Some words are worth saying just for their sheer beauty  – murmuration is one.

Try saying it out loud and enjoy the rolling, soothing sound.

The word describes one of the great unexpected delights of bird watching: the huge, sweeping, boiling cloud that starlings form before they settle to roost in enormous numbers.

If you want to remind yourself of this magnificant fluid aerial spectacle, click on this link.

The last time I watched it was at Llangorse Lake in Powys Wales. For thirty incredible minutes the sky was alive with the twisting and blooming shapes of thousands upon thousands of noisy starlings wheeling and dancing before stettling suddenly in the reeds to sleep.  Not only was it visually extraordinary, but the noise that starlings make is as raucous and sociable as teenagers squealing with supressed news on the first day back at school .

My garden is still covered in snow and loud with competitive bird calls, as they squabble over apples and the last of the bird seed. The blackbirds cluck and fuss, the field fare hiss and stamp, but they all step back for the 30 boisterous starlings that periodically descend from the winter skies to hoover up everything going.

Starlings were once very common, but are now on the UK red list of endangered birds due to a dramatic and not fully understood decline. I can’t imagine they are doing any better just over the water here in France, so I am delighted to share my bumper bags of cheap Coop ugly apples with them.

They chatter, wheeze, pipe and trill to each other: a Twitter storm in the real world of real, beautiful birds in a cold early spring!




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Couscous and chicken for the birds.

E9383AE1-1FAC-4BBC-A936-B352CF5742C2.jpegThe unusually low temperatures have continued here. It is the end of a long winter, the birds are tired and hungry and I have time, for once, to feed them.

The cold has brought new visitors. Gangs of blackbirds demolish the apples thrown out for them. Starlings have come to ground to flaunt their shiver of green sparkles against the dead grass. The marvellously painted goldfinches have finally discovered the niger seed feeder they have ignored all winter and a solitary field fare, puffed and fluffed against the cold eats sultanas and the apples left over by the black birds.

The sparrows can’t eat their crumbs fast enough before they freeze and I have taken to putting out hot couscous that stays unfrozen just long enough for them to eat it on their table.

As ever, the shops run out of bird seed at this time of year, as they are determined to sell us spring things, whatever the evidence of their eyes tell them to the contrary.

So I dug to the back of the food cupboard to find what I could use instead and came up with: dried figs (chopped up), raisins, sun flower kernels, oats and couscous ( cooked) and rice (cooked). I found soya beans which I boiled up. The birds wouldn’t touch them. I also threw two chicken legs  onto the shed roof, which wonders of wonders, tempted in a red kite and a buzzard !

Possibly the most useful thing I have contributed so far is a regular kettle of hot water into the tin tray that is my bird bath. As all the water is ice at the moment, birds really need something to drink and the circles of ice in the picture are the emptied offerings, which shows how long it has been cold. My reward, when  I was pouring the kettle, was the distant drumming of a woodpecker and the high, sweet mewing of a buzzard calling for a mate in the clear air.


Carnival with forsythia.

It’s Shrove Tuesday and I forgot to make pancakes.

After an interminable month of grey skies and rain, the sun appeared for a whole, wonderful ice cold day. Greenfinches appeared in the birch tree, a few field fare burbled over and two loud ravens called across the blue sky, their heavy dark wings beating the air. In a thermal of heat, red kites and buzzards spiralled up, mewing and fighting in a confusion of lust and aggression.

Shrove Tuesday is the day to use up all rich foods before the abstinence of lent and the only memory we have of it in Britain is flipping pancakes in a village race.

In other countries it is part of carnival ; that hedonistic party before the forty days and forty nights of lent that prepared the faithful for Easter.

In my current neck of the woods (Basel ) carnival  is an oddly irreligious scaring away of the spirits of winter with three beautiful days of grotesque, frightening masks, discordant music, drums and solemn drunkenness .

My small contribution to frightening away the winter is to bring my first branches of forsythia into the house and watch them slowly bloom in the warmth of sunshine and firelight.



Before my first Christmas in Switzerland I went looking for mistletoe to add to the holy and the ivy of a traditional English winter decoration.

I was living in the suburbs and found ivy easily enough and holly in a nearby copse of trees , but no mistletoe. For me mistletoe is a mystical Druidic thing that loves apples trees, needs a golden scycle to cut it and will inspire strangers to kiss beneath it and is absolutely essential for Christmas.

In the copse  of conifers and hornbeam behind our apartment I found tantalising snippets of mistletoe lying on the ground; solitary twigs of two simple leaves and the odd pale white berry.  I looked up into the trees, searching for the familiar ball shape of a mistletoe plant suspended from a branch, but there was nothing. Maybe someone had been here collecting before me and these leaves were their debris.

Eventually I was reduced to buying an over priced  sprig in a local  florists, but I wondered where they had found it, so far from apple trees.

And then came the New Year storms: howling gales ripping off branches and uprooting whole trees. In the felled conifers were hundreds of little mistletoe plants, living their parasitic lives amongst the thick evergreen branches quite hidden to my ignorant eyes. It had never said in my English botany books that mistletoe lived in pine trees and yet here was the abundant proof, littered on the forest floor.

This week in France, the storms came again and the woods are crashed with fallen limbs and boughs, but I was still amazed to see the mistletoe in the unexpected embrace of the felled pine tree. Such odd, but comfortable bed fellows!


Rien à Déclaré

E3401D3B-4830-481B-BD0F-8C75AB96C701.jpegI have just finished rewatching a very funny Dany Boon French movie set on the French/Belgium border in 1993, the year European  borders were opened and no one needed customs officials anymore.

The film came out in 2010 and shows what happens in a little border town that basically is no longer a border and how the French and the Belgian customs men have to learn to accept each other as fellow human beings. It is a film about the stupidity of racism,  full of slap stick, silly stereotypes and a soppy romantic ending.

It opens on New Year’s Day, when the laws change and the people can move freely and the irony of watching it while waiting for Britain’s borders to slam shut was not lost on me.

I try hard to avoid all controversial subjects in this blog, for all the blindingly obvious reasons . Maybe it will be just as funny when the border guards and customs people separate Britain from our neighbours in Europe. Maybe standing in queues and being suspicious of foreigners will provide us all with a rich vein of reverse humour.

I cross European borders everyday to shop, to visit friends, to go to the doctor, to work: it is as easy as crossing the street. I want everyone to feel as free as I do right now, walls do not always make good neighbours and the fun comes when you don’t need them at all. Then maybe we will all have Rien a déclaré.



img_1339Anything wild catches my eye.  Surrounded by day in Swiss concrete, there is little moving to distract me: except the crows.

In the bare branches of the stunted municipal trees they hunch and wait for a dropped sandwich; a popped pringle; an unloved apple.

They throw back their necks and caw jubilation to waiting mates .  Unfurl shake of black shawl wings and sky borne : quartering and dividing the dark tarmac, deciding  how to achieve the ground and to eat their quarry.

Swoop. Decent. Great wings folded and tidy they step delicately martial across their parade ground of discarded dinner and impale a morsel in anthracite black beaks .  Food inspected, assessed, consumed, they return replete to the bare winter tree  and watch us, intelligent sentinels, as the darkness falls.


Feed the Birds

Winston, my cat, is glowering at me from the mat.

He is not allowed out this afternoon , to give my birds a chance to feed. November has little to recommend it, but it does mark the start of the  winter bird feeding season. The feeders are festooned with fat balls, the tables are loaded with seed and the birds have arrived in style.

First the blue tits swarmed in, then came the great tits and sneaking in amongst them a jauntily quiffed crested tit.  Then the robin spotted the food, then came a few chaffinces, a solitary green finch and a smart nuthatch followed. The white back of the head stripe announced a coal tit and suddenly twice the size of everything else there was a fat billed female haw finch, who bullied everything else away for half an hour of solitary gorging.

Winston was still inside, still in a rage and then to add insult to injury a sparrow hawk swooped through the trees looking to do some feeding of her own from amongst my new guests.

Why is she allowed to hunt and not me?

Oh, Winston the injustices of the world are manifold. Have a stroke instead.


Looking for Crumbs.

As the season changes I am just about to start feeding the birds in the back garden. Big bag of bird seed is on the shopping list for Monday and the bird feeders are out of the shed waiting to be cleaned.

I have a bird table on the other side of the house, which up until now  has been the sole territory of the sparrows and has been filled daily with bird crumbs, leftover couscous, crumbled crackers and what ever else didn’t get eaten that day. In the last few weeks it has been taken over by blue tits, great tits and even a jaunty crested tit. There has obviously been some sort of turf war and I am curious as where my squabbling and normally numerous sparrows have gone.

Today, there was a new twist as I noticed honey bees rolling about in crumbs of discarded flapjack. The last flowers have secumbed to the first frost , but the warm weather has encouraged the bees to keep flying and the sugary flapjacks were obviously just what they needed to refuel  on a still November afternoon.


The Watchers.

We watch the birds and the birds watch us.

They are harvesting the maize here. The plants have ripened for months and are dry sentinels guarding the hard yellow cobs that will go for bio fuel or animal feed. Enormous harvesters are shredding the stalks and a glistening stream of grain pours into the following truck. And watching from the orchards are the chaffinches.

A few have been here all summer, but now there are hundreds and they are following the harvest. What do these huge roaring machines look like to these little birds? How did they learn that the rumble and diesel smell means grain to eat as they pick their way through the chaff with the newly arrived winter migrants?

The storks and the buzzards recognise the ploughs that turn over insects and voles to eat in the summer and my sparrows recognise the bread board being shaken each morning over the bird table to scatter crumbs for them.

We think we are the observant ones, but really we are just one set of eyes amongst many watching all around us!


Three quarters of the flying insects are gone.

This article from the Guardian newspaper explains the terrifying decline in insects that is happening in Europe. I heard about it on a radio programme as I was rushing out to work and like so much bad news, I jus hoped it wasn’t true.

Unfortunately it is true and I know it . 

When I would drive home in dusk twenty years ago, the windscreen of my car would be covered in dead insects. Driving down a country lane in the summer was to push through all manner of bugs and butterflies, but now the glass is hardly dirty.

The air is empty. We have trimmed all the hedges and the field edges, we have patioed our gardens and insecticided every crop and plant that we grow. We have tidied up everywhere and now there is virtually no where left for a bug to feed, which means no bugs for the birds to feed on, no birds for the mammals to catch and so on up the food chain.

I don’t want to know this. It is too depressing, but that won’t stop it being true.

So in the spirit of the saying that it is better to light a candle in the night, that to curse the darkness, I will not be tidying my garden this weekend. I shall leave every over grown plant and tatty seedhead; every untrimmed corner of rank grass and every heap of uncollected leaves in the hope that a few hard pressed insects will find a home there and survive for just a little longer.

Here’s to not gardening in the dark!