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Friday, 23 August 2013

The self-sufficientish stuff

The egg mountain of spring has diminished and we have barely enough for ourselves, let alone selling to my neighbour! Sadly we had to put down Rusty, one of the red hens, which was a shame as she was still laying occasionally despite getting on in years. Something happened to one of her legs and she could not walk on it and was lying around not eating or drinking, occasionally trying to hop, balancing by putting her wing down and then falling over. Her joint was hot and I couldn't find any swelling so I don't think it was broken, but really what can you do other than the inevitable.

Thinking ahead to winter and next year I decided to get in some new layers now, who will hopefully provide us with eggs this winter. The hybrids are bred to lay practically daily for about two years and then they peter out. I've found it a good mix in the past to have breeds mixed with red hybrids as the breeds will usually lay for more years but not during the winter. Now though, I am fed up with prima donnas and neurotic hens and prefer the docile friendly temperament of the red hybrids! I ordered two from a lady with a van who comes around our local agricultural store every week - sad to see they have had their beaks clipped though and I imagine they are raised en masse and sold to battery farms and the like, as well as to the general public.

It's funny how my two really old chickens, Freddy the cockerel and Snowy the Light Sussex, are so blase about new hens they have barely noticed them. However the youngest two are having a great time as they were the newbies who were picked on last time, so they are making a heck of a racket complaining about these two! The newbies seem quite content though and are rather sweet. And one laid an egg on the first day!  

Carly and Gaby, the new red hens.

The ducks have been so traumatised by Hallie that they won't come up to their shed anymore and won't even come up the garden to get any food! For about 5 days they didn't budge from a small spot by the far end of the pond and I had to take food all the way down to them as they were starving. Now they have returned to the beach area but I'm still having to feed them down there. Neither of the young girls are laying and they are all in various stages of moult anyway. Obviously if you want ducks that lay lots you need to buy the white mixed breed ones like Freckles below, as the pure breeds seem to lay mostly in spring and that's it.

Ducks - even harder than chickens to photograph.
Also Dirk and Doris look practically identical in colouring right now!

The juvenile moorhen is growing up fast and enjoying the ducks being fed by the pond!
Nothing to do with being self-sufficientish but just for fun.

Fruit and veg - August and September are busy months harvest wise and the months where we buy not a single vegetable, which is a real delight. I am still buying fruit as I really enjoy summer fruit like peaches and nectarines, and they are only available during the season so I make the most of it! We still have a few strawberries to eat and the autumn raspberries started ripening as soon as the summer ones finished, but I'm not picking tons like I was. I have loads of raspberries in the freezer to turn into jam and to eat during winter. Now the blackberries have started to ripen and they are nice and juicy, unlike last year - this is also the first year for a long time that the wild blackberries are fat and juicy too - many years they are small and hard, which is why I decided to grow the thornless cultivated ones!

My cultivated thornless blackberries are ripening.
Lots of bramble jelly to give to our families when we visit England!

Unfortunately it's been over two weeks since any rain of note so I am back to watering for about two hours every evening which is tiring and frustrating as it seems like such a waste of time! As soon as I have worked my way around the entire garden with the hosepipe I have to start all over again. We use watering cans for the veggies and all the plants in pots using our stored rain water, but that water is half used already and the warm to hot sunny weather looks set to continue.

I was a bit late sowing my winter brassicas but couldn't get motivated during
the hot spell in July - but already I am on caterpillar squidging patrol.
It didn't take long for the Small Whites to find my baby brassicas in the cold frame.

11th August - leeks newly transplanted and various wildflower meadows in the background.

Still struggling to get through last year's pickled beetroot!
So made this lot into chocolate beetroot brownies. :-)

This was late July and these are supposed to be spring onions....
found seed for the red ones in England, which I had never seen before. They grow big!

'Sweet 100'. This was two weeks ago and now
they and the bigger tomatoes are ripening very fast and already
I have bags full of tomatoes in the freezer to make sauce from later.

Courge Musquée d'Hiver de Provence. One fruit broke off and there are only these
two remaining but they are getting bigger and bigger.

Dug up more spuds -
all these from just six plants of a variety called 'Mandola'.

Bless my OH - this was supposed to be Salade Nicoise only I forgot to hard boil some eggs -
so he opened a tin of red salmon instead of tuna and plated up all prettily -
despite some strange flavour mixes such as earthy beetroot with gherkins and olives
(not home grown) it was a very pleasant meal and all home grown veggies!

Yet another Pollinator Meadow from last year's saved seed.

Whilst this photo was taken through the living room window,
this same little Warbler is also hanging about my veggie patch
catching my pollinating insects!
Here I saw it dart into my lavender and catch a moth.
It may be a Chiffchaff but I'm not sure.

Yesterday. Just sitting surveying my domain after sowing more rocket and radish seeds.

Blogging may go a bit quiet as I have family coming to stay next week.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

A butterfly walk

Just the other side of my little hamlet is a track leading up past a derelict house with an overgrown orchard which peters out shortly afterwards, ending up in a field of maize. In just a short, maybe 1/4 km long track, there is an amazing wealth of insect life! I came to look for butterflies and was not disappointed. Now my garden is heaving with butterflies and has been since about mid July, but they are enjoying not just wildflowers but also my cultivated ones. I was interested to see what was out there in the wild. Suffice to say, more than in my garden! They were feeding on three main nectar plants, Common Knapweed, Bramble flowers and Greater Burdock and on the second walk I saw 18 different species. In total over two walks here I noted 20 (list at the end).

The plants in the photo below are:
The yellow flower is Ragwort and more attractive to pollinators such as hoverflies than to butterflies.
The white flower is Queen Anne's Lace or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), not so attractive to the larger pollinators or butterflies, but small insects can usually be found on it.
The purple flower is Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra), now this one is beloved by butterflies, bees, hoverflies, beetles, you name it, and probably one of the most important wildflowers to have right now. Let it grow in your lawn as it's quite happy to be mown and will still flower low down in amongst your grass!
There's also a Bramble/Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) cane running through the picture top left and the flowers of this plant are very popular with both bees and butterflies and other pollinators.

Typical wildflowers found in July/August.

Mallow Skipper (Carcharodus alceae) -
I saw one in my garden last year but not yet this year.

Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) -
a lifer for me and not yet seen in my garden.

Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) and a solitary bee on a bramble flower.

The track dips downhill to cross over a stream in dense shade amongst woodland and despite the warm sunny day, the soil was still wet with water gathered in tractor ruts. Around here not only did I see demoiselles and a beautiful dragonfly, but some Red Admirals were perched on the ground - presumably taking minerals from the soil (although it was not on the wet mud) and others were enjoying some rotting cherries.

Below clockwise from top left:
Peacock (Inachis io)
Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera) eating a cherry
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus)
Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta)

Butterflies galore!

Bordering the little bit of woodland on one side of the stream was a small uncultivated field which only seemed to be being used as a dumping ground for some bales of hay. In it I discovered an unknown to me plant with flowers very similar to the Knapweed flowers. A cry for help on Facebook gave me the ID of the mystery plant - it is Burdock, I assume Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa), as some of these plants were taller than me, and they were teeming with butterflies!

A Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) showing how leaflike and well camouflaged their wings are,
and a bumble bee enjoying the Burdock flowers.

A Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) - I only saw my first one in
the garden recently to much excitement. Here it is sharing the picture
with a Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)
and up top a bug that I hadn't even noticed!

The derelict house, the track looking back towards it with the orchard on the left and
the woodland and stream beyond, and the overgrown orchard.

Probably the most exciting find as it's a lifer meaning I haven't ever seen it before -
a Sooty Copper (Lycaena tityrus).

Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus) male - cheat photo from my garden on left,
photos from the walk on the right!
Isn't it the cutest little thing?!

Clockwise from top left:
Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus)
Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)
Green-veined White (Pieris napi)
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
Gatekeepers (Pyronia tithonus)

You can see how popular the Knapweed is!

There are daytime flying moths about too and the following are two that I commonly see in my garden, the Silver Y moth below being abundant and around in the garden for several months now. The Jersey Tiger moths appear later but are quite common in high summer, at home having a preference for lavender and coneflowers.

Silver Y moth (Autographa gamma)

Jersey Tiger Moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) - when it spreads those tiger wings the underwings are a vivid orange/red and quite amazing. In flight you just see the red colour.

Of course where there is such an abundance of insects there will always be predators. I didn't even spot what was going on in the photo below until I'd looked at it for about the third time! I also saw a Garden Spider with one of the Snout Moths (Pyralidae family) and zooming in on a dead looking butterfly hanging high up in the brambles showed me the legs of a crab spider peeking out from behind the foliage! Photos not good enough for sharing but my superzoom SX50 is brilliant for IDing and showing me just what is going on out of reach.

A Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) completely oblivious of the spider (Enoplognatha ovata)
with its beetle prey below.

Obviously where there are nectar rich flowers so there are all kinds of bees and hoverflies, and many other insects. I really only had eyes for butterflies but sometimes I couldn't help but notice other insects and many just appeared in my butterfly shots anyway!

Clockwise from top left:
Helophilus sp. hoverfly sharing bramble blossoms with a Brimstone butterfly.
Unknown species of solitary bee.
Male Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo).
Unknown Grasshopper.

Obviously there were many other insects about,
but I was mostly just photographing butterflies!

Below are some pictures by the main road showing the kind of flowers that are abundant in high summer when the verges have not been mown (here, predominantly Common Knapweed and Ragwort). The track I took was just in front of the house in the distance beside the line of trees, along the edge of the maize field.

Showing the wealth of wildflowers on the unmown grass verge and ditch.

I shall certainly be going back here over the next month to see which species of butterfly are still about as certain flowers, such as the brambles, go over. I also want to collect some seed from the burdock plants as I absolutely have to have that in my garden!

Butterfly species seen (20 in all that I am sure about, although I may well have seen some Large Whites as well):

Small Skipper
Essex Skipper
Large Skipper
Mallow Skipper
Clouded Yellow
Small White
Green-veined White
Small Heath
Meadow Brown
Wall Brown
Speckled Wood (in the woodland area beside the stream)
Marbled White
Red Admiral
Painted Lady
Silver-washed Fritillary
Holly Blue
Sooty Copper 

Now that's not bad! :-)

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Raising Swallowtails - Part 6

I was so hoping to entitle this The Final Chapter but it was not to be. Yes I raised four healthy Swallowtail butterflies but didn't manage to witness, let alone photograph, a single eclosion! So I will just have to try again next year.

It wasn't as if I wasn't being vigilant. The first one emerged before 8am on day 11. The second one before 8am on day 12. So when the third and fourth (which both pupated on the same day) came to day 11, I thought OK, I'll keep the butterfly box on my desk with me first thing so I can watch it. Nothing happened. I then went off to do some things and next thing I know there is a freshly eclosed butterfly hanging off the mesh lid as it had only gone and done it mid morning!

By day 12 I was desperate and down to my last chrysalis, so decided I was going to watch it all day if needs be. It had changed colour and started to become translucent (I know for sure that chrysalis no. 3 did not change colour) so felt it was really imminent. Well by midday I was still in my dressing gown and nothing had happened other than a few false alarms when I saw it twitch! I took the box into the bathroom with me for a quick wash and to throw some clothes on. It turned more translucent and I still sat and watched, whilst doing some things on my computer. Around 3pm I glanced at the box after having forgotten about it for a few minutes out of sheer tiredness and guess what, yes there was a freshly eclosed butterfly! I can't tell you just how sick with disappointment and frustration I felt. I'd been watching it for nine long hours!

One thing this experiment has taught me is that butterflies will eclose when it suits them, just at that moment when you are not looking, so chances of actually seeing it happen are slim, and that they will not necessarily change colour hours beforehand to give you warning!

So here's what happened after they did eclose.

The last chrysalis turns translucent and the wing patterns are clearly visible.

A freshly emerged butterfly with wings all soft and floppy.
The block is in there to hold up the stick that the chrysalis was on,
which was too close to the bottom of the box.

At this point the butterfly cannot fly as its wings are all floppy and crumpled from having been folded up inside the chrysalis. It needs to spend several hours pumping blood into the wings to harden them and for them to dry off. A browny red liquid comes out of chrysalis when the butterfly ecloses, but I also saw a few of them excrete a thick brown liquid onto my windowsill after eclosion, whilst I was trying to help them onto a good surface to hang from. Three of the butterflies were happy to be transferred onto my African Violet pot plant on the kitchen windowsill and the fourth wanted to hang out on a stick.

You can see how soft the wings are here.

Wings have hardened up a bit but still not ready to fly, but happy to climb about on
our fingers and hands. You have to take advantage of this opportunity!

Still hanging around.

Not knowing exactly what happens the first time we were unsure as to when the butterfly would start to fly, so to keep it safe i.e. so that it didn't land on the floor and get eaten by an inquisitive kitten, my OH thought of the umbrella thingy which keeps flies off cakes!

Bright idea to keep butterfly from harm i.e. the cats!

Of course with four butterflies so close I had to take the opportunity for some macros!
Doesn't that curled up proboscis remind you of liquorice?

Close up of the wing pattern clearly showing the scales that cover the wing.

I didn't know at what point they would start to feed so for the first one I brought in a stem of Verbena bonariensis but all this one did was just perch on it! In fact out of the four butterflies, I only saw one extend its proboscis (tongue) indoors before flying away.

This butterfly is actually indoors and that's the garden through the window!

I wasn't sure when I'd know when it was ready to go outside, but when it started to flitter about and head for the window it was pretty obvious. For all I just encouraged them onto my finger, which was not hard, put my hand around them and took them out to the garden and popped them on a coneflower! They then sat for up to 15 minutes whilst I watched and photographed them, most times flapping about in the wind whilst they clung on to the flower. I should mention here that I know nothing about butterflies pooing or peeing, but two of the four 'peed' a colourless liquid all over my hand when I gently lifted them off the house plant to take outside!

And so I photographed them, again.

With strong dry wings now and nearly ready to leave.

I took hundreds of photos of the four of them!

The last one decided to flit off and land on a cosmos flower, on a very windy day so it was flapping about like crazy on the flower. Even holding the flower stem the petals were flapping over the butterfly!

Last butterfly ready to fly off.

Then off they flew, when they were ready, soaring off over the trees to their new lives. I saw one in the garden the day after I'd released the fourth one. I'd like to think it was one of mine. :-)

And now I have to repeat this experience all over again next year, because I WILL watch an eclosion. One day!

Part 5 here.

Friday, 9 August 2013

French Friday - the forest of Paimpont

About three weeks ago when the sun was blazing during a particularly hot spell, the thought of a day out in a forest with lakes seemed like a good idea.

Also known as Brocéliande forest, it is a land of legends and Arthurian romance. The only previous time we had visited was when we first moved here in 2004 and were surprised to learn that King Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin et al were legends here too, as we had grown up with the tales since childhood and assumed they were British ones! But the Bretons are a Celtic race who came over to Bretagne (Britain) in the 6th century AD so maybe brought their legends with them.

We'd decided a picnic was in order, something we'd not done in years. (I don't count those 'stolen' sandwiches from hotel breakfasts as a real picnic. A real picnic contains real picnic food that you lovingly prepped at home!). First stop was the lake called 'Etang de Pas du Houx' - not a huge lot to see here other than one path alongside open to the public and a view of a couple of big houses. Most of the land beside the lake is private and this must be a great place to live, other than the hordes of visitors gawking and taking photos of your house!

French Wikipedia calls this a chateau - I beg to differ.
It's just a posh house!

We then stopped in the village of Paimpont which is small and touristy with a large and photogenic Abbey situated beside a lake. There is a tourist office where we picked up a map marking all the touristy and Arthurian legend places to visit. We only went to a few of these places and you could do with a couple of days here to do the area justice.

The Abbey at Paimpont.

Along by the lake was a pleasant walkway with mown paths amongst longer grass and I was really pleased to see signs saying that they had cut down on mowing all the grass to help the butterflies! Many of the butterflies were 'browns' all of whose larvae feed of various grasses. Of course there were ducks and dragonflies and all things related to water around too. We ate our lunch on a bench in the shade of oak trees.

Mrs Mallard with her babies.

Common Blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum), male.

I think this is a not quite mature male Black Tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum).

After lunch we set off to the Val sans Retour as we could see from our map that there was a 4km round trip walk following a stream with a couple of lakes, which sounded pleasant and shady.

All about the Val sans Retour.

L'Arbre d'Or (the Golden Tree) erected in 1991 as a souvenir to remember
a fire that destroyed nearly 500 acres of forest in September 1990.

The walk beside the barely trickling stream.

The romantic in me would like to think that the legends of damsels and their lovers (faithful or otherwise) still continues with the amount of damselflies and here, demoiselles, of which there were surprisingly many in such a shady area.

Male Beautiful Demoiselles (Calopteryx virgo). Awaiting females and the one bottom right
is spreading his wings in an attempt to attract a female.

And here she is, a female Beautiful Demoiselle.

One guy got lucky and here they are getting into position.
It's a tricky manoeuvre.

Finally they made it into the 'copulation wheel'.

There were two little lakes like this, full of damselflies and dragonflies.
I could have spent hours here!

Rather than retrace our steps we continued on to do the loop
and returned via a long and very hot sunny path!

Eventually it opened up into vistas and we realised that we were quite high up here.

After chilling out for a while we decided to stop in and see what the Tomb of the Giants
was about on our way back to Paimpont.

Not a lot! A Bronze age burial chamber but we'd walked nearly 2 kms there and back and
were a bit hot and disgruntled as we'd expected something a bit more exciting....

However I didn't mind too much as I finally managed to capture a Small Skipper. There hadn't been too many butterflies about and a real lack of wild flowers, but there were quite a few of these little butterflies in amongst the long grass.

Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris).

Hot, tired and dusty and impatiently awaiting my ice cream.
I've eaten more ice cream this last month than in probably the three previous years!

All in all a very enjoyable day out and only about an hour from home!