Tag Archives: Star Trek: The Next Generation

The Maquis

The Maquis is a fictional terrorist/paramilitary organisation in Star Trek (DS9, TNG, and VOY – if you don’t know what these abbreviations mean, you probably won’t want to know) that has been formed to fight against the Cardassian (think quasi-fascist, sharp witted, scaly aliens)/Federation (the ‘goodies’ in Star Trek) alliance. They are roughly based on…

The Maquis were a terrorist/paramilitary organisation in France and (later) Spain fighting against fascist Nazi-dominated Vichy France and later the quasi-fascist Franco regime. They were named after the type of terrain they were famous for occupying and carrying out their activities…

The Maquis is a shrubland biome/ecoregion, that, along with the even scrubbier garrigue, is recognised as typical mediterranean habitat. It happens to be a major feature of the land in my birding ‘patch’ in the extreme South of France.


Maquis on the patch, with a hunters’ track carving through it

Rather like the barren uplands of the UK that many, who haven’t read George Monbiot’s ‘Feral’, perceive to be the epitome of British wilderness, people are mistaken in thinking that  this is ‘natural’ or ‘original’ (whatever that word means in evolving ecosystems) Mediterranean habitat. Hundreds and thousands of years of agriculture has deforested (and then inevitably de-soiled) the land leaving it only fertile enough for stunted and hardy plants to grow.

On steep hillsides where soil erosion has been most intense, the Maquis has diminished to the extent that it resembles alkaline garrigue biome:


Sparse hilly maquis resembling garrigue, also on the patch

Sometimes the vegetation is further cropped by a herd of voracious mouths whose bells give away their presence long before you see them:


But in other parts of the patch, less affected by agriculture or, at least less recently affected, a natural process of rewilding is occurring and thicker, denser, taller forest is returning (looking much closer to how the land would have looked before the spread of human civilisation and agriculture) – impenetrable apart from wild boar paths and where the hunters’ tracks carve through the landscape like giant ochre scars:


Holm Oak, Phillyrea, and Box woodland

It is fascinating to observe how the wildlife changes depending on the subtle variations of maturity of the Maquis. Inevitably, the thickest woodland, often on steep slopes, is the hardest to monitor, but is well populated with Short-toed Treecreeper which occasionally break out of the woodland and make an appearance closer to the house:


Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla) on ‘Heinrich’ the totem/statue

It seems – certainly in Spring when they call and sing a lot – that Firecrest is the most common bird on the patch. As long as there is a bush or two, Firecrest are common throughout every level of vegetation:


Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)


Firecrest with crest on full display

Sardinian Warblers are present throughout the year in the bushes, and had started singing – occasionally even conducting low flurries of song-flight before disappearing back into their bushes (often Kermes Oak I have noticed). By the time we had arrived in late March, the Subalpine Warblers had arrived in large numbers. In Spring and Summer, they appear to be the most numerous warbler, overtaking their resident sylvian cousins, the sardis.


Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

If the Subalpine and Sardinian warblers take the 1st and 2nd spot, Chiffchaff (which had also arrived in March) must be number three:


Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

I would allocate the fourth podium (when is there ever a fourth podium?) back to the sylvians with Blackcap – some of which probably overwinter closing off the warblers I saw whilst there for a couple of weeks early this Spring.

Melodious Warbler, a relatively common summer breeding bird on the patch had not yet arrived even by the end of the first week in April (incidentally, neither had our watch of Nightingales).

Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits seem to love the variety of Maquis vegetation, whilst Blue Tits are frequent, but less common. Crested Tits will occasionally show themselves in the Aleppo Pine woodland on the hill, but I didn’t find any on this trip (higher up in the Pyrenees, they are everywhere!) And, of course, where there are lots of tits and other small woodland birds, you inevitably also get:


Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Sparrowhawk is common, but perhaps not seen as frequently – in season – as Short-toed Eagle:


Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Sadly I did not see any Hen Harrier on this visit to the patch (although I did see one elsewhere in France) as they are true masters of the Maquis scrub.

Whilst the maquis may help dictate the type of avifauna found, almost anything can soar above it. On this trip I was genuinely thrilled to see a pair of Golden Eagle soaring effortlessly over the hills:


Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Just as oblivious as to what vegetation is on the ground, was my first patch crag martin.

Falling back to earth and thinking back to the Aleppo Pine, a rather unwelcome resident is the Pine Processionary Moth, or rather its caterpillars which march nose-to-tail across paths like blind mice. The hairs on this caterpillar can cause extreme irritation – especially if inhaled or if blown into your eyes. Allergic reactions to this have proved fatal for dogs and other animals. The caterpillars feed on pine needles, and if infested with multiple nests, the de-nuded trees might become susceptible to other forms of parasitic attack, but research shows that they are not quite as damaging to trees as some fear. I would also love to see research on the strength of the silk they weave as their nests are phenomenally tough:


Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa)

In more open areas of the Maquis, different birds seem to thrive.

Cirl Bunting are common and flit between bushes and trees to deliver their fast rattling songs, but I was even more pleased to find Rock Bunting for the first time on the Patch:


Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia)

Occasionally, on walks, I would push through the spikes of Juniper or Kermes Oak bushes (almost everything on the patch has a defence mechanism) and flush some ground dwelling larks. On my patch in London, Skylarks are the feature bird, delivering their famous songs from high in the sky and often rising and fluttering down almost vertically. In the French patch, Woodlarks fill this niche and perform their songflight in great circling loops.

In the most open areas – on paths, meadows, and lawns near the houses, the Black Redstart is king. I find the male’s song quite extraordinary, sounding like crushed gravel after a bunch of initial whistles. They breed in the houses and ruins:


Female Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Occasionally, the clearings and paths attract the stunning Hoopoe. This time I stopped the car to take photos of it on the track in to the house:


Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

Overall, it is a fascinating privilege to watch the birds utilise different aspects of the varied stages of maquis development, and to watch the land slowly, but inexorably rewild.


Why on earth have I started blogging?

“Why have you started a blog?”

Because I like commenting on everything. This is my way of capturing some of that and experimenting to see whether it is of any interest for anyone else.

I have many geeky traits and this will be a cathartic way to express them publicly. But no, dear reader, I do not intend to turn you into my therapist. This is about unashamedly flaunting geekery and trivia as if it really matters (which, by the way, I think it does!)

“Shut up! You’re not a real geek! “

Err… yes I am. Here is the proof:

  • I am a birdwatcher. I may not be a great ‘birder’, I am not quite dedicated enough to be a ‘twitcher’, and I am most certainly not qualified enough to be called an ornithologist [I recommend Simon Barnes’ brilliantly witty book explaining the difference between the four], but I do regularly go out on my own with a pair of bins (yes I do call binoculars, ‘bins’) and/or a camera and gaze for hours at trees or water trying to ‘capture’ new birds for my lists (see below on lists).
  • Exhibit ‘A’ m’lud: (That’s a Serin for those of you who care).
  • I am an amateur photographerWhilst sometimes a noble and rather cool hobby, my style is to walk on my own for hours (do you notice a theme developing?) taking pictures of run-down parts of London.
  • Exhibit ‘B’:
  • I am slightly obsessive about making lists and cataloguing things. I have spreadsheets on my laptop that include: a beer knock-out competition; a preference matrix of all of the Coen Brothers’ films; and a list of every species of bird I have seen since I started counting a few years ago.
  • Exhibit ‘C’: I think this list is evidence enough y’honour.
  • I collect books. Preferably older than 50 years old, preferably by great English, European, or South American authors, preferably first edition, and preferably books that have that lovely bookie smell.
  • Exhibit ‘D’:
  • I have seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In order. I am not ashamed to say that Captain Jean-Luc Picard is my hero. However, I cannot speak Klingon (other than the odd word like: ‘Gagh‘ – Klingon delicacy of live worms of course) and I don’t attend Trekker conferences as I think that tips over the geek boundary into the land of ‘Nerd-dom’.
  • Exhibit ‘E’: Defendant has been heard quoting things like: “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“.
  • I have been known to undertake research into the capital strength of foreign banks FOR FUN! However, this does start to overlap with my professional life, which is out of bounds for this blog, so I shan’t say any more.
  • Exhibit ‘D’: Exhibit removed at defendant’s own request. “It’s my blasted blog dag nammit, and I’ll cry if I want to!”

“OK. Point taken. You’re a geek. Is anyone going to want to read the wafflings of a geek?”

Quite possibly not, but I will mostly try and keep my posts short and punchy (realise I am failing here, but this is my first post so give me a break!) and I think everyone appreciates a little bit of geekery and trivia now and again. I may flag new posts on Facebook to try and lure people in and I reckon my mother and partner will have a read (or I will have a proper woogie!)

“How do we know that you aren’t going to write four posts and then leave a gap of about two months, write one more post explaining how busy you are, and then give up?”

You don’t, that could very probably happen!

“At least you are honest. OK. Entertain me!”

I’ll try.