evolution of a country or culture.
A statue is an eternal reminder that all who pass underneath should be forever indebted to the greatness this person bestowed on history.
Or maybe it’s just an easy place for a bird to take a crap.
I’ve recently noted the subtle humor in how many of the world’s statues, which depict the powerful men and women in chiseled greatness, are now little more than a perch on which a bird can take a momentary break from the shackles of gravity and relieve itself of the weight of its breakfast.
Imagine a self-aggrandizing ruler – a dictator perhaps – commissioning an imposing representation of himself, forged in metal, to loom over his fearful subjects as a constant reminder of his Draconian rule. Well, place a pigeon directly on top of his head and that foreboding presence dissipates as quickly as the whitewash running down his iron cheek.
I have had several opportunities to photograph birds on statues in Europe. Maybe it’s because Europe has a long, eventful history formed by powerful people. Maybe Europe has especially productive ironworkers and stone masons. Or maybe it’s because Europe is home to some particularly irreverent birds.
On top a large, muscular stallion with a well-worn battle axe at his side, Hans Waldmann—15th century mayor of Zurich—could do little to dissuade this insolent Black-headed Gull. The bird was fortunate that this depiction of the Swiss military leader had a head on which to perch; Waldmann was relieved of his in 1489, due to accusations of financial corruption and sodomy.
Prague, Czech Republic
The neck of St. Ludmilla buckles under the weight of two complacent Eurasian Jackdaws. This statue is one of thirty lining Charles Bridge, a top tourist destination in Prague. While patron saint of many things—including converts, duchesses, Czech Republic, problems with in-laws—corvids and avian excrement are not listed among them.
Prague, Czech Republic
A Rock Pigeon cranes its neck pensively a top a statue of Joseh Jungmann, widely regarded as the creator of the Czech language and phrases like Slez z mé zasrané hlavy! (“Get off my bleeping head!”)
Prague, Czech Republic
The perfectly coiffed coils of Jan Hus are too irresistible to the dirty feet of this Rock Pigeon, who returns the favor by looking unabashedly in an opposing direction. Huss’ resisted the Catholic Church by insisting to preach in the native vernacular instead of mandated latin, a heresy that had him burned at the stake and the catalyst for the Hussite Wars between Catholics and Protestants. Hus became a symbol of strength for the Czech people as they suffered under oppressive regimes throughout history, including Habsburgs, Russians, Communists, and now, Guano.
Prague, Czech Republic
Neither his proximity to cultural icon Jan Hus, nor the fact that he was exiled during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, nor his smooth, bulbous dome spared this gentleman from the ignominious talons of a pair of Rock Pigeons.
A Black-headed Gull oblivious to the angel directly beneath it—unperturbed by her much larger wings. Perhaps the gull feels vindicated by dominating a statue at the entrance of one of the most opulently-decorated castles in the world. Gulls hate extravagant excess. Unless it involves french fries.
Neither the armor depicted in this statue, nor the plumes that could have come from a distant cousin, could scare away this Hooded Crow. Instead this disinterested corvid casts an aloof gaze from this 18th century perch down on to the 1,441 room Schönbrunn Palace beneath it. Maybe the crows are the ones who literally defaced this statue and replaced it with a log. Crafty birds.
A Yellow-legged Gull barely musters a yawn as Jesus Christ – the inspiration for one of the world’s most prolific religions – coils in pain directly underneath him. The bird doesn’t much care for the expansive view of France’s second largest city directly behind it, nor the fact that Jesus’ consoler is buckling under its weight, pushing her face directly on to his crown of thorns.
A male pigeon struts amorously towards a female on the back of the Capitoline Wolf, a statue that depicts the founding of Rome. Most wouldn’t consider a metallic depiction of twin babies suckling from the plump teet of a she-wolf to be a powerful aphrodisiac, but pigeons are perhaps the most sexually-depraved of any bird.
The powerful pipes of Antonio Mairena, a famous flamenco singer from southern Spain, couldn’t scare off this domestic pigeon, nor could his smooth, bald head prevent the pigeons feet from grabbing hold. Somewhere deep inside the psyche of pigeon must lay at least some appreciation for this art form native to Seville: of all the white wash streaming down the side of Antonio’s head, almost none made it inside his capacious mouth. Classy.
Recent studies suggest that pigeons don’t believe in the afterlife, which probably explains this birds lackadaisical gaze towards an angel on the Sant’Angelo Bridge in the heart of Rome. Neither the freakishly large wings of this angel nor the fact that it was armed with a lance dissuaded this bird – nor the House Sparrow on the top her head – from roosting.
Pigeons are notorious for having exceptionally low literacy rates amongst birds. Certainly this individual didn’t even know it’d taken residence on the head of Niccolo Tommaseo, a “Dalmatian linguist” and writer from Italy. I believe this means he wrote about the tongues of spotted dogs, which seems like an awfully esoteric topic. That didn’t matter to this pigeon; it was just thankful that Niccolo wrote about enough canine tongues to warrant a tall and intricately carved perch.