Birds don’t recognise borders.

I found out about a orchard planting initiative in my village almost by accident. An old fashioned piece of paper dropped in my letter box said a field was being planted with trees the next day and volunteers were welcome. 

A long field on the edge of the village was staked out with pegs and bare rooted pear and apple trees lay waiting to be pruned and planted. A knowledgeable man snipped off almost every branch with great care and precision and holes were dug to place the trees in. A pleasant community endeavour you might think, but what was was more remarkable than that people were giving up Saturday for the good of birds, was the fact the the land was in France, the trees were Swiss and the people were French, Swiss, German and British.

This slice of hope in  a crazy world was funded by an anonymous donation in Switzerland that was to help little owls increase their tiny claw hold in Europe. The land was donated by a French family who love birds and the work was undertaken by locals, Swiss volunteers from over the border and school children. Little owls were extinct in the area, but very careful management and cooperation between bird lovers in three different nations is slowly recreating the tree and hedge rich habitat they need to survive and move effortlessly between countries. The generosity of someone I will never know, across a border that means nothing to wildlife, may hopefully help the spread of this beautiful bird.

While borders seem clanging shut across the world, this seems something to celebrate!

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The power of noise.

It was cold. The winter sun was rising reluctantly and shafts of sunlight momentarily threw the fog into tangible white blocks. Sounds in the woods were muffled. Invisible ravens called overhead and the planes took off one after another; their roaring lingering in layers above the mist.

Into this soft cotton wool world someone threw a grenade and the tree tops exploded in noise.  I craned my neck back to see what bird or animal was responsible.  A flock of small birds was whirling in the highest branches.  The fog was too thick to make out colour and marking, only their size was discernible : blue tits? Chaffinches? Bramblings returning from the north? However numerous they were, such small birds could not be making this ear splitting cacophony. And then I realised, I knew this noise. This was mistle thrush turned up to 11! The crackle of mistlethrush is a sound of winter in the forest as they work through the mistletoe that grows on the high pine trees, but I had never heard them so loud.

They are highly territorial birds and will defend an apple tree covered in mistletoe from all commers, but I never knew they could repel a huge flock of finches deep in the forest by the sheer force of their voices. There were hundreds of finches foraging for seeds and insects in the tree tops, but they didn’t stand a chance against a couple of loud mouthed thrushes, who had this patch of woodland staked out for their own winter larder.

 

Slicing out the sky.

When the leaves are gone, there is less to distract us from the enormity of winter skies. Little, colurful birds cluster around the seed feeders and the fat balls, but the blank, cold skies are left for black birds: for the crows and for the best of all birds : the pitiless raven.

As the flowers shrivel in the first frosts, she bristles out her throat, throws back her head and laughs long and loud into the empty air. The dreariest time of year is the ravens’ flirtation . While we fret and fart with wretched leaf blowers in our tidy corners of the world, the ravens shout into the wind, roll  extravagantly, over and over with the sheer joy of aerial mastery, wings heavy bell beat in the frozen air. Their’s is delight in cold; delight in dark. This is their time to pair, to impress with improbable devilry; to call to their mate and to slice out a piece of sky for their own winter territory . In their magnificent racous laughter, they wait for the carrion that will feed their young in the months before spring returns.

On not being tidy.

There is a great desire to tidy up the garden at this time of year; to sweep away, to cut down and the housewife in me itches to do away with all the dying vegetation in a great autumn cleanup.

It has taken me a few years of enjoying my own garden to realise that this urge really stems from the mistaken belief that tidying away the old season, will hasten in the new. Old flower stems, mushy leaves and lank shrubs seem to cry out for a short back and sides, but having subjected my garden to such tidy mindedness in my first few years of real gardening, all I was left with was brown soil, bristling shrubs and flat grass. As there are months and months to go before the first bulbs appear and leaves soften the stark branches, I slowly realised that there is no rush to clean up and precious little point to loosing the interest bequeathed by the dying year.

Not being tidy means the seeds have time to ripen in the seed heads and the dry stems give architectural beauty lost in the tidy garden . Spiders sling their webs between the stalks and the first frosts jewel them with diamonds. The leaves shelter the worms, the beetles and the bugs that will feed the hedgehogs and the bushes are roost sites for sparrows and larders for bluetits. The unpicked grapes are pecked off by the blackbirds and the apples forgotten in the grass will feed the starlings.

The weeds that have escaped the tidy hoe in the vegetable patch find space to miraculously flower and prickly blue borage is noisy with the last honey bees.  Nothing is to be gained by pulling them up. There will be time much later in the long, long winter to make space for next year’s explosion of life.

Until them I will resist the urge to tidy and let my garden move at its own  pace: quietly, messily giving life to the winter world.

Dawn

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.

 

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Gardening Organically

I found this great post and I just pressed the reblog button in my enthusiasm. I didnt have time to ask for permission and I really hope The Wildlife Gardener doesnt mind my hasty action, but it is a really good piece and it expresses the need to ditch the chemicals much better than I can!

The Wildlife Gardener

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It’s tempting to reach for the chemical sprays or powders when your walk into your garden and find your favorite rose overrun with aphids or Japanese beetles, or find your cauliflower beset by cabbage worms.  After all, what harm can a localized spray possibly do?

The answer is quite a lot.  The fact is 90% or more of all insects are beneficial and harmless, and no matter how “localized” the spray, the chemical will kill all insects, not just the “pests.”  A diverse collection of insects in your garden/yard translates into good pollination and fruit development, and a natural, non-toxic check on the growth of “pests.”  We need insects in the ecosystem.  The alternative would be hand-pollinating our fruit and vegetables to continue our food supply; clearly not a viable or reasonable alternative.

Beneficial insects, if allowed to flourish, will curb the spread of pests.  The two most effective ways to encourage…

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Chocolate dusting

These bracket fungi remind me of Christmas spice biscuits: white sugar and a dark chocolate top, all dusted with cocoa powder. The honey fungus to the left look like marzipan decorations, but I am not eating any of it. Foraging maybe fashionable these days, but a spectacular number of people die every year from picking and eating the wrong mushrooms. I am fascinated by fungi, but know enough to recognise how different the same species can be, at each stage of its growth. Even the most experienced can make mistakes and while this can just lead to a badly upset stomach, it can also lead to fast, fatal poisoning. So I just admire from a distance and eat real chocolate instead!

On the same walk in the woods, where I spotted these deceptively edible treats, I saw a commotion in a fir tree which took a moment to understand. There was ungainly flapping and an odd hissing/cooing noise. The flapping was a buzzard and the hissing was a very small red squirrel racing along the trunk of the tree to escape. The buzzard chased it up the tree and then down again, flapping its wings against the trunk to dislodge the mammal. The squirrel ran for its life making the strangest soft cooing noises. Eventually it reached the safety of the floor and buried its self in the undergrowth. The buzzard flew heavily away with a disgusted croak.

I have seen a buzzard with a dead red squirrel in its claws, but never watched them hunting like this before. We don’t get Grey squirrels here at all and the red squirrels are much less obvious. I have always thought of buzzards hunting voles and rabbits, but when you see how crafty they are in the depth of the forest, it is no wonder the red squirrels with their soft voices, are so cautious and hard to see.

Pivot..End of August…..

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.

Alsace in August.

There have been three weeks of punishingly hot weather here, but today it was finally cool and we could emerge from our firmly shuttered house and enjoy the countryside.

The skies are full of huge storks . All the youngsters have successfully fledged from their roof top nests and have followed every plough and harvester to gather up the crickets, slugs and voles and turn them into gigantic terydactyl sized birds. I love seeing the white storks raise their noisy broods in such public places. They are a wonderful European sucesss story . In the Alsace they were nearly shot to extinction only a few decades ago, but now with bettter education and legal protection these truely iconic birds are flourishing once again. When I arrived in our village 8 years ago, to see a stork in the sky was a real event, but now they feed regularly in the meadows and the local school is putting up a stork basket to encourage the first pair to nest here for many years. Some things do get better!

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When stopping for a rest, I looked closely at this Douglas fir branch . There is a new cone sticky with resin, but there are also the remains of old cones, with just the sharp, strong centre remaining. Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are said to originate in the Alsace starting with pine tree brought into the house and decorated. The old upright cone stalk looked exactly like the metal spike used to secure candles in times gone by and I wondered if this natural shape had given people the idea of attaching the little candles that illuminate Christmas trees still,  while we stand by with the fire extinguisher on Christmas Eve.

Thirty storks flew high over the garden today. The migration has started – Christmas is coming!!

 

July (lying in a hammock)

The afternoon heat rises, the brown cases of lunilaria, peeled back to reveal the secret moonlight of the seed septum, scratch light along the stones.

Small bees vibrate in the Russian Sage .  Blue tit fledgelings are unexpectedly insistent: hungry, hungry, hungry in the sallow.

And then again, the quiet.

The church clock dolles out the half hour of stillness, one note at a time . The crow with sore throat calls familiar.

Nothing.

A frill of swallow song thrown over head and then gone.

A car. The ravens roll distant above the forest .

The bees…the bees….. bee…. b…

 

 

( for James Wright)

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Sun rise, sun set …..

I love being on holiday and having the time to spend whole days in the garden, not just snatched moments between work and sleep!

Evening primroses are wonderful flowers that uncoil themselves in the twilight and become luminous saucers of pale yellow in the darkness. Watching their opening from a garden seat,  as the blackbirds fuss themselves down to sleep, is one of the great pleasures of high summer. The flowers are open all night and as soon as the bees and butterflies wake up in the morning, they throw themselves into the generous feast of pollen and nectar .

In the early morning, there  is time to explore the fields that we usually blurred by in the morning commute.

Green finches wheeze companiably from the hedgerows; sparrows explode in raucous flocks from the ripe wheat and poured over everything, like thick cream, is the complex beauty of the blackcap’s song.

On the edge of the yellow wheat, poppies are starting to open. The green calyx of the bud is being shrugged off like an uncomfortable hat. The flower stem is vibrating visibly with the effort of releasing the petals. A moment’s waiting as the sun rises and the poppy is open; crimson petals still frilled with the shape of the bud. A moment more  and a bumble bee has found it and vibrates in ecstasy in the brand new black pollened centre of this poppy, that will have dropped every scarlet petal by the mid day sun.

The opening of the flowers mark each wonderful, transient day of our holidays and of our lives. Enjoy!

Snow in Spring time.

Along the stream crack willows grow. Planted generations ago to provide wands for basket weaving, periodically the willows are still cut back  hard and I fret about the birds that used to feed and nest in them.

And then they grow back thicker and lusher than before, noisy with black caps, loud with lovely yellow hammers and wheezy with green finches.

And then they set seed and a blue May morning is filled with down shaken from a pillow and impossible snow flakes drifting down, caught on a breeze, confusing the eyes with delight.

Look hard at the blue photo and you can follow their transient trajectory too!

Weekend.

There is so much to write about at this time of year I don’t know where to  begin. Winston brought me a slow worm and dropped it delicately at my feet to admire. Pixie brought me a vole and chased around the kitchen and killed it. The garden is filling with flowers. There are orange tipped butterflies on the wild ladies smock blooming in the lawn. There are violets in the tussocks and wasps shaving the wooden garden bench to make their nests. The cat drug valerian is managing to grow faster than they can rub it back down in their ecstasy . We have seen our first swallows and our first house martins as they swooped on by . The ants have woken up . There are bee flies on the honesty flowers and humming bird hawk moths on the cowslips. The blackthorn is still beautiful . The peas and the potatoes are planted. The only absurd part of this wonderful race of fantastical spring glory is that some joker still expects me to leave it all on Monday and go to work!!

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New season resolutions for Earth Day.

The garden has just started to wake up after a bruisingly long winter. The forsythia is about to burst into golden Easter glory, the daffodils are straightening up to trumpet the new season and the birds are all shouting their spring songs.

There is still snow under the hedge and birds are still very hungry. It seems to be the same every year: every shop in France, Germany and Switzerland has run out of sunflower seeds, bird seed and fat balls just when it gets really cold and the end of season birds need our help most of all to survive until the spring can feed them with insects.

There is horribly worrying research to show how insect numbers are collapsing in Europe because of our love of pesticides and desire to cut every road side verge, grub up every  hedgerow and trim every garden shrub to a stump. Now the research shows that bird number are also crashing and especially here in France. Birds need insects and without them the birds will simply cease to exist.

I have been lucky enough to live in this corner of France for eight years now and in that time I have seen so many hedgerows grubbed up; old trees taken out and not replanted and ditchs shaved and shorn of every plant week on week in the growing season; so that there is nowhere left for wild flowers; for the insects that rely on them and for the birds that feed upon the bugs.

I hadn’t planned on this article being so shouty. Gardens are places to escape bad news, they are peaceful havens of good sense in a crazy world; but even our gardens are linked to the wider world. The birds that fascinate us through the winter feed and breed in the countryside around us. The butterflies that surprise us on a warm afternoon need flower filled meadows to feed on; the bees need orchards to sustain them.

We can’t control what happens in the countryside, but we are in control of our own gardens. I moved to France for space and for the ultimate luxury of a real garden and this has become my sanctuary and often my salvation.  As we look forward to a new season and take pleasure in every unfolding blossom and every green shoot,  let’s decide to make our gardens places of real beauty and wonder for as much life as possible.

Let’s NOT

use pesticides

use hebicides

cut down trees and bushes

be afraid of letting the grass grow

cover the soil we own in concrete.

 

Here’s to a fantastic year full of colour and fruit, beauty and life. Here’s to the gardens, allotments and parks of The World !

 

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” And for that minute a blackbird sang”

As there is nothing to do in the garden except morn the flowers buried under the snow I thought I would share a poem instead.

Adlestrop

By Edward Thomas
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Source: Poems (1917)

This is a great favourite. It is a poem about nothing; about a delicious absence of unwanted noise and movement and about the great beauty of the sound of blackbirds.

Blackbirds are the first to sing in the morning and the last bird to chuckle down to sleep in the evening.  Gardens are plotted and mapped out by the territories of singing blackbirds  :  ” all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” and all the places beyond are the kingdoms of blackbirds.

 

 

© cathysrealcountrygarden. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material and images without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathysrealcountrygarden with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Murmuration.

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!

 

 

 

© cathysrealcountrygarden. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material and images without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathysrealcountrygarden with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

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.

 

© cathysrealcountrygarden. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material and images without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathysrealcountrygarden with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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.

Embrace.

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!