I. Le chocard des Alpes / The Alpine Chough (Coracia graculus)
Strophe The Alps of the Dauphiny, l’Oisans: the ascent towards the Meidje and its three glaciers.
First couplet Near the Chancel refuge the lake of Puy-Vacher, marvellous landscape of summits, chasms and precipices. An Alpine Chough, separated from its flock, calls as it crosses the precipice. Gliding, silent and majestic, the Golden Eagle, borne on currents of air. Raucous, ferocious cawings and snarlings of the Raven, lord of the high peaks. Varied cries of the Chough, with their acrobatic flight (gliding, swooping, looping the loop) above the abyss. Antistrophe. Before St-Christophe-en-Oisans, the rocks of StChristophe: a jumble of fallen slabs, boulders as if from Dante, heaped up by the giants of the Mountain.
Second couplet An Alpine Chough surveys the landscape, hovering over the cliffs. The same calls and flights as in the first couplet. Epode. Les Ecrins: the amphitheatre of Bonne-Pierre, with its huge rocks lined up like giant phantoms … or like the towers of a supernatural fortress!
II. Le Loriot / The Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) The end of June.
Branderaie de Gardépée (Charente), around 5.30 in the morning: Orgeval, around 6 o’clock: Les Maremberts (Loir et Cher) in midday sunlight. The Golden Oriole, yellowgold with black wings, twitters among the oak trees. Its song, flowing, golden, like the laughter of an exotic prince, evokes Africa or Asia, or some unknown world – filled with a rainbow light, the smiles of Leonardo da Vinci. In the woods and gardens, other birds: the rapid, decisive stanza of the Wren, the secretive caress of the Robin, the brio of the Blackbird, the long-short-long metre of the Black-throated Redstart, the ritual incantations of the Song Thrush. For a long while tirelessly, the Garden Warblers pour forth their sweet virtuosity. The Chiffchaff adds its skipping droplets of water. Drowsy recollection of gold, of the rainbow the sun seemingly draws its light from the golden rays of the Oriole’s song …
III. Le Merle bleu / The Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius)
The month of June Roussillon, the Vermilion Coast. Near Banyuls: Cap l’Abeille, Cap Rederis. Cliffs overhang the sea (Prussian-blue, sapphire-blue). Cries of Swifts; splashing water. The headlands stretch into theme-like crocodiles. Echoing in a rocky cleft, the Blue Rock Thrush sings. Its blue is in contrast to the sea: purple-blue, slate, satin, blue-black. Almost oriental, recalling music of Bali, its song merges with the sound of the waves. Also heard is the Thekla Lark which flutters in the sky above the vines and wild rosemary. Herring Gulls scream far out to sea. The cliffs are awesome. Arriving at their feet, the water breathes its last – a memory of the Blue Rock Thrush (‘like a choir of women’s voices in the distance …’).
IV. Le Traquet Stapazin / The Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica)
The end of June Roussillon, the Vermilion Coast. Beyond Banyuls: Cap l’Abeille, Cap Rederis. Rocky cliffs, mountains, the sea, terraced vineyards. The vine-leaves are still green.
At the roadside A Black-eared Wheatear. Haughty, aristocratic, he struts on the stony ground in his finery of orange silk and black velvet – an inverted ‘T’ dividing the white of his tail, a mask of deep black covering his brow, cheeks and throat. A Spanish Grandee, one might say, on his way to a masked ball. His refrain is rapid, curt, abrupt. Nearby, among the vines, an Ortolan Bunting casts forth ecstatically its flute-toned repeated notes, with their mournful cadence. This is the ‘garrigue’: a wilderness filled with low prickly plants (gorse, rosemary, rock-rose, kermes oaks) from whence comes the exquisite song of an unseen Spectacled Warbler. Flying high and far out over the sea, the Herring Gulls can be heard: their cruel screeching, their dry, percussive sniggering. A trio of Ravens flies above the rocky cliffs with low, powerful cawings. A little Goldfinch sets its tiny bells tinkling.
Five o’clock in the morning The red-gold disc of the sun rises from the sea and climbs into the sky. A golden halo spreads from the top of the disc, until the sun is entirely yellow-gold. The sun climbs higher. A band of light takes shape on the surface of the sea. Nine in the morning In the light and heat a succession of other voices: the Orphean Warbler, hidden in the cork-oaks, strikes its two flute-like notes; then the crystal fragments of Corn Bunting, the demented gaiety of the Rock Bunting, the voluble Melodius Warbler – while, on the wing, the Thekla Lark: its song exultant, thrilling, mingled with shrill cries. Several Black-eared Wheatears call to one another.
Nine in the evening The sun, cloaked in blood and gold, sinks behind the mountains. The Albères mountains are covered in fire. The sea darkens. The sky turns from red to orange, then is stained a dream-like violet… Final refrains of the Spectacled Warbler. In the darkening vines, three notes from the Ortolan Bunting. Harsh sniggers from a Herring Gull, miles out over the dark sea. Silence…
Ten o’clock Nightfall. A faint echo of the Spectacled Warbler.
V. La Chouette Hulotte / The Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)
Plumage flecked with brown and russet; huge facial discs; a look of solemnity, stamped with mystery, wisdom, the supernatural: and even more than its appearance, the voice of this nocturnal bird inspires terror. I have often heard it, in the depths of the night, towards two o’clock in the morning, in the woods of Orgeval, of St Germain en Laye, on the way from Petichet to Cholonge (Isère). Darkness, fear, a racing heartbeat, mewings and yelpings of the Little Owl, cries of the Long-eared Owl: and there – the call of the Tawny Owl: now cheerless and mournful, now vague and disquieting (with a strange shudder), now shouted in terror like the shriek of a murdered child! Silence. The hooting is more distant, like a bell tolling from another world.
VI. L’Alouette Lulu / The Woodlark (Lullula arborea)
From the col of the Grand Bois at St-Sauveur en Rue, in the mountains of the Forez. Pinewoods to the right of the road, meadows to the left. High in the sky; in the darkness, the Woodlark peel off two-by-two: a chromatic, fluid descent. Hidden in a thicket, in a clearing in the wood, a Nightingale responds, its biting tremolos set in contrast with the mysterious voice from on high. A Woodlark, invisible, draws near, fades. The trees and fields are dark and still. It is midnight.
VII. La Rousserolle Effarvatte / The Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)
A great cycle, following 27 hours in the bird life of the reeds, lakes and marshes, and of the neighbouring woods and fields. The setting is the Sologne region, south of Orléans.
Midnight Music of the lakes, followed by a chorus of frogs, the booming notes of the Bittern.
3am A long solo for the Reed Warbler, concealed among the reeds, rasping in timbre (like a xylophone, a squeaking cork, pizzicati on strings, a harp glissando), with something of that savage obsessiveness found only in reed birds. Cymbals, gongs and trombones – interspersed with a confusion of sounds from the marsh – mark the solemnity of night. Silence.
6am Sunrise: pink, orange, mauve over the lake of the Waterlilies. A Blackbird duets joyfully with a Red-backed Shrike. A chuckling solo for the Redstart. The chords of sunrise intensify.
8am The Yellow Irises. A medley of incisive calls: the raucous Pheasant, the Reed Bunting, weird laughter of the Green Woodpecker, the whistling glissando of the Starling, the Great Tit, nervous fluttering of the White Wagtail (exquisite in its garb of half-mourning).
Midday The interminable insect trills of the Grasshopper Warbler.
5pm Return of the Reed Warbler, alternating with the powerful tremolos of the Sedge Warbler, the harsh, obstinate call of the Great Reed Warbler, the singing harmonies of the Purple Foxgloves and the Waterlilies. The dry, flabby croak of a frog. A black-headed Gull gives chase. A Coot – black, its forehead marked with white – clucks sharply (a sound like stones dashed together), then tootles its little trumpet. A long, syncopated duet for two Reed Warblers.
6pm The Yellow Irises, and again the high trills of the Grasshopper Warbler. The Skylard rockets heavenwards in jubilation, answered by the frogs in the lake. A Water Rail, unseen, screams like a strangled pig – falling, fading. Silence.
9pm Sunset: red, orange, violet over the lake of the Irises. The Bittern booms, a solemn, awesome blast. The blood-coloured disc is mirrored in the lake: the sun merges with its reflection as it sinks into the water. The sky is a deep violet.
Midnight The darkness is profound, like the resonance of a tam-tam. The Nightingale strikes up, its phrases by turn biting, mysterious. The confused sounds of the marsh … a frog stirs … the cymbals, gongs, trombones.
3am Another scherzo for the Reed Warbler. Chorus of frogs. The mysterious, brittle music of the ponds fades into the mist. The Bittern booms.
VIII. L’Alouette Calandrelle / The Short-toed Lark (Calendrella brachydactyla)
Provence in July Les Baux, Les Alpilles: arid rocky terrain, with broom and cypress. The Crau, a stony wilderness. Fierce light and heat.
2pm The piping call of the Short-toed Lark. Chorus of cicadas, the staccato alarm of the Kestrel, the dull long-short-long of the Quail. A two-part invention for the Short-toed Lark and Crested Lark. Silence. The cicadas, Kestrel, Quail.
4pm Alone in the heat and solitude of mid-afternoon the brief phrases of the Short-toed Lark.
6pm The Skylark erupts into song, vehement, jubilant. Again the Short-toed Lark.
IX. La Bouscarle / Cetti’s Warbler (Celtia telti)
The last days of April Saint-Brice, La Trache, Bourg-Charente, the banks of the Charente and of the Charenton, a small tributary. A sudden burst of violence: the enraged call of a Cetti’s Warbler, hidden in the reeds and brambles. A Moorhen cackles. Sharp cries, then a flash of colour as a Kingfisher skims across the water. A fine day of light and shadow. The willows and poplars are reflected in the green of the water. Rich chords hymn the calm flow of the river: joyful fanfares of the Blackbird, the bluegreen shimmer of the Kingfisher, the pearly cascades of a Robin. Again the furious Cetti’s Warbler. And what is this strange noise? – a saw? A scythe being sharpened? The scraping of a guero? It is the Corn Crake, repeating its iambic rhythm in the tall grasses of the meadow. The Song Thrush adds its fierce incantations. Accents and tremolos from the little Wren. The river continues calmly, its phrases interspersed with a medley of song. The Chaffinch exclaims in triumph. A Blackcap adds its flute-like descant. The muffled rhythm of the Hoopoe. A halo of harmony (like a harpsichord blended with a gong), distant moonstruck chords and piercing flashes: the Nightingale. Nuptial flight of the Kingfisher, its colours spinning in the sunlight-forget-me-not, sapphire, emerald. Intense, nervous rustlings of the Sand Martin. A last cadence for the river, a gentle secretive cadenza for the Robin. The Yellow Wagtail, its head coloured ash-blue, steps elegantly along the bank. The Kingfisher, dives; then arrows past in a jeweled blur. Silence. A final tirade from the Cetti’s Warbler.
X. Le Merle de roche / The Rock Thrush (Monticola saxabilis)
Hérault in May The cirque of Mouréze: dolomites, rocks jumbled into fantastic forms.
Night, moonlight Looming overall, an immense hand of stone! Towards the end of night, the Eagle Owl utters its powerful and somber hooting. The female responds with muffled accents, a sinister hilarity whose rhythm merges into the racing pulse of terror. Dawn breaks: the varied cries of Jackdaws. Then the Black Redstart sets up its monotonous chant, alternating with a noise like pearls raffling, paper being creased, or rustling silk. The rocks are terrifying, stone, prehistoric creatures – Stegosaurus, Diplodocus – stand guard, a group by Max Ernst, a cortége of cowled ghosts in stone, bearing the corpse of a woman whose hair trails on the ground. Perched on a pinnacle, the Rock Thrush! How fine he is! Blue head, russet tail, black wings, vivid orange breast. He sings through the hours of the sun, warmth and light: ten in the morning, five in the afternoon – and his songs gleaming orange, like his plumage! The moments of silence are rhythmical, measured in long durations. The Black Redstart resumes its rustling. Last cries of the Jackdaws.
Dusk fades The Eagle Owl hoots: its voice echoes among the rocks heralding darkness and dread. There, still, is the giant hand, raised above the stone monsters, a magic sign!
XI. La Buse variable / The Buzzard (Buteo buteo)
In the Dauphiny, la Matheysine The broad open countryside of Petichet, at the end of Lake Laffrey, beneath the bald mountain of the Grand Serre.
Introduction The cry of the Buzzard as it flies to and fro. It circles, it orbits of its flight covering the whole landscape. It descends slowly.
First couplet Chaffinch, Yellow hammer. Mewing of the Buzzard. Refrain of the Mistle Thrush.
Second couplet The same, with the Goldfinch also. Refrain of the Mistle Thrush.
Third couplet The Swallows. A Red-backed Shrike gives the alarm. Combat: six Caffion Crows mob the Buzzard for its prey. Deep ferocious cawings from the one, grated fluttering and weird mewing from the other. Refrain of the Mistle Thrush. Hurried strophes of the Whitethroat.
Coda The cry of the Buzzard; it circles slowly, soaring upwards.
XII. La Traquet rieur / The Black Wheatear (Oenanthe teucura)
The month of May A fine Sunny morning. Cap Béar, beneath Port-Vendres (Roussillion). Rocky cliffs, garrigue, the sea woven with blue and sapphire-blue, silvered by the sunlight. The joy of the blue sea. The song of the Black Wheatear. Dialogue between a Blue Rock Thrush, more caressing, and the Black Wheatear, more exuberant, punctuated by the harking of the Herring Gull; the piercing screams of Swifts and the curt interjections of Black-eared Wheatears. Black, its tail white with black markings the Black Wheatear is perched on a rocky pinnacle at the base of the cliff. A Spectacled Warbler is heard from the garrigue. A breeze ruffles the sea, ever blue and sapphire-blue, and silvered by the sunlight. The joy of the blue sea.
XIII. Le Courlis cendré / The Curlew (Numenius arquata)
The island of Ushaint (Enez Eusa), off the west coast of Brittany. On the headland of Pern one can see a large bird with streaked plumage and russet markings, a grey-brown bird standing upright with a long beak curved like a sickle or yataghan: the Curlew! This is its song: sad slow tremolos, chromatic accents, wild trills, and a mournful repeated glissando which expresses all the desolation of the seashore. On the headland of Feunteun-Velen, lashed by the noise of the waves, the circles of water birds: the cruel call of the Black-headed Gull, the rhythmic horn calls of the Herring Gull, the fluted melody of the Redshank, the repeated notes of the Turnstone, the piping trills of the Oystercatcher, and others besides: the Little Ringed Plover, the Common Gull, the Guillemot, the Little Tern and the Sandwich Tern. The water extends as far as the eye can see. Little by little, fog and the night spread over the sea. All is dark and dreadful. From amidst the jagged rocks, the lighthouse of Créac’h lets out a dismal boom: it is the alarm! Again a number of bird calls, and the lament of the Curlew repeating as it flies faraway. Cold black night, the splash of surf.
— Olivier Messiaen