Our rarest mammal lives on its own, with no known relatives this side of the Channel. Did the greater mouse-eared bat stray here from France? And is it time we invited over some company?
I love the sound of blackbirds.
For me they call the day into being and they settle it to rest at night. Their song is the first thing I hear and blackbird’s rich burbling waterfall of notes is strong enough to be heard through sleepy double glazed bedroom windows and irresistible enough to draw me out into every falling garden dusk.
Each bird has its own sound kingdom ruled from a roof top or tall tree and it proclaims its ownership not in battle or borders, but by pouring the rich cream of its delicious notes over everything that can hear it.
In my garden the blackbird announces the start of the day from the tallest birch tree. Each phrase of its wonderfully complex and satisfying song so round and light they seem to hang on the thin birch twigs like jewels .
At dusk the notes are more defined and the bird chuckles them out like comfortable gossip about the day gone by.
It is always the very last bird to stop singing and the very last to roost: afraid to miss out on anything .
In high summer its final notes are often the prelude to the appearance of the bats and their silhouettes against the gathering dark are sometimes merged as silence finally falls.
It is still summer and glittering. Jewels hunt amongst the rose petals and the perfume of heat is strong.
But the night is cooler and the dawn later. The bats are coming into roost over the apple trees when I have to leave for work, their tantalising trails of clicks and whirls are caught by the bat box and then forgotten in the blur of noise and traffic and faces and faces and faces that fill the working day.
And take me away.
I open the bathroom window, the cat leaps onto the window sill, huge eyed she surveys the black garden. The houses are dark, the shutters are down. Above the hill a crescent moon reclines on thin clouds.
A tawny owl calls soft and is answered, soft, soft. Bat, or is it bird, black against grey, very close. One cluck, another and then an indignant coal scuttle of falling notes clattering hard against the leaves: the blackbirds are awake – there is orange in the sky.
The church spire appears and a black redstart ticks the waking minutes from the rose arch. The Rome flight takes off and the plane leaves a dirty streak of noise across the sky followed by another and another. The pale blue morning is now tartan with orange vapour trails.
Two crows weave through, chatting companionably together against the immense sky. The sparrows are awake, a car hisses by.
The donkey, that I have never heard in my entire life, brays to the crows.
The cat jumps down.
Nine o’clock at night and it is night, as the end of summer darkness has come quickly. The commuters have all gone. The swishing tyres are silent. On the curve of the hill a tawny owl calls . Again and again more distant now as the darkness thickens.
My near neighbour is clearing the dinner plates. Her voice is full of urgent news and chatter. There are no spaces for replies. Through the lighted window her daughter stretches up her arms after a full meal. The chatter disappears, the owl returns. In the street a car drives away. The daughter and her boyfriend leave her parents to a quiet, tidy house.
Madame Charlotte’s feral cats appear: quiet, black, quite aware that I am no threat to them, they drink from the hedgehog bowl and delicately sniff out the cat food discarded by my pampered hygienic moggies. I think I can hear earthworms slithering. An apples falls heavy from a tree onto the cooling grass behind me.
In front, Madame Charlotte’s 45 year old son parks up under the eves of the old barn. He lets out a prodigious belch and fumbles into the house. The lone bat leaves the high eves and goes out across the orchard to feed.
The mosquitoes are feeding on me. Time to go in: the autumnal kitchen door slams behind me.
On Earth day I declared my garden pesticide free. Sounds good doesnt it? I think youngsters call it virtue signaling, or boasting in real speak.
That means no slug pellets and no chemi death to save my box hedge from the terrible china moth that has killed so many lovely box hedges across Europe. The slug pellets I am weaning myself off. I have found lettuces that they don’t eat and I try not to grow flowers that they like. However last night I found my irises being quietly shreded by little slugs working in tiny teams to saw through the stems of the unopened flowers and I felt my resolve slipping . Overhead a bat was stiching the night air and his clicks and whirs were ticking through my bat detector box, as he caught his night flying bugs. I turned back to the house and there in the dusk was a fat hedgehog snuffling.
They are the reason I made my rash pledge. I want my little patch of heaven to be free of the chemicals that are killing our wildlife. The world outside of my garden may well be going to hell in a handbasket, but I have control of this tiny space and I have to keep it clean.
Today I spent another couple of hours picking revolting fat china moth caterpillars by hand off my box hedge. It was hardwork and the wretches kepts trying to wriggle out of the bucket before I could drown them. They are recent alien invaders and they have no natural predators in Europe. If I ignore them, they will eat the whole hedge . Then we both pressure hosed the hedge to try to blast away the ones I had missed . Neighbours stopped to ask what we were doing washing the hedge.
Green gardening is proving to be a lot of hard work, but the hedgehog says it is worth it!
Some days are full of possibilities. Some days the air is crystal clear, the tulips are perfect. Three kites wheel overhead and hang like a mobile over a baby’s cot. The dirt under my nails is full of seeds, bats shift imperceptibly in the eves.
The strangest place I have ever tried to garden was Kazakhstan.
Our first apartment had two balconies. The first faced into the courtyard of the concrete blocks . It had a washing line and you could glimpse the steppe from the top floor as it rolled out, brown and flat to distant Russia. I realised that growing things here would be difficult when after a couple of seeringly hot months my washing froze to cardboard cutout stiffness over night.
The other balcony was boxed in with wooden sides and glass. On the shelves there were still pickles and jams, left by some previous tenant, making use of the cold space to store carefully preserved food, as everyone used to do before the supermarkets came. There was no window sill for plants, but there was an extraordinary view of the Tian Shan mountains . This was Almaty, at the far south east tip of Kazakhstan, the old capital and the most stunningly located city sprawling between the snow capped mountains linked to the Himalayas in the south and the central Asian steppe to the north.
When I lived there remnants of the former USSR were every where, but so too was the newly independent Kazakhstan rediscovering its nomadic and Muslim roots.
In our first year we managed to grow nothing, but the school had a remnant apple orchard, which was so perfumed and perfect in the spring it made me cry. Almaty is supposed to be named after the father of apples and the genetic parent of all apple trees does apparently originate in the country.
Bonkers the magnificent came with us from Zambia and after a lot of bribery and some crying, we got him through customs in one piece. He hated the apartment, there were no chameleons to chase and indoor life did not suit him. We put him on a cat lead and took him to the orchard, but he collapsed as though his back was broken and then escaped up a tree, only to be retrieved with a broom.
We found another apartment in the centre of the city . It had another boxed in balcony full of pickles under which trams rattled and shuddered. This was in the same street as the magnificent state opera house, which broadcast its music for free on summer evening to those who could not afford the tickets to the plush boxes, but who could listen to the outstanding performance on the street, cooled by the great glaciers fed fountains . Bonkers preferred this apartment, as the balcony that faced the courtyard was laticed with bird cage wrought iron and he could catch a breeze while watching the bats plunge out of the plane trees and listen frustratedly to the scops owls calling in the summer time.
He was never allowed out, as he would not have found his way back up to our top floor home and there were rats bigger than he was by the bins. The rats grew plump on the bread left out by my neighbours who considered it a sin to throw bread away and so it was left carefully off the floor for whoever, or what ever may need it.
To assuage his terrible yowling I ocassionally carried him down to the courtyard, where he would be admired by neighbours who would bring their own imprisoned moggies to their own windows to be introduced in a mixture of Russian, Kazakh, English and German.
On the bird cage balcony I grew red geraniums; hung spider plants and tradescantia and grew the best sweet peas ever, trailing up the iron work until the summer heat burnt them off . French marigolds grew well and a jasmine reminded me of Zambia and of Greece. Everything had to come in before the temperatures crashed for the long cold winter, the double glazing closed and the city wide heating turned our sunny kitchen into a greenhouse.
I remember tiny bunches of the first real flowers from the steppe: miniture tulips and irises sold by old ladies infront of the cathedral on my birthday and wishing I could explore more of the steppe myself, and feeling the cold air falling from the mountains on my back and wishing I could really explore them too.
We explored the balcony and watched an extraordinary city instead.
ALL MY GARDENS PART 7 : ZAMBIA .
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The good thing about the shortening days is that I can listen to the bats coming home to roost from the comfort of my bed. Before the sun gets up, I can listen to the clicks and whistles of the bats as they make their last hunting swoops in the gloom, before folding their wings into the corner of the eves to sleep the day away in peace.
Pixie the cat is perplexed by this. She ignores the back ground hiss of the box, but when it picks up and amplifies the sound of a bat, she pats the box, pulls back her ears and meowls!
As the sky lightens and the chuckling of the blackbirds over take the sounds of the night, she relaxes, jumps off the bedroom window sill and vocally demands to be let out again, to take her place as undisputed queen of the day time garden!
Apologies to any one who clicked on my last post and found nothing.
I was trying to repost a fantastic article from the Guardian news paper about the evolution of flowers. This is a link to allow you to read it for yourself.
Mother of all blooms: is this what the last common ancestor of flowers looked like?
I never ceased to be astonished by the variety and beauty of flowers, which I think is actually a very deep seated human acknowledgement of their absolute centrality to human existence. They are not just pretty – they give us life!
To prevent further pontification, here is a picture of one of my garden ornaments contemplating a bat dropping on the bathroom window sill.
I like the things of the night. For me moths and bats have a mystery and a glamour unsurpassed by butterflies and birds. As their world takes place where I can not see, my fascination grows.
To humour me, my husband bought me a moth trap and a bat detector box for my last birthday. I have shared a few finds from the moth trap in previous posts and this weekend I was intrigued by this broken twig of a creature called a buff tip. The mimicry is perfect from the blunt face of the twig end to the exposed heart wood of the white wing. During the day they rest safe from the gaze of hungry birds in trees, but at night when they fly out they are prey to the hunters of the night .
I have always wanted a bat detector, since I saw them being used by experts from my local wildlife trust. The high pitched echo locationtion used by bats is inaudible to human ears, but each species of bat echo locates at a different frequency and by noting which frequency the bat calls at, you can work out which type of bat is swooping over head. I am just learning to use my bat detector and if there are any experts out there I would love some advice!
So far I think I have identified noctuel bats, but were they ordinary noctuels or lesser noctuels? Their call is loud ” chip chop” over the earphones. I have also heard pipistrelles, but again, where they standard ones or Pygmy pipistrelles? At the very top of the range I caught a tantalising burst of the burbling sound of horseshoe bats, but which type?
I have a lot to learn and a lot of sleep to loose in the back garden peering into the darkness, but it beats worrying about the darkness of the human soul and reminds me of how little I know and how many mysteries there are still to explore!
For those of you interested in bats this wonderful you tube clip by Daniel Hargreaves shows lesser horseshoe bats calling from a roost and I swear two of them are dancing!
There is such a longing, a waiting for spring. It starts slow with a little perking of the prickly plants that have survived all winter like the house leeks and then it bursts into unexpected life with the tiny fizz bombs of steppe irises.
Splutters into primroses and then gets unexpectedly reticent with loveliest of flowers the wild ladies’smock that feathers the lawn with palest purple and is almost too impossibly delicate to capture in a photo.
And suddenly spring is in full flower and the cavalcade of blossom is pouring out in flowering cherry and daffodils and heady scented hyacinths and when night falls it is completely star frosted clear. The brightest uncomplicated blue fades down to egg shell and pale yellow at the world’s edge and the first bat swoops out to slice the dark.
São Paulo Brazil has about 20 million inhabitants and from my first experience, only one tree.
I could see the tree from my apartment on the fifteenth floor. It was in a school yard a long way down and it was completely dwarfed by the high rises that surrounded it. São Paulo was the most relentlessly urban environment in which I have ever tried to grow a garden and yet a city more in need of green it would be hard to imagine.
When we arrived in our first apartment we stepped over the street children huddled together like puppies under blankets. When I looked out onto the balcony I felt I was falling into the most profound pit I had ever seen, as the earth that should have surrounded the building was being excavated to a terrifying depth, to build the sky scraper next door.
We didn’t stay long.
There were a few more trees near the next apartment we lived in, but they too were dwarfed into insignificance by the dimensions of the buildings.
From this second balcony I hung ferns in baskets and tried my best to make a wall of green with ficus trees, crotons and butterfly palms. Bigonias are native to Brazil and an assortment of types gave colour and leaf shapes to my attempt to block out the view of the city.
Wildlife is more tenacious than we think however, and a feeder soon attracted a spectacular swallow tailed blue humming bird that had swapped a life sipping nectar from blossoms in the topical forest for a city life drinking sugar water from a plastic feeder. The blue grey taneger we had first met eating chilies in our Costa Rican garden appeared again in Brazil on this high rise balcony and even built a nest, as delicate as a wren’s, in an old plant pot. She even laid eggs, but three days of colossal thunderstorms sent apocalyptic lightening and biblical rain across the city and somewhere in the storm she was lost and her eggs were never hatched.
(I found her photo in an old scrap book)
In our local bar, where we sat at pavement tables shouting above the roar of the traffic, fruit bats picked ripe fruits from the few road side trees. They must have been able to smell when the fruit was ripe and the bats appeared in their hundreds for a few day only hanging clustered like ghouls with their large intelligent canine faces, observing us drinking cold beer far below.
On the edge of Sao Paulo is a wonderful place called Pedra Grande. Before the city grew into the chaotic megalopolis that it is today, an enlighten city father decided to protect the city’s watershed. In order to do this a very large chunk of Atlantic forest around a rock outcrop was spared the axe and to this day Paulistas can walk amongst the real tropical sky scrapers of giant trees and delight in three toed sloths, howler monkeys and magnificent toucans only a short drive from down town. This remnant of paradise was our salvation and we spent each weekend there buried in the deep green and the brilliant colours that make up a tropical forest.
To climb to the top of Pedra Grande is to understand the true shape of the world.
The walker emerges from the shade of the thick forest, scrambles onto the smooth granite boulders and the conurbation of 20 million souls erupts into view. The tens of thousands of sky scrapers bristle up into the smog hazed sky and then slope away into infinity, as the curvature of the planet is revealed in this awful, breathtaking monument to the human ability multiply and to build.
No balcony garden anywhere could compensate for that knowledge.