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Thursday, 29 May 2014

Birds and bugs around the Gulf of Morbihan

Make yourself comfy and sit down with a nice cup of tea as this is a long post. This dates back nearly two weeks, but when you come back from a day out with about 250 photo, it takes a while to sort them out and decide which ones to post! After visiting this bird rich area back in April (post here), here's my report from a revisit to the same places in mid May. Whilst there were fewer species and birds of interest viewable from the hides at the reserves, there were plenty of birds around, not to mention this time there were bugs and butterflies galore, so plenty to keep me occupied!

The first bird that needs a mention, although I don't have a photo, is one I've wanted to see more than anything for many years. I have been to many places in my 'where to watch birds' books from the Alps to the Pyrenees, and never so much as a glimpse of this elusive bird. But within five minutes of getting out of the car, what did we see but a Black Woodpecker! To get to one of the hides at the Marais de Duer, you have to walk through a small area of mixed woodland, and there's even a sign saying Black Woodpeckers here. Last time we were there, I thought "yeah, right" and contented myself with seeing Crested Tits instead. This time though we hit the jackpot! It was flitting from tree trunk to tree trunk and was hard enough to watch through binocs, but it's a big bird and easy enough to see well with the naked eye. Now Bluethroats have been bumped up to my No. 1 Want to See Bird and this area is supposed to be rife with them.... so maybe next time?

Along the open bit of path/cycleway to the hide we saw a couple of things of interest.

Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus).

There was one important thing that I learned on this day - don't dismiss every mottled looking brown/orange butterfly that flits by as yet another common old Speckled Wood. Sometimes they are something completely different! On the other hand, don't get too excited either, as sometimes they ARE Speckled Woods, only the one which had lost both its hind wings had me quite excited for a moment thinking it was something completely different...... :-)

Another lifer! A Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia).
It would have been nice to see the underwings which are prettier,
but it only wanted to pose like this.

The first hide had little of interest so we then backtracked, visited the other hide (Brent Geese, Black-winged Stilts, Reed Warblers) and decided to follow a path we hadn't walked along the previous time. This turned out to be a coastal path which we walked along for about half an hour before turning back. There was lots of interest along here, including seeing and hearing Whitethroats (no photos!) and a Grizzled Skipper (ummm no photo either!).

The coastal footpath after vising the hides at the Marais de Duer reserve.

We rounded a corner and I walked down onto the beach,
only to scare off two Shelducks and two..... yes they are Black Swans!

That was a nice surprise - also they are not totally black.
These Swans hail from Australia but have been introduced to Europe as ornamental birds,
and some have escaped and live happily as wild birds.

Mega zoomed in but at least we can ID them. Top two pictures are Black-tailed Godwits which are migratory birds and could well be breeding here in southern Brittany. The birds in the bottom two pics are Whimbrels which should have reached their breeding grounds by now I'd have thought. Maybe these ones are only going to Scotland and not the Arctic!

Top and Middle: Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa)
Bottom: Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus)
and in the centre a Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna).

In the top pic you can see how far away the shoreline is and that's where the waders were!
The rest are me doing what I love best - photographing bugs!

Here's what was enjoying this umbellifer plant:
Top left: a Honey Bee
Top right: a Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria)
Bottom two pics: Rose Chafers (Cetonia aurata)

A Wood White butterfly (Leptidea sinapis), a species I've only seen once before
down in SW France in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

On the way back from our walk we walked alongside a slow moving stream which had been quiet earlier, but with the sun and warmth the damselflies had woken up. There were dozens of Large Red Damselfies, many of them mating, many on the footpath in front of us so we had to watch our step. In fact when I stopped to have a closer look at the stream they were landing on me!

I had to ask for help with ID for this one but it's not surprising I couldn't find it. It's a different form of the female Large Red Damselfly, which is often much redder as seen in the pic below this one.

Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula f. melanotum).

This is a more red colour variant of the female,
which was the colour we were seeing on the mating pairs all around us.

Whilst watching damselfly activity I spotted something strange looking in the vegetation and was very excited to find my first dragonfly exuviae - the shed exoskeleton of the nymph. I believe this is from a Broad Bodied Chaser, as there were quite a number of them in the small pond across the road.

Dragonfly exuviae - probably from Broad Bodied Chaser.

A zoomed in pic of a Broad Bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa).
This was a male but you can't see its blue abdomen here!

We then went to revisit the Reserve at the Marais de Sene and have a late picnic lunch there. This is a paying place but I was a bit disappointed this 2nd visit. The most exciting thing here were Avocet chicks and whilst I shouldn't poo-poo dozens of Avocets and a good handful of Black-winged Stilts, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing! Frustratingly, the only hide where there were some good views of close up chicks was full of school children on a field trip, so although I tried to take photos through the window over the tops of the kids' heads, it proved impossible as the kids just kept jumping around!

Distant Avocet chick, taken through grubby plastic window of hide.

One hide has a boardwalk which crosses a lagoon and is the only place where you can actually view a lagoon from the open, rather than from inside a hide.

Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus), male at the back, female in front.

More Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus).

A lizard seen by the side of the boardwalk. This boardwalk was made from a plastic type of
material resembling planks and was really easy to walk on -
unlike the wobbly wooden planks throughout the rest of the reserve!

I don't know who is responsible for this damage but there were a lot of completely defoliated
sloe bushes and gorse bushes covered in these webs containing caterpillars.

After changing into my trainers from my hiking boots as my feet felt like they were going to explode from heat, we went back to the salines at Lasné, but it was very windy and there were too many people about for any real birding. So we decided as it 'seemed' like low tide to walk over the causeway to Île Tascon. This little island is only accessible at low tide and there are very few people who live here full time; most of the houses now being holiday homes. There is still a farm and most of the land is grazing for cattle.

We passed a few cottages all shuttered up like this with long grass!
Would be rather nice as a peaceful weekend getaway.

Looking back towards the mainland just after we got here;
I'm glad I took this photo as it shows me where the tide was.

We didn't really stop here for long as we didn't walk that far as there was little to really see, maybe about half an hour total. On the return walk I looked at the level of the sea and asked my OH if the water had been up to the edge of the concrete roadway when we walked across? He didn't think so.... ooops the tide was turning! On the causeway we stopped and watched for a little while and it really brings home to you just how fast the tide can come in. I wonder how many people have been stranded there over the years? A noticeboard with tide times by the causeway would have been a good idea for all those visitors and tourists wandering over.

Looking towards the mainland.

Looking back towards the island.

It didn't take long to come across the road!

This guy had to hop across the water over the rocks.
I hope the guys in the distance planned on staying on the island!

In the 10 minutes or so that we were in the car park before leaving, the water was well up and over the causeway, but a truck drove through it OK. I've no idea how high the water comes during an average tide.

The next time we visit we'll try to explore some different places on the east side the gulf. I think that the paying nature reserve at Sene is best visited during the spring or autumn migration for birds only, as it holds little of interest in the way of butterflies, bees etc as there wasn't much in the way of wildflowers. But all in all a fabulous day out!

Friday, 23 May 2014

It's all abuzzin' in the pollinator meadow

Just a recap - my 'Pollinator Meadow' is a strip in my veg patch where 2 years ago I sowed a packet of mixed flower seeds especially for pollinating insects. It's been a great experiment and I've spent hours watching the bug life in it. This is now year 3 and what is left are biennials and perennials and the star of the show right now is the Dame's Rocket (Hesperis matronalis). It is tall and flops and has swamped most of the rest of the plants, but I know from last year that when it's finished flowering, I'll cut back those long stems and then the other plants can get some light and air! And the Dame's Rocket will reflower on and off again but in a more compact way.

The kale that was attracting bees left right and centre a few weeks back is over now, the last plants having come out a few days ago because I've got to get veggies in there. I relocated the Ornate Shield Bugs to the Hesperis as they needed a new home, hope they will like it! What has been interesting to note is how different insects are attracted to different flowering plants. Yet both the Kale (and Purple Sprouting Broccoli, but I'll lump the two together as the flowers are pretty much identical) and Dame's Rocket are all from the brassica family, yet only two nectar feeders liked both plants. 

One being the Heineken Hoverfly (Rhingia campestris), but that one is absolutely everywhere in the garden and is not at all fussy about where it feeds, and was the only hoverfly interested in the Kale flowers. The other is the only bee I've seen on the Dame's Rocket, Melecta albifrons, which is the cuckoo bee of the Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes).

The Pollinator Meadow beyond my spuds and strawbs.

There's so much insect life happening around the Dame's Rocket and unlike the brassica veggies which had a faintly unpleasant cabbagey smell, this one smells wonderful, so it's a delight to hang around here watching!

Heineken Hoverfly (Rhingia campestris).

Couldn't get a very good photo but here is Melecta albifrons
which doesn't seem to have a common name!

Being a brassica certain white butterflies are attracted to it to lay their eggs, although so far I've only seen signs of mating or feeding on this plant. This is the only plant where I've managed to get shots of female Orange Tips! Other butterflies will come by to feed on it, of course.

Top and bottom left, female Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines).
Bottom right: Green-veined White (Pieris napi).

First time I've seen them this year but they've been around on all the recent sunny days.
This is the Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth (Hemaris fuciformis) and their larvae feed
on Honeysuckle and Galium species, both of which I have here.

Best of the lot is seeing the Bee Flies which are such cool critters!
Family Bombyliidae but I haven't the time to try to ID this one.

Another shot of the Bee Fly.

OK I'll limit myself to three. Bee Flies are too cool to shrink into a collage!

Plenty of hoverflies are attracted to this plant. Not sure what the one on the left is,
but I think the two on the right are Eristalis sp.

However, where there are pollinators, there are also spiders lying in wait. Now I have another 'pet' crab spider in this patch, just like I did last year! This one is living on a Wallflower.

I only spotted the spider because I saw the dangling hoverfly!
This is Misumena vatia which changes its colour to yellow when it is on yellow flowers.
The hoverfly is an Eristalis species, but I don't know which one.

It has a little nest! Isn't it cute? :-)

A smaller crab spider yet to ID, but as I couldn't get any real details I probably won't be able to!

Another unknown but really tiny spider on a Wallflower petal.

Two more pictures which are not in the Pollinator Meadow but in the veg patch so that sort of counts. I was trying to hoe a weedy patch before planting pumpkins, when all of a sudden a Cinnabar Moth appeared and started flitting around the various weeds checking them out. It was looking for Groundsel (of which there was plenty and I wanted to hoe it off!) but I ended up having to leave some just for this moth. :-)

Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) checking out a weed
plant which isn't Groundsel.

And finally, the first Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) of the year appeared
on 20th May and just flitted about the veggie patch.

Typical isn't it, since writing the above I had a wander round this morning and now find there are lots of honey bees attracted to the Dame's Rocket and even one bumble bee! So here are a few more photos from this morning.

Well is this the same Painted Lady as in the previous photo or another one?
Note this one has lost a chunk off each lower hind wing!

There was a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) out this morning feeding on the Dame's Rocket.

I'm just starting to see Thick-legged Flower Beetles (Oedemera nobilis).
You can see why they are called that.
Only the males have these chunky thighs though.

This is one of my favourite bumble bees which I think
is a male Bombus pratorum, which are known as
the Early Bee or Early-nesting Bee.

More exciting news as my Swallowtail eggs have hatched out and I've been taking photos of them as they grow; the biggest cats are now about 5mm long. My fancy new Manfrotto tripod and ballhead have just arrived (birthday present, yes it's my birthday today) so I'm looking forward to setting it up (may need OH to help as I'm sure I will not have a clue, haha!). Hopefully I'll get some better shots of the caterpillars now. I'll wait until they are the size of the caterpillars that I originally brought in to raise a couple of years back until I do a post about them.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Growing asparagus from seed

I haven't mentioned my asparagus yet, but that's because the growing process takes years and I thought I'd see if they actually came to anything before writing about it. I grew asparagus from seed so it takes a year longer than if you buy one year old crowns, so it's a three year process. In fact I sowed the seed in September 2010 as I was given some berries, which then ended my years of procrastinating about whether to bother, what with all the palaver of making a dedicated asparagus bed, or not. 

It was worth waiting 3.5 years for them! We won't always have them in melted salted butter though;
I imagine in the future there will be lots of them so a healthier option needs to be found!

Female asparagus ferns have red berries like in the picture below, and this is what I was given. Each berry contains many seeds but I just put the whole seed in a small pot, and put the pots in my cold frame during winter. In the spring tiny fern fronds emerged. Loads of them of course, so I had to do a lot of pricking out to get individual plants into their own pots.

Asparagus berries. (The orange colour in the background were some marigolds
that self seeded and I didn't have the heart to weed out).

Here are some baby ferns which have just come up this year in my asparagus bed, and as I lost one of my original plants I'll be potting up one to nuture this summer before planting out in the autumn. So this is what they looked like that first year. But from now on these will be weeded out!

Asparagus seedlings.

Some plants grew bigger than others but by the first autumn it was time to plant them out in their final position. This of course entailed creating an asparagus bed and preparing the soil well. I added quite a lot of bought compost rather than using our own home grown because I thought there would be fewer weeds this way, but that was a stupid waste of money because there are weed seeds in the soil anyway, and weeds will appear whether you like it or not!

One thing I could not find on the internet which is why I am writing this now in the hope that it helps someone else who has the same dilemma, is how do you plant out asparagus that has been grown in a pot? If you buy crowns, they are bare rooted and you are supposed to dig a trench, make a ridge within the trench, and spread the roots over that ridge, then backfill in over the crowns. But my plants were just plants in pots so what was I supposed to do? In the end I planted them like any other plant in a pot - made a hole and bunged them in. It works.

I planted out 14 plants not really knowing how many would be the right amount for 2 people, but I'll let you know in later years if that was too many!

23rd Sept 2011. Newly prepared and planted asparagus bed. Surprisingly my OH even
managed to find some decent straight wood which is very hard in France.

26th May 2012, thin spears.

Each year we have added more compost to the soil to enrich it, and I have no idea what other people do, but these ferns get very tall and flop everywhere and often break off in the wind.

July 2012. They really are ferns, only they flop all over the place. I tried to keep them
upright a bit with the wire plant supports but it didn't help much!

This year was THE year, the year that I could crop. I was very hesitant as I didn't want to cut too many, so waited until I could see another spear appearing before I cut one. A few plants still had thin spears so I didn't touch them, but some were a lot thicker than my thumb so altogether I've cut about 30 spears. Also I didn't know if I needed one of those special asparagus knives but I just used an ordinary gardening knife and that was fine.

This year (25th March), the first spears to start
to emerge through the horse poo.

Yes they are pushing up through a nice ridge of well rotted horse poo, courtesy of my horsey neighbours. I think the asparagus will be happy. :-)

As you can see, they green up as they grow bigger.

6th April, coming through fast and furious.

So, I think I can say it has been successful! I have no idea what variety these are but they are certainly chunky ones and very tasty.

Yum! Every bit as delicious as I had imagined.

7th May - they are bushier now but also a lot weedier so I'm not showing you that!

It's a crop which should fill some of the hungry gap between the PSB and early summer veg but I wonder if we'll be sick of asparagus eventually? Well if we are, I doubt the neighbours will say no!