Keeping it real!

 

I am now firmly back in the toad land of work, the long  day stretches ahead and the sky can just be glimpsed through the bars of the firmly shut blinds.

My garden is another five days away and only a few pot plants on the desk remind me of the green I am missing.

A few unexpected specks of spherical black, dot my desk and I realize they are insect frass.  On close inspection of my rose scented geranium, I spot eaten leaves and more frass.  There can only be one explanation.  A caterpillar has hitched a ride from the garden and is slowly devouring my plant, utterly safe from all predators on my desk.

I think it is a garden tiger moth caterpillar and as I write, its hairy body is swelling as it ingests the perfumed leaves.  It doesn’t mind being here.  This is safe and profitable for a caterpillar.

Time to take another lesson from nature, I suppose: but when it turns into an extravagantly patterned moth, I will need to find a way to set it free!

Caught in time.

This tiny blue butterfly took a fancy to my hat and spent much of the day photogenically attached to me, as we wandered around an upland meadow earlier this week. It sat on my hair, when I took off the hat and it rested on my water bottle when it tired of riding on the hat. I don’t know what the butterfly got out of our interaction, but when I looked closely at his wonderful compound eye, I knew I was looking into something immensely old and extraordinary.
This photo was taken using a microscope of a fly caught in a chip of amber bought recently. The eye is concave from the pressure of the ancient resin, but still very recognisably and unchanged: an insect.

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Some other insect eyes from recent moth trapping, watching me across the ages, include lesser elephant hawk moth and oak eggar moth.

I wonder which one of us understands more of life on this planet?

Today is beautiful.

Today is so beautiful. I don’t have to go to work, the sun is shining and the garden is bursting with life.

Days like this make me count my blessings and I am acutely aware of how privileged I am .

It is not like this for most people in the world and the natural world is increasingly a luxury that few can afford.  I am also very aware of the great movement of people across Africa who want a better life in Europe where the rains come more regularly, the grass grows lush and green and there are butterflies.

For this they risk appalling journeys across land, risk drowning in the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and are then corralled and often deported to face the same life in  the dry countries where the rain doesn’t fall.

Response to this is difficult and mostly we try to ignore the images and hope somehow the migration will stop and everyone will stay home.

I don’t believe it will, and the real answer has to be in nature, in greening the dry countries; in making countries were people are happy to stay home, to grow food and to raise healthy children.

The Great Green Wall        http://www.greatgreenwall.org/great-green-wall/

seems to be an answer to this huge issue. It is an African lead  initiative to plant trees and to keep back the desert all the way across Northern Africa.

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It is hugely ambitious and utterly wonderful. The greenery will change the climate, rain will come back, food can be grown again and many more people can hopefully enjoy a beautiful day just like today.

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Let it go!

When we moved into our home seven years ago, the drive was gravel. I think it must have been regularly sprayed with weed killer to keep it  bare and tidy- so we stopped. We collected handfuls of seeds from local wild flowers in the first  autumn and we threw them on the tidy, dead stones.

A blush of green appeared in the spring. Tiny pinks arrived first

 

IMG_1662.JPGand tentative wild marjoram. Dandelions scrambled yellow and I let them flower for the bees and then seed for the linnets to feed on. Yarrow sprang up eventually and garden lavender even set seed and bushes started to grow.

There is still a bare strip where the car comes in and out of the garage each day, but the rest is a riot of colour and life. Arriving home from work to drive through an explosion of butterflies and a wall of bumble bees is a million times better growling over dead stones and when I wake up in the morning, open my bedroom window and look down, I watch finches picking through seeds and house martins swooping through the insects that have found a home on our drive just because we let it all go!

Fruit and Fancy.

After the heat came the rain and everything sighed, expanded, fluffed out a feather and a flower and grew exponentially!

The sun had turned everything to sugar and we picked masses of raspberries, sticky red currents and black currents as perfect as jewels.

I was drying a tray of rain washed berries before freezing them for the winter, when I opened my moth trap and found another new species for the life list. This extravagant creature is a scarlet tiger and she sat momentarily on my hand above the fruit.

There are so many new creatures to be found in every patch and scrap of world. I listened to a wonderful radio show on the almost indestructible tardigrade , that lives in moss and volcanoes and between the plates of barnacle shells.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08vy0yb

I  had never heard of them, but now I regard the rain plumped moss of my path with renewed respect, knowing that it is home to such an extraordinary expression of life.

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Rose beetle.

I love watching rose beetles bury themselves in flowers or shimmer, the very essence of “purest green”, amongst the mint leaves . Their extravagant carapaces always remind me of Gerald Durrell’s masterpiece “My Family and Other Animals” which was the first book I ever enjoyed studying at school and the book that inspired my husband’s family to spend so many years in Greece. The idea of tying such beautiful bugs to the hat, as did the rose beetle man, may seem absurd, but in Greece anything was possible.

“The last time I saw the Rose-beetle Man was one evening when I was sitting on a hill-top overlooking the road. He had obviously been to some fiesta and had been plied with much wine, for he swayed to and fro across the road, piping a melancholy tune on his flute. I shouted a greeting, and he waved extravagantly without looking back. As he rounded the corner he was silhouetted for a moment against the pale lavender evening sky. I could see his battered hat with the fluttering feathers, the bulging pockets of his coat, the bamboo cages full of sleepy pigeons on his back, and above his head, circling drowsily round and round, I could see the dim specks that were the rose-beetles. Then he rounded the curve of the road and there was only the pale sky with a new moon floating in it like a silver feather, and the soft twittering of his flute dying away in the dusk.”
“My Family and Other Animals” Gerald Durrell (1956)

You don’t always get what you want ….

This weekend we went looking for a flower. We were told about this flower a year ago, by an elderly botanist who showed us pictures of the great pink spikes of flowers as we ate dinner in a vineyard last summer.

In a mixture of broken German, French and English we discovered that this very rare and very strange plant grew close by and he tried to describe exactly where he had seen it.

The next day we also tried to find it. We tramped over the wonderful limestone cap of a hill that was covered in fly orchids, thorny roses and pinks.  We found the most extravagant orchid I have ever seen in Europe outside of a green house. Large and smelling powerfully of goats, the tongues of its greenish flowers cork screwed down and seemed to lick the stems, giving it the obvious name of lizard orchid. As we dipped back into the neat rows of vines, a bird was startled up and the great parti coloured crest of a hoopoe was plain to see, as the heavy bird lifted up and gave its unmistakable hoopoe call : familiar in the Mediterranean, but so strange here in central Europe.  This little patch of limestone protected for nature amidst the closely planted vines, is a truly remarkable place and is home to so many species that are rarely seen in the Alsace.

Eventually we wandered our way back to the car, stopping only to cool off in the wonderful cave of the local winery.  Swallows nested high up in the eves of the old roof and swooped in to chatter noisily as we sampled some Alsace Pinot Gris and Muscat and chatted to the young woman who lamented Brexit sadly, as she had enjoyed working in England for a while, loved the people and could not see what Britain had to gain by cutting itself off from Europe ( and good wine!).

A year later, we tried again. We tramped the same hill in the sunshine; saw more hoopoes and clouds of Marbled White butterflies, Banded Graylings, Swallow Tails, Queen of Spain Fritillaries and man, many more.  The lizard orchids had gone to seed and we were tired. There had been no seats on the walk so far and so when we found one with the most wonderful view of the village below, I remarked the only thing that would be even better would be if the elusive flowers were right next to the seat – and there they were – also all gone to seed!

 

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If you look closely at the photo you too can see the robust glossy leaves of the plant and the tall brown stems of the seed heads.  This is Dictamnus albus or Fraxinella.  A strange plant that is unique in its own genus  (rutaceae) and very unusual in the wild.  It exudes a curious smelling perfumed oil, that clung to our hands after we had touched it.  In fact it produces so much of this oil that it is also called the Burning Bush as in very hot weather it has been known to spontaneously combust and may well have been the burning bush of Moses in the Bible. The oil can be ignited by a lighter as you can see in this you tube clip of the garden variety.

 

 

We were too late to admire the great pink flowers we had seen in the photo.  You don’t always get what you want, but in pursuit of this rarity we had seen and enjoyed so much, that I think you could definitely say we got what we needed!

 

 

Early Summer.

 

At this time of year the season seems to be in a mad race with itself. The day is so long, the sunlight so bright, the rain so hard; the plants are pumping up so fast I swear I can hear them growing.

Every morning a new flower has opened; more and more leaves have unfurled; the beans have slithered up their poles; the marrows have pushed across the lawn. Bindweed has pulled a fruit bush down into the grass; spears of horsetails have erupted from out of the soil and the slugs have left a silver trail over everything.

Even in the deep forest strange things are growing. Perfect candles of white orchids shimmer in the dark and bird’s nest orchids, brown and saprophytic push out of the loose decaying leaves.

Sleeping seems impossible: what might be missed?

There will be plenty of time to sleep in the winter.

 

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Cuckoo in the nest.

When we lived in Wales we used to keep watch on the nest of a peregrine falcon. It involved long hours ensuring no one stole the eggs to sell to falconers in the Middle East and while we lay in the grass, we also got to watch cuckoos.

The plump, barred birds picked caterpillars off the bushes and squeezed their inner ends down  their throats like a thrifty dentist squeezing the last of a tube of tooth paste. Since then I have rarely seen them and the only confirmation that the they still exist has came from the unmistakable call of the male bird.

When we first moved to France I heard a few each year and then there were none , but this year, while feeding my sparrows, I  heard a call, loud clear and wonderfully unmistakable .

On the same day we stopped by a thin line of reeds between two fields and listened to the sweet call of a very different bird. If you look closely at the photo you can see a very small bird singing. It is a reed warbler and it is smaller than a sparrrow and weighs the same as an envelope. This is the tiny bird that most often raises the young of the cuckoo. Their own chicks are thrown out by the cuckoo hatchling who has never laid eyes on its own parents . By mimicking the sound of a hungry baby reed warbler the cuckoo encourages its diminutive parents to feed the imposer until it dwarfs them in size. When it is fully grown the cuckoo sets off for the rain forests of central Africa, without ever having seen another cuckoo in its life.

It is an extraordinary story of how interconnected we are on this small planet and how a single evocative sound in one part of the world links us to all of the rest .

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Moths and bats.

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!