Signs of life.

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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.



“Ladybird, ladybird stay safe at home …”

The ladybirds are waking up and my sunny bedroom window sill is alive with slowly trundling spotted bugs. They crawl into houses to overwinter and do no harm in sheltered nooks, hibernating and waiting for spring. They apparently exude a scent when they find a suitable spot to encourage others to join them in a winter snuggle and this smell lasts over a year, guiding them back the following autumn.

It can’t be heat that wakes them up as, it is colder now than it has been all year, so it must be day length, or maybe they can count the time spent in hibernation somehow (tiny ladybird watches on their tiny jointed legs?)

My house guests are harlequin ladybirds who were introduced to control aphids. They have brown legs and come in an astonishing variety of patterns. Some think they should be killed as aliens, but as I can’t resist any wildlife that manages to find a home in my home, so I decided to treat them instead. I have an overwintering geranium covered in aphids and I thought they would make the perfect wake up meal for the ladybirds.

04331262-2C84-46C4-B4BE-50E42E4F17DF.jpegThe first ladybird ate the first aphid she encountered and then sat on the stem in digestive satisfaction. The second, third and fourth ladybirds however, ignored the aphids entirely and determinedly fell from the geranium back onto the window sill over and over again. I assume the desire to fly away to a new home is stronger than hunger at this stage.

Normally I would gather them up and let them fly out of the window to take their chances at the start of spring. However it will be – 12 here for about the next week each night, so they are definitely safer here on the warm window sill. They might be longing to “fly away home”, but for now home is where the heat is!





“I Could Have Danced All Night!”

The French hunting season is coming to a close and soon it will be safe to walk in the woods again.

When a hunt is on, the hunters are supposed to give notice to the local town hall, so walkers can check where to avoid and to place warning signs at the entrance to the area being hunted over.  Every year an astonishing number of walkers and hunters are shot dead and injured by stray bullets and so extreme caution is advised.

A few weeks ago I was walking home through a wood on the Swiss French border . There had been no notifications on the local website of hunts and no warning signs at the entrance to the wood, so like little Red Riding  Hood into the dark forest I went.

All was well, the path was slippy with rain and snow, but I was making good time when I heard dogs close by barking loudly. There were no dog walkers on the path in front or behind and so the dogs must be along side me in the slope of the forest. Then I heard hunting horns and I started to stride out as fast as I could.  I could hear voices and calling to the dogs, but I could see no one at all. I realised I was in the middle of a wild boar hunt and unraveled the bright pink scarf from my dark coat, in the hope that the hunters would realise I was human and not pig.

There was still nothing to see, but the sound of dogs and horns and yelling voices was getting louder. Then I remember what you did in Africa if you thought big dangerous  wildlife was close : you make as much noise as possible. I wasn’t scared of the boar, but I was scared of short sighted huntsmen with very large shot guns. I was alone with no one to shout to, so I decided to sing at the top of my voice. For some reason “  I Could Have Danced All Night” from “ My Fair Lady” came into my head and so I bellowed the English words as loud as I could as I scurried ignominiously through the undergrowth.

“I never know, what made it so enchanting, when all at once my heart took flight. I only know when he decided to dance with me, I could have danced, danced, danced, all night!”

And so breathless and triumphant I broke out of the forest onto a road where an astonished local was preparing a large fire to roast the musical pig he imagined was being slaughtered by his fellow hunters.

I smiled with as much insouciance as I could muster at his border mixture of bon jour and gruezi  and scuttled on through the woods, back to the safety of my own garden, still humming protective show tunes just to be sure!


Older than liverspots.


Sometimes you glimpse another time in an unexpected place. On the dripping rock foundation of a fake castle, glorifying a fictitious romantic past I spotted liverworts: very flat; very green and really very old.
These simple and strange life forms predate all vascular plants by millions of years, have no internal means of transporting food and survive on the whim of a raindrop. Flat and granular against the rock, they glisten in their encasing film of water, surviving all human attempts at immortality,  to out live us all in a single sheet of slime.




Scarlet Elf Cup.

Scarlet elf cup is perfectly named. This fungi is pale orange on the outside, vermillion on the inside and as delicately formed as a tiny porcelain bowl. The cups appear at this time of year on fallen twigs, especially hornbeam and it is one of those wonderful species found across continents on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

This group of Sarcoscypha coccinea was found on a wet Sunday walk in the Jura and may well be the varient . When looking this up on the inter web, I found the same story repeated over and over again: children in the Jura were said to eat elf cups on bread and butter and the cups were used to serve schnapps in.   Now hipster wild food foragers and over imaginative chefs have found many bizarre and unappealing ways of serving wild food that would have been better left to the creatures of the forest; but I have never yet been served them as a sandwich filling or used as a glass here in the Jura. It does go to show how the same misinformation is recycled even in the quiet world of natural history and it leads you to wonder how much more prevalent this incestuous repetition must be in the wider world where we all get our information from the web.    Pass the schnapps filled elf cup!!




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!


The Glowing Branches of Life .

After continuous winter rain, when all seems flattened and sodden, lichen glows almost unearthly in the gloom.

Lichen is an extraordinary composite creature made up of an algae or Cyanobacteria and a fungi living together in harmony. The algae can photosynthesis and make carbohydrates from the weakest sun and these feed the fungi, which in turn provides a protective home for the algae and a way to trap the water which they both need.

Lichen can grow on bare rock, on tree trunks on twigs and statues, it can grow in ancient forests and gravelly deserts and has even been taken into space and back with no ill effects.

There are 20,000 known species of this communal  creature, that does no harm at all to the medium on which it grows. It is not a plant and some growths of lichen  maybe the oldest living things on the planet.

After rain, the protective cortex becomes transparent and we can see the variously coloured algae layer underneath . This lichen was growing on the red twigs of dog wood blown down by the storm. On such dark winter days the lichen is positively luminescent and shades of tantalising green and orange flare out to remind us that the natural word is always  still alive and is still all around us!




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.