Thursday 29 March 2012

Formation flying

vertical flying
Yesterday evening round 6pm-ish the cuckoo was joined by another and a spectacular arial display was the result. There was lots of chasing and follow the leader acrobatics. Every so often there would be a brief cessation in the zooming over our house and trees and a cuckoo song would ring out. Much more frequently they were both -- as far as we could tell -- giving their oddly sounding flight call which is very different indeed to the song. If you wish to listen there are numerous recordings of the different sounds a cuckoo makes on the British Trust for Ornithology page for the cuckoo. Just click on the sounds link.

This display of arial antics lasted, in total, for at least 45 mins. and must have exhausted the birds. They have, after all, just migrated up from south central Africa. You can read about Clement the cuckoo on the BTO website: he was fitted with a tracker in Thetford, Norfolk and went south to the DR Congo.

It was entrancing to watch and we scurried for the camera and followed the arial display as best we might. We did manage to get a few decent photos.

I'm higher than you are!

the chase is on!

up close and fairly personal

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Cuckoo in residence

peach blossom
Yes this morning a cuckoo let us know that it's back! Clear calls of cuckoo, cuckoo serenaded us whilst we were drinking coffee. It also flew right over our heads just to make doubly sure we are aware it's back. No photo as it was flying straight into the sun and then settled in the pine trees in the SE corner for a bit. Not only did the cuckoo call, but we also heard it make a hoarse rasping gurgle as if it had run a marathon and was out of breath [not the female call; we checked].

Reine Claude [greengage] blossom
This was followed by a noise which sounded like the loud sursurration of its feathers. It then flew off to the little copse by the field to the east of us. During the day it flew repeatedly in a circle pattern round our house stopping every now and then to call; we are a captive audience in the center.

It is a lovely sound of spring but, if we're honest, we know that by the end we will have had enough of the cuckoo calls!

orange colour break cowslip

All of the more substantial branches cut from the hazel, forsythia and lilac have now been sawn to size for future use in the woodburner; but they'll need to season a bit first. We've left most of the hazel twiggy bits in situ;  choosing to scrunch them along the aged wire fence which straggles through the gaps in the hedgerow between us and our next-door neighbour Alexandra's orchard.

looking north over Eric's colza field

Meanwhile, all this unseasonal warmth has meant that our peach and greengage trees are now in flower and our doyenne de comice pear is budding nicely. The ornamental cherry will follow very shortly, but our young melrose apple and fruiting black cherry have a little while to go yet. We also found another colour break in our cowslips; an orange version. Looking over the valley towards the north Eric's field is now definitely showing the first yellow colza flowers.

Sunday 25 March 2012

A spring trim

With the good weather everything has started to grow at the gallop chez nous. Eric's field is showing the very faintest of yellow sheens where the colza will burst into flower very very soon. Round the south side of our house the cowslips are in their full acid yellow glory; the occasional renegade which sports red flowers excepted.
renegade red cowslip
The wild grape hyacinths add a welcome splash of blue and we have loads of the tiny scented violets. The tulips we put in are coming along nicely showing a hint of the colour to come.

March according adage is the time for pruning. Earlier this month we dealt with the roses and they are now sending out their first leaves. However, we still had some other bushes earmarked for a trim and have been dealing with these over the last week or so.
spring flower carpet
The previous owners who live in Paris loved the house but illness prevented them coming down here as often as they liked. When they did, neither was able to undertake much outdoors so bushes and small ornamental trees which had been planted on purpose didn't have much care lavished on them. By the time we bought the house things had grown leggy with crowding and too little sunlight. Now we are cutting them back to see if we can re-energise them. The land the house sits in is open woodland and we want to it maintain it in a 'tidied wild' state. As a result you'd be hard pressed to notice all the cutting back we have done.

looking towards chemin, cut back forsythia at start of our drive
Just by the entrance to our property are two forsythia bushes. They may, long ago, have started out as cultivated, but both are now truly wild and untamed. One of them 'belongs', if that is the right word, to one of the ruined houses slowly sinking into the woods. The other straddles our land. It had grown triffid-like with great overarching stems which hung down in a curtain and narrowed the end of the already small chemin and entrance to our drive. Last week we sallied forth with the lopping shears, saw and secateurs to do battle.

We didn't want to trim it into super tidy shape -- this is not a suburban garden after all; but we did want it cut back so that one could at least see the start of our drive from the chemin and not be attacked by it when passing by. To look at it now you would not think that we cut it back all that much, but looks are deceptive -- we have taken out a fair chunk.

The other bushes we have seen to are a very leggy lilac and and one of our many hazels. We also got rid of a huge woodbine which had invaded a japanese quince and neighbouring bush.
pruning, Charnizay style!
Not so down by the Aigronne. Charnizay too decided to undertake some pruning. Theirs however has been on a much larger scale, with the culling of enormous mature poplars. This has really opened up the stream which had been turning into a green tunnel. As we approached the little footbridge to take the photos a sleek 'Ratty' [water vole] shot into the water. Sadly too fast for us to take a photo.
poplar stumps to the right
poplar stumps to the left

Monday 19 March 2012

The streets have no names

Charnizay is a fairly small village even by French standards and has all of 4 main streets. The church and mairie stand at the intersection of three of these.
Whether by accident or design, two of these three routes and the intersction have dates and not street names. This prediliction for for using dates in place of names to identify streets and squares is, in our experience, a peculiarly European habit.
Armistice Day 1918, end of The Great War
France especially seems to like using dates rather than names. One is just as likely to find Ave 24 Juin 1859 as Ave Solferino. We are hard pressed to come up with a British example. In Edinburgh, there is a major thoroughfare called Waterloo Place, but nowhere does one find a 18th of June 1815 Place.

Armistice Day, 1945, end of WW2
Two of our three 'dated' locations are self explanatory, both are the dates which mark the end of the two world wars.

The third, one which is being noted throughout the country today, marks the official end of the Algerian War of Independence. Today, as they have every year previously, the surviving be-medaled veterans [who were conscripted] of the parish hold a commemorative service in front of the mairie complete with regimental banners.
end of the Algerian War of Independence
It has been suggested that Algeria is to France what Vietnam is to the USA. Even 50 years later this seven year conflict casts a shadow on French national consciousness, having caused rifts along both political and social lines which are still felt today.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Bats are back

safely tucked up behind one of our shutters
Another really nice sign of spring having arrived, which we noticed this week, is that our bats are back in their summer roost - two of our shutters. We're no experts, but after some research last year we are 99% that they are pipestrelles [whether soprano or common we don't know].

Pretty tiny in size, these are a very common bat; nevertheless like all bats they are a protected species. So as much as we'd love to have a good photo of them we've resisted folding out the shutters. We don't want to distrub them if we can help it. This morning we, oh so gently, cracked the shutter open a tiny bit and took a very quick photo. A better photograph is courtesy of Tees Valley biodiversity's website [below].

droppings evidence last summer
They use two of our shutters as summer roosts and we have on average 2 to 3, but never more than 4. They don't roost behind them every day but they are pretty regular haunts. We can tell by the droppings we find.

One of the shutters they use is the right-sided one on our south-facing living room window. If we're sitting out there as dusk falls with an aperitif chances are we'll have our heads skimmed by the bats as they leave to feed.

Apart from being rather cute they do sterling service as insect control, an average pipestrelle devours about 3,000 flying insects a night [small gnats, moths or mosquitos].
tiny pipestrelle bat

Of course, they are also of interest to our cats as we wrote about here. Looking at it from their point of view the bats are no more than entertaining 'mices with wings'. Thankfully, over the course of last summer, the bats have seemed to have learnt to roost higher up between the shutter and the wall where the exploratory paw can't reach, so we did not have a repeat of the bat saving exercise of April! Hopefully we won't have to go into bat saving mode this year either.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Heralds of spring

Since Monday of this week it has been glorious -- we've been gifted a sudden spell of clear blue skies and sun. The temperature went up to a balmy 19C yesterday and today has been the same.

A bit of a shame that it didn't arrive last weekend as it was Charnizay's annual foire/brocante. It is always a bit of hit and miss weatherwise as it is held so early in the year. Last year there was a very chilly wind and scattered showers. This year it wasn't terribly cold, but the skies were grey, and it wasn't really a day to linger. We popped down briefly to have a look round and ran into a number of people including Eric the chap who farms the big field on the north side of us. He was pretty pleased as his crop hasn't, as far as he can tell, suffered too much damage from the big freeze. He was up yesterday in the field with a hopper spreading fertiliser. He's sown the field with colza and it should start growing like mad now spring has arrived and soon be awash with bright acid yellow flowers.
On the way home from the brocante we spotted celandine growing in the orchard just on the edge of the village. It wasn't quite out as there was no sun, but a lovely sign of spring all the same.
first plum tree flowers
Around the house the dog violets, cowslips, aconite and grape hyacinths are out, as are late daffs. The wild plum tree has its first flowers too and once the flowers open properly it will be heaving with bees. You can then actually 'hear' the tree well before you get to it.
grape hyacinths peeping out
Taking advantage of the weather, we've been tidying up the fallen branches, some quite large, which had come crashing down during the cold spell. They were all from our pine trees; the weight of the first sticky snow probably did for them.
some of the branches reduced to logs
We've also started sorting out some elderly bushes -- forsythia and lilac -- which haven't been dealt with in years and were long over-due a good prune. The icing on the cake has been the fact that it has been warm enough to get the table and chairs out! In fact it was hard to stop sitting in the sun and get on with things!

NB: As always you can click on the photos to enlarge them

Friday 9 March 2012

Pyramids or obelisks?

route forestière de Georges d'Amboise
Just outside Loches, running roughly SE to NW is the forêt domaniale de Loches. An ancient hunting park, it originally belonged to the Counts of Anjou. In the 12th century Henry II of England [Henry Platagenet, Count of Anjou] gifted about 400 hectares of the forest to the Chartreuse du Liget, the foundation he established in the southern part of the forest. The remainder, about 3,500 hectares, was kept as a hunting preserve.

pyramide des Chartreux
By 1205 John Lackland, King John of Magna Carta fame [Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine's youngest son]; had so incensed Pope Innocent III that he was excummunicated. The King of France, Philippe Auguste seized the moment and announced that John had forfeited his fiefdoms of Anjou and Touraine [the English King held these as vassels of the French king] and as a result the forest of Loches became a French royal possession.
pyramide de Montaigu
It was given as a gift by Philippe Auguste to the Constable of France, Dreux de Mello [leader of the French King's armies] in recognition of actions during the Crusades. King Louis IX, Saint Louis, then bought it back in 1249. It remained a royal forest until the Revolution and became property of the state in 1790. Now it is a fantastic recreational space for the public: full of walking routes and bike and horse trails. It is also a carefully managed forest and the public are allowed to forage and gather deadwood [permit required].
recently felled oak, neatly tagged with date: 29/02/2012
Virtually dissecting the forest in a straight line along its length is the 'route forestière de Georges d'Amboise' and everywhere are numerous rides which are named after famous French people. Along this 'spine' some of these rides meet in star-shaped intersections [étoiles]. At four of these are the so-called 'pyramids': Montaigne or Chartreux, Montaigu, Genillé and St Quentin. More correctly they should probably be called obelisks, but they are known to one and all as 'pyramids'. Dating from the 18th century, all are ever so slightly different in design. According to the information panel they were meeting points for mounted hunts [la chasse à courre].

pyramide de Genillé
Another of the information panels in the forest indicates the range of wildlife to be found: roe deer [chevreuil], red deer[cerf], pine martens[martre], beech martens [fouine] and a host of other beasties. It must have been our unlucky day as we saw nothing -- not even a red squirrel. We just heard lots of birds.

pyramide de St Quentin
Back at home that same day, around dusk, we were treated to the sight of our 'own' chevreuil walking through our neighbour's orchard to the south side of the house. We've never seen them pass to the south side before, but wonder if they decided to do so because the field on our northern boundary had just been sprayed by Eric, the farmer. Since then we've also twice seen the chevreuil ambling to and fro during the day -- they must know the hunting season is over.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Etang de la Ribaloche

Earlier this week the weather was rather nice. Warming temperatures and some sun. Sadly chezcharnizay was stricken by a seasonal lurgy so we didn't have a real opportunity to enjoy it and get on with some of the outdoor tasks such as cutting back bushes. Simon & Susan dropped by and were greeted by clapper bells and warnings of 'unclean', so unfortunately no coffee for them!

picnic table waiting for better weather

Now, having dispatched the lurgy, the weather, predictably, has returned to its familiar default setting of misty grey. In fact, today it is spitting rain as well and there is more forecast for later in the week.

watery sun reflection
Yesterday we had some small bits shopping to do so popped out and on the way back decided to use the Forêt de Preuilly backroad. Round the small etang of Ribaloche all still looks quite wintry as the photographs show.

'arty version' in B&W effect
Round the house the signs are better. The snowdrops are still flowering, but our cowslips show no signs as yet. All our young fruit trees survived the freeze and show plenty of buds. The daffodils got caught in the 'grand froid' so we have a few flowering face down. We have the very first forsythia flowers beginning to break open on one of the bushes; but at the moment, that's it. Happily we know there is more to come.