a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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November Walking

Back from the UK, away from the motorways, I was keen to get back on our well-trodden paths.

Beech lined path

But three weeks away and you can forget to pick up the things you need for a walk.  We often pass through the village and I have several friends I talk to and who expect a “Markie” from the backpack.

What did I do wrong?

You can see the disappointment and disbelief, the tail drooping and the ears down.  I felt so ashamed, but I was back with my “Markie” the very next day just to explain it was nothing personal.

The main street of the village is kept immaculately by the Mairie (council) and the Abelia is still flowering by the roadside.

Bee with pollen sac

Incredibly busy, the bee was gathering not only nectar but also pollen.

I saw another on the nearby Rosmary but she had flown away before I could take a picture but I did notice something else on the Rosemary, a red and green striped beetle.

Chrysolina americana

Researching for insect species is usually a difficult task for me and I doubted whether I would ever be able to find the name of this beetle on the Rosemary leaves but it is in fact – a Rosemary leaf beetle, Chrysolina americana!  Unfortunately it does not bode well for the Rosemary for the beetles eat the new shoots and their slug like larvae will continue the damage.  They seem to prefer similar plants like lavender, sage and thyme so if you see the tips of your plants blackening or being nibbled check them out and look on the underside of the leaves for eggs.

The signs of autumn are in the woods.

Solanum dulcamara

The bittersweet or climbing nightshade drapes its red berries in garlands through the trees as if anticipating the Christmas decorations.

Ruscus aculeatus

The red berries of the Ruscus or Butcher’s Broom are just as vivid and survive happily under the shade of the trees.  Ruscus is a popular garden shrub in the UK and it is strange for me to see it growing negligently throughout the woods here.

Euonymus europaeus, Spindle tree

Likewise, it always makes me smile when I see the Eonymus europaeus, or spindle tree in flower as I had always admired the one in Crathes Castle walled garden near Aberdeen in Scotland (http://www.nts.org.uk/Property/Crathes-Castle-Garden-Estate/What-to-see/#).  I found their (should you call it a fruit or a flower?) so attractive that I was determined to plant one if I ever should have my own garden.  As it so happens they were already growing at the bottom of my garden and grow freely in the woods around us!

Wild iris seed head

The other red berries that are decorating the edges of the woods at the moment are the iris seed heads.

But November here is such a mixture.

Escapee sunflower

There are often some straggling late arrival sunflowers in the fields where the main crop has long since been harvested, they are much smaller than the main crop but there were enough to provide an attractive vase full for the house.

Ulex europaeus, Gorse

There is gorse in flower but I think the it is the result of recent plantings as are the Medlar Trees.

Mespilus or Medlar

We often make a detour to pass by the Medlar trees.  They are much later in ripening this year, perhaps due to the lack of rain.  I enjoy an impromptu snack and I cannot understand why they are not widely accepted.  All I can imagine is that if they are eaten when unripe they will be considered inedible. I have fed good ripe medlars to sceptical friends and have seen them appreciate their unique flavour, but they must be ripe to be enjoyed.

Roe deer on the move

We never know what we are going to see.

Trying to catch up the others

I took these photographs at 1.30 p.m. hardly the time to expect to see deer in the open.

Almost there

I think they must have been disturbed in one copse and had to leg it some distance in the open to the nearest alternative cover.

Path of Beech leaves

The woods are an altogether quieter place in November but the floor is covered with all sorts of fungi.

Some of the fungi present this November

A few years ago I decided that it would be nice to discover what sort of fungi grew in the woods because neighbours and friends were only interested in the edible ones.  Armed with my camera and a large identification book I started.  I was quickly defeated by the variety of fungi that can be found and I have even noticed that the variety changes each year depending on the weather condition, I suppose.  I now just admire them and use them as photographic models – naming them is beyond me.  I have managed this year to at last take spore prints – that was thanks to encouragement from The Foraging Photographer http://theforagingphotographer.wordpress.com/.

Often on walks I wish I could not only take  a photograph but capture the odour of the surroundings because of some delicious perfume in the air, I thought of this when I was walking near these fungi.

Wet pungent fungi

Normally fungi have the decency to fade away discretely but these ones had taken over an area and were releasing a fetid odour that I have never smelt before and never want to smell again.  Definitely an odour I would not want to capture!

Geranium robertianum, Herb Robert

There has still been  plenty of sun this November in the Charente Maritime and the Herb Robert is flowering on the verges along with clover and scabious.

Bee on Bugle, Ajuga reptans

However, it is still surprising to see the bees feeding on this very late flowering Bugle.

Asian hornets, Vespa volutina on ivy flowers

Perhaps they are being kept away from their more common source of nectar by the Asian hornets that seem to be everywhere at the moment.  They were not around in the summer near here, perhaps concentrating themselves around the bees hives, but every time I seem to target a flower with my camera lens an Asian hornet is there (O.K.,sorry, exaggeration but it sometimes feels like that.)

The cabbage white butterflies are still laying their eggs on my brussel sprouts and I am still picking off the caterpillars.

Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta

The Red Admiral do not seem to care that it is November and the Speckled Wood butterfly is still around on the sunny days.

Cranes in flight

But despite the sunny days with the Charentais blue sky the geese are making their noisy way south, a sure sign that they know it is November and the winter will be arriving.  Correction!  My friends now tell me that these were more likely to be cranes, please see the comments below – I did not notice the long legs.


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Roe deer

Roe deer (Chevreuil)

We went out looking for cepes this morning.  We had just left the house and noticed a couple of Roe deer taking the same path as we do when we go along the little canal.

At least it was a compensation for finding no fungi at all in the woods, not even a slug.  The leaf litter was dry, too dry for cepes but maybe later.


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Definitely a nasty!

A comment made by http://missapismellifera.com made me think and gave me a challenge.  I share what I see and find beautiful in the garden; the flowers, the bumble bees, the pretty birds but I wondered if I am giving a balanced or rose-tinted view of life.

I set out to find a nasty.  But will I succeed?  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the closer we get to nature the greater the  array of creatures we notice. Then our appreciation mellows and mutates without us being aware of exactly when our sensibilities started to change.

Solitary black fly Asilidae (?)

I saw these flies just a short distance away from the garden in the fields.  I think they belong to the family Asilidae (but stand ready to be corrected).  They look more like large wasps or small dragonflies.  These are predatory insects and can take smaller insects in flight.  The family includes many mimics.  Even one that can mimic a bumble bee!

Flies mating

The bristles on their legs serving here to steady themselves on the grass are also used to trap their victims and to carrying them off to be consumed in the comfort of a safe, shady spot.

Wasp-like body but different mate

There is a marked dimorphism between the male and female flies.  Who would want to be an entomologist  when there is such a difference between the male and female that if I had seen them apart I would have assumed that they were different species?

Now I wonder, have I found a nasty or does anyone like these flies?

These flies have now been identified as Dasypogon diadema by http://daysontheclaise.blogspot.com.  Thank you so much Susan!


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My dragonfly pond project

I follow The Dragonfly Woman’s blog ( http://thedragonflywoman.com/).  On the 2nd July she posted about a dragonfly pond watch in the USA: enthusiasts register a pond and keep watch for two dragonfly species and by visiting their pond regularly they collect data on the dragonflies.  They hope to amass more information on the dragonflies by this citizen science project.   As I am in France this leaves me out in the cold but then I thought I could do my own personal pond watch and learn about dragonflies.  As my knowledge about dragonflies was zero there could only be an improvement on my personal information base.

There is a pond about 20 minutes brisk walk from the house, if you take the short-cut through the woods it takes a lot longer than that as there is usually so much to see and photo opportunities slow you down.  The pond is on one of our more winter routes or rather autumn walks as there is a very abundant walnut tree close by.  I had not given the pond more than an admiring look from the path so it seemed an idea choice for my project.

Madion pond

Our neighbour who is in her eighties has told us the pond used to be larger and she remembers being taken  out on the pond in a small rowing boat when she was young.

I was sure if they got swarms of dragonflies in the States I  should see one or two over the pond.

Pond in sunshine

I chose a sunny afternoon for my first visit hoping the warmth would tempt them out into the open.

Lotus flowers

The lotus flowers were open.  The lotus flowers are not native Charentais flowers but they have been in the pond for at least ten years, whether planted on purpose or arrived accidently, I do not know.

However, no dragonflies.

There were, however, two species of damsel flies.

Blue damselfly

In fact I think it is a Blue tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans).

Blue tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans)

The leaf has got in the way here but the fine part in the middle of the tail can be seen better.

Brown damselfly

The second damselfly is brown and awaiting further research by me (or recognition by a reader?) before it finds a name.

I must admit I was somewhat disappointed.  The damselflies were lovely but I did want a dragonfly.

Pond in rain

Dragonfly woman said to check out the pond in different weather conditions and at different times of day.  Equipped with an umbrella this time, but still no dragonflies.

Today I decided to take the short cut and go through the woods along the side of the little stream.  It had rained overnight but it had been a beautiful day and it was still warm at 5 p.m.

Golden ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii)

At last I got my dragonfly!  It is a Golden Ringed dragonfly ( Cordulegaster boltonii).  Not at the pond, perhaps, but better here than never.

Common Blue damsel fly (Enallagma cyathigerum)

In addition, there were lovely Common Blue damsel flies along the edges of the little stream.  Things were definitely looking up.

Lotus flowers

Success at last!  When I arrived at the pond I could see that flying back and forth over the mass of lotus flowers were several very large green-blue dragonflies.  They seemed to be patrolling back and forth over the lotus flowers.  I willed them to take a break, put their feet down and chill out but they seemed on a dragonfly mission.  I’ve got no photos as yet but at least I know my pond does have dragonflies, it would have been tough trying to do a solo dragonfly pond watch on a pond with no dragonflies.  I feel I am off to a good start.

I do not intend to confine myself to dragonflies.  I have heard a frog but not seen it and there is also a very shy waterfowl that hides among the lotus flowers.

However, just before I headed home, something walked out of the pond!

Crayfish

It appeared to be a crayfish.  He had a walk around for a couple of minutes and then walked back in.

Crayfish – no claws?

It seemed odd to come out for a walk on the edge of the pond but the other oddity is that it appears to be lacking a pair of front claws.  Perhaps he had been in a fight.

Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus)

Then almost back home, a Stag beetle was walking along the road in the opposite direction.  Definitely a photo opportunity.

The stag  beetle may not be as stunning photographically as dragonflies or damselflies but has a life history just as fascinating.  Since I have started the blog and have been reading other people’s blog it has made me notice much more around me and fanned my curiosity for the natural world that surrounds me.  The pond has added another dimension to our walks.


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Looking back on June in the woods

June in our area of the Charente Maritime was a month of contrasts as far as the weather went.  It was off/on, hot/cold, sunny/cloudy but as far as our walking went we could not have asked for any better. There are so many flowers around just now.  All are beautiful, most are common , but none the less lovely.  I can recognise some and others not although I am trying!

Common Mallow (Malva sylvestris)

Field-scabious (Knautia-arvensi)

Wild carrot (Daucus-carota)

Yellow Loosestrife, (Lysimachia punctata)

It does mean I do not see as many bumble bees when we are walking.  Earlier in the year they were vying for the more limited nectar and pollen sources, now they are spoilt for choice and of course the white and red clover, a favourite food of the bumble bees, is everywhere.

The woods themselves are much quieter places than in spring but are full of the Meadow Brown butterflies that flutter in and out of the glades of sunshine.  They feed on the nectar from flowers such as bramble and thistle and there is plenty of that available just now.

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) mating

We watched this pair mating and flying in tandem with complete coordination, taking off and landing although I could not quite see if that would involve both of them flying sideways or one flying backwards and the other leading.

Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria)

The Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) is another common butterfly in the woods as it feeds on tree sap or the juice of ripe or damaged fruit rather than the nectar from flowers. Apart from our usual bees and butterflies we come across some less well-loved creatures such as beetles.  I was actually sorry for this one.

He was being given a hard time from a bunch of ants.  They were much more numerous, lighter on their feet and appeared to be getting the upper hand.  It seemed to be a territorial dispute over an old tree trunk.

Our walk in the woods beside the little river has let us see some dragonflies this month.

Having been brought up in the UK I tend to get extremely excited when I see a dragonfly.  I was just reading on The Dragonfly Woman, another WordPress site http://thedragonflywoman.com/, that they have swarms of dragonflies in the USA.  I don’t know what it is but everything seems to be super-sized over there, even their robin red-breasts are the size of thrushs.  However, I am over here and I get excited if I see just the one (or two!)  First this beautiful green-blue one.

Then this brown one, he looks a bit sad here. But I think he looks happier now.

O.K. maybe I should get out more, must be spending too much time in front of a computer screen.

The woods also provide a bounty of wild fruit for those who are interested in foraging.

The strawberries in the woods are small but delicious.

The other fruit that provides a good snack in the moment can be more difficult to reach as the trees often become leggy in the woods as they stretch towards the sun and the fruit remains temptingly out of reach.  You have to find some that have found a clearing and have some lower branches with fruit closer at hand.

These are the Griotte  or sour cherries.  These are wild cherries and have small fruit but they are not at all sour and are in fact sweet and have a good flavour.

As mid summer passes the woods are already preparing for the future.

The brambles near ground level offer their flowers to the pollinators clambering over the other plants to reach the sunniest parts.  These will give us plenty of fruit in the late summer.

Overhead the chestnut trees are in flower.  The chestnuts themselves won’t be ready until even later when the days become shorter, but for now the woods are preparing for their next act.  Life in the summer is busy in the woods.


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The old well

It’s been nearly six years now that my husband has wanted to clear out the old well and try to bring it back to how it once must have been.  The old well shaft still looks good but once piped water had been joined to the house no-one seems to have cared about the well.  There is still a mark on the stone wall of the house where the machinery must have been attached but that has long since been removed.

The first problem in restoring the well was obvious.  The well had been used to dump unwanted rubble over the ages so it was a simple case of constructing a pulley and removing the offending stones.  The pulley tackle was bought, but during our first few years here there were always more pressing issues to deal with than clearing the old well.

Two years ago my husband finally decided to tackle the well, however, it was not as simple as that.  First of all it was autumn and a group of our beloved newts (Triturus marmoratus) appeared to be settling down for the winter. They are such gentle creatures and we often come across them if we turn over a stone or lift up some overgrown plants in the garden.  So he felt he could not really turf them out to fend for themselves in the winter.  They are not exactly an endangered species but their numbers are being watched as their habitat is under threat, but not in our garden.

They do not move quickly and so have to endure being lifted stroked and replaced with care.  They take it very stoically and do not seem to mind being held.

They have to find their way to water to breed and the male has a raised crest on its back during the aquatic stage.  The newts mate during their aquatic stage and the female deposits the eggs in water.

I have only seen them around the garden and so I have never seen the raised crest and I cannot tell the males from the females.  They all have a red line down the middle of their back and combined with their green and black mottled colouring they are easy to identify.

I think it is when you find the baby animals in the garden that you develop a paternal (or maternal) feeling towards them.  The tiny little baby newt is a miniature replica of the adult with the red line developing on its back, it is not yet as highly coloured as the adults.  (I notice I’ve forgotten to wear my gardening gloves, again.)

Spring came and they were still there, so we did not like to disturb them during the breeding season…and so it continued.

Always hopeful that he might find the well vacant my husband had another explore recently.  Not only were there the usual newts in a good quantity but they were happily sub-letting to some other amphibians.

There was a common toad (Bufo bufo) which was obviously enjoying the damp conditions at the bottom of the well.  We often come across one in the garden hiding in damp places under flowers.

He has lovely golden eyes with horizontal pupils.

The surprise was to find fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) in the well as we had never seen them in the garden.  The nearest I had been to them was the flattened ones run over by cars on the road.  Once again they are easy to identify being bright yellow and black but it is not advisable to touch them as they are capable of exuding a venomous liquid onto their skin.

This is certainly a useful deterrent as the venom is capable of killing most of their likely predators and could be an irritant on contact with human skin or if transferred into the eyes accidently.

The reproduction of the fire salamander differs from the newts in that they mate on land and the larvae develop internally.  The female only requires going to water to give birth to the larvae.

This is a snapshot of what we found during one day, what may pass through during the year makes us wonder.

The well cleaning project does not look imminent.  Perhaps some time we will have a hot, dry summer and they will all clear off giving us time to do a bit of excavating.


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Old tights, a dead tree and human hair.

On one of our walks a few weeks back we noticed something hanging in a vine field that we had never seen before.  In fact, as we got closer we could see there was more than one.  I immediately thought that packages of herbs had been suspended on the wires to ward off unwelcome insects and was curious to find out what they could be and whether it was something I could consider imitating in the garden.

 

 

The package looked as if it was home made, using recycled tights which seemed an economical method of distributing the treatment.

I thought I could hazard a guess at what the herbs might be if I took a closer look  but when I got near I could see it was not herbs but hair inside the tights.  What is more –  it definitely looked like human hair!

There is something about cut human hair that makes me shiver.  While it is still attached to someone’s head it has quite a different character but once cut; it remains human but unembodied.

A lone dead tree guarded the field, itself remarkable and stark against the horizon.

We came home with no comfortable answers to the questions we were posing ourselves.

I plucked up the courage to mention it to a few people but questions of the sort, “Do you often hang packages of human hair in the vines around here?” were getting negative responses combined with strange looks.  It was an uncomfortable feeling but it aroused my curiosity.

In the end I asked my neighbour who is in charge of the local hunting club, he smiled, understanding my concern, and to my surprise he admitted that it was actually him who had put them up!

It is an old method to protect the young vines from damage from the Roe deer (chevreuil).  I had not noticed that the vines were young.  The alternative would be to erect fences to keep the deer out which would be expensive and limit access.  It was indeed human hair that he collects from the hairdresser and stuffs into old tights.  The packages are then sprayed with cheap eau de cologne and this deters the red deer during the period when the shoots are growing rapidly.  The packages are sprayed periodically with more eau de cologne, but to be honest I never got that near to the tights to notice any perfume.  He assured me it was a very old method but not widely used these days.

I can sleep more comfortably in my bed now the affair of the human hair has been settled.


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Where do butterflies go when it’s cloudy?

It’s cloudy today, not cold just cloudy and there has been a short shower of rain.

But no butterflies.

A few days ago we went for a walk.

(Melanargia galathea, Marbled white)

There were butterflies everywhere.

(Melanargia galathea, Marbled white)

Just to prove what I am saying, I’ll show you a photograph of two at one time.

( Colias crocea, Common clouded yellow)

There were yellow ones.

(Pieris brassicae, Large white)

White ones.

(Aricia agestis, Brown Argus)

Brown ones.

The wild scabious was very popular with them.

(Azuritis reducta, Southern white admiral)

It was the same in the garden.

(Inachis io, Peacock)

The Peacock butterflies were abundant.

But not today.  Where do butterflies go when they don’t fancy taking a turn out to sip some nectar?

The bees I understand, they stay in their hives or nests if the weather is bad.  But the bees are still active today, if somewhat subdued compared to a sunny day.

Do butterflies suffer from depression if it is not sunny?


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Distractions in the vegetable garden

This Privet Hawk moth (Sphinx ligustri) appeared while I was weeding in the vegetable garden.  Excuses to stop weeding don’t come much better than that.

The poor creature was unlucky enough to fall into our hands but endured stoically our admiration and picture taking.  There are no privets around us but lots of ash trees and elders and the caterpillars also use these tree leaves as their food.

The chrysalis remains underground during the winter and our moth had just emerged and was still pumping up its wings while we had the pleasure of examining it.

It was quickly placed in the shade of a tree and left to recover from the indignities it had suffered and I hope to see it soon feasting on the nectar from our honeysuckle flowers.

It is not my favourite hawk moth, my favourite is the humming bird hawk moth, Macroglossum stellatarum but I have not seen one yet this year.


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Mea culpa…

Mea culpa, I’ve caught a butterfly in my Asiatic hornet trap!

Indignant but proud the Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera) waits for release.

A little coaxing was needed to encourage an exit from the trap.

Too tired to fly she looked at me accusingly.

O.K. I really am sorry!  Perhaps a drop of sugar solution would set things right?

So you want to be spoon fed!

Now that tastes good!

I’m a bit low on my energy reserves.

This is the best sugar solution I’ve tasted in a while.

At least their tiles match my colourings.

The decor is nice and the cuisine acceptable but now it is really time to go.  The open window becons and I’m off to greener pastures that do not have tempting blue plastic bottles suspended in their trees.

This was a happy ending but it is a downside of the hornet traps.   It has only happened to me once before and I had another successful rescue.  The jury is out at the moment on wide scale  trap use but as I survey mine closely, my decision is to protect my bees.  As it so happens I have not had any Asiatic hornets since the batch in the spring and I have only one trap in the front garden at the moment (just in case).