A River Runs Through It

I’m sitting here, back propped up on an old log, flask of coffee, snack, camera and binoculars by my side and I’m watching a few birds and a great deal of water. It’s one of my favourite bits of the Towy in the flood plain near Llandeilo. Parties of Sand Martins are quartering the river and a group of three flies past below me, just under the bank. Over on one of the shingle banks are a Common Sandpiper, a Pied Wagtail and a couple of Mallards. All around are the geese – the old native Greylags. At this time of year you see ones and  twos plodding about the fields and then, with that particular strident flight call, taking off and flying round before landing on one of the lakes or in another field. One pair is particularly interested in me and flies in a low circle round me to see what I am up to.  (For technical reasons I have my reserve camera so the pictures aren’t as sharp as I would like.)

Greylags mate for life, and according to my books the female incubates the eggs while the male stands guard. However, here there seem to be two or three geese standing around together in the fields on guard duty. Do unattached birds help other family members, or are there several nests hidden away nearby? Here they sometimes nest in trees, and like tree-nesting ducks, the newly hatched goslings will simply launch themselves into space and fall to the ground unhurt.

In this flat land the river takes great loops and the force of the water wears away the banks. Eventually, after a hundred years or so, the river will break through and cut off one of the loops, leaving the characteristic oxbow-shaped lake behind.  There are seven of them here, and at some stage – though not in my lifetime – this huge loop will be cut off in its turn.

On the largest of the oxbow lakes the first ducklings of the year are out, and I record the following:

6 Greylag Geese, 1 Little Egret, 2 Mute Swans, 10 Mallards, 3 Coots, 6 Gadwall and 1 Heron.

To us wildlife freaks Spring is the most exciting time of year but also the most stressful. There are so many opportunities to be missed! Should I evict the sparrows from the swift box and re-position it a lot higher? Will there even be any swifts this year? Will I get a cuckoo picture? What about those elusive hares which can be seen in the very early morning? If only I could get to Scotland and see the eagles! Will I be able to see the Pine Martens using the boxes I made for them?

My calendar fills up with stuff like doctors and dentists, a cataract op for Thelma and a cochlear implant for me. I have to get the campervan spruced up and on sale and then what will I replace it with?

In just a few weeks it will be over and I can look back with the inevitable mix of elation and disappointment, but then I will have our holiday in France to look forward to.  Could be worse!

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Breakfast at Sunrise

Today, soon after 6,  and for the first time this year I had my breakfast in the conservatory. It felt particularly special this year because this winter has been bad for me. It’s been a long struggle with persistent locked-in nervous tension. Weeks ago I decided to bite the bullet and embark on a course of psychotherapy. I now feel I am some way down the road towards a grateful acceptance of the life I have instead of a constant striving for something better.

This simple ritual is part of that journey. (Forgive the cliché; it’s the right word, but it has been over-used by the media.) 

From where I sit with my healthy cereals and my inspiring book, I can see a Red Kite’s nest. It’s that darker blob in the tree to the left of the door frame. For weeks we have been able to watch the birds sitting and occasionally changing places. Soon it will be hidden by leaves  but a couple of weeks ago I got some nice pictures of the two birds. The male, on the left, has just brought in some meat and the female has left the nest to beg it from him. 

The book is “The Four Pillar Plan” by Rangan Chatterjee. It came  highly recommended by my doctor and I pass on that recommendation. The stillness bit I find hard, but this is pretty close:

As I sit watching, the second kite appears, circling round the trees. Close by in the garden a Chiffchaff is gathering nest materials. What joy: this tiny bird has flown thousands of miles to make a nest in our garden!

On the window ledge my seeds are sprouting – squashes and lupins.

Today we are off to Bristol: one night in a posh hotel as a birthday treat for Thelma, the second with two dear friends. After that I’m heading north, to Humberside. It’s part of the plan to de-clutter my life, and I will try to make the time to write about it from there.

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Tourism and Wildlife – incompatible?

I was told that the marshes around Le Mont St Michel were good for birds. I couldn’t see any marshes, but every other farm offered accommodation and every hamlet had its posh restaurant. This was clearly a major tourist destination. Well it is pretty spectacular, and I could hardly not visit a medieval village stuck on a rock out in the sea, but not in the late afternoon. Searching for somewhere to park for the night I entered what looked like a square mile of parking bays, one of which was for “campingcars”. The dread “Great White Motorhome” seems to have conquered France and most villages now have an “aire de campingcar”. Here I would have to pay when I left, but it was safe and not yet crowded.

Downstream from the parking lot is a barrier and beyond it an exclusive area of hotels and restaurants. From here the free shuttle busses go out along the causeway to the Mount, but there is also a footpath and cycle path, so at the relatively early time of 7:30 I set off to walk. It takes half an hour, and once you have climbed up the steps the whole quaint little place, except for the Abbey, can be walked round in an hour. It costs 11Euros to see the abbey and I preferred to spend 7E on a coffee and crepe looking out over the ramparts.

There are a few people living here, and I imagine there are services in the abbey and the church, but otherwise it’s a film set. Suppose some enterprising group decided to build a spectacular fake medieval style village from scratch? My guess it would be just as popular. It worked for Portmeirion though for much smaller numbers than this place is geared to. 

Walking back along the causeway at 10:30 I passed a steadily growing band of walkers coming the other way, and the shuttle buses going full and coming back empty. I admired the walkers. In another time and place I would enjoy meeting many of them, but to make that kind of social effort here was beyond me and the walk was therapy of a sort.

In the late afternoon I headed East and stayed in a beautiful old beech forest on the way to the ferry port. In the early morning I went looking for deer; saw none but loved the light through the trees.

On my last afternoon I went to a bird reserve called “Baie de l’Orne” on the other side of the estuary from the port at Ouistreham. I’d been here before, in the winter. There were very few birds there then but it was a quiet, interesting walk. I should have known that a warm Saturday afternoon by the shore in France, even in March, was not going to be quiet. The reserve is oval in shape protected by a raised bank with a path round the perimeter. There are a few observation screens at intervals and one high viewing tower. The path was crowded. People stopped for a minute or two at the screens, saw nothing and moved on. From the tower I could see that all the birds were concentrated in the centre of the oval, as far away from the crowds and the traffic as they could get. From a distance I watched a Shelduck chasing a Pintail.

Now, some points to ponder:

  • It is, I think, generally believed that Nature conservation in Britain is way ahead of France because France, with its emphasis on small farms rather than industrial agriculture has more nature anyway. 
  • Britain, despite all its well funded nature reserves, is reported to be the most nature-deprived country in Europe. 
  • “La Chasse” in France is typified by small groups of men of all classes going out into the country to shoot birds – any birds. In Britain shooting is still an aristocratic pursuit and the birds shot are mostly reared for the purpose on big estates.
  • Traditionally the French have tended all to take their holidays at the same time – typically in August, and would seldom venture out to the beaches or the woods until the afternoon.
  • In France, unlike in Britain, the farmed landscape has very few footpaths, so “a walk in the country” tends to be in areas where walks are laid out and signposted with car parks etc. 

Now, here’s my idea. What I have seen of the French farmed landscape in the last year suggests that industrial agriculture has caught up here. Is what I saw at Baie de l’Orne a sign that nature conservation in France is facing a pincer attack from:

  1. too many people in search of places to enjoy the natural world,
  2. widespread shooting, and
  3. the advance of industrial agriculture?

I hope I’m wrong.

CODA

As I was preparing the pictures for these blog posts I had a “laugh out loud” moment of delight. I had been quite pleased with a picture of a  buzzard sitting near a spoonbill, but when I saw it on the big screen I realised it was a bird I seldom seen in the wild – a Black Kite:

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A Spoonbillry and a fortified village.

If you read my last post you may have feared for my sanity. Certainly my life has to change, and perhaps the two books I am reading are part of the process. They are very different but both extraordinary.

They are: “first we make the beast beautiful” (no caps) by Sarah Wilson, subtext: “a new conversation about anxiety” and “The Betrayal” by Helen Dunmore. Sarah Wilson is an Australian journalist and writer who runs a business called “I Quit Sugar”. Her writing is hyper-chatty, peppered with US slang and ultra-personal. I hope it will help me deal with a problem which The Betrayal puts into brutal perspective. It is a novel set at the height of the Stalinist terror, and is written with beautiful measured clarity, slowly drawing us into a world where nobody is safe. Sarah Wilson’s world, and mine, feels much safer. We are seldom cold or hungry, seldom experience real pain, and are free to moan about our awful politicians. Most of us trust the police not to harm us and we have money to do most of the things we think we want. Despite all this so many of us are full of dread and unease.

Perhaps I will find some answers in the next few weeks, but meanwhile my exploration of the Charente Maritime hit pay dirt. On the previous day I had found a proper wetland reserve. There were no great flocks of waders, but I found these lovely kestrels and some more storks.

Then I went a few miles further south to the Ile d’Oleron where there was another reserve. It was heaving with traffic and densely populated, so (to my eccentric sensibility,) somewhere to get away from. However, on the way I   discovered the extraordinary fortified village of Brouage and on the way back, a nesting colony of herons, spoonbills and egrets. I decided to stay nearby and return in the early morning.

The light was perfect and I took some distance views from the van, but there seemed to be a path which might offer a closer view. It took me half an hour of wandering to find it, but then, moving very slowly and carefully I had the magical experience of being tolerated close to these wonderful creatures. I love the curious eye of the second bird in the first picture, and I love the challenge of focussing through branches. How difficult it must be to use those huge beaks to build a nest!

After fifteen minutes I didn’t think I could do better and, walking carefully on air, I left them to it, and went to explore Brouage. 

What a fascinating place. The history is here: Hiers-Brouage – Wikipedia  but it’s the atmosphere that excites me. I followed a party of schoolchildren round the ramparts and looked out towards the sea over what was a huge harbour, but the sea has retreated and it’s just farm land, a few houses and the remains of an oyster industry.

Inside the walls it’s clear that us visitors are the economy, but it’s low key tourism – just a few restaurants and shops, a church, a few craft workshops and museums, and the rows of old houses and their gardens. Outside the walls I’m fascinated by the little abandoned cottages which must have been seasonal lodgings for the oyster farmers. With a sigh I set off northwards but was immediately diverted onto a little side road. Within minutes I was surrounded by a vast area of wild marshland, and managed to catch this Black Tailed Godwit with a Spotted Redshank. One day, I promised myself, I would return.

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Charente Maritime

I’m in a land full of holes: ditches, ponds, lakes, canals. Once they were part of a 4000 year history of salt pans. Now they are home to sheep, cattle, ducks, egrets, kestrels, marsh harriers, coypu, spoonbills, a few waders and above all the great white storks, just returned from Africa. They mate for life, but spend our winter apart, so when they meet up again at the nest site there is a lot of bill clattering courtship behaviour: very moving – they are just so pleased to be together again!

I have come here, hundreds of miles from home in a bid to escape the nervous tension which has tainted so much of my life in the last few months. I couldn’t be at peace at home so I went to begin the great annex restoration project at daughter Hannah’s place in northern France.

For a few days I worked like a convict: tearing down partitions, demolishing plasterboard heaving out a cast iron shower tray, removing a toilet and it’s waste, and a washbasin , pipework, wiring, the lot. Then something went wrong. There was a rift. We smiled and patched it up. For the first 5 days there were 5 of us: Hannah, her partner Dave, grand-daughter Megan and Phoebe who works in the family ceramics business. Here are Hannah and Megan gardening:

Then they all dash off to catch the ferry and I have a week alone in this special place among the trees and the long grass; the cold nights and warm sunny days; the big warm wood-stove and the big screen with a world I barely recognise on Netflix (Byron Baes?!) In the huge wild  garden there are the first chiffchaffs, a lizard, a buzzard and a Firecrest.

My head tells me it’s lovely but my gut tells me it’s not right. Everything which should calm and sooth is unbearable without the pills and the strong red wine.

And so I pack up early and head south in the hope that I can outrun my demons. The destination is the bay of La Rochelle where there is a cluster of bird reserves and the promise of early migrants.  It’s busy: noisy, brash, ugly and the traffic is terrible, but the map shows huge areas of wetland and the publicity is oozing with wonderful birdlife.

It’s 200 miles from Ambrieres Les Valeees to the “Marias d’Ives” south of La Rochelle. It should have taken 4 hours but this seems to be open season for road works and general demolition and construction in France and that combined with Google’s weird ideas of what constitutes a decent route, meant it took a lot longer. At last in the late afternoon, speeding along in a heaving mass of traffic, I could see my destination just up ahead. “Leave at the exit” said Google but there was no exit; just traffic cones and road building work; no sign of anything that looked remotely wildlife friendly. Half an hour later I still hadn’t found it, so I pootled around until I found a nice spot to park for the night. It even had Marsh Harriers and Storks.  I had the food and drink. I had the drugs. I would sleep, but would I awake calm and relaxed, or would it be another day of gut-crawling anxiety?

 

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