Wednesday 28 December 2011

Back on the rails

The Water Rail's back
Yes, the Water Rails [Rallus aquaticus] Rale d'Eau are back... and we've got two of them this year. We spotted them for the first time yesterday... and we know we've got two because Pauline was looking at one whilst I was trying to get the camera to focus on another! In the end I moved round and managed to get some good shots of the one Pauline was watching.

Water rail's best side...
Water Rail bankside....

Also the Dabchick (or Little Grebe) [Tachybaptus ruficollis] Grebe castagneux is back... but the only photo I got of that shows an out of focus pair of frilly knickers!

You take your right foot out and shake it all about!

What we seem to be observing is birds that normally are recorded on the etangs appear to translocate to running water... not migrate as the local guide book, "Les Oiseaux du Bassin de la Claise Tourangelle", seems to indicate. So, because we have the bief, we get more moorhens, plus the water rails and the dabchick in winter.... where they a more assured of a good meal as it would be a very hard freeze indeed that stopped the bief running completely.
Our resident moorhens that Pauline blogged about the other week don't need to migrate... they are on running water all the year round..

Saturday 17 December 2011

Joachim breezes past

'Twas a dark and stormy night on Thursday. The weather service Météociel was forecasting winds gusting up to 125 kph and at least five centimetres of rain in twelve hours, and the following day La Nouvelle République advised us that an official tempest, named Joachim, has just happened. The wind speed meter on our weather station is broken, but the audible wind noise was considerable. As for the rainfall meter, it indicated that we had 247.5 millimetres of rain in 24 hours. That's a quarter of a metre all but, and totally out of proportion. It looks like the wind was affecting it, so we don't know exactly how much we got. Sandaysoft confirms that strong wind is a known problem with our weather station, and points us to a forum entry discussing baffles that could make it a bit more accurate.

On Thursday afternoon we watched in some anxiety as the bief rose from its normal tinkling brook to a roaring stream the colour of milky tea. Tim went down in the night to check on the water level and to close a shutter that had come unhitched. The following morning the rain continued to fall and the water continued to rise. The muskrat and the moorhen coped well with the force of the flow, crossing bravely sideways from one side to the other and finding slack water where they could make good progress under the bank.

Our water meadow.... the strip of water from lower left to top right is one of the mown paths... and the pond the other side!

At the peak, the buildings were still a good metre above the water level, as the watermeadows along the valley did their job. A "route inondée" sign near the junction to Favier indicates that the bief had burst its banks there, but water only partially covered the road and we were never cut off from the village. The worst damage we took was to the stable door, which was in a bad state to begin with and just got torn open. Our neighbour Richard evacuated his sheep from their home on the edge of his étang, carrying them by the feet upside down (rigweltered, as they say in Yorkshire) and docile, from their little shack to his trailer. We don't know where Jerry the outdoor cat was during the storm, but he turned up unconcerned on Saturday morning!
Heavy rain will drive earthworms out of the ground, and we saw several bird species taking advantage of this along the edge of the floodwater - lapwings, blackheaded gulls, crows and herons among them. A male sparrowhawk came to sit in our cherry tree, turning obligingly through 180° so we could admire him properly and take photographs.

Looking from the longere to the 'dry' bridge...

...and the view the other way.
La Forge is on the left with Bezuard behind, Moulin de Favier is in the middle and Favier is the next toward the right.
The bief was coping well with the right angle bend at the moulin!!

On our way to the Christmas Market at La Celle Guénand, we passed numerous washes of gravel and mud and one minor landslip on the road where rainwater had streamed off the fields. At Le Moulin Neuf, a big old poplar had come down, leaving a great plate of earth and roots projecting over the Aigronne. The commune had been quick to cut off projecting branches and clear the lane, but the main electricity cable was still hanging to the ground where the tree had pulled it down. Fortunately the cable still appeared to be in one piece.

The Aigronne and its watermeadows at Gatault
[Click on the photo to view full size]

Saturday 10 December 2011

Water chickens revisited

Two generations of moorhens on the millstream
Almost exactly a year ago we blogged about our resident moorhens [gallinula cloropus]. At the time we had not realised the two adults had a very young juvenile with them, probably the one we had seen as a fluffball in September. We nicknamed this youngster "yellownose" as it had not yet developed a frontal plate (the red bit) and the unadorned beak is yellow. Throughout the winter we observed Yellownose and / or its parents plodding cautiously up the bank of the millstream to the area beneath the feeders where they had learned there would be stray seeds and scraps of fat. As the adult characteristics began to develop, Yellownose grew into Pinknose and then a fully grown adult with a shiny red frontal plate, but still slightly browner than its parents. In April there was a series of fights over the territory between the bridge and the walnut tree. Pinknose won by two submissions and we assumed that it was a him when it started building a nest platform by carefully folding down the young leaves in the middle of the flag iris patch.

That shows you how little we knew about a bird we saw every day from our kitchen window. A second bird appeared, with a more prominent frontal plate. This bird always greets Pinknose by fanning out his tail - it was Pinknose that was the female. By May, Pinknose was sitting on the nest, almost completely hidden among the iris. 

Spot the moorhen

We saw the pair throughout the summer, less regularly since more cautious, with three fluffballs, and now they have a Yellownose and a Pinknose of their own. Once again, moorhens en famille are visiting our bird feeders. Every day and often at night we hear their clucking calls and panicked splashing.
Dad and Pinknose Junior

What big feet! Note the lack of a web

Youngster amid what remains of the iris
Which leads us to another odd thing - the local bird guide, Les oiseaux du bassin de la Claise tourangelle, shows both the gallinule poule-d'eau and the râle d'eau (water rail) as resident from mid-February to mid-December and absent the rest of the time. Where are they supposed to go over Christmas? It's nice to think of the moorhens of southern Touraine taking a mediterranean cruise to visit their cousins the Purple Gallinules in the s'Albufera reserve on the island of Majorca. In the far north (Siberia for instance), Moorhens do migrate to avoid a deep-frozen winter. Possibly, in our region, the ones that hold territories on the étangs will move to running water which will not freeze over in hard weather. We certainly see more pairs along the millstream at this time of year. Or possibly the authors of our local guide copied it from someone who had it from someone else that moorhens migrate...

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Foxes we have known

The sight of a fox in the car headlights, dashing across the road near the road to Favier the other evening, brought back memories of past encounters with foxes. As we were city folks, most of these encounters have been with urban foxes, because this resourceful and adaptable species (renard) [vulpes vulpes] has found city life very much to its liking.
The first fox I remember was in the village of Lapworth, near Birmingham, where a young fox was being kept in a not particularly large cage. I recall it had been brought up from a cub by the publican's family, but was too wild to run free. I was only a kid myself then, and no doubt such treatment would be illegal now.
As I grew up in Birmingham, there were sounds at night that I recognised as the barking of foxes, and I saw one from my parents' bedroom window, fast asleep in the sun on the neighbours' coalshed roof. Presumably it thought it couldn't be seen there, and indeed it was pretty secure.
Fast forward to Leeds, and a house a hundred metres from a deep, scrub-covered railway cutting. More barking, more night-time glimpses of foxes passing under the streetlights. One night coming home from work after baby-sitting a software install, I was given a lift by a colleague who dropped me on the corner of the street. As I walked towards our house I noticed a traffic cone on the edge of the pavement. "Ruddy students" I thought (it was three a.m. and I was tired). When I came up to it, it looked up at me. It wasn't a traffic cone, but a fox, completely unafraid. "Hello, fox" I said, and crossed the road to our front gate. When I went up the steps, the fox was close behind me. When Tim opened the door, the fox went straight into the hall. It drank a saucer of milk, had its picture taken, and left.

Mine's a milk, please!


More recently still, foxes took up residence on the allotments on the opposite side of the railway line. The allotment holders, well some of the more excitable ones,  formed into two camps: pro-fox and anti-fox. The anti-fox camp pointed out that foxes have been known to kill cats and they carry some vile diseases such as toxocara canis (both true, and in France, even more so, with rabies and echinococcus tapeworm infections). The pro-fox camp returned that foxes kill rats and mice and slugs and snails (equally true). Tempers became frayed on both sides and some wild accusations began to fly. Meanwhile the foxes were in fox heaven, with people bringing them dogfood and lots of lovely greenhouses to play in, fleece to rip and plants to dig up. Not to mention gloves and shoes for the cubs to steal as toys and training aids. Despite the sound and fury, the foxes are still there. As for whose locker contained the size 8 purple patent leather stiletto-heeled court shoe, nobody's telling.

All the following photos are from one of our allotment friend's flickr site...
Phil's a very patient photographer... and tends to get up to the allotments before many people are around.

Trusting Fox
Trusting Fox by P.Pix

Three generations by P.Pix

3 Generations - The Old Girl
The old girl

3 Generations - Daughter
The Daughter

3 Generations - Tiny Tot  Fox
And one of her tiny tots!!

5 Pairs of Ears
Five pairs of ears by P.Pix.

Locked After Mating
Locked after mating! by P.Pix.  The male is the one looking a bit embarrassed.

And finally a nice seasonal wintery shot!!

Distracted Fox
Distracted Fox by P.Pix

There are a lot more there... click on one of the photos and take a trawl!
[To make the trawl easier... search on his site for Fox.]

Wednesday 23 November 2011

A Delicate Parasol

As we were driving up the hill from Chambon we did the usual screech-to-a-halt and reverse as Tim spotted something in the ditch beside the road. As well as some tennis-ball sized orange puffballs, there was a solitary parasol mushroom [Lepiota procera] Coulemelle, Lépiote élevée, with the most delicate lacy top and a coating of minute droplets glittering in the late afternoon sun. I was allowed to look after this precious jewel on the way home, and observed how stiff the stem was (not edible, unlike the parasol itself). The liquid on the top of the parasol was not, as Tim had first thought, dew, but some form of slightly sticky mucilage - not a slug trail, although there was slight damage to the top, probably caused by a slug.

Parasol Mushroom [PK74339]
Like a Christmas tree ornament
After photographing the mushroom, it was broken up and deposited in various locations on our property, along with some blewits and a shaggy ink-cap, in the hope that they may establish themselves to form the basis of further photographs, not to mention meals.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

21/11/2001 - A movement of Cranes

We had three successive flights of Common Crane [Grus grus] Grue cendrée name over yesterday. Plus another two at least that we heard but didn't see. It is the latest we've seen them [it is after all almost December!!] and this is an entry just to put the fact on record.
[And to allow me to put some new pictures up....]

Stacking cranes.
This was the first flight of nine.

Six of Nine

Nine of Nine

Stacked - ready to glide

A thin ribbon of twenty cranes.... the second flight.

The third flight [14 individuals]....
the best shot of this bunch..
the autofocus on the camera was having great difficulty staying in touch!!

But the weather is very strange at the moment... the weather hit a balmy 19.6 Centigrade yesterday too! On Sunday we saw butterflies, Clouded Yellow [Colias crocea] le Souci being quite notable with its egg-yolk yellow colouring... and the Ivy [Hedera helix] Lierre is still alive with late feeding insects. All these insects are really quite important... the bats are still around!!

In the potager we are getting sprouts, still, from our "Tender-stem" brocolli. We've had a late crop into November before, but these are still producing a two servings worth a week in the fourth week of November!
There are still numerous wild flowers around.... most obvious are the Nettle-leaved Bellflower [Campanula trachelium] Campanule Galantelée and also Knapweeds, Scabious and Meadow Clary [Salvia pratensis] Sauge des Prés. But it also means that the trees I need to work on this winter are not yet dormant... oops! But, still, I've plenty to keep me going on the bricolage [D.I.Y.] side

Saturday 19 November 2011

Get Orfff moy Laand!

Tim was peacefully looking out of the window this morning when he saw two crows escorting a large sparrowhawk off the premises. A very large sparrowhawk. Bigger, in fact, than the crows. In fact, it was a goshawk (accipiter gentilis) [autour des palombes]. We thought we'd seen one before, but weren't sure, although they are believed to nest in our commune. The English name derives from the anglo-saxon for "goosehawk", and the French name means "around the woodpigeons" - both these names give an impression of the size of prey the goshawk is capable of taking out. For this reason, the goshawk was popular in falconry. Here's a lovely picture from the BBC's Nature website.

In Britain, the goshawk was blamed for the death of game birds and, between the gamekeepers and the egg-collectors, became extinct in the 19th century. Escaped falconry birds and others from continental Europe have re-established a small population. They are still persecuted by the small number of egg-collecting criminal monsters.
In rural France, goshawks were treated as vermin (nuisibles) for their taste for creatures that humans like to eat, both wild and tame - "espèces gibier ou de basse cour". They have been protected since 1976, and their numbers are believed to be rising. This area has a great deal of their preferred open woodland habitat, and they have an excellent choice of prey - squirrels, rabbits, hares, voles, pheasants, partridges, pigeons, crows, starlings, thrushes.... but they are by no means common and it's lovely to know they are around. I love the expression la basse cour for the small domestic creatures such as fowl and rabbits that were so often to be the domain of the farmer's wife and children.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Electric Fishing at La Celle-Guénand

We read with interest in La Nouvelle République of 16th November of an exercise to measure water quality on the Rémillon just north of its junction with the Aigronne, about 2.5 km upstream of us. This is a further part of the first tranche of the planned works launched by the Community of Communes of Southern Touraine earlier this year in the restoration of the watercourses comprising the Claise basin. What follows is my best attempt at a translation of the article. I claim no responsibility for the science!

An electric fishing exercise took place at the end of October at La Gachère, in La Celle-Guénand with the aim of getting to know the fish population of these watercourses but also to judge the effect of the works on the fish.

Copyright La Nouvelle Republique
The principle is as follows: a generator produces a continuous rectified current of between 300 and 600 volts (400 in this case). The negative pole is placed in the water at a fixed spot; the positive pole is connected to an insulating handle with a metal ring on the end from which the current flows. Once the positive pole is lowered into the water, an electric field is created and the fish swim at first towards the source of the current. This is called "forced swimming". Swimming directly up to the researchers, they are easily caught in a landing net for they are semi-conscious. They quickly recover and do not take any lasting harm.
The species of the specimens captured is determined and they are then weighed, measured and released undamaged. Each species of fish is characteristic of a type of environment. For example, brown trout (Salmo trutta fario, truite fario) prefer cool, swift-flowing and well-oxygenated waters, whereas freshwater bream (Abramis brama, brème) prefer slower, warmer flows. The objective is to check whether a watercourse described as "salmonicole" (rapid, cool and oxygenated water) is degraded or not by studying its fish population. If the fishing exercise reveals a large number of fish characteristic of slow warm waters, it can be ascertained that the watercourse is very degraded.
The results of late October's fishing exercises in the Rémillon at La Celle-Guénand shows a quite well preserved site with the presence of brown trout and species characteristic of salmonicole watercourses:
  • chabot, (Cottus gobio), [Miller's Thumb or Bullhead or Sculpin]
  • lamproie de planer (Lampetra planeri) [Brook Lamphrey]
  • loche franche (Barbatula barbatula) [Stone Loach]
At the Sauvaget site, at Bossay sur Claise, the location is very silty. Only one trout and some sticklebacks (Pungitius spp, épinochettes) show that the watercourse is very degraded in this sector but nevertheless retains the capacity to support trout.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

More Wood Blewits

This is the most accurate picture so far.

A new photo, taken today after Pauline and I had been processing the lime leaves with the mower. Needless to say, these have all now been picked... best harvest we've had from around the lime.

Wood Blew its top?

Wood Blewits [Lepista nuda] Pied Bleu. We are fortunate enough to have these mushrooms growing under our lime tree. The French guide we use gives it two chefs hats... but says that the flavour isn't agreable to all [tastes like a mushroom to me.. but I can't taste goat in a chevre cheese either]. Unless we have Blewits [L. saeva] Pied Violet... three chefs hats?

My original guide... "Collins Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools" [Morten Lange & F.Bayard Hora, 1963] lists them under the scientific name Tricholoma... T. nudum for the Wood Blewit and T. saevum for the Blewit and list them as "edible and good".
The French Guide... "Champignons - Reconnaitre, Cueillir, Cuisiner" [Pyrenees Magazine Thematique,  Milan Presse, 2007]  also gives T. nuda and Rhodopaxillus nudus for the Pied Bleu and just Rhodopaxillus saevus for the Pied Violet.
Paul Sterry's book "Mushrooms of Britain and Europe" [New Holland, 2001] uses the Lepista naming.

The caps of ours are a pale buff colour with lilac gills that are fused to a lilac/silver striated stem. This follows the illustration in my original guide for "Blewits"... but in the other two, more recent ones is closer to the "Wood Blewits" as is the fact that the stem is quite slim. I prefer to use photographic guides for mushroom identification, provided that the pictures are good.

Roger Philips "Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain & Europe" [Pan Books, 1981] is very good because he uses photographs of a number of specimens, including cut sections, but it is not pocket sized so can only be used at home! [You can also visit Roger's Mushrooms [his website with a lot more photos and extra information]

A lot of Paul Sterry's pictures seem over exposed, or under exposed, for specimens I know... and this is not good for other users. However, it could be down to the production of the book.[#]
I am not set up yet to look at the spore prints... but if they were pale pink and prickly that would have confirmed the identification of Lepista [Tricholoma] sp.
The stipe [stalk] is described in Collins as solid, although all the specimens that I've found have had a hollow centre, and the other guides don't mention the structure!
The fungi here and on our allotment in Leeds most closely resemble the Pied Bleu picture in the French guide... so I regard them as Wood Blewits [The allotment, in a former quarry, was long established, open land, heavily renovated in the 50's to 'tidy up' after the 2nd WW's "Grow for Britain" use. Our Wood Blewits there probably came in on some horse manure.]

These are my pictures:

They weren't this purple... the strong sunlight seems to have added a deeper purple cast to this picture.
[I'll have a go with Photoshop and see if I can get the colour better and replace it.]
These are the real colour...
The gills look as though the are seperate from the stalk... but aren't.

But both the Blewits are edible... and good... so that's what happened to them and how I used them is here on "De la Bonne Bouffe".

This is a better view of the caps, showing a better colour [taken indoors just before slicing].

[#] I've got the English and French versions of quite a few of my favourite guides now and the difference in colour of the pictures is quite marked in some cases!!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

We're late, we're late for a very important date!


1st Crane "Where are all the others?"
2nd Crane "Told you we shouldn't have stopped for coffee!"

1st Crane "We didn't stop long."

2nd Crane "Yes, but if you'd had a double espresso like me, you'd be all fired up to fly faster! Instead, you had to have a grand café créme...."

At 4:15 pm a pair,.... yes, just a pair, of Common cranes [grus grus] flew over our house.
There were no others to be seen.... and we didn't hear any either.

But they were desperately trying to form a V!!

Sunday 13 November 2011

Improving the Aigronne

Just recently, a big poster appeared by the Aigronne bridge, advertising aménagements du lit (improvements to the riverbed).
Aménagements du lit
Then a succession of dumper trucks began clattering to and fro past the house, delivering their contributions to a series of piles of white stone, mainly small but including some very big ones. At peak there were four different trucks passing at approximately quarter-hourly intervals. Then a big digger arrived and started nibbling away at the stones, depositing it carefully on the river bed between Gatault downstream of us and Le Moulin de Chevarnay upstream.
We had learned of the plan to improve the flow of the rivers and streams that make up the Claise basin at the Fête de la Chasse at Preuilly sur Creuse, but we hadn't appreciated that it was going to happen so soon. As Yohann Sionneau, the river technician, explained to us, many of the river banks in our area are effectively canalised in places, the numerous poplar trees at even spacings with every trace of cover for small wildlife scrupulously removed. The flow is too smooth and uniform between these pared-down banks, reducing thediversity of habitat. In places the bed has become too wide, so during periods of reduced flow, particularly in summer, the water becomes very shallow, reducing the oxygen levels. There is also too much silt, denying the fish access to the gravel beds where they spawn. All these factors diminish the biodiversity of the Aigronne. The project was financed by the water authority for the Loire and Brittany; the prefecture of Region Centre; and the community of communes of Touraine du Sud.

Using the stones, shingle banks and rocky outcrops have been created, so that the flow rate and depth of water are more varied. Increased turbulence allows the water to pick up more oxygen. When water levels are lower, the shingle banks reduce the width of the channel, so that such water that does flow is deeper. Thus the river bed is improved for wildlife, especially aquatic species such as - er - trout. Oh what a giveaway.
Destined for the riverbed
The work was done by a large digger and, whilst the large stones were dumped on the side, the main loads of smaller calcaire were dumped directly into the river. The digger then collected a bucket load and took it to where it was to be used.

This did make the river very cloudy to begin with as the powdered calcaire was washed out... but the river is now nice and clean again. We'll put up more shots of these bits over the seasons.

Thursday 10 November 2011

I bet you can't do this!

Every autumn, flocks of lapwings (vanellus vanellus) vanneau huppé appear on the newly-ploughed fields up and down the Aigronne, taking flight at the least alarm and keeping in contact with each other by means of their "peewit" calls. At the moment, there are usually a few starlings (sturnus vulgaris) étourneau sansonnet with them, and later in the year, golden plover.

Just a small part of a larger flock.
There are bigger flocks in France than in the UK because farming methods over here are more favourable to their breeding cycle. Just north of Amiens we stopped and took pictures of a flock of over a thousand... it was an amazing sight!

Just part of the huge flock seen in October 2005... too big to capture in one shot!!

They are always worth a few pictures on a sunny day, with their white underparts flashing as they swirl aroud over their chosen feeding spot. This year Tim's photos caught one bird in the middle of a barrel roll, flying upside down....

Hey guys! Can you do this?

Wednesday 9 November 2011

The teasers were...

As guessed, Wotisit one was a plant.. or what was left of it. An old Ivy [Hedera sp.] trunk and here it is...

You just have to ask...
Is the wall holding the ivy up?
Is the ivy holding up the wall?

Number two was a section of a very small, but pretty snail [so close Susan... 'twas a mollusc] and isn't it pretty?....

In a whorl of its own! [Only 8mm across!]

Number three was the abdomen of a fabulous "garden"  or Orb Web spider Araneus diadematus

This is the 'view' of the back of the abdomen.
And this is it from the front!
I hope that the arachniphobes out there have picked themselves up!!

Wotisit Four was the thorax, as Susan guessed, the 'giant' hoverfly Melissa crabroformis

I love the "tribal mask" that the pattern on the thorax makes!

Thursday 27 October 2011

A teaser for the Weekend

Early September was our last posting.... and much has happened.
We've been a bit too busy to put much up lately... despite being assured that Winter is here by the return of the Dabchick and the Robins... and getting in the harvest and processing tomatoes as fast as we can because of the frosts.... nursing colds.... watching a possible juvenile Goshawk  up on the ridge opposite [but it never getting close enough to make a positive identification] we thought we'd better keep our readers entertained.
So here is a picture quiz!
What are these four?





This is coming up with the irritating "lightbox" effect... but I will leave it like that as it works quite well in this instance.... just remember to click on the white X in the top right hand corner to get back to the blog entry.

We will give you the answers next week.

Hopefully, the internet cable will be installed through to the house from the office by then... and it will mean we will be more able to write on the fly and posts will become more frequent!!