Thursday 30 December 2010


Yesterday we realised that a small party of lapwings vanellus vanellus was working away in the young winter wheat of the field next door. According to the Word Origins website, the name "lapwing" is derived from the same roots as "leapwink", and describes the way the bird jinks and tumbles in flight. The name may also refer to its habit of trying to lure a predator away from its nest by staggering about trailing a "broken" wing.

Lapwing in the Brenne
The lapwing is known by other names. Peewit mimics its instantly recognisable call. Green Plover? well, the feathers of its back have a green sheen, and it's a member of the plover family, but what a boring name! The French name Vanneau huppé refers to the lapwing's punk hairstyle. Take all the names together and you have a crested, green-tinted plover that makes a noise like "peewit" and has a tumbling flight - that's just about right.

There were only six lapwings in our little party. One of our lasting memories of our voyages between the UK and France is of a flock of several thousand lapwings with golden plover in a field just north of Villers-Bocage, near Amiens in the wide-open spaces of the Somme département of Picardie. The pictures that follow are just a sample.

That was at the end of October 2005. Every time we passed that way, we looked out for them but never saw them again. With changes in farming methods the population is diminishing all over Europe. According to the RSPB, since 1960 lapwing numbers have decreased by 80% in England and Wales. Major declines are also reported in France, but without a baseline covering the whole country, observers are unwilling to be quite so specific. The Brenne is one of the premier sites for lapwing in winter, and that area at least is managed sympathetically for both wildlife and humankind.

A mixed flock of plovers... Green & Gold

Various flight views
More views of the mixed flock... there is a Golden Plover in flight with this group.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

A chip off the old block

A fat block feeder is a square wire cage that can support as many as four birds feeding at the same time. Fat blocks come in several flavours, vegetarian and insectivore, for different types of bird. Tim makes his own, after a few experiments, using ingredients we happen to have around. As a mould, he uses either an old fat block carton from the supermarket, or a Epson ink cartridge box, which happens to be about the same size.

The basic fat he's using at the moment is solid coconut oil, sold as a frying fat here in France - apparently it makes good chips. Melt one third of a 250gm block in a small pan or a glass/plastic bowl in the microwave. Don't let it get too hot. Add a yogurt pot full of semolina or cornmeal, a handful of sultanas and as many dead insects as you can find (try the windowsill). Top up with proprietary wild bird food (enough to fill your mould). Stir well and pack the mixture into the mould. Allow to cool then chill in the freezer until solid. Unmould the block and tuck it in the feeder. Hang the feeder out of reach of cats, stand back and watch the birdies!

Sunday 12 December 2010

Late Night Wol

Nearly every night we hear a lot of Whoo-hoo-hooing from the trees outside the house. When we brave the frost we can hear that this male tawny owl [strix aluco] chouette houlotte is calling to another about a quarter of a mile away, somewhere in the woods on the hill. A single tawny owl does not go 'tu whit tu whoo' whatever Shakespeare may have said - the 'tu whit' call is the female, and the 'tu whoo' is the male. A pair may call to each other from regular positions. A male will also sing out to another male "keep orrfff moy laaand!" It is possible to call a male tawny owl quite close to you by hooting into your hands when you are on its territory - I've seen Tim do it.

This was a bird on the edge of inner-city Leeds, where railway cuttings, allotment sites and parks provide a diverse habitat for it. I'm a city gal, and I've heard tawnies in every city I've lived in. They seem to me to be more capable of coping with humanity's effect of the environment than the barn owl. A barn owl likes open rough meadow (but not too rough), with suitable old trees or "cliffs" (buildings) with holes to nest or roost in, whereas the tawny will happily hunt in a shrubby back garden and roost in a roadside tree. Barn owls also seem to be a more common road casualty than the tawny although maybe those white feathers are more visible. At the moment our meadow is too rough and the barn owl seems to have moved out of our barn. The tractor is on order, Madam, so we hope next year you'll come back!

Monday 6 December 2010

Early Morning Wol

Today, the ERDF [EDFs installation and meter reading arm] were due to read the meter between 8AM and Midday.
So I struggled over in the dark in driving drizzle to the Laiterie to turn the lights on in the grange [barn], where the meter now is located [conveniently at the farthermost corner].
Lights turned on, all shipshape and I was about to go back into the Laiterie and the warmth and make some bread when the silence was shattered.
Much screeching outside from the direction of the hangar and I turned round towards the noise... which was getting louder.
Finally, a Little Owl [Athene noctua] Chevêche d'Athéna arrived on the top of the ill-fitting barn doors, looked directly at me, decided I wasn't worth eating, continued screeching very loudly as it flew over to the dividing wall between the working part of the barn and the stable end and settled again, looking around.
I spoke to it ... "Good morning. You are welcome!" ... and got the look that only a Little Owl can give... a very Glaswegian "Aire yu gonna storp me.. Eh? Eh?" and toddled, like an elderly lady holding her skirt up out of the mud, along the top of the wall, looking left and right.
It finally flew into a dark corner of the grenier [hay loft] over the stables.
I left it in peace and went to make some dough.
The meter reader came at Midday.... the bread looks and smells lovely.... mmmm!

Sunday 5 December 2010

Water Chicken

Every year, a pair of moorhens gallinula chloropus (gallinules poules d'eau) raises a brood of black fluffballs on our millstream. This year was no exception, and we regularly saw two adults and two well-grown young poking about among the waterweeds. Moorhens and other gallinules are very attentive parents. In Majorca we watched a Purple Gallinule the size of a turkey picking minute fragments from a reed shoot and passing them delicately to a fuzzy chick of such cartoon ugliness that only its parents could love it.

As with many territorial bird species, only a pair of moorhens now remains. This afternoon we were 'working' in the laiterie when we saw the moorhens approaching down the millstream. They reached the bank below the cherry tree and climbed carefully up the slope one behind the other through the snow to the scatter of bird food (I've given up filling the feeder! It all ends up on the ground in a few hours). They spent about five minutes picking up this and that among the great tits and chaffinches. Then they retreated down the bank again and set off downstream once more.

Saturday 4 December 2010

I'm A. Partridge (a-ha)

The collective noun for a group of partridges is a "covey". This word has associations of secretive operations, like "covert" and "cover". We encountered eight red-legged partridges (alectoris rufa) perdrix rouge on our sand pile in our hangar right at the start of the hunting season. 

 These have to be some of the least covert operators I have encountered since cycling into a flock of young pheasants (poults) somewhere on the Yorkshire Wolds many years ago. At least fifty poults were milling about in the road outside their comfy pens from which they had clearly escaped, with no idea what to do next.
Partridges taking on grinders.
 The partridges had at least some idea what they wanted - to take on the grit which is necessary for them to crush hard seeds in their gizzards for ease of digestion. They showed little fear of us, enabling us to photograph them and observe their leg rings. With great dignity, they walked off in procession past the hangar, flipped up onto the fence, scuttled across the road and disappeared into the maize field. 
Line dancing covey... perhaps?
 According to one of our books, red-legged partridge "only fly if pressed". Well, I'm darned if I can see where you have to press to make them fly. Somehow I don't think they were raised in the wild by Mummy and Daddy Partridge.
There are wild partridge about though, or at least released birds from a previous season - we heard their 'starting a recalcitrant chainsaw' calls all summer, and a single male - nicknamed 'Alan' - has visited us on several occasions.
He accompanied Tim collecting walnuts and 'helped' by pecking at the ground wherever Tim disturbed fallen walnut leaves. When the shooting started, he flew into our front yard (pressed!) and ran at the barn doors where there is a poult-sized hole he clearly remembered well. Unfortunately it is not a full-sized-adult-partridge hole and he bounced off the doors backwards like a Roadrunner cartoon.
Alan cookin' on gas!!! Look carefully at the leg he's standing on and you can see the ring.
 The hunting season for perdrix in Indre et Loire is from 19th September to 21st November. All eight of our gormless covey appeared last week in the field opposite the house, right next to the road, so they're all safe. We've seen Alan again too. I'm rather pleased to see them as I feel they're "ours". On the other hand, a couple of plump partridge would make a tasty meal....

Just a nice brace! Tasty on a plate if they weren't so threatened!!

Worrying though that the Fédération Départmentale de la Chasse d'Indre-et-Loire (FDC37) does not distinguish the two species of partridge in its calendar. The population of the grey partridge (perdix perdix) perdrix grise is diminishing, almost as rapidly in France as it has in Britain. According to La Nouvelle République of 12th September 2010, the grey partridge population in this region is giving cause for inquiétude and there is a study in progress to find out why.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Frilly Knickers

In winter, we share our mill stream with a small water bird in frilly knickers - a little grebe or dabchick (tachybaptus ruficollis) - a grèbe castagneux. It was in its winter uniform of shades of grey, but still with a fluffy white behind. The fishing technique of this smallest of the grebes in fast flowing water seems to be to allow itself to be carried by the current from one promising spot to another, under the water much of the time. We watched it from the bedroom window as it caught a fish about 5cm long (a couple of inches in old money). This tiddler seemed to give the bird a little trouble to work it round to a head-first orientation for ease of swallowing. The grebe was last seen departing under the bridge, backwards and bobbing like a cork. No wonder we never get any work done!

Only three cranes on 1st December. Tim says they were trying to get into V formation with a great deal of debate about who was to be leader.

I filled the seed feeder that hangs in the cherry tree yesterday, to find it completely empty today. It normally lasts a little longer than that! There was a fair bit on the ground. Several possible explanations spring to mind. Firstly, we've had some rather interesting winds that caused tiny snowdrifts inside the barn. In Leeds, an enterprising wood pigeon used to stand under the feeder (which hung from a handrail) and bash it with its head to knock seed onto the ground for it to pick up - can't do that here! Most likely is the habit of the great tits - of which there are at least eight - of slinging aside anything that isn't a sunflower seed, so that they feed in a little rain of millet, corn, maize etc. The great tits and blue tits had to feed on the ground along with the robin, dunnock, chaffinches and siskins. The goldfinches preferred the teazles on the other side of the millstream. I refilled the feeder - let's see how long this one lasts!

Wednesday 1 December 2010

I'm a Timberjack and I'm OK

Yesterday our skyline changed forever. 

The difference between the top picture and the ones beneath is a gap of four days!
And three hours work.... [The middle picture shows a tree falling.]

The wood crowning the hillside opposite the house is basically a plantation of Corsican pines (tall, very dark green) with a fringe of Scots pine (not quite so tall, lighter green with reddish bark), a little clump of Stone pine at one end and an under-storey of scrubby deciduous trees - hornbeam, cherry, oak, ash, etc). It's rich wildlife habitat, providing nest sites for many birds, including buzzard, and shelter for mammals such as fox, rabbit and roe deer. The wood has been hunted very thoroughly every weekend and jour ferié since the season began, including this Sunday when thick wet snow fell all day and all the hunters had to wear fluorescent orange jackets. Today we found out why.

Just before lunch, a tree muncher appeared, labelled 'Timberjack'. This is a big engine with balloon tyres and an arm that simultaneously supports, cuts, and trims a full-sized tree. Along with it came a white van. This being France, the two drivers went off for lunch. After lunch, they returned with a log grabber. This is another big engine with balloon tyres, but this time the arm is fitted with a grab almost as flexible as the tip of an elephant's trunk, and it sits on a very large log-basket indeed. Both the engines set off up the snow-covered field, carving two deep ruts into the winter wheat.

Abbateuse.... with the original skyline behind.

Soon trees were falling. The engines cut down and moved aside a couple of the deciduous trees, making themselves enough space to be able to get through to the real target - the Corsican pines. These began to fall one by one, the first machine trimming them to lengths of two or three metres and gradually disappearing into the wood. Daylight began to appear between the remaining trunks as the dark green puffs of the pinetops tumbled out of the sky. Then the second machine returned to stack the logs by the roadside. The driver used the grab first to lift the timber into neat stacks, separating obvious firewood from half-decent logs and - the longest ones - good timber. Logs whirled around and plonked into place like so many pencils. If a log wasn't quite in place, the driver folded the grab into a fist and tapped the end of it delicately until he was happy with it.

As the afternoon wore on, we spotted another party of cranes heading south. The log grabber returned again and again with more timber. As night fell the drivers simply turned on floodlights and carried on working. Today half the pines have gone - all those to the right of the ditch except the clump of stone pines. The men and their machines departed well before nightfall, job done, leaving a neat stack of logs on the roadside.

Forty years ago this task would have taken a dozen men a week, and undoubtedly a few injuries along the way. Now it takes two men and some technology supplied by the forestry arm of John Deere. The log muncher is an abbateuse and the grabber is a porteur forestier. A second hand abbateuse might set you back 80,000 euros.

There will be more about this method of forestry in a later post on Art en Saule

Wednesday 24 November 2010

House of flying Baggers

Outside our bedroom window hangs a bird feeder stocked with sunflower seeds, along with a fat-ball on a wire. These are visited by a constant stream of blue tits and great tits which have become adept at extracting the seeds. Yesterday the supply ran dangerously low, so we received a deputation - three great tits and a blue tit perched on the window bars, the largest of the great tits rapping on the glass with his beak. Bagger the tom cat flung himself at the window with a great thump, much to the birds' amusement. They simply retreated a little into the sprawling branches of the buddleia while we retrieved the feeder, refilled it and hung it up again. Then straight back they came. Tim has now made secondary double glazing panels in a thick plastic film, to protect the glass from the cat, and vice versa.

Cats watching birds

Bird watching cat

We have seen other species - chaffinches, robin and dunnock picking up "crumbs" from the ground; nuthatch and great spotted woodpecker briefly in the pine tree - but the tits are always present. Behind the laiterie we installed a fat block filled with dried insects, from Gamm Vert, and this lasted no time at all! Tim is now making his own fat blocks, using the Gamm Vert packet as a mould.
Hello.... is there anybody in there?

I said HELLO! Rat-a-tat-tat!!!

Look.... no wings!!

Sunday 21 November 2010

Cranes and Panthers

So many cranes are now leaving the Lac du Der to the north of us that some had to come our way eventually. We came out of the house late yesterday morning to see a group of 54/52 heading south over the hill and "grue"ing heartily. I flagged this to as they have no records for Indre et Loire this year. There are always a few, but not 40,000 at a time (what a noise that must have been)!

54 Cranes [Grus grus]
52 Cranes... where did the other two vanish to so quickly?

We were on our way to the Huilerie Lepine at Aveilles en Châtellerault, where the family business of walnut oil extraction was celebrating its 200th anniversary with an open day and Marché Gourmand. Instead of our usual route via Barrou and Lésigny, we went through La Guerche and Mairé, then through some very Brecklandish acid heathland / mixed woodland obviously maintained for hunting. The woodland is lined with deer fencing and there are numerous open rides. For several metres to either side of the road, an open stretch had been freshly ploughed - by humans as a fire break - whereas the verges had also been freshly ploughed - by boars, or possibly by deer. This looks like an excellent wildlife area, if not right at this moment! In the plough area, Tim spotted and photographed a fine array of what appeared to be Panther Cap mushrooms Amanita pantherina.... poisonous, almost as deadly as the Death Cap Amanita phalloides but much more striking... like a dark brown Fly Agaric Amanita muscaria.

Further on we came to La Chêne Rond, a major hunting lodge where dozens of hunters were standing along the edge of the road, shotguns broken, waiting for something to happen. Probably lunch.
When we came home Tim consulted the oracles and determined the mushrooms to have been The Blusher, amanita rubescens, which is good to eat. A bit too close for comfort to the poisonous kind for me!
The Blusher [Amanita rubescens]

Monday 15 November 2010

One last butterfly on the wing

Still mild and moist and plenty of insects about. RonRon the nosy cat poked an ichneumon fly and got stung [they use the short ovipositor in defence], to her great indignation. A very small mayfly rested on the door of the laiterie, building up its strength for a mad short life. A red admiral was searching along the edge of the millstream in the sun - one last forage before hibernation.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Le Petit Peuple de l'herbe

In the vast barn of the Prieure at Le Louroux yesterday, we found a fantastic exhibition of photographs taken of the insects on and around the Etang by David Greyo. This exhibition was presented in conjunction with the Conseil Général d’Indre-et-Loire for just the two days of the Fête de la pêche. The superb pictures provided clear examples for educational panels describing the different insect groups - ideal for an entomological novice like me. There was also a slideshow of shots including the grebes, terns, ducks and owls that make the Etang such a valuable wildlife area. An absolutely unmissable achievement - and all for two days? More about David Greyo and "Le Petit Peuple de l'herbe" can be found on his Blog

Friday 5 November 2010

Autumn leaves

Raking the leaves is a philosophical occupation. The town has the latest technology as we saw today - a Stihl leafblower/sucker/broyeur. With one of these you can reduce a pile of leaves to a handful of instant leafmould, at the cost of the earth's precious resources. We have a rake (Dutch, plastic) and Big Hans (Bettawear, also plastic) and a couple of pop-up bags. You rake the leaves into piles, put on Big Hands and hoist the piles into the bags. The leaves are going in the traditional small chickenwire enclosure to become leafmould eventually, or alternatively to blow all over the field - we shall have to see! Today's rakings half-filled the enclosure, and are less than a tenth of what's on our handsome Small-Leaved Lime (Tilleul). There are both Large- and Small-leaved Limes in this area as we noticed today in Chambon.
While raking the leaves, you can think of all sorts of things. How many crows are there in that big roost up the valley? As night fell, the numbers sounded positively Hitchcockian. Was that our resident Stone Curlews calling, or a migrant? Will the bats come out for me, as they did for Tim last night? How can I stop myself singing 'Les Feuilles Mortes"?

Thursday 4 November 2010

Late butterfly

Today was mild and humid as it has been all week. Insects are making good use of the ivy flowers on the bridge, including a Small White butterfly pieris rapae, la pieride de la rave.

Today we went to the Mairie to snitch on the muskrats. They didn't seem to have heard of the new decree there, but we now know that our neighbour Eric Decharte is an authorised trapper and we can contact him to get them 'rehomed' (ahem).

Sunday 31 October 2010

Old Friends

Yesterday on the way up the valley to Le Petit Pressigny we saw another osprey being mobbed by two crows. The Osprey - chocolate brown bird, white underneath - was not a lot bigger than the crows but with longer, narrower wings. It isn't just the fishermen who appreciate the regular re-stocking of the Aigronne, one of France's premier trout rivers.
Today we visited Beaulieu-les-Loches for the 'Fil et Bio' exhibition. Here we met an old friend - Jim the Mushroom Man, formerly of Leeds Farmers Markets and now based in Loches. He and his partner Philippe have 30 hectares of caves where they raise Japanese mushrooms - Shiitake, Oyster and Eryngii at the moment - and have just secured organic status. As well as Loches market, they sell from their shop at 45 Rue des Lilas.
Heading home, we saw and heard three young peregrine falcons spiralling around the steeple of the old abbey church, again being mobbed, this time by jackdaws.
Finally arriving home at 6:10 pm, it was almost dark and a little owl was calling. Then over the hill came a familiar trumpeting. A single crane grus grus (grue cendré) was heading south, grue-ue-ueing for his mates as hard as he could. According to the latest RSPB magazine, a bird can fly up to 70% further in V-formation than on its own, so this one could be in real trouble. We thought of several captions for this picture, such as "You fellows might have told me the clocks went back today!".

Thursday 28 October 2010

Busy migrants

Today was dreary, damp and misty, the only colour provided by the big flock of small passerines flitting between our lime tree and the bare field opposite recently sown with wheat. The greenfinches, chaffinches and goldfinches could be resident, or more northerly birds replacing our summer breeding colony who have moved on. Just because you see them all the year round, it doesn't mean they are the same birds. Recently they were joined by Bramblings [Pinson du nord] Fringilla montifringilla, the chaffinch's orange relative, and Siskins [Tarin des aulnes] Carduelis spinus. The adult birds, having moulted in summer, now look very fine.

Bagger discovered my fleece tunnel sheltering the winter lettuce plants. I could only find a rather ragged, used piece of fleece when I was constructing it, having bought the young plants on a whim at Descartes market when the night temperature was minus two. He found a hole in the fleece at one side of the tunnel and stuck his head through. Hm, no voles there yet. Fortunately when he pulled his head out again he didn't pull the whole thing down, but it was definitely a smaller hole than the width of his whiskers!

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Osprey on migration

This afternoon we came out of the laiterie by chance, to see an Osprey [Balbuzard pêcheur] Pandion haliaetus heading across our meadow and away southeast. How lucky can you get!

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Birds about

Pauline went into the old kitchen this morning to find a Wren [Troglodyte mignon] Troglodytes troglodytes trapped in the room. Whether this was the same wren Tim found shut into the laiterie last week we don't know, but her method of trying to escape was the same - fly into the window glass as hard as you can with a loud bang, fall back, return to the far side of the room and repeat. We assume she got in via the chimney - the temperature fell to minus 2 last night and she will have been looking for a cosy spot to roost. She left apparently none the worse.

Tim spotted a Goldcrest [Roitelet huppe ] Regulus regulus and some small green warblers (probably Chiffchaff [Pouillot veloce] Phylloscopus collybita) in the cherry tree this morning, along with the resident goldfinches, great tits and blue tits. There is also a small grey-brown warbler which is much harder to see and we have not yet identified it. The ordinary mixed wild bird food in the feeder and Tim's home-made fat block are going down well, but the warblers are also flycatching in the sunshine.

Our local Crows [Corneilles noires ]Corvus corone corone have some confusing calls - we heard imitation raven grunts and what sounded uncommonly like common cranes this afternoon, but it was only the crows taking the mick.

Monday 25 October 2010

Vole trouble

Our city-dwelling tom cat, Baron aka Bagger, has discovered in himself the capacity to catch mice. Catch, you understand. Very gently, he brings back all items to the front door. And if the door is open, he brings them inside and places them on the floor for us and his sister to admire. As of yesterday afternoon, a fully alive vole is somewhere lurking under the furniture, or in the firewood stack, or maybe someone may discover him when they put on a shoe. Bagger's sister RonRon is a student of wildlife, and watches the vole's progress with great interest, but so far has made no attempt to catch one herself. She prefers to find a warm spot and curl up "asleep" (waiting for the main chance).

We could have at least six species of vole in our environment. Bagger has already brought us a specimen of the Campagnol Souterrain microtus subterraneus. We know this as the Mining Vole because of its little tunnels everywhere, a few inches below the ground and in the floor of the barn before we concreted it. It is more properly known as the Common Pine Vole. How dull. Who thinks of these names?
The little chap running around our living room looked bigger than the Mining Vole and is possibly a Common Vole [Campagnol des Champs] Microtus arvalis or Short-tailed Field Vole [Campagnol Agreste] Microtus agrestis – if and when we catch him, we’ll have him in a dentists chair and look at his teeth! We have two live traps down [a Longworth small mammal trap, baited with “Snacky Cracky” – a sugar-and-nut confection from Lidl that has proved irresistible to small rodents in the past] and a commercial "multi-capture" trap. A couple of years ago, a band of brothers took it in turns to venture into our kitchen – a series of wood mice, all male, went straight for the trap and the Snacky Cracky. Unfortunately before we put the trap down, mouse number one spent some time in the kitchen, sampling this and that. An intellectual mouse, he nibbled the spine of the dictionary. Thirsting for refreshment as well as knowledge, he chewed the foil capsule on a bottle of Cremant de Loire!
Tim encountered a Bank Vole [Campagnol Roussâtre] Clethronomys glareolus out in the meadow. We saw a Water Vole in the millstream but whether it was the Northern Campagnol Terrestre Arvicole terrestris or the Southern Campagnol Amphibe Arvicole sapidus species, goodness knows. Once upon a time, they were both Arvicola amphibius. The lumpers and splitters have been at it again!

Thursday 30 September 2010

Bad GPS? Food source? Migration?

This evening I was sitting on the bench outside the house [to be] planning how to tackle the next stage [with a glass of Anglo-Dutch Wildflower in hand] when I noticed that hundreds of Swallows, House Martins and the occasional group of what looked like Wagtails [no binos, so couldn't confirm.... just going on jizz] passing EAST overhead. Everytime I thought they'd stopped another flight came over... there was group after group [not all directly overhead... to misquote Tennyson "Some to the left of me, some to the right... straight into the east flew the X-hundred"]Straight down the Aigronne Valley toward Le Petit-Pressigny.... BUT, was someones Tom-Tom misfunctioning?
An hour later they all came back, drift after drift... or, as I later thought, were they following a rich food source down the valley and then returning to roost.
We thought we'd seen the last of the Martins and Swallows last week.... were these Northern ones on their way South, tapping a rich food source... or was it just bad programming by the makers of Swallow-Tom?

Thursday 16 September 2010

16 September 2010 - Snakes Alive

Came across this little fella [about 35cm long].... it is a young Viperine snake [Couleuvre vipérine or Vipère d'eau] Natrix maura.
Viperine snake [Couleuvre vipérine or Vipère d'eau] Natrix maura
Pauline used Planete Passion to get a fix on his identity.
Planete Passion state that they are very variable ["Its colouring is extremely variable, olive greens, greenish brown, yellowish brown, greys, yellowish orange and reddish browns. On its back are two rows of dark lines, angled backwards, which are often joined together to give a zigzag pattern."]... indeed the illustrations on their site show five different colourways and patterns. They also say "but if threatened it adopts a very similar intimidating pose to a Vipére" and whilst being manouvered for a photograph, it took up a strike pose and then relaxed and slid off in the direction I'd hoped. It moved very fast and in almost all shots is slightly blurred against the background. [I've sharpened them as best I can.]  Visit Planete Passion to get more information and see the other pictures.
This is the first "live" snake we've seen on the property.... the only other observations have been sloughed skins.
Thanks to Susan from Days on the Claise for this link to the reference on Reptiles and Amphibiens de France [it is an English Language site despite the french title]
Viperine snake showing a zig-zag pattern at the right

Viperine snake [head detail - note the round pupil]
Other observations today:

Suddenly the Swallows are gone.... as are the House Martins from town! Summer is finished!

A male Sparrow Hawk [Epevier d'Europe] took a small bird [probably young Goldfinch] in the Sunflowers next to the house. It came from the meadow at flower-top height and dove in directly in front of me. Came out again very swiftly and composed itself [and its prey] on a sunflower [tournesol] head and then flew back towards the meadow.

Friday 3 September 2010

29th August to 2nd September 2010

Woorple, woorple, woorple!

Once again, late afternoon, on our way home after visiting the Chamussay Foullees we see the bee-eaters!
And, yet again they were over a field of lucerne near Gatault [on the D103] just down from our house [about a kilometre].
This time we were part prepared.... we had binos and my camera [but with the standard lens - useless for capturing them.]
We stopped and watched for a while then hurried back to the house to get telephoto lens [and dump our shopping.]
Fortunately, they were still there when we returned.
We spent quite a while watching them wheeling and hovering over the field, swooping up to the electricity lines to eat their catch.
Later that evening they came over our field but it was getting dark by then and they were difficult to see except when they were sillhoueted against the sky.

Bee-eater [Merops apiaster] [French name: Guepier d'Europe]

Then, on the 31st, we saw them again.... same spot!
Rushed back to the house to get the equipment we should have taken on Sunday.... they had stayed!
Spent even longer watching them and got some good pictures.

Bee-eater in flight

They look and sound so strange and tropical with their intense colour and burbling song.
We drove up to Les Richardieres and looked down on them from above...
the farmer came past and asked us if we were watching the guepiers...
he told us that they come through at around this time every year and stay for around three weeks...
fattening up on the insects feeding on the lucerne no doubt.

He also told us they come through in March on their way to their nest sites.

On our way back.... after they'd moved off down the Aigronne valley, we came upon them again... wheeling over the road.  Some were even sitting in the way of the car and seemed reluctant to move!!
Eventually they cleared a way for us to proceed.... and about an hour later came straight over the house!
Then I remembered that I'd noticed another area of lucerne just the other side of the Moulin de Chevarnay... they were probably heading for that.

Lucerne [also planted as Alfalfa]

Yesterday I checked out the lucerne the other side of Moulin de Chevernay... it had been mowed for winter forage!!
But as I was working on our meadow around 8pm [clearing a way to the Blackthorn for their Sloes] Pauline saw them fly over on the way back to the 'roost' area..."They sounded just like a party of schoolkids on the way back from an outing" she wrote in our logbook.

And tonight a large party flew over towards the 'roost' area at around 7:30pm... I went outside to see them but all I could hear was their "worpling".

Bird on a wire
In flight

Really tropical!!
Just a small part of the whole flock

All these can "bee" seen on flickr

Tuesday 31 August 2010

5th August 2010

NUTS to that Woodpecker!! [or 'The law of unintended symbiosis'.]

We've lost some of our hazelnuts.
To the juvenile Greater-Spotted woodpecker [and he'll become a Greater-Splatted if I lay hands on him!] we've seen around... or to the Nuthatch we've heard.
Seriously though, the method seems to be as follows...
Rip a bunch of nuts from bush and drops down onto the concrete base rail of the fence.
Use this as an anvil....
Anvil & nuts

but [and this is where the "symbiosis" aspect comes in] he doesn't get much of a meal, as the noissettes are still very unripe and absolutely tiny.
[And they'll probably stay small unless we get some rain.]
So he leaves them where they are.... and our little rodents come along and find that someone has supplied some nuts for them.

Hammered nut

So we've got a bunch of nuts that have a couple of hammered openings with nuts that have been chewed open.
Chewed nut

This is all purely conjecture as I haven't seen the woodpecker or nuthatch at work... I am going on the evidence.

Thursday 5 August 2010

A few evenings spent Bug Hunting [July 25th to August 4th 2010]

I've spent a few evenings, after working on the house, bug-hunting in the meadow... which I have now named Argiopea!
You will see from these pictures that the magnificent orb-web spider Argiope bruennichi is present.... actually very present... two per square metre, often more.
The ones photographed here didn't have the loveley zig-zags [stabilimentum] above and below the centre that make the webs so easily identified... but I saw a great one 29th July - but didn't have the camera with me... I'll go hunting again tomorrow if this weather holds!
If I finish writing this before I've captured the classic web pic, I'll put it up later.
The first picture shows the yellow, black and white stripes clearly

The second shows the spinnerets very clearly.

The last is Argiope stuck into a freshly wrapped white butterfly [probably Small White - Artogeia rapae]

These pictures can also be seen on flickr.

Other insects seen on the 'bug-hunt' were numerous Damselflies including a probable White-legged Damselfly [Platycnemis penepipes], zillions of grasshoppers and bush-crickets, grass moths, mantis nymphs, other spiders, including Araniella cucurbitina [shown here trying to subdue a Green Lacewing - Chrysopa 7-punctata] and bugs, including Graphosoma italicum with its gaudy red and black design.

 Araniella cucurbitina

   Graphosoma italicum

The 'Butterfly Bush' [also called the same in France - "L'arbre des pappilons"] has had its fair share of visitors too!
Around lunchtime, just as the sun hits the Buddleia full on, we get the Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoths [Hemaris fuciformis] visiting... and then a steady stream of species from then on, until the sun has moved from the flowers.

In the evening the moths go to it and we even had a brown Great Green Bush-cricket [Tettigonia viridissima] having a munch on the flowers.

The evening Simon & Susan from Days on the Claise came over we had Small Pincertail [Onychogomphus forcipatus] patrolling a territory on the bief and both the Demoiselles by the bridge.
There were also male Western Spectres [Boyeria irene] patrolling other stretches and a female of the same species hunting under the eaves.
Finally... and quite spectacular... was a very large hoverfly. A very good hornet mimic, I would have dismissed it as such if Susan hadn't pointed it out as Milesia crabroniformis, the largest European hoverfly.
I've put two pictures up of this as one of them gives it scale by showing a Greenbottle [Lucilia caesar].

Sunday 25 July 2010

May 2009

Found Birds-nest Orchid at the side of the road at Boussay 

Saw a pair of Black Kites near Chambon... later, saw a pair of Red Kites at Perrusson!!

Nightjar calling [over meadow? Going on volume of sound... I was not going to dance around on our bridge with a pair of handkerchiefs though!]

6.30am Opened door to let out a moth and get a morning breath of fresh air.... saw a Red Squirrel bounding across to the lime tree. First we've actually seen here although we've picked up the evidence of well harvested spruce cone cores often enough.

2009 March

Brambling with flock of Chaffinches - front garden
Cranes flying ENE 5.45 PM [Approx 60 Common Cranes].
 After rainy day quite mild. Wind almost due West, quite strong.
Stone Curlew night call flying over field opposite.
At same time: Little Owl at Bezuard, Tawny Owl in the Lime or Spruce.
Earlier, territorial dispute between two Buzzard pairs over meadow.
Weather sunny, no wind.
Sunny, warm, still day.
Chiffchaffs calling, swifts?, Montague's over field, Black Redstarts, White and Grey Wagtails.
Woodpeckers hammering.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Once bitten...

After a hectic weekend with a lot of wildlife about I am going to write about.... CLEGS!
Horseflies to some... family Tabanidae to others.... these are large insects with a particularly nasty bite [to me anyway].
I was first bitten by one in 1970 and my whole arm came up like a well stuffed sausage so, whenever they are about, I declare war.
That said, I should only kill half of them as the males tend to be vegetarian [nectar feeders].... but I'm not going to stop and ask!

When I was bitten in '70, it was able to get through an ex-US Army jacket and my workshirt [but that was probably nothing compared to a horses hide!], all four layers quite tight fitting [the army jacket was three layers thick] so if they are about I now tend to wear very loose fitting clothing which reduces the contact points... except for exposed skin.
To me the most fascinating thing about the horsefly group are the eyes... the one shown here has very clear colouring on the eyes... this varies between species. [You will notice from the eyes that this one supports Jamaica and is wearing wrap-around sunglasses!] The colour also fades away after death [I can vouch for this!!]

What allowed me to get this close was the fact that these were feeding on the bonnet of the '56 2CV. They were probably males as they seemed to be drinking the dried drips of aphid sap on the bonnet [the car was parked under our lime].
Their feeding method was to use the front feet in a sweeping motion across the surface towards their head, covering in the process about a centimetre circle.
They would then extend their proboscis and work over the small patch immediately under their head.
That completed, they moved forward about a centimetre dabbing the proboscis on the bonnet as they went.
They then stopped and repeated the 'harvesting' action.
They moved up and down the bonnet in straight lines.... turning and shuffling sideways to do a return sweep.

According to Chinery [Collins; Insects of Britain and Western Europe 1986] about 160 species occur in Europe.... the one here is most likely to be Tabanus bromius which has a very simple eye pattern [although there are a number of similar species this is the commonest (Chinery)]. The actual Cleg Fly [Haematopota pluvialis] is much smaller and unlikely to be the one that got through my jacket.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

More about the Crossbills

As promised here is a bit more about the Crossbills [Loxia curvirostra].
We were sitting in the garden when a 'thump' came from the direction of one of our big spruce trees.
We had noticed green, immature cones lying around the tree base and had thought that it was the equivalent of a fruit tree's June drop.
Then we heard another one fall and I glanced upward to look at the tree and saw a red flash as a bird moved.
My first though was woodpecker, but then the bird came more into view and it was red all over.
I went and got the binos at first and then the big 'scope. The first picture is of the male Crossbill wrecking the spruce tree! Not a good shot, but the best I could get... I was handholding the camera
against the eyepiece of the telescope. [The adaptor was indoors and I thought they'd fly.... in fact they stayed an

The crossbill feeds upside down, starting at the base of the cone and moving towards the tip. It works very systematically... down one strip, back to the top, down the next and so on. Sometimes it just levered the scale upwards... on other occasions it ripped the scale off the cone and spat it out.
The next pictures show the damaged cones.
The damage done! This was the sight at the top of the tree.

I collected up some of the fallen cones to take close up photographs.
You can see in these cones the way the feeder rips the scale up and out to get at the seed beneath.

And the final picture is of the top end of the middle cone in the above.
The little split with a hole at the end is the damage caused by the beak

We had a party of three feeding together... the male that is shown above, a female [very different... mainly green... a shade close to the cones themselves] who we only caught glimpses of and a young / immature male who was far more orange than red.
They tended to move around the tree in a parroty sort of way... lots of leaping from branch to branch and walking sideways along the branches... very interesting to watch.

There is also a side angle to this damage... as mentioned in the previous post, we have had an increasing number of small birds feeding inside the damaged parts of the cones. These include juvenile Blue and Great Tits, Black Redstarts, Melodious Warbler, our resident Blackcaps and also non-insectivorous species like Chaffinch and Sparrow

Tuesday 13 July 2010

One of the old records: August 2008

Dry, overcast with a little drip of rain early AM and Very late PM. Just before dusk - two Muskrats by tractor ford plus Moorhen and chick. Later, after dark [10.30'ish] with a very light sprinkle of rain - Glowworm [♀] by fence / telephone pole - very bright - showing three bars [reception must be getting better]. Also very cricket'ous - bloody loud and everywhere.
When looking at laiterie to check on building progress, checked also the Black Redstart's nest - all hatched - John later confirmed that all had fledged and flown about a fortnight before. I just love the idea of a wild bird that uses a double glazed room to raise its young!! But it's got to stop... we've sealed the hatchway and John has finished the bathroom light-pipe so no way in now.

Frédéric mowed the verger, etc... Tim strimmed the rest of the field. Standing on the bridge, Pauline heard the Kingfisher  ... it came at speed along the bief and then came back and perched on a branch in full view - no camera!! That's the second time it's done that [the first time it had the temerity to turn round and give both side views [I wonder what a kingfisher's snigger sounds like?] It flew up and down a couple of times before shooting back towards Le Moulin de Favier. It looked fabulous in the sunlight.

Today [13th July 2010] - for the last few nights we've been unwillingly interfering with nature again... our lounge windows/French doors have a pair of pale green net curtains to help keep the sunlight levels in the room down [they face due South]. However, at night, the male Glowworms gather in number [15 last night].... given the colour is close to the female's lights it must be a case of "Cor!! Look at the lights on her then!" They'll just have to up-put until we go to bed.

Point to note; we've not seen/heard the Kingfisher for about two years now. The Aigronne was made very muddy by an extremely severe storm two years ago that washed fields away [5 litres of rain per cubic metre fell in 45 to 50 minutes] and the water quality changed overnight! It is now recovering... but no visible fish. The Banded Demoiselles are increasing in number by our bridge though.... and real weed is beginning to overtake the amount of blanket weed.

Monday 12 July 2010

A change of approach now we are here!

Date as for log entry.
Well, we are now in France and this website will become more frequently updated as we are here every day!!
It means that the remaining, originally chronological entries will be posted as and when... usually when they match the date being reported in real time.
We've been here a fortnight already and have seen a lot... without leaving the premises.
With our first lot of unpacking came the unexpected sight of a Purple Emperor butterfly... no, we didn't get a photo and we don't know if it was a Lesser Purple Emperor either [we were too overwhelmed at having such a creature on our hands to count the dots.... two on the front wings of the Purple and two on each pair in the Lesser according to the books.]
Then we were bombed by a female Stag Beetle... we were sitting outside, enjoying a late evening spot of calm [as you do] when we saw a large, at first slow moving, object rise from the sunflowers opposite... and head straight for us at an ever increasing speed... it buzzed just over our heads and used the warmth coming off the building to circle and rise into the Cherry Laurel... there are some beetles that were never meant to fly.
Later that week we saw a Lesser Stag Beetle [much smaller] for comparison [very convenient!}
And then for the past few days we've had a small family of Crossbills wrecking the tops of our Spruce trees... this in turn has brought in a host of other birds... including a Greater Spotted Woodpecker.... all feeding on the wrecked cones.
There will be more on the Crossbills later in the week when we've processed the pix.

Saturday 3 April 2010

May 2008 - visit 4th to 19th.

The orchids locally are fabulous this year but some are missing / poor show [possibly down to not being able to build reserves in last years terrible weather?] Maize sown opposite 9th/10th  - lots of machine activity since. Often exceptionally quiet at night.

Again Corncrake call from over road - more than three times on this occasion [about five minutes in all] Sounded from almost due south [right hand end of wood] This is in line with the 'waste' area near Etableau. Heard nightjar  also over our meadow.

13th & 14th
2 pairs of Red-legged Partridge regularly in field opposite - feel like offering the males a 'jump-start' as they always seem to sound like a car/bike having difficulty getting going.

Using the 'Birds of the Western Palearctic' DVDs from Birdguides we've at last managed to identify the odd wader-like call we've been hearing on a number of visits - it is the 'night' display of the Stone Curlew - again usually to the right of directly opposite which would put it over towards Etableau again. [Near to where we saw a pair on the walk of 15/5/05]

While our prairie was being mowed, Montague's Harrier [] came down and quartered the cut area, unafraid of the machine. Three Hares in the maize field today. Saw Cuckoo flying over. Weather terrible.

Weather much better. Good orage  [storm] late PM. Montagues [male and later female] present all day. Also a pair of Hobby came over. Saw male Monty do a food pass to the female. Lots of activity now the grass in the meadow is short!! Poor voles but that's life [or death?]. Late PM, just as it was getting dark picked up a pair of Stone Curlews at ditch on the right hand side of the maize field.  [gathering power of the Kowa's 70mm objective is very good late evening and in other poor light situations]. Also saw a deer [too big to be a Roe - book say Sika!] going across top of field and into the wood.

Stone Curlew pair with chick. Toddled over to its parent and snuggled under wing. Later: Snipe drumming from direction of road bridge. Noticed Tassle Hyacinth [Muscari canosum] on far bank of bief next to the tree nursery area.

Birds in the immediate locality this trip::
Melodious Warbler, 
Blackcap [singing very loudly all day from the spruces],
Goldfinches [two nesting in Buddleia just outside bedroom window],
Black Redstart, 
Montague's Harrier, 
Pied/White Wagtail, 
Grey Wagtail [seen by neighbour's etang],
Chaffinch [two females visited by very handsome male - Pauline saw it fly off towards wood - more girls?],
Cuckoos [only seen the once flying over but , heard calling continuously - at least two!],
Turtle Doves, 
Collared Dove [flew towards Bezzuard from barn area],
Wood pigeons in maize field,
two Herons round Richard's etang three days running,
notable absence of owls [all three types],
Bodie the Buzzard regularly chased away from the woods opposite [his woods] by the nesting crows - forced him down into the field on one occasion!!

February 24th 2008

Clear sunny day, warm, wind SW moderate. Large flock of Common Crane gathering over Etableau and flew off NE in three large skeins [upward of 200 birds] followed by a second small group that flew straight towards us.

The noise was incredible. They flew straight overhead and I almost fell over backwards [Falklands Penguin Syndrome!] as I took the following shot ... I was saved from total embarassment by the trunk of a willow!