Speaking of Nature: My Sicilian nemesis: The magpie

  • This is the bonus shot! This bird is posed in such a way that you can see the beautiful blue feathers on its wings.

  • The shot I had been working for.  A European magpie sitting in perfect profile on a power line with a gorgeous blue sky in the background. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 11/27/2022 3:00:34 PM
Modified: 11/27/2022 3:00:14 PM

I am writing this column early in the morning of Thanksgiving Day. I was up before sunrise and was able to watch that gorgeous pink sun creep up over the horizon and into a clear blue sky. The house is full of family, but everyone is still asleep. For now I am the only one awake other than the regular crowd of winter birds that swarm my feeders at breakfast time.

The last time this particular group of people were all together in the same house was when we made our trip to Sicily in July. As a result, I find myself thinking back to that experience. It’s humorous that the first bird that comes to mind is my Sicilian nemesis – the magpie. It seems that whenever I go on a two-week vacation there is a particular bird that just drives me out of my mind with frustration. On Martha’s Vineyard it was the osprey, but in Sicily it was something new.

It just so happens that I caught my first sight of my new nemesis (although I didn’t understand that it was my nemesis at the time) on my first morning. It was just after sunrise (I seem to be awake at this time of day a lot) and I was on the rooftop deck of a modern Sicilian villa where I could get a 360-degree view of the landscape. To the west there was a ridge that was “wild” but everywhere else I looked I saw agriculture. In this case, the main crops appeared to be wheat, olives and almonds; nothing like anything I had ever seen back in New England.

Then, in an unhappy-looking almond tree a bit closer to the house, I saw a bird with an amazing tail.

The bird was black and white, about the size of a small crow and it had a long tail that resembled that of a pheasant, or a mourning dove. Later, when I had time to thumb through my Peterson’s Field Guide to The Birds of Europe, I quickly identified the bird as a common magpie (Pica pica) and when I saw the actual colors of the plumage I knew that I simply had to get a better photo. Who could possibly have known that it would take nine days of pure frustration to get the shot I was looking for?

I made a point of getting up early every day and going out to get photos while the rest of the family was asleep. Sometimes I stayed on the property of the house that we were renting. Other times I went for slow drives down the rural roads, which allowed me to use the car as a rolling photo blind while simultaneously covering great distances as I searched for birds that struck favorable poses in the early-morning light. Then there were a couple of times that I made visits to the Vendicari Nature Reserve and set out in search of birds on foot (this is where I saw the fan-tailed warbler and the black-winged stilt). Everywhere I went I saw a magpie that somehow managed to elude my camera. It was absolutely maddening, which is exactly what you’re looking for in a nemesis.

The birds traveled in small flocks of four to six birds and they always seemed to have a sharp-eyed sentry on the lookout for anything hinky. I can only imagine that these birds have been unpopular with farmers and given the fact that farmers have been farming in Sicily for thousands of years, there must be a great deal of mistrust between magpies and humans. Thus, whenever I approached with a car, they would fly. Whenever I approached on foot, they would fly. Occasionally I would have just enough time to get the birds in the viewfinder of my camera to see them fly before I could snap a photo.

Again, maddening.

Then came that rare moment when the Photo Gods decided that I had suffered enough. I had remained persistent in my efforts and I was finally presented with my reward. This time it was a magpie that was all alone. It was in the afternoon of one of my final days in Sicily and I was driving through the roads of the Vendicari Reserve looking for birds that would pose in the evening light. Up on a power line I saw a magpie and everything was perfect. My camera was ready to go, the bird was in perfect profile with perfect lighting and it didn’t seem to worry about the approach of my car. I paused and snapped four photos before the bird seemed to remember that people were “bad” and flew off. But it was too late! I had the photo that I had been working for.

Once the spell had been broken (so to speak) I stumbled into a situation where I was right next to a magpie in a farm field with just a little dry vegetation between us. Again, this is where the car proved to be invaluable because I would not have had this sort of luck on foot. The bird was lit from a different angle and the brown background allowed for wonderful contrast with the magpie’s blue feathers. It turns out that the black-and-white bird I saw on my first morning was actually adorned with gorgeous blue feathers in its wings and tail.

When I returned to the villa I declared my mission to be accomplished. I celebrated my victory and gave thanks to the gods with ample amounts of Sicilian wine and put my camera away. In a way it was my Sicilian Thanksgiving. I realize that by the time you read this you will likely have lived through the effects of a gravy-induced hangover, but I thank you as well, dear reader. Thanks for opening your paper every week and sharing my adventures with me.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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