Tag Archives: trees

Exploring the land in black and white

I haven’t used black & white photography for quite a while. I tend to find it doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography for me (I’m not exactly Ansell Adams and nor am I generally taking pictures of such dramatic scenes), and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the ‘art’ of record shot wildlife photography that is my speciality ;).

But on my most recent trip to the South of France, I gave it another go. There is always a fine line for relatively unskilled amateur photographers like me between a poor photo masquerading behind pretension, and a photo that authentically works in monochrome. I’ll let you be the judge of which side of that line I am on with these scenes from our home and the surrounding land.

The ruin

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There are actually several ruins on the land, but this old farmhouse is the most substantial. The floor dimensions suggest this would have been a reasonably sizeable dwelling.

Another ruin

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There are currently three homes in the remote complex, but a fourth building is now just a shell and largely used as a sheltered place to hang washing with only this delicate tree, currently in blossom, casting shade over it.

Another shell

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The buildings aren’t the only things that have become retired shells on the land. I have seen photos of this car when it was on its ‘last wheels’ as a functioning vehicle 28 years ago. Now it is largely open to the elements, and being taken over with plants in the same way as the old ruined buildings.

The homes

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Set in recovering, rewilding mediterranean maquis scrub landscape in a valley, the homes are now the terminus for a road (really just a track) that used to pass right through the valley.

The gate and path

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The old road is now just a set of rocky paths, closed off from the homestead by an unintimidating old gate to keep the donkeys and horses away from any garden-grown plants and the track which eventually leads out to traffic and danger.

The other inhabitants

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Currently two horses and two donkeys keep some of the nearest vegetation low, the paths navigable, and parched, damaged soil manured. They are not the only large mammals in the valley…

The misty mountains

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Sometimes the sun scorches the valley, sometimes the wind blows through it like an industrial wind-tunnel, and sometimes mist clings to the hillside like a damp cloak. Sometimes ghost-like baritone bells can be heard invisibly from high-up in the hills as goats pass through. And deep, and normally hidden, in the misty scrub are the wilder inhabitants: wild boar, deer, and, I only recently found out, hare live in these hills.

The old trees

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Much of the vegetation in the valley is relatively young scrubby growth recolonising the former agricultural land. On the top of the hills, much of the plant life is kept very short by the goats, but on the cliff edges, some ancient Holm Oak hold on, too gnarly and big and old to be under threat from goats, and bent sharply and precariously, and overhanging huge drops, from the wind that scours the land.

It is after steep climbs to visit these sentinels of the wild and walking in wind that return journeys are accompanied with a longing for the warmth of the open fire back in the house.

The fire

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I took this photo in the knowledge that the slightly antiquated feel to the image absolutely accurately reflects the history of the fireplace. A place where we dry clothes today, and bath our baby in reach of the warmth from the flames in almost exactly the same way as will have been done for generation after generation in the same spot. The photo was taken with that most modern of devices: an iPhone, but the scene is not staged or fake; the fireplace really is as old as it looks.

 

Birding Eastern Poland: Part II (Forest)

I was straggling at the back of our small group on an unsuccessful walk in the hope of finding Hazel Grouse when I heard something. At first it took my mind a few seconds to register the sound. But on the third or fourth occasion the sound penetrated me at a deeper, primal level. A long, distant, moaning howl. I stopped, felt a small surge of adrenaline and felt my senses sharpen. This was my first wild experience of Wolf in Europe.

The day before, we had encountered an even more distant relic of Europe’s all-but-entirely lost megafauna: Bison.

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European Bison (Bison bonasus)

Our experience of the Białowieża forests began exceptionally early in the morning on the Saturday. It felt like we were tracking something; a guide-led walk to a known nesting site. That nesting site happened to be in a wooded wetland largely created by Beaver.

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How often do we see sights like this in the UK? I would contend very rarely indeed. We no longer have Beaver (other than a few trial reintroductions in Scotland, but lets hope that increases soon), and our country is the most denuded of forest of any country (other than the tiny city-states) in Europe. Where we do have woodland, they are largely lifeless plantations or forests managed and fenced off for pheasant shooting.

The Woodpeckers

This site was to be our first encounter with a target woodpecker. And we did indeed get views of White-backed Woodpecker – a life-tick for me and one or two of the others. We didn’t stay long as the mosquitoes were vicious and legion.

A few minutes drive and another spot of forest where we watched a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpecker making multiple visits to their nest hole.

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Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes medius) – Female in hole and male to right

At the same site we had our first trip encounter with Black Woodpecker; only my second ever. I remember the first time I heard, then saw, one and being taken aback by how loud and big it is (read about that here). The feeling was similar on this occasion – it sounds like an effing dinosaur (I imagine) and the drumming is that of heavy machinery rather than a bird. Later in the day we watched in awe as one of these giants tore a rotting tree trunk to shreds with a large pile of wood chips accumulating at the base.

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Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) through a gap in the hornbeam leaves

At the other end of the size scale, we felt lucky to get a single view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (a bird I am sad to say I have only seen on three occasions in the UK).

Whilst neither Black nor Lesser were ‘ticks’ for me, the next two woodpeckers were. Bob helped locate the only Three-toed Woodpecker we were to encounter on the trip and this led to the guide discovering its exact nest location. We watched from a respectable distance.

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

Finally, on a second attempt, we watched a Grey-headed Woodpecker emerge and then fly from its nest in some parkland near the strict reserve forest.

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Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – this was the only photo our group got of this bird

We saw and heard our familiar Great Spotted Woodpecker on numerous occasions but failed to connect with the common Green Woodpecker or Wryneck (which also breed locally). We also made an aborted attempt to see Syrian Woodpecker in Warsaw. The point I am building to with this rather rapid list is that ten of the eleven species of woodpecker which breed in Europe are found locally in Eastern Poland. It was just one sign of many that we saw, on our whistle-stop tour, of the diversity which can be found when natural habitats are preserved or left untouched. The contrast with the UK could not be more stark.

A similar point could be made about owls found locally. As it was, we actually only saw one: a life-tick for me as Europe’s smallest owl, the Pygmy Owl, peered out of its hole to investigate the possible Pine Marten scraping at its tree (which was actually our guide with a stick).

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Eurasian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum)

The Flycatchers

A different guide walked us around the Strict Reserve. She was an expert in Collared Flycatcher and told us that in some years there are more recorded in the forest than Chaffinch! The gloom of the forest meant that the photos I got belied just how wonderful our views of this species were.

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Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis)

It was a similar case with the stunning Red-breasted Flycatcher and a handful of Spotted Flycatcher. It was great to see these birds in song, and nesting in their home environment as flycatchers (Spotted and Pied that is) are just passage migrants on our Patch back home.

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Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva)

The Wood Warbler and the hidden birds

In my three and half years of birding the local Patch, we have had a single Wood Warbler singing from the tiny copse we call Motorcycle Wood. In Białowieża, the forests rang out with the wonderful song of these stunning birds.

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Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

As with forests everywhere, birds are not exactly easy to find or see – our failure to see Hazel Grouse or Nutcracker is certainly testament to that. Woodland tits were harder than I expected in Poland: Great Tit, Blue Tit and Long-tailed Tit seemed less numerous than I am used to in the UK; we only heard one Coal Tit once or twice on the trip, and had no sign of Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, or Crested Tit (although we are aware that they are there).

Such is the enigma of forests. They teem with life and yet the ‘life’ does not always make itself easily found. We were aware that the forests hold Lynx, but did not expect to see one (nor did we).

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The long walk back from an unsuccessful search for Tengmalm’s Owl

The trees

The majestic parkland oaks we are used to seeing in the UK, rotund and sprawling, are  virtually anathema to primary forests. There is far too much competition for such overindulgent horizontal growth.  I remember the thinner, taller trees in the wonderful Atlantic oak forests on the west coast of Scotland. But I was taken aback at the size (girth, but particularly height) of some of the trees in Białowieża. They seemed to be freakishly tall versions of familiar trees we are used to in the UK. Maybe that is what thousands of years of uninterrupted survival of the fittest does in a forest?

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The fringes

Some birds seemed easier to find on the fringes of the forest; often as different habitats met. And so it was on the edges of Białowieża village, where we picked up good views of Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Rosefinch, Barred Warbler, Tree SparrowRed-backed Shrike and lots more. It was often in these fringe areas where from within deep vegetation we would listen to, and on one occasion had reasonable views of, Thrush Nightingale which was another life tick for me.

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Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

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Female Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)

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Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)

The lesson

Białowieża opened my eyes to what much of Europe, including the UK, could and, perhaps, should be like. Białowieża began, for me, as a place in my imagination, but let’s all hope that it remains a reality for Europe and for the world. Primary forest is part of the primal heritage of all of us; wired into our instinctive synapses. To lose it altogether is surely to lose something deep within our identity. I think we all need the wake-up call in the form of the penetrating howl of a wolf or a Black Woodpecker drumming into our skulls the message of fragile vitality that exists in the remaining fragments of our once great forests.

Winter fresh

This morning was a perfect early winter morning: ground frost persisting in the shadows where the sun’s rays, piercing through the blue, failed to reach. The Patch looked pristine.

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Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers rising above Cat & Dog Pond

The patch birds seemed extra sharp and fresh today too. Last year a female Stonechat  overwintered in the scrub around Cat & Dog Pond. This winter she has returned or been replaced by a new winter-fresh female who traced inscrutable dot-to-dot patterns around me by flitting from one perch to another and occasionally dodging an aggressive Robin.

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Female Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

This female even strayed to the western extreme of her assumed territory and perched up on the residential walls bordering the Patch and overlooked by Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers.

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This Stonechat was not the only fresh-faced winter bird I spent time watching this morning.

I find something particularly appealing about first winter Black-headed Gull and Common Gull:

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Common Gull (Larus canus)

I took the picture above whilst fulfilling my water-gauge monitoring duty. The immature feathers on the wing coverts are what first grab our attention, but I find the solid black primaries (lacking the ‘mirrors’ it will gain next year) and the neat black tip on the bill attractive as well as distinctive.

Jubilee pond has been duck-poor so far, although this week the number of diving ducks had increased slightly with at least 12 Tufted Duck and three Pochard diving and then glistening brilliantly with iridescence in the sun.

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Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

I went to see a photographic exhibition on trees today and saw some wonderful photos including some taken by my patch colleagues. Trees on the Patch have just passed that Autumn/Winter transition where there are now more bare branches than leaf-adorned ones. But, where trees are still cloaked by carotenoid and flavonoid-rich leaves, the results are quite spectacular.

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Sliver Birch (Betula pendula) on Perch Pond, Wanstead Park

Hope Springs Eternal

Wanstead Flats at dawn

Dawn over Wanstead Flats

Patch birding can be an exercise in faith.

As an atheist (albeit a Buddhist one, but that’s another story), I have always struggled with the concept of ‘faith’, or, rather, accepted the fact that I am lacking in ‘it’.

But, without delving into semantics, there is an expression of hope in rising before the sun, following well-beaten paths, and searching for something new. To extend my metaphor, rather like many spiritual journeys, sometimes we set off with an expectation of what we want, or hope, to find… but then find something entirely different. Today certainly felt like that.

This morning began with mist.

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Initially a fine, low-lying blanket, but one which grew and clouded nearly everything from view.

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Things started positively with my first footstep onto the SSSI – trying to blank out the noise of early morning traffic on the road I had just crossed – in that I immediately heard the song of a Willow Warbler (I even briefly video-recorded it singing, here).

It moved through the trees just south of the copse we know as Motorcycle Wood, an area that in the last couple of years alone has been one of the most consistent providers of both Willow Warbler and Garden Warbler, but also local scarcities such as Wood Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler. I watched the early morning sun stream through the trees and the light transported me back to all those wonderful moments, and more: these trees shaded the young birches where I saw my London-first Pied Flycatcher; I have watched Ring Ouzel burst out of the upper branches, Spotted Flycatcher perch and feed from middle branches, whilst Common Redstart has flicked around from branch to ground; I have stood by these trees watching Shelduck, Hobby, and Peregrine fly over, and was close-by when several of us watched a skein of White-fronted Goose turn in the sky.

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Motorcycle Wood, SSSI, Wanstead Flats – where the magic happens

The golden morning light seemed to hold these memories in trust for me. It felt like the Copse was reminding me why I come out; these moments are the rewards we get for placing our hope and trust in the patch. But the Copse – in that equilibrium between the bare brown branch of winter, and the leaf-rich green of Spring – also helped to remind me that there is reward in just ‘being’ here in this place. This was lucky, because the song of the Willow Warbler was the peak of a long morning of birding (there were several of us out and searching and there was a general air of disappointment).

The beauty of Spring, over Winter in particular, is that when birds fail to show up, there are, at least, other creatures of the wing to marvel at. In Wanstead Park and surrounds, I counted eight species of butterfly including Green-veined White, Orange Tip, Comma, and Holly Blue as new year ticks for me.

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Comma (Polygonia c-album)


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Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines)


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Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)


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Peacock (Aglais io)


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Speckled Wood (Parage aegaria)

On my way back home from the Park, I was shocked to see that the water levels on Heronry Pond seemed to have fallen even further. Action is apparently planned, but we are heading for a completely dried-out lake quite quickly. The days of herons breeding here are long gone, but the days of them fishing here could also be numbered).

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)


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The lake bed of Heronry

An ancient tree of poison and tales of bloody murder

2068 years ago Julius Caesar had some difficulty from some tribes in Gaul. It wasn’t Asterix and Cacofonix, but very close. There were two kings, Ambiorix and Catuvolcus, of a Belgian tribe called the Eburones who rebelled against their Roman overlords. They fought very bravely and took out a sizeable chunk of the Roman legion based in the area, leading to Caesar camping there for months to oversee the campaign against them. He praised them for their bravery, but made them pay in the most vicious manner; Caesar effectively wiped out the entire tribe. Ambiorix has gone down in history as a Belgian legend and – King Arthur style – seemed to disappear. Catuvolcus was a lot older and, despairing at the bloodshed, took his own life by drinking the poison of a Yew Tree.

If you don’t like my version of the story, why not read it from the first-hand account of Julius Caesar himself:

Catuvolcus, rex dimidiae partis Eburonum, qui una cum Ambiorige consilium inierat, aetate iam confectus cum laborem belli aut fugae ferre non posset, omnibus precibus detestatus Ambiorigem, qui eius consilii auctor fuisset, taxo, cuius magna in Gallia Germaniaque copia est, se exanimavit. – Julius Caesar, Gallic War vol VI

Around five hundred years after this genocidal event had taken place, a Yew sapling was growing on a burial ground near, what is now, the Welsh border with England. Some eight hundred years on, that sapling was still alive and now a mighty specimen of a normally smallish tree. A Church was built on the holy land right next to this ancient tree. Turn the clock on more than seven hundred years again and you reach the present day. The church is still standing and so, remarkably, is that ancient tree.

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

For a tree species that is described as small-medium, this 1500 year-old specimen has a trunk that measures almost 9.5 metres in circumference and it blocks out the church built in its shadow.

As Catuvolcus knew well, Yew is deadly poisonous. Interestingly, the only parts of Yew that are not filled with poison are the juicy bright red berries. But the harmless flesh contains a hard seed that could kill a man if swallowed. The needle leaves are even more deadly and will likely stop your heart within hours of ingestion of even a small amount. For hay fever sufferers – like me – the Yew tree is rated 10 out of 10 for the potency of the allergenic pollen. Watching the wind blow a pollen-heavy male Yew is a natural wonder, but beware that you are not caught down-wind from that cloud of dust, as respiration problems, light-headedness and other nasty symptoms will surely follow.

The tree in the photograph has become hollow over time. Its enormous girth has allowed the local people of Much Marcle to put a bench in it.

Much Marcle Yew

Over hundreds of years, just think of the lovers who will have sat there and the children who will have played among the deadly branches. One boy who may well have sat on that bench, as he grew up in the village, was Fred West. As anyone English will know, the farm boy was terribly head-injured in his teens and grew up to become one of the most notorious, sadistic, serial killers in our country’s history. It is sad to think that this beautiful village is now far better known as the place of birth of a man who committed the most terrible of crimes than for an incredible tree. I ran my hands over the dense and complicated swirls of wood reflecting on the history that will have occurred around this ancient, deadly, but peaceful giant…

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Post Scriptum: It is hard to be believe, but across the border in Wales is an even more ancient Yew. In fact, at around 5000 years old, it is believed to be one of the most ancient trees in the world. When the Much Marcle tree was sprouting from a seed, the Llangernyw Yew is believed to have already been a staggering 3500 years old – 3 millennia had passed it by before poor old Catuvolcus topped himself with a draught of poison from the dried needles of one of its European cousins.

A map of trees

I thought we should take a break from birding, but I wanted to take you back to Bush Wood on my ‘patch’ for a different journey.

The science of studying and making maps, Cartography, is both ancient and noble. It can be a science and/or an art. What I lack in both scientific knowledge and artistic technique, I make up for in enthusiasm. As I paced up and down the confusing set of woodland paths, I started to sketch a map in my notebook. I have since ironed out the more intricate kinks and bends and plumped for a simplistic depiction of where the paths lie projected on to a Google satellite image of Bush Wood. Duh daaa…

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

OK. It is a pretty slap-dash job, but I would welcome anyone who can show me a better map of the paths of Bush Wood – the lines shown on an Ordinance Survey map seem to bear no relation whatsoever to the actual footpaths (and no, I wasn’t just reading it upside down!).

Bush Wood is not the most diverse woodland you will have encountered and is mainly dominated by Oak, Hornbeam, Hawthorn, and Holly (the last two of which, along with an enormous quantity of bramble, makes much of Bush Wood – off the beaten tracks – virtually impenetrable). These plants have been expertly documented by Paul Ferris in his survey of the area.

Walking, or – more accurately at the moment given the amount of water – squelching around the paths is a little confusing, but the markers that help provide bearings – for me at least – are some of the more notable trees.

Please note all the following photos were taken on my iPhone as I was too paranoid I might happen upon an interesting bird, I refused to take my zoom lens off my camera.

Some of the trees are so distinctive looking in shapes that they are readily remembered such as this hornbeam:

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Or this oak with the preposterously long lower branch:

At least I think it is oak - I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

At least I think it is oak – I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

Here is another shot of the same tree(s) but – just to show what a health and safety rebel / idiot (delete as appropriate) I am – with me standing underneath that preposterously long branch:

Oak

Or how about this for an interestingly shaped tree?

Tree

The biggest trees in Bush Wood are not oak or hornbeam, but a small number of Sweet Chestnut. And the biggest of all – a tree that is at least 300 years old – is a well hidden ancient giant known as the witch’s tree:

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Unfortunately, my iPhone does not give a sense of scale, but it really is a bruiser of a tree. Even its fallen leaves are big:

Sweet Chestnut

You also can’t see the extent to which the roots are exposed at the bottom. If you are wondering why it is called the witch’s tree, choose whichever of the following explanations you prefer:

1) Around 400 years ago a woman was accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. In the writhing agony of death she was seen to scream out an incomprehensible curse. A great tree grew from a seed on the spot where she died. It had a complex set of exposed roots that were twisted and contorted like burnt limbs. The gaps are easily wide enough for a child, or even a reasonable-sized adult to crawl through. But, those carefree fools who crawl between the roots/limbs of the witch’s tree invariably fall sick, and some die. A coincidence perhaps, poisonous soil perchance, or maybe it is the manifestation of a doomed woman’s curse?

2) As the summer solstice sun sets, they say that young witches dance naked around this hidden tree. Some say that at the right time of year, the tree imparts vitality and extended youth into those who properly worship its wild antiquity.

3) I don’t know why it is called that. Sorry!

Before I get carried away with tales of magic, I wanted to re-post my map, but this time with four of the interesting trees plotted and marked, maybe to help you one day find the witch’s tree and its fellows:

Bush Wood tree map

A wild land? A photo-story from the South of France

Deep in the languedoc region of Southern France, in the mediterranean foothills of the Pyrenees, there lies a hidden valley…

Blanes valley

Whilst in the region of the vines of the Corbieres, the valley, and its surrounds, is wild and largely uncultivated…

Serre du Blanes

This is the land of wild boar. They leave their tracks…

wild boar tracks

…and markings everywhere…

boar markings

But wisely, these creatures are elusive, for this is also the land of hunters. Though many hours have been spent stepping carefully through the valley, I have only glimpsed flashes of the beasts. Only once, too, have I captured a distant shot of a roe deer…

Roe deer

In winter and summer, the fauna of the valley is shy and wild. Common birds that we know as garden friends, such as the Blackbird, are plentiful but almost as elusive as the boar. The merest tread of a foot sends theses birds diving deeper into thickets for cover squawking their alarm as they go. In half a decade of visits to the valley, this twig-obscured shot of a feasting female (taken this winter) is the best I have done…

Female Blackbird

In the winter, the Blackbird is joined by its migratory cousins from the frozen North, the Redwing…

Redwing

… and Fieldfare…

Fieldfare

The stony and often dry land is populated by a range of pines…

Pine cones

… and the evergreen Holm (or Holly) Oak, Quercus ilex, which has been used to build the classical ships and wagons of Homer and Hesiod for thousands of years and has fed wild boar from its acorns and root-protected truffles for millions of years…

Quercus ilex

What is wild?

At first glance, the valley seems wild, but it has not always been so. Amidst the natural outcrops of rock (pushed up by the Pyrenees) stand well camouflaged rocks laid out as walls by the hands of long-dead men…

walls

…and even in relatively recent decades, this land was used productively…

olive tree and contraption

The urge for man to reclaim the land is strong and I helped an inhabitant of the valley clear a small plot of brambles to make way for an olive grove. However, the valley is now largely in the ‘hands’ of the wild things.

Comparing the seasons

This winter, I walked past Old man’s beard…

Clematis vitalba

… and erupting Puff-ball fungi…

puff balls

… but in the Spring, flowers, not fungi, dominate including thousands of stalks of Asphodel…

Asphodel

… caterpillars emerge and turn to butterflies…

butterfly

… and weird creatures appear in the grasses, like this mantis…

mantis

I scoured the dwindling pools (it has been a dry winter so far) and found only Water boatman…

Water boatman

… whilst in warmer months past, I have watched newts, such as this Palmate…

Palmate newt

The birds that hide in thickets during the cold and scorching months, and those that migrate away from the chill, return during the spring to sing, such as this Serin…

Serin

… this resident warbler, the Blackcap…

Blackcap

…And at the right time of year, the valley chimes through day and much of the night with the song of the Nightingale…

Nightingale

Beyond the valley

If you climb the steep slopes of the valley, you reach the summit rocks where ravens and birds of prey feed. Looking down south from the pass, you see yet another similar valley…

the view

Lifting your eyes up out of this valley and staring south, the blue of the distance only partially hides the mighty peaks of the Pyrenees, such as Mount Canigou…

Canigou