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Monday, October 31, 2011

Nice Chateau!

Stumbled upon this exquisite chateau as I was exploring some woods and lakes nr Azat le Riz. Its called Le Chateau de Rischauveron.  Can't find out a heap load about it but apparently parts of the building date back to the 14th Century ... like most chateaux and old buildings in France it's in wonderful restorative condition and I think it's a splendid example of its kind.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bird Report Oct 10th - 29th

Spent a week back in the UK (12th - 20th) so this is an extended report covering more than the usual week (one day I'll get into the swing of publishling weekly reports every week!)
I've had a comment from a birder asking why I don't report my sightings using the usually accepted taxonomic format listing bird families from Divers / Pelicans through to Finches - good point, and since it makes it easier for me simply flick through my field guide which of course uses this system, here goes ....

Surprise surprise ... NO pelicans! Plenty of other goodies though and as Autumn takes a firm grip here there have been new birds arriving and others that have moved on.
Ok, according to said order we need to consider yon herons, storks & grebes. Totaly unsure about the wintering habits of Great White Egrets but 34 of these magnificent birds were on the Etang de Beavoir on the 26th along with 17 Grey Herons. The odd one of the former have ben turning up along the river too and on the 29th I had 20 Common Cranes flying south (pic right) in the Rouflamme valley which I hope is a sign of further Stork / Crane passage. 22 Great Crested Grebes on the Etang de Beavoir is my highest record for this location.

Next in the hallowed order of all things feathered we come to Wildfowl (how interesting is this non birders?)... well, not very for me either with just a few extra Mallard aboutr and 10 Pochard on a local resevoir (simply must get to the coast soon!). 8 Mute Swans overhead on the 11th were probably just local wanderers.

Better fare with raptors & owls with a Merlin and male Hen Harrier both at Etang de Bouvoir on the 26th and a further male Hen Harrier in local fields yesterday (28th). Buzzards remain as visible as ever with 10 or so in my immediate locale - always good to photograph, the pics below are all of the same bird and although they're commonly mobbed by crows it was a lucky shot to get this harassed individual calling (in irritation prsumably!)

Common Kestrels seem a tad more abundant then usual with almost daily sightings of 1 or 2 in local fields and several Sparrowhawks are about in the Rouflamme valley.

No wading birds of note here in the past couple of weeks but a flock of about 120 Golden Plover & 150 Lapwing somewhere along the A59 nr York (UK) was a reassuring reminder that 'big plover' flocks are still patrolling the skies in that neck of the woods.

For the sake of brevity I'm skipping gulls, auks & pheasants, escept to mention a couple of Common Gulls in ploughed fields en route back through Northern France - apart from Black Headed Gulls on resevoirs any other species of gull around here is a find!

Pigeons. Love 'em, race 'em or shoot 'em (definitely the French preference!), they fly like masters of the sky and personally I'm quite liking seeing big flocks of Wood Pigeons rising out of nowhere and filling the sky - so much so I snapped a few doing just that today, not a great photograph but it gives some idea of the how they fill the sky (pic left)

Still not seen a single Stock Dove over here though!

Ok, on to that middle group of birds including Swifts, Kingfishers, Hoopoes, Rollers & Bee-eaters - apart from regular Kingfisher on the river, unsurprisingly there's zilcho to report.

Woodpeckers next and of course there have been many Great Spotted & Greens about but I was also fortunate to bag another Black Woodpecker flying over the village (counts for the garden list!) on my way back from emptying the bins - looked so prehistoric and wished I'd had a camera!

Next in line - and maybe at this point you'd be interested to know that the further we go along the bird families, the more intelligence said bods are said to possess... I sense you're now rivetted, so, where were we - yes, next in line come Larks & Pipits and call me abnormal but I HAVE BEEN RIVETTED by some spectacular flocks of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits flying south over the village with 150 + Skylarks over in an hr on the 26th and about 200 south today. Smaller flocks of Meadow Pipits are a daily occurence at present and there has been another influx of Woodlarks with flocks of up to 20 not uncommon on higher ground.

No further Swallows but a late House Martin south over the barn on the 11th is my last to date.
Accentors are next and I mention these only to tease ... an Alpine Accentor is damn fine bird but unless your garden bird table is situated in Southern Europe and at an altitude of over 2,000 meters then you're just not going to see one, but it has a closely related and far more widespread cousin - the Dunnock or Hedge Sparrrow, they're another bird that tends to move south in Winter and many more around the woods here. Likewise Robins and after last month's influx numbers have stabilised with maybe 20 - 30 a reasonable number on any given walk.

Right, we're into the 'Chats & Thrushes' and here's a thing ... Stonechats, common as you like, perched on just about every other telegraph wire through the Spring & Summer seem to have disappeared from around here. Saw 1 today but apart from that - where have they gone? Maybe it's a Westward migration to the coast, I know not. Less mystifying has been the expected influx of Song & Mistle Thrushes, Blackbirds and in smaller numbers Redwings. No Fieldfares here as yet but did have 35 over south in Sherwood Forest on the 16th along with 15 Redwings. Acompletely random extra sighting on that day was a bollock naked man walking along a forest track (oo er missus!)... not photographed or dwelled upon!

On to the 'wee birds' or 'little brown jobs' as they're often somewhat unfairly labelled by fairweather birdwatchers. Warblers have all but flown on to more insect laden lands but a few persist and 2 Chiff Chaff on the 25th in the Rouflamme Valley may be my last aprt from the odd over wintering individual. Also had a male Blackcap in the garden on the 21st and although I suspect they over winter a Cetti's Warbler at the Etang de Beauvoir on the 26th. The 'weeist' of the 'wee' - Firecrests have noticeably increased in number around here with small gatherings of up to 10 locally. Also on the increase are Great, Blue and Long Tailed Tits along suitable hedgerows and green lanes with the occassional Marsh Tit in there for good measure. Nuthatches are as abundant as ever and there seems to be increasing numbers of Treecreepers in the woods flying from trunk to trunk and generally being as unphotographical as ever!

Getting to the truly advanced species now with Rooks, Carrion Crows & Jackdaws gathering in ever increasing flocks; and along with the ever present, acorn gathering Jays, their evening fly overs in the dimming Autumn afternoon are to me symbolic of the changing seasons.

Last but not least, and therefore presumably the most advanced of birds, we have Finches & Buntings.
Last Spring I witnessed many Chaffinches flying North, literally hundreds of them and more than I had ever seen in the UK on migration and although not in such huge numbers I'm seeing them again fling in the opposite direction. Not sure where they spend the Winter, some will stay here of course but hey there must be a lot of Chaffinches in world! Few other finches in there too - Greenfinch, the occassional Linnet, Goldfinch and Siskin and a good highligh was 4 Hawfinches south on the 27th through the Rouflamme Valley. Cirl Buntings are as common as ever and have been joined by ever increasing numbers of Yellowhammers (not a common bird in France) with 6 seen on the 11th. About 15 roosting Reed Buntings at Etang de Beavoir were believe or not my first for France and I suspect they over winter here.

Ok thats it folks, been a quietish couple of weeks here, almost 'in between' seasons. Pretty sure there will be more Cranes and hopefully some Geese flying over soon and that the hedges will be full of Fieldfares, Redwings and I wonder if Waxwings will grace us with their presence in numbers this year?

I leave you with a few images of Autumn around here

Stay tuned to the skies folks!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Going South after Xmas!

Whilst out walking the mad running hound Balloo the other day the thought occurred to me that the Winter in Spain or Portugal might be interesting, so I'm going to plan a trip after Christmas. It is afterall what I retired for - to travel about, get off the beaten track and just enjoy being somewhere I've never been before ... be warmer down there too!

So, its finally time to acquire one of these -

Because I'm NOT going to sleep in one of these anywhere in January!
Except maybe Australia!

I hope both the birding and photography opportunities will be excellent and of course I'll take my guitar hopefully do a bit of busking along the way to help with the cost of diesel!

Looking at setting off the last week in January and taking up to a month. First destunation may well be the region of Arragon & have in mind a semi montainous spot called Los Mallos de Riglos (marked on the map , right) and a couple of pics of the area below.
Apparently, Wallcreepers come down from the mountains and winter in abundance around here - it's a bird I've never seen and would kill to get just one good photograph!

This would do nicely!

Anyway, I dream on!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Back from Blighty!

Yes I know, not many posts recently but Baggins has been back in the UK and with 6 days, lots of folk to see and things to do, the blog had to take a back seat.

It was great to see my 2 girls looking so well, parents buoyant after yet another cruise, my sister coming on a treat with her guitar playing and her partner doing likewise on his double bass (can't wait to get them back over here so we can start gigging again!) and of course my lovely girlfriend Gabrielle – funny and beautiful as ever!

Set off back to France in new vehicle I bought over here, a 2nd hand Astra estate with LPG fitted - a snip at £640! I departed at 6pm Wed and took the pic (above) of York Minster looking splendid in the sun just after I set off. 18hrs later I was taking Baloo out for a stroll around the fields of La Macherie and here's a pic (right) of said new car doing its job ....getting Baggins out n about!
Whilst I was in the UK I caught up with my best pal Mark  and here's a thing – we only had an hour or 2 birding and ended up tramping around Sherwood Forest at Edwinstowe. Great place, some of the oak trees there are said to be 800 yrs old and they looked it. Anyway, there we were scanning the skies and as well as nabbing a flock of 35 Fieldfares & 15 Redwings over from the North, we spotted a completely naked man strolling along one of the forest tracks! All very bizarre and not a little unsettling for the middle aged couple who we also spotted walking the other way! Why was this man naked I ask myself? Well my friends, there is a small but growing number of 'ramblers come naturists' across Europe that are trying to promote some kind of ancient right to roam free in one's birthday suit – so bare that in mind next time you step out for a Sunday stroll I the woods! 
Treated myself to a new guitar whilst back in ole blighty – and here it is (pic right) sat next to my other baby … always wanted a decent jazz guitar and have to say it plays like a dream!

Stay tuned, going to try and post more snippets of the ordinary and sometimes not so ordinary adventures of of an ordinary bloke enjoying his retirement!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Weekly Bird Report (Oct 1st - 9th 2011)

Weekly bird report October 1st – 9th 2011 – In and around La Macherie, Vienne, France

The high pressure system that has given most of Western Europe some glorious early Autumn weather these past few weeks persisted into the first few days of October with 30C sunshine radiating down through trees already shedding their leaves. It was unusual to look up into blue skies and see not a single Swallow or House Martin but as if on cue, come October and they all but disappeared and with their departure Robins continue to stream into the countryside and it was slightly odd to see so many singing in bright sunshine.  

Star bird on the 1st was a single Redwing flying over nearby fields and on the same morning an Osprey flew (S) over the village. Small numbers of Song Thrushes have been appearing (and quickly disappearing!) in the hedgerows and along with an increase in Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and Yellowhammers in and around the village is visible evidence of the mass North to South movement of small birds at this time of year. Typically I can sit in the back garden at any time of the day, look up, and within 30 mins (I'm a patient man) I'll see a small flock of Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits or Skylarks flying over. Not so typical was a fleeting glimpse of 2 Hawfinches (fleeting glimpse maybe IS typical of this big finch!) down by the river Gartemp on the 7th

Fascinated? If you're a non birder probably not! Ok, well let me try and enthuse …. at the same time as I witness the arrival of birds that choose to over winter here or further South, I continue to see Summer birds hanging on and braving the ever cooling weather or more likely just passing through on their way further South. Fascinating moments of this kind from the first week in October include a male Redstart flitting about a local hedgerow on the 1st , a singing Tree Pipit on the 3rd , a late Whinchat feeding off sunflower heads on the 4th, 5 House Martins speeding south through the rain on the 6th and 3 Swallows overhead and south that seemed to come out of nowhere on a drab Sunday (today) … it might not be the Serengeti but migration is visible and wonderful wherever you are, you just need to keep your eyes open and look up every few minutes!

Been a bit quite on the raptor front all week with little or no passage of note but a Peregrine Falcon on the 8th in local fields and worrying a group of Starlings was believe it or not my first in this country and maybe a passage bird.

As of today I'm still seeing Chiff Chaffs on a daily basis, 2 in the garden today for instance, but not seen a Blackcap since the 7th. Marsh Tits seem to be more apparent and Long Tailed Tits are flocking in ever increasing numbers (had a max of 15 locally). Woodlarks continue to make their presence felt in just about any suitable field and not unusual to record 10 – 20 on a single local walk.

Today I've been tramping around the Camp Militaire nr Montmorillon and apart from the surprising late Swallows mentioned above good sightings included 3 Green Sandpipers, 2 Snipe, a single Golden Plover (flying over South) and 45 Lapwings on one of the numerous ponds in the area.

Overall, not a bad week for in and around my local patch here in central France. I look forward to more winter arrivals, especially Common Cranes, more Winter Thrushes, Geese and as ever some local surprises, however I'm back in the UK next week, for a week, so next report will be Franglais!

Magic Mushrooms!

A few weeks ago I spent a whole afternoon photographing mushrooms that had sprouted overnight following a few days of rain. There are said to be over 3000 different types of mushroom in France and although I've only captured a tiny fraction of these there are many types I've never seen before … so many different shapes, colours and sizes!

Mushrooms can sprout here at just about any time between March – November and more often than not after wet weather. Only a few of the many types are edible and although it was a plan to gather some to fry up and accompany a choice piece of steak for my tea, after being totally confused by the pictures of what you can eat, what folk say you can eat and what I'm actually seeing, I've decided not to risk a pricey trip to Montmorillon A & E and to stick to 500g box of button champignons from Aldi!
Maybe next year I'll get my wicker basket out, and yes it does have to be a wicker basket! Such is the interest in gathering edible mushrooms here that every region, department and local commune in France have set down rules to guide the would be fungi forager. The following is more or less standard when setting out -

  • Mushrooms must be a certain size before being picked so that they have a chance to release their spores
  • Tools of any sort are forbidden with the exception of knives
  • A knife must be used to cut the stem so as not to damage the mycelia (underground bit!)
  • Mushrooms must be carried in a wicker basket to let the spores fall out and help propagation

Typical French pragmatic quirkiness! On the darker side it's thought on average 30 people die every year from consuming dangerous mushrooms (mainly due to the infamous death cap mushroom)

No idea whether any of the mushroom pics here are edible or dangerous and I'm hoping some bright fungus lover will help me out and save me the time of tagging these pics!

Last but not least, I stumbled upon this monster (below) whilst walking in a field. It's a Giant Puffball and most definitely edible. I was so intrigued by this specimen that I did pick it (no doubt violating several local byelaws!) and carried it home, a feat in itself because it was the size of a football!

In the end this beast remained uncooked because when sliced open it was a bit yellowish inside, not a good sign - shame, they're supposed to be quite tasty fried in batter!

If you're in France and not sure whether a mushroom you've picked is edible, take it along to any pharmacy - they're all trained to identify the good and the deadly!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Valley of the Monkeys & Autumn Reflections

One of my twin daughter's Sophie was over here a few weeks back for a good 'chill out' 2 weeks and on the recommendation of a friend of a friend we took a trip out to a nearby animal sanctuary called La Valle des Singes (Valley of Monkeys).

It was a good recommendatioon! Unlike many animal parks & zoos I've wandered through, La Valle des Singes is a refreshingly 'un-stage managed' and friendly reserve (and no I'm not on their payroll!), with a vast area of land in which monkeys of many species roam free in the trees. Ok it's not an all singing all dancing safari park ... its just monkeys, but to see so many of our closest relatives (sorry bruv!) swinging across the branches was just brilliant and if you're ever in the area I'd highly recommend a visit.

Photographer's dream of course and although an unseasonal downpour cut short our visit here are a few 'monkey pics' for you to enjoy daughter would know all of the correct names for these but I think we have some Capuchins, Chimpanzees & Lemurs here

I took a few more and the complete gallery will be available to view on Flickr just as soon as I get around to uploading it!

Meanwhile, and bang up to date we seem to have moved into the month of Octobre! How did that happen then? Bet you can't wait for my first weekly bird report from still sunny mid west France, well don't get too excited , all in good time .... it still feels like high Summer here (25c today) but Autumn is definitely upon us, that grandest of all seasons ... regeneration time, nature going to sleep, casting off this year and building for next!

I've had a wonderful Summer for all sorts of reasons but I do love Autumn. Some idiot once suggested that Autumn is just about things dying off and that it suited my general aptitude ... we parted company soon after said suggestion! So, for all that lament the passing of another Summer, here are a few images of  early Autumn in my neck of the woods.

Wonderful strong colours .... are we ruddy for next year?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bird Report Aug / Sept

Bird Report Aug / Sept - In and around La Macherie.

This is the first of my weekly round up of bird sightings and seeing as its my first and this is a brand new blog I'll extend this one to include the highlights over the past month or so.

August was predictably hot & humid in this part of France and not the most conducive of months anywhere for birdwatching, certainly in the early weeks, with little or no passage to speak of it's a case of catching up on resident breeding birds. As is the case everywhere in Summer birdsong diminishes and our feathered friends become rather elusive as they get on with the business of bringing young ones into the world. Birds of note around here were a surprise discovery of breeding Purple Herons at a small lake just outside Montmorillon where I had a maximum of 6 alongside some 40 pairs of Grey Heron and attendant Little Egrets, Continental Cormorants and at least 2 pairs of Great White Egrets – a species that is rapidly expanding its range Westwards in Europe. At the same location 4 Stone Curlews flew over the lake and were later heard in nearby fields.

On the passerine front (that's those small birds that annoyingly disappear into the nearest tree, hedge or bit of deep grass before you can even lift your binoculars!) … a single Hawfinch in the village was a good record, but disappointing numbers of Serins which seemed to disappear completely. Stonechats have been present in good numbers but rather less abundant have been the related Redstart, Spotted & Pied Flyctachers with only occasional records in the month. On the warbler front Chiff Chaffs, Blackcaps, Nightingales & Whitethroats in abundance. Surprisingly not recorded a single Willow Warbler though!

Going slightly larger, Golden Orioles have brightened up my days with their dashing colour and weird song & I reckon there are about a dozen pairs in and around the village, even had a couple in the garden! Both Great Spotted & Green Woodpecker are very common around here, as are Nuthatches and although less visible Lesser Spotted and Middle Spotted are both present in smaller numbers. Red Backed Shrikes, became visible mid month with maybe half a dozen pairs in and around the village. Hoopoe's crop up just about anywhere and there are at least 2 pairs nesting somewhere in the village.

On the bird of prey front, very disappointing year for Hobby's so far with only 3 records. A couple of sightings of Honey Buzzard early in the month suggest a breeding presence whilst Common Buzzards are as ever abundant. Montagues Harrier, Goshawk & Booted Eagle were all elusive during the month but certainly present and all breed around here.

August 24th was my last Swift record and in the same week Common & Green Sandpipers begin to crop up on local wetland areas – evidence of early Autumn passage.

Into September then and, along with October, one of the best months to observe the annual North to South movement of birds in the Northern Hemisphere. Some places are better than others of course (East coast of England springs to mind … and this ex pat misses just that bit of the UK and at just this time of year!) but no matter where you are, if you have a pair of eyes and take even a passing interest in nature, bird movement is very visible.

Several of the region's over summering birds disappeared South during the first week in Sept including Red Backed Shrike, Turtle Dove, Hoopoe, Melodious Warbler & Purple Heron. In there wake, during the 2nd week of the month, many passerines previously notable only for their absence began to crop up along the hedgerows such as Redstart, Spotted & Pied Flycatcher with many treks around the green lanes turning up 10ish of each. There was also a noticeable influx of Robins at the same time with their melancholy song replacing the more vibrant Blackcap as the most dominant noise in the woods!

I'd hoped to squeeze a trip to the Auvergne, a well known raptor migration hotspot, during the month but social and car issues intervened, so have had to content myself with catching what birds of prey decide to float southwards over La Macherie. Sure I'd have had greater numbers up in the mountains but the 14th of Sept saw 3 Honey Buzzards, 2 Red Kites, 2 Booted Eagles, 2 Immature Hen Harriers, 1 Merlin, 1 Short Toed Eagle and 2 Black Storks over the village with a couple more Honey Buzzard and single Booted & Short Toed Eagles on the 16th. A single Marsh Harrier flew south over the village on the 20th and a pair of the same species did likewise on the 22nd. On the 26th my mate Mark, who's much better on raptor identification than me, popped over for a few days and we had a wandering male Hen Harrier on the Etang de Beauvoir plus an Osprey at the same location, another splendid male Hen Harrier on the Camp de Militaire, near Montmorillon on the 27th and at the same location we had Merlin plus a Short Toed Eagle. All in all, not a bad haul for a rural location in the middle of France!

Apart from birds of prey, other September highlights included 45 White Storks south over the village on the 7th, a migrant Nightjar nr Saulge on the 24th , a late Whinchat on the 24th, at least 6 Tree Pipits on the 26th along with a posssible Little Crake several singing Chiff Chaffs, Willow Warblers & 2 Whitethroats and a Yellow Wagtail (all at Etang de Beavoir). Swallows gave been passing overhead and making their way south all month with about 550 over the barn in 3 hours on the 14th.  There was a noticeable influx of Woodlarks on the 16th with about 20 seen in nearby fields that day plus a  wonderful flock of 8 Blue Headed Wagtails on the same day - unusual for around here and clearly passage birds. House Martins started to move during the last couple of weeks with a handful of resident birds still hanging around the village on the last day of the month. A single Serin in the garden on the 29th was spotted my my friend Mark who also heard a Stone Curlew the previous evening whilst he was watering the plants in the garden!

Last day of the month (30th ) brought some goodies – a male Redstart, my first Black Woodpecker (sunning itself on the top of a dead tree!), another Honey Buzzard south, 3 Whinchats, 10 Woodlarks and several Blackcaps and Chiff Chaffs still holding on in this glorious, if slightly unseasonal 30c heat!

Wow that was a lot of words but hopefully of interest to some, from now on I'll be updating on a weekly basis and as I finish this off its already Oct 2nd and I can safely say that if the first 2 days of the month is anything to go by the next report will make interesting reading!