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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”