It is said that every cloud has a silver lining; Well, I found out the truth about it the other day.
As I lay in bed for a brush with Covid I could watch the comings and goings at a feeder on the south side of the house, which I usually miss as I’m already on my feet and busy with the day.
And there he was: a rather handsome large finch named Hawfinch (Grosbec casse noyaux), which visits my garden very rarely, although friends at higher elevations have regular – and many (15 at a time) – visits from this notoriously shy and shy bird, which usually prefers to hide in the treetops.
Hawfinch (left) at the bird feeder. Photo: Jonathan Kemp
Don’t try to hand-feed this finch (joke) — that massive beak can exert 50 kilograms of force — and it’s specially designed to crack open cherry pits.
In winter, the colors are still muted, both males and females soon become lighter, and very soon they depart and move to their nesting grounds in Russia.
Looking around the garden, especially early in the morning and to a lesser extent in the evening, it’s good to see territorial activity. Some birds – most obviously song thrushes (Grive musicienne) choose to perch high in a chosen tree and proclaim the virtues of their territory.
An easily recognizable song, clear and melodic but with a quality of repeating each phrase four or five times before moving on to the next.
This particular thrush – or her son – chooses the same tree as last year and almost the same branch.
There’s a charming little bird you might catch glimpsing climbing the logs in your yard, probing the bark with its long curved beak while searching for the insects hiding in the cracks: treecreepers.
Two treecreepers. can you recognize them both Photo: Jonathan Kemp
There are two species, Eurasian Treecreeper (Grimpereau des Bois) and snake treecreeper (Grimpereau des Jardins).
They look confusingly similar, with such subtle differences in their plumage that it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart visually.
The treecreeper has a slightly shorter beak, the hind claw is shorter when short-toed, and it tends to have a darker underbelly, but you would have to have both species side by side and stand still to see these differences.
Also, these are not birds that stand still, always flying to the base of a tree and flitting up, all too often moving out of sight to the back of the trunk.
The voice is the potential giveaway, however, but you’ll need a bird call app to sort it out.
There is a great one, the Collins Bird Guide, that you can download onto your smartphone. It’s a blessing when you’re out in the field.
Both the calls and songs of these close cousins are different and their habitats are also a clue.
The snakefish tends to be found at lower elevations and is more likely to be seen in parks and gardens in cities, while the Eurasian tends to live and breed in forests. Much luck!
Territory of the wild boar
While walking with friends in the woods nearby, we came across a wonderful muddy pool – made by wild boar (I tried unsuccessfully to keep the dogs from jumping in to enjoy a mud wallow), and just beyond the tree where the bathed boar (sanglier) would rub the mud of their bath into their skin, no doubt to rid themselves of itching and parasites, tics and fleas.
Perhaps there is also an element of territory marking, leaving the scent as a calling card for others to read.
Clearly a favorite tree, used so extensively that the bark at the base of the trunk was almost completely worn away.
As in other parts of rural France, wild boar are rife and you might make the mistake of thinking a herd of goats or sheep has trotted down the muddy path; The twin carnation prints are superficially similar, but I know from seeing these many prints in the woods nearby that they belong to wild boar families.
Bred with domestic pigs
A bit of a nuisance to farmers and gardeners, these animals are the main target of hunters.
I have been told that the reason there are so many wild boar is because 30 or 40 years ago they were deliberately crossed with domestic pigs to increase populations as a domestic sow can have larger litters than pure wild boar – aim is it to get more loot for the hunters.
Discover this wild flower
Slightly more pleasing to the eye are the fields of wild daffodils that I look forward to seeing each year on a hilltop near my home.
The species we have are the Narcissus assoanus, (le narcisse d’Asso), and I know they won’t last long – in two weeks they’ll be gone.
Vulture colonies nearby
We have three large griffon vultures in the Aude (Vautour fauve) breeding colonies.
Griffon vultures nest. Photo: Jonathan Kemp
I visited one yesterday to check the progress. The observatory actually offers a very good view over the narrow valley of activity in the nests, and you can get intimate details fairly easily with a telescope.
It was good to see this special bird feeding its tiny, newly hatched child so carefully before settling down to hatch it.
The first few days are tender, slow and gentle, strange to behold in such massive birds that have a reputation for being quarrelsome and rough in the throng of a feeding frenzy.
The Mystery of Mallard Eggs
I was pleased to find a mallard nest hidden in the grass on the bank just upstream from the mill.
Mallard duck’s nest and eggs. Photo: Jonathan Kemp
There were 14 eggs and the duck was sitting on her clutch.
Two days later there was no sign and I hope that means she had successfully hatched the entire fry and brought them to the relative safety of the water.
There is always a chance that a predator found the nest and stole the eggs, and the lack of shell debris in the nest could be a sign of this.
Mallard chicks are precocial, the hatched chicks are not fed by the parents but immediately follow the mother to learn how to feed themselves, partly instinctively, partly undoubtedly through imitation.
Therefore, she delays incubation until all the eggs are laid and thus all hatch at the same time, letting them cool beforehand so that the embryos develop at the right moment.
On the subject of matching items
Observing nature in spring in France: clues left by animals and birds
Brown bear numbers are increasing in the French Pyrenees after reintroduction
Wildlife experts have spotted golden jackals in France for the first time