Wednesday, December 17, 2008


The south of france has a very favourable climate attracting millions of tourists but the pleasant climate also suits invading species of bird and animal and plant.

This is one of a colony of feral Fischer's Lovebirds that have taken up residence in St Jean Cap Ferrat , Beaulieu and Villefranche. Fischer's lovebirds aren't the only parrots that have taken up residence - peach faced lovebirds Agapornis roseicollis, Yellow-collared Lovebird Agapornis personatus, black cheeked lovebirds Agapornis nigrigenis have all been spotted and there is some suggestion that they are interbreeding.

Lovebirds form a lasting pair-bond, hence the name. They are called 'les inséparables' in french.
They make a lot of noise in groups and they can be destructive but i think a lot of people enjoy seeing parrots flying around -though maybe not actually nesting in their eaves.

This is an Indian silverbill Lonchura malabarica lit up as the sun was setting. as the name implies they are native to India but they have established a substantial breeding population in Nice.
They are very gregarious and often seen in flocks and groups. They move quickly and are very alert so these shots were digiscoped [shot through a telescope] so that i could stay as far away as possible.
They prefer to be beside water -this group is having a bath and one is calling out that a potential threat is lurking nearby with a camera. They flew off immediately after this shot.

A Geranium bronze butterfly Cacyreus marshalli is well camouflaged on this withered flower head. The geranium bronze is a native of South Africa where it feeds and lays its eggs on wild geranium plants.

The butterfly was accidentally introduced into the Balearic islands in the late 80s and since then has spread along the Mediterranean coast where it feeds on Pelargonium and Geranium sp. Unfortunately, it can have many generations of offspring - up to 5 in one year- so it competes with native butterflies and also causes a lot of damage to the geranium host plants.

It is not considered a pest in its native land because the numbers are well controlled by parasitoids which lay eggs in the caterpillars and eventually kill them.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Photo Friday- food

One of the Niçois speciality foods is socca- a kind of chickpea pancake .

This is a mobile socca oven. Socca ovens are traditionally wood or charcoal fired. The pancake mixture is cooked on a large copper pie plate called a 'plaque de socca' . The huge pie plate is visible in the photo leaning against the oven.

This is the socca man watching the socca . The socca plate stays at the front of the oven and the wood burns at the back. The copper plate is essential to allow the heat to be distributed evenly. It takes about 6 minutes for the socca to cook. This is the socca is nearly ready to eat. It always smells wonderful - but I am allergic to chickpeas so I've never tasted it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Photo Friday- Autumn

Autumn would be hard to miss here in Nice as the trees outside our house gradually fill with European Starlings Sturnus vulgaris and the noise is unbelievable. Its like a scene from 'The Birds' by Alfred Hitchcock.

They start to appear by mid October -one or two at the beginning, then a dozen , then fifty , until it seems as if every branch of every tree in the street is covered with dark bird shapes.
The birds look almost black from a distance but close up they are speckled with white in winter plumage and have a greenish purple gloss and fewer speckles in summer

Here are a couple of the starlings sitting as if they were posing for a William Morris tapestry or wallpaper.

Starlings are very gregarious and roost in flocks of hundreds and even thousands of individuals [which is partly why they make so much noise].
Every year people park cars under the starling roost trees and come back to find the car is completely covered in guano which has a negative effect on the paintwork.
I suppose the unlucky car owners don't anticipate that hundreds of birds equals lots and lots of droppings.

Flocks of starlings make some amazing acrobatic and

I took this video today -it gives an idea of the noise and the number of starlings . The windows are all closed so imagine how loud it would be if the video hadn't been taken through glass.

Starlings are good mimics and can be taught to 'talk' like myna birds. William Shakespeare refers to the mimicry in Henry IV :

“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him,
To keep his anger still in motion.”

Sadly , the birds were introduced to the US in the 19th century by the American Acclimatization Society who had the bizarre goal of releasing all 600 species of bird mentioned by Shakespeare.
Under 100 starlings were initially released in Central Park but now there are estimates of over 200 million starlings in the US.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Photo Friday - sharp

The sharp back end of a European hornet Vespa crabro- the stinger is not extended which would be even sharper.

Hornet stings are more potent and painful than those of wasps and bees but they actually very gentle and timid .

They definitely don't sting on sight despite the comments in the SAS survival handbook -though my kids say that's because i have been nominated the hornet press officer and i am an exception.

Hornets mainly eat flies so they are useful to humans - and in some places they are protected species.

In Gerrmany, a fine of up to 50,000 euros is levied on people killing hornets or destroying their nests.

These are the best photos i managed to get of a hornet this year - it was half way down a wall at the mediaeval village of Eze - so I did quite well getting the shots before the vertigo kicked in .

Monday, October 20, 2008

Photo Friday- Freeze Frame -Arquebus

It seems like ages since I posted anything here - I have had a terrible chest infection that is finally starting to go. It seems like I have been ill for weeks and weeks. My camera has been sitting forlornly on my desk , gutted of batteries and sd card. I've only left the house for really essential things and only really been in this street or round the corner.

The topic for Photo Friday this week is 'freeze frame' and the photo I thought was best for that is the third one when I managed to catch the muzzle flash from the arquebus.

An arquebus is an early form of 15th century gun . The arquebusiers were called handgunners in english from the previous type of gun called a handgonne that was pretty much a small hand held cannon.

This arquebusier is putting the wad [ cloth or paper] into the barrel of the arquebus - he had previously put black powder [gun powder] into the barrel but the various shots i took did not turn out because the scene had so much going on in the background . Originally shot [a lead ball] would also have been put in the gun and kept in place by the wad -however at the mediaeval fair only black powder is used to give the effect without the actual bullets.

Then the ram rod was used to tamp down the shot and wad

The arquebus has a matchlock- a sort of 's' shaped device that automatically lights the gunpowder when the trigger is pulled . The 'match' is a rope soaked in saltpetre called a 'slow match' because it burned slowly [and hopefully safely if you were a gunner].
This is the instant the gunpowder explodes and the muzzle flash [the visible light produced from the combustion] .
The instant after the powder flashes - when the field is full of people firing arquebuses , the place ends up filled with a thick smoke.

Its not hard to imagine how much worse a battlefield would have been with cannon large and small thundering away as well as these early guns- not forgetting swords clashing and men and horses screams.

Even here, under controlled conditions at a mediaeval fair, people in the background are plugging their ears with their fingers -the noise is intense and leaves the ears ringing for ages afterwards.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Photo Friday -the extraordinary

About 15 years ago, a couple of wolves crossed the border from Italy to France and since then around 50 have made their home in the Mercantour National Park. Wolves were previously extinct in France since 1937.

These wolves are Italian wolves ,Canis lupus italicus, also known as Apennine wolves and they are a sub species of the European Grey wolf.

These are some pictures of Italian wolves taken at Parc Alpha. They are semi-wild and like the other wolves in the parc are deliberately not habituated to humans or tamed as they are part of a breeding programme and the idea is that the offspring will be as wild as possible.

Wolves are viewed from specially constructed hides and they will stay in the treeline or leave if they hear too much noise. All the photos are taken through double glazed windows.

This is another pack of wolves at the parc - these are from eastern Europe. They are quite a bit bigger than the Italian wolves.

We were lucky enough to arrive at this hide when the wolves were feeding.

This is one of the two cubs belonging to this pack. According to the warden, we were very lucky to see the young one as they usually hide in the trees and have food brought to them.
he was quite bold and boucny, like a half grown Alsatian puppy.

This is one of the older pack members taking food back to some of the females and other cub.
Wolves will cache prey for leaner times and I was amazed when these wolves started to dig in front of us to cache some meat.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

photo friday- relationship

Humans have a complex relationship with animals. We destroy their habitats and then we try and save them

These are several ring-tailed lemurs, Lemur catta, with my son. The photos were taken at a small wildlife park in Tenerife , Canary Islands which is working to conserve and breed lemurs of various kinds , tamarins monkeys and some other species of small primates and also acts as a rescue centre [mainly for squirrel monkeys].

I think the lemurs decided my son was their friend, or maybe a very large two-tailed lemur. I think his camouflage trousers looked sufficiently 'ring-tailed' for him to be adopted as an honorary member of the group.
The lemurs took turn about to sit in his lap and be stroked , I think all of the lemurs snuggled up close to him and most of them climbed on him.

This seemed to be the Shakespearian Thespian among the lemurs - he seemed to be practising for a lemur version of Hamlet.
Alas, poor Yorick.Then he ate the prop and showed off his long , sharp canine teeth.

Lemurs are native to Madagascar and most lemur species are threatened or endangered. They are omnivorous though they tend to eat fruit and leaves mostly, with insects and small animals , lizards etc as smaller part of the diet.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Photo Friday- the ordinary

The Common Blackbird [Turdus merula] is a very ordinary bird but its also one of my favourites.
They always seem quite inquisitive and cheeky and i suppose i can easily imagine them popping out of a pie as they do in the Sing a song of sixpence nursery rhyme .

The strange thing about blackbirds is that they are not all black. Only the adult males are truly black [with a bright orange beak], the females and the young are brownish.

This part -brown part-black blackbird is a first winter male. Eventually, all his brown freathers will tuurn black.

This male actually has some greyish-blue feathers that tone well with the scattered flower petals.

Somewhat oddly, its quite common for blackbirds to have white patches.
Completely white blackbirds which generally aren't true albinos are also possible. they are called albinistic forms and they generally have normal coloursed eyes bills and legs and varying degrees of white feathers from completely white to a speckling .

This young blackbird is hiding behind some leaves thinking that its completely hidden - lucklily I was only hunting him with a camera.

These photos are all digiscoped using a small 10x40 monocular . Digiscoping means taking photos through a spotting scope or telecope to increase the range of the camera [ usually for nature photograhy of birds or animals but its also a technique used by astronomers].

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Messing Around in Boats

This is a view of Port Hercule Marina in Monaco. Lots of very posh yachts are berthed here -they can be up to 135 metres long.

Needless to say, we weren't visiting a superyacht, though it can be nice walking around a marina and looking at the boats. My kids used to play a game of 'which one is our favourite ' when they were little but they hate any mention of that now.

The mountain haloed by cloud is called the La Tête de Chien [Dogs head] -it looms over Monaco , but is actually in France in the La Turbie district. La Tête de Chien is 550metres/1800 feet high so it was a very strategic military site over many turbulent centuries.

This photo was taken out on the water when we crossed the port in the bateau bus [boat bus] You can see the boat's wake in the water.

The bateau bus is a handy little ferry which crosses the port , and like the local buses only costs one euro per trip [and includes a connection with the buses if desired.]

Some smaller yachts with La Tête de Chien mountain and the Prince's palace in the background.

This is a view from the inside of the bateau bus looking over to the Prince's Palace.
The bateau bus is an electric, non-polluting boat which can take up to 50 passengers at a time. The crossing only takes 10 minutes but it saves a lot of time in comparison with a long walk around the marina.

I liked this huge midnight blue yacht. Its difficult to appreciate the massive size in a photo though.

The bateau bus passing by the midnight blue yacht. Some of these huge yachts are like floating palaces - some are as big as cruise ships but boats of that size are too big to come right into this harbour.

The bateau bus moored beside a huge sailing yacht. The sailing yacht dwarfs the bateau bus but I expect it costs a lot more than one euro to sail in it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Photo Friday- self portrait

My kids thought taking a self portrait was an incredibly emo thing to do and I was told a cell phone camera would be much more appropriate for the task. I hate cell phone cameras , I'm always taking photos of the inside of my bag by accident, so I had to make do with my normal camera.

I took quite a few completely hideous photos before deciding to use a mirror for a 'through the looking glass look'. I tried a lot of different approaches but both kids assure me that this one looks most like me in real life.

The others were somewhere on a continuum from axe murder through passport/mugshot photo to living dead. Some of them looked interesting and suitable to me but I was told they were too embarrassing for teenagers and strangers to deal with.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Photo Friday- rough

Viper's bugloss , Echium vulgare , [Vipérine commune in French] is a very odd plant with rough hairy leaves and stems. Its related to the borage plant which is also hairy.

The flowers start out as pink buds and turn into purply-blue flowers with reddish stamens. The plant is sometimes known as blueweed as it looks very blue from a distance.
Its a native of Europe but has become an introduced pest in some parts of the US.

A seven-spot ladybird, Coccinella septempunctata, , [coccinelle à sept points or La Bête à bon Dieu in French] was prowling around looking for aphids.

You can see the bristles are all over the plant. The reddish spots on the stems gave us the viper part of the common name. The plant was thought to be a good remedy for snake bites due to the speckled appearance reminding people of reptile scales.

Bugloss apparently comes from the greek word for ox tongue -a description of the roughness and shape of the leaves

The ladybird sat and groomed itself for a while.

Elsewhere on the plant a spider sat in its web- the black thing looks like a beetle larva,=. , probably another ladybird

Saturday, August 02, 2008

photo friday beauty

I couldn't decide on a single photo for the topic of beauty so here are a few beautiful things.

This is part of the steel and glass Queen Elizabeth II courtyard roof in the British museum, London. Its apparently the biggest covered courtyard in Europe .
Its an amazing modern design and manages to blend well with the original classical style from the 1830s.

The rounded section to the left side is part of the original British library reading room -it has been covered with white limestone. [The British Library has now moved to another site near St Pancras station.]
This statues is also in the British museum -its called Lely's Venus and depicts the Goddess Venus being disturbed while bathing, and trying to cover herself with her hands.
I thought the male statue in the background looked like it was part of the story.

The Venusis from the 1st or 2nd century CE and is a Roman copy of an ancient Greek original.
The statue is supposed to have inspired the artist Rubens when painting his female nudes.

Another thing of beauty, a rainbow to brighten up a dreary day. The photo was taken at Brixham harbour, in Devon, England.
I love dandelion clocks -the ball of fluff is beautiful but as you look closer it just seems to get more and more intriguing.