Wednesday 29 February 2012

Grues...STOP, grues!! Part the second of a good Sunday out.

Having left the hide at Purais, we returned to the car. Just before we got there we heard what sounded like the "grue" of a crane.
We both stopped stock still and listened for another... but no, it was just the one, difficult to locate... but behind, the way we'd come...
Continued to get sorted and into the car... Carpe Frites awaited.

We continued on our way, slowly, towards the Maison du Parc at le Bouchet, but saw little other than more Great White Egrets.

The car park was almost empty at the Maison...
parked, went in, restaurant had about half-a-dozen people in....
"table pour deux, SVP"...
have you reserved?
No we hadn't...
"Desolé"... they were full...
some comfort shopping in the 'boutique' was called for!
Yet again... NO CARPE FRITES!!

We had a look around the exhibition en-route through the shop....
it was on Eco-building... and there was a very good photo exhibition as well.
Back down the stairs and we found a new book...
Les plus belles balades du Parc naturel régional de la Brenne
[The nicest walks in the Brenne National Park] published 2011...
explains why we hadn't seen it before!!
we will be doing some of these this year...
but, typical of French walks books, a 7km walk will take you 2hrs...
not if you've got binos and/or camera with you it won't!

The book and a peek inside... note the illustration of the correct IGN map for the walk... but NO latin names!
[However, there are Latin names for some of  the  fauna shown in the identity guide at the back]
We also bought a get-well card for Céléstine...
a perfectly apt Hirlay cartoon...
then we set off for the Étang Foucault.

We went down via the Étang de la Mer Rouge... but apart from a rather nice 'blasted' tree...
pile of wood to some, habitat or feeding station to others... and yet another Great White Egret!
So carry on via the D20 towards Rosnay [pronounced Ronnae] overtaking a couple of cyclists.
Suddenly Pauline yelled "Grues...STOP, grues!!"
There, to our left were three Common Cranes... feeding in an ex-Maize field...
camera in back of car... creep out of driver's door...
[thank goodness we were in the re-registered old Merc... right-hand drive!]
Extract camera from bag and slowly rise over top of car...
cranes didn't seem at all worried... just kept feeding [same as when Simon and Susan saw them the other day.]

Took some pictures... but they were a little distant, even for the long lens.

Just milling around in the maize stalks...
and marching in line.

But... it was Pauline's first ever sighting of cranes on the ground... and my second.
The first being in the late '70s at Hickling in Norfolk. It was the first to be seen...
and I was out walking with the "thenwife" and the dog...
didn't even know what all the fuss was about until I asked one of the hordes looking out over the broad...
and I think we were probably the only ones to actually see it... it was feeding, like these three were, in a field... behind them!

The cyclists came up and asked what we were watching...
"Les Grues"... "oh, yes", came the reply as they glanced in the general direction of the troupe...
obviously an everyday occurrence for them.
They asked to look at the map as they wanted the Maison du Parc.... back the way they'd come....
but, having looked at the map, they decided to carry on via the long route.
That delayed us a little, fortunately, because seven minutes after the first pictures I was taking pictures of more!

We'd just turned up the D27 to Rosnay when there were four more, right by the road...
on the nearside of the car....
                       and where was the camera....
                                            in the bag, in the back of the car....
yet again!

I'd pulled up a little beyond the opening in the rather decayed hedge the we'd seen them through, so it was out of the car very, very slowly...trying to keep my head beneath the hedge top.
Got the camera and turned round even more slowly... taking the first shots through the I moved into the gap in the hedge... they weren't at all concerned... just kept walking and feeding.

Cranes do Country... or line dancing to all but the French.
It seems that either they are not concerned by the presence of people... or feeding is a priority....
when one stopped to have a good scratch, I leant towards the former conclusion.... we don't worry them....
a nice feeling that these huge birds are more concerned about living.

When you gotta scratch... you just gotta scratch!!

Pauline noticed on Grus-Grus, when we got home, that 25,000 had been reported leaving Spain on Saturday... so they were  probably spread all over the Brenne.... fuelling up for the next leg!

Onward and upward?

Watched them walk over the crest of the field and then it was on towards Rosnay...
wow, what a sight, cranes that close.
Rosnay on the horizon with the masts of the Nato communications centre towering over it...
Left just through the village and past the triple fence... all electrified...  
No Photos, No Stopping.... cameras facing the road.... tank traps.... were there mines?
It is probably a wildlife haven, though! Most bases and Army ranges are.

Had there been space in the restaurant... we wouldn't have seen these... I don't mind missing me Carpe Frites if I see things like this...The next part is the Étang Foucault.... and can the day get better.... yes it can!

Monday 27 February 2012

Étang Purais - the start of a good Sunday out.

Last Sunday, a nice sunny Sunday, we went to the Brenne.... for the first time in about nine, or even ten, months.... made note to get out more.
We travelled via Yzeures-sur-Creuse to get some sunflower seed for the birds from the Intermarché and then continued, via Tournon St. Martin and towards Martizay because we wanted to visit the new hide by the Étang Purais. It was just being completed when we last visited Brenne territory... when the orchids were just coming out last year.

Everything looks very new... and it doesn't look much used, yet. We arrived towards 11AM... and quickly realised that the middle of the day was not the time for this hide... the sun is directly towards you. There were some duck shapes, some heron shapes and some LBJ* shapes... none of which were identifiable... except a couple of Tufted duck males... however, it is a large expanse of water and apparently rich in life.

The hide is called the Observatoire Luc Hoffman, the founder of the Tour du Valat private research station in the Camargue... he's a really dedicated naturalist as can be read in the photograph below. But without him we wouldn't have the Ramsar convention that has helped drive the conservation of some of our favourite areas of the UK.

And there is more here at the Tour du Valat website

But apart from visiting at the wrong time, the entrance to the hide is magnificent... it has these beautiful murals that are shown below....

Purple Heron, Marsh Harrier and Wigeon
Pochard, Great Crested Grebe and Whiskered Tern
Whiskered Tern, Coot and Black-necked Grebe
Those grebes again and a couple of Tufted Duck males

We intended to go back on the way home... but got caught up with events, at another étang, and left it too late.... now there's a reason for getting out more. You can't do the Brenne justice in a day!
More later on the other things we saw on Sunday, including getting a stiff neck from a pike....

The surprise inside... the Chocolate-headed Landgull

*LBJ =  birding talk for small birds... "Little Brown Jobs"
Chocolate-headed Landgull... Black-headed Gull... everywhere in the Brenne... centre of France!

Sunday 26 February 2012

Taking the sun

I couldn't resist these two little European Pond Terrapins [Emys orbicularis] Cistude d'europe. They were taking the sun this afternoon in full view of the new hide at the étang de  la Sous, just along from the Maison de la Nature in the Brenne. A lovely day, to be described more fully shortly.
Cistudes in the sun

Thursday 23 February 2012

Cranes today

Just as we got back from a shopping trip at 5:30 this afternoon, Pauline was closing the gate when she heard that unmistakeable trumpetting from the direction of the wood across the road. A flight of cranes was passing behind the wood and heading away from us towards the northeast - too far away to photograph or count. Tim thought there could be a couple of hundred.
They came over last year on the 21st and you will see from records with that entry, our record from 2008 shows we saw them on the 24th. Looking at last years pictures, this group seemed to be much the same size.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Back on track....s

Snow on the ground can tell you a lot about what's going on.... provided you can follow the tracks.

We've recently blogged about the hare that came past.... but there were more traces of animal and bird activity to tell us who was around.

Vole tracks under the snow....
The first was some strange lines in the snow near the lime tree.... the crust of the snow had been pushed up and cracked. These were caused by a rodent seeking food under the snow... most probably a vole. There were other tracks on the surface there... definately caused by a field mouse out on the hunt for food.
How do we know the difference? Well, voles tend to create runs in the long grass and thick vegetation... mice tend to keep to the clearer spaces.... so our thoughts are directed by their behaviour. Why were we certain about the mouse... splayed back feet prints and a drag line from the tail.

...Mice above [it hops more than walks].
We could see the tracks of the moorhens, forced to plod from the bief to the feeder out in the field, the slight strip of webbing each side of the toes giving a distinct chubbiness to the print. The pheasants, also around the feeder, had their own pattern... a sharper, slimmer toe line with a longer rear toe... and a drag mark from the tail. Also... they tend to hurry, not plod, so the print has rough edges with traces of snow spread over the undisturbed crust.

A fox trotting... paw marks inline.

We had a fox that came into the bottom corner of the verger, did a short circuit toward the bief and returned almost the same route and over the fence... those tracks were totally different from the coypu [ragondin] tram lines where they had journeyed in convoy from the bief to the fence line... where longer grass had left pockets of vegetation exposed.

The coypu rocks along as it walks...

... here though you can see the lines caused by two tails...
a pair of youngsters went along here [the other tracks are hare].
But perhaps the most vivid was the little vole hole in the snow with a trail of footprints leading from it....

The vole hole is at the top... just beside a line of pheasant tracks.
You can see that these tracks are very different from those left by a field mouse.

You can see the hole here at the right... 
you can also see the toes in the pheasant track.

We followed and found why they hadn't returned... it had become supper for an owl.

The final moments...
the vole track is coming in at the top...
the owl struck from the  bottom right...
the pit is where the feet grabbed the vole...
the wings pushed into the snow as it lifted off to the top left...
and there is a slight disturbance of the snow beyond the wing prints...
probably caused by by the vole's body bumping on the crust.

Like we said... you can learn a lot about who is around and what they are doing.

Thursday 16 February 2012

More Egret Activity

I said in the last post about the shot I'd missed when I had binos to check out a white blob in the distance.... which turned out to be a pile of split poplar logs.
Today was a little luckier... glanced down towards the river and saw the Great Egret feeding in the meadow near the maples... grab camera... no shot through the kitchen window... field feeder in the way!
Went to front door and opened it very carefully... feeder trees still in way... crept out further and up it went... but I still managed to get these shots... the best yet!

Just lifted off...
Such graceful wings... the yellow beak and all-black legs showing clearly here.
About to lift over our trees and come down... out of shot... on the other bank of the Aigronne!
The equipment sheds below Grandmont are in the background.

I've also been trying a bit of freehand dodgyphotography through the big 'scope... I am improving... but very, very slowly.

This is in the snow using my little Pentax compact camera.
And this one, showing the kink in the neck very clearly, is with my older Pentax... the istD.
Light balance a bit off though... it was still set for snow!!
Now, if it'll just hang around a few days more....

Stop press: Birdguides are reporting 25 sightings of Great Egrets this week for the UK...

Wednesday 15 February 2012

White Ghosts in Winter

Recently we've been seeing ghosts!
Can you see what it is yet?

These have been in the form of great big white birds flying around... especially in the snow. They shouldn't be here, according to the books!

Looks magnificent in the sun...

What we are referring to are Great Egrets or Great White Egrets [Egretta alba or, more correctly #, Ardea alba alba] Grande Aigrette. These, like the Little Egret, now breeding in the UK, are an expansion success story... spreading rapidly in the last ten or so years and wintering further north each year... as I type, the Birdguides weekly report for 2nd to 9th of February is showing 27 birds reported.... of which eight were flocked together in one location in Somerset. How long before Great White Egrets are breeding in Britain?

We've tried here to give some idea of the rate of expansion... too fast for distribution maps in bird books to keep up with:


[UK ]



Summer [Europe]




Rare vagrant



[Very rare vagrant]



Present [possibly breeding]


Rare vagrant
[Winter visitor]

Very rare vagrant


Breeding species


Every year [numbers

Rare vagrant


Breeding species
[numbers increasing]

This expanding population throughout Europe means that Great White Egrets are now seen more frequently. They prefer all kinds of wetland habitats - even farmland ditches can attract them [they certainly seem to here]. They hunting for fish, frogs, small mammals, and occasionally small reptiles and insects, spearing them with their long, sharp, spear-like bill, most of the time by standing still and allowing the prey to come within  striking distance of the spear, or to slowly stalk a victim before stabbing downwards.

The Great White Egret is one of Europe's most graceful looking birds due to its impressive size and pure white plumage. It could conceivably be mistaken for the equally white Little Egret but it is the size of a Grey Heron, and has a longer, often kinked, neck.

Little Egret [note the BLACK beak and yellow feet]
Another one of my brother's photographs!

It builds a bulky stick nest [often in colonies] in trees close to large lakes, or fishponds, with extensive areas of reed beds or other extensive wetlands.

Partially migratory and dispersive. Most European birds migrate to North Africa and the middle East (especially Israel) but they are also wintering in increasing numbers around the Adriatic and even in Holland

There are four subspecies in various parts of the world, which differ but little. Differences are bare part coloration in the breeding season and size; the largest A. a. modesta from Asia and Australasia some taxonomists consider a full species, the Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta).:

    Ardea alba alba (Europe)
    Ardea alba egretta (Americas)
    Ardea alba melanorhynchos (Africa)
    Ardea alba modesta (India, Southeast Asia, and Oceania)

The slaughter of egrets for their plumes lead to the formation in Didsbury (near Manchester) of the Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889, it received a royal warrant 15 years later; its lady members used farmed ostrich feathers instead. [This from the BTO website!]

This is a record of an interaction between three Grey Herons and the Great Egret pictured above:

Calmly waiting by the pond opposite Bezuard.
First, one Grey Heron arrives....
...cutting in quite close.
Then two more, one even closer which disturbs the egret a bit... but watch out, one landed behind it! [on the right]
The egret settles back down... But the third Grey Heron is just open his wings to make his attack run....
Heron coming in fast.... and the egret decides to seek somewhere more peaceful to dine!
And flies off down the valley towards the Moulin de Cheverny!

And the crow and Tim watched it all.
We've blogged about these magnificent birds before but they've been either in the Brenne or just a sighting here but this fellow has been around for over a week now... forced to flowing water by the frozen ground and étangs... nice for us, but I hope it gets more food now the 'melt's come.
Missed a lovely shot today [I had the binos... not the camera]... it came down our meadow, barely twenty feet from the house!!

Sources for this info: Collins "Bird Guide" 2000 [the 1st edition], Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, British Trust for Ornithology and Birdguides  websites and Wiki.

Other good source of information on the Egret is Go Birding.

# This is yet another re-classification*... I heartily wish they wouldn't!! 
*The Great Egret—unlike the typical egrets—does not belong to the genus Egretta but together with the great herons is today placed in Ardea. In the past, however, it was sometimes placed in Egretta or separated in a monotypic genus Casmerodius. [Wiki]

Thursday 9 February 2012

Hare today

The hare was moving right to left...

Either the cold weather is making the creatures more venturesome, or it's just the snow revealing where they have passed. This morning we awoke to find an unmistakeable set of Hare (Lepus europaeus) lièvre tracks passing our front door.

Coming towards the camera
If you look closely at the first set of prints,
you can see the rear right paw mark clearly at the bottom of the hole.
A hare, travelling at some speed, crossed the bridge from the meadow, and accelerated around the end of the barn to the proto-hedge where it could cross the road. Each set of pawprints is a single splodge in the snow, with the two front feet in line at the back. The huge back feet pass the front feet as the hare bounds along, landing splayed out to either side.

Here, the hare's front feet are at the back and the orangy splodges, just above the front elbows, are the hind feet overtaking!

Hares are hunted for the pot throughout France and elsewhere. In our community of communes the hunting fraternity is performing a comptages(census) of hares because of concerns about the population, believed to be declining rapidly (more by habitat loss than from predation). The season for hares was 25 September to 4 December last year, so our hares can bounce in peace for the time being.

Here is that paw print again.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Black hats in the cherry tree

On Monday night, the temperature in our verger fell below -20°C, according to our weather station. It has not risen above freezing since Sunday. In this severe weather, we have seen several species using our bird feeders for the first time, including cirl bunting, collared dove and great spotted woodpecker.

Picture of Weather Station readings showing the lowest temperature yesterday!! [And what it got up to by 6.30.]

A male Blackcap (Sylvia Atricapila) Fauvette à Tête Noire has started helping himself to a couple of apples that we hung in our cherry tree. This handsome fellow, with his dove-grey cloak and smart black cap, is a member of the warbler familiy and a familiar summer visitor, but is resident in this part of France and in parts of southern England. We've seen winter Blackcaps (browncaps, if female/juvenile), but he was a first on the feeders.

Even apples turning to cider-mash are needed by this male Blackcap
The other, slightly more unusual, species is the Reed Bunting (Emberiza Schoeniclus) Bruant des Roseaux. In summer, the male Reed Bunting has a black head and bib, separated by a splendid cream moustache. In winter he retains the moustache, but his head becomes striped in shades of grey and his bib becomes more or less speckled with grey. He mainly feeds on the ground under the cherry tree among the dunnocks, blackbirds, song thrushes and moorhens, under a light rain of seeds kicked out of the feeders by the goldfinches.

A chilly looking male Reed Bunting

We only get the occasional greenfinch or chaffinch at the cherry tree feeders - our best customers there by far are the great tits, blue tits, house sparrows and goldfinches. Here they have a choice of peanuts, wild bird mixture, fat balls and home-made fat blocks. A feeder full of black sunflower seeds hangs from a young willow in the meadow. There the finches are the main customers, both at the feeder and accompanying several young pheasants on the ground.

The Field Feeders
From left: Female Greenfinch, Goldfinch on feeder and Greater-Spotted Woodpecker on his way to the fat balls.
The fat ball feeder is a coiled tube of fencing wire... cost = zero!
It allows fat balls to be used without the netting - now considered to be dangerous to birds' safety.

Despite today's unscheduled snow, there are signs of spring in the meadow. The robins are chasing each other around the cherry tree with their usual aggression. A pair of hares started boxing before disappearing into the blackthorns on the riverbank. Two female blackbirds are disputing rights of possession under the cherry tree. The male finches are starting to look splendid in their summer costumes. By providing food for the small birds we are setting out a dining table for the sparrowhawks, a no win situation I'm afraid. At least we can protect the birds from the cats to some extent. We have set up a chickenwire screen around the foot of the cherry tree to stop the cats rushing the ground-feeders there. Before the snow, Jerry would sit inside it, being teased by the wrens who kept just out of pouncing distance, but it's too cold there for him now.

Greater-Spotted Woodpecker on his way...

Sunday 5 February 2012

Sad little bundle of feathers

Today we had a steady fall of fine snow which tailed off towards lunchtime, leaving the ground with a covering of about ten centimetres. Baron, our black tom cat, was beginning to get cabin fever and begged to be let out. Alas, he caught a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) Pipit Farlouse, which was foraging along the side of the hanger. Normally if you get to him quickly, he will release the bird unharmed and it will fly away, scolding. This time the little creature died in Tim's hand, although it had no sign of injury. On checking it over, there felt to be no flesh on its breast and it weighed only 15.1 grams.

Poor lttle scrap

According to Birds of the Western Palaearctic, the average weight for a healthy adult meadow pipit in autumn (and it has been autumnal up to very recently) is 18 grams.  Also listed are mortality weights of around 12 to15gms. The tip of the tail is quite worn, suggesting that this is an older bird. We think it was starving, exhausted and cold, and the shock of capture by a cat was the last straw. Until the cold spell started, there were plenty of insects around for it to eat. Its fate shows how quickly a small bird can run out of energy in cold weather.
Also worth noting is that this would have been [and technically still was] a new species for us here... we've seen them up on the 'tops' but never around here in the valley... so it had been driven to seek food in new areas.

The guilty party was sent to his basket, which is on the windowsill of our bedroom. Remarkably, he went!

Thursday 2 February 2012

Visitors sniping at Winter's chill

An icy cold, misty grey morning yesterday to welcome in February... and a flash of white passed across the walnut tree trunk. I followed it with my eyes and saw a Hen Harrier [Circus cyaneus] Busard Saint-Martin.

Not the one I saw... my brother captured this today [3 Feb 12]

Recognisable, in the grey, only by its flight and the black tips of its wings as it coursed low over the fields towards the Moulin de Cheverny. A nice start to the day which brightened considerably as the sun burnt through the mist.

Song Thrush on the ivy this morning... the ivy berries [an important winter food source] are the black 'seeds'.
A Song Thrush gets chased off the ivy by a Blackbird by a rear assault [beak up backside]... "My ivy berries, you!" scolded the blackbird as it sat on them calling. Dunnocks, Robins and Wrens hurtling all over the place looking for insects, although the Robins have taken to feeding from the seed feeder here. Five pheasants clustered under the sunflower seed feeder in the field gleaning what the Greenfinches, hogging the field feeder, have scattered or wasted. Mr Creosote and his chums [Goldfinches] scattering seed from the seed feeder.... a Green Groundpecker* [Picus viridis] Pic vert working over the potager whilst it still could.
[*That should read Woodpecker... but for a bird that feeds mainly on grubs and ants from the ground perhaps Groundpecker would be better... it's like the Chocolated-headed Land Gull!]

What was that?...
I'm outa here!!

A trio of Willowchiffs [collective name for Willow Warbler/Chiffchaffs when you can't hear them singing] worked their way through the battered celery plants in the potager. All in all, awful lot of bird activity as they fought to keep up their food reserves in this cold, icy weather. But I had work to do... can't spend the whole day birdwatching.

A glance out of the window as a Blue Tit risks a direct flight of the one hundred metre open ground between the trees along the bank of the river Aigronne and the seed feeder here in the cherry tree... it flew low, to avoid the attention of predators... especially the local Sparrowhawk [which I saw burst like a rocket through  the top of the cherry a couple of days ago.] As he passed over the bief edge, I saw movement down by the water's edge... aha! The Water Rail; haven't seen him for a few days, thought I... but wait, that colouring seems wrong... look again.

A Snipe [Gallinago gallinago] Bécassine des marais was preening itself just opposite the kitchen window.
Then it went hunting for food. It looks for soft accessible organic soil, rich in food organisms just below surface. It also requires clumps or patches of vegetation/shrub as cover. Both of which it has aplenty along the bank of the bief.

The warming of the beak!
Warmer now... let's carry on...
It is not a common bird in France [Concise Birds of the Western Palearctic give the distribution in France as 300-350 breeding pairs; listed as decreasing - 2002] - we are towards the southern end of the range here, but it is believed to breed in the Brenne, where it would nest in a shallow scrape, concealed in short vegetation.

A-probing we shall go...

The winter distribution is as far away as the Nile valley and North Africa, but it is shown as a resident breeding species in the Loire valley.  So we are more likely to see them in the winter months. I thought I'd heard 'drumming' round here before, but had dismissed it as such... but pairing and display may well take place as they migrate to breeding grounds and we now know they feed around here in Winter.

Blending in well with the vegetation
He then went up on the bank to pose!

And he's there again now as I started to write this this morning, probing away at the mud along the edge... I wonder how often we've missed seeing them.