Travels in France before WW1: in search of birds

 

For several years before WW1 Collingwood Ingram, usually in spring, Collingwood Ingram motored through France in search of birds. He was gathering material for his intended book The Birdsof France. Although the book itself was never published, the journals of his travels give a wonderful picture of the countryside and its birds over 100 years ago. Here a few extracts from his French journals are presented.

 

 

"4 May 1911, Peillon

Dixon, Lowe and I spent the day 'birding' in the hills. In the rocks above the Peillon path, beyond La Turbie, I succeeded in more or less locating the nest of the blue rock thrush. But as we were poking about, a man's head showed above the ledge and he anxiously enquired if we had taken the nest. He, and apparently a good many others, evidently knew of its existence and were only waiting until the young birds were of a takeable size.

    These rock thrushes are so much sought after as cage birds that a nest is worth good money to the finder - a fine singer, full adult will fetch anything form 50 to 100 francs. The man, who joined us, produced a rope and rough ladder and showed us the exact spot - a small hole or pocket in the face of the cliff. The birds nest contained three or four young birds, about three days old, and one addled egg."

 

Lowe was Percy Lowe, an ornithologist who later became Curator of Birds and the Natural History Museum. Dixon was almost certainly Otto Murray Dixon, a bird artist who was killed in WW1. The painting shown is by Otto Murray Dixon and was owned by Collingwood Ingram and was probably painted as a result of this expedition.

 

A week later, Collingwood crossed into Italy. His tour of the great city of Rome show him, not unexpectedly, more interested in birds than in history.

 

 

 "11 May 1911, Rome

I was surprised to find several species that, in the Riviera are practically unknown save in the winter. The jackdaw and hoodie were two of these. The former was especially abundant and all the old ruins harboured a colony of these birds – notably the Colosseum, Augustin’s Palace and Carecalla’s Baths.. The common wren was another town bird and its cheerful, noisy little song frequently came from the weed-grown portions of the Forum and the adjoining gardens. The blue rock thrush also came right into the city and one was undoubtedly nesting in the Colosseum, while I noticed a second perched on a tall manufactory chimney. The sparrow – so far as I could see were all Passer italica[1] and their habits seemed identical with those of our own bird. Blackcaps, nightingales, and especially serins, were abundant. I found a nest of the latter containing four day old young in the garden of Caesar’s Palace. Swifts in countless numbers – I watched some flying in torrential rain, though fewer were to be seen."


[1] Passer italica, the Italian sparrow.

 

In the early Spring of 1912, Collingwood Ingram travelled west from the family home in Monte Carlo, visiting the Camargue before turning north close to the west coast, finishing at Camaret-sur-Mer in Brittany, before returning to England. Here we pick him up at Nimes, north of the Camargue.

"27 March 1912, Nimes

We motored today to the Pont-du-Gard. Dr Marcel Mourgue, a voluble and not too reliable French naturalist, accompanied me.[1] Many of his statements must be taken cum grano salis, although he is loud in deprecating the frequent inaccuracy and arrogance of his colleagues. Stopping the car near a typical bit of furze wren country – a wild and scrubby slope – wewere not disappointed, for this bird (together with the Mediterranean warble) was quite common although they were not showing themselves well on account of the heat. During their jerky song flight the long tail is very noticeable.

     At the Pont-du-Gard two kestrels were crying shrilly and stooping at an object on a tree on the opposite side of the river. My glasses showed me that a fine Bonelli’s eagle was sitting n the branches, the sunlight playing on his tawny plumage as he preened his feathers and cast furtive glances over his shoulder after the manner of his much persecuted kind. It gave me real joy to see Dr Mourgue’s excitement when I handed him my glasses, which of course visually brought the bird within a few yards of him.[2] In an ecstasy of raptures he flourished his arms wildly and raised his voice to such a pitch that I feared he would alarm the eagle. Of course his first thought was to run back to the hostelry for a gun, to which suggestion I naturally objected. After allowing us to carefully scrutinise him, the eagle presently launched himself into the air, and, in widening circles, was borne gradually upwards on almost motionless wings until he became a mere speck in the dazzling blue sky. He had evidently just fed, for his crop was noticeably distended. On the wing he looked buzzard-like – especially as to the cut of his tail. No distinct patches of white were discernable – probably not fully adult plumage.

     In the olive groves round about this part of the Gardon valley, little owls appear to be very plentiful and even in the glare of the noonday sun one could hear their muffled meooo, meooo on all sides. I saw three sitting on clods of earth in the scanty shades of small olive trees and, on taking alarm, the sunlight did not seem to inconvenience them in theleast……."

 

[1] Possibly Marcel Mourgue (1876-1945) a Nimes herpetologist.

[2] High quality binoculars had been available for nearly two decades, but must have been limited to a wealthy few.

In Spring 1913 we find him in the Jura Mountains, close to Swiss border.

 

"14 May 1913, La Faucille (Aire)

I spent the day in the mountains, rising above the forest to the grassy ridge that extends from Montrond to Columbier (4500 to 5000ft). Here the almanac had been put back two or three months; crocuses were just blooming, masses of them, small white and purple flowers crowding in every hollow and thrusting their heads through the melting patches of snow. Gentians, pansies, sondanella and several pretty yellow flowers were also out. But for these one might well have been in winter, for the grass had hardly started to grow and the beech trees on the slopes immediately below were as leafless as on New Year’s Day.

     From the lip of a thousand foot precipice a vast expanse of territory lay mapped at my feet. Lake Leman glimmered in the distance, backed by range upon range of snow-covered mountains with their peaks merged in a haze of vaporous cloud. Woodlarks claimed these upland pastures for their own. Describing endless fluttering circles at some 200ft from the ground, they poured out an incessant stream of fluty notes – repeating over and over again the same refrain. Certainly a few pairs of water pipits also shared these flower-studded pastures with the woodlarks, but they were not so confiding as their Pyrenean brethren.

     Only on the very outskirts of the spruce forest did the hedge sparrow appear numerous. Here one frequently heard their cheerful ditty, the songster (as with so many of the mountain species) usually delivering its song from the apex of one of these attenuated trees. The forest appeared to be full of ring ouzels (all doubtless alpestris)[1] and one heard them on every side, either chattering with alarm or attempting to sing. I saw one sitting among the cones that clustered about the topmost pinnacle of a spruce – a rather sorry looking object ever and anon uttering its apology for a song, a rather hoarse and decidedly harsh and monotonous parody of the opening notes of a song thrush’s melody. In a way some of the oft-repeated note reminded me of an orphean warbler. Later on a fine rain commenced, falling silently on the mushy snow but ticking drearily on the dead beech leaves."



[1] The alpine subspecies of the ring ouzel.

 

In autumn 1913 Collingwood spent two weeks on the island of Oessant, the westernmost point of France. Here he studied the migrants attracted to and killed by the lights of the lighthouse. He set off once more for France on Sunday 10 May 1914 only three months before the outbreak of war. Embarking at Le Havre, He drove first east to cross the Seine at Quillebeuf and then south-west to Caen. His destination was the mountains of the Auvergne. We pick him up in a wetland in Loire et Cher.

13 May 1914, Romorantin (Loir et Cher)

...... The exploration of a sedgy alder-swamp yielded nothing to recompense me for my wetting. Sedge warblers (two nearly completed nests of which I found in sedge tussocks) were its chief occupants, but some willow warblers, blackbirds and long-tailed tits frequented the outskirts, and also a few moorhens. I discovered a nest of the latter, likewise in a tuft of sedge, containing five unusually richly marked eggs, two of which I took. Just as I was leaving my attention was claimed by a repeated squeaking sound, and following this to its source I found it emanated from a tiny fluffy ball – ridiculously small for the size of the voice!

     It proved to be a newly born rail of sorts, probably the water rail, with the egg-tooth still on the tip of the ivory-white bill. The down which covered the wee mite was of a uniform intense black colour, with a greenish metallic gloss.