The Rapid Trip North

Traveling across Europe in lock-down: March 2020

Simon Thompson

Sometimes what starts out calmly and enjoyable finishes in a crazy insane rush. This is what happened when I took my mother on what was planned to be a quiet and leisurely road trip from her home in the east of England, down through eastern France, across into Spain and down to my brother’s home on the Costa del Sol.

Simon in Caceres, Spain

We had been watching the news, so we were aware of continued Covid-19 transmission in China and also now in Italy, but we felt like it wouldn’t really impact our trip. We were, however, prepared with gloves and hand sanitizer and used it when we needed to, but things hadn’t blown up in any way to what they resemble now.

Mum-enjoying-some-Gigondas-France

We had allowed 3 weeks to drive down with time for birding, wine-tasting and a little exploration along the way. I had 2 target birds to find (Hazel Grouse and White-backed Woodpecker) and mother really wanted to see a Great Bustard – we had directions for all three, so we thought we had a really good chance of doing a clean-up! Driving down through France is always a delight as we stayed off the autoroute for much of the time; stopping at bakeries for French baguettes, good cheese and a bottle or two of red wine. Birding was typically wintry as we drove south and the weather matched with continuous cold rain at times. Winter in Europe has never been one of my favorite seasons.

We meandered through small villages and ancient towns; highlights on the way down were Common Cranes and White-tailed Eagles near Troyes; White-throated Dippers and Grey Wagtails in a beautiful old village east of Lyon; wine tasting in Gigondas with Cirl Buntings and Blackcaps in the surrounding fields and a fly-past of French planes trailing red, white and blue.

Pont-au-Royans-France

We drove across a low pass in the Spanish Pyrenees into Catalonia; beautiful forests and mountains with Red Kites, Common Buzzard and Mistle Thrush in the fields, before spending the night in the ancient city of Vic. It was somewhat sobering to see the main plaza emblazoned with the photos of the imprisoned leaders of the independence movement.

The weather improved a lot as we drove south along the Spanish coastline, enjoying company with English expat friends, sampling Spanish red wine and enjoying several good tapas meals along the way. El Hondo National Park near Alicante is always good for a few hours to catch up with Marbled Teal, Red-knobbed Coot and other Spanish specialties before visiting my brother near Estepona.

Main Plaza, Vic, Spain

As we enjoyed a family reunion, the international news kept getting stranger and stranger – with restaurants and hotels closing all around us, forcing us to make a decision to leave early and drive as fast as we could back towards the English Channel. Our first stop was actually planned, but not for as brief a stay as we had. The fortified town of Trujillo was spectacular but strangely quiet and we felt lucky to end up in a nice hotel tucked into the castle walls. We had stopped to see the Great Bustards on the plains of Extremadura the previous evening and pick up dinner supplies, as eating out was looking like a very bad idea, but it would have been nice to spend a lot longer in this beautiful town.

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

It was two more long days of driving to get to the ferry back to Dover. Our last night in Spain was without breakfast (and coffee!) and it was the same as we drove through Bordeaux and north through France. Shops and restaurants were closed and lunch was a sandwich from a French truck stop; so much for French cuisine! Thankfully we found a small hotel near Paris that was open and even more opportune was a grocery store which we hit as soon as it opened. We had heard there was a shortage of toilet paper back in the UK, so a 12-pack went into our cart, along with wine, cheese, groceries and food for the rest of the journey north. Looking back at our shopping experience, we really didn’t have much idea what we would find when we got to the UK and should have stocked up with a lot more!

This map shows our starting point in Southern Spain.

Anyway, we got to the ferry a couple of hours ahead of time, after our GPS took us through right through the center of Paris, and thankfully safely out the other side and onto the correct road to Calais. It was now beginning to feel a little more surreal with all cars heading north having GB license plates, very few passenger cars on the ferry, and the customs agents all wearing masks and social distancing enforced. As the ferry left the continent it was cause for celebration and our first cooked meal for 3 days – good ol’ English fish and chips washed down with some ale!

Once back in the UK, our arrival was strangely devoid of instruction. No one handed out information or even mentioned that we had just arrived in from Europe, but after a lot of research we decided to start our first 2 weeks of quarantine – which continued even longer with the English lock-down 2 weeks later.

Oh yes, during all of this mess, we never did get time to look for Hazel Grouse or White-backed Woodpecker – maybe next time.

Louisiana

Some of us drove and some took a plane, but we all ended up at the hotel in Iowa (“Eye-oh-way”), Louisiana at the correct time! Thank goodness for cell phones, so we could at least keep track of each other on our cross-country perambulations!

Our group, with leaders Simon Thompson (front) and Keith Watson (back left)
by Simon Thompson

Our “Beat the Crowds” rail trip that first afternoon was postponed due to the heavy rain earlier in the week, so we all joined a very pleasant, albeit foggy, trip along some quiet side roads in the rice country. One of our first birds was a Dickcissel, closely followed by great views of both Sedge and Marsh Wrens – all excellent birds to start our trip.

Sedge Wren
by Simon Thompson

Flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese flew over and we had our first (of several) Vermilion Flycatchers of the tour. A brief stop in a pine lot was amazing with a day-time roost of 20 or so Barn Owls – more seen in one day than many of us had seen in our lifetime!

Barn Owl roosting
by Simon Thompson

One of the attractions of the festival was the food, although vegetarian options can be challenging at times. After a classic Cajun sausage meal our first evening, we moved on to crawfish etouffee, catfish bites, shrimp and a veggie plate – definitely something here for all of us.

Our group having lunch
by Keith Watson

Our afternoon activity was walking (well maybe clambering) through a very tufty and overgrown field looking for sparrows. Sedge Wrens were the default little brown bird that we flushed, but eventually Casey spotted a very furtive sparrow which turned out to be a Henslow’s.

White-faced Ibis
by Simon Thompson

Waterbirds are a predominant feature of the area, with huge flocks of White-faced Ibis being abundant, along with White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill. Flocks of Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese were constant sights and sounds as they flew overhead and the most abundant duck was Northern Shoveler with smaller numbers of Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard and Green-winged Teal.

Snow Geese
by Simon Thompson

Thankfully we had low ticket numbers for the combine rides, so we could head out birding before returning to the rice fields for our turn on the combine harvesters. One of our first stops was the wonderful water treatment plant in Crowley. Here we were able to walk around at our leisure and enjoy the vast numbers of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Redhead and American Avocet.

American Avocet
by Keith Watson

A large flock of Tree Swallows was feeding low over the lake and it didn’t take us too long to find Cave, Barn, Northern Rough-wing and even Bank amongst the horde!

The combine rides and observing the rails as they escape from the harvest are the undoubted star attractions of the festival and while the rails are easier to see from the sidelines, how often can one ride a combine harvester?

A productive field
by Keith Watson

Covered in dust and chaff we all saw Sora, King, Virginia and Yellow Rails as they flushed from the fields, but the bumping of the combine made using binoculars and cameras almost impossible. However, as the combines cut the rice swaths into smaller and smaller sections, the rails became concentrated and soon flew out into the adjacent fields. This is when the photographers had a fighting chance of getting pictures.

Keith with a Virginia Rail about to be banded
by Keith Watson
Yellow Rail in hand for banding
by Tim Carstens
White-faced ibis
by Simon Thompson

Cameron Parish is probably the most bird-rich parish in Louisiana, so we spent the next 2 days exploring the marshes, cheniers (coastal woodlots), shore and fields of this coastal parish.

boardwalk at Cameron Prairie NWR
by Keith Watson

A flock of Sandhills soared out of the morning mist, revealing a single image of black and white flying alongside them – a Whooping Crane. Although it was a distant apparition, we all got to enjoy in-flight views of this rarity.

Merlin
by Simon Thompson

Loggerhead Shrikes, American Kestrels and both Vermilion and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were “wire-birds” along the roadsides and pairs of magnificent Crested Caracaras sat on nearby fences and trees, as multiple Northern Harriers quartered the fields.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
by Simon Thompson

A picnic in Peveto Woods; a Baton Rouge Audubon Sanctuary was a great place for late migrants, such as Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Blue Grosbeak and a handful of warblers: Tennessee, Bay-breasted, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia.

Magnolia Warbler
by Simon Thompson

The adjacent beach held the common and regularly-occurring Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, along with the more uncommon Piping and Snowy Plovers, while the mixed tern and gull flocks contained all of the expected species, such as Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls, Caspian, Royal and Forster’s Terns, as well as Gull-billed Tern and several Franklin’s Gulls hiding among the many Laughing.

Snowy Plover
by Simon Thompson
Beach birding
by Keith Watson

Highlights of the trips had to be the stake-out Say’s Phoebe in a sports field, a picnic lunch in a quiet cemetery, a pelagic Harrier (why?) and a Hermit Thrush that we “chased” up a road in the marshes.

It was then off to the closing dinner for the 2019 Yellow Rails and Rice Festival; an evening of heavy hors d’oeuvres and socializing- a very pleasant end to the week. It was then some morning birding before some of us drove and some of us took a plane back to our respective homes.

Here are a few more birds (and one reptile!) from the trip:

Black-necked Stilt
by Simon Thompson
Stilt Sandpiper
by Simon Thompson
Inca Dove
by Simon Thompson
Tri-colored Heron
by Simon Thompson
American Alligators
by Keith Watson