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.]