Wednesday, April 29, 2009

You shall have a fishy on a little dishy

Juvenile gulls are really well camouflaged against the pebbles with their dappled brown and white feathers.
This pair had found a fish that an angler had left on the beach.

I initially thought the angler was intending to use the fish as bait or that he had given an unwanted the fish to the gulls.

However , when the fisherman waded back to shore and saw the gulls tucking in to the fish he was really angry and tried to scare the gulls away; shouting and waving his arms.
He calmed down quite quickly [maybe because he had an audience] and ended up giving the gulls the heads and guts of the other fish he had caught.

The gulls seemed quite happy with their al fresco sashimi lunch.

Monday, April 20, 2009


There is a very unlikely bird sanctuary in Nice - its on the River Var estuary between Nice Airport and Cap 3000 shopping centre in St Laurent du Var. Its called La Petite Camargue after the huge river delta marsh area of the Camargue far to the west.

Strangely the birds don't seem to notice the planes taking off and landing and the folk visiting the shopping centre don't seem to realise there is a river and marshy estuary right next door.

This is a little egret [Egretta garzetta] -I was lucky to grab a few photos as the egrets took off. You can just about see that it has long black legs and yellow feet.
Another little egret taking off.

Here are two little egrets walking around -they stopped every so often to hunt for fish and amphbians.
I didn't notice the cormorant until I got home- it was so well camouflaged and most of the time has its head pointed towards the reeds.
Cormorants [ Phalacrocorax carbo] spend a lot of time with their wings outstretched. Apparently their feathers are not well waterproofed and this means they need to carefully dry them off between hunting sessions.
The immature gulls in the foreground are one year old yellow legged gulls .

There are supposed to be about 270 species of birds in the sanctuary- though some are just passing through on the way north or south. There are three different species in this picture- grey herons, moor hens and black winged stilts [Himantopus himantopus] .

The male black winged stilts has a black patch on his head [ left of the heron] and the female has a mainly white head [far left of the photo].

These birds are called stilts because of their exceedingly long red legs.

The two moorhens are in between the stilts.

A grey heron [Ardea cinerea] stalking majestically across the pebbles. Grey herons are very large birds with a huge wingspan . They mainly hunt for amphibians [esp frogs] and fish but they will also eat small mammals and birds.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ugly bug ball

In spring, some of the pine trees in Portugal, Spain and the south of Franceand other parts of Europs start to acquire fluffy tufts of white similar to candy floss.

These innocuous-looking fluff balls are actually the nests of Pine processionary caterpillars Thaumatopoea pityocampa [Processionnaire du pin /chenilles processionaires in french.]

It still sounds quite harmless until you see that the trees containing the nests are less healthy looking with missing and yellowing pine needles.

The caterpillars are voracious eaters and weaken the trees by stripping the branches and reducing its growth cycle ands this in turn makes the tree more susceptible to plant disesases.
In fact, its easy to see the yellow needles and bare twigs in this photo.

As the caterpillars grow, the nest gets filled with rubbish. There is no entrance or exit to the nest, the caterpillars just push their way through the fibres. You can see one of the mature caterpillars on the outside here.
This is the final stage of caterpillar developement

I did not take any extreme close ups because these caterpillars are very dangerous.
The caterpillar hairs are extemely toxic and easily released as a defence against predators , causing terrible rashes , swelling and breathing problems [especially in the children, asthmatics and the elderly] and eye problems such as conjuntivitis and in extreme cases, galucoma and cataracts.
Even empty nests contain a lot of hairs which continue to be dangerous - some folk have reported problems from wearing clothes that are being aired in gardens next to the empty nests.

This was another ball of caterpillars perched on the edge of a kerb.

The caterpillars are also a huge problems for pet and horse owners -I've read that eating one caterpillar can kill a cat and 3 will kill a dog.

Dogs, horses [ and seemingly to a lesser degree, cats] are attracted to the pheromone trail and pick up the irritant hairs on their tongues and this can lead to necrosis and gangrene of the tongue or death if the animal isn't treated quickly enough.
Many animals every year require partial ampuataton of the tongue or have to be put to sleep after licking or eating these caterpillars.
This is straggler trying to catch up with the rest of the caterpillars on top of the kerb. The caterpillars follow a pheromone trail and are often found walking in long lines nose to tail, which is why they were given the name processionary caterpillar.
In experiments, these caterpillars can be made to wander round and round in circles endlessly following the pheromone trail.

After all the havoc of the processional stage , the caterpillars burrow into the soil and make a cocoon/crysalis. Over time they eventually hatch out as nondescript moths , who lay eggs on the pine needles and start the cycle over again.
The caterpillars have a few natural predators - cuckoos and great crested tits will eat the caterpillars untill they are covered in the irritant hairs and the hoopoes eats the cocoons when they are buried in the ground.

Humans have a variety of ways of dealing with the caterpillars - from releasing bacteria [Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki ] and chemical insecticides - to removing the beginning nests by crudely blasting them with shotguns [the spread of hairs is still possiblity though] or carefully cutting off the branches whilst wearing protective clothing, face masks and gloves and then incinerating the nest , branch and all.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Grandmother of Europe

Queen Victoria was once described as the Grandmother of Europe since her many children and grandchildren married into so many of the Royal families of Europe - Spanish, Prussian, Russian etc.
Unfortunately Queen Victoria was a carrier of haemophilia and this was passed on to her descendants and played a part in the collapse of the European monarchies.

This statue of Queen Victoria and her daughters is in the Cimiez district of Nice. It was placed there in 1912 to commemorate the Queen's visits to Nice.
During the Occupation of Nice during WWII , the Queen's head was knocked off the statue but the damage was repaired after the war ended.

Queen Victoria spent several holidays in Nice , exploring the arera by carriage and train and she adored the battle of the flowers and othe rlocal festivals.
On her deathbed she is reported as syaing, "Oh, if only I were at Nice, I should recover."

This is Victoria's hotel in Cimiez - the Excelsior Hotel Regina. It was deliberately built to attract the Queen's businesss and was built in front of the hotel she had stayed in previously, destroying the view.

The building is enormous and at the time it was built many people thought it was ugly and out of place in the Cimiez since it is right beside the Roman amphitheatre.

It is a totally over the top confection , like a wedding cake gone wild.

This is the part of the builiding reserved for Queen Victoria and her party. The tower has a little crown on top to show off the Royal connections.

The west wing of the Regina building with the crown on top of the domed roof of the turret. It resembles the small crown that Queen Victoria wore after her husband, Albert, died , although the real one was made of silver to signify mourning.

A gate into the private gardens of the Regina building. The little crown is part of the decorative ironwork. Initially the garden paths were laid out for easy access by the Queen's wheelchair. The gardens were quite elaborate and had croquet lawns, tennis courts, cycle paths and a tropical green house.

The Excelsior Hotel Regina closed in 1937 and Queen Victori'as coat of arms was removed from the private chapel and placed in the Holy Trnity Chrich in Nice where she worshipped once .

The former hotel is now subdivided into chic apartments and offices.