First encounters with French wildlife

I was meant to be taking an interest in a chateau – but something else had caught my eye. A large white and black butterfly was fluttering around which I’d never seen before. With a bit of fortune, I obtained a decent photo. I did some quick research and found it was a scarce swallowtail (which is a misnomer for France). The curious thing was that until I saw the photo, I was convinced that the head of the butterfly was at the other end – so maybe the coloration and stripiness was intentionally deceptive?

Scarce Swallowtail at La Guerche chateau.

I was amazed by how many butterflies we saw throughout the two weeks, many of which were new to me, including other new species like the Cleopatra and the White Admiral.

There were also lots of lizards. When we arrived in the small, picturesque town of Carennac, we parked on a roadside carpark which overlooked the River Dordogne. There was a wall which paralleled the road, on the top of which was a particularly obliging wall lizard, which didn’t seem to mind my putting the camera lens so close to its face. Perhaps it was used to lapping up the attention? We then found that we had parked illegally, so we had to depart swiftly!

Wall lizard at Carennac

During our week staying in Gramat, we took a walk from Lacave, choosing one which appeared to follow the line of the Ouysse river for much of it. We hadn’t reckoned on the scrubby line of trees along the river bank, though, which meant we had very few good views. On one of the few occasions when we found a significant gap in the trees, I went to the water’s edge and found myself eye-to-eye with a marsh frog!

Frog lounging in the river near Lacave

The birding was much more difficult than I had expected: possibly late August wasn’t a good time, and possibly I was going to the wrong areas: but even a dawn walk in a wooded area near Gramat was fairly futile. Towards the end of our stay, we went to the nature reserve at La Brenne, which is about 50 miles east of Châtellerault – and that made up for my previous attempts!

The first lake we went to, by the reserve’s centre, was full of egrets, which reminded me of the Somerset Levels. The second lake we went to, the Étang Ricot, seemed to have hardly any birds: until we saw a purple heron being chased off by a grey heron. As I’d only once seen a purple heron before, and that only briefly, this felt notable.

Jen then went off for a run (in the heat of the day – and it was hot!) while I went to the Terres de Renard. Another purple heron lurking distantly on the side of the lake, and I took many photos of it. Then another flew in much closer to the hide, providing much better and more dramatic opportunities.

Purple heron on the prowl – at La Brenne nature reserve

I watched it prowl around for a while and observed its similarity to the familiar grey heron – but thought it looked more slender and weaker than its cousin. How wrong I was!

After catching a couple of small fish and swallowing them whole, it then plunged after something much bigger.

Purple heron subduing its catch

When I saw what it had caught, I was astonished…

Purple heron with a huge catch

I was staggered by the size of its catch – it could have fed Jen and me for several meals! This one wasn’t for downing in one gulp, and having speared it successfully it strode off into the reeds to dismember its prey.

On the way to the final lake we went to, I saw a flurry of back-and-white wings and shouted ‘hoopoe’! Jen stopped the car and we watched it fly into a bush and then up to a telegraph wire. It looked like a great photo opportunity but, spying some food on the ground, it dropped down. Jen edged the car forward, then I used the passenger door as a hide, and just managed to control my excitement enough to secure a presentable photo.

Hoopoe near the La Brenne reserve

Throughout the day we saw plenty of coypu. They’re entertaining animals, not least in their being very visible and watchable – and I’d have been excited if these sightings weren’t tinged with the regret that they are an invasive species with detrimental consequences to the native ecology.

Coypu swimming at La Brenne

What’s not to like about a small furry animal washing itself – even if it is a coypu?

At our final stop, at the Étang Purais, we hoped to see squacco herons, which we’d been told were there. I looked out of one of the windows of the hide and saw none, and tried further round. Jen went to the first window and announced, “I’ve just seen a bittern there!”. Knowing that Jen can be a very alert observer without being expert, I said, “no you haven’t, you’ve just seen a squacco heron!” Indeed she had – the first time she’s seen a new species before I have! It’s intriguing seeing these birds acting like normal herons – except on a much smaller scale.

Squacco heron

French adventures

Jen and I have just returned from a lovely couple of weeks in France. We spent two half weeks in Châtellerault with John and Hélène, and the intervening week based in Gramat, in the Lot district.

We chanced upon the food festival one evening in Gramat.

Neither of us had been to Lot or the Dordogne before so it was a new experience – and the area more than lived up to the expectations we’d had!

On the afternoon of our first full day there, we went for a walk from about two miles west of Gramat to Rocamadour, largely along a forested dry valley, called the Vallée de l’Alzou. This helped us to appreciate the geography of the area – precipitous limestone cliffs looming over tree-covered valleys.

Hiking along the Vallée de l’Alzou: this couple happened to be walking along the track at just the right moment!

We explored Rocamadour itself the next day. It’s a town that used to be a place of pilgrimage but is now a tourist hotspot. One of its legends is that Zaccheus had ended up there. Rather more plausibly, a hermit called Amadour lived there in the fourth century; during the Middle Ages it was discovered that his body had not decayed, and this ultimately inspired the pilgrimages. Below the main sanctuary there is a lower chapel which is palpably a place of prayer, which was frequented by some of the tour guides; later, we were impressed by our guide who was keen for us to know the gospel truth at the heart of the church.

Rocamadour. The chateau is at the top while the church is the large building halfway down the cliff-face.

Ice age art in the Rouffignac cave: mammoths and ibex. (Public domain image from Wikipedia)

We went on a couple of trips to see the astonishing Ice Age cave art: one of these was to Pech Merle, about an hour south of Gramat, and the other to Rouffignac, located an hour and a half away in the Dordogne. These are extraordinarily tantalising glimpses into another era: while the motivations of the artists were almost certainly spiritual, it’s hard to say more than that as to exactly what the artwork was there for – deep underground, visible only by flickering candlelight. I’ll probably reflect on this more at a later date.

Contemplating the walnut harvest – Jen with Sue and Jerry

On our way back to Châtellerault we were delighted to stop by Nantille in order to visit Jerry and Sue Sellick, a couple of our neighbours in Shapwick. They have a second home there, and were battling the vegetation that had sprung up since their last visit. To us, it seemed a lovely location, but they were keen to tell us that it was hard work to maintain!

With Helene, Jem and John at the Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours.

Back in Châtellerault, John and Hélène were most generous hosts, in both the half weeks we were with them. We visited the Pinail nature reserve on our first day, and then ended up at their favourite café in Bonneuil Matours. On the next day, we went to a museum of prehistory, stopping by the picturesque chateau in La Guerche on the way.

The chateau in LaGuerche

John and Hélène, with Jen behind, in Amboise.

One of the highlights of the final half-week was a trip to Amboise. Situated on the banks of the Loire, the town is famous for its chateau, which was a royal hunting lodge in the 15th and 16th centuries. The other advantage was the variety of restaurants along the street opposite the chateau, where we had an excellent lunch!

Overall we had an excellent fortnight – and we returned the UK thinking that there were many places there which we would still like to see.

Viennese encounters

Jen and Rachel on the Danube Island in Vienna

Jen and Rachel on the Danube Island in Vienna

I’m not normally one for a city break, but Jen and I have recently came back from a most refreshing long weekend in Vienna. This was mainly due to our wonderfully generous hostess, Rachel Olney (who was one of Jen’s bridesmaids). Oh and we somehow ended up at a bird reserve as well…

After a leisurely start, we visited the Danube island on the Saturday morning which gave an attractive riverside perspective on Vienna. Then in the afternoon Jen and I visited the Schönbrunn Palace, the summer palace of the Habsburg dynasty in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

It was originally conceived to rival Versailles but pragmatic reasons led to its being scaled back – but it is still most impressive – particularly now that it is open to the public!

The Schönbrunn Palace, built by the Habsburg dynasty

The Schönbrunn Palace, built by the Habsburg dynasty

On the Sunday we were able to visit Rachel’s church and then to visit one of the ministries she’s involved with. On Monday, however, we ventured out of the city…

In one of the guidebooks Jen noticed that there is a large bird reserve not too far from the city – along the eastern side of the Neusiedler See – so we decided to take a train and bus journey out there to see what it was like. We didn’t really know where to go so we joined up with two locals, Jonas and Isabella , who are very keen birders and know the area well.

Jonas, Isabella and Rich looking intently at a bird - possibly the red-backed shrike we saw

Jonas, Isabella and Rich looking intently at a bird – probably a Temminck’s stint

Rachel, Rich, Jen, Isabella, Jonas

Rachel, Rich, Jen, Isabella, Jonas

Black-winged stilt at the Neusiedler See reserve

My birding skills are not up to that of Jonas and Isabella, who were very quick at finding birds – and who were recently third-placed in a competition for the most birds seen on a particular day in the Vienna area! They departed to try to catch a guided tour they had booked on (which, they told me later, was an adventure in itself!). We took a path to Ilmitz and then to our bus and train trip back to Vienna. Near the end of the walk I finally caught up with one of the star species of the area – the black-winged stilt, a very elegant bird which is a rare visitor to the UK. It was raining at the time but they were still my best sightings!

The weekend was ideal refreshment prior to the installation to come this weekend…