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