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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Garden jobs and first harvest

Instead of showing pretty pictures of flowers and the garden looking at its best, I feel like showing some pictures of jobs I've been doing about the place. Oh OK, as well as. Of course I want to post photos of what's in bloom, but there's some work that goes on 'behind the scenes' too! I feel like I have finally caught up with all the jobs that needed doing since coming back from my holiday, mostly planting/sowing, pruning and horrendous weeding, and now I have just the routine chores to do, which I hope I can keep on top of.

First up, it was time for my straggly old Rosemary to have a haircut. This photo doesn't show it looking at its worst but I did want to show at least one photo of the front garden looking reasonable...... ;-)

Back in May when the Aquilegias were at their best - the Rosemary is the straggly thing
flowering right at the back behind the fluffy Bronze Fennel

Errrrm, a haircut? Where did it go?


Well it needed it, yes really. And under all that mess where it had rooted into the gravel, I found two new plants of a reasonable, about 18" tall, size. Also two walnut trees, more chives and lord knows what else.  Most of which have to come out but if it's something that hasn't flowered yet it has had a reprieve. I haven't completely butchered the rosemary as it actually has some fresh growth right down back into the thick woody stems. I must add that this was one of the nicest smelling garden jobs ever, even better than pruning lavender!

We'll see if it can come back to life and form a reasonable shape
after this major haircut!

In the following photo, although you can't see because I never took a before photo (because I hadn't realised before that I was going to go slash, hack and chop crazy), I have chopped off the 3-4 foot long new growth from the honeysuckle on the wall, lifted the canopy of the purple Prunus a bit (which is finally growing into something actually resembling a tree, at long last), pruned back about half as much again on that ivy covered tree stump, and finally, for the first time ever, pruned the Eleagnus into something resembling a shape. That's the shrub on the left. As you can see by the pile of jackets on the ground, I didn't start off warm, but I ended up pretty hot!

Sometimes I do some work in the garden :-)

Although mostly shade lovers in here,
they are happy to have some light again!

Then there was the weeding. And edging. I expected the grass to grow, but the weeds have been worse than normal this year because I mulched everything non veggy with our best home made compost. Unfortunately that's full of weed seeds.

Somewhere in here there are plants that are not weeds.

I allowed the red poppy to stay!

In fact this border has become twice as wide, because there are flowers on
the other side of the fence in the veg patch now. On purpose!

I've often got shrubs that need a home, but I don't know where to put them! Here we had a brainwave to try to screen off some more of the hideous propane tank. I know the shrub in the background looks like a dead twig, but it does actually have some leaves and is a kind of Lonicera which my parents in law grew from a cutting for us. It will grow enormous and have to be kept under control, and is very highly perfumed. I've forgotten what it's called offhand. I have another one too and don't know where to put that one! In the front is a variegated Dogwood (Cornus (probably) alba), another cutting that came from a friend's garden. I've got to really stop this taking cuttings business!

One day they will screen the tank a bit!

Harvest time - first of all the Elderflowers are putting on a magnificent display this year, and have been flowering for several weeks now. I've made two lots of Elderflower cordial, and there'll be loads of berries in the autumn for the birds, and for me should I want to make any jelly or cordial.

I have a couple of trees beside the stream in the orchard.
Elders don't get planted, they just appear, thanks to bird droppings!

They have really pretty flowers

Strawberries have been fantastic and whilst they are coming towards the end there are still plenty more to pick! I've made two batches of jam and given some fresh strawbs away, and we've been eating them twice a day for a couple of weeks now. They have really appreciated the cooler weather. Recipes for Elderflower Cordial and Strawberry Conserve posted last year here.

Yikes. Strawberries. Lots of.

This isn't really a veg patch update per se, but when you've just spend hours hand weeding in amongst your Alliums, can you blame yourself for wanting to post a photo of it looking pristine, for that five minutes that it lasts?

Spuds in the background. Allium bed with, from left to right:
Garlic, Leek seedlings, blank space colonised by Magenta Orach and Dill, Red Onions, Shallots and Parsnips.
With a Sunflower planted in a gap.

Which leads me to.......

Hoorah! At last, our first new Potatoes (Belle de Fontenay). And more strawberries!

And now I've just noticed that the Raspberries are starting to be ready to pick. Help! :-)

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Fledglings and Moorhen news!

It's been all go with the baby birds fledging here over the last few weeks! In my last post about the garden I showed a Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) going into the nest under the roof tiles - well a couple of days later the little Tits fledged! Squeaky noises abounded in the garden and we just had to take a bit of time out to sit and watch their antics. The poor parent birds were looking very tatty indeed, as is always the case after the hard work they put into raising a brood, but they will moult later in the year and have nice fresh feathers before the winter.


"Mum, is this where I'm supposed to go to find food?"

"Like this? I think I'd rather you fed me yourself!"

"Mum! Mum! Feed me, feed me!"
"I'm coming as fast as I can, dear!!!"
(Photo credit: my OH)

"Here, now give me a break and go and feed yourself"!
(Photo credit: my OH)

"Well I can just manage it, but I'd prefer you do it for me as I'm only a baby!"
(See how tatty the poor old parent is?!)

Two weeks later, still not sure where to put its tail!

After a long time of not having seen any Nuthatches (Sitta europaea) on the feeders, they were suddenly back with a vengeance. We realised why a few days later when their fledglings suddenly appeared. The young haven't visited the feeders so I haven't any pictures of them yet.

Poor Nuthatch is also looking a bit bedraggled

I love how they feed upside down!

This is a week later after the young have fledged, but
they are still waiting around in the old apple tree to be fed by parents!

Our common visitors to the feeders, Great Spotted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major), also have youngsters which they are feeding from the peanuts.

Great Spotted Woodpecker (think it's the male but hard to tell)

Yes the pole is leaning here. That's partially because it's a pole in a parasol base on a sloping driveway, so the pole slopes. Also because as we discovered when the whole lot collapsed a little while later, the pole was rotten at the base and was leaning anyway! It's now been replaced from our stock of surplus curtain poles from previous houses we've lived in. Everything comes in useful for something, eventually! The whole feeder has been moved up the slope a bit to where it's a little bit flatter now too.

A week later and their young have fledged too. However this youngster isn't even trying to
feed itself yet. (Adult male with red marking at back of head on right
and all juveniles have a red cap. Females have no red on head.)

We haven't seen many females around - maybe they are having a rest!

Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) have started revisiting recently

Now I have some exciting news about the Moorhens! One solitary one has been coming up to feed from the duck food by their shed, and we thought it was alone without a mate. Yesterday morning I saw a Grey Heron come in to land at the garden end of the pond, then very surprisingly saw the Moorhen run at it full pelt, whereupon there was quite a flapping of Heron wings. A bit later my OH reported that he'd seen the Moorhen trying to chase off a wild Mallard female that was on the pond. The penny dropped. Aha - maybe they have a nest somewhere; this would account for the aggressive behaviour, and the fact the Herons have been coming by! 

So yesterday afternoon I went to check out the 'Moorhen tree', a willow that grows out over the water. Sure enough, there was a great big nest in it! I could hear a few 'mips' coming from the other end of the pond, so had a look through my camera lens (as I didn't have my binoculars with me) and lo and behold, I saw this..... (very rubbish photo as I was taken by surprise and a nano-second later they had disappeared). Neither of us can believe how we missed the whole nest building and brooding period! I guess the signs were there - Mr Moorhen was coming up for food to feed to Mrs Moorhen who was sitting on the nest, and Herons around hoping for a tasty chick. She's now back on the nest with at least two pompoms under her - and maybe more eggs to brood. Time will tell, but we are soooo excited as they only had an aborted nest build last year and no babies. And I shall be chasing off herons!

Can you just make out two blurry little black pompoms?

I'll finish off with another funny :-)

Photo bombed again!
The new pole on the feeder - at least it looks nice and straight now!
However that pole to the right, holding up the wires for the raspberries, is definitely wonky!

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Aiguamolls de l'Empordà

The Aiguamolls de l'Empordà is another important wetland habitat for birds, the second largest in Catalonia after the Ebro Delta. This site gives tons of information about the area, plus details about the visitor centre and opening hours. Aiguamolls is the Catalan word meaning marsh or wetland.

As we had four whole days in the Roses area and the reserve is nearby, we didn't have to do it all in one day. We had visited three years previously so knew the main places to visit. There is the main area of reserve around the visitor centre of El Cortalet, which has the vast majority of paths and hides, another area known as Europa, also with hides, but which we call the 'Sewage Works lagoons' because it's located right next to one, and another area we call 'the 3 bridges'. There is a fourth area not far from the 3 bridges, a lagoon with a hide known as Vilaut which we finally managed to locate on this trip, but that day it was drizzly and grey and there was little to be seen there. Birding in Spain gives maps and information about the different areas here.

This was the first place that we'd seen a Purple Gallinule although we didn't see one this visit; no matter as we'd seen so many of them at the Ebro Delta! On our first day we visited the Sewage Works lagoons. They are separate from the sewage works themselves, but the lagoons seemed to be covered in rather a lot of scum - this didn't bother the birds but doesn't make for quite such nice photos!

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Top left: male Gadwall (Anas strepera)
Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides)
Bottom right: A Coot (Fulica atra) with its little babies

The walk around these lagoons borders agricultural fields with hedgerows and trees, so plenty of other bird and insect life to be seen, especially on the few times here when the sun did shine!

Clockwise from top left:
Latticed Heath Moth (Chiasmia clathrata) resting on Borage stems
Jumping Spider (Salticus propinquus) (actually on metal crash barrier by bridge!)
Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus) butterfly on cereal stalk
Chafter Beetles (Oxythyrea funesta) on Thistle
Thistles - very pretty and good for pollinating insects

After here we visited the area known as the 3 bridges. Unfortunately there is no real place to park, but as the road is very quiet you can pull half off the road so long as you don't wander too far from it, just in case a truck comes along and you need to move the car! Mostly the very few other cars we saw around here were other bird watchers. From here you have open views over fields which are a bit marshy in between several small canals (hence the bridges) and it seems to be a place where White Storks are attracted to. On our visit here in April 2010 we were lucky enough to see several Great Spotted Cuckoos.

White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) galore were coming in to land in the fields below.

Where they outnumbered the cows, somewhat.
Many Little Egrets were in the fields with the cattle too.

Another day we visited the main centre at El Cortalet where it's worth a whole day to visit, as just the walk all the way to the beach and back is about 4kms each way and there are many hides along the way. The area on the top right just off the map here is the area known as Europa (or the Sewage Works lagoons), which is a fair way from the visitor centre but also accessible by road, with parking nearby.

Don't forget the insect repellant, as whilst we didn't have any problems when we'd visited on a much hotter day in April previously, this time in May we were being eaten alive by mozzies so ended up absolutely covered in repellant, even our faces! The footpath going from the visitor centre down to hide no. 5 we called Mosquito Alley!

Also note at certain times of the year, including during our visit, the route on the left hand side here around the Estanys del Mata is closed during breeding season, but the shorter path which passes hide no. 8 is open.

Everywhere we went around here we could hear Nightingales singing. They are normally very elusive birds that you can hear singing loudly from the trees and undergrowth but remain well hidden, so it was very unusual for them to appear like this on the footpath leading down Mosquito Alley! All photos except for the one in the grass where it was slinking off were taken by my OH who did a much better job than I did photographing them.

Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos)

Along Mosquito Alley, as well as the hides, there are short paths leading to the entrances of fields where you can scan for birds there. We were hugely lucky to spot a Roller flying across the field which we had obviously disturbed; luckily for us it perched high up in a tree. Even distant it was still something we could observe and just about get a photo of!

Not the best shot but this was the most exciting lifer that we saw.
It's a Roller! (Coracias garrulus)

In the reserve many man made nesting places have been made for the White Storks but even so, there are so many of them that they have also made nests up in trees. They are obviously very successful here with their breeding.

White Storks with a couple of young in the nest

There were plenty in the water meadow featured below too.

It was lovely to see Camargue horses grazing here. As their own habitat in the south
of France is also wetland they are perfectly at home here.
In the background you can just make out a Black Winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus).
There were even some nesting in this field!

More Camargue horses. The foals are always born black!

Pretty bee of the genus Anthidium on a Thistle flower

How many beetles can you fit on one Thistle head?
I count six. Two little Beetles and four Oxythyrea funesta but one couple are probably doing the biz!

Cetti's Warbler - but possibly a juvenile as it sat there in the
shadows and didn't mind us and another couple poking cameras at it.
ID is certain as it then opened its beak and sang.

There's a vast grassy car park and picnic area, but as luck would have it, just after we'd finished eating, it started to drizzle.

Annoyingly this was the only time I saw a Hoopoe when we were not driving along.
This was in the visitor centre car park/picnic area and the Hoopoe would not stop moving
so this is my best shot. Still pleased with it though!

View over one of the lagoons from one of the hides. I think rain kept the birds away!

The reason I include this photo of a Little Grebe is because 90% of the
time these irritating little birds are diving under water!
You just don't realise until you try to photograph them. :-)

Just along the footpath between hides 1 and 14 is a man made sand bank which has been colonised by Bee-eaters, and is full of their nesting holes. There were quite a number of them, but due to the rain they were not out hunting bees. Just as well really as this shot was taken in drizzle with one hand whilst the other held my umbrella. I realised when it started raining that a purple and black umbrella was not ideal for bird watching, but in fact the Bee-eaters didn't seem too bothered. But I had to try to keep camera and binoculars dry. Rain and birdwatching/photography really do not go together, unless you are in a nice dry hide!

A Bee-eater (Merops apiaster).

There was one more exciting moment in the drizzle though. Another lifer, a Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus), flew across the footpath and perched in a tree not far from us for about a minute. No time for photos but we had a good view of it.

Bird seen in the Aiguamolls (an asterisk denotes a lifer)
To clarify for those who are unclear, a lifer is a bird that we have seen for the first time ever.

Squacco Heron
Marsh Harrier *
White Storks
Roller *
Cattle Egrets
Little Egrets
Black-winged Stilts
Cetti's Warbler (adult and juvenile)
Little Grebe
Little Bittern *
Only two more holiday posts to go, which is a good thing as I have tons of garden posts waiting in the wings!