Birding in Dinan, France

Dinan; the intial settlement was along the river valley

The intial settlement was along the river valley

The year is 1112 and a young adventurous knight named Rivallon le Roux, a member of the family of the Lords of Dinan, feels the call to join fellow Crusaders and make the long trek to Palestine.  He leaves his homeland and small town of Dinan, founded in 1000, in the Brittany region of France.  In Palestine, in the midst of violent religious strife, he vows that if he is delivered  safely home he would pay for the building of a new church, named Saint Sauveur.  His prayers were answered and by 1120 he was building the magnificent cathedral, high on the hilltop of Dinan, overlooking the valley and River Rance.

Saint Sauveur

Saint Sauveur

900 years later, I was awake at dawn in the small garden of that same Saint Sauveur, watching the sunrise over the valley and ancient city ramparts, waiting for birds.  The sun rises late along the northwestern coast of France in October and there is no possibility of seeing or photographing birds until 8:30AM.  I had sporadically been looking for the shy French birds in Paris, Giverny, and Normandy, but this was my first dedicated session for birding since arriving in France.

La Place Anglais

La Place Anglais, in the shadows of Saint Sauveur

For resident birders or frequent visitors to Europe, forgive my enthusiasm in seeing many of your common birds for the first time.  Even the Carrion Crows and Jackdaws defacing the Gothic spires of Saint Sauveur were photographed.  The Wood Pigeons are like feral “pigeons on steroids”, according to my co-traveler.  I had three good shots at photographing the Short-toed Treecreeper on the trunk of an ancient tree, but was foiled each time by either low-light or the bad timing of a Frenchman walking his dog.  A Winter Wren and both the Eurasian Blue and Great Tits showed up along the garden wall.  Black-headed Gulls patrolled the river and Eurasian Blackbirds and loud Magpies flew in and out of the large oaks, probably dating back to the early days of the cathedral.  I spent the entire session in that garden.

Jackdaw

Jackdaw, Corvus monedula

Tit

Great Tit, Parus major

The morning calm was interrupted by a small group of Brittany students entering the churchyard and carrying clipboards, clearly on assignment.  I tried to ignore them but they came right up and started asking me questions in their language.  My “Je ne parle pas francais” response just tweaked their interest more.  They were excited to learn I was from near Washington DC, USA.  It turned out to be a fun time with them practicing their rudimentary English skills and me resurrecting some French from multiple years of training decades ago.

Magpie, despite being large & loud, I had a difficult time getting a good shot of this bird

Magpie, Pica pica, despite being large & loud, I had a difficult time getting a good shot of this bird

Dinan is one of the few entirely walled towns in Europe.  It initially started in the valley along the riverbank, but for security it moved up the hill and grew behind the impressive ramparts.  It is just far enough off the tourist mainline to maintain its historic charm with narrow cobbled streets, overhanging half-timbered houses, and many small shops and restaurants.  The food has a decided Breton flavor with seafood, galettes, and hard cider on every menu.  It is just a short hop to Mount Saint Michel and the seaside port of Saint Malo.  We stayed at the Hotel Arvor, about 3 blocks from Saint Sauveur and I give it my highest recommendation.  www.hotelarvordinan.com

Dinan's walls; click on any photot for zoom

Dinan’s ramparts; click on any photo for zoom

Hotel Arvor

Hotel Arvor

Half-timbered houses

Half-timbered houses

Rivallon le Roux’s ancient church has evolved since its construction in the 12th century.  The initial Romanesque appearance is still visible in the three entrance arches and the south half of the nave.  It has a unique Persian influence reflecting the experiences brought back from the Crusades.  During the 15th century and Dinan’s golden age, a distinct Gothic expansion was undertaken adding the chapels along the north side and a towering spire and bell tower.  During the French Revolution the church became the “Temple of the Supreme Being”, and then was a hayloft, before returning to its pure ecclesiastic function in 1800.

Wood Pigeon,

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus “on steroids”

The quiet, slow motion birding in this garden, along these ancient ramparts, in the shadow of the church spire, and in a land where English is a foreign tongue, made for an unforgettable morning.

Birding in Paris; C’est Impossible

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One doesn’t go to Paris for birding.  After all it is the City of Light. A city for strolling, dining at sidewalk cafes, a city for lovers, dining, museums, dining, galleries, dining, historical monuments, and more dining.  We arrived during Fashion Week and I think I might have started a trend.  I was the only one wearing plaid shirts, crocs, and a pink baseball cap with a picture of an American Oystercatcher on the brim.

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Notre Dame (click on any picture to zoom)

While packing for this first trip to France I debated whether to take my usual birding lens, the Canon 400mL F5.6 or the lighter and more versatile 70-300mmL zoom, and the heavier 8X42 binoculars or the lighter Vortex Viper 6X32.  The latter compromise choices won in both cases since there is so much more to see and experience in Paris than its birds.

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Black-headed Gull at Le Pont Napoleon

We rented an apartment in the Marais on the Right Bank. Marais is a quiet, trendy district, perfect for me?  My neighborhood map showed some green nearby at Square du Temple, and that was my first early AM birding destination.  Unfortunately sunrise is late in Paris with barely enough light for birding and photography until at least 8 AM.  By the time I arrived at the small square with its  trees and small pond it was teeming with a school children’s gym class, Asian ping-pong players, young mothers with strollers, the elderly performing Tai Chi, and homeless men still asleep on the benches.

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Eurasian Blackbird

The birding here was meagre, yielding only some feral pigeons, mallards and moorhens in the pond, and the ubiquitous Asian Blackbirds, Starlings, and House Sparrows, but just being in this city at dawn was priceless.

Black-headed Gull at Place de la Concorde

Black-headed Gull at Place de la Concorde

I had better, or at least more colorful luck when I visited Le Jardin Des Plantes on the Left Bank, just before sundown.  Upon entering this large park one first hears and then sees a flock of Ring-necked Parakeets feeding on the sunflowers just at the western entrance.  With more time and daylight I’m sure that this would be one of the best birding hotspots in the city.

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Rose-ringed Parakeet

If you try to visit the Paris Flower Market near Notre Dame on Sunday you’ll find that for one day each week it is converted to a “Bird Market”.  You’ll see row upon row of beautiful caged tropical birds and all the paraphernalia that goes into keeping them.  Sad, but true, its a quick way to see some exotic species, but not my, or your kind of birding.

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Set them free!

Even though I was not inclined to do serious birding in Paris, I did scout out potential hotspots for a future visit.  The Jardin des Plantes on the Left Bank looks like a prime site.  Jardin du Luxembourg, especially in its less formal western edge, has potential.  I’ve also heard that La Cimetierre du Pere Lachaise offers good birding among the monuments of many former Parisian notables.  Day trips to Monet’s impressionistic garden at Giverny and Versaille with its staggering acres of manicured grounds are prime spots as well.  I did sneak in some minor birding at both.  I’m not sure what to make of that naked birder sculpture at Versailles and suggest you can see just as many birds fully clothed.

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I decided to leave the heavy Princeton guide “Birds of Europe” home and instead downloaded the “Collins Bird Guide” to my smartphone.  This is an impressive piece of software including all the necessary data, descriptions, pictures in various plumages, range maps, calls, etc.  http://www.collinsbirdguideapp.com

Collared Doves

After 6 more wonderful days in Normandy and Brittany, based in Bayeux and the picturesque walled town of Dinan (to be described in future post), we returned to Paris via the Loire Valley.  Even while traveling at 100+ kph you could not help but notice a large hawk perched on the wires and fence posts, perhaps one evey couple kilometers along the highway.  Many had a distinct white band across the chest, and we finally decided these were Common Buzzards.  Not really a buzzard the way we use the term, but a large buteo, and along with the Sparrowhawk, the most common European raptor.

European Robin

European Robin at Giverny

Overall the holiday yielded 28 birds including 5 life birds (Common Buzzard, Eurasian Wren, Song Thrush, Common Chaffinch, and Short-toed Tree Creeper). Not bad for a “non-birding” initial trip to this fascinating land, and don’t forget the dining.

Common Chaffinch

Common Chaffinch, also at Monet’s garden

One bird that I did not see in Normandy, but was clearly evident at the beaches and coastal towns was the American Eagle.  The highlight of our trip was the dusk flag-lowering ceremony and playing of Taps at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.  The countless rows of white crosses and stars of David brought home again the terrible cost and sacrifices made by so many to win that necessary war.  The base of the flagpole was surrounded by touring members of the American military in street clothes, standing at attention, honoring the flag and fallen.  We had previously met two of these patriots at Versaille and unexpectedly crossed paths again at that sacred moment.  The lowered flag was carefully folded by the French honor guard and presented to a 93 year-old American veteran of D-Day, making his first return visit to the battlefield.  He was a corpsman, and had distinguished himself on that day trying to treat and comfort the wounded and dying on the beach.  When given the flag he saluted and started to sob, but quickly recovered and made a moving speech.  It was one that we have all heard before from other members of the “Greatest Generation”.  “I’m not a hero.  I was just one guy, trying to do my part.”

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Birding While Sailing on the Chesapeake

Rhodes 19

KISS on San Domingo Creek; the island in the background is a favorite sight for perching Bald Eagles.

Two of my most favorite pastimes are birding and sailing, and I can’t seem to find enough time for either.  That’s until it dawned on me that maybe I could do both at the same time. I accomplished that the last week of summer during perfect conditions; gentle SW breeze at 5-10 knots, 75 degrees, and blue sky.  Heaven must be something like this.

KISS on Broad Creek; click on any photo for zoom

KISS on Broad Creek; click on any picture to zoom

I’m a small boat guy and sailing the Chesapeake for me is a day-sailer exploring the myriad creeks of the Eastern Shore. These are not the “creeks” most people envision as gurgling rivulets, barely deep enough to wet your knees, but rather wide tidal waterways with countless coves and Loblolly Pine-covered islands, giving great habitat for birds and interesting sailing.  I owe my small boat preference to my father and our humble cottage in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York where we had a small harbor of various sail, row, and power boats, most quite old and nothing longer than 15 feet and no outboard greater than 28HP.  Dad’s philosophy was minimum investment and maximum pleasure, hence the name of my Rhodes 19, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).  For high school graduation my parents gave me a new Scorpion sailboat, with the stipulation that I always leave it at the cottage.  It’s still there 46 years later.

Family boating, Kueka Lake, 1961

Family boating, Kueka Lake, 1961. That’s me in the rowboat, with my brother helping Mom board while Dad hoists the main.  She did make it aboard.

You’re right.  Birding while sailing is not quite the same.  I don’t dare bring my good camera and lens and usually don’t have binoculars.  With solo sailing your hands are full just manning the tiller and sheets, and in the Chesapeake dodging the  crabbing watermen working their trot lines.  Our creeks are full of the white workboats and their trot lines crisscross virtually the entire river.  I learned the hard way that they, as commercial craft, have right-of-way over everything, even sailboats.  Stay clear.

Waterman crabbing San Domingo Creek

Waterman crabbing San Domingo Creek

So birding while sailing is different.  You are observing the birds from a distant, IDing by size, shape, flying style, wing flap, and general behavior, just like we are suppose to do in the field.  The quiet sailboat does allow you to occasionally sneak up on an unsuspecting gull or duck.  Generally you’re seeing ducks and geese, gulls and terns, cormorants and crows, and maybe an occasional flyover by an eagle, heron, or songbird.

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

The watermen do create a birding opportunity.  At the end of their work day, usually late morning, while they are heading home, they apparently throw overboard their unused bait.  This quickly brings a large flock of gulls, following the boat, squawking and fighting over the tidbits.  A chance to observe.  Invariably one gull get a mouthful and then the chase is on with several others in hot pursuit, nipping at his tail, trying to get him to drop it.  These are Herring, Laughing, and Ring-billed Gulls.

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants

I also saw 4 Monarch butterflies, each flying alone over open water, apparently starting their great migration to Mexico.  But they were each flying NORTH.  I yelled at them and waved my arms trying to get them to turn around, but to no avail.  Maybe they were taking a circumpolar route.  So be it.

Forster's Tern

Royal Tern

The Osprey have also left the neighborhood, leaving it definitely more quiet, as the migrating Canada Geese have yet to show up.  I did see one lone procrastinating Osprey fishing over Broad Creek.  He apparently did not get the memo and has some catching up to do.  I saw two cocky cormorants drying their wings on a channel marker and old Osprey nest.  They would not have dared do that a few weeks ago.  “When the cats away, the mice will play”.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull

The creek and our cove is quiet these days waiting for the large flocks of migrating geese and ducks to arrive.  I’ll have a few more chances to sail after they arrive, but then the boat must be hauled and birding will be done “on the hard”.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

While I thank my Day for sparking my interest in small boats, it was Mom who planted the birding seed.  She told me she won a birding ID competition in grade school in the 1920’s.  She always had a Golden Book of birds handy and pointed out all the backyard birds that came our way.  She didn’t trek through the woods or fields, but rather kept an eye out for birds while going about her household tasks–sort of like birding while sailing.

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